Welcome to Irthlingborough, Twinned with Bolton
It’s a long journey home from Yorkshire, and not just because Chugger can only get up to 35mph these days. With Sam Allardyce’s grubby hands all over Martin Andersson, we must prepare for both a future without our industrious central midfielder, and one where we will be a further man down for the return visit of Leeds United in the second leg of the UEFA Cup Fourth Round. We’ve already lost Azar Karadas, the Black Stone, my favourite battering ram, to a torn calf that will put him on the shelf for at least three months, and with Andersson probably leaving plus Källström and Hysén cup tied, our crunchy centre is looking more and more Creme Egg with each passing day.
The Leeds game is in four days’ time, but in between, we have to welcome Bradford City to Nene Park. In terms of priorities, the league is squarely second fiddle to the UEFA Cup; we’re 16 points clear of newly-second placed Crewe Alexandra with a game in hand, the Bantams are hovering just above the relegation zone in Division One, and we’ve got tiredness, injuries and suspensions all over the place. In response, this game will see the return of my famous second string, featuring Peter Schmeichel, Ben Dixon, Rhys Weston (for the suspended Mahouvé), Rosário (for the suspended Lucic), Sir Les and Cherno Samba up front. Baggio returns to the bench alongside the Great Dane, Peter Møller. I expect both will feature depending on how things are going.
With Karadas injured and money coming in from the Andersson transfer (unless his love for me is so strong that he stays), I also bring Benjani in from the cold with one eye on playing him in the next game. I take him off the transfer list but keep him as “Not Needed”, and his status — for the first time since he arrived — says he’s simply “Happy to stay at the club”. See? All he needed was a good, humbling kick up the backside, and his eyes are back on the prize. Welcome home, Benny.
I care very little for this game, other than the fact that it’ll probably be Martin Andersson’s last appearance in the famous white and blue. The Rushden Ultras in the Peter De Banke Terrace rise to a standing ovation as the teams stride out onto the turf at Nene Park; they’re not stupid, they know what’s going on. It’s been all over the back pages of the Northamptonshire Telegraph all week. Andersson has never been spectacular, never been anywhere near the Player of the Season shortlist, but he’s our James Milner in the middle of the park. Reliable, committed, rarely drops below a 7, chips in with goals and assists, makes last-ditch tackles, and never gives any less than 100%. The fans adore him; we all do. Thank you, Marty. Now go out there and grab us the winner.
Bradford City are not at all interested in the ceremony of Andersson’s impending departure, as well they shouldn’t be, and set about trying to poop on our party. In the first ten minutes, they’ve already had three fantastic chances on goal, but in their way is the looming figure of Peter Schmeichel, who rolls back the years in spectacular fashion to spread himself wide and keep out efforts from Gareth Whalley (2) and Adam Murray. We are rocking, but St Peter, our saviour, galvanises my outfield players, and after that, we start to see more of the ball. Samba and Sir Les combine for the latter to hit a shot just over the bar, before Weston breaks up another Bradford attack and feeds the ball into Tobias Hysén. He spins, and loops a pass over the Bantams defence, Cherno Samba charges onto it, gets up, heads at goal… it’s past Andy Marshall! GOAL RUSHDEN! GOAL CHERNO SAMBA! It’s the great man’s first ever senior goal for the mighty Diamonds, and what a time to do it — relieving the pressure on our groaning defence after an opening period of intense scrutiny.
I suddenly care an awful lot about this game as I realise there are landmarks to be had, and quickly put Martin Andersson on free kicks and corners — and it’s one of his deliveries that falls to Hysén, whose razor-sharp senses and telepathic passing leads to yet another massive chance, this time at the feet of Sir Les, who skips away from Whalley and hits a furious strike past Marshall and in for 2–0 at half time.
