Words: Sam Diss
There’s a video of Rory Delap throwing absolute bombs at terrified mid-Noughties defences set to Bonnie Tyler’s classic jam ‘Holding Out for a Hero’. It’s been doing the rounds for a bit now and it’s brilliant.
It’s quite easy to forget just how scared everyone was of him. Teams genuinely couldn’t work out how to stop Delap, his throws just causing anarchy every time the ball went out of play. It felt like Stoke subsisted on the player’s flat-trajectory lobs for years.
On Sunday, Liverpool’s Joe Gomez did his best imitation: a long, flat throw into the Croatian box for England’s crucial equaliser, setting up a storming finish which saw Gareth’s boys named champions of a group in a tournament only invented about nine months ago. It’s not the style we’ve become used to from play-it-out-from-the-back England, but it was a refreshing Plan B, and a very effective one.
So we spoke to the man to thank for it, Danish ex-bobsledder Thomas Grønnemark—world record holder for longest throw-in and current coach at Liverpool.
MUNDIAL: It must have been nice to see Joe Gomez putting your hard work to use against Croatia.
Thomas: That was just fantastic, of course. Not only for me and Joe but the whole team. Just fantastic.
I read that you referred to your role as one of the weirdest jobs in football, what was the reaction when you joined up with the team at Liverpool?
I think they reacted pretty positively. Of course, sometimes there are smiles and laughs [at what I’m doing], but, you know, once I started telling them what I was doing… I told them it’s not about making Liverpool ‘Stoke number 2’; I told them there are approximately forty to fifty throws-ins in a match and sometimes even more. I also I told them that most teams lose the ball more than 50% of the time when put under pressure from a throw. When you hear these numbers, it’s a no-brainer to want to work on it.
In a game of small margins, any opportunities you can get to have an added advantage are a good thing. Before this you were in a bobsled team, how does that translate to being really, really good at throw-ins?
Well, I’ve been playing football for eighteen years, from when I was a small kid till my 20s. I was always very good at long throws and running fast. But in my early twenties, I went to athletics, instead. In the six years I was doing that I was on the Danish national team at 100m, 200m, and 400m: I was pretty fast. Then in 2002, I moved to another part of the country because of my wife—sometimes you have to travel because of love. So, I was starting to train by myself and not in a big group—I had new personal records in 100m and 200m records, but I decided to try a new sport and then I went to the Danish bobsled team from 2002-2006. It was in the middle of this bobsleigh period that if I thought: hey, if I can throw long, then maybe I can teach others. So I went to my local library to find a book on long throw-ins… but, yeah, there wasn’t one. So over the space of six months, I created a course to see if I could teach it. Perhaps coach a youth team. I had the courage to contact my local Danish Superliga team, and it went fantastically. Since then I’ve been coaching more than three years with professional teams. But I think that I had my own knowledge and experience with football, so from athletics to football, I did a lot of video analysis, a lot of crazy things.
Was there a sort of change to how people thought about throw-ins that you had to get across?
Throw-ins can be put in different categories: one of which is where you want to score from a long one, like Joe [Gomez] did. I’m also coaching the Danish champions FC Midtjylland, and they scored ten goals from the long throw-in last year. I think they’ve scored five already this season. But I’m going to say you won’t see Liverpool use the tactic often because that’s not their style of play, but we can use it once in a while. So if you look at the long throw-in, it should not only be long but also pretty flat too, so it’s harder to defend against. When I’m coaching, I analyse the players’ throw-ins, looking at around 25 to 30 different technical aspects. If you look at other kinds, there are also the defensive ones from fullbacks to relieve pressure and what I call “the fast and the clever throw-ins”: they are key, because they create new opportunities all around the pitch. In most cases, we throw to the feet, but you can’t just say that—you do that in different situations. We have options in the attacking and defending parts.
You said there were ‘25 to 30 things’ you measure a player’s technique by, can you give me a few example?
Well, I can say how I’m doing it in a general perspective. Of course, I can’t give away everything. In general, we look at three different parts of the throw-in. First is the run—what kind of run, whether players will run right to the line. Second part is positioning—how are you positioning your body as you throw. It’s all about how to hold the ball, the way you place your elbows behind the head. A lot of people think oh it’s only big strong guys that can throw, but there are three types. The first type is the very flexible player: it’s important to be strong, but I’ll always prefer flexibility over strength if I have to choose. The second type is the tall player with long arms because he can put power on the ball for a long distance. The third type is the short/fast player who develops a lot of energy in their run with fast muscles putting good technique in the power of the throw.
When it comes to Joe Gomez, what makes him good at long throws? Did you spot him in training or did he put himself up for it?
We put most of the players at Liverpool through my training, at first at Melwood and then at the training camp in France, but I’m coaching all the fullbacks. What makes him a good thrower, he had learned most of the things I wanted to teach him about technique very seriously; he’s taken the training seriously. You know, you can say that he has good technique now, but we are still trying to improve him even more, he’s a good player, he has some fast muscles when he’s running against strikers, he’s very fast but also very flexible. With Joe, it’s good technique but also a good physique. He can throw very hard but he can also throw far, it’s very difficult to defend against because he can throw very dangerously to the far post: that’s a big area you have to defend. Joe’s throw is very dangerous because of the constant threat.
With this being a specialised job, do you think football will have more and more with specialised coaches, where they focus on each aspect of the game? Why has it taken so long for football to catch up with other sports?
It’s really hard to say, but I think sometimes it’s also about giving away a bit of power. If you have new guys in your team, for some managers, they don’t like that, you know? They can’t decide everything. But I think the best managers and coaches in the modern world, they are managers who can say ‘Okay, we can improve in this area but I don’t know enough about it, so let’s get this guy in, and we can get all the knowledge out of him so we can improve the team.’ I think with Liverpool, the knowledge I have… People listen, and it’s not only Jürgen and the players but also the assistant coaches and those who analyse. So, I think as a football manager, you have to be brave to want to try something new.