Mark Naylor interview: Goalkeeping coach opens up on psychology of sport after 20 years at West Brom
When Mark Naylor was 16-years-old, he realised he would never make it as a professional footballer when he feigned injury to miss a game for Albion reserves.
Scouted by the Baggies while playing in goal for Kidderminster Harriers, he was offered a dream move.
That dream never materialised, but it put him on the path to a different one.
“It was big for me because my family are all Albion,” said Naylor. “My dad Clive is a huge West Brom fan, he still goes to every game now. But I only lasted six months.
“I found out pretty early on I couldn’t deal psychologically with it as a player.
“I got in the reserves one night against Walsall and pretended I had a hamstring injury because I didn’t want to play.
“After that I knew I wasn’t going to be able to do it. If I couldn’t play in front of 50 people at The Hawthorns, I was never going to play in front of 25,000 people.”
For the majority of footballers, that would have been the end of the journey.
But fast-forward two decades and Naylor is Albion's longest serving coach, and this summer he’s celebrating his 20th anniversary at the club.
Football is a notoriously transient business, which makes his stay as academy goalkeeping coach something of a rarity.
He’s had opportunities to leave, and move up to the first team permanently, but his passion is developing young keepers, and with seven England youth internationals to his name, he’s quite good at it.
And in a candid interview with the Express & Star, he revealed that boy from Brierley Hill who couldn’t play in front of 50 people has also developed over the past 20 years.
“Back then there was nothing about psychology, now we have a sports psychologist for the academy, you’ve got all that support in place,” he said.
“That’s why the position really interests me, because goalkeeping for me is 80 or 90 per cent psychological.
“You’ve got to have a personality that’s brave enough to play at The Hawthorns in front of 25,000 and not let it affect you. It’s a lonely position.”
Naylor is only 36, which is young for a goalkeeping coach, but that’s because his playing career never got off the ground.
When he was released after six months, former Baggies midfielder and youth team coach John Trewick asked him what he was going to do next.
“I said 'I like training and I want to be a coach'. They invited me to do some voluntary work, that turned into two years.
“They just threw me into it. I had to deal with 19 keepers on an astroturf at Willingsworth High School (in Tipton).
“I did some coaching in schools around rough areas in Birmingham. I was only 17 and working at the club shop in Merry Hill in between.”
It was around this point that Albion’s centre of excellence started to transform into an academy under Dan Ashworth.
When Ashworth became technical director, Mark Harrison was appointed as academy manager and gave Naylor the chance to work full-time teaching young keepers.
“I probably did too much,” admitted Naylor. “Sometimes Mark had us working seven days a week, because we had the same drive and passion to produce players. We weren’t doing it for money.
“I was committing a hell of a lot of time to West Brom, sacrificed going to people’s weddings, friend’s birthdays, holidays with the family because I’ve got a tour.
“It’s driven my wife mad for a long time, but you want to be doing the job properly, that’s probably why I’ve stayed for 20 years.”
Naylor’s work started to bear fruit. Seven Albion keepers have represented England youth teams on his watch, four more have represented European youth sides.
Two have gone on to make Premier League debuts, and they’ve all made 428 professional appearances between them.
Luke Daniels, who is currently at Brentford, Ryan Allsop, who is at Wycombe, and Jack Rose, who recently joined Walsall on loan from Southampton, have all come through his tutelage.
There are high hopes at Albion for current under-18 keeper Josh Griffiths, who made his England U18 debut last season and has travelled out to Spain with Slaven Bilic’s first team squad.
“I take pride in having seven England youth internationals,” said Naylor. “I don’t think there’s a club locally that has had that volume go through their programme.”
But he’s also stepped up and helped the first team three times – once under Tony Pulis, once under Alan Pardew, and once under Darren Moore.
And it was his 12 games under Pulis which this developer of keepers attributes to his own personal development.
“One of my high moments would probably say my first game as first team goalkeeper coach against Hull in the Premier League,” he said. “We won 1-0, that was a proud moment for me.
“Going from a player that could never step out in front of fans, I had to step out at five to three with the Liquidator blaring in front of 25,000 people to give Ben Foster six half-volleys and make sure I hit every one off his nose.
“Driving away from that game, the feeling of winning was amazing. I took my wife out for a meal and I was on such a high of adrenaline.
