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'Flexible education', 'dedicated skills training' and 'greater sustainability', some of the visions Haig Oundjian would like to see in Gibraltar football - The Interview

As the pre-season starts for clubs such as Bruno Magpies, with a view to their participation in the Conference League it was the changes at the top of the club structures which were one of the most prominent features.
Brunos had already secured Nathan Rooney, their head coach to extend his contract. Bringing in too Mason McClelland as one of the assistant coaches adding to the technical team.
Importantly there was also the arrival of new signings such as Dayle Coleing and that of past players who had one shown they gelled well as a team.
However, it was the presence of Former Gibraltar FA Technical Director Desi Curry to assist owner Haig with the club which had heralded the biggest changes. Mr Curry coming in on a short-term basis to support the work already being done by people such as Jansen Dalli who has worked tirelessly in the background these past years
Not only was Bruno Magpies looking at increasing its youth categories, it was setting the tone towards a more professional structure in training with the use of San Roque and a set allocation time in the evenings. Plus the introduction of player performance assessments and strategies with the assistance of Gibraltar Institute of Sport Joslyn Hoyte-Smith.
All of this coming about by the vision one man had for the club. Haig Oundjian had joined the board of FC Brunos Magpies Limited as joint chairman and had taken a minority stake in then second division champions back in 2019.
Since his arrival, the club has made a meteoric push to be among the top three clubs in the Gibraltar football league, and will be participating for a fourth time in Europe.
Although juggling his personal life, where he is caring for his wife, and the running of both Bruno Magpies and the Gibraltar Institute of Sport, of which he is a founder, Mr Oundijian, a former Olympian and former joint owner of Watford FC, spoke to this newspaper about his vision for the future and the achievements of the club.
“The only thing we have really achieved, and this goes back to Brunos, is that we have now established ourselves as the most successful pub team, I think, in Europe, if not the world. This is very strong. Eight years since Louie set the tone, we played in Europe. Amazing. However, my background is Olympic sport, being a champion of Europe and so on. I know the difference between professional and part-time, so you have to realize we are part-timers. We train for one and a half hours, four days a week, usually at eight or nine o’clock at night, and then we go and play against full-time professionals, which is what I once was and what Watford was.
“In the 75th minute, guess what happens? It’s classic. However, we can have five subs. The thing I want to do this year is to create an athlete-based club. It’s about the development of athletes because everyone is an athlete. I think the most important thing is the youth, which I am very proud of because we started with no youth at all. This season, we are going to have six, seven, or eight teams. I always put the focus on youth because that is where your future is. There has to be a pathway like we did in Watford, a pathway to the first team. You might not get there, you might not get to the Olympics or the world championships, but you know it’s there, and you can see the pathway. As long as you can see a pathway, I would like to get my senior pros to come and play a part with the youth and engage with them. We did a lot of that at Watford, and in all my sports: skating, ice hockey, and all that.

I am really excited because we have a leaner team, and we are going out with a purpose. Next season, we might not be the star team, but we will be working on a new training scheme. This is what I wanted to do, the same as they did at Watford.

When asked if he meant he was focused on player development, he responded, “Absolutely, 100%. Where do you get your future if not from the young girls and boys who are out there now? They need to be exposed. One of the challenges for amateurs is finding time for skill training. We train one and a half hours, four nights a week. When do you learn to shoot? When do you practice with mannequins and hit numbers? That’s what you have to do, but there’s no time. People have to go to work, then train late at night, and they are exhausted. Nathan and I are excited, and we brought Mason in because now we can have our own training regime. We hope to start training consistently from four-thirty to six-thirty. The pitch will be in demand, making it difficult to find a place to train, but consistent training is crucial. Joslyn Hoyte-Smith, who runs the GIS, says, ‘You don’t win the Olympic Games; you win in training.’ That’s it.

Speaking on the pathway considering that they have not had this previously: “My hope is that, when I took over Watford with Elton, and Graham Taylor came back as manager, he wasn’t willing to do it at first. But we asked him, and he said, ‘Okay, I’ll do it.’ We trained at Casio Park in the morning from 8:30 to midday in a public park with public facilities. The first thing I wanted to do was get a proper training ground. It was more important than having a new stand at the stadium because a training ground is where you grow. In two years, we were in the Premiership.

It’s possible. What I want for young people in Gibraltar is the opportunity to play consistently with players from other countries, which we have. There’s going to be at least an hour every day dedicated to skills training. How often do you see a free kick from twenty meters out sent sky-high? It’s not the player’s fault; they don’t get the chance to practice. David Beckham would tell you, ‘You go out with a hundred balls, work on the mannequins, and practice.’ It’s called bio-mechanics. You do the same thing every time and get the same outcome.”
When faced with the question over being an investor and asked on how far he go and for how long considering the big investments running a football club entailed, Mr Oundijian did not shriek away from responding.
“In fairness, I am quite old, and my time has to come to a close. Not because I lack passion or finance, but because of family issues—my wife’s health is not good. I am at a certain time in my life, with family, children, and grandchildren. In Gibraltar, I am really glad that Mike Garlick and Solihull have come in. I like working with the Gibraltar teams, but there is a lack of sustainability in the league. In a normal game, if you have a good run, your audience goes up by a thousand people, and they all pay thirty or forty quid, so you get more money, and everyone is interested in you. Here, if you have a good run, two more people turn up, but they don’t pay. How do you sustain something unsustainable? Lincoln once supported the notion, and maybe we should revisit it. We need to be more equitable. The only income we get is from UEFA.”
Asked if he would like to see more happen he was to respond, “I would like to see some sponsorship, but it doesn’t seem to happen. Although we have all the major gaming companies, major banks, and financial institutions here, there is no sponsorship for football, but there could be. The product needs to improve, and they need to know they are in safe hands. We need better ladder payments. It’s no good having one club with an income of £1.5 million and another with £100,000. What’s the result going to be? It needs to be more equitable. Also, as an Olympian, you need competition. Without competition, you don’t improve.
“I am all about progression in sport. If someone is interested, I would be absolutely delighted to open the door. Don’t forget, I owned Watford, but my main job is governing bodies and national teams. I want Gibraltar to do well. I’ll give you an insane suggestion, but it’s based on what the Soviet Union did in the 1950s to establish themselves as a powerful nation in sport. Why do national teams only get together one or two weeks before an event? The Soviet Union created a national team that played in the league every game. In the 1960s, they became the number one team in the world. Canada, Sweden, no one could beat the Soviet Union because they were a team. For a small place, this is sheer heresy, of course.
“Another thing I would like to see is flexible education. We have it in every western country except the UK, although I introduced it to my school, Harefield Academy. Young kids who are gifted in sport, art, or anything should have time off during the day to train with good coaches. They catch up online and with schoolwork. Canada, America, France, Holland, Belgium all do it. Why don’t we?

When asked if he had spoken to government or officials, he responded, “Yes, I mentioned it to Ivan and Michael Llamas. I understand it’s a shock for many people. When I mentioned it to (inaudible), he asked, ‘What is flexible education?’ said, ‘We have private schools like Eton for that.’ But we won’t find an Olympic gold medalist at Eton anymore. Maybe back in the 1930s or 40s, but not now. I want a state school. So, I created Harefield Academy, and that’s where Jadon Sancho came from—flexible education.”

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