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View From the Terraces Pt 2: Thailand

 

“A running track separates fans from footballer; supporters want to be as close as possible and with a running track you cannot provide this. If any club in England is thinking of doing this, I would say to them: Don’t!” Markus Horwick, Bayern Munich Club spokesman.

 

You can always trust a German to express matters in an efficient, succinct manner; even if their words are longer than most, it is the sentiment that counts and leaves you in no doubt about the message delivered. Horwick had written this a year after Bayern Munich’s move from the Olympic Stadium to the Allianz Arena in 2015. The following season, their attendances near trebled and it was the higher quality of the viewing experience and the improved atmosphere which fans quoted as the main reason for their renewed interest in the team. Obviously, the fact that they were a highly successful club playing attractive football must have counted more than a little. However, most of us who suffer the long view nearly every other week at T1 League football grounds, will agree with Horwick’s appraisal.

This second part of my article is about watching football in Thailand and, in its assessment, the running track will never be far from our thoughts. If you have read Part One you will know that I grew up watching football in the 60’s and 70’s on the terraces, from Luton to Liverpool, often amongst huge, passionate crowds. Without getting into the debate about safe-standing and, as a Liverpool fan, this is a very emotional issue, I have to declare now that one of the reasons I love going to Port is that I can stand up. I can also jump up and down, wave my arms, hoist my Sivakorn scarf, sing, scream and shout and often go completely bonkers, with my mates in Zone B. When you have up to 12,000 people doing this at the same time, it creates an ATMOSPHERE. This ATMOSPHERE is enhanced by the fact that we virtually overhang the pitch. The opposing goalkeeper feels our uncomfortably hot breath on his neck and an opposing full-back taking a throw-in might receive a gentle, slightly mocking, pat on the back (Air Force 2014).  We can also see, even from behind the goal, WHAT IS GOING ON. This to me is the complete viewing experience and goes some way to recreate those halcyon days of mullets, obscenely short shorts and pissing in someone’s pocket.

Before we take a look at those Thai grounds, and they will be restricted to the T1, here is a bit of global history.

According to my research, the oldest football ground in the world is Field Mill (now the One Call Stadium), the home of Mansfield Town, with the first game being played there in1861. Bramall Lane (Sheffield Utd), was the first ground to see the use of floodlights, in 1878. However, it was not until 1950 that they were officially endorsed by the ‘enlightened’ Football League and the FA; the Dell, Southampton being the first ground to have them permanently installed.

The Maracana stadium in Brazil holds the record attendance of 199,854 for the Brazil vs. Uruguay match in the World Cup Final on the 16th June, 1950. This is the biggest attendance at a sporting event held in an enclosed stadium and was a bit of a tight squeeze. Galatasaray’s home ground stadium, Turk Telecom Arena, is claimed to be the loudest football stadium in the world, in 2011 reaching a deafening noise of about 131 decibels. All those mobiles going off at the same time must have helped.

Football was introduced to Thailand in 1897 and the Thai FA formed in 1916. The first stadium was Supachalasai, the old National Stadium, built in 1935. PAT Stadium was built in 1967, the year the club was officially formed. The highest recorded attendance at a Thai Stadium outside of an International was 34,689 at the 80th Birthday Stadium, Nakhon Ratchasima in July 2015. With the official capacity set at 24,641, this was even more of a tight squeeze than the Maracana and potentially lethal. Still, as their safety conscious chairman proudly remarked as he watched the traumatized, wheezing fans staggering out of the stadium, “Well, at least we broke the record.”

So, let’s have a look at those Thai Stadiums, and for this purpose I have rated them in four categories.

 

Grounds For Approval

There are certainly some decent grounds in T1; the Thunder Castle at Buriram, for obvious reasons, being the pick of the bunch. Bearing a close resemblance to the King Power Stadium, Leicester, it is all-seater, covered and the atmosphere, although somewhat manufactured, is stirring on big-game nights. The first time I went, it even had turnstiles FFS, although I believe they are now a thing of the past. It is a PROPER STADIUM. Running it close, is the three-sided, plastic-turfed, Leo Stadium, home of Bangkok Glass. It’s three-tiered terracing behind the goal, ever so slightly reminiscent of La Bombonera of Boca Juniors, would be scarily intimidating if it was ever full. Its spacious bar and glamorous Glass Bunnies are added bonuses.

