Swedish side Östersunds FK’s rise to stardom made headlines all across the planet. The 2010 season had seen the depleted club relegated to the fourth tier of Swedish football. The side, hailing from the subarctic city of the same name, sat in turmoil; crowds of a few hundred were the only ones present to see them tumble into obscurity, as the country’s 22nd largest city looked to have a club that shared its relevance on the European stage.
Fast forward a few years, and Östersunds had stunned the footballing world. The club’s meteoric rise was well documented and for good reason; a city with a population just over half that of the Isle of Man were facing some of Europe’s big guns — and winning.
Europa League regulars Galatasaray, PAOK and Hertha Berlin all fell before Graham Potter’s side recorded a 2-1 victory at the Emirates, ultimately going out after comfortably losing the first leg against Arsenal in Sweden. This real-life Football Manager style rise to prominence earned boss Graham Potter a move back across the North Sea as he took the reins at Swansea, before moving to Premier League outfit Brighton a season later.
Photo: Burak Akbulut / Andolu Agency / Getty
To many, Potter’s wizardry in Scandinavia and beyond paved the way for British coaches to follow suit and realise the global potential that football management has; the club even replaced him with Leicester-born Ian Burchnall. Yet there are hundreds of unknown domestic coaches plying their trade across all corners of the globe, according to overseas coach Matt Ward.
“I was listening to podcasts and I got tired of hearing guests saying, ‘we don’t really have any coaches abroad,’ we had Steve McLaren and Steve Coppell who is in India,” Ward explains.
“You have no end of coaches in Asia: coaches in China, Thailand, Philippines, Indonesia. You have got British coaches who are the managers or staff of national teams. In the last round of Asian World Cup qualifying, there were around five or six British and Irish or Northern Irish coaches involved in games qualifying for the World Cup!”
After years on the periphery of non-league squads, Ward hung up his boots and decided to pursue a career in the technical area.
“I’ve always enjoyed working and living abroad,” admits the 37-year-old. “I got a job teaching PE in Taiwan and started coaching a bit of football again, and I thought, ‘you know what, you have to choose now what you really want to do’. I said, ‘I want to be a football coach again, I’m going to give it a go’.”
Matt Ward talks of the pressures and rewards young British coaches face overseas.
Ward started out at amateur side Royal Blues Taipei and quickly embarked on a journey similar to Potter’s Östersunds.
“I was helping out with them at training and got on with the manager. In the middle of the first season I became joint head coach and then ended up staying in Taipei and became head coach for the next three years. At the time, we won the league, the unofficial division two, and then we went into the playoffs to reach the Premier League. We won the playoffs and were promoted.”
The side, who have since fallen out of the top-flight, comprised mostly amateur players with a selection of semi-professionals; maintaining a similar approach even when reaching the top of the Taiwanese pyramid.
“We started off unbeaten in the first three games which was amazing because we were against teams with former and current national team players and some ex-national team managers. By the time I left, I think we were second or third and in an Asian Cup playoff place.”
Where it all began for Ward, coaching in Taiwan.
Whilst obtaining his AFC B licence down under in Canberra, Ward was offered a job with Filipino side Loyola Meralco Sparks. The Loyola-based side were backed by Manila electrical giant Meralco and came with affiliated basketball and volleyball sides.
There, with former Chelsea youth scholars Phil and James Younghusband at his disposal, alongside a plethora of national team stars and players who had competed in European leagues, Ward guided the Grey Wolves to a third-placed finish and a cup semi-final.
“From the Philippines I headed to Shanghai Shenxin, which were a second-tier Chinese club and former Chinese Super League side,” Ward explains. The former CSL side had fallen out of the top-flight just the season before the English coach’s arrival.
“I joined along with head coach Gary White and assistant Louis Lancaster. We took them out of the relegation and up to an eight placed finish, only nine points off promotion in the end. That was a good season, but we didn’t get our contracts renewed. We found out at Christmas that we hadn’t been kept on, I saw on Twitter we’d been let go which was nice,” he chuckles.
