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Gary White is the manager of Guam, a Pacific island between Japan and Australia. He has taken them from 193rd in FIFA's world rankings (February 2012) to a record 161st (December 2013). He has previously managed the British Virgin Islands and the Bahamas, and was one of 16 English coaches hand-picked to take the first-ever FA Elite Coaches' award. Here, the 39-year-old talks about growing up in Southampton, life in Guam - and how a fax from the Caribbean changed his life...
I got my first management job after faxing every national association in the world. It was 1998, I was 24, and a friend and I - Charlie Cook - were living in a council estate in Luton, looking for coaching work. We'd just got back from the US, doing summer camps for MLS clubs. I wrote that I was a young coach, and that I wanted to learn. It was about trying to sell myself. If I'd waited for someone to knock on my door, I'd still be in Luton today. I had a burning desire to do something.
Did I expect a reply? Believe it or not, I did. I had my UEFA B licence, and I'd been coaching since I was 16 - I started my career with primary school children in Hampshire - but most importantly I had self-belief. Eventually, we got two replies: one from Costa Rica, and one from the British Virgin Islands. The British Virgin Islands were offering the head coach position, and Costa Rica weren't, so we pursued the British Virgin Islands. When they sent through the contract, we were jumping round like lunatics.
My playing career wasn't spectacular. I was released by Southampton as a schoolboy, I'd played non-league with Bognor Regis, and I'd been a professional with Fremantle City in the Western Australia Pro League. But I didn't want to be scratching around for contracts until my 30s. I realised a coaching career was a long process, so I wanted to get a head start. And I was passionate about it. When I played, I was inconsistent: when I coached, I was on it, 100 percent of the time. The British Virgin Islands job allowed me to have on-the-job training. That's a luxury most coaches don't have.
My first training session as an international coach? It was pressurising. You're out on the field, you're surrounded my older, international players, and you're this white English guy coming from nowhere. But I'm a very confident person. I knew I could do it.
We took the British Virgin Islands up 28 places in the FIFA world rankings. Every day was like a holiday: not because we were lazing around, but because we were doing what we loved. And we were winning games. The Bahamas noticed our success, and we moved there in September 1999. The replacement at the BVI was a young Portuguese coach called Andre Villas-Boas. Whatever happened to him?
I never wanted to be ordinary. I grew up in a council estate in Southampton, and I had a great childhood. But from the age of five or six, I'd look at the planes in the sky, and wondered where they were going. I wanted to see the world; to get out there.
We had more success in the Bahamas, taking them up 55 places in the world rankings. We also got players professional contracts, university scholarships, and implemented a football philosophy. After eight years, I moved to the United States, to work in elite development for the Seattle Sounders and Washington state as technical director. From there, I moved to Guam.
To be honest, I had no idea where Guam was. It wasn't a job I went looking for. One of our board members in Seattle had been to Caledonia to support his home country, American Samoa, in the South Pacific Games. He'd met people from Guam, who said they wanted an English-speaking coach - until then, they'd usually been Japanese or Korean. He said they should speak to me, because of my history.
The president of Guam Football, Richard Lai, happened to be Seattle, visiting his children at university. We had two meetings in one day, and Richard is a very persuasive person. By the end of the second meeting, I agreed to visit Guam for a week, run some clinics, and work with some players. I flew out there, did the clinics, and, after a week, was offered the national team job. After I'd seen their facilities, their plans - and Richard's sheer enthusiasm and passion - it was an easy decision.
Guam didn't have a successful history. They were 193rd in the world, they'd won two games against FIFA opposition, and the only time they tried to qualify for the World Cup (in 2002) they lost 19-0 to Iran, and 16-0 to Tajikistan. So our first win - against Macau in July last year - was a big buzz. Since then, we've had a three-match unbeaten run - beating Chinese Taipei and Cambodia, and drawing to Laos. Those results sent shockwaves through the whole region. Our national academy starts with under-8s, so all the players are buzzing, the coaches are buzzing, the whole programme's in a great place. To be ranked higher than countries like Indonesia is a good way to end the year.
Of the 18 players we took on the most recent tour, twelve are now playing professionally outside Guam. That includes AJ DeLaGarza, who plays for the LA Galaxy, and Ryan Guy, who's at New England Revolution (formerly of St Pat's Athletic in Ireland). Then we've got some outstanding college kids playing in the US on scholarships, and there's a couple of young domestic-based players. But the message to domestic players is loud and clear: if you want to play for Guam, you've got to be on a good professional programme, and around football day in and day out.
What's it like being an Englishman in Guam? You're different, and I like to be different. There's a mixture of cultures here: American, European, Asian, and there's a fascinating history. The FA have sorted me condo, an American sports car, a Lacoste endorsement deal, plus other benefits, so the lifestyle is fantastic. The weather's lovely - 80 degrees all year round - and the beaches are supposed to be brilliant. I just hope one day I get to see them!
When I was selected to take part in the first FA Elite Coaches' course, I was very proud. They picked 16 of us, and based it on English coaches under 40 who had the highest score on the UEFA A Licence over the past ten years. The idea was for a "pro licence" of coaching, which is unique in world football. UEFA have a pro licence, which is at the same level, but that's more for managers - transfers and things. This was just about coaching, out on the grass. It was a two-year course which I started when I lived in Seattle, and finished when I lived in Guam. I did 16 long-haul trips to finish the course - 280 hours in the air - but it was worth every second.
I've gone right through the qualifications, and this was the course where it all came together. Dick Bate was the leader - in my opinion, he's by far the best coaching instructor in the world, and I've seen a lot. One of the tasks was to watch a team outside England for ten games, and create an analysis dossier on that team. Most people chose a European team, but I did Yokohama Marinos in the J League. I firmly believe all of the 16 who did the course are going to have a big impact on football in the UK in the next five years.
My next goal is to coach at a top Asian club. At international level, the time you get with the players on the grass is limited, and I want to be there day in day out. I want to be under pressure to win games every week, and win leagues. My initial contract with Guam was one year, and they've just extended it by two years, but the president, Richard Lai, is very supportive. If something bigger comes calling, he's going to work with me, rather than stop me.
My final goal is to manage England. When you see Roy Hodgson, who's gone through similar routes, it inspires you. If you keep getting results, keep turning heads, anything is possible.
Can I believe how far I've come since that first fax? Yes, I can. It sounds a little arrogant, but I'm so driven to reach the pinnacle of this game. Sitting in Waulauds Bank Drive, in the Marsh Farm estate in Luton, just wasn't going to work for me.
Interview by Gary White by Owen Amos. This article also appears on britishcoachesabroad.com, which you can follow here.