Alan Black: From Clyde to California
INTERVIEW: DOMINIC BLISS
When Alan Black moved from Glasgow to California, he discovered that the kids in suburban America didn’t react too well to his Scottish coaching technique. After writing a critically acclaimed book about his experiences, he spoke to TheInsideLeft about the game’s transatlantic cultural differences…
Alan, one of the first things you must have had to get used to as a Scotsman moving to the States is calling your sport ‘soccer’. Do you think we overegg our issues with that word in Britain?
I haven’t checked on this but I was talking to the Financial Times football writer, Simon Kuper, about this last year and he was telling me that ‘soccer’ was the word that was used in the UK until the Fifties and Sixties. It was a word that no one thought had any foreign connotation. It’s not an American word; it’s a British word, for Association Football. Americans, of course, have to call it ‘soccer’ because if they called it ‘football’, everyone would think they meant American Football. It has to be differentiated so that people know what you’re talking about.
I’m a little self-conscious about it, but it’s not the only self-conscious word you deal with when you move to the United States – there is a whole host of translations that one has to make to be understood and having a thick Scottish accent doesn’t help you, although it does attract people in some way. So, to answer your question, I would say that if people are dismissive or down on Americans calling the game ‘soccer’, then I think that’s a little redundant.
You used to go to watch Clyde with your brother in the Seventies and Eighties. How would you compare that with watching Major League Soccer in San Jose, as you do these days?
The San Jose Earthquakes actually have a very strong Scottish connection – some of the people who were central to bringing the Quakes to the area had Scottish roots. But comparing them with Clyde – now that’s an interesting question!
There is a marked difference. At Shawfield, we would have 500-1000 and your own voice was a spectacle in itself, because when someone yelled, everyone heard it. You had your own elements of performance pieces that you could scream in this great void of a stadium that was built for 25,000 people – Shawfield, my football home.
These echoes of madness were very funny, with Glasgow being a, sort of, natural comedy zone, with its own wit and wisdom when it came to football. It was also a pretty brutal experience. When they came out of the dressing room, they were forced to go through this kind of gauntlet, while fans would congregate at the fences. The abuse, when they used to come off the field and go back through it, was the most vicious and exciting thing I can remember as a kid at a football match. And the players would sometimes react and try to throw punches at these demented Clyde fans standing at the fence. I was just a kid, standing with adults down below them, and there was just this real, vindictive anger and it was amazing to think that this was supporting a small team, where you didn’t have that big whoosh of the mass to go along with during the winning and the losing, and still people took it so personally. It was like it was an insult to them to have to endure 90 minutes of shite!
Is it like going to a different sport when you go to watch San Jose Earthquakes play in the 21st Century?
No, it’s not. There is a difference in the fans, in the sense that American sports are predicated in this concept of entertainment. People want to be entertained when they go to a sporting event, so at baseball or football, you have a lot of razzamatazz going on.
There is a hardcore group of fans now, which has become a phenomenon of US soccer, and at the Quakes they are called the 1906 Ultras. They are a group of maybe 300 fans who would fit in anywhere around the world as football fans: they sing, they chant, they are loyal and they all wear the scarves. I went to an away game with them, down in Los Angeles last month, and they take it very, very seriously. It’s more like the European concept of the Ultra groups, as opposed to the type of fan we know in Britain.
So they bring the energy to the stadium and that creates the atmosphere. The rest of the crowd, because they are trained in American sports, wait for something to happen so they can respond to it. There is less booing and chanting, although it has become more sophisticated in recent years, where the crowd gets pretty angry when the refereeing decisions go the wrong way. And they could get really nasty when David Beckham came to town as well. The Galaxy played the Quakes last year and, because of Beckham’s huge popularity here, they had to move the game to another stadium. The Quakes are building their own stadium, but for now they play at a university stadium called Buck Shaw, with a capacity of just over 10,000. When Beckham was coming, they required Stanford Stadium, which holds 50,000.
So 50,000 people came to the game, and the hostility towards Beckham was unbelievable – it was raining down on him. I doubt if he has ever played a game with that much hostility and it got under his skin – the day before he had been told he wouldn’t be in the Olympic team. It was a fantastic game, which the Quakes ended up winning 4-3, but at the end of the match Beckham went off, and was fighting with the players; the crowd were incensed; people were throwing bottles at him as he left. He was seething with rage. So there is something there. Fans are beginning to pick up on the type of irrational response one needs to have to be a good soccer fan.
Let’s talk about ‘Kick The Balls’, which is about your attempt to coach a completely useless little league soccer side in San Francisco using your Glaswegian football methods. Did you exaggerate just how bad those kids were?
No, they were rubbish.
There is so much over-management and sensitivity towards children, culturally, in an American suburb. You know, “everyone’s a winner baby”; positivity; not believing in the scoreline. Participation was the value, as opposed to the idea of beating the opponents.
Now, that would have been fine, if the entire league had been that way. But it wasn’t. There were other teams who took it dead serious and their coaches took it serious. I could just tell by the mocking attitude, by their body posture or just by talking to them, that my team was a joke.
As an experience for me, it was somewhat of an awakening. I don’t want to use some sort of religious term but in some ways it’s true because I would find myself thinking more deeply about it when I was driving home with my son. Suddenly, I would have these feelings of real rage and anger about what had just happened. It was such a strange thing because this had laid dormant for a long time in me, as soccer had taken a back seat since I came to the United States.
So these things came back to me and I started remembering my childhood and how serious it was for me, just how critically important it was to try and win; to beat the other team. I couldn’t instil that in this team of kids to whom it was essentially a foreign game, but I expected them to try, to give it a go, to get stuck in and to feel some kind of pride about it! The other teams they were playing against certainly did.
