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Forget Guardiola or Klopp: Meet the Walsall football manager making a big name aboard in Bhutan

By Heather Large | Walsall | Football | Published:

Winning the league title is every football manager's goal but Josh Shepherd is also aiming to become one of the best head coaches in Asia.

Josh during a training session at Thimphu City

Earlier this year, the 27-year-old, who originally hails from Walsall, was appointed to lead Thimphu City FC in Bhutan.

Today the club's new season gets underway and Josh will be standing on the sidelines as his team takes on Drukstars FC in the Bhutan Premier League.

Expectations are running high with the club aiming to finish in top place so they can qualify for the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Cup and compete with some of the best teams in Asia.

"Financially this would be huge for the club as well as raising the reputation of Thimphu City. This year will be the toughest to date with most teams bringing in more foreigners and spending more money than ever," says Josh.

Following his appointment in February, he has now settled into his new home in Bhutan, which is nestled between China and India in south Asia's Eastern Himalayas.

The small and predominantly Buddhist nation is popular with travellers because of its stunning mountain views and mysterious, ancient monasteries.

Josh pictured when he was appointed head coach with club president Hishey Tshering

Thimphu is the country's capital and also its largest city with a population of around 115,000 people. "Thimphu is situated 2,200 metres above sea level so you can imagine the views here.

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"Thimphu itself is more Western than you may think, there are numerous coffee shops, places to eat Western food so the transition has been easy.

"Their national language is Bhutanese but they speak fluent English here, they drive on the same side as we do and the schools are taught in English," says Josh.

He relies on technology and a good internet signal to stay in touch with friends and family back home.

Thimphu City play their home games at the 15,000 capacity Changlimithang Stadium, which is one of the highest stadiums in the world

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"We are used to living apart as I've spent the past nine years in numerous countries but we stay in contact and video chat and message via WhatsApp so it makes it easier," says Josh.

Despite his young age, the former pupil of Park Hall School in Walsall, who first kicked a ball at the age of five, has plenty of football experience as a player and coach.

At the age of 18 he joined the Mentors of Excellence football scheme and from there went to play for Stalybridge Celtic Reserves.

After a short stint at Stalybridge, he moved to Australia to join Shamrock Rovers Perth who play in the Western Australia State League.

Josh with some of players during a team building session, swimming high in the mountains

From there he went to play in the Filipino Premier League before deciding a career in coaching was more beneficial in the long-term as he had always been interested in management.

Josh was the assistant manager at Wolverhampton Sporting where he also coached at Tamworth Academy, before moving to Spain to coach in the Spanish lower leagues.

He moved to The Gambia as the assistant manager at the biggest club in the country - Real de Banjul Football Club.

It was a challenging experience that meant adapting to a new way of life in the West African country.

"When I went to Gambia I was young and naive and found it extremely hard to adapt over there. Footballing wise the country has a huge amount of talent which has been seen the past two years with the national team climbing the rankings but in terms of living and finances it's still a million miles away.

After returning to England, he took up the number two role at Haverhill Rovers in 2016 before moving to fellow Thurlow Nunn Premier League side Long Melford Football Club the following year.

He was offered the job of head coach at Thimphu City by club owner and president Hishey Tshering, who is also vice-president of the Bhutan Football Federation and an avid Arsenal fan.

"I originally met the team president on social media around six years ago. He invited me and my current player here Jason Hart over for a tournament called the Kings Cup five years ago but unfortunately it didn't go ahead.

"Fast forward to this year and he contacted me asking me if I'd be interested in becoming head coach for the club which was an easy answer for me - yes," explains Josh, who attended secondary school in Accrington, Lancashire.

Josh with fellow Englishman and striker Jason "Jay" Hart

Thimphu City play their home games at the 15,000 capacity Changlimithang Stadium, which is one of the highest stadiums in the world.

It also the home of many of the city's clubs as well as the national side because the mountainous terrain means they is a shortage of available flat land that can be used for football.

The stadium, which resembles a palace more than a sports ground, was originally built on a famous battle ground in 1974 to mark the coronation of the fourth king of Bhutan.

It was refurbished in 2007 in advance of the crowning of the fifth king and in 2012, a new artificial turf pitch was installed.

Football had been first introduced to Bhutan by visiting teachers from India and Europe in the 1950s and has slowly increased in popularity especially since the arrival of television and the internet in 1999.

Josh with club president Hishey Tshering

There have been improvements in the game at all levels and the Bhutan national side, which at the start of 2015 was officially ranked the worst football team in the world has climbed to 186th place in the FIFA world rankings.

Although archery is Bhutan's national sport, football is on the rise and Thimphu City, who play in red shirts and white shorts, are one of the leading clubs with several of their players, including club captain Tshering Dorji, in the national team.

They were founded in 2012 with the "mandate of nurturing the many talents that Bhutanese youth have to offer and to provide them with the tools to succeed later on in life".

The first silverware was bagged in 2016 when the club won the Thimphu League and went on to finish top of the National League.

They following season they defended their Thimphu League title and were runners-up in the National League.

Last year they were runners-up in the Thimphu League , now known as the Bhutan Super League, and finished in third place in the national league, now called the Bhutan Premier League

Josh commentating on the Bhutan vs Guam World Cup Pre Qualifier

Now everyone has set their sights on winning more silverware this season along with earning the chance to play in the AFC Cup.

"Thimphu City has the biggest following in Bhutan and on social media with around 26,000 followers on Facebook.

The crowds here are improving year by year and for our big games we are hoping to attract a few thousand spectators," says Josh.

He has been concentrating on strengthening the squad which has included the arrival of English striker Jason "Jay" Hart, who helped his former side Longridge Town finish as champions scoring over 30 goals along the way.

The 29-year-old, from Accrington, says he is now enjoying life at Thimphu City. "Since arriving here I have settled in very well. I love how easy going life is, it is so stress free. The people here are amazing and I’ve developed good friendships with everyone involved in Thimphu City in my short time.

"My life has changed for the better and I am very much looking forward to it continuing here," he adds.

Josh says there are differences between English and Asian football and training sessions take place most days.

"Standard wise it's hard to compare as Asian football is more technical but less physical. We train five or six times a week depending on fixtures and usually have a two-hour session in the morning and an hour session later on in the afternoon," he adds.

Josh coaching his players

He is relishing the challenge ahead as the season gets under way and is feeling confident about achieving the success everyone associated with the club is dreaming of.

"I love the competitive side of football, I love the pressure and I love the reward of seeing my team do well and win football games.

"I have a huge desire to be the best in every way I'm always looking to improve myself, the individual players and the team," says Josh, who supports Accrington Stanley and Manchester United.

He names Manchester City's Pep Guardiola and Liverpool's Jürgen Klopp among the managers he admires most.

"In a global sense I have huge admiration of Guardiola and Klopp, their man management, style of play and their success is sensational but I also follow many other coaches from the UK who are doing well abroad," explains Josh.

He says coaching overseas has opened many doors for him and he wants to make a name for himself in Asian football.

"My ambition is to become one of the best English managers in Asia, the continent has so much to offer and really supports foreign coaches, it gives us a platform to build a successful career whereas in Europe it's much harder if you haven't played at an elite level," says Josh.

Heather Large

By Heather Large
Special projects reporter - @HeatherL_star

Senior reporter and part of the Express & Star special projects team specialising in education and human interest features.

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