The fixture computer had not been kind this year, in terms of away trips anyway. Before the season started I’d made a list of stadiums I was hoping to cover off this season and also make a weekend of at the same time, Chiang Rai and Sukhothai were quickly crossed out after being put on Sunday nights. Weekends in two polar opposite Thai seaside resorts, Prachuap and Pattaya, were both on the cards until they got moved due to the impending U19 Tiddlywinks championship that will decimate the August program. Luckily, Ubon was still being played on a Saturday night so I went ahead and booked it up. The return flight was just shy of 1500 baht and thanks to striking lucky on Agoda, I got a voucher which meant I was able to get 2 nights at Ubons 4 star Sunee Hotel for a total of 300 baht cash. The team stayed here last year if I recall correctly as I saw the team bus parked up at the shopping mall which sits under the hotel.
When I checked in, the staff clocked my Port shirt and asked me if I was one of the players checking in. I know Thailand attracts some veteran journeymen players during the twilights of their careers, but alas, my fleeting substitute appearances for Cockney Lokomotiv in the Sceptre Sunday League over 15 years ago, may not be quite enough for me to nail down a starting spot in 2018 Thai Premier League.
I spent an enjoyable Friday evening at a Mexican restaurant near the airport with the Sandpits Ubon correspondent, Gary Jones and a few of the Thai Ubon fans. Over dinner it seemed there was still optimism of beating the drop but please, please, please, could Port roll over for them tomorrow? Stranger things have happened in Thai football. My secondary mission for the evening was to scope out a bar to watch the World Cup action on Saturday night with the France v Argentina game kicking off an hour after the Ubon – Port fixture finished.
Coming down for my morning swim, I got in the lift to find myself surrounded by Ubon players who got out at the same floor as me, as I passed through the gym reception on the way to the pool I inadvertently walked in on their morning team meeting. I began pondering if I should try and listen in, but dressed in a wife beater and neon orange swim shorts, I wasn’t exactly inconspicuous. Bumping into staff and players was the theme for the rest of the morning. Over lunch I saw Nurul and Siwakorn walking around the mall, it was the most I’d seen Siwakorn move without picking up a yellow card. My next trip down the lift shaft our own Rod Pellegrino got in. As he got out I joked that he might catch the end of the Ubon team meeting if he’s lucky, he advised both squads were having lunch on this floor. Sure enough when I reached Starbucks in the mall a bit later, there was Jadet sat with a few of the Ubon guys. While our only true heated rivalry is Muangthong, it was still a bit jarring and fourth wall breaking, to see both sets of players and staff all chummy chummy with the game a few hours away.
My next mission for the day was to secure some proper beer for the game. My memory of Ubon last year was that they were locked into a supply from Chang, pet peeve #28 in following Thai football. Apart from Chiang Rai and Bangkok Glass, Leo and Singha need to up their game in controlling the beer supplies. Any lingering ideas from the hotel staff that I was on the Port playing staff must have finally been quashed, when I came back through hotel reception carrying a slab of Leos to the lifts.
Arriving at the stadium just over an hour before kick off, the Port party bus was already here quickly followed by Del, AC and the two Tims (that isn’t the name of an act you’ll see at Edinburgh fringe this year). The Chang tents did a roaring trade out of the Sandpit contingent ….in cups of ice. They seemed perplexed we didn’t want to buy any of the Devil’s Piss that they were promoting. In true American style we tailgated from the case of Leo in Gary’s car boot.
Checking the team news on twitter, there was no Dolah or Suarez, their places going to Todsapol and Bordin. Entering the stadium, attendance looked very, very low, although it did fill up a bit as the game wore on. After so many away trips to <Thai city name> municipal athletics stadiums, it was nice to finally visit a purpose built football stadium again. The UMT Stadium is reminiscent of some League Two or non-League stadiums in the UK. Ticket prices seemed a bit steep with even home fans paying upwards of 200 baht for some sections, maybe a reason why attendances have slid, the ground was definitely fuller last for the match last season.
