x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

The integral cog in the Al Ain machine

Liam Weeks works tirelessly behind the scenes at the Garden City club, finding ways to both improve the team – on and off the pitch – and advance his own skills, writes Kevin Affleck.

Liam Weeks, above right, the performance analyst for Al Ain, works with players, such as Asamoah Gyan to help improve their play.
Liam Weeks, above right, the performance analyst for Al Ain, works with players, such as Asamoah Gyan to help improve their play.

To describe Liam Weeks only as Al Ain's performance analyst would be akin to describing the club's fans as quite vocal.

The Englishman is one of those unsung, unheralded and invaluable members of every football club's staff; the person who seamlessly knits things together behind the scenes with minimal fuss. A kind of manager's and chief executive's dream. "He is integral to what we are doing at the club," Carlo Nohra, the chief executive, said.

On Friday, Weeks was liaising with the Ghana Football Association and Fifa in a bid to seek clearance for Asamoah Gyan, the club's headline act, to play in an Etisalat Cup game. Minutes later he was fielding a text message from an injured player wanting tickets to see Roger Federer play tennis in Dubai. Last month he ended up being the club spokesman when a power-glider pilot ploughed into the crowd before a game.

You wonder how he gets any time to analyse performances.

He also turns his hand to recruitment and even a travel operator – sometimes both, as evidenced by the eventful trip to Argentina to sign Ignacio Scocco last May.

"Our flight out of Buenos Aires was cancelled because of the volcanic ash cloud," Weeks said. "I managed to find one to Sao Paulo where we could connect but they wouldn't take a credit card. Then Awad [Khalifa bin Hasoum Al Damarki, the Al Ain director] pulled enough cash out of a bag to choke a dozen donkeys."

"Do you always carry that amount of cash?" Weeks asked.

"You never know when you might need it," Al Damarki apparently said.

But Weeks quickly started to wish he had never recommended signing Scocco from AEK Athens.

"There were planes on the tarmac covered in soot because of the ash cloud. We eventually took off and went up and down, around and around and side to side. It was the scariest time of my life. I didn't think I was going to get off that plane alive."

Weeks was probably never more relieved to get behind his desk at Al Ain and be the target once more of the Emirati players' humour.

"They think it is funny that a lot of the English people say 'who' a lot. They say I sound like an owl when I say 'who' so they are on my case right now with that."

But Weeks commands their respect. When he talks statistics, the players listen. They know their development can be enhanced by Weeks translating the data, which is taken from nine cameras positioned around the stadium and delivered to Weeks 24 hours after the game from Prozone offices in India and Leeds, England.

Take Mohanad Salem, the national team defender. "He was taking five or six touches on ball," Weeks said. "So I showed him a video of John Terry and Rio Ferdinand [the England defenders] and how they pass the ball out to the full-back first time. Now Mohanad takes only one or two touches. He now spends hours analysing the opposition. He's got to a state of over analysing."

The high-tech operation is in stark contrast to the days when Weeks arrived from a similar role with Norwich City, the English club, in 2009 to find Winfried Schaefer in situ as manager.

"There was no pre-match analysis or presentation," Weeks said. "Schaefer said to me, 'We have brought you here to press play on your presentation'."

Schaefer's stance softened and, much to Weeks's amusement, he recently called to ask about getting Prozone for the Thailand national team he manages.

Mick McDermott, the club's fitness coach until January last year, also graduated to a job with a national team; he now puts the Iran team through their paces. He still lives on the same compound as Weeks and recommended him to the club when they were seeking a Prozone expert early in 2009.

"Liam had been working with Norwich and was familiar with the system," McDermott said. "Even though he was young, he was qualified and available."

Weeks consulted Glenn Roeder, the then Norwich manager who told him to 'regret the things you do, not the things you don't'. Armed with that advice, Weeks handed in his resignation at Norwich, a city he had been born and bred, and a club he had worked at since the age of 15, with the heaviest of hearts.

"We were relegated to League One [the third tier of English football] in that season so that made it [the decision] a bit easier," Weeks said. "There were going to be a lot of redundancies so I thought they were unlikely to keep Prozone."

It turned out there was no need to jump before he was potentially pushed as Paul Lambert arrived from Colchester to manage Norwich and offered him a new contract.

"Everyone was on my case to stay but I had done my research on Al Ain and they are one of biggest clubs in Asia," Weeks said. "I was swapping League One football for a side who had [Jose] Valdivia [the Chile international playmaker] and the core of national team players."

Weeks accepted a salary package less than he was on at Norwich yet acknowledged he started to get that sinking feeling he had made a terrible mistake when he first arrived in Al Ain.

"The club gave me what was like a shed to live in, with no mattress and no windows," Weeks said. "I phoned a director and said I was on the next plane home."

The accommodation issue was swiftly resolved and Weeks found himself on the compound next to the club doctor, opposite a player and within a free kick of the McDermott family who took Weeks "under their wing".

"We've been good friends since," McDermott said.

Weeks now describes the compound as "a little community" and pride of place in his living room is the training photograph of him nutmegging Omar Abdulrahman, the club's playmaker who Weeks says has the potential to be "the best Emirati player ever".

Weeks possess a decent left foot himself. He was on the books of Arsenal as a schoolboy and once scored against the Dutch Under 15 national team.

"I knew I was not good enough [to be a professional] so I got my head down into my books," said Weeks who graduated with a degree in sport science while working an informal apprenticeship at Norwich under their incumbent sports scientist.

Weeks, who turns 30 on Christmas Eve, now holds the Uefa B licence coaching badge and plans to take his A licence in the summer. He plans, one day, to move into coaching or an executive role. For now he has his hands full working for a club who have more royal board members than most, including the club president Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces.

"They eat and breath football," Weeks said. "They are Al Ain through and through and are so supportive. Sheikh Abdullah [bin Mohammed] is at nearly every training session and at every single game. They are all very knowledgeable and Sheikh Hazza [bin Zayed] always has so many questions. He loves football and watches countless DVDs of players we want to sign."

Thanks to their financial support, Weeks says the league leaders are "the most prepared I've ever seen a football club going into a game".

Nothing, it appears, is left to chance.

"I have a file on my computer of every penalty taken in the league in the past three years so I can show it to our goalkeeper on my iPad before the shoot-out," Weeks said. "We just haven't had one yet."