The Limerick man, a Group of Death and chasing big dreams in Asian football

AFTER CONOR NESTOR won the Cambodian championship in just his second season in charge of Svay Rieng, he was looking forward to a Christmas break back home: his first time in Limerick in two-and-a-half-years. 

Inevitably, it proved too short a stint. 

“I barely left Foynes, to be honest,” he says with a laugh. 

“I was relaxing in the house and then down in the local to catch up with everyone. Social media can be great in terms of being able to see the interest in what I’m doing but there’s nothing like meeting everybody – especially the different generations – and seeing how captivated they are with this kinda random story.”

But in between the pints, Nestor was still on the clock and already knee-deep in preparations for the new campaign.   

“I was recruiting a fitness coach so I found myself on Skype chatting to Spaniards in China and English guys in Singapore but that’s par for the course.”

Everything has been upped a notch after the title success. And last week, Svay Rieng booked their place in the AFC Cup after a play-off victory over Laos side Master 7. 

That’s big business, especially for a Cambodian club. The continent’s secondary competition (think Europa League) gives Svay Rieng and Nestor the chance to pit themselves against some heavyweights for the first time in their history. But, they’ve been handed an intimidating task in Group G. Still, Nestor believes a strong showing later this month in the opening fixture against Ceres-Negros, a high-profile Philippines outfit, can give them some momentum for the remaining games against Bali United and Vietnamese club Than Quang Ninh.     

“Ceres-Negros are the top-ranked south-east Asian team in the AFC, which includes teams in the Asian Champions League,” he says. 

“They just narrowly lost to FC Tokyo in the Champions League play-off and they’re kinda the Barcelona of the AFC Cup, really, as they’re almost always in the semi-finals. Also, they have quite a lot of Spanish players and the majority of the squad have grown up in Europe and been part of European academies. They have a budget that’s five times bigger than ours.”

Nestor guided Svay Rieng to a league championship last season.

“Bali United play in front of 25,000 at every home game. And Than Quang Ninh would be the third-best team in Vietnam, a country that’s probably ranked number two in south-east Asia. So that’s our task. It’s a complete Group of Death, like. On paper, we don’t have a hope. But, that’s not the way we’ll approach it. We know how we’ll take on every game already. Ceres is the biggest possible test we could have had in the entire tournament. So, if we can get it right in the first game, we’re hoping there’s a knock-on effect.”

For Nestor’s group, it’s an entirely new experience and the football is only part of it. Getting to travel outside of Cambodia is – for many players – a seismic life event.      

“When we went on a pre-season tour to Malaysia, we actually had to get passports sorted for a lot of the players,” he says. 

“This season, they’re going to be asked to play more games than ever. It’s the three-games-in-a-week conundrum. And a lot of the diet here is rice and fried food. You’re trying to deal with the volume of games when there’s not many vegetables in the diet, you don’t have a nutritionist and you don’t have a $100 million training ground. So, that’s going to be a significant challenge for us this year.” 

With another fortnight until the league season gets underway, Nestor has some time to get is head around the hectic schedule and how best to navigate it. There’s plenty to think on: substantial changes to the squad as well as being down an assistant coach, though that’s only half the story.  

“We had some wins and losses in the off-season,” he says. 

“We lost Charlie Machell, a Geordie lad, who came here for pennies from Denmark. He took a gamble on me, to be honest, and on going down the pathway of playing football in Asia. He was a really important figure in the dressing room and though we tried to keep him, he had offers coming in that he really couldn’t turn down. He’s signed for Hougang in Singapore now and he’s got a great contract and hopefully on the way to a great career out here.”

“The other big change was with my assistant. For the last few months of last season, I had a coach from Belfast – Colum Curtis – working with me. He had good experience in China and a good background in the club environment in Northern Ireland. But he’s getting married next year and told me that financially he probably needed to leave. I said he should chat to the Cambodian club with the big money here – Visakha – and he did. They’d hired all foreign staff and rumours were that a coach was coming in for the new campaign. But one thing led to another and it turned out Colum was actually appointed instead. So, now my former assistant will be facing me on the touchline this season. A fella from Belfast – at the club with the most money and a massive amount of ambition – against a fella from Limerick who’s in charge of the current champions.”

It’s a different kind of pressure this time. But Nestor, having made some exciting additions to the team, is revelling in it.    

“2019 was a season of firsts, in many positive ways,” he says. 

“But this one is shaping up that way too. And the most important thing is how we deal with it.”    

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