GameChangers: Sophie Perry’s sea change, from Brighton to Bangkok
Chonburi: In early 2019 Sophie Perry played her final matches in English football. Luckily, she never retired.
In this week’s edition of our in-depth women’s football series, GameChangers, we meet the Women’s Super League veteran and Irish international, who sought to encourage a love of football in her students in Thailand and, in the process, rediscovered her own.
In more ways than one, it was a whole new ball game.
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Just over two weeks ago, Chonburi FA began their bid to qualify for the 2020/21 Thai Women’s League with a comprehensive 13-0 win against SW Samutsakhon, but while national team players like Alisa Rukpinij and Saowalak Pengngam piled on the goals, it was one of Chonburi’s defenders for whom the match is likely to live longest in the memory.
The only non-Thai player on the pitch at Bangkok’s High Performance Training Centre was Sophie Perry, who was playing her first ever match as a foreign signing, and her first competitive fixture in almost a year and a half.
It was an outing which could easily never have happened.
🦈👩 ฉลามสาว ถล่ม สมุทรสาคร 13-0 ขึ้นนำจ่าฝูง กลุ่ม D ฟุตบอลลีกหญิง 2020 คลิกอ่านรานละเอียด : https://tinyurl.com/y2yqe9tn . #ChonburiFC2020 #BiteTilTheEnd. #ฉลามชลกัดไม่ปล่อยPosted by Chonburi Football Club on Friday, 25 September 2020
“I came to Thailand in June last year and when I came, I wasn’t playing for anyone,” she told the-AFC.com.
“I had only seen the Thailand national team play in the World Cup, so I didn’t have any idea of the standard, what the players were like or previous results against other teams. The first time I ever saw them play was during the World Cup.
“I didn’t even know Chonburi had a team, but once I sort of found my feet and started networking, I then realised there was a team, and it went from there.”
A veteran top-flight player with experience at clubs like Chelsea and Brighton and Hove Albion, and a 30-time Republic of Ireland international, Perry’s arrival in Southeast Asia came with none of the fanfare experienced by other overseas arrivals with that sort of a resumé.
In fact, the two-year contract which brought Perry to Thailand was with a school rather than a football club, and there was no guarantee that the game which had been the basis of her old life would play any significant role in her new one.
Disappointed not to progress further in the cup. Good luck to @ManCityWomen in the semis. Our focus is now back on the league - with a very important game V Everton on Sunday #bhafc pic.twitter.com/vfRafOIqSZ— Sophie Perry (@SophPerry) January 11, 2019
“I was playing for Brighton and Hove Albion and Republic of Ireland, and my contract was coming to an end. Towards the end I didn’t know whether I wanted to play football anymore,” she revealed. “I got to that point where I needed a different challenge.
“I had been teaching, I had the opportunity to work abroad as a teacher, and I took it. It was a last-minute thing, and I’d just completed my UEFA B Coaching badge. I thought 'maybe I can do a little bit of coaching, or if there’s a team out there I’ll play', but it was nice to have a little bit of a break.”
It was pause from the intensity of playing, but football was never too far from Perry’s mind, and her teaching job at an international school quickly had her thinking of ways to provide more playing time for her students.
“When I came out here, I started working at my school with the girls who were playing football,” recalled Perry, who is situated in a beachside town not far from Pattaya.
“The standard was good, so I asked them if they played for a team outside (of school), and there were no external clubs in the area. None of them were playing.
“In my mind, I wanted to create opportunities for the girls to play outside of school, so that’s where the idea of the academy come from.”
A few short months after her arrival, Perry had established, and become the head coach and CEO of Piing Academy, where she lends her ample experience to youngsters from both local and international backgrounds.
“At the beginning it was more for development,” said Perry. “I set up the training every week so the girls had an opportunity to finish school, come along, meet new people, play football and just enjoy it.
“Then it got to a point where some of them were like: “can we play a game?” and I started networking with different people."
Today our u16s competed in their first ever competitive tournament against teams across Asia. So proud of them gaining silver and our player being awarded MVP, (whilst playing up and age group) Seeing the excitement on their face knowing its game day is priceless! 👏 #piing pic.twitter.com/sR6T2kmxZU— Sophie Perry (@SophPerry) February 9, 2020
“There tends to be more clubs in Bangkok and there was an international football festival where teams come from countries around Asia, places like Singapore, Vietnam and other places around Thailand. I put a team into that tournament – our Under-16s – and actually one of our girls won Most Valuable Player, and she was playing underage as well, so that was fantastic.
“At the moment it’s looking at developing the girls and creating pathways for them. We have a girl in our under-16 programme, and she has now signed for a team that are looking to get into the (senior) Women’s League, and that’s fantastic for her. That’s what it’s all about – creating these good links for the players.”
But while Perry was educating a new generation of girls, she also found herself regaining some of the spark she felt she had lost towards the end of her own football career in England.
Perry went out on loan to Lewes FC from hometown club Brighton in the final months of her contract, and she admits her enjoyment of the game had waned prior to her move to the other side of the world, but it has been rekindled against an unlikely backdrop.
