What were your immediate priorities both on and off the pitch when you took up your job as Philippines national team coach?
After arriving in the Philippines, I was given the task of guiding the team through the 2010 AFF Suzuki Cup qualifiers. There was no expectation mentioned. My aim was to have an effect on the team. After watching them in training it was obvious there was talent and effort. What was also obvious was their fitness. The squad was strong and fit, my job was to add to the quality of the football. Up until my arrival they had been trying to press teams high up the pitch and drive them into making mistakes. I continued using this tactic for the Long Teng Cup as a way of evaluating their ability to use it. It proved successful against the weaker teams, but the stronger teams were able to pass around us at will.
I duly sat down with team captain Aly Borromeo and discussed what he believed some of the problems were. He mentioned the 'Locals v Fil-Foreigners' divide within the ranks. (Fil-Foreigners are not naturalized, they are players born abroad to a Filipino parent or parents). Breaking down this divide became one of my top priorities. I appointed two team captains, Aly to represent the Fil-Foreigners and Emilio 'Chieffy' Caligdong to represent the local players.
The players who are regularly available for training are not always the players that end up playing the games. The Fil-Foreigners arrive in force before every competitive game. Dealing with that was problematic. As a team, we worked hard in training and any disputes were stamped out immediately. I purposely - and always humorously - made fun of established names in the squad, Aly will testify to that, so we all got used to laughing at each other. As a result, nobody was held in higher regard than anyone else. I tried to the best of my abilities to treat both Fil-Foreigners and locals with the same levels of attention and respect; any deviation from this approach was quickly brought to my attention by Chieffy.
All of these efforts paid off. If you watch the highlights of the 2010 Suzuki Cup goal against Singapore, you can see the local based guys I had on the bench that day as they are warming up behind the goal. When we score. Mark Ferrer, a player who never played a second of that Suzuki Cup, is going crazy celebrating the goal. That, for me, sums up the efforts and the steps forward we had made as a team.
Under your guidance, the Philippines shone at the 2010 Long Teng Cup in Chinese Taipei and then sensationally reached the Suzuki Cup semi-finals in the same year. Were you surprised at the success?
The Long Teng Cup was very much preparation in terms of trying players and tactics. As it turned out we played well and all the players performed well when given their opportunity. The first game against Hong Kong was my first competitive game as head coach. We lost 4-2, but those who saw the game will testify that we could have beaten Hong Kong and were actually beaten because of a number of basic defensive mistakes. This and the semi-final against Indonesia were the only competitive games I lost while in charge of the Philippines national team.
If you had told me at the end of the Long Teng Cup that we would go on to be Suzuki Cup semi-finalists I would have laughed - we were confident, but not crazy. The qualifiers in Laos were tough. Draws against Cambodia and Laos still did nothing to signify our oncoming success in the final stages. We were still using a pressing game and while it reaped dividends against Timor Leste (a 5-0 win) we held on for draws against the two more evenly matched teams, once scoring in the 94th minute to earn a point. We qualified on goal difference ahead of Cambodia. Going into the final stages we knew the teams were of a higher level. While the pressing game had worked to an extent, good players simply passed their way out of trouble. To continue with this tactic may well have been an attempt to play 'beautiful football' but it was also suicidal. We had to play to our strengths. We had to do things that we were good at.
Work was done on the training field to change the tactic, with defensive duties being number one on the players' priority list. Defensive responsibility was key to the way we set up. Every player knew which part of the field was his responsibility and what his role was. We set teams a challenge of breaking us down. Our aim was to be tough to beat. We looked at 45 minutes at a time, never any further forward than that. Hard work, effort, responsibility, motivation, teamwork, communication and support gave us a united strength that - as it proved - few teams could match.
While many in the squad were a little surprised when we achieved our goal of being tough to beat, everyone knew we had that sort of performance in us. We got stronger as the competition went on. Our belief grew. We believed that we were stronger than the other teams. Singapore's Daniel Bennett paid the team a huge compliment in the hotel lobby after our 1-1 draw in the opening game when he said: "We just don't play against teams like you guys, you will do well against Vietnam". I cannot speak highly enough of the collected team spirit that drove those players. Odds were overcome, obstacles were hurdled (a term I used a lot in the dressing room to identify problems within Philippines football) and history was written.
Do you believe the Philippines could have reached the Suzuki Cup final if you had not been forced to play both legs in Indonesia?
Maybe. Then again, if Neil Etheridge hadn't miss-kicked a long ball into the Laos penalty box in the 94th minute during the qualifiers, we wouldn't have had the opportunity in the first place. I'm not one for looking at the what ifs. If we had gone on to win the Suzuki Cup in 2010, would the positives that washed over football in the Philippines have been any different? For us, success was representing the country in the correct way in every game we played - win or lose. The players had got used to 'hurdling obstacles' in order to succeed, it was what we did.
