It is widely accepted in football- ing circles that the pinnacle of management is to take charge of your country.
So it may surprise you that a member of staff at Warwick Sport has twice steered a Great Britain side to second place in an international tournament.
James Ellis, the acting director of sport at Warwick, guided the GB football team to a silver-medal finish at this summer’s World University Games in Russia, a global tournament open to any talented footballers who are studying at university.
This followed a similar achievement in Shanghai, China, in 2011. Ellis was also assistant coach in Belgrade in 2009, where GB finished fourth.
The opening ceremony in Moscow hosted 160 nations and 10,000 student athletes, while 27 different sports were represented in the competition itself. The World University Games is the second-largest multi-sport event in the world after the Olympics.
After watching numerous Blue Square Premier and Conference games to select a squad of 20 for the 2013 tournament, Ellis helped the team through a tricky group stage with Italy, Malaysia and Algeria, before edging past Ukraine 1-0 in the quarter-final.
After beating hosts Russia in the semi-final – uncommon for a British side, the win came in a penalty shoot-out after a 1-1 draw in normal time – Ellis’ men were beaten 3-2 by France in the final.
Despite this, the former Loughborough University director of football’s manner unveils to me that he remembers July’s competition with great fondness.
“It was an absolutely magnificent spectacle,” he said. “I can’t even describe the opening ceremony. There were 45,000 people there, including (Russian president) Vladimir Putin, and it was very much like the London 2012 opening ceremony.
“We prepared for the tournament at the CSKA Moscow training ground, which had quite basic facilities but helped us acclimatise. We then lived in the athletes’ village, which was brilliant.
“The players did get a little bit bored, but we did loads of research to make sure that they were living with the right people.
“We had to be really ruthless.
“Some extremely gifted players missed out, not because of their footballing ability, but because of what we call the ‘human being element’. It was so important the players knew how to handle their free time.”
It was a strange start to the tournament, as GB’s first opponents Algeria failed to show up for their first match, giving GB a 3-0 win.
“I didn’t tell the players at the time, but I knew they were struggling to arrive on time,” Ellis admitted.
“In the end they didn’t make it. It actually made it harder for us though, as we knew we would have to win at least one of the other games against Italy and Malaysia.
Fabio Capello came up to me and asked if he could come into our changing room to congratulate the players on their performance. The players were amazed
“We beat Malaysia 2-0, which was great, but Italy absolutely smashed us and won 1-0 (Federico Masi, a centre-back who plays for Serie B club Bari, scored).
“We knew the quarter-final was always going to be tough, as GB had never beaten Ukraine before in this tournament.”
Thanks to a second-minute penalty from Forfar Athletic’s Gavin Malin, Ellis’ side narrowly broke the hoodoo. By contrast, their semi-final opponents, host nation Russia, cruised through their quarter-final with Canada, winning 4-1.
“It was really intimidating playing in that semi-final, with all the crowd behind Russia,” said Ellis.
“I had to make some massive decisions in the penalty shoot-out, but it was great to go through.”
Indeed, after Mickey Rae’s late equaliser, Ellis made the unusual decision of taking off goalkeeper Tim Horn and replacing him with James Belshaw, who was on the bench after being concussed in the group stages.
“He wasn’t really allowed to play, because the doctor didn’t want him playing within a week of suffering concussion,” Ellis admitted.
“But in training we’d practised taking penalties against James, and I knew he could save a “stock pen- alty” to his left-hand side.
“After the game, the opposition coach walked away and wouldn’t shake my hand. Suddenly (Russia and former England manager) Capello came down from the stands and pushed the guy, as if to tell him to shake my hand.
“He then came up to me and asked if he could come into our changing room to congratulate the players on their performance. The players were amazed.”
The win was all the more re- markable given the calibre of the Russian side. Goalscorer Vladimir Dyadyun has been capped by the national team and plays for Cham- pions League regulars Rubin Ka- zan, while eight of the players have appeared for the under-21s. By contrast, Ellis was denied the services of players such as Partick Thistle midfielder James Crai- gan and Sunderland’s Duncan Wat- more, whom Paolo di Canio signed in the summer from Altrincham.
Great Britain ultimately slipped to a 3-2 defeat against France in the final, which Ellis admitted was “a game too far”.
But he said he was proud of the players’ attitude, and particularly their commitment to passing foot- ball. The second-minute winner against Ukraine came before their Eastern European opponents had touched the ball. “You wouldn’t see the senior England side doing that,” Ellis smiled.
He also appreciated the praise of pundits on Eurosport, who provided a live broadcast of the final.
But the former Nuneaton Borough and Kettering Town coach, who has previously worked with Charlton Athletic midfielder Bradley Pritchard in non-league foot- ball, confirmed that he would now be stepping down from the role in order to concentrate fully on his role at Warwick.
“It’s time for me to stand aside now,” he said. “I absolutely love the coaching side of things, but I also love the day-to-day role of developing people.
“I moved to Warwick (from Loughborough university) because the University has massive potential, and a great community of students who are on a journey towards doing well in life. “My focus is now trying to create an environment where people can come and talk to me about any concerns. We want sport and exercise to be a way of life for people at Warwick.
“Eventually I’d like to get back into Conference football, and I’ve taken my League Managers’ Asso- ciation (LMA) qualifications.
“But it would have to come at the right time.”
One thing is clear from the numerous souvenirs, from medals and pictures to videos and slide- shows: James Ellis will not forget the summer of 2013 in a hurry.
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