Save Us Franjo (Franjo: A Journeyman Story - Ep1)
The final whistle goes, and pure elation washes over me. I can see it, hear it, and I can feel it. We've won. It's all been leading to this. All of the late nights, the tears, the despair, all of the shit I've been through in my managerial career... It's all been worth it. I lead the team up the steps towards the trophy. The path is barely visible through our adoring fans: leaning in, cheering, patting backs, ruffling hair, taking selfies. This is for them. All tens of thousands of them, and the millions watching at home. We're moments away from lifting the Trophy. We have done it...And then I wake up. Bollocks.
Becoming a Manager isn't something that just happens. You can't just wake up and walk into a Football Stadium asking if they have vacancies. Management is something that most in the profession have spent their lives learning. My name is Franjo. And I will be a Football Manager.
But who will I manage? I'm an Everton fan so the Everton job would be nice. I'm English, would I take the national job? Sure. It's a poisoned challis but I'd fancy my chances. Then there's your Barcelonas, your Bayern Munichs, Juventus, or even Paris Saint Germain... I could always just retire in the Bahamas after a week if it goes tits up.
Realistically though these jobs are a long way away. I'm a hopeful. A rookie. A nobody. I've been looking for a way into management for some time now. Looking for the right first step on the right ladder. And today, Saturday 30th July 2016, I think I've bloody found it.
FC Höllviken are perfect. They're a small, pretty unknown, semi-professional club floundering in the Southern half of the third tier of Swedish Football. They might just be the kind of club that would be desperate enough to take a chance on an unknown, untried manager. I send in my extremely bare CV.
The next morning I have 1 new email. It's Alexander Lundgren, Höllviken's chairman, and he wants me to attend an interview later today! They're more desperate than I thought.
We have a good chat, despite the language barrier. He's concerned, rightfully so, about my lack of experience. I tell him that everyone starts somewhere and that seems to put him at ease. I tell Alexander that I'm a firm believer in bringing through youth players, so a lack of funds doesn't rattle me. I tell him that I'm the man who can save his club from being relegated from the third tier. I think it goes pretty well.
I don't know how many of you will have experienced this in your lives, but there's no situation that makes you refresh your emails quite as often as being unemployed. "Maybe they've replied now? No of course not, it's only been 5 seconds... but how about now?"
4 days pass and I've heard nothing from Alexander. Given that I applied for the job at midnight and had an interview 11 hours later this is making me increasingly nervous. Clubs are hiring new managers all over the place and I only applied for 1 position. If I don't get it I may be out of work for a few months yet.
A week since my interview and still no word. 8 days. 9. 10. 11 days after my interview I refresh my emails for the infinitieth time and there it is.
From: Alexander Lundgren, Chairman of FC Höllviken.
Subject: "Save us Franjo"
Signing 15 Awful Players (Franjo: A Journeyman Story - Ep2)
I don my trusty grey coat, grab the essentials and throw them into a rucksack. I'm going to Sweden. Specifically the Locality of Vellinge, the seat of the Vellinge Kommun municipality, and home of FC Höllviken. I've been given a contract until the end of the season, about 3 and a half months away at the end of November. I've told Alexander, the Chairman, that I can save his club from relegation. Fun fact: there are 26 games in a Swedish First Division South season and my new club have already played 18 of them: Won 3, Drawn 4, Lost 11. We're 5 points from safety. This is going to be a very tough first gig.
I get to work as soon as I land in Vellinge, organising my first training session with the players. Our first match is in 2 days against Oskarshamns AIK, who are 9th place in the league, so there's no time to lose.
I arrive at our stadium, Höllvikens IP, to see that only some of the players are present. I choose one at random and ask him to gather the whole squad. He stares at me blankly. The penny drops and my heart sinks. This is it. This is my squad. All bloody 11 of them. And 3 are injured. "Under 21's?" I plead. "Under 19's?" Blank stares all round. Right, well this should be a doddle then.
It seems the only selection decision I'll have to make, apart from which fans to pluck from the stands and give shirts to on a match day, is in net. And it's an easy decision. On one hand we have Cyrile Tchouata Kamajou, a towering figure who can catch a ball OK and his reflexes are good, but whom the subtleties of the game seem to escape.
On the other we have Niklas Hammer, my pick of the two. He's an equally mountainous man who's not as steady of hand or as quick of mind as Cyrile, but he does seem to be the more rounded of the pair. And of course I'm going to play anyone whose name is as cool as Niklas Hammer, because obviously.
At right back, we have Oscar Vilas Nilsson, a short young man who seems decently rounded without being impressive in any way at all.
Our only natural centre back is Simon Henningsson, a big powerful defender who I think I'll be able to rely on to do a job. He's also an able centre mid.
At left back we have the surprisingly impressive Tobias Malm. He's rapid across the ground and incredibly well rounded. In my opinion he is far too good for this team.
And then we have our Mr Versatile, Jason Grannum. He can play anywhere across the back and on either wing, although he's most comfortable on the right wing. If I get the chance though I'll be taking that no.77 shirt away so fast it'll make his head spin.
The first of our central midfielders is Ali Burrniku, a good, rounded, no-nonsense midfielder who's also able to play as a holding man.
The second is Joakim Nilsson Ingves, who also happens to be my assistant manager. And I have a suspicion that he'll be my captain. He can do pretty much everything apart from run quickly.
And that's all of the fit players we have. I **** you not. But let's press on into the treatment room.
Egzon Sejiraca is a versatile right footed winger. Fast, skilful and able to take on a man and cross. He mercifully is in light training and will be back in 4-8 days.
Andreas Wihlborg is another versatile winger. He's also quick and otherwise pretty rounded. He'll be back in 3-9 days.
Andreas Persson is our only striker. He's quick, gets in good positions and can finish with his feet and his head. He's irreplaceable so is obviously out for the longest stretch: About 4 weeks to be specific.
I find myself looking pitifully at this sorry lot. They are, in all fairness, better than I expected. I just wish that there was twice as many of them.
Alex comes out to call me and Joakim into his office. He pours us coffee and gives me a sympathetic look. He knows we're ****ed. He knows it'll be a tough ask to fill a team for our next match, never mind avoid relegation. We chew the fat for a while. I agree to hold a press conference tomorrow and I inform them that I'll take control of as much of the running of the club as I can. It's a grim meeting.
I decide that Joakim may as well be my captain. He's already my assistant and he seems like he knows what he's doing. I give the vice captaincy to Tobias Malm, the impressive young left back.
Joakim waits until now to hand me the squad report, which consists of 8 positive points and 26 negative ones. I bin the squad report.
So the solution to my situation seems clear: assess the squad while trying to grind out results, and then make signings to bolster the squad once I know what we need.
The holes in this logic are that:
- The transfer deadline is tomorrow so there is no time for assessment.
- The signings we need are Everything
- We have absolutely no money to spend, not even on wages
So with that all in mind I spend transfer deadline day driving around local parks recruiting anyone who looks like they have the potential to one day kick a ball in a straight line (In game terms I offer non-contracts to a bunch of my greyed out/ made up players) until I have an actual squad. They may not be pretty, they may be **** in absolutely all areas, but my god they... are available for selection.
I won't show you them each individually, just trust me they're bad. But they're footballers. And footballers can be trained and drilled. There are plenty of underdog stories that start out bleaker than ours, and plenty that end happily.
Now that we've got a squad, all we need to do is win some matches. That could be trickier than it sounds with this rabble though.
I'm Ready (Franjo: A Journeyman Story - Ep3)
Journalists can smell fear. They feed on it. Fear and misery. My first press conference as a football manager and I'm dissected and probed for every bit of boring detail they can squeeze out. I'm asked about 30 questions. "I just want to get back to work" I mentally plead with them, but it's quite clear that I'll be kept until they're full up. With fear and misery.
When I'm finally allowed to leave I wander back to my office to watch the video of Oskarshamns AIK's (my first opponents) last match. And I mean an actual VHS video tape. Apparently I've got to bring Höllviken into the 21st century as well as save them from relegation to the fourth tier. They often play in a standard 4-4-2 and focus their play down the left, but they've got decent players all over. Their main threat is a young striker named Tidjani Diawara, but thanks to my bold strategy of playing with attribute masking switched on I know **** all about what makes him so great. We reckon he's either half decent or one of the best in the world at heading a ball.
