Jon Meeney HERO

Coaches Corner: Jon Meeney

The Hastings Assistant Manager talks about his time at Worthing, lessons learned at Crawley Town and how he’s always looking to keep improving

In the latest of our Coaches Corner series, we spoke with the former Worthing Co-Manager, Crawley Town Coach, and current Hastings United Assistant Manager, Jon Meeney.

For most young players in the Brighton & Hove Albion Centre of Excellence, the only thought in their mind would be making it all the way to the first team and advancing their own game.

Yet for a young Jon Meeney, his mindset was rather different.

“Looking back, I class my time there as the perfect football apprenticeship,” said Meeney, “from being in the under-9’s to the under-16’s, I was getting a fantastic introduction to coaching from the likes of Martin Hinshelwood, Vic Bragg and Les Rogers, all of whom shaped the man I am today.”

Born in Worthing, Meeney, 32, still credits much of his current coaching inspiration to those days as a young man playing for Rogers.

“Les and I had such a special relationship,” said Meeney, “he was the one that first gave me the captaincy, and he was the first person to put that trust in me.

“In my coaching today, I always see the connections and relationships you have with your players as one of the most important things.

“Les got people's personalities and everyone wanted to play for him. That’s something you can’t get a qualification in, and I’m sure if you spoke to everyone involved with Brighton over those years, nobody would have a bad word to say about him.”

Whilst a scholarship wasn’t meant to be at Brighton, Meeney left the club with a clear idea about where his future in the game lay.

“I’d always watched football matches differently to my mates,” said Meeney, “whenever I watch a game out in a social setting, I’d always go home and re-watch it, because that’s just how my mind works.

“And even as a young player, when the coaches would be delivering a session, I’d always be asking ‘why?’ so when my time at Brighton came to an end, I knew that I wanted to go on and learn as much as I could.

“I spent some time at Worthing as a youth player, but I also went over to Chichester College to do football studies, and from there I went onto to do my FA Level 1 and then my Level 2, which gave me a real insight into the hands-on nuts-and-bolts of coaching out on the grass.”

“When I was playing, I had no idea of the aspects to coaching outside of just delivering the sessions, such as the safeguarding, how to plan, how to evaluate, the sports science aspect and the analysis side of things. It was a real eye-opener.”

Now looking to leave the classroom behind and gain his first coaching experience, good fortune favoured Meeney, as his cousin, the Chairman at East Preston at the time, invited him to take on the Assistant Manager role, alongside Paul Bird.

“That really was a quite daunting experience,” said Meeney, “as a 20/21-year-old going into that dressing room I was incredibly naïve.

“I was tasked to help keep the team up, and I did that, and we played some lovely possession football, but I overcomplicated it.

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Meeney with his Co-Manager Gary Elphick at Worthing

“I went in there trying to do things that I’d seen Premier League managers doing, playing through the thirds, being expansive, and so on. Don’t get me wrong, the boys did it to a tee, but I made it harder for them.

“That was my first lesson in needing to coach, not what I felt I knew, but what they needed to know, and what was relevant and realistic for them to stay up.”

But through a fortuitous encounter with Worthing in a Sussex Senior Challenge Cup game, Meeney was able to speak to their manager at the time, Chris White.

The Worthing boy was coming home.

However, despite having that experience with East Preston under his belt, Meeney was still a young coach going up a level and having to win round a dressing room.

“That too was a daunting prospect because, first and foremost, I’ve not had a career in the game,” said Meeney.

“I played a bit at County League level after Brighton, but I’d never played in the Isthmian League, and I’m walking into a club with players who have played higher or at a decent level consistently.

“And there I am walking in as a 20-something-year-old and they must have been thinking, ‘who the hell is this?’

“So, before my first session I went to Chris and asked him what he wanted me to put together, and he just turned to me and said, ‘you’re the coach’.

“Straight away he’s given me that ownership, and whilst there was the challenge there, he was also putting his faith in me, knowing that I’ve watched their games and know where I can make an impact.

