(A new season dawns and it's time to meet up with old friends again)
So then...at home to Nakhon Pathom Football Club. Welcome to life in the Thai second division.
It's been a frustrating few months for Samut Prakan fans to say the least. We've basically seen all of last season's playing squad move on, along with all the familiar faces in the backroom staff. To describe the club as a 'clean slate' doesn't really do the situation justice. When the players and staff come over to applaud the fans at the end of tonight's game (as is the tradition) I genuinely wonder how many faces I'll be able to put a name to?
(As we expected, star player Jaeoensak Wonggorn was one of the first through the exit door during the close season, going to BG Pathum for a cool 35 million baht...and worth every satang!)
How would you summarize this new era?
It's difficult, especially for someone like me who hasn't been around Thai football all that long. Basically, Samut Prakan has become a 'feeder club' for premier league Chonburi; they're the guys pulling the strings now. Chonburi have sent along one of their ex-managers and an assistant to take control of things and we have a completely new squad of players (a good number of them arriving from our new 'partner' club)
So who are the two guys in the hot seat?
Who better to ask than my good mate and lifelong Chonburi fan Dale Farrington.
"Jakkaphant and Sarawut are genuinely nice guys" said Dale, "They are both former Chonburi players who have a long association with the club. The former has been part of the coaching staff since hanging up his boots in the early 00s and had a disastrous spell as head coach in the 2018/2019 season - P39 W14 D9 L16 (an average of 1.3 points per game) - following the departure of Goran Barjaktarevic. He clearly wasn't up to the task and it was a relief for everyone concerned when he stepped down.
Sarawut is untested in the role - certainly at this level - but has been working hard over the past couple of years to earn his qualifications. Even though I'm totally opposed to this "arrangement", I'd like to wish the two of them the best of luck. It would be lovely to see them succeed"
(The new gaffer leading the first training session - "Coach Bo". Photo credit: Official Samut Prakan Facebook page)
Who are the new players?
Good question. The official Samut Prakan Facebook page has been uploading photos from training sessions and one of my Thai pals (also a big Samut Prakan fan) has done a great job in identifying as many of the players as possible. To summarize, a number of them are from the Chonburi Academy and some spent last season on loan to various clubs in the third division regional leagues. The second division is going to be a major step up for them. Plus of course there is the usual sprinkling of foreign players, none of who we know much about yet.
How have the Samut Prakan fans taken the news of this partnership with Chonburi FC?
I think initially there was a lot of confusion, bewilderment and anger...a sense of 'what's happening to our beloved club?. It was difficult to get any official updates and fans were left with no choice other than to rely on gossip and rumour.
But over time, the frustration has given way to a resignation that without Chonburi stepping in to take over, Samut Prakan may well have folded as a football club. OK, it's far from an ideal situation, but as many Samut Prakan fans have said...'at least we still have a club to support'
I agree. Let's all get behind the team and hopefully have a shot of getting back into the premier league, even though I feel that second division survival is the main objective. More on that as the season unfolds I guess.
(Apart from the goalie, who I think was Samut Prakan's third choice keeper last season, I couldn't tell you a single player in that training photo. Photo credit: Official Samut Prakan Facebook page)
How about a quick round-up of Samut Prakan's pre-season friendlies?
We began in mid-July with a 2-1 loss against North Bangkok University, who reached the T3 play offs last season.
There then followed another 2-1 defeat to second division rivals and neighbours Customs United. Interestingly, Customs United, who just managed to avoid relegation last season, have become 'partners' with premier league club Port FC. Thanks to a bit more financial clout, they've been able to strengthen their squad significantly (and in a very surprise move, managed to scoop up ex-Samut Prakan midfielder Daisuke Sakai in the process)
Kasem Bundit University made it a slightly worrying three defeats out of three, beating us 4-2 on our own training ground.
Our fourth pre-season friendly, against championship club Rayong FC, was I suppose our first real test and also the first game that fans were allowed in to watch. I took advantage of the free admission and went along to the Samut Prakan Stadium to enjoy the early evening contest. A game of three 45-minute periods (how strange is that?) ended in a 1-1 draw. In the 90 minutes that I watched (I left early because I was hungry) no player really stood out for Samut Prakan, including the 7-8 foreigners on trial.
Our final warm-up match was against third division Bangkok FC. Once again fans were allowed in to see the game and those that turned up were mighty glad they did as Samut Prakan battered their visitors 6-0 with some champagne football. It really was a superb display and gives us a lot more confidence going into our first league match. The fans also have a new hero to cheer in Moldovan striker Petru Leuca, who helped himself to four of the six goals. You might say it's all come together at the eleventh hour.
Let's talk about today's league opponents. A home match against Nakhon Pathom sounds like the perfect way to start life in the second tier?
Their name has an unmistakeably second division ring to it doesn't it? And indeed, The King Tigers have been outside the premier league for over a decade.
Founded in 1999, Nakhon Pathom play their home matches at the 3,500 capacity Nakhon Pathom Provincial Stadium, although according to Wikipedia, the club chairman has his eyes set on building a new stadium based on Ratchaburi's Mitr Phol, albeit somewhat smaller in stature.
There have been some pretty turbulent times at the club. They were suspended from the Thai League for two years in 2010 for a fracas (obviously a pretty bad one) in a play off match against Sisaket. Then in 2017, they were booted down to the 4th level of Thai football for not submitting documentation to the Thai FA in time (Thais are sticklers for paperwork)
Of all the league grounds Samut Prakan will have to travel to this season, Nakhon Pathom will certainly be one of the more comfortable journeys. This pleasant, laid-back town, famous for its huge golden chedi, is just a 90-minute drive from Samut Prakan.
