La Liga aims to break EPL dominance and help Thai League become country’s No.1

The English Premier League (EPL) may be the biggest show in town in Thailand but Spain’s La Liga is determined to make inroads in its quest to be the second biggest league in the country.

But La Liga delegate to Thailand Jose Maria Gotor insists the intention is not for La Liga to play second fiddle to the EPL, but to the Thai League.

Jose Maria has been in Thailand for two years in a role that also covers neighbouring Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos. So far, he is happy at the progress being made as Spanish football’s popularity continues to rise.

“The reason why I moved here and my main goal is to get La Liga closer to our Thai fans and grow our fan base,” Jose Maria told ThaiFootie.

“We realise that we have a lot of fans in Thailand. Currently on Facebook, we have over 600,000 Thai followers.

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“Until two years ago, our focus was mainly on Spain but our president became aware of the importance of fans outside of Spain and decided to carry out this international expansion.

“We haven’t traditionally been very active in this part of the world but we believe that we have huge growth potential here. We know that Thais are crazy about football, which is the No. 1 sport in the country.

“According to a recent study by Nielsen Sports Research, Thailand came second highest in a survey that asked people whether or not they were interested in football – at 78 per cent.”

In the same study, footballing superpowers like Italy (67 per cent), Brazil (60 per cent) and Germany (60 per cent), trailed Thailand, highlighting the country’s potential.

However, in a nation where the EPL has been the most popular league for many years, La Liga has a huge challenge in its hands as it attempts to gain more of a market share. Any survey of Thai fans’ favourite teams is likely to see Liverpool and Manchester United as the Top Two, rather than Barcelona and Real Madrid, with Buriram United and Muang Thong United much further behind.

But Jose Maria is undeterred by the EPL’s dominance and wants to see the Thai League overtake both the EPL and La Liga.

“The EPL has been here for a very long time and they are very deep rooted among Thailand’s football fans,” he said. “But we have a huge football fan base in Thailand and as our president always says, we don’t want to be No. 1 in Thailand, we don’t want to be the top league, we want to be the second league. We want to collaborate with the Thai League so the Thai League can be number one. That’s the way it should be and that’s our approach.

“We want to collaborate with the local football industry to help them grow and this way there will be opportunities for everyone so football fans will have many choices and they will have more access to La Liga in their own language.

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“One of the first things I did when I came to Thailand was to sign an MOU with the Thai League and the Football Association of Thailand (FAT). That was my way to let people know that La Liga was here to collaborate with the local football industry, not just coming here and doing our thing and leaving. We’re here to stay.”

MOUs are sometimes considered nothing more than an opportunity for publicity and it can sometimes be difficult to identify concrete results from such agreements. But Jose Maria is keen to point out that La Liga’s actions back up the words on the document.

“We have done many activities, not just signing and taking a photo,” he said. “I took two Thai national youth teams to Spain for the first time in history. One of them was the U16 team last August. In two weeks, they played four friendly games against La Liga teams. They were trained by La Liga coaches.

“This year in April, we took the U15 national team to different cities and played friendly games again. We participated in some Thai League workshops for clubs and staff, bringing some experts from Spain, from clubs and from La Liga.

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“We are currently exploring other opportunities for collaboration. Last year in September, at La Liga headquarters, we welcomed the full executive committee of the FAT for a knowledge sharing summit. We showed them how we work in different areas.

“We also work with the Sports Authority of Thailand in the youth league. Last year, we brought four La Liga coaches to Thailand to conduct a clinic for Thailand youth league coaches. They also scouted the best players from the four different age groups of the Thailand youth league. We’re basically trying to cover the whole local football industry.

“It’s a very big job and we need to go step by step. I think the Thai League are doing a great job. The Thai football industry is growing fast and in the right direction. Anything we can do to support, we will be at their disposal.”

The star power of La Liga continues to draw the best players in the world, with Eden Hazard a recent example of how the EPL still can’t compete with the opportunity to play for Real Madrid.

Cristiano Ronaldo may have swapped La Liga for Serie A last year but Jose Maria insists that there has been no discernable impact.

“To be honest, we haven’t suffered any damage in that sense,” he said. “Players come and go, they get older. You need to be prepared to replace them at some point. We’ve always had the best players in the world in La Liga. We have had Johan Cruyff, Alfredo Di Stefano, Ronaldo, Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, Maradona. They all come and go, it’s part of life but new players will come and replace them.

