First team goalkeeping coach Andrew Sparkes reveals how Saints' stoppers have been keeping their eye on the ball...
These are strange and uncertain times that society finds itself in.
Whilst everybody’s individual circumstances are different, one thing we all have in common is the need to adapt to the current environment.
The same applies to Southampton’s goalkeepers, who have been keeping their eye in by utilising ball machines in their back gardens.
The idea stemmed from first team goalkeeping coach Andrew Sparkes, who explains why he had the machines delivered to the homes of shot-stopping trio Alex McCarthy, Angus Gunn and Harry Lewis.
“At the start, obviously we didn’t know how long this would go on for,” he says. “We thought maybe it would be a few weeks, and then we’d be back training.
“After the initial week to 10 days, I think everyone got the sense it would go on a bit longer.
“What I did with the goalkeepers was to get the ball machines delivered to their houses, which sounds a little bit outside the box, but for me it was very important that they keep some kind of technical base going.
“Mentally as well – 10 days in, they’d been on the gym bikes and the weights, but they were missing the football side of it.”
The result has been uplifting. With the help of fiancée Rachel, Saints’ number one McCarthy has provided footage of himself being put through his paces by daughter Baylie, who places the balls into the machine, which fires them out at speeds of up to 100 miles per hour.
“The company who supplied us with the ball machines were going to come to Staplewood three days after the Norwich game (the first of Saints’ scheduled fixtures to be postponed due to Covid-19), just to give us a demo of how we could use it within our training sessions,” Sparkes reveals.
“In the end needs must, and I felt I had to fast track the process to get them to their houses, because I can’t be there to kick balls at them!
“Alex has had his little girl serving the balls, Angus has had his partner serving and Harry has had his brother doing it, so I think I might have been replaced by the time we go back to Staplewood!”
It’s just one of many examples in which Saints have adapted to a new way of working – something Sparkes admits has taken some getting used to.
“A lot of my work is done on the pitch at Staplewood,” he says. “Every morning we go out as a group of goalkeepers, we train with the rest of the team, have lunch, meetings, gym work… but now we’re almost left to our own devices.
“We have to make our own schedules and find ways to fill the day. It’s actually fascinating to see how the goalkeepers are adapting.
“We’ve been staying in contact over WhatsApp and video calls, so it’s nice to connect with them in their own environment away from Staplewood.
“They might be in their living room, their kitchen, in their own clothes – they’re not under the pressures of preparing for a Premier League game, so the conversations are that little bit more relaxed.
“With Alex’s little girl running around and Gunny’s dogs in the background, how we communicate is obviously different, but we’re all finding different ways to deal with this and I’ve quite enjoyed connecting with the guys in the comfort of their own home.”
Breaking away from that daily routine is perhaps the biggest challenge of all, and Sparkes is wary of the psychological effect of losing that sense of normality.
“That’s probably the strangest thing for a lot of them – not having that daily structure,” he reasons. “Being a professional footballer, your schedule is dictated to you every single day.
“You get to the training ground, you have your height and weight taken, you go to breakfast, you have to be in a meeting at this time, you train at this time, you have lunch at this time, you’re told what to eat, you’re told what time to be in the gym, you’re told what to do in the gym… it’s very structured.
“Everyone is trying to find their own routine to help them through the day. I’m quite conscious of not bombarding them with too much, because the time between this season and next season could be limited, so this is a bit of a downtime for them.
“I know that other departments within the club are reaching out to them – whether it’s strength and conditioning, the psychologist, the nutritionist… they have a lot of input coming in from a lot of places.
“I give them a call just to chat to them and see where they’re at physically and mentally, and whether there’s anything I can do or the club to do to help them.”
andrew sparkesit's almost like a blueprint of how we want our players to play, specific to different positions within different tactical shapes.
first team goalkeeping coach
Whilst they say the life of a goalkeeper can be lonely, Saints’ stoppers are in regular contact with the rest of the squad, taking part in yoga sessions and stretching exercises on video calls with their teammates.
Meanwhile, Sparkes reveals he has been spending some of his time away from the hectic Premier League schedule to work on Ralph Hasenhüttl’s much-publicised new iBook.
“I’d like to think I’ve used the time very sensibly and very wisely,” Sparkes continues. There’s a lot of work to do off the pitch in terms of planning, preparing, recruitment and dealing with other departments within the club.
“Another thing we’ve been working on as a staff has been an iBook for the club. For me, that’s working on the tactical behaviours of the goalkeepers, because we have a very strong philosophy and a way that we want to develop the goalkeepers within the club.
“It’s an online document containing videos of different tactical scenarios – ones we want our goalkeepers to recognise on the pitch in any given situation.
“It’s almost like a blueprint of how we want our players to play, specific to different positions within different tactical shapes.
“For the goalkeeper, it’s really important to be able to play in the way Ralph wants us to play at the moment.
“It’s vital for us to be able to pass this information through to the Under-18s and Under-23s, who are developing the next goalkeeper who could come into the first team.”
It is all a fine balancing act between rest and preparation in the short term and using the time to boost other areas in the long term – not helped by the obvious uncertainty surrounding any potential return date.
But Sparkes remains confident that his goalkeepers will be ready when the time comes – even if they are called back to play at short notice.
“It’s the unanswered question: when are we going to go back?” he ponders. “It could be within a three or four-week period (from being told).
“From my standpoint, getting the ball machines for the goalkeepers just so they have that feeling of catching a few hundred balls a day, hopefully means that when they go back to training, they already feel accustomed to it again.
“It’s going to take two or three weeks to get everyone up to speed, but everyone is in the same boat.
“To get back to playing games is what everyone wants. It will give everyone a lift within football, but also in the outside community as well, and hopefully things will get back to some sort of normality soon.
“For all the players, all the staff and everyone connected to the club, that’s what we’re paid to do and it will be fantastic when we can get back playing.”