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EvilDave

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  1. I was already exhausted by the time we lined up to face Arsenal. Since landing back in the UK from Malaga, I had spent my time preparing the team and also trying desperately to ensure my Christmas shopping duties were carried out to the best of my abilities. Those abilities may have been restricted to a couple of late nights online and mad dash round town, but by the time the Gunners arrived at St Mary’s I felt that at least I was done on one front. In the first game between the two sides this season, we had taken the lead after less than a minute, and it would have been a brave man to bet on the same outcome this time. Yet, astonishingly, before the visitors had even touched the ball, Kenan Kus found himself in space inside the penalty area, took a touch to steady himself and then powered the ball beyond the goalkeeper. The clock read just 15 seconds. In the first game between the two sides this season, Arsenal responded in rapid fashion, getting themselves back on level terms within 10 minutes. This time, with fans in the stands wondering just how many goals they were going to see in one evening, the Gunners netted twice in the same timeframe. This time their comeback came through Lauge Klausen, the Danish schemer beating Jack twice in five minutes to turn the tie on its head. After such a strong start, we had it all to do. Unlike last time, we couldn’t do the job before half-time. In fact, by the time the whistle blew for the interval, some of the spectators were perhaps a little disappointed - far from the feast of goals promised by the manic opening spell, neither side was able to add to the scoring. Roberto Martinez and his men were undoubtedly the happier of the two teams, and the onus was on us to turn things around if we harboured semi-final ambitions. And we did. Four minutes after the restart, Boyd Clarke muscled his way past a challenge in the penalty area, resisted the temptation to go to ground, and instead sidefooted a shot into the far corner of the goal to restore parity. Six minutes later, Ross Ifan found himself with time and space on the edge of the box, saw no options ahead of him, and so simply lofted the ball into the top corner to put us 3-2 ahead. Martinez shook his head in disbelief in the opposite dugout, and once again our two teams were putting on a real show for the fans. This time, Arsenal were not dead and buried however, and had little choice but to come at us in a bid to get back in the game. Our rapid-fire double had stunned them - of that there was no doubt - but they had the ability to put up a real fight, and so it showed as slowly but surely we were forced to retreat into our defensive shell, focusing less on adding our tally, and more on keeping the Gunners at bay. That is, until 10 minutes from the end, when Klausen, on a hat-trick, fired a shot in from 20 yards which had Jack beaten all ends up. Fortunately for our keeper, the ball cannoned out off the post to the feet of Luke Shaw, and suddenly we were away on the break. Shaw fed Henrique who found Ifan, and the Welshman’s ball for Cohen was inch-perfect. So was the finish, and once again we had beaten the Gunners and scored four in the process. When all the fuss had died down and the obvious questions from the assembled journalists answered, the draw for the semi-finals was made, and it made for interesting reading. While we had been putting on an exhibition against Arsenal, John Terry’s Wolves had taken Manchester United, who had knocked out their city rivals in the previous round, to penalties and won. They would stand between us and the final, with the two-legged tie to be played in the new year. On the other side of the draw, Burnley would take on Championship leaders Aston Villa for a place at Wembley. By reputation alone we were the biggest team left in the competition, and indeed the odds-on favourites with more than one of the major bookmakers. The annual favourites had fallen by the wayside, and all of a sudden the trophy seemed like a real possibility. Of course, we could not get carried away - we had only scraped by Wolves in the league, and with a route into Europe at stake they would be ready to put everything on the line to get past us. On the other hand however, it seemed like the door had been opened for us to walk through. We would have to be wary of complacency, but the prospect of silverware in my debut season was an alluring one, and we certainly had the ability to make it happen. If we could beat Arsenal, we could certainly beat the remaining three teams.
