Exclusive Madjid Bougherra interview: Special Rangers days, Riyad Mahrez rise and big Fujairah challenge

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(Twitter/@Fuj_FC).

Madjid Bougherra, head coach.

It is a title that even the ex-Rangers cult hero and Algeria captain is still getting used to.

Trust, and a leap of faith, took him back to Fujairah last July. He had made 39 Arabian Gulf League appearances for them from 2014-16 in the final throes of an eminent playing career.

It is not unkind to suggest there, ostensibly, appears easier first postings.


The Wolves battled relegation, until the final day, last term from the UAE’s major competition and were destined to do so again in 2019/20. Patience can also wear thin at remarkable pace in this region.










Maurice Steijn was defeated at Fujairah on opening day and dismissed by Al Wahda after three top-flight games. He’d previously been the Eredivisie’s longest-serving boss at VVV-Venlo.


Yet almost 6,000 kilometres away from Glasgow, and nearly a decade removed from a trophy laden three-year stint there, Bougherra is relishing this “new life”.


Even after October’s 7-1 thumping by Al Ain, the UAE’s most-decorated club. When asked to reflect on that harrowing day, an intriguing – and enlightening – take on management in the Middle East emerges.


“It was very hard,” the 37-year-old tells Sport360 under the lights at upwardly mobile Fujairah’s vibrant in-house studio that speaks volumes about their bold vision.


“To be honest, it was the first time I lose like that.


“Before when I was with the U-23s [at Al Duhail in Qatar], I won 7-1.


“It was horrible, the first time, as a coach. You turn to your staff and ask ‘how long is left?’


“They tell you 20 minutes and it is 6-1, you think ‘oh my God.’


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“It was the first time we changed the tactic [to a three-man defence]. It was exactly as I planned.


“Second half, I do not know what happened. We did not have the character defensively and we conceded three from corners.


“In myself, I said ‘okay, but we lose by stupid mistakes.’ We worked on these stupid mistakes.


“I was confident in myself, as the job I do, I catch this problem. You can see the players changed.


“I made some pressure and I insisted. The next day was difficult, but the club was behind me.


“Here in this country, the problem is just about attitude. If the players concentrate and have the right attitude, I am not afraid.


“Before every game, I tell the players I am not afraid of Al Ain, Al Nasr or any team. I’m just afraid about you, the way you start the game, the way you will be.


“Because if you are good, I will be very comfortable. This is why we are working for attitude and concentration.”


DANCING WITH WOLVES


Bougherra is imposing in person and possessed of a sharp competitive edge. No surprise for an elite former centre-back who represented The Fennecs at two World Cups, was named man of the match at Manchester United when a Champions League draw there, truly, meant something and relished the ‘Old Firm’ skirmishes with Celtic.


An innate generosity, quiet humour and unquenched enthusiasm, however, is radiated. He repeatedly apologised when an unavoidable prior appointment delayed his arrival for interview.


These are the qualities that saw him thrive when swapping France’s Gueugnon for lower-league English outfit Crewe Alexandra in 2006. Just two years later, via Sheffield Wednesday and Charlton Athletic, the Longvic-born athlete was at the heart of a defence that would carry a reinvigorated Rangers to three-successive Scottish Premiership titles.


They’ve also proved invaluable in this formative spell at Fujairah. The club, for one, is now much calmer than when Argentina deity Diego Maradona was plotting their top-flight return in 2017/18, amid the usual circus that surrounds him.


Bougherra’s employers sit one place and two points above the drop zone after 12 match-weeks. This gap would be tighter if Fahad Sabeel’s 96th-minute, deflected free-kick had not flown in last week during the frenzied 1-1 draw with fellow strugglers Ajman.


Bougherra raced down the Fujairah Stadium steps in elation then. He had to combat contrasting emotions, though, during the brutal home defeat by Al Ain.


(Twitter/@Fuj_FC).

(Twitter/@Fuj_FC).


The concussive run of seven unanswered goals could have sunk any rookie leader, blitzing belief in him from both board and squad.


Steadfast faith from Sheikh Mohammed bin Hamad bin Mohammed Al Sharqi, Crown Prince of Fujairah, has been crucial in the subsequent rebound. So, too, tactical flexibility.


Lessons learned at the deep end in European football inspired the permanent implanting of an efficacious five-man defence last month. Fujairah have conceded one goal, or less, in their four subsequent AGL matches.


“It is a completely new thing and new life,” Bougherra says.


