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Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Interview: Peter Butler - From West Ham To South East Asia

Ex-West Ham and West Brom player Peter Butler is still only 41 years old but he has already coached in five different countries.

After leaving his post as reserve coach of Halifax in 2001, Butler moved to Australia where he worked with Sorrento Soccer Club in Perth. In 2003, the former tough-tackling midfielder took over Malaysian club Sabah before heading to Singapore and eight months as head coach of Singapore Armed Forces. He is now in charge of Indonesian outfit Persiba Balikpapan and he found time to talk to Asia.

Your first coaching job was at Halifax?

Yes, I started there. I was at West Brom and wanted to leave and start coaching. It was an opportunity for me to get all my licenses. I enjoyed it. I am from Halifax and I wanted to end my career there. I went there as coach but I ended up playing about 70 games. It was a great experience.

When the manager there was sacked, Paul Bracewell came in and wanted to bring in his own people. That was fair enough. So I thought ‘what do I do now?’ I could have sat on my backside and wait for a nother job –there were offers to stay in England – but then the position in Australia came up.

What was the Australian job?

I was director of an academy at a state league side in Perth. I set up programs there for 11-18 year-olds and it was a great experience. There were some good young kids in the system there. The problem is that at 14-15, they fall out of the system, maybe go on to Aussie Rules Football or something completely different and they are then lost to the game.

Can Australia become a major football power?

I feel that Australia could become a real power in Asia without a doubt. They have the new league set up and they have to give it 5-10 years. Then they can look at leagues like Japan and Korea as models. They have to be patient. A lot of planning and thought has gone into it.

There are some very good players and athletes in Australia but they are always competing against Aussie Rules, Rugby, cricket etc. There is some good stuff going on there at youth level and I have no doubt in the future that they will be a powerhouse.

How was the standard in Australia compared to England’s lower leagues?

It is a difficult question and not really fair to compare. The English lower leagues are very tough. It is all hustle-and-bustle, cut-and-thrust, they are unique in the world of football. Australia was a lot slower but different. The A-League is new but it has potential to be very big.

Moving from England to Australia is perhaps not such a big move culturally but then going from Australia to South-east Asia must have been very different.

It was a big culture shock but i was surprised at how easily I settled and got into it. It was a wonderful learning curve. If you want to test yourself then Asia is a great place to work. I went to East Malaysia and they are great people. They love football.

It seems these days that Malaysian fans love English football and are less interested in their domestic game. Is that correct?

When I was there they were developing the Super League and I took Sabah to the Super League. When I joined Sabah they used to get crowds of 2,000. From the day I went there, we got a lot of success and we got to the cup final and played in front of 80,000.

It was my first season, took them to the Super League and the final and I did it with a team of kids. We went from having crowds of 2,000 to having crowds of 30,000.

Since then, in the past two or three years, I can’t believe how much it has gone downhill. Sponsors have pulled out, there has been a lot of mismanagement, a lot of politicking, politicicians getting involved for their own reasons. Malaysians love football and their domestic football but in the last two or three years, a lot of people have become disillusioned with it.

The Asian Cup was a disaster from a Malaysian point of view…

I took my kids to a game during the Asian Cup but there was nobody there –it was so sad. They have wonderful stadiums, some great people doing some good work there. They need to develop the system slowly and be patient. The big issue in Asia is all about winning a trophy – it’s all win, win, win. They have to lose that mentality and start thinking about development, getting a coach education system in place.

I can actually see Malaysian football coming back domestically in the future irrespective of the failures of the national team at respective international competitions recently in south east asia, but it will take a long time and a lot of hard work from top to bottom. I believe it is good that the government has decided to start taking a closer look at the state of Malaysian football and people should be made accountable for the failures at development level and national level. They need to place people in positions of responsibility with overseas experience who can help the local coaches and educate them with what is going on in the global game.

Then you went to Singapore – a smaller country but with much more success in football.

When I first went there, there were about 1,000 in the stadium again. They love English football in Singapore but they don’t watch their local football. I would say the majority of Chinese/ Singaporeans only go to the stadium not because they are interested in the quality of the football only because they have money on the game.

The Singapore national team coach (Raddy Avramovic) has done a good job. A lot of people are critical that he has allowed four or five overseas players to naturalise and get citizenship. I have seen what the Singapore FA are doing and they are trying.

