On Saturday 25 February, Port face their toughest test of the new season so far when they travel to Thammasat Stadium to face 2016 runners-up Bangkok Utd. BUFC are one of those rare Thai football clubs who value stability and steady development, and their progress over the last 3 years, from mid-table to top 3, has been most impressive – due in no small part to their affable and passionate coach, Mano Polking.
To set the scene for Saturday’s clash, we chatted to Mano about life as a coach at one of Thailand’s top clubs…
Begin by telling us how you came to work in Thailand…
I came to Thailand almost 5 years ago as the assistant coach of Winnie Schaefer with the Thailand national team. I was his assistant already before in UAE and Azerbaijan. He also supported me to be the head coach of Thai under 21s. It was then my first experience as a head coach.
What were your first impressions of Thai football? What are the biggest differences between Thai football and football in Germany, and what were the biggest culture shocks you encountered?
The first impression was positive because Thailand is a nice place to live and you can feel this also in the football pitch. People generally are easy going and that makes you have a good first impression. But at the same time of course it’s where the small problems starts, cause being so relax and playing competitive football are two completely different things. It’s definitely a culture issue. Players don’t like conflicts, don’t like to be exposed and still have a too relax attitude for this job. I must say that I’m trying hard to change this with my teams now. At least to make it clear that in this business the gap betweeen losing and winning must be huge and that we cannot take it too easy when we lose. We need a winning mentality at least for this 90 minutes, after I will be with them again and we can be sabai sabai! I could never be the same coach I am here in Germany. Impossible. Here we have to adapt, accept some different things, close our eyes and step by step move forward.
You’re in a fairly unique position for a Thai league coach, in that you have been working at a stable club for almost 3 years and appear to have a considerable amount of autonomy. How would you describe the Bangkok Utd approach to running a football club?
Bangkok United is the best club in this country because they realize that the football business must be different than the “normal” business or the political business. I found with Khun Kachorn a president that is a huge business man but a very straight and honest person. We take all the decisions together and we have a lot of respect for each other. I know that as a coach I always need results and in this almost three years we are having the results, what obviously makes the work together much easier. I think that the way the president is running the club is the key for this success cause he let me chose the players that I think will fit in the way I play, actually very simple. And he never interferes in my daily work or game decisions. When we want to buy a player I always give him 6, 7 options each position and we decide together. We still have a long way to go and a lot of things to improve as a club but we are definitely in the right way.
Do you think some Thai club owners (naming no names, *cough*) try to exert too much influence on footballing matters?
I don’t think, we all know that! But again, I respect all of them, the are the owners, they are paying the money, so as a coach it’s your choice to do or not to do! I just believe that the way we are doing it’s easier to get the results. At the same time we also know for example how Newin is running Buriram and he just won everything in this country! So, there are many ways to achieve success. I just can tell you that this would never happen in Europe! But we are here because we like to be here, so adapt yourself and try to do your best!
BUFC have made impressive progress since you took over, culminating in second place last season. Do you think you can win the title in 2017? Who will be your main rivals?
We had a fantastic season 2016 and it’s almost impossible to repeat an year losing just two games again. But what I can only hope is that this season no team will be so strong like Muangthong was last year and then we have a chance. I could almost bet with you that if after 31 games we would have again 75 points like last season we probably will be champion. The main rivals are almost the same ones. MTU with 80% of the national team is favourite number one but then I expect a much stronger Buriram this season. Those two clubs will always be strong, since the Thai league is a professional league are the only two champions here! Then we have in my opinion 6 teams that can be able to surprise them. We, the new rich Chiangrai, Bangkok Glass, Chonburi, Ratchaburi and Suphanburi.
What about your personal ambitions – if/when your time at BUFC comes to an end, where do you see yourself? Staying in Thailand or coaching elsewhere?
I like Thailand. For a young coach is actually a very good place to be now. I’m still learning a lot every year, adding a lot of experience. First I hope to stay till the end of my contract with BU, which finish December 2018. It’s difficult for a coach to make so much plans cause we have normally a short “life” at the clubs but I have a lot of ambitions and really love my job and the challenges of this job. The football here is growing very fast and I would love to win a title with BU. After that maybe a new challenge should be the right step.
Who is the best player you’ve managed during your time in Thailand? Who do you think are the best players in T1 right now?
With the U21s I coached all this new wonderful generation of Thailand with Messi Jay, Sarach, Pokkao, Adisak and its very difficult to say who is the best one. Also I had many foreigner players with great quality, difficult to chose one. But at the moment for me the best Thai players are Kawin, Teerasil and Theraton and I’m sure soon we will have some BU players in this list!
As a foreign coach, do you think Thailand’s strict 5 foreign player quota is an advantage or a disadvantage? Would you like to be able to sign more foreign players, and do you think they help Thai players improve or restrict their opportunities? What can Thai players learn from foreigners and what can foreigners learn from playing in Thailand?
I think it’s good how it is now. Thai players can learn how to be more professional and how to improve the winning mentality and foreigners players can learn that life should not be always stressful and we should not always put ourselves under pressure. Being a little bit more relaxed can help you sometimes to be a better player.
What’s the difference in managing Thai and foreign players?
Huge difference. Thais don’t like conflicts so you have to find another way to make them better. In Thailand you always have max 5 foreigner players and they normally can handle the pressure because they are earning more money than the others so you can be harder on them. And it always depends which nationality. South Americans are also different from Africans and Europeans for example.
You’re Brazilian-German. Which footballing philosophy do you most identify with – Brazilian flair or German efficiency and organisation? And how did you feel when Germany beat Brazil 7-1 in WC2014?
I really like to mix both. It’s actually a perfect combination. German discipline and work attitude with Brazilian creativity. The 7-1 is still painful!
Bangkok Utd are a big club with very small crowds. Does this frustrate you? What can the club do to attract more fans?
I’m proud of the small crowd that we have but every coach or player wishes to see the stadium full. It’s a difficult theme to talk about as it involves a lot of things to improve this department and it needs time. But we are much more than three years ago and I hope we will continue to increase the number of the fans. We have clear plan to build a new stadium and training ground and that should be the next step.
Port visit BUFC on 25 February. How do you rate the current Port side and how do you think they will perform this season?
Port is always a dangerous and strong team especially at home, alone because of the fantastic atmosphere and fantastic fans. The president is also investing a lot of money and my friend Jadet is an experienced coach. The new foreigner players must first prove how good they are, they all have good CVs and that will be important to see how strong Port can be. The squad is good and played some very good games last season. I think they will play a very good role this year.
Big, big thanks to Mano for taking the time to answer our questions (and for allowing me to nick images off his Facebook page!), during what must’ve been a very busy first week of the 2017 season. The Sandpit would like to wish you and Bangkok Utd good luck for the season – apart from on Saturday 25 February of course!