Transformer Man: Paul Iannoccone

At the very start of the close season, I mentioned the possibility of interviewing some of the players and management at Bury. What I deliberately didn’t specify was who I wanted to speak to, obviously because things can change quickly and you can’t always be certain you’ll get a positive response. I’d rather promise nothing and ‘deliver’ nothing than come up empty-handed. In any case, my first attempt was successful. Paul Iannnoccone, who has two roles at the club: manager of Bury Ladies FC and head of football at The Football College was only too happy to field my questions.

I sought out Paul deliberately to be the first because I don’t feel enough attention has been paid to the wonders he has worked with the women’s teams at the club in the short period of time he has been their manager. It is my personal belief that my support of the club encompasses all the aspects of it, not merely the part that is most prominently in the public eye. This includes the ambition to attend at least one women’s match in the not-too-distant future.

Although there has been a football club in Bury covering open-aged women for 21 years, it has not always had such a close association with what most think of as ‘the club’. It has only been relatively recently that the links have strengthened and hopefully will continue to do so in the not too distant future.

I hope that by reading this post and sharing it with friends that even one more person will follow the fortunes of the side in the North West Women’s Regional Football League Division 1 North and feel optimistic about just how high it can go under Iannoccone and the rest of the coaching staff after leading the Wolfpack to third place and a cup final in 2016/2017 and the reserve side to a runners-up finish in their Greater Manchester division, too.

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Members of the current first team outside Gigg Lane – they have flourished under Iannoccone’s guidance

I wanted to know what had persuaded him to take the reins at the club and to do that, we had to start at the beginning of his burgeoning interest in the sport.

Q: In your own words, can you tell me a bit about your background and what inspired or led you into football management?

A: I played until I was 15 at a pro academy in the north-west. I was very ill as a young child and had over 40 surgeries on various different issues with my stomach. When I was told at 15 that I could not play anymore by my doctor, I knew I had to stay in the game because I loved it so much. I took up coaching pretty much straight away. My parents and grandparents have always supported me and my late granddad especially taught me so much about the game. I hope I’m making him proud with my career in the game now.

Q: You were a coach once before at Bury as an apprentice in the Football In the Community Programme. What made you want to do your apprenticeship there?

A: I did my work experience there while I was at high school. When I was finishing my GCSEs they got in touch and asked me if I would be interested. I knew I wanted to be a coach so it was ideal for me. I got great experience there from a young age and it set me up for the rest of my career to date. I owe a lot to the guys I started with at Bury. Steve Raynor, Seb Piper, Calum Rushton and Matt Clarke. I can’t thank them enough for the start they gave me in football coaching.

Q: You were then at nearby Radcliffe Borough. What was your experience like with them and did their FITC programme differ much in their approach to Bury’s at the time?

A: It was a part-time programme there. Very different to Bury in terms of the amount of schools they were in and amount of work going on. However, it was another great experience for me and the club really worked hard to get into the Radcliffe schools and support the local community.

Q: What exactly was the Kickz Project at Oldham Athletic?

A: A project ran in a troubled area of Oldham to get youths off the street and into playing football instead of getting up to no good.

Q: What was your experience like in the United States? How did ways of coaching there differ from in England, especially with girls and women playing football being much more prominent and ‘mainstream’ for lack of a better term?

A: Coaching in the United States made me the coach I am today. My time there in the pitch 12 hours a day, seven days a week taught me more than any coaching course ever could. I was lucky enough to coach elite nationally ranked teams there and travel the country for the most prestigious tournaments. Over there, driving four hours for a game was normal, even at U12s! Parents were so committed to getting their kids to training and games. The end goal for them was a college scholarship, which I’m proud to say most of the players I coached achieved in the end.

I worked with some wonderful players and met some amazing families who I still keep in touch with to this day. Also, my boss in the U.S. is the most influential person on my career to date. His mentoring has shaped my coaching style and I still to this day find myself saying things that he says! I can’t thank him enough for all that he taught me. Any future success I have as a coach will always be dedicated to him.

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The continued extremely high participation rate of women playing football in the United States has made their continued international success sustainable

Q: You came back to the north-west with various age groups in Accrington Stanley’s academy. How did it feel to be part of a club that is constantly punching well above its weight at all levels?

A: I have nothing but great things to say about Accrington Stanley. I was made to feel so welcome there and everyone is pulling in the right direction. The club and academy works so well because of the staff on the ground running it. I had the opportunity to work with the U10s and the U14s and it gave me professional academy experience, which long-term is a potential interest of mine to get into full-time. All the staff at the academy are great people and I made friends for life there.

Q: Finally, we get on to your return to Bury. As Head of Football at The Football College for one of your two current roles, can you describe in a bit of detail how the Player Pathway Programme works?

A: As Head of Football, my role is to coach, manage and organise all the football within the college. I oversee six teams across two campuses that play in the ECFA College Leagues. I take a lead coaching role on our Youth Shadow Squad that are directly underneath Bury FC’s youth team. The Player Pathway Programme is specifically designed to identify players for the next level of football. I look at the players we have in the college and identify clubs at various levels for them to go into and then I contact those clubs and get them in for trials which leads to them hopefully signing.

I have pushed players into North-West Counties and Evo-Stik clubs so far and will continue to do so. Exceptional talent is run through our academy before being pushed on anywhere else in case the academy want to take that player on. It’s a great model to get our young lads playing high level football.

Q: As manager of Bury Ladies FC, I think it is reasonable to say that you have transformed the fortunes of the senior side. What changes have you implemented since being appointed that explain the side’s rise?