There is some good stuff going on in Singapore but it is a non-competitive league. Three teams –Home United, Tampines and Singapore Armed Forces – who I was coach of- are in it. Apart from those three, it is by far the weakest league in south-east Asia.

You are only 41 yet have coached in five countries. What kind of coach are you and how have you grown from your experience?

When I started, I wanted to coach in as many countries as I could in order to get experience. From a cultural point of view, you have to embrace their culture and throw yourself into it. I think I am far from a typical English coach. I have a very open mind. You have to learn how to deal with difficult people and you must improvise. Improvisation is the key to working in this part of the world. You have to be flexible – if you are stubborn, you have no chance of success. I learned that the hard way and it has not only made me a better coach but it has also made me a better person.

Can you give an example of a football cultural difference?

Well, there are presidents calling you on the bench telling you to change the team (laughs). It is knowing how far you can push the players. Getting Malayisans in in the morning for strength and conditioning work and then getting them in the afternoon and doing ball work in the afternoon. You have to gain their trust and show them the reason why they are doing it.

If you do that in Australia or England then it is no problem, they’ll do it, they want to get stronger and fitter. In Malaysia you have to cajole them and show they why they should do it. Indonesians are a little different, they want to work. If you get them up at seven in the morning and get they in the gym, they’ll be there.

I have taken a lot of things from Indonesia and Malaysia and have adopted them into my personality. I learn things from then. You can’t rant and rave at the players. You lose a lot of face by shouting. I don’t, I talk to them and get them believing in what we are doing and trusting me. I am like a father figure to them.

If you were to coach in England again, what kind of things would you take from Asia as a coach?

I would take a great deal. Things such as being patient, putting things in place and developing slowly.

Now you are in Indonesia. Some say that potentially, Indonesia is the strongest SE Asian nation. Would you agree with that?

Without a doubt. Some of the players I work with are very talented and could move on to play in different leagues. I am not saying that they are ready for Europe as I don’t think they are. They have to become stronger mentally. People talk about their physique but I don’t think that is such a big handicap. There are some strong Indonesian boys. I think you can overcome that. They have a willingness to work and potentially I can see the potential in Indonesia is massive.

Last week, we lost a league game in front of 45,000 people. I said to my assistant that ‘this is just like England.’ Indonesians are always singing, they never stop. That club is a big one, while mine is small but I thought they if you could bottle this atmosphere and take it back to the UK well…

I got a taste of that during the Asian Cup in Jakarta. The atmosphere was fantastic.

The clubs are like that too.

So then why isn’t Indonesia better? What’s the problem?

First, they have to get a coach education program. The Vision Asia project is a great idea through the AFC. They have to be willing to change and not be afraid of change. They have to be willing for some people to step aside to let things move forward. There are no real development programs. Most of these kids haven’t been coached. Indonesian coaches don’t really coach the youngsters, they just let them play. Sometimes that is great and kids can express themselves.

In the UK, we got to a stage where kids are being overcoached. There are more programs than ever in the British system but we don’t produce any better players than we did 15 or 20 years ago with the old apprentice scheme.

When Howard Wilkinson introduced the Charter for Quality, I could see there were going to be problems. We have created a monster. Kids now at 16,17 etc are earning 10,000 pounds a week. They are spoiled. We produce kids now without that hunger and passion. This charter for quality means that kids no longer do the menial jobs like cleaning the dressing room etc. Kids in the UK don’t appreciate what they have – fantastic training grounds, food etc

What is your proudest achievement as a coach?

If you’re talking about winning silverware then I haven’t really won any. I have always joined clubs who wanted to construct a new team. I have never joined a team with stars, they have always been mid-table or at the bottom and I have taken them up.

At every club, I have always brought in young players. At Sabah, I brought in six young lads. I am a big believer in giving youth a chance. Taking Sabah into the Super League and the Malaysian Cup final was a big achievement as we were punching above our weight. We had no stars. At Singapore, I was there for eight months and we were top of the league. I resigned because of interference from the general manager there.

Here, I have brought in a lot of young lads. You don’t always measure success by wining trophies but by building a team for the future.

What are your future plans?

I want to stay in Asia or go to the Middle-East. I like working in this region. I am ambitious and I would like to take on a new challenge – perhaps West Asia or Japan, Korea and China.

John Duerden

Asia Editor

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