So I thought maybe the problem with a lot of American kids is this kind of overreaching parentalism that stops them from developing those innate features that are part of sport, which is being aggressive, wanting to beat the opponent, getting in the opposition’s face and letting them know you’re there. I think, when you leave kids alone, you will find that those things will emerge and a sort of natural leadership and other rules would develop and the kids would play. But when it’s all scripted by the parents, by the adult world, it is time to play that Pink Floyd song.
You wrote about your own childhood team and how it was self-organising, even mentioning that your mum gave you some money to “buy” the best player from another team!
That’s right – it was 5p. John Carnwath!
What a difference that made then, leaving the kids alone…
Indeed, because you were able to manufacture the essence of what it was all about, which was to gain influence, to feel superior. This guy had a rocket shot; he was known in the neighbourhoods for his thunderous shot and I remember when he came to our first little practice, that is probably the only time in my life that I can connect with what Fergie probably feels when he has got a new player that he knows is going to be good because I felt really powerful. I felt that I was in charge of this mob and we had this guy now, who was going to help us take everybody on and beat them all.
So the attitude of this team in suburban America flew in the face of your childhood passion for the game…
I had brought a certain amount of baggage to the States with me and it was essentially a translation impossibility. I was trying to generate enthusiasm and these kids were distracted by a million other things – they were very young and they weren’t focusing exclusively on playing soccer all the time.
It’s a pastime, like all sports here, and it’s integrated into other things. That may or may not be the case in the UK now because I am loathe to talk about British society when I haven’t been there for so long. But when I grew up, it was pretty much all football, although during the Olympics we might put up some hurdles in the street and play a mini Olympics. Christ, I even played cricket in the back lanes, with bricks and tennis rackets, when the West Indies were cuffing the English at Lord’s in the Seventies. So, we did these things, but the essential, emotional life of sport was exclusively found in soccer, in football.
Image: dannebrog (via Flickr)
There’s a section in the book where you explore the all-consuming passion for soccer held by the Hispanic population in California and south of the border in Mexico. Did that remind you of your boyhood in Scotland?
Yeah, because Latino soccer culture is kind of like British soccer culture – it’s ingrained deep in the DNA. The only differentiation is the language. The pattern of winning and losing and what it means is as profound in Central America as it is anywhere else in the world, so there is an understanding there.
So, for me, those were the sorts of teams I should have been coaching but, unfortunately, my Spanish is pretty limited so it’s not as if I could have gone over and joined in. They had the attitude that they wanted their sons to achieve and they believed in the idea of the soccer icon.
For these dads, when they talked about their kids, they all wanted to wear No10 and they all wanted to be that star that would elevate them.
Having been to professional games in the Bay Area and covered them for the newspaper here, the worship that goes into the Mexican football teams – because there is a huge Mexican community in California – is just part of the identity here. They worship football players like Gods.
You discuss the American phenomenon of ‘Soccer Moms’ at length – and quite humorously I might add – but the influence of mums on English football lovers is somewhat overlooked. I have been going to the football with my mum from early childhood and you wrote that your mum was the parent who nurtured your interest in the game. Why don’t we talk about the mother-child football relationship more often in the UK?
I think that is something important and, as you said, it is overlooked a lot. The trajectory of the narrative has always been the father-son relationship, but every fibre of extreme reaction to football that I have in my body was put there by my mum. She had the same deep, visceral response to defeat and injustice, and she suffered along with myself and my brother when we would be watching football at home.
It is interesting because there is a high consciousness of women’s soccer here in the US with the success of the US women’s national team. Americans tend to separate gender connections less in sports when it comes to that “going to the game with your dad” thing. When you go to watch kids play here, mums are the most vocal and the most critical on the sidelines, arguing with the coach or the refereeing decisions. It brings things forward after the sort of discrimination that has gone on in football historically, and not just in terms of playing the sport.
When I used to go to games back in the Seventies and Eighties, you just wouldn’t see any women there. In Glasgow, if a woman was spotted, usually she was working for the ambulance service in case someone passed out drunk in the terraces – as they usually would – and had to be carted away. Women suffered some pretty vicious sexist chanting, I seem to remember. It was a real male-mob mentality. But my mum, with her passion for the game, was the instrument for me having soccer at the centre of my life emotionally. And there is a certain caring concept at the centre of the mothering instinct that comes out in football in a lot of different ways.
After jacking it in quite emotionally at the end of your first season coaching these kids (I won’t ruin the book by revealing too much), did you ever return to coaching soccer?
No, they put my face on a “Wanted” poster and plastered it all over the clubhouse. It said “Do not let this guy come back – he is responsible for the death of the American Dream!”
That was pretty much it. But my daughter later started playing football and she became pretty good at it, so I would see some of the parents from the era of my coaching days, and I was always a bit worried that they would remember what happened. But, thankfully, no one came up and punched me!
Saying that, watching the coaches that my daughter played under and seeing the kind of stress that unfolded – to the point where this kid’s league had a disciplinary code for coaches – was alarming. Some of these guys cracked up and they would become filled with a kind of madness and anger when results didn’t go their way.
Maybe it’s football – it’s possible that it is the game itself and the nature of it; it swings one way then the other and there is no interruption. In American sports, you sit down, you calm down and have a hot dog and you can’t really get that emotion that comes with the fluidity of football, where the game swings back and forth constantly. The glory and the loss that can take place in a split second might have something to do with it.
