BY CHRIS CLARK
Did you know that an Englishman is coaching a side who are sitting top of the Thai Premier League?
Gary Stevens, after a playing career which included appearances in FA Cup Finals for Brighton and Spurs, scoring a penalty in Tottenham’s 1984 UEFA Cup victory over Anderlecht and being included in Bobby Robson’s 1986 World cup squad, is now coaching Army United in the Thai Premier League.
Gary arrived at Army United via Charlton, Azerbaijan and Ireland. How did Gary’s non-playing career have such a globe-trotting emphasis after his retirement from playing in 1992?
Had he always planned to go into coaching?
“Yes, my plan was to go into coaching. However, my wife was not so keen, as she felt it would be very time demanding on me. I therefore developed a career in the media which was very time consuming as well! As I worked for various TV and radio shows all over the country.”
After all this media work for Sky and Talksport, you then turned up at Gabala FC with Tony Adams in Azerbaijan at the start of the 2010/2011 season, how did this opportunity arise?
“A contact of mine, who was headhunted to be the CEO of Gabala, enlisted my help in recruiting an English coach for the club. Having spent that time out in Azerbaijan to enable to assist with that process, Tony was keen to have me as his reasonably well informed assistant at the club”
Did you have any coaching experience prior to working with Tony Adams?
“Yes I was Assistant Academy Director and U21 Coach at Charlton Athletic in the late 90s and early 2000’s. I also established a private coaching based in Tunbridge Wells, Kent for approximately five years during the 2000’s.”
What was the standard of player like in Azerbaijan?
Technically they were good players overall, they were rather weak physically and mentally, but were keen to learn and improve. The Azerbaijan nationals had not had a great football education due to the lack of football in schools and very little association with good quality coaches, we were spending a lot of time installing knowledge into them.”
So what style of play did you try to implement?
“Well the foreign imports were also players who had not consistently played at clubs in better footballing nations, so therefore also had deficiencies. We tried to keep the style of play simple and effective.”
Gabala finished 7th in Tony Adams’ first season. However, Adams left in November of the following season for “family reasons”. What was your role after that?
“I ran the team for 3 or 4 games after Tony resigned as Head Coach which saw us through to the mid-winter break. We also had a Turkish football and fitness coach we had recruited from another Azeri club who was fluent in English and Azeri and he was subsequently appointed Head Coach. I wrongly assumed he would want me to stay at the club only to be introduced to his new assistant on the first day back training after the mid-winter break and told by him that he did not want me at the club.”
What was it like living and working in Azerbaijan?
“It was a difficult place to live and work at times. The language barrier, culture, climate and food were all an issue on a regular basis. We had to adapt to and embrace their ways at the same time as gently trying to introduce methods that would improve the club and individuals.”
You then moved across to Sligo Rovers in Ireland, how was the spell there?
“I really enjoyed working under Ian Baraclough; we did our UEFA Pro Licence together and became great friends and remain so. I love the attitude towards life that the people of Ireland have, they know how to enjoy themselves! Ian had won the league in 2012, and I joined him for the 2013 season, so we played in a qualifying round of the Champions League (Sligo lost 3-0 on aggregate to Molde).
How did the 2013 season go?
We won our first 8 league games, 24 points from 24! But after that great start we only finished 3rd in the league. However, we won the FAI Cup at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Winning that cup meant that the following season we were in the Europa League. However, we were sacked just before those games took place (Irish League starts in March each season). Having won the League Cup in the early part of the season we had fallen off the pace in the league and the board decided they wanted a fresh face to lead the club, so that was it for both of us.”
You became manager of Army United in Thailand later that year replacing Matt Elliot, again, how did this opportunity arise?
“Leicester City have a link with Army FC via King Power, and Ian Baraclough advised me that applicants were being invited for the position. I applied, went through the interview process and was the successful candidate, I’m pleased to say.”
You’ve had a full pre-season with Army United and have had an excellent start to the season. What style of play do you encourage, are you a fan of the high pressing game which is en vogue in Europe?
“It is very early days in the season, however being amongst the leading pack is pleasing. I wouldn’t say that the TPL teams play a high pressing game, however at Army United we are trying to play at a faster tempo than most this season.”
What is the skill level of the Thai players, are they easy to coach?
Technically, Thai players are very, very good, and I have found them all keen to learn and develop. Sometimes they appear unsure why we do certain things, but they quickly buy into it when they see the potential benefits. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed working with all the players in my squad last season and this.”
How about the language barrier?
It’s not ideal, however many of the players have an understanding of English, certainly better than my Thai vocabulary, plus I have a translator to hand at all times.”
What is the ambition for this side? Can you keep up your good form?
The plan remains as it did before the start of the season; to establish ourselves in the top half of the league, drive towards the top third and reassess at the halfway point. I don’t believe a team can be truly evaluated and the potential considered until a dozen games have been played.”
Would you hope that your good record coaching Army United, would lead to a job in England, or are you happy to coach abroad?
First of all I need to establish that good coaching record, and that is only done over a lengthy period of time. Of course, yes I would like to coach back in England, and if that happens, great. If not then continuing to coach abroad and to experience different cultures and lifestyles would not be a problem for me.”