Diary of a Thai football season

Bangkok United v Samut Prakan City

Another away trip to one of the Thai League's big boys.


The games are coming thick and fast. Where we off to today?

We're going to Bangkok United (The Bangkok Angels) and their True Stadium in Pathum Thani. If you take the expressway, it's about an hour's drive from Samut Prakarn. 

These are another of the Thai Premier League's 'Big Four'?

They are.  They began life in 1988 as Bangkok University FC, to give a bunch of students the opportunity to play football and get some fresh air.  Their rise from that grass roots level in the interim years has been impressive. They switched names to Bangkok United in 2009 and eventually moved to their current home stadium in 2015.

Despite being one of Thailand's big names, they haven't lifted the Premier League trophy since 2006 and have become something of a 'nearly team', In the past three seasons, they've finished in third place and twice as runners-up. 

Bangkok United are always formidable opposition but in recent times, they've not been quite strong enough to overcome the likes of Buriram.

Players to watch?

The star of the show is undoubtedly Nelson Bonilla. The man from El Salvador is widely considered to be a 25-30 goals a season striker and is already into double figures for this campaign. Bonilla netted 25 times in 33 games for his previous Thai club, Sukhothai, and has made 40 appearances for the El Salvador national team, with 14 goals to his credit.

Then we have two players in their first season at the club.

Anon Amornlerdsak is a young attacking midfielder, who also plays for the Thai national team. The ex-Buriram player made 55 appearances at the Thunder Castle and also had loan spells at Surin and Bangkok Glass before moving to Bangkok United.

In defence, Tristan Do is a French-Thai right back who has notched up around 30 appearances for Thailand and well over a hundred games in the Thai league, most of those coming during a three-season spell at Muangthong.

Who's in charge?

The man in the hot seat is Alexandré Pölking.  Taking over in 2014, I'm guessing he must be one of the longest-serving managers in the Thai Premier. He played his professional football in Germany and Cyprus and also had a short spell as assistant coach for the Thai national team before taking up office at Bangkok United. 

Looking forward to this one?

Well if it's half as good as the recent trip to Muangthong, I'll be a happy camper.  

I've got serious reservations about the True Stadium though. It holds 25,000 spectators and was originally built for the 1998 Asian Games, so as you would expect, it has a very 'track and field' feel to it.

The football followers I've spoken to on social media (those who have been as an away fan or a neutral) are fairly unanimous in their verdict - it's a shit place to watch football!  Comments include - "There are no beer sales at the ground", "you are miles from the action thanks to a great big running track", "there is no cover in the away end, so if it rains, you'll get as soaked as I did when I went last season",  "there's no noise from the home fans and no atmosphere",  "you'll feel like you're rattling around in a great big empty stadium" etc.  

It seems that no one has a positive word to say about it, but looking at the average home attendance figures, there are about 7,300 'masochists' who turn up to watch Bangkok United home games. Perhaps there's little else to do in Pathum Thani.       

Confident of getting something from the game?

Not really.  I think on paper, only Port and Buriram are more difficult away fixtures.  We didn't play particularly well against Prachuap last Saturday and prior to that, we got knocked out of the League Cup at the first hurdle by Thonburi University (albeit with a virtual reserve team) so confidence in the camp is maybe not what you would call sky-high at the moment.  

The players will need to stand up and be counted today if we're going to nick a point or three.

In fact I would say that today's game and then the very tough home match against Nakhon Ratchisima on Wednesday, will go some way to defining our season. Depending on how those two results go, we'll find out whether we are truly a 'top four team' or perhaps just a top half of the table side.

What's Bangkok United's home record like this season?

Three wins and two defeats from five games. 

In their last two home matches, they thumped Prachuap 6-1 and Suphanburi 4-0 but prior to that, they surprisingly went down 4-2 to Chonburi and they've also been beaten by Buriram. 

Brave enough to make a score prediction?

Probably not, but I would be over the moon with a point. I just don't want to see us get walloped.

And wifey's giving up her Sunday to drive you to the match, etc. How do you do it? 

You have to make these football trips sound enticing. There has to be what I call 'add-ons' 

If I say "fancy driving to Pathum Thani to watch Samut Prakan play Bangkok United in 35 degree heat?" then that isn't going to tear her away from a computer in an air-conditioned bedroom. 

But if I say "oooh, Bangkok United, one of the biggest stadiums in the country, a university campus as well - so loads of cute coffee shops and cafes that we can go into before the match", - she's in with bells on.  

There's certainly going to be no shortage of nice cafes and restaurants around the stadium (and Google street view supports that). Where there are well-heeled university students, businesses like this nearly always thrive. 

Pre-match? 

We covered the journey from home to the Thammasat University campus (where the stadium is located) in less than an hour and made straight for the Solar coffee shop and cafe. 

On the internet it looked just our kind of place, but while the interior was charming, it was let down by a lack of eating options. The menu was extremely limited and there wasn't a single cake to be had. We guessed that Sunday was the one day of the week when students didn't come out to play so the majority of eateries around campus either offered a reduced menu or closed completely. 

