It was my first day. I was bending over the bathroom sink. Not one of the three taps could work, which was probably the reason the whole thing was out of order. That made it a perfect hiding place.
“What the f*ck am I going to do?”, I said to myself. I checked my watch. It was 9 am. “Time to go out there”.
Sleepless in Kediri
When I came out, I took a look at the pitch. My assistant, Johan Prasetyo, had already gathered the player on the pitch. I had met him the previous day, with Rachel doing the introductions and translating. “Don’t get used to it, your translator is due to arrive tomorrow”, she explained.
He seemed like a good man, one unexpectedly open at taking orders from an absolute stranger with no experience in the job. He had spent all his career at the club, first as a player and then as a coach. He was promoted to Assistant Manager earlier this season, so he was still eager to impress. We agreed he’d take care of running the training sessions whilst I focused on learning the squads’ strengths and how the day-to-day of the club worked.
“Alright, we’ll start tomorrow”, I said, trying to sound cheerful.
“We will, looking forward to it”, Rachel translated. That day had come, but not easily.
I had spent the night watching videos, unable to sleep. The team was sitting in 15th place on the table, just one point above the relegation spots (16th, 17th and 18th). Their form had been dreadful, at one point going on a six-match losing streak, but wins here and there had allowed them to remain with their heads above water.
Rachel had been kind enough (“I’m not your secretary, you know?”, she complained) to fetch me recordings from every match Persik had played all season. I recalled how Marcelo Bielsa had watched twice every game Athletic Bilbao had played the season before he took the job. I was… no Bielsa. It didn’t take me all that long until I was bored to death and unable to get any more insight, other than that we had had an awful time keeping the ball and an even worse one getting it back.
I was also surprised by our lack of width. It took me some time to realise that no wide player, particularly none of the fullbacks, were playing on the side of their natural foot. “Guardiola’s inverted wing-backs are really big here”, I joked to myself. Why play 4-4-2 and have no one giving you width? Perhaps I wouldn’t be the worst coach to ever work for this club. Without much else to pick up on and my eyes fried after trying to make anything out of the 480p footage I had, I must’ve passed out at some point after dawn, and barely woke up when the alarm sounded, at 8 am.
By the look the taxi driver gave me when he left me at the stadium door, I must’ve resembled a sleep-walker by the time I arrived at the training field, outside the city, yawning every three seconds. The moment I walked in, I was intercepted by Rachel.
“You looked like you were run over, what happened to you?”, she said.
“You should be a motivational speaker”, I replied.”, I replied. She smirked, so I gave myself a mental high five.
“Funny. Go into that bathroom and don’t come out until you look like a football coach”, she said, pushing me towards the out of order bathroom.
“I’ll give it my best shot”.
As my feet were about to hit the hallowed turf of the training pitch, I was intercepted once again. This time it was a kid, barely out of high school.
“Hello sir, it is a pleasure to meet you”, he excitedly said.
“Hi, nice to meet you too… um, who are you?”
“Oh, sorry, I was told you were aware. My name is José, I’ll be your translator”.
“But… I thought Mr Saraan was going to be my translator”.
“Rachel told me her first option had resigned.”
José looked down to the ground.
“Something about not being ‘willing to work with a fraud and risk his career’, she said”.
“That makes sense… How old are you?”, I asked.
“I’ll be 20 next month”
“How did you get this job?”, I wondered, before quickly noting Persik had been hiring rather curious candidates lately.
“Well, I went to a really nice school so I’m kind of a polyglot. I was teaching Spanish in Jakarta when the boss told me you guys were looking for a translator”.
“That’s as good a story as mine”, I replied.
“Really? What’s yours?”
“I met the owner in a plane… let’s meet the players”
The squad was standing round, chatting amongst themselves. When Johan saw me approaching he made them go quiet, and so they all turned to watch me. Twenty-nine people are a lot of eyes.
That was all I could produce at first. Great start.
“So…My name is Fernando, and I’m the new manager”, I said. I heard a voice behind me. It took me by surprise until I realised it was José who was already working. “This is José, who’ll be translating for me”.
When in doubt, I went for honesty. And words finally started to come out…
“I know all of you must be wondering who the hell am I and why I got this job”, I told the players. I’m not all that clear on it myself, but apparently I impressed the right people. Now I hope I can impress you, or at least that we can work together. I spent the night watching tapes of you guys playing, and there was a lot of good stuff there, but also most of it was a bit of a mess. But you don’t need me to tell you that, you know the results”.
I waited for a reaction as José translated. A few players seemed to nod away.
“So that’s what we’re going to work on these first few days. Trying to make our game plan clear for everyone, trying to make it so we go out there knowing what you’re supposed to do”.
Still nothing but a few nods.
“Shall we start Johan?”
My Assistant Manager clapped his hands and everyone went to work. I was left in the middle of the ground, with only José by my side.
“Do you like football José?”
“Well, I don’t know how much you know about Spain boss, but I’m from Sevilla. Fútbol is everything to us”, he replied.
“I know a few people from there. Are you bético or sevillista?”
“Bético, like all my family boss”.
Johan had a few players working on defensive moves. As I watched, one of the players caught my attention. He was older than most, but could still hold his own as he read his teammates’ movements long before they executed them.
“Who’s that?”, I asked Johan with the help of José.
“That’s Andri Ibo. He’s one of our most experienced centrebacks”, he replied.
“Why haven’t I seen him in the clips I got?”
“Andri wasn’t on good terms with the previous manager. He preferred younger options, and they argued about it. Andri is a very influential player for this squad”
“Call him over”, I asked.
Johan clapped a few times and then barked a few orders, as a result of which the players moved on to other exercises and Andri Ibo approached us.
“You wanted a word?”, he asked.
