It’s 2pm on Friday afternoon when my phone goes off. The message is from Neill Collins, Head Coach of the Tampa Bay Rowdies, asking me if I have a minute to talk. Neill and I have spoken a number of times over the past couple of years in a relationship both professional, and on my side, personal. It’s not every day a player with 212 appearances and 12 goals for the club you support calls you asking for advice, but that’s exactly how it started, and shows how Neill isn’t afraid to “get his hands dirty” and do things the right way.
Living in Tampa, Florida, which averages well over 300 days of sunshine a year, Neill could be doing the bare minimum during a break with no end in sight. When you consider his playing career, which includes over 500 professional appearances and the first centre-back partner of England and Man Utd star Harry Maguire, Neill could easily be riding his reputational wave, and taking it easy.
This couldn’t be further from the truth. He’s about to present a webinar to a select group of season ticket holders, on how the team prepares for games week in week out, which includes a data-heavy opposition report, provided by an analyst who was sourced from CoachTech.
After a discussion about performance analysis, the pool of applicants for the job at the Rowdies and some player recruitment, I asked him a few questions.
Neill, you’re a long way from Troon now, and the soccer over here is very different from back home in the UK. I’ve always believed that it wouldn’t be as one-sided as many people think if British teams played North American ones, what’s your opinion of the level and style of play over here?
There’s no getting away from it, when you watch games from back home in League 1 & 2 it’s just so fast, and the amount of second balls players have to battle for is like nothing anywhere else in the world really. That being said, over here the games are much more expansive, more technical, more tactical even. I used to have 50 & 60 passes a game when I played in this division at the back end of my career, and that just wasn’t the case back in the UK.
I’ve said to my friends and family in England that just dropping a League 1 or 2 team in the USL wouldn’t be as simple as people think when they watch MLS and (incorrectly in my opinion) call it a walk in the park. I’d love to see a British team come over here and try to play my old club, Houston Dynamo in July!
You’re absolutely right. If you took my Rowdies team to say… Scunthorpe in January, we’d really struggle. You have center backs there who know how to defend the box, you have strikers who know how to pin you and use their body and you have 11 pro’s who know what it takes to pick up 3 points no matter what. That being said, if you brought them over to Florida in June or July, and asked them to press like they do, it’s just not possible. Because of that the game’s different. It’s more tactical, more technical, just like you see in a lot of international tournaments in hot climates, the game has to adapt. It’s not right or wrong, better or worse, it’s just different.
You recently wrote about your transition from a player to a coach in a brilliant piece here. Which former coach of yours had the biggest impact on who you’re trying to be now? And what was it about him that was different from the rest?
Mick McCarthy. I was very fortunate to be with him for those 4-5 years at Sunderland and Wolves and it almost spoiled me because he was just so well organised and so fair. Every player knew what was expected of them, which is exactly what you want as a player and something I’m trying to make sure my players get from me. He took the time to explain his decisions to us and everyone was on the same page which I’ve learned is just so, so important.
Was there ever one specific moment you remember about him?
When I left Dumbarton, I went on trial with Charlton in the Premier League and then with Rangers, one of the biggest clubs in Scotland. I went in at Sunderland too, with Mick. When Mick looks at a player, you can forget about his (the player’s) reputation, forget about why others haven’t signed him, he’s just asking what are his strengths? How can I use them? How is he going to fit into how we want to play? With me he obviously thought I had something he could use, and I’ve seen him do it time and time again with others, who he’s got so much from when people are saying they didn’t have much to offer. Forget about what’s fashionable, forget about how others might perceive the signing, just go and sign players that are right for the team, regardless of anything else.
I have to say it, perhaps a bit like Chris Wilder?
What an amazing job he’s doing. Genius at being able to get the best out of people. Others say that the players are ‘limited’ but they aren’t, they just weren’t used right. Chris Basham is the perfect example of that. You don’t accidentally start every game for a team challenging for Europe in the Premier League.
Okay I have to get a bit more technical now. You called me about 2 years ago asking about data analysis, and CoachTech helped you to find an opposition analyst. How do you balance preparing for the opposition vs working on yourselves?
There’s never going to be a right or wrong answer to this one. It’s whatever fits your team and the week you have ahead of you. Some teams you see and they change every week, they might feel that a 4-4-2 will work best, or a 3-5-2, or a 4-1-4-1 so they change. For us, we look for insights that we can use to fit within our own playing model to emphasize certain tactics. We might not change our shape, but we might press little higher than usual or drop deeper. On the other hand you have some teams who barely ever change and just want to be the best they possibly can at whatever it is they do. That one’s totally up to the coach, who knows his group better than anyone. One thing I can say for sure, is that the data reports have been excellent, and make a big difference. You have to pay attention to the data these days, it’s getting better and more accurate all the time, and ignoring it means you’re ignoring something that can make you better.
You’ve been at some big clubs who no doubt had multiple full-time analysts on staff. You don’t get that here just yet. How are you finding that?
I was talking to Man Utd’s academy director, Nick Cox recently. He said when he was at Watford, he always wanted more, but it wasn’t always possible, so you had to make it work and find a solution. Now he’s at Man Utd, you can get whatever you want. He said it’s easy to just throw another person at a problem, but that’s rarely the best solution. I think I’m in a great position here. My staff is small compared to club in England, but they are good people. When we ask questions like “how do we get players feedback on their games?” more often than not, the answer is that we have to find the solution. You have to get your hands dirty. I’m so much more rounded, I’m so much better with the technology because I have to be, but I’m a better coach because of it. When I’m the one who has to go and find clips for players, I know them better, I learn more about them, not the analyst. I’d love to bring someone in full-time, but not to take the work away from me, they need to add new capabilities.
You mentioned getting your hands dirty, and you’re clearly one of the more open coaches with the blog etc. We initially linked up because you saw some of my stuff on Twitter. Where do you see that community of coaches and analysts online as a way for coaches to educate themselves?
As a player I stayed away from social media. I wanted to stay away from the negativity a lot of players get in the UK, and even the positive stuff sometimes isn’t healthy. As a coach, Twitter and the other online platforms mean you’re getting access to information instantly. You’re seeing stuff from people and places you would never see on a coaching course, and if you do, it’s 2-3 years after it first came out! I’ve contacted a number people on Twitter about courses, drills and articles. We’re all trying to get ahead and get better, so if you can find people who will help you learn something new, or change the way you think about something, it has to be a positive. Just because someone doesn’t work for a club, it doesn’t mean they don’t know a subject better than you, and even when they do work for a club, sometimes they are willing to help, like when I approached you.
Is there one person or piece that really hit home?
You know what, yeah. Ted at StatsBomb and his piece on set-pieces had a big impact on me. I read that article and contacted him. That’s around the time I got in touch with you too and we started working together.
Last question, we’re all trying to make sure that we come out of this break in play as better people and coaches. What are the Rowdies staff up to?
I’m reading Total Football Analysis Magazine at the moment, and you gave me access to the new Attacking Play program last week, which was great. As you know, we’ve already discussed some of them ideas for when we get back on the training pitch. This sounds like a cliche, but I have a great set of staff and I trust them to do what they think is best. You don’t get to be a professional coach and survive if you’re not good. You might get your first job off your reputation as a player, but if you toss it off and do nothing you’ll lose games and get found out. Working out is important. Not just for physical health but mentally too, you have to keep your body moving and your mind will follow. I’ve got 4 kids and sometimes a few hours spent with them makes me a better coach than the same few hours reading a coaching book.