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EvilDave

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  1. That is, of course, the end of the Hudsons' tale - thanks for reading along!
  2. @Mandy42, your timing is impeccable. __ Thirteen It had been the greatest single performance of Scunthorpe United’s season. Luton had started the game well enough, having the better of the opening exchanges and seeing an early Nathan Goldsmith strike ruled out, perhaps harshly, for offside. However, three minutes later Adrian Dowridge threaded the ball between the goalkeeper and his near post against the run of play, and Sam Hudson’s Iron never looked back. The ever-dangerous Levitt struck his 29th goal of the season on the stroke of half-time with a fine half-volley, and with the score at 2-0 at the interval, Luton’s spirits were crushed. Levitt made it a round 30 10 minutes into the second half, before an own goal from a Luton full-back with 67 minutes on the clock rubbed salt in the Hatters’ wounds. After a trio of substitutions took some of the sting out of the game, Scunthorpe continued to press. Young winger Curtis Wyles tapped in at the far post for just his second goal for the club, and then with three minutes remaining, Levitt claimed the match ball by slipping a shot through the goalkeeper’s legs. 6-0 was the full-time score, and with the Luton stands all but empty, it was left to the Iron faithful to sing the praises of their players and manager. For that manager, this was the moment of redemption. After being forced out of QPR under a cloud, he had taken a significant step down to take the reins at Glanford Park after 18 months out of the game. A flying start had been followed by some shaky midseason form, but a strong end to the campaign and three superb playoff performances had earned Scunthorpe a place in next year’s Championship, and their manager a place back on the list of rising stars of the English game. After the celebrations had finally died down, that same rising star insisted on returning to Scunthorpe that evening. His players could look after themselves after all, and he needed to be back home – with his wife. The realisation that he had come to after the second leg of the semi-final continued to ring true in his mind, and a night of revelry with his squad was not going to accelerate the process. He would not be back in North Lincolnshire until after 9pm and the taxi was expensive, but the alternative was to wait until the following morning, and it didn’t bear thinking about. Jo hadn’t travelled for the match – she couldn’t have coped with the tension – and wouldn’t be expecting him until the following morning. Surprise would be an excellent opening gambit. … “Guess who’s home?” Sam came crashing through the front door with the energy and grace of a hyperactive child. The taxi driver had been all too happy to oblige his well-paying passenger and stop off for refreshment before leaving the Wembley area, and Sam had indeed partaken of a celebratory drink or several – partly to calm his nerves, partly out of habit. His wife, watching at home on Sky Sports, had done the same, and was startled by the door opening with such force. “The **** are you doing here?” “That’s no way to treat a Championship manager of a husband is it? Come on, let’s celebrate!” In his urgency to be with his wife, Sam exuberantly kicked over two or three of the bottles that had made their way into the doorway – a barely touched bottle of Austrian rum, half a bottle of brandy, one of Sam’s many Lagavulins. The contents poured over the stained living room carpet, but neither was paying any attention to that. “Calm down you stupid ****, I can barely hear myself think!” “What is there to think about? We’re going to the big time!” “Big time? How much are they going to pay you then? Is it going to get to the ****ing Premier League? We’ll still be in this ****ing cesspit!” Sam stood, mouth open as Jo turned her head back to the rerun of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire on the television – a rerun he was sure he had seen not all that long ago. Angry at her lack of interest, he stubbed his cigarette out against the doorframe, dropped it on the floor and immediately lit a new one. Stepping over the sodden carpet, he instead positioned himself between the television and his wife. “What’s the matter Jo? What is it? Can’t we share joy anymore? Can we not be happy?” Jo stood up, her eyes burning with anger at her husband’s challenge. She knocked her ashtray off the arm of the sofa as she did so, clutching her glass of wine tightly in her left hand. Breathing heavily, she leaned in towards him. “Happy? Joy? Look at us! Do it!” Sam did as instructed – taking in the stained grey carpet, the cigarette burns on the wall, and the bottles littering the room. In his mind’s eye, he saw the rotting banister, the bombsite of a kitchen, the hallway that resembled a recycling bank. He looked back into his wife’s eyes. “There’s nothing here, Sam. We’ve got nothing. If I smash this glass, we’re no worse. If you manage in the ****ing Premier League, we’re no better. We’re in Scunthorpe, we’re drinking ourselves to death, and there’s no ****ing point to any of it.” “Jo…” “No Sam, I don’t lo…” Before she could utter another word, Sam locked eyes with his wife and kissed her deeply and passionately. After a half second of resistance, she gave in to his embrace, a smoky spark of something long forgotten flicking between them once more. Sam dropped his cigarette to the floor as the two clawed at one another, and only with some force did Jo gaspingly manage to break free and attempt her sentence a second time. “Sam… I don’t… love you… anymore.” Sam stood for a moment, stunned into silence. The walls of the house seemed to swirl around him as the words struck him square in the face, again and again. A second cigarette, freshly lit, dropped to the ground like its predecessor, and instead of lighting a third, he swiftly snatched the wine glass from his wife’s hand. As she started with surprise, he smashed the glass against the wall, withdrawing it as if to strike. Jo’s voice, strong but with a hint of trembling, stalled the next move. “What would I do if I didn’t have you?” This time Jo initiated, and the two were once more locked together. Before long they were pawing at one another on the floor, bottles rolling against each another as they took over the living room. Their passion was angry, aggressive, bordering on violent – as they attempted to rekindle their flame in the most primal way they knew, there would be cuts, scratches and even bites. So involved were they in their carnal combat, that neither of them noticed the change in the smell that dominated the house. Once stale smoke, the prevailing sensation was one of burning, and the first cigarette Sam had dropped came into contact with the alcohol-soaked carpet. The second had not helped matters, catching the bottom of one of the armchairs, and as the Hudsons lie locked in their vicious, passionate struggle, the flames began to grow and spread – both armchairs were soon consumed, and as the earlier spillage gave the blaze an easy passage to the staircase, the old rotten wood offered a quick route to the rest of the house. By the time Sam noticed – lifting his head for breath only to find it hard to come by – it was almost too late. Once he had seen the flames, the heat seemed unbearable and the air thick with smoke, and there was no clear escape route. The roaring armchairs blocked passage to the windows, while the doorway too was ablaze. Sam glanced back down at Jo, her eyes closed in a drunken blend of agony and ecstacy, then back around at the fire surrounding them. When he looked again, he saw the two crows that had become somewhat familiar to him over the last few months. He breathed as deeply as he possibly could, and returned his attentions to the writhing body of his wife.
  3. Twelve “It’s a great save from Kershaw, and that could be the last throw of the dice for Coventry. They’re out on their feet, but it’s a quick throw from the goalkeeper and Scunthorpe could settle this here. “Beeley collects it at left-back, and that’s a fine ball out to the right wing and the flying Dowridge, full of running having not long come onto the field. He goes past his man and Scunthorpe have two against one here, surely… “Yes! Dowridge rolls it across to Levitt, and the Iron’s top scorer makes no mistake with Johnson already committed. The Iron came here with an advantage from the first leg, and they’ve hammered it home here at the Ricoh Arena. It’s Coventry City 1, Scunthorpe United 2, and the Iron are going to Wembley!” It was glorious moment for the small pocket of fans clad in claret and blue, who drowned out their home counterparts in celebration. Having qualified for the League One playoffs in the final spot, Scunthorpe had upset the table with a 1-0 win over Coventry at Glanford Park. In the return leg, which concluded less than a minute after Kieron Levitt tapped into the unguarded net, Sam Hudson’s side had set themselves up perfectly on the counter – scoring early, not panicking when the hosts replied, and then striking at the death to book a place in the final. They’d go up against Luton, who had overcome Barnsley in their two-legged encounter, with a spot in the Championship at stake. Before then would be the build-up. Fans, players and staff alike would be interviewed countless times before and during the trip to Wembley, and one repeated refrain – albeit never one that passed through Sam’s own lips – was one, understandably for many of the players involved, of ‘the biggest day of our lives.’ After having a training session interrupted by yet more reporters asking his players about the biggest days of their lives, Sam retreated to his office. After reading and re-reading his notes on a Luton side that had only just missed out on automatic promotion, he lost the motivation to continue the charade. Instead, removing the battery from the smoke detector and lighting a cigarette, he allowed his mind to drift to some of his own ‘biggest days.’ There were footballing memories aplenty – his first team debut at Fulham, his first professional goal. Taking the captaincy at Crystal Palace, and joining the England squad for the first time. There were particular derby victories, wins over former clubs, particular performances that drew national acclaim. But attached to each of those memories was a second, often dominant recollection – and each one featured a prominent central character. His mind wandered to his first meeting with Jo, a less than romantic encounter outside a West London nightclub. Despite her turning the air blue in protestation, he had put her in a taxi home after finding her sat in the street with a twisted ankle, and left the taxi driver with instructions to pass his address and number on. Then to their engagement, a rushed affair at which Sam had brandished the ring to divert attention from a disagreement over the wine which threatened to tear them apart and take their fellow diners with them. There was their Jamaican honeymoon, which turned into a combination of heavy petting, heavier drinking, and weighty arguments. They had returned to London with impressive tans and stolen bath towels, both of them utterly convinced of marital bliss and yet with significant doubts over their future. When injury had forced him into a retirement he had hoped to delay for another year or two, Jo had cossetted him as best she could, but when it became apparent that he would never return to playing, the resentment grew to the point where it became outright bitterness. In truth, his move into coaching may never have happened otherwise. Latterly – before the wealth of flashpoints from even the last 12 months – there was promotion to the Premier League with QPR. It was perhaps a high point of passion between the two of them, sparks flying whenever they were in the same room, and yet that too ground to a halt with the realisation that Jo had spent a sizeable chunk of Sam’s promotion bonus on the beginnings of a wine ‘collection.’ They made terrible collectors, and even worse stewards of the remaining payment. For all the strength that brought them together, there was something even stronger, more powerful, deeply rooted, that pushed them apart. For every night of passion, there were two which ended in stony silence and cold shoulders. The fire that burned between them left little safe from danger, and it seemed to Sam that all that was left was the daily silence – TV gameshows, alcohol in growing quantities, cigarettes to match. Neither could cope without the other, but their very life together had no substance, nothing to keep it alive. At that realisation, Sam woke from his daydream, hair plastered to his forehead with sweat. It wouldn’t do. This couldn’t be all there was – here he stood, on the brink of redemption in his managerial career, and yet his marriage was barely breathing. He couldn’t stand back and let it happen. No. As soon as the playoff final reached its conclusion – for better or for worse – he would work on things with Jo. The summer would bring the ideal opportunity for the two of them to spend some real, quality time together. A holiday, that was what was needed – the best hotels, the finest wines, that would set them straight. A new house somewhere nicer, freshly decorated. They’d eat properly, know their neighbours. When he got back to Diana Street that evening to the sound of Jo’s snoring drifting down the stairs, he smiled. Everything was going to change.
