Photograph courtesy of Falkirk Football Club with prior written approval.
Written by Colin Byiers
Falkirk’s Co-Manager, David McCracken, hasn’t been in management very long, but has had a lot to deal with in the last 18 months. Coaching wasn’t what he had planned to do when he finished his long playing career as I discovered when he spoke to me about what it’s like to be a coach in football just now.
So, David, tell me about the level of coaching that you received in your early days as a youth player.
Like most, I started at my local Boys Club, and it was more about the community and having fun. The coaches there were very dedicated to the club and would put on community events, which helped us, but still with the aim of developing the young kids. Over the years, you go on trails at different teams, and I ended up at Dundee United when I left school. When I joined, they had Maurice Malpas, Paul Hegarty, Terry Butcher as your youth coaches. Massive icons of the game, big name players! They were old school in the way they trained, the way they put their sessions across. It was all about the hard work. You had to earn the right to play and if you didn’t, you were quickly taken out and told about it. That’s a part of the game that’s missing now. There is a lot of talk about how to speak to players and how to treat them as well, but that was a massive learning curve for me and I would prefer it to be that old school way, because it teaches you life lessons as well. Things like respecting your elders, coming and doing your jobs like having everything set out for the coaches and if you didn’t, then you’d be in trouble. In time, hopefully, that’ssomething that myself and Lee (Miller) can implement back at Falkirk, were we can have the youths back and have that internal system where they are growing as people and not just as players. At the age of 16 – 19, is a massive learning curve, not just as a player but as a person as well. You are finding out about yourself, and you are maturing. When I left school and joined Dundee United, you think you have the World at your feet, but the first team players quickly take you back down to Earth! You soon realise your place. I think no matter where you are, whether it’s in football or in job elsewhere, when you first come in, you have to know your place. You have to work your way up those levels, and I don’t think anyone has the right to come in at a higher level and expect not to do the hard work that everyone else has done.
You had a spell in England, did you notice a vast difference in the quality of coaching and facilities from what you were used to?
I went from Dundee United down to Wycombe Wanderers and a lot of the press stuff was about why I left a Scottish Premier League team to join a League 2 team in England? At that point I needed to get away from Dundee United, I needed a change and I needed to get away from Scotland because I was playing against the same teams, the same players and my game at that time had completely stalled. I was picking up bad habits and I was probably going backwards. Paul Lambert signed me at Wycombe and soon made me captain, so straight away there was a change in mentality. I had been captain at times, here and there, at Dundee United but to be given that thing of you are in charge of that squad now, so I had to change my thought process, you know, the way I thought about players, the way I spoke to players but it was good for me. In England, they are miles ahead of us in terms of the physicality side of things. In Scotland, we are getting better at it, but it’sdown to finances. England are a step ahead in those terms, so they can adapt their training, they can have a training pitch or training ground where they can go every day. They can have facilities like a gym and have a strength and conditioning coach or have a nutritionist or two physios. Whereas in Scotland, finances determine that you don’t have that, and you rely on the players doing it themselves.
Working under Paul Lambert, you learn a different side of the game. The level that he played at was massive. People used to ask me if he was like Martin O’Neill and I never worked with Martin, but once you hear it, you start to see it. Simple things, like the way he used to roll up his sleeves, or his hand actions. The knowledge that Paul had of the game, for me, was second to none and I still speak to him now and again.
I came back (to Scotland) as a better player, but I was behind in terms of my physical fitness as I hadn’t really played much in my final year in England before Derek McIness signed at St Johnstone. I played a few games at the start of the season and struggled, so Del took me out of the team and said that we needed to get to the bottom of this (fitness). It was a bit of a wake-up call and after that I was conscious of my physicality and that took me to new learning where I done a gym course and then became a personal trainer through one of the PFA courses. That experience of not being fit and being taken out of the team was obviously not good, but I turned that into a positive as it made me look at my physical wellbeing in a different way.
Did you always want to stay in the game once you finished playing?
Honestly, no. There was a point where I was at Falkirk in my 3rd year, and I was thinking to myself “what’s next? Where do I go?”. In my last year at Falkirk as a player, we did a lot of mindfulness stuff, where Connie McLaughlin, who works in the press, had her own company, and she came in and talked to the boys about your mindset, self-awareness, and things like that. I had a few meetings with her, just to work that out, you know, who was I, where was I going next? Was it to go into coaching, which I didn’t have a massive hunger for if I’m being honest. I don’t know if it was because I was confused about the transition from being a player, because that’s all I knew how to be. You start searching and think “should I try this, or should I try that?” “What if it goes wrong?”. So, I started to worry about it and stress about it a bit more. I was fortunate enough at the end of that season, Falkirk had built a performance gym in one of the stands and they asked me to run that and work with the first team as well. I thought, this is great. This will keep me at the club, I know the club, I know most of the players. Peter Houston then left and Paul Hartley came in and I felt there wasn’t a need for me then. Paul came in in with Tam Ritchie, who did all the fitness stuff and there was a massive urge to do any strength and conditioning stuff or any of the gym stuff that went with the physical stuff on the pitch. After that, I felt anything I was trying to do with the gym, I was hitting a brick wall and ended up being made redundant from it. That was when I went back into the personal trainer stuff and at the same time, I joined Peterhead, which, without realising it, was the start of a new journey for me.
