7 years ago
2 hours ago
Chapter 23 – The night the line was crossed.

I wasn’t nervous heading into the second leg. We had Cifu playing well, a midfield trio playing really well but we were susceptible at the back on occasion, as were a lot of teams in the Segunda Division  that year. But I genuinely did not think we were coming out of that game anything other than victors. Which was true, to an extent.

We scored within the opening 5 minutes, Gelaya assisting Cifu as usual, but that was where our dream of promotion ended. The Cordoba goalkeeper played an exceptional game, pulling out stops left right and center. They barely threatened us and the keeper kept them in the game, which we did win 1-0, with promotion being so close yet so far away. The players were dejected, I’m sure the fans were as well, Gerard was upset but not down in the dumps as he had seen the progress we’d made in 3 short years. I was certain with 1 or 2 players, maybe Caval coming back for a third season that we’d take that extra step and be playing in La Liga before long.

At the end of season meeting with the team, I was honest. I’d told them we’d done well to finish where we had, and that next season we’d be taking that extra step. They were all on board with this and the awards were made by the press team. Cifu won player of the year, Bolkiah won goal of the season with his long range effort against Reus in November, Quique Galera won young player of the year and we had a lot to look forward to.

Then it happened. I had a meeting with chairman Pelayo Corominas in which I wanted to discuss extending my contract that ran out 2 weeks after the play-off game, and I saw the other side of this two faced greasy little runt. As this was Andorra’s second season in Segunda division, they had to increase the stadium capacity to 6,000, and the club had used their right to delay by 2 seasons, except now Andorra were certainly an established team at this level, in no small part down to me, but the club had to increase the stadium. Not an issue I thought, as noted earlier, the club made a healthy 4 million euro profit and was in the best shape of the full division financially, other than Las Palmas who were at the time the richest club in Spain not from Barcelona or Madrid. Pelayo was absolutely livid with me for not getting the club promoted to La Liga. When I say livid, I mean absolutely beside himself with anger and rage I can only describe as psychotic. Apparently, so the little rat said, the club had to take out a 6 million euro loan to secure the expansion the stadium needed. This sent alarm bells ringing in my head straight away.

Earlier that year, Benidorm FC who were promoted to the division below us, had been takeover by an investor, and he had built a new stadium, that holds, wait for it, 11,000 fans, with a corporate center next to it and of all things a fan interaction center where fans can meet players, which cost him 7 million euros, in total!. This was heavily publicised in Spain as the owner was a guy called Fernando Ramon, a media mogul with a flair for nightlife and being in the headlines. Not only that, Ibiza had also just won promotion from Segunda B and they had not exercised the right to delay, but still increased their home ground, Can Misses, from 4,000 to 6,565 fans for a cost of 3 million euros, according to the press reports. So where Pelayo had got the figure of 6 million, for less than an extra 4,000 seats from I’d never found out. But because we’d failed to secure promotion, that money was apparently never going to be recovered. As well this, so that shit house was saying, fan opinion of me was down, which meant a hit in season ticket sales was likely and the clubs lack of promotion also meant less revenue in TV money and sponsors, and the club were looking at a bleak financial future, all because of me!

I argued this with him, and I will here too. If you’ve got a stadium that holds 2,024 fans, and in every single game played in that stadium that season it sold out, as well as there being a waiting list for season tickets, surely increasing the stadium is going to increase both attendances and season ticket sales? Not just that, Andorra were the only team in Andorra playing in Spain, we’d made fantastic progress and it was only a matter of when, not if we would be playing in La Liga! Hindsight is a wonderful thing as now I know where this all stemmed from. But after arguing this with him, pointing out that not only did I not spend a penny in transfer or agent fees, and that we had spent less than 40 percent of the wage budget, increasing these would increase the likelihood of promotion, and that I was certain we’d be in La Liga by the end of the next season. It turned out that all this talk of money and lack of promotion, Andorra were never meant to survive that season yet alone finish as play off runners up, was all used an excuse to get me out of the club.

The official reason I was sacked was for failing to achieve promotion that I guaranteed we’d get. This was absolute bull shit and Pelayo knew it! I never once promised promotion, and in all my time there I told him we’d continue to make progress, nothing more than that. As well as this, Pelayo had apparently, as Gerard had told me after the sacking, made contact with other managers he wanted to get in my place. Raul was mentioned, he laughed it off. Paco Jimenez of Malaga was also approached, he didn’t even bother speaking to Pelayo. Julio Ribas, who was at Lincoln in Gibraltar and went back to Uruguay was also approached by Pelayo, but when he was approached Julio contacted me about it and was put off by my opinion of the FC Andorra chairman.

I felt bad for Gerard, which I’ll address shortly. But what Pelayo hadn’t bargained on, was loyalty, something he knew nothing about. Once he’d said to me that it’s best we go our separate ways and I was sacked, I went and spoke to the coaching staff. Without going into much details most of the staff walked out and followed me out of Andorra. Assistant manager Nacho Novo, chief scout Jose Verdejo, first team coaches Alex & Sergio Ballesteros, goalkeeping coach Raul Navas, head of youth development David De Coz, reserves manager Cesar Ramon and club ambassador Jonathan Forte. They all one by one went to Pelayo and quit on the spot.

The day of my sacking and the days after, there wasn’t much media fanfare or fan backlash because of it. If this was say England, and a small team from League One, let’s say Yeovil Town for arguments sake, say they were expected to be relegated from League One, but got promoted, then expected to go back down from the Championship, but stayed up then finished play off runners up the year after and the manager got sacked, there’d be Sky Sports, BBC and whoever else looking at it, fans, players, directors and even other managers would be asked about it. But because I was still an unknown manager (remember this part too, it comes in handy later) and Andorra were still ‘small’ in footballing terms, not much was said. But once SportPesa got the story, they did quite a big piece on Andorra from when I came in, where we had been expected to be relegation fodder in Segunda B, to where they were when I was sacked, play off runners up and one of the favourites to go up next season. They also detailed the staff that followed me out, and a paragraph that had 1 sentence that described my relationship with the players:

‘United they stood together on the pitch, and united they fell on the day Chris Irvine was sacked from the club’

United we stand, united we fall. That is precisely the best way to describe the fallout from the squad from my sacking, which again Pelayo hadn’t accounted for. The day I told the players what happened, Quique Galera, Andorra’s golden boy, a player wanted by the likes of Inter Milan, Fiorentina, AS Monaco, Man United, Ajax as well as most teams in Spain, demanded a move away. FC Andorra’s center piece for years, this was a player destined for greatness and someone who could bring success, and ultimately, money for Andorra wanted out. His midfield partner Sulayman Marreh, the league’s leading assist maker Franchu, goalkeeper of the season Jamie Robba, center halves Essome and Athuman and striker Cifu all handed in transfer requests and refused to play for FC Andorra again. Tarsi Aguado, Seb Coris, Pepe Caballe and Gabriel Benitez all agreed to put off contract talks until after the play offs as their deals all ended shortly after that game, all left on free transfers by the end of June that year.

So if you’re counting, that’s 4 first team players that had already left before the new season, and another 7 others that were first team squad players all demanded moves away from the club. I felt happy that these players all had my back and were willing to go down swinging for me, but I was disappointed for Gerard Pique.

In the days after my sacking, I’d spoke to Gerard, and without going into too much detail, Pelayo had actually owned a small percentage of Andorra, but Gerard was majority owner. Pelayo had put money into the club, so in many ways Gerards hands were tied. He did tell me that Pelayo had this grand vision of the team being managed by a big name, and he’ll lead the way to glory and Gerard was just along for the ride. But with Pelayo owning some of the club, and me already having left, there wasn’t anything Gerard could do. I just left it at that and we both said we’d keep in touch.

As for my own career, I genuinely thought I’d be in a job within days, weeks at most. I thought with some of the teams that had courted me, both in Spain and France that it wouldn’t be long before someone came calling. However it wasn’t quite that way. I’d sat and watched as Tenerife sacked and replaced their manager. CD Lugo, Espanyol, Valladolid & Zaragoza (for the third time in 1 year) all hired new managers. The World Cup had ended with France beating The Ivory Coast in the final, and there were a number of national jobs going. But I thought there’s no way I’d get on with a nation, not at that time anyway.

So I did what I always did when I was stumped, I rang Jorge Jesus, who was coming off a second place finish in the league, and winning the Portuguese league cup. We spoke and I vented my feelings to him, he asked me things and we discussed all manner of football. He then asked me a question which would change the course of my career:

‘Chris, have you not thought about managing here in Portugal? I could make a call, I know a guy’
7 years ago
2 hours ago
Part 3 - Heading West

Chapter 24 – The Canadian Man O’ War

Once I’d finished talking to Jorge, my mind was kind of made up. I was hopefully going to take my skills and experience as a manager over to Portugal. Jorge’s agent had contacts all around the league and made me aware of some openings there.

First up was the CD Gouveia job. The manager had been sacked, he’d actually managed two back to back promotions that got them into the Portugal Premier league, but after finishing bottom he was let go. A team made up of mostly young players on loan, they had absolutely no chance of staying in the premier division that season. An interesting club and a definite rebuild job.

A big club, Boavista, were in the Liga II Ledman, the second division and their manager had left. Struggling to get any higher than 4th during the previous 6 seasons, they were looking for a manager to take them that extra step. A big opportunity if I could even speak to their owner.

SC Farense, another second division club, they’d been at that level many years, and just got by on staying there. Never really improving, it seemed as though they were content with the second division.

Then I was made aware of another job in Portugal’s second division, FC Famalicao. They’d been labelled as ‘the best of the rest’ in the second division. They’d never really threatened for promotion, always coming up short toward the end of the season, and I was interested in the position, mainly because I felt it was the right sort of job at the right time. Not somewhere with massive expectations like Boavista, whilst there was some improvements needed to the squad, it certainly wasn’t a full rebuild and redesign like Gouveia, and with a decent sized stadium, the 10 thousand seater Estadio Municipal de Junho, a chairman that was ready to spend the cash to take that extra step, and with Jorge Jesus there for any advice or potential players in Portugal, I had to go in for it. So I did.

One July afternoon I turned on the TV and saw on Sportpesa that Andorra had hired Pepe Mora to succeed me. I thought he’s got one hell of a job on his hands there. Galera’s agent had secured him a loan move to Real Oviedo with a future fee agreed if a certain number of games had been played. I spoke to Quique before the move was confirmed and told him it’s the right move at that time. If he had gone to one of the bigger teams, he’d end up lost in the shuffle, and really if or when the time came to go to a Barcelona, or Inter Milan or wherever, it would be better for him to be an established player, not one with potential.

As well as Galera not being there, Cifu, Marong and Robba all asked and were granted places on the transfer list. Cifu was discussing a move to Ibiza, Marong wanted to leave Spain all together and Robba had his pick of a number of teams, notably Malaga, Real Sociedad, Espanyol in Spain and Gronigen in Holland. I would watch their season with anticipation.

As for my own career, 5 weeks after leaving Andorra and I’d not so much as had a whiff of a new job. I’d seen a number of jobs, but only applied for the Famalicao job. Whilst waiting to hear from them, I was invited to an interview with both Gouveia and Boavista. I’d have been stupid not to attend either, so I did. I met the Gouveia chairman at a hotel in Lisbon, and I actually went to see the Boavista chairman at their training ground. I went in prepared to explain who I was, what I’d achieved and where I wanted to go in my career. I didn’t prepare any notes or bring anything to show at either interview, and I sort of regretted that during the Boavista interview. The chairman, Rui Castro, asked in English for me to show him how I’d progressed with Andorra. So I told him where we had been when I took over to where we had finished. He said it’s fine telling me this, but he would need to see it. I thought do I get my phone out and show him the league tables from previous seasons? I decided against it and played it off. We then spoke about player progression, the progression of both my previous teams as well as my own desires. But ultimately, the decision to hire other managers at both clubs was made. I learned from this and by the time I’d answered the call from Joaquim Botelho at Famalicao, I had a presentation ready, a lot notes, graphs and other things to present at my interview.

