On May 28, 2017, Dougie Brown, the former Scotland and England international, was chosen by the Emirates Cricket Board as the man to transform UAE Cricket.
The first anniversary of his opening 12 months in the role of head coach on a permanent basis have flown by and he could not have wished for a better year in the hot-seat.
Stepping into the shoes of Aaqib Javed – a man who steered the UAE to the 2014 World Twenty20 and 2015 World Cup – was never going to be an easy task, but Brown’s full-time appointment was no real surprise after he did a good job to steady the ship and rebuild as interim coach from February 2017 until late May of the same year.
He quickly made himself a contender for the top job by leading the team to their first four-day match victory in three-and a-half years against Papua New Guinea, and an ODI series victory over the same nation.
And it was more of the same in his first assignment as coach of the side proper, with his men securing their first-ever away 50-over series win against the Netherlands while also retaining ODI status at the World Cup Qualifier.
That’s not to mention their first scalp over a Test nation – a three-run victory against southern African side Zimbabwe in March 2018 – which ended their qualification hopes to next year’s ICC Cricket World Cup.
Nothing was riding on that result for the UAE, given they were already out of contention to qualify for the 2019 showpiece in England and Wales, but they showed tremendous spirit and character all the same.
Indeed, that performance showcased the battling qualities and ultimately pride which Brown has instilled in the UAE set-up.
However, the 48-year-old is reluctant to shoulder all the credit when reflecting on his time in the job so far – and acknowledges that everybody has played an integral role in the UAE’s rise.
“When I took over, we were in a very precarious position and languishing for the previous 12 months. We weren’t where we wanted to be in four-day cricket and faced the real prospect of losing our ODI status. Fortunately, that didn’t happen, but it would have had a huge impact on our funding at the ICC and even our own jobs,” he told Sport360 in an exclusive interview last week.
“It’s taken a big amount of work from everyone, particularly the players, but they have show immense dedication to raise their own performance levels and ultimately that helped us get through this tough period.”
To even reach the final World Cup qualifier, held in March of this year in Zimbabwe, the UAE had to come through qualifying matches in Namibia. A tournament victory was perhaps unexpected but the relief of securing their ODI standing was important.
Ultimately, the final hurdle was all too much for Brown’s men as the UAE finished bottom of the final six-team qualifying group, which saw West Indies and Afghanistan advance to the the main tournament.
“It was a difficult period for us,” the former Warwickshire all-rounder recalls.
“But, in some ways, it’s been a really exciting past year and it’s not always been for the right reasons. We had to do things the hard way to get to Zimbabwe and weren’t always on the front foot.
“Looking back, I’m really proud of what the team has achieved. Individually and collectively, I see ourselves in a really healthy position against the rest of the Associate members. I’m really impressed where we are and the work ethic we’ve seen in developing as a team.”
The 48-year-old added: “I’m really looking forward to the next 18 months and what they will bring, in many ways, the period coming up could be more exciting.”
Brown has given his charges a richly deserved five-week break following a hectic 2018 and his squad will report for training at the ICC Academy in Dubai Sports City after Ramadan.
Continuing their journey to reach the World Twenty20 in Australia, to be held in 2020, is another target on the horizon but their next assignment is a major one: the Asian Cup qualifiers in September.
Hong Kong, Malaysia, Nepal, Oman and Singapore stand in their way. Claim the only qualification spot and they will rub shoulders with the likes of Virat Kohli and Sarfraz Ahmed on their home turf when the Asian Cup is held in the UAE later that month.
Ahmed Raza, Rohan Mustafa and Mohammad Naveed are among the senior players who already know what it’s like to play to in such a high-profile tournament after being involved in the 2016 edition in Bangladesh.
Even for Brown, a man with international cricket experience as a player and a T20 Blast and One-Day Cup-winning coach with Warwickshire, the prospect of being in the dugout against Asia’s best could rank as one of his finest moments.
“The focus is very much on securing Asia Cup qualification. We hope we can do favourably in the pre-World Cup qualifiers and if we qualify for the competition, we’ll take on Pakistan and India in our own backyard which is something we’ll be working really hard for,” he added.
