Exclusive Interview: Mark Wotte

James Rowe for The Secret Footballer

JR: You are known for being a very experienced professional football manager but I wanted to start by asking you about your playing career. How do you look back on your playing career and do you have any particular highlights or memories?

MW: My playing career did not go as I had hoped. I played in the Dutch youth team at under 17 level, at that time I had really high ambitions - I wanted to reach the top of Dutch football. However, I also had two parents who reminded me of my responsibilities for the future and they told me that I must finish school and that I must study because it is safer. So I combined my studies with playing professional football. I went to the ( Academie voor Lichamelijke Opvoeding ) in The Hague, that was my full time study, I combined that with semi professional football at SVV Schiedam and FC Den Haag. I signed semi-professional contracts and I also played one season for Feyenoord, but with the stipulation that my studies came first so I never threw everything 100 percent into my football career. I certainly don’t regret it because if you’re 21 years old, you know by that point if you’re good enough to reach the top.

I knew at the age of 18, 19, 20 that I could become a professional footballer but that I would not be good enough for the Feyenoord first team, even though I made four appearances for the club in which one match was against Ajax. I came on as a substitute in the last ten minutes and that was a kind of highlight in my career. Back in the day in 1982- 1984, it was also the case that you could not become a millionaire by playing football so I thought to prioritize my studies. I had a modest career up until the age of 26. I then suffered a really heavy groin injury and I stopped playing for a year. That resulted in me not being able to play professionally anymore so I decided to concentrate on my managerial career from the age of 26.

JR: You managed Willem II for two seasons. How do you look back on your time as manager of the club and do you have any particular highlights or memories?

MW: I had a great time at Willem II. I arrived at the club from being the Dutch national youth team coach and Martin van Geel asked me to manage the club. I thought Willem II was a nice club and before that I was also manager of FC Den Haag and FC Utrecht. I thought that Willem II would be a good step in my career. I had the joy of working with some really good players such as Joris Mathijsen, Denny Landzaat and Kew Jaliens, Geert De Vlieger, Raymond Victoria, Dmitri Shoukov, Tarik Sektioui. We had a great team and after a year and a half Martin van Geel left the club and his successor was Barry Hulshoff. That resulted in big changes at the club. Barry had other ideas as to how Willem II must play football and regarding the quality of the players. In December 2003, we were in 5th place in the Eredivsie and I received a request from Feyenoord to become the Technical Manager so I decided to make the choice to go to Feyenoord but I look back on a really nice time at Willem II. I had a lot of fun managing the team, we had good players, good staff and Willem II are a great club to work for.

JR: You were Academy Director of Southampton FC. Given the progression that the club has made in recent years I wanted to ask what did your work at Southampton entail and what were you able to accomplish and achieve during your time at the club?

MW: The Southampton chairman at the time, Rupert Lowe, asked me previously to come to the club but at that time it did not happen, he told me that he thought it was really important that the famous academy would once again be guided well under a new leader and so he brought me to the club as head of the academy. I did that for six months and I worked together with the then manager, Jan Poortvliet. After six months, Jan resigned because he was frustrated due to the bad results and when he left, Rupert Lowe asked me to take over.

After taking over the reigns for six months, the club went into administration and that was in particular a very difficult financial period for the club. They did not have any money and we could not buy any players in the January transfer window. But we had many talented players such as Adam Lallana, Nathan Dyer, David McGoldrick who currently plays for Sheffield United, Morgan Schneiderlin at that time, they were all 18 -19 years of age. They were young players who were just a little too light to play in the heavy Championship. We also had good players such as Jason Euell, Simon Gillett, Chris Perry, Kelvin Davis and Paul Wotton. I finished the season together with former captain Michael Svensson, Keith Grainger goalkeeping coach and Dean Gorré, who is currently the Suriname national team manager.

