Halfway from the gutter to the stars
PFFC 3 Marks & Spencer 2
A short step back, to last Wednesday, a night of fear and loathing in Maida Vale. I was at Stamford Bridge for Chelsea–Arsenal, PF were losing 3-1 with table-toppers Abbey. A match that we could have won, perhaps. A game that we played badly, for sure. The Gaffer enraged, stormy emails, black thoughts, a terrible mood that apparently couldn't be cured even by the usual lambrusco and tortellini under the friendly two towers of Bologna. Such was the fury of the Professore that he even threatened to ask Hany (our league master) to relegate us if we'd have lost the game against M&S, a relegation dogfight with them, second from bottom, just a point behind us. That would have created a case history: points deducted because a team play badly.
I spent five days trying to console and calm the thunderous Gaffer, and two trying to get the formation right. Difficult choices had to be made. Counselling was requested, and two changes from the ill-fated Abbey game were made: in came Filippo and Dennis, out went Vito and Giacomo, the team reverting to the classic 4-4-2. A brief briefing of the triumvirate Damo–Fil–Stef before the game decided to play the German at right back, with the Italian and the Welshman in the middle.
A night of drama was set to begin. A night that saw PF go down to the bottom of the deepest hole, then cathartically re-emerge to reach heavenly heights. A night of swearing and sweating, of bad mistakes and unlucky moments aplenty. A night of offsides and complaints. A night where there was no space for amiable chats with the opponents. A night of passion and desperation, yellow cards and fighting spirit, commitment and fury. All with the threat to each player of a personal call to the Gaffer for a difficult one-on-one in the case of a bad result.
Personally, after a torrid day, I had to embrace once more the difficult role of player–manager, with the Gaffer flying back from my country. Something that was invented by the Brits, and never exported. Rightly so. If the pressure on the field wasn't enough, then came the thoughts for those on the bench, and for those who had to make space for them. All this, playing with the almost tangible presence of the Gaffer on my shoulder. I always struggle with headers; last night it was even more difficult to jump.
We started fearful, contracted, nervous. They put us under a lot of pressure, and hit the bar twice in the first ten minutes. Then we started to impose ourselves, but after a long bad patch, in which they never came into our half, the big-brand grocers scored twice in five minutes. The first one a cooly converted own-goal by Vipul, ball into the top corner, the second a shot that went under Owen after a minute-long scramble in our box in which the treasurer twice had the ball in his hands, and on one occasion was dispossessed by Ronan. Heads down, well down. Before and after this folly, we had plenty of chances. Dennis managed to squander them urbi et orbi, the final one, minutes from half-time, almost incredibly. He got a fierce bollocking, in Italian, from myself.
Half-time. I'm enraged. I storm away trying to cool down sipping my salts, but the pain and the rage are almost uncontrollable. I'm not too confident, to be completely honest. But I also think that we're in England, and this is the country where everything is possible, especially in football. I think of a plan B if we don't score in ten minutes: I'd come off for Giacomo, three in defence and god help us. I don't want to make changes now because I feel that everyone is as willing as me to turn things around. A change would sound like a failure, and I want everyone to get a reprieve. We enter the pitch far before the ref calls the opposition. Right attitude. And off we are, charging.
Dennis manages to hit their 30-stone keeper from 8 yards with the goal at his mercy, and I think of killing him on the penalty spot, a human sacrifice for the god of goals. Then, somehow, in another endless scramble, Kieran, appearing from behind a post, manages to score this bloody goal. We want more. Lady luck finally gets on our side when, in a rare appearance of the opposition in our half, they hit the post. On the rebound the ball is stuck in the middle of the box and I decide to back-heel it to Damian, coolly and precisely. Then such is the joy for that moment of madness that I swear at the opposition and make a bad gesture. That's my state. Very poor. I'm still threatening the comrades with phone calls to the Gaffer, and decide to make two changes in quick succession.
Giacomo comes in for Marco, Vito for Ronan. I feel sorry, it's a tough call and an unpleasant job, but something in the far corner of my tired and dizzy head tells me that I have to do it. Gibbo stays patiently on the touchline. I often look at him, and feel even more sorry, but I want to leave the last change for later.
From a corner, Giacomo forces an own-goal, claiming the precious 2-2. I don't even celebrate. Just run into their goal shouting: "We can win this f...ing game". On and on. They're scared. They start saying, "it's just a game of football" and similar. We're a bit unpleasant, Kieran kicks one of the opponents when the ball is nowhere to be seen. He gets away with a yellow card, 'frustration' they call it in England. Moments later we score again, this time a great shot from Vito. And finally the celebration is massive. We are possessed. And sounds like a killer punch for the young and slightly astonished opposition. The two subs have now both scored. I think it's finished, but we have to play 20 more minutes. Dennis is booked for dissent, inviting the linesman to go back to school. I swear at the same linesman in Italian. We keep charging, looking for the fourth goal, but we end up off-side at least a dozen times, Vito is a bit selfish on a couple of occasions and a cross from captain Ally flies 30 centimetres above my head (or perhaps is the Gaffer on my shoulder?), with Damian (and Steffen) losing their voices for rightly shouting at me to get back.
We're fighting a tough battle, but, hey, we really want these three points. And once in a while it's ok to forget our usual composure, kindness, philosophical love for the human genre. We have learned this year that we certainly need a bit more hunger to impose ourselves in a better league. The last ten minutes are frantic. Gibbo comes in for Mauro and plays very well upfront. We are quite stressed and fearful again, the game looks endless. But the final whistle finally comes, and in the dressing rooms it's party time. "Make some noise!" is my rave-style call. And the answer is roaring: "Ole, oleoleole, phi-lo, so-phy".