I plan to start off with a flexible, counter attacking 4-1-4-1. I know we're at home, but we're ****. We have a bit of pace about us but that's just about it. Other than that I'll be making things extremely simple: Stay disciplined, don't be an idiot, pass it to Tobias Malm. The left back will be my main outlet for today and we'll see how he takes to it. My starting striker has 3 for finishing, so I think we'll be fine.
I have 10 random folk I found in the local parks in my first match-day squad. 4 of them are starting. I give most of them first team squad numbers, seeing as jokers like Grannum have picked numbers like 77 and left the good ones unclaimed, in a bid to inspire a performance out of them.
I decide to give the lads a good-cop team talk. "There's no pressure on you today" I tell them, "I just want to see what you boys can do. Joakim you're on set pieces, put it on Simon's head" I smile and nod towards Simon Henningsson, our massive centre back. Then I turn, walk into the tunnel and gesture for them to follow.
Once out I go to shake hands with Jan Stahre, the OAIK manager, but he crunches my hand in his with a dark smile and says something that I'm sure is probably rude in Swedish. Jan can **** off though. I'm ready for this. My team is ready. Ish.
In the first half we match OAIK stride for stride, blow for blow. Our new striker Mattias Andersell goes closest with a shot just past the near post and a few more efforts from his teammates fly just wide too.
At half time I tell the team they're unlucky not to be in the lead and send them back out to nick a result.
We start slowly, and OAIK smell blood. They run us ragged in the first 15 minutes, barely allowing us a shot while they get quite a few in. Not good ones, but still. The one chance we do have is in the 57th minute when Andersell again finds himself in space after a good pass from Pärsson and lashes a shot from the edge of the area against the inside of the foot of the post. The ball's cleared and from the resulting throw in Grannum has a decent shot that's caught fairly easily.
On the hour mark a lofted through ball is misjudged by big Simon Henningsson at the back, and he misses his header, allowing the OAIK striker Diawara to nip in 6 yards out. Luckily my sweeper keeper, Niklas "The" Hammer quickly rushes out to close down the angle and the striker's only option is a lobbed shot which goes narrowly over.
I make 2 subs straight away: I bring on Filip Lago for Mattias Andersell, who has been very good for a man so woefully unequiped to play in his position, and the injured Egzon Sekiraca for young Christoffer Axelsson. He may be knackered but he can play. One moment of magic from him may be all we need.
From that point it's blow for blow again. Both teams have decent half-chances but no one can find a breakthrough.
And then it happens. 12 minutes from time Diawara picks the ball up 20 yards out, looks up, and drives it into the far bottom corner. It's a good finish, but it's so so cruel. Our heads drop from that point on. I push us to attacking but the game is already away from us. We lose 0-1.
The dressing room is silent after the match, and we go our separate ways from the stadium with barely a word spoken. I'm proud of them, but I feel like telling them that would only make them feel worse. Plus I'm still not sure they understand a single word I say. On another day Andersell's 2 shots sneak in and we come away on top of the world with 3 massive points. But not today. Today we circle closer to the relegation plughole than we did yesterday. We need a miracle.
Franjo: Enemy of Football (Franjo: A Journeyman Story - Ep4)
So here's the thing. You come to a small club in danger of dropping down to the 4th tier of their national league system, you unfortunately lose your first game in charge and morale is low. What do you want least at this point? How about a cup match away against a team from the top tier? Well, take my hand my friend and let me whisk you away to Sweden's capital. Stockholm, here we come. To play ****ing Hammarby IF.
Now normally I'd relish this kind of challenge - A chance to play a team at their place 2 leagues above us? Hell yes. Except in a situation as dire as ours this just seems like a no-win situation. We can't throw the match because we need every bit of morale we can muster, so I need to play the first team. The match is on a Wednesday, so it's going to knacker and possibly injure my 8 good and uninjured players. We're going to lose, so morale's going to drop anyway, it's just a case of not getting embarrassed. And with 7 games to play and 6 points to make up to even get out of the automatic relegation places and into the play-off spot, we just don't need a cup match at all.
I hold a team meeting, which actually goes very well. I tell the team that we've got the quality to turn this around, and they believe me the poor bastards. So morale for now is high.
Everybody's job today is to defend. I tell them as much. We will play very narrow, deep, defensive, compact and we will try not to get obliterated. I name the same line up as my first match and hope that consistency of selection will do us a favour at some point. Before the match I again tell the team that they're under no pressure here, but even I don't believe that.
We're under the cosh straight away, with Lidberg connecting with a Silverholt cross and heading over from point blank range.
Half an hour in Jarrett smashes a shot from outside the area off the far post. We've barely had a sniff but at least we're mainly restricting them to long shots like that, which is better than nothing.
Our task isn't made any easier towards the end of the first half as Grannum and Vilas Nilsson both pick up injuries. But they can both stand, so they both play on.
At half time I do nothing but encourage the team and tell them they're unlucky not to be winning, a complete fabrication but again they believe it.
It's another cagey 20 minutes before I bring on Sekiraca for Axelsson, just like in the first match. Sekiraca started full training yesterday and while he was nowhere near ready to start today he'll have 25 minutes to shine here.
With 15 minutes to go Silverholt heads just over from a Hammarby corner, and I tell the team to waste as much time as possible. They oblige and we last until the end of 90 minutes. We have had 1 shot, a free kick that Joakim hit straight at the wall, but it doesn't matter. If we can last another half an hour we go to penalties, and then it's anyone's game.
Lago comes on for Andersell, who's predictably had a quiet game, but he's closed down defenders and put in a shift bless him.
7 minutes after the restart, Torsteinbø hits a free kick over from 25 yards and we can breathe again. As it turns out we can only breathe comfortably for 3 minutes, because then Jajic cracks off a shot from 20 yards that has power but no accuracy. It flies wide. I take this opportunity to bring on Erik Hoffman for his debut. I can't afford to rest my "good" players so I take off Pärsson, another former pub-teamer, for a well deserved break.
Extra time half time comes and goes quickly, and Hammarby's Rômulo then tests my ability to resist soiling myself by first heading just over from a Solheim cross, before swinging a cross of his own in for Lidberg, whose powerless header is caught by The Hammer.
The referee blows for the end of extra time and I celebrate with a subtle fist pump. I'm secretly delighted. This is probably the best scenario we could have hoped for. We have defended admirably today, with Henningsson picking up the player of the match award as the pick of the back line. But everyone's done their part. Admittedly we only had that 1 shot in the entire 120 minutes, but now we'll have at least 3 or 4 from the penalty spot and we just have to score more than Hammarby.
Both teams score their first penalty: Silverholt for Hammarby, Joakim for us. Torsteinbø puts Hammarby back in front, and then with thudding inevitability, young striker Lago's effort is saved by Tim Markström. I let out an audible groan. I don't mean to, it just happens. "Don't let this all have been for nothing" I think desperately, "Our valiant defending, the fact that I've knackered our first team by playing them mid-week for 120 minutes and possibly injured 2 of them".
From then on we match Hammarby: Solheim scores, Hoffman scores, Lidburg scores, Grannum scores. It's 4-3 and Hammarby win if they score their 5th penalty. Dusan Jajic steps up, picks his spot... SAVED BY THE HAMMER! We can level the scores here. VILAS NILSSON SCORES! 4-4 after 5 penalties each, and we go to sudden death.
Rômulo...Scores for Hammarby
Malm...Scores for Höllviken
Magyar...HITS THE BAR! Hammarby have slipped and given us our chance.
Burnniku steps up to win the match for Höllviken...AND SCORES! Cue the pandemonium from the travelling fans! The players run over to the corner full of Höllviken fans, some diving into the crowd as others just applaud and celebrate. I walk behind them, smiling from ear to ear but holding back. Taking my time. I'll applaud the fans, and I'll pat the players on the back, but they deserve the chance to celebrate together. This is their win.
We've done it. You've done it. You beautiful bastards. This is a landmark day. This is a show of intention. This is not a team that will go gentle into that good night. These aren't wishy washy prima donnas, happy to sit back and fade into the fourth tier, playing only to pick up a paycheque. These are men who will tie the laces on their worn black boots and fight for their honour. If we only have 7 shots in these 7 games and we stay up, then that's what we'll do. We will find the win in a no-win situation. We'll play the worst football this league's ever seen if it means we can grind out the results. This is my army. And I am Tony Pulis. I am David Moyes. I am Sam Allardyce.
I am Franjo: Enemy of Football. And I couldn't give less of a ****.
