INTERVIEW: Daryl Willard, former Academy coach with Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur, now reserve team manager of FC Gabala (Azerbaijan)
Name: Daryl Willard
Date of Birth: 05/01/1983 (Aged 27)
Place of Birth: Pembury
Position: Reserve Team Manager and Development Coach
Previous clubs: Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur (both as academy coach)
Current club: FC Gabala
When Tony Adams signed on the dotted line to take charge of Azeri side Gabala in May this year, many heads were turned. It seemed one of the last places in the world for an English manager to go to work, perhaps ranking alongside Stephen Constantine’s move to Sudan. The Muslim country, a former Soviet republic which borders Iran, is not even a footballing powerhouse. Wrestling is considered the national sport but in recent years, the FA have started to make more of a concerted effort to boost the sport. Carlos Alberto (he of Brazil 1970 fame) was national team manager in the mid-2000’s, while Berti Vogts is currently in charge of the side, although they are still a lowly 106th in the FIFA rankings.
Adams is the focal point of ten year plan to take Gabala into the UEFA Champions League. This may seem wishful thinking for a provincial, rural town some three hours out of the capital, Baku. But the intent is there. The money (wherever it comes from!) is there. And Adams has the team around him and the patience and respect of the club directors to make this work. Alongside Adams and his assistant, Gary Stevens, is the 27 year old reserve team manager, Daryl Willard. It is a massive move for Kent man, whose coaching CV includes spells working in the academy systems at Chelsea and, more recently, Tottenham Hotspur.
Having decided at the age of 16 to focus on coaching, Daryl has made the most of the opportunities presented to him. With endless enthusiasm and ambition, he is keen to coach to as high a level as possible, citing the likes of Jose Mourinho and Roy Hodgson as examples of whose career paths he would like to follow.
Les Rosbifs spoke to Daryl the day after Gabala lost to FK Baku in the league which, in the grand scheme of things, was not a major problem…
Another loss at the weekend I see?
Yes, but it was a very even game and you could argue we had the better opportunities on goal. But we’re not getting any luck at all at the moment. Looking back at the highlights, I’m still not sure their first goal crossed the line, while I cannot see why they were also awarded the penalty (which led to the eventual winner). Hopefully our luck will turn though. We’re working hard, playing together; it’s only a matter of time.
So, how on earth did you end up in Azerbaijan?
I had worked with Gary Stevens before, about three years ago. We lived in the same town and got to know each other, and he emailed me to ask if I would be interested. I had already worked with the academies of Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur, so I thought why not? Reserve team manager seemed a great step in the right direction.
Anyway, I got called to interview and Tony Adams offered said he was impressed and offered me the role. It was crazy! It still took a little time for it all to come through because, at one stage, it looked as though the club didn’t have the budget for a reserve manager. However, in late June, Tony called again and said it had all been arranged. I had three days to fly out to Azerbaijan!
How are you finding it?
It took a while to settle in but once you start working, you soon find your feet. Gabala is a very rural place. It’s three hours outside of Baku, which in itself is like most European cities, with the restaurants, bars and expensive shops. Gabala has no bars, no expensive shops and is a big Muslim area. It takes a bit of getting used to!
Where are you living?
I’m in a hotel which is, by all accounts, better than the hotel the team stayed in last year. Then, it was 3 or 4 to a room – it’s nothing like that now! The place has been gutted and is a lot more respectable and I’m staying in the hotel with Faraz Sethi, our physio, who was recommended by Gary Lewin and came from Colchester United.
How are you getting on with Tony Adams and Gary Stevens?
Tony is fantastic. He knows the commitment we’ve made to come out here. I’m 27, I’ve left my girlfriend at home…He understands the pressures we’re under. On the footballing side we get on great, while Gary is fantastic as always. It’s good to have a familiar face.
Outside of football, what are you doing?
It’s very difficult. For a start, we get power cuts 4-5 times a day. There’s not a great deal in Gabala, apart from a 5 star hotel down the road. This is fantastic though: we get to use facilities (pool, sunbathing, gym, massage, bowling, table tennis, etc) and because it overlooks the mountains, it is a beautiful place to go. It’s a getaway for sure!
Is the plan to stay out there for the ‘Ten Year Plan’?
