2020-22 Reflections: RC Lens London

Life leads you exactly where you’re supposed to be… just have faith and keep going.

Looking back, it all feels inevitable.

Like it had to be this way. Like all the dots were connecting as they needed to.

The setbacks, the triumphs, the teams, the memories, the lessons and growth… all part of a greater plan.

Reflecting now, its easy to forget how unlikely this journey was. How difficult and how uncertain these years have been.

But just like my mum always says, life leads you exactly where you’re supposed to be. Just have faith and keep going.

An unlikely match

Working with the U16 RC Lens London team was never on my radar. In early 2020, I only had one real focus: Getting into a professional academy. A few months earlier, I’d successfully achieved the UEFA B after years of trying to get onto the course. I was attending events, meeting great people in football and interviewing for roles. It felt like after years of struggling and building, I was on the verge of achieving my dream.

Then Covid arrived and everything stopped. The opportunities I’d been cultivating dried up, connections disappeared, doors closed. Worst of all, my passion, my reason for being, was taken away from me as I could no longer coach, limited only to zoom sessions. For the first time, I felt lost.

Once the season ended, with no clear next move, I decided to interview for the newly vacant role of U16s head coach at my grassroots club, a team that had had the same coach for 8 years. While it wasn’t a professional academy, it would provide great training facilities, good players and a new challenge to continue my development. It would also provide the challenge of competing in the London Youth Premier Showcase League, a league my club’s teams had historically always struggled in, as well as the challenge of replacing a coach who had been with this team since they were 8 years old.

To my great disappointment, the club decided against me, instead giving the role to another coach who’d only recently joined the club and who they deemed as further along in his development, offering me the u15s instead. I heavily considered leaving the club at this point and likely would have, if not for a fortunate twist of fate: a few weeks before the start of the season, the new coach left, and the club came back to me to see if I’d still be interested in taking on the team, which I accepted.

“We’re going to win the league title this year. And when its all done, they’ll say we were the best team this club has ever had.”

Building a Squad

As expected, the departure of a long-serving coach and the uncertainty that brought lead to a significant exodus of players, with us struggling to build a competitive squad.

However, as with all obstacles, this challenge created its own opportunities and allowed me to build a team from scratch in my image that would play how I wanted to.

Dylan Teale… for the first few sessions the only player confirmed in the squad for 20/21. Later that season, we would lift the title together on his 10 year anniversary since joining the club. Player 1. Legend.

While the quality at trials was limited, they did reveal a few gems, namely the 4 Ms: Maxime, a direct, pacy forward with a fiery competitive drive, Matthew, an athletic ex-player who was returning after a few years out of football, Marc, a Spanish midfielder who’d recently moved to London, and Mikhail, a tenacious, hard working player with incredible acceleration.

Of the existing players, I managed to persuade a handful to stay. First, Gauthier, a strong, powerful defender, motivated by promises he’d finally play his preferred position up front consistently and get the #7 shirt, one of many vacated by departing players. Right Back Milan, midfielders Thibault and Lorenzo and Goalkeeper Moaz and Harvey swiftly followed.

Two weeks in, unfulfilled by his trial at Lambeth Tigers, Brice, an immensely creative player with significant untapped potential and the player I was secretly most looking forward to working with, confirmed in and the team was starting to take shape.

To round off the squad, I promoted 3 younger players from the year below, taking Striker Aris and midfielders Nicholas and Victor. Together with Lorenzo, Brice and Marc, they’d make up a sizeable component of u15 players playing a year up in the final squad.

But I was still missing one key piece. Hugo Bourke, the team’s existing captain and the player I envisioned being the key creator of my team, took the longest to commit, concerned about the quality of team and drawn towards joining another coached by one of his ex-coaches. Thankfully, after weeks of discussion, hesitation and persuasion, he decided to stay.

Hugo Bourke. My captain, emblematic of my team. I can’t really imagine what this team would have been like if he hadn’t decided to stay.

Finally, I had a squad. Now it was time for a game model.

Building a game model

I am a big believer in building a strategy that gets the best out of your players’ skillsets. Instead of trying to force players into a rigid, predetermined plan, a manager should create a plan with the intention of allowing players to be the truest, fullest expression of themselves. It’s difficult to always create a system that caters to everyone and sacrifices do need to be made, but you need to try and prioritise this goal from the start.

