During his time as assistant head coach at Real Madrid, Paul Clement, spoke to The Boot Room about his rise from PE teacher to working with some of the best players in the world.


Real Madrid’s assistant head coach, Paul Clement, is talking about the challenge of coaching a collection of the very best footballers on the planet and admits the art of negotiation is vital.
“It’s something for us, something for them,” explains the Englishman who, as part of Carlo Ancelotti's coaching team, is charged with refining the skills of Madrid’s glittering list of playing staff on a daily basis.

“The players would go out and play the Rondos and boxes [possession in tight areas] every day – the types of game which are really common in Spain.

“The players would love to do that, but it’s not what they need, so we try and give them a balance of things that are enjoyable, stimulating and competitive for them, as well as the things they need tactically. Whether that is offensive or defensive, in transition or set plays. So we try and strike a balance.”

Striking a balance is something the 42-year-old has excelled at in an intriguing coaching career which has taken him from part-time grassroots coach to working at one of a handful of clubs that can rightly claim to be the biggest in the world.

The Londoner realised early in his playing career that he wouldn’t make it as a professional, instead combined his job as a full-time PE teacher with part-time coaching roles and believes the experience gave him the principles that have served him well throughout his career.

“I started working in grassroots football and worked in a number of Football in the Community schemes. My first was Wimbledon and then I worked at Chelsea and Aston Villa. It gave me a great foundation into some of the most important things needed in coaching: communicating with people, being organised, planning and building your ideas of training exercises.”

 

I started working in grassroots football and worked in a number of Football in the Community schemes 

The same fundamental coaching tasks still consume his packed daily routine – albeit he is now preparing sessions for an audience including two of the most expensive footballers in the world.

With Madrid currently embarking on a hectic end of season fixture schedule, it is unsurprising to learn that opportunities to enjoy the markets and arcades of the Spanish capital are few.

“We do play a lot of games here so when our schedule is back to back weekend and midweek games, we are in the training ground every day.”

Clement’s working day begins at 8.30am when he assesses the number of players available for training and makes any tweaks to the day’s practice session – planned meticulously the day before. A staff meeting and then time on the grass follow.

“We have a 9.30am meeting that includes the technical, physical and medical staff. We then get the final yes or no as to whether some of the players are available to train or not.

“Then we’ll go out onto the grass and set everything up – usually we work on two pitches side by side, so all the exercises are prepared. It ensures there’s no loss of the valuable time that we have to work and enables us to move from exercise to exercise. Training would last between an hour to 90 minutes maximum.”

Head coach Carlo Ancelotti of Real Madrid shakes hands with assistant coach Paul Clement
Clement worked alongside Carlo Ancelotti and Zinedine Zidane during his time at Madrid. Image: Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

Moving quickly is something Clement has grown used to. In a varied coaching career, Ancelotti’s right hand man has amassed a wealth of coaching experience at different levels of the game.

“I did lots of football jobs in my early years. My first part-time job in elite football was at Chelsea. I did 5 years part time coaching alongside my teaching career and then I went to Fulham in 2000 for my first full-time role which was in education and welfare.”

Full-time roles at Craven Cottage as assistant academy director and youth team coach followed before returning to Stamford Bridge. It was here where his career rapidly accelerated. Clement went from Chelsea U16s coach to first team coach in four years.

It is an elevation he admits he never anticipated and one he didn’t necessarily plan for. Instead, dedication, perseverance and thousands of hours working on the training pitch have brought great career opportunities. Interestingly, when the offer to work with Carlo Ancelotti and Chelsea’s first-team was first proposed, he declined.

“When Carlo came in [as manager in 2009] I was on a trial basis initially. I did two weeks with him and then I said I wanted to go back to the reserves. He declined and said to me ‘you will learn with me, I like what you’re doing, come and work with me and you’ll have a great experience’.”

True to his word, fantastic experiences have followed. In their first season together in 2009/10 the pair led the London club to a Premier League and FA Cup double, becoming the first team in the Premier League to score more than 100 goals in a season. The Anglo-Italian pairing have been together ever since and Clement glows when he describes the working relationship.

“We complement each other well. I hear a lot about the good cop bad cop scenario and have been asked ‘who’s the good cop out of the two of you?’ the answer is neither of us are.

“Carlo’s not tried to make me something that I’m not. He’s always said you need to be yourself and express your own personality.

"I have a lot of respect for Carlo’s style, there’s no ego or flashness about him, he just is who he is. He has a really good relationship with players and that helps me to be relaxed and comfortable in my own personality with players as well.”

In return, the former Parma, Juventus and AC Milan manager has described Clement as “the best assistant coach” he has ever worked with.

When the Italian was surprisingly sacked by Chelsea in May 2011, the pair had a temporary parting of ways – Clement going on to have a brief spell as assistant head coach at Blackburn Rovers – before they were reunited when Ancelotti took over at Paris Saint Germain in December 2011. Stepping across the channel proved one of the biggest challenges of Clement’s career to date.

“France was a real challenge. PSG are a big club, and they are going to be a very big club, but a lot of the infrastructure they had in place wasn’t really to help with foreign coaches and foreign players coming in.

"When you’re trying to get the gas activated and set up the internet and a telephone and you have very little understanding of French, it’s a real challenge.

Assistant coach Paul Clement of Real Madrid FC warms-up Cristiano Ronaldo before the La Liga match
Clement worked with both Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale whilst coaching in Madrid. Image: Denis Doyle/Getty Images

“Putting our kids into French school was a real challenge, because they’re coming home crying, then mum’s crying and then dad’s crying, there’s a really big knock-on effect.

"I underestimated the value of having a balanced and calm and tranquil family life to help with the football."

The language barrier is a recurring theme in Clement’s more recent past, an issue he believes has prevented English coaches developing a better reputation in the global game.

“If you want to work abroad you have to try and crack it with a language. Staff meetings at PSG were often in four languages, so everything took more time. Here, we try and do everything in Spanish but there’s a lot of ‘can you repeat that please, so I understand’. So the process of things can take longer.”

Adaptability and flexibility, especially when embracing new and challenging environments, have proved to be crucial in Clement’s rise through the game. But it is the human qualities of a coach which he believes separate the best from the rest.

“After 20 years of experience and moving from tying kids shoe laces to working with the best players in the world, I would say the most important skill for a coach is the ability to impart knowledge and to communicate, but overall it’s your personality.

“The dividing element between the very top coaches in the world is not knowledge. The thing that takes them to another level is personality and charisma. It is that ability to communicate, to get on a personal level and get the best out of players.”


I have a lot of respect for Carlo’s style, there’s no ego or flashiness about him, he just is who he is 

In the future the Londoner hopes to have the opportunity to fill his days with the responsibilities of being a number one, rather than forever playing the supporting role. However, he's in no rush.

“I do have ambitions to be a manager. I’m not in a rush and I’ve got to wait for the right opportunity. It’s got to be the right club for me and I’ve got to be the right person for the club.

“Twenty years ago I would never have thought I would be in this position, so now I have an open mind to things and in the next ten, fifteen or twenty years I don’t dismiss or rule out anything.”

So, has the story of the grassroots Football in the Community coach who progressed to the Bernabeu disproved the myth that English coaches aren’t equipped to work on the continent?

Clement’s response is that there are many good English coaches and managers and calls for more English coaches to take the step.

“I think it’s just about some English coaches breaking that barrier, somebody’s got to be the path finder and somebody has to be the first one through the wall and others will follow.”

 

Paul Clement left Real Madrid in 2015. He has since managed Derby County, Swansea City and Reading. Article image courtesy of Denis Doyle/Getty Images.


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