When I was introduced at Swansea City, I was asked what it meant to be the first American manager in the Premier League. My answer was simple and straightforward: I was proud. Very proud. But then I quickly switched gears because I didn’t think any of Swansea’s diehard supporters would care about that angle. A day or so later, a journalist wrote that I was defensive about being American. That was wrong. I just didn’t think it mattered.
Maybe I was wrong about that.
The thought of being an American manager rarely crosses my mind. My ideas and philosophies have been shaped by the experiences I’ve had around the world, with players and coaches from all types of backgrounds. A great friend, former Seton Hall coach Manfred Schellscheidt who studied at the German Sport University Cologne, helped me to understand the differences between a pair of German coaching legends, the practical Hennes Weisweiler and the studious Dettmar Cramer. I coached Hristo Stoichkov, a Bulgarian, who had a lot to say about the influence of Johan Cruyff, a Dutchman, at Barcelona. The Frenchman Youri Djorkaeff told me a wonderful story about the time before the 1998 World Cup that Aimé Jacquet pulled both him and Zinedine Zidane aside and told them, “You two must be the sunshine for the French team.” I went to Egypt after the 2011 revolution to manage the national team. Just a few months after I arrived, 74 fans lost their lives in the tragedy in the stadium at Port Said. The next time the national team got together, I looked into the eyes of players who had held dying young men in their arms inside the dressing room. I challenged them to be a united example for their country.
But for as much experience as I’ve had with the game all over the world, I am an American first and foremost. When I was a teenager I went to a basketball camp in northern New Jersey where Hubie Brown asked us, “What do you catch a pass with?” There was silence in the gym after somebody immediately said, “Your hands.” And then Coach Brown said, “No, my friend. You catch a pass with your eyes.” A decade later, when I was an assistant to Bruce Arena at Virginia, I became friends with the assistant coach of the women’s basketball team. His name was Geno Auriemma. The three of us would huddle quietly in the soccer office (conveniently located next to the visitors’ locker room in University Hall), where we would listen to greats like Dean Smith, Jim Valvano and Mike Krzyzewski address their teams.
I’ve learned a lot from observing Sacchi, Ferguson and Guardiola. I also learned just as much from watching Pete Carril — the former men’s basketball coach at Princeton, where I was the soccer coach from 1984 to ’95 — teach his players the importance of a good pass. I still learn from the intelligent way Gregg Popovich handles his team and the media.
When I took the UEFA Pro Licence course, which is required to coach in a top league in Europe, I explained to a few of my Norwegian friends that there are no basketball coaching licenses in the U.S. Coaching is a craft. You learn from playing, doing, experimenting, emulating, adjusting. You never stop learning. You learn from your players, from your experiences.
You learn from the game.
Before the World Cup in South Africa in 2010, I wanted our national team players to hear another voice besides my own. A voice of experience. Someone who understood winning. So I had Bill Russell join us for a few days. His wisdom on how to both compete and give to teammates fit perfectly with our work to be a team with a strong mentality. That was ready to fight until the last whistle. I think it helped us win our group, which we did when Landon Donovan scored a stoppage-time winner against Algeria.
When I was done coaching the U.S., I wanted new challenges. I wanted to get better. To prove myself. So I went to Egypt. The dream for all Egyptians was to go to the World Cup.
After the massacre in Port Said in February 2012 the Egyptian Premier League stopped play. Because of that, players went unpaid. There was great uncertainty. The national team was forced to play important home matches in empty stadiums. Nearly every day, I was asked by reporters and colleagues, “Why are you still here?” My answer was always the same: As a leader you have responsibility. You must be an example. You can’t be the first one out the door.
The Egypt national team won seven of eight qualifiers but did not make it to the World Cup. It will always be one of my biggest disappointments. More than anything I wanted Mohammed Aboutrika to finish his career playing in the World Cup in Brazil. During my two years in Egypt he was my blood brother. It was an honor to coach him.
A few months later, I had the chance to return to club football. This time in Europe. I took over Stabæk in Norway in January 2014.
The club was struggling financially and operating on a very small budget. Most of my friends and contemporaries told me to stay away — that there was no way to survive in Norway’s top league and that relegation was a certainty. But this small club had a big heart. It had soul. The first year we battled to finish mid-table. In the second season we competed with Norwegian powerhouse Rosenborg until the final weeks before finishing third and earning a place in Europa League. My players and I were proud of what we accomplished. I felt ready to take on another challenge.
