Luke Theakston is a British football coach with a diverse skill set and some top-notch experience. Being a qualified outfield coach, goalkeeper coach and sports scientist, Luke has worked in numerous countries including a stint in the Netherlands with the renowned AFC Ajax. Normally with BFCN articles, we like to condense a coach’s CV for easier reading. However, for this article we would like to share a fuller version of Luke’s past positions - a notable example of a multi-skilled coach, who has ‘put themselves out there’ to consistently gain experience and self-development.
Name: Luke Theakston
Location: Shanghai, China
SC Shanghai – Technical Director of Football – August 2017 to present
Shanghai Jinshang – Technical Director of Football - January 2017 to July 2017
Shanghai University of Sport – Guest Lecturer in Sport Science – June 2017
Amsterdamsche (AFC) – Head Coach C and B selection (u15 and u17) – August 2016 to November 2016
AFC Ajax – Sport Scientist: Testing, Monitoring and Screening – June 2015 to July 2016
AFC Ajax – Sport Scientist Assistantship – January 2015 to May 2015
Amsterdamsche (AFC) – B1 coach (u17) – September 2014 to June 2015
Pro Direct Soccer – Head of Sport Science and Conditioning – April 2014 to August 2014
Farnborough College - 1st Team Head Coach – October 2011 to June 2014
Újpest FC – Academy Coach – June 2013 to August 2013
Portsmouth FC – Youth Coach – June 2010 to August 2011
Reading FC – Academy Sport Scientist – September 2009 to May 2011
Coerver Coaching – Academy Coach – February 2009 to February 2010
MSc Human Movement Science (Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam)
BSc Sport Science (University of Surrey)
FIFA Diploma in Football Medicine
UEFA B Licence in Football Coaching
FA Level 2 Goalkeeping Coach
FA Youth Modules 1 & 2
What are you up to?
I have been in China for the past year, working as ‘Technical Director of Football’ on two projects. The first with Shanghai Jinshang, was a government project to develop and oversee an U9 - U17s football development programme (male and female) in the Shanghai Putuo District. This was aimed at both the elite selection teams and for the school’s campus football. The District achieved #1 ranking overall (in Shanghai) for football development. Additionally, four players reached the youth national teams and the District signed a contract to be the blueprint for the ‘China school’s campus football’ from July 2017 (1 of only 3 across the whole of China).
The second project with SC Shanghai, looks to create a football culture within the younger years to help with China’s long-term football development plan. The main programme looks at 3-7 year olds and provides them with movement and football related exercises. This also requires parent participation which in turn, helps to enhance the parent-child bond. As an added result, the parents are able to develop their football knowledge regarding technical teaching points, which encourages them to bring football into the home. Better knowledge leads to greater education, leads to more passion, thus the likelihood of practicing and participating increasing. Parents are key to the child’s interest and success in football.
Luke giving training feeding back to both the u9 and u11 male selection squads
What’s helped your personal development within your current role?
Gaining senior level experience, leading and organising teams, coaches, players, parents, dealing with government officials and meeting specific targets and deadlines – These are all things that provide ongoing challenges. They are also experiences I may not be achieving at such a young age on British shores.
Luke delivering a session to the u15 female selection squad
What’s tested you in your current role?
Working in football in China is certainly challenging, and unlike anything I‘ve ever experienced before. You have to be adaptable and dynamic, you can have a plan one minute and then the next, a new plan is required. Internal and external factors are always change quickly! Another challenge is age. Greater age carries more respect (irrespective of your experience). Therefore, there can be more apprehension about younger coaches or staff in general. All in good time, trust and understanding develops and becomes essential in building relationships.
Luke providing coaching feedback and reporting on the school’s needs
How supportive has the English FA been while abroad?
Although I’ve completed my coach education thus far with the English F.A, an area for concern would be the limited support received from them while abroad. While the FA do some excellent work on British shores, it would be great to see a department formed within the FA to support native talent that is plying their working trade abroad. Many of these staff are gaining extremely valuable experience, that could be important for the development of British players of the future (should that staff return home). Similar to scouting players, in my opinion the F.A should be aware of the whereabouts of British licenced coaches – keeping a watch on those who have gained and are gaining fantastic experiences elsewhere. An example; there are a number of British coaches and staff already successfully working at national team level. Surely, they should be highly sort after by the FA? These individuals have more experience within the international game than almost all other British coaches who stay within the UK!
What do you feel could help open more opportunities for development in the UK?
Overall, whether a coach, sport scientist, physio etc. British opportunities seem to become limited once you make the move abroad. Ultimately, with an increase of support and promoting the idea of working in a foreign country, naturally there will be more British staff working within the game. This is surely what we all want. It currently seems that experience outside of the British shores is of less regard: all experience is good experience.