  4. Eleven Scunthorpe had almost done it. Even a late howler from Lee Kershaw had not been enough to deny them a win in Swindon, and victory over the Robins meant that only every conceivable result going against them would deny the Iron a playoff spot. Andy Middleton’s thunderbolt from midfield had got things going before Kieron Levitt’s second-half brace sealed all three points, and the journey home was a lively one. At his captain’s suggestion, manager Sam Hudson had even allowed beers to be opened on the bus home, and he had enjoyed partaking in a beverage or four every bit as much as his players. On returning to Scunthorpe, Sam noticed that the town was unusually dark. It was now April, the clocks had changed, the nights were beginning to feel a little longer, and the town was coming out of hibernation. Yet despite spring having well and truly arrived in North Lincolnshire, when the bus returned from parts further south, not a single house had its lights on. It had just passed 10pm – it seemed implausible that the whole town had called it a night. “What’s going on?” Sam’s first question to his taxi driver was related to the darkness, and it was quickly explained – a power cut. Apparently the whole town had been cut off since around 1pm, and Northern Powergrid were at a loss to explain it. Burglar alarms had already run out of their emergency batteries, and it was only the streetlights that continued to function. Jo heard her husband before he came through the door, the usual hum of the television drowned out by the electrically-induced silence. Still, there was no reaction to the sound of the taxi pulling up outside their home, and she allowed him to open the conversation when he stepped through the door. “How long has this been going on?” “All afternoon. No telly, no fridge, none of the shops open. It’s ****.” “Was there anything in the fridge?” “Nothing important. I chucked some milk that wouldn’t cope, but the microwave stuff will last forever anyway. Beer will be warm.” “What are we down to?” “What do you mean?” “I mean what are we ****ing down to!” “I don’t ****ing know – go and look yourself!” Sam almost ran through to the kitchen as a realisation hit him, and it was a great deal slower that he returned to stand in the doorway. In one hand he held a bottle of gin with perhaps as little as a third remaining inside, and in the other the dregs of a bottle of long-forgotten rum. “**** all! That’s what we’ve got. Couldn’t you drag your lazy ****ing arse to a ****ing shop?” “No power, they’re all shut.” “****!” “There’s still beer in the fridge.” “That won’t last very ****ing long, will it? Well, what a ****ing state.” Sam poured himself a large measure of gin, handed the bottle to his wife, and sat down. The two of them sat in silence, facing the muted, blackened television. With no sound coming from the box on the wall, you might have expected the two Hudsons to strike up some form of conversation, but none was forthcoming. In one chair, Sam longed to talk through the match he’d just returned from – it was one of the best performances of the season from his Scunthorpe side and had almost guaranteed playoff football – but he could not find the words. He knew Jo wouldn’t care, he knew it would only descend into argument, he knew it wasn’t worth the effort. There was no point in trying. In the other, Jo wanted to talk to somebody, anybody. She had fallen back to sleep after her husband had left for Swindon, and woken shortly before noon. By the time she had dressed and eaten, the power cut had struck, and on realising that the shops were closed as a result, had been sat on her own for some eight hours. Too anxious to spend time in public, denied access to the companionship of the television, she longed for some form of human interaction. She knew Sam would be enraged by the lack of drink, absorbed in his football, buried beneath layers of resentment built up over years of denial. There was no point in trying. And so they sat. But for the short distance between their chairs, they could hardly have been any closer. Never had they been further apart.
  5. Ten Sam returned home a little later than usual from training. Chairman Graham Mallard had wanted to meet with his manager, and although the relationship between the two had deteriorated following the contract extension incident, Scunthorpe’s most recent result – a 2-0 win away at Rotherham that lifted them back into the final playoff berth – bought the man in the dugout a little bit of goodwill, and the meeting had been a cordial one. At it, the chairman had demanded to know his manager’s plans, and the latter had confirmed his intention to leave the club unless they achieved promotion – in which case he would be willing to sign a shorter extension. Mallard, knowing full well that his man harboured delusions of Premier League grandeur, was content to agree. Sam, for all the promise brought about by his blistering start, had proven a volatile leader, and if the owner was forced to recruit again in the summer, he would not begrudge parting company with his latest hire. The following day, Scunthorpe would host Bolton in another crucial clash – the Trotters were once again struggling financially and had seen points deducted, but were more than capable of throwing a spanner in the works of the sides above them in the table. It meant Sam was nervous, and Jo knew better than to ask him about the game on the eve of it. With Sam meeting the chairman, Jo had not waited for her husband’s return before eating. It was a hungry Sam that walked through the door, but on enquiring as to what he has to do about food, he was simply pointed to the kitchen, where the larger half of a ready meal would need re-heating in the microwave. The news was treated with a scowl. “Well thanks a ****ing bunch. It’s only Bolton tomorrow after all, not a big ****ing deal. Can’t imagine I’d need something to eat, would you? No, don’t worry about it.” “Sam Hudson, you lazy piece of ****! Three minutes in the microwave, and it’s too much for you. Who am I, your ****ing mother? Not that she’d know anything about cooking…” The mere mention of his mother saw Sam’s nostrils flare in anger – parents were a subject to steer clear of, and Jo immediately realised her mistake. “What did you just say?” “Nothing, I’m…” “I repeat, what did you ****ing say?” “Nothing, I said nothing. Get your tea.” From her seat in the living room, Jo heard a crash from the kitchen as Sam kicked the leg from beneath one of the two rickety wooden chairs they kept to maintain the appearance of having a dining table. Four minutes later – one more than necessary – she heard the ping of the microwave, smelled the fumes of the overcooked pasta concoction, and when Sam did not re-emerge from the kitchen – choosing to eat alone at the table rather than joining her in the front room, she simply turned her attention back to the rerun of Pointless being shown on the television. Eventually, Sam did indeed return to his usual position in the living room, sitting himself down with a notebook of tactical musings which he allowed himself to half-study whilst also fighting off the lure of sleep. His chosen method on this occasion was cigarettes, and on one occasion he was forced to react quickly to prevent his rollup setting his armchair alight, instead stubbing it out on the usual spot against the wall. Jo pretended to stifle a laugh, stood up and moved to the kitchen for another beverage. “Where the **** is my wine?” “What wine?” “You know what ****ing wine, the same wine I always have. There was another bottle in the cupboard.” “Oh, that wine. There was only half a bottle, and I had it with the pasta. Thought it’d go well.” “You did ****ing what! You don’t even drink wine, you *******!” This time it was Sam’s turn to fail to hide a smile. It was not what his wife wanted to see when she returned.
  6. Nine Jo Hudson rose from her bed at long last. For what felt like several hours already she had been tossing and turning, unable to drift off into the land of slumber. The somewhat archaic digital alarm clock on the bedside table read an unhelpful 02:88, the batteries able to maintain a correct hour while foregoing the minutes entirely. After lengthy resistance, she had finally given in to the temptation to glance at the time, and the realisation that she had failed to sleep for more than two hours already led her to give in. As she tiptoed out of the bedroom, she looked back at her husband, who was entirely oblivious to her sleeplessness. Indeed, he himself had caused it initially. Sam’s Scunthorpe side had lost in front of their own fans at Glanford Park, and the loss to fellow promotion challengers and near rivals Doncaster, their third in a row, had dropped the Iron outside the playoff positions once again – and with even less time remaining in the season. As a result, he had returned home in a foul mood. Fouler even than the away defeat to Bradford, and the pointless trip to Peterborough the week previous. On both of those occasions he had at least conversed with his wife on returning home – albeit not particularly coherently – but tonight he had not even managed that. He had burst through the door, stubbed a cigarette out against the interior wall, and then followed the cigarette with a right-handed jab that served only to send a shooting pain through the assailant’s arm. Spewing curses beneath his breath, he had retrieved a selection of spirits from the kitchen, sat down in his chair, and stayed silent. In bed he was more talkative, but only after submitting to sleep. Once he had drifted off, it was apparent that he was reliving each of his team’s defeats. Muttered expletives, occasional shouts, resigned sighs – the 90 minutes against Doncaster had been added to by others like them, and his waking nightmares were being replicated by sleeping ones. While her husband could sleep through it, Jo could not. She walked down the creaking wooden stairs of their Diana Street home, careful not to put too much weight on the section of the bannister which was clearly rotten. On reaching the ground floor, she slipped on a pair of shoes, unlocked the front door with a key discarded on the floor, and stepped out into the night. For several minutes she stood in the darkness, soaking up sounds which, in another situation, would have been unnerving – urban foxes screaming at one another as they scavenged for food, the occasional squeal of tires as a drunk driver attempted to navigate Ashby High Street, and more regularly the scratching and shrieking of a family of starlings who had made their home in the attic space of the house across the road. Jo stood, becalmed by the night, watching and listening as the two adult birds tried desperately to satisfy the needs of their young. Some time later, Jo was snapped out of her trance-like state by a knocking on the door behind her. Starting, she turned to see Sam leaning on the doorway, bottle in hand, almost leering in her direction. “What are you doing out here love?” Jo made no reply. "Come back to bed, you don’t want to be stood out here in the cold.” Again, nothing. “I’ll make it worth your while, if you know what I mean.” As Sam’s lips formed a grotesque smile, Jo sighed. All too aware of the impasse, and knowing that she had nowhere else to go, she did indeed step back into the house and, followed by an almost stumbling husband, climbed the stairs back to the bedroom. As she settled back into bed, her husband undressed in the doorway. It was not worth her while.
  7. Eight Long away trips were a problem for Sam, and Yeovil was the worst of the lot. Five hours and change on a stuffy bus, with just a single stop to stretch his legs and smoke a cigarette, and no opportunity for a proper drink. Further back on the bus his players occupied themselves with music, cards, and video games, but his role necessitated him staying out of things. Instead, his conversation was limited to tactical matters and banal small talk with his coaching staff, all the while trying to hide his desperation for something other than water. If the trip down to Somerset was difficult, the journey home was even worse. On a wet Tuesday night in March with the darkness creeping in, the Glovers had turned over a miserable Iron with three unanswered goals. Sam’s defence had all but deserted Lee Kershaw in goal, and the defeat was an emphatic one. Not only that, but combined with a win for Millwall at home to Wigan, meant that a stuttering Scunthorpe slipped to 7th place – outside of the playoff berths on goal difference. All of which meant that the atmosphere on the bus was subdued to say the least. Around three hours into the journey, Sam found himself the only man on the bus, driver aside, who had succumbed to the lure of sleep. Two rows back from the driver – the very front row reserved for various bags of equipment – and with a bus full of lifeless bodies, Sam instinctively moved his right hand to the left inside pocket of his waterproof jacket. A smile formed on his lips as he felt the familiar shape of his hip flask behind the lining. The last couple of hours passed rather more quickly. By the time he stepped off the bus at Glanford Park, Sam’s mood had lightened at a similar pace to the hip flask. With the rain bouncing off the tarmac of the car park in the small hours of the morning, he perhaps wisely chose to take a taxi back to Diana Street. That cut his journey from 50 minutes to little more than 10, and for once he was looking forward to little more than joining his wife in bed. His wife was not in bed. Instead, Jo was sat by the kitchen table, roll of tissue paper by her side and whimpering noises coming from her lips. As she heard the front door open, she turned and addressed her husband. “Where the **** have you been?” “The arse end of nowhere, that’s where. What the hell has happened here?” Jo removed her tissue-covered left hand from her shin, and Sam recoiled in shock. Before he had chance to question what he was seeing, Jo filled him in. “****ing tripped didn’t I? Right onto a sodding bottle. Hurts like a *******.” “Shouldn’t you be at the hospital?” “And how the hell was I going to get there?” “Well I can hardly drive you there, can I? There’s a taxi outside, come on.” Sam draped Jo’s arm around his neck, and managed to negotiate the bottles in the hallway while on the phone to the taxi company urging them not to drive away. As he went to put the phone back in his pocket, an almighty crash of thunder boomed from the clouds above them, causing Jo to jump – and crash her lacerated leg into the doorframe. Fortunately, there was not too much demand for the emergency ward at Scunthorpe General on a Tuesday night, and after a few routine questions and some careful stitching, the Hudsons were back at home by 6am. Scunthorpe were not expected in training the following morning anyway due to their lengthy travels, and so there was no damage done on that front. On the other hand, there was the potential for plenty of damage to be done by the weary hospital staff, many of whom would have been somewhat surprised to see the local football club’s manager bring his bruised and bleeding wife into A&E just hours after a vital loss – and with alcohol on his breath to boot.
