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?