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Sussex coach's remarkable journey
From managing in Sussex County League division three to leading a national team out in front of 90,000, Simon McMenemy’s football journey has been staggering.
The 36-year-old may not ever be a household name in his own country but he can boast to have done a lot more than many higher profile head coaches.
In South East Asia, McMenemy’s stock is great and his achievements have helped shape a footballing nation.
He is currently back in Sussex pondering his next move, which includes talks over two national team positions plus interest from three clubs in India and one in Malaysia.
As he does so, McMenemy will reflect on how he went from being manager at Haywards Heath to assistant boss at Worthing and on to being head coach of the Philippines national side where his success in leading them to the semi-finals of the South East Asian Championships – and beating defending champions Vietnam to get there – was ranked by Sports Illustrated in America as one of “the top ten soccer stories of 2010”.
McMenemy’s own playing days began at Southdown Rovers and took him to Burgess Hill’s first team, with trials at Wycombe and Southampton along the way.
He was gripped by the coaching bug at the age of 18 while on a football scholarship in America and later did community coaching with Chelsea and Albion before a job with Nike which brought him into direct contact with players like Ronaldinho, Cesc Fabregas and Marco Matterazi.
But if that all sounded surreal, it was surpassed by him landing the job as head coach of the Philippine national team after a cheeky application which was prompted by the Greatwich brothers – Chris, Phil and Simon who are from Sussex but play for the Philippines.
His brief was to guide them through qualifying for the Suzuki Cup – the South East Asian Championships – but it was widely assumed in the country that it was a forlorn exercise. The Philippines would never reach the semi-finals – or so people thought.
McMenemy said: “My first international was a friendly tournament in Taiwan and we were playing against Hong Kong. At that point I was standing on the sidelines when the whistle goes for kick-off and I’m thinking, ‘How the hell did I get here? Can I really do this?’ “We lost that game 4-2 but then went on an eight-game unbeaten run which is the longest in their history. The previous best was two.
“We qualified for the finals on goal difference through a 94th-minute equaliser and everyone went crazy.
“At the time Bryan Robson was Thailand manager and I was praying we got in their group so I could work against him but we didn’t. We went into the other group with Singapore the three-times champions, Vietnam the defending champions and Myanmar (Burma).
“We were hoping to get something against Singapore, lose to Vietnam and then pray for something against Myanmar. That was our strategy but as it turned out we went through the group unbeaten.
“We drew 1-1 with Singapore, then we beat Vietnam 2-0, the first time we had taken points off them in 40 years. Over there it was seen as one of the biggest shocks in history.
Then we drew 0-0 with Myanmar to get through to the semi-finals.
“The biggest problem was the Philippines wasn’t ready to play at that stage, we didn’t have a FIFA qualified stadium and we had to play both semi-final legs away in Indonesia.”
The semi-finals provided the pinnacle of McMenemy’s spell as national coach and started something special in the Philippines.
He said: “There were 90,000 people in the stadium and another 15-20,000 outside who couldn’t get in – and we had a ticket allocation of 56. I was told the TV audience across South East Asia was 450,000 million.
“Indonesia were one of the strongest teams around and we lost 1-0 to a defensive mistake in the first leg and then 1-0 again in the second leg.
“We went back to the Philippines as conquering heroes and really started a landslide of football. Now the difference is phenomenal. When I go back I see the players’ faces on billboards, they are some of the biggest sports athletes in the country and they are very well off guys because of endorsement deals. All because of the success we had in 2010.
“It was incredible. Very few managers get an opportunity to work in front of 90,000 people in a FIFA semi-final and I did that within the first three months of being a professional coach. I count my blessings. I’m incredibly fortunate to have done something like that. It was a life-changing experience.”
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