TGG Podcast #61: Radhi Jaidi - Breaking barriers on and off the pitch

Radhi Jaidi: Assistant Head Coach at Cercle Brugge

Radhi Jaidi: Assistant Head Coach at Cercle Brugge

RADHI JAIDI became the first Tunisian to play in the Premier League when he joined Sam Allardyce's Bolton in 2004.

He helped the team qualify for Europe and went on to join Birmingham City and then Southampton. It was with the Saints that he transitioned into coaching, becoming Lead for their Under-23s and gaining promotion to Premier League 2 Division 1 in 2019.

Since then, Jaidi has been Head Coach of Hartford Athletic in the United States and of Esperance in Tunisia, where he started his professional career. Now he's back as assistant at Cercle Brugge in Belgium (having had six months there in 2021) and the team are flying high in the Pro League with one of the youngest teams in Europe.

Jaidi was our guest on Episode #61 of the TGG Podcast, in association with Hudl. As one of the only black Muslim coaches in European football, he is still blazing a trail and is eager for an opportunity as a Head Coach. You can listen to the interview via the Player below and read an edited transcript after that.

GROWING UP IN TUNISIA

Radhi Jaidi: I am born and raised in Tunisia in North Africa, specifically in Gabis, a little town in the south. It was difficult, especially the loss of my dad at 12-years-old. I was really attached to my Dad and he was my reference. Then, suddenly, you find yourself without that reference.

That was not easy but helped me find the man I am now and I look after my family as much as I can. Gabis is where I discovered street football, which was our main hobby. From street I went to formal football, a little bit organised, in Stade Gabsian, the main team in Gabis, then from there at the age of 17 I moved to Esperance, up north, one of the biggest clubs in Africa.

I spent 11 years there. The start was difficult, due to my background - a big centre half, I struggled a little bit with my technical skills, but I was really powerful with my heading. I was on the bench, come in and score with a header and next match find myself on the bench again.

I focused on trying to improve myself on a daily basis and then tried to prove the coaches and ownership wrong until my opportunity came, at the age of 23, 24, and I took my place as a starter.

That took me to a level I am now, that drove me on a daily basis - to achieve my objectives. There are some I achieved and some I am still working on. That helped me to become who I am now. Things happen for a reason. I made it to the PL, to be an international player who played 105 caps for my country and played two World Cups and scored in a World Cup.

JOINING BOLTON

At the age of 27 I became the first Tunisian, born and raised, to move to the prestigious Premier League. The weather ws the most difficult thing to accept. I remember my first day in England. I came from Tunisia in August, where its 45 degrees and sunshine. We have the beach and it's summer time. At Bolton it was rainy and grey. I thought, 'Ok, maybe it’s today, let's see tomorrow.' Next day, the same thing. Next week, same thing and it was depressing!

I remember the doctor giving me the UV machine, but it didn’t work. My wife said, 'I’m finishing my holiday in Tunisia. If you have time, catch me up.'

England is a different culture and mindset to Europe, which is maybe a reason for Brexit. It was a bit of a culture shock for me to deal with. Maybe I came old, but that helped me to integrate myself and was key. At that time I think we had 15 different nationalities and the club had a psychologist, sports science and a vast performance team that included player care.

That was a key that helped me and some others to integrate quickly. Me and my wife and daughter at that time needed that external hub. It helped us focus on our job as players. Bolton was ahead of that time. I discovered the real professionalism that answered a lot of the questions I had as a youngster.

We had a great season 2004/5 with our qualification for the Europa League. We had a very good team; very experienced with a lot of quality. I don’t know how Sam Allardyce brought all these players together, Jay-Jay Okocha, El Hadji Diouf, Ivan Campo, Fernando Hierro, Bruno Ngotty, Hidetoshi Nakata. It as a great team and I learned a lot from that.

For the first six months I was flying and scored some of the goals against big teams. My first goal against Arsenal in the old Highbury was probably the highlight. People were surprised when they saw me performing that way. That was a combination of me being hungry to showcase my ability, my dream to play in England.

When I came to England I found it easy, even though the league was very intense and physical. The only loss was I came to England at 28. I stood up to the challenge and played in the Premier League to 31, until I went to Birmingham. I stopped playing at 37.

