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Who is the man with the most important job in Irish football?

A look at the early days of Marc Canham and how he rose to the position of Director of Football at the FAI.

Marc Canham was recently named the FAI's new Director of Football.
Marc Canham was recently named the FAI's new Director of Football.

WHO IS Marc Canham?

That is the question many people were asking when it emerged recently that the former player had landed the Football Association of Ireland’s coveted Director of Football role in which he will oversee the country’s youth development structures in the coming years.

The 39-year-old is effectively the successor to Ruud Dokter, albeit the title has changed, with the Dutchman having been referred to as the High-Performance Director.

This job is surely the most important in Irish football — the success (or lack thereof) of youth development pathways will have a bigger influence on the national team’s fortunes than any single senior manager could ever hope to have. 

The recent announcement of Canham’s appointment by the FAI, who declined to comment for this piece, was not greeted with unanimous approval.

Some within the football community felt an Irishman would have been better suited to the role, and ideally, an individual with a deep knowledge of the schoolboy system and the politics that it inevitably entails.

Dokter was far from an unequivocally popular figure during his tenure, with moves such as the switch to summer-time football and the introduction of the national underage leagues proving divisive.

Canham will consequently need all his diplomatic skills to thrive in this notoriously fractious environment.

Yet while he may not be a household name, Canham boasts an impressive CV. He had a job with the Football Association between 2007 and 2012, working in grassroots football with clubs and schools.

He then spent a year as Head of Academy Coaching role at Bristol City, before a nine-year stint with the Premier League starting in 2013. It is his work in the latter organisation that will likely have secured him the position at the FAI.

The release announcing Canham’s new role summarised his previous achievements: “During his nine years with the Premier League, he has been instrumental in the successful implementation of the Premier League’s Elite Player Performance Plan which has led to an increase in the number and quality of home-grown players playing in the Premier League and seen the progression of young home-grown coaches at Academy and First Team level.

“Marc has led many of the transformations in English professional academies, including the creation of bespoke and individualised coach development programmes with clubs, modernisation of coach education and development in partnership with key football stakeholders. He has overseen the implementation of a multi-million-pound programme to appoint a full-time Head of Coaching in every category 1-3 football club, and led the increase of full-time coaches working in professional academies from 250 to over 850. A significant development under Marc’s leadership was the creation of an Integrated Coaching Strategy, where all English professional football partners have committed to a joined-up long-term vision and plan for coaching, education and development, and career pathways for coaches.”

ruud-dokter Canham will effectively replace former FAI High Performance Director Ruud Dokter. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Despite being born in Germany, Canham has spent the majority of his life in England and even represented the latter internationally in futsal.

So how did a relatively young coach get to this prestigious position so swiftly?

It seems inconceivable he would have attained the role so promptly had Canham enjoyed a lengthy and successful career as a professional footballer.

And initially, that appears to have been his goal. Canham started out at Colchester United, making a handful of appearances in Division Two (now League One) between 2002 and 2003.

A subsequent move to Bournemouth, who also played in English football’s third tier at the time, did not prove any more successful, as Canham failed to make a first-team breakthrough with the Cherries.

It was at that point, it seems, that he took stock in relation to his future.

In 2004, Canham moved to the now-defunct Team Bath.

The side had a few semi-professionals involved but largely comprised of students, not dissimilar to UCD in the Premier Division now.

Canham spent five years there while undertaking a foundational degree in sports performance.

“He immediately could be seen as someone who was a leader within that group,” says Greg Sharp, who was sports development coordinator at the time and is now Deputy Director of Sport at the University of Bath.

“A very talented midfielder, he clearly stood out amongst the group he was in as someone who would be a future captain.

“But he was also someone who could see the real benefit of coming to the university. He had a thirst for wanting to learn.”

Often labelled ‘second chance programmes,’ it was an opportunity designed specifically for individuals such as Canham, whose dreams of becoming professional footballers had diminished greatly.

“I think the biggest challenge was the first transition, and we still have that now with footballers dealing with the fact that their dreams might have changed a little bit.

“They’re having to rethink what their opportunities could be for their working future. And that’s probably the hardest transition for those first couple of months of coming to a university, almost dealing with the fact that your first dream now has a lot slimmer chance of actually coming true.”

football-bath-city-v-wrexham-blue-square-premier-twerton-park-1011-30810-marc-canham-bath-city-mandatory-credit-action-images-peter-cziborra Canham pictured during his time as a player with Bath City. Source: Alamy Stock Photo

With Canham to the fore, Team Bath enjoyed significant success, earning several promotions, rising from humble beginnings in the Somerset leagues and eventually ending up in the National League South, which is the sixth tier of the English football pyramid.

“You probably would compare him to that type of Paul Scholes character who could pass incredibly well,” says Sharp. “And when he needed to, would tackle hard. But he was more of a playmaker than a combative midfielder.”

