BE PART OF THE TEAM

Access exclusive podcasts, interviews and analysis with a monthly or annual membership

Become A Member
Dublin: 10°C Monday 10 May 2021
Advertisement

The man guiding Ireland's youngsters on a career spent learning from Dalglish, Shearer and others

Jim Crawford reflects on the many individuals and circumstances that have influenced his coaching style.

Jim Crawford was appointed Ireland U21s boss last year.
Jim Crawford was appointed Ireland U21s boss last year.
Image: Stephen McCarthy/SPORTSFILE

23 YEARS AGO, Jim Crawford found himself sitting in Kenny Dalglish’s office.

Over the course of three injury-ridden years, he had made two Premier League appearances for Newcastle, one of which was during a famous 4-3 loss to Liverpool in 1997.

The Magpies manager was honest with Crawford, telling him he didn’t have a future at the club.

The news may have stung at the time, but Crawford is grateful to Dalglish now.

“His honesty is something I always appreciate. He didn’t keep me hanging on. But what he did have for me is some sort of plan going forward. He sent me on loan and eventually, I got an opportunity at Reading FC.”

Crawford and Dalglish remain on friendly terms to this day — the Irish coach met up with the Liverpool legend and had a chat when he was over in Dublin a couple of years ago.

Dalglish’s straightforward manner and innate honesty has had an influence on Crawford’s own coaching career.

“It’s something I always ask of my players, knock on the manager’s door: ‘What do I need to do to get into your first team?’ That’s where you’re expecting a bit of honesty, because at least a road map is created for that player to work on certain aspects of his game.

“Sometimes, the honesty isn’t what a player wants to hear, but on reflection, even that conversation I had with Kenny Dalglish, I look back and say: ‘Yeah, I probably needed that conversation sooner.’ But at least it happened, and it gave me a focus on where I should go next.”

***

The 47-year-old coach, born in Chicago to Irish parents, has come a long way since those days as an inexperienced youngster at Newcastle.

He is currently in the midst of preparing the Ireland U21 team’s European Championship qualifying campaign, which will begin with a double-header of away games against Bosnia & Herzegovina and Luxembourg in September.

The friendly away to Wales later this month will be the first time the team have played together since they narrowly missed out on qualifying in the last Euros campaign.

soccer-alan-shearer-joins-newcastke-united Alan Shearer greets the fans after signing for Newcastle. Source: PA

Crawford carries the valuable lessons learned during his playing career to this day, such as studying Alan Shearer around the time he first arrived at Newcastle.

“I was injured and you’re told: ‘Look, Jim, you’re going to have to come back [for rehab] at two o’clock, because we need to do something.

“All of a sudden, there was news that Alan Shearer was coming to town and they had to get a medical out of the way. A couple of days later, [the transfer] was announced, he came in and had an aura about him, he was a confident man. He was extremely friendly, he had a great manner. But then when he got on the training pitch, you saw his true worth. He celebrated every goal he scored in training like it was a competitive game. It meant so much to him, scoring goals.

“That’s what I try to tell players now — working with somebody like him, every aspect of training was important. If it was working on holding the ball up in five-a-side games, it was important to him.

“But probably the biggest thing was when we played a game in a pre-season tournament against Everton. He got a nasty injury on his ankle. It kept him out for quite a while, but he made demands to the medical team: ‘I’ll come in in the morning, but I also want to come in in the afternoon,’ even in the third session, to help strengthen up his ankle. So just the drive, determination and desire to get back to doing what he does best, I learned a lot from it.

“His standards hit the roof, and you only have to look back at his career — captain of England, what he did at Newcastle, what he’s doing now in the media and with various charities, he works with children with disabilities, I just think he’s a fantastic fella.”

After Crawford’s stint at Newcastle ended, he spent two years at Reading, working under the late former Celtic star Tommy Burns — another big influence on his coaching career — during his time with the Royals.

Yet at the lower-tier club, injuries once again prevented Crawford from fulfilling his potential.

“When I was a player, it was nearly [solely down to the] relationship between the player and the physio. ‘How are you feeling?’ ‘Yeah, I’m feeling good.’

“I just always wanted to train. I wasn’t really interested in the whole prehab, or strengthening up the area that was affected.

“It’s not like that now. Players are more aware of prehab programmes and what have you. To maintain working programmes on the injured area that they have, the education now really is good. I do wish it was around in my time.

“If I reflect on England, the lowest moments I had were when I was injured and I suppose you’re given so much time to think then, you’re not enjoying it and being on a treatment table isn’t what you came over for. It just wasn’t a nice experience. That’s probably why I wanted to get back onto the training pitch [so hastily].”

After Reading, Crawford returned to the League of Ireland, signing with Shelbourne, having initially made a name for himself early on in his career at Bohemians. It was that era where he had by far his best spell in terms of game time and trophies, winning a remarkable haul of four league titles during the early ’00s glory days of the Tolka Park outfit.

