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MUST READ! Pre-Season: Decisions, Decisions!

Preseason for many non-league footballers is a period of uncertainty. Social media goes on overdrive at this time of year as players “consider their options”, managers need to recharge their phones before lunchtime and fans get used to seeing A. Triallist making a regular appearance in preseason friendlies, writes Webblyhead.

There are approx. 15,000 squad places up for grabs in the non league game down to Step 6. The National League now includes somewhere in the region of 25 full time clubs where some players will have signed on 2 year deals but even at this level, players are generally working from one season to the next at best.

As a player I’d say I saw anywhere between 30 and 50 players appear during a pre-season before the gaffer whittled down his squad to 17 or 18 players. Many turned up looking a million dollars with a string of options that all seemed to vanish in to thin air before the season kicked off, a few senior players just got on with things knowing they were nailed on starters and everyone else had to jostle for position.

I get phone calls for advice from players and managers from time to time on this subject and it appears to me that the “noise” around pre-season is getting more and more hectic, speculation and small talk is even more rife than ever now and new social media accounts are setting up all the time to “discuss” the matter. It all seems to confuse people.

So assuming a player is somewhere near the required standard, what factors does he consider before deciding where he wants to play his football? Does he really understand what’s going on and has he done his homework? Does he even know what he wants? A young player might be keen to progress, a more experienced player might want to help youngsters develop and start to think about coaching. Some players only think about money and use football as a critical income stream, others only want to win trophies and some want to play in an environment that doesn’t demand too much of them. Everyone is different but here are a few things to think about.

Level

Generally I’d always advise a serious young footballer to play at the highest level they can if they want to. Challenge usually enhances development, rewards are usually bigger financially and it may be a springboard to the full time game.

Sometimes though a step down is not always a backward step. If a club lower down is ambitious and run properly, maybe being part of a winning team will help your own progression as a player or enhance your own enjoyment. Staying with a team that is not so glamorous that little bit longer can really help young players to gain confidence, whilst going to a bigger club too early can sometimes hinder progression.

Young players usually want to play at the highest level – but if a kid has struggled to get into a mid table Step 6 side, it’s not usually worth turning up hoping to try out at a Step 3 side. Glory and attention at a bigger club might look good on your Twitter account but if it isn’t real it means nothing. Aim high but prove yourself capable of doing it where you are before you move on! It’s also not worth going somewhere where you’re likely to be on the bench unless you are patient, disciplined enough to stay fit and have the right coaching staff who will help you improve and give you opportunities when the time is right.

Coaching staff

There was a time when almost every coach or manager was alike. Hard nosed, tough and demanding. They expected end product from you and generally didn’t coach individuals – sink or swim. Nowadays, gaffers can represent many different things. Some are still old school (and successful), some are forward thinking coaches who tend to focus heavily on tactical understanding and science, some are more teachers or mentors and some are mix of all of these characteristics.

Very few have the time to make a special case for you as an individual – they usually have full time jobs and families so the 20 hours or so they devote to football a week need to be focused on the collective, not individuals. However, some develop a reputation for improving players and some develop quite the opposite reputation. It’s a results business generally, so neither is necessarily wrong. But it could be wrong for you. Players who are used to more attention might find it hard to cope in an environment where it is often a case of dog eat dog. On the other hand, it might be the making of a young player. Either way, it pays to know what sort of approach the coaching staff take.

Most coaches will make statements like “we try to bring young players through” or “this is a good place for young players to learn their trade”, but the reality is very few actually invest time in the players as individuals on and off the pitch. The best coaches can do it all ie recruit the right players/characters, improve them, create a great team and win trophies. There are not many of them about though, because if they can do all that they usually move up in the game. And if a manager tends to get through 30, 40 or even more players in a season, you know what sort of experience you’re likely to get. Be warned! There are way too many clubs where this happens.

Coaches and managers have to pick their clubs just as players do, and sometimes the coach is only able to work in a certain way because of the environment the club can provide. Maybe certain things can be transformed by a gaffer who is a great leader, but sometimes the club’s fundamentals define the type of experience a player or a coach will get.