We go straight back out and pick up where we left off, with Hysén now totally running the show — he sees a volley from an Andersson pass cannon back off the post, before he finally gets the goal his play deserves. Fernando Couto is the latest player to skip past Gareth Whalley, who’s going to need a long, cold shower after this one, and our strapping centre-back squares for Hysén to climb highest and head down past Marshall for 3–0, and surely the end of the game. The Bradford players have basically given up by now, so I make my first two subs, leaving Martin Andersson on for the time being — and on 77 minutes, he collects a Couto long ball, turns superbly despite the slippery surface, launches a cross into the area, and Cherno Samba rises above Michael Duberry to notch a brace in front of the crazed Peter De Banke Terrace. I sub Andersson off with five minutes to go so that he can soak in the adulation of the Rushden Ultras; I’ve got something in my eye as he shakes hands with all his team mates and applauds the stands at Nene Park on his way to the dugout. A fitting end for what will most likely be our latest marquee departure. Thank you, Marty.
We all gather in a big group hug in the dressing room after the game; players, coaches, physios and backroom staff collectively show their appreciation for our diminutive dynamo. After we high-five and chest-bump for the last time, I head down to my office, fire up the fax machine, and feed my signed copy of the agreement back to the Reebok Stadium. Adjö, Martin. Say hello to Freddie for us.
And there’ll be no Faustino Asprilla at Nene Park either: just as I go back to renegotiate a contract with him, given we now have some extra queens in the bank, he decides he’s going to focus on his extra-curricular activities instead. Fair enough. I think I would too.
And so, we ready ourselves for the arrival of Leeds United. 1–0 down from the first leg, we looked good for long periods against the Whites, but were undone mostly by a Robbie Keane masterclass that made all of my central-defensive players look like clowns. In the week since we last played them, I can see that Alan Smith has gone down injured; in truth I didn’t expect to see him anyway. They’re otherwise at full strength, although that doesn’t mean David O’Leary will play his strongest side against us… he didn’t last time out. Hopefully he’ll underestimate us again here, and we can use our 12th man in the stands to roar us to victory.
Ineligibility for Hysén and Källström and the loss of Martin Andersson means that Roberto Baggio is going to have the opportunity to play himself all the way out the door, down to the airport and off to someone else’s training ground; it’s a gamble, but his set piece deliveries alone put him ahead of Fabio Gatti in the race for a starting berth. I decide to keep Couto and Rosário at centre-half after Lucic’s 5 against Leeds last time, plus the Portugeezers (thanks) got 9s in the last match against Bradford. Benjani returns to partner Javan up front after we kissed and made up following Andersson’s departure. I’m almost tempted to leave Schmeichel in goal, but I can’t really justify that. Pinheiro seems to have fully recovered from his early-season debacle to find the form we all know he’s capable of. Oh god, I just had to write that right before kick off, didn’t I? I’m sure I won’t jinx anything.
I fudged my screenshot a bit here, sorry everyone — took a shot of the squad screen rather than the lineup. However, you can still see the players I started with below…
It’s pretty much the strongest Leeds side we could have come up against, barring Harpal Singh’s inclusion ahead of Stillian Petrov. We’ve got Rio Ferdinand, Mark Viduka, Harry Kewell and all the rest to bundle our way past if we’re going to make it to the last eight of the UEFA Cup. I guess we’re going to have to do this the hard way.
The ghost of Robbie Keane is still haunting my defenders as the man himself smashes a banana shot well wide in the fifth minute in what should serve as a warning for the rest of the game. After that, though, I’m delighted to see my players find their feet: Baggio tests Robinson with a couple of stinging free-kicks and Benjani heads over under pressure from Rio Ferdinand, before Keane once again breaks clear of my defence, but thankfully can only hit the side-netting.
I’m nervously clutching my water bottle on the touchline (which is actually full of either cheap vodka or expensive gin, I’m not sure), as my midfield combines to break through the Leeds line — Benjani meets a Duff cross, saved by Robinson, but Baggio is there on the rebound! Deflected wide by Jonathan Woodgate!! Ooh, that was a chance. That was a big, big chance. We surely won’t get many more of those.
Robinson clears, and Singh finds Keane, who lofts a ball forward towards Mark Viduka, but Fernando Couto reads it and heads away as far as Farnerud. The young Swede drives forward with the ball, tearing through midfield, and swings a cross into the area in front of Meysam Javan! JAVAN!! GOAL!! It’s 1–0! Meysam Javan’s header brings us level on aggregate!!