We were ridiculously early for the game but made our way to the front of the stadium anyway, and bought a couple of tickets for the away end.

Bangkok United do an admirable job of their fan zone area, dominated by a pair of ornate, golden dragons. There are plenty of chairs and tables for fans to enjoy drinks and snacks from a good selection of vendors, a large mobile van selling replica shirts and other club merchandise, a guy with a microphone walking around and getting fans in the mood for the game, even a four-piece folk group belting out some sing-a-long Thai favourites. 

It was a very pleasant place to spend an hour and good to see so many familiar faces as the Samut Prakan away supporters started to arrive. 

But the stadium itself doesn't quite live up to the first impressions outside?

It was horrible! 

Tweeting with various expat Thai football followers after the game, my mate Tim, a Port FC fan, described the True Stadium as "the worst place in Thailand to watch a game. It's totally unsuitable for any kind of football match"

I'm not going to argue or disagree with him for a minute. As soon as you enter the stadium, your heart sinks.

In the away end, you are miles - and I mean miles - from the action. The players are almost like 22 pin-pricks on the horizon. The stadium is a soulless concrete bowl held together with rust and a prayer. Everywhere you look there are dangling wires, broken hoardings and tatty makeshift barriers. Just before kick off I went in search of the toilets and found them. They were disgusting.

I was genuinely shocked that the management would let a stadium fall into such neglect and disrepair.

The guy who told me on social media a few days earlier that it would feel like I was 'rattling around in a big, empty stadium' got it absolutely spot on. There was no atmosphere whatsoever. All you could see were huge sections full of empty seats. 

Many Samut Prakan fans there?

It felt like quite a decent turnout - probably around 300-350, which is not bad for us. And they did a decent job of keeping up the noise levels and injecting some kind of atmosphere into the proceedings. 

To the game itself. First half?

We were without the suspended Captain Peeradol for this game and Carlos Carlao was out injured again but that's not me making excuses. Bangkok United are a very decent team - the kind of side who look like they could score with every attack. They've got two or three forwards with lightning pace.

The home side completely bossed the first half in terms of possession but couldn't quite find that cutting edge in front of goal. 

On 37 minutes, and just as those of us in the away end were wondering where a Samut Prakan goal was coming from, we score with our only meaningful attack of the first period. The ball is played over the Bangkok United defence to Teerapol, who manages to twist, shrug off a defender and lay an inch perfect pass across the box to Ibson Melo. And it's goal number 7 for the Brazilian.

The half-time whistle goes and the away fans are pinching themselves. How the hell are we one goal up after that performance? - but we'll take it!

You sensed the home side would come at you all guns blazing in the second half?

Bangkok United wasted no time getting back into the game and for the first 15 minutes of the second period, they battered us. 

After hitting the crossbar with virtually their first attack of the half, the home team are awarded a corner in the 49th minute. The ball is swung into a crowded box and there's Nelson Bonilla to plant a straightforward header past goalkeeper Pathiwat. As my old games teacher used to say "where was the bloody defence?!"

It goes from bad to worse in the 56th minute as the Bangkok United right winger ghosts through the Samut Prakan back four and lays it on a plate for Tristian Do to score the easiest of tap-ins.  

I feared the worst at this stage. Even with half an hour remaining, it started to feel like a damage limitation exercise. But somehow we clawed our way back into the game, rode our luck and in the final ten minutes actually had our best period of the game. We created several half-chances but it was all too little, too late.  2-1 was a fair result. In fact we did well to keep it down to just the two goals. 

Samut Prakan didn't deserve anything from tonight's game. Over the full 90 minutes, Bangkok United were the better team by some margin. No complaints from me. (match highlights)

Overall thoughts?

It pains me to say this but I fell out of love with Thai football a little bit tonight - and that's not sour grapes just because we lost.  The whole occasion had a low-energy, slightly meaningless, 'third-rate' feel to it - and I'm blaming it all on the stadium. 

I feel sorry for Bangkok United fans because they have an excellent team to follow out there on the pitch. But if I had to drag myself along to that environment for home games, frankly I wouldn't bother. It would be too soul-destroying. 

As for the contest itself, I expected nothing from this evening's game and in the end, we were well beaten by the better team. We sorely missed Peeradol orchestrating the midfield but take nothing away from Bangkok United's performance, they would have felt very hard done by had Samut Prakan come away with a share of the spoils.  

A couple of tweets I've just received are worth repeating here.

Peter Sheppard says "Awful place to watch football. But can't really fault True for poor maintenance by the university. Why would they waste money on a rental property when they'll build a new one for themselves anyway? Really don't get why they wouldn't find a better place in the meantime, though"     

And the final word to Christopher Hope - "Seems to me that Thailand is a country that loves football, but only foreign football. The domestic game is neglected and that’s why the national team has little hope of qualifying for a global tournament" 

Who's up next?

Thankfully we only have to wait until Wednesday and a home fixture against Nakhon Ratchisima. It's 5th v 6th in the league as it stands, so a very tough match in prospect. But actually I'm just hoping for a game that puts a smile back on my face.  

Full fixture list for the 2019 season

Check the current Thai Premier League table




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