Season 26 – Bouncing Back Up (Premier League, 2nd Edition)

Pre-Season

Joe George (S23-07) adds to his great season by making his Wales debut against New Zealand to become the fifth international on the books. He’s quickly followed by a sixth, Callum Donnelly (S18-07) getting some pre-World Cup experience against Morocco.

3-2 (n) K Racing Club Genk (Friendly Cup Semi-Final). Goals: Hind (5), Thomas (48), OG (50). Assists: Hall (5), George (48). A useful workout until the point we lost Fabian McAllister (groin strain) and Joe George (twisted ankle) for a month apiece. Not a good start to their seasons. Hind impressed in midfield and scored a screamer.

3-1 (n) FC Sochi (Friendly Cup Final). Goals: Vaughan (43, 59), Thomas (60). Assists: East (59), Tancock (60). A good win. Surprise of the day? Stefanos Panagi being outstanding at centre-back. Such a good utility player. Max Thomas has done all that was asked as back-up striker as well, scoring in both appearances and taking advantage of David Maclaren being away on international duty.

1-0 (a) Bonnyrigg Rose Athletic. Goals: Afful (66). Assists: – . Hopefully not a sign of things to come: 29 shots, 10 on target, 3.66 xG and just one goal (a penalty) to show for it. Defensively excellent plus a good showing in midfield from Ronald Julien and from Ian Jones on the right wing.

2-0 (a) Cambridge United. Goals: Boateng (51), Thomas (60). Assists: Russo (51), Julien (60). Another convincing performance that didn’t quite produce a win as convincing as it should have. Thomas helped himself again, as did Russo and Julien. Danny Harden put in a good shift at left back from the bench as well, which was good to see.

3-1 (h) FC Girondins de Bordeaux. Goals: Vaughan (34, 65), Russo (90+3). Assists: Hind (34), Barrett (65), Thomas (90+3). Yet again, an utterly dominant performance but this time some goals to show for it. An excellent performance from Barrett and a good outing in midfield from Hind. Russo and Thomas impressed from the bench and it’s starting to feel like we have a strong squad.

4-1 (h) Cadiz. Goals: Vaughan (10), Afful (27, 45+2), Maclaren (90+3). Assists: Pearson (10, 27), Jones (90+3). Pre-season continues in good fashion. Two assists for Jamie Pearson and good performances from the bench from Jones and Maclaren. Afful and Vaughan are looking Premier League ready (hopefully). Maclaren’s hopes of a place on the bench as the season starts are dealt a blow though, he tears a back muscle in the weights room and could be out for two months.

3-0 (h) Udinese (Samuel Sani Testimonial). Goals: Vaughan (3, 29), East (52). Assists: Ross (3), George (29), Pearson (52). A fitting clean sheet for Sani and an all round excellent defensive display. Joe George and Fabian McAllister got 45 minutes each as they come back from injury and Ian Jones impressed in a second half cameo.

The international job offers keep on coming – we’ve had Holland, Portugal, Ireland and now France and Spain. I reject them all – I’ve got a youth academy to run.

Loan Watch

  • GK Sanni Suleiman (S22-03) to Torquay United (League Two)
  • GK Markku Mustonen (S23-04) to Harrogate Town (National League)
  • DC Joseph Grenade (S23-05) to Barnet (National League)
  • GK Mario Minambres (S19-12) to Hereford United (League Two)
  • MC Ken Lee (S22-02) to Scunthorpe United (National League)
  • DR Sam Ellington (S22-04) to Harrogate Town (National League)
  • AML Tammy Court (S22-01) to Tamworth (National League North)
  • DC Graeme Leighton (S24-01) to Gloucester (National League South)
  • DC Joseph Junior Kargbo (S23-06) to Morecambe (National League North)

Released/Departed

  • AMR/L Akambi Ade (S23-11) to Preston (Championship) (pre-contract agreement)
  • DL Jordan Tanner (S23-10) – released
  • GK Dom Lundstram (S19-01) to Luton Town (£5k + 30% of future sale)
  • MC Danny Corbett (S25-10) to Sheffield Wednesday (£155k-£220k, 40% of future profit)

August 2046

1-4 (a) Arsenal. Goals: Vaughan (1). Assists: Afful (1).

3-3 (h) Fulham. Goals: East (12), McAllister (35), Afful (76). Assists: Afful (12), McAllister (76).

0-4 (a) Chelsea.

1-2 (h) Burnley (League Cup R2). Goals: Jones (45+1). Assists: Storey (45+1).

13 seconds! That’s how long it takes Joseph Afful and Carl Vaughan to settle back into the Premier League. No one else touches the ball and we’re 1-0 up! We’ve poked the beast though. Our heaviest defeat of the previous Premier League campaign came at Arsenal courtesy of a 6-0 thrashing and they’re soon back in that groove after that early shock, leading 3-1 by half-time. I’m satisfied that they only add one more in the second half but it’s a rude awakening though perhaps one of the toughest contests to start with.

That Vaughan goal is now the fastest FC United of Manchester goal ever, beating a record from over 16 years ago and held by the legendary Ben Beresford.

Surprise interest from Derby and Sheffield Wednesday in Danny Corbett (S25-10) results in the midfielder being sold to the latter for a fee that could rise to £220k and gives us a 40% share of any future profit. I don’t usually sell kids on – Corbett only graduated in March – but he’s a long way down the depth chart and is unambitious in nature. In truth, I didn’t see him progressing and the offer was generous, so off he goes.

Fulham race into an early two-goal lead and I’m fearing the worst for the whole season again (though Fulham are regulars in the top half of the table these days). We confound the expectations built by our last visit to the division though and battle back to 2-2 before immediately going behind again to the kind of strike you applaud but which frustrates when you’re playing well. The second half is end to end but Afful finally comes up trumps and grabs a deserved equaliser. A thrilling 3-3 draw and some players looking comfortable at this level, not least the three goalscorers which is very encouraging.

The training facilities upgrade is complete and we have the full set of top of the range youth services: state of the art training and youth facilities and exceptional junior coaching and youth recruitment. Just need to keep enhancing the club reputation now. Staying in this division would help.

The full set

We battle gamely at Chelsea – talk about a tough opening sequence – but concede on the brink of half-time when the break from perhaps our only attack of the half and score a wonderful solo goal through Koplin. It’s harsh on Sani, who’s been amazing in the opening 45 minutes. Koplin goes on to complete his hat-trick in the second half and adds a fourth late on in a one-man show that we can’t defend against (Pemberton is the best defender once more but has shown a strange tendency to misjudge headers so far this season, and by a long way). It feels like two years ago all of a sudden.

We make a load of changes for the League Cup game against Burnley and it backfires spectacularly as we concede twice from set pieces in the opening four minutes. Despite Ian Jones pulling one back on the stroke of half-time and Donnelly saving a penalty, we can’t get the all-important second goal. It’s another early League Cup exit. Besides Jones and Donnelly, one other player did well – Stefanos Panagi at centre-back.

September 2046

1-2 (h) Bournemouth. Goals: Pemberton (9). Assists: East (9).

0-2 (h) Brighton & Hove Albion.

0-3 (a) Norwich City.

3-3 (a) Sheffield United. Goals: Afful (60), East (68, 74). Assists: East (60), Jones (68), Afful (74).

Frustration abounds as we fall to Bournemouth. They arrive with a 100% record and ride their luck to maintain it. Pemberton heads us in front but we can’t capitalise on the early lead and can’t get another shot on target the whole game. Vaughan hasn’t scored since 13 seconds into the season and we seem to be losing confidence.

The Brighton game is much the same. We actually play well but two moments of quality from Ken (remember him?) – one right at the death when we were pushing for an equaliser – undo us. It’s the kind of quality we seem to lack, especially in games like this that are there for the taking. We’re bottom of the table, one point from five games. Things need to change quickly.

Yikes!

There’s a mini cull for the Norwich game: Tyrrell, Duxbury, Tancock and East are all dropped with Ross, Hind, Boateng and Hall coming in. It doesn’t work and we lose again but the scoreline is incredibly harsh (and to rub it in, Craig Lee (S16-03) scored the third). We’re in this for long periods of the game, Vaughan hits the post and has another well-saved, but we can’t score. And if you can’t score, you can’t win. Simple as that. It’s becoming a huge problem. The team performance is generally better – Joe George played really well but was forced off with an injury at half-time, which didn’t help, and Hind looked more solid than Duxbury has in recent games. Sani was excellent and Lloyd Byrne (S23-02) made a promising debut as a second-half sub, but there’s a lot still to do.

Oh my word! We go to Sheffield United and fall behind quickly – they’re all over us, 2-0 up by half-time and a Gualdino hat-trick by the 51st minute has me tearing my hair out. I immediately make a triple substitution – Hall, Pearson and McAllister off and East, Ross and Tancock on. East makes an instant impact, setting up Afful on the hour to bring us back into the game. Within three minutes I’m back to extracting hair from my skull, Pemberton picking up a second yellow and any comeback seemingly thwarted. Dale East has other ideas though. He slots one in at the near post after being set up by Jones (in for an injured Vaughan and doing ok) and then equalises in the 74th minute. Barrett actually has the ball in the net immediately from the kick off but it’s ruled out and we have to settle for a point but I’m happy with that after being 3-0 down and 3-1 down with only ten men. It’s a brave, battling performance and I’m hoping it might kickstart the season (again). Special mention too, to Samuel Sani, who played out of his skin, rating 9.5 and the clear player of the match. The Blades had 22 shots on target and will probably wonder how they’ve not won, but it’s about time that kind of thing favoured us.

Reason to hope?

October 2046

4-0 (h) Brentford. Goals: Afful (10), East (22, 36, 47). Assists: East (10), Vaughan (22).

0-1 (h) Leicester City.

3-6 (a) Wolverhampton Wanderers. Goals: Vaughan (23, 50), Barrett (82). Assists: East (23), McAllister (50, 82).

Simply put, a must win game at home to Brentford. They’re without a win in seven, just like us, stranded on two points, just like us. Afful calms the nerves, heading in East’s free-kick early in the game and by the 20th minute, Brentford are down to ten men and we have a chance to claim our first victory of the season. Unusually for us, we take immediate advantage, East doubling the lead and Vaughan claiming an assist as his original strike comes back off the bar to the left winger. A 30-yard free-kick from East makes things even sweeter before half-time and he has returned to form nicely. He gets to complete his hat-trick early in the second half when Boateng is brought down in the box. Not sure who decided he should take it given that two penalty takers are on the pitch, but I’m happy for him. Seven team goals in two games and a win at last.

Winning a must-win game

A lengthy international break disrupts the momentum and we lose at home to Leicester. The performance is good though, we outplay them but again, can’t find the back of the net.

The same can’t be said about the performance at Wolves. An awful defensive display sees us behind 5-1 at half-time. Sani’s all over the place, Duxbury is being exposed time and time again and the full-backs are both struggling. The water bottles fly around the changing room. We improve a bit in the second half to make it 3-6 at the end but we’ve conceded six times and Wolves only had seven shots on target. And yet, some players emerge with credit: Vaughan scored for the first time in nine games, McAllister was a creative force and Barrett did will on his return from injury, coming off the bench to score and caused Wolves problems down the right hand side.

November 2046

5-0 (a) Leeds United. Goals: Maclaren (3), East (5), Boateng (15), Tyrrell (64), own goal (88). Assists: Afful (3), Maclaren (5), Barrett (15, 64).

3-2 (h) Southampton. Goals: Maclaren (44, 58), Hollis (79). Assists: Pearson (44), Pemberton (58), McAllister (79).

2-2 (h) Manchester City. Goals: Hollis (76), Barrett (84). Assists: Ross (76), East (84).

We’re taking over the world

The stadium expansion is complete and we’ll welcome Southampton to the 12,500 all-seater Broadhurst Park a week after our trip across the Pennines to Leeds. Duxbury is suspended (and likely would have been dropped anyway) so it’s a chance for Stan Hind to reclaim a centre back spot. Barrett returns to the starting line-up and David Maclaren starts in place of an injured Vaughan. Everything clicks in the opening 15 minutes and amazingly we have our shooting boots on – we’re 3-0 up before Leeds have had a chance to catch their breath. Maclaren has his first goal in an age and then assists a fantastic East strike inside the first five minutes. Boateng finishes a nice move to make it three and we’re in control. We ride our luck a little as Leeds hit the post twice before Tyrrell scores (his occasional tidy finish) and Hollis causes late chaos in the Leeds penalty area resulting in an own goal and a brilliant 5-0 win. I’m speechless. We’re not out of the bottom three but it was vital to win today and the improvement in goal difference might be important too come the end of the season.

That helps!

The newly expanded Broadhurst Park witnesses its first win! A dull first half comes to life in the 44th minute, David Maclaren justifying the gamble to leave him in and have Vaughan on the bench to put us in the lead. That sparks a final few minutes of the half where we could have had two more and Southampton make us pay, drawing level not long into the second half. Maclaren has other ideas though and soon has us back in the lead before Sam Hollis (in for the suspended Afful) slots home a third. Southampton grab another late on but we see out the game for a 3-2 win and claim six points from six at the start of November.

Next up, Manchester City, and we go behind after 15 minutes but we’re battling well and keep them to a single goal in the first half. We’ve been here before though against the big six and often end up collapsing in the second half. When City score again in the 67th minute it looks like curtains but then something miraculous happens: first Sam Hollis takes advantage of a mistake by the City keeper who races from his line looking to reach a Kieran Ross flick on but times it badly and Hollis sneaks there ahead of him and pokes home. Then, Tyrrell wins a penalty and I think we’re going level only to see Boateng fire it wide. Rather than deflate the side, it seems to fire them up. East waltzes down the left, cuts into the box at the byline and plays an inch-perfect pass into the six yard box that evades everyone until it finds Barrett three-yards out who just has to tap it in. 2-2! We survive a disallowed City goal and claim a well-earned and well-deserved point – our first against a big six club. Maybe things will be different this season.

A point from one of the big six! Progress.

December 2046

0-6 (a) Manchester United.

1-1 (h) Everton. Goals: McAllister (46). Assists:

1-1 (h) West Bromwich Albion. Goals: Boateng (74) . Assists:

0-5 (a) Liverpool.

0-2 (a) Aston Villa.

1-3 (h) Tottenham Hotspur. Goals: Maclaren (48). Assists: Vaughan (48).

0-3 (a) Fulham.

I’ m furious. We travel to Old Trafford in high spirits but knowing we’re in for a tough game but we start well, we’re keeping them at bay and even though we aren’t creating much we look comfortable. Then two things happen that change the game. First, Dale East is forced off with a twisted ankle after half an hour. He’s been our inspiration this season, seven goals and five assists and definitely took that step up that we wanted from him. It’s a blow. Second, VAR awards a penalty on the stroke of half-time for what looked like a brilliant tackle from Joshua Barrett. Not only that, but the ref then sees fit to award a red card. It’s a terrible decision. Sani keeps us in it by saving the penalty brilliantly and it’s 0-0 at half-time. We can’t compete in the second though and United run wild, scoring six. It feels ridiculously harsh and we finish with nine men on the pitch when Russo is forced off with an ankle injury late on. East is out for four weeks, Russo for a couple and we appeal Joshua Barrett’s ban. 24 hours later, Barrett’s ban is rescinded and my anger feels justified. We might not have won at Old Trafford (let’s be honest, it’s unlikely) but we wouldn’t have conceded six if we’d been at full strength and that could matter at the end of the season.

As rare as hen’s teeth – a rescinded ban!

It isn’t going our way right now. We outplay Everton yet they somehow steal a point when Sani scores an inexplicable own goal, allowing a low cross to squirm between his hands and legs after McAllister had given us the lead from the spot. We should have taken three points and I hope we don’t come to regret not capitalising on our dominance.

We fail to beat West Brom, too. It feels like these ‘easier’ home games are slipping away from us without us taking enough points from them. We needed a Boateng penalty to rescue a point here and it isn’t good enough.

The Youth Intake Preview is more descriptive than usual, Rovan Hendrickson finding his feet: a good goalkeeper prospect, a full-back with plenty of promise (seriously!), a promising centre-back from Ireland and a handy prospect on the wing. It’s promising to be an excellent group.

New kids coming through…

Liverpool away is hardly likely to change our fortunes and for the second time in a row against a top side, we end up reduced to ten men. The game turns in the space of five minutes. Liverpool ping the ball around at will early on and only the excellence of Samuel Sani keeps them at bay but on 27 minutes they finally break through. Five minutes later and Tyrrell has picked up a second yellow and we’ve got two-thirds of a game to survive against the league leaders at Anfield. It doesn’t end well and I’m thankful that they seem to ease off in the final half an hour. It’s another heavy defeat though and our goal difference takes another bashing.

There are some good signs for the future among the current u18s. Even though I’ve been a little underwhelmed with the last two intakes they’ve moved themselves into 2nd place in the U18 Division 1 North and have just beaten Everton 6-0. Perhaps that experience against tougher U18 opposition will breed confidence as they move through the age groups towards the first team. Here’s hoping.

KIds already here doing alright.

We go to Villa and lose 2-0. This is a team we beat last season in the Championship and who came up via the play-offs. Why can’t we beat them now? We dominate again: shots 21-8; on target 8-3; xG 1.90-0.93. We need to be finishing our chances. It’s the same old story and it begs one massive question: is Carl Vaughan good enough? It also shows how much we miss the creativity of Dale East.

There’s another problem on the horizon: the African Nations finals squads are announced and we’ll be without Afful and Sani for the bulk of January. Bad news for Derek Duxbury, too. He breaks his ankle in training and will be out for three months.

We do okay at home to Tottenham but okay isn’t good enough. At least we score from open play at last, Maclaren heading in a Vaughan cross to level the scores at the start of the second half, but we’re struggling to get any momentum at the minute. The first half of the season is done and we’re 19th with 14 points. We need to improve upon that in the second stage and we’re fortunate that there are only two points between us and safety right now.

December seems endless. A horrible month ends at Fulham – flying high and pushing for a Champions League spot – and they run rings around us in the first 20 minutes. Once more, we’re down by a couple of goals and with no expectation that we can claw them back. It finishes 0-3 and it’s a dismal end to the year.

January 2047

1-3 (h) Arsenal. Goals: Maclaren (23). Assists:

0-1 (h) Tottenham Hotspur (FA Cup R3).

2-4 (h) Chelsea. Goals: Vaughan (45+1, 52). Assists: East (45+1), Tancock (52).

2-3 (a) Bournemouth. Goals: McAllister (19), Tancock (61). Assists: Pearson (19), Tyrrell (61).

3-1 (h) Norwich City. Goals: George (31), McAllister (47), East (53). Assists: Vaughan (31), George (47), McAllister (53).

January doesn’t start any better. A home game against Arsenal was never going to be easy. It doesn’t help when Matthew Tyrrell concedes not one, but two penalties (Sani at least saves one of them) but, an excellent David Maclaren strike aside, we are outclassed again. This next jump in quality feels like the hardest one to bridge. I’m forced to keep players I know aren’t good enough, simply because there are no adequate replacements coming through the academy. Even positions of strength are starting to look thin, like centre-back. Maybe it’s time for an overhaul – rid ourselves of some of the older players who aren’t going to improve and blood the youngsters?

The transfer window opens and Derby want Alexandre Russo and Alexandre Russo wants Derby. I don’t want to sell Alexandre Russo to Derby. Or anyone. We fall out a bit and I’m forced to agree that if a bid of £900k comes in, I’ll accept. Derby are some way away from that at the minute so I’m hopeful it might all blow over. Russo is one of our best prospects and I don’t want to lose him. I am selling Gavin Orru (S24-03) though. QPR offer £180k (rising to £350k) with 30% profit built in. He’s never going to make it in my opinion, low on determination, lacking the requisite pace to be a successful defender even at Championship level. He’s shown good improvements but from a low baseline, so if we can bring some cash in for him, we might as well. Even if we don’t need it.

Yes, QPR, we will take your money, thank you.

We give a good account of ourselves in the Cup but fall to Tottenham by a solitary goal. Matthew Tyrrell started at centre back in place of Pemberton and had a great game and Pearson played well at left-back (he must have read that sentence earlier about being forced to keep players who aren’t good enough!).

Our bluff to Russo fails as Derby come back with exactly the right bid (think he’s been talking to them behind our back). It’s frustrating but if he doesn’t want to play for us then off you go. I edge them carefully to £1m and get a 30% future profit clause inserted, but it’s a blow. Forest and Benfica make offers as well (I get them up to £1.3m) and Russo plumps for the Nottingham side, no doubt winding Derby up just as much as he’s wound me up.

Home to Chelsea and any hope of keeping them at bay is extinguished after 27 seconds. Pemberton and Tyrrell seem to run into each other allowing them a free run at goal. They’re two up inside ten minutes and it looks like we’re in store for another long night, especially when they convert a penalty for 3-0 just before half-time. But then the weirdest thing happens: we mount a fight back! East immediately plays in Vaughan who finishes nicely to give me some positives to talk about at half-time. Vaughan’s there again in the 52nd minute, slotting in after Tancock plays him in. We can’t quite grab an equaliser and in the end Chelsea stretch out to win 4-2 even though Vaughan and Maclaren have further chances. It was a strong performance, even in defeat, but it sends us to the foot of the table. We have to start winning soon as we’re five points from safety.

Beaten but getting closer

Heartbreak at Bournemouth. We play really well, McAllister heading in early before Bournemouth turn it around to lead. Tancock volleys in gloriously to level at 2-2 and it looks like a valuable point is ours until they steal a 95th minute winner. Gutted.

That makes the next game at home to Norwich and absolute must-win. We have to put in a performance…and we do! Joe George is at the heart of everything, scoring the first, setting up the second for McAllister who, in turn, sets up East for the third. Norwich pull one back and there are plenty of chances at both ends but it stays 3-1. The only blot on the copybook: an injury time second yellow card for Tom Boateng and a 10th yellow for Tim Pemberton. But we’ve won! We’re back up to 19th with 17 points, above Brentford (14 points) and behind West Brom (20) and Southampton (21). Leicester, Norwich and Brighton are all a little further away but poor runs could drop any of them into the relegation battle. We need to win again now.

Transfer deadline day arrives and I’m expecting it to be busy. We immediately gain £100k from a sell-on clause. Goalkeeper Jamie Clark (S23-09) who we sold after a falling out (and discovering he was 5’9″) last January is already on the move from Reading to Hull. He didn’t play a game for Reading but they’ve made a tidy profit, as have we. Another £100k comes from a goalkeeper as QPR take Mario Minambres, who’s contract was expiring in June anyway. That prompts a recall for Markku Mustonen, just like last January, and he’ll back up Donnelly while Sani remains on international duty.

I’m selling another full-back as well. I wasn’t planning to sell Danny Harden (S18-09) simply because he’s a left-back but he is never going to be close to good enough and a switch to League One Peterborough is in everyone’s best interests (though even that might be above his standard). His contract was due up as well and it’s time to blood the youngsters should we need left-back cover.

Dan Rees (S24-08), Liam Cooper (S24-04) and Lloyd Byrne (S23-02) attract a lot of interest and Byrne is frustrated at not being allowed to leave for Derby (Derby stirring it up again!). The only way he suggested he’d stay is if we make him a star player and built the team around him! The lad’s 19 and has made six substitute appearances! Admittedly, I like the look of him and his game time is on the increase but he’s not the fulcrum of the team just yet.

Lloyd wants to be a star player!?!

January Transfer Window Activity

  • DC Gavin Orru (S24-03) to Queens Park Rangers: £180k (£350k) + 30% future profit
  • MC/AMC Kingsley Storey (S21-05) to Southend United – loan
  • AML Alexandre Russo (S24-09) to Nottingham Forest: £1.3m
  • AMC Sam Hollis (S18-03) to OGC Nice – loan
  • GK Mario Minambres (S19-12) to Queens Park Rangers: £100k (£235k) + 20% future profit
  • DL Danny Harden (S18-09) to Peterborough United: £88k (£105k) + 20% future profit
  • AMR/SC Max Thomas (S21-09) to Charlton Athletic – loan
  • AMR/SC Chris Wright (S20-01) to Doncaster Rovers – loan

February 2047

2-1 (a) Brighton & Hove Albion. Goals: Byrne (80), Maclaren (83). Assists:

1-1 (h) Sheffield United. Goals: Boateng (11). Assists: McAllister (11).

4-1 (a) Brentford. Goals: George (9, 19), Pearson (75), Vaughan (90+3). Assists: Tancock (9), East (19, 75), George (90+3).

February starts with a row. Veteran Andy Brooks (S9-05) is unhappy that we’ve been unable to loan him out. When I tell him no-one was interested he claims I didn’t try hard enough and even when I try and pacify him he suggests the damage has been done and he ends up transfer-listed. Don’t end it like this, Andy! After all we’ve been through together! 607 matches! It seems a strange reaction and not in keeping with his usual professional behaviour.

We win at Brighton! It doesn’t look like it’s on the cards when they take the lead in the 20th minute and their keeper is in superb form. We can’t quite get the ball over the line and while some players are doing well – notably Afful returning after Ghana’s exit from the African Nations – some aren’t. Vaughan, Pearson and Tancock are replaced during the second half by Maclaren, Beschorner (Ross switching left) and angry Lloyd Byrne. It’s the fired up Byrne who gets us back into it, a defender clearing a cross as the keeper was coming for it and Byrne, waiting on the edge of the box, firing home unerringly into the empty net with ten minutes to go. Better is to come though, Byrne involved again, breaking up play and feeding Beschorner who, in turn, plays the ball down the line to George. George’s cross from the byline finds Maclaren and he’s denied by the Brighton keeper but is alert enough to tuck in the rebound from a tight angle. 2-1! Back to back wins!

We can’t make it three in a row but it’s another valuable point and we’re lucky to get it. Sheffield United dominate after an early Boateng header gives us the lead and equalise soon after. Donnelly plays well and keeps us in it and somehow we get to full-time and it’s still 1-1. Not our greatest hour, but a useful show of resilience with a lot of tired players on the pitch or rested.

We travel to last-placed Brentford on a Monday night, knowing that a win would lift us out of the bottom three. The Bees have a couple of early chances but it’s Joe George who strikes first, steering home and then doubling our lead by the 19th minute with a shot that sneaks in off the post. Brentford come battling back but we fend them off and George has a chance of a first half hat-trick but blows it when his penalty is saved. The nerves kick in when Brentford get one back on 66 minutes but the two goal cushion is restored nine minutes later – by Jamie Pearson of all people, rifling a shot in at the near post. Carl Vaughan comes off the bench to finish things off and give the score a rather flattering look. Things couldn’t have gone much better.

March 2047

0-4 (h) Wolverhampton Wanderers.

0-3 (a) Leicester City.

2-0 (h) Leeds United. Goals: Maclaren (45+1), Barrett (87). Assists: Ross (45+1), Julien (87).

1-2 (a) Southampton. Goals: Maclaren (12). Assists: McAllister (12).

A terrible start to March and a familiar tale: lots of chances in an even game but none converted and Wolves take full advantage. 4-0 is very harsh but we have to be better. Afful pulled a hamstring, too, just to cap things off.

It doesn’t get any better at Leicester. No goals again and the switch to Maclaren isn’t working so expect to see Vaughan starting again soon. Someone must be able to score! This time out it’s Pearson who pulls a hamstring. Not exactly got a lot of left-backs lined up to replace him. To make matters worse, Southampton win against Brentford and we’re back in the bottom three.

Dale East joins the injury list and misses the game against Leeds which means Maclaren gets to carry on up front as Vaughan is my best option on the left wing (Hall is covering Afful at AMC). We play well in the first half and, for once, we get a reward. On the stroke of half-time Maclaren chases a long punt from Ross and takes advantage of the keeper’s hesitation to reach the ball first, round him and run the ball over the line. We continue to dominate through the second half but it’s not until Barrett finishes well in the 87th minute that we can relax and enjoy the win. A vital three points.

That win also takes us past our points total from two years ago with eight games to go. So signs of progress.

Beating our Premier League points record, yet still in trouble
The 2047 Grads

The 2047 (Season 26) graduates arrive. It’s a potential ‘golden generation’ and for the first time since Season 19 I’m genuinely excited about this bunch. They look like the best crop we’ve had and have a significantly higher technical ability than any previous intake. The top six prospects could all make it:

Adam Gill – DL/ML – a left back!!! At the top of the list, a goddamn left back. And he’s almost first-team ready. Technically, he’s already better than Pearson, he just needs to work on his physicality. Our future left back has arrived (hopefully). He’s the best attributed graduate we’ve had and the most technically adept.

A..a…a left back!

Liam Porteous – DR/DC/MR – Rovan, you’re spoiling us! Not only a left-back, but a right back as well. A professional personality with great starting physical attributes. Needs to improve his defensive technique but with the right training he could go a long way and is already the second most technically adept player we’ve seen on arrival.

Liam, you look so…professional!

Kwame Osei – SC/AMR/AMC – a rangy forward with modest starting ability but we haven’t had a striker this tall since the days of Ben Beresford (Osei is 6’6″). Could prove to be a very useful alternative option if we need a poacher/target man to break down stubborn defences. Interesting.

6’6″ – that’s a good start

Josh Parker – AMR – yes, we have loads of AMRs but Parker looks like he could emerge to compete. A good technical player, he needs to work on his speed a little, but he has a chance to challenge George and Barrett in a couple of years.

A useful AMR (and maybe MC?)

Tyler Armstrong – DC/DR/DM – the Irish centre back we were promised, his basic defending traits are good but he needs some work in the heading department (which might improve if he continues to grow beyond his current 5’11”). He might also be worth training as a DM and is perhaps better suited to that position. If we decide to change formation, he’d be a useful option.

DC or DM? Armstrong has potential

James Bailey – GK – Our first decent keeper since Suleiman four years ago. Good handling and reflexes, the only downside is his height (5’10”). Let’s hope he’s still growing, because he could be good.

A good keeper…

A huge game to finish March with: away to Southampton, currently keeping us in the bottom three on goal difference. It’s even more huge because our April fixtures look like this: Man City (a), Man Utd (h), Everton (a), Liverpool (h). In the back of my head, I knew we still had tough games left but this is a brutal sequence. After that run, we have three games left: Villa (h), WBA (a) and Tottenham (a). The Villa and West Brom games look equally important. We’re going to struggle to stay up. If we win the three ‘easier’ games that still only leaves us on 36 points so we need to be picking at least a couple of draws up to give us a chance. Defeat today could be disastrous.

Defeat is what we get though. Despite taking an early lead through a Maclaren tap-in, Southampton come back quickly and lead 2-1 by half-time. It’s a lead we can’t overturn, despite a strong performance. Joe George comes closest, his long range free-kick tipped over the bar. Our bad injury luck continues as well, Kieran Ross dislocated his shoulder during the game and his season is over.

April 2047

0-4 (a) Manchester City.

0-1 (h) Manchester United.

0-1 (a) Everton.

0-4 (h) Liverpool.

Some contract news as April gets underway. The Board offer me a two year extension and more than double my wage, which is nice and obviously accepted. Elsewhere, DC United make an offer to Stefanos Panagi (S19-07) who is out of contract at the end of the season. I think about extending it – remembering that purple patch he had as a super-sub in our last top flight campaign – but he’s only featured three times in the league this season and there are better options ahead of him in any of the three positions he can cover. He’s on his way to the USA.

It takes City only 10 minutes to find the net but the rest of the first half is surprisingly even. Dale East even manages to head onto the post as we almost level. City score again though early in the second half and even though we battled back from two down last we played them, it doesn’t seem on the cards today. Tim Pemberton picks up a second yellow just to make sure it isn’t on the cards and it finishes 4-0, with Sebastian Berschorner picking up a late second yellow as well to leave us with just nine men on the pitch at the end.

The United game is an improvement (only two bookings for a start, and no red cards!) and we lose to a solitary 59th minute strike. No points for a 1-0 defeat though and we have to lift ourselves again for Everton, especially as Southampton won at Liverpool. West Brom won as well and Norwich have joined us in the bottom three. We need to outperform two of those three to survive.

Relegation scrap – and it doesn’t look promising

Ah, this is such a harsh division. We match Everton blow for blow for 92 minutes, even when an injury to Panagi after all the subs have been made leaves us a man down for the last 18 minutes. Conceding in the 92nd minute was no kind of reward for that performance. West Brom have won as well – beating City after the were reduced to ten men – so we’re looking pretty doomed right now. Southampton win again as well the next day and we’re suddenly nine points from safety.

You are having a laugh. Two minutes and six seconds into the Liverpool game and Ben Tancock is shown a straight red card. It’s going to be a long day. It does take Liverpool 39 minutes to open the scoring but they pull away in the second half, as you’d expect, and it just becomes a question of how many they’ll score. That number turns out to be four – Samuel Sani, with help from Matthew Tyrrell, stop it being about eight. Regardless, the result pretty much relegates us. We can only reach 36 points now and even Norwich won today meaning they are already at 36 points alongside Sheffield United, West Brom and Southampton. Even if all four teams lose all their remaining games, our goal difference is so poor (19 worse than the next worst, Sheffield United) that we’d struggle to turn it around even if that miraculous event happened. Factor in that Southampton meet both Norwich and Sheffield United and there’s a good chance that all three will pick up points of each other. It’s going to be interesting for that last spot, but it isn’t going to involve us.

May 2047

1-1 (h) Aston Villa. Goals: Maclaren (90+5). Assists: Afful (90+5).

0-3 (a) West Bromwich Albion.

0-2 (a) Tottenham Hotspur.

Official confirmation of relegation comes at home to Villa. It’s a solid performance but we don’t create enough chances to win. Villa look like nicking all three points when they score in the 85th minute and we have to rely on a 95th minute equaliser from Maclaren to grab a deserved but ultimately pointless point. At least we have our first goal in over a month.

We don’t turn up at The Hawthorns. It’s a shocking performance. If we’d still had a chance of escaping relegation, this would have been a must-win game. We simply aren’t good enough.

I’m not looking forward to the trip to Tottenham: if West Brom can beat us 3-0 then 4th-placed Spurs could cause us all sorts of problems. They’re three up by half-time as we’re unable to deal with their pace on the break. The second half is better but the damage has been done (weeks ago, to be honest!). We don’t concede but neither do we score – we’ve scored just once in the last seven games – and there are a lot of players who simply haven’t turned up today (Afful, Pearson, Tyrrell, McAllister). A good performances from Barrett and decent cameos from substitutes Micah Henderson(S25-04) at right back and Derek Duxbury (S20-06) who I forced to play left-back because Pearson was so bad. I’m actually training Duxbury to be a right-back at the minute because his height is clearly an issue at centre-back. Not sure why I haven’t thought of it before because he looks ideal in a full-back/wing-back role. We’ll see next season, hopefully.

Down again

So 19th once more, with two more points than we achieved last time around in the top flight. It’s not much of an improvement and we need a re-think if we’re to ever stay in this division long-term (we need to bounce back quickly again, too). Central midfield and full-back are the areas of greatest need. Another small improvement: last time we accumulated 176 yellow cards and 8 reds, this time it was just the 140 yellows and 7 reds (for those who can’t remember, the previous record before we turned up was 121 yellows and 5 reds!).

Another plus as the season ends, the Board decide to expand the ground once more, taking capacity to 18,750. It’s a 12 month job so we’ll be back at Bolton for the whole of next season.

Stadium Expansion to cheer us up at the end of a hard season

Season 25 – And Back to The Championship

Pre-Season

A new dawn, a little darker than the one before but we have hope and we have Tim Pemberton.

Early transfer window bids come in and Mario Minambres is going back out on loan to Spennymoor to continue his development. There’s still hope he could be an excellent keeper for us but he’s still behind Sani, Donnelly and Gabriel so it seems prudent to get him game time elsewhere. Right-back David McMahon (S19-09) is transfer listed and immediately attracts the attention of Bohemians. He doesn’t look like he’s got much more development to give and doesn’t look interested even if he did. The deal goes through quickly and we get £115k up front and the likelihood of £150k in total.

Other bids are arriving thick and fast, and largely for players who were on the periphery last season but who I expect to kick on this year (especially back in the Championship where the quality will suit their development better). Ken Lee is top of Luton’s list (always sniffing around, Luton) and also interesting Middlesbrough, while Max Thomas draws a £650k bid from Brighton. Thomas is unhappy with the bid being rejected but I remind him of his contract and the £3.6m relegation release clause he agreed to. If that’s met, fair enough, but until then keep quiet lad! He sees the error of his ways and leaves with his tail between his legs.

We don’t need to sell anyone at all right now. Our £41m parachute payment arrives, taking our bank balance to a very healthy £134m that I can’t spend. Having said that, I do accept a bid of £100k for Cameron Naismith – another defender who hasn’t quite made it and I think it’s time to give his back-up role to younger, hungrier players. He’ll be off to Chesterfield once he agrees personal terms and League One feels like the 22-year-old’s level to be honest.

No need to sell anyone…
I mean, really no need

Despite being in the Premier League last season we are 200-1 to go back up, only Crewe favoured less by the bookies. It’s all a bit rude (but also a bit worrying). Bristol City are in for Max Thomas now and Middlesbrough come back but are targeting Tom Colledge instead, now. Blanket ‘no’s’ pepper the emails back. Ken Lee isn’t happy that I’ve refused to let him talk to Norwich and a run of offers on staff begins and escalates to the point where Watford are trying to poach Head Of Youth Development, Scott Morton, just a year into his role with us.

Released player time:

  • AML – Joseph Obi (S18-02)
  • AML – Siegfried Breuer (S20-08)
  • AMC/AML – Ray Clancy (S20-07)
  • DC – David Cassidy (S22-08)
  • DC – Alun French (S22-07)
  • AMC – Can Ekiz (S22-06)
  • AMR – Danny Rowland (S22-05)

A sad indictment on Season 22’s intake with players expected to have a chance of making it (ranked 5th to 8th) all failed to make decent progress.

3-1 (h) Aarhus GF. Goals: Afful (2), Vaughan. Assists: Tyrrell (2), East

Morton leaves for Watford! We’re on the hunt for a new Head Of Youth Development again, arguably the most important role at the club. The advert is out.

1-1 (a) Dorking Wanderers. Goals: Court. Assists: Storey.

Our new HOYD arrives in the form of Rovan Hendrickson and I’m quietly pleased. He’s very professional and looks like he’ll work well within the academy. Fingers crossed.

A Professional Guy

1-1 (h) Dundee United. Goals: Nicolson (og). Assists: Vaughan.

3-1 (h) Sporting Lisbon (Tom Boateng Testimonial). Goals: Barrett, Boateng, Court. Assists: Tancock (2), East.

A patchy pre-season that ends successfully with a our best performance in the Tom Boateng testimonial against Sporting. The first XI is in a little bit of flux at the moment and I’m not certain who the best players are in every position as the season gets underway. Matthew Tyrrell strained his back in the Dundee United game and will miss the start of the season so we’re back to Kieran Ross at right-back and the lack of full-back cover is becoming glaring, especially as I’ve sold Naismith and McMahon. Danny Harden (S18-09) is now the cover on both sides while Tyrrell is out. Derek Duxbury is pressing for a starting place and that may give us a chance to play Stan Hind in midfield again. Ben Tancock impressed against Sporting but had been poor prior to that, so we’ll be keeping an eye on that and Fabian McAllister has been away on international duty for almost all of pre-season so our evaluation on him isn’t complete. I’m still hopeful of improvement and especially from the Season 19 guys (Pemberton, Afful, East, Vaughan) who are all now 21 and could benefit from a season back in the Championship.

Manchester United poach a young academy prospect: Michael Smart is a name to watch in the future. In other transfer news, we reject a Bristol City offer for Derek Duxbury (come on Derek, please come good this season!) and then Luton offer £5.5m for Joseph Afful, who isn’t the slightest bit interested.

Bristol City are not to be deterred and come back with a £5.25m bid that meets Duxbury’s relegation release clause. There’s nothing we can do and Director of Football, Louie Stewart, is forced to accept the bid. Obviously, Andy Brooks immediately injures himself and will miss the first two games of the season. Looks like Stan’s back in defence. Boateng picks up an injury as well that rules him out for a couple of weeks and the starting XI for the opener against Middlesbrough is in disarray. It also puts a spanner in the works of both players’ attempts to break the club appearance record. As the season starts, Brooks sits just two appearances from Patrick Black’s record of 598, with Boateng 15 games away on 583 (and seven behind Darren Connor who currently sits third on the list).

Transfer Summary:

  • DR David McMahon (S19-09) to Bohemians – £115k (£150k)
  • DR/DL/DC Cameron Naismith (S18-06) to Chesterfield – £100k (£140k)
  • DR/DL Godfred Yamoah (S21-08) to AFC Wimbledon – £10k (30% of future profit)

Loan Summary:

  • GK Mario Minambres (S19-12) to Spennymoor (National League)
  • MC Kingsley Storey (S21-05) to Walsall (League Two)
  • GK Dom Lundstram (S19-01) to Harrogate (National League North)
  • AML Tammy Court (S22-01) to Tamworth (National League North)
  • DR Sam Ellington (S22-04) to Harrogate (National League North)
  • AMR/SC David Maclaren (S23-01) to Fylde (League One)
  • AMR/SC Ian Jones (S21-02) to Oxford United (Championship)
  • AML Ervin Hasanovic (S23-08) to Southport (National League North)
  • GK Markku Mustonen (S23-04) to Buxton (National League North)
  • AMR Tom Colledge (S23-03) to Southport (National League North)
  • GK Sanni Suleiman (S22-03) to Stockport (National League)
  • DC Joseph Grenade (S23-05) to Scunthorpe United (National League)
  • DC Joseph Junior Kargbo (S23-06) to Halesowen (National League North)
  • MC Ken Lee (S22-02) to Lincoln City (League Two)
  • SC Chris Wright (S20-01) to Oxford United (Championship)
  • DR Sebastian Beschorner (S24-05) to Gloucester (National League North)

July/August 2045

The season starts early with the first game on 29th July. Duxbury plays despite being subject to a transfer bid and McAllister starts for Boateng.

2-0 (h) Middlesbrough. Goals: Vaughan (47, 49). Assists: McAllister (47), Afful (49).

1-1 (a) Birmingham City. Goals: Vaughan (2). Assists: East (2).

3-1 (h) Crewe Alexandra. Goals: Barrett (2), Vaughan (52, 69). Assists: East (2), Ross (52), McAllister (69).

2-4 (a) Barnsley. Goals: Vaughan (3), Afful (63). Assists: Afful (3), Tancock (63).

4-0 (h) Bournemouth. Goals: Vaughan (8, 14, 52), East (25). Assists: Boateng (8), Afful (14), Barrett (25).

2-1 (a) Leicester City (Carabao Cup). Goals: Vaughan (52), Boateng (79). Assists: Barrett (52), McAllister (79).

0-1 (a) Charlton Athletic.

The winning start against Middlesbrough hopefully sets the tone, an FC United performance of old after the struggles in the Premier League. Vaughan on form and Duxbury outstanding at the back. So outstanding in fact, that we decide to try and convince him to stay by offering him a new contract. Surprisingly, he agrees to open negotiations and we make him a decent offer. Now we wait.

The Birmingham match is frustrating as we lead for 86 minutes and should have buried the game within the first ten minutes. We don’t take our chances and pay for it. There’s good news though, Duxbury signs a new contract! He’s staying and our long-term replacement for Andy Brooks might well be in the building.

The Crewe game is relatively straightforward despite letting them draw level early in the second half. Good contributions from almost everybody with Tancock the lowest performing (6.6).

Jamie Clark (S23-09) becomes the latest young transfer target, Middlesbrough offering peanuts and being sent away with an elephant in their ear. The come back and try and prise Joseph Grenade away instead, like they’re trying to collect FC United players. We still don’t need the money, though there’s been a dip in the finances from £134m to just £130m! Ha! I’m finally in a position to ask the Board to spend a little of it again and they agree to set aside £4.86m for improvements to the training facilities. It’ll be ready by Christmas.

Old habits kick in against Barnsley. We throw away an early lead by getting caught on the break twice and then conceding twice in quick succession from corners. We go in 1-4 down at half-time in a game we looked in control of. A spirited second half fightback is in vain, Tykes keeper Henry Callaghan keeping out everything bar a Joseph Afful header. It’s back down to reality with a huge bump.

The veterans are back for the Bournemouth game, Brooks replacing an injured Duxbury for his 597th appearance and Boateng replacing McAllister who has a slight knock. The Cherries – 4th in the table at the start of play – are run ragged in the opening half hour as we open up a three goal cushion, obviously desperate to make amends for the defeat at Barnsley. Vaughan’s on fire and even when his second-half penalty is saved, it comes right back to him to slot home. It’s that kind of game. Except for Ben Tancock. The midfielder’s form is below par and we have to hope he regains it soon.

A promising start

As a side note, Vaughan has clocked up nine goals in the first five games. That matches his total from last season!

A return to Premier League opposition in the League Cup and we hold Leicester goalless in the first half. Andy Brooks plays game number 598 to equal Patrick Black’s record but there’s no place for Ben Tancock, dropped in favour of a Boateng-McAllister midfield axis. Vaughan scores a pearler from distance and that new midfield combine for a second, Boateng converting McAllister’s corner. A late consolation won’t stop us and we’ve done some giant-killing.

Sloppy play at the start of the second half against Charlton allows them to take the lead in a cagey, close encounter. It’s enough to win them the game despite a second-half onslaught that sees us outshoot them 17 to 5, but the ball won’t go in as we witness yet another keeper having a stormer.

Transfer deadline day starts with four offers in my inbox by 9:15am. Joseph Grenade to Charlton for £180k is rejected, Ian Jones loan deal to Championship Oxford is accepted, as is League One Fylde’s loan bid for David Maclaren – that feels like an excellent development opportunity for the young striker – and young winger Ervin Hasanovic (S23-08) is allowed to go on loan to Southport. Charlton come back with £425k on the table but it’s still a no. Grenade is the future. So too, could be Jamie Clark and the £170k bid from Reading is turned down. Charlton remain undeterred and are joined by Huddersfield, but there’s no way I’m selling, even at £525k.

Vaughan caps a great month by claiming Championship Player and Young Player of the Month and Kingsley Storey (S21-05) comes third in the League Two voting after some great box-to-box midfielding for Walsall. That’s very pleasing to see.

September 2045

0-2 (h) Luton Town.

1-2 (a) Newcastle United. Goals: Vaughan (10). Assists:

3-2 (h) Oxford United (Carabao Cup). Goals: Vaughan (31, 90+5), Boateng (73). Assists: Boateng (31), Thomas (90+5).

0-1 (h) Watford.

0-2 (a) Crystal Palace.

The Luton game is a huge disappointment as we outplay them completely in the first half without scoring and then gift them two goals in the second. Andy Brooks makes his 600th appearance for the club but it’s not his finest hour because it wasn’t anyone’s finest hour.

The game against Newcastle follows a similar pattern – strong first half, accentuated by a Carl Vaughan penalty, rubbish second half. Huge concerns at left-back now as well with Jamie Pearson bringing his Premier League form down to the Championship with him. His confidence is shot and we haven’t got much in the way of back-up. Three defeats in a row drops us down to 14th in the table as well. There’s much work ahead.

An action-packed League Cup tie with Oxford will hopefully boost morale, despite them twice coming from behind to level. At 1-1 we had Danny Harden sent off (not a good audition for the left-back spot from him) and with 25 minutes left I thought we’d have to hang on for penalties until Boateng scored. Another Oxford equaliser looked to be taking us to the shoot-out but Vaughan had other ideas and grabbed a 95th minute winner. Oxford even had time to have a goal disallowed after that, just to keep us on our toes, but it remained 3-2 and we’re through to the next round. Our reward? A trip to Arsenal.

No such boost to morale occurs. Struggling Watford come to Broadhurst Park and steal a win with their only shot on target. I’ve no idea how we’ve lost but the goals have dried up in the league and we need to rectify it quickly. Just one goal in the last four league games, and that was a penalty.

Four defeats in a row – that promising start has disappeared

We can’t even score from the spot against Palace, Afful firing wide in another fruitless performance. Another game dominated with no goals to show for it. Good performances at least from Pemberton and Pearson at the back, especially pleasing for the left-back and a good substitute outing from Joe George (S23-07) on the right wing but that’s all there is to crow about.

The only other good news in September: the continued excellent form of Kingsley Storey at Walsall, where he wins League Two Young Player of the Month. We might be bringing him back to run our midfield soon.

October 2045

2-0 (h) Reading. Goals: Vaughan (7), Julien (68). Assists: –

3-2 (a) Queens Park Rangers. Vaughan (4, 38), East (66). Assists: Ross (38).

3-2 (a) Aston Villa. Goals: Vaughan (6, 25), Afful (83). Assists: Barrett (6), Ross (25), Vaughan (83).

0-4 (a) Arsenal (Carabao Cup).

3-2 (h) Portsmouth. Goals: Tancock (9), Barrett (24), Vaughan (45). Assists: East (9), Pearson (24).

At last, a win. Reading are brushed aside 2-0 with the defence excellent throughout. We also saw a goal from open play at last, Ronald Julien following up Carl Vaughan’s first half-penalty with a volley from a half-cleared corner. It was Julien’s first goal for the club, too.

It rains penalties at Loftus Road, we score one apiece early in the first half but Vaughan misses a second attempt from the spot after half an hour. He makes up for it minutes later, breaking free and dinking a lovely chip over the onrushing keeper. We hit the crossbar either side of that strike, McAllister almost demolishing the goal with a thunderous volley from distance and Barrett unlucky from inside the box. QPR level on the stroke of half-time and have scored with their only two shots of the half. Unbelievably, Vaughan gets a third chance from the spot and sees it saved and we seem intent on not taking any opportunity to win until East steps up from 25 yards out and thrashes a free-kick into the top corner. It proves to be a worthy and deserved winner.

Top of the table Aston Villa provide a stern test and despite taking a two goal lead, they peg back those two Vaughan goals before half-time. A tense second half ensues but we dominate and get our just rewards when Afful finishes nicely from a Vaughan cross with just seven minutes remaining. It feels like we’ve turned the corner.

Getting back on track – a win at the league leaders is just the boost we need

Have we developed a fear of Premier League teams after our chastening experience in the top flight last season? Maybe. Our League Cup tie at Arsenal gets of to the worst start possible with Max Thomas sent off after just five minutes. He was in on the right wing (Barrett, Afful and East all rested) and did a particularly right winger tackle and that was pretty much the end of the tie. We’re four down by half-time – though in fairness, Arsenal were ruthless and created just five attempts – and despite a good half-time team talk and Arsenal levelling out the numbers on the hour, there’s clearly no way back. At least we don’t concede again. A very small positive. Back to the league.

A third consecutive 3-2 win in the league, this time at home to Portsmouth, lifts us to 10th in the table. This one was a bit more comfortable and we didn’t relinquish the lead once Ben Tancock had opened the scoring early on (his first goal of the season) though it still felt necessary to shut up shop near the end, just to make sure. The defence aren’t looking that solid at the minute, though today we were missing Pemberton and Ross, both fatigued after a slew of games in recent weeks, but we’ve only kept three clean sheets all season. It’s a bit of a worry.

Vaughan finishes the month as Championship Player & Young Player of the Month for the second time this season and his six goals in four games are a contributing factor to my Manager of the Month accolade as well. A good turnaround after the dismal run in September.

November 2045

2-4 (h) Stoke City. Goals: Vaughan (33, 36). Assists: East (36).

2-1 (a) Sheffield Wednesday. Goals: Afful (59, 61). Assists: East (59).

2-0 (a) Derby County. Goals: Vaughan (28), Hall (72). Assists: Tancock (28), Tyrrell (72).

0-0 (h) Hull City.

That fragile defence we talked about undoes us at home to Stoke. We’re two down after half an hour and even though Vaughan gets us level before the break, we collapse again soon after. Full-backs are in the headlines for all the wrong reasons again and Sani has some explaining to do for the first goal, standing motionless as the ball sailed in at his near post. Tom Boateng’s appearance was his 531st in the league which takes him past Andy Brooks. He still trails the centre-back in total appearances 603-597, but he’s closing fast now with Brooks largely displaced by Derek Duxbury.

A dismal first half at Hillsborough sees us lucky to be just a goal down at half-time but two goals in three minutes from Joseph Afful turns the game on it’s head around the hour mark. We see the game out without much further threat from an in-form Wednesday side and the confidence is seeping back in after the Stoke disaster. It’s good to see Afful among the goals again and that doubles his total for the season. Let’s hope there’s more to come.

The bad news? Pemberton, Boateng and Pearson all collected their fifth yellow cards and will miss the game at Derby in three days’ time.

The changes don’t stop us. We steamroller Derby who are lucky to come away with a 2-0 defeat. Matthew Tyrrell steps up at right back (Ross switching to cover the suspended Pearson on the left) and puts in a Player of the Match performance that was going to be his even before he swung in the sumptuous cross that led to Hall heading in the second goal. The whole defence played well, including Stan Hind – in for Pemberton. It was a great team performance and lifts us into the play-off spots.

Back in the play-off places

Second-placed Hull frustrate us at home but it’s another solid defensive performance. Neither team comes particularly close to winning it and a point each is a fair result.

December 2045

3-1 (h) Oxford United. Goals: Vaughan (12), Barrett (25, 42). Assists: Pemberton (25), Vaughan (42).

1-1 (a) Blackburn Rovers. Goals: Afful (38). Assists: Ross (38).

0-1 (a) Huddersfield Town.

3-0 (h) Nottingham Forest. Goals: Barrett (11), McAllister (14), Vaughan (56). Assists: East (11, 56).

1-1 (h) Cardiff City. Goals: Afful (5). Assists: East (5).

1-0 (a) Middlesbrough. Goals: Boateng (58). Assists:

1-2 (a) Cardiff City (FA Cup). Goals: Boateng (49). Assists:

A comfortable win over struggling Oxford kicks December off well. All the action took place in the first half and despite a rapid Oxford leveller after Vaughan had given us the lead we pushed on and dominated and scored the necessary goals. Joshua Barrett stepped up with two and was unlucky not to leave with the match ball. A training ground knock to Samuel Sani meant this was a first start of the season for Callum Donnelly, too.

The draw at Blackburn is a frustrating one, not least because Vaughan manages to miss two penalties for the second time this season. Can no-one take a consistently good penalty in this team? Time to take another look.

The frustration continues at Huddersfield as we fall to a one-goal defeat. We’re arguably the better side but it’s hard to say we really played well enough to win. It’s important to log another win quickly to stop this becoming a slide.

The youth intake preview doesn’t give us much to cheer about either. Sure, it’s an excellent group of players but where’s the detail. We’re getting a top prospect in central midfield and that’s about all we know.

Tell me more, tell me more…

Watford are sniffing around Carl Vaughan as well and prompts me to enter contract negotiations with the striker in case they activate his relegation release clause. It’s set at £15.25m but Vaughan’s current market value is £23m. He wants £30k per week and we’re going to have to let him have it to rid ourselves of that clause before the January transfer window opens.

