Tim Russell Interview – Port FC “Sandpit”

The transcript of our interview with Tim Russell, founder of Port FC online fan page Sandpit.

What is Sandpit? What is your involvement in it?

Port is probably the best supported club in Thailand among foreigners who actually go to games, mainly because of the location and because it’s a proper Football stadium. We noticed that every week people were asking us “What time’s the game on Saturday? Who is the number 27? Where are we in the league?”. That information was all online but in Thai or spread across different websites. There was nothing about Port FC in one site. I thought “surely one day someone will start a website” but then I thought “Fuck it. I’ll do it myself”. We launched it in December last year. A lot of the Thai fans appreciate it because it’s probably the best source of information on the club. We do match reports, reviews but we also do think-pieces articles and light-hearted articles. We’ve interviewed quite a few players as well.

Do you get any kind of support or funding from the club itself?

Not at all. We want to be obviously close to the club, but we don’t want to be so close that we’re being told what to write. It’s important for us to be independent. There is the whole issue of face here. If we were very close to the club and then we printed something negative about the owner, you can guarantee we’d have a huge issue.

Can you tell me a little bit about the club itself?

It’s always been run by the Port Authorities. That whole area where the stadium is is the dockside area. It’s all owned by Port Authority Thailand. Time was when most Thai Football clubs were owned by some state company. There was the airforce team, the electricity team which later became Buriram, the army team, police team, navy team. Clubs in Thailand change names and sponsors fairly regularly. So it’s one of the few clubs that’s got tradition. It used to be one of the most successful clubs in Thailand. They’ve played in the AFC before. They’ve won the league, they’ve won cups. The thing about Port is that it’s closely identified with a particular district of Bangkok. But I think because it’s identified with this so-called dangerous area, they’ve not been able to pull in people from outside Khlong Toei to come support the club.

Khlong Toei. Someone that I was talking to did say it was a bit of a ghetto. When someone from Bangkok thinks of Khlong Toei, what do they think? What is their impression?

They think about the slums. It’s a very deprived area, so it’s an area in Bangkok that most people think is really dangerous. There are crime problems and drug problems but I’ve been around there many times and always been very welcome. Especially if I wear a Port shirt!

So it’s the equivalent of I guess Millwall?

Millwall is the name everyone mentions when you talk about Port.

You would say that the identity of Khlong Toei spills over into what people think of the fans as well?

Yeah, because Port fans have been involved in quite a lot of crowd trouble over the years. The last one was probably away at Muangthong last season. Port fans have a bit of a reputation. Not as bad as the reputation suggests but there are plenty of fans who are easily provoked…. and big drinkers as well. We foreign fans contribute to that as well.

Khlong Toei people
Original photo by Tim Russell Photography. Used with permission.

With regards to lots of foreigners coming, because it doesn’t have a running track around it and it’s not a multi-purpose stadium, maybe it’s got more of an old-school British feel to it. Do you think that’s the only thing that attracts foreign fans to Port?

I think the biggest thing is the location. It’s easy to get to. If you look at the other Bangkok clubs, Port is the only stadium you can get to by public transport. And I think the atmosphere is better than most other Thai stadia. It’s noisy, you’re close to the pitch, and it’s kind of a cult Football club. It’s not a club that’s gonna win the title every year, but it’s got an authenticity to it. If you look at most of the foreign fans who go, you don’t really get fans of Man U or Chelsea going.

Does it somehow bastardise the authenticity and the notion of it being the club of the people of Khlong Toei and of the dockside workers if foreigners are going and being overly involved and visible? Does it somehow corrupt that?

I’m not sure. I think the Thai fans in general have been very welcoming to foreigners. We’ve come off the bus at away games and the Thai fans have been cheering us because we’ve made the effort to travel. I think the Thai fans appreciate the fact that the foreign fans are going, because they know that we care about the club. They see us shouting and swearing on the terraces and they know that we feel it as much as they do.

So the calibre of the average foreign fan is right so that the people are okay with it?

Yeah. It’s what I would say were genuine Football fans. Football fans who support lower division clubs back in England.

What are the major rivals of Port?

The biggest is Muangthong. It dates back to a cup final in 2010 when there was a big riot that was probably started by the Port fans. The game was abandoned. Every time we play at their ground there’s always trouble. There was trouble in 2014, we got docked 9 points for it. There was trouble last season in the league cup semi-final when we played at their place, which was actually quite enjoyable because it had a bit more of an edge to the game. For those of us who grew up watching English Football in the 80s it was a bit more….

Not so sterile as it can be now?

Yeah exactly. There was a lot of trouble after the game. The police were out, the army were out. It was pretty bad. This season both home and away games have been played behind closed-doors. We actually won at their stadium for the first time in 8 years. So that’s our biggest rivalry, easily, even though in Football terms they’re much better than us. But they see us as a rough bunch of hooligans and we see them as the Man U of Thai Football who buy all good players.

Would you say there is a bit of a chip on the shoulder of Port fans?

Maybe.

Does that come from current position or from them being more working-class?

