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From Winnipeg, with love. Memoirs of a football manager

Started on 3 August 2020 by bigmattb
Latest Reply on 12 June 2021 by Karter Mitchell
After an initially tricky start, Andorra are well on course now. Congratulations to both Rose and Chris on the news, too!
What a start to life for Chris in Andorra, he's doing the business on-and-off the pitch! It's going to take time for him to build the club to a level where they can climb up the leagues [and compete] but previous showings in Gibraltar tell us that Chris will find a way to make it work: and fast.

Best of luck :)
2020-08-25 10:47#277451 ScottT : After an initially tricky start, Andorra are well on course now. Congratulations to both Rose and Chris on the news, too!

The start in Andorra was rough but Chris pulled through. Always nice to hear some good news too
2020-08-26 03:21#277466 J_ames : What a start to life for Chris in Andorra, he's doing the business on-and-off the pitch! It's going to take time for him to build the club to a level where they can climb up the leagues [and compete] but previous showings in Gibraltar tell us that Chris will find a way to make it work: and fast.

Best of luck :)

The aim for Chris at the start of the Andorran journey was to just compete, but if Gibraltar was anything to go on, he'll do just fine in Andorra too.
Chapter 17 – There’s no way we’ll do it.

I remember having a team meeting in Andorra with only 2 games go, and our top scorer was striker Cifu, who had scored an incredible 38 goals for us at that point. All we needed was to win 1 of our last 3 games to get into the play offs, and at that point the clubs chairman Pelayo Corominas walked in and pulled me to one side. He seemed sincere in his tone when he said he was happy that we were near the top of the league with 2 to go, but said to me there’s no way we’ll finish in the play offs. Now I wasn’t sure if this was some sort of reverse phycology to gear me up more or not, or if he was worried that he’d be paying me that 20 grand I asked to be inserted into my contract?

Whatever it was, we won 2 and drew the last game of the season with Burgos to finish second in the league on 76 points. This meant we’d go into the play offs against the teams from the other 3 groups in this division in the play offs. Gerard Pique was at our final home game and congratulated me and the team with a case of Don Perion, which I later found out had cost 850 euro per bottle! The chairman shook my hand and said he was surprised we’d finished second, but wasn’t expecting anything form the play offs. I was getting more and more concerned he didn’t like me, and I wasn’t sure why.

These play offs determined which 4 of the 16 teams would be promoted, and I told the team I was happy just to be here, and there’s no pressure on us, if we progress through the play offs, then great. If not, we know we’ve got enough to get here so we’ll push on next season. I think the team all knew we’d overachieved, so were relaxed heading into the first game, away at Orihuela. They’d finished 4th in Group 3 and had just scraped in on goal difference.

We took them lightly however and they battered us 3-1, with us grabbing an all important goal right at the end of the game. They probably didn’t think much of that goal and just thought it was a consolation. It wasn’t, as in the reverse game at home, we beat them 3-0, meaning we went through 4-3 on aggregate. The team came out with a passion and energy Ortihuela weren’t expecting and it showed. I thought to myself maybe, just maybe we’ll do it. I didn’t want to get ahead of myself though.

But after dispatching Barakaldo 2-0 away and 2-1 at home to put us 1 step closer to an unexpected promotion, I couldn’t help but think we’re actually going to be promoted. We just had to beat Universidad Catolica de Murcia Club de Futbol, or UCAM for short. They were a good side, probably the best in all 4 groups of the Segunda Division B, as they finished first in Group 4, lost only 4 times out of 42, so the pressure, for the first time this season I thought to myself, was certainly on.

For the first time in my managerial career, I was short on words. Sure enough by now after 4 seasons of play at 2 clubs, I had become what you’d call a confident speaker, and when leading the team out to the pitch I never got nervous. No disrespect to my first team, but leading Saint Josephs out to 300 fans, the biggest gate we got was 1,890 fans for the return leg against FK Aktobe all of which probably weren’t Saint Josephs fans either, as well as leading out at Andorra to no more than 700 fans average, wasn’t really nerve racking. Don’t get me wrong, initially it was very scary, but I think playing at home in front of smaller crowds helped me early on. Okay so the away days in Spain were different, Real Madrid’s reserve side Castilla regularly pulled in fans in the 4,000 range, Real Union, Ebro and Palencia averaged 3,500 fans each home gate, but the pressure never really bothered me as the away team, as each away game we tried to quiet the crowd with low paced defensive football, and for the most part it worked.

