From rampaging fullback to midfield maestro, AFF Championship MVP award completes Theerathon Bunmathan's career transformation

A stunning right-footed effort by Theerathon Bunmathan handed Thailand a 1-0 second-leg win over Vietnam in the final of the 2022 AFF Championship, which sealed a record-extending 7th title with a 3-2 aggregate triumph. Pakawich Damrongkiattisak/Getty Images

For the past decade and more, Theerathon Bunmathan has made the left wing his exclusive domain -- both at international level with Thailand, and for the numerous clubs he has featured for.

It was as a rampaging fullback that he had won two previous AFF Championships, countless Thai League 1 titles with both Buriram United and Muangthong United, and became the first player from his country to win Japan's J1 League with Yokohama F. Marinos in 2019.

Yet, as he added another AFF crown to his list of achievements on Monday with the Thais beating Vietnam 1-0 to complete a 3-2 aggregate triumph in the 2022 final, the 32-year-old's brilliant career transformation was completed.

Following a superb campaign in an unfamiliar position that saw him named the tournament's Most Valuable Player, Theerathon can now lay claim to being Thailand's midfield maestro.

It is not a role that is completely foreign to him.

When Theerathon returned to Thailand after parting ways with Marinos, Buriram already had the up-and-coming Sasalak Haiprakhon -- fresh from his own overseas sojourn in South Korea with Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors -- earmarked for the left-back spot.

The duo could easily have been left to battle it out for the same position. Most likely, the experience and class of Theerathon would have prevailed and Sasalak, for all his potential, would have been left to stagnate.

Instead, the same qualities that saw Theerathon establish himself as the best in that position in all of Southeast Asia hinted that he could also do a job in the middle of the park.

It was not the most outrageous of switches.

As he entered his 30s, the Nonthaburi native was bound to gradually lose his blistering pace but his positional awareness, tactical acumen and wand of a left foot were never going to desert him.

As he grew in his new role, deploying him as a central midfielder also made a lot of sense to Thailand coach Alexandre Polking -- especially with Sasalak also impressing enough to earn a call-up for the 2022 AFF Championship.

With Sarach Yooyen, for so long the War Elephants' midfield general, also present, the introduction of Theerathon to the engine room meant Polking now had not one but two lynchpins to dictate proceedings.

It resulted in an extra shield in front of the backline, but also an alternative distributor to initiate attacks.

While Sarach continued to control the tempo with his short, sharp passes as the anchorman, Theerathon was either dropping deep to receive possession before unleashing a penetrating long-range delivery or drifting out wide on the underlap -- where he resumed being a threat from the left.

In total, he weighed in with six assists, which already had him among the best performers at the competition.

But on Monday, there was to be one final feat that would secure his status as the tournament's standout individual.

Arriving late to the edge of the box, like any good box-to-box midfielder would, Theerathon received possession on -- and his weaker right foot -- proceeded to unleash an unstoppable 25-yard piledriver into the bottom corner for what would prove to be the final's decisive strike.

It was a quintessential captain's goal.

It was a clutch contribution that was deserving of an MVP award.

And it was the crowning moment that completed Theerathon's remarkable career transformation.