TGG Podcast #45 - Justin Cochrane: Content and connection
Written by Training Ground Guru — December 26, 2022
JUSTIN COCHRANE is the first-team coach at Premier League side Brentford and is regarded as one of the best player developers in this country.
Prior to joining the Bees at the start of the season, Cochrane was Head of Player Development and Coaching at Manchester United and has also been England Under-17s Head Coach and Assistant Head of Development at Tottenham.
On Episode #45 of the TGG Podcast he told us about his coaching journey and how the different stages have influenced his approach. You can listen via the player below and read an edited transcript after that.
1. GROWING UP
Justin Cochrane: I was born in Hackney, East London, and grew up in Edmonton, North London. It was challenging, it was enjoyable; there were lots of things people got up to that they shouldn’t have, but football gave me the opportunity to not get caught up.
We played football all day, every day - in the streets, with our friends. We made up our own games - headers and volleys, across the street - and we were able to coach ourselves. I do think players are able to coach themselves.
When they’re very young we think, ‘They need to be coached by an adult, they need to go to this session.’ But if you get a group of kids together they’ll make up their own games, you’d be surprised. It’s just developing that love of a football - kicking it against a wall, spinning it, bending it, controlling it.
There are elements young players can coach themselves and they can make their own fun.
2. COACH BEFORE A PLAYER
I was actually a coach before I was a player. Aged 17, I started a grassroots team in the area I grew up in, with the players who couldn’t get in the local team. A friend of mine, who owned the dry cleaners at the bottom of my road, wanted to set up a team for his son, who couldn’t get in an Academy.
So we set up a team and I coached it for three years while I was a scholar at QPR. It was an Under-10s team; 10 or 12 kids in the park initially and then it grew. We managed to enter a league and coached every week on a Power League pitch.
It’s brilliant helping people. When you love football and like helping young people, coaching is the perfect way to do that.
That gave me my first experience of setting up a session, connecting with players, giving them ideas, taking the team on a Sunday morning in different parts of North London. That was brilliant and my first love was coaching after that.
Even when I was playing, I had an idea that I wanted to coach. There are things I did in that grassroots team that I still do now with senior players. The skills you learn are transferable.
3. PLAYING FOR THE RIGHT REASONS
I do think we need to make sure that people play football for the right reasons - to have fun, stay fit, socialise, make friends, make memories. You can make a difference to people through football. As soon as you start saying, 'It’s to get to here or progress,' you can take away from what football is really about. To become a pro is so so difficult.
My son’s in a grassroots team and I tweeted about parents shipping their kids from pitch to pitch and doing six or seven days a week of football and they say, ‘They enjoy it.’
You have to balance it. There are a lot of parents who have the idea that they want their kids to get signed by an Academy, ‘We’re at this pre-Academy, this development centre, we’re driving here, we’re driving there.’
You’ve just got to be careful when your idea of what you’re doing is to become a professional. It doesn’t work like that. You have to just make sure your child is enjoying their football, has time to relax and do other things.
There seems to be this quest amongst grassroots players of, ‘I need to be a pro. I need to get a one-to-one coach. I need to do sprint training.’
It’s that balance and parents need to be a bit careful about that. There will be a player at 14 who will be signed by a top Academy and comes in from playing with his friends, without playing any organised football.
Years ago kids played more by themselves, made up games and self taught and had lots of practice at what they wanted to do, whereas now they go organised quite soon.
4. PRO PLAYER
I was a pro at QPR and got released, then got signed at Hayes and got signed by Crewe and had three seasons there, which were brilliant for me, because it was a development club. We were in the Championship and at one stage I was the oldest player in midfield at 21.
When I look back, there were some fantastic coaches, some fantastic people, who helped develop me as a player. I played for three or four more clubs but never really fully enjoyed it and probably wasn’t as professional as I should have been.
Aged 27, I went back to Non-League with Hayes and Yeading and went part-time and started my coaching. I played about 150 league games as a pro, also played for Antigua and Barbuda, which was a great experience.
I joined Tottenham that year, after doing my B Licence during the summer, so I had a good mix of playing football and coaching their U11s.
5. TOTTENHAM ACADEMY
I was doing my B License, along with Kieran McKenna (now Ipswich Town manager), Jim Hicks (now Head of Coaching at the PFA) and Paul Davis (now England U17s assistant). I knew Kieran was a professional at Spurs, but he had had an injury and was looking to move into coaching.
I think Jim and Kieran said to John McDermott (then Head of Academy Coaching and Player Development at Tottenham), ‘There’s a keen young coach who lives close to where we train and he’s interested.’
