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Franjo: A Journeyman Story (New Episode Every Week Day!)

My Name is Franjo. And I will be a Football Manager.
Started on 8 May 2017 by Wtfranjo
Latest Reply on 6 May 2018 by Wtfranjo
Franjo: Part-Timer (Meta-sode 100.5)

Ho ho ho, 100 bloody episodes lads!

I’m off again, this time skiving for Christmas! Should put me in a position to come back strong on New Years Day though.

Thanks once again for reading, especially now that FM18’s out and especially if you've been following for 100 entire episodes since the dark days at FC Höllviken.

Sammuthegreat on FMbase mentioned the other day that not many people were still posting about FM17 and I hadn’t thought about it that much, but I’ve not noticed much of a drop off in the number of readers since the new game came out and I’m really chuffed about that, so thanks!

Have a great Christmas, or a great holiday season in general, and we’ll attack any New Years hangovers together bright and early on the 1st January 2018.



Back On The Horse (Franjo: A Journeyman Story - Ep101)

Am I irresponsible with money? I’m genuinely asking. Not because I went out into Cape Town last night with some of my coaching staff and spent a week's pay (I blame my assistant Jakub. I need to stop drinking with the Polish, the ones I’ve met can handle 10 times the amount of alcohol I can, but then so can some children), but because I started Summer 2020 with 2 decent centre backs in Eliphas Thoahlane and Gary Havenga and as soon as the transfer budget started burning a hole in my pocket I went out and signed 3 more. I reckon Eliphas and Gary are now 4th and 5th in the pecking order respectively and I feel a bit bad, so it’s with a pang of guilt that while nursing the mother of all hangovers I sign Havenga’s loan deal that’ll see him move to our affiliate club Zizwe United. He’s still young so you never know, if he gets some first team football under his belt, does well and improves he could still have a future with Santos. Good luck, Gaz.

It makes my headache just a little bit more intense when I learn that Hicham Aidir, the striker that’s scored 4 goals in 4 games for us so far, suffered a strained wrist on duty with Morocco U20’s and will be touch and go for our next match. What match, you ask? Oh, only Kaizer Chiefs at home.

I’m pretty fed up of Kaizer Chiefs, with their multi-million-pound transfer budgets, their legendary South African goalkeeper Itumeleng Khune, their big money shirt deals with Nike and Vodafone and their smug, self-satisfied faces, laughing as they spit down on us from their ivory tower made of trophies and silver spoons... And ivory, I suppose. Kaiser Chiefs are Goliath and we are David, and if we pull out the right slingshot I know we can knock them on their arses.

Luckily, Aidir does make it back just in time for the game so he’ll start up front and hopefully pick up where he left off with those 2 goals against Bloem Celtic. Molekwane, Sohna, Japhta and Masango are all in too in place of Nkili, Roscoe, Zulu and Norde as we line up at the Athlone and Project: Meatloaf is my chosen system, which will either be looked back on as a very brave decision or a very foolish one.

With 12 minutes gone, Ngoma’s whipped corner causes problems for Japhta at the near post and he fails to clear the ball. Harrison latches onto it and squares across the face of goal for centre back Siyanda Xulu, who tucks it away from point blank range. Oh dear.

Kaizer Chiefs continue to dominate and come close to a second after 25 minutes when Mphahlele’s cross is headed towards the top corner by Ngoma. Captain Komo saves it brilliantly with his finger tips, redirecting the ball against the post, and Tashreeq Morris is lurking as it trickles back across the face of goal but luckily he’s flagged as offside by the lino.

When the second goal does come 2 minutes before half time, it’s from another Ngoma corner. This time he floats it to the far post where Mkhwanazi is waiting to power it home. Komo gets a glove to the ball but can’t keep it out.

To be fair we do better after half time, in that we do actually manage some shots but none of them hit the target. Ryan Moon is on thin ice now after another anonymous performance and is replaced by Yanga Baliso, while Carl Lark replaces Aidir.

The away side finish us off with 15 minutes to go. We defend valiantly and stubbornly after their free kick is launched into the box, but several failed crosses later the ball falls to Khutlang on the edge of the box. He has ample time to take the ball down, pick his spot and take the shot and still cannons it straight at Marothi Diale, but Komo is left wrong footed and the back of the net ripples for the third and final time. It’s another comprehensive loss against last year’s Champions.

We may have now lost half of our 6 league games, but in all fairness this was the first one where I felt like we didn’t deserve to win. In the interests of immediately getting back on the horse though it’s time to turn our collective attention to the first round of the South African Knock Out Cup, a competition in which Santos have not won a match in 2 years. Woohoo. Mthatha Bucks are our opponents and we’ll travel to their place as we bid to better last season’s record of shitting the domestic cup bed at the first opportunity.

Mthatha Bucks are a team that I’ve been looking forward to playing actually because last year we squeezed past them 1-0 twice in 2 extremely even matches. A solid win today would make me confident that I’ve taken this team in the right direction over the Summer.

We line up cautiously with Project: Foxy Mk II and I make a couple of personnel changes: Siyabonga Zulu and Yanga Baliso will give us solidity at the back and width further forwards down the left wing and Roscoe comes in as I continue to try and figure out my best central defensive partnership. Japhta, Masango and Sohna make way.

The start of the match is predictably cagey; Scrappy football and limited chances in an even opening stage. With 23 minutes played though Baliso receives the ball on the half way line and shoots down the left touchline like a bullet from a gun. When he gets level with the penalty area he swings a cross in and the keeper rushes out to the centre of the 6 yard box to claim it, but Hicham Aidir rises at the near post to nod the ball into the empty net and score his 5th goal in his first 6 games.

Chances continue to be at a premium throughout the game as Mthatha Bucks carefully poke and prod to try to find a way into the match. With 20 minutes to go, I bring on Nkili, Gogotya and Lark in place of Molekwane, Sinbad and Aidir. All 3 need match fitness and now seems like a good time for them to get it.

With 16 minutes to go however I’m left red-faced when Isaacs is left un-oppressed 25 yards from our goal and like Khutlang in our last match he has about 10 minutes to prepare his shot and ends up blasting it against Mike Kakuba. Shooting straight at our players continues to be a good strategy though as Komo is again caught wrong footed by the deflection and the ball flies into the net. I have no subs left and we’re all square. I may have shat the domestic cup bed once again.

A few minutes from time we’re on the back foot as the hosts push for a winner, but Jonasi’s tame shot ends up in Komo’s arms and we counter. Soumahoro takes the ball just inside the opposition half and spots King Carl running into space behind the defenders. A perfect lobbed pass ensues and Lark’s left one on one with the keeper Pule, but Lark’s shot lacks power and Pule pushes it away to safety.

As the whistle blows after 90 minutes I get a sinking feeling in my stomach. Extra time and possibly penalties await now. Tireder legs and possibly a third consecutive cup game without a win, and I can’t help feeling it’s my fault with that bloody triple substitution. I should’ve seen the game out with the players that started. That’s what I’d normally do at 1-0 in an even game. Don’t rock the boat, don’t tempt fate, don’t fix what isn’t bloody broken. It’s done now though and we’ve got to deal with it. It doesn’t help matters though that Baliso takes a 90th minute knock to the chest and seems to be struggling, but he plays on.

5 minutes into extra time our well worked free kick routine ends up finding Joël Soumahoro inside the box, but his shot is straight into Pule’s grateful arms. The match starts to become a physical endurance test after that with both sides tiring rapidly. Lines become stretched, the ball’s given away sloppily by both teams and arguably the best chance is Yanga Baliso’s looping 35 yard pot shot that Pule back-pedals to catch.
My eyes keep flickering over to the clock. 113 minutes... 114... I’m not sure if any of these players can even take a penalty... 115... 116... Who do I trust? Sinbad can take one, surely. King Carl and Ryan Moon too, despite their form... 117... 118... 119... 120... The clock ticks past the 120 minute mark but the referee’s whistle doesn’t blow. We’re into extra time injury time. Nkili throws the ball in from the right... Gogotya plays it on for Soumahoro... Joël hits it first time...

The next thing I know, I’m face down in the turf. Jakub Kalinkowski’s over-exuberant celebration has knocked me clean off my feet and I’ve face planted into the grass. I get back to my feet laughing as I’m mobbed by the Santos players and coaching staff. There’s no way Joël will be credited with that goal, such was the magnitude of the ball’s deflection off Brian Mandela on it’s way into the bottom corner of the net, but I doubt he’ll care. I certainly don’t. His shot could’ve catapulted up into the air and been bicycle-kicked in by a passing Stork for all it matters to me. All that matters, and all that ever matters in this beautiful game, is that the ball crossed the line.

The final whistle goes straight after kick off. Santos FC have won a Cup Match for the first time in 2 full years - And it feels fucking great.

Perfect (Franjo: A Journeyman Story - Ep102)

I step onto the team bus outside the Athlone to the usual mutters of “Morning Boss” and smile very Englishly around at the squad before making my way to my seat at the front. As I do I glance over at Komo and he gives me a smile and a nod. I smile back. Good lad. I charged him after the last training session with speaking to Eliphas Thoahlane, who’s pretty unhappy that I’ve not given him any game time so far this season. It’s fair enough really, but it looks like Komo’s talked the young defender down for the moment.

I’ll be honest, my mind’s only half on our visit to Polekwane City today. The draw for the Quarter Final of the South African Knock Out Cup was made yesterday and we’ve been given a home match against Supersport United, which will be our next game after this one with an 11 day break in between. Supersport beat us 0-1 and 0-3 last season and will no doubt give us a tough test, but I can’t let myself think about it now. That’s what the break’s for.

We beat Polekwane City 1-0 in this fixture last year and drew 0-0 in the reverse fixture. They were both very even matches so just like Wednesday’s dramatic Cup Win against Mthatha Bucks I’ll be looking for signs that we’re improving today. We’ll set up with Project: Meatloaf and Japhta and Masango will come in replacing Zulu and Baliso, whose chest injury midweek will keep him out for a couple of weeks. Some other players are still a bit knackered after we took our last match to 120 minutes but with the 11 day break I mentioned looming, we stay otherwise unchanged and they can recuperate afterwards.

With a quarter of an hour played, my changes down the left work like a charm. Masango cuts inside and gives the ball to Joël, creating acres of space for Japhta to run into down the line. Soumahoro picks the wingback out with a great pass and he drills a cross in first time, which Aidir meets and pokes into the net. 1-0 to the People’s Team.

There’s still definitely a balance on the left that I haven’t found yet though. Japhta’s obviously not a natural defender and misses an interception a couple of minutes later, leaving Nkondo free to get to the byline and whip a cross onto the head of Seoketsa, who nods the ball against the post from close range.

Polekwane keep going though and with 8 minutes to go before the break, Khanyeza swings a corner into the box. Fielies cushions the ball down and Phungwayo powers in the equaliser on the half volley.

At half time I bring off Joël, who’s especially tired and really struggling. Sony Norde comes on and we go again.

10 minutes after kick off, another chance forms down the left for Santos. Aidir holds the ball up well before sweeping it out wide for Sello Japhta. He crosses from the byline once again and Hicham Aidir leaps for it, but he’s beaten to the ball by the Haitian substitute Sony Norde, who heads us back in front.

We instantly drop back to the relative safety of the Project: Foxy Mk II system and Aidir nearly makes it 3 just minutes later, but his low shot from 20 yards is dragged wide of the post. With 20 minutes to go I also bring on young set piece specialist Juno in place of Diale; To provide fresh legs and maybe an offensive threat from dead balls.

We look tight at the back from then on and should really grab a 3rd again when Ryan Moon plays a lovely lofted through ball for Aidir. He runs through with only the keeper to beat but his shot is straight at him. We rejig 10 minutes from the end when Zulu replaces Moon and Japhta goes up to the left wing with Masango on the right. Polekwane can’t find a way through and we take the 2-1 win. It’s been a pretty close match but pleasingly our quality showed.

Over the next 11 days we pick up a couple of injuries, which isn’t helpful in the build up to a tough cup match. Gugu Gogotya’s the first to fall with a thigh strain a few days before the Supersport match, but he’s just about fit enough to be named on the bench.

In a fateful reserves match against a Cape Town City reserves side who seemingly had Freddie Krueger up front though, Roscoe and Thoahlane are down within 3 minutes of each other with a torn hamstring and a damaged kneecap respectively. Any lingering plans I had of playing Thoahlane will have to be put on hold for 5 or 6 weeks, but it’s the 2-3 months for Roscoe that really stings. He’s had a good couple of matches and has been forming a good partnership with Mike Kakuba.

Sony Norde’s not happy either just to give me 1 more thing to think about. It’s a fair compaint as he’s only appeared 4 times in 8 games so far, but I just assure him that his absence is only down to the fact that the players who are in the team are earning their places. Sony seems happy enough and leaves it at that but after he leaves my office I realise that that’s not exactly true. There’s been a big Ryan Moon shaped hole on our right wing so far this season where our best player used to play. Whoever’s taken his place seems more like a cheap supermarket own-brand winger so there might be space in my team after all.

Finally, Hicham Aidir has jetted off to join Morocco Under 20’s for their super important friendlies against Tunisia U20’s and Egypt U20’s. He’ll miss the Supersport match and I suppose I just get to eat shit.

