TGG Podcast #27: Michael Beale - Helping to rejuvenate Rangers
Written by Josh Schneider-Weiler and Simon Austin — June 22, 2021
“A lot of people won’t have a clue what Michael Beale does on the training pitch, but what he does is really quite special" - Peter Lovenkrands (former Rangers coach), December 2020.
In this article and podcast we'll bring you insights into the training ground methods of Rangers first-team coach Michael Beale.
The 40-year-old already has one of the most eclectic and varied careers in English coaching. He started out with Chelsea’s Academy in 2003 before joining Liverpool as Under-16s coach in 2012, progressing to become their U23s lead.
A brief stint as assistant manager at Sao Paulo in Brazil followed before he returned to the Reds, as Head of Coaching for the Foundation Phase. Then came the move north to Rangers in the summer of 2018 and last season (2020/21), the Londoner helped them land their first league title in a decade, remaining unbeaten throughout the campaign.
At one point, manager Steven Gerrard said it would take him 20 years to become as good an on-field coach as Beale.
You can listen to the podcast via the player below, while an edited transcript appears after that.
The you versus yourself mentality
Michael Beale: I’m not one for status. I’m on a you-versus-yourself journey of self discovery to impress yourself and have different experiences in this game.
For me, it’s all about what’s exciting to get you out of bed in the morning. There’s no ego around what level I work at or what club, it’s more the project and whether I am excited by it.
If you’d have said to me that Steven Gerrard was going to ask me to work with him on his staff in his first job I’d have thought you were insane. It was a big surprise, because we used to say hello to each other (at Liverpool) and were friendly, but didn’t have a relationship outside of that.
But when we sat down and spoke, I was really excited by the opportunity to come and work alongside him. It’s been a rollercoaster ride for three years, some big bumps in the road, but in the main a fantastic experience and I’m very thankful to be here.
Inspiring a vision
What you find with a lot of successful people is that communication and clarity are huge and they have that personality to inspire, to get under people’s skin, to get them to believe in a vision.
The best coaches in the world have that ability to keep people on that 'you versus yourself' journey and sell a vision that’s exciting. That’s the one thing I would say about all the coaches I’ve seen, be it Jurgen Klopp, Brendan Rodgers, that ability to inspire people with your personality and vision and Steven has that.
He has been hugely experienced in his career, in terms of being the leader in the dressing room, and I could tell quite quickly from some of the conversations we had in big moments that he was different to the normal person. Steven is extremely positive, really open, really wants to have a relationship with his players and is really open to ideas from his staff.
We came in with a huge responsibility to the club in terms of implementing a model and a vision and having some real positivity around it. We’re all really positive people (as a coaching staff) and that’s important, because it’s easy in a season to get negative. We’re good at zapping each other out of it.
We knew there would be bumps in the road, because we were going in and there needed to be some changes in terms of standards and an identity in how you play. We knew we didn’t have a lot of money to recruit, so we had to be clever with our loans and free transfers. That doesn’t mean you’re always going to get it right, but when I look back at our recruitment, in the main, it’s been very strong.
The three European runs have been huge in terms of bringing finance into the club and putting the club back on the map, because that also brings in players of interest and sponsorship and sells your vision on a high level.
The games against Porto, Feyenooord, Villarreal and Benfica really enhanced the belief in our vision, both within and outside, which is important.
With Steven and Gary (McAllister), what’s fantastic is I’ve never seen them frustrated with the players for a technical fault. They were elite world-class players, both national team captains, but they’re massive on personal standards.
If you’re a good pro, you’ll have no issue with Steven or Gary, because they want people that are working towards their ‘you or yourself’, which is to get better every day.
In the first season we played a huge game away at Ufa in qualifying for Europe (in August 2018), which was between a £10m and £15m game. We went down to nine players (but won through) and how he summarised that game at the end was fantastic.
Walking into that changing room afterwards, everyone was on such a high, and he spoke to the group about something that had happened seven days before. He spoke about standards he was unhappy with a week before and that those things weren’t going to be allowed if you were going to be in this special environment.
I just thought, ‘wow, he must have had that in his mind and was waiting for the right moment.’ It was such a fantastic thing. In that moment he showed a level of communication, of control of the group, that I thought was very elite.
Steven is very aware of what he is and what he wants to be and knows what he wants around him. He gives the staff a lot of trust and with trust comes responsibility. He makes it a management team, rather than about himself, and is willing to delegate, which shows real strong leadership.
