Updated: Dec 25, 2019
Matt Ward has coached in China League One, Ghana Division 1, and the top tiers of the Philippines and Taiwan. You can follow him on Twitter @mattwardy1 and Facebook @coachmattward. This article is made up of content from his book, 'Zero to Pro in 4 Years'. There will be more detail on this section shared in the book itself.
On my arrival in Ghana I would watch my new team from outside of the ground. I wasn't a registered staff yet and the Away team wouldn't let me inside. One of my assistants got me a deckchair and I sat in the long grass peering through a chain fence with the locals who hadn't bought a ticket. It was my first taste of Ghanaian football and it was a big eye opener for things to come. As I sat there watching the Home team pump the ball up as quickly as possible, waiting for something to happen and then get the referees decision, I already had a feeling that Away matches were going to be difficult to win..... just like in other parts of the world were suspiciously or not, decisions would favor the Home side.
As bad as it sounds, I was glad that we lost the match. Going into my first match on the back of a defeat would set my entrance up nicely, especially as it would be at home. Having just under a full week to see as many players of my squad and reserves as possible, I did my best to identify who I thought could help me and those who was in the picture to start my first match. I would say that Judging player's ability and placing them into selection categorize was one of my strengths as a coach and even so, I had already told myself I needed to get as many opinions and as much information as possible from people around me.
Why would I not? the chairman himself had known some of the lads for 10 years and I would be ignorant and a fool not to use these resources. What I didn't want to happen, was to make it seem like it was open season, and have too much conflicting information to start clouding my judgement. At the end of the day and when the axe would fall, the final decisions would come down to me and I was lucky enough to have been left alone when it came to team selection.
The week was coming to a close and game day was approaching. There was an extra buzz around the town to see the 'White Man's' first match, some excited with eagerness to see how the team would improve and others, excited to see me fail with my lack of local footballing knowledge. The group of lads I had at my disposal was strong and I had two players for every position I needed filling. Great depth. There wasn't any need to start putting square pegs in round holes and I was full of confidence the lads would perform.
Every position was filled by a player who was comfortable in it and who already knew there job - under a week with the players was nowhere near enough time to have them prepared to play in any different style. I was trying to be mature, to KISS (keep it simple stupid) and I had listened to some great input from the people around me. With the chairman's blessing, he admired my selection and was laughing at how I had chosen my team in under a week and within my first week in Ghana. "One thing though coach, you are going with Nana as striker"? was his only comment.
Before I had even got to Ghana, I had already studied all of the players and was sat on the plane trying to remember their names and positions with some stats. As strange as it may sound, I had already built up my own image of how I could use them and what rotations would be used when needed. It was still important, not to decide anything until I had actually seen them play!
Match day was here and my excitement had now turned to 'need a shit' nerves. Expectation was high and my assistant told me that every Home game must be a win because Away matches would almost certainly be a loss. Just what I needed to hear before kick off. This wasn't helped by the news i'd learned in the week that the oppositions coach, was the ex-coach of my team..... he already had the inside edge on me.
The game started and we was looking good, strategies working and we hit the woodwork twice in the first half alone. We had also missed some good chances and although we was in total control, the fans and players were growing restless. We went in 0-0 at half time. "Lads if we keep playing like this it's going to be 3 or 4, keep the pressure on and don't worry that it's 0-0. However long until the goal comes, keep playing the way I know you can and that first goal will come. You are better than them in every single area of the pitch, now you just need to show it in the score line....".
I was quietly confident now but I got an uneasy feeling that something wasn't right, the lads weren't happy. 2nd half came and again, we hit the post, we had a shot cleared off the line. I said to David my assistant, "mate what fuck is going on here, is this goal coming"? yes boss yes boss it will come....... it didn't and we had drawn 0-0. We played well, we should of won by a big margin against a mid-table team who had a history of keeping things tight at the back. In the dressing room after, I didn't want to spend too much time on it and I normally don't think it's the right time to talk after a match, best to leave it until the following day.
But I couldn't leave it, the lads looked like we had just been smashed 3-0, their heads were low and they wouldn't look me in the eye. "Davey, mate why's everyone walking around like someones died? we played great and this is a start of things to come". "boss, to everyone, this draw is like a defeat. For the fans and the players this home draw is a loss". He was right. I was so naive thinking that playing well at home was good enough but it wasn't. Only a win at Home was good enough and here I was in a job a local coach could be doing and I couldn't get them a win when a local coach probably could of.
