AN HONEST RESPONSE IS EXACTLY WHAT THE PRESS LIKE TO HEAR as often as possible, in any line of questioning. What’s all the more alluring is a touch of some interest and intrigue; it certainly doesn’t hurt. So when I get in touch with Steve Darby I’m more than a little glad there’s no shortage of either ingredient in his very giving responses. As coach of the Laos national team, Darby might be a world away from the hype and sensationalism that currently clings to the underbelly of modern football, but if you listen closely, it’s clear he has more than a few insightful nuggets to offer.
A realistic figure, he’s as approachable a man as you can get – and there’s very little he’s shy in discussing.
He began his footballing journey with Liverpool’s youth side as a goalkeeper before his sights quickly turned to the world of management, and in over 40 years in football he’s not been without a post for longer than a month, having often led teams to silverware and success in countries such as Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam and beyond. In demand and full of an immense amount of knowledge about the game, his approach has seen him carve out an impressive body of work, holding an array of different roles over the years, ranging from youth club coach to assistant coach as well as head honcho on the international scene.
Having rubbed shoulders with the likes of Fabio Capello, Bryan Robson and Nicolas Anelka, he’s learned from – and assisted – some of the most talented names in the sport, so it’s little wonder he’s managed to forge such a long and fruitful career right up to this very day. That said, he’s brought his own spin to the game along the way, something which has, no doubt, played a hugely key role in what he’s managed to achieve so far.
Speaking exclusively to These Football Times recently, I began by asking the experienced coach about the possibility of entertaining a role away from Asia, perhaps even back in his native England.
“I think that opportunity has gone sadly. As you have to be honest and say I would love to have coached at the highest level I could in England and of course the dream would have been Liverpool or Everton. But better coaches than me have not achieved this,” he tells me.
“I had a spell as youth coach at Sheffield Wednesday and worked with great coaches such as Terry Yorath and Willy Donachie and Martin Hodge. But I was working 80 hours a week for low money and I was offered to quadruple my salary by a Singapore team so it was no choice really. I’ve worked non-stop coaching since 1978 and not been without a football job longer than a month. Also worked in 11 different countries and visited over 50 through football so I can’t complain. The game has made me comfortable and I have met some tremendous people including kings, queens, sultans and prime ministers as well as a few mafia and triads. But the latter were lovely people!”
There’s a humorous warmth to his stuffed replies, and I get the impression that this is one of Darby’s biggest strengths. Undoubtedly one of the most experienced coaches I’ve spoken to so far, his 37 years in the game as mentor and boss are a testament to his staying power, so I’m interested to find out what reservoirs he’s drawn from over time to help him maintain a place in the modern game.
Indeed, having traversed the globe far and wide, the stories and insights on the game he has to provide are enticing to say the least. What’s more, his push to treat his players with consideration, humanity and regard tells me that he isn’t in the game simply to make a living and get by comfortably. No, he has his sights set on helping to drastically revolutionise the way Laos not only play, but think about the beautiful game, too.
“The older you get you have to say experience. I’ve learnt from many coaches and also learnt from many mistakes. I’d like to think I am a player’s coach, and I’m in contact with many of my ex-players. It’s also pleasing to see many of them go on to coaching themselves. If you haven’t got the players I wouldn’t enjoy going in to work. You have to be honest and treat them as people first and with respect. The rest will come. I must admit, in hindsight, I wish I hadn’t had so many battles with administrators, but I strongly believe you should die on your feet rather than live on your knees.
“But you have to have passion for the game and a sense of humour helps, especially when you’ve been tear-gassed in Bahrain, played in front of silent monks in Thailand, been spat on in Malaysia and have your players drink Kava at half time.”
My curiosity piqued, there’s plenty more to discuss, not least his current role attempting to give the Lao public something to cheer on the football field. Facing a really tough task, his aforementioned experience will certainly be a useful crutch in the coming months as he looks to make them a more competitive outfit.
At present, they’ve only recently set off on what’s expected to be quite a bumpy road to World Cup qualification from Group G. Although it’s not anticipated they’ll create fireworks and go all the way, it’s obvious that Darby, ever the go-getter, is the man to guide them towards a good account of themselves at the very least.
When pushed for his feelings on how his team can learn to compete on a more regular basis, he returns with a response jam-packed with all the obstacles his team currently faces. For many, the load would normally be too crushing to bear, but the ex-Mumbai City assistant coach is far from fazed by it all and seems eager to steer clear of any negativity, opting instead to coolly assess the reality of the footballing culture he currently inhabits.