Ms Alexandersson (Franjo: A Journeyman Story - Mini-sode 4.5)
The Celebrations in Stockholm are short and sweet. We've got a league match against 10th placed Utsiktens BK in 3 days so taking our time basking in our big win is a luxury we just can't afford. To be honest I don't even celebrate much in the dressing room. Not long after I take a seat on the bench reality hits me: Yes, we held on to knock out a Swedish Premier League team, but at what cost? Grannum and Vilas Nilsson have gone straight into a side room with a physio to be assessed, the rest of the team's dead on their feet. These aren't top athletes, these are part-timers. 3 matches in a week in our position isn't fair.
I try to keep hold of the positives though: It is a big win, it's great for morale, and if we can keep a clean sheet against Hammarby we can keep one against anyone in our division.
The entire team's staying in a B&B on the outskirts of Stockholm, which strikes me as odd as there are 20-odd of us all told, but we pile into the team bus after a while even so. I sit alone at the front, thinking about Saturday and Utsiktens.
When we arrive at the B&B we're greeted by a sweet looking old woman with long grey/blond hair, who's wearing the thickest pair of glasses I've ever seen, as well as a knitted Red and Black FC Höllviken jumper. This is starting to make more sense. She's waving from one of the doorways. Fair enough, this is an extremely big house and should cater to all of us comfortably by the look of it. The old woman introduces herself as Ms Alexandersson and greets every one of us with an enthusiastic hug and a wide smile as we walk in. We each go straight to bed and despite thoughts of Utsiktens still swirling around in my head, it isn't long until I feel my eyes close.
And then I'm stood in the living room of the B&B, talking to Ms Alexandersson. I can't really tell if it's a dream or not, and frankly it's not a priority that I find out, as I'm starting to cry. Slowly at first, and then uncontrollably. "I don't think I can do this" I sob, as Ms Alexandersson hands me a handkerchief, which is also emblazoned with the FC Höllviken crest.
"Why?" She asks calmly.
"I just... don't know... what to do...for the match... on Saturday" I manage, between deep breaths. "They're tired... injured..."
She looks at me quizzically: "What did you think was the right thing to do with this lot when you first arrived in Vellinge?" She smiles.
"4-1-4-1...defence first...focus down the left" I splutter.
"And did it work?"
"Ah but did it work?"
I take a moment, and then reply "I suppose so. We were OK. Worth a point." I'm not crying anymore. Ms Alexandersson gives me a wide smile.
"Don't overthink it" she winks.
And I'm awake. After a quick breakfast we all pile back into the team bus and Ms Alexandersson waves at us from one of the doorways as the bus begins to pull away. I catch her eye and she mimics pulling something out of her left trouser pocket. I reach into my own left pocket and pull out the FC Höllviken handkerchief. I look up, aware that I've turned bright red. Ms Alexandersson smiles widely and winks before the bus accelerates away, leaving her still waving in the distance. Well that's embarrassing.
Don't Overthink It (Franjo: A Journeyman Story - Ep5)
I'm surprised at how nice my little office is at Höllviken's training ground. I think this is where the squad's budget probably went. It's most likely the reason I inherited 11 players but it is fairly nice. There's a good solid dark wooden desk. I'm no expert, I couldn't tell you whether it's Mahogany or Oak or whatever, but it looks good. There's a couple of chairs, a nice TV for watching opposition videos, a pretty comfy leather sofa, and a fully stocked drinks cabinet. Now that I've written it all down, this is definitely where the squad budget went. There's a knock at the door: "Come in" I call. It swings open and standing there is my head physio, Patrick Ekman, giving me a sympathetic look. I wish everyone would stop doing that. "Bad news?" I sigh.
"Not all bad" he replies. "Grannum's out for about 3 weeks, but Vilas Nilsson's fine, Wihlborg's ready to come back in and Sekiraca's just about there."
He's right, that's not all bad. I was expecting 2 new injuries after the Hammarby game, and if my right winger's injured it's good that 2 replacements are ready to come back.
"Ok cheers Patrick" I force a smile and he ducks back out of my office, closing the door behind him. I'd probably be fairly optimistic for the next game, except that my squad's exhausted and Ali "Burrnie" Burrniku, scorer of giant-killing penalties since 2016, is suspended for our next game after picking up 3 yellow cards.
I take out the Höllviken handkerchief that Ms Alexandersson gave me yesterday and study it, turning and folding it delicately in my hands: it's hand-made. A labour of love for this club. Our fanbase may not be the biggest but the team I put out tomorrow has got to be right. The system has got to work. Good honest Swedish folk are depending on me.
The next day I decide to follow Ms Alexandersson's advice: I don't overthink it. We go back to the counter attacking system that we used in our first match: yes we lost, but we matched OAIK. If we do that again with a little bit of luck we can nick a result.
Fitness is an issue but I can't afford to rest any of my first team. Henningsson in particular looks exhausted but we have no defence without him, so he starts. Joakim's also looking off the pace but we need our captain too.
Hoffman did OK after coming on against Hammarby so he'll be the holding man until Burrnie finishes his suspension, the newly fit Wihlborg comes in for Grannum on the right wing and a fresh-faced fellow named Truls Nylander comes in for the equally young Pärsson in the centre of midfield, as the latter could do with a rest.
I'm fairly sure I don't need to point this out at this point, but every league game now is a big game. And I mean a BIG game. I reckon we need at least 3 wins out of our 7 remaining games to have any hope of staying up, and today we play Utsiktens BK, who are currently 10th in the league. And we play them at our place. If we can't win this match, we can't exactly expect to do well against the bigger teams. Utsiktens have been underperforming themselves this season so one of us is going to claim a massive 3 points.
We start the game poorly. We're slower to every ball, we're fouling them over and over as they dance through our defence, we're shattered and we're being outplayed.
In the 12th minute, just after one free kick had gone over, Bergholtz takes another, and puts it on target. It's straight at the Hammer but he fumbles it. We're 1-0 down already. This is the worst possible start. In a bid to stop us conceding any more direct free kicks I tell the team to stand off slightly and to stay on their feet.
My instructions do what they were meant to, but they don't stop the onslaught. In the next 7 minutes 1 shot is blocked by Henningsson, a header from the resulting corner goes just wide, and another shot goes over.
And then Andersell picks up an injury. It's not the worst news in the world as he's probably no better a striker than I am, but he came close to scoring in my first match and I was hoping that a run in the side would bring out the best in him. Lago comes on in his place.
The match dies down and the only thing that really happens for the rest of the half is that I swap us to a standard mentality.
At half time my nerves get the better of me. The fact that we're slipping further into the relegation quicksand, the fact that we've not scored a single goal in the 255 minutes of my tenure so far, the fact that I'm failing.
I shout, and I scream. I tell the boys to sort themselves out, to pull their fingers out and stop embarrassing themselves. Where's the character I saw on Wednesday?
Quickly after half time I bring on Sekiraca for Axelsson and swap him with Wihlborg so they're on the right and left respectively. 2 senior wingers in their preferred roles should give us a boost.
10 minutes after half time Stefan Bouvin, my understudy centre half, picks up an injury. Again it's not the end of the world as he's about as good at centre back as a Madame Tussauds Waxwork of himself would be, but another injury during a match certainly weakens us. I can either use my remaining substitute to take him off and bring on another **** centre back, or I can leave him and make a change that might just give us a chance.
I opt for the latter. I bring off defensive midfielder Nylander and replace him with fellow debutant Kevin Lantz. Lantz will go up front with Lago, who will act as a poacher to try and break our goal drought. Hoffman fills in in midfield.
Ladies and gentlemen, Höllviken will play 4-4-****ing-2.
Over the next 10 minutes though Utsiktens are still the dominant team. They have several chances go wide or over, and we still have no answer. I tell us to go back to the counter attack, go more direct as play at a higher tempo.
In the next 2 minutes both teams go very close. Hyseni has a shot from 20 yards that's destined for the top corner, but The Hammer pulls off a top class save. We go straight down the other end and Sekiraca goes 1 on 1 with their keeper, only to put his shot just wide of the near post.
With 20 minutes to go McVey hits the post after a decent Utsiktens move and I swap us to attacking in the hopes that we'll grab the equaliser, but the last 20 minutes are dead.
Another league game at home, another match without scoring, and another 0-1 loss.
I head back to my office and start looking through the drinks cabinet.
I end up doing a lot of thinking. After my first match I could at least look back and wonder what could have been if luck had been on our side. Today we were obliterated, and frankly 1-0 flatters us. Drastic action is needed. We need goals. We need a senior striker. But the only position where we have any senior depth is... Goalkeeper...
