Eighteen months ago, Ray Power had to pull up a map on Google to find out exactly where Tanzania was located, but nowadays he’s right at home in the east-African country. He’s an FA Coach Educator, published author and has earned his A-licence developing talent for Premier League outfit Sunderland.
That’s some turnaround in such a short space of time, and although the Irish populace have generally been adept at finding their feet abroad, it’s hard not to admire the unique progress he has made.
Even those most clearly tuned into the airwaves generated by anyone from the Emerald Isle could probably count the amount of coaches and managers plying their trade overseas on one hand – suffice to say, it’s not entirely common for them to strike out in a foreign land, but Power has taken little heed of that, opting to pursue the adventure of a really distinctive challenge.
So, what inspired the 33-year-old to become an academy manager in conjunction with the Black Cats, and what are the facilities like over there?
“I came to Tanzania in July 2015 after a number of years in academy football in England. Several factors inspired the move – namely there was a clear project that I could put my own stamp on. It was an opportunity to work with elite-level youth players from a different background, with professional players, and manage an elite academy in my own image,” Power exclusively tells These Football Times.
“There is also a significant element of coach education and coach mentoring which is a passion of mine. I guess an offer to work in a part of the world that most people don’t get to experience was also a big factor.
“We have a unique facility here that is right in the centre of Dar es Salaam – the country’s biggest city. It is truly a world-class environment that you could find anywhere in Europe. To maximise our location we engage not just with elite academy-level players, but with the wider youth population too,” he adds.
Moving to another country without your family around to support you can’t be an easy undertaking for anyone, and Power admits he did experience a few stumbling blocks at first. However, even the biggest challenges he faces with his job are ones he’s learned to deal with quite well, and he has learned how to handle problems of age verification, citing one memorable attempt to verify a player’s age near the beginning of his journey as something he’s learned from, and learned to laugh about.
“Yes, I suppose I did [experience a culture shock], although I also had and still have some good people around me to help with the transition. Missing my family is by far the biggest drawback here so I spend a lot of hours on FaceTime.
“Work wise one of the greatest challenges here is around age and proof of identity. Players can literally be whatever age they need to be, depending on what’s necessary. We had a guy who must have been at least 22 who we turned away when he turned up for an under-16 trial, only to have him come back the follow day to trial as an under-15,” he jokes.
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Suffice to say, this role is not for the faint of heart, but the Irish coach is well used to it all by now.
Before jumping at this opportunity, Power was head of football at Central College Nottingham and had worked extensively at Conference level for several years so it’s fair to say that he rolled the dice somewhat with such an eccentric move.
Importantly, though, the Waterford-born soccer aficionado didn’t opt to accept the task to turn heads, even if that is part of what he has managed, because he’s taken up residence in a bustling metropolis of nearly five million inhabitants for a more public-spirited reason: to help nurture young talent, to pass on his knowledge and to, ultimately, influence the future of football for so many aspiring performers.
“I coach on, but mainly oversee, our under-12 soccer schools, our under-12 Elite Soccer School and our academy teams at under-14 and under-16. For all these we have a comprehensive Long Term Player Development curriculum,” Power says.
Some will have heard of the undertakings made by League of Ireland stalwart Alan Keane to briefly take charge of the Isle of Man in the recent past or how the little-known Jack Ryan is coaching as part of the New York Red Bulls’ underage set-up in MLS. Indeed, the past exploits of the likes of Republic of Ireland legend David O’Leary at Al-Ahli or Brian Kerr with the Faroe Islands fleshes the history out a bit, but overall these days there are not many Irish names testing themselves in foreign parts.
So, at a time when most of his countrymen opt to stay put at home or in Great Britain, does Power recommend the overall experience of walking a path paved with excitement, uncertainty and numerous obstacles?
“It is hard not to recommend new experiences – it has certainly made me a better coach, and also a better communicator. Most kids here do not speak English, so for the sake of the coach translating I need to carefully pick and choose what I say and be clear and concise.
“This is a challenge, but a great learning curve. I cannot really comment on coaches staying at home, because going abroad is simply not an option for some. Sometimes life takes over where risks like that cannot really be taken. The top earning coaches can take those risks, but the vast majority cannot. Moving around based on the job on offer was a decision of mine and my family, so we make it work. I guess if I ever relocated back in Ireland, I would have a CV like nobody else has, which is a plus.”
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It’s turned out well for him so far, and as he approaches the two-year mark monitoring the growth of so many youth footballers, it’s obvious that he has adapted well to it all and is truly settled as part of the furniture.
