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Working with Captain Marvel and Thailand's football revolution

Steve Darby is a FIFA coaching instructor for Oceania and an Asian Football Confederation coaching instructor.

He has played and coached professionally in England, USA, Bahrain, Australia and Fiji. He coached in the Malaysian National League with Johor FA, winning promotion and the Malaysian FA Cup.

Darby (pictured with Bryan Robson) has also won a South East Asia Games gold medal with Vietnam. After a spell with Sheffield Wednesday in England, he coached Home United in Singapore, winning the Singapore FA Cup twice, securing the league title and reaching the AFC Cup semi finals. During a spell in Malaysia with Perak he won the Super Cup and AFC Cup qualification.

Until recently he was the Thailand national team coach, first working with Peter Reid then assisting Thailand national team manager Bryan Robson. He has recently been coaching with Mohun Bagan AC in India.

He talked to Total Football's Onyere Kene about his experience, life in Thailand, working with Bryan Robson, the 2022 World Cup in Qatar - and how the Thais got to grips with Peter Reid's Scouse accent.

How long were you in Thailand and what made you go over there?

I spent three years in Thailand from 2008 until July of this year. I was brought over as coach to the national team by Peter Reid.

Although we hadn’t met personally we had played against each other many years ago in Liverpool.

I had knowledge of the Thai players having worked in South East Asia since 1998 and had also signed a couple of the national team players to my club in Singapore.

I had just left Perak in Malaysia after a three year contract and was about to sign for a Vietnamese club when Reidy rang me, it took about 10 seconds to make up my mind. Although maybe at first I was a translator from Scouse to English!

Our real English to Thai tranlsator had no idea what ‘Youz have to do this’ or ‘welly it into the stand’ meant, and when Robbo said we are ‘ganning’ to do something he was baffled!

Has football in Thailand grown in popularity in recent years?

There has been a massive rise in Thai football. The love of the game was always there and the talent certainly was.

But an influx in investment at club level has seen the Thai Premier League has made huge gains. In 2008 I went to watch a game at Muangthong. It was an open ground with one concrete stand. Now it is fully enclosed with corporate boxes and accreditation for international matches.

Two new stadiums have been built in Buriram and also Chonburi and Bangkok Glass have made a stadium based on the San Siro. The good thing is that these stadiums are full on a regular basis with crowds of 20,000 to 25,000 fans. The fans are great - it’s a very enthusiastic but civilised family atmosphere. The key is financial investment by powerful people, and that is happening.

Where would you rank Thailand amongst Asia’s elite football nations?

Japan and Korea are the elite nations in playing talent and administration - and Thailand cannot compete with the wealth of Middle East nations and clubs.

But in terms of natural playing talent it is right up there with the best. I strongly believe there are Thais who could play in Europe but are stuck by visa requirements. The quality training facilities being developed at Chonburi and Buriram will greatly improve the game.

What has your time working with Peter Reid and Bryan Robson been like?

Both an education on and off the pitch and a very enjoyable experience. If you don’t learn from people like this with their football experience you would be a very naive coach.

Both are very different characters and both are very humble and modest off the pitch. I have never seen either of them ever refuse a photo or autograph. Both had excellent player management skills and the Thai players love them. I’ve found that the real star players who I have met are also really nice blokes. Also both had a great sense of humour and you need that in this job!

I also know they enjoyed working with the Thai players and the enthusiasm rubbed off, the major problems they faced were coming from an English elite system with large highly qualified support staff, so working with Thai administration was a culture shock to them.

The Barclays Asia Premier League trophy is held every year in Thailand. Is the tournament helping in the development of football in Thailand or is it purely financially motivated?

You have to be honest, it’s pure business, the program is well ran and does add extra value with coaching clinics etc but the reality is to try to get fans. But the majority of clubs are fighting a losing battle. Liverpool and Manchester Utd have cornered the market.

Liverpool through their successes in the 1980s and that’s when TV started showing games in SE Asia and the younger generation have been indoctrinated by Man Utd, who have also done a far greater marketing job. With boutique shops, cafes and player visits. Liverpool are trying to catch up but it’s a two horse race and maybe only Barcelona encroaching on the market but they don’t have the language advantage.

The best quality work I have seen in SE Asia by an EPL Club is being done by Everton. They send out on a regular basis high quality coaches and have established long term coaching programs and don’t just do a ‘one off’ which only benefits the media and the clubs. But they get very little exposure for this.

What do you feel the Thai Football Association need to do to catch up with the likes of Japan and South Korea in being amongst Asia’s top footballing nations?

Investment in training facilities and the leading clubs are starting to do this. And also long term youth development programs with quality coaching in a professional environment, and education of the players in diet nutrition and lifestyle.

The key is long term, not schemes that are abandoned after a defeat in a tournament. Also a greater quality Talent Identification and player retainment administration would help. There are great players in this country. But many are missed out in the country regions. Getting big clubs into the countryside would also be a great help ( Buriram are an example of this)

How popular is football in Thailand?

There is football, then daylight! There is a pocket of Muay Thai support (Thai Boxing) but no other sport attracts sponsors or ‘powerful’ people as football does. The attraction of politicians and entrepreneurs is a cultural imperative to success in Thailand.

Do you ever see yourself returning to Europe to coach?

I’ve spent since 1978 travelling the world coaching and loved every minute of it. I have no preference where I coach and indeed I have to feel lucky that I have never been unemployed in this period and there are some excellent coaches I know who are out of the game.

in a pure footballing sense I would love to coach in Italy. I spent time at AC Milan in the 90s and saw what true professionalism was. Also I would like to work in Japan. A couple of years in Saudi may also be a nice addition to the bank balance.

Qatar was given the rights to host the World Cup in 2022. Do you feel this will turn out to be a good thing for Asian football in general?

There are many complex and political arguments for and against Qatar getting the World Cup. I’ve trained there with Thailand at the ASPIRE Academy and the facilities are the best in the world.

Heat problems are greatly over exaggerated by media from the west and are at times quite laughably xenophobic.

There may well be cultural problems - alcohol consumption being one of them - but is the World Cup built around the capacity to drink? I think there are greater priorities. Thailand also played South Africa in Nelspruit before the 2010 Cup and the stadiums there were great, but the surroundings were still poverty stricken.

I think it benefits Asia in that if the AFC still has its 4.5 places then this will allow it to become 5.5 and give another Asian nation to compete.

Japan, Korea and Australia seem certs, Iran and China should be but tend to self destruct, so there is a chance for Thailand.

But they have to start working now, identifying the players who should be peaking that year, getting them quality coaching and international experience. The great nations are already doing this.

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