Ben Davies on working with Postecoglou, retirement and Premier League’s evolution

There’s a pretty clear perception and stereotype associated with professional footballers (but hey, this probably applies to any team sport that generally expects you to sacrifice school for practice by the time you’re 16 and where your career earnings are in eight figures by the time you’re 25). Many are thought to inhabit a continuum that spans from dull nights doing dull pedestrian things at home in front of a 128-inch screen, to wild nights out involving fast cars and overpriced toys, like riding in private jets or wearing bling-encrusted, limited edition kicks.

The cliche is that most are either unintelligent, uneducated or both. If they’re thought to be smart, it’s usually in a slightly backhanded “street smart” or “wheeler-dealer” type of way. If they’re simply uneducated, there’s usually the assumption that they’re happy to stay ignorant about anything beyond their work/family/toys bubble.

Having spent more than two decades in and around professional footballers, there’s probably a kernel of truth in the cliche, like there is with most stereotypes. But there are also many more exceptions than most think. In fact, Julien Laurens and I sat down with one recently for an episode of “Gab and Juls Meets…”.

Tottenham Hotspur defender Ben Davies turns 31 this spring and, while he has no intention of quitting any time soon, he’s been prepping for that day for a long time. It’s not just that he’s working on getting his coaching license, it’s the fact that he found time to get a university degree in Business Economics by the time he was 26, while playing full-time for Spurs and Wales, and having access to all the toys and distractions that come with it.

“I was a bit of a nerd,” he says. He’s now working towards a Master’s Degree in Sports Business via the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA).

“I’m one of those guys who likes to plan for all eventualities,” he says. Originally it may have been a fear of what might happen if he never made it in the professional game. Now, it’s driven by curiosity and a desire for self-improvement and education.

“I thought a good use of my time in the afternoon would be to get my head in some books, mainly math and economics,” he says. He’s determined to have his coaching license in place so he can hit the ground running as soon as he retires, rather than being “outside of football, trying to find your way back in.”

In January, when Tottenham went to a warm-weather training camp, Davies stayed behind to rehab an injury. What else did he do? He went to watch a Tottenham boys Under-13s game. “There’s a joy in realising that you can speak to kids and they hang on your every word and you can actually give them some advice that might help them,” he says, eyes lighting up.

We often talk about “coaching trees” and influences, and it’s evident he has spent a lot of time thinking about and learning from the many high-end coaches he has worked with at Spurs — from Antonio Conte to Jose Mourinho to Mauricio Pochettino — and in our interview goes into deal about each one, their differences in methods and personalities, their quirks and preferences. (More on this in episode 2 of our chat, which goes live next week.)

Unsurprisingly, he has done the same for his current boss, Ange Postecoglou, and is quick to point out one often unnoticed thing (other than his Australian accent) that makes him stand out. Most Premier League managers have a backroom team of trusted assistants who follow them around from club to club: a number two, a goalkeeping coach, a fitness guy, whatever.

Not Postecoglou. When he rocked up, he did so on his own. He had never worked with Ryan Mason, Matt Wells (both of whom had been at Spurs before), Chris Davies (who came from Leicester City) or Mile Jedinak (who had been at Aston Villa), though he had coached Jedinak years before with the Australian national team.

“It’s very different from what I had experienced before,” says Davies. “All the coaches I had [in the past] were this tight-knit team, with one message that maybe they’d built over three or four years, if not longer and the manager trusted them to deliver that message. So Ange’s approach here is very unusual.”

“Maybe not having the same staff follow you everywhere stops that level of complacency seeping in,” he adds. “If you’ve been working for someone for 10, 15 years, it might be hard to tell them when you disagree and maybe if you’re working with new people you are more empowered to say certain things. It’s interesting, though if I go into coaching I don’t know that I’d have the confidence to go into a situation like this alone. It’s impressive!”

“Ange-ball” has been the talk of the Premier League this season, for better and (sometimes) for worse. It’s certainly different and Davies does a better job in summing up the central concepts than most (a skill that will serve him well if he does go into coaching).