I had better not go back to coaching, anyway. I think my one “contribution” was enough!
Alan Black is a soccer columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle and blogs for Huffington Post and The Header. He is also author of the excellent Kick The Balls – An Offensive Suburban Odyssey. You can read his column on Scotland’s love for the ‘Wee Man’ here and follow him on Twitter @footyheader
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Wonder Wall: Emerson Thome In Japan
WORDS: RICHARD GODDEN
Emerson Thome had the character and footballing traits that earned him a place in the hearts of fans wherever he played and, during two seasons in Japan, with Vissel Kobe, the man nicknamed “The Wall” for his defensive stoicism became a local hero. He relives his enriching career finale…
Emerson, most of our readers will remember you from the eight years in England, but you actually finished your career playing in Japan between 2005 and 2007. That’s quite a big challenge to take on in your final years as a footballer, don’t you think?
When Vissel Kobe came in for me, that’s exactly how I saw it myself – a chance to take on one last challenge, playing football in a place that was so far away. Mentally, it was a huge thing for me and my family to prepare for, but I really appreciated my time there. The club was full of good people and the quality of the football, believe it or not, wasn’t that bad; I know I wasn’t young at that stage or as quick as I used to be, but that’s what made it such a good challenge. I got to test myself in a different kind of football at a different level.
The quality of the football there was good and it has continued to improve. As you’ll know, there are a lot of Japanese players abroad now, many of them in Europe, and they are doing quite well. English supporters have been impressed with Shinji Kagawa at Manchester United.
Did the fact that Brazil won the World Cup in Japan a few years earlier ensure players from that part of the world were well received?
I don’t think that was the main thing. Japan has a massive colony back in Brazil, probably the biggest gathering of Japanese people outside of Japan, so the link between the two countries is strong. And a lot of Brazilian people go to work in Japan.
I also remember an experience from the early part of my career, when I was still in Brazil. We had three or four young Japanese lads in our squad during a break in the season, and some of them would stay for six months or a year. This has been happening for years, with many Japanese players going across to Brazil as a kind of learning trade.
Football aside, what was it like to live in Japan?
In terms of quality of life, it was excellent. I think it’s a nation full of people with a good work ethic; that is just in their character. If you go there to do your best, like I did, you will be welcomed. There was the odd person who I felt wasn’t very keen to see a foreigner in the country, but mainly the Japanese people were very welcoming. I think it helped that I was a footballer as well – and one who had played for a few big Premiership teams.
Image courtesy of Vissel Kobe
So I enjoyed it a lot, as did my family. My daughter was just a young kid of five, and she went to a good international school and made good friendships out there, as did my missus. And myself, too. The other players and staff at the club made me more than welcome. I offered them my knowledge and my experience; they repaid me with good relationships and the boys were always willing to listen. That made my two years much easier.
The language barrier must have been huge, though…
To be fair, I couldn’t read anything – it was impossible without letters! So it was difficult to learn it, but I picked up a few bits of the language mainly just from how the boys expressed themselves. Through their emotions and actions, they helped to show me how they felt about certain things. I could only really speak a few words and very rarely could I make dialogue with them in Japanese. But I mixed it in with some English, as a few could speak that, and with the Brazilian link there were one or two of them at the club and some staff who could speak Portuguese. That made my life pretty easy!
Who were the other Brazilians at Vissel Kobe during your time there? The J-League certainly attracted a fair few during its formative years.
You’re right about that. The Japanese League was brought up by a few former Brazilian internationals, with players like Dunga, Zico, Bismarck, Cesar Sampaio and Jorginho, just to name a few. Toninho Cerezo, who Italian football fans may remember, also went there as a manager. The guys we had at Vissel Kobe weren’t famous, at least not to European football fans. There were two boys who have been back in Brazil since then, and one who made a bit of a career for himself in Asia.
The league didn’t just attract Brazilians, either; Michael Laudrup had a short spell with Vissel Kobe in 1996 and ‘97, which must have been a huge boost for the league?
He brought in a proper image for the league, if I can say that. But, more than anything, I think he was an inspiration for the players, since he was one of the top European stars of his generation. He was such a tremendous player. I spoke to some people who knew him out there and they said what an influence he was on the young Japanese players. More than being just a brilliant player, he was a great professional and a good man as well.
During the 2002 World Cup the English press painted your average Japanese football supporter as, well, a bit of a nutter! How did you find them, especially in comparison to the fans in England?
England supporters are football fans through and through – it goes through their veins. In Japan, they have had learn to love football because it’s quite a new sport for them. Professionally it’s 30 years old at the most, and the biggest sport is baseball. But when the Japanese like something, they throw themselves into it head on. And that definitely applies to appreciating a sport; I really felt that. They showed great commitment to us, travelling across the country, buying the shirts and giving us support every day. And when they like a player, they do anything to make them happy – they have big hearts. They’ll do anything to show their love and appreciation to the players.
Dare I ask if they appreciated you?!
They were smashing with me, absolutely terrific. The relationship was great, they were so caring and showed great concern for me. I remember when I broke my metatarsal at the beginning of my second season and I was out for three months – all of the fans were saying, “Emo, when are you coming back? We need you, we love you!” I really felt a part of the family. That made that hard time pass by very quickly.
I knew they loved you anyway after watching a YouTube video of your last game for the club (below) – what an incredible reception!
It was a great farewell that said to me, “Thank you so much for everything you tried to do for us.”
