The one thing nobody tells you about becoming a manager is how little downtime you have. With memories of the last day of the season still fresh, two weeks later I was once again under the scorching sun of the full-blown Indonesian summer.
Out on the training pitch, I watched over the trialists’ work. We’ve had another batch of younger former Vélez Sarsfield players come. Thanks to the success Agustín Rojas had managed, the players were more eager to come over and try some luck, and the club was ready and willing to pay for these young men to fly from the other half of the world to prove their worth.
This time, it was all midfielders. Having gone through the many reports Johan and the scouts had prepared, we had come to the conclusion there weren’t many options that could replace the impact Pablo had for us. So, when I called my contact at the Argentine club ready to pick up anyone they were letting go, he sent my five kids my way, all in their early 20s.
The one that stood above the rest was a mixed midfielder called Matías Abbruzzese. He was perhaps a less naturally talented passer than Pablo, but the fact he was also about 20 years his junior meant he could also help us in other phases of the game.
“‘He’s looking good”, said Johan.
“Yes, he’s the best, probably. I just hope we can get him signed before the continental matches begin”, I replied. We had the Group Stages of the Asian Champions League coming up, so I was eager to find a replacement for such a key player as Pablo.
“That… that won’t be possible”
“What do you mean?”
“The competition starts in January before our transfer window opens, so any players we sign in this period we can’t use for the Group Stage”, Johan explained.
I took my hand to my face, pressing it against my eyes. That was the second time Indonesian registration rules played a trick on me; there wouldn’t be a third.
Let’s go continental
When the draw for the Asian Champions League was published, I cursed our luck. We were stuck in group J with Sanfrecce Hiroshima from Japan, Beijing Guo’an from China and Jeonbuk from South Korea. Three clubs from some of Asia’s biggest leagues… and us. And that wasn’t even the worst of it.
Over March and April of the previous season we had played a total of nine friendly matches, as preparation for the upcoming season. I had wanted to make sure my team was fit, the tactics were well oiled and everything was ready to go. For the 2023 season we managed but two, squeezing matches against PSS Sleman and our own Under 21 side the last week of January before we hosted Sanfrecce Hiroshima in early February. Whoever had planned the AFC Champions League schedule wasn’t thinking of the Indonesian teams.
Despite being clearly out of shape, we were decent, as we got on top first with a goal by who else by Satria. However, a red card in the 23rd minute sealed our fate, with the Japanese taking control of the match and scoring twice to win it 2-1. The worst part was the fact that even if I wanted to schedule some friendlies to get the team in shape, it would have been useless, as so many as five players (all my new signings) were unable to play, so by playing more matches I would have only extenuated the players I did have available.
The following Tuesday we hosted Beijing Guo’an. Once again we got in front early, once again we lost control and the match and conceded two, though this time there was no red card. With no fixture the following week, I had asked Rachel to organize a friendly to give the unavailable players some football, as the start of the Indonesian season drew closer.
A week after that, the gods of continental competitions finally smiled upon us. Visiting Jeonbuk in their jaw-dropping Jeonju World Cup Stadium, we beat them 2-0. It was an absolute fluke; they had 13 shots on target to our 3 and our goalie was the hero of the match. And yet, this was Persik’s finest hour in Asian competitions. It wouldn’t last. Two weeks later we left Beijing Guo’an’s 71,000 capacity stadium having been soundly beaten 3-1, ending any chances of qualifying for the Second Round.
It was around this time that I lost one of my three standing legs from my rookie days, as Johan got an offer to manage a team, our Liga 1 rivals Persis Solo. I tried to stay out of his way when I came to make the decision, but Rachel told me he had informed her that he was taking the job. One day, after our last session, he asked us to gather the staff and players and announced he was leaving and why. José thanked him in the name of the staff, and Satria did it in the name of the players, after which we all flung him into the air, celebrating. My training wheels were off.
It’s all politics
We opened the season playing on the Piala Super Indonesia, the Indonesian equivalent of the Community Shield or the Supercoppa. Since we had won the double last season, we faced league runners up Persib. It was a simple enough 2-0 win, and I was satisfied to see how the team performed, the new signings playing with the settled players for the first time.
