Football/Soccer

'I know where I want to go, I'm trying to get there, but it hasn't happened yet. National team coach of a decent team at 37... that's not bad'

It is a journey that began back on the streets of Belfast but has led Paul Munster across Europe, India and now to the other side of the world as manager of little-known Pacific Islanders Vanuatu. Neil Loughran catches up with a man who is not afraid to travel in order to reach his destination...

IN some ways, the circumstances of his relocation to an exotic new place called home neatly sum up the adventurous, devil may care nature of Paul Munster’s footballing odyssey to date.

Irish League followers will remember him as the floppy haired, free-scoring forward whose goals helped Linfield to two titles and two Irish Cup successes during three trophy-laden years at Windsor Park around the turn of the decade.

Yet it is on shores far from the west Belfast streets where he first fell in love with the beautiful game that have splashed Munster’s journey with colour and intrigue.

After a promising youth career at Cliftonville he swapped Solitude for south-western Ontario, before stints in the Czech Republic and Sweden eventually led to a return home with David Jeffrey’s Blues.

Back amongst family and friends, and part of a successful team, Munster knows he should have felt settled, but he never did.

His gaze was always distracted by the next challenge; the next chapter. Those itchy feet just wouldn’t allow him to stand still.

Therefore, when Munster was announced as the new manager of Vanuatu – the 166th ranked team in the world - it made a weird kind of sense.

After all, this is a man who had just finished a chaotic spell criss-crossing India as head coach of I-League outfit Minerva Punjab – winning two trophies in the process - and potential opportunities had already being scouted out long before landing back in Sweden, homeland of girlfriend Desiree.

They were only there a matter of days when the call came.

“We didn’t even get to unpack our cases from India before we were away again,” he laughs.

“I had been told about the Vanuatu job and thought it sounded interesting – being honest, I had to do a search on Google to find out exactly where it was. I’d never even heard of it.

“There were two interviews then, one on Skype and another presentation interview. Over 180 people applied for the post, so you never really know what’s going to happen in that situation.

“But a few days after the second interview, they called and said I had the job. It was perfect timing really...”

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Paul Munster with former Celtic and Barcelona star Henrik Larsson during a previous managerial stint in Sweden

ACCORDING to Skyscanner, the quickest time in which you are likely to get from Belfast to Vanuatu is just shy of 35 hours. That includes stops in Singapore and Brisbane along the way before touching down, red-eyed, two days after you left.

Port Vila is the capital and largest city on the 80-plus islands that make up this stunning South Pacific archipelago where football is foremost among the languages spoken.

Vanuatu has been Paul Munster’s home since March and, unlike his previous deployment in Chandigarh, the transition was relatively straightforward.

“If you can live in India, you can live anywhere else in the world,” he says.

“I don’t like spicy food so that was a bit of a problem, whereas everything here is a bit more palatable thankfully. Then there was the traffic, which was just mental, plus you were flying here, there and everywhere across the country for games all the time.

“It was a brilliant experience, unbelievable, but I knew things were coming to an end there.

“Life here is a bit more calm. For five years in-a-row the people have been voted friendliest in the world, the islands are amazing, and the infrastructure of the football is growing.

“They’re football-mad here, honestly - it’s number one whereas in India it was cricket or football. Here, you see tops everywhere, kids playing... it’s just football, football, football.”

Only 37, it feels like no time since he was just a kid playing out on Iris Drive, banging in goals for fun past the big boys. In terms of achievement, as well as sheer distance travelled, Paul Munster has come a long way.

His was never destined to be a traditional route into the game, it seems, and it was while studying leisure and travel at Belfast Met that a different kind of opportunity first knocked.

“I’d just finished my three years at the Whiterock tech, and at the end of it I was offered an 18-week cross-community programme to go to Canada.

“It was basically a private company working in football coaching from six to 16, and after I came home they asked me to come back out.”

Still on Cliftonville’s books at the time, disaster struck when he tore knee ligaments while conducting a lesson, taking two years from his career and bringing a premature end to his time at the Reds.

As ever, though, where one door closed, another would soon open. Once back playing, Munster was offered a trial with London City, then operating in the Canadian Professional Soccer League.

He scored 25 times in just 19 games (still a Canadian record to this day) and was named rookie of the year, his goalscoring exploits drawing admiring glances from further afield.

Slavia Prague took a punt on the 22-year-old and, in November 2004, he became the first – and possibly last - Irishman to play in the Fortuna Liga, before spells with Orebro SK and Bunkeflo IF in Sweden were followed by a return to the Czech Republic with Hradec Kralove, and then Linfield.

“I wanted to play in England or Scotland. My initial aim was to go [to Linfield] for the season… I left when I was 18/19 for Canada, so they didn’t really know what I was like.

“I scored 17 goals, got fans’ player of the year. Hellas Verona contacted Linfield in the January transfer window of my last year and they rejected it. It was devastating at the time, but that ended up bringing me to Germany [with Anker Wismar] and then Sweden.

“I made the right decision because I knew then, even though I was only 30, that I wanted to be a coach.”

