In Focus: Robert Gale
Posted on 2 March 2014 in Coaching
He’s one of our best.
It’s not surprising, considering Robert Gale comes from a footballing family. It’s hard to question the pedigree when five relatives hold UEFA licences. And the name Gale is synonymous with soccer in parts of Africa, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, the USA and, of course, Canada.
Gale has logged many of these miles himself, first as a footballer in England with Fulham FC and Wycombe Wanderers, and then as a coach in the United Kingdom and North America. He did this while simultaneously pursuing his licenses— accumulating both UEFA and Canada Soccer credentials.
For the past eight years, Gale has been putting this knowledge to use as Technical Director of Manitoba Soccer, where he has helped over 35 players reach the national program.
And Gale has been able to transfer this success to the international stage. As an assistant coach he helped guide Canada’s U-17 Men’s National Team to its best ever result in international competition—silver at the 2011 CONCACAF U-17 Championship. This qualified the team for the FIFA U-17 World Cup 2011, a feat they repeated in 2013.
Canada Soccer spoke with Gale at his office in Winnipeg.
From his travels around the world, to his political machinations and footballing sins we cover it all, including his role in developing some of Canada’s finest young talent.
Canada Soccer: Let’s start easy – why is Tottenham the best team in the English Premier League?
Rob Gale: (laughs) They’re not. Spurs can finish behind Arsenal and, once again, snatch Europa League football. Well done boys. Fifth place, that’s a high level of success for Tottenham. Next question.
CS: Okay, let’s move on to some political intrigue. Did you make international headlines in 2010 with the words “Oh, he’s booted him in the face in an election year” describing the actions of Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz as he challenged a young player for possession of the ball during a charity match?
RG: True story. I was doing the commentary for an inner-city charity day. It actually went viral; it made USA Today would you believe. We [the Mayor and I] still have a good laugh about it when we get together at announcements. We have a good chuckle and he promises, each time, not to kick anybody else in the face.
Gale with Kianz Gonzalez-Froese
CS: You’re Manitoba’s Technical Director, as well the Coach for Canada’s U-16 and U-18 Men’s National Teams, how do you stay grounded?
RG: (laugh) Very easily. It’s funny because Manitoba’s position within the country is like Canada’s on the world stage, at least on the men’s side. But even though I’m a kind of under-dog, in these coaching roles, the philosophy of these projects is the same—to try and get and play the brand of football we want to move forward.
CS: Let’s take a step back, where were you born?
RG: I was born in Zambia, because my dad was coaching there, but I grew-up in England. And since my mom would go back and forth from England the first five years of my life were spent between Africa (Zambia and Tanzania) and Europe. But everyone in the family is English.
CS: How did this experience broaden your footballing outlook?
RG: Yeah, it’s funny. I can remember some things about it. But I guess, number one, the experience of world travel. It gave me a bug to test myself and experience different cultures, different people and different outlooks and that has only aided my coaching.
CS: Well there’s no doubting your success, under your watch Manitoba Soccer has produced some talented players. How do you measure your achievements and what accounts for them?
RG: I think it’s doubtless to try and measure success because I don’t want to put boundaries or limits on what can be achieved. If I look back to eight years ago, when I started [at Manitoba Soccer], the biggest thing that I wanted to affect was mentality.
We weren’t pushing the players out of their comfort zones and into stronger environments. So that was something that I wanted to bring to the table. And, you know, luckily, on the male side we got great numbers. And on the female side we’ve got terrific role models. Desiree Scott, of course, everybody knows, but Erin McNulty was also a trailblazer for us. She went to three FIFA World Cups with the U-20 team. And once you get those initial role models, players doing it, then everybody starts believing in the message—that was the key for us.
CS: So success breeds success?
RG: We just had to prove that it was possible. Because if the players don’t believe it, and the coaches in your own province don’t believe then nobody is going to believe. But once players like Ezequiel Lubocki, Mujtaba Sharifi, Amos Ganyea, Dylan Carreiro started cracking the youth team, and remained on the team through FIFA World Cup qualifying, everybody was like, ‘wait a minute, there are some talented players here.’
