Late one night, a few weeks ago, a minibus carrying around 20 of this country’s most promising football coaches was ambushed on a deserted stretch of road in the Brecon Beacons. Men with guns stormed aboard.
“Out! Everybody out!”
The coaches, most from big Premier League clubs, were corralled off the bus and, with nothing but a map, a torch and some basic rations, forced to march for hours across open terrain, in the freezing darkness.
Of course, a few salient facts may have been omitted from this account. The hijackers, as you may have suspected, were not real hijackers. The coaches, around 20 of them, were participating in a training programme organised by the Premier League. Yet while the danger may not have been real, the discomfort, and the seven hours of walking, certainly were.
“It happened to be the day of Storm Doris,” says Kevin Betsy, a recent ex-pro who played in the Premier League for Fulham. “Fifty-mile-an-hour winds on the top of the mountain. There’s moments when you think, ‘I need to give up here, I can’t climb this hill’. One of my biggest attributes when I was playing was my fitness. And I was struggling.”
The ordeal did not end at the top of the mountain. As day broke, the coaches were thrust into a disorienting disaster scenario in the fictional state of Breconia: explosions, smoke, mass casualties, bloody amputees, hostage situations, waves of refugees seeking shelter. Team members were kidnapped without warning. By the time the participants could finally get showered, changed and debriefed, they had been without sleep for over 40 hours.
At which point a question presents itself. How on earth does trekking up Offa’s Dyke in pitch black help you coach young footballers?
To discover the answer, you need to know about something called the Elite Coach Apprenticeship Scheme (Ecas). After the Premier League unveiled the Elite Player Performance Plan in 2012, it realised that there was no point in discovering talented young footballers unless you were going to produce talented young academy coaches to train them. The result was Ecas, which is currently in its fourth year, and which the likes of Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United have signed up for.
Under the scheme, clubs with Category 1 academies - 15 of the 20 Premier League clubs, as well as big Championship clubs like Derby and Newcastle - recommend their most promising young coaches to undergo a four-year programme of workshops, mentoring and training camps. The range of activities is intriguingly eclectic: there are visits to the Royal Shakespeare Company, Sky Sports, Saatchi and Saatchi, British Cycling. Successful coaches from other sports are brought in as mentors: Brian Ashton from rugby, Danny Kerry from hockey. And then, towards the end of the second year, comes the beasting in the Brecons.
“We don’t teach them anything about football,” says Simone Lewis, the Premier League’s head of learning development. “They get that at their clubs. This is more about personal development. Who really teaches you to communicate better, or be a better leader? And so the whole point is to get them out of the football bubble. We throw you into a novel scenario: extreme tiredness, pressure, hunger. That’s when you see where the gaps are.”
“There’s some real transferable elements,” insists Betsy, now the England under-15s coach. “How you lead. How you deal with pressure. As a coach, whether it’s in an academy game or when you’re coaching the national team, how you act in moments of pressure can affect your decision-making.”
Abbie Sadler, who joined Swansea City’s academy two years ago and is now their head of foundation, agrees. “It’s made me understand myself,” she says. “Before this process, I wasn’t very self-aware. I thought I knew what I wanted. But this has thrown it all into the mix a little bit.”
In the long term, the hope is that Ecas will produce coaches who are not just technically adept, but rounded in personality and able to think on their feet. At one stage, the organisers of the Brecons camp noticed that Sadler was doing so well that the rest of her team were beginning to rely on her too much. “I was cooking our army rations when one of the guys said they needed to take some photos,” she recalls. “I left the room and they said: right, you’ve been kidnapped.”
“The brief we had from the Premier League was to push them,” explains Matt Johns, the former Army officer who designed the training scenario. “So we pushed them as far as we could - within medical constraints.”
“We’ve had a couple of close shaves,” Lewis admits, a little cryptically.
Apart from a few cuts and bruises and some extreme fatigue, however, everybody survived this year. And perhaps, some years from now, when this year’s crop are coaching at the very highest levels of the game, they will reflect upon their torment in the Brecon Beacons with a certain nostalgic fondness. “It is,” says Sadler, “one of the hardest things, physically, that I’ve ever had to do.”
Would she do it again? “I’m not sure,” she says with a certain understated pride. “But I’ve done it now.”