Jason Withe's Asian ambition in Thailand where Dad Peter made mark
As his European Cup-winning father continues to make a strong recovery from major surgery, Jason Withe is returning to Thailand to spearhead Sukhothai FC's bid for a place in the AFC Champions League (ACL) group stage in 2017.
Jason's father Peter is the Aston Villa legend who spent four hugely successful years as Thailand's head coach, and is on the mend after a recent gallstone operation. He was well enough to attend last Sunday's Birmingham derby, watching his former club Villa draw 1-1 with Birmingham City.
Half a world away, Withe takes on the Director of Football role at Sukhothai, with the Fire Bats earning their place in next year's ACL Preliminary Round through an unorthodox route. Sukhothai had an outstanding first season in the Premier League of Thailand (PLT), finishing seventh in a campaign that ended with three games remaining, due to the passing of the Thai monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej.
The Thai FA Cup was also incomplete, and it was decided that the teams in the last four would draw lots for the winners' place in the ACL qualifiers. Sukhothai's name came out of the hat, meaning the side from the former Thai capital will be attempting to negotiate two tough matches to win a place in the prestigious group stages of the competition.
Withe, who was a striker on the fringes of clubs like Burnley, Crewe and Stockport during his playing career, has been brought in specifically for his AFC tournament experience.
"My role will be to offer my experience in coaching in AFC competitions," he told ESPN FC. "This is something I have done at BEC Tero Sasana, Home United, and both Thailand and Indonesia national teams.
I'm pleased to announce I have signed a contract as Director of Football for Sukhothai Fc to help with up and coming AFC Champions League pic.twitter.com/DzbbLYWHxv- Jason Withe ️ (@jasonwithe) October 26, 2016
"I will also look at what gaps need to be improved and hopefully assist in in filling those. Initially, I will be looking at youth development, scouting, recruitment and, of course, assisting with the first team."
Thai sides do not have a good record of making it into the group stages through the qualifiers. Buriram United were the last team to do so when they defeated Brisbane Roar on penalties in the playoff round in 2013.
But Withe is confident that his new side can surprise a few people.
"I would rate our chances very highly," he said. "My only concern is that when we play our games, the season in Thailand will not have started so it can be difficult to hit any rhythm, especially as we will still be in pre-season training. It's a new experience for the club and players but one we must embrace and not be afraid of."
Withe is also hopeful that the prospect of ACL participation may lure good players to the club and convince some to stay. This year's top scorer Bireme Diouf has already signed a contract extension, and Kyrgyz playmaker Anton Zemlianukhin has arrived from Sisaket FC, along with former Jamaica striker Errol Stevens, who joins from V-League side Hai Phong.
"Similar to Leicester, when not so big teams do well, it can be difficult to hang onto your best players," said Withe. "But on the flip side of this, we have AFC Champions League to offer, and players always want to play and test themselves on the bigger stage, so hopefully this can both attract new players as well as keeping our better players."
Withe's rich experience of coaching in Thailand includes winning the league and cup double with BEC Tero back in 2000. His most recent spell came when his Nakhon Pathom United side were denied promotion to the PLT after a controversial episode that ironically came in a game against Sukhothai.
Floodlight failure at the Fire Bats' stadium should have seen Nakhon Pathom awarded the three points, according to league rules. But appeals were submitted, and the two clubs ended the season level on points with the issue unresolved. The teams were finally ordered to replay the disputed game as a playoff, which Sukhothai won 1-0.
Sukhothai went on to make a huge impact in their first ever PLT season, and Withe has a big challenge in trying to improve on this year's achievements.
"They had a very good first season, especially as they only just managed to get into the PLT after beating my old team Nakhon Pathom Utd in a final one-off game," said Withe. "My job is to use my experience and look at what aspects needs to improve and what's currently working. The parts that are currently working well can be enhanced and the parts that need to improve can be improved as a gradual process.
"In my experience of working many years in Thailand, I have learnt that you cannot rush in and change everything at once. It's a step by step process."
There are exciting times ahead for Sukhothai fans as the younger Withe hopes to create another memorable chapter in the family's rich association with the game in Thailand.
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