Chainat Hornbill FC are just a point above the relegation zone.
After almost succeeding in keeping a clean sheet at the home of the Thai League’s second-highest scorers, head coach Dennis Amato stares intensely into the eyes of the journalists seated ahead of him.
“When we get a draw against Port and it feels like a defeat, I know we’ve done well” he reflects. “I’m proud of the boys today,” he adds, before admitting that his side “need points,” and that the solitary one accumulated today “was not enough.”
While the table may not make for great reading this weekend, Amato’s men have slowly been gathering momentum, giving life to what is becoming an increasingly exciting project at the newly promoted club.
The side have picked up some memorable results this season, including a win over fourth-placed Port in the reverse fixture, and an astonishing victory at the home of defending Champions Buriram United.
“Whenever we play against a big team, we play a good game,” the German coach announces to crowd cramped into the PAT Stadium’s press room. “It seems like the players are five to ten percent more motivated, which is what we need to survive.”
Ranked 62 out of Thailand’s 76 provinces in terms of population, Chainat can best be described as an unglamorous river valley, situated approximately 70 miles north of the nation’s old capital, Ayutthaya. During those times, it’s geographical location meant it was used a base of operations from which the Old Kingdom would fight off invaders from Burma, earning the land its name, which translates from Sanskrit to “Place of Victory.”
Chainat Hornbill FC came good on the promise of that name in 2017, when a major restructuring at the behest of sugar firm Wangkanai returned the club to the big time, lifting the second division title.
At the center of this revolution is the story of one man making his name miles away from his homeland.
“I actually came to Thailand because of Bayern Munich,” Dennis Amato revealed, referencing his time as a director of an initiative to bring coaches from the German giants to the South-East Asian nation, also sponsored by Chainat’s owners.
“I started consulting with Chainat, as [there was] a connection with the sponsor. They wanted to do something new and restructure everything, so last season I stepped in, first as a director and then as a head coach.”
Amato’s journey into professional football coaching began after the departure of his countryman Bjorn Kliem from the Chainat hotseat, giving the then 36-year-old a chance to take on his first managerial role.
Under his stewardship, the recently relegated club claimed the Division One title in order to bounce straight back to the top flight, as the German coach turned what could have been a rude awakening into an excellent run for Chainat.
“It’s [was] a very rough game, very physical, and it [was] not really playing football,” coach Amato reflected of his season in the lower reaches of the Thai League system, stating that the conditions made it “hard to play a possession game.”
Regardless, the young manager started his career brightly, as the Hornbills soared to a first-placed finish, losing only one of their games in the second half of the season under his guidance.
After securing promotion, Amato briefly left the club to take up a role as a sporting director at Ang Thong FC, a promotion rival that failed to secure their ticket to the top division during the previous campaign. The Hornbills hired Croatian boss Drago Mamic as his replacement, but he departed the club after only a single game in charge, citing personal reasons. Facing an uphill battle to keep their top division status with a limited squad and strict budgetary constraints, Chainat once again turned to the German, who was now ready for the challenge of taking on the best the country had to offer.
“T1 (the Thai top division) is of a much higher quality,” he commented, almost belying the fact that his side have bridged the gap in spectacular fashion. “I knew at the beginning that we would need some time to adjust everything, but now I think that even with the very low budget we have, we are competitive in the league.”
The sheer scale of the challenge that stood before Chainat can’t be overstated. Their promotion came at a time when the league was preparing to downsize, meaning that five teams instead of the traditional three would face the drop. Additionally, the Hornbills were operating on a budget that paled in comparison to their fellow promoted sides Prachuap, who had recently signed a extensive sponsorship deal with oil giants PT, and Air Force FC, who were backed by major shopping mall chain Central. The German coach’s remit was to make the most of the players he had inherited while the teams around him were out spending lavishly in the transfer market.
Amato’s side began slowly. A point on the opening day was followed by a four game losing streak which left the side second from bottom. They picked up their first win amidst unlikely circumstances in an away fixture against defending FA Cup Champions Chiangrai United, starting a tradition of ‘giant-killing’ which would become a hallmark of their exceptional campaign.
