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DARREN EXCLUSIVE: I was there to win SAFF Championship, but I never got the chance

Former Australian National Team player Darren Stewart was appointed the head coach of Maldives with two main tasks; Qualifying for the Asian Cup 2019 and winning SAFF Championship 2018. Football Association of Maldives decided to part with him even before the main assigned task was not started. Darren’s contract with FAM expired at the end of last February and FAM has decided not to renew the contract with him.

Darren spoke with Maldivesoccer.com about his time as the head coach of Maldives.

The contract between you and FAM expired at the end of February 2018. Why did they not renewed the contract (especially when the main task assigned for you was to win SAFF Championship 2018?)

The results in the Asian Cup Qualifiers were not of the standard that as a coach I, the players, Bassam and most importantly the very faithful Maldivian fans deserve. In saying that if we are all honest with ourselves we were never really going to qualify with strong teams like Oman and Palestine in our group but the margin, especially the last match is no excuse. So, Bassam and I basically agreed to mutually not extend my contract especially since the SAFF championship is not until December 2018. But yes, the main target was the SAFFF Championship. Which I have no doubt we would have reached the final as all the teams are on our strength and fitness levels but we have more talented players.

In term of results, Maldives have had the worst in the recent days conceding a lot of goals. What was the reason for the poor result during your time?

I take full responsibility for any results. We had to change our tactics for Oman away match without a match to try them in, no excuse my fault totally. The last match v Palestine we had no chance with the travel arrangements, travelling time was 36 hours then play next day at 4pm against group winners. I felt for the players. Many of the goals were due to individual mistakes from total fatigue, there is no way I blame the lads. I am the coach, blame me.

You can only experience what they went through on that trip to totally understand and that is why I will always back the lads as they gave their all, what else can a coach ask for, the result was poor but bad preparation equals poor performance.

You had the schedule earlier. You could have arranged the travel easier. Aren’t you or FAM aware of the travel arrangements and travel difficulties? You could not have faced the travel difficulties if you had travelled earlier. Right?

Very true as the draw was out mid-January I believe for Asian Cup BUT the Male schedule had been organised already so basically, we worked hard around that. This was a suggestion I put forward for 2018, plan National Team Schedule first then fit Male schedule around this. Weather or not this is a good idea or not I felt it would benefit the Nation. As I mentioned without doubt our planning WE ALL could have done better.

During your last days in Maldives, once you had to put a goalkeeper in the National team bench, who did not sit in the bench of his club for entire league. Especially not giving the chance to a goal keeper who played seven or eight games. Why?

Regarding the goalkeeper I think Aslam explained this. I basically relied on his expert advice on all goalkeepers for every match. Even ever training I would ask him how he thinks they are doing. He is a tremendous coach and knows Maldives goalkeepers far better than me given that the majority of goalkeepers in Male League are foreigners.

How was the relationship between you and the management of FAM especially the National Team Committee? Did they evaluate the performance and did you have to be accountable for them?

I had a fantastic relationship with the Chairman, Ali Nashid, and all my staff from Imma to Raifu. Mor my team manager was brilliant and my relationship with Bassam and 99% of FAM staff was great. They are really good people.

I handed the National Team committee every match both pre-analysis and post analysis in detail of every match.

Was there any influence by anyone in the selection of National squad during your time?

Absolutely not at any time. I solely picked every squad, every first team, substitutes etc. Of course, I consulted with Ali and Imma and goalkeeping coach Aslam. They gave great support and I am not a big head who thinks he knows everything. For example, the president Mr Bassam did not even know the teams as he said it’s my job, which I really appreciated. He is a great President to work for.

Did you get the required trainings locally and abroad (friendly matches) as per your request?

This is an area that must be addressed to progress to the next level (Asian Cup). We need to be fitter and stronger to start with and with ALL due respect playing Island teams before away matches to Oman and Palestine is not what I would say is ideal. Preparation was asked for but I feel the Asian cup came along quickly and too be honest we all could have done a better job in preparing to qualify. The National Team Committee passed on our thought’s but for whatever reason this did not go to plan. But I really hope we will all learn from this and hopefully in the future we won’t make the same mistakes again both on and off the pitch.

FAM got invitations to play friendly matches, but they did not accept making excuses such as medical issues and all?

No, I don’t believe we were invited too many friendly matches as most other Nations had planned earlier for this tournament. People forget this was the first time Maldives have qualified for the Asian qualifiers. And I am very having to have been a small part of that process.

Who has to be responsible for the poor performance and the result?

Myself and myself ONLY. Definitely NOT the players. I am responsible for the poor performance

Were you under any kind of pressure during your time?

Not from outsiders, I always put pressure on myself as a coach.

So how would you describe the time as the head coach of Maldives. A good experience or a bad experience? Did you regret anything at your time here?

Brilliant experience and met some great people that I am very thankful for. My only regret would be not asking to extend my contract to the SAFF championship as that was my main target. To qualify for Asian cup was a long shot.

What would you recall most from the time you spent here?

The players without doubt were a magnificent bunch of lads that were and absolute pleasure to work with. Plus there was absolutely no interference form Bassam or Ali in my team selections etc and that is why I take full responsibility.

Whats your next job?

I have had an interview with an A League club plus a few M league clubs but obviously I cannot reveal the names just yet.

Well, thank you for giving us some time.

As I have mentioned many times I do not blame anyone. I accept the responsibility totally.

But I truly want Maldives football to improve as I really enjoyed my time there and met some very good people.

We need to learn proper pre-seasons for the teams, get a top-class fitness man in, like Zinan and use his knowledge and brilliant gym facilities.

We can match Bangladesh, Laos, Singapore, Malaysia, India, etc without changing to much as all these teams are level with us on fitness and strength but we can’t match the Oman’s, Palestine, Jordan without more work, a lot more.

Oman had 5 weeks preparing to play us in Austria and Palestine 1 month in Qatar. We need this and slowly but surely, we will match them in the future.

I feel most importantly the clubs have a duty to work with Bassam and Jawaz not against them for the betterment of Maldives football. Because it’s not about individuals, it is about the whole passionate nation, they deserve better.

Finally thank you to everyone in Maldives FAM, well, 99% of them and a massive thank you to Mo, Ali, my staff and especially all the great players I worked with. Good lads both on and off the pitch.

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