Freddie Seccombe, The Life of a Career Coach, Part 1: European Adventures

In this interview I sat down with Freddie Seccombe, current Technical Director at Bendigo City FC, to discuss his life as a career coach. We started with how he decided to pursue this path right up until his current situation. In the end , the conversation was so long that it made sense to break the interview into a trilogy.

At just 25 years old Freddie is one of the youngest Technical Directors in Australian, if not world, football and his life as a coach has already taken him on adventures across 3 continents: Europe, Asia and Australia.

In this series we discuss Freddie’s passion for the game, the characters and personalities he has met through his journeys, his thoughts on the future of the game, the state of our chosen sport and how he envisions his own future within it.

I have known Freddie since we started secondary school together as 12 year olds, and although we haven’t kept in contact as much as we both would have liked since he left England for Australia 3 years later, I have followed his career through social media with great interest. Therefore, when I myself decided to pursue a slightly different career path in the football industry, it seemed natural that we should do this interview.

I remember Freddie as being fun, full of character and always having a great love of the sport, especially his cherished Arsenal. The interview did not disappoint me and we hope it won’t disappoint you either.

In the first part, we delve into Freddie’s formative period in the profession and an incredible tour of Europe that cemented his desire to pursue a life of coaching.

D: As a youngster you were always a keen cricketer and you played to quite a high standard, at what time did your allegiances change to football? And when did you realise you wanted to be a professional football coach?

F: Football was always the preference, I was just a lot better at playing cricket so I concentrated on that growing up, until I got to University really. When I was 18 and going to university I started coaching for the first time. I was working under ex-Sheffield Wednesday and Australia player Adem Poric. He was running a private academy and camps at my university. Anyways, we ran a project where coaches would come over from the U.S.A. and do a recruitment camp. About 100 young Australian footballers signed up, we coached them together and at the end of the camp the American coaches would select maybe 1 or 2 of the best players and offer them scholarships to colleges. As well as that, I would coach small kids teams on the side, so these were my first real introduction to coaching but I’ve been playing Football Manager since I was 8 or 9 years old. I was obsessed! I would take notes and read up on tactics online. I must have told my family that I would be Arsenal manger one day hundreds of times! So, the desire has been there since an early age.

D: You studied a sports-related degree at university? Where did you study? What impact did this time have on you?

F: Yea, I studied Sports Management and Sports Business at Bond University on the Gold Coast. It was a very international university full of students from different backgrounds. Brits like me, Americans, Japanese, Chinese, Koreans etc. I went there after not doing very well in my A-Levels back in England and, initially, my intention had been to go and study Sports Management, knowing I wanted to do sport, whilst also trying to become a professional cricketer at the same time. I started working with Adem quite soon into it and I realised quickly that I wanted to make a career for myself as a football coach, and that my links to elite sport through playing cricket would help me.

D: So, originally your plan was to become a professional cricketer, not a professional football coach?

F: Well, I always wanted to be a top cricketer, when I was on the Gold Coast I was playing for a team there called the Gold Coast Dolphins and they had lots of players who were playing for Queensland or Australia under 19’s. So there were, as you can imagine some, truly class players and we were playing teams of a really high calibre, such as Pakistan under 19’s. It became obvious to me that I wasn’t quite cut out to play at the level I wanted to. Eventually, I had to choose between the two options, and I didn’t know if I wanted to be at the age I am now, 25, still striving to make my debut in country cricket, as opposed to where I am now, 25, and the technical director of a professional football club and doing something I genuinely love. I think I made the right decision.

D: After graduating from University, you embarked upon a self-funded tour of Europe’s top football academies. How did you organise the trip?

F: First, I learnt that Premier League clubs did not want me to come and see them! I contacted them all directly, they all apologised and said they don’t take visiting coaches, which was completely understandable. After this I used my LinkedIn account and I contacted about 500 people who were working with academy teams in England, Spain, Belgium, Holland, Italy, basically 8 or 9 different countries. I put together a sort of database of coaches and academies. I would send them messages explaining my situation; that I was a visiting coach from Australia, 23 years old and that all I wanted to do was learn, shadow, and ask some questions without being obtrusive. I went through this LinkedIn process, without much expectation -even my Dad didn’t think I would get much response- but I got hundreds of responses. It went from me being desperate to see any academy to actually having to go through a process of selecting which ones I could visit. I had a sure list of 50 academy sides and coaches from Europe’s top academies from under 12 to under 18 teams. I cut the list down and picked the 20 best ones.

D: Wow! Where did you go?