  8. Seven Like any other Thursday afternoon, Jo was sat at home. An open bottle on one side of her armchair, a half-empty glass in her hand, old gameshows on the TV. Like any other Thursday afternoon, she was waiting for her husband to return from training. But this was not any other Thursday afternoon. Sam, on the other hand, was in a rare good mood. Three wins in a row had taken Scunthorpe second in the table, and morale around the training centre was high. The Championship was now emerging as a realistic target, the players were performing, and their manager was enjoying the plaudits coming his way. His walk home was a brisk one, and on this occasion neglected to take in a pit stop at McColl’s for refreshment. He would regret that decision. His entrance to 14 Diana Street was greeted with a shriek from the front room, and as he turned to see what the problem was, he was almost struck in the face by a flying glass which had been hastily drained at the sound of keys. His relative sobriety at least allowed Sam the presence of mind to step back out of the firing line, but it was at this point that the verbal projectiles began to take flight. “Now then you ****ing son of a whore, you dirty *****. Show me your phone, now!” Sam instinctively plunged his right hand into his pocket, but came up dry. He intended to rummage through his bag, but was stopped short. “Don’t bother you lying ****, I’ve got it. And I’ve had a phonecall from your boss today.” Sam had stepped tentatively into the front room after dodging the glass, but his heart dropped with a sickening thud onto the stained carpet at his wife’s words. He said nothing. “Cat got your ****ing tongue, has it? Well, let me tell you what Mr Mallard wanted, shall I? Asked me whether we’d had chance to look through the ****ing contract extension he’d offered you, didn’t he? Wondered what we thought of it, whether money was the ****ing issue or something else. Wanted to know if you’d had your head turned by the Premier ****ing League!” Sam gulped, resisted to temptation to calm himself, and responded with barbed tongue. “And what exactly did you tell him?” “I told him we hadn’t had the ****ing chance yet, but were going to talk it through soon. That’s what we’re doing now, you lying, cheating piece of ****. Premier League? That was the promise, wasn’t it? Premier ****ing League indeed. You’re a joke, that’s what you are, a ****ing joke. Too big for your filthy boots, and full of ****.” “And what are you going to ****ing do about it? Let me guess, sweet **** all? Or more precisely, you’ll sit there, taking my money and spending it on ****, wasting away in this dump and waiting for my work to pay off – is that right? Is that ****ing right?” His sobriety paid off once again, as this time an almost-finished bottle of port came flying towards him. He’d seen the throw but reduced the distance from the thrower, and while his evasive action was quicker than usual, he couldn’t stop the bottle crashing into his right shoulder. It didn’t smash, but instead dropped to the carpeted floor with a dull clunk. As his wife began to cry in her chair, Sam took himself through to the kitchen for a bottle of his own. His next move was upstairs, into the bathroom, and behind a locked door. There, over the space of the next hour or so, he worked his way through an entire bottle of Lagavulin while treating his face to a hot shave. A couple of nicks were inevitable, but it wasn’t worth stopping the bleeding. If they never stopped, he wouldn’t mind. He opened the window to let the steam out, and saw the thick black smoke of the steelworks belching into the afternoon air. When he closed his eyes, he imagined it filling the tiny bathroom and choking them both. He felt nothing. Eventually, around 90 minutes after taking a bottle to the shoulder, Sam returned downstairs. Cautiously, he peered round the doorframe – keen to avoid another bottle launched in his direction – but he needn’t have worried. With the gameshows still running, his wife was snoring with glass in hand. A thousand thoughts and ideas burned white-hot in his brain in that same moment, and once again the two plump crows made an appearance in the living room.
  9. Thank you! Glad to have you along for the ride -- Six Into the final five minutes of the game, Scunthorpe were pushing hard. Locked at 1-1 with league leaders Barnsley, a win in front of a vocal home crowd would ensure that the Iron would head into the New Year just two points behind the Yorkshire outfit, and in a strong position to kick on for promotion in 2022. With the pressure rising, Sam instinctively reached for a drink before realising it was futile – while the bags beneath his eyes and yellowing complexion may have given away his poison of choice, alcohol in the dugout was simply not an option. Nor was smoking, thanks to draconian laws passed decades beforehand, and so he instead resorted to pacing up and down his technical area, almost wearing a groove into the turf with his footsteps. Eyes firmly on the turf as his team poured forward, he did not witness Jayden Richardson’s towering header that put his team into the lead. He lifted his eyes only as Glanford Park roared its appreciation for the dreadlocked defender, only to see the linesman’s flag raised. Despite having not seen the incident, Hudson wasted no time in remonstrating with the fourth official. No reversal was forthcoming, and moments later the final whistle blew. Lifting his eyes to the heavens, he saw a single buzzard circling in the darkening skies over Glanford Park, the bird of prey as majestic as it was ominous. Still, even a point against the League One leaders was a decent result for the Iron, keeping them very much in the hunt for both promotion and the title. Still, Sam was in no mood to hang around. Cursory commiserations were passed to his players before he made his way to the manager’s office, exchanging his mandated training jacket for his own waterproof coat – a coat which, as if by magic, contained a half-full hip flask in the inside left pocket. Smiling at his ingenuity, the Iron boss then left the stadium on foot, hood up and barely visible as the first raindrops began to fall in the gloaming. Only a pair of overweight crows seemed to recognise his presence, hopping nonchalantly out of his path as he strode purposefully through the puddles. His altercation with the fourth official would no doubt land him in hot water with the FA, and at least initially it was to the inevitable hearing that his mind began to wander. However, as he passed the Kingsway Gardens and neared the hospital, his hip flask was rather lighter in his pocket, and so his mind felt freer. Into the footballing courtroom entered figures from first his QPR past, and it was not long before they were joined by Graham Mallard and his own wife. Instead of imagining his own interrogation, Sam was now in the judgement seat, cross-examining key players in his own life story on their various failing. The walk home would take an average man of Sam’s age around 45 minutes, but he allowed an extra five – time to stop in at McColl’s for something to boost his spirits. He had quickly learned that the friendly shopkeeper, another of Scunthorpe’s many Lithuanians, had little interest in football, and so the manager of the local side could go unrecognised. That short stop refreshed him for the second half of the journey, but did nothing to calm his thoughts. When he eventually reached his front door, he was greeted by the indistinct hum of an old episode of The Weakest Link, the fragrant fumes from an open gin bottle, and his wife snoring softly on the sofa. After removing his shoes in the hallway, a closer look into the living room revealed a fattened crow on each arm of Jo’s chair, each pecking gluttonously at her lifeless limbs.
  10. Thank you! Hopefully your interest remains piqued! -- Five Sam returned home, drenched. A quick glance into the front room told him that Jo hadn’t waited for his return – an empty bottle of vodka and a muted television letting him know she was in bed already. It was probably for the best. Had she waited for the storm to hit, she might never have slept. Stepping over other bottles of different shapes and sizes in the hallway, he made it to the kitchen, where he quickly located the whisky. He took a swig from the bottle, poured and drained his first glass with one swift motion, and then took a little more time over his second. The third was moved over to the small kitchen table, an undersized piece of furniture that doubled up as breakfast bar and home office according to their needs. Out of his jacket pocket, Sam withdrew a folded document that had somehow avoided the downpour. Chairman Graham Mallard had asked to meet him as soon as the team bus returned from Milton Keynes, Hudson’s Scunthorpe triumphing over the local Dons by a convincing 3-1 scoreline. Apologising for the lateness of the meeting, the Iron’s majority owner had got straight to business. “Sam, it’s late and I’m sure you want to get back to your wife, so I’ll keep it brief. Scunthorpe United haven’t had much of a reason to get excited in the last few years, and you’ve changed that. Performances like tonight have got us looking good for promotion, and the fans are coming back to Glanford Park. “The rest of the board are urging me to wait until later in the season, but they don’t own nearly 90% of the club so **** ‘em. We offered you a one-year deal when we approached you – you had baggage, and you were a gamble. “That gamble has now paid off. These papers here are a three-year extension, with a 10 per cent wage boost off the bat, 10 per cent more every year, and 20 per cent if we go up. I’m not stupid, Sam – I know you want to get back to the big leagues – but I am at least asking you to consider doing that with Scunthorpe. “Don’t answer me now. Take it home, sleep on it, read it over with… Jo, isn’t it? Come to a decision together. There’s no hurry. But think about it, won’t you?” The wind howled down Diana Street as Sam’s eyes tracked down the page. Mallard’s offer was a good one for a club like Scunthorpe, but did he want it? The third whisky disappeared, and this time the bottle came back to the table with him. Sam Hudson was nothing but efficient. The paper still on the table, Sam rose to his feet, bottle in hand, and paced. Their terraced house was too small and there were too many wayward bottles to gather any sense of momentum, but three laps of the ground floor were completed with minimal alcohol consumption. Then, despite the squall picking up outside, the Scunthorpe United manager opened his front door, took two steps into the concrete front yard and stood statuesque, soaked in an unholy combination of the night rain, 16-year-old Lagavulin, and a flood of memories. First, the wedding day. Plenty of people had warned them against marriage at their age and so early in the relationship, but they had gone ahead anyway. Plenty of people had left them high and dry on the day itself, but they’d enjoyed themselves regardless. Jo had needed to be put to bed by the only one of the three bridesmaids to stay the duration, and Sam hadn’t fared much better. Second, his retirement. His tears had been of loss, loss of a career he had loved and which had so often been a case of nearly, but not quite. Hers were of anger, infuriated that her husband should throw away a weekly fortune just because it meant putting his body through a bit of pain. The outcome was much the same, but with no-one else around to see. For some reason, his dismissal from QPR and taking the job in Scunthorpe blurred into one – a minefield of frustration, regret, resignation and despair. That first night in Diana Street, the bitter reaction to his first defeat, the sense of being cut off from the rest of the world every time he turned onto the M180. Recent memories drifted in, and while the arguments had lessened, the drunken silences and cigarette burns were undoubtedly on the rise. The door of their home had become an open throat, slowly devouring all that entered in. Suitably sodden, Sam turned and walked back into that gaping mouth, closing the door behind him and returning to the document on the table. One more swig from the Lagavulin later, Mallard’s contract was first in half, then quarters, and latterly in tiny scraps strewn over the kitchen table. Those scraps were swiftly hurled out of the kitchen window into the tempest, and a bedraggled Sam took off his shoes, socks and coat, and slumped into his armchair at something resembling peace. He didn’t need a bed to sleep tonight.
