NEW: STEVE DARBY INTERVIEW!
Steve Darby, who’s 59, is the head coach of Kelantan in the Malaysian Super League. He has also coached in Bahrain, Australia, Singapore, and Vietnam, and was assistant to both Peter Reid and Bryan Robson with the Thailand national team. Here, he talks about meeting Bill Shankly, brown paper envelopes, and translating Scouse into English…
As a player, I was never coached. I was a ‘keeper, and I played for Tranmere Rovers as a kid. The training consisted of cross-country running – I was a great cross-country keeper – and helpful advice like “you should have saved that son”. I kept thinking “there’s more to football than this, there has to be”. I went to Carnegie College to train to be a PE teacher, and there, I learned what coaching was. It was the best thing I ever did.
My first coaching job was in Bahrain in the late 1970s. I’d finished my degree, I was working in a school, and I got a call from Mervyn Beck, one of my college lecturers. He said “Do you want to teach, or do you want to coach?” It was an easy decision anyway, but the salary in Bahrain was four times as much, so I said “When’s the next flight?” I resigned on that day. My headmaster was very understanding – he just said “Go and enjoy yourself”.
Before I left, I spoke to Bill Shankly. I’m from Anfield, and I’m a Liverpool fan, so I went to Melwood to watch the first team train. In those days, anyone could walk in. Shanks was running round on his own, and I thought: “You don’t often get the chance to speak to God”. I approached him and said “I’m off to the Middle East to coach, any advice?” and he said “You’ve got to learn how to make a cup of tea”. So I made him a cup of tea, and we spoke for an hour. They say never meet your heroes, but he was my hero, and he was magnificent. Even now, when I hear recordings of him, the hairs go up on the back of my neck.
I only left Bahrain because of the Ayatollah Khamenei. I was coaching a club side there called East Riffa, and when the national team went into camp, we went with them. The national coach was a guy called Jack Mansell (former Brighton, Cardiff, and Portsmouth full back), and it was a superb education. But then we were told Bahrain would be taken over by Iran as part of the revolution there, so all the Brits were moved out immediately.
After Bahrain, I got an offer from Tasmania. I thought I was off to Africa! The minute I arrived in Launceston, a feller threw me a ball and said: “Juggle it down the steps of the plane”. I thought: “If I could do that I wouldn’t be here”. I was player coach, and in our first game, we travelled from Devonport to Hobart (around a three hour drive). Halfway there, we stopped. The captain got out, opened the boot, and let a load of pigeons out. He was a pigeon fancier! I thought: “What have I come to here”. But I stayed in Australia for 17 years.
I became director of coaching in Tasmania, then a FIFA instructor for Oceania. I got my citizenship and ended up development manager for Australia – a bit like technical director now. I left the federation because – basically – I got shafted, so I went to a club called Sydney Olympic. It was great, but a madhouse. Good training for Asia, really.
When I moved to Malaysia in 1998, I was being offered four times the salary, so it was an easy decision. I managed Johor, then went to manage the Vietnamese women’s team. I’d gone to work with the men’s Olympic team, but after a couple of weeks a big black car pulls up and I’m asked to get in. My translator looks at me and says: “That wasn’t a question”.
I was taken to see the Minister of Sport. He said: “We’re moving you to the women’s team – the money’s the same, and there’ll be a bonus if you win the gold medal in the South East Asian Games”. We had a good team, so we went to the tournament, and we won the gold medal. When we got back, I walked off the plane in Hanoi, and I see the Minister of Sport. He hands me a big brown envelope and says: “Thank you very much. That was excellent.”
I’d never seen bad professionals until I went to Sheffield Wednesday in 2001. I moved there as a youth team coach after Vietnam. The manager, Terry Yorath, and the coaches –Martin Hodge and Willie Donachie – were great lads, good coaches, and they worked their guts out. But there were some very, very bad pros. Gerald Sibon springs to mind.
There were players on £25,000 a week, which was roughly what I was getting in a year. You’d see them in KFC, you’d see them smoking, you knew they were drinking. They were on huge, long-term contracts and they abused it. The coaches were banging their heads against a brick wall. And the failure rate among academy players was huge. All the club wanted was for the academy to beat Sheffield United. They weren’t bothered about development. We had monsters playing for us who were never going to be footballers.