I think it’s more of a status thing. They’re looked down upon. It’s like saying you support Millwall. You get that kind of reaction and it’s more to do with the reputation of the fans and the demographic of the fans who support them.

PAT stadium inside

Are there any strong rivalries from the old days when it used to be the team of the Army, the team of the police, the team of the Port Authorities?

Not really because I think Thai teams move around and change ownership and change names so much. You don’t have chance for these long enmities to fester like you do elsewhere. Also I think in Thailand the fan culture is very polite. At the end of the game the away team will come over and applaud the away fans and the home fans will chant the away team’s name which you could never imagine in English Football. So it’s only really Port and Muangthong who have got that where the rivalry has spilled over into nastiness. Muangthong and Buriram are rivals because they’re the 2 biggest clubs but it’s more of a sporting thing. I think there was a bit of crowd trouble when they played a couple weeks ago.

Is there a strong feeling among the Port fans that they don’t want what they’ve got to change, even though they’re less successful in contemporary times?

[Pause] Thai culture is very different. Asian culture in general is very different. There is a very rigid class system in Thailand and there’s not a lot of social mobility. People tend to look at wealthy people and think “she’s wealthy, she’s someone who’s done things right and someone we should look up to”. You don’t have that natural mistrust of the rich and wealthy that we maybe do. It’s very different. In terms of Football when our owner took over in the beginning of 2015, one of the first things she did was want to turn it into a family club. She wanted to stop people drinking beer on the terraces. And the people who really opposed it were the foreign fans. The Thai fans were wearing t-shirts with her face on and things like that. She’s very popular with the fans and to be fair, if she hadn’t put her money in at the beginning of 2015, we’d be in division 2 or even 3 by now. There is a big difference between how the Thai fans and the foreign fans think about it. In Thailand the working class people very much know their place.

The notion of Club vs Country. Where does the average Thai individual stand on that question?

Thais definitely favour the national team. The national team gets big crowds. The league stops for 3 or 4 weeks every time there’s a national game. We just had a 3 week break. We’ve now got 4 games in 11 days and then there’s a 5 week break for 2 World Cup qualifiers. Which I think is a reason why the league attendances drop down because people get pissed off and find something else to do.

Where does that [patriotism] come from?

I think Thailand has always been proud that it was the only country of South East Asia that was never colonised. I think they kind of see themselves, in terms of how developed the country is, as superior to Vietnamese or Lao or Cambodians. That reflects itself in the way they support their Football team.

A lot of Asian countries have this foreigner quota. You think they should expand it. What’s the reason for that?

I think it would make it more attractive and I think it would raise the quality of the game of the local Thai players by having more foreigners coming in. If you look at the foreigners that we’ve had at Port, certainly our captain at the moment David Rochella the Spanish guy has definitely had a good influence on the team spirit. All the players look up to him as an experienced Spanish defender. He’s definitely had a positive effect on the quality of our defensive play. But I think in terms of attractiveness of the Football, there just aren’t enough good Thai players there. To say you’ve got to field 7 or 8 Thai players in a team, it’s not attractive for the fans to come and watch.

PAT Stadium Bangkok

It would compromise what you see on the gates and therefore, by extension, the money coming into the club?

It might do yeah. At the moment you have to have 4 foreigners plus one Asian player and one South East Asian. Next year they’re changing it so you’re allowed 3 foreigners, one Asian and one Asian from South East Asia. So effectively we’ve got to get rid of one of our Spanish or Brazilian players. I think that’s going to have a negative effect on the quality of the Football. I think it’s good for Thai players to play alongside players from different Footballing cultures.

What is the general Thai player like in terms of how he plays?

Thai players tend not to be very creative. When you become a creative player you’ve got to take individual responsibility for what you’re doing and that’s not an Asian thing at all.

Less of an emphasis on individualism here compared to Europe?

Exactly. And then if you try and being creative and it doesn’t come off, you lose face and you look stupid. And that’s not something that Thais and Asians in general tend to handle too well. They take fewer risks. I’ve interviewed a couple of managers who’ve been coaching here as well. They said the issue with Thai players is they don’t respond well to a bollocking. They don’t respond well to criticism at all. If you spoke to Thai players the way you would speak to German players, they would be gone. You have to meet them half way. They are a lot more sensitive in terms of how you speak to them.

Does that traverse the whole continent?

No. It’s very much a Thai thing. Thais are thin-skinned. If you slightly raise your voice to one of your staff, that’s it. You won’t see them again. That definitely spills over into Football as well. What a lot of clubs are doing now in Thailand is bringing in Thai players who have grown up overseas. It doesn’t count as one of your foreign players. He’s got that foreign experience and mentality but he qualifies as a Thai player because of his Thai passport, so you’re not using up one of your foreigner spaces. There’s quite a few clubs doing that now.

These people must be hot-property. You must have inflated prices for a player who might be technically as good as a Thai player but because he has this brand if you like…

Well they’ve got value because they don’t take up one of your foreign player slots. Obviously they’ve probably had better Football education because a lot of Thai players don’t really get into Football until they’re in their mid-teens. So they don’t really have that Football education background that a lot of foreign players do.

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