“The Tony Pulis era was a big growing up stage for me, because of the way he was and the way he worked.
“He was really good with me. He also made you stand up for yourself a little bit. We were under a lot of pressure at the time, with relegation looming.
“He was abrupt with the players, he is what you hear and see. But he was actually very good with the young players.
“A lot of people thought he was anti-academy, but he wasn’t really. If he thought they were good enough, he was good with them. Tony Pulis gave Rekeem Harper his first opportunity.
“But first team is totally different, you build up from Monday to Saturday, everything is about winning, you have to win.
“Psychologically, that era under Tony toughened me up more than anything.”
Naylor’s dealings with the first team don’t stop there either, and he’s even benefited from the kindness of one of the players.
“I had a knee operation last year,” he revealed. “It was just through 20 years of striking balls at people repeatedly. I tore my meniscus, I had it shaved off.
“Boaz Myhill paid for me to go private out of his own money. That was brilliant for me, but you see that from first team players.
“I’ve always had great relationships with them all, Chris Kirkland, Pascal Zuberbuhler, Scott Carson. I’ve also got a great relationship with Sam Johnstone.”
As someone who has struggled with the psychology of goalkeeping, Naylor is particularly impressed with Johnstone, who joined from Manchester United last summer.
“He’s one of the few keepers I’ve seen with the strongest mentalities,” said Naylor. “Sometimes he gets stick for not speaking to the fans on match days.
“Ben Foster would come over and sign autographs, but that’s because where he was at in his career, he was 35 and had been outstanding at West Brom, the fans loved him.
“Sometimes when I was doing his warm up, I’d be like, ‘come on Ben!’ But he wasn’t that fussed because he was comfortable.
“What people fail to understand is Sam’s 25, still finding his way in the game, he has a totally different way of preparing.
“He’s a very focused person, doesn’t interact as much but that doesn’t make him a bad person.
“Whoever was going to follow Ben, it was going to be a tough ask, and we also had a change in philosophy, playing out from the back. That’s high risk, and Sam got thrown into that.”
Not that Naylor has any desires to work for a prolonged time with the first team.
“It’s never been my ambition to be first team coach, I could’ve stepped into that role, but I’m a developer,” he says. “I’d like to work for the FA long term, that’s always been my ambition, do some coach education.
“I’d like to share some of my experiences with other young coaches starting that journey.
“I’m 36, which is young for a goalkeeping coach, not too many are under 40. I’m still young from that perspective but I’ve got to find a balance between home life and work life.
“Working seven days a week, doing four nights at the academy, doing five sessions in one day and getting home late with cramp, those days have gone.”
That’s because times are changing at home and at work for Naylor.
Not only have he and his wife just had their first baby together, a son called Frankie, but Albion’s academy is also undergoing a facelift.
Academy manager Mark Harrison, under-18s boss Mike Scott, and former under-23s boss Jimmy Shan are all leaving the club this summer. They’ve all worked alongside Naylor for more than a decade.
Technical director Luke Dowling is making changes behind the scenes, separating the academy players from the first team at the training ground.
It feels like the end of an era inside in the academy, but Naylor is still confident it can continue to be successful.
“I think the bloodline of players going through is of good quality,” said Naylor. “In the next five to 10 years we will still be fine as an academy even though Mark’s moving on.
“The academy is in a good place, but somebody has to come in with the same drive Mark had to continue that work. That’s going to be important for everybody.
“Locally, we’ve always been the academy to come to because of what we built. We never were originally, we were losing players to Walsall when I first joined!
“West Brom have become the academy, the others had to play catch up. The strength of the academy has been its people. We’ve still got a lot of good coaches.
“I’ve had a brief conversation with the manager (Slaven Bilic), he seems a really good guy, he spoke to me at length. I was just expecting a hello, but he took the time to get to know me a bit more.
“Hopefully he sees the talent the academy has got – Rayhaan Tulloch and Nathan Ferguson are training with the first team. If we can’t go into the transfer market, hopefully they get a chance.
“Who knows where it goes from there. But they have to be given that opportunity. If they don’t, as we’ve found, they’ve gone elsewhere and we don’t want that to continue.”
Twenty years in and Naylor is just as passionate about developing youngsters as he ever has been.