Why Scottish football should listen to Ziggy Gordon
Written by Simon Austin — May 7, 2017
ZIGGY GORDON’S comment that aspects of coaching in Poland are ’far superior’ to what he was accustomed to in Scotland has been met with scorn in some quarters.
After all, Scottish football might be accustomed to barbs from the Auld enemy, but not from Poland. And not from one of their own.
Ayr United boss Ian McCall fumed: “Brian Clough and Jock Stein, I can feel them turning in their graves listening to those comments", while pundit Tam McManus, a former Scotland Under-21 international, dismissed Gordon's analysis as "a bit of nonsense" and “having a little pop.”
The only problem with this view is that Gordon, who joined Jagiellonia Bialystok in January, gave immense detail to back up his assertions - and spoke with the enthusiasm of the enlightened rather than the bitterness of a man with an axe to grind.
"I honestly feel like I'm a totally different player than I was in Scotland,” the 24-year-old told BBC Scotland. "I like to think the aggression and determination will never leave me, but in terms of understanding the game, I feel like I'm a different player.
"I almost feel I didn't know how to play football until I came here, which is quite incredible. We have so much to learn in terms of technical ability, structure of play, all these things you see at international level.
"I think in terms of that, there's so much Scottish coaches can learn from coaches over here. They're a lot more precise, everything is very match-related. It's very structured.”
Gordon has impressed for Jagiellonia, who top Poland’s premier division, the Ekstraklasa.
When he said, “Nothing is left for players to make decisions in games,” it did make me sit up, because, as Brian Ashton has told us, “I’ve always been a fan of that old army maxim, ‘no battle plan survives contact with the enemy”.
But, then again, “you can provide the tools and resources [to] let your soldiers sort things out on the ground” [Ashton again]. The Poles certainly seem good at anticipating eventualities.
"I remember my first training session here as the new player and we had a game the next day,” Gordon said. “We did free-kicks for and against, corners for and against, and then, for some bizarre reason, and I couldn't understand it, we did pass-backs as if the goalkeeper picks the ball up and you get an indirect free-kick.
"Now, I think that's only happened maybe twice in my whole career, but they did it, just to cover every single scenario. So, if we get an indirect free-kick for or against, we know exactly what positions to take up. I think that just epitomises that no stone is left unturned.
"It was my first real shock and it wasn't my last. In terms of the analysis, it's almost as if every question you have in your head is answered within the time of you stepping into that meeting and coming out. It is quite amazing."
Gordon said players are thoroughly drilled in their movements on the pitch.
"Not only do you need to know what position to take up when you have the ball, you need to know what position to take up when every other player has the ball.
"You need to know almost 11 different movements all over the park, which is incredible, and certainly took me a while to get my head around. But now it is a lot easier to play and, quite honestly, you go into a game and you know all you need to do is show up, because everything else has been dealt with before.
"I don't think individual players in terms of quality are any different from the players in Poland, but I think their understanding of the game is far superior. They make far superior decisions on the ball and the movement without the ball is on a different level.
"I know for a fact we have so many superb young players, but I just think we can educate them far greater from a young age so, when they get to the first team, they're a lot more equipped, psychologically, physically, to deal with the demands of being a professional football player.”
The responses so far from some in Scottish football have seemed to reinforce the findings of Stirling University's Andrew Kirkland, that the culture is “resistant to learning from outsiders” and "trapped in a context where tradition, self-interest and resistance to innovation act as a barrier to learning [meaning] the system will collapse unless people are open to change".
Kirkland's report last year into Scottish coaching found that, “most of the coaches only planned training on an ad-hoc basis. They presented a picture of training practices that had changed little from their playing days.
“There was a hopscotch of excuses presented, including lack of finance, few support staff, and players who were resistant to having their weekly routine altered, or putting extra work in.
“I do think that the hard man culture is alive and kicking in Scottish football. Coaches who are receptive to change or who think a little bit differently may find it difficult or impossible to get players, particularly senior ones, on board.”
Malky Mackay was appointed Performance Director of the Scottish Football Association in December. As Kirkland said, he has “lived inside the football bubble since boyhood”.
So too have the two men he has appointed as Director of Coaching and Head of Coaching - Jim Fleeting, 62, and Donald Park, 63.
Fleeting was promoted from within, having previously been Director of Football Development at the SFA, while Park has coached at Hibernian, Inverness Caledonian Thistle and Hearts.
Kirkland said: “There is no anti-intellectual culture or resistance to learning from outsiders. I see an SFA board that’s expertise is mainly in big business.
"I see successful ex-players, such as Mackay, who have lived inside the football bubble since boyhood. “They have plenty to offer, but they must be willing to bring in outsiders with expertise in long-term athlete development systems and high-level performance.”