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Introducing the hybrid player-coach role that's being used at Man Utd and Liverpool to drive standards

Introducing the hybrid player-coach role that's being used at Man Utd and Liverpool to drive standards

We spoke to Tom Huddlestone and Jay Spearing about the crucial role they play in the academy system at Manchester United and Liverpool.

"Why is he playing for the U21s team?"
"How does a 37-year-old end up playing for the youth team?"

The date is February 21st. It has been 46 hours since Tom Huddlestone scored the decisive goal for Manchester United under-21s in their derby win over Manchester City and the post-match reaction from his latest outing is still being discussed by many.

“I've had some great feedback but there's definitely been a bit of confusion as well!" he tells SPORTbible with a grin.

On a brisk Wednesday evening in Greater Manchester, the ex-Spurs, Hull City and Wolves midfielder is keen to clear up any uncertainty around a hybrid role that is becoming more and more popular in the modern game – and for good reason.

Huddlestone, who admits to landing on his feet after replacing former player-coach Paul McShane ahead of the 2022/23 campaign, continues to play an instrumental part in developing academy players, coaching from within training sessions and driving daily standards off the pitch.

But with several players being loaned out to Football League clubs — not to mention a string of injuries and first-team call-ups — the Premier League 2 side are struggling for numbers; hence why Huddlestone has featured so regularly of late.

“I've played the last five or six games, which isn't the intended plan," he says.

“The motive is to help the lads and get them as much game time as possible but Kobbie [Mainoo] and Willy [Kambwala] have been up with the first-team, and midfielder Dan Gore is out on loan. The team at the moment almost picks itself."

Still, the experienced midfielder is keeping pace with opponents half his age. In fact, during last week’s win against Man City, goalkeeper Dermot Mee was the only player on the pitch that was born when Huddlestone made his professional debut for Derby County in 2002.

“I've still got to be able to compete if called upon so I'll often train with the under-21s team," he says. “I'm currently playing but from a coaching standpoint, I'm there to help the lads out tactically and implement the work we've gone through in the week. If they happen to forget certain things, I’m here as a constant reminder.

“For example, when there's a drinks break, I'll often go over to the lads and let them know they should have taken an extra touch, or to swivel and play forwards.”

Tom Huddlestone after he found the net for Man Utd under-21s in their Premier League 2 win over Man City. Image credit: Getty
Tom Huddlestone after he found the net for Man Utd under-21s in their Premier League 2 win over Man City. Image credit: Getty

As well as being an active member of Travis Binnon's matchday squad, Huddlestone continues to play an important role around the training ground, often focusing on a position he is very familiar with.

He will take seven or eight central midfielders and create different drills based on what they want, and need, to improve on individually.

“We’ll sit down ahead of the season and each player will tell us their three targets," Huddlestone explains. "They’ll talk about what they perceive to be their strengths and weaknesses, and what they feel that the staff can help them with, which could be additional technical or tactical work. That might mean an extra 35-40 minutes going through video clips of their games and training sessions. It varies from player to player.”

Huddlestone and the rest of the academy coaching team are also working hard to implement Erik ten Hag’s philosophy, so if a player does get the chance to feature at first-team level, they are fully prepared for what’s to come. Academy product Omari Forson, for example, will have been well-versed in Ten Hag’s system and style when he made his full debut against Fulham on Saturday.

“The coaching staff have been open with us and we're trying to implement a few of their ideas to make it an easier transition if any of the lads are to step up or join them for training,” he says. “This includes build-up play and the way we press.

"I think an important one, which a lot of the lads haven't done, is the way the first-team is set up from set pieces. We've had meetings with the staff regarding that and we'll mirror what they do. If you're a young lad and get thrown on in the last ten minutes of a game, and you don't know what you're doing at set pieces, you'll soon find yourself out of the team.”

Like a number of managers before him, Ten Hag has put his faith in youth. So far, PL2 regulars Willy Kambwala, Dan Gore and Omari Forson have been handed Premier League debuts this season, and ahead of last weekend’s game against Fulham, youth prospects Harry Amass, Habeeb Ogunneye and James Nolan trained with the first-team squad.

Since October 1937, when Tom Manley and Jack Wassall sported the famous red in an away clash against Fulham, the club have continued to name an academy player in their squad. Ten Hag wants to continue that tradition and has backed more academy players to break into his team.

“It’s in the DNA of the club,” he said before Saturday’s game. “It has always given opportunities for a way through the academy and into the first-team.

“We are mentoring them on their way through, because we saw their potential was higher than the current squad players in that moment and in that position. There were players who had the potential and we have given them the time to develop and to progress.”

Academy product Omari Forson was handed his full Premier League debut against Fulham on Saturday. Image credit: Getty
Academy product Omari Forson was handed his full Premier League debut against Fulham on Saturday. Image credit: Getty

Those recent call-ups are a testament to the hard work Huddlestone and his team are doing at Carrington.