  2. Kevin Kyle had never been my favourite footballer - I was generally a fan of those with a little more finesse than the former Scotland striker - but I had to admire his management career so far. Starting off with a series of unfashionable clubs north of the border, he had then moved to earn his stripes in England, guiding Blackpool to the Championship before taking the job at our next opponents, Stoke City. His grit and strong work ethic seemed to be the basis for the Potters’ game plan too, as the relegation battlers fought tooth and nail for their point against us. Romanian winger and talisman Dan Grigoras opened the scoring on the break midway through the first half, and although we eventually levelled when Henrique volleyed in Ifan’s free-kick, the home side were suitably disciplined to keep us out for the remaining 20 minutes. Stoke may not have been pretty, but they were effective - a throwback perhaps to the Tony Pulis days of yesteryear. Late that night, I enjoyed football of the more flowing variety, staying up late to watch my old friend Clint Dempsey and his Seattle Sounders in the final match of the American football calendar. My old club had picked up where I had left off, cruising to the top of the Western Conference and booking their place in the MLS Cup final against Columbus Crew in search of yet more silverware. At the end of the 90 minutes, I sent Clint a message of congratulations before heading to bed - the Sounders outplayed their opponents from the first whistle, bouncing back from a dubious early penalty call to win 3-1, a brace from Loric Kalenga and a third from Ollie Cosgriff more than enough to lift the trophy. While there was a fleeting moment in which I felt jealous of Dempsey’s success with what remained largely ‘my’ team, I was genuinely pleased for the man - as a fan favourite, any failure risked destroying his reputation. Instead, he had only added to his legend. I caught up on my lost hours on the short flight to Malaga, where I took a shadow squad for the final game of our Europa League group. Barring a catastrophic collapse for Schalke against Standard, we could not catch the Germans at the top of the group, and were already guaranteed to move on to the knockout rounds in February. As such, I had the chance to hand continental experience to some of those on the edge of the first team, and did so happily. Those selected did not disappoint either, showing our Spanish opposition that even our second team was good enough to give them a game. After an initial burst of pressure from our hosts, we gradually worked our way into the ascendancy, and 10 minutes before the break found ourselves in front, Lloyd Collins playing in John Ruane and the former Manchester City man making no mistake with just the keeper to beat. That solitary goal was enough to claim the three points, a fine defensive performance in the second half seeing us home with a clean sheet to go with the victory. The only blemish on our record came five minutes from time, when Collins foolishly clipped the heels of an opposing midfielder when already on a yellow card, leaving us to see out the remainder of the game with 10 men. The Welsh teenager would no doubt learn from the disappointment, but had already shown his undoubted potential by assisting the winning goal. With the draw for the knockout rounds still a week away, our attention then moved to our next encounter, and the small manner of a cup quarter-final, against no less a side than Arsenal. After thrashing them 4-1 in the league, the Gunners would most certainly be out for revenge, and it was up to us to deny them that satisfaction.
  3. FMS Community Thread / Episode VII / Goalfinger

    I'm be inclined to put a threshold on some of the categories, and I think Best Fantasy Story would be a good example of that. Only two qualifying stories? Sorry, no award. Four or five to choose from? Then go ahead. Rest of the World and International could, I suppose, go down the same route, although personally as I think they require different writing skills to tell (people are less familiar with the clubs/the game plays very differently), I'd be sorry to see them go. The one I most often struggle to vote for is Funniest Writer. The number of deliberately funny stories - I'm thinking of things like Employee of the Month, or I Done Bought Myself Olympiakos - is minimal, and so this sometimes feels like a vote for voting's sake. I'd definitely sooner lose this than the regional awards at any rate. Most Missed is the final one I wouldn't be too disappointed to lose - as has been said, the HoF is the place for these guys. Although, given the difficulty that we have getting people in each year (and the chronological distance between some of those nominated and forum newcomers in particular, not to mention migration issues with older stories), perhaps it's worth a rethink as to how HoF entry works? I don't have a better idea at the moment, just a thought. That's my contribution anyway - feel free to do with it as you will!
