10 countries and counting – Blaine McKenna’s coaching journey

Football coach Blaine McKenna has packed more experience into his 26 years than many people can manage in a lifetime.

The Northern Irishman has already worked in 10 countries and will soon make it 11 following his recent departure from Ubon UMT United in Thailand, where he was Academy Director.

But while combining football and travel sounds like a dream job, there have already been enough problems to highlight that it can be as challenging as it can be rewarding.

Air pollution and the language barrier have been two of the less glamourous issues to overcome but McKenna has never regretted the decision to move out of his comfort zone and start coaching overseas.

“Moving abroad to coach was the single best decision I’ve ever made,” said McKenna. “It would have been practically impossible for me to become Academy Director at a professional club in Europe at the age of 25.

“There are many opportunities professionally but more importantly it’s changed me as a person. I’m so thankful for all of the experiences, friendships and memories which will live with me forever.”thumbnail

McKenna speaks highly of his time in Thailand and was certainly part of an exciting time in Ubon as the club rose through the divisions to reach the top tier under Scott Cooper.

Having landed in northeast Thailand through a contact from Northern Ireland, he went on to spearhead a number of developments at youth level while the first team were thriving, though they unfortunately look certain to be relegated this year.

“Ubon is a very tight knit club,” McKenna added. “It was quite a remarkable achievement getting back-to-back promotions up to the top flight. It was always going to be difficult to compete and sustain ourselves in the top flight with the limited budget and turnover of players.

“It’s a shame as our performances improved quite a bit in the second half of this season but it looks like we’ve left ourselves with too much to do. I was always treated well there by the President and his family. I’ll look back on my time at the club with fond memories.”

Despite the disappointment of seeing the club’s likely drop into T2 in 2019, there are still many great memories to take from an exhilarating period, while foundations have been put in place to make the academy and other community projects sustainable.

“In terms of the first team, doing the double over Muang Thong last season and finishing in 10th position was a great achievement for Scott and the team,” McKenna said. “With the academy, it was very challenging as the academy was very young and we didn’t have the same resources available to us as the other professional clubs.

“Competing at the top end of the youth league was never going to be how our programme was judged. The main success stories were having a wide-ranging impact on Ubon Ratchathani that extends beyond our academy.

“We started the club’s first ever schools programme which made quality coaching accessible to all and hosted football events that benefitted over 300 kids. Coach education was non-existent in this region during my time there.

“We were able to address this by bringing a national coaching course to Ubon for the first time, running workshops in universities, and starting our own coach education programme to educate our academy coaches. Our coach education programmes were attended by over 100 coaches which will potentially impact over a thousand kids across Esan.”

McKenna can look back with pride on some of the work he contributed to as the club attempts to build a legacy that reaches far beyond the performance of the first team.

“Our philosophy was something I was really proud of as well,” he said. “We developed it to provide a pathway from our youngest kids right up to the first team.

“It ensured all the coaches were singing off the same hymn sheet, provided coaches with best practice session methodology and was holistic in terms of focusing on the individual and the development of life skills. It was introduced to our coaches each week during our coach ed workshops.”

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While McKenna’s remit was largely one that covered the academy and youth and coach development, he was also handed opportunities to work with some of the first-team squad, including some sessions with Philippines striker Mark Hartmann when Mixu Paatelainen was head coach earlier this year.

“Another big success for me personally, was working with one of the first team players on a one-to-one basis,” McKenna explained. “Our centre forwards weren’t firing so I sat down with Mark Hartmann and set him a programme.

“The key component of the programme was open communication as Mixu tried Mark upfront during pre-season but he kept dropping off as he was signed by Scott to play number 10.

“Mark spoke to Mixu, who listened, starting him up front in the next game which he scored in against Buriram and went on to score four in the next six, making two assists. This was quite a remarkable transformation as he had only started three of six games before, scoring once.

“Mark said that he could count the number of headers he’d scored on one hand but scored two in two, which was a key part of the performance script I’d developed for him. He was then bought by Ratchaburi and has since been recalled to the national team with Scott as the new head coach.”

Although McKenna’s principal focus will always be football, he values the opportunity his position gives him to highlight issues outside the game. Road safety might not be considered something that a footballing Academy Director needs to become involved in, but reckless behaviour on Thailand’s dangerous roads had a direct impact on his job. This prompted him to make educating his young players about road safety a priority.

“I want all of our boys to progress into professional football but the main legacy I wanted to leave was an awareness of the importance of road safety, due to the 1,668 15-19 year olds who die in motorcycle accidents each year and valuing the importance of education,” McKenna admitted. “We had three of our boys end up in hospital in one week in Ubon as so many ride recklessly with no helmets.