“It’s a huge regional tournament but it will be watched globally and the best players in the world will be in action. If we get to the Asian Cup, I think for me, it would be one of my proudest moments in cricket.
“We need to make sure our preparation is right and it would be enormous to go up against against teams of this magnitude in your own backyard. The venues in Dubai and Abu Dhabi will be packed to the rafters, it should be extraordinary. But, we just can’t expect to turn up and qualify, we have to go and put in hard work between now and then.”
With 25 wins in 39 matches in all competitions since July, the UAE is certainly showing form that made them one of the top teams at Associate level under Javed during his four-year stay.
On Friday, the UAE have been added to the ICC’s ODI rankings where they sit 14th, just a place behind Scotland.
While their recent achievements have put them back on the cricketing map after a decline following Javed’s departure, Brown wants his players to embrace the challenges and improve their all-round game – whether it’s on the training field or on the pitch.
“I’d like to think so (that they are on their way up to being one of the best Associate sides),” he said. “We still have a lot of work to do and by no means are we the finished article. We have got to make sure in the next 18 months to three years, we keep heading in a positive direction.
“I would say we are getting to the point whereby people are noticing our form, especially if they take in the rankings. We want to make sure the result against Zimbabwe isn’t a flash in the pan. We want to be playing and competing against the big boys on a regular basis so they can make a good account of themselves. With the ability that we have, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be doing that consistently.”
“My family and I have loved every minute of Dubai and love being part of this journey. At the same, there is a lot of unfinished business ahead and if we get the those small things right, there’s no reason on why we cannot build on what has been a remarkable journey so far.”
After almost half a century entrenched in his first love, Henk ten Cate is 100 per cent certain he is now officially retired from football. Well, perhaps not quite 100 per cent.
The 63-year-old will now spend his time with his wife and two daughters. And having walked out of Al Jazira, his 16th and perhaps final managerial appointment last week, Ten Cate said he is keen to be around to watch his grandson’s first footsteps into the game.
However, despite spending 25 of his 47 years in football as a player and manager living away from his homeland and his family, the Dutchman admits that his deep love of the game means even he is not absolutely certain a successful two-and-a-half-year swansong in the sunshine is the end.
“In life you can never say never,” he says, smiling. “As I’m sitting here now it’s (Jazira) my last job in football, this is it. I’ve spent 47 years of my life in football and that’s a lot, I think it’s enough.”
Even if Ten Cate was planning on a quiet retirement, it becomes abundantly clear when spending a few minutes with him on his final night in Abu Dhabi that he won’t get it.
His phone hums and bleeps constantly throughout an evening spent with him in a capital city café. Three hours pass in a flash as he reminisces about his years spent in charge of Dutch giants Ajax, his time working under Frank Rijkaard at Barcelona and Avram Grant at Chelsea.
He speaks passionately about legendary figures of the game – “game changers” like Rinus Michels, Sir Matt Busby, Bill Shankly, Arrigo Sacchi, Johan Cruyff and Pep Guardiola.
He is also saddened by the recent ill health that has struck down Sir Alex Ferguson.
Many of the calls and texts that permeate our chat are from Abu Dhabi giants Jazira – board members and staff still cajoling him to sign a new deal, having led the club through its most successful period.
An international call comes in. It’s from Egypt. Al Ahly, the country’s biggest club, want Ten Cate to replace Hossam El Badry, sacked a day earlier.
His reply: “No I am not interested, sorry sir. I’ve finished my career and I’m going home now. I’ve been a long time abroad so I plan to take my rest. Thank you for the offer.”
The hulking but humorous Ten Cate may not be able to resist such overtures if they come from a bigger name, however.
“I love the game. I love this game so much since I was a kid. The only toy I had until I was 14 was a ball – until I started discovering girls.
“I can look back on a very nice career. Of course with ups and downs, but more ups than downs. I worked at the top of the league and with the very best in the world. I’ve worked with the worst too but the love for football kept me going.
“I still have it but I also realise it’s about time. I still have my mother, she’s in good health at 84 and the last couple of months I was thinking ‘how long do I still have her for’. All those thoughts made me make this decision.