Personally, I always start with the creators, the ones who have the ability to unlock teams and win games, as their profiles will usually dictate the default shape you play. In my squad, there were three clear standouts: Hugo, Brice and Thibault. While all creative, they differed significantly in profile. While Hugo excelled at coming central from out wide, picking up intelligent positions untracked and playing quick forward passes, Brice preferred to drive with the ball from deep, starting central but with the freedom to move wide if needs be. Thibault meanwhile excelled with time on the ball to play threaded passes, less likely to dribble but adept at cutting a team open from deep or scoring a long range effort.

Next, I move on to what those players will need around them to be their most effective. While Hugo would need a LB to overlap him if he was to excel as a wide #10 from the wing, Brice would need a winger to stay wide on his side in build up in order to create space for him to drive forwards from midfield. Luckily, I had both pieces: Dylan, a brilliant attacking LB with much experience playing attacking positions, would dovetail perfectly with Hugo on the left, while both Maxime and Gauthier excelled at using their pace out wide, opening up the right half space for Brice. Up front, Aris was a creative ST who would combine well with Hugo and Brice and help release Gauthier and Maxime, while using Gauthier up front offered a different, more direct option for Hugo, Brice and Thibault’s passes. The attack was shaping up nicely.

In midfield, Lorenzo and Nicholas would provide the perfect foil for Thibault and Brice, Lorenzo a reliable passer and combative defender, while Nick a versatile player who could add defensive resilience as well as attacking impetus when needed. Meanwhile, Victor would provide cover for Thibault, as well as give us the option of moving to a double pivot, an option I would use frequently throughout the season.

In defence, while departures and Gauthier’s move to attack had officially left the team with no CBs, I could see a very good partnership created by Matthew and Marc. While neither had played CB before, their skillsets worked well with each other, Matthew’s athleticism complementing Marc’s strong positional sense. Both were also strong passers of the ball, key to how I wanted to play. However, both were a risk. For one, neither had played CB consistently before. To add to that, Matthew was returning to football after a long absence and Marc was a year younger and playing not only in a new position but in a new country and with new teammates. As confident as I was in our game model overall, it was clear that our success as a team rested on the ability of Matthew and Marc to turn their potential into real, on-pitch success, and quickly.

There would be small tweaks over the season, most notably on the right hand side, which would evolve to bring out Milan’s attacking ability more, with Maxime/Gauthier at times coming central, Milan overlapping and Brice staying back to provide balance and create from deeper. There would also of course be more tailored game plans to specific opposition, most notably in our final game of the season against Eastside, but for the most part this was the game model we’d play in Year 1.

Creating the game model on paper was one thing, implementing it on the training ground was another thing entirely. While my previous team were used to my style, which rested heavily on clear roles and responsibilities in every phase of the game and lots of unit work to strengthen relationships around the pitch, as well as large practices to coordinate key strategies such as our pressing trap and build up structures, the new group was very much not and early sessions were a challenge. And it wasn’t just approach to training that differed, almost every part of the team underwent a revolution in those early days, including elements as fundamental as team culture, core messages, body language and mentality, changes which certainly did not come naturally at first. But I persevered, knowing the results would come and with them, faith in this new approach.

Becoming winners

And thankfully, they came quickly, with us getting off to a blazing start, racking up three early wins and three clean sheets, including a hard fought first league win featuring a stunning debut goal from Maxime.

Game 4 would bring our first major challenge, one that would provide the belief that would spur us on the rest of the season. We were playing ELA, a local rival and went 2-1 down early. At the start of the 2nd half, after an impassioned regroup, we came out on fire, only to give a a penalty away in the opening minutes against the run of play. Facing a possible 3-1 deficit and the end of our then nascent undefeated run, the stakes were high. But instead of going down further, goalkeeper Moaz made a save, released Aris on the break and we immediately equalised to make it 2-2. With the opposition dejected, we turned on the style, Aris having a breakthrough performance, scoring twice and assisting once to secure a 5-2 comeback win.

Some matches feel special and this was certainly one of them… Although it was early days, it felt like something big was happening.

