Diary of a Thai football season

(2020/21) Samut Prakan v Chiang Rai

The start of a new season and the first of 30 Premier League matches

(photo credits: official Samut Prakan Facebook page)

14 days to kick off

Last season Samut Prakan City finished 6th in the Thai Premier. What's your gut feeling for this campaign?

Oh that sense of nervous anticipation. I love the start of a new season! 

I'm quietly confident that we can finish in the top six again. We've managed to keep hold of the better Thai players in our squad and we've made some decent additions in the transfer window.

Our biggest problem in the second half of last season was that we lost key personnel to injury and replaced them with inferior players who weren't up to the task. We just never had the strength in depth that I feel we have now. And of course we've now got an experienced Japanese manager at the helm - and he's talked up a good game so far. 

12 days to kick off

Where do other Thai football fans and writers, etc, think Samut Prakan will finish?

Tim Russell, who runs the unofficial Port FC website, thinks it will be a case of second season syndrome. "You will stay up as there's so much other dross in the Thai Premier League, but you won't finish higher than 11th or 12th".  Tom Earls, another writer and loyal Port fan said, "I've just been drafting a prediction table and I have Samut Prakan in 11th". 

So not much love from the Port boys then.

Chonburi fan, Dale Farrington, was more encouraging. "Top six!" he said without hesitation. Chiang Rai fan, Alec Peeples, was of the same opinion. "I think 5th place would be great but I think 6th may be their ceiling"

Nakhon Ratchisima fan, Russell, always the gentleman, said "Sorry Phil but I think Samut Prakan, together with Chonburi and the Swatcats (Nakhon Ratchisima) will all struggle this season. I'd go for 9th"

"Anything less than top 7 would be disappointing" said Grant, a loyal Muangthong fan, "top two would be a tall ask so maybe somewhere in-between. I’ll say 6th"

Jimmy Blyth, a fellow Samut Prakan fan, reckons we'll finish around 10th but he also has concerns. "Where are the goals going to come from now Ibson Melo has gone?" He might well have a point. 

Sports journalist, Paul Murphy, whose main focus is the Thai League, forecasts us to finish in 7th position (he predicted 10th last season) 

I let my wife have the final say (if only because she was sitting next to me on her computer). She played it safe and went for a 6th place finish.  

Thanks for your input guys.

Samut Prakan haven't played that many pre-season friendlies?

No, certainly not as many as other Premier League clubs did. but I think this was all part of the new gaffer's strategy. He said on the official Facebook page that he was more intent on getting things right on the training ground than testing the players out in 'meaningless friendlies'. Time will prove him right or wrong I guess. 

So what players came in during the close season? 

I've put all the transfer ins and outs on one page. I guess the key signing (apart from the manager) was Brazilian striker, Pedro Junior.  But I'm also excited about experienced defenders, Nattapon Malapun and Suphanan Bureerat, who has come back from his loan spell at Muangthong. The player that really caught my eye though in our third and final pre-season friendly was Ernesto Phumipha, our new Spanish / Thai left-back who has also joined us from Muangthong. If he can stay fit, he could prove to be a very useful acquisition. 

Pedro Junior has got the tough task of filling Ibson Melo's boots?

Yes, it was sad to see Ibson leave because the fans loved him and he had a terrific 2019 season, bagging 15 league goals. However, as has already been mentioned in Thai football circles, perhaps the new gaffer was looking for someone who was more of a team player than a 'one-man show' (which occasionally Ibson was guilty of). Let's not forget that the manager has worked with Pedro Junior before in the Japanese League, so knows what the new striker is all about. 

The fixture gods have given Samut Prakan a tough start?

I'll say! We begin with three games against teams who all finished in the top five last season. First up, the reigning champions, Chiang Rai, followed by a tough away trip to Port FC before we welcome Bangkok United to Bang Plee. You couldn't wish for a more challenging opening month than that.  

And Samut Prakan v Chiang Rai will be the Premier League opener?

Yes, I'm not sure whether you would call that 'drawing the short straw' but it's the only game being played on Friday night. On the plus side, it's not one of those horrible early evening kick offs. 8.00 pm should give all those fans who work for a living plenty of time to get to the game. On the down side, it's Valentine's Day! There could be a large number of cheesed off wives and girlfriends getting dragged along to watch the footy instead of perhaps enjoying the romantic dinner they had in mind. Joking apart, I would expect a crowd of around 3,000 for this one.

What was the score in this fixture last season?

