Diary of a Thai football season

(2019) Chonburi v Samut Prakan City

Our first away trip and a tasty local derby. Bring it on!

Our first game on the road sees us travel an hour south to take on Chonburi FC (The Sharks).  

Chonburi's title-winning, glory days might be a distant memory but they are still rated as very much a top six side. 

(Watch Samut Prakarn's 60-second pre-match teaser video)

So this is a game with a bit of 'added spice'?

It's a local derby (although Stephen Peacock would disagree) and it's a shame in some ways that this fixture has come so early in the season. No Thai League football fan needs reminding that Samut Prakarn City were once Pattaya United FC and that Pattaya and Chonburi were bitter rivals, but things are what they are and we've had to move on. 

Pattaya United has upped sticks, moved to Samut Prakarn and been 're-branded' as Samut Prakarn City. One club dies and another is born. 

It will be interesting to see what kind of atmosphere the players run out to today? Will that old rivalry still be in evidence or will it be by and large forgotten? To Chonburi Football Club, will it be just another game? 

Perhaps Chonburi will have gained a whole new legion of fans from the now defunct Pattaya United, being as it's 'just up the road'? But it's awfully hard to lose your football team and then start supporting someone new. It's just not in your average football fan's DNA. You invest a lot of emotion in following a football club. 

Let's see what happens.

Read my pre-match interview with the English Chonburi FC website. 

Confidence levels should be fairly high in both camps?

On the opening weekend, Samut Prakarn started their campaign with a 3-2 home win against Chiang Mai, whilst Chonburi's battling 2-2 draw away at Buriram was an even better result. 

Champions six times in the last eight seasons, there are no tougher games in the Thai Premier League than away at the mighty Buriram.  

Who's up for the trip?

Four of us made the journey down to Chonburi - myself, my wife, my Thai friend Benz and his girlfriend Neigh. 

Samut Prakarn City had organised a few supporters club coaches with a very reasonable return price of 330 baht (including a match ticket) but we opted to go in Benz's pick-up truck. 

Football-mad Benz (a big Manchester United fan) and his partner Neigh both come from Suphanburi so I guess that would be their Thai League team of choice - but both of them live and work in Samut Prakarn so hopefully they would be cheering on the Sea Fang in today's match.

Benz is also my gym trainer and he's been very good to me down the years with health and fitness advice and always running over time during our thrice-weekly training sessions. So a football day out gives me the chance to treat him. Benz pays for the petrol and I take care of everything else (match tickets, food, etc). It seems to be a satisfactory arrangement for all.    

Matchday tickets? 

Chonburi FC has partnered with on-line ticket agent, All-Ticket, and you can now choose seat numbers and pay for your tickets on the internet (there is a small one-off admin fee of 15 baht for this service, regardless of how many tickets you purchase) 

Then if you're a foreigner (like I am) it's just a case of popping into your nearest 7-11 with your receipt (which has a barcode on it) the SMS on your mobile phone and your passport for identification. 

The system is actually very convenient but the question of how to pick up the tickets is not well-explained at all on the All Ticket website.  It took me two trips to 7-11 (sister-in-law came with me the second time) but I finally got the job done and came away with the four seat tickets I had paid for in advance. 

As is often the problem with services that involve going to your local 7-11, the bill payment and ticketing systems, etc generally work well - but the often transient 7-11 counter staff just aren't trained on how to deal with them.

On a final note, Chonburi FC has a rather weird three-tier pricing structure. Seats at the home end of the stadium (behind the goal) go for 60 baht, which is a steal for a top-flight Thai League game. Seats in the main stand (along the side of the pitch and with the best view of the action) sell for 130 baht. Seats in the away end are priced at 200 baht. 

I stand to be corrected but I think this practice is commonly referred to as 'shafting away fans'.

You're going to have to keep your big trap shut then?

Most definitely. 