I was working 70 hours a week, it was freezing cold, and the academy players didn’t want to work. They’d just say: “Can we stop, we want to play a game now”. After a few months I got a call from Home United in Singapore. It was a better-ran club than Sheffield Wednesday, and it was three times the salary. It was a police club, and the administrators were highly-qualified. They said: “We’re the CEO off the pitch, you’re the CEO on the pitch”.
Working with Peter Reid and Bryan Robson in Thailand was fantastic. I worked in Singapore, I’d gone back to Malaysia, and I was about to take a job in Vietnam, when I get a call from Reidy. I didn’t know him, but he just says: “Hey lad, do you want to come and work for me?” I was his assistant for the Thai national team, and he was fantastic. A very, very smart man, good coach, and politically clever, which you have to be in Asia. Him and Robbo epitomise what good people are. They could be arrogant, with their achievements, but they’re not in the slightest – just good, honest, down-to-earth people.
When Reidy took over, our translator was very good – educated in America. But Peter was doing his team talks, and the translator would say: “Who’s this player Hughes?” And I’d say: “We don’t have anyone called Hughes”. And the translator would reply: “Yes you do – Peter’s saying ‘Hughes do this, Hughes do that’.” So I explained that he was saying yous, not Hughes. That was one of my jobs – translating Scouse into English.
When I first went to Vietnam, I had about five translators. They were all girls, as it was mainly girls who were educated, and they were all useless. One sat next to me on the bus, I kept talking to her, and I suspected she didn’t understand me. So I said: “You look like an elephant, don’t you?” She said yes, so I got rid of her. I eventually got one educated in Australia. She shook my hand, said “G’day”, and I thought: “You’ll do”. One time, I said to the players: “Get it to the far post!”, and they all start kicking it to the corner flag. I asked her what was going on, and she said: “Furthest stick – that is the furthest stick!”
In 2011, I had a spell at Mohun Bagan. I was told they were the Manchester United of India, but there was cow dung on the pitch. They said: “Don’t worry, we have a dung removal man”, but there were still streaks. They also had a gym that doubled as a swimming pool, because there was a leak in the roof. The players were great, but the administration was stone-age. We’re talking light years behind the players. It could be so good in India, but they’ve got to get young, educated administrators. They can do it – just look at the cricket.
Do I want to come back to England? My dream was to coach Liverpool, but that’s not going to happen. And if you’re not at the top, it’s better financially to be out here. There’s good quality of life – the cost of living’s cheaper, there’s better weather. Realistically I’ve only got my mum back home, and I bring her out to all the places I go. Living in Asia’s great, but you’ve just got to make sure you don’t upset anyone – if you do that, you’ll be found floating down the river. Mind you, I suppose that happens in Liverpool now as well!
I get at least ten emails a month from lads who want to come to Asia. I write back to everyone, because people did that to me – men like Graeme Souness, Gerard Houllier, and I don’t forget that. But some of the emails are naïve. They say: “I’ve coached under-17s somewhere, now I want to work in the J League”. It’s not going to happen.
My main advice? One: you’re not going to change the culture of a nation. If you’re in a foreign country, you have to adapt. And two: learn the language. You’re never going to fluent, but if you can get by, it helps hugely. You can crack a joke, get along with people. Some languages are easier than other – I learnt Vietnamese but Thai was impossible.
I’ve been at my current club, Kelantan, since November last year. Like everywhere in Malaysia, the president is convinced we can win the league, but we lost seven of the first eleven from last year to better money. One of my players went from $3000 a month to $12,000 a month, so you can’t blame him for going. There’s a lot of money in Malaysia – Johor have just signed Pablo Aimar for $2.4m. That’s more than my whole budget.
Here, you get 40,000 crowds, 30,000 at our place, and some grounds hold 90,000. Last time I was here, we played in the Malaysian Cup final and there was 110,000 there. So by comparison, heading back to lower league football in England doesn’t seem that attractive.