(photo credit: Paiboon James: Samut Prakan City official photographer)
So it's the FA Cup first round, with 64 teams involved. How did Samut Prakan do last season?
We got to the final 16 stage and then disappointingly limped out of the competition.
We started off by thrashing a non-league university side from Chiang Mai Province 5-0 in the first round, before needing extra time to beat a strong Army United team in the round of 32. We were then drawn away to second division, Thai Honda, in the round of 16, fielded a weakened side and were beaten 3-2.
I look back and still think we could and should have taken the competition more seriously.
The romance of the FA cup
There's always something magical about a cup competition where lower league teams and amateur clubs operating on shoestring budgets get the chance to play against the big boys. I'm just mesmerized by some of the 64 teams in the first round. You've got clubs with names like Watbot City, Bankhai United and Techno Sawang. Who are they? Where do they play? How difficult is it to get there? So many questions.
But for Samut Prakan, it's Nakhon Ratchisima away. A tricky first hurdle?
It was a tough draw. Although The Swatcats were struggling to find their league form, it was still an away trip to a premier league side (it was the only all-premier league tie in the round in fact). Plus the two clubs have already locked horns this season in a 2-2 draw down at the SAT Stadium.
We were small but noisy (photo credit: Go2 Photo Stock)
You don't have to be mad to be a football fan but it helps
Haha. There is a small group of half a dozen foreigners who go to Samut Prakan home games and before kick off, we usually congregate in the fan zone for a drink and a chat. When I told them I was off to Nakhon Ratchisima on Saturday, for what many view as a fairly meaningless cup competition, there was an awkward silence with a tinge of disbelief.
However, I promised myself at the start of the season that I wanted to experience as many away games and new stadiums as possible - and Nakhon Ratchisima was just too good an opportunity to miss. It's a doable bus ride from Bangkok, there's a good selection of cheapish hotels in the city centre, and it was the chance to meet up with Russell, who is not only Wolverhampton born and bred but someone I regularly chat to online as part of our 'Thai football family'.
Russ is also a regular at Swatcat home games and a man who knows the ropes you might say.
The journey and hotel
It's a four-hour bus ride to Korat (Nakhon Ratchisima) from Bangkok's Morchit Station. I booked a seat online for a 7.00 am departure so it meant a very early start (I set the alarm clock for 4.45). I'm a serial 'early airport' person anyway and I hadn't been to the busy Morchit Station or taken a provincial bus in Thailand for that matter, for nigh on 25 years. I didn't want to be rushing around at the last minute to locate ticket counters and bus bays.
Morchit turned out to be huge and a little overwhelming but there were no shortage of helpful staff to point you in the right direction. Despite poor online reviews, I opted for the Cherdchai Bus Company and they were fine. The seat and service were perfectly adequate for the 259 baht ticket price and after a journey of just over four hours, we pulled into Korat's bus station well before midday.
For overnight digs, I had booked a room at The Singha Hotel, and I couldn’t award it anything less than 10/10 because it was perfect for my needs, Just a couple of minutes walk from the station, my single room was chic and well-appointed and the hotel had a wonderful 24-hour bakery / cafe on the ground floor, where as a guest I could enjoy unlimited free cups of coffee.
For little over 700 baht a night, it was a steal.
A chance to see Khun Chin
Before my thoughts turned to Samut Prakan’s FA Cup match later that day, I got the chance to meet up with an old friend. Khun Chin was my first gym trainer almost 10 years ago and I hadn’t seen him since he moved away from Samut Prakan in 2012. After a short stint in the Thai military, Chin moved back to his home province of Mahasarakham, got his degree at university, taught sport science at several north-eastern colleges and got married and had a child.
Finding out that he was now teaching sport science and coaching football at Nakhon Ratchisima College (just around the corner from where I was staying) I messaged him on the eve of the match and we arranged to meet for coffee. It was great to see him again and I'm pleased his life has been such a success. But really it comes as no surprise because Chin is one of the most ambitious and go-get-em Thai people I've ever met.
Then realising I hadn’t eaten that day and my head was starting to get foggy, I had a late lunch at Terminal 21, Khorat’s showpiece shopping mall. Then after a quick freshen up back at the hotel, it was time to leave for the stadium.
Korat is a big city and suffers from regular traffic congestion. The traffic jams along Mittraphap Road, on the way to the stadium, were horrendous and as bad as anything I experience in Bangkok these days. However, these were not football fans; just people going about their daily business and clogging up Korat’s main thoroughfare. By the time we pulled up outside the ground, I knew more about the taxi driver’s family than he did!
