Blog > Coaching & Player Development

Jon Stead: Professional Football Player & Coach

Jon Stead: Professional Football Player & Coach

With experience playing at Premier League level and with clubs such as Blackburn Rovers, Sheffield United and Bradford City on his CV, Jon Stead has been scoring plenty of goals since he made his senior career debut for Huddersfield Town, back in 2002.

The 37-year-old striker is currently playing in League Two with Harrogate Town FC, having helped the club to gain promotion in the 2019/20 season. Jon takes time out of his busy day to chat with Sascha about his successful career, including the moment he made his Premier League debut and what avenue he hopes to pursue once he finally decides to hang up his boots!

 

Please can we start with a little background to your playing career thus far? From how you first started in the game to where you are today.

I started playing football later than most – I was around 10 or 11 years old when I started to become really interested in the game. Nowadays, you see kids who are 3 or 4 years old kicking a ball around; I wasn’t one of those kids. I went into the Huddersfield Academy after finishing school, had a couple of years there and then broke through into the first team. At the time, the club was going through an administration process and some real financial difficulties so that provided a fast-track route for the academy players to come through. In essence, it was a cheaper option to move the academy players up to the first team than it was to purchase new players. So, I was lucky to have a relatively easy route through to the first team.

Playing for my hometown club was a dream come true and it holds such sentimental value for me. Also, at the time, it gave me great bragging rights with all my mates as they were all Huddersfield Town supporters! It was really special.

I was lucky that my career progressed from there and I managed to move and play all around the country.

 

How did it feel to return to Huddersfield Town in 2013? Was it just as special playing your first game after re-signing for the club?

I think it was, yes. It felt like a second debut and a great occasion; it was great to be back at the club. The club was very different and although there were a lot of staff members still there from my previous time with them – the backroom staff and those working in the academy - it was completely different in a lot of areas too. I enjoyed my time but to be honest, it didn’t go brilliantly well… I didn’t play too many games, although I did manage to score the winner in a game against Leeds, which is a fantastic memory because that’s a big derby for Huddersfield fans!

 

From there, I had my loan spell at Bradford City, which was a really good playing spell for me and I experienced some good cup runs too. So, on the whole, it worked out well – it was just a different experience to my time there before. I look back on it fondly though; I had some great times and met some wonderful people.

 

How did it feel when you made your first appearance in the Premier League with Blackburn Rovers? Did you have a conscious moment of, ‘I’ve made it’?

It’s hard to put into words because it was a real whirlwind experience. In the space of a week, I had gone from playing for Huddersfield Town in the old division 3, to starting in a Premier League game for Blackburn (vs Middlesbrough). I don’t think I had the chance to process it all to be honest; I think I was riding this wave. I had confidence in what I was doing because at that point, I hadn’t hit a barren spell or any adversity – I was just gliding upwards and onwards and scoring goals regularly. We won the game against Middlesbrough and I scored on my debut so that was great, and in the following game, I scored again as we drew against Newcastle United.

 

That good start gave me this feeling of ‘this is meant to be – what’s all the fuss about?’ Of course, that quickly changed after that first season! Subconsciously, I’m sure I was overly-confident; thinking that this was my life, I was going to be playing for England one day and getting the golden boot in the Premier League every season! I was only 19 at the time so I suppose it made sense to feel like that - like everything was there for me to progress and be successful. But as soon as you hit the obstacles and the difficult times in your career, that whole mentality gets thrown upside down.

I found it difficult to readjust and get back into this positive mental state of composure and confidence to ‘push on’ again. That lack of confidence was probably evident in my time at Sunderland but I managed to refocus, calm down and went on to have a good spell with Sheffield United in the Premier League – scoring goals that set me on my way again

 

So you had some mental struggles to battle?

There’s so much that goes on in a footballer’s head – a lot more going on with us when it comes to the mental strain of being a football player. It’s something that is starting to be explored but certainly, 17-18 years ago when I first started in the Premier League, there wasn’t a proactive support network to speak to when you were struggling. Performance coaches and clinical psychologists didn’t exist; we just got on with it.

 

Do you think constant scrutiny from the media can contribute to the negative effects on a player’s mental health?

I think when you read stories rather than speak to a football player on their struggles, it can sometimes dehumanise the importance of it all. And obviously football players are in the spotlight so you do have to be careful about your behaviour. Bad behaviour will be highlighted by the media and that creates scrutiny and pressure.

Thankfully, there were no camera phones when I was out and about in Newcastle and Manchester so I was safe!