During my interview with Famalicao, it just felt right. I explained how I’d taken Saint Josephs from mid table to back to back league titles. I then showed graphs of where Andorra were, both in footballing terms and financially the 3 years before I took over, to where they were a couple of months before the interview in question. Obviously Joaquim knew all about it but I got the feeling I impressed him with my detailed statistical information. In basic terms, quite arrogantly, I said to him I would come in and do at Famalicao what I’d done at Saint Josephs and Andorra, take them from where they are now, to somewhere better within 3 years. I may have been putting a rod in my own back, but I was confident in myself. I was asked about my backroom staff, would I want to bring in my own people, to which I said yes. I’d built a healthy relationship with my own backroom team, and felt if my ideas and plans were to be implemented there I’d have to have them come in. The chairman agreed to this, but asked that we kept on 1 of the scouts. I had no problem with this as I’d need someone with knowledge of Portugal in my team.

2 days later I signed my contract. A 1 year deal, with a bonus of 22 thousand Euro if we finished top 2 in the league that season, which meant promotion to the Liga Nos, Portugal’s Premier League and an automatic 1 year extension, but also an optional 1 year extension if we only managed a top 8 finish. My contract negotiating skills would play a big part in my time at Famalicao.

With everything ready to go, I got a place for me and Rose to live in the nearby city of Braga. I made a few calls, and on 21st July, I was officially named the new first team manager of FC Famalicão.
5 years ago
2 days ago
This is still some story pal, keep it up. Who knows where it's going to take you after this stint in Portugal.
7 years ago
2 hours ago
This is still some story pal, keep it up. Who knows where it's going to take you after this stint in Portugal.

Cheers mate Glad you're enjoying it.
7 years ago
2 hours ago
Chapter 25 – I’m from Winnipeg, you idiot!

Portugal is such a lovely country, really it is. I knew it was a nice place from my meetings with Jorge Jesus, but I really started to appreciate it once I started at Famalicao. From the minute I walked into the club everyone welcomed me and I felt a part of the club right from the off.

After the usual meet and greets, here’s the catering area, players only lounge, directors box and so on, I met the only member of footballing staff that didn’t leave with the previous manager, a wily old character by the name of Steve Grayson. He was 62, originally from the East end of London, Hackney to be precise, a 6 foot 5 gentle giant with a voice so loud you could probably hear him over a jet engine! Once we met and discussed things, it turned out he’d been on a lot of scouting assignments for the club during the last 26 years that he’d been at Famalicao. A retired winger, the highest level he played was for Bristol Rovers in the old second division in the 90’s in England, before like me, heading to Europe and found playing time in the lower leagues of France, Sweden and Serbia before finally hanging his boots up actually playing his final 2 seasons for Famalicao at the ripe old age of 38. He’d been a scout for the club ever since hanging up his boots.

One thing that struck me about him was his knowledge of the game, and I felt it would come in handy. He was also a big character, fluent in Portuguese and Spanish, and nobody had a bad word to say about him. I remember our first day together

‘You’re the new gaffer then’

‘Yep, Chris, nice to meet you’

‘Steve, likewise sunshine’

‘So what’s the’ He cut me off

‘Don’t worry Tex, I’ve seen a lot of players and managers come and go, you know, I’ve heard all the usual spiel about change and progression, maybe you’re the one to change the club, who knows Tex’

‘Well, that’s certainly my aim’

It didn’t dawn on me until much later in the season, but he kept calling me Tex. I didn’t think anything of it until one day we were at training and I straight up asked him

‘Steve, I need to ask, why do you keep calling me Tex?’

‘Obvious innit, you’re from Texas’

‘What? No I’m not, I’m Canadian, I’ve told you this’

‘Really, are you sure?’

‘Yes Steve, 100 percent I’m sure’

I could see the cogs turning in his head

‘Oh, well Calgary sucks anyway, you should say you’re from Texas, it suits you better’

‘Calgary? I’m from Winnipeg you idiot!’

‘Oh. Go with being from Dallas, people will like you more’

Unfortunately for me and everyone at Famalicao, Steve wouldn’t see out the season and sadly passed away not long before the final game of that year. He hadn’t told anyone, but he had a rare heart condition and suffered a heart attack in his sleep. Nobody knew about it other than his doctor and Steve. He is sadly missed.

Whilst the club had the one scout on it’s books, I had already discussed with the chairman Joaquim that I would be bringing my own back room team in, just not all of them at that time. I had kept in contact with my staff that followed me out of Andorra, and for the most part they were holding out for a new role with me. Liam Walker, my star man in Gibraltar at Saint Josephs also stayed in touch with me following his retirement, and was actually the new chief scout at Benidorm. He’d bought into the new owners plan for expansion, so he was unavailable. My assistant at Andorra, Nacho Novo, had also been made a good offer to stay in Spain, and became Ponferradina’s assistant. Raul Navas had also got another role as goalkeeping coach at Tenerife. I was disappointed I couldn’t bring them to Portugal with me, but happy they’d landed on their feet.

I did however make calls with Jose Verdejo, who joined me for a third time as my chief scout, he brought his family to Portugal, and settled very well. Coaches Alex and Sergio Ballesteros also joined my backroom staff, as did Jonathan Forte to take up a scouting role, and head of youth development David De Coz also agreed the move to Portugal. All I needed was an assistant manager, and there wasn’t 1 too far away. I had a friendly chat with Gerard Pique during that summer, and he’d told me that his friend David Villa, yes that one, had finally hung up his boots after leaving New York FC and was looking for an opportunity as an assistant. Long story short, he came in as my right hand man in Portugal, he brought with him so much experience and good ideas, and my backroom set up was complete.

The idea in Portugal was always to improve. Improve myself and the players, get my backroom staff involved in building up the club and seeing where we could go. The club at the time hadn’t been in the top division in Portugal since the early 90’s, and went as far down as the regional leagues at one point, before gradually clawing its way back to Liga II Ledman, the second division, holding on to it’s place there for 8 seasons, finishing as high as 9th and as low as 18th of 20 teams. But the chairman had ideas of his own, and I was a big part of it. There was money there to spend, if we wanted to, but so far in 6 seasons, I’d not spent a penny on transfer fees. My signings were all loan deals and free transfers.

This wasn’t entirely by accident either. In Gibraltar, there was no money, period. Only in my third and final season were players earning any decent money and that was based off winning the cup and league, as well as our Champions League money. In Andorra, the purse strings weren’t as tight, but the players that were identified to come in and improve the team, we had signed were all on free transfers and loans purposely, which heled us massively. So this would be the first time I’d see a decent transfer budget, but I wasn’t going to be spending it all willy nilly.

I’d read a book about baseball in America, and a concept called moneyball. The basic premise is simple - to use player stats, a manager can build a team of players that are undervalued by their current teams by buying those players, and selling ones that are overvalued. This would be the start of a new strategic plan by me and Jose Verdejo in our pursuit of progress. It would start here, and evolve over time to a strategy I deployed ever since
7 years ago
2 hours ago
Chapter 26 – Hardball? No, Moneyball

Before the rest of my staff were with me at Famalicao, there was just myself, Jose and Steve Grayson, and we did some analytical thinking. We pulled up all the stats of each player, and every other player in the league. I wouldn’t be looking at the ‘obvious’ stats, goals scored, assists gained that kind of thing, I was looking for the ‘under the hood’ stats of players.

The first thing Famalicoa didn’t have in their ranks was an out and out recognised striker, which was perfect for Chris Irvine and the birth of Moneyball. Overtime this term would evolve into Irvineball, as the media and opposition started taking notice, but that wouldn’t be for a while yet. So with no striker on the books, I discussed this with Steve and Jose

‘So that’s it, we’re not going to play with a striker’

‘Why not Tex? We’ll never score any goals’

‘Yes we will. Look at this’ I pulled the flip board over, and drew some lines.

‘Here, this is the attacking midfield left position, also known as a left winger, here is his right sided counterpart, and here, this big red dot, this is what we’re going to call the heckler’

Steve looked absolutely perplexed. ‘I see that, and the blue line, and the green line, they’re crossing over each other, so what does that mean they’re doing exactly Tex?’

‘Remember earlier, I said I wasn’t interested who had dribbled the much, or attempted more one on one’s, I was looking at something else entirely’

‘Which is?’

‘Passes which led to goal scoring opportunities, key passes, pass success rate, and successful first touches’

‘You’ve got data on all of those things?’

‘Yep. Opta stats are the guys behind it, you think of it, they’ve got a statistic for it’

‘Right, so we’ve no striker, but 3 attack minded midfielders, something called a heckler, so now what?’

‘The best bit’ I said excitedly

He sighed. ‘Go on’

‘These 3 fellas here, are going to intertwine with each other constantly, and I mean constantly! These 3 are never going to stop moving. Even defending corners and free kicks, they’re never going to stand still. The 3 of them are going to be our goal scoring threats’

He looked utterly confused. ‘Well I’m behind you mate 100 percent, just need to say there seems to be some method to your madness’

‘No Steve, you’ll soon come to see that there’s madness to my methods!’

With that we went on the lookout for some suitable players to fit into my new striker-less system. I had to have a front 3 that had unrivalled work rate, never lost possession, always looking to pass the ball forward and had an eye for goal. The stats I was looking at were distance covered per match, most key passes, most dribbles attempted and completed (this was a somewhat dubious statistic) and most key passes.

Already at the club were a couple of hard working central midfielders who would fit the mould perfectly, we just needed to work on the front 3. Luckily for us, we had a player by the name of Kakula, who was actually in the top 3 in the Liga II Ledman for most dribble attempts, distance covered per match and most key passes. He was straight in the line-up.

As for the other 2 starting forwards, a player by the name of Marquinhos Cipriano was playing at Rio Ave, and I made an offer of 75 thousand Euro, expecting to be rebuffed. His distance travelled per game was 7.2 miles, a league high, dribbles attempted per game was 5.2 another league high and key passes over the course of the previous season was 39. He ticked all the boxes. When I spoke to the Rio Ave manager, he was astounded I wanted to sign Cipriano. He’d scored a lowly 3 goals and grabbed 1 assist in 29 games. When asked why I wanted him, I lied and said I was short of wide players and just wanted someone experienced in this league. We got him and signed him within 2 days.

Next in was right winger Luis Machado. His stats were slightly up on Ciprianos, 6 goals and 6 assists in all 38 games for Moreirense, but he had travelled 6 miles per game, 41 key passes all season, 6 dribbles attempted per game and had won 13 games as a starter, to Ciprianos 10 games won as a starter.

So I had a front 3 of Kakula, Cipriano and Machado, all fit into the moneyball mentality and we worked on how we were going to implement this in training. We then looked at the defence and how moneyball was going to be implemented there. Without going into all the details here, we signed Pedro Fernandes at center half and we also had signed a right full back from Togo called Kodjo Semekono, and what a player this was. If you google the word enigma, this chap comes up. 6 foot 1, gangly and a lot of him, he was the quickest player I have ever seen. No word of a lie either. In Togo he had actually competed in the Olympic games and won gold in all relay races he participated in. He’d always played football, and had 1 hell of a long throw on him. Remember back in my second season in Andorra I told you I’d become known for using set pieces a lot? Well from here on out, we utilised the long throw to devastating damage. He wasn’t the best crosser or passer, but he could tackle, and as a hard working player that ran the line over and over and put a shift in, he fit the moneyball mentality right from the off.

Then 2 things happened almost simultaneously, that changed the way things worked for me and Famalicao that year. The first was Cipriano fell down hard in training and suffered a double meniscus tear and a partial ACL tear, and would be out for up to 7 months, most of the season! That one was bad timing, and I felt sorry for him as I was expecting to use him often that season.

The second was a phone call I received. I knew the number and answered. What I heard next wasn’t a cry for help, wasn’t someone using friendship as an advantage, but Jovanne Caval, who had actually left Sporting Lisbon to join Estoril that previous season (which is why we didn’t sign him in Andorra again) had told me they’d just broke their transfer record for a Brazilian left winger by the name of Luis Ener. He was a young player with big potential, and for 47 million Euro, Estoril were putting him straight into their first team, meaning Caval’s game time would be limited. I told him on the phone that I’d have to look into it as I’d not been in Famalicao long, and I’d contact his club if we could sort something out.

I did a quick look at his stats on Opta, and was surprised by what I saw.

Distance per game = 8 miles

Dribbles attempted per game = 9

Key passes over the season = 49

Pass completion ratio = 92%

Shots on target = 33

Goals = 2

Assists = 2

So his goals and assists weren’t up to much remember he is playing in Portugals top division, and we’re in the second division, but every other moneyball stat was high, and shots on target for a left winger at 33 got all my juices flowing, so I called Estoril. They weren’t messing around either, they wanted him off the books. We agreed a 1 year loan, with a mandatory future fee of 275K if we got promoted, or an optional fee of 200K if we didn’t. That my friends is an absolute steal for a player I had signed twice and knew would contribute to my first season in Portugal.

