New Afghanistan coach Ashley Westwood is used to a challenge. The former Manchester United youngster, an FA Youth Cup winner in 1995, was assistant manager at Portsmouth to Michael Appleton when Pompey went into administration. From there tmoved to Blackpool, owned by the notorious Oyston family, who were despised by supporters. Then it was Blackburn Rovers, who’d just been taken over by the Venky family in an era when they sacked managers with haste.
That a man from Manchester is now in charge of a national team who can’t play home games in their own country barely fazes Westwood, who spoke exclusively to The National on his way back from a first ever trip to Kabul. Next is a visit to Doha for a World Cup qualifier on November 16 against Carlos Queiroz’s side in the Khalifa Stadium, which staged games at Qatar 2022.
Afghanistan are ranked 154th in Fifa's world rankings, placed between Lesotho and Singapore, Qatar are 61st.
Afghanistan’s players, drawn from clubs and leagues all over the world, were supposed to meet up two days ago but there’s still no sign of them. Eighteen players are currently boycotting the Afghan Football Federation because of allegations of corruption. Westwood has to shape a side from players he’s never met.
“The issue with the players and the FA is between them,” he said. “I understand the concerns and issues of the players, while the FA have delivered everything they said they would to me and I have a job to do.
“I’ll coach the players that are available. I’ll form opinions of players and see how they conduct themselves. I don’t care if they’ve played four games or 400, everybody will be equal. If you’re committed to me then I’ll give it back. I want a dressing room pulling in the right direction. I can make quick decisions and anyone without the right commitment won’t be picked.
"Playing for your country should be important and I’m here to do a job, to try and direct and help during these World Cup qualifiers in a group with Kuwait, India and Qatar – all are ranked far higher than Afghanistan. Let me get stuck in. I was treated well and with respect in Kabul. Afghans told me they wanted me to do well so I’ll try and do that.”
The call from Kabul came after Westwood impressed as a coach in Indian football. The Afghans had taken note.
“I managed in India and a few Afghan players came up against my teams," he added. "They knew the professionalism I brought to India and had a word. They knew Afghan football needed to change, to have someone in charge who wasn’t subject to outside influences and who could improve the team. They thought I’d be a good fit and I thought... international football with World Cup qualifiers coming up... It’s a challenge to manage Afghanistan in a challenging time, but let’s go for it.”
After a playing career in which he started at Manchester United but went on to play in each of England’s top five divisions – winning promotion from every league – he coached in his homeland before being offered the Bangalore job in 2013.
“It was a new club who wanted to improve in Indian football," he explained. "Backed by a steel company, they could have gone out and brought the best foreign players. Instead, they wanted young Indian players and to be professional. The stuff I introduced is standard now, but it wasn’t then in India: nutrition, GPS tracking, specialist coaches. I made an environment for the players to improve in on a three-year plan.
“The aim was to finish in the top three after three years, but we won the Indian League in the first season. We missed out by one point in year two, though we won the cup, and won it again in year three. We also did well in the AFC Cup, a first for Indian football. We had 17 Indian players make their debuts for the national side. That was my introduction to the Asian market.
“I was offered a four-year contract and also offered the Indian national team job twice, but I wanted to try something else. I was offered a job in Hong Kong and roles in Thailand before deciding on one in Malaysia. That was a mistake, I wasn’t impressed by the professionalism in Malaysian football so I resigned.
“There’s no straight route to the top in football coaching. Arsene Wenger was in Japan. Ange Postecoglou was in Australia, Greece, Scotland and Japan. It’s good to experience different cultures, to experience failure as well as success. It makes you wiser. With Afghanistan, it’ll be tough, but the people are resilient. You can see that from the history of the country. They’re patriotic, they give their all. They need the right games at the right times to help prepare and that’s not happened in the past. There are restrictions on Afghanistan from the wider world, but there’s talent there."
Westwood got a taste for the passion for sport in Afghanistan last week, while in Kabul, he went out to watch the game between them and Australia in the Cricket World Cup.
“It has been an incredible story and they were doing really well against Australia until Glenn Maxwell decided to put on a show-stopping innings," he said. "Afghanistan was poised to celebrate. The only good thing from not winning the game was that I could get a good night’s sleep because all the fireworks didn’t go off."
Westwood, now 47, enjoyed a nomadic career in the English Football League, representing more than a dozen clubs including notable spells with Crewe, Bradford and Sheffield Wednesday. He picked up a lot on the way, including a lifelong friend in Sean Dyche, now the Everton manager.
“I played professionally from 17-35 – the average professional career is four years,” he added. “My path through all the divisions made me resilient. I was working on one-year contracts, it’s mentally tough and you’re always looking over your shoulder thinking that your career is about to end. I was alongside tough players like Sean Dyche in central defence. He gave me all his protein shakes when he retired and taught me the importance of nutrition. We speak regularly, but I had experience under many managers which helped.”
None more so than Sir Alex Ferguson, whose wisdom has stayed with Westwood throughout his playing and coaching career.
“He taught me about professionalism, work ethic, punctuality, determination, drive and a never say die attitude because he was a born winner," he said. "He wanted me to be a model professional in how I conducted myself, he turned a boy into a man. He turned lads like David Beckham, Gary and Phil Neville into brave, confident, tough, boys. He’d say that if you can’t handle the pressure in training then you can’t play at Old Trafford because you’ll crumble.
“I won the 1995 FA Youth Cup with United. I also played lots of reserve games and was making progress at United. Sir Alex Ferguson asked to see me and told me that I was doing well. He said he wanted to offer me a new two-year deal. I was on £210 (Dh960) a week. The new deal was £275. I replied, 'I can’t be doing that well if the increase is only £65'.
“Ferguson was doing things the right way, but I was telling him that I needed to buy a car to get to training. I told him that I needed a £5,000 signing on fee to buy a car. He laughed and said, ‘Get in my team and I’ll look after you’. I said, ‘How am I going to get in your team? When there’s a flu epidemic?’.
“My mentality was that I’ll go somewhere else and teach him. I didn’t have an agent, just a demon in the back of my head. A demon telling me the wrong information."
The conversation went something like this:
"I’ll leave," I told Fergie.
“There’s the door,” he said.
“Can I go for free?”
“No chance. You’re a Man United reserve team player. It’s £75,000."
“Well, is that not going to make it hard for me?”
“Yes, of course it is! Who’s going to pay that for you?”
That made Westwood want to prove him wrong. Crewe were interested and willing to pay the fee. Westwood went back to see Ferguson who already knew about Crewe’s interest. He knew everything.
“Looking back, I probably needed Alex Ferguson to say, ‘Come on, son, trust me’. But he was a tougher man then and he was right to be tough. Years later, when I was a manager myself, I went to Sir Alex for advice about a problem I had with a player. I texted him on the off chance. He called me back from a cab in New York. He told me to explain honestly to the player why I was leaving him out. I did that and the player understood. It helped that I told him the advice had come from Sir Alex. I’ve got a huge amount of respect for Sir Alex, but I still had a good career in football.”
Westwood has been based in Australia in recent years with his partner, TV presenter Mel, and even had a visit from his old boss.
“Sir Alex came to Australia and met us," he smiled. "That felt great."