The wind is howling, there’s a brisk, bitter hue on this mid-April Sunday morning in the heart of New Jersey. The surroundings are plush, a leafy part of Hightstown that’s within the big-moneyed sphere of both the New York City and Philadelphia metropolises. The pitch belongs to one of the most expensive high schools in the United States. It’s pristine, a high-quality artificial surface, and nothing to do with the northeastern US having had a mild winter – it hasn’t – from which it’s still not fully emerged.
Big Welshie is positioned on the opposite side of the pitch, the taller of a lonesome duo, leaning against the away dugout. Up close, the well-bundled, 6ft-plus figure’s identity is revealed by a two-inch window above and below his eyes: a slightly aged version of the man who came of age 24 years ago under Ivan Golac.
A brogue unmistakably of Edinburgh offers a pleasant welcome, its owner gingerly pulling down the sheath covering his mouth. “I’m going soft,” he ventures, laughing as he adds: “you’ve got to watch to no go soft over here.”
Soft isn’t something that characterized the game of Brian Welsh in his mid-1990s heyday. He was once one of Scotland’s most promising centre backs, coming close to a full Scotland call-up at one point, before serious injury cut him down in his prime. But then, the 49-year-old is a long, long way from the school of hard knocks he went through in the Dundee United youth system under the omniscience of Jim McLean.
But there’s a serious point wrapped up in his gentle joshing. Six years ago, Welsh had reached the end of his tether with the professional game in Scotland, setting out for a new life in the United States. After working in youth development at Cowdenbeath, taking over for an ultimately chastening spell as manager, then a successful period as head of youth development at Livingston, he’d decided the time had come for a fresh start. A son had already cut a trail to the US to study and play college soccer, and Welsh had become familiar with the football landscape across the pond on regular visits. An opportunity emerged and he decided to grab it.
The man who had done so much to help the Tangerines lift the Scottish Cup in Golac’s first season, for the first time in their history, and who had also turned out for Hibs, Clydebank, Cowdenbeath and Stenhousemuir, was departing Scottish football, suitably bookending proceedings by accepting a place in the Tayside club’s hall of fame just before his departure.
It was the early stages of 2012, Jurgen Klinsmann hadn’t long been installed atop the US national team setup, and there was a positive vibe in the air in America. But, as Welsh quickly discovered, the American game comes with its own set of problems.
“Society’s changed, we all know that,” Welsh explains, recalling the environment he encountered as an emerging youth player. “When you were living in an era of successful – although we never thought that at the time – Scottish international teams, qualifying for World Cups, stuff like that, there was not a lot to do in those days apart from play football.
“If you had a love of football, you weren’t sitting on FIFA. You were out, you were in the fresh air, you were playing. And I suppose that’s where the hunger to succeed and be a footballer, those kind of things, take place. So we’ve moved away from a period of kids playing on their own and working on all different parts of their game under no pressure to this environment now where everything’s structured, even at a young age. Free play, playing with your mates, it’s all out the window. So it’s all changed. And when you talk about soft, it’s kind of everywhere, it’s what we live with now.”
Cue Welsh and a football philosophy firmly rooted in Scottish working-class values shipped to the US. In his own small way, he is on a mission to prove the Americans can excel and compete with the world’s best despite inbuilt cultural limitations and a landscape with layers of complexity. Here, soccer isn’t interwoven into the fabric of daily life. Saturdays are for college football on the gridiron. Sundays are for the professional version, the NFL. Baseball is the national pastime. Football, or soccer in local parlance, is distinctly middle class and predominated by a pay-to-play industry at the youth level. As for the country’s sizable Hispanic population, where football does predominate, fermenting in a working-class culture, there’s often a feeling of alienation. Ultimately, a true meritocracy remains elusive.
This is Welsh’s tableau. And there’s little sign of a soft touch on display.
“I can teach these kids football and tactics, but I’ve always thought my main goal is to give the kids here a working-class mentality, and I think that’s why my teams have had success, because I’m not sure that’s going on elsewhere,” he says. “Making them fight for things, making them accountable in training. Things I was brought up with. I’ve always had that with my teams, even at Livingston. Wee Jim used to say ‘It’s a simple game complicated by idiots.’
“Now I can get all technical with the tactical side of the game, and a lot of that goes on. There’s a lot of forward-thinking coaches but I’m not sure they’re pushing the right buttons. Getting these kids to give everything they’ve got. That’s not going on. There’s loads of talent in America. What’s happening to them? Is it just they’re not getting opportunities in MLS [Major League Soccer], this closed system? People are scared to play kids. How can you be scared when there’s no relegation?”
Welsh’s track record developing promising youth during his time in Livingston yielded trophies and a string of players who went onto professional careers. Recently, he delivered a national championship stateside. It’s still early days, but he awaits a day soon when his first player in the US turns pro to complete the set. He operates in Virginia, not far from the beating heart of the country’s capital, Washington, DC. His official role is as technical director on the boy’s side, from under-9 to under-18, of pay-to-play outfit Braddock Road Youth Club – the rough equivalent of a Hutchison Vale or a Tynecastle Boys Club, where he started as a youngster, playing at a level just below the US Soccer Federation’s vaunted development academy system.
