(Our first job is to learn all the new players' names. Photo credit: Official Samut Prakan Facebook page)
Welcome to the new season. Are Samut Prakan fans feeling optimistic?
Well, it's certainly been a vast improvement on last year's pre-season build-up. There have been no rumours or speculation that the club might fold and the relatively unpopular 'feeder club' relationship between Samut Prakan and Chonburi looks to have come to an end. It's time for Samut Prakan City to stand on its own two feet again.
And it's a completely new-looking squad?
Yes, only a handful of players from last season (five to be exact) were awarded new contracts and while it's been sad to see so many old friends and familiar faces depart, that's simply the nature of Thai football. On the flip side, we've had at least a couple of dozen new arrivals and at the time of writing, we're boasting virtually a 30-man squad. I'll take a slight diversion here and say a big thank you to the Samut Prakan social media staff for keeping fans fully up-to-date on all the new additions. They did a wonderful job!
So where have all these new Thai players come from?
I'm obviously not going to list them in any detail (we'll get to know them as the season progresses) but it's a decent mix of experienced and inexperienced T2 and T3 players, plus a sprinkling of youngsters from various football academies. Jiraaut Wingwon returns from Songkhla for his second spell at the club, the well-known and much-liked Ronnachai Rangsiyo brings his international experience, Apichok Srirawong and Kritsada Siwanit have both come in from Chianat Hornbill, where they made over 40 appearances between them last season. There are a couple of players from T3 Sisaket United and also Kitti Kinnonkok, a striker who scored 13 goals in 19 games for Chainat United in the same division. Etcetera, etcetera
(New shirts for a new season, designed by Italian sportswear firm, Kappa)
What about foreign players?
A couple of Brazilian players have arrived. Firstly, Bianor Neto is a 29-year old centre-back who has come from KF Llapi in the Kosovo league.
The second player looking to light up the Samut Prakan stadium with a dose of samba magic is Fernando Viana, a 31-year old striker, who has been playing for Santo Andre in the Brazilian 4th division. Fernando's biggest career move came in 2021 when he joined Upjest in the Hungarian top flight, but he managed just one goal in 20 appearances. His most prolific goalscoring season came in 2017 when he netted 15 times in 31 appearances for Bulgarian premier league side Botev Plovdiv.
Japanese midfielder Sho Shimoji has signed up for a second season with us and there is also Korean attacker Sang-jin Lee, who has been playing in the Korean fourth division. I've already acquired a Korean flag off Lazada to add to the collection.
Is this a squad good enough to take Samut Prakan back to the top flight?
My head says no but only time will tell. Let's see where we are after half a dozen or so games. Thai football is in a fairly dark place at the moment with a lack of funding and sponsorship money, so virtually all T2 clubs are having to cut their cloth and assemble squads on limited budgets. Are Samut Prakan promotion hopefuls, mid-table makeweights or relegation fodder? I have absolutely no idea.
Pattaya United v Samut Prakan City, what a belting fixture to start off the new season?
Yes, even though I think it's a shame the two 'rivals' are meeting so early in the campaign, it's certainly a game I wouldn't want to miss.
It took a long time for the Thai FA to pull their finger out in terms of deciding the exact date and time of the fixture, and you could hear the collective groan when it was announced this match would start the T2 season - kicking off on Friday 11th August at 7.00pm, making it a tougher game to get to for many Samut Prakan fans who have to work for a living. All I can say is may your bosses be understanding if you need to bunk off work early.
(The Samut Prakan squad are ready for the new season. Photo taken at Wednesday's launch party. Photo credit: Official Samut Prakan Facebook page)
You're probably dreading this question, but give us some Pattaya United club background.
Let's get it done!
Pattaya United play their home matches at the 5,500 capacity Nongphrue Municipal Stadium, which is about a 20-minute drive east from the world-famous resort of Pattaya Beach. I've watched a number of Pattaya United games on TV and the Nongphrue Stadium looks very similar to Samut Prakan's - about the same size, a bit ramshackle in places, but very homely and capable of generating an excellent atmosphere.
The club started life in 1989 as Coke-Bangpra Chonburi FC but it wasn't until 2008 - after a couple of decades in the Thai regional leagues - that they finally gained promotion to the top flight, moved to Pattaya and became Pattaya United. 2010 and 2011 were golden years as the club established itself as a top team, finishing fourth and sixth respectively. This was unfortunately followed by several seasons of turmoil, which included a relegation and the constant background noise of power struggles in the boardroom and squabbles over ownership rights.