“Yes, indeed. Johan tells me you haven’t been playing a lot recently”
“The previous coach and I had our differences”
“I understand. But I like what you’re doing here a lot. You’re experienced, and you’re clever”
“Do you think you could do it in defensive midfield?”
“I’ve always played centre-back”, he replied, taken aback.
“Yes, but we have other options in centreback. What we don’t have is a player that can read the game in defence as you do. They’re younger than you, and they’re fitter and stronger than you, but they don’t anticipate the game as you do”
He remained unconvinced.
“You’re already doing it here”, I insisted. “You can read your teammates in training and you’ll read your opponents out there… and it’ll mean you’ll play every week because you’d be my best player there”
“I’d like that”, he said smiling. “Let’s give it a try”.
“That’s great. Johan will help you settle into the role. Hopefully, we can work it out before our next game”, I said.
Before translating, José tapped my shoulder.
“Boss, our next game is in two days”, he said.
Well, isn’t that great?
With the teams about to go into the pitch, I was sitting in the dugout and I couldn’t stop moving. Legs tapping, arms all around, cracking any bone in my body I could get to crack, I was hoping Rachel and the rest of the board weren’t paying too much attention to how their new manager was dealing with pressure because the answer would’ve been “very poorly”. There was a rumble around me, the fans pondering what I was going to do. Even at home, I felt like on an away day.
The press had been kind enough during the presentation, possibly unwilling to lambast the newly appointed manager of a team run by a member of the government, but as soon as we turned to the issue of the match, things got ugly. Our rivals, Barito Putera, were expected to squash us, and my opposing number was questioning why I even got the job. Even now, waiting for the game to begin, he was looking at me like I was some sort of weird creature.
I had set up the team in a traditional Argentine 4-1-2-1-2, with a defensive midfielder screening in front of the defence and a number 10 sitting behind a big man/small man forward pairing. The creative midfielder was one of the team’s international players, a Brazilian by the name of Dionatan Restinga. A former academy graduate from Santos, he was by far our most skilful player.
And yet, he was not the biggest depositary of my hope. That was a kid named Satria Bagaskara. He hadn’t had much success in front of goal yet, but he looked like a great striker in training and he was getting into good positions. If we could get him firing… that was half our job done there.
“Tense?”, asked a voice behind me. It was Rachel. “I’m off to the directors’ box, but I just wanted to wish you good luck”.
“Thanks. Is Abdul here too?”, I asked.
“No, but he’ll be watching. This match has been chosen to be televised”.
“Oh”, was all I could mutter. If we ruined this I wouldn’t only be a local clown, but a national one. “Great”
For all my pre-match nerves, the match was fairly easy. Twice Satria Bagaskara slipped through the crack of the defence running after a pass into space, and twice he scored; the second one being particularly pretty with him running around the goalie before finishing with his left. Just like that, we had won our first match.
While we were jumping around, with José and Johan around me, I thought of showing some professionalism and going to shake the hand of the other manager, but when I managed to slip away from the celebration he was gone.
Sour losers are the worst.
Not bad at all
It is always shocking how the amazing can become routinary. The nerves of my first training session, the thrill of my first match, it all became fairly standard. Matches came and matches went, I began developing a relationship with the players, with my staff, and with José. I learned back home he was the son of a wealthy construction businessman.
“I’m the youngest of three, so I was never… the centre of attention. My brothers are all working in the family business, but I didn’t fancy it”, he told me. “So after I was done with school I worked for a bit and when I got some savings together I decided to travel around…so I ended up here”.
He had become an essential part of my work, even as my Bahasa Indonesia had become better and better. The kid had a great intuition for football, and our talks had long abandoned the translation.
The team’s form was a bit up and down. We were never too far from a defeat, but also never all that far from another win. Andri Ibo settled into his new role, and Satria Bagaskara developed into a consistent scorer. A three-match losing streak threatened to put us in a risky position, but we picked up 11 points from our last to secure our spot next season.
And yet, I was worried when I was called into Rachel’s office after our last match. It had been a heavy defeat, losing 5-1 to Persikabo 1973. I was drenched in rain. What I can only describe as a monsoon had hit the match, forcing me to bark instructions with my face dripping in water. The locals had clearly seen worse.
The ride from the stadium in Bodor to Kediri was only a few kilometres, so the team had decided to return as quickly as possible to their homes and families.
“Please, come in”, she asked when I knocked.
When I walked in, Rachel was taken aback a bit.
“We do have showers, you know?”, she said.
“I was told the director wanted to see the manager as soon as possible”
“Well, the director didn’t know the manager had just been rescued from the sea”
“If it is about today’s game, I just wanted to rest some of the guys, I never expected us to…”, I started.
“It’s not”, she smiled, “It’s about the future”.
“Ah, the big one”, I thought to myself. My contract had less than a fortnight left, and no talks of renewal had ever come up. I figured that if this was the end, then I could look back with a smile. It wasn’t even six months ago that I didn’t think I could do this job. Turns out I could…
“Stop overthinking it”, Rachel said, like she could read my mind.
“Abdul called. He said he was very happy with the choice he made that day. And that he remains a sh*t FM player”
“What is that supposed to mean?”, I laughed.
“I don’t know. But he also said that the choice was mine… to keep you here or give it to someone else”
“Do you intend to kill me with the suspense?”
“I went around and asked the players. Andri Ibo said you’re a clever manager. Satria Bagaskara said you gave him the confidence to play, and that he holds you in the highest regard as a manager. And Dionatan Restinga said you are a cool guy”.
“They’re good guys”, I said.
“They are. So I decided Persik Kediri will be offering you a new deal… on one condition”.
“What’s the condition?”
“That you undertake a coaching course and get licensed. I’m tired of working with an amateur”.
“Well, that’s not too bad”, I replied.
Not bad at all…