Ian Foster: How Saudi Pro League improved Plymouth Argyle’s new head coach

Ian Foster
Ian Foster has agreed a three-and-a-half-year deal after succeeding Steven Schumacher at the helm at Plymouth Argyle

“We organised training sessions around prayer times, we trained at nine o’clock at night because it’s roasting hot,” Ian Foster recalls of his recent time in the Saudi Pro League.

The 47-year-old has left the well-documented money and global stars to return to England and become the new head coach of Championship side Plymouth Argyle.

Foster, who guided England Under-19s to European Championship glory in 2022 and was assistant to Steve Cooper’s under-17 World Cup winners in 2017, had been Steven Gerrard’s assistant at Al-Ettifaq before the move to Home Park.

And he says his time in the Saudi Pro League – balancing 45C temperatures and bringing together domestic and international players – has improved him as a coach.

“Those types of challenges as a coach are brilliant, because it makes you better,” he tells BBC Sport.

“It’s not players arrive at 09:00 for breakfast, train at 10:30. You have to think differently, you have to be on your toes with it.

“You’re playing against some of the best players to have ever graced the game.

“You go against Al-Nassr and it’s [Alex] Telles and [Sadio] Mane and [Cristiano] Ronaldo, you go against Al-Ahli and it’s [Allan] Saint-Maximin, [Roberto] Firmino and [Riyad] Mahrez, Al-Hilal is Neymar, [Aleksandar] Mitrovic and Malcom.

“It’s challenging as a coach, which is brilliant, because if you don’t get it right they’ll expose you.”

Saudi Pro League ‘not going away’

Ian Foster (left) and Steven Gerrard
Foster had worked alongside Steven Gerrard since the pair joined Al-Ettifaq last summer

Foster’s appointment in the summer, alongside Gerrard, came amid a wave of spending which saw Saudi government-backed clubs spend tens of millions on global superstars – many from the Premier League.

Some have questioned the impact the league has had on the European game, with players able to earn riches in Saudi they perhaps could only dream of in Europe.

“I’m a football fan and you want to see the best players on your shores, and I think in the Premier League over recent history we’ve been fortunate enough to have that,” says Foster.

“When I was growing up it was more Serie A, all the players seemed to go to Italy at the time, and the two big Spanish clubs have always had the best players to ever grace the game, and still do have.

“But the Saudi Pro League is there, it’s not going away, and it is a wonderful experience for players, staff and families to go out and experience a different culture and a different league.”

Ian Foster (left) and Jordan Henderson
Former Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson was part of the squad under Foster’s guidance in Saudi Arabia

Jordan Henderson has been the highest-profile English player to go out to Saudi – moving to Foster’s Al-Ettifaq during the summer.

The former Liverpool captain came in for criticism for the move due to his previous support for LGBTQ causes, and was booed when he played for England in a friendly win over Australia in October.

But Foster says the 33-year-old Рwho has been linked with a move back to England Рis one of the best https://kueceng.com professionals he has ever worked with.

“He’s immaculate in everything he does.

“From the the minute he walks into the football club to the minute he leaves – and he’s normally the first and last one in those instances – he is an example to all of us in his behaviours.

“It allows me to speak to the young players in the building and say ‘this is what elite behaviours look like, I’ve witnessed it from a player who’s captained his country at the highest level’.

“It does benefit you as a coach because you get to see what elite looks like.”

Argyle ‘ticked every single box’

Ian Foster
Foster is the third successive boss at Plymouth Argyle to have come from the city of Liverpool

Now that Foster has seen what elite looks like, he is hoping to use that to help improve a Plymouth Argyle side who have started their first season back in the Championship since 2010.

The Pilgrims have surprised some with their form – their 43 goals is the highest outside the top four, and seven wins and eight draws in 26 games has them seven points and four places above the relegation zone.

His first game was a 3-1 win over Sutton United in the FA Cup third round and he takes his side to struggling Huddersfield Town on Saturday, after a first week of training which he hopes can inspire a first away victory of the season for Argyle.

“I only heard really positive things about the ownership, about the board, and about how they treat their staff, about the feel of the football club in terms of the culture and the environment,” he said of his new employers.

“Having experienced it before I know it’s a really passionate football club with a wonderful fanbase.

“The opportunity to be a head coach in the Championship is not to be sniffed at, for any coach, and it just ticked every single box for me.”

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