Before the game, the owner came to thank me and held a meeting with the staff at the club, where everyone said farewell. Then he asked me if I would be keen to receive a goodbye after the match: I told him it would be nice, and I expected a bunch of flowers after the match, maybe a little goodbye, and that would be it. But the club had a big party for the end of my career, I couldn’t believe it! There were highlights of my career on the big screen in the stadium, the fans stayed at the end to sing my name, there was a big banner. It was something really amazing. The chairman and owner said some words on the pitch, thanking me for the good things I’d done for the club and how I’d helped them to move forward.
The link is still there – I left something there and the door is always going to be open to me if I want to do something with my managerial career or something like that.
Do you think you will go back?
Well, I will never say never to anything in life. As much as I’d like to maybe come back to England, when you’re leaving some part of your heart somewhere, you never shut the door on it.
And, lastly, do you think Japan will ever be a contender for a World Cup? So far the quarter-finals has been the limit for the Blue Samurai.
I think, when they understand the potential that is there… You see, when I was there I felt they lacked faith in themselves, especially with the physical side of the game. Otherwise they have all the ingredients, not to be the top of the ladder, but a good contender at the World Cup.
The biggest thing they’re missing is involvement with the European clubs – they’re like Australia and South Korea, very far from our eyesight and not getting these opportunities to test themselves. But we should pay more attention to their league and the quality they have out there. There are always good players coming through the ranks and sooner, rather than later, they can be a big team at a World Cup.
If you enjoyed this piece, you’ll also like our exclusive Q&A with Nagoya Grampus coach Dragan Stojkovic.
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The Unusual Travels Of Stuart Duff
WORDS: ROBERT DILLON
Former Dundee United, Aberdeen and Inverness Caledonian Thistle star Stuart Duff made history by becoming the first Scotsman to play in Kazakhstan. He tells us all about life with Kairat Almaty…
As talk of a CIS league dominates the Russian-speaking sports press and nostalgia for the former Soviet Union is yet to fully disappear, it is important to recognise that the Russian league system does not exist within its own bubble and that its former Soviet neighbours played a key part in its history – after all, 20 of the 54 top flight Soviet titles were won by non-Russian sides.
One nation never to claim the all-Union prize was Kazakhstan, and indeed the world’s 9th largest country only ever managed a single representative in the old Top League. Kairat Almaty spent 24 seasons in the USSR’s top flight, a record which sees them claim 14th place in the historical tables, above a whole host of more well-known sides. A 7th place finish in 1986, three years on from the second of two First League titles, represents their greatest Soviet achievement.
Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union however, Kairat have not had things all their own way. The inaugural title in 1992 was followed by a decade of mediocrity and near misses broken only by a second championship in 2004, a dramatic improvement from the 7th place of the previous two years. However, before the start of the 2007 the club’s railway backers withdrew, causing a crisis which saw Kairat slide down the league and into the second tier after bankruptcy. With new backers however, the Almaty side are looking to reclaim their position as Kazakhstan’s finest.
Bizarrely enough, the revolution has carried a slightly British flavour. First former Aston Villa manager John Gregory was tempted out to Almaty in 2011, but the Englishman could only narrowly avoid relegation was quickly dismissed. More recently however, former Scotland under-21 midfielder Stuart Duff was made one of a raft of summer signings by one of Gregory’s successors, Jose Perez Serer. Whilst some players may view short-term deals in exotic location as a good way to make a quick buck at the end of their careers, the former Inverness, Aberdeen and Dundee United man has taken a different approach to life in Kazakhstan. We caught up the midfielder for a chat…
Stuart, perhaps the obvious question on people’s minds is what took you to Kazakhstan in the first place, how did that come about?
It was my agent that brought it up actually. I’d been without a club for a while, but I’d always said to myself that I wanted to play abroad and this was the first opportunity that came up. It was in the January transfer window and I went out to Turkey for a training camp with the team, I think it was about ten days. I played a few games and they were quite keen so it went from there. Everyone was a bit shocked because of the distance, and I didn’t really know too much about Kazakhstan – probably the first thing everybody thinks of is the Borat film. It’s the complete opposite though, Almaty’s quite a cosmopolitan city.
So you signed for Kairat without ever visiting Kazakhstan, that must have been quite a risk? What were your first impressions of Almaty, did it meet your expectations?
The first month or two was really difficult – obviously I didn’t know the city or the language or the guys that well so it took a bit of getting used to, but there are nice people here and everybody’s made me feel very welcome. It was a bit of a risk, and I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t know the city and I could have found myself in a really dire place, some village with nothing go on. When I arrived, Almaty was covered in snow and not the most appealing place, what with all the dirt and grime from the cars, but once that goes the city comes alive, and like I said it’s a very cosmopolitan city. There’s about two million people staying here so there’s a lot going on and plenty to do and see, I’ve been impressed with it.
I know you’ve played briefly in Malta as well, but how much of those difficulties came down to the language barrier? Is it something you’ve overcome now, having been there almost a year?
The club laid on a translator for training as we had a Kazakh coach at the time, so the hard part was trying to understand the drills, but if I let one of the other guys go in front of me it was no problem. I didn’t tend to go out in the city that often at first though, I didn’t feel comfortable not knowing where to go or how to get back, I wouldn’t have known how to order a taxi and that sort of thing.
Over the last four or five months though I’ve picked up a lot more, learnt a bit of the language and can get by now, so it just takes a bit of time and effort to settle down and get comfortable with the language. I’m hoping to maybe do a night course [in Russian] next year just to learn it fully, but I know enough to get by just now. [Russian and Kazakh] aren’t that similar, but I predominantly speak in Russian as it’s more widespread and widely understood.
