The meaning of “bai loei” is open to a number of interpretations. “Loei” is one of those words that does not have a direct comparable in English. However, I believe a general understanding of “bai loei” to be “go already!”, often as a retort if someone is pestering to go somewhere. It can also be used to mean “far away” or “distant”…
Up in the elbow of Thailand, the bit where the Mekhong deviates from being the division between Laos and what used to be Laos but is now Isan, lies a tale of faded dreams and grand visions. A tale of City and United.
Way back in the mists of time, shortly after an economic schism that shook banks and financiers to their very core (for a bit) and destroyed livelihoods across most of the western world (for a bit), I took up the opportunity to fritter away a redundancy pay-off on a year’s volunteering work in in Loei province. Unknownst to me, only a few kilometres from the slow motion riot that took place most days in the school I was ‘helping’, someone else had also thought it a good idea to waste a load of money in the rural province of Loei.
Loei City FC (The Tha Kon Devils) were founded as a semi-professional club in 2009. The city, home to barely 50,000 folk, had itself a football team for the very first time. It didn’t yet have a functioning airport. The nearest train station is 150km away. They were placed in the bottom regional tier of the Thai football pyramid – the inaugural Regional League North East, including teams such as Buriram (in pre-Newin times, before assimilation with Buriram PEA and subsequent sale of licence to Songkhla) and Nakhon Ratchasima. They were to play their games at the Riverside Stadium, the municipal stadium of Loei, nestled beneath surrounding hills and in a crook of the River Loei. And boy did they play.
City’s first season saw them conquer most of what they came across, and sit atop the division as champions, losing only 3 all season in their 20 games (Nakhon Ratchasima doing the double over them, plus losing away at Nakhon Phanom). The highlight of the season was a 7-1 mauling, away, of Sakhon Nakhon. Buriram finished 4th; Korat 2nd.
Entering the ‘Champions’ League set up for achieving promotion from the Regional Leagues, their league form evaporated. Playing a round robin against the 4 other Regional League champions (including Chiang Rai), they finished bottom. For stattos everywhere, the top three from the five gained promotion – Raj Pracha, Chiang Rai and Nara United.
Unperturbed, their sophomore league season picked up where their freshman had finished. The Regional League North East expanded to accommodate more teams, which also resulted in an additional place in the end of season round robin. The top two would go through. City, once again, finished top, two points ahead of Buriram. City hadn’t lost at home all season. Both teams had a goal difference far ahead of the pack (Loei +40; Buriram +45); Buriram were 10 points ahead of Yasothon in third.
The Champions League became a two group affair and City were placed in with Phuket, Chainat, Bangkok FC, Rayong and Samut Prakan. To say that City once again under-performed is a sleight to the definition of ‘under-performed’. They were atrocious, gaining 5 points and finishing bottom with a goal difference of -13. Promoted from the league? Buriram, having beat Phuket 1-0 in the final. It’s fair to say that this is probably the point that the two teams fortunes diverged. Dramatically.
City did not make it a hat-trick of league titles. 2011 saw them finish second behind Roi Et and ahead of Nakhon Ratchasima. Nakhon Ratchasima finished 20 points ahead of fourth placed Yasothon, which shows the strength of the top three that season. City also enjoyed an FA Cup run to the quarter finals, coming up short against Songkhla in a 4-0 home drubbing. Roi Et, City and Korat all entered the Champions League play-off structure.
Loei fared better than previous forays, finishing third in their group. The team promoted that season? Ratchaburi, who beat Nakhon Ratchasima 2-1.
And that was about the pinnacle of football in Loei province for some time. City went into a tailspin. According to local sources and in-keeping with most clubs deaths, money dried up and the quality of players coming through declined. Although there was a noticeable spike in English language teachers from Africa in the local schools. A brief foray into the North Regional League saw them finish 7th. For the past two seasons they have finished second bottom, back in the Northeastern Regional League. The division champions this season?
