Peter Butler knew something wasn’t right. As the then-Botswana head coach and his staff wandered through Bamako, the Yorkshireman’s sixth sense clicked into overdrive.
Butler’s adopted nation was in the Malian capital for the second leg of a crunch 2018 World Cup qualifier, but the former West Ham midfielder had sensed tension since he’d arrived. And it was more than just pre-match nerves.
Going into the match with a slender 2-1 advantage, Butler should have been fully focused on masterminding a famous victory for The Zebras. Instead, he felt constantly on edge.
“The security wasn’t great when we got there and I wasn’t really happy about it. I went to the [British] embassy and they couldn’t do anything about it,” Butler recalls.
“We were stopping at the Radisson Blu hotel in the city and although we got beaten 2-0, we went out for a few drinks afterwards. There was an eerie feeling and a strange environment.
“The next day when we checked out of the hotel and flew back, there were already Islamic jihadists in the hotel and later that day they stormed the hotel and shot 20-odd people dead. That goes to show your sixth sense because I had a feeling the whole time that something wasn’t right.”
Butler’s brush with militants is just one of a catalogue of stories the 53-year-old can roll off from his coaching diaries. His memories are dripping with close calls and dangerous scrapes across two decades of travelling around the globe in search of his next job.
There was the time he was attacked on the pitch by angry officials in Indonesia, another when he inadvertently became a pawn in an arms-dealing military junta’s plans and almost never-ending battles with would-be match fixers. But while many elite coaches may baulk at the thought of putting their safety on the line for a job, Butler seemingly accepts these experiences are part of his decision to take his career overseas back in 2001.
At the turn of the century, Butler’s playing career was just winding down following more than 450 Football League appearances for the likes of West Brom, Huddersfield and Southend, as well as two years with West Ham at the time of the Premier League’s launch. A career as a manager was next on his agenda, but the path to achieving his ambition in Britain wasn’t immediately obvious.
“I decided I wanted to row my own boat and didn’t want to be an assistant to somebody when I could learn more from being in different environments – and that took me around the world,” Butler explains.
“You can take all the coaching courses in the world but, at the end of the day, nothing really sets you up for what you’ll experience when you take yourself out of that comfort zone and experience different cultures. So, I went to Australia and set up an academy there, which is where my journey began.
“A lot of people think I’m crazy, but I didn’t want to be holding on to the coat-tails of a bigger coach or manager, I wanted to experience it myself.”
As a result, Butler’s CV includes stops at clubs across south-east Asia in Singapore, Indonesia, Myanmar and Thailand, before heading to Africa to take charge of Botswana in 2014. Now in charge of Liberia’s national team, the coach is fast earning a reputation for taking on roles that are about more than just what happens on the pitch.
Butler describes his current job as being a ‘humanitarian’ project and since arriving in Monrovia last year, he has thrown himself into developing structures to professionalise the route talented youngsters take to make the national team. It’s about the future rather than simply results on the pitch here and now – although they also matter.
Another sign of Butler’s approach is that he travels alone and chooses to build a coaching staff made from natives rather than bringing in his own team from Britain. His current assistant is former Arsenal double winner Christopher Wreh, who moved back to Liberia towards the end of his playing career.
Butler has instilled a British discipline to the squad and has introduced a series of teenagers into the fold, while targeting established players with Liberian heritage from leagues around the globe to play for the national side. Some, such as Athletic Bilbao’s Iñaki Williams, have their sights set on their current nation, whereas others, including Newcastle’s Mohammed Sangare, welcome the call.
“This is a rebuilding job,” Butler explains. “What you’ve got to remember is that because of the civil war, Liberia lost a generation – maybe two – of development and we have to strip it down and start again. I’m here to reorder and reorganise and get them going again.
“It’s not just a football job, it’s a humanitarian job as well. I know it’s crazy to say but it gets into you and you feel like you have a responsibility to help those young players. I look around and see the young players getting contracts and it eats away at you.
“It’s shanty towns and really poor. I can’t believe the environment some of these young players live in – that’s not being disrespectful, it’s just the way it is. This is a country that was ravaged by war. OK, George Weah managed to get out of that to Monaco, but I feel it’s an honour to coach Liberia and understand the challenges and pitfalls that come with it. People want quick fixes and success, but you’re not going to get that here, it’s going to take time.”
Weah’s shadow looms large on any Liberia manager. King George, as he became known during his 90s pomp, is the country’s president and is still revered in west Africa for his dazzling displays for PSG and AC Milan. While Weah’s time is mostly spent dealing with political issues, he still finds time to mix with the squad and isn’t averse to joining in with training sessions whenever the mood takes him.
“Weah comes to the hotel and meets us, and I’ve had lunch with him. He turns up and trains sometimes, which can be quite intimidating to say the least,” Butler says.
“He’s a nice guy and while I don’t know him that well, he wants success for Liberia quickly because when you get results, the elation on the streets here is mind-blowing. It takes people away from their difficult circumstances and poverty for a few hours. He can be quite a motivating factor, but it needs to be channelled as well in terms of expectations and what we hope to achieve moving forward because this is probably the hardest job I’ve taken.
“Liberia is a beautiful country and the Liberian people are fantastic – very friendly, they love their football and we get thousands of people there for training. Then George Weah walks in with all his entourage with his goalkeeping gloves on and we have to take penalties at him. I’m just told to let him get on with it, so you bite your lip.”
While Weah’s passion for the beautiful game may be off-putting at times, it doesn’t compare to some of the other bosses Butler has worked under in the past. The most notable was Tay Za, who combined being chairman of Yangon United Football Club with dealing arms – unbeknown to his new coach.
“Tay Za was on the United Nations sanctions list and brought me to Burma to manage his team,” says Butler. “But this guy was trying to earn acceptance from the world for his misdemeanours and was the main guy in the military junta when it was pre-democracy.
“I had to be really careful with my Ps and Qs and set up a meeting with the British government through the ambassador at the time for them to meet this guy. All was clandestine and under the radar, but he met them. I felt quite uncomfortable doing that because the guy was a complete and utter rogue, but it’s the way things work.
“This guy was on the back of all these arms deals, but I didn’t know until I got there and people started telling me I’m working for a complete thug. The one thing you can never do is lose your integrity or go against your moral fibre but it’s a job and you need to pay the bills, so you’re doing what’s right for your family.
“When I realised this was happening, I knew this job wasn’t going to last for long, but I had to work with some unscrupulous people until I found a way out of it. He [Tay Za] treated me very well until the end, but he was just using me as a way of gaining acceptance on the world stage. I was just a pawn in the middle.”
After building up a strong bank of experience – both on and off the field – Butler remains anonymous in Britain, with his achievements abroad considered to be nothing more than a footnote back in his homeland.
“I don’t think the FA or English clubs are interested,” he adds. “People like me are deemed as not having the experience, which is complete and utter nonsense. Somebody said to me at the English FA, ‘you need to go out and get more Football League experience’. But I’ve got my Pro Licence and the best education you can have is working in environments with very difficult situations where it’s muck and nettles, it’s rough and you’ve got to improvise and be creative. Maybe I have excelled in parts of the world because I’m willing to embrace those difficult, challenging situations and I’m not wrapped up in cotton wool on a beautiful training ground at St George’s Park in Staffordshire.”
It’s an approach that’s working for Butler, no matter what challenges the world throws at him.