Imitating the action of the Tiger

PFFC 4 Air France 3

Richard, 19 January 2004


Shakespeare would have it that great wars are won with great pre-battle speeches. In Henry V, Harry delivers two such speeches to stir the souls of his army into battle and to win the war against the French.

Yesterday, Philosophy Football took on an Air France team that was lying third in the table. Our pre-game surmise, based on a 2-1 win earlier in the season, was that they were technically gifted but unstructured. However, there have been no easy games in this league so far, and I wasn’t expecting this to be our first. PFFC are fourth in the league, with AF in third, one point ahead. This is the first of two games within the space of 48 hours ­ the second being against the league leaders! A win in this game would take us to third in the league, and in the game on Wednesday, to top ­ with 4 games in hand! However, one game at a time.

Because the previous week was the only week where we had actually led at half-time, the focus in the pre-match talk was based around the need to start strong and to make sure we come in leading at half-time. And for the first ten minutes Philosophy followed the manager’s instructions to the letter. We started brightly ­ slick interplay from defence through the midfield with Ally and Kieran probing, Gibbo seeing lots of possession on the left, and Dan dropping slightly to support Dennis up front. Cornish Al had a dig from 25 yards but was unlucky. Our best chance came when Dan beat their defender on the right, but an unfortunate touch took it too close to their keeper. We were controlling the match at this point. But this was soon to change. On 14 minutes, a high ball was played from their right wing and their striker made a beautifully timed run behind our defence to lob Adrian from 18 yards, against the run of play.

Air France then dominated play for the next 25 minutes. This period of play culminated in Philosophy going two down in the 35th minute, when a corner allowed one of their players to rise unchallenged and head the ball in. Things were going badly. We had been one down before, but we were now in uncharted waters in this league.

It was still a full ten minutes until half time. The Gaffer changed things around, switching Al and Gibbo on the flanks. This had no immediate effect, as we were still not seeing the ball. At times it looked like AF had more players on the pitch ­ or at least more players in midfield. They are a very skilful team. Good technical players who all have the ability to run with the ball, and very quick strikers. But we started to regain some momentum and actually finished the half stronger.

At half time, the Gaffer’s quiet determination to win the game was demonstrated with a Wengeresque passion. “We need to get beyond their defenders, we aren’t causing them real problems and have no real possession in the last third of the pitch.” Part of this was caused by Dan (who, while having a great game) was coming deep to pick up the ball, but leaving little outlets up front. The Gaffer made a switch, which was to change the course of the game. Eric came on for Gibbo, but instead of playing on the left was given instructions to play up front with Dennis who had been quiet in the first half. Dan was released into a far more natural roaming role for him in the hole just behind the two strikers. This move was anti-Hoddle, if you like. Hoddle had a system that a team should play to, but when it didn’t work ­ he confused his players with even more complex explanations, but stubbornly stuck to the 4-4-2 system. Our Gaffer didn’t explain, but this move was to in effect abandon 4-4-2 and to play perhaps more in the way that we played with Marco in the Number 10 role, a 4-3-1-2.

This move was to prove to be the catalyst to unleashing the collective spirit sometimes hidden within this team. With our backs to the wall we had taken on King Henry’s maxim and were “stiffening our sinews and summoning up our blood”. Within minutes we were causing them problems. The slick interplay was back, but now we were doing it where it hurts ­ in and around their penalty area. We were now drawing defenders out of position and exploiting the space left by them. Eric and Dennis were finding more space and Dan’s trickery was proving much more effective for the whole team. The first goal was beautifully crafted ­ after slick passing inside the penalty area, the ball came across to Dan on the left hand side of the penalty area. Dan had time to pick his shot and shoot right across goal and into the bottom right hand corner of the net: 1-2 after 52 minutes. Their keeper didn’t even dive for it; in fact his face betrayed his real conviction “Don’t worry, it’s going wide!” But their players were devastated.