However, here on this day on the 14th of June, the team in our home dressing room all looked at me for my words of wisdom before the game. I didn’t lie, I said ‘I don’t know what to tell you. We weren’t meant to be here, little ol’ FC Andorra had done the impossible, so just go out there, play how we’ve played all season long, and let’s see where we end up’. Nacho Novo gave some words of advice, don’t let the occasion get to you, the pressure is all on UCAM that kind of thing. Jose Verdejo who sat in the dugout with me for all the games so far told the team their left back had agreed a deal with Racing Santander, so was probably not going to be as committed, this would a great advantage for us.

As the game kicked off, I instantly noticed Gonzalo Hernandez, the left full back for UCAM, was walking very nonchalantly, like he didn’t want to be there. Great. I told Caval who as usual was our starting left winger to swap sides with Bolkiah on the right, both were full of pace but Caval, on loan from Sporting Lisbon, had something else about him. He could do these step-overs and half turns in a blink of an eye, he was going to be something special I just knew it, and I was happy to be a part of his development.

Caval went off on a run down the right, he was right footed so I was expecting some balls into Cifu and Forte, but once he’d made his way into the final third, he was so much quicker than everyone else, they had to keep up with him, he’d turned Hernandez inside out by feigning going outside, just to cut in on his left, he then went back outside where Hernandez went in for an aggressive tackle, but Caval just toe poked the ball outside the onrushing full back, then dinked in the most delightful floating cross to the near post where Cifu had finally caught up with the play and buried a Shearer like picture perfect diving header to put us 1 to the good. The UCAM manger was screaming from the touchline and Hernandez, who clearly didn’t look like he cared just threw his hands up in a what was I meant to do kind of way and they got back in position.

The next passage of play saw UCAM give us a scare as they threatened to equalise and got a corner for their troubles. As was routine, all 11 of team were back, and Caval and Bolkiah were edge of the box. The corner came in and was cleared by Robba in goal with a punch that landed right at Cavals feet. I saw the glint in his eye as he turned and played a though ball to Bolkiah who had set off down the right. As Bolkiah leapt forward I noticed they were in UCAM’s half within seconds and only Hernandez was back defending. I knew what was coming. Bolkiah cut inside on his left, played in Caval who did a number of step overs and sprinted down the left wing with Hernandez struggling to keep up. Caval stopped, trapped the ball and went to the byline. The keeper came off his line and as he did Caval played the ball back along the box where Bolkiah tapped into an empty net. 2-0!

The UCAM bench were screaming for an offside flag that never came. The fourth official and linesman both agreed, and explained to the UCAM manager that the ball was played backwards, not forwards, and the goal stands.

From half time, I was surprised to see Hernandez still on the pitch. He’d not had a good game but was still playing. We survived the inevitable comeback from UCAM and held on to our 2 goal lead with Robba in goal making some fine stops.

In the dressing room at full time, I told the team exactly what was on my mind. ‘We’ve got 1 hand on the promotion door guys, you’re nearly there!’ I was like a kid at Christmas in the days leading up to the return leg.

Could I really get promoted at the first time of asking?
A fantastic position to be in heading into the second leg but as shown in the Ortihuela game, these leads can easily be overturned if you don't commit yourselves.
It would be one hell of a debut season with promotion here! As Scott says, that 2 goal advantage is undoubtedly a great position to be in but there is no doubt that UCAM will be up for it in the second leg. Be careful!
2020-08-27 15:36#277504 ScottT : A fantastic position to be in heading into the second leg but as shown in the Ortihuela game, these leads can easily be overturned if you don't commit yourselves.

Chris will always be positive no matter what
2020-08-27 21:47#277514 Jack : It would be one hell of a debut season with promotion here! As Scott says, that 2 goal advantage is undoubtedly a great position to be in but there is no doubt that UCAM will be up for it in the second leg. Be careful!

Agreed it's a nice lead to have, but you know that anything can happen in football.
Chapter 18 – I’m not crying, you are!

For the first time in a number of weeks, we had a pre match press conference before our return leg against UCAM, and the reporters were certain that in UCAM’s home ground Nueva Condomina, the fans would play a big part and they’d overturn the 2 goal deficit. I reminded the press there that we’d played in hostile crowds before so weren’t too concerned with the intimidating atmosphere.

