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About EvilDave

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  1. This continues to be excellent Chris, on many levels. As others have said, you're managing the speculation and combo of domestic misery/Euro success very well, and I'm enjoying the tour of your Gary's music collection on the way. Keep it up!
  2. (FM'17) The Minnows of Montenegro

    Looks like a good start Neil, hopefully bodes well for the rest of the year. Interestingly enough, my first thought for this challenge was Montenegro, and I got as far as pre-season with Berane before changing my mind. Good to see you giving it more of a go than I managed!
  3. 14-1 A Trip to Asia

    Wow, I really am bad at these. Useless outside of the Soviet bloc...
  4. Minnows No More

    2018/19 Having secured Europa League group stage football last season – and then some – we would now move to the next step of our plan: hoovering up the best available Armenian talent. We moved quickly and we moved often, signing no fewer than nine players, a mix of first-teamers and young prospects, as we bolstered both our numbers and the depth available to us. The men to go straight into the first team were Sergis Adamyan, a potential partner to Poghosyan up front with more technical ability than Hakobyan; David Hakobyan, a flying left winger who could also do a job up front; Artak Yedigaryan, a defensive utility man who would take the holding role and fill in at left back; Arsen Beglaryan, a keeper to rival Gor Manukyan between the sticks; and Tigran Barseghan to rotate with Armen Putulyan on the right wing. Arthur Yuspanyan in defensive midfield, Zhirayr Margaryan at right back, Arsen Abrahamyan at attacking midfield and Karen Hakobyan, a defensive starlet, all joined for backup purposes, the total outlay coming to just £83k. It was a lot for Armenia, but a pittance compared to what we had earned and would again earn from Europe. Speaking of which, we began this year’s Champions League adventure at the second qualifying stage rather than the first, our previous years’ escapades pushing us out of the minnows’ round. Our campaign would begin in Finland at the home of FC Lahti, who had lifted the Veikkausliga for the first time in their history to qualify. A late strike for the debutant Adamyan edged a narrow 3-2 win for us to bring home to Yerevan, and while we were a little more nervous at home, an early goal from Poghosyan gave us the insurance we needed. A late penalty for the Finns gave them a consolation, but nothing more – we were on to the third round, even if not so convincingly. Unseeded, we faced the potential for a relative giant to be drawn against us, but we came off relatively lightly. Dodging perennial group stages qualifiers Olympiakos and Dinamo Zagreb, we instead landed Slovenian champions Maribor, with the first leg away. As in Finland we hit three goals, unlike Finland we conceded just the once, and so after racing into a 2-0 lead just 12 minutes into the home leg, we were as good as done. The Slovenians pulled one back, but we in turn withdrew into a defensive shell which they were unable to penetrate further. Job done, and we had guaranteed group stage football once again. The side to determine whether it would be Champions League or Europe League were Danish outfit FC Midtjylland, with the Yerevan leg first on this occasion. An early setback turned to joy as Hakobyan and Poghosyan grabbed one each in the last 10 minutes, and we had a narrow lead to take the Denmark. Unfortunately, we lost our shooting boots in transit – just two of our 14 shots troubled the goalkeeper – and at the other end the Danes were clinical. Two goals from six efforts were enough to edge them through, and we settled for the Europa League once again. Fate was in our favour at the group stage draw, handed us one of the weaker groups as a fourth seed. There would be a particularly Eastern flavour to Group C – Dynamo Kyiv as a top seed, Besiktas as a second, with FC Kobenhavn the only club from outside the old Iron Curtain. Our chances were slim, but they were at least chances. In matchday one, we took them. 3-1 at home to the Danes got us off to a flying start, a Poghosyan hat-trick grabbing the headlines in what was a superb team performance and the perfect opening to our campaign. We couldn’t match that in Istanbul, Besiktas claiming a 2-0 win on home soil, but it was the double header against Dynamo that got our hopes up. A dramatic late headed equaliser from substitute right back and youth product Gor Afrikyan earned us a 2-2 draw in Kyiv, and then a Poghosyan penalty a 1-0 win at home. With seven points from four games, we were locked in a three-way tie for first place. Only Kobenhavn were out of the running, and we were heading there next. We came away with another draw, this time 2-2 after blowing a two-goal cushion in the final half hour. That meant we went into the final match, at home to the Turks, able to both top the group and miss out on qualification. We served up a classic, twice levelling in the first half after falling behind, and then taking a surprise lead just minutes in the second period. An unstoppable free kick took it to 3-3 with 20 minutes to go, but a draw between Kobenhavn and Kyiv meant it was enough. Besiktas would go through as group winners, and we would follow them in second place. We were into the knockouts for the second year in a row. Proof, if it were needed, that we were minnows no more. Once there, we met our demise. Marseille were one of the stronger sides we could have faced, and a 3-1 win for the visitors in Yerevan put the writing on the wall. A 4-0 reverse in France was a little harsh on my men, as was the 7-1 aggregate scoreline, but there was no doubt we had taken steps forward. Last year, we escaped the group with three wins and three defeats. This time we had lost only once, earning points in tough places on the way to last 32. We were making strides in the right direction, and there was always next year.
  5. Another Final

