Stephen Constantine has coached in some of the most demanding environments in world football. After his early years in Cyprus and the USA, Stephen took on the role of National Team Coach, firstly at Nepal, secondly at India followed by Malawi and then The Sudan. He returned to club football as Head Coach with Cypriot side Nea Salamina part way in to the season and with the club deep in relegation trouble. Remarkably, Stephen led the club to promotion with an amazing run of seventeen League games unbeaten immediately following his appointment. In this interview Stephen explains how he went about turning relegation candidates in to promotion winners
What was the state of the club when you took over?
The club were bottom of the 2nd Division and in a complete state of disarray; the players didn’t even have half decent training equipment nor was there a real sponsor for the team jersey - they were spending 20,000 Euros buying their equipment from Puma!!! Players had asked to leave on the one hand and on the other I was told we needed seven or eight new players. Attendances were at an all time low and there was no budget to bring in the players we needed or increase the size of the squad...
So what were your priorities when you took over?
Change the attitude to how we train, and the time we train. Under me we trained in the mornings, and the players had to report 30 minutes prior to sessions. I also addressed the standards of the staff as some of them were too casual. A key thing, given the financial difficulties at the club and the low morale around the place, was to make sure that the players were paid on time.
How did you go about achieving these?
I talked to the players to see what they were thinking, and having listened to what they were saying I changed the training they were doing. I also took them to the Royal Air Force training complex where we did psychological and team building exercises, which helped a great deal. I treated them as individuals and all were treated equally - I am fair but hard with all players.
What were the key reasons that things turned around?
I think we did a lot of work on the training field and I talked to them a lot, about what I wanted, how I wanted it and that no matter what happened we were all in this together. I spent a lot of time getting to know them and building trust and confidence in the relationship between us. Our general approach to the game changed and became far more positive.
What were the key moments/games?
Our second game under me was an away game to one of the teams going for promotion. I made a substitution on about 70 minutes and the lad scored the winning goal in a 1-2 away win. It gave us a little belief going forward and we built on that and went on an amazing seventeen game unbeaten streak. Another significant moment was after the Christmas break: we played Aris at home who were in first place some 6 points ahead of us and one of the new signings scored the winning goal as we won 1-0 and that really changed a lot of things for us.
How did you change things tactically?
We went with a 442 and really looked to press teams especially at home, everyone knew their jobs within the system and of course we trained tactically 3-4 times a week...
How did you manage to develop a winning mentality in the team?
I hate losing even in the training matches we have and I tried to make training as competitive as possible. Once we had played 3-4 games without losing the players really believed we could beat any team we played against, and we did! We lost 2 games out of a total 26 during the time since I was in charge - a really amazing run especially considering where we started from...
How did you and the team feel going in to the play-offs?
That we were unbeatable!! The only thing that could beat us was ourselves..........and in both games that we lost, one in the regular season and one in the play offs - both away I might add - we did beat ourselves!!! At no point were we outplayed or out-thought.
How does it feel having taken the team from a relegation position to a promotion?
As you can imagine it feels absolutely fantastic, to take a team who were in last place and looking to avoid relegation to finishing the league in first place, then the play offs where we finished second....I am very proud of what we achieved........
Looking back, what would you say your major achievements were?
I think the unbeaten run we went on, the way we played, we had the best defence, the best attack in the league; to see a player who was not even in the eighteen man squad before I came end up being one of the best players in the league; all four of my signings were a success and were instrumental in taking us up. Of course being promoted is the ultimate when you consider where we were and we were tipped to go down to the Third Division...there are actually a lot of positives and a lot of satisfaction for the fans, the club, the players and for me
How does this success compare to other successes you’ve had?
I think this is one of the best things I’ve achieved given the dire situation we were in and doing it in a European league is that much harder. Many of the other successes I’ve had don’t always jump out at you, although in Nepal we did am amazing thing in winning their first ever trophy at any level, and we won trophies in India too.
In Malawi I was there for 18 months and while we didn’t win trophies I brought new players into the team and laid the foundations for the success the Flames have had over the last few years; qualification to the ACN was brilliant with all of my players and my assistant coach as well! They did very well and look good for the next ACN...
Sudan was a tremendous challenge and there is great talent there, the players are willing and able to play at a higher standard that’s for sure. I tried to change the old guard as we had a squad of players where the average age was 32 and my remit was ‘build us a new team’. I went all over the Sudan and saw players that made me feel the future was bright. In my first game against Mali we drew 1-1 at home and had 5 players under 23 playing for the first time!! They are still in with a good chance to qualify for the ACN for a second consecutive time, Malawi have their fate in their own hands and hopefully they can also qualify.
I could have achieved a lot more in Sudan and Malawi if I’d had more time and more support – it’s a shame that too many African Nations don’t think more about the players and the long term picture as they would surely have much better results then they currently get. There is so much talent in Africa but too many people think about what they can get out of it themselves as opposed to what they can give!
What will be your priorities going in to the new season?
Since the club were promoted there have been quite a few changes which have given the club more stability. We’ll need to strengthen the team and the squad, and then we’ll see how it goes. My contract was up so there was an element of doubt – people can quickly forget where they were and how much has changed – but I’m happy to say all that’s been sorted out. We’ll have the smallest budget in the top division so we have a great challenge ahead of us. I’m optimistic we can build on the progress we made last season and surprise a few people. Most at the club will be happy to stay up, for me and the players we’ll be aiming much higher than that. Let’s see what happens...
What are your longer-term ambitions as a coach?
It has always been the same for me: win the next game, and coach at the highest level. For me that means a top league, Champions League, World Cup...............as high as I can go...... I believe a great deal in my abilities and I’ve shown that I’m not afraid to test myself by taking on a tough challenge.
I do feel that I’ve proven over the years what I’m capable of. With every challenge faced, and every success and achievement the desire to succeed is greater than ever. The fact I have been all over the world and done well is, I think, testament to my ability to change and adapt to my surroundings, to recognise talent, and to make a positive difference no matter how tough the circumstances or how little the resources.