Yet just as significantly, it was the club’s then-manager, Pat Fenlon, who asked him to look after the underage side for a period, thereby giving him a taste for the coaching career that would follow.

***

shelbourne-v-st-patricks-athletic Jim Crawford pictured during his time at Shels. Source: SPORTSFILE

After seven years and over 200 appearances for Shels, Crawford’s playing swansong came amid a brief stint with Sporting Fingal in 2008.

That same year, he got his first senior coaching job, taking on a caretaker role in charge of Shamrock Rovers, after Pat Scully departed as manager.

“It was a difficult challenge. One thing I did learn was the whole thing about the performance gap. What is required in a job like that and where I was at that particular time. What I took from it is loads of learnings: ‘This is what I need to do to get to where I want to go.’

“When you get into that role, you see that it’s not only the training pitch where you need to excel, it’s dealing with players, the board, the media, the medical team, so many strands that I had to address going forward if I wanted to pursue a career in being a head coach. It was a great experience and there’s one thing about having the experience, but you’ve got to learn from it.”

In 2009, Niall Harrison gave Crawford the opportunity to get involved with the FAI’s Emerging Talent Programme, as he spent one day a week coaching the country’s youngsters around the Dublin and Wicklow areas.

While Crawford was grateful for the chance, he believed the system was ultimately somewhat flawed.

“We always felt that one day a week wasn’t enough. I know there was that whole issue where these lads still needed to train with their schoolboy clubs too, that was brought into question, [with them] saying ‘when can we find time to work with our own players’.

“I wish I could say there was a massive change where we started getting them twice or three times a week, and we can give the players back to the clubs for the weekend, but it never happened. I could see the point of view of the schoolboy clubs where they wanted the players in their environment for the maximum time as well.

“So was there a big difference [between when I started and finished in 2016]? No. But it definitely made a difference to my thinking in terms of when I first coached there to the end, in terms of what really needed to happen.”

The ETP job led to more opportunities. Around the same period, Crawford spent five years as Ireland U19s assistant coach, and then another three as head coach of the U18s. He subsequently spent a year as assistant to Stephen Kenny with the U21s, before graduating to manager last April when his colleague took charge of the senior team.

While now overseeing separate sides, Crawford and Kenny still speak regularly, as do all the other Irish underage coaches during their regular meet-ups.

“We’re all talking about the way we want to play: ‘What does that look like?’ How do we get to our end goal, which is to qualify for tournaments, playing football in the right manner?

“Stephen has been central to that in a lot of the conversations, but there’s no doubt that from 15s all the way up, we understand the way we want to play with regard to principles. With regard to formations, sometimes you have to be flexible. In the meetings we have with all the managers, it’s hugely important that we’re all on the same hymn sheet. We can throw out ideas to each other and that’s what football is about, it’s sharing ideas and methods.”

***

republic-of-ireland-u21s-training-session Crawford pictured with Troy Parrott. Source: Harry Murphy/SPORTSFILE

One of the key issues facing Crawford and other Irish coaches for the foreseeable future will be dealing with the ramifications on Brexit on football.

Young Irish players now must wait until they turn 18 before joining British clubs, whereas previously, this age limit was not enforced.

Recently, The42 spoke to David Collins, father of Nathan, the Ireland U21 defender currently thriving at Stoke and one of the many young footballers who benefited from moving to the Potters’ academy at an early age.

Collins Sr expressed concern that future equivalents of his son might suffer as a result of not being able to go away to England, while suggesting establishing a Premier League-standard academy in Ireland as one potential solution to the problem. Does Crawford ever see this idea panning out?

“I definitely think [the Brexit rule] gives us an opportunity to develop our academies over here. I know that there has been a survey that went out to the academies. So it will give us an opportunity to [identify] what we have here now compared with the leading countries in Europe.

“I agree that we still have a lot of work to do. We need to be creative in our thinking, to say: ‘Okay, the players can’t go to the UK. Is there a way we can forge relationships with European clubs?’

“We do have a few players over in European clubs at the minute. Everybody would have seen Jack Byrne excelling playing in Holland, I know Conor Noss with the 21s, he’s over in Germany, and a few others. So why not look at that avenue?

“But one thing is for sure — we need to get our infrastructure right, our facilities right, and we need to make sure the quality of coaching in our academies is right.

“I’d be concerned with the length of time our seasons run at the underage groups compared with [other] countries that develop players, and I’d say we’re a little bit behind with regards contact hours and weeks. 

“We’re weeks behind category two teams in Europe, so that needs to be addressed. I’d imagine we need to have the FAI and clubs collaborate to come out with ideas.

“There is a gap here now — players that used to go at 16 can now not go until they’re 18 years old. How can we [compensate for] that? I know there’s a transition year course over in Corduff, which clubs might look to mirror, because the work that’s going on there is excellent. It’s being led by Denis Hyland and Martin Doyle, my performance analyst with the U21s. We probably need more of that being rolled out throughout the country. It’s not the answer, but it’s a step in the right direction.