“So that first session came along, and my aim was to both give it a relevance, but most importantly put smiles on faces, and looking back, I like to think the way I prepared and delivered it, it went a long way in gaining their respect.”

It’s clear from listening to Meeney just how important that faith shown by Chris White was in helping him develop as a coach.

“His trust in me meant everything back then,” said Meeney.

“We didn’t have a relationship before Worthing, so he didn’t need to do what he did, but in doing so, it gave me such a confidence boost. I’ll be forever grateful for the help that he gave me.”

And as for highlights from that first stint back at Worthing, one memory certainly stood out among the rest…

“Beating Bognor [Regis Town] on a bank holiday weekend 1-0, with a Ryan McBride goal,” said Meeney.

“It was one of my first games, and to see a packed Woodside Road, that was my first real experience of having that connection with the fans, and after a game seeing how much it meant to them.

“I can’t tell a lie; it was always sweet getting those wins over Bognor!”

Yet soon Meeney was feeling the pull of a new challenge, and one a bit further away from home, specifically over 1,500 miles away in Finland.

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Meeney celebrates win over Whitehawk in the Sussex Senior Challenge Cup

“When the opportunity came up to go out and coach in Finland, I knew I had to take it,” said Meeney.

“I wanted to grow up, not just as a coach, but as a person. I wanted to have a different experience and so me and a few other coaches started going over there to do a bit of coaching on a camp for their boys and girls’ program.

“I remember saying to someone there now how much I was enjoying it and how I wish I didn’t have to go back, which was when they piped up and mentioned the job with the Finnish FA, doing some talent identification.

“Well cut to a few weeks later and I’d flown over for the interview and been offered the job and was preparing to start a new life out there.”

But as Meeney remembers, such big steps don’t always go to plan.

“Whilst I jumped at the chance to go and learn a new culture and style of playing, there was again a real naivety from me.

“I was at home working on the grass with the young players out there and helping them as much as I could, but off the pitch was a different story.

“I really struggled with the social aspects of moving out there on my own, and soon started to feel a bit isolated.

“So, three months later, when I heard that Brighton were looking for someone to take on an academy role at their new training ground, I flew home, and two days later was in for an interview.”

Not only did the return to his old club offer Meeney his ticket back to Sussex, it also gave him a chance to continue to develop his abilities coaching youth players.

“When working with young people, the most important thing is to understand their personalities, the way they work and the way they learn,” said Meeney.

“It’s all about keeping it relevant to them and knowing when to pull back and when you might be over-coaching them, but with the experiences I had at that time, I was confident I could adapt my own philosophy and style to suit them.”

Yet beyond his work on the pitch, returning to Brighton and working with their youth players, meant that Meeney was able to greatly empathize with, not just their journey on the pitch, but also off it.

“For a lot of these players at Brighton, the reality is that, unfortunately, they’re not going to get a deal,” said Meeney.

“However, you can still create a positive learning environment for them, so that, when they do leave, they can take something from their time there that can help them either at another club, or whichever path they look to take next, such as sports science or therapy.

“Because of my own journey, I was able to really connect with these players and understand just what they were going through.”

Yet throughout this time, club football, specifically Worthing, had never gone away, with Meeney returning to his assistant role with the club, before being asked to take on the position of Co-Manager with Player/Manager, Gary Elphick, in 2015.

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Meeney calling the shots on the touchline

The joint managers arrangement might be something of a rarity in this day and age, but for Meeney and Elphick it just worked.

“Me and Gary are very different people,” said Meeney, “but in this case, those differences really complimented each other.

“Gary was more experienced regarding being in a senior dressing room, with the level of career he’s had, alongside also running his own business, whereas I was still quite unfamiliar with that environment and dealing with people in that way.

“So, whilst he would manage things from the inside, I was able to concentrate on things from the outside and handle all the coaching, which worked well for us, and we just grew and grew together.

“The success we had, I know it wouldn’t have been possible with Gary, because if it was just me on my own, we would have failed.

“I’m not a manager, I know that now, and the taste I had of it at Worthing was enough for me. Without Gary, the promotion and everything else wouldn’t have been possible.”