    “Jim mate, get in here!” Ally did not even attempt to hide his emotions – tears almost welling up in his eyes as he struggled to contain his excitement. He had struck gold, and needed to tell his co-conspirator quickly. “What is it?” “Brunei, it’s happening. Seriously, read this – these guys are real.” It had taken a week for Bruneians to respond, and with good reason. Not only had the response been signed off by royalty – Prince Sufri Bolkiah in his role as FA chief – but had been returned with interest. Unbeknown to both Jim and Ally, the state of Brunei had a long-running grudge against world football’s governing body, and had been doing their research on the new Scottish proposal. Their response was beyond Ally’s wildest dreams. In 2008 FIFA, in conjunction with Asian Football Confederation, took the rare step of banning the Football Association of Brunei Darassulam, citing government interference in the domestic game. It meant no international football for a full two years, and the forced withdrawal of flagship DPMM FC from the Singaporean S-League – a competition which, under the management of former Blackburn boss Kean, they now dominated. The ban knocked the sport backwards in Brunei, beginning a feeling of animosity which lingered even seven years after the lifting of the ban. Results were still poor – they always had been – but now this nation of less than half a million had a scapegoat on which to cast their sub-par performances. Their problem until now had been the lack of a platform on which to protest. Inadvertently, Jim and Ally had offered them exactly that. The Bruneian royalty were smart enough to realise that using the game in Russia to hoist banners from the Petrovsky roof and make a scene would be enough to land them in yet more hot water, and so participation was all they were asking. However, what had truly excited Ally – beyond their enthusiasm for taking part – was the fact that one of the richest nations in the world was offering to foot the bill. Jim and Ally’s campaign had raised enough to cover the costs of the stadium, the officials, and the Andorrans’ travel arrangements. However, a member of one of the richest families in the world was volunteering to repay that money, and effectively pay the tab in exchange for something they were being asked. Their only condition was that no attempts were made to sanction the match as an official FIFA friendly – something neither of our friends had any problem with. Had it not been before them in black and white, they never would have believed their luck – the rankings could have dropped any team into joint-205th place, but the magic formula had given them the one team both completely on board with their ideals and with the resources to make it happen. Over the course of the next few days, Ally thrashed out a few more of the details with His Royal Highness, and on the eve of Valentine’s Day, Andorra and Brunei was a match made in Scottish heaven. Petrovsky was paid for, the Andorran FA was paid in advance, Hugh Dallas and his team were given their instructions. Online backers were informed that their offers of financial help were much appreciated but no longer required, and instead offered free tickets to the match itself. All they had to do now was wait.
  6. Another Final