Philosophy were now back in charted waters. The Chairman’s rattle sparked into life with increasing regularity. Ronan was having an excellent game at left back. Vipul and Damien mopped things up quietly in defence and Bruce was having an fascinating game at right back, sometimes coming into a central back three with Vipul and Damien, and at other times at right back and even joining in the midfield when we had possession. The equaliser was not far off. On 58 minutes Al received the ball to the right of their penalty area. Dennis was already in the penalty area and as he moved into a position to receive the ball, dragging a defender out with him, Al beat one player, played it into Dennis who laid off a beautiful first time ball back to Al which cut out another player and, because Dennis had dragged that defender with him, Al had the space to hit a left-footed drive into the bottom left-hand corner via the inside of the post: 2-2. This whole move had a rare quality about it and would not have looked out of place in the Premiership. Al, with all those players around him in the box should not have received that ball back from Dennis, but the one-two cut out three players.

Another substitution was made. With 27 minutes of the match to play, Richard came on for Dennis (groin injury) with instructions to get amongst their defence and cause problems. His first touch was to put through Eric for a one-on-one with the keeper, but the keeper made a great save at his feet. Nevertheless within five minutes Philosophy had staged a remarkable comeback. The ball came into the penalty area; Richard, with his back to goal, laid off a ball to Bruce just outside the area slightly to the right, and Bruce hit a scorcher into the corner of the net from 20 yards out: 3-2 after 67 minutes. The quality of the goals so far had been just incredible. The keeper had no chance with any of them. We were the dominant force. Surely we were going to win this game!

The blast of war blew in the ears of our French counterparts. This goal stirred Air France to match our level of football. At this point they had nothing to lose. The referee (who was brilliant throughout) was cutting out everything. He’d already booked one AF player in the first half, and another went into the book for diving in the penalty area under a challenge from Bruce. However, on 70 minutes Air France were level again. A poor header in defence went back towards Adrian and their striker snuck in again to place a volley over Adrian’s head. Almost a carbon copy of their first goal: 3-3.

A draw might have been a good reflection of the game here. It was truly a tough match. We hadn’t lost it, and could have settled for remaining unbeaten in the league. However the collective desire of the team kicked in ­ it had to ­ if we were to keep our 100% record, we would have to win this game twice. Eric’s industry was impressive, and Richard was beginning to use his physical presence to intimidate their defenders, creating a few chances in the process, but really keeping us in possession. In the 79th minute Ally whipped in a perfectly flighted free kick. Kieran rose above everybody to head the ball into the top corner and beyond the despairing dive of their goalkeeper: 4-3. Once more he didn’t have a chance. Hugh’s rattle cackled and the crowd went beserk ­ there was even a pitch invasion!

The final period was no less remarkable, and demonstrated both the winning mentality and a new-found maturity. Rather than just boot the ball out of defence, trying to hang on, Philosophy, mindful of the fact that we were (in terms of confidence and in terms of our standard of play) on top, continued to play good football. Although Dan dropped a little deeper to help out Ronan on the left, there was still plenty of thrust being provided by Ally, Kieran and Cornish Al (whose stamina was impressive, according to the Chairman). The game finished in Air France’s half.

Air France had been run down by PFFC’s juggernaut spirit. There was active support from the bench. For the second, third and fourth goals the ‘fans’ ran onto the pitch to celebrate with the players like madmen. It is always difficult when you do not play, but both Lele and Mauro were vociferous in their support ­ Lele reportedly screaming to Al after his goal “As Totti, as Totti!”

At the end of the game this very special referee admitted to Geoff that he found the ‘never say die’ spirit within the team remarkable. For me this was the key element that Air France did not have an answer to. And this is an important lesson. At 3-2 down, Air France managed to find something to match the level of play again. At this point they had nothing to lose. But we had been there and done it before, and we were supremely confident that we could do it again.

Long-standing Philosophers will know that I rarely use superlatives (ahem). However, this quite simply was the best game of football that I have seen or been involved in during my five years as a Philosopher. I know we’ve had some pretty good games like all the games against Inter Aztec (even the one we lost 6-5!), the rematch against South Indies when they were in their prime, and all the matches in this new league. But this was the definitive classic. It was a team game in all senses of the word with great battles going on all over the pitch.

This match was won not with a great pre-battle speech but by a rousing mid-battle decision. On to tomorrow, against the league leaders we may well need all the assistance we can get ­ even a few words from King Hal:

I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,
Straining upon the start. The game’s afoot:
Follow your spirit

There, but for the grace of God, go I.