Photo: Chris Munro

While the comings and goings on the playing side will always dominate headlines, it is true to say that the departure of Paul Bryson from Sunderland this year didn’t go entirely unnoticed either. His time with the Wearsiders spanned the best part of two decades, with Under-18 lead coach the most recent of his roles.

Together with joining the ranks at i2i International Soccer Academy, and lending a hand with Newcastle City Juniors, you can now find Bryson offering his expertise back at former club Birtley Town. The lion’s share of the former Middlesbrough youngster’s 25-year playing days were spent prowling Northern League penalty areas, while coaching has seen him take up prominent positions at Gateshead FC, Gateshead College, and as player-boss at Chester-le-Street, to name but three.

In this conversation, the ex-Spennymoor United player and Redheugh Boys Club alumnus shares a mix of insight from life on both sides of that white line…

 

As well as the main role with i2i, tell me about your input so far back at Birtley. What have you been looking to do with the players up to now?

We’ve had a couple of training sessions and I know quite a few of the lads, because prior to going to Sunderland, I was coach at Gateshead. For 13 years I was at Gateshead, and a lot of the lads who are at Birtley now, I had at Gateshead. I know their strengths, their weaknesses, but the last couple of weeks, it’s been getting to know the team strengths, in possession, out of possession, and trying to focus on that and putting it into training on the Tuesday.

In a situation where you’ve got limited time with the players, and when you’re working with lads who have been to work, it obviously differs from an academy set-up at a professional club. How do you then look to get the most from that time with them?

That’s where I like to think my experience comes into play, to be fair. I’ve obviously been through that, and there was nothing worse if you’ve been to work all day and there was a session put on at night that was quite boring. So I’d like to think I use my experience, and I always come away from the session with a player’s hat on, and say, ‘Would I have enjoyed that? What would I have been getting out of that?’ Yeah, you want to work on things, but you’ve got to make it enjoyable. They’ve been to work all day, they want to come and enjoy their football session, and have a bit of banter, a bit of craic with the lads. Up to now, I think they have enjoyed it. I think so anyway!

What do you look at in this Birtley team at the moment and pick out as plus points?

I see a team that’s got a really good team spirit, a good togetherness, a lot of lads that have probably played together for a few years, and I think that bodes well. They’re obviously not the complete article by any stretch, so there is room for improvement, but Birtley as a club, I think they’ve just got to make steps. Little steps rather than saying ‘we’re gonna do this, we’re gonna do that.’ I just think you’ve got to have a solid base, which I firmly think they’ve got, and then maybe add on to that as the season goes on.

Leaving Sunderland after a long time with the club, with everything that was happening in a wider sense, what was the situation you found yourself in?

Yeah, I had a wonderful five years at Sunderland full-time, and I’d also worked there the previous 13 years part-time. So I’d been there a long time, made a lot of good friends, it was just a little bit of the uncertainty of the club. That was the biggest factor in me leaving, and there was a chance to go to i2i, where it seems as if there’s a bit more job security there. But as I say, I had a fantastic 18 years there, and I wouldn’t swap that for the world. There are times where you think you’ve got to move on, and with me moving on to i2i, it’s enabled me to go back to Birtley, which is a club I hold close to my heart after playing there five years. I’ve been back twice as coach and as manager a few years back. Now, I think it’s got firm foundations, and it’s a club that’s on the up.

There’s been some notable names that have come through at Sunderland during those years, and you’ve talked previously about coaching Jordan Henderson as a young teenager. Who did you have an especially significant connection with, in terms of time spent and how much you actually feel you were able to help develop them?

Obviously the big name is Jordan Henderson. I worked with him at 14 and 15, and I’ve proudly got a letter off Jordan’s dad. It’s him saying to the academy manager at that time how much Jordan loved his football, and that it’s with the work of Paul Bryson, and I was working with Lewis Dickman at the time. It’s how Jordan likes it that much he wants to be there an hour before, he doesn’t want to go home after training, and I just think that’s probably the biggest compliment you can get off someone who’s captained Liverpool, won the Champions League, Premier League, captained his country. Other ones over the last couple of years, Sam Greenwood, who’s gone to Leeds now, Bali Mumba, Dan Neil, Elliot Embleton. Elliot’s probably one of the most technically-gifted players I’ve worked with. He’s unfortunately been injured this year but I think he’s got a big future in the game.

The years at Sunderland coincided with some differing times for the club. Which spell was the most enjoyable to be there?

Yeah, it was great when it was in the Premier League, but the majority of that time I was only part-time; I felt my worth but I didn’t have a real feel for it. My first three years at the club full-time were fantastic. It was only when the club got relegated that the uncertainty comes in, but even in the Championship, it was a good place to be, because I think everybody firmly believed that the club was going to bounce straight back. The last couple of years were a little bit of a struggle, the biggest thing was the uncertainty, but as I say, I’ve met some fantastic people. Some of the managers, I still keep in touch with Jack Ross now, he was an absolutely lovely guy. The two guys there now, Phil Parkinson and (assistant) Steve Parkin, they’re lovely people and you really want them to do well.

