I got the chance to sat down with the Head Coach of one of the most prestigious basketball programmes in the UK, the Manchester Magic. Paul Middleton has grown up around Manchester basketball so appeared the perfect candidate to succeed Jeff Jones when he left for the Manchester Giants. Here we find out what the plans are at the Amaechi centre for the current season and for the future.
First off…who is Paul Middleton?
I am a 31 year old, father of one with a very understanding wife (who often comments on my 2nd wife…. the game!) and a huge passion for teaching. I love developing my knowledge of the game, often through having (a lot) of coffee with the more experienced coaches that are around me. I try to pick the brains of those with more knowledge than me as I believe that coach development is the key to our sport growing in the future, and the reason why we have seen a sharp rise in success at International level over this summer.
I try to watch as much quality basketball as possible (Euroleague, ACB etc) as I believe this is also a key to developing your knowledge of the game.
Paul, you currently sit at the helm of the Magic’s Senior Men’s team, one of the most successful programmes in the country. Having taken over from a Manchester Basketball icon in Jeff Jones, did you feel the pressure was instantly on to succeed?
I felt the pressure to get the team back into Division 1 as soon as possible, however Joe Forber made it clear that there was no rush and that we wanted to ‘do it in the right way’, i.e. use the majority of our own players and try to build something solid for the future of the club. Any pressure I felt was put on by myself rather than from anybody else!
Like you’ve said, at the Magic you decided to opt out of EBL Division 1 a couple seasons back to drop into EBL Division 3. What were the reasons behind this and do you feel that now, after your recent successes, it was the correct decision?
We had previously seen our Magic senior team contain players from various nationalities and felt that we were not providing a viable avenue for our Junior players to aspire to play for our senior team, which I think for any junior club is essential for both motivation and development. The team we put together for our first season back in Division 3 included a majority of our U18 players (2 of which were starting 5) and all but 3 of the rest of the team had previously played junior basketball at Manchester.
Last season, back in Division 2, we again wanted to have a heavy junior influence which we certainly did, as again, 1 junior featured as a starter during the whole year and 3/4 U18’s played meaningful minutes in every game. The majority of the team was under the age of 20 competing all over the country against experienced veteran players and paid American imports on a weekly basis.
The fact that the guys have achieved back-to-back promotions with such a high volume of junior players tells me that it was the right decision as it gave them the much needed opportunity to play a good standard of senior basketball on a weekly basis. We are now back in division 1 and believe that our new philosophy can only help our strong foundation of young players get better.
The 2012/13 season saw you finish in 2nd place in EBL Division 2 after some slip-ups let you fall behind the eventual Champions NASSA. After you added home grown talent to the team in the likes of Tom Ward & Josh Houghton last summer, have you made any additions to the team or are any of the old guard returning perhaps as the tough new challenge of the EBL Division 1 season approaches?
It has been an interesting summer with lots of interest from players wanting to join the team. Both Joe and myself believe that even though the competition will be tough every weekend, it was vital that we stick to our guns and continue to provide the opportunity for our junior players to play at the highest level of EBL Basketball.
This made the selection process quite difficult, as we have had to say no to some more experienced players because we did not want to take those opportunities away from the younger players. In a current preliminary squad of 18 players, only 5 players are not products of our junior programme.
We have added some experience in the form of Ryan Lohfink (ex-Reading captain) who has been awarded one of our 4 Scholarships at our partner University, Salford. Ryan will be starting his Masters in a few weeks and is a fantastic individual to have around the younger players. He has been excellent for Reading both on and off the floor over the past 4/5 years and we are very happy to have him join the team. Ryan will certainly add some quality and experience to the side.
Thanks to the strong partnership we have formed over the last 12 months with the University of Salford, the club now has a big emphasis on the student-athlete concept (though not exclusively so). This year 4 of our players (including 2 of our graduating U18’s) will take-up the scholarship offers from the University. The Scholarships include various benefits such as significant reduction of course fees and also money towards accommodation costs.
We are fortunate that the Club owns 3 properties within 100 metres of Amaechi Basketball Centre available for players. This has been massively advantageous to our players wishing to work out on a daily basis, beyond normal team practices in the evenings. We are hoping that this University link will one day be on a par with the other top level Universities in the country.
(Magic’s full first-team squad is: Franc Garcia Garrido, Ryan Lohfink, Josh Houghton, Tom Ward, Conor Porter, Jordan Green, Jack Minister, Connor Murtagh, Tayo Oyefusi, Usman Baba, Pharroh Gordon, Patrick Whelan, Kingsley Nwagboso, Aaron Menzies, Joe Swindells.)