However, it would be a bit of a mirage. Our league debut was a near-tragic 3-1 loss away to Persikabo 1973 and even when the team took no time in going back to winning games, performances were disappointing. It would all show in May, where we would tie four of our six matches, conceding the top of the championship for the first time since the beginning of last season. Things couldn’t have gone array at a worse time.
I was watching some footage of a dreadful 0-0 draw with recently promoted side RANS Cilegon in the Stench Room when José burst in, looking like he’d just seen a ghost.
“Are we out of a job boss?”, he asked.
“What are you talking about?”
“Look at this”, he replied, handing me over a newspaper.
The man Abdul had left in charge of the club as he took office had taken advantage of our success to take over the board. Now Abdul was looking to buy out the other shareholders and would use every strategy at hand to do so, including talking to the press, questioning whether I should remain at the club or if it would be better to call upon a more experienced manager. The irony of the fact it was him who had hired me seemed to be lost on everyone.
I went to see Rachel, ready to do my best outraged performance but…
“I’ve already told Abdul those comments were out of order”, she said the minute I walked into her office.
“… well that’s not fair”
“You being unable to be angry at me for it?”
“It’s all politics, try to keep your mind off it”
“Well, it’s not that easy, isn’t it? We’re out there, trying our best and he’s in his office in Jakarta taking cheap shots at me”.
“Look, I know it looks bad, but there will be no issues”, she said confidently.
“How can you be so sure?”
“Because I told him if he sacks you, I’m leaving… and he’d hate to have to run this club by himself, no matter how much Football Manager he plays…”.
Around September the takeover was complete. I got a short text from Abdul, thanking me for remaining calm during the whole process and making any number of promises about a new contract, higher wages and hoping I understood none of it was personal. “Yeah, whatever”, I thought to myself.
After that, the season progressed in relative calm. We picked ourselves up and started winning. Even when we got eliminated from the cup on penalties, the ship remained steady. After we beat Borneo FC at Brawijaya in early November, Persik Kediri were crowned once again champions of Indonesia.
The celebrations were a bittersweet moment for me. I had been offered a new contract, but the issues with Abdul and the board had given me some doubts. I was relaxing in my chair, pretending to do work in my office (the clean and pretty one), when José found me. He was covered in string spray.
“What are you doing here boss?”, he asked.
“Just… you know…”
He sat by my side, removing some of the foam from his hair.
“Did you know I am a psychic?”, he asked.
“I… did not?”
“Well, I am. Not like in general, but on this particular moment, on this particular issue, I can tell what is on your mind”
“Do let me know”, I smiled.
“You’re pondering the same thing The Clash were pondering in 1982: should you stay or should you go”.
“You’re a mighty psychic, no doubt”.
He pushed my chair away from the computer to put himself in front of it.
“Let me show you something I’ve been working on”, he said.
He opened a spreadsheet, with numbers piling everywhere like on those screens in The Matrix.
“Lately I’ve been wondering where this club is really going. You see, that whole issue with the owners and the sacking and what not… nobody fights like that over scraps. Nobody fights like that over something not worthwhile. So I started researching, and came up with the numbers”, he explained.
The spreadsheet listed and predicted Persik’s metrics in different fields, like sponsorships, shirt sales, social media standing and others.
“People are going nuts over this club. We’re growing every season. But that’s not the most important…”
He got to the end of the spreadsheet, a simple list of numbers.
“These are our attendances for every season since the one we arrived, check if you can spot anything interesting”, José said.
Then numbers on the left were quite low, never reaching more than 8,000 fans for most matches. Then the following season they got progressively higher, with a maxed-out Brawijaya and over 10,000 people at the lowest. And then there were this season’s numbers. We never had less than 11,000 people in the stadium.
“Wow”, was all I could muster.
“If we continue like this, they’ll have to expand the stadium in two seasons at the most”.
“I noticed the stadium getting busier and busier but..”
“That’s the impact we’re having on this club boss. It’s not unthinkable that we’ll double average attendances by the next couple of seasons… So maybe stop being all doom and gloom and go see Rachel”, he said, “She’s been looking for you, to talk about the contract”
“… and something about a shovel? What’s that?”
“You’ll know when you need to know…”
I got up from my chair. On we went, at least for now.