We pick up the story with three matches left to play in the season. Ngobeni’s brace grabbed us the easy three points from Highlands Park before we welcomed Baroka FC, the team who had so cheerfully just knocked us out of the cub. We struggled with them again, but the biggest news of the match is that Nangombe picked up another injury and is out of action for six to seven weeks. (Un?)Fortunately I wasn’t able to unload any players during the window, with the exception of a reserve central mid agreeing to a contract elsewhere at the end of the season. Having two of last season’s league leaders in scoring to step in hardly counts as a tragedy.
No one stepped up in the next match and we dropped points to last season’s playoff spoilers Royal Zulu. This was no time to go getting German-only levels of angry again; another explosion after the Baroka draw led to midfield maestro Luhie Sibaya criticizing my team talks. He had already been simmering under the surface all season after I had promised him the captain’s armband when he signed and he didn’t get it. He has a professional personality and I figured that he’d understand since I had a legitimate reason for switching after I had made the promise. I was wrong. He’s been unhappy all season, his morale has never gone above “poor”, and he’ll have a negative reaction to any team talk in any situation. The most amazing part of the entire situation is that despite his constant pouting and grudge with me, he’s been our most consistently outstanding performer. Operating as either a roaming playmaker or an AMC/AP, he mopes his way to a pass completion rating never out of the high 80’s and rarely has a game below 7.50 rating.
My new, more supportive team talk strategy seemed to bring quick results. Over the next four matches we saw seven different players find the next a total of eight times, and only let a solitary goal in. As we approached the run in, the last match before my mental “run in cut off” was the reverse of our hybrid home/away derby with Santos FC. We’d sold just under 300 home tickets, a pretty solid number for us based on the seasons averages. When we were the “away”team, Santos had roughly the same number of home supporters. This time, as the “away” team, they were bringing four thousand fans to the Athlone… to the match that we could lock up our playoff place with.
I made the mistake of mentioning that milestone during the pre-match team talk, and for most of the day it looked looked like that would cost us our unbeaten run and possibly the title. With the match starting to wind down, midfielder Dhlamini called upon the spirit of mighty Odin himself to salvage a point and our dignity. Finding himself just inside the 18 yard box with his back to goal, the box to box mid pulls a physics defying stop-to-360 turn to catch a rebounding Ngobeni shot halfway through the spin. Time slowed; as I found myself raising my hands to my mouth in awe of the simply fact that he even managed to connect with the shot, the ball slowly and almost cheekily arcs over the recovering goalkeeper and lands softly in the back of the goal.
We’d dropped points again. This time I reassured the players, told them they’d done well to come back and grab the point at least. Making a big deal about the match and then sending them out in a stadium with a full ten times as many opposing fans was my mistake and it had cost us the match. The squad are ambitious, but I wasn’t going to risk saying anything negative having just met our goal. A playoff place was secured with three matches to spare on the back of the best goal I’ve ever personally had on FM. Top of the table by a point, next match at home to a relegation contender, and Chippa have started slipping up as much as we are.
We control our own destiny. If we win out, the title and automatic promotion are ours.
Dropping a single point has the potential to cost us the championship.
…and the last match of the season is away to Chippa United.