Robbie Fowler is doing a very poor job as coach and should leave Muangthong United. There, I said it.
I try to keep a generally optimistic tone at this blog in order to make it more popular and acceptable to readers. This is especially true for Thai fans, as their football culture tends to eschew criticism, even positive, constructive criticism. So let me be clear that there’s no reason to believe Robbie Fowler has been anything other than honest, friendly and hard-working at Muangthong, and the reputation and respect he deserves for his career almost goes without saying. For a coach, he's young and just starting out, he may well become good at it. He's never (to my knowledge) repeated or requested his "God" tag and in public he always comes across as the humble and likeable personality that he surely is. But let's not ignore the (foreign) elephant in the room: he’s holding the club back.
Just a season and a half ago, the squad - largely still the same as we have now - were demolishing teams. Chonburi came to the Yamaha and got their back four torn to pieces for large periods of the game. PEA survived a last minute header by Leesaw to get a draw. Teams like TOT and Sisaket came dreaming of a draw, and got destroyed.
At that time the coach was Rene Desaeyere. A controversial character for sure, but observers of his training sessions - players and fans alike - testified to their intensity and effectiveness. That determined psyche carried the squad through an intensely draining series of overbooked fixtures.
Rene was sacked without warning for non-football reasons. Also heading for the exit went Yaya, who moved on to bigger things, and some of our promising younger players like Coulibly Abdoul. Rene’s replacement was Carlos Carvalho, a truly bizarre choice given his recent performance at BG. Also inbound were a variety of players that looked like good additions, but have produced mixed performances on the field. In hindsight, it's clear we signed players based on prestige rather than the needs of our actual squad, but I wasn't critical at the time so it wouldn't be fair to be so now.
Carlos was a clear disaster from the start. To the credit of the board, they addressed their mistake quickly, but it left many asking about the logic of such a strange appointment in the first place. We then appointed veteran Vietnam coach “Henry” (Henrique) Calisto to a publicly-trumpeted high salary.
The response was impressive. Shortly before Henry's tenure began, MTU suffered a five goal bashing at the less-than-mighty Osotspa M150. Yet upon his arrival, “Henry” quickly got the best out of Kawin, Nattaporn, Zesh and Panupong - undoubtedly some of the best defensive players in Thailand - and established a team run of (to memory) one goal conceded in seven games.
The consensus on Callisto was that in terms of training he might not be up to Rene's standard, but he was highly capable and addressed many of the team's problems. We were no longer getting five or six goal demolition derbies in our favour, but we were getting the wins we needed and the rut was broken. For a while it looked like we had recovered so well we might just sneak up behind Buriram PEA. Then in came Robbie "G9D" Fowler.
My initial reaction to Fowler's signing was annoyance. Why had we let go of Miroslav Toth - a hard working and capable if not brilliant forward - in place of a player who had been semi-retired for more than two years? That cynicism faded as the interest around Robbie, Muangthong and even this blog went through the roof. Surely the publicity could only be good, even if Robbie himself failed to shine.
His first few games were quiet and Robbie clearly lacked fitness. “Fair enough, a thirty-seven year old takes longer to get in shape” was the general supposition. But Robbie chose to bring in a fitness coach that had worked with him at Cardiff by the name of Alan Armstrong, and I have it on good authority that this caused major waves in the club. Certainly Callisto was a forlorn-looking man from that moment onwards and one source has said that “Henry” attempted to sack Armstrong at one stage. Shortly after, Callisto himself walked the management plank and within hours Robbie was the new MTU coach, complete with Armstrong at his side. A footballing coup, if you like. Around the same time, Robert Procurer, a person so heavily involved in making MTU the success it has been, also officially sold his share in the club.
The rest is recent enough history that it doesn't needed long recitation. The same talented bunch of defenders have leaked goals - most notably towards the end of games - and the squad as a whole look unsure and lacking in confidence. Tactically the side are so unsteady that Robbie allegedly actually approached. Armstrong during the BEC Tero game, apparently in search of advice.
The fallout reached its low-point with the recent home defeat by Siam Navy. After almost three seasons without a league defeat, Fortress Yamaha was breached not by the new champions PEA, not by moneybags BG or the constant thorn in our side that is Chonburi FC, but by a team widely chosen as relegation favourites for 2011. Yesterday, TTM Pichit became our next conquerers.
Only two games lost on paper, but the nature of the performances has been truly woeful. When things were going so well everyone took credit, and now everyone has to accept some responsibility for the downturn.
And there's a lot of people to share that burden. It's been pointed out that we are now dangerously top heavy on staff, most notably various coaches. The same top-heavy situation occurred at Southampton FC when the club went through several mangers quickly, the result was a downward spiral that saw us minutes away from total collapse.
That won't happen at MTU. Heck, we could still finish second and win the FA Cup. But there is another longer-term, serious problem that has received less attention. Because Calisto was on a such a hefty contract when he left, the club are committed to a substantial outlay for his salary. With Robbie's arrival, that outlay was extended to a further million or so baht per month for the length of “God’s stay. These outlays, added to the expenditure on support staff for both men now total - according to a source - a whopping 140 million baht for the year. That's a serious sum to lose, even for a rich club with wealthy backing. Without careful management, it could hold us back for longer.
What can we do to put things right? That's for another article, one that I'll probably type come the end of the season. For now, here's a few thoughts:
- Let Robbie go, even if he takes his full contract’s salary with him. Let him apply for these jobs his friends have so eagerly advertised for him already. Allow fans who have his name on their shirt a free match ticket or club store discount.
- Keep Josic, the Croatian coach from Rajpracha who has proven his capability at coaching in Thailand. Give him the resources, support and time that he will need. If the board can't do that, they must be honest and employ a Thai coach.
- Look at the squad at the end of the season and keep key players: Kawin, Nattaporn, Panupong, Zesh, Dagno, Datsakorn, Teerasil and the young wing backs. Recall our loan striker Ibrahim from PTT.
- Allow other players to fight for their place or move on, with thanks for their service.
- Sign new players based not on their reputations alone, but also their suitability for Josic's playing style and squad requirements.
It's hardly an impossible mission for a club with our resources.
Whatever happens in these final few weeks of the 2011 season will not change the long term challenge, but neither will it make things worse. MTU were, and are, a great club with great resources that plays good attacking football with passionate players supported by passionate fans. Many cynics - including fellow farang Dale at his excellent Chonburi site - have suggested that crowds would plummet at MTU in any season they were not top of the league. In fact, average crowds are down only 2,000 - 3,000 on last year. Considering thousands in the province have suffered massive damage and homelessness for over a month, I'd say that's a pretty impressive level of support. Real fans will stick by the side through good times and bad.
Next season Muangthong will be looking to make like the empire in "Star Wars" and strike back, but we'll need some careful, honest and patient decisions by the board to do it.
I may have sounded a bit patronising of some other Thai teams in this article. I only do so from the POV of Muangthong and our high standards we have set ourselves. As a supporter of a small team in England, I know how annoying it can be when given no credit for a good win. TTM Pichit, Khoen Kean, Osotspa, Siam Navy and all other teams who got points against us this season thoroughly deserved to do so. Full credit to them and their excellent fans.