Daryl Willard, technical director of PFK Azal in the Azerbaijan Premier League, discusses his time overseas and why he has to pinch himself to believe some of his experiences as a British coach abroad...
By Owen Amos
Last Updated: 17/02/14 1:38pm
Daryl Willard is technical director of PFK Azal in the Azerbaijan Premier League, with responsibility for the club's reserves and youth teams. He has previously coached for Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur, and has worked under Tony Adams and Gary Stevens at the Azeri Premier League side, Gabala. Here he talks to Owen Amos about building a coaching career from scratch, life by the Caspian Sea - and what it's like being interviewed by an England legend...
How did the move to Azerbaijan come about?
The Tottenham job came through Gary Stevens, who played for Spurs and England in the 1980s. I was coaching with him, doing some private work together, and he said there was a job going. I was ready for a new challenge, so I applied and got it. I was working four or five days a week, still on a part-time salary, so it was hard - especially as I was travelling from Tunbridge Wells to Enfield or Chigwell. But if you haven't been a pro, it's part of a coach's apprenticeship.
In May 2010, Gary became assistant manager to Tony Adams at Gabala. I was in Vienna, working with Spurs at a tournament, when Gary sent me an email, saying Tony wanted a development coach. He put my name forward - with no guarantees - but it went cold until early June. Then I got a call from Tony, saying "Can you meet me in London next week for an interview?"
What was your reaction?
It was a bit of a "wow" moment. I'd worked with big names before - at Chelsea I'd see Jose Mourinho, I'd have coffee with Brendan Rogers - but a personal call is something else. When I met him, he was very down to earth - after two minutes, you forgot you were speaking to Tony Adams. For him, the most important thing was my passion and desire. He's not silly - he knew I had a lot to learn - but he didn't want me moving to Azerbaijan, then coming home after three weeks. Things went cold for a while, but in late June Tony called me saying, "Get on a plane on Monday - I need you out here."
What were your initial impressions of Azerbaijan?
When I arrived, it was fantastic. Forty degrees, beautiful scenery, and I was working full-time with Gary Stevens and Tony Adams. After a while, you begin to miss little things from home, of course you do. I stayed in a hotel, which meant I was living out of a suitcase for two years. But overall, it was a fantastic time, and I learned so much. I became a man, really.
The best thing about British people is, they make you laugh. We signed (former Derby and Portsmouth striker) Deon Burton, we had the Scottish goalkeeper Graeme Smith (once of Motherwell and Hibernian), and we had a good time. Living over there, a long way from home, you needed that. It wasn't an easy place to settle, and I saw a lot of foreign players come and go.
Tony left in October 2011, but I stayed until the end of the season, which was May. I was doing a good job - the reserves were second in the league, we produced more players for the national youth teams than we'd ever done. When my contract ended, the president of Gabala wanted to go in a new direction, bringing in Spanish coaches. That happens in football. You have to accept it.
Was it difficult when you returned to England?
When I came back I was looking for work for six months. It was difficult, and your belief starts to waver. You're married, you're starting a family, and you think "What am I doing?" I was applying for Under-9 academy jobs, Under-10s, and getting nowhere. It was Premier League clubs, Championship, League One, League Two. In all that time, I got one interview. When you work outside England, it's like you disappear. Never mind that you've worked full-time with top players; you're treated like you haven't worked at all.
The English club that interviewed me, offered me a job. But at the same time, I got a call from Azal, an Azeri Premier League club based in the capital, Baku. I flew out on the night flight on December 23rd (2012). I landed on the 24th, they had me in at midday, we shook hands, and I jumped back on the plane. I got back late on the 24th, and had Christmas Day at home. It was a busy couple of days!
I got this job because of the good work I did at Gabala. There, I was a young coach. Now I'm treated with a lot of respect, because what I've done in the past. When I was 16, I mapped out where I wanted to be when I was 35, and I'm on course for that. I wanted to coach at the top level - not necessarily in England - and I wanted my UEFA Pro Licence, which I'm doing next year. I've gained more experience than I could have dreamed of in England. I have to pinch myself sometimes.
Are you enjoying coaching the Azeri players?
I like to give young players freedom and confidence. When people play with no fear, they improve. I've really seen that in the past three or four years. They're not used to an English coach saying "Actually, I don't mind you making a mistake. Try something new." They puff their chest out; they're like a new player.
Is the language a problem?
I speak okay Azeri. I can get by. With Russian, I'm not too clever. My wife's laughing when I say this - she's Russian but she speaks English, which makes me a bit lazy. Russian is definitely on my list though. Young coaches need at least two big languages now. When I coach, I use a bit of English, a bit of Azeri, but football is one language. You show them, you work on a tactics board. You get by.
And will you be staying in Azerbaijan?
When you're out of work, you can't get anything, as I found. But now I'm in work, I've had two or three offers in the past few months! A reserve team position in Europe, something came up in Asia, and there has been another club here asking about me. I've rejected them because I want to see out this project. I'm fully committed to it: I've got 18 months left on my contract and I want to stay.