Let’s just have a short history lesson first…
In 2012, around 20km away from Mueang Loei, in the small no-mark town of Wang Saphung, Wang Saphung Municipality FC were born. Sadly they were not nicknamed ‘The Wangers’. Wang Saphung bumbled about in the provincial amateur league from their inception until 2016. In 2016 they gained promotion to the T4 Regional League, home of their near neighbours Loei City. They achieved this through some byzantine process of groups and eliminations – ultimately triumphing 6-0 against TWD Tanaytum. The competition also contained a half dozen teams from Korat – Nakhon Ratchasima United, Korat City, Korat, Korat Huai Thalaeng, Pern Pak Chong and Korat United (not Nakhon Ratchasima United). A certain Life of Brian scene springs to mind.
Before the start of the 2017 T4 season they rebranded, deciding rather brazenly on Muang Loei United. As though a reincarnation of the (yet to be deceased) Loei City, they began life spritely in T4 Northeast. Their first season saw them finished third, the derby game bringing a record crowd to the Wang Saphung Municipal Stadium of 1,010 that still stands today (demonstrating excellent stamina). Third place saw them enter the Champions League play-offs, going down to Muangkan United 2-1 on aggregate in a revised preliminary knockout format (don’t ask…).
The story of both teams in 2018 could not have been more dramatically juxtaposed. I’m unsure where to start, so let’s just go for the facts as they stand, and answer the previous unaddressed question. The Young Turks of United (immigration have been notified) finished top of the division by 1 point, Khon Kaen coming second. City finished 13th of 14 teams, clear of relegation though, enjoying a 17-point cushion over Ubon UMT United U23s who occupied the only relegation place. The derby games saw a 0-0 at the Riverside and a 2-0 win for United in Wang Saphung. United enjoyed an average attendance of around 500, City a ‘reasonable at this level’ 200. Incidentally, Khon Kaen had a frankly staggering average of 3,900.
Those are the facts. United are now playing in the play-off arrangements for promotion to T3. Three days ago they drew 0-0 away at Bankhai United, with four more games to play in their group. The five best teams from the two groups of six will be promoted. A complete head-screw.
And what is in store for City? Even by Thai FA standards they have fallen victim of astounding failings of logic. Now, I’m not pretending to fully understand this situation, but from digging around this is what I have established.
The 2018 T4 Northeastern League saw Buriram, Ubon UMT and Nong Bua Pitchaya enter U23 sides into the league (much like Port B this season). There is only one relegation place in the T4 Northeastern League, which was filled miserably by Ubon UMT. Since the completion of the season it has been deemed by the Thai FA that neither Ubon UMT nor Buriram U-23 teams can play in next year’s T4 competition as there are too many ‘normal’ teams wishing to play. The consequence? Ubon’s relegation has been effectively nullified, and Buriram are voided out of T4. With Ubon ‘escaping’ relegation by not being allowed to play the following year (which, as they were relegated, they wouldn’t be playing in anyway), the relegation trap door swung open with gay abandon once again, and swallowed the next bottom team: City.
Bye Loei indeed.
All of this happened post-season, to the best of my understanding. I hope my understanding is wildly inaccurate. To see a team disappear in such circumstance is gutting, particularly when there is no real need for it to happen as the FA had already doubled the places available for promoted teams by dumping out the U23 sides.
What may follow is purely conjecture. United need to heed the warnings and tribulations of City. City may never again rise to the heady heights of T4, or even survive to play in the amateur league. Fans are already crossing the divide to support the more successful United. There are Facebook groups for combined City & United fan groups. One could suspect that given the name of Muang Loei United, United could seize the moment to actually move the 20km in to Muang Loei – perhaps the intention all along.
All I do know is that Loei City will always hold a little piece of my heart, being the first team I saw in the Land of Smiles. Loei travel advice can be sought in the Sandpit, for the cost of a Leo.