  4. “Can you believe it darling? Our little girl, going to big school. It doesn’t seem like five minutes ago that she was a tiny little thing.” Rachel was in a reminiscing sort of mood, and with good reason - the girls’ school had sent us a letter, reminding us that Bethan would be moving up to secondary school in the following September, and outlining the key changes that would be taking place. One of the factors which had influenced our school choice had been that both primary and secondary education took place on the same site, albeit in a different building - meaning that Bethan and Rebecca would still be able to be dropped off at, and picked up from, the same place each day. More worrying for my wife and I was the sheer speed at which this all seemed to have happened - it would not be long before our eldest daughter would be deciding on whether or not pursue a university education or enter the world of work. Based on her interests and her character, I already had an idea of what she might like to get on with. Although there had been one or two academic blips on her record over the years, she had suffered nothing of the sort since arriving in Romsey, and was excelling in the humanities - literature, arts and drama. Moreover, her favourite pastime seemed to be finding new and often unexpected ways to liven up her bedroom - often with impressive results for one so young. To my mind, she was destined for the world of art and design. Rebecca on the other hand, although a little younger, was less easy to read. One day she would be impossible to tear away from a book, the next she would show no interest. She seemed at her happiest in nature, whether watching the birds from her bedroom window or enjoying the wild of the New Forest. She was a contented child, but not one you could plot a path for. Still, even as their father it was not for me to tell them what they should or shouldn’t do with their lives - after all, my experience of the ‘real world’ was somewhat limited. My micro-managerial tendencies occasionally spilled out into their homework or choice of reading material, but Rachel was a constant reminder that I needed to let the girls grow on their own. Too much interference, too much meddling, and I’d become the parent they didn’t want to know. That was not something I wanted to let happen, and so it was perhaps for the best that I had a demanding squad of professional footballers to manage instead. December would be a busy month, and not only because I needed to get my head around Christmas with my family. My Southampton squad would face no fewer than seven matches over the course of the month, including games against Arsenal, Chelsea, Tottenham and league leaders Manchester United. We had a real chance to put ourselves into Champions League contention in December, but equally we risked losing sight of the leading pack if we slipped too badly. Either way, it would be a busy time indeed.
  5. This is my first post in this thread since returning from Kyrgyzstan, so please bear with me a moment while I share some thoughts. Owain's story has been by far my longest-running and most involved project on FMS, and started almost entirely as a challenge to myself to develop a character rather than 'just' match reporting - not that there's anything wrong with that! I've been writing his story for two-and-a-half years now, and I'm amazed I've kept anything going that long. This particular chapter is still young, but to check in on the awards evening and see that Part II had won Best Rest of the World Story was a huge encouragement to keep going. To see Owain, by far the personality I've invested most in on FMS, share Best Character with one of 10-3's finest creations was hugely satisfying given the original aim of the story, and then to see my name next to Writer of the Year was something completely unexpected - there are so many excellent writers on the forums, and I'm hugely grateful that you count me among them. So, in short, thank you to all who voted for little ol' me and my creations. There's plenty more to come from Owain, but at some point in the not-too-distant future I'll be pausing this to spend some time on a couple of other ideas I've got floating around. For now though, thank you once again for all your support and encouragement - it means to lot to know people are both reading and enjoying my work. -- “Owain has, in a very short space of time, shown himself to be committed to Southampton Football Club, and to be a manager who knows how to get the best out of his players. Although we both know that this is an ongoing project, the board members and I are unanimous that he is the right man to take this club forward into the future, and look forward to working with as he leads us down that path. “Neither Owain nor I will be discussing the financial details of the new contract, but I can tell you that he is now contracted to manage this football club through to the end of the 2029-30 season. I’ll take a handful of questions, but I’m afraid there isn’t a huge amount of time available today - the club has a very important match against Wolves tomorrow, and Owain and his staff need time to prepare for that.” Although I had wondered whether or not staying with the Saints for the long run would be the wisest decision for my mental health, in the end I found myself with very few other options. If I decided at this point to maintain control only until the end of the season, I would be announcing myself as a liability to any future employer. Not only that, but I already felt like I was a good fit for the club, and as I had discussed with Rachel, our family was nicely settled in the area. Ultimately it was my wife’s approval that sealed the deal. Bethan and Rebecca were looking forward to their first Christmas in the UK since we had left Prestatyn all those years ago, and were doing well in their new school. Rachel was happy, so were our children, and I made a complete set - turning the club down on those grounds would have flown in the face of common sense. A three-and-a-half year deal starting at £70,000 per week - numbers which put me amongst the six or seven best-paid managers in England - brought security, stability and a sense of trust, as well as the confidence of Mr Krueger and his board. Dean Thomson saw nothing awry in the deal, and so I signed it twice - first in the privacy of the chairman’s office, and then again for the cameras, scribbling away in front of the press pack. It also put an end to one of my background worries. To celebrate, we hosted Wolves the following day, and scraped past them by a single, lucky goal. Goalkeeper Will Kendall was the made credited with gifting us the win, his back turning the ball over the line after Forsberg’s first-half header came back off the post. My counterpart John Terry was not a happy man at full-time, having seen an equaliser ruled out by the offside flag, but the decision was the right one and I had little time for his protestations. We were up to 5th, I had a new deal, and suddenly everything seemed to be running smoothly once again.