    The last Thursday in January is, generally speaking, an unspectacular day in the footballing world. There are few leagues hosting matches on that particular midweek night, and even the distractions of Europe’s second-tier continental club competition is yet to return, the Europa League jolting back into life in February. However, for Jim and Ally, January 25th 2018 marked the day their dream became that little bit more of a reality. The reason behind this unexpected joy was a simple one – the monthly recalculation of the FIFA rankings, the most-maligned system by which a team who was yet to win a major international tournament (for example, Belgium) could be named as the best team in the world, while at the same team those obviously on the rise could be denied seedings at major competitions. Time after time the rankings system was brought in for review, only for the new methodology to be torn apart by fans and press alike. Our two Scotsmen were similarly cynical of the system – not least because it had their beloved homeland floating around in the high 40s, behind some of the global games’ decidedly lesser lights – but on this occasion it was the tool that would enable their vision to become a little clearer. Whereas in the previous iteration, Andorra and Eritrea were undisputedly the two sovereign states lowest in the rankings, the points system allowed for nations to be tied. And that was exactly what had happened. With the scoring system taking into account every match played over a four-year period, each month the rankings could change – by a point or two in most cases, or significantly if the new 48-month window happened to cut off a major tournament or qualification round. In this instance, Eritrea’s score of 21 points remained unchanged, as did Andorra’s pathetic eight. However, also dropped to 21, thereby giving them credibility as an alternative ‘worst country in the world’ contender, was the small South-East Asian sultanate of Brunei Darussalam. One of the world’s wealthiest countries in terms of purchasing power, Brunei represented a completely different option to the isolationist Eritreans. Keen entrepreneurs who were keen to both market their vast natural resources to the wider world and eager to show their nation in a positive light, the venerated royal family of Brunei were known to be nation-builders, attempting to forged a Bruneian identity in the 30 or so years since independence from Britain. In terms of something to having something to work with, Brunei looked an infinitely better option. It also appeared that the Asian side were simply more communicative – a functioning website an phone number, obvious offices, and a domestic side enjoying success overseas in the form of Steve Kean’s DPMM FC – were all promising signs that contact could be made and managed with much more success than the African state. And so, with a sense of excitement flowing through their veins, Ally convinced Jim to hold the first celebratory pint of the day until after he had crafted an email to their governing body. Attaching a copy of the email from the Andorrans and, being sure to add in details of the proposed venue and the promise of an ‘international calibre’ referee, he was confident that he could at least open up a dialogue with the newly-eligible nation.
  7. Minnows No More

    Thanks Neil, it certainly was! With wages so low in Armenia it's set us up nicely, although we need some help from other clubs if we're to seriously boost the co-efficient. We no longer have to play the first qualifiers, but otherwise we're in a similar spot to where we were... -- Back at home, we were poor in the cups once again. Alashkert dropped us at the first hurdle in the cup, while our one-off Super Cup clash with Banants saw an entertaining game settled on penalties in favour of our opponents. Given that we had beaten Terek from the spot earlier in the season, I was much happier to be losing this one. In the league however, we hit the ground running. In fact, we hit the ground at full-blown sprint, breaking league records with a 9-1 thrashing of Erebuni on the opening day. At their ground. Welcome to the big leagues, boys. That was followed by a 5-0 win over fellow newcomers Kotayk, and it looked for a moment as if we would smash through everything before us. However, our European adventures forced us to rotate the side and play tired players, and while we proved tough to beat, we were dropping points in places we had no right to do so. After seven games – a quarter of the campaign – we actually found ourselves second in the table, locked on points with Ararat and Shirak but behind the latter by virtue of having won four games to their five. I was confident we could pull away, but we needed to stop throwing away points. We didn’t though, and after tasting league defeat for the first time on matchday 12 – a 1-0 reverse at Gandsazar, we then travelled to Shirak at went down 2-1 there, back-to-back losses dropping us off the top of the table. Our next match – mercifully a victory – brought us to the halfway point of the competition, where we sat a single point behind surprise leaders Ararat and level with both Shirak and Banants. The ace up our sleeve was a game in hand earned from our European jaunts, and so we had every chance of going back to the summit. We did so quickly, two wins in a week before the winter break putting us two points clear of our fellow Yerevan club, and in pole position to kick on and retain the title. We would be out of Europe by the time the league resumed in March, and without distractions we were clear favourites as the men in possession. With no key players leaving the club in the transfer window, we were in a strong position. To their credit, Ararat would not be shaken. Our third league meeting of the season ended in a draw, and after 21 games apiece, there were still only three points between us. That Gandsazar were lurking a point further back was also impressive given that we were on an eight-game unbeaten streak, and their very presence told us that we could not afford to slip up. In the last round of fixtures, every game was crucial. We rose to the challenge. As Ararat faded down the home straight, Hovhannes Poghosyan fired us to glory, finishing with a spectacular record of 48 goals in 47 games, and 33 in 28 league appearances. It was his brace that saw us clinch the title with a 2-0 win over Banants two games before the end of the season, and only his missed penalty that saw us taste defeat for just the third time all season at runners-up Gandsazar the following week. A 1-1 draw at Shirak wrapped up another successful season, our 59 points two more than Gandsazar’s haul and five ahead of Banants in third. Ararat, for so long our nearest challengers, wound up back in fourth place, 11 points off the pace. At the other end of the league, newcomers Kotayk endured one of the worst seasons of professional football ever, winning just one and drawing two of their 28 games. They would not be missed. Another title meant another go at the Champions League, but this time there would be a difference. Having reached the Europa League groups – and indeed the knockout rounds – I would be delving into the market for the first time. For Armenia to be put truly on the map, we needed a flagship team. For Pyunik to become that flagship team, we needed the cream of Armenian talent available to us. While we were developing our own players very nicely, there were undeniably those who would improve our club playing elsewhere – for our rivals and abroad. If we could assemble them all under the Pyunik banner, we would soon be flying high.
  8. Minnows No More