“I think the phrase challenging on a consistent basis is excellent. We are not going to win the World Cup whoever is coach, but we must be competitive at ASEAN level, which we now are, and then start to build results against big Asian teams. What are our challenges? Firstly population as we only have six million people compared to a 100 million in Thailand and 200 million in Indonesia. But also to add to that – government, not football, policy will not allow us to play anybody from abroad even if they have Lao parents.
“Other countries like Singapore and Timor Leste are naturalizing players, Thailand and Malaysia allow you to play if you have one parent nationality, but we cannot get a player unless they give up their other passport and request Lao citizenship. There is no dual citizenship. We have a player by the name of Billy Keo who plays in League Une and has two Laos parents but we can’t get him a passport so he can play for us. Guam who I have the utmost respect for are doing the opposite and it is paying off tremendously for them.
“The other reality of challenging is of course economics. Laos is a poor country with a low GDP and parts are also off limits due to unexploded bombs – an issue I could talk for hours about – so without funds you have poor facilities, poor human nutrition and the cycle continues.”
It’s an unenviable task but Darby clearly isn’t put off by the numerous restrictions and barriers in the way and favours a more optimistic outlook, keen to cite all the good that is being done to get Laos on a par with some of the other national teams around them, a task, he tells me, that has included his players taking on board a cockroach diet – talk about commitment.
Ultimately, this is a difficult undertaking for anybody and it’s a real testament to what the 60-year-old coach is open to tackling. In short, this is a role that requires bravery, patience and self-belief in the face of adversity, something that the coach and the players are in no short supply of at present.
I prompt him to discuss more about the good work being done behind the scenes as well as the distinctions he draws between his own set-up and those of his competitors.
“The Laos Football Federation are doing a superb job in maximizing the development funds from AFC and FIFA and at the national training center we have two artificial pitches and a gym. Without this funding we would struggle to run national programs. We are also working with the World Food Programme to use football to educate children and parents on correct diet.
“On a more micro level our players have to work. So before going to Korea I have to write to the employer of my central midfielder to get him off work. When we are in Laos training we have to train at 5pm so the players can come after work. I don’t think Uli Stieleke will have that problem with his EPL and Bundesliga players.”
As for what he expects to accomplish on the road to Russia, he refuses to migrate away from his genuinely pragmatic outlook, responding with his characteristic humour to boot. In fact, looking at what they have achieved as a unit so far, it’s hard to argue with his sensible sound bites.
“Tough. I’m certainly not starting Russian lessons yet.
“My first aim was to ensure professional and respectable results. If you are naïve and go all-out attack against teams like Korea and Kuwait you may win the odd game, but you will almost certainly get battered in the rest. Getting beaten by large scores doesn’t do the players good. You have to first be competitive, get 1-0 wins or draws and if you lose, lose by proper scores. So far, our four matches have gone that way and our players are growing in confidence which is so important.”
Looking at the four results mentioned by Darby, it’s clear they have come a long way since he jumped on board last year. Sure, they lost to Afghanistan in a friendly back in mid-May, but they also drew with Cambodia a few weeks later to regain some composure.
Indeed, their opening qualifier saw them pull off an encouraging 2-2 draw against Myanmar and although they have since lost to Lebanon, the signs are there that they are becoming competitive.
Our discussion trails off into where Darby has gained his inspiration, and I ask him specifically about who has made the biggest impression on his career philosophies. Although his selection is one that is often trundled out, he has excellent reason to do so, not least because he actually came face-to-face with one of the most legendary names in the history of football.
“The biggest influence is of course Bill Shankly as he stands for everything that I feel is right in the game. As I have gotten older, I do think the game has values and ethics and is an influence on many people’s lives. I was lucky enough to meet him when I was just starting out. He was wonderful. He gave me his time and his wisdom. I just wish smart phones had been invented then as I would have kept the conversation – well really it was a monologue – forever.”
In truth, it’s not easy to tell where this side will go or how they will fare in the long run. Facing battles on a variety of fronts, the hardship they face would be testing for even the most supernaturally skilled of footballers, and it would be easy for them – and Darby – to feel disheartened by the suffocating weight of it all.
However, that hasn’t come across in the Laos coach’s words in the slightest bit. Instead, he’s empowered by it all and sounds grateful to be where he is. While their success is not guaranteed, what’s all the more easy to envisage is how hard they will battle, and how proud they should be of their efforts under a boss who’s seen it all.
By Trevor Murray. Follow @TrevorM90