Coaches Corner: Jay Lovett
In this month’s Coaches Corner, we spoke to UEFA A Licensed coach, and Burgess Hill Town manager, Jay Lovett.
Jay is early on in his managerial career but it’s a coaching journey that goes back a long way. A passion for developing young players has seen Jay coach some of the best young talent in Sussex. From an early age, however, there was a young lad that didn’t envisage football being a serious pathway.
“At first for me, it was just about kicking a ball around a playground and I had no intention of playing properly for a team.
“But then a Dad of a friend of mine from school took over at Hollingbury Hawks. I remember he was at my house having a conversation with my Dad and then my Dad came and told me I’d be playing for Hollingbury Hawks!
“It was actually Reg Freeman, father of Darren Freeman, who was the manager of the team. But next thing I know, my Dad’s come home with a pair of boots and some shin pads and my footballing journey was about to begin.
“Coaching was very different back then, and I suppose it’s similar now at a local level, where it was literally just a group of Dads.
“You know how it goes with local grassroots teams, where a group of parents just set them up. But I do think now there are a lot more development centres, elite centres and camps, stuff like that.
“Back then if you didn’t get picked for Brighton you just played for a club side. When you got a bit older, things like Brighton Boys were introduced but for me growing up it was only the Dads I had a relationship with, coaching wise.”
Jay, to his own admission, wasn’t the most talented in the county in his early years, but at 16 he attracted interest from the pro ranks for the first time when he was taken on an apprenticeship by Plymouth Argyle.
It was the best thing that could have happened to Jay where he was also given the chance to do an FA Preliminary Coaching Badge. From a playing perspective, his time there was to be cut short, following Plymouth’s relegation, but his eyes were about to be opened to a life after playing.
“I was invited to go up to Blackpool where several American Universities were scouting players in a series of games.
“There were literally 100 odd coaches there with clip boards and their traditional University gear on just watching us play games.
“At the end of that, my name was read out saying I was selected. The guy that was interested in me was from the Florida Institute of Technology (FIT), and it turned out to be my first journey into coaching because he asked me to come coach out there in the summer.
“I went over there, incredible facilities, really enjoyed the coaching, then I was also playing in a series of friendly games. As a result, a couple of guys from the University of Central Florida (UCF) said they’d heard I was doing well with the coaching and asked if I’d go there.
“So, I ended up going over to UCF and they offered me a full scholarship there. The mistake I made was that they offered me the scholarship until I was 23, I was 19 at the time, so I thought I could just go back home and play for a bit and I ended up playing for Crawley, with a few more clubs looking at me.
“What helped me was that I did my FA Preliminary badge whilst at Plymouth, it became outdated in the end, but it was my first experience of structured coaching. I think it was Paul Fairclough (England C Coach) who was my tutor and it was great because when I’m then asked to coach in America I wasn’t going in blind.”
It may be something Jay viewed as a missed opportunity, not going back to America, but the truth was, he was a young footballer who still felt he had a point to prove playing. The important thing was, it opened his eyes to a different world.
“Being 19 at the time, I was a bit shy! Some of the kids I was coaching were 14/15 years old so only a few years younger than me.
“There was a guy in charge there called Bob Winch who would take all us coaches off in the morning and show us various drills that we could take inspiration from.
“When you’re coached by the Dads it’s the standard pass to the Dad and shoot type thing but when you get the education, that’s when you adapt and add overlapping runs and add defenders and things like that, so it opened my eyes up a lot to what you can add to a session.
“It’s easy to set up drills and things like that but what detail are you then giving, are you talking to players about their body shape or their timing.
“As an older coach now, I wish I could go back in time and do my coaching badges earlier especially when I had the time to do it. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but that’s always the advice I give to young players to get your badges done while you can.”
When Jay returned to England he joined Crawley Town where he attracted interest from Brentford who paid a record sum of £60,000 to Town for Jay.
Whilst at Brentford, Jay was under the stewardship of Ray Lewington, whom he says “I learnt a lot from” but after 75 appearances for the Bees he returned to Sussex linking up with Lewes. Coaching started to take off for Jay at Lewes and he started taking on multiple projects.
“The first time I really thought coaching was something I’d like to do was setting up after-school holiday camps whilst at Lewes.
“I also got involved with Albion in the Community which was massive for me at the time because I got to meet a lot of good coaches, one’s that were better than me.