“We can see Joao Felix has just signed for Atletico Madrid. He is just 19 years old and he looks very promising. We have also signed Eden Hazard, another amazing player.”

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While the top sides from the major European leagues continue to visit other countries in Asia for lucrative friendly matches, Thailand has seen a slowdown in such showpiece events, with Liverpool the last big name to visit back in 2015.

Jose Maria is hopeful that Thai fans will soon get to see a La Liga side, with some of biggest having visited in previous years.

“In the past, we have had Real Madrid, Barcelona, U.D. Almeria and Atletico Madrid in Thailand,” he said. “I hope we can have another La Liga team in Thailand soon. There are always different opportunities and clubs want to come. We just have to find the right moment and the right timing and I’m sure soon the fans will be able to enjoy some La Liga teams in Thailand.”

While we may see some of the world’s finest in Thailand should a La Liga club sign up for a friendly, there may also be opportunities for Thai players to follow in the footsteps of Teerasil Dangda. The striker spent six months on loan at UD Almeria back in 2014. While it was not a hugely successful move, it showed that Thai players were on the radar of Spanish clubs.

Jose Maria thinks Thai players have the potential to thrive in Spanish football due to similarities in how the countries play the game.

“The way Thai players play is similar to the Spanish style,” he said. “We don’t play a physical game. We need smart players who understand the game and I see common ground between Thai players and La Liga.

“Asian football is growing, and better players are being produced. We were traditionally more focused on other parts of the world, for example, Central and South America for cultural reasons and the language.

“But La Liga clubs are realizing that there is great potential in the region. This year, there has been a Japanese boom in La Liga. Real Madrid signed Takefusa Kubo, Barcelona signed Hiroki Abe and Real Zaragoza in the second division signed Shinji Kagawa.

“La Liga clubs are paying attention to what’s happening in this part of the world. Right now, it’s Japan but it will eventually be other countries in the region. At some point, I’m sure some La Liga clubs will again target Thai players. “

Nongbua’s Holland hopes to stun Buriram in League Cup clash

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.”

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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.”

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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.”

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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.”

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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.

From Barcelona to Bangkok: Thailand youth coach Salva Valero targets U17 World Cup

From the footballing hotbed of Barcelona to steamy Bangkok, Salva Valero is aiming for the world stage as he attempts to lead Thailand to the 2021 FIFA U17 World Cup.

The latest step in that journey begins in Chonburi on July 28th as his current side compete in the AFF U15 Championship.

Their Group B campaign kicks off against Laos and they also face Brunei, Cambodia, Australia and Malaysia as they bid to reach the final stages.

Valero is well aware of the high expectations placed on the hosts but is at pains to stress that they are building towards bigger things that this particular regional competition.

“Of course, we know that in Thailand, everyone expects us to be the champions,” said Valero. “But we have to think more of the long-term process than the short-term. Our target is going to the U17 World Cup and to go to the AFC U16 Championship and be in the Top Four because the AFC U16 tournament is the bridge to the World Cup.

“That is our main focus and we have to prepare for that. If we only think about winning this tournament, we are incorrect. The point of this tournament is to prepare for the AFC qualifiers in September and of course the final round of the AFC next year.

“We are preparing the team and thinking more of the process than the final result. This process is training well, playing the way we want to play and that will make it easier to reach our targets.”

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Valero is one of many modern coaches who travel from one side of the world to the other on their professional journey.

As part of the Ekkono group, he joined the Football Association of Thailand (FAT) two years ago as the Spanish coaching team was entrusted with the development of younger age groups.

However, he soon found out that there could be knee-jerk reactions rather than long-term strategy in his new working environment.

“Ekkono arrived in April 2017 in Thailand,” said Valero. “Initially, we were going to be responsible for the age groups from U21 and below. We worked for six months like that but after December, the U21 side lost against Myanmar and Vietnam in a tournament in Vietnam and that caused a dramatic reaction, so the FAT changed our duties to focus only on age groups below U16.

“At that moment, we started building up the generation 2004, which is the one that will play in the next AFF tournament – the one I’m in charge of. The target is to prepare a team that will go to the U17 World Cup.

“The first step is the AFC qualifiers in September and we are now preparing for the AFF tournament at the end of this month in Chonburi.”

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Valero is just 26 years old but has amassed over a decade of experience in coaching, starting out in his home city of Barcelona at the age of 15.

