The press-box view in Thailand
I was lucky enough to be a part of history on Tuesday evening, as the Erik ten Hag era at Manchester United kicked off under the lights in Bangkok in style, with a 4-0 victory over Liverpool.
As part of the media squad following the Tour party across Thailand and Australia in July, it’s already been a hectic week of getting to know Ten Hag and his staff, interviewing the players and watching them train. But the matches are what we’re all here for, isn’t it? And you can’t quite beat seeing the Reds march out on to the freshly cut green turf to play football again – even if it is ‘just’ for a pre-season friendly. There’s been a sense of anticipation and excitement in the Thai capital for days and unsurprisingly so because it’s so rare that United or Liverpool venture to these climes – let alone on the same night. However, the early attention upon arrival at the Rajamangala Stadium was very much focused on a Chinese singer. Jackson Wang has millions of social media followers and is immensely popular in this part of the world and his hour-long pre-match show out on the pitch almost brought the house down – even if there were still plenty of empty seats, with hours to tick by before kick-off.
Nominally, there were United and Liverpool ‘ends’, although of course the enmity that permeates the rivalry in England doesn’t quite exist here – it’s, let’s say, a bit friendlier – and there was plenty of mingling too. Following Wang’s show, the pitch was cleared and the pre-match announcers attempted to build the atmosphere, alternately shouting the names of each side. You can’t manufacture excitement though, and the loudest cheers were reserved for the players themselves as they emerged down the long ‘corridor’ and out on to the grass. The reception for the famous names when they were shown on the giant screen behind the goal wasn’t bad either – especially Ten Hag when he was speaking to the local broadcaster. Finally, after all the build-up, we kicked off at 20:00 local time on the dot, with the Merseysiders getting things under way.
The vibe was, as you’d expect, different to what you’d come across at Old Trafford and Anfield. In those great cathedrals of football, the noise is relentless – occasionally crossing the boundaries – but here it was more reserved. That didn’t mean there wasn’t the odd moment of electricity, like when Bruno Fernandes or Jadon Sancho received the ball in space, or Luis Diaz saw his curling effort palmed away by David De Gea. Or how about a Jadon Sancho goal to ramp things up further? Fred’s marvellous goal was a genuine ‘wow’ moment for everyone, too and colleagues in the press box couldn’t help but gasp out loud. Both sides making wholesale changes disrupted the rhythm of the game and crowd a little, but there was still excitement to see Tyrell Malacia in red for the very first time. And the decibel levels rose on the hour as Liverpool’s cavalry arrived – Mohamed Salah, Virgil van Dijk and new £80 million forward Darwin Nunez among them.
These are the types of players you’ll see on the backs of shirts in countries like Thailand, the global superstars the punters were looking forward to seeing. They’d go home disappointed though, as United’s more inexperienced side of the two on display expertly saw out the game, with Facundo Pellistri adding further gloss to an already impressive scoreline which kicks Tour 2022 off in the grand manner. As the final whistle blew, I filed my copy with the team back home and went to speak to The Athletic’s Laurie Whitwell about the game, for the next edition of the UTD Podcast. Then, there was a plane to catch from the airport – the United bandwagon now rolls on to Australia, where we’ll play local side Melbourne Victory next, on Friday. We’ll see you there!