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Wanderers' new recruitment chief outlines plan to improve club relations

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Nat Lofthouse
Nat Lofthouse
Globetrotter Irfan Kawri has big plans for his new role as Wanderers’ head of recruitment – but his immediate focus will be very much closer to home.

The Bolton-born coach has a varied CV – counting the Zambian national team on a list of footballing stop-offs which also include the likes of Wigan Athletic, QPR, Burton Albion and Hereford United.

His latest role, however, brings him back to working within the communities in which he grew up, and helping to bring local grassroots football clubs back under Wanderers’ umbrella.

Kawri’s first few weeks at Bolton have been spent networking, a precursor to improving relationships and, eventually, being able to bank on access to the best footballers in the town.

“It’s a massive job,” he said. “There are so many clubs, schools and community centres around Bolton – we want be in every corner of the town whether it’s Halliwell, Blackburn Road, Deane, Daubhill, Tonge Moor, Harwood, Bromley Cross, Horwich, Farnworth, Breighmet, Johnson Fold – you name it, the whole diversity of Bolton.

“It isn’t just a case of us having access to their players, it is about them coming in and using our facilities, we work with their coaches, the league they are playing in, host games and finals at Lostock or the stadium.”

The Made in Bolton mantra accompanied new ownership back in August. Two Boltonians – Keith Hill and David Flitcroft – were installed as first team manager and assistant, and there have been further appointments reflecting a local flavour, most recently goalkeeper coach Mike Pollitt.

Mending an identity lost during the Ken Anderson era, and possibly beyond, will take time. But Kawri believes the people in charge have the perfect personalities to carry it off.

“As soon as the new owners came in there was a positive energy, and that has spread through the manager and Dave Flitcroft. I think people are thirsty for it,” he said.

“It is a match made in heaven, really, Bollywood couldn’t write it.

“The gaffer has said it so many times but we’re not climbing a hill, it’s a mountain. It’s not Winter Hill, it’s Mount Everest.

“It’s a long-term project, but right now I am looking at clubs, schools, people in the community and I want them to feel part of Bolton, wanted by Bolton.

“It’s very important they know it is a two-fold relationship, there is trust. It’s not just us going out there to them, it’s them coming to us as well.”

Kawri did not play professionally but spent time on the books of Rochdale and Bradford as a youth growing up on Stewart Street in the Halliwell heartlands.

“My parents didn’t really understand what football was and didn’t really see it as a career, just something you do for fun,” he said.

“The support mechanism wasn’t really there for me to make it as a footballer so I moved into education and played semi-professionally for Leigh, who were managed at the time by Roy Greaves.

“I went out to Zambia as well and played for their Under-20s side when I was studying at college and university.

“While I was doing grassroots coaching I went back to Rochdale and started doing a bit of scouting for them. Keith and Dave were there at the time and I spent about four years working with the centre of excellence and then the first team.

“I had some time as an opposition scout at Wigan while Owen Coyle and John McGinlay were there and then at Burton with Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink. I also worked with Mike Whitlow in their academy.

“When Jimmy left for QPR and Nigel Clough came in I was released and started wondering what I’d do next – but then a really interesting offer came along.”

That offer was to become assistant coach of Zambia, the Southern African country currently ranked 99th in the world.

“It was an amazing experience,” he told The Bolton News. “Their president at the time was Kalusha Bwalya, who is a legend in African football who played at PSV and Bruges. He was African Footballer of the Year in 1988.

“My ex-team mate at Under-20s level had told Kalusha what I was doing in England and so he followed me. We’d had a great season with Burton and got promotion so it was quite a coincidence that the day I left, he picked up the phone.”

Kawri spent six months working with the Copper Bullets, as they are nicknamed, and found no shortage of talent. But when it came to organisation, he admits the country’s football association had plenty still to learn.

“The players had so much respect for the coaches out there – and there was quality in the team. Two of the players have just turned out for Salzburg against Liverpool,” he said. “The players would run through brick walls for you.

“The only trouble was, it wasn’t structured. You’d have things like 24 hours before an important game they’d be doing physical training, running miles.

“I did a lot of the tactical sessions, phases of play, that sort of thing. And I remember one camp in Johannesburg in South Africa, one the players just kept passing sideways instead of using the space. I asked him why and he said ‘because I was told to’.

“There are fundamental flaws. He didn’t want to do something that the coach has asked him not to do, he was genuinely scared of using his own initiative.”

Kawri was offered a full-time position but resigned after a change in presidency and returned to coach at Clitheroe before being offered a job at QPR by his old Burton acquaintance Hasselbaink.

He spent three-and-a-half years at Loftus Road doing opposition analysis, scouting and also coaching in the Under-23s.

During that time he also worked with Ian Holloway – an experience he is unlikely to forget.

“He’s full-on,” he said. “A bit mad, but he’s a fantastic human being. One of the nicest people I have ever met.”

That all led to a return home, and after Hill and Flitcroft took the job in August they were quick to call Kawri to come aboard.

It represents a full circle for the Wanderers fan, who watched from the stands at Burnden Park as a kid and picked up the Bolton football bug.

“I used to go on Burnden Terrace and watch Bruce Rioch’s team, then Colin Todd’s team, and I was fascinated by Sasa Curcic – those mazy dribbles he used to go on,” he said.

“Watching those players growing up really made me want to get into football. And even after the ground closed we’d sneak in and try to get on to the pitch.

“All my mates were massive Bolton fans so being able to come back to the club and work with Keith and Dave, the whole made in Bolton thing, it was a really attractive proposition.

“Since I got the phone call I have ate, drank and slept Bolton Wanderers and how we can make this club better.”

Born to a Zambian mother, Zubeda, and Indian father, Ishmail, Kawri is quick to acknowledge his family’s role in getting him to where he is today.

“My wife Faatima, son Umar, daughter Aishah, in-laws Salma and Imtiaz Bora, brother Faz and sister Shireen – they have made so many sacrifices for me,” he said.

“I don’t have a name people will recognise – I’m not a Les Ferdinand, a Steve McClaren or a Steven Gerrard, I’m just a normal bloke. And if it wasn’t for the sacrifices that my family have made, I just wouldn’t be here.

“My mum and dad came over as immigrants working long, long hours. My mum always drilled into me that I must finish my courses, my degree. I wanted to stop – but she wouldn’t let me.

“When I got married my wife and my two kids, their whole life revolves around what I am doing. Every weekend I’ll be travelling somewhere but they put everything to one side and support me. Even my in-laws, who live in Leicester, are such a massive help.

“I am a real believer that whatever you’ve done in life, you don’t do it on your own."


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