    In the group stages, we were of course a fourth and final seed, a fact reflected as we became the final side to be drawn. Placed in Group L, we would have a tough task on our hands to get anything, and indeed were predicted to come dead last in a group with French giants Lyon, Portuguese challengers Braga, and Czech outfit Slovan Liberec. Some media outlets even went as far as to predict that we would break records for goals conceded – they had evidently not been watching our qualification games. We had forced them to eat their words by the end of the first 90 minutes. Braga were the first visitors to Yerevan in ‘proper’ European competition, and they left with stories of unbeatable Armenian defenders, midfielders with infinite energy and clinical finishing. Poghosyan and Hakobyan scored twice each in one of the club’s greatest ever victories, giving us three more points than anyone expected and an early spot on top of Group L. By the time we had been to Lyon in matchday two however, our goal difference advantage had been wiped out. Led by Arsenal target Alexandre Lacazette’s hat-trick, the French side ran riot against our youthful side, smashing five past Gor Manukyan and leaving us only a late own goal as consolation. It was a sobering experience, but one we would have to learn from quickly. Following up from such a heavy defeat would not be eays, but Slovan Liberec were the weakest team in the group and so ripe for points to be taken. However, while we rediscovered our attacking ability, netting three times in just 10 second-half minutes, we could do nothing about our defensive failings. By the time our third went in the hosts had three of their own, and deep into time added on a contentious penalty condemned us to a thrilling but ultimately dissatisfying 4-3 defeat. With half the fixtures played we sat second – Lyon with a perfect nine points, everyone else with three – but knew we would need better if we were to somehow stay in Europe after Christmas. The first return fixture was Slovan’s visit to Liberec, and on home soil we were much improved. An early Czech goal had us rocking, but Poghosyan replied almost instantly to calm our nerves. A second half penalty was tucked home by the same man to put us in the driving seat, and as the visitors pushed for a leveller we hit them on the break, a low cross deflected beyond the visiting goalkeeper to wrap up a 3-1 Pyunik win and give us a fighting chance. We had already exceeded expectations – could we get the win we needed to move on? Not against Lyon, who took their tally of goals against us to eight in two matches with a comfortable 3-0 win in Yerevan to wrap up a perfect group stage from the French side. However, that result was immaterial – we were through, progressing to the knockout round after an incredible performance in Portugal, breezing past Braga 3-1 for a second win against the hosts and taking us to nine group stages points in our first ever appearance. If there was a question mark hovering over the ‘minnow’ tag beforehand, we had well and truly dispelled it. Minnows do not qualify for knockout stages. After the winter break we would return to action against Russian opposition for the third time in two season, travelling to Moscow to face the old army side CSKA. With snow still on the ground it was a hard-fought tie, a penalty apiece giving us a 1-1 draw to work with at home. There, in sunnier climes, the Muscovites stepped up their game – but so did we, and with 15 minutes to play we were locked at 2-2, the Russians heading through on away goals only. Unfortunately for us, it was our turn to get hit on the break, and Artur Kartashyan could only begin down Olanare as the Nigerian broke clear. Alan Dzagoev converted from the spot to secure a 3-2 win on the night and 4-3 aggregate progress, bringing an end to our superb run in the competition. We had proved our doubters wrong, and we would be back. I would make sure of it.
  9. Another Final

