Month: February 2017

The Rise and Rise of Shaun Pearson

In July 2011, Grimsby Town signed a 22 year old central defender from Conference North side Boston United named Shaun Pearson.

Five and a half years later, Pearson captained the side in his 250th appearance for the Mariners.

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Picture by Getty Images

He’s been on quite a journey so far, yet there could still be much more to add to his story in years to come. So far in his career he’s had promotions from two play-off final victories, a play-off final defeat, three more play-off semi-final defeats, two FA Trophy final defeats and two Lincolnshire Senior Cup wins. He’s played at Wembley 4 times and represented his country at England C level.

And at 27, he’s still probably another couple of years away from hitting his prime as a professional.

It is worth making sure that Shaun is congratulated for reaching what is a great milestone of 250 appearances for one club, especially in modern day football when players (particularly in the lower leagues) seem to move clubs more frequently than in years gone by. There was a short piece in the Grimsby Telegraph on Monday about Shaun’s achievement but I’ll go into Shaun’s time at GTFC so far in a bit more depth.

He arrived in the summer of 2011 following Town’s first season in the Conference had ended with a disappointing 11th place finish. Rob Scott and Paul Hurst had been appointed Joint Managers at the Club midway through that season and were now able to rebuild the squad to their liking in pre-season. Pearson had played for Scott and Hurst at Boston and they wasted no time in bringing him to Grimsby at the earliest opportunity.

Debut

His Town career didn’t get off the best of starts. After being an unused substitute in the season opener against eventual champions Fleetwood, Pearson made his debut 3 days later in the infamous 5-0 away defeat at Braintree. Have a look at Town’s starting line-up that day:

town-v-braintree-16082011

Shaun was in and out of the team in his first season in full-time football. He made 33 appearances (including sub appearances) as he competed for a place with Darran Kempson, Scott Garner, Charlie I’Anson, for a little while Will Antwi, and from January onwards Ian Miller. By the end of the season, Shaun had established himself in the team as part of the first choice central defensive partnership with Ian Miller. Town finished 11th after flirting with the play-offs with a great middle third to the season, but having a poor last 2 months.

I think the Town fans took to Pearson quite well. His all-action style as a defender who would throw his body in front of shots to prevent a goal, and who would put his head where some wouldn’t put their feet, helped Town’s faithful warm to him.

For the following two seasons Town would be much more consistent and reach the play-offs in successive years only to be knocked out in the semi-finals. Pearson played a big part in this as part of a well organised defensive unit. At times during these seasons Town actually looked like they might challenge for the Conference title and I remember Shaun being obsessed with clean sheets and coming in after games checking to see how many goals other teams had conceded to see if we still had the best defensive record. This competitive mentality is part of what has made Shaun successful.

I think he was seen by fans, in general, as a great conference defender. Not a great deal of pace but a good reader of the game with great bravery as mentioned above. I also think he was, a little unfairly, seen as being poor on the ball. In my opinion this was down to his tall, gangly appearance that doesn’t look as natural on the ball as some others. However I do actually think he was always better on the ball than given credit for.

Yellow Cards

One of the early deficiencies in Shaun’s game was the amount of yellow cards he picked up. He picked up far too many bookings for dissent and spent too much time arguing with referees. He got a massive 16 yellow cards in the 2013-14 season but I believe that year was the turning point for him. His 16th yellow card was in the 1st leg of the play-off semi-final against Gateshead which caused him to be suspended and miss the 2nd leg (which Town lost). The following season he improved on his number of bookings and was only booked 9 times. In Town’s promotion season he was booked just 3 times and so far in League Two he has picked up just four yellow cards.

Pearson had played at Wembley for the first time in his career when Town lost on penalties to Wrexham in the 2013 FA Trophy Final, and was back at Wembley with the Mariners in 2015. Pearson had formed a good partnership with Toto Nsiala all season and stayed in the team despite the late-season signing of Josh Gowling. Unfortunately Town were again defeated at Wembley in a penalty shoot-out.

Loyalty to GTFC

Pearson was now out-of-contract at Grimsby and rumours were circulating that he was about to leave the Club. I think BBC Radio Humberside had reported that he was in talks with Barnsley. Sure enough, Shaun signed a new 2-year deal with Town and had another crack at getting Town promoted to the Football League.

