Losing my position as assistant coach not long after the 2012 Paralympics was the one of the toughest times of my life. Eventually I moved on and started again. I spent a year out of the elite sport writing a playing philosophy of the game I loved, not knowing if I’d ever get the opportunity to use it.Then the call came: the team had suffered and needed something and someone to change their fortunes. I was needed, I was back!
With some trepidation, I delivered my philosophy to the squad. They were a really talented bunch that just needed some direction and to believe in something they could fight for. The philosophy is infused with the new England DNA which runs across every squad. Ours particularly focuses on being robust when defending, fluent going forward and… you play to win!They bought in to it.
Training the squad was different this time. The players were exceptionally fit, with great attitudes. They wanted to improve. These lads are elite athletes.
That November (2013) we played three games against Spain, then the European Champions. We had three great results – we drew twice and won once, which was amazing and really set us up, giving us real belief. We were heading in the right direction.
Then in late February (2014) the unthinkable happened and we lost the UK Sport funding.
The disappointment of losing the funding hit the players hard and they were left in limbo for a little while. However they continued to train full time and were rewarded for their integrity, professionalism and hard work. The FA board saw something in their team that they wanted to invest in. They decided to employ six of the players and two of the keepers. This made the England Blind Team the FA’s premium disability squad, and something we were very proud of.
I also joined the FA as a full time member of staff in September 2014, a very proud moment for me and a dream job.
That year went better than I could ever have expected. We went on an unbeaten run, playing Turkey twice, then Italy, Brazil and Spain in the Quad Nations. In the final of the World Games we were seconds away from winning against a world class Argentina team but we couldn’t hold on and let through two goals in the last minute of the game. The final score was 2-1. Up until that game we had played 21 matches without a defeat. We were where we wanted to be coming in to the Euros.
Coming in, I thought we had the harder group. I know others didn’t expect it but I had watched Turkey at the World Games in South Korea and knew they had a totally different set up to what we’d seen before, they were a lot fitter and stronger. The same could be said about Germany, they have a fantastic squad and a good togetherness. But if I ever thought we’d play anyone in the final it would have been Spain. They are resilient, they know what it takes to win and get through. But for the first time I really felt we could win it.
My aim was for the team to do a professional job in the first two games, as that would be enough to win them. I knew Turkey and Germany would be the games that put us under the most pressure and coming through them with good results would send us into the semis.
We were looking out for particular players. Costa from Spain is a good player, so are Kurbetoğlu and Öcal from Turkey. My player of the tournament would be Celal Çoban. He dictates the way the Turkey team play and is the driving force behind them, makes them tick both in attack and defence. The goal scorers get all the plaudits, but he’s the one who keeps them strong. It’s what I anticipated coming in, and he lived up to it.
It was very difficult to prepare for Poland because we’d never seen them play and I like to take an analytical approach to my tactics. They’re a developing nation in blind football terms but I was really impressed by their attitude. If you’ve only got one or two strong players you build around them and play. It can look defensive because you don’t have much possession, but that’s your starting point. It can be disappointing when a team lacks ambition and doesn’t try to attack, but this wasn’t the case here, we just didn’t give them the opportunity to get the ball.
We had played Italy in the Quad Nations and they did present us with some problems when they went forward. They’re resilient in terms of group defending and are very physical. I expected them to present more of an attacking threat coming into this game, but we did a good professional job, we ground them down and scored some really good goals. In fact if our finishing had been better, we would have scored a few more.
After a days rest we faced the Germans. I don’t think I have ever been so focused and up for a game, but then it was England/Germany. The game lived up to all expectations, both teams wanting to win at all costs. It was a real physical battle, but tactically I think we got things spot on. We were able to nullify their excellent attacking threats and get two great goals in the first half. In the second half they really threw everything at us, but we controlled the game and secured a place in the semi final.
I think Turkey played their best game against us. They were fantastic in the first half and went in to half time 1 -0 up, from a 6m penalty, after putting us under real pressure. It was the first time we needed to dig deep and really show our quality. A few changes were made and the second half started. If Turkey had the better of the first half, then we certainly had the better of the second. It was relentless, end to end. We showed our team spirit and our will not to lose, scored two unbelievable goals (the second coming in the last minute) and won the game.
I was so impressed by the Turkish and the German team’s desire to win, I have a lot of respect for them in that sense.
Russia have come a long way in the last couple of years. They know their strengths and weaknesses as a squad and play towards them. They’ve got some threats going forward who are good on ball, but they had a mission: don’t let England score! They were very focused on this and their intentions were pretty obvious when they practised penalties in the warm-up.
