Former J. League coach still dreams of life in Japan

by Wilson Whyte

EXETER, England — Steve Perryman is as London as you can get — born in London, grew up in London, played soccer in London (Tottenham Hotspur). But now, he lives in Exeter in the southwest of England and dreams of Japan.

“I want to go back because of the respect of the fans, the media and especially the players,” he said.

The respect is mutual. Perryman originally came over here to assist his friend and former Spurs teammate Ossie Ardiles at Shimizu S-Pulse in 1996. The third main coach (after manager and assistant manager) for S-Pulse at the time was Takeshi Oki, now No. 2 to Japan national team manager Takeshi Okada.

“I worked with Perryman and Ossie Ardiles for five years and learned a lot under them,” Oki says. “Perryman was such a strong character in the dressing room to the players and his teams were very well organized.”

As a player, Perryman led by example. He was the linchpin in a very, very talented Spurs team. Tough, uncompromising and talented, he captained Spurs to victory in two F.A. Cup finals, two League Cup finals and two UEFA Cup finals. Altogether, he played an astounding 854 first-team games for Tottenham. He won the Football Writers’ Player of the Year award in 1982, the same year that he gained his solitary England cap. The Football Writers’ award demonstrated how much respect he commanded in the English game, not only at Tottenham’s White Hart Lane ground, but at every ground around the country (and in Europe). It is sad that some Japanese fans, who only know Perryman as a manager, are not aware of just how big a star he was in England.

If he was playing now, he’d be a multimillionaire like the rest of the top Premier League players, but one thing he’s never going to acquire is a Premier League ego. Perryman thrives on respect, honesty and fair play. That’s what he offered Japanese soccer and, to a large extent, that’s what he found in Japan.

“As a manager in England, doubts form about what you are doing from the start,” he explains. “In Japan, if you are the leader, people will follow you. When I was at S-Pulse with Ossie, the players trusted us implicitly and we trusted them to want to improve and do their best. They thought we were doing things for the right reasons, so it worked.”

Perryman took over the managerial reins from Ardiles toward the end of the 1998 season and guided S-Pulse to the J. League’s second-stage title in 1999 and the Asian Cup Winners’ Cup in 2000. But he quit soon after, deciding that after five years, he had taken the club as far as they could go under his stewardship. But it had been a special five years, both professionally and personally. “We took our 6-month-old daughter with us and had another child when we were there,” Perryman recalls. “I have to credit my wife for not going home to have the baby. I regret that I didn’t learn Japanese, but my wife and kids did and that demonstrated the respect we had for the Japanese.”

Perryman didn’t always agree with how things were done in Japan, but he was willing to learn.

“It was different and I thrived on the differences; they broadened my horizons,” he explains. “I loved the stature being involved in Japanese soccer gave you. If you were introduced to someone as the kantoku of Shimizu S-Pulse, you could see the respect. You could see what it meant. On the managerial side, the players in Japan just want to improve. You don’t have to deal with agents and money and stuff. “And that’s why I’d rather manage in Japan than England. In England, you get more grief than joy — you’re always fighting the fans, the press, Web sites and just about everyone else. When you’re running people’s careers and livelihoods, you don’t need that. I can’t see myself managing here again, but I’d love to have another go in Japan.”

Perryman says he found the infrastructure and organization in Japan to be far superior to the English product.

“I knew the Japanese really wanted to do things properly,” he recalls. “There were no half-measures. When we got to Shimizu, we found the club had two full-time doctors. In the U.K. at the time, only two clubs had full-time doctors. There were four or five physios giving players massages; in England, you’d be lucky to have two at a club. “S-Pulse had a purpose-built training ground and everything was new. They went to Italy to research what was required for a top club. After training, 10 men came onto the pitch to replace the divots, while the players had to take their boots off before entering the changing rooms and had air-guns to clean their boots with. On top of that, the players always traveled first class and arrangements were made months in advance. I’d been at a top club in England, but everything was better in Japan. The whole setup was just so good. “Obviously, we thought we had a chance to improve the players because anything we wanted to help them, we got.”

But still, adjusting to life in a country where he couldn’t read the road signs or talk the language wasn’t easy at home and at work.

“For six months, it was difficult,” Perryman admits. “It was difficult in life because of my family and schools, and maybe that showed at work, too. After six months, they called us in for a meeting and I thought they might want us to go.” In fact, the club seemed more concerned about their coaches than their players.

“They said, ‘We realize it’s difficult to adjust; what do you need?’ After that, we went on a mid-season camp and things just took off.”

“I think if you can survive the first six months, you can stay a long time. In the end, I was enjoying the experience of being in a new country. I could be stuck in Tokyo traffic and actually enjoy it — the new buildings, new cars, new faces, new situations. To be honest, life was uncluttered and I found a surge of energy.”

After returning to England, Perryman became involved with then Division Two team Exeter City and helped save them from relegation before returning to Japan for a 13-month stint with Kashiwa Reysol, which ended shortly after the 2002 World Cup. He is now director of football at Exeter, bringing his enormous experience to a club that, following eventual demotion from the Football League, has only just regained its league status. He lives in a beautiful house by the sea with his wife, Kim, and daughters Ella and Jo-Jo. At 57, he retains an enormous amount of enthusiasm for the task at hand (he turned up for the 8 a.m. interview on his way to train Exeter’s reserves on a cold Sunday morning). He is happy with his position because his relationship with Exeter boss Paul Tisdale is one of respect, not competition. Neither is after the other’s job.

“At Exeter City, it’s interesting because I have the chance for my ideas to be worked on by a clever manager,” Perryman states. “There’s great satisfaction knowing that you are being listened to. As a manager, you would prefer to get the best out of the players you’ve got rather than buy talent. In Japan, it was a case of: This is what you’ve got — use it.

“We could do that because the Japanese were such good listeners and learners. They wanted to suck the knowledge out of you. I couldn’t understand what they said, but I could read their faces and see their eyes when I was teaching them. I knew they wanted to learn and I knew that I could give them what they wanted. It was a great relationship. It was a great experience.”

The boy from London has traveled a long way — and perhaps the journey isn’t over yet.