In the 2015-16 season though, he would spend most of the season just deputising for the first choice pairing of Nsiala and Gowling. He did still make 32 appearances, with many of these coming as a substitute or in games where Nsiala was deployed at right-back. Throughout the season, we would never hear of Shaun complaining about lack of starts or asking to move. He was the ultimate professional during this time and performed well whenever he was playing. The season ended with success at last for the Mariners as we triumphed over Forest Green at Wembley to earn promotion to the Football League via the play-offs. Pearson was to come on as a late substitute for the goalscorer of Town’s third goal, Nathan Arnold. It was probably fitting that when the final whistle went to confirm Town’s promotion, Pearson was on the pitch along with Craig Disley and James McKeown, two guys who also started at Braintree in 2011, and who had all been through the heartache in recent years.

The Football League

So on to the Football League. Another step up for Shaun to make after moving from Stamford to Boston, and then Boston to Grimsby. Grimsby had now become a League Two Club and Pearson was now a Football League player. I have to confess, I personally wondered whether there would be a future at GTFC for Shaun Pearson last summer. He had spent most of last season out of the team and I wondered whether his lack of pace/mobility would be more evident at this higher level.

I’m delighted to say that in the months that have passed since, I have been proved wrong, and then some. Pearson was on the bench for the opening game against Morecambe. He played at Derby in the cup a few days later and had Darren Bent in his pocket but was then out of the starting line-up for the next couple of league games. Then he got back in the team for the home game with Leyton Orient and despite a slip that couldn’t be helped leading to an Orient goal, Pearson had a solid game. He deservedly stayed in the team for several weeks before being strangely dropped by Paul Hurst after the EFL Trophy game against Leicester City u23’s. Pearson had gone in goal during this game after McKeown had been sent off so it seemed strange to see him out of the team in the next game after he’d previously been in good form.

He spent the next 3 games out of the team before Hurst left for Shrewsbury. Then caretaker boss Dave Moore kept Gowling and Danny Collins as the central defensive pairing for his 2 games in charge. Marcus Bignot came in and also kept faith with Gowling and Collins for his first 5 league games, before Pearson made an unexpected start away at Doncaster in December. Shaun has been in the team ever since.

In his current run of 12 straight starts, Town’s number 5 has been in contention for Man of the Match on several occasions, has barely put a foot wrong and has been dominant against League Two forwards he’s faced. He has looked comfortable in both a back three and a back four, and ensured his name is probably one of the first on the teamsheet at the moment for Manager Marcus Bignot.

Remember that line-up for his first appearance in black and white?

Compare that to the team he led out as captain on his 250th Town appearance:

town-v-mansfield-18022017

Individual Development

Shaun’s development as a player over his five and a half years at GTFC is plain to see. Comparing the two line-ups of his 1st and 250th games, and the company he now finds himself in tells you a bit about how far Shaun has come. For starters he’s playing alongside a former Welsh international with around 150 Premier League appearances to his name.

In terms of his own game, he’s no longer just seen as a brave defender who’ll throw his body in front of shots and head the ball out of dangerous areas where boots are flying in.

His reading of the game has improved year on year. Very rarely do you see him having to make last-ditch tackles, because he doesn’t get into a position where he needs to.

His ability on the ball is an area he has always been improving. As I said earlier, I think he was better on the ball to begin with than he appeared to some, but there’s still no doubt this is an area of Shaun’s game that has made great strides. In a recent game against Notts County, he had his manager comparing him to Franz Beckenbauer after the way he brought the ball out of defence and pinged long range passes out to the wing-backs. Against Luton, he left a defender for dead in the opposition penalty area after a quick stepover. But that wasn’t the first time we’ve seen skilful moves like that from him. At Alfreton away a few years back he set up a goal after a bit of skill and again away at Southport. But his general ability on the ball and composure in travelling with the ball out of defence is helping him look more than at home in the Football League.

He’s also much more disciplined in terms of keeping his name out of the referees book these days. As touched on earlier, he was seeing far too many yellow cards in his early days at GTFC, but rarely now do you see him back-chatting referees and getting needless bookings for dissent.

