From trials in sub-zero temperatures to the sweltering environs of Bangkok. James Goyder meets a footballer who decided to strike out on his own.
In the age of the agent it is always refreshing to hear of a footballer taking control of their own destiny, and that’s exactly what Scottish footballer Steven Robb did in January. Without a club after his contract with St Mirren expired he felt like a change was in order and decided to set about leaving mid winter Scotland in search of a slightly sunnier climate. Without any assistance from a third party the former Dundee and Dundee United wing back was able to get in contact with a Thai Premier League club, arrange a flight, negotiate a contract and eventually sign a deal with Thai Port FC. Footballers are not normally renowned for their initiative or independence but Robb is currently reaping the benefits.
“I was up for moving away from Scotland. I’d been playing there or 11 years and it was getting a bit boring to be honest. Rubbish weather, training in the cold, the cost of living... Training back home I had a t-shirt, an under t-shirt, a jumper, a jacket, shorts, trousers and trying to train is hard going because you are probably carrying an extra 5 kilos. Here you are just running around in shorts and a t-shirt and if the temperature drops to 20 degrees people complain they are cold,” he said.
From a meteorological point of view the move makes perfect sense but from a footballing point of view Robb could have been accused of a lack of ambition for exchanging Europe for Asia. However he feels that in certain respects Thai football is more enjoyable: “back home everything is focused on a solid foundation and making it difficult for the other team to score. I was at Dundee, Dundee Utd, St Mirren and every team manager had a back four and a midfield four and wanted to keep a solid base and not concede any goals and look to maybe attack from there. Here it’s more ‘let’s go and score some goals, let’s go and attack’.”
Standing only 5ft 7in Robb is small by western standards but feels he fits in well amongst players of a comparatively diminutive stature. “I was regarded as one of the smallest players in the league back home but here I don’t feel out of place. In the past a manager would say ‘you are not playing today for tactical reasons’ and I’m thinking to myself ‘the reason I’m not playing is that we’re playing Hearts and the whole team is 6ft 2 so I’m no use defending set-pieces’. Here I don’t get discriminated against for my size but that’s just the way it is. In Scotland, they like big players.”
Thai Port have had a tough start to the season playing three of the top teams in the division (Pattaya, Chonburi and Muangthong United) away from home in their first three games. The resulting losses made the table unpleasant viewing but a draw at home to Bangkok Glass followed by a hard-fought home win against high flying Army United has helped steady the ship.
In terms of temperature Robb made a dramatic transition at the start of the year. He went from playing a one off game for his local team Dundee in the Scottish winter to training in the blazing sun in the height of the Thai summer in the space of a few days. “I played for Dundee as a triallist on 2nd January and the temperature was about -5. They are in administration and not allowed to sign any players so the manager phoned me and said ‘I know you’re looking to move abroad but would you play one game for me just to help me out’. You can play in competitive games as a triallist in Scotland so my contract with St Mirren finished on the 1st and I played for Dundee on the 2nd. It was a first division game and we won 2-0. I would have played the next week but that’s when I came over here,” he said.
Understandably Robb took a while to acclimatize after swapping Dundee for Bangkok. “The first few weeks the heat was difficult. It’s a big difference to be honest...but I’m getting used to it. I lost a bit of weight when I first got here because I went from eating massive portions back home to eating the Thai food here and it doesn’t fill me up,” he said.
For professional players thinking a move to Thailand might sound potentially problematic but Robb, whose cousin has lived in Bangkok for several years, had no difficulty in finding a club once he had decided he might like to play in South East Asia. “I was working on trying to get abroad and I sent out a few DVDs and CVs and this popped up here. I actually arranged the move myself. I spoke to Nathan Hall, the assistant coach at Thai Port who is Australian, and sent my details out. He said that if I was interested they would like to take me and they offered me a contract before I left but I wanted to wait until I had actually seen the club and what I would be getting into. I flew over and trained a few days and did a medical and spoke to the manager who said he wanted to sign me and offer me a three-year contract and I was more than happy to sign,” he said. "I actually arranged the move myself. I’ve been working with Riverman since arriving in Thailand who do music and sports management, they’ve helped me find a flat and settle in, but I didn’t meet them until afterwards."
While Robb is quick to acknowledge that the Thai game is nowhere near as physical as football in Scotland there was one unsavoury incident after an away game with Pattaya which took him by surprise. Crowd trouble might be more or less a thing of the past in the UK but in Thailand it is a growing problem and Thai Port fans have a bit of a reputation. “The final whistle had gone after the Pattaya game and people were leaving the stadium. We were on the pitch doing a warm down and in the main stand the Pattaya fans had set light to a flag or something and started singing something, I don’t know what, and then the fans just started going for each other. They were throwing things at each other and punching each other. I’ve never seen anything like that in Scottish football.”
Despite the actions of a mindless minority Thai Port fans are actually among the loudest in the league and Robb has enjoyed the atmosphere at the first few games. “The Thai Port fans are so loud, you don’t get that in Scotland. We always go over and thank the fans after the game, both the home and the away fans, you walk around and thank everybody and even the away fans sing your teams name, it’s very different. You can’t imagine the Dundee fans doing that for Dundee United after a derby,” he said. Robb appears extremely settled in Thailand and has signed a three-year contract with Thai Port. His wife and son are dividing their time between the two countries and he has an added incentive to try and ensure that his new team finishes towards the top of the table – a holiday home has already been booked and the relegation play-offs are likely to take place over the Christmas and New Year period.
James is a freelance journalist based in Bangkok, and can be found on Twitter @JamesGoyder.