In October 2014, former Chelsea boss Avram Grant was celebrating a League Cup victory in Bangkok after his youthful BEC Tero Sasana side defeated Thai champions Buriram United 2-0 in a significant upset.
Grant had been at the club for just a month and would not be there much longer after the Ghana national side came calling. But his mere presence indicated that this team had big ambitions.
Two years previously, Sven-Goran Eriksson had been technical director of Tero for a short period, highlighting the influence and resources that the club had.
Just over one year on from a cup triumph that was expected to be the catalyst for a longer term bid for dominance in the domestic game, one of the biggest names in Thai football has been relegated from the Thai Premier League (TPL) for the first time.
It was an unthinkable scenario at the start of the season when most pundits expected them to finish in the top five and some even viewed them as dark horses for the title. It was a season featuring an incredible four changes of head coach, one of them being the Northern Irishman, Kenny Shiels.
Tero feature some of the most talented young Thai players as the spine of the team and key players for the national side. Tanaboon Kesarat is a classy central defender, playmaker Chanathip Songkrasin is considered one of the top talents in South East Asia and Adisak Kraisorn offers a physical presence and an eye for goal up front.
Full-backs Peerapat Notechaiya and Tristan Do are also national team regulars. With such talent on board, BEC Tero’s season was expected to mirror the rising fortunes of the Thailand team.
But, while Kiatisuk Senamuang’s War Elephants’ World Cup qualifying campaign got off to an excellent start , the club that has so many of the side’s star men floundered and eventually slipped out of the top flight.
After a disappointing start to the 2015 season, Serbian head coach Bozidar Bandovic was dismissed with the club in 13th place in an 18-team league after 10 games. At the time, the club’s general manager, Robert Procureur told ESPN:
It is our aim to be champions in two years. We have a very young side with nine players in the national team… In a couple of years, these players will have matured and we could challenge for the title.
Former Kilmarnock boss Shiels was appointed in June and then sacked in August as things went from bad to much worse for the former Asian Champions League (ACL) finalists. Tero failed to win a single TPL game under Shiels and 11 games without a victory proved too much for the club directors.
Veteran Portuguese coach Manuel Cajuda followed but the team continued to struggle and remained in relegation trouble until he was given his marching orders with just three games remaining. Club captain Rangsan Viwatchaichok was appointed player-coach as the survival bid reached a critical point.
The rookie boss was unable to save the club despite winning seven points in the last three games and the Fire Dragons have slipped into Thai Division One, taking a lot of Thai talent with them.
Tero have been one of the biggest names in Thai football but have struggled to keep up with the increasingly professional nature of the game. The likes of Buriram United, Muang Thong United and Chonburi have overtaken them since they became the pride of Thai football by reaching the ACL final in 2003.
A stadium move from central Bangkok to outlying Minburi has not helped them in their bid to win a fan base and the drop into Division One will further test the patience of fans who find it hard to make the trip to their current home stadium.
The club’s managing director Brian Marcar admitted that relegation could spell the end for the club when he told the Bangkok Post:
I may not deal with the team anymore or even dissolve the club in the near future. The players still have contracts with us so if any teams are interested in our players, they can approach us.
Marcar also suggested that the main asset, Chantahip could soon be on the move, saying:
For Chanathip Songkrasin, many teams have approached us but we are hoping to arrange a foreign club for him especially in the J-League which should help him develop into an even better player.
It would be a sad ending if the club that dominated Thai football in the early Noughties were to slip out of existence. But it would also reflect the nature of the Thai professional leagues which have changed drastically in the past 10 years.
BEC Tero were dominant in a time before provincial teams were included in the Thai top tier. Since sides from outside Bangkok were invited to join the party in 2007, Tero have become increasingly peripheral.
It is an indicator of the team’s talent that in the season they have been relegated, they were unbeaten in four games against the TPL’s top two – Buriram United and Muang Thong United.
But positive results against the big guns count for nothing when you fail to pick up points from weaker teams.
The League Cup victory in 2014 proved a false dawn and, if Marcar’s comments are to be believed, the Fire Dragons may now have breathed their last.