The Dartboard Journeyman – Part 6

There was an unnerving tapping noise in my ears. It was late on a Monday night and I couldn’t do anything but stare at the emptiness of my laptop’s screen. “What time is it?”, I pondered. 7:44 PM. I didn’t think a moment more irrelevant could exist in one’s life. I got up and did the rounds. Front door, kitchen, stare at the contents of the fridge then back to my room. Picked up the phone and did the rounds again. Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp, YouTube, then drop it again. Boredom can be lethal.

It had been two weeks since I had departed the Persik job. Rachel had arranged for a nice comfortable flat in Jakarta, close to where she was. Abdul had taken the news of my resignation far better than I had anticipated, even wishing me good luck. For a guy who had hired me out of nowhere and then slandered me in the press, I was happy I had gotten the good side of the coin flip. 

The meeting with the players had been an excruciating affair. We rounded them up in the dressing room to let them know. I had wanted to do it in the centre of the pitch, where so many battles had been won and lost, but the scorching sun got in the way.  José was with me when we told the players, as well as a few trusted staffers. Most players were thankful, a few were angry, all of us were tearful. I had to explain that it had all to do with me and nothing to do with them, but it’s hard to make someone understand that there is nothing they can do.

Regardless, it was even hard to explain to the press that nothing was wrong. No, I didn’t ask for a raise. No, I didn’t have differences with the board. No, there wasn’t any problem with the players. By the time they got out of excuses and fabrications, I would’ve admitted to leaving the job cause the spirits whispered it in my ear to make them stop.

However, all in all, at least I was busy then. Now, time just crawled like a tenacious snail, the days felt like geologic eras and all I could do was wait. Rachel tried to keep me busy with opportunities in the media, but I had no interest in criticising my former colleagues when I knew full well how clueless the press could be at times.

Then, there were the coaching jobs. I had no interest in another opportunity in Indonesia. I had taken Persik as far as I thought any club could go before heavy investment in both time and money could take any other club further. I had told Rachel that I wasn’t looking for any job, but one that would take my career and my dream further. Even more so, I wanted another crack at the AFC Champions League. On Wednesday 1 January 2025, that opportunity came.

The buzzer from my flat rang, and I was so hungover that it felt like it was right next to my ear. The new year’s eve party had been a fun one, with José, some of the old staff, friends and even (it pains me a bit to admit), some of our former players. 

“Who’s this?”, I asked through the speaker, knowing full well.
“You know full well”
“You’re boring sometimes”
“Open up, we have to talk”, Rachel replied.

“Huh, straight to business”, I said to myself.

“How’s your head?”, she asked when she came in.
“It’s been better”
“Well, sober up, you’re gonna want to”
“What’s happened? What time is it?”, I replied, still confused from the light.
“It’s 11:44… how late were you up last night?”
“…late. Anyway, what do we have to talk about that’s so important?”
“You wanted another shot at the AFC Champions League right?”

I nodded.

“Dress up. You’ve got an interview with the owner of the Central Coast Mariners, in Australia”.

The Mariners

Out on the front door of the Sydney airport, I wondered what I was even doing. The flight was 10 hours, with a 3 hours stop in Singapore that triggered every single bad memory from my September 2022 epic. After that, it was a one hour drive to the Central Coast Stadium, where the meeting with the club’s higher ups would take place. Since I was no longer an absolute stranger that someone took a liking to in an airport but a league winning manager, the club had arranged for a car to pick us up.

“Ok”, said Rachel to me during the trip, making sure the driver couldn’t pick up our chatter. “Since you’ve been… enjoying unemployment and not keeping a check on reality, here’s what you need to know”
“Shoot me”
“Central Coast Mariners, henceforth “the Mariners”, are one of the eight original A-League teams”
“They considered a ‘small market’ team, meaning they don’t have massive resources”
“However, they are the probably best youth developers in Australia and they’ve been very successful in the past, winning two Premierships and a Championship”
“What’s th…”
“The league is played in a Regular Season and Playoffs format, the Premiership means winning the Regular Season, the Championship means winning the Playoff”
“This will go much faster if you stop interrupting me”
“However, they haven’t done much winning lately. Right now they’re dead last on the table, and look to be going nowhere. They’re also out of the Australia Cup, a sort of FA Cup style competition that takes place before the regular season. So far so good?”
“Yes ma’am”.
“In terms of the squad you’ve got some nice young players, but perhaps nothing too special. The league uses a wages cap and Designated Player system similar to the MLS…”
“Who’s our guy?”
“We have no guy. The Mariners currently have no DP. But we’re also way clear of the cap”
“Some wiggle room there…”
“Exactly. There’s also players on what’s called “scholarship” contracts, which are under 23, Home Grown players who also don’t count towards the cap. We do have some of those. As for the league, it’s a 12 team league, playing from November to May, with the Playoffs on the last three weeks. Top six goes into the last stage, bottom six to twiddle their thumbs until the next season. Anything else?”
“Well, what do they want? The board… what’s their target?”
“Getting out of the sh*t”
“Well… that’s promising”

