The Bristol Flyers have enjoyed a remarkable start to their first season in the BBL. They currently hold a 4-1 record in all competitions and sit second in the championship table.
This surprising success bucks the long-standing trend of teams struggling mightily to compete in their inaugural seasons. Whilst many BBL teams find success with a core of star imports, over half of Bristol’s roster have been through, or are currently part of, their academy system at SGS College.
Developing young British players and incorporating them into the senior programme has been a key aspect of the Flyers’ success over the years. From their Division 3 beginning in 2005 to the present, ‘development first, winning second’ has remained the dominant philosophy.
We spoke to Flyers Head Coach Andreas Kapoulas about the key to success for his squad, the club’s partnership with Bristol Sport and how the BBL can move forward.
You have turned some heads with such a strong start in the league; have you almost surprised yourselves with the success thus far?
We are pleased, but I don’t think we are surprised that we have done well. We knew from the start that the aim was to put a competitive team together, and that we had a core group of players returning. Also, we were very strategic in terms of the additions we made. So we’re definitely pleased with our start, but I wouldn’t say surprised. We have put all the components together, and as a result of that have been successful in our start to the season.
Is there an aspect which has been specifically key to you hitting the ground running?
Yeah, I think our team chemistry has been key. The core of the team has been together for a number of years, that’s talking about the players but also the coaching staff. The continuity is huge for us, 7 out of the 12 guys have been, or are currently at, the academy programme. The guys that have come in were the missing components, you could say, and are also good characters so they’ve instantly gelled with the team. They all play very well with each other, and I think that has been the main ingredient really.
Although you have only played a few games, is there a team you can scout out as the toughest opposition?
Obviously we’re in a new league and there is a good quality of players. London has been our only loss so far this season; I think they’ve got a lot of depth, and when we played them they didn’t have Zaire Taylor either. They look like they have a lot of depth and quality in their team. We’re playing Newcastle this weekend; they’ve picked up a few new players and look to have depth also. There are good teams out there, and some are still signing players. I think it’s a very strong league, and us and Leeds coming into the mix and performing well can only be a very good thing for the league, because it makes it more competitive over time.
Is it satisfying to be here playing in the BBL after building up through the academy for 9 years?
Oh it’s great. It’s been a process, you know, and a lot of hard work over the years. Back in 2005 we were in Division 3, and fast forwarding 9/10 years to where we are now is very satisfying. It’s also quite exciting as well, because of the things that are to come.
When you started at the club in 2005, could you possibly have envisaged making it to this level?
No, but I think there was plenty of ambition. When I first came to SGS College you could see the passion and ambition here at the academy programme. When you’re starting off, you don’t necessarily know where you’re going, but I knew that there was something special here – partly because of the facilities but also because of the passion people had for sport.
More often than not, young British players on BBL rosters struggle for minutes. You have a couple of young players who are not just playing minutes, but are making serious contributions. Tell us about that…
It’s been something we have done over the years. Greg [Streete] is the captain right now for the Flyers, and when he was the same age as Dwayne [Lautier-Ogunleye] and Tamas [Okros] we played him for the men’s team so he would get Divison 1 experience. That really helped his development, and it’s the same recipe we’re following with guys like Dwayne, Tamas, and also Deane Williams, who hasn’t been able to play yet due to injury. For us, developing our young players is key, and that’s something that we’re hoping to carry on moving forward. We want our young academy guys to get on the floor and play, but they’re doing well, it’s not just worthless, they own every minute.
Is getting your hands on some silverware this season an objective?
We just want to be competitive every game. We won a few games to start the season but the priorities have not changed; we want to develop our young players, to be competitive, and that’s really our focus. We’ll see where we are at the end of the year. I’m not going to say let’s make the playoffs, finish just below 8th, or finish in the top 4. We want to improve as a team every game, and you know what, if we can win the league we will go for it. We will keep on playing and performing to the best of our ability, until someone tells us that we cannot win. That’s the mentality.
Clubs typically struggle coming into the BBL, with Birmingham and Surrey being two obvious examples. There’s also a lot of instability around the league. What is it that you have done differently as a club?
It’s not something specific that you can put your finger on. I think it comes down to what we’ve been doing over the years; concentrating on our development pathway, on our junior pathway, our academy structure. That has been huge for us and is paying dividends now, as a lot of guys have been at, or are currently at, the academy programme. That is definitely a big difference there. But I think we’ve been smart while recruiting, bringing in guys to fill key areas and spots. And we’ve also brought in guys that fit very well in the system. The off-court support from Bristol Sport has been important as well, mainly from the commercial side. So I think it has been a combination of factors that have led us to where we are right now. And our ambition is to get better and better, on the court but also off the court.
You are a part of Bristol Sport, which also incorporates the local football and rugby clubs: a multi-sport model similar to those used throughout Europe. Could this example be the way forward in Britain?
I think every situation is different, every programme develops in different ways. In Europe, multi-sport clubs is the way it tends to operate, with clubs like Barcelona, Madrid and Olympiacos. For us, this model is really beneficial, but came a bit later on after we had developed the academy programme, which was good timing in a way. We’ve developed our junior pathway and then Bristol Sport has given us the professional marketing and financial support. It’s huge. You ask me if it’s the way forward; everybody in Europe seems to do it successfully, so I think it’s definitely something we need to look into in the UK. But again, it goes back to the fact that every situation is different and every area of the country is different. For us, this a great way to move forward.
The BBL receives a lot of criticism, some of it arguably unfair. Now you are coaching inside the league, what is your perspective on that?
I think everyone has to get behind our sport. It’s very easy to criticise, and to say this or that isn’t happening. Sometimes people who are criticising just don’t want to get involved. The best way to change things is from the inside not the outside. I think it’s about raising standards, and the BBL is trying to do that. Every club has a responsibility, and instead of people criticising and finding faults, we need to get behind British Basketball to improve. I think that’s the biggest thing right now. We know what’s wrong with basketball, a lot of people point out what’s wrong with basketball in this country. I think rather than focusing on faults people already recognise we need to find solutions.
Image: Bristol Flyers
Author: Ed McNally