    Despite their failure to figure out a second team, the World Cup draw, combined with the news of a possible venue for their ‘Other Final,’ sparked further interest in Jim and Ally’s project. Before the year was out, the pair were increasingly well-known in the footballing blogosphere, appearing on a huge variety of websites and podcasts to plead their case. With Garry O’Connor providing a name and a network to drive the project forward, the cash was coming in, and fast. Certain details were, of course, held back, but the word was out there. So fast, in fact, that before Christmas Day arrived, the pair had already received enough in pledges to pay for the hire of the pitch for the day. Not only that, but offers of help – from practical logistics to translation for the Andorrans – were flooding in from all angles. Had they not known it before, they certainly did now – this was an all-consuming project. Indeed, into the new year the pledges were touching six-figures, most notably after a five-figure donation from O’Connor himself who, in a somewhat touching and thoroughly unnecessary statement on his personal website, thanked both Jim and Ally for ‘giving an old, washed-up dog a new bone to play with, and a disgraced former pro the chance to do something worthwhile with his time.’ It was a moving sentiment, and exactly the sort of thing that the two friends had hoped when landing on a retired footballer. With the all the money coming in and no second team, Jim was beginning to get anxious. Ally, however, had other plans, and instead of feeding his friend’s worries, played an ace that he had been keeping up his sleeve from precisely this moment. “Assuming we’re going to get a second team – and we will, don’t you worry – what do you reckon we do about a man in the middle?” “You think we’ll struggle to find a ref?” “Well it isn’t the easiest sell is it? ‘Come to Russia and take charge of a match between two useless countries so two Scottish blokes can make a film and stick one up at FIFA.’ Not quite the World Cup Final now.” “Well, when you put it like that… Any ideas?” “Ideas? Come on Jim, how long have we known each other? I’ve not got ideas mate, I’ve got answers.” “Come on, who have we got?” “So, with the actual World Cup going on, we’re not likely to get the cut of international referees, are we?” “No.” “Thankfully, those aren’t the sort of refs that Garry O’Connor happens to know. Turns out, the old footballing community is a bit tighter than you might think.” “Hanging out with Russian referees now is he? That man is a bag of surprises.” “Not Russian, Jim. Think about it for a minute, who’s the highest profile retired referee you can think of?” “He doesn’t know sodding Collina, come off it!” “No, he doesn’t, get real mate. Think – if you wanted a referee who could guarantee you a bit of controversy in O’Connor’s heyday, who would you take?” “Bloody hell Ally, stop with the teasing already – give me a bloody name.” “Alright mate, calm down. If I told you that Garry had persuaded none other than Hugh Dallas to stick back into the middle for one night only…” “Hugh ****ing Dallas?! Bloody hell, how did he pull that one off?” A grim stretched across Ally’s face. “I don’t know mate, but he did. Expenses and he’s in. Imagine he’s sick of seeing his lad stealing the limelight, maybe he wants to prove something to himself, something like that. Either way, he’s in, I’ve got an email telling me as much and all his contact details. Jim mate, we’ve got ourselves a referee.” “And the others?” “Hugh says he’ll sort ‘em – we might even get his lad if he isn’t picked for the tournament. One more thing crossed off the list.” “You can say that again mate. Just need another team now.” “Patience, Jim, patience. We’ll get there.”
  10. Minnows No More

    Thanks 10-3 - it looks like it might take a fair old while, but I'm here for the long haul! -- 2017/18 With a league title under our belts and the moniker of champion, we would be marked men in domestic competition, with everyone keen to get one over on the top dogs from the previous season. However, before we could get to the clichéd ‘bread and butter’ of the league campaign, we had another opportunity to break Armenia’s European duck, beginning in the somewhat insulting first round of Champions League qualifying. Only the champions of the eight weakest leagues were thrown in here, and for the time being, that included Armenia. It also included San Marino, but La Fiorita – the champions of the Most Serene Republic – were no match for our firepower. The away leg saw us return home with a 4-1 advantage, and another hat-trick back at home from Poghosyan secured our progress with a thumping 8-1 aggregate scoreline. We were far too good for this round of competition, and in future years UEFA would recognise as much. In the second round, we were drawn with one of the toughest opponents possible. Having dodged BATE Borisov of Belarus, we were matched with Maccabi Tel-Aviv and a trip to Israel, although not before facing them at home. A dull goalless affair in Yerevan meant everything was riding on our trip to Tel-Aviv, and two goals inside the opening 20 minutes for the hosts looked to be sending us out. Again, they had reckoned without Poghosyan. A deft volley after 63 minutes and a skidding drive just five later pulled us level on the night and ahead on away goals, leaving Maccabi needing a third. They didn’t get it, and we’d pulled off another upset. We were rapidly losing our minnows tag. Our Champions League adventure came to a skidding halt in the third qualifiers, Olympiakos the highest ranked team available to us and so inevitably granted our number. 0-1 in Yerevan brought no shame on our side, and a matching result in Piraeus saw the Greeks through comfortably while keeping our dignity intact. We were tough to beat, even if the Champions League wouldn’t be coming to Armenia this year. However, the loss meant a drop into the final qualifying play-off for the Europa, and more Russian opposition. Akhmat Grozny were not of the same calibre as last year’s conquerors Krasnodar, and a battling 2-2 draw at home – Poghosyan again on the scoresheet – gave us hope for the home leg. Terek led twice, twice we pegged them back, and extra time beckoned. Scoreless in the extra 30, we were left to penalties – and we prevailed. Captain and defensive rock Aram Shakhnazaryan tucked home the winning kick after Magomed Mitrishev struck the post, and for the first time ever an Armenian side had group stage European football to boast about. It had taken us just two years for the breakthrough.
  11. Another Final

