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Former Azkals' boss McMenemy aims of domestic success with Sparks

Meralco Sparks coach Simon McMenemy
Simon McMenemy will be hoping for a successful season with Loyola Meralco Sparks. (Photo credit: Tabitha Fernan)

When the Loyola Meralco Sparks announced the signing of former Azkals' boss Simon McMenemy as head coach in August 2014, it was safe to say that much was expected from him.

After all, the last time McMenemy set foot as a coach in Manila was in 2010 after he had guided the Philippines to their first ever semi-final appearance at the AFF Suzuki Cup.

Almost half a decade had passed since that historic run, but McMenemy acknowledges that there was a certain level of expectation as he took up the reins at Loyola Meralco Sparks.

"I felt last season that I carried a special pressure with me in that the last time I came here I was Azkals' head coach," he told ESPN FC.

"I was very lucky enough to have a team that changed history. So, to then come back as a club coach, you'd assume that most people would be expecting great things from the Loyola Meralco Sparks. So I found that quite a big pressure."

Triumph at club level would soon come for McMenemy, winning the 2015 Smart Club Championships five months after his arrival. But success at the major competitions -- the UFL league and Cup -- would prove more difficult to achieve. It is something McMenemy is keen to rectify this season.

"There are two competitions I've not won yet and that's not an arrogant statement," he said. "No coach comes in to one of the top four or five teams and his aim is something other than winning.

"I want to be challenging for the championship. I think we were a second or third placed team last year. No disrespect to the players there but [league champions] Ceres upped the level last year. They made it difficult for us.

"Before them, we were just trying to topple [2014 champions] Global. But Global are not necessarily the superpower in the league now.

"That mantle has been taken on, and it's a different opponent that we now have to chase."

Sparks striker Phil Younghusband
Phil Younghusband will captain the Meralco Sparks for the 2016 campaign. (Photo credit: Tabitha Fernan)

To capture the UFL league title -- a competition even Azkals' captain Phil Younghusband has never won -- the Sparks have banked on youth, plus some strategic signings, with the promise that they can deliver results on the field.

"We had a lot of discussions with former Azkals and University of the Philippines football coach Anto Gonzales, and he highlighted a few players that we really should be looking at," he said.

"So rather than just going out and signing, signing and signing, we really wanted to look at 'where's the best of the Philippines?' Where are the best young players playing?"

In the offseason, the Sparks signed highly rated midfielder Arnel Amita, defender Ian Clarino, strikers Daniel Gadia and Jinggoy Valmayor and goalkeeper Ace Villanueva -- all of whom are under the age of 24.

McMenemy said: "I'm very happy that we've managed to sign the best young players in the country. They're now Loyola players and I fully intend to use a lot of young players this season in the squad."

Philippines coach Simon McMenemy
McMenemy coached the Philippines to the semi-finals of the 2010 AFF Suzuki Cup.

Even with the influx of youth to the squad, the two most recognizable figures remain the iconic Younghusband brothers, Phil and James. But being the faces of the team doesn't guarantee a starting spot.

"With the greatest of respect, I don't base my team around Phil and James Younghusband," McMenemy said.

"I base my team around my squad. I pick the best formation that fits my squad. I play my best players available to me at the time.

"What's been interesting this season is that James has realised that just being a Younghusband isn't enough to be in the national team.

"He knows that now he has to do more. He has to do something he's not done before, because whatever he was doing before, did not get him in the team."

However, anytime that you have James' younger brother, Phil Younghusband in your team, fans will be impatient for results.

McMenemy added: "I know there's expectation of us, with Phil on the team. Phil is without doubt the best player in this country, in my own opinion, even over Stephan Schrock."

After his success with the Azkals followed by stints in Vietnam, Indonesia and Maldives, McMenemy is impatient to make a lasting mark at club level with the Sparks.

"Like I say, I come here as the Azkals coach, whether I'm seen as that in this country. Outside of that in Southeast Asia, I'm still seen as the Philippines coach, no matter what I can do to shake that.

"It's an extra burden for sure, but it's a burden I'm certainly very proud to carry.

"I hope that our performances over this season are worthy of having that expectation."

Manila-based Ryan Fenix is football columnist for Sports5 Philippines and analyst for InterAksyon.com. He is also a FIFA Ballon d'Or juror.

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