(Is this the season I finally get to see Nongbua Pichaya's 'pink stadium'?)
Have the two clubs met before?
Yes, they played each other home and away in the pandemic-affected 2021/22 season. The game at Nongbua was in fact Samut Prakan's first away fixture of the season and they came away with a 1-0 victory. I had every intention of going but with Thailand firmly in the grip of Covid, the stadium capacity was reduced to 25% and under no circumstances would away fans be allowed in. So I stayed at home.
I did get to see the return fixture at the Samut Prakan Stadium (it ended in a 2-2 draw) and although we were still living in Covid times, stadium capacities were up to 50% by then. This was the game where we unveiled our new Japanese manager, 61-year-old Yasushi Yoshida. The less said about that appointment the better.
How are Nongbua doing this season?
Relegated from the premier league last year, The Gamecocks are looking for a swift return to the top flight and are undoubtedly one of the promotion favourites. So far they've lived up to their billing and lie in third place, having suffered just two defeats - away at Phrae and Ayutthaya. They are unbeaten in their five home games and handed out a 6-0 drubbing to Customs early in the season.
Who are the players to watch out for?
Brazilian striker Nilson was brought in from Ayutthaya United, where he scored 18 goals in 27 appearances before unfortunately breaking his nose. Thai centre forward Chawin Thirawatsri is another man with an eye for goal. Japanese midfielder Kento Nagasaki (not to be confused with Kendo Nagasaki, the 1970s TV wrestler) is a useful player who has been around lower league Thai football for about five years.
In other news
In the FA Cup draw for the round of 32, Samut Prakan will face another premier league club away from home (after beating Trat FC in the previous round) and will play True Bangkok United on Wednesday 20th December. Tough game!
Samut Prakan striker Ronnachai Pongputta has become the first player to leave the building after having his contract terminated for disciplinary reasons. After arriving from third division Phitsanalok FC, Ronnachai made just one appearance for Prakan, coming on as a very late sub in the league cup game at Fleet FC.
(Ronnachai Pongputta. His stay was a brief one. Photo credit: Official Samut Prakan Facebook page)
What's the travel plan?
The sleepy town of Nongbua, along with its football stadium, is in the back of beyond. It could be one of the most awkward league grounds to get to from central Thailand, and is about an hour's drive from the nearest airport at Udon Thani. We've done Udon Thani in recent months, so can't summon up the enthusiasm to make it our base and research new things to do; therefore we'll just spend a few days in Nongbua town, where even Tun is struggling to find attractions to occupy our time in the surrounding province. Frankly, I can see many hours spent lingering over caramel macchiatas in cute coffee shops.
To say Nongbua isn't blessed with hotel options is an understatement. Most rooms are 'low end' and there is very little above a thousand baht a night. If you dare to look at Google reviews for what's available, you're in seriously 'average rating' territory. Although we did our research weeks in advance, our first four hotel choices were all fully booked. We ended up paying - wait for it - 1,500 baht for THREE nights, including breakfast! Let's just say our expectations aren't too high. I'm not even sure what our hotel is called: I left it all in Tun's capable hands.
Our flight to Udon Thani got in half an hour late, which was unfortunate because by the time we picked up our rental car, the schoolkids were finishing for the day and the late afternoon rush hour had begun. We couldn't be bothered to schlep across town so abandoned plans to drop in at our favourite Udon coffee shop and decided to push on to Nongbua Lamphu instead, It's under an hour's drive along a good highway and we reached our accommodation just before darkness fell around 6pm.
Our hotel was more like what's classified as a 'homestay' in Thailand, but for 500 baht a night, the room was perfectly fine. The couple who owned the business were lovely and my wife will always give a five-star rating to any place that has three playful dogs to fuss over.
We hit the streets for an evening stroll and a bite to eat. I warmed to Nongbua instantly. There was a large lake marking the centre of town, which we would have walked around had it not been so dark. There was a terrific selection of foodstalls lining one side of the main street, the locals were chatty and inquisitive without being nosey, and the temperature was a 'chilly' and most agreeable 25 degrees.
(Night falls on Nongbua)
It's match day
We got up early to experience a typical north-east Thailand morning in the cool season - 19 degrees and the smell of burning rice fields. Because we were so close to the Nongbua Pichaya Stadium, we popped in to have a look around. The stadium was getting a thorough cleaning in readiness for today's match so we didn't outstay our welcome. Three sides of the ground were pretty ordinary but my word, that main stand is impressive!
