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Williams shaping the Welsh way forward

Gus Williams was tasked with developing the Talent ID programme for the Football Association of Wales in 2012. The Welsh native’s experience, knowledge and passion have all aided to the programmes success with the men’s side qualifying for successive UEFA European Championship Finals following a 40-year absence.

We have seen players emerge at different stages of development with not all players afforded the opportunity to shine with Williams looking to provide a platform for the footballing communities of Wales. Stories across sports such as 2000 NFL Draft Pick number 199, Tom Brady while Gareth Bale spent much of his early career on the bench at Tottenham Hotspur. Talent sometimes needs time and opportunity.

Williams spoke to the Association of Sporting Directors, discussing current trends in talent ID, the need for strong relationships, being adaptable and how they strive to ensure players fulfil their potential.

First things first, what is talent and does talent make the next Gareth Bale or Aaron Ramsey? Williams started out discussing the exceptions and the enigmas.

‘People talk about talent, it will get you into the changing room, but it is hard work, attitude and application that will keep you there. I remember reading an article in ‘The Athletic’ where Liverpool Academy Manager Alex Inglethorpe referred to a discussion that he, Steve Heighway (Academy Consultant) and Nick Marshall (Asst. Academy Manager) were having around the players they’d worked with and when with a 100% certainty could they tell a player was going to be a Premier League player. The average they say was 16, 17 or 18 but they had Michael Owen down when he was 14 which was ironic as he later played in the World Cup at the age of 18.

‘The hard work really starts for all those fortunate players, who at 16 have secured that scholarship. This is now full-time football aligned with education. The demands are higher and as such the sacrifices increase, the physical and mental load intensifies. Of course, the support mechanisms around these organic changes are in place at most clubs but not all have such resource at hand.

Players who appreciate the demands placed upon them at this stage now have an opportunity to further develop their ability to adapt on and off the field. Some will get exposed to adult football, earlier than others, again this will entail experiencing the adult dressing room environment where the demands from their peers will be far higher on them than they were as they were coming through the system.’

‘These players will now be looking to apply themselves well, being professional and working harder than ever before. From a cognitive perspective they’ll need to have that growth mindset and a willingness to face each challenge, learn and develop from each action and be better prepared for the next and be able to apply themselves better on each subsequent occasion. Because the talent has been recognised by providing them with their scholarship. As soon as that milestone has been met the next target is the ‘Pro’ contract.

‘There will be a few players in the system who rely heavily on talent alone and do very little to add to their game and that complacency can potentially be their downfall. The majority, however, will endure moments of self-doubt and periods of confidence loss as they battle their way through the pathway and equally there will be periods when they’ll enjoy injury free moments and endless levels of confidence which again illustrates how important having the ability to adapt plays in the growth of the player.’

The recent UEFA Champions League semi-final was another topic of conversation with the data perhaps never quite enough when it comes to player recruitment. Using Jack Grealish as an example, Williams shows how important it is to not just look at certain data points but also how to consider how the opposition will set-up to play against a certain player compared to when they play for their existing team etc.

‘There’s an expectation from many for Jack Grealish to realise and match that £100million transfer fee. The fans are still expecting that £100million performance and domination in all games. It is very difficult for it to happen because A) he is not getting a run of games B) he’s playing a different type of football and asked to carry out a different role to that executed at Villa. The story itself has similarities to that of Mahrez when he joined City from Leicester. Additionally, teams will set up differently to play City as they would to play other Premier League teams as they appreciate the threats are far greater far more often and that alone is a consideration to players impacts varying post transfer to a club of City’s stature. Teams will expect City to be in possession most of the time. Whereas against Villa the opposition might see it differently.

‘Now he is playing for a team immersed with talent and the opposition are set-up to stop City from attacking and scoring goals, they may pay little attention to attacking themselves as they may not have as much of the ball. Focus could be shifted towards being out-of-possession so they will put up more defensive barriers which become far greater to overcome versus when Grealish was playing the same opposition last season at Villa. That’s the element of the game as a coach that you need to be considering first – the opposition and their style of play.’ Williams concluded.