  6. Just checking in from Karakol to see what happened last night and... wow! Without going all Oscars-acceptance on you guys, I'm genuinely shocked and honoured - thank you. As has been said already, there is some real high-quality writing on these forums, so to be counted as up there with the best of you is rather humbling. That said, I'm particularly pleased with Owain sharing Best Character with Kyle Cain - I started his trilogy precisely to get better at writing people as people rather than plot devices, so thank you for the huge encouragement! Well done to all those who took home awards - to stalwarts @CFuller, @mark wilson27, @tenthreeleader and @copperhorse21, first-but-almost-certainly-not-last-timers @neilhoskins77, @JoeyBaldwin, and the much-missed @Terk - you all make this place somewhere worth logging on to from the middle of Central Asian nowhere, and push us all to keep improving. Sorry I couldn't be 'at' the ceremony, huge thanks to Mark, 10-3 and Mr Fuller for the entertainment, and roll on next year - may the awards be even more competitive in 2018! PS. Mark, in the table it shows I have five awards but 1+4+1=6...
  7. Just checking in to say that a) I'm very much enjoying this still and b) I'm in Bishkek! Sadly haven't been able to take in a game to do any scouting for you, but thought you might appreciate it nonetheless. Keep up the excellent work!
  8. I'm very much the same - they got my dad into prog rock, and I picked up the mantle I suppose. One of the first bands I ever saw live as well - I was spoiled! Anyway, I should stop derailing your thread...
  9. As a massive Rush fan, that was one of my favourite all-time FMS posts. Mr O'Hara seemed to be enjoying living in the limelight for the time being, and I'm looking forward to seeing how this modern day warrior evolves through the season...
  10. Rarely will you find two more different 1-0 wins, let alone within the same week. For our return to action after the pause for internationals, we travelled to Brentford in the league determined to make amends for our defeat to Newcastle. In Oscar Garcia’s men, we had the perfect opportunity to win back our confidence - in their previous 11 games, they had earned a grant total of zero points. Even worse, the newly-promoted side were yet to find the back of the net. Already they were doomed to relegation and playing like it. So it came as something of a surprise that we scored only once, Kenan Kus finally breaking the deadlock with 25 minutes to play after more than an hour of total Southampton domination. The Bees seemed determined to break their duck with a goalless draw rather than a win, but even a team set up to defend for 90 minutes could not resist our multi-pronged attack. Where our strikers failed, our midfield stepped in, and when they too fell short, our right-back won us the game. That was Saturday, and on Thursday it was our turn to play the host, with Schalke the side in town for our penultimate Europa League group game. The Germans had won all four of their previous encounters to qualify with two games to spare, which meant they could afford to rest one or two of their stars for the trip. On the other hand, we knew that there was a chance we could seal our own qualification with a win, or at the very least put ourselves in pole position going into the final round of fixtures. What followed was a fast and furious encounter, both teams happy to throw men forward with little regard for defensive caution. Schalke had nothing to lose, while we were keen to get the win that would make the final set of games that little less nervous. Both goalkeepers proved to be on top form, and so a frenetic first half somehow ended up goalless. As the sides tired in the second period, it looked as if that too would fail to find a winner. Shots became snatched at rather than placed, and as energy levels dropped so too did the number of runs being made by the two sets of forwards. The clock ticked past the 90th minute with the scoresheet still blank, and we were ready to head to Malaga with our destiny in our hands. Then, deep into injury time, Gidon Cohen’s corner was met by the leaping Forsberg inside the six-yard box. Somehow the goalkeeper kept it out with a flailing left leg, but there to prod home the loose ball from less than two yards was Aswad Payne, the winner prompting huge cheers of relief and jubilation from around St Mary’s. Seconds later the final whistle blew, and we faced a short wait before receiving the news from Belgium - Standard and Malaga had shared the spoils, meaning that with one game to go, we were five points clear of the pair in second place. Qualification was secure, and we could relax. Three days later, I could do anything but. Having taken an early lead at Watford through the boot of Escalada, we then proceeded to concede three goals in 10 minutes before the break, all from corner kicks, to trail 3-1 at the interval. The rocket the players received was, fortunately for them, acted upon, but after Forsberg converted one of our own corners to cut the deficit, it took until the 91st minute before we made it back onto level terms. Carlos Henrique’s powerful free-kick was more than deserving of a point, but in many ways it served only to paper over the cracks. November closed with Southampton sat in 7th place in the Premier League, making progress in both League Cup and Europa League, and with third round FA Cup clash with third-tier outfit Doncaster to look forward to in January. On the face of things, all was well - beneath the surface, there was still much work to be done.
