Sitting in the Academy coaches’ office at our Motspur Park Training Ground, Mark Pembridge appears at home surrounded by tactic boards, squad lists, fluorescent bibs and bags of training balls.
One of a number of Fulham players to make the step into coaching at the Club, the 42-year-old has been overseeing the development of our potential stars of tomorrow for almost six years.
As the Under-16s Manager, Pembs (as he is affectionately known) has played a key role in putting our Academy on the football map.
Out on the training pitch, he looks even more comfortable. His players listen attentively as he issues his instructions alongside Colin Omogbehin; and when his boys take to the field they do so with a smile.
Business, though, is serious. Pembridge may be known for his dry sense of humour and affable nature, but he is also a figure of respect and authority. As a result, his team’s play is thoughtful, smooth and disciplined.
“At the end of the season I will have been a coach for six years,” explained Mark. “And I’ve loved every minute of it so far. As a player I had a few different clubs and moved around a little bit. Having played here for four years as a player too, I’ve been at Fulham for a long time now.
“I don’t think there are too many people that have been at the Club for that same amount of time – so, of course, I have a deep connection to Fulham. I enjoyed my time as a player here, and now I’m enjoying my time as a coach, more so perhaps.
“That time has gone very quickly, the years have flown by. But I think that’s a sign that things have gone well. To be honest, it only feels like yesterday that I took my first session as a coach.”
Pembridge hung up his boots in May 2007, following 54 appearances for Fulham in all competitions having initially arrived at the Cottage in September 2003. He ended an impressive career that also included spells at Luton Town, Derby County, Sheffield Wednesday, Benfica and Everton.
Playing on the left of midfield or through the centre, he was a real fans’ favourite wherever he went; an honest individual that never gave anything less than 100 per cent.
Brought to SW6 by Chris Coleman, he impressed during his first two seasons on the banks of the Thames as a player of intelligent passing, tenacity and immense tactical control.
His contributions, though, were limited by a series of injuries that limited his playing time during the 2005/06 and 2006/07 campaigns. After a long spell on the sidelines he came back and inspired the Whites to a 1-0 defeat of Chelsea in March 2006.
“Injuries prevented me from playing too much, but I had a good time here,” says Mark. “It was especially nice to be part of the side that beat Chelsea for the first time in a long while, which was a great experience for all involved.
“I would have liked to have played more, but four operations in three years took its toll. However, looking back, it was a blessing in disguise because I probably wouldn’t be in the position that I’m in today.
“I was fortunate to have had a fairly successful career, but it was one that went very quickly. It flew by and the next thing I knew I was celebrating my 35th birthday and thinking ‘what now?’ But this is a new chapter in my life in football and, as I say, I’m loving every minute of it.”
Undoubtedly, the transition from player to coach has been a smooth one for Pembridge.
“The secret to that was the fact that I got into coaching very early,” he reveals. “In my last two years as a professional I didn’t play a lot of football, so I had a lot of time to think about my options.
“It was a difficult time for me, it wasn’t a pleasant experience. But coaching gave me a new focus, I wasn’t dwelling on my injury or the prospect of retirement – which is something players find very difficult to accept.
“I knew that I would miss the day-to-day aspect of the game, putting my boots on and getting out on the grass. It’s been a big part of my life for longer than I care to remember, and coaching is the next best thing to that.
“So I was on the path very early, in fact, I took my badges alongside Billy McKinlay, Lee Clark and Mark Crossley, as well as our former Academy Director John Murtagh. In truth, I’m glad it happened that way. In fact, I wish I had started coaching even earlier.
“That would be my advice to the players today, if it’s something that you want to do and are serious about, then don’t waste any time. Get it done, and see where it takes you.”
Born in Merthyr Tydfil, the Welshman won more than 50 caps for his country, making his international debut against Brazil in 1991.
As a player he came up against some of the Premier League’s greatest midfielders and wingers like Paul Scholes, Roy Keane, Patrick Vieira, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, Cristiano Ronaldo and Robert Pires, while on the international stage he went head-to-head with the likes of Andrea Pirlo, Pablo Aimar and Juan Román Riquelme.
“As I’ve said I look back on my career as a player with great fondness and was involved in some fantastic games for both club and country,” he says. “Of course, as a coach I can take much from playing at the top, but I was also very lucky to work with some excellent managers and coaches as well.