Finally, has he also developed physically too? It does seem like Shaun is maybe a bit sharper now, slightly quicker and fitter than he may have been, certainly after his step up from part-time football with Boston.

Shaun “GTFC” Pearson

On top of his great service to Town on the pitch, and his great personal development, Shaun has also done more than most for the Club off the pitch. He helps out with the FITC and the GTFC Academy and is always seen doing bits in the community. This only adds weight to the thought that Shaun Pearson is writing himself into GTFC history and on his way to becoming a Club legend.

He’s only 27 and I’m sure there’s more to come from him – both as an individual and for him to achieve more success with the Club. See you in another 250 appearances Shaun!

“THERE’S ONLY ONE SHAUN PEARSON”

#gtfc

Giving Ownership and Responsibility to a Developing Player

I’ve just done a Futsal session with my under 10’s tonight and it was very much a “player-led” session for most of it. I’m a believer in giving responsibility and ownership to kids but tonight was the most I’ve had the players lead the session and it was definitely the most rewarding in terms of outcomes in the “psychological” and “social” corners.walthammarinersfutsaltourn04022017

I gave them ownership of most aspects of the session and gave them the responsibility of organising and adjusting the practices.

For starters, I told them to set up their own arrival activity. The boys took some cones and the futsal balls and away they went. I watched as some of them discussed it, before they set up some small channels to play 1v1 line-ball and got on with it.

As the last few players arrived, they came in the sports hall and asked me what we were doing. I just told them that the players had set this up so ask them. Soon enough, everyone was taking part in these 1v1 line-ball battles. With each pair choosing a slightly different shape or size channel for their game.

Coincidentally this allowed me to see who had remembered what we did in the 1v1 defending session I did just 2/3 days ago, so we just carried this on for the first part of the session. I coached a few players on their defending and offered a few reminders, before eventually stopping them. Just a brief 20-second stoppage to ask them to think about whether they want to change any rules of their game or the area they were using.

I stood back and watched again to see what they would do, if anything. Some wanted to make their area bigger, some smaller. I didn’t mind what they did as long as they could tell me why they did it. One group made it wider as they wanted to keep the game flowing as their ball previously went out of the area in their narrower channel. Another group made it smaller (a lot smaller) and when I asked why, they said it was to make it more challenging. I liked that making it more challenging was their aim, but I queried who it was more challenging for by asking “is it more challenging for the defender?”. At this point I think I could actually see the cogs turning in his brain again. Making him think was the aim. They carried on for a bit and then changed it again.

After the boys picked up all the cones they had used (only 4 cones for each pair) I gave them a vague brief on what they were to do next.

“There’s 9 of you. Split yourselves into 2 groups. Here’s 4 cones for one group and 4 cones for the other group. Both groups make yourselves an area to play a rondo, one will be 3v1, the other 4v1. Go.”

After they split themselves into 2 groups I watched who was leading the discussions or communicating their ideas or suggestions. The group of five set up their square to play a 4v1 within. As they were about to start it, one of them suggested that instead of the 4 all standing in the corners of the square, they should each stand on one side of the square each, so that they wouldn’t have a cone getting in their way. They also decided that they would play quick-fire rondo with only first time passes allowed.

The other group setting up for a 3v1 had a similarly sized small area and didn’t limit themselves in terms of number of touches. After a while I asked this group if they wanted to change anything about their game. They decided to make their area bigger. The gist of their reasoning ( I can’t remember the words they used) was that because they only had 3 on the possession team, they usually had to have one player making a move to one side to ensure 2 options for the player with the ball – so could do with the extra split second on the ball a bigger area would give them.

I asked if this group wanted to add any challenges into it. After one of them suggested 1-touch each, I gave them the option of playing 1-touch each or having the challenge to play 1-touch when possible. They recognised their smaller number and decided to play with the challenge to play 1-touch rather than the condition to. Very good. This also gave me a few moments to coach. A couple of them tried to play a first time pass when it wasn’t really possible to and the ball went astray. I asked one of them what he could’ve done differently. “I should have taken a second touch” he said. Good, I thought, as long as he understands why. So when prompted to elaborate, he re-enacted the movement he had to do to try and pass it as the ball came to him quickly at an awkward height and between his knees, and said he couldn’t pass it like that so should’ve controlled it first. Always ask why so you can check their understanding, and make sure they’re not just giving an answer because they think that’s the answer you want to hear.

