Diamond Geezers, Episode 64: Trial of the Century
I return to my office within the bowels of Nene Park to find that Susan has bought me a print of one of those old wartime “Keep Calm and Carry On” posters, framed it, and hung it in my office. It’s very sweet of her, and a rather unique gift too. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like this before. It’s the sort of thing that could really catch on, and even get quite out of hand if we’re not careful. I’m sure that won’t happen, though.
The sentiment of the words is clear too. Having clearly been watching our recent games, Susan has no doubt observed that — save for the Rotherham game where we were basically awful in every department — we aren’t playing badly; we’re actually playing pretty well. We’re creating chances, we’re passing and moving, my defenders are kicking people’s heads in and not getting sent off nearly as much… we just can’t stop leaking goals. Game after game, my goalkeepers are flapping about like a kite in a tornado, but despite my drinking problem rearing its head after every goal that goes in, I have to stay the course. We are still right up at the top of the league and in the fourth round of the UEFA Cup. Okay, we’re out of the League Cup at the first hurdle, but let’s be real: the Premier League is the goal here. We just need to get there, by hook or by crook, and we can worry about being rubbish later.
Therefore, it’s time to plot a crooked victory against West Ham — a team who should serve as a reminder that things could be far, far worse. Languishing down at 18th in the league, it’s not hard to see what’s gone wrong at Upton Park: in the last couple of months, they’ve sold a whopping £24m-worth of talent. Joe Cole, David James, Freddie Kanoute, Jermain Defoe and Paolo Di Canio, along with tons of others, have all left following the club’s relegation from the Premier League, and they really haven’t signed adequate replacements. The result is that they’re not doing too well, and with this game being one of the two we have in hand, it represents an excellent chance for us to move back into the automatic promotion spots.
To that end, it’s time to unleash the Black Stone. Azar Karadas is back from his injury, and it coincides with Sir Les needing a day off and Benjani being injured from the Espanyol game, so — while I could start Peter Møller — I feel like it’s time for Karadas to make his long-awaited debut up top. He’s the ultimate Defensive Forward after all, theoretically the perfect foil for the nippy and nimble Meysam Javan. Elsewhere, Mahouvé needs an MOT so he’ll be replaced by Rhys Weston, while Källström and Hysén return for Bubb and Baggio. I feel good about this side on paper, but as we all know, football isn’t played on paper — it’s played on an old laptop running a game from nearly 20 years ago. Literally anything could happen.
My collection of Nordic wonderkids combine almost immediately for the opener: Källström puts a ball into the box for Karadas, who turns and flicks the ball to the edge, where Meysam Javan takes a touch, steadies himself, then flights the ball over Stephen Bywater and in for 1–0 Diamonds! It’s a fabulous start, and just two minutes later, Weston spots Karadas in the box, launches a long ball towards him — Karadas with the header! GOAL DIAMONDS! Wait — no, it’s been ruled out! Javan was offside, and the big Viking is denied a goal just eight minutes into his debut. Disappointing, but there’s no doubt that this is a tremendous opening period.
We continue to create chances that West Ham have no answers to, and it’s only a matter of time before we extend our lead — and on 15 minutes, Javan is at it again. This time it’s a solo run from the halfway line, completely unchallenged by the Hammers’ defence, and eventually he spanks a long-range shot that glides past Bywater to make it 2–0. And, although West Ham manage one attack that results in Kiegan Parker scoring from a header, of course, it’s not long before our two goal lead is restored: this time, Källström finds Hysén with a simple pass, he advances on goal, then lamps a dipping strike that beats a statuesque Bywater to give him his first ever Diamonds goal, and bring us in 3–1 up at the break.
The whole team are playing well here, so I decide not to change anything and continue with the second half as we are — and ten minutes in, Källström gets in on the act. First Karadas gets into the box and squares for Javan, he strikes a shot high and hard at goal, which Bywater manages to block — but my new second-favourite Swede is on hand to collect his first ever goal for the mighty Diamonds, and before you know it, we’ve put ourselves 4–1 up and we are cruising. We continue to create chance after chance, while Pinheiro happily palms away a couple of further efforts from Parker, and in the 88th minute, substitutes Møller and Farnerud combine to lay the ball on the plate for Karadas, who gratefully pumps home from close range to make the score… no! Karadas has another goal ruled out for offside, this time against Møller! The big lad can’t buy a break, but he can sulk all he wants in the canteen after the game — the important thing is, we’ve completely dominated West Ham, and will rise to second in the league after a crushing win.
Since it’s December and contract expiry dates on CM01/02 are scattered randomly throughout the months of May, June and July, some players are starting to find themselves within six months of being free agents — and slap bang in the middle of the window where I can start nicking them for nothing. Michael Dunwell’s contract is almost up and he’s happy to be a Decent Young Player — ideal. Competition from Walsall shouldn’t stop him from arriving next summer. A very youthful Darren Bent’s contract is also coming up at Ipswich; he could have very good sell on value, so I dispatch Susan to his parents’ house for discussions.
Bixente Lizarazu and Fernando Hierro both tell me they have “absolutely no interest” in playing for us, plus they want pretty stupid money, so they can both sod off. And, most excitingly of all, Louis Saha is in the bargain bin; he’s 25, incredibly good, and happy to be a squad rotation player for some reason, so an absurdly generous contract is sent his way too. Plus, after looking at West Ham’s transfers before the last game, I offer trialist terms to one of their former stars who’s now on a free. Might he be the man to take Cristiano Ronaldo under his errant wing?
