There had been a great sense of anticipation in Shanghai for the past couple of weeks. The build-up to this fixture had been fraught with controversial and highly illogical format suggestions.
The Marlins – who were looking to win their first league in three years – were determined to be the ones celebrating after the final whistle, having too often witnessed opponents Lions enjoy their success.
To quash rumours that he’s all talk and no saag, James Moss enjoyed a pre-match spinach-based dish at manager Carl Edwards’ gaff. The hope was that he’d get the sort of energy boost that’s normally limited to Popeye.
A proper squad of players rolled up to the Jinqiao pitch knowing that if they avoided defeat, they’d be crowned champions of the Shanghai Premier League and there wouldn’t be any extra-time or penalties in sight.
Edwards had his plan for the team, who was going to come in where and what responsibilities each role possessed. There was never any mention of playing for the draw but there was plenty of reiteration that the team should be disciplined and controlled in its approach.
A final reminder during the huddle before kick-off and the Boys in Blue were ready to add another star to their shirts.
Unlike the previous game against Lions, the game was tight and tentative as both sides felt their way into proceedings. Shanghai Marlins tried to keep the ball and pick off any gaps while the Lions searched for their pacey winger at every opportunity.
Despite little action at both ends, the deadlock was broken by the same man who opened the season’s scoring for Shanghai Marlins. Harry Swain was quick to capitalise on a goalkeeper mistake as he slammed home a side-foot volley that even beat the defender’s attempt at a save. He started the season with a blister and finished it with a net buster!
One-nil to the Marlins after just a quarter of an hour.
The Lions pushed for an equaliser but were constantly thwarted by some dogged defending. Jon Heaney and Karlton Watson were making recovery tackles, blocking shots and heading clearances as they stood tall to everything that was thrown at them.
At the other end, Pete Rosselli nearly repeated what Swainy did but the goalkeeper managed to recover from his error at the second time of asking.
Mossy had a fierce free-kick parried wide for a corner with the game in the balance as half-time approached.
Edwards brought off Rosselli for a much-needed rest, replacing him with Dale Johnson who’s normally seen between the sticks or in a ring (boxing). But the Scunthorpe supporter also has previously produced as an outfield player against Lions, famously scoring a consolation goal that would go on to be the most repeated and over embellished tale in Marlins history.
Manager Edwards told the part-time custodian that he would get an opportunity at some point during the game. That prediction proved to be reality as the Lions centre-back missed the impressive Toby Rossiter’s pass and allowed Johnson through on goal.
All subs and supporters on the sideline rose in anticipation as Johnson took a purposefully heavy touch to lure the keeper out of position. As his teammates got excited, Johnson got cooler. He slid in to provide a caressed finish into the bottom left corner to double the Marlins lead and trigger jubilant celebrations!
Subs were running down the line, Mossy had to restrain himself from kissing Johnson, Edwards leapt into Adam Christy’s arms and the Lions were rubbing their eyes.
In just a couple of minutes, Johnson had made a huge impact on the game and destination of the title. Half-time came soon after with Shanghai Marlins two-goals to the good and in a similar position as the Lions were 12-months earlier.
Half-time allowed the team to refuel and discuss areas where they can improve both individually and collectively. Edwards then brought the guys in for a trademark team talk as he provided advice in terms that even Mossy and Swainy understood. The focus was the clean sheet, the goals at the other end would take care of themselves.
The second period begun with the Lions a little more open as they searched for a quick reply to gain early momentum. That didn’t arrive until a long-range shot was saved by Max Baier and their left-winger was first to the rebound, smashing it into the roof of the net just before the hour mark.
To Shanghai Marlins’ credit, they didn’t lose their heads and could/should have restored their two-goal cushion soon afterwards.
Rosselli received the ball from the energetic Matty McColl near the edge of the box and the forward drilled beyond the keeper only to be denied by a debatable offside flag.
Despite needing to get the win, the Lions didn’t create any clear-cut chances of note. Karlton Watson probably came closer to scoring than most of the opposition with a dubious backpass which was dealt with expertly by Baier. Watson’s namesake, Dave was in fine-form at left-back as he showed his typical aggression and spirit that had been absent too often this season.
As the game approached the 70th minute, the Marlins did eventually restore their cushion thanks to some great play by goal scorer Steve Fong.
Fafa chipped a ball to Mitch Matthews who managed to draw in two defenders and flick a header into the left-channel for the onrushing Fong. He drove with the ball towards goal before providing a composed left-foot finish into the far corner.
At 3-1, the Lions had a mountain to climb but to be fair to them, they never gave up. Their persistence was rewarded with around 10 minutes remaining as their centre-back headed in a corner at the far-post.