A home game against a struggling Nottingham Forest side is the perfect chance to get back to winning ways and we set about them early. Barrett continues his rich vein of form with the opener and McAllister – newly annointed as the penalty taker – converts his first spot-kick three minutes later to make it 2-0 after 14 minutes. Having seemingly done something right, we then proceed to attempt to self-destruct. McAllister throws an elbow and is red-carded with 70 minutes still to play. However, for once we don’t crumble and continue to take the game to Forest. Vaughan adds a third early in the second-half and we’re rarely threatened after that.

The training facilities work completes and they’re now rated ‘superb’, closing in on the ‘state of the art’ youth facilities and complementing our ‘exceptional’ junior coaching and youth recruitment. Bring on the wonderkids. Meanwhile, our oldest academy graduate wants to go out on loan. Andy Brooks is getting frustrated at the lack of game time and now seems to be fourth choice centre-back behind Pemberton, Duxbury and Hind. He’ll be 32 by the end of the season and the writing might be on the wall, even if he is signed up for another two seasons after this. He might also not want to be around when Boateng passes his appearance record. He’s currently sat on 602 total appearances, one behind Brooks.

Nearly up to the max…

Absolutely no idea how we don’t beat Cardiff. We batter them from the start, an early Afful strike giving us the lead, and there is constant pressure throughout. We hit the post, the keeper is inspired, we hit the bar, we muster 24 shots – 10 on target – and control 66% of the possession. But it’s one of those games. You could tell it was one of those games and even though the 85th minute breakaway equaliser was undeserved, it was entirely expected. A game to make you tear your hair out.

In a break with tradition, we win at Middlesbrough by a single goal and only create three chances the whole game. Tom Boateng is the match-winner, stepping up as the new back-up penalty-taker after Panagi was bundled over in the box and putting the gloss on his record-breaking 604th club appearance. Defensively we were solid again and a mention to Stan Hind, who’s stepped in with Duxbury injured for the past couple of games and might well hang on to his place if he carries on playing the way he is. Healthy competition and one of the reasons Andy Brooks is finding it hard to move past 603 appearances.

A goal from the spot on his record-breaking 604th club appearance for Tom Boateng

We have an early chance to avenge that Cardiff draw theft in the FA Cup 3rd Round…and don’t take it. History repeats itself: Afful hits the post, Vaughan hits the bar, their keeper is inspired. Their goal really does lead a charmed life as we pretty much mimic the stats from the last game: 23 shots – 10 on target – and 65% of possession but just one goal to show for it (another Boateng penalty). The only difference is that this time Cardiff score twice. Our FA Cup run is over before it even began.

January 2046

1-0 (a) Crewe Alexandra. Goals: George (83). Assists: Boateng (83).

2-1 (h) Barnsley. Goals: Afful (17), George (55). Assists: Pearson (17), Tancock (55).

4-3 (a) Bournemouth. Goals: Vaughan (3), Afful (31), East (48), Boateng (59). Assists: Tancock (3, 48), Ross (31).

5-0 (h) Birmingham City. Goals: McAllister (34, 51), Vaughan (52, 56), Hind (88). Assists: Vaughan (34), Boateng (52, 56), Maclaren (88).

0-0 (h) Charlton Athletic.

3-0 (a) Luton Town. Goals: East (23), McAllister (37), Vaughan (45+1). Assists: George (23), Boateng (45+1).

Early transfer window activity kicks off with a bid of £8.75m (rising to £14.25m) from Everton for Joseph Afful and one of £140k for young keeper Jamie Clark (S23-09). I reject both but Clark isn’t happy at all and wants the move. I do accept a loan offer for Callum Donnelly though – Oxford want him and guarantee he’ll be the starting keeper. That will get him Championship experience (and plenty of action, given that Oxford are bottom of the table) and that’s vital to his development.

Crewe frustrate us for huge chunks of the game – it feels like teams have got the measure of us right now -and limit our chances. An injury to Joshua Barrett in the first half looks worrying and young Joe George (S23-07) is on in his place. Vaughan is misfiring and has only scored once in the last dozen games and makes way for Thomas with 20 minutes to go. It’s George who makes the breakthrough though, grabbing his first ever goal thanks to a fantastic low finish across the keeper after a lovely looping ball over the defence from Boateng. It’s a deserved win and takes us up to 5th.

Joe George is on target again against Barnsley as we exact revenge for a 4-2 defeat back in August. We dominate with Afful giving us an early lead but there’s still a disparity between our play and our goal output and Barnsley give us a scare with a late rally after getting a goal back in the 78th minute. We hang on and gain another valuable three points but we need to get our strikers scoring again.

Up to 4th place

That striker conundrum has me considering recalling Ian Jones and/or David Maclaren from their loan spells. Vaughan’s back-ups (Max Thomas, Chris Wright, Wayne Knight) haven’t scored a goal between them so far this season and, admittedly, they only get to appear from the bench but zero goals from 19 collective appearances is not good. Someone needs to take on the role of super sub (or even half-decent sub).

I do just that. Jones and Maclaren are back in the fold and it makes sense to switch and offer the other three forwards out on loan. Knight attracts immediate interest and is off to Cork City while Everton are back with £13.25m (to £21.5m) on the table for Afful. But I don’t have to sell and Joseph seems happy enough right now.

The striker loan swap approach reaps instant dividends as we take an early lead at top of the table Bournemouth through Carl Vaughan! Obviously inspired by the returning competition he nets in the 3rd minute and begins an epic battle. Bournemouth are level within about 20 seconds and soon take the lead and I fear the worst. Everyone seems to have their shooting boots on today though and Afful gets us level before Bournemouth retake the lead, exposing Pearson down the left time and again to the point where I have to take him off and put Ross on that side instead. Dale East gets us level again just after half-time before Vaughan wins a penalty and Boateng slots it in for 4-3. A late disallowed Bournemouth goal has us worriedly looking across to the assistant referee but it’s all ok and we’ve won a massive game and entertained the neutrals into the bargain. Special mention to Ben Tancock, two assists and player of the match against tough opposition. The league table is bunching up, too, with just four points between us and Bournemouth.

A humdinger against table-topping Bournemouth

West Brom come in for Afful and it’s the bid he’s been waiting for. Time to take him to one side and give him what used to be known as the ‘Keeling chat’. It works, Afful loves the place and wants to stay forever (I may be paraphrasing).

For the first time in ages we enjoy a comfortable win! Birmingham offer stubborn resistance for 34 minutes but a sensational drive from McAllister breaks the deadlock and sets us on our way to a 5-0 victory. McAllister gets another from the spot, Boateng sets up Vaughan twice and Stan Hind scores a rare goal to wrap things up. We are one point off the automatic promotion places all of a sudden

A proper good showing
Mighty close at the top now

More bids, Blackburn offer £9.25m for a totally uninterested Joshua Barrett, Charlton offer £275k for Ken Lee (S22-02), who is interested but won’t be allowed to leave (though he does seem to be constantly injured this season, when I thought he might break through with more first team opportunities) and Tottenham and Norwich offer modest amounts for Zaine Gabriel. The Gabriel bids are accepted: he was transfer listed in December after reports from the coaching staff that “off-the-field incidents” had led to a deterioration in his attitude. With eight goalkeepers on the payroll and younger, brighter prospects emerging, it makes sense to get what cash we can for him and move forward with other players. It probably means recalling someone from loan though given that I’ve just packed Donnelly off to Oxford for first team experience. One of Minambres, Lundstram or Suleiman will return soon.

Charlton come for a point and get it. They have one shot (off-target) all game, play with 3-4-2-1 where the four are all DMs and wing-backs in front of a back three and get booed off the pitch (by me). We still muster nine shots on target but the keeper tips a Tancock thunderbolt over the bar and the woodwork takes another hammering. There were only two games on today and we’ve blown a chance to temporarily go top of the table. As it stands there’s just one point separating the top five (though the three teams above us all have a game in hand).

Gabriel picks Tottenham and is on his way. I don’t think he’ll make much of an impression there to be honest but we’re £130k better off. Suleiman gets the nod to return. Despite being the youngest of the keepers under consideration to come back – he’s just 18 – he’s already the most first-team ready…

…which is a good job! Why does this always happen the minute you sell your back-up keeper?!? Looks like Samuel Sani will miss the trip to second-placed Luton and 18-year-old Sanni Suleiman is in line for his FC United debut.

A bout of flu thrusts an 18-year old into first team action – boot up Sanni Suleiman!

As it turns out, the defence protect Suleiman well and he doesn’t even have to make a save for the first hour. By that time, we’re 3-0 up after a sensational first half in which East, McAllister (from the spot) and Vaughan score and Luton are dead and buried by the time the half-time whistle blows. They only threaten deep into injury time and Suleiman (and an excellent back four) come away with a satisfying clean sheet against one of the top teams in the division. And we move up to 3rd, above Luton, while Newcastle, QPR and Hull all drop points around us. The one down-side, lost amid the performance, we lost Ben Tancock in the 6th minute to an ankle injury that will keep him out for a month.

Great debut for Suleiman and a superb defensive performance

The Tancock injury prompts another bout of loan musical chairs. Kingsley Storey is brought back after an impressive spell at Walsall and Ken Lee is allowed to go out on loan in his place. Storey is a couple of years older and looks more first-team ready right now. Lee is on his way to League Two Lincoln on transfer deadline day and we’ll be hoping he can have the same impact Storey has had at that level. Chris Wright is also heading out on loan, to Championship Oxford where he’ll fill the gap vacated when we recalled Ian Jones earlier in the month.

We aren’t done on transfer deadline day yet. We turn down a bid of £300k from Cardiff for 16-year-old Dan Rees (24-08) and then a lesser bid for the same player from Middlesbrough before also rejecting a Reading bid of £105k for keeper Jamie Clark. Clark remains unsettled and I’ve been forced to field numerous questions from the press over the past few weeks. Even though every time I say something publicly – usually about there being no way I’m selling him – Clark reacts positively yet is still angling for a move. I don’t understand him. Reading aren’t to be deterred though (and Cardiff have a dabble as well) and come back with a bid of £250k, rising to £300k and with a 40% sell-on profit clause. I take a closer look at Clark at this point: he isn’t happy and he was only the 9th rated prospect in his year. Is it worth the agitation? On the plus side, his reflexes and handling skills are superb for his age, it’s just his physicals that let him down. It’s at this point that I notice that he’s 5’9″. Five feet and nine inches! Now I’m not averse to playing short players (I’m only 5’6″ myself, so I have empathy) but 5’9″ is very short for a keeper. It’s enough to make my mind up. He’s going. I tell him how disappointed I am with the way he’s engineered the move. Plus, I’ll have to recall someone else now!

Selling a teeny, tiny goalkeeper
And now he’s left, this is what our scouts think – no great loss!

It’s Markku Mustonen (S23-04) who heads back home, his loan spell with Buxton classifiable as disappointing at best. It didn’t seem to be doing him good and he’ll be better served getting games with our U18s and U23s. I think this has been our busiest transfer deadline day ever.

February 2046

4-0 (h) Newcastle United. Goals: Vaughan (1), Afful (14, 80), McAllister (37). Assists: East (1), Pearson (80).

0-1 (a) Watford.

1-2 (h) Crystal Palace. Goals: Vaughan (55). Assists: Afful (55).

1-3 (a) Reading. Vaughan (67). Assists: East (67).

4-2 (h) Queens Park Rangers. Goals: Hall (48), McAllister (65, 77), George (84). Assists: George (48), Storey (77), McAllister (84).

3-1 (a) Portsmouth. Goals: East (58, 74, 79). Assists: George (58), Ross (74).

Newcastle arrive at Broadhurst Park on an 11-match unbeaten run and second in the table. We rattle them with a goal inside the first 60 seconds – Vaughan stabbing home when the ball falls free in the box – and Afful adds to the score when he pounces on a mistake in their defence and breaks free, slotting home nicely. Pearson wins a penalty and McAllister makes no mistake to make it 3-0 before half-time. The second game in a row we’ve done that against fellow promotion contenders. Just as with Luton, our first half performance knocks the stuffing out of Newcastle and they’ve nothing to offer in the second 45. Afful finishes them off with a smart header ten minutes from the end. Whisper it, but we appear to be hitting form at just the right time. We leapfrog Newcastle into second place, ending their unbeaten run and extending ours to ten games.

Another great win – are we going back up?

Unsurprisingly, we come crashing back to earth with a dismal 1-0 defeat at Watford, down in 17th place and threatening nobody until we turn up. Ross and Pemberton play really well but nobody else matches their effort, not least the attacking quartet. They know I’m not happy. Luton go past us into second though leaders Bournemouth lose, as do Newcastle, which softens the blow a little.

Newly minted back-up keeper Sanni Suleiman has torn a thigh muscle and is ruled out for 2-3 months. That might be his season done and, with the transfer window closed, we can’t recall any of the three loan players. That leaves 17-year-old Markku Mustonen (S23-04) in the back-up role. Let’s hope Samuel Sani can stay injury-free!

Crystal Palace go ahead early on their visit to Broadhurst Park and are two up before half-time when Pemberton is penalised for the most innocuous looking penalty yet seen (and that’s some claim). Despite pulling one back after a superb break from Afful that feeds Vaughan, we can’t get the all-important second and have suffered back-to-back defeats just as we’d positioned ourselves as promotion contenders. Luton lose and Newcastle draw as everyone starts to bottle it. 13 games to go – the next unbeaten run needs to start now.

It doesn’t start in the first ten minutes at Reading. We’re dreadful and are 2-0 down almost instantly. When they add a third before half an hour is up it’s hard to remember this is the same team that just demolished two promotion rivals in the last month. I shout till I’m hoarse at half-time. East crosses superbly for Vaughan to tap in at the near post in the 67th minute but it’s a consolation goal and nothing more, despite an improved second half.

The defence, shorn of Pemberton (suspended) and Pearson (bit tired), actually hold firm for more than five minutes at home to QPR. The attack, shorn of Afful (bit tired) and East (really tired, all the time), struggle though in the opening 45 minutes. It’s 0-0 and no indication whatsoever of what’s about to happen in the second half. Suddenly the floodgates open: Hall scores his first goal of the season and McAllister slots home a penalty but on both occasions QPR quickly draw level, insisting we work hard for this win. McAllister scores again in the 77th minute to put our noses in front once more and George finally puts the game to rest with six minutes to go. A win, at last, and with Luton losing (and Newcastle) we’re only a point off second again. All to play for.

Back on track? It doesn’t feel that way in the first half at Portsmouth. They take a deserved lead midway through the half but I’m hopeful at half-time. I’m about to make a change as the hour mark approaches – the no.11 is up on the board and Connor Hall is warming up to replace Dale East – when the game changes direction. East heads home a great Joe George cross and we ask Hall to go and sit back down again. He’s disappointed but, ever the professional, he enjoys the rest of the show as East completes his hat-trick and guides us to a 3-1 win. With Luton losing again (they did this for us when we went up two seasons ago), we’re back in second spot.

Dale East puts promotion in our own hands

March 2046

1-1 (a) Stoke City. Goals: McAllister (2). Assists:

3-3 (h) Aston Villa. Goals: Vaughan (43, 45+2), Boateng (58). Assists: Boateng (43), McAllister (45+2, 58).

3-1 (a) Hull City. Goals: Boateng (15), Vaughan (20), Russo (82). Assists: George (15, 20), Boateng (82).

1-0 (a) Oxford United. Goals: McAllister (17). Assists:

We strike early at Stoke, Vaughan catching them cold and winning a penalty just 56 seconds in. McAllister continues his good run from the spot but we fail to capitalise and a dogged Stoke side eventually draw level and take a point.

The game against Villa is a roller-coaster. We look like we’re throwing things away again – getting to second spot and then tailing off – as they lead early and add to it before half-time. Somehow though, we go in at the break level as for once our midfield takes hold of the game with first, Boateng and then McAllister providing assists for Vaughan in the three minutes following Villa’s second. When Boateng heads in McAllister’s cross in the second half it looks like we’ve completed a great turnaround only for Villa to grab an undeserved 96th minute equaliser. I will forever wonder at what Sani was doing, stooping to pick up the ball as it flew across goal rather than just diving on it. He missed it completely to allow one of the most bizarre goals we’ve conceded. We’ve been unlucky and Newcastle edge past us. Bournemouth are away at the top and Hull, Stoke and Luton are all four points behind us now, with Villa a further point back. Looks like Newcastle are going to be the team to beat.

Our midweek game against Sheffield Wednesday is postponed – our first postponement in three or four season – and those around us take advantage, Newcastle stretching away and teams bunching up below us. The international break means we don’t play on the Saturday either but the results are more in our favour this time: Newcastle draw, as do Luton but Stoke win and go above. With two games in hand on them and the Magpies, we can go back into second but it will be two weeks before we can attempt to reassert ourselves on the league table.

In the meantime, the new crop of youths arrive and nobody is using the phrase ‘golden generation’. I take a look to see if I can work out why.

  • AM (RC), ST (C) Tom Davies – a physical player, but unambitious, looks more like a striker than a right-winger which is good because this intake is more right-wing than the Daily Mail.
  • AM (RL) Kwesi Taylor – light-hearted Swede, flair player, moderately good at most things so could develop. More right-wing than left.
  • M/AM (R) – Ricardo Van Dongen – another right-winger, but Van Dongen is driven, physical and has some good technical abilities already. The best of the bunch so far.
  • D/WB (R) – Micah Henderson – a fairly professional right-back with decent potential. Superb mental skills and I’m quietly excited that this might be our right-back of the future.
  • M/AM (R) – Kevin Meredith – what’s going on? Another right-winger, another light-hearted player. Meredith looks decent, another physically good player with solid attributes throughout. Might try and convert him to AMC given he’ll never get the chance to play right-wing!
  • D (RC) / WB (R) – Mohamed Lahrache – technically weak at present but strong elsewhere, we’ll aim to train him up more at centre-back. Some promise, but not loads.
  • M (C) – Frank Lea – was this the midfield maestro we were promised? Another light-hearted character – it’s going to be a laugh a minute in the U18s – there is potential here if he can kick on. I’m hopeful but put off by the staff predictions of his ultimate potential which suggests back-up material at best. We’ll see.
  • WB/M/AM (L) – Andy Feeney – modest looking left-winger. Fickle but 6’4″, so he’s allowed to be. Could be ok.
  • AM (L), ST (C) – Jason Johnston – decent looking striker but may lack the necessary mental ability to make the leap.
  • M (C), DM, AM (C) – Danny Corbett – unambitious central midfielder, will run a lot, could do a box to box job but will have to work hard to make it.
  • GK – Jermaine Leach – the goalkeeper well has dried up. Small (5’10”), weak and lacking decent mental traits, we might keep him just to make up the numbers.
  • D (L) – Darren McGowan – the staff aren’t high on McGowan but his mentals are probably the best of the group and he isn’t bad at anything. Can we channel his bravery and determination into something useful. He’s a left-back, so I feel obliged to try.
  • D (C) – Damon Wright – centre-back lacking in self-belief. Is brave and can tackle but lacks pace. Not entirely rubbish but not great either.
  • AM (RC) – Theo Bouteiller – French AMC (or right-winger, if we ever run out of those), unambitious and with few strengths. He’ll be gone soon.
  • DM – Louis Johnson – he’s light-hearted and can pass the ball but the majority of his technical skills are below par and there are too many weaknesses to think he’ll ever make it.
  • M/AM (L) – Luke Gomersall – unambitious left winger. A bit rubbish.
The best of the bunch?
Is this a decent right back?

Director of Football, Louie Stewart, recommends signing the first 11 players on this list and I unilaterally decide to add McGowan as the 12th. His starting attributes are superb, better than any previous academy left-back, so despite the suggested limit on his potential, it’s worth keeping him around. Within a day of the recruits signing, long-serving coach Stuart Cattell is suggesting right-back Micah Henderson for the U23s! Early promise!

A trip to promotion rivals Hull welcomes everyone back from the international break and we’re close to full-strength. Connor Hall is injured and likely out for the season so there’s a place on the bench for a left-winger and, after numerous reports showing excellent progress in recent months, the spot goes to Alexandre Russo (S24-09) ahead of Liam Cooper (S24-04). The game is tight, an exchange of early goals working in our favour as Joe George creates chances for Boateng and Vaughan to finish either side of a Hull strike. It’s nervy in the second half and both teams have chances. When Dale East picks up a knock, opportunity comes calling for young Russo and he gets chances. The first is superbly saved by the keeper but the second flies into the roof of the net for a debut goal that seals a 3-1 win. You have to love a goal on a debut! That keep us in fourth but just two points behind Stoke and Newcastle with two games in hand (Newcastle slipped up again today, losing at Palace).

Another good win, plus a debut goal for Russo

We escape from last-placed Oxford with a scruffy 1-0 win, McAllister converting his 7th penalty in a row after Ross was brought down. This was a close game and the defence had to play well for that clean sheet with Duxbury grabbing the Player of the Match award. Elsewhere, things definitely went our way with Newcastle losing at QPR, 2-0, and Stoke demolished by runaway leaders Bournemouth, 4-1. We’re back up to second and still have those two games in hand. Win those and we’re almost there.

April 2046

Our run in is favourable – 7th placed Huddersfield our trickiest tie – with four of our six games at Broadhurst Park. However, the rearranged game against Sheffield Wednesday, which should be first up, is postponed for a second time due a waterlogged pitch and there’s a small worry that Broadhurst Park could become a hindrance rather than a help. We’ll see.

The promotion run-in

3-2 (h) Blackburn Rovers. Goals: Vaughan (4, 40), Barrett (49). Assists: McAllister (4, 49), Afful (40).

0-0 (h) Derby County.

2-1 (h) Huddersfield Town. Goals: McAllister (38), George (55). Assists: Julien (55).

4-2 (h) Sheffield Wednesday. Goals: Vaughan (2, 71), Tyrrell (64), George (77). Assists: Ross (2), Boateng (64), McAllister (71), Tyrrell (77).

2-2 (a) Nottingham Forest. Goals: McAllister (13), Barrett (44). Assists: George (44).

1-2 (a) Cardiff City. Goals: Boateng (5). Assists: George (5).

Newcastle apply pressure with a Friday night win that takes them back above us so it’s crucial we get off to a good start at home to Blackburn. And that’s what happens, McAllister playing in Vaughan, who lifts a lovely chip over the keeper to open the scoring. A similar ball from Afful puts Vaughan in for a second but a wild Duxbury challenge gives Blackburn a lifeline early in the second half, allowing them to score from the spot. The team respond quickly again though and Barrett soon restores the two goal cushion. East then hits the woodwork twice in quick succession from long range free-kicks. Blackburn aren’t done though, they’re suddenly pinging the ball around the pitch like they’re in the Premier League and justifiably pull one back with 20 minutes to go. It gets close a couple of times but we see it out, 3-2. We still haven’t quite clinched a play-off place yet due to the top seven being markedly better than the rest of the league, but we’re back in second and in control of our own destiny.

The first of the games in hand is midweek at home to Derby. There’s no Boateng due to suspension but no Tancock either due to a minor thigh injury. Ronald Julien comes in with Kingsley Storey on the bench in case that doesn’t work out. The pre-match scouting report suggests Derby will park the bus and, despite a more adventurous than expected 4-2-3-1 formation, it takes us half an hour to even muster a shot. We get a clear sight of goal in the 38th minute, Ross tumbling in the box and winning another penalty. McAllister steps up…and fires it wide! Shouldn’t have mentioned his record last time out! It’s a goalless first half and there’s a scare at the start of the second with McAllister having to head off the line. We have half chances but can’t convert and the Rams grab the point they came for. It clinches that play-off place for us but, let’s be honest, our eyes are on a bigger prize. There’s two points between us and Newcastle and Stoke now and we still have another game in hand.

Boateng and Tancock are still missing – indeed, Tancock has picked up a knee injury now that will likely end his season – so Julien starts again after a solid performance against Derby. The contest is even at the start, both sides having chances, but it’s Huddersfield who strike first from a corner (that followed a wonderful Sani save). We seem nervous and a Julien mistake almost leads to a second. We get back into it thanks to a tried and tested combination: Ross getting fouled in the box and McAllister converting the penalty. It’s good to see after the miss last time out. McAllister crashes one against the bar as the second half gets underway and an early substitution reaps rewards, George on for Barrett and scoring almost immediately from a great Julien cross. Legs are tiring and there’s going to be chances – we’ve had to replace Pearson through injury and all our subs have been made early – but Huddersfield can’t get past Sani and the best chances fall to Vaughan in the end. He can’t convert but in the end he doesn’t need to and we hang on for a 2-1 win. The news from elsewhere is good – Newcastle and Stoke met and drew with each other 0-0. That puts us four points clear now and just one win from promotion back to the Premier League. We’ve got three attempts to do it.

Almost up!

The first attempt is that rearranged game against Sheffield Wednesday and our last home game of the season. We’re dealt a blow the day before when Samuel Sani is ruled out with a twisted knee. That prompts a huge collective gulp at Broadhurst Park where back-up Sanni Suleiman is still recovering from a torn thigh muscle. He’s close to a return and will undergo a fitness test but we could be forced to start with 17-year old Markku Mustonen (S23-04).

Suleiman passes the fitness test on Tuesday morning and will play despite the lack of match practice. Boateng is back but Afful is out, rested, and Pearson’s injury keeps him out. Hollis is in at AMC and Tyrrell comes into the defence with Ross switching to the left. Vaughan settles any early nerves, rounding the keeper to score after Ross puts him through but Wednesday have chances and it’s not long before Suleiman is called into action. He’s equal to it initially but a far post header in the 18th minute leaves him with no chance and the nerves creep back in. They’re full blown by half-time as a ball over the top leaves Suleiman exposed and we fall behind 2-1. I shout at half-time and tinker 15 minutes later, bringing off the disappointing pair of East and Hollis and replacing them with George down the left and debutant Khulekani Nkosi (S24-02), promoted to the bench due to injuries and Afful’s fatigue. The equaliser comes from an unexpected source though, Matthew Tyrrell firing into the roof of the net at the near post and raising the volume inside Broadhurst Park. A shattered McAllister is about to be replaced but musters one last through ball to Vaughan who side foots towards the far post…and in! Broadhurst Park goes mad! Joe George adds the icing on the cake, cutting in on his favoured right foot and curling the ball into the far corner to make it 4-2 and surely we aren’t going to slip up now. Suleiman is tested just once more, but the effort is tame and we’ve done it. We’re going back to the Premier League at the first time of asking.

A battling performance, worthy of the promotion it guarantees
A beautiful sight – promotion confirmed

We start in relaxed mood against Forest, perhaps too relaxed as they take an early lead from the spot after Pemberton bundles someone over. We have a spot kick of our own shortly after though, McAllister converting after he was fouled. We lead by half-time, a combination of George crossing from the left for Barrett to head home that was forced upon us minutes earlier by injury to East. Forest grab a deserved equaliser late in the game but no-one is that bothered, as you can tell by me admitting it was deserved. I’d have been furious if promotion was still on the line!

Boateng gets us off the mark early at Cardiff, Sani saves a penalty on his return to the starting line-up. Cardiff draw level on 57 minutes after sloppy play in our midfield and finish strongly, stealing a winner late on with an unstoppable shot from the right-hand side of the box. A disappointing way to end a game we’d dominated for large stretches. It gives me one last chance to shout at the side for not grabbing more goals before we break for the summer.

Big news at the end of the season: we ask the Board to improve the training facilities and they instantly agree, spending £4.9m that will make them ‘state of the art’ by the end of August. Without me asking, they also start work on a stadium expansion at last, though it’s only rising to a capacity of 12,500 due to some of the additional 7,414 seats replacing standing areas. It should be done by October meaning we’ll start in the Premier League ground-sharing with Bolton again at the Nat Lofthouse Stadium.

I’m more hopeful of staying up next season. We’ve retained the core of the squad over the last two seasons – I don’t think we’ve sold anyone we didn’t want to sell – and the majority of those players will have benefited from being two years older and more experienced. With that in mind, let’s look at who’s on the rise and who might be in decline.

On The Rise…

Derek Duxbury (S20-06) The central defender has not only passed Stan Hind in the pecking order but has beaten him to the usurping of Andy Brooks, leaving the veteran in single figure appearances this season. At 21, Duxbury has finally emerged into the player we’ve been hoping for to partner Pemberton and I’m hoping his progress will continue into the Premier League and give us more solidity than we had the last time out.

Joe George (S23-07) What a season for the young winger! Having started the year in the U23s, he quickly emerged as a useful sub for the first team and by the final few weeks of the season was keeping Joshua Barrett out of the side. Strength in depth on the wing will be very useful next season. Speaking of which…

Alexandre Russo (S24-09) Have we unearthed another wing wizard? A goal on his debut thrust Russo into the spotlight at 17 and we’ll probably limit his exposure over the coming year unless he makes it impossible for us not to. It might be too soon for him to light up the Premier League but he provides another excellent depth option right now. He also improved more than any other player in the squad, attribute wise over the last 12 months and that’s always a good sign.

Kingsley Storey (S21-05) Storey is quickly improving and having spent a very successful first half of the season on loan at Walsall it felt prudent to bring him back and give him first team experience here. While he’s still probably behind Boateng, Tancock and McAllister right now, he has edged ahead of the older Ronald Julien in a back-up role and if he can continue his development, he could pose a threat next season.

David Maclaren (S23-01) Another player who’s making the most of the training facilities available and improving year on year. While we struggled collectively to provide any additional ‘striker’ goals when Carl Vaughan wasn’t on the pitch, Maclaren looks the most likely to succeed and provide the necessary competition that, to be honest, has been lacking since Jim Keeling left. An improving Maclaren will likely lead to an improving Vaughan, too.

Khulekani Nkosi (S24-02) Fast-improving and picking up a couple of sub appearances already, Nkosi could do for Afful what Maclaren might do for Vaughan: add some competition and improve the team as a result. It’s still early days, but I’m quietly encouraged by the start.

Joseph Junior Kargbo (S23-06) Is Kargbo better than Joseph Grenade now? The pair arrived together and Grenade was the player I was immediately drawn to but his development is stunted when compared to Kargbo’s. It’s hard to ignore a player when they show a strong application to development and I’m likely to bring Kargbo along on pre-season games to see if he has what it takes.

Lloyd Byrne (S23-02) Byrne hasn’t been on the radar much but is another who has come on leaps and bounds in the last 12 months. He could have pushed himself past Wayne Rockett and maybe even Ken Lee. Another who may see pre-season action.

Liam Cooper (S24-04) Another winger in the system who’s shown major development this season. A brief appearance for the first team and he’s another who will get a try out pre-season.

Sebastian Beschorner (S24-05) It’s always exciting to see a full-back developing well and there are high hopes for Beschorner right now. He’s probably not ready for the first team just yet but it’s likely to be a position of need again sooner rather than later, so he may get thrust into the spotlight before too long.

Sanni Suleiman (S22-03) Circumstances this season allowed Suleiman an unexpected opportunity to start for the first team and he impressed enough in his three outings to put him firmly in the driving seat as Sani’s long term replacement. He’s probably still behind Donnelly in the pecking order but that might change next season. High hopes here.

In Decline…

We’ll keep this shorter, not wanting to dwell too long on shortcomings! We have to start with Andy Brooks though. Time might finally have caught up with the longest serving player at the club. Now 32, his playing time was limited this term and his struggles in the Premier League campaign the year before mean he’s unlikely to force his way back into the side now that we’re returning to the top flight. Duxbury, Pemberton and Hind are all ahead of him and there are other hot young prospects also moving into contention.

At 26, Connor Hall isn’t near the end of his career like Brooks but he’s found himself similarly usurped by up-and-coming youngsters. Relegated to cameo appearances for much of the season, the vice-captain still has something to offer but seems unlikely to re-emerge as a regular starter.

Dom Lundstram and Mario Minambres haven’t really done anything wrong – both have had successful loan spells again this year – but they’ve watched Sanni Suleiman leapfrog them and, at 22, they have to wonder if their chances have passed them by. Donnelly has the back-up role nailed down for now and it seems like the younger prospects are going to be the ones to challenge him. Time might be up for the two keepers who arrived in Season 19.

Final Notes

Speaking of Donnelly, he’s going to the World Cup! Sani and McAllister are going too but this is the first time the Australian has been called up for his national side. Can he make his international debut in the World Cup finals? And there’s a possibility of further international debuts with both Matthew Tyrrell and Joe George called up to the Wales squad for the first time.

Carl Vaughan takes the Top Goalscorer award for the Championship, netting 35 times in the league, seven more than his nearest rival, and Dale East is the EFL Young Player of the Year! Vaughan and Tim Pemberton make the Championship Players’ Select XI.

Season 24 – Adventures In The Premier League

Pre-Season

The big news in June is that captain Jim Keeling is no longer even interested in entering into contract discussions. He was only a bit-part player in the promotion run but I value his experience and it would be nice to have him around. There’s a month left to get it sorted.

Tim Pemberton follows the lead of some of the more experienced squad members and asks for a new ‘Premier League-worthy’ contract, which I’m happy to hand out. He becomes our highest earner on £21k per week, and the five-year contract (with no release clause) should keep us both happy.

Despite some useful youth products coming through during his two year tenure, I’ve decided we can upgrade from Marvin Jacobs. His contract isn’t being renewed and 43-year-old Scott Morton is handed the reins to the Youth Academy.

A New HOYD

The transfer window is ten days old before we start receiving bids. Wayne Knight (S21-01) is top of a lot of people’s lists and we turn down offers between £100k and £250k from Watford, Barnsley, Luton and Middlesbrough. Knight turns 18 in July and may be ready to play a bigger part next season – difficult to judge quite when some of these players will approach being first-team ready now that we’ve been promoted again and it’s definitely a longer path to the starting XI than it was four or five years ago.

Newcastle are in for Derek Duxbury (S20-06) and while he didn’t set the world on fire in League One last season on loan at Oldham, I still have high hopes that he’ll be close to first-team ready this year. I think we might need him and the £1.7m bid is rejected.

How much? Maybe no need to sell anyone!

One bid I do accept is for right winger Daryl Sinclair (S18-08). He’s off to Fylde for a princely £5k but with a 30% of the profit clause built in. Just in case. He hasn’t developed in the last two years and his unambitious personality has definitely held him back.

Newcastle are back for Duxbury. This time we’re turning down £4.9m and a week later, £6.75m. I’m hoping that with the Premier League windfall, we won’t be obliged to sell anyone.

We reach the end of June and seven players are released and yes, captain and comedy corner legend Jim Keeling is among them. It’s a sad day.

RELEASED PLAYERS:

  • AML/SC Jim Keeling (S9-06)
  • MC Jim Steele (S17-01)
  • AMC Kevin Molina (S20-09)
  • GK Liam Thompson (S21-13)
  • AML Kim In-Woo (S21-07)
  • DR Dara Keating (S21-12)
  • DC Tom James (S21-06)

A word about Jim is required, naturally, 5th on the all-time appearances list (489), 3rd highest goalscorer (177) and 3rd most assists (90). He’s also been our captain for the last four years and has been inspirational through much of our progress. It’s a shame that he leaves just as we reach the Premier League.

It also prompts a paragraph on the remaining veterans. There’s quite an age gap between the four who are left and the rest of the squad. No one remains from intakes 12, 13 and 14 leaving the 5th longest serving player as Connor Hall (S15-07). Andy Brooks (S9-05) is now solely the longest serving player and both he and Tom Boateng (S10-04) are closing in on Patrick Black’s appearance record. They will hopefully also have the distinction of playing in each of the top six tiers in English football, as will Kieran Ross (S11-06) who managed eight games in the National League North in our final season. Samuel Sani (S11-04) didn’t feature until the following season and so just misses out.

2-1 (a) VFL Osnabruck. A solid, if unspectacular, outing. Early goals from Brooks and Vaughan were enough to see this one through. We didn’t learn much. One positive: a good substitute appearance for Derek Duxbury (S20-06) at centre-back. One negative: a complacent performance from Kieran Ross.

2-0 (h) Red Star (Jim Keeling Testimonial). The first of two testimonials brings Jim back within a fortnight of leaving. Gary MacLaren (S10-02), Jamal Owens (S16-04), Ulrik Hallstensen (S9-04) and Andrew Crompton (S14-02) turn up for the send-off. Boateng and Hall grab the goals in a comfortable win.

Ajax make a £1.4m bid for Brayan but the Spaniard still has his sights set on Real Madrid. I want to hold on to him but a Spanish bid might be hard to refuse. Meanwhile, Sanni Suleiman (S22-03) is heading to the Olympics with Nigeria. The 17-year-old seems unlikely to play but it’s a great experience for him.

3-1 (h) SC Paderborn 07. A comfortable win highlighted by a superb Carl Vaughan performance from the left wing! Two assists (both scored by Max Thomas, playing up front in Vaughan’s usual position) and a goal of his own warranted a player of the match award.

That Real Madrid offer arrives – £1.4m, the same as the Ajax bid – and Brayan’s head is well and truly turned. He’s not happy with my attempts to keep him – there’s no Jim in the changing room now to entice him to stay, and he doesn’t want more money he just wants to go home to Spain and play for the most successful club in European football. I negotiate – well, I try. They walk away at my suggestion of £2.5m plus add-ons. At least I can tell Brayan it was their fault, not mine.

3-1 (a) AS Nancy Lorraine. We go to France with largely a ‘b’ team. A game notable for two penalty misses – McAllister (wide) and Thomas (saved) – and a third one scored (Tancock). Barrett and Thomas got the other goals and both excelled on the right wing. Also turning up: Joseph Obi, for the very first time. He’s transfer listed but we might take a look at that.

I’m approached for a job again but this one is different: national manager of Holland! If this was a normal save, I’d jump at that but I can’t risk distractions now we’ve made the Premier League and I reluctantly turn it down.

An interesting bid before the next game. Luton offering £195k for attacking midfielder Simon Baptiste (S21-03). Baptiste had an interesting season in 2043/44, scoring 30 goals for the U18s and U23s before moving on loan to Maidstone where he racked up three assists in just nine outings. He’s impressed on the pitch and has improved a lot since he graduated from the Academy but he’s still some way behind a number of other players in the positions he plays and he lack ambition (although his development seems to be progressing in spite of that). I’m tempted to sell – I want him to make it but have a nagging feeling he isn’t quite good enough. Negotiations ensue and they finalise at £250k plus another £100k after 20 league appearances and 40% of future profit.

1-1 (h) Dijon FCO. We go almost full strength with the exceptions being McMahon at right back as Ross regains fitness, and Wayne Knight (S21-01) starting up front. It’s a disappointing draw after an early McAllister strike had promised more. This was more about players ruling themselves out than in (Knight, McMahon, Wright, Obi, Rockett).

More bids. QPR come in for shiny new centre-back Joseph Grenade. Still only 16, he’s already shining in the U18s and there’s no way I’m selling him. We have high hopes for Joe the Bomb. Madrid are back again for Brayan though. A flat £1.5m. We try and get them to up their bid and they go to £1.8m but that’s not going to be enough.

5-2 (h) Eibar (Andy Brooks Testimonial). Joshua Lindsay turns up to play for Andy, as do Macauley Hughes, Thomas Ugwu and Ulrik Hallstensen (again!). Dale East steals the show, setting up the opening two goals for Knight and Afful before hitting the net twice himself. Joseph Obi and Chris Wright appeared as subs and improved their standings after disappointing in the Dijon game and Prahltysj is looking more and more comfortable as our back-up left-back.

The Simon Baptiste deal is completed and he heads to Luton. It feels like a new kind of transfer for us – selling a decent young player by choice rather than forced by either the player or a ridiculous bid. There are also teams beneath us in the league pyramid now who have money to spend on our cast-offs.

2-1 (a) Randers FC. Almost a complete ‘b’ team (only Vaughan, playing out of position on the left-wing and Ross, switching to left-back, are regular starters) as players get one last chance to impress ahead of the final friendly of the pre-season against Braga. It was an odd day for the strikers – Max Thomas played the first half and 16-year-old David Maclaren played the second. They scored a goal apiece and played well but both missed golden opportunities as well. Other than that, it was a good day for Derek Duxbury, Cameron Naismith and Joshua Barrett and a disappointing day for Brayan (his eye on a move that we may have to sanction sooner rather than later) and Stan Hind, slipping behind Ronald Julien in the MC stakes and Duxbury in the DC stakes. He might have to be content with the utility substitute role.

This year’s youngsters are proving popular, Barnsley bidding for keeper Jamie Clark (S23-09). We refuse their £125,000 bid and consider it a good omen that a Championship side are interested.

1-0 (h) Braga. Full strength and the only tough decision is the box-to-box midfielder role. McAllister wins out ahead of Boateng but the starter for the opening league game is still up in the air. Starting XI: Sani; Ross, Pemberton, Brooks, Pearson; McAllister, Tancock; Hall, Afful, East; Vaughan. It feels like a strong line-up and my only real concerns going into the season surround Ross at right-back and the lack of a decent challenger for the position. We dominate the game but it’s settled by a single act of brilliance from Joseph Afful – a shot from distance that crashes in off the underside of the bar in the 25th minute. Next stop: The London Stadium and West Ham United.

Before the season starts we need to name a new captain now that Jim has gone. Samuel Sani steps into the breach with Connor Hall remaining as vice-captain.

There’s also another sign of how far we’ve come with the U23s drawn against Crewe, Fylde and Hull in the Papa John’s Trophy – a competition the first team last entered just three years ago.

I give up on selling Joseph Obi and let him go on loan again. It’s likely to be the last we see of him and the fact he’s chosen to go to National League Hartlepool after being in League Two last season speaks volumes about the 21-year-old’s aspirations and potential.

Loan Watch

  • GK Dom Lundstram (S19-01) to Harrogate (National League North)
  • DL Godfred Yamoah (S21-08) to Grimsby (National League)
  • AML Joseph Obi (S18-02) to Hartlepool (National League)
  • GK Mario Minambres (S19-12) to Spennymoor (National League North)
  • AML Tammy Court (S22-01) to Tamworth (National League North)
  • MC Wayne Rockett (S21-04) to Gloucester (National League South)
  • AML/SC Ian Jones (S21-02) to Lincoln City (League Two)
  • ML/AML Siegfried Breuer (S20-08) to Hyde (National League North)
  • GK Sanni Suleiman (S22-03) to FC Halifax (National League North)
  • AML/SC Chris Wright (S20-01) to Swindon Town (League One)
  • DC Derek Duxbury (S20-06) to Ipswich Town (Championship)

August 2044

The big day and the starting XI from the Braga game remain, meaning Tom Boateng has to be content with a place on the bench and will have to watch Andy Brooks and Kieran Ross become the first players at the club to play in all six tiers of English football. We start quietly but don’t look overawed. Afful is driving forward well and both Tancock and Hall test the Hammers’ keeper in the opening 25 minutes. We go in level at half-time and as the game progresses, we’re creating the better chances. I have to replace Hall, who picks up a knock and also bring on Boateng as he ticks off another division in the 67th minute. There’s one sub left to make and I’m stuck with Ross under-performing but East and Afful both tiring. Afful gets the hook in the end and we look like we’re heading for a point until Sani spills a shot and West Ham have the ball in the net but I forget we’re in the land of VAR now and breathe a sigh of relief as the goal is disallowed for offside. We’ve won our first point in the top flight of English football.

The fans are buying in to the Premier League dream and the rented ground: last year’s season ticket sales of 7,932 are dwarfed by the 18,582 we’ve sold this year which should ensure that the 22,944 seater Nat Lofthouse Stadium is close to sold out every week.

We’re on TV on Friday night, entertaining Leeds United. It’s a huge game, (i) because it’s Leeds and (ii) because it’s our first home game in the top flight. Tickets are sold-out. We pick the same starting XI, dominate possession (62%) but don’t create much in the opening 45 minutes. Neither do Leeds and I imagine the neutral TV viewers are turning off in droves. We make a change after 60 minutes and Sam Hollis is on for Dale East. Any number of players could have come off who weren’t having an impact but East was looking tired as well. The substitution makes the difference, Hollis finding space near the byline to find Afful who fires home from just inside the box. There’s 20 minutes to go and we’re hanging on comfortably until Fabian McAllister’s second yellow card in the 88th minute. We reshuffle and see out the remaining time, wasting as much of it as possible. We have our first win! 1-0, a bit scruffy, a total of eight yellow cards (if you count McAllister’s as two) and with a number of players still trying to find their feet at this level. We are – very briefly – top of the league!

Make the most of this, I suspect it will be the last time you see it this season

No easy games in the Premier League. We travel to Leicester for Week 3 with just the one, enforced change: Boateng replacing the suspended McAllister. Leicester change their formation from previous games and it pays dividends as they lead by the 8th minute. Vaughan almost gets us level within a minute but shoots just wide running in at pace from a difficult angle. The striker comes close again but sees his shot veer too close to the keeper and it’s readily saved. Leicester score a second early in the second half and follow it up with a third by the 53rd minute. Defensively we are looking outclassed right now and I replace Ross and Brooks with Tyrrell and Hind. Pearson is having a shocker as well and he’s outpaced as the Foxes streak away and grab a fourth. It’s a sobering experience. Having said that the stats show we aren’t that far away (shots 14-18, xG 1.28-3.12, 58% possession) but we’re weak down the flanks in defence and we don’t seem to have any cutting edge at all. Vaughan is struggling, Hall and East aren’t creating anything and even Afful was quiet today. In truth, only one player looks ready at this level – Tim Pemberton, a shining light in the back four, though the two subs did okay when they came on.

A break from the league for the Carabao Cup midweek and we’ll make some changes for a home tie against League Two Carlisle United. Line-up: Donnelly; Tyrrell, Duxbury, Hind, Prahltysj; Julien, Tancock; Barrett, Hollis, Vaughan; Thomas. There’s plenty of youth on the bench champing at the bit as well. Obviously Carlisle take the lead, a superb finish from a tight angle that perhaps Donnelly should have got a foot to. We make changes at half-time (Kingsley Storey (21-05) on for Hollis) and just after (Knight for Thomas) but Carlisle have a second after an hour and we can’t get back into it. A humiliating defeat and only Donnelly and Derek Duxbury emerge with any credit.

A home game against Wolves looms and already this feels like a must-win game, if only to dispel the negative feelings generated by the last two outings. We revert to our original XI with McAllister back in the fold and, hopefully, rested legs for the majority of players. Goals are proving hard to come by again but there does seem to be one player who can unlock Premier League defences: Joseph Afful. It’s his run and cross that creates the opening goal, Connor Hall heading in in the 39th minute. Wolves are level before half-time though, managing to pass quickly despite our intense pressing and create enough space for a shot that Sani has no chance with. They lead early in the second half as we fail to clear our lines after a free-kick and Wolves respond quicker than we do to the loose balls. Sani saves well on 74 minutes to keep us in the game but we can’t create another clear chance and it’s a third defeat in just over a week.

Brayan has gone. Real Madrid, Ajax and Sevilla all came in with bids and, given his unhappiness, I felt boxed into a corner. He’s chosen Madrid, naturally, and we’re getting £1.8m, which isn’t bad but it could have been more. Another transfer is agreed on deadline day, young striker/winger Sion Griffiths (S20-04) is allowed to join Reading for £400k that could rise to £600k. He’s looked promising but has fallen behind a number of players in positions where we are well stocked and I couldn’t see him breaking through. There’s a 40% of future profit baked in to the deal just in case he blossoms at the Madejski. The only other bids were loan offers for Derek Duxbury and Ronald Julien, both of whom I’m keen to keep at the club in back-up roles.

The wage expenditure summary for the Premier League makes for interesting reading. Our £325k per week is dwarfed by the £1.4m of the 19th ranked team, Bristol City, and obviously a long way short of the £6.25m of Manchester City. It’s going to be tough to compete. On the plus side financially, we now have £22.5m in the bank. And it’s rising fast. Might get a new ground out of the Board before too long. We start with training facilities first though and the Board agree after some gentle persuasion, assigning £3.7m to the project. It should be ready by February.

Quite low wages!

Tim Pemberton is runner-up in the Premier League Young Player of the Month for August. A good start for him and we avoided any uncomfortable transfer bids for him!

September 2044

A big game to kick off September: home to reigning champions and current league leaders, Chelsea. We stick with the starting XI that has seen us through the majority of games but need to see improvements. Surprisingly, Dale East and Carl Vaughan have been two of the biggest disappointments so far, both players I assumed would step up comfortably. Fabian McAllister and Ben Tancock have also disappointed in midfield and I’m already casting a glance down to the U23s and U18s and wondering if anyone’s ready to step up. Today will be a big test and we start nervously, Pemberton, of all people, giving the ball away but Sani spares his blushes with a comfortable save. He can do nothing in the 10th minute though, a thunderbolt of a shot finishing a slick Chelsea move in which they find space despite being outnumbered two to one throughout. We’re actually doing okay as the half progresses and Vaughan catches on to a long ball and fires into the side netting before Hall tests the keeper from distance. It’s all undone though in the 42nd minute, a Chelsea break finished clinically. It’s exactly what we lack right now. Pemberton saves a certain third with a crucial block and Knight is on for Vaughan and gets a chance when put clean through by another sub, Hollis. His finish sums us up, lacking confidence and conviction in front of goal. We fall to a 0-2 defeat. Not a bad performance but we need to start scoring and I’m not sure where that’s going to come from.

We hold a team meeting and the boys get fired up, Tim Pemberton letting them know that collectively, ideas need to be bucked up. Only the small matter of Manchester United away in the next game – perhaps the ultimate first encounter for us, given the history of the club. We’ll do that without Andy Brooks who has damaged his neck and will miss a month of football as a result. Stan Hind starts in his place. After a solid start we fall behind to a simple header in the six-yard box, Tancock and Pearson outjumped at the far post. Sani saves well when a United break catches us out (we’ve really been embarrassed by pace in the last two games). Ross looks nervous during the half-time team talk and that prompts a change, Cameron Naismith on in his place. Pearson has to clear off the line inside a minute of the restart and we spend ten minutes under bombardment from United before Pemberton gets a little too heavy in the challenge and VAR awards a penalty. United convert and we have another uphill battle on our hands. We don’t concede again but Jamie Pearson picks up a second yellow card in injury time to add to our woes as we drop into the bottom three for the first time.

A more realistic league table

Changes for Arsenal away, as we plump for a midfield three and start Afful up front in the absence of (i) an AMC in the line-up and (ii) goals from anyone else up front. Changes at the back too, with Prahltysj in for Pearson and Tyrrell in for Ross. Boateng grabs the extra spot in central midfield. Both sides have early chances, Arsenal rattling the bar and Afful finding a yard of space but only finding the keeper with the shot. The Gunners lead by the 20th minute, an unstoppable shot from 25 yards after we fail to close down on the edge of the area. They’re two up within another three minutes. We’re careless in possession and punished despite some desperate defending. We’re battling but are just half a yard off the pace, all the time. Another failure to clear our lines gifts Arsenal a third and things aren’t going well. Tyrrell and Prahltysj are struggling, as are Hall and East and Boateng. It’s hard to know who to pick to bring off. Ronald Julien and Cameron Naismith come on at half-time for Boateng and Prahltysj. It’s 4-0 after 55 minutes, the defence standing off and allowing Arsenal to take pot shots at Sani. Connor Hall is being hauled off straight after but manages to make matters worse before we can get him off the pitch, conceding a penalty that puts us down by five. Hind and Naismith mess about with it on the edge of the box and concede possession that leads straight to a sixth and we’re just praying for the final whistle now. I have no idea who can step in to make this better. Simply awful today: Tyrrell, Hind, Hall. Barely any better: Boateng, Prahltysj, East, Tancock. Outclassed: Naismith, Pemberton, Julien. Naturally, the players refund the travelling supporters.

October 2044

After three games in a row against the big six, it feels like pressure to come back home to take on Bristol City. They came up via the play-offs last season and have started better than us this year (with some recent experience in the top flight that helps). It feels like a must-win game. There are changes. We ditch the ill-fated three-man midfield, Ross is back, Naismith starts (Pearson now has a knock that keeps him out) and Duxbury comes in for Hind. Julien starts ahead of McAllister and Barrett ahead of Hall. Vaughan returns up front and Afful reverts to his AMC role. It starts badly. We get caught out on the break again, Duxbury outpaced easily before Sani is chipped. The move is repeated moments later, and though we give City more work to do this time, the outcome is the same. At last though, we see some of Dale East at his best as he carries the ball 60 yards before taking it past the defence and in by sheer force of will. We’re right back in it. He’s denied a second by a last ditch challenge. A rousing team talk sends them barrelling out in the second half and we come close to an equaliser, Julien heading just over after great work by East. He’s at it again minutes later, crossing dangerously and Vaughan is denied by a spectacular close range save. He’s denied a second time when Julien puts him clean through and he hits the keeper again. Chris Wright is soon on in his place as we try yet another option up front. East drags one wide with five minutes to go and our last chance of claiming a point goes wide with it. A disappointing defeat, and a sixth in a row. At least we scored and East turned up for the first time this season. Afful did okay but there wasn’t much else to shout about.

Another thing we need to talk about is cards. We’re collecting them like we’re redecorating the changing rooms in yellow and this is the only way we can get the paper. Eight games in and we have more than double the number of all but one team: 46 in total! Stoke are our nearest rivals with 28. We aren’t even asking them to get stuck in and yet we are now in the position where three players have reached a total of five already. That means no Pemberton, Tancock and Ross for the next game. It’s another sign that we might be out of our depth here.

A table we are top of…

The international break gives us a chance to regroup for our next game, an important away fixture at bottom-of-the-table Sheffield United. It would be good to get a win here. McAllister is back in for Tancock and the back four is re-jigged to accommodate suspensions and the returning Pearson. Tyrrell’s at right back and Hind and Brooks will occupy the centre-back roles. We start under pressure, the Blades pressing us back and calling Sani into action early and often. He makes three tremendous saves in the first 25 minutes to keep the scores level but can do nothing on the half-hour when persistent United attacking results in an easy header in from two yards out. Vaughan whistles one over the bar in response. We come out for the second half in better form and a nice ball from Pearson gets East in behind the defence. His cross is inch perfect and Vaughan tucks it into the corner for his first goal of the season. It’s a relief for not just him but the whole club. It looks good enough for a point until the 87th minute, another easy header for Sheff Utd and we’re behind again with little time left to do anything about it. And when our next attack breaks down, the subsequent counter-attack is finished off clinically and we’re 1-3 down and out. It looks bleak on paper but it was actually a decent performance on the whole, but there’s no hiding from the fact it was our seventh straight defeat and we’re 19th in the table.

Home to Southampton next and, as the late game on Sunday, we’ve already dropped to the foot of the table. Ross, Pemberton and Tancock all return and Derek Duxbury is preferred ahead of Andy Brooks. McAllister shifts across in place of Julien and Connor Hall starts after a spell on the bench. We go behind after just six minutes – sometimes you just get undone by individual brilliance and that’s the case here as we’re unable to stop a jinking run and shot. Poor defending is to blame for the second though, Sani misses the cross from a free-kick and we don’t get to the ball in time as it drops behind him. It’s three by the 23rd minute, Chijioke – who scored the opener – does for us again, running rings around Pearson who was left as the last man after our free-kick attempt is dealt with and then punished. Chijioke completes his hat-trick late on despite an improved second-half performance from us but again, only one man turns up and Tim Pemberton must be getting fed up with the inadequacies surrounding him.

