'For me in Norway, it was getting the coaching structure right throughout the whole club and developing our own local talent, which I learnt whilst studying in Holland visiting clubs like Utrecht, Willem II and Feyenoord....'
Name, age, where are you based?
Russell Hullett, 46, Sutton Coldfield
Current and past roles:
Lillehammer FK: Head Coach
Manchester United: FC: Professional Scout
Notts County FC: Academy Manager
West Bromwich Albion FC: Head Scout
Aston Villa FC: International/National Scout
Nottingham Forest FC: Youth Academy Coach
Uefa A Coach
KNVB International Coaching Award
Masters Degree (Msc) Performance Coaching (current study)
UK Athletics Sprints Coach
Talent ID Scout
Any particular achievements or highlights you would like to mention?
Nothing will beat passing my A license as it seemed a great achievement following my long pathway, since taking my first FA Level 1 and 2 award ( or coaching cert and premlin as it was then) as a young 17 year old having just been released by Derby County FC.
Other achievements include setting up a private academy which became the UK’s most successful private academy, producing 98 players that signed to pro clubs in the UK and Norway - nothing is more satisfying than seeing one of your former players sign for a pro club or making their 1st team debut!
I've also been fortunate to have always finished in the top 4 with any team that I have managed, with great credit to players and staff I've had around me too!
Some funny experiences include two totally different extremes in climate during my playing and coaching career. I finished my playing career in SE Asia where it was 100% humidity, as we were on the equator with 110 degree heat. At half time I would have to sit in a large drinks bucket full of ice and water that resembled an old school style tin bath, just to lower my body temperature, and by the end of the game I had lost 7 – 10 lbs in fluid weight!
Whilst at the other end of the spectrum, my 1st pro coaching session in Norway was a very chilly minus 18 and I could hardly move or demo anything as I had that much clothing on.... even my sweat began to freeze !!. I also had more thigh and hip flexor injuries than ever in Norway as its was that cold, your muscles would literally be seizing up and you would kick the balls back to the players and then think “I shouldn’t have done that”, suffice to say the clubs physio became my best friend...
Whilst coaching at Nottingham Forest we had a really good period of developing players and I got to coach Jamaal Laschelles now (Newcastle United), Patrick Bamford now (Leeds United) and a few others who went onto play pro football. Even at the age of 13 they stood out from the crowd.
You’ve got a nice variety of roles behind you. What main experiences have you taken away from them and the different clubs you’ve worked at, which are now useful in your current role?
My aim was always to a get good knowledge base in coaching, scouting and sport science, as I knew I would never be an expert in every area of football. I wanted a sound knowledge of each discipline to help me be successful in my future goals, and it’s the reason why I wanted to do both the coaching and scouting roles. I knew this would give me first hand experience and knowledge of the demands/skills/ potential problems I would need or face.
Working at smaller clubs is just as good a grounding as working at bigger clubs, as you really have to think on your feet. A coach/scout has to be innovative to succeed and the recruitment at West Bromwich Albion proved this, as they were so forward thinking in their recruitment and produced endless amounts of players who progressed to the 1st team - it's fair to say we were the envy of many traditional, larger clubs.
They made sure that not only the scouting was spot on, but also the coaching program was too. The openness, information sharing and relationship between coaches and scouts was spot on and was something I hadn't witnessed before, as usually, the two departments work totally separate.
Were there any major differences across clubs’ youth structures in terms of priority focus and how they operate? In your opinion, are English youth academies on the right track with regards to developing youth to the highest levels possible?
I think the UK has really set the standard now in youth development but academies do vary greatly, in the way they operate and it's no surprise seeing the ones that are more successful. It's not just about money and facilities, but more about having the right staff in place and all pulling together in the right way.
We talk a lot about players being 'coachable' but sometimes coaches/ club owners are the least flexible and don’t like change, and this is something I have encountered a few times, both in the UK and overseas.
Clubs need to set out a clear vision on what they want to achieve and be honest with themselves. At West Bromwich Albion, local recruitment was everything, Manchester United local and world wide recruitment. For me in Norway, it was getting the coaching structure right throughout the whole club and developing our own local talent, which I learnt whilst studying in Holland visiting clubs like Utrecht, Willem II and Feyenoord.
I think bio banding has been a big development in UK academies and the long term vision for a player over short term performance, has been a big step in the right direction. When I did my KNVB international course in Holland in 2010, they joked that Dennis Bergkamp would not have made it as a pro had he been raised in England at the time. At 15 he was still small, yet by 17 and at the time he made his Ajax debut, he had a huge growth spurt and grew to 6ft 2!
