Sunday, November 04, 2007

Diamond from Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone manager Leroy Rosenior and assistant Paul Mortimer head into the dressing room at half-time with their side 1-0 down to the hosts in their latest African Cup of Nations qualifier.

As the two coaches prepare to deliver their teamtalk, a woman bursts into the room, walks over to an open nearby window and proceeds to start talking to a friend seated on the other side, with no word of explanation.

Unsurprisingly, the two former Addicks take exception to this unwanted interruption and usher the woman out of the room. As they reach the door,Mortimer turns to close friend Rosenior and says: "I bet Steve McClaren doesn't have these problems."

This bizarre incident was just one of many during the pair's short-lived stint in charge of the Leone Stars,but for new Charlton women's team technical director Mortimer,it was an experience he wouldn't change for the world.

"It was the most frustrating, scary, thrilling, disappointing and rewarding experience I have ever gone through, but it was just a wonderful time," he told the South London Press.

"Leroy and I were only in charge for two games - against Togo and Mali - but we learnt such a lot and what a fabulous time we had. I wouldn't have had the chance to go to Africa otherwise, so I have very fond memories of my time there,even though we lost both games.

"We were playing in front of 85,000-90,000 people against Togo,which was incredible.There were kids hanging off the floodlights, and the atmosphere was unbelievable.

"To be that far away from your family is quite tough, though, in an environment that is totally in your face. It was a huge culture shock for me and it was incredibly challenging trying to do the job in the circumstances.

"For example, for our away game in Mali we travelled there by mini-bus. It was made to hold 20 people but we had 28 on board, driving across terrain that you just could not describe as actual roads.The journey was meant to take eight to 10 hours but it actually took 26.

"We were stopped at checkpoints all the time. There must have been a dozen to go through in one journey and at one stage there were three within 100 yards of each other.We had to get out of the coach each time while the guards checked the coach and all of us. It was very tiring. No wonder we lost the game."

Mortimer and Rosenior were appointed in May after the latter was approached by the Sierra Leone FA. However, after taking charge of the games against Togo and Mali, the management team were removed just before the friendly against Millwall in August.

"I would have liked to have carried on but the FA didn't even tell us we were being relieved of our duties," Mortimer said.

"We were due to stay on for the game at Millwall but someone else just took charge. It was hugely disappointing.

"There were aspects of the job that weren't the best but we still enjoyed it. On the whole the people were really nice and helpful, but almost a bit too helpful at times.

"If you wanted something done, six people would volunteer to do it. But then they would argue about who should do it and it just wouldn't get done. They really wanted to help, but more than anything they wanted to be seen to be helping."

Now Mortimer - who made 225 appearances during two spells with the Addicks and scored 34 goals - has a whole new challenge on his hands with the Charlton women's set-up. After the men's team's relegation from the Premier League, the decision was made to disband the women's set-up, and as a result the main stars left.

After a late change of heart, the club decided to enter a team in the Premier League National Division, but without any of last year's successful squad, they have struggled to cope.

"The girls only got together last month and most of them haven't really played at this level," Mortimer said."The average age of the squad is 19, so what do people expect? Did anyone really think we would beat experienced teams who have been together for years?

"We have to be real about this - it will take time. We have to take a few steps backwards before we can go forwards. We've had to start again with players who haven't been affected by what has happened at the club previously. I see it as a challenge and that's something I enjoy.

"We are at the bottom of a very large mountain so we can only move upwards and I am confident we will do that."

And while he is committed to his new role at The Valley, the 39-year-old admits he would relish the opportunity to become manager of a club in the Football League, having spent five months with Rosenior at League One outfit Brentford in 2006.

"I've got a lot to offer and my experiences have definitely made me want to go into management at some point in the future," Mortimer said.

"However, it's very difficult for young managers because the opportunities just aren't there any more.

"The lower leagues used to be the breeding grounds for young managers coming through but experienced guys are getting all the jobs there now.

"People go on about a lack of quality English coaches coming through but it is down to a simple lack of opportunity. There's nowhere for them to cut their teeth anymore.

"Look at Paul Ince for example. He won Premier League titles with Manchester United and captained England but he had to start his management career with Macclesfield and he's now at MK Dons.

"No disrespect to those two clubs but someone like Paul should have got the chance to manage at a higher level. I never reached his heights in my playing career,so what chance have I got?"

And Mortimer believes that he faces a further hurdle due to his race.

"At first-team level there are four main coaching positions - manager,assistant manager, first-team coach and reserve team coach - and there are 92 league clubs," Mortimer said.

"How many of those positions are filled by black men?

"You can't tell me that there aren't black guys out there who want to coach and manage, because there are.

"How many black guys are even given interviews? I'm not trying to be controversial, I am just asking the question.

"There is a glass ceiling in football at the moment. How many black coaches manage in the Premier League or at Championship level? How many black people fill positions within the FA? Not many.The statistics don't lie.

"I hope things change and I'm sure they will. Someone out there will have the guts to employ more black managers and coaches and that is what we need.

"I know I can be a good manager and coach - I just don't know whether I will be able to fulfil that dream. I have the qualifications to coach below the Premier League but I just don't have the experience."

But if Mortimer can turn things around for the Charlton women's team, he may well get his chance sooner than he thinks.

icSouthlondon - Diamond from Sierra Leone