After countless volunteer roles, coaching Limerick FC's U-19s and eight years as an FAI Development Officer, Conor Nestor concluded that leaving Ireland was necessary to realise his coaching ambitions.
“I began with the FAI in 2008, which was exciting because Packie Bonner was Technical Director and his remit was to go around Ireland and get as many Development Officers on the ground as possible.
"There was no real system before and there was then a pathway for kids in any part of the country to play the same way throughout their progression, which was massive … Even as an idea. My plan was stay for three years and make as big an impact as possible. Coming from Limerick and working for your national association was a dream come true, really.
"Naively, in my youth, I thought I could come in and change the world. Then you realise quickly that it doesn't matter if what we're trying to do is best for the kids and long-term plans of football in this country … Everybody had their own vested interest, let's say.
"Eight years later I'm thinking that if you're waiting for satisfaction with the changes you've helped bring about, you're going to be dead first. Having said that, coach development has gotten much better. I'm still hopeful, even though the new system is far from perfect, but is an improvement.”
The idea was go abroad, study how clubs operated and broaden the Foynes native's coaching horizons.
“I got into football to coach. Irish football doesn't have an industry, but a few employers. I'd worked in the US in 2007, to hone my coaching skills, so I knew there was an industry there. I went back because I knew I could access different levels, from grassroots to elite clubs. I also felt it would be good to network and forward my career.”
“I got offers in the US, but nothing gripped me. A friend of mine in Melbourne said I should get there and see what I thought about their football scene. After six months, he offered me a two-year sponsorship to run a football academy. I loved the city, but the job offer wasn't what I'd envisaged when I left Ireland. I still would coach, but it was more like a business venture. I had to leave Australia while waiting for that sponsorship to come through. Another friend said that I'd love Cambodia and should try coaching in international schools.
"I reached out to a guy called Christopher Grant, who was running these schools. To keep busy I coached a semi-pro team. That didn't start brilliantly and I thought I was getting sacked after a few training sessions, but eventually they saw what I was trying to do.”
From this humble post in a country not originally on Conor's radar, he advanced rapidly enough to garner attention from one of Cambodia's biggest clubs Preah Khan Reach Svay Rieng FC.
“This semi-pro team beat professional sides in a couple of friendlies and Christopher Grant was involved in the Svay Rieng academy. He said that the CEO approached him, they were going to change the coach and enquired if he knew anybody. Christopher asked me if I wanted to meet the CEO, so I presented a plan and got offered the job.
"I had to decide whether to return to Melbourne, go down the football business route or stay here and work for pennies, but follow the dream of being a Head Coach at a professional team. It was an easy choice and now I'm approaching almost four years here.”
During this time in charge of the Phnom Penh club, the obvious highlight came when Nestor led his troops to capture the 2019 C-League (the Metfone Cambodian League in its current guise) thanks to a 25-game unbeaten run.
“My first season was one from hell, then we won the league in the second. We topped the division last year with the best goal difference, but lost out on the head to heads. The second half of the season was split into two, to finish up because of COVID. We lost in dramatic circumstances on the last day, so that was heartbreaking, especially because it was cut short.
"This year we're four points off the top. We've lost three games in six months of stop-start football and only three in 18 months before that. We've been massively affected by the disruptions and it's easy to say that it's the same for everyone. Interruptions don't suit our playing style because we're a high octane, pressing outfit. Playing that way requires lots of games and momentum carrying you through. We're going to have to get that back when the league resumes on the 5th/6th September. Like last year, we're possibly going to run out of time.”
Earlier this year the Irishman extended his Svay Rieng FC contract until the end of 2023 and remains focused on improving his current employer's fortunes.
“The Sea Games are coming to Cambodia in 2023, which is like the Southeast Asian Olympics. The country's hosting it for the first time and we're aspiring to bring the next generation through, who'll hopefully play in those Sea Games.
"We're all working at the club to be successful on the pitch in the short term, but also create a sporting moment for the country that can transcend into something where Cambodia can look forward to a bright future. That's the dream, but it's professional football and if you lose too many games, somebody's going to tip you on the shoulder. Equally, the reverse is true and if offers come in that are too good, then you're going to listen.
"I'm lucky regarding my relationship with the CEO, and the owner is honest and open. Right now, I'm not thinking outside the club or country because this is the place that gave me my opportunity and you want to give a suitable amount back before the next chapter.”
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