British Coaches Abroad: Simon McMenemy

Simon McMenemy talks about transforming the Philippines, how he almost signed El Hadji Diouf, and why English coaches are seen as hard-drinking dinosaurs...

Last Updated: 08/01/14 at 14:26 Post Comment

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Simon McMenemy, who's 36, went from being assistant manager of Worthing in the Ryman League, to head coach of the Philippines. Since then, he's managed two teams in the Indonesian Super League, and a side in the Vietnamese top division. Here, he talks about transforming the Philippines, how he almost signed El Hadji Diouf - and why English coaches are seen as hard-drinking dinosaurs...

The Philippines job started with a chat on Facebook. I knew one of the Philippines' players, Chris Greatwich, and I'd coached his two brothers, Phil and Simon, in the youth side at Burgess Hill Town. They said: "Our national team has just lost their coach, throw your CV in". At the time I was the assistant manager at Worthing in the Ryman South. I was 32. I thought, let's be serious here, this isn't going to happen. But he gave me the email address, and convinced me to send my CV.

Four or five weeks later I got a call from the Philippine Football Federation. We discussed philosophies, what I'd done, what I wanted to do. To be honest, I wasn't expecting anything from it. Then, three days later, they called me at work. I was business development manager for a company that produced financial products for high-end earners. I took the call in the office, and he said: "We'd like to offer you the post, please fly out to Manila". I put the phone down, and sat at my desk for 15 minutes, not speaking to anyone. I just stared out of the window thinking: "My good God".

I spoke to my managing director at work and said: "I've got to leave at the end of this week. I've been offered a dream." He knew I was into football, and said he wouldn't get in my way. He opened a bottle of champagne, and we had a drink in the office. I then went home and spoke to the missus - the girlfriend at the time - and said: "Remember I applied for that Philippines job...?"

My first training session began half an hour after arriving at the airport. I watched them train, had a quick chat, and took a full session the next day. I'd been coaching since I was 16 - I worked for Brighton and Hove Albion's community scheme - and I had my UEFA B Licence. But in senior football, I'd only been player-manager at Haywards Heath in the Sussex League, and assistant manager at Worthing. I remember it hitting me at training: I was a national team head coach. I was setting the cones out, thinking: "Is this a national team warm-up? Is this a national team session?"

My first game was against Hong Kong, in a friendly tournament in Taiwan. It was a pinch-yourself moment: standing on the sidelines in a national stadium, playing in a FIFA-ratified tournament, head coach of the Philippines. It was a wildly random scenario, really. We lost 4-2, but then drew against Chinese Taipei (Taiwan) and beat Macau 5-0. We then qualified for the South-East Asian Championships - known as the AFF Suzuki Cup - which is when things got really interesting.

We drew against Singapore in the first game - Chris Greatwich equalised in the last-minute - and then played Vietnam in Hanoi. They were defending champions, there were 40,000 people in the ground, and every time they crossed the halfway line, they stood up and screamed. It was an incredible atmosphere, but you felt very much like the outsider. When we scored (Chris Greatwich in the first half) you could hear a pin drop. It was just us, celebrating. When we went 2-0 up, there was just a gasp. Shock. They didn't expect Vietnam to lose at home to the Philippines. No one did.

That win was monumental. It's hard to put into words the affect it had. (The win was one of Sports Illustrated's 'Top Ten Soccer Stories of 2010'). Back then, Philippines were nowhere; now, they're the strongest team in south-east Asia. It was like a snowball at the top of a hill: we gave it that little push, and it's smashed everything into smithereens. There's now a professional league, the players are known, they're trying to qualify for Asian Champions League.

Our success in the Suzuki Cup cost me my job. We were knocked out in the semi-finals by Indonesia - both legs were played in Jakarta, because we weren't ready to host such a big game - but our run highlighted some of the problems we faced. The German Football Federation came forward and offered five million euros worth of aid, training camps, and so on. And they wanted their own coach.