    “Jim, do you have any idea who James Montague is?” “Sounds like a TV cop if you ask me.” “That’s a no then?” “Aye, it is.” “Well, turns out he’s a football writer. A good one too, pays his way round the world writing stories on everyone from Botswana to Brazil. Written a couple of books, it turns out.” “Ally mate, why do I need to know this?” “Because he’s written to us.” “Really?” “Yeah, and it isn’t good news.” “Go on.” “Eritrea. He wrote a chapter on them in one of his books, tracking some of the smaller teams from around the world in the build-up to Brazil. They were one of them. Point is, there’s no way we’re getting Eritrea to come and play.” “Why not?” “Several reasons, but the main one is they don’t really do playing away if they can help it. It’s a one-party government that doesn’t give a hoot for human rights – no religious freedom, no political opposition, no nothing. You don’t just leave Eritrea unless they want you to.” “Surely they cut the footballers some slack though? Bit of positive PR must be good for a regime like that?” “You’d think. Problem is, they have a big problem with defectors, as you might expect. Every time they play away, they lose a big chunk of the team to whichever country they go to. New squad needed every time. Part of the reason they’re so bad, I suppose.” “So they aren’t in the habit of away friendlies then.” “They aren’t really in the habit of friendlies at all, let alone away ones. No-one else is keen on a trip there, and they aren’t risking more men going AWOL for a friendly game. There’s more too.” “Yeah?” “Yeah. If they accept our invitation, they’re in the spotlight. Get beaten by Andorra, watch players stay in Russia, people notice. Given they don’t do well with international relations, it’s no surprise they aren’t returning my messages.” “That’s the second-worse team out of the running then?” “Looks like it.” “So what the hell do we do for a match now?” “I don’t know Jim, not yet. For now, we keep going and keep fundraising. We’ll come up with something, don’t worry.”
  12. (FM'17) The Minnows of Montenegro

    Great to see this up and running Neil, always a pleasure to read your work. I'm curious to see whether you can be the first of the minnow you've got loaded to make it to the CL - Montenegro seem a little similar to Armenia in that the international side clearly has some talent, but precious little of it hangs around in the domestic league. Good luck with Celik!
  13. Another Final

