Nongbua Pitchaya head coach Matt Holland is aiming to put one over on his former employers when the T2 side meet Buriram United in the League Cup semi-final on Wednesday.
In two different spells over a total of three years at the Thai champions, Holland worked as Head of Youth Development, Football Development manager and Technical Director.
However, the 31-year-old Welshman is relishing the opportunity to face some of his old friends and wants to cause a huge upset.
“You want to play against your old clubs, it’s the beauty of football,” said Holland. “I’ve been lucky to have worked for a club like Buriram. Many people want to but never get the chance, so I’m grateful to Khun Newin, Khun Karuna and Khun Tadthep for that, not once, but twice in my career.
“There are still many people there who I know there and still communicate with, so to coach against a team that you know and who, budget-wise, are astronomically different to us, you have a chance to try and show what you can do, to try and boost the players that you’ve got and to put a good performance in.”
Buriram United come into the game on the back of two tough matches at Trat, edging the FA Cup quarter-final on penalties last week before a late strike earned them a T1 victory at the weekend. The Thunder Castle still have much to do to defend their league title as they sit just a point above Chiang Rai United.
Nongbua, meanwhile, sit mid-table in T2 – safe from relegation but too far off the pace for a promotion bid. Holland has steadied the ship since arriving at the club when they were on a four-match losing streak, and his second game in charge was a 1-0 victory over Ratchaburi in the League Cup Round of 16.
Nongbua beat an under-strength Port FC in the First Round, but Holland feels that Buriram will be fully motivated despite continuing to challenge on three fronts in an extremely congested schedule.
“Of course, we know that Buriram are always fighting on all fronts and they’re always in the latter stages of the competition,” he said.
“I’m sure the whole of Thailand doesn’t expect anything but a Buriram United win, but in these games anything can happen if you prepare well, if you take care of the players properly and if you have the right information.
“Luckily, I have had the benefit of working there for three years, so my understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of the squad are valuable. They play with a clear philosophy and identify which has remained similar since I first joined the club so hopefully this information will be helpful for us.”
As he plots an upset, Holland insists that the has belief in the players he inherited after two changes of head coach since the start of the year.
“In Thailand, the majority of coaches – and I don’t mean this disrespectfully – consistently rely on foreign players to change the game,” said Holland. “They expect foreign players to come up with the goods all the time.
“I work in Thailand with a squad of 25, with just three foreign players. You have to believe in the Thai players. I believe we have strong players in each department. One of them is the captain, Wichitchai Chauyseenual – a terrific player on and off the ball as people may have seen from the last game. Wonderfully balanced, understands the game – how can you not trust players of this quality?”
Holland had not been with Nongbua for a long time when he was hit with the huge blow of losing one his biggest signings of the recent transfer window. Brazilian striker Maranhao had played for Port FC and Sukhothai and after a spell in South Korea didn’t work out, he found himself back in Thailand. Unfortunately, he suffered a broken leg on his debut for the club and is out for the season.
“He (Maranhao) was good in training and looked sharp even though he hadn’t played too much in Korea,” said Holland. “He integrated himself well and he started well. I believe he was going to get a goal against Rayong but was on the end of a horrific tackle which wasn’t even cautioned. It ends up with him breaking his leg, his season is finished and you can’t replace him.
“Sometimes, you just have to get on with it. You have to pick yourself up and deal with whatever the game throws at you but it was disappointing because he would have been a great player for us.”
Photo credit: Nongbua Pitchaya
Bladimir Diaz is a recent addition from Colombia and, despite some challenges in helping him adapt to Thai football, Holland has high hopes for him.
“Diaz came in from a team called Atlas in El Salvador,” he said. “He was top scorer in the league and had spent a number of years there. The integration over the first 7-10 days was a bit complex. He had to learn a little bit how to play with the Thai players as the style was very different but he has done that now. He has made some fantastic relationships with some Thai players in the squad, albeit through Google translate.
“He’s a little bit unorthodox, but he understands the game, and he has a desire to win. I think it will be a matter of time before the shows his real quality in Thailand.”
Another key player is at the other end of the pitch, with Singapore international goalkeeper Izwan Mahbud the man between the sticks. Holland has been impressed with the professionalism of the second Singapore keeper he has worked with – having been assistant head coach at Army United with Hassan Sunny also at the club.
“He is a top goalkeeper,” said Holland. “He prepares himself very well, he looks after himself physically. He’s a top professional and knows what it takes to do the right things. He has made some big saves for us and is important to the team.
“He’s got great feet and is very comfortable on the ball. He’s also very experienced, having played for his national team 40 or 50 times.”
Photo credit: Nongbua Pitchaya
The choice of venue for such a prestigious fixture has disappointed many. The 72ndAnniversary Stadium is a difficult place to get to at the best of times but in traffic-choked rush hour on a Wednesday evening, the outskirts of Bangkok are a long way from the northeast region that both sides hail from.
“I didn’t really think about the game being played in this region [the northeast], but one thing for sure is that it would have put fans in the stand if it was played around here – possibly at Korat, in a nice big stadium,” said Holland.
“I’m not overly sure if that will be the case in Bangkok. Buriram fans need to travel, our fans need to travel. There are obviously reasons why people that run the cups have decided to play in these stadiums. I personally felt that even in Bangkok, there were one or two better options, but I’m not fully aware of whether or not they were available.”
Whatever the venue, the odds are firmly stacked against Nongbua but if Holland’s inside knowledge of the opponents can be used to good effect, we could just have an upset on our hands.