As Dundee United continue the search for their next boss, one former Tannadice marksman is making his mark in management by taking the road less travelled.
The road to Blagoevgrad, on the western tip of Bulgaria, to be precise.
Former Northern Ireland international Warren Feeney guided Pirin Blagoevgrad, hailing from a town of just 70,000 near the border with North Macedonia, to the Second Division title last term.
The impressive feat — overcoming cultural differences, the language barrier and being away from his family during a global pandemic — ensures he will be pitting his wits against the nation’s best next season.
“I’ve never been scared to get amongst it so I just saw it as another job,” said Feeney, who joined Pirin in November 2019. “It didn’t sink in until people started telling me what an unbelievable achievement it is to win a league in a foreign country.
“There was a different culture, a different mentality and there were some ups and downs. I changed the entire mentality and set-up at the club — from training times to the way we played — and there was resistance.
“But that’s never been a problem for me. I’m a very strong minded person and I was honest with every player I dealt with.
“It was a case of ‘if you’re not getting on my train, then hop off right now’. I stuck to my guns and made it clear I wouldn’t accept second best and the resistance soon disappears when you lift that trophy above your head!”
A £25 million challenge
Onerous encounters against the likes of Ludogorets Razgrad, CSKA Sofia and Levski Sofia lie ahead for Feeney but, like every other challenge and hurdle he has navigated, he will attack them with vigour.
“Ludogorets have a budget of £25 million and are regulars in Champions League qualifying,” smiled Feeney. “CSKA Sofia are a massive club with great history and resources.
“You add Levski Sofia to that, and Botev Plovdiv — who played Tottenham last year — and you’ve got a difficult challenge.
“But it’s not one I’m scared of. It’s just 11 v 11 and, as a manager, it’s so exciting to be testing yourself against those sides.”
While uncompromising in his demands and standards, Feeney is quick to underline the importance of adapting to his new surroundings and showing ‘respect’ while plying his trade 2000 miles from home.
Food; language; local fans — Feeney ensured he was immersing himself in Bulgarian life, as much as COVID-19 allowed.
“It was difficult, I won’t lie, but I just threw myself into it,” said Feeney. “I met local people, started speaking to agents all over Bulgaria and that part of Europe, I watched as many youth games as I could and started to study the language.
“It’s a tough language to learn but I think it makes a big difference if you can just communicate with the players, in terms of what you want from them in training and things that can affect the game from the sidelines. It shows respect.
“I tried to soak up the experience of being in Bulgaria, while keeping the standards I had from playing for some great clubs and so many times for my country.”
‘Do we have another Graham Potter?’
His success has not gone unnoticed.
“I turned down a couple of jobs while I was over there — and a [English] League Two team a couple of weeks ago,” the former Linfield, Newport County and Ards boss revealed.
“You pick up results in a foreign country and people maybe start to think: ‘Do we have another Graham Potter situation?’”
However, he is not looking for a move.
Feeney is content with being the toast of the town in Blagoevgrad and, should he claim a few high-profile scalps in the coming months, his reputation back home will soar.
“You can never say never in football and I’m not stupid,” he added. “At some point they might look at me and say ‘it’s time for a change’ or vice-versa, but at the moment it’s a brilliant set-up for me and I want to enjoy that.
“Doors close; doors open. That’s the beauty of football and that’s the philosophy which took me to Bulgaria. I’ll just keep that mindset and focus on my work and believe in my ability.”
This Day 2009 | Celtic 2-2 United (Dixon, Feeney)
United stage an inspired comeback to take a well deserved point in the east end of Glasgow, courtesy of a stunning Paul Dixon freekick and effective link-up play between Irishmen Jon Daly and Warren Feeney🍊| #DUFC pic.twitter.com/AK0qbifkpi
— OurDUFC (@OurDUFC) January 3, 2021
It is a long way — both geographically and metaphorically — from Feeney’s season at Dundee United in 2008/09, spending a campaign on loan from Swansea City and notching six goals in 26 games.
With a match-winning strike against Aberdeen and goals to secure draws with Rangers and Celtic among them, he had a happy knack of showing up on the big occasion.
Little surprise, then, that he only has fond memories of his foray to Tayside.
“I loved my time up there,” he beamed. “Craig Levein really looked after me and it was a fantastic place to live.
“You obviously have your Rangers and Celtic at the top, but United can be one of the big hitters for me — right up there with Hearts, Hibs and Aberdeen. It’s a massive fanbase and a great manager’s job up there for someone.”