Enough Silver Medals
As I sat in my office, I watched the smoke from the tobacco go up in the air, twisting and turning, and I reminded myself of a cheesy action movie where the villain got killed as a heat tracking missile followed his cigarette. I had taken to smoking a week or so after last season, an unsavoury habit from my youth; one that I wasn’t all that proud of taking back. I was breaking god knows how many Australian health and safety laws by smoking inside, but I was at the point where it was far past my control. The fact that my office at Grahame Park was behind solid concrete helped; I could have never gotten away with it at Persik with all the glass walls.
Somebody knocked at the door.
“Come in”, I said, hastily putting down the cigarette.
It was Rachel.
“That isn’t healthy”, she commented.
“It most certainly isn’t”, I replied, “What have you got for me?”
We had been working on an overhauling of the squad for a while, looking at our weak points and reviewing potential improvements. After the loss against Adelaide I had decided it was time for a change in mindset. No longer it was about rebuilding the team, now I wanted to win, whatever it took. I had enough silver medals, I wanted to see what they gave to the winners.
“I’ve compiled a report on the targets Jasper suggested”, she replied
“The players from Scotland?”
“Exactly”, she said, handing me two reports.
It turned out our DoF had some contacts with clubs from Scotland, and we started working on some possible targets, particularly among those who we could get as free agents.
“Run me through them”, I asked while flipping through the reports.
“Number 1 is Ciaran Dickson. Formerly of Rangers, then Queen of the South and then Celtic. He played mostly in the B squad, and they didn’t going to renew his contract”
“I remember him from the clips Jasper sent us. Cool on the ball, good passer, can play all across the front”
“What is he asking for?”
“His agent told me 150 grand per year. I bet I can get him for around 120”, she replied.
“I like him, what about number two?”
“Connor Smith, Hearts academy graduate, played for about half the clubs in Scotland”
“Why is that?”
“He has a tendency to dribble once too many. We can get him cheaper, probably, maybe 100 grand”.
“It says here they’re both currently free?”
“Yeah, contracts over there end in May, so they’re all free”
“Ok, let’s arrange a trial and we can clear our doubts”
“For whom?”, she asked.
“For both. I told you, we’re going all in this season. We got to the bottom, now we go back to the top”
“Want me to arrange it?”
“Nah, I’ll call Jasper. He’s been on his ass since returning from Europe”.
As soon as Rachel left my office, I picked up another cigarette, then grabbed my phone. The time had come to make the call I least wanted to make.
“Diego, what have you got for me?”, I said.
“Is that the way to greet an old friend?”, agent Diego Candy replied.
“You’re right… you’re certainly old. How’s Pablo doing, by the way?”
Pablo Garnier, my playmaker from the first championship with Persik, had disappeared from my radar after he retired to become a professional scout.
“Lost track of him, he fired me after that whole becoming a scout thing failed”
“Not a big enough commission eh?”
“You insult me, Fernando. I go through brick walls for my clients. The commission is only so I can pay the hospital bills. In truth, no club hired him because he refused to take any courses. ‘A footballer will always know better than anyone else’, he insisted. I think he dropped it all to start a trucking business with his cousin”
“Shame”, I replied.
“I’m doing well, since you ask”
“I didn’t. Look, I’m looking for a tricky lefty. Have you got anyone?”
“I moved up in the world. Surprised you haven’t heard. I’m in Australia now. Central Coast Mariners”
“Would you look at that! Turns out you were half decent at coaching and everything”.
“Apparently. Got anyone?”
He paused, probably going through his list of players and contacts looking for the best way to scam me.
“I don’t think I have anyone. But I know someone who may have. A professional contact, Jerson Sánchez. He’s got a kid named Wikelman Carmona, really classy player. He’s trying to move out of the MLS, and it’s not looking like he’s got European clubs knocking on his door”.
“Damn, the MLS? Isn’t that going to be a bit steep?”, I exclaimed.
“Well, you asked. And trust me, he’s worth it”
I sighed. Diego might have been a tad too quick to spot a good bit of business, but he was also quick to find talent.