 

A lot of players have ups and downs in their career, for example, a change in manager or a move to a new club can often prove to be either an opportunity to thrive, or a step back in their career. In your experience, how difficult is it to adapt to such changes?

From personal experience, when I have been brought to a club, it’s usually because the manager wants you there; they see you as being part of their plans. However, if in 12 or 18 months that manager leaves and another one comes in, straight away you’re not the new manager’s player and of course, you are aware of that. If you’re playing brilliantly and for example, as a striker you’re scoring the goals you need to, you will quite quickly become the new manager’s player too. But what I have found throughout my career, is that the majority of the time, when a new manager comes in, you come across some difficulties.

I think that is particularly true for the forward positions too because for whatever reason, those positions are a real personal choice for managers; they have their own thoughts about what they want their goal scorers to be. It just seems to be the playing position where there is this feeling of ‘we can always do better’ You could have a pair of strikers who are contributing 10-15 goals a season but there will still be that thought process of, ‘Great, but can we find that one striker who can contribute 20-25 goals a season?’

There is a lot of rotation for forwards and a lot of new faces coming into the team so whenever that’s happened, I have found myself moving onto another club. Realistically, that could be one of the reasons why I have played at so many clubs because as soon as I get to this point where I am not playing as much, my first instinct is to fight for my place, but if it is made clear to me that fighting for game time will not make a difference, I know it is time to move onto a club where I’m wanted and needed.

From a mental health perspective, it is really important too – playing regularly and knowing you are in a team and at a club where you feel wanted and valued. In any business or career path, that feeling of value is important; it helps people to perform to the best of their abilities. 

 

Would you therefore say that making a decision to stay or move on is one that is personal to each and every player? I am wondering if there is any general advice that can be given to players in this situation, or whether you can’t advise on this because it is dependent on the type of person that player is? For you, you decided to fight each time and then move on if it didn’t result in more playing time but some players may continuously fight season after season…

Yes, I agree it is a personal decision but – and this is something I would say to any player – if you are at a club where you are continuously not getting the starts or game time that you need to be able to develop your career, you shouldn’t hesitate to look elsewhere. I don’t see that as a negative or a reaction to not wanting to fight for your position but there comes a point – which you have to recognise quickly – that in a short career, you need to be playing football; the more time you spend off the pitch, your career is not progressing and essentially disappearing. So there is this real balance of fighting and showing willing to prove somebody wrong, versus taking another opportunity in which you will be playing football regularly.

 

I hope you don’t mind me saying that you will be 38 this year, which in most careers isn’t even close to being old! However, in football, it is a real testament to still be playing professional football at that age and you are currently playing in League Two with Harrogate Town. Looking back, did you think you would still be playing professionally at this age?

Probably not, no. The PFA pension age is 35! I think the majority of players that I have played with or spoken to have this mentality of ‘Get to 35’ – it’s the unwritten age that players have in their heads. If you get beyond 30 and get to 35, you have had a good career.

Once I got to 35 and took my pension I thought ‘Actually, I think I am going to carry on’. Another couple of years have gone by but I have always had the feeling that if I am still enjoying playing, then I will carry on. One of the key things for me is knowing I am contributing too; I don’t want to get to this point where I feel like I am embarrassing myself or hanging around for the sake of it – I need to feel like I am contributing to the team and the club. I’ve been very lucky with injuries (touch wood!) and been able to stay fit for the majority of my career so that’s really helped me as well.

But if you told me at the age of 18 that I would still be playing in the Football League at the age of 37, I wouldn’t have believed you!

 

On that note, it would perhaps be fair to assume that retirement is something you are thinking about. Do you have any plans for retirement from professional football?

I have learnt in football that you can’t really plan for more than a couple of days ahead, so it’s difficult to look at where I am going to be in the long-term.

I’ve started putting a few things into place - I have my UEFA B Licence and will be starting my A Licence in the near future. I am also in the middle of a marketing and management online course, which I am really enjoying, and I have just enrolled into the League Managers Association’s Diploma in Football Management. That’s a 12–18-month course which the PFA have assisted with and I feel very fortunate to have been able to enrol on that course.

I don’t like using this phrase but I am interested in working on ‘my personal development’ once I decide to ‘hang up my boots’; take some time for myself before jumping straight into a full-time coaching role, for example. I feel that after 20 years of my life being completely absorbed by football, I need a little bit of time to assess what I want to do next.

