Go east, young man

Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia – British coaches are everywhere, reports Gavin Willacy. And if you’ve ever wondered what happened to Gus Caesar, read on

If the current trend of importing highly talented Chinese players in to the English Premier League continues, there will soon be more Asians earning a living playing football in the UK than there will Brits in Asia. But although the number of ex-pats on the pitch in the Orient is diminishing, British coaches are still much in demand.

Long a local power in south-east Asia, the Thailand national team has crept up to 54th in FIFA’s world rankings under former Aston Villa and England striker Peter Withe, who has been left alone to get on with the job of moulding a group of talented youngsters into an intelligent and hard-working team. Malaysia, too, under Allan Harris – once Terry Ven­ables’ right-hand man at Barcelona – are also on the rise, despite now lacking the sort of money that five years ago attracted a star import like Tony Cottee to their domestic league. Now only Japan, South Korea and the Gulf states can afford to lure major western stars to play out their careers in Asia (excepting the strange case of Gazza in China’s second division). But some Brits who have experienced playing in Asia are now stay­ing there in other capacities.

In the mid-1990s, when their playing careers were seemingly spiralling downhill, Paul Masefield and Gus Caesar left home and joined a group of former British pros playing in the lucrative Hong Kong League. When the bottom fell out of Hong Kong’s foot­ball market, Caesar just got himself another career, in brokering, and now also coaches Rangers FC. Mase­field is running his own coaching empire in Singapore and Malaysia, where his celebrity status as a pundit on ESPN’s extensive coverage of the EPL (Premiership) attracts around 3,000 kids to his weekly Little League soccer sessions. He also coaches Singapore Cricket Club in the second tier National Football League.

“I reached a crossroads in my life at 28,” claims Masefield, once a journeyman defender with Birmingham, Stockport and Preston. “I realised playing was not for ever and set up my own coaching business. I have a standard of living here I could never have at home. I don’t want to go home – I even cancelled my UK holiday this year. Football is a closed shop in the UK. I’ve seen much better coaches not given a chance. But there are opportunities in Asia.”

One Singaporean success story is Steve Darby, for­m­erly of Sheffield Wednesday’s academy and Aus­tralia’s Institute of Sport, where he worked with Harry Kewell. He now coaches one of Singapore’s biggest club, Home United. Londoner Trevor Morgan, who played for eight English clubs including Birmingham and Bolton, has been coaching Sengkang Marine for sev­eral seasons after a spell in Hong Kong. One Barry Whit­bread led Singapore to glory in the Malaysia Cup. Elsewhere, Ian Crook had a spell in Japan and is now in charge of Australia’s Newcastle United.

“I’ve seen some British coaches come over here and fail because they’ve been crap coaches,” he says, “but others just haven’t got their heads around how the locals think. You’ve got to learn people skills and understand how they operate.”

The thirst for top class English football is seemingly unquenchable. With four all-sport TV channels in Singapore alone, you can watch seven live EPL games a weekend, the rest delayed, and Champions League all midweek; a run-of-the-mill Liverpool game filled eight pages in Singapore tabloid the New Paper earlier this year; Chelsea, Arsenal, Birm­ingham and Newcastle will all make lucrative visits to the region in the close season; and there are enough Man Utd fans in Singapore to support a superstore, bar and Red Cafe. Singaporeans are so obsessed with the EPL that ESPN fly former players – such as Peter Reid, Bryan Robson, Ian Rush, John Barnes, Gavin Peacock and John Beresford last season – to sit alongside Masefield in the studio before spending the rest of their holiday golfing.

However, as coverage of European football has reached saturation point, the standard of the domestic S-League has declined. Wages of around £500 a week do not attract high-quality Europeans or South Americans, so the foreign imports are mainly African, east European, Australian or Brits whose alternative back home is less than half that money at a non-League club. Home United’s Billy Bone, who has spent a decade in Singapore after quitting the Isthmian League, is a prime example. Veteran striker Jason White joined Marine after being freed by Cheltenham. Crucially, S-League clubs can’t even match the type of money locals can earn in white-collar professional careers.

“Some of the players who come out here shouldn’t be here – they’re just not good enough,” claims Mase­field, who played for two S-League clubs before con­centrating on coaching. “But S$5k to S$10k a month [£500 to £1,000 a week] isn’t great money. Singapore is a wealthy place and it’s not a sports-orientated country, which is a massive problem. Kids don’t want to train five nights a week for peanuts knowing they could have no future in the game. There’s a huge difference between loving the EPL and playing in the park for fun, and committing to becoming a pro. In Thai­land, football’s a way out of poverty. That’s why they are doing so well. Their players are hungry for it.”

There is skill, speed and aggression in S-League games but rarely is a team’s leader a local and the tendency for heads to drop if they go behind is disconcerting to a British fan, let alone a coach. “Lo­cal players can look good in training and listen and do what you’ve asked of them,” claims Masefield. “But when they get on the pitch in a game they think they’re Maradona.”

In most walks of life, Singaporeans have a des­perate desire to compete with the best, regardless of any res­trictive situations. The FAS wants a league that matches the EPL and a national team who beat their far bigger neighbours in Malaysia and Thailand. It is embarrassed when the Premiership big boys come on pre-season tours and stroll to victory.

“The locals want to keep face,” explains Masefield. “They have their own great product but there’s no point trying to compete with the Premiership because everyone here knows the S-League is third rate in comparison. You can’t fool people.”

Indeed. There may be opportunities here, but Singapore is certainly no hiding place for European coaches, as Dane Jan Poulsen found out. When 40,000 locals saw Singapore ham­mered 4-0 at home by arch rivals Malaysia in the Tiger Cup last January, the Straits Times’ headline was Shame, Shame, Shame, Shame. “A lifeless, clueless bunch of mismatched, miscommunicating young, old and foreign-born Lions,” wrote their reporter. “Bankrupt ideas we could half forgive… but not bankrupt hearts… It hurt.” Coach Poulsen was gone two weeks later.

From WSC 198 August 2003. What was happening this month