 

Leo Stadium (pic by Tim Russell)

 

Although different in size and appearance, Chiang Rai, Ubon UMT, Pattaya Utd (?), Ratchaburi (new stadium) and Sukhothai (impressive setting) would all squeeze into this category, mainly because, I believe, although I haven’t been to all of them, there is NO RUNNING TRACK. Well done, lads.

The SCG Stadium of Muang Thong aspires to be in this group but it seems to have been dumped in the middle of a building site and should be condemned. Like these below.

Grounds for Condemnation

Basically, however posh you think you might be, with your huge stands and towering floodlights, you have a running track and therefore NO ATMOSPHERE and, half the time, NO FANS. Are you listening Bangkok Utd, Chonburi, Suphanburi, Nakhon Ratchasima? You need to take a lesson from Bayern Munich. Then, there are your slumdog compatriots who have shitty grounds and a shitty view (can you detect my rising anger?): Police Tero, Sisaket, SuperPower, Thai Honda and Thai Navy, although the latter must be slightly excused for having the consolation of Ban Chang on its doorstep ☺. One might argue that our cause is not helped by being dumped in the often, dilapidated away end behind the goal, while the empty sides might afford a better perspective on proceedings.

 

Absence (of fans) makes the brain go ‘Honda!’

 

I reserve especial opprobrium for Thai Honda. You have situated yourself (and BEC Tero before you), in the middle of a sea of rice paddies, which nobody can ever get to, or leave. Our side-view might be slightly better because you don’t have the decency to have any proper ‘ends’ but, and I suppose this is the biggest source of my recurring nightmare, we always lose! If ever I had a powerful but malevolent Uncle who might gift me a drone strike for a birthday present, it would be unerringly employed against the 72nd Anniversary Stadium, after clearing it of human habitation of course. I am not a violent man.  

 

Grounds for Optimism

Of course, most of us know why there are so many grounds with running tracks; they were built for institutions such as the Forces, Universities, etc, to cater for a community and a variety of sports, all before professional Thai football became more popular than Match of the Day. In Bangkok, especially, there is very little space to build a new stadium. But, out in the provinces, blessed with a little bit of spare land, things are on the up, as it were.

 

Pattaya Utd’s new stadium

 

Ratchaburi have already opened their new ground, which many of us will look forward to visiting on the last game of the season, while Chonburi, Pattaya, Sisaket  and Suphanburi all have highly creative, almost futuristic images of supposed new stadiums in the pipe-line. Whether they are ever built is a different thing but at least it shows a growing recognition that football should be played in a proper football stadium with no running track and an ATMOSPHERE, which brings me to….

Hallowed Ground

I stumbled upon an interesting quote about PAT Stadium, “It is rarely used to at least half full capacity, topping in 2011 at 6,916.” The author had obviously been reading the official attendance records because many of us have enjoyed Port brim-full, under the lights, the gates locked, fans clambering up the fences and floodlights, seeking any foothold they can gain, or gap through which they can peer, to get a view of the action. Buriram, with their huge, raucous travelling support, have mostly been our opponents on these momentous occasions when the ATMOSPHERE has been truly, and I know it is old cliché, electrifying. One extremely well traveled, visiting English fan, who had seen football at grounds, large and small, all over the world, compared it to Sao Paolo. Now, I have googled the Cicero Pompeu de Toledo Stadium of Sao Paolo and it is nothing like PAT, so he must have been referring to the fans. Certainly, on capacity-full nights, under the lights, the mist rolling in from the klongs, gazing across at the orange and blue sea of shirts massed in Zone C, a tingle ripples down my spine.

