Diary of a Thai football season

(2019) Thonburi University v Samut Prakan City

My first chance to sample some Thai League Cup action

The Thai League Cup eh?  How does this one work? 

Sponsored by Toyota, the Thai League Cup has been going for over 30 years and is open to some 92 teams from within the Thai football league system.

Now you'll need to pay attention to this.  

The lower division teams battle it out (in regional matches) until 16 teams remain. They are then joined by the 16 Premier League clubs in the round of 32, which is the stage we are at now.  

In the draw for the round of 32, the teams are divided into two pots and ALL fixtures drawn feature a lower division team at home to a Premier League team. That's the way it works - so you can get some very interesting match-ups.

All games are single matches except for the semi-finals, which have traditionally been two-legged home and away affairs. 

The current League Cup holders are Chiang Rai United, who beat Bangkok Glass (now in the second division) 1-0 in last year's final. 

The winners of the Thai League Cup qualify for the Mekhong Club Championship, a tournament featuring the five domestic league cup winners from Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Myanmar.  It sounds a bit Mickey Mouse but I guess it's something to stick in the old trophy cabinet.  

And Samut Prakarn have been drawn away to Thonburi University FC.  You going?

At risk of sounding like the slightly obsessed fan who would turn up to watch eleven shirts drying on a washing line, I feel somewhat obliged to.  

Thonburi Stadium (where I believe Thonburi University play their home games) looks like only a shortish taxi ride from the end of the sky-train line (on the Thonburi side of the river).  It isn't all that far away if Google maps can be trusted.  

However, although the journey looks straightforward, it will probably involve a taxi driver who hasn't a clue where he's going, a hair-raising motorcycle ride, a long-tail boat that's pissing out diesel oil and a swim across a klong full of crocodiles.   

The match kicks off at 3.30 pm as well (presumably because the stadium doesn't have adequate floodlighting) so it's going to be a hot and sticky one!

I'm on my own for this, which is hardly surprising.  I did ask around to see if anyone was interested but of course, 3.30 on a Wednesday afternoon isn't doable for your typical working man. Or for those who can't be arsed.

What do you know about Thonburi University FC?

You mean apart from the fact that their Facebook page hasn't been updated for two years?

Well, they play in the Bangkok Perimeter Division, which is one of the four regional sub-divisions that make up the 4th tier of the Thai League.  The Bangkok Perimeter Division consists of 13 teams (strange number innit?) and Thonburi University are currently in 7th place, having won four, drawn two and lost three of their opening nine matches.

Thonburi Uni are clearly no mugs. In the previous round of the League Cup, they knocked out second division Thai Honda, who themselves dumped premier league side, Chonburi, out of the FA Cup a few weeks back. This fixture certainly doesn't feel like a walk in the park, especially if Samut Prakarn decide to field a second string eleven. 

Any second thoughts?

The truth is I got up this morning and suddenly didn't fancy it.  My leg was giving me grief from a pulled muscle I sustained in football training on Sunday night (and yes, I know playing competitive football at my age is crazy), there was heavy rain forecast for the Thonburi area (and I can visualize a basic stadium with very little in the way of shelter) and the 5.15 pm finish (provided it doesn't go to extra time, penalties and a crossbar challenge) would mean battling the midweek rush hour to get home.  On top of all that, it just felt like a nothing game.  So I weighed up all the negatives (and there seemed to be plenty) ...... and decided to go. 

So how was getting there in the end?

Pretty straightforward actually.  It took 45 minutes to get to Bang Wa station in Thonburi at the end of the sky-train line.  I found a nice little cafe for lunch near the station and then the taxi from there to the Thonburi Stadium took another half hour. I arrived at the ground 45 minutes to kick off.

And milling around outside?

I said hello and shook hands with a number of the Samut Prakarn supporters and club staff who had made the trip - faces and personalities that are becoming more and more familiar to me as the weeks and matches go by.  

I chatted briefly to a young Thonburi University student who had the job of trying to shift the home team merchandise.  A fluent English speaker, he was quite surprised that I knew so much about his team in terms of where they were in the Thai League, etc. He told me that the average home attendance was usually 200-300 and expected no more than that number this afternoon. "It's very difficult for fans to get to a game that starts in the middle of the day", he said. 

And then I met Mark.

I noticed a stocky farang sitting under the shade of a tree and enjoying a pre-match cigarette.  Surprised I wasn't the only foreigner there, I ambled over to say hello and to find out if he was a Samut Prakarn supporter.  

He wasn't. He was Mark, a 51-year-old German guy from Dusseldorf, who described himself as a professional Thai League 'groundhopper'. Mark had two passions in life - football and football stadia. I warmed to him instantly. I thought I knew a a bit about Thai football but I was a novice compared to this guy.  

He told me he spends one month a year in Thailand, basing himself in Pattaya, and spends most of that time travelling around the country watching football. On a Saturday he might be watching Buriram in the Premier League and on Sunday, he'll be at some fourth tier game in Samut Songkram. 

"So what the hell are you doing at Thonburi University?" I asked him.

"That's a good question" he replied, in that distinct German accent "but I looked at the 16 fixtures for this League Cup round and this one just leapt out at me, even though there were probably easier grounds to get to. I left my hotel in Pattaya at 6.00 this morning to be here.  Plus I had planned to go to Samut Prakarn this Saturday to see them take on Prachuap.  I'm glad I met you Phil because you can give me all the info I need on how to get to Samut Prakarn's stadium and where to sit, etc" 

I asked him his favourite thing about following Thai football.