  11. FMS Awards 2017 Final Round Vote

    Votes sent and claimed - sorry for keeping you waiting!
  12. As if to emphasise my point - that we could not expect to walk over every opposition just by virtue of winning a couple of games - we then struggled away at New Anfield. Our hosts, led by Vincenzo Montella, were flying high and sat second in the league on goal difference alone, and had every intention of lifting their first Premier League crown in decades. Even with Lilian Bouillot back with the squad after four weeks away with his family - the Frenchman did genuinely seem to have been at home, rather than partying with friends - our high confidence could not contend with the Liverpool attack. It was easy to see how they were the league’s top scorers, and our entire defensive unit found the going tough as we struggled to find a foothold. In the end we could not, and a goal midway through the first half from the diminutive Pirulito proved the difference between the two sides, the defeat seeing us slip out of the top four as October drew to a close. With the Reds and the two Manchester clubs beginning to pull away from the pack, it was becoming apparent that the best we were hoping for was 4th place, with the Europa rather than Champions League a distinct possibility. The subsequent board review went every bit as well as the first - Mr Krueger was thrilled by the consecutive four-goal performances, and equally understanding over the most recent defeat. Looking ahead to November, it would be our Europa League future that would likely decided, and my employer was very keen to hear my thoughts on whether or not we could make it through despite those two opening losses. A big part of that question was answered in our first game of the month, as we welcomed Standard to St Mary’s, knowing full well that they would be out for revenge after our seven-goal thriller last time. My men were given clear instructions not to let the Belgians even half as many chances as they had conjured in the first game, and not to lose their discipline should we take the lead. We could not afford to make the same mistakes again. This time, the side I sent out onto the field paid attention, controlling the game from kick-off to final whistle. Lucio Escalada set us on the right track midway through the first half by rounding the goalkeeper and slotting home, and five minutes after the break it was a rare goal for Aswad Payne, our centre-back climbing highest to head home a corner and seal all three points as well as a lesser-spotted clean sheet. With Schalke’s 4-1 win over Malaga, the three points took us to second in the group and closer to progression, but we were forced to put that out of our minds as we welcomed Newcastle just three later. The phrase ‘European hangover’ was sadly the one that dominated the papers the following day - despite taking the lead through Mina, we were pegged back in the second period when left-back Rodrigo Gomez’ cross beat everybody including Hamish Jack. Subdued by the goal, we then shipped a second for a set-piece with just five minutes to go, slumping to 7th as a result. Injury time also saw our Ecuadorian star ruled out for up to a month with a broken rib, but the first two weeks of his absence would not be felt, courtesy of yet another international break. It was only the beginning of November, and already it felt like I had lost a significant amount of time to the international game. Rachel and I were very grateful of the time together, but I did wonder how much of an impact the constant interruptions were having on our team dynamic. Nevertheless, as the break reached its conclusion, I realised just how much I had needed it. Just a few months into the job and my sleep pattern was already suffering, my head filled with interlinking thoughts and floating ideas even when I wasn’t at Staplewood. Switching off was a real problem, and something I would have to figure out sooner rather than later.
