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About EvilDave

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  1. Minnows No More

    2026/27 The new campaign began quietly on the transfer front, with no arrivals whatsoever given the paucity of options available to us. It was disappointing to see that our domestic rivals were failing to produce the type of player who could push both my club and country forward, but at the same time it was clear from our most recent campaign that our squad was more than good enough to continue making progress. A sign of that was the announcement that, due to our consistently impressive European performances, the champions of Armenia would not have to qualify for the Champions League group stages, our nation’s coefficient raised to a point at which we could forego the early rounds of qualification. Not only that, but the league runners-up would be the beneficiaries of a second place in the continent’s finest competition. This season, that would be Shirak, but the identity of the team in question was largely irrelevant – with a fifth European spot for the nation, Armenia now had a real chance to press on and have more teams accompanying us among the continent’s great and good. To say that the nation had a long way to go was clear in the results of the other four teams attempting to reach their respective group stages. Shirak, so used to playing second fiddle to my Pyunik side, were given a tough draw in Champions League qualifying, but did themselves and their country no favours whatsoever in losing 9-1 on aggregate to Shakhtar Donetsk. Not only that, they squandered a second chance, dropping into the Europa League play-off only to be beaten 5-0 by Slavia Prague. Still, it was one step further than either Ararat or Alashkert managed to progress, the pair entering and exiting at the Europa League third qualifiers after being beaten 6-1 and 8-0 by Dnipro and Rubin respectively – showing the gulf that remained between Armenia and our post-Soviet neighbours. The one positive result came courtesy of Gandsazar, who reached that same stage before going down 3-0 to Krasnodar. However, having entered a round earlier, they had at least made some small progress by convincingly beating Bosnian outfit Decic Tuzi 4-1 over the two legs, a win that would at least garner some coefficient points for the season to follow. For the time being, my Pyunik would clearly have to carry the hopes of the nation – not only that, but at least maintain our previous level of performance if we were not to immediately lose our automatic Champions League berth. Having reached the knockout rounds for the first time last season, there was a heightened sense of anticipation as the group stage was drawn this time round, however our poor luck continued with a nightmare of a group – and this despite having advanced to become a third seed. Favourites to progress would be Manchester City, six-time winners of the competition since 2018, while we were also matched with last year’s surprise finalists Porto. The fourth seed out were Red Bull Salzburg, and it appeared that it would be a battle between us and the Austrians for a Europa League berth. That seemed to be the way of things after the opening round of games, which saw us travel to Manchester and return on the end of a 6-0 thumping, our heaviest in any competition for many years and a real blow to our pride. In recent years we had kept the scores down again even the biggest sides in Europe, but in hindsight the decision to take on City on their own terms was a foolish one. We would learn from the error, but it put us in a poor position for the rest of the competition. We bounced back well, holding Porto to a goalless draw in Yerevan before heading into the all-important double-header against Red Bull. At home first, a double from Khachatrian in the opening 20 minutes put us in cruise control, and a late third gave us strong momentum going into the return fixture despite a consolation for the visitors. In Salzburg, we were even better – this time was Poghosyan at the double for a comfortable half-time lead, and an own goal midway through the second period meant we were guaranteed European football after Christmas. But that wasn’t enough – in order to build on last season, we needed Champions League football in the spring, and a 3-0 home defeat by an already-qualified City side meant that we would need to travel to Portugal and avoid defeat in order to progress – helped by Red Bull picking up their solitary point of the campaign at home to the Portuguese side. For 75 of the 90 minutes we were heading out, an early goal putting us behind early on, but late in the day Tigran Andreasyan cut back inside his man in the penalty area and fired a shot low into the corner to earn us the point we needed. Once again, Pyunik were into the last 16, and once again we were on the rise.
  2. Minnows No More

    Before we could make it to the winter break and spend our usual three months rejecting transfer bids for every one of our first team players, we had three more league matches to go. They would come thick and fast, interrupted by our crucial Champions League game with Monaco, but we were up to task. We started slowly, edging past Shirak 1-0 before welcoming our European rivals to Yerevan, and then beat Mika 3-1 for our game in hand to take our lead to 11 points. There was still one game to go, and it was quite the show. Ararat travelled across town as a side in good form, sitting third at the start of the day. As the only side to beat us in the last four season, they would at least have had a vague idea of being able to win – we quickly snuffed that out. After 20 minutes we led 4-0 and Poghosyan had a hat-trick, and by half-time he had grabbed a fourth as we stretched the lead to 6-1. The second period provided no respite, and just as in the 2022/23 season – when we ran out 10-1 winners against the same opposition – we would push for, and reach, double figures. This time Ararat managed two of their own, but Tigran Andreasyan’s strike three minutes from time got us to 10 for the day, and leave our opponents thoroughly humiliated. It was fine way to end the year, and a real statement to our rivals. Our priorities may now lie on the continent, but we still far, far better than anything Armenia could throw at us. When the league resumed in March, we had four games left of the third set of fixtures, and at this point it was surely a case of when, rather than if, we would lift the title for a 10th time in a row. Our third league meeting of the season with Erebuni did not, fortunately for my players, see us drop points to the league’s bottom club again, as we strolled through a 3-0 victory with ease. Alashkert held us to a single goal next time out before Banants were left nursing a 5-0 hammering – a result which left us 14 points clear of second-place Shirak and on the brink of further glory. Matchday 22 was the Hovhannes Poghosyan show, our talismanic striker rattling in a hat-trick in a 4-2 win at Gandsazar that took us to within touching distance of the finish line. Ararat were our next opponents, and while another 10-goal show would have been the ideal way to wrap up the 10th title, we would have to settle for a rather uncomfortable 3-2 win, the visitors twice striking back before we put them to back. Of course, it was Poghosyan’s second hat-trick in two games that secured us the title, Shirak dropping 18 points off our relentless pace with five matches still to play. All that was left to resolve now was the question of the unbeaten run, and we answered it emphatically. Not only were we not defeated, we also conceded a mere two goals in our five remaining fixtures, scoring 18 goals in the process. Mika and Erebuni were beaten 3-0 and 3-1 respectively, before we showed the gulf in class between ourselves and the rest of the league with a 4-0 win at Shirak. Alashkert and Banants shared our remaining eight goals equally, the latter the fortunate side that managed to at least breach our defence in consolation. We wound up 23 points ahead of Shirak, who would make history as the first Armenian runners-up to have the chance to qualify for the Champions League. Behind them, Ararat recovered well from their 10-2 drubbing to finish in the bronze medal position, with Alashkert and Gandsazar following them into the Europa League. At the other end of the table, Erebuni’s two draws with us did them little good, their 16 other points not enough to prevent a drop into the second tier. And so we concluded my 10th year in charge with a 10th title, another domestic treble and further progress in Europe as we breached the Champions League knockout round for the first time. Next year would be an historic one for Armenia as a second team entered Europe’s elite, and if we were to make further progress as a nation, we would need other clubs to start pulling their weight. However, our own goals as a club were simple – stay unbeaten in the league, strive for a perfect domestic season, and keep going further in Europe. It was no easy task, but if it was easy it would not be worth our efforts.
  3. Minnows No More