 

The beating heart of Thai football – PAT Stadium (pic by John Parbury)

 

Zone C is where I started my Port career, as it were.  It was a little more sedate in those days and I felt that entrance to Zone B, the traditional ‘behind-the-goal’ position of my youth, was a rite of passage that I had yet to earn. But, I was eager to join. They looked like they were having so much fun. Seven years later and Zone B is a second home, a place where I would almost feel comfortable with a pipe and slippers, probably not on Buriram days though. After an enforced footballing absence of a month, walking up to my usual spot behind the goal for the friendly on Wednesday night and seeing the boys from the Sandpit already in place, induced a warm and cuddly feeling, enhanced by the rare treat of having a beer in my hand. PAT Stadium may be a little worn at the edges, it would never win the Gaudi prize for innovative architecture, but for us, it is, to paraphrase Sir Alex Ferguson, a Colosseum of Delights. Roll on Sept 10th.

 

(Header image courtesy of John Parbury)

 

View From the Terraces Pt 1: England

 

“To say that these men paid their shillings to watch 22 hirelings kick a ball is merely to say that… Hamlet is so much paper and ink. For a shilling, Bruddersford United AFC offered you Conflict and Art… and what is more, it turned you into a member of a new community, all brothers together for an hour and a half. Not only had you escaped from the clanking machinery of this lesser life, from work, wages, rent, doles, sick pay… but you had escaped with most of your neighbours, with half the town, and there you were cheering together, thumping one another on the shoulders, swopping judgments like lords of the earth, having pushed your way through a turnstile into another and altogether more splendid kind of life, hurtling with Conflict and yet passionate and beautiful in its Art.”      From ‘The Good Companions’ by JB Priestley, 1929

 

This article was originally going to be based around Thai Football grounds but a number of factors during the course of my research suggested that a wider view of the football watching experience was required. None more so than the quote above, featured at the beginning of a recent Observer article heralding the baptism of Huddersfield Town in the Premier League. You cannot separate the stadium from the fans; without them, whether glitzy or run-down, it is no more than a soul-less, conglomeration of concrete, plastic and steel with a bit of grass neatly laid in the middle. The fans are what bring the stadiums, the game, to life and are integral part of the match-day experience.

On Zone B, we may not be paying in shillings, we are not escaping, in most cases, clanking machinery or dole queues, but, for most of us, it is indeed a world away from our daily routine. Our Port match-day experience is a special, tribal rite, which we share with our mates on the terraces. Bereft of that experience for the last 3 weeks has only reinforced how important a factor the ‘match’ is in my life, a life which has had football at its heart since as long as I can remember.

I come from a football mad family, on the male side anyway: my dad and my brother were players like me, dad followed Aston Villa for reasons I still find hard to recollect, my brother, Blackpool, for Stanley Matthews. My mum and two sisters didn’t follow, but understood. Like most boys of my age growing up in the Fifties, playing football filled my waking hours, mostly with a tennis ball up and down our alleyway. We lived in open countryside between two villages and sometimes it was a bit of a trek to the recreation ground in the nearest village to play with my mates, especially in winter, so, as a 7 year-old, my first football-playing arena was created in my imagination. ‘The Orchard’, I called it and you have to admit, it is a fitting, romantic, rural name. Subsequent research has found there actually is a ground with this name, home of Bedfont and Feltham FC currently playing in the Combined Counties Premier Division.

 

My Theatre of Dreams

 

But my Orchard, owned by my uncles next door, was a proper one, with heavily laden apple trees, slightly overgrown grass, a wall at one end, which served as one goal, and a fence, bordering the chicken run at the other end, for the other goal. I had been given my first, proper, lace-up football at Christmas and so, with this, dubbined and tucked proudly under my arm, I would stride out into The Orchard at the head of my Imaginary Team (Me) to face my Imaginary Opponents (Me). We (Me v Me) played out many epic encounters in this leafy stadium, winning, drawing and losing in equal measure, a 3rd Me refereeing and a 4th Me providing a running commentary. There was an Imaginary Crowd too, some preening their feathers in the branches of the apple trees, others in the form of a few curious sheep peering over the gate of the field next door (my uncles were farmers), while a few chickens clucked in approval from the henhouse as I dribbled round the apple trees as if they were rooted to the ground. Once a fight broke out between two enraged cockerels over a disputed penalty, but a dousing with the hose pipe soon quietened them down. On another occasion, a particularly nasty foul by Me on Myself ended with a sending off by Me and the inevitable abandonment of the game.

