British Coaches Abroad: Bobby Williamson

In the latest in our British coaches abroad series Bobby Williamson talks about how he came to move from managing Hibs and Plymouth to Gor Mahia in Kenya, via Uganda...

Last Updated: 05/03/14 at 10:43 Post Comment

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Bobby Williamson, who's 52, is manager of Kenyan champions Gor Mahia. He was previously manager of Uganda, and has also been in charge of Kilmarnock, Hibernian, Plymouth, and Chester City. Here, he talks about life in Africa, training without balls, and the twist of fate took him to Uganda...

I moved from the UK to Uganda in 2008. The Ugandan manager (Csaba Laszlo) had taken the Hearts job, I was out of work, so I said to my agent: "There's a vacancy in Uganda now - do you know anyone?" He made some calls, then told me to get my injections, because we were leaving Monday.

When I first arrived, I wasn't that impressed. I didn't see much of the place, but what I did see was a lot of poverty, and a lot of poor housing, so I declined the job. We were due to go home, but then we got knocked off our flight, meaning we had to stay another day.

As I walked on a beach at Lake Victoria, I thought: "The weather's great, the people are friendly, I could stay here." I spoke to the chairman of the federation, and said: "I'll do your next two games, and we'll take it from there." We lost one, won one, and I ended up saying four or five years.

When the Uganda job came up, I had to go for it. When I left Plymouth in 2005, I was out of work for almost two years before getting the Chester City job. So when I left Chester in 2008, I thought: "I don't want to be out of work for that long again." I'd always fancied moving abroad - Australia perhaps, America, maybe mainland Europe. I never thought I'd get my chance in Africa.

The language barrier was a problem: the Ugandans find it hard to understand Scottish people. I kept telling them: "Don't listen to the accent, listen to the words, I'm speaking English." You've got to slow everything down. I can get carried away and speak too fast, but you soon notice when the message isn't getting through. Now I know when to step back and speak a bit slower.

Equipment could be a problem in Uganda. At training, we'd have poles in the ground rather than portable goals. One time, we turned up and there were no balls, so we had to do a running session. The football federation didn't have a main sponsor - MTN (the phone company) do their best, but the money doesn't always get through. It can be painful, but the players always gave it their all.

I believe I was a success in Uganda. We were unbeaten at home, and we started to win away games as well. We won the CECAFA tournament (for east and central African countries) in 2008 and 2009, and then again back-to-back in 2011 and 2012. I don't think any other coach has won four Cecafas.

Uganda's big aim was qualifying for the African Cup of Nations, which they hadn't done since 1978. In the 2012 qualifiers, we played six, only conceded two, but missed out by one point. For 2013, we lost on penalties to Zambia - who were holders of the trophy - in the final qualifying stage. It was devastating, and I think it played a big part in me losing my job.

Before my final game, I knew people were working behind my back to get me sacked. It was a World Cup qualifier in Liberia, and the travel arrangements were terrible. We were supposed to leave on the Monday or Tuesday, go to Ghana, pop across from there. But it dragged on and dragged on, and we eventually left on the Thursday. The journey took 25 hours, and we had people sleeping in concourses and so on. It didn't help our cause. We lost 2-0 and that was that.

I had no thoughts of moving back to the UK. Everyone recognised that the Uganda team improved under me - well, everyone outside Uganda! - and I'd built a reputation in Africa. I wanted to stay in international football, and there were a few jobs coming up. But then I spoke to the people at Gor Mahia in the Kenyan Premier League, and they showed real passion.

When I joined, Gor Mahia were second in the league with a few games in hand. The former coach, an Eastern European, went home during a break in the season, and didn't come back. I heard he'd demanded more money. So I took over, and we managed to finish ten points clear and win the league, which was no mean feat. It was the club's first title in 18 years. The fans have been fantastic - very vocal, very passionate, and if things don't go their way, they can erupt.

This weekend, we're playing against Esperance in Tunisia, in the second leg of an African Champions League tie. We lost the first leg 3-2 - we started really well, but we made three individual mistakes. So we need to win the second leg 2-0, which won't be easy. They're a big club, and way ahead of us financially. But if we can get a goal, who knows? We've got to be positive.

In the preliminary round, we knocked out US Bitam from Gabon. We won the first leg 1-0 at home, but the referee made some weird decisions in the second leg. They got two penalties, we had a man sent off, but we held on and went through on penalties, which was fantastic. The Champions League is an adventure - it's great to see all these countries, especially at someone else's expense!

I never really envisaged a career in management. I was a player coach at Kilmarnock, taking the reserves and playing at the same time. I thought I'd be hanging round, coaching kids, perhaps waiting for an opportunity down the line. But in 1996, the Kilmarnock manager Alex Totten, and his assistant Kenny Thomson, lost their jobs, so the club asked me to be caretaker.

We avoided relegation and won the Scottish Cup - the first time they'd won it in sixty-odd years. We had an open-top bus through the town and so many people turned out the bus couldn't move. So it was a good start, and things progressed from there. Winning the Cup meant we qualified for Europe for the first time in twenty-odd years, and we went on to qualify four years out of five.

I've no plans to come back to the UK. Even if I leave this job, I'll stay in Africa - hopefully in Kenya. This is my home now, and it's where I wasn't to stay. I don't miss much from Britain - just family and friends. The social life in Kenya is as good as anywhere, and the weather's great. It doesn't matter what job comes up over in Britain - I've no intention of leaving here.

If you go back ten years, when I was managing Hibernian, I never thought I'd be here. But moving abroad has been a great experience, and it's certainly broadened my horizons. If I'd stayed in Britain when I left Chester, I mightn't even have got a job, because work is hard to come by.

Would I recommend going abroad? It depends on the country. Africa's a big continent, and things are different depending on where you go. But I'd have no hesitation recommending any number of the countries I've been to.

Interview by @OwenAmos for britishcoachesabroad.com.

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