I have lived in Thailand for almost three decades and I'm a huge football fan. And yet I had never been to a Thai Premier League football match. It was time to put that right.
So who was playing?
It was a mid-table clash between Chonburi FC and Suphanburi FC at Chonburi's stadium, which is about an hour's drive from Bangkok - if you're fortunate to have a driver who knows where he's going.
So not the makings of a classic then?
Both teams are having very average seasons. Chonburi can't score enough goals and Suphanburi are the draw specialists. In fact over half of Suphanburi's games had been low-scoring draws so this was a game between a team that struggles to find the net and a team that don't let many goals in. The game had nil-nil written all over it in great big black marker pen.
Why had it taken 28 years?
I've never felt motivated enough to attend a match- and that's purely based on the handful of televised Thai games I've seen. After twenty minutes of intricate sideways / backwards passing movements and shots on goal that end up in the next post-code, I lose the will to live.
Not only that but it always feels like there's an element of passion missing among the crowd - and I'll get on to that later. Perhaps I've just watched the wrong games.
But come clean, this isn't actually your first attempt to see a Thai premier league match is it?
I don't talk about it much but I did make arrangements to go and see Port FC play at home a couple of months ago. Port FC are one of the top teams in the Thai Premier League and regularly play to packed houses. They also have quite a sizable farang following largely thanks to their stadium being situated in central Bangkok. It's certainly the easiest ground to get to from my home in Samut Prakarn.
So anyway, I've caught the underground to Klongtoey MRT, which is about a ten-minute walk from the Port FC stadium and I'm making my way to the ground with about an hour to spare before kick off. I thought I'd have something to eat, have a mooch around the souvenir shop and soak up the atmosphere. But something didn't feel right. Where were all the supporters wearing their replica shirts? There wasn't a soul around bar the Klongtoey market traders cleaning up at the end of their day shift.
When I got to the stadium, it was in complete darkness. I was standing in front of the ticket office scratching my head when a drunken Thai guy ambled over to tell me that the game I had come to watch was actually next week. Then of course there's that horrible realisation that you've come on the wrong night. I had no other choice but to pick my way through all the rotting vegetables and fish guts and head back to the train station. My wife is still laughing about it.
What a plonker!
So coming back to the Chonburi v Suphanburi game, who was along for the ride?
There was me of course and there was Ben, who is my best Thai friend - and his charming girlfriend, Na. Both Ben and Na are from Suphanburi so they would be cheering on the away team.
Chatting to Na on the drive down to Chonburi in Ben's new pick-up truck, it turned out that her name is actually pronounced 'Neigh'. So I showed her how to spell it so that a foreigner would get the pronunciation exactly right and also told her it was the noise that a horse makes. She warmed to me instantly.
Once we got to the stadium, we would be meeting up with Chonburi FC superfan and all-round 'nice bloke', Dale Farrington. Dale not only runs the Chonburi FC English-language website but also did a hot seat interview for Ajarn back in 2014. Dale has been supporting The Sharks (Chonburi's nickname) for years and he can recall the great days of 2007 when Chonburi became the first provincial club to lift the Thai Premier League trophy. However, it's fair to say that a lot of water has gone under the bridge since then.
How was your pre-match meal?
Very nice thank you. Ben had sorted us out a nice Thai-Italian fusion restaurant overlooking the sea called Sea Salt. It turned out to be a place for Chonburi's hi-so 'beautiful people' - what my old gaffer in England would have referred to as a 'poseur's hole'. No, seriously, the food - both quality and presentation - were excellent and at least all the dishes we ordered arrived at the same time. 165 baht for a water melon shake was a bit ambitious though.
We had planned to stop off for coffee en route to the stadium but the drive through Chonburi City was horrible. There were so many roadworks going on that the main road shrank from four lanes to two in places and then there were the numerous traffic lights you had to negotiate. I told Dale about the congestion and he said "oh no, you should have taken the Chonburi by-pass". I told my wife about it the following day. She regularly drives around the Chonburi area with her work. "You should have taken the by-pass" she advised.
You know what - we should have taken the by-pass.
And then you turned up at the wrong stadium again didn't you?
Hey, that wasn't my fault! That was Ben the driver and his inability to use a sat nav. "I've been to Chonburi's football stadium loads of times", he said. "I used to study part-time at the university next door", he said. "I've never watched a game there but I've done a few laps around the running track", he said.
So we've ended up outside some tiny little stadium, somewhere in Chonburi Province, and even though the official kick off time is two hours away, the place is like the grave. The only person around is a handyman doing things with blue pvc pipe.
