During the enforced break in football at all levels due to COVID-19, I took the opportunity to catch up with old friend and fellow coach Stuart Searle (remotely of course!). Currently Head of Technical & GK Coach at Chelsea Women’s FC, Stuart has been involved at the elite end of women’s football since the early days to much success; developing & coaching international GK’s along with assisting the team to silverware.
But what pathway did he take which led him to where he is today?
Find out below in an open, honest and frank interview about both his professional playing and coaching pathway.
Before we kick off, we’re in the midst of an unprecedented break in football for an unknown period of time. How are you ensuring that the Chelsea GK’s are keeping ‘match sharp’ away from the training ground?
It’s tough times, a word that has been brought to the fore for everybody is unprecedented. This puts a lot of perspective on what football is and means for people in the world. For me is very much about trying to keep the GK’s stimulated in as many possible ways as you can.
Whilst in isolation you have to think about how this can work and what you can do. The way GK’s train and the relationships you have on a daily basis are very much about serving footballs and creating game realistic scenarios. Neither of these are currently possible so we have to find ways to stimulate their brains so that when they come back into a training environment at Cobham, whenever that may be, they haven’t gone too far ‘backwards’.
What this means is a lot of self-education, taking time rather than jumping in at the deep end, looking at what other people have done, analysing and assessing what I do on a daily basis via my session planning to see what we do regularly that can be extracted and placed into an individual program.
Phase 1 at the moment is about hand/eye co-ordination, using multi-colour stimulus and peripheral vision. We are looking to create videos that the GK’s can reference and take onboard feedback from them.
Phase 2 is looking at movement, in conjunction with the Movement Coach interlinking technical with the physical side. With regards to running a GK’s needs is very different from an outfield player; GK’s cover 3-5km in a game through walking, jogging and explosive actions (e.g. 5 and 10 yard). All this needs to be taken into consideration to ensure that any programme we put together is relevant.
Once the co-ordination, physical and movement side of these plans are developed we can bring them together, for example a squat jump into a low dive. With this action, technique can still be practiced and as a coach we can still pick up on fundamentals from this.
I recall you playing non-league at Carshalton Athletic back in the day, how did you come to be a goalkeeper to start off with?
I started playing at the age of 6 in the Primary Boys Football League (PBFL) based in Raynes Park. When I joined a team, they wanted me to play left midfield, I didn’t know my left from my right back then and was absolutely hopeless!
One day the GK was sick, they asked me to go in goal and the rest shall I say is history! From then on, I only wanted to be a GK; it came naturally to me and I did quite well, I seemed to have good instincts and enjoyed the position.
Football was always an enjoyment and became more serious when I joined my first Sunday League team. In my first season we reached a Cup Final and I was quite fortunate as I stayed with the same team from 10-16 with success year in, year out.
When we got to the age of 14 we first started to be watched by Scouts. Back then, it was a lot different than what it is now where clubs have 100’s of scouts in a network all over the country. There would be just one guy recruiting players for the Centre of Excellence (CoE) for the local team and in my region, it was Wimbledon or Crystal Palace.
John Phillips of Crystal Palace scouted me when I was 13, he recommended I attend Perry Suckling’s Goalkeeping School. I did this for about 6 months then due to financial difficulties at home it was difficult to do anything externally, but I was still able to play at the weekend.
At 15 I was invited by my old PBFL manager to train with Tooting & Mitcham. At 16 I was fast-tracked because of injuries to the first team and played in the Surrey Senior Cup Quarter Final & Semi Final which we both won. However, the first team GK was fit for the final so he played in that.
This was the start of my journey professionally as from there I was playing in both the youth and reserve teams, plus half a dozen games in the first team too. John Phillips then reappeared, he had joined Wimbledon as a scout, and recommended me to the CoE Manager Roger Smith at the age of 17.
Stepping into a professional environment at Wimbledon; what was that like?
It was in the days of the old YTS scheme and I signed a 2-year professional contract. It was the biggest learning curve for me as it was my first experience of ‘serious’ football.