I won’t lie, I actually was concerned that the atmosphere might play a part in this game and as was a usual occurrence I spoke with Gerard, not daily but definitely a number of times each week. As the La Liga season had ended, Real Madrid won it again, Gerard was now on his end of season break and I had expected him to come into the dressing room before the game, he would actually be attending in the directors box, or at least thought he’d see the team before game day. He surprised me when we spoke when he said he wouldn’t do this, as it would look like he was undermining my authority and that he wasn’t going to get involved in the team at all. I really appreciated this. So on the day of the second leg, when we spoke he told me we’d done fantastically well, and that win or lose, this season was to be considered a great success. I really felt we had a great understanding.

During the build up to the (at that time) biggest game of my career, I had a brief chat with the UCAM manager, Jose Mendoza, who seemed rather sombre in his approach. As with Pelayo Corominas telling me he didn’t think we’d make the play offs, Jose told me he wasn’t confident in his team today, he felt we’d already won and that he was looking just to get a respectable result, nothing more. I took this as reverse psychology and didn’t think much of it. Turns out I was right.

15 minutes into the game, we’re 2-0 down. Had my team literally taken my words for granted? As I sat and watched the second goal go in, a penalty which Robba conceded which was dubious at best, VAR was only being used in La Liga at that time, then I looked at Nacho who had a dejected look, and Jose Verdejo who was scribbling notes down on my bench and gave them a look of pure disgust. It was only when I looked up at the directors box did I get some inspiration. Gerard was there acting like a fully dedicated fan, screaming and waving his arms around. Chairman Pelayo Corominas had a smug look on his face like he was expecting us to get beat.

2-2 on aggregate and half time came, finally. We’d been second best, Robbas error for the penalty overshadowed his overall performance, he’d certainly kept us in this game making a number of key stops. At half time I told the team despite me saying we weren’t expecting to be here, at least show some desire in the game. There’s nothing worse than complacency. I took my frustration out on Caval, somewhat unfairly I later admitted to him, when I said to him ‘do you think Jorge Jesus is going to put you in the Sporting Lisbon first team playing like this?!’ I could see it hurt him, he was visibly upset, he was still only 20 years old and I’d gone in too hard, but it lit a fire in him and he got us back into the game.

In the second half it was end to end. We needed a goal to put us in the lead, as did UCAM. We struck first in the 67th minute, Caval once again turning their right full back out of position, a cross came in, Forte headed it down into Cifu who poked it over the line, 3-2 on aggregate!  Our joy was short lived however as they equalised straight from kick off. A route one ball into the box wasn’t cleared and they got onto it. Robba made the stop but the ball was bundled home. 3-3 on aggregate, 3-1 on the night.

As the clock ticked towards the 90 minute mark, UCAM had done everything they could to get the goal they needed, and Robba was in excellent form. From one of the 14 second half corners they had, a new Segunda Division B record by the way, we got them on the break, just like in the first leg. Caval, who was visibly out on his feet, and Cifu lead the counter. A nice one two got Caval one on one with the keeper, but he made the stop, and the effort from Caval was tame. But we had a corner in the 90th minute. As the board went up, 3 minutes were to be played.  We took our time getting ready for the corner when I had a moment of madness. I screamed to Robba in goal to go up for the corner, we might as well as go for it. He looked at me, smiled and ran the full length of the pitch. As he set off running, Dimas floated in the corner. This next passage of play was a thing of absolute beauty.

The ball went over everyone to the far post.

Their defender headed it away.

Jonatahan Forte then headed it back towards goal. Remember that Robba is still making his run toward the box, he wasn’t very quick.

As Forte headed the ball back in Zotko also got his head on the ball around the penalty spot. He headed the ball down and it went into the onrushing Robba’s path.

The players from both teams stood in awe as 6 foot 4 goalkeeper Jamie Robba rose up, and connected with the ball on his left foot and volleyed it into the goal! 

Carlsberg don’t do attacking corners, but if they did it would be like this! If Messi, Ronaldo, Suarez or Mbappe had scored this goal, ESPN would do a feature length premier on it, but as it was just little ol’ Andorra scoring it, it wasn’t given much attention. I still get goose bumps when I picture this goal in my mind.

As the team celebrated and pounced on Jamie, the realisation was setting in. A goalkeeper had just scored the winning goal in the play off, an absolute thunderbolt of a volley at that, and we were mere seconds away from being promoted! I don’t remember much else of the remaining few moments, but once the whistle went the scenes were incredible. FC Andorra, the little club that could, with an unknown Canadian manager in charge, had just won promotion to the Segunda division, Spain’s second tier!

