David Adams: The four pillars of Wales’ High Performance Strategy
Written by Simon Austin — May 24, 2022
LAST weekend Wales unveiled a High Performance Strategy which they hope will propel both their men’s and women’s teams towards regular appearances at World Cup finals and Euros.
The ultimate architect is David Adams, who was promoted to Chief of Football last month after almost three years as the country's Technical Director.
Adams’ remit includes responsibility for “the entire player development ecosystem”, which is all national teams, boys and girls, right through from 13s to the senior sides, as well as support services.
“We want to get the best talent into our programmes and make sure we give them the best service possible to give them the best chance to get into our national teams,” the Welshman told TGG.
The High Performance Strategy, which was launched at the National Coaches’ Conference at Celtic Manor last weekend, aims to “bring all the different disciplines and areas of work together under one plan.”
There are four pillars, as Adams, a former Head of Coaching at Swansea and Everton and assistant manager at Middlesbrough, explained:
1. Talent ID & Retention
This strand is led by Gus Williams, the National Talent Identification Manager for the Football Association of Wales (FAW). Williams has worked for the Association for 22 years and been in his current role of the last decade.
The scope has changed massively in that time.
“When we started off with Gus in that Talent ID role we only engaged seven or eight clubs and our players came predominantly from Swansea, Cardiff, Newport and Wrexham,” Adams said. “We are now engaged with 96 clubs, so a lot has been developed through relationships."
The FAW runs a regional system that sees players selected for north and south Wales from the ages of 13 to 15 on the boys' side. This has been hugely important in both identifying and then retaining talent.
“Eighty per cent of the players who started our last match of the World Cup qualifying campaign (a 2-1 win over Austria on March 24th) had started in our regional programme at the age of 13,” Adams revealed.
“We use the regional system as a way to identify the most talented players before filtering them through our pathway to the 15s, 16, 17s, 18s, 19s, 21s and seniors. They're only with us for about 15 days over two years as part of that regional system, but it brings these players in early and we can make them feel part of something.
"We’ve got a strong culture and they learn to sing the anthem and so on. So if Scotland, say, come knocking for a player at 16 they are less likely to take that step because they have already built strong relations with us. They feel part of something bigger than just playing football."
Identifying dual-eligible players is also important, as the likes of Ethan Ampadu and David Brooks have shown. This is where good relationships with the clubs and strong scouting are key.
"Clubs will send us lists of players that are Welsh eligible and we will put them into our regional programmes," Adams said. "And Gus has a team of people who work part-time for us in England and Wales going out and watching players who could come into that regional programme.”
2. Person-Centred Support Services
Head of Performance Tony Strudwick, Medical Service Manager Sean Connolly and Head of Performance Analysis Esther Wills oversee this pillar.
Performance-centred support includes nutrition, psychology, medicine and physical performance. The arrival of Strudwick in June 2018 has been key. He is regarded as the godfather of sport science in British football, having been the Head of Performance for England, Manchester United and now Arsenal's Academy.
“Struds was the one who gave us the appetite to get this high performance strategy moving,” Adams agreed. “He will be one of those responsible for person-centred support services, bringing them together and getting the alignment.”
There’s an interesting question here about how much impact national teams are able to have on performance when they are essentially borrowing players from their clubs, who do the bulk of this work.
England’s former Head of Performance and Strategy Dave Reddin addressed this on the TGG Podcast. Reddin worked for The FA for five years from 2014 and discovered a governing body that was passive in its performance strategy.
“When I arrived, we had no philosophy of physical development, no standpoint of what we were all about," Reddin remembered. "Players would come in and we would do whatever they already had been doing. That’s certainly a strategy but it’s a passive strategy. You’re essentially saying, 'we’ve got what we’re given’.”
Adams said the FAW's stance is to respect the work the clubs are doing regarding physical performance and add value where possible.
"It’s about us recognising that the club is the most important driver of the player development process and respecting that and adding value," he said. “The most important thing we can do really is build relationships with the clubs, which is what our youth national team staff do in between camps.
"They go into clubs and spend time with the coaches and players to understand and link the learning from the club into the international arena. That’s the best model, to do things collaboratively rather than separately.
"Ultimately we’re trying to do the same thing, which is improve the player. One of our big drivers of the strategy is engagement between the club, player and association, making sure that triangle is as tight as possible. Then you give the player the best opportunity to progress.”
As well as players, the FAW borrows staff from the clubs too. Examples are men's sport scientist Ronan Kavanagh, whose full-time job is as Head of Academy Performance at Nottingham Forest, and men's physio James Haycock, who is Head Physio at Crystal Palace.
“We’ve got a full-time staff in our youth national teams from 15s to 21s, which gives consistency, but we still borrow staff from clubs in our support services," Adams admitted. "Part of my role is to make sure we have a closer alignment between these disciplines and that the staff who come onto camp are at least following the protocols we feel are important."
