Didier Agathe, the former Celtic winger, is determined to forge a top-flight career in management but is still smarting from a sobering introduction to coaching.
The 45-year-old left Durham last October after seven months in the job after taking just one point from nine games in the Northern league. Agathe, however, has revealed the true extent of what went on at the club as he was left to assume responsibility for a host of teenagers that he had brought to the club from France and whom he feared would be left homeless after the club did not pay their salaries.
Agathe was forced to use his own savings to pay for food and rent for the players while also funding basics such as pitch hire and transport to games such was the lack of organisation and finance at Durham.
“It was very, very difficult because of things going on that were out of my control,” said Agathe. “People may look at it and think that I am using that to hide behind results but that is not the case. I do not want to divulge everything that went on but what I can say is how difficult it was to work in.
“I brought over a group of promising young players from France and La Reunion all between the ages of 18-21 and all with the blessing of the club. But from the very earliest days it was obvious that there was so much not right.
“One of the players had come from Holland but had been told he had to sign a tenancy agreement with a landlord before he came in. Then he arrived and there was no wages for him.
“There was no pitch to train on. I had to pay to hire a pitch. One day I had to jump over a fence just to get access to a pitch we could use. There was no physio so I was paying myself for anyone who needed treatment.
“But it got much worse when it became clear that the club could not afford to pay wages. I told them to pay the players and not pay me if it was a choice between the two. I was driving a mini-bus from 7am every day to pick people up. I was paying for taxis to get everyone to games. I was paying for everyone to go to the gym so we could try to work there. There were no facilities, no means of preparing for games.
“And then when it became clear that the players, who I had helped to bring over, could not pay their rent and had no money for food, then I paid for that too. Not because I wanted to be covered in glory or anything like that but because I felt like I could not abandon them.
“Can you imagine telling parents of young people to trust you enough to allow their child to come and try and forge a professional career playing football and you leave them with nowhere to go and no job? I had to go and speak to their landlords and explain the situation.
“In my own career there were managers and coaches I worked with, like Martin O’Neill, for whom the human connection was more important than careers. That is how I felt. I could not leave players with very little English to have to fight for their survival here.
“One of the players actually came to me one day and told me that I had done more for him than his own Dad had. In some ways, that is what the role became. I was like a father figure trying to work out what was for the best.
“When Durham sacked me some of the players were in tears in the dressing room. It would have been the easiest thing in the world for me to go home to my family in La Reunion and forget about the mess at the club. But I couldn’t just turn my back on the players I had helped to bring to the country.”
Agathe remains optimistic that he can recover from a difficult opening chapter to his managerial career and can progress as a coach. He already has his ‘A’ license and will now work towards his pro-license and is keen to remain in the UK as he looks to broaden his coaching experience.
“My ambition as a player was to go and play at the highest level I could and it is the same as a manager; I want to go as high as I possible can,” he said. “But I have to learn to run before I can walk. I need to learn everything about coaching and management and also I need to improve my English too. After my playing career had finished I went back to work on my academy in La Reunion and so I was speaking French every day.
“I completed by ‘A’ licence in Belfast and I want to do my pro-license in English too. I could go back and do it in France but in some ways it feels a bit lazy. I would like to work in the UK and so I want to be able to communicate easily.
“That is why I am so grateful to Park View Academy. They have given the boys an opportunity to continue to play football while doing some studying and it is a chance for me now to get back in and concentrate on coaching and helping to develop players. The facilities are excellent and everything is taken care of so I can focus on the football side of things.”