Another home game, this time against 17th placed Stoke City. Do I need to say it’s a must win game? Hind is back in defence but that’s the only change after last week’s debacle. Dale East almost gives us an early lead, a 30-yard free-kick just tipped over by the Stoke keeper. Pearson loses the ball and is grateful to Hind for stepping in and shutting down the resulting attack. An Afful shot is saved but the immediate clearance catches us out and yet again, we are a goal down. It stays that way until half-time but we’re in this and, arguably, have been the better team. I offer plenty of encouragement at half-time and it seems to work, Tancock crossing and Connor Hall heading back across goal and in. 1-1! We come close to a second but first East and then Hall are denied by the keeper. Vaughan is brought down in the box on the hour mark and we have a painful wait for VAR to confirm it. They do, and Afful puts it in the top corner. We’re in the lead! There’s a scare on 88 minutes, a Stoke breakaway looks like it’s been dealt with but the clearance falls to their striker and thankfully his shot comes back off the post. We kill a bit of time with late substitutions and hang on for a second win of the season. Vital.

November 2044

November starts with another crucial game at home to West Brom. Dale East is suspended so that allows Joshua Barrett back into the side with Hall switching to the left. Tom Boateng starts ahead of Fabian McAllister as we try and inject some life into the midfield. It’s a quiet start to the game but it’s us that draw first blood, the midfield change reaping instant rewards as Boateng heads home a Ross cross in the 29th minute. We keep West Brom at arms length to go in at half-time in the lead. They come at us early in the second half though and Sani has to be at his best in the 56th minute, saving well when left one-on-one. That’s as close as the Baggies get and we see out the game without further worry. Back-to-back wins at last and perhaps a little bit of momentum. We move to 10 points and, crucially, into 17th place. If we’re there at the end of the season, I’ll be happy.

Our ideal league position

Dale East is ruled out for six weeks and he’ll miss the relegation clash against last-placed Newcastle. Tim Pemberton will also miss the trip to St James Park with a calf strain. Derek Duxbury will deputise and Hall and Barrett will continue on the wings in East’s absence. Newcastle take the lead in the 19th minute, afforded too much space in the box and punishing us accordingly. We’re level within five minutes, good work down the right from Barrett and Ross sees the cross come in and headed back to Ross by Afful. The full-back takes the initiative, cuts inside onto his left foot and smashes the ball into the net. 1-1! Vaughan comes close and Hall heads a corner onto the bar as we finish the half strongly. The second half starts in the same fashion and an Afful corner is missed by the keeper allowing Boateng to steer it towards goal – he somehow hits the post but Barrett is on hand to finish from close range. We lead. Newcastle fire a free-kick just wide to give us a scare but we hang on and have our third win in a row and our first away from home. Collectively, it’s the best team performance of the season so far. After the rest of the weekend’s games play out, we find ourselves 14th. Are we finding our feet at last?

A word on the finances. Back in August we reported £22.5m in the bank and promptly spent £3.7m improving the training facilities. It’s now the 21st November and the finances stand at almost £36m. That’s what happens in the Premier League when you aren’t buying players (or generally paying Premier League wages). We might be able to afford a new ground soon if the Board are willing.

Friday night brings us a real test. After three wins in a row we travel to the Etihad to take on Manchester City, currently second in the table. Pemberton is back and Carl Vaughan switches to left wing due to Connor Hall reaching five yellow cards and East still being out injured. The leaves an opening up front and the coaches are demanding we play Ronald Julien (S20-02) there. Principally a central midfielder, Julien hasn’t yet established himself there and does have the ability to play as a deep lying forward (I think we tried it once before in the Championship) and I accede to the request. Both Max Thomas and Wayne Knight are on the bench as back-up. We battle well and, despite a number of City chances, we make it to half-time at 0-0. Sani has had saves to make, but nothing too challenging. We last 13 minutes into the second half before City finally break through, a cross from the left into the six-yard box and the striker splitting Pemberton and Hind and tapping in. Sani fluffs a cross ten minutes later and allows another close range finish and all our first half battling appears to be for nothing, especially when one minute later some less than conclusive defending from Pemberton and Hind allows a third City goal. A header from a corner makes it four and it feels a bit harsh now. We’ve been outclassed but 0-4 wasn’t warranted.

We’re back at home on Wednesday night to take on a mid-table Fulham side. We’re without Jamie Pearson in our rolling suspension programme, meaning August Prhaltysj gets a start and Connor Hall is back, pushing Vaughan back up front and Julien down to the bench. Kieran Ross has an early effort tipped wide as he bizarrely stakes a continued claim for being our most potent attacker! Sani is soon called into action, too, pushing a shot wide. Hall hits the bar after a sweeping move and we’re looking the more dangerous but know we have to be careful – any game in this division can turn quickly. Hall heads over soon after and we haven’t made our superiority count as the teams go in for half-time. The second half starts in similar fashion, Afful heading over from (very) close range. Fulham hit the post with a couple of minutes of normal time to go. It’s a warning shot and one we don’t heed. They break in the final minute of injury time and score a hugely unwarranted winner. We have to start scoring but I have no idea where the goals are going to come from. We’re 15 games into the season and our top scorers are Connor Hall and Joseph Afful. They’ve both scored twice.

Robbed. The cruelty of the Premier League.

December 2044

Pearson is back for an away trip to Spurs and I make a couple of other changes, bringing back Andy Brooks for Stan Hind and dropping Vaughan to the bench in favour of Julien. Once more we battle hard but cave in the 35th minute, a swinging free-kick met with a looping header into the top corner. A Ben Tancock shot is charged down and that’s as close as we look like getting. Spurs don’t do much but grab a second in the 90th minute. We fail to register a shot on target and we need to look at a whole host of things – tactics, creativity from the midfield (Tancock, Boateng and McAllister are all really struggling), and shooting practice! We slide to 17th. Need to start winning again.

We switch to a 4-4-2 for the visit of Norwich. It doesn’t suit everyone in the squad. Hind is back in for Brooks and we’re asking Barrett and Hall to play a lot deeper than they prefer. Afful will partner Vaughan in a reconfigured attack that I’m hoping might spark goals. We start slowly, perhaps unfamiliar with the new formation and Norwich – featuring one of our most successful graduates, Craig Lee (S16-03) – take advantage, a mirror image of the Tottenham opener with a free-kick swung in and headed home. They go two up before half-time and we’re not firing at all. The half-time team talk has zero effect and we fall three behind before five minutes are played. We ditch the 4-4-2 five minutes later. Vaughan gets us back in it with just his second goal of the season but it’s the only highlight of a poor performance. Back to the drawing board.

The youth intake preview arrives promising a great prospect at centre-back and another in a wide-midfield role. We’re going to need more than that. One of the worries is there isn’t a great deal of optimism about many players being ready to step up and compete any time soon. A quick view of the main position groups offers the following insight:

  • GK – Sani (28) is decent enough and this is the position of least worry given that Donnelly (21), Gabriel (22) and Minambres (21) are all looking useful. The best prospect is likely Sulieman (17) and his progress and age are best aligned to stepping in once Sani starts to decline.
  • DR – is a mess. Ross (28) has struggled. Tyrrell (22) and Panagi (20) have better potential but neither has shown it yet. Sam Ellington (17) is the youngster we’re pinning our hopes on right now at right back.
  • DL – Pearson (23) has struggled more than expected but I’m still hopeful that a year in the top flight will improve him. Prhaltysj (18) is already vying for a starting role but has looked out of his depth when called upon. There’s nothing beyond these two though for both full-back roles we still hold a little hope that Naismith (21) can start to improve again.
  • DC – One of the few positions of hope (and we’re getting another great prospect!). Pemberton (20) is the only player looking comfortable at this level, Hind (21) and Brooks (30) are doing okay and Hind certainly has scope to improve. Duxbury (20), Tyrrell (22) and Naismith (21) all offer cover while Grenade (16) and Kargbo (16) offer hope for the future. Grenade, in particular, looks like he could be ready sooner rather than later.
  • MC – this is a massive problem area right now. Tancock (23) and McAllister (23) have been hugely disappointing though, like Pearson, could benefit from a year at this level and improve. Boateng (30) has reached his limit but has been better than the two younger players while additional cover comes from Hind (preferred as a DC), Julien (19) and Storey (19). Ken Lee (17) and Lloyd Byrne (16) are the best rated prospects but we aren’t seeing the pace of development required just yet.
  • AMR – another position where everyone is struggling. Barrett (22) is doing okay in patches, Hall (24) is mainly on the left for now and struggling wherever he plays. Hollis (21) can play anywhere across the supporting three and has been alright and there’s a whole host of players who could play here but prefer to be strikers: Thomas (19), Knight (18), Maclaren (16), George (17). One of them might have to decide to be a winger instead. There’s also Panagi (20) and Colledge (16), the latter of which I do have high hopes for (but again, not for 2-3 years).
  • AML – I expected East (20) to take to the division well and his failure to do that has been one of the biggest disappointments of the season so far. He was improving but injury has set him back and there’s still a hope that another year or two at this level will see him acclimatise. Whether we get that long is another question entirely. Hall (24) is the other player to watch here but as mentioned, he’s struggling too. Hollis (21) and Vaughan (20) are options, as is Wright (19). Prospects include Court (17) and George (17), one or both of which could develop into the player we need (yet again, not right now though!).
  • AMC – Afful (20) struggled early on but is finding form in patches now. If he can do that consistently, he’ll be one of the few we can rely on. McAllister (23) can cover but tends to play deeper and Hall (24) can switch here too, so there are options. Hollis (21) still shows potential but it needs to be seen more often and Julien (19) and Storey (19) can also step up. There is nothing beyond these though, no prospects at all that I’d trust, so we need Afful to be the best version of himself and soon.
  • SC – an area I didn’t expect to struggle in, yet here we are. Vaughan (20) has found it tough going, Afful (20) has stepped in and struggled as has everyone who’s stepped off the bench when Vaughan looked like registering another blank: Wright (19), Thomas (19), Julien (19), Knight (18). Jones (18) is on loan and doing okay and could be recalled and Maclaren (16) might be the best prospect of all and could be worth a gamble sooner rather than later. George (17) fits this category too if we decide he’s a striker rather than a winger.

A trip to Brighton next. They’re a place below us and haven’t won in seven so this is a huge game. We’re on the ropes early on and Sani has to be at his best, wonderfully tipping one over the bar at full stretch. From there we gather ourselves and come close to taking the lead, Boateng heading on to the bar from an Afful corner. It’s end to end stuff and we hand Brighton the advantage when Connor Hall concedes a penalty and there’s nothing Sani can do to keep it out. Barrett crashes a shot against the bar in response, fed by a lovely back-heel from Vaughan. We draw level on 39 minutes, working the ball across the pitch from right to left before Pearson whips in a low cross and Vaughan steers it in from a yard out at the near post. The joy lasts less than a minute, Brighton storming down the other end and going back in front thanks to the splendidly named Ken. That’s it, just Ken. I think we could do with a Ken. Connor Hall shoots tamely at the keeper and Brighton break from that and score again, Sani getting a strong hand to the shot but the power taking it in. We’ve got it all to do in the second half. We don’t get it done, and worse, Barrett sees red in the 75th minute for a ‘right-winger tackle’ and Tancock and Pearson pick up knocks. Another bad day at the office and we’re back in the bottom three.

Another problem looming on the horizon – the African Nations finals start on 7th January and both Joseph Afful (Ghana) and Samuel Sani (Nigeria) have been called up. That’s going to have a big impact on us while they’re away.

Boxing Day brings Liverpool to the Nat Lofthouse Stadium. Hind has picked up his fifth yellow (come on Stan, some people did that back in September!) so Andy Brooks returns and I decide to start Matthew Tyrrell at right back given Ross’ struggles. Tancock is out so Boateng and McAllister start together for the first time this season. Max Thomas will get an outing on the right wing in place of the suspended Barrett and Dale East returns on the left with Connor Hall dropping to the bench. The change at right-back has a very unexpected early impact, Matthew Tyrrell whipping a 25-yard free-kick into the top corner to give us the lead! It takes a little while but Liverpool eventually pull level, a fairly tame break where we inexplicably leave the one man supporting the attack entirely free in the middle despite having two men tracking back. They lead five minutes later, this time a strong finish that was no-one’s fault. McAllister and Thomas are replaced ten minutes into the second half, neither player having a good game and disaster strikes on the hour when Pemberton has to be replaced due to injury. Duxbury is on but we are holding our breath and hoping the medical team bring good news after the game. We battle away and, given the opposition, we play well, but we can’t get back level and fall to a sixth defeat in a row.

The news on Pemberton isn’t great but isn’t disastrous – he’s strained his hamstring and will miss 4-5 weeks. Time for someone to step up. In other news, both McAllister and Boateng picked up their fifth yellows of the season so the next game will feature a new midfield pairing. It’s a real test of the squad now and I’m hoping one or two players will take their opportunities (I’m also starting to regret selling Brayan and Joshua Lindsay because this midfield needs a spark from somewhere).

January 2045

FA Cup 3rd Round day sees Sheffield United visit – a tough tie – and for some reason, McAllister’s ban applies here but Boateng’s doesn’t. Not quite sure how that works but we’re grateful to have Tom available. Tyrrell continues at right back, Hind comes in for Pemberton alongside Brooks and Kingsley Storey (S21-05) gets the nod as the box-to-box midfielder with Boateng the deep lying playmaker. Connor Hall is back on the right wing. It’s a quiet first half but we lose Dale East to injury half way through and Sam Hollis is on in his place. The second half gets more interesting but not for us – Connor Hall passes straight to the opposition on the edge of our own box and despite Sani saving the initial shot, the Blades respond quickly and slot in the rebound. Hall is substituted immediately, another poor outing for one of our highest paid stars. The game seems to be drifting away from us until a glorious ball (hopeful punt?) from Tyrrell puts Vaughan clear on the right. The striker cuts in and finishes like the Vaughan of old to grab a deserved draw (though I’m not sure we really wanted a replay!).

Before the replay we have the small matter of Leicester at home in the league and the absence of Sani and Afful to contend with. Callum Donnelly stays just ahead of Zaine Gabriel in the keeper pecking order and starts, Tancock returns in place of Boateng (who’s suspension has now kicked in) and Max Thomas and Sam Hollis start with East injured and Afful away. A couple of U23s are required to fill up the bench as well. We take an early lead, persistence from Tancock creating an opportunity for himself that’s well saved but Hall is quick to the rebound and belts it in from close range. Vaughan gets free of the defence and has a good effort saved but makes no mistake ten minutes later, put through by Tyrrell and finishing into the bottom corner. He looks like he’s playing with confidence again and that might make a massive difference to our season. Leicester have a goal disallowed for offside but score one that does count just before half-time and are denied a quick equaliser by a combination of Donnelly and the crossbar. Vaughan has a shot saved early in the second half and a mazy run from Hall ends with a great cross that Thomas heads against the bar. It’s a thrill-a-minute game and Donnelly is at full stretch moments later to tip a free-kick around the post. A Leicester corner deep into injury time gets the nerves jangling but the resultant header flashes wide of the post. There’s less than a minute left and despite conceding possession we hang on for a really important and well-earned win. Best performer? Callum Donnelly in goal, but season best outings from Connor Hall and Carl Vaughan today, too. We aren’t out of the bottom three but we’re keeping in touch (Sheffield United and Brighton both won and without a win we’d have been five points adrift).

Ian Jones (S21-02) is recalled from his loan at Lincoln, partly because he was injured and partly because they were playing him as a defensive winger and that isn’t where I see him developing. As Jones returns though Chris Wright departs, loaned to League One Swindon Town as he continues his development up the league pyramid (he spent last season in League Two with Dulwich Hamlet). And it’s January, so we’re fending off bids again, although so far it’s only Wayne Knight who’s attracting attention, Nottingham Forest turning the heat up with a second bid but still a long way from making me even contemplate selling.

Tom Boateng returns for the Cup replay at Sheffield United, as does Joshua Barrett. We make a poor start, falling behind after nine minutes but a great through ball from Barrett gives Vaughan the chance to dance around the keeper and fire in the equaliser on 17 minutes. The Blades hit the post but do score the next goal, thankfully for us! A Connor Hall cross whipped in low across the six yard box and turned in by a panicked defender. Donnelly is in action early in the second half, turning a close range half-volley around the post. He can’t do anything to stop the 63rd minute leveller though, Brooks and Pearson split by a smart pass for a simple finish. The momentum has shifted Sheffield United’s way but we’re still mustering chances and Vaughan is unlucky not to give us the lead, cutting in from the left where he’s now stationed, Hall having gone off and 16-year-old David Maclaren (S23-01) given the chance to shine up front. A simple long ball undoes us though in the 91st minute, Donnelly inexplicably left one on one and unable to keep the shot from wide from going in at his near post. It’s a shame as it mars an otherwise great performance from the keeper, but we’re out of the Cup.

Wolves away this weekend and one eye on the next fixture as well, just three days away against Manchester United. We go with the same side that played in the FA Cup midweek, knowing that some of them won’t have the legs for the next game but believing that this one provides a better chance of grabbing three points. We make the early running but it’s a game of few chances and the first half peters out with no goals on the board. The cold January rain isn’t helping and it’s a scrappy affair. A series of half tackles and lost possessions wind up with the ball at Vaughan’s feet but he can only hit the post. Connor Hall has the ball in the net but is offside and Wolves keep shooting over the bar, which is fine by me. In the third minute of four additional minutes we work the ball to Tyrrell who moves into the box and is brought down. VAR confirms: Penalty! Fabian McAllister, on as a sub for his first appearance in ages, steps up…and tucks it into the bottom right corner! We’ve won! Two in a row. A brilliant defensive performance and some promise from the youngsters getting chances from the bench (Maclaren had a very productive 25 minutes). We’re still 18th but level on points now with Sheffield United and Brighton and only three behind West Brom, too, so plenty to aim at.

Two wins in a row

There are a few tired legs as Tuesday comes round but on the whole it feels like more of a gamble to drop some of them (Tyrrell and Pearson) than replace them with players who have really struggled. Only one change then, with McAllister replacing Hollis in the AMC role. We begin the game under pressure and while we seem to be pressing United well they always manage to find a way through. They hit the outside of the post and force Donnelly into a full-length save inside the first eight minutes, but it takes until the 20th minute for their breakthrough. We’re creating chances though, just not hitting the target. McAllister exemplifies this, blasting our best chance of the half over the bar from 12 yards out. We’ve had 10 shots to their five but we haven’t hit the target once. We start the second half in the same vein, Vaughan shooting high and wide from an Andy Brooks free-kick. Joshua Barrett has to be replaced before the hour due to injury and Wayne Knight is on in his place. We’re still settling in after the change when United make it 2-0 with a wonderful finish past Donnelly. Vaughan hits the keeper when clean through and Tancock’s shot from the resultant clearance hits a body of players and the last chance to get back into the game fizzles out. We’ve taken 18 shots on goal and generated 2.54xG but haven’t scored despite playing well against a top team. It’s disappointing but also encouraging. Play like this against lesser sides and we’ll pick up enough points to stay up.

Bad news for Barrett, he’s out for 4-5 weeks with a hamstring strain, and without my knowledge Vaughan also picked up an injury and will miss at least a couple of weeks with a damaged foot. We’re going to be fielding youngsters and hoping for the best. Good news for the bank balance though: Lee Thornhill (S11-01) has moved from Portsmouth to Wolves for £19.25m and we’re entitled to £3.5m of that due to a sell-on clause that, amazingly, is ten years old. Nice one, Lee!

Home to West Ham. Max Thomas gets the nod down the right wing and we gamble on 16-year old David Maclaren up front. Dale East returns to provide experience down the left with Connor Hall dropping to the bench (again). West Ham move into an early lead, beating the offside trap with a hopeful up and over punt that leaves Donnelly with no chance. The game is much tighter than the United match and West Ham are giving us nothing so we’re going to have to be clinical when we do get chances. And clinical we are when Tyrrell crosses low into the six yard area, the speed of Maclaren gets him to the ball ahead of the defence and he pokes in for his first professional goal. He doesn’t look phased by the step up. The second half has few chances early on but West Ham regain the lead in the 63rd minute and again, it’s a ball over the top that catches us out. They break in the 72nd minute and make it three, Hind too slow to react on the half-way line and Brooks then outpaced. A fourth Hammers goal in the 90th minute is more than harsh – we’ve been neck and neck with them for the majority of the game but it’s a lesson in finishing once more.

Can we bounce back at Elland Road three days later? It’s going to be tough as we’re forced into wholesale changes due to fatigue. Ross and Prahltysj are in at full-back, Julien and Storey are the inexperienced central midfield, Hollis and Hall come in for Thomas and East. Just as in the West Ham game, we concede early and have to chase the game from the outset. A second seems likely, we’re blocking and intercepting well but can’t seem to get the ball out of our own half. 28 minutes in and it duly arrives. I’m shouting myself hoarse on the touchline but we can’t even muster a shot on goal and before the half-time whistle goes Leeds have a third. Things go from bad to worse inside the first five minutes of the second half as Connor Hall picks up an innocuous yellow card and is sent of for a second bookable offence. Leeds score twice more and our goal difference has taken a battering in successive games. We’re back in a tailspin again and league leaders Arsenal are up next.

Tim Pemberton is back! He isn’t quite up to full fitness but we need him in the side at every available opportunity. Derek Duxbury is recalled alongside him and Tyrrell and Pearson return from their rest to complete a full defensive re-build. McAllister and Tancock also return with Tancock given a mezzala role in an attempt to improve his form. East also returns. It’s the league’s best defence against its worst attack so a goalless draw would be brilliant here! Donnelly does his bit, saving well early on, and Pearson joins in by clearing off the line after an Arsenal break sees an attempt chipped over Donnelly before the left-back races back to save the day. Those escapes only keep us level for so long though and the Gunners break through in the 29th minute following a spell where we struggle to get the ball out of our own half. It’s a solid first half performance, just not quite solid enough. That solidity doesn’t return in the second half and Arsenal are quickly 2-0 up. And then we do breach that best defence in the league! A McAllister free-kick finding the head of Pemberton. It’s as easy as that. We briefly look as if we’re going to draw level but Arsenal seem to step up a gear and it’s no real surprise when they hit a third in the 80th minute. That’s how it finishes and while it’s by no means a disgrace, we’re left looking at a number of players again and wondering if they’ll ever be good enough. Full-back was again a problem with both Tyrrell and Pearson struggling and Duxbury looked out of place yet again. The bright spots? Pemberton, naturally and Donnelly once more. Can he keep Sani out of the side when he returns?

Transfer deadline day sees more offers for the younger players in the squad: Joseph Grenade (Watford, Burnley), Wayne Knight (Blackburn), Kingsley Storey (Luton) and August Prhaltysj (Luton again). That last bid causes problems. Prhaltysj wants to leave and gets irate when I tell him he can’t. Luton get wind of it and put in another bid (£550k rising to £775k) and I’m in a quandry. We barely have an left-backs. Pearson is really struggling and Prhaltysj had moved up to being back-up but has been equally awful but, he’s only 18 and also but, who else do we play? Would Ross do better on the left? Can Naismith up his game? I don’t like keeping unhappy players around (additionally, he’s unhappy with overall training, individual training and is struggling to connect with Fabian McAllister) so maybe we’d be better off without him? And his name’s hard to spell/type. We enter negotiations but Luton withdraw their offer but quickly come back with a non-negotiable £650k bid that could rise to £925k and contains a 40% sell-on of any profit. I accept.

Derek Duxbury is also leaving, but only temporarily, heading to Championship side Ipswich as we try and get him to the level we need. He clearly isn’t ready at this level and we’ve enough cover to manage without him until the end of the season.

February 2045

There’s no let up in the league with an away game at Chelsea up next. We’re still without Sani and Afful which is bad for us but has proved great for them: Sani’s Nigeria will face off against Afful’s Ghana in the final! Hind returns, as do Connor Hall and Carl Vaughan and we make a tactical change, adding Andy Brooks in a DM role and dropping the AMC in the hope that we can stifle Chelsea a little. It’s a gamble and Brooks is pretty much the only player in the squad who can play the position (Tyrrell is the only other reasonable option). It works for just over 12 minutes and then Donnelly can’t keep out a shot from wide and we’re back to square one. We battle well for the rest of the half but Chelsea fashion a second goal with the last kick of the period. The second half sees us put in another decent showing but we’re still blunt in attack and never look like getting back into it. A good effort and as an additional positive, despite being 19th, nobody around us is winning either so we’re still just two points from safety. With games against Bristol City, Sheffield United, Stoke City and Southampton coming up next, it’s time to put some points on the board. We’re entering a crucial phase of the season.

Work on the training facilities completes and they’re now rated excellent. Elsewhere, it’s Samuel Sani who’s celebrating as Nigeria defeat Ghana 2-0 to lift the African Nations Cup.

Sani and Afful both return to the starting line-up for the trip to Bristol City and they’re not the only changes. Suspension and injury mean that Hall and East are both out and we try something different, putting Panagi in on the right as a wide target man, dropping Vaughan back on to the left and playing Julien up front. Boateng is in for McAllister as well. The start is promising – Pearson rampaging down the left, Tancock showing nice touches and Afful looking dangerous. The Ghanaian shoots narrowly wide from our first real attack and we feel different with him back in the side. The first 45 minutes are quiet after that until injury time when good interplay through the middle allows Tancock to play a sweeping pass over the defence and Panagi races onto it and slips it past the keeper at the near post. The Cypriot’s eye for goal last season was a revelation and we’ve steered away from using him this term (this is his Premier League debut) but he might be forcing a re-think. We’re looking solid but yellow cards threaten to undo us again as Hind picks up two and he’s off. Julien is sacrificed, Afful moving up front and Brooks on at the back. It takes Bristol City about 30 seconds to equalise after that, we don’t clear our lines from the free-kick and the ball is hammered in from distance. They grab another ten minutes later and there’s nothing we can do except learn and try and keep eleven men on the pitch!

It’s the 18th February and apparently we’ve broken a Premier League record! For poor discipline. We’ve collected 121 yellow cards and 5 reds! And there’s still 11 games to play. Yikes.

An unwanted record, but how early in the season have we smashed it?

Sani misses the home game against Sheffield United with a minor injury and Brooks comes in for the suspended Hind, with McAllister back in place of the also suspended Tancock. East returns allowing Vaughan to move back up front. Joseph Grenade (S23-05), still only 16, makes the bench with the defensive cover depleted. We look comfortable during the opening minutes and despite a scare when the Blades hit the post after a quick break, we take the lead, Boateng setting up that man Panagi again, with the Cypriot lashing his finish into the roof of the net. The lead lasts all of six minutes with Madrigal equalising (one of those players who always scores against us). The second half begins nervously, and Tyrrell does well to halt a Sheffield United attack from which Panagi releases Vaughan. The striker is brought down in the box and Afful steps up to take the spot kick. And blasts it over. We pay for it moments later, another break, another Madrigal goal. We’re 3-1 down by the 78th minute and yet again, it feels harsh. Vaughan gives us late hope, capitalising on an error by intercepting on the halfway line, racing clear and finishing superbly. There’s seven minutes to salvage something from the game but an injury to Pearson robs us of the chance as we’re forced down to ten men. We’ve played well but not got what we deserved from the game. It’s a tough division and maybe I have to accept that we just aren’t good enough right now. Brighton and Stoke both win to leave us five points from safety. It’s Stoke away next – a must-win game.

We need some points, and soon

March 2045

Sani returns, Ross comes in at left-back for the suspended Pearson and Julien starts in midfield as we tire of McAllister underperforming week in, week out. Panagi and Tyrrell work a good opening down the right and the Cypriot crosses dangerously into the six-yard box where a waiting Vaughan taps home to give us the lead. We’re looking positive! Dangerous almost! 28 minutes in and we’re 2-0 up! Great passing play through the middle before Ross releases East into the box and the left-winger scores just his second goal of the season. Within a minute though, Ross has conceded a penalty and managed to get himself a second yellow card into the bargain. Talk about trying to throw a game away. The penalty is converted and all of a sudden a comfortable position has turned into sixty minutes of nerve-jangling nonsense. Or has it? We win a corner on 43 minutes and East whips in a beauty that’s headed home by Panagi. What an impact he’s having! Sani makes a superb stop early in the second half and Stoke blow another chance on the break, blasting over when it was easier to score. They do get one back on the hour mark though and our reworked back three after the sending-off needs work as they’re exploiting our right-hand side repeatedly. We switch things around and bring on Naismith for Vaughan (who’d picked up a knock anyway), with Afful moving up front. That lasts all of five minutes because then Tyrrell picks up a second yellow card and we’re down to nine men! Hind is on, Afful is off and we’re playing strikerless. We survive for a while but 78 minutes in and Stoke have their equaliser. Amazingly, we hang on for a point but we should have won this. Really frustrating.

With Vaughan ruled out with a back strain, there’s plenty of changes to make for the trip to Southampton. David McMahon (S19-09) gets the nod at right back, Naismith takes over on the left of defence and Ian Jones (S21-02) starts up front for the first time. Ronald Julien continues in central midfield – it’s worth giving him a run in the side with Tancock and McAllister consistently failing to show – and youngsters Sam Ellington (S22-04) and David Maclaren (S23-01) are on the bench. We come under a lot of early pressure and a superb save from Sani and an equally good block from Brooks are required to keep the scores level. It can only last so long though and despite more last-ditch defending, the Saints take a 20th minute lead from close range and then double it a minute later. We need a spark from somewhere and we get it just two minutes later, a loose ball finding its way to Afful on the edge of the box, who fires it in. East almost equalises – denied by the keeper – before Southampton rally and pressure us again. Sani is on hand again to make sure we have a fighting chance in the second half. And fight we do! Ian Jones is squeezed out by good defending early on but is soon back causing trouble and slots home the equaliser when put through by Boateng. We defend magnificently from there and deservedly see out the game for 2-2 draw and another valuable point. Just need to start winning some home games now. Two pieces of bad news though, the superb Tim Pemberton picked up his 10th yellow card and misses the games against Newcastle and West Brom, and Brighton win meaning we are now nine points from safety with eight games to play. It’s looking increasingly gloomy.

Can we lift the gloom with a youth intake? It’s another golden generation!!! Despite that we manage to unearth four players who are unambitious, two with low determination, one with low self-belief and one who’s casual. And a look at the attributes totals suggests that it’s only the 5th best group on arrival. It’s a mixed bag!

A new golden generation

Top of the list is centre-back Graeme Leighton (S24-01) who can also play right-back and DM. He’s unambitious though and that might hold him back (as well as his measly strength). AMC Khulekani Nkosi (S24-02) looks better: a professional player with good flair and useful potential. Third on the list is the ‘casual’ Gavin Orru (S24-03), a right-back/centre-back who looks okay but will need to be less casual if he’s to succeed. Liam Cooper (S24-04) is a quick winger who can play on either flank and is known to dive into tackles – he’ll fit right in – but needs to learn to pass above all else. Sebastian Beschorner (S24-05) is interesting, capable of playing anywhere down the right hand side but most likely a right-back. They’re always welcome (about half this intake can play right-back but Beschorner is only one of two who think it’s their best position). We keep 11 of them, though I suspect only two or three are likely to make it.

Back to the here and now because we have a home game against Newcastle and it’s the very definition of a must-win game. The Magpies are bottom of the table and have lost nine straight so should be there for the taking BUT they’ve just appointed a new manager so it’s probably not a great time to play them! Tyrrell and Pearson return with Hind replacing Pemberton for the first game of his two-match suspension. Both teams come close early on, Afful heading just over from an East cross but Newcastle score first on 16 minutes following a blocked Julien clearance that falls nicely for them in the box. They’re two up within another five minutes and things are looking bleak. Following the same pattern as the Southampton match, we then get a quick goal back, Julien feeding Tyrrell down the right and the full-back hammering it into the bottom corner. By the 38th minute we’re level, working it down the right again before Tyrrell’s cross is nodded from Afful to East, who finishes well at the far post. Neither team can muster much in the second half though and the game fades out. It was a solid performance once we got ourselves in gear, but it’s more points dropped and I can’t see us getting out of this now. I’m starting to look at relegation release clauses and worrying:

  • Hind – £9.5m
  • Tancock – £6.75m
  • Hall – £4m
  • Duxbury – £5.25m
  • McAllister – £21.5m (pretty safe with that one)
  • Thomas – £3.6m

April 2045

I’m right about the struggle being uphill, we’re two down to West Brom before half-time and despite a David Maclaren consolation we’ve lost another crucial game. We grab a point at Fulham but that’s not really enough right now either, especially with City and Spurs up next.

Not a run-in that’s likely to keep us up

Defeat to City, 2-0, leaves us on the brink and we can’t score at home to Tottenham either and that’s already it, we can’t stay up. One season and done and those relegation release clauses are activated:

Might be some contract re-negotiations in order!

You can be spared the gory details of the season’s end, Norwich hammer us 4-1 (Norwich!) but we do muster a 4-3 win at home to Brighton, where Carl Vaughan finally finds his shooting boots (and spots that 10 goal bonus on the horizon) and scores a hat-trick. We finish dismally with a 3-0 defeat at Liverpool and it’s time to regroup and work out how we can get straight back out of the Championship.

We’ve left our mark on the Premier League though:

What a record!

Season 23 – Championship Season 2

Pre-Season

The transfer window opens quietly – we’re busy but it’s all low-key. Doncaster chasing an uninterested Kieran Ross and a couple of loan bids that should benefit us – Ray Clancy (S20-07) off the National League with AFC Telford and Chris Wright (S20-01) going to Dulwich Hamlet in League Two – the place where James Cox made his name many moons ago. Wright has been on the cusp of the first team but struggled in the Championship – I think promotion came too soon for him – and I think we have enough up and coming strikers to manage without him for the season. Let’s hope he kicks on.

It hots up with a potential £6.25m bid from Bournemouth for Dale East. East has his eyes elsewhere so our flat no doesn’t ruffle any feathers. Yet. Villa come in for Adam Wells, which is a surprise – £1.5m rising to £2.1m. Again, the distraction of another club allows an unchallenged no. Wolves come in for East and I pull the old “you’ll never get this elsewhere” trick and Dale agrees and Wolves go away with a flea in their ear. Nice.

A handful of further loan moves are agreed (see Loan Watch, below) and Wells and East are subject to repeated bids. I’m getting a little worried about the East situation. If someone meets the release fee (£15.5m) we will be a bit short of cover on the left in the long-term. Short-term is fine with Keeling and Hall, but Jim is on the downturn now (he’ll be 30 this season!).

The Wells speculation might calm down, the Englishman breaking his collarbone in training and likely to miss the opening weeks of the season. It’s a shame because he was pushing for a place in the starting XI and will now have some catching up to do instead. The injury woes continue as well, on the same day Matthew Tyrrell strains his back and will miss a month and young striker Max Thomas is out for 3 months after fracturing his lower leg. He’s another who was pushing for a place in the first team squad.

I was wrong about bids for Adam Wells. Watford are turned away and then Bournemouth – Wells’ preferred destination – come in with a £4.6m offer that comprises £2.5m up front, another £2m over three years, £1.7m as soon as he makes 10 league appearances and a further £1.7m after 20 league goals. Plus 30% profit on the next sale. Even though we don’t need the money, it’s a lot for a player who hasn’t established himself as first team regular and has a current value of £180k. I decide to negotiate but Bournemouth withdraw the offer. Decision averted, for now.

Until Watford turn up again and, after negotiations, agree to £5m plus £2m in three instalments, another £1m after 5 league games and again after 10 league goals and the obligatory 30% sell-on from any profit. It’s worth £9m in total and, while I could be making a huge mistake here, it seems ludicrous to turn down that amount of money for a player who’s likely to remain a back-up striker/right-winger.

The deal goes through and with the instant £7m bolstering the bank account I go straight to the Board and we quickly agree a £1.8m improvement to Training Facilities (I was expecting it to cost more) and, after a little more discussion, a £5.25m improvement to the Youth Facilities. Thanks Adam.

Not content with our back-up right-winger, Watford come back and try and steal Joshua Barrett next. Er, Watford? Stop trying to nick all of our right-wingers, there’s a good club. Then Luton offer £3m for Fabian McAllister but he’s not interested, which always makes life easier.

There’s a blow to the starting XI when Jamie Pearson twists an ankle during training and is ruled out for four weeks. Left back is a position we need depth at and losing Pearson is always going to cause problems with the squad as it stands right now. Kieran Ross may switch flanks to cover with Tyrrell at right-back. We’ll see how it works.

Barnsley (Barnsley?) make an offer for Connor Hall that he’s not remotely interested in and neither are we. £1m Barnsley? What are you on? Another decent loan goes through though – Derek Duxbury will get League One experience with Oldham this year. I thought long and hard about this one as he’s close to the first team and vying with Hind and Tyrrell to back up Pemberton and Brooks but I think he’ll be best served playing week in, week out a division down. Fingers crossed.

Before the season starts Bournemouth try and rattle us with a bid for Tim Pemberton. The 19-year-old has quickly become the lynchpin of our defence and is one of the players I’m convinced can step up to the next level. We reject the £1.4m bid (add-ons could have taken it to £4.3m) and hope Tim isn’t too disappointed. There’s still a whole month of the transfer window to wade through, as well, so I’m worried!

Loan Watch

  • AML – Ray Clancy (S20-07) to AFC Telford (National League)
  • DR/DC – Danny Harden (S18-09) to Guiseley (National League)
  • SC – Chris Wright (S20-01) to Dulwich Hamlet (League Two)
  • GK – Mario Minambres (S19-12) to Tamworth (National League North)
  • GK – Dom Lundstram (S19-01) to Harrogate Town (National League North)
  • DR – David McMahon (S19-09) to Stevenage (National League)
  • AMC – Kevin Molina (S20-09) to Gateshead (National League North)
  • ML – Seigfried Breuer (S20-08) to Buxton (National League North)
  • GK – Zaine Gabriel (S17-02) to Stevenage (National League)
  • DC – Derek Duxbury (S20-06) to Oldham Athletic (League One)
  • DR – Dara Keating (S21-12) to Gateshead (National League North)
  • DR – Godfred Yamoah (S21-08) to Brackley (National League North)
  • MC/AMC – Kingsley Storey (S21-05) to Finn Harps (Irish Premier Division)
  • AML – Joseph Obi (S18-02) to York City (League Two)
  • AMC – Simon Baptiste (S21-03) to Maidstone (National League)

Released Players

  • GK – Kieran Sheridan (S12-04)
  • DL – Tony Robinson (S15-05)
  • DR – Jordan Ingram (S17-07)
  • AMC – Ethan Wilson (S17-04)
  • MC/SC – Gideon Newton (S19-11)
  • DR/DL – James Turner (S19-14)
  • AML – Shane McDonnell (S19-04)
  • MC – Olaolu Sorensen (S19-10)
  • AMR – Tyrese McMillan (S20-10)

Pre-Season Friendlies

An administrative error leads to a bunch of players not travelling to Spain with for the opening two games of pre-season – Tancock and Duxbury the main omissions – and so we have a hotch-potch bench for the opening game.

4-0 (a) Ponferrada – a goal in either half from Tom Boateng sets up a comfortable win, with substitutes Ian Jones (S21-02) and Jim Keeling adding some gloss to the scoreline in injury time.

2-2 (a) Malaga – an entertaining game in which Carl Vaughan twice put us ahead only to see the Spanish First Division side peg us back on both occasions. Low key performances going forward but the defence were solid, particularly Brooks who needed it after a shaky opening game. A solid performance against strong opposition.

4-1 (a) Southport (Remi Howson (S8-11) Testimonial) – Howson never played a game for us (in fact, he’s only played 117 times for Southport in 11 years) so this is a bit of a stretch, but he’s still going so let’s give him credit for that. Only three players at the club overlap at all with Howson’s time – Keeling, Brooks and Boateng, so there’s not much of a reunion to be had either. We send a largely second string side – Keeling, Tancock and Hind the only real experience in the starting XI. Season 21 guys do the damage – a hat-trick for striker Wayne Knight (S21-01) and another for MC/AMC Kingsley Storey (S21-05). It’s an odd game though and with the exception of Keeling, Hind and keeper Callum Donnelly, there’s not much else to write home about.

2-0 (h) KV Kortrijk Voetbalt – one of those games that takes ages because every chance results in a corner. Vaughan and East scored early and we should have had five.

August 2043

The fixtures computer is having a laugh, pitting us at home to Ipswich who turned into a proper bogey team for us last season in two of our more ridiculous outings of 2042-43. We go with experience: Sani in goal, a back four forced upon us by Pearson’s injury sees Naismith at right back and Ross as an IWB on the left, Pemberton and Brooks in the middle. Midfield is Boateng as the BBM, Tancock as the DLP and then we have Vaughan up front supported by, from right to left, Hall, Afful and East. That means no place for Joshua Barrett, Stan Hind, Fabian McAllister and Jim Keeling – a strong bench already – and Matthew Tyrrell misses out on a chance at right-back as he’s still recovering from injury. He can do 45 minutes and makes the bench as a result. We take a comforting early lead, Naismith crossing and Vaughan hammering home. Quarter of an hour in and Connor Hall latches onto a Tancock pass and it’s 2-0. East and Vaughan combine for a third before half-time and, when Afful plays in the striker again he completes his hat-trick with aplomb and, dare I say it, the bogey has been laid to rest. The second half starts well and Hall slots in for a fifth after 56 minutes. McAllister, Keeling and Barrett are introduced one-by-one and when the latter is brought down in the box, Jim steps up to make it six. The same thing happens four minutes later! Jim gets his second chance from the spot and finishes the scoring by making it 7-0 in the 83rd minute. What a start to the season.

What a start!!!

The next day, the last remaining season tickets sell-out, 7,932 in total, meaning the capacity of 8,790 is likely to be met in every league game and stadium expansion might be on the cards once more.

Luton bid £6m for “Wales U21 starlet” (!) Ben Tancock, but Ben has no interest in going to Luton, and quite right too. The Hatters have never spent that much on a player according to the press! They won’t now, either. Barnsley keep coming back for Connor Hall but as he’s not interested and neither am I, I won’t keep telling you after this. Just imagine they return every couple of days between now and the end of August and that me and Connor both joke about saying yes but always say no.

A tough second game of the season, away to recently relegated Southampton (Everton also came down making this a stronger division this year than last). It’s pretty tough to drop anyone after the last outing, so I don’t. Ross loses the ball in their half in the 5th minute and the counter is swift and almost deadly, but Sani is on hand to tip the shot over the bar. We’re seeing a lot of the ball but struggling to create clear cut chances until Tancock finds East in a bit of space inside the box and the winger spies the onrushing Boateng, plays the ball right to his feet and the veteran midfielder does the rest. Vaughan fizzes one past the post just after and confidence is up. Southampton have chances though and are unlucky not to be level when a header from a corner hits the post and goes wide. Sani saves again mid-way through the second half and Brooks makes an important block as the same move continues. We’re not as fluid as we were against Ipswich and Hall, Afful and Naismith are replaced before the hour. A handball in the box allows us to stretch the lead to 2-0 with ten minutes to go, Boateng placing the penalty to the keeper’s left but three minutes later Southampton have their own penalty and are back in it. It’s an edgy last few minutes but when a corner is cleared in the 91st minute, Tancock picks up the loose ball in the centre of the pitch, storms forward and hits an absolute stunner into the top corner. 3-1, nerves settled, the good start continues.

Top of the table after two games and, remarkably, only Birmingham City have matched us in winning their opening two games. Meanwhile, Watford are back in for Joshua Barrett – £6.25m up front this time – but I say no again even though Joshua wants to talk to them. Getting worried about this one, as well.

At home to Southend next and Dale East is the first player rested – despite having decent stamina he’s always one of the first to tire, a symptom of his hard work down the left flank. Keeling starts in his place. It’s going to be a tough game, Southend start with a very defensive formation – a 3-4-2-1 where the two are the central midfielders! Three central defenders, two DMs and two wing backs. We have a couple of half-chances in the opening 45 minutes and hold the ball for 70% of it, but no breakthrough yet. Southend have zero shots and register a blank on the xG. I think they might have come for a point. Vaughan gets another half-chance but his shot drifts wide of the post. Naismith finds some rare space down the right but Afful heads the cross straight at the keeper. Ross shoots at the keeper after cutting in from the left and I bring East on to try and find a way through, Keeling moving up front and replacing a quiet Vaughan. Keeling heads over, Barrett is on as the last roll of the dice, Afful stings the keeper’s hands and Keeling hits the post from a tight angle. We should have scored, we should have won, but Southend have ridden their luck (considerably!) and claimed their point.

Southend arriving with a point in mind

And here come Newcastle, trying to prise Tim Pemberton away. Go away, Newcastle and take your £2.9m with you. So what if it may rise to £5m? You’re going to have to start way beyond that.

A tough League Cup draw sees us travelling to fellow-Championship side, Burnley. Donnelly will get a run out in goal. Only a few tweaks beyond that, Tyrrell getting a start at right back, McAllister replacing Boateng for a first full outing and East returning on the left. It takes him three minutes to make an impact, curling a free-kick in, over the wall and down and low off the inside of the post. The Burnley keeper then makes a complete hash of a McAllister free-kick and the ball drops to Pemberton who can’t believe his luck and side-foots in. Vaughan comes close to making it three and the game is barely 15 minutes old. 24 minutes in and it is 3-0, Hall on hand to tap in McAllister’s saved shot. Burnley are in a mess, Afful sets up Vaughan for a fourth but then, just before half-time, we offer them a glimmer of hope: Ben Tancock picks up a second yellow card and he’s off and all of a sudden we’re grateful for a four goal cushion! I sacrifice Afful and bring Stan Hind on to play in the central midfield role. Bless ’em, the boys storm out of the blocks and try and build that cushion some more but Hall shoots wide. Nerves start to jangle not long after, Burnley getting one back in the 49th minute. It takes a while, but they get another on 70 minutes and we need to close up shop. We keep them at bay and Hall almost gets another, hitting the bar late on and Pemberton and Sani deny Burnley a third at the death but it’s all over by that point anyway and it finishes 4-2. McAllister has given me a selection headache, earning player of the match plaudits and keeping Boateng on his toes, for certain.

More bids: Hall (yep, Barnsley), Barrett (yep, Watford) and Afful (oh, hold on…). It’s West Ham offering £3.6m for Afful with plenty of add-ons, as you’d expect. I do not want to sell Joseph Afful. Brentford test that resolve immediately with a big £8.5m bid and we have to sit down with Joseph and remind of that time PSG came knocking and how he much he said he preferred Jim Keeling’s impressions of lower league assistant referees to pots and pots of absolute cash. And isn’t that still the case now, Joseph? Yes, yes it is. He’s happy, he stays.

Home to QPR next, Sani is back, Naismith is back, McAllister shifts across to replace the suspended Tancock and that allows Boateng back in without fuss. It’s a dull game, QPR come with a slightly more adventurous game plan than Southend, but barely and they take their hard earned point as well. We need to work out how to break these teams down.

Newcastle go to £4.7m (£7.75m with add-ons). Still no. Forest come in for McAllister (£3.3m) but he’s not interested in what would be a sideways move these days, and Swansea make a piddling £115k bid for Kieran Ross, who is one of our weak links now but is still our best right back and our best back-up left back. So also, no. And Watford go stratospheric with £9m on the table for Barrett (up to £11.5m) but I still say no because I haven’t got anyone lined up beyond Hall to play in that position and may not for a while. The best prospects look like Wayne Knight and Max Thomas, both provisionally strikers but with that ability to play on the wing. Sam Hollis can also play there but I’m not sold on him right now. It would weaken us, especially if Hall picked up an injury. Keeping my eye on Knight and Thomas though, they’re not far off.

Pemberton is rested for the trip to Bristol City, Hind replacing him, and Tancock returns at the expense of McAllister who is very unlucky to miss out (and is prompting some thought of a formation change, but not yet) but I feel Boateng’s physical presence is more of a requirement today. An unfortunate start to the day though, Vaughan injured just over a minute in, so Keeling is on bright and early. It seems to unsettle us and we need Sani to be at his best to keep the scores level. Hind comes closest to scoring for us, heading an East free-kick wide but we’re not firing on all cylinders right now. Sani saves us again in the 53rd minute. I switch things around, trying to find a breakthrough: Keeling switches to the left and East goes off and Hollis is on as the AMC with Afful moving up front (a move I’ve considered a few times). It pays off, Keeling plays in Afful shortly after and the Ghanaian finishes clinically, and with only 12 minutes left on the clock. Keeling puts in some sterling defensive work in injury time as well and we hold out for a very encouraging 1-0 win.

The news on Carl Vaughan isn’t great but could be worse – he’s out for 4 weeks with sprained ankle ligaments. Who will start up front in his absence? Keeling would seem the safest option, Afful has staked a claim (which could let Barrett back into the side with Hall switching to AMC) and the youngsters all want to play: Knight, Thomas, Sion Griffiths. One possibility mooted in the press that I hadn’t considered is Ronald Julien, ostensibly a central midfielder but with some moderately good attacking capabilities. Maybe an outing from the bench might be in order sometime soon.

Another Swansea bid for Ross is rejected out of hand and Watford are back again, this time enquiring about Stan Hind. A polite no, but I’m feeling less and less inclined to be polite to Watford.

Villa away: Pearson is still not quite ready to return and Afful wins the striker role but it’s Fabian McAllister who slots in at AMC as I retain Hall on the right after his impressive start to the season there. They’re both involved early, Hall heading a free-kick just wide but it’s Villa who take the lead when Ross concedes a penalty in a ‘no need to tackle’ situation. They’re two up inside 20 minutes, a whipped-in cross evading everyone. We’re collapsing for the first time this season, a long ball and some slick passing undoing us again before half-time. The poor first 45 minutes is compounded when I’m forced to take off both Afful and Hall at the same time with potential hamstring injuries. Julien gets his shot up front and Barrett is on down the right but it’s hardly the best of circumstances under which to make an impression. Barrett does just that though, heading in a Dale East cross in the 53rd minute to give us a little hope. It takes Villa less than a minute to extinguish that hope as another header returns them to a three goal cushion. Another header in the 85th minute puts us further behind as Villa continue to go for the jugular. It finishes 1-5 and we’re grateful for the final whistle. Barrett, East and second half substitute Matthew Tyrrell the only players escaping with any credit. Afful is out for 2-3 weeks but Hall’s injury is being measured in days so he should return quickly.

We return to League Cup action in midweek and we’ve draw a plum tie away to Newcastle United. Keeling is back up front in the absence of better options, Barrett starts and Donnelly gets his cup outing minutes in again. We’re involved in our first ever VAR decision! Honestly, never had one in any cup games previously. It’s a favourable result, Newcastle denied a penalty for a foul clearly committed outside the box. It’s the highlight of a very quiet first half, but I’m pleased with they way we’re playing. Wayne Knight comes on for Keeling, Hollis for a tired East and then Julien for a really below-par Tancock. It looks like it’s heading to extra-time but Newcastle have other ideas and one final attack in injury time undoes us. We’re beaten by that solitary goal, tired legs at the end taking their toll.

More transfer talk: right back Dara Keating (S21-12) is heading to Gateshead on loan but the surprising twist is Hull City and QPR bidding for Stefanos Panagi (S19-07). He’s a player I’m still undecided about – mainly because he’s undecided about where he wants to play! He arrived as a defender, right-back or centre-back, but has played for the U18s and U23s on the right wing and done well. A loan to National League Stevenage was reasonably successful last season but not enough to make me think he was first team ready and he does have 6 caps for the Cyprus national team. QPR are offering £51k up front with most of their bid comprising add-ons. That’s rejected but Hull are offering £180k, rising to £350k with appearances and instalments, which is decent but I don’t really need the money. This is purely a footballing decision so I reject it, believing Panagi could still develop into a first team player (in fact, his U23 performances so far this season perhaps warrant a promotion – he could be a useful utility player from the bench).

The league fixtures return us home for the first time in ages to take on lowly Millwall. We could do with a win to boost us after successive defeats. McAllister replaces Boateng again and Pearson returns at last, though his minutes may be limited. Connor Hall steps into the AMC role as Barrett keeps his place on the right. Millwall clog up the midfield which works until the 39th minute when they concede possession from a free-kick in our half and Connor Hall runs 60 yards down the pitch and finishes nicely to give us a half-time lead. Barrett and Keeling combine early in the second period to double the lead, Jim heading in at the far post. A tiring Barrett then makes way for…Stefanos Panagi! The transfer bids raising his profile sufficiently to get him a game! It’s Hall doing all the damage though and another jinking run wins a penalty just after an hour. Keeling slams it home for 3-0. East is tiring so Jim switches to wide left and Wayne Knight follows up his debut in the League Cup with a League debut. Keeling sets up Panagi who almost scores, denied by a combination of keeper and post. It’s the last serious action and we have ourselves a solid 3-0 win.

Guess who’s back? Watford’s back. £250k-rated Stan Hind is subject to a £5.9m bid. Stan’s tempted, I’m tempted but a brief discussion on the merits of Jim Keeling’s satirical take on the machinations of local government are enough to convince Stan to stay. Just one more day to survive before the transfer window closes. We reject loan bids for Joseph Obi and Callum Donnelly and Forest offer £4.6m for Tancock but Ben isn’t remotely interested and that’s the last bid of the day.

September 2043

The international break means we don’t play until the 12th (a home tie against league leaders Sheffield Wednesday). We have a lot of players out and about and keep our fingers crossed they avoid injury. Ken Lee (S22-02) puts in a blinding performance for Ireland U19s, grabbing a goal and two assists, albeit against Luxembourg. Fabian McAllister hits his 3rd international goal and Ronald Julien turns out for England U19s, grabbing a goal and an assist in his second outing against Ukraine, playing as a striker.

Afful is back to play up front, Vaughan returns too but isn’t 100% fit so starts on the bench. Keeling is the man to miss out, East keeping his left wing role. Afful’s running off the ball and pace cause Wednesday problems early on and it’s no surprise when a short pass from Barrett finds the new striker in enough space to fashion the opening goal in the 19th minute. Afful and Tancock both come close after good work from Hall and East down the left and Barrett releases Afful again close to half-time but the keeper makes a splendid stop to keep the score at 1-0. Afful can’t be kept down though and another surging run brings about the second goal in the 44th minute, a pull-back to Barrett allowing the right-winger to cross perfectly for East to head in at the far post. Two more excellent saves from Daly in the Wednesday goal prevent East and Afful adding to the total before half-time. He’s keeping them in it single-handedly right now. Hall capitalises on an error to play in Afful on 66 minutes but this time the striker’s shot comes back off the post. Vaughan comes on for the last 10 minutes and that’s all he needs, Barrett playing him clean through (for a hat-trick of assists) and Vaughan finishing nicely. The battle for places is well and truly on! A 3-0 win over the league leaders and they didn’t even have a sniff. As a bonus, we leapfrog Wednesday and top the table with eight games gone.

