From Wanderland to Thailand

By
Updated: September 12, 2016
Mark Bridge Chiang Rai

He was a club legend, known as “King Bridge”, his side’s all-time top goalscorer and a key member of the 2014 Asian Champions League winning team.

So when Mark Bridge, only 30 and still very much in his prime, decided to jump ship from Western Sydney Wanderers to the relative obscurity of Thailand’s Premier League, there were more than a few raised eyebrows back home in his native Australia, including from his own family.

But for the skillful hitman, it was a chance to go truly out of his comfort zone and take on a new challenge in a rapidly developing football nation.

And the decision by Bridge, who also had an approach from a club in China, has so far been vindicated, as he has bagged seven goals in 12 games for big spending Chiang Rai United during the league’s second leg.

Bridge concedes signing for Chiang Rai came somewhat out of the blue – he had never previously visited Thailand before his arrival in the North of the country with his wife and one-year-old son – but so far he has thoroughly enjoyed the experience, and the level of football in the Land of Smiles has come as a pleasant surprise.

“I still had a year to run on my contract with Wanderers and was offered an extension, but then through an agent the Chiang Rai approach came about,” he said, in a phone interview with ThaiGoals after an evening training session.

“People were a bit shocked back home that I made the move, including our son’s grandparents as we were taking their grandchild away from them! But I played in the A-League for 10-11 years, and it was a chance for a fresh start. It was a bit like ground-hog day in Australia; I’d been in the league a long time, and this was a new challenge.

“Wanderers were very good about it – it probably took about two weeks to get everything resolved. There will always be a place in my heart for that club, who could forget our ACL triumph? When will another Aussie club do that?”

Mark Bridge ACL

Bridge, left, celebrating the ACL win

It’s been a whirlwind few months for the striker and his young family. A few days after their arrival in Thailand for the very first time, Bridge had to leave his wife and son for 10 days straight to be with his new team-mates.

There followed six games in his first month, where Bridge played every minute, this coming not long after a gruelling full season in Australia’s A-League. So far he’s played every game for his new side, and virtually every minute, although the side has enjoyed a mixed run of form in the second leg, slipping down to 8th in the league.

“Luckily Australian players are known for our fitness,” he joked. “Actually the transition hasn’t been that difficult thanks to the club. Everyone has been so friendly and helped make us as comfortable as possible.

“We have a nice flat just outside the city which is only a 10 minute-drive away from training. It’s a different pace of life up here, very different from Bangkok, a little bit cooler too.

“There are some great cafes if you know where to find them and I spend days before I go into training chilling with the family by the pool. We’re enjoying it here. The Thais absolutely love our son – it must be the blonde hair and blue eyes!

“I’ve probably found the hardest part is the humidity. At times I felt like I couldn’t breathe – I didn’t experience playing in humidity like that in Sydney.

“But I’m happy with the start I’ve made. I’m definitely getting chances and my job is to score goals, which I’ve been able to do.”

Mark Bridge son

Bridge on the pitch after a game with his son Cooper

Sydney-native Bridge enjoyed a stellar career at West Sydney Wanderers, netting 28 goals in 95 appearances, and was the scorer of the new franchise’s first ever goal in 2012.

Twice capped by Australia, he enjoyed a brief loan spell with Chinese side Tianjin Teda back in 2009, but was still expected to see out his playing days in the A-League.

Now feeling settled in Thailand, Bridge has signed a long-term deal with Chiang Rai, and expects his new side to only improve in the seasons ahead.

The club, established in 2009, has enjoyed a rapid ascent through the leagues and showed its intent by really getting the cheque book out in the last transfer window.

“It depends on player recruitment of course, but the club has showed its ambition recently with the signing of Thailand national team players [including Pratum Chuthong and Mongkol Tossakrai],” he said.

“I’ve been impressed with the training sessions put on by Coach Joe [Teerasak Po-on], who also has a bit of English, which makes things easier. He’s a smart coach.

“We held our own in the big games, against Buriram and Muangthong, which I was involved in, losing narrowly in both games. Bangkok Glass are the only team who dominated us [United lost 2-0].

“The top few teams are a long way ahead at the moment but in the future we’ll be hoping to close that gap, for sure.”

Bridge, who can play from a wide position as well as a traditional No.9, as he’s doing for United, also admitted he’s been taken aback by the technical ability of Thai players.

“Some of the players have amazing technical ability, they could play in the A-League,” said. “But the tactical awareness is still improving. I think once that happens, and the teams play well as units, then the football here will develop quickly.”

Aside from the football, Bridge, who spoke with former Aussie international and Bangkok Glass captain Matt Smith before making the move, has adapted quickly into his new life in Thailand, enjoying the food, even of the spicier variety, which is often served up pre-game.

“When I first came here it was a big culture shock – West to East, so to speak,” he said. “But the club has been great and we really feel at home now.”

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Thai Regional League, Thai FA Cup, Thai League Cup, AFC Champions League, AFC
Thai Goals, Thailand National Team, Thai Grounds, Thai Division One, Thai Regional League, Thai FA Cup, Thai League Cup< ThaiGoals, Thailand Soccer, Thai Football, Premier League of Thailand, Thai Fixtures ThaiGoals, Thailand Soccer, Thai Football, Premier League of Thailand, Thai Fixtures
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