From Woodside Road to a national hero

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THE ex-Worthing Football Club assistant boss Simon McMenemy always used to say he loved the fans and atmosphere at Woodside Road but these days he has a whole country cheering his new side to success.

In seven short months since leaving Rebels, the 33-year-old has become a national hero of the Philippines after taking his team to the semi-finals of the most prestigious cup in South East Asia.

The young boss has caused the biggest upset in recent years of Asian football, sat in the dug-out surrounded by 90,000 fans, and become one of the most recognisable faces in the continent.

The scale of their achievements will not be recognised by most here, but their performance in the AFF Suzuki Cup has turned football into the number one sport in the Philippines.

Amid corruption and against the odds, the team and manager, who do not even have their own national stadium to play in, have become overnight stars and turned the county football mad, so much so that after being knocked out by Indonesia, the match was the second most talked about topic in the world on Twitter.

McMenemy admitted it has been a unbelievable journey so far, and said: “It has been a rollercoaster ride, both personally and professionally. Six months ago I was playing in front of one man and his dog in Haywards Heath, then next I am here with a crowd of 90,000 people, and I hate to think how many more watching on television.

“When I sit and think now it still stuns me, it has been just incredible. I remember thinking on my first day at training, wow, I am really out of my depth here, but when I got into it, I realised it was just coaching and that is what I do.

“What has been fantastic is how football has become the hot topic in the country now, before in the Philippines it was all basketball, that was the number one sport, as they copy everything about America.

“But now all the talk is about football, the players are on television every day and the president wants to build a national stadium.

“I am very proud of the fact that my name is helping the Philippines develop with the sport. It is one thing coaching in Sussex and doing summer courses, but to go there and change 93 million peoples concept of football and over take basketball in popularity is unbelievable.”

Speaking back in August, McMenemy was just hoping to qualify for the Suzuki Cup, so has exceeded even his wildest dreams.

They not only qualified but came runners-up in their group, unbeaten against three-time champions Vietnam, defending hosts Singapore and Myanmar, a side they had never beaten in their history.

They were eventually knocked-out over two legs in the semi-finals, 2-0 overall, by an in-form Indonesia, who had conceded just two goals in the whole competition.

McMenemy said: “We went into our last game of the group stage top which was just phenomenal, after all we had just aimed to be competitive. We grabbed a 90th-minute equaliser against Singapore and then pulled off easily the biggest upset in football there by beating Vietnam.

“To put it into context, we have three pro players in a squad of 24 and not even a home ground. While all of the Vietnamese players are pros that are paid a lot of money, and we went in and beat them 2-0 and set the world alight, we were really mixing with the big boys.

“Their manager wouldn’t even shake my hand after the game, he was waving me away which was all caught on television.

“We had out tactics berated by them, saying we didn’t play proper football or offensively, but we beat them by two goals, so I am not sure how that works. But all the players we just in disbelief at what we had achieved.”

It has been a quick rise to footballing fame for the young prodigy, who was managing in the County League at Haywards Heath before taking over at Worthing as assistant to Simon Colbran.

Although his fame has also brought unwanted press attention. A photograph in a night club with a glamour model, who McMenemy thought was just another fan, turned into tabloid rumours and a front-page scandal.

He said: “It all went a little bit crazy after the semi-final in Indonesia as we became very recognisable with people.

“We were on the news every day, so every time we went out it went crazy. One day we had to leave a mall just because of all the attention, it almost turned dangerous. Every time I left the hotel I had a security guard and couldn’t get through the lobby with 60-odd photographers.

“On the last night the team went out to a bar and were posing for pictures, the next day I was all over the news with rumours of a scandal, which was insane, so I have learned to be a lot more careful.”

The Vietnam result came as a perfect birthday present for McMenemy, who celebrated his 33rd the day after, on December 6.

He added: “When I saw the schedule of the game and that it was the day before, I knew I would be either crying or bouncing off the walls. Realistically, we went into it expecting damage limitation, so I really could have been crying but it turned out I was a national hero instead.”

But although McMenemy, who has an international cap for Brunei, was obviously devastated to be knocked-out so close to the final, he was delighted with their achievement.

He said: “Indonesia are a hugely decent side, they had scored 13 goals in the competition and only scored twice over two legs against us, still for half an hour after the game we were disappointed yes, the chance was there for a major final.

“But when you sit down and see the scale of the task it doesn’t feel so bad. It’s hard for people in this country to understand what the players achieved.”

McMenemy is now home for a break until the end of January when he flies back out to the Philippines, where he has already received a verbal offer of a new three-year contract, although he has also had offers from two Indonesian clubs, and one from a Vietnamese Premiership team.