I went home for Christmas in 2010, still convinced I was going keeping my job in the Philippines. But there were rumours on Twitter, so I went on Facebook, and spoke to a press reporter. He said there was going to be an announcement on television, and that he'd type it as it came through. The federation said they were replacing me with Michael Weiss, a German guy who'd worked in Rwanda. I lost the job as quickly as I got it. I couldn't be too angry, but it was a kick in the teeth.

I came home for a couple of months, and job offers started trickling in. Eventually, I was sold a club in Vietnam - after the Philippines result, I was well-known there. The club were called Dong Tam Long An, a V League club from Ho Chi Minh. I was told they were championship contenders; pushing for the title. As it turned out, it was only a third of the way through the season, and I was their third coach. They'd sold their best players, and left me with a carcass of unfit and unmotivated players. They expected a miracle worker, but football isn't like that. I left after five months.

At my next club, the owner said: "Sign me El Hadji Diouf". The club was called Mitra Kukar - they were newly promoted to the Indonesian Super League, and were run by a multi-multi-millionaire. We didn't sign Diouf - he wanted far too much money - so I spoke to Lomana LuaLua, James Beattie's agent, a few other guys. Eventually, we got Marcus Bent. I said: "Come out for a season, it's good pay, you can visit Bali at the weekends." We signed him for a season and he was a top lad.

It's easier to play up a standard than down a standard. Marcus had played Premier League, and people thought you'd give him the ball, and he'd stick it in the net. He got five goals in 18 or 19 games, and he'd put his arm round the younger players, who are now playing for the national team. But the management decided it wasn't good enough. They let him go, just after they let me go.

I'd been told fifth was the target - then all of a sudden, they said: "We want to be second". That's Asia, I'm afraid. The rules change every week, and you're at the whim of whoever's got the most money. But if you're going to work in football, and put yourself on the line, you have to accept it. You can either sit there and cry, or get on with it. You have to be as professional as you can.

At my next club - Pelita Bandung Raya in the Indonesian Super League - things were going fine. Then, after five games, the owner brought in a technical director over my head. The owner wanted to build a club from scratch. We trialled 250 players over for days, we signed 18, and filled the rest of the spots with older players. I explained it was going to be difficult. I said: "You have to understand, we're not going to win the league." When the technical director came in, I bit my tongue, tried to work with him, but he was constantly my biggest critic. He was jealous of my relationship with the players, and that cost me my job. They finished one place lower than when I left.

In some places, there's a stigma with British coaches. People think we're heavy drinkers and partyers. They're expecting you to be alcohol-fuelled dinosaurs who just want to smash the ball and chase after it. You have to work hard to change people's opinions. When you go abroad, you're not just representing yourself, or your family. You're representing Britain, and all the British coaches who are dying for an opportunity to work outside the UK.

In terms of understanding, I'm a million times better coach than when I started in the Philippines. In Indonesia, I'm doing training sessions for Marcus Bent, who played in the Premier League, Pierre Njanka, who played in two World Cups (for Cameroon in 1998 and 2002), and 17 or 18-year-olds who'd been playing amateur football the year before. That makes you think. Your planning, your coaching, gets a lot better.

Coaching through a translator is a skill. You have to really think about your message: the important parts, what you can leave out, what you should leave in. You can't speak for too long. And you need to demonstrate everything - fortunately I could get away with it. Sometimes it felt like you were coaching with your hands behind your back, but it makes you think, and plan how you communicate.

What next? I've been shortlisted for a national team job, which I'll hear about by the beginning of February. And I'm in contact with a club in Europe, which could end up in a contract soon. Last year, I turned down the Pakistan job. They sent over the contract, I looked at it, and I had long discussions with the wife. If I was single, I probably would have gone. But it's not the safest place in the world, and my wife wouldn't have had the same quality of life as me. I couldn't look her dad in the eye and say: "Yes, she'll be safe".

The last three years have been an absolute rollercoaster. It's difficult to put into words. The experiences, the memories...I'll be blessed to have those again. To stand in a stadium, in front of 90,000 people, in a FIFA competition, semi-final stage, where I can't have a conversation with the person next to me because it's so loud...it's something I'm striving to have again.


Interview with Simon McMenemy by Owen Amos. This article first appeared on britishcoachesabroad.com, which you can follow here.

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