“Education isn’t valued enough in Thailand when it comes to young boys wanting to become professionals. Even if they make it, the career is short and not many players will earn enough to secure their financial futures when they hang their boots up.

“We addressed this by providing scholarships to study while playing in our academy. Boys wearing helmets, riding their motorcycle safely and ending up with a good education was the big goal.”thumbnail

Like working in any job in any country, things did not always go as well as desired and it was a source of frustration that the funding and geographical appeal wasn’t there to give Ubon the opportunity to compete on a level playing field with other academy sides in Thailand.

“Not having a budget that would enable us to compete with the other academies was the single biggest challenge.” McKenna said. “We held open trials which 548 players attended but we’d miss out on the majority of the best players as weren’t in a position to house the players or pay them a living allowance like other clubs can.

“Being out in Ubon makes life more difficult as well as it’s not an easy city to generate funding, and most of the best players in Ubon typically migrate to sports schools and clubs in Bangkok.”

While youth development will ultimately be vital to the future of the game in Thailand, the recent drop in attendances have become a concern. McKenna sees club engagement with the younger generation as key to ensuring that the current decline is a blip rather than a long-term trend.

“This (increasing crowds) is something we thought about from our academy’s perspective,” he said. “We offered free entry to all of our academy players and other local academies. We planned to offer free tickets to all of the kids from our schools programme too.

“This would help to fill stadiums but also create a lifelong support of our club and also inspire the kids seeing top level football up close. The clubs have a big role to play in terms of the relationship and support for their fan clubs.

“It has also been important to engage with the fans to get their views on things so they feel part of the club. Our numbers went up when we allowed fans to bring beer in plastic cups into the stadium and we reduced our prices as well. Then obviously if your club is doing well, then more fans will come each game.”

While identifying the reasons for falling attendances and working to reverse the trend is a current priority for clubs and the Thai League’s marketing department, there remains the problem posed by fans’ insistence on following foreign clubs rather than local teams.

There are several variables which have resulted in a situation where a majority of Thai fans still name an English club as their favourite. McKenna suggests that refereeing and the dominance of Buriram United may be two key factors, while the high number of televised matches from home and abroad also as a significant impact.

“The standard of refereeing and corruption doesn’t help as people want to watch a fair game,” he said. “Buriram continuing to do well in the AFC Champions League will help but Muang Thong being significantly weakened with their top players going to Japan is good for the national team, but not good for the competitiveness of the league.

“It’s a shame Bangkok United couldn’t keep up their great run but you need the league to be more competitive at the top to get engagement.

“Also, there is high number of foreign leagues and Thai league games on TV. If there was less “higher level” football on TV there would be more fans in the stands surely.

“It will be interesting to see what changes the new ASEAN rules will make to things in terms of growing the league and game or possibly blocking entry to more Thai players playing in T1, depending on what way it will be introduced.

“The results of the national team make a huge difference too. If the team do well in Asian cup and one day qualify for the World Cup then everyone will be a lot more positive.”

As such a well-travelled coach, McKenna has been through a lot, both positive and negative. He struggles to identify the best country to work in and the once which has posed the most challenges.

“Environmentally New Zealand was a great place to live,” he said. “I’ve loved different things about all the countries I’ve worked in but we tend to focus more on the negatives as most of the countries I’ve worked in are developing nations and aren’t competitive on the world stage.

“The passion for football in Africa is amazing and some of the projects going on out there will change the kids’ lives forever. The academy I was at in Malawi has just sent their first student-athlete to study in the States which is an amazing achievement.

“The academy I was at in South Africa has just had a player trial with Valencia, who has since been signed by Levante if a work permit can be sorted. The kids in Thailand are brilliant and would run through a brick wall for you. Obviously, there are lots of things that could be done better in Thailand, which I aim to write about in the not too distant future.”

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McKenna is about to embark on a new adventure in country number 11, with just a bit of paperwork to be sorted. He is also writing a book on his experiences which could make for quite a read.

Longer term, he is not looking to be the next Mourinho or Guardiola and is quite happy to continue in development roles where the living environment is a little less challenging than those he has become accustomed to.

“My ultimate goal has changed quite a bit based on what I’ve experienced in different countries,” McKenna said. “Number one for me is to live in a place where I’m happy, which requires clean air, diversity, being beside the sea and a good economy.

“This idea came through ending up in hospital due to the air quality in one country and going two weeks without speaking one word of English in another.

“This most likely rules out professional football which is fine as there’s no stability, as shown by my budget changing in Ubon, and being unable to pick and choose where you live.

“I’m setting up a side business called Life Sports Performance which will continue the performance work I’ve done with Mark while introducing life skills to kids. Ultimately, I’d like to do this alongside coaching in an academy in a nice place.”

If everything falls into place, it will certainly justify the hard work it has taken to get there in the end.

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