The Best Thing You’ve Ever Read About Spurs

That’s not even a clickbait title.

This summary of a talk by John McDermott, our Head of Coaching & Player Development, at Pomona College in Southern California on 22nd March is the Best. Thing. Ever. Thank you to @RobPNicolson for taking the time to type up the lengthy notes from a fantastic lecture.

Myself and @bankruptspurs (some sardonic wit off of Twitter; look him up) had the pleasure of interviewing McDermott back in 2009. At that point we both left thoroughly convinced that our academy was in good hands, which has obviously since been proven by the long list of talented players who have been promoted to the first team or who have made excellent careers for themselves elsewhere (earning us big money in the process). Some of the insight from that interview was included in my article in issue 1 of the The Fighting Cock fanzine – the physical fanzine has since sold out, but it’s just £1 for a digital copy.

Anyway, I digress. I was so impressed by these notes from Rob, that I wanted to break them down to highlight and discuss certain sections of particular interest to me. So without further ado…

One club in the PL is paying £24,000 a year for a 9 year old and one of the 16 y.o lads at Spurs (Edwards?) was offered £250,000 to go up North (City?) Spurs were honest with the player that they we not going to do that, you stay here and get your £30,000 but if you want to go, go and all the time John has to fight against the corruption and business interest of the game. It is our job (him and fans) to make sure that we stop the game falling into this hole.

Actually, I suspect that this was Josh Onomah rather than Marcus Ewards. Onomah who was offered a deal to join Manchester City some time ago. We also know that Chelsea pay ludicrous wages to their young players — rumour has it, as I mentioned in my recent Youth Update — that Chelsea pay Ruben Loftus-Cheek more than we pay Christian Eriksen, for example! This is a tricky situation for us; not only because we have a strict wage structure (which may be extended post-new stadium, but will still be stricter than those with oil money flowing into the club), but because it is part of our underlying philosophy to not give young players too much, too young (this is discussed more later).

Football clubs are flooded with coaches but John thinks there are not that many great coaches- how do you make sure your best players are with the best coaches and the best staff- believes a lot of learning is contagious- as staff has gone from 15 to 70, how does he make sure everyone is doing the right thing for the right players.

This is fascinating insight. When I interviewed McDermott previously he spoke a lot about Ricardo Moniz and how he was there as much to indoctrinate the coaches as he was to specifically coach players. Moniz is now long gone, as are many of the coaches that he indoctrinated. McDermott raises a very good point about how he can now control the level and type of coaching as the staff numbers grow: a new problem for him. I also wonder if ‘there are not that many great coaches’ is a subtle comment on our current Academy coaching staff. This section also ties into a later one…

What does he look for in coaches- do they understand kids, do they know when to be tough, have they got an intuition/not just qualifications, do they share the same philosophy in coaching, do they understand the player development continuum? It is not about the coaches ego and winning the under 15 cups, it about getting individuals into the first team which might be of detriment to results, do the coaches have a work place knowledge and also do they have passion for coaching.

‘The coach’s ego’ – hmm!

A lot of evidence right now suggests that the most talented players are not obvious and players can very easily slip through the cracks. Pritchard and Carroll are little dots that John has taken a chance/risk on because of his experience with other players.

This is something that has been embedded in Spurs for some time. I believe we were one of the first clubs to start ‘sticking with’ smaller, less physical players when a lot of English academies were promoting the big lads who could bully the opposition physically. Alex Pritchard and Tom Carroll are the examples given here, but the examples now go deep within the academy – from Cy Goddard at Under-21 level, to Marcus Edwards at Under-18 level, to Oliver Skipp in the Under-16s — it is not at all unusual to see very small players given opportunities at Spurs.

We have a player right now called Shayon Harrison who is pretty good and trains with the first team, Pochetinno came over to John and said ‘John, Shayon is lazy’ just loud enough so Shayon would hear him. Shayon came knocking on John’s door later asking him what that was about. John told Shayon that Poch has worked with Veron/Maradona, he played a year with Aguero, he trains everyday with Kane- Poch’s frame of reference is so high that he is not saying you are actually lazy but when he is comparing you it can be deemed mediocre.

This is an absolutely brilliant anecdote which shows how psychology can be used to motivate a player, as well as showing the levels that our young players now have to reach to impress.