I felt we tried our best in this game, we had the majority of possession and chances, but we needed the energy and spark we had shown in previous games and couldn’t find it. I am still to come up with a why or how this happened. I have various thoughts; maybe we put to much into games we didn’t need to, maybe I should have rotated players more to keep them fresh, or were we too nervous, did we bottle it? I don’t know the answer and will continue to try and work it out but maybe, just maybe we were unlucky!
The play-off against Spain was difficult, not only because they are a fantastic team, but also to lift the spirits of our deflated team was going be very tough. In previous games my team talks were full of tactical information, enthusiasm and passion. This time it was quiet, more of a question to the players, asking if we wanted finish the tournament without a fight, did we want to show our friends, our family, the amazing supporters, that we were hurt, and did we want to prove we are a good team and give them something to cheer one last time.
For me the National Anthem was very emotional, I struggled through it, not being able to show my face the crowd, but they, as they had all week, sang it back us with an encouraging pride, which visually lifted the lads.
The team responded by playing with freedom and passion, the quality of their play was brilliant and I felt we were the better team. The only thing missing was a goal, but it didn’t come. As in the semi, our penalties weren’t as good as they should have been and we had to accept fourth as our finishing place, a massive disappointment for the team, which in so many games had been the most exciting, entertaining and probably the best there.
It was the proudest moment of my career to walk out in front of a home crowd with a good understanding of the sport I loved. They weren’t there to watch blind people. They were there to watch England players. It was the best place in the world to be; it felt like blind football was being taken seriously as a sport in its own right.
For my money the blind game is the truest form of football. It’s a very physical game, but an unbelievably skilful one. There’s little diving or play-acting and they certainly aren’t overpaid. To be a team you have to trust and work together, autonomously, coach/player, player/player, all in it as one.
People in Hereford appreciate what goes into it, on and off the pitch. Every night I was catching up on social media, there were some really nice things being said about the way we played and we took strength from it.
After every game people from the crowd, called me over, saying “your team are great,” “keep up the good work” etc. It was the best feeling. Unbelievably someone still did it when we lost the Russia game. I didn’t want to go to them, I was distraught, and the team were in bits. I went over, I couldn’t look them or any of the crowd in the eye, I felt that I had let them and the team down. I shook a few hands, and with tears streaming down my face apologised to them and went back to the players. It felt like someone had died. I tried to console the players, but they were devastated. Even now it’s hard to think about.
Everyone was so kind afterwards and I know all the team appreciated their gestures, as we did their amazing support.
Now it’s time to move forward. After their success at the Euros and with the investments that come with being a Paralympic team, Turkey and Russia will take their football up to the next level. We must continue to develop to or we could fall behind.
We’ve got the time to inject more young blood in to the team and put pressure on some of the more senior players. The younger ones should have the opportunity to develop, and they’ve got space to do that now. We’ve got fantastic senior players with great experience and if we can use that to fast track the younger players it will be the future of the team.
The Sports Academy at the Royal National College for the Blind (RNC) in Hereford is the first place I look to find new players. They’re at the forefront of development.
At regional talent centres we have teams like West Bromwich, Merseyside and Leicestershire who are part of the FA Talent Programme. These have been heavily invested in over recent years – again, they spot, train and help develop new and young players. They are all part of the performance pathway, encouraging them on to the Sports Academy for more intensive development.
It’s at the Sports Academy that their future potential really starts to come to light through a more dedicated programme. They get the opportunity to work with Adam Bendall, my assistant and an excellent coach, who runs the football department of the Academy. I also support the coaching team, through the long-standing partnership with the FA, developed throughout the Academy’s existence.
With this and the support of the FA’s new Talent team in place the future looks bright, and in terms of getting talent spotted for the squad this couldn’t be a more exciting time.
There are a couple of players coming through the Sports Academy who I’m expecting to see flourish in the next six months. The younger talent is strong and that’s what is keeping me really focused and extremely excited.
But to keep moving forward, I’m going to have to come up with new and innovative ways of shaping the team, working out what went right and what went wrong. We’ll aim to get some games against some of those going to Rio so we can benchmark ourselves. Then the next European Championships in 2017, and qualification for the 2018 World Cup. There’s something to fight for and a great opportunity to get some real experience for the new players.
The FA sees us as a long-term investment and we will repay their faith in this squad.
I would like to want to say thank you everyone at thePoint4 and RNC, the supporters, the caterers and the volunteers – they made the tournament a great one and a benchmark for all future blind football tournaments. I also would like to thank the players and staff, they gave it their all and more – Jeff, Tony, James and Gary, without whom, I wouldn’t be here.
article by Jon Pugh
Original post can be found here http://www.rnc.ac.uk/