I pick up my phone and dial. It rings for a moment before The Hammer picks up.
"Niklas! I want you and Cyrile to meet me for emergency training in half an hour. We're going to see how well you can shoot."
The Hammerhead Formation (Franjo: A Journeyman Story - Ep6)
Stuart Pearce made the call with David James, Jurgen Klopp did it with Shamal George, and now I, Franjo, will put a goalkeeper up front. Because honestly why not? I've never even met our only senior striker Andreas Persson, I had low to medium hopes for Andersell but now even he's out too. Why shouldn't I put a technically challenged but mentally and physically rounded footballer up front?
"How are you feeling?" I ask The Hammer.
"Strange" he smirks, gesturing to his black outfield away kit. "My hands feel cold".
"You'll be alright" I smile, give him a reassuring punch on the arm. I immediately recoil slightly and pray that he doesn't reciprocate, because if he does I'll probably end up in a heap against the wall of the tunnel. He doesn't though. I make my way out of the tunnel and into the dugout.
I've thought long and hard about my tactics for this match. We're facing Qviding FIF away, who I heard from my backroom staff have a key player named August Wängberg. Stop laughing. Now I don't know much about August Wängberg, thanks again attribute masking, but what I do know is that for a centre back he's fairly short and limited in the air. So it's absolutely the right time to unveil my secret weapon.
"I want you to bully Wängberg. I want you to bully him so badly that he runs back down the tunnel crying. I don't want you more than a foot away from him at any time", I had told The Hammer previously, "We're going to get the ball to Wihlborg and Sekiraca and they're going to float crosses in for you. All you need to do is stand still, punch that little **** Wängberg right in the face and nod the ball down for Lago". As far as I know Swedish law doesn't specifically forbid physical assault, although it is frowned upon.
Ladies and gentlemen, prepare yourselves for The Hammerhead Formation.
In all honesty it's 4-4-2 with a keeper up front.
Also, Bouvin and Vilas Nilsson are injured and suspended respectively, so Billy Sahlén and Isak Franck come in for their debuts. I opt for a stopper/cover defensive pairing for Sahlén and Henningsson, because for one thing it's the system that best suits Sahlén and I want his introduction to be as painless as possible, and for another I think a stopper role will suit Henningsson. He's definitely the Mertesacker of our team.
Our plan nearly pays immediate dividends on the 5 minute mark, when Malm receives the ball from a throw in, plays it long to the hammer, who despite being double marked by Wängberg and their central midfielder Alimi, nods the ball on into the path of Lago. Lago hits it first time, trying to place it into the far corner, but his effort comes back off the post.
Nearly 90 seconds later, a simple pass is played through for Johansson, who easily shrugs off Billy Sahlén and places the ball into the bottom corner. I kick every water bottle in my vicinity. This sums everything up.
After quarter of an hour Wihlborg has a half decent shot from 20 yards but it flies wide, and nothing much else happens until 4 minutes from half time when a bad Sekiraca ball is intercepted and hoofed into our box. Johansson nods it on for Jörnvil but Cyrile smothers the ball at his feet. In torturous slow motion though the loose ball rolls to Johansson, who passes it coolly into the empty net. I turn and silently walk down the tunnel. I think of the promise I made to Alexander when I took this job. I think of the other men I've seen destroyed by the remorseless monster that is football management. But the monster won't take me down, at least not without a fight.
Some of those lads' hearing will never be the same. I hope they can still hear my fury after they slip from this mortal coil and I hope it inspires them to be reincarnated as slightly less useless footballers. I make full use of my 15 minutes at half time, I shout, swear, throw things and punch the wall. I'm livid. I'm at the end of my tether. And the worst part is I'm not livid with them. If Lago's shot goes in after 5 minutes our whole season looks different, the whole match plays out differently. But once again we can't score for love nor money and we can't stop anyone else from scoring. It's my first match all over again but with an extra goal to boot.
The match is quiet for 15 minutes after half time, and knowing that we need to take a chance, I push our wingers forward to form a 4-2-4 and tell them to attack Qviding, and pump the ball into the box for The Hammer.
And then, after almost 20 more minutes, it happens. Our debutant right back Isak Franck hoofs a ball forward from the halfway line. The Hammer, who is now triple marked, leaps to nod it on for Lago, who takes a touch, and then pokes the ball past the keeper and into the bottom corner.
And just like that we're OK. We're 1-2 down and we stay that way until the ref blows his whistle for full time, but we've scored a goal. An actual goal! A sweet drop of vindication has landed in this sea of Swedish ****! The most beautiful green shoot I've ever seen is sprouting through salted earth, and it's making everything it touches OK.
It could grow to be a majestic beanstalk: it could grow higher than the clouds and I could climb right to the top. I could find a limitless supply of golden eggs, and take down the giants that want to grind my bones to make their bread. I could save my starving family and buy us a new bloody cow. This could be the start of an excellent new adventure.
Or it could be spinach. I hate spinach.
A New Low (Franjo: A Journeyman Story - Ep7)
"We need to be careful, Östers are absolutely flying" Joakim warns me. "They've won 8 of their last 11 and drawn the other 3, this might be our toughest match of the season. The bookies have them at to 1-6 to win, I'm surprised they've not already stopped taking bets"
"Never tell me the odds" I snap, hoping that they don't have Star Wars in Sweden. We're sat in my office planning for our away game against Östers IF at the weekend, and it does seem like an insurmountable task. They've been eating teams far, far, far further up the table than us for breakfast.
We're interrupted by the sound of a car driving into the training facility car park. Joakim and I exchange confused looks. No one at FC Höllviken can afford a car. Intrigued, we stand, walk out of my office and around to the car park to see an unfamiliar young man closing the door of his mustard-yellow Saab. I note with interest from the license plate that it's older than most of, if not all of, our players. And Joakim's 31.
Joakim sighs with relief at the sight of him. "Andreas!" He exclaims. Andreas? I don't know anyone called Andreas... Andreas struts towards us and removes his sunglasses.
"Did somebody order a star striker?" he asks, very coolly, like a Bond villain. I assume that's what he said, he was speaking in Swedish, but he seems like the kind of twat that would say obnoxious things like that because it's becoming painfully obvious that this is our only actual senior striker, Andreas Persson. And he reeks of star-strikerishness. I'd almost completely forgotten we had him to be honest but he's come in to resume light training.
After I get over the initial resentment I realise that his return to training is a huge and welcome relief. I've not used any strikers that aren't **** kids or goalkeepers up to this point and it's sort of become the norm. Plus he can finish, he has pace, and he can get into good positions. He might be just the injection we need, but he's not quite ready yet.
In the meantime though we're now propping up the Swedish third tier and it doesn't feel good. We're still 6 points off the relegation play-off spot so I think that's still an achievable goal, but we've only got 5 games to get there, and our goal difference is so bad that we're definitely going to need more than 6 points. We need to turn our run around: We've lost 6 games in a row in the league and if we lose our next 2 we can pretty much forget staying up. And I can forget about having the option to stay.
So let's start the fightback today. We play a variation of our Hammarby-vanquishing defensive 4-1-4-1 with The Hammer as a lone attacking target man and attacking wingers giving him plenty of service.
The match starts in a familiar way: we have an excellent chance after 5 minutes when The Hammer puts a ball through to Wihlborg, who slots it under the keeper only to turn mid-celebration and see the linesman's flag raised. I'm speechless. Another heartbreak inside 6 minutes for FC Höllviken.
Aside from a couple of harmless free kick attempts from ÖIF and a booking for Pärsson, the first 40 minutes pass without incident. In the 41st minute Pärsson trips an opponent and picks up his 2nd booking and thus a red. Another familiar scenario plays out over the next 2 minutes: The space between midfield and defence in our necessitated 4-4-1 is exploited and Cyrile has to tip over a Drott effort from 20 yards, but from the resulting corner a scramble breaks out inside the area and Johannesson is left to poke the ball home from 6 yards out. Hello 0-1 my old friend. You'll never know how much I hate you.
In stark contrast to our last match, I just have nothing to say at half time. We seem to be unable to execute a game plan effectively. Whether we hit the post or have a goal disallowed, whether we have key players injured or go down to 10 men, we just can't make it work. We sit in sombre silence through the break and go back out with barely a word spoken.
