His former assistant Tom Jones remembers how Ian Porterfield inspired Armenia’s resurgence
“Everybody had tears coming down from their eyes,” said Tom Jones. “It touched me.” He was remembering the evening of 21 August 2007. It’s not one he is likely to forget.
The former Swindon Town midfielder had visited Armenia for the first time only three months previously, but on that summer’s evening, standing in the centre circle at Yerevan’s Vazgen Sargsyan Stadium as the daylight faded and the national media looked on, he found himself caught up in the awakening of a nation’s footballing consciousness.
First as an assistant to Ian Porterfield and latterly as a caretaker manager, Jones was present at a moment of rare catharsis in Armenia, when a country shed the burdens of 15 doleful years and found in tragedy the tools to build a future for its national football. Porterfield, who first brought Jones to the tiny Caucasus republic, is better remembered for his heroics in Sunderland than in the former Soviet Union. It was his goal in the 1973 FA Cup final that upset Leeds, but after spells managing at Aberdeen and Chelsea the spirit of adventure had moved him to seek fresh challenges in the backwaters of world football. When he was diagnosed with cancer of the colon in early 2007 it was inevitable that he would reach out to his long-time confidant, and Jones found his life transformed overnight.
“It was a horrible phone call really,” recalls Jones, who had already had a spell working with Porterfield in South Korea. “Ian said to me, ‘Look, I’ve got to go into hospital for this operation, but I don’t want anybody to take the team bar you. I’ve squared it with the FA, what do you think?’ So I got on a plane and went out there.” That was not long after Porterfield had been appointed Armenia boss in 2006, and the pair quickly set about transforming the fortunes of a side in 134th place in the world rankings.
“Ian gave me the tapes of his first few games in charge to look at and asked me what I thought. I don’t think I saw the opposition goalkeeper once.” Armenia, relatively new to the international football scene, seemed to have developed an inferiority complex. “I spoke to Vardan [Minasyan, the assistant coach] and he said the team were frightened of losing six or seven and embarrassing the nation, so they just sat back and defended. I said, well, that mentality had to change.”
Much of what Jones saw on those tapes was taken from games when Porterfield had been on medical leave and Minasyan had taken charge. Armenia had won just three games in three years and Minasyan had struggled to think outside of the ingrained narrative of inferiority and defeat. “Vardan was a fantastic organiser and administrator, but on the pitch his teams never had a shot on goal,” Jones said. “So I came in and brought a different mindset; set up training sessions to be high-pressing, high-tempo, really getting in people’s faces. I don’t care who we’re playing, just don’t let them play.”
Hardly an original contribution to the tactical lexicon, but inside a few weeks Jones had identified something in Porterfield and Minasyan’s squad that, with minor tweaking, could create ripples. A group of players used to being told that expansive, attacking football was the route to national humiliation suddenly were given a reason to come out and play. “Until then, all these guys had thought about was keeping the score down,” he said. “So I worked to change the mentality, to get men forward and occupy the opposition back line. There wasn’t to be any more of just letting the opposition have the ball. Once the players bought into that mindset, we started to see a change.”
The transformation was instant. On 2 June 2007 Armenia won 2-1 in Kazakhstan – just their third away win in five years – before following it up four days later with a historic 1-0 win against Poland. “It was the first time the country had ever won back-to-back games,” remembers Jones, “and it just gave the country and its football fans a lift like you’re never seen. The next day I was walking through the park in Yerevan and there were people coming up and shouting, ‘Coach! Coach! Brilliant! Brilliant!’ This had just never happened to them before.”
It isn’t difficult to see why people were excited by what they’d seen. Their team had just beaten a side containing players from the likes of Borussia Dortmund and Celtic led by Leo Beenhakker, a coach who had managed at a World Cup. But Armenia had their own star in the making – Henrikh Mkhitaryan, a young forward given his debut by Porterfield and whose father Hamlet had played twice for the national team – and Jones played a pivotal part in the early development of a player who would go onto become Armenian football’s first household name.“Henrikh was brilliant. His mum worked within the FA and both her and her son’s English was perfect. I watched him against Liechtenstein in an Under-21s game and of course he stood out” said Jones. The forward would go on to smash the transfer record for an Armenian player when he signed for Borussia Dortmund for €27.5m in 2013.
“Ian was always very trusting of me with young players: he said, ‘That’s your area of expertise, you can see a player when one comes along,’ and so when I said we needed to get Henrikh in the team sooner rather than later, he listened. Henrikh just looked like he’d been playing international football all his life; he was fearless. The way he would pick up the ball and run beyond defenders. I tried to tell people over here when I came back just what a player he was going to be. You just knew.”
