Bobby Williamson on his time with Uganda

Bobby Williamson loved his time coaching The Cranes of Uganda. Picture: Contributed
Bobby Williamson loved his time coaching The Cranes of Uganda. Picture: Contributed
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THE recent news that Bobby Williamson had been sacked as national coach of Uganda provoked an uncharitable reaction from some quarters.

After registering their surprise – “what, is he still there?” – some people then scoffed. Just wait, they predicted, for his imminent return to Scotland, where a seat on the managerial merry-go-round is assured, along with a slot on the Sportsound banter bus.

This might have been the scenario five years ago. But that was then, this is now. Williamson’s horizons reach a lot wider now. The 51-year-old has seen things he never thought he’d see. He has dined with presidents, gone on safari adventures and, despite the blow of losing a job he clearly adored, continues to go into battle on behalf of a place that has clearly seeped deeply into his soul.

For example, he abhors the way the major sports brands ignore the poorer countries in Africa. “The equipment is not the best,” says Williamson. “It is all down to finance. There is a shortage of balls, a shortage of pitches. Even with the national team, we didn’t have a sponsor.

“We had to buy our own Adidas strips. Once we wore fake Adidas strips, and we were caught and were reprimanded! These things happen in Africa. But it is disappointing. You would have thought somebody, either Puma or Adidas, could supply these guys with shirts, because I know what it is like with Scotland, when I have been with the national team.

“They get all the stuff they need, and because they get two strips each, they can each take a strip home. I remember one time at a tournament with Uganda we had to get the players’ names on the back of the strips. Of course, the players wanted the strips after the tournament, but UFA [the Ugandan Football Association] would not let them, and there was a bit of a stand-off.”

The yellow shirt of a team known as The Cranes has become a more desirable item since Williamson took over, in 2008. “The Cranes should be a big marketing brand, you see millions of people with the Uganda football strip now,” he says. “When I first arrived it was all Chelsea and Man United and Arsenal. Now you see a lot of Uganda strips, because we have done well at home.”

Williamson cannot be accused of exaggeration with the last claim, since he leaves with an unbeaten home record under him intact, although they did lose on penalties to Zambia earlier this year. This ‘defeat’ was particularly hard to bear (they actually won the match 1-0, to level the scores on aggregate) since it meant the dream of qualifying for the African Nation Cup finals had been extinguished. Uganda have not appeared in the finals of the competition since the late 1970s.

“History was there to be written,” laments Williamson. But he has made a positive impact in many other ways, even though his reign could not survive a World Cup qualifying defeat in Liberia in March, which sent Uganda to the bottom of their group. However, Williamson cannot be criticised for a dereliction of duties, or for failing to employ local talent (his assistant at Uganda was the former Ugandan international midfielder Jackson Mayanja, who he hopes to take with him to his next position).

Nigeria coach Stephen Keshi has complained about the number of white coaches who come from Europe to Africa ‘just for the money’. Williamson accepts that he has a point. “When Berti Vogts was at Nigeria, he never lived in Nigeria,” he notes. “Some people think they can come in for a game and do their job and fly away again.

“However, I live here,” he adds. “They cannot tar me with that brush. I came for the experience, and for the job, I never came for the money.”

So what did he come for?

“At this moment in time, it’s 10am in the morning, I have my shorts on, my flip flops on, I am walking around the garden, the sun is beating down,” he replies. “I don’t want to leave all this just yet,” he adds, understandably.

MEET someone the locals refer to as “Mr Bobby” (note the absence of an l). As the old joke goes, he’s half the man he used to be. The weight has dropped off him – “I miss fish suppers, and the bread here is crap, that helps,” he says – while the scales have also fallen from his eyes. He never saw himself as an adventurer.

He wants to remain in Africa, preferably with another national side. A couple of years ago he was a target for World Cup quarter-finalists Ghana. He has just finished finalising a settlement agreement with the FUFA. “I have an agent here who doesn’t tell me very much until it is actually about to happen, so I will wait and see what he comes up with,” he says. He is determined not to let the inconvenience of being sacked by Uganda sour his unlikely adventures in the heart of Africa. You wonder if, work permit-wise, the fact he no longer has a job might impact on his wish to remain in the country.

“I am not sure actually,” he admits. “I have got a lease in a house until August, and I am staying there, I will wait and see what develops.”

Joseph Conrad, whose 1899 novella Heart of Darkness charts a journey down the Congo, apparently stuck his finger in the middle of a map of Africa when he was a child, and cried: “When I grow up, I shall go there!” Williamson had no such firm plans. After stints with Clydebank and Rangers, he ventured to places no more exotic than West Bromwich Albion and Rotherham, before he returned to Scotland with Kilmarnock, where he ended a playing career that produced a more-than-decent return of goals; nearly 150 in just over 400 appearances.

Then, in his first season as manager at Kilmarnock, he won the Scottish Cup. You hope he has put that near the top of the CV he is currently updating. “I can’t remember dates at all, I have to Google everything to find out where I was at certain times,” he says. “1997”, you remind him, with reference to that win over Falkirk in the Scottish Cup.

The Ugandan twist took everyone by surprise, including himself. After the conditions that he saw on his first visit to the country, he resolved not to take the post. And then – “it was a Sunday”, he recalls – he found himself on the beach at Lake Victoria, staring out across the huge body of blue water that is Africa’s largest lake. “I thought: what have I got to go home for?”

In a professional sense, the answer was not a lot. When asked what he misses about Scotland, he mentions his family, though not much else. At the time he was offered the job with Uganda, his last post had been with Chester City, from where he had been sacked five months earlier. Before that there had been an initially successful spell with Plymouth Argyle. Even when he was eventually sacked, the club were still in the Championship – a place they would dearly like to be now.