The owner of the Mariners was a guy called Bisri Affandi, an Indonesian businessman who had recently chosen to invest in the club. Rachel had gotten me the interview through some connections, so this was a big chance to progress my career. They were very concerned about my lack of experience in the country but I convinced them I was determined and up to the challenge, while Rachel let it slide that beggars can’t be choosers and a team that had picked up the whole of three points in eight matches couldn’t do much worse.

We shook hands following a positive talk, and after another 12+ hour flight back to Jakarta and a week’s wait, I got an invitation for another discussion, where they also let me choose who I’d want to keep from the remaining staff if I got the job. Much to my surprise, it was like picking from a single guy’s fridge at 3 am. The previous guy (former Premier League defender Mile Jedinak, in fact) had taken with him most of the club’s coaching structure, meaning I was left to choose whether I wanted the U20 goalie coach to move to the first team or not. I suggested little changes, knowing full well I had few references for anyone in Australian football, and waited for the next call. 

Another week went by before I was once again in the company car with Rachel, ready to sign my contract. However, things had changed since my first interview. The interim coach had taken two wins on the bounce and now the club was on the edge of the top half. Meaning any screw ups and it would be my disaster, and not someone else’s.

Tennis Balls on a Plane

One of my all-time football heroes is none other than Arsene Wenger, so I took some relief in knowing I was somehow following in his footsteps when the Australian press made an absolute mockery of the Mariners’ decision to sign me, an Argentine with four years experience in football and no track record in the A-League. It seemed that the fact I was now a Continental A licensed coach made no difference to them.

Most of my early time in Grahame Park, the Mariners’ stadium, was spent interviewing potential job candidates. Over my life I had developed a certain disdain for the Human Resources professionals and their colourful line of questioning. “Who the hell cares how many tennis balls fit in an aeroplane? Just give me the f*cking job”, I used to say to myself. And yet, I now found myself asking those very questions.

“Why do you think you’re the best person for the job?”
“I have a deep held believe that you can always do better, that you can always stay 30 minutes more in the pitch, that you can always do 10 more push ups, that you can always chase your horizons, and I think I can transmit that desire to always do better to the kids”

“What’s your greatest strength?”
“I think I’m very loyal. It’s a great opportunity for myself, it would be a big step forward in my career in data, and I would repay that trust no doubt”

“What are goals for the future?”
“Not starving, really”

That one threw me out of my rhythm, but really, how much ambition do you need your second physio to have?

When all interviews were done with, I moved the approved candidates to Rachel and the club’s administrative office for the economic part of the deal, which I could not for the life of me care less about. I lost track of how many candidates for how many positions I interviewed, but by the end of it all I was all too aware that a Boeing 747 can fit 7,894,917 tennis balls inside.

F*ck it

By the time I signed the contract, there were only two days until the next league match. The fact that in Australia league matches come fast and thick is something I’d learn quickly, but I was all too unprepared for the first round.

The squad I found was one where despite having no DP, it was the older more experienced players that took most of the minutes. However, we had one or two big names on long injuries, which weakened an already thin squad. Said squad was all none too fussed about my arrival, and a hurtful silence followed me as I made acquaintance with the players and introduced myself to the squad.

Still, with little time to make any real adjustments, I set them up in the 4-3-3 that made most sense for the talent at my disposal and hopped on a bus to Sydney, to visit Sydney FC’s Allianz Stadium. It was a drop-on-your-*ss, state-of-the-art ground, just two years old and while it signified how far I had come since starting my career, it also felt like an awfully good scenario for a public punishment to the new guy on the block. I was just a random guy taking over from a former international and Premier League player… was I up to it?

Turns out, not for now. As expected, my guys were nowhere to be found, and we got destroyed 3-0. On the bus back to Gosford I got a text from Rachel: “Try and stay on the job until you get the chance to actually coach”. The following week we made the trip again, this time to visit Macarthur FC. A much more respectable 3-2 loss hid rather well the fact that we had been utterly dominated.