Everything was ready to go. My staff were in place. Jose and I would be perfecting Irvineball from that moment onward every day. The team were raring to go, my 5 new signings willing to prove a point, and so was I. I kept an eye on Andorra, and hoped they were watching me, because this season I was about to show the world 2 things.

The first is that Andorra were wrong to sack me.

The second was while you may not be able to win anything with kids, you damn well can without a striker!
7 years ago
2 hours ago
Chapter 27 – No strikers, no problem

Up to now I’ve not been arrogant in my words. At least I don’t think I have. But something happened to me in Portugal. I came out of my shell a bit and became different in myself, arrogant maybe not, but confident, that was certainly me. In Gibraltar I tried to cater myself to the players. In Andorra it was the same to an extent, I’d cater each team talk, each one on one discussion to that players needs or the media. But whilst in Portugal I decided that no, I wouldn’t do that and I’d say what I wanted and how I wanted to say it. That season was one of firsts for me.

The main first would be my 4-1-2-3 striker-less set up, which was taking the Portuguese second division by storm, and I was getting some well-earned recognition. I should point out at this time, on the press release announcing my arrival in Portugal, The Portuguese Football Press had ran with the headline ‘Unknown manager Chris Irvine takes Famalicao hot seat’. I was annoyed at this, as ESPN had ran a piece on me and my time in Andorra, plenty of French and Spanish teams wanted me during my final year with Andorra, and I’d won everything there was to win in Gibraltar, how was I unknown? The guy I replaced had won nothing at Famalicao, but that just made me more determined to succeed. Not only that but I was certainly known to many people in Canada, most Spanish teams knew me, so I don’t know where the term unknown came from.

From the start of that season up until January and the winter break, we had a record of 18-6-4. 18 wins, with no strikers, in a league that had tams such as Boavista (still a big club), Academica Coimbra (Portuguese FA and League cup semi-finalists and runners up respectively the season before getting relegated), Jaap Stam and his Penafiel side, GD Chaves and their manager Stephen Lichsteiner and not to mention to B teams of Benfica, Braga, Porto & Sporting Lisbon, who all had players ready for their respective first teams. This was in no way an easy league!

With no recognised striker, we still lead the charts in almost every stat:

League’s leading scorer – natural right winger Kakula with 18

League’s leading assist maker – Left winger Caval with 13

Most key passes – Machado, 18 at the time, so averaging 1 per game.

Key tackles – Semekono with 27

Most man of the match awards – tied Caval and Semekono with 6 each

Side note as well, Semekono had 4 assists to his name, all from long throws! The moneyball concept, as well as a focus on set pieces and sticking to my plan each and every time was working. The moneyball concept just began to grow and grow.

A number of times during my first season in Portugal I called Jorge Jesus and asked for advice or just for a chat. The role was reversed in January however, as he rang me.

‘Jorge, how are you doing my friend?’

‘Very well Chris, look, you usually ask my advice, but this time it is me that is looking for advice’

‘Fire away’

So we talked on the phone for an hour or so, and I gave him my honest opinion. If it was me having to make that decision, I would’ve done the same thing. He’s won the Portuguese top division 4 out of the last 5 seasons, won both domestic cups a number of times as well as progressing from the Champions’ League group stages in each of the last 5 years. The topic of our conversation was that Manchester City had sacked Pep Guardiola after many years in the job, but he’d not delivered a trophy in the last 3 seasons, and they wanted Jorge to replace him.

I could see his dilemma, he’d built a strong team at Sporting, he’d dominated the cups, and were Portugal’s sole representative in the semi’s of the Champions League in the last few seasons, but Porto and Benfica had rebuilt and had beat Sporting to the league the previous 2 seasons, with Sporting 5 points off top in third at that time, and Braga were always a threat, but this kind of opportunity didn’t come around a lot. The kind of money he would be given was unreal, but could he do what Pep hadn’t been able to? I told him if it was me, and I had the kind of career he’d had, and at his age, I wouldn’t say no. I’d go. He had nothing to prove, and really nothing to lose either. He’d made his mind up and would be presented as the new Manchester City manager a few days later. I wished him the best of luck, and deep down, I was happy on 2 fronts. The first being that my mentor and friend had been given an incredible opportunity, and the second was that I was happy I wouldn’t have to go up against another friend in a game!

We continued our form from then on as we took points from most teams in the league, only dropping points away to Benfica B, Rio Ave, Penafiel and Sporting Covhal. By the time May rolled around, and we had 2 games left to go, we were top on 72 points, Benfica B, who couldn’t be promoted due to their parent club leading the league above were on 71 points, ARC Oleiros in third on 70 points and in fourth all the way down on 60 points were GD Chaves. It was a straight race between ourselves, Benfica B and Oleiros to claim the league title.

We just needed to win one of our last 2 games, against Academica Colombria & SC Farense. If we didn’t, we’d be going up anyway as Benfica B couldn’t go up, so really it was all about grabbing that win that would see us go up as champions.
7 years ago
2 hours ago
Chapter 28 – It’s all go from here

It didn’t matter that we had 2 opportunities to go up as champions, Academica Coimbra & SC Farense were both soundly beaten by a striker-less formation, and a (supposedly) unknown manager with a team of players that were hard working but undervalued by other teams. FC Famalicao were champions of the second division, and were rightly taking their place in Portugal’s elite from the following season.

One thing I prided myself on, arrogantly maybe, but I really made the effort in myself to change with the times, reinvent myself so to speak. Portugal afforded me the opportunity to start working on moneyball and going striker less in our approach. But I knew that what got us to the Premier division in Portugal wouldn’t keep us there. With teams like Sporting Lisbon, Porto, Braga and Benfica to face, we’d be eaten alive with no out and out striker or a natural goal scorer. I’d reinvented my way of thinking with the money ball concept, and it worked. But to survive in a league full of world class players, we’d have to go back to basics and grind out results.

During the off season, I’d decided that Kakula would be deployed as a striker, after grabbing a league high of 23 goals in our promotion campaign, it was a no brainer to stick him up top, and with his pace I knew he’d be an asset there. I just felt he needed a foil to feed off.

I had intended using Caval and Machado out wide, with Cipriano rotating with them. Our midfield and defence would also need work but that could wait for now. After going through scouting reports, 1 name stood out from the rest. Yaya Sanogo, once of Arsenal and AC Milan, was available from Werder Bremen in Germany.  Despite grabbing 12 goals in the Bundesliga, Bremen wanted him gone. From a moneyball side of things, he was a so-so kind of player. A modest return in stats, what I wanted was someone who would come in and contribute from the off. He had the experience and skills needed, so we made an offer.

400 thousand euro was enough to get accepted, and we discussed a deal with his agent. Remember in an earlier chapter I said my negotiating skills would play a part in my time at Famalicao, well his agent seemed like he didn’t really know what he or Sanogo wanted, or how to discuss a deal.

I always took control over player signings along with Jose Verdejo. I felt that as manager I needed to be involved in this kind of thing, despite a director of football approaching sweeping European football at that time. Not only that, but this would be my first real taste of dealing with a players agent where the player was a big name so to speak. In Gibraltar players were on non-contracts or part time deals. The players in Andorra were all lesser known players, and only a handful had agents, so I’d not really dealt with any agents up until this time. Sanogo’s agent had straight from the off asked for a modest wage of 9 thousand euro a week, I bargained down to 6. He wanted an appearance fee of 3 grand, I asked for and got it down to 1 and a half. The agent wanted a goal bonus and unused sub fee of 4 grand each, I again literally just asked for and got it down to 2 grand each. But the real clincher was a relegation release clause of zero euro. His agent said he was happy to accept all the lower fees, if we guaranteed a free transfer if we got relegated that year. I knew with absolute certainty that we were not going to be relegated that season, absolutely not! I don’t know what it was, whether it was because Jorge wasn’t in the league, or that despite there being a lot of world class players in the division it was very tight all across the league, I knew we wouldn’t be going straight back down. No matter what we would not be relegated and I knew it, just the agent didn’t. He said many times during the meeting that he would secure a move away if we went down, but I dismissed it at every turn. I just knew if we got the ball to Sanogo or Kakula, we’d have plenty of chances. The agent gave the usual line of we’ll be in touch once we’ve considered all options, but I didn’t think anyone else was in for Sanogo at that time. But I genuinely thought Yaya’s agent was a bit of an idiot.

As for other signings, we managed to snap up winger Tiago Dias from Boavista to complement the rest of the team. His moneyball stats fit right into the plan, lots of running, tracking back, enough dribblers per game and a keen eye for a pass. Our forward line was starting to take shape.

Before our season opener in the Premier League, Jorge Jesus did actually do what Pep Guardiola couldn’t at Man City, and that was deliver the Champions League trophy! He took over in January, by that time Man City had made it out of the groups, and under Jorge on their way to the final, they beat Bayern Munich, Liverpool & Man United before taking on the team I support, Paris Saint Germain in the final. The result was a 2-1 victory for Jorge, and much to my surprise he rang me after the game and thanked me for telling him to take the job. I couldn’t have been happier for my good friend and mentor. He’d solidified his status as one of the great managers of the game.

Whilst Jorge was winning the Champions League, I was awarded the Portuguese manager of the season award for the Liga II Ledman division. It is an award picked by the FA, and our 60% win rate was the best in the whole division in a season we dominated. The future certainly was looking good for me at that time. The same couldn’t be said for FC Andorra however, as they were relegated from the Segunda division after finishing in the bottom 4. I was both happy and upset at this. I was happy as it proved to Pelayo that he was wrong to sack me, and it showed. But I was upset because the players that were there didn’t deserve it, the fans of the club were great to me, as was Gerard Pique. But it is what it is, and I moved forward without Andorra and they took a huge step back without me.

For me that season it was all about improving, and the pre season odds of us finishing bottom of the league only gave me more motivation to do as well as possible. We kept on working on set pieces and sticking to a rigid set up. The main thing we wanted to be was a team that was hard to beat. If we got beat then I wanted the other team to have earned it, and not to have let them win easily.

Freamunde found this out on the opening day as we raced to a 2 goal first half lead after 15 minutes. We shut up shop and invited pressure, and soaked it up magnificently and grabbed a late third to let the league know we’re in the Premier division, and we intend to stay there! We picked up points against AD Fafe and Vitoria before we were given a lesson in top division football.

Over the next 5 games, we played Portugals top 4 teams, Benfica, Porto, Sporting and Braga, with a game against Pacos de Ferreira shoved in there for good measure. We were outplayed, outsmarted and were out performed in each of these games. Porto didn’t break a sweat in a routine 3-0 win, Braga hit us for 4, Sporting dismantled our steadfast defence 6-0, Benfica took their time in a 4-0 win in which they had 69% possession and we had exactly 0 shots on goal, and Pacos put 3 passed us in a showing that we had absolutely nothing going for us. If there was ever a lesson in the quality of football in Portugal, this was it.

I never lost my temper with the team after this horrid run, but we had been brought right down to Earth. We kept on working on defence and grinding out results. Whilst we never really dominated games, we picked up goods win over Arouca and Varzim in the league, as well as making progress in both of Portugals cup competitions that season.

Taca de Portugal and Taca da Liga, the Portugal FA and League cups respectively, gave us some much needed distraction from the league, but we only got as far as the fifth round of the Portuguese cup, and the third phase of the league cup, being beaten by Porto and Estoril respectively. Good form continued to be hard to come by, but we hung in there. So much so that by December of that season my name was once again mentioned elsewhere in the footballing world.

Over in England, and in the second division the Championship, Queens Park Rangers were struggling and were sat in 17th place, and sacked manager Zoltan Gera. I wasn’t actually mentioned in the press, but it was caretaker manager Marc Bircham who had put my name forward to the higher ups at QPR. He was a coach there as well as being on the coaching staff of the Canadian national team, and we knew each other fairly well from years ago. He’d reached out to me and told me my name had come up in discussions with the QPR board. Now I was happy at Famalicao, but intrigued by the prospect of the challenge in England. The transfer window wasn’t too far away and I had no doubt that there would be money available and the challenge was certainly appealing. What’s not to love about a team struggling in the second division, crying out for a saviour?

