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'Did I fulfil my potential? Did I miss something? As a coach, I'm determined to be the best I can be'

Obsessing over tactics, technical elements and how to get the best from young players, Alan Maybury is inching closer to a management career.

Alan Maybury pictured on his senior debut for the Republic of Ireland in March 1998.
Alan Maybury pictured on his senior debut for the Republic of Ireland in March 1998.
Image: INPHO/Lorraine O'Sullivan

ALAN MAYBURY WONDERS could he have done more. 

“Looking back I did well,” he says. 

“But there were boys who always did better than me.”

It’s been a year of self-analysis. The former defender was hired by St Johnstone as a youth coach back in the summer and is now responsible for both the reserves and the Under-18 side. Working with underage talent is something he first experienced at Falkirk a number of years ago but having completed his Pro Licence back in November, he’s taken to his new role with added gusto and energy. Stimulated by the rich and detailed coaching nuances he’s picked up over the past two seasons of the diploma, he’s chomping at the bit to continue learning and developing a cerebral approach to the young players he’s mentoring.   

“Maybe I didn’t quite fulfil my potential”, he says, referring particularly to his early years as part of the superb Leeds youth team of the mid-90s, with whom he won the 1997 FA Youth Cup. 

“Things went really well for me, probably until I was about 20 and then I got injured. Did I take the opportunities I was given? Did I get enough opportunities? I did alright but fellas like Harry Kewell, Jonathan Woodgate, Paul Robinson and Stephen McPhail played at a higher level than me and they certainly didn’t start at a higher level. So, did I miss something? As a coach, I’m determined to be the best I can be. I don’t look at it as the players working for me. I work for them. I can have a go at them or get frustrated with them but I also go away and think, ‘Do they understand what I’m talking about? Do they get it? Can they make the transition from training pitch to games?’”  

Soccer - FA Carling Premiership - Leeds United v Aston Villa Maybury in action for Leeds in a Premier League game against Aston Villa in December 1997. Source: Barry Coombs

Maybury was handed a senior debut by Howard Wilkinson at 17, starting in central midfield alongside Gary Speed and Gary McAllister in a game at Aston Villa in February 1996. But it was a baptism of fire. He was replaced at half-time, Villa won 3-0 and he wouldn’t get another chance until October 1997. And while he’d go on to remain at the club until 2001, he always found minutes hard to come by. But, that time of his career shaped him and it remains a massive reference point to this day.  

“I felt that if I was good enough – and I wasn’t sure I was – that I’d get an opportunity at Leeds,” he says. 

“I had a good grounding there in terms of standards. It’s what I try and teach now but you need to understand the modern kid too. It’s a bit different and a little more patient and about understanding their thinking more. It’s not the old-school, ‘one size fits all’ school of thinking.  

When Leeds flew my Mum and Dad over, they said, ‘Look, we’ll help him develop as a player but help him grow from a boy to a man too’. You had to be clean-shaven every day, make your bed in your digs every morning, bins had to be emptied, bathroom wiped down, place left spotless – it was quite regimented. Responsibility, discipline. And that hasn’t changed. It’s funny because as part of my Pro Licence we went down to Man City. Obviously, they have all the money in the world and the technology they have is brilliant. But I didn’t hear or see anything different than I did when I was 17 at Leeds United. Everything now has a fancy name or is delivered differently. A box midfield is en vogue but we played 4-2-2-2 in our youth team at times. So that’s not radical. The standard of player and the speed of things has changed but at an academy level, I’m not seeing anything new.” 

Maybury went on to forge a terrific career for himself away from Leeds and remains best known for his time with Hearts and Leicester. After more stints in Scotland with Hibs and St Johnstone, his last competitive appearance came for Falkirk at the end of 2014. Close to 20 years of elite-level football.

Not bad for a fella who talks openly about his limitations.   

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Still, he knows the fine margins and how vulnerable young footballers can be. One minute, they’re the next best thing. Then there’s an injury or a change in coach or an off-field matter. And the bubble bursts.  

“What percentage is ability?” he asks. 

We reckon it’s about 50%. So that means 50% of something else. That’s work rate, ability to take on instructions, ability to cope or learned behaviours. If a player doesn’t agree with what I’m asking, can they still do a job for the team? Can they still remember those set pieces in the 80th minute when the chest is burning, the legs are burning and they don’t feel well? These are the things that can help you become a player. If you have limited ability and can do these things, you can make a living out of the game. If you have lots of talent and can do those things, you can be a top player. But self-discipline, living right when there are so many trappings…It’s a way of living, not just a job. I’m not saying you need to live like a monk but you need to live a certain way.”

“If you get success, can you cope with it? Plenty can’t and the fall is so great. So there are so many things. Natural ability takes you to about 17 and then it’s all these other factors that will determine whether you’re a player or not. The academy systems, the volume of players…it’s just getting more and more difficult now too.” 

In an effort to crack the code and help with fine-tuning a team’s mentality, chemistry and – hopefully – eventual success, Maybury used Leeds as a case study of sorts and delved into what exactly made his team tick as much as they did.  

“I remember going there when Paul Hart was back as youth team coach,” he says. 

“I asked him about our team and the mentality we had. But he explained that four years earlier, Leeds won the Youth Cup and beat the Class of ’92 in the final. It meant they could recruit better so they brought in Kewell, McPhail, Woodgate, myself. And they felt all they needed to do was point us in the right direction after that because of the type of characters we were.”