In 2016, Pattaya United was taken over by the Kiarti Thanee Group led by Tanet Phanichewa, and 2018 was when it got really nasty as due to local political conflict, Tanet made the controversial decision to move the club 90 miles north and rebrand it as Samut Prakan City FC (the club I support and blog about) ....And Pattaya United supporters lost their football team.
Losing your club (through absolutely no fault of your own) is surely the worst thing that can happen to a football fan. However, a new club rose from the ashes - Pattaya Dolphins - and after almost half a dozen seasons competing in T3, I'm delighted to see them back in the relative big time of the second division, rebranded as Pattaya United and now just one step away from the Premier League...where many might say they truly belong.
OK, lady luck might have shone on them when T3 play off winners MH Nakhonsi failed to obtain the necessary T2 licence and Pattaya United jumped in to take their place...but my word, this is a club that deserves some luck. And so do their supporters.
(Experienced ex-Thailand international Ronnachai Rangsiyo will take the captain's armband. Photo credit: Official Samut Prakan Facebook page)
What's the opposition fans view?
Pattaya United fan Danny Knobler had this to say;
While we can all dream at the beginning of any season and hope for a miracle run that would land us back in League 1, the reality is we only got promoted because another team couldn’t meet its licensing requirements. We’ve dominated the Eastern area of League 3 the last two seasons, but would need major improvement to compete at the top of League 2. We've signed a few new players but with the track record of the current ownership and management team, I’m not at all certain it will be enough. The new arrivals include the experienced Badar Ali, who scored 16 goals for Krabi last season in League 2. Our other foreign players were all in League 3 last season.
This game is the one that all Pattaya fans have been waiting for. The supporters group, the Pattaya United Dangerous Family, has always felt that the team shouldn’t have been taken away from us, given the strong support here. Even at away games in lower divisions, Pattaya normally had more fans than the home team.
We have also kept the same songs we had in the Premier League, and now the ownership has brought back the original name, Pattaya United (after several years as first Pattaya Discovery United and then Pattaya Dolphins United).
What's the travel plan?
Despite being Pattaya (or perhaps because it's Pattaya) we're not really interested in turning this away trip into a lengthy holiday. We would rather save our money for more interesting jaunts to the likes of Krabi and Nongbua. It's also a bank holiday weekend so Pattaya could well be heaving. To beat the crowds, we'll head down on Thursday morning, stay a couple of nights, catch the game on Friday and head back to Samut Prakan the following morning.
Journey and digs
The roads were particularly busy around the Chonburi by-pass but house to hotel still only took us an hour and a half. Pattaya really isn't that far away at all.
We booked a couple of nights at the Baboona Beachfront Hotel in North Pattaya. Our room stank of stale tobacco, the view from the balcony was awful but the buffet breakfast was surprisingly good and the staff were lovely. Overall, it was good value for a thousand baht a night. The last time we were in Pattaya was during the height of the pandemic and we scored an amazing promotional deal at the 5-star Dusit Resort just up the road. It was a very different vibe back then, with deserted beaches and very little traffic on the beach road. This time, Pattaya was about as busy as I've ever seen it.
(It felt like we were just killing time before the match rather than turning Pattaya into any sort of holiday, but we managed it with walks along the beach and sipping drinks slowly in various coffee shops)
Given the history between the two clubs and the very real possibility of crowd trouble, I made several decisions that all turned out to be good ones. Firstly, I decided to get to the ground early. We weren't familiar with the Nongphrue Stadium so wanted to get to the away end as quickly as possible without having to walk through hordes of home supporters.
Secondly, we ditched the club colours. I had our scarves in my backpack (and we put them around our necks inside the ground) but we chose not to wear our Samut Prakan shirts. There was no point going looking for trouble.
Finally, we travelled to the stadium by Grab taxi rather than park up in some unknown side-street. I suspected that getting away at the end of the match was going to be far more troublesome than reaching it. And so it proved.
The evening started off fine. We got to the stadium and security directed us to the 'school end' of the ground where the away zone is located. We said hello to Nong Bonus, the Samut Prakan cameraman and also to several of our players standing around chatting in front of the main stand. We purchased our tickets from a couple of cheery and welcoming ticket sellers and made our way into the away zone, striking up conversation with the friendly security staff. So far, so good. It felt like almost every other Thai football match I've ever been to.
I was surprised at how shabby the Nongphrue Stadium was. The main stand looks OK but the other three sides have a definite third division feel to them. I was also surprised by how the home and away fans were separated by a flimsy and easily scalable set of metal railings. Thankfully, the security staff turned up in numbers to add an extra line of defence once the game got underway.