We got the team together just days before the start of pre-season. Negotiations had been hard, but I was lucky to have Rachel and the staff to help out. We closed down both Scotsmen, as well as Wikelman Carmona and an Australian midfielder called Aiki Tsukamoto. Rachel also managed to move two of our former starters, moving Jodi Jones and Beni N’Kolo to Europe for a combined 300,000 euros to balance our books.
We had planned a tour of the UK for training camp, as I wanted to test our guys against top competition before the start of the Australia Cup. A solid 2-1 win at Bradford City, with goals by youngster Daniel Hannant and a debut goal by Ciaran Dickson was followed by a very respectable 1-0 defeat to Aston Villa, where we were expected to be outclassed, and I even shook hands with Steven Gerrard.
After that it was right back to Down Under, as we had our Australia Cup debut coming up. This time, the schedule gods had been unkind and we had a tricky debut against last season Championship semi finalists Western Sydney Wanderers. Fear not, we put three past them, with Ciaran Dickson and Wikelman Carmona getting their first official goals and a third one by Simone for good measure.
From there, we mixed the friendly batteries with decent results at the Cup (10-0 against College of Micronesia, 10-0 against Willowburn FC, 4-0 against Wellington Phoenix, 10-0 against Willowburn FC) and sooner than we thought we were in the final, facing Perth Glory, to be played in the AAMI Park in Melbourne.
It all started like shit, with a 4th minute goal for them and a 60th minute red card for us, after right back Aywok Diok misplaced a pass and Simone Lucaroni slid like a maniac to cut the potential counter attack. Yet, even as 10v11 the match remained a close fought contest, and in the 79th Joshua Nisbet controlled a rebound from a Perth corner to put a pass that left Ciaran Dickson 1v1 against their keeper; Smith controlled, then swerved right as the goalie charged for him and then chipped it over him.
Imagine my desperation when two minutes later we were found on a counter and they got ahead again. But they made a mistake and decided to sit it out, giving us the ball. They sat out so much that Nisbet once again found Carmona cutting in from the right and the Venezuelan in change put it for Brandon Blackshaw slipping from his marker into the six-yard box. 2-2. 87th minute.
Extra time was a slug, as both teams had nothing left. By the time the penalties came, I took a page from Brian Clough’s book and decided to let the players choose who was taking them. Wikelman Carmona opened the series for us; under pressure, they missed the second one, and we converted all the remaining ones.
After three lost finals, it was a big relief and the players (and myself) showed it, but I didn’t want to get too overboard.
“We need to keep this up guys”, I told them after the match. “It don’t mean a thing if we don’t win the last game of the season”
“We’re going to do it this time boss”, replied Simone, with a huge roar behind him, “Look out! ‘Cause here we come!”
A Word… Perhaps
The season proper, of course, had started a few weeks before, with that curious thing where the cup slightly overlaps with the league despite being largely played in the pre-season. We started with a solid win 3-0 against Wellington Phoenix and a 0-0 draw with Melbourne Victory, but then the post-final hangover hit us and we went the next five adding just five points from fifteen available.
By the time we started to hit our stride and climb back up the table we had another issue, the AFC Champions League. Our Group was composed of 13-times Malaysian champions Johor DT (in fact, 13 consecutive times), Japanese side Urawa Reds and old friends Beijing Guo’an, who we had already faced with Persik. However, unlike our Indonesia days, when the Group Stage found us barely putting on our boots after the holidays, for the A-League it’s more akin to what a European or South American team finds, having the competition being a mid-week contest.
This made it tricky for me to impose my new training ideas. Since earning my Pro licence, I had been looking to implement a tactical periodisation approach to training, both on the first team and the youth sides. Long story short, the core idea is to design training sessions around the football you intend to play, so when our style was finally developed enough with the new signings, I had a meeting with the staff and the players and we started drawing the next working weeks. Of course, while some understood the idea behind it from the get go, others were… less receptive to the increase in work, and the staff reported some complaints they had taken.
We were watching training when I got the first direct complaints.