So all in all we make a few changes. We keep the same system but Sohna, Norde and the struggling King Carl come in for Roscoe, Moon and Aidir. Norde will have a proper crack at being a right sided inside forward. Nkili also replaces Molekwane at right back as he isn’t impressing me at the minute.

It's not until just before half time that the match really gets started. Supersport push us back but we hit them with a quick break. King Carl releases Masango down the left and he cuts onto his right foot just outside the box before firing a powerful shot towards the bottom corner, but Mazibuko saves it pretty comfortably.

Quarter of an hour after half time, we hit them on the break again. This time it's Sony Norde that leads the charge through the centre and he tees up Lark, whose shot is blocked by a defender. Marothi Diale gets to the loose ball first and passes to Joël Soumahoro, who smashes it first time and nearly takes the net off it's stanchions with a thunderbastard into the top corner.

With 20 minutes to play we're actually looking pretty dominant. A long goal kick from Komo is nodded on by Mandla Masango and held up by King Carl, who then slips it back through for Masango to shoot, but he leathers the ball against the underside of the bar and it stays out.

A few minutes later we play a superb bit of patient football in the final third, really stretching the Supersport defence. Norde chips the ball in for Joël, who plays it through for Carl Lark 6 yards out. He has to bury it, but can only shoot straight at Mazibuko in net, who makes the save.

A couple more minutes pass and again the ball goes from Norde to Joël and through for Lark, but this time our struggling striker is hauled down in the box by Junior Sibande and the ref points to the spot. Sello Japhta's the man that steps up to take the penalty and he calmly side foots the ball into the left hand side of the net. Santos lead Supersport 2-0. Happy to see the game out, we revert to Project: Foxy Mk II and Siyabonga Zulu comes on replacing the goalscorer Japhta, while Norde and Masango swap positions and play as orthodox wingers.

With less than 4 minutes to play, orthodox winger Sony Norde takes the ball down the left, creating space for Joël in the channel before squaring the ball for the Ivorian. Joël drops the shoulder to take it past his marker and dashes into the box, before firing past the keeper from 10 yards. 3-0. I bring on young Ernie for a taste of first team football and King Carl looks conflicted as he heads for the bench. He's done OK today but he should've scored. As it stands last year's top goalscorer is yet to find the net this season.

Within a minute though the change pays off. Ernie presses centre back Junior Sibande into skewing the ball away to Sony Norde, who holds it up on the left and waits for support. He finds it in who else but Joël Soumahoro, who passes it straight through for Ernie to chase. Ernie takes the ball, gets to the left byline and chips in a beautiful cross to the far post, and Masango heads it into the net via the half-hearted palm of Mazibuko.

I've not seen such a dominant performance from a Santos team, especially against such frightening opposition. We were perfect: Fearless and immovable at the back, fluid and unstoppable going forwards. Today was a good day.

Hollow (Franjo: A Journeyman Story - Ep103)

We’ve lost another one, I think, letting out a long sigh. Long serving Liechtensteiner right back Yves Oehri has retired from professional football after his extended period of training with Santos. It’s a little easier to stomach than when Simon Kühne did the same because for one thing Yves is 33, 7 years older than Simon, and for another he’s... Well he was... He wasn’t my first choice right back. Let’s leave it at that. Nevertheless there’s definitely something to be said for having experience in your squad and as our most capped player with 70, we’ll miss Yves. Incidentally, Guillaume Khous and Vinzenz Flatz are both still training with Santos to dissuade them from following suit.

Speaking of experienced Liechtensteiner players, Sky Sports have stuck the boot in in the build up to our crunch EIL visits to Montenegro and Moldova by suggesting that Sandro Wieser should be dropped because of his club situation. To be fair though he’s in the unenviable and slightly embarrassing position of not being able to break into a Wycombe Wanderers side who’re sat dead last in League One, so I do see their point. I’d like to know who Sky Sports would pick instead though.

And it certainly won’t be Yanik Negele, the light at the end of the tunnel for Liechtensteiner football. The 19 year old midfielder slipped a disc playing for Vaduz U21’s and will miss another 6-7 weeks.

I sit alone for a few minutes in the corner of Pod Goricom’s away changing room. I’ve had a twisted feeling in my stomach about this match for a good while now and with kick off looming I’m not really sure how to feel. We currently sit, and please don’t think I’m not fucking elated with this, in 2nd place in our European International League table. Gibraltar are out of the running for promotion in 4th, having picked up only the 1 point that we gifted them. Moldova, Tuesday’s opponents, are in 3rd with 6 points and we’re just 1 point higher with 7. Montenegro lead the way unsurprisingly with 9 points, meaning that we’re the only ones who can stop them from gaining promotion at all of our expense. We beat them in Vaduz, however lucky it might’ve been, and if we don’t do the same at their place today, they’re almost guaranteed to go up. After our next 2 matches we could finish above only the whipping boys of Gibraltar in 3rd, be the “best of the rest” in 2nd, or get promoted in 1st. It’s up to us. It’s all up to us.

We’ll set up today in a counter attacking variant of Project: Liechtensteiner Mk II, the system that’s served us reasonably well so far, while Max Göppel comes in for Spirig at left back, who’s carrying a knock. Kuku replaces Negele in midfield. The full lineup is Benji Büchel in net, Lucas Eberle, Simone Grippo, Danny Kaufmann and Max Göppel in defence, Marcel Büchel, Sandro Wieser and Kuku in midfield, with Pascal Schürpf, Guillaume Khous and Yanik Frick across the front. In optimistic news, star centre back Stefan Savic is out injured for the hosts.

5 minutes in Marko Jankovic goes close for Montengro with a dipping 25 yard shot that skims the bar. Just 12 minutes later though they do take the lead when an extremely complicated and intricate short free kick routine is finished by a stroked finish by Boljevic which finds the net.

We go defensive after that to try and stop any build up of momentum by tightening up at the back, but it’s no use. 10 minutes later a Stojkovic corner is nodded down by left back Cristian Hadziosmanovic and volleyed calmly home by Stevan Jovetic at point blank range.

5 minutes pass before our next piece of bad news, which is a damaged foot for Pascal Schürpf. He plays on though. Montenegro seem happy to knock the ball about patiently between themselves after that, although they do counter from our corner just before half time. Boljevic has a chance to bag a second goal but shoots right into the arms of Benji Büchel.

I’d like to say that we fight back in the 2nd half. That we show some spirit or desire or catch the complacent favourites with some slick counter attacks. We don’t though. 10 minutes in, Pepic plays a long ball over the top and Jovetic leaves Kaufmann for dead, before firing under Benji and into the bottom corner. Gubser and Hadzipasic come on, but can’t make an impact as the match ends 0-3. If they can get anything from their final game away at Gibraltar, Montenegro will be promoted. Liechtenstein are mathematically out of the race.

“Shit”, I say to my hotel room wall later that night. “Fucking shit.” There’s an odd hollowness that comes with failing in International football. If you lose a cup match in club football it can hurt, but you know that as long as you can stave off the sack for another year, you’ll just be able to try again next time. The next European International League competition isn’t until the 2022/23 season though and God knows where I’ll be by then. The optimist in me says that we’ll qualify for the 2022 world cup and I’ll still be riding that high with Liechtenstein, but the pessimist and the realist... They both say something different.

We may as well wrap this up though. Moldova have moved 2 points above us into 2nd place, having beaten Gibraltar 2-0 away. They’ll stay 2nd unless we beat them.

Pascal Schürpf’s had to withdraw from the squad as his damaged foot will keep him out for 3 weeks, so 19 year old uncapped Vaduz winger Christian Quaderer is called up in his place. He looks OK - An aggressive and influential team player with a decent work ethic, but he’s not too quick and pretty questionable on the ball.

I’ll be honest though I don’t have too many options and with no real stakes, this seems like a decent match to give young Christian a try. He comes in on the right wing and Khous drops out to be replaced by Roman Spirig, who’ll play at left back, allowing Max Göppel to take the left wing. It makes sense to have 2 out and out wingers to use as outlets as we once again try a counter attacking variant of Project: Liechtensteiner Mk II.

17 minutes in, Faruk Özkan swings in a corner from the right hand side. The ball drops into a scramble 3 yards from goal and striker Alexandru Boiciuc’s on hand to stab in the opening goal. I scream for a response from my players, but less than 2 minutes later Boiciuc lays the ball off for Oleg Turea, who drills it into the bottom corner to make it 0-2. We go standard and exploit the flanks, but I can’t help feel that we’re done here.

The score remains 0-2 at half time, but I have no words of encouragement to give. I’m so fucking angry at the way this last few days has gone that I leave the team talk to my assistant André Ooijer.

I don’t know exactly what André says but just over a minute into the second half it’s 0-3. Faruk Özkan’s cross from deep on the right makes Benji Büchel come charging out to claim it, leaving Postolachi to simply pull away from his marker and nod the ball into our empty net. Before the 50 minute mark, it’s 0-4 when Faruk Özkan’s drilled cross flicks off Marcel Büchel’s heel and trickles across the line.

I decide to tell my team to defend to try to keep the scoreline barely dignified and bring on Hanselmann, Gubser and Hadzipasic for the last half hour. Rony Hanselmann is a pretty unimpressive 29 year old winger currently plying his trade for Triesenberg. He's not played under me so far, but Quaderer's not really cutting the mustard so far on his debut, so what the hell.

Hanselmann puts in a pretty anonymous performance, but to be fair, Gubser does well to get down the left wing and drill a cross in for Kevin Hadzipasic, who grabs us a consolation goal from just outside the 6 yard box. We’re finishing this EIL campaign with a whimper though. 1-4 the final score.

Up until this International break I was secure in my management of this team. Yes we weren’t scoring many, but we weren’t conceding either, which made the lack of goals OK. After 7 goals in 2 matches though I spend the long flight back to Cape Town scratching my head trying to come up with any positives at all.

Smoke Me A Kipper - Part 2 (Franjo: A Journeyman Story - Ep104)

I touch back down in Cape Town feeling odd. The International break has been awful but now I’ve got to turn my attention back to Santos and our upcoming SA KO Cup Semi Final against an unknown opponent. It’s a strange little cup competition as we only started at the end of October and our semi final’s less than a month later. I’ve always wanted a decent cup run and we’re suddenly only 1 win away from a domestic cup final.

The cup draw finally matches us against Chippa United at home, which won’t be easy but is certainly winnable if we play like we did against Supersport. We’ll be without Yanga Baliso for over a week with a bruised head though and Gugu Gogotya might well be out until the winter break with a hernia that’ll sideline him for at least a month.

The day before our Semi Final, I watch Kaizer Chiefs record a dramatic 4-3 win away at Cape Town City in the other Semi, which means whoever wins out of us and Chippa are in for a tough final.

King Carl’s out of the starting lineup today as he continues his goal drought and Hicham Aidir, back from International duty, replaces him as our lone striker. Youngsters Ernie and Fanteni will make rare bench appearances.

Santos FC get off to a flyer when Soumahoro wins the ball in midfield 7 minutes in and passes to Aidir on the edge of the box, who drills it low towards goal. The keeper stretches out a glove but can’t stop the ball from finding the net.

We dominate the first half hour, spurred on by our early goal, and on the 30 minute mark Masango receives the ball from Japhta and dribbles to the left byline. He crosses to the near post and Jöel arrives to glance the ball into the net and double our lead.

As if my smile couldn’t be any wider at half time, when we start a counter attack through Masango after a semi-threatening Chippa push, their captain Ace Sali trips our inside forward and earns himself a second yellow and a red. Feel free to smoke me that kipper now Ace, I’ll be back for breakfast.

I get to hand out one of my jollier half time team talks as we’ve been brilliant so far. I do replace Mike Kakuba though because as one of our only full Internationals, he hasn’t had a break and is therefore knackered. Juno comes on at the back.

Within a minute of kickoff, Norde picks out Joël darting into the right hand side of the penalty area. The Ivorian receives the ball and is instantly clattered by Grant Mkaza. Penalty. It crosses my mind as Sello Japhta steps up to take his 2nd penalty in as many games that we might be cramming a year’s supply of luck into 2 matches, but fuck it, if that’s true we might as well enjoy the show. Japhta steps up and places the ball firmly to the keeper’s right from 12 yards. 3-0.

Fanteni and King Carl come on over the next half hour for Sinbad and Aidir. I could give young Ernie a run out but if there’s one thing that’d put the cherry on top of this match it’d be Carl Lark opening his account for the season and finding his form again.

With 7 minutes to go Sello Japhta crosses from the left, and as much as I try to hurl King Carl towards the ball with telekinesis, it bounces off centre back Bongani Kama and rolls into the net.

The final whistle blows and it takes me a minute to catch up. We’ve won a Semi Final, which means we’ll be playing a bloody cup Final! Plus that’s 8 goals scored and 0 conceded in our last 2 games. Am I dreaming? Nkili’s picked up a 1 match ban for accumulating 4 yellow cards, and you don’t generally get that kind of boring minor annoyance in dreams, so I suppose I’m awake.

