Ex-England captain Butcher says grit can help ASEAN players succeed
BANGKOK -- Former England captain Terry Butcher believes it is only a matter of time before Southeast Asian players make an impact on the wider football world.
But Singapore-born Butcher admits that it will take a shift in mindset if they are to reach the top of the game. The former Ipswich Town and Rangers defender made his comments during a visit to Bangkok to give coaching clinics, organised by sports management company OneSportMedia.
He saw first hand what the next generation of Thai footballers had to offer and marvelled at the technical ability of the teenagers, many of whom are in the Bangkok United Academy.
"Some of the skill levels are phenomenal and it's exciting coming into training as the standard is so high," Butcher told ESPN FC. "They don't always do things the way you want them to in terms of getting the ball forward quickly or holding onto the ball too long, but there's no doubt about it, they've got great skill.
"They like to score great goals and not scrappy goals but I think if you could combine a bit of British grit and cuteness to the skills they have, you could have quite a team. I really think that their technical level is ahead of most British kids at that age."
This is high praise indeed from one of the best defenders of his generation, especially given the fact that Southeast Asian players have yet to make their mark in the world's biggest leagues.
Butcher, who played in three World Cups including Diego Maradona's 1986 triumph, pointed to developing the right mentality as the key to unlocking the vast potential that exists. He feels that the players may be lacking the necessary competitive edge and had to learn to be a bit more "streetwise" on the pitch.
"You've got to have the right mentality and it's very difficult to teach that," he said. "There has yet to be a huge influx of coaches from abroad that can teach the players the right mentality but they have everything else they need to succeed.
"They perhaps need to learn to do the horrible things as well. While they have as much ability as players in other countries, they need to be a bit more cute and streetwise. In a competitive sport, you've got to fight. But I think it will happen for them eventually, maybe in a few years or maybe in the next generation."
A 1989 photo of Butcher, with his white England shirt turned red by blood flowing from a cut to his forehead in a World Cup qualifier against Sweden, became one of the most talked about football images of that decade.
Butcher believes that sometimes unpopular restrictions on the number of foreigners in ASEAN leagues need to be maintained to help local players develop mental and physical toughness.
He said, "You've got young players getting game time at a good standard and if you can get the right coaches to get them to the next level, the league can only improve. If the foreign players who come in are of a standard that can teach the Thai players mental strength, the standard should get far better. There's so much to work with here, there are some excellent facilities and the people have got a real interest in the game."
Butcher's link with Singapore comes from the fact that his father was stationed there with the British Navy at the time of his birth. He left at the age of two so has no personal recollections. But he has been made aware that he struggled to adapt to the cold weather when the family went back to live in England.
He said, "Apparently, I was always wearing a coat because it was so cold. It was such a different time in Singapore. My dad told me that he used to get me, my mum and a dog sharing the same motorbike. I have been back since and it is one of the loveliest places I've ever seen."
Butcher first moved into management as player-manager at Coventry City, at the age of just 32 but the spell lasted just over a year and he stayed out of management for 10 years before four seasons at Motherwell in the Scottish Premier League. A spell at Sydney FC followed but it was to end after less than a year.
Butcher felt that he had more than his share of bad luck in his time Down Under. He explained, "I loved it in Australia. I lived in Rose Bay in Sydney Harbour -- the best place I have ever lived. But on the football side, there was a change of chairman and, as is often the case, he wanted his own men in and I eventually had to go.
"I made just one signing in my time there and Dwight Yorke -- our best player by a mile -- left after my first game. We also had a three-point deduction to deal with. These are not excuses but some of the things I had to deal with in my time there."
Butcher has been out of management since a brief spell at Newport County ended in October last year. But he was coy on the possibility of following his former England team-mates Bryan Robson, Peter Reid, Gary Stevens and Peter Withe by managing in Thailand.
"I'm just here on a project and this is what I enjoy doing," he said. "And I've enjoyed it so much being out here."
Butcher, who earned 77 England caps, was a player at a very successful Ipswich Town team in the late 1970's and early 1980's. He admits he can see parallels between his former club and Thai-owned Leicester City, who hold a two point lead at the top of the Premier League table.
He said, "Like Leicester, we had a certain way of playing. We developed a system, we were hard to break down and that wins games. We had a small squad and there were no real superstars. I just hope they don't do what Ipswich did and fail to get over the line and win the title. I still think it will be difficult when they run into more determined teams towards the end of the season but it will still be very hard to stop them."
It is hoped that Butcher has a positive effect on the young players he coached in Thailand. Watching the former England warrior in action spoke volumes of his ongoing passion for the game.
Off the pitch, he is affable and gregarious, speaking enthusiastically about the sport that gave him a living. Young players with aspirations, however, would do well to look back at Butcher, the player -- one of the most feared opponents for rival attackers in the 1980s.
He may not have had the technical skills of some of the youngsters he has been watching, but he had a winner's mentality that took him a long way.
Bangkok-based Paul Murphy has lived in Asia for a decade, writing for ESPN FC since 2014. He is a former Daily Express sub-editor. @PaulMurphyBKK