Shanghai Shenxin players celebrate a hard-fought 3-2 victory.
Like Ward, White and Lancaster have enjoyed spells coaching overseas. Lancaster now coaches in the American women’s highest division, whilst White’s record-breaking career has made headlines all over the world.
Becoming one of the youngest ever national team bosses at the age of just 24, White oversaw his British Virgin Islands side compete in a FIFA World Cup qualification match before he had turned 26. He went on to help the tiny island of Guam rise an incredible 46 places in the world rankings, before achieving similar successes with the Taiwanese and Hong Kong national sides.
Whilst the trio found their fair share of success in Jinshan, Ward admits working at Shenxin was a very challenging environment.
“In China, you get phone calls from the owner because the owner’s friend has told him that we should change a defender for example. They’re watching the game on TV, and the next thing you know the general manager is coming over to you saying, ‘the owner has just called me, you have to change the defender’. It’s not a suggestion, it’s an order: change a defender,” he recalls.
“This happened to us once when we were leading 2-0 in an away match. The owner was watching it on TV with his mate. We get a nod from the general manager who says, ‘you have got to change this defender’. We said, ‘we are winning 2-0’, they said ‘you have got to change him’. We ended up losing the game 4-3. The player we brought on was sent off as well!”
Whilst interference may be found all over the world and can be seen much closer to home on occasions, à la Messrs Cellino, Tan and Duchâtelet; Asia is a hotbed for owner’s doing things their own way according to Ward. And sadly, interference isn’t the only unwanted aspect of the beautiful game that rears its ugly head too often in the far east.
Ward during his time at Shenxin.
“There’s a lot of issues with matches already being organised before the game has been played let’s say. Especially with away matches, you go to some away games and there are a lot of things that are happening which are strange,” he admits.
“Red cards given by the same referees, offsides, free kicks and penalties being given. Sometimes it’s quite obvious, you know what’s happening, you know it’s being done to you and there’s nothing you can do about it. This was a big thing for me and why I chose to step away. You work hard with your staff and players all week planning 24/7, then you go into a game where the result has already been figured out.”
Despite the introduction of video replays in the majority of Asia’s top leagues, Ward warns that match-fixing and bribery still plays its part in deciding the outcome of games, commenting on the comical value of blatant refereeing corruption.
“The CSL last year brought in VAR. It’s hilarious to watch. If you watch a Chinese Super League game on the TV, you see referees trying so hard not to give decisions; especially penalty decisions,” he laughs, before continuing, “Or, you can see that they want to give decisions so much but they can’t, because they’ve gone to check the screen and it’s blatant. You end up with decisions taking five or six minutes because you see it computing in their head; they know what they have been told to do but they’re trying to figure out what the best course of action is.”
After learning of his fate via social media, Ward found himself on the move once more; swapping the emerging Chinese game for the resurgence of Ghanaian football. Taking over a club in the Division One League, Ghana’s EFL Championship equivalent, he oversaw the side hover around third place and reach the third round of the Ghanaian FA Cup.
A majestic backdrop for football in Ghana.
Despite his players always being the ultimate professionals, something very sinister was unfolding.
“One day, we were on a winning streak and everything was going great. I went to training and there were four players there. I’m like ‘what on earth is going on’; there were no one else in sight, nothing. I turned to my assistant and asked where the players were, and nobody wanted to tell me,” he remembers.
Even after going on a remarkable unbeaten run, only a handful of players turned up for what was a routine training session. Eventually the majority of the players emerged, but such was the club’s policy on being late to training, they found the gate locked. After the players begged Ward to let them in and hear what they had to say, he relented.