So happy to have signed for the Champions of Thailand - Chonburi FC. They have made me feel so welcome, looking forward to the season and embracing the Thai style of football ⚽️ 🇹🇭 pic.twitter.com/nRA7PLofRG— Sophie Perry (@SophPerry) September 4, 2020
“I think you’re absolutely right,” said Perry, at the suggestion that Thailand has brought back some of her passion for the game.
“Towards the end at Brighton, I guess it just became not a very nice environment for me, but when you do step away you start to miss it, and I when I was coaching I’d be standing on the sidelines sometimes thinking I’d like to be on the pitch.
“When I went down to training the first couple of times (at Chonburi FA), I wasn’t sure if I was going to sign for them, but the first couple of sessions, I absolutely loved. I remember driving back and thinking that I had missed it so much.
“I’m thankful to Chonburi for giving me the opportunity. They’ve got a very strong squad, and they’re bringing somebody else in (from a different country), but they’ve almost brought my love back for it, which I appreciate.”
While the language barrier can make it difficult to understand the finer tactical details, Perry - who reversed the usual scouting process by asking Chonburi if she could join them - has joined a serious football team.
The squad features a number of players with senior international experience, including semi-finalists from the 2018 AFC Women’s Asian Cup, who play a proactive style of football built on precision passing.
“It’s a very different, the style of play,” explained Perry. “A lot of it is on the floor, not in the air. In England, we look to corners or crosses for people to attack, but out here it’s very much pass-and-move.
“The standard of football at Chonburi is very good. Most of the girls have played for the Thailand national team or youth teams, so when I went down there, I was pleasantly surprised, and the training sessions are intense, which is great for me. Maybe not great when you haven’t played for a year, but I’ve really enjoying it.
“They are so, so welcoming. They really make you feel part of it. Not being able to speak the language is quite difficult, but they are all so lovely. They sort of want to look after you.”
บทสัมภาษณ์หลังเกม SOPHIE PERRY : สมาคมกีฬาจังหวัดชลบุรี VS รร.กีฬากรุงเทพฯ
รับชมบทสัมภาษณ์ของ SOPHIE PERRY สมาคมกีฬาจังหวัดชลบุรี Chonburi FA Women หลังจบเกม สมาคมกีฬาจังหวัดชลบุรี VS โรงเรียนกีฬากรุงเทพมหานคร การแข่งขันฟุตบอลไทย วีเมนส์ลีก รอบคัดเลือก กลุ่ม D นัดที่ 3 #thaiwomensleague #2023startsnow #thenextchabakaewPosted by Thai Women's League on Sunday, 4 October 2020
Chonburi FA’s win in Perry’s debut was followed by two more play-off victories, meaning the club have secured their place in the top division for the 2020-21 season, and her arrival comes at an exciting time.
Having qualified for the past two FIFA Women’s World Cups, FA Thailand has rebranded and reformatted its women’s league in order to develop a more robust competition, with the aim of developing a wider pool of players with regular high-level experience.
The recently completed Thai Women’s League play-offs gave 16 teams the opportunity to battle for the four open places in the top division, with another eight qualifying for the second tier of the league and promotion and relegation to follow in years to come.
Perry has witnessed first-hand the explosion of interest in the women’s game in England, where powerful traditional clubs have invested in signing some of the world’s top players and local stars are now household names, and she believes Thailand is making the right steps on its own journey.
สรุปรายชื่อ 8 ทีม ที่ได้สิทธิ์เข้าไปเล่นในไทย วีเมนส์ลีก ระดับ TWL 1 ดังต่อไปนี้ 1. โรงเรียนกีฬาจังหวัดชลบุรี 2....Posted by Thai Women's League on Sunday, 4 October 2020
“I think it has gone up a level (in England) and I think that’s because there are a lot of companies who believe in the women’s game and have put money into it,” she said.
“Also, there is the media and everything that surrounds it. There are websites, you can watch all the games on the FA Player (app). I think that’s good, just to promote the game. Back in the day, games weren’t accessible and you didn’t know too much about the women’s game. Now it’s everywhere.
“Thailand and the Thai national team; they are all going in the right direction. I think this - the introduction to this league and making it bigger - it’s them preparing for their (2023 FIFA Women’s) World Cup qualification.
“The more games, the more players - maybe there will be a player that they’ve never seen before. It’s all going in the right direction and I’m happy to be a part of it."
How long she remains a part of it is yet to be determined.
Perry loves the idea of one day appearing in the AFC Women’s Club Championship, which had its pilot tournament last November, and, having embraced the local game both on and off the pitch, her opening matches for Chonburi could prove to be the first of many.
“I’m really enjoying everything I’m doing here right now with the academy and now playing in the Thai League,” she declared. “I’m really excited to play and experience it, but also to see if there are areas where I can help.
“I’ve got a contract with my school, which has a year left on it, but I can extend year upon year, so I’m here for another year and then I’ll assess that, but there’s no reason to leave at the moment.
“This is the first country that I’ve lived in abroad, but I’m from Brighton and if I’m by the sea, I feel like I’m at home.”
It may prove to be the sea change that made everyone a winner.
The Thai Women’s League kicks off in late October. You can stay up to date with the competition at the league’s newly-launched official Facebook page:
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