The Dartboard Journeyman – Part 9

No more distractions

Grahame Park is quiet at night. Walking around the offices, making the rounds around the pitch, nobody is there, nothing is there. Just the sound of the waves of the Brisbane Water crashing against the coast on the other side of the A49, again and again and again. I had just wrapped up our first signing of the season. No Rachel, no Jasper, no Diego fucking Candy; not anyone, just myself. His name was Bobby Thomas and he was a 26 year old centreback from England, released by Burnley.

Sitting against the fence that separated the pitch from the grass beyond it, under the palm trees, I remembered the busyness of this time last season. The coming, the going, the trials, the scouting. There would be none of that this season. I had decided Bobby would be our last signing for the market. This team didn’t need heavy investment, this team didn’t need a revamp. What this team needed was to fucking go out and do it. 

We had lost our first chance out of the shock of getting there. We had lost our second chance out of the over-relying in our first guys. But we lost our third out of comfort, out of lack of accountability. I had shielded them enough. Time was up; every man for himself. Bobby Thomas was a reply to a need, nothing else. Our left back was running out of a contract and he wanted more money, so I shifted Regan Brevett to the left side and signed Bobby. 189 centimetres of ball clearing centreback. 

This team was good enough to win the Premiership by seven points, so they were good enough to win three more matches. However, our first objective was hiding behind quite a few more games: the AFC Champions League.

The competition returned in September, by which point we had already had a few sparring matches, including those early rounds of the Australia Cup. The 16 teams that made it out of the group stage are once again divided between East and West regions, similarly to how the NBA does it, with us, any Japanese or Korean sides in the East Region, and Middle Eastern sides in the West Region.

By virtue of having topped our group after winning every game, I expected us to play our second round game at home, particularly as it was a big advantage since there were no home-and-away legs. However, for some reason we had to visit another old friend of mine, Jeonbuk of South Korea. I did not care; we were in it to win it.

It was a one and half hour bus to Sydney Airport, then a ten hour flight to Incheon International Airport, and a four hour bus trip to the City of Jeonbuk. All along the trip, the squad was quiet, only the rumours of small talk popping up around.

“How long do you intend for them to focus like this?”, asked Rachel, next to my seat.

“As long as necessary. No more distractions, no more celebrating before time”, I replied.

Just over 10,000 were in the stands waiting for the teams. In a 40,000 people stadium, it looked rather disappointing. “Perhaps I’m harder to impress now”, I told myself while I was putting out my last cigarette before going out. 

It took the team some work to get into the match, but when we did there was no stopping us. Bobby Thomas was at the bench, still not match ready, and I cursed myself for not risking him out when a header by them hit the woodwork, but that was about the only big chance they got. Still 0-0 at half time, I told the team now was the time to push: “Now. Not next time, not the next match, not the next season, not the next year. Now!”. They listened, barely. In the 83rd minute Aiki Tsukamoto intercepted a wayward pass by their centrebacks and put a ball in behind for Matej Kurtovic, who slotted it in. Just a minute later, Jacob Fox did the same, this time to find Conor Smith who first-touch curled it past their goalkeeper. Done deal. I allowed for a bit more chatter on the way home. 

Tears of pain, tears of joy

It would be another month of friendlies and Australia Cup until the next fixture came in. There would be no huge excursion for the quarterfinals, as we hosted another Korean side, Seoul FC. Grahame Park was as full as I had ever seen it; almost 20,000 yellow and navy faces in the stands. This time we hit early, with Brandon Blackshaw intercepting a backpass from their left back for a quick put-in. Despite the easy goal, it was a much harder match, with a lot of back-and-forth. Bobby Thomas, finally match fit, was imperious in the air and I congratulated myself over his signing.

For all the wait between the last two phases, the semis were just four days later. Again at home, this time against former group stage rivals Beijing Guo’an. By halftime we were 3-0 up, and had another in the second half. The fans went crazy, we were in the final. Only the third Australian team ever to do it.

Our date with destiny was a month later. Having won the East Region half of the three, we had to face the West Asian “winners”, Saudi Arabian side Al-Ittihad. Again, it would be away, this time due to a rule the match is hosted by a team from the West Region in odd-numbered years, which 2027 sadly is.

That meant we had to make another odyssey, this time to the King Abdullah Sports City stadium in Jeddah, some 13,295 km away. It would take a whole day trip, plus the typical buses to Sydney Airport from Gosford and from the Jeddah Airport to the hotel, all which left me wondering if perhaps a neutral venue wouldn’t have been fairer.