Being young, naïve and not having an education around what it takes to be a professional I was initially an outsider in that environment. The rest of the team had come though the CoE and had been together from 14+, it showed me what I really needed to achieve.
It was at Wimbledon I got my first real taste of GK coaching. As a young GK everything was born on instinct for me; I didn’t know why I was doing what I was doing in game, but I was quite good at it!
I learnt an awful lot during that time although I found it personally difficult to find a place in the group. I built a relationship the GK Coach Stuart ‘Mad Dog’ Murdoch who was working with the pros at the time there, Neil Sullivan, Paul Head & Brendan Murphy.
After 2 years I got released from Wimbledon, deservedly so as I wasn’t good enough to go to the next level at that moment in time. This gave me a massive grounding. Being in part of the ‘Crazy Gang’ environment was a massive education in itself, being around the likes of Vinnie Jones, Peter Fear, Robbie Earle and others was enlightening and I learnt a lot of life lessons at that time.
Whilst it was difficult, I look back fondly as it was the start of my journey into professional football and my coaching journey too. When I got released, I was asked to take a couple of sessions for the CoE as a coach had moved on and I tried to pass on the knowledge I had attained from Stuart Murdoch, along with what I was doing on a daily basis as an 18 year old GK.
If you had secured a professional contract at this time, do you think you would have still gone down coaching path as a side-line to playing?
It was a situation that was offered, and it was my decision to do it. Initially it was a one off, then a couple of weeks which were extended into months, then 6 months and beyond! I started to see the developmental side of football and took to it. They were decisions I made which have led me to where I am today.
Leaving a professional club can never be easy, what was your next steps?
For about a year I felt sorry for myself as I wasn’t going to be a professional footballer. I worked in a local sports shop and got a wakeup call otherwise I was going to waste my time away.
After I was released, I went to the first ever ‘Release Trials’ run by the FA. It was a chance to showcase yourself to managers and coaches. I was offered 2 opportunities, by Hull City and Woking. At the time Woking were flying high in the Conference, winning FA Trophy’s, making the FA Cup 4th Round on a regular basis and Geoff Chappel was the manager. As a Surrey boy I chose to go to Woking rather than move to the other end of the country.
Geoff moved on and John McGovern took over and I didn’t get off to the best start with him. I was training part-time as well as working in the sports shop and not really playing so was released at the end of that year. When I look back at my time there it was probably because I was sulking, moping around thinking I was better than I was.
I decided to buck my ideas up and went back to college, completing a HND in Sports Science. I started to take the coaching more seriously and ended up signing for Carshalton Athletic. I don’t think there was a real thought process behind this, these were instinctive things that I did. At 19 / 20 I started to do my coaching badges and ‘rolled with the punches’ as the CoE and Junior Football started to grow within the professional ranks.
I had a spell at Aldershot and had a great GK Coach, Paul Priddy, he taught me so much about myself, what it takes and how patient you need to be to gain the experiences as a goalkeeper. When I got my chance to play there, I took it and kept my place in the team, this put me in a position where a couple of pro-clubs were knocking on the door. However, the then manager George Borg stopped me from going on trials at both Bristol Rovers and Wycombe Wanderers which led to me making the decision to leave at the end of that season.
Coaching at this point as you say was more ‘serious’ for you, how did you progress?
Wimbledon went into administration with my old GK coach Stuart Murdoch becoming manager of a very young team. This led to me transition from CoE to Academy coach and also the U18’s who David Martin was playing for at the time. Paul Heald was involved with playing squad which led to me taking sessions with the first team GK’s. In the space of 4 or 5 years, I had an incredible education leading to putting on sessions for the senior GK’s.
I attended the GK Conference at Keele University and was approached by Les Cleevely, a well-known non-league GK who was coaching at Millwall’s academy at the time, who asked if I would like to join his private coaching company called Keeps. I agreed to do this full time alongside my job at Wimbledon’s CoE.
