Oscar Garcia: Even Pep Guardiola had to start somewhere
Brighton's new head coach tells Nick Szczepanik he is ready for big break and, after missile attack, nothing will faze him
Tony Bloom, the chairman of Brighton & Hove Albion, is a successful high-stakes poker player. So if his appointment of the relatively inexperienced former Barcelona midfielder Oscar Garcia as the Seagulls' new head coach is a gamble, the odds will have been carefully calculated.
Garcia, 40, known as Oscar, had taken charge of only 26 senior games, all in Israel, before succeeding Gustavo Poyet last month. But Brighton's move looks less like a punt when you consider that he had not only been approached by top-flight clubs in Belgium and Mexico before arriving at the Amex Stadium, but had also been mentioned as a possible successor to Pep Guardiola, his former teammate, at the Nou Camp.
Between 1993 and 1999 Oscar lived every Catalan boy's dream, representing the Blaugrana under Johan Cruyff, Bobby Robson and Louis Van Gaal, finishing top scorer in 1995-96. Guardiola's brother Pere is his agent, but Cruyff remains his biggest influence. "It's a philosphy I've always had, possession of the ball for the maximum time, being positive rather than negative," he said. "Guardiola's style was an evolution from Cruyff."
However, Oscar was squeezed out by expensive signings, moving on to Valencia and Espanyol. On retiring, he helped Cruyff coach the Catalan national side before being entrusted with Barcelona's Under-19 team, winning league, cup and European titles in 2010-11. Last season he took his first head coaching job, leading Maccabi Tel Aviv to their first title in a decade by a ten-point margin.
For Brighton, Oscar represents continuity with the widely praised passing style introduced by Poyet. But why did he give up a Champions League qualifying place and reportedly more lucrative offers elsewhere? "I had a good feeling. I've always been fascinated by English football. The atmosphere, the competitive spirit – you always see two teams that want to attack, to win and not sit back."
He was frustrated in an attempt to play in England when a trial with West Ham came to nothing and a chance to join Brighton never got beyond talks between agents. Some feel his lack of experience here will count against him over the 46-game Championship marathon. "They said the same about me when I went to Maccabi, they said the same about Guardiola when he took over Barcelona. You have to start somewhere."
At least the usual doubts about whether he is up to an evening of horizontal sleet in Barnsley do not apply. Nothing he experiences will be as fearsome as Hamas missile attacks on Tel Aviv, one game going ahead despite attack warnings after a security briefing that included instructions to assume a brace position if the sirens sounded. "One game had to be stopped in the middle, missiles landed on the beach. The local people had promised me that the army always intercepted them."
Brighton fans expected an influx of Spanish signings steeped in tiki-taka but the only newcomers so far are Adam Chicksen, a left-back from MK Dons, and Dutch midfielder Kemy Agustien from Swansea. That may change. "We are looking. Because of the financial situation in Spain some players from there are available at a better price. But it's not as important where a player comes from as his attitude, mental strength, abilities. And it's important that you have a base of local players because they give you a little more."
But will they be able to play the Oscar way, the Barcelona way? "You can't just impose a style on a club that took many years and a lot of coaching to develop. But I've watched the team's games from last season on DVD and they pass the ball well, they keep possession."
Warm-up victories in Spain were encouraging, but he will not promise to improve on last season's play-off place. "I have a three-year contract and some time in those three years I hope we will have a chance to go up."
Poyet annoyed Brighton fans with frequent suggestions that he would like to manage former clubs such as Chelsea. Oscar had already said in Israel that he wants the Barcelona job one day but last week was diplomatic. "At the moment I'm con- centrating 100 per cent on this job."
That League baptism will be a fiery one against Leeds United at Elland Road on Saturday. Questions about Brighton's chances seem to come back to his starting point. "I'd prefer to start with a home game, but Leeds have a great stadium. I remember a game in the Champions League, they played Barcelona..."
The new boys
Oscar Garcia is one of four new managerial appointments in the Championship. At Millwall Steve Lomas has replaced Kenny Jackett, who has moved on to Wolves in League One; Wigan have appointed Owen Coyle to replace Roberto Martinez while Paul Dickov has succeeded Bryan Flynn at newly promoted Doncaster Rovers.
The old boy
Gustavo Poyet is expected to wait for a Premier League job to come up rather than look abroad. Brighton terminated his contract last month for as yet unspecified "gross misconduct" after first suspending him. The Uruguayan could yet pursue a legal case for unfair dismissal. Poyet made a brief return to Brighton on Tuesday and was met at a city-centre restaurant by a number of his former players. One option is television and the BBC has asked him to do more studio work.
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