PLAY: How to impress at a football trial – 7 tips from a professional footballer

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PLAY is our regular section on Just Football for coaching, youth development and tips for playing the game. In this piece, professional footballer and UEFA ‘A’ License coach Neill Collins offers 7 tips for how to impress if you’re invited for a pro trial…

The thought of going on trial is enough to make some footballers break out in a cold sweat. All the pressure and tension of having to prove yourself under the watchful eyes of a manager, coach or scout.

It doesn’t need to be this way if you prepare yourself properly and approach the trial in the correct frame of mind. I am going to give you seven tips that will help give you the best chance of a successful football trial.

Before I start, you should understand that almost every footballer that has embarked on a professional career will have had to go through a trial at some stage or another. It may have been a schoolboys’ trial match or a week-long trial to earn a contract at a professional club.

Whatever the circumstances, if you want to play the beautiful game other than down the park with your mates you have to go through the process at some stage. Even the likes of Wayne Rooney, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo will have had to do it, though I can imagine it was a mere formality for players of that calibre whereas, for us mere mortals, it can be pretty intimidating and mentally demanding.

If you are not fortunate enough to have lots of clubs scrambling for your signature it doesn’t mean you can’t progress in the game. It just means you may have to go that extra mile to prove yourself at times, and that could mean going on trial. For those of us that don’t have Messi’s silky touch or Bale’s electric speed we have to fight, scratch and bite for every contract. Trials are par for the course.

Nowadays, even the most seasoned professionals sometimes have to prove themselves and impress at a football trial before they are awarded a contract. An occupational hazard, necessary evil – call it what you like – it’s a pure test of not only your ability but your character and ability to perform under pressure.

Learn from a pro: My own experiences on trial

I am in a unique position to comment about going on trial as during one point of my career between the ages of 15-20 years old I went through more trials than OJ Simpson! Rangers, Hibernian, Dundee United, Kilmarnock and Charlton are just some of the clubs I visited in hope of making that huge leap from part-time to full-time footballer.

The two most significant trials of my career were for two clubs at opposite ends of the football spectrum. The first was for Queens Park FC in Scotland when I was 15. It started me on my path in professional football. The last trial I had to take part in was as a 20-year old at Sunderland Football Club.

A successful trial at Sunderland propelled me into full-time football and the beginning of a twelve-year career playing in the English Football League. I have mentioned two successful trials that changed my career, but littered in between were many more that didn’t have the fairytale ending. Hopefully I can share my knowledge and wisdom so that you can take your next step on the footballing ladder.

How to impress at a football trial – 7 key tips

1) Be physically prepared

Don’t underestimate the level of fitness that players have at the top level of football. It’s very easy to get blinded by their silky skills, fantastic range of passing and thunderbolt of a shot, but it is all built on the platform of being physically fit enough to play football at a high tempo for 90 minutes.

No matter your level of ability you can always improve your physical conditioning. If you want to progress to a higher level your fitness needs to at least match, if not surpass, that of the players you want to play alongside.

When I left Dumbarton FC, who at the time were playing their trade in the Scottish Second Division on a part-time basis, my aim was to gain a full-time playing contract. I realised in order to give myself the best chance of achieving this I had to get myself into the best physical shape possible. I couldn’t expect to impress on trial at a full-time club if I wasn’t fit enough to keep up with them.

How to impress at a football trial - Be prepared and physically fit

Anderlecht training camp in La Manga, Spain – Photo by Jimmy Bolcina / Photo News 2016

During the offseason leading up to my trial I put myself through the proverbial pain barrier with a variety of long distance runs, speed work, technical drills and weights. By the time the trial came, my fitness was the equivalent of a full-time footballer and I was able to compete on a level playing field.

During the past 15 years I have seen many trialists come and go at various different clubs and there have been many that have been handicapped from the moment they walked through the door as their fitness was way below the levels expected of a professional. It doesn’t matter how good of a passer you are if you can’t show it because players keep running past you.

It may sound like hard work and I won’t lie, it is, but if you don’t have the determination or commitment to make the sacrifices to get fit you will never reach a higher level and might as well stop reading now. It is not always the most technically gifted that make a career out of football, but the ones that are prepared to make the most sacrifices.