    December 1st 2017 saw Russian soft power at its strongest, as the upper echelons of the world game converged on the Kremlin for the long-awaited World Cup draw. Hosts Russia were, perhaps unsurprisingly landed with one of the weaker groups alongside Peru, Sweden and Morocco, while British press attention was very much on England – the only one of the Home Nations to make it despite much promise elsewhere – who were handed an interesting trio of Argentina, Australia and debutants Panama in Group E. A second-round match-up with holders Germany, and yet another early exit, looked distinctly possible unless they could overcome Leo Messi’s 2014 runners-up. However, for Jim and Ally, excitement was not to be found in Andrei Arshavin and Luis Figo pulling balls out of pots, but in an unexpected email from none other than the Andorran FA. It arrived just 20 minutes after the draw concluded – an indication that the Pyreneans had perhaps not been all too impressed with the glitz and glamour of FIFA’s pre-tournament showpiece – and gave them a hope that had not been as clear since the idea was formulated. For the first time, they had a willing participant. The email, signed off personally by FA President Victor Lopez, was lengthy and overly formal in places, but the significant details were conveniently located together. Andorra “are willing to participate in such a match, regardless of its international status, on the following conditions: a) The match is held at either the Estadi Nacional, or on neutral territory. The Andorra National Team is not prepared to play an ‘away’ match to the benefit of a possible opponent. b) Travel, accommodation and all other reasonable expenses are provided for the Andorra National Team and associated support staff. If the match receives FIFA status, a match fee per player to be paid in addition – if not, the FAF is prepared to meet this expense. c) Match officials are provided of a neutral nationality. d) The opposition is found to meet the criteria of the original brief. A ‘mismatch’ will be unacceptable. e) Taking part in the match will result in no sanction or other disadvantage for the Andorran National Team in future campaigns. We reserve the right to withdraw if any of these stipulations are not met, and …” Needless to say, our two Scotsmen were ecstatic. The rest of the day disappeared in something of an alcohol-fuelled haze, with only the following evening providing an appropriate moment for Ally to return Mr Lopez’ message. Hearty thanks were, of course, the order of the day, along with clarification of the costs implied in the second point. If the Andorrans were able to put a price on their participation, it would put them in an excellent position to negotiate with the Eritreans – assuming they were ever willing to reply. The alternative was a personal trip to Asmara to visit the FA offices, and that was something that neither Jim nor Ally was particularly keen to try. On that same day, there was further contact from O’Connor. The former Hibs frontman had been in touch with his old bosses in Russia and, after much digging and what sounded like some awfully-translated conversations, had come up with a venue for the match. Not only did the meet their basic requirements of being in Russia, but it also made sense. It was in St Petersburg, close enough to the new stadium to be a statement, but small enough that it would not raise eyebrows if it were rented out on the day of the World Cup Final – not least if it were rented out by a man who used to play in the country. The Malaya Sportivnaya Arena at Zenit’s old Petrovsky Stadium seated just under 3,000 fans, which was probably about right for a potentially unsanctioned match between two unheralded minnows from different continents. Having hosted second tier football in the past, it was a suitable enough ground for the professional game, without looking too ostentatious. It would meet the criteria of the AMF brigade – a small arena rejected by the big boys in favour of a shiny, state-supported new stadium – and would not seem too outlandish a choice. It was also without a tenant, the only club regularly hosting matches at the MSA being Zenit-2 of the Russian second tier, who would understandably not be needing the ground during the duration of the World Cup. All of which meant that for the ‘small’ sum of 1.5 million rubles, it could be theirs. Out came the calculators and currency convertors, and a figure was arrived at – roughly £20,000, give or take. It was a lot of money – certainly more than either Jim or Ally happened to have down the back of a sofa – but it was an achievable amount, particularly with the potential backing of a broad sweep of the footballing community. There was no rush to confirm whether or not they would take it, but mentally both Jim and Ally ticked the box – this would be what they took back to the Andorrans and put forward to the Eritreans, and this is where their dream game would take place. Just as soon as they could afford it.
  14. Minnows No More

