Ebbsfleet stood in the way of Bishop’s Stortford making history. They have never gone beyond the Conference South leagues and winning the Final would bring them up to unchartered territories. As it stands, their 13 games unbeaten streak is already the stuff of record books.
Jac had called for a team huddle in the middle of the pitch after warm-up. He wanted the players to feel the buzz around them as he delivered his final team-talk. This is a grand moment for everyone connected to Bishop’s Stortford and he wanted everyone to bask in it for a moment.
“Guys. This is it,” Jac began.
“All that training. All that games. All that hard work. It has come down to this game.”
All eyes were on Jac and the center circle was a space of silence.
“Feel this buzz around us right now. Right this moment. Feel it right now, and then ignore it. I want all of you to treat this like any other game.”
There were a few nods around the huddle.
“Keep your focus, and do your best. We’re the underdogs here but look to your left and right…you are surrounded by team-mates who have the quality to work with you on this unbeaten streak. So let’s take this game, and pull off an upset!”
A thunderous ‘Yeah!’ roared in the huddle. A burst of energy. A shout of confidence. Then, a look from Jac to his captain, and Johnny continued the rallying call.
“The boss is right. Whoever can keep the focus will win this game and that shall be us. Let’s do this!”
Another team cheer ensued and the players headed back to the dressing room to prepare for the actual kick-off. Meanwhile, Jac, escorted by his two coaches, Roy Essandoh and Glyn Mason, walked to the dugout where they will have to endure a nerve-wrecking 90 minutes.
As they approached the stands, Jac scanned the crowd for a familiar face. He was looking for Olivia. That disturbing conversation still rings in his mind and he had spent much of last night thinking about it. Since then, Jac have concluded that there were only three possible explanations. Either she was a lunatic who was just babbling nonsense, or she was sent by someone sympathetic to the opposition to disrupt his preparation, or she was indeed telling the truth. He did not decide on which one was the most likely option but know that for his own sanity and career, he simply need to win this game.
The Final turned out to be a very tight affair with Ebbsfleet defending resolutely. Thankfully, their attack wasn’t as effective and the opposition found their chances limited as well. However, despite having a large amount of possession and double digit shots at goal, The Blues struggled to break the deadlock.
Fans of Bishop’s Stortford were increasingly worried by the lack of goals in the game. While the team had scored a 7-2 win in their last match, many felt that it was an anomaly, driven by a surge of adrenalin and would possibly never be repeated. With Ebbsfleet being the clear favourite, there was a worry that the missed chances would cost them. There was also a sense that the Blues would struggle if they were to find themselves a goal down.
The upfront partnership of Kyle Asante and Jon Nouble was still not clicking today and Olivia’s words about the sudden proliferation of Jon in the previous game started to ring in Jac’s mind. He considered taking him out but decided against it, opting to take out Kyle for a last throw of the dice – to put in a half-fit Sean Mullen as a second physical presence in the forward line. Jac also made the risky switch from a 5-3-2 to a 3-4-3 formation, pushing the wing-backs further forward to swing those crosses with more gusto. Lee Sawyer was also asked to drive forward into the opposition box. The dice was rolled at the 74th minute, and the manager and the backroom team could only wait for the knock-on effects.
Unlike the last time Jac gambled, this one paid-off. Big-time.
Within minutes, Jon Nouble scored one. Then, another. Then, after Recce Hall-Johnson’s goal, Jon added another. Four goals in 15 minutes! The all-out attack shocked Ebbsfleet and they had no response to the barrage of crosses and physical presence.
And when it finally came, it was the best final whistle that Jac had ever heard. For the first-time ever, the club had been promoted to the National League. For the first-time in a long while, Jac felt happiness. Bishop’s Stortford FC had made history. The fans went bonkers and the social media mentions for the English non-leagues exploded.
“Frank Doherty, Non-League Paper. How do you feel about this achievement Jac?”
“This is a fantastic feeling, something that I could never have imagined when I first came to this country. I’m very proud of the players and all the hard work that they put in. It wasn’t easy but we did it.”
“Over here, Stuart Moore, BBC Radio. Promotion comes with requirements and expectations. Are you excited about the future at Woodside Park?”
“It’s an incredibly exciting time for everyone at the club. We will need to make improvements and changes around the club for this new future and I’m sure the Board will be delighted to be faced with this good problem.”
“Jon McKee, Tempo Football. Could you tell us a bit more about that tactical surprise in the beginning and at the end?”
“Well, we knew Ebbsfleet had quality players and we were trying to get that first goal and as you can see, we had great opposition today. With all the tired legs at the later part of the game, we could either give in to the tiredness or give everything and I’m glad my players took up the challenge and threw in their last drops of energy for a few more waves of attack.”
With that last question, Jean Rhodes, the Bishop’s Stortford F.C Press Officer took control of the conference room.
“Thank you everyone for your attendance today. Last but not least, I would like to issue a statement on behalf of the Board.”
She took out a sheet of paper and then read, “The Board would like to congratulate the players, Jac Grey, his backroom staff, and everyone at the club for the great season. They are extremely pleased at achieving promotion from Vanaraman Conference South. Promotion was never on the cards at the beginning of the season, nor when we appointed Jac Grey, but we would like to put on record our immense gratitude to the manager for achieving the unthinkable.”
Ms Rhodes folded the piece of paper, and then ushered Jac out of the briefing room before returning to address any last queries from the pool of reporters.
As he made the long walk down the corridor away from the buzz of the room of reporters, Jac started to feel the immensity of the situation. The collapse of his past life, the move to UK, the early days of finding his feet in football, the unbeaten streak, and now, the promotion. Things have gone on rather well after all. He had managed to turn his team around in the second half of the season and it felt like he had managed to turn his life around in the same period. There was a swelling of gratitude within him that he had never felt before.
He took out his phone from his pocket and saw that his best friend Utami had sent him a video of her crazy celebrations from distant Singapore. Chairman Ian Ketteridge had also sent him a short message to congratulate him on the job well done. There was even a tweet from the guys at the local Starbucks congratulating him with a celebratory GIF. And then there was a message from an unknown number that simply said, “Congratulations Jac. We knew you would do it. See you in pre-season. – O”
Second Half is a story about Jac Grey who lost everything in his life and tries to rebuild it all by travelling halfway across the world to take up a job that he was unqualified for – as a football manager. For the full story, visit Jac’s at shadowcatjac.wordpress.com. You can also get me on Twitter @shadowcatjac