After the celebrations pitch side had calmed down, and we were in the dressing room showering in champagne, I pulled Jamie Robba aside and looked in his eyes and saw tears of joy, I said it’s okay to cry, you’ve done something goalkeepers can only dream of. He said get stuffed boss, I’m not crying, you are!

We hugged it out, got more champagne tipped over us and carried on the celebrations.
:O What a way to win promotion!
Excellent, what a season to overachieve massively and gain promotion with what must be one of the greatest last minute strikes ever! Good job.
2020-08-31 17:50#277585 TheLFCFan : Excellent, what a season to overachieve massively and gain promotion with what must be one of the greatest last minute strikes ever! Good job.

Yes it sure was a season of over achieving, there's also something to majestic about a goalie scoring a goal
2020-08-28 15:10#277528 ScottT : :O What a way to win promotion!

Some end to the season!
Chapter 19 – A blossoming love / hate relationship

After becoming 20 thousand euro richer, in the days after the play off win, most of the attention was not on me or the players, but on the owner Gerard Pique. All the reports were saying how he had bought the club and in 2 years had got them promoted to the Segunda Division. There was also reports saying he was going to be giving the manager, not Chris Irvine, but just the manager, a transfer kitty of 50 million euros and aiming for a place in La Liga, where he would leave Barcelona and play his final years at FC Andorra. I spoke to him daily from this point on, we spent time going over tactics, players, training camps the whole works. He never got involved in my running of the team, and insisted that he had no intention of inserting himself into the running of the team. I was happy at this and still maintained we had a great relationship. The same couldn’t be said of mine and the chairman’s relationship.

Pelayo Corominas had told me the day after the play-off win that there would be no transfer budget and that I was to rely on selling players to raise funds. He also insisted on no scouting outside of Spain and that the scouting budget was to be cut. He also warned me not to contact Sporting Lisbon to try and re-sign left winger Caval, apparently Pelayo was friends with the Sporting Lisbon chairman and had been told Caval was not available. As well as this, he had taken the decision to exercise the clubs right not to expand the stadium. In the Segunda division, stadiums have to have a capacity of at least 6,000. Andorra’s tiny stadium was 2,024. I agreed this was a good decision. I never aired my concerns about the chairman with Gerard. I didn’t want to seem like I was moaning behind the chairman’s back, after all the chairman was in charge of the money side of the club, and I never really knew what the kind of agreement they had in place. I wasn’t that interested in boardroom stuff anyway.

It was during this off season that the steroid scandal in Spain was reaching it’s peak. There were high profile players at Atletico Madrid, Malaga and Valencia that had been investigated and the Spanish FA were in hot water over this incident. I never really bothered keeping up with it, only taking in bits when it was mentioned, but 1 afternoon I was summoned to the chairman’s office where Pelayo sat, and introduced me to a man that identified himself as Pelayo’s lawyer! There’s something surreal about seeing a lawyer or police officer, your heart starts racing and you think shit, what have I done? Pelayo said it was regarding the current steroid investigation, and that my presence was required in court, then the lawyer produced a subpoena! I asked what or who this was regarding but there was a no disclosure agreement in place, and that it concerned one of my players. I was told not to mention it to anyone, and that the trial started in a few days. The player in question has also been subpoenaed and will be there.

I contacted a lawyer of my own and discussed things with him in the few days between getting the news and the date of my questioning. The lawyer had told me he knew who the player was, but to avoid any potential tampering with witnesses I was not to know who the player in question was. By the time I’d taken my place on the stand, swore to tell the truth and nothing but the truth, I was still no wiser. The state appointed solicitor opened with the question that both answered my own question, and made me think that steroid use was actually going on under my nose.

‘Mister Irvine, are you aware that firstly Francisco Cifuentes Fernandez has been accused of using performance enhancing supplements, and two, that the figures and evidence back this up?’

Cifu. No way, he was a model professional, there’s not a chance he’s been juicing up I was sure of it. This was my response when asked. As the morning went on, I was asked about how Cifu had got hold of these steroids, who he’d given them to in my squad and why I had let this happen. I was shocked that this was happening, but stood firm as I was telling the truth when I said I was completely unaware of any steroid use in my team. All the while this was going on, I couldn’t help but notice a wry smile in Pelayo’s face, like he was getting some satisfaction out of me being in this position. The conversation then turned to me using the steroids. I asked why I would be taking them, to which the solicitor argued that this was apparently a blatant attempt by me to divert the courts attention away from my using the steroids, but the judge sided with me on that one. She said I’m not an active player, and if I was suspected then it needs taking up separately.

