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Walmsley warms to a new task

by John Davidson on Jan 17, 2013

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English-born coach Tony Walmsley has ridden the rollercoaster of Australian football for more than 20 years and helped some of our brightest talents learn their trade.

From the north of England to Tasmania, Sydney, Queensland, the Central Coast and finally back to northern England again, Tony Walmsley has enjoyed one hell of a football ride. Along the way he has learned off some of Australia’s best coaches, found success in the dugout himself and played a role in the development of many talented young Australian players. Now, Walmsley is Yorkshire-based as the head of recruitment at Sheffield United’s Academy. It’s a prestigious role, with the Blades Academy an impressive production line and that has churned out the likes of English Premier League stars Phil Jagielka, Matthew Lowton, Kyle Walker and Kyle Naughton, along with current Sheffield United players Harry McGuire and George Long, in recent years.

A dual citizen of both Australia and the UK, Walmsley has a soft spot for the big brown land. After growing up in Manchester, he originally moved down under in the late 1980s as a player-coach. “I had done my badges. It was an adventure for a young man, really, that hadn’t had a career here,” Walmsley says. “I had trials with Oldham Athletic but didn’t get picked up. So I was wondering what to do with my life and I went to Australia with no, I went with ambition, but with no real sense of what a coaching career was all about. And it just moved on from there. I found myself, probably when it was tipped that Arnie [Graham Arnold] was moving to Sydney FC, probably 24 hours away from taking the top job there [at the Mariners].”

Walmsley accepted a development officer role at Football Federation Tasmania in 1990. He spent five years in the Apple Isle, running school development programs, coach education and coaching the state team at the national championships. He then moved north to take up the position of head coach at Football NSW’s Intensive Training Centre. After nearly two years in that role he moved north again, this time as director of coaching at Football Queensland. In the sunshine state he was responsible for the development of football at all levels, from grass roots to the elite.

“When I look back I’ve had some great mentors along the way,” he says. “When I went to the NSW Institute of Sport, I worked with the Matildas under Tom Sermani. When I was at Football NSW in the mid 90s I used to go training with Steve O’Connor and his NSWIS boys. Harry Kewell and Brett Emerton were in that group. I coached against Miron Bleiberg in the old XXXX League in Brisbane. Frank Farina took me to Scotland with the Socceroos. When I look back there was all these exchanges along the way that contributed to my experience and enjoyment of it.”

After three years with Football Queensland Walmsley became the director of the Parramatta Eagles Soccer Academy, the official youth development partners of Manchester United in Oceania, in 2003.

“We built a national network of clubs under the Manchester United brand,” he says. “The whole idea was to find a Harry Kewell who was going to be worth a significant return on their investment. For me, I’m a Manchester United supporter; it was a dream come true. You look at the players that came through there – Oliver Bozanic, James Holland, Sean Rooney, a lot came through that Manchester United academy.”

In 2004 with the National Soccer League on its last legs, Walmsley took a job as head coach of Spirit FC and director of football at Gladesville Hornsby Football Association (GHFA). “I was very fortunate, it was a great organization to work for,” he says. “Good people. We won the first division, we won the Super League, we won the club championship twice. Great times.” Walmsley had great success as a coach at GHFA in his six years there and set up the body’s link with the Central Coast Mariners. It was that link that led to him later taking up the position as head coach of the Mariners’ National Youth League (NYL) side and serve as an assistant to the A-League outfit.

Walmsley took over the coaching role from Alex Tobin in the second year of the NYL’s existence and continued his run of amazing success. In his three season in charge the Mariners were premiers twice and runners-up once. He also founded and served as technical director of the Central Coast’s Academy, and helped polish many gems at the club such as Matt Ryan, Bernie Ibini, Mitchell Mallia and Musti Amini. “It’s about knowing the game and knowing where are the core catchment areas are for great players,” Walmsley says. “I did a deal with Westfield Sports High School. It was amazing that it hadn’t been tied up before. It certainly worked for us. It’s as much about recruitment as it is about coaching. If you bring good players in, then it’s about guidance and encouragement.”

During his 25-year stint in Australian football Walmsley has just about seen it all. He speaks highly of working with the likes of coaches Graham Arnold and Ron Smith. “I’ve never seen anybody with as much attention to detail [as Arnold],”Walmsley says. “His preparation of the team tactically is unsurpassed in my opinion. Ron Smith opened my eyes to how coaching can be completely different. How you can have an impact on players, how you say things, what you say.”

From the haylcon days of 1980s to the introduction of A-League and two World Cup qualifications in a row for the Socceroos, the beautiful game in this country has changed dramatically. “Football is certainly on the right path in Australia now,” Walmsley believes. “There’s a constant fight for the commercial dollar. The new TV rights deal will sustain it now until it kicks off again. That takes the pressure off the owners somewhat. The biggest change for me is that it’s modeled on other leagues like the MLS. It’s based on the entertainment business, not just on the sport itself. Everybody’s got a brand that’s worth some value. But it’s still a fight. As long as we need big names coming in to prop, to push thing up, it’s a sign that we’re not there yet.”

Walmsley has coached some of Australia’s brightest young stars during his career and has experienced both the old and the new systems of coaching education. The amiable individual feels player development and coaching education in Australia still have a long way to come but significant gains have been made.

“I’ve been through the old system,” he says. “It’s chalk and cheese the quality assuredness of what they’re trying to do there. It’s hard because they’re under-resourced… [but] it’s top notch, it’s come along way. The national curriculum, people are fighting against it all the time. Football’s such a diverse game. It diversifies people. But Australian football is working on proven facts with its systems, with its national curriculum. They know if players follow this doctrine then they’re going to get a certain result out of it. And take it all away – the good players will still rise to the top.”

After a quarter of a century in the Australian system, Walmsley headed to the UK in September 2012 to join the Blades. His role at Sheffield United is a non-coaching one and it involves managing the club’s scouting network, development centres, club partnerships and internal strategy. “It’s a big department,” Walmsley says. “It’s not a typical head scouting role. The main part is making sure the club meets its aims through the Academy. The Elite Player Performance program has put the onus on clubs to invest properly in youth development. Fortunately for me Sheffield United has embraced it and are pushing to be at the top end of that.”

He also plans to put his Australian contacts and knowledge to good use. “There’s definitely opportunities to explore Australia as a scouting market,” Walmsley says. “I’ve got a different hat on now. I’m very close to the best 17-21 year olds in Australia, so, in many respects there’s opportunities for players here if the timings right and the commercial side of it is right.” Considering his track record of recruiting and developing players in Australia, Sheffield United’s Academy is in good hands.

Walmsley’s might be in the UK for now but he isn’t ruling out a return to Australia at some point in the future. At the moment all his energies are dedicating to succeeding in South Yorkshire. “It’s not easy, I’ve taken on a big challenge,” he says. “There’s nowhere to hide. The only thing that would tempt me back would be a head coaching job. I’m ready for that, the Mariners thought I was ready for that, [but] the chances of it happening are probably slim. But, I’ve got to make my mark here first. That’s my focus.”