We had arranged to meet Dale the Chonburi superfan in front of the club's souvenir shop so Ben approached the handyman. "Excuse me but where is the souvenir shop?"
"It's at the bottom of the main stand at Chonburi Football Club, which is about a 30-minute drive from here", the handyman replied.
Wrong stadium again!
I pointed a finger at Ben and said "You're fired!" But I wish you'd been there to hear the excuses he was coming out with.
I messaged Dale to tell him that we were going to be delayed because we'd gone to the wrong football ground. Beep! Beep! A message back. "If only there were a Chonburi FC English language website that was fussed over for hours on end by a true Chonburi fan and gave you all the information you could ever need - including directions on how to get to the stadium"
Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
But you got to the right place eventually?
Yes, we got to the official Chonburi FC stadium an hour before the start. Plenty of time to park up, meet Dale and his friends and then grab some refreshments. I must say the Chonburi stadium looks impressive from the outside. It's in pleasant, leafy surroundings, the floodlights were on, the club shop seemed to be doing a decent trade and there were plenty of company-sponsored activities for the younger supporters. There were also more snack vendors than you could shake a stick at. The whole atmosphere (at least outside the ground) brought back the buzz of going to see a mid-week football match in England.
And inside the ground?
We bought the most expensive seats in the VIP section (200 baht each) because it was near to where Dale sits (he's a season ticket holder of course) We were seated almost on the half-way line and high up in the third tier of the stand with a completely unobstructed view. Great seats!
Once we got settled, I took in the surroundings and it's painfully obvious that Chonburi is a club on its uppers. I follow Dale on Twitter and he's constantly bemoaning the club's lack of ambition and lack of funds. The whole stadium could do with some serious tender loving care, starting perhaps with a good lick of blue paint. Even a resurfacing of the perimeter running track would smarten things up no end.
It looks like a club that's fallen on hard times and now just living on past glories. It was sad to see because the club has great potential. But it's all about an investor or visionary who's willing to splash the cash and that's just not happening at the present time.
The official announcement put the attendance at 3,800 but I think that figure had received a serious Thai massage. As Dale remarked to me, that sort of number would indicate the ground was half-full - but anyone with half a head for figures could see it was nowhere near that.
The huge sections behind both goals were virtually empty save for a small cluster of Chonburi 'ultras' making a racket with their musical instruments at one end and the couple of hundred Suphanburi fans who had braved the journey, at the other. I would have put the attendance at closer to 2,000 personally.
Frankly, it was never going to be a well-attended game. Chonburi aren't exactly playing champagne football at the moment. Mid-table, draw specialists Suphanburi were not the most glamorous of opponents, and to top it off, you had Belgium playing Tunisia in the World Cup. I wonder how many hundreds decided that Hazard, De Bruyne and Lukuka were a far more attractive option than a relatively humdrum Thai League fixture and opted to stay home?
So to the game itself, what was the first half like?
You know that incredible feeling of relief that you get when you finally get the chance to take off a pair of new shoes that have been killing you all day? That feeling of relief when you chuck the shoes into a corner of the room, flop back on the sofa and proclaim 'Oh my God! That's better than sex!' Well that's how I felt when the ref blew the whistle for half-time. It was better than sex.
I don't think there was a single incident for either set of fans to get excited about in that first 45 minutes. A midfield war of attrition? A game for the purists? It was dire. You know what, I played the game myself both at schoolboy level and in my twenties and I was a fairly decent footballer. If I could have turned back the clock, I'm convinced I could have stepped on to that pitch and held my own. I watched that first half constantly shaking my head at far too many players who simply couldn't perform the basics. Players who couldn't even complete a simple sideways pass to a team-mate twenty meters away.
Perhaps I'm being a tad harsh, because there was much to be admired about some of the midfield play. There was some good intricate passing and decent ball control but if there is one thing I've noticed about Thai football (at all levels it seems) it's in that final third, when strikers are bearing down on goal, that it all goes Pete Tong and shots end up in row Z or somewhere out near the corner flag or trickle harmlessly into the goalkeeper's gloves.
In recent times, I actually came out of my football retirement and played in an eight-a-side game on an artificial pitch with a bunch of Thai guys - all of them fitness fanatics in their twenties. And even that game unfolded in exactly the same way. When it came to midfield possession, I was in awe at the technical ability of those around me - but get a sight of goal and they couldn't hit a cow's backside with a stringed instrument.
