Spanish challenge gets in the way of Man City-Liverpool final showdown
DUBAI: Time is running out and a fifth, sixth and seventh goal is needed.
They would happen, amazingly, because that’s what footballing miracles are made of.
But we jump ahead.
It has been a good season for Arab owners of English football clubs.
Manchester City are on the verge of retaining their Premier League title. Newcastle United have pulled off a record escape from relegation and are eyeing a bright future. And Wigan were promoted to the Championship.
But for sheer drama, none of these stories can quite rival that of Bristol Rovers, owned by Jordanian businessman Wael Al-Qadi.
At one point, the club were second-bottom in League Two, 91st out of 92 clubs in the English football pyramid. To say that promotion to Ligue 1 was against all odds would barely scratch the surface of the events of the season.
“It was one of the craziest and most demanding seasons, really tiring because we went through everything, from the lowest to the highest,” Al-Qadi said. “In a normal season, I’m here 50% of the time, I attend 50% of the games, but this season, because of what was happening, the upheaval of the club, the background, I was here a lot more And as a result, negativity and stress and a lot of issues arose within the club, and around the club there was pressure on me to get rid of the manager (Joey Barton) It was basically a revolt from within the club to change things.
Difficult decisions had to be made, ones that were dramatically justified.
“I stayed with him and as a result I cleaned up the club, everyone was kicked out and I appointed the new CEO (Tom Gorringe) who was with us as commercial director, he’s became the youngest CEO in English football.Sweeping changes across the club, in all departments, have brought in young, dynamic new people.
“The combination of Tom, Joe and I weathered the storm, and the results started to happen,” he added. “It went from being a dark, totally negative place to a run of success that was fantastic. The quality of the football played, the goals, the fairy tale wins, going 3-1 down with 18 minutes left to win 4-3 in the 95th minute, stuff like that. It’s just amazing.
“And then the last game of the season, ‘the miracle’ as I call it, a miracle of football, to witness it was just amazing. And then what happened after the celebrations. The whole city , not only that night, for days and weeks they still talk about it and it will go down in club folklore as one of the greatest achievements of all time.
On May 7, 2022, Bristol Rovers take on Scunthorpe United at Memorial Stadium with an automatic League One place on the line. But they trail Northampton Town, second in League Two and playing Barrow, on goal difference.
“Coming into the game it was (automatic promotion) unlikely, first we had to win by five goals just to catch up and hope at the same time, if we didn’t do that hopefully we win and Northampton will match draw or lose,” Al-Qadi said.
“So I asked the manager, ‘Are we going? And he was like, hell yeah. So I knew we were going to attack and go for goal difference because we don’t rely on other teams to do us a favor. So the formation was totally attacking, we put in wingers who are actually wingers, we changed the line down to nine attackers and only two defenders and I knew we were going to go for it.
What happened next defied all footballing logic.
“So we started well but then the news leaked out, 1-0 Northampton, then 2-0 Northampton, then 3-0 Northampton, so you’re a bit deflated, and you start thinking, okay, at least we “We’re in the playoffs, it’s not the end of the world. And then we scored a goal, and we scored another goal. And Barrow scored the goal. That’s three goals erased from an eight-goal deficit.
“So at half-time there were five left, and honestly I thought it was doable because I know we’re going to push hard. I know we’re one of the fittest teams in the game. league I know a lot of our goals come in the last 15 minutes so it was just me expecting the next goal to come in
“And then after that went in, I was like, okay, when is the fourth going to come in? And then, okay, when does the fifth come? Then the sixth goal (in the 79th minute). And then when the seventh goal came in (85), I completely lost it. It was, it was just amazing.
After achieving the impossible, there was a brief, but terrifying, worry that it might all be in vain as supporters flooded the pitch before its conclusion, with the referee taking the players to the dressing rooms for 15 minutes.
“We were under the whim of this referee,” Al-Qadi said. “His decision could cost us, essentially, a promotion. So I went down to the pitch and addressed the crowd: ‘Please don’t come onto the pitch’ because that referee might abandon the game again.”
After Barton also addressed the crowd, the match was over and the celebrations could begin again.
Nor was Al-Qadi’s faith in his players to deliver the result based on blind optimism. Increasingly throughout the season, the team had shown an ability to score decisive goals very late, a legacy of their better physical form.
“When Joe arrived he realized that we were way behind the standards in fitness, sports science and nutrition,” he said. “So he did a complete overhaul of that department and he brought in people he knows and trusts and who he had worked with before. For example, we had Premier League Burnley’s Tom Short, ‘Shorty’. He had groomed Joe when he was a player at Burnley and got him back into shape, so he knows his abilities.
Al-Qadi calls Short and the entire back office staff “unsung heroes” for their role in the promotion.
“Joe has built a super fit team that lasts beyond 90 minutes, you can see that throughout the season, where other teams give up around the 75th minute, and we keep going. We’re more fit, we are stronger and the results speak for themselves.
A week before being promoted, Bristol Rovers had pulled off another miracle at Rochdale. Losing 3-2 in stoppage time, Barton’s side managed to turn a near defeat into a 4-3 win, a game Al-Qadi watched with the traveling audience.
“It’s just crazy, I wanted to get on the pitch,” Al-Qadi said. “What a day. We had to win to keep up with everyone at some point, we win, we lose, we were out of the playoffs. Imagine we were down 3-1 with 18 minutes to go, we were out of the playoffs. Even in the 90th minute we’re down 3-2, two outs, then all of a sudden we’re in and then the next week we’re promoted. It’s crazy.”
Rovers took over 2,000 fans to Rochdale and Al-Qadi’s presence in the stands was proof that six years after taking over the club he is as much a fan as an owner.
“You have to take advantage of it,” he said. “You have to do it because there’s so much stress and anger and you know, falling out with people and people don’t see it, it’s not just watching a football game and enjoy it. So I guess it’s like a balance with all the joy that you get. It balances out all the other negative things that you have to deal with, and we’ve dealt with, and how crazy the season has been.
Without the stress of a playoff to fear, Bristol Rovers fans have been wallowing in joy at the ‘miracle’ and the chairman is enjoying the ride even as, behind the scenes, preparations for League 1 are already underway.
“You should see the fans. I mean, my God, stories of lost people, dear ones, they bring their photos of loved ones to the game. And after the promotion, they just put that photo on and took a souvenir photo for them. It’s made for them. It’s so many stories, you know, it’s just amazing. I met a guy who came from Australia just for this game. And I was so relieved for him, because imagine if we didn’t make it.
“And another guy from Canada,” he added. “I was picking up my son from the airport in the morning. He came from the United States and I was stopped by the flight attendant who recognized me, (he) came over and said, ‘I just arrived from Ireland. I’m going to go change and go to the game. It’s just great stories.
“They are over the moon, they are just very happy,” Al-Qadi said. “They love the football we’re playing at the moment. They say it’s the best football they’ve ever seen. It’s really satisfying to hear that.