Speaking of the transfer window, the big club mentality kicked in to gear for me and the rest of the Famalicao players. FC Porto put in an official bid for full back Semekono, and they also, along with Benfica put a bid in for central midfielder Laurent Ngongang, who was a stand out for us up until that point. Both young players with incredible upside, their heads were turned by the prospect of playing for 1 of the country’s top clubs. I tried in vain to convince them to stay, but ultimately their minds were made up, and I wasn’t going to be held to ransom. Both were immediately put in the reserves and told to train with the under 19’s. I wasn’t going to be playing either of them until they were back to being committed. A harsh move maybe, but once a players head goes that’s it, no matter how good they were, and I didn’t want anything to derail us that season. Semekono had the decency to tell me that once Porto were interested, he’d put the thought of playing for Famalicao out of his mind, basically he was at the point of no return. But with both of these players, I’d have the last laugh.

As it turned out there were other clubs interested in both, and I’d already made the decision to sell them both, just not to teams in Portugal. After speaking to each individually again, I said I’d accept bids for either player, but not to anyone in our league. Long story short, Ngongang agreed a deal with FC Lorient in France, and Semekono was shipped off to Osasuna in Spain. I was upset at both sales, both were great players and had a lot to give, but they engineered the moves, and I wasn’t going to give in easily. The club make healthy profits on both.

With this going on with these 2 players, I was still considering the interest from QPR. But with the door closing on Ngongang’s Famalicao career, another door opened. I was presented with a good opportunity to immediately replace Ngongang. Alan Dazagoev, formerly of CSKA Moscow for many years, was transfer listed by Las Palmas (side note here, during my negotiations with Las Palmas a couple of season before this one, I didn’t actually realise Dzagoev was with them), and we managed to get him in on loan. Whilst I was disappointed to lose a good up and comer in Ngongang, Dazagoev was a more than suitable replacement. His loan deal was for 6 months and I was sure he’d make an impact.

From the New Year to the end of the transfer window, we picked up wins over AD Fafe & Gil Vicente whilst we drew with Freamunde to give us some much needed points. Nothing came of the reported interest from QPR, although I did have a chat with their sporting director, and he said whilst my name was near the top of their list, he wanted the club to be in a position to improve before approaching someone like me, as relegation seemed certain. I was thankful for the honesty and felt my name in football was picking up some reputation.

Our first game since the end of the January transfer window was a home tie with Benfica. They were top of the league, closely followed by Sporting and Porto, all on 48 points, with Benfica holding a slightly better goal difference.

Us on the other hand, were sitting quite comfortably in 8th place on a respectable 30 points. Portugal’s biggest and most successful club, they’d put 4 passed us earlier in the season, and were playing well. Oh, and they had a manager by the name of Massimiliano Allegri, not sure if you’ve heard of him? Yeah, we were huge underdogs in this game.
7 years ago
2 hours ago
Chapter 29 – Massimiliano Allegri, we meet for the first time.

I didn’t say, but the first time we met Benfica in my first season in Portugal’s top division, Massimo Allegri missed the game through illness. His assistant took control of the game and he took control of me and my Famalicao side of that season, running out deserved 4-0 winners. In the media build up to the reverse fixture in their stadium it was just a matter of how many Benfica were going to score. Paulinho had 14 league goals at the time, Gimenez had 11 assists, Edison had 9 clean sheets and the team hadn’t lost in 14 games in all competitions.

During our own preparations for the game we all seemed relaxed, but not too relaxed. Kakula lead the league with 15 goals, Dias and Caval were always a threat out wide and we’d always back ourselves to score from any dead ball situations. But we had an ace up our sleeve, in the form of Russian midfielder Alan Dzagoev.

He’d not actually played much during the season up until his loan move to us from Las Palmas, but he was ready and raring to go in his first appearance for us against Benfica. In training I saw what an exceptionally talented player he was. You don’t get to play at CSKA Moscow for over 11 years, then Newcastle United’s FA & League cup winning squads, and appearing at multiple World Cups with Russia without having a bit of talent. Okay so nearing 35 and at the back end of his career he’d maybe lost that yard of pace, but his technical ability was still top drawer. In training I paired him with Jimmy Junior and Andre Perre as it would 2 of these 3 starting each game. The first thing that stood out was when the ball would come to Alan, he’d already see the wide man making a run, and instead of taking a touch he’d do like a little flick with his foot, and use the outside of his boot to play the ball, it was really flashy looking type of pass but in training it came off 100 percent of the time. I told him before the Benfica game, if he were to try it in a game he has to be sure it came off, he assured me it would only be done if he could pull it off. Another thing about him was he never got flustered. I designed some plays for the defence to try and double up on him in training, but most of the time he got out of the situation with ease. I thought did that say more about him, or less about our defenders? Either way we had a real talent on our hands.

The day before the game, we had the usual press conferences, pre game briefing and everything was set to go. I told the team in no under certain circumstances that whilst we were the underdogs, we should still go out there and give it a go. We were solid defensively for the most part that season and had a potent forward line. We worked on set pieces, defensive positions and attacking movement in the week or so before the game. Although it was none of those things that stood out in this game.

On the way to the pitch I was approached by Massimo Allegri. We had a few friendly words to each other and he seemed like a genuine down to Earth type of guy. But during the game I saw him for what he really is. I gave some last minute instructions to my team and off they went, and I saw Massimo doing the same. He was talking mostly with his hands, pointing here and there, and the few players stood near him were nodding.

From kick off the game was what you’d expect, a promoted team chasing the ball, not having much possession, and the league leaders dominating the ball and probing, waiting for the right time to carve out a chance. There were half chances here and there but nothing to worry about. All the while Massimo was stood on the side-line again just giving orders literally just with his hands, I saw him shout at Fernandes in the middle, and when the player turned Massimo just pointed at him with 1 hand, then made a circle motion with his other hand, and Fernandes went from his position in the middle over to the left wing, picked up the ball and drove inside and won a corner for his troubles as we struggled to stop the surging run. I thought how the hell did Fernandes know what Massimo meant just by pointing and making a circle motion with his hand?!? But here’s where the game turned on its head.

From the corner, it was Fernandes who whipped in an in-swinger. It was met by 1 of their defenders, but our center half Ruben Pereira got his foot under the ball and hoofed it out of the box, where Tiago Dias was lurking. He controlled the ball perfectly on his right foot, turned and ran down the right wing. He was joined on the counter by Kakula and Dzagoev. Kakula and Dias were both so much quicker than Dzagoev, but he managed to keep up, and by the time all 3 were on the edge of the Benfica box, both their full backs were there but none of our boys panicked. Dias carried on running then passed the ball infield to Dzagoev just on the D and he did that little flick with his foot, and as he did one of their covering full backs came in for the tackle, missed the ball as it had already been flicked towards Kakula. As Kakula had taken the touch to control the ball, Dzagoev was fouled but the ref was waving play on, and Kakula steadied himself, head up and picked his spot then placed the ball with his left foot beyond Edison in goal to give us an unexpected lead, at Benfica, within the first 10 minutes!

Whilst our bench was jumping for joy and the 700 or so fans that made the trip to Lisbon were cheering on from the away end, I looked over at Massimo and he was still just this cool calm and collected figure on the touch line. I was ready for the expected pressure from them, and they duly delivered. It was backs against the walls for the rest of the first half, with our defence defending like their lives depended on it. Our 2 wide men dropped back and Kakula was very isolated up top, but we had no alternative really other than to soak up the pressure and try and either get them on the break or hold on until half time, which we managed to do.

Our team talk was all about holding on, try and cut off the passing lanes and keep our shape. We didn’t make any subs, as really, for all the pressure we had been under, Benfica weren’t really threatening us too much. From the second half they did however threaten us, more than once.

They had chance after chance within the first 20 minutes of the second half, but our keep M’Fa was there to stop what he could, Fernandes hit the post from long range, Pereira headed a shot off the line and Caval made a late challenge that looked to be in the box and a certain penalty, only for VAR to rule it was outside the box, just, by millimetres. From the free kick it was cleared but during all of this I was on the edge of the technical area screaming orders, so was David Villa as we were desperately trying to keep the score in our favour. What I also noticed was that Massimo, losing the game, and for all their hard work his team were still unable to break us down completely, he was still this relaxed figure who I didn’t hear raise his voice once.

When there was a stoppage in play he was talking to his coaching staff on the side-line and even then he was just talking, not shouting just talking and moving his hands like he was when he was when giving instructions to Fernandes earlier in the game. When the subs were being made by both of us, myself and Massimo were actually stood next to each other. He looked over to me and said ‘you were lucky with the free kick’ but before I could reply he carried on by saying ‘you’re also a very structured team. You’re making it hard for us’ before going back to his dug out. I didn’t take this as some reverse psychology, I took it for what I was, mid game praise.

My nature was to scream on the touchline, something I would work on, but at that time in Portugal, I was very animated on the touchline barking orders and doing what I could to keep the game in our favour. But despite losing, Massimo never once lost his temper and right until the ref blew for full time was still the same laid back demeanor.

After the game he congratulated me and our team for the win, and told me he’d be keeping an eye on me and my progress. During this game there was a photograph taken by one of the media people there that was printed in a newspaper after the game, and it’s such a great picture I contacted the paper and asked for and paid for a copy of it to be printed off and sent to me. I’ve even got it framed in my office in Winnipeg. Not long before the ref blows for full time, the cameraman has taken a shot of me with my hand out holding all 5 digits up and screaming something or another, and the way the photo has been taken it looks like Massimo is stood right next to me, but in reality he was stood behind me, and he has this look of pure disgust on his. Both sides of each manager during that game. Mister screams a lot and never shuts up, and mister laid back doesn’t say much. It really is a great shot.

From that game on, I made a concerted effort to try and tone myself down on the touchline, not so much change my ways, how I’d been so far had served me well, but if I was to become known as one of the best, I had to act like one.
7 years ago
2 hours ago
Chapter 30. All rise

The Benfica win really put the confidence in our team from that match on as we were not only hard to beat, but we didn’t lose much from then either.

Pacos De Ferreira, Maritimo, Arouca, Varzim, Feirense, Olerios, Estoril, Gil Vicente, Moreirense & Portimonense all failed to beat us, with wins coming in all but the Pacos & Moreirense games. Okay so we were soundly beaten by Guimaraes, Braga, Porto & Sporting Lisbon, but for a promoted team expected to struggle to finish off the bottom of the league, to win over 15 games and finish a very respectable, and fully deserved 6th in Primera Liga Nos, I’d happily get beaten by those teams again and again if it meant we finished where we did that year.

For little ol’ Famalicao, Kakula was not only our leading scorer but the leagues overall leading scorer with 26 goals. Tiago Dias grabbed 11 assists, Caval was given the player of the year award and I was awarded my 6th manager of the season award. It was truly a great year for us.

With all the highs on the pitch, here was where some of my off the field issues started. After suffering a fall during my final season in Andorra, I actually herniated 3 discs in my back. I kept it quiet from everyone close to me, and only I and the doctor in Spain knew of the injury. The problem this caused was that whilst it was an excruciating injury, it wasn’t bad enough to be operated on, and had to be maintained with painkillers. Throw in my sciatica and you’ve got a recipe for painful days and nights. It was around this time in my career that I started taking a step back in training. At 38, with a surgically repaired ankle from 10 years earlier, and now a broken back, my mobility was starting to be affected by these things, not too much, but after training with and as much as the players during the first 8 years of being a manager, I had started to notice a difference and more and more pain. I did see a doctor in Portugal and was prescribed pain killers to take in moderation. However the pain was getting worse and whilst I was taking the medicine, as time went on, I craved more. Not just more medicine, but with the painkillers being mixed with sleepless nights, as well as an exciting season coming up, I craved more of everything. This was just the beginning of my personal demons starting to rear their ugly head.

As Pacos De Ferreira won the Portugal FA Cup, and had finished in 5th in the league, they had already qualified for the Europa League, so the spot they would have got for winning the cup went to the team that finished 6th in the league, if they hadn’t already qualified for continental football, and it was us! So not only had we won promotion to the top flight, but in our maiden season we’d not only secured survival by a massive 29 points separating us and the bottom 2, but we’d managed to qualify for the Europa League as well! We had so much going for us that season and momentum was certainly on our side.