After successful stints with Assyriska, Orebro and BK Forward, his horizons – as well as his medal collection - were broadened in India, and last year Munster completed his Uefa pro license in Belfast alongside former Leeds and Liverpool winger Harry Kewell and South African striker Benni McCarthy.

He was the youngest of the group of new graduates, and walked away with an open mind, ready for whatever came next.

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STANDING at the window of his office inside the Vanuatu Football Federation building, Paul Munster can see miles of clear blue ocean stretching out towards the horizon; a picture postcard scene as sea meets sky, framed by lush greenery and golden beaches on all sides.

This must be what paradise looks like yet, a couple of months in, he has barely had time to sample the gifts of nature that surround him.

Instead, with the U20 and U23 sides to look after as well as Vanuatu’s senior team, Munster has been busy familiarising himself with the domestic-based players as well as those plying their trade elsewhere.

“There’s a lot of work to be done.

“I want to try and change everything in terms of mentality, the professionalism, what I’ve done as a player, as a coach and bringing it into this country.

“I have two assistant coaches, a goalkeeper coach, a technical director, an IT guy, a video guy… it’s a professional set-up. It’s a national team set-up and when I’m with the team, we’re out of town at the academy, away from any distractions. When we have training camps, that’s where the players stay.

“They’re relishing it, they want the same things I want – the federation, the players, the fans... everybody. Everybody’s excited, and it’s great because we have eight or nine guys outside, playing in Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Solomon, plus we have a lot of talent here.

“I did a background check before I got here but that’s just statistics really. Once you see them up close you see how they are – they’re actually decent players. There’s a lot of good players who have had chances to go to Europe but haven’t been able to because you need to have a certain amount of international caps before you’re granted a visa to go abroad and play.

“My aim is to get more players playing outside. A few of the teams in Australia and New Zealand are interested in some of the players so I’m pushing that.”

The oldest player in the Vanuatu squad is 36-year-old goalkeeper Chikau Mansale. The rest are generally around the early-to-mid 20s age bracket, the remoteness of their location unable to dim sporting ambitions that continue to burn brightly.

“Many of them don’t work,” says Munster.

“They train a lot and they study. Some are tour guides, some work in stores or own their own little stores, but they train three or four times a week and then they play; they really want to go higher with their football.

“So far, I’ve found them great to work with, very receptive. Most of them speak English and French, while they all have Bislamic [the native language of Vanuatu]. They generally understand what I’m saying but, if someone’s not sure, we have people there to explain.

“It’s important the players are able to understand exactly what you want.”

Next month, Vanuatu will compete in a tri-nations tournament alongside Fiji and Tahiti, before a training camp in Australia ahead of July’s Pacific Games in Samoa.

“I’m going there wanting to win it,” says Munster, matter of fact.

“There’s a lot of bigger countries ahead of us but that’s the challenge. It’s a stepping process I’ve been working on since I came here, so it’s just about building things up now, changing things on the field and off the field.

“The main aim while I’m here is to get into the World Cup qualifying. It’s very tight, you have the likes of New Zealand, and if you do get through that then you have to qualify against an African team, so it’s tough.

“But we also have the Olympics coming up – the U23 team is really strong, so that’s something I’m excited about.”

Paul Munster led I-League outfit Minerva Punjab to two trophies during his short spell in India

With age on his side, Munster knows he can afford to veer off into the unknown as he continues his coaching education.

So does he see himself following the template laid down by men like Bora Milutinovic or Philippe Troussier, spreading the gospel in developing football nations, a modern-day footballing missionary?

No, is the short answer.

“It wasn’t planned that way,” he laughs.

“You get asked every time by your friends and family, ‘where would you want to go? Where would you want to be?’ But it’s a business, it’s a working process. It’s like if you were looking for another job, it could be in another country – you just don’t know.

“After winning two trophies in India, I was like ‘where do you want to go?’ I know where I want to go, I’m trying to get there, but it hasn’t happened yet. Then I was offered the chance to become an international manager, I was thinking about it and decided 'why not?'

“I hope it can be a great step for the future in terms of what I want to achieve. National team coach of a decent team at 37... that’s not bad.”

The management game is as fickle as they come and one wrong move could leave him back on the bottom rung of the ladder. At the same time, any kind of success - particularly on the international stage - could propel him onto an entirely new plain.

That sense of risk and reward, and the chance to break new ground, therein lies the appeal.

“I’m here for two years and, in that time, you’re looking to cause shockwaves.

“That’s always my approach, no matter where I am. When I went to India there were massive expectations – everywhere I’ve been there have been expectations to do well.

“In India we won the Punjab Superleague which the club has never won. We beat East Bengal in East Bengal – this is an 80,000 stadium club. It was madness trying to leave the place to get back to the hotel. Until this day I still get people messaging me about that.

“I put pressure on myself. I want to be winning things, in contention for league titles. It’s not just about being happy or comfortable, I want to go higher.

“Of course, eventually I want to get into an elite league, but you also have to have a look and see what’s out there. There’s a lots of competition with so many coaches out of work.

“One day I’d love to end up working in the UK, that’s the dream - even if it looks as though I’m determined to get further away!”

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