Beat the leaders, go top

Blackburn away and a manager claiming everyone else has underestimated us so far this season. Is that right, Danny Sharp? We go with the same line-up, not rushing Vaughan back and also not certain who else to drop given that Barrett, Hall, East and Afful are all in good form. Blackburn aren’t underestimating us and take an early lead (surely offside, ref?) but we’re soon level, a McAllister free-kick swung in from the corner and headed in from an awkward angle by Afful. Goals from set pieces are the order of the day and Blackburn go back in front when they loft a free-kick over the defence and we’re caught on our heels. Nothing is happening as we approach the last half-hour. Lindsay is on for Tancock, whose form is becoming a real worry, Panagi is on down the right and we reshuffle the front four – Afful to AMC, Hall to AML and Vaughan on and East off. By 70 minutes, it’s worked. Hall flighting a pass into Vaughan’s path and the striker doing the rest. It’s a close game but we’re in the ascendancy when McAllister puts a corner in that Blackburn don’t deal with and Panagi is on hand to score his first goal for the club! We lead with 8 minutes remaining. Blackburn almost level – heart in mouth stuff as the break and the shot hits the post then trickles along the goal line. Sani and Brooks between them somehow shepherding it away. Rovers continue battling though and grab the equaliser they probably deserve in the 90th minute. I’m satisfied with the performance on the whole but it’s a shame we couldn’t hang on for the three points.

Middlesbrough away – Vaughan is back in the starting line-up, Barrett the player to miss out as Afful drops back to AMC and Hall switches to an inverted winger role on the right. Boateng also returns in place of McAllister. Hall heads on to the bar early on as we supply the early pressure and the opening goal isn’t much longer in arriving, Afful whipping in a low cross that evades everyone except East who has a simple task at the far post. Hall makes it 2-0 after 13 minutes, storming down the pitch before hammering the ball in off the inside of the near post. We’re swarming all over Boro and Hall is in the action again, winning a penalty, but Afful’s attempt is saved. We may come to rue that as Middlesbrough begin to fight back and are rewarded in the 32nd minute with a close range header to make it 2-1. We settle ourselves into the second half and score a third inside ten minutes, East returning the favour and flighting in a free-kick that finds the head of Afful, who steers it into the top corner. Vaughan breaks free at the half-way line and drives into the box before finishing inside the far post to make it 4-1 with five minutes to go.

Young Player of the Month: Joseph Afful.

October 2043

8th placed Nottingham Forest visit Broadhurst Park at the start of October and the starting XI remains the same. Hall give us another early lead, Tancock and Afful creating space for him to run into and the finish is clinical. Forest are in it for a while but East combines with Vaughan to spring the offside trap and the striker’s finish mirrors Hall’s. Forest grab one back from a set-piece routine on the stroke of half-time that gives us plenty to think about in the interval. Barrett is on for Hall and forces a good save and somehow Vaughan steers the rebound wide. Forest have been passive in this second half but they sense they can get something in the final ten minutes and come close twice in quick succession before grabbing an equaliser at the third attempt. Worse is to come as Pemberton misses a header, putting them clean through to take the lead in the 90th minute. There’s a lot of shouting coming from my direction and I throw everyone forward to try and salvage something. The equaliser arrives in the 93rd minute, Afful sending in a devilish cross and East finishing firmly into the bottom corner. It should have been a win but at least it wasn’t an unjustified defeat. And that point takes us back to the top of the table when current leaders Birmingham lose heavily at home to Crystal Palace. There are four teams tied on 22 points but our goal difference is superior right now, in part due to the fact that we’re averaging over three goals a game recently (we’re five unbeaten and have scored at least three in each of those games).

Back to the top, but a devilishly close game with Forest

One of those teams tied on 22 points with us are up next. Derby are in 2nd place and we travel without Tom Boateng, ruled out with a calf strain. McAllister is in to replace him and Stan Hind returns to the bench after a short spell on the sidelines. Six minutes in and persistent running from Hall draws an early penalty. Afful steps up and the keeper saves it – Afful’s second successive miss. Ten minutes later we’re made to pay as Derby take the lead, working the ball down our left. It stays like that until half-time, a header wide from Derby the only real chance missed. They win a penalty eight minutes into the second half (Pemberton just being “too forceful”!) but they miss as well, hitting the post. Barrett, Hind and Keeling are on in quick succession just after the hour mark. Barrett is back off in the 74th minute, injured, leaving us with ten men for the remainder of the game. Vaughan breaks from the half-way line to try and salvage something but can only hit the keeper and Derby finish us off with a world-class free-kick in injury time. It hasn’t been our day. Barrett’s twisted an ankle and will miss 4-5 weeks.

A trip to mid-table Luton without the suspended Kieran Ross, so Matthew Tyrrell makes his first league start of the season. Stan Hind starts in midfield as we try and find a box-to-box presence who can influence the game. We start on the front foot, Vaughan hitting the post inside the first ten minutes and chipping the rebound wide from a difficult angle. He fizzes another shot past the same post not long after. Sani is called into action, tipping one over the bar in the 20th minute and then having to face a penalty when Pearson is clumsy in the box. He can’t stop the spot kick and we’re behind again. Tancock surges through to try and draw us level but can’t beat the keeper but I’m encouraged – it’s the type of play we haven’t seen much of in recent weeks from the midfielder. We eventually do level just before half-time, a great run by Vaughan followed by a lovely cross that finds Hall at the far post who half-volleys it in off the post. We’re stuttering through the second half though and it isn’t a surprise when Luton regain the lead in the 73rd minute, an unchallenged header in the box. Keeling is on for a disappointing East and McAllister steps in for Hind who has also underwhelmed. Nothing’s happening so with 8 minutes to go we roll the dice and withdraw Afful and put Knight on up front alongside Vaughan. We grab the equaliser in the 88th minute but it’s centre-back Tim Pemberton who gets it, heading in a Tyrrell free-kick and earning a valuable point.

October finishes with a home game against Cardiff. Ross returns, as does McAllister and we could do with a win to stop us falling further back from the leaders. It’s a quiet opening, Afful firing high and wide and Sani given a simple save when Cardiff catch us on the break but fail to capitalise. We break through in the 30th minute, Tancock crossing from inside the box and Hall heading in at the far post. It’s Tancock’s first assist since the opening day of the season. Crowe in the Cardiff goal pulls off a spectacular block from close range to deny Hall a second and Sani does something similar as the second half gets under way. He’s helpless as Cardiff breach the defensive line again though in the 63rd minute, the striker splitting our centre backs and finishing easily. That sparks us into life – Hall is denied again and Keeling is on and heads over from a corner. McAllister is denied by Crowe and the Cardiff keeper is having a great game. Panagi is on with Hall switching inside and Afful withdrawn after another quiet game. The constant pressure comes to nothing though and with five minutes to go a rare Cardiff attack produces a second goal. It’s ridiculously against the run of play. We throw everything at them and when all seems lost, the two subsitutes combine: a deep Keeling cross finds Panagi racing in at the far post and the winger who should really be a centre-back finishes from close range. That’s twice he’s scored a crucial late goal.

November 2043

Away to Crystal Palace and we stick with the same starting XI in the hope that consistency might breed success. This is the ground from where our season really took off last season, the point at which we began to believe in ourselves. The early pressure is all coming from us, East stings the keepers hands before Vaughan gives us the lead, comfortably nodding in a McAllister corner. Despite the lack of a Palace threat it takes until the 67th minute for us to score again, a wonderful long-ball from Pearson finding Vaughan and the young striker does the rest with a great finish. The home side belatedly show signs of life and have a goal back on 78 minutes but we are not to be denied today and when Keeling and Vaughan play a nice one-two on the edge of the box, it leaves the England U20 international with a chance for his hat-trick, which he takes clinically. Another good away day at Selhurst Park, 3-1.

The international break means it’s two weeks before we play again, at home to second-placed Birmingham and there’s no Andy Brooks after his yellow card collection increased to five at Palace. Stan Hind plays in his place and is the only change. Birmingham were one of the teams to cause us problems last season but it’s us who take the early initiative, a through-ball from McAllister finding the willing run of Vaughan, who opts for a neat dink over the keeper for 1-0. Before we can blink, we’re 2-0 up, Tancock jinking into the box and firing a left-footer into the bottom corner. He’s starting to find his best form again. Afful plays in Vaughan for his second before the end of the half. Vaughan’s intent on back-to-back hat-tricks but is denied by his own greediness and then the post. Birmingham get a goal back in the 73rd minute, Jac Pattinson who was a thorn in our side last season and seems intent on doing the same again. He gets another five minutes later, his pace leaving Hind for dead and the finish is a good one. Unbelievably, he completes a seven minute hat-trick to level the scores, Hind bamboozled by his footwork this time. We are not about to be outdone though and good work from Tancock finds substitute Keeling in space and the veteran slots home for 4-3. There is still time for action at both ends after that but we eventually shut the game down and hang on for a vital win. We’re back up to 5th with a game in hand on everyone above us that, if we win, will take us up to 2nd.

We’re away to managerless Charlton next – always a dangerous time to play a team, even if they are 23rd right now. It’s only three days after the Birmingham game so a couple of players are rested – McAllister and Afful – while Brooks returns from his suspension in place of Hind. A frantic opening minute sees chances at both ends and by the 4th minute Vaughan has won a penalty and Boateng, back in the side, converts it for an early lead. It’s 2-0 by the 10th minute, great work from Hall culminating in a neat pass to East who just has to pass the ball into the net. Vaughan lashes home a third midway through the half, played in by Sam Hollis in a rare right-wing appearance. He has another two minutes before half-time, this time Boateng the provider with an outside of the boot pass that tees the striker up brilliantly. Perhaps it wasn’t a dangerous time to play Charlton, after all. Hollis gets in on the act early in the second half, turning in a fizzing East cross on the volley. By the 54th minute, Vaughan has completed his hat-trick with Hall claiming another assist and, in case you’ve lost count, that’s 6-0. Charlton pull one back immediately but I’m fairly certain we’ve won this one. It finishes 6-1 and our goal difference takes another leap.

Another thrashing dished out

Only Afful forces his way back into the side for the home game against Burnley, McAllister making do with a place on the bench. Hollis is the unlucky man to miss out. Retaining Boateng in the starting XI pays off after just three minutes as he angles a lovely ball over the defence for East to run on to and give us the lead. Burnley level after 11 minutes though, the left-winger finding space between Ross and Pemberton and finishing at the near post. They catch us on the break moments later and Sani has to be at his very best to prevent them taking the lead. It’s an incident packed game and Afful wins a penalty after 17 minutes and picks himself to score from the spot. 2-1 at half-time. The lead lasts less than 40 seconds into the second, a long ball over the top catching us out. They’re keeping Vaughan very quiet and I decide to replace him on the hour with Wayne Knight. We win a corner soon after and after a couple of half-chances, Hall eventually gets the ball ten yards out and smashes it in. Keeling is on for East and, with seven minutes left, is found by Hall with a wonderful flighted pass and finishes aggressively to make it 4-2 and hopefully wrap up the three points. Afful volleys in from the edge of the box in injury time, just to make sure. Boateng finishes the match with three assists and the goals are flying in again right now and the win lifts us up to 2nd in the table.

The goals keep flying in

Carl Vaughan picks of Player and Young Player of the Month Awards and we also win Manager of the Month. It’s been a good run, let’s see if we can carry it through into December.

December 2043

It’s a busy few days of paperwork at the start of December. The big news is that Jose Scott, our Director of Football has been replaced. At 74, Jose had stepped back from full-time duties so it felt like the right time to bring somebody new (and improved) in. Welcome 36-year-old Barbadian and Rushall Olympic icon (!), Louie Stewart. Elsewhere, contract negotiations have been ongoing for those players with contracts ending next summer and while most of them go smoothly, there is one fly in the ointment. Captain Jim Keeling. Now, Jim is still performing at an exceptional level and is a huge presence in the dressing room but, and this is a biggie, he turns 30 at the end of January and he wants a four year contract! That’s a heck of a commitment to make at this stage of a player’s career, even if he is a club legend (he is in my eyes, not in those of the club historians who only claim Ben Beresford is in that category – I’m in icon, alongside Tomeu and two players from before my time, Steve Torpey and Dave Chadwick – Keeling is ‘favoured personnel’ right now). We can’t agree on terms and we’ll come back later in the season and hope that Jim and his agent are more amenable to a two-year deal.

Meet the new Director of Football

The starting XI remains unchanged for a trip to Barnsley. After coming under a little pressure early on, Afful takes control, charging forward, feeding Hall down the right and continuing his run into the box to head in the returning cross. Hall heads home and curling outswinging cross from Tancock six minutes later and we 2-0 up midway through the first half. Barnsley muster one off-target shot in the first 45 minutes and we’re looking pretty comfortable. They do hit the post in the final attack of the game but the second half is a bit of a kickabout for the boys and we stroll home thanks to those two first half strikes.

We’re back in Yorkshire for the next game, away to Huddersfield who have sneaked above us and into 2nd spot by virtue of playing a game more. This will be a test. The starting XI remains the same for the third game in a row, so still no room for Keeling, McAllister and Hind. We make the early running, Afful having the best chance but firing at the keeper after breaking from his own half after a Terriers corner. Huddersfield grow into the game though and Ross has to clear off the line before the post comes to our rescue under sustained pressure. Tancock picks up a knock early in the second half bringing a change in the midfield. McAllister replaces him straightaway and a few minutes later I withdraw a below-par Boateng, switch McAllister there and bring Joshua Lindsay on in the deep-lying playmaker role. It’s McAllister who makes the breakthrough, volleying in from close range after some persistent work down the left from Pearson and East. Huddersfield are straight back at us though and a dangerous whipped in cross comes off an unfortunate Pemberton for the equaliser. We’re looking tired with 20 minutes to go and with only one sub left, it’s Afful who makes way. Panagi is on and Hall now roaming through the middle. Can the super-sub do it again? Not immediately is the answer as Huddersfield instantly go ahead. Joshua Lindsay is denied by a brilliant save late on and it’s our last real chance as we fall to defeat to a near rival. We played well but just ran out of steam at the end.

Tancock’s knock rules him out of the home game against Portsmouth, giving McAllister a way back into the side. We pin Pompey in their own half in the opening couple of minutes and win a penalty at the end of it, East hauled down close to the byline. Boateng scores from the spot to give us the lead. It’s the only goal of the half though. East sees an early second half effort tipped onto the bar by the keeper and Portsmouth miss a golden opportunity when clean through, screwing their effort wide. Hollis, on as a sub, hits the bar from distance but it’s another sub, Keeling, who seals the win when played in by McAllister.

Another promise of a golden generation arrives and it’s goalkeepers (“a great prospect”) and strikers (“two…considered to be fine prospects”) who grab the headlines. There’s a striker from Rochdale to keep an eye on. It’s promising, as are the continued improvements to the facilities – the work on the Training Facilities completes and they’re officially rated ‘Great’. Not so promising is the suggestion of vultures circling, the press reporting interest in Pemberton and Vaughan as we approach the opening of the transfer window in a couple of weeks time.

Everybody’s taking advantage of the improved training facilities!

Tancock has to make do with a place on the bench for the trip to Hull, McAllister’s performance against Portsmouth keeping him out. It’s a good sign with both players and Tom Boateng in good form, there’s a good battle being had. If there is a negative to that, it’s that the up and coming midfielders – Linsday, Brayan, Julien – aren’t getting a look in. We dominate from the start against Hull but don’t create many clear cut chances. Hall hits the bar with a curling shot from outside the box and Vaughan sends one high and wide after being put through by Afful. The second half begins with Hull on the attack and Sani has to be sharp to hold on to a shot from a well-worked corner. Hall hits the post after good work from McAllister and Pearson down the left and it seems the Hull goal is living a charmed life. A Boateng shot is pushed onto the post and then the Tigers break and score, showing us how to finish. When Vaughan heads wide in the 89th minute, I know it’s not going to be our day. I’ve no idea how we haven’t scored today.

Going back briefly to those promising central midfielders and to Joshua Lindsay, in particular. He seems to be developing into a potential right wing-back as every time I make him available for U23 games, that’s where he ends up. I noticed it last season and it’s become more obvious this term because he’s put a couple of man of the match performances in while playing there. I’m keeping an eye on it because he might just be the best long-term solution we have in the squad. Kieran Ross will be 28 at the end of the season so it will be helpful to have someone who can step in over the next couple of seasons. Slowly, Lindsay may well be turning into the answer.

The Christmas schedule sees the usual slew of games, starting on Boxing Day away to Ipswich. There’ll be some shuffling of the team over the next couple of weeks and we’re forced into it before the games even get underway, a slight knock ruling Pemberton out (Hind comes in) and Afful in need of a rest (Barrett starts, Hall moves to the middle). We’ve played Ipswich three times and there have been 19 goals in total, so this should prove interesting after our 7-0 win had followed 5-2 and 3-2 defeats from last season. We strike first here, Barrett re-introducing himself in the 7th minute after getting behind the defensive line and being found by Boateng. The finish was confident and a sign of the squad depth we’ve got these days. That’s the only goal of the first half, however, and the boys get a little reminder that they have the ability to up their game in the half-time team talk. Ipswich fight back and we need both a great last ditch tackle from Ross and a clearance off the line by Pearson to stay in front. They eventually do level in the 68th minute, a tackle by Pearson skidding into the box and inadvertently finding a blue shirt. We can’t summon up a winner and the promotion charge is in danger of coming off the rails. We’re still 4th and comfortable in the play-off places but Derby and Huddersfield are pulling away in the automatic spots and there’s a ten point difference to make up (with one game in hand).

Ipswich cause problems. Again! We’re losing ground…

A truck-load of players need a rest for the trip to Southend – Ross, Pearson, Hind, Boateng, Barrett, Hall – and we gamble and give Lindsay a start at right back. Pemberton returns, Naismith starts at left-back and Tancock returns to partner McAllister. Panagi gets a start on the right and Afful returns. Brayan and Max Thomas find themselves on the bench as well. There’s an instant pay-off to one of the changes as Lindsay works his way forward and puts in a pinpoint cross for East to head us into a 2nd minute lead. We can’t quite find the net for the second goal in the first half, Afful heading onto the crossbar the nearest we come. We start the second half in better form and two more replacements combine – Naismith crossing and Panagi heading home. The Cypriot has an eye for goal, that’s for sure. It’s his third strike in only six appearances, five of which have come from the bench. Brayan gets some game time, replacing a below-par McAllister. Southend grab a consolation with 20 seconds left on the clock but there’s no time left for them to mount a comeback and we hold on, 2-1.

January 2044

The new year begins with an FA Cup 3rd Round tie at home to Huddersfield. Ross, Brooks and Naismith are all suspended due to previous FA Cup infractions so Lindsay continues at right-back while Hind and Pearson return as well as Barrett and Hall. Donnelly starts in goal as we continue to look to give him cup games to aid his development. We lead after 23 seconds!! Hind pumps a long ball forward that seems destined for no-one but the Huddersfield keeper and his centre-back both half go for it and then both leave it and Vaughan nips in and comfortably puts the ball past the out of position keeper. They’re not happy and fly forward and have an equaliser as early as the 3rd minute. With the goals out of the way early, the rest of the half produces very little until the second minute of injury team when East finds himself in space to the left of the box and pulls a smart ball back to Vaughan who makes no mistake for his second of the game. Hind makes a crucial challenge in the area to help preserve the lead and when Tancock lays an inch-perfect pass into the path of Vaughan, the striker completes his hat-trick with a near post finish and we lead 3-1. Huddersfield aren’t done though and Donnelly is beaten in the 83rd minute in the type of one-on-one that Sani thrives on. He’s exposed again four minutes later and appears to have done enough, saving with his legs. The striker gets to the rebound but hits the post but gets a third chance and slots home from a tight angle, unchallenged. 3-3 and there’ll be a replay that we could do without.

The work on the Youth Facilities is completed and they’re now ‘state of the art’, another huge step in the development of the club.

Those facilities are all looking mighty fine

We’re back to league action on Tuesday night as the games continue thick and fast. Our first encounter with a relegated Everton side who are actually flirting with relegation again this season, down in 17th place as they arrive at Broadhurst Park. Pemberton needs a rest and I leave Afful out for the second successive match for the same reason. Brooks and Sani returning are the only changes. We nearly score after 23 seconds again but first Vaughan and then Barrett are denied by last gasp challenges but we continue in the ascendency and lead by the 10th minute, Tancock driving home from 20 yards, an East header back out to him the perfect invitation to shoot. Pearson makes a wonderful sliding tackle to deny a goalscoring opportunity and play continues while I wait for the ref to decide it was a penalty, but this is one of those rare moments when a superb tackle isn’t given as a penalty! Everton are being kept at bay but still having half-chances so when East taps in a McAllister cross in the 73rd minute there’s a collective sigh of relief around the ground.

We’ve quietly been declining loan bids for Callum Donnelly throughout most of the season and twice in the week since the transfer window re-opened. With Gabriel, Lundstram and Minambres all out on loan, there’s a big dip in quality between Donnelly and the next best keeper still at the club, 16-year old Sanni Suleiman (S22-03). It felt like the best option to keep him and feels even more justified now because Samuel Sani has just been ruled our for two weeks with a virus. Donnelly’s up (and Suleiman’s on the bench!).

It’s another home game for Donnelly’s league debut (he has five cup appearances to his name). Pemberton and Afful are back, Hind (who has a knock) and Barrett making way and there’s a change on the bench: Wayne Knight, who’s struggled when called upon, is replaced by Ian Jones (S21-02) who has been impressive at U23 level and is consistently training hard and developing quickly. He’s earned a chance. Joshua Lindsay continues his run at right-back as Kieran Ross is left to look on from the sidelines. Bristol City (6th) are the visitors and it’s a Lindsay cross that almost breaks the deadlock, Hall’s glancing header hitting a post. That sparks end to end action: first East curls in a free-kick shot/cross that their keeper can only punch away but they immediately break and avoid two of our lunging tackles to arrive one-on-one with Donnelly. The Australian keeps his nerve and saves with his legs and it remains 0-0 at the end of the first 45. Early second half pressure win us a penalty – Hall clattered – and McAllister takes on the responsibility for the spot kick but sees it saved. Donnelly makes a superb one-handed save after 70 minutes and this could go either way at the minute. Substitute Sam Hollis heads over from another Lindsay cross and that’s the last opportunity, both sides fatigued and failing to create in the final ten minutes. 0-0, the penalty miss crucial.

The FA Cup replay at Huddersfield provides another midweek game and a rest for Jamie Pearson. That allows Kieran Ross back into the side with Joshua Lindsay excelling at right back in the last few games. We fall behind in the 9th minute, a cleverly worked free-kick foxing us completely. We find our feet and Hall levels in the 22nd minute after good work by Vaughan but Huddersfield are back ahead soon after, Nwachukwu (who hit two in the first game) scoring his 33rd goal of the season – in January! The second half is quieter until the 87th minute – Vaughan has the ball in the net but is adjudged offside and our last chance has gone.

Joshua Lindsay’s form has been good since he came into the team, so good that Newcastle have already spotted it and are offering £2m. We decline the offer, the first serious bid we’ve had at the half-way point of the transfer window.

There are some changes for the visit of Aston Villa, Pearson is back, Boateng comes in for the rested Tancock and Barrett starts with Afful needing a rest, too. Donnelly continues in goal with Sani still suffering with a virus. Villa lead after 22 minutes, a close range tap in after we’re exposed down the left. We manage to bring the game level before half-time, Barrett playing a lovely through ball with the outside of his foot that Vaughan runs on to, finishing clinically. A mix-up in midfield allows Villa to retake the lead, Boateng’s tackle a good one but no-one picking up the loose ball, leaving Donnelly facing a one-on-one that he has little hope of stopping. Vaughan hits the outside of the post with a rasping shot before Boateng concedes a penalty and we fall further behind. We look tired and disjointed but we are still 3rd (Villa drawing level on points with us) and Derby keep slipping up so we’re still only eight points behind them with a game in hand.

Seventh-placed Southampton provide the opposition at Broadhurst Park the following Tuesday and there are a host of players in need of a rest and/or out with suspension or injury. That means Andy Brooks anchors a backline that sees Ross return at right-back, Tyrrell partnering in the middle and Naismith at left-back. Tancock and Afful return and Keeling gets a start on the left wing. We’re stretched thin right now and with a number of U23s also in need of a rest, there’s a sub’s bench that includes 17-year-olds August Prahltysj (S22-09) and Simon Batptiste (S21-03) as defensive and attacking cover, respectively. It’s a dull start to the game and it takes fully 25 minutes for either side to muster a shot and 41 before there’s an attempt on target. Unfortunately, that’s a Southampton shot that goes in and we have work to do in the second half. We don’t do that work early on, concede possession on the half-way line and watch forlornly as Southampton go two up. Without it ever being a plan, the two youngsters end up on the pitch, Baptiste for a very tired Keeling and Prahltysj for a woefully poor Naismith. We outperform the Saints in the second half but can’t get a goal and it’s feeling like a long time since our last win all of a sudden. One plus point, Prahltysj was the best player in the side despite having less than 30 minutes on the pitch.

Samuel Sani is back in training and I think that will boost morale. Donnelly has had one great game (v Bristol City) but four not so great games and it’s fair to say that Zaine Gabriel performed better as a stand-in last season. Might be Donnelly’s turn for a loan next year.

Donnelly struggles in the first team

A week left of the transfer window and the bids recommence. Newcastle make a sensational £5.75m bid for Joshua Lindsay – £4m up front, the rest in two instalments plus £215k per match for the first ten games which takes us towards £8m. I can’t sell him but I also need to start to think about where he plays because his passing, technique and vision mean I may have to move him back to a central midfield role and away from his emergency right-back one. It might also be time to renegotiate his contract! Lindsay’s Season 20 midfield partner Brayan is then subject to a bid from Real Madrid! It’s only £195k with potential to hit half a million but the Spaniard is naturally very interested in the offer. We have a chat but he doesn’t want money and he doesn’t think the laugh-a-minute Keeling club house is unique to us. I try and bump them up to £1m but it’s a flat no and Real Madrid walk away. Villa bid for Lindsay as well, but he’s not as interested and it’s easy to reject that one and Newcastle are back but bidding for Brayan but again, it’s a no.

With no weekend game, there’s a good rest before we’re back in midweek action picking up the game in hand we have away to QPR. Sani is back, Lindsay and Pearson return to the full-back roles and Hind replaces Tyrrell while Pemberton serves the second game of a two match ban. Dale East is back on the left of the attack, too. Sani instantly makes his presence felt, tipping a 25-yard free-kick over the bar with an acrobatic save. We have more possession than QPR but aren’t creating anything and a repeat free-kick in the 40th minute crashes off the post and is all that saves us from going in at half-time behind. QPR have more chances, but there are headers over the bar and other missed opportunities and we aren’t in it until Dale East waltzes into the box, the ball glued to his left foot and fires in to give us a 72nd minute lead. It looks like it might be enough but QPR get their (well-deserved) goal deep into injury time and we leave with a point. It was a decent performance but we’ve dropped to 6th now and need to start winning again soon.

Millwall away at the weekend, Ross returns at right-back and Lindsay moves into midfield for the rested Tancock. Pemberton is back from suspension, East is tired (again) as is Afful so the three attacking midfielders are Barrett, McAllister and Hall on the left. Vaughan continues up front but has failed to score in 12 of the last 14 matches (a hat-trick in one of those disguises the lack of goals a little). Might be time to pull him from the firing line for a little while, but not today. Pearson is also in need of a rest again so we gamble and give Prahltysj a start. Vaughan steers the first shot of the game on target but straight into the keeper’s hands. It’s goalless at half-time and ten minutes later I’m replacing a clearly out-of-his-depth Prahltysj with Matthew Tyrrell (Ross moving to left-back). Vaughan has a shot from distance that slips just past the outside of the post and when Millwall try to replicate that, the ball ends up in the top corner, with nothing the impressive Sani can do about it. It’s the 88th minute and we’ve lost again. Millwall rub salt into the wound with another in injury time. We are tired, lacking a cutting edge and only Sani and Pemberton played well.

The day before deadline day is a momentous one! No transfers but instead, a story of longevity! Jim Keeling turns 30. He’s the second academy graduate to reach that age while still at the club, following in the footsteps of Darren Connor stayed until the grand old age of 32 (though he didn’t play a league game beyond the age of 30, featuring in just 3 cup games at age 31 and not featuring at all in his final season). Andy Brooks will join the club in May, too.

Jim at 30

Transfer deadline day sees rejected bids for Knight and then Lindsay – West Brom offering peanuts, then Wolves offering £2.2m plus add-ons – and the central midfielder/right-back has his head turned. He isn’t happy that we’ve rejected that bid and so when a further bid from Wolves is matched by one from Newcastle that we negotiate up to £7.5m, it seems prudent to say yes (plus, the finances are dipping close to £1m and dropping fast, so it probably is time for another boost). He’s off to Wolves immediately, the deadline day giving a swift solution to the deal.

February 2044

With that Joshua Lindsay story-arc at a very swift end, we entertain Blackburn, a team we haven’t beaten in the last four attempts. Andy Brooks and Carl Vaughan are out injured so Stan Hind and Joseph Afful return to the side in their places, Afful getting another shot at the striker role he did well in last time Vaughan was out. Dale East and Jamie Pearson also return to bolster the left flank. Sion Griffiths (S20-04) makes the bench after impressive U23 performances and will be looking to make his debut. McAllister plays a great through-ball from his own half in the 7th minute and Afful has his first opportunity to shine, racing past the defence and slotting in at the near post to give us an early lead. We score a lovely second in the 33rd minute, Boateng floating a ball cross-field into East’s path and the left-winger fires it across goal and inside the far post. We’re forced into two substitutions before the half is out though: both wingers picking up knocks that result in Panagi and Keeling coming on. It doesn’t seem to disrupt our flow and even though good work from Afful and Tancock is interrupted by stout Blackburn defending, the resultant loose ball falls to McAllister who slams it in from eight yards out. At 3-0 with 20 minutes to go, Griffiths gets his opportunity but we’re coasting by this stage and he gets little opportunity to add to the lead, but the experience should be good for him. It was good for me, a first win in almost a month.

There’s no let-up in games right now, with a Tuesday night visit to play-off chasing Sheffield Wednesday. East and Hall are ruled out though Hall should be back for the weekend. Vaughan is back to full fitness but has to be content with a place on the bench after Afful set us on our way in the last game (coupled with McAllister’s outstanding performance at AMC). We swarm all over Wednesday in the opening 10 minutes, clocking up a 1.38 xG, and the first goal arrives three minutes later, Tancock playing Afful in behind the defence. The replacement striker’s first effort hits the post but it he’s first to react and tucks in the rebound. Wednesday level with an unstoppable finish from 30 yards out that bends around Sani and into the top corner. Despite barely venturing into our box, they then take the lead, picking off our mistakes and punishing us. It’s a mystifying half of football. I tell them I expect more at half-time and they come out fighting, captain Jim getting us level within three minutes of the re-start when he turns in a Pearson cross. Vaughan is on with half an hour to go, Afful dropping back to replace a tiring McAllister. Ten minutes later he gets his chance, played in by Pearson – who seems to be the main outlet tonight – and rounding the keeper to put us back in the lead. Sani tips a free-kick over that seemed destined for the top corner, earning his corn and the team three points into the bargain. Back-to-back wins for the first time since the start of December.

Another away game, to the City Ground and Nottingham Forest but without Jim Keeling who’s out for a month with a hamstring strain. Connor Hall is back and will take up the left-wing duties with East still out. Vaughan returns to the starting line-up and Afful will be AMC meaning Fabian McAllister will have to make do with a place on the bench. Sani makes an early stop, strong hands forcing a close range shot wide. He confidently claims the resulting corner and from the clearance we exert pressure on Forest that ends up with Boateng firing just over. Vaughan misses two chances in quick succession, the first a tame shot from close to the penalty spot, the second a well-struck effort from the left that the keeper saves superbly. He’s denied a third time by the keeper on 25 minutes, a chance that falls between the first two in terms of quality. He’s causing the Forest backline all sorts of problems but Gerard Gordon in goal is equal to it all and soon denies him a fourth time. It’s a combative game, lots of 50/50 challenges and no-one is shirking from them. We eventually take the lead, Hall finding a way past Gordon at last after a nice pass across field from Barrett. It’s 1-0 at half-time. Vaughan’s goal eventually arrives in the 55th minute, a header from the edge of the six-yard box. McAllister comes on and sets up a second for Hall, his shot reached by Gordon but not kept out and Barrett prods in a fourth after a cross from another sub – Tyrrell – can only be parried by the keeper into the right-winger’s path. A game that had been close in the first half has turned into a demolition job and Hall makes absolutely sure, heading in for his hat-trick as injury time ticks by for a 5-0 away win.

Forest get a hiding

Simon Baptiste (S21-03) becomes our 15th player out on loan as he joins National League side Maidstone until the end of the season. He’s been doing really well at U18 and then U23 level and some competitive football will hopefully see him develop further.

Mid-table Middlesbrough visit and Andy Brooks is back from injury – just in time as Hind is now out for a week – but that’s the only change. A fit-again Dale East will start from the bench, partly to preserve his fitness and partly because everyone played so well last time out. A lovely Ben Tancock cross is headed home by 6’5″ Tom Boateng (headers are surprisingly rare among his goals) after 11 minutes to settle us down. A second goal is hard to find for the rest of the first half and we’re dominating without really threatening. The second period starts brightly, Barrett crashing a shot against the post before leaving the field with a knock. That brings East on with Hall switching to his right-sided inverted winger role. We’re keeping Boro at bay but there’s a sense of nerves kicking in as we keep failing to add to the lead. Vaughan fires straight at the keeper, Ian Jones comes on in his place, does everything right in a similar situation and chips the keeper but sees his effort come back off the bar. It comes eventually – 83 minutes in – Andy Brooks meeting a free-kick swung in to the far post on the half-volley and that opens Middlesbrough up a little more so that in the last minute of injury time, a Pearson cross is met by Jones and the youngster has his first ever goal and cements a 3-0 victory. The win keeps us 4th, a point behind Southampton and now just three behind Derby. Huddersfield are getting away at the top, a five point gap opening up between them and the Rams.

A 3-0 win over Middlesbrough caps a great sequence of results and draws us back into the promotion battle

PSG are sniffing around Carl Vaughan. Nothing to see here and don’t let it distract from the next game, at home to Derby.

Ross is suspended having reached 10 yellow cards (still two behind Pemberton in their annual race to 15) and Hall drops to the bench, needing a rest. Tyrrell and East come in. It’s a dull first half, Derby having the only notable chance but see Sani more than capable of keeping it out. The second half is immediately more interesting, Vaughan stretching the play by drifting out wide but then cutting in and making it to the byline before a panicked Derby defence bring him down in the box. Afful converts the penalty and we lead. The substitutions come quicker than usual, tiring legs forcing off Barrett, Afful and Tancock in quick succession. Panagi, McAllister and Brayan are on but the changes unsettle us for a bit and Derby break and equalise in the 72nd minute. Vaughan almost scores an instant reply but his shot is well-saved. Derby catch us again on 85 minutes – another break and a seemingly impossible finish from wide left that sneaks past Sani at his near post. It’s enough to sink us and despite having the edge, we’ve lost ground on promotion rivals. We have avoided relegation though! Not bad by 23rd February.

We’re back at Broadhurst Park for the Saturday fixture against Luton. Pearson needs another break and I’ve lost a bit of faith in Cameron Naismith as a left-back so gamble on young August Prahltysj again. Hall replaces Barrett on the right wing but otherwise we stay the same. Luton turn up and play out of their skins in the first half – somehow a combination of Sani in superb form, some last ditch tackles and the woodwork keep them out and we get to half-time at 0-0 but we need a rethink. I send them out after a verbal blasting and they seem to reply, Vaughan should do better one-on-one with the keeper but goes straight at him, not for the first time in recent weeks. He sees another effort saved when played in by East. East is denied by the keeper next, his rasping shot well blocked. It’s heading towards 0-0 when a Matthew Tyrrell run is stopped illegally in the box. Boateng has the chance to give us the lead with just 10 minutes remaining. He stays calm and places it in the bottom right corner. 1-0! It’s looking alright until Hall is given a straight red for what looked like a great tackle just as we get to injury time. We have five minutes of added to time to see out. There’s a scare on 93 minutes, Prahltysj blocking initially, Sani tipping the follow-up onto the post and the ball trickling along the line before the young Norwegian scampers back to clear. We hold on for the narrowest of wins.

In a rare event, we successfully appeal Connor Hall’s red card and the FA disciplinary committee rescind his ban. Unfortunately, Hall picks up an abdominal injury and will miss the next game anyway.

Mark the date! The FA rescind a ban!

March 2044

We have a full week before the trip to Everton that allows us to get everyone back to match fitness, other than those who are injured. McAllister joins Hall on the sidelines. Barrett is in for Hall and both full-backs return, Tyrrell unlucky to lose out to Ross after a couple of decent performances. Barrett starts well, finding space often as he first heads over and then fires a shot just wide. He’s there again on the half-hour but once more the finish is wayward and an Everton team that, despite being down in 16th, are currently one of the form sides in the league, could well take advantage of our profligacy. Vaughan has a goal chalked off at the start of the second half, timing his run just wrong, but we’re soon ahead when a Dale East free-kick causes confusion. A header back finds Brooks, whose shot comes back off the bar with the attempted clearance hitting an Everton defender and going in. The Toffees draw level though within 10 minutes, Ross unable to prevent a cross and then the clearance from Pemberton falling straight to the opposition for an easy tap in. It signals Everton pressure and it eventually pays off, though it’s more a consequence of skill than pressure – a 25 yard strike flying in and sinking us. We’ve been unlucky again and we’re in danger of slipping out of the play-offs. Oddly, we’re also still only five points from 2nd. Derby are top and having not paid much attention in recent weeks, previous leaders Huddersfield are down in 3rd, passed by Southampton after only winning once in the last seven league games and on a run of three straight defeats. There are nine games to go – if we can string a few wins together now, we’ve got a chance.

Everton do us over in injury time – a nine match unbeaten run would be good round about now

The U23s beat their Cambridge counterparts 10-2 before we’re next in action, Max Thomas putting himself back in the striker’s frame with 7 (seven) goals in the game! Wayne Knight got the other three but somehow got overshadowed despite a hat-trick. There’s more news before the trip to Cardiff, Sani suffering a gashed leg that could keep him out for two weeks. That’s a blow and we have to hope he’ll be back sooner. Donnelly is up again.

The U23s go bananas / do cruel things to Cambridge U23s

Kieran Ross is also out for the game away to Cardiff, Matthew Tyrrell back in and Connor Hall returns. Max Thomas makes the bench ahead of Ian Jones as the back-up strikers continue to compete with each other. Dale East gets us in front on 22 minutes, an Afful defence splitter putting him in as he cut in from the wing. Hall is everywhere and curls one just wide of the post minutes later and East almost has a second but is denied by the keeper at full stretch. We’re getting close again time after time without finishing – Boateng the next up, firing wide after good build up play. Fortunately Cardiff don’t seem to have the cutting edge to make us pay for missed chances and we comfortably see the game out for a 1-0 win. A defeat for 7th placed Birmingham gives us a five point cushion inside the play-off places.

We’re back in action three days later for a midweek visit from Crystal Palace. Afful needs a rest so Sam Hollis comes in and Ross returns but only to the bench after the whole defence put in an excellent shift in Cardiff. Palace are a team we like to score against and we have them on the back foot early on, their defence at sixes and sevens but eventually getting the ball clear after East had spun in a dangerous cross. Vaughan sends one whistling over the bar soon after but then Donnelly is called into action, doing well to deny a swift Palace counter-attack. We make all three substitutions by the 65th minute and then watch Connor Hall go down injured five minutes later to leave us with ten men for 20 minutes. Sam Hollis moves out left but he picks up a knock with five minutes to go as well. We ask him to stay on and he does but by the sixth minute of injury time he can’t continue and we’re down to nine men. Donnelly had made a good save moments before with Tyrrell hacking the follow-up off the line to preserve a point. Luck is not on our side right now.

Fortunately, neither injury is serious – muscle strains that might mean a game or two out but nothing more.

A Golden-Generation Themed Interruption

It’s not a bad bunch. There seems to be depth in terms of attributes but perhaps not in terms of potential and the cut-off might be higher than last year’s nine. Our promised Rochdale striker looks good – David Maclaren (S23-01) – and the top five all look decent: a central midfielder, Lloyd Byrne (S23-02), a right winger, Tom Colledge (S23-03), a Finnish keeper, Markku Mustonen (S23-04) (is Stan Lee in charge of naming our keepers? Samuel Sani, Mario Minambres, Sanni Suleiman – and that’s before we even talk about ex-keeper Tomos Thomas) and the brilliantly named Mauritian centre-back, Joseph Grenade (S23-05). I’m sure there’ll be lots of ‘explosive’ puns and many a nickname for the already minted Joe The Bomb.

Louie gets to utter the immortal words ‘golden generation’ for the first time

We sign 11 and I even like the look of the next two on the list but we’ll stick with the recommendation for now.

Back To March 2044

Charlton at home. No Hall or Hollis, still recovering from injuries picked up last time out and no Pearson either as he struggles to maintain fitness. Barrett, Afful and Prahltysj are in and Samuel Sani is back in goal, fully recovered from a virus. We take an early lead, a ponderous attack suddenly enlivened by a quick change of direction from Tancock, feeding Tyrrell down the right whose cross is finished nicely by the head of Barrett. Tyrrell is the provider again in the 10th minute, found again by Tancock and crossing low this time for Vaughan to tap in. Tancock, having fired wide with the only other notable effort of the half, is replaced before the 45 minutes are up after picking up a knock. We don’t want to take any chances and Hind comes on in his place. It takes a while for the second half to get going again, Vaughan livening things up with a surging run from his own half that ends with him upended in the box. Boateng takes the penalty but sees it saved. We do grab a third on 77 minutes, Barrett looping a ball over the top for Vaughan who looks back to his best running on to it and sliding it past the onrushing keeper. He just misses out on a hat-trick when he hits the post moments later but we have enough for today and 3-0 keeps us tucked in 5th place.

The international break gives us chance to recharge the batteries – apart, that is, from the 14 players on international duty! Meanwhile, long-term coach Stuart Cattell (he’s been with us right from the start, first with the U18s and then with the first team from 2029) recommends David Maclaren (S23-01) should already be playing with the U23s. We’ll keep a close eye on his development there. Two days later, DOF Louie Stewart is recommending a professional contract for Maclaren as well as Markku Mustonen (S23-04) and Joe George (S23-07). I suspect more will follow. The break doesn’t do Jim Keeling good – we give him an outing with the U23s to build his fitness back up after injury but he picks up another (a groin strain) that will see him miss another month. See what happens when you get to 30? It isn’t going to help contract discussions either and we’re still miles apart on agreeing what an appropriate extension is at this point. Jim wants his wages doubling and a 3 year contract and right now that doesn’t look like good value, despite the influence he brings to the squad.

April 2044

A big game to kick off April with. We’re away to 7th placed Birmingham City, realistically the only time likely to climb into the play-offs from outside the top 6 right now. A win for them would bring them within two points of us, whereas a win for us would probably seal that top 6 spot. Pearson and Hall return to the starting XI and McAllister and Hollis return on the bench. Having edged a seven goal thriller earlier in the season, we know this is going to be a tough game and that we need one eye on Jac Pattinson, who hit a hat-trick last time against us. We almost fall behind with Pattinson as the creator, playing a ball forward that Tiago chips over Sani but luckily for us it bounces off the post and safely away. Hall has a couple of tame efforts saved as we build some momentum before slick play between Tancock and Vaughan tees up East to rifle home and give us an 18th minute lead. Tancock has a goal ruled out for offside, his shot deflected of a marginally further forward Vaughan. East does double the lead on 32 minutes though. He wins a free-kick right on the edge of the box, dusts himself down and hits a rocket into the top corner. A lovely weighted pass from Boateng runs right into the path of Vaughan as he runs into the box and the striker’s aim is true to give us a 3-0 half-time lead. There can be no let up though, this is where we were last time we played the Blues and they clawed it back to 3-3 before we stole a winner. Andy Brooks is man-marking Pattinson for the second half as a result. We keep the score at 3-0, Vaughan hitting the post after an hour and Brooks is doing a good job until the 73rd minute when Pattinson gets away from him near the half-way line and surges into the box to score. This is almost exactly the same time he set about his hat-trick in the last meeting! Sani does well to prevent an almost instant second. We disrupt the pattern of the game with three slow individual substitutions and drop McAllister into a midfield three. When a Boateng long-ball heads into the box, the Birmingham keeper hesitates for just long enough to give Vaughan a sniff and he races onto the loose ball and tucks it in for 4-1. The boys have turned up today, and then some. It’s a great win.

On the march – consolidating a play-off spot by beating Birmingham (and casting an eye upwards again)

More of the latest youth intake are offered professional contracts: Joseph Junior Kargbo (S23-06) and Joseph Grenade (S23-05) (you remember, Joe the Bomb!).

Next up, another trip to a team just outside the play-offs in 8th placed Burnley. They’ve drawn level with Birmingham and need a win today to stay in touch with the top 6, at least for another week. A row of ‘Wnt’ signs greet me at the team sheet: Pemberton (PSG, Benfica), Pearson (Sunderland), Afful (Wolves), East (PSG), Vaughan (PSG, Porto), Ross (Sunderland) and McAllister (Al-Jazira!) are all drawing attention and those PSG scouts are a bit of a worry (though also a sign that we’re doing something right).

A silly amount of ‘Wnt’ signs – Hands Off PSG!!!

We stick with the line-up that did so well at St Andrews last week and we start the same way: with a tame Hall shot straight at the keeper! Afful shoots at him as well from close range and then curls one just wide from the edge of the box. It feels like the opener is coming, but when? On the stroke of half-time as it turns out. But it’s for Burnley. A free-kick isn’t cleared and the initial effort comes back off the post but only to a claret and blue shirt. We’ve outclassed them so far but need to put the ball in the net. I let them know at half-time and they listen. Vaughan has us level in the 48th minute, a left-footed thunderbolt from the edge of the area, top corner, 1-1. He has us in the lead by the 68th minute, a move that starts with a superb double tackle from Pearson before Brooks finds Afful from the loose ball and the Ghanaian whips a fantastic through ball into Vaughan’s path and the striker does the rest. Vaughan is brought down in the 80th minute, winning a penalty that he gets up and converts himself to complete his hat-trick. It’s fair to say he’s responded well to the half-time team talk! Andy Brooks demonstrates another superb interception late on to preserve the two-goal cushion and we have convincing back-to-back away wins against play-off contenders. We’re hitting form at just the right time and defeat for Derby suddenly opens up the top of the table. Southampton have gone top on 83 points and with a game in hand on the rest of the contenders. Derby sit on 81 and then Huddersfield on 80 with us and Villa a further point back on 79. It looks like a four-horse race for second from here. Our last four games aren’t too bad but we finish at home to Huddersfield. Could that be the decider?

Another win away to a play-off rival and hang on a minute, we can steal an automatic promotion spot if we’re not careful

The first two games come in quick succession with a late Easter period pitching us at home to Barnsley on Good Friday before a long trip to Portsmouth on Easter Monday. There’s only one change, Kieran Ross returning after waiting in the wings for a while due to Matthew Tyrrell’s good form. Tyrrell is in need of a rest today, so Ross has his chance. Barnsley are comfortably mid-table (12th) with nothing to play for but they’ve come with a game plan and keep us quiet, a Vaughan chip that falls wide of the post our only early chance. There are no clear chances for almost the entire game and nothing a do seems set to change it until the 88th minute – a long throw from Ross finding Vaughan in the box, who turns and feeds the arriving Tancock. The keeper gets a hand to the midfielder’s shot but he can’t keep it out. We have the lead and it’s enough for three points. A tough outing but the kind of game you have to win. Especially when the other results come in: Derby lose at Millwall, and Huddersfield go down 4-2 at Portsmouth. We are 2nd in the table. Win the next three games and we’re up (unless Villa win three and outscore us by 12 or more!).

Afful is rested for the trip to Portsmouth and I’m tempted to rest East as well but take a gamble on him. Sam Hollis starts in the AMC role. Vaughan is lively early and comes close from a tight angle. Hall also comes close, denied by the keeper after intercepting from a free-kick in our own half and running the length of the pitch. Portsmouth are causing some problems and are defending well, Vaughan seeing another attempt chipped over the keeper but hacked off the line by a covering defender. We need a spark in the second half and it comes on 56 minutes and it’s Sam Hollis who provides it just as I was contemplating taking him off. His cross from inside the box finds the head of East and the left-winger makes no mistake. It’s his last contribution as we take him off close to exhaustion. Pearson and Tancock follow in quick succession and the team look tired but McAllister is on and full of running and comes close to a second. We don’t need it though, and close out the game without any scares. Another close one but we’re just about doing enough. Huddersfield have lost again and are almost out of the race for 2nd but Villa and Derby both win. It’s getting tense.

Oh my! A gamble to play East pays off! Seriously, the Premier League is in sight!

Home to Hull City, 23rd in the table and already relegated. Why does it feel like a potential banana skin? Afful is back in for Hollis and that’s the only change, Ross continuing at right-back ahead of Tyrrell. Vaughan fires just wide in the 10th minute after a sweeping move that started with an Andy Brooks headed clearance. The striker heads wide of the other post not long after and Sani has to be called in to action when a Hull free-kick comes dangerously close. A series of corners come to nothing and the team look nervous. Nothing is paying off and I repeat the same half-time talk I’ve given in the last two games. East comes off, tired and disappointing, Tancock gets a knock and is off too, Hollis and McAllister their replacements. Barrett is on for Hall soon after and it’s the right-winger who eventually breaks the deadlock. He still has a lot to do when Hollis plays him in down the right but the run buys him space and the shot is perfect, across the keeper and in off the far post. It’s not enough though. Hull are intent on spoiling our day and a free-kick swings in and is met in the six yard box unchallenged. We’ve thrown it away, slipping on the banana skin.

But what’s this? We’re still in 2nd! Derby have lost at home to Middlesbrough and Villa have been beaten at Palace. Win the last game at home to Huddersfield and we go up. A little frustrating though, as a win today would have all but clinched it barring a Villa goal deluge. Still, it keeps it interesting for the final day!

In a break with tradition – and fair play – our game is on earlier than any of our rivals, so there will be nothing to keep an eye on if things start to go wrong! We’ll just be left to sweat on it for an extra couple of hours. The starting XI remains the same but there’s a small change on the bench, Jim Keeling returning from injury and, while not fully fit, I think it’s useful to have the captain on the bench (even if he won’t sign a contract). It might well be his last game for the club. We have a goal ruled out after 10 minutes, East firing home but Vaughan stood marginally offside as the ball was struck. Vaughan makes up for it five minutes later, haring into the box before being brought down for a penalty. We haven’t been great from the spot this season but Afful steps up and places it bottom left just where the keeper can’t reach it. We lead. Sani saves from Nwachukwu – a thorn in our side in previous meetings – and Huddersfield are battling their way back into this. We return fire, it’s a good game, and East, Tancock and Pearson combine down the left before the left-back feeds Boateng on the edge of the box. The veteran midfielder’s shot isn’t perfect but the keeper can’t quite keep it out and it’s 2-0. That settles the nerves and when East fires in a free-kick on the stroke of half-time for 3-0, we can hear the Premier League calling to us. The second half flies by and Keeling is on for a 20 minute cameo because it feels that comfortable. Is it his last game? Huddersfield grab a consolation in the final minute of stoppage time but it isn’t going to darken the day one iota. We’ve won 3-1. We’ve finished 2nd in the Championship! We’re going to the Premier League! And we’re armed only with a Youth Academy! It’s a glorious day.

WE ARE GOING UP! THE YOUTH ACADEMY CHALLENGE TAKES ON THE PREMIER LEAGUE NEXT!

One thing the press bring up straight away – Broadhurst Park isn’t at Premier League standards and work will need to take place. I guess we’ll be playing elsewhere when the season opens unless they can magic a stadium improvement in less than three months.

We’ll spend the close season working out who’s Premier League ready and no doubt fending off bids for those who are. I am a bit worried about all that overseas interest, particularly from PSG and especially for Tim Pemberton. I think he might be the one player we can’t afford to lose, but can we keep him happy?

No news on the development of Broadhurst Park yet (are the Board waiting to see if we can stay up?) but we know where we’ll be playing with an agreement to rent the Nat Lofthouse Stadium in Bolton. Built in 2030 and with a capacity of 22,944 it should serve us well in the short term.

Join us next time for…adventures in the Premier League!

Season 22 – Championship Football

Pre-Season

It’s a World Cup year. Not something that usually interests us but this year, well, we have three participants! Joseph Afful (S19-03), Samuel Sani (S11-04) and Fabian McAllister (S16-06) representing Ghana, Nigeria and Jamaica, respectively.

The transfer bids start on day 1 of the window opening. The first two are modest though, Hartlepool wanting Derek Duxbury on loan and QPR bidding £130k for Joshua Barrett. I agree to the Duxbury loan – he’s unlikely to feature much, if at all this season – but reject the Barrett bid as he’ll compete with Appiah (or back him up, more likely).

The first cloud appears on the horizon on the 17th June. West Brom offer £1.1m for Abdulai Appiah, rising to £3.2m. Abdulai isn’t a fan of the dressing room banter, nor of a pay rise. I’m a fan of the two years he still has left on his contract and say no and risk a potential backlash. I’m also wondering if Tomos Jones might want to stay on an extra year, just in case. With Ipswich and Huddersfield sniffing around Joshua Barrett as well, there’s suddenly a bit of a right wing panic going on. This might be a long summer.

Yet again, we’re billed as 150-1 outsiders for the title, and while I don’t expect a title challenge now we’re in the Championship, I still feel like they’re selling us short a little bit.

150-1 – Can we dispel the negative thoughts about our Championship prospects?

West Brom are back with an enormous offer that could reach £14m (with about 80% of it add-ons though). £14m cash would have been hard to refuse but just £2.3m up front means it’s a no right now. I think they’ll be back though.

Reading offer up to £5m for Joseph Afful next but he has no interest in joining them which is a symptom of us now being in the same division as them and a Very Good Thing. Not a good thing is Everton following that up with a £6.75m bid. Joseph is interested but he’s happier here than young Abdulai and the mere mention of dressing-room harmony has him pledging his allegiance to FC United. It’s all going to be okay, it’s all going to be okay.

Birmingham, not content with trying to steal all of our players, make an offer to interview me for their vacant manager role. Are you not paying attention Birmingham?

Our longest serving player is leaving though. Tomos Jones (S8-05) agrees a deal with Wycombe Wanderers after 13 years, 387 appearances (9th highest), 52 goals (8th) and 58 assists (4th). He’ll do well in League Two.

Chris Wright attracts a lot of attention again – Ipswich, Blackburn, Huddersfield – and even though he’s only played four league games I want to keep him and nurture that potential.

Brentford are the latest club to bid for Appiah. It’s £4m, it’s no, it’s not making Appiah any happier. There is a transfer approved though – and it’s an experienced player. Macauley Hughes is off to League One’s Preston North End for £100,000 after 232 FC United appearances. That’s not a bad fee for a player who barely featured last season and is slipping further down the pecking order as the Academy produces more and more centre-backs.

