Interview with Adam Owen, the Wales fitness coach now doubling as Lechia Gdansk boss.
Adam Owen will not forget his first Polish derby. Flavio Paixao’s goal in the fifth minute of stoppage time gave his Lechia Gdansk team their first win away at rivals Arka Gdynia in over nine years. It was an eerie moment given that the sell-out crowd did not include a single visiting supporter – banned after flares were fired from both ends in last year’s fixture.
“None of our fans were allowed to travel so it was very hostile,” Owen tells Sky Sports. “I am told it is the biggest derby in Polish football in terms of hostility but the best bit for me was seeing the 2,000 fans back at our training ground after the game with their flares. It was incredible actually. Seeing what that game meant to the fans was eye-opening.”
It is just the latest new experience for Owen since pitching up in Poland in the summer. Initially, the long-time fitness coach for the Wales national team, a holder of both the UEFA Pro Licence and a PhD in sport science, was brought in as an assistant manager to Piotr Novak. But when the boss moved on in late September following a difficult start to the season, it was Owen who was asked to step up.
“It’s been a rollercoaster,” he admits and it is easy to see why. His first game in charge brought a win against the team who were top. The second saw them lose narrowly at Legia Warsaw. His side came from behind to earn a 3-3 draw at Lech Poznan despite being down to 10 men but then got thrashed 5-0 at home next time out. Then came the derby win.
Owen, 37, is enjoying the ride even if it is not quite what he signed up for. “The president just called me in after the tenth game and asked me if I would take the team,” he explains. “It was a bit of a shock because I had never thought too much about being a head coach previously. It had always been assistant or director of performance.
“But I suppose I had been doing more and more coaching in the build-up to the previous manager leaving his position. This was the opportunity to take the team, the chance to shape a few more things in the direction that I wanted to go. I did think it would happen at some point in my career but just not as quickly as it has.”
Owen’s career is one that shows he is willing to take himself out of his comfort zone. Since serving as Rangers’ head of sport science, where he was part of the management team that reached the 2008 Europa League final, he has also taken up positions as director of performance at Swiss club Servette and worked as a researcher for Benfica’s famed lab. “It’s always been about travelling and trying to learn from different cultures,” he says.
But this is a particularly daunting challenge and not just because he finds himself in charge of senior professionals such as former Juventus winger Milos Krasic. Owen is well aware that he has stepped into a very different role from what he was used to. There, process and infrastructure are key. For the football manager, everything is governed by the short term.
“It’s strange given the methodical way that I have worked previously,” he says. “Trying to come at it from a performance perspective is obviously a little bit different. I was at Rangers for seven years so that gives you time to develop a structure and leave the club in a better shape. But as soon as you step into this role, you obviously don’t get that kind of time.”
As a result, Owen is combining the job with the Wales duties that took him to the semi-finals of the European Championships last year. “In management a couple of bad games can change things dramatically and you’re out of a job,” he says. “The Wales job is one I have been doing and enjoying for nearly 10 years and something I take great pride in, so it’s certainly not something I want to be giving up.”
Indeed, he still leans on Chris Coleman for support. “I am really fortunate because he has been good with me and given me a lot of advice about managing abroad,” he adds. “Steve McClaren called me the other day so I spoke to him about it too. They have been really good in terms of telling me to do it my own way and make my own decisions.”
It is a reminder that, as a British manager abroad, Owen is in a fairly exclusive club now. “I’m 37 years old and I’ve got a manager’s job in one of the top leagues overseas,” he says. “It’s quite a challenge if I am honest with you. It’s not easy, but it’s one I’m enjoying and trying to embrace for however long this career stage lasts.” With Lechia Gdansk still in the bottom half of the table, there is work to do for this new-look team.
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“They finished fourth last season and then sold players on,” says Owen. “The whole squad had changed around with a lot of players coming and a lot of players leaving so it is a transitional period. That made it more difficult for the previous manager. It’s a totally different squad now with a lot of younger players and the task is to get them going again.
“The players are more content right now but I am very aware that when you take over you get a bit of a bounce effect. If you look at the majority of managerial changes, it’s about keeping that bounce effect and keeping them with you. That’s where I am at the moment, looking to keep things moving up to the winter break.”
“I am learning on the job but I am very fortunate to have been in the game a long time and be able to call on the experience of different managers. It’s just a great experience in a wonderful city and it is one that I am going to enjoy.” Another night or two like Adam Owen’s first taste of a Polish derby and that should be guaranteed.