The club itself

There are some obvious points to make here to start off with. If a club is on its backside, in a particularly bad state of repair and clearly hasn’t got a pot to piss in, a player should always be wary of anyone from that club promising the earth.

Even more obvious, sometimes the pitch itself is a good place to start. If it’s a small pitch, maybe one that doesn’t drain well and ends up boggy in winter and a dust bowl come April, a young player used to playing lovely passing football on 3G or bowling green grass surfaces might want to think again. On the other hand, speaking a little from experience (!!), those less talented but more forceful and single minded players might prove to be effective playing home games at a club like that.Location is important too – footballers need to be willing to travel a bit to progress. That’s life, be ready for it. But be realistic – signing a two year deal at a club 2 hours’ drive away is gonna take some serious planning around other commitments and a good breakdown policy for your motor!

Often with clubs though there is one factor that determines the quality of the environment and any success that can be achieved – money.

Money

It’s a dirty word, and it is indeed the root of much that is evil in the game, but if you are involved in the non league football, it’s a factor you cannot ignore.For clubs, they need a budget to be competitive. Most struggle to make ends meet without having a sustainable model or plan whilst some throw money at it. The best clubs IMO have a good balance of sustainable revenues coming through perhaps supplemented by owners or benefactors who can stretch the budget a little if needed.

I always find it fascinating when a club at, say, Step 3 survives year in year out on a relatively small budget (circa £1500) at that level, when a club a few miles down the road is playing at Step 5 with a budget almost twice that figure, and failing to achieve promotion. Players at the respective clubs will face different challenges and pressures, the style of football at the higher ranked club may be more direct and obviously the financial rewards for the players there are lower. At the lower ranked club the player turnover may be higher and certainly the pressure to deliver is greater because of the money. It might suit some players to do it that way and not others.I don’t think it’s wrong for a player to go to a club with a sugar daddy where the money might dry up overnight – each player has a different life and significantly more money is hard to turn down for most.

What I would urge every player not to do though is jump for an extra 10 or 20 quid unless they are absolutely sure that there is a very good reason to do so, other than the money.I subscribe to the mantra that if you focus on your football and keep your head down, the money will come. If you focus on the money there is a chance your football will not progress.

Glory

No, I’m not talking about the number of Twitter followers you have. I’m talking about winning leagues, promotions and trophies. Some, few as they may be, are in it for the glory – to be a winner and to be a part of dressing rooms that “get over the line”. To be honest, there are less of these characters around these days, and that’s a shame.If you think there’s a chance you can be part of winning dressing room, travel that bit further for it, accept that the dressing room won’t be all cosy and full of friends who’ve known each other for years, know that the pressure will be greater and embrace all of it. Winning is a habit – one I sadly didn’t experience enough of as a player – and I’ve seen teams and individuals pick up trophy after trophy. If you get the chance – and let’s face it only one team out of 20+ can win a league – grab it with both hands. Winning should most definitely not be a dirty word.There’s an awful lot of vanity about footballers – we all like to see our name in lights – and social media has just amplified that side of things. I’d urge players to think about what they want, and why a club might be right for them. Saying you’re gonna go to a higher level doesn’t just happen. It takes hard work, ability, sacrifice physically, mentally and socially. If deep down you don’t want to sacrifice then go play with your pals and enjoy it…nothing wrong with that if you’re honest with yourself and others.I’d also say that in many cases, you might be better off just getting your head down and enjoying your football where you are.

In my opinion most players are capable of improving the level they play at but the ones who take the time to enjoy a season or two at a settled club where they get regular football in a team that improves it’s performances over time are doing the right thing.

But if you want to kick on, think about what you want from the game and do some research. Pictures on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram showing pictures of you shaking hands with the new gaffer and you thanking everyone who has played a part in your career (at the grand age of 19) can wait…..and so can all the posts about bloody Love Island.

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