Rayong FC needs the points. Sixty-seven minutes have passed, they remain level with visiting Bangkok United and have a free-kick perfectly positioned on the left-hand side. Anuchit Ngernbukkol lofts the ball to the front post and the hosts’ sudden onrush causes panic in the Angels’ back-line. Sirisak Fufung reaches the ball before any of the Bangkok United defenders and manages to head the Dragon Horses into the lead, sending the home fans into a frenzy.
The result, Rayong’s second win in three matches, sees them climb off the bottom spot that they had occupied since the beginning of October and brings their points tally to 10 from 15 games. Lots of work is still to be done, but after Saturday’s victory, things suddenly look a little less bleak.
“I think it’s very difficult to avoid relegation, but that’s why I think it’s worth the challenge,” says Masami Taki, the man tasked with lifting the side from the depths of the drop zone.
Taki was appointed as Rayong’s head coach in mid November, and is already the club’s third boss of the season after just 11 games. The no-holds-barred attacking approach of Chusak Sriphum, which saw the rank underdogs win promotion last season, unsurprisingly fell short when faced with the superior opposition of the top flight. He was dismissed to be replaced by Arthur Bernardes, who took charge of six games before a contractual issue led to his departure as well.
Rayong looked like a lost cause by the time Bernardes packed his bags, having collected just three points from their opening 11 games of the season. Not much was expected to change when Taki, fresh off a spell coaching Chiangrai United, was appointed to lead the side.
“When I played against Rayong FC as the coach of Chiangrai United, I was impressed with their attitude; they would not give up until the time was up,” the Japanese coach said. “I felt like going back to Japan, but I strongly felt that Rayong FC needed me and so I signed with them.”
The 48-year-old has amassed plenty of experience in football coaching, having begun the journey back when he was only 22.
“I wanted to be a player in Japan, but I had problems with both knees and gave up playing at a high level,” Taki explained. “I then started working as a U18 coach at Cerezo Osaka when they had just been promoted to the J.League.”
Taki then spent the next few years gaining experience in the academies of Vissel Kobe and Jubilo Iwata, before an unexpected call from Thailand granted him his first job as a head coach.
Thai Honda FC and their Japanese president were the ones to bring the young coach to the Land of Smiles back in 2009. Similarly to now, Taki was called upon to rescue a side in dire straits – needing to win a four-way playoff to remain in the second division after the dissolution of Bangkok Bank FC.
“They were looking for a Japanese coach, and I was offered the role through a Japanese network,”Taki said. “I came to Thailand just to hear about the opportunity, but the president told me to start work the next day, and I became the head coach!”
Thankfully for Taki, his unexpected appointment was a resounding success, as he steered the side away from relegation to the third tier and managed a respectable 11th place finish in the following campaign. He returned for a second spell with Thai Honda in 2014, winning the division three title before coming within three points of a ticket to the top flight in 2015.
His track record in the lower tiers was enough to convince defending Thai League champions Chiangrai United to take a chance on Taki at the start of the 2020 campaign. Replacing the successful Ailton Silva and with limited room to maneuver in terms of recruitment, Taki did well to keep the side in the top four for the first leg of the season, managing 26 points from 11 games before leaving at the end of his contract in November.
Now in charge of Rayong, Taki is serious about proving himself in the Thai top flight, though he faces a steep mountain to climb if he wants to keep the Dragon Horses in the league.
“I couldn’t understand why this team was at the bottom because of the quality of the players’ play,” Taki said. “I felt they had the potential to be higher.”
So far, his work has certainly proven that notion to be correct. In his first four games at the club, Taki has managed to collect two wins and a draw, with their most recent being their impressive showing against Bangkok United.
With seven points on the board, the Japanese coach’s points-per-game stands at 1.75, a major improvement on Rayong’s 0.27 prior to his appointment. When asked how he managed to turn the team around so rapidly, he responded, “The first thing I told them was to play with confidence, and I worked on the overall organization in offense and defense.”
With strong belief in his squad’s ability and mentality, Taki insists that he is not under pressure and has his eyes firmly on the prize.
“I’m not feeling the pressure, because the team is at the bottom and can’t go any further down, only up,” he said.
Suggesting Rayong FC could pull off a great escape would’ve gotten you laughed out of most Thai League conversations just four weeks ago – the fact that Rayong fans are now daring to dream is a testament to Taki’s work. His ability to organize a side defensively and build the mental strength to stand up to long odds may just give them a fighting chance.