We are also, sadly, forced to say goodbye to an old favourite. Alessandro Costacurta accepts Siena’s offer to be their new manager, and he departs with our very best wishes and kisses on every cheek. He was a brilliant player, there’s no doubt. I have a feeling he’s going to be a fairly crap manager, but what do I know. Good luck, Billy.
In the aftermath of my transfer flurry, we’re drawn against Burnley in the FA Cup Third Round, which I suppose could have been worse. We’ve got a taste for claret and blue now anyway, so bring them on. What’s that? We’ve got them next in the league? Well then, bring them on… a little sooner than I expected, I suppose, fine.
They look good, to be honest. 8th in the league, 22 goals already between start strikers Ian Moore and Alex Notman, good average ratings throughout the squad — we’re going to have to be on top of our game. And to that end, I decide to leave my team almost the same as it was for the West Ham game, with only one change — Mahouvé replacing Weston. I assume I don’t need to explain why. It was the best we’ve looked for a while, apart from games where my opponents get two players sent off. I realise it means leaving Sir Les and Baggio out; the former is unlucky, but I was really happy with Karadas in our last game, and Baggio… is a tough one. He’s been pretty productive for us, but I feel like we can’t always accommodate a midfielder with his attacking intent. Martin Andersson is less glamorous, but he’s reliable, technically proficient, works incredibly hard, and certainly eats his greens. I feel like we have more balance with him in the centre. Let’s see exactly how wrong I am.
Naturally, John Paul McBride puts Burnley 1–0 up with the very first action of the game. And, after Javan and Victory both test Alan Miller in the Clarets’ goal, veteran Scottish midfielder John Collins collects a pass from Andy Impey and crosses for Alex Notman to hit the ball on the half-volley and strike past Pinheiro for 2–0 to the away side.
I just… I can’t with this. Pinheiro is providing little to no protection yet again. I’m losing my mind in my technical area, but thankfully, my Swedish contingent get Hugo out of jail: first Hysén, who’s finally finding his range in white and blue, clips home a rebound from a Karadas shot, then straight from kick off, Karadas robs Uddin and knocks sideways for the onrushing Martin Andersson to level us up at 2–2 as we come in for half time! What a mad half. Pretty much the only action of the entire opening period were the moves that led to the four goals.
Since there’s basically nothing I can do at half time except waste yet another substitution changing my goalkeepers, I simply tell Mahouvé to shoot down anything that enters his airspace and send the players back out for the second half. We immediately concede a corner, which allows Pinheiro to finally make his first save of the game, going down bravely at the feet of Uddin to gather at the second attempt. He waits, then delivers the ball long — it bounces around between attackers and defenders until eventually Marcel gets tired of all the dicking around, robs a Burnley defender and powers his way through on goal unstoppably until, eventually, he fires a low drive past Miller to give us the lead for the first time in the game!
A timely intervention from our great Destroyer, who’s also doing an excellent job of breaking up Burnley’s attacks from defensive midfield, and it seems like we just need to keep it together and we should win this game. I bring on Farnerud for the anonymous Källström, and he’s right into the action — getting through on goal three times in his half an hour on the pitch and generally being a nuisance to the Burnley defence. So much of a nuisance, in fact, that he gets himself booked in the 90th minute for deflecting an Uddin header wide with his arm — accidentally, ref — and then, from the resulting free kick, the ball spins up in the air and young Alex enthusiastically barges into the back of Andy Impey on the edge of the box to give away yet another free kick, but also collect a second booking in the space of 30 seconds, and he’s sent off in the 91st minute. Not wishing to find my face covered into the custard I’ve just been slipped, Weston comes on for Javan, Karadas goes into defence to make us a back five, and we pull up the drawbridge for the closing seconds. Thank Christ for that.
I receive barely any interesting news over the next few days, and before I know it, we’re back aboard Chugger and straight into our next game against Preston North End. I decide to make one change, Farnerud gets a start in place of Källström, but otherwise, it’s a very similar-looking side. Preston are 19th, which is baffling when you consider that their strikeforce is still Jon Macken and David Healy; nobody has thought to sign them yet, even though they’re more than capable forwards. This season, it seems they’ve got the guns, but not the ammo. Healy also has the most assists in the squad, with four in 23 matches… and since you can’t assist yourself, I guess that explains why they’re where they are.
In our camp, I have extremely low expectations. It’s an away game against a team down at the bottom of the table, so… a clean sheet might be nice?
You know what? It is a clean sheet, and it’s actually the very rarest of games: one where we win, even though we don’t deserve to. It’s a complete backs-to-the-wall performance, where Macken and Healy get chance after chance — but Pinheiro is back to his brilliant best, putting up an impenetrable barrier that frustrates North End for the whole 90 minutes. Javan scores for us from a Lucic cross, for some reason, while we give the woodwork a good slapping as Karadas hits the bar twice and Farnerud strikes the post too.
Källström comes on for the second half, just long enough to pick up yet another booking that’ll mean he’s suspended for a game, well done there, and actually, you know what? We weren’t very good today, but we won. We bloody won while being awful. It makes such a nice change from being good but not winning — and I’ll take it.
That’ll do for today, I think. My nerves are so shredded you could stick some mayonnaise on them and call them coleslaw. I might go for a nice, relaxing pint with Paolo Di Canio.
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