(The first two away tickets at the new-look Pattaya United. Could they become collector's items?)
To the match itself and team line-up?
As in a number of games last season, Samut Prakan started with an all-Thai cast. There was no place in the side for Sho Shimoji (injured?) and our two new Brazilian lads as well as Korean Sanjin Lee would all have to be content with a place on the bench. One relatively surprise addition to the starting eleven was Tanat Wongsupaluk, a 38-year old deadline day signing from North Bangkok University. Only diminutive midfielder Panudech was a familiar face from the last campaign.
After a quarter of an hour of the two sides feeling each other out and Samut Prakan having slightly the better of things, Amporn Chaipang is chopped down in the Pattaya box for a stonewall penalty. Captain Ronnachai is presented with an opportunity to get his Samut Prakan career off to the perfect start, but after a lengthy delay, he puts his spot-kick wide of the left-hand post to the collective groan of the 60-70 travelling fans.
Toothless and hesistant up to the half hour mark, Pattaya United start to enjoy their best period of the game. Judivan Da Silva's effortt is well kept out by Prakan keeper Jirunpong, but he can do nothing about the home side's opener just minutes later as Pattaya defender Thanakorn is allowed to glide past two defenders and rifle a low shot into the bottom corner.
Realising things need to be shaken up in attack, Samut Prakan hand a 38th minute debut to Fernado Viana, who comes on for Tanat. Some Brazilian magic is just what's needed.
The teams go in for the break with Prakan unlucky to be a goal down, but you feel the visitors can get back into the contest.
Half time: Pattaya United 1 Samut Prakan 0
With Samut Prakan still having the lion's share of possession but nothing in the goals for column, Bianor Neto is sent on with 20 minutes remaining. It takes him just seven debut minutes to get on the scoresheet as he bulldozes his way into the area to leap above the Pattaya defence and equalize with a bullet header. It sparks jubilant scenes on the touchline with manager Chanabut jumping into the big Brazilian defender's arms.
But Neto's Brazilian teammate Fernando Viana wants to grab tomorrow's headlines for himself and he's on the spot to poke home a scruffy 82nd minute winner and break Pattaya United hearts.
Samut Prakan see out the remainder of the game comfortably but that isn't where the evening's main story lies. I knew as soon as the winning goal hit the back of the net, as long as the score stayed at 2-1, it was going to get nasty.
Full-time: Pattaya United 1 Samut Prakan 2
(Nothing beats a winning start to the season. Photo credit: Official Samut Prakan Facebook page)
And then it all went pear-shaped
As we went into injury time, with Pattaya staring at an opening day defeat against their bitterest of rivals, a stocky and aggressive-looking Thai guy got as close to the Samut Prakan away enclosure as he could, gave us the double middle finger and yelled a barrage of choice Thai expletives at the top of his lungs. A farang supporter, who I've since been told by a reliable Pattaya United source is an absolute nutcase, joined in. And between the two of them, they lit the blue touchpaper.
Although I never witnessed it, word filtered through that a group of home supporters had congregated behind the stand, trying to lob flares into the away end. The Samut Prakan Supporters Club leader Khun Pathomchai (who played an absolute blinder as usual) got straight on his megaphone to urge us not to respond and to move to safety at the front of the stand. With that all going on behind us, the group that was goading and threatening us from the adjacent enclosure had swelled to about a dozen...and a dozen idiots is all it takes for an atmosphere to turn toxic and hostile.
The final whistle blew and celebrations were understandably muted. The escalating situation was certainly playing on my mind. Our fans were booed; the Samut Prakan players were booed even louder. Now we had the unenviable task of getting to the supporters club bus. Tun and I had asked Khun Pathomchai if we could hitch a ride on the bus to somewhere well away from the stadium and get back to our hotel from there.
It was only a couple of minutes walk from the away end to where the bus driver had parked on a side-street but you counted every second of it in the darkness. There then followed a nervy five minutes as we got all the Samut Prakan supporters on the bus and an attempt to start the journey home without getting a brick through the window. Thankfully the five minutes passed without incident and there were sighs of relief all round.
I genuinely felt robbed of the opportunity to celebrate what was a great victory. We have some terrific new players and a wonderful team spirit. There was much to applaud but the occasion was overshadowed by what went on in the stands. But as I said to a fellow foreign supporter who had made the journey - "just thank God we don't have to play Pattaya United every week"
As I've said many times before - it is tragic that Pattaya United lost their club in 2018 - but it wasn't the Samut Prakan fans' fault.
Who's up next?
Our first home game of this season sees us host Chiang Mai FC on Sunday 20th August at 6.00 pm.