“Hey… boss… a word… perhaps?”, asked Simone, gasping for air after an intensive set of rondos to work on ball distribution.
“Sure, let me know what’s on your mind”
“Take a breather”
He vowed, sweat dripping from his face, taking big gasps of air. It was the heat of February, on a clear day, and I knew what was about to hear, but I still wanted to hear it.
“It’s just some of the guys and I… we were wondering if this training plan is the right way…”, he said finally.
“We discussed the change in approach, Dr. King, Steve and I took your questions…”, I replied. Dr. Jonathan King was our Chief Doctor and Steve Lloyd was our Head Physio.
“I know, I know, it’s just that… It’s different hearing it than doing it. And we have so many matches right now… we’re professionals, but the guys are wondering…”
“Every week’s plan is reviewed by Steve to make sure we’re not overworking the squad. Trust the process, ok?”
“If you say so boss”
“Do you want to win?”
“I do, boss”
“Do you want to play for a winning side?”
“I do, boss”
“Well… do you, don’t you want me to make us one?”
He stood up and looked me straight in the eyes.
“I do, boss. I do.”
I nodded and sent him on his way, then went back to my office. I needed a cigarette… and perhaps even a drink.
In truth, we surfed past all of them, including absolute trashings like a 7-1 beating of Urawa Reds and a 5-1 victory over Johor DT, both at Grahame Park. 18 out 18 available and top of our group. However, the quirks of the calendar put a stop to our continental chase. The knockout stage wouldn’t start until September, some five months after our last group match. So far into the future it was, that it would actually overlap with next season’s Australia Cup. The calendar in Asian football never ceases to amaze.
Are We Clear?
After our initial hiccups, we quickly started to steamroll the opposition. From March to May we went 11 league matches undefeated, picking up 29 points from 33 available and building a considerable gap at the lead of the table. The fans started to believe the hype, and we were quickly launched into the position of Championship favourites.
Our last match, in early May right before the beginning of the playoffs, was particularly impressive. We went away to Adelaide United. While Alen Stajcic had been sacked months before (in January actually), it was a fairly good opportunity for the players to get “karmic revenge” on last year’s champions.
We ran absolutely rampant, making 4-0 before they got the consolation goal at the 87th minute. It was a particularly fun match as all four goals came from another kid from the academy, Matej Kurtovic, who had established himself as Brandon Blackshaw’s understudy at just 17 years old. Another kid who had gotten big minutes was a lefty centreback by the name of Regan Brevett, who was brave but smart, and physically dominant.
While the actual title had been confirmed for a long while, it was only then that we had the trophy ceremony for the Premiership. We finished on 56 points, with 17 won, 5 draw and 4 lost, seven points above second-placed Macarthur FC. It was actually the Mariners first Premiership title in 13 years, having last won it in 2011-12. However, I wanted to make sure it didn’t go to our heads.
While the players were celebrating in the dressing room, I had a quick smoke and a drink with Rachel and a few members of the staff in an office we had… “borrowed” for a while.
“Well, I’ll go talk to them”, I said.
“Don’t be too harsh. Don’t ruin it for them”, replied Rachel
“Somebody has to, darling, else they’ll think they’ve also won something important”
The room went silent
“Darling?”, she muttered.
“Come on, you know what I meant…”
She didn’t reply, so I slammed the door behind me. When I entered the dressing room, most of the players were semi naked, dancing on top of the benches, shaking small bottles of champagne around, with music blasting and some chanting on top of it.
“HEY BOSS!”, shouted Simone when I entered, “Join the party”
“Guys, if I can have a word…”
“Sure, sure…. BOYS! Lower the music…. Yeah… the boss wants to say something”
The volume went down and they all turned to face me, some still holding their towels from the shower, others with their uniforms drenched in sweat and sparkling wine.
“I want to start by saying… I’m proud of you”, I started.
Some “woos” went off and someone uncorked another bottle.
“But I need to say this. Don’t let it go to your head. We’ve fought for this but the battle isn’t won yet. Don’t let you form slide, don’t go off to party all nighters, don’t take your girls to some exotic fucking beach in the middle of fucking nowhere”
They were silent now. All I could think of was “Fuck, I need another cigarette”.