From a football perspective, this game would bring the single most important shift all season: the debut of the Matthew-Marc CB partnership. In our previous two games, I’d paired Thibault with one of Matthew or Marc, not yet fully confident in their ability to play together. But at half time, in order to move Thibault into midfield, I decided to put Marc on and pair him with Matthew, launching the partnership that would be the foundation for all our success that season.

After that early success, confidence was high and we continued to work hard, further refining our style of play, including implementing a pressing trap that would become our signature move for two years.

By November 1st, we’d racked up two more wins to go 6/6 in our first 6 games, including another comeback victory, this one secured with only 8 minutes left on the clock. However, unfortunately, our time together was about to be heavily disrupted by two lockdowns. The first, one month long, allowed us to come back and play one more game in December before breaking up for the Christmas holidays. The second, announced mere days before we were set to return, would put us out for a further three months and put the completion of the season at serious risk.

Lockdowns meant a return to the dreaded zoom sessions, working hard on our fitness and technical ability within our own homes, unable to meet and practice together. I have a lot of respect for the boys for this period, they continued to attend training (albeit over a screen) and work hard, all without having the certainty that the league would return in time to continue our title challenge.

Finally, on 4th April, nearly 4 months after our last game, we would play our first game of 2021, picking up where we left off with a win motivated as much by the joy of being back playing football as it was by a desire to keep up momentum in the league.

The league had wisely decided to cancel its main cup competition to ensure we’d have time to finish the league campaign and, assuming no more lockdowns, we’d have a chance to see this season to its conclusion.

There would be several epic moments in the remaining 10 games. A tough 1-0 win against Nigel James Academy, including a brilliant assist from Thibault and stunning goal from Mikhail, as well as a last minute penalty save from Harvey to secure the three points. Another 1-0 win against ELA’s 1st team, after a controversial 2-2 draw the previous day against their supposed “third” side saw us drop points for the first (and what would be the last) time that season. And yet another 1-0 win against 4th place Whitestar, with Aris this time providing the winning moment.

This incredible run meant we would enter the final day with a chance to win the league, only 2 points off 1st place Eastside who, as fate would have it, we were scheduled to play on the final day.

I’d been to watch Eastside a few times and was relatively familiar with their style of play. They’d been on an incredible run this season as well, winning every single game and would enter the final day only needing a draw to beat us to the title. That scenario would see us complete an undefeated season but still finish 2nd, a potential nightmare end to what was already by far the most successful season of any RC Lens London team ever in the LYPS. But it was not time to congratulate ourselves or get complacent. We had two weeks before the big game and we knew we’d need to train perfectly to ensure that we finished the job and became the first Lens team to lift the title.

As part of our training, we’d return to Zoom sessions, analysing clips from Eastside’s games and putting together a carefully curated, targeted game plan to limit their biggest strengths while exploiting their few weaknesses. We looked at everything, from specific players, how they looked to created chances, where they looked vulnerable defensively and even which combinations of our attackers would suit which parts of the game best. In the end, I summarised how I felt we’d beat them in the below “cheatsheet.”

On the pitch, we trained hard and had a few good friendlies, namely against Broomwood where we played with 10 and later 9 to prepare in case of a red card, as well as against Nigel James Academy and Crystal Palace who we played back to back with no rest to work on our physical and mental conditioning. All this meant that, when the day finally came, we were ready.

Making History

June 26th 2021. The big day. The final league game, the one that would either secure our status as Champions and Invincibles or see us come close but not close enough.

I had opted to start with Hugo, Aris and Gauthier up front, leaving Maxime to come on around 15/20 minutes in. My thinking was to target their LB who could be quite reactive and would likely decide to stay back with Gauthier running directly at him early. This would deny their LW an overlapping presence to help him attack, as well as open up the distance between their wide players, conditioning the game in our favour and allowing Maxime to come on and use his dribbling ability to isolate the LB in potentially fruitful 1v1s. In midfield, I went with Nicholas, Lorenzo and Thibault, prioritising our pressing game which was going to be key to stopping their midfield from imposing control on the game, something they’d done when I’d watched them play other teams. The idea once again was that, once we’d established some control, Brice would come on and run the game, hopefully unlocking that winning moment. Defensively, our fullbacks would have to play a more conservative role in the opening 20 minutes to control their wingers who always stayed high up the pitch, picking their moments to overlap carefully but prioritising giving us a strong structure.

