Thai Port 1 Chiangrai 1

Thai Port 08

Thai Port 1 Chiang Rai United 1 (04/12/2011)

My last full day in Thailand, and the last game of my mini-tour. As with Bangkok Glass’ Leo Stadium, I’d saved the best until last, with another “proper” ground with four stands close to the pitch (or three in the Leo Stadium’s case) and no running track.

Thai Port’s PAT (Port Authority of Thailand) Stadium also has the advantage of proximity to the city centre. There is a metro stop within half a mile of PAT Stadium, but fortified with an overpriced but well cooked English Breakfast (I was beginning to think proper sausages didn’t exist in Asia) from a pub near the Asok Skytrain stop, I walked from there.

The first half was a pleasant enough walk, taking in Benjakiti Park, where I saw some kind of foot long reptile scurrying across the lawns. You don’t tend to get too many of those walking through the industrial estate to the Madejski Stadium. The idyll was soured somewhat by the realising that there didn’t appear to be an exit gate at the park’s southern end, but it was a nice day and the unexpected detour back to the entrance could have been worse.

Once past the park, I took a side street that branched off from the main road. This “Soi” had fairy-light decorations hanging from the trees to celebrate the King’s birthday the following day. Less welcome was a small canal running in a concrete trench right in front of all the houses. Each had a barrier free concrete walkway across the canal – a plank in other words – and it’s hard not to wonder how many must have fallen in, particularly after a night on the town. Looking into the murky and almost stagnant depths, you also have to wonder if anyone who fell in would ever be healthy again, or more importantly, why it isn’t completely covered.

That took me to the heart of the Klong Toei district, where a large market separated me from the stadium. Taking Soi 1 as a short-cut through, I found myself in the midst of another “wet market”. Couple the rich fragrance of fish guts and other assorted recently living consumables in 33C heat, with the murky black canal I’d just walked by, and this certainly adds up to one of the more aromatic walks to grounds I’ve taken.

This took me to the back of PAT Stadium’s north stand, where stalls selling merchandise and refreshments were in abundance. A healthy number of fans in Thai Port’s eye-catching orange and blue striped shirts showed that if nothing else, this was going to be one of the more colourful games I’d attended. The “Sponsor Thai” booth was there, as at Leo Stadium, with the “Sponsor Thai…..go together….Sponsor Thai……premier league!!!” real ear-worm of a tune again blaring out at regular intervals.

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Another stall was for the club’s sponsors, the car battery firm FB Battery. They had two …err… “interestingly” attired young women making announcements on behalf of the company. Far be it from me to be sexist and suggest these two girls of perhaps 19 years of age might not have actually been leading authorities on the benefits of this particular brand of car battery, but I can’t help having a suspicion they were chosen for their looks.

Also on this side was the ticket booth. No trestle table here, they even had separate windows for each of the fours zones of the ground A to D. No sign saying which zone was which part of the ground though, which was a little confusing, but luckily an English Thai Port fan was in the queue behind to get me buying the right ticket. Maybe it’s the proximity to the centre, or maybe it’s the four stands close to the pitch look of the stadium, not to mention the rarity of a real grass pitch, but this game certainly had a much larger foreign contingent than all the other games I went to combined.

I opted for a main stand seat, thinking the roof would offer some shade on this, another baking hot day in Thailand’s “cool season”. As it turned out, large gaps in the back of the stand meant it offered almost no shade at all. What it did offer though was a great view, not only of the pitch but also of the thrusting skyline beyond the north stand.

At 44 years old, Thai Port are one of the country’s oldest clubs, but the PAT Stadium is another to have developed much more recently. Photos from circa 2008 show a ground completely undeveloped on three sides. The main stand looks to predate that, having a rather 1970s functional look to it. Seven rows of high concrete steps form the seats in this stand, now brightly painted in orange and blue stripes to give a bit of verve to the structure. The upward sloping roof, as mentioned, offers nothing in the way of shade, but would no doubt be welcome during the wet season. The centre of the stand has a VIP section, where wicker armchairs on a raised platform offer a more refined viewpoint. Open gaps at the back of the stand offer the possibility of a through draft in a land where any breeze is welcome, but sadly offer no more rear view than the cars rushing past on the elevated expressway behind.

Even when Thai Port moved (back?) into the ground in 2009, the only other structure was a single tier of bleachers opposite. Since then the ground has grown. A second tier has been added to the stand opposite, and two more stands with metal benches, one twice the size of the other, have been added at either end. VIP section apart, only the smaller of these two ends, and the lower tier down the side have actual individual (if backless) seats added. With three stands rising up and baring their steelwork for all to see, it does give the ground something of a look of a large meccano set, but it does also give the ground a really good sense of intimacy with the fans right up close. There were only 2687 in the ground when I went, but it was easy to see how it could be an intimidating place with a big crowd. A small scoreboard in one corner was rather dwarfed by a giant advertising hoarding showing a coffee advert in the corner opposite. If the club every gets a Russian oligarch owner they could install the world’s largest jumbotron there. Until then the 40ft high virtues of Coffee Plus Original will have to suffice.

