Why Spurs wait for the late maturing player

Guide 12 - 16

During his time at Tottenham Hotspur’s academy, FA national coach, Justin Cochrane, spoke to The Boot Room about the London club's approach to working with young players in the Youth Development Phase.
For Justin Cochrane, patience is a virtue. During his time working with players aged 11-16 at Tottenham’s academy, understanding the various issues linked to growth and maturation during this phase has been key.“Nobody has a crystal ball, but John McDermott [Spurs’ head of academy coach and player development] has had a lot of experience dealing with late maturing players and has helped to educate all the coaches here not just to look at now. You’ve got to know what’s below the surface and what is likely to come, especially with players aged 11-16,” explains Cochrane.

“Right now, it might be difficult for some of the late maturing players, but in four or five years it will work to their advantage. Just because there’s a big player bulldozing their way through games now doesn’t mean they will be the player in the future," he says.

It’s a methodology which has reaped its rewards. Players such as Harry Kane, Ryan Mason, Tom Carroll and Alex Pritchard have all benefitted from a patient approach.

“We’ve got some talented player developers working at Tottenham and some excellent people who have worked here in the past - people who have seen the whole journey of player development.

“Chris Ramsey [QPR Head of Coaching] Perry Suckling [Tottenham academy coach] and Alex Inglethorpe [Liverpool FC Academy manager] are three of those. I worked closely with Chris and learnt so much from him, he was a major influence on me.

“There has been a lot of patience with Tom Carroll and Alex Pritchard. Ryan Mason was under maturated as a 15/16 year old and went on to be an England international," he explains.

Tottenham's Kyle Walker-Peters runs past Barcelona's Philippe Coutinho during their UEFA Champions League Group B clash.
Kyle Walker-Peters is one of a number of young players to graduate from Tottenham’s academy to the first team. Image: Kieran McManus/BPI/REX.

The players mentioned above were seen as exceptional technicians who were afforded time for their physicality to catch up. Cochrane stresses that young players with potential will have opportunities at the north London club regardless of their size or stature.

“It’s not just about the coaches being brave enough to play a smaller player. The players themselves have to be brave as well. Being small can’t be an excuse for them. They have got to be brave and get on the ball and work out ways of being effective or showing potential to be effective," he explains.

“You can’t be small and a pessimist in the way the club plays. We’re always telling our smaller players that they’ve got to be optimistic and have a buzz about their game.”

However, Cochrane stresses that working with late maturing players is not the only focus.

“We also recognise that the early maturers need specific work too. It is not just about waiting for the late maturers to come through. There are early maturers who start out ahead and stay ahead to go through and be successful. They can still succeed.

“Our job as youth developers is to cater for everyone: the boy who is way out in front now, but also the boy who will come from the back of the pack, the player who has experienced and dealt with difficulty and adversity,” he says.

Playing with positivity and creativity is a key part of the club’s playing style and a focus of the work underway at the club’s state-of-the-art training facility in Enfield.

Cochrane explains that the playing style is based on an attacking, creative and expressive form of football, one which the coaches try to link to the history and traditions of the club.

“When you look at the club’s philosophy and the types of player the club has produced in the past and the great players the Tottenham fans have enjoyed watching and want to see again – they want to see attacking football and players playing on the front foot. So we want that type of player to come through the academy,” he explains.

Tottenham's Harry Kane keeps his eyes on the ball as he prepares to strike a left foot half-volley into the back of the net against Bournemouth.
Harry Kane rose through the youth ranks to go on to become Tottenham’s all-time leading goalscorer in the Premier League. Image: Jed Leicester/BPI/REX.

Having progressed through the youth ranks at QPR before going on to play for twelve clubs including Rotherham, Yeovil and Crewe, the former midfielder has his own player development story to draw from. Coaching has been a consideration from early in the journey.

“When I was 17, me and another coach, Tim Zobbo, who now works at QPR, coached a team called Westerham boys based in Edmonton where we lived. I coached the 10s and 11s whilst I was apprentice. We had them for three seasons and they did really well.

“It was my first experience of coaching young players. None of the players had played in teams before and the teams formed through groups of friends, so I got a real experience from coaching grassroots football.

“I learned how to build relationships with players so they trust you, buy into what you’re saying and believe that you’re going to help them. That’s where I got my grounding in coaching and it really helped me when I came to Tottenham,” explains Cochrane.

We want outstanding individuals who can play in a team collective 

On joining the Premier League club there was a clear introduction to the 'Spurs way'. A concise strap-line has stayed with him since his first day.

“We want to develop players who can score goals, create goals or stop goals’. That was something that John McDermott said.

“The game is all about stopping, making or scoring goals – and as a player you’ve got to fall into one of those three. It is how we look at players at Tottenham.

“I remember in my first meeting it was clear that the approach at Spurs was player centred, not team centred. I remember John saying it is not just about winning, it is about playing and trying to win in our style. We want outstanding individuals who can play in a team collective.”

“After that first meeting, I was clear my job was to improve individuals and matches were just an extension of training. We want our players to win games and enjoy winning, but it isn’t win at all costs and we’re not going to move away from the style of play,” he says.

Cochrane hopes that anybody watching a Tottenham academy session would see practices that are linked to the 'actual game'. Realism is central to the coaching methodology.

“Brian Klug [former Tottenham coach now at Ipswich], used to say: ‘be careful that the players don’t just become good at the practice or the drill. If they just keeping doing the drill they just get good at doing the drill’ - and that message really stayed with me.

“We might have a clear idea as coaches as to how the drill or practice links to the game, but the players might not be able to make the links.

“We work a lot with John Allpress [former FA player development coach and now player development consultant at Tottenham] and he constantly challenges the way I think.

“We do a lot of game based sessions where the players can relate what they’re doing to the game. We vary the shapes and sizes of the pitch - we’ve got some really creative coaches - but we don’t go too far from the core strands of what we want sessions to be like," added Cochrane.


Justin Cochrane joined The FA as a national coach in 2018. He currently works with the England U15 squad. Article image courtesy of Javier Garcia/BPI/REX.

This article was first published in The Boot Room magazine in December 2015.


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