  13. St Mary’s stood as one to salute its new hero, with the obvious exception of a handful of red-shirted fans in the away end. Even the Arsenal supporters, miserable though they were, had to applaud the final nail in their side’s coffin for the afternoon. Nestor Mina had run the Gunners ragged from the word go, opening the scoring after precisely 26 seconds with a near-post header. But his crowning glory would come on the stroke of half-time when, gambling on a mistake, he strolled onto an under-hit back-pass and, without breaking stride, curled a lob over the stranded goalkeeper from 35 yards and in. It was the icing on a truly spectacular cake. That there were no goals in the second half did not matter a jot - we were already 4-1 to the good. Mina’s early goal was cancelled out almost immediately by the brilliant Brazilian winger Rodriguinho, but despite the setback we ran riot. Ifan put us back in front on the quarter hour, and before much longer we had a third, Boyd Clarke finding the space to spin and shoot low into the corner. Arsenal looked all at sea, and our Ecuadorian star’s sumptuous fourth sealed the points in emphatic fashion. Once again, in a game against one of the Premier League’s biggest sides, we had come up trumps and in some style. The press were understandably keen to get the scoop on exactly what had happened to Southampton under my management, and after a rotated squad demolished Swansea by the same 4-1 scoreline to set up another date with the Gunners in the last eight of the League Cup, their praise was effusive. “Owain, your team has scored 12 goals in their last three matches, and there seems to be a real confidence about the players. Considering some of the struggles you faced earlier in the season, what has changed?” “Well first of all I’d suggest to you that those struggles were generated only by some of you in the media - we dropped a few points, but we played some strong teams and cannot expect to win every game. “Secondly, the players are simply more used to the system we play, and believe both in its effectiveness and in their own abilities. They’re only doing what they’ve always been capable of - it’s my job to make sure it stays that way.” “All three of your strikers seem to be finding form at once - are you doing anything different with the likes of Mina, Clarke and Escalada in training?” “Even if I was, I’m not about to tell you! But no - we keep their confidence high and trust in their ability to score us goals. The system we play encourages the players to get into advanced positions, and it seems to be paying off. All three of the names you mentioned are international strikers, so it’s no surprise they’re showing their class.” “You’re in the quarter-finals of the League Cup, 4th place in the league and with a chance of European progress - what is a realistic aim for this season?” “I spoke to the chairman about this recently, and success for Southampton is about more than just league position - we need to be developing the whole club. That said, there is a huge amount of potential in this squad of players, and a good run in the cups and being in and around the European places would be a good season.” “You’re not determined to claim a Champions League spot?” “Obviously I and everybody at the club is aiming high, and the Champions League is the pinnacle of the game at club level. That’s certainly what we’re pushing for, but I don’t want to pile undue pressure on the players and say anything less will be a failure.” “Finally Owain, you’ve got Arsenal again in the quarter-finals. You must be relishing a repeat of Sunday’s performance?” “Listen, Arsenal are a great side and Roberto Martinez is too good a manager to make the same mistakes twice. We were excellent on Sunday and he’ll be the first to admit his team could have played better, as I’m sure they will do next time. I’m sure it’ll be a great occasion for the fans - two teams who like to get the ball down and play attacking football - and we’ll be trying our best to get the win and move on.” “One more Owain - can you win this competition?” “Do we have the ability to win the tournament? Yes, but so does every side left in the draw. All we can do is execute our plan and try and beat the opposition in front of us - we’ll certainly be giving it our all.”