The plan worked pretty much to perfection, with Gauthier terrorising their LB, almost scoring a goal directly in the opening 5 minutes and Dylan pocketing their main outlet with ease. The midfield worked tirelessly, repeatedly winning the ball high up the pitch, while our CBs were calm in possession and rarely threatened.

20 minutes in, once the game was fully conditioned to our liking, I made the double switch as planned, bringing on both Maxime and Brice, leading to a further increase in the pressure we piled on. We created chance after chance but the goal eluded us.

Chasing lost causes is something I believe in massively as a coach. You have to chase lost causes in life (or what you think is a lost cause) because you never know what it might lead to, ether directly on indirectly. As a player, you have to chase the ball that’s beyond you as you might put the other player under pressure, leading to a turnover. With 20 minutes to go, Nicholas, a player who embodied this mentality, chased down a pass that was well beyond him and in the process won a corner he had no right to win.

We hadn’t scored many corners that year, they certainly weren’t part of our main attacking arsenal. But as it happened, this would be the breakthrough, Hugo pouncing on a poor clearance to send the ball home and give us a 1-0 lead. Probably the messiest goal we’d ever scored but we certainly didn’t care.

As expected, this lead to panic in Eastside, who suddenly had to go from settling for a draw to needing to score in the next 20 minutes to win the title. They launched attack after attack but our defence, so strong for the whole season, held on.

Final whistle.

1-0 RC Lens.

CHAMPIONS.

An incredible season had come to a close in the best possible way. Champions and Invincibles. From barely having a squad at the start of the season, being told to just try our best, competing in a league in which no other RC Lens London team had come close to competing, let alone winning, to lifting the title on that last day, it was a truly special moment and one I will never forget, no less than what this incredible team deserved.

It was now time to celebrate, enjoy our success and rest and recover before the new season, one that would be fundamentally different to the last. While no one had expected us to win this year, we were now considered the team to beat, described as “the best ever” by league secretary Eugene. We’d set incredibly high expectations and with that came pressure. It was time to see what this team was really made of, whether it was a flash in the pan, a moment of temporary brilliance, or whether we truly were the real deal.

Year 2

2021/22 would bring new challenges, starting with building a squad that could handle the new tests this season would bring. I’ve always preferred a small squad to a big one as it allows a coach to prioritise every player, build a tight knit culture and avoid over-competition which can kill a team’s spirit. However, while last year we’d managed to go the entire year with a squad of only 15 players, it was clear this season we’d need more. Not only had we been quite fortunate with injuries last year, we’d also had the benefit of covid cancelling a lot of other commitments, allowing the players to focus more on their football. This year we wouldn’t have that luxury and on top of that, players would now have serious exams to focus on. We’d also be losing Matthew and Marc, the unit that we’d built our team on and replacing them effectively was going to be key if we wanted to continue to be successful.

The players would not be the only ones with additional commitments this season: In September, I would be offered the chance to achieve my dream of working at a professional academy, given the chance to carry out a season-long placement at Watford FC, working across the age groups for the 2021/22 season. While it briefly looked like I might have to leave Lens, Watford and I managed to find a good balance that allowed me to do both (albeit it with pretty much no days off). Still, sacrifices would have to be made and both I and the players would have to find a new model that worked and still allowed us to remain as competitive while meeting our other new commitments.

Trials would last 3 weeks in total, with over 40 players attending at least one training session with the goal of being offered a place in the team, a far cry from the previous year when we barely had enough to play a 5 a side.

In the end, I decided to select 6 new players: While I planned to transition Victor back into a CB role to help replace the out-going Matthew and Marc, I also selected two new CBs: Greg from the existing u18s and Louis who would join a few weeks later. I also selected Mattia, a composed, intelligent midfielder who’d won last season’s U18 POTY, Robert, an athletic, quick, left-footer who’d provide cover for the injured Dylan (out for 6 months from an injury in summer) and Emmanuel, a powerful striker with a different profile to what we already had. I also decided to give a place to Bastien, a midfielder/defender who’d previously been in the squad and had shown great improvement and maturity the previous season playing for the U16s.

