Academy to first team: Jimmy Shan's lessons in lower league management
Written by Simon Austin — January 18, 2023
BACK in 2019, Jimmy Shan shared his lessons from 13 years of coaching at West Brom, where he'd worked with every age group from the Under-7s through to the first team.
It was a hit and remains a well-read story, even to this day.
A lot has happened to Shan in the three years since. In December 2019, he joined National League North side Kidderminster Harriers as their volunteer interim manager, before taking charge at Solihull Moors in the division above in February 2020.
Then he was appointed assistant to Robbie Stockdale at Rochdale, beginning a turbulent year in League Two. Now he finds himself back with old pal Darren Moore as first-team coach at high-flying Sheffield Wednesday in League One.
Shan had succeeded Moore as the caretaker manager of West Brom in March 2019, leading them to the semi-finals of the Championship play-offs, where they agonisingly lost on penalties to local rivals Aston Villa.
“Some people on the outside might say I've gone downhill after being successful as a caretaker manager at West Brom,” the 44-year-old tells TGG. “I have had a lot of hardship and made a lot of mistakes, but it’s been a fantastic learning environment.
"I think I’m a better coach and person for these experiences - it’s been like going to University. If I ever have another opportunity to manage a club I’ll be better equipped.”
Here are Shan’s five lessons from his three years in lower league management:
1. IT’S A RESULTS BUSINESS
Jimmy Shan: "Coaching in first-team football is different to working at an Academy because of the importance of results. That impacts everything. As a first-team manager you’re never more than two or three matches from the sack, that’s the reality.
My biggest concern at Solihull was actually less for myself than for my assistant, Richard Beale. I had taken him from a really safe job at Aston Villa (where he was U18s coach) to a job at an ambitious club in the National League.
In the back of my head I was thinking, ‘If we get the sack, what if he doesn’t get back into work? I know what his severance is. He’s got a wife and two kids.’
Ultimately we did get the sack (in March 2021), because we hadn’t won in eight games. We just drew too many - although we were six points off the play-offs with two games in hand.
Myself and Richard are both very passionate about developing players, that’s our background, but the pressure of results in first-team football means this isn’t always at the forefront, especially if you're hit with five or six injuries to key players, like we were.
I’ll give you another example of the difference between Academy and first-team football - set plays. In the Academy at West Brom, we didn't emphasise set plays.
We would go up with a structure, don't get me wrong, but we felt our contact time on the grass should be spent building game understanding and developing the players as individuals.
In senior football, set plays are crucial. A lot of teams will play for a set play and that will be their key moment in the game, especially if they’re going to defend deep or in a low block.
It just doesn’t float my boat. Fortunately Richard loves set plays and got a buzz from putting a lot of detail into that area for us at Solihull. That's the beauty of having a coaching team - you can delegate and play to different strengths."
2. MANAGING UP
"Speaking to experienced managers, this is something they do very well - they manage up. Sometimes you have to play the game as well, by agreeing with things you don’t actually agree with, so long as it doesn’t going against your core principles.
Looking back, I didn’t manage up as well as I should have at Solihull. I’m talking chairman, owners, people in senior positions - you need to keep them in the loop.
Simple things like making a phone call on a Friday afternoon - ‘Mr Chairman, we’ve had a really good working week. This is what we’ve done - we’ve prepared the team to play like this and this is the reason why. See you tomorrow.'
You go through the interview process to get the job in the first place. You’re in the room because they want a coach of your ilk. You explain how you’re going to play, how you work, show them video clips of your previous games and training sessions.
The communication shouldn't stop there and some of the onus is on you to do that, as the Head Coach or manager. Any owner, Chairman or Director of Football just wants to be kept in the loop and I didn’t do that as well as I could have.
Communicating with the fans is a big one, too. Lots of fans want to change the manager because they don't feel involved. Clapping the fans after a game and thanking them for their support, talking to them, maybe holding events - these are all ways of involving them and it’s massive.
At Solihull it was difficult because of Covid. We played behind closed doors, had no fans and were limited in terms of how we could engage with them.
At Rochdale, our transfer embargo wasn’t made public knowledge by the board and that was a big hindrance to us as a technical staff, because the fans don’t see the full picture of what’s going on and why. In any industry there needs to be transparency."
3. BUY YOURSELF TIME
"Two of my main remits at Solihull Moors were to change the brand of football and to reduce the average age of the squad. The team had been successful under Tim (Flowers) by playing a direct brand of football where set plays and crosses were very important.
When I arrived there was a desire to be more dominant in possession and to control games with the ball. These things take time and I made a mistake by saying (at the start of 2020/21), ‘We’ll get promoted this season. That was naive and I raised the level of expectation too far.
We also had two Covid stints and some injuries to key players. Maybe I should have bought myself time by saying to the Chairman and the fans, ‘This is going to be a transitional season.’
