A class act

Three decades after his appointment as national team coach was greeted by many with bemusement, former school headmaster Andy Roxburgh is still doing what he does best: educating.

By Joel Sked

This article first appeared in Issue 8 which was published in June 2018.

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Roxburgh was chosen in part due to the direction the Scottish national team were heading. Roxburgh had worked with the likes of John Wark as well as Charlie Nicholas, Ally McCoist, Neale Cooper, Pat Nevin, Paul McStay and others.
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As coaching education became established, a pathway and vision built and developed, Scotland’s youth teams were tasting success on the continent against the world’s best.

“Andy who?” was the headline which greeted the appointment of Andy Roxburgh as Scotland national team coach in 1986. This was not some stranger picked to fill the vacancy following the death of Jock Stein and Sir Alex Ferguson stepping aside after the group stage exit at the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. Roxburgh had been part of the coaching set-up within the SFA for more than 10 years.

Now the Asian Football Confederation’s technical director, back in 1975 the former school headmaster became the first director of coaching at the SFA, a position that was surprisingly avant-garde for the national association. As part of his role he oversaw the youth age groups, leading the country to success at the 1982 Under-18 European Championships.

“The job was suddenly advertised,” Roxburgh explains from his Switzerland home. “My background in education and football meant that the job seemed to me to be an appropriate one. That’s why I became interested in it because it was basically merging the two aspects of my career into one.

“I started off with the under-21s and the youth team which was the under-18s at that point. Because of the demands and a change of management that happened I didn’t take the under-21s for too long but I focused on the underage teams, the under-18s, under-16s, worked with the schoolboys. I didn’t run the schoolboys’ teams but worked with them, that’s how we first came in contact with boys like Paul McStay.”

Despite a career which took in spells at Queen’s Park, Partick Thistle and Falkirk, where he partnered Ferguson up front, his appointment as Scotland coach was treated with suspicion and disbelief.

Writing in the Glasgow Herald ahead of Roxburgh’s first match in charge, James Traynor said: “In their thousands the supporters will shuffle through the Hampden turnstiles to see what Roxburgh, for 10 years the SFA’s director of coaching, can do for the big team. As is their wont many of them will arrive ready to vilify him on the flimsy evidence of one match should the Bulgarians behave like Bohemians and refuse us victory.”

Roxburgh can look back now at the reaction to his appointment with a measure of rationality. He says: “The headlines were stuff like ‘Andy Who?’ and that was perfectly understandable. My employer had simply asked me to take on more responsibility and I was willing to do that, a privilege to do that, and off we went.”

But why was it “understandable”? Quoted in the profile back in 1986 Roxburgh said: “If other people suggest you are an expert as a coach you have a problem in Scotland. Here they tend to be anti-coaching. It is a much-misunderstood subject.

“There is further difficulty in that unless you can show your international caps and cup medals you are in for some trouble. A lot of people in Scottish football trade on these things.”

The absence of a stellar playing career and a club-level coaching CV which could be written on the back of a matchbox were the root of the scepticism. That and the country’s penchant for anti-intellectualism with regard to the national sport. Roxburgh was reluctant to use the term ‘coaching’ because “it reeks of negative tactics”.

Fans were hoping for a bigger name, a more charismatic personality, a figurehead. The Evening Times ran a list of contenders in June 1986 after Ferguson had stepped down. Roxburgh’s name was there. But it was overshadowed by other candidates: Jim McLean, Kenny Dalglish, George Graham, Dave Mackay, Brian Clough, Jock Wallace, Terry Venables.

Understandably, those names are ones to get excited about (albeit one can only imagine the relationship between Clough and the head honchos of the SFA).

Roxburgh was chosen in part due to the direction the Scottish national team were heading. Roxburgh had worked with the likes of John Wark as well as Charlie Nicholas, Ally McCoist, Neale Cooper, Pat Nevin, McStay and others. Many were now forming a core of the squad. And he had the full support of Dalglish who invited him around to his house not long after the appointment.

“I was fortunate that with the bulk of the players I had worked with,” says Roxburgh. “And the ones who were older who I hadn’t worked with, I knew most of them.”

That didn’t stop the questions, the mistrust. According to Chick Young, writing in the Evening Times:  “The critics continue to machinegun [the appointment]. Significantly those pulling the trigger, some who claim to have circumnavigated the globe with every big name in football, wouldn’t know the real Andy Roxburgh if he turned up in their soup.”

The then 42-year-old was already respected around the world. He was one of only six coaches in the world at the time on FIFA’s World Cup technical staff.

