Usually when you start a new job it wouldn’t be the best idea to take three and a half days off in only your third week for an overseas trip. However, I was supported to do just that by the team at Corigan last month.
Before starting my new role as Territory Manager at Corigan SEO, I had recently been appointed as the assistant technical coach of the Indian national blind football team.
This appointment fulfilling a life goal to become a coach within an international blind football team, after retiring as a player in 2018 with over 100 appearances for England and Great Britain.
You may ask yourself, why India as a first coaching appointment for a former player from Europe? Well there are two answers for this. The first being that I’ve long been following the story of the Indian blind football movement. Founded in 2013 by head coach and now friend,
Sunil Matthew. The team have already achieved huge things with little government or governing body support. Which lead me to offering my services to help improve things further.
The second reason being that attitudes to blind players coaching other blind players are much more different in Asia than they are in Europe. In Europe we are probably too used to having sighted professional coaching units that are funded by the governing bodies attached to these countries. Therefore making it a more difficult barrier to scale for any aspiring blind coach to transition from player to becoming part of a coaching team. In Asia attitudes are more open to the expertise somebody with lived experience of the game can bring. With
South Korea appointing a blind former player as their head coach in 2017. Who subsequently guided the team to qualification for the 2018 World Cup.
All these factors combined to allow me this fantastic opportunity to help an emerging blind football nation to improve on and off the pitch.
So it was in October of this year I was told that we would be heading to Muscat for a two match friendly series with the Oman blind team. Meaning I would embark on my longest solo trip as a blind traveller. With a stopover in Bahrain to negotiate, before meeting up with the team in Muscat on the 24th of November.
To say the journey out there was eventful would be an understatement. First arriving at the wrong terminal, after cockily assuming I’d be departing from terminal 5 at Heathrow. Turns out it was terminal 2! I will make a point of checking next time.
Then managing to board the flight without a negative PCR result. My result didn’t arrive until I had already been in Oman for 48 hours, after taking the test 72 hours before the flight. Negotiating the Bahrain stopover shouldn’t have been as eventful as it was, as I had booked airport assistance to help me fro the plane, through security, then to the next departure gate. However, I wasn’t bargaining on having a Mexican stand-off with airport staff over the issue of me refusing to sit in a wheelchair, being pushed like a piece of luggage through doors, being walked in to walls, then having my head smashed off the metal detector. Perhaps next time I will sit in the wheelchair.
Anyway, I eventually got through Bahrain with a promise to myself that I’ll never set foot in that airport again. Well not unless it is for a five figure sum to teach their staff how to properly treat disabled travellers with dignity and respect.
Landing in Muscat and still without a negative PCR result, I was expecting to have to take one at the airport and have some kind of quarantine period while I received the results. Only to be ferried straight through after some document and passport checks on the way
through customs. Turns out the old GB passport may still be worth something. Or perhaps the Oman customs just wanted to get me out of their sight. Either way, it kind of shows why transmission of Covid19 is still managing to flourish as it is.
After setting off at 2PM on Tuesday, I arrived at my hotel at 3PM on Wednesday with a wonderful welcome from head coach Sunil and team manager Roy. After a fantastic lunch of rice and buttered chicken, it was up to my room to unpack, shower, and prepare for my
first training session with the team. I was so excited but also nervous as hell. How would they receive me? How would I negotiate the language issues between myself and the players? If I played, would I be absolutely rubbish? Imposter syndrome was kicking in big time and I needed to grip myself and ensure I enjoyed this experience.
After meeting the team and making introductions. Which consisted of me being awkward and shaking hands with the lads, while they acquainted themselves with me by assessing every part of my body with their hands. After which I think they gathered I had a rather sizable
39-year-old’s paunch and legs that used to be half decent. With the boys now confident I posed no kind of physique to trouble them on or off the field, we were on the bus and off to training.
Training consisted of some gentle running, stretching and dribbling exercises. With myself mainly taking an observing role to assess the various strengths and areas for improvement across the group, before taking part in a training match and running through the tactics for the first international on Thursday.
The group we took to Oman was relatively inexperienced. With only half the team having played a competitive international match for their country before. We had 4 blind players who could be pulling on that blue jersey for the very first time, and this was exciting for everyone. More exciting was that we had agreed we would try to slightly alter our tactics and formation to play a more open and attacking form of blind football. Having new and impressionable players was going to be key to achieving this and I couldn’t wait to see things play out in the first game.
Game day arrived with a 4PM kick-off agreed for the Thursday afternoon. Our team meeting in the morning announced the team and tactics for the day, with one of the debutants named in the starting line-up. So we were confident of a fast start and a strong team to take the game to Oman from the first whistle.
Unfortunately our start didn’t pan out as we’d hoped. As Mike Tyson said; “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face”. We were punched in the face after 8 minutes by a long shot that found it’s way into our bottom corner. With the plan that we set out now fully up in smoke very early.
As much as we tried, and after around 75% possession, we just could not break down a strong Oman defence to get the equalising goal. There were some notable individual performances from our boys in the game. We just couldn’t manage to harness those individual efforts for the collective good.