There was an opportunity to move to Milton Keynes when Wimbledon moved there however, I decided to stay put and was head-hunted by Neil Bath at Chelsea who asked me to go in and take a session for them in 2004.
So, I was playing part-time football, building a reputation for myself and involved in a company with Les then the opportunity to move to Chelsea arose which progressed my coaching journey to another level.
You’ve now stepped into Chelsea how did that evolve?
I continued to play non-league and coach at the boy’s academy. There was an opportunity at the end of 2007 that Chelsea looked at as they were light in the GK department and the Head of Goalkeeping, Mark Beeney, approached me to ask if I’d be interested in taking on a Player Coach role at the club.
I was training regularly with Les Cleevely at the time, he was my mentor and we was working hard building Keeps as a brand together. We were ahead of the time with the things that we were planning in and around small group work, individual physical programmes and gym-based exercises both inside and outside.
I then signed a professional contract as a Player Coach with Chelsea, training with the Reserves every day as No.2 behind Rhys Taylor who had signed from Manchester United and Brendan Rodgers as my manager.
This was during Jose Mourinho’s first stint at the club and Brendan was seen as an up and coming manager. Again, a big turn for me in my coaching development as it took it to another level. I found myself involved in the evolution of Chelsea taking on the rest of Europe; I found myself training full time in a professional environment again and whilst I was developing quickly as a coach, I evolved primarily around my experience and the information I took from that.
I was 28 years old at the time and this was highlighted in the press, in the daily tabloids and on Sky Sports! I had to look at what direction this would realistically take me along the playing and coaching front, so invested as much time as possible taking on as much knowledge as I possibly could from Brendan, Mark Beeney and Neil Bath.
It was incredibly surreal from a playing perspective. It was around the time Petr Cech got his really severe head injury, then Carlo Cudicini got injured which left just Hilario available. This led to both Rhys and I training with the first team on a regular basis. I’d gone from non-league football into training in a Premier League environment with some of the best players in the world at times was the most surreal moment possible!
I was very fortunate to see a different side to the senior players; I saw the humbleness of what most professional players are. It was a real eye opener that I embraced, and I struck up a decent relationship with some of the players who were at the peak of their game, of course the GK’s but also John Terry, Ashley Cole, Michael Essien & Didier Drogba who were all welcoming.
It was an opportunity you couldn’t fail to improve yourself on as long as you embraced the environment and everything that was going on. I was hugely influenced during this time and see it as the biggest learning curve, both as a player and a coach. It was an opportunity that was very unique that I was fortunate to be in and I would have been very stupid not to embrace it in every angle I could.
I desperately wanted to be a professional and this was a chance to fulfil a lifetime dream. I made my reserve team debut against Tottenham in a team including Peter Crouch and Paul Robinson. I was asked if I wanted to take the playing side more seriously and sat in a 1-2-1 meeting with Brendan Rodgers where he explained he wanted me for my experience as it was helping the younger players with their development. Therefore another coach came onboard to take on my coaching duties at Chelsea and I continued with the private sessions in the evenings where possible with Keeps.
Your playing career is now at the forefront and you make the move across to Watford, how did that come about?
Brendan left and went across to Watford as first team manager in 2009 and contacted me to see if I’d be interested in signing a professional contract as No.3 GK. This would give me an opportunity again to fulfil my dream, fully focussed on playing. I had built enough self-confidence in myself to know that I would be able to handle it, it was just whether I would get the chance to play in front of a big crowd at Championship level.
I built some great relationships with both the my coach Alec Chamberlain and fellow GK Richard Lee. I was living part-time in a flat with Rich and part-time with my wife at home. Taking in time to reflect, I got carried away and stepped away from my principles and fundamentals I’d taken onboard at Chelsea.
I didn’t really embrace it as much as I should. It was a difficult time as the players looked at me as one of ‘Brendans players’ as I joined with him. I was training hard but wasn’t taking onboard what is taken for granted these days; the nutrition, the physical side in the gym… because it wasn’t something I’d been educated in. I also wasn’t coaching at this time so my journey was on hold from that perspective as the private and academy coaching had stopped.
