A lot has been made of the so-called ‘demise’ of amateur football in recent years. News stories have surfaced about increased playing costs, lack of coaches, declining player uptake and insufficient investment from football’s governing bodies.
But is amateur football really in dire straits? We spoke to Ben Lovatt, coach of Brackley Town Saints, to find out.
Thanks for talking to us Ben. Do you want to start by telling us a bit about the club and how you’re getting on this season?
We’re based in Northamptonshire and we play in the Hellenic Football League. For anyone who hasn’t heard of it, it’s the ninth tier of league football covering the South East and West counties of England.
We’re the affiliated team of Brackley Town FC who play in the National League North, the sixth tier of English football. So, in other words, we’re a bridge between Brackley Town FC’s youth set-up and first team. Most of our players are 18 to 21, so we give them an opportunity to transition into adult football.
It’s my first season as coach of the club, so there was a bit of a bedding-in period, but we’re currently eighth in the table. We’ve won five of the last six games and three of our first clean sheets of the season have come in those games, so we feel like we’ve turned a corner.
So how would you sum up your role and what’s your relationship like with the players?
My role is to plan and deliver training sessions, prepare for games, provide kits, make sure the changing rooms are in good nick – all sorts, really. We train twice a week if we’ve only got a game at the weekend and once a week if we’ve also got a midweek game.
I work with young men who are aspirational footballers and want to play at the highest level they can, so I want to give them that platform to develop while also making sure they enjoy their experience and stay within the game.
At 18, your priorities can change, particularly when, in many cases, the pipe dream of being paid to play professionally has gone. A lot of young people think ‘what next?’ and certain barriers can get in the way, so it’s important to maintain the most professional environment we can.
You mentioned about players having aspirations and then that sobering realisation kicking in for some. Does it make your job all the more rewarding when you can motivate these players to continue doing what they enjoy?
Yeah, definitely. I think there’s a difference between a ‘win at all costs’ mindset and a winning mentality. We play to win, we train to win, we set out to win and success is an objective, but we’ve always said we want to win in the right way and have that feel-good factor within the team.
I’m more focused on the sum of all parts, in terms of each player carrying out their individual roles well to help the team. There’s something to be said for a player engaging with a coach rather just following instructions.
What have you enjoyed the most about being the head coach of Brackley Town Saints and working closely with your players?
Mostly getting to know them and seeing them develop. We’ve got a centre forward who was low on confidence in pre-season – he took four or five touches and didn’t want to shoot – but he’s now the league’s top scorer. He’s now going into games with almost a feeling of entitlement that he should score! Seeing that progression in him and in the rest of my players is absolutely brilliant.
I’m led by the player and I’ll give them as much as they want from me. If you’re 18, 19 or 20 and you still need to be pushed, you’re not going to make it as a professional footballer anyway. A career in sport is something you have to be absolutely committed to.
Success for us is if a player is picked up by a club at a higher level. We’ve got two or three lads for whom it would still be a travesty if they were still with us in a couple of years’ time.
Using the example of Jamie Vardy – who went from playing in the Conference North to scoring 24 Premier League goals in the season Leicester City won the title – does that show your players that anything is possible if you apply yourself and put your mind to something? Not necessarily in terms of making it in the Premier League, but having a solid career in the game?
I think aspiration is a great thing – it’s always good to dream and have something to work towards. However, the reality is that the gap between where we are and divisions like the Conference North is enormous.
We’re predominantly working with lads who are doing really well if they can even get £80-90 a game. If they can achieve that by playing the game that they enjoy, that’s a fantastic result in my eyes.
Can you talk us through your qualifications and explain how you feel they prepared you for life as a football coach?
I’ve done a UEFA B Licence and I have a Masters degree in Coaching Science from the University of the West of England. I learnt a lot more from this than I did from any coaching qualifications I obtained through formal governing bodies. To be completely honest, I don’t think these qualifications are worth the paper they’re printed on, as they don’t really equip you to coach.
You work with guinea pig athletes who are there to help you pass an exam, but the real world is completely different. You don’t always have a squad of 16 to choose from, with five lads on the sidelines because that’s all you need for a session. You go to a session on a cold Monday night and somebody’s running late after work, somebody you need to be there hasn’t turned up – you’re working with what you’ve got.
This is where coaching comes into play. Coaching isn’t simply a knowledge of the game, it’s the transferral of that knowledge to your players in a way that they can take it seriously and use it to their advantage. This isn’t accounted for in coaching education – we don’t talk about knowledge transfer, we don’t talk about skill acquisition, we just run drills for switching play which are useless.