While in Year 1 we avoided significant injuries, Year 2 would be the complete opposite, with us facing the biggest injury crisis I’d ever seen. First, Dylan would get himself injured in the summer, putting him out for 6 months in total. The return of rugby meant frequent injuries to Lorenzo, Nick and Aris, including a dislocated shoulder that would twice put Aris out for months on end. A recurring knee problem for Greg, a broken finger for Robert, ankle issues for Brice just to name a few that would plague us over the year. On top fo this, we’d also go from no covid infections the previous season to 8 different players (and eventually me) all testing positive and missing games across the season. While on paper we had a squad of 20, we frequently went into games with barely a full XI, even having to call upon B team players just to get a team on numerous occasions.

A few weeks into the season, Caspar, a hard working, quick attacker who’d been playing for the Bs and who I was a big fan of, asked to trial for the team and I added him to our squad to give us more cover.

Despite these challenges, we continued to win, albeit no longer with the same defensive solidity that had characterised our season last year. While last year we’d kept 11 clean sheets and only conceded 5 league goals and 10 in total all year, this season we’d go behind frequently, requiring comeback victories on no less than 7 occasions in our first 12 games (including all of the first 5 matches).

These challenges brought a change in my coaching. While last season, I did most of my work on the training pitch, mastering our game model which would lead to victories, this season I found myself coaching much more actively on match days, targeting specific weaknesses in the opposition and making more tweaks in-game than I usually would. This was especially vital in the early days when our injury crisis was at its worst, with us barely having enough players at training to do proper sessions, let alone fully implement a game model.

We would also rely much more heavily on moments of individual brilliance, with several incredible assists, goals and penalty saves at key moments to secure wins.

In the end, although not as dominant, this was enough to secure 11 straight wins to see out 2021, meaning we’d complete the achievement of a fully undefeated calendar year. A few weeks earlier, on 14th November 2021, we’d pass one other special landmark, 100 goals scored since I took over the team, with Thibault adding another “Thibault banger” for the all important 100th.

2022

The new year would start with the season’s biggest challenge to date: a final Phase 1 game against Crea8ive but with only 9 players available and all of Gauthier, Hugo, Brice, Aris out, leaving Maxime as the sole attacker in the squad. I promoted two players from the B team, attacker Fadi and midfielder Oscar, for this game, as well as recalled Emmanuel who had been playing with the u16s for the last few weeks.

I set the team up deeper than usual, in a lopsided 1-4-2-3-1, with Maxime playing LW and first Caspar and later Oscar RW, with Thibault ahead of Mattia and Bastien in the double pivot and Fadi and Emmanuel splitting time up front. The idea was by selecting a more hard-working player on the right who’d be instructed to stay more narrow, we could create a 4222 base that would allow us to dominate the centre, as well as to allow Maxime a relatively free role to pick up dangerous positions high up the pitch from where he could score. This would also open space for our right back Milan, who was enjoying a very productive period, to overlap without leaving us exposed.

The plan worked well, delivering a highly impressive 1-0 win reminiscent of our very best professional wins the previous season, where 1-0s had been our speciality. Maxime had one of his best games, scoring the winner as envisioned, while Oscar, Fadi and Caspar all excelled.

With the culmination of Phase 1, it was officially time to start the Super League, a second league that would be made up of only the top 6 finishing teams in Phase 1.

A first win in the Super League, this time against Eagles Academy the following weekend, would see us hit what would be our final tally for undefeated games: 30.

Learning to lose

Unfortunately on January 20th 2022, Covid finally caught up to me and I tested positive, having started to feel quite ill the previous day. This meant I was going to miss my first game that Sunday, against no less than ELA, the team that had finished 2nd to us in Phase 1. This was always going to be a challenge for us, with or without me and unfortunately the timing could not have been worse. And so it was that, on 23rd January 2022, 17 months and over 500 days after I’d started coaching the team, we would lose for the first time, the end of an incredible 30 match undefeated run.

