This past week I had the privilege of spending some time with former Aston Villa and Blackburn Rovers midfielder, Graham Fenton, at Wingate University. Playing in the Premier League and representing England as a U-21 international, Graham has been there in done it, both in terms of playing and working with some of the greatest coaches in English football. He signed professional forms with Villa in 1992 and played in Villa’s League Cup winning side in 1994 when they beat Keane, Cantona, and Giggs at Wembley. After successful spells with Leicester City and Blackburn Rovers, he played for Blackpool, Darlington and had a spell in Scotland with St. Mirren. He has since moved on to the coaching side, working with North Shields in the Northern Premier League and recently with Monkseaton College. Graham was happy to share his experiences and his views on coaching today.
Can you give us a summary of some of the coaches you have worked with during your playing career?
I have worked with Ron Atkinson, Brian Little, Ray Harford, Martin O’Neill, Steve McMahon, Ray Graydon, Roy Hodgson, and Tom Hendrie. Quite a few!
Which coach did you enjoy working with the most and why?
I would have to chose two – Ron Atkinson and Ray Harford (above). They were both different styles of management in terms of the way they coached, but very similar in the way their relationships with players. “Big Ron” was very good on the training pitch and you always knew what he wanted you to do. His biggest strength however, was that he made you feel like a million dollars before you stepped onto the field. Ray Hartford had a great personality. He was great on the training ground but again, you wanted to go out and work for him on match day. The human qualities of both coaches really got the best out of me.
What qualities do top coaches have?
Very similar to those I just described. I think it is vital that a top coach is a good person first and foremost, as this will gain the respect of the team. Adaptability is needed, especially in today’s game with sports science and changing themes in soccer. Knowledge of the game is up there for the obvious reasons. You must know how and when to change things in a game or tactically you will be found wanting. And last but not least, I would say being approachable. Relationships are so important between coaches and players.
What type of managerial style did you not respond to?
This one is easy! I hated negativity and the hard line approach. I was not a big fan of the dictatorship style of coaching and receiving criticism that was not constructive. I would rather be asked to do something than screamed at, which is probably similar to a lot of other players!
How directly did your relationship with your coach affect your performance?
This a great question because it played a huge role and affected my performance 100%. I never played for myself or the fans. I played for my coach. It is no coincidence that the best spells of my career were at Villa and Blackburn and I would put that down to coaches who believed in me and with whom I developed a great relationship with.
What was the strangest thing any coach you worked with, used for motivation?
Well we had regular trips away to Spanish islands and luxury resorts, as well as paint-balling designed to foster team spirit. The best one, without a doubt, has to be ‘Big’ Ron Atkinson bringing comedian Stan Boardman on the bus to the League Cup Final in 1994. The players were tense and anxious before getting on the bus, but were falling over laughing when we arrived at Wembley. It helped relax everyone and looking back, it obviously worked!
What have you taken, from the top coaches you worked with, into your own coaching style?
I would say human qualities rather than tactical or technical points. I think you should be a good person, explain rather than expect, and be honest at all times. I think if you have those qualities, you won’t be too far away.
What do you think are the greatest challenges of coaching today?
At the professional level, I would say dealing with players egos, which is a direct result of the money in the game. This also makes it hard to develop a team spirit. At youth level, I would say the way of the world is challenging. I think young players today find it difficult to accept constructive criticism and this makes the mental side of the game that much harder. Personalities are a big part of soccer teams and your top players need to be top people. That is the case with every good team.
What do you view differently now as a coach than you did as a player?
Not sure there is a lot of difference. I have always prepared well for games as a player with my diet and rest. Perhaps this has changed slightly because now my preparation revolves around tactics and making sure every base is covered. I do think that those good habits were instilled in me as a player. Obviously, I have more knowledge now as a coach also.
Who is the biggest character you played with?
Off the field, it has to be Dean Saunders. His enthusiasm was unbelievable and he was a very funny man. On the field, it has to be Paul McGrath (below). What a player!
Who are the toughest defenders you came up against?
Tony Adams and Sol Campbell. It was scary when they were both on the same team.
Who was the best player you played with?
Have to go with two here – Alan Shearer (below) and Paul McGrath. They were on another level.
Who were the best players you played against?
I considered myself fortunate to be on the same field as Eric Cantona, Paul Scholes, and Mark Hughes.
What is the biggest change in the game that you have seen over the past ten years?
The biggest changes are definitely in the way we now prepare for games. Sports science has led to new ideas and better methods and I think the game has benefited from this. The money in the game now is also a huge change from ten years ago!
What are the biggest differences you see between coaching kids in the US and England?
The biggest difference was the respect level in the United States. The young players over here are attentive, listen, and always have great attitudes. They are certainly less opinionated than young players in England. Technically, English kids are a little better but does that superior technique lead to a big ego? It may well do.
What advice do you have for young players who want to play in the Premiership?
Keep learning, always improve, and believe in yourself. In addition to that, be respectful to staff, coaches and fellow players.
What advice do you have for young coaches with similar aspirations?
Be enthusiastic, approachable, learn the game, and always try and get better. Never believe you are a great coach as there is always room for improvement!