The rise of Thailand’s Port FC, a club with an atmosphere like few others in the region

The rise of Thailand’s Port FC, a club with an atmosphere like few others in the region

Beyond the shadows cast by Bangkok’s plentiful luxury hotels and shopping complexes, this secluded corner of the city was teeming with life. The vegetable market under the bridge was still damp from the morning rain, giving those arriving by metro a hard choice between wet feet or a 20-minute detour. In the distance sat a row of Bangkok’s tallest residential complexes, as visible and imposing as ever despite the descending mist, appearing almost alien-like when surrounded by the world of street-vendors and two-storey shophouses.

It’s in these times that we’re reminded why we don’t judge books by their covers. Packaged in these less than glamorous trappings lies a story of intrigue, ambition and redemption as entertaining as any this city has to offer.

The energy and atmosphere of Port FC’s PAT Stadium has become legendary amongst followers of the Thai League. Despite being a traditionally mid-table side, finishing ninth in 2017, every team in the country fears a visit to Klongtoey. However, rowdy supporters aren’t the only thing the team has to boast about this season. After an extended spell of tedious mediocrity, the Lions have emerged roaring as loudly as the beast on their crest, flying as high as third place and playing some of the most attractive football in the division.

“I think the big difference for us has been the quality of the football. It’s been great to watch,” reflects Tim Russell, a Port fan and founder of the club’s independent English language fan website, The Sandpit. “It’s been like a heartbeat,” claims Dominic Cartwright, another Sandpit contributor, of the club’s progression this season. For effect, he draws in the air with his finger to emphasise the sharp upturn his club has experienced.

As their name suggests, Port FC are owned by the Port Authority of Thailand, for whom their stadium is named after. However, in 2015, the club signed a five-year Memorandum of Understanding with Thai businesswoman Nualphan Lamsam, commonly known to locals as ‘Madam Pang,’ the majority shareholder of Muang Thai Life Insurance and the Assistant Secretary General of the Democratic Party, which has held power over Bangkok for over a decade.

“When she first came in she didn’t spend that much money, and we got relegated in her first season. She spent a lot of money getting us up, but last season not so much,” explains Tim, whose story gives an excellent testament to how far the club have come considering they were playing second division as recently as 2016.

This season, however, Madame Pang has loosened the purse-strings significantly in the transfer window, making a clear statement to the rest of the division. Arrivals such as playmaker Nurul Sriyankem from Chonburi, left-back Kevin Deeromram from Ratchaburi, and most significantly, forward Dragan Bošković from local rivals Bangkok United, who scored 38 league goals from 33 games last season. “I think we knew that Madame Pang was going to spend more money this season,” Russell comments, “but when they announced Bošković it was just like ‘wow.’ That was suddenly Port going to another level.”

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“To be fair, what we’ve had this year is what we expected two years ago [when
Madame Pang came in] with a big money plan,” claims Cartwright, who has a more nuanced take on the side’s spending splash during the off-season. “I think they’ve been great signings and we’ve got a good team, but maybe it wasn’t the best way to spend that money,” he says, striking a slightly different tone to the enthusiastic fans around him, adding that “some of the signings were more about the name than fitting into the team.”

The example of the club’s biggest acquisition, Bošković, demonstrates this point. The Montenegrin forward’s record-breaking campaign last season was a result of his “freedom to roam around [another] striker who [played as a] target man,” something not offered to him in Port’s system of play. Similarly, the signing of Nurul, which was heralded as a major capture for the club, is undercut by the fact that the side “already had Pakorn [Prempak],” who has frequently topped the club’s assist charts when operating on the right flank.

However, regardless of the scepticism, Cartwright’s enthusiasm for his beloved team’s progress this season is clear. “They are not mid-table players, they are all marquee signings. Any of those players could have walked into any team in the TPL,” he says proudly, adding that “all of these signings put a marker down to Muangthong and Bangkok United.”