Everyone loses, no one can win forever and I always knew the day would eventually come when we’d have to face this. We’d come close several times, especially in this second season. There had been so many amazing moments, last minute goals, last minute penalty saves, late comebacks… key moments that we overcame to keep the run going, but there was always going to be a day when it wouldn’t be enough.

It is often said that you can learn more in defeat than in victory. Unfortunately, my Covid absence robbed us off the ability to truly learn and move on from from this loss. Not only was I not there to really evaluate it, several players deflected away from the loss, putting it down to a mix of unlucky individual mistakes and my absence. However, the reality was the cracks had been there all season and they would slowly reveal themselves in the coming weeks.

But before we’d have a chance to play together again, there would be a chance to fully celebrate everything we’d achieved to date: the RC Lens London Gala, which as fate would have it was to be held on the following week after our first loss. Thankfully, I recovered in time to attend it, an amazing night where I was awarded Coach of the Season and my players were celebrated, finally given the credit and jubilation they deserved.

My first game back from illness would see us secure an impressive 4-1 win against Creative, further entrenching the idea that the first loss was due to my absence.

But one game later we would lose again, this time to Priory Park, a team we’d expect to beat and who we’d already beaten 5-2 earlier in the season. I struggled in this game, feeling long term effects from my Covid infection and could not find a solution from the bench or support the boys as much as I normally would. Looking back at the game, we didn’t play poorly by any means, the opposition scoring from their only two chances all game and us failing to convert a massive succession of chances. There was a temptation to put that loss down to bad luck, instead of truly looking at ourselves and what we could do better.

However, the cracks in our game model would be exploited mercilessly the following weekend where we’d lose again, a disastrous 3-1 loss to eventual champions ELA, conceding 3 goals in transition in the opening 10 minutes, all but ending our hopes of lifting the Super League title. 3 losses in 4 games, it was clear we could no longer ignore it, the system was broken and needed fixing.

It had been clear to me for some time that the change in profile of defender this year compared to last season was creating issues in our game plan. While Matthew and Marc were both well suited to a back 4, playing conservatively and prioritising their positioning, Greg and Victor both preferred to play more aggressively, pulling wide and pushing up, roles more suited to wide CBs in a back 3 than CBs in a back 4. While Louis excelled in both systems, when he was absent (as he was for the first 15 minutes of the ELA game, having arrived late), we looked far too open on transition.

I’d briefly considered using a back 3 at the start of the season, but had decided against it, preferring to maintain the same units we’d worked on all of last year in our 1-4-3-3, believing I could gradually improve the new pairing in training. The fact we continued to win helped mask the systematic weaknesses.

But after this game, enough was enough. While we’d won Phase 1, we were going to need a more secure game model in the Super League. We couldn’t continue to rely on individual brilliance or proactive coaching from the bench to win every game.

And so I decided to move away from the back 4, opting for a 1-3-4-3, with Louis in the middle and Greg and Victor or Bastien on either side at the back. Not only would this make it easier for us to maintain compactness in the back line and to sustain the one-extra rule, it was also a more specialised system, which would require less training to implement and a more natural fit for our new defenders. We could also keep our basic positional play structure in attack, with Hugo and Brice creating centrally, width on both sides and a strong 3-2 base to prevent counter-attacks. We would have space for one less attacker in the starting line up, but this was a necessary price to pay to stem the fragility in our set up and save our season.

This experience is one of the biggest lessons I’ve had as a coach: You have to be proactive with your evolution. A good coach changes when it becomes clear that things aren’t working, a great coach anticipates problems and makes the change before the issues fully emerge. While it would have looked like a risk to change our game model that had delivered an undefeated season and was continuing to win, the loss of our defensive solidity should have been enough to make the change early, especially as the causes were clear very early. While I had lost two CBs who fit my preferred system more naturally, I’d gained two others who brought their own skillset and abilities and I should have tweaked the system earlier to bring our their strengths and limit their weaknesses, especially considering how disrupted our training was due to injuries.

A new era

Our first game using the back 3, a third against Creative and second in the Super League, saw one of our most dominant performances to date and a return to winning, with both Greg and Victor excelling in their new roles and our attack creating and scoring more chances than in our previous games. Although we conceded three, two were from set-pieces and the last from a momentary lapse of concentration, as opposed to due to systemic weaknesses like the goals we’d conceded in our two previous losses and frequently throughout the season.