    On the home front, nothing less than complete success would be tolerated. With three unbeaten seasons in the last four and no genuine challenger emerging from the pack – Shirak, Banants and Gandsazar had all taken it in turns to finish second, but always a distant second – it was unthinkable that anyone else could claim the title. We had won the previous nine, and hitting 10 in a row would be a real mark of our domination. That quest would begin in the Super Cup, with Banants the side to provide the opposition on this occasion. A rival Yerevan side, they were understandably frustrated at seeing a city rival reach such unprecedented heights, but lacked both the financial power to stop us poaching their best players, and the club vision to do anything differently. To their credit, they managed an early goal against the run of play, but one was never going to be enough, and second-half strikes from Ashot Ghazaryan and Karen Hakobyan saw us come back to lift the trophy. Were everything to go to plan, it would be the first of three. The second was the domestic cup competition, which I had been guilty of undervaluing in the past and would do so again. With Europe our priority, I was not about to pass up the opportunity to give fringe players time in the cup, even if it did mean the odd embarrassing home draw with Erebuni. I knew that we had enough in the tank to win over two legs, and so it proved – despite a 17th-minute red card for Karen Hakobyan, two quick goals left us comfortably clear of our opponents and into the last four. Alashkert were our opponents at that stage, and a similar pattern emerged there. A rotated side struggled to a goalless draw at home, only for a variation on the same side to run out 3-1 wins at Nairi. The hopes of a nation lie in Shirak upsetting us in the final, but they were to be disappointed once again, a brace from Khachatrian and one apiece from Poghosyan and David Hakobyan earning us a very comfortable 4-0 win and yet more silverware for the cabinet. We would need a new one before too long – I only hoped it would include European as well as domestic successes. On to the league, and in my increasingly flippant thinking about the state of the Armenian competition, I had two questions – would we go unbeaten again, and which opponents would force us to drop our first points of the season? The answer to the first will be revealed in due course, but I must admit that the name of Erebuni did not at any point spring to mind for the second. And yet that is exactly how things panned out, thumping wins over Gandsazar, Ararat and Mika – 3-0, 4-0 and 5-1 respectively – got us off to an absolute flyer, and had me tinkering with my squad to eek out as much playing time as possible for those on the fringes. That led to a much-changed line-up at Erebuni on matchday four, and an irritating 1-1 draw which blew our hopes of a perfect season much earlier than I had hoped. Even so, we bounced back quickly, hitting five in our next two games away at Alashkert and Banants, before a fourth away game in a row yielded a 3-1 victory at Gandsazar in the final match of the opening round. Rescheduling caused by our European commitments meant that Shirak were the only side we were yet to face, and the Gyumri outfit had also started the season like a train, matching us for points at the first checkpoint and trailing us only on goal difference. Indeed, we were the only two clubs in positive figures. The Erebuni result aside, the only black mark one our opening set came in the form of another nasty injury. This time Banants were the culprits, but we could not blame the opposition entirely. Hovhannes Toplakaltsyan had gone into a challenge off-balance, and did not get up again, our star left back needing a stretcher to help him off the pitch. Six months out was the result, and ahead of crucial European games we were down one of our star men. In matchday nine, we were also down two more points, and remarkably it was Erebuni who burned us for the second time in the season. This time it was at home, but again I have no one to blame but myself, arrogance in the team selection process giving the underdogs a faint hope which they then capitalised on. Our anger was firmly taken out on nearest rivals Shirak as we beat them 4-1 in Gyumri next time out, followed by wins over Gandsazar, Banants and Ararat to cement our position on top. The 14th game, the halfway point, would be against Gandsazar again, and was infuriating. Not for their first two equalisers, which were well-worked and deserved, but the identity of their third goalscorer. Sergis Adamyan, for years part of our early success, popped up in the 89th minute to draw them level for a third time, and saw us lose out on points five and six of the season. We would not miss those points – we sat five points clear of Shirak with a game in hand – but to see an old friend come back as a foe was not one of my favourite moments.
  4. Minnows No More

    2025/26 With just a handful of teenagers brought in after their selection for the Pyunik project and nobody of significance leaving the club – a handful of other teenagers heading across Armenia for first team football on loan the predominant pattern emerging – we were straight on with Champions League qualifying. We would still be missing Putulyan to injury, but otherwise we had a full-strength team with which to try and improve on our feats from last year. From the heights of the Europa semis, we would begin in the murky depths of the second round of Champions League qualifying, and against a side from a country we were yet to visit – Lithuania. Suduva were the national champions, hailing from the little-known city of Marijampole, and were not expected to give us too many problems as we sought to make it back to the group stages. And yet they did. Not to the extent that they particularly threatened our goal in Yerevan, but by limiting us to a single score ourselves, we found ourselves in the somewhat unusual position and having to play a full-strength side for the away leg just the make sure. If these genuine minnows from Lithuania were to dump us out, there was not even the Europa League to fall back into – we would be done, our season really over before it had even started. With all that pressure on our shoulders, perhaps it was inevitable that we would struggle, but we squeezed through, a solitary Khachatrian goal giving us an unconvincing 2-0 win and showing just how far we still needed to go to be contenders. Familiar foes waiting in the next round, and Steaua Bucharest would no doubt have been licking their lips after watching our poor show against Suduva. With that in mind, they provided us with something that was thankfully becoming rare for my Pyunik side – a qualifying defeat – but the 2-1 home loss was nothing more than a minor irritation, coming as it did a week after we had travelled to Romania and blitzed them 6-1. The team that were beaten in Yerevan was a mere shadow of our regular starting line-up, and it felt like we were hitting our stride at the right time once again. Standing between us and the group stage were APOEL Nicosia, the dominant side in Cyprus and a club more than capable of giving us a good game. Still, we had beaten far stronger teams last season in our Europa run, and had to back ourselves to beat them. There was a gulf in class between the two sides on the field, and it showed for the home leg as we pinned them further and further back into their own half for the first 85 minutes of the game. Crucially though, we were unable to break through, leaving us a potentially nervous five minutes to negotiate. But negotiate them we did, and in some style. As the clock ticked into the 86th minute, Hovhannes Poghosyan drove in from the edge of the box to break both tension and deadlock alike, and his goal released the handbrake that APOEL had forced us to play with. Before injury time could come and go we had a second, David Hakobyan curling one into the top corner to double the lead, and we had two goals and a clean sheet to take with us to Cyprus. We couldn’t keep one there, but neither could our hosts, and the 1-1 final score was enough to take us back to the group stages once again. As far as I was concerned, this was where we belonged. Group B was our stage for the year, and again the draw was less than kind. Bayern Munich were not the all-conquering side of Jupp Heynkes and Pep Guardiola, but were still regular fixtures in the latter stages of the competition. Roma had been surprise finalists two years ago and were steadily improving, while third seeds Monaco possessed a wealth of young attacking talent that was the envy of much of Europe. We were the odd side out, although on this occasion we were at least afforded some respect by the international media after last year’s escapades. Things began as expected, Bayern coming to Yerevan and leaving with a win – but it was only 2-1, and so we had hope. The Cote d’Azur was our next port of call, and things got very interesting indeed. Three times we took the lead – twice through Khachatrian and once through Poghosyan, who picked up a knock which would keep him out of action for a month – but each time the hosts came back strong. A share of the points and a 3-3 draw in a European away game was something we would take every time, and there would be even better news from our third game of the group, Mkrtich Andreasyan heading in an unlikely winner 10 minutes from time in the Olimpico to stun Roma and put us second in the group at the halfway stage. In the return game against Roma there was further drama, as we fell 2-0 down after half an hour only to claw our way back into the fight, Khachatrian stabbing home a loose ball in injury time to claim a valuable point. We then went to Germany and returned with wounded pride and a 5-0 tanking, leaving everything riding on a single game with Monaco. If we avoided defeat we were likely to go through, and we did even more, putting in one of the finest performances of my reign as a Khachatrian triple saw off the French giants 3-0, and booked us a place in the last 16 for the first time ever. Once again, we were making history. As runners-up in our group, Spurs were one of the weaker teams we could have drawn, but we would still be up against it, particularly having to travel to New White Hart Lane for the second leg. Many were expecting the Londoners to run riot even in Yerevan, but we were given a glimmer of hope five minutes before half time. Despite having scored the goal which gave his side the advantage, captain Harry Kane scythed down left back Aram Mkrtchyan and was shown a straight red card for his troubles. With the extra man and home advantage we would likely never get a better opportunity to pull ourselves back into the tie, and with a quarter of an hour to go we took it Poghosyan smashing in a rebound to leave things finely poised heading to England. Things were a little less balanced when Julian Brandt headed the hosts into the outright lead after just 90 seconds, but from then on we held our own. When Putulyan was forced off with a knee injury – in his first competitive game since returning, no less – Andreasyan picked up the slack on the right with his pace. When Tigran Minasyan was taken out of the game with a cynical challenge in the second half, Aram Ohanyan stepped in perfectly. With 20 minutes to go, we looked to have levelled only to see Khachatrian’s header bounce back out off the post, and in the end we did everything but score. A 2-1 aggregate defeat to a club of Spurs’ calibre was no shame at all, but we still left feeling like we could have done more. Yes, we had needed Kane’s red card to give us a chance, but we had one nonetheless, and on another day could have made the quarters. For a side of our stature, that was huge – and it gave us hope that next year we could go even further.
  5. Minnows No More

