NOKHON PATHOM – For a man who once scored the winning goal in a European Cup final for the reigning English champions, it may have seemed like a small achievement. And yet, Peter Withe felt a sense of satisfaction as his struggling Thai club side avoided relegation on the final day of the season last weekend.
Withe is a coaching hero in Thailand after helping them become champions of South-east Asia in 2000 and 2002. These days, he carries the same passion as he manages Nakhon Pathom United FC, a relatively obscure club in the nation’s second tier.
Nakhon Pathom United secured their status for next season in Thai Division 1 – which is one rung below the Thai Premier League (TPL) – with a 5-1 victory over bottom-placed Sriracha Ban Bueng that saw them finish 13th in the table.
“I’m proud of the result because when I took over in August I was asked to see if I could turn things around as they were virtually gone,” Withe told ESPN FC.
Nakhon Pathom United are a small central Thailand club, without a major sponsor, about 60km west of Bangkok. Their 6,000-capacity home ground is a lot smaller than the imposing Rajamangala Stadium in the capital where Withe masterminded Thailand’s 4-1 victory over Indonesia in the 2000 AFF Championship final.
Just five months before accepting his latest job, Withe was sacked as manager of newly-promoted TPL side PTT Rayong after six months in charge following a faltering start to the season. He reluctantly returned to Thai club football in a lower division at the request of one of his former players at Nakhon Pathom United.
And yet the Liverpool-born 63-year-old has no intention of fading into obscurity in Asia’s lesser leagues. He insists that his long-term goal hasn’t changed. He still wants to become manager of his beloved Aston Villa where he worked for a decade as a player, and in coaching roles.
“It’s always been my ambition to manage Aston Villa. Am I capable of doing it? Of course, I am,” he said.
“In Asia, it’s often a case of ‘out of sight, out of mind’, but I’ve previously worked in many different coaching roles at Villa, apart from the manager’s job. In many ways, coaching in Asia is a harder job than managing in the English Premier League.”
In 1991, when Withe was reserve team coach at Aston Villa, he took the job as manager of Wimbledon in the English top flight. But after only one victory in 13 games, he was replaced by Joe Kinnear and returned to Villa in a lesser coaching role.
After a promising start to the season, Aston Villa have now slumped to 16th spot in the table after six successive defeats.
“I’ve met (manager) Paul Lambert on a number of occasions and he’s passionate about the club,” Withe said. “But it’s a results-based business and the fans are clearly unhappy.”
An imposing striker who earned 11 England caps and went to the 1982 World Cup, Withe scored 20 times in 36 matches as Aston Villa won the 1981 English title. But it was his goal that slayed Bayern Munich in the 1982 European Cup final in Rotterdam that earned him footballing immortality. Withe re-invented himself when he came to South-east Asia in 1998. Not only was he in charge of Thailand for four years, he also had a three-year spell as head coach of Indonesia.
He was less successful with the Merah Putih but he did take them to the brink of winning the 2004 AFF Championship on home soil. Following a semi-final win over Malaysia, Indonesia lost the final, 5-2 on aggregate, to Singapore.
Since leaving the Indonesia job in 2007, Withe and his wife Kathy lived in Perth, Australia, before he moved back to England to work as manager of non-league Stockport Sports FC in 2012.
Withe is known in other parts of Asia, thanks to his appearances a decade ago as a pundit in ESPN’s EPL coverage from Singapore. But more than any other nation, Thailand seems to hold the strongest grip on him.
Withe isn’t sure if he will stay on with Nakhon Pathom United for another season.
The dream of managing Aston Villa seems like pie-in-the-sky stuff. But, then again, many of the goals he’s achieved for the past 40 years seemed equally far-fetched.
By Jason Dasey