John is worried that coaches in the modern game are so focused on moneyball stats that players will start to slip through the cracks. Harry Kane at 14 years of age, was relatively fat, August birthday, immature, and was ‘forgettable Harry’- his peers could jump higher, they could run quicker and his agility was 30% lower than the average- ‘runt of the litter’ – so what was it that John saw? He thanked God that he had experienced Ashely Young and Mariappa- there was something beyond stats and sport scientists- an intuition

This is why embedding experienced coaches within the academy is so essential. The risk of letting players like Kane slip through the net due to physical attributes must be a constant concern. Having said that, I could see something in Kane when I first saw him at 15 — he had an understanding of the game, and ability to work within a team structure that is quite rare, and so I doubt they were as close to letting him slip away than is implied. Players are now given longer to prove themselves (for example, Mason finally got his chance at 23) and, in my opinion, that is a good thing, if managed well. And by managed well, I mean that players are not hanging around indefinitely for years, being given one-year extension after one-year extension without any obvious progression being made.

What does he look for in his players- extreme talent alone you will fail… personal values/characteristics and doing the brilliant basics right= good chance of making it, having those two with extreme talent= might become a top player

This is why so many talented players have failed and will continue to do so — a combination of these factors is essential. You might make a good career with two out of the three, but you must likely won’t fulfil your potential (see: Adel Taarabt).

John does not want U18’s to like him… Respect him but not like him, and that Kane did not like him at U18 because John kept telling Kane ‘I want more’ and he used to fall out with Kane and Townsend all the time.

I have heard numerous stories over the years about players falling out with McDermott, and it’s normally because he has told them something they did not want to hear. This is absolutely the way it should be — so long as the player responds in the right way.

Told a story about Townsend who was dropped and refused to be released and kept turning up, eventually John and Chris (Ramsey) stopped caring because he refused to be told no. John thinks this is evidence to show local players work and that our foreign academy players usually go back home for a number of reasons e.g. socially, culturally etc.

This story is probably fairly well-known — it certainly made the papers around the time that Townsend broke through — but is worth acknowledging again.

Poch wants 5 things in a player, technically good, tactically good, physically outstanding, mentally strong and faith- they have to believe in what we are about. A player must unconditionally believe in the plan, for example: If Poch tells Kane, run around that pitch three times, do press ups and it will give you a better chance of scoring, Harry is going to do it. Poch has the young players in the palm of his hand and the synergy that comes with that John thinks is amazing.

This brought joy to my heart, particularly the last line. Ultimate belief in the Head Coach’s philosophy is vital, and it is this that I think has led to our incredible team performances this season.

Question: How does John deal with a player like Bentaleb who has tasted success, and now seems to be overlooked in the first team frame and is having to play for the U21’s for game time?
Nabil has had his injuries, similarly with Andros and that he would like to talk about Andros as he is no longer at the club. Andros is an orthodox winger and did not really fit in with the way Poch plays. John then started talking about the ‘bomb’ squad- Adebayor, Capoue etc.- that were out of favour with Poch but Poch never told them to play with the reserves and would treat them as equal as other first teamers and there will be nothing in any of their books that says Poch treated me like a dog. Bentaleb and Townsend both asked to play for the U21’s, it was NOT a punishment of any sort. Poch would not work like that nor would he want to put a bad apple in the U21 and poison the side. John considers it one of the hardest things to manage, winning after a win and you hope a kid has an internal drive to keep going and gave an example of Mason who never stops, an incredible internal drive even though he only started properly playing at 22, and John used the quote ‘You stay on the train long enough and the scenery will change’ but you have got to be good enough to stay on the train and we hope that for Nabil/Townsend as you need your 600 games to get your 200 great games.

A couple of things stood out in this section. Firstly, his choice of term — ‘bomb squad’ — and secondly, Bentaleb and Townsend requesting to play Under-21 football. It sounds as though Pochettino absolutely did not banish that group of players, but implies here that they were seen as some sort of ticking time-bomb. And on the latter point, huge credit to Bentaleb and Townsend, who are/were going about things the right way. McDermott seems hopeful on Bentaleb. Also, we already knew about Mason’s attitude (it’s something I have written about before) but it is good to see it come directly from McDermott again.

