When Luke Chadwick joined Manchester United as a shy teenager it was not the culture of excellence so much as the welcoming environment that Sir Alex Ferguson had cultivated which made the biggest impression.
United’s legendary manager favoured the personal touch, as Chadwick found before a trial match. “Sir Alex came into the dressing room and introduced himself to everyone. I was from a little village down in Cambridge and was thinking ‘this is absolutely crazy’,” he tells City A.M.
“He took an interest in the whole of the club. When I was a first-team player in the canteen there was a group of under-10 academy players and the manager came in and knew every one of their names. It was an incredible gift that he had and built a dynasty.”
It is that welcoming environment and emphasis on inclusion that Chadwick is trying to replicate in his post-playing career as a director of Football Fun Factory.
The Premier League-winning former midfielder, 41, identifies and recruits coaches for the company, which uses inflatable pitches and goals in football sessions for children aged from two to 12 where enjoyment is prioritised above improving skills.
“In most countries we’re putting too much emphasis on development without fully falling in love with the game first,” says Chadwick.
“When kids are at a club from eight or nine years old they can get to 13 or 14 and it feels like a job to some of them. Maybe the destination becomes more important than the journey, which is a backward way of looking at it.
“In reality, less than one per cent of these children will go on to become professional footballers. Football Fun Factory is about enjoying the journey and learning life lessons in sport without the be all and end all being becoming a professional.
“We want to change the way that children are coached. There’s a huge amount of fantastic work in grassroots football and some not so good work around coaches, their own ego and winning an under-eights’ tournament when in reality it doesn’t matter a jot at that age.”
Chadwick on mental health, falling out of coaching and Football Fun Factory ambitions
Chadwick, who also played for West Ham United and Stoke City, returned to prominence early in the pandemic when he accidentally became a spokesperson for mental health causes.
Drawing on the personal torment he had felt at cruel jibes about his appearance as a young player at Manchester United, he used social media to encourage anyone struggling in a world darkened by Covid-19 to talk.
“I was just saying ‘don’t do what I did, don’t keep it inside; if you are struggling, find a way of talking about it because it does take massive weight off your shoulders,” he says.
“It got way more attention than I thought it would. I wouldn’t call myself an advocate or anything but the response I got was really positive and helping other people was a fantastic thing that I never expected.”
Chadwick, who made his debut for United when they were European champions and played alongside the likes of David Beckham, Roy Keane and Paul Scholes, admits to losing his way for a while after hanging up his boots in 2016.
“When I was coming to the end of my career my fantasy was to be like Jim Royle, sit on my chair watching telly and drinking cans of lager,” he jokes.
“But when reality hits, regardless of how much money you’ve got, it’s hard to not have aspirations after the playing career otherwise you can get into a bit of a rut.”
The former England Under-21 international tried coaching at boyhood club Cambridge United but found that he didn’t enjoy that side of the professional game, nor who he became.
“I couldn’t stand the sound of my own voice, moaning at people, shouting at the referee. It didn’t seem like there was enough enjoyment,” he says.
Chadwick heard about Football Fun Factory and joined as a head coach. Eighteen months ago he joined founders James Cutting and Jonny Martin on the board as the business began to scale up rapidly.
It has since grown to 60 franchises in locations from Exeter to Kilmarnock, won a Football Business Award this year and is rolling out sessions at branches of Center Parcs. The next steps will see it offer corporate events, programmes for nurseries and target international expansion.
“Our ambition is to become the world’s leading children’s football coaching organisation,” he says. “We’ve got a hell of a lot of work to do but having that massive goal will drive us on.
“I really struggled at the end of my career. I wasn’t the footballer that everyone knew me as, so now what am I going to do? I went down the coaching path but didn’t find the joy I thought I would.
“But I’m really engaged with what I’m doing now with the Football Fun Factory and really enjoying being part of its growth.”