    Thanks Neil! Sadly our efforts haven't made much of a difference so far - barring a couple of Nations League Division D wins (both in non-Euro qualifying years) - they're still firmly at the wrong end of the European game. Hopefully that'll change in due course, but I think our tactics have us punching above our weight - something the AI doesn't match at international level. -- So, who were the men who would like Pyunik into my second decade, who would aim to build on our historic Europa League run, take advantage of our rising star on the continent and hammer home our domination in domestic competition? We had a large playing staff across the first team, second side and under-19s, but the men likely to feature most often for the senior squad were as follows: Karen Aslanyan, who had graduated from the youth system back in 2022, was now the firm number one choice between the posts, and his jersey number showed as much. Still young enough not to need registering for European games, he was also the preferred option for the national team and was a mature head on young shoulders. Karen Mkrtchyan, the club captain and star of our first youth intake, had been the key man in goal for a number of years, and while he had been surpassed by the youngster, was still a very capable backup. At right back, we operated a two-man rotation between two club stalwarts – Artur Nadiryan and Gor Afrikyan. The former had already been at Pyunik when I arrived, his ability to play in the centre of defence and holding midfield keeping him around, and over the years he had evolved into a solid defensive full back. Afrikyan came through the first intake with Mkrtchyan, and provided a less consistent but more attacking option on the side of defence. Both men would get plenty of minutes, with youngster Grigor Hakopyan waiting in the wings for an opportunity. The left was similarly shared, although with a firm first choice option. Hovhannes Toplakaltsyan was one of our most wanted men by clubs around Europe, and had nailed down the starting spot for big matches immediately after his arrival from Banants as a 21-year-old. The best left back in Armenia by a long shot, he was a shoe-in for Europe and any big matches in the league. Rotating in was Aram Mkrtchyan, no relation to our goalkeeper, who was next in line and would see time in the league whenever his positional rival was suspended, injured, or simply needed a break. Central defence was a more competitive position, with three men fighting for two starting spots and several adequate reserve options. Robert Hakobyan was one of the former, another long-term servant of the club who predated my reign, and who had evolved into a commanding centre back over the years. Mher Andreasyan was our most expensive signing at the time of his arrival, and had made himself in a fixture in the defence with his imposing physical presence, while 19-year-old youth graduate Armen Adamyan offered a more technical and pacey option. Behind those three were several players – Arman Malkhasyan and Mikayel Aslanyan perhaps the standouts – all of whom could do a job domestically if required, but would not be trusted with Europe and were unlikely to break into the first team more regularly. We operated with a central midfield two, both of whom had the job to break up play and distribute to the attacking quartet. Here too we were blessed with talent, a group of highly-energetic and technically-gifted players who were absolutely crucial in giving us an advantage over the rest of the sides at home, and a fighting chance on the continent. Tigran Minasyan, Karen Hakobyan and Karen Toplakaltsyan were probably among the top five or six players at the club, while Aram Ohanyan, three years out of our academy, also saw a fair share of minutes thanks to suspension, injury and fatigue. We had youngsters coming through in the position also, and we looked set for years to come. On the right of midfield, depth was again strong. Although he was out with a long-term injury, Armen Putulyan remained absolutely key to our success, racking up assist after assist with his pace and crossing ability, as well as adding goals to his game. Behind him was Gor Agaljan, brought home from Holland a few years, a veteran of the national team and a more technical, less direct alternative to Putulyan. Were he to go down, 2020 intake star Tigran Kirakosyan and 2024’s top graduate Tigran Andreasyan were well-positioned to step in, and were trusted to the extent that both had already sampled European football. Our left side was unfortunately a little weaker, with two long-term servants sharing both a surname and playing time. David Hakobyan was now 32 years old but remained first choice on the left flank, his trickery and lack of reliance on sheer pace serving him well as he entered the twilight years of his career. Behind him, namesake Tigran was a little more one-dimensional, but he was a very effective direct winger and was more than capable of cutting it at home and abroad. We would need to bolster the numbers in this area soon, particularly if the elder Hakobyan happened to pick up a serious injury. That left our front two, a partnership in which we played with a more creative type and an out-and-out finisher – positions for which we had two men each. The star of the show was undoubtedly our talisman, Hovhannes Poghosyan. A baby-faced teenager when I arrived at the club, he was now Pyunik all-time leading appearance maker and goalscorer, until recently regularly hitting more than a goal a game in the league and terrorising defences across Europe with his instinctive finishing. If he was fit, he would start in the poacher’s position, although more recently young Ashot Ghazaryan had developed into a fine young player able to tear apart Armenian back lines and cause continental opposition a problem or two as well. Prime candidate for the creative role was Vahe Khachatrian, a star of the class of ’22 and now a fully-fledged Armenian international. In recent years he had even outscored Poghosyan in the league despite their different roles within the side, and at a young age was developing into quite the complete forward – he was enough that, if fit and available, would start. His backup was a converted midfield player, Narek Hambardzumyan, whose game needed goals adding to it if he were ever to edge past Khachtrian into the regular eleven, but whose eye for a pass and ability to execute it made him a threat to all but the very best sides we would face. With several other promising youngsters both waiting in the reserves and heading out on loan around the country, we seemed set to dominate for years, particularly given the financial strength that we had earned through Champions League revenue. We would continue to scout out the best talent our nation had to offer – we would be foolish to do otherwise – but in our first team squad we had a side that was, man for man, stronger than anything anyone at home could pit against us. It was an excellent foundation to build from.
  6. Minnows No More