  11. Four The silence between them lasted some time. When Sam had come home, his first act had been to head to the kitchen and take a beer bottle from the fridge. His second had been to launch that bottle violently at the inside of the front door, sending shards of glass bouncing around the hallway. Not satisfied with the destruction, the Scunthorpe United manager repeated the trick with a second bottle, before slumping into his armchair, leaving the sticky, shimmering mess in his wake. There was plenty of football still to be played, but Scunthorpe’s rapid start was in danger of unravelling. Since being edged out of the Stan James Cup at Anfield, his Iron had gone four league matches without a win. Two of the quartet had been goalless draws – the winless run coinciding with star striker Kieron Levitt straining his calf in training – but it was the most recent defeat, the game from which Sam had just returned, that stung the most. Historically, Scunthorpe’s biggest rivals were Grimsby Town. However, over the last couple of decades, the Mariners had flitted between League Two and the National League, leaving the Iron bereft of genuine local competition. With next contenders Hull too far up the pyramid, there was a void to be filled. Step forward Lincoln City, whose resurgence had seen them firmly lodged in the same third tier for a number of years. Games between the pair at Sincil Bank and Glanford Park regularly led to violence between fans, multiple arrests, and trouble for the local police forces. This very afternoon, it had been the Imps faithful who had taken the bragging rights, and emphatically so – a red card after 25 minutes setting the scene for a 4-0 home hammering of Hudson’s men. “Don’t worry love, you’ll beat them next time. They got…” “**** it! **** Lincoln, **** that referee, **** this godforsaken town and its dead-end football club! They can all go to hell!” Silence reigned once more, the stars beyond their Diana Street abode drifting across the night sky interspersed with the smoke belching out of the steelworks that had come to define the town. Flicking on the television, Jo tiptoed through broken glass to the kitchen, returning with two glasses and an unopened bottle of gin. “Look babe, it was a bad day. But tomorrow will be better. You’ll make it better.” She opened the bottle and poured two generous measures, the spirit’s cascading notes out of time with the title music to a 20-year-old re-run of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire. On the screen, a pixelated Chris Tarrant resumed his questioning of Mark from Nottingham, who would eventually leave, like so many like him, with £32,000 – lulled into an unforced error by a question on US Open tennis champions – while on the other side of the screen, Sam took the offered drink without a word. Jo persisted. “Do you remember when Darren got on there? All that time he put into it, finally won the fastest finger and only won a grand. And it was a football question too! As if he didn’t know Gerry Francis was the first million pound man!” “Trevor.” “What?” “Trevor Francis, not Gerry.” “Screw it. Another?” Jo smiled to herself as her husband made light work of the second gin. She’d finally started to break him out of his rage, and it was easy from here. “Anyway, we don’t need to go on some stupid ****ing TV show to earn our cash. By the end of the year we’ll be Premier League again, won’t we babe? That’ll show Lincoln who’s boss.” “Damn right it will. They can arse about in midtable another year for all I care, we’re going all the way!” Jo recharged the glasses once again, her hand a little less steady but taking care not to spill a drop. To her surprise, it was Sam who continued. “Anyway, sod Lincoln, they can do one. Where did the dustpan go? I’ll sort the…” “Don’t worry about it darling, I’ll see to it in the morning.” “Don’t be daft, I threw the…” “Don’t you think my idea is more exciting?” At the lightest of touches from his wife’s index finger, Sam dropped back into his chair from the half-stood position he had reached. After reaching her hands over his head to draw the curtains, denying the creamy white moon its view of their lounge, she shifted her attention to her blouse, which she slowly unbuttoned.
  12. Three After seven years in League One, each one drearier than the last, things were looking up for Scunthorpe United – and fans were beginning to get excited. Buoyed by five wins from their first seven league games, the Iron were looking good for a promotion push under the guidance of the controversial Sam Hudson, and most recently had shown their credentials in the cup as well. After overcoming lowly Morecambe in the first round of the League Cup, the North Lincolnshire outfit then not only held their own against Championship Bristol City, in the second round, but actually knocked out their more illustrious opponents, Niall Purser netting the decisive penalty in front of a raucous Glanford Park crowd. The draw for the next round would take place not in a BBC studio or at the home of holders Wolves, but instead – for sponsorship reasons which had become all the more ridiculous over the years – in the harbour of Valletta, Malta. Registered office of new primary sponsors the Kindred Group, the third round of the 2021/22 Stan James Cup was broadcast to the internet over Facebook Live – and the Hudson family was watching on with interest. “****ing get in! We’re going to Anfield!” “Babe, you are going to smash the Scousers! They don’t stand a chance against my man.” Sam glanced sideways at Jo, her eyes full of an odd cocktail of love and champagne. He gazed back with a similar concoction – his four-figure win bonus from the Bristol game had been put to good use, and as he took a drag from his cigarette, he felt a spark leap between them. The grey surroundings made it unlikely, but as the night drew in around them, they gave off a light all of their own. “It’s not all bad here, you know? I don’t really think we need a big house in Bottesford. Besides which, as long as we keep winning, I’ll be back in the Premier League before too long.” Jo’s eyes lit up at the mention of the top flight. “Do you think so? I miss those days.” “Sure. I’m going to be on TV at Anfield, right in the shop window. Keep up this start, and they’ll all come calling.” Jo refilled her glass, smiling wordlessly at her excited husband. Her thoughts flickered between memories of the lifestyle being a Premier League couple had afforded, and the prospect of doing it all over again. Together. He was her ticket back, and he wouldn’t get close without her by his side. For a split second, she was forced to hold back a tear. “I’m going to come with you. To Anfield.” “Really?” “Yes. I’m going to be there, with the chairman, cheering you on.” “But you’ve not been to a game since…” “The relegation, I know. But this is different. Why shouldn’t I be there?” Sam paused before responding. As the room swam around him, he finally chose not to. Instead, he punched his cigarette into the same browning target on the wall he’d hit so many times before, pulled his wife towards him, and closed his eyes as she melted into his kiss.
  13. Thank you both, very much. I had the 'fortune' of working in Scunthorpe for around 18 months, and while my own hometown is nothing to write home about, there's a reason I chose a 100-mile round trip each day rather than relocating! -- Two “Can you believe this is the best the club can do for their new manager? They’re paying you how much, and this is where they put you up…” Sam glanced around the front room of the club-owned terrace on Diana Street. It didn’t take long either. Having spent most of the morning trying to unpack the boxes from the Range Rover into the building, he had largely given up, and so half-filled boxes were spilling their contents across what little of the grey carpet was not taken up by the aging furniture. A couple of the boxes remained in the front yard, and a decision was yet to be made on whether to leave them there, or bring them inside at the expense of an armchair. “You’re right love, this is ****. But we’ll manage. Once I’ve been here a month or two we can buy our own place, and there must be a suburb or something we can move into. After all, we’ve lived in London all these years, we should be able to buy half the town up here.” “Why on earth would anyone buy half of this heap? At least we’re not far from the off-licence.” Sam had noticed that too – there was no shortage of outlets from which to procure alcohol. They’d driven past a Happy Shopper just around the corner, and five minutes’ walk down the main road there was an Eastern European corner shop that looked to have a wide selection. There wasn’t a great deal else going for their new abode, but he’d take what he could get. As he mentally walked the short journey to gather supplies, his thoughts were interrupted by the creaking hinges of a rusty letterbox. Through it dropped a copy of the local newspaper, the Scunthorpe Telegraph, and staring up from the floor at Sam was his own photograph – the local rag had wasted no time in opening the debate on the new man in charge of their beloved Iron. Sam threw the paper back down onto the floor, stubbing his cigarette out against the living room wall in frustration at yet another outlet dredging up his past. Yes, he’d hardly left QPR on the best of terms with those at Loftus Road, but everyone seemed to have forgotten the fact that he’d dragged them up to the Premier League before that. Did that glorious campaign, the record-breaking league title, count for nothing compared to one bad-tempered argument with a youth player? He hadn’t even been in the wrong… “Oi, ****head! Are you getting the telly on or what?” Again, Sam’s meanderings were cut off by Jo, his wife having positioned herself in prime viewing position to watch the TV yet to be unpacked – feet up on one of the sprawling boxes, unopened bottle of spirits on the ground beside her, cigarette in her left hand, resentment in her voice. As her dutifully began to locate the television stand from amidst the debris, the relative calm of 14 Diana Street was interrupted by shouting, unintelligible curses in a language neither of the Hudsons understood. Under his breath, Sam cursed God, his new home, and the Poles – their arguing neighbours were, in fact, Lithuanian – closed his eyes, and upon opening them lit another cigarette. Morning had come to Scunthorpe.
