Today’s blog is different. I was very fortunate to secure an exclusive interview with Nick Gearing.
Nick is well known in the League and non-league football circuits from his time in the coaching teams at Gillingham and Leyton Orient, as well as a brief period as manager at Herne Bay. More recently Nick has been developing his portfolio as part of the renowned scouting network for Brentford FC, as well as building a career in education, through his work leading sports provision at a well known London academy trust.
Welcome Nick. Can you describe how you developed your career in football?
Becoming a coach in professional football was always my aim, as someone that grew up a season ticket holder watching Gillingham. The lower leagues of professional football became my obsession, being able to name a starting line up for another club in the league was usual practice for me.
Whilst at University, I realised that I had no chance of becoming a First Team Coach in my earlier twenties and so, instead, I set about learning the role of a “Club Analyst”. This decision and the subsequent opportunities it gave me allowed me to join my boyhood club, Gillingham, before being asked by Andy Hessenthaler to join Leyton Orient and then onto Brentford as a Video Recruitment Consultant, with a pit-stop at Herne Bay on the way.
During my work at Leyton Orient I took on a role as an Academy Coach, which soon became a First Team Coaching role whilst still only at the age of twenty-three. This role was one of the best that I have enjoyed, working with many now Premier League and Championship players as I played my part in their development.
How have you coped during lockdown and what have you done to stay connected to football?
It has been really tough, at the start of lockdown in 2020 I was working for Brentford and my role involved finding players for the First and B Teams and this role was mainly video based so all the time the football world stopped, I was able to carry on watching matches from around Europe.
The pandemic did put a time limit on this role and now I just cannot wait to get back to live football, even just as a fan! I’m lucky, in that I am doing a PhD at the moment, so I have used this time to educate myself further on techniques of developing players and I’ve spent a lot of my time contacting and arranging interviews with the top 25 academies in Europe, which means I’m looking forward to speaking to the coaches that have worked with the best players in the world and I can use this learning for when I can get back to football post-pandemic.
Where did you do your coaching badges?
My FA Level 1 and 2 badges, were done with the Kent FA, which was good learning, but it was a very strange situation doing my Level 2. I was working for Gillingham at the time, aged 21 but I was spending my Saturdays working with the first team and my Sundays on a course with grassroots under 8’s coaches. It felt like we were working in very different environments, with very different needs. One particular memory was when asked about our challenges in our current role, whilst some coaches were saying that ‘Billy and Jonnie had a falling out over whose ball they would use at training’ I was talking about the pressures of our team playing away in League 1 in front of 18,000 people.
My UEFA B was fantastic, I did this with the Professional Footballers Association. Basically, I had just been given the First Team Coach role a Leyton Orient, but my qualifications did not live up to the role, even though my ideas did. Some of the staff at Orient pulled a few strings and helped me get onto it. This was incredible as I was doing it with current and ex-Pros, that were Premier League and Champions League level players. For anyone that hasn’t experienced a coaching course before, the idea for the contact days are that you coach the others on the group and discuss techniques, etc. There were a few surreal moments when I look back at it, at the age of 24 I was coaching a Champions League runner-up on his positioning.
Tell us about your time working in the English Football League and any highlights.
My original role at Gillingham came from me contacting every club within two hours of my house to ask for work experience. I was fortunate to find a club that did not have an Analyst at the time. I showed that I knew football and at a young age was willing and determined to take on challenges, this then led to a full time role.
Once you are in football and build a reputation, your name becomes known and so does the quality of your work. Andy Hessenthaler was Assistant Manager at Gillingham and then became Manager at Leyton Orient, asking me to join him there as he knew we would work well together. Brentford was a nice one as I was not working in football at the time and I was contacted to work with Brentford in their Recruitment department, which is something known the world over for how precise they are in their work, being shown with huge profits from players that have been bought.
The highlights for me in my work were always matchdays. Football roles that involve a ‘match day’ are always precarious roles, a few bad results and it could all be over, but with that fear there was an unbelievable buzz when the team that you have helped to prepare execute your plan perfectly and a few thousand people go home happy.
Who has mentored you during your career? Is there anyone you can look upto?
Football is an odd business, you come into contact with so many people, but the very nature of the industry means that people do not stick around for long. I have made a lot of brilliant friends in the game and with some people my philosophy on football has aligned more than others. Ross Embleton, the fairly recent Leyton Orient Manager, was fantastic for supporting me, and the conversations we had sparked new thinking and ways to develop myself further. I really enjoyed my time working with Andy Edwards (now England U20s Coach), Omer Riza (now Watford U23s Manager) and Danny Webb (Former Orient Manager) as from a personality perspective, they taught me an unbelievable amount about coaching and managing.