However some clubs have taken this to the extreme and all their players are now on the smaller side, and you wouldn’t believe how many calls I get every October – March saying do you know of any 15/16 year old centre halves or tall goalkeepers who we could offer a scholarship too, as they haven't planned correctly.
At my previous couple of clubs we designed a playing profile highlighting the characteristics of what we required from players in certain positions; height , speed, technical, tactical, mentality etc, and gave the information to our scouts as a template. Some players in certain positions had to fit the criteria and have certain attributes eg; No 10 had to be creative with good movement, for us to consider them.
But again flexibility is key, and scouts could still send in players who didn’t necessarily fit the criteria but offered genuine development opportunities. For instance, I recently coached a player who came to us as a centre midfield player but we have now converted him to a top centre half, where he has several academies chasing him, great centre half, good/average centre midfield. It's all about spotting the potential in someone from a scouting prospective and then being able to coach them the right way to help achieve their goals.
Have you watched any top talent in any places or countries you wouldn’t expect to and have there been any times when you was pleasantly surprised during your scouting duties?
I have been going over to Canada for the last 12 years where I have run coaching courses. They have some fantastic talent and it's no surprise to see many now breaking into Europe, especially Alphonso Davies who's now at Bayern Munich and is a fantastic prospect.
A lot of Canadians are 1st generation with European heritage and from strong football countries like UK, Italy, Balkan regions and trust me, this place will continue to produce good players over the coming years.
The best player I ever watched whilst scouting in the UK was probably the smallest on the pitch and was outstanding. The player was Phil Foden for Man City. I watched him in the big derby v Man Utd at U14 and he just had everything and totally dominated the game! I remember going back to my club at the time and saying 'if this kid ever becomes available, you must sign him but I doubt he ever will'. I even kept the scouting report as I knew he would be a big star one day.
How transferable are scouting and academy roles and is there any way that scouting experiences, help to understand a deeper level of how players need to be developed?
I think they are very transferable and give you a very good grounding in identifying talent that’s suited to your clubs needs and philosphy, including how best to development that talent further.
They teach you about long term development, making sessions fun and interesting, season long planning, seeing and identifying players strengths and potential development needs.
Scouting is very important to develop you as a coach too, as you start to analysis every aspect of a player and you can highlight their strengths and weaknesses far more easily. You also start to see different things and ways to improve them.
This is beneficial as if your managing players and your club has no budget to bring in more players, you need to be able to look at the ones you already have and work out their strong points, making them work for the team. Likewise if you are able to bring in extra players then scouting prepares you to fully read a players potential, strong, weak points, and how that player will fit into your system. I have seen some managers bring in some very good players over the years who are just totally wrong for their team and style of play, whilst good scouting knowledge helps irradiate this problem.
Remember, if the club's owner allows you that one big signing but you get the scouting wrong and the player flops, it might just be your last signing for the club!
In Norway I signed 5 UK based players who I had tracked from my pro scouting days. I knew everything about them, had all their stats, spoke to coaches who had worked with them and even some of their former team mates to find their mentality. Subsequently they all proved to be a hit at the club and are now playing at a higher level...
I still have a large data base of players that I track and hope a few of them will join me at my next club either on loan or permanently, and another thing is certain - scouting at pro clubs has certainly helped me prepare as a manager
How did your move to Norway come about, how was it and did you need to make any major adaptions going in as a gaffer at senior level, after predominately focusing on youth development at clubs?
The move to Norway came by chance really as I was already working over there with my company 'Cosmo International Football Academy', as we were running performance coaching centres in various regions - I was approached by two pro clubs who wanted me in as their Head Coach. I made the decision to go for Lillehammer FK, as I had already worked with a few of their youth team players and I knew they were ready to play for the 1st team.
I believed I was ready for the step up to be the gaffa as I felt I had done things the right way, studied, got qualified, managed non league, pro academy coach/scout. Some good preparation was previously being an academy manager/U23 coach, as this helps prepare you for most eventualities. The previous roles gave me a good grounding and helped me appreciate the benefit of promoting your own youth players. By the time the season had ended I had used 9 youth teams players in the 1st team!
The big difference is realising that clubs and their owners won't thank you for just developing players, and it’s a results based business. So having developed players which had been the main focal point of my academy career, you now needed to turn these players into winners.