David O’Leary wastes no time telling his players to push for an equaliser on the night that would give them a priceless away goal. First Viduka hits a stinging volley that Pinheiro can only parry, then goes down bravely at the Australian’s feet to gather the second ball. Thereafter, Charlie Miller takes down a Robinson punt to drive low at goal, but Pinheiro saves and holds well once again. It’s a good few minutes for our big stopper, who’s otherwise been in a deckchair.
Pinheiro sends the ball forward for Javan to counter. He finds Mahouvé in midfield. Marcel stops, looks up for a pass, and is as surprised as anyone to see Hélder Rosário charge up to the edge of the Leeds penalty box. I’m going wild in my technical area — get back! Get back, you idiot! How do you say “get back” in Portuguese?!
Mahouvé shrugs and lays the ball into the path of our marauding centre-half; I’m watching through my fingers as he pokes a ball into the penalty area — Javan misses it — Benjani misses it — but Alex Farnerud hasn’t stopped his forward run, he’s charging through unmarked, and strikes on the half volley! FARNERUD! IT’S 2–0! It’s 2–0 on the night, and we’re 2–1 up on aggregate!! Hélder, you maniac, I love you!
Absolute scenes at Nene Park as Leeds kick off, Mahouvé immediately destroys Charlie Miller in midfield and comes away with the ball. The fans are still on their feet, delirious, as he crosses to the near post: Baggio takes a touch, can’t find a shot, but instead turns and stands the ball up to the back stick — Benjani attacks it! OH MY GOD! IT’S 3–0! IT’S 3–0! BENJANI MAKES IT 3–0 TO THE MIGHTY DIAMONDS! THERE’S PANDEMONIUM IN THE STANDS! The referee blows for half time, and my goodness I can hardly believe what I’ve just seen!
Obviously unwilling to change anything at half time, I send the team straight back out and tell them to keep going. David O’Leary must have been spitting feathers at that first-half display, but his bollocking only serves to get Mark Viduka booked for kicking Fernando Couto in the first few minutes of the second period. We are just all over Leeds here, in a fashion I can hardly comprehend — Baggio crosses for Mike Duff to head at goal, Robinson turns around the post, and gathers from the Italian’s resulting corner, but my word, Leeds are a shadow of the team we played at Elland Road.
Viduka scares me for a moment by clanging a long-range shot against our crossbar with Pinheiro beaten, the anonymous Kewell is then replaced by Petrov, and moments later Duff finds Mahouvé in the area, the Destroyer thumps a volley at goal, Robinson saves, but Farnerud follows in, and… SCORES!! IT’S 4–0!! Can you actually believe this?!
Leeds cannot cope with the roaming forward runs of my midfielders, Farnerud in particular, and we are wiping the floor with one of the strongest sides in the country. I can hardly believe it. The commentary notes that Leeds are now “taking fewer risks”, which seems crazy given the circumstances, but I decide I’m not going to play into their counter-attacking trap, pulling the lads back to “Normal” mentality and cancelling all forward runs. I take off my most tired players, Petrov accidentally hits the target after a raking pass goes astray but Pinheiro recovers in time to save, and from there, it’s a pitched midfield battle that ticks the clock through 75 minutes, then 80, 85, 90…
It’s over. We’re in the UEFA Cup last eight. What a game. What a night. What a result.
We march on into the quarter finals, but sadly, it’s the end of the road for out dear friends at Total Network Solutions. After a brave 2–1 first-leg defeat, and in front of a crowd at the Nou Camp befitting the grandeur of the occasion, they go down to a single Patrick Kluivert goal and exit the competition 3–1 on aggregate. Probably because Chris Brandon was cup tied. Never mind, lads — there’s always next season.
Right then, buckle up, because it’s time for the quarter final draw. I can hardly contain myself. Who’s it going to be…
Don’t worry, TNS. We shall avenge you.
Episode 72 coming soon!