The Masters I did, on the other hand, was a really good course and I took a lot more from that than any coaching I’ve ever done. It was very rooted in working with people and getting the best out of your players, rather than just coaching them.
How would you describe your coaching style, both from a tactical and man management perspective?
From a man management point of view, my coaching style is founded on a close relationship with my players. My approach to coaching is no different to my approach to my day job – there has to be a mutual respect there.
Tactically, I try not to be too much of a purist or pragmatist – I like to think I’m somewhere in the middle. Your system’s only as good as the players at your disposal, so you’ve got to analyse the strengths and weaknesses of your team and find a way of playing that works for them, while getting them all to buy into it.
What was it that attracted you to become an amateur coach and what do you enjoy the most about your role?
I’ve been coaching for 15 years and I’ve always enjoyed it. Day-to-day I work in therapeutics, which involves helping people with a range of social issues, and in a coaching capacity the requirements are similar. Seeing someone grow and develop motivates me more than a trophy or medal.
It’s not easy, whatever line of work you’re in, to face rejection at a young age – but it’s important how you respond to that. When used in the right way, sport can be a really powerful tool. The onus is on the coach to help players realise that.
On the flipside, what are some of the biggest challenges of your role?
One of the biggest challenges is working with young players whose worlds don’t revolve around football. Illness, injury, work issues and finances all come into play at amateur level and you have to manage these problems.
Another challenge is instilling this idea that it’s impossible to keep everyone happy all the time. I’ve got to manage my player relationships and retain their trust.
Thankfully, we’re very lucky in terms of resources. We’re well looked after, well supported and we never struggle to get a fit squad together. We’re able to call players up from the Brackley Town Under-18’s and Under-16’s if we need to, so we’re able to mitigate unforeseen circumstances.
You’ve obviously got a great set-up there, but are you concerned about the general state of amateur and local football?
Football in general is an enormous participation sport. With the sheer number of players at any level and the saturation of coaches, the problem you’ve got is there are more good players out there than there are competent coaches to develop them.
What’s particularly sad from my point of view is the demise of local football teams at kids’ level. There’s an enormous pool of young talent which will be wasted because there aren’t enough provisions which allow them to play for their local football team. For all we know, the next Cristiano Ronaldo is on a council estate in Birmingham with no access to good coaching.
I think the problem with amateur football is systemic throughout society. For example, you have the same issues around funding in football as you do for mental health services. All the money is at the top end, yet all the need is at the bottom. A considerable amount of money is ploughed into the Premier League, yet grassroots and amateur football have the highest levels of participation. This isn’t the fairest distribution of income.
What do you think could be done to stop these kinds of issues from continuing to plague the game?
Whenever there is funding allocated within amateur football, I think it needs to be monitored fairly robustly. Unfortunately, we don’t live in a world where you can hold up the begging bowl and say ‘Please can I have some more?’. There needs to be tight governance and accountability for how the money is spent – if that happened more in the lower leagues, you’d see a higher quality of football.
The shortage of English players who play in the top flight versus the homegrown talent in other countries is no coincidence. There’s more money in our league than any other, but coaching in this country is a volunteer-led industry. In other major European countries, it’s a professional industry.
It’s a double-edged sword, really, because you have no amateur game without volunteers, but equally are volunteers stunting the development of players within the amateur game? I’m not suggesting that this is intentional, it’s just that you can’t know what you don’t know and not all coaches are adequately qualified to do what they do.
So, in terms of what we do, you’ll be aware that we provide specialist football coach insurance in the event of injury, loss, theft and damage. How important do you think this kind of insurance is to amateur football coaches like you?
It definitely helps. You could walk down the street on a Saturday and have all kinds of accidents, so for a contact sport like football I think protecting yourself is essential for peace of mind. Sport is an interesting industry, because of the way it’s evolved. There’s a lot more emphasis on agility and physical fitness and football is much more fast-paced than it used to be, so the risk of sustaining injury is higher.
That’s why it’s important that football coaches at all levels protect themselves with adequate insurance, because an injury or other accidents could happen at any moment.
What would you say to other football coaches, who may either not know why specialist insurance is important or don’t think they need it?
With football being fast and physical at times, you just never know when someone could make a claim against you. If you take what you do seriously, you need specialist insurance, because it affects how people perceive you – you can’t be deemed negligent in any way if you’re working with footballers on a regular basis.