  14. Firstly, welcome to another EvilDave story. 'The Long Road to Cardiff' isn't particularly inspiring me at the moment - I'll come back to it at some point I'm sure - but I have other ideas, and here's a shorter one of them - I'm back to trusty FM17, so apologies for any 'retro' quirks! Secondly, a warning of sorts. While this is a Football Manager story, it is by far my least focused on footballing matters. The characters involved are obviously all fictional, but many of them are also rather unpleasant. There is plenty of swearing in the dialogue - all with liberal use of asterisks - because that's how I felt it needed to be written, and it deals with some less than uplifting themes. If any of you do browse FMS with children, this might be one to avoid. With that said, I do genuinely hope you enjoy the story. It's a step outside my comfort zone, something a bit different, and I'm not entirely sure what the result will be... -- Incandescence One “We’re going where?” “Scunthorpe. I told you already.” “I know Scunthorpe, don’t get smart with me. What I mean is, what the hell are we moving half way across the country to some godforsaken hole for? What is there in Scunthorpe of all places?!” Sam took a deep breath. He knew she knew the answer, but somehow it made her happy to hear it again. He was tired of the game, but he couldn’t stop playing at this point. “We are going to Scunthorpe, Jo, because they’ve offered me the manager’s job there. It’s a good opportunity, they’re a club with a lot of potential, and the money is good for their level.” “You don’t really believe any of that, you bare-faced liar. I’ll ask you again, why are we going to Scunthorpe?” “They’re a decent club, under-achieving, and Karl Robinson couldn’t get the job done. I’m…” “For the love of all that is holy Sam, why are we going to ****ing Scunthorpe?!” “We are going to Scunthorpe because they are willing to pay me almost £200k a year to move to the arse end of Lincolnshire, because no other ****ing club has offered me a job in the last 18 months, and because you’ve nearly spent all of the pay-out from QP-****ing-R!” Sam sighed. His wife had gotten what she had wanted, but he’d managed to sneak a little something in. It hadn’t landed at all – Jo smirked at him, drained her glass, took her seat back down on the sofa, leaving him to continue packing the last of their belongings into the second-hand cardboard boxes they had managed to ‘borrow’ from their soon-to-be-former Stonebridge neighbours. Those boxes wouldn’t ever be returned, but it was a small price for those neighbours to pay in order to have the Hudsons out of their hair. … “We’ve been driving for ****ing ages, where even is Scunthorpe?” “Not far now – I reckon we’re about half an hour away.” “There’s nothing here Sam. Look out the window. Nothing.” “It’s dark, you idiot. Of course you can’t see anything.” “We haven’t passed a town in years, you don’t need sunlight to see that. You’ve got a job in the middle of nowhere, admit it.” “Anywhere is going to seem small compared to London.” “Yeah, but this is… empty. Deserted.” “I’m the one driving here, you get back to your phone and whatever it is you’re drinking. We’ll be there soon.” Sam sighed inwardly as Jo did precisely that, raising the unidentified bottle to her lips and turning away from the conversation. Indicating left and manoeuvring the Range Rover onto the M180 slip road, Sam’s mind drifted through a catalogue of memories. Had it really come to this? Sam was right, after all – Scunthorpe was a long way from London, a long way from anywhere, and all either of them would have was each other. It was little wonder that his wife’s bottle was approaching empty.
  15. Rosenborg (NOR) (1) vs (0) Olimpija Ljubljana (SVN) In the first leg of their tie in Slovenia, Norwegian champions Rosenborg looked to be going the way of Red Bull – held scoreless by an inferior side that showed little interest in scoring themselves. However, where they differed from their Austrain counterparts was an ability to break through, taking a late lead despite losing Frederik Midstjo to a red card just three minutes into the second half. That put them in a very strong position heading back to Trondheim. That particular narrative did not give Olimpija much of a chance, and while it is true that they set out their stall rather defensively for a side hoping to claw back a deficit on the road, they did not intend to play an altogether passive role in the tie. Indeed, after weathering an early Norwegian storm, the unheralded visitors threw a huge spanner in the Rosenborg works, veteran Croatian forward Leon Benko hammering home a shot from the edge of the area midway through the half. Despite having barely ventured into home territory, Olimpija were level. That goal changed the complex of the whole tie – a second for the visitors would need Rosenborg needed three on the night, while the hosts also knew that one goal would be enough if they could keep Olimpija out. What followed was a slow, cautious end to the first half as the two teams adjusted to the new scenario, with neither outfit particularly keen to gamble at what remained an early stage of the game. In the opening moments of the second period, what dominated was not goalscoring opportunities and attacking football, but a surprising number of fouls from the hosts. In the space of six minutes from the 50th onwards, three Rosenbrog players were shown yellow cards by Marco Guida, and that prompted the bench into a couple of substitutions. By the 70th minute, with the score still tied on aggregate, both sides had made their full compliment of changes, and the tie hung in the balance. Two of those substitutions would make the decisive impact, and just in the nick of time. With the game in the 84th minute, Australian full-back Alex Gersbach worked himself some space down the left and slid a pass between two defenders to meet the run of Magnus Stamnestro. The midfield creator didn’t make the cleanest of contacts with his first-time, left-footed effort, but it was enough to catch Rok Vodisek off guard and beat the Olimpija keeper. From being so close to extra time, the visitors had just five minutes plus stoppages to grab a goal that would send them through on away goals. But Rosenborg held firm, and Olimpija were knocked out despite giving the Norwegians an almighty scare. Kare Ingebrigtsen will have his hands full guiding Rosenborg any further in the competition after a less than convincing showing, but at this stage all that matters is that they’re in the draw for the next round. Rosenborg 1-1 Olimpija Ljubljana (Stamnestro 84; Benko 24) Rosenborg win 2-1 on aggregate Sheriff Tiraspol (MDA) (1) vs (1) Seinajoen Jalkapallokerho (FIN) Another tie very much in the balance after the first leg, even more so than the previous clash, was the battle of the champions of Moldova and Finland. In Seinajeon, Sheriff had given themselves a slender advantage by netting an away goal, but the hosts were behind for less than 15 minutes before pulling themselves level. In breakaway Transnistria, there was no predicting what promised to be another tight and cagey affair. Of a combined 24 shots on goal taken by the two teams, only five successfully hit the target. That statistic alone should give you some indication of the level of quality – or, more accurately, lack thereof – the 3,000 or so fans in Tiraspol were subjected to. English referee Mark Clattenburg would also be a busy man, blowing for no fewer than 28 fouls over the 90 minutes, and with the first booking coming after just eight minutes, what transpired was a game high on effort and low on execution. Perhaps the pivotal moment of the match came in the 41st minute when, after a brief spell of SJK possession, midfield Josip Brezovec was shown a yellow card for a foul on Matti Klinga. That in itself seems inauspicious enough, but what took place next was sheer stupidity – Welsh full-back Richard Dorman, now in his sixth season in the Finnish game, took the free-kick, and after three short passes Clattenburg blew a whistle again. Unbelievably, Brezovec had gone in late on Emil Lidman, and picked up his second yellow card just 30 seconds after the first. Sheriff now had to play the best part of 50 minutes with just 10 men, and were forced into using two of their three substitutions at half-time to fix the damage. They also needed to keep out an SJK side who knew that this presented a huge chance to take a big step towards group stage football of one form or another, and who would doubtless be spurred on by Brezovec’s rashness. It would be a tall order for Sheriff to hold on to their slender advantage from here. And indeed, that was precisely how the game played out. The hosts faced a barrage of Finnish pressure as the visitors pushed to get ahead in the tie, and just before the hour they succeeded in doing just that. A training ground corner routine saw Klinga’s ball reach Billy Ions – another Brit who had drifted north – at the near post, and he rolled a pass into the path of the unmarked Ville Tikkanen. The half-time substitute gleefully drove in his first ever goal for the club, and Sheriff could offer nothing in the next half hour. Something of a coup for SJK and Finland, disappointment for Sheriff, and another illustration of the importance of discipline. Sheriff Tiraspol 0-1 Seinajoen Jalkapallokerho (Brezovec s/o 41; Tikkanen 58) Seinajoen Jalkapallokerho win 2-1 on aggregate
  16. Partizani Tirana (ALB) (1) vs (3) Ludogorets Razgrad (BUL) Much like the APOEL-Flora tie above, this one seemed on the face of things to be relatively straightforward. A 3-1 home win for the clear favourites made this a case of Ludogorets going through barring either gross stupidity or a remarkable performance from their Albanian hosts, and while either possibility was real, the odds were slim. Few expected to see an upset in the Albanian capital here given the gap in quality between the sides. That gap was apparent from the outset in Tirana, and despite the best efforts of the Partizani faithful to get their side going, it did not take too long for Ludogorets’ vice-like grip on the tie to strengthen. Midway through the first half, a Wanderson free-kick was headed on at the near post, and Romanian centre-back Cosmin Moti had the time and presence of mind to bring it down before stabbing in the goal that made it 4-1 on aggregate. Any hopes the Albanians had now relied on the visitors making a hash of things, but remarkably that hope was not entirely in vain. On the stroke of half-time, Yordan Minev jumped into a dangerous scissor tackle on Realod Fili in midfield, and the midfielder was quickly dismissed by the Italian referee. Ludogorets had to change their shape, and Partizani had 45 minutes with an extra man to try and fight their way back into the tie. They gave it a good effort, but ultimately fell short. Despite dominating possession in the second half, the home side simply lacked the quality to break down a well-organised and risk-averse Ludogorets side, who were able to manage the game through to the final whistle. They knew that as long as they didn’t panic they would be heading through, and that’s exactly what happened. The hosts did pull one back, the Bulgarians unable to clear a corner and defender Kristi Marku prodding in after a scramble, but it was some way short of the three goals that they needed even to force an additional half hour. Partizani drop out with their pride intact, but in truth this was relatively plain sailing for the superior quality of Ludogorets. Partizani Tirana 1-1 Ludogorets Razgrad (Marku 77; Moti 27, Minev s/o 45+2) Ludogorets Razgrad win 4-2 on aggregate Red Bull Salzburg (AUT) (0) vs (0) Crusaders (NIR) For all their superior quality however, Red Ball Salzburg did not have a lead to play with in the second leg of their tie with Northern Irish minnows Crusaders. The visitors had famously shut out the Austrian champions without recording a single shot of any description in the home leg, but unless their intention was to play for penalties, they would need at least one to spring the biggest shock of the tournament thus far. In front of 10,000 fans and on their own turf, Salzburg simply couldn’t allow themselves to be undone. The first leg had been an embarrassment, and Crusaders needed to be punished accordingly. Just eight minutes in, the visitors’ defences were breached – Japanese international winger Takumi Minamino dancing down the right and crossing for Marc Rzatkowski to beat his man at the far post. Crusaders’ gameplan was torn apart inside 10 minutes, and at this point Red Bull were simply wondering how many they could rack up. At the half-time interval, the answer remained at one. Crusaders had beaten their shot count from the previous game – one shot, none on target – but they were not about to throw caution to the wind just yet. Philip Lowry and Declan Caddell earned yellow cards for over-enthusiastic tackles as they sought to keep the score to one, and by the end of the 90 minutes they would be joined by no fewer than three of their team-mates. By the time the clock reached the hour mark, Crusaders were tiring. Two and a half hours of desperate defending and shadow-chasing began to take its toll on Stephen Baxter’s men, and the second goal finally came. It came cruelly too, Minamino again involved by finding Jonatan Soriano at the near post, and the Spaniard’s attempt at a low cross deflecting beyond Sean O’Neill off the boot of captain Colin Coates. At 2-0, the Northern Irish outfit had little choice but to go for it. When they did, the results were not pretty. First, an interception inside their own half led to a sweeping Red Bull break, ending with Rzatkowski cushioning a pass for Soriano to drill home for the third. Then, with five minutes remaining of the tie, Konrad Laimer met another cross from the influential Minamino with an accurate, looping header than beat O’Neill from almost a full 18 yards. The 4-0 final score was perhaps a little harsh on Crusaders, but then again they were hopelessly outmatched. A total of one shot over 180 minutes isn’t deserving of too much praise despite a valiant defensive effort, and certainly isn’t enough to progress. For Red Bull on the other hand, the aggregate hides a largely impotent three quarters of the tie, and they’ll need to be far more efficient with their energy if they’re to make any mark on the competition. Red Bull Salzburg 4-0 Crusaders (Rzatkowski 8, Coates og 60, Soriano 72, Laimer 85) Red Bull Salzburg win 4-0 on aggregate