With the coming weekend free, I arranged for a friendly with amateur side Killarney, who we dutifully trashed 10-0. While it was doubtful that it would do much for the morale of the team (who were once again at the bottom of the table), it did allow me to see some of our best performers with a bit less pressure. A 19 year old midfielder called Simone Lucaroni scored a hat-trick, while another Joshua Nisbet provided a plethora of long range pases. Suddenly, a team started to form in my head.

Our next league match was another visit, this time to Melbourne City. It was done on plane this time, after a short trip to Sydney airport once again. With Nisbet and Lucaroni playing their new positions and almost a full month of work done on the team, it was an important match. Nobody wants to lose three games in a row as new manager and…

We lost, of course. But this time the truth behind the score (1-0 to the home team), was that they had been awfully lucky to get that win. A headed goal in added time of the first half, after a break in concentration from us during a throw-in. We had the best chances, we had the best game.

“I can feel a turning point coming, guys”, I told the players after the match, “If we keep playing like this we’re going to be in a much different position in a month”.

A rumour ran through the dressing room like I was asking them to believe Santa Claus was going to arrive on his sleigh, but I saw a few smiles from the key people. They were starting to believe.

Our chance came the following Saturday, February 15, 2024. It would be my home debut, the first time we hosted a team at Grahame Park since I signed. I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect, as we (or I) hadn’t given the fans much to cheer about, but I saw no “Romero out” signs and took it as a good signal.

It didn’t last much, as our rivals Western Sydney Wanderers got ahead in the score about three minutes into the match. Eager to prove it was nothing, we equalised just two minutes later, as young striker Brandon Blackshaw made it 1-1, and the first half ended on that.

Another round of motivation in the dressing room looked to have had no effect as we went down again just four minutes into the second half. Mariners winger Christian Theocharus made it 2-2 with an absolute belter of a free kick from some 28 yards from the box, and from there the match changed. 

We started trading blows with them, like two heavyweights in the last rounds, looking to see who can stand more damage. They got ahead once more, via a through pass that slipped from our defence, and then we hit them back, when Blackshaw controlled a ball from sub Béni Nkololo then smashed it against the bar, with the good luck that it bounced down and went in. By then my palms were the sweatiest on the planet and I was barking orders from the sideline. As we entered the last ten minutes I wondered if I should tell them to drop back, take the smart home point, break the losing streak.

F*ck it. Let’s go for it. 

In the 82nd minute Christian Theocharus recovered a ball from a “should’ve scored” chance from Nkololo, and passed it back to Brandon Blackshaw, who arrived late into the box. It went in and all hell broke loose at Grahame Park. When the full whistle went, we all ran towards Brandon. 

The curse was broken, and like if all of a sudden the players had forgotten how to lose a match, we went unbeaten all the way until late April. Granted, four of those were draws, but a run of five straight wins took us into the promised land and the board were ecstatic.

Another couple of wins took us to fourth on the table, and a place in the Playoffs. There, we beat Macarthur in the Elimination Game (played between 3rd and 6th and 4th and 5th), and then we took Western United in the semifinals to book an unexpected place in the Grand Final. 

I was still a bit at a loss and incredulous, and that sense of wonder probably filtered to my decision making and my players. We lost 2-1 alla Italia 2000, that is, in extra time and after leading for much of regulation. However, Melbourne Victory were fair champions, outplaying us for the 90 minutes.

Still, I couldn’t truly be mad at a bunch of young players, many still teenagers, who had carried this team further and way better than any of the experienced ones did. I got third in the manager of the season voting, which I felt was more of a reflection on losing the final than what had happened during the season. Brandon Blackshaw won Young Player of the Year and dedicated it to me. 

“Seems like you have a golden touch with strikers. First Satria, now Brandon…”, commented Rachel upon reading the news. 

We were sitting in my office, me still unable to believe how things had gone. 

“Nah”, I dismissed her, “The kid’s got talent”.
“Did him no good before you got here. One goal in ten matches”
“What did he finish the season on?”
“13 in 26”

I nodded.

“Perhaps you’re right”
“So, what did you think of our first year in Australia?”
“I don’t know what to think. We came here to do a rebuild and we got within 15 minutes of the title”
“You know what I’m going to say”
“Yeah. F*ck it. Next year we’re going all the way”.

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