2) Bring the necessary equipment

Now this is an easy one, but I have seen so many players over the years get it wrong. As if you are not under enough pressure to begin with, the last thing you need is the added tension of forgetting to bring the right gear. The famous saying, “Failing to prepare is preparing to fail,” is relevant here.

What to take to a football trial

The night before, pack your bag and try to think of every eventuality. Here is a list of what you will need:

2 x pairs of boots – a pair of studs and a pair of moulds because you never know what surface you might end up training or playing on.
Shin guards – even if you are not playing a game, some coaches like training to be ultra-competitive and demand players wear shin pads.
Running trainers – you might be asked to take part in some gym work or, if it is pre-season, you may be putting in hard yards. James Allen, lead singer of well-known Scottish band Glasvegas, was once a part-time footballer and came on trial to Queens Park before his musical fame. He arrived in a beautiful pair of dressy trainers, obviously not expecting to be running in a forest, as during the warm-up I glanced over as we plodded through a muddy bog and noticed he still had his stylish trainers on and they were getting destroyed. Since it was his first night on trial he was too nervous to speak up and explain his predicament. Don’t put yourself under any undue pressure.
Flip-flops – for the shower afterward, because looking after your most precious tools, your feet, is vital and failure to wear flip flops in the shower afterwards is a fine at most clubs.
-Finally, bring a wash bag with toiletries. This shouldn’t affect your ability to perform but you don’t want your future teammates thinking you are a smelly soap dodger before you even get started.

3) Be humble

You might think you are such a good player that you shouldn’t need a trial or that your experience and pedigree in the game should be enough to earn you a contract, but whether you like it or not you need to embrace the situation you are in and approach it with the best possible attitude.

During my time at Sheffield United we had various trialists try their luck, but none more high profile than Angelo Charisteas. For those that don’t remember the name, he is the Greek legend that fired his country to the Euro 2004 Championship with the winning goal in the final against Portugal. Charisteas can include clubs like Ajax, Feyenoord, Bayern Leverkusen and Werder Bremen on his CV.

Despite this impressive resume, I have watched him on a cold winter’s day in Sheffield playing in an under-23 match at our training ground trying to prove he was worthy of a contract.

For whatever reason, we didn’t sign Angelo, but during his time on trial what struck me was his appetite to play football and his attitude at that stage in his career to still be willing to try and prove himself despite all his achievements. If it is good enough for Angelo Charisteas, it is good enough for you.

4) Keep a balanced mindset

Going on trial evokes a huge range of emotions and you need to try your best to keep them all in check. In my experience, your senses are heightened while on trial, almost like a cocktail of emotions when you consider the apprehension, nervousness, eagerness and rush of adrenaline that is pumping through your body.

In order to keep a balanced mindset, keep your focus on what you’re doing at that moment in time and don’t worry about what the consequences might be. The best way to influence the outcome is to perform well, but that is sometimes easier said than done.

Stay concentrated the whole time and try not to let your mind wander. If you strike one in the top corner from 25 yards don’t get carried away, and equally, if you make a mistake, stay calm and put it behind you.

How to impress at a football trial

The number of times I did something great on trial and the manager missed it could get frustrating, but you have to stay in control of your emotions. You will be judged on your overall performance and not just one or two highlights. If you do something sensational and look over and the gaffer was tying his shoelaces, don’t let it affect you. Get your head back in the game.

Being on trial is as much a mental test as it is about your actual ability to play football. In most cases, you wouldn’t have been granted or recommended for a trial if the coaching staff didn’t think you were good enough, though there has been the odd occasion where someone has surreptitiously been granted a deal due to a dodgy agent or friend of a friend. These instances are just embarrassing for everyone as the players can spot a fraud from a mile away.

5) Stick to your strengths

One of the most important abilities for a footballer is being able to produce the goods when you are under pressure, and being on trial when you are trying to win a contract can be as high-pressured as it comes. Enjoy the challenge and play to your strengths. There is a common misconception that you need to do something special like dribble past ten men. This type of approach is possibly the worst thing you can do.

