Current Birmingham Women Lead Goalkeeping Coach Elliott discusses coaching past, present, and future through his plethora of experience coaching goalkeepers across the beautiful game.
“Sometimes they say ignorance is bliss”.
The 2020s has thus far been, and continues to be, a turbulent decade. Riots. Protests. A global pandemic. Since March 2020, the world has turned out turmoil at an alarming rate, whether it be social, political, or otherwise. Football, for millions, tends to be a welcome break from the past two years of tribulation, but even that was – albeit temporarily – taken from us.
Some do, indeed, say ignorance is bliss. Ignorance, in the volatile times in which we are living, can be a blessing or a curse. Some will find it all too comforting to switch off from the news. Others want to be at the forefront of change. Each party has valid reasons.
But if the 2020s to date have taught us one thing, it is that perspectives across society are beginning to change, and the sporting arena is no exception. In goalkeeping, techniques and practices are swaying ever further away from ‘textbook’ norms – if that can even truly be defined – and whether one likes it or not, it’s an inevitable truth.
Tony Elliott has been at the forefront of goalkeeper coaching evolution over the past 20 years. Whilst he may not be a world-renown name in football, he is most definitely a figure of authority and an embodiment of progression within the goalkeeping community.
“Sometimes they say ignorance is bliss”, says Elliott, speaking exclusively to goalkeeper.com “But I don't think in the evolution of goalkeeping it is. I think it's a hindrance”.
Elliott, 51, is one of goalkeeper.com’s educators; the driving force between much of the coach and player development content on the platform. His practices draw on 20 years’ experience coaching goalkeepers across seven formats of football: men’s football, women’s football, futsal, blind football, cerebral palsy football, deaf football, and academy football. Throw scouting and professional playing experience into the mix, and it’s fair to say that Elliott has seen it all.
It is immediately obvious to see the extent to which Elliott champions what some may deem ‘lateral thinking’ within goalkeeping. His approach to both player and coach development is profoundly refreshing.
“There isn't just mainstream football. We’ve got to remember that”, he explains.
“There are other formats, too. And that's how I've had this wonderful opportunity to take a leap of faith and trust myself to be able to embrace that diversity and the challenges that coaching men’s football, the women's game, three or four different formats of disability football, and futsal brings”.
Elliott, over his coaching career, has embraced the beauty of difference in both goalkeeping, and football more generally. Retiring from the professional game in the early 2000s, however, there was a significant amount of time between Elliott’s retirement from actively playing and his undertaking of the diverse range of coaching positions that he’s well known for working in amongst the goalkeeping community today.
It is in this sense that Englishman has intriguingly shaped his own coaching path, and, in tandem, helped shape others’ paths, too. Over fourteen years working at international level within the FA set up at both Bisham Abbey and St George’s Park would be a dream come true for many aspiring coaches, but Elliott’s coaching roots were humble.
Currently the Lead Goalkeeper Coach at Birmingham Women’s FC as well as an England goalkeeping coach, Elliott started teaching the most intriguing position in the beautiful game much like any other. His career path is one that many looking to move into coaching professionally can take heed from, beginning where all great goalkeeping stories begin: the local park.
“It was my dream to become a professional footballer. By the grace of God I guess, but also hard work and sometimes a little bit of luck that opportunity came. From the age of 14 to 16 I was at the FA National School at Lilleshall, so we travelled the world representing England.
“We got to work with some of the most unbelievable coaches, as well – the head coach was Dave Sexton [ex-Chelsea and Manchester United Manager and England youth coach in the 1970s and 180s] who at that time was considered one of the best coaches not just in England, but in the world.
“I had an in-house goalkeeper coach as well for the first time, Mike Kelly. He was like a father figure to me. Working with people like Dave, Mike, and even Bobby Robson who came in and did some coaching, I couldn't help but be enthralled by these guys. I went on and played professionally for 13 or 14 years, but I always had an inkling that had I not been a footballer, I wanted to be a coach”, details Elliott.
In the modern day, there are substantially more opportunities for footballers coming out of the professional game than there were even ten or fifteen years ago. Media and commercial opportunities are ever more accessible taking many players away from the game in its physical form as retirement dawns.
However, as Elliott explains, things weren’t always so. As clear as the vision of his post-playing career was, the reality was quite different with Elliott having to work his way up the tall, tough climb that the coaching ladder is in a similar vein to those who may not have had the experience that he had gained from an established professional career.
