Every football fan has dreamt of playing or, failing that, managing on the international stage. For the vast majority of us, it is an impossible pipedream, being played out only on FIFA or Football Manager. In a way, this should have been the case for Paul Watson too, but he wasn’t prepared to let that stop him.
Pohnpei is one of the four states of the Federated States of Micronesia, a group of volcanic islands in the Pacific Ocean. Situated over 1000 miles from the nearest major landmass, Papua New Guinea, it is so cut off from the outside world that calling home requires paying $20 for a short time using an unreliable internet collection.
Watson’s bizarre journey to becoming the manager of Pohnpei’s football team began with a discussion on whether he and flatmate Matt Conrad would be good enough to play for any international side. Upon discovering that Monserrat, the lowest ranked side in FIFA’s rankings, had a Stevenage Borough player turning out for them, they started looking at countries and territories that were not FIFA members. Pohnpei, it seemed, were the worst side in the world, and when Watson and Conrad realised they wouldn’t be able to get citizenship to play for them they decided to go for the vacant managerial role instead. There wasn’t much competition – the island didn’t have any funding for football, an incumbent coach, or even a league of its own domestic clubs.
The madness of the story develops further when Conrad is offered a place at his dream university in the US. The pair decide he can’t turn it down, and so Watson would initially have to venture out to the middle of nowhere to manage Pohnpei on his own. Naturally, he decides to do it anyway.
It’s the sheer craziness of Watson’s decision that makes the book so special. I promise you you’ll never read anything quite like it. Watson’s time as a football manager is presented brilliantly by the author, keeping you hooked throughout. Having to start with literally nothing – Watson even had to source some kit from the UK from the likes of Yeovil Town’s community programme – he manages to unite an unlikely set of teammates and prepare them for a potential journey of their lives, if they can just find some funding for a tour of Guam. I won’t spoil the conclusion for you!
Watson’s decision to leave his family and girlfriend behind was justified by the desire to make a difference somewhere, and escape from a sense of disillusionment over the modern game. It reminds me of a somewhat more niche version of Simon McMenemy’s story, which is featured in Match Fit. McMenemy left Worthing behind whilst in his early 30s to take charge of the Philippines’ national team. He had unprecedented success and kick-started a love of football in the country, which persists to this day. When discussing his story with me, McMenemy was visibly emotional at the positive impact he was able to have on an entire nation.
In Up Pohnpei, Watson is humble about what he does, but clearly he deserves similar credit. Football can be a form of social glue, bringing people together like nothing else can, and Up Pohnpei is proof of that. The influence of Watson and Conrad even allowed one of their players to receive proper medical treatment in Manila after a car accident, likely saving him from being paralysed. Due in large part to cultural differences, Watson’s task wasn’t always easy and he made huge sacrifices to achieve what he did. All this means the book is as heartwarming as it is eye-opening. The unique nature of it means it is a must-read for any football fan, particularly those interested in life outside of the Premier League’s ‘Big Six’.
Watson is on Twitter, and though he is now back on familiar territory in the UK, his feed is a wonderful collection of football’s underdog stories. You can follow him here
About Johnnie Lowery
Johnnie is a football writer. His first football book, Six Added Minutes, was written while he was at university and published in November 2019. With strong reviews from the likes of Jeremy Vine and Jacqui Oatley, it is selling well online. His second book, Match Fit, explores mental health in football. It looks to raise mental health awareness and is inspired by Lowery’s own struggles as a teenager, when he did not understand why he was feeling down.