With 25 minutes to go I bring on Hoffman and Persson for Sekiraca and Wihlborg and swap us to a narrow 4-3-2 with overlapping full backs, but I still can't cause a spark. Our fight seems to have dissipated today. With 4 minutes to go I tell the team to attack, and with 3 minutes to go we're 2-0 down when Ostlind finds space, shoots for the near post from an extremely narrow angle, and Cyrile parries it into the net. We never manage a single shot except for Wihlborg's offside effort 6 minutes in. There is a very thick silence in the changing room after the match. Yes they're sat in 2nd place but this is unacceptable. Morale is at a new low.
Safety is drifting further away with every match that passes. With every game we lose there are 3 fewer potential points on the table. We need 7 points minimum out of a possible 12 to survive, barring some kind of mathematical miracle, but we can make our own luck to some extent. We still need to play the teams in 11th, 12th and 13th. And beating all 3 of them would be a bloody good start. Plus Andreas Persson should be fully fit for the next match and I sincerely hope he's as good as he thinks he is, because he's starting.
Swede Dreams (Franjo: A Journeyman Story - Ep8)
I don't want to get out of bed today. Don't make me get out of bed. If I get out of bed I'll have taken another step towards getting relegated in my first ever managerial role. No, I'll just stay in bed where everything is warm and safe. **** you alarm clock. **** you sunlight. **** you Swedish First Division South. I keep having a recurring dream where Henrik Larsson and Zlatan Ibrahimovic are taking turns punching me in the face and laughing about how little I know about Swedish Football. Then they throw me into the deep dark pit: a swirling vortex of nothingness where nothing exists and nothing escapes.
Now, I'm a realist. I'm aware that I have to get out of bed. I'm aware that while the world would keep turning if I were to simply shut out the sunlight, pull the covers over my head and hibernate until the people of Vellinge had forgotten my name, there is a slight possibility that FC Höllviken would stand even less of a chance without me. And our fates are intertwined: I need to save them in order to save myself, specifically with regards to my career. They didn't have to be my problem. I could have stayed in England and never known the names of Niklas Hammer, Joakim Nilsson Ingves or Alexander Lundgren. But I made them my problem. I made them my children, they are all my responsibility. There's no backing down from this.
Dragging myself out of bed, I decide to go down to Höllvikens IP early so that I can use the whole morning to think of how we need to approach this match tactically. I grab a coffee, walk into my office, sit down at my desk with paper and pen in hand, and begin to strategise. We're up against FC Trollhättan, who are in 12th place, 2 places and 6 points above us in the league. This is our biggest match so far in that if we are to make any sort of push for survival, it needs to start today. After this match we play 3rd place Norrby IF, which is essentially a write-off, and then we finish the season by hosting 13th place Prespa Birlik and finally travelling to 11th place Husqvarna FF. We have been given a tremendous opportunity to push by being scheduled to play all 3 of our fellow relegation candidates in our final 4 matches, but a loss today will be crippling for our survival hopes. A loss today could signal the end.
Looking up from my desk I see Henrik Larsson and Zlatan Ibrahimovic striding into my office, both smiling darkly. I cower and sink lower into my chair. They're here to punch me in the face again, they're going to throw me down the deep dark pit. I'll never get out of the deep dark pit. They move towards me menacingly, both moving around different sides of the desk to cut off my escape, and then suddenly a third figure enters the room. A figure I recognise and greet with relief: Ms Alexandersson marches into my office and begins hitting the 2 legendary Scandinavian strikers over the head with a cartoonishly oversized mallet, emblazoned with the red and black FC Höllviken crest. They run sobbing from the room and I beam at the old woman and thank her for her assistance. "Is there anything I can do to make it up to you?" I ask enthusiastically. She smiles widely.
"Don't overthink it" she winks.
I jolt awake at my desk. Checking my clock I realise that I won't be alone for much longer. The players and staff will be arriving soon. But it doesn't matter. I know how we're going to set up.
"4-1-4-1", I tell the players. "We play on the counter attack, we stay disciplined, we exploit the left. Is that clear?" My question is greeted by murmurs and nods. I note with interest that this will be the first match in which I play something that resembles a first team. We are playing 10 senior players today, which is probably a club record. Cyrile starts in goal in case The Hammer needs to be an emergency striker, and Vilas Nilsson, Henningsson, the fit again Grannum and Malm start across the back. Burrnie will hold his place in front of the back 4, and Sekiraca, Joakim, Hoffman (Our only non-senior player today, but he's been solid so far) and Wihlborg form the midfield 4. Andreas Persson returns from injury for his first start under my stewardship after returning to full training earlier this week. He'll be a poacher.
For 40 minutes Trollhättan's 4-4-1-1 cancels out our 4-1-4-1, resulting in one of the cagiest halfs of football we've seen all season, and then Joakim swings in a free kick from close to the corner flag on the right hand side. It's headed straight back to him by a defender and he tries again, looping a cross towards to the far post. And something incredible happens: Simon Henningsson is shoved by Trollhättan's Mehovic and the referee points to the spot. A penalty! The only thing we've been any good at all season! Joakim steps up and rifles it into the bottom corner. We've taken the lead for the first time this season and it feels excellent.
When the team comes in for half time I put on a calm face. Inside I'm nervous, excited, and sceptical of our ability to hold on, but there's no reason for them to know any of that. I tell them not to get complacent and send them back out.
Within 2 minutes of the restart, Berntsson receives the ball from a throw in and is tripped inside the area by Burrnie. The calm face mask falls to the floor. Yohan Lundgren scores the penalty. I want to go back to bed. I put my head in my hands and wonder if anyone would notice if I just slept through the rest of the game. And then a 2nd incredible thing happens: We respond almost instantly. A Joakim corner is swung towards the 6 yard box, glanced on by Sekiraca, and Burrnie is on hand to stab the ball past the keeper. I don't think I've ever been this proud. I'm pretty confident that if I spawned 500 children who each did something amazing like solve world hunger, or cure a deadly disease, or 498 other incredible things, I would not be as proud of them as I am of my team right now.
We stay as we are. Having never been in this situation before I'm not quite sure what the best course of action is, but doing nothing seems to work. The game dies down until the 75th minute, when Sekiraca plays a brilliant killer pass behind the defence and into the path of Persson, who slots the ball under the keeper. Dumfounded, I tell the team to completely fall back. To just defend. I even feel confident enough to bring off the tiring Wihlborg and replace him with young Axelsson.
The match ends 3-1 and our survival push has finally started. Larsson and Ibrahimovic won't haunt me tonight. I'll sleep soundly, dreaming only of the soft rippling noise of the ball hitting the back of the net, and the roar of our literally tens of supporters at Höllviken IP.
Mo Dizzle & The Newbie Crew (Franjo: A Journeyman Story - Ep9)
The last 2 weeks have been completely different around the FC Höllviken camp. Our win over FC Trollhättan was perfectly timed, just before a break. We've had 2 weeks to regroup and train hard and the atmosphere has been electric. Not only did our win give everyone some much needed cheer and optimism, but I also took the break as a chance to bring in some trialists with a view to bolstering our squad for the last 3 games. I brought in 25 hopeful players, arranged U23 friendlies every few days so that they could dazzle us, and a few of them did just that.
Allow me to introduce you to our 4 new players:
Wani Mukoko came in and gave a decent account of himself, bagging a goal and a couple of decent performances in a couple of friendlies. He may not have the best shot, but he's quick and agile, with a decent touch and a good sense of where to be to have the optimal chance of scoring. He'll provide decent and much needed back up to Andreas Persson.
Stefan Andersson is a 16 year old centre back who's showing a lot of potential. He's not a rounded player but he's good enough in pretty much every essential area for a centre back. And if either of us get the chance to stick around beyond the next month I should be able to develop him into a good solid defender.
Every fibre in me fought against signing Lawrence, the short Ghanaian central midfielder. I think it's because of his extremely questionable mental attributes, or possibly because of how easy it will be for opposition midfielders to bully him thanks to his small stature and fragile frame. But my God he gave some good performances in the 5 friendlies he played, so in he comes as our only non-Swedish player. Prove me wrong mate.
And last but by no means least is quite possibly the most promising of the lot. We have brought in Muhamed Dizdar, who I instantly dubbed "Mo Dizzle". He protested but he's already signed the bit of paper, so Mo Dizzle it is. He is an extremely rounded midfielder, a solid athlete, mature beyond his years at 22 years old, and who can resist the prospect of a couple of 30 yard screamers? His determination, teamwork and work rate are also particularly exciting to me as I value these attributes highly. I think Mo Dizzle could be the last piece of our first team puzzle.
