As foreign coaches prosper in the Premiership, the reputation of British managers is not what it once was. Justin McCurry profiles Steve Perryman, one of the few currently enjoying success outside this country
Before Steve Perryman arrived as assistant coach to Ossie Ardiles at Shimizu S-Pulse in 1996, the British influence on the J-League had been minimal. Four years on, the former Spurs captain is one of the most popular figures in Japanese football, and his young, entertaining side looks set to mount another challenge for the championship this season.
S-Pulse’s defeat in the championship play-offs against Jubilo Iwata last season was greeted with disappointment by more than just S-Pulse fans. Pundits pounced on the club’s plight (they amassed 16 more points than Jubilo over the two-stage season) as proof that, while pitting the winners of the first and second stages against each other may be exciting, it is also unfair.
The goodwill that follows Perryman and Ardiles may have erased some of the memories of their acrimonious departure from White Hart Lane six years ago. Perryman’s destiny has been closely linked with that of Ardiles, now manager at Yokohama F Marinos, ever since. His future in Japan was sealed during a stay at Ardiles’s home in England during a winter break from managerial duties in Norway, the Argentinian having just returned from a spell in Mexico.
“Ossie got a phone call from a FIFA agent speaking about the possibility of the S-Pulse job,” Perryman says. “I was there with him, and he said, ‘Come on, let’s go.’ He’d encouraged me out of Watford to join him at Tottenham, now he was encouraging me to leave Norway to join him in Japan.” A combination of fond memories of Japan as a Spurs player in the 1970s and “the fact that I thought we had been a bit harshly treated at Tottenham” helped Perryman decide.
The town of Shimizu is to Tokyo roughly what Slough is to London. For Perryman and his wife and two young children, there were none of the international schools, chic restaurants and social functions other expatriate professionals in Japan seem to find indispensable. “Life has got easier as time has gone on,” Perryman says. “The first six months were incredibly hard because everything was new. We had communication problems – the frustration of not being able to say to someone, ‘I want something for a cold.’ You have to go to about eight different people before it gets worked out.”
Communication, or the lack of it, lies at the heart of Perryman’s professional concerns. Of his club’s players and officials he says: “Because there is so much respect, they wait for you to talk. They don’t actually tell you anything. I said to them one day: ‘Imagine one of our masseurs went home and cut his wife’s head off. The next day you would all come here, I would tell you everything that’s happened to me, but unless I said, “Did anyone cut anyone else’s head off last night?” you wouldn’t tell me.’ You have to say to them, ‘I want you to talk about this, about how you feel.’ This might be the hardest place in the world to get players to talk to each other.”
While other foreign coaches have been known to resort to the 50-press-ups-and-ten-laps-of-the-pitch solution to loosen players’ tongues, Perryman prefers a softer approach. “I’m respectful of cultural traits that don’t encourage straight talking. But if you want to watch Brazilian videos, Italian videos, the Champions League and wonder ‘How can I be like that?’ I’m going to tell you how you can be like it. Whether you want to take it further, against the grain of your culture, is up to you. And the players here have responded to that.”
The implication that Japanese teams are still wet behind the ears, despite a relationship with football lasting decades, is slightly unfair, given the national team’s well-received World Cup debut in France, the success of J-League clubs in Asia-wide competition and the presence of three Japanese players in the Italian and Spanish professional leagues. But tight-lipped players, Perryman says, are a problem the world over and concern him so much as a coach that he is co-writing a book on the subject.
Talking aside, the S-Pulse style combines a passing game, old-fashioned wing play and a touch of the hit and hope that betrays their manager’s English pedigree. “In some respects, it’s not quite right that they are looking to the Brazilians. It’s right for the crowd, because the crowd like to see the difference, but as for teaching the players on the field, I’m not sure they are the best to follow. I think they need a bit of English standard play, which gives players confidence.”
For the time being, though, S-Pulse’s foreign influence on the pitch is decidedly Brazilian, and includes the 22-year-old Alex, winner of the J-League player of the year award last season. There are no plans to extend the club’s English influence beyond the bench.
