(photo credit: Go2 photo stock )
So the season re-start has finally arrived?
Thai football's back! Our last T1 game away at Police Tero on the 1st March seems like an awfully long time ago but let's get back into the groove and welcome Rayong FC to the SAT Stadium.
What restrictions has the government put on stadium capacities to implement social distancing, etc?
As it stands, each stadium will be allowed to admit fans, but only up to 25% of the capacity. And of that number, 10% will be allocated to away supporters.
So to crunch the numbers more accurately, Samut Prakan's SAT Stadium holds about 5,000, which means only a total of 1,250 watching fans will be allowed in. That's 1,125 home fans and 125 away supporters (give or take)
And as a season ticket holder, presumably you were one of the lucky 1,125?
Yes, the club announced ticket details on the 3rd September. Samut Prakan's 360 season ticket holders would be allowed in (I was very surprised the number was that low, actually) and the remaining 765 tickets would be sold online.
The club stated that no tickets could be sold at the stadium either in advance or on the day of the match - but it didn't pan out that way. So many fans had trouble buying tickets online (I couldn't really understand why) that the club had no alternative but to assist people in the hour or so leading up to kick off. It was all a bit chaotic, but this is the new normal - at least for the foreseeable future.
When did the 765 online tickets actually go on sale?
Midday on Thursday (three days before the game) and sales were slow right from the off. I checked on Sunday morning and there were still plenty of tickets available. I was surprised at this but my wife wasn't.
"Working class Thais are paralyzed with fear about the future and the economy and whether they will keep their jobs, etc. Who's in the mood to go and cheer at a football match?" she said. Fair point, I suppose.
I read comments on the Samut Prakan fan pages and there was a lot of apathy among the flock. Many of the faces that you see at every home game just couldn't be bothered with the online ticket procedure and stated a preference for staying at home and watching the game on TV.
Let's not forget the English Premier League started this weekend as well and provided yet another distracting alternative.
The restrictions make a big difference to the atmosphere?
Well, you're talking about a three quarters empty stadium. In addition, you lost a lot of the pre-match atmosphere as well. A large part of that starts in the fan zone where the hardcore congregate to drink beer and lubricate their singing voices.
Tonight, small clusters of fans stood around clutching a drink and engaging in polite conversation. It felt very low-key.
This must have been a financially worrying six months for the premier league clubs?
Fortunately, Samut Prakan has a club owner with very deep pockets, as do several other premier league clubs. But, yes, it's been a struggle for a number of T1 sides. In fact, Rayong FC, our opponents this evening, seem to have been in the news more than most when it comes to financial hardships, but good to see that they are still going.
Quite a lot of transfer activity as well during the 6-month shutdown?
Yes. We lost Picha Autra and Phumin Kaewta to Muangthong (I was devastated to see those two guys leave) and reliable defender and fan favourite, Sarawut Kanlayanabandit, left to join Ratchaburi.
On the flip side, Samut Prakan brought in at least half a dozen players, most notably Brazilian striker, Barros Tardeli, on a season's loan from BG Pathum. Barros has been around in the Thai League for five years and scored over 75 goals in about a hundred appearances for various clubs - a tremendous goals per game ratio. Let's hope he's got his scoring boots on for the Sea Fang.
The general consensus among Thai football writers is that Samut Prakan's squad is stronger now than it was at the beginning of the season, but we'll wait and see.
And a new man between the sticks?
Samut Prakan have signed 30-year-old Singaporean goalkeeper, Izwan Mahbud. Izwan has made 51 appearances for the Singapore national team and this is his third season in the Thai football league. Previously he played for Nongbua Pitchaya and Trat FC. Welcome to Samut Prakan!
(photo credit: official Samut Prakan Facebook page)
How has Samut Prakan's form been in the warm-up games?
A somewhat mixed bag. We began with a 4-2 defeat at second division Kasertsat FC, on a dreadful playing surface at the university side's training ground. Then came a 4-1 thumping at Bangkok United, before getting things back on track with a couple of tidy home victories against second tier opposition; 3-1 against Thai Navy FC and then 4-2 versus MOF Customs, which included a first half brace from Barros Tardeli to open his Samut Prakan account. We then concluded our five warm-up games with a 4-0 win over ground-sharers Samut Prakan FC from the bottom division.
Let's get back to tonight's match, Samut Prakan v Rayong FC, and a reminder of how these two teams are doing?
Before the Thai League was suspended back in early March, every premier league team played four matches. Samut Prakan managed just one point from a 1-1 home draw against Chiang Rai.
Rayong fared even worse and are yet to pick up their first point of the season, having played four and lost four, and scoring just one goal in the process. Needless to say, both teams currently lie in the bottom four and desperately need a win to kick-start their campaign.
