When Chiang Rai United became Thai champions in 2019, there was vindication for Sean Sainsbury who, years earlier, had predicted that certain young players at the Muang Thong United academy would become stars of Thai football.
Phitiwat Sukjitthammakul, Sivakorn Tiatrakul, Suriya Singmui and Chaiyawat Buran were all part of the nascent academy when a strange twist of fate brought Sainsbury into contact with these four teenagers in 2012.
“The first training session I went to watch at Muang Thong featured that group and I was blown away by the talent,” said Sainsbury. “There were other really good players in that group, and it was pretty surprising how good they were, and I was very surprised by the quality of the training session I saw.”
Seven years later, these same players were a core part of the Chiang Rai United side that pipped Buriram United and won the club’s first ever Thai League (T1) title.
It is now eight years since Sainsbury arrived in Thailand and a week since he led Buriram United’s B team to their latest Coke Cup triumph, having lifted the same trophy when he was technical director at Muang Thong.
Like many foreign coaches who end up in Thailand, Sainsbury’s career has not followed a conventional path.
“I was playing semi-professional and got into coaching when I was about 24,” said Sainsbury. “I worked at Fulham with the community scheme and the academy and then worked in academy football at Fulham and Crystal Palace on and off for about 13 years.
“When I stopped playing, I coached senior football for semiprofessional teams up until I was about 37, so I was coaching in the UK for about 13 years.”
Wilfried Zaha was the standout player from Sainsbury’s time at Crystal Palace, but the time came to try something new, and Thailand would prove the destination.
“Someone who was opening up a private academy found me online and asked me to come over as one of the senior coaches.,” added Sainsbury. “I was 37 and thought it’s not an opportunity that comes up very often.
“I signed a contract for a year. I got here and there was nothing happening. They were still building the facility and I had one or two players who were training.”
It was a frustrating start to life in Thailand, and Sainsbury was ready to return home when an interesting opportunity presented itself at one of the top clubs in the country in 2012.
“I was going to leave but I spoke to an agent who gave me Ronnarit Suwaja’s contact details at Muang Thong United,” he said. “I didn’t know anything about Thai football at the time. I called him and told him I was in Thailand and planned to be here for another nine or 10 months and if there was a job, I would stay. He met me the next day and said they were looking for somebody to work at the academy and asked me to come down and work for a couple of weeks to see how I fitted in. After two weeks, they offered me a job.
“I stayed either working for Muang Thong or one of their affiliate clubs for three-and-a-half years.”
For someone with a limited knowledge of the game in the country, matches at Muang Thong United’s stadium made a very positive first impression, but there was much to do at academy level.
“With regards to the club, the stadium was packed, the atmosphere was electric, the football was a decent level. I was wowed by it,” said Sainsbury.
“With regards to my own job as academy director, they had set up the academy really quickly and it wasn’t ready. I had all these players and nowhere for them to train. It took a lot of work initially to get the academy up and running.
“We just had the two artificial pitches at the stadium. We had a U18 team, but they were pretty much all U17s. That was our oldest age group. We had U16s, mixed with U15s, and U14s and U13s. We had four groups, with 25-30 players in each group and two pitches that were also rented out privately. So there were a lot of days when teams weren’t training because there wasn’t the facility to do it.
“The club decided to set up an academy, recruited players, then thought about what they were going to do. That was round about when I came in.”
It helped that some of the players they had recruited were to become some of the stars of the future, and that they had some good coaches such as Sarawut Treephan and Surapong Kongthep. But there was much to be done away from the training pitch.
“Initially, my job was finding a training pitch, getting kids to school, organizing all of the contracts, getting rid of the players who weren’t up to it, and filling the groups with better quality players,” said Sainsbury. “I did that for the first year and in the second year, we set up two B teams and in the third year, I coached the B team in Nakhon Nayok and Chaiyawat and Phitiwat were part of that team.
“Suriya had already broken into the first team and Sivakorn was playing with another affiliate club. In my year at Nakhon Nayok, we also had Picha Autra, who is now at Samut Prakan City, and Suporn Peenagatapho, who was phenomenal at that time and was expected to have as big a career as the others but it hasn’t really happened for him.
“It was a golden era of players coming through. I was lucky to have a year working with such a highly talented group because at the time you knew you were going to have top players. I was very lucky to catch them and work with them when they were on their last step before going into first-team football.”
But Muang Thong’s Class of 2012 weren’t to become champions with the club that developed them as the Kirins – having been overtaken by Buriram United – were desperate to regain their place as the best team in the country.
Muang Thong decided to bring in players who were ready-made for a title challenge, which meant releasing some of their brightest young talents in 2016.
“At the time, they weren’t players that were going to win you the league even though they were some of the best young players in the country,” said Sainsbury. “At the time, Muang Thong were bringing in the best players in Thailand, like Theerathon Bunmathan, Charyl Chappuis and several players from BEC Tero Sasana. I guess it was a win-now push by Muang Thong rather than years down to the line.”
Sainsbury’s association with Muang Thong ended around this time, following a stint as head coach at Pattaya United who were then another affiliate club. He then spent a year at Phnom Penh Crown in Cambodia before the opportunity to return to Thailand.
“Someone I knew had taken over at Bangkok FC and asked me to come back,” he said. “I worked there for a year and during that year, someone who I had worked with at Muang Thong – Andrew Ord – had got the academy director job at Buriram. So towards the end of the season, 2019, he asked if I would be interested in the B team job.
“I had a year left on my contract at Bangkok FC, I spoke to the owner and he was fine for me to leave, so I left and I have been here five months.”
With the academies of the clubs at very different stages of their development, there has been a considerable contrast between arriving at Muang Thong in 2012 and Buriram in 2019.
“When I started at Muang Thong, I had to organize everything,” Sainsbury said. “It was right at the infancy of the academy. Here, they’ve been doing it for a long time. It’s well established and well organised.
“I do no organising, whereas at Muang Thong I did an unbelievable amount. Here, I am just a coach. So there is a different level of organisation and professionalism – because Thai football has come a long way.”
In a career that has mostly focused on developing young talent, Sainsbury has no doubt that changing the mindset of individuals is one of the most important aspects of his job. The cultural challenge of working with Thai players is something that he has embraced.
“I was given advice when I first got here by Steve Darby,” Sainsbury added. “He said to me, don’t try and change Thai football, just try and change your players. I took that on board. With the players I had at Nakhon Nayok, I tried to change their mentality towards football, encouraging consistency with regards to coming to training to work hard every day with the same level of focus rather than turning up and being relaxed.
“I think that was the biggest impact I had on those players careers – actually coming in and working hard every day. If you do and you’re performing, your performance in games will also be consistent. I think that when groups have been successful and when players are coming through it’s because the club, the coach, whatever it is driving a high level of what’s expected on a daily basis.
“Culturally in Thailand when people are laid-back, relaxed, very sociable and good fun to be around, you’re trying to change that cultural make-up of people by saying you’ve got to be driven every single day to make it to the top. When you can do that with players, you get the most success out of them.”
While Sainsbury is open to taking on new opportunities in the future, he is happy in his current role in charge of some of Thailand’s brightest young players.
“I’ve got 10 months left on my contract at Buriram and I’m really happy to be working with the players I have here.,” he said “I’d be happy to stay here another couple of years.
“In the future, I still see myself working in an academy. If the opportunity came up to work in a new country, in a new culture and have to adapt and learn again, I’d definitely be interested.”