The English coach in Bangladesh targeting AFC Champions League glory

Vitaly Suvorov

“You see people here who are really fighting for survival.”

Six months ago, Ryan Northmore, a 37-year-old former Weston-super-Mare goalkeeper and manager, called his old friend Kim Grant to congratulate him on a new job.

Earlier this year, Grant, an ex-Ghana striker who had played more than 300 games across England’s lower divisions – and once scored a 20-yard curler for Charlton Athletic against Liverpool in the FA Cup – was appointed as manager of the Bangladesh Premier League team Saif Sporting Club, which was founded just a year prior to his arrival.

Now Grant was looking for an assistant coach, and very soon it became clear that Northmore’s congratulatory call could lead to something much bigger than anticipated.

“We just got talking and at some point explored a possibility of me coming out to help with the project,” he says. “Obviously, I needed a few days to think about it because football is one thing, but it’s a different lifestyle that you have to weigh up.

“But I’m very ambitious, so for me, it could be a good move in terms of working in a new environment. That’s why after a few days, I decided to take the offer.”

During his playing days, Northmore travelled all over England. He started out in the seaside town of Torquay, then went to Bath, then to Woking, Weston-super-Mare, and finally Dorchester.

Still, like the majority of modern English players and coaches, he had never worked outside of the UK. So when he first landed in Dhaka, one of the busiest, craziest and dirtiest Asian cities where his new club is based, there was a lot for him to learn and adapt to.

It was so different! The first thing that hits you is the traffic. You might plan to be at the office at a certain time, and you know it’s a 20-minute journey. But the traffic is so bad it takes you two hours.

“Then there is the weather. One moment it’s clear and sunny, but then, in the afternoon, it rains and the streets are flooded. And you can’t even go anywhere, you can’t move.

“The food here is very different, too. The thing I enjoyed the most was knocking a mango off a tree, then opening it up and eating it fresh.

“Also, after training, we would stop off and buy some coconuts for the team. They would chop it, we would drink the milk and then scoop out the fleshy sides. So yeah, those things are very different.

“The living conditions are very challenging for people here, though, there’s a lot of poverty in the city. When you’re travelling around, you see people who are really fighting for survival and you feel a little bit helpless.

“It puts everything that you have, and everything that you perhaps take for granted in your country in perspective. When you do manage to go home, I think you will appreciate things a lot more.”

Poverty, though, is the last word he would use to describe his new team, Saif Sporting Club. The club is owned by the construction company Saif Powertec and, according to Northmore, trumps pretty much everyone else in the league in terms of ambitions and budget.

“Speaking of budget, there’s a big gap between Saif Sporting Club and other clubs. We’re like Manchester City here. Although, our owners intend on using the money to develop local players and, among other things, improve the Bangladesh national team and the quality of football in the country.

“That comes with added pressure because our club aren’t targeting just to do well in the Premier League. They want to do well in the AFC Champions League. That’s the reason for investments.”

Big budget doesn’t mean big salaries – at least compared to other leagues. Northmore says he makes about the same amount of money in Bangladesh as he did in the lower echelons of English football.

“[The good thing is that] the players don’t have to work anywhere else, they’re professional full-time footballers. Plus, the club provide an apartment block for everyone so we can live, eat and spend time together.”

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Prior to his arrival in Dhaka, Northmore spent two years working as manager at Weston-super-Mare, but left the club last September after losing eight consecutive matches. But just how different is it working with Bangladeshi footballers in comparison to their English counterparts?

“They are very different, yes. English players are more enthusiastic, they show their passion a lot more. In Bangladesh, it’s not like they’re not that passionate or committed, but they’re very respectful of authority. In England, players would argue with a coach and state their opinions. Here, they would just follow your instructions.

“For example, one day we arrived for training and the whole field was flooded. But the players just got on with it. In England, they’d be complaining about such conditions. But here, they turn up, accept it and just get on with it. They’re very keen to learn and improve.

“On the other hand, if players in Bangladesh feel a bit pain, they would immediately stop playing or training. In England, I can’t remember a game when I felt no pain. You just play through it.

“Also, players in England and Bangladesh have different cultural needs. Like, Friday is a day off here, they need time to pray. Preparations for games are very different, too, because there’s a spiritual aspect to it.”

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The living conditions as well as all sorts of cultural differences were not the only things Northmore had to get used to. In terms of organisation and professionalism, the Bangladesh Premier League is far behind the rest of the world.

“The clubs need more facilities,” he says. “The ones we’re trying to train on are very poor. And consequently, when you try to develop a team as well as individual players, this can be very difficult to achieve.

“You try to do some tactical work, but you don’t have everything that you need to put your messages across. So you have to be more creative in a way that you communicate with players.

“Then the are matches themselves. [Since all the teams in the league are based] in Dhaka, all of our games are held in the Bangabandhu National Stadium, and it really affects the quality of the pitch, which in turn affects the quality of football.

“Until they organise the facilities and introduce a different way to showcase the matches, I don’t think the quality of football can improve.

“Another problem is that things change very, very quickly here. For example, we’d plan to start a season on a certain day and then the federation would just decide to change the date. You have to adapt to move with what the federation wants.

“It can be a real challenge. Because we take the training to prepare the players for a certain date and then that date is moved. So we have to adjust to it and be flexible.”

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The Premier League and La Liga have been dominating the world in terms of popularity for some time now and the people of Bangladesh share the same fascination. In Northmore’s words, pretty much everyone in Dhaka has a favourite team in those leagues. But how popular is the local championship?

“Football in Bangladesh is quite far behind cricket now,” he says. “In the 80s and 90s, football stadiums were packed but the quality of the game has deteriorated since then, and because they haven’t really kept up with the progress, fans turned their attention to cricket. Now we’re trying to bring them back.

“Obviously, there’s a lot of work to be done. At the moment, you could see about a thousand supporters at our matches. They also stream the games online but I’m not sure what the figures are.”

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The 2017 Bangladesh Premier League season started three months ago. There are 12 teams in the league with Saif Sporting Club currently sitting in third place after eight games – hardly a bad placing for a club which entered the division only a year ago, but Northmore, obviously, wants more.

“As I said, I’m very ambitious. I learn lots of new things here and enjoy working in a new environment. If we compete with big clubs in the AFC Champions League and do well in a few years, I might stay in Bangladesh for a few more seasons. But I want to progress, so for me, working here won’t be the pinnacle of my career. I want to go as far as I possible can.

“I don’t think English coaches and managers have been as open-minded and culturally diverse as they need to be in the modern game. You know, you look at the squads in England and you see players from all over the world. So, as a forward-thinking coach, the more you understand different cultures, the more successful you can be in England.

“I met people in other countries who are keen to explore what they can do with their career and prepared to move from home to learn and gain new experiences. Because coaching is just a small part of what you actually do as a manager.

“To manage players properly you need to understand where they’re coming from. And that’s probably the main reason why English coaches only go so far before hitting the ceiling.”

By Vitaly Suvorov

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