3. Effective Pathways for Progression
This pillar is all about managing the national player pathway: from grassroots to the regional system to the national youth teams and then to the senior side, for both the girls and boys.
Research by the FAW has revealed that successful international players have usually played extensively for their countries at youth level.
“We know that across European football you need, on average, between 30 and 35 international caps in the youth years to successfully transition to a senior player on the boys’ side," Adams said.
“So cap accumulation is a key consideration for us. If we have a really talented player in the 15s then we try and ensure we give them that international experience to be able to make that successful transition.”
Head of Player Development Richard Williams is the lead for this third pillar. The fact that both the men's senior manager, Rob Page, and women's, Gemma Grainger (pictured below), have extensive experience at the development ages helps his work.
Page was formerly Wales U17 and U19 boss, while Grainger worked with the U17, U19 and U20 teams during her time with the English FA.
Adams said: "My role is to make sure the national team coaches are aware of the players coming through the pathway and that we have regular dialogue, so when we’re mapping a player’s journey out we can see there is an opportunity for them all the way through.
"We’ve always done that really well on the men’s side, recruiting and developing players and giving them cap accumulation at youth level and giving them the opportunity to transition smoothly into the senior side.
"The important thing is that Rob understands the player pathway very well, which is great, because he’s worked with our 21s. It’s a very easy relationship with him because he’s an advocate of youth development."
There is a big focus on the girls' and women's games as well.
"We’re trying to grow the girls' game to 20,000 players in the next four years," Adams said. "At the moment we’re at about 12,000. We need to get more girls from the pathway teams into our national teams."
There is a national girls' Academy system, with matches arranged against boys' teams that are two years younger.
"The girls’ Academy model is a big driver for us and they train twice a week in north and south Wales and play two years down in the boys' Academy system - so the U16s play the boys' U14s sides like Connah's Quay and Bala Town," Adams explained.
"We have found they’re at physically a similar level. The 16s playing 14s boys has been difficult but the 14s against the 12s has been a lot tighter. The first six months were difficult but the second six months were closer.
"You need to drive that physical area in the girls' game because it’s really important at international level. That’s something we’ve tried for the last 12 months and we’ve had good feedback."
4. The Coaching System
This pillar is about "preparing and developing coaches through our world-class coaching system to connect with their players and deliver high performance" and is led by Adams and FAW Head of Coach Education Carl Darlington.
Wales have already proven themselves to be world class in coach education.
“As an Association, we want to be thought leaders in certain areas," Adams said. "Coach education is the one where we are. Uefa are always coming to us to share best practice. That is one of our unique selling points as an Association.”
Chris Wilder, Mikel Arteta, Thierry Henry, Joao Sacramento, Steve Cooper and Patrick Vieira are among those to have done their Pro Licence courses with the FAW, while Davide Ancelotti, Vitor Matos and Neil Ryan are among the current cohort.
“We’ve been really fortunate to have a throughput of coaches from our courses working at the top level, so you get a lot of applicants,” Adams admitted.
“Our A Licence takes 44 places a year and we get 360 applying. Our Pro Licence takes 20 every two years and we get 170 applying for that. It’s become really difficult to select a cohort and we need to protect our domestic coaches but we have a really good reputation.”
The FAW's High Performance Strategy might be looking towards the next four years, but the more immediate goal is qualification for the 2022 Qatar World Cup, with a play-off against either Ukraine or Scotland on the horizon (on June 6th).
Once again the golden generation of Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey will be to the fore. They've been crucial both on and off the pitch during the last decade or more, as Adams testified.
"Gareth and Aaron are world-class players who play at the very top end of the game," Adams said. "For us, it’s about recognising the value they bring on and off the pitch, because of what they bring to the whole environment.
"In the past, people didn’t want to come and play for Wales. But take Gareth - his preference is perhaps to come and play for Wales. When you have a top player who actually wants to come onto camp and be a part of something, it’s a really strong vehicle to help our pathway.
"Gareth's biggest thing is to try and get Wales to a World Cup. He’s won everything, but he always puts on an incredible performance for Wales, fair play to him. I don’t know how he does it without playing club football.
"That’s the good thing about both Gareth and Aaron - they’re so good with the younger players and keen to see them succeed. It means the players like Rubin (Colwill) feel at home as soon as they come into the squad, because Gareth and the older players make them really feel part of something."
Bale and Ramsey are handing the baton onto a new generation led by Cardiff's Colwill, Fulham's Luke Harris and, perhaps most notably of all, Brennan Johnson of Nottingham Forest.
"We have succession planning and players we hope will be able to fill those voids, like Brennan," Adams said. "He has great potential, he plays in a similar position to Gareth and we really like him. He’s so athletic and quick."
Qualifying for a first World Cup in 64 years would be a big boost for the FAW and the High Performance Strategy.
“We haven’t been to a World Cup since 1958 so it’s a big big moment."