Towards the end of that season I was contacted by Paul Heald, who was one of the only members of staff who had moved to Milton Keynes when Wimbledon were liquidated. I had worked closely with Eddie Newton at the Chelsea academy and he had moved to be Roberto Di Matteo’s assistant at MK Dons, who were now expressing an interest in me to sign.
Brendan had moved on to Reading and I had to weigh up the options; I was No.3 at Watford and spoke to my agent for guidance at the time, do I pursue a Championship club or drop to a League One club on the up with a greater opportunity to play and reach my ultimate dream of my debut in the Football League?
I approached Malkay Mackey who took over from Brendan, he wanted me to stay. However, I ended up ripping up my contract and moving to MK Dons, reigniting my relationship with Paul Heald.
The move to MK Dons was away from London and the areas you know; how did it pan out?
I bought a house with my wife in Milton Keynes, where we still live today, and it gave me the chance to embark on a journey that was a little bit more realistic in which I could fulfil my ambition of making my debut.
Things don’t always pan out as you envisage. In the middle of pre-season Roberto & Eddie left for West Bromwich Albion and Paul Ince was reappointed as the manager at MK Dons. I was one of 5 players the previous management team had signed and life was made difficult for us as we weren’t Paul’s players which brought new challenges.
I was No.2 to Willy Gueret, he was very close to the manager which was challenging in itself but I had a very good working relationship with Paul Heald and we would do a lot of work whether in a group or individually at the end of a session together. Personally I felt I was equal if not better than Willy and desperately wanted to play. I got my head down and worked and worked and worked, I then got to make my league debut away at Bristol Rovers towards the end of the season.
Willy was actually injured and had been playing through the pain barrier for a long time. I wasn’t told until an hour before kick off that I was starting the game however I roomed with Willy and knew he wasn’t going to make it. I didn’t have a great deal of time to think about it and was now given the opportunity to fulfil a boyhood dream. Healdy knew the best thing was for me to get on the pitch and feel a ball before any nerves could kick in and got me out there as soon as possible.
I look back on my debut with very fond memories in the knowledge that I had a really good game. I made 4 or 5 crucial saves, we won the game 2-1 and I got Man Of The Match. I was also able to showcase to the manager what I could do.
The following week we were away at Norwich, Willy hadn’t trained for a week and I was preparing to play. Before the team meeting at the hotel Paul Ince pulled me to one side and told me it was a ‘harder decision than he thought it would be’ but Willy is going to be starting. I then went back to sitting on the bench for the rest of that season until Karl Robinson took over.
He wanted to take a look at me to see if I would be in his plans for the following season and played me in the final three games. I felt I did really well and I’d thrown my hat in the mix to be No.1.
The following preseason I was told that David Martin, who I had coached at Wimbledon, would be joining from Liverpool. Again an old spark had been reignited. I retained my position as No.2 and Willy moved on. It was a completely different working environment in that situation as it was the first year when all the GK’s got on with each other. Throughout the season I wanted to maintain my levels so ready when called upon and made half a dozen appearances when Dave was injured.
It was another lesson for me as a coach whilst I was playing, about what environments to create to get the best out of the players.
After 2 years at MK Dons you departed. What was the circumstances and how did you feel?
I ended up leaving because of budget cuts, after being led to believe I would be retained. I was offered a contract they knew I would never be able to take up the option of because it was a huge cut in money. I was 31 and had responsibilities; I’d bought a house and had a child to support, I knew how much money I needed to earn in order to pay the mortgage and support my family.
This ended my playing time at MK Dons is a ‘bitter-sweet’ way. Whilst I’d enjoyed my time, I’d learnt a lot and grown a lot as a person and a coach, it was a bitter ending the way it had happened. But again, it was something that I had to take stock from and move on from.