    This was it. Year 10 – or the 2025/26 season, as it was known to the rest of the world – would see its conclusion mark a full decade for me in charge of Pyunik, and it was worth taking a moment to take stock of what we had achieved and how far we had come in that time. Few managers get the opportunity to shape a club as fully as I have been able to do, and so there is a constant pressure to justify my decisions. On the field, the results speak for themselves. Nine seasons, nine league titles, three of them unbeaten and only one league defeat in the last four years. It is an unparalleled record in Armenia and indeed the rest of the European game – at home, we are a cut above, and this despite being expected to finish bottom back in my debut season. Given that we have only used Armenian players, and that we have also picked up five of the last six domestic cups and more Super Cups than we have lost, our dominance is evident. Overseas, progress has been the name of the game. In my first season, we exceeded expectations to fall just one round away from the Europa League groups. The following two, we did the same in reaching the first knockout round of the same competition. From then on, it was all about the Champions League, for five years reaching the elite 32 of Europe’s premier competition in order to struggle against the best on the continent. When we did fail to make it last season, we responded with a run all the way to the semis of the Europa League, knocking out teams far bigger than Pyunik. We were becoming a force to be reckoned with. We were also dragging the nation with us. Our performances alone meant that from the 2026/27 season, Armenia would have two qualifying spots for the Champions League, rather than the one we had been accustomed to. With three further sides entering the Europa League qualifiers, more than half the league would be eligible for a shot at Europe. It would be tough to maintain our new position, but it was perhaps the best evidence of our progress so far. What’s more, we were now the dominant supplier of the Armenian national team. In the last named squad, 14 of the 23 players selected were on our books, with four others having left us for pastures new. We were also responsible for 18 of the 23 in the under-21s, and 13 of the under-19s. Given that many of these players were yet to take to the field for Pyunik in a competitive fixture, it was clear that our policy of hoovering up as much young talent as possible was paying dividends. Further evidence of this lie in the clubs that were becoming increasingly interested in my players. Initially, the only attempts to sign my men had been from our domestic rivals, and for sums barely reaching five figures. Now, with the reputation of the league on the rise and our own profile growing by the year, it was only a matter of time before we received our first eight-figure offer from one of Europe’s elite. Already we had Champions League sides chasing the majority of my first team – they would continue to be frustrated. Elsewhere at the club, there was little room for improvement. With the Champions League providing us with more than £10m simply for reaching the group stages plus more for positive results and TV rights, and our annual wage bill still less than £2m – our highest-paid players received just £3,000 each week – the club was wealthy beyond its wildest dreams, the most recent set of accounts estimating a balance of around £90m – another reason we could afford to hold on to our best players. Those funds meant that we had been able to pump money into our training facilities for the youth team – winners of the national under-19 competition for the past seven years – second team, which had lifted the second-tier title in every year of my tenure bar one – and the all-conquering senior side. We boasted the finest coaches in the land, a scouting outfit scouring every corner of Armenia for talent, the best medical professionals in the country, and a youth recruitment network which touched every club in the nation. For anyone to surpass us domestically, it was going to take nothing short of a miracle. Yet in the eyes of many, that is exactly what we ourselves were – a miracle, an unexplained freak of nature, a phenomenon that should not have happened and could not be rationally explained. To the ignorant – largely those from outside our homeland – the painstaking preparation, the careful investment, the setting of key targets remained unseen, our secrets ignored in favour of a fairy story. That was fine for now, as if too many understood what we were doing, they would surely begin to ape us. However, I was under no illusions – the moment we became a consistent contender at the business end of the European season, we would be overrun with requests to reveal all. We would reject them, of course – I was already well accustomed to saying no to the great and good of the footballing world – but we needed to make the most of our freedom until that moment. Our Europa League run had almost shattered our peace, and with time running out, we needed to take advantage.
  7. Minnows No More

    Domestically, we had lost only one league fixture in three years on our way to complete dominance, and were by now well-accustomed to lifting cup silverware as well. The same was true of the 2024 version of the Super Cup, with Banants providing the opposition in what is increasingly a chance for some of our more promising youngsters to shine. And shine they did – Poghosyan representing the old guard with a brace to mark his first competitive game since the ankle break, and no fewer than five others joining him on the scoresheet in a 7-0 romp. It was a result which resonated around the country – had we turned Armenia into a one-club country? Had we killed off competition? Did it matter? They were questions for others to grapple with. We just needed to keep winning. In the cup, we struggled to do that. We were given a plum in the opening round, matched with newly-promoted Shenghavit who had never before reached the top flight. Rock bottom of the league by the time we travelled for the away league with only a single point to their name, we somehow contrived to throw away two leads on the way to a poor 2-2 draw with the backups. Of course we still had the home game to come, and with a couple more of the regulars back in the side, Vahe Khachatrian took them for a ride, scoring four goals unanswered to send us through to the semis. There we would meet Mika, who were enjoying an excellent season by the time we took them on. As against Shenghavit, we took a lead in the first leg – this time at home – and once again managed to concede a late goal to leave us deadlocked heading into the second. As against Shenghavit, we sent on our heavy hitters for the return leg, and cruised to a comfortable victory, this time only 2-0, to book a place in the final. However, opponents on the day Banants were out for revenge after their humiliation in our earlier encounter, and for the first time in years they were able to overcome us on the day. We fell behind early, levelled through young left winger Tigran Hakobyan, but struggled to keep up the pace in the second period to the extent that we slipped to a 3-1 defeat. With our European run only just over and fatigue firmly set in the legs of many, it was an understandable defeat, but a galling one nevertheless. Next year, we would have it back, or else. Banants’ cup win capped off a successful season for our city rivals, and while they were never close enough to us to pose a considerable threat to the title, they would be a thorn in our side throughout the campaign. Shenghavit posed us few problems in the opening game, a 4-0 away win setting a solid foundation for us to build on. However, two games later we travelled to Banants and were held to a 2-2 draw, the only points we would drop in the opening round of fixtures. That placed us five points clear of Shirak, and already set for success. While there was never any chance we would slip down the table, we would not have everything entirely our own way. Matchday 10 saw us frustrated in Kapan by Gandsazar with a 1-1 draw, and while we then proceeded to hammer Shirak by five unanswered goals, it triggered something of a barren spell for us. Ararat held us when we travelled across town in our next encounter, before a parked bus containing the Mika team had the nerve to hold us goalless – the first time in many a year we had gone two scoreless games in a row – on our own soil. Mercifully, Shenghavit were our next fixture, and while a mere two goals was fewer than we would have liked, the win took us to the halfway mark with 34 of a possible 42 points, nine points clear of both Banants and Mika with a game in hand. We would place twice more before winter, putting five past Shenghavit in our catch-up game before going goalless again against Alashkert, in the process extending our lead to double figures. The winter gave us the opportunity to engage with some of Europe’s leading lights once again as my phone was bombarded with calls and attempts to sign almost every member of our first team. As per usual, we rebuffed them all – we had a European campaign to be getting on with, and we needed every man we had to be firing on all cylinders for us, rather than our opponents. Despite juggling commitments at home and abroad after the break, we were as dominant as ever. We dropped eight further points over the remaining 12 fixtures – goalless at Mika before our clash with Galatasaray, 2-2 against Shirak and 1-1 at Ararat either side of the domestic cup final, and a final day draw at home to Mika which saw Gor Agbaljan’s last-gasp leveller preserve our third undefeated league campaign in four seasons. It was a great moment to celebrate, although in truth we should never have let them lead us. Small blips aside, we were never really troubled, and a 3-0 win at Alashkert with five games remaining took us past a winning post with plenty of room to spare. Banants’ slip on the same day sent us a huge 19 points clear of them and that stage, and despite three of our draws coming after that point, we would finish 24 points clear by the end of the season. Banants would hold second place, but only by virtue of winning one more match than both Shirak and Mika, who shared their 42-point total. At the other end, Shenghavit managed to win points in just five matches, relegated with just 11 to their name. Looking back, nine draws was frustrating – our European efforts clearly showed us to be streets ahead of domestic competition, and had yet we had shown a tendency to ease off or become complacent at crucial moments. But, while our 66 points was the lowest tally of all our unbeaten years, it was the first to include a genuine run on the continent, something which clearly took its toll as the year went on – both in terms of injuries to the likes of Poghosyan and Putulyan, but also with general fatigue. It is easy to make excuses, but when we are involved in the latter stages of European competition, I am less inclined to fuss over the odd draw in the league. That said, I was not about to settle for what we already had, and we needed to kick on if we were to establish ourselves as regular player in those big European games, rather than the shock troops of this season. We wanted to be in a position to complete a perfect season in the league, win the cups, and compete in the Champions League. It was ambitious, but I would not be doing my job justice if I settled for anything else.
  8. Minnows No More