Ubon started very brightly, belying their lowly league position. After some decent performances on the road, it looked like Port were slipping back to the lethargic apathy shown at Chainat. Were some of the team still a bit leggy from having to play in the cup game on Wednesday? In Suarez’s absence, Bordin, Nurul and Pakorn seemed to be rotating, and taking it in turns to unsuccessfully audition for the part of “number 10”. Ubon had showed more attacking intent in the opening exchanges than they did for the entire 95+ minutes at the PAT earlier this season. On the 11th minute their Serbian midfielder Dimitrov connected with a diving header that was tipped onto the crossbar. From the resulting corner, large Brazilian defender (Yul) Brinner wriggled free from the attentions of Todsapol to get a free header which was over the bar. As highlighted in the preview, their direct replacement for Victor hasn’t quite filled his shoes in the goal scoring stakes. Compared to last season, Brinner aside, Ubon now had a much smaller team.
Ports highlight of the opening 25 minutes was Kevin making a low drive from outside the box, it took a deflection after clipping the heels of an Ubon player but the keeper managed to recover his footing and gather it safely. Ubon were still causing Port problems but were lacking a finisher to put them away. On the 26th minute, DImitrov had a low drive which was spilled by Rattanai into the path Apiwat who did tuck it in, only to find the offside flag was (correctly) raised with two Ubon players offside when the initial shot was drilled in. In the last 10 minutes of the first half, Port finally began to maintain some possession and pressure in the Ubon half for a couple of minutes, but Ubon quickly snuffed it out and were back in control.
Somewhat against the run of play, Port took the lead a couple of minutes before the break. Bosko finally found himself with the ball in their area and won a corner. Pakorn, who had been sluggish all game whipped in the corner which El Capitan flicked on at the near post and into the net. Totally undeserved, but as Toby said in his most recent report “It’s a funny old game”. David pointed and looked up towards the heavens as he returned to the halfway line. A poignant moment for the captain after a recent family bereavement.
Jadet made a much needed change at half time with Adisorn replacing Bordin to protect our back four a bit better. This had an instant effect as Port started the second half much more positively. Nitipong collected the ball and made a run to the Ubon byline, cutting the ball back for Nurul to blaze his shot out of the stadium. On the 55th minute, Boskovic was wrestled to the ground in the box but nothing was given. On the hour Tossapol was replaced with Dolah to add more defensive grit and to counter-balance the threat of Brinners height at set pieces. While Port were now starting to threaten a lot more, Ubon were still carving out chances which somehow were not being put away. On the 66th minute, an Ubon freekick found Dimitrov at the near post, who acrobatically did an overhead kick towards the back post where Brinner was charging in, but he didn’t connect.
A rare lapse from Nitipong saw him take an airshot on the edge of his own box, which let in the Ubon winger Jedsadakorn, his low cross-come-shot couldn’t connect with the sliding Apiwat who was trying to connect at the back post.
To try and solidify Ports defensive position further, Pakorn was then swapped for Chakrit to help Port see this out. It turned out to be an astute move as he offered more defensively on the right hand side, Pakorn had looked out of sorts all game, aside from delivering the corner onto Davids head.
The final whistle came with a sense of relief, a definite smash and grab for Port today. A better team would have carved us a new one on this form but it was “Heartache Tonight” for the Eagles fans, who slip deeper into the relegation mire and are now 12 points adrift of 15th placed Tero, with their next two games at home to Muangthong and away to Buriram.
There were joyous scenes in the car park after the game, and even a little bit of rain couldn’t dampen the spirit of the party bus, or the extinguish the flare that had been lit up.
After the game we moved on to “Take Care” bar to watch what turned out to be a great match between France and Argentina. The Ubon fans, including Gary had laid on a spread for us and we also took great advantage through the evening of their “5 (large) Leos for 299” offer. The hospitality in Ubon from Gary and the Thai Ubon contingent was fantastic all weekend.
On other matchdays, it has been known that the owner takes their group out to the local Tawan Daeng, he was also a visible presence around Ubon’s “sandpit” before the game greeting and talking to fans, with no minders or staff around him. I wonder if Madam will ever try such an approach at the PAT???
Next up for Port, PTT Rayong visit on Wednesday in the Cup and then John Baggio and the Firebats are at the PAT on Sunday, in desperate need of 3 points to lift themselves out of the relegation battle.
The Sandpit MOTM: David Rochela
It wasn’t a great team performance today, but it was the captain who did stand out with some great last ditch blocks and tackles to keep us from embarrassment in the first half, capped off with heading in the winning goal to seal all three points.