Far-flung adventures: Shadab Iftikhar on moving from Preston to Mongolia

Shadab Iftikhar is the manager of Mongolian Premier League side, Bayangol. Born and raised in Preston, he holds the UEFA A Licence, and coached in the English non-league before moving to Mongolia earlier this year. He also scouted for Roberto Martinez at Wigan and Everton.

“My journey to Mongolia started in Asda. I was in Preston, shopping with the missus and speaking on the phone to a friend. He said: “Have you seen this job in Mongolia?” (It was advertised online by Bayangol FC’s English director – the author and coach Paul Watson). I got home, read about the club, and thought: “This is interesting.””

“I sent my CV in. When they got back in touch, I liked everything about them. I spoke to Paul at length; sometimes for two hours at a time. I spoke to all three directors: they made me an offer, booked my flights, and sorted my visa. A week and a half after sending my CV, I was in Ulan Bator.

My second game was a five-hour journey from Ulan Bator in a city called Erdenet. Some of the players went the night before and stayed with relatives; the rest of us set off in cars at 6.30 in the morning. We were 1-0 down after two minutes, and it went downhill from there. We lost 5-1.

I’m convinced we can stay in the Premier League. We have played five, lost four, drawn one, but that doesn’t tell the full story. Apart from the game in Erdenet, we’ve played well. We’re getting closer and closer to winning. And the reason we’re getting closer is the players’ attitudes. They give me everything, every day. They’re a joy to work with. They haven’t had the reward, but they will.

We have an American goalkeeper, a Nigerian forward, and the rest of the squad are Mongolian. We’ve been busy trying to sign players in the July transfer window. I’ve spoken to agents with players around the world. We’ve got a small budget – we’re not the biggest club – so we have to be clever. We’re also trying to find young talent within Mongolia – just two hours ago I watched an amateur game here.

The players train four times a week. But for me, it’s a full-time job. When I’m not training, I sit in front of my laptop and watch every game in Mongolia. I do reports, plan training, speak to agents. So apart from the training ground and my accommodation, I haven’t seen Ulan Bator. My wage is enough for me and the family to be comfortable. Hopefully I’m bringing the missus out later this year.

When I was 17, I was just a normal teenager. I was at college doing business management, addicted to Football Manager. As a player, I tried hard on the pitch, but I didn’t have much going for me. So I always wanted to manage; I just didn’t realise it could be a career.

I was a big Liverpool fan, and Rafa Benitez was manager at the time. I read about him, and bit by bit I started looking at management. I set up my own 8-a-side team and coached the Under-12s at Hesketh Bank (a club in the West Lancashire League). I then did the reserves, also worked for Preston North End in the community, and then went to Nelson in the North West Counties League.

I was lucky to have fantastic mentors. Dave Sutton (the ex-pro and former Rochdale manager) worked at Hesketh Bank and took me under his wing. Tremendous guy. At Preston, Darren Finch was my mentor. He shaped me a lot. And then then was Roberto Martinez.

I wanted to speak to him, so I stood outside Wigan’s training ground. To be honest, I didn’t know what else to do. I didn’t realise, but someone I did my Level Two coaching badge worked at Wigan. He saw me, brought me into his office, and I said: “I’m here to see Roberto.”

My friend Colin told me it was difficult without an appointment. But he spoke to Roberto, and I met him that afternoon. To give up time for someone he didn’t know – that says something about the man. We had a chat, and he said: “Go and watch our next opponents and do a report for me.”

I ended up doing reports for two years at Wigan, and two years at Everton. I was able to get tickets for the game, but I was managing my teams, so most of the time I used a website called Wyscout. I would sit on my laptop and cover the opposition’s strengths, weaknesses, everything I could.

It was voluntary, I wasn’t paid, but it was a great experience. It taught me a lot. I was 22, and I was having email conversations with Roberto Martinez. You can’t buy that. One time, I asked for tickets for Wigan v Newcastle. He said of course, no problem, I’ll sort it. But I never heard anything.

Two weeks later, he said: “Did you get the ticket?” I didn’t want to say no, I didn’t want to get anyone in trouble, so I left the email. But then he emails again: “Did you get the ticket?” And I’m thinking: “This is a Premier League manager, deep in a relegation battle, and he’s taking the time to email me about a ticket – what a good guy.” Once, I went to see an Under-21 game at Everton with him. He taught me so much. I dropped him a line when I came to Mongolia, and he wished me luck.

I want to turn Bayangol into a powerhouse. I want to take them forward, on and off the pitch. I want to take it as far as I can – if that’s five years, ten years, that’s what it is. It’s an 18-game season which ends in October. When I come back next year, I want to speak Mongolian. At the moment one of my directors translates, but I want to speak to my players about everything – not just football.

I was a 17-year-old kid inspired by Rafa. Nine years later I’m managing in Mongolian Premier League. In July, I’m working as assistant manager for the Mongolian national team in a tournament in Guam. Part of me thinks: “You’ve done okay”. But the other part says: “It’s just the beginning.”

A couple of weeks ago, I got a call from Rafa. A friend of mine who’s worked with him set it up. Even that one conversation taught me so much: we talked about Valencia, Liverpool, Pablo Aimar, Steven Gerrard, zonal marking…for him to ring me, not knowing who I am, was just class.

I think there can be barriers for British Asians in football. There are problems. But they can be overcome. I might be wrong, but I think it comes down to the individual. If a footballer or coach wants to make it, and they’re prepared to work 15 or 16 hour days, is that person not going to make it? Eventually, that work is going to show. And I don’t think race or colour will come into it.

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Far-flung adventures: Shadab Iftikhar on moving from Preston to Mongolia
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