McMenemy hoping football can thrill the Manilans
In the past two months, 32-year-old English coach Simon McMenemy has experienced an extraordinary footballing transition. Having left his position as assistant manager of non-league side Worthing in July, a chance conversation on Facebook with two players he used to coach saw him swapping the south coast of England for south east Asia, and the managerial hotseat of the Philippines national team.
Six weeks into his first foray into international management, McMenemy has lofty ambitions. But he doesn't just dream of transforming the fortunes of the team that FIFA ranks as 165th in the world; his goal is to help facilitate the growth of football in the Philippines - with the view to helping the sport usurp basketball as the nation's favourite.
What McMenemy lacks in international experience - though he can randomly boast a single international cap for Brunei, achieved as one of the nation's once-permitted two contracted foreigners - he makes up for in raw passion and a comprehensive knowledge of football development. Having enjoyed a brief period playing in the United States and Finland, a passion for coaching emerged and spells working with youngsters at Arsenal and Chelsea followed, before a six-year stint working on grassroots football with Brighton FC and then Nike. But among his more high-profile previous jobs, it was a role coaching the youth team of Burgess Hill Town in the Isthmian League - the eighth tier of English football - that paved the way for his eventual move to the Philippines.
"I didn't see the [Philippines] job advertised," McMenemy tells ESPNsoccernet from the team hotel in Chinese Taipei, where they are playing an invitational tournament along with Hong Kong and Macau. "I worked with a couple of the Philippines players before - Simon and Paul Greatwich had played for me at Burgess Hill Town - and I was just chatting to them on Facebook about leaving Worthing,when they suggested I should apply for their national team job because their manager [Des Bupin] had just left to take up a role with India's Under-19s.
"I told them I didn't think I would get it at my age because they would want someone more experienced. But I got a phone call five weeks later offering me the job and just ten days after that I was setting foot in Manila. I had ten days to reorganise my life and it's all been a bit of a whirlwind since then. I've got a fiancée in England who I'm supposed to be marrying next April, so I've been trying to sort all that out too.
"What attracted me to the job was simply the chance to become a national team coach at the age of 32. I'm coaching in 72,000-seater stadiums and if we make it to the Suzuki Cup [South East Asia's pre-eminent football tournament] and play Thailand, the guy sitting on the other bench is Bryan Robson. The chance to do these things at my age is priceless. Usually you wait until you are 50 or 60 to be able to work at this level and take it as seriously as I am able to take it."
To reach the Suzuki Cup and a potential date with the former Manchester United and England captain at the tournament in Vietnam in December, McMenemy must guide the Philippines past Laos, Cambodia and Timor Leste in a round robin qualification tournament starting on October 22. At his disposal are a mix of Filipino locals and half-Filipino players - drafted in from as far afield as England and Iceland.
The undoubted star of the team is 23-year-old Chelsea academy graduate Phil Younghusband, who was released by the Blues in the summer after 14 years at the club. The Middlesex-born striker was top scorer for Chelsea's youth team in 2003-04 and 2004-05 and his prolific record for the national team, coupled with a chiselled set of features, has ensured he has quickly become one of the most recognisable faces in the Philippines.
Type his name into YouTube and you can find a range of Younghusband's television appearances, from advertising sports drinks to crooning on reality show 'Celebrity Duets'. While McMenemy admits it is fantastic to have such a talented player at his disposal, he says that striking a balance between local players and those drafted in from abroad is his toughest job.
"Some of the lads are on a different level to the others, which I guess it to be expected - especially in the case of Phil and his brother James who were given a superb grounding at Chelsea. It's very tough man-managing a situation whereby the locals know that, no matter how hard they work in training, they will be replaced when the foreign players come in. I'm working with one lad whose last experience was on Chelsea's training ground and then another lad who has just started playing football in the last three years but is sufficiently good enough to play football in the national team. Within the same squad of 20 players I've got to be creating coaching drills that everyone can handle and everyone can learn from. It's a real challenge.
"There are other good players around Phil, too. We have a midfielder called Jason de Jong who plays in the Dutch second division [for BV Veendam] - he's no relation to Nigel, but plays in the same type of way, a midfield terrier. His team have got Ajax in the next round of the Dutch Cup so hopefully we can reap the benefits of that experience. There's also a 19-year-old German lad, Manny Ott, who plays in the German second division [for FC Ingolstadt 04 II]; he's coming in next week for the Suzuki Cup qualifiers - it's a team of locals and a sprinkling of half-Filipinos.
"We are trying to create a scouting network within the European leagues and further afield. It's just about raising awareness that there is a national team looking for players to play. What tends to happen is that a story will come up [it is widely claimed that Phil Younghusband's call-up was down to tip-off from an avid Football Manager player] or we will actually get approached by players. We have just got a lad from Iceland involved, Ray Jonsson, who has been playing in the Premier League there for ten years. He is a very good player and was planning on coming out here on holiday, but got speaking to someone who said 'why don't you try out for the national team', so he got in touch and we've had him join up with us in time for the tournament.
"I will speak to the English FA and a couple of agents I've worked with in the past just to keep their ear to the ground. Sometimes it's the case that the players can't play. Neil Etheridge is second-choice goalkeeper at Fulham and we haven't been able to get him out here because he's sitting on the bench for a Premier League club; unfortunately that has to take priority."
A heavy American influence on life in the Philippines means that football has been playing second-fiddle to basketball as the country's No. 1 sport for many years, and though coaching the players remains his main priority right now, McMenemy believes he has a wider responsibility to help develop the sport in his newly-adopted country.
"It is important that we record some victories and raise the profile of the national team in the country, then more players - both local and foreign-based - will want to get involved," says McMenemy, who at 32 is the youngest international manager in the world at present according to FIFA. "It can be a snowball effect but we are battling against basketball for the public's affection. Over the last two weeks we've been having discussions with the powers that be to implement a five-year development plan. A lot of it is based around decent coaches and that's something we can look to work on with coaching clinics and pushing coaching badges with the Asian Football Confederation.
"We know that football does have a passionate grassroots following and it's a matter of time and as with everything in the Philippines there is lots of paperwork and politics to deal with. It's about getting over these obstacles and until they are hurdled, football over here will always be a sleeping giant. Filipinos aren't built for basketball, it's a physiological fact, and I think football really suits them better. There is so much potential over here for growth, it just needs someone to plan it out and I hope that I can be that person - hopefully if I can tie myself down to the three-year contract I've verbally agreed then I will be looking to work out how we can forward football in this country as a whole.
"My view is that if you are going to get involved in football development you have to immerse yourself in it. You can't just do it half-heartedly from another country. If I'm just going to be a national team manager I can take my time, do some coaching with the national team and just take some time and go home or scout some players, just staying on the periphery. Or I can just dive in two-footed and get stuck into things over here - that is my intention."