It is May 21, 2008. The mastery of English Football had made its way to the land of the Tsars. It was a huge night for the meagre club amongst the two who had reached the pinnacle of European football for the very first time in the history- a feat their owner, a Russian mogul was somewhat obsessed with. The other club had been there, done that and were only looking to add on.
There was pressure. It was colossal- the sort of pressure you wouldn’t remotely want in your day to day engagements. So after a Ronaldo goal, several bust ups, a customary Lampard goal and a Drogba red card, the game went into penalties.
It all went well until Cristiano Ronaldo missed his- the third in the sequence. It sparked loud cheers. Cheers that later led to jeers for the self obsessed Portuguese who had had a fine ride up until that point.
The kicks that followed were expertly taken albeit Van der Sar coming close a few times. The final kick in the 5 kick sequence dawned and the onus lied on Captain John Terry to send the Rent Boys to the Promise land.
We all know what happened next from the run-up to the slip and to the ball effectively clipping the side of the post before going wide. It typified how beautiful brutality in football can be. And who was the man at the helm during this period of heartbreak? Avram Grant.
Grant, a close associate of Roman Abramovich took over the reins when Jose Mourinho was sacked in 2007 and when many believed he wouldn’t necessarily do much for the club, he reached unchartered waters- The UEFA Champions league final- although tipped as favourites, he lost it to Sir Alex Ferguson.
The depressing look on his face told of a man who was secretly telling himself “NOT AGAIN”. Grant’s nearly status had reached a point where it was almost impossible to forget or forgive. In a land of “nearly men” coaches, Avram will be prince of the principality.
After that loss, he was fired and off he packed his bags and went South to the Fratton park where the ever loving Portsmouth fans had opened wide arms to welcome him. In the eyes of the Portsmouth’s devoted fans, Grant’s talents of leadership rivaled those of world leaders who contributed their quota to attain world peace.
He had acquired the most peculiar cult of personality. The Israeli took them all the way to the FA Cup final- Portsmouth’s second in three years. He lost 1-0 to his former employers- a 59th minute Drogba goal. He was still loved all through the south for how he had made the small club dream.
Grant was appointed as coach of Ghana in December 2014 and tasked to get the Black Stars back to the level everyone knew of them before the 2014 World Cup fiasco. The impending Cup of Nations in 2015 wasn’t his main priority. Although losing his first game against Senegal at Africa’s flagship soccer event, the former West Ham manager took Ghana to the final of the tournament- a first since 2010. The whole of Ghana sat through a painful final, hitting the post twice from Christian Atsu and Andre Ayew.
120 minutes passed and it was time for the dreaded lurgy: penalty kicks. A stage not many Ghanaians love to reach, a stage Ghana has not particularly performed well. And here we were with Grant as manager… Although we started on a good note, misses from Acheampong and Afriyie Acquah set the country back to square one.
We blew an advantage. We had bottled it again. It was another final appearance of despair. Ghanaians were nursing heartbreak wounds again from losing in another final. The tears of the older Ayew were unbearable. Photos of Asamoah Gyan commiserating his deputy became a notable trademark of the Black Stars in 2015.
Then again, as Grant has seldom tired of saying in his grim days of administration: “Football is all about love”. It is all about the love he feels from the supporters grateful for his revival of a lost commodity in the Black Stars: Unity. As he has said many times, “I love it here in Africa. I want to be here. Coaching here is good for me and I want to win with Ghana”. Ghanaians can only hope his “nearly” status ends at this tournament- the 2017 Cup of Nations.
What Ghanaians want from Grant at AFCON 2017.
It is just one thing, the trophy. Many Ghanaians of the present generation have never seen the Black Stars lift a major trophy. Although we have been given some spectacular performances like playing the World Cup and reaching the quarters for the first time in South Africa, many want to see a trophy. The Black Stars have lost the love of the fans mainly after the Brazil fiasco and it will only take a trophy win to restore their pride and fandom.
Grant might have had his problems but he has his moments. The jury is out to judge him this time and he has no reason to fail. He has picked players he can trust- an eclectic mix of the young and old. He has come under intense scrutiny for leaving out Majeed Waris and Raphael Dwamena who have both scored about 30 goals between them and has in effect gone for Bernard Tekpetey who has played just twice for Schalke this season. A young boy many have not seen but Grant won’t stop waxing lyrical about.
Grant’s journey begins today and whether it will be successful or not will depend on him. He is quietly optimistic, he is brimming with confidence and maybe, just maybe this could be his purple patch.
Winning the trophy will be a tall order knowing we have nearly man Grant at the helm. But if the Ranieri story is anything to go by, it is that as some point things work out and hopefully on the 5th of February, the Israeli can finally scream DILLY DING – DILLY DONG.