Results will always be key at first-team level, as I've said, but clubs still need to afford managers time to evolve their sides and to embed their principles, if that's what they want.
Lots of clubs are saying that they want entertaining football AND to bring young players through the system. This is hard to do and you need patience and time to develop that team.
At Solihull there were players who had been under the previous manager who were still under contract. When I arrived, their game completely changed.
You’re suddenly asking a central midfielder to come and link and support and be able to receive the ball and change the point of attack instead of the ball going off the front man and playing for the regain.
I’ve seen plenty of players that get in the first-team environment, their form dips and then they’re out of the fold. And within 12 to 18 months they’re out the game altogether. They need the opportunity but also the time to find their rhythm. Talent can’t be ignored, but it needs to meet an opportunity.
As a manager, you often don’t feel you can afford that time though.
The level of expectation at clubs that invest heavily goes with the territory. At Solihull there's a drive to become a Football League club, which will enable them to grow even further.
But it's still very tough to get out of the National League, with only one team going up automatically and one via the play-offs."
4. DO YOUR DUE DILIGENCE
"At Rochdale I probably jumped in too quick without doing enough due diligence. Maybe Robbie (Stockdale) did too.
I’d done my Pro Licence with Robbie and had a really good feel for him and had heard some really good things about him from people at West Brom (where Stockdale was first-team coach under Sam Allardyce).
But I just jumped straight in without knowing what I was going into. I didn’t realise it was a fan-owned club and that several hostile takeovers had affected the running of the club.
A transfer embargo was slapped on us within four or five days of arriving and the training facilities weren’t as good as we expected them to be. We shared the training ground with a lacrosse team, so the best we could get in terms of football markings was half a pitch.
We went from November to March having no real relative size area to do practices. Everything had to be done in small areas or on a 3G. This was a big hindrance, especially when you want to play a certain brand of football and do a lot of work tactically.
A rugby league team (Rochdale Hornets) shared the stadium, so we were only able to train there five or six times during our time there.
There was also no recruitment team and we didn’t have anyone out scouting. We were around the play-offs at Christmas time (in 2021/22) and lost our two best players - Jake Beesley to Blackpool and Aaron Morley to Bolton - but there was nobody next on the list.
So we were trying to fit in watching bits and pieces on Wyscout, while preparing, playing and reviewing games on the Saturday-Tuesday-Saturday-Tuesday cycle.
There are some great people at the club. The owners were fans and had done an amazing job; the players worked hard and the staff were good. The analysis boys, Callum Jones (now at Burnley) and Adam Walton (now at Blackpool), were as good as any I’ve worked with.
But there were things I would have known if I'd done my due diligence."
5. STAY TRUE TO YOUR CORE PRINCIPLES
"There are differences when you’re coaching in Academy rather than first-team football; there are differences as you go lower down the leagues.
Some things remain fundamental though and I have core principles I will always stick to. I’m passionate about coaching, player development and performance.
And I’ve found that players are eager to develop, no matter their age or the level they’re playing at. At Solihull, a lot of the players had come through an Academy and were used to a learning environment.
Here at Sheffield Wednesday, Michael Smith has pulled me two or three times asking to go through his clips and data. He’s 31, but still has that real thirst to improve his game, which goes hand in hand with us as coaches, because we are developers.
When we deliver post-match, it’s a classroom session, but it’s as important as a grass-based one because there’s a lot of learning, developing and evolving. This isn't always driven by a coach.
As you move down the leagues there is a different tactical challenge for you as coach, but I’d actually say that coaching in the Championship is easier.
Go League One, League Two and lower and the game is more transitional. In the Championship and Premier League there is more control, there’s more pattern and it’s easier to assess from a tactical perspective.
You can formulate a game plan off that. In the National League, there are lots of random patterns. Stephen Gleeson was a player of high calibre who we had at Solihull. He couldn’t get his head around the fact that when he got the ball and secured possession, the press just kept coming and people crashed into him.
If you're defending 1v1 in the Championship, you get as close to your opponent as quickly as you can, but when they secure possession you stop. That comes down to decision-making really. Saying that, there are some very talented players in the National League, which is why you see a lot of Championship and Premier League scouts at games.
As a coach, I’ve always had an 80/20 focus - focus 80% on your own game model and how you play, but be adaptable. If you’re going to be an 80/20 coach you have to make sure your principles can adapt immediately. Ultimately, football is about space exploitation, that is the game.
When a team tweak their formation and style, it tweaks where the space is. Then it’s about you as a coaching staff being able to work out where the space is and how to exploit it and relaying that to your team.
I’ve coached at every level from National League North to Premier League. I’ve gone from Premier League to Championship to National League as a volunteer to League Two, League One. Hopefully I’m on that upward path, because I want to eventually work in the Premier League with the best players, to challenge myself as much as I can on a tactical level.
I definitely want another opportunity at managing, to prove I can be a success, because I believe I can."