AN IN-DEPTH INTERVIEW WITH PA MODOU KAH: BREAKING DOWN BARRIERS

  • Reflects on Canadian Premier League title win with Pacific FC
  • Analyses his journey and the obstacles he faces as an emerging black coach
  • Inside story on a historic win over MLS neighbours Vancouver Whitecaps where he starred as a player
  • Knew from PRE-SEASON that he had a title-winning team on his hands
  • Lays out a coaching philosophy based on directness and honesty with his players

FIRST GLASS COACH...Pa Modou Kah becomes the first black coach to lift the North Star Shieldcanpl.ca

"OUR journey is meant to be harder than anyone else's."

Pa Modou Kah, the ground-breaking boss of Canadian Premier League champions Pacific FC, doesn't hide from the uncomfortable reality of life for black coaches, nor does he ask for your sympathy.

He simply tells his truth and plots a pathway to change.

The first black player to star for his adopted nation of Norway, he emigrated from his homeland of Gambia at the age of eight, Pa knows what it takes to break down barriers within The Beautiful Game.

Two adventurous decades as a player from Europe to the Middle East to Major League Soccer set the foundations for the next part of the story for one of North America's brightest rising stars in the technical area.

Pa reflected: "One of my aims going into coaching was to open doors for others because the reality is that coming from a minority my journey will always be a harder one.

"That's just the truth, we can try to change it and say we need quotas of candidates in the interview processes and all that but in football it's who you know that gets you the job.

"Listen, as a coach I want to reach the highest high but my mission is about more than that.

"The bigger picture is when are the doors going to be open for minorities?

"When will we be given a fair opportunity and not one that is driven by a Diversity Rule?

"I'm not interested in that route, you are not doing it because you truly believe the person can make a difference. You are doing it because of a rule."

At the age of 41 Pa is five years into a coaching journey that began the day he decided to hang up his boots and Vancouver Whitecaps Head Coach Carl Robinson knew he couldn't let all that knowledge just walk out of the building.

Robinson realised the influence this inspirational presence could have on young developing talents like Alphonso Davies who would be jettisoned into Champions League winning stardom at German giants Bayern Munich in a $13.5million (US) deal.

The shrewd Welshman showed Pa a route to stay in the game and the grateful Pacific coach stressed: "I understand that I'm still really just starting out as a coach and I know the people who helped me get this chance.

"They saw me for who I am and trusted me to give me this shot.

"Without Robbo at Whitecaps, where he created a job for me when I stopped playing, then I wouldn't be where I am.

"He knew he could lean on me and trust me and that I wouldn't stab anyone in the back to progress myself.

"I am not in coaching for that, I am in coaching to inspire so that maybe some kid looks at me later down the line and says that guy helped me."

The stark reality of the obstacles that exist for ambitious black coaches are illustrated when you play a simple numbers game.

There are two black head coaches in Major League Soccer's 28 franchises, Ezra Hendrickson at Chicago Fire and CF Montreal's Wilfred Nancy represent the seven per cent

In England of the 92 League cubs only seven have a black coach or person of colour in charge of the team with Patrick Vieira the standard-bearer at Premier League Crystal Palace.

Against that backdrop in two high-profile competitions it is very tough to argue that black coaches experience a level playing field when they are seeking jobs.

Yet Pa insists: "In my eyes barriers are meant to be overcome and history is meant to be rewritten.

"Like I said, though, our road is meant to be harder than anyone else's. I feel my destiny is set but the narrative has to change.

"That means in the boardrooms where the executives make the decisions."

As a player Pa starred for Valerenga in Norway, AIK Stockholm in Sweden and Roda JC in Holland and developed a reputation as a born leader on the field.

Two years in Qatar paved the way for his wandering career to finish with him starring in the MLS for both Portland Timbers and Vancouver Whitecaps.

His history as a player with Whitecaps and the roles mentor Robinson had given him coaching there meant that when Pacific, the team from Vancouver Island, drew their far wealthier neighbours in the Canadian Championship it was a game of true meaning.

MELLOW YELLOW...Pa celebrating that scoring touch in his playing daysnortherntribune.ca

What followed was an iconic 4-3 victory for the fledgling CPL club as the Whitecaps were humbled at 6,200-capacity Starlight Stadium despite the presence of their talismanic Scottish midfielder Ryan Gauld.

It was an unforgettable night for Pacific and in the eyes of the Whitecaps owners an unforgiveable one for their coach Marc dos Santos.

Gauld's header gave Whitecaps brief hope but it was quickly snuffed out as the home side closed out a defining triumph.

For context Pacific's budget for the year for the entire CLUB was $3.1million (US), Gauld alone took home $2million, a cool $39,000-a-week (US), in salary.

Yet Pa and his team found a way to win and he confessed: "For us to beat the Vancouver Whitecaps was huge given the budget of CPL against the budget of MLS.

"Our players showed their quality and that there was not that much difference.

"Look, I played and coached at Whitecaps and I knew their level but I don't accept the tag of underdog in any game.

"The preparation is the key, when you have that and the commitment of your team you are ready and I love knockout games.

"That is when you showcase your abilities, you have 90 or 120 minutes to show what you have. The biggest competition you have is within yourself.

"We'd had the opportunity to play Whitecaps in pre-season because COVID meant they needed games.

"So we went and we were one week into pre-season and they were a month in and we lost 2-0.