As I said, my long-term plans are still to be decided because I can’t plan too far ahead but working abroad and coaching overseas is something I would love to do. I would like to sample different cultures. I have spent all my time in English football, across all levels of the pyramid, so I would love to experience how different cultures adapt their lifestyle around football and see how other leagues operate. I think in England, football and life goes together in an almost traditional way but for example, if you look at the different lifestyle that people in Spain have, compared to us here in England, how does football fit into that? How is it incorporated into a style of life and culture that is so different to what is experienced here?

That’s about as far as my plan goes at the minute though!

 

You are Head Coach of the Jon Stead Striker Academy, which unfortunately, has been affected by the current pandemic. What made you decide that opening an academy was something you wanted to pursue and what are your plans for the academy in the future?

As you said, it’s on hold at the minute due to the pandemic and whether it will start again in the same format it was previously running with, is going to be dependent on what time I have available post-Covid. It’s a time-consuming project because it’s not just coaching, it’s a business which I manage on my own a lot of the time. It took some time to setup too but I was lucky to have some help to get it off the ground.

The coaching side of it, I absolutely love and I knew I wanted to have this position-focused academy. If you look at the NFL, they have coaches for each playing position and I always wondered why football didn’t have that same approach. You can see it’s coming into the game a bit more now but it wasn’t always a feature of football coaching. The experiences I have had as a striker means I have knowledge which is position specific – the finer details to your game, such as your body positioning in certain situations, which is perhaps better coached by somebody who has played in that position.

 

So I really wanted to give it a go and we have coached kids from 7-15 years of age, all with different levels of ability; a lot of the kids were playing in a Sunday league team and they were so eager to learn. The sessions were always fun and engaging; it was about providing reassurance and positive, constructive feedback which I think is an important approach for kids of that age. Again, looking at that mental health aspect of the game, if a scoring opportunity was missed in one of the sessions, it was about encouraging the kids to reset, go again and telling them that the next chance is the important one, it’s not about dwelling on the chances you missed.

I went onto work with some of the youngsters at Huddersfield Town and Sheffield United too. At Sheffield United, I know a lot of the academy staff there so I worked with their strikers from ages 9-16 and it was such a great experience.

 

Is Academy Coaching what you hope to work within, or is the long-term goal to coach the first team?

I tell you what, although the 7–9-year-olds were the group that made me smile most, it was also the one that was the most tiring!

 

Maybe not the real little ones then?!

I would like to work with the adult’s game eventually; that is where I am looking to progress to. If you look at a club such as Harrogate Town, players will come to the club at 18-19 years of age and their development is just beginning. But the problem is, as soon as you step into an adult environment, the one-to-one coaching reduces dramatically compared to your time within an academy – there is much more focus on the fundamentals, the technique and the repetitions at that level. That type of coaching is something you really need to be able to develop, but in the first team, that disappears because of reasons such as the fixture schedule and the general environment you are in. So I would like to have a coaching role which is the stop-gap between those two levels - work alongside a coach, especially in the early days of coaching; look at the players they have, where they need improvement; why they are not making the first team etc. I could work with that particular player, or a small group of players to help them improve to the point where they are back in the manager’s plans.

 

What has been your career highlight to date?

I’ve not had a career that has been blessed with medals and trophies… I’m very proud of my career but I am not going to be filling out any trophy cabinets, that’s for sure!

 

But you have the longevity that a lot of players wish they had in their career. Medals and trophies are of course always great to have but there’s a lot to be said for a player who has the opportunity and talent to play professional football at the age of 37…

Absolutely and I am very proud of my career and what has been achieved.

If I look at the highlights, my debut for Huddersfield Town was amazing – being able to pull on the shirt in my first competitive league match. The promotion with Harrogate Town was amazing too - to gain promotion with an organisation that is relatively new, small in size and not steeped in a huge amount of history was a fantastic achievement. Being able to be part of the group who, for the first time, gained promotion to the Football League was an amazing experience.

 

I think the National League is sometimes looked down upon as it’s not in that bracket of elite football. But having spent one season of my career in the National League, it was just as enjoyable as any other season I have played in football. The standard was great, the professionalism is exactly the same level as any other league and as an organisation, they deserve a huge amount of respect in my opinion. The players are so hungry and driven too – they are so passionate about progressing to become an EFL player. And that’s something I have not really experienced in my career as I was always a part of a dressing room full of established players in league football. Of course, football means so much to players at every level, but I noticed an incredible hunger and appetite from teammates that hadn’t played in the EFL before. It’s refreshing; an indicator of why, as kids, we start playing the game in the first place.

 

It was a brilliant environment to be a part of and it gave me a ‘kick’ so late on in my career. It was inspiring to see that passion and it has been a perfect move for me.

