'It's about synergy and relationships' - Probert on his key Ipswich Town role
Gary Probert has an important role to play behind the scenes at Ipswich Town. In part two of this interview, STUART WATSON spoke to him about his wide-ranging responsibilities.
Gary Probert’s title at Ipswich Town is ‘director of football operations’.
Upon starting that role on November 1 last year, the club said he will ‘head up the club’s recruitment, academy, analysis, Under-23s and loans programme’.
“In essence we need to improve the infrastructure of the football club as a whole and my job is to try and help with that,” explains Probert.
“We need to make sure all the departments speak to each other and that it’s collaborative.
“I’ve definitely seen in the past that the first team can be off doing their thing, the academy are toiling away and working hard to try and do their thing, we hope by the grace of God that it meets in the middle and it so often doesn’t.
“The job here is to make sure there’s a synergy. Everything we do has got to be aligned and pointing in the same direction.
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“It sounds easy to do that, but as any infrastructure grows it becomes harder to keep that alignment between all the various departments.
“I’m used to being in the muck and bullets of the job – and I enjoy that. It’s that classic thing of if you see a piece of rubbish you want to pick it up and put it in the bin. We’re Ipswich Town, we’re a League One club and we all have to get our hands dirty. We all have to contribute.
“But it’s also important for someone like me to sit back a little bit and look ahead and at the bigger picture.
“There’s been loads of change in a short amount of time and we’re still in that process of getting to know each other and pool that expertise we’ve got.
“It’s a balance between doing that and cracking on.”
Player pathways is a hot topic right now given that club icon Kieron Dyer recently quit his role as Under-23s manager, voicing his frustration for a lack of game time for homegrown players and stating he ‘didn’t agree with the club’s vision’.
“I've not seen all of what Kieron’s said,” said Probert. “But we have to make sure there’s a clarity. Everybody has to see that line of sight.
“If you’re a scholar or a young pro you’ve got to see there’s hope of getting in the team, not that there are too many people in front of you.
“It’s now that horrible time of year around retain and release and we have to make some difficult decisions. You can’t have too many that are getting in the way of each other. That’s something we’ve been going through.
“We’ve obviously inherited a situation with a certain number of players under contract.”
Probert continued: “If different parts of the club aren’t talking to each other you can really block pathways – not just for academy players, but also first team players.
“How do you contract players? Who do you sign? Who do you release? Who do you get in on loan? Who do you send out on loan? How big is your Under-23s group?
“If those decisions aren’t aligned you can leave yourself in a real mess. That’s the bit we can hopefully help with.”
Ipswich manager Kieran McKenna, like Probert, has learnt his trade primarily in academy football.
“I was really lucky to be involved on the outside of the managerial search and process - that was an amazing insight for me,” said Probert.
“One of the things that became clear from the ownership group, from Mike (O’Leary) the chairman and Mark (Ashton) was that either the manager or someone in their team has to come from an academy background.
“We have to have a learning environment here, we have to develop players. It doesn’t just make business sense, but culturally and environmentally it’s the right thing to do.
“With Kieran that was a major strength in his armoury that a huge percentage of his coaching career has been doing that.”
He continues: “I’m a big believer that the first team should be aspirational. When you look over from the youth team pitches you should think ‘wow’. The organisation, the coaching, the speed of play, the technique – everything should make you think ‘I want to get over there’.
“Kieran has certainly brought that. The level of professionalism, the demand on the players, the standards – it's really aspirational. If I was a scholar coming in I’d be thinking ‘I want a piece of that’.
“Kieran has massively helped with that discussion around pathways, outlining where people are at, where they need to be and how, hopefully, how we can help narrow that gap.”
Timing, Probert agrees, is everything.
“Every young player is different,” he says.
“Not every player needs a loan – some do, some don’t. You have to know the individual to make that call.
“To put someone out there in front of 25,000, when you have to win, if they’re not ready for that it can actually put them further back than they were before that opportunity.
“There’s a lot that goes into it. But we’ve got a manager now that will put them in when they are ready.
“That was a big part of Kieran being asked to come and be the manager here for sure.”
There are a couple players in the Ipswich academy that have been the subject of plenty of column inches over recent months.