How important a role did Jim McInally play in getting the spark for coaching and getting you to where you are now?
When I spoke to Jim, he needed that bit of experience in the team but understood my position that I was still working full time. I started picking up new traits again by watching Jim and Davie Nicholls and as time progressed, they offered me a new contract but said that I might not play as much but there would be a role for me and start getting involved in the coaching side if I wanted to. It wasn’t a case of, you doing the warm ups or you watch and we can talk about it after. Jim said to me one day “what do you want to do with the training?”. I was like “…eh…”. I know loads of training sessions, but now I’m on the other side of it and it’s me that’s taking the training. Now you have so much other thoughts going through your head, like why you are setting up a certain passing drill or why are you setting up a certain passing drill. Is it anything to do with last week’s game? Is it anything to do with the team we are playing next?There’s loads of things, and you’re trying to fit it into an hour and a half session. At first, I would always ask Jim “what about doing this or doing that?” and he always say “Aye. On you go.” I expected much more resistance than that, but that, in itself, gave me so much confidence to try different things. It quickly got me into a different thought process, thinking about the game on Saturday, what we were good at and what we weren’t so good at, so then you know what we can work on during the week. I would then implement different things, even with a passing drill, if we didn’t pass it through the middle as well at the weekend, so is it about trying to find the man in the middle or is it about getting it wider and doing some crossing and finishing? Jim would just give me free reign, and as a new coach, that was very liberating. The players I was coaching, I was playing with the year before, and I didn’t want to be one of those people who went from being a player to a coach and end up being an idiot. So, I said to the players, if there is something I am putting on and you either don’t understand it or don’t like it, then tell me. A few did. Some said “that was brilliant. I really like that.”. Others would say “…maybe cut down on this” or “could we try some of this?”, and I started to get guys, particularly defenders, asking for 10 minutes after training to work things like heading or whatever. From there, I took on more of the defensive stuff, making sure all the set-pieces were all arranged. That adds another layer, because you have got to know the team and know where certain players are going to be in certain positions. I’ve said to Jim, that I owe him a debt of gratitude, because he did give me that opportunity to flourish and have that openness to do what I wanted to do.
How has coaching changed over the year?
The modern-day game is focused on statistics. We do it at our club, using the GPS data, to tell us how far the players are running. Not only that, but what type of running is it? Is it straight lines? Is it general runs? Is it twists and turns? We’re fortunate that we’ve got Graeme Henderson, (head of performance at Falkirk), who is at a high level, and we see that data from the GPS every day after training. Once the data has been uploaded, Hendocan give us a graph and an explanation of how hard the boys have worked and what areas they worked in. We’ve seen it where we’ve done the Thursday session and we’ve realised we’ve over worked them, without it been obvious we have. It then lets you look at the Friday session and that will have to be a lighter session than you were planning so that when you get to the Saturday, the legs are back again. Looking back that is the exact opposite from when I started. It was a case, you worked hard all week, you got battered, then you did the same on the Saturday! Even for us looking to sign players, that’s a part of their game we look at. We look at their stats. What’s their passing percentage? How far are they running? If it’s defensive, how many clean sheets are they getting? How many headers have they won? So, the data side of things is a huge part.
One of the other big differences, is the mental side. For us, and the pressures we are under, in terms of winning the league, if we are looking to sign a player, we probably won’t be signing someone who hasn’t achieved much in terms of winning stuff. If it’s someone who has spent much of their career in relegation battles, then their winning mentality might be missing. That’s not to say that we won’t sign them, if they cover a certain number of attributes, then yes, we would take them, because as managers and coaches, we look at a players attributes and think, “can we better that, or better them in certain areas?”, and if we do that, then in 6 months’ time, we might have a better player than we signed. It’s also about making sure that the boys are all ok. We make sure that there can be an openness and they can speak to us. We’ve had players, and I’m sure we will again, have problems away from football, whether it’s family, money, gambling or anything else, we need to make sure that that player get’s help or is able to speak to someone, because if they are worrying about something off the pitch, then they might not be able to perform properly on it. We try and eliminate as much of that as possible and take those barriers away as much as possible. We’ve had so many conversations with players at different levels, that it shows that openness that we are trying to promote is growing. Myself and Lee tell the players that we wish we had tried speaking to somebody about our problems or tried something different instead of trying to deal with it ourselves. That’s what we are trying to promote them, is that they don’t have to deal with it themselves, we are here for them.
Finally, is management anything like you thought it would be?
(laughs) Not over the past 2 years, no! Listen, it has been brilliant, it’s been really good. From when I started coaching properly at Peterhead, right up until now, it’sbeen great. I try and promote enjoying what you are doing in any job, and if you don’t enjoy it, then you infect the people around you and putting that negativity on them. I’d much rather enjoy my job and have a smile on my face and, yes there will be tough times, but if you can ride that out, the good times always out weight the tough times. We want the boys to come in and enjoy themselves and we can see a difference from when we first came in, to the point that they are all chomping at the bit to get back on the training pitch.
It’s been way more than I was expecting, probably more so of what’s happened in the last couple of years, but I’ve loved it and it’s put me such a great place, it’ll be good to see where I am in the next couple of years.