I couldn’t find a club in pre-season although going on trial at a couple, as they wanted GK’s to come in with more experience; I was 31 years of age with half a dozen professional games under my belt; I knew and the clubs knew I needed to go in somewhere as No.1 to be able to afford to live.
I spent the majority of preseason at Barnet and felt I’d done enough to earn a contract but 3 weeks before the start of the season the manager, Lawrie Sanchez, told me he wasn’t going to sign me as wanted to go down a different route and sign someone else.
Personally, this took me into a very dark place. I had turned down coaching opportunities (including one at Chelsea) as I wanted to carry on playing, there was no opportunity of any more trials as the season was about to commence and I needed to earn some money. You hear a lot of stories now about what happens when players are no longer in that full-time environment and although I was only in it for a short period of time, I can certainly vouch on the impact it had on me when I stepped away. Mentally I was spent.
I went for 4 months without a job until Chelmsford City offered me the chance to play again. The manager, Glenn Pennyfather, was fantastic with me. From a playing front it was a good situation to be in, but I had a lot of mental issues during this time that I had to deal with and went to some very, very dark places. Whilst I had stimulation in what I was doing I didn’t have any work so was only earning part-time money and struggling to support my family.
Now playing part-time in non-league how did you back to coaching?
Although I was seeking it I wasn’t offered any work and I soon realised once I was out of the professional game, it was very difficult to get back into it, whether that be on a playing front or as a coach. I was applying for jobs and not getting an interview or recognition of my application.
I ended up pleading with a friend of mine who worked in the International Department at the Chelsea Foundation to try and get a job. Ultimately he got me a job coaching the Girls College Scheme, alongside some GK coaching with the boys including outfield coaching.
A lot of travelling was involved as I was based in Milton Keynes and I also picked up some work with Independent Schools Football Association (ISFA) via Les Cleevely who had continued to support me. It was adhoc sessions but got me back into coaching again.
From coaching the Girls College Scheme I then was asked to take some sessions for the Regional Talent Club (RTC) at Chelsea, plus working with the boys academy too. I was stretched between 3 departments at the club as well as playing part-time football, but this put me back in a position where I was able to ‘live’ again.
Back in the door at Chelsea, at what point did you transition working with the women’s team?
Working with the girls, I had the opportunity to start to understand women in sport a bit more. At the start of 2012 I was badgered by Emma Hayes, who had taken over as Chelsea Women’s manager, to see if I would come across and be GK Coach on a part-time basis.
I hesitated as I really wanted to work with the boys and men. Ultimately, Emma persuaded me to take on a part-time role with the first team, so I was doing daytime sessions with Carly Telford and the GK’s. In addition to the RTC, Academy and International Department!
In 2014 I had to make a decision as I couldn’t carry on with all roles, the women’s game was growing, and after long discussions with all the heads of departments I made the decision to join Emma’s coaching staff on a full-time basis.
We also faced each other on the sidelines when you were at Met Police U18’s around this time?
I’d had a fantastic time at Chelmsford, reaching the FA Cup 4th Round two years on the spin, but I had to make a decision towards the end of that season about taking my coaching more seriously as that was going to be my career.
Met Police were running the college program I had set up with Les and it was a natural for me to play for their first team and coach the youth team, whilst in the day I was with Chelsea Women. It was my first experience of women’s football and as it was right at the start of the growth of the game. There wasn’t a lot of money, so I needed to supplement my income with other roles.
Met Police allowed me to grow as an outfield coach and brought more unbelievable experiences for me. I drew on the knowledge I had gained from some of the coaches I had worked under and shared with a group of young players aged 16-18. We went on an FA Youth Cup run to the 4th Round, the first non-league club to do so, knocking out three professional teams on the way.
It taught me an awful lot about coaching outfield and this was when I started to adapt my role at Chelsea, to help Emma little bit more by using my knowledge as an outfield coach and being a voice and influence on matchdays.
At what point did you hang up the gloves?
At the end of 2015 I took the decision to retire from playing semi-professional football. This was the time when money started to come into the women’s game and I took on and embraced the full time role that I do now.