We got battered 3-0. My wife described it as the worst she had seen us play (but admittedly she never saw us concede five goals in the second half at Ratchaburi) 

Got your season tickets sorted out?

Actually, I've won a free ticket for this game anyway. The club put a questionnaire on its website, and then from those fans who filled it in, a hundred names were drawn and rewarded with a free ticket. I was one of the lucky hundred! I'll still get a season ticket though when they eventually go on sale. 

No new replica shirts?

No, and hardly surprising when you consider how long we had to wait for the replica shirts last season. Merchandising just doesn't seem to be Samut Prakan's strong point and it's been disappointing to watch our rivals launch their new kits well before the start of the season.

How many games are you hoping to get to this season?

God willing, I've set myself a target of 23-24 out of the 30 league matches. An April holiday in Turkey and a trip to England in August will mean missing several games, but I'm determined to try and do the away fixtures at Buriram and Chiang Rai this season (which I didn't do last year). Then of course there will be the usual FA Cup and League Cup matches on top. 

Which away games will you almost certainly skip?

I'll definitely be out of the country for the away trip to newly promoted BG Pathum, which is a great shame because they're a Bangkok-based team and I was looking forward to seeing the three-sided Leo Stadium. Sukhothai is a bit of a logistical nightmare and I can't really see me making the journeys to Prachuap, Trat or Nakhon Ratchisima.   

11 days to kick off

Who's going along to the match with you?

At risk of sounding like Billy-No-Mates, it could be just me.  My wife is extremely busy at work until the end of March because her company has a very important guest coming to visit (and when I say important, I mean important) Tun is one of the event's main organisers so she's little time for Friday night football matches at the moment. 

I've already asked my Thai pal Ben (who accompanied me to several games last season) if he fancies it, and while he would love to go, he's also aware that it's Valentine's Day and there might be certain obligations to fulfill. I think he's going to wait till his girlfriend is in a good mood before approaching the subject.  

10 days to kick off

I caught a glimpse of the new home shirt. It's beautiful. I'm not so keen on the second and third strips but they probably won't be available to purchase anyway. 

7 days to kick off

Samut Prakan held its official launch party at the SAT Stadium (I didn't go) The squad paraded in front of both the press and a small gathering of supporters, plus there was a music concert of sorts. The club president said that this season he's set a target to finish in the top three and win one of the domestic cup competitions. Very encouraging noises indeed. 

5 days to kick off

I did a very short interview for the unofficial Port FC website on what I felt the season held in store, etc for Samut Prakan.

4 days to kick off

The club have announced that home and away replica shirts will go on sale on 20th March. That's SEVEN games into the league season (virtually a quarter of the way through it). I thought the idea of football merchandising worldwide was always to make shirts available for the first match? It's something that fans of all clubs get excited about. And as fellow Samut Prakan fan, Jimmy Blyth, rightly pointed out, 'how will it affect shirt sales when all the hype has died down OR if we have an awful start to the season'? 

3 days to kick off

So what can we say about our first opponents, Chiang Rai, other than they are the reigning champions?

Well, their prize for winning the Thai Premier League was automatic entry into the AFC Champions League, where they were grouped with Melbourne Victory, Beijing Guoan and FC Seoul. They lost their first game 1-0 away at Melbourne Victory on Tuesday, just 72 hours before the match against Samut Prakan. And then they still have to fly back from Australia! That truly was an awful bit of scheduling on the part of the Thai FA, making Chiang Rai play on Friday night. The players are going to be knackered! Excuse me while I rub my hands together.    

48 hours to kick off

I decided to venture up to the stadium to sort out my season tickets. Credit where it's due, the girls in the ticket office had blocked off the seat numbers I had last year and were waiting for me to re-new. 

I filled in a couple of simple registration forms (one for me and my wife), handed over my 6,000 baht ..... and got two paper receipts. The actual credit-card style season tickets haven't arrived yet (along with the replica shirts!) 

I also decided to move seats and go to the back row of the W2 stand for a more elevated view of the action. I stood around at the ground for a while and there was a steady stream of punters arriving to buy tickets in advance. Perhaps we might be in for a decent crowd on Friday.   

Oh, and as a season ticket holder, you received a free Samut Prakan t-shirt. I tried it on when I got home. Not sure I'll be wandering around in daylight wearing it. 

Football writer, Gian Chansrichawla wrote a nice preview for tonight's game. The question on everyone's lips seems to be how tired will Chiang Rai be after their midweek exertions down under?    

