Over the past few weeks I’ve been trying not to think about Kit Symons. More specifically I am making a conscious effort to not focus on the nagging issue of his future as Fulham manager.
Having spent the better part of the last 3 years arguing that a succession of managers deserved their P45s, I’m getting rather tired. It’s also not got us very far. I’m also trying to not be reactionary. It’s hard not to be, but our form of late has been so undulating that it seems somewhat pointless to argue the toss either way because as soon as you think there’s a clear answer we go and perform the exact opposite.
So rather than simply looking at Fulham’s management on a binary yes or no, in or out basis, I’ve moved onto a sort of existential and holistic questioning of the coaching framework of modern football and the managerial selection process in general.
For the sake of brevity (and your attention span’s), I will split the summary of my thoughts into two articles. This article will look at coaching, while the second will deal slightly more scientifically with the way managers are appointed.
Football is one of the only sports that doesn’t operate a system of position or schematic specific coaches as part of its accepted status quo coaching structure. Yes, every club employs a goalkeeping coach, but where are the defence, midfield and striker coaches? Why do clubs not openly employ specialists to teach them how to attack and others how to defend? Why are coaches not more publicly transferred, traded or sacked?
As an illustration – Fulham have a six man first team coaching staff (seven if you include Alan Curbishley). Yet there isn’t a single former striker amongst them. Would our young forwards not benefit from some experienced position specific coaching? Moussa Dembele, for example, is a good coach away from stardom.
The argument against position coaches is an obvious one – football is a team sport, where the emphasis is how the team plays as a whole.
With so much pressure levied on managers, is it any wonder that the focus is on implementing team tactics rather than coaching up specific positions and players. You can have the best technical players around, but if they don’t play as a team they’ll struggle to get anywhere and the manager would get sacked.
Roy Hodgson used to place a huge emphasis on the entire team operating as one unit where every player knew his position on the pitch at all times. Hodgson’s ability to get the best out of those players with limited technical ability has been a hallmark of his career. The record books show how successful he was at Fulham and our organisation as a team was a major reason for that success.
Though Roy also placed a great emphasis on having the right coaches. It’s why Mike Kelly followed him to the club and Ray Lewington went with him to England.
If you fast forward to the current Fulham team and it’s been obvious that tactics haven’t been the only thing missing over the past few seasons. As highlighted again last Sunday, our defence has struggled to cope under successive managers. A revolving door of players has done little to solidify a defence that has been consistently underwhelming since Hodgson left.
One of the great hopes when we appointed Kit Symons in the first place was that, as a former defender himself, he would be able to sort out our defence.
A year on and whilst the personnel are the best we’ve had in recent years, there is little evidence of them being coached up as a collective and there are still individual mistakes littering our performances, especially at set pieces. There simply can’t be enough hours in the day for Symons to impart the position specific coaching and tactics that his defence need, without to some extent ignoring the other outfield players. Considering our team needs both tactical and technical help, do we have the coaching resources that we actually need?
It is of course impossible for us as fans to know how training sessions are divided and how time is spent. Yet with Fulham continuing to concede set piece goals with alarming frequency, the only logical conclusions are that either not enough time is being allotted to their eradication or the coaching staff just don’t know how to deal with the problem.
But back to my more general point as I wasn’t intending to have a rant about corners. Why are coaching staffs assembled as they are? At Fulham, the aforementioned coaching staff comprises a manager (Kit Symons), two first team coaches (Sean Reed and Mark Pembridge), a goalkeeping coach (Martin Brennan) and two fitness coaches (Gary Hall and Alastair Harris). Internally, Reed and Pembridge will hopefully have defined roles, but to the untrained eye it all seems a bit haphazard.
When millions are poured into players and transfers around the football world, it is somewhat baffling that coaching still operates under a veil of secrecy and anonymity once you get beyond the manager. It is not unique to football that the manager or head coach has the power to appoint their own staff, but it is unique in that so little importance seems to be placed, at least publicly, on having the right coaches to support a manager.
Martin Jol was in need of coaching support for so long, that when it finally arrived he only got two weeks with Rene Meulensteen before he got sacked.
Can football – and Fulham – learn from other sports?
The current Rugby World Cup is a good place to start. England were unceremoniously dumped out the World Cup by Australia last weekend, thanks in a large part due to the Australian dominance at the scrum. Whereas one year ago Australia had one of the worst scrums in the game, having hired specialist coach Mario Ledesma, their set piece has transformed from laughing stock to powerhouse.
American Football is another, and perhaps the best example of where defined position coaches operate. The accepted and replicated coaching model has a Head Coach under whom will be Offensive, Defensive and Special Teams co-ordinators with individual position coaches beyond that.
Yes, we are comparing apples with oranges, but the overarching point is that coaches beyond the top man play an important and visible role in successful teams.
At Fulham, we are showing the early signs of progressive ownership. Transfer strategy is being re-shaped and the club is very much hinting at positive progression off the field. Is it unreasonable to expect that one of the next areas to come under scrutiny is not who coaches Fulham, but rather how we are coached?
For now, all I want is for Fulham to hire someone who knows how to set up and defend a corner.