SATURDAY February 3rd, 2018
Game day. FC Twente v N.E.C.
With my traitorous striker, Sylla, leading the charge, we headed to Twente to try to win two in a row. Each side had a golden opportunity squandered in the first twenty minutes. A great save from their keeper and perfect positioning by our goalpost kept the score at 0-0.
The stalemate was broken when Breno took the ball down the sideline and whipped in a bullet of a cross that nearly took Sylla’s head off. Thankfully the ricochet bounced into the net before the keeper even knew it was coming. Christian Santos later narrowly missed a header from close quarters, though to his credit, it was from an almost impossible angle. His reputation as a supreme header can remain intact.
Twente levelled the score just after 30 minutes with a well executed corner. They nearly went ahead just before the end of the half with an intercepted pass that was quickly turned into a counter. Luckily Jimmy Smits was up to the one-on-one task.
The second half opened with another chance for Twente that was hit into the side netting. I was starting to worry about where our control of the game had gone. Thirty seconds later Golla, with all the time in the world, decided to pass the ball right to one of their midfielders and Smits was called into action again. It was pretty clear at that point that our control of the game didn’t actually exist.
Within ten minutes, yet another misplaced pass was seized upon and a quick counter produced a goal for Twente. My substitutions were for nought and I had to resign myself to the fact that we’d lost the game. Our run of one win in a row in the league had come to an end.
SUNDAY February 11th, 2018
Game day. PEC Zwolle v N.E.C.
At the end of the third minute, Vela pounced on a rebound from a Sylla shot, putting us up 1-0. As far as starts go, it was a good one. At the end of the 20th, Diarra smashed a shot into the keeper and it managed to go off a leg and into the net. In the space of five minutes, Smits made two great saves and one run of the mill save to keep it 2-0 as we went into the locker rooms.
The second half was less eventful and certainly less work was needed from the score keeper. We had a shot bounce off the cross bar and they had two that narrowly missed, but apart from that, zilch. A great display from our midfield maestros and we were back onto a winning streak of one.
WEDNESDAY February 14th, 2018
The fans aren’t exactly filling the squad with confidence leading up to our European match. Radio call ins, comments sections, and random shouts in the street are showing they’ve got no confidence in us against the Turks. Don’t they understand their role in this relationship? We’re home in the first leg, so we need them to push us over the edge. Where’s the love on Valentine’s Day? A win here would be nice, to say the least. A clean sheet also wouldn’t go astray.
THURSDAY February 15th, 2018
Game day. N.E.C. v Galatasaray. Europa League First Knockout Round Leg One.
I went with the “let’s hold the ball and keep everyone back and don’t let them score and hope we score on a break” tactics. Both Schlupp and Rios played. I’m sure all of my cheerleader fans were not impressed with the defensive approach, but this was two left backs time.
The boys did me proud in the first half. Gala didn’t get a meaningful shot at goal until the 34th minute, soon after they received their first yellow card. The shot was off target and I was able to breathe normally again for a while. A few minutes later they had a ball bounce off the cross bar, spend an agonisingly long time in the air, then get bashed out for a corner by Smits. We nearly cleared the subsequent corner only to have them get the ball back and shoot a cannon across goal. Warning signs were being received. Loud and clear.
Then the ridiculous happened. Sylla dribbled the ball slowly toward their goal. Their players backed off. None of my players made runs because they had all been instructed to be careful. Their players kept backing off. Sylla kept slowly marching forward. Then he made to dart in, was stopped by two defenders instantly, and fell over. The ball bounced clear to van der Vaart who made a cunning pass into the space where Sylla would have been had he not fallen over. Luckily the defenders were ignoring the prone Sylla who was now up and running at the ball and sliding it past their keeper! We were up 1-0. And the half time whistle came as soon play started back up.
I had no idea how to convince the players to do exactly the same in the second half. I just told them that it was a reasonable effort and that they should try a bit harder in the second half. Inside, I was jumping for joy and the prospect of going into a second game in front.
The second half went the same way. We had a shot on target that was weak. They had two that were strong, but neither connected. We won. I can’t believe it now and I couldn’t believe it then. The boys were immense. They were closing down the whole game. Frankly, we smothered them. They had 23 shots, nearly all of them from distance. We had four and two of them were on target. What a delight to play Turkish teams!
SUNDAY February 18th, 2018
Game day. N.E.C. v FC Utrecht.
I started Marnego up front after some whining and considering this is a between-Europe game. Gregor and super villain, Kader Mangane, also got starts. It was Mr. Adonis himself, Christian Santos, who got us started though. He ran onto a rebound from a scorching Zimmermann shot. I don’t often use the word scorching together with the name Zimmermann, but I can assure you this thing had a heat signature. That was at the start of the seventh minute.
Another seven minutes and Marengo got in on the action, showing light feet to adjust and one-time a quick pass from Krisztián Vadócz. Zimmermann got another assist of sorts when he crossed into a streaking Breinburg. I mean he was running quickly, diagonally across the box to the near post, not running while naked. He headed home and we were 3-0 up and coasting. Why can’t all league games be like this instead of being more difficult than European competition? We went in at the half a happy bunch. I even told the players I was happy with their performance.
I’ll never do that again, as Mangane got himself a second yellow card two minutes into the second half. Utrecht had no ideas in the first half, but facing only ten men, all of a sudden it was like they’d had an LSD-fuelled brainstorming session. They finally broke through in the 66th minute with a well-played series of passes and a solid shot at goal. Five minutes later they had a second goal through a tapped home rebound. How they managed not to score on the 76th minute, I will never know. Something about Smits and Rios turning into octopi, I guess. Although maybe that was the LSD. We survived.