In addition to arranging these trialists, the other 21 of whom are still with our under 23's by the way and may still be brought in, I also arranged a senior team friendly against Mjällby AIF, who are comfortably 9th place in our division, to keep the first team squad's fitness up. We lost 3-1 but that's OK. I'd rather make sure we keep our focus and push ourselves than crush some poor, even punier side than us 6-0. We've had a good break, played a practice match against good opposition and we've had an injection of fresh blood. And the only team that can stop the good times from rolling now are Norrby. They're about as intimidating as a team that sound like they're named after a cartoon dragon can be. They're 3rd in the league and have racked up way more than twice our points tally for the season so far so my hopes are not high.
Another thing that could put an end to the party atmosphere is if Husqvana FF get 2 or more points from their last 3 games, as that would relegate us to the 4th tier with immediate effect. But we'll cross that bridge when we come to it. Which we will, because one of those games is against us.
I name an unchanged side from the one that beat Trollhättan 2 weeks ago but with our new signings on the bench to make the difference if required, as they currently lack match sharpness. The Hammer is injured so he misses out entirely, but he should be back for the next match.
The game starts slowly and the first thing that happens of any note is Gashi wandering away from his "marker" Grannum to connect with a Petterson corner after 20 minutes. His header hits the back of the net, but for once I don't feel aggrieved, I don't feel angry and I don't feel upset. Depressingly, this was always part of the plan. 5 minutes later Brandt shoots from 25 yards but it's uncontrolled and flies high and wide.
At half time Grannum is still struggling. He's a natural right winger who can also play as a centre back so I don't begrudge him the odd poor performance. I bring on 16 year old Andersson to make his debut in Grannum's place, hopefully that will sure us up in defence.
No. No it doesn't. Less than 2 minutes after the restart (I'm becoming suspicious of how often I'm writing that exact phrase) Brandt finds Qoraj in acres of space on the left wing, and he drills in a low cross that deflects off big Simon Henningsson and past the helpless Cyrile in net.
The only chance of note we have is also the last mildly interesting thing that happens for either side, when with 33 minutes to go Sekiraca tries a pot shot on the turn from 25 yards and the ball almost trickles out for a throw. It doesn't though so at least he's spared that embarrassment. I concede that the better team has already won and throw on Mo Dizzle and Mukoko for their debuts, replacing Hoffman and Persson. Hoffman has been fine today and Persson hasn't had much to do, but that's not his fault. The rest of the match drags and it's quite a relief when the final whistle goes.
In an unprecedented show of decency I smile, pat my players on the back, shake my opposite number's hand and thank the officials before heading into the changing room to tell the lads not to worry. "This match was a distraction, nothing more", I urge them. "The real matches are 2 weeks from today, and 2 weeks after that".
It does worry me slightly that Husqvarna have picked up a point and if they pick up another we'll effectively be relegated, however their last 2 matches are against Landskronal BoIS, who have already wrapped up the title and should actually destroy Husqvarna's confidence quite nicely, and then us. They need to lose both games. We need to win both of ours.
The miracle we need isn't out of our reach. Not yet.
Out of Our Hands (Franjo: A Journeyman Story - Ep10)
Nothing seems real today. Everything is blurred and distorted. Everything seems so fragile, like it could give way at any second and collapse, taking my team and prospects with it. Our fates are not our own today.
Regardless of how we do against the first team to have their relegation confirmed: Prespa Birlik, a draw for Husqvarna FF against top side Landskrona BoIS or a win for FC Trollhättan against 5th placed IK Oddevold would see us pretty much relegated. Everything here could crumble and there's nothing we can do to stop it. What we can do though is make sure we win our final 2 games. We need to stop worrying about the things we can't control and just focus on the things we can.
We've had another 2 week break since our loss against Norrby, which I saw as another chance to get our new players up to speed and to test us against good opposition. "I've arranged a friendly against AIK" I had announced triumphantly to the players after the Norrby game. They just stared at me with their mouths open. AIK are 4th in the top tier of Swedish football and I had jumped at the opportunity to test ourselves against them. They beat us 1-0, which I interpreted as a small victory.
We've not signed any more trialists as of yet, but our 4 new players are settling in very well: Wani Mukoko gets on with the rest of the squad, Stefan Andersson has already won the respect of most of the players for his clear ability and professionalism at such a young age, Lawrence is seen as something of an enigma but I think he's getting along with everyone, and pretty much the entire squad has already forgotten Mo Dizzle's original name, much to his horror.
KSF Prespa Birlik don't seem to have any stand out players, but the last thing I'll allow us to do is let our guard down and assume that the win will come purely because they're the only team in the league who are officially shitter than us. We'll start off the same as we have been doing, 4-1-4-1 on the counter, focussing play down the left. Mo Dizzle and Stefan Andersson get their first starts today in place of Erik Hoffman and Jason Grannum. The Hammer returns to the starting line up and almost cries with joy when I tell him that he's actually starting in net. He's back from injury and I've been less than impressed with Cyrile.
As soon as the game starts I can feel something different: for possibly the first time during my tenure FC Höllviken are the more confident team. We have a few half decent shots that don't really test the keeper during the first 20 minutes, but it's clear to me that we're in charge here.
When that realisation takes hold I tell the players to control the game. Prespa aren't going to try to bring the game to us so we may as well take it to them. I also make sure the midfielders know to pass the ball into space as Persson has run the channels well so far.
10 minutes before the break it almost pays off when Sekiraca plays a good pass into the left hand channel. Persson takes the ball, brings it forward, and smashes it just wide of the far post.
2 minutes later Mo Dizzle finds Persson with the ball 30 yards out, and Persson looks up to see Joakim making an uncharacteristically explosive attacking run through the Prespa defence. The ball is put right into his path and he leathers it into the top left corner from the edge of the area for his 2nd goal of the season. I leap to my feet, teeth gritted, hands clenched into fists and held aloft. We might just be able to do this.
At half time I put on my calmest face and tell the players not to get complacent. I can't stress enough how afraid I am that Prespa will turn this around on us to end my FC Höllviken reign not only in abject failure, but in humiliation too.
I barely have time to sit back down in the dugout and open my notebook before it happens. Joakim finds Sekiraca with a great ball over the top, Sekiraca dribbles towards goal before picking out the unmarked Andreas Persson, who slots the ball past the poor keeper. 20 seconds into the second half and they've doubled our lead, the brilliant bastards.
10 minutes later Prespa fire a warning shot, 1 of only 3 they've managed so far, when a counter attack ends in Borg shooting into our side netting from a decent position. I tell the team to drop back slightly to standard and bring on Lawrence for Mo Dizzle, both of whom are still short of match sharpness.
With 25 minutes to go though, Joakim is almost having too good a time. He effortlessly plays another perfect pass over the defence and into the path of Persson, who simply lets the ball bounce in front of him before smacking it on the half volley into the top left corner. Game over, and it really is a beautiful goal.
2 minutes later Prespa start to rebel against my narrative, and Wilklund hits a pot shot from 30 yards out that cracks off the post and bounces away. I drop us back to defend. With 10 minutes to go they're still plugging away, intent on pissing me off, and a hopeful deep cross is pumped into our box. Simon Henningsson, 6 yards from our goal, decides that this would be an appropriate time to try to control the ball and chests it down, only for Milenkovic to steal it and tap it past The Hammer.
We don't get the clean sheet but to be honest I couldn't care less. We'll take the 3 points. We'll welcome the 3 points with open arms. The 3 points can even have my bed and I'll sleep on the sofa. Our future is back in our hands, and it'll all come down to the last match.
Husqvarna FF will be quaking in their boots.
The Offer (Franjo: A Journeyman Story - Mini-sode 10.5)
With another 2 weeks to go before our final league match, a trip to Husqvarna FF, I decide to arrange a friendly trip to league leaders Landskrona BoIS. The away game practice will do us good and as you'll know by now, I find that there's more to be gained in a tough friendly lost than an easy one comfortably won.
We lose 3-0, and it's fairly comfortable, so by my own logic we definitely gain more than Landskrona... Don't think that we didn't put up a fight though, we had a go and we scared them at times, but their quality showed. It wasn't an obliteration like my 2nd league game against Utsiktens BK, or my 4th against Östers IF, and we can take some genuine pride from that.
