Interviews

Vorawan Chitavanich, One-on-one: Tom Yum was one of Tampines' secret recipes for success!

An inspirational coach who focused on technique and possession-based football, Vorawan Chitavanich’s arrival at Tampines Rovers coincided with the Stags’ most successful period as they picked up two S.League titles, two Singapore Cups and the now defunct ASEAN Club Championship in the 2000s. FFT caught up with the 56-year-old, who looks back on his time in Singapore with fond memories...

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He is undoubtedly the most successful coach in Tampines’ history, but Vorawan's glittering success with the Stags almost never happened.

In fact, he was a mere 45 minutes away from getting the boot during his first season with the club in 2004. The Stags won just five out of their 11 opening matches and suffered a humiliating 4-0 thrashing at the hands of Young Lions, before going away to face Tanjong Pagar United.

You know Boss (Teo) wanted me to sack me?

- Vorawan Chitavanich

The first half ended goalless at Queenstown, incurring the wrath of then-chairman Teo Hock Seng. Fortunately for Vorawan, his side scored thrice after the break to triumph 3-0 – saving his job in the process as they went on to win a S.League and Singapore Cup double at the end of that season.

“You know boss (Teo) wanted me to sack me?” he told FourFourTwo. “At that time Tanjong Pagar were bottom and we were third. We didn’t start with Mirko(Grabovac) and (Tan) Kim Leng because they were recovering from injuries. The first half was 0-0; we hit the bar and post a few times.

“At half time in the dressing room, boss came to say ‘you play like s***!’ He wanted to change all (the whole team) if it goes on like this. I told him, ‘listen to me – if the team have problems, I’m the first man to walk out of the club – not you, so you follow me.'”

“Second half, I changed Mirko and Kim Leng in and we won 3-0. Boss came in at full time to say ‘well done coach’ and he did not interfere with anything after that.” 

Standing up to Teo was not something many would do, but Vorawan did exactly that.

Photo: S.League

“Before that I’ve heard (that he’s not easy to work with),” Vorawan shared. “The coaches before me just said ‘okay boss, okay boss’ when he asked them to play this way or put a certain player in, but I didn’t want just to listen.

“When boss asks me why this player or that player (was) not playing, I would explain that maybe he didn't come to training or he only trained just for one day after coming back from national team. Then he would understand; he interferes only because he wants the best for the team.”

Photo: 'We Love Sembawang Rangers' Facebook

Vorawan was recruited from Sembawang Rangers for his good work with the Stallions, where he helped the unfancied outfit to punch above their weight and play some attractive attacking football.

Apart from bringing in gifted Thai players like Tawan Sripan, Thawatchai Ongtrakul and Niweat Siriwong, much of it was down to his insistence on improving the players’ technique.

Former players Imran Sahib and Ismail Fitrey told FFT in previous interviews about his rule of juggling the ball more than 150 times before training commenced daily.

“At Sembawang, the subsidy is not so much and our players lack the skill and technique,” said Vorawan, who coached the Stallions from 2001 to 2003 after arriving in 2000 as assistant coach.

“So for one to two years every day, we trained only on skill in the mornings.  I told them ‘if I juggle 150, you must juggle 151 – one time more than me. If the ball drops, then you must start from one again. If you don’t have the skill, how you play football? If you’re building the house, everything underneath you needs to be strong – that’s the same thing. And when you’re older and do not have the fitness, you still can play because you have the skill.”

If you don’t have the skill, how you play football? If you’re building the house, everything underneath you needs to be strong

- Vorawan Chitavanich

Vorawan’s excellent technique was honed from a young age. He started off with Thai side Rajpracha FC as a ball boy when he was eight and eventually started his playing career with the club.

The attacking midfielder then packed his bags for Japan in 1985, playing a season for semi-pro side Tanchin Matsuyama (now FC Ehime) where he accumulated 34 assists and netted almost 20 goals.

He then became the second Thai player after Withaya Laohakul to play in Europe, as he headed to Denmark to play for third-tier side Frederikshaun in 1987 before going a division higher to join Viborg FF a year later.

Vorawan impressed in his second season with Viborg, scoring a stunning bicycle kick in a league game to help them secure promotion to the top-tier but left seven months into the following season due to homesickness.

He then retired in 1994 and began coaching at the various Thai national age-group levels, before getting his first real big opportunity at BEC Tero Sasana (now Police Tero) in 1998. He was then lured to Singapore to join Sembawang two years later, before the club’s folding in 2003 due to financial issues paved the way for him to join Tampines the following year.

A phone call from his former player Noh Alam Shah – who joined Tampines from the Stallions – was the catalyst for a memorable seven-year journey with the Stags.

Photo: Supplied/Andrew Him

“Alam Shah came to tell me ‘boss wants to talk to you’. I said okay and that’s how I signed the contract with Uncle Teo,” he shared.

Winning the Coach of the Year award for leading Tampines to the Double in his debut season, Vorawan retained the gong the following year in 2005 as the Eastern giants successfully defended their S.League crown and also won the now-defunct ASEAN Club Championship in the process.

The Stags defeated club sides from Myanmar, Thailand, Brunei, Vietnam and Malaysia en route to becoming the first Singaporean club to win regional honours. Their performance in the final showed why they were worthy winners, as they came from two goals down to defeat Malaysia’s Pahang FA 4-2.

Tampines then lost out on the title in 2006 to SAFFC (now Warriors FC) but managed to reclaim the Singapore Cup – making it five trophies in just three years in charge for Vorawan.