All involved have clearly taken to the messages and philosophy that he has been trying to spread in Tanzania, and it’s a further credit to him that, despite not being fluent in Swahili, he has engaged these youngsters, coaxed them into buying into, and adapting to, the approach he’s been rolling out for them.
Creating, maintaining and tweaking one’s philosophy are all necessary if one wants to make it as a professional, so I’m interested to find out more about Power’s football credo – as a rising influence in the game, he has already helped so many aspiring coaches improve their performances, and it’s refreshing to hear an Irish coach discuss a proactive outlook instead of relying on the archaic long-ball, hard-work method.
“My philosophy is to have players train with the ball and where everything we do is related directly to the game. To people outside the football world that may seem very obvious, but you will be amazed with how many sessions I see where players train without the ball, spend most of their time in queues or routinely passing [or] dribbling from one cone to another.
“I aim to put players into positions where they are constantly dealing with the randomness of the game of football and are constantly making decisions. This was the inspiration behind the Deliberate Soccer Practice series that I have had published recently. My views on the game are to dominate the ball through possession, be fluid in the attacking half of the pitch, have players express themselves and ultimately to be able to attack and defend in both boxes – that is where games are won and lost.
“So I guess my one piece of advice to both coaches and players would be to embrace the randomness of the game and prepare players to be able to deal with this – and not just having experience of standing on the training pitch in a queue to complete some pre-described move.”
Accepting the unpredictable, then, has certainly been a theme of his both on and off the pitch.
Ireland is crying out for coaches of his ilk to come in and shake things up because while it’s fair to say that football on the Emerald Isle is going through somewhat of a purple patch with Martin O’ Neill’s troops top of their World Cup qualifying group and domestic champions Dundalk FC enjoying some real success on the continental stage of the Europa League, it is now that more and more needs to be done to boost standards and get youngsters participating in the beautiful game; the embers of excitement need to be stoked to get a real fire going.
Indeed, Power is open to a move back to his homeland but remains realistic enough to know that anything could happen in the coming months as he plots any upcoming moves.
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“It is so hard to predict next steps in this game. Just prior to leaving England I was about to go full-time in coach education, rather than coaching or managing, so these things change quickly.
“A friend of mine [Louis Lancaster] recently moved to the coach in the Chinese Super League, another into coach education and another is manager of a small nation in Oceania. You could honestly swap those three guys around their jobs and all would do very well – it is often a matter of when and where these offers come from.”
Of course, the Irishman is creating a lot of buzz about his abilities and plenty of people are literally buying into his ideas as he is a best-selling international football author as well as a full-time coach. In his books, he mentions the practice of maximising player development and accelerating their learning while adopting the role of a coach who knows when to step in to instruct and when to allow his players to engage in problem-solving for themselves.
It’s certainly a confidence-instilling approach that makes a great deal of sense and it speaks volumes about how focused he is on giving footballers the skills they will need to use in all manner of situations and environments. He’s not simply content with making himself look good on the sidelines; he wants to see players learn, enjoy and improve so that they can lead fulfilled football careers. So who are his role models at a time where flashy, philosophising supremos are ten a penny?
“In football today I see a new wave of young, progressive coaches that are moving the game forward – and I am especially [drawn] to those who’s teams look to dominate the ball. Everywhere I have coached I have insisted on this.
“Pep Guardiola is the obvious one, but I also love watching and reading about the likes of Mauricio Pochettino at Tottenham Hotspur, Thomas Tuchel at Borussia Dortmund and Brendan Rodgers who’s now at Celtic. You could probably add Joachim Löw to that list with the German national team, and also some of the more experienced coaches like Arsène Wenger and Vicente del Bosque.
“Seeing how Stephen Kenny has Dundalk playing is also great, and in terms of fluid attacking, watching what Jürgen Klopp has done at Liverpool lately has been wonderful to see. In my eyes they are revolutionising the game and how it’s played and perceived. I try to watch and absorb as much from these guys, and others, as I can, keeping what I like and parking anything that conflicts.”
Nobody can accuse Ray Power of taking the easy route to success. Having travelled thousands of miles to test himself in a totally alien continent, he’s managed to make the most his time there so far and is going the distance as an influencer of the beautiful game.
Although he might not have his next destination mapped out just yet, what’s a little easier to see is that wherever he does wind up he’s likely to prove a big hit as he looks to continue spearheading a new generation of ground-breaking Irish coaches.
By Trevor Murray. Follow @TrevorM90