Another long-standing squad member departs

Loan Watch

  • DC – Derek Duxbury (S20-06) – Hartlepool (National League)
  • DR/DC/AMR – Stefanos Panagi (S19-07) – Stevenage (National League)
  • GK – Kieran Sheridan (S12-04) – Newport County (National League)
  • MC/SC – Gideon Newton (S19-11) – Halesowen (National League North)
  • AML – Joseph Obi (S18-02) – Chester (National League)
  • AML/SC – Sion Griffiths (S20-04) – Harrogate (National League North)
  • DR/DL – James Turner (S19-14) – Stratford (National League North)
  • MC – Olualo Sorensen (S19-10) – Halesowen (National League North)
  • MC – Brayan (S20-03) – Cheltenham Town (National League North(!))
  • AMC – Ethan Wilson (S17-04) – Gateshead (National League North)
  • DL/DC – Tony Robinson (S15-05) – Aldershot (National League)
  • DR – Jordan Ingram (S17-07) – Gateshead (National League North)
  • GK – Callum Donnelly (S18-07) – Adelaide United (Australian A-League)

End Of Contract Releases

  • AMR/SC Tomeu (S10-01)
  • MC/AMC Ashley Turns (S14-06)
  • DR/DC Zak Price (S14-04)
  • DC Jason Doyle (S15-04)
  • AMR Brad Matthews (S15-02)
  • DR Dion Prosser (S16-08)

A word or two is needed on Tomeu here. His fall from favour has been rather sudden in the end, though if we’d listened to the coaching staff he’d have been long gone by now. Fortunately, we didn’t and he was still scoring in League One. In the end he played for us 447 times (6th most) and scored an incredible 305 goals – a record that might never be broken. Not one for sharing the glory, there are only 43 assists during that time but even that is good enough for 9th all-time. He’s been tremendous and is a huge part of our success in the last few years. (He ends up going to Oviedo in the Spanish Second Division and doing reasonably well.)

Friendlies

3-1 (a) Market Needham – a largely ‘b’ team plus promising youngsters along with a ten man switch after an hour. Hard to say who’s ready for first team contention given the opposition (who they?) but only Stefanos Panagi and Joseph Obi fell below the required standard, though not by much.

3-1 (a) Alfreton Town (Pat Challinor (S4-09) Testimonial) – the man who endured left-back pain for us when left-backs were as rare as hen’s teeth gets a testimonial after thirteen years at Alfreton and we honour him with a full-strength side. A solid win but we aren’t learning much against lower league opposition.

3-0 (a) Southport (Tristan Grimes (S6-02) Testimonial) – a trip to the beach (not the seaside) for another testimonial. Grimes was a player who never lived up to his youth intake billing and went to Southport upon being released (he played just 13 times for us). He’s done alright at Southport but isn’t quite a National League North standard player – doing well when they’re out of the sixth tier but barely featuring when the team invariably bounce back up into the National League North. It’s another solid win but I’m no nearer to understanding who’s improving enough to join the first team, nor to deciding which four of Appiah, Hall, Afful, East and Keeling should play and in what order.

8-0 (a) Bracknell – not quite sure who arranged all these underwhelming opponents but we make hay against Bracknell. Adam Wells hits a hat-trick to keep himself in the running as Keeling’s back up. Carl Vaughan comes off the bench to grab a goal too to keep his name in the frame and with Chris Wright and Wayne Knight just behind them the competition is hotting up. Jim’s gotta keep scoring! Joshua Lindsay continues his good pre-season after being the most-improved player of the Season 20 intake over the course of their first year with the club. It’s also pleasing to see Danny Harden (S18-09) do well at right-back though we’ll want to see him perform against stronger opposition.

4-0 (h) Aberdeen – a big step up in quality this time and we’re fairly full strength but with a few minor tweaks (Vaughan up front, Keeling on the left, Hall on the right plus Hollis and McAllister starting in place of Afful and Boateng). Keeling and Afful sandwich an own goal and McAllister scores late on to seal a comfortable win.

3-0 (h) Raith Rovers – a dull first half is enlivened by three quality strikes in the second – Wright, Appiah and Tyrrell (a great free-kick) on the scoresheet.

August 2042

We start life in the Championship against an old foe – MK Dons, who won promotion behind us via the play-offs. The first XI almost picks itself, the only tough decision is leaving out vice-captain Connor Hall in favour of the Season 19 crew (Appiah-Afful-East). Chris Wright gets the first chance to back up Keeling, but Wells and Vaughan will be watching closely. We start brightly and it’s no suprise when we take the lead on 20 minutes. Tancock does well to intercept a stray MK Dons pass and plays a nice one-two with Keeling before passing the ball into the bottom corner from just inside the box. Sani is called into action to spare Pemberton’s blushes – a rare missed header allowing a one-on-one that the keeper is equal to. We’re getting a lot of joy down the right hand side and when Boateng moves over to support Ross he puts in an inch-perfect cross for Keeling to head home. East smashes one against the post before the half-time whistle, but 2-0 is a good return so far. The Dons get back into it just after an hour when a break leaves them 3-on-2 and they finish the move well. Hall comes on and has a chance to seal the points but hits the post when clean through and there’s a rare occurrence when Cameron Naismith comes on to replace a below-par Andy Brooks. There’s a small worry he might have peaked and the Championship is a step too far but he has missed most of pre-season with a broken jaw, so he is still finding his way back to full fitness. One to watch, though. We’re off to a winning start, however, and that’s all we can ask. Three Championship points in the bag.

General Manager Lee Gourlay announces we’ve sold 7,442 season tickets, up over 2,000 on last season and a figure that should mean we sell out Broadhurst Park on a regular basis.

Big game up next – away to Aston Villa. Suddenly the Championship seems very real! Remarkably, we lead after 45 seconds! Tancock breaking down the left and crossing to Appiah, who’s header is fumbled by the keeper into Keeling’s path. Jim doesn’t miss from there. Villa come right back at us but first Sani and then Pemberton with an amazing slide tackle keep them at bay. Sani clears after that Pemberton intervention, finding East who heads it infield to Afful. The AMC plays in Appiah who curls it in from wide right to make it 2-0! Villa Park goes quiet after just 11 minutes. We’re three up before the half is over, Afful and Appiah combining again, this time a cross from the left hand byline finding the right winger at the far post, using his height advantage to head in from close range. It takes Villa until the 73rd minute to begin to muster a comeback – a free-kick beating Sani at last – but we hold firm after that for one of the best wins in FC United’s history. Villa were in the Premier League last season and are 9-2 second favourites in the division.

Despite a man of the match performance and a positive response to my pat on the back afterwards, Abdulai Appiah is still no happier (I’ll stop using that rhyme soon, I promise). Two days after his two goal performance at Villa Park he hands in a formal transfer request. I accept but slap a £15m price tag on him, telling the press that we want him to stay.

No starting line-up changes for a home game against Millwall but Connor Hall is out so Carl Vaughan gets a place on the bench. It’s a cagey game for most of the first half but we fall behind in the 39th minute as Millwall pass it around us for ages before breaking through. Appiah hits the keeper from close range with our best chance of the half. We press and prod the Millwall defence without luck until a spot of bad luck is instantly followed by a dose of good luck – Afful heading an East free-kick onto the inside of the post but the ricochet hitting a Millwall defender and trickling over the line for the equaliser. Millwall go down to ten men late on but there’s no time to find a winner. We’ll take a draw from that.

The bids arrive for Appiah – a mixed bag ranging from £1.9m (Bournemouth) to £6.5m (Wolves). I reject them all and then have to turn Blackburn away, bidding for Samuel Sani.

League Cup up next and we entertain Wigan. It doesn’t seem very long ago at all that this would have seemed like a big match going up against League opposition. Suddenly, we’re two divisions above the Latics and strong favourites. We’ll probably field a weakened side!

Pemberton and Pearson are out anyway, carrying over suspensions in this competition from last season, and Ross has a slight knock that keeps him out. Callum Donnelly makes his debut in goal, David McMahon gets a shot at right back and Matthew Tyrrell and Cameron Naismith get their first starts of the season at DC and DL, respectively. McAllister and Joshua Lindsay (another debutant) helm the midfield and Hall, Sam Hollis and Carl Vaughan will play behind Chris Wright. A good chance for a lot of these players to impress tonight. Donnelly’s debut gets off to an horrendous start as a ball comes into the box from deep on their right and, as he bends down to gather it just outside the six-yard box, it skids past him and rolls into the goal despite his desperate efforts to chase after it. We think we’ve levelled in the 53rd minute, Wright tapping in after a Lindsay rocket crashes off the bar, but the striker was standing in an offside position when the initial shot came in and it’s disallowed. Hall flashes a shot just wide as we pile on late pressure and then has another charged down. Wells gets a chance in injury time but fires straight at the keeper and we think that’s it until another substitute – Danny Harden making his debut as a sub – floats a deep, deep cross to the far post and there’s Hall to steer it in with only seconds remaining. Penalties it is and Donnelly flings himself right to tip the first one wide. McAllister wastes the advantage though, hitting the post but Donnelly stands firm and saves the second Wigan penalty as well. Ronald Julien gives us the advantage. Wells tucks his away to maintain our advantage and the fourth Wigan kick goes miles wide meaning Sam Hollis can wrap it up. He does, firing emphatically in and we’ve crept over the line and into the next round.

Back to full strength (minus Hall again, who needs a rest after the Wigan game) for another daunting trip, this time to Blackburn Rovers. It’s an exceedingly quiet first half with only Dale East from either team looking lively. It’s 72 minutes before anyone has a meaningful chance. It falls to Blackburn but Sani’s there, diving to save one-handed. It tops of a man of the match performance for the keeper as he’s instrumental in securing a clean sheet and a hard-earned point.

A good start – 4th place after 4 games

Chris Wright is still attracting offers around the £500k mark but it’s easy to say no and Chris doesn’t seem bothered when I do, so long may that continue.

QPR away and Hall is back on the bench but we are otherwise unchanged. A simple route one free-kick undoes us midway through the first half, no-one picking up the runner who heads home unchallenged. Ross clears one off the line to prevent the scoreline getting worse and we’re reliant on Sani again shortly after when he’s left one-on-one, doing his best and keeping QPR at bay. Barrett is on for a disenchanted Appiah and hits the post with ten minutes remaining and that’s as close as we get as we fall to our first defeat in the Championship.

Appiah’s form is now a concern, he’s been subbed in each of the last three matches and the transfer issue is clearly affecting him and possibly players around him, too. I take matters into my own hands and offer him out for £10m. Brentford, Newcastle and Wolves come straight back to us with non-negotiable bids for just that amount. I think I’m going to have to sell (Appiah’s current market value: £350k). I think of all the shiny training facilities I could purchase and bite the bullet.

A couple of changes for the visit of Derby County: Connor Hall is in on the left for a tired Dale East and McAllister replaces Boateng in the box-to-box midfielder role. Boateng’s form has been patchy so far this season and it’s time to try something different today. Appiah seems dispirited during the team talk but he gets the first chance of the game, heading Pearson’s cross onto the bar in the 3rd minute. The game is a low-key affair for the first half-hour until Tancock finds McAllister in space in the box and the Jamaican finishes clinically. That gives the boys confidence and we stream forward as the first half comes to an end, with the same combination coming close to a second, the shot a bit further out and a bit off target as a result. Barrett is on for the unhappy Appiah and wins a 65th minute penalty that Joseph Afful converts nicely. 2-0 and we’re looking good. Barrett’s involved again in injury time, steering home the third from a cross from another substitute, Stan Hind. All round, a good performance and strong evidence to continue the McAllister midfield experiment.

Round Two of the League Cup and a trip to Walsall, who probably won’t be happy with us after the contributed to wrecking their season last year. Donnelly is back in as this year’s designated cup keeper and Barrett starts ahead of Appiah with Carl Vaughan getting a shot up front, given that Wright and Wells have both failed to grasp their chances so far. We don’t seem together today even though we’re keeping Walsall at bay. That is, until the score with their first attempt on goal in the 40th minute. We press and press but it comes to nothing and when Walsall win and convert a penalty with just over 20 minutes left it looks like game over. There’s a lot of tired legs on the pitch and we crash out. Walsall have their revenge.

There’s one day left before the transfer deadline and Appiah still hasn’t made a decision on where to go – it’s been nine days since we accepted the bids and I’m wondering if he really wants to leave after all? I might send Jim round to see if he can cheer him up, make him see sense. There’s a trip to Reading first though and some tired legs to rest.

Hind is in for an injured Pemberton and Tyrrell starts at right-back with Ross one of those needing a rest. Similarly, Boateng returns for McAllister, and East returns with Hall switching to the right for Barrett (and Appiah on the bench, sulking, mulling over his future). We lead after 8 minutes, Tyrrell pumping a hopeful long ball forward that Keeling latches on to and strokes home past the onrushing keeper. Sometimes simple is best. Tyrrell is off at half-time though, a hamstring strain hampering him and Naismith is on at right-back doing his jack-of-all-trades job again. Sani pulls off a miraculous double save to keep us ahead as the second half gets under way and things seem to be going in our favour when Reading are reduced to ten men shortly after. We press home the advantage, Dale East firing in a free-kick in the 58th minute to increase the lead and Jim dinks home a third when Naismith replicates Tyrrell’s first half pass. A failure to clear our lines gives Reading a lifeline in the 73rd minute but a Jamie Pearson cross finds Hall in acres of space and he increases the lead to three again with seven minutes remaining. We still have time to gift them a second goal, Brooks letting a ball bounce thinking Sani was going to collect and the striker nipping in between them to finish. Reading still aren’t done, Pearson concedes an injury time penalty and it’s 4-3. We hang on and focus on the positives! Like being 4th. In the Championship!

Appiah settles on Brentford and moves up to the Premier League. It’s a sad end as he think he could have become an FC United legend, his strength and skill a lethal combination. Good news though as another member of the Season 19 crew signs up for another four years. Dale East knows which side his bread’s buttered. Plus, I can fit East and Hall into the side now that Appiah’s gone.

A nice graphic of the challenge facing us in this division: our wage bill is £56k per week – that’s less than half of that of the next team, MK Dons who pay out £125k, and only one other team (Oxford) come in under £200k. There are eight teams paying £750k+ and Wolves top the list with a wage bill of £1.9m! We do have £16m in the bank though and that warrants a conversation with the Board. A very short conversation as it turns out, with none of the usual back and forth, just a simple ‘yes, we agree, here’s £1.8m, get on with it’. Nice. What else can I ask for? Youth Facilities? You bet. That needs a bit of persuasion but they eventually agree and another £5.28m is dished out. Training facilities will be in place by the end of January and the Youth side upgraded by the end of February. Exciting.

September 2042

International week starts off September and Samuel Sani finally gets to make his Nigeria debut after spending the World Cup with the squad without appearing. A clean sheet in Angola gets his career off to a great start.

We entertain a struggling Cardiff side next at Broadhurst Park but the Welsh side show little regard for their previous form and we’re under the cosh for first half an hour. We battle our way back into it and as half-time approaches we’re the team on top but just as we’re taking control, Cardiff break on us and take the lead. It takes an age for us to get back into it but eventually a concerted attack sees East tap in at the far post after Barrett’s shot is palmed away into his path. Brooks immediately concedes a penalty though to rob us of any chance of pushing on for a win. Cardiff have come with a plan and we’ve been undone.

Oxford away and another team who are struggling in the league. Pemberton returns and Hollis is in for a rested Afful. We take a 20th minute lead, Hall looping a pass over the defence and Keeling running onto it before steering it, left-footed, past the onrushing keeper. He’s there again four minutes later, latching onto a diagonal pass from East and slotting past the keeper with his right this time. Oxford look rattled. We’re at them again straight from the kick-off and the Hall/Keeling combination comes off again to give Jim a hat-trick inside 25 minutes. Hall almost makes it four straight from that kick-off but Oxford survive an attack at last. That seems to encourage them and before long they have a goal back. Carl Vaughan is on at half-time for a leggy Dale East. Oxford aren’t out of this match, they break up one of our counter-attacks with one of their own and grab a second. It’s end to end stuff and just after the hour mark Pearson concedes a penalty and Oxford are level. They almost take the lead, hitting the post in the 65th minute and we seriously need to re-group. Barrett comes on and Hall switches to AMC in place of a disappointing Hollis and those two combine to restore the lead, Barrett with the finish from the right of the six-yard box. There’s still 11 minutes to go and nothing appears guaranteed in this game but we hang on for a win that was much harder to get than we thought when we were three-up early on. Once the Wednesday night games finish we find ourselves back in the play-off places.

Just the one change for the visit of Middlesbrough – Afful returning in place of Hollis. We lead after 20 minutes, Tancock finding Pearson out wide in acres of space and the left back running with the ball before pulling it back to East, who pulls the trigger without hesitating. Tancock’s involved again on 33 minutes, storming down the left hand side, making up half the pitch length before crossing close to the byline and putting it right on Afful’s head. Joseph does the rest, steering it towards the far post and in for a 2-0 half-time lead. Middlesbrough fire a warning shot, hitting the post within seconds of the restart and get back into it in the 53rd minute, despite a goal line clearance from Pearson and a double save from Sani. Sani is in action again late on, pulling off another one-on-one save to keep us ahead and it’s enough to give us the win. We’ve been pushed all the way but just about had enough and we climb to third in the table.

3rd in the Championship!

A trip to the City Ground next and no Tim Pemberton, out with a tight calf, so Matthew Tyrrell is in. That’s the only change. It doesn’t start well, Forest lead after 17 seconds, Ross beaten easily by his man who storms past him and fires home. We pressure them for a while but Afful concedes a penalty half-way through the first period and we’re two down. No-one is playing well and Forest have a third before half-time, heading in from an in-swinging free-kick. For the first time in a long time, we look out of our depth. We concede a fourth just after an hour and we’re still second to every ball, summed up when substitute Carl Vaughn finally creates something and the cross arrives at Keeling’s feet but he doesn’t get a sniff of the ball as it’s stolen off his toes at the last second. I’m thankful when the final whistle goes. It’s our heaviest defeat in two and a half years (a 5-1 loss to Wycombe in League Two).

October 2042

We need to bounce back at home to Luton, the team that came up automatically with us from League One. Pemberton is back and once more, that’s the only change. The bounce isn’t there though and Luton lead in the 6th minute. It returns four minutes later, East curling in a free-kick that Keeling heads home. Afful almost repeats the trick, heading just wide. Jim’s off the pitch after half an hour, a foot injury bringing Chris Wright into the fray. Hall comes close to giving us the lead but the goal arrives straight after, East collecting the saved shot out left and crossing for Tancock to rifle it in. Afful picks up a knock as well and has to be replaced at half-time, Boateng coming on in an unaccustomed AMC role. We threaten plenty in the second-half but to no avail and when Luton win a penalty in the 85th minute, it looks like points lost, but they miss it horribly and we hang on to win. Back on track.

Jim’s foot is going to keep him out for around a month, though the news on Afful is better and he should be back in a matter of days. I have a decision to make about who starts up front in the next game now.

Another international debut: Stefanos Panagi, currently on loan at Stevenage, makes a storming start for Cyprus, even claiming an assist in a 2-1 win against (ahem) Andorra.

Home to Birmingham City and Carl Vaughan gets the nod as the starting striker in place of Keeling. Wright is on the bench and Wells has to wait for another day. We go behind as early as the 3rd minute, a series of misplaced passes giving Birmingham the ball and a long pass over the top undoing us. We get back into it but there are headers at either end that flash wide of their respective posts. Joseph Afful brings us level from the spot on 15 minutes though, after East is brought down and we seem to be on top now. Birmingham are dangerous though (they’re level on points with us in the league), and flash a free-kick just over and then hit the post moments later. On 38 minutes we win a second penalty, this time a surging run by Tancock brought to a crashing halt, but Afful’s penalty is saved, the keeper guessing correctly that he would go the same way as the first. An action-packed first-half can’t be matched by the second half but we still have chances. With 75 minutes gone it looks like it isn’t going to be our day: we’ve had 26 shots, 16 of which were on target and our xG is over 3 but we’re still being held. When Birmingham win a free-kick midway inside our half, I fear the xG overlords might be against us today, but Tancock breaks up the resultant move and then absolutely storms down the pitch like he’s Bryan Robson in his heyday and dinks a final pass to Vaughan who side-foots past the keeper and into the bottom corner. We hold on to win, finishing a 2-1 victory with a 4.37 xG! It’s a great result against – dare we say it already – promotion rivals and it moves us to 3rd in the table.

One negative from that game however: both Brooks and Pemberton collected their 5th yellow cards of the season meaning a completely different centre-back pairing is required for the next game. Matthew Tyrrell and Stan Hind are on standby for a Tuesday night game at Watford. Afful needs a rest for that game so Hall switches to the AMC role and Joshua Barrett gets the start on the right wing. We go behind again, this time on 17 minutes when a goalmouth scramble in their box quickly turns into a counter-attack that results in a goal for Watford. They hit the post not long after and our temporary defence is rocking on its heels. We steady ourselves though and East whips over a deep cross that makes it all the way to Barrett lurking on the right hand side of the box. The right-winger fires it back across the keeper and into the inside of the post. 1-1. Five minutes after the restart, we lead! Tancock and East exchange passes before the left-winger slots in. It doesn’t last long though, disaster a minute later when a Ross clearance hits Tyrrell full in the chest and rebounds in from five yards out. Bizarrely, a Watford own goal then puts us back in front, McAllister’s corner missing everyone but hitting the defender at the back post and rolling in. We slow the tempo as the game comes to a close, waste a bit of time, and hang on for a superb 3-2 away win. In truth, this could have gone either way but we’ve eked out another three points and confidence is growing. We make our first appearance in the automatic promotion spots.

Automatic Promotion Spots!

Another away trip on Saturday, this time to Crystal Palace who are right behind us in the table as we start the day. Another tough game. Naturally, Pemberton and Brooks return, as does Afful but Barrett’s performance against Watford keeps him in the side and means it’s Connor Hall who misses out. Tancock is rested and I plump for the raw talent of Joshua Lindsay over the experience of Tom Boateng. Palace start brightly and Sani has to be at his best on two occasions despite great last ditch defending from Pemberton and Brooks. We’re struggling to get a foothold in the game but when we finally get a chance, we take it. McAllister fires in a powerful cross that East steers into the net, doing well to keep his head on his shoulders in the process. That was just over half an hour in – seven minutes later we’re 2-0 up, Afful lifting a ball over the top for Vaughan to run on to and power home. It feels like we’re stealing this from Palace at the minute but when Afful breaks down the left and crosses for Barrett to head home the Eagles have to accept that we know how to finish! They’re clearly rattled now and Barrett is close to making it four but for a good save at the near post. It is 4-0 not long after, Palace pushing to get back into it and allowing a loose ball collected by Vaughan to be taken 50 yards down the pitch before smashing it in at the near post. The boy knows how to hit a ball! Lindsay justifies his selection by adding the icing on the cake, a bout of concerted pressure resulting in a ball back from Ross that the young midfielder hammers into the net from the edge of the box. Crystal Palace 0 FC United of Manchester 5! One of the most satisfying performances of my career here. The defence were outstanding, Vaughan has given us a selection headache ahead of the imminent return of Keeling and Lindsay capped a solid performance with that final goal. We have depth at last! (Side note: xG was 1.18!). An additional bonus comes our way as top of the table Bournemouth lose meaning we are the new leaders of the Championship! I can barely believe it.

Surely this will be the highlight of the season? Top of the table after demolishing rivals Crystal Palace 5-0!

Meanwhile, the press accuse us of stockpiling players due to the number we have out on loan! How can we stockpile players when we’ve never bought a single one? Have a word with yourselves press peeps.

November 2042

We travel to Hull City with big decisions to make. That demolition of Palace took place without two of our best players – Tancock and Keeling – and while Tancock will step straight back in to the side, Jim has a battle on his hands after Carl Vaughan’s performance. Vaughan isn’t letting go of his place lightly either as assistant manager Nathan Baker reports in to confirm he trained better than anyone this week and couldn’t have given more. If he had to score him, he’d give him 10 out of 10, rare praise indeed from Nath. He then wins Championship Young Player of the Month (Tancock is 2nd, East 3rd in a clean sweep for us) and I think Jim might end up on the bench. He hasn’t made a league appearance from the bench in over eight years with the last time occurring when we were back in the National League North!

Vaughan almost makes the breakthrough inside 20 minutes but the keeper stops well when he’s clean through. Pemberton makes an amazing block and follow-up tackle to keep it goalless and it’s a tight game. We have the chance to go ahead from the spot when Pearson is brought down but Afful’s penalty is well saved by the keeper, diving low and to his right. Afful needs to start varying these, that’s two in a row saved. Hull hit the post before the half is out and no-one can quite believe it’s still 0-0. The second half is much more low key and it looks like it’s petering out when Hull mount one last attack in injury time, a cross coming in and their right winger nipping inside a tired Pearson to tap in. The excitement of the Palace win is wiped out, we should have saved a couple of the goals in that game for this one. Our reign at the top is brief and we’re back down to 3rd.

Broadhurst Park plays host to Burnley a week on from the Hull defeat and Ben Tancock is back out of the line-up, serving a one match ban for collecting five yellow cards. Tom Boateng gets reinstated in midfield as well, McAllister dropping to the bench, and Jim starts but knows Vaughan is waiting in the wings. Joshua Lindsay gets another chance in Tancock’s absence. Pemberton pulls a thigh muscle early on and has to be replaced by Cameron Naismith. We have a couple of chances from distance but Pearson and then Afful fire over the bar. We eventually take the lead in the 38th minute, Dale East finishing a move that starting with Ross making lots of progress down the right before the ball made its way to Lindsay who spots the left winger in space in an otherwise congested box and East does the rest. Ross is involved again as we take a 2-0 lead, dropping a cross onto Boateng’s head, the ball steered into the top corner by the 6’5″ midfielder.

There’s a nice gap between games after that, though 12 of our players are away on international duty with various groups from u18s through to full national squads so we keep our fingers crossed that they all return healthy. Our full internationals are picking up plenty of game time now as well:

  • Samuel Sani (Nigeria) – 4 caps 0 goals
  • Stefanos Panagi (Cyprus) – 4 caps, 0 goals
  • Fabian McAllister (Jamaica) – 14 caps, 1 goal
  • Joseph Afful (Ghana) – 14 caps, 6 goals

Not everyone is back fit and well – East and Afful aren’t injured but they’re in need of a rest – and one player who didn’t travel picked up a training injury – Andy Brooks is out so Stan Hind will take over the ball-playing DC role. Hall comes in at AMC and Keeling switches to his old left wing role allowing Vaughan back in to the side. Barrett is brought down from behind in the box after 7 minutes and with Jim back on the pitch and Afful not, it’s the captain who steps up to ram the penalty into the bottom left corner. Pearson and Sani combine for a double block that keeps in front as Pompey make a nonsense of their lowly league position and cause us plenty of problems. We have chances too, but not many of the clear cut variety. Vaughan’s pace is causing problems as the second half gets under way but he’s denied on a couple of occasions by good saves from the keeper. There’s a need for fresh legs and Wells, Lindsay and McAllister appear in quick succession. It’s the latter that makes the crucial impact, on in the AMC role and smashing a shot against the post before receiving the rebound back from Keeling and placing it past the keeper for 2-0. Portsmouth aren’t done though and pull one back in the 90th minute. They still have time to hit the post with time running out but we keep them at bay and pick up the three points.

It’s that time of the season. Kieran Ross reaches the obligatory five yellow card mark and we’re left wondering who can step in at right back. The best players who can play their are probably Tyrrell and Naismith but both are primarily centre-backs. Tyrrell is usually my go-to but he rarely plays well there so it’s probably time to look at one of the newer options. There are three of those: David McMahon, Danny Harden and Godfred Yamoah. It’s too soon for Yamoah but the other two have both appeared before and it’s McMahon who gets the nod for the trip to Charlton.

Andy Brooks is back, Afful and East return and Jim goes back up front as we wrestle with the striker role and the multitude of options. Experience wins out today. We start superbly and lead after just two minutes – a simple goal – just a throw from Pearson, collected by East who turns and crosses from the corner of the box and Barrett heads back across goal and in. Keeling makes it 2-0 after quarter of an hour, converting a penalty he’d won himself. Pearson hacks one off the line to maintain the clean sheet at half-time. He’s there again midway through the second chasing down a breaking Charlton forward and putting in a vital block. We have chances to extend the lead late on, but Afful is tackled as he’s about to shoot and Keeling fires wide when clean through. Charlton hit the post in injury time but the game is done and the early goals have settled it.

Saturday brings struggling Ipswich to town and at least one change as we’ve said we’ll rest Afful following a recommendation from the medical staff. Hall comes in and Kieran Ross returns from suspension (McMahon did alright, by the way). In typical fashion, it’s the struggling team that takes the lead after ten minutes, Ross dragged out of position following his man and the resulting unchallenged cross headed in. Hall has to go off injured after 24 minutes, replaced by McAllister, but we’re level shortly afterwards, Boateng intercepting a loose pass and feeding Keeling inside the box. Jim does the rest. We’re ahead two minutes later, Tancock’s cross headed in by Barrett. Things then go a bit awry. Keeling picks up a knock – he wants to stay on but he really shouldn’t – but before we can sub him off, Ross picks up a straight red card. Naismith is the only option on the bench, so he comes on and we sacrifice the injured Jim and go striker-less for now, asking East and Barrett to play more as inside forwards on the flanks. The game is wide open for the rest of the half and McAllister comes closest to extending the lead, his powerful shot forced up and over by the keeper. The game forces our hand again in the 55th minute, this time an injury for Tancock that brings on Lindsay and prevents the likely formation change I was plotting. We’re still creating chances though, Pemberton forces a save and then Brooks somehow fires wide with the goalkeeper nowhere after missing a cross. Ipswich make us pay, grabbing an equaliser with less than 15 minutes to go. Disaster strikes in the final minute of time added on. A free-kick floated in and headed past Sani and it has been a very expensive day at the office. We didn’t deserve to lose either, despite playing 53 minutes with 10 men our xG was 2.59 to their 0.35!

The aftermath: Hall is out 4-6 weeks with a twisted ankle, Tancock is okay and will just miss a few days training with a tight hamstring, and Jim’s absolutely fine! Ross gets a one-match ban but I’m pretty sure that will get extended to three and David McMahon will get another run out.

December 2042

It’s a big game next, away to league leaders Bournemouth. Despite the defeat in the last game, we still lie 2nd in the table with a three-point gap to Derby in 3rd. Problems loom though: East is in need of a rest and apparently Tancock is in need of a long rest of a few weeks. I’m not sure we can accommodate that but we’ll take a look and work something out.

I take a gamble and give in to Adelaide United’s repeated requests to loan Callum Donnelly. He’s the back-up keeper and I’ve held on to him but with the lack of minor cup competitions now, he’s unlikely to feature so a loan would do him good and it’s a decent level of football for him. I make sure they agree that we can recall him should anything happen to Sani.

Tancock is out against Bournemouth so Joshua Lindsay starts alongside the returning Joseph Afful, who is the natural replacement for the injured Hall. It’s a big game for David McMahon to come in to but we’re going to trust him and hope it pays off! Naismith is waiting on the bench should things go pear-shaped. It goes pear-shaped after one minute and 39 seconds, an unstoppable Bournemouth free-kick flying past a helpless Sani. It takes us ten minutes or so to find our feet but then we come close twice through Afful. We need to work on defending set pieces though, Bournemouth go two up through another free-kick that we fail to win the header for, it’s nodded down and fired in and we’re not competing. Dale East gets us back into it, heading in at the far post with 25 minutes gone but the injury bug strikes again and takes him out of the game shortly after. The Cherries are carving us apart and a number of last-ditch tackles can only keep them at bay for so long. The latest such intervention falls to them and they move into a 3-1 lead. Pearson and Brooks are having their worst games of the season, Boateng and Barrett have also struggled and are replaced by McAllister and Wells. Afful and Wells both have half-chances but nothing’s going our way and we fall to a second successive defeat. We haven’t played at our best today but we also didn’t really get outplayed. We also remain second as the chasing pack close a little but all fail to win. East is out 4-7 weeks with a groin strain. We’re starting to look a little thin.

The visit of Huddersfield Town is only three days later and Afful needs a rest again, as does Pearson. Tancock returns, Naismith comes in at left-back and McAllister at AMC. Keeling switches to left-wing in place of the injured East and Vaughan starts up front. This feels like a big game as we try to get back to winning ways. It’s quiet and we can’t hit the target for 25 minutes but Tancock eventually finds a gap and squeezes a ball through to Vaughan, who forces it past the keeper to give us the lead. Huddersfield are level before the break though, a route one free-kick catching us out with two men running in behind the defence and leaving Sani with no chance. Huddersfield go ahead on the hour, they’ve barely had a sniff but they’ve taken their chances. Brooks intervenes to stop a third Terriers goal as we spot ex-player Andrew Crompton (S14-02) spraying passes about. We can’t find a way back into it and yet again, we’ve outplayed a team and got nothing in return. Has the bubble burst? We still stay second though! Nearest rivals Derby and Wolves draw with each other and so we maintain our position, Derby one point back, Wolves, two. Middlesbrough sit between them now and Crystal Palace are only two points back as well. To keep things interesting, we travel to Wolves next – perhaps not the ideal game to get us back on track. We’ll see.

While we prepare for Wolves, Jose Scott comes in and speaks the magical words we like to hear each December: “potential to be a real golden generation for the club”. Yes, the youth intake preview comes in and the highlights are a great goalkeeper prospect, a top prospect in centre midfield and a very highly rated wing-back who appears to be Norwegian and left-sided (which is a shame because it’s the right side where the priority lies, but we’ll settle for left). It’s the best news of the month.

YES!! GIVE US FULL-BACKS!!!

More shuffling of the pack as players return/tire/under-perform: Tyrrell gets to start at right-back, Pearson returns on the left, Tancock is out again and I plump for Ronald Julien in his place after Lindsay struggled against Bournemouth. Afful is back but Barrett needs a rest and so Adam Wells gets a first start of the season wide right. Ian Jones (S21-02) makes the bench as his back-up. We’re behind early (again!), just over two minutes on the clock when Wolves break the offside trap and score at the second attempt, Sani doing his best to save the first but left with little chance with the follow-up. We need inspiration from somewhere but it’s in short supply. Keeling supplies it at the wrong end, conceding a penalty but Wolves blow the chance to increase their lead, blasting the penalty wide. They eventually get an inevitable second in the 72nd minute, a near post blast that Sani can only palm into the roof of the net. We’re second to every ball, Sani keeping our faint hopes alive with a double save and all of a sudden those hopes are revived, Andy Brooks of all people firing home from 20-yards on the left hand side of the box. An unstoppable shot. Ultimately though, it’s another defeat and we slide to 6th in a tightly packed table (six points separate 2nd from 11th).

Another away game, this time at an improving MK Dons (they beat Derby last time out). It’ll be tricky again. Ross, Tancock and Barrett all return and I bring McAllister back in as the box-to-box midfielder in place of Boateng. Vaughan has an early chance but the keeper is equal to it and he wins himself another opportunity shortly after, robbing the defender and running through on goal, but the finish is woeful, shanked wide of the post. He makes amends in the 37th minute, neat interplay on the edge of the box before a one-two with Keeling slips him free of his marker and he slots home. The second half is uneventful – Wells and Hind coming on for Barrett and McAllister being just about the highlight – until the 67th minute when from out of nowhere, Pemberton lofts a long ball over the top which Vaughan controls before jinking past the keeper and tapping into an empty net. We’re back to winning ways! An impressive showing in which we totally dominated and actually scored the goals the performance warranted.

Boxing Day brings a trip to Millwall. Connor Hall is back in training but isn’t quite ready to play and so the starting line-up remains the same. After 16 minutes we fall behind, Millwall playing around our press with ease before delivering a killer ball over the top that is finished emphatically. Ten minutes later Barrett slides in innocuously and the ref naturally gives a penalty. It’s okay though – Sani saves it! In a charitable Christmas mood though, Pemberton then really brings somebody down in the box and Sani can’t quite reach this one and we’re 2-0 down. It’s a poor first half and besides Sani only Jamie Pearson is playing well. Amazingly, the referee awards Millwall a third penalty after a purported trip by Pearson. Keeping things varied, this one is fired wide but absolutely incredibly the resulting goal kick finds its way back to Millwall and when Pemberton slides in they have a fourth penalty. It’s the turn of scoring again in the penalty cycle, 0-3. Wright, on as a sub, has our best chance but fires wide under pressure and then Sani saves but sees the the ball spin in the opposite direction and in for a fourth. Vaughan claims a consolation in injury time but it’s not been a good day at the office. We didn’t play well (Sani, Pearson and an improved second half from Afful excepted) but I don’t think I’ve ever seen one team win four penalties in a match before and there’s no doubt there was some bad luck involved as well.

4 (FOUR!) Penalties For Millwall! Who bought the referee?

Two days later and the Christmas fixture list brings Aston Villa to Broadhurst Park and as you would expect, some players won’t be ready for another game so soon. Naismith for Pearson, Hind for Tancock and Hollis for Afful are the changes. The pressing game seems to be working as we force Villa back early on, one move sees them forced from our box all the way back to the keeper. Unfortunately, he then hoofs it long and they score from the route one approach. It’s the only real highlight of a dull first half. We’ve lost our spark and can’t find a way back into the game – not for the first time in recent weeks – and Villa finish the job in injury time: 0-2, and they move above us in the table, thoughts of promotion fading fast.

January 2043

The usual January stress of fending off bids is compounded by the African Nations Cup taking place and from the 4th January we will lose Sani and Afful to the tournament – potentially until the 8th February! With Callum Donnelly out on loan, that leaves Zaine Gabriel (S17-02) as the likely starter. That likelihood appears even sooner as Sani is struck down with flu that will rule him out until the tournament start. We’ll keep our eye on Gabriel’s performances knowing we have the potential to recall Donnelly during the January transfer window.

Pearson and Tancock return for the home game against Blackburn on New Year’s Day and Adam Wells starts down the right, Joshua Barrett dropping to the bench after a handful of sub-par performances. Hollis remains at AMC with Afful in need of a rest, and given he’s about to jet off to Africa it’s probably best we give him that time otherwise he’s likely to return even less likely to be fit to play. And of course, Gabriel makes only his 2nd first team appearance (his first coming in League Two). It doesn’t start well and Blackburn lead after 7 minutes and are pressing for a second, Gabriel called into action early and often. We claw our way slowly back into the game though and a wonderful Wells cross ball cuts out the entire defence to find an onrushing Vaughan who cuts the ball back across goal and in from an awkward angle. 1-1. We’re behind soon after the restart though, another long ball catching us out. A spate of last ditch challenges prevents Blackburn grabbing a third but we keep battling and eventually it pays off! Wright is on up front with Vaughan switching to left wing in place of Keeling and the substitute lays a nice ball into Vaughan’s path as he hares in from the left and rifles it past a helpless keeper to level with just five minutes remaining. It’s only a point, but it’s one of the most satisfying of the season.

There are some Tom Boateng contract issues going on in the background. At our monthly meeting, DoF Jose Scott suggests we don’t offer Tom a new contract at this time (it expires at the end of the season). I disagree and enter negotiations with Tom’s agent but should have listened to Jose – the demands aren’t reasonable, starting with a four-year contract for a 28-year-old. The conversation is short and there’s a real risk he walks away at the end of the season. Despite not being the dominant player he was back in League Two, he’s still one of our best midfielders and I’d like him around for another year or two. Sensing the atmosphere, Preston drop by and offer to buy him – at £65k I say no, and still believe there’s a chance he’ll re-sign before the season’s out. One to watch.

Another one to watch is Max Thomas (S21-09) but for positive reasons. Flying under the radar when the last intake graduated, Thomas is a striker or right winger who was overshadowed by Wayne Knight and Ian Jones, the top two prospects. However, he’s progressed much more quickly than either player and I’m routinely receiving glowing training reports and seeing his name crop up in first u18s and latterly, u23s match reports with multiple goal hauls and player of the match performances. He’s getting close to a first team squad place.

Max Thomas showing promising signs…

The FA Cup 3rd Round! We entertain Premier League Brentford in what will be a tough tie. Tancock is suspended so Stan Hind starts and Connor Hall makes the bench at last. Dale East is also back in training and should be available again soon. It feels like the absence of those two players has been felt more keenly than most over the last month and I’m hoping their return sparks a revival. Vaughan has a goal ruled out for offside after 18 minutes that really didn’t look offside, even on the replay and we lose Pearson to a knee injury after 35 minutes. Other than that, the first half whizzes by without incident. Brentford have perhaps edged the first 45 but we’re in this. We’re even more in it when a nice series of passing in and around the edge of the box find their way to McAllister who threads it through the defence for Hollis to score from close range (57). Gabriel has his fingers stung by a powerful strike with a little over ten minutes to play and he’s having a good game but we’re tiring and an 86th minute corner finds its target at the far post and the resulting header goes in. We’ll have to find room in the schedule for a replay.

Preston are back in for Tom and that prompts a renewal of contract discussions. His agent seems to have calmed down a bit and we quickly agree a 3-year deal that suits everyone. Panic over.

Before the cup replay we have to travel to 3rd-placed Derby County. Tancock returns and Connor Hall starts on the left wing, a decision made easier by an injury to Carl Vaughan that allows Jim to start up front. Dale East is on the bench and young Max Thomas gets the nod ahead of a goalless Chris Wright. We start brightly, Andy Brooks flashing a shot just wide but Derby threaten on the break and Gabriel positions himself well to save. The second half starts quietly and I make a change – Max Thomas on after 55 minutes for Keeling. It takes four minutes for him to score his first goal, a short Hollis pass getting caught in the defender’s legs and working its way to the young striker who makes no mistake with his first chance. What a debut! Gabriel saves us again when left one-on-one with a Derby counter-attack but they eventually break through in the 80th minute and the scores are level. The game turns against us a full 50 seconds after the whistle should have been blown and with Pearson off the pitch receiving treatment – Derby breaking again and stealing a winner. It’s the most unjustified winner of the season and at least Derby manager David Brooks is magnanimous enough to admit we were the better team. Still, lots of positives to take and all that.

Pearson and Hall both picked up bruised thighs and will miss the cup trip to Brentford. A couple of others get called to my office to discuss poor recent form – Andy Brooks and, in particular, Kieran Ross. Both promise to up their game. Let’s hope they do. Naismith is in for Pearson, Keeling switches to left wing and Max Thomas gets a start after his exploits at Derby. Ross earns his corn with a clearance off the line as Brentford dominate the first half but fail to find a way through. They hit the bar twice in the second half but we hold firm and take them to extra-time. I’m not sure that’s the best thing for us right now fitness-wise, but reputationally it does us good – in 180 minutes of football we’ve held our own against a Premier League outfit. Gabriel is on hand to keep the scores level with another good one-on-one save – he seems to excel at those – but is eventually beaten in the 101st minute. We almost find a way back into it, Naismith – who’s had a poor game – getting a cross into the six-yard box that Wright gets to ahead of the keeper but can’t steer past the man on the line. It’s our last gasp, we’re beaten, but it’s been a great effort.

Back to concentrating on the league now and a home game against Reading. There are plenty of tired legs that need resting and still no Pearson and Hall available. Dale East is available though and starts ahead of Keeling. Carl Vaughan returns up front with Thomas on the bench ahead of Wright. McMahon and Tyrrell are in for Ross and Pemberton, Boateng is in for McAllister, Barrett for Wells and Lindsay is at AMC in place of Hollis. Jim Steele makes a rare appearance on the bench and we have to call up Tom James (S21-06) from the u18s as the best (only?) available defensive cover. Vaughan comes close to an opener, a lengthy run down the right before cutting in but failing to beat the keeper from a tight angle. He’s denied again from close range following good work from Barrett and we’re knocking on the door but half-time interrupts the flow. East has the best chance of the game but somehow heads over from two yards out and he’s not quite back to his best yet after injury. Keeling is on for him soon after and, as legs tire, Tom James comes on to make his debut in place of Brooks and Hind replaces Tancock. We can’t find a winner though, despite eight shots on target and 14 in total. Another unlucky game – how many more can we take.

The first worrying transfer bid arrives on 21st January – Nottingham Forest after Joshua Barrett and offering £1.1m (rising to £1.6m). It’s a straight no but Derby are sniffing around too. Nigeria and Ghana progress from the group stages in the African Cup of Nations so we’ll be without Sani and Afful for at least another week.

The back four return to normal service for the visit of QPR and Connor Hall is back at AMC in place of Lindsay. We’re dominant in the early stages, notching up 80% possession in the opening 20 minutes. Dale East has the best chance but is denied by the keeper and it surprises nobody in the ground when QPR break and score with their first attack. When they’re reduced to ten men minutes later, the door opens for us a little. Boateng levels from 25 yards and then dispatches a penalty after Ross was tripped in a three minute spell before half-time to put us in control. East adds a third in a one-sided but low-scoring second half and we have a league win for the first time in six attempts.

Ah. This has happened earlier than expected. The PSG bid. Joseph Afful is in their sights after playing well in the African Cup of Nations – £3.9m rising to £7.75. Joseph needs persuading to stay and remarkably (and hearteningly) agrees that the absolute ball we have in the dressing room week on week puts the opportunity of earning millions in Paris firmly in the shade. He’s happy to stay!

One change for a trip to Cardiff, Keeling replacing East to give the young left-winger a rest. Afful is back from Africa but not in shape to play today. We strike early, Joshua Barrett leaping highest to nod in a Jamie Pearson cross in the 2nd minute. The same player strikes again inside the six-yard box three minutes later, good work from Keeling down the left, his cross flicked on by Vaughan and falling to Barrett at the far post. Vaughan smashes in his 10th of the season on 22 minutes, Keeling crossing in after more good work down the left – all three goals have arrived from there so far. Keeling makes it 4-0 after being teed up by Tancock following pressure from a corner and we are flying. Cardiff have no answer down that left-hand side, Connor Hall whips in a cross and Vaughan repeats his earlier goal and slams in the fifth. What a half of football. I’m fairly confident of winning this one. 59 minutes in and Vaughan, played through by a rampaging Tancock, completes his hat-trick. The same players combine for the final goal of the game in the 75th minute and we have won at Cardiff, 7-0!

A right battering for Cardiff

Vaughan claims the January Player and Young Player of the Month awards on the back of his performance in Cardiff, the training facilities upgrade is complete (they’re now ‘Good’) and Ronald Julien – in need of games having slipped behind Lindsay in the pecking order – finds a loan deal at fellow-Championship club Oxford United. They’re bottom of the table and he should get games, which will be great for him and us. Transfer deadline day also brings in the bids – Barrett and East from Blackburn and West Brom, respectively, and then Huddersfield offer £6.5m for Afful but he hasn’t the remotest interest in joining them which makes everyone’s life easier. It’s the last activity of the day and we survive intact once more.

February 2043

Plenty of penalties this season and the away trip to Middlesbrough is no exception – 13 minutes in and Pearson concedes one and we’re a goal down. East and Afful are back today, despite the superb team performance last time out and Hind is in for an injured Pemberton. We put in a lacklustre first half performance and need more in the remainder of the game. The boys are reminded of that at half-time, calmly but forecefully. It’s a very close and competitive game and it looks like Boro are going to hang on until Hall crosses for Vaughan to power in at the near post and grab a point in injury time.

Afful is in need of a rest already and Brooks and Ross both reach 10 yellow cards and will miss the next two games, prompting a defensive reshuffle. Sani is finally back from Angola and will slot straight back into the side that entertains Oxford, but hats off to Zaine Gabriel for a splendid understudy job in his absence. Pemberton returns, Tyrrell’s at right-back and Afful and East make way for Hall and Keeling again. They both have an instant impact, Hall fouled as he raced into the area and Keeling missing the resultant penalty. Jim! He makes up for it five minutes later, thrashing a pass from Pearson into the roof the net from 15 yards out and we lead after quarter of an hour. Keeling pulls a pass back to Hall three minutes later and he thumps home the second, Oxford showing us why they’re bottom of the table. Things get worse for them in the 21st minute as they’re reduced to ten men and this one is turning out to be a nice day out in the sun. Tancock is injured before the half is through though which is a worry. Barrett makes it 3-0 in the 54th minute (just as I was considering taking him off!) and we coast home from there.

Bad news awaits us that evening though, Tancock has torn a hamstring and he’s out for 2-3 months. That might be his season over.

An important first game without Tancock, at home to close rivals Nottingham Forest – just ahead of us in the table and also fighting to make the play-offs. Joshua Lindsay gets the nod but otherwise we remain unchanged. There’s a place on the bench for Brayan (S20-03) after we recalled him from his loan at Cheltenham on the advice of the coaching staff who felt he needed a better challenge. Afful sits out this one as well but East returns to the bench. Forest are playing well and should be ahead but fire a one-on-one wide and see another shot crash off the bar and onto the line before Tyrrell hacks it away. Barrett then sneaks in past the defensive line – great timing from the Keeling pass – and blasts us into a 29th minute lead. Forest continue to spurn chances in the second half. We have a half-chance of our own, Keeling hitting the bar from close range. Sani keeps us ahead with a gymnastic save when left one-on-one (again!) and Vaughan comes close to extended the lead but is thwarted by an equally good save at the other end. I do a rare thing with 15 minutes remaining, sacrificing Lindsay (now playing AMC with Brayan on for his debut at MC) and bringing on Naismith at DC with Hind in a DM role. It does the trick – a previously free-flowing game is suddenly closed down and we see out the game without any further Forest chances. The xG gods have looked favourably on us today and we climb to 6th – above Forest and Villa, and back into the play-offs.

Only 1-0 but one of the best wins of the season

We travel to Luton with selection problems of the best variety. Ross and Brooks back, Afful and East ready to start but Tyrrell and Hind and Hall and Keeling have been most excellent in their recent outings. I make a bold choice and keep Tyrrell and Hind in the line-up – possibly the first time Ross or Brooks have been kept out when fit to play (with another game due in three days, there’s a strong likelihood they’ll be back then). Afful comes in for Hall who’s last outing wasn’t great but Keeling keeps his place and East has to make do with a place on the bench. Fabian McAllister makes the bench after a spell out injured. It’s such a dull first half that this is all I’m going to say on the matter. We need a spark. We make substitutions, go more direct, attack more, nothing works. Then we lose the ball in the 86th minute, Luton break and score. The xG gods exact their revenge for the Forest game.

The youth facilities work is completed – they’re now ‘superb’ and we should reap the benefits of that and the newly minted ‘good’ training facilities though perhaps not in time for the Tuesday night trip to Birmingham.

Brooks steps back in as the ball-playing DC but Tyrrell keeps his place because Ross switches to an IWB role on the left, replacing a suspended Pearson. McAllister starts in place of Lindsay and East is given the AMC role for the first time in place of a resting Afful (yes, again) and ahead of Hall. I’ve got a feeling about East in this position. It’s another quiet game but we take the lead in the 38th minute, McAllister unlocking the Blues defence and Vaughan slotting in. Birmingham are level a minute later though, Brooks missing a header and Sani seemingly slow to react to the final shot. McAllister is enjoying himself and plays in Vaughan again only to see this attempt well-saved. Birmingham break and score again before half-time – another powerful finish that leaves Sani rooted to the spot. The East experiment doesn’t work but is allowed to come to a graceful conclusion when he moves back left after Keeling picks up a knock. Birmingham stretch their lead though, Boateng conceding a penalty that is readily converted. We press and eventually get some reward, Adam Wells knocking in a rebound from his own shot to score his first goal of the season. It gives us hope but we’re undone again in injury time and we’ve lost two in a row now.

Two home games coming up to try and revive our fortunes – 5th placed Crystal Palace in a week, but first up mid-table Watford. No Keeling, recovering from that knock, so East on the left, Afful back at AMC, the rest stay the same with Pearson still out suspended. We are asleep for 15 minutes, Watford mustering attack after attack but when we get going we score – Tyrrell floating a lovely ball over the entire defence to find East racing in from the left to fire in. We’re not firing on all cylinders today though and it’s no surprise when Watford equalise – the only real surprise is that it takes until the 85th minute. Sani saves spectacularly as the defence go AWOL but can do nothing minutes later as concerted Watford pressure takes its toll and they go ahead in the 93rd minute. 1-2 and we’ve thrown it away. Ross, McAllister, Boateng, Afful, Barrett and Wright are all below par and there’s some thinking to do ahead of the Palace match. Afful is the main concern and we talk to him the next day because the boy won’t rest but really needs to. After protracted discussions he concedes that a couple of weeks away from playing will do him good. Let’s hope we see the best of him then (I do wonder if the PSG nonsense has got to him, too).

March 2043

Pearson is back, Ross reverts to right-back and Hind is in because Pemberton has reached 10 yellow cards (slower than Ross and Brooks, tut tut). Hall is in at AMC and Keeling moves back onto the bench after a short spell out. Vaughan has a couple of chances in the opening half hour but is twice denied by the keeper. It’s third time lucky though when East plays him in and he squeezes it under the keeper for 1-0. Vaughan is involved again on the stroke of half-time, breaking down the right and first seeing his shot from an acute angle blocked but catching the rebound and seeing Boateng free at the edge of the box. Tom rifles in from 18 yards out. There’s still time in the half for Sani to tip a free-kick wide and keep the score at 2-0. Palace battle in the second half (perhaps still smarting from the 5-0 demolition earlier in the season) and do hit the post but we hold firm and return to winning ways. It brings us to within four points of Palace and, with Forest losing, just a point outside the play-off places again with eight games to go. We’ve also officially avoided relegation!

Leicester – mid-table in the Premier League – invite me for a job interview, the biggest club yet to try and tempt me away. But obviously, it’s no Leicester. No!

One change for the trip to Burnley – a gashed leg in the previous game keeps East out and allows Keeling back into the starting line-up. After a slow opening, Burnley take the lead on 31 minutes, the wonderfully named Shawn Mullet tapping in after his initial shot hits the bar. A scrappy period of play from both sides just before half-time sees multiples losses of possession before Jamie Pearson, of all people, brings some attacking quality and slams the ball into the net. It’s his first ever goal in professional football! Two minutes later though, Pearson is off the field injured – it isn’t clear if he over-celebrated or is simply dizzy from the excitement, but Naismith is on for the second half. A rousing half-time speech gets everyone fired up, especially Kieran Ross, who immediately tracks down a Burnley player and kicks him inside the penalty area. Burnley lead again from the spot. Connor Hall comes close to a quick equaliser but his shot rises just over the bar. Wells comes on for Barrett and heads just over and Boateng curls one just wide of the post in injury time but we’re edged out in what was an even encounter. We’ve played well, with one or two exceptions.

The game against Hull scheduled for three days later is called off due to a waterlogged Broadhurst Park. While I’m grateful for the rest the players will get, I’m more concerned with the extra gap Palace and Forest could put between themselves and us – it’s four points right now with seven games to go, so winning while we don’t play will add a little more pressure to the chase. Palace slip to a draw though, which helps a little.