With calculation, if it is deemed that these foreign experiences of a lower/insufficient experience level than that on the British shores, it means the British coaching talent pool becomes even more diluted. This is due to the amount of foreign Head Coaches, Directors and club owners within the British game who are more likely to hire individuals from their own country.
The possibilities and all-round rewards available to British coaches wanting to seize a foreign opportunity, are amazing. Furthermore, they could lead on to even bigger opportunities abroad if desired.
Are current pathways suitable to help bridge development gaps between England and your locations while abroad? If needed, how could these be improved?
From what I have witnessed, while under the coaching umbrella of UEFA, licences seem to be run completely different from country-to-country. This seems absurd to me when the licence comes under the UEFA umbrella (I think this is certainly an interesting discussion point, and one that also hinders potential British talent from moving abroad). However, the ultimate boundary within a foreign country is the language. So, in understanding the whereabouts of British coaches, an FA tutor could be sent to specific locations around the world. They could then give, at the very minimum, continued professional development (CPD) opportunities. This could also act as a talent scouting mission, with those coaches who excel being highlighted.
How have you benefited from working abroad?
For me, going abroad is a fantastic way to develop your skills and test yourself, just like every other foreigner who works in the British game. Working in a different country certainly makes you stand out from the more ‘local’ crowd. I think being abroad enables you to gain a different perspective into football. It’s not about these countries being better than British ones, or providing better education for coaches. It’s about being able to tap into new methodologies, philosophies and club structures that might not be accessible in Britain. Personally, it was not the case that I needed to move abroad to work in football, it was a case that I wanted to. My experience in England, Hungary, the Netherlands and China have all provided different challenges and made me into a more adaptable coach and sport scientist, rather than being adapted to the British environment. I feel I now have a great multicultural and multinational approach to my work. This is ultimately, what football teams are nowadays in Britain: multicultural and multinational.
Luke with the Amsterdamsche (AFC) B1 squad during the 2014-2015 season
What perception do you think people have of British Coaches and is there enough work being done by associations, to develop coaches both ex-pro and non ex-pro? If needed, what changes could be a bigger benefit for all?
I think that a general conscientious is that a foreigner will offer more flair and an attractive style of play, but does it? Yet we as fans of a club all love home-grown players coming through the academy ranks into the 1st team, but we do not support this with our coaches. This certainly seems strange to me. Moreover, irrespective of a playing career, a coach (or backroom staff members) is a different occupation all together from a playing career. And, while the PFA do fantastic work to help the professional players (especially during retirement), I do not think that the PFA and the FA should be segregating coaching qualifications (and assessments): ex pro courses and non-pro courses.
Have you had a feel for how British Coaches are judged? If so, are they accurate judgments. Taking into account your experiences, what would be the next step to be ready for a role back in the UK ?
British coaches are greatly welcomed abroad. We have a long history in football with an abundance of passion for the game. Also, what seems to be of high value in foreign countries is the British mentality: hard work, spirit and enthusiasm.
As a result, I still feel that my immediate future lies away from the U.K. I enjoy working abroad and learning new philosophies and methodologies. Truth be told, I like to be that “British guy”. You become greatly distinguishable: Maybe being distinguishable is why a foreign coach might be desired on British shores, especially when results are not favourable.
What’s next for you? Where would you like to work and how do you plan to get there? Anything holding you back?
I have no limitations as to where I could work, however it needs to be right for me and my long-term development within football, whether on British shores or not. That said, for the immediate future I’m looking to come back to Europe and progress onto my UEFA A licence or a PhD in sport science.
Luke with then Újpest FC 1st team manager Marc Lelièvre (right) & assistant (left) in 2013
Anything inspire you or can you share with us some inspiration?
Invest ‘time’, even if it is ‘free’ or ‘volunteering’, no matter the location around the world. For those starting out, this experience is invaluable and can set you apart in a talent pool. All of the readings and courses (qualifications) do not prepare you for how work is, within a real-life setting in football, you need to ‘apply’ what you learn: whether in Britain or not. I would have no hesitation in recommending people to go and experience football abroad. Going abroad offers many different perspectives and challenges, but be ‘selective’. The position must be right for you and give you the opportunity to learn and develop.
Modern day football is now a multicultural and multinational sport. I believe that working experience should be no different. No two clubs are the same, each with its own unique style. It’s essential to have an open mind to ‘new’ coaching methods, especially from country-to-country. But more importantly, do not perceive any coaching method as ‘wrong’, this is naive. Think of all coaching methods as a ‘tool’, as some methods work better in other countries than others. This has fueled my passion to gain other perspectives of coaching and sport science, not only from English clubs, but also from clubs in other countries. If I can take one ‘valuable’ piece of information away from each time I travel to a club, it’s a ‘new’ learning experience. But most importantly, while gaining this experience, stay in contact with those who have helped make your journey possible. These people will be valuable in the future: football is a very small world.