Steven likes to stand back and observe people and step in and speak when it’s crucial to, rather than doing it all the time, and he gives me a lot of responsibility to coach the team, along with Tom (Culshaw) and Gary.
To manage that you have to have coaching lieutenants. I plan maybe the team session content, liaising with everyone - from Jordan (Milsom) the sport scientist to Tom to Scott (Mason) the analyst to Gary to Steven - and I’ll get the rough template and then we’ll delegate who’s leading where.
When the session is actually going on, Gary will be looking at the midfielders, I’ll be looking more at the forwards, Tom’s looking at the defenders and the manager is looking at the whole pie.
We all have opportunities to work with players in different units to try and improve them. This is something I’ve been working on since I was U23s coach at Liverpool - different coaches overseeing the development of different players; every coach looking at five or six players.
And when the boys go for a drink you might be popping into your individual players and talking to them. That then leads into your conversations off the pitch, your analysis of the game, your match day.
I call it watering the grass - getting around the group, talking to everyone. You have a squad of 25 to get you through a season, but every three days you only pick 11, so it’s important to keep watering the grass and get around the group.
Planning a session
In the morning, we get in (to the training ground) at about 8, 8.30. I won’t have breakfast until I plan the session. I’ll go and sit in the room like a nutty professor with my pad and pen.
There are three main things when you plan a session. There are the player qualities needed to play your style of football. Then there are team qualities - the ability to keep possession, create and so on - and then the what ifs. What if we’re playing against a back five? What if they’re playing with two strikers? What if they’re pressing us high?
Then you go within that, because it looks different from a right back to a right winger. You can have your conversations before the session about someone’s individual journey and what they’re working on and how to get better in their role in the team.
You’ve got this team theme, which might be playing out of defence, but within that, every player has their own little things they’re working on towards their individual development. Every day, that’s what training is about - providing clarity for the individual and the group and then improvement. How you communicate that is really important and is personal as well, different for each person.
If you came to watch a session you might say ‘What’s the theme?’ And I’d say, ‘Rangers'. It’s like a hybrid session of our identity.
That’s when I come alive, 11 o’clock every day, and that’s what I spend 99% of my life thinking about: how to understand our group, understand the moment and then plan practices that are enjoyable to play in and extremely relevant.
It’s my job to put on a session that we would want to play in as staff, that’s exciting to play in, that’s varied, that’s very specific to the players. I’d say a good session has flow, a lot of ball rolling and noise.
Inside the ‘ideas office’
It’s a great office in the morning. We have some couches in there, we’re all taking about different things that have happened in the football world and you’re constantly coming up with ideas. It’s an ideas place.
I always think the level of conversation at a football club will find its way onto the pitch. You’ve got to win and grow, or winning has a shelf life. We talk about winning, evolving, growing and that’s what our office is like every day. If anything, we have to temper ourselves down.
There are three sofas in there in front of a TV, then we’ll have some boards up, a couple of desks. We have cups of tea and eat far too many biscuits, especially me and Gary McAllister, just talking about football.
We probably talk too much but have a real bond and togetherness as a staff. When you work at a football club it becomes like a band of brothers, because you’re together every day. The main five or six (coaching) people at Rangers, we spend so much time together, just talking about the game. We have verbal diarrhoea about football.
I’ll go back to when I was a child. I played for my school team, my county, my district, my Sunday grassroots team and I played for a pro club, Charlton. Then I might get one or one-and-a-half hours coaching a week that was structured.
But I also lived on a council estate where there was lots of play, older kids, football all the time. Now I look at kids in an Academy and they get coached four times a week and play once. I probably had 90% playfulness and 10% structure. I look at kids now and it’s like 95% structure and 5% play.
Children are not playing out, most schools are not letting kids even play in the playground any more, it’s crazy. We’ve built all these good Academies, but we still need to make sure kids can play with the support of adults, rather than fighting for playing time because the adult wants them to master a passing drill.
Practices are great, but they’re not better than the game. So how can you make the game be the centrepiece of your coaching? It’s a special environment you create in a football club and you have to be careful that, as a coach, you’re not seen to be coaching all the time, you’re a guide.
I hate this saying ‘you should train how you play.’ That means you’ll play how you played last week. You should train to improve. Improving means you must rehearse, be playful, make mistakes.
