From Black's Road to cup glory in Phnom Penh - the future is bright for Colum Curtis
West Belfast man Colum Curtis is making a splash in coaching circles in far-flung Cambodia. After winning the country's equivalent of the FA Cup he talks to Brendan Crossan about how he ended up becoming a local hero in Phnom Penh...
COLUM Curtis takes shelter after the skies over Phnom Penh clear following a good hard rain. It’s Saturday evening in the Cambodian capital and the night is still young.
You ask the west Belfast man and lauded Visakha FC head coach to paint a picture of his adopted city.
“There’s a yellow Bentley that has just driven past me and the next thing that passes will be a guy pushing a cart selling pineapples,” says the 31-year-old. “There is no middle class here, really.”
Since guiding Visakha to their first-ever Hun Sen Cup – the country’s equivalent to the FA Cup – earlier this month, Curtis is recognised everywhere he goes in Phnom Penh.
A 2-0 victory over NagaWorld in the cup final has well and truly put Visakha – a club formed only four years ago - firmly on the map.
While Curtis and his players have graduated to hero status in the capital and beyond, they can still go about their everyday lives with the minimum of fuss.
“The people here are so humble,” he says. “It’s not like the way it would be back home or in Europe. Some of our players would have millions of followers on social media. They would walk down the street and people would be shy to ask for a photo or an autograph. They’re not intrusive people.”
Curtis, the youngest-ever manager to claim the prestigious Hun Sen Cup – named after the long-serving and current prime minister of the country– is already preparing his side for Asia’s AFC Cup.
Curtis's rise to fame in far-flung Cambodia had modest beginnings. His elder brother James persuaded him to get involved with coaching at local west Belfast club Immaculata at just 18 years-of-age.
An attacker during his playing days with Ards, Knockbreda and Bangor, Curtis realised he had a passion for coaching and after learning his trade in the IFA and a stint in America and he moved to China in 2015.
His fiancée Sinead McGee, a schoolteacher, applied successfully for a job in Cambodia and it seemed the right fit for the couple who've been together for over 10 years.
For the past 18 months, life has been good in Phnom Penh.
“I love the lifestyle here, the diversity, the food, l love seafood, the people are very kind and friendly. I’ve a very nice apartment with a gym and a swimming pool and the weather is good.
“I like the freedom, the opportunities and the economy is growing. You can drive a short distance, jump on a boat for a half an hour and you’re in paradise. It’s a wee bit of a change from Black’s Road!”
He adds: “When I was a teenager I spent a year at Notts County and was very, very homesick. My uncles used to joke with me about being afraid to leave our own cul de sac and that I was a ‘mummy’s boy’… and then I went to America and coached there for a while.
“But once I went to China I knew I could work and coach anywhere. I love learning about new cultures and I’m obviously doing something that I love. It’s a high-pressure environment but I love it.”
Curtis worked with Jim Magilton at the IFA and also name-checks the likes of Gerard ‘Skin’ Lyttle and Regions Cup manager Harry McConkey as big influences on his fledgling coaching career.
Lyttle helped him put together his CV before interviewing for his first professional club in Cambodia – Svay Rieng – but at the end of the season he couldn’t agree terms and within three days he was snapped up by fellow C-Club Visakha FC.
Fellow Belfast man Stephen Corner has been a key part of Curtis’s backroom team - a side that boasts seven national team players, who are managed by former Japanese international Keisuke Honda.
“It’s a different style of football here,” Curtis explains.
“The players are small and a lot more technical. Before training, you would play a bit of keep-ball back home; here, they keep the ball off the ground against two players. There are teams at Championship level that mightn’t be able to do that. But their tactical understanding mightn’t be as strong, and that was my biggest challenge.
“The C-League has 12 professional clubs and they’re beginning to attract better players all the time and the fact they’re competing in the AFC Cup next month allows you to bring in a higher calibre of player.
“The footballers here would be seen as high earners. The average national wage would be less than £200 per month, so foreign players could be earning more than SPL players and they keep what they earn because they are given an apartment with a swimming pool on the roof and they’re getting everything paid for – accommodation, travel, food…
“There is no club that is self-sufficient. They all have wealthy owners and the tickets for games are $1. It’s definitely been growing even since I’ve come here. It’s an exciting place to come and be a manager.”
Thirteen hours after their historic cup win the government locked the region down after a handful of positive Covid cases were discovered.
The champagne was put on ice.
But, if his first full season in Cambodia is any barometer, Colum Curtis can look forward to champagne in a coaching career that is sure to experience more of the same.