In the former Soviet Union there always seems to be an issue with low attendances, and there are plenty of teams who play in front of huge empty stadiums. Is this something you’ve struggled with having been more used to British crowds?
It’s quite a strange scenario – there are three or four teams with quite extensive stadiums, maybe ten or twenty thousand, and you find yourself playing in front of 2,000 people. I think it’s just one of those things, if the team’s doing well then the fans will come – if we’d have been challenging for the league or for Europe we’d have had bigger crowds. They are very passionate supporters though, there’s always a group of two or three hundred that’ll bang the drums and sing all game, they really are enthusiastic.
It’s understandable though – it’s not like Scotland where you can get in your car for an hour to a game in Dundee, some of these places are three or hours hours away by plane and that’s a big factor, the size of the country is a big drawback. But there are dedicated supporters, sometimes we only get one or two fans who travel, but we make sure we go over at the end to applaud them and show our appreciation. We know how difficult it is because of the cost and distance involved, so we really do appreciate it, even if it is a bit surreal.
What about the style of play in Kazakhstan, how does it compare to what you’re used to? Are there any obvious areas the Kazakh game is lacking in?
There are a lot of very fit players that can run all day, but every team has five or six technical players – you tend to find that they’re the foreign players as well. I’ve actually been pleasantly surprised with the standard here, they wouldn’t look out of place in any other league, but it’s just a matter of infrastructure, which a lot of teams don’t have. Our president is in the process of building two academies with new facilities, and I think the other teams need to take a look at that and do the same. It might take a couple of years, but that’s the way forward.
Your Kairat side have got a fairly wealthy backer and there have been plenty of new arrivals in the past year or so, were you surprised at how much the team struggled this year? 10th place seems a little low for a side with Kairat’s ambitions, what is the long-term plan
I was quite disappointed overall with the season that we’ve just had. The team was put together quite quickly after the new president came in, and he’s backed us to the hilt in a lot of ways – the facilities that we’re using and the hotels we’re staying in as well as a good standard of players. We did have quite a young team and probably lacked a bit of experience at times, but the main aim was to stay in the league and push on from there.
We had the capabilities easily to finish higher in the league, but it was just one of those things – we had a terrible start to the season, but towards the end of the season we played against five of the top six teams and acquitted ourselves quite well without looking out of place, and that to me shows that if we’d have had a bit more belief we could have been up there all season. I think we really need to be pushing for Europe [next season], whether that’s by finishing top of the league, coming second or third, or by winning the cup. Last year was disappointing, but I know we’ve got the capability and the infrastructure to do well. A lot of the squad has disbanded, so we’ll have a new team and that could be difficult at the start of the season, but with a new coach and the president’s backing we have to be aiming as high as we can.
Finally, what does the future hold for Stuart Duff? You’ve got one more year on your contract with Kairat, is that something you’re looking to extend? Would you recommend Kazakhstan to other players, perhaps those you know back in Scotland?
I’d be quite keen to extend. I’ve really enjoyed it so far – I like the lifestyle, I like everything about it, and I’m actually back enjoying football again and playing with a smile on my face. It was quite hard at the beginning, but by the end of the season I felt my form coming back and I didn’t want the season to finish. I’d be really keen to stick around but it depends what the coach and bosses want. If that weren’t to work out then I’d be keen to try somewhere else, not necessarily around Kazakhstan, but in Asia and that side of the world.
I would definitely recommend it. I don’t know whether the standard has gone down [in Scotland], but people get sick of the same old teams and I’d made up my mind that I didn’t want to do that any more. I’d advise any player to get out of their comfort zone, whether it be Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, it doesn’t really matter where – it broadens your horizons and opens your eyes up to the rest of the world.
At the same time it can be very difficult, and there’s probably only a small percentage of players who could deal with it – they’d get homesick or not like the standard of football, so you do have to quite mentally strong to seal with it, but it’s definitely worth doing.
Rob Dillon writes and tweets regularly about Russian football. You can find his work at morethanarshavin.wordpress.com and follow him on Twitter @RobDillonMTA
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A Russian Revelation
WORDS: ROBERT DILLON
Russia is still the Churchillian enigma of old, still barely fathomable to the Western mind, but for this Englishman, there is a certain appeal to the diverse cultures and cities represented in the Russian football leagues. In the image of the statue of Mother Russia overlooking the crumbling stadium of a faltering Rotor Volgograd, a student from Grimsby found his own, imperfect footballing Mecca…
Different people enjoy different things – this is a fact of life. Another fact of life is that not many people take great delight in Russian football.
I, on the other hand, am on the verge of obsession. I write about it extensively, for fun. So why? Indeed, not even the Russians are that bothered for the most part. In a statistic which is shocking for a country due to host the World Cup in 2018, more than half of the Russian Premier League teams boast an average attendance less than half the capacity of their home stadium. What makes this even more surprising is the fact that many of these grounds are far from spectacular to begin with – with the exception of Spartak, who play at the cavernous Luzhniki, there are only four teams who play their matches in front of 30,000 seats. Two of them share the same stadium.
Lower down the leagues of course, the problem is exacerbated. Shinnik Yaroslavl, once a top-flight team, now struggling in the second tier, are in line for stadium renovation which will expand their capacity to something close to 45,000 in time for the FIFA tournament. Their average gate is less than 10 per cent of that figure, and Shinnik are by no means an exceptional case.
So, why would someone like me adopt the Russian cause? I was born in Grimsby, took Arsenal as my team at an early age, thanks to Subbuteo, and moved to Sheffield to continue my education. Neither of my parents have any particular interest in the country, and certainly not in its football – there are precisely no logical steps.