When it comes to which one of these signings has been the best, most fans are in agreement. “Kevin, left-back, has been fantastic,” says long-time fan Peter Hockley, adding: “Bošković started off well but has started to tail of recently, so I’d say Kevin has been the most impressive player.”

Kevin Deeromram, the half-Thai half-Swedish left-back, has made quite a splash since returning to the country of his heritage when he signed for Ratchaburi from Djurgårdens in 2017. His six-foot stature and impressive speed make him a dominating physical presence down the left flank, and his expeditious forward runs make him an exciting watch for club and country. Port beat rivals Muangthong to his signature during the off-season, a true marker of how far the club has come.

“If you look at the signings in terms of what we had previously and what we have now, Kevin is the best signing because he’s the biggest step up,” Cartwright assesses, adding: “When we bought Kevin, other teams realised we were serious and that we have a genuinely good team.”

However, big investment and glamorous signings aren’t the only reason the club has been flourishing this season. “Obviously with the players we’ve bought in, we have a much better team. The players we’ve bought in have certainly improved the team, and we are playing with a lot more confidence,” Hockley claims. He also mentions that Port “are driven by the supporters”, who stuck by them in the second tier and continue to produce the division’s most intimidating atmosphere.

“If you look at it now, we are still playing with five or so players that were in that team in 2016, so it’s not like we’ve completely changed our team and bought in loads of new players,” Russell mentions, citing that the side have got players such as “Rochela, Pakorn, Nitipong, Sivakorn and Worawut” all of whom were still at the PAT Stadium in 2016.

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While the role of Madame Pang and her host of new signings is significant, the role that head coach Jadet Meelarp has played in the club’s rise is slightly more polarising. “The thing about Jadet is that he just comes off as this friendly, kinda chubby sort of guy,” Russell says with a smile, but mentioning that he “thinks he’s been a lot better than the impression that he gives out.”

His record is impressive, with Cartwright mentioning he was particularly impressed by how “he came close to beating Buriram with Chonburi,” which was worthy of respect as his side “had less money”.

“I don’t often like the tactics, I don’t think he gets his substitutions right, he has been very negative in the past,” Hockley counters, providing the dissenting opinion. Regardless of his shortcomings, however, there is a belief that he is the right man to lead the squad at this current moment. “He’s good at managing upwards as well – he’s good at dealing with the owners,” Russell explains, adding that “when managers come to Port, they’ve got to realise that, as the coach, they aren’t going to be able to pick their squad all the time and have
control over transfers.”

Cartwright adds that it is important that the club employ “the kind of manager that can work with a dictatorial Thai owner” – a profile that Jadet fits perfectly – while being able to inspire unity and cohesion amongst the squad.

Today, Bošković, Nurul and company are set to take on their most hated local rivals, four-time Thai League champions Muangthong United. The Klongtoey side sit one place and four points ahead of the side from Nonthaburi, but a whole six points separate them from second-placed Bangkok United and a further two from league leaders, Buriram United.

Buriram are also in town tonight, set to face off against another capital-dwelling club Bangkok Glass FC. And while the resentment for the side from Thailand’s north-east is clear, there is an appreciation that the defending Champions are both likely and deserving winners of this year’s Thai League.

Following this game, Buriram’s form has been impressive while those around them have suffered from inconsistency. Port sit in third, 15 points behind the leaders with Bangkok United in second, still nine points behind top spot. “I think Buriram will win it,” Russell says when prompted about the league’s likely final standings, adding that he’d “obviously love to see Port win it” but he thinks they are too far behind to catch them up. “They’ve got so much depth in all their positions,” Cartwright laments.

However, it’s hard to describe such an opinion as pessimism considering the journey fans of Port FC have already been on. For the once plucky underdogs, this season has gone above and beyond what most have come to expect at the PAT Stadium. “Third place, absolutely,” Hockley replies with certainty. “Third place would be fantastic.”

By Gian Chanrichawla @GianChansricha1

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