    To emphasise the difference between the worlds of the Champions and Europa Leagues, we only had to look at our group. While Munchengladbach had beaten us in the premier competition before, here they were our top seeds. We ourselves found ourselves in the second pot, joined from the third and fourth by Legia from Poland and French side Caen, who had not been in Europe at all during the past decade. The one consolation was that as second seeds, we were favourites to progress, and we made a strong start with a 4-1 win in Warsaw to hit the ground running. Matchday two gave us a famous win, teenager Ashot Ghazaryan marking his first European appearance with a 93rd minute winner against the Germans in Yerevan, before a surprisingly comfortable trip to France saw us pick us a 2-0 victory and maximum points from our opening three games. Two weeks later, Caen came to Armenia and we matched the scoreline, confirming our progress with two matches to spare. The first of those was at home to Legia, and Poghosyan light up the night with four goals in a 5-1 hammering which confirmed first place in the group and, at least in theory, a favourable draw for the knockout round. All that was left was a trip to Germany, and while we somehow turned a 3-1 lead into a 4-4 draw, the entertainment on offer was well worth our travelling. Last time we had reached this stage of the Europa League, we had been comprehensively beaten by Juventus. On this occasion, we were paired with Galatasaray, a strong opponent but not nearly of the same calibre as the Italians. Not only that, but given the understandable hostility felt by we Armenians towards the Turks, it promised to be an unforgettable evening in Istanbul. The first leg lived up to expectations – we stunned the hosts by racing into a 3-0 lead after 49 minutes, only to be a goal behind after 75. Not ones to be easily beaten, Poghosyan struck in the 88th to leave us finely poised at 4-4, and record a second successive eight-goal draw in Europe. We were nothing if not entertaining. The home leg was nowhere near as competitive, and that suited us fine. Two each for Poghosyan and Khachatrian eased us to a 4-0 home win which was headline news all across Armenia, earning us an 8-4 aggregate triumph and a clash with Braga in the last 16. The Portuguese club was one we had beaten in the past, and so were confident heading into the home leg. What followed was none of the end-to-end stuff we had seen in Istanbul, but instead a far more cagey affair, both sides recognising the good fortune of their draw and not wanting to throw it away. The game was settled by a Minasyan free-kick midway through the second half, and we had both a lead and a clean sheet to take to Portugal with us. Another tense game played out and looked to be settled by an opportunistic strike seven minutes from the end from the Portuguese lone striker, an outcome which would have seen extra time and potentially penalties. However, they had reckoned without the abilities of Vahe Khachatrian, who beat his man to the ball in the 92nd minute, heading beyond the goalkeeper and sending us into the quarter finals. This was uncharted territory, and we were keen to keep exploring. We were now at the business end of the tournament, and were joined there by Valencia, six-time Spanish champions and two-time Champions League finalists. We were firm underdogs here, and when the visitors raced into a 2-0 lead after just 18 minutes of our home leg, it looked like the dream was over. We had battled admirably, dispelled our minnow status, but ultimately had not been able to compete against the cream of the European crop. Except it wasn’t over, and there was still plenty of time remaining. By the time the referee blew for full time, we had returned Valencia’s fire with four unanswered goals, giving us a shock lead to take with us to the Mediterranean coast. The only downside was a big one – Poghosyan breaking his ankle and being ruled out for the remainder of the season. Without him, we were relying on Khachatrian and Ghazaryan for the away leg, and with the hosts forced to attack, they did their injured team-mate proud. A counter-attacking masterclass saw us come out 3-2 winners on the night and 7-4 conquerors on aggregate, convincing victors as we moved into the last four. However, there would be another cost, as big as Poghosyan – Putulyan, assist king on the right side of midfield, had to be withdrawn after an hour, and the diagnosis was horrendous. Cruciate ligament damage, and up to 11 months on the sidelines. Even with two of our most important players, finding a way past Chelsea was always likely to prove difficult. Without them, the odds were stacked against us, and with Paulo Dybala playing like a man possessed in Yerevan, we were left with an impossible task. The Argentine star hit a hat-trick to leave us three goals down, before a late rally brought it back to 3-2 and gave us a glimmer of hope. A fourth goal for the English side left us with a huge amount of work to do in London, and a single Dybala strike was enough to seal the away leg and a 5-2 overall victory. Chelsea would go on to defeat Manchester United in the final – a match as worthy of the Champions League as the Europa. Reflecting on our achievements, it was difficult to overstate how far we had come in this year. What began as a failure against Celtic ended in a spectacular run to the Europe semis, victories over Munchengladbach, Galatasaray, Braga and Valencia, and proof that, even if we came off second best, we had the ability to give the likes of Chelsea a game over two legs despite missing two star men. Minnows do not reach the semi-finals of European competition – we had done so in style, and had won plenty of admirers in the process. Could we do it again? Could we carry our momentum forward into the Champions League? I honestly had no idea. On the one hand, we had beaten teams of that calibre, and comfortably at that. On the other hand, we were likely to remain a low seed, and were therefore at the mercies of the draw. With a good group, we could go far, but only with a good group. What we really needed was to remove the element of chance, and we could only do that by getting a lot better. That would have to be the aim.
  9. Minnows No More