I started in Portugal in Lisbon and went to Sporting Club, Benfica and Sacavanense. After Portugal, I went to Madrid by blabla car which took me nearly twelve hours. I had messaged the Head Groundsman of Real Madrid through LinkedIn, he was also a former groundsman at Arsenal, and as you know I’m a massive Arsenal fan, so even on a personal level it was great to meet someone who had worked at the club (He showed me photos of him with Arsene Wenger, I crumbled, it was amazing!). Luckily, he responded to me positively on LinkedIn, so we met at the Bernabeu, we chatted for a bit and he said he had to go check the pitch “Why don’t you come with me?” Two minutes later, we were on the pitch, he was checking the penalty spots and I stood in the centre-circle looking around the stadium in awe, it was incredible. Next thing, he tells me he has to go to Real Madrid’s training complex to check the pitches! He drives me there, parks in the first-team car park. We head to the pitches, he goes around the academy, he is chatting to all the coaches and then he goes to talk with Zidane and I am able to be introduced as part of the conversation! And then I get to watch Real Madrid train from the touchline of the pitch, I was literally ten yards away. It was just crazy! Truly amazing experience, I’m so grateful to the groundsman Paul Burgess for gifting me that opportunity.

D: That is absolutely astonishing, a football fan’s dream. What other places did you visit in Spain?

F: After Madrid I went to Barcelona to La Masia, and this was next level. I was with the 6-12 year olds and then I went to watch the under 19’s train. I was going to watch the B team train but they were training with the first-team preparing for a Champions League match and, obviously, they didn’t want anybody else there so I wasn’t allowed in, which was a shame. Then I watched an under 19’s game, and I spoke to the conditioning coach who was a former coach under Roy Keane at Ipswich and also spent time at Liverpool as well as working with the Barcelona senior side. He gave me some useful tips: For example, explaining to me how temperature impacts training methods,styles of play and even national footballing culture; Spain has a higher temperature therefore training sessions are done at a lower pace with more emphasis on tactics whereas in the UK the colder temperatures necessitate higher intensity and 100% tempo in training in order to maintain body temperature. It may seem pretty basic but this sort of information is vital for learning coaches. After this I went back to Madrid and spent a bit of time with the under 16’s coach at Atlético Madrid, just watching and observing his training methods. Already, I could notice the differences between Portugal and Spain. In Portugal, all the sessions had goals, small sided games with goals, everything was about scoring, about freedom and beating players with the ball at feet. Whereas in Spain, every exercise at every club revolved around boxes, all about passing, positional awareness and intelligent play. Portugal was ‘beat the man’, Spain was ‘pass’.

TheLinesman_Freddie Seccombe_Interview_1
Freddie with Fran Melli (Atlético Madrid Youth Coach)

D: Yea they’re really big fans of box work in Spain. They call those boxes, rondos.

F: Yeah that was it, it seemed so important to footballing culture in Spain, before I went to Atletico I was with a semi-professional club and even they were training in rondos. It’s such an adaptable training method, I saw rondos of differing degrees of intensity all over Spain: I saw rondos for warm ups, for match practice, for playing in different areas of the pitch,everything. It was fascinating.

D: Where did you go after Spain?

F: Initially, I was planning to go to Germany, but I spoke to Ajax and Feyenoord and both agreed to take me for 3 or 4 days each so I cut Germany out and went to Holland. I went to Rotterdam first and stayed with Feyenoord; I spent 4 days with the academy there. It was unbelievable, the best set up I’ve seen at any club ever. For example, I was with the under 13’s coach for a day, he had been the coach for that age level for ten years and he knew his job so well. He would see a 12 year kid and know exactly what he needed to develop as a player and a person. Also, these kids were so well drilled. Their footballing intelligence even at such a young age was incredibly high, they had all been in their positions for so long in an aligned system, it was all about playing in team model, being able to make decisions in a team whilst being independent in the team at the same time. Obviously, the plan was to sell these guys on once they were old enough, so everything was about developing a player that could leave and fit into any other team with ease. Whilst there, I saw every level from under 12 to under 18’s and the system was the same for every level, developing a player within a team model. I even saw the under 14’s play Anderlecht under 14’s on a Wednesday night and wow, what a standard! Compared to what we have here in Australia that was just next level, 14 year olds playing an international friendly on a Wednesday night, it’s so good for their progress as players.

D: It seems to me that in Europe the footballing community as a whole places so much more importance in youth development than perhaps they do in the UK. For example, here in Spain you can turn on the TV during the day and watch an under 15’s game, or a youth tournament or something of that ilk. It just seems that youth football is given more of a platform and is taken so much more seriously here and in Europe than maybe they do in the UK, at the moment.

F: You could be right, but I also learnt that the geographical position and the small size of The Netherlands and Belgium gives them something of an advantage. In Spain and Portugal, perhaps even in the UK, academies have to play in local leagues sometimes meaning big clubs like Real Madrid, Barcelona, and Benfica play a lot of games against lower quality opposition, semi-professional academies, local lower league sides etc. But In Holland, because the country is so small, teams are able to play in a league against other professional sides from either Holland or Belgium, meaning the standard of every game is high. This means the teams can target smaller geographical areas around their own club, without having to scour their respective nation so intensely for the most naturally talented players, because they know they’ll develop the player in a strong environment. So the populations are smaller but the ecosystem, as it were, is stronger.