Shanghai Marlins dug deeper than they had all season as every player ran that extra yard, leapt that extra inch and made that extra challenge. The final whistle couldn’t come soon enough but on two occasions those in blue nearly got a fourth on the break with minutes to go through Fafa and captain Jamie Lally.
Eventually, referee Kevin Doherty blew his whistle to trigger jubilant scenes for everyone associated with the Marlins.
Joyous children invaded the pitch while grown men hugged like never before. The Marlins had won only their second league title which for many of the squad was their first. The nearlys, almosts and if onlys from previous seasons were quickly forgotten as the players gathered for an elated rendition of ‘campeones’ with Lally raising the trophy towards the Shanghai sky!
The team posed for countless photos before Rosselli was awarded the top scorer trophy for his 21 strikes in 12 games. An impossible achievement without a great group of patient teammates who provided the chances through quality passes or crosses, especially when you consider that the Peter Crouch wannabe isn’t particularly strong, quick, or good in the air despite his height. But give him a chance from six-yards and he’ll eat it like a passenger on a bus in Doncaster.
Players took longer than usual to get dressed as they took turns posing for a photo with the trophy. They then headed to sponsors Blue Marlin for what was always going to be a long and noisy evening of celebrations.
Men of the Match:
Karlton Watson – A physically dominant performance which included some questionable passes to his keeper, a Sadio Mane high-foot impersonation all of which was achieved while nursing a booboo elbow. Solid both in midfield and defence, Shanghai Marlins closest thing to a Love Island contestant – mixed race, well-built, covered in tattoos, opinionated, ex-pro athlete and loves a shag – gave the Lions forwards no love, particularly during one fantastic recovery challenge. Well done, he’s 15.
Jon Heaney – The game face of all game faces. Focused on his responsibility and more disciplined than ever before, which meant no Gerard Pique ventures up field. Had a pocket big enough for a pacey, moody teenager and was colossal throughout. Headed everything from a cross to a brick. And when the Marlins win the league we’ll sing this song all night…
Back at Blue Marlin there was champagne and tables full of beer awaiting the league winners.
Edwards delivered a fine speech that he claimed was shot from the hip but sounded like it was planned as much as his tactics. #natural.
Ash Smith proved he’s a proper Marlin as he arrived straight from the airport, suitcase and all, to join in with the celebrations which he had a massive part in throughout the season!
Mossy pulled out his speaker much to the delight of many and so the party got going. Cool for Cats, Wonderwall, We are the Champions, Vinda…sorry Saag-aloo, and Freed from Desire were just a few of the tunes being murdered by some exuberant league winners who did not give a rat’s ass. Rat ‘em boys, rat ‘em!
The trophy rightly had its basketball player removed and its hole sealed – something a certain South Korean could have only wished for – as the Blue Marlin staff filled the tin pot jug ears with Long Islands for all to share.
Heaney proved himself to be the competitive sufferer of peer pressure we all knew he was when Rosselli told him he could leg press just as much as him. Apparently up north or wherever he claims his roots are (Belgravia Clinic probably), that means grabbing the nearest Madagascan and putting him on your shoulders for some squats. The melt. Naturally, a stone-cold sober Rosselli declined the pissing contest because no one cares and Fafa’s not a toy.
Swainy and Mossy disappeared for a considerable amount of time and the quality of conversation improved. Their return however was met with sheer delight and confusion when everyone realized they had taken a 3L beer dispenser and filled it with 2L of saag from the Indian restaurant across the road. Think it’s safe to say no team has ever celebrated a win with saag on tap, not even the Indians.
Super Jack Sanders had kept his summer departure quiet but once that little secret was out – and the information about Jack going back to England – it was inevitable he would be one of the night’s stars.
For a Science nerd, Sanders had an alarming amount of confidence in the glass tables and their ability to withstand even his weight. He did eventually agree to stand on a chair but then he had to wait for Karlton to eventually finish his speech.
For those who weren’t present or momentarily switched off for 10-minutes, it went a little something like this:
“I’ve played with players earning £40k a week and I’ve been in pro teams, but I’ve never been in a team where I know every player on the pitch will run for his teammate. When push comes to shove, you all stand up and take responsibility. When push comes to shove (*scans pointed finger across audience which included a confused Leander*) you all stand up. The first few months of my time in Shanghai was shit because I kept meeting frigid lesbians and none of them sacrificed two-fifths of their salary for therapy. But then I joined the Marlins, albeit belatedly because Dale’s a proper knob. After joining this team, I’ve loved being in Shanghai and I’ve rediscovered what I missed most about playing football, and that’s the team comradery you get with the boys! Because when push comes to shove (he really enjoyed saying this), you all ran and fought for one another. The Gaffer was on point today, even though he’s American, he spoke complete sense and is way overqualified for this level but what a guy! And Gino’s legs are stronger than Jon’s.” Writer’s rights.
