I stare, unblinking, across the pitch. It has all gone horrendously, hideously wrong. Correct me if I’m misremembering but I don’t ever recall us being 2 goals down at any point this season. But here we are. 37 minutes in. Mafra 2, Angrense 0. What a great fucking time for this to happen.
45 Minutes Earlier…
“Now remember”, I begin, “A loss today does not mean that we’ve failed. If Mafra beat us, all that happens is we pick ourselves up and go again in the play offs. But if we win…” I look around the changing room as I let the word sink in. I watch the players’ body language. A clenched fist here, a flicker of a smile there.
“If we win”, I repeat in a soft tone, “You will be legends in Hero Creek. You will be true Heróis.” With that, a wave of calm optimism seems to wash over the players. “I’m not one for massive speeches lads,” I continue, “but I’d like to remind you of some advice that a friend once gave me. A piece of advice that I passed on to those of you who played for me and for Angrense when I first arrived in Hero Creek.” As my Heróis turn their eyes towards me, a wide smile stretches across my face, and I grasp the handkerchief in my left trouser pocket.
“Don’t overthink it”, I wink.
We’re so fucking ready for this match. I’ve never known these players so excited, or so focussed. Mafra Away could arguably be described as the toughest match of our Season and there’s a strange poetry to the way that it’s come about on the last day to decide who wins Promotion. But to be honest, I wouldn’t want it any other way. This match deserves to be an occasion and my players deserve to be the ones who win it.
We will line up today in a counter attacking 4-1-2-3 variant of our Heróis Original system. We will be solid, we will soak up pressure, and we will hit Mafra quickly on the break. Rúby starts as the holding man as Jaime Seidi is suspended and Diogo Coelho starts in place of the injured Mauro Aires. Jeferson Paulista starts on the left wing, leaving Kevin on the bench.
The first goal comes 13 minutes in when Varão lays the ball off for Bruninho, who belts it into the top corner from just outside the area. It’s a hell of a strike to be fair. I react rashly, telling the players to abandon our plan of counter attacking and to attempt to control the game instead.
In the 37th minute, Carvalhas swings in a free kick from the right wing and big centre back Rafael Goiano heads the ball past the flailing Azevedo.
Do you remember when I mentioned the Gods of football? When I explained that they can be incredibly cruel and vindictive arse holes? Well how about getting beaten for the first time on the last day of the season? That’s them. This is their doing. They’re laughing their celestial tits off at me right now.
But suddenly, we come alive. The 2nd goal seems to flick a switch and it’s only a couple of minutes before Amonike drills in a cross from the right wing, which Guilherme helpfully deflects into his own net.
My players smell blood. There’s a real spring in their step now. In the 44th minute, as I consider what kind of approach I’ll use in my team talk, Amonike gets free down the right again and puts another low cross in, but this time Guilherme does not score on our behalf. He doesn’t need to. Because Benjamim arrives at the near post to score the equaliser.
If there’s one thing that I’ve really grown to love in away matches, it’s the silence. I don’t know if we’re a special case or if the whole division is the same, but generally you can count the number of away fans that attend these matches on one hand. Whether we’re the home or away side, it’s always the same: A couple of away fans amongst a sea of hundreds of home fans. And when we’re on the road, and you could hear the sound of a pin dropping on the other side of the ground, it’s one of the best feelings a Portuguese Championship Manager can have.
At half time, as it turns out, I barely need to say anything. A quick comeback before half time builds an awful lot of momentum and I only ask that the players carry it into the second half. Unfortunately they don’t. Aside from a ridiculously optimistic long range shot from Bruninho, the first 25 minutes are quiet and tense.
Mind you, that may not be the worst thing in the world. After all, as it stands, we’re going up. I don’t want to rock the boat by making big changes, so I just drop our wingers back to form a 2nd bank of 4. We’ll play our standard game in a 4-1-4-1 and try to scrape through to the end.
I’m clock watching now, which is never ever a useful thing to do. It only makes time go more slowly. It makes you feel every tick, and experience every tock. I’m watching the pot and expecting it to boil, but I can’t help it. Into the final 10 minutes we go, and all we need to do is not fuck this up.
In the 83rd minute, Hurley chips a beautiful pass into the Mafra box for Magina, who chests the ball down – And half volleys into the bottom corner. My heart’s pounding. This it it. Have we won it? We’ve surely won it. An equaliser wouldn’t be enough for Mafra, they need to beat us. I promised myself I wouldn’t, but I try to belly bounce Pedro again.
I needn’t have worried about a Mafra equaliser. They may as well raise a white flag from their dugout. They’re dejected and they’re done. Pretty much straight from kick off, we get forward again. Magina squares the ball for Paulista and the Brazilian puts the cherry on top with a low finish into the bottom corner.
4-2. It’s 4-2. The final whistle blows and it’s still 4-2. I can hear screaming and cheering from my staff behind me and my players in front of me, and it’s still 4-2. We’ve won. We’ve done it. We’ve been fucking promoted.
I’m laughing, or crying, or something in between. It’s difficult to tell. All I know is that I’m sprinting as fast as my legs will carry me onto the pitch towards the pile of Heróis in the far corner, along with Pedro and my staff. Even Nuno’s caught up with us. He’s running alonside me, beaming as tears streak down his cheeks. “VAMOS HERÓIS!” I shout, throwing my arm around his shoulder. Nuno looks up at me and just starts wailing with happiness. “VAMOS HERÓIS, INGLÊS!” He sobs. What a game. What a comeback. What a year. What a club.
As I join in the celebrations with the players, a golden retriever that’s obviously sneaked through the turnstiles somehow, and the 2 travelling fans, who by the way have staged the smallest pitch invasion in the history of football, I feel a slight pang of regret. I’ve brought this team up to the LigaPro, but I won’t be here to lead them through it. I’m starting to wonder whether the decision I made is the right one.
At that moment I notice Miguel Borba striding across the grass, looking straight at me. I can tell from his face that he can tell from my face exactly what I’m thinking. He keeps walking until he’s stood uncomfortably close to me, and then he leans in towards my ear and whispers: “I will ask you one more time, and your answer will be final. Will you stay with Angrense, Franjo, or will you go?”
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