“I may be tempted sometimes (to return to management), who knows if I will not get itchy feet in a few months’ time.”
If it is indeed to be the end of the road for Ten Cate, his journey culminates in what some critics will view as football’s outback.
His final stand in the UAE desert may seem apt to some people who are staunch advocates of the game’s heartland in Europe, critical of less chartered territories.
But Ten Cate cherishes his time in the Middle East among such highs as his two major trophies won with Ajax and a three-year stint with Rijkaard at the Camp Nou, during which the duo helped shape the modern-day version of the club – a team that “was not only successful but also thrilled the world”.
It has been 30 months that will live long in the memory of Jazira’s fans and everyone associated with the club. A brief tenure that re-installed the pride back into the Pride of Abu Dhabi.
Ten Cate will now go down as the club’s greatest coach – having led them to the safety of mid-table during his first six months in charge, as well as finishing 2015/16 on a high by lifting the President’s Cup in thrilling style, a penalty shootout win against famous foes, Al Ain.
The AGL title was lifted a year later, while last December Jazira unbelievably went toe-to-toe with European heavyweights Real Madrid – even having the audacity to take the lead against Los Blancos before a late fightback saw Jazira beaten 2-1 and Real secure a berth in the FIFA Club World Cup final.
“Ajax was difficult, they’re a difficult club to manage. All eyes are on you in Holland because of the history and size of the club,” he added.
“Barcelona with Frank Rijkaard was also something special, because we managed to create out of nothing something. Making a team together, which was not only successful but also thrilled the world.”
His greatest feat at Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium will be his bold decision to give a talented crop of youngsters their chance in the first team.
Ali Mabkhout and Mbark Boussoufa have been the stars of his reign. But the development of players like Khalfan Mubarak, Ahmed Al Attas, Mohamed Jamal, Salem Al Eedi and emergence of youngsters Mohammed Al Attas, Khalifa Al Hammadi and Zayed Al Ameri will be his legacy – even if he plays down the use of that word.
“A legacy is big. I don’t want to compare myself to a legend who left a legacy,” he said.
“But if there’s one thing I’m proud of it’s bringing through the young players. Youngsters don’t often get the chance because foreign coaches are here to win, not to build. I think that building and winning can go together. It’s how I have always worked.”
As a lover of the game, Ten Cate admitted it was “devastating” to hear of Red Devils icon Ferguson’s recent health scare.
“When I was at Ajax and Panathinaikos I went to some coaching seminars and met him. He’s a very nice guy. It’s terrible news what happened to him,” said Ten Cate, who admits the 76-year-old Ferguson’s situation is a reminder of what cost success comes at.
“The job he did, his lifetime’s career is a stressful one. I have white hair, it used to be black. This job costs a lot. It asks a lot from your body and your mind.
“I heard his first words when he woke up were how Doncaster Rovers (Ferguson’s son Darren’s team) did, this is typically him.
“This is a football animal. He lives it. He was born football and he will die football, hopefully not for a long time. He is the game. He’s one of a kind, a legend of football.”
The two tattoos, one on the left calf of Neymar Jr. and the other on the right forearm of Gabriel Jesus, are striking, similar and significant.
They depict a young Brazilian with a football under his arm, looking up at a Sao Paulo favela and dreaming big.
Both Neymar and Jesus were those boys – and subsequently blessed with the ability and desire to make success a reality.
At 25, Neymar has now established himself among football’s biggest and best, to the extent Paris Saint-Germain paid a world record £200 million to lure him away from Barcelona last summer and he came third in the 2017 Ballon D’Or.
Jesus, five years younger, may only be just embarking on his quest to win major trophies with Manchester City, but has been widely tipped to emulate the feats of his compatriot and close friend in rising from the slums to superstardom.
It is something he wants too, but, despite being linked by ink, the frontman is eager to create his own fairytale.
“Each individual is different from one another,” Jesus tells Sport360. “He’s building his story, I’m building mine.
“Neymar deserves all the credit for everything he has accomplished and I’m always cheering for him.
“We’re close. When we’re playing together we’re always helping one another, and helping the national team, and maybe playing in the same club in the future.
