The Indonesian top-flight season starts this weekend – and a Scottish coach you may not have heard of is about to begin the defence of his title.
Simon McMenemy’s journey from English non-league football to championship-winning manager in Indonesia is certainly a road less travelled.
Along the way, he has changed the football fortunes of the Philippines, dealt with false promises in Vietnam, chased snakes from his home in the Borneo jungle and coached a former team-mate of Cristiano Ronaldo.
Now he wants his chance back home – but can he catch the attention of clubs in the UK?
A fairytale in the Philippines
The story began in West Sussex back in 2010, when McMenemy had a chance Facebook conversation with two Filipino brothers, Simon and Paul Greatwich, who he had coached at Burgess Hill Town in the eighth tier of English football.
The pair told him that the Philippines national team job was vacant and McMenemy, despite being the 32-year-old assistant manager of non-league Worthing, audaciously threw his hat into the ring.
Remarkably, the Philippines Football Federation was convinced. He packed his bags and left the south coast of England for South East Asia.
McMenemy’s first task was to guide the Philippines to the 2010 AFF Suzuki Cup – the region’s major international championship. The team was nicknamed the Azkals, after the mongrel dogs that roam the country’s streets, and it was a fitting moniker given their lowly football standing.
Under the Scot, however, they flourished. He led the Philippines all the way to the semi-finals, where they fell narrowly to Indonesia. But McMenemy and his team had won a host of admirers.
“We only realised the change in outlook that had happened when we got back,” McMenemy told BBC Sport. “There were a huge amount of people there at the airport to greet us. There were cameras, everyone was doing interviews. It felt like the birth of a new sport in the Philippines.
“It really changed the football landscape. The last six or seven years since that happened, football has exploded. There’s now a professional league up and running, and the club that wins the league qualifies for the Asian Champions League. That all stemmed from our success. We were the snowball pushed off the top of the cliff.
“It really was a fairytale.”
The fairytale quickly turned sour, however, as McMenemy – despite his managerial heroics – was dumped weeks after the end of the tournament in favour of German coach Michael Weiss.
Landing a job on Twitter – it didn’t last
What followed is best described as a journeyman few years for McMenemy, who took up club jobs in Vietnam, Indonesia and the Maldives – the latter of which saw the club owner initiate contact, and then seal the deal, via Twitter.
It brought many eye-opening experiences, including a memorable first spell in Indonesia, in the heart of the jungle in Kalimantan – where controlling the population of snakes in his garden proved as challenging as controlling his players. The daily serpent chase was not something he had had to face in the South Downs.
On the pitch, McMenemy’s spell in Borneo began with a bang in a dramatic local derby.
“Late in the game the referee gave our opponents a corner,” he recalls. “There was a huge pitch invasion because their fans thought it was handball and should have been a penalty.
“The police eventually got them back in the stands – and then the referee changed his mind and gave a pen. Our goalkeeper saved it and, of course, there was another pitch invasion. It was carnage.
“We were pushed into the centre circle and armed police surrounded us as a full scale riot with 15,000 fans happened around us. Just another day in the Indonesian League!”
The chaos of that first match was indicative of what was to come as the job in Borneo, and another in Java, ended prematurely. Performances were good but the political game proved a stumbling block.
A return to the Philippines with Manila-based Loyola Meralco Sparks in 2014 brought more stability – but two years later, McMenemy was ready to throw himself back into the lions’ den.
The Indonesian Leicester City?
In January 2017, he joined Bhayangkara FC in the newly rebranded Indonesian Liga 1.
“I knew that I had one more chance,” said McMenemy. “I saw an opportunity to redeem myself and although Bhayangkara were a mid-table team – an unfancied team at best – I believed I could get them playing.”
McMenemy set about crafting his new side, with one of the first major decisions being which marquee player to sign. Former Premier League players Michael Essien, Peter Odemwingie and Didier Zokora are among those to turn out in Indonesian football in recent years – but Bhayangkara’s new boss was after more than star power.