“I think I’ve taken a little something from everyone that I have worked for, and I do think that I’ve been shaped by different people and experiences.
“I worked under David Pleat for a long time at both Luton and Sheffield Wednesday, and his knowledge of the game was incredible. At Wednesday I also worked for Ron Atkinson, who was one of the best motivators I’ve ever seen. In terms of tactics, then David Moyes at Everton was first class – he’s one of the league’s top managers right now.
“At Fulham, I’ve also worked with some incredible people. I learned a lot from Roy Hodgson and Ray Lewington, I’d regularly watch their sessions and how they did things – especially in my early days as a coach.
“In the Academy I’ve had Gary Brazil, Kit Symons and more recently, Steve Wigley – three people that have great pedigree at youth level. I’m always looking to improve, looking for new ideas and trying to be more creative.”
As a talented and determined young coach, Pembridge has instilled the values of quality and hard work into his young charges. His Under-16 teams have held their own against England’s finest, while abroad they have turned heads for their bright, enterprising play.
At the end of the current campaign, no fewer than seven of his squad will make the step up to Wigley’s Under-18s.
“I think some people are surprised by the way that we play,” admits Mark. “I think they’re the people that remember me as a player, though. I liked to keep things simple, I wasn’t known for my creativity or flair.
“But I like my players to express themselves, I want them to be creative and comfortable on the ball – that’s what we try and promote at Fulham.
“The game has changed, and as a coach, I’ve changed with those times. It’s all about different systems and styles. When I was playing it was a bit more rigid, you’d line-up in a standard 4-4-2 or even a 5-3-2. Now, you tend to play 4-3-3 with one player sitting or one player in front of the three – it’s a lot more fluid now.
“I’ve got a good group, and they’ve done well. We have a good number moving up, it’s one of the biggest intakes we have had. But I can't take all the credit for that, because it's 50/50 between me and Colin, who is a fantastic coach.
"He's played his part in any success that we have had, and has a similar approach to myself which is good. He likes to be out on the pitch as much as possible, working the boys and trying to get the best out of them. He does a lot of good work with our Coombe School boys and he wants the boys to succeed as much as I do.
“Under-16 football is very important, especially in terms of their development and progression. We work them hard too, it’s not an easy environment but they have to prepare for the next step.
“We try and mirror what the Under-18s do, both in play and how they conduct themselves. Even at this level, expectations are high and we have to make that transition as a seamless as possible both mentally and physically.”
Charged with the responsibility of developing future First Team players, Pembridge is confident that our Academy is making headway. Kerim Frei spent time under the Welshman’s tutelage, with the youngster the first to make the breakthrough.
It was understandably a special moment for player and coach when Frei took to the field against NSI Runavik at the start of the 2011/12 campaign.
“Of course, that was a moment Kerim will never forget,” he explains. “But at the same time it was one that I will remember also. I had him for a year when he first arrived at the Club, and he worked his way up.
“That’s what I’m here to do, to help these boys along the way. Charles Banya is another that I had and he has made the bench this season for the game against Stoke City. Alex Brister was involved in the pre-season games, so we’re starting to see a few of them push on now.
“I also had Ronny Minkwitz and Stephen Arthurworrey too, and it will be interesting to see what they can both do now. Of course, it’s nice to see the ones that don’t make it here go on and achieve something at other clubs – you can’t help but forge bonds with these boys.
“There’s a lot of talent within the Academy and I think we will see a few more follow in Kerim’s footsteps, we’ve got high hopes for them. That said, a lot is based on potential and it’s up to the boys to take on what we tell them, and for us to get the best out of them.
“If these boys keep progressing like they have done over the past 12 months then they have every chance. I’ve talked about how challenging this environment is, but at the same time the opportunities are here for them.
“I’m just a small cog in a big wheel – I pass them on to Steve and he then passes them on to Kit with the goal then to get them into the First Team. It’s an exciting process, and that’s really what we’re here to do.
“What I will say, is that the Academy has changed massively over the past four years or so, certainly following the arrivals of Alistair Mackintosh as CEO and Huw Jennings as Academy Director.
“A lot of hard work has been done in that time, and now we’re starting to see the rewards of what is a continuous cycle. As a result, I think we now have one of the most respected academies in the country.”