“It shows that if you're consistent enough in training and have the ability, then you’ve got a chance,” the former Spurs midfielder says. “We’ve already seen the manager isn’t shy when it comes to keeping academy players in and around that first-team environment.”

Somebody who has taken his chance after being promoted to first-team training last season is Stockport-born midfielder Kobbie Mainoo; the 18-year-old phenomenon who has gone from playing Premier League 2 football to becoming a first-team regular.

It didn’t take long for Huddlestone to realise he’d witnessed something special.

“On my first day at Carrington, I came up and had a look at the lads in training,“ he recalls. “I was speaking to a friend on the way back home and said, ‘There are two lads who stood out during that session and one of them is a player called Kobbie Mainoo. He looks like a younger version of Yaya Toure.’

“The other player was Omari [Forson]. He reminds me of the way Bukayo Saka plays. He's good with both feet and can finish very well, especially with his left foot.”

Huddlestone goes on to recall his first target-setting session with Mainoo ahead of the 2022/23 campaign. “Two or three months into last season and Kobbie had already smashed all of his targets and then by the end of it, he was training regularly with the first-team.

"To do what he’s doing as an 18-year-old, at a club of this size, is some going. It looks like he's been doing it for years. He's as composed as anyone I've ever seen and that comes from self-confidence in your touch, your manipulation of the ball and your passing ability."

Kobbie Mainoo [far left] and Tom Huddlestone [far right] during an U21 clash against Fleetwood. Image credit: Getty
Kobbie Mainoo [far left] and Tom Huddlestone [far right] during an U21 clash against Fleetwood. Image credit: Getty

In terms of the hybrid player-coach role, those previously mentioned examples who have flourished in the academy continue to benefit from having a senior pro on the training ground.

Does Huddlestone think more clubs should be looking to hire people in the hybrid role? “I think it's good on all levels. It can really benefit the club,” he says.

“Myself and Jay [Spearing] are players that have played at a high level fairly recently, so you get their respect that way. If they do decide to search our name on Wikipedia, they can have a look and see what we've done.

“I also think it also gives another layer of confidence in reinforcing the manager's idea. Travis [Binnion], in this instance, is being backed up by somebody who has that experience. We know the demands of league football, which is ultimately what all the players are trying to carve out for themselves.

“I've noticed I see different things when I’m playing compared to what I’d see if I was on the touchline,” Huddlestone adds.

”From the hybrid role person's point of view, you get to see all the behind-the-scenes stuff regarding coaching while also contributing on the pitch. It’s been excellent to see that side of it. And equally, I'm still getting a competitive fix by training most days and playing games as and when I'm needed.”


Jay Spearing was sat in the stands at Wembley on Sunday afternoon, bursting with pride as five academy products featured for Liverpool in a famous Carabao Cup final win over Chelsea.

"If I'm honest with you, it was nerve-wracking as hell!" he laughs. "You know they are good enough to play in those moments but you still get nervous. You just want them to do well.

"But to see them go on and be trusted by the boss makes it even better; not just for me but for the staff who have worked with them over the last couple of years. I was absolutely buzzing to see them play in such a huge game.

"They've all got on the ball, played and caused real problems against players who are worth hundreds of millions."

Conor Bradley, Bobby Clark, James McConnell, Jayden Danns and Jarell Quansah would all play an important role for Jurgen Klopp's side at the weekend as Liverpool became the first team since Arsenal in 2007 to feature three teenagers in a League Cup final.

Klopp would praise the "incredible job" done by Liverpool's academy after those graduates stepped up to the mark against a Chelsea starting line-up worth an estimated £471 million.

Full-back Andy Robertson, meanwhile, sent a message to those responsible for helping develop and nurture such talent at Melwood. He believes the club have created an environment for the previously mentioned to grow and mature.

"It comes from the coaches driving that into them and then when they come into the first-team it is not allowing them to get too far ahead of themselves," Robertson said after the full-time whistle.

“I think the squad is really good at that but also the coaches, they don’t give them too much, too soon and I think that’s key to it. It also comes from their own mentality."

Jayden Danns holding the Carabao Cup trophy after featuring against Chelsea.

Academy graduates have featured heavily for the Premier League leaders in recent months and former Liverpool midfielder Spearing, who has played in eight games for the under-21s this season, is driving those standards in his hybrid player-coach role.

"It's all about showing them what you have to do on a day-to-day basis to become a professional at an elite level," he tells us.

Spearing was still playing for League Two side Tranmere when he was approached by Liverpool's academy director Alex Inglethorpe in the summer of 2022. At the time, he was working with the club's under-16s to pick up his coaching badges.

"Alex asked, ‘What are your plans for next season?’ and it took me about 15 minutes to decide whether it was a yes or a no.

"For me, this is the best role I could've ever asked for. I still get to play. I still get to train. I'm just right at the start of my coaching journey. I've got so much to learn on that side of things. I know that myself and that will come in time, but to be able to wear the Liverpool badge again. It's unbelievable.

