I didn’t sleep at all last night. I spent the hours that I should’ve been resting for the big game going back and forth on my decision to bring back Project: Meatloaf. We tried it once here in Katowice, and it went poorly, but we need to play for the win and the element of surprise could give us that extra edge. I know that this system works, and my squad is more tightly knit than it was earlier in the season. They’re bound together by our collective failures and subsequent fight back from the brink. I believe in Project: Meatloaf, and call me daft, but I believe in GieKSa too.
In the build up to the match, I offer a new 1 year contract to our rarely called upon goalkeeper Délcio Azevedo. If I end up staying here another year, I’d like to have a goalkeeper that I know, and Nowak’s already decided that he’s off to enjoy retirement. The delicious Avocado accepts the offer and then promptly breaks his toe, ruling him out until next season.
Garbacik and Bart both come back into the side after completing their suspensions, along with Janga and Fossy. Abramowicz, Silva, Gregurina and Amonike are the ones to drop out for this crucial match. I keep my team talk short and sweet. The players know what they need to do. They know what I expect. “Go and keep us up” I tell them with a grin, before they troop out of the changing room to line up in the tunnel.
KGHM come out with fire in their bellies. They start quicker than us, and look the more threatening of the sides. 23 minutes in, El-Bouazzati plays a long ball forward to Klimala. Klimala dribbles forward to the edge of our box and shoots, but it’s straight at Nowak and he catches the ball, which is greeted by applause from the home fans.
On the half hour, KGHM get a throw in level with our box. Nobody goes short, and the taker Warcholak takes a long run up, ready for a long throw. He launches it into the box, and into the crowd of players at the near post. Nowak comes out to claim it, but he can’t. It’s Uzelac that reaches the ball and nods it on. It bounces off Nowak’s shoulder and he dives back towards his own goal, clawing at thin air. He can’t reach it. In agonising slow motion, the ball bobbles across the line and into the net.
I get that feeling again. The one that I’ve felt just once before. That unique feeling of being hit in the face by some kind of heavy, blunt weapon, but being oblivious to the pain. The numbness has taken my body. I can’t even feel myself standing. This can’t be how my time with Katowice ends.
We haven’t been in the relegation zone since Saturday 4th of August, which is just over 10 months ago. We climbed out when we won in our 2nd league game against… Any guesses? Yeah, of course it was KGHM Zagłębie. We beat them to escape the drop zone after finding ourselves there after our first game, a thrashing against Jagiellonia, and now with an hour left of the season, they’ve put us back. As it stands, I’m taking GKS Katowice down to the second tier of Polish football.
In first half injury time, we come forward with purpose. Fossy plays a nice through ball into the path of Amonike, but the winger shoots straight at Polacek, the keeper, who catches the ball with ease.
As the players trudge down the tunnel at half time, I turn to Dennis, stood next to me in the dugout. He looks tired and worried. I’m glad I’m not the only one. We go in after the players and walk into the changing room.
I shut the door behind us, and let the silence permeate the room, broken only slightly by faint laughs and excited voices somewhere outside.
“Do you all know who I am?” I ask eventually. I get no response. I turn to Tom Scheffel. “Tom, what do you know about me? About my career?”
“You were unbeaten in Portugal somewhere?” He replies sheepishly.
“Correct, but what about before that?” I ask. Amonike pipes up.
“You were in Sweden.” He says. “The news in Angrense said that you beat a top Swedish club with a tiny one.” I give him a broad smile.
“Yeah, I remember that.” I grin. “The news labelled me as some kind of genius. As a giant killer. I couldn’t really afford to correct them at the time.” My smile fades. “But that match was a tiny, insignificant speck in my extremely short time with FC Höllviken.” I can feel everybody’s eyes on me now. I’m not entirely sure what I’m doing. It’s a bit of a Hail Mary.
“We were relegated.” I continue. “It was between us and the team we were playing in our final match, just like today. We went behind to an early goal, just like today. We just couldn’t find a way back after going behind.” The silence amongst my players is palpable. Maybe it’s pity, or worry, or resignation that my history will repeat itself.
“Once was enough.” I say quietly. I actually feel confident. I feel conviction in my words. I feel different than I did in late 2016. My Höllviken team was a bunch of misfits. The best set of vaguely talented footballers I could get at the time. This is Katowice. This is the top tier of Polish football. These are professional footballers.
“One team gets relegated today. It’s us or them. WHO’S IT GOING TO BE?”
“THEM”, comes the reply.
“WHO’S GOING DOWN?”
“MAKE IT FUCKING HAPPEN!”
We go out for the second half a different team. Buoyed, confident and determined. When we kick off, we’re faster, tougher, more aggressive. I make a double sub too, with Amonike and Tarnowski replacing Fossy, who picked up a knock in the first half, and Goncerz, who has been ineffective.
With an hour gone, we’re the side in control. Project: Meatloaf is in full effect. Tarnowski plays a great ball through for Amonike in the area, similar to Fossy’s at the end of the first half. Amonike hits it, but it’s always curling just wide of the far post.
5 minutes later we go on the attack and immediately we look even more dangerous. We win a corner on the left, which Amonike swings towards the near post. It’s headed away by Zlicic, but only as far away as Janga, who heads it back into the area. Garbacik plays it on for Hurley, who shoots – But Zlicic stands firm and blocks it and the ball bounces away as far as Garbacik again. He can’t control it and the loose ball rolls to Bart. As Bart strikes the ball, Stadion GKS Katowice falls silent. As the ball ripples the net in the top right corner, it’s anything but.
I allow myself a fist pump and a smile, but then my thoughts are back on tactics. Do we drop back and invite KGHM back into the match, or do we keep going on the front foot, pegging them back? For now, we’ll stay as we are. It crosses my mind that this may turn out to be the worst mistake that I’ve made in my career to date. It’s a thought that I could do without.
With 20 minutes to play, Kevin gets the ball on the right wing. He drills the ball across the ground into the area, and Bart gets on the end of it. He goes for his second – But the ball hits the post and it rolls back across the line. Modica is the first on the scene and he hoofs it – Against his own bar, but then clear nonetheless. I decide that now is actually the time to drop back. We can hold them out for 20 minutes, I know we can. We go to an all out defensive 4-1-4-1, with Gregurina replacing Janga.
We last until the second minute of injury time, and there’s only time for one more attack. KGHM are on the ball. Their own 4-1-4-1 looks more like a 3-4-3 as they pile men forwards in search of a goal. El-Bouazzati passes to Vlasko 30 yards out and he turns towards goal. He gets the ball out of his feet, takes aim, hits it – Way, way over the bar. The referee checks his watch, and blows his whistle.
We’ve done it. We’ve survived. By the skin of our teeth, and carried through in the end by our Bartbeat, we’ve held on and avoided the drop zone by a solitary point. The weird thing is though, it feels pretty hollow. 2019 so far has been exhausting mentally. I think as soon as the final whistle went, all of the adrenaline that had been keeping me powering through all this time just dissipated. The Sword of Damocles has been hanging over my head, getting lower and lower as we’ve approached the end of the season. I’m relieved that I’ve jumped out of the way at the last second, of course I am, but it’s left me with mixed feelings.
I just want to get this Summer done with. I want to see where I’ll be at the start of next season. Who’ll want me? Who’s been watching apart from the bloody Cameroon boss? The relegation favourites have stayed up against all odds, my job here is done, and the world’s my bloody oyster.
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