    2024/25 Was it a revolution? No, that was too bold a word. It was a part of our evolution though. Along with Movsisyan’s retirement, we bade farewell to others who had played a significant role in the club’s development. Arthur Voskanyan had never been a first-choice player thanks to the obvious qualities of Armen Putulyan, but was enough of a character in the dressing room to have been captain for two years. However, he was no longer good enough to earn a new contract, and so he left. Joining him out the door was Sergis Adamyan, for a few years a trusted partner for Poghosyan now relegated to fifth choice at best. The other man to leave, with much less fanfare, was Aram Boiajyan, the first youngster to really kick up a fuss about not getting enough minutes. He had cost us a reasonable amount when we had first brought him in, but his failure to adapt his style and integrate into the group meant that when Gandsazar offered us £230k to end his time with us, there was no hesitation in accepting a slight profit. Those staying were heavily pursued. Tigran Minasyan had interest shown in him by no fewer than 60 clubs at various points, but none could prise him out of from my selfish hands. The same was true to a lesser degree for Karen and Hovhannes Toplakaltsyan, Poghosyan, youth goalkeeper Karen Aslanyan – who was about to take over from Mkrtchyan as our starter – Karen Hakobyan, and young first team defender Armen Adamyan. They were ours, and that was final. Lastly, the incomings. Eight players in all, all teenagers, all with a long way to go before they could step into the first team at Pyunik. However, after scouring both the nation and the diaspora for potential talent, they were the best my homeland had to offer, and so they needed to join us. These were not transfers for this season or even the next, but the £1m we spent now would be a drop in the ocean compared to the prizes they could win us on the pitch in future years. We wanted those prizes to be in Europe, and again we began our Champions League campaign in Georgia and the home of Dila Gori. Last time we had visited, we had smashed six goals past them in the away leg before wrapping things up at home. On this occasion we stopped at five, rendering the home leg unnecessary and the goalless draw inconsequential. This first round of qualification was little more than a warm-up for the main event. The next stage again brought familiar opposition, allowing us to reignite the geopolitical spark between ourselves and Azerbaijan with a tie against Qarabag, another side we had vanquished in the past. Whereas last time we had needed away goals, this time we simply destroyed our opponents, four goals for Poghosyan the highlight of a 7-0 thrashing in Baku before three at home gave us a 10-0 aggregate victory. The play-off gave us Celtic, the Scottish side by far the most difficult team in the draw and a real obstacle to our sixth successive group stage appearance. In Glasgow their famous support earned them an injury time penalty which in any other setting would never have been given, leaving us 2-1 down after the first leg but with a valuable away goal. They wiped it out half an hour into the return, but by that point we had found two goals of our own, leaving the final hour as a one-off shootout. With the crowd behind us and the lead on the night, we were confident. But we were misguided. A third goal did indeed arrive, Khachatrian finishing from a Putulyan cross, but so too did a Celtic second with just 15 minutes to play. Stunned into action, we piled forward, but the Scots held firm to deny us. Yerevan fell into a mournful silence at the final whistle, my players unsure how to react to their failure. For the first time in more than half a decade, there would be no Pyunik, no Armenian representation into the Champions League. It was a hammer blow. Did this mean we were minnows once again?
  10. Minnows No More

    Another chaotic winter saw Europe’s great and good try and strike a deal at Pyunik market, but we weren’t selling. Not Minasyan, not Poghosyan, not even the in-demand Khachatrian. Nobody was going out, and with nobody coming in, it was as simple as turning off my phone. I was getting my used to ignoring the managers of Europe’s top clubs. Upon the resumption, a 4-1 win at Shirak came at a price – namely, Poghosyan’s groin, a muscle tear seeing him miss five weeks and wreck his chances of another record-breaking season. That left the goalscoring burden to be shared out between Khachatrian and Hambardzumyan, and at first they struggled – a 2-2 draw at Kotayk should have been a 8-2 win – but across the board we had enough. A routine victory over Mika in the following match put us 14 clear of the chasing pack, and just a couple of games away from another title. What should have been the crowning moment against Alashkert instead delayed our celebrations for a week, the underdogs somehow holding out for a goalless draw despite another 30-shot performance from our forwards. It mattered little though – a few days later, Poghosyan marked his return to fitness by coming off the bench and bagging a 20-minute brace at Ararat to give us a 3-2 win, the victory at the home of the only side to beat us in three seasons wrapping up the championship and moving us 17 points clear with just four games to play. Given the earlier result, there was nowhere else I’d have rather sealed the title – it felt right, and the memory was quickly erased. From then on, we marched serenely to the end of the season, our supposed rivals dropping points all over the place as we simply blitzed those in our path. For the sentimentalists out there, the finest moment came in the penultimate match of the season – our final home appearance of the year – against Kotayk, a routine 3-0 win wrapped up by none other than Yura Movsisyan, the 36-year-old grabbing the final goal in his only appearance of the season, and final outing before enjoying his retirement. He had only been a bit-part player for us, a wise old head guiding a youthful side, but the fans had warmed to him nonetheless. His substitution five minutes from time earned him a standing ovation, and for a man of his calibre, it was richly deserved. A week later we travelled to Mika and in typically prolific fashion beat them 4-2 to finish up a full 24 points ahead of Shirak, with Ararat the surprising side in third place and Gandsazar only just holding on to a place in Europe. It had been another dominant season – only denied a third unbeaten run in a row by that irritating defeat to Ararat – and there were signs that we were improving. Yes, we had been dumped out of the Champions League in fairly unceremonious fashion, but on the pitch things were looking up. In previous years, we had relied heavily on Poghosyan’s remarkable rate of goalscoring – this year, he recorded a relatively modest 22 league goals in 24 appearances for an overall strike rate of 34 in 39. However, picking up the slack was Vahe Khachatrian, our youth graduate hitting 19 of his own in domestic competition and a further 17 across the cup and Europe. His form meant interest from a number of sources, but a greater attacking threat was not to be sniffed at. Next year would my ninth season at Pyunik, and there was still work to be done. The number of players outside our squad who could improve us was slowly falling, and the number of those already at the club in need of regular playing time was on the rise. To keep everyone happy, we would need to master the art of rotation, utilise the loan system, and make as much progress as possible in Europe to maximise the number of games available, all without sacrificing performance. It would be a difficult ask, but a challenge we would need to rise to. The alternative was a reversion to minnow status, and that did not bear thinking about.
  11. Minnows No More

