Patrick Ace Bright recalls how Phil and James Younghusband started on the wrong foot with Scottish coach Desmond Bulpin, who first managed the Philippine Akzals, during their initial encounter.
“I was in charge of inviting and contacting the players and among those whom we invited were Phil and James,” Bright says. “Hindi naging maganda ang naging first meeting nila with coach Des (the first meeting between the Younghusband and coach Des did not turn out well).”
A former deputy manager of English Premier League club Millwall, Bulpin tapped Bright, who was then with the Philippine Football Federation’s media department, as the national team liaison in late 2009 following an interview for the PFF’s newsletter.
“That interview dragged on for 10 hours and the next thing I knew was coach Des was inviting me to be the national team coordinator,” the soft-spoken Azkal regular adds. “The next day, the coach asked my boss, the late PFF president Jose Mari Martinez, for his permission and he agreed. That’s how I got in.”
In 2009, Bright says, the Younghusbands, who had been in the country since 2005, were slowly making a name as top commercial models as a professional option when local football hardly merited a second look, much less as a source of livelihood.
This all changed when businessman and football lover Dan Palami entered the picture and took over as the national team manager of the Azkals.
As a serious football enthusiast, Palami spared no expense in his grand vision of turning the former whipping-boy image of the Filipinos into serious football contenders, at least in Southeast Asia at the beginning.
“It was sir Dan who changed the mindset of our players. And he found a like-minded person in coach Des, who wanted commitment from his players,” Bright stresses. “The Younghusbands were into modeling at that time and felt the offer (to train and play with the national team) could not be taken seriously.”
Younghusbands were never a headache
Keen on harnessing the Younghusbands’ skills and talents, Palami arranged a dinner meeting with Bulpin and the pair of Chelsea Football Academy standouts, who were finally sold on the ambitious plans that both team manager and coach had in mind.
“I was there during that meeting and have pictures to prove it,” Bright says in witnessing that turning point in Philippine football.
Even when Bulpin quit in mid-2010 over differences with Martinez, the Younghusbands, like true professionals, decided to stay on with the national squad with the Asean Football Federation Suzuki Cup, the region’s premier football tournament, looming over the horizon.
Both siblings played major roles in that unforgettable and epic campaign that saw the Azkals topple regional giants such as Singapore and Vietnam on the way to reaching the country’s first semifinal appearance in the blue-ribbon soccer competition.
Bright says the Younghusbands hardly gave him any problems in all his years as national team coordinator.
“In fairness to Phil and James, although they were already considered big stars then, big names, we never felt that way in dealing with them. There was no awkwardness. They are good people,” he notes. “I hardly had any disagreements with them. They had no star complex.
“They had a different level of maturity, which I believe they got from their training with the Chelsea Football Academy.”
Comparing Phil and James, Bright points out that “Phil is more of the gregarious type. He likes to sing, especially during our bus trips to and from the venue, while James is low key and quiet.”
Friendships forged with Phil, James and others
Not all of the national players were easy to deal with, acknowledges Bright, citing top goalkeeper Neil Etheridge as an example.
“In the early years, Neil and I would talk back at each other on Twitter,” he says. “Nagra-rant siya wala pa yong ticket, ganito ganyan. (He would rant about not having his ticket and this and that). In the end, however, we became close.
“When all these webcasts about the other Azkals in recalling Suzuki Cup semifinal success in 2010, I reminded him recently in our chats, ‘See how much of a diva you were before?’ He laughed and took it in stride.”
Besides the Younghusbands and Etheridge, Bright says he forged friendships with most of the former national team members, such as midfielder Chieffy Caligdong, striker Ian Araneta and defenders Dennis Cagara and Jerry Lucena, who were both born in Denmark.
“In fact, it was Dennis who acted as my tour guide when I toured Europe some four or five years ago,” he said.
As for the coaches of the Azkals all over the years, Bright notes one of them has his own respective styles.
“Coaches Des and Simon McMenemy (who handled the Azkals in the 2010 Suzuki) had more or less the typical British outlook in coaching. German coach Michael Weiss, on the other hand, was a bit more loose. Kwela (cool). He was also close to our local players,” he remembers.
“On the other hand, coach Thomas Dooley was the disciplinarian of them all,” adds Bright of the two-time US World Cup team captain who steered the Azkals to qualifying for the 2019 Asian Cup in 2018.
Lasting impact on local football
While he has virtually seen all of the Azkals’ highs and lows, one memory that stands out is the national team’s ordeal in 2011 when they experienced not one but two earthquakes in separate countries in a span of a few days, according to the usually unflappable national team point man.
“The first was while we were training in Gotemba, Japan, when the strong earthquake struck on March 11. We were all scared,” he says of the tsunami-causing temblor that claimed thousands of lives. “We were wondering how we would be able to get out and reach Tokyo. We were practically scrambling.”
Gratefully, Bright adds, they reached the Japanese capital after taking a different and longer route before heading out to Yangon, Myanmar to play in the AFC Challenge Cup qualifiers there.
Misfortune followed the Azkals to the old Burmese capital, which was also rocked by a strong earthquake on March 24, 2011, while the competition was going on.
“Talagang nakakatakot. (It’s really scary) Experiencing two earthquakes in two weeks in different countries. Iba talaga yong nangyari sa amin. (What we experienced was truly extraordinary),” Bright reminisces.
But drifting back to the Younghusbands and their legacy to Philippine football, Bright has nothing but praises for both brothers, who retired one after the other. James hung up his jersey last June 27 while Phil called it a career in November 2019
“Even with the Younghubands gone, they will have a long and lasting impact on Philippine football. Lalo na sa mga bata (Especially the children),” Bright points out. “Mention the Azkals and their names almost always also comes up.
“A lot of local players who grew up and watched them play are mostly playing in the universities now.”
“They set a very good example for all. No vices, no scandals, no bad vibes,” Bright adds. “They are the icons of Philippine football.”
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