'It's a bit different to Foynes in west Limerick' - the Irishman taking south-east Asian football by storm

After a baptism of fire, Conor Nestor has guided Svay Rieng to a championship success and has eyes on a domestic double.

IT WAS FEBRUARY 2018 when we last chatted. 

Having spent eight years as an FAI Development Officer in his native Limerick, Conor Nestor also racked up his Uefa A Licence and coached Limerick FC’s Under-19 side. But he felt it was time for a change and travelled to the US and Australia to study a litany of clubs and how they operated.

Various circumstances eventually led him to sitting at the top of a hotel room in Phnom Penh, the capital city of Cambodia, and being unveiled as the boss of league side Svay Rieng.

At 34 years of age, it was a lot to take in.

But the real baptism of fire arrived shortly after.   

“To call it a rollercoaster would be a massive cliche but it’s pretty accurate”, he says. 

“The 2018 season was Murphy’s Law. Everything that could have gone wrong went wrong. When I arrived, the players hadn’t really had an off-season so they weren’t at the fitness levels I needed them to be at and I knew I didn’t have the time to rectify that. But there was also the recruitment issue. By the time I was hired, the best players were all gone from the market. So you were scrambling to pick up what was left. Added to that, I was a new face, it was the first time they had a foreign coach and it took time for them to get used to it. After six games, we’d won two, lost two, drawn two. So, a pretty unimpressive start.”

The seventh game was against a team here called National Defence. 75 minutes gone, it’s 1-1, we’re very much on top and the lights go out. It was like a symbolic joke. When they came back on, we missed an open goal, they went down the other end and scored with a deflection. The players could see what I wanted to do with the team and they were almost willing themselves to get things right. But maybe some of that emotion spilled over because there were handbags between a South Korean on their team and one of our local players. Then, our kit-man came off the bench, one of their Japanese players punched him as he entered the field and it was like a bomb erupted. The stand practically emptied and you were talking about a full-blown riot, more or less.”

“In the moment, I was just frozen. It’s funny because we do a lot of outreach here with NGOs that use football for social inclusion and about a week later, I was doing a workshop and one of the coaches came over and said, ‘I hope you don’t mind me asking but when the riot started, I could see from the TV that you were just standing in the technical area. Why was that?’ And I kinda said, ‘Look, I’m sharing my qualifications and my experience in this workshop but in that moment, I was not prepared for it at all’”.   

The repercussions were severe and Nestor’s squad was decimated by various suspensions. He lost both his first and second-choice goalkeepers and a collection of established, high-profile Cambodian internationals. In total, half of his squad were handed 11-game bans and the season was effectively over. He tried to regroup and relied heavily on fringe players and raw, inexperienced youngsters to see him through the remainder of the campaign. And when the team seemed set to catch a break and gain some momentum, Nestor was reminded that nothing would come easily. 

“We were knocked out of the cup by National Defence in a game that went to extra-time and penalties”, he says. 

“And we missed our fifth kick in the shootout when the ball got submerged in water from the monsoon that had just happened.”

He was drained, especially having worked 20-hour days before the season had begun. Now, all that hard work had been for nothing. There were moments when the younger players delivered an impressive display and Nestor felt his message was finally getting through. Then, the next game would be too much for the group and they’d undo the good work. There was a bi-polar nature to things and he was exhausted. 

“I remember going in to meet the boss and saying ‘I quit’ because after a great performance, the next game would be the complete opposite”, he says. 

“But you get it with young players who haven’t played enough and haven’t been relied on to that extent before. There were points during the season when I was in front of the owner and saying, ‘Maybe I’m the problem? You could take me out and you might get a reaction’. But the club were adamant they wanted me until the end of the season and that they’d reassess at that point.”     

It proved a smart decision. Nestor is now a league-winning manager and on Wednesday, his team face Boeing Ket in the Hun Sen Cup final with a domestic double on the line. 

It’s been an astonishing turnaround and the only blot on the copybook came two nights ago when Svay Rieng lost their final league game of the season to Nagaworld, their first defeat of the season and which ended a run of 33 successive wins that stretched all the way back to late-2018. 

Still, Nestor is making quite the name for himself after rediscovering his own belief system and way of doing things. As a result of the league triumph, Svay Rieng will play in the AFC Cup next season, effectively Asia’s version of the Europa League.   

“In listening and learning and adapting, sometimes you betray your own values and principles”, he says. 

5dbe03e634035 Limerick man Conor Nestor celebrates after guiding Svay Rieng to the Cambodian League title.