Yet, as is so often the case, that special combination of Football Manager and human curiosity overcomes logic in so many ways. The year was 2007, the team was SKA-Energia Khabarovsk, and after my usual research on being allocated a random team, the allure of bringing the Champions League trophy to the Chinese border gripped me intensely. Nothing came of it, but I still remember that save today – a mere six seasons, a single promotion to the Premier to my name – and the seed was sown.
Fast forward a few months to the summer of 2008 and a period of great change. Preparing to head to university – to study History and Russian, a decision made purely out of academic curiosity – the final few weeks of home comforts were spent in front of Euro 2008, the year that Spain finally broke their international drought with Fernando Torres’ goal over Germany in the final.
Yet the story of that tournament was not Spain, but a team that they had crushed not once, but twice on the way to success. It seemed that everybody that year had a soft spot for the Russians, at least after beating the tedious Greeks and upsetting the Swedes to trail Spain out of their group. The 4-1 hammering that they took from the Spaniards in their opening game only seemed to help their cause.
It was in the quarter final that they came to life. Faced with a Holland side which had so easily disposed of World Cup finalists Italy and France in the group stage, everything was set up for the Dutch to knock fellow countryman Guus Hiddink out of the competition with ease. This was a Dutch side featuring the likes of Ruud van Nistelrooy, Wesley Sneijder and Rafael van der Vaart in full flow, with the luxury of Arjen Robben on the bench. In the Russian squad, only Ivan Saenko plied his trade outside the country of his birth, and even then for a Nuremburg side just relegated from the German Bundesliga. On paper, it was a mismatch of epic proportions.
As we all know, however, football is not played on paper. From the outset Russia poured forward, not letting their more illustrious opponents settle into their rhythm. Roman Pavlyuchenko’s 56th minute goal looked to have caused a deserved shock, but Van Nistelrooy popped up with a leveller four minutes from time to force an extra half hour.
Extra time, much like the first 90 minutes, was the Andrei Arshavin show. Zenit’s diminutive playmaker wreaked havoc on Holland, first setting up Dmitri Torbinsky and then grabbing a third for himself. It was a perfect individual performance set against a fine team display and, although Hiddink’s men would go on to suffer another three-goal reverse against Spain in the semis, it was enough. The strange names, the unknown clubs, the fluid passing and grandeur of the anthem – I was hooked.
For the next period of my life, the seeds lay dormant. Learning the Russian language was hard enough, let alone investing myself in its sport. Even so, little moments should have shown me that something greater was at work – hearing the word ‘Zhemchuzhina’ in a class, for example, and beaming with delight at being able to tell my fellow students exactly what it meant. The Pearl of Sochi was another side to suffer my FM talents.
The roots were deep enough, though, and by my third year of university they were about to bear fruit. As with the vast majority of language degrees, the third year is spent abroad and so it was off to Russia I went, full of excitement and apprehension, first to Yaroslavl and then on to Volgograd – after all, I couldn’t pass up the chance to live in Stalingrad, and I could always see Moscow and St Petersburg at some other time.
Yaroslavl, and the aforementioned Shinnik, saw the first real signs, although the city’s obsession with ice hockey slowed the process. Still, the closing matches of Shinnik’s season were marked by a small English following, the side struggling to deal with relegation the previous season and finishing mid-table. I remember the first match perfectly.
First of all, our seats were next to a small band of maybe two dozen away supporters. At first this seems pathetic (for the Russian First Division it is perfectly respectable), until you consider that the opponents for the day were Luch-Energia Vladivostok, the easternmost team in the league based thousands of miles away, approximately a week’s journey by train. With their bright yellow kits, drum-banging and endless singing, this was dedication.
They would leave empty-handed, nothing but the respect of the home fans to their name, after a Shinnik win. In the setting September sun, Luch were awarded two penalties – the first to put them ahead, the second to tie the game at 2-2. The home goalkeeper dived for neither. With time running out, Shinnik won a free kick in the visitors’ half. The ball was swung in, the goalkeeper came and missed his punch and, in what seemed like slow motion, the ball was headed goalwards, crossing the line at snail’s pace. The sparsely scattered crowd went ballistic in celebration, captain Roman Voidel the subject of adulation after his second goal of the day.
I realised over the course of that game and my second – a drab goalless draw watched from the VIP stand after a classmate pulled some strings – that despite the relatively poor standard of football, despite the team’s annoying tendency to get pinned down against the touchline and the shocking standard of officiating, that there was something different. In England, football is a hostile sport, fans mock tragedy and spend their time dreaming up insults for the opposing supporters. The referee is to blame for everything.
In Russia the atmosphere is altogether different. Yes, each club has its own variety of ‘ultras,’ the most notorious of which have caused violence on a huge scale in Moscow and St Petersburg. But in Yaroslavl the chants were simple (my personal favourite the beautifully obvious ‘We need a goal’), the passion was genuine and the men on the field were completely unrecognisable for the rest of the week. People knew their names, but they lived ordinary lives. Of course, in the country’s top sides this could not be further from the truth – Samuel Eto’o and his Bugatti Veyron spring to mind – but the honesty of it all was plain to see.
In Volgograd, this was confirmed. Somewhere along the way, Rubin had held Barcelona to a draw in the Champions League and Anzhi Makhachkala had gone from nobodies to billionaires, signing Roberto Carlos up for the ride. All of a sudden, Russian football was going places.
