AsiaJames GoyderComment

From Sussex to Manila...and back again

AsiaJames GoyderComment

James Goyder meets Simon McMenemy, who packed more into 2010 than most people manage in a decade.

2010 was not a vintage year for English managers. Roy Hodgson and Steve McClaren are the latest to fall by the wayside with the quest to find a homegrown successor to Fabio Capello looking increasingly doomed due to the dearth of qualified candidates.

One English manager whose reputation has been significantly enhanced over the course of the past 12 months is Simon McMenemy. He began the year as assistant manager at Worthing Town in the Isthmian League Division One South and ended it by taking the Philippines to the semi finals of the AFF Suzuki Cup, the second leg of which was witnessed by an incredible 88,000 fans.

As footballing stories go this is one of the most incredible you are ever likely to hear but it is not just about one man’s extraordinary ascent up the managerial ladder, it is also about how an entire nation learned to love the beautiful game.

A year ago no-one outside of Sussex would have been familiar with McMenemy’s name while few people in the Philippines were even aware that the country had a football team. When a chance phone call with a former player led to the 33 year old former Haywards Heath manager being offered the head coach job expectations were low and interest was even lower as he recalls,

“During the press conference before the Suzuki Cup the other coaches were discussing how many goals they would score against the Philippines. It wasn’t a case of whether they would win the game it was all about goal difference. No-one asked me any questions,” he said

McMenemy was appointed with a mandate to qualify for the Suzuki Cup something he succeeded in doing courtesy of a 5-0 win over East Timor and two hard fought draws with Cambodia and Laos. The Philippines showed glimpses in these performances of a couple of the qualities which would eventually endear them to football fans across the region. First and foremost the resolute defending which allowed them to keep a clean sheet against Cambodia and secondly the never say die attitude with which the team was able to overcome a 2-0 deficit to draw 2-2 with Laos thanks to James Younghusband’s dramatic 94th minute equalizer.

This strike proved decisive as McMenemy’s side only qualified for the Suzuki Cup courtesy of a superior goal difference to Cambodia. The last time the Philippines had reached the finals of this, or any major competition, was in 2007 when they finished bottom of the group after failing to score a single goal.

In this context it was hardly surprising that rival managers were licking their lips in anticipation of a morale boosting margin of victory against McMenemy’s underdogs but he and his team had other ideas,

“We were considered whipping boys and I think that worked in our favour, we knew we had a bit more than just being whipping boys. Amongst the team and the staff there was a belief that we were capable of doing things against good teams but we’d never been in a situation where anyone else believed in us,” he said.

The Philippines success was not built on belief alone, although the confidence McMenemy instilled in his players was clearly a factor. It was built on the sort of defensive solidity which had been conspicuous by its absence at the team’s last Suzuki Cup outing when they finished the tournament with a sorry sounding goal difference of minus eight. This time around, under the astute guidance of their new manager, the players were under no illusions as to what was required of them,

“We played very differently in the qualifiers to the way we did in the group stages. In the qualifiers we were playing against lesser opposition so we knew if we played the game in their half it meant if they gave it away we would have the chance to score goals so we pressed very high up the field and tried to steal the ball off them in their half. When it came to the Suzuki Cup we knew we weren’t going to dictate play against Singapore or Vietnam or even Myanmar, they are good sides who knock the ball around well. We had to play to our strengths,” he said.

After weeks of painstaking preparation McMenemy’s team, which featured only three full time professionals, were ready to test their mettle against some of the top talent in South East Asia,

“We were always going to be a defensive side and it is no coincidence that we conceded the least goals in that tournament and that’s something I’m pleased I had an input in. We had a lot of players who came in at the last minute so the system had to be understandable to everybody. It can’t be a technical 3-5-2 with attacking wide guys because unless they play like that at their club they won’t get it,” he said.