D: How about after Feyenoord?

F: After Feyenoord, I got a blabla car (which broke down about four times) to Amsterdam where I joined up with the Under 15’s coach. He was very good at his job and I got to learn a lot here. The thing that stuck out for me with him, and the coaches in general at Ajax, was his relationship with the lads. He would be laughing and joking with the academy kids, throughout the day during lunch and meals all the way until the warm-ups but when they started training it was like a switch went off. There was serious mutual respect, professionalism and the game was very high intensity. He got the balance exactly right between treating kids like kids but also like future professional football players. All the kids knew the line and when they had to switch modes it was easy for them. Then I met the sports science guy, an Englishman. I got to go into the dome into the sports science department, they have some outstanding facilities there.

D: After Holland, you headed to England?

F: Yea, I got a ferry and went to Newcastle. Got picked up at the dock the next morning at around 6am by the Newcastle under 16’s coach. He took me into a meeting with the senior coaches and introduced to me to everyone, then we went through to another room turned out to be Steve Mclaren’s office, he made some joke about Australia and some English reality TV show in Australia.

D: I’m a celebrity get me out of here?

F: Yea that was it! I can’t really remember the joke, the whole thing was just so surreal! I hadn’t been expecting to meet many people, let alone Steve McLaren! Anyways, then we went out to go train with the 16’s and Papiss Cisse was just floating by he said hello, I was completely fanboying a this point! So we watch the 16’s and 18’s train in the morning. After that we watched the seniors train, McLaren was up on some scaffolding with a megaphone directing the match preparation session for the Leicester game the next day. It was very very cool for me to be standing on the side and watching a Premier League team doing their training. Especially, during a tactical session.

F: After this we went and did some training with the under 16’s, the coach there was a very young guy named Liam Bramley, he’s a career coach as well. Like me he came out of Uni and was working part-time with Newcastle and is progressing through the club. So, for me it was great to spend time with someone whose career was following a similar trajectory to how I would like mine to go.

D: Well, the assistant manager at the time was Ian Cathro, one of the most famous career coaches in world football.

F: Yea, I watched one of his sessions too, he has a fantastic story too. Going from Scotland, to Portugal, to Spain and back to the UK. It was great to see one of his tactical sessions.

D: You might not have been able to tell at the time but obviously McLaren didn’t last very long at Newcastle, did you get any sense that there were any problems whilst you were there, even though you were only there for a short time?

F: No, not at all, definitely didn’t. Everyone there was very positive about his set-up at the club, how he had organised the academy and the youth sides and everything.

F: All in all Newcastle was a great experience. I stayed over at a mates house and the next morning I headed to Liverpool, I spent about 12 hours on public transport trying to get there. Got to Liverpool and spent a day observing the under 21’s coach, he was another career coach. He had started at Chelsea under 12’s and climbed up the ladder, now he’s at Sao Paulo.

D: Michael Beale?

F: Yea that’s him, he really understood the game and his position and duty within the club. The whole day was quite busy I thought I would never get a chance to speak to him. Luckily, he found some time and he sat down and we spoke one to one for 15 minutes. In those 15 minutes, he must have written on about a hundred pieces of paper, and pretty much everything he said was a revelation! It was probably the most enlightening 15 minutes of my entire career so far, he was like ten coaches and ten coaching courses rolled into one man. He gave me a lot of advice on everything, from tactics and formations to training sessions, weather, behaviour, everything, he left no stone unturned considering the brevity of the conversation.

F: After Liverpool I went to the Nike academy at St George’s Park with Jon Goodman. Then on to West Ham where I was with the Under 18’s. And that was about it really, apart from clubs and academies there were a lot of meetings with individuals and I stopped into several semi-pro clubs too. Sacavalense, in Portugal, was the one which stood out the most, they took me in really well. Overall, the entire trip was an incredible experience.

D: How did you afford it?

F: I managed to do it all on a very low budget. I stayed at friend’s houses, I slept in the cheapest Airbnb’s, even if it meant sleeping on a mattress in a cupboard, and I became a blabla car devotee. It was tough at times but it’s something I would definitely recommend to any other aspiring coaches.

D: That’s truly amazing! I guess apart from football, even for you as a young man it was an important journey for your life, you got to tick off the ‘travelling across Europe’ box from your list of life goals.

F: Yea of course, learning about new cultures is important for any coach and everyone in life, really. I guess the one outcome I would have liked going into to it was a job, and the outcome I got out of it was the knowledge that I could work in those sort of environments and be perfectly capable, which was huge.

Part 2 Coming soon.