A look at la liga
Juan Carlos Osorio is currently the darling of the World Cup coaching circles after masterminding Mexico’s defeat of the pre-tournament favourites Germany... and I couldn’t be prouder of my old amigo.
I can imagine there’s a conversation where some bloke is saying, “Doesn’t that Mexican manger look like the bloke who once turned out in the Birkenhead Sunday League for the Woodchurch pub?” And he’d be right.
Our friendship stretches back to 1985 when he was the star signing for the New Haven Chargers in the American NCAA league. With his inquisitive mind, he was always questioning myself and fellow English roommate Keith McCormick on the methods employed in Europe.
I still maintain he was the most skilful footballer I had the pleasure of sharing a pitch with (and I’ve played with a few in testimonial games – John Barnes, Kenny Dalglish, Gazza etc). He’d spend hours perfecting tricks that would now be known as freestyling, but sadly we didn’t see enough of his talents as he was restricted by injury and he drifted into coaching.
Spin forward twenty-three years and picture a freezing cold day outside the Liverpool FC training ground as Spanish photographers gathered to grab a picture over the fence. Wrapped in several layers, one of the pack approached me, “Keith, Keith… it’s Juan!”
I had no idea, maybe it was someone I’d met on a trip to Valencia? “Juan, from Colombia” he continued.
Despite his inability to tell one Englishman from another, it clicked, it was our old team mate from Connecticut using a milk crate to get a glimpse of the Liverpool training session.
He explained that he’d rented a room from a family overlooking the Melwood headquarters so that he could note the methods of the famed Gérard Houllier.
We renewed our friendship, once I’d reminded him that I was Rob –not Keith- and he accompanied me on many trips to Premier League training grounds where I would interview the manager and he would devour the training sessions. We’d use our extra press pass for the Champions League games to use him as a translator or sound man. I only remember him blowing his cover once to ask Zinedine Zidane for a selfie.
He was a zealot for new methods, studying Sports Science at Liverpool John Moores University, combining it with trips to the Netherlands to further his coaching credentials. On our excursion his watch would alarm every two hours which signalled that he needed a home-prepared snack.
‘Juncho’ hadn’t lost any of his talent and asked if I could set him up with a game of football. So we were reunited for a match in the Birkenhead Sunday League where he had to endure the expected pre-game ‘banter’ when they discovered he was Colombian. For the first five minutes of the game he just stretched and jogged in his own world before collecting the ball, beating five players and clipping the cross bar with a rabona (before anyone knew what a rabona was).
After a year he headed back to the USA and I thought that was the end of our acquaintance until one day I got a call, “Rob, I’m flying to Manchester to speak to City.”
By a remarkable coincidence I was interviewing the Manchester City chairman for Sky Sports the day before he was to interview Juan for the new role of ‘conditioning coach’. David Bernstein asked me more questions than I asked him and 48 hours later Osorio was appointed much to the surprise of manager Joe Royle, who wasn’t expecting a fitness guru.
We kept in regular touch as Kevin Keegan and then Stuart Pearce tapped into Juan’s encyclopaedic and academic approach to the game before he headed back to the USA to start his head coaching career.
At a farewell meal in a Liverpool tapas bar he emotionally declared to my wife Bo and I that, “One day I will be back as the manager of Colombia.” We didn’t doubt it and he wasn’t far off.