  17. It was indeed Mark, although hard to say Dundalk didn't deserve it. It'll be interesting to see if they can push on from there! --- Ferencvaros (HUN) (0) vs (0) Qarabag Agdam (AZE) In the first leg of this tie – the old vs new clash of the Hungarian and Azerbaijani champions – it was the Caucasian hosts who had come out in front by the narrowest of margins, an early goal settling the match in Baku. Ferencvaros knew they needed a home win to turn things around, but after a fairly poor display in the away leg, the odds were not in their favour. Nevertheless, the wasted no time in setting about the Qarabag goal. Inside the first 15 minutes, not only was a player from either side cautioned for early misdemeanours – Bence Batik for the hosts and Michel on the visitors’ part – but the Hungarians tested Bojan Saranov on three occasions. The first was a free-kick from veteran Zoltan Gera, the national legend bending one into the arms of the goalkeeper, while the second both came from the head of Daniel Bode, one effort required a steady catch and the one drifting wide with Saranov scrambling. Unlike at home, when the Azeris had utilised the pace and talent of their foreign legion in attack, in Budapest they simply failed to get going. Three wayward efforts were all they would record over the course of the 90 minutes, leaving the three hardy fans who had travelled with the side from Baku to question their decisions. Ferencvaros kept going, and even with a goalless first half behind them were not discouraged. Just before the hour mark, Leverkusen loanee Ryu Seung-Woo danced his way into the box from his position on the wing before rifling in a shot that Saranov somehow got fingertips. That was enough to knock the ball onto the post, and fortunately for the visitors it was a Qarabag shirt that got to the rebound. Another dead ball from Gera almost did the damage not long after, but again Saranov was equal to the effort. That was to be the story of the night for the home side, and good goalkeeping and wasteful shooting kept the game scoreless despite the one-sided nature of the 90 minutes. Ansi Agolli’s early strike in Baku wound up the difference between the two sides, and while Qarabag’s progression to the next phase would have surprised few at the outset, Ferencvaros will be kicking themselves not to have made the most of a dominant display at home. Ferencvaros 0-0 Qarabag Agdam Qarabag Agdam win 1-0 on aggregate Flora (EST) (1) vs (3) APOEL Nicosia (CYP) Unlike the fine balance of the last handful of ties, there were very few people looking at this one expecting anything other than a relatively straightforward win for Cypriot champions APOEL. They’d completed the first half of the job with a 3-1 home win, but Estonian opponents Flora had at least got an away goal for their troubles. APOEL would need to be professional, but you assumed that would be enough. At least, until the game kicked off. Flora, with 2,500 fans backing their green-shirted heroes, started at pace, testing Boy Waterman inside the first minute. A second attack moments later yielded a different result however – a clipped ball over the top found striker Hannes Anier in space, and only a superb covering tackle from Inaki Astiz denied him the opening goal. However, Astiz was unable to continue in defence after pulling a muscle in his covering sprint, while Anier too was forced off after the sheer power of the challenge on the ball twisted his ankle. Early substitutions for both sides, and what flow the game had was quickly disrupted. APOEL then began to take charge of proceedings, almost grabbing an away goal of their own when David Barral’s shot forced a save, and then Roberto Lago nodded the resultant corner just over. Lago would be instrumental in the goal when it came, but surprisingly it came at the other end – the veteran full-back beaten for pace by Anier’s replacement Zakaria Beglarishvili, and the Georgian’s effort gave Waterman no chance. With over an hour to play and just a single goal away from going through, you would have expected a renewed wave of pressure from the home side. However, what actually transpired was a calm period of APOEL possession, the Cypriots taking the sting of out of the game and asserting their own superiority. Flora midfielder Jan Kokla earned himself a booking just before the break after four shots in as many minutes from the visitors, and they were unfortunate not to grab a goal of their own before half-time. The second period saw more of the same, and other than a Flora rally with around 20 minutes to go, the APOEL goal was rarely threatened. The best chance of the second 45 fell to the visitors when Lorenzo Ebecilio’s ball sliced through the Flora defence, presenting Barral with a perfect opportunity one-on-one with the goalkeeper. The Spaniard’s aim was true, the linesman’s flag wrongly denied him, but the game was done. The margin may have been narrower than they would have liked, but APOEL’s place in the third round of qualifying was secure. Flora 1-0 APOEL Nicosia (Beglarishvili 25) APOEL Nicosia win 3-2 on aggregate
  18. Dinamo Zagreb (CRO) (0) vs (0) Valletta (MLT) Unlike Celtic, Dinamo Zagreb had failed to do the first half of the job in the away game. In a deeply frustrating first leg in the Maltese capital, the Croatians had not only failed to come away with a goal or a lead, but had even seen a penalty saved into the bargain. Back on home soil in the Maksimir, they would retain their favourites tag, but would surely have to be better to avoid a massive upset. And yet at half-time in the second leg – after 135 minutes of football against a side from Malta – the relative giants of Dinamo were still yet to score. Of course, they were still yet to concede, but that paled into insignificance, such was the frustration felt by players, staff and fans alike. Around 10,000 had paid good money to see their side overpower little Valletta, and they had categorically failed to do so. Some credit must, naturally, go the way of the visitors, but it was not their threat on the counter that was keeping Dinamo honest. The away side did at least look interested in shooting on this occasion, but the fact was that the hosts simply could not find a way through a packed Valletta defence – they lacked invention. The fact that they had missed a penalty in the first leg did not bode well, and time begin to tick away. Ultimately, they scraped through. The minnows tried to muster a late rally, three times in the final 10 minutes testing Dominik Livakovic in the Dinamo goal, but their race was run. A valiant attempt to defend for 210 minutes and win on penalties was thwarted, and they returned home beaten but proud. It took a long-range, deflected strike from Mario Situm to break the deadlock, it took Dinamo more than two and a half hours of football to score, and yet they went through all the same. They’ll need to do much better to go any further. Dinamo Zagreb 1-0 Valletta (Situm 69) Dinamo Zagreb win 1-0 on aggregate FC Kobenhavn (DEN) (1) vs (2) Dundalk (IRL) In the last tie we looked at, Dinamo were lucky that they only needed a goal. Anything more than that, and Valletta would probably have made it. In this one, Danish champions Kobenhavn were in the same position, an early red card for their captain in the first leg leading to a 2-1 reverse on Irish soil. A 1-0 win here would see them through on away goals, but you had to suspect, particularly after a win in the home leg, that Dundalk would pose a bigger threat to their opponents than Valletta had to theirs. And so it proved, in the most spectacular of fashions. Midway through the second minute of play, Dundalk’s left-sided midfielder, Michael Duffy, was brought down for the first foul of the game just over 30 yards from goal. The hosts set up a three-man wall, and ironically-named left-back Dane Massey stepped forward to deliver a cross. Or so everyone expected. What he actually did was strike a perfect free-kick, sending the ball curling with power over the wall and into the very top corner of the ‘wrong’ side of the goal, beating Robin Olsen’s helpless dive and silencing all but 150 or so of the 22,000 fans in Parken. 29-year-old Massey, an international futsal player with just 13 career league goals to his name in over 200 appearances, whose entire career had been spent in the Republic of Ireland, had performed little short of a footballing miracle. In opening the scoring, he also erased the hosts’ away goal advantage, meaning they required two just to force extra time. Panic set in the Kobenhavn ranks, and the next 20 minutes were spent largely with Dundalk defending comfortably against anything the Danes tried to throw at them. Even as the first half went on, the hosts found themselves struggling to break through a wall of black shirts, and at half time the score remained 1-0 to the Irish underdogs. Not long into the second half, the hosts levelled – or so they thought. Federico Santander coolly slipped a shot beneath Gary Rogers, but was deemed to have been offside when stand-in captain William Kvist’s ball was played, to the delight of the small band of Dundalk fans. Moments later, when the veteran Rogers belied his years to tip an Andreas Cornelius efforts behind for a corner, those same voices were once again the loudest in the stadium. Kobenhavn needed three to win and two to force extra time, but with 20 minutes to go they had none. There was no shortage of effort or personnel – by this point they had four strikers on the field – but Dundalk were defending firmly and the moment of magic needed to unlock the defence once, let alone several times, was just not forthcoming. 20 minutes became 15 and then 10, and still the scoreline held. It would hold until the bitter end, Dane Massey’s spectacular set-piece ending up the difference on the night, and the goal that sprung the upset. Dundalk, plucky underdogs against the Danish giants, had won not once but twice on their way to a 3-1 aggregate win, and would continue in the competition against all odds. For Kobenhavn, there would be serious questions asked. FC Kobenhavn 0-1 Dundalk (Massey 3) Dundalk win 3-1 on aggregate
