NOT SO LONG AGO, a chat about the state of football in the tiny US island territory of Guam would have been greeted almost immediately with derisive comments about their habit for losing games by overwhelming margins. Although it’s true they have a long history of getting royally thumped by pretty much anyone, it’s fair to say they’ve often been a far too easy target for the bigger teams around them.
Until, that is, the arrival of their enigmatic English manager Gary White.
Anyone with half an interest in sport loves a good underdog story, and the Guamanians are certainly doing their best to shine as the latest and brightest example of what the little guy can do against all the odds. Except, you get the impression they don’t just want to be the surprise package forever – they want to dwarf the pre-existing preconceptions in the same way that they have been overshadowed for so long, and White is doing a tremendous job of making sure it’s not just a pipe-dream of theirs anymore.
Recently, our very own Tomos Knox wrote up an insightful feature here on TFT outlining the dramatic, and exciting, turn-around that has taken place under the watch of the Southampton-born coach, with highlights that have so far included going from being that team who lost 19-0 against Iran to the side who have successfully managed to jump to top spot in their World Cup qualification group, outmuscling the Iranians – and others – along the way. Talk about a turn up for the books.
I caught up with White recently and, speaking exclusively to These Football Times from Japan, he opened up about his own journey to reach this point, revealing one or two very key, not to mention fascinating, milestones from his experiences to date.
“When it didn’t pan out for me in England, I ended up going and playing in Australia and I had already started coaching at that point; Sue Lopez was one of the first people that really put me on to football. She was the Hampshire FA Director of Football at the time. I had gone through a course and met her and she really inspired me to get into coaching whilst playing.”
From there, it took what White himself called a “come to Jesus moment” for him to realise that it was indeed coaching, and not playing, that he really wanted to pursue long-term. It was a decision that was largely motivated by the simple fact that this field was set to become a densely-populated one. With big names constantly getting ready to join the party, White opted to try and get ahead of the curve early.
“At that point I made a conscious decision that I needed 10 years headstart on those big players that are going to retire, and the only way I’m going to get myself in front is to get coaching now and getting the experience because my playing background won’t put me in front of these people. So, it was actually a very mature moment for me to decide coaching was my future.”
And that maturity has really shone through in so many of his career decisions. Opting to toil with the British Virgin Islands for a year, starting in 1998 before coming to Guam via the Bahamas, he gave himself the unlikely platform to showcase his own talents in an atmosphere that escaped some of the unwanted pressure. And it was a destination that, although certainly not top of most budding managers’ wish-lists, fulfilled a few niche personal requirements for White, not least his innate wish to do something different, and to take up a really unique challenge.
“I never wanted to be ordinary. The reality was that my environment was pretty ordinary, growing up. I had a great childhood, but it was just standard. And I always wanted to be different, and I think coaching was the mechanism to allow me to do it, and obviously football too. I just decided at that point that coaching was what I wanted to do. I actually had a lot more passion for coaching than I did playing. I think if I’d had the same passion as a player, I would have actually made it a lot higher – I just didn’t have same desire and drive as I do as a coach.”
It’s hard to find fault with White’s insightful comments. Looking at what he’s managed to achieve with Guam since taking charge, it’s clear he’s helped keep his eccentric candle burning strongly and is undeniably as driven as he openly admits – but his career decisions haven’t been different for the sake of it as he’s aimed to use each stop-over along the way as educational fuel.
Indeed, his record with the Nature Boyz was even better than that of André Villas-Boas who followed on from him there a year later, before eventually going on to coach at quite a high level on the club stage with Tottenham Hotspur and Zenit St. Petersburg. But White isn’t overly concerned with the more obvious strides made by the Portuguese manager, and he seems fairly confident in his own abilities to continue improving, with his sights set firmly on a club job at some point in the very near future. Indeed, the Guam head honcho seems confident that his record and his in-depth knowledge is more than a match for any mind in the modern game, without exception.
When probed a little more about any parallels he might draw between himself and AVB – one of the best young coaches in the business – White pulls no punches with his assessment.
“Well, my results were far stronger than his! But at the end of the day, in all seriousness, I know where I want to be and I know how to get there, and it’s now just a question of me believing that when a thing is ready for you, it makes an appearance. I think I’m very ready right now to move on, obviously after the World Cup with Guam, and I think the next step for me is a club job.”
Unique in many senses of the word, the 40-year-old coach who believes in being adaptable, proactive and humanist towards his players is motivated by something a little more mainstream, too – the desire to be the best.
Genuinely, I get the sense from White that he has it in him to get very close to that milestone, and his self-belief, although very cautious, is unwavering when I bring it up mid-way through our chat, making specific reference to his desire to one day become the main man in the hot-seat as manager of the English national team.