But all good things come to an end, and after two remarkable seasons, Meeney was looking to pastures new.

Roles with Eastbourne Borough and Horsham followed, where he was able to add more strings to his coaching bow.

“For me it was all about being able to adapt as quickly as possible,” said Meeney.

“Eastbourne and Horsham were clubs in very different places, and so for each one I had to adapt to different styles and different personalities to get my coaching vision across to them.

“But by this time, I like to think I had something of a coaching Bible to look back on and draw from in order to help me deliver at each club.

“My coaching philosophy has always been to look at how I can impact and improve players individually; how can we make strengths into super-strengths? What is it you need to add to your game?

“Personally, there’s no better feeling than seeing a young player come through your internal program and go onto play for the first team.”

Whilst such roles had been rewarding, Meeney had still been chasing that goal of full-time coaching for a Football League side; then, in July 2019, along came Crawley Town.

“I’ve always wanted to be in the professional game because it suits my mentality,” said Meeney, “So when Gabriele Cioffi asked me to be part of his backroom staff, it was an opportunity I couldn’t turn down.

“The way you work, the schedule you stick to, the time you can put in with individual players, the detail you go into on the opposition. Anyone who knows me, knows that just how I want to work, leaving no stone unturned so, when it's five o’clock on a Saturday, there are hopefully no excuses.”

But moving into a full-time set-up brought with it a different set of challenges.

“Being part of Cioffi’s set-up I was around coaches with experience in coaching at a much higher level than myself, so I knew I needed to deliver in order to earn their respect, as well as that of the players.

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Meeney (centre) collects his runners-up medal following Worthing's 1-0 defeat to Eastbourne Borough in the Sussex Senior Challenge Cup Final in 2016

“On and off the pitch I like to think I was seen in a different light to the other coaches, because players knew that they could come and have an honest conversation with me at any time, on anything they needed to speak about.”

As for the highlights for Meeney during his time at Crawley, unsurprisingly wins against Norwich (0-1) and Stoke (1-1 and then 5-3 on penalties) in the Carabao Cup stand out.

“To play against such strong teams was a fantastic experience,” remembers Meeney.

“I was tasked with analysing the opposition and delivering that to the team, alongside being on the comms during the game and giving the team in the dugout advice on how we should adapt.

“To get those wins gave me such confidence, but full credit to the players. You can come up with all these plans, but it takes a team to carry them out.

“And to see the People’s Pensions Stadium rocking like it was after those games, it brought it all home for me.”

That season at Crawley came to an end though, and whilst Meeney would complete his UEFA A Licence at St George’s Park by the September of 2020, it would be a further 14 months before he would be back working in club football.

“Throughout the pandemic I’d been really working hard, looking back at past games and learning from them, and speaking to other coaches in the game,” said Meeney.

“And then one day I got a call from Gary, who was now managing at Hastings United, and he asked me if I wanted to get the band back together.

“For me it was a no-brainer, in football it’s all about understanding the club you’re going into, and if it’s the right environment for you.

“I knew where my role would fit, the squad was in good shape and competing at the top, the way the club was structured well, and the youth program was good, so I could really see myself being a part things there.

Indeed, nearly a year and a half later, and Meeney hasn’t looked back since.

“In my career I’ve been in a lot of different environments, but I was yet to really stay somewhere and build something, but I want to do that with this club,” said Meeney.

“As a coach in my time here I’ve become a lot more self-aware of who I am and the kind of coach I am, and in doing so I feel I’ve matured as well.

“So right now, the goal is to keep building here at Hastings and hopefully create something sustainable for these great fans!”

And as for the next generation of coaches coming out of Sussex, what advice would Meeney have for them?

“Watch and listen,” said Meeney, “because what you’ve got in front of you is a life free subscription.

“Understand who you are, and who your target audience are; coaching is about what they need to know, not just what you know.”

“But the main thing is to be out coaching on the grass as much as you can, making those mistakes, because that’s how you learn and that’s how you grow.”

For more information on coaching in Sussex please contact:

T: 01903 766855

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