Bryan Robson knows exactly what is expected of him in his new job.
Since arriving in Bangkok in mid-October, Thailand’s new national team boss, Bryan Robson, has repeatedly been asked the same question.
“There have been quite a few people asking me how long do I intend to stay,” says the former Manchester United and England captain. “But I think it’s always got to work both ways.
“If the Thai FA are happy with me and I’m happy with them, and things are going well, then I can see me staying here quite a while.”
Considering the circumstances surrounding Robson’s arrival in Thailand, the question is a legitimate one.
After his predecessor, fellow ex-England midfielder Peter Reid, departed in an “is he or isn’t he?” controversy to take the role of assistant coach at Stoke City in early October, some Thai football fans have wondered aloud just how long Robson will hang around.
But the arrival of the ex-Middlesbrough, Bradford City, West Bromwich Albion and Sheffield United manager has at least proven that the capture of Reid – a major publicity coup for Thai football at the time – was not a flash in the pan. By convincing a man of Robson’s reputation to take over as national coach in a nation besotted by all things relating to English football, Football Association of Thailand president Worawi Makudi has succeeded in keeping the profile of the Thai game at an all-time high.
Robson will be asked to do much the same with the team as Reid: namely, to qualify for the finals of the Asian Cup in Qatar in 2011 and then set his sights on a first-ever qualification for the World Cup.
It’s a tough challenge for a country that, while dominating at Southeast Asian level for much of the last two decades, has rarely come close to troubling the continent’s leading nations.
The Thais have reached the finals of the Asian Cup repeatedly, but have only once progressed beyond the group stages: in 1972, when they were hosts and finished third.
As for the World Cup, Thailand have only ever made it through to the final phase of the continent’s qualifying tournament once – and that was in the campaign to play at the 2002 finals, when hosts Japan and South Korea had already automatically booked their spots.
Change, though, is happening. For years one of the biggest problems hampering Thai football had been the lack of a productive and professional domestic league. While individual club sides such as Thai Farmers Bank and BEC Tero Sasana were successful at continental level, there was little in the way of cohesion or structure to domestic competition.
Instead, league football centred either on the area surrounding Bangkok – where company and government teams dominated – or on the separate provincial league.
That all changed, however, in 2007 when the two leagues merged – though that still did little to change the perception outside.
The lack of a professional and commercial approach saw Thai clubs excluded from the newly revamped Asian Champions League at the start of the 2009 season, despite the relative success of 2007 league champions Chonburi in the 2008 competition.
Those issues, though, have been addressed progressively throughout the last 12 months.
Thai Premier League clubs are no longer linked with government entities, banks or the like and are now stand-alone organisations.
As a result, interest in the league throughout the country has increased significantly.
“One of the major reasons for the success of the 2009 season is that we now have closer communication between the club and the fans,” said Ronnarit Suewaja, general manager of newly crowned champions Muang Thong United, who finished ahead of Chonburi to win the title.
Whether that will be enough to earn Muang Thong United a place in the 2010 Asian Champions League remains to be seen as the situation in Thai football is still far from perfect.
While the clubs are beginning to progress along the road to professionalism, the country’s best players are still being enticed overseas.
Vietnam and Singapore have, in recent years, been the destinations of choice for the majority of Thailand’s internationals but, increasingly, the cash on offer from Indonesia’s booming professional league has proven an additional lure.
Three members of Robson’s first-choice squad – Kosin Hathairattanakool, Suchao Nutnum and Pipat Thonkanya – joined clubs in Indonesia in the latter half of 2009, while Surat Sukha and Sutee Suksomkit have signed for Australian side Melbourne Victory.
With at least half of his side playing outside of Thailand, and more looking to chase the larger salaries on offer elsewhere in the region, Robson’s job is going to be anything but straight forward.