A league visit to Sundowns is up next and I’m quite pessimistic about it. They’re a side that have beaten us 4 times in our last 5 meetings and they’ve just beaten Kaizer Chiefs too, which puts them on a par with a great white and anthrax on the list of shit I don’t want to come up against at the minute.

Sundowns play a narrow Christmas tree, so we’ll sit back with Project: Foxy Mk II and exploit the flanks when we counter, where we can hopefully outnumber their fullbacks. Tlou Molekwane comes in for the suspended Nkili and Zulu comes in for Japhta, who’s pretty knackered after the last match. So is Joël Soumahoro, so Ryan Moon come in on the right wing and Masango drops back into central midfield. Sohna’s also very tired, so Juno comes in alongside Kakuba at the back.

We come racing out for the first half when Hicham Aidir drives through the centre on the ball but shoots just wide. Less than a minute later he gets the ball again 25 yards out and holds it up before playing it through for Masango in the box. He unselfishly lays the ball off for Sony Norde on the left, who rolls it into the far corner to put us ahead inside 3 minutes.

Inside half an hour we double our advantage when the Haitian goalscorer dribbles down the left flank and chips a cross in for Aidir, who volleys into the roof of the net.

10 minutes from half time the hosts still haven’t had a sniff and we’re still dominating. We get the ball up the pitch with a great passing move before Aidir takes over and shoots from 20 yards, but his effort lacks power and is caught easily by the keeper.

Just before the break we concede a corner. Motupa crosses but the ball’s cleared and comes back to him. He crosses again, but again it’s cleared and given back. Motupa crosses once more and third time’s the charm. This one finds Maseko on the edge of the area, who half volleys it powerfully past Komo and into the net. The cross maestro nearly levels in first half injury time, but Motupa’s 20 yard free kick thumps against the bar and bounces away.

After the hour mark we go more defensive and I bring on Soumahoro for Moon, with Joël dropping into midfield and Masango taking the right wing. It seems to do the trick, but with 5 minutes to play in the match, another fucking Motupa corner comes into our box and Aidir is adjudged to push Anele, giving Sundowns a dubious penalty. Nxumalo tucks the ball home from 12 yards to rescue a point for the home side.

I can’t really be unhappy with that result. To be honest if you’d offered me a draw before kick off I’d have bitten your hand off. We did lose a 2 goal lead, but it was a lead I never expected us to be able to build in the first place. So yeah, all in all a decent point with subtle overtones of disappointment. We pick ourselves up and go again.

Crouchie (Franjo: A Journeyman Story - Ep105)

I smile as I bite into my toast, skimming the morning headlines on the BBC football website. “Brewers appoint Crouch as interim manager” is the one that catches my eye.

That’s made my week. Bloody Crouchie! Who doesn’t love Peter Crouch? The Burton Albion man just oozes “English”. Not only does he look like a forgotten member of the Royal Family, tower over other players slightly awkwardly in a manner reminiscent of Big Ben and have a good old fashioned dry sense of humour, but he’s then got the brass bollocks to become known for doing the robot and lest we forget, being England’s best goals-per-game striker of all time. I wish him all the best and you can consider me a Burton Albion fan for the foreseeable future.

Back in South Africa, we’re welcoming Cape Town City to the Athlone today. We’ll be serving meatloaf and in fact I’ll be putting out exactly the same lineup that beat Chippa so comfortably in the SA KO Cup, which means Ayanda Nkili, Isaac Sohna, Sello Japhta and Joël Soumahoro are all back in and Tlou Molekwane, Juno, Siyabonga Zulu and Ryan Moon are all back out. Despite our recent collapse against Sundowns, our confidence is high and I expect another win here today.

In the 23rd minute Norde creates our first chance with a clever through ball for Aidir, but the usually prolific striker swings his boot wildly and skews his shot wide. 5 minutes later Masango creates space for himself and cuts in from the left, but shoots straight at Mukuruva in net, who catches comfortably.

Things seem to be going our way until the 37th minute, when Kumalo’s driven cross glances off Sohna’s outstretched foot and rolls into the bottom corner of Komo’s goal. It’s unlucky, but having had our fair share of luck recently we were probably due a goal like that.

After a quick team talk in which I tell the lads they’re unlucky to be behind, we come out for the second half reenergised. 3 minutes after the restart, Sinbad plays a great long ball over the CTC defence for Aidir to chase. The keeper Mukuruva comes rushing out of his box to win the race against our striker though and tries to clear his lines, but smashes the ball against one of his defenders. The loose ball goes spinning away as far as Sony Norde 30 yards out on the right and with the keeper desperately trying to get back in his net, Norde goes for the right footed long range volley - But puts the ball onto the roof of the net.

A couple of minutes later, Japhta swings a corner in for Santos and Kakuba rises well to cushion it down for Aidir, but the Moroccan’s header is tame and straight at Mukuruva, who catches it easily.

With an hour gone, Masango’s replaced by the hopefully more direct Yanga Baliso on the left wing. Quarter of an hour later, this season’s standout duo so far Aidir and Soumahoro, who’ve been disappointing today, are replaced by last year’s heroes Moon and Lark. Norde moves across to the number 10 spot to accommodate Ryan Moon.

With 12 minutes to play, we go on the attack. With 11 minutes to play, Jayiya’s 30 yard free kick is tipped against the bar by Komo’s fingertips and Kumalo runs up to tuck the ball away on the rebound. 0-2.

We keep pushing, but with 3 minutes to go Akosah-Bempah plays in Phungwayo on the left hand side and he slots the ball past Komo to complete in my eyes a ridiculously flattering 0-3 scoreline.

Still, if the team that beat Chippa United’s going to work against anyone, it’s... Well... Chippa United. Our next match is soon upon us and we travel to Chippa’s home of Port Elizabeth eager to shake off that disaster of a match. We’ll line up the same, the only difference being our more standard mentality. I expect a much, much better performance.

Just over 10 minutes in, my team show me a much, much better performance. Masango dribbles into Chippa’s half and passes inside to Joël, who plays it first time through the defence for Aidir, who slots the ball into the bottom corner of the net with his first touch. Much better.

Apart from that it’s a pretty tight and uneventful match. With 20 minutes to go I bring on Moon and Zulu for Masango and Norde, with Japhta pushing forwards as a winger while Zulu drops back, and we go on the defensive.

5 minutes from time, Sello Japhta releases Aidir with a good searching ball down the left wing. Aidir keeps it in at the byline, cuts inside and lays the ball back for Ryan Moon, who smashes it into the bottom corner. I punch the air with delight. Ryan Moon recapturing his 2019/20 season form would be fantastic news for this Santos team and I celebrate his goal as deliriously as I have any goal this year.

2 minutes later, Japhta gets a cross in himself from the left wing and Aidir latches onto it. He shoots first time but it's blocked by a defender and the loose ball bounces over to Ryan Moon, who hits it - Against the post. Just the 1 goal for Moonie today, but I'll take it.

Santos still strike me as a team with so much potential but there's still something not quite right. We can pick up wins this season and that doesn't seem to be a problem, but an off day for our striker shouldn't result in a 0-3 defeat like it did against Cape Town City. With the winter break fast approaching it's something that we'll have plenty of time to figure out, but before that we've got a Cup Final to keep half an eye on and I'd rather we work out our issues sooner rather than later.

Stretched (Franjo: A Journeyman Story - Ep106)

“Alexa, who do Santos FC play next?”

“Hmm. I don’t know that one.”

Well fat lot of good you are in the South African Premier Soccer League, eh? I think, absent-mindedly stroking Burnie, who’s asleep on my lap. I got an Amazon Dot as a gift a while back and it’s one of those things that I’ve not as of yet found a practical use for. Like Yanga Baliso. I do giggle a little too much for a grown man when Alexa ‘surprises’ me with a message like “You are cool” that I’ve specifically told her to say at a specific time like some kind of hi-tech daily affirmation, but apart from that I’m still thinking of things to do with her.

“Alexa, meow meow.”

The dot starts emitting cat noises and Burnie leaps to attention to find the source of the noise, joined a second later by Meatloaf. That should keep them busy for a while at least while I sort out what on Earth I'm going to do for this game.

I know who Santos FC are playing next of course. I wouldn’t be much of a Manager if I didn’t at least make the effort to remember things like that, but it’s not a match I’m looking forward to overseeing. Orlando Pirates are coming to town. The 2 matches we played against them last season finished 0-4 and 1-1 so they’re still very much a side that I’m figuring out. Mind you, despite our patchy form I’m positive that the squad at my disposal now is far greater than it was on those occasions.

Unfortunately, Hicham Aidir picked up a nasty bruise on his bonce in the Chippa match so he’ll miss a few days with that, ruling him out of starting contention. I’ll also be without Isaac Sohna and Marothi Diale, who’ve both picked up 1 match suspensions after accruing 4 yellows each. A shame, since I promised Pirates midfielder Joseph Ekwalla that the next time I saw him I’d be telling Diale to sharpen his studs and aim for the knee. Also added to the pre-existing injuries to Roscoe, Thoahlane and Gogotya, we’re actually a bit light on numbers defensively. We're a stretched squad.

Juno doesn’t get a lot of first team chances as he’s still a work in progress, but he gets the nod to go into defence next to Kakuba for this one. It’s obviously not ideal as he’s a natural holding midfielder, but he’s getting a chance all the same and I only he hope he grabs it with both hands. Starting in place of Diale in midfield will be 16 year old Luke Fanteni. There’s no doubt he’s got talent but he’s still lightweight and extremely raw. Thanks to a lack of alternatives though, he too will have a chance as the playmaker in midfield while old trusty Sinbad takes over the more defensive duties. Coming in for our Moroccan goal machine will be King Carl, who still has yet to find the net in his 7 outings this season. I think his confidence is starting to majorly suffer as a result so a goal today would be extremely welcome. Let’s not forget that this is the same striker that scored a club record number of goals last year.

As expected, Joseph Ekwalla starts in the centre of the Pirates’ 4-4-2 and we actually draw first blood against him inside the first minute when he loses Soumahoro and allows him to find Sony Norde just outside the box, who’s fouled by Petersen. Juno, renowned in the youth team for his set piece prowess, smashes the free kick from 20 yards and hits the bar. The ball bounces back into the danger zone and is hit by Sinbad, but Jele gets a block in and sends the ball out for a corner, prompting an expectant roar and round of applause from the home fans. Unfortunately the corner comes to nothing, but it’s a good start for the People’s Team.

The first half isn’t what I’d describe as action-heavy. In fact not a single chance of note is created until just after half time when a great Orlando passing move ends with Norodien crossing from the left byline and Baloyi testing Komo with a decent header, but Komo catches the ball without difficulty.

Joseph Ekwall’s substituted after an hour. He’s played fine; no fireworks or fuck ups. It’s a bit of an anti-climax if I’m honest. With 20 minutes to go Joël’s caught in possession and the Pirates counter attack down the right with Baloyi, who loses Japhta and sends a cross in for Ndoro at the near post. He heads the ball at goal from 6 yards out but somehow hits the post. It’s a lucky escape for us. Soon after I bring on Ryan Moon and Hicham Aidir for Norde and Lark. Aidir’s not fully fit but he’s still got a better chance of scoring than the once again ineffective Carl Lark. A blindfolded Tony Hibbert would be given shorter odds for finding the net at the minute.

With 7 minutes to play, Masango lays the ball back for Fanteni, who plays a lovely lobbed pass to Japhta, who’s exploding down the left side of the box. Japhta takes the ball down and drills it into the mixer - It deflects off the foot of Orlando Pirates centre back Nyauza - And comes back off the post. Bloody hell.

It doesn’t cheer me up one bit 2 minutes later when Matlaba plays the ball inside for teenage substitute Omar White who turns, shrugs off Juno and places the ball beyond Komo’s fingertips and into the top corner of our net. Shiver me timbers. Orlando Pirates have won it at the bloody death.

It always hurts to concede so late and to lose so late. It’s one of those moments that you need to get past as quickly as possible. Today was Orlando Pirates’ day.

We’re back at the Athlone just 2 days later, this time hosting Maritzburg United. Maritzburg are having a terrific season so far; After finishing below us in 13th last year they’re currently sitting pretty in 5th place, just outside the African Confederation Cup spots.

Luckily, Sohna, Diale and Aidir are all eligible and fit again so they’ll come back into the lineup in place of Juno, Fanteni and Lark, giving us fresh legs and an injection of quality. I’m also resting Sinbad, dropping Sony Norde deeper into midfield and giving his right wing place to Ryan Moon, who I swear will get back to form this year even if I have to give him bionic legs. And I know a guy.

Another ex-Santos player is back at the Athlone today: Moe starts at centre back for Maritzburg. I initially thought that he’d be my best defender upon my arrival but he swiftly proved me wrong and I couldn’t get rid of him fast enough in the Summer. Let’s hope he doesn’t start performing today.

With less than 4 minutes gone Maritzburg give us a scare when Mnyamane draws Kakuba out of position and slips the ball through for Khumalo, who puts the ball straight into Komo’s arms.

20 minutes later we’re getting dominated. We give up trying to outright control the game and switch to a more standard mentality. We’ll try to retain possession and kill Maritzburg’s momentum so that we can build up some of our own.

