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From Tel Aviv bombs to Brighton Belles

REMEMBER when Arsene Wenger walked into Highbury in 1996? Angular, debonair, and utterly unheralded, it seemed the Gunners had lost the plot.

Arsene Who? screamed the papers, and they weren’t alone.

“At first, I thought ‘What does this Frenchman know about football?” recalled former Arsenal skipper Tony Adams in his biography.

“He wears glasses and looks more like a schoolteacher. He’s not going to be as good as George Graham. Does he even speak English properly?”

Two years and one scintillating double later, of course, Adams and the rest of us had been made to look rather foolish.

It is a tale that must ring pretty familiar to Oscar Garcia Junyent, the new manager of Brighton & Hove Albion.

A little over 12 months ago, the former Barcelona midfielder was shoved before the Israeli Press and greeted by a sea of scepticism and mistrust.

Did two years coaching kids at the Nou Camp really equip him to end Maccabi Tel Aviv’s ten-year wait for a title? Could a man with no management experience ever expect to win the respect of Israel’s most famous club?As if he wasn’t sweating enough, a power failure – a regular occurrence in the Israeli capital – then knocked out the lights and air conditioning.

But, when the bulbs flickered back to life, Jordi Cruyff, Tel Aviv’s director of football and a long-time friend of Garcia, came to the rescue.

“Let me tell you,” he said.

“Oscar has a vast knowledge of the game and we are lucky to have him. I think that a year from now we’ll all be sitting here with a broad smile on our faces.

”Cruyff’s prediction was spot on.

Garcia – known simply as Oscar – romped to the Israeli title in his first season, then quit citing personal reasons even before the Champagne had gone flat.

Now, after replacing Gus Poyet at the Amex, he is being asked to prove his credentials all over again.

So what if he played alongside Pep Guardiola, Michael Laudrup and Romario at Barcelona? Who cares if he was approached by top clubs in Belgium and Mexico before joining Brighton?

Rockets

Ask any pundit and the view is that the 40-year-old Spaniard will struggle to fill the boots of Poyet, who was sacked for unspecified gross misconduct in May having led the Seagulls to fourth in the Championship.

Oscar knows that of course. Knows, too, that his personality is a million miles from his predecessor.

Where Poyet was buoyant and brash, Garcia is studied and calm, Bungle to the Uruguayan’s Zippy.

Yet if he doesn’t seem fazed by replacing the former Chelsea midfielder, it should come as no surprise.

This, after all, is a man who lived in Tel Aviv during the Palestinian rocket attacks of November 2012, a man who saw protecting his players as getting them to a bomb shelter, not keeping a lid on dressing room friction.

“It was a really tough time,” he says from Brighton’s Falmer training base, where the only threat on the skyline comes from the grey clouds rolling in off the South Downs.

“Here in Europe we are not used to these things. For seven days, you did not think about football at all.

“Did I feel in danger? Only twice – the first day and the last day. On the first day you are seeing things on the news, hearing the first rockets. You don’t know how bad things are going to get so you are nervous.

“And the last day, when a bus was bombed and exploded in the city. That made you realise that you aren’t always protected.

“It was hard, but it helped that many of the players were local. I saw that the Israeli players were calm and, in addition, I saw people still going to cafés and walking around the city. For them it was normal, so I felt OK.

“But apart from that week, the whole time was very special. Tel Aviv is an amazing city with amazing people and for the rest of the time I was very happy there.

”Now Oscar is hoping to build a similar affinity with the folk of Brighton after being talked into the job by the Seagulls’ Spanish contingent – Andrea Orlandi, David Lopez, Inigo Calderon and full-back Bruno.

Impressed

“I spoke to all the Spanish players here and I knew before I arrived that it was a great club and a very nice place,” he says.

“They all said very good things about the club and the ambitions to improve. And these first weeks I have been very impressed with everything I have seen.

“When I talk about Brighton, I explain to my friends that it is a big club – maybe not so famous outside of England but a club who wants to get bigger. That is the main reason I am here.

”So what can Brighton fans expect? One is more slick football from a man who learned at the hand of Johan Cruyff and Bobby Robson.

“I was a player who wanted to learn about everything,” he says.

“I watched the coaches, the staff, the managers. Now I am trying to do something like them.

“Every manager has his way and I am trying to change the team. I have watched the team a lot on DVD and the main thing is to score more goals.

“The team had many chances last season and did not take them. That is one thing I am trying to improve, but I can’t tell you the others or everyone will know.

”They’ll also get loyalty.

“Club Brugge offered me a lot of money to leave Maccabi,” he explains.

“Three or four times more than I earned, and it would have taken care of my family for life. But I turned it down. The project at Maccabi and the fans were more important.

”And new signings? Scant so far, but Oscar is delighted with the capture of MK Dons defender Adam Chicksen and, in particular, playmaker Kemy Agustien from Swansea.

“Kemy is not yet ready to play 90 minutes but he will help us a lot,” he added.

“He wants the ball all the time, uses it very well. He has played in the Premier League.

“I want eleven leaders on the pitch, not just one or two. And then I want another seven leaders on the bench. I want my team to be strong and Kemy is a leader.

”Just before Oscar left that first Press Conference in Tel Aviv, Cruyff spoke up.

“Oscar is one of the most exciting coaches in the world,” he said.

“And within five or ten years we’ll be proud to say he started here.

”So with that in mind, is Brighton simply another stepping stone.

“I never think long term,” he insists.

“Right now I am manager of Brighton and we are in the Championship. At this moment, my only ambition is to do my best for them.”

SPEED OF PLAY MAY SURPRISE HIM – ROB

QUIET, demanding and an exponent of common-sense football – that’s Brighton’s new boss according to Welsh striker Rob Earnshaw, who played under Oscar at Maccabi Tel Aviv last season.

“I learned so much from Oscar,” says Earnshaw, now with MLS side Toronto, “It was what I’d call common sense football – very simple things, but very effective, which is what they teach at Barcelona. If the Brighton players buy into it, they should really do well.

“But it is going to be difficult for him at first. The Championship is very different from anything he’s seen before. I think he’s going to be very surprised by how quick it is – less technical and more back-to-front.

“In Israel, all the teams went out to pass the ball and play from the back. It’s the same here in the MLS. I think that directness is a unique thing in the British leagues.

“Brighton is a good place to start. They’ve had Gus Poyet, who got the team playing on the ground and signed the kind of players Oscar likes. I just think he’s going to be surprised by the differences – both in technique and mentality.

”Nevertheless, Earnshaw, below, says Oscar’s success with Tel Aviv shows he can cope with expectation after last year’s fourth-place finish under Poyet.

“Maccabi Tel Aviv were like the Liverpool of Israel – a big team with a lot of history who hadn’t won the league for years,” he adds.

“Every year the papers were saying ‘When are they going to wake up?’ They never seemed to do well in the league. But Oscar brought in his techniques from Barcelona and everything he did worked perfectly.

“As a person, he’s very quiet. He’s not the type of manager who’ll speak a lot to his players. He won’t really give you a kick up the backside or praise you for doing well. He can get mad and if you annoy him he’ll say it like it is. But the majority of the time he keeps himself to himself.”

This article was brought to you by The Football League Paper. On-sale every Sunday, the newspaper provides extensive coverage for all 72 Football League clubs with news, features and gossip plus comprehensive match reports.
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