“No matter where in the world Roxburgh goes his reputation as a coach of great knowledge and awareness arrives well in advance and yet it has still to register in his own land. A hero abroad where he must live up to his image he finds himself almost having to live it down at home,” Traynor commented in the Glasgow Herald.

Roxburgh’s reputation was earned through the work he had carried out at the SFA and with UEFA and FIFA prior to his promotion to the Scotland job.

“For my first 10 years it was basically running the youth teams on the one hand and secondly running the coach education side of things, then we introduced grassroots,” Roxburgh tells as he simplifies his role.

“There was nothing there before. The Scottish FA had run summer courses and things. It was the very first full-time appointment, the first time there had been a technical director in the SFA. It was exactly the same when I went to UEFA. This is why in both of these cases the role was new, I wasn’t able to benefit from anything which was built before. I always viewed what I did as that of a foundation-builder. Somebody else would build the rest of the building but my job was to deal with foundations. Whether that was dealing with the youth players they were trying to develop and pass them on to the higher levels or whether that was development of the coaching, it was all about dealing with the foundations.

“That is obviously what I am doing in Asia right now, I am putting in the foundations of a coaching convention, grassroots charter, elite youth scheme.”

In time, thanks in part to the 74-year-old, Scotland became one of the key destinations for football coaches from around the world to earn their stripes, to learn. On the North Ayrshire coast, Largs became mythical within coaching circles, the way Coverciano is in Italy.

Roxburgh, however, dismisses the location. It was what was taught there, and in other venues, which was the special factor. “It is nothing to do with a place. This was the interesting thing that people stuck a label on it. The place was irrelevant, we worked in other venues as well during that period.

“I just felt that as a principle that before somebody managed a youth team or managed a professional club team, they should have some preparation for that. There should be some training, just like in any job.

“I was never obsessed by badges or diplomas, it was only that we should help prepare people for the job. It is to protect the game from people who didn’t know what they were doing so people taking over teams at least had a basic competence. It protects players, it protects the game and the main thing also it protects the people.

“There were a lot of famous people we worked with over the years who discovered when they were doing their coaching education process they weren’t cut out to be coaches. And this protected them. I can name a lot of examples that at the time, before the club licensing system came in, where they could go from being a player one day to a coach the next and they were disasters because they had absolutely no knowledge of how to do that. They were simply winging it.

“You only have to speak to the famous names, Sir Alex Ferguson, Marcelo Lippi, Fabio Capello, and they will all tell you the same thing, that the training they got when they were a student coach was invaluable to them. They saw the game from a different perspective. Instead of seeing it through the eyes of a player, they started to see it through the eyes of a coach.

“Or at youth level for the development of the young players. You have to think in a different way, you have to think big picture. You have to handle all the leadership, management and coaching issues.”

As coaching education became established, a pathway and vision built and developed, Scotland’s youth teams were tasting success on the continent against the world’s best.

In 1982, Scotland, led by Nevin and McStay, travelled to Finland to compete for the Under-18 European Championship. Scotland progressed from their group with wins over Albania and Turkey and a draw with the Netherlands. Poland were defeated 2-0 in the semi-final, which set up a final clash with Czechoslovakia who were swept aside 3-1 thanks to goals from John Philliben, Nevin and Gary Mackay.

It remains Scotland’s only tournament win at any international level (discounting the Kirin Cup). Yet, bizarrely, that feat is not evoked in the same way as when the under-16 team was defeated on home turf by a mature Saudi Arabia side in 1989 in the Under-16 FIFA World Championship.

In 1983 the team went to Mexico for the Under-19 World Youth Championship, topping their group, defeating hosts Mexico in front of more than 86,000 at the cathedral of Mexican football, the Azteca Stadium, thanks to a goal from current Kilmarnock boss Steve Clarke. Scotland were finally stopped by Poland in the quarter-finals.

Winning trophies wasn’t a set aim but winning games certainly was. The philosophy was: the more games Scotland win, the more games Scotland play, which allows players further development.

“So far as success is concerned or winning anything, I used to tell the players this, they had to learn at that age, not just how to play, how to develop as football players but they also had to learn how to win. It was not to focus on the trophies, the argument there was if we win games then that would allow us to get more games. Our attitude was always let’s try to see if we can keep winning so we can give ourselves more experience.

“Even before [the 1982 European Championship win] there was the world international tournament, it was played in Cannes, we actually won that. We were in the same group as Brazil and we beat France in the final. John Wark was the captain of the team. The reason behind it was we wanted them to learn how to win and in doing so to take them to play more games and gain more experience.