It works to an extent and we start to build up some steam over the next quarter of an hour. With 3 minutes to play before the break we put together a decent passing move. Diale squares the ball to Norde 30 yards out and he steps forward and passes to Masango, cutting in on the edge of the box. Masango gets the ball out of his feet and puts his laces through it, nearly bursting the top corner of the net. It’s a brilliant goal and we’re deservedly ahead.

After the hour mark I make what’s becoming a pretty standard change: Japhta off and Zulu on as the more defensive full back. We also change to a defensive 4-1-2-3 and bring Carl Lark on for Aidir, who I don’t want to push straight back into another injury.

7 minutes later it should be 2-0. Norde, enjoying his central midfield role today, finds Lark 20 yards out and he slips a clever pass through for Moon. Moon should hit it first time but he takes a touch, taking him into the 6 yard box with keeper and defender right in front of him. He shoots but between them they block and clear the ball. Nkili hoofs it back into the box but the chance is snuffed out.

With about a quarter of an hour to go, Lark loses the ball to Moe and our old centre back boots the ball down the left wing for Khoza to chase. Khoza drills a cross in from the byline that deflects off Diale’s boot and rolls straight to Mnyamane, who tucks in the equaliser.

With 10 minutes to go, Sinbad comes on for Joël and with 5 to go Mnyamane tries to go full hero when he takes a pot shot from 25 yards, but Komo catches it. We see the game out at 1-1 and it just feels like it’s not been our day once again.

It’s yin and yang I suppose, if you want to be all philosophical about it - Football would be the most boring thing in the world if all your team did was win. Winning would become the norm and lose all meaning if you did it every week. You need the rough times and the gut-punching disappointment of times like these to give the good times meaning. That’s something to hold onto today. The good times had better be bloody good though.

Cup Final (Franjo: A Journeyman Story - Ep108)

For most, I think to myself as I abandon the warmth of my bed and place my feet on the cold floor of my bedroom, the winter break has already started.

For them, I think as I cram toast into my mouth and give Meatloaf and Burnie a goodbye scratch behind the ear, the 23rd of December isn’t a time for football, but for preparation for or celebration of the holiday season.

For the majority of the World, I think as I walk down to the Athlone, frost crunching underfoot, today is a day when families and friends will come together, laugh until they’re hoarse and drink until they’re legless.

For me though, I think as I step onto the team bus, greeted by a roar of expectation from my Santos squad, today is none of those things. Today is the biggest and best day of my career so far. Today is my very first Cup Final.

Buoyed by Hicham Aidir’s decision to commit to Santos with a new long term contract with no buyout clause, Santos will take on Kaizer Chiefs today in the Final of the South African Knockout Cup. Traditionally these matches are played at a Neutral venue and that, I believe, was the intention when the FNB Stadium was selected. As luck would have it though it’s the home ground of our opponents, so we’re in the rare and very uncomfortable position of playing a Cup Final... Away.

I was planning, assuming we actually were playing in a neutral venue, to have a go at Kaizer Chiefs. I wanted us to come out swinging and catch them off guard with the dominant fluid football we’ve already proved ourselves capable of playing. Being the away side leaves this plan looking exceptionally risky though as Kaizer Chiefs will presumably be on their game from the very start and they’ll definitely look to take the game to us. In the end though I decide to risk it. We go with the same lineup that beat Supersport with the ambition of grabbing an early goal. I do plan on going more conservative after 10 minutes whether we score or not though so it’s imperative that we don’t actually concede an early goal or we’ll be pretty SOL.

2 minutes in they gives us an early scare when Mngonyama squares the ball for Mukansi 12 yards out, but his first time shot is blocked and cleared by Kakuba.

I should’ve realised then that Project: Meatloaf wasn’t going to fly. I make no changes though and within 5 minutes Harrison drives forwards on the ball, surges past Isaac Sohna and into the box, before drilling it low into the bottom corner. An early goal. My only weakness.

A little too late we go to our more standard and conservative 4-1-2-3. I want width on both flanks right now though, so Norde will cut in from the left with Japhta overlapping and Masango will be a winger on the right.

20 minutes later a Kumalo cross from the right is headed down by Fielies and Harrison gets a free volley 6 yards out. He aims towards the near bottom corner but Komo pulls off a remarkable double save to keep out both Harrison’s first effort and his rebound shot. In the end the ball goes out for a Kaizer Chiefs corner, which is swung into the box and headed over by Mngonyama.

We go on the counter. We’re under too much pressure, we’re being penned in. I’m all for staying deep but we need to win the ball and get it up the pitch quicker. When we do win it at the minute we’re giving it away too easily and piling more pressure on ourselves.

Come on, I think as we give the ball away yet again. We’re better than this. We’re not as mentally fragile as we once were, we can get ourselves back in this. I’m just about ready to take our 1 goal deficit into the break where I can rally the lads properly, but with a couple of minutes to go another Kumalo cross is flicked on by the unmarked Fielies, right into the far top corner of the net. 0-2 and heads are dropping all over the place. We might’ve blown this already.

In the 45th minute Konqobe’s corner is flicked on by Mngonyama and headed again by Fielies, but Komo catches it and prompts a huge collective sigh of relief from me and my coaching staff. 2 goals is more than enough, thanks.

“Isaac, chin up mate” I clap the Cameroonian defender on the back as the players march past me into the changing room.

“We’re better than this”, I say once they’re all seated on the benches around the perimeter of the room, most with their heads in their hands. “We’ve paid them too much respect. You look scared! A team that’s beaten Supersport twice already this season! You shouldn’t be scared of anyone!”

I’m changing things up. Diale’s not had a great game and I’m very aware that we aren’t making the ball stick up top. Aidir’s a good forward but he’s on his own against the entire defence and it just isn’t working. So I’m going to mix things up by replacing Diale with King Carl. Ladies and gentlemen, in a move that will be remembered as either an act of genius or fucking madness, Santos will play 4-4-fucking-2. “Now would be a terrific time to score, Carl mate”, I grin as Lark walks past me, behind the rest of the lads. He grins back nervously.

Sinbad is going to be picking up the more defensive role in midfield while Joël focuses on creating. Japhta’s going to have to play as more of an orthodox fullback too, staying back as we rely on Norde and Masango to get up the wings and get crosses in for target man Aidir and poacher Lark. This team has the ability to go long, over the top, down the wings or through the middle now, but we also have the potential to lose the midfield battle. I take a deep breath and walk back out to the dugout for the second half.

With less than 3 minutes gone since the break, Zungu drills a cross into our box from the right. Kakuba on the near post can’t get out of the way and the ball nicks off his foot and rolls into the bottom corner. It’s a cruel goal. It’s 0-3.

My faith in our ability to pull was hanging by a thread, but that’s the last nail in our coffin. Granted we’re looking better but with half an hour to go we need to pull at least 3 goals out of thin air against arguably the best team in the continent and we’re running out of time.

With 28 minutes to go, Zungu drills another cross in, this time finding Judas Moseamedi. Judas controls the ball, turns and places it low under Komo. The net ripples and I think that’s going to be that. Moon and Baliso come on in my last desperate roll of the dice and push up as we go to a 4-2-4. Masango and Norde come off. They’ve disappointed me but then it’s not their fault. We’ve struggled to hold onto the ball even long enough to play it out to the wings for most of the game today. Kaizer Chiefs hold us at bay to claim the trophy. They’ve embarassed us today.

As the home fans celebrate wildly, there’s nothing more I can do but first watch the Santos players ascend the steps and collect their medals, before Kaizer Chiefs’ team climb the steps and collect their trophy. I could swear the whole ceremony lasts about 3 hours and all I can do is stand watching and trying to keep the growing sense of nausea at bay.

As the engine of the team bus finally starts up I sit staring straight ahead into the seat in front. I ignore the fans banging on the window. I ignore what they’re shouting and what gestures they’re making. I just want to sink into the ground. Just for a moment I even consider giving up management altogether.

I think today is the first time that I feel I’ve completely and utterly failed. At Höllviken I had more excuses than I’ve had hot meals. At Katowice I succeeded, although it didn’t feel like it at the time. I’ve had the time and resources to build this squad and prepare for this match and we've been torn up and thrown aside. It's a good job I've got the Winter Break to rethink things.

Singh With Me (Franjo: A Journeyman Story - Ep109)

Losing the Cup Final in such a comprehensive manner really made me take a step back and look at my performance this season. It was arguably the worst day of my career but I’m determined to at least learn what I can and make the most of it. By the way, Sony Norde won the Player of the Tournament award, so that's something.

So let’s start this winter break by looking at the squad. There are 2 very talented young players in this squad that’ve barely kicked a ball for me in the first half of the season, so I’m sorting them out straight away. Ernie showed promise last season but has struggled to make the bench since Aidir came in, so I’m offering him around on loan. If we do need another striker to come in for whatever reason we’ve always got fellow academy graduate Themi Maluka, but at 18 Ernie could do with more game time which is why he’s the one that’s heading out. The other young ‘un who needs game time is Eliphas Thoahlane, our young loanee centre back. I’m cancelling his loan and sending him back to Platinum Stars so that he can try and break into their team instead. I thought he was really good for us last year but again thanks to all of the quality brought in during the Summer, he’s been surplus to requirements for quite a while.

We’ve also got some new contracts to sort. There’s a few that are yet to convince me but I do offer new 1 year extensions to Marothi Diale, Dino Visser and (Call me crazy) King Carl. Diale’s a decent enough ball winner, Visser’s a willing enough backup keeper and I know for a fact that Lark knows where the net is. He can’t hide that instinct forever and at the very least he seems happy enough warming the bench. Another contract running out in the Summer is my own, although I’m not too sure what I want to do about that at the minute so we'll save that conversation for another time.

We get started nearly straight away with our friendlies as I want us to go into the second half of the season with momentum aplenty. We start by playing out a dull match against our under 19’s that we win 1-0 thanks to a late winner from Joël. Baliso picks up a calf strain playing for the under 19’s and will miss 2-3 weeks, but I won’t lose any sleep over that.

On New Year’s Day I complete my Continental C Coaching License and Goolam Allie, who at this point is by far the most supportive Chairman I’ve ever worked for, coughs the funds straight up for me to start on my Continental B License. It’s a big statement for Goolam to help me better myself off the back of such a calamitous Cup Final. It tells me that he’s still got faith in my ability to take this club forwards and I genuinely appreciate that.

A few days later, Ernie gets his loan move much to my delight. He’s driving the fastest milk cart in the West over to one of our affiliate clubs, The Magic Football Club for the remainder of the season. Hopefully he gets himself in the team, scores some goals and comes back in good shape to win a first team place.

We continue our quest for momentum with a surprising 1-2 loss to our B team. Of course Carl Lark opens the scoring the moment he actually plays against me. Aidir equalises but it’s young centre back Mark Fanteni (No relation to young midfielder Luke) who scores the winner.

I’m trying not to think too much about cup ties at the minute but the South African FA Cup draws us against Baroka FC away. If they sound vaguely familiar to you it’s probably because they bought old Issouf Paro in the summer. It doesn’t look like he’ll be participating though as the poor sod’s picked up a double hernia and will miss 6-7 weeks.

We’re back on track with our next friendly; A 5-2 win over Mutual Academy. Aidir naturally bags himself a hat trick, Sinbad converts a penalty and Ryan Moon puts the cherry on top.

As we enter mid-January we welcome Roscoe back into the fold, having completed his rehabilitation after injury. He plays and actually sets a goal up as we score 5 again, this time against Idas Valley. Carl Lark scores a welcome brace and is pleasingly joined on the scoresheet by fellow flops Baliso and Moon, before Aidir adds his inevitable goal. The match is worrying in terms of injuries though as Masango has to go off after tweaking his hamstring early on and his replacement Moon, after his goal, comes off too with a twisted knee. They’ll both miss a couple of weeks but should be back in time for the competitive matches.

Up until this point I’ve been keeping an eye on the market for new players, but in all honesty I don’t think our problems have been a result of our personnel and I’m not going to buy for no reason. There’s no value in the market anyway at the minute. I do however stumble across a South African winger/inside forward/attacking midfielder that intrigues me. Luther Singh is pretty unknown to my scouts as he’s currently plying his trade in Portugal playing in Braga’s B team and our scouting budget is only just enough to cover bus fare into the centre of Cape Town. He spent last season on loan at Highlands Park, who were relegated from the PSL, but he didn’t play too badly and still I’m curious. I submit a loan bid for the rest of the season. I did ideally want another inside forward (tick), preferably versatile (tick) and preferably South African (tick) and he can always just play in the reserves if he turns out to be rubbish.

A few days later there's more transfer news breaking. After hearing that Siyabonga Zulu has been offered a contract by Future Tigers for when his deal runs out in the... Future... I leap into action, sending him a good luck text. He’s been decent backup but he’ll do better in a lower division. He’s not PSL material.

Our next friendly is away at Jomo’s Power and we run out 3-0 winners, courtesy of a Sony Norde hat trick. We are running dangerously low on wingers though. Masango and Moon being out presents a great chance for Yanga Baliso to show me what he can do, but he gets injured 15 minutes from time with a thigh strain that’ll keep him out of action for a couple of weeks. It’s such a problem position for us that I hand appearances to Samora Qalanto, a young flanksman from our academy, and Guillaume Khous, who, like a baffled caveman homicide detective, still hasn’t found a bloody club.