I had an interview with John and got the job and then I worked closely with (Head of Player Development) Chris Ramsey and it changed the way I thought about football. Up until then, I thought, 'We want to develop these players to win games and beat whoever we’re playing.'
Chris really stripped me back and was like, ‘We want to play the right style and have the best players on the pitch - that will be a good predictor of future success.'
My coaching reflected that. I worked with the U11s, U12s, U14s, U16s and then the U23s at Tottenham.
6. ENGLAND YOUTH TEAM
I had a good job at Tottenham and had been there a long time and felt I wanted something different and to see what was out there. There was a role as a Head Coach (with the England youth teams) and I applied.
It was a thorough process: there were presentations and I had to go to St George's Park when I got to the final three. I felt confident because what they were asking for, I felt I covered.
I had just completed a degree in leadership and management with the Open University. I had an A licence, had done my youth awards, had worked for a long time in coaching, so I was really confident going into that process.
(At the time, the FA had introduced a novel new system of in and out-of-possession coaches throughout the age group teams).
At the time, you’re thinking, ‘How is this going to work?’ But it allowed the coaches to delve deeper into how you’re going to play and some of the ideas on football.
When we met as a group of coaches it was very interesting when the in-possession coaches presented on how their camps had been and the things they’d been studying - it was like a University of learning.
The coaches had a clear division of responsibility. The in and out-of-possession coaches were allowed to look at things a little bit deeper and feed into the team to help them improve.
7. MANCHESTER UNITED
Manchester United, since the start of time, have had young players in the first team. It’s part of the fabric of the football club - but you still need to be good enough.
With young talented players you have to get to understand them. They’re not all just going to follow the straight and narrow. You’ve got to create boundaries for them, but allow them to explore those boundaries and then pull them back in when they need to be pulled back in. You’ve got to let them express their talent, you can’t be too rigid with them. You’ve got to understand how they operate, and have the content, have the knowledge of the key development areas.
I talk about having priority development areas in young players, especially when they get to scholar level. A lot of the time you ask coaches, 'What does he need to get better at?' And they give you the whole list, everything!
Ok, if you had to nail two things, can we go after those for three months? How can we be laser-focused on the things that are going to get you in the first team?
Not everyone is going to be the model young player - and they are young players, 17, 18, 19, not adults, and they don’t think like adults all the time. They shouldn’t, either.
They are going to be a bit challenging, a bit different. You’ve just got to be accepting of that. It’s not accepting that anything goes, but you’ve got to have an understanding that they’re going to push the boundaries and you’ve got to know when to pull them back in.
A pathway is key, but the players have got to contribute to that.
A lot of players say, 'What’s the plan for me?' And at times I’ve said, 'I don’t know.' The plan is if you score five goals for the youth team, you will probably get released. If you score 25 goals, you probably get a professional contract and then you might get an opportunity to go on loan or into the 23s or even the first team.
The plan is based on what the player delivers. But you can help them by creating some development areas and if they excel in those areas that plan may come to fruition. A development plan is important but the players need to contribute to it to actually make it through.
8. TRANSITION FROM ACADEMY TO FIRST TEAM
When a player is ready to play men’s football, that’s a good time for them to go and experience that. But at the same time you have to be very careful (and I experienced this at Tottenham) of sending a player out on loan, they play no games and then actually come back worse.
It’s a fine balance. Is it the right time for the player to go? Is he likely to get games? And is his training programme going to make sure that when he returns he is closer to playing in the first team, not further away? That’s the balance you’ve got at Premier League level. It’s very very tight and you’ve got to make collaborative decisions across the coaching staff. It’s not easy.
At Manchester United we had a number of players who could potentially go out on loan and we had to decide if it was the right time for them. Could they benefit from a really tough training programme? Would opportunities to train with the first team be of more benefit? Every player is different.
At Manchester United we had a clear plan over maybe an 18-month period of what would be likely development steps for players at specific times.
My official title at Brentford is Head of Coaching and first-team coach. I work alongside the first-team staff in helping us try to get three points every weekend, as well as the Head of Coaching role, which is supporting the club in general with the development programme.
That's about creating a new development framework for the first team, B team and Academy, which will open up gradually over the next few years. At this present time it is mainly aligning the B team and first team more tightly. They have had success over the last few years but part of my role is what I’m experienced in, which is developing young players.
My main role as first team coach is designing the sessions, supporting the sessions, delivering the sessions - that has been the step up I’ve enjoyed after 14 years in youth development. There will be elements of the sessions I will take, a lot of the time in the offensive part of the game.
10. DIFFERENCES BETWEEN YOUTH & SENIOR COACHING
It’s different, but it’s the same. It’s different in terms of the intensity and the demands and the three points on the weekend meaning everything. But in terms of the delivery aspect, it’s pretty similar.
