I arrived at Cranford Community College. I had never interviewed anyone before, let alone the man who coaches England’s finest strikers, but here I was.
I began to follow the Sure deodorant signs where Allan Russell was waiting, the Three Lions’ one and only striker coach, and even then I still managed to get lost.
The man in the spotlight is a seasoned striking expert and the founder of ‘Superior Striker’, famed for his work with pros such as Wilfried Zaha, Aleksandar Mitrovic, Andros Townsend and Andre Gray in helping them become more prolific via his extremely effective drills.
Russell’s work in this specific field led to him earning international recognition, but not from his native Scotland.
The England set-up caught wind of the 38-year-old’s excellent work and drafted him into the coaching staff, whilst a man close to him on the training field in Harry Kane returned from Russia with the Golden Boot under his arm.
Eventually, I was where I needed to be, and how I was taken aback. BBC cameras, Allan strutting his stuff in front of goal, and Kevin De Bruyne’s personal nutritionist, Jonny Marsh, supplying the refreshments – it was all too perfect.
After tucking into some of the food that keeps the Premier League’s current greatest playmaker in shape, it was my turn to get involved in some of the drills that the likes of Kane and Marcus Rashford are well accustomed to, having worked with Allan in the national team set-up for a while now.
One iPad strapped to a mannequin, five different-coloured cones behind me, the ball and the back of the net were the tools for just one of many drills. Basically, whatever colour flashed up on the screen, I was required to run to that same coloured cone, receive the ball and then find the back of the net. Easy, right? Not really. The ball may well have been shot out of a cannon!
Anyway, after failing significantly at that particular exercise, and only managing to beat the keeper in just one of the other three drills, I decided to get back into a field I’d like to think I know a bit better: journalism.
Allan and I sat down, Dictaphone on the table, my breathing noticeably heavier than his, such is my woeful fitness, and away we went…
When quizzed on what attributes he feels are most important for a young striker to work on, Allan said:
“It depends on the profile of the player. Is he a small player? Does he like to get in behind and play off the shoulder? Is he a number 9 that likes to protect the ball, help build up play and get on the end of things?
“It’s difficult to say what a young player should be working on. What they should all work on, however, is having a perfect first touch, having good contact with their finishing, being consistent at hitting the target at all times and hitting things low and moving into productive areas, as well as having a body shape that allows them to be through on goal and not be too wide or too deep.”
With the huge variety of drills that Allan has overseen since embarking on his coaching career back in 2010, one is sure to have a bigger impact than others, right?
“Not really, because it’s always changing,” said Allan, assertively.
“It depends on the individual in terms of which drill we’re gonna be working on. There’s no particular drill which has got a magic potion. Again, it’s just adapting to the individual in order to maximise their career and looking to improve the areas of strength in their game.”
We’ve all started something once and become disillusioned after a few early issues, but was that the same for arguably the best in his profession when he first began his journey?
“I think it’s like most things in coaching, you evolve what you do because you feel you can do better,” said the 38-year-old, when asked if his drills were an instant success or if they needed adapting.
“I think that’s the same with the drills. I look back at them and analyse footage of the players, and see if there’s anything that they could be doing better or if the drill could be improved as a result. You evolve your programme and your drills in order to continue the success and challenge the players.”
Whilst doing the same thing over and over again can lead to impressive results, providing it’s correct, how does Allan keep his training exciting and engaging for the many strikers that he coaches?
“I think the good thing about what I do is that the players aren’t just running, they aren’t lifting weights, they’re scoring goals, so it’s always exciting. There’s always motivation and it’s about what’s going to motivate the individual to want to be better. That’s in the drills, the coaching points, that’s everything combined really.”
Nobody’s perfect, and even the top strikers are bound to make the odd error or two, but what is the most common mistake that players make in Allan’s sessions?
“Probably with their movement. Unproductive movement, into unproductive areas, and then approaching the ball at the wrong angle, as well as how they position themselves from crosses or from through balls.”
Short and sweet from a man who knows what he’s talking about. In Allan’s line of work, movement is everything. Everyone remembers the finish, but it’s the vital movement in the build up to the goal which allows the space for the striker to deliver.
How long does one of his sessions last?
“It varies on the needs of the player, it varies on the time of the week. Is it close to a game or is it five days from a game? On average, they probably last between an hour to ninety minutes, depending on the needs of the player at that particular point in the season.”
As previously mentioned, Allan’s ‘Superior Striker’ company has gone from strength to strength over the years, and has involved some of the Premier League’s top forwards, but how did it all start?
“It grew from when I played in America, when I was still playing and began coaching.
“As I got into the latter stages of my career, I just started to focus on the development of the programme, of the business which we grew in the US and then bought back to the UK. I’d been coaching since 2010 in the States but really started to focus on professional strikers in 2014.
“In 2013/14, it began to grow and the programme was getting a good reaction. Players that I worked with three years ago, five years ago, have gone on to have good careers, such as Christian Ramirez who just scored for the US last week. He was playing in the lower leagues in America.”
When did Allan decide to go into this line of work?
“I think it’s a natural transition for most players to evolve into coaching at some level.
“I wanted to take a different route and I wanted to focus on the specifics of strikers. It was a gamble that is now paying off and I’m lucky to work with different arrays of players up to the very highest level.”
Is there anyone you modelled yourself on as a player?
“Not really! I get asked this question quite a lot. I just took the best points from lots of different players and essentially modelled myself on those rather than just one particular player. There wasn’t one player that I thought ‘I wanna be him’.”
Similarly, is there anyone you tell the players to look at?
“Yeah, there’s loads of players I tell them to look at. Players who have retired as well as players who are still playing.”
However, no names were mentioned…
A lot has been made of players possessing a ‘natural’ talent, a gift if you will, but is a striker’s good work down to just that, or good coaching?
“I think a lot of it is coached, and I think a lot of it comes from watching top players from a young age and taking what they see and allowing it to soak in, reenacting it and then putting it into action on the pitch.
“That’s what builds the pictures for them to become good finishers. They’re not born good finishers, at a young age they need to immerse themselves in the game.”
Is there a particular age you think a striker should knuckle down and focus more?
“I think improvements can be made at any age. It’s of greater benefit to be done at a younger age, as the younger you do it the more natural it becomes.”
Any particular highlight of your coaching career?
“I think there’s a lot of highlights, including coaching different individuals at different levels and being involved with the national team. In terms of a highlight, everyday I’m out on the pitch working with a professional striker is an absolute highlight for me, to be honest.”
Is there any piece of advice given to you as a young striker yourself that stuck in your head?
“I had the word ‘composure’ said to me a lot as a young player, but it’s explaining to people what composure is and what allows that calmness on the pitch in pressured situations. That’s different to just telling people to be composed.
“I think players have a lot of intelligence now and are coached at a high level tactically. As a young player, I needed to learn what composure was and how it gets put into your game, and it comes from training in a certain way and trusting the way you train and your technique.”
Do you think composure can be taught?
“Definitely. It can definitely be taught.”
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