It’s a long term plan. It’s not just about what goes on the pitch either. There are the little things that people don’t see. For example, we’re working on sorting out the accommodation, dietary needs, sports drinks, kits, etc. We’ve had to do everything. They don’t know how we do it in England and we’re trying to make it very professional. Champions League football is the aim, if things go to plan but there is so much to do and get right first. Players are used to eating chocolate spread on bread for breakfast and having 6-7 spoonfuls of sugar with their tea – it’s what they’ve been brought up with and we are trying to point out how important diet is, for example. Some are adapting to it; the players do look to us to help them
Was money a factor in your move to Gabala?
No. The reason I came out here was for my career. Whatever they paid me I would have come, simply for the chance to work with 1st team players, Tony Adams and Gary Stevens. It would have been an opportunity I would have regretted otherwise.
Teams in Uzbekistan sign the likes of Rivaldo. You signed Deon Burton. Is Gabala proving to be a hard sell?
The money the Uzbek club has is crazy. We’re not going to be stupid; we’re doing it intelligently and building things up over the long term. We don’t want to throw money at the team and spend big on big players. It’s more about doing it right from the bottom up and building a football club. We want to bring in players who want to be part of this. There’s no point bringing in older ones who want a last payday.
Getting Deon in is a great coup though because he is an excellent professional. Hopefully his presence will also attract interest from other players too. We’re still looking to add to the squad, if we can improve it before the transfer deadline.
How are you finding the Azeri people?
Very friendly and respectful. They will do anything to make you welcome! It was quite a shock for them when we rocked up. The locals earn money from farmlands and lead a peaceful life; then one day a group of Englishmen turned up! It was funny to them at first; but they’ve been really friendly.
How are you finding communicating with the Azeris and the team?
They do try and chat to us in English and we do attempt to talk to them in Azeri! I’ve got some basic dialogue and football phrases, which are very useful. We spend all day working with Azeris, so are finding we’re picking up the language quite well.
Is it easy for you, Tony and Gary to gain the respect of the local players?
The Azeri people are extremely respectful by nature, so yes it has been quite easy. I have had to adapt as a coach though, mainly due to language. I have to do show what I want the players to do myself first so they can see what to do. But it has made me better as a coach as a result. I am also lucky as the club kept on an Azeri coach who helps me and speaks a little English. We can explain in football terms and talk through them though. It would be a lot more difficult without him; he has been excellent.
How do you think Gabala will fare this season?
It has been a difficult start to the year (three matches, three losses), but who knows. We’ve got 11 new signings in the squad and they’ve only played three matches together so it will take time to gel. It’s a long term thing though and we are sticking to the plan, not making any snap decisions.
And your reserve team? How are they looking?
We’ve had two wins out of three, but lost at weekend. It didn’t help that we had three injuries at half-time, which totally changed the whole team. Still, I am quite happy with our start. My job is produce young Azeri players to go from U17 squad to the first team. We’ve already got some good ones coming through the ranks, including some internationals.
What sort of standard are the Azerbaijani footballers? Would they cut it in England?
It’s hard to compare on the whole, as I have only really seen the players we have here in Gabala. The best players could be playing in League 1 or 2, but they are developing all the time. With time and the continuing money ploughed into the academies here, standards can only improve.
How does the matchday experience differ between England and Azerbaijan?
It differs wildly from match to match! Lankaran, where we had our first match of the season, play in a 15,000 all-seater stadium. It was half-full, but the crowd was loud and passionate. We go to other grounds though, where there are few seats and standing areas, and we might get 1-2,000. Some play on synthetic turf, some on grass. It’s variable.
Our current ground has synthetic turf and normally holds between 2-3,000. However, we have some fantastic new facilities – stadium and training facilities amongst them – which will take 2-3 years to complete.
Do you have any regrets?
Not at all. I miss my girlfriend and family, but we speak on Skype. I would have regretted if I had stayed in England. We don’t any English television here, so in that respect it is quite difficult! I also miss relaxing in the evening, with a bar of chocolate or a packet of biscuits! (If Mr McVitie or Mr Cadbury is reading this, please send delivery to Mr D. Willard, Gabala FC, Gabala, Azerbaijan. Cheers – Ed).
What next in your career?
I am enjoying learning a new culture and a new way of coaching at the moment. England can stifle young coaches; it’s a closed shop, especially if you haven’t been a professional footballer. Still, I managed to get in at Chelsea and Spurs and my hard work is paying off. I am employed by Tony Adams! I’ve looked at Roy Hodgson and where he’s been. He’s learnt his trade elsewhere and this is something I would like to do. If I’m successful here and got another offer from another country, I’d do it eventually. I am committed to Gabala though – there is so much I want to do here with Tony, Gary and the rest of the coaching team.