Four in the afternoon, late in November, 2019.
Scene: Grigor Pasha’s apartment, Mykolaiv, Ukraine. Pasha is sitting in an arm chair, with a black coffee and a pensive look. He looks so much older. He is preparing his pipe, which he has recently taken to smoking again.
Well, let’s be honest. I’m not in a good place, am I?
I remember when I arrived in Mykolaiv, back in the summer. I knew the city a little from my days in the merchant navy, but had never lived here. I instantly took a liking to living here.
The air from the estuary of the unfortunately-named Southern Bug. The parks; the tree-lined streets; the wide avenues.
And there was music in Kashtanovy Square, all through the evening.
But nobody loiters outside now. Here in the south, next to the estuary, temperature don’t tumble as far as in the north of the country. But each day now it’s around zero. The city centre’s come to feel a little soulless. But that may just be me.
I started here with a spring in my step, like a man say a third of a century younger than I actually am. Full of confidence, I was.
Late August found us comfortable in the league, picking up points in the league (though some of those draws should have been wins) and through to the first round proper of the cup.
But then two points in eight games. That must be some kind of record.
If we hadn’t won our final match before the winter break, I’d be out of a job. I’m certain of that: they hadn’t spelt it out, but the frosty tone in the second of my meetings with the board conveyed the sense there wouldn’t be a third.
So [begins to light the tobacco] where did it all go wrong?
First, let’s face up to the fact: I fell asleep at the wheel. Yes, my enemy was sleeping. Our good start, like the estuary air, made me relax too much.
We weren’t getting hammered, you see. Margins were narrow, just the odd goal here and there. And the lads kept scrapping.
We’ll turn this round, I thought. We just need a little luck.
But what I got was not luck. What I got was individual errors — penalties conceded, chances spurned, offsides when we could have stayed onside and still converted.
One of the symptoms of my inattention was tactical inertia. ‘No, we don’t need to change the tactics: the problem isn’t the tactics, it’s the errors.’
Thank goodness that belatedly, when it was almost too late, we switched to the narrow 4-3-3. Mykolaiv’s full of parks, so why not play park football?
It was true that the new tactic didn’t eliminate individual errors. But it did help to compensate for them.
So the inattention, and the tactical inertia, was a problem. But so too was the quality of the playing staff. Especially mentally.
They do have one great quality: determination. Without that, I’d be unemployed by now. And I’ll claim a share of the credit for that determination: it was a distinct aim of my decisions in terms of squad building and player selection. So credit where credit’s due, I say.
But, apart from determination, mentally we’re weak. To put it simply: the squad’s not that bright. Anticipation, flair, leadership, positioning, vision? No, mate, not in Mykolaiv!
We’re also noticeably weak in stamina, which helps to explain why we don’t seem to be able to see games out. In the pre-resumption training we’ll do plenty of endurance training, of course. But though I’m a good fitness coach — no, I really am — I’m not that good. Nobody is.
We might not have much money, but we’re going to have to acquire some talent from somewhere.
It’s nearly four months to the next competitive fixture. That’s an agonising thought: when we restart, we have some challenging fixtures. Notably one against Rukh Lviv.
I reckon that could be my last.
So I could be sitting it out here all through the winter, just to get ejected before the trees in Central Avenue reveal any signs of spring.
Still, let’s have some fun. We’re going to organise two cup competitions — the Black Sea Trophy and the Black Sea Plate. The teams will be mixed, so I’ll be disappointed if we don’t win at least a couple of games. A chance for our forwards to get their shooting boots on.
This baccy isn’t bad. ‘Turkish tobacco’ they call it, though it’s actually grown in Bulgaria. The obvious leaf for me.