I knew the team was capable of a good showing in the league, and with 2 domestic cups, as well as the Europa League coming up, we needed to invest in the playing squad, as this was going to be one hell of a season for us, just in the increased number of games we were going to have to play. I decided that we were going to take the cups seriously, all 3 of them that upcoming season, as we’d got knocked out early on in the previous season but that only helped our league campaign. So I got Jose Verdejo and the rest of the scouting team together to strategize some new signings. Moneyball once again was in effect.

Before our recruitment drive started taking shape, my name was once again mentioned in various news outlets. As it was the end of season in Portugal, it was actually mid season over in the States. Orlando City had sacked their manager Ritchie Williams in June that season and my name was put out as the favourite for the role and was reported on quite heavily in America. My dad even rang me one day (it was night time in Canada) and asked me why I’d not told him I was moving to Florida for the Orlando job. I told him I hadn’t spoken to anyone there, it was news to me! He knew the owner of the club and was going to speak to him about it, but I wasn’t actually interested in leaving Famalicao at that time. Don’t get me wrong, the urge to take my experience and skills over to North America and be closer to Canada was always on my mind, but with the Europa League coming up, I wasn’t about to leave for America just yet.  Once my dad was contacted by the Orlando chairman he told him Chris Junior would be staying in Portugal for the time being. My name was still mentioned in the press in America, it was eventually mentioned in Portugal, but nothing official came of it and I would be staying in Portugal, for the time being.

With the interest in me being public, I was offered and happily accepted a new contract with Famalicao. I literally just accepted an extra year, with the same wage but a bonus if we got to the semi’s of either domestic cup, and if we got to the groups of the Europa League. With the extra year added I was ready to make a statement that season and go all out to win something.

Before the squad returned for pre season training it was announced that Bosnia and Herzegovina were now part of the European Union, which would help us that year. We signed a young left full back called Alen Dazfic from Bosnia which didn’t go against our non-EU player quota. He was quick, had a good touch and was a good tackler. I had a lot of hope for him.

We also made Alan Dzagoev’s move permanent by signing him on a free, as well as signing striker Fernando Figueredo from Moreirense, this would turn into a bit of a love / hate relationship. He fit the moneyball mentality perfectly, lots of running, plenty of key passes, and as a back to goal striker he held the ball up well and had a fair amount of shots per game,  but his return on 29 games and 5 goals didn’t set the league alight and Moreirense wanted him gone. For half a million Euros, this turned out to be great business in more ways than one.

Players moaning in the modern game was noting new and Anthony M’Fa, my first choice goalkeeper who’d played every league game in my 2 years up to that point wanted to return home, so he was given a free transfer. I wasn’t going to try and hold a player with me that wanted out, he was throwing away Europa League football and ultimately money but that was what he wanted, and back to Africa he went. His replacement however, Clint Irwin from my native Canada came in from Seattle Sounders for 100,000 Euro had no such issues. A regular for the Canadian national team and a multiple time winner of the MLS, he came in with a winners mentality and straight into the starting 11.

If you remember I had a few games in the Champions League back in my time in Gibraltar, and travelled to The Farore Islands and Kazakhstan, but my maiden season in the Europa League saw us travel to Bulgaria for a third qualifying round tie against Botev Plovdiv. In the Bulgarian league they finished third, but against us they were second best. Kakula and Sanogo combining well to give us a 2-0 lead which we never looked like giving up.  The return leg at our stadium was a lot different, in that we thumped them 5-0 to record a 7-0 aggregate victory and passage into the next round where we’d be travelling to Denmark to face Brondby. We were the home team in the first leg, and they managed to bring around 1,000 fans to see us draw an incredible game 3-3. We took the lead, they equalised. They took the lead, we equalised. We then took the lead again late on, only to let them back in to the game. 3 away goals meant we had no other option but to win the return leg in Denmark.

Before that return leg were 2 games in the league, we beat Nacional at home but lost the away game at Varzim. We were all over the place in the Varzim game and I hoped we wouldn’t continue that on in the return leg in Denmark. We had to win the game by any score to progress, but those 3 away goals meant we could not afford to even draw this match.

We set up to win the game. New boy Figueredo up top with Kakula, Dzagoev and Perre in the middle, Caval and Cipriano out wide. Rigid back 4 and Irwin in goal. We intended to take it to them from the off in Denmark, but one thing that stood out like a sore thumb was the atmosphere. I’d never in my 8 years as a manager experienced anything like it.
7 years ago
2 hours ago
Chapter 31 – One night in Denmark

The fans in Denmark gave us a warm reception. By warm I mean an intimidatingly hostile reception. It felt as if all 4 stands were against us that night in Brondby. We managed to take around 400 of our own fans, but they were put high up in the stand and we could barely make them out.

Whilst we’d intended to really give Brondby a game, I could tell the team were nervous in the early stages.  A couple of mis-placed passes, poor first touches for the most part, and a lack of movement going forward meant we were under pressure without actually being put under any actual pressure from the hosts. Only Clint Irwin in goal seemed composed and ready for the game, and why not? He’d been in many big games before, held the number one spot for our national side for over 10 years and played in hostile environments in Mexico, Honduras and El Salvador to name a few. He was barking out orders from the edge of the box but nothing was clicking.

Brondby hit us with a couple of half chances, nothing Clint had any pressure with though. He played the ball up field, played it short to the full backs, tried getting Dzagoev and Perre in the game but nothing was happening until the 36th minute, when Brondy’s forward line broke our defence apart and they had a one on one with Clint, who just threw all 6 foot 4 of himself at the forward and the ball went out for a corner. Clint was up and screaming at the team he was absolutely livid with them. All 10 outfield players came back for the corner. It was whipped in toward the penalty spot and Clint out jumped everyone and caught the ball. As soon as he did Caval and Cipriano were off.

Clint launched the ball forward and as he did every player in our box was after it, but Caval was the fastest player on the pitch. He expertly controlled the ball, went on a run from just inside the Brondby half with Cipriano supporting. He’d dribbled passed the trailing full back and by the time he was yards away from the D, the keeper had a choice to make, come for the ball or stay back. Luckily for us he made the wrong choice by coming off his line which gave Caval the opportunity to play in Cipriano. As the ball was played backwards Cip wasn’t offside and he stroked the ball into the empty net to give us a 1-0 lead. Once again my focus on set pieces, not just attacking them but defending paid off.

From then on it seemed as if Brondby were determined to disrupt the flow of the game. In the ten minutes after the goal, Kvist went in late on Dzagoev to get a yellow. Weston barged into Perre on the half way line to get himself booked as well when he really didn’t need to, we weren’t going anywhere at that point in the game and Yacub also got booked for dissent when he screamed at the linesman when a decision went our way.

Half time came and went, and during the break a section of the Brondby support had set off flares in the stands and the grounds security staff were called in. The second half was delayed by 35 minutes because of this and some fans were even removed from the stadium. If anything the extended break served us well as we remained calm in a hostile environment and held the lead.

When the game finally restarted, we set out like we did in the first, very nervy but just holding on. Brondby came at us with everything they had but Clint in goal was equal to everything that was thrown at him. Long shots, not a problem. A couple of close range efforts, easily dealt with. A shot from inside the box that clipped our left back Dzafic’s foot and changed direction in the air? Still a routine stop for a keeper having an incredible game. It seemed nothing was going to get passed him in goal. It also seemed to frustrate our opponents too, as just like the first half, they were picking up yellow cards as if they were the in thing at that time. Kyster, Hvid, Borup and Wintner all received cautions by the 80th minute, and most of the 7 players on yellow were still on the pitch, which we tried to use that to our advantage. More than once Caval took a run at Kyster at right back, and Cipriano did the same on the left against Weston, hoping to get fouled and they get a second yellow. An unconventional approach but one used by just about every manager ever, it was certainly something that helped us as both their full backs were easing off and giving our wide men free reign and we got more chances because of it.

We did manage to get a goal late on, and we certainly deserved it. Caval and Cip once again teaming up on the flanks and new boy Figueredo thumped home a cross from Cipriano to give us a 2-0 win on the night, and a 5-3 aggregate win.

FC Famalicao, a small club near the big city of Braga, were into the group stages of the Europa League for the first time in their history. With so much to look forward to, nothing could go wrong, or could it?
7 years ago
2 hours ago
Chapter 32 - Ups and downs, smiles and frowns

It was August 2024. The draw for the Europa League was made.  Famalicoa were drawn against Marseille of France, Feyenoord of Holland and Standard Liege of Belgium. We were the underdogs in the group and were expected to get beat 6 times out of the 6 games we would be playing in Group I. Not on my watch!

I was absolutely ecstatic at the draw. We were going against 3 big clubs, and 3 teams I thought if we do well against them, not only will my stock continue to rise but the profile of the club would as well, which would only cement my place as a great manager. But I had my own problems to deal with as well as trying to continue the clubs rise.

My morning routine every day at home was this. Wake up around 5am, let the dog out, take 2 or 3 oxycodones for my back pain, depending on how bad I was aching in the morning. Eat breakfast around 6.30/7, take 3 tramadol tablets and head off to the training ground. During the day there I would take between 3 and 6 tramadol and 3 more oxycodone tabs before I got home in the evening. On away games it would be the same routine just in a hotel somewhere without the dog and heading to the away ground or training ground of our opponents. I was getting to a point during this season in Famalicoa where I would skip eating food in place of pain killers. It wasn’t even about relieving myself of pain by the end of that season. I was more concerned with the feeling of euphoria opiates give you. They give you a sensation that you know the pain is there but you don’t react to it. There was no denying it, by the end of that season I’d become reliant upon pain killers, and I was an addict.

Often times I’d have my bag with me, boots, training tops, gloves the usual, and then I’d carry inside the training bag a smaller bag chock full of my pain killers. I’d lied to my doctor in Braga about my pain and he’d prescribed me more tablets then I initially needed, but with the pressures of being a football manager, I started to notice at this point in my career it had started to take a toll on me. I was always trying to impress people with my conduct, the board, fans, media, my players and staff. I wanted to be known as a model professional. If anything came out about my addiction I felt it would ruin the perception I had made for myself. This would be an ongoing thing for me.

During my third season in Portugal, I was continuing on as if nothing was the matter. On the pitch we were gradually showing everyone that with a dedicated manager and back room staff, and the right playing personnel that continued improvements could be, and were being made. We weren’t playing teams off the park, but we were outplaying them, if that makes sense? We were always the first to second balls, always created more half chances and more often than not in this season were scoring more than we conceded.

Case in point, we came up against Benfica early on that season, and the previous seasons win there was still in my mind as the greatest victory of my career up until that point. Well things like that are there to be beaten and once again, at Benficas ground, we outplayed, out muscled and outperformed the team of superstars as we once again got a goal on the break in the first half and held on. We had managed to double the lead late on to record another away victory at Benfica. Massimo Allegri 0, Chris Irvine 2.

That win over Benfica was just the sort of game we needed to have as we then had Ligue 1 side Marseille next in our Europa League group stage opener. As a French Canadian, I knew all about this team and being a PSG fan, I knew they used to be a big side, and I wanted to beat them badly.

As was routine, I took my painkillers before the press conference, felt relaxed as the opiates started kicking in, and went on to tell the press at Estadio de Municipal, our home stadium, that I’m confident we can upset the apple cart a bit. I was laughed at by some members of the press that afternoon, it didn’t faze me, but it did make me more determined to show people that didn’t take an interest in Portuguese football what we were capable of.

They tried and tried and tried, but failed to get the better of us. Famalicao were a bit like the Greece side that won the Euro’s that time, we kept getting hit and put under pressure, but we got right back up. Just ask Remi Garde and his Marseille side that year. 3-0 in our favour, and not once did they look like creating anything in that game. We were on a roll that season and I felt nothing could stop us.

Well, nothing externally anyway could stop us. We had players that played their role perfectly. We had squad players that came off the bench or played back up that did as well as could be expected. Kakula was banging goals in for fun. Caval, Dias and Cipriano were tearing the Portuguese top division apart with their pace and trickery. Dzagoev was the leagues best deep lying playmaker, Perre and Junior were his supporting holding midfielders and were the perfect foil for him. Back up striker Figueredo was averaging a goal every other game. Even our back line was strong and put opposing forwards under pressure. By the end of November, we’d played and beaten most sides, not just in the league but we’d beaten Feyenoord (in my 100th game as Famalicoa manager) and Standard Liege in our group in the Europa League. We were sitting third in the league, losing only to leaders Sporting Lisbon and Porto, we’d got to the group stage of the Taca da Liga, Portugals league cup, and just had to avoid defeat to Marseille in the first game of December that year to progress to the next round of the Europa League. Then I got a call.