With a fair few hours to kill before kick off, we drove about 30 kilometres out of town to do some hiking up Tam Pha Chor, a small mountain with some caves, Buddha statues and great views over Nongbua Lamphu Province, Thankfully, the cooler weather meant that the 500-step climb wasn't too arduous and once at the top, there was a good stiff breeze to cool us down.
To the match itself
Much of the pre-match camaraderie between rival fans has disappeared compared to past seasons. It's not that opposing fans are unfriendly; it's just that they don't seem to bother with each other as much. The Nongbua Pichaya mob certainly bucked that trend and Tun and I voted them the chattiest supporters in the Thai league. As for the modest Samut Prakan following, the majority of them making the long journey by minibus, they didn't arrive until half an hour before kick off. One hardcore supporter (not part of the minibus crew) had spent the previous night in a rural hospital with a kidney stone issue. But we all made the game in the end!
The match kicked off on what temperature-wise was a perfect evening for football. The two sides feel each other out in a largely uneventful opening ten minutes but it's clear why Nongbua are where they are in the division; to a man, they look more confident and technically superior to Samut Prakan. Chaiwin Srichan opens the scoring for the Gamecocks in the 11th minute. Those simple crosses from the wing followed by an unchallenged header seem to be becoming increasingly Samut Prakan's downfall. Surprisingly, it takes just five minutes for Samut Prakan to haul themselves back into the contest, captain Ronnachai Rangsiyo tapping in his second goal of the season.
Both sides conjure up plenty of chances to regain the lead, Itthipon saves brilliantly from a long-range effort midway through the half and then another home side effort flies wide of the post. Samut Prakan force several corners in quick succession but delivery is poor and Nongbua are able to thwart the danger. We go into the break with all to play for.
Half-time: Nongbua Pichaya 1 Samut Prakan 1
(Kudos to all the Samut Prakan fans who made the long journey)
The first quarter hour of the second period is a contest between two sides who almost look happy with a point but looks can be deceptive. Nongbua step up a gear and take the lead from a free kick on 62 minutes. Teerapong floats the ball into the danger area and Phiyaphon's delightful glancing header goes past the Samut Prakan keeper's outstretched hand. Ten minutes later and it's pretty much game over as Phiyaphon scores his second of the evening, taking advantage of a calamitous mix-up between Itthipon and the Prakan defender in front of him.
Nongbua defender Aleksandar scores goals wherever he goes and it's the giant Croatian who adds the fourth. Once again, it's a free kick sent into the box and a free header. The Nongbua fans are almost sympathetic in their muted celebrations. However you look at it, this has been quite some capitulation from the away side. Brazilian striker Nilson rubs our noses in it by adding another goal five minutes from time. You have to go back to 2019 and an away trip to Ratchaburi for the last time a Samut Prakan side conceded five goals in a league match. The final whistle goes and frankly it couldn't come soon enough.
Full-time: Nongbua Pichaya 5 Samut Prakan 1
Well that was a rather sobering defeat. I suppose you could always argue we were up against one of the best teams in the league, but some of our defensive performances are worrying. That second half was as bad as we've played this season and we're allowing opposition to score goals far too easily. We need to put this game behind us fast! A final word to Nongbua Pichaya though - with their lovely stadium and such welcoming, friendly fans - best of luck for the rest of the season. From tonight's evidence, you'll be back in the top flight next year for sure.
We stayed on in Nongbua for another day and ticked off its Dinosaur Park, which is just outside town on the main highway to Udon Thani. Back when dinosaurs roamed the earth, this province was apparently teeming with T Rexes and all sorts. The Dino Park is one of those places that's so tacky and underwhelming, it's actually brilliant. Who doesn't love the sight of life-size, dodgy-looking baby dinosaurs hatching out of eggs and taking their first bleary-eyed peek at the world, that's of course if the exhibit's mechanical system is working properly - and watched over by a doting mother, her broken tail held together with industrial tape and supported by a pile of bricks.
After lunch, we took the car and headed up to the peak of some of Nongbua's low-lying mountains to take in various viewpoints. It's just a shame that the sky is so hazy at this time of year. In the evening, we enjoyed a final stroll around the town lake and night market (the locals were preparing for the Loy Krathong festival the following day) and bid our farewell to a pleasant and peaceful town that had frankly exceeded our expectations.
Who's up next?
We kick off a busy December with a home game against Chainat Hornbill on Sunday 3rd, the first of three games in six days.