For a young Thai, playing football on a dirt ground somewhere in a rural area of the country, a chance to learn the sport they love at a famous English club like Manchester United or Liverpool seemed unthinkable even in his wildest dreams.
But, a group of nine teenagers managed to turn their dream into reality by becoming winners of the five-a-side tournament, “Honda Red Champion…Road to Liverpool and Manchester United Soccer School.”
Though they had just one week of training at their favourite clubs in England, it was a worthwhile experience for the youngsters, who had to overcome one challenge after another in almost five months of the event, which was part of the deals AP Honda has struck with two of the most successful English clubs.
The competition, for the opportunity to train with either Liverpool or Manchester United, was held separately and it received an overwhelming response, with over 3,000 teams across the country participating in the event initiated under the company’s “Discover Your Fun” campaign.
Fighting their way from the provincial round, which started in September last year, to the national finals in the capital in February, Sakon Nakhon Pattanasuksa team eventually emerged winners to earn a unique chance to sharpen their skills with the Merseyside club. In the meantime, Khuru Prachasan triumphed and grabbed the chance to train with Manchester United.
The jubilant scenes at the trophy presentation illustrated how happy the boys were. For most of them, going abroad itself was just like a dream, let alone a chance to train with the club they loved. They could have been forgiven for showing little patience in waiting for the day when they would fly to England.
When it did come earlier this month, a few of the nine pinched themselves to make sure they weren’t dreaming. Khuru Prachasan’s Sarawuth Doangkaew summed up the feeling.
“We never expected that we would win as there were so many teams taking part in the event. We just wanted to play without thinking of the title. It’s a surreal experience for us to win. The England trip is beyond our dreams,” said Sarawuth.
However, Sarawuth felt sorry for the other five of his team-mates, who decided to relinquish the chance to travel, leaving him and Phanudech Sangcharoen as the only two Thais to train with Manchester United coaches.
The pair attended the Manchester United Soccer School practice, which was held at the Denstone College situated in a secluded area as the club wanted the children from a variety of nationalities to concentrate only on training.
The Thai duo did not have any trouble in training along with other children in their group even though they did not speak English much. Instead, it was the weather that seemed to be a problem. Even though it was summer in England, the temperature was still much cooler than in Thailand, leaving Phanudech sick on the day when the Thai media visited them.
Nevertheless, the two spoke glowingly of their experience they got from training in the so-called “Manchester United” way.
“I’ve learned a lot even though it was a short training programme. I feel I’m already a better player than when I arrived here. The coach was so nice with us. He helped us understand the game better,” said Phanudech.
Andy Watson, the Man United trainer, who oversaw the training of the group that included the Thai pair, had high praise for the boys from Chainat province. “First of all, I would like to congratulate the boys as they made really good progress in making their way to Denstone in first place.
“Manchester United Soccer School has been using Denstone College as our football residential [programme] for a good number of years now. The aim of the residential is to give the young players the experience identical to what our academy players experience week in and week out.
“So, they get to live and train like professionals and take part in sessions which were developed by our first team coaches.
“I think one thing that really stood out since the Thais were here was their attitude to play and train, which was very good. They seemed to really enjoy practising, which is very important for the young players to develop their game,” said Watson.
The seven members of Sakhon Nakhon Pattanasuksa team also made similar impression during their training in Liverpool.
“What the Thais showed me over the week we were together was that they wanted to get better. They worked really hard and picked up a lot of skills even with the short time of the practice. So, if they keep on developing, they can go as far as they want in the game,” said Chris Johnson, the Liverpool trainer.
The trip lasted just one week for the Thai boys, but it will live in their memory for a long time.