  19. BATE Borisov (BLR) (2) vs (2) Hapoel Be’er-Sheva (ISR) In terms of entertainment value, BATE and Hapoel put on arguably the best match of the first legs. The Belarusian and Israeli champions shared four goals between them, the latter twice taking the lead before being pegged back quickly. Those two away goals made group stage regulars BATE narrow favourites to go through to the next stage, but they could not afford to take things for granted. That was especially the case when the visiting side kicked off with the throttle open. Just three minutes had elapsed when Denis Polyakov pulled down Ben Sahar as the latter looked to shoot inside the area, and the one-time Chelsea wonderboy picked himself up to tuck home the penalty and put his side ahead. Just under 10 minutes later, the lead was doubled in more fortunate circumstances – Maharan Radi’s shot from 25 yards was dreadful, but far enough off target that it turned into a perfect pass to the unmarked Ovidiu Hoban lurking at the back post. BATE wanted a flag for offside, it never came, and the Borisov Arena was stunned. But BATE have not been regulars in the Champions League for nothing, and looked to quickly put their awful start behind them. Midway through the first half, first-leg goalscorer Stasevich crashed a shot off the post from range, and five minutes later the deficit was halved. Mikhail Gordeychuk made the goal with a superb run down the right, beating two men as he jinked towards goal before cutting the ball back to Vitaliy Rodionov to tap in from inside the six-yard box. That lifted the noise levels in Belarus’ ninth-largest city, and it was their side that had the momentum. Five minutes before the break, a chipped free-kick was cleared but the hosts quickly regained possession, and this time it was a burst of pace from Alexey Rios that afforded him the space to square for Rodionov, who converted from an almost identical possession to complete the comeback. Incredibly, there was more action before the whistle. On an increasingly rare foray forward from the visitors, Sahar was again chopped down in the area, and Hapoel had a second penalty. This time Sahar went hard and low down the middle, but Artem Soroko got a boot to it as he dived and made the save, denying the Israelis a lead and a crucial third away goal. Regardless of the miss, it would not matter. In a second half marked by BATE pressure and Hapoel counter-attacking, it was the latter who grabbed the all-important goal that would see them through to the next stage. It came when a Belarusian attack broke down, was instigated by a clever ball into space by Sahar for Maor Buzaglo, and ended with Radi beating not one but two defenders to the ball to tuck a shot in at the near post. That left BATE needing two goals in 12 minutes, and another comeback was beyond them. A shock of shorts, Hapoel move on, while BATE wait for another year without even the consolation of Europa League football. BATE Borisov 2-3 Hapoel Be’er-Sheva (Rodionov 29, 39; Sahar pen 5, Hoban 14, Radi 78) Hapoel Be’er-Sheva win 5-4 on aggregate Celtic (SCO) 2-0 Dudelange (LUX) If Hapoel’s win over BATE counted as a shock, anything other than a comfortable Celtic victory against Luxembourgish champions Dudelange would be seismic in comparison. The Scots had picked up a narrow away win in the first leg, and on paper there was simply no way that the visitors could claw this one back. As if to prove a point, Celtic doubled their advantage after just seven minutes. There didn’t seem to be a huge amount of danger to the away side when Stuart Armstrong fed Patrick Roberts 30 yards from goal, but after dropping the shoulder to go past one player, he took a touch to make space and then proceeded to bend a sumptuous effort into the corner of Jonathan Joubert’s net and put the outcome of the tie beyond all doubt. By this point there was very little to play for, but that did not mean the players on the field behaved as such. Two Dudelange men wound up in the referee’s book before the half-time whistle – and would be joined by two more after it – while Celtic’s Kieran Tierney also earned a caution for a nasty tackle on Mario Pokar. Celtic, as you might expect, had plenty of attempts to extend their advantage, but their shooting boots weren’t laced up properly and the break came with the score still only 1-0. There would only be one more goal in the game, frustratingly for the 53,000 who had come out to watch their side take on a bunch of part-timers from Luxembourg, but at least it did come for the hosts. Nir Bitton slid a ball down the right for Cristian Gamboa to scamper after, and not only did the Costa Rican international reach it, but his sliding cross breached the corridor between defenders and goalkeeper to find Scott Sinclair lurking at the far post. A 3-0 aggregate win against the champions of Luxembourg may not have been enough to satisfy the ever-demanding Celtic support, but it was more than enough to send the Scottish champions through. They would face much tougher challenges in the near future, but for now it was a case of job done. Celtic 2-0 Dudelange (Roberts 7, Sinclair 70) Celtic win 3-0 on aggregate
  20. July 20th, Champions Second Qualifying Round, Second Leg Alashkert (ARM) (0) vs (1) Fimleikafelag Hafnarfjardur (ISL) A week after an uninspiring game in Iceland, FH took their narrow lead on what was the longest trip of the Champions League so far, from the Arctic Circle to the gateway to the Middle East in a bid to hold off the threat of Armenian champions Alashkert and move one step closer to their nation’s first representation in the Champions League proper. The first leg had been marked for FH’s habit of breaking up the play with fouls, and onlookers were hoping for something more freeflowing in Yerevan. Early signs were promising, with the home side appearing to have half a yard on the visitors across the pitch, allowing them to get their passing game going quickly. The goal they craved came quickly, but in bizarre circumstances – a harmless long ball into the channel inexplicably headed into his own area by Belgian full-back Jonathan Hendrickx, Mihran Manasyan to fire beyond former Manchester City reserve Gunnar Nielsen after just nine minutes. With the tie now level, either side could potentially go on and claim the win. With momentum on their side, Alashkert naturally pushed forwards, although they had to be careful. FH’s first attempt at a riposte and a vital away goal came through one-time Rangers forward Steven Lennon’s swerving effort, and shortly afterwards the same man set up Atli Gudnason for a shot which Arsen Beglaryan had to scramble to cover after a deflection. On the whole though, it was the hosts who looked the more likely to score. Eventually they did, and at the worst possible time for FH. As the fourth official lifted his board to show a single minute of first-half stoppage time, Alashkert earned a throw by the corner flag to the right of the Icelandic goal. Artak Yedigaryan found a free man, and from there the hosts triggered a training ground move which saw three men play first-touch passes, and the fourth – Narek Beglaryan, no relation to his goalkeeper – shoot first-time on the half-turn beneath Nielsen to make it 2-0 on the night and put his side ahead for the first time in the tie. Faced with an aggregate deficit and just 32 jet-lagged fans trying desperately to cheer them forward, FH struggled. Alashkert were growing increasingly confident in possession – they would finish with 63% of the ball – and looked threatening whenever they came forward. A half-hearted penalty appeal for a challenge of Emil Palsson – the midfielder booked for his protests when no foul was called – summed up their night, and eventually time simply ran out on them. Alashkert overturn the first-leg deficit to head into round three of qualifying, while FH make a long, disappointed journey back to Iceland. Alashkert 2-0 Fimleikafelag Hafnarfjardur (Manasyan 9, Beglaryan 45+1) Alashkert win 2-1 on aggregate Astana (KAZ) (1) vs (1) IFK Norrkoping (SWE) When this tie was drawn, the clash between the respective champions of Sweden and Kazakhstan looked to be one of the trickiest to predict. After a tight first leg in Scandinavia, Norrkoping now travelled more 2,500 miles east in a bid to triumph in the Kazakh capital. Given their impressive defensive record at home, the hosts went in as marginal favourites, but there was very little in this one. The first effort of the match went to Djordje Despotovic, the hosts’ Serbian striker taking the place of the injured Patrick Twumasi. A very different threat to the tricky Nigerian, Despotovic met a left-wing cross powerfully with his head, but keeper Michael Langer was equal to the effort. Moments later, captain Daniel Sjolund looked to put the Swedes ahead from range, but his fiercely-struck effort lacked precision and so flew wide. The first half remained goalless, the match flowing evenly between the two ends without either side looking excessively dangerous. For Astana, getting the ball out wide and into Despotovic, being played as a traditional target man, seemed to be the order of the day. Norrkoping, on the other hand, seemed to be taking a more intricate approach in possession, while also looking to go direct on the counter. It set up an intriguing second period. The defining moment of the match came just two minutes after the interval, and was the result of an aberration veteran defender Markus Falk-Olander. Faced with a deep free-kick dropping into the penalty area, the 30-year-old elected to lead with his hand rather than his head, palming the cross away and conceding a downright stupid penalty. Macedonian midfielder Agim Ibraimi was the man tasked with converting from the spot, and it was easy to see why – his spot-kick found the very top corner of Langer’s goal, and the hosts had the lead. It was a lead they would hold comfortably into the final five minutes, when suddenly the urgency of the situation seemed to dawn on Norrkoping. They knew one chance would come their way, it came to Sebastian Andersson – a three-cap Sweden striker they would have backed to finish from 10 yards out – but his half-volley of a bouncing ball was sliced off the outside of his boot, sailing harmlessly wide. Not long later the final whistle blew, and Norrkoping were done. Astana march on, and will be confident of doing so again after a solid showing here. Astana 1-0 IFK Norrkoping (Ibraimi pen 47) Astana win 2-1 on aggregate
  21. Valleta (MLT) vs Dinamo Zagreb (CRO) Of all the clubs to make it through the first round of qualifying, Maltese champions Valletta were perhaps the side that every other side would have been secretly hoping to draw. As a club and a country, Valletta and their native island have almost no footballing pedigree, and the fact that they had struggled past Faroese opposition was hardly a promising sign. On the other hand, Dinamo Zagreb were one of the strongest sides in the draw, and were overwhelming favourites to move on. As with many of the smaller sides still in the draw, Valletta were in no mood for a thrashing. Their priority was from the outset, and they stuck to it resolutely throughout the game – don’t get embarrassed. They were expected to lose, but they were going to make it as difficult as possible for their more illustrious opponents to break through. Lining up in a defensive 4-5-1, they successfully dug in and frustrated the more adventurous Dinamo for much of the first half, keeping them safely at bay. Until the 37th minute, when defender Steve Borg manhandled his mark at a corner and gave the Croatians a penalty. Up stepped playmaker Sammir confidently, and his shot was firmly struck to the goalkeeper’s right. Unfortunately for him, Dzuiguas Bartkus guessed correctly, the power on the penalty made it a comfortable height for Valletta’s last line of defence to push away. Dinamo had blown their best chance of the half, and it remained 0-0 at the break. Irritation was now becoming to come into play, and while Valletta failed to find a shot on target all night, their parity was winding up the visitors. Maltese hero Michael Mifsud came on as a substitute just after the hour mark, and within seconds the 36-year-old was chopped down by Mario Musa at the cost of a booking. Given the clear frustration on the part of Dinamo, it was a surprise that he finished the game on his own in the book. Finishing the game even clearer than the referee’s notebook would be the scoreboard, as remarkably not one of Dinamo’s 24 shots found its way beyond Bartkus. Annoyance and desperation no doubt accounted for the inaccuracy of some of the later attempts, but a huge amount of credit must be given to the Maltese minnows and their disciplined, resolute defending. Although the Croatians would almost certainly get the job done at home, they would return there with their pride sorely wounded at a failure to win in the Mediterranean. Valletta 0-0 Dinamo Zagreb
