Isolation is a word heard constantly in the current global crisis. Yet talk to Steve Guppy, and isolation can still bring inspiration.
The Nashville SC Assistant Coach played for the likes of Leicester City F.C., Celtic F.C. and D.C. United in a career which saw him capped by England at the national team level. Yet this is a footballer who was so nearly lost to the game. He was saved by his determination and willingness to practice - often alone- in his quest to get to the top. Even now, Guppy sees opportunity for self-improvement for every soccer player home alone.
Without his own extra work, Guppy would not have recovered from the early rejections in his own soccer life.
“I remember a schoolteacher when I was playing for Eastleigh and Winchester schools,” says 51 year old Guppy as he relaxes at home in Nashville where his wife Rhian and children Louis and Bailey have settled since moving in January.
“I was substitute that day and the teacher was talking to me saying ‘What are you going to do when you finish school?’ When I opened my mouth and said I want to be a footballer he said: ‘Well obviously you know you’re not good enough to be a professional footballer, so what are you thinking of?’ To be written off at 14 is shocking.”
His dad, a former professional goalkeeper with West Bromwich Albion instilled in him the need to practice. It led to hours in the garden or at a nearby leisure centre. Hours that seemed to count for little as players around him grew quickly to become stronger and bigger than Guppy. He found himself pushed out of the school team, watching rather than playing.
“At the age of 16 I gave up,” he says. “I just couldn’t take it anymore. From 16 to 18 I didn’t kick a football. Not only was I small but I was mentally very naive and young as well, so there was a lot of growing up I needed to do.”
By 18 and thanks to a late growth spurt he’d made up with soccer. His old school friends formed a team. “We were like league six Sunday afternoon and I agreed to play….I gained the pace that I’d been missing all those years and that was an absolute game changer for me.” By this time Guppy was at work. He’d left school at 16 and quickly discovered that life on a building site wasn’t for him: “Hated every minute of it…and realised how difficult it was and how rubbish I was at it."
He started playing for a small club called Colden Common, near historic Winchester. Years of repetition in his garden would pay off. The Steve Guppy fans would see running at Premier League defenders in the 90’s, dropping a shoulder, delivering inch perfect crosses was now setting out on his journey on the heavy clay-soiled surfaces of south Hampshire.
Guppy grew up a Southampton FC fan. He’d seen the club win the FA Cup in 1976. The dream would have been to make his professional breakthrough in his home county. But Southampton’s depth chart was full of emerging talents. Matthew Le Tissier and Alan Shearer led a class of stars which is still fondly remembered. Guppy had a three month trial in order to make an impact but it wasn’t to be. “The honest truth was it was just too big a jump for me,” he admits.
The young teenager may have thrown in the towel, but the obsessive nature Guppy had developed and perhaps the fear of the building site kept him on track.
“Intrinsic motivation I call it,” says Mick Critchell, a football coach who specialises in movement on the pitch. Mick first met Guppy thirty years ago. “He just did not give up. It was that motivation to keep going, keep working and I think it was probably because he had so many knocks when he was young.” The pair have stayed in close touch as Guppy transitioned into coaching: “I would say now he’s probably the best one-v-one coach in the country,” says Critchell, who has worked with some of England’s best young talents including Theo Walcott and Adam Lallana.
Critchell ran a specialist summer training camp for more than 30 years in England of which Guppy was a keen participant. Working on movement and skill while boosting fitness saw many of these players gain an edge when they returned to their clubs.
Guppy would find a landing place at Wycombe Wanderers, based in a provincial town near London. The club would flourish under the management of former European Cup winner Martin O’Neill, winning promotion to the Football League. But it took wise words from O’Neill to help him make the step up smoothly. “One of the biggest things Martin O’Neill taught me from that early age was to stop feeling sorry for myself. It stemmed back from when I was a kid with rejections and not playing.”
But that 14 year old kid would go on to prove his old teacher wrong. Fans of Port Vale and Leicester City, where Guppy was reunited with O’Neill in one of its finest sides, saw the fruits of his hard work pay off. Leicester won the League Cup and played in Europe with Guppy as a major piece of the Foxes puzzle. He followed O’Neill to Glasgow Celtic F.C. but a move to D.C. United in the early years of Major League Soccer would help define the next chapter of his soccer journey.
He made his debut 15 years ago this month against Chivas USA in Los Angeles, before this obsessive trainer took the natural step into coaching. In Nashville, he’s reunited with Gary Smith, the pair helped mastermind Colorado’s 2010 MLS Cup triumph.
The development of soccer in North America impresses him. “I’ve been back and forth from America since 2006 playing for D.C. United, and watching how things have evolved in this country and the thing I couldn’t work out when I first came over was that you would go down every park and all the kids are playing soccer. Then it seemed to get to a certain age when they would all of a sudden give it up a bit like I did, but they’d never come back. Whereas now there seems to be more routes through for kids to go on and maybe sample professional soccer. That will really bring this country on in the next 10 years or so and you’ll see more and more players coming through, making it into MLS and then maybe onto the Premier League as well.”
At Nashville, Guppy spoke to each player on the roster with one simple message when they met up. “Let’s try and find out how good you can be,” he told them. “Whether you’re 30, 21 or just starting out, have no regrets. If you can find out in your heart of hearts how good you can be that’ll help you in a number of things moving on in life.”
Before the lockdown Guppy was working on many of the philosophies ingrained in him both at home in his garden as a youngster and with specialist coaches like Critchell, who’s an advisor to the English Football Association on movement.
“We work religiously on taking players on, with position specific warmups, where you’ve got to get the repetitions in. To me if you can take a player on or you can do a body movement a drop of the shoulder without realising you’re doing it, then you’re a player, but to get that it takes thousands and thousands of repetitions and that’s what we’re trying to do within the warm ups.“
With this extended period at home Guppy has developed a TV box set of his own as he breaks down the attacking talent in the Nashville squad. “I’m loading up all the goals of each player that they’ve scored throughout their careers going back three or four years,” he explains. Guppy’s still searching for the perfect goal from his new player’s archive; a player dropping a shoulder, producing a trick and creating a goal for themselves.
“That intrigues me greatly. If we can get enough practice in the players where they’ve done more One v One work than they’ve ever done will they then start to look forward to doing it on match day, actively look for it and then start to do it? It is a process. If you’re trying to buy into their careers, then all they need to do is meet you half way. That’s all I ask of the players.”
We wrap up the chat as lunchtime is approaching and Guppy has two youngsters to play with in the garden. His son Louis is seven and still learning about the game. “Louis has to do 20 drop the shoulders every day,” jokes Guppy. For a moment, it’s as if life hasn’t changed at all and a new generation of Guppy’s are playing out a scene in Tennessee which was repeated 45 years ago in a Hampshire garden.