Thursday, December 18, 2008
Sawatdee Khrab, Peter!
When former Sunderland and Manchester City boss Peter Reid left the UK to head east, there was an element of surprise. Yes, there was an already well trodden path for the likeable Scouser to follow, but he was the first real Premier League boss to jump on a plane and head to South East Asia.
There's a world of difference between Manchester and Myanmar, and Liverpool and Laos, but there are those who can offer Reid a fast track with his new job as Thailand national team coach. The ideal example for the former England midfielder to look to is the man he slugged it out with on the field as a player in the 80s, Peter Withe. While Reid was still plying his managerial trade in England, the former Aston Villa poacher had his hands on the Thailand reigns, taking charge in 1998. After four successful years in Bangkok, he then flew three hours south to get to grips with football crazed Indonesia from 2004 to '07.
That underachieving tenure came to an abrupt end in typical ASEAN tradition, failing to meet an unrealistic win or bust ultimatum handed to him by the Indo FA ahead of the biennial regional Championships. First round elimination saw the axe move faster than a Javanese tiger.
One of the first lessons Reid has learned is that life is all about 'face' in this part of the world. The '07 tournament was won by Singapore, their second in succession, so the question was posed, "how could an island nation with just three and a half million people consistently out perform a country of two hundred million?" They did and Withe was sent packing.
Singapore currently rule supreme in this part of the world winning three of the last five ASEAN Football Federation events. The reason? Another English connection. Head Coach Raddy Avramovic. The 59-year-old Serb spent four seasons with Notts County in the late 70s and early 80s. After five years in charge of the Lions, he's seen them move to the top of the AFF tree.
But now it is all about Reid, and with him in Bangkok there is a unique difference. This is a man with Premier League pedigree, the man responsible for giving Kevin Phillips his real break in the professional game, the little number 10 for Sunderland who won the European golden boot in 2000 with 30 goals in the Premiership.
"I was offered a few jobs in England, but when I was asked about Thailand I was immediately interested. I played a few games here in 1984 with Everton. I remember being impressed with how technically excellent the Thai players were back then," Reid says.
The region has always impressed the 52-year-old: "You see Korea and Japan regularly make World Cup finals, then you look at the ASEAN players and think physically they'll have problems. That's not the case, they are strong, hard guys. I've really enjoyed being given a blank sheet of paper here. I watched the last half of the [Thai] league season and kept a good eye on the boys in training. It's allowed me to give debuts to new players."
The former Sunderland boss is also enjoying going back to full a hands on approach: "It's great to be back out on the training field with the boys. In England you end up dealing with other things like media, administration and that sort of stuff. It keeps you off the training pitch. Here I have none of that so I can work one on one with the players."
One of Reid's first tasks was to bring in another Englishman as his assistant. Steve Darby may not be a well known name around the world, but in South East Asia he is highly respected. The former Sheffield Wednesday goalkeeping coach has spent 13 years in the region, coaching teams in Australia, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam.
Bizarrely Darby and Reid were born only a mile apart from one another in Liverpool. A year older than his new boss 'Darbs' knows the talent pool available to Reid as well as anyone. Left midfielder Sutee Suksomkit was with him in Singapore at Home United FC, and his first role was to give Reid a full breakdown of the Thai squad. If this years' AFF Championship is to be another Sing v Thai battle, as is expected, Singapore know they have more than just 11 players to beat. Darby knows Singapore inside out.
Reid had already flirted with the unlikely position of the Iran job, the job was his. The move failed to materialize for 'Personal reasons'. Iran's loss looks to be Thailand's gain. The Thais are an altogether tougher outfit since Reid's appointment. The once gritty midfielder for Everton and England is certainly rubbing off to his skillful charges, but it's not just a one way thing.
With the likes of Europe bound Datsakorn Thonglao as his jewel in the Thai crown, Sutee Suksomkit marauding down the left flank and overlapping fullback Suree Sukha on the right, the Liverpudlian has plenty of flair to work with. Sukha was one of three Thai national players to fly to Manchester City soon after former PM Thaksin Shinawatra bought the club.
"I've given them more gym and fitness work and you could say I've added a bit of the European game. At the back we've improved tactically and we now can mix up how we play. Teams would know how Thailand would play; now people just don't know how we are going to play and what will come next."
The biennial AFF Championship has been dominated by both Thailand and Singapore. The two have shared every competition since '98. The two Semi finals have gone the way of the favourites, Thailand outperforming Indonesia in Jakarta and Singapore holding off a spirited effort from Vietnam in Hanoi. After winning the three nations T&T Cup in Vietnam in November, Reid may well have his hands on his first real trophy.