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Thursday, July 2, 2009
No ifs or Butts for Pete about Asia

Jason Dasey

His stay at Upton Park lasted less than three seasons but Peter Butler can lay claim to being part of a unique slice of West Ham United history. As well as playing in the Hammers' first Premier League campaign, he started at the club on the same day as Harry Redknapp and recognised the early potential of a cheeky apprentice called Frank Lampard.

From the early to mid-1990s Butler experienced a West Ham era that included Julian Dicks, Tony Cottee, Lee Chapman, Martin Allen and Clive Allen, plus the former Liverpool pair of David Burrows and Mike Marsh.

A compact and hard-working midfielder, 'Butts' moved to east London after four years at Southend United. The Yorkshireman would make 70 league appearances for the Hammers before heading north to link-up with clubs that included Notts County, West Bromwich Albion and his hometown side, Halifax Town.

As a youngster, Butler was often told he was too small (he's 5' 7 1/2'' or 1.72m) to make it in top-level football. But thanks to determination, his super-charged 'engine' and durability, he would prove the doubters wrong. v During his stint at Upton Park, he had four operations on his knees and groin and would often be rested during the week before playing on Saturday by managers Billy Bonds and Redknapp.

''They were brilliant, but I did have a price to pay as I was advised to retire because my knee was in such a bad way,'' he said. ''Amazingly I played for another five years after leaving West Ham and finished back home in Halifax, ten operations later!''

It was at Halifax Town, just after the millennium, that Butler got his first taste of coaching, taking over as a caretaker manager on an interim basis, at the age of just 33.

From there, he headed Down Under to become player/manager at Western Australian state league side, Sorrento FC, in 2000. But frustrated at soccer's slow development in Australia in the days before the FFA revolution, Butler soon headed to Southeast Asia. He managed clubs in Singapore, east Malaysia and Indonesia  and now finds himself in west Malaysia as coach of Kelantan FC.

Translated into English Kelantan means 'Land of Lightning', and Butler's first season in the socially conservative Muslim state just south of the Thailand border has been a fiery one, full of ups-and-downs.

He's experienced the highs of a successful Cup run to the Malaysian FA final and the joy of leading the league table, to the lows of losing the Cup final penalty-shoot, enduring a five-match losing streak, and witnessing rioting home fans in the state capital, Kota Bharu.

After losing a Cup match in April, Kelantan supporters went on a rampage at the Sultan Muhammed IV Stadium, setting fire to a police car and damaging nine other vehicles including one belonging to the Kelantan FA President.

As a result, Kelantan were ordered to play their home games at a neutral venue in Kuala Lumpur. Butler's side went into free-fall, slumping from top of the 14-team standings to sixth. The suspension of their home stadium was only lifted at the end of May.

''I hope the fans have learnt a lesson from this,'' he said when the ban was eased. Since then, they've returned to winning ways, moving back to third on the table.

Butler also appeared on Asian satellite television as a studio pundit during June's FIFA Confederations Cup, broadcast on Kuala Lumpur-based sports channel, Astro SuperSport.

After more than six years in the region, the 42-year-old speaks fluent Bahasa Indonesia, which is similar to the national language of Malaysia. But when he sat down with Soccernet in Kuala Lumpur, he stuck with English, albeit spoken in an unmistakable west Yorkshire accent.

Q: Peter, how do you compare your life in Malaysia compared to those days more than a decade ago in London with West Ham?

A: My life here in Malaysia is very different to my time in Essex and London. This is not really a football environment that you can fairly compare to East London. Malaysia is a beautiful country. I have been lucky to live in Sabah, which probably my favourite spot, and now Kuala Lumpur, which I chose for my children's education.

The Malaysian people love their sport and especially English football and there is potential. But, sadly, the game is in bad shape. There is too much politics involved in football in Malaysia for it to move forward at this present time. You have to be realistic: if you want a career in football coaching you cannot stay in Malaysia long-term. The opportunities are not here as the football infrastructure is very limited, and economically it does not add up.

Q: What do you consider the highlights of your three seasons at Upton Park?