Off the field too, Canham was well-liked.

“I think it was more through a lot of mutual respect for how he went about his training, for how he prepared for matches, for how he was a good team member, rather than being loud or dominant,” says Sharp.

“He was a kind of respected leader through setting good examples that others flocked to him to say, actually, ‘he’s setting the right standards here’. He certainly was very articulate, he could have good conversations about what was going on within the football programme, and raised questions or concerns in a really constructive way.”

After finishing 11th in the National League South, the highest position in their 10-year history, Team Bath were informed that because they were not a limited company, they would be ineligible for further promotions, and could no longer compete in the FA Cup.

They had two choices: restructure or resign from the league, and they opted for the latter.

“We kind of reached a bit of a ceiling, which gave us some challenges around maintaining what we were doing,” says Sharp. “And over time, it just became unsustainable.”

Canham had finished his studies by then anyway and joined Hayes & Yeading United, who played in English football’s fifth tier at the time. This move meant travelling two hours up and two hours back from his home in Bath to the London-based club three times a week for training alone.

The side were then managed by former League of Ireland footballer Garry Haylock.

Their paths had briefly intersected at Colchester, but it was during a short stint as a player with Team Bath that Haylock properly got to know Canham.

football-hayes-yeading-v-fleetwood-town-blue-square-premier-church-road-1011-26311-garry-haylock-hayes-yeading-manager-mandatory-credit-action-images-paul-redding Garry Haylock managed Canham at Hayes and Yeading. Source: Alamy Stock Photo

He remembers Canham as an underrated player who made the most of his abilities.

“His biggest problem was that he wasn’t quick,” Haylock recalls. “He was a strong boy. Good Energy. Great attitude. Got up and down. But didn’t have any pace really.

“When he played for me, he struggled initially, because it was a step up for him. It was Conference football and we weren’t a bad side, we passed the ball quite well. We got promoted the year before.

” But as the season wore on, he kind of came more into the reckoning.

“I think it was Boxing Day, we played Wimbledon. It was the year Wimbledon got promoted to the league. And they beat us 5-0.

“We were 4-0 down at half-time and we had a man sent off. I brought him on in the second half. And he was magnificent. Probably the best 45 minutes of football he ever played for me. And from then on, I think he was pretty much in the team and did really well.

“He had lots going on outside of football and he always struck me as being a really intelligent boy, had a degree and I think the life of a football professional footballer would have been very boring for him.”

Canham, says Haylock, was also a positive influence in the dressing room, even if he was not a particularly vociferous character.

“He wasn’t with the London lads. He wasn’t with the loud ones. He wasn’t with the quiet ones. He was one of those people that was in every group. He was a very good connector. And midfield was a perfect position for him because he linked play really well. 

“It being West London, we had some very loud players. But everybody liked him. He wasn’t one of those that was in the corner on his own. I was a little bit like that as a player. Kind of did okay with everybody but wasn’t really well-liked. And I know that. But Marc was one of those where everybody thought: ‘Oh yeah, he’s a great guy.’”

By this point, Canham was combining playing football with working for the FA.

“He started out as an FA schools coach, literally going into schools, and just doing drills – that’s the job that I do, and always have done. I’ve got my own company that delivers PE in primary schools, and we used to talk sessions, about where it was and what he was doing. And gradually, he progressed. 

“He had a bit more intelligence than the usual kind of coach or footballer. I think he was always destined to be something a little bit more important. He had too much about him. You know when somebody talks and you get a sense that they’ve got a lot to say, and they just need the right vehicle. And going to the Premier League, I know he was head of coaching for a while. He ran the academies. He got some good jobs with the Premier League, and the Premier League is a very unforgiving organisation. If you’re not good enough, they’ll get rid of you. And he’s progressed all the way through and done really well there.”

a-view-of-fai-hq-in-abbotstown Canham will begin his role with the FAI in August. Source: ©INPHO

Canham ultimately spent just one season at Hayes and Yeading. The club opted to go fully professional ahead of the 2010-11 campaign and the player was keen to remain part-time, so they reluctantly agreed to his release.

“My view on him is that I don’t think he was cut out to be a professional footballer,” says Haylock. “Back then, professional football was still a little bit archaic. And I think he was better than that. And I think he would have looked at it and gone: ‘You know what? This is not for me.’ First of all, there wasn’t a huge amount of money available.

“So playing in League One now is a very lucrative business. Whereas back then, all the money was in the Premier League, and that was it.

“I think he’s got more about him, and he would have looked and gone: ‘You know what? That’s not what I want.’

“I never got any sense of him feeling disappointed that things didn’t work out at Colchester or Bournemouth. I’ve had a lot of conversations with him on lots of different subjects, and I don’t think that he would feel any disappointment about that.”

