How Northern Ireland's Warren Feeney ended up boss of Bulgaria's OFK Pirin
An opportune phone call last month led to Warren Feeney swapping Northern Ireland's 'Gold Coast' for Bulgaria's stunning Rila mountain range.
Feeney had been stuttering along as manager of Ards in the Irish League's Championship when a long-term contact in England rang him out of the blue.
Relegation and the loss of over half the Ards team during the summer had hit Feeney's chances of a resurgence with the north Down outfit, who of course play at Bangor's Clandeboye Road venue.
But a recommendation from his contact placed him in touch with the new chiefs of OFK Pirin, an ambitious, full-time second division club in south west Bulgaria that last summer had been taken over by investment firm Emirates Wealth, a division of the main Emirates group.
An initial phone call with Technical Director Graham Warren, along with an invitation to join him in the city of Blagoevgrad, where OFK Pirin play, for a series of meetings, resulted in Feeney, the former Linfield and Newport County boss, being offered the club's manage role on an 18-month contract.
"I've known my contact in England for a long time, I've helped him out down the years and in this instance he recommended me," admitted 38 year-old Feeney, speaking exclusively to Sunday Life Sport from the club's stadium in Blagoevgrad.
"It was all agreed within a matter of days. I was just really impressed by what Graham (Warren) had to say, the project and strategy for the club, the fact the club has excellent financial backing and the opportunity to return to full-time football.
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"It didn't bother me it was far away from home in Bulgaria - that just simply added to the challenge.
"Prior to going out, I'd watched some of Pirin's games and training on DVD, but then got a real feel for the club when I was out here. The facilities are first-class, a good staff is in place and there is an excellent professional attitude and approach to the club."
London-born Warren, having been introduced to Feeney through their mutual contact, was immediately captivated by the former Northern Ireland striker's forthright demeanour and managerial acumen.
Having taken over the running of the club last June following a 75% buy-out by Emirates Wealth, Warren, along with wife Eva, a Bulgarian native with close family links to the club, who is a key player in Emirates Wealth and now Pirin's President, desired a fresh and no-nonsense managerial approach at the club following a few false dawns with local coaches. Feeney, he believes, is his answer.
"We clicked straight away, I liked him," admitted 47 year-old Warren, who professes to have been only an amateur footballer at best during his playing days, despite goalkeeper trials at QPR and West Ham.
"He's got a great personality and a grittiness to him but also a terrific sense of humour. I felt he was invested from our first conversation in the project.
"I met other candidates, both from Bulgaria and the UK, but Warren was the man who stood out for me."
Feeney immersed himself immediately in his new job. On his first day, he met with his staff, held a press conference and then took training in the afternoon before arranging a schedule for the week ahead.
Five days later was his first match - a 3-1 success over Strumska Slava at home, which his boss Warren admitted "could have been five or six".
"I laid down a marker in my first week," states Feeney, who has former Republic of Ireland under-21 midfielder Conor Henderson in his ranks.
"I had to let six players go. We just had too many and I'd seen enough on the DVDs to know they weren't going to add anything to my team.
"I looked at the squad's daily routine and it just didn't fit in with how I wanted or expected us to operate, so I've introduced a more British-style regime with training at 10.30am, strength and conditioning work and regular analysis throughout the week.
"The players are technically good, but the pace is slower than what we are used to in the UK, so I have addressed that.
"The players have been fantastic, they've responded really well to my messages. If they can't understand me, the club has an interpreter. I was really pleased with their performance and application last Saturday. The crowd were really passionate and made it quite hostile. I loved it.
"Later that night I was out for dinner and a fan came up to my table and told me in broken English, 'We don't care about the three points, we are just glad the fight and passion is back in our team. We will always support you if that is the case.'
"I had to tell him that I do care about the three points, so why can't we have both!"
Having watched from the directors' box, Warren was happy with the result, performance and the changes Feeney made to the players' attitude on the pitch.
"Even in such a short space of time, there is a marked improvement," conceded Warren.
"They are much more robust, determined, focused and attack-minded. Before, if we'd gone 2-1 up the team would have shut up shop, but there is a confidence now to go and win the game comfortably.
"They play with a physicality and their fitness levels are improving - something which helped greatly against Strumska Slava."
OFK Pirin currently lie eighth in Bulgaria's second division and will play Ludogorets II tomorrow afternoon before a two-month winter break unfolds, allowing Feeney to return home to spend Christmas with his family in Belfast and say a proper goodbye to his former Ards players.
Feeney will return to Bulgaria in January to plan ahead for the club's warm-weather training sessions in Antalya, Turkey, before the second half of the season begins on February 14. He then has 16 games to make his mark, with the season ending during the last week of May.
Promotion is not expected this season as the owners understand this is a period of transition for the club, but Feeney is determined to fulfil the obligations he signed up to as soon as possible.
Emirates Wealth are investing heavily in the area, constructing a new hotel and soon they will be opening a new bar/restaurant.
Blagoevgrad, the home of former Manchester United star Dimitar Berbatov, is a cosmopolitan, cultural city packed full of cafés, bars, restaurants and a pedestrianised centre with two universities, 63 miles from Bulgarian capital Sofia.
"The ultimate aim is make OFK Pirin one of the top clubs in Bulgaria, challenge for honours and play in Europe," stresses Feeney.
"We have excellent support. We want to build on that and restore OFK Pirin to where they deserve to be."
Warren, who has lived in Bulgaria for 10 years, admits: "We are realistic, so there is no pressure on him this season. We have a long-term project with promotion and then Europe part of that plan."
It's been a whirlwind few weeks for Feeney, accepting a new club, surroundings, culture, language and way of life, but as he looks at the picturesque mountain range from OFK Pirin's stadium, he's certainly glad he took that surprise phone call.
I laid down a marker in my first week I let six players go and introduced a more British-style training regime