I think I was preparing myself, because I was in a very hostile, intense, difficult environment in Africa. I found myself ready because I prepared myself and that’s the key now in dealing with players - it’s all about preparation, whether its mental, physical, tactical. Be prepared for the potential opportunity. Being prepared means obsessively looking after yourself and doing what needs to be done for you to be able to take the opportunity.

SAM ALLARDYCE

I don’t agree he was old school, because he adapted to the personality and the quality of the players we had and that proved successful. Using the physicality of Kevin Davies and the quality of Jay Jay, (Stelios) Giannakopoulos on the second ball, and the great midfielders we had, Ivan Campo, Gary Speed, Kevin Nolan. That was the profile of our team.

He didn’t want us centre backs to keep the ball more than two three passes before we go forward. We can see a lot of teams now using these strategies to get to the final third as soon as possible, create a stress in the opposition half or 18 yard box and then score goals.

I remember when I first came, with the first side pass he said, w'What are you doing? Please get the ball into Kevin Davies and he will challenge the centre back, we will win the first or second ball and take it from there.' Coaches need to adapt to the players. The system is adapted to the players' quality you have and make sure the players look good, keep performing at their highest and keep working on their weaknesses.

My first meeting after saying hi to Sam Allardyce was with Mike Forde. I remember his influence on the team was huge. He was so energetic, so positive, He had his own way of speaking, with a lot of energy, and I still remember his influence on my mindset and on me. After I did the psychological tests and had a chat with him and did a couple of sessions, we came out with a saying that he put that on my locker - 'Fulfil people’s dreams.' That had a huge impact on my way of operating on a daily basis and my attitude.

When I came from Tunisia I felt I was an ambassador for these young players who maybe didn’t het the opportunity I did to play in the Premier League and I needed to open the gate for these young talented players. That drove me throughout the years and I even still use it now. For me, it’s key.

European teams now don’t want to take the risk (of signing players direct from Africa) and are waiting for African players to go to the feeding leagues, Switzerland, Belgium, even France, who bring these players from Africa and give them a chance.

The challenge is big for these players. You’re not speaking just about the football but also the culture, language, weather, food and all of this needs assistance.

ANY STORIES ABOUT HOW ALLARDYCE BUILT TEAM SPIRIT?

One stuck in my mind, because I had to pay a week’s wages! The first three months I think we had Wednesday off, so the Tuesday night we had to meet in the local restaurant - players and their parents if you want - to have dinner, a little bit of music and by 11.30, midnight, you’re back home. I missed the first dinner and the next day Sam Allardyce came to me and said, 'You need to pay.'

I think Jay Jay didn’t come either and we had to pay one week's wages. For me, it was a shock, because I already paid tax and then one week’s wages. He said, 'No, you have to come.'

The next time I came and really enjoyed it, because I was meeting the players outside the pitch and the changing room, in a different environment, a relaxed and bonding environment. You have no idea how much that created a bonding between us. We started to organise that in the same restaurant by ourselves. We had a connection with our families, our colleagues and that created that bonding between different nationalities and backgrounds and you can see we transferred it to the pitch.

I don’t know how Sam Allardye did it to bring a legend like Fernando Hierro from Spain, who was the captain in Real Madrid, Jay Jay from PSG, Diouf from Liverpool, Nakata (from Fiorentina). It was big names and a big team, but the hardest bit as a coach is to engage these players and that is the quality of Sam. He always looked positive, happy. We don’t see him much in the training ground, but he comes on Friday to do the preparation of the starting 11, the strategy, and he was playing much on the psychology.

When we are going to play against Man U, sometimes he gives us three days off before the game - not one, three! He said, 'Ok, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday you are off guys. Come on Thursday if you want to do some bits, Friday game prep and then Saturday come to play.' I was worried to be fair and had to go to do some stretching and running, because it ws something I was not used to, but when it comes to game day we performed and made it difficult for a strong Man U.

That was the psychology, creating that psychological shock. It created maybe an opportunity for the players to react and we always come back with a great performance. I remember my first game against Man U at the Reebok Stadium, we did 2-2 and it was a great game. He innovated, he bring some new stuff.