“And that definitely happened in the first season. When you come in every day as a head coach, you set the tone. Whether you’re a screamer or more calm in your demeanour, how consistent are you in your manner? That was one thing I gained from the coaches I’ve worked with down through the years. You’re not too high in the ups and not too low in the downs. Finding that consistency. In the low moments, we didn’t dwell. We dealt with it and moved on. At the end of last season, it was really tricky because I had to let ten people go between players and staff. Every club says they’re like a family but it genuinely is here. It’s part of the culture. They’re very close and they don’t want to offend. But I had to say goodbye to ten people. And those remaining had to look at themselves a bit. In 2018, it was listen and learn mode. But at the end of the season, it was ‘This is the direction we’re heading so who’s willing to follow?’”

“We had to get it through to the players that football is an emotional game but we’re expected to keep control. There were tough moments in the immediate aftermath but they learned something very valuable from it. But heading into pre-season this year, I had a feeling the players were hungry and kinda hurt about the whole situation and felt we might do something. There’s been so many days when we could have lost. But instead of being emotional with 15 minutes to go, they’ve been structured.”

It’s helped too that Nestor is settled. The first season was a haze of chaos and with the priority being two-pronged – shepherding the side through a sensitive time while making sure results were relatively stable – there was no time to embrace the radically different surroundings and putting down some roots. This time, there’s been more stability. And he’s been able to appreciate it.    

“Last year, my issue was living”, he says. 

“It was 20-hour days and it was manic. But this year, we had a good pre-season under our belts. And straightaway, the food tasted different and the music sounded better. You get used to it. It’s pretty different to Foynes in west Limerick. There’s probably five or six things a day that remind you of that. But you get a bit immune to it and forget about it a little.”  

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“I’m not interested in cashing out on this success. When I worked with the FAI, I stayed for nearly 10 years because it was about whether we could build something. And I have the same feeling here. Cambodia is in no way like back home. But when I got here and watched the football, it was like stepping back to late-80s Ireland in terms of the affect the Cambodian team had on the national psyche. You can see it. You’re waiting for somebody to light the match. Football is in the hearts and minds of the people and they have a real love for the game. Keisuke Honda is the general manager of the national team here and they drew with Hong Kong, which they’d never done before, and they lost to a last-minute goal against Bahrain, who have a few players in the Champions League and playing in Europe. That’s an indicator that something is happening here. It might take a little more investment and a few things might have to happen all at once but something is ready to go. Four of my boys are in the national team and it’s about whether I can get more to make that step and be part of something bigger.”

Screen Shot 2019-11-02 at 18.35.00 Owing to Svay Rieng's league win, they'll be playing in the AFC Cup next year - the Asian equivalent of the Europa League.

Owing to Svay Rieng’s success, Nestor’s profile has continued to rise, though he still can’t quite shift the nickname dished out to him during the early part of last season.

“The team were still playing the old style and I don’t think I was in full control of my emotions”, he says. 

I was pretty animated on the bench and the TV cameras picked up on it. So, in their local Khmer language, they gave me the nickname of ‘Angry Nestor’. I’ve a good friend who told me once that if you get a name for getting up early, you can get up any time you want. And that’s how I feel now. I smile every time we score a goal and I might be laughing and joking but the cameras only pan towards me when I’ve got a big angry look on my face.”

“I was meeting a friend for lunch a few weeks ago. I was walking past a Tuk-Tuk (motorised rickshaw) and the driver is looking and staring at me a bit. It was a pretty heavy tourist area so there was quite a few people around. And the guy says, ‘Oh, I know you’. And a few tourists look around. And then he goes, pretty loudly too, ‘You’re the angry guy from TV’. And I just kinda nodded my head and said, ‘Yeah, that’s me’. At this point I can’t really fight the stereotype.”

Screen Shot 2019-11-02 at 18.39.15 Conor Nestor celebrating the league win with a friend from home who'd made the trek to Cambodia.

With Svay Rieng games available to watch on Facebook, Nestor’s friends and family have been able to tune in and stay updated. And one person in particular has become an obsessive fan of the club. 

“My Mum, who’s in her seventies, has flown 2500 kilometres to be here and watch the final games of the season, along with my sister and brother in-law”, he says. 

It’s the first time family members have come over. And because you need Facebook to watch our games, the mother has set up her own profile now. She’s a top fan of the official club page and always leaving comments of inspiration for our players and fans alike. Since arriving, she’s already the most popular Nestor here by far.” 

“Outside of family and friends, the only thing I really miss about home is a proper pint of Guinness. They have bottles over here and you see a lot of the locals having them but I guess I’m a purist in that sense. I’m still waiting for that invention that can get me a proper draught delivered over here. I haven’t been home in two-and-a-half years. I would’ve gone back at the end of last season but we’d had that nightmare campaign. It was all hands on deck and even if I had gone back, I don’t think I would’ve been present. It would’ve been a bit of a wasted journey. But I’m hoping the next few weeks go well and I can go back without any semblance of ‘Angry Nestor’ and just enjoy being home.”    

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About the author:

Eoin O'Callaghan

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