‘Paul Gascoigne was someone not dissimilar to Grealish but was a total maverick – his own man and player. You let him get on with it as he was always making an impact. He had creative flair, attacking mindset and confidence. Yeah, he was a bit of a joker and comedian both on and off the pitch, but ultimately his football always spoke on his behalf.

‘It is not something you see much of in the game today. I haven’t seen anything like that since his (Gascoigne) career came to an end. Grealish has been compared to him in terms of his technical ability and tactical understanding and in many aspects his demeanour. Maybe in today’s market Gascogne would have been that £100million player.

‘There would’ve been Big Data from City (most probably a bespoke internal platform with specific analytical algorithms set up) projecting Grealish would fit into their system or a role within a system, particularly when spending the amount of money that they did. But the dynamism that surrounds the player fitting into a so-called structure or system can be very different. What no type of data provides is detail on people’s character and personality. Williams concluded.

With teams looking to build youth sides moulded in the same system as the first team, it may be hindering the holistic development of footballers. Coming away on international duty has helped players to identify potential gaps with Williams citing one such recent case.

‘With Wales, we went to a tournament in Brittany, France which as a region has a football playing population of two million children. In Wales, we have a football population of 50,000!

‘When we went there, we had a 14-year-old from a top-end club. Our expectation was not to have too much of the ball and set up defensively first and offensively second. When the player came in to a 1:1 meeting the day after a game, we asked what he learned. His response was fascinating as he came out and said that he realised that he did not know how to defend. The reason he provided was that he has never had to do it at his club as they are always in possession of the ball.

‘Reality at 14 in this case, are you really producing top-end players as the game is about defence and offence. So, at that age, the player did not know how to defend and if he was to stay at the club it would likely be the same at U15, U16 etc therefore at 16 there is a good chance the player cannot defend. He got released from the club and signed for another club of similar historical stature. It has taken him 18 months to get accustomed to his role and responsibilities out-of-possession. Now he is one of the top players in the U23’s at that club. There was no doubt of the tactical and technical ability but from a cognitive perspective it was only when he was with us, he released that he didn’t know how to play out-of-possession.

‘It just shows how you need to holistically encapsulate all aspects of the game and to anticipate what the opposition player / coach is thinking and what they are going to do. Some people focus on their own game, but you really need a plan B for the ‘what if’ scenarios.

‘It’s why Manchester City vs Liverpool are such great games with Pep anticipating what Klopp is thinking and vice versa. They both know how each other are going to play but it ultimately comes down to their tactical understanding and making the right decisions at the right time to manage the game. It becomes a ‘we are going to do this, what are you going to do’. It may take 10 or 15 minutes for the opposition to see it and that can become your window to score a goal.’ added Williams.

Focus turned to Williams’ role with the Football Association of Wales where he was tasked with shaping their talent identification programme and success has duly followed on the pitch.

‘I am currently working as the Football Association of Wales National Talent ID Manager and have done so for the past 12 years. I cover talent ID both male and female from U12 up to the senior squads.

‘Prior to that I was a Regional Development Coordinator line managing five Football Development Officers in North Wales, while also working in a part-time capacity as a scout and a coach at several football league and Premier League clubs.

‘I was tasked back in 2012 in putting together a national talent ID programme. As a nation we had a player pathway but did not have a talent ID structure aligned to the player pathway. It was clear that we needed to align ourselves to not only what clubs were doing but what countries were doing also.

‘It was my role to put that programme in place, to ensure that we had coverage at games to help unearth Welsh eligible players. A big part was when educating our coaches for example, they are looking for a right-back, we can’t just source a right-back – first and foremost we need to make sure that the particular player has eligibility to play for Wales, this is in addition to the ability at that period to play for their country and have the potential to stay within the programme thereafter.’ added Williams.

Starting from scratch, Williams helped craft a programme which has expanded and seen Wales qualify for successive UEFA European Men’s Finals with a burst of young players breaking through.