“But I’m going to try to build my own story. We each have our own path, but I hope to conquer the things he’s been conquering.”
Driven by their childhood desire and bonded by brilliance, the pair’s relationship has blossomed on and off the field as they have lifted Brazil back to the top of international football.
Jesus, who has eight goals in 13 games since being handed the coveted No9 shirt for the Selecao in 2016, enjoys every opportunity to team up with Neymar.
“Not only myself, I think even the most experienced players learn from Neymar,” he adds.
“He’s a very positive guy. He’s a [grown] man, but at the same time I consider him a kid because he’s always smiling and joking around with everyone.
“I hope he keeps this attitude because it helps everyone and I keep learning from him more and more.”
Having been relatively unknown beyond his homeland where he inspired Palmeiras to a long-awaited Brazilian league title with 12 goals, his £27 million signing by City was deemed a gamble by some.
But that transfer fee now seems somewhat of a bargain after a stunning impact since his January arrival at the Etihad, scoring 15 times and assisting six goals in 24 Premier League appearances disrupted by a foot injury.
With a skill set and swagger that belied his teenage years, Jesus has become the rough diamond that has sparkled so brightly his value has soared substantially and brought plaudits from Brazil icons like Pele and Ronaldo, to whom he has been compared.
Neymar has revealed former Barca team-mate Lionel Messi is the most skillful player he has starred alongside, but added: “After that it’s Gabriel Jesus – he’s incredibly skillful.”
While he has had to fight for first-team starts with club record scorer Sergio Aguero in this campaign, Jesus, now 20, has still notched 10 times.
“Yes, this start of the season has been great for me, a dream,” says the frontman, whose amazing run of not losing a competitive match for either Brazil or City ended at 403 days with the 2-1 midweek Champions League defeat at Shakhtar Donetsk.
“I’ve been working really hard. When the coach and the team need me, I’m always available for them and hope to continue like this.”
With Aguero struggling in tough recent league games against Huddersfield, Southampton and West Ham, City boss Pep Guardiola could turn to Jesus to help unlock Manchester United’s defence in Sunday’s top-of-the-table clash at Old Trafford.
The 175th derby has already been dubbed a title decider as City could extend their lead to 11 points should they claim a 14th successive league win by overcoming their second-placed neighbours, who are unbeaten themselves in a record-equalling 40 home matches.
And Jesus is aware of the Manchester rivalry, evoking memories of a showdown between Brazil and arch-foes Argentina.
“A little bit, yes,” he adds. “I think Brazil-Argentina is a bigger rivalry because we’re talking about two national teams, two countries. But it’s not that distant, it’s similar, it’s a Clasico.
“It’s going to be a good match, a big match, between big players from big clubs.
“We’ll try to win because it’s very important. It’s also a head-to-head match with our positions in the table.
“So there’s the size of the match, but we have to be clear that we’re going there to try to win.
“I don’t believe United will play defensively because just like us, they need the result. If they play like they did against Arsenal [when they attacked], that will make it an open game and that will suit us.”
Free and fearless is how Jesus plays too and it is remarkable how quickly he has come to the footballing fore, having lived in that Jardim Peri favela until he was 16 and only making his professional debut two years ago.
The humble hero has also charted big moments in his life through tattoos.
Some are personal, such as ones honouring his mother, Vera Lucia, who has been the biggest influence on his life and career having raised him in a single-parent family.
Then there are the sporting achievements, with Rio 2016 and the Olympic rings symbolising an unforgettable appearance at the Games, where Jesus helped his nation strike gold on home soil with a penalty shoot-out win over Germany – two years after a 7-1 World Cup humbling by the same opponents.
And he’s ready to add to the artwork should more triumphs follow this season.
With City impressive in the league so far, already in the League Cup quarter finals and the last 16 of the Champions League, Brazil are also eyeing a sixth World Cup success at next year’s finals in Russia.
“Yes, I would add more,” he says with a laugh. “A Premier League tattoo, I would have to think about it.
“But if we win the World Cup I would definitely do a tattoo. And if I ever win the Champions League I would also do one.”
With City and Brazil looking good at the moment, there is every chance Jesus could be covering himself in more glory.