Shadab Iftikhar: From Belgium role to Fort William manager’s job – BBC News

Shadab Iftikhar takes over Fort William with the club eight points adrift at the foot of the Highland League
Shadab Iftikhar takes over Fort William with the club eight points adrift at the foot of the Highland League

From the top of Fifa’s world rankings with Belgium, to the bottom of Scotland’s Highland League with Fort William, seems an absurd career move.

But it’s entirely in keeping with a fantastical journey that has taken Shadab Iftikhar from obscurity to the Premier League, then Mongolia, Samoa, and on to Euro 2020 with Belgium.

The 31-year-old British-Pakistani has swapped a scouting role with Roberto Martinez’s superstar-packed Belgium for a survival scrap in Scotland’s sixth tier as Fort William’s new manager.

Iftikhar may need all the help he can get at the perennial strugglers, who have a solitary point from 18 games.

So it’s just as well he’ll be tapping into the knowledge of Martinez – “the best man on the planet” – and his Belgium coaches, who include former Scotland forward Shaun Maloney.

“We are scheduled to speak later today,” Iftikhar tells BBC Scotland. “I am sure he [Martinez] is going to come out with some stuff during the season.

“To be able to go to people like that [Martinez and Maloney] is priceless and it is one of the reasons why I am so confident we will be successful at Fort William.”

‘I decided at 17 I wanted to be a football manager’

So how did a guy with no background in the game end up doing scouting work for Martinez at Wigan Athletic, Everton, then Belgium?

The answer lies outside Wigan’s training ground where Iftikhar, then in his late teens and bitten by the Football Manager bug, decided to chance his luck. He was determined to meet Martinez – and wouldn’t budge until he had done so.

“At 17 years of age I made the decision that I wanted to be a manager,” he says. “I produced a dossier on how to beat Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona, and I wanted to show what I could do.

“I was fascinated by Martinez, how he was playing such good football at Wigan and surviving and doing really well, and I just felt he was the type of manager I could learn so much from.

“Luckily someone who knew me from my coaching badges worked at Wigan. He spoke to Roberto, who agreed to meet after training. My friend gave him my stuff and by the time I got to the meeting with the gaffer he knew me better than I knew him, and I started producing scout reports for him.

“I never got paid but what an absolute education. To this day I am so grateful to him, any time I have needed him he has always been there.”

Roberto Martinez enlisted Shadab Iftikhar for scouting reports in preparation for this year's Euro 2020 where Belgium lost to eventual champions Italy in the last eight
Roberto Martinez enlisted Shadab Iftikhar for scouting reports in preparation for this year’s Euro 2020 where Belgium lost to eventual champions Italy in the last eight

Iftikhar followed the Spaniard to Everton before far-flung destinations beckoned as he fulfilled his management dream.

Having gained his Uefa A licence when he was just 22, he became a head coach of Bayangol FC in for their inaugural Mongolian Premier League season.

British coach Paul Watson had set up the team from scratch, serving as co-chairman, and Iftikhar plunged into the adventure more than 4,000 miles from his Lancashire home, later rising to assistant with the Mongolia national side.

“The education I’d had at Everton and Wigan put me in good stead over there, he says. “A brilliant experience, great to go to another country, embrace it, understand that culture of football.

“We did a good job and then became the national team coaches as well, so that was really good for us, to bring a period of success that hadn’t been normal for the Mongolian national team.

“It is a country that will always be close to my heart because of what they gave me, it was a really good time.”

‘I believe Fort’s future is bright’

His time in Samoa was far briefer, with his family failing to settle. And once back in England, Iftikhar turned to his mentor Martinez where the offer to compile scouting reports for Belgium’s tilt at the Euro 2020 crown was gladly accepted.

“I was very lucky to go to the games and the way Roberto develops you, one conversation with him is an education, it is priceless,” he adds.

“I remember watching a game with him once and he spotted things within four or five minutes that I wouldn’t have spotted in four or five years. You come out a better manager.”

Iftikhar now hopes to put that education to use at Fort William where, because of work commitments, his first game in charge won’t be until the end of December.

He landed one of Scottish football’s toughest jobs thanks to a “chance” meeting in Lancashire with chairman John Trew.

Fort are eight points adrift at the bottom and fighting to avoid a play-off where defeat would drop them out of the Highland League. It’s a challenge Iftikhar can’t wait to get his teeth into.

“Fort William is a beautiful place, great people,” he added. “I can’t wait to go to the bakery, that is the first place I am going when I get there.

“I’ve done a lot of research, I am not an expert, I know Fort William have gone through a difficult period, but I 100% believe the future is bright. I truly believe in the players there, I truly believe in the project.”

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