If I had been wearing Samut Prakarn club colours, I would probably have paid the 200 baht to join the away supporters (and taken my binoculars with me to see the opposite goalmouth). But this is my wife's and Benz's day out as much as mine and I know they would both prefer to sit in the main stand (among the Chonburi fans) and enjoy a better view.

I remember going to see Aston Villa v Man United at Villa Park many years ago (it was during the Beckham, Giggs and Scholes era) and could only get seats in the Villa section. United battered Villa that day, eventually running out 3-0 winners in a game they bossed from first minute to last.. With my red, white and black scarf hidden under my jacket, all I could do was clench my fists under the seat every time United scored. 

I'll settle for a repeat of that today.    

And so to the journey down. Pre-match meal?

The catering was left in my wife's capable hands because she often travels around this area with her work and is familiar with a number of the local eateries.  She chose the excellent Cafe Kantary in Bang Saen - part of the Cape and Kantary hotel chain. They also have branches in Chiang Mai, Korat and Phuket as well as a good few others. It turned out to be a smashing dining experience and how nice to see a restaurant with a proper updated website instead of focusing its efforts on just a free Facebook page.

I hadn't been in Bang Saen for a while but my word, this little seaside resort has visibly gone upmarket. It feels like it's shaken off the dowdy image of a weekend getaway for the Bangkok working classes. The main drag down to the beach is choc-a-bloc with great-looking coffee shops and restaurants, clearly targeting a more affluent crowd these days. 

How was the atmosphere at the stadium? Plenty of tension in the air? 

Far from it. It was a strangely relaxed vibe. Almost as if the Chonburi faithful felt all their team had to do - to win and go home with the three points - was to turn up.  It certainly didn't feel like an axes-to-grind derby match.

We got a good parking spot just a minute's walk from the ground, purchased cold drinks from one of the outside vendors and posed for a few photos with the famous Chonburi Shark. Every visiting supporter has to have a photo with the shark! Then with twenty minutes to kick off, we ambled into the stadium to find our seats. 

To be greeted by a packed and noisy Samut Prakarn away end?

I'm still very much feeling my way into Thai football but the numbers are puzzling me. Perhaps my expectations are too high? Perhaps those expectations are clouded by experiences of following football in England? But here we are - our first away game of the season after a terrific win in our first home match. Add to that you can do Samut Prakarn to Chonburi on a fast-moving toll-road in comfortably less than an hour if you put your foot down - and we've ended up with barely 150 supporters there!  

Sure, they made plenty of noise throughout the game with their accompanying musical paraphernalia but that's a big old away end to fill at the Chonburi Stadium. I was just disappointed with the turnout. Perhaps most fans have to work on Saturdays. 

You always get a rather skewed impression of attendance anyway when you are seated in the most populated section of a stadium, as we were. But looking out at the other areas reserved for home fans (behind the goal and in the opposite stand) it all looked a little sparse. Just five minutes to kick off and the occasion had the atmosphere of a practice match or a meaningless friendly. 

I had built the game up in my own mind as an unmissable local derby, but seriously wondered if the fixture had captured the imagination of the Chonburi massive. And that surprised me given the amount of pre-season squad strengthening that the club had done and an underlying feeling on social media that this just might be their season.   

How were the first 45 minutes?

In truth it wasn't the greatest half of football I've ever seen and neither goalkeeper had much to do. You felt if anything was going to happen for us, we'd need to get our two Brazilian talismen, Carlao and Melo. into the game as much as possible. 

Carlao in particular, had several one-on-ones where he ghosted past Chonburi defenders with ease, but all too often the final pass let him down.  

So it was a goal-less first half, played out mostly in midfield, but the most pleasing aspect was at least Chonburi knew they were in for a game. We'd matched them all the way in the first period.

Half-time gave me the chance to catch up with my good pal and all-round Chonburi superfan, Dale Farrington.  I found him down by the stadium shark (does it have a name?), holding court with a small group of glum-looking expat Chonburi supporters, all swigging from their half-time can of beer.

