Newly hired United City Football Club coach Jason Withe welcomes the pressure of joining a club with a winning tradition and has aspirations of performing well in the Asian Football Confederation Champions League, the continent’s premier club competition.
“It’s welcome pressure. And it is something that we’re used to,” said the Singapore-based Withe, who will take over the reins of the defending Philippines Football League champion, whose successful legacy stretches back when the club was still known as Ceres Negros FC.
The son of former England and Arsenal striker Peter Withe said he was in the hot seat once before as a young bench tactician in his maiden season with Thai League 1 club Terro Police Sasana 21 years ago.
“When I first joined BEC Terro Sasana I had a very clear message from the owners: to win the league,” the 49-year-old mentor recalled. “We missed out on the league championship on goal difference the first year. We won it all in the second year as a coach.”
Under Withe’s helm, the club ran away with its first league championship in 2000 with a record of 14 wins, one loss and seven draws to secure a slot in the Asian Club championship, now known as the AFC Champions League, on top of clinching the Kor Royal Cup.
Given his club’s success, he was appointed by the Thai Federation to coach the national under-23 squad, piloting the War Elephants to a 6-0 sweep of the 2001 Malaysia Southeast Asian Games, capped by a thrilling 1-0 decision over the hosts in the finals for the men’s football gold medal.
With his stock rising, Withe hopped over to Singapore and steered Home United FC to a runner-up finish in the 12-team S-League in 2002, chalking up a record of 18 wins, fives defeats and 10 draws.
“It’s more welcome pressure in working with an elite side. I draw energy from that,” said coach, whose comeback to the Thai club football scene was with mostly struggling squads, the last as a last-minute reliever for Third Division Deffo FC in 2018 to avoid being demoted further.
So he relished the opportunity once again in handling a competitive club such as UCFC, which has dominated domestic club play for nearly a decade since it made its debut on the local scene in 2012 as Ceres Negros through the efforts of Bacolod-based businessman-sportsman Leo Rey Yanson.
A co-owner of the family Ceres bus company, Yanson sold the Busmen, who won the Philippines Football League title from 2017 to 2019, in the middle of 2020 to a foreign group of investors organized by Dubai-based Eric Gottschalk, the UCFC club president.
-- Singaporean businessman Michael Hosking’s role --
“It is always nice to work with teams that have aspirations and have the resources to win leagues. I’d rather work in that environment,” said Withe, who was offered the UCFC coaching job by Singapore businessman and concert promoter Michael Hosking, one of the club’s investors.
“I’ve known Michael for a very long time while coaching in Thailand. The contracts came through Michael, really,” he added of the Midas Promotions owner and football fan, who lives in Phuket and has organized Asian concert tours for the likes of Michael Jackson, Rihanna, Bruno Mars and Katy Perry.
Withe said that having a UEFA pro coaching license, which he gained in 2006, came in handy since UCFC’s earlier choice, British-Australian Trevor Morgan, did not have one.
“They (UCFC) needed a coach with a pro license for the AFC Champions League. Unfortunately, Trevor did not have that qualification. So Michael got me in touch with Eric and we’re only happy to help,” he said.
The prospect of coaching United City in the AFC Champions League somewhat sealed the deal, according to the English coach.
“Any offer that comes up sometimes you accept it, sometimes you don’t. They (UCFC) will be competing in the AFC Champions League so that challenge is quite interesting. It’s going to be a lot of hard work but I am looking forward to it, really,” Withe said.
But he acknowledged he had not yet studied in depth the club’s known rivals in the AFC Champions League Group I — Kawasaki Frontale FC of Japan and Beijing Guoan FC of China.
Located in the industrial city of Kawasaki, on the outskirts west of Tokyo, the Japanese club is the reigning J-League champion and has also won the league trophy in 2017 and 2018, and copped the J-League Cup in 2019 and Emperor’s Cup last year.
Beijing Guoan FC is located in the Chinese capital and bagged the Chinese Super League trophy in 2009 and has won the Chinese FA Cup in 1996, 1997, 2003 and 2019. According to business magazine Forbes, the club is considered the second most valuable in China with an estimate value of $167 million.
“I’ve done a little bit of research. I haven’t done a lot and kid you and say I haven’t gone in depth (in studying UCFC's rivals). I can’t comment too much as of yet,” said the coach.
-- Coaching philosophy and expectations --
A native of Liverpool, England, Withe, however, divulged what could be expected of him once he handles Golden Boys, as United City is now known.
“I like my team to be organized and for the players to know what their jobs are,” he said. “I like them to know going into the field that this is the way I want them to set up whatever the game plan is against any opposition.
“They have to know what their jobs are, and I don’t like preparing teams willy-nilly. You have to have a game plan and say to them that this is your role with the team, this is what is expected of you. If you don’t step up and achieve those goals we are aspiring for then we get somebody else who can.
“This has always been my job as a head coach.”
The English tactician said that he was flexible in drawing up the strategy for the club, saying his coaching philosophy is kind of adaptable really. When people ask me what is my preferred formation, I tell them my preferred formation is based around the players I have.
“I have played different formations with various clubs and it all depends on the players who are available. We want to have players and staff who want to improve themselves and make our team better. I work best in that kind of environment.”
As a former developmental officer for Birmingham and Leicester City FC and current coach at the Junior Soccer School and League Singapore, Withe said he would be receptive to the younger players of his new club.
“I’ve always enjoyed working with young players. They have got a thirst for knowledge. I have always had a positive experience with them, to put them on the right path and guide them in the right way as they strive to play on the first team on a regular basis,” the coach explained.
Withe said this was the reason he wanted to get to the Philippines and touch base with the UCFC players and staff “as soon as possible,” while hoping that he and his wife would get vaccinated against COVID-19 in Singapore before they set foot in Manila.
“Funny enough, we haven’t been vaccinated yet, but we have been informed by the Singaporean government that our application has been accepted and we are hoping to have it done soon,” he said, adding that he was also set to fly to Dubai and discuss with Gottshcalk the club’s plans.
“It’s just difficult with the restraints at this moment in time to get together with the players there and the staff. First and foremost we have to make things safe for everyone against the virus, but you do want to start working with the players,” the coach stressed.
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