The next day Alexander Lundgren, the club Chairman, calls me at home and asks me to come into our training ground. He's secretive about his reasons for doing so and that strikes me as odd, but intrigued, I head over anyway. When I arrive he's stood by the desk in my office, holding a sheet of paper and looking uncomfortable. "I would like to extend this offer to you now," he begins, "I would like you to sign a new year-long contract. I think you can win next week, I think we can avoid relegation and I have confidence that you'll bring success to the club given a full season."
I'm taken aback. I didn't expect this. Is he trying to give me a boost? Is he showing me he's got faith in our ability to stay up? Even if we do stay up I can't guarantee I'll be here next season. I think it would be a bit "meta" of me to explain to him what a Journeyman save is.
Instead I smile. "Put the contract away Alex", I tell him. "Let's get next week out of the way and then get the paperwork sorted." He looks glum, but agrees. I feel quite sorry for him. He's a lifelong Höllviken fan and I can tell he believes in me, maybe to a fault. He's the Bill Kenwright to my Roberto Martinez.
We stand in silence for a moment, and then I grab a football from the corner of my office. "Come on" I tell him as I walk out towards the training pitch. I trudge across the soaking turf straight to the penalty spot in front of the nearest goal and put the ball down, before taking up my position in the middle of the mud-bath that is the goal-mouth. The nets are still up. Luckily someone forgot to take them off after the last training session.
Alex follows me and stands in front of the ball, still looking a bit glum, but now confusion's been thrown into the mix too. "Smack it" I say calmly. He steps back, runs up to the spot and leathers the ball into the top left corner, I genuinely try to get there but I've got no chance. My dive falls well short and I end up in a muddy heap. "Bloody hell Alex, how long were you going to keep that secret?" I laugh as I get to my feet, "We could've used you instead of Lago at Hammarby".
He looks slightly less down as he takes his place in net and I grab the ball and take it to the penalty spot. "What do you think our chances are of a win next week?" He asks. I think for a moment.
"Honestly, pretty good" I reply, hearing the surprise in my own voice. I run up and try to place the ball into the bottom corner, but I catch it badly and it greyses the wrong side of the post, skimming off the wet grass as it goes. "5 each, obviously" I grin.
"Obviously" he laughs.
We continue talking, and from then on I match Alexander: He scores, I score, He scores, I score. It's 4-3 and Alex wins if he scores his 5th penalty. He runs up, smashes the ball central, I SAVE IT! And catch it too. Pretty impressed with myself there. We swap places once again.
I step up to level the scores... I drill the ball low towards the bottom right corner... and off the post. The ball rolls about 2 feet away and then gets stuck in the bog-like ground.
Alex trudges over to pick it up and then turns back to me. "Unlucky" he says quietly.
"Bloody Swedish weather's worse than ours" I laugh. "I'll bring proper boots next time I come in".
"Or a boat" sighs Alex, as he glances towards one of the most waterlogged areas of the training pitch. Despite my attempt at cheering him up he's clearly still worried.
"We'll be alright" I reassure him as we start to practically swim back to the office building. "We've got a decent squad now and we're injury free. We've picked up a couple of wins lately and we're the ones with momentum".
Alexander says nothing.
"Muhamed Dizdar's looking sharp too, he could be the difference for us" I suggest hopefully.
Alex scrunches up his face, "Who?"
"Oh right, Mo Dizzle. Yes, he does look like a good player."
I think that's lifted his chin a bit. He's slightly more cheerful than he was when I first saw him this morning anyway, but we do need a win next week. It isn't just Alex we're playing for, it's Ms Alexandersson, it's the season ticket holders, it's all those good honest Swedes who are counting on us.
Let's not let them down.
SuperFran (Franjo: A Journeyman Story - Ep11)
I've been thinking a lot about Superheroes lately. So often in the comic books they sacrifice their happiness and their lives for the greater good. They are the unthanked heroes of their cities. But often they are loved. Maybe not by all, but by those who can see how much worse things would be without their intervention. Am I a superhero, you ask? I couldn't say. There are many factors that make superheroes superheroes. But actually no. No I'm not.
Maybe I could be. Maybe if the stars align and I can drag this club back from the brink of the deep dark pit I'll be given the key to Vellinge. Maybe local children will go trick or treating at Hallowe'en, wearing a rubber replica of my face over their own. Maybe posters bearing my likeness will be made and hung up in the bedrooms of every Höllviken fan around Vellinge. I can be a superhero, but only if we beat Husqvarna FF today. 3 points and a bit of luck are what we need to reach the relegation play-off spot and get free of the automatic places.
When the team bus pulls up to Jönköping, home of Husqvarna FF, I'm sat at the front next to Joakim. Barely anyone's spoken for the entire journey. Joakim's face is drained of colour and I get the feeling that I look equally ill. I certainly feel it.
We disembark and make our way to the away dressing room. It's a silent, sombre walk. Everyone knows what's at stake today. I'm using the FC Höllviken handkerchief given to me by Ms Alexandersson as a pocket square. We need all the fortune we can get today and I'll be thrilled if the homemade hankie proves to be a good luck charm.
When we get Husqvarna's team sheet I realise that they're fielding 3 strikers. We're prepared for this, don't get me wrong: they've been switching between a 4-4-2 and a 4-3-3 recently, but it still scares me. Their narrow 4-3-3 may overload us in the centre, but it gives us the opportunity to exploit them on the wings. We'll be focussing the left as usual and we'll be hoping that Malm, the left back who I initially had such high hopes for, finally comes through and helps Wihlborg to double up on their right back, who looks like he'll be pushing forward and leaving space.
The match starts slowly, with both teams testing each other out. For 30 minutes it's a gritty, scrappy game, until Svensson, the playmaker in the team by the look of it, hoofs the ball forward from the halfway line. Karlefjärd, not being marked closely enough by anyone, takes it down and lays it off for Karlsson with one touch, leaving Karlsson to drill the ball into the bottom left corner from the edge of the area.
I feel like I've been hit with something heavy and blunt, only I can't feel the pain of it yet. This can't be how we go down, it won't be how our season ends.
7 minutes later we have a free kick from the left hand side, close to the byline. Joakim curls a cross into a mess of bodies, Burrnie takes it down on his chest 5 yards out and hammers it straight at the keeper, who parries it out for a corner. I take the opportunity to tell the team to pass into space, to use the pace we have in Persson, Sekiraca and Wihlborg.
At half time I am Churchill. I am Braveheart. "Do it for Vellinge!" I cry, "Do it for Ms Alexandersson! Get your game faces on and let's see some passion!", I can hear the crescendo of an orchestra building in my mind, providing a beautiful and overly dramatic soundtrack to my speech of speeches. I sound fantastic. A single tear starts to fall down my cheek as my voice cracks "Do it for yourselves."
When I finish talking, each and every one of them runs back down the tunnel clapping, shouting, completely pumped up. I smile. My trusty grey coat billows in the wind like a cape as I step back out of the tunnel. We aren't done yet.
With 25 minutes to go we're matching Husqvarna. The chances today have been at a premium but it's an eerily even match. I put us onto control, we need to start to take the game to them. We need to fight.
Not long after, a Svensson free kick comes in from the right wing and falls for Eriksson-Ibragic, but his shot is straight at The Hammer. 10 minutes later they counter one of our pushes and Iskander gets a cross in to the far post, but Hamidovic's header is easily caught.
With 15 minutes to go we go all out attack. With 10 to go I bring on Lawrence and Mukoko for Dizzle and the quiet Persson. As much as we try, as much as poke and prod and match Husqvarna stride for stride, we don't manage a good chance for the rest of the 90 minutes.
The final whistle goes and I stand facing the pitch, unblinking, staring at nothing in particular. We were so close. So ****ing close and we fell at the final hurdle. We had momentum and we were getting better, we were finally at the point where I could field 11 senior players. If only I could've have this squad for my whole tenure, we'd be clear of relegation by miles.
We've managed 2 wins in 8 league games. On the face of it that sounds awful but considering my predecessor won 3 in 18 I think we did pretty well. Pretty well isn't good enough for a football manager though. I know what's coming. There's only a week left on my contract after all.
Back in the changing room I bring the squad together and thank them sincerely for their efforts. I single out Joakim, The Hammer and big Simon Henningsson for praise as we would've failed weeks ago if not for their efforts.