“I coached in some of the best academies on Barcelona for eight years before coming to Thailand,’ he said. “I coached in the top U16 league with different teams, including Cornella and Gava, playing against Barcelona and Espanyol in the Catalonia top division for U16s.

“I started to be a coach when I was 15 because at that time I realized that as a football player, it would be difficult to reach the top level. I was playing but I wasn’t at the top level in my generation so I decided to focus on becoming a coach.”

Not surprisingly, Valero’s early years saw him influenced by the team that play at the Nou Camp stadium, but he also developed an admiration for coaches who plied their trade abroad and at home.

“I went to Barcelona’s stadium from the age of three with my father and I started to support Barcelona at that time,” said Valero.

“Apart from Barcelona’s influence, when I was a teenager, Mourinho started to manage Chelsea and then went to Inter. I liked his personality and especially the way he controlled his teams. He was a big influence for me in how he managed.

“For example, when Inter played against Barcelona in the 2010 AFC Champions League semi-final, he had Samuel Eto’o play at left-back and it worked. The way he made his team fight for each other and the way he created team spirit impressed me a lot. I liked Mourinho not so much from the tactical side but from the way he developed team spirit.

“Nowadays, Diego Simeone has the same idea of creating a strong group at Atletico Madrid. I like the kind of coaches who can create this environment in the team, where even the most talented players are fighting for the team and are sacrificing their own egos.

“In terms of football, my main influence is Barcelona, but in terms of managing and how to create team spirit, I like Mourinho and Simeone.”

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It has long been observed that Thailand’s young players are blessed with plenty of skills but often fail to fulfil their potential as they develop into adult professionals. Valero believes that the problems lie not only off the pitch, but also in the lack of intensity in training and in games.

“In Thailand, on the technical side, we have good players,” he said. “If you compare us to the top academies in Barcelona where I coached, we could be better than some of the teams technically, but we lack organisation.

“Off the field, there is a lack of attention to lifestyle and professionalism. We are trying to educate our players about how to behave as football players, e.g. how to rest, how to eat. This is a big issue with Thai players, not only at youth level, but also at the professional level.

“To reach the standard of European countries is not about the technical side, but the lifestyle and the way you live football, the way you compete.

“When I watch the youth leagues and see the training at some academies, I think they lack intensity and competitiveness. In general, we lack that. We hope that with this generation we can change that but in Thailand it is a big issue.

“Coaching this generation from the age of 13, we have done the scouting and some training camps. Now they are 15, so we have worked them for two years, educating them on their behaviour on and off the pitch.”

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Valero remains hopeful that the work done over the last two years can help this generation to adopt the right mentality as they seek to make a living from the game. He is hopeful that fans will turn out in numbers to back the team in Chonburi and thinks they could be rewarded with a style that might not be unfamiliar to followers of the English Premier League.

“Since we started with this generation, we realized that we have very talented midfielders. For sure, we will have a lot of possession,” said Valero.

“We have the identify of being a high pressing team. We will be focused on playing with the ball, trying to build up and switch to find an advantage, and also to do some counter pressing.

“We will be very intense when we lose the ball to react as fast as possible to recover the ball and continue attacking. That will be our aim – between Man City and Liverpool, we want play like that.”

Plazibat paying heavy price after Bangkok Glass blow stalled career

After Bangkok Glass were relegated from the Thai League (T1) on Sunday, one person watched from a distance and sympathy was in short supply.

Croatian striker Stipe Plazibat’s career at the club was over before it had begun when he was not included in the Glass Rabbits’ T1 squad after his move from Home United in Singapore.

Plazibat first came to Asia when he had spells at J2 sides FC Gifu and V-Varen Nagasaki. From there, he went to Singapore and at this time last year, he was one of the hottest strikers in Southeast Asia.

His prolific scoring was one of the main reasons for his side’s impressive run in the AFC Cup and solid season in the S League.

This form caught the eye of clubs in Thailand and when Bangkok Glass made an offer, Plazibat jumped at the chance to test himself at a higher level.

“After two seasons in J2, I went to Singapore where I played for two clubs, Hougang United and Home United,” Plazibat told ThaiFootie.com.

“In these two seasons, I scored 53 goals and had 19 assists. 2017 was an especially prolific season when I scored 37 goals and made 14 assists for my teammates.

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“We reached the AFC Cup zonal final and finished third in the S League and the Singapore Cup. Even before the end of the season, Bangkok Glass management contacted me and we started negotiations. We actually finished everything in one afternoon.

