VIENTIANE: Philippines coach Simon McMenemy feels that the building of strong team unity was the key factor in his side's successful campaign in the AFF Suzuki Cup 2010 qualifying competition in Vientiane.
The Philippines 18-man squad for the qualifiers was a disparate one that included talented locals like Ian Araneta and Emelio Caligdong and foreign-born players of Filipino extraction including goalkeeper Neil Etheridge, skipper Alexander Borromeo and the Younghusband brothers, James and Philip.
But the 10 locals and eight foreign-born players pulled together to book their spot in the group stage after a series of battling performances including a come-from-behind 2-2 draw against hosts Laos and a hard-fought goalless stalemate with Cambodia.
"When I arrived in the Philippines in August, the team's preparations for the Suzuki Cup were already well under way and they were taking this qualifying tournament very seriously," McMenemy said.
"But what I found was a group of good players who play together but not necessarily for each other. We had to work hard to get the team to gel together because we had a number of local players and a number of players who had flown in from all around the world.
"But the effort that they put in during the last few days was fantastic and they fully deserved to advance in the competition."
McMenemy, himself, may have no links to the country but the Englishman already feels as one with the players, who doused him with a bucket of water after their final game against Cambodia.
"It's difficult not to feel strongly for the Filipinos. They have such an infectious culture," said the 32-year-old.
"Qualifying for the group stage is a big thing for these guys and I'm delighted that all the hard work that they put in over the past 10 months has paid off."
McMenemy, who took charge of the Philippines team just two months ago, was slightly miffed though at seeing his side miss out on first place in the qualifiers.
"The team put in a lot of hard work preparing for the tournament and after playing three games in five days, you could see that they were tired at the end of the goalless draw against Cambodia.
"On that measure, I was pleased with the result. But I'm a bit of a perfectionist so there's slight air of disappointment that we just missed out on first place.
"I feel that we are a better team than our two draws would suggest. Of course we achieved our main target of qualification but missing out on first place after scoring a goal less than Laos just took a bit of the shine off of our achievement."
While qualification has been secured, McMenemy does not want his side to simply make up the numbers when the tournament proper kicks off in December.
They have been placed in Group B in Hanoi alongside defending champions Vietnam, Myanmar and three-time winners Singapore, who they will meet in their opening game on December 2.
Having never beaten any of their group opponents in their previous AFF Suzuki Cup outings, Philippines will be the distinct underdogs in their section. But McMenemy insists that his side can make an impression after their successful qualifying campaign.
"Once we get to the final rounds, every game will be tough. But the tougher the opponents, the more I think the boys can rise to the occasion," he said.
"It will be a great experience to savour especially playing the defending champions on their home ground but we are not just intending to show up. We will be preparing the team as well as we can and we intend to watch our opponents a fair amount over the next few weeks in the build-up to the tournament.
"It is quite difficult to plan against teams with great facilities and a great pool of talented players to choose from. But we will be doing everything we can to get some good results in the group stage."