  22. Red Star Belgrade (SRB) vs Zalgiris Vilnius (LTU) Red Star Belgrade – or Crvena Zvezda to give them their Serbian name – are an evocative team. One half of Belgrade’s eternal derby with arch-rivals Partizan, a bastion of Yugoslav football and the last side from Eastern Europe to lift the continent’s greatest prize back in 1991, they have been the making of some of football's greats. Lithuanian champions Zalgiris, while a force to be reckoned with in their Baltic homeland, summon precious little emotion. Something the Serbians have a reputation for, rightly or wrongly, is a passion that sometimes transgresses the rules. Here however, it was not a Serbian that earned the first booking from the referee. Mitchell Donald, an Ajax youth product who somehow found himself at Russian nobodies Mordovia Saransk before signing for Red Star, tackled a little too enthusiastically midway through the half. 10 minutes later, Damien Le Tallec – who bizarrely enough had been a team-mate of Donald at Mordovia, having got there via Rennes, Dortmund, and countless comparisons with his FM wonderkid brother – followed suit, cynically tripping an opponent on the break and taking one for the team. The biggest goal threat for either side in the first half was Ghanaian striker Richmond Boakye, on loan at the hosts from Italian side Latina. After a quarter of an hour he nodded a free header wide, after half an hour we fired a shot just over from a very tight angle, and in injury time at the end of the half he improvised a flick to reach a cross, but only sent it into the arms of the goalkeeper. The second half began with a booking – left-back Aleksandr Lukovic collecting his side’s third – and then the game changed. Bosnian forward Bahrudin Atajic led a rare attack for Zalgiris, the two centre-backs inexplicably both elected to close him down on the edge of the area, and that opened acres of space for attacking midfielder Elivelto to run into. The ball came, the turning defenders tried desperately to make their ground, and the shot was hammered into the top corner past a diving goalkeeper to stun the Marakana into silence. With half an hour to go, Zalgiris led Red Star away. Boakye continued to work hard at the other end, but was bafflingly withdrawn, replaced by Milan Pavkov inside the last 20 minutes. With the advantage, Zalgiris fell back, frustrating Red Star with 10 men behind the ball, and the frustration only increased. As the clock ticked towards the final five minutes, Lukovic mistimed a lunge trying desperately to win the ball on the halfway line, and the hosts would have to play out time with just 10 men. The chance came – a perfect cross from Slovoljub Srnic reaching Pavkov in half a yard of space – but the finish didn’t, and as Armantas Vitkauskas fell on the ball, Red Star’s hopes of an equaliser evaporated. At the final whistle, Zalgiris celebrated a famous victory, while the hosts trudged out to boos, jeers, and worse. The return in Lithuania promises to be quite the game. Red Star Belgrade 0-1 Zalgiris Vilnius (Lukovic s/o 83; Elivelto 61) Seinajoen Jalkapallokerho (FIN) vs Sheriff Tiraspol (MDA) The problem, some might say, with the early qualifying rounds of the Champions League, is that there are far too many matches which hold next to no interest for anyone other than the teams involved in them. Some sides, like Red Star of the previous tie, at least have enough weight for the casual observer to notice them. The majority, like Finnish champions SJK and their Moldovan counterparts Sheriff, do not. Even the latter, with their quirk of being based in breakaway Transnistria, incite little more than a shrug to anyone outside of Moldova. Sometimes, the name recognition of the clubs involved is compensated for by some thrilling football. More often than not, it isn’t – as was the case here. In the largely non-descript town of Seinajoki in Western Finland, the first 45 minutes of this particular game passed almost entirely without incident, two shots on target failing to stretch either goalkeeper, and little sign of either quality or hope that either club could realistically aim to make the group stage of the competition. Mercifully, the second half sprang to life. Like several sides from former Soviet republics, Sheriff are a multi-national side these days, and so it proved as Brezovic of Croatia fed Jabbie of Sierra Leone 30 yards from goal, who in turn slid a pass through for Jo – no, not the Manchester City failure – to calmly finish beneath the goalkeeper. Less than a quarter of an hour later, the hosts were back on terms, Matej Hradecky outjumping Dionatan Texeira – whose most recent employer was, of course, Stoke City – from a corner to restore parity. That would be as good as it got goals-wise, but there was still time for one more incident of note. With just three minutes remaining, Mehmet Metemaj – the only man from either side to have earned himself a space in the referee’s notebook – stuck his foot in a little too strongly on Ricardinho, sending the Brazilian tumbling and earning himself an ever-so-slightly early bath. Sheriff couldn’t take advantage, SJK couldn’t spring a surprise, and so we go back to Tiraspol with the scores tied in a week’s time. Seinajoen Jalkapallokerho 1-1 Sheriff Tiraspol (Hradecky 62, Hetemaj s/o 87; Jo 49)
  23. I can't say I share your enthusiasm for TNS, Mark - I'd much rather the Montenegrins won through. Amazing how FM can influence your allegiances! -- Olimpija Ljubljana (SVN) vs Rosenborg (NOR) Following on from the dour affair in Montenegro, readers will no doubt be excited to see the name of Rosenborg appear on the fixture. The Norwegian champions, most recently famous of either knocking out and being knocked out by Celtic every season, bring a certain pedigree to proceedings that recent sides in the draw had lacked. One such side was Olimpija of Slovenia, who were hoping to follow in the footsteps of compatriots and rivals Maribor a couple of years beforehand in reaching the group stages. With the visitors favoured only by virtue of their history, this promised to be a close one, and so it proved. An even period to open the game saw Andraz Kirm send an early sighter into the arms of the visiting goalkeeper, before Danish midfielder Mike Jensen saw an effort from distance deflected narrowly wide of the left upright. The midfield battle was fierce, and a goalless first half was at least moderately entertaining. Three minutes into the second half, the first real flashpoint emerged. An Olimpija attack down the left was forced infield, the tempo dropped, and Danijel Miskic was forced to turn back towards his own goal. What he probably didn’t expect was to be felled by a vicious challenge from behind, and the Hungarian referee had little option but to brandish a red card in the direction of Frederick Midstjo. Down to 10 men away from home, Rosenborg suddenly had a problem. Sensing their opportunity, the hosts rightly pushed forward. Veteran striker Leon Benko was thrown on to give another option up top, while the visitors looked to sit deeper, remain disciplined, and keep them at bay. It worked too – Olimpija’s profligacy saw Kirm’s early effort remain the only one of 13 shots to hit the target, and for all their possession they created little of genuine threat. Of course, their profligacy would cost them too. With just under 10 minutes remaining, substitute Mushaga Bakenga hit a low shot from 20 yards out under a defender’s attempted block, 37-year-old goalkeeper Aleksandr Seliga hurt himself as he moved across goal to dive, and the ball rolled over the goal line almost apologetically. The 10 men had somehow pulled off the win, and Olimpija’s big opportunity had passed them by. Olimpija Ljubljana 0-1 Rosenborg (Midtsjo s/o 48, Bakenga 81) Qarabag Agdam (AZE) vs Ferencvaros (HUN) Long gone are the days when Hungarian sides instilled genuine fear into European opponents – the evolution of the game and the huge riches available to other nations have left the once-mighty Magyars behind. Rising up to challenge even their status as a mid-tier nation are the likes of Qarabag and Azerbaijan – clubs and countries with access to greater wealth, and who are determined to move on from the ‘footballing backwater’ image many have imposed upon them. In this particular battle of ancient vs modern, it was the latter who made the first impression – but not necessarily a positive one. Just three minutes into the game, Emir Dilavi decided the best way to prevent his man reaching a pass that hadn’t even been played was to bring him down 10 yards off the ball on the edge of the area. Norwegian official Magnus Strombergsson showed him a yellow card, and Dilavi was joined in the book 10 minutes later by team mate Julian Koch. Between the two rash tackles, the scoring was opened. Azeri champions Qarabag fielded five homegrown players in this tie, all defensive – the back four and holding man Qara Qarayev, who would later be booked himself – and precisely none of them featured in the move for the goal. Brazilian playmaker Richard took a pass from Spanish winger Dani Quintana, and played a perfect ball inside the full-back for Albanian winger Ansi Agolli to run onto. The 34-year-old took the pass in his stride before hitting a weak shot that Denes Dibusz should have down better with, but the keeper could only get a weak hand to it as it flew past him to give the Baku-based side the lead. That, Qarayev’s booking aside, was the only major action of the first half, which ended with Ferencvaros beginning to fight back against their hosts. They did so with a peculiarly aggressive playing style – a high-tempo, shoot-on-sight set-up in attack combined with close marking and clumsy fouling off the ball. They would finish with 19 fouls and 15 shots, with three of the former earning bookings and only two of the latter on target. On the other hand, the hosts and their 1,600 fans would grow increasingly confident in both their lead and their opponents’ wayward shooting, and in the second period were able to get more of a foot on the ball despite the tackles flying in. Richard in particular looked to be enjoying himself, controlling the attack from the tip of a midfield diamond, and he was unlucky not to score himself, striking the bar with a free-kick after being brought down by Leandro – the third green shirt to earn a booking. In the end, one goal would prove enough, leaving things set up intriguingly for the return game in Budapest. Qarabag Agdam 1-0 Ferencvaros (Agolli 10)
  24. Ludogorets Razgrad (BUL) vs Partizani Tirana (ALB) Like BATE before them, Ludogorets are a side with a growing affinity for the Champions League. With domestic dominance in their native Bulgaria theirs after five league titles in a row, the Razgrad outfit had reached the group stage for the first time last season. This time round, Albanian underdogs Partizani stood in their way of taking another step to the same end. Ominously for the visitors, Ludogorets showed no signs of complacency, which was perhaps one of their biggest hopes of springing a surprise. Instead the hosts got straight to business, Gustavo Campaharo – one of six Brazilians lining up for the Bulgarian champions – taking down a cross and finding the top corner from 15 yards. 10 minutes later the same man played a key part in the second, slipping a pass through for countryman Jonathan Cafu to cross to the back post, where an unmarked Wanderson tapped in for 2-0. With any early nerves well and truly gone, Ludogorets slowed the pace down somewhat, but it was still a surprise when the sides went in at the break with no further goals. The 4,000 fans would not have to wait long for another however, Wanderson getting his second two minutes after the restart with a vicious shot straight into the bottom corner from the edge of the area. The home side were in complete control, with Partizani yet to get a shot on target. It came as a surprise to everyone, therefore, when the visitors pulled a goal back with their first real effort. A miscommunication in defence saw two Bulgarian defenders leave a long ball to each other, allowing Albanian under-21 international Jurgen Vatnikaj to reduce the deficit just nine minutes after coming off the bench. The same man would try twice more in the remaining 20 minutes or so, achieving the rare feat of having every one of his side’s shots on goal, but there were to be no further goals in the first leg. All of which puts the Bulgarians in a promising position for the second leg, with Partizani needing either a 2-0 win or a victory by three clear goals if they are to turn the tie around. Against a side of clearly superior ability, it is difficult to see anything other than another Ludogorets win. Ludogorets Razgrad 3-1 Partizani Tirana (Campanharo 8, Wanderson 18, 47; Vitnikaj 68) Mladost Podgorica (MNT) vs The New Saints (WAL) Looking down the list of ties for the second round of qualifying, you’d have been hard-pressed to find a neutral with a particularly keen interest in this one. The only professional club in Wales had found it all but impossible over the years to turn their domestic advantage into continental progress, while Mladost of Montenegro were not being picked out for spectacular things by anyone without a connection to the club – even if they were expected to win through here. In relation to the latter point, it was perhaps surprising then, that it was the visitors who dominated the game by almost every metric you can think of. Over the course of the 90 minutes they outshot their Balkan hosts 18-8, controlled possession for roughly 60% of the match, and forced their opponents into committing almost twice as many fouls as they did. Craig Harrison’s men put in arguably one of their best European performances in some time, and they did it against the odds. Nevertheless, the final score betrayed a flaw in their dominance. Of their 18 attempts on goal, a paltry four of them forced Damir Ljuljanovic into saves, and only one of those four – a second-half strike from Kiwi substitute Greg Draper – looked particularly threatening. TNS never looked like conceding, and at times looked like a side of superior quality, such was the way they stroked the ball about the Pod Goricom turf, but their utter lack of final product let them down, and gave those watching an indication of why progress beyond this stage was so difficult for them year on year. Happily for the Shropshire side, Mladost were just as poor in front of goal, even if arguably more efficient – a full quarter of their eight efforts troubling the visiting keeper. The home side seemed unable to adapt to their opponents’ tactics, struggled to get a hold in the tie, and frankly were fortunate to escape with a goalless home draw against one of the competition’s weaker sides. The second leg could go either way, but it doesn’t promise much by way of quality. Mladost Podgorica 0-0 The New Saints
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