Thai Port 09 Chang Rai go ahead

Again, pre-match saw the teams coming out to the FIFA anthem, before the national anthem, and another minute’s silence. Thai Port lined up for photos along with the FB Battery girls, and some other girls in blue tops whose significance I failed to grasp, but I don’t think it really mattered. Stranger was the large number of fans still outside as kick-off approached (and indeed passed). And such is the respect for the King, and the anthem, that even the people outside the stadium stopped what they were doing to stand to attention, even if that meant stopping like a statue halfway through an entrance.

With Thai Port’s floodlights reportedly not up to scratch, and live TV coverage of the game, it kicked off at 4pm, still under the heat of the sun. If the heat had any impact on the players, they didn’t show it, with yet another pacey TPL display. It was a good tactical game too, with Thai Port playing more of a high-tempo attacking game in what looked like a 4-5-1, and Chiangrai United looking dangerous on the break.

Of course there’s a big difference between looking dangerous and being dangerous, and Chiangrai were only performing to the former and not the latter. That is until midway through the half when they got a free kick outside the box. They’d had one before, and that had been dragged hopelessly wide. This time it was aimed for the opposite corner. It wasn’t that good a free kick, and would probably have been an easy take for the keeper, but for one mistake. Unfortunately a Thai Port defender in the wall realised he could get a head to the ball as it came over. That he indeed did, but the effect was to steer it into the middle of the goal with the keeper wrong-footed.

1-0 to Chiangrai, and their free-kick taker, Romanian midfielder Chitescu, ran off as if that was exactly what he planned all along, before pointing to the sky in tribute to whoever the minute’s silence and black armbands were for.

Form there the rest of the half followed the same pattern, with Thai Port pressing forward but looking like they needed more attackers on the pitch, and Chiangrai looking potentially dangerous, without ever actually being so.

Thai Port had a series of corners and free kicks that had came to nothing. A chip from outside the box that hit the crossbar, and an inswinging cross that eluded everyone before going wide, but no joy. Part of the problem was some very bad crossing. Most criminal being a move down the right which found a Port player in plenty of room to get a ball across, only for him to fall over as he went to kick it. It was perhaps the law of averages then that said that eventually one would come good, and come good it did. This effort curling in beautifully from outside the box to be headed in powerfully at the back post for 1-1, just going into stoppage time.

The Chiangrai keeper, Alonso, raced after the referee to claim a push that only he appeared to see, and was possibly lucky to stay on the pitch for his protests. He’s already been booked once for time-wasting, from which he promptly time-wasted and complained about the booking, and then got a final warning for time-wasting again shortly after. It was like he was on a mission to be dismissed, such was his constant anger. Mind you, if I’d had the dodgy highlights he had in his hair, I’d be angry too. He was one of several Chiangrai players with a similar follicle affliction, looking like some kind of drunken team bet rather than a fashion statement.

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Alonso’s antics certainly got him noticed, and he played up to it when taking his position in goal in the 2nd half, directly in front of Thai Port’s most noisy section of the ground. He revelled in the notoriety, but it clearly looked like he’d be warned to stop mucking about, as he was choirboy-like for the rest of the game.

I’ve no idea if the players, with the pitch now completely in shade, couldn’t cope with the “bitter” 28 C temperatures, but the first 20 minutes or so of the second period were appallingly scrappy. A long range effort from Chiangrai provided the first worthwhile shot. The resulting corner came to nothing as yet another disappointing crossed ball failed to beat the first man, or the first man’s knees for that matter.

A near post header flicked across goal seemed to spur Thai Port back into life, but their reluctance to push players into advanced positions meant any efforts at playing through the Chiangrai defence were doomed to failure, and hopeful long-shots were the order of the day.

As the minutes ticked by you could sense the optimism of the home fans drain away. It had the feeling of one of those days, and perhaps the fear was that all the pressure without reward could be punished. It nearly was in the last five minutes. Some weak defending allowed a free shot from 15 yards, dead centre in front of goal, but a point-saving save off the Port keeper’s boot kept the score at 1-1. Beyond another long range Thai Port effort, that was that, perhaps a fair result.

As the sun set across the ground, and on my mini-tour as a whole, I had to reflect on what I’d seen. I’ve seen the standard described as being around League 2/BSP level, and that’s probably fair. I’d say the games in Thailand are perhaps more enjoyable though, because of the open style, not to mention the warmth. If anyone in Thailand talks about whether teams can cope with away games in the north in November, they’d be describing 23C in Chiangrai rather than 3C in Barnsley. And the warmth also extends to the fans. Thai Port fans may have been involved in a couple of unwelcome incidents in the last year or two, but you don’t seem to get the same antagonism between fans that exists in England. After this disappointing draw the home fans cheered the name Chiangrai. It’s hard to imagine Southend fans doing the same for Port Vale after a similar result.

Rather like a Thai massage, Thai football is a curious mix of bliss and agony. The games seem to be open and played with enthusiasm. The players can show better basic ball control than many players in supposedly superior English leagues, and they certainly play with more freedom and flair too. The downside is a lack of organisation and maybe concentration results in regular poor decisions by players. As admirable as the confidence to try and beat three players is, sometimes the simple pass to the unmarked player really is the better option. If Thai football can add organisation without inhibiting the flair of the players, then it has a promising future. If the league can keep adding fans, it does too.

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