“It was all about those players becoming the best they could become. A boy like Paul McStay who was gifted, trying to encourage him to be more of a leader on the pitch in terms of him dictating the play. Paul was a shy lad, a great boy and so that was part of the persuasion if you like, not only with the team but him as an individual to try and help him become more dominant on the pitch and, of course, he became that. He became the captain of Celtic. Nothing was about short-term, everything was about thinking further ahead.”

He adds: “I wasn’t around at the time but people always tell you that Scotland invented the short-passing game. We always felt that our players, there were two things about them in terms of philosophy: one, we could pass the ball and secondly in the attacking areas of the pitch we had people who could run at defenders, players like Pat Nevin. Two straightforward elements. It meant sometimes in the games we would play long at the beginning to simply stretch the game, then our midfield would find space and really start to play in terms of a passing game. We encouraged people like Nevin to drive at defenders and take them on.

“Sir Alex Ferguson always said his style was an aggressive attacking style with overlapping full-backs. I would say we were very much in that same wavelength. We would compete but we wanted to pass the ball and we wanted to have the ability to be able to drive at defenders in the attacking areas. We looked for players of that ilk.

“The great thing for us was how many actually made it into the national team because ultimately that was the whole purpose. The purpose was to help each individual player to be the best they could be, whether they became a professional player or international player.”

His work wasn’t going unnoticed by those who mattered. Unbeknown to him he was being earmarked as a potential future Scotland manager.

“The thing that came home to me [after being handed the Scotland job] was that it was almost as if Jock (Stein) had predicted this. The year before they offered me this job I had been going to a UEFA coaching school course in Florence. I was going with Jock Stein, we had gone to see (Graeme) Souness play for Sampdoria then we were in a car going to Florence when Jock suddenly turned to me and said: ‘Are you ambitious?’

“I went: ‘Aye, I’m ambitious for Scottish football and to develop it. That’s what I do, I’m a developer.’

“He said: ‘Nah, nah, nah. I don’t mean that. I mean are you ambitious to be a bit more than that.”

“ ‘What do you mean,’ I said.

“‘Well, do you not fancy my job?’ (Stein)

“Of course, I laughed: ‘For a start, who would want your job! Are you serious?’

“It was typical Jock style, he turned away and said: ‘Ayeee…. maybe you should think about it.’

“That immediately came back to me when the SFA offered me this job.”

Roxburgh was given little chance to turn the offer down when it did come, not that he was intending to. “There are different ways to climb a mountain. Many other countries in Europe, their national coaches over the years were often people who had come through their own system. Berti Vogts was an example of that in Germany. He had taken the youth teams, the under-21s then the national team.

“It was unusual for Scotland but it wasn’t unusual in a global sense. The reason the Scottish FA decided to do that, they told me, was simply because it was going to be a new era. Sadly Jock had passed away and Alex had taken over in the short-term and he was down to go to Man United. They simply said that because most of the players that were going to be in the national team, either in it or coming into it, were players I had worked with.

“There were very, very few of the players who were going to be in the national team that we hadn’t actually worked with, that was one of the reasons that the SFA decided. They didn’t really discuss it with me in too much depth. Ernie Walker came to me at 11.30 on a Wednesday morning and he suddenly said to me that the international committee would like you to be the national manager.

“‘Do I get time to think about it?’, I asked.

“He said: ‘Yeah, yeah. No problem. The press conference is at half two this afternoon.’

“When someone offers you such a role you don’t say no. Your employer asked you to do a job. I had already worked for them for ten years, the employer knew me. We never signed a contract, there was no discussion. It was simply ‘we’d like you to take on more responsibility’.

“My reaction was quite simple: ‘Okay, as long as I can keep my current job’.”

Roxburgh continued in his role as technical director but it was soon clear he was in need of assistance, which led to him ‘persuading’ Craig Brown to join him as assistant and he would also oversee the youth groups.

With Brown in tow, Roxburgh became the first Scotland manager to lead the country to qualification for back-to-back international tournaments, the 1990 World Cup and 1992 European Championships. The latter was the first time Scotland had reached the Euros. Roxburgh, however, wasn’t able to transform the dynamic of the national team at the finals of a tournament.

Failure to reach a sixth consecutive World Cup saw Roxburgh step aside in 1993 and for him the successor was obvious: his assistant Brown. Yet, this pathway from coaching the youth age groups to taking on the big job wasn’t a pre-requisite SFA philosophy. It was simply a case of the appointment being appropriate.

“There was no conveyor belt or anything, that wasn’t the way it worked in those days. What happened when I finished I immediately recommended him. If we had a so-called conveyor belt it was there by chance rather than by design.

“I don’t think it is a case of having one policy or another here. I think it is a matter of making a possibility that someone can come through the system. You obviously keep your options open about what is possible at the time.