“I think it all depends on me. If I fix my mind on a thing, I know I will get it, and I’ve had that same personal philosophy, and life philosophy, for a long time, and everything I’ve ever set my mind to I’ve never not got. So, as long as I keep thinking and managing myself in terms of my thoughts and who I surround myself with, nothing can stop me – it’s just a question of staying mentally focused on what you want and doing the work. I have no problem doing the work. I think I understand how to get what I want out of life. People may look at that as a flippant remark about wanting to coach England, but for me it’s a definite desire.”
Drawing on his own resilience and wealth of experience, there’s little doubting how serious he is in battling his way to the top, and when he does eventually part ways with the romance he’s helped cultivate with the Guamanians, there are sure to be more than a few broken hearts. Of course, as he tells me himself, that’s not going to happen until after their journey to the World Cup in Russia comes to an end – whenever that actually happens remains be seen, because they’re currently on course to give it a really good go.
When I finally get round to discussing with him just how well everything’s gone with the Matao so far, the magnitude of their achievements, fuelled by White’s no-fear attitude as well as the amazing support base they have, becomes yet clearer still.
“My support base in Guam is world class and a main reason for our success. I have in my president Mr Richard Lai the most inspirational and passionate leader I’ve met anywhere, and our team of executives and staff are the true champions.
“The goal going into the first set of games was to be top of the group, and people laughed at me when I said that, but they’re not laughing so much anymore.
“When we were put in the group with Iran which is the number one team in Asia and is a fantastic team with some fantastic players playing all over the world – Iran, Oman, India, Turkmenistan – nobody gave us a chance. We’re the smallest country by 10 times, the next smallest country in Asia is ten times bigger than us, and they’re still small.
“They didn’t give us much chance when we started and now we sit top of the group. The next game in the group is Iran [away, in September] and we wanted to be top of that group because we wanted this game to be important. If we were bottom of the group at this point, Iran wouldn’t take it serious. I’ve done various interviews with Iranian media now and they’re taking us seriously, we’re getting the respect that we deserve and we hope that the crowd is 128,000 in the Azadi Stadium, that’s what we want, we don’t fear that; that’s the belief and mentality within my camp. So, the players are as ready as they’ll ever be to go up against such a massive game.”
Reflecting back on their biggest victory to date, I’m expecting him to make reference to their win over India, a 2-1 victory that confirmed their capacity to mix it with top-quality outfits under extra pressure and attention; it was a match that pitted two English coaches against each other and bore witness to a surprising win for White’s tactics, hard work and the team’s dedication under his expert stewardship. It was also a match that saw Guam leapfrog them in the FIFA world rankings, the most recent step in an astonishing ascent that has seen them climb an incredible 41 places in just two years.
But no, White catches me off guard with his initial reply, going with the grain of his characteristic off-beat sense of value – and for good reason, too, as he opts to choose not just one particular moment to savour but the whole spectrum of the last few months and years.
“I think our biggest win, in terms of what it did for the program, was when we first beat Taiwan. And Taiwan used to regularly beat Guam in double figures, and when we beat them 3-0 a couple of years ago, I think that was a real turning point because it really helped the players to have evidence that what we’re doing is right.
“Obviously the win against India was massive, the win against Turkmenistan was huge – it was the first international FIFA World Cup game that we held in Guam, it was the first game that Guam had ever sold tickets for a game, the place was packed there was thousands of people there.
That was an amazing experience; it was historic, against a very good team. Turkmenistan went and tied with Iran in the next game, so it gives you an idea of the quality of team they were, and for us to beat them, and then five days later turned round and beat India, it was fantastic.”
At one point, in our chat, White tells me he’s recently welcomed a brand new addition into his life with the arrival of a new-born baby in July, and the symmetry between the birth of his son, Flash Yutaka White, and the manner in which he’s helped nurture and transform Guam from a helpless team into one more than capable of fending for itself, certainly isn’t lost on me.
As our conversation reaches its natural conclusion, White sounds off with some inspiring words on exactly what their rapid growth has meant at a more basic, tangible level and how it’s helped give the small island nation big dreams and big hope for the future.
“But you know what the best thing about it was – my players in the changing room afterwards. There wasn’t a sense of relief, it was more of a sense of disappointment because they’d let a goal in [against India], and that gives you an idea of the environment that the players are in.
“Watching them against India, I was like a proud father. These players have come such a long way and we played so well. The confidence that those two games have given the program is immense. The confidence it’s given to the people of Guam to follow something has been great. You watch the kids at the game against India, for two hours people lining up getting photos and signatures – I’ve never seen that anywhere.
“We’ve inspired the nation. We won’t know what we’ve achieved by getting those results until ten years from today when maybe one of the kids that were there watching is getting interviewed after signing a big contract – and somebody asks them the same question; ‘What was your turning point?’”
By Trevor Murray. Follow @TrevorM90