His critique of the US’ ungainly structure comes at a time of crisis for the American game. The country’s full national team just failed to reach the World Cup for the first time since 1986. National soul searching is at a premium, a process with which Scotland is all too familiar. For his part, by the end of his time on home soil Welsh describes feeling disillusioned with the game. His period in charge at Cowdenbeath had ended badly. After suffering relegation to Scotland’s bottom tier, he’d been sacked – an outcome for which he later raised a court action and won. Then he’d rediscovered his first love focused on youth at Livingston only to grow weary of it all.
“You have certain ideas, you see the way Scotland was going,” he recalls of the decision-making process that drew him across the pond. “I always thought the kids never got a chance. I thought there was quality there. And I’m not just talking about Livingston. I’m talking about a lot of clubs. It’s like being a clone – scared to upset anybody, watching what you’re saying with the SFA. I’d had enough. I enjoyed my job but it was frustrating at times. Mostly it was my kids and their scholarships, and it just tied in with the way I was feeling with the football back home. Professional football is a hard school and everybody is trying to work their way up that ladder.”
Which presaged the scene of his US vision.
He confronted the US game as it presented itself, deeply flawed but an opportunity. At Braddock Road, Welsh set about installing among his boys – often from wealthy backgrounds – a culture designed to breed hunger and accountability. He quickly got younger teams training with older teams, creating the sort of theatre where there is no hiding place. “Like I used to be held accountable when I trained with senior pros,” he says, recalling the platform afforded by McLean that saw him go on to amass 177 appearances in tangerine. “You’re going to get your balls chewed if you make a mistake. That kind of thing: sink or swim.” Most of his young players end up playing football in college and getting good degrees. Some have been offered places in MLS academies. Ideally, Welsh would like to see his best go pro, whether in the US or overseas. The natural desire and hunger required exist in those from comfortable backgrounds, he insists. “It’s just got to come out. That’s where the coach comes in.”
Welsh sees accountability deficits all the way up the closed US system, where there is no promotion or relegation between senior leagues. In this realm, MLS is considered the country’s top tier, the United Soccer League designated as the second division beneath it: ultimately a glass ceiling. “If young players can get in that MLS and play with older players, then that kind of stuff is naturally going to happen. But it’s not happening because they’re not getting anywhere near the team.”
Which raises the spectre of Welsh’s latest venture. He’s just dipped into his own pocket to buy a team in the country’s de-facto fourth tier. Named Northern Virginia United, and located not far from his home, they play in what’s known as the National Premier Soccer League, a semi-professional regionalised setup that crowns a national champion after a short summer campaign and post-season play-offs. One of his early moves was to change the centrepiece of the club’s badge to incorporate a lion in place of an aeroplane – a nod to both his Scottish and Dundee United roots. Like his old boss at United, he is both owner and head coach.
The deadly serious part of him sees the club as a way to give exposure to overlooked talent. “It’s for kids that are in college with kids that have maybe played college,” Welsh says. “Good young players that maybe just need a little push or a little bit exposure to other places. There’s no age limitations. I can bring in a player that played in the MLS who’s no longer playing pro and wants to play in the summer. They come in, 29 years old, and play with a few of the kids, hopefully help that thing I talk about: playing with older players. I want these kids to prove they’re good enough. There’s a lot out there that have probably that mentality: ‘I was never given a chance’.”
He has a target. The one vehicle for lower-league US clubs to get a bite at an MLS outfit is in the US Open Cup, the American version of the Scottish Cup. Qualification for clubs like Northern Virginia United is based on league placings. “I want to be in a situation that I’m sitting with a bunch of local kids in the next few years that are going to go into the US Open Cup. We’re going to help them – and we’re going to prove a point.” He won’t get the opportunity this year as one of the NPSL’s new clubs but there is the smaller carrot of a possible tie with the current version of the New York Cosmos should they reach the play-offs. “You just never know.”
Welsh doesn’t ever see himself back in Scottish football. He doesn’t even envisage another job in charge of a senior team in the upper echelons of the game anywhere. Though he identifies one possible exception: his local MLS side DC United. Which fits firmly within his philosophy: “Do you know why? Because I’d fill it with local kids. That’s it, in a nutshell. I’d fill it with local talent with two or three senior pros. Call me a dreamer. I’m probably never, ever in a million years going to get it but that’s what I’d do. And I think that grows the game in this country. Not bringing in old pros. There’s enough interest now that we’ve got to get the kids through. That’d be the only reason I’d ever even contemplate or think about it. That’s what I’m good at.”
Back on the pitch in New Jersey, his under-16 team is dealing comfortably with their opponents and the conditions. They cope particularly well in the second half when playing against the wind, eventually running out 2-0 winners. They don’t get it easy from Welsh and his team of coaches. That was evident when his under-18 side won the national championship amid the scorching Texas heat last year. At the end of the match, after scooping the winner’s trophy, one of his coaches had the players doing a running drill. “People would look at that and say, ‘What a bunch of idiots’,” Welsh says, laughing. “But it was them saying how much work they’d put in to that and they could still keep going.”
So soft? Welsh is curt: No chance. “There’s a lot of ways people can be soft, so to say. And soft doesn’t mean scared or anything like that. It just means things are little bit too easy, too comfortable. And us as coaches have a massive part to play in that. Sometimes you have to upset people, you’re going to get kickback. But you’re never going to be anything as a professional athlete, in any sport, if you’ve got that kind of mentality.”