Georgia made history by reaching Euro 2024. This coach might be its secret weapon

Damond Isiaka
10 Min Read


CNN
 — 

As Nika Kvekveskiri stepped up to the penalty spot, he had the expectations of a nation weighing heavily on his shoulders.

Score and Georgia would qualify for Euro 2024; miss and it might be yet another story of heartbreak for this generation of fans to live through.

As the midfielder started his run-up, assistant coach David Webb held his breath, tightly huddled together with the rest of the team.

The entire nation watched as Kvekveskiri stuttered on his approach to the ball, before releasing a shot into the bottom left corner.

“You could feel a pin drop in the stadium and then, when he put it in the bottom corner, it erupted,” Georgia’s assistant coach Webb tells CNN Sport, recalling the moment the nation qualified for Euro 2024 with a penalty shootout win against Greece – the first major tournament it has ever reached.

“Staff were crying. Players were crying. Fans bombarded the pitch. It was quite emotional.”

The winning spot-kick sparked jubilant scenes inside Tbilisi’s Boris Paichadze Dinamo Arena, as fans flooded onto the pitch and players celebrated in the dressing room.

Webb smiles as he remembers those chaotic scenes of unbridled joy back in late March, laughing as he tries to recall which songs the players sang as they partied through the night.

The excitement spread up and down the football-mad country and the anticipation has continued building ahead of the tournament’s start in Germany on June 14.

Georgia's players celebrate after winning Euro 2024 play-off final against Greece.

For Webb, it was a moment that he will never forget, and the “surreal” outcome has continued to provide memories that will last a lifetime – he’s even in the process of getting an honorary Georgian passport.

Helping Georgia qualify for Euro 2024 is the latest highlight in Webb’s unique coaching career, a journey which has taken some unlikely twists and turns over the years.

Watching football on a ‘chess board’

After realizing he wasn’t quite good enough to forge a career as a top-flight player, Englishman Webb quickly made his name as a coach, impressing in a number of different roles – including youth coach and recruiter – at a host of professional English clubs.

It was always the psychological side of the game that fascinated Webb most, an ability that enabled him to spot a player’s potential where others could not.

“Anyone can pick the best players,” he says. “For me, it was always about scratching under the surface a little bit. What makes [players] tick, what makes them develop.”

Webb is different from many other coaches in the world of football. He is softly spoken, unassuming and doesn’t come with the usual bravado which is prevalent in a sport full of egos.

Rather than looking purely at tactics and statistics – elements that are still important to his philosophy – he is more interested in fostering healthy relationships and creating environments for players to flourish.

Webb is part of a coaching team which has helped Georgia make history this year.

It’s an approach rooted in his ability to empathize with people and something he credits to being slightly neurodiverse as a child.

“I had a sort of feeling and affiliation towards people and I always found football quite easy to watch,” Webb says.

“I was watching games like a chess board, like a helicopter over the game. It was sort of a feeling and intuition with people. I kind of found I was getting a lot of this right over the years, especially when it comes to football and spotting talent.”

Webb decided to enhance this natural ability and obtained a postgraduate degree in sport psychology. Understanding the “humanistic” side of football, he says, is something that gives him an extra edge in his coaching career.

Then, when a frustrating spell as manager of non-league club York City ended in disappointment in 2023, Webb got the chance to prove himself on the biggest stage.

Georgia's fans invaded the pitch after the penalty shootout win.

As chance would have it, Webb had briefly met former France international Willy Sagnol while on scouting duties in France in 2014.

The pair hit it off and kept in contact over the years, with Sagnol impressed with the different way in which Webb sees the game.

After Sagnol was appointed manager of the Georgian men’s national team in 2021 and, after Webb found himself at a loose end, he was offered the chance to become one of the team’s assistant coaches.

Emotional Euro 2024 campaign

It was an opportunity Webb couldn’t turn down, a chance to work with an exciting generation who had their hearts set on qualification to Euro 2024.

His remit was broad, tasked not only with helping to coach the players but also strengthening them mentally.

He first set up one-to-one interviews with all the players to learn more about their personal journeys and to understand what they needed to maximize their potential.

He says some players became emotional during these informal chats, thankful for the opportunity to speak about their lives in a sport where people are often treated as numbers, rather than humans.

Webb then continued his work on the training field, looking for players who possessed character traits that would enable the team to do something it had never done before: reach a major tournament.

Webb says he was surprised by what he saw in those early sessions, as he started to learn more about the culture of the country he was starting to represent.

“It was just quite unique. All the players are the same, whether they’re the biggest stars, they’re all the same, the staff are all the same,” he adds.

“They’re very humble, all of them, very passionate, very sensitive as well. Quite emotional but such pride for their country. I’d never seen that before.”

After getting to know the players better, Webb continued to work on the mental aspect of their game, something which may have been a secret weapon in the penalty shootout win against Greece.

In training before the play-off campaign, which saw the team beat Luxembourg in the semifinals before knocking out 2004 Euro champion Greece, Webb says the team specifically practiced the walk up to the penalty spot.

The infamous few seconds in football can either make or break a player, and Webb believes the more you practice it, the easier it will be.

Before the play-off games, Webb also delivered a presentation about focus to the entire squad, something which drew inspiration from elite athletes in other sports, as well as the national team’s own journey.

“It was good to deliver that,” Webb says. “You could see the players’ faces, a few tears were around.

“You could feel that it was locked in, you know, that everything was calm, pure focus. Training was good. The players were ready.”

Webb has used his innovative coaching methods to help Georgia qualify for Euro 2024.

Now qualified for the tournament in Germany, Georgia is ready to continue surprising people when competition gets underway.

The team boasts a selection of real talent, led by the likes of Napoli winger Khvicha Kvaratskhelia.

Despite being an underdog in the tournament, Webb is confident this team can compete in its group alongside Turkey, Portugal and Czech Republic.

“We’re not there just to be tourists,” he says, leaning on similar comments made by Sagnol earlier in the year.

“We want to go and compete and give our best. We think we’ve got a fighting chance within the group to maybe progress to the next round. We’re not going in there just to take part.

“We looked at our squad, we looked at the other squads and we think, you know, we can be seriously competitive here.”

Georgia’s first game will come against Turkey on June 18.

On a personal note, though, Webb can scarcely believe the direction his life and career have taken after that chance encounter with Sagnol all those years ago.

“It’s quite surreal,” Webb says, eyes full of excitement at the prospect of coaching Georgia at the pinnacle of European football.

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