At the start of this month we said that April would be a decisive month for Port – six games after which we would know for sure if the club’s title challenge is the real deal or not. After just three of those games, we already know the answer – no it isn’t. And whilst defeat at runaway leaders and defending champions Buriram is no disgrace, the manner of it does not bode well for the rest of the season, nor for the future of coach Jadet, whose decision-making was once again highly questionable.
Thanks to the Thai FA’s genius for fixture scheduling, we convened at Don Muang at 10:30 on the day before the start of the Songkran holidays to fly to Buriram for a 17:45 kickoff. Truly great work guys. The sophisticates (Jim & Nigel) headed to Coffee Club for breakfast; the proles (AC and, er, me) hit McDonalds; the technically challenged (Tim W) got stuck in a long manual check-in queue.
Around 90 minutes later we found ourselves at the Amari Buriram Utd, a very pleasant (if somewhat jerrybuilt – think 1970s student hall of residence with a pool in the middle of it) 4* hotel located within the stadium complex. Fellow Sandpitters Keith & Kev were already settled by said pool with a bucket of Heinekens and we very quickly stripped off (partially I should add) and joined them. Well, following Port isn’t all slums, dodgy sausages and drinking Leo in carparks. Sometimes you have to pamper yourself.
Thankfully Keith reminded us that we were here to go to a football game, so we spurned the hotel’s kind offer of free tickets in the home end and went to buy away tickets, before joining Peter & the Buriram fans in their local (basically a little shop with a couple of tables outside and a friendly dog who, although named Judy, was male. Well, TIT) for a few pre-match Leos and a few crispy crickets, much to the disgust of AC, who was obviously pining for a currywurst. The bar works on an honesty system – you help yourselves to Leos out of the fridge and then pay for what you’ve consumed. This worked very well pre-match but got very messy when we returned after the game for more.
The game? Oh yes, the game. Calling what few brain cells I have left this morning into action I now remember we did see a game. Buriram’s stadium is a cracker, the closest Thailand has to a proper European stadium, complete with actual turnstiles, and whilst it was less than half full, the Port fans in the away end made a wonderful racket throughout and we didn’t stop singing for 90 minutes – not that it helped the team unfortunately.
Port lined up in a 5-4-1 formation, Dolah (4) joining Rochela (22) & Todsapol (6) in the back 3, and this rare show of tactical flexibility from Jadet paid off early doors – on 12 minutes, a deep cross from Nitipong (34) somehow found its way onto the head of the smallest player on the pitch, Nurul (31) who placed his header past the home keeper to spark mayhem in the away end. And things should’ve got even better for Port on 20 minutes when Tunez dived in on Nitipong and brought him down, but the referee waved away any appeals for a penalty. The bastard.
What should’ve been 0-2 quickly turned into 1-1, when that man Diogo “My Parents Couldn’t Spell Diego” Luis Santos fouled Kevin, then set up an attack, dawdled on the edge of the box, and then made a delightful run into space to slot the ball comfortably past Rattanai (17). A textbook display of the striker’s art (both dark and light) from a player who, when he cuts out the shenanigans and plays football, is simply untouchable – though it would’ve been nice if Port’s players had occasionally tried to touch him instead of standing back and watching in admiration as they did most of the game.
But 1-1 at half-time? We’ll take that, and as we said over our Changs, whilst Port weren’t playing particularly well, Buriram weren’t setting the game alight either and a draw was definitely achievable.
Sadly Jadet had other ideas and committed football (and possibly career) suicide early in the second half, taking off the excellent Dolah and replacing him with Bodin (10), who had earlier raised hackles in the away end whilst warming up, when he acknowledged the Buriram fans but ignored us. The move made Port much more vulnerable at the back and completely confused up front, where only Nurul seemed willing or able to have a go at Buriram’s defenders. Pakorn (7) is still dining out on his performance at against Air Force, Bodin – as so often – didn’t look interested, and Boskovic (23) made me nostalgic for Brent McGrath. The biggest disappointment since The Force Awakens. The wind had been well & truly taken out of Port’s sails and they barely set foot in Buriram’s half from this point. There was also the somewhat undignified spectacle of the Buriram fans unveiling a big Euro Cake flag, to a chorus of boos from the away end. Not that we have anything against Euro Cake of course – their products are regularly washed down with a cup of tea chez Russell – but sponsored supporter flags? That’s almost as bad as the Yamaha Ultras Stand.
As on Saturday, Terens (28) stripped off to come on & was kept waiting on the touchline for almost ten minutes, during which time of course Buriram scored their second, Tunez nodding in unchallenged from an 81st minute corner. And nine minutes later it was all over, Diogo crossing to an (again) unmarked Edgar who made no mistake from a couple of yards out.
Another very poor performance from Port, let down by a coach who made an effective change in the system and then completely screwed it up again in the second half. Our defence remains chaotic, our midfield was toothless and simply too small, and our attackers seem to have lost the swagger & confidence of early season – far too often we saw wingers hesitate and overthink situations instead of putting balls into the box, and we still haven’t worked out how to play the ball through the middle to Boskovic. If he’s still in his job by then, Jadet will really have to up his game for the Prachuap fixture as Pang is already no doubt loading the bullets. As for Buriram, they’re tidy, solid, well organised and blessed with the finest footballer in Thailand; they’re not as much fun to watch as Bangkok Utd but they’ll go on grinding out wins and have the title wrapped up by August.
We troop disconsolately back to Judy’s Bar, to find said hound offering a warm welcome and more cold Leos, after which things become a little hazy. The bar owner tries to swap his old Buriram shirt for Kenny’s 2018 Port shirt and is politely rebuffed (you have to be polite when rebuffing drunk, half-naked Isaan bar owners). Attempts to calculate how many beers we’ve consumed come to nought and we simply give Kenny’s new friend 200BHT each and wish him a happy new year. He then points out that the stadium complex is now locked up for the night, before helping us over an 8-foot metal fence to get back in. Not easy when you’ve all been drinking for 6 hours. I vaguely remember another McDonalds. And during our last, utterly unnecessary beer at the hotel, the waitress, despite wearing a Buriram shirt, tells us she’s such a big Scum fan that she named her son Muangthong. We make our excuses and retire to bed.
I find myself sharing the flight home with several Port players. Pakorn, hat & shades on, gives out serious “don’t talk to me” vibes whilst Rattanai & Worawut are engrossed in their WAGs (and who can blame them); thankfully Nurul is up for a bit of a chat after we land and turns out to be a very shy, likeable, laid-back fella. I congratulate him on his goal & he modestly points out that he can’t be too happy about it as we lost, before we exchange new year greetings and head home. A great end to a fantastic trip.
Sandpit Man of the Match: Nurul
Yeah, I know. I’m a sucker for a smile & a handshake. On the flight back I was debating who would get the MOTM award, and the little fella sealed the deal at the baggage carousel. Obviously his hard work and that goal helped, as did the fact that there were literally no other contenders, on a night when even Siwakorn was out of sorts.