TIBS NEWS EXCLUSIVE: Daryl Willard – An English football coach making his name in Azerbaijan
When Daryl Willard left England to join Tony Adams in a coaching role in Azerbaijan he thought he had “hit the jackpot” after growing tired of the ‘closed shop’ attitude of English football coaching.
But when he returned to the UK two years later as a UEFA A Licence holder with two seasons experience working with professional footballers, he could only just manage to pay the bills after he was rejected from almost every coaching position he applied for.
30-year-old Willard has now gone back to Azerbaijan where he has a Youth Director role at AZAL PFK, but says he would “dread to think” where he would currently be if he turned down the offer from Adams…
“I left England because I was tired of the ‘closed shop’ or ‘jobs for the boys’ attitude which is ingrained in the coaching world”, said Willard.
“Pro footballers were being fast tracked through their badges and go straight in front of me when I had been working for eight years in academies.”
Willard has never played professional football but there’s no doubting his coaching abilities having spent time at Chelsea’s academy with the likes of Liverpool’s current boss Brendan Rodgers and former Blues assistant manager Eddie Newton.
“I was at college at the time doing a leisure and recreation qualification, when myself and a friend asked to help out at a Chelsea in the community club”, said Willard.
“For five days, I worked for free picking up cones and learning the very basics of getting the children’s attention and learning how to relate to them.
“I then began a coaching school around Kent and Sussex. It was a great experience at the time working daily with children and learning on the job.
“Shortly after I met Damian Mathews [current Charlton first team coach], who was the development officer at Chelsea Football Club.
“I think he was impressed with my enthusiasm and gave me some paid work at a Chelsea development centre in Kidbrooke.
“I Spent six years at Chelsea eventually after a couple of years working in the academy, when I left I was assisting the under-14 coach.
“It was a great experience and I managed to spend a lot of time with Brendon Rodgers [U15 coach], Eddie Newton [U16 coach] and Paul Clements [U18 coach] which was a real eye opener for a young coach.”
But it was here where Willard’s frustration over a lack of opportunities forced him to move clubs.
He said: “I started to get a little frustrated and knew that a young lad without a pro career behind him would make climbing the ladder very difficult, so when an offer came at Tottenham Hotspur I took it.
“I went on to spend two fantastic seasons there, learning all about letting young players play.
“There were two massive influences there, one Ricardo Moniz, a Dutch technical coach – a fantastic coach, all about technique and expression. The other was Chris Ramsey – a thinking outside the box coach.
“This experience shaped me as a coach and I realised that I wanted to learn of more foreign coaches and philosophy.
“Myself and Saul Isakson Hurst worked very well together and we developed into good technical coaches with the foundation of letting young players play and express themselves.”
In June 2010, whilst still coaching at Tottenham, he received a phone call from ex-England defender Gary Stevens, who Willard says he knew and “worked very well together for a few years.”
Stevens asked Willard if he would be interested in a position as a development coach at a club abroad.
“I said yes straight away”, said Willard.
“It was a few more weeks till I heard anything more, then a phone call came from Tony Adams asking if I could meet in London for an interview.
“This was a crazy time and I thought I had hit the jackpot!”
Adams offered him the position and just three days later Willard had packed his bags and was off to join Qabala FK in the Azerbaijan Premier League.
Willard says the standard was similar to Conference level in England, but after two seasons he managed to break many records. The club had two Under-21 national footballers – the most ever at one time and six Under-19 national players which was also the highest ever amount.
“Results are very important here”, said Willard.
“We achieved most points, highest position and most goals scored in the clubs history as well as developing young players.”
Willard left the club at the end of the 2011/12 season, after Adams had departed, and returned to his home in Pembury, Tunbridge Wells – the place where Willard’s passion for coaching began.
“I was twenty nine, UEFA A Licence holder and two seasons experience working with pro footballers, and could not get a job in football”, he said.
“I applied for every position and worked incredibly hard to get back into English football and I managed to get one interview which was part time working with Under-9s in an academy but I rejected it and turned my attentions back abroad.
“I spent six months out of work and doing as much casual coaching as I could just to cover bills. It was an incredibly low point in my life, and I just couldn’t understand why I couldn’t get more interviews.”
It was then in December 2012 that Willard was contacted by AZAL PFK, an Azerbaijani top flight football club based in Şüvəlan, Baku.
They heard he was looking for work back in Azerbaijan and asked him to come for an interview on the 24th December.
“So I flew at 10pm on the 23rd, had the interview one pm on the 24th then flew home for Christmas after being offered the job as Youth Director”, he said.
“After contract talks and visas I began my work on the 2nd of February 2013 in Baku.
“I am now responsible for five year-olds up to the reserve team.
“This position usually is a desk job for many; however that’s just not me. I can be working with the Under-9s then in afternoon the Under-19s, it’s great for my personal development to be flexible and never going stale as a coach.
“I dread to think where I would be now if I turned down the opportunity to come to Qabala.”
Willard has had to make changes though and adapt to the Azerbaijan lifestyle.
He said: “It certainly wasn’t easy being in a faraway country. I believe it took me three months to settle in and get my head around things and adjust.
“I have learnt the Azerbaijan language and also learning Russian, it’s paramount for any coach in today’s world to speak more than one language as it is a global game.”
Willard’s been at AZAL PFK for seven months now and says he’s made many changes, “but it will all take time.”
“Many of the new ideas can be strange for them sometimes but they have accepted, given it a go and now understand”, said Willard.
“I feel we can have the best seven to elevens in the country because of the way we are now coaching the young players.
“Many other clubs still do stale line drills and very regimented. In a one hour 15 minute training session we make sure the players have a minimum of two thousand touches of the ball through fun and enjoyment and play many small sided games where the coach can let the players play.
“It’s a long term plan, but who knows what’s around the corner”, he added.
Willard has one piece of advice for young coaches looking to make a breakthrough: “Although you think you know a lot about coaching, you probably don’t!
“I have encountered 22 and 23 year-olds thinking they know it all, and believe me, I am learning every day and always trying to improve to be the best I can”, he added.
“Who knows where I will be next? I never imagined I would be where I am today. All I know is, I know where I want to end up.”
You can follow Daryl on Twitter: @DarylWillard
Photo supplied by lesrosbifs.org/