After the match, the Chairman took me for dinner and he said I had got everything right apart from one thing. I had chose the wrong #9 to play as the lone striker who was central to my two wingers. I had gone with the guy who was better at holding the ball up and inking play and as I saw, his finishing wasn't his strong point. He had missed some good opportunities to score. The guy who I should of started and who is now a good friend of mine, was a clinical finisher and what I know now, would of put the game to bed before HT.
The only advice I pushed back on was the choice of the striker. I had wanted someone to link up the play more than someone who could actually score. My fuck up. If you get everything 90% right, you still got it wrong. The pressure was already on. People were picking holes in my player judgment and to make matters worse, our next two matches were Away!
After a 4 hour journey I was at the start of my first Away match and the opposing team were all absolute giants. I'd been told before hand that they would be and that they would be looking to take advantage of their size, the officials and their pitch. The information had already been relayed to me and although I was under more scrutiny to listen to some 'selection suggestions', I had prior experience facing Away teams who's aim was to put pressure in and around the box and get some decisions going their way.
I made some bold, unpopular selections to the starting lineup, by leaving out the smaller, more technical players and I brought in a huge defender and played him as a single pivot, to protect the back 5 (GK and defence). There was outrage, why was I leaving out our star players, why was I playing a defender who doesn't get in the 1st choice 11 at defensive CM and the biggest cry, why was I starting the same #9 that I started in the previous 0-0 Home bore draw?!
I wasn't being stubborn, I wasn't trying to prove a point, I genuinely felt that this was the best way through my experience, to combat such a team. My strategy for Away matches would be to play one or two big guys who were strong in the air as my DCM's and I knew if we could clean up everything that was launched at us, we could stop the ball even getting close to our 18 yard box, get the ball to our magicians and let them play, We had not won an Away match for 2 years... it was going to take a lot of convincing that this would work.
My reasoning was that there was no point playing our technical players on a pitch which wouldn't allow for any running with the ball or even passing. Also, if the officials were going to play hard ball with us, we needed to change things up and be ready for it. What's the point in not using facts. Not to sound like Benitez in one of his famous Liverpool interviews but; the opposition were all giants FACT, the pitch was unplayable FACT, the opposition play long ball FACT, the game would be won and lost in our Defensive 1/3 FACT.
The plan was going well even though the defender in midfield started to tire. Then, out of nowhere and from horrible GK mistakes, we were 2-0 down at HT. Holy fucking shit. I was ready to walk home and pack my bags straight away. I went in early at HT and the 4th official had a word to me (which I won't share full details of now, but will expose when my book is out).
He basically said that you won't be winning this match! Oh really, ok then let's see about that. I made a couple of changes and we got it back to 2-2. Final minutes of the match, our GK messes up again and we lose 3-2. We now had 1 point from my first two matches and yet again, my team selection was under scrutiny. "Why is he playing defenders in midfield? why is he leaving out star players?" I needed a win and I needed one fast and with another Away match the following week, I wasn't feeling great about it but one thing was for sure, I would play the same way as the 3-2 defeat because the strategy worked... apart from one factor shared by that 4th official!
The next Away match came and I stuck with the same strategy. It was the F.A Cup against lower opposition but we were expected not to win. Although I had made the selection error in my first match and I knew it, right now I felt that I had to stick with what I knew and what I believed in. 'Unwinnable' Away matches could be won if played in a certain way and I was sure the strategy would start working.
After 35 minutes when we got a red card for a normal challenge close to the halfway line, I wanted to drown in the red sand I could see in the distance. Then it happened, finally something went our way and we went ahead. We held on and we won 1-0. We had won an Away match, the first one in years and we had also made it through to the next round. There was no "yeah but it was against a lower league team", the whole buzz was about actually winning an away game. Now I understood, now I could see why it was unacceptable to lose at home and why any away result was pure gold.
I wouldn't say "I told you so" to anyone. But I had this feeling that playing the way we tried to set up in away matches, would bring success and it did. We went on to win 2 other away matches, we drew one and we lost one by a 1-0 which was another 'suspicious' adventure. Two club records were broken with the most Away wins in a season and the longest unbeaten Away record. My "Beat the Cheat Away Match Strategy' proved a success and to think, I was so close to bottling it. I needed the thickest skin ever not to buckle under external demand and external expectation.
Choose your battles wisely, be humble, take responsibility and be gracious when you have been wrong. Listen to others and don't be too riotous to follow advice. But never, ever give up on something you not only strongly believe to be right, but something you know can work through experience or professional intuition.
As Sun Tsu once said; " For to win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the acme of skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill. Hence to fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy's resistance without fighting".