Richard Sadler: No club can hope to prosper without an Uncle Bob
Background staff, whose jobs aren't results-driven, are vital in nurturing new talent, says Richard Sadlier
There are certain people I always mention when I'm asked to reflect on my playing career. Whether team-mates, managers, physios or friends, these are the people I immediately recall when I think of the experiences I feel so grateful to have had.
And if I had to single out one person whose influence was the greatest, I always speak about Ray Harford. Ray was an outstanding coach and a great bloke and many of my fondest memories involve him.
I particularly remember our final conversation on a park bench at the training ground. He died from cancer a few weeks later and I retired three weeks after that. He is the one I always talk about but there was someone else who had even more of an influence without me fully appreciating it at the time. At Millwall he was known as Uncle Bob.
Bob Pearson had a variety of titles during my time there. He was youth development officer when I first signed in 1996. He was chief scout for a while and before I left he was assistant to the chairman. Regardless of his job description, though, I'm only now starting to understand the value of what he did. With the exception of a brief spell away from Millwall, he was the one constant during a period when there were several managerial changes. Including two joint-managers, there were five different men in charge of the first team during my first 18 months in senior football. And when you're a young player trying to make your way in that environment, it helps that somebody is there long enough to monitor your progress.
We weren't exactly sure of his role, but we knew some signings were made because of him. We knew there were players sold because of his say-so. We knew for sure how much influence he had on the promotion of young players into the first-team squad.
I know I was in the starting line-up on several occasions purely because of his input. And I know he was responsible for other young players advancing to the first team and staying there. Without being given the title or the recognition, he was acting as a type of director of football, a role which was unheard of in English football at that time.
Above all, because his job wasn't dependent on results, he could make decisions which were in the long-term interest of the club. He wasn't driven by short-term success or the fear of failure, two things which can dramatically change how a person goes about doing their job. And in England right now, that's exactly what is hampering so many managers.
The recent spate of sackings – seven in the space of eight days – brings the average managerial tenure to around 1.8 years in the top four divisions of English football (it's as little as 1.04 years in the Championship). It's not hard to imagine how damaging that can be in the area of youth development, particularly at clubs where the manager has total control.
There are many theories as to why so few young English players are being given first-team opportunities in the Premier League, but it's the natural consequence of an industry which has become obsessed with the avoidance of failure. There's too much money at stake. How can a club be serious about youth development if the first-team manager needs to avoid a run of bad results to keep his job? After all, there is less risk and less work involved in spending money on established players.
It's very rare to find managers so secure in their job they can afford to be patient with kids. Unless someone else is there to oversee their transition into first-team players, that is unlikely to change any time soon. Bob performed that role at Millwall and he was hugely successful at it. He was able to use his influence with a succession of managers to help a number of academy players gain first-team experience. Six of us from that period went on to win international caps, an extraordinary return for a club of Millwall's financial resources.
But the most obvious example of Bob's influence came in January 1997. I had just turned 18 and I was miserable. I was homesick and didn't want to stay in London any longer. I didn't think I was making any progress in the youth team and didn't fancy wasting any more time chasing a dream I thought would never materialise. I phoned my family to let them know.
Amazingly, things took a positive turn within 48 hours. I was called into the first-team squad and made my debut at the Den the following day. Years later I realised my mother took matters into her own hands and let it be known what I was thinking. Bob took care of the rest.
It's an unconventional route into first-team football, but it was made possible by the presence of Bob and the role he was there to carry out. It takes long-term thinking and patience to develop young talent, and few managers have the security to do that. They certainly don't have the time to take calls from players' mums.