We Interrupt March 2043 To Bring You This Youth Intake

Jose Scott is bandying the words ‘golden generation’ around again, and if three players constitutes a ‘generation’ then okay, but I’m a little disappointed in this bunch as a group. Five of them lack any notable ambition, including top prospect Tammy Court (S22-01), a left winger with pace but who needs to work on his technical skills. On top of the unambitious crew we’re also cursed with the casual approach of DC Alun French (S22-07) – a player with the right defensive tools but who may lack the pace and application to get any further. Our promised ‘golden’ Norwegian wing-back seems to have slipped down the pecking order since December. August Prahltysj (S22-09) might be able to contribute earlier than most but his ceiling seems somewhat lower than we were promised in the preview. He looks alright but can he develop? The full-back disappointment is tempered by the arrival of Sam Ellington (S22-04) who has obviously come up on the rails since December. He’s right back with solid mentals and a good starting base from a defensive point of view.

Another Golden Generation!

My favourite prospect is central midfielder, Ken Lee (S22-02) (who already has his own fan song: “Ken Lee, if living is without you…”). He’s a well-balanced midfielder, no real weaknesses beyond strength and size. He could still grow and we’ll get him in the weight room early on. We have another decent goalkeeper as well – not a Sani but actually a Sanni: Sanni Suleiman (S22-03) will certainly leap ahead of Liam Thompson from last year’s intake immediately and has bags of potential.

A couple of others to keep an eye on: Can Ekiz (S22-06) an attacking midfielder, David Cassidy (S22-08) simply because of his name and Kevin Turner (S22-10) who isn’t predicted to develop much but who has a lot of good attributes already in place.

March 2043, continued…

The Hull match is postponed a second time, on this occasion due to international call-ups with five of our regular first team on duty with first teams and U21s (Sani, McAllister, Afful plus Pemberton and East with England youth teams). In total, 13 players are away this week. While we’re waiting, Jose comes back with his youth intake signing recommendations. Just nine of the 16 are on the list, which would make this the smallest group ever, and I can’t really dispute Jose’s view of this crop. Only the previously mentioned Kevin Turner is worth considering from the remaining seven and my experience of those types of players from previous years is that the assessment of potential is usually spot-on. I reckon Kevin was one of those lads who was just bigger than everyone else at school and so looked better than he was. Now everyone else has caught up, he looks ordinary.

Gone are the days when the youth players jump straight into the starting line-up and we entertain Charlton with our usual crew. Pemberton is back from suspension but Afful is still on international duty and East is tired after his exertions with England u19s. We dominate possession but it’s the Addicks who have the best chances early on. We don’t muster a real effort until the 42nd minute when Vaughan shoots wide. A goalmouth scramble nearly produces something but is brought to a conclusion by the half-time whistle. The second half starts in the same fashion but with a free-kick from Charlton ricocheting around the box and eventually in. We seem to be losing our way. Vaughan crashes one against the post almost instantly and then Barrett sees his shot tipped onto the same post by the keeper. The equaliser is coming though, and it’s Barrett who gets it, fed by a neat side-footed pass from Boateng. We pepper the Charlton goal with shots and it all looks like it’s going to be one of those games until a tackle on Barrett sees the ball fall to Boateng and his powerful shot goes right through the keeper and in. There’s a sting in the tail though. Pemberton slides in on a Charlton attacker in the last minute of injury time, he gets the ball as far as I can see but the attacker makes the most of it and the ref falls for it. Penalty. Sani can’t keep it out and Charlton have stolen a draw.

Ouch!

There are nine players aged 18 or over who have expiring contracts and I’m not certain any of them will stay: Kieran Sheridan (S12-04), Tony Robinson (S15-05), Shane McDonnell (S19-04), Tyrese McMillan (S20-10), Ethan Wilson (S17-04), James Turner (S19-14), Gideon Newton (S19-11), Olaolu Sorensen (S19-10) and Jordan Ingram (S17-07). Sheridan’s experience gives him a chance but he’s been just alright on loan at Newport in the National League and he’s only ever going to be cover. Given the improvement in Donnelly and Gabriel, he looks increasingly surplus to requirements. McDonnell is the only other player who might get another year but he isn’t developing and doesn’t seem to have the work ethic required to keep improving.

April 2043

April begins with a new contract offer and I have to say, the Board have left it late this time! We quickly agree to a deal that will keep me here through the next two seasons.

A trip to Portsmouth beckons and Afful is back at last. Hall drops to the bench as a result and there’s still no East after more international travel for him. Portsmouth lead after nine minutes, a 3-on-2 break leaving Sani with no chance. Jamie Pearson prevents an almost certain second, intercepting with Sani beaten but it’s only a matter of time before a rampant Pompey grab another. We’re struggling to contain their front three (who are being fed by former youth academy graduate top prospect, Lee Thornhill) and even though we are matching them for chances and controlling possession, they’re just tearing us apart whenever they attack. It’s 3-0 before half-time and 4-0 by the 52nd minute. We’re forced into putting five at the back just to try and keep them at bay. It works for a bit but they score again from a corner, Kieran Ross stood on the line and watching it sail over his head. They get a proper telling off in the dressing room and our lingering play-off hopes lie in tatters. In fairness, nobody expected we’d even have a chance of being close to the promotion places at the start of the season – not even me – so we’ve come a long way. And thoughts of the Premier League still scare me a little bit right now. We perhaps need another year or two after our recent meteoric rise. The team refund the ticket price for those fans who travelled.

Andy Brooks has reached 15 yellow cards for the season (again) and will miss three of the remaining five games. (His record since becoming a first team regular: 6/11/11/10/10/14/10/10/15/14/14 and 15 so far this year.)

Stan Hind replaces Brooks for the long-awaited Hull game. East returns on the left with Keeling dropping to the bench. Joshua Lindsay replaces an out-of-sorts Fabian McAllister as we struggle to find a consistent replacement for the injured Ben Tancock. It’s East who makes an impact on his return, finishing after Vaughan’s shot is deflected into his path. It’s the only goal of the first half, only Barrett coming close to a second but denied by the keeper. Hull are straight back in it after the break, a simple through ball splitting the centre backs and exposing Sani. Vaughan has the ball in the net but is ruled offside and the game is even and heading for a draw. Connor Hall is on and making a difference – on for Afful who’s still struggling for form – and he eventually creates the breakthrough when he gets a cross in at the third time of asking and puts it on Vaughan’s head. It’s the 84th minute and it’s a much needed winning goal.

The U18s finish their campaign with a 2-1 win over Wolves to finish 3rd in the U18 Division 2 North – a great season with only Wolves and Nottingham Forest ahead of them.

We travel to Ipswich next, remembering our defeat to them that disrupted our flow earlier in the season. We invoke the spirit of revenge and send out the same XI that won against Hull. Ipswich do what they did last time and take the lead – an unstoppable shot from outside the box. The scorer, Ncube, is everywhere and hits the post before we find our feet. It’s Afful who gets us back into it, a welcome goal from the attacking midfielder, rifled in from the edge of the box. Ipswich aren’t having any of it though and retake the lead when Ross loses his man at the far post. It’s 1-3 before half-time, Ncube doing the damage again, heading in ahead of Hind in the six-yard box. Ross does well down the right but East hits the post and Vaughan snaps the rebound into the keeper’s arms. A dismal first-half ends on an even darker note when Ncube smashes in his third and Ipswich’s fourth in injury time. AND THEN DOES IT AGAIN to make 1-5 at half-time. There aren’t quite teacups flying around in the dressing room but it’s pretty close. Lindsay goes out and wins a penalty in the first six minutes of the second half. Afful fires it wide. Of course he does, it’s that kind of game. He makes up for it by finding Vaughan with a lovely angled pass and Vaughan adds a bit of respectability to proceedings. East grazes the post with a thunderbolt but it stays 2-5 and we can kiss goodbye to the play-offs now, for sure.

Post Ipswich Trauma – Play-Off Chances Reducing Fast

Well, technically we can still make the top six: we’re five points adrift with three games to go so Forest and Palace are catchable but we also need to outdo Villa and Watford. It seems unlikely but weirder things have happened. Usually called Ipswich.

Afful signs a new five-year contract to become the highest paid player at the club by some distance. It feels like the first step on the next phase of our journey and hopefully we’ll have a team of Affuls in the future. Three of the Season 20 intake get their first professional contracts as well, Ray Clancy, Siegfried Breuer and Kevin Molina all getting another year or two to develop. None have shone yet but sometimes they need to get to 19/20 before you can really tell, though I’m not expecting great things it’s worth a gamble.

One thing I forgot to mention about those last three games? The first one is against league leaders Bournemouth. Oh, and the last one is against second-placed Wolves. Mid-table Huddersfield separate them. It’s a tough run-in. I make a couple of changes for the visit of the Cherries, Kieran Ross is dropped and Matthew Tyrrell replaces him and Fabian McAllister is in after Joshua Lindsay really struggled last time out. Ross’ form has been a worry for a while and with Tyrrell not being a natural fit there (he is, but he isn’t) we really need someone else to step up in that position soon and compete.

We go behind after 10 minutes – a consistent theme of late – after an attack breaks down and Bournemouth carve us open on the counter (another consistent theme). Barrett has a chance to level but fires straight at the keeper from about eight yards out. We are level after 28 minutes though, McAllister angling a ball to the right of the penalty area to match Vaughan’s diagonal run. The striker does the rest, sneaking the ball in at the near post. We capitulate again at the back though and Bournemouth retake the lead five minutes later. It’s end to end stuff and Vaughan gets his second to pull us level again. Boateng is off injured at this point, replaced by Jim Steele who had been elevated to the bench for one last chance ahead of Lindsay. Vaughan fires narrowly wide as the half ends – was that his chance of a hat-trick gone? The second half is a much tighter affair and with precious few chances for either side, the 2-2 scoreline remains. It’s a good performance and a good point (and it puts Wolves top of the table) and we still have a remote chance of 6th after Palace lose and Forest draw. However, all it takes to eliminate us now is for two of those four teams immediately above us to win one of their last two games. Palace and Watford play each other next, so a draw would be nice there!

Andy Brooks returns for the trip to Huddersfield and I decide to start Connor Hall ahead of the jaded Joseph Afful. Carl Vaughan chips us into an early lead, staying calm and collected after winning the ball on the half-way line and streaking clear of the chasing defenders. We’re 2-0 up in the 15th minute, Dale East curling in a free-kick from a good 30 yards out. Barrett plays a neat ball into the box that Hall spins on and turns into the net at the near post to give us a commanding lead at half-time. It’s the kind of performance I really needed to see from them after our recent struggles and combined with the strong performance against Bournemouth (even though we didn’t win that one) it’s encouraging for the future. We keep the Terriers at arms length for the rest of the game and it’s the best defensive performance we’ve had in a long time. We still have the tiniest chance of reaching 6th – Palace lost to Watford and Forest lost, so we need to win and hope that (i) Palace lose, (ii) Forest lose or draw and we win by 11 clear goals (I admit that scenario is unlikely, so let’s hope for a loss) and (iii) Watford lose and there’s a net goal difference change of nine! It’s that third one that could cause problems but do you know what? To just be talking about the play-offs on the final day of the season is incredible for a side that was in the National League just five years ago and in League Two as recently as three years ago. We’ve come a long way.

The Absolute Faintest Of Hopes

We line up at home to Wolves with an eye on those other fixtures: Birmingham v Palace, Forest v Portsmouth and Watford v Burnley. We stick with the XI who played so well against Huddersfield. It’s a cagey opening but we’re heartened to see Palace 2-0 down and Forest losing as well. It means nothing though if we can’t score (and score a few, at that!). It’s goalless at half-time and Wolves haven’t had a sniff but a point is pointless right now. Wolves are better in the second half and we’re reliant on Sani to keep them at bay. Keeling comes on for a very quiet Vaughan and forces a good save with ten minutes to go but by now Forest have turned their game around and though we haven’t heard from Watford, I’d be pretty surprised if they were 8-0 down. Hind stings the keepers fingers and Barrett fluffs the best chance of the game, shooting tamely at the keeper in injury time. We’re still pushing for the win, which I like to see, but it isn’t forthcoming and we have to settle for a point (a good point, too) despite the 1.92-0.39 xG in our favour. Wolves – heading to the Premier League – got lucky.

We finish 8th – a tremendous position for our first season in the Championship – but I guess given where we’d been earlier in the season, there is a hint of disappointment too. We’re on the right track though and if we can keep hold of everyone close season then we’ll be back stronger and better equipped next year.

Final League Table – Record High Finish

Season 21 – The Key to the Championship Door?

Pre-Season

Jamal Owens makes the League One team of the year and the Board announce another modest stadium expansion – an extra 2,890 seats that will take the capacity to 8,790. Slow and steady, I guess. We’ll be relocating until mid January 2042 at the Manchester Regional Athletics Stadium, a 6,000-seater that should serve it’s short-term purpose well.

An Extra 2,890 Seats!

Finances look okay, £1.2m in the black, but I know that’ll be depleted before too long so we take a look with the Board at potential clauses we could buy ourselves out of. The training facilities work and stadium expansion will eat into the money we have, too, so we could do with building up a cushion. Here’s what we come up with:

Tommy Wilson, sold for £1m with a 50% profit clause but only currently valued at £185k. Buyout value: £1.5m. An easy win; we cash it in.

Huw Williams, sold for £1.5m with a 30% profit clause. He’s valued above that (£2.2m) but they’re offering the buyout at £2.42m. They’d have to sell him for over £9.5m for us to recoup that. It is possible but nearly two-and-a-half million now feels like the right move.

There’s another offer related to the Frank Liversedge sale but it’s a paltry £260k and we leave that where it is for now. We’re £5m in credit now. That’ll keep us going for a bit and should prevent the Board stepping in if we receive bids for any of our star players.

The first bid is for me though! Middlesbrough not understanding the nature of my task at FC United and looking perplexed when I won’t even come for an interview. That’s just before the transfer window opens. 48 minutes after it opens the Jamal Owens floodgates open. Brighton, Newcastle, Norwich and Stoke are all offering between £3.1m and £4.2m. That latter bid, from Newcastle, surpasses the figure we agreed with Jamal was acceptable.

I start negotiations at the lower end with Brighton who immediately say yes to a £5m fee and 30% of any future sale. I bump it up to £6.25m for Stoke – that’s the minimum fee release clause – and tag on 30% of any future sale again. They go for that, so that’s the benchmark. It’s the same for Norwich and I manage to squeeze Newcastle to 40%, but we’re resigned to losing another of our very best players. The goalkeeper battle is about to start again.

Millwall offer £775k for Connor Hall but he’s not interested and the same thing happens with a £95k (seriously!) bid from Bolton for Tom Boateng. Owens makes his decision – he’s heading to Norwich and we have £6.25m in the coffers. In the end he made just 76 appearances for us but he’s the best keeper we’ve had through the doors and we’ll miss the impact he brought last season.

All Of A Sudden We Have Money – Now, To Spend It!

There are contract issues with Ulrik Hallstensen. We’ve made two attempts to extend it – it’s about to expire – but he wants a salary way in excess of his value to the team. It looks like he’ll be leaving which is a shame but he rarely featured last season and I can’t see him working his way back into the match day squad to be honest (which is why I won’t pay him £1.1k per week!).

Stan Hind is attracting attention from the Championship – QPR, Barnsley, Huddersfield – but is happy to stay for now and their bids were too low for us to even think about it anyway. One to watch though.

Half-hearted bids for Samuel Sani come in – easy to reject and essential to reject as he’s likely our first choice keeper again now! Hind is subject to an offer from Hull but that’s turned down, too.

We’re 150-1 for the title, 21st in the list so a step up from the 24th of last season and Patrick Black is getting a testimonial against Newcastle (even though he will have left by the time it takes place). The Board also confirm that the training facilities upgrade is complete – they’re now ‘average’. I remember that there’s now £11m+ in the bank and reckon the youth facilities might be back on the table already – a quick chat and a bit of persuasion later and that’s a yes. It’ll cost £4m and be ready as soon as the end of September. We already saw the benefits of the last upgrade with the best set of year-on-year improvements in attributes seen so far this season so a further boost should ensure we’re developing the players better and faster.

150-1 For The Title – Pretty Rude, Bookmaker People!

The heat rises on Stan Hind, Blackburn making a bid of £125k but it’s always a no at that price. Stan was interested though, which means we might have to chat to him sometime soon.

End of Contract Departures

A mini-exodus at the end of June, as predicted:

  • MC/AMC Ulrik Hallstensen (S9-04)
  • DL/DC Success Agba (S13-04)
  • AML Liam Johnson (S13-02)
  • SC Mark Murphy (S15-08)
  • SC Alwayne White (S16-10)
  • MC Tim Ready (S17-09)
  • DC Darryl Stevens (S18-10)
  • MC Peter Gallagher (S18-12)
  • DL/DC Patrick Black (S6-05) to Shelbourne

Pre-Season Games & Transfer News

2-1 (a) East Kilbride: McAllister, Appiah and Hall impress as we win comfortably but hit the woodwork about 17 times. Youngsters getting a shot include Chris Wright (S20-01), Ronald Julien (S20-02), Stefanos Panagi (S19-07) and Cameron Naismith (S18-06).

Fabian McAllister’s international career is getting in the way – he’s been called up for Jamaica in the Gold Cup so will miss most of the pre-season.

3-2 (a) Hereford: The old guard lead the way – two goals for Keeling, one for Hall. The new intake don’t feel quite there yet.

4-3 (h) Newcastle United: An incredible game, Tancock outstanding (a goal and an assist) and 17-year-old Carl Vaughan coming on as a sub and grabbing two great goals to turn the tie around.

2-1 (h) Dundee United: a great comeback win. 1-0 down at half-time and then Vaughan, on as a sub, sent off 1 min 46 seconds into the second, we somehow up our game – Tancock hits an 81st minute penalty and Jones secures the win in the 90th after superb skill by Hall and a lovely pass from Tancock.

We have a new vice-captain to replace the departed Patrick Black. Take a bow, Connor Hall. Another poaching – Graham McCormack has been stolen by Oldham (why’s he going there now that we’re in the same division as them?). We’ll check on him in a year or so when he graduates from their academy.

Loan Watch

  • AMR Daryl Sinclair (S18-08) to Guiseley (National League North)
  • AMC Ethan Wilson (S17-04) to Barrow (National League North)
  • AML Joseph Obi (S18-02) to Guiseley (National League North)
  • DR/DC Zak Price (S14-04) to Barrow (National League North)
  • AMR Joshua Barrett (S18-01) to FC Halifax (National League)

August – The Season Proper

Fending off more Hind bids we prepare for the opening day of the season away to Fylde. No Andy Brooks – he’s suspended – but otherwise, full-strength. Sani in goal, back four of Ross, Pemberton, Hind, Pearson (Hind’s failure to fully develop into a central midfielder has me repeating the Andy Brooks route and dropping him back as the ball-playing DC), Boateng and Tancock in the middle (McAllister is back today from international duty so makes the bench), Appiah, Afful, Hall behind Keeling up front.

Tancock starts off on the offensive and it’s almost no surprise when he releases Keeling through the middle and the veteran (new) striker slots home. After that though, we aren’t that convincing barring an Appiah shot off the bar. Fylde eventually level on 55 minutes but when they’re reduced to ten men with 12 minutes to go it looks good for us. It isn’t though! Fylde catch us on the break twice in quick succession to go 3-1 up and we have thrown the game away. Some serious thinking to do after that and a defensive line that has lost Liversedge, Black and Owens in the last few months suddenly looks out of its depth. I’m already looking at Kieran Sheridan as a possibility in goal after a poor showing from Sani.

Oddly, the next bid to come in is for Sani – Millwall offering £22k (rising to £41k). It’s a no. For now.

A huge boost in season ticket sales cheers me up – they’ve sold out! 5,414 in total compared to 4,095 last year – that’s a good sign that we’re winning people over.

Oldham up next – the dirty poachers – and Brooks is back from suspension and straight in to the back four – the rest of the line-up remains the same. We take the lead for the second game running – Afful breaking brilliantly from an Oldham corner, running the length of the pitch before smartly laying it off for Keeling to finish. Keeling is on hand again five minutes later to tap in after an Afful free-kick bounces free of the keeper into his path. 35 minutes in and Jim has a hat-trick, played in by Hall after good work by Tancock and Afful (again) down the left. The second-half is quieter, a few half-chances for Oldham, until Afful drives forward from the half-way line in the 89th minute, surges into the box and slams a left-footer into the far corner. 4-0 and Afful and Keeling, in particular, have been sensational. On a separate note, we sell out our temporary home and, with 6,000 in attendance, break the previous record of 5,900. Once the stadium re-development is complete, expect that record to go again.

Carl Vaughan appears on radars all of a sudden; Reading make a £115k bid plus additional fees. We say no but there’s talk of Palace, Huddersfield and Forest circling, too.

Carabao Cup at home to Crewe is up next. Guess who’s on loan with them: Frank Liversedge! A £5.5m move just to come back and play in League One! If I’d been Newcastle I would have only let him go to a Championship side – build some experience at a higher level. One change to our line-up – Sheridan starts in goal and we’ll try and give him cup games wherever we can from now on as his game time has been very limited in his career with us so far (he’s 23 and made 2 appearances outside of two loan spells). Half an hour in and Afful has the ball and won’t give it up for anyone, dancing into the box and dribbling for so long that the Crewe defenders appear to have no other option but to foul him. Keeling converts the penalty. Despite almost total dominance, it remains 1-0 until the 63rd minute when Ross loops the ball back from the byline for Hall to head home. McAllister comes off the bench to head home a third late on and just to make us even safer, Crewe pick up a red card straight after and we’re through to the 2nd Round.

We don’t often report on the u18s but beating Accrington 7-3 with Chris Wright scoring four warrants a mention and keeps the 16-year-old striker firmly on the radar.

Chris Wright (S20-01) Making His Mark With The U18s

We’re in blue for the trip to Fleetwood, Sani back in goal but the outfield ten remaining the same yet again. Hall is a menace to the Fleetwood defence throughout the first half but doesn’t appear to be getting much support. After an hour we make changes and they pay off within five minutes, McAllister whipping in a free-kick that Pemberton heads home for his first ever goal for the club. Frustratingly, Fleetwood reply immediately, Sani unable to keep out the deflected shot. Hall has one last chance from distance as time added on comes to a close, but it flashes wide and it finishes 1-1.

One change for the visit of Preston: McAllister starts ahead of Tom Boateng, who hasn’t begun the season well. Preston are all over us in five minute spell around half an hour in. Pearson hacks off the line twice in quick succession but an innocuous free-kick is headed goalwards minutes later and Sani somehow fails to deal with it and it drops through his hands and in. They get a ticking off at half-time and it seems to make the difference. Pearson is brought down in the box and Keeling is happy to tuck the penalty away once more. Keeling’s involved again, two minutes later, lofting a free-kick into the box from out wide and Afful is on the end of it, heading home. We’ve turned it around inside five minutes. Disaster on 74 minutes though: Preston break, carve us open and hit the post but the rebound hits Pemberton and bounces in for the equaliser. Afful has two chances to win it, the first a great opportunity that he steers wide, the second all his own work but the final shot is saved. It stays 2-2, another draw.

A mid-week trip awaits us in the Carabao Cup, away to Championship side Nottingham Forest. A good test of where we are in relation to the next division up. Sheridan gets his cup outing in goal again and Boateng comes back in for McAllister. Boateng is involved immediately, threading a ball through for Connor Hall who composes himself and picks his spot to put us one-up inside three minutes. For a while we have Forest on the ropes but they slowly come into the game and level in the 23rd minute. Minutes later, Sheridan makes a good save at his near post to prevent them taking the lead and then the tie edges our way a little just before half-time, Appiah brought down on the edge of the box and the Forest defender picking up a second yellow card. It doesn’t help though, Forest maintain a solid wall throughout the second half and take the game to penalties. Boateng slides home the first and the opening Forest effort goes woefully wide. Afful, Tancock and Hall dispatch their kicks comfortably leaving the City Ground nervously watching on as their side’s fourth kick bounces off the post and sends us through 4-2.

Sani takes back the keeper jersey for the visit of mid-table Carlisle United, but otherwise the whole matchday squad remains the same. We start well, Tancock steering a shot from distance just wide and dominating possession. It’s just starting to look like another game where we find it difficult to score when Hall picks it up on the edge of the box and places it just where he wants it, to the keepers left and in. He seems to be the motor that drives this team at the moment; if he’s in form we do well. It takes another half an hour before we fashion a clear cut chance but, on 68 minutes, Pearson whips in a delicious cross and Keeling smashes the ball home for 2-0. Carlisle grab a late consolation with a minute to go but we maintain our attacking focus through four minutes of injury time and Keeling makes it safe with just seconds remaining. 3-1, a good win.

The performance seals the Player Of The Month award for Keeling and he has seven goals in those first five league games. We’re quiet so far with a day left on the transfer window, but one more loan goes through:

  • DR Danny Harden (S18-09) – Salford City (National League North)

The only interest in our players appears to be coming from the lower divisions. Bradford are back again, this time for Kieran Ross but he’s not remotely interested and a Cambridge offer for Tom Boateng makes a similar impression. Things get tasty around lunchtime, with Portsmouth putting in a bid for quietly improving young centre-back, Tim Pemberton. I reject that and they come back an hour and half later and make a similar bid for Stan Hind (c.£150,000, all-in). They’re not fussy, Pompey, just someone from our team please. We say no again, obviously.

At 18:47 things get really serious. Birmingham (they’re always sniffing around) offer £1.3m for Ben Tancock (rising to £2.5m potentially). It’s non-negotiable and there’s only an initial payment of £650,000, so I reject it and cross my fingers. He has a minimum fee release clause of £7m so they’re going to need to get close to that for us to even think about it. They don’t come back and even though we spend the rest of the evening checking the phones every 30 seconds, no more bids arrive.

September 2041

September starts with the PJT and a home tie against League Two Burton. It’s a chance for some of the players on the fringes of the first team to get some valuable game time, especially as the starting XI has barely changed so far this season. Chris Wright and Ronald Julien from the Season 20 intake make the bench for the first time, Tony Robinson makes only his second appearance for the club at the age of 21 and Jim Steele gets a chance to impress in central midfield. AMC Sam Hollis wins a penalty on 36 minutes which is converted by captain-for-the-day Fabian McAllister for a 1-0 lead at the break. AML Shane McDonnell is on for his debut at half-time for an exhausted Dale East and Wright and Julien appear ten minutes later for Steele and Carl Vaughan, who’ve both been quiet. We’re heading comfortably to victory until the 90th minute – Hind comes for a header on the half-way line, mistimes it completely and leaves two Burton players free to run on and score. Penalties again! Sheridan stands tall and saves their first and McAllister gets lucky as their keeper almost keeps his effort out, but it’s advantage to us after one kick. Sam Hollis and young Julien maintain the momentum and Burton, under pressure, hit their fourth against the post. Stan Hind has the chance to win it and makes no mistake. We’re good at these shootouts!

Kids Lining Up In The PJT

Not a bad outing with a number of players impressing: Sheridan and the whole back four (Tyrrell/Naismith/Hind/Robinson) did well, McAllister shouldered the captain’s responsibility with aplomb and Ronald Julien was solid when he came on. Jim Steele and Carl Vaughan will look to get another chance to impress and Tomos Jones, relegated to the bench by Appiah so far this season, struggled again. Has he peaked?

Back to full strength for a trip to Coventry, barring the Jamaica-bound Fabian McAllister, a team we know well after four meetings last season. They bested us in the league but will be smarting from their play-off loss to us in the semi-finals. It’s a game of few chances, Appiah shooting weakly at the keeper after another good Pearson cross (he’s developing really well, right now). We seem to have a slight edge, forcing corners as the game enters it’s final quarter and finally, one of them makes it count as the ball is only half-cleared to Pemberton who spots Boateng in acres of space inside the area. The midfielder has plenty of time to turn and pick his spot and hit the 76th minute winner that lifts us into the play-off spots for the first time this season.

Exeter away next but I’m looking at the u18s, unbeaten in six in the U18 Division 3 North-West. They’ve just beaten Oldham 5-2 and the likes of Duxbury, Molina, Julien, McMillan, Wright and Griffiths are all playing consistently well. There’s plenty of promise for the future there, I just need to time their progression appropriately. Back to Exeter. We’re quiet in the first half creating absolutely nothing until the 35th minute when a Keeling corner is headed in by Tancock. It’s literally our first shot of the game. Boateng finds Keeling four minutes later and our second attempt on goal also goes in. 2-0 and we’ve barely been in it! We miss a couple of chances to make it three early in the second half and may come to rue them as Exeter pull one back on 54 minutes. Appiah and Hall come off, both have been kept quiet in recent games, and Tomeu and East come on. Exeter are pushing to level and have two late goals chalked off for offside. Afful heads on to the bar with a minute remaining as we finally get a foothold back in the game and we hold on to win 2-1. Back-to-back away wins lift us to 4th in the table. We’re starting to look like the FC United of last season again at last.

Back In The Play-Off Hunt

Colchester (h): Appiah is dropped, he’s struggled for form lately so we switch Connor Hall to the right and bring East in on the left. We lead after 18 minutes, Ross finding Keeling with a terrific through ball and Keeling pulling it back for Afful to rifle home. We’re kept at bay until the hour mark when Hall drives forward creating space – he’s eventually tackled on the edge of the box but the ball falls kindly to Afful who strikes again from distance. Tancock has to go off with an injury with four minutes of normal time to go and with no subs left we have to rearrange but we hold out for a comfortable 2-0 victory. With Ross going off injured earlier there’s a worried wait for the medical reports on both players.

It’s not great news. Tancock’s out 6-7 weeks with a knee ligament sprain but Ross should only miss a couple of days. McAllister and Boateng will have to helm the midfield with Hind as back-up. It may also give opportunity to Steele or Julien (and maybe even the fast-improving Joshua Lindsay who’s already moved up to the u23s).

Carabao Cup 3rd round – no big guns but a winnable home tie against Leyton Orient. Sheridan’s back, Tyrrell comes in at right-back and McAllister starts as the deep-lying playmaker. This is as far as we’ve come in this competition – it would be nice to make it a step further. Keeling comes close twice before the breakthrough comes – East finding the head of Hall at the far post for the only goal of the half. Legs tire in the second half, we’re not finishing them off but similarly, they’re not posing a threat. The game peters out but we have the goal and the win. Into the fourth round.

Another loan, quite possibly the last we’ll see of a player who has never quite developed the way we’d hoped:

  • AMR Brad Matthews (S15-02) – Hyde (National League North)

The youth facilities upgrade is completed – they’re now rated ‘Excellent’. Which is excellent.

Sani and Ross return for the league fixture at home to Swindon but otherwise, we’re unchanged. The Robins take a surprise lead on 15 minutes, an easy header that we should have defended better. We level in the 35th minute, Afful breaking from a Swindon corner and teeing up Keeling to slot home. We win the ball straight from the kick-off and then don’t let Swindon touch the ball again until the keeper is fishing out Keeling’s penalty from the back of the net (Ross brought down cutting in from the right) and we’ve turned this around in a flash. Hall almost scores a third but is denied by a good save. East creates another chance for Keeling and he’s happy to grab his hat-trick. East continues his good form on returning to the side, converting a free-kick minutes later to make it 4-1. Keeling wraps it up in the 91st minute, his fourth of a very impressive game. 5-1 and we move up to second in the table!

Moving On Up – Jim hits four!

A double bonus to end the month: Keeling takes his second Player Of The Month award in a row and our 100% record through the month wins me the Manager Of The Month award (the first award since March 2038 in the Vanarama National).

October 2041

The line-up remains unchanged for the trip to Plymouth – difficult to drop anyone after that last performance – but we’re off to a bad start and go a goal down after 25 minutes. Into the second half and we eventually start to create, East and Afful combine but the keeper saves it before Afful finally gets us level with a 30-yard thunderbolt free-kick that the keeper gets to but can’t keep out. We battle out the rest of the game, much improved, and then steal a win with six seconds left on the clock. Afful is at the heart of it again, jinking into the box from the right and creating space before teeing up Hind, who fires in from 18 yards.

We send out largely a ‘b’ team for the PJT trip to Carlisle, Andy Brooks and Connor Hall the only first team regulars. We’re under pressure early, fending off an second-minute attack with some stout defending but Carlisle are right back at us two minutes later and take the lead. They’re catching us on the break repeatedly and Sheridan keeps us in it on two separate occasions. They start the second half the same as the first, doubling their lead with four minutes gone. We finally spark into life after an hour, Adam Wells finding Hall and the latter sliding it in at the near post. Tyrese McMillan, making his debut, takes a knock and has to be replaced by Appiah, who by the end has also taken a knock, as has Turns. We limp off the pitch, beaten 2-1.

A top of the table clash next, as we head to league leaders Walsall. We’re without a handful of players: Pearson has a one match ban for five yellow cards, McAllister is on international duty, Tancock is still out injured and Appiah, Turns, Jones and Hughes aren’t match fit either. Tony Robinson comes in at left back for his first ever FC United league appearance (he’s played in cup games and racked up 117 appearances on loan at Barrow over three seasons) and the bench is shuffled to the point where Jim Steele gets the nod. The first 30 minutes yield nothing at all of interest but then the game bursts into life – chances at either end but no-one able to convert until a 38th minute strike from Kieran Ross of all people, collecting a rebound and firing across goal from the right and in. A poor goal kick from Sani almost lets Walsall level but they fire the resulting effort wide. We’re asking questions of the Walsall defence again but come up short until Boateng suddenly lifts one over the top and Keeling is onto it and fires home. Legs are tiring with 25 minutes to go and we’re forced into a triple substitution: Naismith for Brooks, Steele for Hind and Vaughan for East. Walsall immediately strike back – not so super substitutions. They break again two minutes later and it’s all square. Can we lift ourselves back up? Walsall come again, Hall conceding possession for the umpteenth time, but we keep them at bay. We finally force another attack, Vaughan picking up a loose ball wide on the right and driving forward from the half-way line. He makes it into the box and forces a challenge – penalty! Jim steps up and tucks it away and we’re back in the lead with seven minutes to play! It’s not enough, Walsall break again, despite our switch to a cautious approach, and they’re level again. We still have a chance to win it, Keeling’s cross finding Vaughan free in the area but the youngster can’t beat the keeper and our last chance has gone. A 3-3 draw is a great result away from home to the league leaders but…but…but, we could have won it! Still, our unbeaten run stretches to ten games and we still lie 2nd in the table.

Fabian McAllister wins his 5th cap for Jamaica, which is doubly good for him because it nets him a pay increase! I don’t remember agreeing to that but I must have done, probably not imagining that we had anyone ready to be an international. That’s something I need to pay attention to in the future!

We’re still on our travels, Accrington away after the midweek trip to the Midlands. Pearson is back but this time Ross is out suspended and I plump for 17-year old David McMahon as his replacement – he’s been good for the u23s and for the Ireland U19s and I’m hoping he might be ready. McAllister returns from international duty, dropping Hind down to the bench. It’s another dull game, no real chances of note until Keeling hits the post in the 64th minute! It’s Jim’s last contribution – the board was already up with his number on it and Adam Wells is on. Pemberton makes a vital block with five minutes to go to keep the score at 0-0 and that’s how it stays. McMahon was decent at right back but was outshone by the rest of the defence. He didn’t do anything wrong though, so a qualified success.

Ross is back for the visit of Crewe (and an on-loan Frank Liversedge again) and Keeling picked up a knock during training that isn’t serious but is enough to keep him out. Adam Wells gets the start up front due to Tomeu also being out for a few days. Carl Vaughan waits on the bench for his chance up front as well while Chris Wright and Sion Griffiths continue to impress at u18 level. Both Wells and Vaughan need good showings to stay ahead of the younger youngsters. It’s a fast start, Joseph Afful fires home from the edge of the box just after a minute, in what has started to become a customary finish for the 17-year old. Both sides come close in the ensuing 30 minutes before Hall finishes a good move, worked down the left before Afful laid it into his path. Wells had a quiet first half and I’m looking towards the hour mark for a likely change up front. The Season 18 graduate has other ideas though and nicks a third for the team on 53 minutes from an ideal poaching position inside the six-yard box. It’s good to see him on target in the league at last. Vaughan gets a 20-minute run out on the left wing instead after East picks up a knock but has little chance to influence a game whose tempo we’ve slowed in that time to avoid other tired legs cramping up. It ends a comfortable 3-0 win but it’s a blow for East as he’ll miss 4-5 weeks with a twisted ankle.

A home fixture against last-placed Rochdale should be a walk in the park but we are often at our worst in these games and the injury list is mounting as well, albeit just minor knocks and niggles. Boateng is out, Pearson isn’t match fit, Naismith is out and Turns and Tancock aren’t back in training yet. Keeling’s back though and Appiah returns to the starting line-up with Hall switching back to the left wing. Tony Robinson and Stan Hind start in place of Pearson and Boateng. Hind has a good first half, but beyond him and Afful there isn’t a lot to write home about. We send them back out with a flea in their ear and it does the trick. Tony Robinson lofts a nice pass over the defence – rushing out after defending a free-kick – and Appiah gets on the end of it and guides it home. Rochdale are reduced to ten men not long after and of course, immediately win a penalty (conceded by an all-action Robinson). which they convert to level. Unbelievably, they then take the lead (I told you it was that type of game!), Robinson skinned again by Marney on the right wing and despite Sani saving the initial shot, it’s a blue shirt that reacts quickest to the rebound. Appiah hits the bar and Hind blazes one over but it won’t go in. We’ve lost for the first time in 13 games, to the bottom team in the league, to a team that had won just once so far this season, to ten men. Sometimes it’s difficult to love this game.

Perhaps one or two heads weren’t in the game on Saturday, an eye on the Tuesday match up with Bournemouth in the 4th Round of the Carabao Cup. Let’s hope it can wipe the memories of an awful league performance. Pearson returns and we keep our promise to play Sheridan in goal for this competition, despite the increase in stature of our opponents. We immediately show we won’t be cowed, Keeling whipping in a free-kick that’s ferociously volleyed home from close-range by Tim Pemberton, of all people. Keeling almost makes it two as we dance around the Cherries’ midfield with some panache. Ross does his knee and has to be replaced by Tyrrell, whose last outing at right-back wasn’t great, but he’s involved quickly and his first cross causes Bournemouth all sorts of trouble, Hall heading towards goal and Keeling scoring from the resultant drop from the keeper. 2-0! Our joy is short-lived though. Hind loses possession leaving Pemberton in a tricky situation and the young centre-back fouls the onrushing attacker and picks up a second yellow card for his troubles. We’ve no other defensive substitutes because Tyrrell’s already on, so Hind has to drop into defence and we switch to a midfield three, Appiah and Hall dropping back to support McAllister. Bournemouth take advantage just before half-time as we fail to deal with free-kick and it’s set up for a tense second half. We try and solidify a bit more on 55 minutes – Afful is exhausted so it seems a good time to rearrange – Steele comes on and drops into a midfield four. It works a charm as we break away three minutes later and Keeling gets on the end of some good play and some slack defending to put us 3-1 up. I’m pretty certain this on isn’t over yet, though. Bournemouth hit a post and we’re forced into a third and final sub because Hall has nothing left to give. Tomeu’s on and Keeling’s on the left and Bournemouth, well, they’re back in it, squeezing one in at Sheridan’s near post with 20 minutes still to play. The Cherries hit a free-kick against the post with 10 to play but we finally settle some nerves in the 90th minute, Hind clearing, Steele nodding it on further and then Tomeu finding a wide open Keeling on the left who drives in towards goal and delicately chips the keeper for 4-2 (I’m so caught up in the tension of the game that I only realise that was for his hat-trick once it’s over!). It still isn’t done though – Bournemouth have the ball in the net again in the 94th minute but there isn’t time for them to grab another and we hold on for a superb 4-3 win. We’re into the Quarter-Finals, the last side in it outside of the top two divisions, and we draw a plum home tie against Chelsea! It’s our first outing against one of the genuinely big sides and something to look forward to in six weeks time.

November 2041

Afful pulls a hamstring and misses the visit of MK Dons so Sam Hollis gets a first league start. Tyrrell is in for the suspended Pemberton and Boateng returns despite Hind’s good showing in his absence. We lead after eight minutes, Appiah floating a cross over that drops over the keeper and right onto Hall’s toes who can’t miss. MK Dons level immediately but within a minute of that restart Keeling restores the lead after good work by Hollis and Hall. It’s end to end stuff! It quietens down a little until Appiah and Hall nearly recreating the opener on 34 minutes and that seems to serve as a catalyst for more action, Hall brings the ball forward through the middle and plays it through the defence to a just-onside Keeling who finishes to the keeper’s right for his second of the game and a 3-1 half-time score. Four minutes after the break he has the chance of a hat-trick from the spot – Appiah brought down – and makes no mistake. Stan Hind – on for a tiring McAllister – grabs a fifth with a hit from the edge of the area that the keeper can’t hold and there’s still time for MK Dons to pull one back with an 84th minute header. A breathless game ends 5-2 and we’re back to winning ways in the league in possibly our most complete performance of the season.

Good news: Ben Tancock plays 45 minutes for the u23s as he returns to fitness (and grabs a goal). Hopefully he’ll be available for selection in a couple of weeks and then I’ll have a selection headache with Tancock, McAllister, Boateng and the rapidly improving Hind all vying for two midfield positions. There’s a forced change for the home game against Mansfield, Andy Brooks suspended and the previously suspended Tim Pemberton returning in his place. It’s penalty time after 18 minutes – a long ball from Sani finding Keeling who’s hacked down – but this time Jim hits the post and there’s no early lead. There’s no goals at all in the first half, Mansfield coming closest with a long range shot that flashes by Sani’s left-hand post. The keeper stops us falling behind at the start of the second with a good save but is powerless as Mansfield drive forward again and take the lead. It’s all Mansfield and we struggle to get a foothold. Eventually good work from Hollis and Appiah gets the ball to Keeling in the box but the Stags keeper saves at point blank range. Hollis has the ball in the back of the net but is adjudged to be offside but eventually both he and us get the equaliser, Vaughan crossing and Appiah laying it off into the AMC’s path to place it home with 11 minutes remaining. It’s his first goal for the club. I make one last subsitution and, despite the tired legs everywhere else, I sacrifice a below-par Keeling for Adam Wells. About 90 seconds later Wells breaks through the defensive line and slots in the winner! It’s been a hard-fought win but we got there in the end.

Man City u23s in the PJT is another opportunity to blood some youngsters (and allow Tomeu and Hughes rare starts). Adam Wells starts up front and reacts fastest to a blocked free-kick to give us an early lead. He’s a constant menace, winning a penalty on 10 minutes that Hind hits straight at the keeper, and then having another attempt himself that’s pushed wide for a corner. Hind hits a rocket from 30 yards that flies just wide and City don’t muster a single shot in the first 45 minutes. Ben Tancock returns to first team action for the last 15 minutes and we continue to press for a second goal, Naismith heading over, Wells hitting the bar and substitute Seigfried Breuer heading onto the post. But guess what, with four seconds (FOUR SECONDS!) left of injury time, City grab an equaliser with their second shot of the game and take it to penalties. It’s daylight robbery (xGs of 2.82 to 0.42, 21 shots 63% possession!). Turns and Tancock score but City match us before Hind misses his second penalty of the day. City score again and when Tomeu hits the post it’s almost certainly over. City’s fourth penalty is in and we’re out of the competition, third in the table. There are a lot of positives from the game though: this was a superb team performance that included three debuts (Breuer, Ray Clancy and Kevin Molina, who was excellent).

Loan news:

  • MC Joshua Lindsay (S20-05) – Basford United (National League North)

It’s rare that we loan out new graduates but given the central midfield competition in this intake (Julien and Brayan also play there) it made sense to accept this offer and get the fast-improving Lindsay some game time.

We have a second international on our books, Joseph Afful making his debut for Ghana and joining Fabian McAllister in deserting us every few weeks for sunnier climes.

Back to almost-full-strength away to Northampton in the league – Ross has picked up a knock in training so Tyrrell starts at right back and Afful and McAllister are still away, but Tancock starts for the first time in ages. No-one really starts though as Northampton take a lead in the third minute and it takes us aeons to ever get going. Connor Hall flashes a shot wide of the post after 35 minutes of dross and Keeling pretty much passes to the keeper when clean through. I’m pointing fingers at half-time. We start to slowly improve, Hollis hits the bar and shortly after Keeling is brought down inside the area and dusts himself down to convert the resultant penalty. We survive a goalmouth scramble then take the ball down the other end and watch us dance around the box before Tancock smashes one against the bar. It doesn’t look like it’s going to happen for us and it doesn’t: it gets worse. 30 seconds left on the clock and for the second successive game we concede at the death. Hugely frustrating and again, undeserved (xG 2.97-1.26, 16 shots with 9 on target, 61% possession). We need to start finishing our chances.

A trip to Nottingham in the FA Cup to take on Notts County in the 1st Round. No Ross again, no Tancock (carrying an FA Cup suspension from last season) so McMahon gets another chance at right back and McAllister returns in central midfield. We win a penalty in the 8th minute, Connor Hall pouncing on an error in the County defence and then getting brought down, but Keeling sees his effort saved. Sani preserves the clean sheet at our end shortly after with a good one-on-one save but can do nothing to keep out the 35th minute opener. He’s forced into action again two minutes later and then tips a free-kick onto the post – he’s keeping us in this tie single-handedly right now. Time ticks away in the second half, substitute Carl Vaughan shoots tamely at the keeper with only eight minutes remaining and that’s that. Another narrow defeat in a game we’ve dominated.

The international duty crew are back for the trip to Peterborough and I’m hoping they can instill some confidence back into the side after our run of bad luck. Some of them are too tired to play (notably, Pemberton). Ross returns, Tancock replaces a tired McAllister, Robinson does the same for Pearson, and Afful is back at last. Connor Hall wins another penalty and this time Keeling converts for a 13th minute lead. Peterborough are level before the half-hour mark, however, as we look frequently exposed down the flanks. We camp in their half after that, Keeling side-footing onto the post with one effort before finishing nicely in the 40th minute after being put through by Afful (we already look more direct with Afful back in the side). The Ghanaian international (!) is involved again just after the break, teeing up Keeling again only for the keeper to make a good block. Jim is then caught offside twice when putting the ball in the net. We shut up shot with a couple of minutes to go and make sure we see this one out, 2-1.

Midweek football sees 5th-placed Wrexham visit – an important game if we’re to maintain our position just ahead of them. Pearson is back and Tim Pemberton returns after a lengthy spell away with England u18s (both he and Dale East have debuted for them in the last two weeks). A tense first half sees only an early half-chance for Keeling, saved, and little else in the way of clear opportunities. The second-half is the same, but without the half-chance. 0-0, dull but a solid defensive display to take heart from.

November ends with Jim Keeling picking up another Player Of The Month award.

December 2041

The good news ends there for Keeling though, he tears a groin muscle in training and will spend the next 4-5 weeks recovering from injury. Can one of the youngsters stake a claim for the striker spot in his absence, or will Tomeu re-emerge from the wilderness?

Adam Wells gets the nod up front and the rest of the line-up is unchanged for a trip tp Rotherham, though there’s a return to the bench for Dale East after injury and internationals. We get off to a flyer, a deep free-kick from Afful steered home by Andy Brooks with barely a minute on the clock. Afful’s at it again before ten minutes are up but his free-kick attempt is tipped wide by the keeper. Boateng slots Wells through in the 19th minute, and the replacement striker takes the first chance that comes his way, finishing well at the near-post. 2-0. He has a second chalked off for a very close offside call, but he’s looking dangerous. Appiah and Hall both come close in the second half and Appiah eventually gets on the score sheet after a corner clearance falls our way and he finishes from ten yards out. There’s 15 minutes to go and we’re still pushing – Tancock comes close, as does Afful – but it stays 3-0 and it feels like we’re back on track. We climb back up to 3rd in the table.

Contract news: three of the youngsters sign extensions, Vaughan, Hollis and Afful. The last one is particularly pleasing given both his performances of late and the coaching reports that are suggesting he’s a potential Premier League talent. Tying him down for another three years (without a release clause) is very satisfying.

A home game against Southend up next and an unchanged line-up with just a tinkering on the subs bench: Tomeu has an injury so Sam Hollis returns to the bench as pretty much the only other player left who can play right wing (I’d committed Jones to the u23s to build his fitness up!). Wells has the ball in the net early but it’s disallowed, then Pemberton heads over and the very defensive Shrimpers (three DCs, 2 WBs and 2 DMs plus 2 MCs and a lone striker) look vulnerable in spite of the line-up. They somehow get far enough up to win a corner and promptly score from it taking a fully undeserved lead. Boateng heads wide and we go in at half-time a goal down. Appiah has one disallowed for offside and we can’t find a way through. Southend have won with their only shot of the game. I’m livid.

Southend Angering Me With A Ridiculously Defensive Formation

Youth Intake Preview day is a bit of a disappointment. All Jose can tell me is that there’s a forward considered to be a fine prospect and a healthy number of full-backs (but they’re not the best). Hmm, we’ll wait and see.

Home to Swansea next but with one eye on the Carabao Cup Quarter Final with Chelsea in three days’ time. The weather intervenes though and the game is called off, giving us a chance to recuperate for longer ahead of the big game.

Loan news:

  • DR David McMahon (S19-09) – Altrincham (National League North)

McMahon hasn’t done anything wrong in his limited first team chances but he’s clearly not ready and half a season getting games will hopefully do him good. We’ll use Hughes/Tyrrell/Naismith as right-back cover should we need it.

No Andy Brooks for the Chelsea game, he’s suspended, and we return Sheridan to the starting line-up because we promised. Stan Hind will play the ball-playing centre-back role. Our temporary home is naturally sold out, 6,000 hardy souls in the December rain. Chelsea take an ominously early lead – 7 minutes in and star striker Andreas Koplin gets in behind the defence and slots home. They’re two-up with 25 minutes gone, a free-kick from wide left pinging around the box and fortuitously in. Ross pumps a long ball forward that Wells races on to but despite a decent shot, the Premier League keeper is up to the task and pushes it wide of the post. We make it to half-time having controlled 64% of possession and not looking outclassed apart from the one area it matters – goals! A Chelsea penalty on the hour mark seals the win, a dizzying run from their left winger drawing the initial foul. Afful shoots wide from distance and Wells heads over and we can’t quite get the consolation goal our play warrants. It finishes 0-3, but it’s no disgrace. In particular, Pemberton, Pearson and Afful looked like they belong at that level which bodes well for the future.

Away to Oldham on our return to league football. Connor Hall is at home recovering from a cold so Dale East starts with Sani and Brooks returning to the starting line-up as well. East stakes a claim for a regular place, whipping in a free-kick on 27 minutes that Afful heads home to give us the lead. Early in the second half, Afful attempts to return the favour but East’s luck is out and his effort comes back off a post. We’re ramping up the pressure though and the second goal comes moments later, a lovely deep ball in from Pearson on the left guided home by Wells. The stand-in striker scores again two minutes later – a Dale East free-kick bouncing back off the post with Wells the quickest to react, sliding in to steer the rebound home. 3-0 and I’m comforted that we’ve finally got a goal return on our attacking play.

Another postponement, this time on Boxing Day, the home game against Fleetwood called off and, with the Carabao Cup tie replacing a league game as well, it will leave us three games behind our rivals and an increasingly condensed fixture list going forward. We slip to 5th but if we win those games in hand we’ll go 2nd.

Preston away and Tim Pemberton is rested and I decide to hand a debut to the fast-developing Derek Duxbury, bouncing him ahead of Tyrrell, Naismith and Hughes. Connor Hall returns but has to make do with a place on the bench after East’s man of the match performance at Oldham. We pin Preston back in their own half, Wells and Appiah having early chances but the breakthrough is slow in arriving today. It takes 71 minutes for it to arrive and it’s only a debut goal for Duxbury!! He heads in another superb East free-kick, rising at the far post despite being only 5’10” (the only downside I can see for him). Our joy is short-lived, however. Ross concedes a penalty literally a minute later and Preston level and it gets worse when the steal the lead in the 80th minute and we can’t seem to get out of our own way when they break again in injury time and grab a third. I can’t believe we’ve lost this one.

January 2042

New Year’s Day takes us up the M6 to Carlisle, Pemberton returning despite Duxbury’s goal-scoring debut (in truth, his defensive work wasn’t that great). Both keepers are in action early, with Wells denied by a great diving save after being put through by Tancock. It stays goalless at the break but we fly out of the blocks after the interval and it’s Tancock again at the heart of things, driving into the box and slotting home for a lead we’ll hope to hold on to this time! East and Pearson head off, both exhausted after a run of games, and Tyrrell and Hall come on, the latter having an immediate impact as he lifts a ball over the defence for Wells to run on to. The striker makes no mistake this time. Carlisle aren’t done though and pull one back on 66 minutes and, despite us shutting up shop, they win a 95th minute corner and grab an equaliser. This is becoming a frustratingly familiar story of late!

Just to cheer me up, the transfer window opens and I steel myself against a Premier League/Championship onslaught. It starts oddly again though, League Two teams bidding for Boateng, who seems interested in Notts County for some reason. I’m still saying no. And then bids for our of favour Thomas Ugwu. It’s pennies to be honest, but I’ve no intention of keeping him at the end of the season (Tancock, Boateng, McAllister and Hind are all ahead of him and the trio of Julien, Lindsay and Brayan give us plenty of depth) so it makes sense to let him go now.

The first serious bids are for Fabian McAllister, the first time he’s drawn attention like this. Birmingham (as always) and Blackburn make decent bids (£775k, £625k) with add-ons that take the value close to £3m but while the Jamaican international is willing to discuss terms he’s also happy to stay at the club. With £6.5m still in the bank, that makes the decision an easy one.

I make a transfer move of my own – yes, this one’s allowed! – recalling Joshua Barrett from his loan at Halifax. He’s done well but the coaches are saying he needs better challenges and he’s ready to compete for the right-wing berth. He’s just played for them though so doesn’t make the match day squad for a home game against relegation-threatened Fylde. The line-up remains the same, meaning Hall’s still on the bench, unable to shift Dale East from the starting XI. East continues his rich vein of form, his lofted free-kick finding Appiah who strokes the ball past the keeper for a 16th minute lead. That’s it until the break, meaning it’s a ‘things are going well but I know you’re capable of better’ kind of team talk. East turns up big again on 51 minutes – another free-kick, this time wide on the right, whipped in for Afful to score. Two minutes later it’s 3-0, a carbon copy East free-kick head back across goal by Brooks and Afful stabs home for his second in as many minutes. The Season 19 boys are getting it done! East is on fire – following up three assists with a 30-yard free-kick this time into the top corner. I can’t see how Hall is getting back into the side right now. Another free-kick results in pushing in the box and a penalty. Afful completes his first hat-trick for the club from the spot. The 5-0 scoreline isn’t flattering, though we’ve created more chances and lost or drawn in recent weeks! It’s a great confidence boost. One downside, Blackburn boss Andoni Iraola was in the crowd apparently keeping tabs on our shiny new left winger.

They’re in for a bid soon after (though not before we reject a Bournemouth bid for McAllister) but it’s paltry – £155,000 (with only £91k up front) with the potential to get to £425,000.