John thinks his relationship with the first team manager is very important and there has been 1 or 2 managers that were like chalk and cheese to him. One manager in particular had very different values to John’s and had no time for John. I think John implied that he did not get on well with Harry Redknapp, so Spurs brought in Sherwood- who John and Harry both really like to act as the mediator- so John must find a way to make a connection to the first team manager if he has 19-20 year old players he can trust. If he does not, he is doing a disservice to them because they will be dismissed. Finding that relationship with Poch was easy, they spend 2-3 hours a day with each other, Sherwood was also easy, Redknapp very difficult, Ramos very difficult, AVB brilliant start but went into his shadow a little bit which made it difficult.

It is fascinating that Tim Sherwood was brought in to essentially bridge a personality clash. Sherwood is obviously well thought of by McDermott, and this is something I had heard before.

Something that is interesting about Poch that John thinks he has right- Poch is a leader of people, a very warm, Latin, touchy feely man, he has got something about him, an X factor- if you took Poch from Tottenham right now, they would not be half as successful- with him he has Jesus Perez who is a sports scientist- very clever and analytical, a goalkeeping coach- Toni Jiminez that is an outward, outgoing personality that brings humour and his assistant who is someone that Poch trusts more than anyone- this group filter and contextualise everything- John looks at statistics but trusts his eye also and cross references- Poch will often say something does not feel right- uses his intuition- example: Bentaleb when your face is not smiling, your feet are not smiling- an intuition allied with statistics

Doesn’t this make you love Pochettino and his team even more?

Question: What does distinguish Tottenham’s academy from others?
Unique selling point- pay less wages than anyone else- treat them mean, keep them keen, they still get well paid but we do not chuck money at them- very stringent on agents- keep as many away from the club as possible who can disrupt the system- create cracks in the team and the players heads- it keeps John awake, trying to work out how he protects the old values and resist the temptation to throwing money at them- John likes to take the academy players on 30-35 international trips a year to get a worldly experience that show the players different ways of playing football- we need players that know how to play against players from other countries because they need to be prepared as the premier league is 70% foreign

I have heard previously that Spurs have a preferred agency which they encourage players to join. It is easier to manage and maintain a relationship with one or two agents from a specific agency than a multitude of different agents from different countries, different agencies, and with very different perspectives.

Additionally, the international tournaments and trips was something that McDermott was keen to tell us about when we met him in 2009. At that time, we were leading the way with this, and it is something that has caught on.

Question: How much easier is it for you with a manager like Poch in charge to persuade our youths to stay with us versus the rich clubs like PSG, Man City and Chelsea?
Gametime is his selling point regardless of the manager but the Poch factor is interesting because he is the brightest manager he has worked with, best strategist in how he has the club working, and something that keeps John awake at night- How does he make sure our academy keeps up with Poch because he has taken it to another level- we now have more academy players in the premier league than anyone else but in the last 4-5 years John has lost 6 hugely influential staff members- Ramsey, Sherwood, Alex Inglethorpe?, 2 guys working with England (no names) and Perry Suckers- a lot of the staff now have not worked at Tottenham for a long time- lots of red carpet coaches- that have done this, that and the other but really they haven’t achieved anything- they need to start knowing that they don’t know and right now John feels like he is trying to hang on to Poch coattails because he is moving forward so fast- so yes it is brilliant all these young players coming through like CCV, KWP and Onomah but his worry is to make sure there is not a gap after this period. John needs to remain credible to Poch, right now Poch trusts him but John needs to keep giving him gifts.

Pochettino is pushing McDermott to be better. Take that in for a second — he’s not just improving our first team players, and our academy players… but also our highly experienced Head of Coaching & Player Development who has worked with England and has been coaching for many, many years. Staggering.

Join the conversation

  1. There's a good article in here somewhere
  2. I read the write up you re-tweeted a few days ago and loved this too. I nodded along with a lot of your reactions, but, as much as I loved it, it does keep me awake at night, when I think about Poch leaving. Funny to think I was pretty ambivalent when he, and not de boer or van gaal, arrived. Poch said in an early press conference, " a team you can be proud of." He has nailed that to be sure. Thanks again.
  3. Great article about a great academy coach, a great 1st team coach and great 'back up' staff. Well interjected at every stage by yourself. Gives us a 'live' insight to the workings of the clubs training set-up. Thank you.
  4. Very interesting read. Thank you


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