In 2010, Canham signed for Bath City. Mark Stillman, who runs the club’s radio station among other roles, had initially spotted him as a “ball-playing, tidy midfielder” during his Team Bath days.

The club were on the up, having just been promoted to the National League.

“We signed a lot of players that summer — he fitted in very well and it went down well with supporters,” Stillman recalls.

“He was part of our 2010-11 season, we finished 10th in the Conference, which was our highest position for about 20 odd years — we were the highest part-time team in the country. And he played almost every game. 

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“And then the next year, we had the second-season syndrome. We got relegated and then he stayed for the season after, he was more in and out of the team the season after — he made 121 appearances and scored 11 [overall].

“His final season, we were back in the National League South. I wouldn’t say his performances dropped or anything, but I think he had more important things going on and we were only mid-table, it wasn’t a vintage year. He played against Staines at the end of that season, and I think he ran the London Marathon the day after and then didn’t play the week after that.”

65-Canham strong challenge Canham made over 100 appearances for Bath City. Source: Mark Stillman

Off the pitch too, Stillman got to know Canham, who sometimes gave him a lift home after games.

“He used to live in a place called Odd Down, which was about five minutes from the ground. 

“We had some very long midweek away trips, places like Gateshead and so on. So about four in the morning [was sometimes when we got home]. We used to live about a minute from one another.

“But he was very approachable. He had no arrogance at all about him. I thought he was the same with other fans as well, just a genuine, very nice person.

“One of the last conversations I had, I tried to get him to play for my Sunday league team, the season had finished and it was one of those drunken end-of-season things and we still had a game and I said: ‘Oh go on, do it.’ He actually looked me in the eye and said ‘if I wasn’t under contract, I definitely would’. It was a polite ‘no’.”

And what did they talk about during those long car journeys?

“Mainly football, to be honest. And just odd memories. He studied at the University of Bath. So he talked about things like that.

“He used to give a lift to a guy called Danny Webb, who played for us, so they loved to sort of gossip.

“But I could [always] imagine him going into coaching. Just because of the sort of player he was on the pitch — he was very calm, meticulous, good on the ball.

“He always seemed to have that sort of interest in coaching and training. When he played for us, he was probably in his late 20s. So he might have been thinking about it [then]. But as a person, he seemed like somebody who would stick within football and get some sort of role in it elsewhere.”

Canham finished playing after leaving Bath City in 2013 — the Bristol City appointment prompted him to focus solely on coaching.

Haylock, who was also on the same Uefa pro licence course as Canham in 2016, has stayed in touch with the retired footballer and believes he will be a success in the new job.

“I think it’s a fantastic appointment. I’m very surprised that the FAI have been so forward-thinking,” he adds.

“I spent 12 years there. And when I left, I’ve always kept in touch with people [in Irish football]. You talk to these people, there’s always a complaint about the FAI. I know there have been a lot of issues.

“I’d like to think that whoever was giving him the job has looked at it and seen his quality. I’d like to think that it’s by design. But if it’s not and it’s by luck, then you’ve gotten really lucky.”

Canham over ball Canham was regarded as a technically proficient midfielder. Source: Mark Stillman

Haylock adds that Canham will be well aware of the challenges he is set to face in Irish football.

“I think he’ll understand that there are a lot of different factions. You’ve got the grassroots football there that is different to the League of Ireland stuff, it’s different to the international stuff. He’s going to have to pull together a lot of groups, because, from the outside, it looks like a very fractured organisation.

“I know some of the backstories, I absolutely guarantee you that Marc will know the history [of the FAI]. He will do his research — he’ll talk to me and he’ll also talk to everybody else.

“So he’ll have a really good idea going into the job of what it’s going to entail and what he’s going to have to do.”

Haylock continues: “He’s a very well-connected guy, he would know every single Academy director very well. They would have had to go to him for their funding.

“So it was a big operation here where the Premier League goes and assesses academies and makes sure that they’re doing the things that they say they’re doing and put the money in if they are.

“So believe me, Marc will have fantastic connections in England.

“What he’ll do is he’ll get really good people in, he’ll give them the space to do their job and manage the people and get the success that way.

“I can see him down the line being a technical director in Germany, Italy, and England. He’s going to get good jobs. He’s going to progress. And I think he’ll do a fantastic job. I think they’d do well to extend his contract as soon as possible.”

Sharp, similarly, tips Canham to be a success in the new role.

“He’s held that job within the Premier League for a good number of years. And that is a challenging position to hold when you’re dealing with coaches at professional clubs, who are all very adamant about what they believe is the right way to coach and what to do.

“He is someone who will be able to put across his beliefs well. He’ll be receptive to ideas and ways forward. And I think he’ll do some great things.”

- Originally published at 06.30

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Paul Fennessy

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