CS: So, who were your role-models?
RG: As a player, well … I’m an Arsenal fan - for my sins – so legends of the club like Ian Wright, Tony Adams, David Rocastle – these were the kinds of players I admired. On an international stage [Dutch legend] Ronald Koeman. He was an attacking sweeper, the position I used to play when I was younger.
But it wasn’t until I was 19 and trained with Wycombe Wanderers FC that I learned about coaching. There was a guy called Alan Smith, who was a former Crystal Palace manager, and he was born right out of the Dutch mould- total football. We use to watch Ajax training videos and that kind of opened my mind.
However, I have to credit my family. Five of us have UEFA licenses—we really are a footballing family. In particular, my brother in-law, John Peacock, who is the director of coaching for the English Football Association, has been a big influence. I would love to get close to his level of international success.
CS: And yet, despite these influences, you chose to study broadcasting. Why?
RG: I’ve got an honour’s degree in media production with broadcast journalism as a minor. It’s funny; I’ve always had other interests. Whereas some [players] purely dedicate themselves to the playing side … and they are either going to make it or not—I always had it in the back of the mind what happens if I don’t become a professional player or if I get injured?
I’ve always liked the media side of the game: the presentation, the creative journalism, the writing. It has always been a passion of mine; something that I found out I was good at, at a young age. And at Wycombe I was one of the only players, training every day, while doing my university studies.
It was a unique way for me to explore both avenues. And my media training still aides me in my role [as technical director], which is something I quite enjoy. I still do a radio show (a TSN radio broadcast) at Manitoba Soccer.
CS: Has having these diverse interests helped you remain passionate about the game?
RG: Yeah, I think so. You see, a lot of young people dropout or get burned-out by the sport, especially when you’re dedicating so much of your time and not seeing the benefits or your work pay-off. I related to this when I was younger and dealing with players in my squad who are going through it now.
But I always had those outside interests. I was a keen golfer, and cricketer. I was in every sport at school. I think this diversity and my outside interests, and, obviously, my family, helped keep it fun and fresh, so the passion never diminished.
CS: Do you still play?
RG: Yeah, but anybody watching me might say I’ve given it up (laughs). It keeps me fit … and I think it’s useful for the players and the people I work with, coming through the training centres, to see me playing the game the way I like it coached. It certainly is [now] more recreational and fun, but it keeps me, some-what, in shape for when I’m in camps and working with the players.
CS: Would you say that high-level coaching requires a playing back-ground?
RG: You know … I’ve had this discussion a few times. There are various [playing] levels and I never extended a career into the senior men’s path with the professional clubs like some of my colleagues. But, I think, if you have played to a higher level, you’ve been in those environments, you know how hard it is through the various stages and this gives you the players’ respect—which is then yours to lose with your coaching. But if you haven’t played at a high level you, as a coach, have to earn that respect in a different way. I think that is the main difference really.
CS: Okay, but why should someone get accredited if they already have a strong playing background?
RG: You’ll get players who will say that, but it [coaching] is completely different. It’s a whole new way of looking at the game, and it doesn’t necessarily translate. You need to get your hands dirty. You need to get experience managing, almost like you do as a player. You need those hours under your belt, and to legitimize that you have to get your licenses. There simply are no shortcuts.
I would encourage anybody out there to get their coaching licences. Do everything from grassroots right through to the senior pathway. But get your national licences if you want to pursue a career in the game, because, then, you understand the pathway, you understand the progression of players, and the different developmental needs of all the ages.
CS: You have two young kids, what do you look for in a coach?
RG: For the young ages it has to be fun. I actually coach my daughter’s U-9 girl’s team and I think a lot of people were expecting me to come to the table with this worldly coaching knowledge. And I’m like ‘there are two things I want you to do: a) try and improve your technical quality, b) have fun. If we’re not having fun - I say this all the way up to the U-20 lads – get out, because you’re in the wrong business.’ You have to come and enjoy your football. And if you’re enjoying your football you’re going to express yourself and play to the best of your ability.