I picked Dale's brains on the topic of attendance dynamics or rather why today's turnout felt disappointing. "These early evening, 6.00 pm kick offs don't do anyone any favours", he said. "It's always the Thai way to turn up right at the last minute, just before kick off - and 6.00 pm is possibly too early for many supporters"

The official announcement towards the end of the game put the attendance at somewhere around the 4,300 mark, although it certainly didn't feel like that many to me.

But hold on! What's that noise?

I've got so pre-occupied with chatting to Dale,  trying to down a small bottle of Pepsi (you can't take drinks into the stadium) and finishing the three meatball skewers that my wife had kindly bought me, that I've lost track of time. The second half has kicked off, it's barely a minute old and there's this huge audible groan from inside the stadium. It wasn't the noise of a goal celebration, it was definitely a groan.

I race up to the top of the steps just in time to see the Samut Prakarn players hugging each other on the touchline. Chuffin' Nora! We've only gone and scored the opening goal. Oh, Ibsen Melo, you beautiful man! 

I've got to let out the emotion somehow and there's a Chonburi steward standing right next to me. She's no older than about seventeen. I clench my fists, clench my teeth and with every vein on my neck showing, let out an almighty "YEEEEEEEEEEEEEES!"  The steward looks really scared.  

Watching the replay of the goal later in the evening, it was the jammiest, scruffiest goal an away team could ever wish to score. Do I care? Not a jot.  

Chonburi then throw the kitchen sink at us and probably have their best 10-15 minutes of the game. It's like the Alamo out there. Even the ball-boys are throwing the ball in quicker. Dangerous crosses, goal attempts and near misses come in rapid-fire succession but Anurak Chompoopruk, our man between the sticks, stands firm. He's having a blinder! 

There's an old saying in football that you can score too early, but Samut Prakarn weather the storm and then begin to look very comfortable, They grab a foothold in the game and start to create chances of their own. The electronic scoreboard ticks down but not quite fast enough for an anxious visiting supporter. 

Then deep into injury time, with the referee checking his watch, the ball finds its way to the great Ibsen Melo and there's not a Chonburi defender within a mile of him. He's one on one with the keeper. He slips the ball round him and then as cool as a salad vegetable, pokes the ball into a gaping net. Cue a thumb-sucking, ball-under-the shirt celebration routine that Romelu Lukaku would be proud of. 

Benz and I leap from our seats and punch the air, forgetting momentarily that we are surrounded by home fans. But the home fans don't seem to care. They've seen enough and they're already making for the exit doors. I teach my wife the words to ♫♫ "we can see you sneaking out" ♫♫

If there's an Ibsen Melo fan club that you can join where you get a signed photo, a fact sheet listing 50 things you never knew about Ibsen (e.g favourite pop group; ABBA) and a personal letter with a photocopied signature, then I'm in with f***ing bells on.  

Here are the five-minute highlights of the match.  

Phew! Overall thoughts of the day?

I can't stop looking at that premier league table. Played two, won two and top of the league. You can't ask for more than that, you really can't. And we've just gone away to a 'top six' club and come away with the three points. The game wasn't pretty and it was backs-to-the-wall stuff at times, but you know what? - I just felt our lads wanted it more than they did. 

It was a very pleasant journey home.

Who's up next?

Next Sunday (10th March), we make the two-hour trip south to play PTT Rayong, who have lost their opening two games and occupy bottom place in the division. Winnable game? You bet!

I'm probably going to sit this one out though and watch it at home on TV. I would love to be there because Rayong's looks like an interesting stadium, but I don't really fancy going on the supporters coach when I don't know anyone (although that may change in the future) In addition; my wife is running a mini-marathon on that Sunday morning and she is too busy at work to pinch the Monday off (I wouldn't want to drive back from Rayong after the game so that would mean finding a night's accommodation down there) 

It's not the expense of following Thai football, it's more the amount of time you have to give up. 

So see you for the next Samut Prakarn home match on March 17th against Sukhothai. 

Full fixture list for the 2019 season


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