Army United striker De Leeuw at home in Thailand after Scottish stint
Dutch striker Melvin de Leeuw swapped the Scottish Highlands for steamy Bangkok, and he has no regrets about making the move from Europe to Southeast Asia. The Army United forward has helped his new club to the top of the Thai Premier League (TPL) with three goals in his first five games and is looking forward to a successful season in his new home.
De Leeuw grew up in Holland supporting Ajax and idolising legendary Dutch striker Dennis Bergkamp. He started his career in the second tier of the Dutch professional league with RBC Roosendal before moving on to SC Cambuur and helping them achieve promotion to the Eredivisie.
The striker then joined Ross County in the Scottish Premier League (SPL) in 2013 and his first season was a success, finishing as top scorer and earning the club's player of the year award. The 26-year-old was also a party pooper when he hit the net at Celtic Park to deny the Scottish champions a victory on the day they were presented with the SPL trophy.
However, De Leeuw never really settled with County, a small club located in the Scottish Highlands, and his contract was cancelled, freeing him to find a new club. In January, he made his way across to Thailand to join the club managed by former Spurs and England defender Gary Stevens.
De Leeuw told ESPN FC during the TPL international break that he had a number of options to consider but chose Army United because of a feeling inside that drew him to Bangkok. He also consulted his agent and Army United defender Zdenko Kapralik. The Slovakian has also had experience in the Dutch league and told De Leeuw that the standard of football was high.
De Leeuw is pleasantly surprised by the high standard of the TPL. He is also impressed by the level of professionalism at the club. "The club sorts everything out for me off the pitch and that allows me to focus on playing football," said De Leeuw.
When asked to compare the standard of the TPL with those of the Dutch second tier and the SPL, De Leeuw said the Thai league is comparable to the Dutch second division and, therefore, easy to adapt.
"In Scottish football, one sees only Celtic, Aberdeen and Dundee United trying to play a passing game. The rest of the teams have long-ball tactics. In the Dutch league, there is a lot of possession football but you also need a lot of speed and strength. Thailand is more similar to Holland and, having played there till I was 24, I feel at home with the style here. The standard is similar and it is just the weather that is very different."
Over the years, Dutch players have been known for being opinionated and sometimes being disruptive in the dressing room. But De Leeuw said he is far from the stereotypical Dutch footballer. "Personally, I focus on encouraging other players rather than criticising them. It is important that you have this attitude while playing in Thailand. Expressing your opinion is important but you have to think about when you say it and how you say it."
De Leeuw finds it difficult to explain the fact that Thailand languish at 142 in the FIFA rankings. He sees Thai players as fast and technically very good but admits that they may have to work more on building physical strength.
However, he sees the current focus on the younger generation as a promise of a brighter future. "You can see there is more focus on the U22 team now and this is important as it helps the players get used to a certain way of playing together," said De Leeuw. "In Holland, youth teams get to know a system and become comfortable with it. If Thailand's younger players keep playing together, they will get stronger as a group."
Army United have had their strongest ever start to a TPL season and De Leeuw has been delighted with the team's form. He now feels the confidence is high enough to challenge the top teams, including Buriram United and Muang Thong United.
De Leeuw is not getting carried away, however, and said: "There will be ups and downs during the season but our confidence is high and we would be delighted if we could finish in the top five."
When asked about his stated target of 15 goals for the season, he added: "If I keep scoring at this rate, of course, I can hope for more but I'm not too worried about a specific number. The most important thing is for me to do a good job for the team. If I work hard, the goals will come."
De Leeuw would love more success in Thailand to add to his previous achievements. But after such an impressive start, it would not be surprising to find other teams taking notice. However, he is not looking too far ahead. "I'm really enjoying life, the weather and, most of all, the football," he said. " I'm just living from day to day and week to week. I have a one-year contract but I would love to extend my time in Thailand."
With very few Dutch players trying their luck in the TPL, De Leeuw believes it is a lack of knowledge that is preventing more of his countrymen from considering a move to Southeast Asia. He said he would recommend a move to the ASEAN region for his countrymen but served a note of warning.
"Dutch players may think it's too easy out here but this is far from the truth," he said. "I had to go through a trial and preseason training and you really have to prove yourself and show that you can work effectively with your teammates. People in Holland don't know what to expect from Thai football and this is the problem."
While fellow Dutchmen George Boateng and Pieter Huistra are coaching in Malaysia and Indonesia respectively, it is still too early for De Leeuw to look beyond his playing career. "I want to stay in football but I'm not yet sure what I want to do," he said. "When I get to the age of 30, I'll start to think more seriously about my future."
Army United fans will certainly be hoping that their new Dutch hero spends a few more years in Bangkok before he makes his next move.
Bangkok-based Paul Murphy has lived in Asia for a decade, writing for ESPN FC since 2014. He is a former Daily Express sub-editor. @PaulMurphyBKK