The first thing Gary White did was make his goalkeeper, Pan Wen-chieh, shave his head.
“He had a crazy haircut when I arrived, so I told him, if you cut your hair, you’ll look a lot meaner and become a more intimidating keeper,” White explains.
“In his head now that’s what he believes. Once, in training, he wasn’t quite himself, so I told our goalkeeping coach to take him down to the hairdresser to get his head shaved again, because it will give him his confidence back.”
To an outsider it might seem like an unorthodox style of managing – but White has never done things the conventional way.
The 43-year-old is probably the most qualified British coach you’ve never heard of.
Having earned pro-licences in England, Europe, USA, and only one of four foreigners to earn the top coaching badge in Japan, White has taken four different national teams to their highest ever FIFA ranking in a coaching career that already spans two decades.
After successful spells at the British Virgin Islands, Bahamas and Guam, White has now set his sights on leading Taiwan to FIFA’s top 100.
When he arrived as the national team manager in September last year his side sat 161st – now they lie 121st.
“I think we’ve already exceeded everybody’s expectations since we arrived here,” White tells Dream Team when we meet him in central Taipei.
“But our ambition is to get into the FIFA top 100, and to qualify for a major tournament.
“There’s the Asia Cup next year and we need to keep up our winning mentality – every time you beat a team ranked higher than you, the better our ranking gets.”
So far it’s be so good for White since his arrival to the country last September.
They’ve won six of their seven games, including an impressive 2-1 victory over Bahrain four weeks after they’d lost the reverse fixture 5-0.
The difference? White wasn’t in charge for the first game.
“It was on 10 October, the National Day for the Republic of China, and the team have now labelled it as our own 10/10 day,” White says.
“No-one expected anything from us going into the game – but we knew we could win.
“People thought we were mad because we’d lost 5-0 a month before, so they said we should be happy just to survive the game.
“We were 1-0 down after 17 minutes, but scored in the 89th and 92nd minute to win it. The place just went completely crazy.
“The crowd stayed in the stadium for an hour, and when we got onto the team bus outside there was probably five or six thousand people going mad waiting for us.”
The result represented a new dawn in Taiwanese football, and White’s team haven’t looked back since.
Born on the south coast of England, White was part of Southampton’s youth system before a modest playing career at non-league Bognor Regis and Western Australia State League outfit Fremantle FC.
Experiencing the brutality of the academy system and lacking the requisite cutting edge to make it as a pro, the then 23-year-old embarked on turning his passion wholeheartedly into coaching.
“I thought, if I can’t be the best player in the world, I want to be the best coach in the world,” White says.
There can be no denying his passion for the art of coaching – over lunch he discusses the merits of playing 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1, the importance of encouraging attacking full-back play, and proudly shows YouTube highlights of his players’ best moments.
We meet on a typically muggy day in the country’s capital, sheltering from the heat in the shadows of Taipei 101, which was the tallest building in the world until 2010.
But it seems the only thing that can match the building’s vastness is White’s towering coaching ambitions.
“I want to get back into club football as I think that’s where I’ll be able to make the biggest impact – but my long term goal is to coach England,” White says.
“To do that I’ll have to have some success in Europe, because right now no-one’s really watching this part of the world.”
It may sounds farfetched to some, but White is slowly being noticed.
He was recently linked to the vacant Ipswich job, and was only one of three candidates to be interviewed for the England Under-21 job.
“It’s a good sign and shows the FA are watching,” White adds.
“There were 250 or so applicants for that job and I got to sit down with Gareth Southgate, Howard Wilkinson and Dan Ashworth to get an insight into the youth development program.
“Right now England have got the best youth development program ever – but what’s going to happen to all those under-17, under-19, and under-20 players that have been so successful?
“If it’s protected and developed, there’s no reason why we can’t be true contenders for the next World Cup.”
White hopes that his experience from learning in different contexts and cultures will stand him in good stead for the future, and recognises international football methods cannot simply be replicated from country to country.
With that in mind, everywhere he has coached he has fully embraced the local culture to enhance the footballing experience around it.
As coach of the Bahamas, he introduced street musicians from the annual ‘Junkanoo’ festival to play during matches.
In Guam, his side chanted the ‘Inifresi’, a ritual similar to the rugby haka.
Now in Taiwan, it has become a tradition for White to host a quasi-press conference with the fans after each game.
As the final whistle goes, the manager heads over to the fans, who hand him a loudspeaker, before answering questions from the crowd.
“You have to judge each national team differently – you can’t bring one type of style or culture to every team because it’s different,” White continues.
“So I’ve taken each thing that has been successful at every country, and looked at what is specific and individual to this place and finding the cultural connection to each set of fans.
“The one thing that doesn’t change is dealing with people, and working with players on and off the field.”
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“Can you hear me at the back?”The debate in football over why some coaches can excel on the training ground but wilt when they are exposed to the managerial heat is nothing new, but White believes passionately that the game overlooks coaching excellence in favour of selecting ex-players as managers.
He may have a point. In the NBA this season, only 10 coaches ever played basketball at the top level, but in English football there is a sense, and certain snobbery in some quarters, that coaches who have not played at any level cannot last in the rough and tumble of modern football.
For White, this is one of the main blockers he sees as stopping quality coaches from getting top jobs.
“Most things you don’t learn as a player, no matter how high the level you play at,” White claims.
“In some ways, the higher level you play at, the more protected you are from the coaching methods – you just turn up, put your boots on and play football.
“You don’t think about how the cones are set up, how big the pitch is for that exercise, or what the coaching philosophy is behind it – it’s only when you start coaching that you understand it’s a completely different profession.
“I think the leagues have got to understand that there are so many coaches out there with good coaching experience that would be better to bring in, rather than taking a gamble on an ex-player who doesn’t have any.
“But you see it time and time again, and it doesn’t work.
“You get the odd one that does well, but why wouldn’t you go with someone who has devoted their whole life to the art of coaching?”
“You have to have some understanding of the game before you go into coaching – if you don’t it just becomes a textbook with exercises in it – but there’s so many pro-licence coaches being
overlooked before ex-players.
“I think it’s probably an easy option to go for an ex-player – no-one wants to have the courage to employ someone who actually knows what they’re doing, as they’re protected for when it fails.
“I think currently English football has a mentality of trying not to fail rather than trying to win.
“If I were a chairman or owner and bring in an ex-player, and he fails, then I can get away with that.
“But if I brought in an unknown guy, then I’ll get slaughtered. I think there’s a lack of courage from a lot of the owners, and I don’t think there’s enough push in the establishment to push for young coaches, so it’s difficult to break in.”
The journey for White has already been a long and winding one, but big plans are afoot.
Taiwan travel to India this summer to take part in an intercontinental cup alongside the hosts, South Africa and New Zealand.
White knows it will be the first chance to show the rest of the world what his team, and his coaching methods, are capable of on the bigger stage.
He may be two decades into his coaching career, but the 43-year-old knows it’s still just the beginning.
The best English coach you’ve never heard of? Quite possibly – but don’t be surprised if he returns to these shores soon.
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