On that point, which of the first-team managers would show the most interest in what you were doing with the younger set-up? Who would you have the most dialogue with?

Yeah, over the last five years, Jack Ross, and John Potter. They had a big interest in the Under-18s; even before some games on a Saturday, they would turn up at the training ground where the 18s were playing. They would come to Youth Cup ties, which I thought was absolutely brilliant. They took the 18s over to join in some of the sessions, which was invaluable for the younger lads as experience.

You were previously head of football at Gateshead College, which included working with Chris Basham and Adam Reach, who’ve gone on to have extremely impressive careers. With Adam Reach, what sort of player/person did you come across at that time?

Adam had a couple of knockbacks: Newcastle when he was 14/15 and Hartlepool at 16, not getting a contract. I played football with his dad years ago, so I obviously knew about Adam. I think the biggest thing when he came, outstanding talent, it was just to get his confidence back from those couple of knockbacks. I saw a player there that could glide past people, had an absolute wand of a left foot, and had a real chance. It was great that he got the move to Middlesbrough. There’s a little funny story there. Middlesbrough reserves, as they were at the time, played in the Central League, and I was in charge of Gateshead reserves at the time, so we played them at Gateshead Stadium – Adam scored a hat-trick against me! I was delighted for Adam with what he’s done. Real lovely lad, lovely family, and really pleased that he’s gone on to do bigger and better things. That’s what you coach for, to see those success stories.

Turning the clock back again, whereabouts have you grown up and who would you go and watch play?

Grew up in Gateshead, but when I was younger, because I love footy that much, my dad used to take us to St. James’ one week, Roker Park the next. A lot of my pals, Newcastle fans, say ‘how could you do that?’ I just wanted to watch football. ‘Supermac’ (Malcolm Macdonald), John Tudor, Jimmy Smith, and then later on, the Liverpool team were the side that stood out for me, with (Graeme) Souness, (Kenny) Dalglish, proper players.

You played until you were 43, do you remember your last competitive game? Was it 2007?

I think it was 2007, yeah, for Birtley. I loved my time playing and it lasted a hell of a long time, a lot longer than I would have expected. I probably went on a couple of years too long, people would say! But I just loved playing. Once I finished, though, I’ve always said I didn’t miss playing; I was on to a new chapter, coaching, managing.

Is there a time period you look back on as the happiest you had as a player?

There’s been different times. When I first went to Tow Law, I loved that time, being the youngest in the changing room at 18/19. We drew Bradford in the FA Cup, which was the biggest tie you could get, that was a fantastic experience. At Spennymoor, I loved that. I probably think the person that got the best out of me as a player, he’s a good friend of mine and he was manager at Eppleton at the time, Stuey Sherwood. Great motivator, knew what to do to get you going, didn’t suffer any fools, and I responded to that. So needless to say, when I went to Chester (le-Street) as player-manager, I brought Stuey in as my assistant.

Going back to that spell at Chester-le-Street as player-manager, what do you know now that you didn’t back then? Anything you look back on in particular that you did differently?

I think I was quite intense then, just because I love footy, love winning. At Northern League at Chester-le-Street, we got them promoted the first year, and then the second year we finished 3rd. I think the league was won by Bedlington that year, which was a great side, but for Chester to finish 3rd in the First Division was a great achievement. I wouldn’t be so intense now; I was too ‘command’, ‘you’ve got to do this, you’ve got to do that’. Not really letting the players express themselves, but as the years have progressed and I’ve got more experience, I think that’s one of my strong points now. I know how to get the best out of certain individuals and it’s not always the same way.

With all the experience you have, all the time spent working your way through the different courses, is there anything you’d like to see less of in coaching? Any trends that come to mind?

I think coaching’s changed. I think when you were first going through your badges, UEFA B and UEFA A, it was about ‘how much does the coach know? Step in here, he’s missed that, he’s missed that.’ I think now, you’ve got to let the players play, and they’ve got to find a way of putting it right without always having the coach or the manager say that. The better players do that, the better players can problem-solve. You don’t need to hear the coach’s voice every two minutes. They need to be guided at certain times, players, but you’ve got 16 in a squad, 18, and every one will respond to something different. You’ve really got to know the player.

Lastly, looking ahead – as much as anyone can at the moment – what is the motivation over these next few years for you personally? Is it just to help the players you’re working with or is there anything you specifically want to do or become involved with?

Very happy with what I’m doing at the minute, with i2i. These are American students that come over and do a degree, but incorporated into their studies, they train every day. They’ve got fantastic attitudes and they’re great to work with, so I really love that side of it, just seeing them improve slightly as the weeks go on. The thing with Birtley, I think I’m proud to be part of a Birtley set-up now that has firm foundations. I would like over the next year or two to be involved in that and hopefully taking them forward, making a good push next season to get into the (Northern League) first division, which would be brilliant for a club like Birtley.

Interview by @chris_brookes

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