(Alec and I at the first game of the season on the 14th February 2020)
We've now arrived at the final league game in what's been a long season?
Over 13 months to be exact. That night when I first met my Twitter pal, Alec, for Samut Prakan's first home match against the reigning champions, Chiang Rai, seems like a lifetime ago.
What was the score in this fixture last season?
You've got to go way back to April 2019 for the last time the two clubs met at The Singha Stadium and it was honours even as the game ended in a 1-1 draw. Ibson Melo gave Samut Prakan the lead on 18 minutes with William Henrique (now at Prachuap) grabbing a second half equaliser.
You weren't at that match but you've been to the Singha Stadium before?
Yes, I was on holiday in Chiang Rai with my wife last year and with time to kill on the way to the airport (which is very close to the stadium) we decided to park up, have a mooch around the ground and take a few photos. At least that was the plan. Unfortunately, the only other living soul around on that hot afternoon was Chiang Rai's biggest jobsworth, a security guard who flatly refused to let us go anywhere near the inside of the stadium. He even drew an imaginary line with his foot to indicate how near we were allowed to get. Pillock!
It's rated as one of the nicest stadiums (and best views) in the Thai Premier League, so I'm looking forward to this one immensely.
So what were your travel plans for this game?
You're spoilt for choice when it comes to flights from Bangkok to Chiang Rai. I planned to fly up on Saturday evening, see the game on Sunday and return to Bangkok on Monday morning, so I'd be spending a couple of nights in Chiang Rai itself, which is fine because I've always enjoyed my trips there. It's a lovely town.
Several football fans have told me that in the past, there was a late flight back to Bangkok every day about 10.30 pm. This meant you didn't need to book any accommodation at all if you flew up on the morning of the match and legged it to the airport after the game. However, this late flight no longer appears to be operating.
I took the 6.00 pm Air Asia flight from Don Muang. This was also the flight that the Samut Prakan players and backroom staff were on, so it was nice to say hello and wish them good luck in the final match. I wonder how many of them won’t be here next season? It’s always sad to say goodbye to familiar faces but I expect a few will be off to pastures new.
I didn’t bother anyone for selfies; no one is in the best of moods at an airport. However, I did get a brief chance to chat with Aris Jarifovic. He told me the story of how he almost didn’t become a Samut Prakan player back in 2019. He actually signed a contract to play for Pattaya United, but noticed at the last minute that the club had changed its name and crest design. Suspecting someone was trying to pull a fast one, he had to be reassured that it was still the same club but they had gone through a re-brand. But it sounded like he was very close to pulling out.
I asked him what he disliked most about playing in the Thai League. Without a second's hesitation, he said 'the standard of refereeing'.
(I sent photos of the room to my wife and said 'Wish you were here'. She said 'no thanks!')
I booked a couple of nights at the Kanlaya Place guest house. It was the classic two-star rural hotel – tired wooden furniture, a mouldy bathroom, crispy white sheets, a lingering musty odour and no kettle – but I couldn’t grumble at 600 baht a night. You couldn’t get a more central location (right next to the clock tower) and to be fair, the Chinese owner couldn’t do enough for me. Then again, I felt like I was the first guest he’d seen in months. The Kanlaya Place is on Soi Jetyod, a short street packed with bars, restaurants and massage shops, catering almost exclusively to foreign tourists. It's referred to by locals as 'the backpacker soi' But sadly it’s become just another neighborhood devastated by Co-vid, with probably 80% of the businesses shuttered and padlocked. To re-open again, who knows when - if ever?
After a poor night's sleep, I got up on the Sunday morning (match day) and went in search of breakfast and caffeine. One thing Chiang Rai is not short of is cute coffee shops. It has the most amazing coffee shop culture and thankfully most of them are still in business despite the lack of tourists, although it must be said that the staff are hardly what you would call overworked.
I chose wisely, ordered a simple fried eggs on toast with a hot cappuccino, and sat at a table outside for an hour just watching the world go by. I love Chiang Rai and its laid-back vibe. Tun and I spent our honeymoon here; I brought my parents a couple of times. The place holds nothing but happy memories for me.
Another good reason to come to Chiang Rai is 'Aacha'- a fine open-air Indian restaurant on Jetyod Road, and it was here I met up with Alec for lunch, along with his wife Jane and his brother-in-law, who interestingly plays for the Chiang Rai football academy. I hadn't seen Alec since that first game of the season at Samut Prakan, so we caught up on life's up and downs over delicious portions of tikka masala and chicken jalfrezi. After lunch, I had just an hour to kill before it was time to leave for the stadium.
(Now that's how to arrive at a football match)
The Singha Stadium, Chiang Rai
If you're a Thai football fan and you've never been to the home of Chiang Rai Football Club, I implore you to make the effort because it's impressive from the outside and even more so inside.
Directly in front of the stadium, what sets it apart from other Thai football grounds is that it has no large forecourt or car-park, It is - in every sense of the word - a football stadium right by the side of the road. All the pre-match activities, the food and drink sales (and what a great selection there is too) and the fans just milling around or chatting in small groups, happens right there on the footpath.