‘We are very proud of the programme as it has evolved immensely and today, we have 28 scouts across the UK and several individuals within our network, many of whom I have tutored or mentored as a coach educator on the A-license course. You also come across several coaches at professional clubs, and you can utilise them as a source of information for players who may be eligible for Wales. Network is immensely important not only for us as a small nation but for any person in any capacity of work. We will utilise that more than many I suspect but for good reason as we aim to ensure players get an opportunity to reach their potential.

‘Then you have other platforms which you can follow to bring players into the system – attending Premier League games, tournaments, events etc. Our scouts would also have their own networks with a filter then into myself.

‘We have built a database of players that is unheard of. Our talent pool is far greater than it was previously. We need to be aware of as many players as possible as we sift through who is eligible or not and missing that one could prove critical. It’s good to note that the dept of the senior squad as in two players per position was something identified about three years ago as a target area. The programme as it did in Belgium and as it did in Germany has taken 10 years to evolve. In that period, we now have players who can produce at senior level and are now encompassed in that senior squad which now has met that 2-3 players per position target. We know every player; we understand how they work, how well they can adapt and who leads amongst the group. Our relationship with the parents is equally as important and as we all know that unit in most cases is the bed rock of the family home.

‘Our role and task now are to sustain all of the above across all squads from U12 onwards.’ Williams said.

Returning to players fitting into the system, Williams stressed the importance of building and maintaining relationships with the individual players, clubs, and parents.

‘It is imperative that you have strong relationships with clubs, they really are key. These relationships were the basis and foundation of the talent ID programme. We had identified back in 2012 that the number of players that had come into the Welsh youth system up to that stage were from just 26 clubs. That could have been for example say five players from Cardiff – albeit five players, it was only from one club. By 2020, we had engaged with 87 clubs, which is reflective of the groundwork being done in terms of connecting, introducing ourselves and building relationships with clubs and coaches. Suddenly, if it is one player from each of those 87 clubs, that is huge growth.

‘Across the board we have certainly grown our database into what equates to 3% of the number players registered in the Premier League Youth system. The Premier League Youth system has 15,000 registered players. It doesn’t appear to sound a lot, but if you were to give a person a 3% increase in their salary, they would certainly feel the impact. From our perspective it is a very welcome position but now we want to increase it from 3% to 6% which gives us a target and the relationships are fundamental in ensuring that we strive towards that.

The club game allows players time to develop but the short-term nature of international football means adaptability is something Williams and the FAW are keen to ensure.

‘In any aspect of society, we acknowledge that being able to adapt is fundamental. When they come into us the first message that is put across is to have the attribute to be able to adapt. What we do here, is what we do here and what you do at your clubs is what you do at your club. We are not asking players to carry out the coaches’ instructions from their club in our environment and likewise we wouldn’t expect them to be carrying out our instruction at their club however should a player enter the system and they brand of football they play domestically is like ours then of course the adaptation is seamless.

‘On top of that, you must have an alignment between ourselves and the clubs. We will engage with the club and look at their induvial development plans and try to work on them and address anything to supplement their club development. This is very difficult to do because we only have the players in for the short international windows. Our impact on the development will be short with most of it done at their clubs. What we try and do, is refine aspects of their individual performance plans, put them into challenging environments in training. Ultimately, we provide players with opportunities to experience international football and they need to be ready for that and the planning and preparation behind that will support their readiness to play on that stage’ noted Williams.

Williams actively seeks to meet clubs to help understand their plans for the Welsh players, with a collaborative approach to the fore for their development.

‘We go around clubs as a group of full-time staff and sometimes spend half a day there discussing players who are in the system and players that potentially are at the club that we need to be aware of. The feedback we get from clubs is fantastic. They believe such face-to-face visits, sitting down to discuss players and for them to share their thoughts and plans for the players is invaluable. There is a real ability to exchange and understand what can be done to further enhance the development of the player both domestically and internationally which has seen quite a number of secure contracts at their clubs and an international invite’ Williams added.

A lot has changed for talent identification over the 12-year period Williams has held the role and at an international level, an increasing number of players are holding multiple nationalities. 

