STALLION'S rise to the upper echelons of the United Football League came a surprise to most everyone.
That is, except to the Stallions themselves.
“I am not surprised," coach Ernie Nierras said, just a day after the former Division II side took their place among the league's top teams with a 2-1 win over powerhouse Global in the UFL Cup Final at the Rizal Memorial Stadium.
Monday night's reversal capped an amazing ride for Stallion, an Iloilo-based side which became only the third team after Global and Air Force to win a championship in the local league in just its second tournament after being promoted to Division I.
Still, Nierras insisted: “I don’t think opponents were surprised either. I am more surprised that the media never noticed."
“We always knew we were an elite team but without being media darlings,” he added.
Nierras has in fact used this 'snub' from the media as his prime motivation. The day after winning the championship he posted on his Twitter account a copy of a promotional poster by the league's TV coveror AKTV which featured top players from Global, Kaya, and Loyola Meralco - and none from Stallion.
Here's the poster:
Through his Twitter account @footiecrazy, Nierras also rubbed it in: “This was my motivation since day 1. Every morning I’d look at this picture. Time to change it AKTV! Who is missing?”
Stallion boosted its stock in the offseason with three major acquisitions - two recruits from Spanish third-division club Internacional de Madrid in Rufo Sanchez and Joaco Cañas, and Azkals midfielder Jason de Jong.
Still the team stayed under the radar for much of the tournament, more so after starting the UFL Cup group stage on the wrong foot with a 2-0 loss to an aging Philippine Army in October.
The Stallions eventually hit their stride, putting together a run that got them to the finals. Even then, their magical ride went largely unnoticed and had to play second fiddle to the Philippine Azkals' second successive trip to the semifinals of the AFF Suzuki Cup.
Not only that. The Azkals' international appearances meant the Stallions had to wait for three weeks before they could play the title game against top seed Global.
Stallion, though, used the long break to go on a rigorous training in Barotac Nuevo, Iloilo, the country’s football hotbed where half of the team hails from.
“Nakatulong ng malaki yung preparation namin sa Barotac Nuevo,” said Stallion skipper Ruben 'Balut' Doctora Jr., who received the Golden Ball award. “Lahat kami nagsakripisyo."
De Jong, for one, credited Nierras for reviving his game.
"It's 100 percent worthy. I would like to thank Tito Ernie for making me a better player and for helping me become an Azkals starter again,” the Filipino-Dutch booter said.
Nierras, on the other hand, is proudest of his diverse mix of players who shook up the league hierarchy by doing what it does best: playing as a team.
“So you have the Ilonggos, the Filipinos, the Spanish, and the Azkal; so lahat na yan, pinagsama-sama mo,” Nierras said. “Wala kaming superstar. Everybody pantay-pantay yan. We always win together.”
Despite the success, Nierras, who also steered the national women’s team to the title in the LA Viking Cup in California earlier this month, hinted of bigger things to come for Stallion when League play begins in February.
"Cañas, Sanchez and De Jong plugged the holes," he said. "But get ready for more surprises."