It’s all about maximal play. When I came across to Brazil, I saw how playful they were. Those children still had the childhood I had, with more play and a little bit of structure. Obviously the weather helps (in Brazil), but they were really strong reminders of this playfulness, of no matter what age a player is, taking him back to when he was eight, nine, 10 and why he fell in love with the game.
2 v 2 box game
One of my favourite games is a 2 v 2 box game. I’ve done it with six-year-olds, I've done it with first teams. The Rangers first team, it’s their favourite game. I think that’s fantastic - you’re talking to that seven, eight, nine-year-old within them.
It’s four mini goals, 18 by 15-yard area, two v two, two coaches or goalkeepers between the goals, and it’s all about outplaying, it's street football. Can you take on your opponent or use your mate’s movement to score in one of the mini goals?
Ball goes out, players go out, next two come in. It’s the first team to 10 and it’s so competitive. I played this game first of all when I was at Chelsea, and in that group would be Tammy Abraham, Mason Mount, Fikayo Tomori, Declan Rice, Eddie Nketiah.
Twenty minutes before training, we'd start with a 2 v 2 and the coaches went between the two mini goals. Then it just built up. As more players arrived, it would be 3 v 3, and they loved it.
After that I’ve just taken it to every single team I’ve been with. It’s back down to the elements of competition, skill, playground. If you’re good at the 2 v 2 box game then you can play football. It’s got everything - trickery, 1 v 1 defending, outplaying, combination play, passing and running.
The 15-minute warning
I would encourage all young coaches to just understand why people play. When the kids get out of their mum and dad’s car and run to that pitch to play, if, after 15 minutes, they haven’t still got that enthusiasm then that is your fault as a coach.
Your job is to enhance and encourage and develop further that love and energy to play the game. That’s a 15-minute warning for any coach at any level where you’re planning your sessions.
Of course you’ve got to work on some things that might not be as much fun, it might be defending, but you can put it across in such a way that all the players are enjoying it. That’s my passion.
I also remember a lovely saying from Steve Heighway (the former Liverpool Academy Manager): never fail to fire that competitive edge in a player. So we have lots of little competitions and individual battles. Everything is specific, from the way you pick the teams to the sparring partners and from time to time you might antagonise it; we might play young v old, just to get a bit of grit in the session.
In the Champions League final, you had two coaches and I think they’re Academy or development coaches working at first-team level.
If you look at Thomas Tuchel, encouraging and developing the young players, you can see they’re on a learning journey; and if you see Pep Guardiola, the players he helped bring through at Barca and now Phil Foden, it’s seamless.
That gives me a hell of a lot of confidence as a young coach from a development background, that it’s possible to go to the next stage. In short, I think that is the way football is going, because the players demand it. They’ve come through Academy systems where there has been a lot of this development going on.
I think we need to remove the word youth from youth development. If you’re someone who can inspire people and get your message across, you can work at any level. First-team level should be seamless from the Academy, to allow the kid to be the best version of his himself.
English coaches: Success offers clues
In Germany, they are investing in their own and are willing to give their B team coaches a first-team manager’s job. But the Premier league is the world’s league and if you want to work in the world’s league, there are hints for you.
Tuchel and Guardiola both did their interviews (after the Champions League final) in English and then Tuchel went off and did an interview with German TV and probably a French one as well; the same with Guardiola. They’re really high-skilled people, not just football coaches.
With English coaches, we can’t be standing outside moaning about opportunities if we don’t upskill ourselves. That’s one of the reasons I chose to go and work abroad, to learn a second language and I continue to work with languages.
You’re going to end up in a multi-national changing room, very diverse, so you need to understand different cultures, different people, and be able to communicate with people in their language.
When English coaches are being given opportunities in a club that’s got a vision, we are seeing they are able to be really high skilled.
I’ll just talk about the coaches I worked with at Liverpool Academy. Steve Cooper and Mike Marsh at Swansea, who have been given an opportunity and within two years have implemented a lovely playing style around young players and probably overachieved; and Neil Critchley and Mike Garritty going to Blackpool in the first year of management, breaking some club records and getting promoted.
Just like the young English players are taking Europe a little bit by storm, the next wave could be English coaches. I would like to see more go overseas to coach, I think that would be beautiful.
Personally, I have lots of aims. One of them is to be a manager in the UK, but also overseas. And I’ll go back to youth one day. I feel like I’m 5% into my career and that it’s only just started.