“I let them in and said, ‘right tell me what’s going on or you’re going back out and never playing for me again, I’ll put the youth players in’. They all came in; we stood in a circle and they were all silent. Nobody wanted to break the silence and tell me until one of them literally sunk to the floor, crawling on his knees and begging to me saying ‘sorry that we did this and boycotted training, but some of us haven’t been paid for a very long time’.
“Some of them were owed money from a year or longer, some were owed money from months ago,” he continues. “I started asking players individually. Some didn’t want to speak in the group, so I pulled them to the side. I knew what they should be getting. I pulled one guy to the side who had three kids and asked him how long he hadn’t received his salary. ‘Six months coach’. ‘What about your signing on fee?’ I asked. ‘Still haven’t got it’. ‘What about your bonuses?’. ‘Withheld’.”
Ward’s players went months without pay in Ghana.
Clubs withholding players’ salaries to ransom is commonplace in developing leagues and has sadly been seen recently closer to home with the likes of Bury, Southend and Macclesfield. Yet the severity of the wages owed and cultural significance of what was unfolding saw the boss ultimately resign from his post.
“Professionally, how can I keep leading and motivating players to the best of my ability and their ability when they are not getting what they are owed?” he questions. “What I couldn’t accept was it made me basically a slave master. I was the white guy in Africa with all my lads working hard for me and they weren’t getting paid what they were owed. I couldn’t accept that.”
Whilst adding that the players were well looked after with accommodation and food by the club, something many other sides at that level couldn’t offer, the turmoil that unfolded in Ghana has seen Ward step away from the game to focus on the aptly named British Football Coaches Network.
Irritated by the lack of acknowledgement British bosses overseas were receiving, the former Shanghai Shenxin assistant created a network of contacts for overseas coaches to connect with one another; posting job opportunities, advice for prospective managers and development schemes.
The British Football Coaches Network shares between 80 to 100 job opportunities per month.
“It grew from a few articles to making connections between academies and clubs and links that I started a jobs board. Now, members go into a membership area; they can get opportunities and jobs both in the UK and abroad. There are some discounts on courses and some career development courses as well. Members are even contacting each other, and we are having cases where members are getting jobs just by talking to other members.
“It’s all about exposure and trying to get British coaches into opportunities where possible and trying to support them with guidance for their careers where I can. Someone might be about to sign a contract and they might want a bit of advice; they’ve never been to the country and want to know if the contract looks right and if it’s missing anything.”
Offering advice to anyone striving to achieve a successful career in coaching, Ward proposes some key pieces of guidance.
“Firstly, if you want to coach in Indonesia, for instance, the best way to do that is, unless you have a high-profile name, by getting your feet on the ground in Indonesia and create a network of contacts. Build up your own name locally and do it from there.
Volunteering is hugely important. I got to know Gary White who brought me over to Shanghai Shenxin because I helped him out when his Guam national team were playing in Taiwan. I did some analysis and other bits for him, I never asked for any money or anything and in return later on, I got that back in much more value than I could ever imagine.”
Despite the issues he’s faced, Ward admits coaching offers unrivalled gratification, adding: “The most rewarding thing is experiencing and working hard to be accepted by different cultures, different nationalities and different players. You get the reward and the job satisfaction by testing yourself and experiencing some really difficult times and coming through it at the other end. When you see it all come together, that is why people coach.”
Whilst Östersunds sadly went no further than the round of 32 in 2017/18’s showing of the Europa League, they left the Emirates as winners; they’d beaten the Gunners thanks to first half quick-fire goals from Hosam Aiesh and Ken Sema, but more importantly, they’d captured the hearts of the footballing masses.
A plucky side who had risen to prominence from the depths of the abyss, all in part thanks to a pioneering young English coach earning himself a name abroad. Graham Potter’s successes may be well documented, but there’s an abundance of home-grown talent coaching from Taiwan to Timbuktu and everywhere between waiting to be recognised.
By: Jack Douglas
Featured Image: @GabFoligno
All other images provided by Matt Ward / @mattwardy1.
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