“It depends on the circumstances, it depends what’s required, it depends who is available. Bringing people through the system is one way of doing it. But some people who work in the underage teams are appropriate for that level but not necessarily to take the national team. Their gift is developing players.

“It is sometimes more difficult to upgrade somebody from in-house because of the reaction you get. That can be from players, that can be from different sources.”

Roxburgh wasn’t without suitors once he had left the SFA. His standing continued to be high in the corridors of both European and world football. Seeing what he did at Scotland, UEFA appointed him as their first ever technical director and the Scot returned to what he does best: bringing the cement mixer out of storage to build foundations.

It is a job he carried out for 18 years and is now carrying out in Asia, following a spell in the US as sporting director for MLS New York Red Bulls.

“The first thing I did here in Asia when I started, I did it in Europe as well, was create panels of specialists in the fields. That panel is still functioning, still running everything. I’ve done exactly the same thing in Asia. They had no panel and I’ve created one for coaching, one for elite youth and one for grassroots.

“The panel of specialists, the key people from a number of the federations, they’re the ones that take it to the next level. It is not just about preparing people, it is also for when they are already in the roles to have further education, further training to keep them up to date. That is one of the most important things when you are involved in coaching, especially when you are educating coaches. You are not training them for football 20 years ago, or 10 years ago, you’re training them for the football of today and tomorrow. So that means you have got to keep them right up to date with everything you’re doing.

“You look at Europe now, I know when we started off we had some real difficulties as different parts of Europe had completely different views of how to train coaches. But in Europe now they are really tuned in to how they do all of that. They have really come a long way, they are all on the same wavelength now in Europe.

“It is not about what to coach, it is how to do it. It is not about making everybody play the same football or same philosophy, it’s about how you do it. In other words what are the skills that you need to do it, how do you analyse football matches, how do you train football players, how do you manage conflict. You choose the way you want to play.

“In Europe they all have their own styles, their own approaches to the game. Now 46 of the nations are able to train coaches right up to the professional level. It is beyond belief when you think back in 1998 there was only six of them.”

He adds with regards to his role at the AFC: “It’s interesting but difficult. The thing about Asia is that it is so vast you are almost dealing with four or five continents within one. There’s the language and cultural difference to add to that. But the common language is football.”

Splitting his time between Switzerland and Kuala Lumpur, it would be reasonable to expect Roxburgh to not have his finger on the pulse in terms of the state of Scottish football. Yet he still speaks to those within the SFA, including Jim Fleeting who is the current director of coaching.

During his time with the SFA Roxburgh raised concern about the decreasing number of children playing football. It is an issue which has not helped the quality of Scottish football and one brought up by former Scotland boss Walter Smith last season. Roxburgh also pinpoints the turn of the century when clubs were more interested in spending money on importing talent rather than rearing their own before exporting.

“In the Eighties teachers went on strike and the school football numbers dropped from 40,000 to 15,000, it was something dramatic like that,” he says. “That period in the Eighties was a watershed in many ways. The numbers who were playing regularly diminished. Over the years they’ve tried to build it but I don’t think it has ever come back to that level again. Obviously what Walter (Smith) and I were talking about is that we worried the way things were going, kids had far more things to do, more interests.

“What also happened during the Nineties and into the new century there was a trend in Scotland to buy cheap foreign players rather than bring through their own. I remember one chairman said to me that they had made a mistake by stopping investing in their youth programme.

“Again it is a bit like your national managers in a way, you need to keep your options open. I think all top clubs will tell you that you need to have a really well developed youth programme, youth academy to develop young players so you can get some homegrown players into your squad. That’s what Sir Alex used to say about Man United, they were the heart and soul of our team, they were the ones that the fans related to.

“I am in touch with my colleagues there, like Jim Fleeting, and they have done a lot of work to promote the grassroots of the game, they’ve done a lot of work to encourage talent development centres. The association is working really hard at it. The association can do so much but the clubs really need to invest in it. Over recent years they’ve been doing it but there was a period from what I gather when the investment wasn’t what it should have been in terms of money or in terms of effort.

“It’s not one thing or another. It’s also to do with the numbers that are playing, the mass participation, it is to do with the scouting of young talent. The schools football environment wasn’t only giving them the opportunity to play regularly but was also highlighting them. You think of Paul McStay playing in the schoolboy under-15 international at Wembley in front of 90,000 people. It was a different era, in terms of kids practising, kids playing football. It was a different environment, it’s changed and we just have to accept that and face that it has changed. The Scottish FA and clubs recognise now that they need to invest in it and that’s what they are doing but it takes time.”

This article first appeared in Issue 8 which was published in June 2018.

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