The team’s success was built around playing two banks of four and being difficult to break down, a strategy which McMenemy devised himself,

“It had to be very simple and given the size of the players and their fitness levels and their will to win playing a defensive 4-4-2 was very straightforward. You can look around and know where your partner is which gives you your position. It makes it very easy for players coming in the day before a tournament to fit into and know when to step out and when to stay in,” he said.

The first team to face the Philippines was Singapore who had won the Suzuki Cup three times and were ranked among the tournament favourites. The match was far tighter than had been expected and with 93 minutes played Singapore were protecting a slender one goal lead as McMenemy recalls,

“They’ve got some very good players and some very experienced players but for all the good work they did they didn’t break us down. We played it very tight a very defensive 4-4-2 with two banks of four on the edge of the box and said ‘come and break us down’ and they couldn’t do it. We always thought at 1-0 if we get one chance we can get back in this and with 94 minutes gone I pushed a couple of big boys up top, classic route one, the keepers come out and punched it and Chris Greatwich managed to stick it past him,” he said.

Although the result itself ranked as a major surprise the game was far less one sided than pundits had been predicting and the Philippines received widespread praise for their performance, not least from the opposition manager,

“We thought we were good enough to get an equalizer and their coach came over to me at the end of the game and said, ‘you deserved everything you got out of that game’ and that was enough praise for me because it was seen as a huge shock. We watched the game the next day and the commentators were saying, ‘that’s incredible and the likes of that won’t be seen again’,” he said.

The commentators in question can be added to the growing list of people who were guilty of underestimating the Philippines. Three days later McMenemy’s men went one better, defeating reigning champion’s Vietnam 2-0 in front of 40,000 home fans in Hanoi thanks to goals from Greatwich and Phil Younghusband.

“When the final whistle went I was stunned because the performance they put in was something else. It is a moment I will never forget for as long as I live. You can tell how significant a win it was by looking at the players. I was new to the team I had only been head coach for three or four months so I was new to South East Asian football but the captain, Ali Borromeo, he’s been playing for the best part of ten years for the Philippines and as soon as he heard the final whistle he burst into tears and started hugging everyone. This is a guy who is hard as nails and doesn’t show any emotion,” he said.

A 0-0 draw with Myanmar secured qualification to the semi finals of the Suzuki Cup, an amazing achievement for the footballing minnow of the Philippines who had never in their history been beyond the group stages.

Unfortunately by this stage cracks were beginning to show, not in McMenemy’s closely knit group of players, but within the upper echelons of the Philippines Football Federation (PFF). A major blow was dealt when it was discovered that the Philippines did not have any suitable stadia to host the semi final meaning that both legs would be played in Indonesia’s intimidating 88,000 capacity Gelora Bung Karno Stadium.

Then, as if to add insult to injury, the president of the PFF announced that he wanted to replace not just the coach but the entire playing staff with what he promised would be a new and improved team. With the semi final approaching this was not something which either McMenemy or his players should have had to contend with,

“To actually tell the players he was looking to replace them on the eve of the biggest game in their history, I was dumbfounded. It was disappointing for the players not to play the semi final in the Philippines. These are guys that had really gone up against the odds and often beaten the odds and their reward would have been to play in front of their home crowd and that would have been a totally different game because that would have been our stadium, not Indonesia’s 90,000 stadium,” he said.

The previously unknown Filipino players now had a much higher profile as interest in their homeland reached an unprecedented level. This brought with it a new set of problems for McMenemy and his squad,

“It was incredible, absolutely incredible. Once we got to the semi finals you couldn’t walk through the hotel without being stopped 30, 40, 50 times. We couldn’t leave the hotel without security, we couldn’t go to shopping malls, the one time we did people were recognizing us all over the place and we had to leave,” he said.