Who plays for them?
Iranian Defender Amirali Chegini has signed on for another season. Egyptian striker Mohamed Esam has arrived in Thailand from a club in Cairo. The 28-year-old spent a brief period at Legia Warsaw at the start of his career but never made the first team. Peter Neergaard is a Norwegian striker and a recent arrival from third tier Bangkok FC. I don't know much else about him other than he looks very tall.
Ticket prices for the 2022/23 season.
It's certainly cheaper to watch football in T2 than it is in the Thai Premier. This season, tickets for the popular E zone will be just 80 baht, compared to 150 baht last season. Best seats in W2 and W3 stands will be 150 baht (down from 200 baht last season) and isn't it good to see that away fans won't be charged a premium rate just for the privilege of being away fans.
In addition, with no Covid restrictions in place (hooray!) tickets will now be sold in front of the stadium on the day of the match rather than using the Ticket Melon online system (which I must say did work very well).
Tun and I arrived at the stadium well before kick off. Something we would normally do then is to mill around in the fan zone and chat to a few familiar faces, including James the official club photographer. But this is a new regime; James had moved to take up work at Pattaya Dolphins in the third division, the fan zone had been turned into a car-park and what few refreshment kiosks remained had been moved to other parts of the ground. It will all take some getting used to. In addition, the season tickets we had paid for were not yet available - but we were given paper tickets for tonight's game as part of the deal.
Even our regular coffee shops around the stadium had decided to close for some reason, making that pre-match hour a very tough one to kill.
(Time to get your season tickets! Photo credit: Official Samut Prakan Facebook page)
Let's get to the match itself. First half?
I had predicted an opening day crowd of around 400-450, so was pleasantly surprised at the 556 who did attend (swelled it must be said by a very decent away following). 556 is still way below the numbers that Samut Prakan used to get at home games but we have to start again somewhere. The hardcore supporters in E stand were in good voice but there were many regular faces missing. Only time will tell if those regulars have turned their back on the club altogether and found better things to do at the weekend.
Samut Prakan went for a 4-4-2 formation with Moldovan striker Petru and Pardsakorn leading the attack. Thatpicha, one of the many players from our parent club Chonburi, donned the goalkeeping gloves and Brazilian Renan Costa took his place in the heart of the defence.
Here we go then, the first of 34 league games!
Strangely, Samut Prakan started the match in their new all-white away strip (perhaps the dark blue home shirts hadn't arrived from the factory yet). As for the action out there on an unusually heavy-looking pitch, the first 45 minutes were frankly woeful, it must be said. Sheffield Jon and I cast anxious glances at each other - 'is this the quality of football we're going to have to get used to in Thailand's second division?'
It took just sixty seconds for a fussy referee to dish out the first of the evening's five yellow cards, starting with Nakhon Pathom's Iranian defender Chegini for a blatant body check on Samut Prakan midfielder Phanthamit.
The first clear-cut chance of the game falls to the tall Peter Neergaard on five minutes but the Norwegian's powerful header is well saved by Thatpicha (who was probably Samut Prakan's man of the match). For the home side, Karn Jorates sees a good effort saved mid-way through the half but it's abundantly clear where Samut Prakan's problems lie - there just isn't enough service to the twin strikers and when chances do present themselves in the final third, the shooting is way off target. All in all, a very forgettable first period.
Half-time: Samut Prakan 0 Nakhon Pathom 0
Samut Prakan probably just shaded the second half but for all their huffing and puffing that first goal remained elusive. Petru is thwarted by a last ditch tackle in the penalty area and an appeal for handball turned down (incidentally there is no VAR at second division games) Several long range efforts either miss the target or provide comfortable goalkeeping practice for Wattanachai between the sticks for Nakhon Pathom.
As we enter a fourth minute of injury time and seemingly both sides satisfied with a point, it's that man Chegini who writes the headlines. Marauding down the left wing, he senses a last ditch opportunity for the visitors to take home all three points and his audacious long range shot sails over the unlucky Thatpicha's head. A great goal to win a very poor game. It proves to be virtually the last kick of the match and the Samut Prakan players sink to their knees at the final whistle.
(The players understandably looked disappointed when they came over to applaud the fans at the end. Photo credit: Official Samut Prakan Facebook page)
On the drive home, Tun said to me 'it doesn't feel like our club anymore, too many things have changed'. I understand where she's coming from but it's only because we aren't familiar with the players and the background staff so we don't feel a bond with the club like we had in past seasons. You have to give these things time. I'm sure the disappointment of a last-gasp defeat doesn't help matters either.
I will admit though that the matchday experience felt different. Less friendly? A little more 'corporate'? I don't know, it was difficult to put a finger on. We need to give the club more time to find its feet.
As for the football itself, I was disappointed with the quality and entertainment on offer. It just wasn't very good. I know it's early days but you can't see either of these teams troubling the top six come the end of the season. However, I guess one positive takeaway from this evening was that at least Samut Prakan didn't get trounced. In fact the sides looked very evenly matched. But just how good these two sides are in the grand scheme of things is something we won't know for a fair few games yet.
(Hopefully we will. Photo credit: Official Samut Prakan Facebook page)
Who's up next?
Our first away game of the season is next Saturday (20th August) and sees us journey three and a half hours north to Uthai Thani FC. For me, it's a new town and a new stadium...I'm looking forward to it.