British Coaches Abroad: Daryl Willard

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Daryl Willard is technical director of PFK Azal in the Azerbaijan Premier League, with responsibility for the club's reserves and youth teams. He has previously coached for Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur, and has worked under Tony Adams and Gary Stevens at the Azeri Premier League side, Gabala. Here, the 30-year-old talks about building a coaching career from scratch, life by the Caspian Sea - and what it's like being interviewed by an England legend...


Growing up, I was never a top player, but I loved football. When I played, I looked at the matches a little bit differently. I thought I could see the game. I realised I wasn't going to be a pro, so coaching seemed the obvious step. In fact, I enjoyed coaching more than playing.

When I was 17, Chelsea ran a week-long soccer school where I lived, Tunbridge Wells. Me and a friend were trying to learn, trying to get into coaching, so we phoned the organiser and said, "Look, can we come along and just pick up cones for a week?" From there, we exchanged numbers, and the next time there was a community course, I got paid. It developed over a year or two into development centre work, then academy work. I was at Chelsea for six years in total.

My mum and dad tried to tell me, "There'll never be a career in coaching." In fairness to them, it was hard: I was never full-time at Chelsea, so it was a case of making money elsewhere. I set up my own coaching school when I was 18, which was successful, and I did other bits and bobs. That's the way it is for 99 percent of young coaches: scraping round for as many hours as possible, trying to make one salary. Sometimes you think 'why do I do this?' But when you love the game, that soon passes.

The Tottenham job came through Gary Stevens, who played for Spurs and England in the 1980s. I was coaching with him, doing some private work together, and he said there was a job going. I was ready for a new challenge, so I applied and got it. I was working four or five days a week, still on a part-time salary, so it was hard - especially as I was travelling from Tunbridge Wells to Enfield or Chigwell (around 50 miles). But if you haven't been a pro, it's part of a coach's apprenticeship.

In May 2010, Gary became assistant manager to Tony Adams at Gabala. I was in Vienna, working with Spurs at a tournament, when Gary sent me an e-mail saying Tony wanted a development coach. He put my name forward - with no guarantees - but it went cold until early June. Then I got a call from Tony, saying "Can you meet me in London next week for an interview?"

It was a bit of a 'wow' moment. I'd worked with big names before - at Chelsea I'd see Jose Mourinho, I'd have coffee with Brendan Rodgers - but a personal call is something else. When I met him, he was very down to earth - after two minutes, you forgot you were speaking to Tony Adams. For him, the most important thing was my passion and desire. He's not silly - he knew I had a lot to learn - but he didn't want me moving to Azerbaijan, then coming home after three weeks.

Things went cold again for a while, but in late June Tony called me saying, "Get on a plane on Monday - I need you out here." When I arrived, it was fantastic. Forty degrees, beautiful scenery, and I was working full-time with Gary Stevens and Tony Adams. After a while, you begin to miss little things from home, of course you do. I stayed in a hotel, which meant I was living out of a suitcase for two years. But overall, it was a fantastic time, and I learned so much. I became a man, really.

The best thing about British people is, they make you laugh. We signed (former Derby and Portsmouth striker) Deon Burton, we had the Scottish goalkeeper Graeme Smith (once of Motherwell and Hibernian), and we had a good time. Living over there, a long way from home, you needed that. It wasn't an easy place to settle, and I saw a lot of foreign players come and go.

Tony left in October 2011, but I stayed until the end of the season, which was May. I was doing a good job - the reserves were second in the league, we produced more players for the national youth teams than we'd ever done. When my contract ended, the president of Gabala wanted to go in a new direction, bringing in Spanish coaches. That happens in football. You have to accept it.

When I came back to England, I was looking for work for six months. It was difficult, and your belief starts to waver. You're married, you're starting a family, and you think 'What am I doing?' I was applying for Under-9 academy jobs, Under-10s, and getting nowhere. It was Premier League clubs, Championship, League One, League Two. In all that time, I got one interview. Like Paul Ashworth said in his interview, when you work outside England, it's like you disappear. Never mind that you've worked full-time with top players; you're treated like you haven't worked at all.

The English club that interviewed me, offered me a job. But at the same time, I got a call from Azal, an Azeri Premier League club based in the capital, Baku. I flew out on the night flight on December 23rd (2012). I landed on the 24th, they had me in at midday, we shook hands, and I jumped back on the plane. I got back late on the 24th, and had Christmas Day at home. It was a busy couple of days!

I got this job because of the good work I did at Gabala. There, I was a young coach. Now I'm treated with a lot of respect, because what I've done in the past. When I was 16, I mapped out where I wanted to be when I was 35, and I'm on course for that. I wanted to coach at the top level - not necessarily in England - and I wanted my UEFA Pro Licence, which I'm doing next year. I've gained more experience than I could have dreamed of in England. I have to pinch myself sometimes.

I speak okay Azeri. I can get by. With Russian, I'm not too clever. My wife's laughing when I say this - she's Russian but she speaks English, which makes me a bit lazy. Russian is definitely on my list though. Young coaches need at least two big languages now. When I coach, I use a bit of English, a bit of Azeri, but football is one language. You show them, you work on a tactics board. You get by.

When you're out of work, you can't get anything, as I found. But now I'm in work, I've had two or three offers in the past few months! A reserve team position in Europe, something came up in Asia, and there has been another club here asking about me. I've rejected them because I want to see out this project. I'm fully committed to it: I've got 18 months left on my contract and I want to stay.

My coaching philosophy in one sentence? I like to give young players freedom and confidence. When people play with no fear, they improve. I've really seen that in the past three or four years. They're not used to an English coach saying, "Actually, I don't mind you making a mistake. Try something new." They puff their chest out; they're like a new player. That wasn't one sentence, was it?

English football is finally on the right path. It's been given the scare - the reality check - that it needed, although it came too late. It's going to take a long time, and a lot of hard work, to get it right. But with St George's Park and Dan Ashworth (the FA's director of elite development) I think it will really progress over the next ten or 15 years. But it will take that long - ten or 15 years.

Interview by @owenamos. Followl Daryl on Twitter too. This article also appears on britishcoachesabroad.com, which you can follow here.

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