"To be asked to come back and help the next generation kick on and achieve their dreams is incredible."

Robertson's post-match comments about the academy environment at Liverpool speaks volumes. Preparing players for success, both on and off the pitch, is one thing but they also want to create well-rounded individuals who embody the club's values.

The academy has implemented a £50,000-per-year wage cap and to encourage focus and discipline, all players are required to hand over their phone at 8.30am ahead of training.

They have also imposed strict guidelines on the types of vehicles young players are allowed to bring to training, prohibiting cars with engines exceeding 1.3 litres.

"We want them to get into good habits," Spearing says. "We know how tough it is to make it at the highest level but, whatever level they end up playing at, we want them to be good human beings. They've got to have manners around the building with everyone; whether that be security or the receptionist.

"We want to create the best footballers. That is our main job, of course. But being a good person is just as important."

Academy director Alex Inglethorpe recently spoke to the Telegraph about character and youth development, and how the club is aligned in that the under-21s and under-18s will try and mirror the first-team set-up.

"From the under-16s down we will prioritise different skills at different age groups, with more technical work,” he said.

Since joining Liverpool, Klopp has handed senior debuts to 41 academy players in total, which equates to roughly five academy players per year. Spearing knows their hard work on the training pitch to mirror those methods has been so important.

“If we weren't working the same as the first-team, then those debuts wouldn't come," he says.

“Pep Lijnders comes down quite a lot with Vitor Matos and they explain how they want things to be done. The boss also comes around and explains situations. We replicate most things that they do. Certain principles are non-negotiable, such as counter pressing and pressing forward. Those are the principles he wants to see day in and day out.”

Spearing during a Premier League 2 clash against Fulham in January.

To help prepare academy players for the prospect of first-team football, as well as their overall development, Spearing has a unique role within the set-up as he switches between player and coach.

He is able to pass on his vast experience to the next generation in training, where a normal week would include working with midfielders when it comes to receiving, passing, breaking up play, counter-pressing, and driving forward with the ball.

"If I’m inside a session and feel as if something isn’t clicking, I can speak to the coaches when there's a little break in the session and suggest we change certain things," he explains. "On the flip side, when it feels natural, then you say, ‘Okay let's keep it going, That’s working.’

"We'll also teach them different ways of dealing with certain in-game scenarios, like if the opposition team is on top then we might have to sit in and defend into a low block. It's these types of scenarios that we're trying to help them with."

Spearing adds: “You can get after the lads a little bit, as well, and get them ready for that time when they cross the other side of the AXA building. Virgil [Van Dijk] isn't going to be their best mate all the time. If he wants them to go and press with intent, then he’s going to let them know. I feel like I’m the one that's shouting to prepare them for that."

The 35-year-old believes he could "100 per cent" still play for a Football League club but his first step into coaching, at his boyhood club, under one of the all-time great managers, is something he couldn't pass up on.

When speaking about Jurgen Klopp, Spearing's face lights up.

“Jurgen is one of the best man-managers I've come across," he says. "How he makes the team feel, whether you're playing or not playing, is unbelievable. You see it around the building on a day-to-day basis. The tightness they have as a group. And it's all 30 players including the young lads.

“The best managers I've worked under have been able to make players feel like a million dollars. That's something that Jurgen does. He wants to know everything about you and your family. When you connect with someone like that and build a relationship, it's really special."

Spearing has great admiration for Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp. Image credit: Getty
Spearing has great admiration for Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp. Image credit: Getty

Does Spearing think more clubs should be looking to hire people in the player-coach role? Two years ago, he was unaware of the impact it would make at Melwood.

But after building a unique connection with the academy group through his presence, both on and off the pitch, he has encouraged teams in the Premier League to follow suit.

“I think it's an unbelievable thing for the boys," he says. "Just wearing this training kit opens a lot of doors for conversations. I feel that barrier is already down because they see you in the same kit.

"I know players who think it's harder to go and speak to a member of staff in a different coloured kit, because that's just how it is - like any workplace. It's always a bit difficult to have a conversation with the boss but a lot of the time, they come to me and ask for advice.

"They ask questions like, ‘How do you think I should do this? Do you think I should go and speak to the boss? How do you think I should put this across, Am I doing it at the right time?' Wearing this kit opens so many doors."

Spearing is also familiar with the confusion around his role. Like Huddlestone at United, some have questioned why the former Bolton and Blackpool midfielder is playing instead of those coming through the ranks.

“People can write those comments but we're not in this role to take people's places," he smiles. "We're trying to help set standards, showing them day-to-day habits of what it takes to make it at the highest level.

"We're not trying to step on people's toes, we're there to guide and help."

Featured Image Credit: Getty Images

Topics: England, Kobbie Mainoo, Liverpool, Manchester United, Premier League, Spotlight