The day after Hapoel Ashkelon arithmetically avoided relegation, my wife and I spent the afternoon by the waterfront. We like being by the Med, watching the ships come in as they’ve been doing here since Ashkelon was ruled by the Ancient Egyptians.
In the evening we went to one of our favourite restaurants nearby. The family that runs it have roots in the Maghreb. Their harira (spicy lamb soup) and osban (Tunisian sausage) is to die for. No, you can’t have their address.
We discuss a question I couldn’t discuss with anyone else: how should I approach the play-offs? Should I play our strongest side and go flat out for European qualification?
Anyone else would be astonished that I even raise this question. If Seb Rozental, my right-hand man, was here he’d stare at me and say, ‘Of course? Why on earth would you do anything else?’
And it is the obvious thing to do. If we do qualify for Europe it will bring in extra dosh and, perhaps even more importantly, raise the status of the club. That will make it easier to attract top players.
But there is a contrarian argument: omit the players who I expect to leave in the summer and play their (mostly young) back-ups instead, to help them develop.
If it doesn’t go well, it’s not the end of the world: the lower we finish in the play-off league, the lower the board’s expectations will be for the next season – and the more secure I’ll be in my job. That point wouldn’t register with anyone else in the world, but it does with Karen. After all, she’s only just moved out here.
She asks me how many of the players are likely to relish playing in big matches and how many will be bricking it. Good point.
I don’t really know the answer. We haven’t played any really big matches. But my guess is that the only ones in the ‘relish’ camp are Pedro Galván (thankfully, the skipper), Snir Mish’an (whose tendency to over-rate himself might here be welcome), M’peti Nimba, and Baruch Dego (for whom this might be a swansong).
The ‘bricking it’ camp is more densely populated. Abohazira, Amar, Machluf (worryingly, the vice-captain), Malka, and Mizrahi (comfortably our highest scorer, damn it).
Karen’s point is that, by the time you’ve put the relishers into the team and left the brickers out, there’s not going to be so many selection decisions to make.
On the other hand, given that a lowly finish would not be a disaster, perhaps we can communicate a ‘nothing to lose’ mentality to the players, which might just relax the brickers enough. It’s at times like this that I wish that either Seb or I were better motivational speakers. It dawns on me that I could look at bringing in colleagues to help with the team talks – Ronen Weiss (the fitness coach), for example, or Oz Elia (our new attack coach).
I decide to sleep on the problem of how best to approach the play-offs. I don’t have to decide yet – we still have a standard fixture (the 26th out of 26) to play before the league divides in two. And, in truth, it’s a problem I’m enjoying having.