I hold the letter in my hands, staring down at the words.
“Dear Mr WT Franjo,
We regret to inform you that due to the number and strength of applicants for the position of Manager, we have decided not to take your application any further.
Chairman of Società Sportiva Lazio S.p.A.”
Short and sweet. I’ve not let myself get too excited about the prospect of managing such a massive club, but it still stings. I’m only human after all. Well, half human. As much as I’d told myself to put Lazio out of my mind, I’ve still caught myself imagining the feeling of lifting trophies in the middle of the Stadio Olympico pitch, surrounded by a sea of those famous sky blue shirts. At least they spelled my name right I suppose. That’s something.
Still, if I’m not good enough or famous enough or successful enough for a job like that yet, I’d better get on with making myself better, more famous and more successful. There are 6 matches left to play of the PSL season and my Santos side are 8th in the league, 3 points clear of 9th placed Bloem Celtic and only 4 points behind 4th placed Golden Arrows. I’m sick of seeing that 4th spot dangling just above me, only to be snatched away at the last second. I want a win today and I want to keep moving upwards towards it. Golden Arrows have had their chance to get themselves clear of the chasing pack and they’re making no progress, so it’s about time we finally close the gap.
Polekwane City are the visitors to the Athlone today, one of the few teams in this league that I’ve not lost against over the last 2 years and they’re rock bottom of the league and massive favourites to be relegated. I’m sticking with Project: Meatloaf Mk II as we’ve been performing quite well since its’ introduction and we’ll be playing the extra extra narrow version to choke the narrow 4-2-3-1 that they use. There is a slight hitch to today’s gameplan in that Sello Japhta’s picked up his 8th yellow card of the season and so has picked up a 1 match ban. Seeing as Siyabonga Zulu is out for the season, that leaves me with no option but to dive into the reserves to find a left back.
Sinethemba Tavares is only 16, but he’s chock full of potential and able to fill in at left back, so he’s thrown into the starting 11 today. Further up the pitch, our only other change is that the fit again Luther Singh replaces Ryan Moon and takes the left wing, while the versatile Mr Masango takes the right.
The game’s tight and scrappy to start with. After almost 20 minutes though Nkili’s drawn out of position by attacking midfielder Seoketsa, who releases fellow attacker Manganyi into the space that our right back leaves behind. He gets away down the left wing and floats a cross to the near post, where Ace Bhengu arrives to nod the ball home. It’s not a terrific start and I’m quite worried about how frequently we concede the first goal, even if we do usually come back afterwards.
We try to control the game for the rest of the half but fail to make any sort of noteworthy chance. At half time Baliso comes on for Luther Singh on the left wing. The loss of Japhta’s overlapping runs on that left hand side have made inside forward Singh quite ineffective, so Baliso should at the very least give us some width out there.
Only a couple of minutes after the restart, Ndlovu crosses from the right wing to our far post. Nkili leaps to win the header, but mistimes his jump and misses the interception. The ball falls at the feet of Allie, who controls it before shooting hard at Komo. Our young skipper makes a howler, letting the ball slip through his fingers and into the net. My head retreats into my hands. Bottom of the table at home and we’re 0-2 down.
Needless to say we go on the attack from that point on. I want us to play wider, exploit the flanks and play some actual sodding football. With 25 minutes to go, Khoabane’s 20 yard free kick comes straight at Komo, who parries the ball into the back of the net. I fucking despair. Komo’s no world beater but he’s usually a fairly reliable pair of hands. He’s had an absolute shocker today.
A few minutes later, a good passing move culminates with Joël passing to Masango on the edge of the box. He squares it for Hicham Aidir, who smacks the ball furiously into the back of the net. 1-3 with 20 minutes to play. We might still be in this. With 13 minutes left, Masango gets another cross in, this time it’s an early one from deep on the right wing. It cuts the defence and bounces all the way through to Aidir on the edge of the 6 yard box, who smashes the ball into the roof of the net. 2-3. I’d love to be able to say that the pair combine again to equalise a few minutes later, but they don’t.
There’s no shame in not quite being able to come back from 0-3 down and the lads’ late effort was actually quite remarkable, especially from Mandla and Hicham. However, there is plenty of shame in letting yourselves go 0-3 down in the first place. I’m not laying any blame at his door because everyone did their part, but Tavares had a nightmare debut, looking nervous throughout and only really contributing mistakes. I send him back to train with the Under 19’s the next day, making it explicitly clear that he hasn’t blown his chance, he’s just not ready.
For me, the worst thing about your team losing a football match is the knowledge at the final whistle that they won’t have a chance to make it right for days. Sometimes weeks. Sometimes even months. In an ideal world if you lost a match you’d play another one straight afterwards and win so that everyone could go to bed smiling that night. As I’m sure we’re all well aware though this is not an ideal world, so we get 5 days to stew on our humiliating defeat.
The 5 days are fairly eventful though to be honest. I have to talk Roscoe down after he comes to my office and moans to me about his lack of first team football. The Kakuba/Sohna partnership has been a major plus to come out of this season though and I think deep down he understands that he’s not good enough to dislodge either one.