This monologue was delivered in several ways yet all essentially the same and all delaying Jack’s speech which started with, “Well, what can I say?” before a pause long enough to turn it from a rhetorical question to an actual one. We’re still not sure if that was intentional.
A variety of football chants and songs later, the sky got darker but Jack’s antics lit up the evening.
Jack seemed to enjoy walking on things that are designed for bums or beers as he wandered around the perimeter of the outdoor area at Blue Marlin. But having reached the opposing end from the majority of the group, his balance went all Ashley Young on an icy lake and suddenly he wobbled, flying backwards into the bush.
Little Jacky walked near a wall
Little Jacky had a great fall
Despite the dangers the Marlins just laughed
As the Tory Bastard laid on his arse
Jack was ok, just. He had Karlton’s red hat which softened the fall along with the bamboo trees. He did come out with a number of ants in his pants which basically meant he started dancing like Mossy.
DJ Lally took charge of the music as random outbursts of chants that the Marlins had won the league took the night on the sort of rollercoaster everyone could get on board with. Those outbursts proved to be a few too many for some grumpy neighbours who called the police to make a noise complaint. At that point, the party moved inside.
Jack took to marching around the pool table with the trophy on his head and doing a chant that had everyone on the edge of their seat. Karlton was amongst that group but he quickly found a way to fall off it.
Karlton’s pissed and sat on a stool
His ego couldn’t soften the fall
He’d swear and argue with all of the men
With no push or shove he did it again
Annoyed that Karlton wasn’t participating fully in Jack’s drawn out chant, the Tory Bastard decided to create a David vs Goliath moment by blindsiding Karlton with a rugby tackle.
Once Karlton had got out of the barstool and table wedge he found himself in, he looked at Jack and then looked at everyone else and said, “I can either punch him, or hug him.” Fortunately for Jack, Karlton chose the former in what is one of the stranger bromances to ever form under the Marlins roof.
But Jack definitely gets away with murder due to his size and mild manner when sober. In the 18-months he’s been in Shanghai, he’s dropped a grenade in a night club and triggered a brawl. He’s told a kind and generous former England international that he’s a Tory Bastard and not his cup of tea. And now he’s driven a teammate into some furniture like a Bull on steroids in Pamplona. Oh, and like Karlton, he also fell off his stool which is a bigger deal purely because of perspective.
Naturally, there was still a moment where Heaney was sat on the pool table playing a ukulele; Lally, Rossiter and Swainy were singing “You’ll never win f**k all”; Mossy gave his favourite lights a swinging tap; Karlton strolled in to be welcomed with a song, shoved onto the pool table and provide us all with an involuntary moony thanks to the deliriously happy Mossy; and during all of this, the Gaffer watched on with his Californian smile thinking, “These are my boys!”
Eventually, his boys were rightly ushered out of the Blue Marlin and into taxis. Somehow, Rosselli got stitched up with Jacky Karlton (it’s as if it was meant to be), the two people most capable of falling out of the bloody car. Instead, Karlton managed to fall into a deep sleep that meant a minute’s worth of vigorous shaking by Jack produced no response. For Rosselli, this felt like an hour at nearly 2:00 a.m.
Heading back with the trophy for one night only, the Suzhou boys couldn’t help but inform their driver, “F**k the Lions”. He and many other confused Chinese people will be all too familiar with that phrase but at least it’s a fact!
These celebrations were unsurprisingly eventful, but something tells me the open top bus parade around one of the most developed and populated cities in the world is going to be on a different scale. This must be a first for an amateur football team so let’s make it a memorable one. And by that, I mean, please no one die!!!
I’d just like to add a final note of thanks to everyone who played their part in another successful Shanghai Marlins season both on and off the pitch, particularly the efforts of Adam and Carl. Whether you were here seven-plus years ago or have just joined the side for the last few games, you’re very much part of this success and the Marlins community. It’s a tight group that looks after one another, particularly when push comes to shove.
Being an expat tends to mean friendships are formed faster and serve a greater purpose as they help fill the absence of family. Having a team that’s willing to ruin their Monday mornings, travel long distances and find repeated humour in an Indian dish, makes winning this league even sweeter.
We didn’t need a trophy to tell us how great a team we are, but we’ll bloody take it, and we’ll have next year’s one as well! Go on the lads!