Bruce Djite received the ball, turned his man and fired an unstoppable left-footed shot past Sydney FC keeper Vedran Janjetovic to secure three crucial points. The crowd went wild, as did the players. Then the coach joined in the celebrations. Josep Gombau’s sprint down the touchline was more than a reflection of the importance of the match, it was a statement.
Gombau sees these players at Adelaide United as more than just a playing group, he values them as family members. The Spaniard explained this when asked about his celebration following Djite’s late strike.
“I want to celebrate with my players because we are very close…We are a family…I am their coach but we are very close,” Gombau stated in his post match press conference.
“One day they come to me to celebrate, and today I go to them to celebrate because I want to share this important moment.
“I don’t do this every day but today, for me it was a special day, this was a crucial moment, a difficult win and I want to share with my players.”
This team spirit and the resolve that comes from that spirit has been developed over a season of ups and downs, as well as media spats and transfer requests. All these factors have come together to create a squad that’s full of belief and will go the extra mile for each other, something that could make the difference in the final weeks of the season.
Gombau’s now famous (or infamous in the eyes of some) disagreement with a local journalist who had been particularly harsh in his criticism of the side galvanised the players, and defender Nigel Boogaard echoed this when speaking to the media in early March.
“We believed as a group in what the coach was trying to achieve and the direction in which the club was heading, and we knew if we trusted him and trusted each other we would be able to make progress…I think that has brought us together more.”
When asked if it was the closest he had seen the squad since joining the club in late 2009, Boogaard replied:
“Definitely…It is a very tight group here. We’re willing to do anything for each other, on the park and off the park, and I think that comes through in the results.”
Adelaide keeper and skipper Eugene Galekovic believed the confrontation between Gombau and the journalist provided the squad with a rallying point.
“It’s a tight-knit group here, the coach was backing us as players and we were backing him.
“We understood how much the coach was under pressure and the players responded in a great way and that might have had something to do with it…We always believed in what Josep wanted us to do.”
Adelaide fans have embraced Gombau’s unconventional response to the criticism by taking the coach’s words and turning them into a colloquial insult. “Your son is a sh*t goalkeeper” can now be heard frequently between groups of friends on match days at Coopers Stadium.
Striker Bruce Djite, whose goal on Friday night sparked Gombau’s touchline dash, said back in February that the players had completely bought into what the coach wanted from them.
“The thing about us is that we have all bought into what the boss wants us to do…He’s got us all pulling in the same direction and understanding exactly the way he wants us to play.
“He’s got us believing in ourselves and the system, and the confidence is there to see in the way we are playing.”
The common theme throughout these quotes is belief. The players believe in Gombau’s methods and tactics, as well as in their own abilities. This belief can carry the Reds a long way not only in this season, but the in next campaign as well.
Gombau feels his side are in the middle of a transition process, halfway through a two-year plan and as such he has been quick to dismiss any talk of winning the Championship this season.
“I say no (to winning this year’s title) because … the work is not done in one year,” he said in late February.
“Next season, we need to fight to win this…But game by game…If you lose the focus, you can lose…we need to work hard every single game to try and be in the top six. And when we are in the top six, try to make the best that we can.”
The other instance where Gombau has proved himself this season was in his handling of the Steven Lustica situation. The midfielder verbally agreed to a new deal to remain a Red beyond the current season, but then requested a release from his contract to re-join his former club, Brisbane Roar.
The club alleged that Lustica was absent for training in the week leading up to their round 17 clash with Wellington Phoenix, and this clearly angered Gombau.
“For me, when one person says they want to stay then changes their opinion and doesn’t come to training it is difficult. A guy who acts like this doesn’t benefit the group. Everyone needs to have rules and if you miss them it makes it difficult,” Gombau said at the time.
“After that I honestly don’t feel that he can come back and play with us,” Gombau said as he laid down a marker.
Lustica was released just days later and United were rid of a potentially negative presence in the dressing room. The Reds have continued their good form and arguably haven’t missed Lustica in their chase for the finals.
Gombau passed the test with pressure from journalists and the very next game United turned it around on the field. Then Lustica decided he wanted out and the Spaniard dealt with that situation well, and brought the playing group even closer in doing so. His side are now chasing a home final and an Asian Champions League spot when it appeared all was lost earlier in the season.
This is a credit to how Gombau has created a family unity off the pitch at Adelaide United in his short time there. The players, staff and fans now have total faith in each other; and in Gombau’s words, it’s because “We are a family.”