TRANSITION INTO COACHING

In 2006 I left Bolton for Birmingham City, with Steve Bruce. It was a young team with some experienced players like myself. We got promotion that year, played in the Premier League for a season, got relegated and then promotion again.

I left to Southampton (in 2009), where I finished my career, and had great experience as a player and especially as a coach (he became U23s Lead in 2017). I learned about coaching, developing, managing and leading and am really grateful for that.

The main values for me are hard work, discipline and winning mentality. These are the ones I use myself that I try and transfer to the players. Nothing comes without hard work. This is not necessarily to go out and run, but to try and improve your mindset, recognise your weaknesses. Commitment - you need to always be focused, ready to counter any distraction, to be able to stay committed to your job.

And without having the desire to win, you won’t improve. We understand you will make mistakes and lose, but then show the next day the right mentality to go and improve yourself.

MAIN CHALLENGE FACING YOUNG PLAYERS: DISTRACTION

Each generation has their challenges and way of operating and we need to understand - this generation is struggling massively with distraction. I have a son who is 17, who is my reference, and it is very difficult for them. We need to understand this and try to guide and support them.

This is the challenge - to accept first, that this generation is different and this is what talent looks like now; to help them find these values. It is a different generation and different environment, but same values. My job is to help them find these values, understand them and apply them.

If you need me to watch some Netflix series I have no clue about, I will see it. Or some songs with my son, to understand how I can connect with him and speak to him, about that rapper or clothes, to be able to be able to guide them to the right values. That is the hardest thing for some of us, because we don’t accept the way they do.

This is my advice for Academy coaches - to find what you can to do to engage these players, whether it’s with a social media video or whatever. Why not? You are still influencing and still have the values you are transferring. We want them to perform at the highest level for them to be able to progress.

Even us, as adults, we find ourselves sometimes distracted. So imagine a 17, 18-year-old. Having that awareness of the environment around you is key.

If I bring something he wasn’t expecting, that came out yesterday, then he says, 'Ok, Dad, he’s updated.' That at least opens the conversation and you can swing around the ideas to get that agreement. It’s still an agreement between you and the kid, the player, to take those steps to improve.

The worst scenario for this generation, 17, 18-years-old, is them having to adapt to you. It’s horrible, they don’t see it. For you to be able to manage that, is to show you are flexible, you are not rigid; showing your doors are open, you are open to conversation. Sometimes you have to accept they speak to you harshly, or arrogantly. Hold your emotions, understand your reactions to be able to understand their mindset and help them.

We had a psychologist called Malcolm Frame at Southampton, who came out with the four As - accept, assess, adapt and apply. And then you can apply this in every moment and situation. If you are losing 1-0, you have to accept. Then you start to assess what do we need to do now? Adapt - now you adjust your style of play, your shape. And finally you apply. You can use this process in 10 seconds. If you are in control and the percentage of success in your decisions will be better.

CURRENT ROLE 

I've been working as an assistant with Cercle Brugge since last year. This is my second spell in Cercle. I came in 2021/22 and that season the club and team were struggling and we couldn’t find our balance. We were fighting relegations.

Since that time the organisation generally was progressing. We built a good base and also a good strategy, took the club to a different level. Last season we played play-off two (beating Beerschot to win the Second Division) and this season we have been top seven at least throughout the season (they are fifth at the time of publication).

We have a young team; we try to develop and also win games. Sometimes we play with an average age of 22, which is one of the youngest in Europe (at the time of publication they were the youngest time in Belgium according to the CIES, with an average age of 23.5).

Every time I came back to Cercle Brugge I felt really comfortable with how this project was running and it felt very aligned to my profile as a coach. It is an enjoyable, hard-working, disciplined and energetic environment with a lot of intensity on a daily basis, so it's part of me.

My main task is taking care of the defending set-up, especially the back four. As a former centre back I maybe add value to these young centre backs.

SISTER TEAM OF MONACO

I met Laurence (former Monaco Technical Director Laurence Stewart) many times. We have been working under the same umbrella, which is the Monaco company. The link between the two clubs is getting even closer and we try to share the same principles and values. We always have a great connection with the ownership and directors at Monaco and lately we have been in a training camp in Monaco, using the same facilities and connections, which gives us a great insight into how we can get ourselves to that level, even though it is the same strategy and perspective. We go together for the same mission.