Zulu agrees to join Future Tigers in the Summer a few days later, which as I say is fine by me. I only hope that he’ll be a professional about it and keep doing his best when called upon until then. I’d hate to see what he’s like when he stops trying.

A couple more days pass before Luther Singh signs on the dotted line. He’s a welcome addition to us; A decently quick and extremely skilful and tricky wide player. I'm especially glad to have him since we’re missing most of our wingers, except that Singh himself is currently out with a slipped disc and will miss up to 11 more days. To make matters worse, Carl Lark suffers a back strain and will miss up to a month of football. I swear we went through all of this this time last year.

So my attention turns to young Themi Maluka, who was my 4th choice striker at the start of the season but is now just a freak injury to Aidir away from a first team spot. So Romanian side Astra Giurgiu have picked a bad time to be interested in him, I’d say. They bid up to £56k for the striker and I reject it out of hand as derisory, but rap rap rap goes my office door once again. Themi’s unhappy with my decision, considering the bid an opportunity to play with better quality players.

“Here’s an idea, Themi”, I say, my voice dripping with thick, syrupy sarcasm, “Why don’t you play well enough in the reserves to earn yourself a run in the first team? That in itself would be an opportunity to play with better quality players.” We go back and forth for a while but he remains unhappy with my decision. I tell him to fuck off back to the reserves.

A few days layer Gugu Gogotya hops aboard the pain train after suffering a bruised shin but luckily he’ll be out for less than a week. The next day we host Gary Havenga, Manqoba Cele and their Zizwe United side and hand out another thrashing, this time 5-0 with a surprising hat trick from Sello Japhta, who relishes his return to the left wing. Aidir bags a brace too because obviously. Local bookies aren’t even offering odds on him any more.

On the penultimate day of January we play our penultimate friendly against affiliate club Vasco CT away. We beat them 3-0 and this time Aidir doesn’t actually score. The goals come from Joël, Ryan Moon and Masango as the latter pair step up their returns from injury.

The transfer window closes over the next couple of days and the only movement we’ve had is a loan signing and an arranged move for our backup left back. Speaking of Singh actually, he’s back in full training although he’s a while away from full fitness. He needs some serious game time in the reserves under his belt as it’s been a long time since his last match.

Our final friendly is against another Vasco. The more famous Vasco. CR Vasco de Gama of the Brazilian top flight. I relish the chance for a decent match as it’s proved very difficult to find teams worth playing against in South African friendlies. I use the occasion as a dry run for the Old Cape Town Derby in a week’s time, fielding as strong a side as I can and it bloody shows. A brilliant fluid move is finished by Ryan Moon for 1-0, a powerful low drive from Aidir makes it 2-0 and his cross is bundled home by Joël for 3-0, although it goes down as a Vladimir own goal. Valteir pulls one back on the rebound for the visitors after forcing a magnificent save from Komo, but we come away with a fantastic 3-1 win.

Annoyingly, in the following few days Astra Giurgiu come back with another couple of handfuls of change that they charitably call transfer offers. This time though they want young playmaker Luke Fanteni, even going as high as £29k for one of our brightest young talents. He’s actually already signed a pre-contract with us that’ll take effect when he turns 17, so I’m in no mood to indulge Astra. I make the effort to learn how to tell them to go away in Romanian. It’s “Pleacă de aici” apparently.

More annoying than that though are the injuries we pick up in the days leading up to the derby. Baliso’s brand new thigh strain isn’t exactly a heartbreaker, although it isn’t ideal that he’ll miss another few weeks from a purely "Squad depth" point of view.

Mike Kakuba’s chest injury is a real worry though. With 4 days to go, my physios estimate that my best defender will be out for 5-6 days, so it’ll be a close one.

Last Hurrah (Franjo: A Journeyman Story - Ep110)

I check my watch. There’s half an hour to go before we need to be out on that pitch. I glance towards the door of the treatment room, which is still closed. It’s another few minutes before it swings open and Mike Kakuba steps out with Geron Barnes, our head physio.

“25 minutes to go” I blurt out, “What’s the news?”

“I’m fine” replies Mike straight away.

“You absolutely aren’t.” Barnes corrects him. He turns to address me. “If you want him to play that’s your decision but for me he still needs a few days rest.”

I look at Mike, who’s looking back at me with desperation in his eyes. “Get your shirt on mate, you’re starting.” I smile.

It’s a risk to play Mike, I’m well aware of that. This match has come a day or 2 too soon for him but I need him. I can complain about a few of my Summer signings but Kakuba, Joël and Aidir have all been unarguable successes. Maybe Sohna and Masango too. I need every bit of quality I can get today as I’m desperate to win what for all I know could be my final Old Cape Town derby. Captain Komo starts in net, Nkili, Kakuba, Sohna and Japhta start across the back, Sinbad partners Diale in midfield and Moon, Soumahoro and Masango play behind Aidir. We’re bringing out the Meatloaf again. Either I’ve learned nothing from our Cup Final thrashing or my confidence in the system took a big old jump when we beat Vasco de Gama, but either way I’m sticking to my guns. Japhta will be more restricted today and will have the job of man marking danger-man Doutie on Ajax CT’s right wing. Luther Singh makes the bench, but is still some way short of match fitness.

7 minutes in we're looking good. A particularly good move sees the ball passed to Joël just outside the box. He hesitates just for a second though, unsure of what to do, and it's enough time for Graham to stick a boot in, hoofing the ball way up field towards our goal. The defence scramble as Nyambi runs onto the clearance. He's too quick and finds himself almost through on goal. Sohna throws himself at the striker's feet in a last ditch effort to win the ball but he hurdles it, picks his spot and drills the ball past Komo.

Things get worse 10 minutes later when Sinbad pulls up clutching his thigh. I ask him whether he wants to come off using the universal substitution sign of rolling your hands over each other, but he shakes his head defiantly and takes up his position ready to play on. Bloody trooper. 5 minutes later, goalscorer Craig Nyambi releases Doutie on the right as he tears away from Japhta. Doutie gets a cross in and Mzwakali hits it on the half volley, leaving Komo with no chance. 0-2.

I tweak things slightly, bringing Diale and Joël deeper to make a 4-1-2-3 and giving Hicham Aidir instructions to be our target man, to play with his back to goal and hold the ball up. Everyone else is instructed to play more direct to get the ball to him quicker. On the half hour mark though we're countered again, this time from our own corner. A decent passing move from Ajax ends with McCarthy picking out the unmarked Mzwakali on the left. Luckily though his shot's weak and easy for Komo to save. Still, we're falling apart again.

On the stroke of half time though, a glimmer of hope. Aidir plays a give and go with Moon, who dribbles onto the right wing and crosses in towards the Ajax 6 yard box. Our big Moroccan striker arrives and directs a volley past Bacela in goal. We go in for the break at 1-2.

On the hour mark, I bring Sony Norde on for Mandla Masango as a left winger, hoping that more width will allow us more opportunities to cross to our target man and find the equaliser. Juno also comes on for Sinbad a few minutes later as his race is run for today. No sooner do I make that change than a Doutie corner is swung in and Craig Nyambi peels away from his marker Isaac Sohna and directs the header past Komo.

From that point on, we go on the attack, although I'm not sure we have the bottle to change our fortunes at this point. Our chances aren't helped with a quarter of an hour to go when Ayanda Nkili, already on a booking, trips Ngele and earns himself a 2nd yellow and a red. I despair. Molekwane comes on replacing Ryan Moon and we change to a narrow 4-2-2-1 system, encouraging Japhta and Molekwane to bomb forwards on the overlap.

2 minutes later Nyambi completes his hat trick when his 20 yard free kick deflects through the wall and sends Komo the wrong way. We're crumbling all over again and I have no idea why. 3 more minutes later he bags the dominant visitors a 5th goal and himself a 4th when Gajana passes him the ball on the edge of the box and he strokes it beautifully into the top corner. I'm not amused.

“FUCK!” I yell to the silent changing room as the players all stare down at the floor. “FOR FUCK’S SAKE!” I continue, still not sure what my point is. I compose myself. “There are kids in our reserves and in our under 19’s who would FUCKING KILL...” I take a second. “... Who would kill to put that shirt on, walk out on that pitch and represent this club. Maluka! Fanteni! ... The other Fanteni!”

“That reminds me, Boss, I meant to tell you”, mutters my assistant Jakub, “Bogdan Popa called from Astra, they’re prepared to bid up to £37.5k for Luke Fant...”

“Tell Popa that he needs to take the hint”, I whisper, “Or I’m going to fly over to Giurgiu and stick his money up his...” Jakub nods and holds a hand out. I turn back to the team. “What’s happening?!” I look around the room but still nobody meets my eyes. “It’s not a rhetorical question, lads! What’s happening?! Marothi, are you too tired to try? Ryan, are you too cool? Ayanda, are you fucking insane? What? Tell me!” Nobody moves. I wait for probably a minute and nobody moves. Nobody even speaks. “Pathetic”, I mutter as I walk out of the changing room, slamming the door behind me.

Maybe it’s me though. Maybe I’m not flexible enough. Not savvy enough. I’ve been in Lansdowne for 18 months, which is longer than I’ve ever been at a club. We’re 11th, which is far lower down than I thought we’d be at this point. If all this time and the investment we’ve made in the squad has lifted us 2 places in 18 months then what am I even doing here?

Next up is a home tie against Mthatha Bucks, who are 10th. With a game in hand over us. And a better goal difference. For me, this is a must win game. I give Kakuba a couple of days off to get him rested and ready for the match but the only change I make is bringing in Tlou Molekwane for the suspended Ayanda Nkili, because I’m a stubborn bastard and I think Project: Meatloaf is a good system. And I'm fucking right.

We go behind after 6 minutes. Mthatha Bucks' striker Ntlantla Masango (No relation) tries his luck from 25 yards and hits a postage stamp shot right in the top corner. I make a mental note to update my CV when I get back to Geen Rook Nie tonight.

It's 0-2 51 seconds after kick off. We gift the ball to Mthatha in midfield, it's passed to Bento on the right wing, he crosses in to the near post and their Masango gets a free header that he puts into the back of the net. We go on the attack. If this is going to be my last hurrah, and it's feeling increasingly like it is, then let's go out with a bang.

We do actually get a chance before the 10 minute mark. We have to be patient to work the ball through Mthatha's back 6, but eventually Aidir slots a pass through for Moon and he shoots straight at the keeper. I'll take it.

The chance seems to spur us on in fact. We start putting together some passes, making Mthatha Bucks chase us and the ball. Sinbad chips it to Joël 20 yards out, who slots it through for Japhta on the left, who crosses across goal and finds Ryan Moon, who slides the ball into the net! He picks the ball straight up and heads back for kick off. Amazingly, these are promising signs.

It's seeming more and more like Mthatha have actually overplayed their hand. They got an early 2 goal cushion and they've just stopped playing, camping 10 men in their own third and inviting us on. Another flowing move before the half hour mark sees Joël pass to Masango, who slips the ball through for Aidir. He shoots from a tight angle but Hoffman makes the save.

10 minutes from half time, Masango swings a corner into the Mthatha box. The ball drops but nobody can make a connection. Mandela tries to clear, Aidir tries to control it, but it escapes them both. Sello Japhta swings a right foot... And the Athlone explodes with noise. 2-2. This is no longer a team playing without bottle. Keep proving me wrong, you beautiful bastards.

Any hopes we have of keeping our momentum dissipate when half time rolls around. After the break, Mthatha seem more organised and less scared of us than they were throughout the first half and the game goes from being quite fluid to extremely scrappy. With 25 minutes to play, I turn to my bench for inspiration. Luther Singh's still not fit. Sony Norde? Luke Fanteni? Thembinkosi Maluka... I've not really spoken to Themi much since our row after I stopped him from transferring. I don't hold it against him too much, he's only 17 years old and his priorities are all over the place, and besides with Lark injured and Ernie out on loan I've needed him on the bench. He's only played for the first team once on the final day of last season, but what the hell. "Themi, warm up", I call. Aidir looks crestfallen a couple of minutes later as he walks off the pitch to be replaced by his rebellious understudy. "Unlucky today mate", I mutter, patting him on the back.

The match is finely balanced. 2 minutes after the change we win a corner on the right. Goalscoring wingback Sello Japhta takes it, floating it over to the far post. Mike Kakuba rises, cushions the ball down... MALUKA!!

I'm sprinting down the sideline before I‘ve even processed what's happened. Themi runs over beaming from ear to ear and leaps on me next to the corner flag as his team mates mob us from all angles. Kakuba had nodded the ball down for him and he'd lashed at it with his left foot, volleying it into the net via the leg of an opponent. Themi's opened his professional goalscoring account. We're winning. "YOU LITTLE SHIT!" I cackle. "YOU BRILLIANT LITTLE SHIT!"

