Lawrie Sanchez is the manager of Apollon Smyrnis in the Greek Super League. As Northern Ireland manager, he beat England, Spain, and Sweden in competitive games, and led the side from 124th to 27th in the FIFA rankings. He also managed Fulham in the Premier League, Wycombe Wanderers, Barnet, and the Irish side Sligo Rovers. Here, he talks about life in Greece, the importance of education, and what he did after scoring the winning goal in the 1988 FA Cup Final… 

The Greece move came out of the blue. I was first approached in October, by an agency in London. The owner of Apollon had been in touch with them, as he was interested in a foreign coach. The agency put forward some CVs – without us knowing about it – and the owner said “I like the look of him”. They asked if I could come out the following day, but I couldn’t, so they appointed a Greek manager. He lasted about four games, so they approached me again. 

I flew out for the interview with two bags: one for the weekend, and one for the longer-term. I thought it would be a waste of time coming back if I wanted to stay. The terms were agreed before I went out, and the interview went well: I liked the owner, and the stadium and training facilities were good. If I’d hung round in the UK, I could have got a job, but it’s getting harder and harder. 

There’s an ever-growing number of out-of-work managers in Britain, but the number of full-time positions stays the same. So you have to be realistic, and that includes looking abroad. My son recently started university, so I spoke to my partner and said: “We could go anywhere now”. But I wasn’t expecting this opportunity – the chance to move abroad – to come about so quickly. 

The owner wanted a Greek coach to work alongside me. I wasn’t against it, but I wanted to bring in my own man. I’d met Stephen Constantine years before, at a luggage carousel of all places. He’s managed four national teams, three teams in the Cypriot top division, he’s a world-class coach, and he speaks Greek, so he was the perfect fit. I got in touch with him via Linkedin – he was in Dubai, on the way back from running a FIFA course in Cambodia – and he agreed to become my assistant.

To be honest, I had little knowledge of the Greek league before I arrived. But you learn very quickly. The standard can vary:  at the top, you’ve got Olympiakos, who are playing Manchester United in the last 16 of the Champions League. At the bottom, the standard might be Championship level. The team in second, PAOK, are being funded quite heavily, but we recently drew there – the first home game they hadn’t won all season – so there’s nothing to fear.

When we arrived, we wanted to increase the tempo. In Greece, they play a slow, methodical game, building up from the back, but we wanted more pace. The players have been receptive, and we’ve had good results, which is vital. You need to bring the bacon to the table. When you draw at PAOK, draw against Panathinaikos, which we’ve done, players think: “These guys know what they’re doing”. 

I learnt the importance of good coaching – and good management – at Wimbledon. I moved there in 1984, in the old second division, and we went on to win the FA Cup. It was amazing, really. We were greater than the sum of our parts. Even people abroad know the history of the Crazy Gang. 

Having said that, the best coaches don’t make the best managers. Don Howe at Wimbledon was my best coach, but he didn’t have much success as a manager. Why? It’s a different skill-set. A coach has to be empathetic, he’s up close and personal, he has to enjoy working with players. A manager has to be distanced. He can’t be their friend. He has to drop players, make tough decisions.

In the summer of 1988, after winning the FA Cup, me and Dave Beasant went to Lilleshall to do our coaching A licences. It was two weeks of hard work, but we’d booked it in advance – we didn’t think we’d have an FA Cup win to celebrate! The whole Wimbledon team had already done our B licences, coaching each other at Lilleshall. As a player, it puts you in the coach’s shoes, which is important. 

Someone once told me “Work hard, and play hard”. So I worked hard, and I played football every night. I went to a grammar school – when they had such things – and I got a degree in management sciences from Loughborough University, while playing for Reading, my hometown team. Learning has been a very important part of my life, and of my career. I’ve done all the courses, got my UEFA Pro Licence, but now you have 34 or 35-year-old ex-pros wanting to be managers, without any coaching experience. Some can do it, but it’s very rare. You need an education. 

In Britain, I’m caught between stools. People don’t know what I am; they can’t pigeon-hole me. I had lower league success with Wycombe, international success with Northern Ireland, but I wasn’t at Fulham long enough to be considered a Premier League manager. Then people think: “He was sacked by Barnet, there’s something wrong”. But they don’t realise that keeping Barnet up, in 2011, was a massive achievement. In terms of budget, they were a Conference team, and we weren’t in the relegation zone when I left.

There are two teams that stand out from my managerial career. The first was Wycombe, when we reached the semi-finals of the FA Cup in 2001. We had a great team – Steve Brown, Sean Devine…Michael Simpson played 66 games for us that year, and all at a high level. In the semi, we held Liverpool game for 78 minutes. They’re one of the biggest teams in Europe; we’re barely the biggest team in the county. We should have gone up the following year, but things didn’t work out. 

At Northern Ireland, we went from 124th to 27th in the world rankings. In fact, it’s one of my regrets that I didn’t take them up 100 places. Our results weren’t one-offs: in Euro 2008 qualifying, we beat Spain, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Sweden, and drew away at Denmark. When I left in May 2007, we were top of the group. People say to me: “You had David Healy” (Northern Ireland’s record scorer). But then, so did Sammy McIlroy before me; so did people after me. They didn’t get the best out of him. 

Not finishing that campaign with Northern Ireland is another of my regrets. When I joined Fulham, I should have said “Let me finish the job”. But they insisted that I left. I remember at Fulham, it was the international weekend and where was I? In New York, shopping with the missus. There were no players to coach, so I was twiddling my thumbs, really. I should have been in Belfast, seeing off the job. 

Was I given enough credit for the turnaround at Northern Ireland? I got the Fulham job off the back of it, so I can’t complain. It had taken me 12 years to reach the Premier League. When I look back at Fulham, I think we had a lot of bad luck. We got beat 2-1 at home to Middlesbrough, even though David Healy scored an equaliser a yard over the line that wasn’t given. I recently spoke to Keith Hackett, the former referees’ boss, at a dinner. I said to him: “Your members cost us four or five points!” and he said: “Lawrie, we looked back at the videos, and it was even more than that”. 

My first management job – at Sligo Rovers in 1994/95 – was fantastic. Nice people, nice club. It was an old British garrison town, so football was a big sport. The year before, Willie McStay had won the Irish Cup with them, so my second game was in the European Cup Winners’ Cup against Club Brugge. They had a good team, with people like Franky Van Der Elst (who won 86 caps for Belgium). They beat us 2-1, but they were lucky to get away with that. It was a great night. 

The next day, I came to the ground and saw the cleaner. I said: “Have you been in the Brugge dressing room?” The cleaner said no, and yet the changing room was spotless. Before getting on their private jet at Sligo international airport – Sligo had an international airport, believe it or not – they’d swept their mud into the corner, and cleaned up. I just thought “How professional is that”. 

I love international competition. People poo-poo the Europa League, but there’s nothing better for a manager: European competition midweek, domestic competition at the weekend. The best of both worlds. If we can turn it round with Apollon, maybe we’ll get it here. That’s our aim.

Interview by @owenamos

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