NEW: JESS IBROM INTERVIEW!
Jess Ibrom is academy head coach at the Hyundai A-League Club, Wellington Phoenix. The 37-year-old played semi-professionally in England, before coaching in the United States. He moved to New Zealand in 2011. Here, he talks about life on the other side of the world, building a coaching career from scratch, and how he tracked down Robbie Fowler for a cuppa in Bangkok…
For two years, I applied for four or five foreign coaching jobs a week. In that whole time, I got two interviews. Just two. So people say to me: “You’ve got a great life, you’re working in football, you’re living in New Zealand.” And I say: “Maybe, but it wasn’t easy getting here.”
When I was applying for those jobs, I was running a community football scheme in King’s Lynn in Norfolk. I wanted to work abroad, as I knew it was a good opportunity to further my career. I applied non-stop: jobs in the US, India, Singapore, the Solomon Islands…everywhere. I would follow them up with courtesy calls, but I didn’t get anything. And then, in 2011, I got two interviews in two weeks.
Did I lose heart, when I wasn’t getting anywhere? Very much so. There were lots of dips. I would think: “Is this ever going to happen?” But people were willing me on, and then I got the two offers– one in Vancouver, and one at the Asia Pacific Academy in New Zealand. The academy – which was based in Christchurch – was a chance to work at an elite level, and that was the biggest thing for me.
I knew nothing about New Zealand, other than Lord of the Rings. But I was a single guy, I was living in the sleepy town of King’s Lynn in Norfolk, and I just thought: “This is the opportunity of a lifetime.” I remember flying into New Zealand for the first time, seeing the mountains, the crisp blue sky, thinking: “I am a long way from home.” And that’s when it kicked in. That’s when it became real.
As soon as I got here, I was working with international-level young players. The academy recruited from all over the world – New Zealand, Australia, Mexico, New Caledonia, elsewhere – and we’ve had some real successes. Bill Tuiloma has signed for Marseille, and is training with the first team. Cameron Howieson has gone to Burnley and has just signed a new contract. Birhanu Taye – who is originally from Ethiopia and came to New Zealand as a refugee – has just signed for SC Braga.
I’ve travelled all around the world, recruiting players for the academy. Australia, Thailand, Hong Kong, Singapore, Mexico, islands off New Zealand…everywhere. I’ve had some unbelievable experiences. And I don’t like to name drop…but I once had a coffee with Robbie Fowler in Bangkok!
We were in Thailand for four days. All of a sudden, I thought: “Doesn’t Robbie Fowler play here?” So I got onto Google, got the club name (Muangthong United) and saw that it was 50 minutes away. We spoke to the bell boys at the hotel, they ordered us a taxi, and we went over there. To cut a long story short, we ended up having coffee with Robbie, telling him about the academy, talking about his experiences. He was a very humble guy, very down to earth. Awesome guy.
I was also lucky enough to meet David Beckham. I was taking a player on trial to Tottenham Hotspur under-18s, and I decided to watch the first team train. I heard a rumour Beckham was keeping himself fit there during the MLS off-season, so I walked over the hill, and there he was. I stood five feet away while he crossed balls. I said to myself: “Is this really happening?”
Last year I took probably 45 flights. I spent three months in Mexico recruiting players, three months in the United States. It sounds glamorous, but it was pretty much football pitch…hotel…football pitch…hotel. When I was in Mexico, I stayed in Playa del Carmen near Cancun. One day, I came back to the hotel about 4pm. It was ridiculously hot so I thought I’d have some siesta time. I woke up a few hours later and my room was under two feet of water. There was a tropical storm, and I couldn’t leave the hotel for eight days. No electricity, no food. That was an experience.
Last year, the academy placed three boys at Wellington Phoenix (who play in Australia’s A-League). They are a top-end club, and – due to their location if nothing else – it’s paramount that they bring young Kiwis into their first team. So they said to our managing directors: “Rather than sending us these players, why not come to Wellington and develop us an academy?” So we relocated the academy to Wellington. To be part of a professional, A-League club was an opportunity we couldn’t turn down.
In an ideal world, we’ll get an academy player signing for the first team every other year. We have the players for six days a week, ten months a year, so it’s more than achievable. And the club have embraced us from day one. We recently had our awards night, and the chairman spoke for a good ten minutes about the importance of the academy. They have been fantastic with us.
I started coaching around 15 years ago, when I was 21 or 22. I’d left school, and I was beginning to realise the harsh reality of the real world. I was working part-time in retail, playing local football, but I knew I wasn’t going to make it as a professional. And then a coaching opportunity came up in the US. I had a friend who was working for Major League Soccer camps in Boston, and he put me in touch with someone. I took my first coaching qualification in England, and seven weeks later I was working in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. So that’s where the journey started.
For five years, I would go out to America for nine months, come back for three months, then go out again. But I realised that if I wanted to progress into the professional game, I had to come back to England and gain more qualifications. So I took a job as area manager at the King’s Lynn Community Football Scheme, and, when the football development officer moved on, I took his role. We had eight full-time staff, 15 part-time staff, a thousand kids a week, 12 or 13 advanced squads.
I started visiting professional clubs in 2007, to see how they work. People say: “How do you get into these clubs?” but often it’s just cold-calling. I literally knock on the door, I’m polite and courteous, and I say: “Would you mind me coming for the day, just to watch?” I’ve had some unbelievable experiences. I’ve seen what Chelsea do, I’ve seen what Juventus do, I’ve seen what Chivas Guadalajara do, I’ve seen what Rotherham United do…they’re all different, but they’ve all got fantastic people working there.
In ten years’ time, I’d like to be working in a full-time, senior role, either in the A-League or the MLS. I can’t see myself moving back to England – I think there are more opportunities in the A-League than, say, the (English) Championship. It’s easier to make your name out here. To a degree, you get swallowed up in England. Would I have the same freedom there, being able to run an academy as I see fit? I don’t think I would.
If I was giving advice to a coach just starting out, I’d say: “Work hard, and gain as much knowledge as possible.” Coaching is not a gimme. People don’t give you the licences or the experiences or – most importantly – the knowledge. I’ve been fortunate enough to gain my USSF A and B licence, UEFA B Licence, and next year I’ll be doing part two of my UEFA A, as well as starting the Canadian A. In a way, you’ve got to commit your life to it. There are lots of peaks and troughs, but there are also unbelievable experiences along the way. Keep working hard and don’t give up on anything.