Mikel, Moses, Geesus & ZZ Top - another week in international management

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I think you could probably say, with more than a hint of understatement, that I made a less than a triumphant return “home” to the land of my parents’ birth last weekend.

A 4-0 defeat by Nigeria was chastening in the extreme, as we came up against a strong, experienced side packed full of stars from the Premier League, La Liga and Serie A.

Though my guys tried hard, it was an uphill battle for the most part - particularly after a horrendous start and a goal conceded inside 40 seconds. That certainly made a mockery of my pre game instruction to “keep it tight for the first 20 minutes!”

In truth it was always a big ask to get a result on their home patch - the return in Addis in June is far more realistic a goal, with the altitude and the fact that it’s the end of the season in the major European leagues potentially swinging the balance back in our favour.

That said, our cause wasn’t helped by me being unable to conduct the pre match warm up, let alone sit on the bench. Back in October during our win against Madagascar, I was sent to the stands for dissent - it was beyond parody.

My crime? Voicing my disapproval at the award of a highly dubious free kick to the Madagascans from the dug-out by shaking my head vigorously while wagging a finger in the direction of the assistant, who happened to turn around just at that moment.

Funnily enough, the officials were on the same flight to Nairobi and as we chatted cordially the referee, clearly a bit embarrassed, agreed that it had been an innocuous incident and wouldn’t impact on any future games.

So imagine my surprise when I received notification of the ban from the governing body, CAF a week before we were set to fly out to Nigeria.

When at the traditional pre game meeting the day before the game, the match commissioner confirmed the ban - unaware of our hastily-written and hand-delivered appeal a few days earlier - I knew deep down my fate was sealed, and most probably so was the team’s.

I’m not saying it was the decisive factor, but I challenge anybody to relay instructions in English to an Ahmaric speaker, while sat among raucous and joyous Nigerian fans, as the action unfolds.

So you think you could make yourself heard over this lot?

We actually finished the first half strongly and only trailed 1-0 at the break, but a further concession early in the second half, and the introduction of Messrs Odimwingie and Uche, ensured we largely remained on the back foot for the remainder of the match.

Nigeria even managed to get by without Victor Moses, who didn’t get clearance in time for the game. I’m not sure they should ever be allowed Biblical help personally, that’s taking things a tad far if you ask me. If they go down that road for the return, I’m tempted to call up Geesus Gemechu, who plays for one of the local teams here, and see how they like it!

Nonetheless, it was a learning curve for our guys, albeit a very steep one, which hopefully will be one which they can learn from.

Indeed four or five of the players acquitted themselves very well to give us hope for June, and the Nigerian press the next day were quite complimentary about our style of play, confirming the good impression made in the CECAFA tournament in December.

Victor Anichebe looks to round Ethiopia keeper Zerihun Tadele Derese

Small crumbs of comfort, but the fact remains that Nigeria when fully committed and with the players they have available, are a formidable opponent at any time. As I tried to explain upon my return to a chastened football public here, their two central midfielders alone (Mikel John Obi of Chelsea and his marvellous sidekick, Joel Obi of Inter Milan) will be involved in Champions League games this week.

So all in all, it’s a collective licking of wounds and some re-grouping ahead. As a club manager there’s always the next game to focus on, and a chance to right any wrongs immediately – but there are no such luxuries at international level, with the next game some two months away.

It’s at this time that life as an international coach can be a lonely one, even playing every week back in England you take on the mantle of responsibility. However as past experience always shows, it's part and parcel of the job, and though never nice, you learn to move on, re-energise and get ready for the next game. It’s the first real setback we’ve suffered since the loss to Guinea back in September, our semi final showing in Tanzania in December, universally accepted as us punching well above our weight.

Talking of wait (weight, wait - see what I did there? I’ve still got it!), I understand that the BBC’s piece on me was finally broadcast on Football Focus this week. It seems so long ago that it was filmed, I can now tell you I have a Jackson-Five like ‘fro now, and have grown a ZZ Top style beard to match!

Not having seen the piece, I’m not yet sure what footage avoided the dreaded cutting room floor and saw the light of day, but aside from mine and the crew’s discovery of the Hilton Hotel Happy Hour, I’m hopeful that nothing too troubling got through. I’m sure my friends back home will let me know if that’s not the case!

A little more troubling was an interview I gave to a national newspaper back in December, which was finally published last week ahead of the Nigerian game (oh wonderful timing guys!).

In it I revealed, almost as an aside, that I’d supplemented the players’ boots allowance with my own money ahead of the CECAFA tournament in December. It left the Federation looking a little foolish and weak, which was not my intention at all and I have apologised to them for that.

I cant even really blame the journalist involved, I should have been far more aware of how it might read, my only quibble being that the piece failed to capture my real enthusiasm for the job I’m doing, challenges and all.

It remains a truly unique and rewarding experience on so many levels. After all, if football and life are about being able to live out dreams, then having the chance to make a difference in a developing country like Ethiopia must surely fit the bill.

So yes, I’ve had better weeks all in all, a little down perhaps - but out? No chance, still dreaming…