I worked with a lot of pleasure at Southampton and in England. The football culture in England is fantastic. We played against big clubs such as Ipswich Town, Birmingham City and many big clubs that play in the Championship - there is a lot of respect for the coaches and the players. As long as you do your best, honest and try to get good results, then you become appreciated. If you look back at some of the talents we had at at the time, it was great to work with such players. Southampton are a fantastic club to work for mostly due to their fantastic academy. I still remember at that time we had a great batch of players in our under 13 squad such as Luke Shaw, James Ward-Prowse, Callum Chambers and Alex Oxlaide-Chamberlain. There were times as academy manager where I would watch the youth teams and I could not believe my eyes in terms of the quality, not only in terms of the youth coaches but also good recruitment and talented players to work with. When I was asked to become manager, I had to think about it because I knew it was going to be for the short term whereas academy manager you are there for the long term. It was a shame that at the time it was a really bad period for the club. I remember the last chat I had at the club with Markus Liebherr and at the end of the season he came to the club for a day in order to analyze the club and interviewed me. He ensured that the club once again became financially healthy and I remember him saying in a really honest way '' If I take over the club then I will make a clean slate and everybody will be out and new people will come in because if I buy a company all the current people must be replaced by new fresh blood. I managed to leave the club in a good way where there were no hard feelings. It was a great step for Southampton that Markus Liebherr bought the club.

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JR: You were also involved in the national team of Morocco coaching the youth teams. How do you look back on your time with the national team set up and for a country with so much potential and how was your experience in coaching and managing Morocco. Did you learn anything in particular about African football?

MW: My time with Morocco was really interesting. I spent three and a half years with the national youth players of Scotland prior to that, when my work finished there, I received a request from Nasser Larguet (currently at Marseille) to go and work for them and become national team coach for the under 20 team and another two years for the under 23 team. I had to identify the talented Morocco players from many different countries because many players played all over Europe. We managed to secure Achraf Hakimi from Spain, from Ajax, Noussair Mazraoui, Armine Harit, Youssef En-Nesyri as well as our own talents in Morocco such as Hamza Mendyl - who currently plays for Schalke 04 in Germany. I had a great time especially learning a new culture, it was nice to advise the Moroccan club teams because Moroccan club academies do not have a really high level due to lack of finances. We had to upgrade all the academies and I managed along with my fellow international managers, to give good advice. I managed to see the whole of Africa in three and a half years and not only did I see many talented players from Morocco but also many talented Moroccan players playing in Europe. It was a shame when we played the qualification match against DR Congo for the African Cup of Nations, my four best players weren’t available and so I had to play the decisive game without players such as Youssef En-Nesyri,Noussair Mazraoui and Achraf Hakimi. If you remove from a good squad the three best players, you know that you are losing quality and unfortunately we did not manage to qualify. That was a disappointment, but all in all, I really enjoying working in Morocco - it was nice to become appreciated by the Moroccan people and the people in Morocco. They are very friendly and they are absolutely mad about football. It was a great country to work in. I also won three gold medals with several youth teams during my time there.

JR: What is your opinion about the current potential of African football? Do you see an African team winning or making progress in a major international tournament in the future. Is there a country that you think that could reap the rewards of the time and effort they have invested in their national team?

MW: I have seen approximately 20 African countries including friendlies and youth international games so I have seen a lot of African football. I always make a distinction between the North African teams such as Morocco, Egypt, Tunisia and Algeria and they are comparable with South European countries. If you compare that with countries such as Ghana, Senegal, Cameroon, things are different and I believe that African football is characterized by enormous physical potential. If they couple the potential with good training, an African country can go a long way at a World Cup but then the talented African players must be trained in Europe in order to build up European experience. The North African countries such as Morocco, Egypt, Tunisia and Algeria they are have very technical and skillful players and although some players might be less physical, they have an enormous drive and enthusiasm. I believe that there is a lot of potential in North Africa as well as the rest of Africa whereby the clear difference is that the rest of Africa due to their sheer physical power that I believe that those countries will continue to be more and more important at international tournaments in the future.

James Rowe is a Dutch Football expert based in the Netherlands, professional writer and translator for The Secret Footballer. He has featured on talkSPORT and regularly features on talkSPORT 2 and Love Sport Radio. You can follow him on Twitter here.