The adventures of Captain Marvel
Bryan Robson looks like he could still do a job on the pitch. Now 53, the manager of Thailand strolls into a Bangkok hotel located a few miles east of his downtown home where all the action is in this vibrant city.
All-action describes the playing style of the former Manchester United and England captain nicely, but now Robson is enjoying a different pace of life literally thousands of miles away from the hurly-burly of the English game.
"You miss the everyday banter around a football club but I've been in it for so many years," he tells ESPNsoccernet. "And then I sit back and think that an international manager's job is near enough part-time compared to a club manager. You have time to see your family. You are not going in at six every morning to be first to the training ground and plan training for the day. A lot of the time, your main goal is to be organised for what is coming up and then go scouting, and scouting is a nice job."
It was the only part of his job affected by the 'Red Shirts' protests in Bangkok earlier this year. Managing Middlesbrough, West Bromich Albion, Bradford City and Sheffield United may be challenging, but lengthy occupation of city centres and exchanges of gunfire with the military are not usually involved. Downtown Bangkok and the Thai government alike were paralysed for weeks to give the Englishman a reminder, if he needed one, that he was far from home.
The decision to come so far east wasn't taken lightly, but the fact that he would become the third ex-England international from the '80s to occupy the Bangkok hotseat in the past decade helped. The Peters of Withe and Reid were here first, with Robson succeeding the latter a year ago.
"I had about three lunches with Reidy when I was approached, so I got quite a lot of information about the place before I accepted. I really enjoyed working part-time with Terry Venables for two years up to Euro '96 with England so, after a few years in the leagues, I just fancied a national team job. At one time I thought I had a great chance of Ireland before Brian Kerr got it, and then Nigeria basically gave me the job but then the government stepped in for certain reasons so that didn't happen. So when the opportunity to come to Asia came, I was interested. I knew about the passion in Thailand for football, so I thought, 'Yeah, it will be an experience and a different culture and a different challenge'."
Many managers who work east of Europe are surprised at the love for the Premier League. Among English clubs at least, United are top dog in most of Asia, though the south-east has long been Liverpool territory. Yet that may no longer be the case, according to the former England captain, and looking at the Manchester United bar on Soi Sukhomvit 11, which does a roaring trade every time the team plays despite some of the highest prices in the city, he has a point.
"I think United are number one around here - they've taken over from Liverpool. When I first went to Malaysia as a player, Liverpool were absolutely massive there but, with the success that United have had over the past 15 or 20 years, they have overtaken Liverpool. Obviously Chelsea are coming up on the rails and you always see a lot of Arsenal shirts on the streets because of the success they had when Wenger first went there. It's the same everywhere. You will capture a lot of fans if you are on television and winning tournaments."
Robson is after something similar and hopes that when he does depart, as well as silverware in a Bangkok cabinet, he will leave behind something more intangible but just as important. "You can put certain things in place which I am hoping will bear fruit. We (along with English assistant Steve Darby) have been talking to the FA and clubs about where they are and how they can improve and so you hope that certain things will take off. A couple of clubs have taken it on board. If you leave something little like that behind then it is worthwhile. I'd like to leave that kind of legacy so that after I leave, people will say 'Bryan Robson said that this could develop if we get that organisation into place'. But, of course, I'd also like them to say how we went to the final of the Asian Games and won the Suzuki Cup."
The Suzuki Cup, held in December, is an eight-nation biennial south-east Asian Battle Royale that may not get much play in the rest of the footballing world but it is a big deal for many of the 600 million or so people that live in the neighbourhood. The last of Thailand's three titles came in 2002. The team are still one of the most powerful in the region but, as it is one which will send zero representatives to the Asian Cup in January and hasn't been near a World Cup since 1938, that is not as much as a compliment as it once was.
"We'll go in as one of the favourites because it's South-East Asia," Robson says. "There are some decent teams. Malaysia have been together for around a year and a half now so they will be like more of a club team. Singapore, their Under-23s have been playing in the Singapore league so they are playing together every week. Vietnam are similar to Thailand with the quality of players they've got, so it will be an interesting competition, but hopefully we can get to the finals if not win it."
If it is a little strange to hear the man dubbed 'Captain Marvel', who played for England 90 times and was the face of his club and his country in the '80s, discuss the likes of Malaysia and Singapore, he doesn't stop there. There are also the Asian Games in November and the King's Cup in February at the end of which, Robson says, he will take stock.
"I have to do well in these competitions - not only to satisfy myself but to satisfy the Thai FA as well. A lot will depend well we do in these competitions and by that time I would have been here for around 20 months. I will then look at my own progress before thinking about what lies ahead." Thailand want that future to include a World Cup at some point. "Sometimes expectations can be a bit too high. I don't think the fans expect too much but the media nearly always do. People within the FA, yeah, they always think that the players should do better."
Maybe they soon will. The Thai Premier League is moving forward with more money and sponsorship around and the top three or four teams are becoming more professional by the day. There is still a long way to go. Watching Thailand defeat India in Bangkok supports Robson's assertion that the Thai national team players are technically better than the ones he had at his last job with Sheffield United, but the sight of chances going begging was a reminder of why the team failed to qualify for the 2011 Asian Cup. Robson, however, is optimistic.
"There is hope for the future. Development in Thailand has moved on really quickly in the past two years and the league is getting a lot stronger and wealthier with the great sponsorship that they have had this season. There is a lot of raw talent here but at the moment it is not nurtured through the years in order to produce top class players.
"The players are really courteous and will try and implement what you put on board in training sessions. They are not really pampered here - it's a hard life and, if they step out of line, they get hammered. If you went back to England and told players that this is the way players are treated in this part of the world, I think they might appreciate what they get."
At the moment, though, Robson is appreciating what he has in Thailand.