I say my goodbyes and leave the dressing room with a heavy heart as I start to walk towards Alexander's office. I meet him in the hallway halfway down, it seems he was on his way to get me. He looks genuinely saddened as he shakes my hand, and offers me a bottle of whiskey from his own drinks cabinet, which I note is of far higher quality than the stuff in my office, but I suppose that's neither here nor there now. He forces a smile and wishes me luck. I offer it back, and then finally we officially part company.
I may yet be a superhero somewhere, someday. But not here. Maybe this isn't my Gotham City. Maybe this has merely been my origin story. Every superhero needs a tragic back story. After all there would be no Batman without the murders of Thomas and Martha Wayne. Nor would there be a Spiderman without the untimely death of Uncle Ben. Maybe there can be no Franjo without the death of my beautiful Swedish dream.
Franjo: PE Teacher (Franjo: A Journeyman Story Ep12)
1 Day since FC Höllviken Termination
I'm OK I think. I feel like I've been through a mature and amicable break up. Yes I'm disappointed and yes I wish I could have done certain things differently, but in the end we severed ties for the good of both parties. I'm hopeful of finding a new job quickly so I've kept my flat in Vellinge as a short term solution. As long as I find a new job in the next couple of weeks I should be fine. I've applied for an interesting position already: The top job at Persiraja Banda Aceh, an Indonesian Premier Division side.
This is exactly the kind of adventure I'd really be up for so fingers crossed. Welling Chairman Barrie Hobbins just emailed me too to see if I'd be up for an interview, but I sent a very gracious and friendly reply explaining that I would have to decline.
I made myself a promise when I stepped onto that Vellinge-bound flight in August that the next time I returned to Blighty I'd be a success. I think we can all agree that that time is not now.
2 Weeks since FC Höllviken Termination
It's been a slow couple of weeks. I applied for a couple more managerial positions: The first was Changchun Yatai in the Chinese Super League, which was probably optimistic as the teams in that league are not known for snapping up unknown British managers.
The other club was KFUM-Kameratene Oslo in The Norwegian First Division, and I have to say I do quite like the idea of staying in Scandinavia for now.
I've not heard back from either, but I did just get back from an interview with the Persiraja Chairman Syarifuddin Latif. I think it went pretty well so I'll update you as and when the wheels start turning.
3 Weeks, 2 Days since FC Höllviken Termination
Well ****. The wheels didn't start turning on that one. Khair Rifo took the Persiraja job. I had another interview offer from England: Truro Chairman Pete Masters was in touch but again I politely declined.
I wish other countries' clubs were as excited to meet me as English ones are.
1 Month, 1 Week, 3 Days since FC Höllviken Termination
I had to leave my flat. Nothing's happening job-wise and it's been 6 weeks at this point. For now I'm crashing on Joakim's sofa. He doesn't seem pleased about it.
I've been offered interviews by Hemel Hempstead (Who I turned down, but I'm starting to think I might have to go home earlier than I had planned) and Finn Harps' Chairman Sean Quinn, which was exciting. Ireland is certainly a possibility for me.
I applied for vacant positions at Danish First Division side Naestved Boldklub, Malaysian Premier League side Perlis, and Belarus Highest League side Granit Mikashevichi.
At this point I'm throwing my hat into every vaguely realistic ring I see. I am the Oddjob of Football Management.
1 Month, 3 Weeks, 3 Days since FC Höllviken Termination
I had an interview with Granit General Manager Marina Bystraya this week, and had a couple of offers from Gosport and Curzon Ashton which I duly turned down. I'm not sure how long I can keep doing that though, Joakim's getting very cranky.
2 Months, 1 Week, 4 Days since FC Höllviken Termination
Happy Christmas, New Year, etc. Gennardy Mardas landed the Granit job, the jammy ****, so I've enjoyed a festive period of being locked in the guest bedroom while Joakim has friends and family round and doesn't want me getting in the way. I was also offered an interview at FC United today.
My replies to these English clubs are still negative but they're getting less polite.
2 Months, 3 Weeks, 6 Days since FC Höllviken Termination
Do you know what no Football Manager will ever tell you about being out of a job? Do you want to know the big secret?
It's boring as ****.
I mean I suppose it's the same for most unemployed folk really, after a while you just want to get back into that routine, you're sick of being at home/Joakim's house. All the days start to merge into one.
But ask a Football Manager how he felt between jobs and it's "Oh I spent time with my family and watched a bunch of football from countries you've never even heard of". Admit it you're all bored, that's why you jump at the chance to come back and be hated, picked apart and humiliated all over again.
On a related note I'm really ****ing bored of unemployment. It's been almost 3 months and I'm getting worried that I just won't be able to get another job abroad. I think I'm just seen as "Franjo, who took FC Höllviken down".
Maybe I'll get 1 more stab at a job in England and then be thrown on the pile with Dave Hockaday and Alan Curbishley. Maybe I'll become a PE Teacher. The cranky, bitter kind too. The kind that obviously wanted to make it as something else and so takes it out on the kids by teaching them bad cricket ball throwing technique so they'll never be any good.
Brackley, Bath & St Albans all phoned to see if I'd like an interview. I told them all to **** off. I'm not going to be your PE Teacher just yet.
3 Months since FC Höllviken Termination
It's the 3 month anniversary of the day I got sacked from Höllviken, and in something of a whirlwind, I found another open position, and they offered me an interview immediately.
Sport Clube Angrense are a third tier Portugese club based in the municipality of Angra do Heroismo (The Creek of Heroism. Seriously. What an insanely cool name for a place), which is located on the volcanic Island of Terceira in the Portugese archipelago of The Azores.
I'm basically interviewing to manage a team based in Hero Creek on Volcano Island in the middle of the Atlantic ****ing Ocean and my excitement has gone from zero to sixty very, very quickly.
They're about to start the relegation phase of their season after finishing 5th in the first phase (Don't worry, read the next update, I'll explain there).
I met the Chairman Miguel Borba this afternoon. I think it went fine but I've thought that after a couple of interviews in the last few months. I think I might just have an un-hireable look about me. Maybe it's the half-robot-face thing.
3 Months, 6 Days since FC Höllviken Termination
From: Miguel Borba, Chairman of SC Angrense
Subject: Save Us Franjo, But Actually Do This Time
Our New League 101 (Franjo: A Journeyman Story - Mini-sode 12.5)
Listen, I thought I'd just take a breather from this epic and relentlessly thrilling story to explain that the Portugese Championship is a confusing, confusing league for someone like myself who's used to very basic set ups such as the Premier League or EFL.
So with that in mind let me give a quick overview for those who, like myself, had never looked at the Portugese third tier before I took this job. Let this be your reference sheet if things get confusing.
The League initially works with 8 groups of 10 teams playing round-robins between themselves. The top 2 and bottom 8 sides of each group then proceed to the Promotion stage and Relegation stage respectively.
For Clarity, WE ARE HERE. The First Stage has ended and we are into the Relegation Stage.
During the Relegation stage, teams are mixed up and put into 8 groups of 8, and they start with 25% of the points that they accrued during the First Stage. The bottom 2 teams in each group are relegated and the 6th placed teams all go into the Relegation Playoffs.
During the playoffs the 8 teams pair off and play sort of a 2 legged quarter final, with the losing 4 teams getting relegated. The winners then go through to the second round of the playoffs where they pair off again and play sort of a 2 legged semi final, with the 2 losers getting relegated and the 2 winners staying up. Overall 22 out of 64 teams are relegated during the relegation stage.
And this bit doesn't apply to us, not yet at least, but just because I'm a thorough guy, in the Promotion stage you have 2 groups of 8 teams but they start on 0 points and the top team from each group gets promoted and qualifies for the Champions Playoff to determine the winner of the Championship. The 2nd place team in each group qualifies for the Promotion Playoff and the winner unsurprisingly gets promoted.
Does that make sense? Cool, it doesn't to me really either, but you know, "Learn by doing" and all that.
Actually I feel quite bad that this "mini-sode" doesn't have any impact on the story I'm telling, so here you go: I travel to Hero Creek on Volcano Island, rent a studio flat and adopt 2 cats, who I dub Meatloaf and Burnie (Not to be confused with Burrnie, the holding midfielder from Höllviken). Meatloaf because when he lies down he tucks his legs under his body and looks like a little brown meaty loaf of bread, and Burnie because as a darker cat he also looks like a meaty loaf of bread, but a burnt one.
There we go, I hope that quenches your thirst for story. I hope it sates your hunger for Narrative.
See you tomorrow for the start of our Angrense Adventure.
You are reading "Franjo: A Journeyman Story (New Episode Every Week Day!)".