A: There are a number of fundamentals I demand day-to-day. It started with discipline and structure. When I came in, I immediately demanded commitment. Players must be at training in order to play on a Sunday. Many teams at our level do not have that rule in place. Then there’s respect. Every player must listen to what I want and implement it while giving 100%. Some players have had to leave since I came in due to this. They could not give me what I wanted. However, the players I have now I trust with everything. They are the ones that have bought in to this way of working, this structure, this commitment.

When your players trust you and you trust them, it makes everything on the pitch evolve quicker. I look at every one of my players now in the eyes and I know they will do what I ask them to do. As a coach, there is no better feeling.

In terms of actual coaching, I have a philosophy that I believe in and stick to no matter what. I want my players to be very technically proficient, keep the ball for as long as possible through the thirds, and attack with pace and creativity. Off the ball my players must be organised, disciplined, know their defensive jobs and most of all, run. If they cannot run, they cannot play for me. If they want to smash the ball long, they cannot play for me. I feel as though the group I have now truly believe and enjoy how we play football. When the players believe and enjoy, it makes coaching them an absolute pleasure.

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Prolific advanced forward Leah Tibbott has been an integral part of the side’s success in 2016/2017

Q: How important is it (if at all) that the club sign relatively high-profile players like Hulda Sigurðardóttir and Leah Tibbott?

A: It’s important. In order to compete, we must improve every year. We are big believers in promoting from within as we have a fantastic youth structure underneath our seniors. However,  the young players are not always ready to jump straight to senior level, the commitment and the demands of that. Some of our youth players like Aimee Hall and Ellie Whittle have come straight in and been outstanding. Others have struggled. It’s about finding the right moment to expose those players coming through to this level and something we still need to work on.

In terms of signing new players, we want players who want to come here, who want to play for me and play for this club, and want to be part of what we are aiming for. Someone like Leah Tibbott is a perfect example. Leah has been unbelievable this season after joining us from Manchester City. She has bought in 100% to the philosophy and our ways of working and will only improve season by season. If we can get more players of her quality with similar attitude and approach, we won’t go far wrong.

Q: What lessons can be learned from how the season panned out, the cup final defeat to FC United of Manchester in particular?

A: I think we had an amazing season. Our goals in pre-season were to finish in the top half and win more games than we lost. That would have been fantastic based on last season. However to finish third and get to the league cup final was a massive overachievement considering the young age of our squad.

The lessons that can be learnt… there are a few. We dropped points in games that we should have won. We went there with the wrong mentality, thinking that we had beaten those teams before so would again. We need to have a stronger more focused mentality. We are very young so will learn from that. We showed how good we can be by beating the champions of our league 4-1 and on that day we were unbelievable.

Also, the quarter-final of the cup against Bootle who were unbeaten at the time and then the semi-final against Manchester Stingers who were a division above. Those performances will live long in the memory of all players and staff. We need to believe in ourselves and our ways of working but also know that every single 90 minutes is just as important as the last. The cup final was a fantastic spectacle, a joy to watch for the neutral fan. Many people said after the game it was a credit to women’s football, and it truly was. We prepared for the final better than I’ve ever prepared a team for any single game. We knew everything about them, how they would play, how we needed to play. They were just simply the better team on the day. There’s nothing more we could have done. FC United are an outstanding football team with superb players all over the pitch. I’m so proud of the difficult game we presented to them and the respect from their fans after it. They knew they had been in a game. My young players coped so well with the large crowd and if we ever get to another big final in future, we can safely know we have had that experience early in our journey together, and that will stand us in good stead.

Q: Speaking of the journey, what is your ultimate ambition as manager, especially taking into consideration your richly deserved five-year contract?

A: The ultimate ambition is to take the team to the Women’s Premier League. Nothing would make me prouder. Being a home-town lad who was raised right here in Bury, to bring the women’s team into one of the most prestigious leagues in the country would be a dream come true. We have a long way to go. The WPL is two promotions for us. And in our regional league only one team goes up from Division 1 North and up from the Premier. So,  basically it means winning two titles.

My contract is for five years but I am not looking at that as an end. I want to achieve as much as possible in that timeframe and hopefully by then I would deserve another contract. I love working with these players, and this club and I hope it continues for many more years.

Q: Lastly, what do you think are the barriers facing women’s football in England when it comes to how it’s perceived as a whole, increasing the level of funding in the sport and the exposure to challenge stereotypes and negativity/apathy from some quarters?

A: I’d like to think the stereotypes of old are starting to wane away. The quality levels of the WSL and the fanbase is taking off. Our English Women’s team are excellent to watch and compete on the world stage. I know from spending time at St. George’s Park recently that the FA are putting a lot of time and effort into the women’s game, as are other countries. I think in the next five to 10 years you will see fewer and fewer barriers and if I can play a small part in helping that, I’ll be delighted.

People just need to simply understand now that what has been perceived for so long as a men’s sport… it’s no longer the case. The women’s game is blossoming and there are many out there that can see that and thankfully, those people are backing it all the way.

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The recent FA Cup Final was watched by over 35,000 and represents a very small but important step in the right direction

It was very clear to me that Paul is very passionate but considered person when it comes to talking about the sport and his work at Bury as a whole. If you’ve watched even a short clip of one of the matches on YouTube, you will have been witness to his constant encouragement of his players, regardless of whether they have done something well or made a mistake and conceded a goal as a result of their (in)actions.

He strives for the very best and you can’t help but feel deeply enthused by his mentality and how he conveys his thoughts. I will certainly be keeping a very close eye on how things pan out next season and beyond: there will also certainly be more articles on this blog on the women’s teams in the future, so watch this space for those.

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