The 5-player group changed the rules of their 4v1 rondo to now include a player in the middle with the defending player. So 3 players on the edge of their square playing into their team-mate in the middle who was closely marked by the defending player. Interestingly they hadn’t made the area any bigger to allow for this, but they coped with the small area brilliantly with some good, sharp passing and movements.

After a quick drinks break I said we’d play a favourite of theirs – “Keep it on the Court”.

I’d already put the cones down for the area we’d be using for this at the start of the session so just gave 4 of them bibs to put on. I asked the team of 5 to discuss how they would make their one-man advantage count. And I told them that if they don’t win I would ask them afterwards what they haven’t done. They had a little chat amongst themselves as I went to prompt a discussion on the other side. I heard one of them say they would make the pitch big, so I knew they were thinking along the right lines.

Similarly, I challenged the team of 4 to think how they could try and beat the non-bibs bearing in mind they were a man short. After they picked a formation for this small game I heard something I liked. One of them said “we’ll just let their deepest player have the ball and not mark him.” Brilliant thinking and understanding. High-five for the lad.

After the game of “Keep it on the Court”, which the team of 5 just shaded, I had some more ways to engage their brains. We were just going to play a game of Futsal now but I’d written on the whiteboard in the sports hall a challenge for each team. The orange’s would earn 5 points for a goal if they won possession in the opposition half and then went on to score. The green’s (team of 4) would earn 10 points if they won possession in their own half and then attacked and scored in that move. I placed a greater reward for the 4-man team because a) it’d help them as they were a man down, and b) at u10 its instinctive to go and win the ball immediately so I thought theirs it would be a greater challenge.

I told them to go off in their teams and discuss how they would set up and what tactics they might play to try and achieve their challenge. And then we started. The 4-man greens dropped deep to allow their opposition to come forward into their half before trying to win the ball and break. The oranges sent bodies forward to win the ball high up, but couldn’t manage it. They scored 5 goals but all after either attacking from their own half, or after playing it in from a kick-in inside the opposition half. So only single point scoring goals. The green’s had scored two single-point scoring goals. Then in the last minute before we were moving on, the green’s retreated into their own half, allowed an orange player to travel over the half-way line and then pressed. They won the ball and broke forward 2v1 to score a 10-pointer to win 12-2 with the last kick. Their own tactics and thinking had won it for them. Very pleased with the outcome of that.

Lastly, I had a game scenario written on the board for them:

“2 minutes left in the FA Cup Final. Green’s are 2-0 up but have one player less. What are your priorities 1) when you have possession, and 2) out of possession.”

I sent them away in their teams to quickly discuss how they were going to approach it. The green’s decided to have 2 defenders and 1 player ahead of them, and would try and just keep the ball. The orange’s straight away said they were going with 1 defender and 3 attackers and would play quickly, trying to get the ball off them as quickly as possible. We played 2 minutes and despite the orange team having chances, the green’s played to their plan well and eventually scored to make it 3-0 in the last 5 seconds.

I was really pleased with some of the stuff that came out of the session. I’d placed a bigger focus on the psychological and social corners of development and was delighted with the thinking behind everything they did and the logic used when explaining to me why they’d done something.

I thought that, as well as the players enjoying being given responsibility and ownership of their own development, they also got plenty out of it too. And mixing that in with my prompts and questions in future will be a good combination.

It was by no means a perfect session. It didn’t have a single topic/theme running through the session like I run my Saturday “football” sessions. And thinking about it later I could’ve given more ownership to them by getting them to pick the teams for the game (one for next time maybe). But overall I think there’s huge benefit to be gained from taking a step back and letting players lead elements of the session like that. Even if you need to give a bit of guidance and just ask the right questions to get the answers you’re looking for. But always make sure they can explain why, and that they’re not just answering with what they think is the right answer.

Give it a try. Let your players lead. Give them ownership and responsibility.

And let them play.