“I was coaching from a very young age. Whatever club I was at, I tried to help the younger players. I always spent time dropping in and doing sessions working with the youth team goalkeepers. That was the catalyst. When I retired I knew exactly what I wanted to do”.
“But, because I had no coaching qualifications, I took a job at Morrisons supermarket stocking shelves for about nine months. The pension I’d received from football wasn’t big, so I had to find something to sustain my family. I figured I wasn’t getting work in football, so we decided to move back to Carlisle, and I literally went to the job centre and got a job stacking shelves on the night shift. That was very humbling.
“Three years previously, the lads stocking the shelves with me had been supporting me from behind the goal, chanting my name, and probably giving me a bit of stick as well. But I couldn't do without football in my life. So while I was doing that, I started taking my coaching qualification. In between the night shift work, I was travelling to Yorkshire to do my FA Goalkeeping Level Two and Outfield Level Two.
“It wasn’t presented to me on a bed of roses by any means. But it then opened up opportunities for me to start doing a bit of coaching”, Elliott continues.
Patience is a virtue that the working environment places under strain. To all intents and purposes, many people simply don’t want to be patient in all walks of life. It’s understandable to an extent; patience means slowness, and life tends to work on the tick tock of the clock.
Goalkeeping is a unique labouring entity, in that patience forms the basis of the position. Whereas, in most ‘ordinary’ jobs – and indeed elsewhere on the football pitch – the physical action is seemingly never ending, goalkeepers often have little to physically do and few saves to make. Much of the engagement of a goalkeeper in the match is mental, and patience forms a large part of this.
When it comes to coaching, patience is something that Elliott thinks moulds the best practitioners.
“A lot of people aspire to get straight to the top game. But it's not always that way. Opportunities will come your way, but you will have to do voluntary work. You will have to take a leap of faith. You must show the qualities that you bring to the table and how you might help someone develop; you’ve got to actually become important enough to the people offering the jobs.
“The first opportunity I received to work in coaching professionally came about two years after Roddy Collins became the Carlisle United manager. Through a connection through a third party, he offered me the role of head of goalkeeping at Carlisle United. I had already been coaching privately for a while and had spent time forging a reputation for myself in the Carlisle area.
“The thing is, we all have to start somewhere. My coaching calling was sort of forced upon me partly through chance. I had to start from scratch even though I had all these years of playing experience, knowledge, and working with so many different fantastic coaches. I also work with many not so fantastic coaches, and I look back on these experiences as learning opportunities for me. That really enlightened me into the way to actually work, connect, and interact with people in a positive sense in coaching.
“If you're at the bottom of the ladder, you’ll likely have aspirations to get to the top of the game, and would probably love some money from it. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it doesn’t always work that way. Opportunities will come your way, but you will have to volunteer. You will have to take a leap of faith. You will have to take on more hours than the pay is worth to upskill yourself”, Elliott explains earnestly.
In his role with the FA, the 51-year-old has not only witnessed the development of excellent goalkeepers across seven different formats of football. In delivering national coaching qualification courses, he has seen ambition and talent, but also - perhaps once too often - an inflated importance placed on the certificates themselves rather than developing in the discipline.
“Having delivered Level One and Two goalkeeping coaching qualifications for about 15 years now, what I find a little bit concerning is when I see people who want to cram so much into a short space of time.That's all well and good to help you get the CV together. However, it doesn't give you the chance to consolidate the work that you're actually doing. To want to jump to another course within a few weeks of earning the former qualification is hard for me to understand.
“In my opinion, you need to go away and consolidate the learning that you've taken from that course, then go and use it and practice. When you don’t do this, the danger is that you get put into situations where you might not be quite experienced enough to be able to go and deliver your message in the right way because you haven't consolidated it.
“Choose your pathway carefully. Identify your capabilities, and also understand the areas that you may need to strengthen. Then, consolidate every course, every piece of work, and every workshop you attend by actually going out there and putting in some hard hours on the grass”.
Some of Elliott’s most prominent recognition has come through his work in futsal. In 2017, he and author Adam Woodage published the acclaimed ‘A Modern Approach to Goalkeeping’. Looking at transfers between different formats of football, drawing on Elliott’s extensive and diverse experience, the book sparked conversation as to the role that futsal can play in developing goalkeepers.