There are no changes for the home fixture against Exeter (Barrett is still in need of a rest after a gruelling sequence of games over Christmas with Halifax). Exeter start well and Sani is in action twice before we’ve even got going. We do pick up though and another Tancock through ball puts Appiah in and he squeezes the ball in at the near post. There’s little else to talk about until Afful fires a free-kick against the bar with five minutes to go and a goalmouth scramble at our end eventually ends up safely in Sani’s hands. We hang on – no stupidly late equalisers today – for a narrow 1-0 win.

Thomas Ugwu seals a move to League Two high-flyers, Scunthorpe United. The fee is a very modest £1,500 but there’s a 20% of next sale built in, just in case his career reignites.

The games are coming thick and fast now, Coventry visit just three days after Exeter. Stan Hind is in at the back for Pemberton, Ross switches to left-back (Pearson really needs a rest) and Macauley Hughes gets a rare start at right-back. Hall is in for Afful and Duxbury, Barrett, Hollis and Tomeu make the bench. A scrappy bit of a play in the box leads to the ball falling to Appiah who finishes clinically from eight yards out to give us the lead after just eight minutes (Hall claims the assist even though his ‘pass’ was a shot that deflected off a defender into Appiah’s path). East is busy whipping in free-kicks again but Hind can only head over when presented with the chance. Sani makes a fantastic save late on to deny the Sky Blues in a move started by a Gary McLaren throw (S10-02 for those not in the know!). It’s good to see him still getting games at this level. That save preserves the lead and ensures we get another three points. Hind is impressive in defence alongside Brooks and Ross was great at left-back, too. A positive reshuffle and it puts us 3rd with two games in hand on nearly everyone around us.

Away to Colchester next; Pearson, Pemberton and Afful return, as does Jim Keeling at long last! McAllister replaces Tancock who picked up a minor groin strain in training. We play well in the opening 45 but have nothing to show for our five shots on target. Boateng picks up an injury at the start of the second and Hind is on alongside McAllister. We can’t get going though and the game ends in a dull 0-0 draw. Pearson picked up a knock as well and both he and Boateng look doubtful for the Swansea game in three days.

It’s the last time we’ll play at the Manchester Athletics Stadium.

Before we get there we have to reject a Forest bid for Chris Wright (and think about whether he might be first-team ready again!). Birmingham get sent away again with a no for their Dale East bid and Dale’s agent calls straight after to discuss a new contract. I’m alright with that, agent Matthew Foster, let’s talk. We agree a wage increase and an £8m release clause (that started as a proposed £900k!).

It turns out we’ve already said our goodbyes to the Manchester Athletics Stadium. It’s last meaningful action is to get itself waterlogged and the Swansea game is off. Good news, as it gives Pearson and Boateng extra recovery time (although I’m sure I’ll be cursing when this fixture backlog has to be completed). We’re still in 3rd but the top two are getting away, currently we can’t overhaul them even if we win our games in hand.

That makes the next game all the more important – an away trip to league leaders Luton Town. A bid for Kieran Ross comes in from Cambridge (more League Two teams trying to prise away our starters!) which is obviously turned down but Macauley Hughes is off on loan to Hartlepool having slipped out of contention this season.

Tancock and Hall return (East has a slight knock) and we’re close to full-strength. Afful has free-kick well saved and we can’t get to the rebound but we lead a few minutes later, Appiah pouncing in the box after good work from Hall and Boateng. Hall has another chance on 17 minutes but fires straight at the keeper – it’s the kind of game where those kind of opportunities need to be taken! We’re still creating though, and Afful floats another free-kick in and Pemberton rushes onto it to head home and we’re two up away against the league leaders. It obviously doesn’t last and Luton turn up the pressure and pull one back on 36 minutes. We’re still dangerous though and Keeling takes over free-kick duties and tests the Luton keeper again. They make a double substitution at half-time to try and get back into it, and we’re forced into one not long after, Ross pulling a thigh muscle and being replaced by Tyrrell. Luton head one off the bar late on as we try not to concede a late equaliser again, and then Appiah does the same thing at the other end of the pitch. There are chances at both ends of the pitch in injury time in a nerve-wracking finale but we hold out to win 2-1. It’s a deserved win, and a valuable one, too.

The newly expanded stadium opens against Plymouth but the Luton match has taken its toll with plenty of players in need of a rest as well as Andy Brooks starting a two-match suspension. Pearson, Pemberton, Boateng, Appiah and Afful are all out. Tyrrell and Duxbury form an inexperienced centre-back partnership and Cameron Naismith is the only option at left-back. McAllister is in for Boateng and Hall switches to right wing as East returns and Sam Hollis takes the AMC role. The new stadium sees its first penalty after 12 minutes and Keeling makes no mistake to make it 1-0. Both East and Hall come close to grabbing a second and though we’re in the ascendancy, there’s room for improvement. As if to prove the point, Argyle level after the break, an easy run through the middle and a finish chipped over Sani’s head. They’re ahead after an hour, Sani failing to keep a header out when he perhaps should have done better. I berate them from the touchline and it does the trick, Hall and Keeling fashion an equaliser, Jim finishing nicely from close range. East is causing problems with his free-kicks again, Jim Steele having a header disallowed for offside before Matthew Tyrrell gets on the end of one and puts us back in the lead. It caps a man-of-the-match performance from the centre-back and cheers the record 6,693 crowd, who celebrate an entertaining 3-2 win.

That puts some distance between us and the chasing pack and keeps us within reach of the top two. We haven’t lost in a month now, can we continue this good run?

Transfer deadline day arrives and young Chris Wright and Tim Pemberton are first under the spotlight – Huddersfield are quickly told no for Wright but we have to have a chat with an eager Pemberton who fancies a career at Newcastle. Luckily he falls for the old ‘you’ll never get this kind of banter anywhere else’ routine and the pressure’s off for a bit. Newcastle aren’t put off, and then bid for Wright as well, the cheeky blighters. We say no repeatedly until the deadline passes and we can breathe once more.

A wave of FC United players in the monthly awards: Afful is the Player of the Month and Pemberton finishes third. Appiah is the Young Player of the Month (weirdly Afful comes second!) and Dale East finishes third in the Goal of the Month. Even I’m in on the action, runner-up in the Manager of the Month. It doesn’t finish there – the National League North player of the month is right-back David McMahon, on loan at Altrincham. Good news for a player in a position where we need someone to develop well enough to support Kieran Ross.

February 2042

Two more games in quick succession, away at Swindon and home to Fleetwood. There’s lots of changes as a result and a makeshift defence of Panagi (making his debut at right-back), Pemberton, Hind and Naismith. The front six are back at full strength and there are places on the bench for Tony Robinson, Jim Steele again and left-winger Shane McDonnell. A concerted bout of attacking in the first ten minutes pays off eventually, Tancock unlocking the defence with a ball to Appiah that the Young Player of the Month thrashes into the net at the near post. There’s no threat from Swindon in the first half and good work from Panagi finds Tancock, who provides the killer pass once more, this time for Afful, who shoots too powerfully for the keeper to prevent it going in. An hour in, Hall wins a penalty having caught the Robins defence napping. Keeling does his stuff but needs the help of the post from the spot. Swindon do come alive after that and pull one back on 73 minutes. They get another in injury time giving us a few minutes of concern in a game that should have been wrapped up ages ago. We hold on though, and it’s the three points that matters most right now. Panagi struggled the same way everyone who isn’t Kieran Ross struggles at right back but Naismith was solid on the left even though I see him primarily as a DC. Just need to see who has the energy for the visit of Fleetwood now.

The top two – Walsall and Luton – both win so we’re still six and five points behind them with one game in hand, so still not quite in our sights, but we have a seven point cushion over Wrexham who lost and we have two games in hand on them and the two other teams below them in the play-off places.

There’s the expected raft of changes: the back four is completely re-worked (Ross, Tyrrell, Brooks, Pearson), McAllister is in for Tancock in midfield, Hall switches to the right and East and Hollis come in for Appiah and Afful. We strike early again, Boateng’s chipped cross headed in from close-range by a far-post lurking East. The first half has little else to offer though and despite our usual dominance, there’s just the solitary goal to show for it. I ask for a bit more from the lads at half-time and we do seem to pick up – a couple of dead ball deliveries from the trusty left foot of East cause problems before Keeling heads in a Kieran Ross cross for 2-0. With ten minutes to go though, we turn to our usual trick of conceding; a corner causing all sorts of problems and we can’t clear our lines despite multiples opportunities. That leaves us hanging on to a slender one-goal lead yet again but we manage it and there’s a lot to be pleased about with the overall performance. Tyrrell was excellent again and there’s a real battle developing now between him and Pemberton for the role alongside Brooks at the back. The attendance record goes again, as well, 6,832 in attendance.

The win lifts us to within two points of Luton and three of leaders Walsall and puts 10 between us and Wrexham in 4th spot. We’re definitely in a breakaway group of three but it’s going to be tough for the team that misses out. Right now, that would be us and we need to maintain our recent form to keep in touch with two very good sides. There’s an 11 day gap now to the next game, at home to one of those ‘very good sides’: Walsall!

We have the weekend in between off due to our opponents being involved in the FA Cup. Walsall travel to Luton and we pop in to see the Hatters run out 3-0 winners, taking the top spot against a side reduced to ten men in the first half. That means a win for us next week would lift us above Walsall on goal difference. It’s getting interesting. It gets more interesting on Friday when Luton visit Northampton and lose by a goal to nil.

We’re at full-strength. That’s a rare position this season but we start with Sani in goal, Ross, Pemberton, Brooks and Pearson across the back, Tancock back alongside Boateng in the middle and Appiah, Afful and East supporting Keeling up front. That means only places on the bench for Tyrrell, McAllister and Hall, all of whom can consider themselves unlucky not to be starting. It’s a good sign for the team as a whole though and with Hind, Sheridan, Barrett and Wells also on the bench, we feel strong throughout (maybe that centre-forward back-up position needs work, but not much else right now – we’re not talking about right-backs today).

It’s a cagey opening. We’re creating but not getting things on target (5 shots in the opening 25 minutes, all off target!). The midfield is very congested and though we manage to work another opening to East, he’s a long way out and his shot fizzes just over the bar. We immediately pay for our profligacy, Walsall breaking down the other end and crossing and finishing clinically. We get the team in at half-time and tell them they have the ability to be better than this – yes, Walsall have pressed well, compressing the space and making it difficult but we have the talent to break that down. The pep talk almost works immediately, Appiah finding space down the right and making time to put in a good cross but the ball is nicked off Keeling’s toes just as he’s pulling the trigger. He’s in again moments later but the keeper gets down well to save. It’s coming though and when East lofts a free-kick from deep right into the six-yard box, Pemberton is on hand to head in the equaliser. Straight from the kick-off we win the ball back, Appiah finds an overlapping Ross down the right and this time the cross does find Keeling and he taps in from two yards out. What a turnaround. I’ve a feeling this game isn’t over yet though. It isn’t. Appiah picks the ball up just beyond the half-way line and cuts across field to the left hand side of the box and hammers one home. Unstoppable! That takes the wind out of Walsall’s sails and the last half-hour plays out quietly. 3-1 and we’re up to 2nd in the table with Luton in our sights. Tim Pemberton is man of the match and he still doesn’t turn 18 until May. As if he can’t go up any further in my estimations, he then tells the press that the win was all down to my half-time team talk. What a guy.

Three Goals In Eight Minutes See Off Walsall And Put Us Into An Automatic Promotion Spot!

Another attendance record, breaking the 7k mark with 7,422 turning up and treated to that fine showing. A week later Swansea are the visitors and the press are speculating that the ground could be sold-out. The expected crowd will have to make do without Ben Tancock though, he’s sprained ankle ligaments and will miss 3-4 weeks. That means Fabian McAllister gets the start but that’s the only change. Swansea start well – they’re on the cusp of the play-offs, so no slouches – but there’s no-one capable of stopping Dale East’s left peg right now. He whips in a cross that causes mayhem in the Swansea defence, resulting in a shot, a save, a deflection and then a clearance that only makes it as far as Keeling three yards out who can’t fail to score. Swansea score though 14 minutes later and we’re level on the half-hour. That only lasts two minutes as crosses from Ross and then Pearson again cause havoc, Appiah nodding in the final one at the far post to restore our lead. We have the Swans rocking again but they clear off the line eventually and compose themselves enough to force a brilliant one-handed save from Sani moments later. That’s enough to win us the game. Another close one but with only one other game on in the division today, we catch up in games played and GO TOP OF THE TABLE!

We’re Only Top Of League One!

Can we hold on now we’ve got there??? We’re ten games unbeaten and have won the last six in a row.

The Swansea game did sell-out. A crowd of 8,790 that currently can’t be bettered. Good times all round at Broadhurst Park in 2042.

We’re away to Crewe three days later as the midweek games get underway and there are tired legs to consider: Pearson, Afful and East need a look at. Naismith gets the nod at left-back ahead of Robinson and Hollis and Hall take the other spots. A nice early move breaks down and Crewe storm down the other end and fire narrowly over. It’s going to be one of those games is it? Keeling sees a shot forced wide by the keeper on 21 minutes and we escape a goalmouth melee from a Crewe corner. Sani saves when Crewe break again (Reed is the man getting into these positions, pace to burn) and half-time comes to an end at 0-0 but with much entertainment. Keeling is thwarted again by the keeper when put clean through by Hall but the same combination won’t be denied ten minutes later as Jim fires a rocket home from 20 yards out. A patient move following a corner finds us forced out of the box until Keeling plays in Barrett, on as a substitute for Appiah. The winger fires home off the keeper at the near post for his first goal for the club and the clincher. It finishes 2-0.

Wednesday’s results make things even sweeter. Walsall, reeling from consecutive defeats to Luton and ourselves, fall at home to Rotherham 1-0 to slip six points behind us. Luton won on Tuesday to leave them still a point behind but any more slip ups from Walsall might make for a comfortable run-in!

Ben Tancock wins Young Player of the Month despite only playing twice, Appiah’s thunderous strike against Walsall wins Goal of the Month and yours truly wins Manager of the Month.

March 2042

We start the month at home to Accrington and the return of Afful and East to the starting line-up. Afful is involved early and often and after 10 minutes threads a ball to Appiah for the opening goal, the winger smashing home from 15 yards. It’s the only shot anybody has during the first half an hour. Afful gets things going again, hitting the bar on 35 minutes and Pemberton heads over as we build pressure. Inevitably, Accrington break on the stroke of half-time and put their first shot of the game in the net off a post. A quiet second half is enlivened by Appiah as we approach an hour played and his cross into the box is turned in by Keeling to give us the lead once more. Accrington are stubborn though and almost equalise but for some desperate defending. It takes a jinking run from Kieran Ross to help settle the nerves, his final ball finding Keeling who turns in again from close range. Keeling gets to complete his hat-trick from the spot in the 90th minute, a goal that also serves as his 150th for the club as well as sealing a 4-1 win. Walsall lose again at Swansea to give us a nine point cushion above the play-off contenders. There are ten games to play and promotion is looking very real now.

The big match next. At home to our nearest rivals, Luton Town, just a point back and our main challengers for, dare we say it, the title. There’s just one change, Jamie Pearson returning from injury to man the left-back spot. Boateng starts well, intent on take the game by the scruff of the neck and it isn’t long before he sets up Afful for a shot that grazes the top of the bar. It’s a warning shot but Luton don’t appear phased by it. Dale East flashes a free-kick past the post before the half is out but it stays goalless. Tired legs mean a fairly rapid-fire triple substitution – Hall, Wells and Hind come on and the former two almost conjure a winner. A superb run by Hall driving forward and finding space for Wells to run into but the Luton keeper is equal to it and the last meaningful chance has gone. 0-0 is the final score. We remain unbeaten in 14 but our eight game winning streak comes to an end.

Despite the end of an 8 game winning streak, we’re still in control – Walsall in a tailspin helps!

A reshuffle in defence is required for the trip to bottom of the table Rochdale, Pearson suspended and Pemberton carrying a knock. Naismith and Tyrrell come back into the side as we look to avenge the embarrassment inflicted on us by Dale earlier in the season. Connor Hall gets a start ahead of East for this one, too. We’re kept quiet by Rochdale again and Sani is the first keeper tested although it takes 35 minutes for that to happen. He’s equal to it and we go in at half-time level but not playing well at all. Harsh words are exchanged during the interval and it seems to do the trick, Hall setting up Appiah who’s shot goes in off Keeling (who naturally claims the goal). Five minutes later, Keeling whips in a free-kick and Afful leaps highest to head home a second. That looks like being enough but Rochdale fashion a 91st minute consolation and threaten to come back but it’s too little, too late and we hang on for a vital win. Luton are held by Southend, 0-0, a day later to give us a three point cushion at the top of the table. Walsall remain nine points back.

A trip to 5th-placed MK Dons is one of our most difficult matches remaining and there’s more re-organisation required. Ross has collected enough yellow cards to enjoy a day off so Tyrrell shuffles across to right-back as Pemberton returns. No Pearson though, he’s still got one more game to sit out. Chances at both ends in the opening exchanges but no-one really threatens until the Dons work a nice free-kick move to create the space for the opening goal. Keeling stings the keepers hands (after comedically heading a long ball on to himself) but we remain behind as the half-time whistle blows. Straight out of the blocks after the break though – Appiah curling in a cross that Hall heads in at the far post. It’s close from then on and then the absolute softest penalty ever is awarded against Appiah – he literally taps the ball away from the striker who stays on his feet – and we fall to our first defeat in 15 games. Luton are back level with us, Walsall can only claw one point back but they’re a little nearer.

The new youth intake arrive on the 17th March and it looks alright but nobody says the word ‘golden’. We’ve had a good run, and we’re at a level where I guess it’s hard to keep improving, each intake being measured against an increasingly strong squad, but I am a little disappointed. We’ll be taking a look at Marvin Jacobs contract at the end of the season in the HOYD role. There’s one very bright spot – striker Wayne Knight. A flair player with excellent dribbling skills and first touch, he may leapfrog the already long list of developmental strikers in the squad and push for a first-team squad place. There are a few players looking at striker roles in this intake but the others may have to reconsider given Wright’s attributes. Second ranked prospect Ian Jones falls into that category and may prove to be a better right-winger than striker. It goes downhill quickly after that with one or two exceptions a little further down. Third-ranked prospect Simon Baptiste – an AMC who can play on either wing as well – is unambitious in nature and has no idea where to stand on the pitch by all accounts (Positioning = 1) so I’m not pinning any hopes on him and the best thing about number four on the list is his name: Wayne Rockett. He’s a decent looking central midfielder and his name means he’ll get more of a chance than most. We’ve spread the search further and wider than ever before, with our first South Korean and first Malaysian, and while left-winger Kim In-Woo will likely get a chance, left-back Muhd Haikal Zamri probably won’t, lying 15th on the list. The other player to watch from this group is 8th on the list and primarily a right-back (he can also play on the left) – Godfred Yamoah. He’s a determined guy with a superb team ethic and work rate that might see him quickly offer at least a supporting role at full-back, even if he might not be a regular starter at any point in the future. Defenders are thin on the ground again in this intake with Yamoah likely only to be joined by one other, centre-back Tom James. Despite the apparent lack of star quality beyond Knight, the aftershow analytics reveals an intake that scores highly – overall the highest yet – with a particularly high mental strength. We sign 10, the top nine prospects and goalkeeper Liam Thompson – simply because this would be two years in a row when we don’t sign one and we’ll need a representative for the u18s.

The New Kids On The Block

For the first time ever we get asked if we want to postpone a game due to international call ups. I say yes because four first-teamers are called-up: Sani, Tancock, Afful and Pemberton. That’s a big chunk of our starting XI and also means Sani is potentially in line for an international debut! In total, 15 players are due out on their travels, with East, McDonnell, Lundstram, Naismith, Minambres, Wright, Tyrrell, Griffiths, Harden and Donnelly all selected at various levels from u19s to u23s and Stefanos Panagi called up to the full Cyprus squad.

The coaches finally offer up Chris Wright to the first team. He’s sat in the u18s all season and done well but while others have been promoted to the u23s, Wright has just been left with the younger group. His time has come though, and he leapfrogs the u23s and might come straight into the matchday squad next time out ahead of Adam Wells. Ronald Julien wins the same promotion days later.

While we’re kicking our heels during international weekend our nearest rivals were still in action. And it went very well. We’re now in a stronger position despite not playing as Luton lost at home to Fylde and Walsall lost at home to Coventry.

April 2042

A home game against Northampton to kick off April. Andy Brooks pulls a groin in training and will miss out, as will Stan Hind, a sports hernia keeping him out. More good news in the league without playing: Luton take to the pitch a day earlier than the rest of us and are beating by play-off chasing Swansea, 1-0. We’re still level on points with them but now have two games in hand. Wright and Julien both make the bench, Naismith starts at DC in place of brooks because Tyrrell is covering Ross at right-back and Pearson is back at left-back. We’re ahead in just under 10 minutes, Boateng threading through to find the run of Keeling who finishes as he closes in on goal. Northampton are level within another 10 minutes though, finding space behind Pearson to get in a cross that is finished too easily from close range. They almost take the lead moments later, a superb tackle by Pearson that you’d normally expect to be given as a penalty before a Sani save and multiple blocks finally steer the ball away. The relief doesn’t last long, and we’re soon under pressure again and Northampton finally break through our defensive lines to take the lead. It’s 1-3 before half-time and we’re being overrun. I’m shouting and bawling from the touchline and it seems to have an effect, straight from the kick-off Afful plays in Appiah and the winger tucks it away for 2-3. I give what I think is a rousing speech at half-time and send them out early to get on with it. East comes on after an hour to see if we can change the game. Boateng then finds Keeling who fluffs his shot and it bounces towards the keeper, hits him and bounces back onto Jim’s shins and in. It’s scrappy, but we’re level. Then, with 15 minutes to go, a Keeling corner looks like it’s been cleared but Afful picks it up and we pass it around the edge of the box until an Afful shot deflects into the path of East and the substitute makes no mistake. We’ve turned around a two goal deficit to lead 4-3. Northampton aren’t done and pile on the pressure but Tancock breaks up the play and then East finds Appiah on the right hand edge of the box and Abdulai smashes it home without a second thought. 5-3! The stuff of champions? Appiah is rightly named Player of the Match – one thing I’ve noticed about him as well is his ability to win the ball back – he’s 6’3″ and regularly bullies full-backs off the ball to break up play and start attacking moves. It’s a good trait and he’s rapidly becoming one of my favourite players.

The Stuff Of Champions? A 1-3 Deficit Turns into a 5-3 Win.

Walsall have lost again! They’ve lost six of their last nine (starting with those back-ot-back defeats to Luton and us). They’ve actually fallen behind Wrexham now and our gap to the play-offs is 11 points with Wrexham only having 18 left available to them to win. Promotion is almost within reach.

It’s Easter weekend so we’re back in action again on Monday, at home to struggling Peterborough United. Still no Brooks, but Ross is back which allows Tyrrell to move into the centre to replace a fatigued Pemberton. Hollis is in for Afful for the same reason and Julien and Wright remain on the bench despite not featuring last time out. Appiah hits the post early on and wins the header that sets up Ross to cross for the opening goal – an own goal after a Peterborough clearance hits their own man and goes in. Tancock finds Keeling running into space on 17 minutes and Jim whips it across the goal and into the far corner for 2-0. Julien and Wright get on before the hour mark and the midfielder almost creates something straight away for Appiah, who’s shot is well saved. Sani has to make a save of his own shortly after, getting down low to tip a fearsome shot wide of the post. We tire as the second half wears on and it’s no surprise that there’s no further action. A comfortable win but nothing to write home about. Your update on our rivals? Luton held at Oldham, 1-1 to put us five points clear with a game in hand, Wrexham held goalless by Southend, Walsall beaten again 4-1 at Carlisle. That puts us one win away from sealing promotion to the Championship. Three wins from our last five games will also seal the title!

The run-in isn’t the easiest though. It starts away to Southend, still trying to get into the play-offs, and a team we lost to earlier in the season. Luton win on Friday night to put a little extra pressure on. Brooks is back, though not 100% fit, and Pemberton and Afful return after their rest. We have the ball in the net after just 41 seconds – a scruffy opening in which both sides lose possession until Connor Hall takes charge, plays in Appiah who finds Keeling with his first touch. Jim does the rest, just about staying onside in the process. Sani keeps us in the lead as Southend threaten, and his development since Owens departed has been one of the successes of the season. Appiah heads home a Keeling free-kick – whipped in from the angle on the right – on 21 minutes to give us a two goal cushion that lasts all of three minutes. Southend break and the finish is unstoppable. Horoba – who we’d been warned about by both the press and ex-players prior to the game – breaks free but shoots wide and we will definitely have to be at our best to maintain this lead going into the second half. Sani performs heroics again in the 50th minute, another wonderful save down low. It’s all Southend and it’s no surprise when they draw level in the 67th minute. I’d settle for a draw right now. There are chances at both ends as time ticks down and Horoba heads wide with five minutes remaining but we hold on. It’s a valuable point. And it’s made more valuable as Wrexham lose at Plymouth – we’ve clinched promotion. WE ARE GOING TO THE CHAMPIONSHIP. The momentum we’ve gathered since getting out of National League North after 13 long seasons is quite something: four years to get out of the National League, two seasons in League Two and now, just two attempts to lift ourselves from League One. Excitedly (but also, a bit nervously) awaiting some big games next season!

There’s still a title to battle for but the Board are already preparing: a wage budget of £74k (we currently spend only half that), a meaningless transfer budget of £13m, an additional 4 first team coaches, an additional Performance Analyst and Recruitment Analyst and two additional scouts plus 4 additional u23 coaches and 4 u18 coaches. No u23s Sports Scientist though for some reason (incumbent Ady Sullivan has another year on his contract, so he’s safe for now unless the Board intervene).

Mansfield away and Jamie Pearson twists an ankle in training and looks done for the season. Naismith comes in and that’s the only change. This is our game in hand on Luton, so victory here will keep them at a good arm’s length of six points. It takes a while for us to settle into a rhythm but eventually we take the lead, a Ross throw-in nodded on by Afful and over everyone in the six-yard box before Hall collects it with his back to goal, spins and strikes it home. That’s it for the first half and Mansfield threaten early on in the second but Afful settles the nerves with a lovely 25-yard free-kick curled into the bottom corner. We rest some legs and bring on Julien, Wright and Barrett for the final 20 minutes. It garners us another goal in injury time, Afful feeding Wright, who touches it on to the maruading Barrett to slot in for 3-0. There’s still time for Mansfield to get a consolation (probably deserved but unlucky on Sani as he’d played well enough to warrant a clean sheet) but we’ve picked up another three points. Given our goal difference is better than Luton’s by 14 we are probably just one more win from the title.

One Win From The Title?

Jose turns up and thinks we should offer Dara Keating (S21-12) a youth contract as he’s showing signs of promise. Whatever Jose thinks, I guess. Keating is a full-back and we need as many throws of the dice as possible there right now.

A brief three day gap before a trip to 5th-placed Wrexham – our toughest match of the run-in. Afful and Pemberton are suffering the effects of lots of games and Tyrrell and Dale East come in to the side (Hall switching to AMC). East heads in early on after good work by Tancock but he’s offside when Appiah’s cross comes in and it’s ruled out. It’s the only notable event of a tense first-half. The second is much the same, Wright comes on and almost gets his first goal but is denied by the keeper, East hits the post but finally the breakthrough comes -88 minutes in and East lays it back to Sam Hollis – on for Hall – and he smashes it home from 12 yards out. I’m pretty sure Wrexham set their stall out for a draw but we’ve spoilt their party and picked up a valuable and much-deserved three points. We are all but certain of the title now.

24 hours later, we’re more than certain! Luton fall to a 1-0 defeat at Preston and we are the League One Champions! It’s our first ever title, having been promoted via the play-offs on the other occasions we’ve gone up. It’s taken 21 years. Amazing.

CHAMPIONS OF LEAGUE ONE!

Pemberton and Afful return for the trip to Swansea and it takes just two minutes for the Ghanaian to strike, scoring with 20 yard drive that the keeper got to but couldn’t stop. Brooks and Pemberton defend superbly to protect the lead as Swansea bounce back, still looking to make the play-offs. Boateng times a tackle in the box beautifully but the Swans still manage to level a minute later. There’s been more action in the first eight minutes of this game than in the last two put together. Swansea 2-1 up after 16 minutes – a long ball over the top catching us out and there’s work to do (albeit no pressure!). We are falling apart though – corner does for us and Swansea striker Woolley has a hat-trick. I put Brooks on him man-to-man but it’s probably a bit late for that! He has another just after half an hour! 1-4. There’s a title hangover going on here. I shout from the sidelines – not for the first time – and Afful and Hall pick up the pace, exchanging passes and feeding Tancock, who fires in our second of the game. Hall then capitalises on a mistake in the Swansea defence to pull it back to 3-4. An end-to-end first half! Hall picks up an injury and is replaced by East who smashes a 30-yard free-kick in three minutes later to tie the game. East’s fresh legs are everywhere – he wins the ball back in midfield to start another attack that ends with Boateng finding the winger inside the box and finishing with aplomb. We lead, 5-4!!! Keeling has the chance to add to the score when the Swansea defence miss a routine header, but he blazes wide when clean through. Afful has a shot well-saved from a similar position but we won’t be denied and Keeling scores from the resultant McAllister corner. 6-4. It’s a fitting finish to the game for Jim and moments later he’s lifting the League One trophy above his head. We move to 99 points and 99 goals with one game to go.

A Sensational Comeback For The Champions: 1-4 down to 6-4 up!
Jim Lifts The League One Trophy!

Connor Hall and Samuel Sani are first in line for the new contracts and Hall’s request breaks the current pay structure into bits. I’m happy to pay it though, he’ll be a valuable asset in the Championship, even on £4.5k a week. The key bit of the contract negotiations was getting the requested £2m release clause up to a more useful £10m (though if we get relegated it reverts to £2m).

May 2042

Only mid-table Rotherham stand between us and 100 points/100 goals and while there’s a party atmosphere inside Broadhurst Park, there’s no Jim Keeling on the pitch as twisted ankle fever strikes again. East is in for the injured Hall and Wright starts up front. Tomeu finds himself on the bench for sentimental reasons – one last chance to say goodbye after 11 years tremendous service. It’s odd how after 305 goals he suddenly just became surplus to requirements but that’s where we find ourselves. We start well, Appiah and Boateng coming close and then Wright having a goal disallowed for the tightest of offsides. He won’t be denied though and he has his first goal for the club after 28 minutes, a lovely first-time pass from Appiah finding just enough space behind the defence for Wright to steer home. It’s our 100th league goal of season. Another free-kick special from Afful makes it 2-0, a mirror image of the goal he scored against Mansfield. Wright swiftly has his second and our third and Rotherham haven’t had a shot in the first 45 minutes. Our free-kick prowess continues, this time East firing home from the right hand side with his left foot to make it 4-0. Tomeu comes on for Appiah down the right for the last 15 minutes – I couldn’t take Wright off while he was on a hat-trick – and Rotherham immediately get one back. Sani has to be at his best to prevent a second and we are reduced to ten men late on when Ross is injured after all three substitutions have been made. It finishes 4-1. Chris Wright is the Player of the Match. We finish the season with 103 goals, 102 points, a first ever trophy and our best ever year.

The Final Table: 102 Points, 103 Goals. Some Season.

Before the season is out the Board come and ask me if I want to raise the Youth Level of the club! I try and hide my excitement, but blurt out an ecstatic ‘yes’ before the question is even finished. Everyone’s happy and everyone’s on the same page. Category One youth setup, Championship football, here we come.

Leaping Into League One!

So here we are! League One awaits us! Big clubs await us! Sheffield Wednesday, Coventry City, Wigan Athletic, Portsmouth, Preston North End, Swansea City and many others with vast experience of this level and above. It’s no surprise that we’re 250-1 outsiders at the start of the season. The only real surprise is that the odds aren’t longer.

Long Odds!

The squad is still on the large side – I haven’t got rid of quite as many players as I thought – but there are some notable departures. Not least, veteran central midfielder and club record appearance maker, Darren Connor. At 31, he played just three times last season and, it’s fair to say, we did pretty well without him. Will we miss his professional outlook in the dressing room? Undoubtedly, but I didn’t think I could pay him just to sit in on training every day. Hopefully, he’ll pick up another club and continue his great career somewhere else. Also gone after 12 years at the club: goalkeeper Tomos Thomas, lost among a plethora of goalies at the club and again, we did pretty well without him around (he spent the season on loan at Salford). Kevin Cooper (S12-05), Scott Ward (S13-06) and Matthias Backes (S14-10) were the other, older casualties.

The End Of An Era – Darren Connor Departs

Callum Donnelly becomes our third keeper to join Salford on loan (and in successive seasons), following Kieran Sheridan and Tomos Thomas. Seven of the youngsters are out on loan in total, and more may follow. We’re even getting fees for five of them. Which reminds me: Finances! They were awful last year but the hoped for bump from going up seems to be happening. As we approach the start of the season the bank balance continues rising (£1.4m in credit as we speak) which might mean we can ask for more improvements sooner than expected. Not yet though, let’s see if the balance remains positive!

The transfer market is quiet pre-season, no troubling offers and only a couple of players attracting repeated interest from clubs they weren’t really interested in. With Darren Connor gone, Jim Keeling takes over as captain with Patrick Black remaining as vice-captain.

Youngsters impress pre-season as well – Joseph Afful is on target three times and is pressing for a place at AMC, which could cause serious congestion across the attack, Dale East gets on the scoresheet and Joshua Barrett keeps pace with Abdulai Appiah as they pressure Tomos Jones for his right wing spot. A new pecking order may well emerge as the season develops.

Debut in League One

Exeter City visit for the first League One fixture at Broadhurst Park. There’s no Boateng – still suspended from the end of last season – and Owens wins the keeper battle despite some less-than-convincing performances. It’s a close game but Exeter prove more clinical in the first half and take a 1-0 lead. We bounce out of the blocks in the second half and, after good work down the right, Connor Hall lamps home the equaliser.

Tomeu and Keeling come close to putting us ahead before the former lifts a free-kick into the box and Andy Brooks heads home. Ugwu and Jones then combine nicely for the latter to slot home late on to set the seal on a dominant second-half performance. 3-1, three points and an excellent start!

Rotherham United away next and we’re looking good again in the first half, dominating possession and eventually capping it with a goal after half an hour – a Tomeu free-kick that flies into the top corner. Rotherham have obviously had a talking-to at half-time and grab a well-worked equaliser after 54 minutes. Boateng has been quiet on his return to the line-up but, seconds after giving the ball away dangerously he has it back, plays a wonderful one-two with Hall and then releases Tomeu through the middle. The Spaniard does what he does best and finishes into the bottom corner with his left foot. He almost has a hat-trick, denied by the narrowest of offsides, before Andy Brooks swings in a free-kick and Thomas Ugwu heads home. By the end of the game, the young Season 19 trio of Appiah, Afful and East are on the pitch and when East floats a long ball into Appiah’s path late on, the right-winger’s subsequent cross finds the head of Tomeu and there’s the hat-trick after all. A brilliant 4-1 away win and we are rolling in League One!

Top Of The Table (after 2 games)

Carabao Cup 1st Round pits us against Championship high-flyers, Blackburn Rovers. It’s a dull game for an hour with absolutely nothing of note until one of our attacks breaks down. I fear Rovers are going to take the lead, storming down the pitch but Tancock makes a superb tackle and plays a long ball towards Adam Wells (on for an injured Tomeu). The Blackburn defence appear to have it covered but then make a complete hash of getting the ball safely back to the keeper and Wells nips in and lashes the ball home. That sparks life from Blackburn and they’re immediately level but the game then peters out again to take us to penalties. Boateng, Brooks, Liversedge, Hall and Tancock all score as we keep pace in a perfect shoot-out. Sudden death looms. Wells makes it 6-6, East 7-7 but Blackburn simply won’t stop. They go 8-7 up and Kieran Ross sends his penalty wide. It’s been a great performance but there’s nothing to show for it.

Two changes for the visit of Wrexham: Tomeu’s ankle knock from the Carabao Cup game keeps him out short term, so Wells starts. Tancock starts ahead of Ugwu who doesn’t even find a place on the bench, Fabian McAllister stepping up and getting a chance (he, Turns and Hallstensen are all eyeing MC roles now that Hall is embedded as the AMC and with Afful looking like a superior back-up). It’s a game of few clear-cut chances – we dominate possession but there’s nothing going in without Tomeu today and it finishes 0-0.

Joshua Barrett (S18-01) joins the loan exodus, heading to FC Halifax in what I hope is the right decision. He has Jones ahead of him and we have Appiah as back-up even though he’s younger than Barrett. A full season of football is probably of the most benefit to the season 18 prospect.

August has been fairly quiet on the full transfer front. Only Tom Boateng is attracting repeated attention, repeatedly from Leyton Orient who he is repeatedly not interested in. They mix up the value of the bids, sometimes higher, sometimes lower. They seem a bit desperate.

Tomeu’s back for the trip to league leaders Walsall – we’re second, so it’s a top of the table clash! The first half whizzes by, a Boateng header off the bar and a flurry of yellow cards is all we have to show for it. Walsall take the lead on the hour mark, despite brave keeping from Owens and a clearance off the line from Brooks. Hall is immediately played in down the other end by Ross but his shot hits the post. It’s as close as we’ll come and we succumb to our first league defeat of the season.

Forest come in on deadline day for Ben Tancock and he’s interested but the bid is low enough for me to dismiss it without any comeback and we escape to September in one piece.

We take an early lead in the next match (home to Notts County) – patient work down the right before a Ross cross finds Keeling, who heads home. It’s a relief after two league games without a goal. County put us under a lot of pressure in the second half, but a break from their corner sees Jones finish nicely after being put through by Keeling. 2-0 and looking comfortable. It’s a great all-round performance.

The ‘b’ team take the pitch for the opening PJT tie against Mansfield – a good opportunity for a number of players to stake a better claim for a first team place. Obviously, Mansfield take the lead. Sani in no-man’s land on his return to the side (he’s been designated a cup goalkeeper after coming to complain about not starting this season, and went away happy with his new role, so that’s a bullet dodged). He atones with a good one on one save at the end of the first half to keep the tie alive. He does it again as the second half opens but then can’t keep out a near post header that perhaps should have been saved. His rating is still above seven so he must be doing more right than wrong. Wells strikes to bring us back in it but we can’t find an equaliser. Sani, Tyrrell, Hind and Wells come out with credit. Pearson, Hughes, Sinclair, Prosser, East and Matthews see their stock dented to greater or lesser degrees.

Yeovil away. Owens is on international duty with England u20s so Sani is back in goal for the first time this season. We look solid but wait for a breakthrough – the best chances fall to Boateng and Tancock, but both are off-target with their efforts. It finally comes at the opening of the second half, Tancock knitting together the play before Liversedge crosses and Jim hits it home. He’s settling into his captain’s role after a shaky start. We appear to be cruising but Ross fails to cut out a cross-field pass and Sani is beaten as the clock ticks over 90 minutes. It’s only Yeovil’s second shot of the game but they steal a point.

The lads are ‘inspired and motivated’ by the pre-match team talk ahead of Burton’s visit to Broadhurst Park. So inspired and motivated that they allow Hillier to score the stupidest, softest goal you’ll see in ages. A breakaway that looks to be over when Liversedge cuts across the path of the Burton winger, somehow ends up with the clearance ricocheting off the attacker and trickling past an already committed Owens. Hall produces a moment of beauty to create an equaliser for Tomeu, chipping the ball into the Spaniard’s path from a tight angle, over the onrushing Burton keeper for an easy tap in. Burton aren’t going down easily though, belying their poor early season form to cause us constant trouble. There’s no breakthrough on either side in the end and it finishes 1-1. We slip to 6th but still just inside the play-offs and we have to be happy with our start to life in League One.

Another loan – Brad Matthews is off to Barnet – a step up to the Vanarama National after a decent spell in the VNN last year with Grimsby. The competition at AMR is fierce and he needs to show up at that level if he’s to stay on the books.

An away game at Fylde sees us field an unchanged side against a team predicted to struggle alongside us this season. Just like us, Fylde are making a good attempt at proving those pre-season predictions wrong. Tomos Jones gets us up and running, hitting a low drive into the far corner on 17 minutes but its a tight contest. Crucially, we appear to be winning the 50-50 battles though we do need a fingertip save from Owens to stay ahead. Tomeu fluffs his lines when one on one with the keeper but we eventually seal the three points, Tancock breaking through the defensive line, after constantly prodding at the defence in the build-up, and slotting home. Owens still has some work to do to keep Fylde at bay but when East releases Jones down the right, the experienced winger slots home his second of the game and we are comfortable 3-0 winners.

The Board love what’s happening right now and call me in for a chat to say just that. Also, would I like a new three-year contract? Well, yes. Yes I would.

I’d also like a win at Rochdale, but losing Jim Keeling to injury in the opening minutes isn’t going to help. The team have other ideas though and put Dale under the cosh. The breakthrough takes just 18 minutes, the unlikely scorer is Kieran Ross, driving home from the edge of the box. At half-time, I’m happy and tell the boys to carry on the way they’re playing. 20 seconds later the ball is in the back of our net. There are chances at both ends, Tomeu comes close, Jones hits the post before Ross makes amends for being the hero by selling Tyrrell short with a pass – Rochdale break and slot home a winner. We’ve had 18 shots – 10 on target – and the xG is 2.41 but we’ve contrived to lose. Just one of those days.

Big news on the International front – for the first time one of our Academy graduates has been called up to their senior squad! Fabian McAllister has been impressive for Jamaica at u23 level and they’ve seen fit to call him up for the forthcoming games against the US and Cameroon. Watch this space for an international Academy debut!

Swindon swarm all over us in the opening half of the next game, treating Broadhurst Park like its their own training ground. There’s acres of space down our right-hand side, repeatedly, and it’s inevitable that they put at least one of their chances away. Fortunately, it is just one and we can get the lads in at half-time and give them what for. Does it work? Three minutes later Black has conceded a (dubious!) penalty and injured himself in the process! Owens comes to the rescue, diving right to save well. Is that the spark we need? We pile forward, getting closer and finally Liversedge plays the ball that unlocks the Robins’ defence and Tomeu slides it home. The left-back almost wins it as well – crashing a shot against the bar in the final minute of injury time – but I’m happy with a draw.

Back to the PJT and Norwich u23s get to face our ‘b’ team this time. They score early against us and I fear the worst. We settle down after about 25 minutes but then Norwich up the tempo again and we’re 2-0 down. A goal just before half-time brings hope. Hallstensen’s shot is blocked but falls to Appiah who calmly places it to the keeper’s right and into the bottom corner. We’re better in the second half but can’t find the equaliser and it looks like we aren’t going to repeat our glorious run to the final last year. Outside of the two players involved in the goal, only East and Afful played well. Tyrrell wasn’t bad and Olaolu Sorensen came on as a late sub and had a reasonable debut. The rest won’t want to remember this game.

McAllister makes his debut against the United States, playing 74 minutes. He doesn’t have the best of games but it’s great experience for him.

A trip to second-placed Swansea is a little hampered by international call-ups. No Owens for starters so Sani continues after his PJT appearance. Appiah and Afful are on u20s duty with Ghana so there’s room on the bench for Ashley Turns after a patient wait in the wings while the youngsters got their chance. Daryl Sinclair has another chance and Zaine Gabriel is the most experienced keeper left at 18, so he’s today’s back-up. Thomas Ugwu also returns to the starting line-up after a minor injury to Ben Tancock – he’s made just two league appearances so far this season as Tancock got the nod and Stan Hind backed him up but it feels like time to utilise his experience as well as give him chance to play his way back into contention.

Swansea quickly carve us open and take a 4th minute lead. They look like the best team we’ve faced so far but we battle away and create chances without looking genuinely threatening in front of goal. We look exposed at the back by Swansea’s attacking pace and have the post to thank on two separate occasions for keeping the score down to 0-1. I fire the boys up at half-time and they sit up and take notice. Tomeu has a shot deflected but it falls to Keeling at the edge of the box and he rifles it home. 1-1. Ugwu plays a slide-rule pass to Jones immediately after but the Welshman hits it straight at the keeper. Hall fires over not long after and we seem to have them on the ropes. A tactical switch sees Keeling move up front after Tomeu disappoints again (the coaching staff suggest Jim starts up front every week now) and Hall moves out to the left wing where he’s arguably more of a force (the AMC thing is going ok but not as well as I’d hoped). Jim’s in the right place at the right time as the ball pings around the penalty area, rebounds off Sinclair (on for Jones) and into the path of Keeling’s shins, which stay where they should and bounce the ball into the goal from two yards. We’ve scored a scruffy goal but the win is deserved after that second-half performance. Having won only once in the last five league games, it feels like a vital win, too.

The win comes at a cost though, both Liversedge and Black picking up their fifth yellow cards to earn one match bans. Liversedge is a blow because he’s fast becoming one of the best players at the club.

Frank Liversedge – A Fantastic Left-Back (Yes, You Read That Right)

The u18s are having a better season (they struggled last year) and there are a few players on the rise and suggesting they could make it – Lundstram is solid in goal, DC Tim Pemberton looks excellent week-in, week-out and Carl Vaughan is regularly on the scoresheet. Plenty of promise.

Tim Pemberton – Another Season 19 Graduate With An Eye On The First Team

Macauley Hughes and Jamie Pearson come in for the visit of Carlisle, both making their first league starts of the season in place of the suspended defenders. We put Jim up front as well, hopefully allowing Hall to flourish on the left and allowing Afful to start. Hallstensen is on the bench, ready to pounce on the AMC spot should he be required. Despite a good outing from Sani last time, Owens returns in goal and is now the clear number one. Bottom club Carlisle set about trying to embarrass us, taking an early lead (becoming a theme, this) and again we miss a hatful of chances trying to get back on level terms. When Keeling hits the post on 50 minutes I begin to think it isn’t going to be our day. Hall has been anonymous down the left and Ugwu equally so in central midfield. East and Hind are on as we look for a spark from the youngsters. Appiah joins the fray as well but nothing’s doing. Our good work at Swansea a week ago is all undone here. It’s not good enough and I make sure the players know it.

One of the big guns next – Sheffield Wednesday arrive at Broadhurst Park for a midweek fixture. Black and Liversedge are straight back into the starting lineup and Tancock’s back from injury to replace Ugwu. Keeling continues up front as we continue the Tomeu-less experiment (it’s an annual occurrence, it seems). It’s Keeling whose causing the Owls the most problems and he gets behind the defence before playing the ball back to Jones who’s left with an easy finish and puts us one up. It stays like that, Wednesday hitting a post on the stroke of half-time, until good work down the left sees Tancock swing a cross in and Keeling head home. 78 minutes gone, 2-0 up and looking good we hold on comfortably for the win. It puts us above Wednesday and just outside the play-offs again on 22 points. 13 games in and we’ve done enough to convince we can compete at this level.

We head to Northampton four days later with an unchanged lineup. They cause us problems but Keeling picks them off to give us the lead and Owens makes a tremendous point-blank save to keep us ahead. He can do nothing in the 33rd minute though, left exposed by a run and pass that caught the defence flat-footed. It’s a close game after that until the 72nd minute when Kieran Ross collects a second yellow card and off he goes. Northampton capitalise almost instantly, add a third soon after and finish us off in injury time with an unwarranted fourth. A very harsh scoreline. Hats off to Jamal Owens though, who had a stormer despite conceding four.

We stay on the road with Peterborough up next. Hughes is in at right back and McAllister starts as the playmaker in midfield after Tancock clocked up a fifth yellow. Ashley Turns gets the nod at AMC, Afful given a rest as we try and protect the youngsters a bit. Hall continues down the left but we’re keeping an eye on it because he really hasn’t thrived there since the switch around. Peterborough’s Engert breaks from his own half early on – the kind of attack that ends up with a wild shot generally – but despite the three defenders in front of him doing the right thing, forcing him wide and to shoot early, he somehow lamps it right across goal into the far corner – 0-1. Just after the half-hour they’re two up, another counter attack after Turns had come close to equalising and we need Owens at his best to prevent it getting quickly worse. It’s our worst half of football this season and they lads get the thrashing arms treatment. It has a mild effect. Hughes is replaced by Tyrrell at right back in the hope of solidifying the weakest element of the defence through the first 45 minutes. There’s nothing working for us though and another break on 79 minutes puts the final nail in the coffin. Only Andy Brooks can hold his head up today and say he played to his best.

The task doesn’t get any easier – another short gap between games and another tough away tie, this time at second-placed Coventry. Ross, Afful and Tancock all return to the starting eleven. And we’re facing one of our own – Lee Evans on loan from Premier League Stoke! Keeling takes advantage of a known entity and slips in behind the defence to finish a Hall pass neatly from close range. I’ve asked Hall to play as an inside forward today, rather than a winger, in the hope it might suit his skill set better. It feels like a better fit already. Coventry hit a stunning leveller against the run of play – the usually reliable Brooks mistiming his header on the through ball and ruining what had been an excellent first half performance. We’re struggling down the right and Jones and Ross are swiftly replaced by Appiah and Tyrrell. It doesn’t stop Black flying in and conceding a penalty. Owens is equal to it though, tipping it to his left – this boy is in some form right now – but he can do nothing about what follows 10 minutes later, Brooks unlucky to lose out at the byline and the ball pulled back to an unmarked sky blue shirt who smashes home from 10 yards. We are beaten again, narrowly, and starting to slide a little. We played well for large chunks of the game but it just didn’t fall our way today.

Macauley Hughes comes to see me about his lack of game time. I decide it’s time for honesty and tell him I only see him as a squad player these days. He’s furious, to the point where assistant manager, Nathan Baker, is visibly distressed. I might have played this one wrong! Hughes leaves the room dejected, head cast towards the floor.

A team meeting is in order, both to stop any potential escalation from the Hughes situation but also to address the dip in results. I tell them they’re better than their recent results and it goes down well, prompting Tomeu to pipe up and tell the lads they all, himself included, need to buck up their ideas. Everyone is happy, thrilled even in some cases. Fist pumping ensues.

A home game at long last, Southend the Tuesday night visitors. We keep the same starting eleven, show them some confidence. Two and a half minutes in and it pays off, Afful threading a pass to Keeling who slots home from a tight angle. Southend bounce back though and it takes another great save from Owens to protect our lead. Afful and Keeling combine well again and only a good save prevents a repeat of the opening minutes. The young AMC is having his best game for the club. Southend hit the post early in the second half and the game is end to end. We need a second and it eventually comes, Jones battling his way down the right and finding Hall in the middle who finishes tidily. There are some very heavy legs as the game winds down but we’ve done enough to see it out and can be very satisfied with our day’s work. The lads have responded well and we’ve put an end to our bad run.

More talk about Macauley Hughes. His contract is up at the end of the season and Jose reckons we should transfer list him rather than risk losing him for nothing at the end of the season. I’m not sure we’d get much (he’s valued at £31k right now) and don’t want to risk alienating him further. While he hasn’t shown much in the way of form this season, he’s been very reliable in the past and could still emerge as a valuable player given a good run of games. An injury to Black or Brooks is all it takes, though Matthew Tyrrell is perhaps edging ahead in that back-up role.

The talk switches to right wing – Tomos Jones pulls an abdominal muscle and is out for a month. That’s going to open the door for somebody, with Abdulai Appiah the most likely beneficiary. It’s a good test of how close to a first team spot the youngster is.

More injury news as Kieran Ross is ruled out of the FA Cup 1st Round tie at home to Gillingham with sprained wrist ligaments. He could play, technically, but I’ve sent him to the physio because he’s got another suspension coming up in the league and he’s a bit out of form so the rest might do him good. Also, because it’s a cup game and I promised, Samuel Sani gets the nod in goal though I found it hard not to select Owens, especially now the staff are talking about potential Premier League ability.

The doubts about that decision increase as Sani somehow lets one in through the narrowest of gaps at his near post inside the opening ten minutes. Our shooting is wayward, just two of eight shots on target in the first half and things go from bad to worse when a dangerous tackle from Ben Tancock is rewarded with a straight red card. I need a mighty good team talk at half-time to turn this one around. It doesn’t happen. We’re not overrun and give a good account of ourselves but a second for the Gills on 77 minutes finishes us off. There’s nice late surprise as Daryl Sinclair – on as a sub – grabs his first ever goal and it’s nice to see the assist for Dion Prosser, Ross’s replacement for the day, as well. It’s just about all the positivity we can take from the game though. We’re out of the cup at the first hurdle.

It’s a dead rubber PJT tie with Preston up next and a chance to rest the first team and give the youngsters an outing. It doesn’t start well – two down after five minutes, one a penalty – but then we hold our own after that. Two debutants appear from the bench, Cameron Naismith on at right-back (he can play right across the defence) and Carl Vaughan up front. Vaughan, excelling with the u18s, grabs a debut goal late on, turning sharply with his back to goal ten yards out and finishing confidently. It makes the day worthwhile. Appiah and Afful looked good, too. Best player on the pitch, though? Macauley Hughes, making a point!

I intend to return to full-strength for the visit of Wigan but Jamal Owens bruises a knee in training and will miss the game. Sani is in. Prosser keeps his place with Ross still out and Appiah and Afful need a rest after starting back to back games four days apart. That makes space for Tomeu back in the starting lineup on the right wing and Ulrik Hallstensen gets a rare start at AMC.

Keeling and Hall both come close to an opener early on and the former, put through in an identical position to his earlier miss, makes no mistake at the second time of asking, chipping the onrushing keeper and avoiding the post this time. Tomeu gets on the scoresheet from his unaccustomed right-wing role – he’s still got that predatory instinct in the box – and when Andy Brooks rifles in a free-kick from the left of the penalty area, the half-time score of 3-0 doesn’t flatter us one bit. Keeling gets right back out there and makes it four, Tancock with the nicely weighted pass to set him up, and Jim completes his hat-trick before an hour is up – it’s also his 100th goal for the club. Just the third player to reach that milestone. And it’s not over yet. Tomeu doubles his tally to make it 6-0 and our most complete display of the season.

A spate of injuries befall us ahead of the trip to MK Dons. Patrick Black has a bruised ankle but could still play but worse is to follow – Tom Boateng ruled out for 5-7 weeks with a double hernia. He’d been excellent against Wigan, returning to his best after what has been a low-key campaign for him so far, and while he hasn’t been great this season, there isn’t a better option. This may well expose how thin we are in central midfield – Ugwu seems to have peaked, Tancock still needs games, as does Hind. After that, you’re looking at Turns, Hallstensen and McAllister stepping in. Turns as a possibility is immediately ruled out as he goes down as well – a concussion that will keep him sidelined for 2-3 weeks.

McAllister gets the box-to-box midfielder job, Ross is back at right back and we attempt the rehabilitation of our relationship with Macauley Hughes, starting him while Black recovers. Tomeu continues on the right wing. The game starts with us under the cosh and it’s no surprise when MK take the lead, albeit a scruffy one. We’re soon back in it though, the goal bringing the team out of their shells and resulting in Hall putting the ball in the net from 12 yards out. From there, it’s a series of misses, Keeling unlucky to not put us in front and then unlucky to pick up a knock and making way for Wells. Afful and Ugwu make second half appearances, too, but no-one can make the breakthrough and it finishes 1-1.