“I was with Darren Teague, Stuart Christie and Dave Gupp, who were all coaches I learnt loads off, and from there I went to Crawley Town, coaching the 14s to 16s age groups, but they pulled the plug on it which was a shame. I’d just started my FA Level 2 by this point and working towards my UEFA B.”
Over the next few years, Jay joined Lewes’ rivals, Eastbourne Borough, with whom he secured their promotion to the National League Premier. In 2011, however, Lovett took a break from playing and spent six-months coaching in Vietnam, exploring and developing his education.
“I coached for 6 months in Ho Chi Minh for a team called Dong Tam - Long An. Dong Tam is the name of the sponsors and Long An is the area in Ho Chi Minh.
“I was asked to go over and assist the team by a friend who had previously been the Philippines National team manager.
“The team played in the V-League which is their version of the Premier league. The culture difference was huge, and the language barrier was a problem at first.
“To begin with we had a translator, but we knew he wasn't always repeating what we wanted in football terms, so it helped when I learnt the basics i.e. stop, shoot, dribble and pass, left and right etc. I think the players then appreciated it as I took time to learn their language.
“It showed me how universal football is, but how well we can put a point across in fewer words, but still have the same effect on the outcome.
“Every away game we flew around the country and each team were allowed 4 international players. They were normally African or South American as they acclimatised to the heat quicker and better.
“I did get offered another year contract out there, but it was hard being away from my family, even though they got to come out with me for a month and I took them around the country.
“When I came back, I coached at Ardingly College. Another great experience working in the independent schools’ circuit, with a guy called Nick Tester who I learnt a lot from too. Ardingly did go on to be National Champions as well.”
It’s fair to say that it was a trip that would have changed Jay, certainly his mindset. As much as he’d been opened up to the world of coaching from a young age, playing was still the priority. Now, playing was starting to become something on the side to coaching.
“My first full-time coaching role came at Eastbourne Borough. I thought I could get a really good link there with boys that were released by Brighton or other clubs and similar to like I was as a player.
“I was there for three seasons and I absolutely loved it because it was my first role taking control of things and implementing it the way I wanted to do it.”
The key thing for Jay with him coaching as well as playing still, is that it allowed him to educate himself as much as possible before hanging up the boots.
“I’ve picked up things from every manager, good and bad! Player management is a big thing, the way you come across and the way you approach a player you know some people take a detailed approach, some take a soft approach or an arm over the shoulder.
“But I think I learnt from the managers I had, just taking things and thinking well what can I take from that, what can I learn from that and think about myself as a player and how I reacted to certain situations.
“I do that a lot with my coaching and think well if I’m a player in this session, what am I going to get out of it? Is it just enjoyment? Or is it on a whole just an information type session? So, I think I tend to do that I’ll flip it and think well would I have enjoyed that? I think you need to enjoy it because you learn that way and it creates a positive environment.
“I wasn’t one to speak out as a player or ask questions. I don’t think people do it enough, I certainly didn’t, and I do say that to players, I’m here for you to learn and to help you learn.”
It came to a point now for Jay where he was prepared to step away from playing when Lewes once again came calling; this time, it was as a coach.
“I went back to Lewes again after Borough because ex-Charlton player, Steve Brown was manager there and wanted me to become his assistant.
“Now I was doing bits of assistant stuff with Tommy Widdrington at Borough but he ran everything himself, he was very strong-minded and didn’t hand stuff over.
“At Lewes, Steve wanted to hand more over to me, and I was being given the opportunity to coach more than what I was at Eastbourne in terms of first-team.
“That was my first introduction of first-team coaching with Steve but the problem was, the team was having a bit of a transitional period and were struggling, so I ended up having play more than I would have liked.
“I still enjoyed playing but at the same time, I made the switch because I wanted to make a name for myself as a coach, and I think the paths of player and coach crossed over a bit too much.
“Steve is a very, very, good coach and he put some great sessions on, some that I still steal from him now! So, it still really helped me because I was learning.”
The mindset from Jay was key, making sure he learnt something even from the negative experiences. He had a playing career that he could be very proud of, at a very good level. But in 2018, it was time for his first managerial role, one that he’d been working towards for a long time.
“I still carried on with the Lewes Academy but whilst playing for Met Police at the same time. I then applied for the South Park job but didn’t even get an interview. The manager they employed didn’t get off to the greatest of starts and they decided to change, so I applied again with nothing to lose.
“I had a great meeting with the chairman, and they asked why it had taken me so long to get a managerial role, and I basically said because I was playing for so long.
