David O'Leary coached Leeds United to the semi-finals of the European Champions League. Sergio Farias led the Pohang Steelers to the championship of Asia and third place in the 2009 Fifa Club World Cup.
Those credentials bought each just a bit more than half a season coaching in the Pro League.
The numbers are eye-popping.
In nearly three seasons since the Pro League was established, 45 men have coached the 16 teams that have spent at least one season in the league. Those teams have changed coaches 41 times, and 35 of those changes were made during the season.
Only nine men have coached a club from the beginning of a season to its end, and that is assuming that Paulo Bonamigo will remain at Al Shabab to June 9, the final day of the season.
The league has seen 12 coaches lose their job. In comparison, England’s Premier League has witnessed four in-season changes from 20 clubs. Nearby Qatar has employed 16 coaches among its 12 clubs during the current campaign.
“In this region, we don’t have the patience and want quick results,” said Ahmed Khalifa Hammad, the chief executive of Ahli, the club that had signed O’Leary to a lucrative three-year contract.
“We can’t wait for the victories, and all the plans last only a short while.”
Ahli and Al Nasr have employed seven coaches each since the autumn of 2008; Al Dhafra, Al Wahda and Wasl each have employed five. Curiously, Ahli and Wahda each won league championships during that time, seasons in which they kept the same coach from beginning to end.
“I know that in this part of the world it is common to replace the coach when things don’t go your way,” Carlo Nohra, the chief executive of the Pro League, said: “I fail to understand the reason for this. It’s all about a plan and perseverance and when you have a plan to see it through.
“Football here is handled on an emotional level, to a large degree. Certainly, it is the privilege the owners have to run these clubs as they see fit, but I am not convinced that kind of change will bring about the change they desire.”
Josef Hickersberger, the Austrian who left Wahda after last season and returned in October as the club’s third manager of this season, said every coach in the country understands this culture.
“You always know your next match could be your last,” he said. “This is part of football here and you have to know.”
Abdulhameed al Mishtiki, the Emirati who was fired in December by Al Ain and hired by Ahli four months later to replace O’Leary, suggested that the Pro League approach to coaches is not particularly unusual.
“All over the world you can see that every coach is changing, except [Sir Alex] Ferguson, [Arsene] Wenger and [Pep] Guardiola,” he said. “Every club that spends money needs to win a championship. We have a professional league now in the UAE, with big salaries and big pressure.”
Some believe that upheaval in the back room affects more than the living arrangements and income flow of a handful of foreigners. They say the changes damage the development of football in the country.
“Hiring and firing coaches at will will have a negative impact on the Pro League,” said Kefah al Kaabi, an Emirati who played football here and is now a television football analyst. “It reflects the bad planning on the part of our clubs, particularly those who run them.”
Winfried Schaefer, the German fired by Al Ain last season, said constant change hampers the career growth of players as well as coaches.
“If you want to work with young, local players it is important to [work with them] for more than one season,” he said. “This would make UAE football stronger and it could help to support local talents more and more in the future, and in 10 or 15 years the very well-educated local players will become very good local coaches … But if you change the coach and hire someone with a totally different philosophy, you can’t work continuously in training up young players.”
Coach after coach arrives in the region and stress it takes time to build a winning side and implement their philosophy. O’Leary, for example, said if he got the three seasons he signed for, he expected Ahli “to win every trophy in the country” in the third year. He got 15 league games.
“The best thing is to keep the coaches for a longer time,” Bonamigo said. “Only then can you work your philosophy with a team and create a strong unit. You cannot come and make some magic in one day or one week. You need to know the players and their strengths, and the players need to get comfortable with the coach and understand him.”
Subait Khater, the midfielder, has seen Jazira’s perseverance with Abel Braga for the past three years pay dividends. “I am a firm believer that the coach must be given enough time and also the resources,” Khater said. “It doesn’t do any good for a team to consistently change the coach.”
Why are coaches changed? Generally because the win ratio is not high enough and demand for success is so high.
“Football in this country is a form of social expression,” said Nohra. “Here, football is really the only social player and that is why it is cherished so much.” Hence, he said, “winning is non-negotiable”.
However, some coaches, such as Laszlo Boloni, at Wahda, early this season and Farias, at Wasl, apparently had trouble interacting with their players. Club executives, when announcing Farias’s dismissal, said he trained players too hard.
At Wahda, the players just did not get on with Boloni, who brought with him a reputation as a stern taskmaster. “We had a change early in the season because we had no harmony with the coach,” Haider Ali, the Wahda captain, said. “I think the club took the right steps to discontinue that partnership.”
Nohra said coaches are “fired far too easily”, which he believes demonstrates that the Pro League has strides to make before it is fully professional.
“The essence of what I’m talking about is that with professionalism comes accountability, and everyone is accountable to someone above them, players to coaches, coaches to management, management to shareholders,” he said.“What we see if this chain of accountability is not followed through; it always stops with the coach. That is not a professional principle. That is not how you run a company.”
Hammad, who is in his first season as Ahli’s chief executive, issued a reminder that “this is only our third year as a professional league” and said clubs will learn to embrace patience with their coaches in the future.
For now, he said he cannot disagree with those, such as O’Leary, who have said that the highs of winning and the lows of defeat are particularly extreme here.
“Fans put pressure on boards of directors,” he said. “Everybody is looking to that result, and the clubs here in every pre-season are giving a very high impression about their season, and they explain to everyone how they are going to win the championships.
And when it doesn’t happen and people realise this, the boards are blamed a lot. The boards cannot fire all the players, they fire only one, who is the coach.”
Additional reporting by Amith Passela, Ahmed Rizvi and Gary Meenaghan