It's the region and identity of Cercle and the strategy of Monaco and the company. They use the club as a platform for young talented players, either local or international, to develop these players to play for Cercle in the Pro League or Monaco in Ligue 1 or somewhere else bigger if needed and maybe have a sell-on fee and high revenues from these players.

Lately we saw some players from Monaco who didn’t have the game time and opportunity there, they come and give us the boost and opportunity to work with them, to have the game time in the very intense and energetic Pro League and maybe go back to Monaco and be in the starting line-up in the future.

DEVELOPING YOUNG PLAYERS

This is aligned with my background as an Academy coach at Southampton. I worked for around eight years in the club as a first-team assistant coach and then I took over as Under-23 Head Coach. It gave me the boost to learn from these young talented players on a daily basis as a coach. I was developing and working on details with the players on a daily basis and also working with them to go to the next level on all four corners.

It’s a great challenge to develop and win games at the same time. That keeps me engaged on a daily basis. You know these players need time to learn, from all different aspects. Especially from 22 to 24 years old, it's more about learning how to win. They should have the technical and physical ability and the knowledge but it’s more about understanding what takes you to win the games.

This is what I love and keep exploring on a daily basis. I call my philosophy develop to win, win to develop. It always goes back to preparation and the detail you are going to give to these players. This is the most obsessive thing for me as a coach - trying to find the right combination on a daily basis. If you find it, it is an unbelievable result. But with development players there is no consistency, so you always need to be prepared for the fact there will be some periods when performance goes down.

I call football a fake business. There is always the factor of time against coaches, because developing players takes time, but the football business doesn’t give a lot of time, especially with the challenges of media and social media. For me, it is clarity on the strategy and then everybody knows the ultimate objectives and the steps leading to them.

Everybody needs to share that and be aware of it, from top to bottom. From there you have an aligned strategy that everyone is connected to, including the players, and then hopefully you can build something interesting, like we have in Cercle Brugge. We play with a very young team. Our challenge on a weekly basis is to keep them engaged. There are a lot of ups and downs, individually or collectively, but we keep exploring what we can improve and how.

BUILDING RELATIONSHIPS

It all goes back to relationships, although it varies from one individual to another. We have a multi-cultural and multi-background team. We have players from all over the globe, from Brazil, France, Ghana, England, and different languages that we speak. Even our staff is multi language, which is very interesting.

Building relationships with the players - we make it look informal, but it’s basically organised and planned. Each coach has their own task and we try to build that relationship with the players and understand their strengths, weaknesses, fears, their favourite things, for us to be able to pass the right message. That’s the key and can make the success of a coach or not - building relationships with the staff and players and making them comfortable to express themselves.

From there, you can use expertise as a former player, or a coach developer, to engage these players and make them perform at their highest. That’s the ultimate objective. If they do a mistake or not we need them to perform at their highest in the training sessions and the games. Then we can assess those performances in relation to our principles and values.

AMBITIONS FOR THE FUTURE

The ultimate is to succeed with a European team as a Head Coach, I still have the ambition, the desire, the energy, the obsession to make it, despite the difficulties, despite the unconscious bias.

Im black, I’m North African, a minority, still different. I have my own style, my own way of coaching and leading. I just need to find that little door open. As soon as I’m in, I think I have a lot to contribute and my ambition and desire grow every day. The day I am going to get the opportunity I am going to explode.

I have done everything that needs to be done to be the coach I am now - the experience, the qualifications - the only thing that’s missing is getting that opportunity. I am still based in England, in Southampton.

My desire grows on a daily basis. I don’t mind speaking about it. There are some individuals that keep it confidential. As honest and transparent as I am, I am open to everyone. I am open to integrity and why not? I am Muslim and proud, but I also try to show the right image about Muslim people.

Read more on:

Cercle BruggePodcast

Current jobs

Lead Data Scientist

Leicester City

Set Piece Coach

Brentford

Recent news

Weaver leaving Norwich City after seven years

More stories

Sign up to our newsletter to get all the latest news from The Guru

//