Up Close With: Steve Darby Part 1

In the latest interview with ASEAN football's key figures, we talk to Steve Darby, former head coach of Johor FA, Home United, Perak and assistant to the Thai national team.

Football News: Steve Darby

BACKGROUND Steve Darby: After a playing career which included spells in England, the United States and Australia, Steve turned his hand to coaching, and has never looked back since. The amiable Englishman has tasted great success at club level in both Malaysia and Singapore and was assistant coach to the Thailand national team for three glorious years.

First of all Steve, what have you been doing since you left Indian side Mohun Bagan last year?

There have been a couple of different things. First of all I worked on the football choreography for a Bollywood film by Karen Johar called 'Student of the Year' which was a fascinating experience. It was a massive project which was run in a very efficient and business-like manner. The whole film took over a year to make. The actors were great lads, hardworking and dedicated. They really wanted to look good as footballers in the film. They were certainly not prima donnas, although they weren't footballers either, and when you watch the film you see the value of good and clever camerawork!

Immediately after that, I was approached by Everton Football Club to work for them on a Talent Identification project in China. The aim was to travel to China, watch a large number of young players in action and see if two of them could make it to spend a year at the Everton Academy. We visited six cities and saw some great young players. Working with Everton was a pleasure, they were the ultimate professionals. Ray Hall, the Academy manager, ran the concept and guests such as Ian Snodin, Graeme Sharp and Kevin Keegan were also involved.

We visited Beijing, Shenyang, Xian, Guangzhou, Chengdu and Shanghai. What a place China is! I last went there in 1985 with an Australian national team and the difference in all walks of life is amazing. There is no doubt that football will boom there and that the quality of both facilities and players is improving rapidly.

A degree of mystery surrounds your Mohun Bagan departure. What happened exactly?

A simple answer really, I decided that there are more important things in life than money! I was paid well - and on time - but from day one I was being undermined by certain factions within the club. The club secretary was always speaking to the press behind my back, and every day there seemed to be a different problem. This was in addition to the on-going battles for better facilities and hygiene as well as the petty corruption from club officials.

The secretary said I didn't train the players hard enough (it's amazing then that the injury rate dropped by 70%). However, I'll give you an example to show that the secretary's claims just weren't true. One day we did 45 minutes of interval running, and then went inside to do a further 45 minutes of core stability. However, he (the club secretary) only saw the first part, so it was all over the press that we only trained for 45 minutes. In a meeting, he also questioned why I had played a back three in a certain game; I asked if he had been there? He said yes. I couldn't stop laughing as we had played a back four! Rather than work together to improve the club it was always a club driven by factions.

In hindsight, much of it was amusing, but on a daily basis it causes problems for players, who, by the way, always had a terrific attitude. However, the biggest problem lay in that the squad had been chosen before I arrived and it was grossly unbalanced- in a squad of 34, I only had five defenders.

The wage structure was also terribly skewed, with a few players getting huge wages and many others getting the bare minimum - something which is never great for team harmony. At the end of the season I think only eight players were retained, but the same unqualified people picked the next squad!

So I made a decision. I didn't need to work in that unprofessional environment where there was a culture of mistrust and fear throughout the club. I have had no regrets since. Apparently eight coaches in 32 months just about sums the club up.

How does the general standard of Indian football compare to the Southeast Asian brand of football which you know so well?

That's a difficult question to answer as facilities for players in India are so far behind those in Southeast Asia. It's sad, as there are some very talented and highly educated people working in India. There are also some clubs - Dempo, United Sikkim and Pune for example - who are obviously doing the right things.

I also expect the programs of Scott O'Donnell and Arthur Papas to eventually produce great players, but to keep it simple: how many of the Mohun Bagan team would have got in the Thailand national team? Perhaps only Rahim Nabi would. Would Odafa Okolie score as many goals in the Thai Premier League or the Malaysia Super League? The answer is no. He's a talented player, but he would never be allowed to bully his way to goals in the Southeast Asian leagues?

Elite Indian players are so well paid locally that there is little desire to go to a better league. You have to admire the likes of Baichung Bhutia and Sunil Chhetri who have all wanted to develop professionally and, as a result, moved on to bigger leagues.

Talking of Southeast Asia, are you actively looking to return to a coaching role in the region?

As a coach the reality is you have to go anywhere there is an attractive contract both professionally and financially. However, my home is now in Vietnam and my daughter is in a good school there so staying in Southeast Asia is very attractive. As well as that, everywhere I have been in ASEAN I have stayed for three years and enjoyed the places I have worked in. Commentating on the Malaysia Cup semi-finals for (Malaysian broadcaster) Astro recently was very nostalgic and the atmosphere was fantastic. The M-League is certainly on the way back to its glory days.

Your last ASEAN role was as the assistant coach of the Thailand national side where you worked alongside Peter Reid and Bryan Robson - how much of a learning curve was that for you?

If you can't learn from 'Reidy' and 'Robbo' you have to have something wrong with you. Both are real football men. I learned a great deal off the field as well such as handling the press and administration, both were masters at that. On the pitch was also top class - particularly when they 'played' in coaching sessions, they had an uncanny ability to be in the right place at the right time and see what was happening. The middle aged legs were, however, a problem! Nevertheless, there was no doubt that they had the total respect of the Thai players. The Thai players are good professionals and hard men, so you have to earn their respect. They were three great years.

Were you surprised at all when your spell in Thailand came to an end?

No not really. Three years is a long time for a foreigner to survive in any position, and as I had firstly come in with Peter and then stayed with Bryan, it was professionally correct that I went with him. I enjoyed Thailand a great deal, the players are the best in Southeast Asia and the recent boom in the professionalism of the clubs there is taking the game forward rapidly.

The big clubs such as Muangthong United, Bangkok Glass, Chonburi, Buriram United and BEC Tero Sasana are a credit to the game, with facilities and marketing programmes that are on a par with Europe. When I first went to Muangthong it was a one-sided ground with concrete slabs as seats. Now it's a throbbing stadium that holds 25,000 and filled with fantastic fans. Three years ago, Buriram were playing on what resembled a field, but Buriram chairman Newin Chidchob was true to his word and delivered two great stadiums and an Academy. Chonburi has a marvellous infra-structure based on Vision Asia programmes and will be a force for many years.

In addition of course, there are excellent local coaches there such as Wittaya Laohakul, Sasom Popprasert, Surachai Jaturapattarapong and Kiatasuk 'Zico' Senamuang who must be a future coach of the Thailand national team.

Steve Darby was talking to ESPNSTAR.com's Supervising Editor Ian Griffiths

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