Dyer declared 18-year-old Cameron Humphreys to be ‘the second best midfielder at the club’, while 20-year-old striker Tyreece Simpson’s contract saga has been played out publicly following a messy loan recall from Swindon.
“Going back 10/15 years, a lot of people wouldn’t know who a player was until they made their debut. Now people are a lot more informed,” says Probert.
“We’ve just got to be careful how we manage that because they are still young players and they are still young men. It can be great to raise their profile, but if they’re not quite ready for it that can be difficult to deal with too.
“We’ve just got to get that timing piece right.”
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With Mark Ashton having been in Arizona to discuss plans with the club’s American owners, Gary Probert has been suited and booted in the Ipswich Town directors’ box for recent games.
That’s not normally where you’ll find him on a Saturday or Tuesday though.
“When I first came it was about watching the first team so I can understand how the manager, it was Paul Cook then, wants to play. And there is still a bit of that,” he explains. “But for the last six to eight weeks I’ve been watching other football.
"I’ll watch every Under-23s game and every Under-18s game. The majority live, but if not I’ll watch it back.
“I’ve been getting out and watching the loan players. And I've also been going out and looking at players who could potentially come in because our recruitment structure is quite small. Twice a week I’ll be out doing that."
On the subject of scouting, he said: “We don’t have a big enough infrastructure to let everyone else run around.
“But what we say about live scouting is that there has to be a purpose to go. With the technology that’s available now you can pretty much watch any game on decent camera footage from the realistic places we recruit from.
“But there is still stuff you miss by not scouting live. If you go and watch an attacker, and you get there at 20 past two, you can see them in the warm-up. That means you’ll see them take 20-odd shots. If you just watched them in the game they might only have one shot.
“How do they warm-up? How do they react when the fitness coach tells them to do certain things? What are they like when the crowd is booing them?
“But that live scouting has to be targeted. You can’t just be going off to random games for no reason."
On going out to watch loan players, Probert said: “I went to Crewe to see Reekem (Harper) play against Bolton. I went to Salford to watch Corrie Ndaba. I’m currently waiting to hear from Bailey Clements to find out if he’s playing on Saturday or not – if he is I’ll be going to Stevenage.
“I learnt this at Bristol. The loans system at a Category Two club can have a real benefit if you get it right. At Bristol we used to loan a lot, whether that was a first year scholar to the Southern League or a 20-year-old to League One and everything in-between.
“One of the things we very quickly learnt was that they feel detached from the football club really quickly. When they’re in that period of transition a lot of players will be surrounded by self doubt. They’ll be thinking ‘he came on in my position for the first team and did really well’ and ‘he’s doing well for the 23s while I'm not there’ and they can struggle to see where they fit.
“So you have to have a regular dialogue with them and part of that has to be going to see them.
“I went to King’s Lynn recently to watch Brett McGavin against Stockport. Bless him, he sent me a text 55 minutes before kick-off, when I was about 20 minutes away, saying ‘the manager’s just put the team out and I’m not starting’.
“We’d checked with him on the Monday. They’d done shape work in training and he was in the team then. So he was really apologetic.
“But it doesn’t matter. I still went. I got to see him, shake his hand and he knows you’ve gone."
Asked if he missed coaching, Probert replied: “I still get the football fix because I’m still getting wet and cold watching three or four games a week.
“The thing I probably miss from the coaching is that interaction with the players every day.
“I’ve been quite office and meetings based so far, but I need to get out and watch a lot more training and spend more informal time with the players to get to know them and what they’re about.
“The young players I’ve been lucky enough to be part of their journey for a period of time, it is down to relationships and trust.”
Does he still stay in contact with some of the Bristol City academy graduates now doing well in the Football League?
“I never want to be that person who sends a text at 5pm on a Saturday saying ‘well done today, great three points’ because what’s the point of that?” he laughs.
“Bizarrely I probably speak to their families more than them. It’s really powerful to get the football club, the player, the players’ family and anyone around the player - that could be an agent, a brother, an uncle, a grandad, whoever – on the same page.
