An in-depth interview with our new Head of Academy Coaching, Tony Carss, who returns to Rovers 23 years after signing his first professional contract with the club.
Tony, a very warm well to the Academy or should we say welcome back to the football club. It's been a while, but how is it being back at Blackburn Rovers?
It's been a while, but it's great to come back. As soon as you drive down you get that feeling again that reminded me what it was like in 1994-95, which was obviously a great season for the club. Coming back down is great. The facilities, the reputation the Academy has here of getting young players through is something I'm excited by and I’m looking forward to the challenge ahead.
For those who don't know, tell us about that link with the football club.
Yeah, I signed my first professional contract here back in 1994 off the back of doing my apprenticeship at Bradford City. We'd got to the semi-final of the Youth Cup and we'd beaten Blackburn along the way. We drew 1-1 at Ewood and I scored in that and then we beat Blackburn 4-0 in the return, so I think I'd caught the eye in those games and then got the opportunity to come down and train for a week in pre-season in ‘94 and then signed my first professional contract for a year. It was a fantastic experience for me being around those players daily, working with them. The coaching staff were different class and just the atmosphere and the mood was brilliant to ride along behind it and obviously a great year for the club.
What a season to be a part of. What was it like being in that environment around 94-95?
It was unbelievable for me. I'd come from Bradford in League One, being a youth team player, to getting changed next to Alan Shearer and David Batty – plonked in between them in the changing room. So for me, at 18, it was fantastic. Learning from them, ultimate professionals, fantastic players, dedicated, committed, training was always 100%, nothing was left off the training ground, it was competitive, fierce at times, but it was great. And to learn, to be around those players and the staff – Kenny Dalglish, Ray Harford, Tony Parkes, Terry Darracott and Alan Irvine – fantastic experience and knowledge, and just to be here during that time was fantastic.
Even as a youngster, do you keep those memories with you as to what it was like to be around it?
Definitely. It's your first year as a professional, so it's a big one for you and my debut, once I’d signed, was at Old Trafford against United, the Class of ’92, so it was straight into the fire with that one, but playing with people like Alan Wright, Mark Atkins, Lee Makel, Peter Thorne, Bobby Mimms in goal, some fantastic players and reserve team football was like that back then – full of experience, full of quality and great for young players to get a taste of it.
Was it daunting or inspiring when you’ve got the likes of Alan Shearer walking around the place?
It can only be inspiring. You're looking up to them, you’re training with them every day. They're doing extra after ever training session. It's not a coincidence they're at the level that they're at. Mentally, in terms of dedication, is great and it was just great to be around it. There were some really good young players here as well and we were all in that together, trying to get into the reserves and playing for the Under-19s on a Saturday, but it was a great experience and great to be around them at that time.
Fast forward some 23 years later and I guess a lot has happened in between, so fill us in.
Yeah, loads has happened. I had a playing career which spanned eight clubs. Lots of highs, lots of lows, which you get. Lots of injuries along the way, which you’ve got to learn to be resilient and come back from, but again I worked with lots of different managers after here, lots of different coaches. I retired in 2006 with a knee injury off the back of five previous operations on it and then I went into coaching, where you're thrust into a position where you're hoping to play at 35-36 and maybe drift into coaching, but at 30, it's a bit of a wake-up call. I'd started doing badges and then did a degree in Sports Journalism, worked in primary schools, worked with disability football teams, young offenders football teams, so I had a great diverse experience with lots of different people and lots of different groups and I just worked really, really hard. I then got into Huddersfield. I volunteered initially when I retired, I did a little bit at Preston which I got paid for and then got into Huddersfield part-time officially and then that grew and developed in 2008-2009 into a full-time position. In last five years, I've been with the Under-18s, assistant for two years and then leading the Under-18s for three years, up until January this year, when I moved into the role of Head of Coaching, which is something a bit different for me, a challenge, but great for my development. Hopefully I can pass on the experiences that I’ve had to the coaches and the players going forward.
Once you've got that bug for coaching did you know straight away that's what you wanted to do?
Yeah, I think I always knew. Even from being a young lad, I always knew that I wanted to be a coach or a manager after playing and once I got into coaching I got the bug for it and enjoyed it, because it's as close as you can get to playing. There's different things you get from it – that pride and satisfaction seeing young players develop and ending up in the first team, having careers, earning good livings and keeping them relationships with them beyond when they've left you is important as well. So it's been a good journey and it's just the start of a new one here.
Why Blackburn Rovers? What enticed you with this role?
It's my link with the club before. I've always had a soft spot for Blackburn from my experience here and then it was the opportunity really. They’re a Category One Academy, the club have backed it massively financially to continue that, which is huge. I was reading on the website a couple of weeks before I applied that the manager is right behind the Academy. He believes in it, the club are behind it, there’s a real philosophy there and everyone in the Academy is working with a real sense of purpose, which is what you want in your role, you want to feel like you’re part of something, to try and achieve something. That was the feeling I got here and then speaking to Stuart (Jones), the Academy Manager, that just reinforced it and luckily the interview went well and I got the opportunity to come in.
What do see in your mind when you look around this place and see the facilities, how does it make you feel?
Like I said, it's great. It's a great environment to come and work. There's a great reputation, there's good players here, there's players with a real chance of getting in the first team, a real chance of having top careers and as a coach that inspires you as well. You want that. You want to be working with good players and help develop them and be part of their journey and like I said, it's a fantastic place to work. There's a pathway as well, which is massively important for a coach. You want to work with good players, but you want to believe that the club believe in them and if they're good enough they will get the opportunity and that's certainly the feeling I get here, without any doubt.
Is Head of Coaching coaching the players, coaching the coaches, how does it work?
It's a bit of both. Different clubs will run it slightly differently, but myself at Huddersfield and the role here at Blackburn it will be a bit of both – working with the coaches, developing the coaches and working with the players as well. I think the key thing is trying to build that identity from the first team right through the Academy, right through the age groups. I think that's important for Blackburn. The big message that came out in all the early discussions I had is that they want that identity and continuity right through the ages groups and that will be something I'll be looking to bring in, working closely with Stuart, and obviously with the senior coaching staff as well.
Having worked in youth football, what is the most satisfying part of this job?
There's different things to be honest, but the ultimate aim is to get players into the first team. To get players into our first team and if not our first team to get them into a first team somewhere else so they have careers. But as well as that, it's just developing them as people. A lot of them won't go on to make it as footballers, that's the reality, but you want to feel like the work you’ve done with them over the time that they’re with you will stand them in good stead, whether it be football or a different profession and I think you get a lot of satisfaction when you get phone calls from the lads in first teams, but also those lads just to keep in touch, touch base and see how you're going, that's rewarding as well.
Is it inspiring when you walk around the place and you see those pictures on the walls and you look at the number of people who have been through the Academy and made it to the first time?
Yeah massively, especially here. The reputation is huge, the success of the Academy over the years is second to none and, like you say, when you walk around the building, there are pictures everywhere of top, top players who have come through the Academy and gone on to play in the first team and been worth a lot of money for the club as well. So it's inspiring for me and everybody here.
You sound excited by the challenge?
I am, without a doubt. It's great. I'm looking forward to it. I’ve been in a couple of times, but this is my first official day, so it's great to be here officially and I'm looking forward to the months and years ahead.