A: The Eastenders are a different breed - ''salt of the earth'' as they would say - who are passionate about their beloved Hammers. The supporters are without doubt the best fans in London. It was a joy and an honour to wear the claret and blue.

In the second season of the new Premier league, I was proud to be part of the promotion winning-team that went up as runners up to Kevin Keegan's Newcastle. I will never forget around Easter time we stuffed Spurs 4-1 at White Hart Lane. There was never a sweeter victory than beating them in front of their own supporters!

We went to Liverpool and had Tony Cottee sent off just before half time on his debut for West Ham, second-time round, and defended the Kop for the whole of the second half to get a well-deserved point. What an experience playing at Anfield: their fans are so knowledgeable about the game and clapped us off.

Q: Who were the best players you encountered in the early days of the Premier League?

A: There were almost too many to mention. Ian Rush was around, John Barnes, David Beckham and Paul Scholes too. I was fortunate to have been on the same field as other great players like Eric Cantona, Gordon Strachan and Gary McAllister. I was a Leeds fan and it was like a dream come true and also a strange experience. But it's ruthless and nobody feels sorry for you or gets sentimental once you kick off.

But I can honestly say though the guy whom impressed me most is Gianfranco Zola. Strangely, he is now the manager or West Ham. To date, I rate him as the best import into the British game because he was a quality professional and a brilliant footballer whose work rate was unbelievable. He transformed Chelsea along with Gianluca Vialli, who was another class act and a very funny man.

Q: You and current Tottenham boss Harry Redknapp started on the same day at West Ham. What qualities have helped Harry become such a successful manager?

A: When I walked into West Ham, Harry was the first to shake my hand offer me a pot of tea, giving me words of encouragement. He was a unique character. Harry was a hustler - a wheeler and dealer who tells great stories and you could laugh with him.

But there was another side to him too. He did not suffer fools and had a mean streak to him. If you were not on your game in training he would get into you. Players were in and out of the club before they knew it. It got everyone on their toes because otherwise it could be you next.

Harry demands to see good habits and high standards. I know he was greatly influenced by the Italians' preparation. He hated players going out drinking alcohol getting lashed on nights out and eating fish and chips. He tried to change the whole approach. Out went egg and chips and in came salads, pasta and jacket potatoes. He left no stone unturned.

Q: What were your impressions of Frank Lampard as a young Hammers' apprentice?

A: Frank was always at Chadwell Heath: I used to think he lived there. He was a cheeky but likeable character. I think we played together in a pre-season game just before I left the club in 1994.

I liked Frank. He always wanted to learn and he has turned into one of the best midfield players in the modern game. He is box-to-box with a great engine and keeps it simple. He has the uncanny knack of scoring great and priceless goals. He is a model professional and it's sad to see the abuse he gets on his returns to Upton Park these days.

Q: Your overseas coaching adventure began in Western Australia. What's your view on football's development in Australia over the past few years?

A: Football development in Australia and Western Australia is changing. It needed to, as it was draconian when I arrived there in 2001: a real old boys school. The instructors' courses I attended were of poor content and I can honestly say they did not like people like me coming in, taking jobs and trying to influence change, so I decided to leave.

Since then, I believe the intervention of Frank Lowy at FFA level and the Dutch influence through coaches Guus Hiddink and Pim Verbeek and technical directors Rob Baan, and now Han Berger, have definitely changed things for the better. I believe life is all about timing and as Nick Tanner, the ex-Perth Glory president once said to me: ''You're 10 years too early, Peter, for Western Australian football. Go to Asia and coach and then come back.'' He was right.

Australian football is at last making strides. You won't get rid of the 'Old Boys Club' overnight, but the game is going forward with some excellent people at the helm. Australian youth development has a very bright future.

Q: Where do think your coaching odyssey will lead next?

A: I honestly do not know. Working all over Asia has been a fantastic experience and the biggest thing I have learnt comes from this old saying: ''Patience is bitter but the fruits are sweet''.

I have been asked if I am interested in coaching in Africa and the Middle East. It does appeal to me as I love a challenge. The quality of players in some of the African countries is excellent. I will just be patient and see what presents itself in the near future.

•  Jason Dasey (www.jasondasey.com) is an international broadcaster, corporate host and media trainer.


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