“Some of those players are probably 20/21 now, but I still speak to their mums and dads! Because over the years I’ve made so many calls to them, when their son was 13, to explain ‘he’s going to play up in the U15s today, this is why and, by the way, can you give him a lift?!’
“It’s been amazing to see how well some of them are doing. It makes you really proud.”
Probert continues: “You have to have good relationships with players and develop that trust. They won’t trust me yet, because they don’t know me and I don’t know them, but you have to genuinely care. Because everything else is a waste of time if you don’t have that relationship.
“I always think that if you put yourself in the players’ shoes you can’t go too far wrong.
“But you’ve got to do the hard yards to develop those relationships.
"For me, that’s the most important thing that we need to spent time on. Because that’s ultimately how you’ll be successful.
“I don’t know if you’ve seen Kieran work, but he’s got a good relationship with pretty much every player.
“That’s nothing to do with his coaching sessions or the team he picks. It’s because he gives them his time. If you’re not playing he’ll tell you why, what you need to do to play and then will help you do that.
“That good level of communication has to run through the club. We need to be open with everyone, from an under-8 boy, to a 20-year-old women’s player, all the way to Sam Morsy.
“That approach is quite rare in football and if we get that right it can be really, really powerful.”
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I’d been primed to ask Gary Probert about his day with the world famous Red Arrows prior to this interview. His eyes light up when the experience is brought up.
“I did the management diploma with the LMA (League Manager’s Association) a little while ago and as part of that you do study visits to high performance environments,” he explained.
“We were introduced to the Red Arrows pilots and their instructors. We heard about how they teach leadership in the RAF. We got to sit in on the briefing before they practice, watched them practice and then sat in on the debrief afterwards. It was fascinating.
“The word ‘elite’ gets bandied around quite a lot, especially in football, but they are truly elite. And what struck me is they have unbelievable humility. They would chat just like we are now, talking about how they have to fly straight at each other at 150 miles per hour and then just move out the way at the last minute. It was incredible.”
People striving to learn and better themselves certainly appears to be a theme running through Ashton’s staff recruitment.
“There’s a real mixture of experiences in the staff here,” said Probert. “Some are at different points in their careers to others.
“Kieran and Martyn (Pert) have worked at probably the biggest football club in the world (Manchester United).
“But there’s a humility and a hunger in everyone to want to get better. Everyone asks questions, they’re curious.
“Not everyone is going to get everything right, but there’s an intent to try and be good people and do the right things.
“There are couple of Under-23s who have been injured all year, but we’re giving them new contracts because it’s the right thing to do.
“Out of courtesy you always check with Kieran or Mark Ashton and they say ‘don’t even ask us, just do the right thing’. There’s that trust.
“As long as you’re trying to be good people and make stuff better then we’ll get more right than we’ll get wrong I think.”
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So how far can Ipswich Town go under this deep pockets ownership and beefed up staffing structure?
“The size of the club probably hit me when I came to that Sunderland game just before Christmas when Kieran was being announced,” reflects Probert, 29,005 people having been in attendance at Portman Road that day.
“When the guys were talking about the potential from the business, commercial, merchandising and season tickets side of things I understood but didn't really know the metrics.
“Then I walked out for that game at 10 to three and thought ‘wow’. That gave me a real perspective. I can't remember where we were in the league at that point, but we weren’t top! I was thinking ‘this is incredible’.
“I’ve seen a lot of Championship football for the last five years and I didn't see that very often. So that’s given me a real scale of what could be achieved here.
“For me, we just want to lift the levels. Of course we want to get into a higher division, but we want to do it in a way that inspires a load of people. Mark uses the phrase ‘inspire a generation’ and I can see why he says it.
“The way the team are playing now has got people talking. We need to keep raising the bar for everything we do off the field, whether that’s some of the performance stuff that Andy Rolls leads, whether that’s young player development – all of it.
“We’ve got to keep narrowing that gap between where the younger ones are at and where Kieran wants them to be.
“We’ve got to keep improving how we recruit. We’ve got to be cleverer, smarter and have a real clarity about the type of player we want to bring in here, either temporarily or permanently.
“For me that would be a real legacy piece. If we can do that then we’ll definitely leave the club in a better place than the day we all walked through the door.”
- Part one of this interview can be read here.