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Football coach Blaine is going the extra mile to make a lifetime of memories

 

By Graham Luney

There can be very few people from Northern Ireland who have caught the football coaching and travel bug quite like Blaine McKenna.

It's fair to say the 25-year-old from Magheramorne has gone the extra mile to enhance his football education but his remarkable journey has more intriguing twists and turns to come.

Currently academy director at Ubon UMT United, a professional top flight club in Thailand, he has coached in 10 countries across five continents and the thirst to broaden his horizons has sparked a thrilling and at times crazy adventure.

"I want to inspire young coaches as I was never aware of the career you can have, and how it can allow you to travel the world," says Blaine who went to school in Whitehead and Carrickfergus.

His blog is essential reading for those interested in coaching abroad and in the future he hopes to document his weird and wonderful experiences in a book.

It hasn't always been a smooth road, though. While working for China ClubFootball, the largest grassroots club in China, based in Beijing, he ended up in hospital.

"I had a really bad bout of tonsillitis which I stupidly tried to work through and when I could no longer work I did whatever I could to stay out of a Chinese hospital," said Blaine.

"It ended with my throat closing which was very painful and left me unable to drink, eat or speak. I was googling how many days you can survive without eating and drinking before realising I had to go to hospital. My blood results were pretty bad and they put me onto an IV drip immediately. The doctor couldn't believe I'd taken so long to come in.

"You can feel quite alone abroad at times, during times like that family would typically look after you and it can be hard to get painkillers and other simple things due to the language barrier.

"The pollution in Beijing was really bad which was definitely the main factor in getting sick, as my throat would be sore after some days coaching. It's the main reason I left Beijing and would be reluctant to return."

At the age of 18 and after his first year at Ulster University Blaine spent two months coaching in America and Canada and the travel bug started to bite.

After finishing a sport science degree and masters in sport psychology he moved to Kuwait to spend seven months working for Arsenal Soccer School.

A move to China followed and after his health scare he spent a month in Malawi educating coaches and delivering academy sessions at Chigoli Academy, an organisation that helps some of the poorest children in the world access education and food.

"Of course it's difficult standing in a classroom with over 100 kids all sitting on the floor, many of them unable to afford a pen and paper, which the school can't provide," Blaine said.

"It's no surprise that around only 12% of the nation graduate high school, which is a shocking statistic. Chigoli Academy are an amazing organisation, scouting the most talented kids in Malawi, bringing them in and paying for their education, food and providing football gear.

"Our academy trialists were telling us their feet felt really heavy as they had never played in boots before, their bodies felt heavy as they weren't used to being well fed before games - 50% of children suffer from stunted growth due to malnutrition - they had never played on grass, and it was the first time they had ever left their home town.

"Age cheating is rife as parents want their kids to appear younger to increase their chances of being recruited by Chigoli Academy, which would be life-changing for them. You could clearly see where the date on their documents had been altered to make them appear younger which is commonplace in Africa, especially as many kids don't even have birth certificates. It just shows how Malawi and Africa have a unique set of constraints which are unfortunately blocking a number of very talented children from making a life-changing career in the game.

"The kids there taught me a lot through seeing how happy they were despite having nothing, which really helps you gain perspective on how trivial the issues we face are in comparison."

Blaine then moved to start a PhD in New Zealand where he spent five months as head of coach development at Dunedin Technical AFC. During his time, ma South African academy flew him to Cape Town as a guest.

After he returned to New Zealand he was approached about becoming academy director at Ubon UMT United in Thailand where he has been for six months.

"Thailand is an amazing place and I'm very fortunate to work at such a good club," he adds.

"After away games I often remind myself on the journey home, through the stunning Thai countryside, how fortunate I am to live in such a beautiful country.

"It has been a lot easier to adapt to life in Thailand than it was in China. Part of the reason for that is the hierarchy at the club here have been brilliant with me, and I've got a great relationship with the president's son, who is a club director. The greatest thing about living abroad is gaining a deeper understanding and inside perspective of different cultures, one which is free from biased influences outside."

Blaine is now encouraging young coaches to broaden their horizons by travelling abroad.

"The opportunities abroad are far greater and the chance to travel the world while enhancing your career at the same time, for me, is the perfect mix," he said.

"I've written about life coaching abroad, how to find coaching roles abroad, and the key questions asked by employers, which can be found on my blog.

"Travelling to different countries has also helped me to gain perspective and realise that career elevation, social status and bank balances aren't as important as the experiences and relationships we have on our journey through life."

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