Back to Cifu, and I had to agree, begrudgingly, on some level with the lawyer’s next line of questioning. Up until this season, Cifu had played in the lower leagues of Spain, averaging a modest 11 goals a season playing on average 38 games a season, which translates to roughly a goal every 3 and a bit games. But this season was a little different. Cifu had made 35 appearances in the league, plus the 6 play-off games, and scored an incredible 42 goals. The lawyer made the point that Cifu, for all intense purposes, was a decent, solid lower tier forward. I agreed but when I tried to explain my point he cut me off. He asked me did I not find it hard that this player had averaged 11 goals over 38 games so far in his career, but then finished this season averaging over a goal game before the play offs? I said I didn’t think anything of it, as from the moment I walked into Andorra (the previous manager signed Cifu before he left) all I saw in Cifu was a driven, professional and passionate about football person. As any manager would, I tried to stick up for my player, and stood firm when I told the court that I intended to play to the teams strength, in that my aim for each game was to get the ball to the strikers quickly and in a direct fashion. I argued the point that Cifu was 31, and coming into his prime and that I fully appreciated that this season was a breakthrough year for him, and why not? He’d played in the lower tiers of Spain, and when the new manager (me) came in and made a point that he was the focal point of my attack, I fully expected a good season out of him, and he exceeded all my expectations. Once my questioning was over, I was asked to stay for the cross examination of Cifu, so I did.

I could tell he was nervous on the stand, but as the day went on, the court heard testimony of Cifu’s doctors and agent, as well as character statements from some players in my team, I knew nothing about this, apparently the chairman had arranged these statements without me knowing about them. I was shocked, absolutely shocked when I found out that the club’s physio was actually distributing anabolic steroids, but no cases at Andorra were found. His trial was to begin the next week, and he was subsequently sacked from the club. But the turning point of the case came when the clubs doctor took the stand on day 3, and gave a list of the prescribed medicine Cifu was taking. As it turns out, one of the painkillers Cifu was taking for an injury he sustained last year, a broken ankle, contained a substance which was on the Spanish FA’s banned list and is commonly used in performance enhancers. The doctor was expected to know this but claimed he didn’t, and I believed him. Cifu was also supposed to know this, but why should that responsibility lie on the shoulders of a player? By the end of the 4 day trial, the clubs doctor was also sacked, and the punishment handed to him was a 2 year jail sentence suspended, and his licence put on hold for those 2 years, as well as having to take a refresher course in medicine. He was never the same after this and quit being a medicine for good. The next sentence shocked me. Cifu was given a 12 month playing ban and ordered to take a drug rehabilitation course, as the banned substance is addictive and he’d been taking the medicine for the best part of a year. As unhappy for Cifu as I was, I was concerned our time in the Segunda Division may not be long with him missing the full season. I always prided myself on being loyal to my players, but I didn’t know what to do without our leading scorer for the season. I thought I’ll address this at a later date.

After the hearing, things between myself and the chairman just seemed to be deteriorating more and more by the day, and the team were on their well earned summer break. I went against the chairman’s warning and contacted Sporting Lisbon to discuss signing Caval on an extension to his current loan deal that was due to run out. I even had a sit down meeting with the Sporting manager, Jorge Jesus in Lisbon. I took Jose Verdejo and Nacho Novo with me, without the chairman knowing. Apparently Pelayo had been in contact with Sporting and was told that Caval was unavailable and was expecting to play a bit part role at Sporting in that coming season. I looked like a real idiot when I told Jorge about this, as he had said had I not contacted his club, he was going to ask if we’d have Caval for another season to aid his development. It was then that I knew the chairman had lied to me, and for what? Caval was an integral part of our season. After the details of the loan were discussed and agreed, Jose and Nacho went off and I stayed at Sporting Lisbon’s stadium, the very impressive Jose Alvalade Stadium, and had a good couple of hours with Jorge Jesus.

We spoke about formations, player roles, his long and decorated career, my short but trophy laden 4 year career, and tactics, specifically possession based systems. After listening to Jorge, who I have to say at this point, just radiated a cool, calm person and when he spoke, you listened as you felt every word was true. Once I’d heard what he had to say, mainly about 1 striker systems, and that he felt for us in the coming season a structured approach would help us, I decided I wasn’t going to replace Cifu, instead I was dropping a striker for a midfielder, and set up playing a 4-2-3-1 formation.

If 4-2-3-1 can win Jorge Jesus league titles in Portugal and Saudi Arabia, I was sure it would help Chris Irvine stay in the Spanish second division!

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