It was only natural, then, for me to take in a game in Volgograd. But the local team were not just any club – this was Rotor Volgograd, who had once knocked Manchester United out of Europe, despite Peter Schmeichel scoring. This was Rotor Volgograd, who had pushed the all-conquering Spartak Moscow side of the Nineties all the way on several occasions. This was Rotor Volgograd, a proud club in the city that won the Second World War, reduced to a side in a crumbling stadium, playing regional football.
Their fall, due to licensing reasons which were mainly financial, is comparable to that of Leeds United. A huge club, one of the biggest outside the two major cities, floundering in the third tier. Unlike Leeds, there were plenty of fans who left – in the season I watched part of, the average gate of just 6,000 was the largest in the division at around 20 per cent of capacity.
In fairness, Rotor could not have taken many more fans, their dilapidated Tsentralny fortress boasting a huge hole in one stand, unsafe terracing in the away end – never used by more than five or six fans – and a sports hall at the other, where we would spend our Sunday evenings being pummelled by ex-youth players in five-a-side matches. Everybody piled into the one stand still fit for purpose, and the action on the pitch was a welcome distraction from the inevitable sunburn that came from sitting out in 40 degree heat.
Rotor’s on-field antics alone did not convert me, but they certainly played a part. A wondergoal from fully 40 yards netted by a substitute holding man, the laughable attempts of Pavel Veretennikov – son of assistant manager, hometown hero and all-time Premier League top scorer Oleg – to justify his selection and the mixture of sublime passing vision and geriatric fitness of playmaker Maxim Primak will all remain a crucial part of my time in Russia.
The bulk of the work was done in the stands, however. Setting down newspaper on the seats to avoid the age-old dirt and avoiding the sunflower seed shells being subconsciously spat from all directions is part of every Russian football club, but the setting at Rotor is something else entirely. Looking over the crumbling behemoth of a stadium, against the mighty Volga river in the distance, stands Mother Russia herself, a commemorative statue taller than Liberty, sword brandished against the invaders, wielding her weapon against the visiting team from Mamaev Kurgan. Inspirational is not the word.
I left Russia an unbeaten fan, neither Shinnik nor Rotor tasting defeat in the handful of games I had managed to attend. Whilst Yaroslavl turned me on to ice hockey, bringing about an affiliation with the tragic Lokomotiv side so brilliantly reborn, Volgograd provided me with a team I could follow from afar, regular online checks determining their progress.
Rotor are my Russian club and, at the moment, a successful one – they won their regional title that year and now average just under 10,000 fans in the First Division, comfortably the best attended club in the league – but it was not just the blue-shirted men in Volgograd that grabbed my attention.
The Russian game, whether it be a first round cup tie between Rotor and the team from down the road (Energia Volzhsky, it ended 1-0) or a ferocious flare-filled Moscow derby between Spartak and CSKA, is a different animal. By Russia’s very nature, it has no other choice. When a fan burst into the theme tune to Spongebob Squarepants midway through a Rotor game, it was settled.
The historian in me loves the stories behind the teams, the struggle for supremacy in Soviet times between the army clubs of CSKA, Dinamo’s dark arts of the secret police and the people’s representatives of Spartak; the names of Lev Yashin and Eduard Streltsov. The adventurer in me sees lower league tables and dreams of what Ufa, Tambov and Krasnoyarsk must look like, how their teams fit in with the local culture. The romantic in me looks at the likes of Alania, Terek and Rubin, and admires how a simple football team can represent an entire people, oppressed for centuries by the Moscow centre and fighting back on the football field.
The truth is that my own romantic image of much of Russian football is precisely that – an image of my own creation, an ideal picture painted with a hint of historical accuracy and an overactive imagination. But the more I see the full picture – the more I hear, read and see for myself, the more it confirms what I already know. Russia is still the Churchillian enigma of old, still barely fathomable to the Western mind. But even if I can’t breach the barricades, break down the old Iron Curtain and embrace a social and footballing culture that remains so different to our own, you certainly won’t be able to stop me trying.
Rob Dillon writes and tweets regularly about Russian football. You can find his work at morethanarshavin.wordpress.com and follow him on Twitter @RobDillonMTA
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Simon Dawkins: A Loan Less Ordinary
WORDS: LUKE JAMES
Simon Dawkins has worked hard to get where he is in the game. Unsuccessful trials and injury problems had the winger worried a few years back, but after earning a new contract at his parent club, Tottenham, the North Londoner is enjoying a loan spell with a difference across the pond in the MLS…
Coming from North London to Northern California can be a bit of a culture shock to say the least. What do they say – two cultures divided by a common language? Try two cultures divided by a common game.
Soccer in the MLS is simply not the same thing, culturally, as football in the English Premier League. And the differences go way beyond whether the bloke in charge is called the head coach or the manager.
Simon Dawkins is in the second year of his two-year loan from Tottenham Hotspur to the San Jose Earthquakes. The 24-year-old was born in Enfield but currently lives in Santa Clara, California.
At the age of 17 he joined the Tottenham Hotspur Academy, when Martin Jol was manager, and, although Dawkins featured regularly in the reserves, he failed to make the first team. By the time Harry Redknapp was manager, Dawkins had joined Leyton Orient on a one-year loan. Dogged by injury, he was released from his Spurs contract. He had trials at French club RC Strasbourg but then returned to Tottenham on a non-contract basis while he recovered from injury. He would be given another shot at a contract if he was declared fit at the start of the 2010/11 season.
In August 2010, Dawkins went for a trial at Celtic and then, a month later, he went for another with AFC Bournemouth, where he was injured in a reserve game against Plymouth Argyle. However, he continued to train with Tottenham, even scoring in a training-ground friendly against Milton Keynes Dons and, in March 2011, he was rewarded with a new contract with the club. The following day, he was loaned out to San Jose Earthquakes in California.