Once I get myself back to the dugout, I get myself focussed again. Masango comes off, Zulu goes on. We'll play our 4-1-2-3 with Zulu at full back and Japhta on the left wing. After the goal though Mthatha are back to being a broken team, standing off and allowing us to play football, which is a mistake. With 12 minutes to go, Molekwane caps a brilliant little move by floating a cross to the far post, where the incredible Sello Japhta arrives to leap like a salmon and head it home for 4-2. What a game that boy's had.

I bring on Juno to replace Joël and change our shape yet again to a 4-2-1-2-1, the same formation that Mthatha Bucks are using, with Juno and Diale as the holding men. Let's see how they like trying to break this annoying back 6 down. There's something very Santos about what happens next though. With 7 minutes to play, a 2 goal cushion and against an opposition who seem to have actually given up, Tlou Molekwane, on the pitch today because Ayanda Nkili got needlessly sent off in the last match, gets needlessly sent off for a trip on Abrahams when he'd already been booked. I can't help laughing actually, although I hide my mouth behind my hand. Juno goes to right back and we see the match out. I'm not entirely sure what's happened in the last 90 minutes but I think I probably owe these lads pizza.

The Return Of Cup Football (Franjo: A Journeyman Story - Ep111)

The atmosphere around training in the week proceeding our unforgettable win over Mthatha Bucks is probably the best that it’s ever been during my time in Lansdowne. There’s nothing like a dramatic turnaround to pick spirits up and it really couldn’t have come at a better time.

Our next match is at the Athlone again, where we’ll take on Golden Arrows. King Carl’s back in full training with the rest of the squad but he might have timed his recovery poorly, as there’s not much chance that he’ll get on the pitch ahead of Themi Maluka after the youngster’s contribution to the last game. Luther Singh’s building his fitness nicely too but he’s still not ready for a starting berth.

Even though we won our last match I’m still concerned about the amount of goals that we’re conceding in the early game. In our last 3 matches we’ve conceded 4 goals in the first 10 minutes! The first 10 minutes! It’s unforgivable so I’m pulling us back a bit. For the Golden Arrows match we’ll be a bit more conservative and a bit less fluid. Sony Norde comes in replacing Masango on the left wing as he was a bit of a passenger in the last match and Ayanda Nkili comes back in at right back after serving his suspension for Tlou Molekwane, who is out serving his suspension. Idiot.

2 minutes into the match, the tactical tweak is already paying off. We break up a half-hearted Golden Arrows attack and Nkili blasts the ball up the pitch and over their defence. Suddenly Aidir’s through on goal. He takes the ball down, goes one on one with the keeper and places the ball into the back of the net. Now that’s how to start a match.

Golden Arrows arguably have the better of the first half despite trailing. They have a lot of possession and pot shots but we’ve already put away the only decent chance that either side’s made. Joël picks up a knock to his thigh just before the break but he’ll stay on into the second half.

10 minutes after the restart, Joël dinks a pass to Sony Norde, who slides it through for Aidir to the left of goal. He shoots from a tight angle but Gumede pulls off a save at his near post. With an hour to play and Santos hanging on, I swap out the injured Joël and bring on Gogotya, a more sensible and cautious style of midfielder. We go to a 4-1-2-3 with Diale in the holding man role.

A few minutes later Sello Japhta gets up the left wing and swings a cross deep into Golden Arrows’ box. Ryan Moon pops up at the far post and gets his head to it but can only nod the ball against the bar. We've really dominated this half and don't even allow Golden Arrows a shot on target until the 70th minute. 10 minutes later Zulu comes on for Japhta to sure us up at the back.

With 3 minutes to go I bring on Luther Singh for a debut. He's still severely lacking in match fitness but I want to introduce him. Moon comes off. 2 minutes later though, Ngubane lays the ball off for Khaswane 20 yards from our goal and he hits it first time, blasting it into the top corner of the net. Golden Arrows have equalised late in the day and it's a bitter pill to swallow. We should've put this game to bed in the 2nd half.

Joël's bruised thigh will keep him out for a few days, which is fine to be fair. Our next match is a SA Cup trip to Baroka FC and I was planning on some rotation anyway. The more annoying news though is that Themi Maluka picks up a thigh strain in a reserves match and will miss the Baroka game, which I thought would be a good chance to give him his first start.

In the build up to the match I receive yet another call from Astra manager Bogdan Popa. He wants to remind me that he's very interested in Luke Fanteni. So interested that he offers another paltry sum of up to £48.5k that makes me hang up before he's finished talking. He's really starting to grind my gears.

Here we go then. After our last cup run ended in such devastating fashion in December, I'm eager to do well in the South African FA Cup and that starts today with a win against Baroka. We can't underestimate teams from the division below, as we found out in last year's SA Cup first round 0-3 loss against Jomo Cosmos.

I'm pleased to see that our old centre back Issouf Paro has shaken off his hernia in time to make it back for the match. I've not seen him play a football match in over a year after his horror injury last January. He's played sparingly since joining Baroka but injury's curtailed his season again, so hopefully he can put a run of games together starting today. In terms of our team we'll line up with our more counter attacking Project: Foxy Mk II and I'll be making a few personnel changes; Komo starts in net, Molekwane, Sohna, Roscoe and Zulu start across the back, Juno is the holding man with Gogotya and Fanteni in midfield, while Moon and Norde are on the wings backing up Aidir. I'm especially interested in seeing our midfield triangle today. Juno's impressed me when he's been called upon, Fanteni is an excellent prospect and Gogotya's had his own injury problems this year that have limited his game time. Between the 3 of them they've only made 8 appearances this season and this is Gogotya's first start.

After only 5 minutes we go close when Moon plays the ball inside for Hicham Aidir, 35 yards from goal. He powers forwards with the ball, dribbling to the edge of the box before shooting right into the arms of the Baroka keeper.

We play well throughout the half, not allowing Baroka many chances apart from distant pot shots. In the 38th minute Aidir plays the ball through for Norde on the left wing, who crosses it in towards the near post. It's Gogotya that gets on the end of it, turning and sliding the ball under the keeper from a tight angle to put us ahead.

2 minutes later we're pushing forwards again and win a free kick just outside the box. Juno's gone close a few times for us, even hitting the woodwork on a couple of occasions from free kicks. He steps up and shoots, the ball deflects through the wall, the keeper gets a hand to it but can't keep it out. It's not the most aesthetically pleasing free kick, but it's Juno's first professional goal and I doubt he'll care at all.

We're 2-0 up at the break and still haven't allowed Baroka much of a sniff, which is pleasing. The game should really be over but we all know what happens when you let complacency sneak in. I bring on Masango for Ryan Moon, who's not been terrific.

The closest Baroka actually come is 10 minutes into the 2nd half when Ngubane cuts inside from the left and tries his luck from 25 yards, but he sends the ball well wide of the far post. A couple of minutes later we really twist the knife when Juno's corner is headed clear as far as Masango, who calmly places the ball into the bottom corner to put us 3-0 up. Sensing that we could still have more goals in us, I bring on King Carl and give Aidir a break. Today could be the day that he finally breaks his duck.

5 minutes later, Fanteni gives the ball to Sony Norde, who dribbles into the box and is tripped by Sheldon Kuenane. A penalty. I'd like Lark to step up but Sony's adamant that he's going to take it himself, as he's one of our regular spot kick takers. He places the ball down and places it firmly out of the keeper's reach. He makes way with 15 minutes to go to give Luther Singh another run out but the game comes to a close at 4-0.

It's another blank for King Carl, but I can't be displeased with a 4-0 win.  Some of our team's performances were fantastic. Our entire defence was extremely solid, including Tlou Molekwane, who hasn't lived up to expectations so far this season, Juno, Fanteni and man of the match Gogotya were all fantastic along with the intermittent Sony Norde. All in all, I'm really pleased. We've not redeemed ourselves for the SA KO Cup Final just yet, but hopefully this'll be the start of another good cup run with a happier ending.

Wtfranjo's avatar Group Wtfranjo
5 yearsEdited
Franjo: The New Kevin Keegan (Franjo: A Journeyman Story - Ep112)

As Jack should have said to the man hungrily eyeing his cow whilst holding out a sweaty palm full of magic beans, “He’s not for fucking sale, so piss off.”

In this case, the bean-pushing beef botherer is none other than Bogdan Popa, 32 year old manager of Romanian top tier side Astra Giurgiu and the man that’s made so many offers for Santos’ 16 year old midfield prodigy Luke Fanteni at this point that I’m genuinely wondering whether or not I’d be able to sue him for harassment.

Maybe it’s my fault to be fair; In full knowledge of Popa’s interest in Luke I played him against Baroka FC and he did very well. The next few days are filled with dodging phone calls and ignoring voicemails as Astra lodge bids of £60k, £80k and finally £110k. I reject them all, partly out of not wanting one of our rising stars to leave and partly out of principle. I’d be tempted to pay the board out of my own pocket to keep him out of Bogdan’s greasy fingers at this point.

A trip to Cape Town All Stars is on the cards next, just 3 days after our Cup Win over Baroka. Most of our first team sat out at least some of that match and so are fairly fresh for this one. We also welcome Baliso, Themi Maluka and Joël back from injury to give me a bit of a selection headache, but a welcome one.

The thing that’s worrying me today though is that CTAS have just lost on penalties in the SA Cup against Happy Wanderers, a wholesomely named semi-pro side that were obviously massive underdogs going into the match. If I was the All Stars’ manager today, I’d be livid and ready to fight tooth and nail for a result.

I’m keeping Project: Foxy Mk II in place today as I feel like they’re going to come out at us, but I’m making 7 changes from the team that did so well at the weekend. Komo starts in net, Nkili, Kakuba, Sohna and Japhta are our defence, Juno keeps his place over Diale at the base of midfield, Sinbad and Joël are our central midfielders, Masango and Norde are cutting in from the wings and Aidir leads the line.

It takes over 20 minutes for either side to create a chance and it comes through Mandla Masango, who cuts in from the left wing and shoots well wide. It takes another 15 minutes to see another and this time it originates with a Juno corner that’s headed clear. Sinbad takes the ball down and passes to Norde, who plays it through for Aidir. He dribbles forwards, feigns smashing the ball and then just toe-pokes it under the keeper instead. It’s a cheeky little finish. Nevertheless it hasn’t been a great start to the match and I feel like we’d play better with more width, so Masango and Norde swap wings and will play as out and out wingers.

I make no changes at half time but I do feel for Simo Dladla, the All Stars’ manager, who’ll be tearing his hair out. He makes all 3 substitutions at half time, which I recognise all too well as the action of a desperate man, only to lose right winger Jeffrey Dladla (No relation) to injury 5 minutes after the restart, sending his trailing side down to 10 men. A few minutes later they have a decent chance though when Moeti is forced out onto the left wing but tries a shot anyway, which loops down dangerously and lands on the roof of the net.

A minute later we go close too. Juno sends a long free kick into the box, Kakuba nods it back across goal and his centre back partner Sohna heads straight at keeper Mulovhedzi, who holds it. A few minutes on we get another chance, again from a Juno set piece. I'm starting to think that if he keeps his form up he might actually make himself undroppable with some of these deliveries. He chips a free kick in from the left wing and again Sohna's there, glancing a header at goal that the keeper saves again but spills. Joël Soumahoro dashes in to tap the ball home but he gets it at too narrow an angle and can only find the side netting.

After a breathless start to the second half the game dies right down again. Gogotya, Singh and Lark all get run outs but the game ends at 1-0. I will take it.

A couple of days later, the SA Cup 2nd round draws us away against Platinum Stars, the National First Division side that loaned us Eliphas Thoahlane for 18 months. I'm pretty happy with the draw as it should be a match we can win and it'll be nice to see Thoahlane get a game if he's picked.

Before that though is our next match away at Kaizer Chiefs. You might say it's an exact rematch of the Cup Final, not that I'm still bitter about the choice of venue... We've got a break of 11 days before the match because of the South African Premier Soccer League's odd scheduling so that gives us plenty of time to get extra practice in. In the words of that glorious buffoon Kevin Keegan, I will love it if we beat them. Love it.

We do have some good news during those 11 days though: Themi sheepishly knocks on my office door and tells me that he's happy to stay with the Peoples' Team after all. As I've said before, I too was as stupid as him when I was 17, so I won't hold it against him as long as he gets his head down from now and works hard. He's arguably our 2nd choice striker now.

Then Ryan Moon strains his ankle ligaments in a reserves match and rules himself out for 2-3 weeks. I wasn't planning on playing him in the near future anyway to be honest. He's still not reached anywhere near the form I was expecting this season and that's a real shame. He might struggle to break back into this team when he's fit again.

The only changes I'm making for the match are bringing Gogotya in for Joël to give us more solidity in midfield and swapping Norde and Masango to wingers on the left and right respectively so that they can be more of a counter attacking outlet.

6 minutes in, Juno sends a corner to the near post and Sohna gets to it yet again, this time looping a header towards the far post. Norde sees that the ball's going wide and tries to reach it, but he can't connect properly and the ball bounces out. If he had made contact then that would surely have been a goal for Santos.

20 minutes later Kaizer Chiefs are predictably dominating and I tell Aidir to play as more of a target man. He's looking a little isolated and we could do with him holding the ball up a bit more to give the rest of the team time to get up the pitch. After half an hour we put together a good patient move and the change seems to have helped. Aidir holds the ball up and plays a clever disguised pass through for Sony Norde on the left. The winger shoots but the ball keeps rising as it flies into row Z.