‘From a national perspective, there is a huge emphasis now on dual nationalities. When we started the programme, there was no emphasis on it. All we did was source Welsh eligible players – wherever they came from, in whatever format, it made no difference. Sourcing these players and providing them with a platform to develop and achieve their potential.

‘Over time, football has evolved, countries have evolved as has society. We are now living in a society where people are migrating across several countries both European and Worldwide. Dual nationality has become a topic of interest to all football associations on a global scale. You not only have dual nationalities anymore, but you also have multi-nationalities with players who can be eligible for three or four countries even. It is great to have such a multi-cultural society and it provides real opportunities for players. It is an interesting trend and there is now a huge focus on it.

‘What is aligned to that as a player is that they can now select two or three countries. You cannot just expect a player to come and play for you anymore. You have got to ensure that you have a programme and pathway in place that is attractive to the player and his family and if you state you have a player centred approach then you must live by that ethos and philosophy.

‘We must ensure that we can provide the best for players. Whichever way the players select, we wholeheartedly support their decision because at the end of the day, we want players to achieve international status and we won’t be an obstacle for that to happen more of a facilitator and support mechanism as ultimately, they’re people first and players second.

‘Additionally, we must mention our Welsh Premier League Academy system that has players in the league operating on a weekly basis. There is an increase in the number of players moving from that programme into the professional game which is fantastic recognition of the work being done by the Welsh Premier League Academies, clubs, and staff. The exposure players are getting at that level develops and enhances their experiences.’ Williams said.

What happens in the club game is having an impact on the international stage with the rapid need and speed for data playing a greater role for Williams and his department.

‘It is important also to be mindful of current trends on domestic football as mentioned earlier. And one trend that has rocketed is the need and demand for data, the accessibility that different platforms are providing and how it has changed the dynamic in the structures at clubs. If we look at for example clubs – they not only want data, but they also want it quicker and faster than ever before.

‘The automation of data is becoming more prominent than ever before. Certainly, the past 12-months many clubs have been able to reset and refocus, while providing the opportunity for software companies to develop their offerings too. Now the research and development departments of those organisations will be developing functions that will be innovative and disruptive in the world of technology.

‘One aspect of that which will maximise output and minimise labour is the fact that data now is becoming automated. There is a huge amount of data points for players that before were operating in silo. Now they can be combined and accessible in real-time. Hudl being an example of where they now work on blending data sources and ensuring an efficient mechanism is in place for clubs.

‘On top of that, the search for players is on a global scale and there is a huge amount of information out there on each one. Clubs want more information, and they want coverage of global leagues as they aim to unearth those players that fall into their data points and requirements such as playing style, budget, medical. That demand to get the extra margin which will give you success and everyone is after it and exploring different avenues to make sure not only are they aligned with others but ahead.

‘The due diligence being done on players is becoming even greater. We were fortunate as a group of 30 candidate on the recent inaugural UEFA Elite Scouting programme which has now been completed that we were exposed to one company who investigate the background of players, and it was fascinating to see the amount of work they do on each player.

The way of working is evolving as a result with scouts needing to understand the data requirements to collate and report accordingly.

‘There has been an impact on scouts, coaches, and players alike as they need to understand more about modern technological tools that play a part in the collation of information as all forms of data are now becoming more and more prominent across all departments in football. The evolution of the game and the coaches itself will drive clubs towards new game models and a new profile for their players etc. The pandemic period has accelerated that acknowledgement within the scouting industry with regards to the utilisation of modern technological tools, but the reality is that the technological revolution happened many years ago as coaches etc would tell you as they’ve been implementing various formats since the introduction of the performance analyst. There has been growth alongside that role as we see more and more data scientist, data analyst, recruitment analysts etc being appointed at clubs making sense of all the data. The collation of event data has also evolved with tracking data supplementing that and enabling you to reconstruct the game which affects every player in that game not only the player you’re viewing.

Many clubs have their own bespoke platforms built internally or by third parties as they seek advantage across all areas of the game especially recruitment. Southampton had their ‘Black Box’ concept which ensured that their data analytics provided them with the ability to make better informed decisions when they were looking to recruit players a concept which is common practice in the modern-day game. Scouts will now have functions on their tablets, phones etc. which will take them away from paper and pen in the main. Since clubs need information to be accelerate and uploaded into their systems. Digital technology is a huge trend we need to embrace and the sooner we embrace it, the sooner we see the benefits.