What were your impressions of Khorat’s 80th Anniversary Stadium?
That is one hell of a big sports venue and I must’ve walked around it three times looking for Russ and his drinking buddies. Around the perimeter, the stadium has no distinctive features, which makes it tricky to navigate for a stranger in town. Zone E looks the same as Zone K and they both look similar to Zone W.
The stadium interior is very impressive. The club has recently installed new seating (you can still see the protective polythene in places) and it all looks very clean and swanky. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of the stadium concourses and the grassy areas outside, which look shabby and overgrown. The men’s toilets beneath the away end were – and let’s not be charitable here - pretty disgusting.
Just 975 turned up for this game, including a couple of dozen from Samut Prakan. Thai football fans rarely seem to get excited about the early rounds of the FA Cup but 975 was still abysmal. And yet both sets of supporters still managed to make plenty of noise and I could just imagine how it feels when they get 15,000 in there (which Nakhon Ratchisima have managed to achieve quite comfortably in the past)
Russ concurred. “The atmosphere is electric when the ground is half to three quarters full” he said.
To the match itself?
A post went up on Samut Prakan’s official Facebook page on Friday to say that we were going to put out a reserve side for this fixture. Was it just a clever ploy to put Nakhon Ratchisima off the scent? I’m not sure. But we ended up fielding a full strength team and it was reassuring to know that the gaffer is taking the competition seriously. And why wouldn’t he? Samut Prakan has just as much chance of lifting the FA Cup as anyone. I genuinely feel we can beat anybody in a one-off cup tie.
In the first half, Patiwat in the Samut Prakan goal, was the far busier of the two keepers but the Nakhon Ratchisima forwards spurned several good chances, choosing to overthink things in the final third rather than take a shot at the target. At half-time, it’s the visitors who are in front thanks to Terrapol Yoyei’s 14th minute strike, latching on to a short pass from Barros Tardelli.
One thing you would never accuse the Samut Prakan players of is being unfit. Our fitness levels are exceptional, particularly deep into second periods when opposing teams are flagging - and that’s exactly what we saw today. I never once felt that Nakhon Ratchisima posed an attacking threat and were going to claw their way back into the game. They were just outfought and outmuscled all over the park and it was Samut Prakan who looked more likely to add to their one goal in the bank.
The final whistle goes and a 1-0 win puts us into the hat for the second round in early December. The 26 travelling supporters (I counted them!) share a nice moment with the team and management staff as they all come over to applaud and thank us for coming.
An evening in Korat
After the game, I was so glad to have Russ and his pick-up truck to call on because getting from the stadium to the city felt like it would have been a nightmare had I been alone. I couldn't see taxis or any mode of public transport around anywhere. It just felt very dark and isolated once the small crowd had departed.
Despite Russ living 'out in the sticks' about an hour's drive from the city, he was in no great hurry to get back to his loving wife, so we stopped off at one of the only farang bars in town and enjoyed haddock, chips and mushy peas washed down with several large cold ones.
The conversation went from horse-breeding (one of Russ's passions) to life in the UK, the cost of living in Thailand and basically how we'd both ended up at a football match in Korat. The time flew by and I loved Russ's company. He definitely became one of those friends for life. Then again, you rarely meet a guy from The Black Country (Wolverhampton, Dudley and Walsall, etc) that you don't get along with.
Back to Bangers
After just five hours sleep (it felt like far less) I was back at Korat's bus station early doors, searching for the ticket offices in the pitch darkness. I booked a seat back to Bangkok with Nakhonchai Air (a bus company many folks rave about and consider the best of the bunch) and they were indeed superb. A pretty hostess in a smart uniform carried my bag on board, where I was one of just a dozen passengers at most. My seat had a massage function, a great recline and a USB port to keep my phone charged. And all that came for just 209 baht! Thanks to the light Sunday morning traffic, we did the journey back to Morchit in three and a half hours and I passed most of that time typing out this blog on my laptop.
Enjoyable bus journeys both to and from Bangkok, a surprisingly perfect little hotel, the chance to meet up with good friends and to cap it all, a fine away win and a place in the FA Cup second round. This was the perfect away trip and frankly, I can’t wait to do more of them.
Who's up next?
Next weekend is the international break so we resume league business on Sunday 22nd November with an away trip to Ratchaburi. Just a couple of hours from Bangkok, Tun and I are planning to make a weekend of that one.