Playing our home game in Indonesia was met with a muted reaction. It was almost expected. Talk of Federations selling/buying the venue for the game were in the papers and on social media sites, this though was standard behaviour and did little to disturb the players. I for one was disappointed for the guys. Given the effort that had put in to reach that level, I would have given anything for them to have played in front of their home support, their families, their loved ones and their new found supporters. In fact, that is my one regret from my time with the Philippines, never being able to play a home game. I guess with this year's Suzuki Cup, losing in the semi-final two years ago does leave some room for improvement.
In your opinion, has the Philippines national side developed since you left? What about Philippines football as a whole? Is that still on an upward curve?
It's difficult for me to answer this, because while I have been watching the games, I don't know enough to give a fact based answer. Obviously when bringing players in of a higher level, performances are going to improve. Money has been invested to produce an international standard stadium which is a huge step forward. Should the Philippines reach the semi-finals again, they can finally play a home game.
Results have been better and recent showings at the AFC Challenge Cup will have helped build confidence ahead of the Suzuki Cup. However, as in 2010, there is still a problem as regards which players will be available. With Neil Etheridge on loan at League 2 side Bristol Rovers, he is not likely to be released for the length of the tournament. Players like Stephan Schrock obviously make the team stronger given his ability and his experience in the German Bundesliga, but again, it is down to the club as to whether or not he will be able to join up with the squad. If a full strength squad is available, I believe the Philippines have a strong chance of once again being a major player at this year's tournament.
Football in the Philippines in general has developed on a nationwide scale. The national league, the UFL, is improving every season with games now live on TV and stadiums filling for club games. Grassroots programmes are commencing around the country to provide more people than ever before an opportunity to play the game. Coaches are being educated to top levels; this was something I saw for myself when enrolling in an AFC A license course in Manila during November 2011.
Nevertheless, the danger with such an upsurge in football's feel good factor is that it may lead to political intervention. As with Indonesia, the intervention of political bodies into football has led to an unprecedented situation with two national leagues, two Federations and two national teams. In order for football to continue to grow freely throughout the Philippines, it is crucial that any political interest is kept totally separate from the game and that footballing decisions are made by footballing people - not by businessmen, congressmen or politicians. This would give the Philippines the chance to not only catch other Southeast Asian nations, but actually overtake them.
You have witnessed football throughout SE Asia. What do you make of the general standard? What should be done to make that standard even better?
I think anyone who has been involved in Southeast Asian football could write a book on how to improve football in the region. As mentioned before, it's my humble belief that politics finds its way far too easily into Federations, leagues, and clubs. I believe that tougher policing of leagues by either the AFC or by FIFA would help restrict the political influence. On top of this, corruption in ASEAN football is rife and blatantly obvious. Little seems to be done to stamp out this cancer. Tougher sentences for individuals found to be messing with results, be that players, officials or club owners would surely make people think twice. Lifetime bans should be handed out to anyone found to be receiving or paying money to fix a result.
Every coach has his own set of war stories, but I recently watched an Indonesian Super League game live in the stadium. The referee gave a stone wall penalty. The offending player then proceeded to punch and kick the referee. I challenge anyone of the 10,000 spectators in the stadium to say they didn't see anything. This player then went on to help put the referee in a headlock, before chasing him from the field at the final whistle. All of this with no yellow card, in fact with no penalty of any description. When I asked the match commissioner what he was going to do about the scenes that we had all witnessed, he replied: "Well, this is Indonesia." For me, that attitude is not enough, nor is it acceptable. Better refereeing standards may not alleviate this particular problem, but it would go some way to improving the standard of the league.
The standard of play is high. Players are often very technical but have a lack of footballing knowledge. Decision making is a difficult skill for the average player to undertake due to this lack of knowledge. A better level of grassroots coaching and a nationwide pathway for young players to develop would be a great starting point. In my experience, many players get picked at a young age from a local team and put into a better team without any developmental coaching. Once they reach the professional game there is a hole in their knowledge and bad habits have been picked up. Pathways and structure are key to any young player learning. This sort of structure must be implemented by development specialists from within national Federations.
Of course I am talking ideals. There are a multitude of reasons why things don't run as smoothly as we would want. But I remain convinced that efforts must be made at grassroots level to prepare pathways for talented young players to learn and develop. And that is not particular to one country - that includes the whole ASEAN region.
Finally, what would you like the future to hold for Simon McMenemy?
I am tied to this game both mentally and physically. When I'm not talking about football, I'm playing it with friends. It has given me some fantastic and life changing experiences. It has allowed me to travel to numerous countries and meet some amazing people.
I am keen to get back into the day to day involvement and would ultimately like to, once again, have a nation standing behind me as the head of a national team. I am still not sure if I can see myself one day working in the world's top leagues such as the Premier League or Spain's La Liga. What's certain is that having an opportunity to make a difference is more attractive.Southeast Asia, for all its faults, does have a huge amount of potential to produce great players and great teams. If I can in someway contribute to that then I would consider that success. God willing.