So, in a young coach, make it fun. They need to teach the game, for sure they do, but the kids need to want to come back and play, because if they associate soccer with fun they’re going to stay in the game and that’s something that benefits everybody.
CS: There’s a lot of talk about giving players room to develop, but there seems to be a disconnect when it comes to coaches?
RG: I think that depends on your philosophy. When is winning really, truly important? I would argue, at the professional level and at our senior international level – that’s it.
Now, everybody wants to win, for sure, but it’s not the most important thing. And if you’re in the development business - and I protest this regularly - winning is definitely the by-product and not the end product.
What matters is the performance, the development … are we moving players onto professional environments and senior Men’s or Women’s National Teams. Ultimately, if you have that philosophy, then there is no disconnect because you know and understand your role. But so many people get caught up in winning that it overtakes what they are really trying to achieve. They forget that you can win and get short-term success but long-term failure.
CS: You’ve been known to say, “without technique there is no tactic,” what does this mean?
RG: I have to credit Sean Fleming [Canada’s U-17 Men’s Coach] on that, because he uses it regularly. It’s an old quote by Aimé Jacquet, the France FIFA World Cup winning coach. Really at the highest levels you can have all the tactics you want in the world, but if the players can’t perform the basic techniques of the game - at speed, on demand, and under pressure - then it doesn’t matter what your tactics are; you’re not going to be successful. So unless we ground this into our players - especially at those golden ages of learning, 8-12, and then right through to 14 when tactics really start to come to the fore - you have no chance because the players aren’t going to be technically good enough.
CS: You’ve been to the FIFA U-17 World Cup twice, what’s it like?
RG: Fantastic! The game against England, at the FIFA U-17 World Cup Mexico 2011, eclipses any playing highlight; it’s simply the best moment of my soccer life. My brother in-law was on the English bench, while my whole family was in the stands. I mean, unbelievable.
But, as we talk about learning opportunities and staging posts for players, it’s absolutely the same for coaches. At the 2011 and 2013 FIFA U-17 World Cups we played teams from just about every continent. It’s just such a fantastic coaching, playing and developmental opportunity for everyone involved. It’s a terrifically, fortunate and humbling experience for a coach, because you realize just how big the game is and how small you are in comparison.
Men's U-17 Team in Dubai
CS: What were the take-aways for Canada?
RG: Number one, we can compete with anybody on the day. We went four games - and we are terrifically proud of this - unbeaten through two FIFA U-17 World Cups.
But the one thing we really took away is the importance of the little moments. In 2011, against Uruguay, we were 0-1 down with four minutes to go and we ended up losing 0:3—a game that in the first half we could have easily been 2-0 up.
At the highest level, the attention to detail matters, especially in set-pieces and transitional moments, when the execution of the finer points of the game plan require a high-degree of concentration. These are the moments that separate winning from losing.
And if the players can take away that knowledge at 17, 18, 19 and hopefully 20 then, when they go into those difficult environments, they are better prepared when it really matters, like when they go into Honduras to qualify for the FIFA World Cup. And that is ultimately Tony Fonseca’s aim, as Technical Director, and all of us as national coaches—are we providing learning opportunities and learning our lessons at a younger age so that we are not learning them when players are 23 or 24 and need to win to get the country to the level that we’re capable of.
CS: Last Question.
RG: It had better not be about Spurs. I’m hanging up if it is.
CS: I think we can let that rest. No, I was hoping you could tell us what we can expect from Winnipeg on 8 May 2014 when the Women’s National Team takes on the USA?
RG: Investors Group Field, first off, is a brand new, world class facility that everyone – from: players, staff, fans to volunteers - will enjoy. Plus tickets are in high-demand, so Manitobans will be out in-force, which will create a family-friendly atmosphere that will, hopefully, propel the team to that elusive victory over the States.