“They put me on gardening leave for a year, which put me out of the public eye,” he says. “It was difficult to get a job after that.

“I had just bought a place in Plymouth and then I had to try and sell it, I lost a of money from that carry on,” he adds. While he is alert to the fact that he needs to continue working to earn a living, such concerns over taking a property hit do not seem quite so relevant where he lives now. “To be honest, it was a huge culture shock when I first came, and when you see the poverty that is all around,” he says. “I am in a nice house, a nice compound, but 20 minutes up the road there are people staying in worse circumstances, shall we say.

“But people are happy. I am not sure why they are happy, because all they have is sunshine. Yet they don’t complain about it.

“So I thought to myself, why I am complaining, why am I feeling uncomfortable?”

This was what he asked himself while staring out across Lake Victoria. The result of this piece of soul-searching has been a near-five year sojourn in Uganda. Although the positives have out-weighed the negatives, there have been some trying times.

Indeed, don’t expect Williamson to offer any sympathy as you pour Scottish football’s reconstruction problems down the line to him. Because of a row between the Uganda Super League and the Uganda Football Association, the most recent season has seen two top leagues running simultaneously, with the same teams in some cases. And then there is the press, for whom he seems to have as little time over there as he appeared to have over here.

“I watched a lot of football here, but there were complaints that I was never seen at games,” he says. “I was at a game every week, often two games. Because I was not at the same game as some radio guy or some journalist, they said I was not there. The press here are not very encouraging,” he adds. “They write about the English Premiership, German, Italian and Spanish football, rather than about the local league. I had to get someone to email me when the games were on because I could not find anything in the local papers.”

Still, the fans were the best he has known in his career. “They have helped make it the fulfilling experience it has been,” he says, although he isn’t planning to return to the Mandela stadium in Kampala next weekend, as the Cranes play their first competitive fixture since Williamson’s sacking (Serbian coach Milutin Sredojevic has taken over), against Liberia.

“I was never one of those managers who went back to old clubs, unless I am working there,” he explains. “I just feel passionately about that. I have been at clubs where you get these people coming back. I call them ghosts. They go back into the place, and get everyone saying what a great guy they were.”

Williamson had an awkward time of it at Plymouth, where he replaced Paul Sturrock. The former Dundee United winger became a legend in Devon, and when he moved on to Southampton, and Williamson stepped in, it was a far from clean break. “The biggest problem I had was my relationship with the chairman [Paul Stapleton],” recalls Williamson. “I spoke to the chairman about a player in the afternoon, and never got much encouragement from him. He phoned me back that evening and he said he was speaking to Paul earlier, ‘and he mentioned a player to me’. “I said: ‘chairman, he was the player I mentioned to you this morning’. He was listening to Paul more than he was listening to me.”

“I have never been back to Kilmarnock, unless in an official capacity with another team,” he adds. “You don’t live in the past. That’s always been my philosophy. I am sure that will continue.”

In saying that, he would jump at the chance to return to the post of Uganda coach.

“Maybe at some stage, things will change, and the job might come back again,” he says, wistfully. “I would certainly apply for it because I have enjoyed the country and the people, and the job. But it’s time to move on to other things now, move forward.”

He didn’t manage to catch any coverage of last weekend’s Scottish Cup final, which featured one of his former clubs, Hibernian, against Celtic. Ah, Hibs. Mention of his name to a supporter of the Easter Road side, and it was once guaranteed to produce a groan. The thing is, his reign has begun to look better and better with the passing years. Wins over Rangers and Celtic on the way to a League Cup final, players such as Kevin Thomson, Scott Brown and Steven Whittaker making a breakthrough. It has (whisper it) got a lot worse since. Not that you need be shy about pointing this out down a crackly line to Uganda.

“What disappointed me was that in January of the year we played in the League Cup final [which Hibs lost 2-0 to Livingston], I went to the board and said: ‘look, we can swap a central defender for a midfield player, because we are going to be short in midfield’,” he says.

Williamson wanted to bring in Steven Thomson, then at Peterborough United. “Kevin Thomson was picking up a few injuries, and a few others were picking up injuries, and I said we should do this, because we would be struggling in midfield towards the end of the season,” he adds. “But I could not get it sanctioned.”

Something else that couldn’t be sanctioned was a swap deal involving Derek Riordan and Bobby Mann, though this, as well as being a blessing, is a bit of a myth it turns out. “Donald Park [at Inverness] wanted Riordan, and I thought we needed a Bobby Mann-type centre half,” he says. “But the board never sanctioned it. It was not the case that I wanted to get rid of Derek Riordan.

“They [Inverness] wanted Riordan, and I said to Donald, ‘speak to the board’. It was probably just an excuse to get off the phone to him.”

Who cares about all this now? Certainly not Williamson, who is concerned only with the next phase of his managerial career. Four years ago, in a poignant interview with a Sunday newspaper, he admitted that, separated from his family, he “wondered whether it was worth it at times”. But football inevitably wins out whenever he is experiencing a dark night of the soul. “It is not an obsession, it is a necessity,” Williamson tells me.

“I would rather be unemployed in Africa than unemployed back in Britain,” he adds, before making it clear that it is time to go. “Alan, I am walking around the garden here and the sweat is lashing off me, I have not put any sun cream on, so I am probably burnt to a crisp.”

This information brings to an end a 50-minute conversation with someone so often cast as taciturn, difficult and prickly. It’s been as fascinating a discussion as I can remember having with a football figure, as well as probably among the more long-distance ones.

So forcefully have I been pressing the phone to the side of my head that several hours after hanging up it is still possible to hear what sounds like African birdsong in my ear, as well as the voice of a contented Glaswegian who has managed to prosper on another continent, against all odds.