“First of all, sometimes it’s easy to forget that it’s only been six months and he’s implemented a whole new philosophy,” he says. “We want to have the ball as often as we can, but we don’t want to keep it just for the sake of keeping it, we do it to create opportunities. We do this through freedom, the only players who really have fixed positions are the keeper and the central defenders, for obvious reasons, and the two wingers, who stay high and wide to pin back the opposing full-backs. Everybody else has the freedom to move as they like.”

“Sure, there are games where you’re not sure how far you should advance as a full-back or how much of a risk you should take,” he adds. “But then we’d review it [in the video session] and we’d see how much good could come from, say, a full-back taking a position [as a number 10] or maybe [James Maddison] dropping into a left-back position. It is encouraged all the time and it works when everybody is brave and has the courage to just play.”

Davies is very happy to offer a practical example of how it works, from Tottenham’s game against Manchester City, no less.

“[Full-backs] Pedro [Porro] and Destiny [Udogie] are basically playing as number tens, center-forwards even and are being marked by [City wingers Jeremy] Doku and [Phil][ Foden,” he says “And because [City central defender] Rúben Dias follows out striker [Heung Min Son], suddenly we have a 2 v 2,” he explains. “Those are the kind of situations you want to create.”

Davies may have plenty of interests outside of football, but his love for the game is clearly deep and entrenched.

Years ago, the Italian attacking midfielder Massimo Mauro wrote a compelling book, “I played with three geniuses” about his years playing alongside Zico at Udinese, Michel Platini at Juventus and Diego Armando Maradona at Napoli. It’s hard not to think back to that when Davies speaks with awe of his decade spent working with Harry Kane and Son at Spurs and Gareth Bale at Wales. He talks compellingly about the thread that unites them and the qualities that separate them, and the experience of being a “good” footballer alongside greatness and to what degree, with each, it’s nature vs. nurture.

For a guy who has spent more than 10 years at the same club, Davies is at once inward looking and outward looking. Inward in that he doesn’t take his career for granted and has clearly studied how he got to this level.

“I knew I was good, but I never felt I was elite,” he ays. “Football is a big chunk of luck, in my case when I got near the first team it was more about being capable and not looking out of your depth than it was about being so good that the coach had to pick me. In fact, some of the best players I played with at Under 15 or Under 16 level are out of the game entirely today… there’s a lot of them and I think it goes under the radar.”

He’s outward-looking because he knows there’s more to the game than the league he’s playing in. “I think we’re all in this Premier League bubble,” he explains. “This is the best and most viewed league in the world and so we forget how much talent is out there. I’ve always had his perception that — whatever level you end up at — it’s a real privilege to be able play this game. Sometimes in the Premier League that gets lost, it becomes everything to everyone.”

Part of that world view may have been forged by the fact that, from the age of eight to 11, he lived in Denmark, where his father was posted for work. Simply experiencing a different brand of football, joining Viborg from the Swansea Academy, opens the mind: “Big difference is that when winter comes, in Denmark they all move indoors, on handball courts, and work on their techniques,” he says. “In Wales they stay outside and it rains all the time, the pitches get water-logged and games called off.”

In our interview he also reflects on how quickly the Premier League changes and evolves. He’s only 30, yet when he made his top-flight debut Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger had yet to retire and, of the 20 Premier League managers, at the start of that season, only Mauricio Pochettino (then at Southampton, now at Chelsea) and David Moyes (then at Everton, now at West Ham) are still around. His first professional contract was a princely £400 (around $500 at the time) a week and, because Swansea didn’t have their own training complex at the time, before and after every practice the players would have to change in the locker room of a public gym, with the manager relegated to a utility room under the stairs.

“Except when the Christmas time came,” Davies recalls. “Then the manager [Brendan Rodgers no less, who would go on to coach Liverpool, Celtic and Leicester City] would get kicked out of the room because the gym owners turned it into a space for local children to go and meet Santa Claus.”

Stories like that remind you just how far — and how quickly — this league has come. Davies too knows how far he has come and how far he wants to go. And over the course of a couple hours, he methodically guides us through the past, the present and the future he hopes to write for himself.

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