Alistair Heath explains his decision to leave Leicester City’s academy to become the manager of Angkor Tiger in the Cambodian Premier League and reveals what he has learned from the experience of taking his first managerial job abroad
Alistair Heath worked in Leicester City’s academy but wanted a taste of management
Alistair Heath was working in Leicester City’s academy but the young coach wanted something more. It is that desire to make the move into football management that has taken him on a journey to the Cambodian Premier League
For the past year, he has been in Siem Reap – more famous as the gateway to Angkor Wat, the largest religious monument in the world – as the manager of Angkor Tiger. It is a role that has tested him on the pitch and off it but Heath has no regrets about his decision.
“I am a football manager,” he tells Sky Sports. “If you ask 95 per cent of people in England if they would move to Cambodia you would probably get a lot of negative answers because it is not on a lot of people’s lists. But this is what I have set out to be since I was 17.
“I did not have the fortune to play football professionally. The offer came and it was not something that I could turn down. Football management is tough. There have been a lot of sacrifices but it is probably the best decision that I have ever made.”
He took a pay cut for this opportunity and acknowledges that was a gamble. “If I get the sack, what am I going to do? It was a risk but you have to take the risk, don’t you, for the chance to get on?” There is not a long list of support staff for him to lean on either.
He has a Japanese assistant. “He is 28. A good lad.” His German fitness coach doubles up as the physiotherapist. The side’s forward, Leicester academy graduate Jozsef Keaveny, has been a useful sounding board despite being only 22. “There is not a big team.”
But this is the path that he has chosen for himself. A former Birmingham City season-ticket holder – “I learned nothing watching them!” – his journey began as a teenager coaching Buxton’s under-nines. “Even then, I was adamant I wanted to be a manager.”
Two-and-a-half years were spent on a project coaching Thailand national team players aged from 16 to 21 as part of an initiative within Leicester’s academy. When the pandemic ended that, Heath, 37, took up a role with the Premier League side’s U14 age group.
“It was a good experience but I wanted to manage. Academies are all about player development, which is fine, but I love the thrill of winning a game of football. That buzz of being in charge of that team is something that I cannot get anywhere else.
“I am like it when I play any sport. I run and I cycle. I swim but after 10 lengths I am bored. I prefer squash or racquetball. I need a sport where you are playing for points. It is all about that competitive nature. It is that 90 minutes in a different zone. I cannot explain it.
“So I got myself an agent and something in Cambodia came up and we started talking. I managed to get an interview but I did not think it would go far. I have been to Thailand so many times through work, I thought it would be the same but it is very different.
“I am working with a lot of players who have never left Cambodia. They know what they know and if you tell them to turn up at 8am, they are going to turn up at 7.45am. They work hard and will never stop. They keep going and going. But improvement is needed.”
On the pitch, it has been an education. The team is sixth in the eight-team Cambodian Premier League, at no risk of relegation but playing merely for pride with two games remaining. With crowds in excess of 3,000 people, there can be no let up.
“Early on, I thought we overachieved a little bit. We were attacking well. There was a lot of work to implement the style that I wanted and the highs outweighed the lows. Then injuries hit, confidence was hit, and all of a sudden we were conceding goals.
“It would not be an exaggeration to say that I have learned something every day. How to talk to players and manage different personalities. What to say and when to say it. Building the best squad. Dealing with losing. How to get that team-talk right.
“The big challenge is making decisions alone. I am questioning myself all the time because there is nobody else. I can speak to people back home but they can only give their opinion based on what I am saying not what they are seeing. I have had to criticise myself a lot.”
He has enjoyed the support of the people. “I have been fortunate. The fans have been great with me. I interact with them a lot, I get stopped when walking around town. We might not have the budget to match that but the interest is absolutely there.”
But the biggest challenges have been away from football.
“From a tourist point of view, you would look at it very differently. Angkor Wat is the main point of interest, of course. People go on holiday and think, ‘I could live here.’ Nine times out of 10, they couldn’t. Living here is difficult. It has been a tough way to learn.
“Being on my own. I have not got that support network around me. It is tough. Socially, it is difficult. I am a manager so I have to be careful if I go out. I don’t drink. I take care of myself anyway but I certainly want to project a good image in terms of what I do.
“You have to be very single-minded to do this and be prepared that day-to-day life is going to be changed. You are out of your comfort zone and it is called the comfort zone for a reason – it is comfortable. You are breaking that. I found it difficult but I have done it.
“I miss the activities in England, my mates, the sports that I played. You appreciate those things more when you don’t do them. You suddenly lose a large part of what you do. How do you fill that void?
“I fill it by thinking about what I can do differently on the football field. Football management is 24/7. It has to be because there is always more that you can do and it has been constant football here. I have been shut away from everything else.”
He is sure he will emerge from the experience better for it.
“I am confident,” concludes Heath. “I have the belief. If I had started management in Europe, it would have been tough but here it is extra difficult. I feel that what I have been doing this season with no support network can act as the stepping-stone.
“I have just applied for the Pro Licence in Ireland. That opens doors. I want to manage at the highest level I can and I would like to manage in another country at some point. Let’s face it, doing what I have done, I have shown that I am prepared to manage anywhere.”