Saturday, July 11, 2015


Young Coaches Helping Phnom Penh Crown's Goals

Managing in England can appear to be a closed shop. Every time a vacancy becomes available, and given owners’ penchant for swinging axes that is pretty bloody often, the same old names get linked. Like for example Martin O’Neill, now being mentioned for the Leicester City job as was Sam Allardyce. Should a club look beyond the usual tired names the reaction is usually along the lines of who? And should who actually do a pretty good job, think Eddie Howe or Gary Monk, the reaction is one of surprise as if how dare an interloper, and a little known one at that, be doing so well? Given the difficulty of breaking into even middling clubs, many young coaches have taken their skills overseas.

Think Simon McMenemy who went from Ascot United, I used to get pissed in Ascot once a week and never knew they had a team, to the Philippines without passing go and built the foundations of a football enlightenment in a land more familiar with daft games adopted from their former colonial power the USA.

Then there is Gary White who was a youngster with Southampton in the second half of the 1980s, a fact that will have me dipping into my programme collection next time I am home looking for a mention, at the same time Alan Shearer and Matthew Le Tissier were there. White left England after a short stint with mighty Bognor Regis Town and after playing for Fremantle City in Australia ended up coaching the British Virgin Islands.

The guy must love islands, next up was the Bahamas and now he is with Guam. Now earlier in the year Guam held Singapore to a draw in a friendly, a result that had Singaporeans whining about how for their team had fallen but they were looking the wrong way. They, and the rest of us, were unaware of the work White was doing on that hard to find island and wins over India and Turkmenistan have left them top of their World Cup Qualifying Group at this early stage.

So, what other coaches are out there doing sterling work in unfashionable places to acquire the skills and knowledge to improve players under tough circumstances? Well, Cambodia is a good place to start looking. Phnom Penh Crown have long been an anomaly. Fairly well run with a professional looking website, media office and even a smattering of club merchandise available, PPC are the Manchester City of Cambodia I guess but instead of being owned by an oil rich sheikh, they look to a man who made his money in gambling. And he he is now putting something back.

Despite the limitations of the CLeague, PPC have long looked overseas and not just for their coaching staff (former Kelantan and Johor Darul Tazim coach Bojan Hodak had a spell their). I recall being in Singapore one time and there was a PPC side competing in a youth competition on the Padang. In other years the club have competed in the Singapore Cup. Cambodian yes and proud but their ambitions lie beyond the borders of their small country. It was little surprise then to hear that a couple of young coaches who I had been in contact with over recent years vis Twitter had both ended up in Cambodia, naturally with PPC.

Aussie Ryan Steele and English man Tom Legg have two things in common with me. None of us set the world alight playing football and all of us moved overseas in search of pastures new. Steele for example decided he was better off with bibs, balls and cones after coming to the conclusion ‘my brain was a lot more effective than either foot’ while Legg reached a similar conclusion at the age of 15 when he ‘accepted I wouldn’t be able to reach the levels I aspired to as a player.’

Legg’s travels took him first to the US in 2006 where he worked as youth development coach in Connecticut where he was keen to ‘spend as many hours on the pitch as possible’. After six months he was packing his tooth brush when he was offered the chance to run an academy in Bangalore, India. ‘It was a fantastic opportunity for me to have such responsibility at such a young age’ he recalls.

Steele started his overseas adventures three years after Legg. ‘My first real full-time paid coaching job was in the Maldives and I went there primarily for the experience. As it was based around local clubs, NGOs and schools, I had a wealth of variety and coached ages anywhere between six and 25, so it was one of those "sink or swim" moments for me.

‘I more or less landed into the job with dumb luck, hearing about a development tournament that was being run by one of the local clubs and putting my hand up to help out. I stayed longer than the tournament and found myself acting in a sort of "head coach/technical director" capacity for the island. ‘It was a fantastic experience that I still look back on with fond memories.’

It is at moments like this as a writer when I add little comments about how the tuk tuk we were travelling in on our journey through Phnom Penh bounced along the pot holed roads as I sat with the two coaches but that would be a lie. I am sat typing this on a Saturday morning in the Middle East and have relied on email for the interviews. So sorry, no tales of sharing a beer with the fair at the majestic Foreign Correspondents Club overlooking the Mekong.

