Peter Butler: International Man of Football

Picture: Bob Thomas/Getty Images

There was nothing particularly unusual about Peter Butler’s playing career. An industrious midfielder, the Yorkshireman turned out for nine English league clubs – including West Ham and West Brom but more regularly at lower-league sides such as Notts County, Southend United and Halifax Town – before retiring at Sorrento FC in Western Australia in 2002.

From there, he embarked on a coaching odyssey that has been significantly more glamorous than  his earlier employment: from Malaysia to Indonesia via Burma and Thailand, Butler travelled extensively across Asia before taking up his current post as manager of the Botswana national team a year ago this month. Greg Lea spoke to him. 

Did you always want to go into coaching?

To be honest, it wasn’t something I really thought about until I was at West Brom. Ray Harford, who was appointed boss there in 1997 when I was 30, really enthused and stimulated me. Ray was a great coach and a great man and I learnt so much from him. He was so thoughtful and innovative; it was almost as if he ignited this spark that was lying dormant inside of me.

I did my B license soon after that and began to get involved in coaching as my playing career was winding down. The rest, as they say, is history.

Was it always an ambition to work abroad or did it happen by chance?

It’s not something I planned, but I’ve always liked to keep my options open. I’d spent a bit of time working with Tony Parks and Gary Worthington, who is now head scout at Manchester City, at my local team Halifax before making my first move overseas to Sorrento in Australia. I went over with two of my good mates, Trevor Morgan and Stevie Neville, two fellow ex-professionals from the UK.

We all got involved with everything out there: I played, coached and set up an academy. That was my first spell abroad. I did toy with the idea of going back to England at one point, but there were certainly no concrete plans to do so.

How did the move to Malaysia with Sabah FA come about?

It was totally out of the blue. I was still with Sorrento when I got the call from someone in Malaysia offering me the job of head coach and technical director. Opportunities were limited in Australia back then: they were very suspicious of outsiders working in their football and the infrastructure was a lot less developed than it is today.

Asia excited me, and I certainly wasn’t fazed by the prospect of working in a non-English speaking environment. When Sabah called, I wasn’t really thinking about stuff like that; I considered it with my football hat on and decided it was a no-brainer.  I just went for it and didn’t look back.

You’ve also managed in Singapore, Indonesia, Burma and Thailand. What was the footballing culture like in those places?

Southeast Asia is a fantastic place. People used to tell me, “you don’t stay anywhere very long” but that’s normal in that part of the world! Loyalty doesn’t seem to count for much and it’s really common for coaches to be in charge of a new club every few months or so.

It was a thoroughly enjoyable time, though. As well as Sabah FA, I managed T-Team, Kelantan FA and Terengganu in Malaysia; Yangon United in Burma; Warriors in Singapore; Persiba in Indonesia; and BEC Tero Sasana in Thailand. You can’t buy that kind of experience.

And what about living in the region on a human level?

The people were fantastic, but there were a lot of things that frustrated me. Success in Asia often  doesn’t come through hard work or coaching, it’s bought. Corruption was always in the background, and although I wanted to show that you could produce success in a purer way, it was sometimes tough to get that message across. I didn’t like that aspect of life over there.

The thing is, you can’t be fussy in this career. There are plenty of people who would love your job, so you can’t start picking and choosing the exact circumstances in which you’re happy to work. I  encountered the military junta in Burma which obviously wasn’t pleasant but, while I do regret going to places like that when I look back today, it’s not easy to turn down an offer at the time.

Looking back, maybe I was too strong a character to work in Asia back then. I’m forthright and I want things done properly, which seems to scare a lot of people. I’m not authoritarian but I do believe in discipline and unity, and I’m not afraid to speak my mind. Anyone who’s seen my Twitter account will vouch for that!

Having said all that, I’ve got some great memories from the continent. You’d get crowds of up to 95,000 in Malaysia, and our attendances at Sabah jumped from about 2,500 to 30,000 within a couple of years. They sure love their football.

How did the Botswana opportunity come about? Were you approached, or did you apply for the role?

I actually first spoke to the FA over there at the end of 2013, when an agent recommended me for the Technical Director job. That wasn’t something I was interested in though, so I turned it down and thought nothing more of it.

Four months later, the Botswana FA phoned me up and asked me to interview for the senior national team job. They must have liked what they saw because I’d signed the contract by early February.

What did you find when you arrived in Botswana?

It’s a beautiful country, and the raw passion that Botswanans have for the game is unbelievable. In fact, most of Africa has such an incredibly deep love and enthusiasm for football. You can really feel it when you spend time here.

I think there’s still a tendency among some people to talk about Africa as if it’s a unified whole, but there are many differences within the continent. Many envisage West Africans when they think about footballers from this region. The players are so strong – both physically and mentally – in countries like Nigeria, Senegal, Ghana and Ivory Coast, but that’s not always the case in Botswana and the rest of the south.

