For most, I think to myself as I abandon the warmth of my bed and place my feet on the cold floor of my bedroom, the winter break has already started.
For them, I think as I cram toast into my mouth and give Meatloaf and Burnie a goodbye scratch behind the ear, the 23rd of December isn’t a time for football, but for preparation for or celebration of the holiday season.
For the majority of the World, I think as I walk down to the Athlone, today is a day when families and friends will come together, laugh until they’re hoarse and drink until they’re legless.
For me though, I think as I step onto the team bus, greeted by a roar of expectation from my Santos squad, today is none of those things. Today is the biggest and best day of my career so far. Today is my very first Cup Final.
Buoyed by Hicham Aidir’s decision to commit to Santos with a new long term contract with no buyout clause, Santos will take on Kaizer Chiefs today in the Final of the South African Knockout Cup. Traditionally these matches are played at a Neutral venue and that, I believe, was the intention when the FNB Stadium was selected. As luck would have it though it’s the home ground of our opponents, so we’re in the rare and very uncomfortable position of playing a Cup Final… Away.
I was planning, assuming we actually were playing in a neutral venue, to have a go at Kaizer Chiefs. I wanted us to come out swinging and catch them off guard with the dominant fluid football we’ve already proved ourselves capable of playing. Being the away side leaves this plan looking exceptionally risky though as Kaizer Chiefs will presumably be on their game from the very start and they’ll definitely look to take the game to us. In the end though I decide to risk it. We go with the same lineup that beat Supersport with the ambition of grabbing an early goal. I do plan on going more conservative after 10 minutes whether we score or not though so it’s imperative that we don’t actually concede an early goal or we’ll be pretty SOL.
2 minutes in they gives us an early scare when Mngonyama squares the ball for Mukansi 12 yards out, but his first time shot is blocked and cleared by Kakuba.
I should’ve realised then that Project: Meatloaf wasn’t going to fly. I make no changes though and within 5 minutes Harrison drives forwards on the ball, surges past Isaac Sohna and into the box, before drilling it low into the bottom corner. An early goal. My only weakness.
A little too late we go to our more standard and conservative 4-1-2-3. I want width on both flanks right now though, so Norde will cut in from the left with Japhta overlapping and Masango will be a winger on the right.
20 minutes later a Kumalo cross from the right is headed down by Fielies and Harrison gets a free volley 6 yards out. He aims towards the near bottom corner but Komo pulls off a remarkable double save to keep out both Harrison’s first effort and his rebound shot. In the end the ball goes out for a Kaizer Chiefs corner, which is swung into the box and headed over by Mngonyama.
We go on the counter. We’re under too much pressure, we’re being penned in. I’m all for staying deep but we need to win the ball and get it up the pitch quicker. When we do win it at the minute we’re giving it away too easily and piling more pressure on ourselves.
Come on, I think as we give the ball away yet again. We’re better than this. We’re not as mentally fragile as we once were, we can get ourselves back in this. I’m just about ready to take our 1 goal deficit into the break where I can rally the lads properly, but with a couple of minutes to go another Kumalo cross is flicked on by the unmarked Fielies, right into the far top corner of the net. 0-2 and heads are dropping all over the place. We might’ve blown this already.
In the 45th minute Konqobe’s corner is flicked on by Mngonyama and headed again by Fielies, but Komo catches it and prompts a huge collective sigh of relief from me and my coaching staff. 2 goals is more than enough, thanks.
“Isaac, chin up mate” I clap the Cameroonian defender on the back as the players march past me into the changing room.
“We’re better than this”, I say once they’re all seated on the benches around the perimeter of the room, most with their heads in their hands. “We’ve paid them too much respect. You look scared! A team that’s beaten Supersport twice already this season! You shouldn’t be scared of anyone!”
I’m changing things up. Diale’s not had a great game and I’m very aware that we aren’t making the ball stick up top. Aidir’s a good forward but he’s on his own against the entire defence and it just isn’t working. So I’m going to mix things up by replacing Diale with King Carl. Ladies and gentlemen, in a move that will be remembered as either an act of genius or madness, Santos will play 4-4-fucking-2. “Now would be a terrific time to score, Carl mate”, I grin as Lark walks past me, behind the rest of the lads. He grins back nervously.
Sinbad is going to be picking up the more defensive role in midfield while Joël focuses on creating. Japhta’s going to have to play as more of an orthodox fullback too, staying back as we rely on Norde and Masango to get up the wings and get crosses in for target man Aidir and poacher Lark. This team has the ability to go long, over the top, down the wings or through the middle now, but we also have the potential to lose the midfield battle. I take a deep breath and walk back out to the dugout for the second half.
With less than 3 minutes gone since the break, Zungu drills a cross into our box from the right. Kakuba on the near post can’t get out of the way and the ball nicks off his foot and rolls into the bottom corner. It’s a cruel goal. It’s 0-3.
My faith in our ability to pull was hanging by a thread, but that’s the last nail in our coffin. Granted we’re looking better but with half an hour to go we need to pull at least 3 goals out of thin air against arguably the best team in the continent and we’re running out of time.
With 28 minutes to go, Zungu drills another cross in, this time finding Judas Moseamedi. Judas controls the ball, turns and places it low under Komo. The net ripples and I think that’s going to be that. Moon and Baliso come on in my last desperate roll of the dice and push up as we go to a 4-2-4. Masango and Norde come off. They’ve disappointed me but then it’s not their fault. We’ve struggled to hold onto the ball even long enough to play it out to the wings for most of the game today. Kaizer Chiefs hold us at bay to claim the trophy. They’ve embarassed us today.
As the home fans celebrate wildly, there’s nothing more I can do but first watch the Santos players ascend the steps and collect their medals, before Kaizer Chiefs’ team climb the steps and collect their trophy. I could swear the whole ceremony lasts about 3 hours and all I can do is stand watching and trying to keep the growing sense of nausea at bay.
As the engine of the team bus finally starts up I sit staring straight ahead into the seat in front. I ignore the fans banging on the window. I ignore what they’re shouting and what gestures they’re making. I just want to sink into the ground. Just for a moment I even consider giving up management altogether.
I think today is the first time that I feel I’ve completely and utterly failed. At Höllviken I had more excuses than I’ve had hot meals. At Katowice I succeeded, although it didn’t feel like it at the time. I’ve had the time and resources to build this squad and prepare for this match and we’ve been torn up and thrown aside. It’s a good job I’ve got the Winter Break to rethink things.