After something like 18 months overseas Legg returned to England where he spent time with Plymouth Argyle Ladies and Exeter City but you get the impression, even by the soulless medium of the internet, he was keeping his passport upto date. Sure enough in 2012 he made what he was to describe as ‘one of the most important moves’ of his career when he joined the Craig Bellamy Academy in Sierra Leone.

In the same way Steele has an affinity with Asia having learnt Japanese Legg was attracted to Africa having lived in Kenya as a youngster. ‘... when the opportunity came up to move out to Sierra Leone I jumped at the chance. At the time I knew very little about Sierra Leone, but my dad worked there on and off for a few years before the civil war in the early 90’s so his guidance and excitement about the opportunity convinced me that this was the best move for me personally and professionally.

‘The proceeding three years were the best years I’ve had as a coach to date. The players had an incredible appetite for learning, this dedication to self-improvement is like something you’ll never experience elsewhere in the world. I would go back to the UK on term breaks and speak to fellow coaching friends and they’d constantly complain about how distracted and disinterested their players were at times, I never experienced this Sierra Leone.’

Legg threw himself into his work and the players responded. He helped started a performance analysis department at the Academy to give the players another outlet to tap into and had huge success with the program, when I left the Academy in 2014 the department was one of the leading performance analysis department in Africa.

 In 2013 Academy Manager, Johnny McKinstry was appointed the Head Coach of the Sierra Leone national team and he offered Legg the opportunity to take on a performance role with the national team.  Now, the passion cascades off the screen of my laptop.

‘I’ll never forget the buildup, excitement and drama of the first game. It was a World Cup Qualifier at home to African footballing powerhouses Tunisia. The drive from the team hotel to the stadium was incredible, what started as a convoy of three vehicles; police car, one 4v4 and the team bus, ended up swelling to a convoy of around twenty by the time we arrived at the National Stadium in Freetown. Bikes, cars and supporters jogging along the side of the convoy followed us into the stadium carpark where we were eventually led into the dressing room by the local police.’

Unfortunately the ebola outbreak in the second half of 2014 brought a premature end to Legg’s Sierra Leone adventure. Tapping into his rapidly growing list of contacts, he heard about a vacancy in Cambodia with PPC as the Technical Director of their Academy. After eight years experience, Legg knew what he was looking for and he feels in PPC he has found the right mixture of ambition and the means to chase that ambition. ‘It was important for me to find a project that offered real potential for growth, and I believe I’ve found that here in Cambodia. The level of investment and commitment shown by the clubs President, Rithy Samnang is unbelievable.’

Steele arrived in Cambodia earlier this year. ‘Earlier in the year, the GM of the now-defunct C-League side Albirex Niigata Phnom Penh told me that he wanted to recommend me for the first team position at Phnom Penh Crown, as the head coach (Sam Schweingruber) was looking for an assistant coach for his first team staff. I had heard about Sam through his various activities over the years and we started emailing each other back and forth to discuss the possibility.

Despite only being on the ground a short time it s clear the Australian coach is excited by what he is seeing.‘Once everything came together, it all happened very fast and I found myself flying out of Australia within a matter of days. I've been in the country for just one week and have seen a total of three games as an observer and on the technical bench, but what I've seen so far has shown that it's an interesting mix of levels. There are some positives, with a range of tactical variety from the teams and some players that could make it in other SEA nations.’

For now both Legg and Steele are focused on making a difference in Cambodia. Young and ambitious, it will be interesting to see just where their careers take them. One thing is sure. They both feel they are being given opportunities they would never have had had they stayed home.

‘If I had stayed or started my career in Australia, without wanting to put down the country or myself, I would likely be going nowhere fast. The jobs for locals are still very much "for the boys" and not available unless you've played at a high level, have a recognisable name or know all the right people,’ says Steele while Legg feels ‘I doubt I’d have been given the freedom to develop the way I have done by working abroad.’

Both recognise the path taken by the likes of McMenemy and White before them with Legg saying ‘their stories of success should offer as inspiration to any aspiring coaches that taking the plunge out of your comfort zone...working abroad can offer really interesting opportunities for growth as a coach.’ As for the future, who knows? They are coaches, about the only thing guaranteed is the sack at some stage! Like all young coaches they have ambitions and those ambitions may well be realised by working overseas or by returning to their home country.

They are also keen to credit those who have helped them and ispired them. Who knows, in a few years time there may be other young coaches pointing to Tom Legg and Ryan Steele as their inspiration!

It is going to be an interesting time following their careers and you can do so on Twitter @steelinho and @tomlegg.

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