    On the home front, we were supposed to play our part by propping up the Bardrazguyn Khumb table, and doling out the points to our opponents time after time – with just six teams competing, we’d be playing everyone else no less than six times for our 30 games. Nobody in the national media had given us a hope in their pre-season previews, especially given our non-existent transfer policy, although one or two of them did have the sense to review their estimations having watched our escapades on the continent. While our cup journey came to an early end, knocked out at the first hurdle – accurately but somewhat misleadingly labelled the quarter final – by eventual winners Gandsazar, the league was a different story altogether. With Poghosyan and Hakobyan forming a lethal partnership upfront and our defence largely holding firm, it took until the 10th match of the season before we tasted defeat, an awful 4-1 beating at Banants. Before them however, we had already beaten every other side in the league at least once, sitting five points clear of second-place Shirak with six wins and three draws to our name. It wouldn’t last, they said. I begged to differ. Another defeat – this time at home, 1-0 to Alashkert – came in the next set of fixtures, but as it was accompanied by three wins and a fourth draw of the season, I was none too concerned. Indeed, by the time we rolled around to early December and the start of the long winter break, we were already a staggering 12 points clear of the chasing pack, Banants and Shirak the two sides closest to us but a long way away from challenging. Not bad for a side expected to embarrass themselves at every step of the way. Of course it would all be for nothing if we were not able to hold on and finish the job, and we could not allow ourselves to be distracted – not even by the arrival of the latest batch of youth graduates. They signed their contracts too late to be registered for the current campaign – a shame, as it would have been useful to blood one or two early – but while there was no obvious world-beater in the bunch, there was significant potential and plenty for us to tap into in years to come. On the field, back-to-back wins upon resumption stretched our lead to 18 with two thirds of the season gone, but it was then that we hit our first bump in the road. Having only lost two games all season to this point, we fell 0-1 at struggling Ararat, were hammered 3-0 at home by Alashkert, and then lost a thriller of a game 3-2 at Gandsazar. No points from a possible nine, second place Banants our next visitors – were we about to undo all our good work? No. A Poghosyan hat-trick was the difference as we edged our primary chasers 3-2 in game 24, and three matches later one of our best away displays of the season saw us beat Alashkert 3-0 in their own back yard and claim the title with three games to spare, Banants losing 5-2 at Gandsazar to give us an unassailable advantage. The celebrations were as long as they were unexpected, and next year our European run would at least begin in the Champions League. Not the ideal dwelling place of a minnow. We ran through the rest of the campaign quickly, our W17 D8 L5 record leaving us with 59 points, a whopping 17 clear of Banants in second and 19 ahead of Alashkert in the bronze medal position. It had been a processional victory in the end, a stroll to success by the least-fancied club in the country. Next year there would be two more clubs joining us in the top flight – even purer minnows in Kotayk and Erebuni – but my expectation would be that we repeat the trick. Anything less than the title was now a backward step, and one we could not afford, not least because Armenia only held one spot in the Champions League preliminaries. This needed to be the start of a dynasty, and I would allow no other outcome.
  15. Another Final

    Over the next couple of weeks, Jim and Ally were plunged headlong into a world they had never experienced before – a world of covert meetings, newspaper interviews, Twitter exchanges, guest blog posts – the works. They had been careful to avoid the traditional mainstream media – that could wait until the match was just about to land – but otherwise every avenue was explored. They had been determined to find not only their way into the circles that mattered, but also to alert a much wider audience to their project. They succeeded on both fronts. Amongst the ‘Against Modern Football’ crowd, the two Scots were the talk of the town. It was not a crowd that too many at the game’s top table paid much attention to, and so they considered themselves safe for the time being. Already, there were noises coming out of some quarters suggesting a crowd-sourcing project may well be a success, but there was still a clamour for that big-name backer, an old pro or major organisation, to throw their weight behind the project. To their surprise, Jim and Ally came across a surprising name – perhaps not the biggest out there, but certainly one of the most useful. “Really? I know he’s a Hibee and all, but why does he want a piece of this?” “Simple Jim – redemption.” “You what?” “First, he’s got a reputation a bad boy who blew it all on the bad stuff – and to be fair, he did. Second, he was managing in the diddy leagues, and that didn’t go all so well. Third, and I think most important, he’s got an axe to grind against the Russians.” “Oh ****, of course – played for Spartak, didn’t he?” “Lokomotiv, but close enough. Yeah, won them the cup final but couldn’t settle, reckons the experience pretty much broke him as a man. What that means for us though, is that we’ve got a bloke with contacts in the right country who has nothing to lose and is keen to get on board. What do you reckon?” “I reckon we hear him out, see what he can offer us. Make it clear this isn’t the Garry O’Connor story, that he isn’t getting rich from it, that he isn’t going to launch a bleeding revolution, but that it’s a start. We can’t let him blow this as well.” “Yeah, fair. I’ll give him a call.” And so Ally did – a conversation which yielded plenty in the way of information. The former Scotland international had played under no fewer than three managers in his turbulent 18 months in Moscow, and was still in touch with two of them – Serbia boss Slavoljub Muslin and Anatoli Byshovets. The latter was an Olympic gold medallist with far-reaching connections within the Russian game, and O’Connor agreed enthusiastically to contact his old boss for more details, particularly surrounding a stadium in St Petersburg and how much something might cost. The former striker was also happy to try and drum up support amongst his old clubs – not only at Hibs, but south of the border in Birmingham and Barnsley. Both were Championship clubs on the outside looking in, and would surely not take too much convincing to lend their support to an event. Furthermore, as a former pro he had access to the resources and networks of the Scottish PFA – containing, most notably, their advisors on all things media and publicity-related. The plan was very suddenly coming together.