On the stroke of half time Juno plays a free kick into the box from the right wing and it's headed back out to him. He volleys the ball straight across to Sinbad on the edge of the box, who passes it on to Hicham Aidir 10 yards from goal. Aidir takes aim and drills it low under Khune. We'll go into the break 1-0 up over Kaizer Chiefs.

Oh. No we won't. Less than a minute after the goal, Baloyi floats a cross into our box from deep on the right and Ngoma's bundled over by Masango as he tries to get on the end of it. Kaizer Chiefs are awarded a penalty and Ngoma converts it himself deep into injury time, placing the ball into the bottom corner and sending Komo the wrong way. Nevertheless 1-1 isn't a bad scoreline away at Kaizer Chiefs. I tell the lads as much back in the changing room.

The hosts should complete their turnaround after the hour mark when Fielies crosses low from the right wing, but the ball rolls through to Khutlang, whose shot whacks the outside of the post and goes behind. As if my nerves weren't already frayed enough, Khutlang then releases Ngoma down the left wing with a beautiful pass over the top a few minutes later. Ngoma drills a cross in that deflects off Sohna's foot and rolls to Kumalo, who also hits the post. Somehow the scores are still level though. Luther Singh, who's approaching match fitness after his recent reserve matches and appearances off the bench for the first team, comes on replacing the quiet Masango.

Straight after the change, Sinbad plays a beautiful ball over to Japhta at the left byline. The wingback doesn't mess about, crossing the ball straight to the far post, and who else but Luther Singh pops up to nod the ball into the net, having been on the pitch for a matter of seconds. I punch the air in delight. I don't know what I'm happiest about: The vindication of my substitute making such an instant impact, a player coming back to fitness and showing signs that he may be a quality signing, or the fact that we're leading Kaizer Chiefs once again. They're all pretty fucking good.

17 minutes from time we're holding on and we win another free kick, this time deep on the left. Juno pings the ball into the box and it's cleared as far as Gogotya, who heads the ball down to Japhta. Japhta plays a good pass through for Sony Norde... Who places the ball into the net. Santos 3, Kaizer Chiefs 1.

A few minutes later I bring on Marothi Diale in place of Gugu Gogotya as he should add a bit more steel in midfield. With 10 minutes to go though Sello Japhta's caught in possession upfield and the home side counter attack down our unguarded left side. Fieles dribbles forwards and powers a shot at goal from out on the right wing and Komo lets it past him at his near post. Kaizer Chiefs have pulled one back.

And then in the 92nd minute of the game, with time all but up, Kaizer Chiefs go for one last route one attack. Khune smashes a goal kick up field, Fielies nods it on, Morris takes the ball down on the edge of our box and fizzes it into the bottom corner of the net. My heart sinks. Kaizer Chiefs have pulled it back to 3-3.

I put on a brave face for the lads after the match. In all honesty we were expected to lose today so a draw is a very credible result, but when you're 3-1 up with 10 minutes to go and you come away with just a point... It's difficult. The players are gutted though so I walk around the changing room like a malfunctioning encouragement vending machine, firing out clichés like "Chin up, lads!", "Brilliant effort there, boys!" and "Unlucky today" without provocation.

With my contract running out and with no sign of a new one on the horizon, I'm not sure whether I'll get a chance to exact my revenge on Kaizer Chiefs for that horrific Cup Final. Even if it was only for a quarter of an hour though, we had these today. We were, however briefly, the best team in Africa.

The King Is Dead (Franjo: A Journeyman Story - Ep113)

Things have been looking up for Santos F.C. lately. I really think that the thrashing against local rivals Ajax CT was our rock bottom and it's forced everyone including myself to have a good long look at ourselves. Every match since has had at least some redeeming quality. And we've not lost any of them, which of course is excellent.

So let's keep the good form going with our SA Cup Second Round match away at Platinum Stars FC. We're slight favourites against the 2nd tier side but I'll be playing a heavily rotated team for various reasons. I had planned on playing Themi Maluka for example in our First Round match, but he was injured at the time, so he comes in replacing Hicham Aidir for this one in our Project: Foxy Mk II system. Molekwane, Roscoe and Baliso are all given starts ahead of Nkili, Kakuba and Norde in the hopes that they'll be able to finally impress me, Luke Fanteni replaces Sinbad to gain a bit more first team experience and Luther Singh gets his first start for Santos, having recently come back to full fitness and earned the chance with his goal against Kaizer Chiefs. Young winger Qualanto makes his first bench appearance for the first team. Thoahlane sadly doesn't start, but Platinum Stars' number 46 is on the bench today.

It's the home side that threaten first after only 10 minutes, when Moleko's cross is met by Kunene and the midfielder's header loops towards the far top corner of our net, only to be tipped against the bar by Komo at full stretch. 10 minutes later, Luther Singh gets the ball on the right wing, dribbles into the box and shoots, but the ball actually ends up closer to the corner flag than the goal.

With 25 minutes gone though, Singh plays the ball through for Themi inside the Platinum Stars box. The youngster hits it first time and powers it into the far bottom corner to put us ahead. We go close to a second after another 5 minutes when Juno's corner is headed out by Mabaso but only as far as Singh, who tries a header from the edge of the box but can only direct it straight at Duma. I am encouraged by how involved Singh's been so far though.

We take our lead into the second half, but Platinum Stars aren't done yet. Kunene dribbles forwards 10 minutes after kick off and lays the ball back for Mabaso, who smacks it straight into the top corner from 20 yards. It's a phenomenal finish to be fair and it's all square again. It's not level for long though. 15 minutes after the equaliser that we've learned nothing from, Kunene dribbles forwards and lays the ball back for Mabaso... Who smacks it in off the bar from 20 yards... It's another phenomenal finish but I can't help feeling we should've seen it coming.

I panic and throw on Diale, Joël and Aidir for Juno, Fanteni and Themi, also changing system to Project: Meatloaf and sending us out to attack, but we can't find a way back in. 2 fantastic goals have undone us today and we've been knocked out of the South African SA Cup.

Obviously that's not ideal. That's the second time in my 2 years in Lansdowne that we've been knocked out of the SA Cup by lower league opposition, but to be honest it's not the end of the world. Now we've got nothing to focus on but the league. Our decent form has carried us up to 8th place in the PSL with a game in hand, so we could easily go 7th, which is around where I was aiming for at the start of the season. If leaving the Cup means that we can go all out to secure a top half finish then so be it.

We travel to Wits for our next match. You might've noticed that I've been using the words "Travel" and "Away" quite a lot recently and you'd be right, because in all competitions this'll be our 5th successive away match. I've said it before and I'll say it again: South African football scheduling is odd. To be fair though our last 4 matches have ended as 1 loss in our last match, 1 draw (Which I'm still gutted about) and 2 wins, so we're dealing with it. Wits are a difficult proposition though as I've been here for their last 4 meetings against Santos and we've lost 3 of them.

Mass changes are obviously made from the second string cup side. Nkili, Kakuba, Sinbad, Joël, Masango, Norde and Aidir are all restored, joining the only 3 survivors from last match's starting line up: Komo, Sohna and Juno. The eagled eyed among you will have noticed that I just listed 10 names. The last is a tactical change: Zulu in for Japhta at left back. We're sticking with Project: Foxy Mk II today and I want us to stay solid against Wits' 4-4-2, so Zulu will come in as a defensive full back and Norde and Masango will be out and out wingers, giving us the width without Japhta's overlapping runs. I'm also wary of how Sohna and Kakuba will deal with strike partnership Moses Yende and Shungu Dutiro after they completely failed to stop them last time. I tell Mike to mark 6'8" Yende as he's our tallest and most aerially dominant defender, and Isaac will mark 5'8" Dutiro as he's less of a force in the air.

It only takes 3 minutes for the deadlock to be broken. A patient Santos passing move breaks down and Myeni clears the ball, but Sohna intercepts the hoofed ball and thumps it back over the Wits defence for Hicham Aidir, who almost looks bored as he drills it into the back of the net.

Half an hour later Wits are trying to go route one to break us down, hoofing the ball into the box towards the towering form of Moses Yende. Kakuba's doing an admirable job though, marking the big man tightly and beating him in the air when the lofted balls come in. 10 minutes from half time they try a different tact when Alexander's released on the right wing. He goes for a low cross towards Yende, who gets a shot in at the near post, but Kakuba's there once again to block it out for a corner.

We've been excellent. A simple bit of man marking has crippled the home side. They're unable to break us down at the back and as it transpires they're unable to stop us either. With just a few minutes to go of the first half, an excellent passing move ends with Joël passing to Sony Norde, who squares it for Masango on the edge of the box. Masango looks up and puts his foot through the ball, blasting it straight into the top corner for 2-0.

The second half is a non-event. Gogotya, Fanteni and Themi come on for cameos but the game's already won. It's a surprisingly routine victory.

Not only does that win carry us up to 7th, but it's also significant for another reason. That early goal was Hicham's 16th of the season in all competitions, which breaks King Carl's record of 15 that he set last season. It's been a tough year for Carl and I really feel for him, but it's not as if I've not given him chances to break back into the first team. A Moroccan striker 10 years his junior coming in and breaking his record with a full third of the season still to play will do nothing for his confidence though. The King is dead. On the flip side though, what an outstanding player we have in Hicham Aidir. I've not had this much fun watching a striker smash in goal after goal since CM9 in my 2nd season with Angrense. He still hasn't broken Santos' league goal record of 15, having only 14 league goals so far, but surely breaking that record too is just a formality at this point. Long live the King.

Ah, the Athlone. I've missed this place. We'll make our long awaited return to our home ground today when we host Bloem Celtic, who are 2 places and 4 points below us in the league with a game in hand. I have no intention of letting them climb above us in the table now that it's the only competition we're still in.

We'll be without a couple of defenders for this one, with Isaac Sohna and Siyabonga Zulu suspended for 1 match for picking up 8 and 4 yellow cards respectively. Since we're making our return home we'll also return to our dominant system, Project: Meatloaf today. Roscoe and Japhta come in for the suspended duo at the back and Marothi Diale will come in replacing Juno in the holding man role. I've been really impressed with Juno, not just for his brilliant set pieces but also for his quality defensive performances as our anchor man. He's played a lot of football lately though and I don't want to burn him out, so he gets a rest. I'm also bringing back a part of Project: Meatloaf that I've not used since those halcyon days at Angrense; Norde and Masango will start as left and right wingers but will periodically swap sides and cut in onto their dominant feet. Ryan Moon's back from injury too, so he makes the bench at the expense of King Carl.

5 minutes into the match, Isaac Sohna's drawn out of position by Sonopo, who then plays a nice through ball into the box for Mathosi. The striker takes a touch and coolly buries the ball in the back of the net. Bollocks. To make matters worse, Mandla Masango picks up a knock to his thigh in the build up to the goal. It doesn't look too serious though, so he'll play on.

10 minutes later we concede a free kick on Celtic's left wing. Lakay chips it into the box and Japhta heads the ball clear. It only goes as far as right winger Zuma on the edge of the area though, who has the time and space to pick his spot and smash the ball past Komo to make it 0-2. Sometimes you can tell that it's going to be one of those days, and I'm absolutely certain it'll be one of those when Sony Norde has to be stretchered off with a foot injury before the 25 minute mark. Singh comes on replacing him but Norde's having a good season so it's worrying to see him have to leave the field like that.

It's actually a really even first half. We give as good as we get from Bloem Celtic but it feels like the wind's been taken out of us. 2 goals down and 2 injured wingers will do that to you. I bring off Masango, who's struggling with his thigh, and bring on Ryan Moon. Santos go on the attack.

It's just not to be though. I even bring on Luke Fanteni in place of Diale with half an hour to go to try to give us an extra injection of creativity, but we don't create anything of note in the second half. The match ends with Bloem Celtic having had 55% possession and both teams having had 12 shots, but only 2 of ours were on target to their 6, which is nowhere near good enough. It's been a bad day.

It's been an even worse day for Sony Norde. It transpires after the match that the versatile attacking midfielder has suffered a damaged achilles tendon and will be out until the end of the season and then some. He's in tears in the physio room as Geron Barnes breaks the news to us. At 31 and with only 3 months left on his contract, I think Sony Norde might have played his last game for Santos.

Hollow - Part 2 (Franjo: A Journeyman Story - Ep114)

That hollow feeling comes back as the wheels of my plane leave the runway and I set off for Vaduz. I'm still reeling from Sony Norde's horrific injury and now I'm off to start Liechtenstein's World Cup 2022 Qualifying campaign. In fact it's less of a hollow feeling and more one of mild dread.

Today we host Russia, who are a full 126 places above us in the FIFA World Rankings and are expected to hammer us into the ground in our own back yard. The most optimistic Liechtensteiner fan would have to admit that the best case scenario for our boys in blue involves Russia's star players each falling foul of an outrageously unlikely set of circumstances that rules them out of contention one by one, like the Springfield Power Plant softball team in that one episode of the Simpsons.