Are they any youngsters in that squad or elsewhere at the club that we should really be keeping an eye on as they progress?
Pharroh Gordon, a 6’5″ point guard still has one year U18’s left played major minutes D2 for me last year at 16 years old. He was part of Magic’s U18 national title winning side last season. He is also in the England U17 development squad.
Patrick Whelan, a 6’3″ point guard again played D2 last year at 16 years old. He was MVP at the Final 4 last season, also England U17 player.
Kingsley Nwagboso, who is 6’8″ and been playing just 2 years and is going to feature heavily in D1 for us even though he is only 17. He is also England U17’s.
Aaron Menzies:, a 7’0″ big man who has been playing exactly 1 year and really developed over the summer. He still has 1 year left as a junior and will also get a chance D1 this year with us. He is also England U17’s.
Joe Swindells, a 5’9″ shooting guard who featured in a couple of D2 games last year at 15 years old! He has had a great summer and even though he has 2 full years left as a junior he will also see some time at D1 this year. Joe again is England U17’s.
All you have to do is look around the walls of the Amaechi Centre to see the waves and waves of Junior and Senior titles that the club have captured over the years and many of the club’s talented juniors have gone overseas to the states and many could be seen last season playing in the BBL. Is the club’s stance still to produce the best young players to come through the ranks to the D1 programme and beyond, or are you looking more towards the best players available right now?
We will not change our stance on Junior development at the club. It has always been a top priority to produce the best players and people that we can during their time here at the club, and Division 1 status will not change that. The strong crop of U18’s that we currently have will feature heavily this year, as I truly believe they are good enough to play at this level given time and the opportunity.
So, what are your targets for this season? Can we expect to see the return of the Manchester Magic as a powerhouse in Division 1?
Again, Joe is not putting pressure on us to win, instead encouraging me to continue to build the team on the same strong philosophy we have over the last 2 years and hopefully over time, we will be able to compete with the very best teams in the country with our own youngsters. It is typical of me to want to be successful though, so we will prepare for every game as best we can to try and win.
You mention Joe Forber as key to everything at the Magic. It must be an honour to work closely with someone as highly regarded as Joe. What have you been able to learn from him which has bettered you as a coach?
I was fortunate enough to play on the very first Manchester teams back when I was 14/15 when Joe and Graham Williams started the club back in the humble beginnings of Manor High School in Sale. After University I returned almost immediately to the club to work thanks to an offer from Joe. I have not been away since that day 10 years ago!
I have played for, worked for, been an assistant coach to and now am supported and mentored by one of the most dedicated and principled people in the game. Joe always instilled in me that team discipline, hard work and planning are the most important things for a coach to follow. His philosophy of ‘put the young people first’ has certainly shown me that the development of the players is more important than the result of the game and this is why I am 100% behind the philosophy of the senior team to give opportunities to our own junior players as opposed to using paid players from all over the world.
It is very much down to Joe’s passion and hard work behind the scenes that the senior team has been successful over the past 2 years.
You’ve certainly worked your way up the ranks in Manchester and you’ve been given a great opportunity by the club in the Head Coaches job. But what would you like to achieve as a coach Paul?
I have been extremely fortunate to be given the chance of taking over the senior team, and am enjoying the ever growing challenge that each season has provided for me. At the moment I am a Teacher at Loreto Sixth Form College (where the majority of our U18 players study after high school) and am also the Head Coach of the Basketball Academy there. Juggling all 3 jobs that I have is very difficult (especially with a young family at home) but the last 3 years have been great.
For the future, while I enjoy teaching, I (like many other coaches, I imagine) would like to coach full-time, unfortunately that is not currently an option for me but I am hopeful that the direction that the club is going in with the University could provide that opportunity one day. It is a dream of mine to coach professionally (ideally at Manchester as this has been my club for over 15 years!).
15 years! Wow… You must have seen some sights over that time and worked with some incredible players, but who has been your favourite?
I apologise in advance for sitting on the fence on this one but this is just impossible to answer. I have been lucky enough to work with some excellent players over the years and also some amazing young men that were a pleasure to work with, many of whom I am still in-touch with on a regular basis. I would not spend the countless hours on the floor, in the bus, in video sessions with all these guys if I did not enjoy my time with them.
Finally how do you feel about the new level of coverage for the EBL on Hoopsfix?
It can only be good for the game as you guys give more exposure to the English game. I understand that it is still important to many people that they can see the latest high-flying action from the NBA, but I do think that our English players want to see and read about other English players and how they are developing. I think you guys do a great job, keep it up!
Image Credit: Twilight Photography