The former Jamaica striker is back at his old stomping ground, coaching at the club’s Category One Academy on a 23-month programme facilitated by the Professional Player to Coach Scheme.
Delivered by the Premier League in partnership with the Professional Footballer's Association and EFL, it is a project aimed at increasing the number of players from diverse backgrounds to transition into full-time coaching roles within the professional game.
It’s an initiative that requires clubs to partner up with the PPCS, and after receiving outstanding feedback from Fuller’s UEFA B licence presentation, Stoke reached out to their former striker to suggest they would be willing to help him continue his coaching journey at the Academy.
“I only learned about the scheme after I had completed my UEFA B presentation, and I was thrilled to discover that Stoke City were interested in bringing me back,” Fuller says with pride.
“Nothing was guaranteed. I had to do some test sessions and go through an interview process, but thankfully that went fantastically well, and now that I am here it just feels like a great fit.
“Being a former player can only get you so far in the coaching game,” continues Fuller, who speaks with tremendous passion. “There are many different aspects to life on this side of the fence, and this initiative is providing me with valuable experiences.
“I am meant to spend at least six weeks at every level from the Under-9s to the Under-21s, which is just perfect. Initially I was observing, then I did some passive coaching, and for the last five months or so I have been planning sessions, leading sessions, reflecting and reviewing sessions, as well as gaining insights into analysis, recruitment and sports science.
“The Professional Player to Coach Scheme is absolutely massive for my personal development.
“Whether I stay in the Academy system or go on to become a head coach at first-team level one day, I know that what I am doing now will have helped me so much.”
Fuller’s playing career spanned an incredible 20 years, scoring 134 goals for 14 different clubs.
He earned 72 caps for Jamaica but is arguably best remembered for his exploits with Stoke under Tony Pulis, playing a starring role in their 2007/08 promotion to the Premier League, and their continued top-flight success.
The 44-year-old ended up retiring three times, coming back twice to take up player-coaching roles at Nantwich Town and Hanley Town in a bid to accrue the “coaching hours” he needed to complete his UEFA B licence.
His progress was then held up for around 18 months during the pandemic, but now he is fully focused on achieving his aspirations as a coach.
“I just cannot multitask,” admits Fuller. “When I was a player, I only thought about being the best player I could be. Coaching was not on my radar. But the moment I realised coaching was going to be my next step it has been a total priority, and I am giving it everything I can to succeed.
“Coaching felt very natural to me from the outset. I instantly loved it. When I was a player as soon as I drove through the training ground gates I came alive, and I get that same feeling now when I take that whistle and stopwatch with me on to the training pitch. That’s when I feel at my best.”
Making a difference with Under-12s
During the latter part of the 2022/23 campaign, an opportunity arose for Fuller to lead Stoke’s Under-12s for a period of around 10 weeks.
He inherited a group of players low on confidence, who had been struggling to get positive results. Yet, the Potters’ Hall of Fame star took to the task with relish.
Looking back on that spell with great pride, he recalls: “Staff at the Academy were naturally questioning the prospects of some of these players. Being honest, they were struggling. I relished the challenge of getting them to change perceptions, so, first of all, I needed to make them believe in themselves again.
“From my experience confidence starts to build when you focus hard on discipline, personal responsibility and when you train with an intensity. I instilled those qualities and habits into the group, and once their confidence grew the performances quickly followed.
“They went from losing each week, sometimes heavily, to winning five games, drawing one and losing just three during my spell in charge. It was so, so rewarding to see them performing to their potential, and many of them earned new two-year contracts off the back of it.”
In the Youth Development Phase of the Premier League's Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP), player development is usually regarded as the primary focus, with matchday results perceived to be of secondary importance.
Fuller’s own outlook is a little different, and he makes a compelling argument.
“We are all in the business of helping players get better. I love nothing more than to see kids develop their skillsets but if you don't get results, what's going to happen to those players? They lose confidence, and if they lose confidence, ultimately many of them will be let go. That’s a fact," he adds.
“Maybe it's seen as old school, but I firmly believe that winning is just as important as individual development. When teams are achieving success, so do the players within those sides.”
A born leader
Leadership comes easy to Fuller, who remembers giving team talks as a youngster growing up in Jamaica, motivating those around him at football, cricket and in track and field.
He worked with Usain Bolt’s revered sprint coach, Glen Mills, and a host of top-class cricket coaches, before choosing to set out on a career pathway in football.
Before Stoke’s FA Cup semi-final against Bolton Wanderers in 2011, Pulis famously handed over the reins to Fuller, who was a substitute that afternoon, allowing him to make a motivational speech inside the Wembley dressing room.
“Tony asked me to speak, and we won 5-0 that day,” Fuller says, giggling. “Without boasting I do feel I'm very good at motivating and inspiring players and recently I tried to show that side of my personality with the Under-12s too.
“Over time I have learnt that you need to know the nature of a player before you can nurture that player. That's the only way you're going to get best out of somebody.
“If you don't know the person you're dealing with, how can you nurture their talent? How can you lift that player when he's down, or how can you keep that player going, or keep on challenging them when they are on a high?
“I got to know the boys, and I know I made them feel like they were the best players in the world.
“Their performances improved, and players who were on the brink of being released suddenly looked a million dollars. It was amazing to see. As a group we got on a roll, and now it’s down to them to use it as a springboard to thrive at Under-13 level.”
Being back “home” at Stoke, a place where his children were born and where he continues to be revered by supporters, ensures that Fuller is shown respect wherever he goes.
There are two sides to being so popular though, he admits, saying: “Overall I do think it makes things a little easier being in these familiar surroundings where I am treated so well, but sometimes that brings other challenges too.
“Some people can feel threatened, for example, which then leads to barriers being put up that can get in the way. When I was a player there was strong competition, and now I see that being a coach is no different.
“Our team of Academy coaches all want to improve the kids by working together on their development, but at the same time we are also kind of competing against one another to impress as well. That is something I have picked up on.
“The kids have to come first though. Making them better has to be our main goal.”
Fuller concedes that while he’s improving, he is currently a “technology dinosaur”, who finds it challenging to work on computers. He prefers to write down session plans and notes by hand in his growing collection of notebooks.
Yet in terms of the value online data supplies him and his players, he could not be more enthused about the benefits.
“I was working with the Under-15s and 16s this week on some post-match video analysis and they were so engaged when they saw their stats," he says. "They want to know their percentages, how many passes they made, how many shots they had etc.
“When players see stuff like that, they gravitate towards learning. When players are excited to learn, excited to see facts, to see numbers, then you know that something is being registered."
Aspirations to become a head coach
So, what does the future hold for a man that is now completely immersed in his second footballing career?
While loving the breadth of experience he is gaining at the state-of-the-art Clayton Wood facility, Fuller is already clear about the path he eventually wishes to take.
“Ultimately, I believe my knowledge, experience and practical wisdom will be best suited in the Professional Development Phase. My dream is to become a head coach,” says Fuller confidently.
“Before I arrive there, I know I have a lot more to learn, and for now I am really happy to take things step by step.
“Never underestimate the importance of making small steps when it comes to long-term development. If you make one step that’s too big, it can leave a hole in your knowledge. Then, in moments when the going gets tough, you won’t have the capabilities to deal with those challenges.
“That’s why this scheme is a necessary part of my education. It will give me all the attributes I need to be a top coach.
“Throughout my career, with all the clubs I've been at, I've always been the person leading the group. I love to have pressure on my back, and I will walk with it for a 1,000 miles.
“That’s the mentality and attitude I have, and in coaching I believe that will help me a lot.”
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Photography by Versus