I wonder what goes wrong? Is it a mental thing? Yours truly had four attempts at goal and hit the back of the net four times. Even at 52 years of age. Sorry, I had to get that one in.
So you enjoyed the half-time break?
Well, it was the chance to go outside, stretch my legs and get something to drink because my throat was drier than a baby camel's chewing rag. The club doesn't allow food and drink to be taken inside the stadium. I'm not sure if that's the case at all Thai Premier League grounds but that just seems daft to me. We all know how much the Thais love their snacking. On such a hot and muggy evening, and with the glare of the floodlights making it feel psychologically ten degrees warmer, I was desperate for a bottle of water to sip on.
The second half was better?
Yes, it was much better. It couldn't have been any worse. Not only did the crowd have a couple of Chonburi goals to cheer but a few of the Suphanburi players turned pantomime villain by rolling around on the floor as if they'd been shot by snipers. I don't follow the Thai League that closely but from what I pick up on social media, gamesmanship and time-wasting are becoming a rather unsavory aspect of the game these days.
So how would you summarize the standard?
That is a very intriguing question. I would put the standard of the game I watched somewhere on a par with about level 7-8 of the English football league pyramid, which is very much non-league, part-time level.
One of the clubs I follow back in England are Sutton Coldfield FC. It's a suburb of Birmingham near to where my brother lives and I have watched The Mighty Royals play many times in front of about 100-120 die-hard fans. Up until last season - when Sutton sadly got relegated - they were playing in the Evostik Premier, which is level 7 of the English league. They are - for want of a better expression - a raggle taggle collection of plumbers, electricians, lorry drivers and builders mates. But I bet they'd still give either Chonburi or Suphanburi a decent game.
What's missing from the Thai game compared to watching football back home?
What was missing from the game I saw between Chonburi and Suphanburi is probably a better question? I think the answer is 'passion'.
I've been in Thailand long enough to remember the very first time Manchester United came to Bangkok to play the Thai national team in a pre-season friendly. It's so long ago that the Rajamangala national stadium hadn't even been built. We're talking the old national stadium near Siam Square. Anyway, I was lucky enough to secure a couple of tickets and went along to the game with Mark, a close teaching colleague. Mark loved his football and was a fanatical West Bromwich Albion supporter.
The match came and went. I can't remember anything about it other than Teddy Sheringham made his United debut and in 90 minutes, never managed a single shot on goal. As the crowd filed out at the end of the game, I turned to Mark and saw by the look on his face that he'd been just as underwhelmed as me by the whole occasion.
"What was missing?" I asked him.
"The passion", he replied without a second's hesitation. "We go to a football match in England and regardless of the level and the size of the crowd, the result matters. Your team wins and you're on cloud nine. Your team loses and your whole weekend's ruined. That match today felt like we were watching an England v Scotland schoolgirl international. No one really cared who won or lost"
Mark was right. I've been at non-league games in England with barely a hundred home fans watching and the atmosphere can be electric because there's some fat bloke hurling dog's abuse at the linesman from six feet away. Then perhaps both the home and away dugouts will get involved in a bit of touchline pushing and shoving. The result matters to everyone concerned. It's what I love most about watching football.
But at Chonburi FC on Saturday night, the only time I felt any degree of tension and passion was when Dale and his English pals rose to their feet to loudly question the referee's eyesight and parentage. Now that's more like it I thought. Let's ramp up the atmosphere a few notches.
The Thai supporters around us just smiled. Sure, they wanted to see their team win but I just don't think the final outcome is anywhere near as important. "Oh we lost again. Now where are we going to go for dinner?" And off they go - boyfriend and girlfriend, holding hands in their matching replica shirts.
There will be many neutrals saying 'well isn't that lovely - and such a refreshing contrast from the evils that blight the English game. Two thumbs up for the Thai culture"
Naaah, it's not for me. It's too nicey-nicey. I like my football-watching experience to be working class and grubby. I almost craved that air of menace as you make your way from car-park to stadium, taking care to conceal your club's colours and avoid running into an opposing 'firm'. I missed that just as much as I missed baying police dogs, ticket touts, programme sellers, the hot dogs dripping with fried onions and the beery farts.
I shouldn't be generalising though, not after experiencing just one Thai Premier League game. Perhaps I need to go and see how things are at the bigger clubs - the likes of Buriram and Muang Thong Thani or of course Port FC, with their vocal farang contingent. Perhaps it's there where I'll discover the real passion within the Thai Premier League.
Maybe I just never got to witness Thai club football on one of its better nights.