    In any game of football, 36 shots – providing they are taken with at least the intent of scoring, and not all from 40 yards out – should be enough to score at least one goal. Nevertheless, after 120 minutes of the seasonal Super Cup against Alashkert, we found ourselves locked at 0-0 despite peppering the opposition from every conceivable angle. It was just as well that we won the shootout, as otherwise I dread to think what would have happened to our strikers’ confidence. As it was, we just about escaped with our pride intact. We made things equally difficult for ourselves in the cup, being reduced to 10 men with 40 minutes of the first leg of the opening tie still remaining. Despite Karen Hakobyan’s misdemeanour we salvaged a 1-1 draw against Gandsazar, but still had plenty to do in the return game. What followed was one of the classic Armenian matches, the nation’s top two sides going at one another with no regard whatsoever for defending. The chaos stopped at 5-4, a late Putulyan goal edging us through at the expense of our rivals, and somehow we had done just enough. We did the same in the semis against Mika, although this time without the fireworks. The backups returned a blank in the away leg but kept a clean sheet, and it needed the first choice side to do the business in the home leg, cruising through 3-1 to maintain our hopes of retaining the trophy. Banants were our opponents in the final, and they needn’t have bothered – five goals with five different scorers, just as we had done against Alashkert at the same stage the previous year – and we kept the trophy for another season. Our form in the competition was odd to say the least, but we kept winning and that suited me just fine. To the league then, where we were defending an unbeaten streak stretching back more than two entire seasons. As if we needed further evidence that we intended to keep that streak going, we hit 13 goals in our opening three matches – 4-1 at Gandsazar, and 5-0 and 4-1 at home to Alashkert and Ararat respectively – leaving us flying high atop the standings from a very early stage. Last year we had fired in more than 100 goals, and at this rate were looking good to do the same again. But we slowed down, our next four matches yielding a mere 10 as we maintained our perfect record at a more leisurely pace. Eight points clear after seven did little for those complaining the league was no longer competitive, but in our eighth fixture we slipped up, drawing 2-2 at Ararat for our first blemish of the season. That we smashed Shirak 5-0 the next week brought the smile back to my face. By the halfway point we had stumbled again, Gandsazar holding us 1-1 at home, and our lead was cut to seven with a game in hand. However, in match 15 of the season, the unthinkable happened and fans of every club other than Pyunik had cause to celebrate – we lost a match. Ararat were the surprising side to end our 71-match streak, and it came in the most agonising of circumstance, a fumbled cross 10 minutes from time gifting them an equaliser, and then Hovhannes Toplakaltsyan stretching to deflect an own goal past Mkrtchyan in injury time for a 2-1 defeat. The Ararat players celebrated as if they had won the Champions League itself, the newspapers had a field day and questioned my commitment to the job, everyone wanted the inside story of the historic match. After reading my men the riot act, we put six past Banants next time out, and tried to forget about it. It hurt, of that there was no doubt, but we still sat nine points clear of Shirak at the winter break. In the grand scheme of things, it meant nothing. We simply started again.
  12. Another Final

    That concludes another EvilDave production - I hope you've enjoyed reading along. I'm not sure I'm 100% satisfied with how this turned out, as I suspect the idea was better than the execution, but thank you for reading nonetheless!
  13. Another Final

    On the plane back to Edinburgh, Jim sat silently. Ally had arranged for them to sit separately, again to avoid suspicion, and Jim simply could not pluck up the courage to tell his friend what had happened. Instead he sat, stony-faced and drained of colour, while the Russian businessman next to him munched his way through what seemed like a year’s supply of pickled cucumbers. In Edinburgh, the small group of them returning to Scotland gathered after going through baggage reclaim. Jim, Ally, O’Connor, Dallas and the linesmen, their assistant film-makers. The mood was celebratory among everyone apart from Jim. It didn’t take long for Ally to notice. “What’s up with you mate, you look like you’ve seen a ghost! One too many vodkas on the flight eh?” “No Ally, it’s…” “I don’t know, one little success and you drink yourself sick. Daft lad you are Jim.” “Ally, I’m not…” “You wait ‘til we start winning awards for this thing, I’ll tell all the papers…” “ALLY!” Jim’s cry caused more than a few passers-by to stop and stare before continuing on their journeys. But it was only his friend’s attention he wanted, and he succeeded in getting it. “Look mate, the reason I’m so quiet is because there isn’t a ****ing film.” “You what mate?” “I got searched at security didn’t I? They told me FIFA didn’t allow recordings of World Cup games. The memory card is still in Russia, Ally.” There was an uncomfortable silence as Jim’s revelation came to light. However, the tension was broken by an unlikely source. “What are you on about?” asked Garry O’Connor. “I’ve got the match film on me here, I was watching it on my phone on the way over, Quality camerawork as well, if I say so.” Jim was dumbstruck. “Show me then, get it out.” O’Connor did as was requested, and loaded up the primary film of the match on his smartphone. Closing it down, he withdraw the memory card and handed it to Jim. “There you go, told you lad.” “Then what the **** did I have taken off me?” “Jim,” said Ally, “you never had our game on your camera. The game the security guard saw was Kramer’s film, The Other Final. They saw an ancient game.” Smile started to rise among the group as they began to realise what had happened. Jim, however, was not impressed. “So why did you tell me I had the main film? Why tell me that?” Ally smirked, stepping back as he did so. “Because mate, you were always getting searched. You sweat flying to London, let alone out of Russia. Your nerves meant the rest of us got through without a second look – I was never gonna give you the main film.” Jim stood still – dumbfounded, surprised and angry all at once. Then, after a moment, he too began to see the funny side of the whole episode. Stepping forward and throwing his arms around his friend, he made sure he had the final say. “You, Ally, are a world class ****. Let’s get out of here shall we.” It was a sentiment shared by all in the group, and they finally dispersed – ex-footballers, officials and cameramen all getting into taxis and heading their separate ways. Several months later, after days of editing, release and publicity, Jim was able to retell his story at the British Sports Journalism Awards, the pair of them picking up the gong for Best Television Sports Documentary – their film, eventually titled Another Final in a nod to Kramer’s work, being enthusiastically received by BBC Scotland and subsequently aired on BBC Two. Although the expletives were wisely avoided, the essence remained the same – and the two young Scots were given a rapturous reception from the nation’s sporting media. They had pulled it off, and it seemed as if the world was their oyster. All they needed now was another project to get their teeth into.
  14. Minnows No More