We'll line up with our Project: Liechtensteiner Mk II despite it's fall from grace in our last 2 EIL matches, which we lost by a combined score of 1-7. My team sheet doesn't contain any surprises either, such are the limitations of our national pool; Benji Büchel starts in net, Eberle, Grippo, Kaufmann and Spirig form the back 4, Marcel Büchel starts in front of them with Wieser and Kuku as the central midfielders, while Schürpf and Göppel flank lone striker Frick.

We hold out for almost 20 minutes, which is longer than I expected to be fair. Frick fails to clear Golovin's corner and can only nod the ball on to Kutepov at the far post, who heads it in from close range. Sensing that this afternoon's only going to go one way, I tell the Liechtensteiner lads to try to control the game. Stranger things have happened. The time in 12th Century Burgundy when it rained herring for example.

Kutepov goes close again 10 minutes later, heading Dzagoev's corner against the bar, but it's Vitinho who doubles the Russians' lead when Wieser's clearance is blocked by Golovin and rolls into the box, leaving Vitinho with a simple finish.

It's 0-3 before the 35 minute mark too, after we throw caution to the the wind and go all out attack. An excellent passing move by the visitors ends with Dzagoev sliding the ball to Smolov just inside the box and he absolutely thumps it into the top corner.

We regroup as best we can at half time but with less than a minute of the second half gone, Smolov goes close again, hitting a shot on the turn from 20 yards and hitting the angle between post and bar.

We do pull a goal back in the 53rd minute, countering after the latest in a long line of Russian corners breaks down. Marcel Büchel releases Göppel down the left wing and the fullback-turned-winger sprints to the byline before whipping a cross in to Frick, who knocks the ball into the net from 6 yards.

Our celebrations are short lived though and Russia are soon dominating once again. Less than 5 minutes after Frick's goal, Vitinho tests Büchel from a tight angle and our keeper comes through, tipping the ball behind for a corner.

With an hour gone I bring on young Yanik Negele. I doubt he even wants to be associated with this absolute mauling, but it's tough shit because my patience has just about run out with Pascal Schürpf, who makes way. Kuku will head out to the right wing allowing Yanik to play in the middle.

10 minutes later Smolov nearly makes it 4 again when he takes down Arestov's chipped through ball and sends a vicious half volley just wide of the near post. 10 minutes after that, Frick takes a knock to the shin and has to come off, so Hadzipasic takes his place.

With 82 incredibly depressing minutes played, Vitinho's denied a brace after connecting with Mário Fernandes' cross and volleying the ball at goal. Scherle throws his body in and blocks the shot, keeping the scoreline at 1-3. What an absolute massacre.

The scoreline really could've been worse. Russia could and perhaps should have had 6 or 7. I'm sick of "Could've been worse" though if I'm honest. I'm sick of praying that we don't get annihilated and celebrating our team actually scoring a goal like we've won the World Cup. I'm sick of our potential as a national side being so limited that we're literally relying on 1 small club in the Swiss football pyramid to bring in other countries' cast offs and keep them long enough to gain a Liechtensteiner passport.

We've got a trip to Lithuania next and if we don't win I don't know what I'll do. Frick's calf strain that he suffered in the last match will keep him out for a couple of weeks, so Hadzipasic comes in replacing him. I also swap Wieser out to right back replacing Eberle. He's never played at right back but I think he'll do a job there. Rony Hanselmann replaces the ever-frustrating Schürpf on the right wing, while Negele comes into the midfield triangle.

The game gets off to a scrappy start as you might expect. There's not much quality from either side but with 7 minutes to go before the break, Negele chips the ball in from a right wing free kick and Danny Kaufmann rises to head it past the keeper and into the net. Liechtenstein lead.

Lithuania almost equalise within 3 minutes when Matulevicius' cross is volleyed at goal by Cernych, but thankfully he hits the base of the post.

We try to retain possession in the second half to stop the hosts putting together any momentum for a fightback. It doesn't work though, they still put together some momentum and with 15 minutes to go they break us. Vytas feeds the ball through on the left and Chernyakov places it past Büchel to equalise. Late substitutes Schürpf and Gubser are unable to make an impact and the match ends at 1-1, leaving Liechtenstein at the bottom of our qualifying group.

I can't tell what I need to do now. I don't know what my next step should be. Being the Manager of the Liechtensteiner National side was always going to be a huge challenge, but it's one that's definitely waring me down over time. I no longer look forward to the International breaks. I dread them. I resent being flown out from my far more rewarding job in Cape Town to be obliterated in Vaduz, like a schoolboy taking a break from running his tuck shop so that he can get the shit kicked out of him by the older lads for a bit.

I'll think about it, but with both my Santos contract and my enjoyment of International management running out, maybe it'd be best for this Summer to be a complete change of scenery for me.

Meanwhile, In Lansdowne (Franjo: A Journeyman Story - Ep115)

They say that every cloud has a silver lining. I've had a pretty miserable time with the Liechtenstein squad but back in Lansdowne we've had more players than usual joining their countries for International duty, which has brightened up my International break.

Komo, introduced to South Africa Under 20's squad since my arrival and insistence that he play and captain our first team, has been joined in his national youth squad by Themi Maluka! And in classic Themi style our academy graduate came off the bench to score on his International youth debut. Good lad. Emil Sambou's still getting the nod for Gambia while out on loan, which is great, and Mike Kakuba's an essential part of the Ugandan National side, but the news that made me swell with pride was that Hicham Aidir got his very first full call up and cap for Morocco, oddly enough in an away match against South Africa at the Mmabatho Stadium in Mafikeng. It's undoubtedly the first of many times he'll represent his country and I'm absolutely made up for him. If I didn't have my own stuff going on I'd have travelled to Mafikeng with Joël and some of the lads to cheer him on.

After I touch back down in Lansdowne we also have a new batch of youth players emerge from the academy, which always brings some much needed excitement and optimism. Santos' Head of Youth Development Alcardo Van Graan has been banging on for weeks about a few of these lads; 15 year old goalkeeper Mlungisi Maake, a goalkeeper with excellent reflexes and good height and handling, 15 year old centre back Luyanda Seedat, a very physically fit and brave young centre back. He's strong in the challenge and decently hard working, with pretty good decision making and ability to mark a man, and 16 year old centre back Sinethemba Tavares, a tall defender who's dominant in the air, dominant in the challenge and with decent fitness levels and marking ability. He's also left footed and able to play at left back, which is always a bonus.

I'm impressed enough with all 3 to offer them pre-contracts for when they turn 17, which they all sign. As usual, I come down to watch the academy lads play our Under 19's. The 3 players I've signed to pre contracts all start at the back for the Under 19's and are joined by several youth players and Carl Lark, because why not. Oddly both teams set up to play the original Project: Foxy, a system that I've not seen since my early days in Lansdowne.

Right winger Thamsabqa Ndlovu gets the Under 19's off to a flier by heading home from Thuso Mtule's cross after 4 minutes. Thamsabqa was on my radar at the start of the season and I initially thought I'd keep him with the first team as back up for Ryan Moon, but several months and signings later he's not made an appearance. Much to my surprise when the U19's win a penalty in the second half, our new left sided centre back Sinethemba Tavares steps up and tucks it away confidently.

Carl Lark finishes well on the turn to put the U19's 3-0 up with 25 minutes to play, before academy graduate centre back Sekela Mayambela volleys in from an Albert Nevhulamba free kick to pull it back to 3-1. With just over 10 minutes to play though, King Carl gets behind the defence and finishes coolly to restore the 3 goal cushion to the Under 19's. 4-1 it ends.

I always love to see the next generation of first team hopefuls make their first steps at the club. What I don't love to see however is Yanga Baliso barging into my office after the match to give me an ultimatum - Either I give him first team football or he leaves. It's a pretty easy decision. Don't let the door hit you on your way out, Yanga.

Carl Lark's brace, albeit against a group of players not yet able to grow decent moustaches, impresses me enough to reserve him a spot on the bench for our next league game, but unfortunately he damages his foot in a reserve match a few days later and will be out for up to a month. Oh well.

I've made no secret of the fact that I'm keeping my options open for next season. My contract's only got a few months left on it and I'm open to suggestions and offers about where I'll sign my next one. One club I won't be going to however is Chippa United, whose Chairman Ernest Banda has offered me an interview. I politely decline. If I am to stay in South Africa I'll be staying at Santos.

I had hoped that Ernest would've spread that message to all of his Chairman buddies, but if he does then Thulani Nematswerani doesn't get the message. He offers me the chance to interview for the vacant position at Bidvest Wits, but I refuse once again.

Goolam Allie must've heard rumblings about these offers though and offers me the chance to discuss a new contract, but I'm honest with him, letting him know that I'm keeping my options open and that we'll discuss it at the end of the Season.

In other news, our reserves have won the league, thanks to a good combination of promising youth and quality fringe players. Ajax CT reserves have won it for the last 2 years so it's a great middle finger to them, which I'm sure more than makes up for our 1-5 demolition a couple of months ago in the eyes of the Santos faithful.

As it happens, I do stumble across a job that quite interests me. Call me mad, but almost a year ago I said I'd be watching Lazio manager Giuseppe Iachini like a hawk, ready to pounce if he slipped up. Well he's slipped up. Lazio are currently 6th in Serie B and have parted ways with Giuseppe. I throw my hat into the ring. Lazio may still be out of my reach in terms of their status in the footballing world, but if you don't buy a ticket you won't win the raffle, will you?

We also play a friendly against our Under 19's to keep us fresh during the extended International break. It's not exactly a showcase match for attractive football, but we come away with a 2-0 win courtesy of Joël's bundled finish following a scramble in the box and Masango's cool finish from Japhta's cross.

Unfortunately we may well have seen the last of another Santos player. I've given Siyabonga Zulu some stick in the last 2 years, but he's been OK, especially this season when I've wanted a more defensive option at left back than our converted winger Sello Japhta. He tears his hamstring in training and won't be back for 2-3 months, meaning he'll probably miss the rest of the season, and bearing in mind the fact that he's already agreed to join Future Tigers when his contract expires, we might not see him again. If nothing else I've enjoyed writing your name, so cheers Siyabonga.

So after a lengthy spell of doing everything except playing competitive matches with Santos, it's finally time to play some football. Today we welcome Sundowns to the Athlone, who are doing well and sitting at 5th place in the league.

Marothi Diale's 8th booking of the season in our last outing means that he'll miss this one through suspension, although that's fine with me as it means I get to watch Juno and his marvellous set pieces. We're playing a very standard and very narrow 4-1-2-3 system today that I'll call Project: Meatloaf Mk II for now, because Sundowns and their bloody Christmas Tree formation have caused us problems in the past. If they want to use a central midfield 5 then go for it, because we'll be using a defensive triangle in a team packed together like sardines. Good luck finding space in the centre this time. Komo starts in net of course, protected by a back 4 of Ayanda Nkili, Mike Kakuba, Isaac Sohna and Sello Japhta, Juno sits in front of them with Sinbad and Joël Soumahoro at centre midfield, while Mandla Masango and Luther Singh will play as right winger and left inside forward respectively behind Hicham Aidir.

The visitors have the better start of the 2 teams and actually do find some space to work with in the centre. 13 minutes in Motupa drives through the middle and shoots from 20 yards, but Komo clutches the ball to his chest. I tell the lads to try to keep hold of the ball so that we can take control.

It works. We build up a bit of a head of steam and win a corner at the 20 minute mark. Juno whips it in and the ball's headed clear as far as Masango, who chests it down and half volleys it venomously towards the top corner, but the keeper Khuzwayo tips it onto the post.

Motupa dribbles forwards once again a few minutes later into the left hand side of the penalty area, but drags his shot wide of the near post. That's the last real action of the first half though and we go in for half time with the scores still level.

It takes just over 5 minutes of the second half for the deadlock to be broken though. Sello Japhta gets clear down the left wing and drills a cross in to the 6 yard box, and Luther Singh arrives to tuck the ball into the net and put us ahead.

Sundowns, conceding defeat with their Christmas tree, change to a 3-5-2 formation. I see no reason to make major changes and simply move Singh and Masango back to be wide midfielders. I also put them on man marking duty against Sundowns' wingers.

On the hour mark Masango dribbles down the right flank and sends another low cross into the box. This time Hicham Aidir's there to tap it in. Suddenly we've started to really click. A few minutes later though, Mosadi gets free down the right wing after Japhta's caught out of postion and pulls the ball back from the byline for Andria, who slots in for 2-1.

A couple of minutes later and in what's becoming a frantic and end-to-end second half, Joël chips the ball out to Japhta, who's bombing up the left wing once again. He drills in yet another low cross and this one deflects off Mabuza before trickling past the keeper. 3-1 Santos. I bring on the more defensively minded Gugu Gogotya for Soumahoro in an attempt to protect our lead.

With a quarter of an hour to play, Ntuli gets away down the right wing for Sundowns and squares the ball for Andria 12 yards out, who blasts it low into the net. We defend resiliently for the last 10 minutes and come away from a very even game with a commendable 3 points.

That win sends us 8th on 32 points. There's only actually 8 points between 4th placed Golden Arrows and 11th placed Kaizer Chiefs (Who have 4 or 5 games in hand over the rest of the League) and with 8 games still to play and 24 points still to win I reckon we can push even further up the league from here.

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