Does the story of Gerard Jones highlight why ex-pros are the ones playing catch up? Adam Bate talks to the 28-year-old Bristol Rovers coach to find out how his experiences have prepared him for a career in coaching…
It does not take much to spark the clamour. After a hugely successful summer for England’s youth teams, a penalty shootout loss to Germany at the European Under-21 Championships was enough to begin the familiar recriminations.
Joey Barton was among those to highlight the fact that while the other teams in the last four were coached by former senior international players – Albert Celades, Luigi Di Biagio and Stefan Kuntz – England’s team was led by Aidy Boothroyd.
The ex-Watford boss has his critics, of course, and not just because of a modest playing record. But the rush to devalue the credentials of someone who was an academy coach at Peterborough aged 27 and taking sessions well before that really should be resisted.
At the risk of stating the obvious, playing and coaching require different qualities.
The crossover is such that this is not always apparent. But Bristol Rovers’ appointment of Gerard Jones as their new head of academy coaching highlights the contrast rather dramatically. Playing the game helps, but there are other experiences that are valuable too.
At 28, Jones is a qualified teacher with a master’s degree in performance coaching and a published author on the subject. An award-winning entrepreneur with a top 100 startup behind him, he was also the youngest ever director of coaching at Arsenal’s soccer schools.
He joins Bristol Rovers having spent the past year in Michigan directing a coaching programme for over 1000 children aged from three to 19, securing academy status for the club in the process. Prior to that he has also coached at Bradford City and Rochdale.
And before all that, yes, he did play the game too.
“I was not necessarily a good footballer by any stretch of the imagination,” Jones tells Sky Sports. “I was only a youth-team player at Halifax. I knew my limitations so I knew that wouldn’t necessarily be the career path for me. But I also felt that coaching could be.
“I knew that I would have to make up for it in other ways. I had to catch up and gain that football knowledge of managing a dressing room and learning the tactical side of the game. The only way that I could do that was by starting as early as I could.”
So far, so normal. But what is striking about Jones’ journey is the lengths to which he has gone to in order to hone his craft. Crucially, at an age when most players have not yet thought about a coaching career, he already has more than a decade of experience.
It began as a teenager. “Because I knew I wanted to coach, even when I was in the youth team at Halifax Town I was coaching at the centre of excellence,” he explains. “At 16, I was going down and helping out, volunteering, working with the Under-12s and the Under-14s.
“When I was 15 I rang up Sean McAuley, the youth-team manager at Sheffield Wednesday at the time. I asked if I could watch some sessions. He agreed so I went there with my notebook and watched how he worked. Even before that I helped out in a leisure centre.
“I have always done that stuff. When I was employed by Rochdale and most would do their session and go home, I used to stay behind and watch the other sessions to see what the more experienced coaches were doing. I have always picked people’s brains.”
So how does Jones feel he compares to the ex-pros?
“A footballer might retire in his thirties and start to think about coaching,” he says. “In my opinion, they are still at the infancy of their level because it is a completely different art. It’s year one for them. I was lucky to start earlier so I got some of my mistakes out of the way then.
“I always think of it like this: if you are lucky enough to have played at a professional level then you will have accumulated a lot of knowledge. But the ability to transfer that into the art of teaching is a completely different domain.
“If you are a good teacher and you have a professional playing background you are going to be really strong but there are not many that have that ability. On the other hand, there are people like myself who did not play at a high level but who might be good teachers.”
In Jones’ case, it is a literal truth. “The reason why I did the teaching qualification is that I always knew that to be a good coach you need to be an outstanding communicator if you are going to influence people and get your message across,” he explains.
And the master’s degree? “My master’s was really useful because that was all about the elite performance environment and the decision-making process,” he adds. “It went into real detail about how we learn and how we develop our knowledge.”
The next step for Jones is Bristol Rovers. “It is a club that wants to be in the Championship,” he says. “They are building a new stadium and have already bought the land for the training ground. They have ambitions to become a Category Two academy. It is an exciting project.
“My job is to improve the efficiency of our work and develop the academy programme so we can produce better players as well as better coaches. I will be creating individual coach development plans to maximise their strengths so they can become better at what they do.”
But what the next step is for English coaching is perhaps the bigger question. “The FA gets a lot of stick but it does a great job and in time we will see results,” says Jones. “We are seeing little bits now with the England Under-20s winning the World Cup. We are getting there.
“We have some of the best teachers of the game. We really do have some outstanding teachers.” But maybe it is only when everybody in the game understands the importance of that aspect of coaching that the true key to unlocking the country’s full potential will be found.Soccer Accumulator Bonus
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