This was to be the start of another mini undefeated run, with 5 wins and 1 draw to see out the second half of the Super League and secure 3rd place, 1 point behind 2nd place. We also qualified for the Final of the League Cup (thanks to our 11 wins in Phase 1) and the Final of the Super Cup (a mini competition played by the top 3 in the Super League and the winner of the 2nd division), two competitions we couldn’t play in last year due to Covid.

The timing of these competitions was not great, coming right after half term when we wouldn’t have trained together for two weeks. The league also decided to schedule our semi final for the Super Cup on the same weekend as our final for the League Cup, less than 24 hours apart. While last year we’d had the luxury of two weeks to prepare for one game, we’d now have only two sessions to prepare for two games in two days.

First up, the semi final against old foes Kentish Town and yet another comeback victory. Despite starting on top, we conceded a freak goal 50 minutes in. Five minutes later, we’d equalised through Gauthier, hitting his 27th goal of an incredible individual season. Full time meant penalties and big Harvey came up clutch, making three massive saves to complement clinical finishes from Hugo and Aris, to see us win.

After such a mentally and physically draining match, it was going to take a Herculean effort to play a final the following day, this time against a heavily strengthened Creative Academy. To make matters worse, we conceded very early from an unfortunate own goal at a corner, giving our opposition lots of confidence that this would be the easy win everyone was predicting.

I count this weekend and this match as one of my proudest moments as coach of this team. Despite running nearly on empty and reeling from the early sucker punch, the boys summoned an incredible effort in the 2nd half to launch attack after attack, eventually culminating in an equalising goal, one showcasing many of our best bits: A perfectly executed pressing trap, finding Hugo early in the left half space, a perfect outside of the boot through ball to find a perfectly timed blind side run from Gauthier, who slotted home his 28th goal of the season.

At the end of normal time, it was 1-1. For some reason, the league decided to do extra time this game, a ridiculous rule change decision having gone straight to penalties the previous game and knowing we were shattered after having been made to play the previous day. While we held on as best as we could, an incredible long range effort would give Creative their winner deep in extra time.

There would be no fairytale ending the following weekend, with us succumbing to a 1-0 defeat to ELA in the final of the Super Cup. A disrupted training week, including a serious injury at the end of our last training session, as well as the fatigue of playing 3 massive games in only 8 days right after half term and in the middle of exams, are all fair considerations and I’m not disappointed in the players. Instead, I think they should be cheered on and celebrated for coming this close to an unlikely cup double to add to the Phase 1 League title we won in December. Perhaps with different situations, we would have had the fairytale ending we wanted, but it takes nothing away from an incredible effort from the boys all season.

Reflection

Reflecting on the whole two years, it’s been a truly incredible ride. So many goals (174 in total!), so many special moments, so many memories that will last forever. A team and coach that seemed a poor fit, going on to achieve truly great things. Expectations set impossibly high in Year 1, yet matched with another great run in Year 2. Players in, players out, but all the time a unique, unbreakable team spirit.

Though we won two league titles, a full league title in 2020/21 and a Phase 1 title in 2021/22, reached two cup finals and went on a 30 match undefeated spell, those aren’t the things that make me proudest. The thing that does, that I’ll always cherish above all else, is the improvement in my players, both on and off the pitch. Gauthier becoming the elite striker and “monster” I always envisioned, winning the Golden Boot with 28 goals. Brice finally becoming the player he always threatened to be, creative AND effective, a true match winner. Harvey, going from being a liability and someone I’d been advised to replace, to the best goalkeeper the club’s ever had. Every single player has improved, some drastically so, and that above all else, makes me view this period as a massive success.

Moving on

Now, it’s time for a new adventure. To truly make this next step into professional football and continue to pursue my long term goals. While it didn’t come about the way I thought it would, the delay ended up giving me the gift of being able to coach this team and have these memories, ones I would not have had if my career had progressed how I thought it would back in 2020, and for that I will always be thankful.

And so, once again, my mum turns out to be right. Life really does lead you to where you’re supposed to be. Just have faith and keep going.

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