Exclusive Interview with Sint Truiden’s Chris O’Loughlin
There was a time when British and Irish managers pioneered coaching methods across foreign lands with names such as Patrick O’Connell, Jimmy Hogan, Sir Bobby Robson and John Toshhack being just some examples of managers who enjoyed successful spells abroad.
These days however, Limerick born Chris O’Loughlin represents one of just two coaches who are currently flying the flag for British and Irish coaches managing in UEFA’s Top 10 highest ranked leagues (aside from the English Premier League) – along with Valencia boss, Gary Neville.
The 37-year-old currently manages Sint-Truiden in the Belgian Pro League and whilst he can understand why some coaches are apprehensive about making the step into the unknown, he believes it is something which should be pursued.
“You can do all the language courses but there are some expressions which we have in English football that do not translate here, as they just aren’t part of the culture for the players here.”
“However when you look at the reverse and see all these foreign managers that have come into the English game who have grown into it and adapted successfully, I think more people should be trying it (managing abroad). You need to be open-minded.”
O’Loughlin’s route into European management has been unconventional to say the least, forging a career in coaching through spells in South Africa (where he spent much of his childhood), Congo and Australia; working in various coaching capacities along the way.
Having failed to make the grade as a Professional Footballer with years spent around the Semi-Professional circuit, playing for Cliftonville and Larne amongst others, O’Loughlin saw football management as the antidote to fulfil his ambitions and in 2005 he gained his UEFA B License.
After discussions with his wife he decided to uproot his family from their home in Belfast and take the bold decision to move back to South Africa, where he hoped to gain work off the back of the announcement that the country would be hosting the first ever World Cup on the continent in 2010.
Opportunities however were scarce and it took O’Loughlin two years to gain a foothold within full-time coaching.
“There were a lot of difficult moments. A lot of groundwork was put in, a lot of driving around and coaching for free, coaching ex-pros (free agents), getting involved in a team and not taking a salary to prove there was something there. Eventually through networking, opportunities started to come and the right people took an interest in what I was doing.”
It was Bibey Mutombo who gave him the opportunity to impress, offering him the role as his Assistant Manager in 2007 at arguably South Africa’s most famous club, Orlando Pirates.
However months after his appointment as Orlando Pirates boss, Mutombo decided the pressure was too much for him and he promptly returned to his native, war-torn Congo – where he would return to AS Vita having failed to settle during his stint in South Africa.
O’Loughlin was consequently dismissed by the club, which ultimately led to a stint as an academy coach at Supersport United which left him yearning for a return to senior coaching.
“Once you’ve had that first team experience, once you’ve had that intensity of first team football, you can’t push youth players the same way. I wasn’t fulfilled and I went to Spain in 2008 for two weeks to spend time with Valencia and Espanyol. The passion, I wanted first team football.”
Whilst the pursuit for first-team coaching lead O’Loughlin to travel and network around Europe, back in Congo it came to light that Mutombo was seriously ill and he would have to give up his role at AS Vita.
Mutombo (who has since sadly passed away) was an iconic figure at the club and when asked for his recommendation as to who should succeed him, he put forward the name Chris O’Loughlin.
Still networking, O’Loughlin was just about to board a flight from London to Girona when he received a phone call – it was the General of the Congolese Army offering him the AS Vita job.
“At that time in the East things were really bad in Congo, they’re always bad, but this time it was particularly flaring up and I remember seeing in my hotel at the time pictures on BBC News of the war in Congo.”
“I said I couldn’t accept the job given the circumstances in Congo and they started laughing at me! They told me where the club was located and where the problems were was like being in London and the war was happening in Rome.”
With offers of work in short supply, O’Loughlin rekindled the connection with the Congolese general and asked whether he could still be considered for the vacancy. He was swiftly appointed.
“I didn’t know what to expect until I physically arrived there, the reason I took it was I got the chance to play in continental Africa (CAF Cup), I was coaching senior players and it’s first team football, managing in front of 80,000 people.”
“I said to my wife one picture speaks a thousand words. Imagine standing with those 80,000 and there’s a picture taken, for my ultimate goal which was to come to Europe that shows that you can handle pressure.”
O’Loughlin thrived with AS Vita winning the Provincial League and finishing third in the National League. The biggest story however was reaching the Quarter-Finals of the CAF Cup – the African equivalent of the Europa League.
However such accomplishments effectively came at a cost, with O’Loughlin’s VISA controversially being blocked prior to AS Vita’s 2nd leg Quarter-Final clash in the CAF Cup. Left unable to travel with or manage his team, O’Loughlin was left seething when his team went on to lose the tie 1-0.
“I left the next day and I said I would never go back I was so angry, I felt betrayed after all my hard work and my sacrifice, barely seeing my wife and kids.”
This led to further journeys across Europe in search of new training methods and networking opportunities which took O’Loughlin around Holland, Portugal and Serbia. He also spent time with Jim Magilton at QPR, which in the long-run would become an invaluable link.
In the meantime AS Vita came calling again in January 2011, which surprisingly led to another stint at the club. Chris led the Congolese giants to another title challenge which went down to the final day of the season. They just needed a win and they would be champions, but a 0-0 draw was all they could muster.
“Prior to the game I walked out into the stadium and there were about 50,000 in there that day and they were singing my name and all that stuff, we drew 0-0 and afterwards a riot broke out and we had to leave in army trucks. That was enough for me.”
Out of work again, O’Loughlin was this time in a much better position thanks to the links he’d formed via networking. Jim Magilton was soon in touch in regards to joining him at Melbourne Victory as his assistant manager, which saw O’Loughlin coach and work with the likes of Harry Kewell and Kevin Muscat.
Another link and friendship eventually led to another opportunity arising, this time in Europe with Yannick Ferreira – who he came into contact with during the early days of LinkedIn. Ferreira offered him the chance to join his coaching set-up at Sint-Truiden which he snapped up immediately.
O’Loughlin assisted Ferreira and together they achieved promotion to the Belgian Pro League. The newly promoted outfit took the opening weeks of this season by storm, which ultimately led to Standard Liege taking a huge interest in Ferreira who subsequently joined the club.
Whilst there was an offer to follow his friend to Liege, Sint-Truiden were quick to offer O’Loughlin his first managerial role within European football – something they have history for with current Belgian boss Marc Wilmots gaining his first steps into management with the club.
There have been subsequent links to English football with Charlton Athletic touted as a possible destination – links which were dismissed by O’Loughlin as “complete speculation”. He has however admitted that one day he would like to manage in England.
“The goal in the future is to go across to England. Why? Because something that can’t be replaced wherever I’ve gone is that football culture. If you grow up on your whole life on a certain type of football culture, of course you want to experience that different type of intensity.”
After a decade of devotion, hard-work and sacrifice O’Loughlin is rightfully proud to have reached his dream of managing in Europe.
However there will be no resting on his laurels, with O’Loughlin’s ambitions and desire to improve so clear to see, it’s almost infectious – something which Sint-Truiden will value highly in the coming months.