David O'Leary: learning to bite his tongue

The Irish coach knows he must adopt a different approach with his Emirati players to help motivate them, writes Paul Radley.

The Irish coach knows he must adopt a different approach with his Emirati players to help motivate them David O'Leary has been brought to Dubai to try to instill some of the principles of English Premier League football at Al Ahli, his new employers. However, he admits he has had to leave behind one staple of the game in the UK - tongue-lashings after poor performances. Ahli were UAE football's headliners this summer as they attempted to revive their fortunes with the high-profile signings of Fabio Cannavaro and O'Leary as captain and coach, respectively.

However, the new-look Red Knights were stunned on their first competitive outing of the new campaign, comprehensively beaten 2-0 by modest Al Dhafra on Thursday night. Had O'Leary been presented with such an insipid display by his Leeds United or Aston Villa sides in the past, his players could well have expected a volley of invective to come their way. However, the Irishman said he has had to reassess how he goes about motivating players from a culture new to him, one he is still striving to understand.

"I don't think you can do that here," O'Leary, 52, said. "We are in a different culture. It is all about picking people up and working with them. "To me, [verbal criticism] doesn't work here. There have to be other ways of getting your message across, which is what I have learnt in the six weeks I have been here. "It is about encouraging people, trying to teach them and make them better." Part of O'Leary's remit at the Rashid Stadium is to instil professional standards in his young charges and to create a Premier League-style ethos at the club.

Even if the initial evidence on the field suggests he has a long way to go, at least off the field the message is starting to sink in. Diet and nutrition are one of the key areas he wants to improve. As the players trooped through the lobby of the team hotel, the five-star Tilal Liwa near Madinat Zayed, ahead of Thursday's game, they nibbled on bananas, which are rich in potassium and vitamins, and sipped energy drinks.

Dhafra's home ground is so isolated that even their players, most of whom live in Abu Dhabi, about 150km away, were put up in the same hotel before the game. Yet a different dietary regime counts for only so much. In the end, Ahli were given the runaround by their unheralded hosts, particularly Dhafra's brilliant Moroccan playmaker, Mohammed Berrabah. "You can't be chasing all over the place like this crazy game, which is the most exciting in the world in England, because the temperature doesn't allow it," O'Leary said. "I don't think any player in this league would lack fitness, because of the weather they have to play in.

"What I do think is that when you get the ball in the right areas in this weather, you have to make them pay." The Ahli players understood O'Leary's complaint only too well, as they paid for a profligate first-half display. "We wasted a lot of opportunities and chances, and after that Dhafra played with more control than we managed," said Ahmed Khalil, Ahli's well-regarded young striker. "We made mistakes, which we have to rule out in the future and learn from."

The victory was just reward for the home fans. Their al youla chanting to the accompaniment of a classical Arabic trumpet made for a fine atmosphere among the crowd of about 2,000 who gathered at the intimate stadium. As well as earning three valuable points, the victory had the dual effect of ruining Cannavaro's much-anticipated debut in UAE football. How he felt about it remains unknown; he did not speak to reporters after the match.

"We had worked out a game plan after studying their friendlies, and we carried that out," Dhafra's Swiss manager, Michel Decastel, said. "The crowd love to see their team play, but a lot also wanted to see Cannavaro play his first game in the UAE. It was a special occasion. "The players did a great job. The fact Cannavaro was playing was insignificant to them, because we were playing against a great team anyway.

"The team knew about Cannavaro's reputation, but that was not the most important thing to them." pradley@thenational.ae