The best advise I would give any new manager is stick to your beliefs even if results aren't great to start with. It takes time for you to develop a settled squad and for them to play the way you want. I never deviated away from the plan, despite outside interference!
Also it's very important for you to have the right support staff around you and people who compliment your vision and aims. The club hadn't been 100% truthful when I signed for them and they had sacked all the coaching, medical staff and lost 80% of the 1st team before I had arrived in the country, welcome to Norway indeed !!
The club had poor leadership and it was quite clear I was on my own here, but I was used to working on a shoe string budget so that wasn’t a problem and the previous roles again prepared me for this. I quickly assembled a playing squad including 5 lads from England who had been released from Arsenal, Norwich City, Birmingham City and Notts County, but they only arrived 2 days before the season. I also recruited some local part time support staff too.
We had a decent start to the season and were never out the top 3, and as the squad settled we ended up beating the eventual league champions 5-1, playing some great attacking football. I loved the whole experience of coaching in Norway and coaching in a country with such extreme cold temperature created its own challenges, like having to wait for a snow plough to clean the snow off the pitch before kick off. Then there was having a 30 minute half time break whilst it did the same again, and the coldest we ever coached in was minus 20!
Any main differences between how players are developed in England and Norway? Any considerations to take when coaching in Norway as opposed to players in the U.K?
The development of players in the UK and Norway is totally different and comes down to different social cultures and how the two countries operate. In Norway the state controls a lot and the football is no different. Selective teams are frowned upon before the age of 13/14 years, so pro clubs don’t really start recruiting until players are 13 years, unlike the UK where 5 year olds are now recruited into pre-academy centres. Before that happens out there, they have regional development centres that feed into a system similar to the USA Olympic soccer selection program.
The young players in Norway are really good technically and the coaches do a good job, but they struggle tactically and a lot of the football there at senior level is long ball and very physical, which I struggled to come to terms with when I first got there. Why play this way when your players are so good ?
Obviously the weather is a problem early on in the season and especially during pre season and if like us you don’t have an indoor arena, then you have big problems when the weather is bad. I had to change the training dramatically due to the cold climate, and sessions had to be fast paced to keep the players warm, which is hard when they need stopping a lot to improve tactical awareness which is what they lacked in that area.
What challenges have you had to overcome and what has been best for your development both personally and professionally?
The most frustrating thing in the UK is opportunities for coaches to be managers. You go about your football education the right way, studying, attending courses, heads of coaching positions etc, but still it's tough.
Rugby Union has a great way of understanding coaching pathways and it's why their coaches are so successful. Virtually all managers, including ex pro’s start off coaching at private schools or club academies, learning their trade before the time is right to promote them to a senior or head job. Usually equivalent to a U23 manager, or step 1 – 3 non league level head coach, let them gain that experience before moving on to a high level club.
I have followed the careers of good British coaches/managers like Stephen Constantine and Stewart Baxter who have had really succesful careers overseas, and who should have a queue of high level clubs trying to acquire their services in the UK. Unfortunately they and many other British coaches working overseas who are doing a fantastic job, go unnoticed. Bizarrely, nearly all the UK managers working overseas have been really successful!
For any coach, I would recommend getting a Head/Coaches job overseas as it’s a brilliant way to develop. You have to adapt very quickly to the country, surroundings, different customs, cultures etc and it makes you think very quickly on your feet. It's probably been my best learning curve and experience.
Early on in my coaching career I worked out in Singapore, with coaches from Germany, Croatia, Holland, US, UK and many other places - from a learning prospective it was amazing! We would sit down and talk about how different countries developed players, playing styles, training facilities, virtually every aspect of football really, and I have taken the best bits from what I learned there to shape my own philosophy and ideas on how I want to manage a club and develop players.
What’s next for you, any thoughts on the future?
I am just about to complete my Masters degree in performance coaching and that’s been great! I still have my company which pays the bills and is still a good recruitment tool for any future position, now involving training a few professional and semi pro players on strength and conditioning along with improving their technical/tactical skills, which has been a great experience for me.
My main focus is on getting another head coach position. I have spoken to a few clubs and I'm really looking forward to working with someone that’s forward thinking and has a clear vision for what they want for their club, it's long term development, and it would be great to help them to achieve that long term goal.
Ideally I want this to be in the UK but still not adverse to going back overseas as I loved the experience and just love football wherever it is!