Be part
of the team

Access exclusive podcasts, interviews and analysis with a monthly or annual membership.

Become a Member

“The likes of Jason Knight, Adam Idah, Jayson Molumby — had they stayed here playing for Cork, Waterford or Cabinteely, would they be the players they are now? I don’t know.

“But we just need to work together. These are our players. And not just the FAI’s, schoolboy, League of Ireland, these are players that we’re all developing. There’s a lot of hard work ahead. I do know behind the scenes, there are people working relentlessly to make sure that it’s addressed, and it’s from all different levels — touching base with the government, can we get more assistance with funding, that’s something else that needs to be put on the table if we’re going to help these players develop to their full potential.”

republic-of-ireland-u21s-training-session Crawford watches the Irish players train. Source: Matt Browne/SPORTSFILE

With England no longer an option, moving to top clubs in Spain and Italy is another potential avenue for Irish youngsters. Shamrock Rovers starlet Kevin Zefi is one player who may avail of this route, as he is reportedly on the verge of sealing a move to Inter Milan.

Crawford acknowledges, though, that it is a “big ask” expecting any 16-year-old not just to move to another country, but one in which they don’t even speak the same language.

“We need to have a case study too,” he says. “If somebody does go over, what was their experience like at a young age, does the family go over with them? I don’t know. Would it be Kevin Zefi to Italy? Could we see how that goes if it does happen?”

Another challenge for Crawford and his fellow Irish coaches that is likely to be a major talking point in the coming years is the attempted recruitment of dual nationality players.

There have been plenty of cases already, most notably Jack Grealish and Declan Rice, both of whom switched allegiance to England, after impressing with Ireland at underage level.

In January, Crawford revealed he had held talks with Irish-eligible John Joe Patrick Finn, the 17-year-old who has already made his La Liga debut with Getafe, with the midfielder also attracting interest from Spain and England.

“First and foremost, you ask the player: ‘Would you like to play with Ireland?’ And they’ve got to give you the right answer. You can’t just pick up a player, develop them for a number of years and then all of a sudden, he decides to leave. I don’t think that can happen.

“I don’t know the answer to [how often it will crop up in future], but if we don’t do our work as a football community, with Brexit here too, it might be the case where we’re approaching more players with dual citizenship. 

“But we can’t dismiss talent. If a player is good enough, then he’s worth going after, dual citizenship or not, but the first question is: ‘Does it interest you to play for Ireland?’ That’s key. If I get any type of negative feeling from it, my judgement would be reserved on that particular player. Has it happened yet? No. Any player I’ve spoken to, they’re keen, but they also want to take their time too.”

***

soccer-fa-carling-premiership-coventry-city-v-newcastle-united Crawford worked under Kenny Dalglish at Newcastle. Source: EMPICS Sport

‘Humble’ is a word that has been used by others in football to describe Crawford, and that quality comes across, both in dealing with him on a personal level and when you look closely at his career path and the habits he has acquired during his time in the game.

The former Newcastle player, like many renowned coaches, comes across as someone with an insatiable appetite for learning.

Crawford claims to have taken something from every coach he worked with in football and gives the impression that he is not about to let up just because he happens to now have one of the most high-profile managerial jobs available in this country.

When he is not busy with international camps, Crawford will sometimes ask League of Ireland clubs if he can help out with their underage sides.

“You’re not on the grass anywhere near as much as you want to be when you’re a head coach of an international team. So it’s something I’m passionate about, I love coaching and if I’ve got the time, I’ll certainly contact clubs and ask: ‘Would it be alright if I come down?’

“I might have an idea that I’d like to see implemented and see what way it goes, or if I can tweak it, before I go into camp.

“I’ll get around the country and help anybody. It could be a two-way thing, I’ll sit and chat with the coaches of a particular club about the session, or about certain aspects of international football, or learning about different formations and methodologies we came up against. So I want to help coaches in the community learn, create and develop an even bigger passion than what already exists there. We’re all important to the overall development of players, all of us.”

Having completed the Uefa badges, in addition to all the experience he has garnered from coaching and playing, Crawford now wants to put some of the knowledge he has accrued over the years back into the domestic game.

“It’s been an amazing challenge, learning with peers who are equally as passionate and thirsty for footballing knowledge,” he says.

An eternal student, Crawford has recently taken further steps to enhance his understanding of sport, beginning a master’s degree in applied coaching science at the University of Limerick.

“It’s opened my eyes even further where you’re going really to a different level of the science behind coaching,” he says.

“It’s a journey at the minute where I still have loads to learn and I think everybody does.

“[Former Ireland boss] Mick McCarthy would have been somebody that came into our pro licence and spoke. He said he’s got more to learn now than he first thought he had to when he was accepted into coaching. I see where he’s coming from with that statement.”

About the author:

Paul Fennessy

Read next:

COMMENTS (3)

This is YOUR comments community. Stay civil, stay constructive, stay on topic. Please familiarise yourself with our comments policy here before taking part.
write a comment

    Leave a commentcancel