"We were coming back to the island on the ferry from the mainland and I said to the boys: 'Remember this game and know that when we face them in a real match you guys are going to come out victorious.'

"It was the biggest test for some of the boys in their careers because they aspire to be in MLS and dream about playing there.

"So when you play against an MLS team what are you going to do? Will the nerves play into it or will you stand up and show your capabilities?

"Well, we stood and showed what our abilities are, that was the first ever competitive game between two professional teams in British Columbia and when you win it you carry a momentum.

"Now people were thinking: 'What are this Pacific FC all about, what is happening there?'

"The fans and the community were caught up in the win and sadly the Whitecaps coach Marc dos Santos lost his job after the match and that meant even more scrutiny on the game."

It's a result that will remain etched in the history books of both Pacific FC and the CPL as a whole.

That game gave huge credibility to the league, validation in what had before been a sceptical football marketplace.

A pivotal game but NOT the night when Pacific's head coach knew he had a team of champions on his hands.

Pa insists that feeling came much earlier in the campaign and he said: "I didn't look that night and think I had a championship team, I knew that in PRE-SEASON.

"I'm telling the truth on that, I saw a certain mindset and I was anxious to see how we would start.

"I really thought from the get-go it would be our year. Before that Vancouver game people might not have thought they should look to the CPL to sign players but there is quality everywhere.

"You just have to know how to look and how to nurture it. In Argentina at first no-one looked at Messi until Barcelona took a chance because he had a growth problem."

Pa's pre-season vision held true as Pacific edged Cavalry FC 2-1 in the play-off last four to set up a Final clash with CPL powerhouse Forge FC who had been champions in the league's first two years in existence.

The islanders had lost twice to Forge earlier in the campaign but their coach's belief never wavered, even with the game on their rival's home Tim Horton's Field in Hamilton, Ontario earlier this month.

Pa shrugged: "Our mentality this year was always that I felt we had a great chance of winning this.

"I had said that in the beginning, that we could win it no matter what.

"There were doubts because we had never beaten Forge but for me stats are just stats and records are there to be broken.

"I don't think of those things, I always feel that when people expect least that you can do it then that's when it happens.

"That's how it proved to be with us and Forge, they were the standard-bearers of the league and they are in the CONCACAF Champions League which is great for the CPL.

"We knew that toe to toe with Forge we had matched them but it was our naivete that had cost us and they punished us.

"The games had been close but when it truly mattered it was fitting that we beat them in their own stadium.

"If you want to make a statement then beat them in their house, then there is nothing people can say."

That 1-0 win put the name of Pa Modou Kah firmly in the spotlight in Canada.

Football in the nation is on a high, Bev Priestman's women's national team are Olympic gold medal winners, John Herdman's men are unbeaten in a World Cup qualifying group that includes the USA and Mexico and on the cusp of making Qatar 2022.

That made this season a critical one for the domestic league in Canada and Pa pointed out: "The league has grown up in its first three years but the CPL faced a big question when COVID hit in Season Two.

"They managed then to have a competition season in the bubble with the Finals on Prince Edward Island.

"Canada has been strict with the virus and the people obeyed the rules and then this season we had to find a way to schedule 28 games once the guidelines softened.

"It was a condensed year and that was a massive achievement, I feel like this was a make or break season for such a young league.

"Now I think people can see the quality in the league and having two teams be semi-finalists in the Canadian Championship, which includes the three MLS teams, shows the growth."

A FAMILY AFFAIR...Pa celebrates that triumph over Vancouver Whitecaps with his young daughtersnortherntribune.ca

In the wake of victory over Forge Pa has had to get used to the increased media demands a success such as this brings to the man who oversaw it.

He knows it goes with the territory now and throughout our fascinating hour-long chat, the second part of which will feature on the site in January, he touched on coaching inspirations and the importance of the right mentors for players such as Bayern and Canada poster boy Davies.

Pa said: "The other side of the game after a title win like that can be draining but that was what we worked towards for the full season.

"In the aftermath everyone wants a piece of you as the coach, as a player you are in a group of 25 and things can be shared.

"As a coach, though, the spotlight is on you and while I don't enjoy that as much as the moments I have with the squad I know it is a big part of the game.

"I realise that if I progress the media attention will be magnified and the reality is that this will be even more so because I am from a minority."

Pa recently went deep into the recruitment process for the Head Coach role at FC Dallas that was eventually given to Spaniard Nico Estevez who had built his reputation as an assistant to Gregg Berhalter with both Columbus Crew and the United States Men's National Team.

Pa's inclusion on the shortlist shows his star is in the ascendency in a crowded coaching market and he admitted: "I had other jobs at both Whitecaps and FC Cincinnati where I scouted and coached but I always wanted to be a Head Coach.

"People understood me being a player but maybe after that some didn't want me in a leadership role.

"This game is one of opinions but for me the important thing is to all agree on the right way then go to work.

"I have an honest and direct personality and at times that can scare people.

"It brings fear yet I never intend the way I am to be malicious, I believe we either do things the right way or we don't do it at all."

Pa Modou Kah's coaching journey will indeed be harder than most but you'd be throwing money down the drain to bet against him reaching his desired destination.

PA MODOU KAH ON THE SERVICE HE RECEIVED FROM SPORT CAREERS AGENCY

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Sport Careers are so professional in their approach and that's what I believe in, doing things right so I liked that about them.

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