“I said to them I wanted to make that transition I don’t want to play anymore, I want to be a manager, and luckily they offered me my first job.
“It was a massive wake up call, to really understand what goes into management, because as a manager you’re taking on the burden of everything. As a coach you just turn up and deliver a session that maybe the manager has asked you to do, and with me I am quite anal and do take on too much sometimes and my staff are asking ‘can we join in?!’
“But that managerial role there was great because it was a first insight for me into looking at players and thinking ‘are they right for me?’ and ‘are they right for the team?’ I was also managing the Sussex County FA Under-18s Representative Squad at the time and this gave me the opportunity to offer the young lads a chance at first-team football.
As he mentioned, Jay went on to manage our Under-18 Representative Squad and continue his passion for developing young players. Two players in particular, have since joined the professional game, Taylor Seymour (Portsmouth) and Fin Stevens (Brentford and Wales Under-21s).
“It was a great role because it’s developing young players but then also it’s furthering my own education. I knew a lot of the players from younger ages when I’ve coached with Brighton, where I did the under-14s. I think anyone who’s watched the Sussex under-18s play will agree that we played some attractive football and having Lancing as a pitch helped!
“I always tell the young lads if you go onto first-team football somewhere just make sure you leave us tickets so we can come watch you! It always leaves a laugh and a joke, but you genuinely mean it. I can’t take full credit of course (for Taylor and Fin) but there’s nothing prouder when players you’ve coached go onto pro football.
“I keep in contact with Taylor and Fin and it’s great because Fin has done the same sort of move I did, going from non-league to Brentford. Taylor we still see down at Burgess Hill because he has friends there and when Taylor’s around you know he’s around!”
In 2019, a dream move came for Jay when he was interviewed for the Burgess Hill Town job, an opportunity that he long had his eye on.
“I live in Burgess Hill and it was always one of those jobs that I thought when I’ve finished playing football, I’d love to manage Burgess Hill. We performed really well at South Park with probably the lowest budget in the league, but what we did have was a lot of young Sussex players in the squad.
“It was something that Burgess Hill liked, and didn’t like, that we had taken a lot of young Sussex players out of Sussex! Also, with me managing the Sussex Under-18 side, that was another thing because Burgess Hill’s under-18 side had faded away a bit, so they saw me as a way of making that strong again as well.
“We’re really being backed at the club and with us revamping the youth etc. it’s a fresh start and we’re trying to work our way up the leagues again. I’m not saying right now we’re going to get promoted but I want us progressing every year.”
From Jay’s story, one thing you’ll take from it is he can never do enough coaching! His other big project he oversees, is the Russell Martin Foundation at Varndean College.
“I’ve been working for the Russell Martin Foundation for about four years now. I’m based at Varndean Sixth Form college where we’ve got an academy which is 16-19 and we’re basically combining full-time football with full-time education.
“It’s different from, for example, the academy I ran at Borough because there we didn’t have the same sort of education opportunity, we just offered a BTEC. Now, at Varndean, we can cater for all sorts of academic practices whether that’s a GCSE retake, BTEC, A Levels, so they cover everything there.
“We’ve been quite successful in a short period of time and I’d say we’re one of the most successful academies in Sussex, and I just really like the idea of keeping these kids in full-time education but using football as a tool to do that.
“I love developing players because you know then you’re doing something right! But ultimately, I just think there’s nothing better than seeing players with a smile on their face, you need to enjoy football and if you play with a smile on your face it’s the best thing.
“When my Vardean College guys came back, after lockdown, the first thing we did for the whole week was just play five-a-side round robin games and then a game of Wembley on the Friday! You forget how fun it is, I don’t think I’ve ever done a game of Wembley when coaching before, but it was one of the most fun things we have done!”
It’s been an interesting conversation to have with Jay about his career. He’s not had things handed to him on a plate and he’s worked hard for the right opportunities. It’s something young coaches can take a lot from, especially with how Jay broadened his horizons beyond Sussex.
Lastly, he had this advice for any young coaches in the county: “You’ve got to be passionate about it. You can’t go into it half-hearted but also think about yourself, don’t be afraid to ask the players questions about what they thought about the session - you’ll get some weird and wonderful answers like I have over the years!
“Never think you’re the finished product because you’re not, you’ve always got learning to do and you’re always a student of the game. You will get knocked back, but keep persevering because getting into full-time football takes time.”
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