Foreign managers are commonplace in football nowadays. But long before the likes of José Mourinho and Arsène Wenger were household names, there was one man who first graced the path for others to follow.
Danny Bergara, a man born in South America who played the majority of his football in Spain, moved to England in the 1970s and became a true pioneer of the English game.
Bergara started off as a coach at Luton Town and had spells as manager at various clubs in the North of England. His most successful period was a six-year spell at Stockport County during the mid-1990s, where he quietly worked his magic out of the spotlight and frenzy of the modern media.
His career finished with stints as a scout at Sunderland and Wolves, where he remained until his untimely death at the age of just 65 in 2007.
Very few football fans have ever even heard of Bergara, let alone know anything about him. However, there is more to his story than first meets the eye. I caught up with author and former Stockport press-officer Phil Brennan, whose excellent new book The Man From Uruguay chronicles Bergara’s remarkable life.
Although it has just been published, the book has been a long time coming. “I first spoke to Danny about writing his story a couple of years after he left Stockport, but it never happened,” Phil said. “A few years later I decided to give it another go, but then he died suddenly and I thought that was the opportunity gone. When we spoke, Danny always used to call me Stuart. The local press reporter was called Stuart Brennan, and I never got to find out whether Danny was mixing us up, or whether it was just his wicked sense of humour.
“In the end I got in touch with his wife Jan, and read so many interesting things. I thought I knew about this man but I actually knew nothing except for his time at Stockport, and I knew this story just had to be told.”
From humble beginnings, it is obvious that Bergara was always destined for great things. “This lad was born on a ranch in Montevideo, won the Uruguayan second division at age 15 and played at the highest level in Spain for a decade as a prolific striker before injury ended his career. Then he and Jan settled in England,” Phil recalls.
“Danny got a job from Harry Haslam, the Luton Town manager, in 1972. He was the first ever foreigner to earn FA coaching badges, and did them alongside the likes of Nobby Stiles. At the time, Luton were in what is now the Premier League and Danny was the manager of their very successful youth team, which consistently won the league.”
And from hearing about Bergara’s earliest days in England, his trend-setting nature is something that comes across strongly. “Dan moved with Haslam to Sheffield United in 1978 out of loyalty, and soon became the first ever foreign national to work with the England team. He coached the under-20s side and travelled to competitions across the world with them for two years. So he was doing what Sven Goran-Eriksson did, but 20 years earlier, and he never gets the credit for that. He was then the first non-British man to lead his team out in a cup final at Wembley with Stockport in 1992.
“Dan was also the first foreigner to work in the game here whose first language wasn’t English, but he used it almost as a mother tongue every day. I guess that helps to put into context how hard it must have been for him to break new ground,” Phil stresses. “Dan really did set a lot of trends, and he always used to say when he was at Stockport that he was born too soon. He was incredibly proud to have a job in the country that invented football, but felt he maybe was a bit before his time.”
As a coach himself, Phil is also under no illusions about the pioneering influence that Bergara had on the game, which remains largely unrecognised. “One of the main things that Danny is responsible for was bringing mini-soccer into English football. I’ve been a coach for 25 years and mini-soccer was only really introduced properly here about 15 years ago.
“Danny was asking for it to be introduced in the early 1980s, saying we should stop getting kids playing on full-sized pitches. We did it when I was growing up, but it doesn’t make it right. He was a real advocate of looking after the youth.”
And it’s clear that what Bergara started still influences the game years later. “It’d be fair to say that without Dan doing what he did, the likes of Arsène Wenger, José Mourinho and Roberto Martínez would all have struggled to get a foothold in the English game,” Phil explains.
“Arsène has been able to buy better players than Dan could, so we’ll never know if Dan was a better tactical genius because he didn’t work with the same standard of player. But I genuinely don’t believe that Arsène would be quoted as the tactical pioneer that he is without Dan opening the door first.”
Bergara achieved legendary status at Stockport County in particular; his memory is immortalised in a stand carrying his name and a Uruguayan flag flying at the Hatters’ Edgeley Park stadium. But aside from his managerial ability, another aspect which endeared him to supporters was his unique sense of humour, which Phil alludes to.
“My favourite story with Dan was when I interviewed him after a Stockport game. We were losing at half-time but won the game comfortably in the second half, and I commented that he must have given an inspirational half-time team talk. He just looked at me and said ‘No. All I said was, the opposition are the same as you; they’ve all got two arms, two legs, and one cock.’ That was Dan. He wasn’t laughing, that was just his grasp of the English language.”
However, aside from his sense of humour, Bergara was also an incredibly talented coach who was undoubtedly much-loved within football.
“We spoke to a lot of people whilst writing the book. Because we had so many stories, we had a chapter at the end of people’s memories which didn’t quite fit in the context of the book but deserved to be in there,” Phil explained.
“In my job as press officer at Stockport in the last three years I’ve been to so many grounds, and there’s been so many people with stories to tell about Dan. Mick McCarthy is quoted on the back saying that Dan was possibly the nicest man he’s ever worked with in football.”
Overall, writing the biography has been a challenge which Phil has relished. “It’s been an absolute honour for me, as a Stockport County fan, to write the book. I got the opportunity in the past to write the history of my football club, but to write a story about one of your all time heroes with the help of his family? I don’t think I’ll ever top it.”
The book has so far been a huge success and may in future be translated into Spanish to be sold in Spain and Bergara’s native Uruguay.
And with two publications now under his belt, Phil is planning more work for the future. “I’ve been working on two or three other projects as well. I’ve got a book that I’ve been working on for a while which will work for several football clubs. I’ve also been working on a sitcom which may involve a certain football club. We’ll see where things go!”
For now though, one thing is for certain: superbly written, The Man From Uruguay tells the story of a truly remarkable football manager and a truly remarkable man.