Soccer ... F.A. Cup Youth Cup Final 2nd Leg ... Crystal Palace v Leeds United Leeds celebrate after winning the 1997 FA Youth Cup. Maybury is third from the left in the front row alongside Damien Lynch, while Stephen McPhail is on the far right. Directly behind Maybury is Harry Kewell while Paul Robinson and Jonathan Woodgate are together in the middle of the back row. Source: Tony Marshall

“At the end of pre-season as first years, we played the second years and were absolutely battered. We got called into the office and were told we were a disgrace. But because of how Leeds recruited and the mentality we all had, we never lost to the second years again. We played them every Monday but were determined to show we were a better group. It was that mentality of ours.”

And that’s a constant thought I have: can you change mentality? Some managers tell me no and you can only change players. Others say that it’s possible if you get them young enough but not too young. So there’s a small window where you can change mentality or behaviour. And I did it a bit at Falkirk. We profiled the players, did a lot of work with them and I was able to elevate them. I know that because when I left, the drop in the team was massive. In the first year, we’d win five, lose five. But then we worked with them and we didn’t lose more than twice in a row. When I left, they lost seven in a row. So, I was able to get them to a certain level. But the mentality of a player is everything: their upbringing, their parents. So much goes into producing a player so it’s about at what stage can we have the biggest influence as coaches.”

Maybury reels off the memories of the Leeds’ underage dressing room: the drive, the obsession with competition, the self-belief. But, he follows them up with relentless questions about himself. Why didn’t he follow the same path as the high-profile graduates? What did he do wrong? What could he have changed about his behaviour and attitude? As a coach, his experiences from two decades ago continue to provide important educational perspective.      

“I remember Kewell doing keepy-ups with his head and somebody said, ‘I bet that you can’t do 50 of them’. 

“He just said, ‘I bet I can do a hundred.’ If you met him you might think he was a bit arrogant but he just had this belief in himself. And there was that competition within ourselves to do well. Now, they hadn’t won the Youth league since the 60s and they had only won the Youth Cup once previously, and that was in 1993. But when we came back as second years, Paul Hart sat us down and said, ‘This season, we’ll win the league, the Youth Cup and the League Cup as well’. And that was the attitude: we’re in these three competitions and we’ll just go and win them. And there were never any doubts. Belief was just engrained in us. It was how we were brought up and it was how we played.”

It’s 20 years since Maybury won the first of his 10 Republic of Ireland senior caps. It came in a friendly against the Czech Republic but he acknowledges that his part in the game tends to get a bit overshadowed owing to the other youngsters who were part of the squad that night. 

Screen Shot 2018-12-29 at 15.08.43 Maybury made his senior debut alongside Damien Duff and Robbie Keane (who didn't start the game against Czech Republic but came on as sub). After taking the lead through Gary Breen, Mick McCarthy's side went down 2-1.

“I made my debut with Damien Duff and Robbie Keane. Whatever happened to them?”

It’s not that I have regrets but did I fulfil my potential? I had my first senior game at the same time as these guys so I was at their level but got nowhere near their level in the end. But I remember with Mick (McCarthy), doing a warm-up and that ‘Get to the line’ meant ‘Get to the line’. Now, I question everything so when I visited Roda JC in the Netherlands as part of the Pro Licence, the manager’s attitude there was totally different. ‘If we start at 10am or five past, what difference does it make? Why am I picking that fight? If they get to the line or not during a warm-up, what does that matter?’ It’s different mentalities and it makes me think if I’m right to pull players up on everything.”              

“Up until I was about 30, all the managers I had were strict – they said jump and I said, ‘How high?’ They were disciplinarians but I liked all of them. They called a spade a spade and you knew where you stood with them. But when Craig Levein left Leicester, his assistant Rob Kelly took over and he was a technical coach and he loved technical players. But when he became manager, he was still Rob. He wasn’t any different. He was very approachable. And I don’t know if it was me moving into my 30s and not needing the kick up the backside anymore or whether it was just the start of a different type of coaching…but it worked out well for me as I got older that coaches like that started to come through more. Now, I’m probably a hybrid. There are certain standards that boys need to meet if they want to be footballers but I’m certainly trying to understand them more. The other day we lost a game and I was frustrated and was having a go but then I’m thinking, ‘Do they understand what I’m talking about?’ It doesn’t matter what I know, it matters what they know.” 

Screen Shot 2018-12-29 at 15.05.44 Maybury is a student of the game and obsesses over the finer football details. Source: St Johnstone

Maybury makes no qualms about his managerial aspirations. He’s a deep thinker, somebody who pores over finer football details. He is obsessed with the theory and the processes. As an educator, he’s already made plenty of friends in Scotland and his reputation is rising. 

“I’m not sure disappointed is the right word but I think if my career finished and I hadn’t got the chance to become a manager, it would probably be a regret,” he says. 

“I want to stick my neck on the line, whether I’m useless or not. I’d like that opportunity. I think I’m okay as a coach. I think I can be better. I’m working to be better. But I much prefer the tactical side of the game, the planning side, dealing with the people, the problems, the behaviours. Doing my Pro Licence, I had to write a book over the two years of work and I really enjoyed that process. Over 400 pages, nearly 48,000 words. It’s like a university dissertation. All I moan about is structures and my wife said, ‘Why are you coaching at all? Maybe you’d be better as a technical director’, which is a role that’s become more relevant now. I do enjoy being on the pitch but much prefer tactical training than drills. I prefer the problems of a game than training. I’d certainly like to be a manager but I understand you’re relying on someone else to give you that opportunity.”      

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About the author:

Eoin O'Callaghan

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