After your match ticket is given a cursory inspection by some of the most friendly and relaxed stewards I've encountered, you can stand in the away zone and take in your surroundings. There isn't a bad seat in the house. Everyone has a close-up and unobstructed view of the action. On the left-hand side is a towering stand that wouldn't disgrace a club in the English second division and on the right, a more modest size but still smart-looking enclosure. As both stands filled up with home fans and became a 'sea of orange', I think this was the closest I've ever been at a Thai game to feeling 'slightly intimidated'. However, there was some good banter between our small but noisy band of Samut Prakan fans and a group of hardcore Chiang Rai supporters - with just a mesh fence and a flight of concrete steps to separate them.
(You're so close to the action. Everyone in the stadium has a terrific view)
To the match itself
Both sides named near full-strength teams and were clearly intent on finishing the season on a high. There were chances a-plenty in an end-to-end opening thirty minutes but it was the visitors who made the breakthrough. Prakan's number 9 Chayawat, getting the nod over Teerapol Yoyei, blasts his shot against a Chiang Rai defender's arm and after a VAR check, the ref awards the spot-kick. It's one of those penalty decisions that every football fan hates - whether they go for or against you. There isn't a defender in the world who could've got his arm out of the way of a shot hit with such power from a couple of feet away.
And then the strangest thing happens in the away end. The Samut Prakan fans around me turn their back on the penalty kick and wave their arms in the air in a gesture of 'no, we don't want it, it's unfair. We don't want to score this way'. When Tardeli slots home his 25th goal of the season, no one celebrates except the players. I want to celebrate; I want to jump up and down, pump my fist and wave my scarf in the air, but I'm going to have to put this down as another thing I don't quite understand about Thai football culture and keep quiet. But anyway, we are 1-0 up.
You might say, therefore, that Chiang Rai's equaliser on the stroke of half-time is actually welcomed by both sets of fans - if only for the sake of sportsmanship. Winger, Chotipat Poomkaew, on as a second half sub for The Beetles, cooly sidefoots the ball home after a shot has cannoned off the crossbar.
(There's very little distance between the two sets of fans. By the way, that guy had driven up from Samut Prakan in his taxi and still had the energy to sing the loudest)
I'll tell you this, the roar that went up from the home crowd when their team scored was so loud and so passionate that it sent a tingle down my spine. Those 10-20 seconds of celebration came as close to watching football in England as I've ever experienced in a Thai game.
(Khun Pathomchai is 'Mr Samut Prakan'. He never misses a game. If we played a match on the moon, he'd be enquiring about the cost of a rocket. He organises away travel, gives players bags of fruit off his farm, organises collections if any fans are sick in hospital. If there is any sort of supporters club activity, Khun Pathomchai is usually at the centre of things. And he's become a good friend, has have many of the Samut Prakan fans)
Chiang Rai emerge for the second half a different side and dominate possession. Samut Prakan are kicking towards their away fans but despite our vocal encouragement, that final cross or pass into the box is finding a defender in orange every single time. I just know there's going to be a winning goal for Chiang Rai and I just know who's going to score it. You could write the script.
36-year-old Brazilian striker, Bill Rosimar, known affectionately as 'Bill' by the adoring home fans, has the physique of a Sunday league pub footballer, and appears to spend the whole 90 minutes blowing out of his arse. He gets booed, he gets hissed at, he gets called 'Fat Bill'. But he has one of the best footballing brains in the Thai game. Give him half an opportunity and he'll break your heart. He's done it so many times.
Five minutes from time, the ball is chipped into the Samut Prakan box and Bill's all alone. He chests it down and then his shot seems to take a deflection off a Prakan defender, in fact it looks more like an own goal to me, but it's in the back of the net. It's a messy, droopy, saggy, weary winning goal but Bill won't care. This is what Bill does; he wins matches.
Final score: Chiang Rai 2 Samut Prakan 1
The final result matters - except it didn't matter quite so much this time. I just felt honoured to be there - to witness a good game of football, played in front of a passionate crowd in a superb football stadium. I'll say this now - The Singha Stadium has gone right to the top of my list of best match day experiences in Thailand. And you get to spend a couple of days in the delightful city of Chiang Rai. What's not to love?
(We've been through the season together)
So that's a wrap?
Yes, we finish in 6th place for the second season running. That's a decent accomplishment for a club of our size and with our budget. Now let's see what we can do next season!
And you're now faced with a four-month break?
Yes, not quite sure how I feel about it. No football fan likes to be without his footy but it's been a long old season and I guess it's a chance to re-charge the batteries and do some travelling. The players desperately need a break too. Playing two games a week for a considerable length of time can't have been easy.
As I expected, I travelled back with the team on the first Air Asia flight of the day at 9.00 am. The charming and chatty Khun Jiab, Samut Prakan's Chief Executive, spotted me sitting quietly in a corner sipping a can of Sprite, and came over to thank me for supporting the team so loyally over the course of the season, She also went on to outline the club's plans for next season, which included improving the fan experience and strengthening the squad in order to compete with the big boys. It all sounded very positive. When we got to Don Muang Airport, manager Ishii-san also went out of his way to catch me up on the travelator and say a heartfelt thank you for being at so many games. These gestures of appreciation mean so much to a hardcore fan of course.