The side began to garner plaudits with a three game winning run against established top-division sides Port, Ratchaburi and Bangkok Glass at the end of April, with the 5-2 win away against the latter particularly making the league sit up and take notice.
With their confidence high, victories continued to flow for the Hornbills, who had proven themselves to be more disciplined, compact and forward-thinking than the typical promoted side. A 3-1 victory over compatriots Prachuap, who themselves were in the middle of a remarkable campaign and sitting as high as fourth place at the time, cemented this perception as Chainat were able to claw themselves clear of the relegation zone for the first time.
However, the most remarkable result of the German’s tenure was soon to come when they travelled to face defending champions Buriram United on the 16th of June.
Chainat’s hosts were in imperious form, sitting pretty atop the Thai League table after a run of five consecutive wins. The side had also secured progression to the knockout stages of the AFC Champions League earlier in the season at the expense of Japanese giants Cerezo Osaka, and had even defeated Korean Champions Jeonbuk Hyundai at their indomitable fortress.
The size of the task ahead of Amato’s men was best conveyed by one simple statistic – Buriram United were one win away from maintaining a hundred-percent home record for an entire calendar year.
After a resolute defensive performance, the Hornbills emerged 1-0 winners at the home of the Thunder Castle, marking the first time that Buriram United had failed to win a league game on their own turf since the return of Montenegrin coach Bozidar Bandovic midway through the 2017 season.
This victory put the German coach firmly into the Thai League spotlight, with many across the nation finally realizing the sheer extent to which his coaching had elevated the club well beyond expectations. His contribution finally earned its just reward when he was selected as the Thai League’s “Manager of the Month” for June, cementing his rise as one of the division’s sharpest coaching minds.
“Against Buriram we had a very good game, we had a good match plan and the players were able to follow it from the beginning,” coach Amato reflected in an interview shortly after his side’s miraculous achievement. “It was a great team performance, and a well deserved win for us.”
Despite the adulation generated by this remarkable victory, the German remained as pragmatic as ever. “Unfortunately, you can only get three points, even from such a win, so we can’t celebrate too much about this,” he warned his troops, adding that they “need to focus on the [upcoming] games” in a statement that perfectly defines the coach’s desire, commitment and humility.
Apart from his successes, coach Amato is also breaking the mould in another way when it comes to management within the Thai League. In a culture where the role of the ‘head coach’ is very restricted, the German’s combined role as a director and coach have given him a level of freedom and autonomy that is very rarely seen in this league.
“I think that as a head coach I need more power. I need to be more involved [in creating] a roster before the season. I need to be involved in the management, and take decisions that are important around the team,” he asserted. “Too many people who have power [in this league] do not have the knowledge, and that is exactly what we tried to change in Chainat. Maybe it can be a role model for other clubs in the future.”
While he is fully focused on the job of keeping the Hornbills’ heads above water, there is a sense that coach Amato hopes to have a long career in the game. With men from his homeland in charge of many of the world’s top clubs, the Chainat coach has no shortage of inspirational figures to choose from, but there is one that stands out in particular.
“When we talk about German coaches, we mention Jurgen Klopp, of course,” Amato said. “He was a teammate playing with me at Mainz, so I know him a little bit.” Other than the vast success he has enjoyed, the Liverpool coach’s methods have also been a particular source of inspiration. “He is like he is, he’s not acting,” Amato claimed, adding that he “has good ideas” and that his “players really trust him,” something that the Hornbills’ coach wants to implement into his own managerial style.
Dennis Amato will likely need to channel the energy and enthusiasm of Klopp to inspire his players to what would be an impressive survival. It is a task that the German coach is fully focused on, despite interest from elsewhere. “I want to reach the highest thing that I can,” coach Amato admitted, before quickly returning his focus to the task at hand. “Right now I am the head coach of Chainat, and if nothing changes I will be next year as well. We will go step by step.”