Having myself left behind the dubious delights of Islington in 1988 and arrived at SFO International airport with a suitcase, a guitar and $1,000 to my name, I can attest that life out here is very different. Attitudes are different. People are a lot more polite and friendly.
It took Simon a while to settle here, though, and in his first season he lived in a hotel. This year he’s renting a house in Santa Clara and has a girlfriend. Basic lifestyle adjustments like this may be part of the reason why this year he has become one of the Earthquakes’ most valued and dangerous players.
I spoke to the club’s head coach, Frank Yallop, who began his second spell in charge of the Earthquakes in 2008. With 13 years and over 300 appearances at Ipswich behind him, including the first three seasons of the Premier League, Yallop has as good an appreciation of the cultural differences involved as anyone.
“Now he’s got more than 50 games here, in his first real spell as a player and it suits him,” he said of Dawkins. “I think the environment suits him, the way we play and the way the league is set up suits Simon and he’s a very good player. Just to watch him training, he’s marvellous – clean feet, quick, very good vision and obviously doing well now, so I’m happy for him.”
In his first year, Dawkins made 19 season starts, playing basically as a left-winger, and scored five goals. This year, with five regular season games to go, as well as MLS Play Offs, he has started 20 games and scored eight goals. He played his first full 90 minutes of the current season against Real Salt Lake on April 21 and scored the game winner in the 92nd minute with a diving header to contribute to a developing Earthquakes tradition of scoring vital goals in injury time.
As Dawkins’ fellow San Jose striker, Alan Gordon, who played alongside David Beckham at the LA Galaxy from 2007-10, told me:
“Honestly it’s all about spirit, it’s something special. You’ve got to start giving us credit for never saying die. I mean it’s real, if there are any nonbelievers out there, they should be believers now because we’ve done it all season. It’s not luck, it’s no mistake, it’s hard work and determination and belief.”
Dawkins was out for almost two months this year with an injured shoulder, but in his second game back against the Seattle Sounders, on August 11, he scored the winning goal. He scored two more goals on August 25, against Colorado Rapids, and another in the game against Chivas USA on September 2.
When I spoke to Simon Dawkins at the Earthquakes training ground , situated next to the vacant lot which, by the 2014 season, will house their $65m, state-of the art new stadium, he was quick to point to the differences between football in England and soccer in the USA.
“Back in England it’s a lot faster; it’s played at a higher tempo,” he stated, before explaining that he feels at home in the MLS. “I can play at this tempo, this is a good tempo for me to play at. Maybe it suits my game better, just the type of player I am, so I’m really enjoying it.”
Yet there is a speed and awareness about Dawkins’ play that surely comes from his English football background. On September 22, in a crucial game against the Seattle Sounders, he took just 90 seconds to bring the ball to the fringes of the Seattle defence, before scoring a superb goal with a strike from 25 yards out.
Waford-born Yallop thinks that a positive, supportive coaching style brings the best out in a player, especially a young player coming to the States from overseas. Indeed, young players coming into MLS may find a beneficial style of coaching born of an optimism that is often a part of the American way of life.
“From my side of it, I look at it as being as positive as I can be,” the former Canada international explained, “because if I start being negative and making excuses then the players will start doing the same.”
Thus far, the image of American soccer has very much been of European and South American players, nearing the end of their careers, coming to the States for rich rewards. Most think this dates back to the likes of Pele and Franz Beckenbauer coming to play for the New York Cosmos in the NASL of the Seventies (although, as early as 1894, Baltimore were discovered to have secretly imported most of the Manchester City team to play for them in the newly formed American League of Professional Soccer).
But is it possible that, now, the MLS might start to see younger players coming over the pond to bring some Premier League input to the land where football is called soccer?
Well, recent years there have been a few more examples than you might think:
Giles Barnes (24) at Houston Dynamo
Korede Aiyegbusi (24) and Dom Dwyer (22) at Sporting Kansas City
Richard Eckersley (23) at Toronto FC
Jason Griffiths (25) at New England Revolution
Eddie Johnson (28) at Portland Timbers
John Rooney (younger brother of Wayne Rooney, 22) at New York Red Bulls and Orlando City
Matt Watson (27) at Vancouver Whitecaps
Ian Westlake (28) at Montreal Impact
Ryan Smith (25) at Chivas USA
Kyle Patterson (26) at LA Galaxy
Andy Iro (27) at Toronto FC
Chris Birchall (28) at La Galaxy and Columbus Crew
It might not exactly be a flood, but many a deluge starts with a trickle. And, when Dawkins’ loan deal is up at the end of this season, there are plans in hand at San Jose to see what can be worked out to keep him with the Earthquakes.
In Yallop’s eyes, there are plenty of reasons to head over the pond at the moment and the standard of football in the MLS is one of them.
“When you don’t know this league you think it’s not very good, but when you actually play and coach here and are around the league, you see it’s a good league.
“It’s a tough league to play in. You ask any of the players who’ve come in in the last three years from Britain or from Europe – it’s a very tough league to play in and doesn’t really get the credit it deserves.”
As for Dawkins, well he is just enjoying spending a season with a team who sit top of the Western Conference and five points clear of their East Coast Conference rivals Sporting Kansas City.
“Ah, it’s excellent, everyone’s just for each other,” he told me as our chat came to an end. “You can see it on the field, how we’re all together. It’s just amazing to be playing here right now.”
Go west young man.
You can follow Luke on Twitter @LukeJamesSoccer.
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