You’ve got a group of players who are trying to improve, a group of players you want to play together. It’s the same processes I’ve used in Academy set-ups.
The quickest way to improve your current cohort of players is to make them better. I think there are a lot of top managers that have done that since the start of time, but I do think more clubs now are looking for managers with development backgrounds.
There are a few more managers in the Premier League who have experience of working in youth. With Brentford being a club that has a history of developing players and then selling them on I think this, for me, is a good fit.
11. DIVERSITY OF THINKING AND IDEAS
At a lot of clubs, once the manager comes in he brings all his staff in and they cover all the positions.
Whereas when I went into Brentford, it was clear that Thomas (Frank) had Brian Riemer, who he’d known for a long time, but then all the other staff are people who have been club appointments that have been brought in with specific skillsets to help the club.
It’s a diverse group - diverse of thinking and of ideas, with a lot of difference between the people. When it’s all put into the pot and we mix it together, so far it’s worked out quite well and I credit the club for doing that.
It’s interesting for me because I’m working with some very very good people who all have specific roles and are fulfilling those roles. Manu (Sotelo) the goalkeeper coach, Bernardo (Cueva, Tactical Statistician), is fantastic, Kevin O’Connor (first-team coach) is the glue at the football club and is a fantastic coach and brilliant with the players, and Chris Haslam (Head of Performance), who is one of the best I have come across in terms of performance.
So you have a unique set of people there, as well as the manager and the assistant, who are able to help the club move forward. The people at the club understand the importance of set pieces. We spend time on it, are quite creative with our offensive set pieces and try to be very solid with our defensive set pieces. We’ve seen that this season already.
Any organisation needs strategy, they need good leadership, a clear plan. What works is having a group of coaches and a division of responsibilities based on the skillsets they have, like we have at Brentford.
12. CONTENT AND CONNECTIONS
Last year I tried to put things into compartments. In my head, I think coaching comes into two areas - content and connections. All the tactics, systems and sessions and practices falls into the content bucket. The connections bucket is about building rapport, trust, understanding people, understanding difference, working with difference, communicating with players, staff and senior management, managing upwards.
What the degree helped me with is understanding more about those soft skills, that interpersonal side, that a lot of people miss. A lot of coaches have all the knowledge, can tell you all the ins and outs of a formation, but are unable to translate that to young players. You need both. Some people have all the content and struggle to connect; other people can connect and lack content.
The leadership degree helped me understand more about being a leader and communicating and connecting and sharing ideas and working collaboratively and when I joined the FA I was, ‘This is it, everything you’ve learnt, put it together.’
I had freedom, within certain parameters, to set the environment how I wanted, to coach how I wanted, so it was a really important time for me to develop.
My experience of living all over England helped - in South Yorkshire, playing for Rotherham; in South Cheshire playing for Crewe; in Somerset playing for Yeovil - I just met lots of different people and understood people. Studying helped. Developing that social side, being able to talk to people. Coaching from a very young age. As you coach more you learn how to connect better.
Understanding talent and difference - Marcus Edwards, Noni Madueke, Alejandro Garnacho - I had to connect with them the same way I am having to now with Bryan Mbeumo and Mikkel Damsgaard and Keane Lewis-Potter. It’s the same process. It’s about soft skills, emotional intelligence, understafning yourself, listening skills and findings ways to connect with people and it takes time, it doesn’t happen overnight.
It’s just being genuinely interested in them as human beings. Thomas Frank is probably the best I’ve seen - and Mauricio Pochettino and Gareth Southgate - of content and connection. They know their stuff, their tactics, their gameplay - and they know how to get the best out of people.
Thomas Frank is outstanding with his details. He understands how to set up a team, a training session, and he’s brilliant at getting the best out of the players. You can see that - the players are at their max each week in the Premier League.
Mauricio knew when players needed an arm round the shoulder, a kick up the backside, he was brilliant with them. Understanding emotional intelligence, understanding self.
13. UPSKILL YOURSELF
For coaches now, I do think there are areas where they can upskill themselves which will make them more likely to get a job at first team level, if they have specific expertise in an area.
When I started coaching, I was never, ‘I want to become a manager.’ I just really enjoyed what I was doing at that time. I was just happy to coach players and help them improve.
More coaches actually need to recognise are they getting fulfilled from what they are doing now? Make friends and create memories, that’s great. It’s not always about climbing the ladder. It was probably only when I joined the FA that I thought, 'I wouldn’t mind being a manager one day or a first-team coach.' One of my ambitions is to be a manager one day.
Sometimes it’s about being happy in what you’re doing at the moment.