I went to France and took over Le Havre A.C., a member of Ligue 2, in November 2015 — the first time I had joined a team in the middle of a season. The team did well, but the last day of the 2016 season was a roller coaster. A mix of pride and disappointment. We won 5–0 that night, but it wasn’t enough. We finished tied with Metz for third place. The top three teams in Ligue 2 would be promoted to Ligue 1. We had the same points. The same goal differential. The next tiebreaker was goals scored. Every player pushed until the very end, but we fell one goal short.
The night ended with supporters embracing players on the field.
All those experiences led to my opportunity at Swansea. The 2016–17 season had already started at Le Havre, but I got word that Swansea might be interested in making a coaching change. I knew if I went there that I would be entering a tough — maybe impossible — situation. The team had started poorly and the takeover by American owners had angered the club’s supporters. But managing at the top level of English football was the ultimate challenge. I had worked hard to prepare for this opportunity. I had to go for it.
As the first American manager in the Premier League, I fully understood how hard it was going to be to establish myself. Without the benefit of a preseason, the work to change the team would have to be done gradually. The key in the short run was to take enough points to satisfy critics and restore confidence with the players.
When I first arrived I met with a group from the Swansea City Supporters’ Trust. I knew that they were disappointed that they hadn’t been consulted before I was hired. So I spoke candidly to them. I said, “I understand there’s some work to be done, and I understand what this club means to all of you. I’m here to do things in a way that makes the supporters proud of what they see on the field, and to make sure that the connection between the club and its most faithful supporters is strong.”
My first meeting with the players didn’t last long. We needed to get to work. So I gathered them together and said, “I’m looking forward to working with all of you. I don’t arrive with the answers. I have come to listen. To observe. To get to know you. For you to get to know me. To make you a better player and a better person. I have my ideas on how we should do things and what the team should be about, but this is about all of us.”
After 70 days with the club, I had dinner with the owners and the chairman. There was confidence and optimism that night following an important 3–0 win over Sunderland at the Liberty a few days earlier. We had won a respectable eight points from my eight matches in charge and, more importantly, had two wins and a draw in our last four games.
But in the week that followed we lost two away matches. The script was familiar. We’d start well, but concede the first goal. Playing from behind meant taking risks and opening up. Confidence dropped and we were not able to build on our positive results.
My postgame interview after a 3–0 loss to Middlesbrough only made matters worse. I said that we needed to show more resilience “on the road” (the English prefer the word away), and referred to a penalty kick as a “PK.” People on social media screamed that American sports terms had no place in the Premier League.
By the time we returned home to the Liberty for our next match against West Ham, I knew the pressure was on. But I am battle tested and never doubted myself. As a coach you must understand that the one thing you cannot control is the result. You control the work. You control the message. I have always encouraged my players to play without fear, and the West Ham match was no different. Again we started well, but our failure to clear a free kick saw us go down 1–0. Changes at halftime didn’t change the result. We lost 4–1. By the end the frustration and anger from the supporters was clear.
As always, I was the first one to the training ground the next morning. My routine stayed the same. In the morning, recovery for the starters and on-the-field work for the guys who hadn’t played. In the afternoon, video work and preparation for the next match against Bournemouth. When I arrived home that night I received a message from the chairman: “Would you meet me at the academy?”
When I got that message, I knew exactly what was happening.
As they say in the Premier League, I got the sack.
I failed. Failed to put my stamp on the team at Swansea. To give it a real identity. A real personality. I never managed to find the right balance between attack and defense. I couldn’t find the answers for this group to play with the commitment and passion that so many of my other teams possessed. We never found consistency or confidence.
Paul Clement followed me as manager and has done an excellent job. Team shape has improved and the confidence has returned. Yes, Paul benefitted from the transfer window that I never had. But that’s football. It can be a tough business and it’s important to respect good work. Full credit to Paul.
One last word for the supporters. I loved my time at your club. I was committed to making it work. I’m sorry I couldn’t be your manager longer.
For 85 days I put my heart and soul into Swansea City. I listened and observed. I watched games over and over. I constantly engaged the players and staff to figure out how we could become a good team. I pushed training and challenged the players to believe. To get better. To understand me and my ideas. I drew on all my experiences, and was never afraid to be myself or to take responsibility. With the players. With the staff. With the media. And with all the people I met in Swansea. It’s the only way I know.
To get anywhere in life you must experience failure. I remain proud and strong. I am ready for the next challenge.
And yes, I am an American coach.