History repeating? A Thai star's head-turning shift to Buriram's biggest rival

Thai star Theerathon Bunmathan's switch from Buriram United to fierce rivals Muangthong has led more than a few to scratch their heads, as John Duerden reports...

In 1992, Alex Ferguson received a phone call from Leeds United boss Howard Wilkinson asking about the availability of Manchester United fullback Dennis Irwin. 

Yet instead of signing a star, Wilkinson was instead soon selling Eric Cantona to his biggest rival, breaking the hearts of the Frenchman's legions of adoring Leeds fans.

Cantona went on to inspire the Red Devils to years of domination.

Buriram United fans will be hoping that the equally shocking sale of Theerathon Bunmathan to Muangthong United does not have a similar impact.

Surely Buriram owner Newin Chidchob lost a bet after having a couple too many bottles of Leo? It is one thing to sell your captain and talisman but to do so to your biggest and most bitter rivals almost beggars belief. The left-back, named as the 21st best Asian player by FourFourTwo just last month, has blossomed into a genuine continental star.

Just a few months ago, Newin was telling the player that there was no reason to go to Japan or South Korea as he could have regular Asian Champions League football with the Thunder Castles, who were closing the gap on the big boys from the east.

Whether it was true or not, it was the kind of confident message that had been coming out of a club that had won three of the four previous league titles. This was the best team in Southeast Asia and it had a captain to match.

The player didn't agree as he told FourFourTwo in April.

“I want to play in Japan,” he said. “The J-League has professionalism.

“It seems like they are more professional than the others; playing system, training system, teamwork, strength. I like (Japanese captain Makoto) Hasebe’s leadership style as well.”

There's no problem with that. The J-League is a clear step up from its Thai equivalent.

Newin Chidchob could come in for some rare criticism

A few players from Southeast Asia have gone east but none have made a real impact. The 26-year-old could have been the first and made it easier for others to follow.

Such an offer never materialised according to Buriman manager Tadthep Pitakpoolsin.

Buriram could have said no. Theerathon would surely have understood

“Theerathon told me that he want to move and trial for J-League or K-League, after there were reports that they were interested him, but finally, nothing really happened,” he said.

“So we opened any offer from Thai League and there were more than one. We asked him to choose by himself and he chose Muangthong.”

It shows the respect and affection for the player that exists in the club that they let him go with their blessings and promises of future support, but it is a mistake.

Whether players want to go or not, the first rule when it comes to transfers is that you don't weaken yourself at the expense of rivals.

If your captain chooses to move to your biggest rival then the best response is a polite refusal. Buriram could have said no. Theerathon would surely have understood.

As it is, fans may not. If Buriram had strolled through the group stage of the Asian Champions League and sat atop the Premier League of Thailand, it would still be a shock, but at least it would be happening from a position of strength.

Yet that is not the case.

The continental competition was a disaster. Six games and one point and one goal. For a team that had reached the last eight in 2013 and came so close to the last 16 in 2015, it was a huge disappointment and some of the attendances of late have been disappointing.

Matters are better in the domestic league but the domination of last season's title triumph is not going to be repeated.

Have Buriram just had their own 'Cantona moment?'

The recent 3-0 defeat was not only at home but was the first league loss in 44 games.

Worse was that it was inflicted by Muangthong, a first win for the Kirins over their rivals. Theerathon has signed for a team at the top of the league, three places and five points clear of the champions.

It remains to be seen what happens now at Buriram. The PR department has to earn its money as this once well-oiled operation is stuttering.

Selling your biggest star to your biggest rivals is rarely a healthy thing to do

At the same time, it gives Muangthong a massive boost. The national team captain is joining the country's biggest star in Chanatip Songkrasin, most popular striker Teerasil Dangda, international goalkeeper Kawin Thamsatchanan and the sublime Sarach Yooyen.

Muangthong are now the team to beat.

Buriram have been the biggest club in Thailand for a while but when you start selling your best player to your biggest rivals then you are in serious danger of slipping down the stature standings.

Perhaps this is just a one-off, a strange decision in what is becoming a strange season for Buriram but Newin will have to work hard to get fans to accept this sale.

He, at least, has credit in the bank. After all, there would be no club without the former politician.

But if this is a sign of a more serious malaise then there could be tough times ahead.

In 1992, Leeds United were champions of England and then lost their best player to a team that had not won the league for 26 years. Things were never the same again – for either team.

That doesn't mean that English history will be repeated in Thailand but selling your biggest star to your biggest rivals is rarely a healthy thing to do.