The real-life tales of a football writer
The big day of Manchester’s match against Strommen IF of the Norwegian third division finally arrived. Emotions were running high, not least in my own mind. I was dying to start the game, but as manager I knew there were better players than me in the squad.
We entered Espanyol’s training ground determined not to be intimidated. UEFA Cup finalists last season, Espanyol are having an excellent season and are excited about their move to a new 40,000 seat ‘English-style’ stadium on the outskirts of Barcelona next year. Letting us use their facilities is a ‘community gesture’. There are more Catalans playing for Espanyol than Barca. Too often marginalised by a Barça-obsessed media, Espanyol have been compared to Manchester City as an example of a club living in the shadow of a giant.
Two days before we played them, Strommen had lost 2-1 to a late goal against El Prat, leaders of the Primera Catalan – Spain’s fifth level. I shuddered when I saw that result but it’s nothing to how I felt when I saw their 23-man squad warming up. It was so big they needed two dressing rooms – one of them ours.
I was introduced to their manager who told me they play in front of crowds of between 600-1,000 each week. They're semi-pro. We pay to play. I just nodded but that sealed my fate. I was starting on the bench.
Our lads played superbly – 0-0 at half-time, more than we could have dreamed of. I was so proud of the performance, but my feet were itching.
Strommen were obviously surprised. I knew that the walls between the dressing rooms (we’d got one adjacent to their two) were very thin. Our players were elated, but I put my finger to my lips and told them to sit down and say nothing. “We’re not playing well,” I shouted, aware that Strommen couldn’t see the big grin on my face. Their changing room went quiet as they listened to my attempt at reverse psychology. “We’re far better than this. We need a big improvement in the second half.”
Although Strommen went a goal up after 55 minutes, Hans equalised with a wondrous free-kick. Life was beautiful.
After using our other subs, with 10 minutes to go and I felt it necessary to introduce fresh blood – myself. I can’t describe the feeling of powerlessness as the man I was marking hit a sensational last-minute winner, on the volley from a cross-field ball. The greatest compliment they gave us was the vigorous manner in which they celebrated. It meant something.
It was a great day for our team, but I must concentrate on the day job now and planned interviews this week with Lionel Messi, Josep Guardiola and Bert Trautmann.
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