It was about this time, 1959, when I was eight years old, that another uncle, who lived at the end of our row of four family houses (we hadn’t been ostracized from the village or anything, my uncles were just clever with a trowel, bricks and cement and built four houses on a prime plot of Buckinghamshire countryside before it became a designated Green Belt and well before the advent of Milton Keynes) took me to Kenilworth Road, home of Luton Town, to watch them play the mighty Manchester Utd. I was presented with a black and white scarf, bobble hat, a rattle made by my dad (he was clever with wood) and a two week old programme to learn the names of the players on the journey to the game….Baynham, McNally, Hawkes, Groves…. Luton were to make it to the FA Cup Final that year, losing to Forest 2-1.

Luton then, were my first date, the Oak Road my first memorable, ‘behind the goal’ experience, none better than when John O’Rourke scored two late goals to sink local rivals Watford.  I even sat on a bench a few feet away from Sir Alf Ramsey when Ipswich visited as League Champions in 1962 and the ground was so packed we were put around the edge of the pitch for our own safety.

Then in 1964, I met Liverpool.  I had just turned 13 a few days earlier and Mark, my best mate in school, a Scouser, whose dad was head of the school, suggested that we go to watch Liverpool in a 5th round FA Cup tie at Highbury. Now this was Highbury, Arsenal in London, and for a country lad whose biggest regular experience of a metropolis outside his little hamlet, was the small market town of Bletchley, I might as well have been going to Timbuktu. My entry into the dark world of the ‘teens’ must have emboldened me as I promptly agreed to go, not knowing what I was letting myself in for. My tearful mother waved me off that Saturday with a grease-proofed pack of cheese sandwiches and a look of hand-wringing anguish normally associated with sending your offspring into war. Little did she know.

 

Ian St John

 

The crowd was 61,295 that day, nearly all standing, and, arriving late at the back of the Liverpool end, Mark and I were passed, hand to hand, over the heads of the crowd to the front, “There you are lads, you’ll be safer down here”. A quick glance at the empty, tossed bottles massed on the touchline behind the goal didn’t exactly confirm that sentiment. The game seemed to pass me by in an instant, but I still remember the noise, the passion, the drama and Ian St John’s winning goal, a towering header from the smallest player on the field. He was to become my hero. There was also a fight: Joe Baker trading blows with the massive Ron Yeats; both send off. A month later we were in London again to watch Manchester Utd win 3-2 at White Hart Lane in front of 56, 392 equally passionate fans. Best, Law, Charlton, Greaves – I was a child in sweetshop. But it was Liverpool, Ian St John, Bill Shankly and those strange accents that had captured my imagination.

 

Bill Shankly

 

I hadn’t exactly dumped Luton, in the cruel, heartless way that Wendy Osborne, nicknamed Quackers on account of her large protruding front teeth, had dumped me behind the bike sheds the previous week in school, but Liverpool and the truly big match atmosphere was getting a grip. I alternated between Kenilworth Road and wherever Liverpool were playing within reasonable, parentally approved territory. However, I didn’t tell my parents I had a knife pulled on me on the tube coming back from Upton Park, and that year, 1964, Liverpool won the League title just two years after gaining promotion. Although my Luton supporting uncle may not have done, my father approved of my new-found love, being a great admirer of Bill Shankly, a man of the people.

When I moved to Stratford-upon-Avon in 1975 for my first teaching job, it was that little bit closer to Anfield and I would drive up, mostly for mid-week games, as I played football at weekends, to stand on the Kop. It was the eras of Keegan, Dalglish, Ian Rush and a world with no compare.

“I remember the Kop when it was like a bowl of maggots. It was one of the most inspiring sights of my life. The thing levitated, man. Like any gathering of people, a rave or a gig, where people react together en masse, it was spiritual.” (John Power, singer The Cast).

 

On a wet day, with the steam and the cigarette smoke hanging grey and yellow in the air, and the derision exploding in wicked humour out of this gloomy cavern, the Kop had all the menace of an hysteric’s nightmare. (Arthur Hopcraft).