‘It is marrying that live scouting with the data. One will compliment the other, or one will challenge the other. You don’t want one to pacify the other, you want them both to provide you the opportunity to mitigate all risks and that you have all aspects and resources available to assist decision making. There is equal value in the utilisation of both the human eye and the data at hand’ added Williams.

12 years into the programme, Williams will look to use that experience to grow the women’s programme and continue to ensure they remain operating at a high-performance level.

‘To be ahead of the trends, you need to be able to forecast what will happen in the next five years. To do that, you must be aware of what has happened in the past ten and what that involved. What can we do now to ensure we are ahead of the game?

‘Back in October, the women’s and girls’ structure came under by banner for talent ID. So, we were starting afresh for the women and girls but ultimately, we had 11 years’ experience behind us. This allowed us to accelerate things by using that experience built up over those years. We are still working hard as a federation. We are part of the FIFA Talent ID ecosystem with 205 federations which will be interesting.

‘It is about thinking smarter, using what you have, collaborative working, maximising your relationships and networks. But ultimately always focusing on and homing in on the player. The player is in the middle of all this. Our team of staff and scouts working hard is all done based on providing the maximum opportunity for players to fulfil their potential. Recently we created a Talent ID Advisory Group which is a small and exclusive group of experts in their field of work who hail from a variety of backgrounds who come together and discuss and evaluate everything that surrounds Talent ID and of course how it can benefit Wales moving forward. We aren’t a nation that sits back and accepts our ranking on the World stage we want to be better and improve all aspects of the programme and this elite group of passionate individuals will certainly add tremendous value to Wales moving forward’ Williams said.

Williams was one of the early members of the Association of Sporting Directors and values the knowledge share and value of the network and events.

‘I think there is a great football community within the Association of Sporting Directors. There is a huge amount of knowledge and experience in whatever room you go into or online event you attend. You know that you are going into an environment with over 100 years plus of valuable and quality experience.

‘Being exposed to the insights and working patterns of the football family, not just from an international perspective but from a domestic perspective as well. I am a firm believer in knowing and understanding what is going on in the domestic front as it has an impact on the international stage. You can’t ignore any source or avenue of football; you need to be aligned across the board. Not necessarily just the UK as the Association of Sporting Directors has members on a global scale and the online events has made engagement even easier.

‘In addition to that, I am very fortunate to have been exposed to the live events which have been a great opportunity to share knowledge and experience which is as important as anything in life. We are there to help each other. We are there to give each other knowledge and share the experiences we have had. All the members add a tremendous amount of value to the Association.

‘The speakers we have had be it members of the group or guest speakers, they’ve all been of the highest quality. It comes down to the thinking behind the Association, the strategic approach in putting the type of events with the link between them all. The live events have complemented the online events. It is important to go into each event with a growth mindset and accept that every opportunity to engage with people is a highlight moment.

‘You must give a huge amount of credit to the Association to see where it has come since it started with Mike Rigg as one of the founding members and Dr Dan Parnell taking on the reins and everyone collaboratively working together. It caters for a huge number of individuals who work in that specific field or potentially looking to work in that specific field within the football industry. That network that you have at your disposal is magnificent as at the end of the day, we all have something to offer, and will all have something we need at some stage.

‘If anyone can help anybody else, I think that there is a mutual understanding within the Association that we are all there to do that and to support each other through the journey. For me, it’s been an exceptional experience and I feel quite privileged to be part of that family. All those members that I have come across online, I hope to meet in person if I haven’t done so already.’ Williams noted.

Wales qualified for the FIFA World Cup 2022 following a 64-year wait. The mixture of youth and experience in the current squad shows that there is a clear pathway for young Welsh players. The work of Williams and his team is evident as they continue to make their mark on the international stage.

Article wrote by Colm Hand, student on the Football Industries MBA at the University of Liverpool

Feature image photo credit: FAW

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