Q – Ben, Having played for clubs like Arsenal, Reading, Yeovil Town and Crawley Town among others, You played the game at a higher standard than most grassroots coaches. What drove your decision to get into coaching?
Whilst playing I did not harbour any ambitions to go into coaching. I was always interested in the tactical side of the game and, no doubt, a lot of the managers and coaches I worked for would have said I was an obvious candidate to become a coach, but I was not keen. I was adamant that I was going to do something totally different when I stopped playing. However, as I got into my early 30′s and I could feel my career coming to an end I realised that I loved football and wanted to stay involved in some capacity. As I got older I also got more opinionated and started to think about what I would do if I was a manager and started to really mould my own thoughts on how I thought the game should be played. This was when I started taking my coaching qualifications.
Q – How do you think playing the game professionally has helped you develop yourself as a coach?
Being a player has given me a really deep knowledge of how the game is played both individually and part of a team. I have been involved in 1000′s of sessions as a player and had the opportunity to learn from great coaches such as Pat Rice, Alan Pardew and, my favourite coach of all, Richard O’Kelly who have all coached at the highest level. One of the greatest advantages it gives me is that I have been in the situation that a lot of the players I am working with have been in. I was told, on numerous occasions, I was not good enough and had terrible games and had to bounce back. This background has also given me a really good insight of how football works and how to deal with ‘football’ people.
Q – We’ve got to ask you, what was it like as a young player learning the game at Arsenal? You must have picked up so much from training around players like Dennis Bergkamp, Patrick Vieira, Ian Wright and Tony Adams?
As a spotty 16 year old I did not have much to do with those guys but just being involved at a top club was a great experience. It might seem like a stupid thing to say but at the time I did not realise what an opportunity I had. I’d been involved with Arsenal from the age of 11 so it seemed like a natural progression to be offered an apprenticeship. I thought this meant I had made it, but I was sadly mistaken and I was just at the very bottom of the ladder. Within a few months it became clear that athletically, especially, I was going to struggle to play at the very top level but I did realise I was good enough to carve out a career for myself as a professional footballer.
Q – Who has been the biggest influence on you throughout your career, and why?
At the start it was my parents and my dad especially who would take me over the park and work on my technique with me. As my career progressed Andy McDirmid who was my academy coach at Arsenal really made me fall in love with football. Even when training at a top Premier League club he made every session fun and I loved everything about him. His sessions were brilliant and he had the most important attribute for a youth coach, a great personality. As I moved on to become an older player both Pat Rice and Richard O’Kelly taught me a lot.
Q – Do you have a coaching role model or a mentor? What do you feel are the benefits of coaches working with a mentor?
I do not specifically base myself on anyone. I try to take the best stuff from the coaches I worked with but the person who has had the most effect on me from a coaching capacity was Richard O’Kelly who is now working at Walsall. He was assistant manager when I played for Hereford United and brought so much energy and enthusiasm to his sessions that you could not help but be swept along by him. It could be cold, wet and windy on the training pitch but he would come bouncing on to the pitch like there was nowhere else he would rather be. This enthusiasm was infectious and his positivity rubbed off on us all. He also shared my purist view on the way football should be played.
I think a mentor is a must for any coach. In my current job I work with a coach called Wayne Lowry who coached in a professional academy for many years. I have picked up lots of bits from watching his sessions and he is a great sounding board for me especially after a session has not gone the way I wanted it to. He will often give me little tips which, after the event, seem so obvious but really help me for when I do something similar in the future.
Q – You are now combining teaching and coaching at Braintree Town FC’s youth academy? Tell us a bit about what a typical day involves for you?
I am always in to the football club for 9am so I can prepare my lesson which starts at 10am. I then take a 2 hour lesson with the boys as they work towards their VRQ diploma in sport. The lads then have a 1hr lunch break and I then take them for a football session from 1-3pm. This role has been great for me as I have to be so adaptable in my coaching. From one day to the next I won’t know how many players I have or how much area I have for them so whatever I plan has to be flexible enough to be tweaked or even totally changed at a moments notice. The days all take this format other than Wednesday which is game day when we go and play other football academies.
Q – You are a great example of an ex professional who has worked hard to improve and develop as a coach, taking time to learn, network and practice. What are your views on ex players who appear to be fast tracked through their coaching qualifications and jump straight into high profile roles?
I know this is a very contentious area especially within the Coaching Family fraternity. Ultimately there are no shortcuts to being a great coach. Yes being a former player gives you certain advantages but the key to being a good coach is being able to break down and simplify what you are trying to get across to your players and being a good players does not always help you to do that. A lot of players won’t know how they do something as it has just become automatic.
I am a firm believer that just like as a player when you become a coach you have to do your apprenticeship. When I stopped playing professionally I was offered the job as head of youth at a football league club but turned it down. At that time I did not feel like I was ready for such a role and needed to gain more experience. Over the last couple of years I have done that and improved immeasurably as a coach. Sometimes I regret turning it down but I did it for the right reasons and hope that in the future it will prove to be the correct decision.
In saying all that there are a lot of studious former players who deserve to be working with professional players so it is unfair to say across the board what should happen but I do not believe that players should be fast tracked especially through the B and A licenses as you pick up loads of valuable information on these courses.
Q – How would you describe yourself as a coach, what’s your style and how do you like the game to be played?
I am an absolute football purist. I want my teams to be comfortable on the ball and really fluid in their movement. I like my team to play with style and express themselves but I also want them to win and lose with class. The more I coach the more I see my style evolving. I have become more demanding especially if I see players not concentrating. I have no issue if players make errors because their technique is not good enough as that is my job to improve it but I do if they are not focused. In saying that I try to be as positive as possible with my players but most importantly I want to share with them my love for football.
Q – You have your UEFA B Licence and we did our Youth Module 3 together last year. Which course, FA or other, do you feel has had the most influence on your development as a coach so far?
The course I enjoyed most was the first youth module. I thought it was a really relaxed and enjoyable course and I loved the practices that were all based around fun games. In general I have enjoyed doing the youth modules as I think they are more suited to my style of coaching. I like to coach in between the practice and within natural breaks in the play rather than stopping and starting the game or practice as that used to bore me senseless as a player.
I have just been accepted for my A-License which I am due to start in the summer. I am hoping this course will help me take my coaching to the next level.
Q – How do you keep yourself moving forward and progressing as a coach away from coaching courses?
I read non-stop. Twitter is a brilliant resource for practices and coaching documents. I am continually favouriting all the best stuff and go through it whenever I get the time and add the information I like to my own coaching library. I coach every day of the week and use this to experiment with the new practices I have found or developed myself. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t but I do not know until I give it a try.
Q – We hear you are a budding author, how’s your book coming along? Tell us a bit about the concept and what we can expect?
The book is going great. It is pretty much written now and it is in the final part of the editing. If I get permission to use the name it will be called ‘From Arsenal to Obscurity’ and is about my football career which started at Arsenal and follows my life as a lower league journeyman and will hopefully give people an insight into that sort of life. I was also a secondary school teacher in my first year after playing professionally so I also talk about my struggles as I adapt to that new career.
Q – And finally, what’s your coaching dream? What do you see yourself doing in 10 years time?
I would like to be working in a Premier League club with top young players. I have very specific views on how I believe football should be played and I am not sure that would be suited to the win at all costs mentality in senior football. As my next progression I want to start working as a part-time coach at a professional club so if there are any clubs within the London or Essex area who are looking for a young coach who is willing to work with any age group and is really keen to learn and improve please get in touch!
Please follow Ben on Twitter @bsmudger7