Later, when Minasyan was to go solo as head coach of Armenia, scaling greater heights than the country had ever known, he would look to Mkhitaryan as their talisman and main goal-scoring threat. But did Mkhitaryan make the revitalised side’s high-tempo pressing game tick, or vice-versa? “He was certainly a bonus,” says Jones, “but the change in mentality that we brought to the team, which Vardan learned from us and then carried on, that was what got the team out of that negative spiral.”
Poland was a watershed moment for Jones, Porterfield and Minasyan but things were about to take a decisive turn. Porterfield’s illness had progressed and it had become doubtful whether he would live to see his work come to fruition. “Ian’s health was deteriorating all the time,” Jones said. “He wasn’t getting better. Then he phoned me when he was in Brompton Hospital in a very bad way and he said that the only game he wanted to see through was the Portugal game [on August 22]. That was his only target.
“Two days before the game they flew him out there. I’d been doing all the coaching up to that point, assisted by Vardan.” It was the following day that football in Armenia came alive.
“It was the day before the Portugal game, we’d just finished our training session for the day at the stadium. All the media were there and everyone could see that Ian was struggling. He had a colostomy bag and God knows what else. He could barely stand. Then he got everybody together in the middle of the pitch and he said, ‘Link hands’. He got everybody with hands up in the air and he said, ‘This. This is for us. Together.’”
It’s only later, when Jones talks about the day that Porterfield passed away, that the poignancy of that moment at the Sargsyan Stadium is really felt. It was exactly three weeks later on September 11 whilst the team were preparing for a friendly in Cyprus that the news came through. “We were told on the morning of the game. Vardan and I had to call a team meeting with the whole committee and the president [of the FA] present and we had to break the news to the players. There were a lot of tears. A lot of tears.
“The players really didn’t want to play the game but I just thought it was what Ian would have wanted. But no-one’s mind was on the game, we lost 3-1 and it was horrible. Afterwards we had a meeting and I just said, ‘Look, we can’t allow that to happen again. All that we’ve built together is going to be lost.’”
How better to respond than by channelling the legacy of the man who had made the resurgence possible? Porterfield’s final game had been the Portugal match – a sterling 1-1 draw against Cristiano Ronaldo and co. marking a fitting end to a life dedicated to the game – but now there was the small matter of first protecting and then building on the foundations he had left.
“I make a point of never trying to copy anybody,” says Jones as he remembers the home game with Serbia, one month after Porterfield’s passing. “But I got them all out on the pitch before kick-off, we got together in a circle and we raised our hands together and we said, ‘This is for us.’ The stadium went absolutely berserk. Everyone in that ground was completely together, behind us and in memory of Ian. It was incredible. We drew 0-0 but it should have been 10-0.”
A trawl through the archives confirms the accuracy of Jones’s memory, if not his numeracy. There can rarely have been an international fixture so one-sided, with Armenia squandering chance after chance against a side boasting such European heavyweights as Branislav Ivanović and Dejan Stanković. The following day, the Serbia coach Javier Clemente, once of Spain, was sacked, such was the superiority of Jones’s Armenians as they played for the memory of a manager they had adored.
Four days later came Belgium but by then the physical and emotional strains of the previous month were beginning to show; a brave rearguard action was undone by a late own goal, the final cruelty for the young republic. Jones still has the hand-written team sheets.
He also has two slightly battered and worn photographs. They show Porterfield near the end, thin and unsteady but brimming over with pride as he celebrates with his players in the bowels of the stadium after the Poland victory. They are the last pictures that Jones owns of his friend alive.
It’s as far as the story goes, for Jones at least. After defeats to Portugal and Kazakhstan he returned to Swindon, proud but with regrets. “After Ian passed I asked the federation time and time again, what do I have to do to get this job, but never got an answer,” he said. Instead the federation opted for the Dane Jan Poulsen, but only when Minasyan was given the top job in 2009 did Porterfield and Jones’s legacy begin to bear fruit.
Under Minasyan, Armenia won nine out of twenty competitive internationals – a win ratio without precedent in the country’s football history – as the coach stuck to the high-tempo, high-pressing philosophy he had learned from his foreign mentors. Europe came virtually to a standstill in June 2013 as the team won 4-0 in Denmark, to go with victories in Slovakia and the Czech Republic. The mighty Italy were held to a 2-2 draw. In February 2014 Armenia ranked 30th in the world, a rise of more than 100 places from when Jones had first touched down in Yerevan.
Even at the height of the team’s new-found success Minasyan was never in any doubt about where the impetus for change had come from. “I learned so much from Ian Porterfield,” he told the Armenian press in December 2012. “Not only his sporting approach but his human touch are things I hold very close to me.”