“In my first spell in Indonesia I signed Marcus Bent from Birmingham. He was an incredible guy, a lovely bloke, but he took a lot of time to manage on and off the pitch because he was new to Indonesia and found the new surroundings difficult.
“I wanted to avoid that again – why sign Robin van Persie if you have to focus all your time on helping Robin van Persie settle in Indonesia? It’s not fair on the other players.”
Instead of a Flying Dutchman, McMenemy turned to a poised Portuguese. The arrival of Paulo Sergio, a midfielder who came up through the ranks of Sporting’s fabled academy with Real Madrid forward Cristiano Ronaldo, was a masterstroke.
Sergio had starred under ex-Blackburn boss Steve Kean as Brunei DPMM won Singapore’s S.League in 2015 and he quickly became the glue that held McMenemy’s young side together.
A motivated coach bred a motivated group of players and the wins kept coming.
With three games of the season to go, Bhayangkara were top and locked in a three-way title battle with Bali United and PSM Makassar, clubs with deeper pockets and bigger fanbases.
“No-one expected us to be challenging for the title but I wouldn’t say this was another Leicester City story. We weren’t a counter-attacking team – we played attractive football and dominated games. The belief was always there and with a couple of games of the season to go, we were top and fighting hard to stay there.
“Then we had a huge slice of luck.”
In a 1-1 away draw at McMenemy’s former club Mitra Kukar, ex-Liverpool midfielder Momo Sissoko played for the hosts despite being suspended. The Indonesian FA awarded Bhayangkara the three points, leaving them in need of a victory in their next game to claim the league title with a match to spare.
They won that match 3-1 and celebrated as if they had won the title – but it was short-lived. Rivals Bali United had complained about the Sissoko decision and the league refused to confirm McMenemy’s side as champions until they conducted an investigation.
“We were left on tenterhooks for two to three days,” McMenemy explains. “It was horrible. Eventually, though, we got a phone call in the middle of training saying we’d won the league. It was a messy end and took the shine off things a little given how well we’d played all year. But at least we were able to lift the trophy at home on the last day of the season.”
McMenemy became the first British coach to win the Indonesian championship and, more importantly, finally proved that his initial success with the Philippines had been no fluke.
“It was an incredible relief. I still have a tweet on my phone that I saved from the day I arrived at Bhayangkara. It said: ‘Coach, you’ve been here twice. Why would you come back? #loser.’ That served as great motivation. Everything I learned over the past seven years – the failures and successes, all the different cultures and ideas – came together to help shape the title win.”
Can he cut it back home? Clyde didn’t want to know
McMenemy is now busy preparing for the new season, having turned down job offers from Malaysia, Thailand and even South Africa.
The Scot’s reputation is clearly growing – he was recently named FourFourTwo South East Asia’s coach of the year – but he is yet to capture the attention of clubs back in the UK.
New jobs for Roy Hodgson, David Moyes and Sam Allardyce in recent months – at Crystal Palace, West Ham and Everton respectively – show that some Premier League clubs still have a penchant for the familiar.
But McMenemy is hopeful a time will come when club owners in general are more outward looking in their managerial choices.
“I honestly don’t mind that no-one at home knows who I am, but I do think there is a fundamental problem with the culture,” he added.
“There are a lot of disheartened young coaches who can’t get a look in because there is still that old school, insular circle of coaches just swapping positions.
“Where’s the new blood? Why aren’t we learning from countries like Germany, where new young coaches seem to pop up and enjoy success every year?
“A few years ago I sent across my CV for the Clyde job and spoke to the chairman on the phone. He said: ‘It’s very impressive but you have never done anything in Scotland.’ I get that he was stating the facts but I had managed a national team in front of 90,000 people in the semi-final of a tournament.
“Hopefully a time will come when I can put my CV in for a job next to the latest England international who’s just retired and people will think: ‘This guy has done a lot – let’s give him a chance.’
“I know my name might not open doors – but maybe one day my football experiences will.”
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