Our young playmaker Luke Fanteni turns pro too, meaning that Astra’s infinite future bids for him will probably have to be ever so slightly improved, perhaps from “Derisory” to just “Insulting”.
I’m also told that Hicham Aidir is on the verge of yet another record: He’s been player of the match 6 times this season and the club record is 7, so he’s definitely capable of at least equalling that in our last 5 games.
And then comes an extremely exciting phone call: I’m offered an interview with AJ Auxerre Chairman Loïc Chabod. I fly over to burgundy as soon as the call ends and attend the interview. It goes… Pretty well I think. They ask me about my relegation in Vellinge, my track record of not staying put for very long, and then they ask me about Liechtenstein. They ask whether I’d hypothetically be willing to leave both of my current jobs to focus on Auxerre and their relegation battle. After a moment of consideration, I say yes.
Goolam meets me at Cape Town International Airport arrivals, out of the blue. He drives me back to my flat and we talk on the way. He says that he and the board don’t want to lose me and are prepared to be very generous with their new contract offer, but I decline and reiterate that I’m not ready to commit to staying in South Africa.
He asks me again the next day too, but again I refuse to enter negotiations, instead convincing him to put his generosity money into the club, allowing the transfer revenue percentage to be raised. I tell him again that I’m not definitely leaving, but I just want to explore my options first, and one of my options is still absolutely to stay at Santos.
So in the end I don’t really get much time to stew on the Polekwane City match, what with all the travelling and meetings and what have you. Before I know it it’s time for our trip to the Harry Gwala Stadium to face Maritzburg United. The good news is that Sello Japhta’s eligible to play having served his suspension. The not so good news is that Ayanda Nkili, Juno and Joël Soumahoro are all bloody suspended for picking up their 8th, 4th and 4th yellow cards respectively. No wonder we’ve broken the disciplinary record. I’m keeping faith with Project: Meatloaf Mk II as I still think we can make it work, and Tlou Molekwane, Marothi Diale and Gugu Gogotya all join Japhta in the starting line up, replacing the suspended lads.
It’s a quiet match to be honest with you. Quieter than I thought it’d be between 2 rivals for the top half places. The first half passes in the blink of an eye, broken up only by Marothi Diale’s gashed leg after half an hour that he plays through. We go on the counter attack in the second half and that does the trick. With 20 minutes to go, Mandla Masango sets up Hicham Aidir for the 3rd time in 2 games when he drills a cross in to him at the near post. Hicham makes no mistake, finishing calmly to put us ahead.
Yanga Baliso makes an appearance replacing Singh a few minutes later and then actually sets up Aidir for his and our 2nd goal, with a short pass to the striker’s feet before he slams the ball past the keeper. Colour me impressed, Yanga. Fanteni makes a late cameo in place of the injured Diale, but we make it through to the end unscathed and worth the win.
That win takes us back up to 8th and things are really starting to get tight between 4th and 9th, with only 2 points separating the teams. Kaizer Chiefs are finally starting to catch up with the rest of the league and have taken the 4th spot for themselves and to be honest I doubt they’ll give it up now as they still have 2 games in hand over the rest of us. Golden Arrows, Mthatha Bucks and Cape Town City are all absolutely catchable for us though.
And something that’s been annoying me ever so slightly this season is that since our opening day defeat against Ajax CT, we’ve had a negative goal difference throughout the entire season. I’m pleased to announce that after our professional 2-0 victory over Maritzburg, we’re finally back to 0. Sometimes it’s the little things.
My phone starts to ring and I answer with a knot in my stomach. “Hello, Mr Franjo?” Says the voice on the other end. My heart skips a beat. And then another. I know that accent. I make a tortured breathy noise that vaguely resembles a ‘yes’. “I was impressed with you the other day and I’m impressed with your CV.” Continues Loïc Chabod. “I’ve talked to the owner and the board and we’re delighted to offer you the job as Auxerre’s Manager. We’d like you to come in straight away.” There’s a momentary pause, before: “We need you to save us, Franjo.”
I sit in silence for a few moments. This could be my big break. The Auxerre job. I could make them a Ligue 1 team again, take them back into Europe… And yet it’s a big gamble. Auxerre’s Ligue 2 status is in jeopardy and I’d have 3 matches to keep them up. If I failed, that’d be another relegation on the CV and the prospect of managing in the French third tier next season, which doesn’t really enthuse me. With 3 games to go they’re 17th out of 20 teams, 1 point above the relegation playoff place and 3 above the relegation zone proper. I’ve always backed myself for challenges before, but I couldn’t keep Höllviken up… I’ve barely been able to get Liechtenstein to score a goal…
“Franjo? Are you there?” Says Loïc, starting to sound worried.
“I’ll take it.” I splutter.
“Fantastic!” Says Loïc, sounding chirpier again. “Our next match is in a week’s time…”
“I’ll take the job next week.” I interrupt. “I’ll be there in time for the next match, but I want to… Next week.”