“I was happy that a big club from the region recognised my effort. I didn’t even ask for big money because I wanted to make an impact there first and help the club to achieve their goals and after that consider a better salary.”

However, Plazibat never did get the opportunity to ask for a better deal as he fell foul of the limit on foreign players when his new club decided to buy Mario Gjurovski from Bangkok United

The 29-year-old had sensed that something was wrong and then found out that his new employers had signed the Macedonian playmaker.

“From the first day there, I didn’t feel comfortable,” admitted Plazibat. “I saw that the coach didn’t use me in the first XI and that made me anxious.

“But I didn’t think that they wanted to change me. My first sign of that was on 29th January after I saw the Facebook announcement of Mario’s signing.”

It was not the ideal way to find out that his dream move was turning sour and it was left to head coach at the time, Josep ‘Coco’ Ferre to communicate the bad news to the player he had yet to use in a competitive game.

“Coach Coco invited me to coffee to try to explain to me why they did it,” said Plazibat. “It wasn’t his decision he said. They said that they had the opportunity to sign Mario and they couldn’t miss that chance so they decided to sacrifice me.”

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Frustratingly for the Croat, he never really understood why, having signed him, they changed their mind without having given him a chance.

And to add insult to injury, there was not even an opportunity to find another club or to take a loan deal somewhere else.

“I really don’t know the real reason,” he added. “I went there after 37 goals in a season, I trained well in preseason and slowly adapted to Thai football style.

“I was very confident that I would be ready to continue my form from the last year once the season started, so I can’t say what the reason was.

“There were no alternatives so that was one very stressful period for me. The transfer window closed and all clubs had already signed foreigners. I was in front of a wall without a solution. So, I stayed until June and trained with the team to keep up my fitness.

“I am very sad that even though I earned a contract in Thailand, I didn’t have the opportunity to show what I can do on the pitch.”

Ironically, Gjurovski was cut from the squad in mid-season as Ariel Rodriguez returned from a loan spell and another striker David Bala arrived.

But despite improved form in the second half of the season, one point from the final three games saw Bangkok Glass relegated due to an inferior head-to-head record against Chainat.

Plazibat was as surprised as anyone that the side that finished fifth in 2017 could end the year in 14th. But he suggests that the main reasons for relegation came from what was happening off the field.

“The squad is good, and there are some really quality players there,” he said. “I don’t think it [relegation] is because of them. The guys at the top need to take responsibility for their actions because they changed too much.

“They made some really, really bad decisions and they are the reason why BG have been relegated.”

Given the experience he had, Plazibat would advise any potential new players at the Glass Rabbits to think carefully before putting pen to paper.

“If anyone asked me, I would tell them that BG is one very good and organised club with very good conditions for training and very good supporters.

“But I would advise players to take a very good lawyer with them to make a contract and protect them as much as they can because those people don’t care about players like human beings. For them, running the club is like playing play station. They have so many things to learn.”

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Nevertheless, Plazibat is not ruling out a return to Thailand. He is now playing in Croatia’s second tier but is already planning to give it another shot on the continent where he spent several happy and productive years.

“I am in NK Solin now,” said Plazibat. “That is a club near my house in Croatia. I needed some time with my family after all the stress I had this year.

“My plan is to come back to Asia in the next transfer window. Here I have two training sessions every day – in the morning with a personal conditioning coach and with the team in the afternoon.

“I am in very good shape and can’t wait to go back there to show my full potential. And, of course, I would come back to Thailand. I like the lifestyle there and the football is good. I don’t think all Thai people in football are bad just because I had this bad experience.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

10 countries and counting – Blaine McKenna’s coaching journey

Football coach Blaine McKenna has packed more experience into his 26 years than many people can manage in a lifetime.

The Northern Irishman has already worked in 10 countries and will soon make it 11 following his recent departure from Ubon UMT United in Thailand, where he was Academy Director.

But while combining football and travel sounds like a dream job, there have already been enough problems to highlight that it can be as challenging as it can be rewarding.

Air pollution and the language barrier have been two of the less glamourous issues to overcome but McKenna has never regretted the decision to move out of his comfort zone and start coaching overseas.

“Moving abroad to coach was the single best decision I’ve ever made,” said McKenna. “It would have been practically impossible for me to become Academy Director at a professional club in Europe at the age of 25.

