I check my watch. There’s half an hour to go before we need to be out on that pitch. I glance towards the door of the treatment room, which is still closed. It’s another few minutes before it swings open and Mike Kakuba steps out with Geron Barnes, our head physio.
“25 minutes to go” I blurt out, “What’s the news?”
“I’m fine” replies Mike straight away.
“You absolutely aren’t.” Barnes corrects him. He turns to address me. “If you want him to play that’s your decision but for me he still needs a few days rest.”
I look at Mike, who’s looking back at me with desperation in his eyes. “Get your shirt on mate, you’re starting.” I smile.
It’s a risk to play Mike, I’m well aware of that. This match has come a day or 2 too soon for him but I need him. I can complain about a few of my Summer signings but Kakuba, Joël and Aidir have all been unarguable successes. Maybe Sohna and Masango too. I need every bit of quality I can get today as I’m desperate to win what for all I know could be my final Old Cape Town derby. Captain Komo starts in net, Nkili, Kakuba, Sohna and Japhta start across the back, Sinbad partners Diale in midfield and Moon, Soumahoro and Masango play behind Aidir. We’re bringing out the Meatloaf again. Either I’ve learned nothing from our Cup Final thrashing or my confidence in the system took a big old jump when we beat Vasco de Gama, but either way I’m sticking to my guns. Japhta will be more restricted today and will have the job of man marking danger-man Doutie on Ajax CT’s right wing. Luther Singh makes the bench, but is still some way short of match fitness.
7 minutes in we’re looking good. A particularly good move sees the ball passed to Joël just outside the box. He hesitates just for a second though, unsure of what to do, and it’s enough time for Graham to stick a boot in, hoofing the ball way up field towards our goal. The defence scramble as Nyambi runs onto the clearance. He’s too quick and finds himself almost through on goal. Sohna throws himself at the striker’s feet in a last ditch effort to win the ball but he hurdles it, picks his spot and drills the ball past Komo.
Things get worse 10 minutes later when Sinbad pulls up clutching his thigh. I ask him whether he wants to come off using the universal substitution sign of rolling your hands over each other, but he shakes his head defiantly and takes up his position ready to play on. Bloody trooper. 5 minutes later, goalscorer Craig Nyambi releases Doutie on the right as he tears away from Japhta. Doutie gets a cross in and Mzwakali hits it on the half volley, leaving Komo with no chance. 0-2.
I tweak things slightly, bringing Diale and Joël deeper to make a 4-1-2-3 and giving Hicham Aidir instructions to be our target man, to play with his back to goal and hold the ball up. Everyone else is instructed to play more direct to get the ball to him quicker. On the half hour mark though we’re countered again, this time from our own corner. A decent passing move from Ajax ends with McCarthy picking out the unmarked Mzwakali on the left. Luckily though his shot’s weak and easy for Komo to save. Still, we’re falling apart again.
On the stroke of half time though, a glimmer of hope. Aidir plays a give and go with Moon, who dribbles onto the right wing and crosses in towards the Ajax 6 yard box. Our big Moroccan striker arrives and directs a volley past Bacela in goal. We go in for the break at 1-2.
On the hour mark, I bring Sony Norde on for Mandla Masango as a left winger, hoping that more width will allow us more opportunities to cross to our target man and find the equaliser. Juno also comes on for Sinbad a few minutes later as his race is run for today. No sooner do I make that change than a Doutie corner is swung in and Craig Nyambi peels away from his marker Isaac Sohna and directs the header past Komo. From that point on, we go on the attack, although I’m not sure we have the bottle to change our fortunes at this point. Our chances aren’t helped with a quarter of an hour to go when Ayanda Nkili, already on a booking, trips Ngele and earns himself a 2nd yellow and a red. I despair. Molekwane comes on replacing Ryan Moon and we change to a narrow 4-2-2-1 system, encouraging Japhta and Molekwane to bomb forwards on the overlap.
2 minutes later Nyambi completes his hat trick when his 20 yard free kick deflects through the wall and sends Komo the wrong way. We’re crumbling all over again and I have no idea why. 3 more minutes later he bags the dominant visitors a 5th goal and himself a 4th when Gajana passes him the ball on the edge of the box and he strokes it beautifully into the top corner. I’m not amused.
“FUCK!” I yell to the silent changing room as the players all stare down at the floor. “FOR FUCK’S SAKE!” I continue, still not sure what my point is. I compose myself. “There are kids in our reserves and in our under 19’s who would FUCKING KILL…” I take a second. “… Who would kill to put that shirt on, walk out on that pitch and represent this club. Maluka! Fanteni! … The other Fanteni!”
“That reminds me, Boss, I meant to tell you”, mutters my assistant Jakub, “Bogdan Popa called from Astra, they’re prepared to bid up to £37.5k for Luke Fant…”
“Tell Popa that he needs to take the hint”, I whisper, “Or I’m going to fly over to Giurgiu and stick his money up his…” Jakub nods and holds a hand out. I turn back to the team. “What’s happening?!” I look around the room but still nobody meets my eyes. “It’s not a rhetorical question, lads! What’s happening?! Marothi, are you too tired to try? Ryan, are you too cool? Ayanda, are you fucking insane? What? Tell me!” Nobody moves. I wait for probably a minute and nobody moves. Nobody even speaks. “Pathetic”, I mutter as I walk out of the changing room, slamming the door behind me.
