English soccer coach fights to rescue Israeli team

Former Aston Villa manager John Gregory steps up to challenge at Maccabi Ahi Nazareth.

When John Gregory was invited to a drab town to coach a struggling team at the bottom of Israel’s Premier League, he was warned by everyone he knew not to accept.
The position with Maccabi Ahi Nazareth had taken the former Aston Villa manager to a league and a country he knew little about until recently, and to a team that was fighting not necessarily to win a title, but to survive in the top flight.
“The more people told me not to come, the more I wanted to come,” the former England midfielder said ahead of a practice session last week. “I’m just trying to prove everybody wrong.”
That will likely be an uphill battle, in more ways than one.
Gregory’s career since his glory days with Villa and Queens Park Rangers has suffered a series of lows. He failed to keep Derby in the Premier League and was fired.
Although he helped second tier Queens Park Rangers avoid relegation, he was unceremoniously dismissed from the club in 2007.
His new post takes him to a team in second-to-last place, with four wins and 14 losses this season.
This is the second season the team is playing in Israel’s premier leag having qualified for the first time in 2003, but if the season were to end today, Gregory’s squad would be relegated to Israel’s second-tier league, Liga Leumit.
Ilut stadium, the spiritless home of Ahi Nazareth, is indicative of the club’s standing.
A tall concrete wall topped with barbed wire encircles the pitch. Rusted stairs and tattered banners flapping in the wind dot the sidelines.
A sign warns spectators not to throw cigarettes and sunflower seeds– a beloved Israeli snack– at the field.
“ We’ve got so much against us. But we’re still in there with a fight,” Gregory said. “We’re still in there with a great chance of getting out of trouble.”
At 55-years-old, Gregory is no stranger to teams battling to remain afloat.
After leading Aston Villa to the FA Cup final in 2000, he moved to Derby, where he was unable to save the club from being relegated from the Premier League.
He helped QPR avoid relegation during his stint there in 2007 before the team finally went down.
Gregory said he accepted the Nazareth job because he knew it would be a challenge. But writers who have followed Gregory’s career view his path and the new lackluster job as a fall from grace.
“I don’t think John would try to paint it as anything else,” said Martin Swain, chief sports writer for the Express and Star newspaper, which covered his exploits at Aston Villa.
“He will still have a fierce ambition inside of him to come back to England and make a success of himself again,” he said, conceding any return would be difficult.
Gregory said he has not decided what his next step might be, but would not rule out renewing his contract with Nazareth once it expires in May.
Israel has been a UEFA member since 1994 and Israeli teams have begun to advance in European club competitions in recent years.
The league is still criticized for mismanagement and for being disorganized, and Ahi is seen as a prime example of that.
Gregory said he had visited Israel numerous times before accepting the post, so wasn’t shocked by its distinct culture.
He said he can easily order a beer in the Arab-Israeli town and said his lack of close friends is the only challenge he’s faced away from the sport.
The biblical town of Nazareth has largely been neglected by Israel’s government, part of a more general government disregard for the one-fifth of Israelis who are Arabs.
It is seeing a modest renaissance but pales in comparison to other towns Gregory has coached in.
Players on the team are of mixed descent and leave politics off the pitch, Gregory said.
But their hopes of securing their spot in the premier league hinge on Gregory’s experience coaching teams at risk of relegation.
“In a big club players are reared for greatness,” said Maccabi Ahi Nazareth defender Rami Duani. “Here, our goal is to survive.”