DUBAI // Al Ahli's blueprint for a return to the top of UAE football took shape last night as Fabio Cannavaro, the former Italy captain, trained for the first time with his new teammates under the gaze of David O'Leary, the club's new manager. As the temperature barely dipped under 40°C on the training field, Cannavaro might have been wondering if this was exactly the type of thing a former World Player of the Year should really be signing up for at the ripe age of 36. However, Ahli now have a back-up staff containing a wealth of English Premier League coaching experience, and there is no place to hide.
In addition to O'Leary, Ahli also have a new assistant coach, Roy Aitken, the former Scotland captain who was a vital backroom cog in Birmingham City's impressive Premier League campaign last season, and a goalkeeping specialist, Tony Coton, formerly of Manchester United. On the eve of the third Pro League season, this was the clearest evidence yet that the concept of professionalism has finally arrived on these shores.
O'Leary has been bought to Dubai on a three-year contract. By the end of that term, Abdullah al Naboodah, the club's chairman of directors, wants Al Ahli to function like an English Premier league club. "I don't know what will happen over the next three years, but I hope we will be a great success," O'Leary said. "This club finished eighth last season. The president wants success here. "When we hand it back after three years, we want it to be in far better shape than when we got it. We will only be judged after those three years.
"I don't see it as a stepping stone. The challenge was to come here and try to restructure the whole club, the academy, the reserve team, as well as the fitness and the medical side of things. It was an overall challenge, and what we want to do now is get people to buy into our ideas. "The people here have their own way of doing things, but what we want to do is make the club far, far more professional, run like a Premier League football club."
Last night was Cannavaro's first training session since his Italy side exited the World Cup a month ago, and O'Leary revealed his club's flagship signing is not yet a certain starter when Ahli kick-off their Pro League campaign on August 26 against Al Dhafra. "He has come back from a long break after the World Cup,"O'Leary said. "I don't know when he will be up to match fitness, but I am definitely hopeful to have him for the first game." @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org
Al Ahli are close to adding youth team specialist Alex Gibson, the former Manchester City Academy coach, to their ever-expanding roster of British backroom staff, Tony Coton, the Dubai side's goalkeeping coach, said yesterday. "Alex Gibson, the City youth coach, has been contacted and I think he's coming," said Coton. After guiding 31 Academy players to the first-team during his 12 years at City, the former English Football Association coach left Eastlands last week. Gibson cited "personal reasons" for his departure. Greg Cunningham, 19, the City defender, paid tribute to Gibson for helping him and many others rise through the ranks at the club. "Alex is a brilliant coach," said the Irishman who, under Gibson's guidance, made two first-team appearances for the senior side last season. "He was fantastic to work with, I'm sorry to see him leave but I wish him all the best for the future."