“I don’t need to tell you how it feels to lose it. I don’t need to tell you how fucking often we’ve been losing it. We don’t want to fucking lose it again, so don’t take your fucking eyes from the fucking ball. Are you happy with this? Well, you may be winners, but you ain’t no champions. Not yet. So have your moment, celebrate for a bit, but I want all of you ready to work on your recovery tomorrow and on Monday we start to work on the semis. Are we clear?”
Some of them mumbled something.
“Are. We. Clear?”, I insisted.
“We’re clear boss”, replied Simone.
“That’s how I like it”.
(Not) Again, (Not) Again, (Not) Again
The week after the Premiership title was a tense one. Once again, due to being in the top two, we had a match less. Some may have taken it as a relief; I saw it as an opportunity. The staff and I had prepared a special work routing, with a heavy focus on the tactical side, match preparation, set pieces and even penalties, should it come to it.
Rachel avoided me following our little spat in Adelaide. “Fine by me”, I said to myself. What did she know about this? About coaching a side, week in, week out? She was happy taking the numbers and signing the contracts, but it was my name the fans cursed when we lost. And we weren’t going to fucking lose again. Not again.
We waited for the winner of the Elimination game between Sydney FC and Wellington Phoenix. Out of the two, I fancied Sydney a bit more out of spite for that loss in my first match. They did the business two-nil and I got my wish.
Our first match was at home at Grahame Park. It was packed with our fans. The same waves of yellow and navy, the same painted faces, the same excitement. “Not again, not again, not again” I kept repeating to myself, “I need another cigarette. I need another drink”.
“Can you believe just three thousand of them made the journey here?”, said one of my staffers, taking me out of the trance.
“Yeah… and it’s only an hour’s journey. Looks like they don’t have much faith in their lads”
And yet, they started winning. Just eight minutes in, Calem Nieuwenhof went after a ball behind our right back, controlled and put a ball back for Steve Grech just inside the box, which he slotted with one touch. We clawed one back from a long cross by Josh Nisbet, which was headed by Daniel Hannant.
We came out firing in the second half, but at the first chance they had to counter, Gabriele Capani put a cross for Lewis Walker to make it 2-1 for them. It was like a hit in the nuts, and only at the hourmark we had Ciaran Dickson slip from his marker for a put back, which Brandon Blackshaw comfortably scored.
Going to Sydney with a draw wasn’t the best result, but we were still confident. We had put three past them in December, there was no reason to not do it again. However, when we went out to warm up I got a bunch of memories from that first match; that crushing defeat, that grandiose stage for my screw ups… “Not again, not again, not again”.
As the match started, we were on top. Josh Nisbet put a lovely lifted ball through for Wikelman just before the 20th minute mark, which the Venezuelan first-time volleyed into the top corner, Van Persie style. “Diego, you smart bastard”, I thought.
Happiness would last but 13 minutes. A silly foul gave them a good free kick at the edge of the box, which Capani curled past our goalie. 1-1, and I was scrambling to look for the away goal rules. “No away goals”, confirmed one of my assistants.
And then it happened. Again, again, again. We collapsed like a sand castle. We lost the ball, we lost confidence, we lost control of the match, and we got desperate. Ciaran Dickson went in for a clumsy challenge at the 77th minute and saw an instant red card. In the 90th, as if waiting at the last possible minute to land the hammer, Capani put in a cross, Regan Brevett missed the header, and it fell for one of their kids, Wesley Lahiff, who nailed the header in the bottom right corner. Just like that, we were out.
Two days later I was at my office. The air was murky, like a foggy day, and my ashtray was full. Laying down in the chair, I had a smoke on my right hand and a glass of whisky in my left; Auchentoshan 12, the good stuff.
My phone buzzed. It was a text from Rachel. “Now I get to the bottom and I see you again”, I thought. I squashed off the cigarette and picked up the phone. “You’re manager of the year”, read the message. I sighed…
“I hate this team”.