The Filipino FA was allocated 75 tickets for the first leg which was the designated ‘home’ fixture and 45 tickets for the ‘away’ leg. With Indonesia defending a narrow 1-0 lead the stadium was completely sold out for the second of the two matches which meant 88,000 Indonesian fans were there to cheer on their team,

“I’ll be very lucky to do it again, to be in that environment, it was the ultimate football environment. There was one moment when we were walking around the pitch as you do and I looked around and realized I was the only one on the pitch. I’m on my own in the middle of the pitch looking up at 90,000 fans and everywhere I looked they were booing and putting their fingers up. It was a totally weird moment which I will never forget. It’s difficult to explain the feeling,” he said.

McMenemy was the youngest international manager on the planet at the time and appeared to have the footballing world at his feet but his next match, a little over a month later, would be in much less illustrious surroundings. After returning back to England to celebrate Christmas with his fiancée he suffered the indignity of discovering through a friend on Facebook that he was being replaced as head coach of the Philippines.

Out of work but far from out of love with the game McMenemy has been playing football for Franklands Village in Division One of the Mid Sussex League while he waits for the right job offer to arrive,

“It’s quite comical I suppose. The last stadium my team played in was in front of 90,000 people with fireworks going off over my head and now you’re playing in a village in front of a man and a dog but my playing and my coaching are two separate entities. I would be looking to play a game wherever I was, be it a knock around or a five a side in a leisure centre, and the fact that one of my best mates is the head coach of Franklands Village just means I can come in there and play a bit of football and get to kick a ball around again,” he said.

In fact the comparison is a little disingenuous as these days McMenemy only plays football for fun whereas coaching is very much his career. A series of unfortunate injuries dictated that he would never get to play the game at anything approaching an elite level and as a result his focus has been on training and management since an unusually very early age. It wasn’t until taking charge of the Philippines that he discovered his decade old UEFA B License had actually expired.

There are an increasing number of successful managers in football who, like McMenemy, have not had illustrious playing careers and he feels that never having played the game professionally need not necessarily be an impediment towards a successful coaching career,

“I think there is a belief that having played at a certain level you can automatically coach and I don’t think that is the case at all. I think playing and coaching are two separate things. If your whole life has been built around being a player and that’s taken away you look around and think ‘what can I do?’ and so you go into coaching and it’s almost like a fall back for the pros, whereas with me it’s what I really want to do. I think that makes me more motivated than any coach who has played professionally,” he said.

Michael Weiß has now taken the reigns at the Philippines but McMenemy’s legacy remains intact and 15,000 tickets for a recent home game against Mongolia sold out almost instantly, something which would have been unthinkable a few months ago. Ironically had the national team not fared so well in the Suzuki Cup the PFF would never have been offered the lucrative commercial deal which necessitated the appointment of the German coach. Meanwhile the man who helped build the new found fan base finds himself consigned to the managerial scrap heap.

McMenemy has been here before. He lost a football scholarship to an American university after suffering a mystery head injury and, perhaps most traumatically of all, had to deal with the heartbreak of discovering he was never going to fulfill his childhood dream of becoming a professional football player.

In a career which has been largely spent on the periphery of the professional game the 33 year old has had to overcome more adversity than your average footballer will encounter in a lifetime. A lesser man might have given up and walked away long ago but after every setback he came back stronger, just as his Philippines team were able to do when they found themselves losing 2-0 to Laos with 15 minutes to go or a goal down against Singapore in the dying seconds of injury time.

Whether it be taking a team of rank outsiders to a major international tournament or facing up to an extended spell of enforced unemployment McMenemy is the master of making the most of a bad situation. He might never be given the opportunity to finish what he started with the Filipino national team but with interesting offers arriving from around the world he will surely not be out of work for too long.

In a curious quirk of footballing fate while fans in the Philippines are mourning the abrupt departure of the most successful head coach in their nation’s history a team in Hayward’s Heath is relishing having a new striker in their ranks. McMenemy currently has four goals in three games for Frankland’s Village.

James is a freelance journalist based in Bangkok. To read more from him, visit his website, and follow him on Twitter.