Before the match, the guys were once again in full concentration mode. This time through no effort of my own. As dressing room leaders, Simone and Josh Nisbet made it clear to everyone this would be the match of their lives, and they had to be up to it.

Good thing they did, cause just two minutes in Simone went in for a tackle after a throw in and he had to come out. It was a sign of things to come, as we were absolutely bombarded in the early minutes, struggling to keep the ball and do something with it.

It wasn’t until the 39th minute when a winger named Joseph McAllister cut inside from the left and put a ball in behind for Wikelman, who slotted it first time with his left foot on the right bottom corner. However, just two minutes later a player named Adel Al-Khaibari slipped through our defence, dribbled past the goalkeeper and put it in to tie it 1-1.

“I don’t quite know what to tell you guys”, I said at halftime. “I know you have the quality to run this team rugged. I know it… but I can’t do anything about it. I’m not out there on the pitch. You’re the ones out there. You’re the ones who can do something. So you either start believing in yourselves, start playing the game you’ve played since the first match, or we’ll pick up another runners up medal. So it’s up to you guys”.

We jumped back to the pitch with a different mentality, and the match became much more of a back and forth affair. Still far from the dominating performance I wanted, but much better. After 90 minutes it was still tied, so we went to extra time. It was there that the team finally clicked, and they didn’t have a chance. 

We created chance after chance until Wikelman was brought down inside the box when he was slipping their defence for a clear header. He took the penalty with calm and my whole staff went nuts. Just four more minutes, and we’d be Asian champions.

For all the drama, however, Al-Ittihad didn’t really put up a fight. A long shot that went far above the crossbar after kickoff was their sole response. So exhausted they were, that when the final whistle went both teams fell to the ground and cried. Theirs were tears of pain, ours were tears of joy.

The greed

I sat at my office at Grahame Park. The shades were down, so the room was tenuously lit by the dying lights of the afternoon, and a small lamp that sat by my side, a gift from a former girlfriend.

I thought of her as I wrote a letter on my PC, perhaps the feeling of loss linking the two moments: it was my letter of resignation. Having achieved my goal of winning the AFC Champions League, I wanted to get away from it all. I hadn’t yet decided whether I was going to hand it over or not, but typing it helped, as if the feeling of anger at so many losses escaped through my fingers while I mashed at the keyboard.

We had just lost another Australia Cup final. This time, 1-0 against Western Sydney Wanderers. We were running rampant in the league, with three wins out of three, but I was growing ever restless. It seemed like no matter what I did, this team was always going to be just one screw up away from 2nd place. After pouring my heart and soul into it, there was nothing left to give. I felt myself raging, I felt myself sliding. I was coming into two-packs-a-day territory and my whisky collection rotated more often than my teams. And yet I could not stop it, it roared out of me.

Someone knocked at the door when I was wrapping up one of the paragraphs. I tried to finish it but they had broken my concentration. That pissed me off.

“Come in”

Brandon Blackshaw waltzed in, with an eagerness he usually only showed in the field.

“Hey boss”, he said.

“Brandon, what can I do for you?”

“Well, I wanted to talk with you about something”

“Ah, yes…”, I replied. Jasper had told me about it. Some disgruntlement among some of the players, but he trusted we could solve it.

“It’s just… well some of the guys and I think we’ve done good winning the Champions League, and we’ve been dominant in the league so far…”

“I’m failing to see the point you’re trying to make”, I replied. I wasn’t.

“We want a raise”, he said, bluntly, “We feel we deserve one, we feel we’ve earned one, and we bloody want one”.

I reclined in my chair. There it was, the greed. The greed from these losers, coming up at the very first sight of silverware. I had seen this coming too, but unlike Jasper, I wasn’t thinking about solving it. There was… nothing to solve.

“Well, you bloody ain’t getting one”, I replied.

Brandon looked shook, like all this time he had been expecting that putting his courage on the table was all it was needed to guarantee the result he wanted.

“I… we… we can’t accept that, boss”, he finally said.

“Well, you bloody well will have to, cause you aren’t getting a single penny more out of this club”

“That’s unfair”

“It may, from your point of view. From my point of view, you’re asking for something you haven’t earned. You may be Asian champions, but you’re also semi-final losers”.

“… so are you”, he replied, like a hurt predator back reeling.

“I am. I bloody well am. That’s why you don’t see me asking for a raise”

“You haven’t heard the last from us”, he insisted. 

“I know. But on this issue you have heard the last from me”.

He left, slamming the door. From that point onwards I had no trouble keeping the dressing room quiet. 

