x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Al Ahli's small steps will lead to a bigger goal

We spend a day at Al Ahli to find out how the Pro League football club are turning themselves into a professional and modern-day sporting operation.

Quique Sanchez Flores, the Spaniard who has been given a six-month contract, is excited about improving the on-field fortunes of Al Ahli.
Quique Sanchez Flores, the Spaniard who has been given a six-month contract, is excited about improving the on-field fortunes of Al Ahli.

Given the brief shelf life of the average management regime in the Pro League, those in charge rarely find much value in refurbishing their offices. By the time the decorators arrive and do the job, the paint fumes will still be ripe enough to nauseate the next man in the hot seat, so why bother?

Roy Aitken, the former Scotland captain who is now the sporting director at Al Ahli in Dubai, knows how unstable employment in the country's top-flight league can be.

He was initially hired as the assistant to David O'Leary, the club's new manager back then, in July 2010.

When O'Leary was dismissed eight months into his three-year contract, Aitken presumed he would be following him on the plane back to Britain.

Assumptions are a waste of time in UAE football. Two days later, the former Glasgow Celtic player had been offered improved terms on a deal to move "upstairs" - although his new office is on the ground floor at the Rashid Stadium - into the role of sporting director.

Given the prevailing feeling of impermanence, it is perhaps no surprise he has not done much to his new workspace, although he has afforded himself one little luxury.

Pinned to a board behind his desk is a pennant from an international between his native Scotland and Italy, at Hampden Park in 2007.

Aitken was Scotland's assistant coach back then. Four years on, he is working alongside Italy's captain that day, Fabio Cannavaro, to try to bring the sort of professional standards each of them took as a given in their playing days to their Dubai club. Cannavaro is now Ahli's technical adviser after playing one season for them.

"Every time Fabio comes in I keep meaning to ask him to sign it," Aitken says of the pennant which, along with a collection of Scottish Football Association drinks coasters on his desk, provides a little reminder of home.

Those who remember Aitken in his playing pomp might imagine he looks a little awkward behind a desk in a spartan office, pushing a pen. Until recently, he was still out on the training field, teaching Ahli's emerging forwards how to deal with overbearing defenders.

However, he says he is enjoying his new role, which is a conduit between the club executives, the coaches and players, the commercial department and the academy.

"Coaching is the next best thing to playing, and people always ask if you miss playing," he says. "Now this is a different role which gives me a broader outlook on things.

"It might be one for the future, because I am not getting any younger. I'm using all the experience I have gained over the years to try and develop this role."

Aitken believes the standard of the Pro League, now in its fourth term, will be higher than ever before this season, due in part to rules changes which allow for an extra overseas professional player.

Only four matches in, Ahli were already on to their second manager, after Ivan Hasek was dismissed last month.

For all the changes the club are implementing further down the food-chain to professionalise their operation, a sense of impatience persists.

"I think the club is moving forward, but what we haven't had yet is results on the pitch to marry with the movement the club is making off it," Aitken says.

"It is not an easy thing to do, but this place is based on results and they want to see them immediately. That is the nature of the beast here.

"OK, Abel Braga at Al Jazira got three years, but he spent a lot of money building that team and eventually they won the league, then he moved on."

Clipped to the whiteboard in the office of Quique Sanchez Flores, the new manager at Ahli, are team lists with small thumbnail pictures of the club's players.

Crib sheets like that are not so much handy as essential for someone who acknowledges he knew nothing about Ahli, or Dubai, before he was hastily appointed successor to Hasek last month.

"I have to learn very quickly because the competition is on," says Sanchez Flores, the former Atletico Madrid manager. "We have to know our players, our opponents, to know what is the mentality of the people here."

Sanchez Flores has been given a six-month contract to improve the on-field fortunes of Ahli, who have employed seven coaches in a little more than two seasons since they won the league, under Hasek, in 2009.

Such a relatively short-term suits both parties. Dismissing high-profile managers must be a costly business for the club, while Sanchez Flores has designs on a return to the mainstream of top European club football and sooner rather than later.

For now, he is grateful for the chance to try something new. He did have other offers from other clubs in his homeland but, he says, not the right one.

The UAE, on the other hand, provides a different challenge, culturally and professionally. "This is a different experience; it is not about the level of playing," he says. "I am not going to lose ambition by being here. It is just the opposite; I think we are going to capture energy for the future.

"We want to train the best teams in Europe, that is the situation we are preparing for. But you never know when that opportunity is coming."

While Pro League managers are rarely more than two defeats away from a crisis, pressure is always in the eye of the beholder.

Atletico, Sanchez Flores's former employers, play their home matches at the 54,000-capacity Vicente Calderon, which is usually packed to the rafters. Ahli, by contrast, are working hard to get people to attend matches at their 18,000-strong Rashid Stadium.

While the pressure from above may be severe, it is less so from the stands. "I'm told people prefer to watch the games on the TV," Sanchez Flores says. "This is the culture so I have to respect it, but I like it when the people come to watch and make a full stadium. This is a different experience for me, but I still want to win all the time."

Diego Maradona, the Al Wasl manager, recently complained that his players had been kept from training too often by work or studies. Hardly what you would expect to hear from the manager of a club in a "professional" league.

The fact that many players are still not full-time is the consequence of a wider problem for league clubs, just over three seasons since it officially went professional: most of them are years away from turning a profit.

While the club have been taking one step back for any they make forward on the field, Ahli have advanced as quickly as any club off it since the start of last season, barring perhaps Al Jazira, the current champions.

As commercial director of the club, James Yandle is not just hands-on, but occasionally feet-on, too, such as when he made a cameo appearance as a substitute in a recent charity match at the club's ground.

Yandle is no stranger to top-level sport, having been to Olympic and Commonwealth Games as a forward for the Great Britain hockey team.

But this was a little different.

"It's not every day Marcello Lippi says to you, 'Have a run, James', then you take a pass from Fabio, and lay it on to Hernan Crespo," he says.

His day job is not all glamour, though. Yandle is overseeing a three-year plan to make the club more commercially self-sufficient. He acknowledges it is likely to take nearer five, but points to evidence of progress already.

Some of it is tangible. A corner of the club car park has been reclaimed and turned into a building that will house a coffee shop and an official club merchandise store.

It was hoped they would install a Starbucks in the coffee-shop space, but the minimum 300 daily orders required by the company's head office in Seattle could not be guaranteed.

In the coming weeks, the merchandise shop selling official, Nike-supplied club gear, which Yandle says will be the first of its kind in the region, is set to open.

Most Pro League clubs still do not have official replica shirts on sale. Ahli have sold more than 2,000 in just over two months since they were installed in sports shops in three Dubai malls, where they are sold off pegs alongside Barcelona, Juventus and Arsenal shirts.

While the first year of the plan was to gain corporate credibility, hence the alignment with Toshiba, BMW and Coca-Cola, this year is about consolidating the club's bond with existing fans. Next season will be all about attracting new ones.

"We want to create an ethos," Yandle says. "We are here, we aren't going anywhere and we want you to come and support us."


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