It was the hardest decision of Louis Lancaster’s life. The ambitious coach was on the cusp of starting an exciting new chapter of his career in Asia. But it would come at a price.
For Lancaster to take up his new post as assistant manager at Chinese League One side Shanghai Shenxin, he would need to leave behind his seriously ill father. By jetting off to start his job, he knew he might never see his dad again.
“My dad wasn’t well when I left and I potentially wasn’t going to see him again. So, I asked him, ‘what do you want me to do, do you want me to go’?” Lancaster recalled.
“He knew how passionate I am about football and he’d introduced me to it, and he said, ‘you’ve got to go’. But I knew I might not see him again. I left on 12 July and my dad passed away on 2 August – I had a choice of ‘do I go back or do I not’, and I chose not to because he wanted me to do the job.
“He knew he was going to die, but if I’d come back it would have been like ‘he’s told me to stay and I’m jeopardising my career’. I didn’t even come back for my dad’s funeral.”
It’s the sort of gut-wrenching decision that demonstrates Lancaster’s answer to a question he regularly asks his players and fellow coaches: how much do you really want to progress?
The Londoner’s career appeared to be heading down a well-trodden path as a youth coach with Arsenal Ladies, Portsmouth and Watford, before he swerved onto an alternative route to assist another English coach, Gary White, in China. It was a move that propelled Lancaster not only to a new continent, but also towards becoming Chinese Tapei’s (also known as Taiwan) national team manager.
Although he’d have to make sacrifices. As well as leaving behind his father, Lancaster also had to move away from his wife and two young children.
“There’s more pressure on people now,” Lancaster explains about the 2016 move. “You’ve got two kids, you’ve got nursery fees to pay, you’ve got overheads and you want to enjoy life.
“In academies, you can only coach the kids after school, so that’s every evening taken up and they can only play matches at the weekend, so that’s your weekend gone.
“I also think it’s the character of the individual – I wanted to be challenged, I wanted to be working with the best players, and I learned at Watford the big difference between sport for all and sport for the elite. I just wanted to work with elite players and add value that way.”
So, after meeting White on a Pro Licence course, Lancaster took the plunge. Other than the step up from youth football to the first team, the coach’s strict people-first philosophy meant he noticed scant difference between the way he coached players in England and Asia.
And after playing a key role in Jadon Sancho’s development while the England winger was on the books at Vicarage Road, Lancaster has first-hand experience of what motivates the most talented players and how to get the best out of them.
While the move to Asia seemed to be the perfect next step for a coach with big aspirations but only a small reputation in the UK, it was one laced with risk.
“What people see and don’t see can be different,” says Lancaster. “They assume you’re in first-team football and in China so it’s all sunshine and rainbows, but it was a really ruthless environment. This is why I always ask people if they really want to progress.
“My life was simple at Watford. The money I earned this month paid for next month, and the money I earned next month paid for the month after. Then I’ve gone to China and signed a contract that says if we lose three games in a row, I can get sacked with no compensation.
“I left my two children, my wife and they stayed at home. Then I went out there and lost my first game, then lost the second. I say, do you want to do it? And people say ‘ah’.
“We took over a team that was second from bottom, it was after the transfer window so we’ve got a depleted squad, we can’t bring anyone in and morale is down. We took them from 15th to eighth in the league by the end of the season, and it was a fantastic experience. It was ruthless and gruelling, but enjoyable.”
After following White to be his assistant at Chinese Taipei, Lancaster took control when the well-travelled number one accepted the Hong Kong job.
Now Lancaster’s focus is on helping the small nation climb higher than its current 124th place in the FIFA World Rankings – only three places lower than the country’s highest-ever placing – and make a good fist of a World Cup qualifying campaign that kicks off at the end of this year. While the Englishman understands that getting one of the Asian berths to play in Qatar is a little far-fetched, he’s targeting a place in one of the final qualification groups, which would also guarantee a spot at the 2023 Asian Cup.
To do that, Lancaster is focused on creating an atmosphere in which his players will perform consistently and get the maximum out of their talents. To that end, the manager stays in weekly contact with his players, not just in Taiwan but also those at clubs in Japan, Canada, Russia and England. That means Lancaster is no stranger to setting his alarm to wake up at 3am for a chat with a squad member living in a different time zone.
“It’s like every job, there are different challenges,” he reasons. “For this one, it’s not just about winning on the pitch because our job is to inspire the nation’s children too.
“We played one game against Bahrain and created a motivational video for the kids. It was Taiwan’s national day and we were 1-0 down in the 89th minute, but we won the game 2-1 – it was unbelievable. There was a little boy among the fans who was crying and I show the players that clip and say: ‘he will never forget that moment for the rest of his life.’ We need to make more moments like that.
“We have a huge responsibility to inspire the next generation of players and, to do that, everything has got to be right and be better. We have to win, but win in style.”
One person who was inspired by the video was teenager Will Donkin. A Crystal Palace trainee born to an English father and a Taiwanese mother, the then-16-year-old got in touch to see if he could try out for the national team and made the 12-hour flight alone to have a trial. Other players have come out of the woodwork too and Lancaster is positive that he can build a side capable of taking the next step under his stewardship.
Not surprisingly, Lancaster can’t help but be impressed when members of the Taiwanese diaspora show the necessary commitment to travel from far and wide to trial for the national team. After all, that’s what he’d do in a similar position. But with an attitude which makes him hell-bent on building a successful career, what is Lancaster’s ultimate aim?
“For me, I want to win trophies,” he replies confidently. “Some people want fame, some want money, but I’m not interested in that – I just want to win trophies.
“If you do that, all that other stuff comes too. I’m a winner and I want to work with the best players, contribute, add value and win trophies.”
And if Lancaster can achieve that, the sacrifices he’s made will make his family proud.