It was the director of football at Braga. He was calling to confirm the signing of Tiago Dias. The same Tiago Dias that was leading the league in assists and key passes. Little did I know he had been talking to Braga about signing for them on a free transfer when his deal ran out at the end of that season. The rule at the time was a player can sign a pre contract agreement from 7 months remaining on his deal, it used to be 6 but was changed by the Portuguese FA beginning that season, for reasons I’ll never understand. It was an oversight by the club, but we’d agreed to sit down with the players in their last year starting in January. So on the day before a massive game in France, we get news our first choice right winger was leaving. I wasn’t ready for this, and I really didn’t want this happening with any other player.

I told the team in the meeting before the Marseille game that Tiago was leaving, and that he wasn’t in the squad for the game. He actually watched the match from the stands. I’d set myself a precedent with the 2 players the January before that had decided they were leaving, and refused to play them, so I had no choice but to be persistent and drop Tiago. He didn’t play another game for me from December until the end of that season in June.

Without playing it down too much, Marseille again were no match for us, and this game was significant in more than one way. Taking out the 2 games they played us, Marseille had not lost a competitive game from the start of their season in August where they also, like ourselves played in Europa League qualifiers until the second game with us. They beat teams in their league such as PSG and Monaco, beat the other 2 teams in our group, but lost both times to us. 23 games in total, 21 games unbeaten. But 2 games against us, both defeats. In my arrogance I thought surely to God, the footballing world is now taking notice of me? Whether that was true or not, this small club from Portugal had once again defied all the odds and we eagerly awaited the draw for the next round of the Europa League.

Before then however, we had 4 league games, in which we won 3 and drew 1, the draw being a tough 0-0 away to Porto. We also had the Portugal FA cup game against Piadade where we won 2-0 to secure passage in that competition, where we were drawn against Benfica.

The squad and staff all left for a well-earned 2 weeks rest over the festive period. We didn’t have a game until after the New Year and I was quietly confident of making progress in both cups, the Europa League and continuing on our fantastic domestic season. Despite the news that Tiago had made the decision to leave us, everything was going swimmingly. That was until the second of January, when once again I received a phone call.
7 years ago
2 hours ago
Chapter 33 – Mass exodus

Tiago Dias didn’t have the decency to allow me or the club to sit down and discuss extending his deal, which I thought was a dick move if there ever was one. Little did I know he wasn’t the only one that was talking to other clubs from our first team.

Fernando Figueredo, who we signed from Moreirense 6 months before, was discussing terms with Espanyol in Spain. Partly my fault really, we only gave him a 1 year contract because privately I didn’t think he’d make a step up from his so-so season previously and I was really only expecting him to be a solid back up. With Tiago once I’d heard about it the deal was done and signed off, so I had no chance to renegotiate his deal with us. But Figueredo hadn’t yet signed for Espanyol, but after an impressive 21 goals in all competitions in the 6 months he’d been with us he’d far exceeded my expectations, and I would have happily given him a new deal, but he’d said they were paying him a lot more than what we be able to offer. I don’t know how he came to that conclusion if we’d not been given the chance to talk about it. But as with the 2 players the January before, and with Tiago, I had no choice but to stick to my own rules and drop Figueredo as well.

The bad news kept coming my way in that January, as not only was Figueredo leaving on a free transfer, but Yaya Sanogo decided he wanted to leave Portugal because he missed being home in France. This was bull shit and he knew it. He’d not lived or played in France in over 12 years and being home sick was just the excuse to engineer a move away. Whatever I thought, he’s only played a bit part role so far that season, but once Figueredo was leaving I thought Yaya would start more games, but unfortunately for him he would be joining Dias and Figueredo in the reserves.

Those 3 were also joined by yet another player leaving the team. Young winger Georgy Vasiliev, a free transfer that summer had agreed a move to Russian side Dynamo Moscow. Whilst he was getting a run out for us at the time, he let the extended game time (he made 26 appearances up to that point) get to his young head (he was 19) and the praise he had received (A Portuguese reporter claimed he could be the next Andrey Arshavin) played a part in him leaving. I had no doubts that Dynamo Moscow offered him more money and game time, and to play in the country of his fathers birth probably helped make his mind up. But the thing that irked me about the 3 players agreeing deals elsewhere was that none of them came to me about it. Dias was into his second season with us and was 1 of our stand out players, the other being Kakula. Figueredo was playing out of his skin in the 5 months prior to his agreeing a move elsewhere, and Vasiliev was playing his rotation role superbly, and contributing immensely to our success. I couldn’t understand why they would want to leave. We had made exceptional progress both on and off the pitch. Obviously playing under me and Famaliacoa their own profiles had been raised, and in Tiago’s case, we were higher up in the league than the side he was joining, we’d made progress into the latter stages of the cup where Braga hadn’t, and we were in the next round of the Europa League, when Braga hadn’t even qualified for the groups! I told him it seemed like a step down before confirming to him he was dropped and placed in the reserves, but he wasn’t having any of it. In an unfortunate way, we’d not speak again that season as I maybe wrongly spat my dummy out and dropped a key player, but I felt I had a right to know what he was doing, he didn’t tell me so he was dropped.

Same with Figueredo. I gave him a chance when he struggled at Moreirense, he came in, listened to me and the staff and got a lot of game time, played really well and he could’ve continued on with us, but decided to take that momentum and off he was. Vasiliev the same. Sanogo did have the decency to speak to me and gave me a half arsed excuse why he wanted to leave, but I knew it wasn’t genuine and for whatever reason, whether he did miss France or just didn’t like playing for me or the club, his head was gone.

But in a cruel twist of fate for all 4 of them, I would have the last laugh.

It wasn’t all doom gloom around that time however. We were drawn against Hearts of the Scottish Premiership in the first knockout round of the Europa League. A good draw and 1 we could be confident of winning.

We also beat Maritimo and Portimonense in the league to keep us in third moving along in January before yet another game with Massimo Allegri and Benfica, this time in the Taca de Portugal, the Portuguese cup.

We faced Benfica again. They tried and failed to beat us again. Massimo Allegri tried to beat me and failed again.  Our reward for beating Benfica in the cup was a semi-final clash with Feirense who we’d not lost to in any meetings during my time with Famalicao. Not only were we looking forward to the semi-final, but this was Famalicoa’s best showing in the cup in all of their history. The closest they’d come to the semi-final before I took over was the fourth round, which I also got to in my first season there, then bettering that in my second when we got to the fifth round.

With all that was going on both on the pitch, in terms of our great form in the cup, league and Europa, as well as the turmoil off it, I was craving something. I mentioned in an earlier chapter that I wanted more of everything, and here was where everything started.
7 years ago
2 hours ago
Chapter 34 - The hunger for more

Being a football manager isn’t easy, if it was everybody would be one. There’s a lot of people that try to become one, and a lot of those people fail. Of those that do succeed, not many get to experience success. Case in point, in my first 3 years as a manager, I won the cup and league in Gibraltar twice each, as well as the super cup, so 5 trophies in 3 years. A lot of managers don’t see that trophy return in 33 years as a manager yet alone 3! But of us that do get to say they’ve won multiple competitions, I don’t know how many take it for granted. I didn’t demand a team that wins, just one that tries. I certainly didn’t expect to win anything, but I expected nothing less than 100% from myself, staff and players. So why then did I crave more?

There’s nothing more exciting to a coach that comes up with a match plan, goes over it with the team and then sees said match plan in action, and it wins them the game! Nothing beats seeing your ideas, your methods, your desires come to life in front of your eyes. On the flip side, nothing is more frustrating than seeing your ideas come to life and not be good enough. Its soul destroying seeing your opposite number in the dugout out manoeuvre, out think and out class you on the day.

I always genuinely got a buzz out of being a football manager. I always told my staff there was madness to my methods, and they generally paid off. I celebrated every goal, every win like a fan would. I always wanted my players to know that I’m right there with them, I’m as much a part of the team as they were. I was excited before every game because like every one reading this, like every person attending our games, like the little kids who’s idols were footballers, I was excited to be there and taking in the atmosphere and seeing the reaction I got in public from fans was something else. But there was a need for more.

Athletes in general are going to get hurt. Doc Spencer told me during school, as well as when I was player that players are going to get hurt, but told me never ever to play hurt. But I didn’t take that into consideration with training. Players shouldn’t play hurt, but should I train hurt? The painkillers helped, and I’m sure the front I put on about keeping my injuries a secret was a good one. No one, at least to my knowledge, knew I was hurt. No one knew I was eating prescription painkillers like they were M and M’s, but the feeling of euphoria from the pills as well as the excitement I got from being a manager started subsiding during the next 6 months of my career.

I wasn’t unhappy in my work, in fact that third season in Famalicao was turning into an absolutely fantastic one, on the pitch wise. With the disappointment of seeing 4 players time at the club come to an end, the players that came in to the team in their place more than made up for it. Figueredo didn’t get to play in the win over his former side Moreirense, neither did he, Dias, Vasiliev or Sanogo contribute to yet another win (our third in a row) over Benfica in the league, or experience any of the whole experience of being in the knock out round of the Europa League.

Okay so Edinburgh isn’t the most glamorous place in the world, sorry Scotland you know I love you but just being in the knock out rounds with teams such as AC Milan, Lazio, Lyon, Bayer Leverkusen, Liverpool, Newcastle and Shakhtar Donetsk was a big for me. The bookmakers had us at evens to win the tie, but the local betting shops had Hearts as slight favourites. I didn’t know much about them at that time, my knowledge of Scottish football up until then started and stopped with Aberdeen, Celtic and Rangers, but like us they made a point of letting us know they won’t be there just to make up the numbers. The game started off quietly really, both of us feeling each other out, but sparked into life inside of a wild 4 first half minutes.

13 minutes in and Hearts had the ball in the net. Long looping ball over the top was controlled by Calvert-Lewin who played in full back Colin Black who rifled in an absolutely unstoppable shot from the left side of the box that Clint Irwin tried and failed to stop. Luckily for us VAR ruled it out as Calvert-Lewin controlled it with the top of his arm. I saw the replay and was absolutely shocked they disallowed the goal. The ball touched the part of the arm is just under the shoulder joint, still to this day I’m shocked it was ruled out, strikers use that part of their body all the time, and it took away a great goal in the Europa League that would’ve been replayed over and over for years to come. But alas, he didn’t let this bother him as he did put them in front straight after that call with a bullet header as they came back at us literally within a minute. We didn’t control Irwin’s free kick and they pounced. Another long ball into the box and Calvert-Lewin out jumped Pereira and headed home the ball.

From the kick off we then pounced. Caval took the kick off, Kakula gets the ball on our right and drives forward, taking their left winger and full back with him, gets to the by-line, pulls the ball all the way along the box and not one Hearts player is able to get on the end of it, but our left back Alan Dzafic hit the ball so sweetly, much like Black had 2 minutes earlier, but his shot takes a wicked deflection of defender Henderson and hits the back of the net, 1-1 and an away goal to boot! The dubious goals committee eventually gave the goal to Dzafic, but on the night it went down as a Henderson own goal.

Again from kick off they came at us. It seemed as if all 10 of their outfield players bombed forward from kick off as they overloaded our side of the pitch straight away. Non-stop movement of the ball saw it whipped in from the right, we were all sixes and sevens defensively, and somehow Calvert-Lewin again got a goal. He scuffed his shot just inside the area, but Irwin was flat footed at the near post and really he should’ve at least got a hand on it, but didn’t. 2-1 to the hosts in the 16th minute.

If there was an advert for Europa League football, this was it. Again from kick off they didn’t stop the surging run of Kaukla down the left, except this time he cut in on his right foot edge of the box, drew attention from their covering midfielder who didn’t see Dzagoev making a late Paul Scholes-esque run to the edge of the box, and when Kakula played the ball into his path I knew there was only one outcome. A 25 yard thunderbolt to even the score at 2 apiece, game on!

If you can believe it, they came at us again from kick off, but this time didn’t get a goal for their troubles, but we did. They pressed straight from kick off and looked for Calvert-Lewin as the outlet, but Andrea Perre intercepted the long ball in our defensive midfield position, played Caval in out wide on the left and off he went. Caval and youngster Texeira (making his first start for me) combined expertly well as they played a slick one two in the box and Caval slid the ball under the Hearts keeper to give us a 3-2 lead right on 18 minutes of the first half! It didn’t do my or Ian Cathro in the Hearts dugout’s nerves any good, but we held on until half time.

