A new testament

Itay Goder reports on John Gregory’s move to manage Maccabi Nazareth

“I don’t drink whisky. Never. Ever. Under no circumstance. I’ve been in Nazareth three weeks now and I drink whisky every day.” So said John Gregory reflecting on the pressure of his new job as coach of Maccabi Nazareth in the Israeli Premier League.

In December, Najwan Ghrayib, Nazareth’s assistant coach, was called to the office of club president Ahmad Hilu. The team were bottom of the League with nine defeats in their first 12 games. Ghrayib, a former full-back widely regarded as the best footballer to have come from Nazareth, was told that team coach Eli Machpud was about to be fired.

His replacement would be John Gregory, the man who once signed Ghrayib for Aston Villa where he played six games in 1999-2000. “I remember telling myself: It’s amazing how the tables have turned,” Ghrayib has said since. “When I got to Aston Villa, I was in such awe of him. Gregory symbolised English football to me. Strong, sure of himself, not afraid of any player and suddenly, ten years later, I’m going to be his assistant coach here in Nazareth? It just didn’t seem logical to me. But on the other hand, if Avram Grant can move to Chelsea, anything is possible.”

In the last couple of years John Gregory has been a regular visitor to Israeli football stadiums. He had been linked to coaching jobs with five clubs before Nazareth and is known to be a close friend of businessman and agent David Abu, who has tried his luck at transferring players from Israel to England (he organised Ghrayib’s move from Hapoel Haifa to Aston Villa). “They say Gregory is a great coach from the homeland of football, so we’ve got to give him a chance,” says Ahmad Hilu. “Besides, he didn’t ask for a lot of money.” According to several reports, Gregory’s contract with Nazareth until the end of the season is worth $55,000 (£34,000).

Since coming to Israel, Gregory has spoken of his frustration at being overlooked for management jobs: “In England my name was blackened. Every time an opportunity would arise some people would say immediately: ‘We don’t want him, he’s a scoundrel. He takes money from clubs.’ The media has been very helpful in feeding this myth. In the past, when I wanted a job, I’d get it. This has gradually stopped happening. Agents would call me and say: ‘I know the president of this and that club, may I represent you?’ I’d say ‘sure’ and after a few days they’d return with a negative answer. Then I’d see who had got the job and wonder: ‘What? Are you nuts?’”

A delay in Gregory’s coaching certificate being presented to the Israeli FA meant that he had to watch from the stands to begin with. It was only in his fourth match in charge, on January 1, that he was able to supervise his team from the touchline. But closer supervision didn’t help much – Maccabi Nazareth were beaten 3-0 by Hapoel Petach Tikva. Gregory’s record so far is one draw and three defeats. After the game he made it clear that he wouldn’t stay unless if the team got at least an additional five players. On Christmas Eve, standing outside the Church of Annunciation in Nazareth, he still sounded optimistic: “I don’t ask for much. Two wingers, a midfielder, goalkeeper, striker and a good quality defender. Is that really asking for a lot?”

He went on: “My family asked me if I was mad to go to Nazareth. But an Israeli friend who saw me taking training here said ‘I’ve never seen you so happy’. This is what I’m good at. I know I’m good at it. It’s like Bruce Springsteen would go and perform in a small bar. When I came to Israel people told me: ‘Why the heck are you going there, are you crazy?’ I answered that maybe I am, but it’s my life. Maybe I made a mistake here and there, but I tried to do it my way.”

From WSC 276 February 2010