“I’m looking at players back in Britain all the time, but the nature of Japanese football means players are signed on one-year contracts,” Perryman says. “I don’t mind that at all, but if I want to sign an English player, the first question he’s going to ask is, ‘How long is your contract?’ If I say I’ve got ten months left of one year…” He shakes his head. “The money is good enough in England at the moment that coming to Japan is not that attractive.”
Perhaps not for a player. But for a coach who has made no secret of his disdain for the increasingly blurred lines between boardroom and dressing-room, Japan, for now, is a dream come true. “The most refreshing thing here is that you are focused on soccer all day long. You’re given all the resources: bibs, balls, goals, movable goals, shooting boards. You’ve got everything available to you to improve your players.
“And you are left alone entirely to pick the team, dictate the tactics and get on with it. For a manager that is fantastic to have. You’re not chasing your tail. That’s what happens in England, where you’re the jack of all trades. Here you’ve got thinking time. I think this is what happened with Arsène Wenger. He said Japan had given him back his desire for the game, and that’s how I feel. I feel rejuvenated, because I’ve returned to soccer, returned to what I do best. Instead of negotiating over a player at Watford who I don’t think is good enough anyway, with his agent, who thinks he’s magnificent.”
Perryman admits such duties partly explain why a return to management in England is not a serious option at the moment. “More people are becoming chief executives for their business acumen. I don’t mind that. But then they start making football decisions and they start talking tactics. I don’t think that’s right.”
Not surprisingly, thoughts turn to White Hart Lane, where George Graham is under fire for failing to repeat the success he had at Arsenal. “I have said what I had to say about Alan Sugar, and as far as I’m concerned it’s finished. I would only be giving him column inches I don’t think he deserves. At least I see now they’ve got a manager, managing. If in the end such a manager is not getting the support from above that he thinks he deserves, he says ‘Bye-bye’. The fact that George Graham is still there suggests he’s getting support, or that he’s got faith that he’s going to get the support to do what he wants.”
Perryman wants Japan to avoid the play-acting and confrontation with officials that have become part and parcel of European and South American club football. The ban at S-Pulse on such antics, as well as offside traps and time-wasting, Perryman argues, reflects the concerns of supporters. “Japan has the chance to learn from those countries’ pasts, be it the laws, how you treat the spectators, whatever. I think football supporters are fucked off with being cheated, hence fanzines. Because fanzines tell it how it is, and a bit more. As much as the programme notes go nicey-nicey, they’ll go nasty-nasty. But the clubs are encouraging it. They’ve been kidding supporters for too long. Try to give them value for money.”
Perryman is as aware as anyone that the biggest job in Japanese football may be up for grabs once Philippe Troussier’s contract as national coach expires in June. The Frenchman has had several run-ins with the Japanese Football Association, and Japan’s 1-0 defeat at the hands of arch-rivals and fellow World Cup hosts South Korea at the end of April did not help his cause. Perryman and Ardiles were rumoured to have been miffed when Troussier was appointed in 1998, the former having since rounded on the national coach for “playing mind games” with S-Pulse players while they were on international duty.
“I have enough respect for Japan. I care enough about Japanese people and have enough gratitude for a job in Japan that I want Japan to be a success in the World Cup. I don’t mean win it.
“But I want them to show purpose and planning and drive to match the fervour of the crowd that I see every time in the national stadium or in Yokohama. That is the most positive thing about the national team, the following. If you gave them a team with some purpose, it would be unbelievable what they could achieve. I’ve worked under Ossie and seen what confidence he can give players. I would like to see someone like that in charge of the national team.”
But as someone who has made homes of the very different settings of north London, Norway and Japan in the space of six years, Perryman is more concerned about with whom, rather than where, he will be earning a living once his Shimizu days are over.
“I want to work for somebody or something I believe in. If I got a job as a manager at a Premier League team – I’m not saying I would – I would have to believe in the chairman, his ethics. The first thing I would say to him is, ‘I am not going to tell any lies for you.’ Because once you go down that road with supporters you’re finished. With players you are dead.
“You want your club run as a marriage between business sense and football sense. And you have to then own up, and say the business we’re in is soccer. It can’t just survive with all of one or all of the other. I could be working for a soccer school whose owner I liked, it could be as a youth coach for a manager I liked. I tend not to like chairmen.”
From WSC 160 June 2000. What was happening this month