Their captain, Yassin Ayoub looked good throughout the game. He actually looked like a new wave N.E.C. player. I’ll have to get my scouts onto him.
TUESDAY February 20th, 2018
A nightmare has occurred. I may be still dreaming, so I need to write it down, just in case. At first, it was like a dream. I got a note that Zidane had left Vitesse. Not something you’d think was a nightmare, normally. A celebratory event, you might think. And yes, it’s good that the man has left our Arnhem rivals. But the news also included details of his new job – manager of Girondins Bordeaux. An absolute nightmare. My arch enemy is now the manager of our illegitimate parent team! What did I do to deserve this?
THURSDAY February 22nd, 2018
Suler called a meeting to demand more game time. I told him the only way he would get a game is if we suffered an injury blight that saw five centre backs out of contention. I told him I’d work on selling him. He said there’d be no need, he’s happy to stay. What? He should be an agent with those negotiating skills. In fact, I’d like him to take over as agent for all of my players.
Game day. Galatasaray v N.E.C. Europa League First Knockout Round Leg Two.
At 21 seconds, I said, “oooh” as Diarra took the ball and attracted two defenders while Djurdjic held a third defender out to the left, leaving Sylla alone. At 22 seconds, I yelled “come on!” as Sylla made the right run. My butt cheeks clenched super tight at 23 seconds when Diarra passed the ball and it was clear Djurdjic’s defender wasn’t going to get to Sylla. At 24 seconds, some weird noise escaped my throat as Sylla took the shot. At 25 seconds we were ahead 1-0 away from home and I just sort of collapsed on the sideline. The ball had bounced off the left post, rolled the length of the goal line, and finally crossed the line after bouncing off the right post.
Galatasaray now needed to score three goals. I was using the same lineup and tactics as the first game, so I felt three goals was pretty defendable. I had ninety minutes to see if that was going to turn out to be true. They had a shot bounce off the cross bar at 25 and van der Heijden blocked a driven shot a minute later. At 35, the ball bounced off van der Vaart and toward Sneijder who didn’t even consider doing anything other than swinging his boot through the ball. It fired into the net from probably 30 yards out. Smits didn’t even know about it until he was told to pick the ball out of the net.
We made it to the half 1-1. Sneijder was pulling strings and launching shots, but so far so good. Half time was a nervy affair. We went back out and their shot total was well into double figures early on. Podolski had a great shot dealt with by Smits. In the 57th, Sneijder was unlucky not to score from 30 yards again. What a leg on that guy! The rebound was somehow, eventually cleared, but not without a few nervous jumps from me.
We had one shot until the 81st. In the 81st we doubled that! It didn’t result in a goal, but hey two shots is two shots. Four minutes later, Podolski tried a Sneijder special and it dipped as it came to Jimmy making him spill it. Burak seized his opportunity and they were ahead 2-1, 2-2 on aggregate. The next eight minutes were the longest of my life. Long shot after long shot came at Smits and we held strong. We were through on away goals. Hallelujah!
We’ve drawn Groningen in the next round. You couldn’t write this stuff. Surely we can beat them and progress. Surely. Right?
SUNDAY February 25th, 2018
Game day. N.E.C. v Roda JC.
Trying to work out who to play and when with this packed schedule is nuts. We have to concentrate on the league, but we’ve got a Dutch Cup semi final this week and the ongoing Europa League campaign. Playing 16th placed Joda made it easy to decide on backups this time, but the decisions are going to get harder.
That easy decision backfired beautifully. They scored two goals in the first half, despite our domination in every other measurement. I made a couple of changes at the half, but the boys never really got firing. A consolation goal in the 83rd, but it seemed like no-one really had their heart in it.
WEDNESDAY February 28th, 2018
Game day. N.E.C. v FC Utrecht. Dutch Cup Semifinal.
We nearly broke a boring deadlock in the 42nd minute, but after some pinball action in the box, Utrecht cleared it. The second half was barely a minute old when van der Vaart did his thing, placing an exquisite pass into space for Sylla to run on to. Sylla did his thing and slotted it home. And this guy has decided he’s better off elsewhere next season!
In the 59th minute, Breno completely fluffed possession, allowing Mike van Duinen to take the ball, waltz into the box, and slam it past Smits. In the 80th, Guediora sent a free kick in that bounced off the post and back out into play where Utrecht cleared. Three minutes later, Szűcs drove into the box from the left and looped a ball over the huddle and onto the foot of Vela at the far post. Vela finished it with aplomb. We were though to the final! Except a blind linesman called Vela offside. What the actual hell? Extra time.
In the 114th, tired legs were beginning to show, but Vela blasted a shot at the keeper who could only parry. Szűcs happily took the crumbs and put us ahead. In less than 60 seconds, Utrecht had scored again. Heart attack was imminent. We went to penalties.
Smits got a hand on the second shot, but it went in anyway. The first five penalties went in for each team. They scored their sixth and then Vela came up to take ours. He had already been named man of the match, but it will be this shot that will be remembered. The keeper went the wrong way, but Vela’s shot went off the post and he dropped to his knees. I stayed composed. Shook some hands. Went into the locker room and told the players they did their best. Went home. Cried uncontrollably.