“There are many opportunities professionally but more importantly it’s changed me as a person. I’m so thankful for all of the experiences, friendships and memories which will live with me forever.”thumbnail

McKenna speaks highly of his time in Thailand and was certainly part of an exciting time in Ubon as the club rose through the divisions to reach the top tier under Scott Cooper.

Having landed in northeast Thailand through a contact from Northern Ireland, he went on to spearhead a number of developments at youth level while the first team were thriving, though they unfortunately look certain to be relegated this year.

“Ubon is a very tight knit club,” McKenna added. “It was quite a remarkable achievement getting back-to-back promotions up to the top flight. It was always going to be difficult to compete and sustain ourselves in the top flight with the limited budget and turnover of players.

“It’s a shame as our performances improved quite a bit in the second half of this season but it looks like we’ve left ourselves with too much to do. I was always treated well there by the President and his family. I’ll look back on my time at the club with fond memories.”

Despite the disappointment of seeing the club’s likely drop into T2 in 2019, there are still many great memories to take from an exhilarating period, while foundations have been put in place to make the academy and other community projects sustainable.

“In terms of the first team, doing the double over Muang Thong last season and finishing in 10th position was a great achievement for Scott and the team,” McKenna said. “With the academy, it was very challenging as the academy was very young and we didn’t have the same resources available to us as the other professional clubs.

“Competing at the top end of the youth league was never going to be how our programme was judged. The main success stories were having a wide-ranging impact on Ubon Ratchathani that extends beyond our academy.

“We started the club’s first ever schools programme which made quality coaching accessible to all and hosted football events that benefitted over 300 kids. Coach education was non-existent in this region during my time there.

“We were able to address this by bringing a national coaching course to Ubon for the first time, running workshops in universities, and starting our own coach education programme to educate our academy coaches. Our coach education programmes were attended by over 100 coaches which will potentially impact over a thousand kids across Esan.”

McKenna can look back with pride on some of the work he contributed to as the club attempts to build a legacy that reaches far beyond the performance of the first team.

“Our philosophy was something I was really proud of as well,” he said. “We developed it to provide a pathway from our youngest kids right up to the first team.

“It ensured all the coaches were singing off the same hymn sheet, provided coaches with best practice session methodology and was holistic in terms of focusing on the individual and the development of life skills. It was introduced to our coaches each week during our coach ed workshops.”

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While McKenna’s remit was largely one that covered the academy and youth and coach development, he was also handed opportunities to work with some of the first-team squad, including some sessions with Philippines striker Mark Hartmann when Mixu Paatelainen was head coach earlier this year.

“Another big success for me personally, was working with one of the first team players on a one-to-one basis,” McKenna explained. “Our centre forwards weren’t firing so I sat down with Mark Hartmann and set him a programme.

“The key component of the programme was open communication as Mixu tried Mark upfront during pre-season but he kept dropping off as he was signed by Scott to play number 10.

“Mark spoke to Mixu, who listened, starting him up front in the next game which he scored in against Buriram and went on to score four in the next six, making two assists. This was quite a remarkable transformation as he had only started three of six games before, scoring once.

“Mark said that he could count the number of headers he’d scored on one hand but scored two in two, which was a key part of the performance script I’d developed for him. He was then bought by Ratchaburi and has since been recalled to the national team with Scott as the new head coach.”

Although McKenna’s principal focus will always be football, he values the opportunity his position gives him to highlight issues outside the game. Road safety might not be considered something that a footballing Academy Director needs to become involved in, but reckless behaviour on Thailand’s dangerous roads had a direct impact on his job. This prompted him to make educating his young players about road safety a priority.

“I want all of our boys to progress into professional football but the main legacy I wanted to leave was an awareness of the importance of road safety, due to the 1,668 15-19 year olds who die in motorcycle accidents each year and valuing the importance of education,” McKenna admitted. “We had three of our boys end up in hospital in one week in Ubon as so many ride recklessly with no helmets.

“Education isn’t valued enough in Thailand when it comes to young boys wanting to become professionals. Even if they make it, the career is short and not many players will earn enough to secure their financial futures when they hang their boots up.

“We addressed this by providing scholarships to study while playing in our academy. Boys wearing helmets, riding their motorcycle safely and ending up with a good education was the big goal.”thumbnail

Like working in any job in any country, things did not always go as well as desired and it was a source of frustration that the funding and geographical appeal wasn’t there to give Ubon the opportunity to compete on a level playing field with other academy sides in Thailand.