Botswana’s lived in the shadow of its big brother South Africa for too long. We need to get out of the habit of being intimidated and influenced by South African football. That’s to do with mentality more than anything. We’ve got to get our players further afield, to Europe and beyond.

You’ve given a lot of young players their debuts, including three teenagers in your first ever game in charge against South Sudan. Was that a conscious decision?

When you’re in charge of a country like Botswana, you’ve got to be innovative. Take the Botswana Premier League: there’s probably about 350 footballers who play in it, of which only 40 or 50 are eligible for the national team. That’s a really small pool.

I think it’s important to get out there and watch games, searching for young players. You don’t expect to find the finished article, but sometimes you spot a little spark and think to yourself: “now here’s someone I can work with”. Botswana doesn’t have as strong a league as many other African countries, so it’s essential to be proactive. You can’t just sit on your backside.

So yes, it was definitely a deliberate move to bring the squad’s average age down. I’m not someone who believes in a team full of experienced pros over the age of 30. You have to be brave and bullish about these things; people might say it’s stupid but it’s something I feel I have to do.

Of course you have to find the right blend and make sure the group is well-balanced, but it’s always been my philosophy to give youth a chance. In a few years, 60 per cent of Botswana’s squad will be under the age of 23. This country is in for the shock of its life.

You mentioned your philosophy there. Is there a way of playing that you try to implement wherever you go, or is it more a case of adapting to circumstances?

I think it’s a bit of both. It’s all very well having your own way of doing things but you have to be realistic and consider how your views fit into the wider context of the situation. You have to look at the DNA of the people, the footballing culture. You’ve got to study what they’re about and then try to impose your philosophy. It’s important to be adaptable.

You reached the second stage of qualification for the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations but fell short in a tough group containing Tunisia, Senegal and Egypt. What did you take from that experience?

I wouldn’t swap it for the world. The boys will take so much from it, playing in front of huge crowds with fans throwing smoke bombs and jumping up and down incessantly for ninety minutes.

We played some fantastic teams. Egypt won three Cups of Nations not too long ago, Senegal have so much talent in their front line alone, and Tunisia are a very good side too. We were never going to win. It’s a failing of the FIFA rankings in my opinion: we were the highest-ranked side in Southern Africa but got given an absolutely horrendous draw.

We only collected one point but I’ll never forget Georges Leekens, the Tunisia coach, coming up to me after we drew with them in Gaborone and saying: “your lads were brilliant and your points tally doesn’t tell the story of your performances”.  I was dead proud.

How comprehensive is your role? Is it just a case of working with the first team or does your remit go beyond that?

I’m normally quite busy, put it that way! I get involved with a hell of a lot. I think that’s especially important for a foreign coach because you don’t want to be seen as someone who’s just happy to collect his pay cheque without putting in the hours. For example, I play quite a big part in the talent identification process, as I was saying before. I’m always running sessions for all different age groups: under-21s, under-15s, under-13s.

I don’t mind being busy, though. For me, there are two types of managers: the ones who coach and the ones who fill time. I’ve always tried to be the former because I want to get into people and inspire and affect their lives in a positive way.

Can any lessons you learnt from your playing days at clubs like West Ham, West Brom and Southend United be applied to managing the Botswana national team?

Oh yes, plenty. Personally, I think it helps enormously to have played the game when it comes to grasping coaching. You get a lot of theoretical coaches these days who don’t have any sort of playing background. Qualifications are important – that’s why I made sure I got my UEFA Pro License – but they’re not everything. It’s all about putting that theory into practice.

But what about someone like Jose Mourinho, who never played professionally and is now regarded as one of the best coaches of all time?

I’m not saying it can’t be done, but in my opinion the majority of good coaches will played the game too. It just gives you a much deeper understanding of how things work.

Can you see yourself working back in England one day?

No, I don’t think so, but never say never! England’s not really about how good a coach you are anymore, it’s about who you’re mates with and whether or not you’re on that merry-go-round. I wouldn’t be adverse to being an assistant somewhere, but not the manager.

I’m pretty sure my future will be abroad. I’ve really enjoyed my travels so far, from Australia to Asiato Africa. I’m used to jumping in and out of different societies by now; I like to call my vocation ‘cross-cultural coaching’. I always try to immerse myself in the environment, learning the language and the customs. A lot of European coaches fly into Asia and Africa and just dip their toes, but that’s something I’d never be able to do.

I’ve made a lot of friends – and a few enemies too because I always speak my mind! – and I’ve learnt so much as I’ve mellowed over the years. I’ve no regrets whatsoever.

You can follow Greg Lea on Twitter (@GregLeaFootball)

What do you think of Peter Butler’s career? Should more British managers work abroad? And is he right about football management in England being all about who you’re mates with? Let us know. Email [email protected] or click this link. Hopefully we’ll spot your letter amidst the 3,281 internship applications.

Peter Butler: International Man of Football
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