“I am already three-and-a-half years as a manager, I started coaching with one team in the Under-23s. It was then time to take some responsibilities with a first team, like Fujairah. I am very excited.


“It is a gamble, but that is my character. I am not afraid – I know it is part of the job.


“When the train passes, you have to take it. It is not easy to find an opportunity as a young coach.


“This is why I respect this club a lot. They gave me this opportunity as a young coach to be No1.


“I was like this as a player. I have ambition, I like competition, I like this challenge.


“As a young coach, if you succeed or lose, it is the same thing – you learn. For me, I love this job.


“Inshallah, I will do something good.”


BLUE IS THE COLOUR


No matter what Bougherra achieves at Fujairah, his name will be forever associated with the men from Ibrox.


A stopper of rare repute emerged under the leadership of boss Water Smith, and alongside veteran David Weir, from 2008-11.


“For me as a football player, it was my best club,” he warmly recollects of a period that produced six major trophies from 113 appearances, a smile racing across his face.


“This is where I got the winning mentality. This is where I improved, grew up and my image changed.


“This is because of Rangers. You play in Champions League, you win trophy.



“I will always love this club – it is not just a club, it is something amazing. The day I left Rangers, I didn’t have any time to come back.


“This is my dream, to come back.”


And what about life in Scotland?


“It was difficult to go out, it is raining,” he says, while smiling.


“My day was very simple. I woke up, took my kids on the way to Murray Park [Rangers’ training ground], dropped them [off at nursery/school], go training, come back, go to sleep, wake up and it’s dark, it’s raining, stay home watching games, do some restaurants.


“But I loved the city [Glasgow]. There are many good restaurants.


“But when you are a player there and you meet Celtic fans or Rangers fans, it is not easy to do normal life.”


THE MAGIC OF MAHREZ


Bougherra’s mind does not stray too far from Algeria, the land of his grandfather’s birth.


He accrued 70 caps in 11 years representing his adopted nation. The honour of wearing the captain’s armband at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil is a highlight of his distinguished playing spell.


It was at this tournament in Brazil that a superstar would take his first steps.


Riyad Mahrez was then the emergent, and largely unknown, talent in a 23-man squad. Flickers of ability in the Championship with Leicester City would blossom during 2015/16’s astounding run to Premier League glory.


That success would see the winger crowned 2016 CAF African Footballer of the Year and PFA Players’ Player of the Year.


A club-record, £60 million fee then took him to Manchester City in July 2018.


Fast forward a year and he shone in his country’s run to a first Africa Cup of Nations triumph since 1990 – and just second overall. His 95th-minute free-kick against Nigeria to settle a gripping semi-final sparked fevered street celebrations across France and Algeria.


“He is not big [physically], but he’s big,” Bougherra jokes about his former team-mate.


“I remember when he was at the World Cup in 2014. It was his first selection with Algeria.


“He was eating with us and then he’d say: ‘Guys, I have some crazy ambitions that you do not know.’


“He’d be like: ‘I want to play for Barcelona, I want to play here etc’ and we’d be like: ‘okay, play here first.’


“He was in the second division with Leicester. But it is not like nobody trusted him, from there he had this character.


“Now, he’s the best Arabic player with Mohamed Salah. He’s fantastic.


“I am very happy for him and for our country, it is fantastic.”



Can Bougherra impart any inside knowledge of how to stop one of the game’s most-mesmerising dribblers?


“You can ask him, but it’s okay for me,” Bougherra quips about facing Mahrez. “All the time I catch him, he never passes me in training.


“I know him very well. Many time I faced him.


“When you know him, you never know if he’ll do this one [gestures a movement left], or come inside.


“Like I said to my friends, it is like he has a hand for a foot. He has a fantastic, amazing touch.”


Bougherra can lean on such a glorious past to enrich his current venture. An exciting future – for both himself and Fujairah – has already been mapped out.


He says: “To be honest, one of my targets is to be with Algeria. This is very far away, minimum 10 years.


“I need to prove and need to learn. It is one of my targets as I love my country.


“As a coach, I want to stay here. I want to coach in the UAE, I want to succeed, I want to give to this club what they gave to me.


“This is what they deserve. For me, Fujairah must always be in the first league.


“You can see the city is very good, they have many fans, the stadium is fantastic, the facilities are good. This club deserves better.”


Fujairah next play Al Dhafra on January 24 at 18:30. Visit PlatinumList.net to buy Arabian Gulf League tickets.



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