Interview with Tony Mcmullen
Updated: Jun 17, 2019
We at FarOutFootball have had the pleasure of interviewing Tony Mcmullen, an English football coach who has been coaching in Latvia for several years. This is his story about himself and his views on the current state of football in Latvia.
What can you tell us about yourself, how come football is your main interest in life?
Really good question! After 35 years, I guess I am still trying to work that out myself! The two important things in my life are the two F's, Family and Football. Before I could even walk, I had a ball at my feet. I was always kicking a ball against the garden wall using both feet - for hours I would do this. I look back and think, how boring does that sound? With the gadgets available now, maybe that way of entertaining yourself is dying, but because of it, I developed into a two footed player. Now, I find myself in that learning process as a young coach. Trying to work with different groups of players, male/female, different age, different country/culture and obviously different ability. The way you have to adapt as a coach with the players you are coaching, I think, is an important part of a coaches development. My desire to learn and achieve is my driving fuel.
Where have you been playing?
I started out playing for my local side, Stanway Villa. Our local milkman, Bob, saw me playing in the street and told my Mum about the local team and that was that, I was about 7 or 8. I played for Stanway Villa until I was 15. During that time, I was playing for the School, the league representative team, the district representative team and also the wider area (East Anglia) and played in tournaments in different countries. I was never a GK either, I was a ball playing centre half who loved to tackle! We moved from Essex to Liverpool and I embarked on playing for various teams in the North West of England and North Wales as well as having quite a few trials as well. I've had the "More clubs than Tiger Woods" shout thrown at me quite a few times!
How come you ended up as a coach in Latvia in the first place?
I was actually balancing a semi pro football career with a career in the Police for many years and it was difficult to be honest. I really fell out of love with being in the Police quite quickly, but stuck it out for many years. I have visited most countries in Europe and I always had a burning desire to leave the UK and live on the Continent. When I realised that I could no longer do what I was doing in the UK, I started to network with people who I felt were similar to me. That led me to Justin Walley and in a roundabout way, moving to Latvia and joining Riga United and my coaching journey abroad had begun before I even realised!
What can you tell us about your new work in Latvia?
I coached the Women's team at Riga United and coached the GKs also coaching in the Academy as well. I then took the opportunity to coach FK Aliance in Latvian League 2. After a season there, I felt I needed a different experience to help my development. I spent a couple of weeks scratching around looking for an opportunity, when Krisjanis Klavins at SK Cesis got in touch and after a couple of conversations and a meeting we agreed to work together. It's a club with great ambition and Cesis is a beautiful city which deserves a football club playing at a higher level. It's a rebuild job, with a group of players who, from last season, have the worst results form in the country. We have the opportunity to start from the ground up so it will take time and it's certainly a challenge for me, but that's what I wanted.
What is the biggest difference between Latvian football and the one in the UK?
Football in Lativa is really struggling. It is not the main sport here. It falls far behind Basketball, Ice Hockey and is about the same popularity, (in my opinion) here as floorball and volleyball. Compare that to the UK, where football is an extremely popular sport and it's the total opposite to here. That's difficult for me to accept as all I have ever known is that football is the most important and biggest sport. Obviously the level of performance and standards between the two countries is huge, and getting bigger. The UK teams are all generally improving whilst here in Latvia, it is regressing at an alarming rate. We (the men's National team) have dropped around a 100 ranking places in the last ten years alone and I cannot see where or when that slide will end.
What is it that you believe is not working in Latvian football?