Maybe it’s me though. Maybe I’m not flexible enough. Not savvy enough. I’ve been in Lansdowne for 18 months, which is longer than I’ve ever been at a club. We’re 11th, which is far lower down than I thought we’d be at this point. If all this time and the investment we’ve made in the squad has lifted us 2 places in 18 months then what am I even doing here?
Next up is a home tie against Mthatha Bucks, who are 10th. With a game in hand over us. And a better goal difference. For me, this is a must win game. I give Kakuba a couple of days off to get him rested and ready for the match but the only change I make is bringing in Tlou Molekwane for the suspended Ayanda Nkili, because I’m a stubborn bastard and I think Project: Meatloaf is a good system. And I’m fucking right.
We go behind after 6 minutes. Mthatha Bucks’ striker Ntlantla Masango (No relation) tries his luck from 25 yards and hits a postage stamp shot right in the top corner. I make a mental note to update my CV when I get back to Geen Rook Nie tonight.
It’s 0-2 51 seconds after kick off. We gift the ball to Mthatha in midfield, it’s passed to Bento on the right wing, he crosses in to the near post and their Masango gets a free header that he puts into the back of the net. We go on the attack. If this is going to be my last hurrah, and it’s feeling increasingly like it is, then let’s go out with a bang.
We do actually get a chance before the 10 minute mark. We have to be patient to work the ball through Mthatha’s back 6, but eventually Aidir slots a pass through for Moon and he shoots straight at the keeper. I’ll take it.
The chance seems to spur us on in fact. We start putting together some passes, making Mthatha Bucks chase us and the ball. Sinbad chips it to Joël 20 yards out, who slots it through for Japhta on the left, who crosses across goal and finds Ryan Moon, who slides the ball into the net! He picks the ball straight up and heads back for kick off. Amazingly, these are promising signs.
It’s seeming more and more like Mthatha have actually overplayed their hand. They got an early 2 goal cushion and they’ve just stopped playing, camping 10 men in their own third and inviting us on. Another flowing move before the half hour mark sees Joël pass to Masango, who slips the ball through for Aidir. He shoots from a tight angle but Hoffman makes the save.
10 minutes from half time, Masango swings a corner into the Mthatha box. The ball drops but nobody can make a connection. Mandela tries to clear, Aidir tries to control it, but it escapes them both. Sello Japhta swings a right foot… And the Athlone explodes with noise. 2-2. This is no longer a team playing without bottle. Keep proving me wrong, you beautiful bastards.
Any hopes we have of keeping our momentum dissipate when half time rolls around. After the break, Mthatha seem more organised and less scared of us than they were throughout the first half and the game goes from being quite fluid to extremely scrappy. With 25 minutes to play, I turn to my bench for inspiration. Luther Singh’s still not fit. Sony Norde? Luke Fanteni? Thembinkosi Maluka… I’ve not really spoken to Themi much since our row after I stopped him from transferring. I don’t hold it against him too much, he’s only 17 years old and his priorities are all over the place, and besides with Lark injured and Ernie out on loan I’ve needed him on the bench. He’s only played for the first team once on the final day of last season, but what the hell. “Themi, warm up”, I call. Aidir looks crestfallen a couple of minutes later as he walks off the pitch to be replaced by his rebellious understudy. “Unlucky today mate”, I mutter, patting him on the back.
The match is finely balanced. 2 minutes after the change we win a corner on the right. Goalscoring wingback Sello Japhta takes it, floating it over to the far post. Mike Kakuba rises, cushions the ball down… MALUKA!!
I’m sprinting down the sideline before I’ve even processed what’s happened. Themi runs over beaming from ear to ear and leaps on me next to the corner flag as his team mates mob us from all angles. Kakuba had nodded the ball down for him and he’d lashed at it with his left foot, volleying it into the net via the leg of an opponent. Themi’s opened his professional goalscoring account. We’re winning. “YOU LITTLE SHIT!” I cackle. “YOU BRILLIANT LITTLE SHIT!”
Once I get myself back to the dugout, I get myself focussed again. Masango comes off, Zulu goes on. We’ll play our 4-1-2-3 with Zulu at full back and Japhta on the left wing. After the goal though Mthatha are back to being a broken team, standing off and allowing us to play football, which is a mistake. With 12 minutes to go, Molekwane caps a brilliant little move by floating a cross to the far post, where the incredible Sello Japhta arrives to leap like a salmon and head it home for 4-2. What a game that boy’s had.
I bring on Juno to replace Joël and change our shape yet again to a 4-2-1-2-1, the same formation that Mthatha Bucks are using, with Juno and Diale as the holding men. Let’s see how they like trying to break this annoying back 6 down. There’s something very Santos about what happens next though. With 7 minutes to play, a 2 goal cushion and against an opposition who seem to have actually given up, Tlou Molekwane, on the pitch today because Ayanda Nkili got needlessly sent off in the last match, gets needlessly sent off for a trip on Abrahams when he’d already been booked. I can’t help laughing actually, although I hide my mouth behind my hand. Juno goes to right back and we see the match out. I’m not entirely sure what’s happened in the last 90 minutes but I think I probably owe these lads pizza.