“I went to see the players at Muang Thong one day and when I arrived, a bus was waiting and they said we have a training camp and you’re coming with us. I had just the clothes I was wearing. It was a three-day training camp and they hadn’t bothered to tell me because they didn’t know if I was going to tell anybody else. I remember staying there and having to wash my clothes every day and dry them on the balcony.”
If you’re fond of anecdotes about the crazy side of the world of Thai football, Matt Riley has more than most. Over a decade since he first took an interest in the country’s fast-developing professional league, he has committed his memories to a new series of podcasts, which can be found at his Twitter account, Thai Football Tales (@TalesThai).
Having started out as a fan when he stopped playing amateur football, Matt quickly recognized the potential of the Thai League. A chance meeting with Muang Thong’s director of football at the time piqued his interest more.
The sudden passing of his mother then changed some of his life priorities and Matt soon swapped a secure job as a teacher at an international school for a rollercoaster period at the heart of Thai football.
“At first, I was just a fan of a local team,” said Matt. “I lived near Muang Thong. I had stopped playing and just really wanted to try something different. I went down to watch a game with a mate of mine, started to have a look at the atmosphere and what was going on.
“I bumped into Robert Procureur in the car park one day and he was telling me about the kind of plans they had and I thought, crikey, this is impressive stuff. He talked about the sponsorship with Yamaha, mentioned Coca Cola and all these sorts of things.
“I carried on with my job, but then suddenly my mum died and that just made me realize I wanted to do something different. I didn’t want to just stay on the treadmill. I had a good, well-paid job at Harrow school. But I just thought, right, I’m going to jump in and I’ll see where it takes me and see what I can do with Thai football.”
Matt was well known for his time as one of the key figures behind the Thai League Football website. This was one of the few early sources of English language coverage of the league, combining match reports, interviews and features.
“I met Nigel Bain and got working with Thai League Football. I tried to make it into a business, but Nigel had a different approach and saw it as more of a hobby. A few of us wanted to monetize it, and push came to shove and I thought the only way to make money might be to work for only one club.
“I actually started working at Muang Thong and was paid a very small amount of money but enough to keep me going. My job title at Muang Thong United was English media officer and we had a YouTube page and so on. But it was very difficult to gain access to cameramen. I went to interview Jay Bothroyd and they wouldn’t film me. I had to remind the cameraman that I worked for the club, Jay didn’t speak Thai and I wanted to interview him.
“When Scott Cooper came as head coach, I liaised with foreign players and met new players if they needed someone to speak English. But, on the whole, they didn’t really know what to do with me because they had never had anything like that before.
“There were also a lot of trust issues. They were never sure if they could trust a foreigner. There were a lot of times I went to Siam Sport headquarters to meet colleagues and you could just tell that they didn’t know what to do with me. Sometimes they wouldn’t turn up for meetings but I knew they were in the building. They weren’t sure what they could divulge to me, whether it be the arrival of a new coach or something. They just thought, ‘I know he works for us, but I don’t think we need to tell him that’.
“I was left out to dry a lot of times. People would tell me things, and I’d think, ‘hold on, I work for the club, they didn’t tell me that’.”
That includes the incident at the top of this article and the failure to bring a change of clothes for a three-day training camp.
But Matt found a much more helpful and supportive environment under Suphanburi chairman Worawut ‘Top’ Silpa-Archa
“Top explained that he wanted to give the club a higher profile in English. He had grown up in England and he offered me a job. They had superb media facilities and that was really enjoyable. For family reasons, I wanted to move nearer home so I left Thai football and I felt it was a half-done job at Suphanburi with the resources that were being put into the team.”
Matt returned to England several years ago, but has recently felt the urge to revisit a period of his life that was in equal measures exciting and frustrating.
“I am just trying to process it really. I’m just working on something now about agents and player recruitment in Thailand and I can barely believe what I witnessed. Now I’m in a normal life, normal job, normal existence, but that was absolutely mad.
“I was reading the paper one day and it mentioned a really good app to do podcasts – Anchor. I had spoken about my experiences in Thailand with my kids and they kind of believed me. Since they came back to England, they have started to realize that sitting down with the likes of Robbie Fowler, Peter Withe or Sven Goran-Eriksson are not normal things.
“I thought I would sit down and process all of the details that I hadn’t thought about in a long time. One example was when me and an agent tried to hijack a player at the airport to get him to play in Thailand and how it all went horribly wrong.
“It was so weird and exciting. I thought that I should get it all down and make a record of it. It will be nice for people to hear about it, but it’s as much about processing it for myself and thinking, my goodness, I actually went through that.”
Matt’s podcasts are full of humour because of the many moments of high farce he recalls but there is also an element of tragedy given the way Thai football has sometimes been run.
“Another option would be to give a sanitized account of it, but I’d rather just say what happened and I really went through,” said Matt.
Beyond Thailand, there is a fascinating episode on how he was told that Qatar had secured hosting rights to the World Cup 2022, several months before the vote. Regarding the long-held allegations of corruption, Matt said, “It’s hiding in plain sight, and everyone knows what went on. But to actually see it first hand, it’s quite shocking. Although it was 10 years ago, you’re still thinking, ‘this actually did happen, and people actually did do this’.
“There’s a lot of other details I haven’t put in because we were given the names of people who have never been brought to book about this. A lot of people must know exactly what went on.”
But another episode reminded him that his home country did not appear to be above getting their hands dirty in a bid to bring the World Cup back to their shores.
“There’s corruption in every bid,” he said. “Another thing I talked about was that cancelled friendly between England and Thailand. If you look at what happened with the England players, they were going to be rushed across to Thailand in the close season and not charge anything for their appearance. That was all about the England 2018 World Cup bid.”
Back on the more familiar topic of the eccentric world of Thai football, Matt chose another favourite from his long list of anecdotes to end our interview.
“It’s probably not the most dramatic one,” he said. “I was working for Muang Thong and were playing an AFC Cup match. I always like to be on time and when you’re working with Thai footballers, that’s not always a good idea.
“I got to the airport and there was nobody there. The plane was ready to leave, so I thought I might as well get on the plane. I’m in my Muang Thong gear, I’m the only person from the club there. The plane starts to taxi down the runway. Just as it seems we’re about to take off, the pilot stops, the door opens and the Muang Thong squad get on the plane.”
There’s plenty more where that came from.