To the casual observer, it may seem a strange move – but this is no ordinary manager. Aside from working as an opposition scout for Belgium at Euro 2020, his experiences in the game have been hugely varied, from coaching a Sunday league side and being a ‘Championship Manager addict’, to working with Roberto Martinez at Everton and Wigan, before gaining his UEFA A License aged just 22 and enjoying spells coaching in Samoa and Mongolia – the latter as assistant manager of the Mongolian national side.
On Sunday, 46 days since his appointment, and after three matches had been postponed due to covid-19 cases, Iftikhar finally took his first steps into management in Scotland, as his Fort William side were beaten by Brechin City 4-0. And he was left in no doubt about the uphill task facing him and his side, who have incredibly only won three matches since the beginning of the 2017/2018 season. Prior to Saturday, they had lost their last two matches 12-0 and 10-0 and they have finished bottom of the league in 12 out of the past 18 seasons.
Iftikhar, who was born and raised in Preston, admits that the level of publicity around his appointment at the end of November was “a bit of a shock” with interviews on Sky Sports News and various outlets, but it should be no surprise given his impressive, if unusual CV and the fact that he became the first manager in senior Scottish football to come from South Asian heritage.
So why make the move to a side that has struggled so much in recent years and have only one solidarity point from 16 matches this term?
The perfect marriage
“I’ve always been fascinated by Scotland and the amount of quality managers that have come from the country”, said Iftikhar.
“A very good friend of mine is former Scotland player Willie Donachie. I spent an awful lot of time with him at Accrington, and we always spoke about Scottish football.
“I’ve always taken an interest so when the chance to manage Fort William came up it ticked every box – even boxes that didn’t need ticking in terms of the beautiful place, the owner John Trew, the fanbase, and the club itself – it’s just a perfect marriage.”
Iftikhar is under no illusions of the challenge that presents itself, but he was sold on the project at Fort William. He is full of praise for the club’s ambitious chairman Trew, and points to the fact that club is in the process of moving towards being full time and he has already been backed in the last month, recruiting six new players, mostly from English non-league.
“We know it’s not going to be easy and we’re not coming in with all the answers”, he admits. “Any manager that comes in has their own ideas but you have to understand what players are there and what the situation is and you have to find some common ground.”
A massive task ahead
The first priority will be somehow dragging the perennial strugglers away from relegation, which was voted through for the Breedon Highland League last year and will come into force for the first time at the end of this season.
It is certainly a task that could be aptly described as one of Ben Nevis proportion, but Iftikhar is no stranger to achieving success against the odds, as proven by his brazen approach which saw him first land a role with Roberto Martinez, a man he credits with his career success and someone who he says is still only ever a phonecall away.
“Roberto is someone I had admired for a very long time. His Wigan team played great football and I decided to stand outside their training ground so I could get to meet him. I didn’t have an appointment but Roberto being the special man he was, allowed me to have a chat with him in the afternoon and I produced scouting reports for him.
“It was voluntary initially but you don’t get paid for an education and it was a great learning curve and he gave time to somebody like me who he didn’t need to. I wasn’t bringing much value in my reports but he was able to give me time and enable me to develop and become a better manager. I spent four or five seasons producing scouting reports, then when he moved to Belgium we spoke and he was able to bring me over to the European Championships with him and work with the Belgium Federation who have been phenomenal.
“Any success I have in the future will be solely down to him because he has always been there. No matter what, whether it be going to Mongolia or going to Samoa, he’s always been there. I’ve been able to fly to Belgium and speak to him about problems I have had when I was managing. He’s always been open. Even before this job, I spoke to him and he gave me so much time and discussed everything with me and I know that any difficulties I have, I can pick up the phone and speak to him.
“I am where I am because of him.”
Familiar face at Easter Road
While Iftikhar jokes that his request for Martinez to lend him Thierry Henry (who is a coach at Belgium) fell on deaf ears, someone who has offered their support since he took on the Fort William challenge is another former Belgium colleague, Shaun Maloney, now manager of Hibernian. Iftikhar describes the former Scotland international as a “gentleman” and has backed him to perform well at Easter Road.
“Shaun Maloney has been phenomenal for me. I spoke to Shaun just before I took the job and he has been very helpful. We exchanged messages after he became Hibernian manager and I have no doubt he will be a success at Hibs. He is one of the best people I have ever met and what a player he was as well. He is hugely intelligent and the Hibs players and the fans and the board have a bright future ahead.”
Roberto Martinez has been hailed for his attractive brand of football, based on a possession-based passing style and this is something Maloney also alluded to when he took over at Hibernian. But for Iftikhar and his winless side, it is safe to say that the only thing that matters for the moment is getting the monkey off their back by finally securing three most precious of points.
“My philosophy is just to win football matches and you go about that differently,” he says. “I feel that sometimes you have to be attacking and sometimes you have to be more defensive depending on your situation, depending on the league, the players, the weather, the moment in the season and the most important aspect of winning games is being flexible and versatile.
“Every manager has got a difficult job to do and we appreciate that. We want to win and it’s as simple as that. Whether its Sunday league, whether it’s grassroots, it’s a lonely job and its a tough job but it’s everything I’ve ever wanted.”
Being a trailblazer
While his focus will be on the pitch and achieving results, Iftikhar will also be a trailblazer in this country, as the first manager in senior Scottish football to come from South Asian heritage, something he was shocked to learn upon starting in the position.
He admits: “I’m very surprised and every time somebody mentions it it sinks in a bit more. We all know that things have to change in football and sport and society. I think there’s a lot of good work being done, but we’ve got a long way to go and its a fight that needs to be fought every day.”
And Iftikhar is certainly ready to fight for results while he is in the Highlands, somewhere he has already been made to feel most welcome. He speaks with glowing enthusiasm about how welcoming and supportive the community has been and he has done his research on the place too, from the nearby Glenfinnan Viaduct and the famous ‘Harry Potter train’ to the famous Nevis Bakery that he is very keen to try when he gets the chance.
Repaying fans and new era
Fort William are sadly having to play their matches away from their picturesque Claggan Park home this season due to the poor condition of the pitch, something that Iftikhar admits is a blow, but he is determined to still create a buzz around the club and repay the fans who have welcomed him with open arms, as this new era begins,
He says: “The scenery is stunning but to match that, the people of Fort William are brilliant. Genuinely they’ve been so welcoming, so polite and so helpful.
“We’re disappointed that we can’t give the fans the home games at the moment but we have to still try and give them the feelings of happiness and satisfaction after the away games on Saturdays.
“It won’t be easy but I am fortunate to be in such a special place, its so unique so I’m very lucky that every day I wake up and see beauty but I’ve only got one focus and that is winning games for this club.”