“Very well” replies Loïc, now sounding confused and slightly annoyed. “Fly over next week and we’ll get your contract signed.”
I don’t sleep the night before my last match. Chippa United at the Athlone. I can’t even focus on it. I have no idea whether I’ve made the right decision. Will I regret leaving Santos? A club where I’m comfortable, the owner’s sensible and we’re on the up? I’ll have £5 Million to spend on players, more than I’ve ever been given before, but that’ll surely change if I can’t beat the drop. And even if it doesn’t, how many quality players are going to want to join us in the 3rd tier of French football?
By match time I’m running purely on coffee. I want to go back to bed but I’ve been told that that might come across as ‘Unprofessional’. Hicham Aidir, thankfully, is itching to get out there though. His performance in the last match means he’s now the joint-record holder for number of Player of the Match awards in a Season with 7, and he can break that record today.
We’re going to play a variant of Project: Meatloaf Mk II today, and that variant is all out bloody attack. Because why not. Maybe it’s my sleep deprived state or the adrenaline rush that accompanies throwing yourself into a needlessly intense situation, but I want to go out with a bang. This club’s been good to me and I want to give them a performance to remember me by. Diale’s gashed leg will keep him out for 3-6 days but our suspended lads are back so Juno replaces him, with Soumahoro replacing Gogotya and Moon replacing Singh and moving to the right, allowing Masango to take the left.
You can tell that there’s a real hunger from Santos to give me a match to remember. It takes only 16 seconds for us to register our first shot on target, a Sinbad effort from 25 yards that’s caught by Hawes. 5 minutes in Mkaza plays a long ball over our defence and finds Ngema, who runs through on goal but drags his shot wide of the far post. It’s an energetic start. After the half hour mark, Joël passes to Masango inside the Chippa box, who dinks the ball to Aidir. The big striker doesn’t even think about it. He pulls back that trusty left boot and slides the ball into the corner of the net.
We come out for the second half just as hungry but it takes 10 minutes for us to see a proper chance. Molekwane plays the ball long over the defence for Moon to run onto down the right wing. Moon latches on and crosses low from the byline for Aidir, who tries to finish it from close range but uncharacteristically shoots straight into Hawes’ arms. A few minutes later though, Sinbad passes the ball to Moon in the box and he’s tripped by a clumsy challenge from Mokgothu. A penalty. Masango places the ball on the spot. He deserves a goal more than anyone to be fair. He’s set up 4 for Aidir in his last 3 matches. Mandla steps up confidently – And places the ball firmly down the centre of goal, rippling the back of the net as the keeper dives out of the way. That should be it, I think to myself. Game over.
With a quarter of an hour to play, I bring off Sinbad to be replaced by young Luke Fanteni. I pull him into a firm hug as he walks off the pitch. “It’s been a privilege, Sinbad”, I grin. Sinbad in my opinion is the best kind of footballer. I went on and on about Benjamim back in the day for the same reasons; Players like those 2 make a Manager’s life so much easier. You don’t have to think about them at all, you can just concentrate on everyone else. Who’s coming into form? Who’s dropping off? Who needs a rest? Who needs fitness? Meanwhile players like Benjamim and Sinbad will be there every single match, the first name on the teamsheet, and they will run their arses off. He’s the kind of player that still comes out of a heavy defeat with credit because “if only everyone else had worked as hard as him”. The kind of player that the fans love to rally behind. They sing Sinbad’s name as he takes a seat on the bench. After 2 years of near-non-stop football, he deserves a rest.
5 minutes later it’s Joël Soumahoro’s turn to make way for Gugu Gogotya. Again, I pull him into a hug as he walks past. Joël’s probably been the best signing I almost didn’t make throughout my career so far. I ‘umm’ed and ‘ahh’ed over bringing him in for a while after Joe Ekwalla left and my number 1 target to replace him went to the Belgian Pro League. Eventually I snapped him up, knowing he was less technically and mentally mature than his predecessor. In all honesty, I never thought he’d hold a candle to Joe when I brought him in, but after scoring twice on his second substitute appearance to give us our first victory of the season over Wits, he’s never looked back, scoring 4 more and setting up 5 goals for his team mates, as well as putting in consistently excellent performances.
With 5 minutes to go of my Santos tenure, I bring on Themi Maluka and replace Hicham Aidir, because obviously. Hicham has been ridiculous for us this year, scoring 24 goals and setting up 2, all for the modest fee of £40k. He’s too good for this league. I suspected it when I brought him in and I know it now. All I say as I give him the obligatory hug on the touchline is “Tell your agent to expect a call”.
It may not last long considering the games in hand the other challengers have over us, but my final match is a routine 2-0 victory that sends Santos FC, predicted relegation strugglers, into 4th place. The 6000-odd fans sing my name as I make my way around the perimeter of the pitch applauding them. I see Stevie waving on the front row wearing his Santos shirt, laughing as he struggles to restrain Chappie from leaping over the advertisement boards and onto the pitch towards me. I soak it in for a few minutes; The atmosphere, the fans, the outpouring of support for an outgoing manager. The People’s Team indeed.