It's matchday!

To avoid the Friday night Valentine's Day rush hour traffic, I got to the ground ridiculously early but it gave me the chance to meet up with my Twitter pal, Alec Peeples, for the first time. I don't think I've ever met an American guy with so much knowledge of both Thai and English Premier League football and we spent a very pleasant hour chatting away behind the away end.  

Our presence at the game - wearing opposing team shirts - soon got the interest of the Thai social media mob and we ended up doing a lengthy interview for a new Thai football channel. 

I think Alec was quite impressed with the atmosphere down at Bang Plee, but of course we can't compete with Chiang Rai for stadium facilities. "A club that looks like it flies by the seat of its pants" was how Alec summarized it - and I think that's a perfect description. 

To the match itself. Any surprises in Samut Prakan's starting line up?

No real surprises I guess. There were starts for star striker, Pedro Junior, and also new signings, Yuto Ono and Ernesto Phumiphan. Suphanan Bureerat, back from his loan spell at Muangthong, was also included. 

But I was disappointed that Teerapon Yoyei, Samut Prakan's second top goalscorer last season, didn't start the game.

But a good start to the first half?

Aris Zarifovic,  our Slovenian man mountain, scored only one goal for Samut Prakan last season, and it came in the opening day fixture against Chiang Mai. It took him just three minutes to get on the score-sheet again. This man clearly loves opening day games. Samut Prakan's first corner of the match is whipped in, gets headed against the crossbar and there's Aris to smartly nod home the rebound. The absolute perfect start.

The rest of the half was frankly a disappointment. In fact I can't recall one clear cut chance for either side. We went in at the break one goal to the good but we were facing a long 45 minutes ahead. Chiang Rai are no mugs and their chances would surely come as the match wore on and players got tired. 

That didn't take long then?

Nope. Just five minutes into the second period and Chiang Rai draw level. It's a lovely worked goal with ex-Pattaya United star, Piyaphon Phanichakul blasting home from the edge of the box but could Samut Prakan's number 7, Jakkapan have closed down the opportunity quicker?

Teerapon Yoyei was finally introduced for the home side after 70 minutes and certainly livened things up in attack. Both sides had glorious chances to claim all three points in the final five minutes. Samut Prakan's Bureerat side-footed over the crossbar following a poor defensive clearance and Chiang Rai substitute, Chotipat, should've done better with an unmarked free header. 

But neither side could find a winner and 1-1 is how it ended. (match highlights)

On the way out of the ground, I got to take a selfie and have a brief chat with Bangkok United manager, Mano Polking. Bangkok United are our next opponents at Bang Plee on Wednesday 26th February so Mano was obviously on a spying mission. Lovely guy! 

Overall thoughts?

I'll take a point, if only because we certainly didn't deserve all three. 

I thought too many of our players got bullied tonight, especially in midfield. We came up against one of the most physical sides in the Thai Premier League - not dirty, just physical - and we didn't really have an answer to that style of play.

Obviously, the gaffer will need a few games to work out his best starting eleven but there's work to be done. The defence looked solid and a big improvement on last season but our lack of penetration up front was a cause for concern. It felt like there was a great big Ibson Melo shaped hole in that attack - someone who could put their foot on the ball, hold up up the play and beat defenders at will. 

Pedro Junior huffed and puffed and tried hard but it just wasn't coming off for him. Substitute, Teerapon Yoyei, improved things in the last quarter of an hour and hopefully he'll start the next game. 

Man of the match for Samut Prakan?

Captain Peeradol might have been a contender because he got stuck in first half and wasn't intimidated by Chiang Rai's 'rough-house' tactics. He faded in the second period though. Jaroensak had a decent game as well. The boy can do magical things but you have to give him the service. Ernesto Phumipan and Suphanan Bureerat both looked assured in the back four.  

I'm going to give the MOM award to Aris Jarifovic. I've read one or two articles saying that he was perhaps a tad fortunate to be retained for a second season but the giant Slovenian didn't put a foot wrong tonight and gave us a great start with his headed goal.  Perhaps he's a man with a point to prove.

And tonight's attendance?

A very respectable 3,950, in other words the stadium was 80% full - with great away support from Chiang Rai to boost the figures. I felt the home crowd could have got behind the team a bit more in the second half though. 

Who's up next?

A difficult away trip to neighbors Port FC on Saturday 22nd February, kick off 17.45.  See you there! 


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