"Without a doubt, the people you meet on the journey.  What's hard to believe is that I barely speak a word of Thai.  I wave maps and bits of paper at Thai people and they are so, so helpful. 

I've had many a situation where I've been hopelessly lost and someone has told me to jump in their pick-up truck or get on the back of their motorcycle so they can take me to where I'm going. Following football in this country has shown me just how wonderful people can be"

What a character!  Mark and I spent the rest of the day together, even accompanying each other on the journey home before saying our goodbyes at Ekkami bus station. Who says the Germans and English can't get along!

And there was a minute's silence before the game?

Five Port FC fans tragically lost their lives this morning on their way to their League Cup tie, when their minibus was involved in a head-on collision with a truck.  The Thai football family is in mourning.  On days like this, the football doesn't seem to matter. Rest in Peace guys. If Port FC end up as league champions (and they very well might) - then that one is for you.  

So what about the game itself. First half?

Obviously the 3.30 kick off meant the game was played in energy-sapping heat and humidity.  Samut Prakarn fielded a team that included 3-4 regular starters and a noticeably strong substitutes bench (including Aris Zarifovic and Ibson Melo). 

I don't think we managed a single bloody shot on goal in the whole of the first 45 minutes.  Thonburi University were by far the liveliest and more direct team and it came as no surprise when they broke the deadlock right on half-time. We had had a warning ten minutes earlier when Thonburi hit the post and the ball trickled along the goal-line, only to be kept out by some miraculous defending. But this time a simple throw-in caught the defence napping and the pint-sized Thonburi number 12 found himself in acres of space and the time to charge into the penalty area and smash the ball home.  Half time: 1-0 to the university boffins and thoroughly deserved.

So cue the stern half-time team talk?

We threw Ibson Melo on along with one or two more reinforcements and to be fair, played much better. But there are always games when you don't get the rub of the green and it felt like one of those days. 

My thoughts are turning to the awkward journey home, but Ibson Melo has other ideas and is determined to keep us here for at least half an hour longer. Taking full advantage of the flagging Thonburi defence, he finds the net with five minutes left on the clock.  Both teams then have good chances to settle it in the final five - but the ref puts whistle to lips and into extra time we go. 

Another 30 minutes then? 

Yep, that rush hour traffic is really going to be building up by now.

Grant, a Muangthong United supporter, tweeted me to say that in last season's League Cup, the games went straight to penalty kicks if the teams were level after 90 minutes. What a smart idea that was because the thirty minutes of extra time bordered on farcical, as player after player went down with cramp.  

There were some decent chances for both sides but most of the time was spent watching trainers and stretcher bearers running on and off the pitch. ♫♫ Peep! Peep! ♫♫ - it's the dreaded, nail-biting penalty kicks.

Oooh this is exciting!

Not really.  Darkness was beginning to fall and I'd reached that stage where I almost didn't care who won. I just wanted to go home.

I don't know how many penalties were taken because I can only count up to eleven with my hands in my pockets, but when Ibson Melo misses his spot-kick you kind of guess you're in for the long haul. Some. if not most of the penalties, were atrocious. We even got down to the goalkeepers blasting one over the bar and into the next post code.  But eventually we have a winner! - the Thonburi University lads are celebrating like they've won The World Cup (and why shouldn't they?) and Samut Prakarn go crashing out of the competition!

Overall thoughts?

I'm not sure what to make of this result. Looking at the outcome of the 16 League Cup ties this morning, at least half of the premier league teams fielded virtual reserve teams and have gone out at the first hurdle.  I'm learning about Thai football as I go along and today's lesson is clearly that the premier league clubs don't give a shit about the League Cup.  However, I'm one of the old school who believes that winning breeds a winning mentality. The line-up we selected today should have been good enough to beat Thonburi University. But as the old saying goes - the other team wanted it more.

All in all and despite the result, I had a nice day out. It was a very tidy stadium with extremely friendly hosts. My face is getting more and more familiar to the Samut Prakarn travelling support (and the official club photographer!) and I made a terrific new friend from Germany.  You can't ask for more.  And the rain kept off!

You were impressed with Thonburi University's football team as well?

I think one of the main reasons we lost was because we underestimated the opposition. Five minutes into the game and you could see they weren't going to be pushovers. They weren't going to be overawed by the occasion like the opposition we had in the FA Cup a few weeks back.  These Thonburi Uni guys could play and I'm going to end the blog with a shout out for two of their players whose names I unfortunately don't know.

Firstly, the number 22, who was my man of the match.  A tall and gangly black guy who played at right-back and never put a foot wrong the whole game. He was immense. He was immaculate. He had Picha Autra (a Thai international) in his pocket. I was left scratching my head and wondering why he's not playing at a higher level. 

Secondly, the number 14, who reminded me of Aston Villa's Jack Grealish in his style of play.  A cheeky young whippersnapper with a repertoire of dummies, shimmies, step-overs and Cruyff turns, most of which seemed to come off and leave several Samut Prakarn players on their arses in the process.  He really was a joy to watch.

Who's up next?

We're at home to Prachuap in the Premier on Saturday. It's 4th in the league v 5th in the league. It's going to be a cracker!

Full fixture list for the 2019 season

Check the current Thai Premier League table


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