Interview: Andy Roxburgh’s focus is on the MLS

Andy Roxburgh is welcomed to New York Red Bulls by Juninho. Picture: Contributed
Andy Roxburgh is welcomed to New York Red Bulls by Juninho. Picture: Contributed
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AS MARK Wotte was appointed by the SFA to provide a blueprint for the future of Scottish football, Andy Roxburgh was winding up an 18-year stint at Uefa, having led the overhaul of the European game’s grassroots infrastructure.

Even if success on the pitch has eluded Scotland in recent years, its influence on European football remains significant. Whether in the dugout or in the boardroom its stamp is all over the European game. And, in Roxburgh, Scotland held a seat at the top table of Uefa.

Now, after the best part of two decades as Uefa’s technical director, Roxburgh no longer holds that seat. Having left European football’s governing body at the end of the last year, the former Scotland manager has taken on a new challenge, as the New York Red Bulls’ sporting director.

Roxburgh was approached in 1994 by then Uefa President Lennart Johansson to draw up and implement a blueprint for the game’s growth in Europe and now the SFA has turned to Dutchman Wotte to redesign Scotland’s grass-roots system, heading the creation and implementation of seven regional performance schools, where 120 of the country’s most talented teenagers enjoy a football education as part of their curriculum.

So has Wotte been appointed to do for the SFA what Roxburgh did for Uefa? “No, they’re totally different jobs,” explains Roxburgh. “Mark has a more complex balance to get right, between the grass-roots, the schools and the clubs than I ever did. At Uefa I was there to help the associations implement the guidelines we were setting out. We weren’t running academies. Uefa doesn’t have a national team and for the SFA that’s what it’s ultimately all about.”

The assumption that Rox-burgh spent years sat at a mahogany desk deep inside Uefa’s glass and chrome headquarters in Switzerland is unfair. Perhaps his biggest achievement was the introduction of the Uefa Pro License programme. Now all 
53 member nations subscribe to the criteria and, when Roxburgh speaks of training methods and ideologies, he speaks from experience of touring the best training grounds on the continent, advising and discussing ideas with the best coaches and thinkers in the sport. “You don’t need to reinvent the wheel here,” Roxburgh says of the movement to reboot the Scottish game. “I think people believe Scottish football needs to be flattened and rebuilt from the ground up, but that’s just too far.

“I’m sure Mark already knows clubs are the key to everything. It’s all very well creating regional schools and academies but if the clubs aren’t on board it’s not going to work. It’s frustrating for the SFA but the clubs hold the power in that regard. These regional schools aren’t the whole answer and I’m sure Mark recognises that. Forty or 50 years ago we had this natural football environment in Scotland that we didn’t know we had. That environment no longer exists and now we have to do it in a more organised way. By nature that’s much more difficult.”

Rising through the ranks at the SFA, from coaching the under-16 side to taking charge of the senior side, Roxburgh’s career path followed no precedent, but set one for his assistant and eventual successor Craig Brown, who replaced him as Scotland boss in 1993. “It’s strange to think Craig won’t be involved in the game any more,” Roxburgh reflects on Brown’s retirement from football earlier this month. “He’s been there since day one for me. Even way back into the 60s as a player, Craig was always there. I remember the day I signed at Falkirk he was there in my ear giving me advice. For me Scottish football and Craig have always been synonymous. The game will miss him.”

When Roxburgh was appointed as the late Jock Stein’s full-time successor in 1986 after caretaker Sir Alex Ferguson’s temporary spell at the World Cup finals in Mexico there were many who believed he didn’t possess the reputation as a player to command respect at the highest level of management. The success of figures like Arrigo Sacchi, Jose Mourinho and Arsene Wenger has since discredited that theory. Not to mention Roxburgh’s own subsequent success in the job, leading Scotland to back-to-back major finals at Italia ’90 and Euro ’92, a feat repeated by Brown later in the decade at Euro ’96 and France ’98. Achievements that seem like fevered dreams amidst the current bleakness.

“I don’t see the link [between playing and managing] being as pronounced as others do,” says the former Partick Thistle, Falkirk and Clydebank forward, who took on the national job with no experience of managing at club level. “Being a player and being a manager are two completely different jobs. There have been plenty of cases of great players who can’t coach. There are different ways to climb the mountain so I reject the idea that you can’t be a great manager if you haven’t been a great player.

“Frank Rijkaard once said to me that being a good player was only the key to the door for him. Once he stepped through the door his background as a player didn’t help much. He recognised quickly that coaching required a totally different skillset.”

In New York – or more specifically Harrison, New Jersey where the Red Bulls play their home games – Roxburgh presides over a squad that includes talents like Tim Cahill and Thierry Henry. Despite the club’s Austrian energy drink backing and glittering three-year-old stadium Roxburgh bemoans the facilities at his disposal. “There’s not the footballing heritage here that there is in Scotland,” he claims. “We actually have to look for pitches to train on. In Scotland we could just train at the local club.” But he does offer one aspect of US soccer for his compatriots to replicate. “There’s a business model here,” explains Roxburgh. “That’s the biggest difference. They’re very good at promoting the sport over here.”

MLS is operated by a marketing firm – Soccer United Marketing – and headed by a man plucked out of the marketing and television industry, Don Garber. It is now the seventh most attended, and fastest growing, league in the world. As the Scottish game has receded, American soccer has grown. “In Scotland it was tradition that everyone would just turn up on Saturday,” continues the 69-year-old. “That doesn’t happen any more and we’re having to think about how to get them back. If there’s one thing we should copy from the Americans it’s the way they sell the product.”

Having moved to the city that never sleeps Roxburgh, much like his great friend Ferguson, with whom he had dinner in the Big Apple a fortnight ago, has no time for rest. “Other people retire you,” he says, sounding as if he expects that to be a long way off yet.