Thursday, September 29, 2022

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The Premier League Asia Trophy (A Cynical Adventure)

Premier League Asia Trophy (via BBC)

Many may remain bemused by the spectacle of Premier League teams travelling halfway around the world to play each other in friendlies- see the likes of Manchester United's recent 4-0 pre-season win over Liverpool in Bangkok to start the Erik Ten Hag era- but lest we forget there was a time when the league themselves actively encouraged it!

 

 

Apparently due to no more than "the increasing popularity of the Premier League in the continent" as announced in May of 2003 (cough cough), the Premier League Asia Trophy- as it was originally called- landed in Malaysia for three weeks prior to the beginning of that year's league campaign. It saw Birmingham City, Chelsea and Newcastle competing alongside the Malaysian national team. At this juncture we might well wonder what benefit this served to the Harimau Malaya (Malayan Tigers), other than to give a few younger players a game...

 

Their experience began with a 4-1 loss to Chelsea, the day after Newcastle had beaten Birmingham 2-1 in the opening game of this cynical cash grab/ chance for Asian fans to experience what the English fan takes for granted every week (delete as appropriate). They then also fell short in the third place play off against the Brummies, going down to a 4-0 defeat before Chelsea became the first winners in squeaking past what must surely now be known as Geordie Hawaybia on penalties in the final.

 

In quite the coincidence, the man in the Malaysian senior side's dugout was a former Chelsea player, Allan Harris having been appointed by the country's FA in 2001 and staying in his post for three years. There followed fourth place in 2002's AFF (Asian Football Federation) Cup and silver and bronze medals in the South East Asia Games- the inaugural Premier League Asia Cup possibly viewed as part of their preparations for the 2003 edition.

 

A look at the list of competing teams for the next staging two years later reveals that new hosts Thailand were looking to treat Bolton Wanderers, Everton and Manchester City as their own Asian Games home training camp of sorts for the younger members of the gloriously nicknamed War Elephants. A gold medal followed in what is still the best showing by an Asian team in the Premier League's incursion via a curious at best tournament, as they reached the final against Wanderers and were only denied by a late penalty from El Hadji Diouf after an opening 1-1 draw with the Toffees was immediately followed by a 5-3 win on spot kicks!

 

Charnwit Polcheewin was then relatively new to the post of senior national team manager, but it may be of interest to note a curious parallel with Harris in that the Thai FA looked to a former player from one of the clubs their younger boys had played against when the time came to replace him- Peter Reid.

 

Approached in 2008, he eventually signed a four year contract with the aim of getting them to the 2014 World Cup, a task in which he failed to start. This was probably not helped by his own admission that he didn't know much about his new country's own league and referred to his players by squad number rather than name, though he did say "I was surprised by the players' ability and I'm learning things about football I'd never have learnt in the Premier League. It's great for my football education. This is pure football and I love it."

 

He lasted a year before returning to England as Tony Pulis's assistant at Stoke having won the T & T Cup in Vietnam, beating North Korea in the opening game before a draw with the hosts clinched it.

 

After touching back down on home soil he did at least admit that “I enjoyed it there. The players are technically very good and it is a wonderful place to live in terms of the culture and the climate.”

 

And having handed the man with the monkey's heed (as he and indeed his bonce were christened in the North- East) a first go at international management, they didn't take too great a leap with his eventual replacement- Bryan Robson stepping in. Again with the aim of getting them to the World Cup but ultimately failing- he lasted two years before his own return to dear old Blighty.

 

He did at least get off to a winning start, a 3-1 triumph in Singapore setting things up nicely in terms of qualifying for the 2011 Asian Cup. They wouldn't make it into the final tournament though, losing at home to the same opposition before home goalless draws with both Jordan and Iran effectively consigned them to missing out prior to an away defeat in Tehran that hammered the final nail into the coffin.

 

He would resign a year later after undergoing successful treatment for throat cancer, later bemoaning what he saw as a lack of infrastructure.

 

"I spent two years trying to build a coaching structure but nothing ever moved forward. In England we've had the McDonald's scheme for ten years, creating coaches at every level of the game.

 

When I passed my Pro Licence, I think there were barely 100 with the qualification. Now there are around 2,000.

 

"I wanted to put that sort of structure into Thailand- they thought that if you just worked with the top players for a week before a game they would get better. But the real work has to happen every day at their clubs. I just felt I couldn't take things any further there."

 

Returning to the business of the Asia Trophy, 2007 was the first of four occasions that the tournament has been hosted by Hong Kong. Local boys, South China Athletic Association, winners of their country's FA Cup that year welcomed Fulham, Liverpool and Portsmouth. They lost 3-1 to the Reds before a 4-1 defeat to the Cottagers in the third place play -off, Pompey beating Liverpool 4-2 on penalties in that year's final. A few seasons later, in 2010-11, Nicky Butt would arrive at the Happy Valley Recreation Ground to wind down his career...

 

Two years passed before the competition, finally in the eyes of some, came to China- Beijing Guoan facing Hull City, losing 5-4 on penalties, before a third place play off against West Ham. Tottenham Hotspur dispatched the Tigers 3-0 in the final, the Workers Stadium itself arguably the star of the show after its renovation for the previous year's Olympics.

 

Back to Hong Kong it was for 2011's tournament, Kitchee afforded the honour of representing their country against a returning Chelsea and debutantes Blackburn Rovers. They lost 4-0 to the Blues and 3-0 against Rovers in the third place play off in what was by now surely established as a familiar pattern of events!

 

Anyone hoping for change would be sorely disappointed as when the Asia Trophy returned to the Hong Kong Stadium, South China again asked to step in, Manchester City and Spurs also returning alongside first- timers Sunderland. A 1-0 defeat to City followed by a 6-0 drubbing by Spurs may have had local fans asking themselves why they bothered turning up...

 

They would at least get a break next time out as Singapore got a slice of the action, a local league select eleven going down 4-0 to Arsenal in the opening game then 2-0 to Stoke in the third place play off, just to keep the pattern going. That last defeat also appears to have been their final outing to date, as the S League's best boys haven't taken to the field since, though previously they'd taken on Atletico Madrid and Juventus.

 

Perhaps mindful of recent results, when the sideshow returned once more to Hong Kong, no local side turned up! And so we got Liverpool making a second appearance alongside a brace of first-timers in Crystal Palace, Leicester City and West Brom. The Foxes beat the Baggies 7-6 on penalties after a 1-1 draw in the opening game, before Liverpool beat Palace 2-0 in a scoreline which has curiously enough been recently repeated in Singapore.

 

The Eagles did at least manage to brush past West Brom in the third place play off, before Liverpool went one better than their previous defeat to Portsmouth and nudged past Leicester to finally get their hands on possibly the least valued bit of silverware in their extensive trophy cabinet!

 

With 2019 the last to-date edition, there was another withdrawal by a local team as China once more hosted but Shanghai SIPG- now Shanghai Port FC withdrew. This left the once more returning Manchester City, Newcastle and West Ham to duke it out with new boys Wolves, who would go on to win it after first beating the Geordies 4-0 then Man City 3-2 on penalties after a 0-0 draw.

 

Will we ever see it's like again, or have the representative clubs of prospective future hosts already taken their ball and gone home, as tired of cynical money hoovering as being continually shown up by the bigger boys?

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