Steve Lovell (current Welling United manager) was the First Team Coach at Gillingham during my time there, a man that had worked in Charlton’s Academy with the likes of Joe Gomez gave me a fantastic grounding of what makes a player, beyond simply technique, but the understanding of roles and responsibilities. We both left Gillingham at the same time and for a brief spell I helped him in his new role at Bromley FC, which was fantastic because this was about implementing a new playing style into a club that at the time was working towards becoming a professional, full time club.
The biggest thing for me in football are the coaches’ office conversations. I felt like I was soaking up the years of experience from the stories and examples of the people around me. I’ve always said that becoming an Analyst at the age of 21 in a Football League club, with the opportunities that I have had, was the best apprenticeship that you could get.
What was your time as manager at Herne Bay FC like? How did you feel when it ended so abruptly?
It really was eye opening. The owners at the time knew that I was working at a school local to the club and that I had a lot of football experience. I met for an interview and they took me on. The biggest surprise to me was that some of the players that I spoke to at this level had all of the cockiness that is associated with full-time professionals, something that I actually rarely found in the football league. They were a club in real money troubles at the time and I took on the challenge of negotiating some ridiculously high paid contracts down, or telling players that they would not be invited back for preseason after the club had players that trained two evenings a week, played a match on a Saturday and expected a yearly wage that could have been a full time job. This role was full of hope, I have always enjoyed coaching and being part of a first team set up, but this was my opportunity to run it exactly how I wanted to, with my philosophy and use all of that knowledge that I had gained, as well as my contacts to create something special.
Unfortunately the club was bought a month into me accepting the manager role and myself and my staff were not even offered an interview by the new owner, as the owner’s friend was to take over the managers position. Before taking on the role I was extremely wary as there can be so much out of the manager’s control at this level, sadly this experience made me cautious initially about re-joining non-league football as it felt as if it was very much based on who you know, rather than on any kind of merit.
What are your biggest achievements?
I’m gutted to have not won a trophy yet in football, but on a personal level, coaching first team football in the EFL is something that a 10 year old version of me would have always dreamed of. I also feel proud to know I was part of something good when working for Gillingham; competing to get promoted into the Championship and narrowly missing out.
A huge one for me is the group of young players that I have worked with. At least 10 of these players that I coached individually are now playing in the Premier League or Championship, and even though I am not working in football at the moment, turning on the TV and seeing one of the boys lining up or scoring against Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester City creates moments of intense pride.
Have you stayed in touch with non-league football and the Kent Non-League system?
I try to keep tabs on what is going on locally. In general I watch more EFL than non-league but with a lot of friends in non-league Kent football I keep an eye out for their results.
In the last couple of seasons I have helped Sheppey United, the club local to where I grew up, get an analyst of their own and met with the Owner and Manager about how to professionalise their club. I enjoy local football but I do think there is still a real lack of willingness to change. One thing I saw when watching a lot of matches with a view to being Herne Bay Manager was that a lot of teams sign and play an extreme amount of money and enter the pitch with little game plan, relying on the players that they have. I really think there is a real opportunity for coaches and young players to have a big impact on the leagues by going into it with a philosophy and implementing that.
Are you looking to secure any new roles in football at the moment?
I do think at some point beyond the end of the lockdowns and the pandemic that I would be interested in taking on a management role in non-league football. The thought of using my experience and implementing it at a club to create a winning team is exciting. It is just a difficult situation as often players want a lot of money to play and they are part-time players and not always committed, which means with the best will in the world, you can implement anything you like as a manager and be the best in the league, but if your club does not have a big enough bank account or your players are only in it for the money, you have no chance as a manager and it will only reflect badly on your reputation.
Having said this, I do actually think, and hope to some extent, that the pandemic will actually make clubs think about spending money pointlessly, so that football philosophy, rather than money and purely individual talent, comes to the forefront of non-league football. If this is the case and a serious club was interested, I would love to implement my style of football and culture to create a community club where the vision for football is known and owned by all.
Whilst first team roles are a consideration, my success within Academy football does also give me an opportunity to return to an Academy Coaching role too, should that be a path that suits.
Thanks Nick, for an honest and thoughtful interview. I am sure we will see you back in football soon as you clearly have a vision to share and much to offer the game, whether in the EFL or our non-league structure.