  14. The dressing room at half time was not a pleasant place to be for a Southampton player. The Stade Maurice Dufrasne was alive with the songs of the home fans, who had already seen Eduardo Vanzela fire them ahead before Georginio Wijnaldum’s 35-yard free kick was deflected past Jack for the home team’s second. Having already equalised once, we had been unable to do so a second time, and were 45 minutes from the end of our European adventures. My players got both barrels, and not for the first time this season. Whether they were complacent or simply incompetent I was not sure, but I failed to believe that this was the same team that had beaten Manchester City and was hovering around the top four of the Premier League. Passes were going astray, shots were wayward, and our defending had been suspect at best. We needed improvement in every single area. And we got it. Just shy of the hour, Nestor Mina, scorer of our first goal, headed a Davide Canini cross into the path of Gidon Cohen, and the Israeli international diverted it beyond the reach of the goalkeeper to tie the game. Even a point would not have done us a huge amount of good in the grand scheme of things, and so from the sideline I waved my men back forward in search of a third. We found it inside two minutes, and all of the sudden the Standard fans fell silent. Mina again found himself at the centre of all of our good work, breaking into space and firing off a shot which the goalkeeper had to be at full stretch to save. Backing up on the rebound was Clarke, and we had turned a 2-1 deficit into a 3-2 lead inside 15 minutes. All we had to do now was hold on to what we had. All-out attack could be replaced with something more sensible. That said, we had already shown in the first half that sensible was not currently our forte. Ten minutes passed with us in the lead, and then we started to get a little bit arrogant. One-touch passing when a second was acceptable, trying to take on one man too many in attack and playing the risky pass out from the back. I could see the danger coming, and so it was no surprise when Vanzela picked off a pass from Canini, took it into the penalty area and beat our goalkeeper to tie the game again in the 79th minute. We had less than a quarter of an hour to make or break our Europa League season, and so we had little choice but to throw caution to the wind. Off came Alejandro in defensive midfield and on went Escalada as a third striker, desperate to cause havoc in the Standard defence. A point was no good to us now - we needed three, and there was little point in settling for less. First, there was a scare. Canini again gave the ball away, missed his recovery tackle, and watched from the turf as Vanzela missed a glorious opportunity for his hat-trick. Then, it was our turn, Escalada’s trickery earning him half a yard and the chance to shoot just over the angle of post and bar. The minutes ticked by, and we still needed a goal. We got it, but only just. With the clock showing 89 minutes, Escalada again did what I had thrown him on to do, causing trouble in the box and receiving the ball with his back to goal. He faked one way then spun and laid the ball off to Ross Ifan, whose first touch freed up Nestor Mina at the back post. His shot was into the ground, and that proved the slice of fortune we needed - the ball bouncing up and over the diving goalkeeper before nestling in the Belgian netting. We led 4-3, and this time it was enough. Elsewhere on the continent, our group-mates played out another thriller in Malaga, with Schalke surviving a late onslaught to emerge 4-3 winners. That left Group F wide open, with the Germans top with a perfect record from their three games and everyone else racking up a win and two losses. From a position of desperation, suddenly we were back in with a chance. If we missed out from here, we had only ourselves to blame.
  15. They wouldn’t be arriving for a while however, because our momentum was checked by another international break. Again I was left with a skeleton squad to put through their paces at Staplewood, and again I took the opportunity to give those players a couple of days off whilst retreating to Rachel’s company. She was busying herself in the local community - even linking up with the club at times in their social outreach - and was by no means worried about loneliness, which had been an issue at times in Seattle, but nevertheless appreciated having me around. Unlike my time in Prestatyn, there would be no chance of me taking a break during the season to spend time with my family, and so I was very aware of the need to make effort with my wife and daughters. The demands of Premier League management ensured that my time was the club’s until May, and possibly longer depending on how I was able to sort out pre-season transfers. Christmas, often a low period elsewhere in the world, was one of the business in England. So during the international fortnight, I divided my time between family, training, and plotting to take down Karl Robinson’s Fulham side, who we were set to visit upon the resumption of the league. The London side were struggling in 16th place, and we needed to make sure that we continued in the same vein as our heroic performance against Manchester City. If we didn’t, Fulham had the ability to punish us across the pitch. Which, as it happens, is exactly what transpired at Craven Cottage. Early in the first half Hamish Jack chose to punch a corner away instead of attempting the catch, and was left to regret it immediately. Igor Bykov took one touch to control the bouncing ball, and then lashed his second through a crowd of bodies to find the back of the net. The Bulgarian wheeled away in celebration, and we were going to have to come from behind to take anything from the game. Despite the undoubted effort from my side, Fulham were buoyed by the early goal and were able to match us man for man in midfield. It proved a rare occasion on which I lamented the lack of width in our preferred formation, but I was not about to rip up our playbook. Instead, we pushed and pushed, only to be hit by a sucker punch, Liam Kelly catching one perfectly from 25 yards and punching the air as it ripped into the top corner. At 2-0 the game was done, and after beating one of the best teams in the division, we were beaten by a side flirting with relegation zone. Almost immediately we boarded a flight to Belgium for a match against Standard Liege which, if we lost, would almost certainly bring an abrupt end to our Europa League campaign. With so little time between matches, with so many competitions to take into account, and with momentum changing every other game, I was beginning to acknowledge just how difficult Premier League management could be.
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