The majority of the time, the manager will want to see that you can do the basics well in a competitive environment. If you are a ball-winning midfielder, stick to that and don’t try to be something you are not. One of the things that impressed Mick McCarthy most when I was on trial at Sunderland was my ability to head the ball. It might not be a glamorous part of the game but it is a vital part of the game in the English Football League.

6) Get stuck in – within reason

I am not giving you license to run about two-footing people or scythe anyone down that gets in your way, but it’s important that you don’t stand in ceremony. In short, “get stuck in.”

During a trial, you have a limited time to impress, so there is no time to waste. Football is a ruthless business and while it is a team game, there is a selfish element to it. Every player wants to cement his place in the team, earn a new contract or perhaps a move to a bigger club. Don’t be surprised if not every player at the club welcomes you with open arms. At the end of the day, you could be a direct threat to their place in the team.

There is a saying “train as you play” and I think that’s something to keep in mind during a football trial. If there is a tackle to be won, try and win it. Be hard but fair. Some players might complain about your overzealousness, but at the end of the day you are there to win a place in the team, not make friends. That can come later.

I am a combative type player and controlled aggression is a big part part of my game. If I curbed this part of my game while on trial in order not to upset anyone it would end up hindering my chances of being successful, as I wouldn’t be giving a true reflection of what type of player I am.

I have since found out that Mick McCarthy loved the hunger and determination I showed during my two weeks on trial. I was straight out of university and part-time football but was not overawed mixing it with seasoned international players.

In one instance, I won a challenge fairly but split someone’s head open. The club clown Sean Thornton tried to make a joke and I quickly told him “if he didn’t shut up he would be next.” I was so single-minded I wasn’t going to let anyone deter me from my goal – even though some would have considered me slightly brash.

Kolo Toure started a hugely successful career at Arsenal in a similar fashion. The now-famous trial involved him taking out Dennis Bergkamp and Thierry Henry before finishing with Arsene Wenger. The tackle was so bad Wenger had to receive treatment. Sitting in the treatment room after training, Arsene declared he would be signing Kolo as he loved his desire and could harness it to make him a great player.

These two anecdotes are not to encourage you to hurt people or smash the gaffer but to highlight the need to show an intensity and desire. Managers love finding raw diamonds on their way up in the game with a hunger to prove themselves.

7) Never give up

As I mentioned, not all trials are successful. But that doesn’t mean you should hang up your boots after a rejection. Football is a game of opinions and you should never let the opinion of one person decide your entire future.

Professional football is littered with players that at one point or another were told they were not good enough. The most important thing is using the rejection as a motivating factor to prove those people wrong.

You may feel as if you have performed fantastically well only to be met with heartbreaking news that you haven’t made the cut. This can be devastating and hard to comprehend, but you should know there could be a number of factors out of your control behind the decision.

Perhaps the manager is looking for a different type of player in that position or the squad needs trimming before he can afford to bring you in. These are just a couple of reasons managers may give when delivering the bad news, and, while it sounds like bullsh*t, you just have to accept it and move on.

Three weeks before signing for Sunderland I was told by the club I supported all my life, Kilmarnock FC, that they could not afford to pay £25,000 compensation to Dumbarton after a two-week trial. I knew this wasn’t the whole truth. Really, they didn’t want to spend £25,000 on someone who was unproven in the SPL.

At the time I was hugely disappointed, but instead of being discouraged it fired me up to show them they had missed out. I put all that added motivation into my next trial at Sunderland.

Whatever happens, keep a clear picture of what you want to achieve and keep striving for it. Take on board any advice you get along the way and put it to good use by improving yourself as a player.

I went from a university classroom to Championship winner in ten months all off the back of a trial. Fairytales do happen if you have unwavering belief in yourself.

Neil Collins is a professional football player and has played over 500 games for Sunderland, Wolves, Leeds United, Preston North End, Sheffield United and Tampa Bay Rowdies. He is also a UEFA ‘A’ License coach. Catch him on Twitter @neillycollins3.

For more coaching and playing advice and tips check out our PLAY section on Just Football. And follo us on Twitter @JustFootball or Facebook for more football news, views and analysis.

Main image credit: flickrolf via Flickr.

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