The second was nothing like the first. We intended to try and stay rigid and not let them back in to the game, but Calvert-Lewin was running things for them. He had plenty of chances to equalise but Irwin in our goal was equal to his every effort. Whilst I was watching Calvert-Lewin, I thought he seemed to fit my moneyball concept extremely well, and maybe playing for me he might play a bit better. I decided I’d keep an eye him from then on. Despite being under pressure for a lot of the second half, they didn’t really have any clear cut chances other than the ones Irwin saved from Calvert-Lewin. We managed to keep the score at 3-2 in our favour, and would be taking those 3 away goals back to Portugal for the return leg.

Sandwiched between the 2 legged affair was a game against Braga, the team Tiago Dias had agreed to join from us. I took the 11 starters to one side before the game and not within ear shot of any other player. I reminded them that Dias had jumped ship to this team, and that he felt they were better than us, a better prospect despite not playing continental football and not in the later stages of the cup. I told the players in no uncertain terms I really, REALLY want to beat this lot just to prove a point that he’s made a massive mistake leaving us. I could tell the players were up for it, we just needed to carry on from the Hearts game despite being tired from travelling. I also had Dias named on the bench and sitting in the dugout for the game, I told him a lie about being short on numbers due to fatigue from the Hearts game. He wasn’t happy but I told him he was still under contract with us despite me saying he'd never play for me again and he had an obligation to be ready to play. I was tempted to bring him on during the game, but thought better of it.

The result, the smug look on my face as I turned to Dias at the full time whistle told him all he needed to know. Braga were a side on the decline, an aging defence, and inept forward line and a manager (Paolo Fonseca) under immense pressure sitting 11th in the league after finishing in the top 4 for the last 8 seasons, looked absolutely dejected as Kakula grabbed another hat trick, his fourth of the season, and we ran out 3-0 away winners.

Good luck with Braga Tiago, you’re going to need it.
7 years ago
2 hours ago
Chapter 35 – Decisions, decisions, decisions

Moments like the Braga game are what football is all about. Dias leaving for a bigger name side that gets thumped by his current team is stuff fans will talk about for years to come. They’d finish a poor 10th in the league and Paolo Fonseca would be sacked at the end of the season. It didn’t matter that we’d play Hearts to a 1 all draw in the return leg to see us progress to the second knock out round of the Europa League, I’d managed to get one over a player that felt he’d outgrown me and the club. He’d had 1 good season in all his career and used that to engineer his move away. Same with Figueredo and Vasiliev, but without them we did just fine, to an extent.

Obviously they had immense quality and more than put in the work in our season up until they agreed to leave. But the desire from the players that came in was unmatched. I promoted a couple of youth prospects to the first team to fill the numbers and they duly delivered. As previously mentioned, Texeira linked up with Caval and Kakula superbly. Central midfielder Sorriha and forward Silveira came in and produced when it mattered. So whilst we lost recognised quality, we had up and comers making their mark.

The draw for the second knock out round of the cup saw us paired with French side Lyon. Another side I knew a lot about and a game I was looking forward to.

Our league form wasn’t good heading into the Lyon game however. Arouca, Guimares and Sporting Lisbon all beat us in the lead up to Lyon. 11 goals conceded, 0 scored was not good heading to France for the first leg. But we weren’t affected by the form, and we’d already beaten French opposition twice in the form of Marseille, so we were confident.

Despite boasting a forward line of Depay (22 goals, 12 assists) Pinamonti (28 goals, 3 assists, 11 MOTM awards) and Giordano (16 goals, 22 assists, 4 MOTM awards) they rarely threatened us in the first leg. We soaked up pressure and hit them for 3 second half goals. The score line of 3-0 to us flattered us really. It was all Lyon up until the 70th minute. They had more possession (69%), more shots on target, 13 to our 1, more clear cut chances, 4 to our 0 and seemed the more likely to score. That was until Giordano had a moment of madness. He and Dzagoev were having a good battle in the middle of the park. Dzagoev playing CM and Giordano at AMC they countered each other perfectly in this game with neither really controlling the tempo for their side. That changed when, according to Alan they had a bit of a verbal sparring. I’m not sure what exactly was said but around the 70 minute mark Giordano went in 2 footed on Dzagoev to get a straight red. That really opened the door for us and we scored 3 in the final 20 minutes to seal yet another fantastic win for a team that was expected to struggle. The 3 away goals were just what we needed, as Lyon beat us 2-0 at our ground, and had chance after chance to make it 3-0 but we held on, and went through 3-2 on aggregate. This was definitely the highlight of my career so far. We’d beaten teams like Benfica, Marseille, Feyenoord, Standard Liege, Hearts and Lyon so far that season, and in the quarter final draw we found ourselves in the mix with Liverpool, Lazio, AC Milan, Newcastle United, Ajax, Sevilla and Valencia. Any of these teams would be a huge test for us, and as it turned out we got drawn against Liverpool in the quarters.

Our form from the Lyon game to the Liverpool game wasn’t ideal. Cup winners the previous season Pacos de Ferreira and Freamunde beat us away, we struggled to draw at home with second bottom Piedade, before we had a 2 legged semi final with SC Farense to contend with, either side of the first leg with Liverpool. The first leg with Farense ended 2 all. Poor really considering the teams we’d played and beaten so far. Liverpool didn’t under estimate us though and gave us as tough a game as we could ask for. 2-1 on the night and 2 away goals for them really set up the return leg. We did equalise but the quality in their side shone through. At Anfield, with a packed crowd cheering them on, they ended up 4-0 winners with us going out without so much as a sniff at goal, and our Europa League dream was over. No one could’ve anticipated us getting to the quarter final and other than the second leg Lyon loss and the Liverpool defeat, we gave an excellent account of ourselves and could be proud of where we finished. We were comfortably sitting 5th in the league with 5 league games to go, and we expected to finish there or at least 6th again. The return leg for the cup came, and we didn’t really deserve it, but we won 1-0 at Farense to set up another cup final for me, and Famalicoa’s first ever Taca de Portugal, the Portuguese FA Cup final. The final would be played against Estoril Praia, the team we signed Caval from 3 seasons prior to this one. It would be the final game of the season, but we had 5 league games to go before then.

We beat Varzim 2-1 in the first of the 5, but suffered back to back to back losses to AD Fafe, Portimonense and FC Porto. Our final game was with Maritimo. They soundly beat us 3-0 to secure their survival in the league, with CD Nacional and Farense suffering relegation. Had we won that game, Maritimo would’ve gone down and Nacional would’ve stayed up, so I’m probably not liked in Nacional from that game.

We finished 5th in the league, one place better than last seasons finish, and Famalicoa’s best ever finish in their history. Despite the highest ever finish in the league, and a cup final coming up, I was half thinking about leaving on a high. The reason why I was considering leaving was that I’d felt maybe teams had started to figure us out. We lost 4 on the bounce, hadn’t played well in our last 3 Europa League games, and Kakula was coming up to 34 and I felt in my heart of hearts he wouldn’t repeat the 25 goals a season he’d averaged in the last 3 seasons. Dzagoev was also 35 and in the last year of his contract and said he’d be retiring at the end of the next season. Perre had already decided this was his last season, Clint Irwin was on the decline and had said he wouldn’t be sticking around after the next season, as he’d agreed to become the Canadian national side’s goalkeeping coach on a part time basis.

So with a departing squad in the back of my mind, I also tried convincing myself to stay on in Portugal. I’d been a manager for 9 years away from my birth home in Canada, I had a young son at 3 years old. Authors note, my son is the only player in the history of football to be an Andorran national after being born there, holding a Spanish passport so was eligible for Spain as well, also being eligible for England on his mother’s side, and France and Canada on my side. He was an Andorran-Spanish-French-Canadian who was also eligible for England. No other player was ever eligible for 5 nations. Ultimately he’d go on to represent Canada in a long career. But with him being young, and Rose not really having a career and literally being a stay at home mother, I felt bad for them. I decided that I’d address my future after the cup final against Estoril.
7 years ago
2 hours ago
Part 4 – There’s no place like home

Chapter 36 - Check out at the check in

Before we set off for our cup final with Estoril, there was the small matter of the Europa League final, between the team that knocked us out Liverpool, and current FA Cup holders Newcastle United. The final was played at Parc Olympique Lyon, Lyon’s ground where we beat them 3-0 in the quarter final. Moussa Dembele was too much for Liverpool, as his hat trick sealed a 3-0 win for Newcastle and Gareth Southgate. Add this to the 2 FA Cups and League Cup he had won there since leaving the England job, and Newcastle were becoming a force to be reckoned with.

As we made our way to Lisbon for our own cup final, my mind was racing. I asked myself if we lose do I stay and give it another go, or do I leave on a downer? If we win, do I stay and try and repeat and finish higher in the league, or do I leave on a high? Why was I even thinking about leaving anyway? I’d done great things, and each season bettered the last. Was it my pain killer addiction? Was it because I felt bad for Rose and the boy? Was I getting too big for my shoes? Had the success got to my head? I genuinely don’t know why I thought about it.

As for the game itself, I did something stupid in the build-up. The four departing players, Tiago Dias, Fernando Figueredo, Georgy Vasiliev and Yayo Sanogo had all appeared in at least 2 games apiece, so would be given a winners medal if we won. But in my own arrogance, or ignorance, however you look at it, I told all 4 players who were still under contract that they were to travel with us, take playing gear and train the day before and on the morning of the game. All four of them did as asked, but Dias especially looked like he couldn’t have cared less if he tried. Sanogo and Vasiliev at least trained to a good level, but I knew their hearts weren’t in. This was the clubs first ever Taca de Portugal final, and these 4 players also had never played in a final either. It was a big game all around.

I did all the press conferences as was the norm. I applauded the fans efforts in being behind us, as well as making the trip to Lisbon. I congratulated the Estoril manager and players for achieving a cup final as well. Everything was by the book, nothing out of character, nothing untoward, I genuinely gave off a feeling of optimism. This would be my first cup final in 6 years since winning the Gibraltar cup with Saint Josephs.

I named the starters around an hour before kick-off. Irwin, Dzafic, Tomasevic, Pereira and Guimaraes as the back 4 and keeper. Dzagoev and Perre holding. Caval, Cipriano and Teriera as the attacking midfielders and Kakula up top leading the line. The four players that were leaving all took a seat in the stand and watched on. I thought this could be a stupid thing to do if we get absolutely battered, but I wanted to make a point. What that point was I wasn’t quite sure.

I told the lads there’s nothing to lose and everything to gain. We’ve done exceptionally well to get this far, and if there’s a team that deserves to win the cup then it’s us, but it’s not the end of the world if we don’t. We’ve held ourselves well these last 3 seasons, we’ve overachieved at every turn, we’ve beat Benfica 4 times, finished 6th and then 5th, got to the quarters of the Europa League, and we’ve been a joy to watch. This rubbed off on the team, especially mister consistent Kakula, as he put us 2 goals to the good within the opening 15 minutes. Estoril weren’t ready for the onslaught of pace and trickery from our forward line. Caval, playing against the team that sold him to us, was showing he was worth more than the 40 million euro they paid for winger Luis Ener that replaced him. Cipriano was his usual nuisance to the defence and Kakula just knows where the goal is and is good for at least 4 shots on goal a game (he actually averaged 5 shots on target a game, and was averaging a goal every 1.25 games that season) and showed just how good he was.

Estoril’s 40 million euro man Luis Ener had a quiet game. Was he intimidated by our back line? Maybe. Did we close him down at every opportunity? We sure did. He barely touched the ball, whereas Caval was man of the match with 3 assists. Just goes to show that a big price tag doesn’t guarantee a quality player! The match was put to bed in the 61st minute when Caval shot off down the left, beat the full back by cutting inside then driving toward the keeper only to back heel the ball into the path of Dzagoev who calmly slid the ball under the keeper’s leg to make it 3-0 to us.