Your role is Head of Technical / GK Coach – what does this entail?
My position has evolved alongside Emma into more an assistant coach position as well as Lead GK Coach. I also manage a department of technical coaches, impacting on a daily basis the outfield and what goes on with the outfield players which ultimately Emma delivers.
There are 5 technical coaches that work on different levels and across different departments within the club; whether that be Analysis, Physical or RTC etc. We feedback to Emma at the top.
Since being with Chelsea Women there have been many highlights, which ones stick out for you?
Being at the start, growth and development has been both enlightening and empowering. It’s been a really interesting journey; I look back at the last 6 years and see how much I’ve been able to grow as a coach and a person because I’ve worked for Emma. She is very modern in her approach and allows coaches to express themselves. She’s open to conversations and is not the sort of manager who makes decisions and that’s the be all and end all with everything.
I’ve had the freedom to grow at Chelsea down to progressive coaching and a progressive mindset, as long as you embrace the environment and boundaries you are working in you can’t fail to improve.
At the end of 2013 we lost the league on the last day of the season which we learnt a lot from. The following year we won the double and was fortunate enough to win the FA Cup in the first women’s final at Wembley. That was the first experience I’d had that every footballer dreams of, however long you’ve been in the game, and I’ve now had the opportunity to go to Wembley on three separate occasions. It’s an experience that will forever live with me and is a highlight of my time.
Another highlight is the unbelievable experience of competing in the Champions League, the highest level of European football in the women’s game. Last year we reached the semi-finals and played in front of 35,000 people at Lyon, before they came back to a full house at Kingsmeadow for the return leg.
We came close to beating them, it was very tough and emotionally draining at the time. Which brings us into this season; we decided in the off-season to look at it as a failure as last year we didn’t win any trophies and failed to qualify for the Champions League. We didn’t fulfil our criteria of being successul or a winning club, which has brought a new era for us as a club.
You’ve also had some great successes personally with players you’ve coached, tell us about these?
I was fortunate enough to work with Hedvig Lindhal, who is one of the greats of female goalkeeping for a period of time and was recognised by FIFPro as being the best women’s GK in the world. I also have a fantastic relationship with Carly Telford who I admire and respect greatly.
Then of course there was the recent World Cup with Carly playing for England. For her to reach one of her dreams, representing her country at the World Cup, let alone play in a semi-final, was fantastic. In the last World Cup Semi Finals I am incredibly proud to say that I had coached two of the four GK's who were involved as well.
Privately I’ve taken great pleasure in their journey having played a part and the environment that I’d been able to create, based on my playing experiences at Chelsea, Watford & MK Dons. Being given the freedom by Emma to create something special for our GK’s is something I can look back on in time with fond memories.
I’ve heard interviews of what they think of me as a coach and the relationships we have both privately and professionally, which has given me the confidence to develop myself to grow more and more as coach. It has given me an opportunity to build a reputation for myself that I’m proud of and hopefully I can evolve and develop further in the future.
What’s next for Stuart Searle?
I’m hugely satisfied and enjoying the journey that I’m on. Where I’m working, with the development, evolution and the professionalism of the Women’s game I don’t know where it will take me. I’m not giving myself an end goal of where it will take me.
I’m in a really good place with what I do, both professionally and personally. I’m excited to see what the next steps will be for me in the coming years as a coach and where it will take me, as well as staying open minded to the direction it will take me.
I know that I’m in a very fortunate position, in a quite high profile role in the women’s game, that I have regular conversations with the top coaches in the country and the FA and I’ve been able to pass on my knowledge and experiences to other people, including yourself.
I’m hugely grateful for the feedback that people give me and the positive things that people have taken from the environment that has been created, set up and developed. However, it is ever evolving, and you can’t stand still because as quickly as you put yourself in that position, if you do stand still the game can go passed you and you can go stale. You have to keep learning and it helps to be in the progressive mindset I am at Chelsea.