#FM17 | Hapoel Hope 1.54 | Top of the world

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Hapoel

I woke the morning after to find myself out of kilter with the world. The question the local media, and Twitter, is debating is whether Hapole Ashkelon FC can qualify for continental football. In Israel, the top three qualify automatically. If one of those three also wins the cup, then the fourth team qualifies too.

The catalyst for the speculation is that our win over Beitar Jerusalem has moved us back into the top three. But this means very little. After the next round of matches, the league divides into two and the top six teams compete against each other. Current placings could be turned upside down.

All the speculation has taken the attention away from our actual achievement – avoidance of relegation. Ok, we haven’t won a trophy. But, to put things in perspective, the highest we’ve finished before is 15th: now we can’t finish lower than eighth.

I brew a pot of Lebanese coffee and sit on the balcony – by the time I’m up, it’s warm enough – feeling mellow. I think back to when, in a parallel universe (FM14), I took Episkopi – predicted to finish bottom – to the Greek Division B championship.

But this feels better than that: Episkopi’s squad never looked that bad to me – and, having been crowned champions, we went into a min-league play-off where we finished bottom, which tarnished the whole experience. I also remember when I took Crewe (FM15), predicted to go down, to automatic promotion. I guess that was better. So Ashkelon rates second – way above Plymouth Argyle’s European trophies.

Various communications from my family indicate they’re not happy with me. Not so much because I lost money asking one of my sons to place illegal bets on us being relegated, but rather because they lost money following suit.

It wasn’t that they’d carefully assessed the Israeli Premier League: it was simply a vote of no confidence in me. As each of them tells me, they do the one thing I don’t want anyone to do: they remember Accrington.

I’ve written before about the success factors at Ashkelon. Now, I wonder, is there anything to add?

Yes, actually. There’s Itay Duani.

I signed him on loan as a fourth choice keeper, with the expectation that that would become third-choice when as he was expected to, Dele Aiyenugba departed. But Lion Khidrian the first-choice, got injured, as did Eliran Gabay, the third-choice. Aiyenugba was called up by Nigeria and, when he’d returned, had proved unreliable.

So Duani has been thrown in the deep end – and come up trumps. Seven appearances (including two in the cup): 7 goals conceded; three clean sheets. This while the team was wobbling. He’s 19 and playing at a level he’s never played before. Without him, I think we wouldn’t have made the cut and, when the league divides into two, would have been slugging it out with teams from the lower half.

Itay’s accepted a permanent contract, w.e.f. July. Our other goalies are all fit again (well, in condition if not match fit) but they need to understand they have competition.

Duani, son, you’re a hero. I hope the fans get that.