I have recently written an open letter to the LFF (Latvian Football Federation). Before that, I have never written an open letter, I'm not that type of person. However, what I have experienced, what I have seen, I felt it was something that I had to do. To coach in Latvian League 2, the LFF have made it a requirement that the Head Coach has a LFF C licence (level 2). Just for clarity, this league is a totally amateur league. The LFF have refused to accept my coaching qualifications obtained in Scotland and Wales as an equivalent to the same ones achieved here in Latvia. In short, my quals are recognised by UEFA, but not by the LFF. This is not an isolated incident so I do not take it personally but it is very disrespectful and insulting towards other those football federations. This has led SK Cesis to appoint another coach to oversee my coaching. That coach was unable to attend our first game due to a prior caching commitment with a junior team and the LFF stopped our game from going ahead. They awarded a 3-0 technical win to our opponents. Sadly, this happened to another 4 teams in our league alone in less than a week. 8 teams (there's only 11 teams in the league) that the LFF prevented from playing an amateur football match because of this rule. Following my letter, another club have written a public letter regarding the same issue. My letter has been seen by nearly 20k people on Twitter alone and I have had over a 100 messages, e mails, phonecalls of support from local players, local clubs, International footballers, professional footballers, coaches from around the world and coach educators. I am clearly not alone in thinking the situation the LFF is putting football in, is totally avoidable. They had the opportunity to engage with me, ask to meet me, talk about issues and ideas. Instead they issued a statement in response on their website basically calling me a liar and that the content was absurd. Such an unprofessional reaction which unfortunately, was hardly surprising. The only point they raised which was remotely relevant, was that they want to make the coaching a better standard - that's why they have the rule. I couldn't agree more to be honest. You have to consider the consequences of the rule, however. It is preventing amateur teams from playing football. Is that going to make the game become more accessible, make it more popular and make it grow? Of course not. That is what we need - growth. You first grow and then develop, this method is more of a develop and destroy. Not a very clever idea from the LFF.
What do you think Latvian football have to do to get back to former glory? Is it even possible?
It seems to me that the LFF are content with the fact the country qualified for a Euros almost 20 years ago. The country really missed an opportunity to use such an occasion as a springbroad to propel football in popularity and inevitably, grow the game. You can't change history, only the future, but with a narrow minded vision, nothing will change. Latvia have slipped around a 100 ranking places in the last decade. Smaller countries grow the sport through increased participation from the youth and grassroots levels. Faroe Islands, Iceland, Luxembourg spring to mind. Countries smaller than Latvia, going about growing the game and producing better players with a long term game plan. If it's achieveable for them, it's achieveable for us. You have to start at the bottom. Youth and grassroots to build the sport. Get a model that works, adapt it to our needs. There are no excuses when other countries have turned football around. However, as i said in my open letter to the LFF, they need to change direction if they want to achieve success. Am i confident that will happen? No, sadly I'm not.
Do you think you could stay in Latvia for a long time?
I would love to stay in Latvia and coach football, help the country and the players grow and develop. I'm not very hopeful of that to be honest. I am settled here, love living here, and my family are here. I have had opportunities recently to coach at professional clubs in Scotland, Iceland and Finland. Whereas I find myself here in Latvia unable to coach at amateur level. Something will have to change here in order for me to progress my coaching. Otherwise I will be forced to leave. It's such a shame, really. Good coaches are being forced away from the country to coach in order to progress. I have a Portugese player, great coach, not recognised here. Justin Walley, great coach,left to coach an International team, not recognised here. There's a Brazilian coach who wasn't recognised here, he's currently working at a top club in Brazil. I'm not sure if the LFF will ever realise this is Latvia's loss. Surely it makes sense to let them progress here, in a country that needs football to progress?
Your friend Justin Walley coached Conifa team Matabeleland, have you ever thought of doing something similar coaching a team in the Conifa?
Justin is a great friend, yes. We share so many values and opinions, cut from the same cloth, springs to mind. Would I follow his lead and coach an International team? We almost worked together as Joint Head Coaches of an International team (before he went to Matabeleland), he tells the story better than me in his book; One Football No Nets. I saw how much time and effort Justin put into that project and I saw how drained it left him as well. Not many people would have succeeded in doing what he did there. With me having a young family, I think it would be very difficult to do something similar. However, never say never, especially in football!