As is so often the case, a cracking away trip was rather let down by a football game taking place in the middle of it – not a bad game as such, one of the better ones we’ve seen this season in fact; but one where, once again, rather than coming away celebrating a win, we’re left talking about poor quality refereeing and Port’s inability to see out games against inferior opponents. A pattern is beginning to emerge.
At some point, back in the mists of time (yesterday morning in fact, but it seems so long ago as to almost belong to another era), our select away gathering convenes at the Don Muang branch of McDonalds for that cornerstone of any nutritious breakfast, a round of Sausage & Egg McMuffins. Duly muffined, we board our Nok Air flight to Ubon Ratchatani, where we are greeted by our advance party (Hockers), who is waxing lyrical about the delights of the local taxi services, and introducing us to our driver for the day, Mr Somchai. After waiting for Kenny to receive his luggage (“Liquids” he mutters gnomically) we’re soon aboard the Somchai-mobile and heading off to our first stop, the rather worryingly named Rapeepan Ville Hotel in Ubon – heartily recommended at around 800BHT per night including breakfast, and boasting not one but two ponds should any Port fans fancy a post-match dip.
For lunch we head to the Ubon Irish Pub, an excellent choice for many reasons, one of them being that it is somewhat steeped in local footballing culture – not only is the barmaid the girlfriend of Ubon UMT’s physio, but it seems the place is owned by Ubon and former Buriram coach Scott Cooper. It’s a marvellous little spot with a well-maintained draught Guinness that puts many Bangkok bars to shame, and the barmaid does a wonderful job of preparing lunch for all 8 of us – and the fish & chips were well worth waiting for.
Then we head off on the 65km drive to Sisaket, stopping en route to load up on the obligatory beers (both Tom and I can confirm that Singha’s new premium brand U Beer is very nice indeed) and passing the Port bus on our way. Alcohol of course often leads to ill-advised choices and for some reason, after singing Singh Chao Ta and the Genki Nagasato song, someone – possibly James – suggests listening to Rick Astley, so we eventually pull up at Sisaket’s charmingly ramshackle, rural stadium with Never Gonna Give You Up blasting out of the van.
After procuring beers from a beer stall for some reason situated on an ants’ nest, and being duly bitten, we meet up with other Port fans and head into the away end, which quickly fills up with several dozen locals who turn out to be Wuttichai’s family, which explains why the no14 was making a rare start and wearing the captain’s armband (note to Jadet: this isn’t a school team and you can’t pick a player just because his mum & dad are in the crowd). Wuttichai’s dad is a top fella and kindly shares his beer with me after the stall outside runs out. Siwakorn’s dad is also in attendance and there’s a touching scene when Hockers prostrates himself at the feet of his hero’s father.
After Sisaket’s extravagantly-horned Kouprey mascot comes over for a wave – to be greeted with drunken chants of “You’re extinct, and you know you are” and a less than note-perfect rendering of late 90s handbag house classic Horny by Mousse T ft Hot & Juicy – the game kicks off and – whisper it – but it rapidly looks as if Port are going to boss this one, with the Koupreys looking less than Dangerous and restricted to the occasional counter-attack. But as usual Port are having difficulty turning their possession into scoring chances with Wuttichai (14) non-existent and Pakorn (9) having another one of “those” games where he looks like a man nervously confronting a football for the first time.
Nevertheless, it’s Pakorn – sort of – who puts Port ahead on 42 minutes when a vicious inswinging corner is comically palmed into the net by Sisaket’s keeper. Where would be we without shite Thai goalkeepers eh? In the bottom half, for sure. Wuttichai nearly makes it 2 on the stroke of half time when Nitipong (34) puts in arguably his best cross of the season, only for the ageing striker to head it over the bar from just 6 yards out.
But we don’t have long to wait for a second, as 4 minutes into the second half a Pakorn free-kick bounces into the Sisaket area and onto the foot of Siwakorn (16), and the Thin White Duke buries it into the back of the net. But hold on, what’s this? The referee, who has had little to do at that point other than allow Sisaket to kick Josimar (30) every time he has the ball, rules it out, then consults with his assistant, and then allows it again, sparking lengthy protests from Sisaket which result in a red card for their coach and 7 minutes of injury time, which will – sadly – end up punishing Port.
So, 2-0 up and Sisaket struggling and it looks as if Port have this one in the bag. But as we know of old, Port are not the best at managing these situations and on 70 minutes the game changes, as a fairly tame Sisaket cross from the left is watched by an alarmingly static Dolah (4) and Rochela (22), allowing former Reading striker Leroy Lita to head it into Worawut (36)’s bottom left corner. 2-1, and the Koupreys have most definitely got The Horn and at that point you just know Port are going to let this slip.
The moment is a long time coming, but in the 95th minute Sisaket throw a free-kick into the mixer, Meechok (20) grapples with soon-to-be Muangscum striker Leandro Assumpcao who, no doubt fully aware of the referee’s desire to even things up after Port’s second goal, throws himself down in the box, and the man in green points at the spot. Yet another penalty given away and, as Leandro thumps it past Worawut, yet another lead thrown away. Just as the ball hits the net, the heavens open and we take this as our cue to vacate the premises and head back to Sisaket. During the journey it rapidly becomes apparent that, what with the levels of drunkenness on the bus, our plan to find a bar and watch the FA Cup Final isn’t going to happen. So after enjoying Keith having a goodnight Skype call with his dogs (captured by Linny for posterity should anyone want to hear it, though you’ll have to outbid Keith), we return to the Rapeepan and either watch the game in our rooms or pass out.
Sunday offers little to report other than almost universal hangovers, a cracking Isaan lunch at the airport and a photo session in the departure lounge with a random Muangthong fan. The late penalty really has taken the gloss off the weekend.
Still, this result completes a run of 8 points out of 4 games, including two tricky away trips to Isaan and a visit to the SCG, and with Port sitting in 7th on 28 points at the halfway point of the season, things are panning out better than most of us would’ve expected. It’s just a shame that, due to defensive lapses, a lack of attacking invention and the usual dodgy refereeing, it could be so much better. But we’ll be reviewing the first leg of the season in more detail shortly so I’ll stop here.
Man of the Match: Siwakorn
With Port playing a 4-4-2 for a change, the skinny genius had more scope to get forward and he revelled in the role, bossing the midfield and spraying passes out to the wings with efficient regularity, and of course notching another goal. His was the standout performance on a night when Port were solid but unspectacular and were crying out for some spark up front, which – hopefully – Maranhao and/or Asdrubal will provide after the restart.