According to the FA’s 2018 Futsal Vision, it is estimated that, from 2018, there are around 60 million active futsal players across 170 countries. In South America - Brazil especially, where futsal originates from - participation in the game is a given. When we look at goalkeepers such as Ederson and Alisson and the way they are pioneering the modern style of goalkeeping, the correlation between participation in futsal in their native Brazil, and their ball-playing abilities as goalkeepers, is undeniable.
Yet, whilst futsal is most definitely an intentional footballing pathway on the other side of the South Atlantic, its recognition and participation is still very much in a growth phase.
For Elliott, foraging into futsal was another huge ‘leap of faith’.
“If anybody ever tells you futsal is just five-a-side, throw them out of the room. It demands much more respect than that”, he begins.
‘I got a phone call from Graham Dell [then England Futsal Head Coach] inviting me down to a futsal training day at Lilleshall [ex-FA ‘School of Excellence’ between 1984 and 1999]. When he told me what futsal was, I said ‘futsal? What’s futsal?’. He gave me some ideas of the rules and regulations, but he basically said ‘we’ve got a camp this weekend, I want you to come and do some work with the goalkeepers just to get a feel for it’. And so that was it. I went for the day and I just fell in love with it.
“Again, I had to self educate and try to upskill myself, until then my reputation grew and I began to connect with different coaches around the world. I had the honour of delivering at the very first FA Goalkeeping Conference in 2013. I was one of the first presenters, and they asked me to focus on futsal. We brought the house down, simply because it was different. It was diverse. It was absolutely trendsetting and relevant to everything that was evolving in the mainstream game.
“Because of this evolution of the goalkeeper, decision making has had to become a lot faster. You must be effective and efficient in the moment.
“The futsal goalkeeper has got a lot to offer the ‘mainstream’ football goalkeeper. II incorporate many futsal aspects into mainstream football goalkeeping sessions. The key for me is understanding that you can't just take a futsal situation and plunk it in a football practice. There are certain elements that you can shift across, but it’s recognising when and where and how to use them.
“But you must, must have an open mind. My background is football, not futsal. So I understand the football goalkeeper, the mechanics, the role, and so on and so forth. However, I also recognise that if you open your mind to other learning opportunities, and other skills from different sports, you may be able to complement the skillsets of the goalkeepers that you work with.
“I've gone into three or four professional clubs to do futsal sessions with the goalkeepers. Sometimes it's great when they start doing the activation warm ups and some of the technical practices that we do in futsal, and they can't do it! The physical demand on them is above what they’re used to. That’s only one of the benefits of futsal”.
Futsal is only one of the non-standard football formats that Elliott has worked in within his many roles at the FA. Another coaching discipline he fell into was working with disability footballers, namely the England Cerebral Palsy team, as well as the England Deaf and Blind team - both male and female.
Continuing in his refreshingly earnest fashion, Elliott openly embraced the insight and challenges that this type of coaching brought. With that being said, he made it clear that ultimately, these were only formats of the game we all know and love: football.
“Being able to be part of the process and around these individuals is a wonderful experience. Actually, it's very, very humbling. For deaf players, we have signers and they lip read. A few days later, I’ll be working with blind footballers (not necessarily goalkeepers, because goalkeepers are fully sighted in blind football) and the communication is through sound, touch, and feel”.
Currently, exposing goalkeeper coaches to different formats of football is not a part of the English national coaching curriculum.
“I haven’t had the opportunity to go onto a coaching course to talk about goalkeeping in different formats, aside from on the format-specific courses I deliver. I get phone calls from goalkeeper coaches around the country that are wanting to learn more about these processes. But I would never ever say no to it if the powers that be wanted to try a different direction. I'd be humbled”, Elliott professes.
“It's not one size fits all across all those seven formats. What might work in a football goalkeepers session or game, right for a futsal goalkeeper, or a deaf goalkeeper, or a blind football goalkeeper who is fully sighted and plays with totally blind players. Having to adapt to those challenges and think outside the box hasn't ‘diluted’ my knowledge, and it's absolutely exploded it.
“Any coach out there that wants to understand diversity and difference and to be able to deal with different situations in football on an ongoing basis, and communicate and connect in a different way, go and get involved with some of those formats and it will be an unbelievable learning process for you”, he concludes.
Coming away from talking to Tony Elliott, one specific inkling lingers. It does seem like, in the goalkeeper coaching and development sphere, we may well be missing a trick.