“Not having a budget that would enable us to compete with the other academies was the single biggest challenge.” McKenna said. “We held open trials which 548 players attended but we’d miss out on the majority of the best players as weren’t in a position to house the players or pay them a living allowance like other clubs can.

“Being out in Ubon makes life more difficult as well as it’s not an easy city to generate funding, and most of the best players in Ubon typically migrate to sports schools and clubs in Bangkok.”

While youth development will ultimately be vital to the future of the game in Thailand, the recent drop in attendances have become a concern. McKenna sees club engagement with the younger generation as key to ensuring that the current decline is a blip rather than a long-term trend.

“This (increasing crowds) is something we thought about from our academy’s perspective,” he said. “We offered free entry to all of our academy players and other local academies. We planned to offer free tickets to all of the kids from our schools programme too.

“This would help to fill stadiums but also create a lifelong support of our club and also inspire the kids seeing top level football up close. The clubs have a big role to play in terms of the relationship and support for their fan clubs.

“It has also been important to engage with the fans to get their views on things so they feel part of the club. Our numbers went up when we allowed fans to bring beer in plastic cups into the stadium and we reduced our prices as well. Then obviously if your club is doing well, then more fans will come each game.”

While identifying the reasons for falling attendances and working to reverse the trend is a current priority for clubs and the Thai League’s marketing department, there remains the problem posed by fans’ insistence on following foreign clubs rather than local teams.

There are several variables which have resulted in a situation where a majority of Thai fans still name an English club as their favourite. McKenna suggests that refereeing and the dominance of Buriram United may be two key factors, while the high number of televised matches from home and abroad also as a significant impact.

“The standard of refereeing and corruption doesn’t help as people want to watch a fair game,” he said. “Buriram continuing to do well in the AFC Champions League will help but Muang Thong being significantly weakened with their top players going to Japan is good for the national team, but not good for the competitiveness of the league.

“It’s a shame Bangkok United couldn’t keep up their great run but you need the league to be more competitive at the top to get engagement.

“Also, there is high number of foreign leagues and Thai league games on TV. If there was less “higher level” football on TV there would be more fans in the stands surely.

“It will be interesting to see what changes the new ASEAN rules will make to things in terms of growing the league and game or possibly blocking entry to more Thai players playing in T1, depending on what way it will be introduced.

“The results of the national team make a huge difference too. If the team do well in Asian cup and one day qualify for the World Cup then everyone will be a lot more positive.”

As such a well-travelled coach, McKenna has been through a lot, both positive and negative. He struggles to identify the best country to work in and the once which has posed the most challenges.

“Environmentally New Zealand was a great place to live,” he said. “I’ve loved different things about all the countries I’ve worked in but we tend to focus more on the negatives as most of the countries I’ve worked in are developing nations and aren’t competitive on the world stage.

“The passion for football in Africa is amazing and some of the projects going on out there will change the kids’ lives forever. The academy I was at in Malawi has just sent their first student-athlete to study in the States which is an amazing achievement.

“The academy I was at in South Africa has just had a player trial with Valencia, who has since been signed by Levante if a work permit can be sorted. The kids in Thailand are brilliant and would run through a brick wall for you. Obviously, there are lots of things that could be done better in Thailand, which I aim to write about in the not too distant future.”

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McKenna is about to embark on a new adventure in country number 11, with just a bit of paperwork to be sorted. He is also writing a book on his experiences which could make for quite a read.

Longer term, he is not looking to be the next Mourinho or Guardiola and is quite happy to continue in development roles where the living environment is a little less challenging than those he has become accustomed to.

“My ultimate goal has changed quite a bit based on what I’ve experienced in different countries,” McKenna said. “Number one for me is to live in a place where I’m happy, which requires clean air, diversity, being beside the sea and a good economy.

“This idea came through ending up in hospital due to the air quality in one country and going two weeks without speaking one word of English in another.

“This most likely rules out professional football which is fine as there’s no stability, as shown by my budget changing in Ubon, and being unable to pick and choose where you live.

“I’m setting up a side business called Life Sports Performance which will continue the performance work I’ve done with Mark while introducing life skills to kids. Ultimately, I’d like to do this alongside coaching in an academy in a nice place.”

If everything falls into place, it will certainly justify the hard work it has taken to get there in the end.