I mean no disrespect to Gibraltar, as that country gave me my start in football management, and I experienced some great highs there, but winning the Portugal cup win was the absolute best of my career up until that point. We’d beat Massimo Allegri along the way, we’d looked like winning every game and out of all the teams we faced in the cup we most certainly deserved to win it. As I stood there at the half way line on the podium, all the team were with me, apart from the 4 leavers who had actually left the stadium at the chairman’s request by this point, I held the trophy in my arms, looked lovingly at it and saw my reflection in the clear silver of its beauty, and as I hoisted it above my head, before any player did I might add, I thought this is why we do it. This is why we get into the game, for moments like this. As the confetti was flying, the champagne was spraying everywhere, I hugged the players and we all embraced in a moment I’ll never forget. 9 seasons, 4 cup wins (if you counter the Gibraltar super cup), 2 promotions and progress in the Europa League, I hoped there would be more times like this.

The celebrations lasted long into the night that night, and I’d already made plans to go on a break back to Canada the next day regardless of the result. My bags were packed and I was in the airport in Lisbon with Rose and Vince, and as I was approaching the check in for the flight to New York, we had to go to New York then take another flight up to Winnipeg, I’d got a notification on my phone:

‘FC Famalicoa chairman riding the wave of cup success, looks to sell club to highest bidder’

This was both unexpected, but understandable. There were rumours all the way through the season that the chairman was looking for investment from outside sources, and if the reports were to be believed then there was a host of people interested in investing in the club. But in myself I was worn out, my back was killing me, and I hadn’t spent much time with my young family. The back to back top 6 finishes and cup win were things I didn’t think I’d be able to top, so I decided there and then as I was checking in to my flight, that I would be leaving Famalicoa when my contract ended in 2 weeks’ time.

I called the chairman, he understood where I was coming from and thanked me for the 3 years I was there. I phoned each player one by one in the days after officially handing in my notice and thanked them for what we’d achieved, and the players I rang last (Kakula, Caval, Cipriano, Dazgoev, Dzafic and Junior) I said I genuinely hoped we’d work together again in some capacity. That was nothing against the rest of the team, but those 6 were the back bone of my success at Famalicao and without them all clicking and performing as well as they did, I probably wouldn’t have lasted the 3 years there.

News of my departure spread within the days that followed. I actually received a few phone calls of well wishes and good thoughts, one call in particular stood out. It was Massimo Allegri, and he said he wished me well for the future, and said he was happy to see me leave Famalicoa! I asked why, and he said ‘Well maybe, just maybe we’ll get some wins from them from now on!’ He was such a great guy, and our paths would eventually cross again.

As I landed in JFK Airport, I had a lot of time to think about things, if I made the right decision, what we’re going to do with my time off, and I’d actually decided I want to take at least 6 months off. We had booked a hotel in Manhattan to stay there for a couple of days as I’d never actually seen much of New York. It was during this time of the year that the MLS season as in full swing, and I wanted to catch a game or 2 if I could. As I was making my way through the airport I got a feeling that there was a couple of people eyeing me, and then I saw a child pointing my way. The boy was maybe 10, 11 years old, and an older guy, his brother probably, called out to me ‘Hey dude, you’re that Chris guy, the soccer manager in Portugal, you’re friends with Ronaldo ain’t ya?’  I smiled and shook my head, ‘No, you must have me mixed up with someone else’ ‘No, no I don’t, you were on ESPN this morning, you’re in New York for the Red Bulls job ain’t ya, that Doctor guy was on the TV talking about it’

Again I shook this off. If the lad was talking about Doc Spencer, maybe he had been on ESPN, he’d been a manager long enough, I’ll have to call him whilst I’m here I said to myself. I gave it no more thought until I was at the hotel in Manhattan, and the desk clerk mentioned it as well

‘You’re all in room 213, down the hall on the left, let me know if there is anything else I can do for you Mister Irvine’


‘Can I ask you something?’

I thought he wanted an autograph ‘Sure, shoot’

‘I saw you on TV this morning, are you really here to take over the Red Bulls?’

Putting on a forced smile and a fake laugh, I said ‘You’re the second person to ask me that, I have no idea what you’re talking about, I’m on a sabbatical with my family. Thanks for asking though’ and I made my way to my room, where I sat down, turned the TV on, and lo and behold, there I was, on Soccer Tonight on ESPN, with a reporter stood outside The Red Bull Arena saying:

‘He’s landed in New York, the word from the Red Bulls is they’ve made contact and are prepared to make him the best paid manager in the league. More than Laudrup, more than Bob Bradley, they even want to pay him more than Ian Miller the US National coach. I’ll update you when I know more’

Then my phone rang. I ignored it. It rang again. And again. And kept on ringing, until I answered it.

‘Chris, we need to talk’
7 years ago
2 hours ago
Chapter 39 As quick as a ticket in a New York minute

Things in football generally move quite fast. One minute you’re riding the wave of success winning the cup and finishing fifth in a tough league full of world class players, the next you’re laid on a hotel bed at the other side of the world with your mind racing a hundred miles an hour wondering what the hell is going on. All I wanted to do that day was sit down, put my feet up and do nothing. Nothing at all. Nothing! I was feeling burnt out from my time in Europe, okay so 9 years isn’t that long in football, but I didn’t want to lose my passion or love for the game, or resent going in to work. I put my heart and soul into everything I did in football, I felt I invested so much passion into my thinking, my time coming up with tactics and plans that it was taking an emotional toll on me, and I felt some time off, 6 months would be a good thing. If Pep Guardiola, considered as one of the best managers ever can take a year off from Barcelona, return to take over at Bayern Munich and claim back to back to back league titles, then Chris Irvine can take 6 months off! I was sure I’d find work again easily enough. I was even happy and thought about going back to Gibraltar, Stuart Rodriguez said there was always a job there for me, and I was approached by teams in Spain and France quite a few times during my 6 years after leaving Saint Josephs, so I knew there would be a job out there for me.

But as that old saying goes, there’s no rest for the wicked. The person on the phone was Andy Gregson of the New York Red Bulls in Major League Soccer. Apparently my name was branded around for a week or so about replacing Kamil Grosicki as manager. I had no intention of entertaining the idea of taking over, I was in New York for 1 reason and that was to stop over for 2 days and then fly up to Winnipeg. But during that conversation he was outlying the plans and the state of the team, but when I said I’m not interested in the job, he changed the subject straight away and told me the money they were willing to pay me to take over. I won’t say exactly how much, but it was more, a lot more than what I’d been getting paid in any of my previous jobs. Immediately I paid attention to what he was saying

The team were bottom of both the Eastern Conference and the overall table, The Supporters Shield. I’d asked him why they wanted me, why I would be able to change their fortunes around. But all he could say was that I’d done well enough in Europe, all 3 teams are in a better place now than they were when I went in (he must not have seen Andorra capitulated when I left and were still in the third division), and that they were sure I was the man to deliver the MLS Cup to New York. I’d been back in North America a matter of hours, and already I was being linked to, and offered another job in football. But I’d promised myself some time off. I promised Rose and Vince some time with just them and that we’d do all these things in that time and make up for lost time. Not that we never did anything as a family, it was just football always came first in our world. It was what made me who I am. It was who I was, I was a football manager first, painkiller addict and family man second.

Another thing that made me question the move was the league. Not that there’s anything wrong with the MLS, but the standard of player in the league wasn’t the type of player I’d been up against a matter of weeks ago. For every Martino Hernandez in Benfica’s back line clearing the ball off the line against Barcelona in the Champions League, there was John Thompson playing for Houston and scoring embarrassing own goals against Alianza of El Salvador in the CONCACAF Champions League. (Side note, Alianza went on to the final of that years competition, and lost to Santos of Mexico). For every Lyon, Marseille and Liverpool we played in the Europa League, there were teams such as Philadelphia Union (21 games played, 2 wins), FC Dallas (No win in 15, no manager) and Columbus Crew (at the time on a 9 game losing streak). If I went there what would people’s perception of me be? Older players sometimes go to the MLS for one last pay day, and it was seen as a retirement league of sorts. Okay so Sergio Aguero played his final 2 years in LA at the Galaxy, and scored over 50 goals in those 2 years, and Joel Hayes went from winning multiple league titles in Mexico, Argentina and Brazil to winning the MLS twice in his final years as a player, but no matter how well players did, fans and pundits would comment about the lower standard and how easy those players had it.

Then the turning point in my thinking came. During the phone call with Andy I promised I’d think it over, and I had only just landed in New York and would need a couple of days before I did anything anyway and I would get back to him. But on the second day I was there I was talking to a hotel staff member, and I inquired about the nearest doctor’s office, as I wanted to try and get some more pain killers. His words were ‘You don’t need no quack, whatever you need, I got you bro’ so I lied and said I knew someone that needed some tramadol and oxycodone. He said ‘Well if you can’t get it in New York, then you can’t get it full stop!’

So I thought about it. Do I go to a doctor, maybe get prescribed some painkillers, possibly have a medical at New York, or any other club for that matter, get my addiction brought up and it cause issues for me? Or do I take the money, take up this bell hops offer, and continue as I had?

I thought back to Tiago Dias and him leaving Famalicoa for Braga, and I thought of Figueredo, Semekono and Ngongang. They all left for more money, not for better chances, none of the teams they left for were any better than us at the time. Players always moan about money this, money that and force clubs hands by demanding more money. So I thought to hell with it, I’m going to accept the money. There’s no way any other team in the league was going to pay me what The Red Bulls were willing to pay me. I thought as well this kind of money isn’t going to come around that often, not that it was ever about money up until then. I’d always been paid enough that I could afford to travel and move to different countries, and my winnings in the cup paid for my flight and hotels to New York, as well as a return flight to my home in Braga. I’ve done well enough in Europe doing what I did, and I was certain that I’d be able to do the same in New York. Oh how wrong I was!

Once I’d told Rose, my dad and that club that I’d accepted their offer, I made my way to Red Bull Arena, the stadium. On my way in there was a crowd of people, and the mentality firstly of the fans struck me. This one guy pulled his phone out and asked for a picture, I obliged. Then he said ‘So when are you going to bringing players from Portugal?’ I just laughed it off. Then another guy said ‘When’s Ronaldo coming out of retirement to play for you?’ Another asked about Fernandes of Porto, someone else mentioned Sanchez from Man City, both world class Portuguese players. All the fans seemed to care about was who I would be bringing from Portugal. I got the feeling that some fans thought I was Portuguese and in charge of all the Portuguese players! They didn’t seem to care about me as the manager, just who I would be signing. Even the New York Press weren’t bothered about me, just who would be suiting up in the red and white. One reporter caught me off guard when she asked about my wage. She asked did I not think I’ve sold out by accepting such a good wage? I was caught off guard and all I could reply with was ‘I’ve not sold out, that’s ridiculous, what I’ve done is cash in’ and it made me look stupid. So from my first couple of hours there the feeling I got was the fans didn’t care much about me, and the press weren’t too bothered either.

Then I met the rest of the board and playing staff, and it was eye opening. The attitude I saw from the board can be best described as arrogant. The members of the board basically had 2 go to answers for everything. The first and most used response was ‘Well we’re New York, we can do anything’ and the second was just to throw money at the problem. The club had been on a steady decline for years before I went there. They didn’t like change and seemed reluctant to do anything else in terms of the way they ran the club.

In New York there are the Knicks in the NBA. Whilst never winning the NBA title, they gradually improved and constantly got in the play offs. New York City FC were run by the Manchester City Group and every season went about things to improve. Player personnel, staff, training facilities, the stadium, just about everything was looked at to compete. They were a fixture of the play offs year after year. The New York Jets had appeared in 2 super bowls within the last decade, winning 1. They were always improving. The Yankees don’t become the biggest team in baseball by not changing, constantly improving and going about things the way they did and not doing anything do they! But the board at the Red Bulls really seemed like they didn’t have a clue, and didn’t want to hear anything I thought would help. My ideas were met with deaf ears.

At the start of the season they’d traded away draft picks for aging players on bad contracts. The only stand out player was Diego Poyet who was traded from Vancouver for a first round draft pick (remember this part, it plays a big role later on) and he was literally the best of a bad bunch. Don’t get me wrong, he put 100% in every week but it just wasn’t good enough.

The attitude of the board seemed to rub off on the players. When I addressed the form the start of that season in March to when I took over, they didn’t have an answer, not one of them took charge. When I asked about set piece routines, training plans, match tactics, I might as well have been speaking to a wall. The attitude and demeanor of the players on my first day was worlds apart from the dedicated and professional players I’d been used over in Europe.

This wasn’t mission impossible, this was mission why even bother?
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