Throw some random Rayong FC facts at us
They are managed by 65-year-old Brazilian, Arthur Bernardes. Since 1988, he's occupied the hot seat at over 30 football clubs around the world. I wonder if he's ever unpacked a suitcase or does he just say 'don't worry, I'm not stopping long'. Scrolling down his lengthy list of clubs on Wikipedia, I saw he managed the mighty Juventus in 2007. Juventus de Mooca of the Brazilian second division. Ha ha, I almost had you there!
Founded in 2009, this is Rayong FC's first ever season in the top flight. They are now of course Rayong's major club after their illustrious neighbors, PTT Rayong, sadly folded last year.
Finally, if the club has an official website, it's remarkably well-hidden.
So upon arrival at the stadium, did you manage to get in easily enough?
It wasn't exactly plain sailing. We arrived at the ground an hour before kick off, spent half of that time chatting with a few old friends and finally decided to make our way inside at about 6.35. The steward inspected our season tickets and sent us back to a registration desk to have our tickets verified and to sign a form or two. We then joined a short but slow-moving queue of fans, all wanting to register names, buy tickets, ask about merchandise, etc. There were a lot of confused supporters around and I hate to criticize the club, but staff seemed to find the going tough.
With just ten minutes to kick off, we finally got the paperwork done and entered the stadium, only to find someone sitting in our regular seats. Fortunately, they shifted without any fuss but apparently the stewards had told them they could sit anywhere. It was turning into that kind of night.
To the game itself, first half?
Two things stood out for me. Firstly, Rayong's away strip, a combination of red and shimmering gold, that made the players look like giant Chinese New Year gifts, and secondly, the odd behaviour of the ball. I don't know whether it was the state of the pitch or the ball itself but it just didn't bounce or act in a normal way. Someone else mentioned it on the Facebook fan page after the game, so it wasn't my imagination.
As to the game itself, a strong Samut Prakan line-up, with Barros, Jaroensak and Yoyei leading the attack, passed the ball around well and played some pretty football but couldn't produce anything in the final third. The home side might have been enjoying the lion's share of possession, but it was the visitors registering the only goal attempts. Fortunately, the Rayong strikers had left their shooting boots back on the team coach and they gave Pathiwat in the Samut Prakan goal no cause for concern.
Late in the half and Samut Prakan looked to have got their noses in front. Ernesto Phumipha whips in a cross from the left and Japanese midfielder, Yuto Ono, wriggles through a couple of defenders on the edge of the box and stabs the ball home. Straight away, the Rayong players' hands go up for an infringement and after the dreaded VAR check, the goal is chalked off for handball. It looked a harsh decision and having watched the replay several times, my opinion hasn't changed.
So goal-less at the half-time break and you felt perhaps one goal was going to be enough to win it. And that proved to be the case.
A brighter second half by the sound of it?
Samut Prakan bossed the second half from start to finish. 63% possession tells its own story; they never gave Rayong a kick and it felt like we were back watching the team that thrilled us and rose to the top of the table during the first half of last season. The swagger and confidence were back!
The winning goal came on 68 minutes, some good hold up play in the penalty area from Jaroensak and Yuto Ono rifles a shot into the top corner to make up for the disappointment of his disallowed goal earlier.
With star man Barros Tardelli getting involved in the game more, the home side had several decent chances to put the game out of sight but that second goal remained elusive.
In an incident-packed finale, Barros was substituted on 80 minutes and looked far from happy about it, whilst Yuto Ono completed an eventful evening by getting stretchered off following a nasty collision.
In the dying seconds, Rayong produced possibly their only meaningful attack of the half, forcing Pathiwat to save brilliantly and tip the ball on to the crossbar. It would have been an equalizer and a point on the road that Rayong really didn't deserve.
And there goes the final whistle. Samut Prakan's first win of the season and a welcome three points to lift us clear of the relegation zone.
(photo credit: official Samut Prakan Facebook page)
Overall thoughts on the match?
A well-deserved victory and frankly, the winning margin should have been more than just a solitary goal. The second half performance was particularly pleasing. No single Samut Prakan player really stood out; it was just an all-round excellent team effort. But if I had to give a man of the match award, I did like the look of number 10, Chakkit Laprakul, our recent signing from BG Pathum. The guy's quality.
And the most important question - how was going back to watch football under the 'new normal'?
Normally, as I write these blogs, I'm still buzzing from the previous night's game but I don't feel that way today. My normal level of enthusiasm just isn't there and I can't put my finger on any main reason. Was it because of the low attendance and the 'flat' atmosphere? Was it the hassle of adhering to the new restrictions and having to register names and sign forms, etc? (I've always hated officialdom)
Did we go to last night's game out of a sense of duty and obligation rather than something we had really looked forward to? I really can't say - but at the moment, it feels like we have a long way to go until watching Thai football feels normal again. I'm just counting down the days.
Who's up next?
We make the short one-hour drive to Nonthaburi (north of Bangkok) next Sunday to take on the mighty Muangthong, who aren't looking all that mighty this season but more on that in the next blog.
I hope so. I really enjoyed my visit there last season.