Credit has to be given to the Oman team however. After only 12 months under a new head coach and a new playing group, they have a sound blueprint of how they want to play and well deserved their victory on the day.
Friday was a rest day from matches and had some free time for the boys to relax or take in some shopping if they wished. With the evening being time for our team meeting and training session. This was going to be my first session delivering to the group on my own. So I spent most of my morning planning what I wanted to convey to the players, as well as the short term improvements we needed to make for the 2nd international on Saturday. I was certainly nervous and I can admit to being visited by imposter syndrome on more than one occasion. All that aside I feel I delivered a pretty sound technical element to the session. Giving the players some new techniques and drills they can take back to their home areas. As well as delivering a very good session on how we were going to set up our attacking game for match two in a new formation. With the substitutes for that game acting as the Oman team in defence. I even had to play a little. With my age and lack of match fitness being very much apparent. But nonetheless, very good fun to get in and around the players and understand them as competitors. I loved topping the game to physically guide players through the movements they would take in a game. As they are blind and I am blind, my coaching needs to literally be hands-on. Letting them feel my body position for specific movements, and me guiding their bodies into the positions they will be taking up in the games.
After training we all bused it over to a local social club for an event hosted for us by the Indian embassy in Muscat. This was a huge thing for me to experience how the Indian community looks after it’s own all over the World. There were speeches, introductions of each player, promises of support, a great meal, and even some live music. Even I was asked to make a speech about my experience with the team and was honoured to present the ambassador with one of our India Blue Dolphins match shirts. It was sad to cut the night short before the beers came out. But probably a good idea, as I think some of this would still be there now if we hadn’t climbed aboard the bus that night.
So match day 2 comes Saturday. Most of the group are flying out on this night. So all bags have to be packed and rooms cleared in readiness for a quick shower and turnaround after getting back from the ground. But we had a good team meeting led by Sunil and myself.
Held in English and Hindi to accommodate for the differences in languages across the group. There are 55 languages spoken in India, with well over 1000 regional variations. So English and Hindi are the main languages used to try and accommodate everyone.
I’m used to tactical and team briefings only lasting 15 or 20 minutes. But with the language and cultural differences involved, I’ve had to learn quickly that meetings need to take as long as they need to in order for the group to feel comfortable with the content of that meeting. So I hope that info soaked in to the players and we were ready to unleash our gameplan on the Oman team.
Unfortunately Mike Tyson’s words rang true in the opening 10 minutes again. After some early pressure from ourselves, The Oman team struck from close range to make it 1-0 to the hosts. After that it was an uphill battle that we made harder by totally neglecting our agreed game plan. Culminating in a second goal being scored just before half time.
Half time was sombre but controlled. After giving the players a few minutes to compose themselves, myself and Sunil stepped in to deliver the second half objectives and areas for improvement. All that done, and instead of the usual British style shouts of ‘come on’, we had 30 seconds of silent prayer to compose ourselves.
Not sure if it was the players, the prayer, or a combination of both; but the team really went for it in the second half. Hitting the post twice, putting nice passing moves together, and some dogged defending. Alas we still couldn’t get back into the game by getting a goal back.
But the guys finished strong and started to put in place some of our original gameplan. We also managed to give 2 more players their first taste of international football and reward them for being excellent team members that week.
After the game I was blown away again by the support from the local ex-pat community of Indians who came out to support the team. With Sunil pulling us into a dozen photos and meeting new supporters of the team and the sport of blind football. This was truly an honour and something that humbled me to my core. It was a really nice way to end the tour by seeing how much these boys are respected and hailed for their efforts.
My journey back to the UK was thankfully less eventful than on the way out. Although I did encounter the dance of the will-he won’t he wheelchair saga in Bahrain. I did get chance to reflect on the flight with a cold beer about the team, myself, and how I needed to improv
to help the team improve. Firstly I had to improve my Hindi vocab considerably. I couldn’t go into 2022 with the arrogant Brit approach of English is enough anywhere. This team has some complex communication barriers to overcome, and I am part of that problem. Therefore I need to be part of the solution.
Being so reflective is a bit of a curse as well as one of my better qualities. I always had the ability of being able to spot things that can be improved with simple changes. The trouble is I am always looking for them and end up with lists and lists of things I either need to fix about myself or a team/organisation I am working with. The next thing I need to learn is how to prioritise these and disregard other fixes for a later date. So I will have a few days of not thinking about blind football in which I can let them come to me naturally.
For now I can just say I’ve had an incredible time, learnt lots, made new friends, and experienced new cultures in only 4 days. Lord knows what the next year will bring with the Blue Dolphins. I only know I’m very lucky to be part of their journey. Thank you to Sunil for getting me on board, thanks to the team for being so accommodating, and thank you to Corigan for supporting my passion outside of work.
Written by Keryn Seal – Territory Manager
If you want to talk about what Corigan can do for your business or just talk football with Keryn, email him at [email protected]