NEW: PAUL ASHWORTH INTERVIEW!
Paul Ashworth, who’s 44, has managed Ventspils, FK Riga, and Skonto Riga in Latvia. He’s also been sporting director at the Russia side, FC Rostov. He has coached at Cambridge United and Peterborough United, and is currently technical director of the Kwarma Football Academy in Nigeria. His brother is Dan Ashworth, the FA’s director of elite development. Here, Paul tells the BCAA about life in Latvia and Nigeria – and how Barry Fry managed Peterborough like a pub team…
I played for Norwich City as a schoolboy, but I wasn’t good enough to make it. When I was 17, the club’s youth development officer, Kit Carson, asked whether I wanted to help out at an under-12s tournament in Finland. I went, enjoyed it, and caught the coaching bug.
I set up PASS – Paul Ashworth Soccer Schools – when I was 18, as something for kids to do in the summer. That was a time when clubs didn’t have youth teams – or not like they do now – so there was lots of talent around. We ran schools all over the country, and took the kids abroad for tournaments in Brazil, America, Sweden, Finland, Hungary, Belgium, Scotland…Our players and teams started to get really good, and clubs began to notice.
I was approached by Cambridge United to become their youth development officer, and bring across some of my players. The manager at the time was John Beck (recently employed by the FA), and Gary Johnson (who went on to manage Latvia) was a full-time coach. From there, I became full-time youth coach at Peterborough, and we were very successful.
In 1997/98 we reached the semi-finals of the FA Youth Cup, which was unheard of for Peterborough. We had guys like Matthew Etherington, Simon Davies, Matthew Gill, Gareth Jellyman, and others (ten of that year’s youth team were given professional contracts). I’d gone from being a businessman, with the soccer schools, to being a full-time coach, able to work with players day in and day out. At the time, everyone was playing 4-4-2 or 3-5-2, but we went 4-3-3, and were very successful. We are able to work on tactics, really work on our shape. It was a great time for me.
I became Peterborough’s reserve team manager, and then Barry Fry made me first team coach. I was only 28 or 29. Barry was a great guy, but he was frustrating to work with. In the week, he let me get on with tactics and training, then in the dressing room on Saturday he’d change it all. Really, he ran the side like a pub team. It sounds like I’m slagging him off, but I like Barry, and he knew a player. But he was more about man-management than tactics. That’s a polite way of saying it.
I never thought I’d go to Latvia. Gary Johnson, who I knew from Cambridge, was managing the national team, and he called to say there was a team that needed a head coach. I was out of work, so I went over – but it was really just to see Gary. I’d barely heard of Latvia, and I didn’t intend to move there. But once I was there, I met the president of Ventspils (one of the biggest sides in Latvia), and he asked me to do a coaching session. I did, and he offered me the job. In the end, it was an easy decision – I was out of work, financially it was good, and I’d be in charge for the first time.
Ventspils was a shock. At the time, 2001, Latvia was only nine or ten years out of the Soviet Union, and it was like going 30 years back in time. There was only one supermarket. Now, it’s totally changed. Nearly everyone speaks English, I speak Russian, there are 15 supermarkets. If I arrived now, it wouldn’t be a shock. But it was then.
Luckily, football isn’t much different wherever you go. It’s like one language. There were some slight differences: the players were more technical, playing shorter passes. Your full backs couldn’t hit it into the channel, even if you’d wanted them to. They just couldn’t play a 40 or 50 yard ball accurately under pressure. But overall, there were no problems. My assistant spoke English, and I learnt Russian. I was doing what I loved doing. We narrowly missed out on the title twice, and qualified for Europe every season I was there. In 2002 we beat Lugano from Switzerland in the first round of the UEFA Cup, before losing to Stuttgart in the next round.
After Ventspils I went to FK Riga, which was difficult. The club wasn’t as well run, and it didn’t have the financial backing. Before Riga, and I’d applied for the Rostov job in Russia. I didn’t get it, but when the sporting director job came up a year later – essentially director of football – the owner got in touch. I had learnt Russian, but I don’t think the language was a crucial factor. They gave me a full-time translator, as when you’re sporting director you’re signing lots of legal documents and so on. So speaking Russian was an advantage, but if I didn’t speak the language I still think I’d have got the job.
My wife is from Latvia, and it was becoming my home, so Skonto Riga – where I went after Rostov – was a great job. They’re one of the biggest clubs in Latvia, if not the biggest. I did four and a half years there, and we produced a lot of international players, keeping the club going.
When you’re a coach abroad, your life span is very short. You don’t get much time. After Skonto, I was looking all over for jobs. I heard of the Nigerian job through the coaches’ association, interviewed, and got it. Moving to Africa was like moving to Latvia for the first time: a shock. Having said that, after Latvia, I felt I’d done it before (moving to a new place), emotionally.
I’ve applied for a lot of jobs in Britain, but not got anywhere. In 2010, I had an eight-hour interview with the Kilmarnock chairman, Michael Johnston. I think it was down to me and Mixu Paatelianen, and they gave it to him. So I was very very close there. I also got to the last five at Barnet, around the time I left for Nigeria. But when you work abroad, it’s hard to get a job in England.
In any job – not just football – a lot comes down to personal contacts. “I know him, he’s really good,” and so on. When you’re out of the country, that’s harder to develop. Secondly, for a high-profile job like manager or sporting director, a lot of chairmen want a name. They don’t necessarily want the best coach: they want to sell more tickets. And thirdly, if you’re out of the country, it’s like you haven’t worked. People don’t recognise it on your CV. You’re forgotten about.
If I could advise my younger self? I’d say go abroad, enjoy it, it’s a great experience. But I’d say “don’t dream about coming back to England”. When I was younger, I’d think “if I win this league, or this cup, they’ll want me back in England”. But it doesn’t work like that. You’re invisible. So you’ve got to treat England as just another country that you may, or may not, work in.
When my brother, Dan, left West Brom to join the FA, I applied for his old job. I got down to the last three, but in the end, none of us got it! They gave it to Richard Garlick, the legal director, who was actually one of the three people who interviewed me. As for Dan, I think England and the FA will get there. Finally, the English are understanding that they’re not the best in the world. Their youth system hasn’t been the best for a long time, but things are changing. St George’s Park (the new national training centre) will help. It will take a time, but England will get it right.
The best players I’ve worked? Those I’m working with now. Some of the 17 and 18 year olds in Nigeria are amazing; better than any I’ve worked with in Europe. But it will be harder for them to break through, compared to a European player. As for people you’ve heard of: there was Matthew Etherington and Simon Davies at Peterborough. Alexandrs Cauna, who we sold from Skonto to CSKA Moscow. And, again at Peterborough, a player called David Billington, who we sold to Sheffield Wednesday (for £500,000 in 1997). He suffered a career-ending injury, but he was some player.
Interview by @owenamos