Have we mentioned before that we love football? We'll talk all day about the top clubs, but we really love to hear about something different. IBWM thinks FC Phuket fit that category, so here's James Goyder with more.
FC Phuket did not make the most auspicious of starts to life in the lowest tier of professional Thai football Formed only weeks before the start of the Division Two (Southern Section) season and managed by a local politician the team unsurprisingly failed to thrive.
Despite a succession of managerial changes and a mid season makeover which saw virtually the entire playing squad overhauled, the side still finished bottom of the division. Attendances at the Surakul Stadium were extremely poor and FC Phuket failed to record a single home win in front of this small handful of supporters.
While the few who did go to games regularly were pleased that an island with a population of well over half a million people finally had a professional football team there was clearly much work to be done.
Miraculously, with the aid of some considerable investment and a much-improved organizational infrastructure, this work did get done. The squad, which had struggled so badly in the inaugural season, was almost entirely disbanded and a new group of slightly more competent players was brought in.
Crucially the club also employed the services of one of the best-regarded coaches in the Thai game, Arjan Songssamsub. He arrived from Muang Thong United as part of a link up between the two clubs. Three years ago Muang Thong United were playing in the third tier of Thai football, just like FC Phuket. Now they are on the verge of winning the Thai Premier League for the second consecutive season and have reached the semi finals of the AFC Asia Cup.
FC Phuket sought to reinvent themselves in similar fashion by borrowing a number of players from the Thai champions. They also changed the colour of the kit, the logo, the nickname and even the team name. As of 2010 FC Phuket became FC Phuket, nicknamed the Southern Sea Kirin in tribute to Muang Thong United who are known to their supporters as the Double Kirin.
Amongst the new arrivals were three players from the Ivory Coast. Diarra Ali, Camara Ahmed and Nene Bi were all loaned to the new look FC Phuket and this trio would be pivotal to the club’s successful second season.
As well as new players a marketing campaign which reached out to the Thai community attracted a small band of loyal supporters. Known, for some unknown reason, as ‘The Hulk’ these fans brought with them printed song sheets, percussion, flags and megaphones.
They are quite possibly the most magnanimous group of football supporters on earth. Win, lose or draw at the final whistle ‘The Hulk’ will sing the name of the opposition team and applaud them off the field. Someone did once throw a bottle onto the pitch in a token attempt at hooliganism but he was issued with an immediate reprimand by a law abiding fellow fan.
While the sudden emergence of the frighteningly well-organized group of supporters begged the obvious question of ‘where were you when we were shit?’ it definitely improved the atmosphere at Surakul Stadium. The previous season’s support had basically consisted of a small group of foreigners who would spend most of the match getting drunk and attempting to work out an effective Thai translation for ‘she fell over’. (poo ying pen lom, in case you’re wondering).
So poor where they in the opening season that I actually ran an appeal in the Phuket Gazette for new players. There were several abortive attempts to set it up, largely because the manager kept changing but out of the blue we were contacted by the club late one evening to tell us the trial was on for the following day.
Unfortunately, despite the period of notice given being considerably less than 24 hours, the trial still somehow got cancelled. This only became apparent after I had waited by the pitch with an increasingly irate group of aspiring footballers for the best part of an hour.
The second trial was also cancelled but at least this time we were informed in advance. A third date was arranged and on this occasion the team actually turned up but unfortunately they had obviously neglected to inform the groundsman and the grass was at least a foot high. Eventually a small section was mowed and the coaches proceeded to put all the players through a series of rigorous fitness tests, with the ball barely getting used.
Despite this a couple of the foreign players persevered. One of them had played professional football in the US as well as Division One in Thailand and was actually quite good. When I asked whether the club was going to sign him or not I was told they couldn’t because it would be too difficult to obtain a work permit.
Imagine my surprise when the team lined up for the next home game with three African players, none of whom were very good. ‘How come they can play but Ryan (the American former pro) can’t?’ I asked. ‘Oh it’s because they look like they are Thai’ came the not entirely convincing response from one of the coaches. All three could have passed for Zulu warriors but there was no mistaking them for Thais.
I arranged another trial before the start of the second season and once again a handful of half-decent foreign footballers turned up. None of them were actually selected but at least the new coach took a decent look at them before deciding they weren’t good enough. The team’s schedule, which involved training seven afternoons a week, also precluded the involvement of anyone with a full time job.
The results of the stricter training regime and more considerate squad selection were almost immediately apparent. FC Phuket drew their opening home game but the new owners decided that this result was unacceptable and managed to have it overturned by the Thai FA. Something to do with use of unregistered players but FC Phuket had their first home win, even if no one actually got to see it.
The team managed to win its next home game fair and square and surged to the top of the table, remaining there all season. Whereas the 2009 season had seen FC Phuket collect only nine points and score 11 goals, in the 2010 campaign FC Phuket scored 51 goals picking up 55 points in the process.
Phuket has long been one of Thailand’s most popular and prosperous regions and it now has a football team of which it can be proud. FC Phuket are one of the favourites to win the forthcoming divisional play offs which will decide which of the top teams from the five regional divisions will play in Division One next season.
Ultimately the ambition is to follow in the footsteps of Muang Thong United who won Division Two, Division One and the Thai Premier League in three consecutive seasons. One potential obstacle facing FC Phuket is the lack of support. While the fans that do show up are a vociferous bunch there are nowhere near enough of them to fill the 15,000 capacity Surakul Stadium.
This is partly due to the itinerant nature of the Phuket population. Its status as probably the most popular tourist destination in the region means that the majority of people in Phuket actually come from elsewhere. It is difficult for people who have no roots in a place to feel an affinity for its football team.
While a football match might not be part of the average tourist experience in Thailand there is much to recommend a trip to see FC Phuket. The stadium is located in Phuket Town, tickets only cost 50 Baht and it is permissible to drink alcohol inside the stadium. There can’t be many places in the world where you can turn up with a six-pack and pay the equivalent of a pound to watch professional football.
Whatever the result, and lately it has mainly been a home win, a good time is always had by all at the Surakul Stadium. FC Phuket supporters are boisterous yet benevolent and are always happy to welcome another member into their ranks. So if you happen to be in Phuket between February and October and you are wondering what to do with yourself why not take in an FC Phuket game?
If you would like to read more from James, up to date news and ticket information can be found at www.fcphuket.blogspot.com.