Anticlimactically

Despite it all, despite the trouble, the dressing room atmosphere, the broken link with Rachel, the doubt, despite it all… we kept winning. So much so that they forced me to postpone my resignation. Who the hell resigns in the middle of an eleven game winning streak?

We shot up the table and once again looked every bit the favourites as last season. By the time we finally lost (a 3-2 away defeat at Melbourne City FC), we had accrued a 20 points gap to second place. The tempo inevitably slowed during March and April, as some injuries and the general exhaustion got us to drop some points, but the job was done by then.

By the time the Playoffs rolled in, we knew who we were facing in the semi finals: Macarthur FC, our rivals from our very first playoff game, all the way back in May 2025. Three years had passed. Three years that felt like an eternity ago.

Over 16,000 people awaited us at the home game in Grahame Park. The highest attendance for an A-League since I took over the team. As I waved at the fans during the entrance, I wondered what went through their heads. Were they hopeful? Were they terrified? Were they eager? 

Whatever it was, we must have pleased them. It was just a 1-0 win, courtesy of a long range goal by Simone. However Macarthur were absolutely barraged, buried in shots, woodwork rattling and close calls.

Still, the only goals that count are those that go up the score, and that meant there was just one goal difference coming to the away leg, no matter how we got it. Right before the second game, Simone made sure to remind that to everyone as captain: “They say we’re chokers, they say we’re bottlers, they say we haven’t earned it”, he started, and I knew he was talking to me “If you don’t want to fucking hear it again, we have to go out there and win it. Win it here, win it in the final. And fuck the critics”. He sure got to his teammates, and we got our ticket to the final with a 2-1 win.

The final would be against our stumbling block of last season, Sydney FC. They had actually lost the last final against none other than Macarthur FC, so it amused me that in our attempt to set up a revenge series, we had actually screwed up theirs. The record for home assistance had been shattered again, with more than 17,000 this time.

The players were tense, the dressing room was quiet, and nobody wanted to be told what they had to do. The week before the final I had run a special training schedule, with a focus on tactical moves, set piece deliveries and even penalties practice. We were leaving nothing to chance.

Starting off we were the better side, and just 24 minutes in Simone gave us the lead, with a shot inside the box from a Wikelmar Carmona goal. However, we failed to put the game to bed, and early in the second half we conceded a silly penalty from a corner to gifted them the 1-1. “Here we come again” was all I could think of…

Still, we were the better side by a mile and around the 73rd minute we got the helping hand we never received. A midfielder called Aidan Daniels grabbed Simone inside the box and our man dutifully went down like there was a sniper in the stadium. It was a soft penalty, but a penalty nonetheless and the referee called it. Wikelman Carmona buried it in. 2-1; all we had to do was hold on… and then they got a guy sent off five minutes later. Rather anticlimactically, we had done.

When the players were done celebrating, Simone came over to me.

“So we’ve earned it now, boss?”, he asked, with a smile as wide as the pitch

“You have, you fucking have”, I replied.

Quite the nasty asshole

Two days I was by the pool at the Park Hyatt hotel in Sydney, enjoying the last good days of May. A glass of scotch in one hand, a cigar in the other. Cigarettes were for the season only, I had decided.

“I have a couple of things to run by you”, said a voice behind me. It was Rachel

“Fire away”, I said. I didn’t turn around.

“I just found out you won Manager of the Year”

“Of course I have. Who else could they have given it to?”, I replied.

“We need to schedule a press conference”

I didn’t reply.

“When can we do it? The board is going to want to know”

“Fuck it,” I said. “I’m not doing it”

She let a moment go.

“You’re not going to do a press conference?” she said. She was angry. “You just won the Coach of the Year…”

“That’s right. What am I going to do, what I’m I going to say? The same things I said last time… maybe except with a big fuck you cause this time we actually won it”

“Maybe you could thank the people who work with you… unlike last time”

“Like who?”

“Like Jasper, like the coaches… like me”

I smiled.

“You don’t work ‘with’ me. You work for me”

Another moment of silence.

“Yeah, that’s the other thing… I wanted to give you something”, she said, and she covered the sun with a piece of paper.

“What is this supposed to be?” I replied, reaching out.

“It’s my resignation letter”

“What?”

“It’s not quite as… well versed like yours, but it’s still solid enough”

“What does this mean?”

She smiled.

“It means I don’t want to work ‘for’ you anymore. Honestly, it’s not the smoking, or the drinking, or the fact that you’ve become quite the nasty asshole to be around. It’s the fact that you act like you don’t care for my take. So there’s that”.

“I…”, was all I could muster.

“Don’t bother”, she said, and walked away. 

Published by fromero92

Argentinian writer and journalist

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