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Last month, not long after the Socceroos qualified for the 2018 World Cup, I took a two-hour car drive from my home in Bangkok to the small coastal city of Chonburi, just north of the internationally famous tourist destination of Pattaya.

It was the last round of the Thai Premier League 2017 season and Chonburi FC hosted Buriram United who had already been confirmed as champions. 

More than 1,000 of Buriram's fans travelled to the fixture. Along with three distinct groups of ‘active’ home fans, a celebratory and yet relaxed atmosphere was created.

Surprisingly, Chonburi went into half time leading 1-0, however in the second half a resurgent Buriram turned things around to run out 2-1 winners.

Prior to game, I had the privilege of sharing a conversation with English expat Dale Farrington (pictured) who has lived in Thailand since 1997.

PB: What changes have you seen in Thai football over the two decades you have been living here?

Dale: I have seen so many, it's difficult to know where to begin. The most obvious one is the amount of coverage the local game gets now. Back then, it was extremely difficult to find any information about the league, even in Thai (language). Now we have so many people writing about every aspect of the sport. The crowds are up too. Even though 2017 has seen a drop in the overall average attendance figures, there is no comparison to when I first started going. You'd get a few dozen fans turning up and away travel was virtually unheard of. I'm proud to say that my club was largely responsible for introducing football fan culture to Thailand.

We started travelling in large numbers back in 2007 and our home gates of 1500-2000 were far and away the biggest in the country. The clubs are more professional now and merchandise is a big part of the game. This certainly wasn't the case up until fairly recently. I think another major difference is the number of foreigners attending league matches and writing about their experiences.

For my first few years, the only other foreigner I saw at matches, apart from my mate, Ian, was Robert Procureur. He was the man largely involved in the rise of Muangthong United and now involved at Ratchaburi. Robert was working as an agent back then and would often turn up with three or four hopefuls in tow. Now most Thai clubs have a reasonable ex-pat following, thanks largely to the 'boom' in 2009 and the aforementioned amount of coverage in the media.

How long have you been associated with Chonburi FC and what is your current role?

I've been supporting Chonburi since 2002, when we were a below average Pro League team, attracting crowds of a few dozen. I currently run an independent English language website www.clubwebsite.co.uk/chonburifc which I started in 2009.

What has been the biggest highlight for you at Chonburi?

In 2007, we became the first provincial team to win the Thai Premier League (TPL). This was pretty special and it was undoubtedly the catalyst for the big changes we've seen in the league over the past ten years. I will also mention the FA Cup win in 2010, the Pro League triumph in 2005, the 2006 Singapore Cup semi-final and final and the 3-1 rout of Melbourne Victory in the group stages of the AFC Champions League in 2008. All very memorable events. I hope I don't have to wait too long until the next one!

How satisfied have you been with the performances of the team this season?

Not at all. This is without doubt the weakest Chonburi squad in my 16 years supporting the club. There are many reasons for this, but it is sad to see. We'll need to improve rapidly if we don't want to face another season of mediocrity next year and lose even more fans. Unfortunately, I don't think the management has the nous and awareness to handle the current crisis and feel it will get worse, barring a minor miracle.

What is the relationship like between the fans and team?

The players are always available to chat to the fans and that is really appreciated. However, the relationship between the senior management and the supporters has soured somewhat recently.

We used to be a really tight knit club, but for some reason, the bond has been broken and this has led to many long-term followers turning their backs on the Sharks. In the present circumstances, it's difficult to see how they can be encouraged to return. Very sad.

Are you concerned that a gap has been created between the big two clubs of Buriram and Muangthong with the rest of the league in terms of ability to be champions?

I don't think it's healthy for any league to have the same two clubs dominating year in, year out so yes, I am concerned. However, it's up to the others to raise their game in order to match the so called 'Big Two'. Strangely, I do remember writing a letter to the Bangkok Post back in 2008 when it looked like Chonburi would dominate for a long time. That seems ridiculous now, so things do have the capacity to change. Let's hope it's sooner rather than later.

I think Bangkok United and Chiang Rai United are not that far behind and their appearances in this year's cup finals is a sign that the stranglehold may not last much longer. Fans of Buriram and Muangthong probably won't agree, but for the good of the domestic game, I hope that this is the case.

What are the greatest strengths and weaknesses of the Thai league?

The strengths include cheap ticket prices although the cost has gone up considerably in the past couple of seasons. For accessibility it's easy for the fans to get close to the players. There were lots of goals in 2017. You see very little trouble at Thai matches and generally the relationships between 'rival' fans are good. It's usually a good day out, regardless of what happens on the pitch!

The weaknesses include poor overall management and refereeing standards, and players time wasting and feigning injury.

How long before Thailand is a realistic chance to qualify for the World Cup finals?

Under the current qualification system, a long time. Even though they have made improvements in the past few years, they still fall short when it comes to being able to compete with the top Asian nations. I was lucky enough to have watched Peter Withe's national team back in the late 90s and I don't think the current lot is as good as they were. However, if FIFA goes ahead with its proposed plan of increasing the number of nations (to 48 teams) at the World Cup finals, then the Thais chances of qualifying will also improve.

What are the long-term aspirations for Chonburi FC? 

The club is very proud of its academy and the long-term goal now appears to be to build a squad that is made up of mainly of homegrown players. Whether we'll ever be good enough to seriously challenge for honours again, remains to be seen. Many fans accuse the management of lacking ambition and, whilst the youth policy is one to be applauded, their reluctance to invest in quality, proven players and especially foreign signings is worrying. I guess staying solvent is also another aspiration. The boom period in Thai football is well and truly over, so many clubs are finding themselves in a difficult situation financially. We are certainly one of these clubs.

Do you have long-term personal goals for your involvement in football?

I'd like to keep my website www.clubwebsite.co.uk/chonburifc going for as long as possible. This is my ninth year and I still enjoy it. However, coming up with fresh, interesting content is now a big challenge. Luckily, the vast majority of people involved in Thai football are always willing to give their time for interviews, opinions and so on. And for this, I am eternally grateful.

Thank you, Dale, for sharing your experiences, views and knowledge for the readers at Football Today in Australia and around the world.


Categories: People | Asia

chonburi fc, thai football, thai premier league

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