Former Mansfield Town manager Stuart Watkiss today finds himself in the middle of the thrills and spills of World Cup action as assistant manager of Bangladesh.
His charges face Laos over two legs in a pre-qualifier today and Monday with the winners moving forward into the regular qualifying groups for Qatar 2022.
Along with manager Jamie Day, Watkiss has been helping modernise and improve Bangladeshi football over the past year with former Stags keeper Bobby Mimms last week also appointed as their national goalkeeping coach.
Interest in the sport there is back on the rise and Watkiss admitted: “It would be a massive, massive boost for football here if we could get past Laos and get to the group stages of the World Cup qualifying.
“It will hopefully continue that upward trend we’ve been on for the last few months.
“The second leg is in Dhaka on Monday and, if we get a decent result today, there should be another good crowd.
“These games are huge for Bangladesh football and the continued development of it.
“It is a game we have a genuine chance of winning – we could have had much, much tougher teams than Laos.
“So it’s something to look forward to for everybody.”
Watkiss, who led Stags to promotion in 2001/02, said it had been a real culture shock but added: “The players have been an absolute dream to work with.
“They’re very, very respectful to the coaches. They want to take everything on board you tell them and want to get better.
“It’s still football, though very, very different, but still enjoyable.
“It’s difficult to compare with England as English sides are much physically bigger, the game is quicker and the players are stronger. In that respect I think the Bangladeshi players would struggle. But we do have some decent players technically.
“Their game understanding needs to improve, which we are working on. And we have had to completely change their diet and their way of thinking around food.
“Food is very much a social thing here. They are used to eating quite late at night and love their hot, fatty sauces with every meal. So we have tried to educate them about nutrition and what to eat and when.
“To be fair to the lads, they’ve taken it on board and we now have them in the gym. They now look upon fitness as something way more important than before.”
He added: “We are getting a little English posse in our backroom staff here and we have just brought Bobby in as the national goalkeeping coach and he will be doing the academy as well, which is great.
“Obviously I know Mimmsy very well from our Mansfield days. He literally started last week.
“Things are starting to take shape though there is a long, long way to go. It is a great project to be involved with and very different to the hustle and bustle of lower league football.”
Watkiss coached in India for a year and that led to him being recommended for the Bangladesh post for a new adventure in his life.
“Jamie Day got the manager’s job and someone put him in touch with me about a year ago,” he said.
“I didn’t know him, but he wanted someone a little more experienced than him and certainly someone who had worked in the region before. I had spent a year working in India as a head coach.
“He wanted someone to bounce ideas off. I had a few chats with him over the phone, agreed to be his assistant, and met him for the first time at Heathrow as we flew out.
“Fortunately we get on really well. We’ve completed our first year and have just signed for a further 12 months.”
The pair have certainly brought on the national side.
“It’s been enjoyable. We’ve done okay in terms of results,” said Watkiss.
“We also took the U23s to the Asian Games in Indonesia and qualified out the group – the first time they’d ever done that.
“We had a couple of tournaments in Bangladesh where we performed well and won games – again something in recent years they have not been doing.
“We’ve also had a couple of good results in friendlies.
“The press at the moment is very much with us and the support is on the rise again.”
He added: “Football is becoming popular again. Up until 20-30 years ago it was probably more popular here than cricket.
“But the fact the national team have struggled the last couple of decades has seen interest in football dwindle while cricket has taken off.
“But in our last two or three home games here we’ve been getting 25,000-30,000, which is good.”
The job has given Watkiss the chance to travel to new, exciting places and enjoy experiences he would never have faced at home.
“We have been coming out here for four to six week spells and then going back for two or three weeks. So we’ve been putting the air miles in,” he smiled.
“But this job has enabled me to go to places I’d never have gone for football.
“We have just done a 10-day training camp in Thailand before we came to Laos.
“We went to the Asian Games in Indonesia last year, which was a great experience.
“We have also had a couple of training camps in Qatar and an U23 tournament in Bahrain. So it’s been educational and a really good experience.”
The busy Watkiss is now also taking on the job of running the country’s U18s and U16s academy.
“They have started a live-in academy for the U18s and U15s and want me to take charge of that,” he said.
“I would be coaching the U18s on a daily basis but also overseeing both sets of players.
“There are some international tournaments coming up at the end of the year so that’s a good project as well.
“It will certainly keep me busy while I am in Dhaka as if we don’t have the team we spend a lot of time twiddling our thumbs at the hotel, though we do watch Premier League games.”
STILL TO COME . . . .
Why I would love to return to Mansfield Town one day
My biggest mistake as a manager
Why Stags went down in 2002/03