Saturday Interview: Bantams star Westwood enjoying a true Indian summer

Ashley Westwood.
Ashley Westwood.
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ASHLEY WESTWOOD is around 5,500 miles from home and fully immersed in matching what was a quite remarkable first season as a manager.

But, come 8pm local time tomorrow in Bangalore, the 38-year-old will be glued to the television as his former club Bradford City make their first appearance in the FA Cup fifth round for 18 years.

Westwood will not be alone in tuning in to events at Valley Parade, a ground he called ‘home’ for two remarkable seasons around the turn of the Millennium, from an unusual setting.

Bradford’s humbling of Chelsea in the last round was so seismic a shock that it reverberated around the world and football fans everywhere want to know if the team from League One can upset the odds once again.

“We get loads of English games out here on TV,” Westwood this week told The Yorkshire Post from the training ground of Bengaluru FC, the club he led to the I-League title in their first year.

“The 3pm kick-offs are about 8.30pm here in India and every game is shown so I flick through them. I’d been out so only tuned in to Chelsea v Bradford at 2-1.

“Straight away, I thought, ‘Chelsea will get through this’. But Bradford were superb and just took the game to them.

“I couldn’t believe it as the goals went in. It has to be up there as one of the club’s best results of all time, and it has been great to hear everyone talking about my old club.”

Westwood’s two years at Bradford incorporated the promotion season of 1998-99 and the following campaign that saw, against all the odds, Paul Jewell keep the Yorkshire club in the Premier League.

It means he has only happy memories of his time at Valley Parade. It is the same for the three years he subsequently spent at Sheffield Wednesday after following Jewell down the M1, even if the Owls were a club in a state of flux at the time after being relegated from the top-flight.

His time in Yorkshire represented, he admits, “the best” of a playing career that took in 12 clubs and only finished in 2012.

A move into coaching followed as Michael Appleton’s assistant at Portsmouth, Blackpool and then, finally, Blackburn Rovers. Which is how, in a roundabout way, Westwood now finds himself in the world’s second most populous country of 1.1 billion and the reigning ‘Manager of the Year’.

“Working at Blackburn meant I worked for the Venkys,” says the former defender. “They didn’t play a part in me getting this job but it got my name known over here and that was how I got an interview.

“So, in that respect, I had a little bit of luck but then the rest was down to me. There were six or seven candidates and I did my interview by conference call and Skype.

“They wanted an international manager, someone from outside India who could bring in fresh ideas and make the whole set-up professional.”

Bengaluru FC came into being after the JSW Group won the franchise rights to a new club that had been given a direct entry to the 2013-14 I-League season.

The new owners wanted to run the new team along the lines of a European model and saw Westwood’s determined style and eagerness to succeed as a perfect fit. He proved an astute choice, as a target of staying out of the bottom three in the club’s first year – Bengaluru were afforded a three-year exemption from relegation – turned into a title-winning debut.

Success was achieved with a group largely made up of players not wanted by other clubs and Sunil Chhetri, the Indian captain who had been signed as a statement of intent.

“It was a gamble to come,” says the Bengaluru manager. “If you go to a new country and get it wrong in your first job, where are you? I knew I had to get it right.”

The title was clinched with a game to spare, earning the club a congratulatory note from FIFA president Sepp Blatter.

Since then, Westwood has added the 2015 Federation Cup to his burgeoning list of honours and also become the first manager to lead an Indian club into the AFC Champions League.

A qualifying round defeat to Johor Darul Tazim, effectively the Malaysian national team, earlier this month ended hopes of further progress but, by way of consolation, Bengaluru are now looking forward to the group stage of the AFC Cup, effectively the Europa League for clubs in the region.

Such success is remarkable considering just how blank the canvas was when Westwood first flew in to take charge, just a few weeks before the 2013-14 season got under way.

“I wasn’t expecting too much and I wasn’t disappointed in that respect,” he says with a laugh. “I was shown our training ground, which had an old FIFA building that, at some stage in the past, was going to be an Academy.

“Basically, there was one room and I was told, ‘There is your office and there is the pitch’. I asked where the changing room was and was told we didn’t have one. We had to turn up with our bags, train and then go home. This is not a football club. So, we had to put a proper environment in place.

“If we were going to achieve anything, we had to do it properly. And we did. Kitchen, meeting room, physio rooms and all sorts were created. We also built offices upstairs.”

Training itself was not much better in those early days. “I didn’t know what to expect in terms of fitness but hoped there would be a certain level that everyone was at.

“I arranged for a bog-standard bleep test to be taken. Not many use these any more but I thought it would give me a rough idea. I was hoping the players would be at level nine or ten.

“But I was shocked how low the players’ levels were. I remember thinking, ‘This lot will struggle to get in the fire service, never mind a professional sports team’.

“So, we got to work and, full credit to the players, they bought into everything we asked.”

Teething troubles weren’t restricted to on-field matters, with even a visit to a restaurant near his city centre home proving difficult thanks to his northern accent. A response of “sound” as the food arrived would only confuse the Indian waiters, who would suddenly cock their ears and say, ‘What sound, sir?’

It is all a long way from Valley Parade and Hillsborough. “I was fortunate to play for both clubs,” he says. “And it is great to see them both doing well after some tough years.

“Bradford’s win at Chelsea brought back some great memories of a special time. Winning promotion was incredible and I really hope they can beat Sunderland in the Cup.”