    2023/24 With such an incredible season behind us, the vultures were circling again. Poghosyan, Toplakaltsyan, Khachatrian, Minasyan – all attracted bids from clubs as diverse as Porto, Schalke, Panathanaikos and Spartak, but nobody was sold. Again, not everybody was happy with that, but it was the price we needed to pay for success. I was not letting this team break up without a fight. Coming in were another batch of teenagers, six youngsters arriving for a grand total of £1.2m. It was the most we’d spent yet, and none of them would go straight into the starting eleven, but it was necessary if we were to retain our position atop the Armenian tree. Given some of those we were bidding farewell to – bit-part stalwarts such as Erik Vardanyan, Artur Kartashyan, Armen Manucharyan and the retiring Artur Sarkisov – we needed the numbers to continue our assaults on all fronts. On the European agenda were the Champions League qualifiers, and the first tie was one of the easiest we could have asked for. Lusitans may retain close ties to Portugal, but the standard of the Andorran league leaves plenty to be desired, and a 3-0 win in the Pyrenean principality was more than enough to ease us through. What was a little unnecessary was the 10 goals we then smashed past them in Yerevan, both Hambardzumyan and Khachatrian grabbing hat-tricks, and securing our biggest aggregate win in some time. Awaiting us in the third qualifiers were Finns HJK, who had regained their title at home after a couple of barren years. While they had edged through their previous tie, we gave them no hope in this one, a 4-2 win at home followed up with an emphatic 5-1 win in Helsinki, Poghosyan this time the one to claim the match ball with three close-range finishes and send us cruising through into the play-off round. Meeting us there would be Belarusian regulars BATE Borisov, and a goalless draw on the road – the first competitive game we had failed to win since the penultimate game of last year’s group stage against Napoli back in November – left things hanging in the balance heading into the home leg. What we produced was a bruising encounter – both Putulyan and Andreasyan required replacing after picking up knocks – but crucially one that we won. Two first-half goals put us firmly in the driving seat, and while an old goal from Nadiryan 20 minutes from the end set up a nervous conclusion, we had done enough to make it through. As was becoming a habit of ours, we had made it to the groups. Our reward was another nightmare draw. Last year we had come off reasonably lightly in drawing a couple of the weaker sides from the upper pots – this time round we would have no such luck. Borussia Munchengladbach were our third seeds, with continental giants Juventus and Manchester City from the top two. Unless we could somehow snatch something against the Germans, it was looking very much like a pointless endeavour lie ahead. Indeed, the pre-tournament predictions were frustratingly accurate, and while we were not smashed around the park as some may have expected – our biggest defeat coming in a 4-0 reverse at the Etihad in the first round of fixtures – we completed our six without a point to our name. Single goal defeats to all three opponents were eminently respectable, as were the 3-1 and 2-0 losses in the remaining fixtures, but ultimately there are no rewards for keeping things close. The draw had been difficult, but this represented a step backwards, and there was no positive spin to put on things. If we wanted to be taken seriously as a European side, we needed to do better. Much better.
  15. Minnows No More

    However, with no defeats in the league for more than a year, other clubs were beginning to take notice, and for the first time the bidding got serious. These were no longer Croatian clubs throwing a few thousand at us in the hope of unsettling our stars, these were big European outfits hunting their prey. Twente and Osasuna were in for Poghosyan, Panathanaikos wanted Tigran Minasyan, Galatasaray chased Karen Hakobyan, while Hovhannes Toplakaltsyan attracted seven-figure sums from Porto, Schalke and Besiktas. With the exception of the ever-loyal Poghosyan, who penned a new deal, the others all wanted out to varying degrees. None would leave. Risking a potential dressing room revolt, I firmly rejected the advances of anyone who ventured near my team. While the sums involved were flattering, the club had little need of the money – regular Champions League football in a nation like Armenia swells the coffers far beyond what is needed – and in such a small nation, replacing their talents would be almost impossible. No, we needed those players for the time being, and if things changed in years to come, we would be able to attract even higher premiums. The suitors didn’t like it, nor did the players involved – I had to be firm with many wanted to ‘test themselves in a better division’ – but my decision was final. We would stick together. Whether the players involved were simply seeking a channel for their anger, or whether they had decided that the best way to force a move would be to increase their value further I don’t know, but the apparent dissent did not manifest itself in poor performances on the field. Our first game back in March was away at Banants, the last side to trip us up in the league, and we destroyed them. Poghosyan hit four in a 5-0 thrashing, the only black mark on the match being a broken foot for Minasyan that would end his season. The following week we welcomed Gandsazar to the capital with a 3-0 win, and with 10 games to go were 10 points clear. Another win, and we were set for matchday 20 at Mika. What followed was the finest 25 minutes of football I have had the pleasure of watching, the hosts simply incapable of getting near us as we tore through their defence time and time again. At the end of those 25 minutes we led 6-0 and it could have been more, and the only disappointment was that we didn’t hit double figures by the end of the 90. Poghosyan hit four, and recent youth graduate Aram Ohanyan – a defensive midfielder by trade – became our youngest ever league goalscorer, netting a memorable hat-trick a day before his 17th birthday. 7-2 was the final score, Mika at least improving a little after the break, but the damage was already done. But we were not done inflicting it. The final game of the third set of fixtures saw us host Ararat, and it did not take long for them to regret making the short journey across Yerevan. If Mika had been blown away, Ararat were decimated – in as close to a literal sense of the word as football allows. The visitors scored our first goal for us after just three minutes, an ominous sign of what was to come. By half time we led 6-1, and with six minutes left in the game we granted the wishes of our greedy fans by hitting double figures. 10-1, all manner of records broken, and an emphatic statement. Poghosyan helped himself to another four goals, but there was only one other Pyunik player on the scoresheet, another homegrown starlet – Vahe Khachatrian – marking just his fourth senior appearance with no fewer than five goals. His star would rise rapidly, and with 17 goals in our last two games, we had put real fear in the hearts of our next opponents. Game 22 would not be another high-scoring affair, but it would be three points and put us on the brink of yet another championship win. Round 23 sent us to Shirak, and still with just four dropped points all year, we knew that Gandsazar’s failure to beat Banants at home in the early game would be enough to crown us once more. We conceded three, but in keeping with our recent form hit the visitors for six of our own to clinch the title. 21 wins and two draws was emphatic form by anyone’s standards, and all that was left for us to do now was to break our previous records. 70 points had been the standard set in last season’s unbeaten run, and with five games still to play we were just five short of the same tally. We had also smashed in 84 goals over the course of our 23 matches – getting to 100 would be quite the statement, even if it seemed unlikely. A 3-0 win on home took us to 68 and 87 respectively, before we crushed our nearest challengers Gandsazar 4-1 in their own back yard to push us past our previous points tally and reach 91 goals for the season. Suddenly, hitting 100 did not seem so far-fetched, and the focus of every sports journalist in the country was on whether or not we would reach the milestone. With three games to go, we needed nine more. Bottom club Erebuni gave us the ideal opportunity to find at least some of those, and a hat-trick from Poghosyan ensured our star striker held up his end of the bargain. Two more from the emerging Khachatrian saw us wind up 5-2 winners, and needing just four more. At home to Mika, we got three, leaving us with one final fixture – away across town at Ararat to grab one more goal. To further spice things up, Ararat were not yet sure of survival – they sat a single point above Erebuni, and on the basis of games won would be relegated if they lost and their rivals got a point. Fortunately for them, they did not – otherwise Ararat would have been in serious trouble. For a team fighting for their lives, they were simply poor. Poghosyan got yet another hat-trick – taking him to a frankly ridiculous tally of 48 league goals in just 26 matches, and 60 in 38 across all competitions – while our other two goals were scored by strikers at opposite ends of their careers, Movsisyan and Khachatrian book-ending the hat-trick with a header apiece from Agbaljan crosses. That left us with 80 points – just four points short of the maximum possible tally – and 104 goals, the most anyone had managed since the early 1990s in a very different-looking league, and a marker which would surely prove impossible to beat by anyone other than ourselves. We had now gone two complete seasons and more than 60 matches undefeated, and had won every match we had played from November onwards. There were very few places we could go to improve domestically from here – but that wouldn’t stop us trying.