And lastly, playing in the Premier League is of course a career highlight. At any point in your career, to play at the highest level is amazing but the goals I scored in the PL well, I pretty much remember every single one…there wasn’t that many! Those goals were huge occasions for me though and I will always remember them; they are memories I cherish.

 

You scored some really important goals for Blackburn Rovers. That season was huge as they battled relegation so it must be nice to look back and know you played a part in the team avoiding the drop?

Yes, it’s nice. All these years on, whenever there is an anniversary of particular games or specific goals I’ve scored for the club, I see a lot of positive comments from supporters and the reposting of the goals on social media. It gives you the opportunity to look back and remember how big that season was for Blackburn. Graeme Souness went out of his way to give me an opportunity there; it was a special time and one I am grateful for.

 

Moving away from football and onto a more personal subject, you are actively involved with the Jordan Sinnott Foundation Trust – an organisation set up in the memory of former football player Jordan Sinnott, who tragically passed away at the age of 25, in January 2020. Would you be able to share details of the Trust with us, including the work currently being carried out?

Yes, so just over a year ago, a close friend and former teammate of mine, Jordan Sinnott, passed away and in his memory, we vowed to start a Foundation Trust that would align with the areas that he was passionate about. For example, helping children have access to sport, especially those vulnerable children who have difficulty gaining access to the benefits of sport. I’ve actually been to the Welcome Centre in Huddersfield today, which is a foodbank that allows us to distribute sports equipment to children. The sports equipment is included with the food donation baskets they distribute to local families. It’s a great way to get children active but it also provides some enjoyment during such a tough time.

We also wanted to help homeless people. Every time we would be out together, Jordan would give his money to homeless people who were trying to shelter in the town centre - he was so kind that way. We have also provided tents and blankets for the homeless in Bradford.

Another project we have been working on is donating football shirts to vulnerable people around the world. We started a shirt collection with Sinnott 25 on the back and ended up with 800-900 shirts! They are currently being transported to different countries, such as  South Africa and Sierra Leone, and a lot of them have been distributed to different parts of the UK. It’s been great and we have already seen them being worn in football tournaments.

There is a lot of good work going on and it’s been helpful to us as a group too – for us to find a way to heal together and honour his memory. 

 www.js25.co.uk, Twitter: @JSFTrust, Instagram: @JSFTrust, Facebook: The Jordan Sinnott Foundation Trust

 

And finally, what advice would you give to those youngsters who have a dream to play elite football and on the opposite side to that, what advice would you give to those players who are looking at their career after football?

For anybody starting out, I would say one of the biggest things is to work hard - which probably sounds straight forward and trivial - but if somebody asked you whether you have given everything, I don’t think many people can  answer yes; a lot of the time you can always give a little bit more. I think for me, it was always the hard work that helped me kickstart my career. I wasn’t blessed with huge amounts of talent; I knew I was behind a lot of other players in that respect but I got there through hard work and determination. I put in a lot of time one-on-one with coaches to be able to get to the standard I wanted to be at too.

I would also say to be open but wary of that concept of following your dream because that phrase is used so often and realistically, it isn’t always achievable. If you feel like you have the talent and you are being told you have the talent by numerous sources, you should absolutely follow your dream but if you get told that ‘maybe this isn’t the right path for you’ , sometimes it’s best to listen and ensure you have a plan B and plan C in place. I don’t mean to be overly negative by saying that but the football industry is harsh; you need to keep your options open, especially in the early stages. It’s a career that can so quickly be taken away from you. I didn’t have a back-up plan or any alternative options so I would have been in real trouble if my career hadn’t worked out. In my old age(!), I now have this side of me that encourages a more cautious approach when giving advice.

In relation to players coming to the end of their career, I would say to plan early. I have personally found it difficult to focus on the next steps while I am still fully focused on playing. All of the sacrifices that come with being a player - the attention to detail and the focus you need is so absorbing - that to sit down and talk about your next steps with somebody was something I struggled with. So, I would encourage players to do that and think about gaining your coaching badges too. I think this is a brilliant accreditation to have, a natural pathway for players, and it’s what you know and love. For most players, remaining involved with the game will be a huge part of their decision as to what they do next, so I would say that if you love the game, try and stay within it, whether it’s in coaching, media or in grassroots/community football.

Essentially, try your best to plan early and get your qualifications early too. 

 

Interviewer: Sascha Gustard-Brown

Sascha is highly experienced within the area of Supporter Engagement, having held the positions of Head of Supporter Engagement at Luton Town Football Club and Supporter Liaison Officer at West Ham United. She is currently working on small supporter engagement projects in sport and freelance writing in football.