Nightmare Season The Making Of Ouzounidis And The Players As Warriors
by Nick Tsambouniaris
AGONAsport’s Panathinaikos contributor, Nick Tsambouniaris, talks about Ouzounidis and his players’ successful efforts to keep Panathinaikos afloat during this disastrous season.
“Panathinaikos means fighting spirit”...
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Season 2017-18 will go down as the worst season in the club’s illustrious history in terms of ladder position, but Marinos Ouzounidis and the players that stayed behind and gave it their all, will have a place in the fans’ hearts forever.
From before a ball was kicked, the team started the season with a 2 point deduction for crowd trouble from last season’s home playoff against PAOK. The best players and most valuable assets were sold - Zeca and Berg to name a few. Lymberopoulos left as technical director.
By this stage, Ouzounidis could have packed up and left after all of this but instead he not only stayed, but kept the club afloat, with pride intact. The former defender acted as coach, scout, manager, agent, psychologist and many other things. Nothing highlights the character of the man better than this.
Then, by September, Giannis Alafouzos dropped the bombshell that he would no longer invest in the team. This left the club in limbo as a growing number of players planned their escape routes. By this stage, the team had already been eliminated from the UEFA Europa League (after putting up an admirable effort against a quality Athletic Bilbao) and had started the domestic season in poor form. It took 4 games for the first win to come.
Murmurs had now also begun that former players had not been paid in a long time and sought to take action against the club. The debt had spiralled out of control, punishments were bandied around left, right and centre.
The first highlight of the season came in late September in the home game against PAS Giannina. The off-field issues were well-publicised but in an amazing show of togetherness, the players put in a great effort to get the win and the fans produced an atmosphere to remember. This began the unity between the pair and it also kick-started a mini-revival as the team went on a run of 4 games unbeaten.
A week later, the team defeated Larissa at Leoforos in amazing circumstances. The goal was rather fortuitous (and went viral worldwide) but it was a deserved reward as the players refused to surrender after seeing two of their teammates sent off.
Home form was the key to avoiding a relegation battle (based on on-field results). The fighting spirit and “never say die” attitude was on show a couple of weeks later against Olympiakos. Once again, the fans delivered and backed the players in difficult circumstances, rather than turn against them. The players in turn, produced the highlight of the season beating the more well-fancied Eternal Rivals. Ouzounidis had the players up for it mentally. Being a former player he knows what these games mean and ultimately an outpour of passion amid off-field chaos prevailed over supposed “quality”.
There were also lowlights. That was the last league win in the 2017 calendar year and it was in late October. Six games without a win (including an embarrassing loss away to PAOK) was a bitter pill to swallow but the effects of the off-field debts were starting to sink in. By the end of January, the club was forced to shed more of its best assets such as Villafanez and Moledo.
Instead of meekly surrendering, Ouzounidis and the players that remained fought harder than ever. Captain Dimitris Kourbelis is another that deserves huge respect as he turned down a move to PAOK on Deadline Day as he believed it would not be a significant step up. He was arguably the on-field “glue” that kept things ticking when the backs were against the wall. It was the making of him as a leader and he also displayed his versatility by covering at the heart of defence on multiple occasions.
By now, it was well-documented that the club was facing relegation for the first time ever and the threat was real. Former players such as Jens Wemmer were relentless in their appeals. The German managed to deduct 6 points off the club, and almost 9 and automatic relegation. In fairness, the fault lies squarely on Alafouzos here as every player has the right to be paid. The psychological effect it had on the squad is unimaginable from the outside looking in. Being immersed in it the way Ouzounidis and the players were is unthinkable.
The team managed to finally notch an away win (another ongoing hoodoo which plagued the club) against Larissa. The irony is the only goal of the game was assisted by Christos Donis. The midfielder is another deserving of credit. He is not the most gifted player and truth be told, in serious Panathinaikos teams, he would barely even be a squad player. But he assumed the captain’s armband for large parts of the season and fought admirably despite his limitations.
Following this, the team primed itself for the away derby against Olympiakos by disposing of Lamia 2-0 at home. This game featured 2 goals of the highest quality, from Anthony Mounier, but especially Emanuel Insua. Ironically, the duo were among the first to affirm their stance that they would not leave the club when things got tough. Mounier claimed he would be the “last to leave” in chaos as the club offered him a contract when no one else did due to his history with injuries.
A week later, Ouzounidis devised the perfect game plan to frustrate Olympiakos. The team defended stoutly for long periods and after going a man down, scored a late penalty to earn a 1-1 draw at an empty Giorgos Karaiskakis Stadium. This was a major moral victory and allowed Ouzounidis to keep his undefeated record against Olympiakos as manager of the Trifylli. As for the scorer, who else but Mounier.
It was a mixed bag of results to end the season in terms of results, but as the season neared to a close rumours emerged of Pan Asia wanting to takeover the club from Alafouzos. It was only last week Pairoj Piempongsant met with Alafouzos and the talks went well so there may just be some light at the end of the tunnel.
Back onto the team. Another who is highly deserving of respect is Odisseas Vlachodimos. The goalkeeper will go on and enjoy a fine career but his love for the club and its fans cannot be questioned. A deal was reached last year with Benfica for his transfer but he remained focused on the task at hand. Guillermo Molins is also in this category. Originally signed as a backup option to Berg, the Swede produced the odd moment of brilliance but it was his strong mentality and fighting attitude which he will be remembered for. Again, not the greatest but a real man symbolic of the culture fostered by Ouzounidis himself.
To Ouzounidis and the players - thank you for your efforts during this troubled season. You are the first ones the fans will remember whenever success is next delivered, you made it possible. No one embodied the Panathinaikos idea of “fighting spirit” better.