Drifting Out A Bit After The Draw At MK Dons

Tuesday night football means Portsmouth arrive at Broadhurst Park and a couple of players in need of a rest. Pearson is in at left-back for Liversedge and Jones returns in place of Tomeu. Hughes, after a great performance in the last game, gets to keep his place. Pompey make the early running but on 20 minutes a Keeling corner meets the head of Tancock who powers home. Pompey continue to pile on the pressure and we’re struggling to get out of our own half at times but then McAllister squeezes a pass through to Hall and his shot clips the post and goes in. 2-0 at half-time. Hall’s at it again seven minutes into the second half, played in by Keeling wide left and rifling home at the near post. Hughes heads one off the line but the clean sheet goes with six minutes left, tiredness creeping in. And then tiredness comes boldly through the front door and all that stands between us and throwing the game away is Jamal Owens. Fortunately, he fast turning into the division’s best keeper and Portsmouth are held at bay, securing us a 3-1 win against promotion candidates.

Jim’s switch to striker nets him the League One Player of the Month award for November – five goals, two assists and a new lease of life (as well as out-training the rest of the squad as well).

I fend off a request from the press about transfer speculation – Premier League Brentford are sniffing around Jamal Owens, which is a worry. I brazenly say he’s not for sale and keep my fingers crossed it puts them off.

Black is back for the visit of Oxford United, Hughes retains his place thanks to Andy Brooks’ fifth yellow of the season ruling him out. Liversedge returns and Afful replaces a not-fully-fit Hallstensen. We get off to a flyer, Tancock surging down the left, Hall nodding on, Keeling smashing home. The first half fizzles out after that though until right at the very end some fancy footwork from Kieran Ross buys some space in the box. Hall scuffs his shot from the pass across the penalty area, but Keeling is there again to power home from close range. It finishes 2-0, another solid performance that puts us into 6th place, at least until the Wednesday games have been played. Has 10 points from the last 12 available turned us into genuine play-off contenders? We’re 21 games into the season now, so it’s not a bad time to make an assessment but let’s not talk about the Championship just yet! Might scare a few players, that.

A note here about Fabian McAllister, yet to shine in roles at AMC or as a deep lying playmaker but forced into the box-to-box midfielder role with Boateng injured. He hasn’t been spectacular in his three appearances so far but he’s been very solid, putting in his most consistent set of performances for the club. I’ve been quietly impressed. Don’t tell Tom, but he might have a fight on his hands to win his place back if things continue this way.

Jim comes to see me, captain to manager, to say he thinks Thomas Ugwu’s a bit unhappy about not playing much. I invite Ugwu to a meeting and prepare my “you need to up your game” spiel, but Thomas just nervously thanks me for seeing him and says not to bother, he’s alright really. He knows.

Preston away. Hallstensen and Brooks back, Prosser in for a rested Ross. Both teams have early chances but no-one hits the target. Fabian McAllister does though. Unfortunately, the target was a Preston midfielder who gets the two-footed lunge treatment. A red card for a new BBM and that will leave us searching for a solution to that problem again. Against the run of play, and reduced to ten men, we somehow take the lead, Jones feeding off a Hall pass to fire home. Preston are level before half-time though and it’s time to fear the worst. They have a goal chalked off for offside at the start of the second half. We adopt a rare, cautious approach but gaps are appearing. Despite that, we have chances. Keeling comes close, Dale East comes off the bench and stings the keeper’s fingers, and then Jim has one disallowed (he was somewhat offside though). It finishes 1-1, a decent result with ten men but did we hang on at the end there or did Preston?

Macauley’s run of games have cheered him up! He’s content to remain with the Red Rebels! Yay! However, this run of form has had some negative side effects. More interest in Owens (Birmingham) and now reports that Bradford want Jim! Not sure they’ll have a chance, given that we are now the club in the higher tier!

Youth Intake Preview Day! The second best day of the year! There are only four green lines but line four finishes with the phrase “the potential to be a real golden generation for the club”. It’s the first time the preview has claimed that for a while (even if, on arrival, every intake has been billed that way). Highlights are: a top prospect in midfield (good, that is a major area of need) and two forwards considered to be fine prospects. All good. Roll on March!

Vague Hints Of Excellence

The u18s continue their good form, Carl Vaughan returns from injury and scores twice. He’s getting close to the first team, but it’s DC Tim Pemberton who’s getting the plaudits from u18s manager James Butler. James reckons Pemberton is ready for the first team squad (me too, James, just been waiting for you to tell me). More pressure on Macauley Hughes! Might see if we can extend his contract while he’s happy (and playing well)!

A trip to Fleetwood and there’s a juggling act going on. Patrick Black looks unhappy because he feels I’ve backed down to Hughes’ demands (just canny management, Pat!) so I put him back in the side and hope it cheers him up. Ugwu gets the nod as the BBM but otherwise it’s business as usual. Nothing happens at all for 57 minutes until Tancock scores the scruffiest goal of the season (in a season full of scruffy goals), spotting a back pass and sliding in just ahead of the keeper but hitting the post from about 5 yards. Fortunately the rebound comes straight at him and, with the keeper scrabbling back in front of him it somehow hits Tancock and trickles over the line. Glorious! Tomeu comes on for a rare recent appearance back at striker and quickly gets into the game, laying off a lovely pass with his back to goal that plays in Dale East for his first ever goal! In between the goals, Owens tips one on to the post and Ross clears off the line. It’s a great defensive performance and a solid 2-0 away win.

Add Southampton to the list of Owens’ suitors. In fact, the list is getting longer by the day – there are nine Premier League clubs tracking him now along with three Championship sides. Fortunately, he’s signed up for another two and a half years and we’ve got a handy minimum fee release clause of £6.25m! That should give us some leverage.

Keep Your Hands Off Our Keeper (Unless You Have £6.25m To Part With)

Our travels continue with a long journey to Exeter, bottom of the table as it stands, and only one change to the starting XI – Liversedge in need of a rest again, so Pearson is in. A break from an Exeter corner swiftly sees Hall play Keeling in behind their defence and Jim doesn’t let us down, slipping it wide of the keeper, low in to the corner for an early lead. Exeter’s plight deepens ten minutes later when their centre back picks up two quick yellow cards but we don’t add to the tally in the first half. Or the second half. An uneventful 1-0 win, but it’s three points all the same. We’ll take it and it extends our unbeaten run to eight games in the league as well as shooting us up to 4th in the table, at least temporarily (more games follow the next night and we slip back to 6th but it’s safe to say that we are not battling bravely against relegation at this point, sitting on 42 points after 24 games!).

Right Back In The Promotion Race

Hughes signs a three year contract extension – as a squad player, which might help when we inevitably drop him again. Now we just need to make sure our vice-captain is happy – he’s playing the best football of his career since we switched him inside from left back though in just over a month he’ll hit that worrying FM age of 30! How long can he survive beyond it?

We’re still on tour! Travelling to Wales today to take on league leaders, Wrexham. Liversedge returns – despite an excellent showing from Pearson last time out – but the rest of the lineup remains the same. The game potters along quietly until Black plays a cross-field pass that is way to short for Brooks and Wrexham counter and score. They scramble in a second on the stroke of half-time as we fail to deal with a routine corner. After brilliant defensive outings in recent games, we seemed to have forgotten the basics of the noble art all of a sudden. As if to emphasise that, an early second half corner has to be hacked off the line by Liversedge but it simply hits the out-of-position Owens and drops in. We’re getting battered. We win a penalty with 10 minutes to go – with no Boateng and Keeling off the pitch, Ugwu steps up to score but it’s a small consolation, made smaller when Tancock is sent off with the last act of the game for a two-footed lunge. Not a good outing.

Boxing Day sees Rotherham come to town, McAllister returns to the midfield and Afful starts ahead of Hallstensen. Things start badly, we lose Kieran Ross to injury inside the opening 10 minutes and are forced to reorganise the defence. Rotherham soon take advantage as we fail to clear our lines repeatedly, allowing them in to take the lead. Keeling almost grabs an equaliser but it’s well saved. That brings some sustained pressure of our own but we can’t capitalise and go in at the break a goal down. Rotherham continue to defend well under pressure but we finally break through in the 77th minute after more sustained pressure – Appiah plays in Keeling and Jim slots home. A point is only secured thanks to a superb goal-line clearance from Liversedge in the final minute of injury time. It’s been a tough point to win. Tougher because Ross is out for a month with ankle ligament damage.

Walsall visit before the year is out – they’re level on points with us so it should be a good challenge. Liversedge switches to right-back as I decide I’d rather have Pearson at left-back than any of the other options at right-back. Appiah starts and McAllister and Ugwu swap roles. Hall needs a rest, so Jim’s back on the left and Tomeu’s returns to the starting XI. The changes bring instant rewards, Appiah creating a golden opportunity for Tomeu that the Spaniard couldn’t miss. McAllister has a power-drive tipped over the bar shortly after but the rest of the half is quiet. We come close again at the start of the second half, intricate build-up play ending up with a Keeling shot saved onto the post. Will we rue the missed chances? Walsall break and equalise with their first shot on target and it takes Owens at his best to prevent a repeat attack giving them the lead. East is on for a disappointing Keeling and Appiah – the player looking most likely to create – finds him soon after with a deep cross that the young left-winger nods in from close range. 2-1. Another superb move sees an Appiah shot well-saved and the youngsters are causing the Saddlers all sorts of problems. Liversedge cuts a pass across the defence into East’s path and the substitute tucks away his second goal in 11 minutes. With four minutes to play, we put the board up for Appiah, who’s run himself into the ground. Abdulai isn’t done though and latches onto a pass from East and pokes home for a fourth and his final act of the day. It finishes 4-1 and this feels like the game where the Season 19 boys come of age. Also of note: superb defensive performances all round, especially for the new full-back situation. Liversedge as an inverted wing-back on the right may just be a masterstroke. It’ll have to take a one-game break though as Frank picked up a 5th yellow card of the season and will miss the next match.

Youngsters Coming Of Age

A third successive home game follows, this time Yeovil are the opponents, and we are forced into some changes due to the fatigue of 3 games in quick succession. Hughes is at right-back, Pemberton will make his debut alongside Tyrrell at the centre of defence and Hind comes in to midfield. Jones and Hall return with Appiah and Afful in need of rest. It’s a quiet first half hour until Owens is forced into a save that seems to spark us into life. Tyrrell knocks a free-kick into the box that’s too inviting for Tomeu and he tucks it away neatly. Tom Boateng returns to the pitch for a 20-minute cameo but we’re tiring and Yeovil look threatening on the break. Fortunately, their finishing is wasteful and we hang on for three points and a clean sheet for a very makeshift defence. A feather in the cap for the new boys, particularly Tyrrell and Pemberton.

The transfer window opens the next day and I start to bite my nails. Sure, the finances are back in the red so money would be welcome but the Jamal Owens rumours ramp up on day one. By 9am there are nine offers in my inbox – two trials (straight no) and seven firm bids ranging from £425k (rising to £1.7m) from Brighton, up to £1.8m (rising to £2.4m) from Leicester. We’re going to have to sell, it’s just a matter of for how much. I play hardball to begin with and reject all seven. Jamal’s going to be knocking on my office door in about ten minutes time.

It doesn’t even take that long. At 9:05 (!) Ashley Turns comes and tells me that he’s had a chat with Jamal and he’s not happy (that was some quick talking, in five minutes he’s found out about the transfer offer rejections, sought out our Ashley and cried on his shoulder but still giving Ashley enough time to come and see me). We agree that a bid of £4m or so should do it, which also gives me scope to push it up towards the release clause limit. We’ll see what happens next.

Jamal Just Wants To Talk

We might be losing Patrick Black as well. Shelbourne have offered a contract at the end of the season and our overtures to convince him to stay seem to have failed (he wanted £1,500 per week, which is a lot of money round these parts).

Black and Brooks return for the trip to Notts County, McAllister replaces Hind in central midfield and Liversedge is still out so Black will play right-back, Hughes starts in the middle and Pearson continues at left-back. He steps up early on, blocking a shot on the line but from then on it’s all us – Ugwu hits the bar, Tomeu shoots tamely at the keeper but then Pearson at the heart of things again, conceding an innocuous penalty (is there any other kind?) and we suddenly find ourselves a goal down against the run of play. It’s not long before we see East and Boateng but there’s still no breakthrough. Ten minutes to go and our attack breaks down; Hughes looks like he’s going to get it started again but stands on the ball and County break – they have three attempts on goal, Brooks stopping them at the first two attempts but there was only so much he could do back there on his own and we go down 2-0. A disappointing performance.

We’re getting deeper into the transfer window and Connor Hall is under scrutiny. Nottingham Forest offer £500,000 (rising to £675,000). We say no, but look worryingly at that £2m minimum release clause. Bradford are back for Andy Brooks but the £165,000 bid moves nobody.

Patrick Black is going however, though not until the end of the season. He’s agreed terms with Shelbourne and we are set to lose our longest-serving player. With 17 games to play he may just pass Darren Connor’s appearance record before he’s done. Connor played 590 times with 517 of those in the league, Black stands on 580 (511 in the league). To be honest, it’s a blow but we’ve got players coming through and should be ok (Tyrrell and Pemberton will battle Hughes for the privilege of partnering Brooks). It also feels a bit strange to lose a senior player in this way when he’s still a regular in the side and his run at the appearance record might be hampered because I may want to give some playing time to his likely successor(s). We’ll see how it plays out.

Burton are next on our travels and Black has to make do with a place on the bench. Liversedge returns at right-back and Tim Pemberton – one of those likely Black successors – is in at DC. Ben Tancock returns from suspension alongside Fabian McAllister, who retains his starting spot because Boateng is taking an age to return to full fitness. He’ll be on the bench awaiting his allotted 45 minutes. Things start brightly, Keeling winning and then converting a penalty in the opening minute. We have chances, McAllister coming the closest when the keeper can only push his drive onto the post, but it remains 1-0 at half-time. We eventually score a deserved second on 54 minutes, a clearance deflecting of Keeling into Tomeu’s path and the striker slotting home without having to be asked twice. Tancock plays him in again three minutes later for a carbon copy finish and we’re cruising. But only briefly – Burton capitalise on a loose pass from Hall and pass their way through the defence to bring themselves back into it. We’re having none of it though and Liversedge fires a low cross into the box for Tomeu to complete his hat-trick. Next, the Spaniard wins a penalty but Keeling hits the post but it’s soon 5-1, Tancock the provider again as substitue Joseph Afful fires home from outside the box – a superb finish for his first goal for the club. Black is on for appearance 581 but doesn’t have much to do as we see the game out. An excellent win.

More offers for Andy Brooks – Bolton and Tranmere, both a division down which makes it easy to decline them, but there’s more chatter about Owens and the press are calling on a regular basis to hear me say “I’m not prepared to talk about that”. We all know, deep down, what that means.

Out of the blue though, the next bid that comes in is for Frank Liversedge. Derby offer £1.3m up front with the potential for it to rise to £1.7m. This will need some careful consideration. His value is just £75,000 but he’s worth so much more to us as a high-quality full-back. There isn’t anyone of his standard in the side. Pearson is developing well as his left-back understudy but Frank’s versatility and ability to play on the right had suddenly become a big part of our future plans. I decline the offer (there was negotiation room) and await the backlash/improved bid. There’s no immediate response from player or club. My fingers are firmly crossed. Bradford waste a bit more of everyone’s time trying to convince Andy Brooks that League Two football is for him. He doesn’t get to answer because I send the Bantams away with flea in their ear.

At What Point Do We Accept Millions For Our £75k-Valued Left-Back?

Jose pops in and thinks we should recall Kieran Sheridan from Grimsby. He’s playing really well for them but perhaps should be a division up. I agree immediately – it was already on my radar because we’ll need him challenging Sani if Owens departs – and the long-distance call to Grimsby is made.

We go with the same line-up at home to Fylde – that means no place in the matchday squad for Ugwu or Hughes and Black on the bench again, behind Pemberton, Liversedge and Pearson in the positions he can offer us. One of the most pleasing aspects of the Burton victory was the central midfield partnership of McAllister and Tancock and Tom Boateng has his work cut out getting back into the team right now. We’re on penalty duty again – Tomeu brought crashing down. It’s a little later today with Jim smashing home on 22 minutes. Two minutes later we serve up one of our best moves of the season. Excellent defensive work from Tomos Jones sees him win the ball back then release Tomeu down the right. The Spaniard hits a wonderful cross-field pass right into Keeling’s path and Jim slides it back across goal into the bottom corner. 2-0. Fylde sneak one home from a corner on the cusp of half-time meaning we still have work to do. It’s cagey for a while in the second half until Tancock opens up the defence again, lofting a ball into Tomeu’s path and his left foot does the rest. Fylde aren’t going down easily though and we’re lucky when they have a goal chalked off with ten minutes to go. An amazing save/block/tackle sequence from Owens/Pearson/Brooks keeps the two goal cushion intact before a sensational Tancock strike in injury time seals the points – a whiffed clearance from their left spins towards the midfielder on the edge of the box. He doesn’t wait for the bounce, just hits it first time on the volley and it screams past the keeper. It’ll be a goal of the season contender, no doubt.

We make it a whole week without receiving a transfer bid but not without losing first-team members to injury or illness. Boateng has flu, Keeling a cold and Hall a thigh strain, so changes are afoot. Afful and East come in and Stan Hind returns to the bench along with Ashley Turns and Joseph Obi. We invoke the spirit of revenge pre-match which fails miserably after 5 minutes when a very neat corner routine sees Rochdale take the lead while McAllister was off the pitch receiving treatment for a twisted knee. He’s alright to continue thankfully and promptly battles away to win the ball back and set up a move that ends up with East having a shot well saved at the other end of the pitch. We have a long chat at half-time about expectations and belief. Appiah is soon on for Jones and wins a penalty on the hour. McAllister steps up in the absence of Keeling and Boateng and tucks it away. Rochdale break on 75 minutes and go back in front after the post gives us an initial reprieve, forcing us to push forward in search of an equaliser. It doesn’t look like it’s coming but 95 minutes and 19 seconds into a 95 minute match, McAllister finds East in the box and the left-winger takes his time to coolly pick his spot and earn us a well-deserved point.

It’s an important point too, as it not only keeps us 6th and in the play-offs but it maintains an eight point gap to Rochdale in 8th. Walsall sit between us, two points behind with a game in hand, but we’ve minimised the risk posed by Dale and improved our play-off chances.

Liversedge is the centre of attention again – a £1.4m bid from Birmingham. I bring him into the office and extol the virtues of the wonderful atmosphere, Jim’s Les Dawson impressions and the weekly quiz night. It’s all that’s needed. Frank doesn’t think he’ll get that anywhere else and he’s happy to stay. Bless you, Frank, you know it’s what’s right.

There are players in need of a rest and we allow them to miss the trip to Swindon – Liversedge, McAllister, East, Brooks and Afful make way. Kieran Ross is back and Patrick Black starts along with Ugwu and the returning Keeling and Hall. Appiah starts ahead of Jones as the veteran winger has been quiet of late. The game is quiet to begin with and it’s once again left to Ben Tancock to open up the defence, feeding Tomeu, who finishes in his customary fashion. Jamie Pearson hacks one off the line to maintain the advantage. Both sides have chances after that but both defences hold firm, which is great for us as we roll out 1-0 winners. A draw for Walsall puts our play-off hopes in our own hands though there are still 13 games to go and two days to tick off before the transfer window shuts.

Newcastle come in for Liversedge now – it’s 16:53 on transfer deadline day – offering £1.2m rising to £1.8m. I’m happy to say no given our recent chat but two hours later a second call from St James’ Park gives me cause to think – £3.5m rising to £5.25m. That’s a lot of money AND there’s still scope to negotiate. I suggest £5.5m rising to £8m, expecting a no but instead hearing a yes down the line. I gulp. There’s £3.5m up front, two 12 month instalments of £1m each and £250k per game for the first 10 games. 40% of any future profit is also baked in. I hesitate briefly but accept, knowing that this might give us a short-term knock in performance but should set us up financially for more future developments and ground improvements. Given he’s valued at £75,000, it feels like a fair deal! The remaining hours tick by without a Jamal Owens bid coming in! We keep our keeper!

I immediately arrange a meeting with the Board to see if we can put the first instalment of the Liversedge Legacy to good use. Training facilities improvements are go!!! It gets a rejection first off but the subsequent meeting goes smoothly and they agree to the request. It will cost around £1.8m and will be ready by the end of June.

A double win for FC United players in January – Tomeu is player of the month, scoring 6 in 6, and Ben Tancock is young player of the month, with 4 assists in 4 games and a spectacular goal thrown in for good measure.

I’m feeling seller’s regret as I look at the thin left-back list. It was almost impossible to turn that kind of money down but after the fast-improving Jamie Pearson there isn’t a lot on offer. The deal probably buys a stay of execution for on-loan Tony Robinson, especially with Patrick Black leaving at the end of the season as well. He’ll become vital cover. Let’s hope we get a decent left back through the academy this year.

It’s mid-February before we play again due to a postponement and cup games we’re not involved in. We travel to Carlisle at close to full strength, just Tomos Jones out, recovering from blisters. The McAllister/Tancock pivot continues in midfield, Black and Brooks return to the heart of the defence and Appiah takes the right wing slot. Both sides are reduced to shots from distance with defences making plenty of solid last-ditch challenges. The deadlock is eventually broken in the 43rd minute, Keeling played in by Hall and lashing home from an angle. Carlisle are gifted a bizarre equaliser, an Owens clearances bounces off a Carlisle attacker and in. A handball in the 76th minute offers the chance to win – Jim puts the penalty to the keeper’s right and we’re back in the lead but wait there’s a 91st minute penalty at the other end and it looks like we’ve thrown the win away. The game isn’t done yet though, Keeling brings the ball forward and plays in Tomeu and the striker bags a 93rd minute winner in a tightly contested game.

Black picked up a tenth yellow card of the season that rules him out for two games and reduces the number of appearances he can potentially make as he tries to surpass Darren Connor’s record – he’s four behind now with ten available matches left.

Samuel Sani is heading to Lincoln on loan for the rest of the season. With Sheridan back at the club after his own loan spell, it feels like a safe option to get the former no.1 some game time and keep him happy(ish). Sheridan is on the bench for the visit of lowly Northampton, Hughes comes in for Black and Jones returns on the right wing. Jones makes a swift impact, crossing for Hall who turns well and clips a shot across goal and into the bottom corner – 1-0. After 15 minutes, it’s 2-0, a lengthy team move ending with Keeling firing in from a Pearson cross. We’re attacking in waves, Tomeu comes close shortly after as Northampton struggle to clear their lines but it stays at two for now. A blow on 44 minutes – Pearson comes off injured and we’re hoping it isn’t too serious. The defence is re-jigged, Tyrrell on at DC, Hughes switching to DR and Ross moving across to DL. A lovely ball from Hall finds Keeling surging down the inside left channel and, once again, the left-winger finishes with power and accuracy. Owens makes a stunning save from an 89th minute free-kick to keep the clean sheet intact, but that particular records only lasts another minute as Northampton break, leaving the defence flat-footed and Owens with no chance. It’s a 3-1 win though and we are in good form, moving up to 5th and extending the gap over Walsall in 7th to five points.

Pearson has torn knee ligaments and is out for the season. How often does that seem to happen – you sell a player and then the only other decent option you have at that position gets injured soon after? It’s a major blow.

Home to Peterborough and Kieran Ross switches sides to left of defence as an inverted wing-back. Matthew Tyrrell comes in at right-back – he’s more of a centre back but I’m preferring him to Prosser, at least for one game, because he has much more potential than the more natural right-back. Jason Doyle (S15-04) features on the bench for the first time in an age because he can cover left back as well as centre back. We’re excellent in the first half but without creating any clear-cut chances (despite seven shots on target). It takes a whole hour for us to break through, Hall eventually laying the ball back to McAllister on the edge of the box for the Jamaican to drive home. Hall’s involved again with ten minutes to go, brought down in the box after a mazy run. With Keeling substituted a minute earlier, McAllister steps up and grabs his second of the game. Just to make me feel even better, Ross cuts in from the left and curls in a third with his right, capping an excellent game in his new position. Even better news: both Coventry and Walsall lose. In fact, Walsall have played and lost in between as well meaning we have an eight-point cushion and a game in hand. We’re looking very strong for the play-offs and I’m starting to get worried about promotion. I’m not sure we’re Championship ready!

The next game will be a good measure – away to league leaders Sheffield Wednesday. We keep the same line-up and hope they’re not too daunted by the Hillsborough atmosphere. We look comfortable early on and then have the temerity to take the lead, good work between Tyrrell and Tancock setting up Hall to curl home on his left foot. It’s a tight game but we head into the break without any real scares. There are chances at both ends in the second half, but Owens is in good form and Tomeu is denied by excellent Wednesday defending. We put the brakes on in the last ten minutes and resort to a bit of time-wasting in injury time to make sure we see the game out. It works and we’ve secured a brilliant win.

Problems on the yellow card front again – Brooks and Tancock pick up their tenth cards of the season and they’ll be missing for the next two games.

A big game up next – a re-arranged fixture at home to mid-table Swansea. Unbelievably, a win would lift us up to 2nd in the table, leapfrogging Oxford, Portsmouth and Wrexham. Black’s back and steps in for Brooks, Boateng also returns for Tancock and Appiah starts for the injured Jones. It’s a sign of his rise over the course of this season that it’s Tancock that I’m worried we’ll miss the most. Keeling settles the nerves early, heading home from a nice clipped cross from Tyrrell. Hall twists his knee midway through the half and even though he wants to carry on I’m not taking any chances. Afful is on in his place. We’re not dominating this one, though Appiah comes close with a shot off the post. Another knock, this time to Black, brings Pemberton off the bench and this is a younger side than usual right now. We hit the woodwork again – this time Boateng – before we finally put a little distance between us and the Swans, Tyrrell again the provider, finding the run of Tomeu who picks the ball up inside the box and slides it past the onrushing keeper. Things get a little tricky with eight minutes to play – Tyrrell’s excellent game is brought to a halt by injury and with no substitutes left we have to drop Boateng into an unnatural central defensive role to see the game out. We do though and we are second in the table.

Nosebleed Time – Are We Really In The Automatic Promotion Places In Our First League One Campaign?

Bad news for Tyrrell though – and for the thinning defence in general – he’s out 3-4 weeks with a groin strain. Prosser comes in at right-back for the trip to Southend and Jones is back after injury. Southend start well and would be ahead but for a narrow offside decision. We bounce back, a terrific ball by Hall runs in behind the defence and finds the lurking Tomeu who slots home with aplomb. Southend are soon back in it, the defence slow to react to a rebound off the post. Dale East – on for Keeling – hits a free-kick off the top of the bar and it’s the closest anyone will come to finding a winner as the game ends 1-1, sliding us back down to 4th.

Another big game looms just three days later, a home game against 6th-placed Coventry. We’re close to full-strength, Brooks and Tancock returning and Black switching to right-back ahead of Prosser. Despite the strong line-up Coventry take an early 2nd minute lead and by the 10th minute they’re two-up, breaking from a clearance from our free-kick and exposing Black’s positioning and pace in one fell swoop. Hall and Tomeu craft an opening but the Coventry keeper is equal to it and I’m also reminded that Lee Evans is holding their defence together this season. The second half begins in the same manner as the first, Coventry scoring early and we are getting battered. Tomeu is denied again by a tremendous save from Campbell in the Sky Blues’ goal. He stops us again after a goalmouth scramble and we seem powerless to put the ball past him. We control 65% of the possession, had 24 shots to 11 and an xG of 2.56 to 1.37 – and lost 0-3. One of those games.

Silver lining? Walsall lost again and we are one win away from clinching a play-off place at the first time of asking. How our expectations have changed since the start of the season! I’m disappointed now that we’ve slipped back in the hunt for an automatic promotion place!

We cheer ourselves up by casting an eye of the the Season 20 intake. Yes, it’s a potential golden generation with Ronald Julien described as “the diamond in a very strong group of players”. He’s only second on the list, however, an all-purpose MC/AMC/SC who I favour at centre midfield on first viewing. Ahead of him on the list – Chris Wright, a striker who might well be first team ready right now. Another mono-named Spaniard lies third on the list – Brayan – another central midfielder. There’s more work to do here but he’s another who won’t be too far away from a first team squad place. We’re doubling up again with the fourth player – striker Sion Griffiths. He’s quicker than Wright but doesn’t have his technical ability but can also play left wing and we’ll need to fully evaluate that as we move forward.

Yep, Another Golden Generation

Another midfielder with potential, Joshua Lindsay rounds out the top five and the first defensive player on the list looks good, too. Derek Duxbury is a central defender with a fairly professional approach to the game that suggests he can compete before too long. There are decent options at left-wing (Ray Clancy, Siegfried Breuer) and attacking midfield (Kevin Molina). Defensive options are thin and keeper Jonathan Isaac is the lowest ranked keeper we’ve had in a long while – there’s a long road ahead for him, even if he secures a contract. Attribute-wise, this is the second best group behind last year’s phenomenal bunch, but they do score as the highest rated attacking players and their mental attributes exceed anything we’ve had previously which suggests their development will be good.

Wright and Julien rank 1st and 4th on the all-time list of starting attributes. Lindsay makes the top 20 and Griffiths the top 30, while Brayan, Duxbury and Molina all offer a positive base to work from. The first ten are recommended to be taken on, and I can’t argue with it – I’m getting less and less likely to keep on players beyond that 10th ranking because it’s so rare that they make any impression. Only five players ranked 13th or lower have ever featured for the first team with a further ten ranked 11th or 12th. Season 3 right-back Ricky Whitfield is the anomaly, clocking up 193 appearances from the 13th rung and he did perform beyond his initial potential but largely played because we had nobody else at that point (the other four made 57 appearances combined). Jordan Osborne from Season 7 made 70 appearances from a ranking of 12th but was largely a one-season wonder while Kirani Modeste (Season 6) and Ross O’Rourke (Season 11) featured 108 and 67 times, respectively. No-one ranked 16th has ever played first team football and the Season 14 was the last time an intake provided a first team appearance from anyone ranked 11th or lower (striker Asa Matthews played twice). It seems that now we’re well-established, we don’t need to rely on the full intake and ten players is likely always going to be enough.

The Season 20 Intake In All Their Glory

The new intake prompts some input from long-standing coach Stuart Cattell, who recommends Carl Vaughan leaps from the u18s to the first team. Vaughan has been in sensational form with 36 goals in 55 games for the youth side and he joins the growing cast of Season 19 players making excellent progress. There are instant professional contract offers for newcomers Griffiths, Julien and Wright before the week is out.

Ronald Julien – One To Watch In Central Midfield
Sion Griffiths – A Striker? A Left Winger?

We’re home to MK Dons next and Vaughan’s promotion stops me calling on the very new boys straight away, quells my excitement! There are forced changes in central midfield, McAllister on international duty and Tancock carrying a knock so Boateng and Hind step in. That’s good for Boateng, who’s been getting frustrated at the lack of game time since returning from injury. We take a 20th minute lead, Jones threading the ball through to Tomeu, who’s finishing the season as well as anyone and wellies it into the top corner. We come close to a second goal, Brooks hitting the bar, but it remains 1-0 and we see out the game comfortably. We’re up to 3rd, just one point behind the top two with five games to go. We’ve clinched a play-off place and Patrick Black has drawn level with Darren Connor’s 590 total appearances and 517 league appearances. One more game gives him the record as he winds down his career with us.

Five Games To Go – There’s A Real Chance Of Going Up

More issues at left-back – Kieran Ross becomes the latest player to hit 10 yellow cards and Black may well have to revert to his old role to break the record. Fabian McAllister is back from Jamaica but has sprained ankle ligaments in his first training session back and is ruled out for 4 weeks. That could be his season, just a remote chance he could make the play-offs. Macauley Hughes pulls abdominal muscle lifting weights and is likely out for the same amount of time and then they’re both joined by Abdulai Appiah, who’s hamstring strain sidelines him until May as well. Preparations for a trip to bottom placed Wigan take a further hit when Dale East sprains ankle ligaments and joins the 3-4 week club. A long hard first season in League One seems to be taking its toll.

Tyrrell starts at right-back despite only just recovering from injury and Prosser is on the bench just in case. Pemberton comes in alongside Brooks and Tancock returns in midfield. All eyes are on Patrick Black though for appearance number 591. Early pressure is all coming from us – Hall has two bites of the cherry in the box but hits a defender with the first effort and skies the rebound – but somehow Wigan take the lead, a looping header that somehow sneaks in. Keeling steps up and levels though, a free-kick from 20 yards that flies into the top corner. Black’s day is limping along, he’s taken a knock but should be okay to continue; not quite what he had in mind. The second half gets underway and it’s another shock from Wigan, replicating our free-kick but better and further away! The nerve of it. They score again, nodding in from a corner in the 53rd minute, and this is going pear-shaped and fast. Jim works his magic again, finding a huge gap for Jones to exploit and slot past the out-of-position keeper and he’s on hand again to head home a Jones cross to equalise! We think it’s enough but Wigan have other ideas and capitalise on an Andy Brooks error in the middle of the park to break and chip Owens for an injury time winner.

Patrick Black Lines Up For FC United For The 591st Time

We’re four points outside the automatic promotion places now with four games to go. It’s still doable but a win today would (and should) have put us right in the mix. It looks increasingly like a play-off berth now (which is still impressive).

Those four games couldn’t start with a more difficult task – away at current league leaders Portsmouth. Then it’s back-to-back home ties against two teams mid-table, Preston and Fleetwood, before a final day trip to Oxford who currently lie 2nd. There’s no doubt we have the toughest run-in of anyone in the top six, but given that we play the two teams currently in the automatic promotion places, four wins would give us a real chance. It isn’t likely, but it isn’t impossible.

The team picks itself given the injuries we have and there’s no change from the last outing. It’s a close-run first-half, Pompey having the edge early on before we come back into it, and by the break we’re in the ascendency, Keeling only denied by a solid bit of goalkeeping. Keeling and Jones are below par – perhaps with no East and Appiah to press them from the bench. Obi and Sinclair come on as the next best options and Afful soon joins them for a quiet Hall. It works a treat, Sinclair takes a lovely pass from Afful on his chest, beats the full-back for pace and whips in a cross that Tomeu heads home. Ten minutes left to hang on. It gets better on 90 minutes, Tomeu brought down when clean through and Portsmouth down to ten men. Afful fires the resultant free-kick into the top corner from 25 yards out. We’ve given the league leaders a lesson.

A Demolition Job At The Home Of The League Leaders

Unfortunately, Oxford and Wrexham both win while we do gain ground on Sheffield Wednesday who could only draw at Fylde.

Damn You Oxford and Wrexham!

One change for the Preston game, Kieran Ross is back so Tyrrell drops to the bench. There’s a clamour to start Afful but we’ll stick with Hall for now, trusting experience at this stage of the season. It’s a very quiet first-half, Tomos Jones firing wide in the opening minutes is the highlight. Vaughan comes on for a disappointing Tomeu and comes closest to breaking the deadlock almost immediately, his shot tipped wide. It’s one of those games, though – and to be expected after one of our best performances of the season – and Preston take an undeserved lead in the 83rd minute after endless pressure from us. Ross plays a pass over the top for Vaughan, but the youngster lacks composure and fires wide. He makes up for on 90 minutes, battling hard to keep the ball in play and cutting back to Boateng, who scores at the second attempt. Can we fashion one last chance? We can!!! Tancock plays it long to the pacy Afful who brings it to the edge of the box before cutting it across to Vaughan and this time the youngster finishes clinically. What a way to score your first league goal. We have somehow snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. What a comeback!

That’s What You Call Leaving It Late!

It might all be for nothing though. The top three all win again – one more win for Portsmouth and Oxford will be enough to put them out of our reach and even if they fail to do that (and remember, we play Oxford on the last day) we still need Wrexham to slip up as well. Sheffield Wednesday win the following night so they’re still ahead of us on goal difference, too.

Damn You Oxford And Wrexham, Part 2

I make the decision to start Afful against Fleetwood – he’s making it difficult to keep him out – and Hall drops to the bench, though I did consider the left-wing and the Keeling up front routine, but Tomeu gets to carry on up front. Last home game of the season (besides likely play-off games), let’s give the crowd something to cheer. We do after 15 minutes, Boateng playing in Tomeu who, right-footed(!), smashes home his 20th of the season. Needless to say, the top three are all winning again, too. There are chances for both sides but both keepers are in good form before Boateng picks up a second yellow card with 68 minutes played. We shuffle the deck and stay solid and hang on for the win but the top two secure the victories they needed and we’re play-off bound.

Oxford are still bidding for the title so I don’t expect them to dial it in against us but 21 seconds in we might have to reappraise that as Tancock plays Tomeu through and the Spaniard scores with his right (again!). They’re reduced to ten men before half-time and then go down to nine on the hour mark as they try and hack us off the pitch. Somehow, we don’t score another, Hind hitting the bar the closest we come, but we’ve won to finish on 90 points and take third after Wrexham lose and Sheffield Wednesday draw. We’ve missed 2nd by a point and totalled more points than in any of our League Two or Vanarama National campaigns!

Close, But No Cigar. Away Wins At The Two Promoted Clubs In The Last 4 Games Weren’t Quite Enough

Can we finish the job in the play-offs? It’s Coventry first and, even though they’ve tailed off towards the end of the season to finish 6th, they’ve done the double over us this season (including that 3-0 home defeat), so it’s by no means an easy game (listen to me talking like we’re a bona fide League One promotion challenging side after one season here!).

We stick with the line-up that beat Oxford, with the exception of the returning Tom Boateng. McAllister, Appiah and East return to the bench for the first time in a month to give us better depth though all need to be limited to 45 minutes. It’s probably also worth mentioning that Tim Pemberton has been quietly holding down the DC position while Hughes recovers from injury. A Coventry shot whistles past the outside of the post early on before we settle and when Hall finds Keeling racing into the area from the left flank, Jim does well, slotting home at the near post and we lead. Good interplay leads to a second goal though the glory is all Ben Tancock’s, a simple pass from Boateng hammered into the net on the volley from the edge of the box. He’s just signed a new contract, too, and is turning into a foundation piece in this squad. Owens makes a crucial 58th-minute save to keep it at 2-0 before the legs tire and we turn to the youngsters, Appiah, East and Vaughan replacing Jones, Keeling and Tomeu. Coventry are threatening though, hitting the post and then forcing another good save from Owens. They put three up front to try and get back into it but we hold firm and set ourselves up nicely for the home leg.

There is a cloud on the horizon though. Andy Brooks picked up his 15th yellow card and a three-match ban. His season is done and we will miss his experience at the back. Macauley Hughes will return in his place. Despite the two goal advantage from the first leg, it still feels like a slender lead. An early goal for Coventry would change the whole dynamic and our ex-player Lee Evans almost does just that, heading over from an early corner. We settle and when Tomos Jones wins a penalty in the 23rd minute, we gain a little more breathing space, Keeling slamming it home and putting us three up on aggregate. Hall heads over moments later and it feels like we’ve got Coventry on the ropes. They can’t keep us at bay, and after a lengthy attack filled with blocks and half-chances, the ball falls loose to Tomeu who makes no mistake from 10 yards out. That does spark Coventry into life and they quickly pull one back to make it 2-1 at half-time and 4-1 on aggregate – 45 minutes away from another trip to Wembley! The second half fizzles out and only really comes to life again late on, Owens forced into action again after pressure from a corner, but it’s all Coventry have left to offer. They know they’re a beaten side. The final whistle blows and we’ll meet Sheffield Wednesday in the final after they grabbed a 92nd minute winner against Wrexham.

The final! No Brooks due to that suspension, and Boateng has a thigh strain that keeps him out as well. Matthew Tyrrell is also out which puts Dion Prosser on the bench as defensive cover. McAllister returns to the midfield after his lengthy absence which makes up for the loss of Boateng – we’ll just have to hope he can pick up the pace of the game after a month out.

The Boys At Wembley

We look sharp early on, Tomeu with an early chance that tests the keeper and there’s little sign of nerves in front of the largest crowd these players have ever played in front of. Wednesday grow into the game though and Owens is kept busy. Hall comes closer than anyone so far, turning a Ross cross onto the post, before the Owls break the deadlock on 39 minutes: a simple free-kick routine headed in at the far post. They spend the entire second half with everyone behind the ball and we struggle to create anything of note. Owens has to be at his best again when they catch us on the break but all of our pressure comes to nothing. We’ve held our own but been unable to grab that all-important equaliser. The dream is over.

Will we be able to sustain a similar challenge next season? I’m feeling positive but also thinking there’s a changing of the guard taking place. Ugwu and Hallstensen have been sidelined as the season wore on and Tomeu, Keeling, Boateng and Jones are looking over their shoulders at some very promising prospects. Time will tell. There’s new training facilities coming in a month and some big contract decisions to make. A mini exodus is possible. And, of course, record appearance maker Patrick Black will leave us. We will miss him but there are players ready to step up into his boots. Will we lose anyone else in the transfer window? I’m expecting a battle or two in the months ahead. Season 21 here we come.

Patrick Black – A League Career Retrospective

Season 19 – Part 2

These boys might just be good enough…

With financial worries looming, the league form has been a boon in more ways than one – we might just be well-equipped enough to get out of this division quickly. Maybe not this year, but soon.

But it’s cup action first and another chance to test ourselves against League One opposition as we travel to Port Vale in the PJT. We go almost full-strength, just giving Owens his cup games in goal and bringing in Jamie Pearson for another outing a left-back. Tomos Jones hits two in the first half and Tomeu adds a third – his first goal since the last PJT game and only his third of the season. He has another straight after half-time, Jones turning provider as the pair of them carve up the Vale defence. The other three assists: Jim Keeling, from back out on the left wing. It’s a hugely dominant win and secures us a Third Round tie against Liverpool U23s. 

For some reason, the PJT game took place on a Thursday and we are immediately back in action on Saturday at home to Kettering. There will have to be changes to the line-up and it’s a makeshift defence and midfield that take to the pitch. We cross our fingers and hope that the tired forwards can create something early. As it is, we have just one goal to show for a strong first half performance, Tomeu finally getting a second league goal of the season with a cheeky back-heel from Black’s inviting low cross. We tire in the second half though and within minutes of Keeling going off, Kettering grab an undeserved equaliser. We can’t find a winner. Again. The silver lining today was an excellent central midfield performance from 18-year-old Ben Tancock. He’s developing nicely. 

A penalty each in the first half at Mansfield – we go behind after a clumsy Black tackle, but Keeling levels the scores. He’s on target again just after the restart, a superb ball from Sani sets up the move though the finish is scrappy as we pinball around the penalty area before Jim settles the matter. Tomeu wins a late penalty but Jim blows his chance of a hat-trick as we miss from the spot. Again. We hold on though, a good away win. We’re still fifth, it’s still ridiculously tight – we could finish anywhere between first and 14th right now.

In the hunt for promotion!

The Youth Intake Preview is very short on information – it’s an excellent group of players, apparently, but only a good right winger is highlighted. That’ll be useful but where’s my information on goalkeepers, strikers, central defenders? There’s nothing. Weird. 

Bristol Rovers are blown away 5-0, four first half goals from Jones, Keeling and Tomeu twice, before the latter completes his first hat-trick of the season early in the second half. With Connor Hall returning on the bench and working his way back to full fitness there’s going to be a selection headache before too long! 

We’re still fifth and we’re at the halfway point. 

Bristol Rovers Take A Battering

Bottom-placed Lincoln are up next and given the three day gap between games, some players need a rest. Hughes is in for Ross, Tancock for Ugwu and Connor Hall returns but on the right as Jones needs a break. The Imps provide stubborn resistance for 54 minutes until Tancock grabs his first ever league goal, volleying in from 25 yards. Tomeu makes the points secure before Tancock strikes again deep into injury time. He’s starting to put pressure on Ugwu’s place now – until he picks up a sports hernia that will rule him out until the end of January. The win puts us third, just a point off the top of the table. 

A tricky trip to Fylde next on Boxing Day – they’re sixth and have been among the frontrunners all season. We hold the upper hand but chance after chance goes begging, Tomeu the main culprit, always seeming to find the keeper. We pay for our profligacy, conceding with ten minutes to go, and then losing Jones to injury to finish with ten men and another narrow away defeat against a contender. 

Darlington provide a stern test in the next game, catching us on the break a couple of times without punishing us. Tomeu breaks the deadlock early in the second half but we never look comfortable and it’s no surprise when Darlington equalise just after the hour mark. We struggle but then a sudden burst down the left from Liversedge is well seen by Hall. Keeling stretches to reach the left-back’s cross but can only glance it behind him – where Tomeu, playing on the right wing, pounces for his second of the game and what proves to be the winner. A vital win at the start of a hectic schedule of four games in eight days. We’re going to need the full squad as January kicks in.

Shrewsbury away next and while that wouldn’t normally be exciting, it will be my 1,000th game in management and obviously, with FC United. Shrewsbury lull us into a false sense of security, gifting us an opening goal with a terrible back pass to Jim Keeling before threatening to thrash us and totally derail the party. We play terribly but hang on for a one-all draw. 

We line-up some of the kids for the PJT against Liverpool U23s, right-back Jordan Ingram and striker Adam Wells are handed debuts, Owens is back in goal and Tyrrell and Pearson round out an inexperienced back line. It’s an old(ish) hand that gets us going though – Tomeu hits a McAllister cross home on 62 minutes – but Liverpool peg us back almost immediately. It stays that way despite some very tired legs and we have another penalty shoot-out on our hands. Liverpool go first and the first two penalties each go in, Liverpool hit the post with their third but Adam Wells sends his attempt wide to leave the scores level. The next two are converted and then they sky their fifth way over the bar and Tomeu wins the tie for us, the perfect anchor leg on any penalty shoot-out. Into the quarter-finals we go. 

Accrington away finishes our gruelling eight-day epic. We’re back to full-strength but fall behind early. The second-half starts the same and we’re two down before Connor Hall hits home and drags us back into contention. There are players running on fumes though – Boateng has gone off injured, Ross is carrying a knock to his knee and the whole defence are exhausted. Accrington make it safe in injury time, Sani fluffing a shot from distance. Let’s hope we can recover in the luxury that a whole week off will bring. Mind you, it’s league leaders Swindon up next which will be a proper test, especially with Andy Brooks ruled out with flu. 

We go toe-to-toe with them for 40 minutes until an error by Matthew Tyrrell – who’d been the best player on the pitch until that point – losing the ball after a corner and, from the subsequent break, Macauley Hughes concedes a pretty needless penalty. It’s converted and that’s the game. A low-key performance and another narrow defeat. It’s the first time this season we’ve lost two in a row. We are offered a route to revenge though, the PJT draw is made four days later and we’ll play Swindon once more. If we win that, Chelsea U23s or Fylde await us in the semi-final. 

Tomos Jones is back in contention by the time Leyton Orient roll into town, though he’s limited to a place on the bench as he works his way back to full fitness. In a rare turn of events, we’re being outplayed but creating the clearer chances. We improve in the second half but can’t find a way through and the game ends goalless with Sani the best player on the park. 

A trip to Gillingham doesn’t bode well, they’re in good form and we’re not but Tomeu and Keeling combine for an opener for Jim before Tomeu does it all on his own to score a beauty of a second. With Jones sat on the bench again and almost at full fitness, that selection headache is going to be here again soon. Of course, it wouldn’t be FC United if we didn’t concede in the 89th minute but we close out the game for a vital return to winning ways. 

I think I might have an answer to that selection issue: meet Connor Hall, AMC! 

Connor Hall, AMC?

Turns and Hallstensen have both struggled for form over the last couple of months, Hall looks like a natural there! That allows Jim back on the left, Tomeu back up front and gets Jones back in the side (I never would have expected to be looking to squeeze Jones into the team before this season. Weird!). 

Torquay up next, and they still send shivers down my spine even though we’ve left them behind a little bit since we both earned promotion. The first half looks to be petering out – countless missed chances – until Tomeu pounces on an error in the Gulls defence and breaks clear before smashing in with his trusted left foot. It’s no more than we deserve and to compound it, Thomas Ugwu immediately adds a second after half-time with a lovely curled finish. Tomeu adds a third, before Torquay grab the obligatory consolation goal and it’s a good win. Hall gets a 7.1 rating and he’s the new AMC. 

Transfer deadline approaches and things have been eerily quiet. Only Brooks has enticed a serious bid (from Luton) and we sat him down, reminded him of Jim’s mime routine and he said he couldn’t find that anywhere else in the world, even Luton, so he stayed. Remarkably, there are no further bids and we can finish the season as we started it. 

The finances look bleak, though. I accidentally read the news item at the end of January and we’re £1m in the red. I’m glad that’s somebody else’s job to sort out but I’m a bit worried they might make me sell players to cover it. I’m not going to mention it to anyone for now. 

Yikes! Don’t Tell Anyone!

The PJT Quarter-Final is postponed twice but finally takes place on a Thursday evening. Hall cements his AMC role further, taking just four minutes to break down the Swindon defence that proved so resolute in the league fixture. Tomeu chips a lovely second just before half-time and we don’t look in danger from that point onwards. We’re in the semi-finals! 

A solitary league game at home to Dulwich Hamlet separates us from the semi against Chelsea U23s. The game is a non-event until the 72nd minute when Kieran Ross concedes a contentious penalty and we lose 1-0. Another moment when an automatic promotion spot was opening up and we take a step back. 

Semi-Final time. Owens is in goal, Tancock is in for Ugwu and Hughes returns at DC in place of a resting Black. Things start badly, we concede after three minutes but Keeling whips in a cross that Jones steers home and we’re level before the 20 minute mark. We’ve already beaten Man City and Liverpool’s U23s this season (and Man Utd’s last season). Can we add Chelsea to the list? Jones takes a knock to the ankle but I reckon he’s alright despite his moaning – I’m proved right as two minutes later he guides a Tancock pass into the net for his and our second. He turns provider on 65 minutes – a glorious cross that Tomeu can’t help but head home. There’s no comeback from Chelsea and we’re in the final!!! We’ll meet Sheffield United U23s at Wembley on 1st April 2040. Pretty sure there won’t be 90,000 there in the stands, but unfortunately Tom Boateng will be as he picked up a booking that rules him out of the final. 

Bradford next – they lie third, three points ahead of us – and they take an early lead against a makeshift and tired side. Ashley Turns – in for the rested Hall – equalises with a nice finish from the edge of the box but Bradford re-take the lead on the half-hour. A penalty – the softest yet – puts them 3-1 up and we’re having a PJT hangover. The game is up when Matthew Tyrrell has to go off injured with eight minutes to play and there’s no one left on the bench to come on.

The games are coming thick and fast now which will mean plenty of chopping and changing – five more games in 18 days. Wycombe away next, one place above us as we hang on to seventh. It feels like we’re running out of steam – 3-0 down by half-time, Sani having a nightmare. Keeling pulls one back but then we gift them a fourth – a Brooks mistake and Sani all over the place again – and then a missed header from Black lets them in for a fifth. It’s the worst we’ve played in a long, long time. 

Back-to-back home games against Newport and Blackpool need to yield results, but we’ll have to start without Ross and Brooks who’ve both picked up ten yellow cards and will miss both games. We dominate, don’t score, and Newport –23rd in the table – hit us with a sucker punch with just 13 minutes to go. Jones comes to the rescue though, steering home a Turns cross but it’s still dropped points. 

Blackpool was the tougher of the games, but we take the lead, Tomeu’s trusty left foot breaking the deadlock. Blackpool are soon back in it at 1-1 but are reduced to ten men before half-time. Jim restores the lead on 47 minutes and two minutes later Tomeu makes it 3-1 and, for a change, we seem to be taking advantage of the extra man. Ugwu smashes in a fourth late on and that’s a major win against a promotion rival for the first time in what seems an age. 

We lose at lowly Hartlepool, 1-0 despite dominating in what’s becoming the tale of the season. Another one step forward, two steps back kind of day. Next up, lowly Scunthorpe, and we’re behind after 17 seconds! Fortunately, we seem to have goals in us today and Tomeu levels after good play by Hall. We’re playing well, creating a load of chances but nothing’s going in until Tomeu grabs his second, sneaking in at the near post. The Spaniard completes a hat-trick from close range on 70 minutes, assisted for the second time today by Hallstensen – the best game the Norwegian has had in a long time. We hang on to seventh and have officially avoided relegation! 

The youth intake arrive and… I think it might be the best one we’ve seen! Seriously! Looking baldly at total attributes, there are two players in this intake who surpass any previous scores on arrival (by 17 and 18 points respectively): AMC Joseph Afful and AML Dale East. 

Golden Generation yada yada yada…
A More Complete Youth Intake View

Afful looks first team ready and we may see him by the end of the season, more competition for the trio of Hallstensen, Turns and McAllister (who’s winning plaudits for Jamaica U23s right now). East isn’t far behind and AMR Abdulai Appiah looks pretty tasty, too. 

There are two keepers in this intake, with Dom Lundstram ranked first in the group though his personality suggests he might not reach his potential. And I have a decision to make on left back James Turner. Ranked 14th in the intake he’s actually the fourth highest attributed player. He’s one of those odd players that could probably offer decent cover almost immediately but is never likely to progress beyond that (unless the staff are getting the assessment wrong, which is possible). I’m tempted to give him a contract and see how it plays out.

The first team are dealt a blow as Andy Brooks breaks his lower arm in training. That’s his season done unless he makes a remarkable recovery and we’ll miss his experience at the back. It leaves us woefully thin for the next game at Chesterfield because both Hughes and Black are suspended and Matthew Tyrrell is coming back from injury and can likely only play 45 minutes. 

A Chesterfield long-range shot bounces off the post and hits a diving Sani on the back of the head and goes in to set us off on the wrong foot completely. A complete fluke. Persistent pressure in response leads to Connor Hall tapping in from a Keeling cross and everything appears to be going well until a minute later, Jim slides in two footed and he’s off! We hang on for a bit but the Spireites regain the lead just before half-time. It’s 3-1 after 57 minutes but a double substitution perks the boys up a bit. Stan Hind (primarily a midfielder) is on at the back for Tyrrell and Sam Hollis replaces Hallstensen. Tomeu pulls one back but it’s all in vain as a low cross evades everyone and Sani seems to forget where his near post is (again!). It’s another in an occasional series of poor showings from the keeper and I’m eyeing up Jamal Owens again and thinking it might be time to give him a decent run in the side. 

Afful and Appiah sign professional contracts alongside Mario Minambres (the second keeper a surprise suggestion from Jose Scott). A Thursday game at home to Plymouth (to make room for the PJT final) sees Owens replace Sani as predicted, Black return and Jones come in, with Connor switching to AML in place of the suspended Keeling. Afful, Appiah and East all make the bench! It’s Jones who makes the first impression, scoring after two minutes and we look fairly solid throughout the rest of the first half despite plenty of pressure from the Pilgrims. Tomeu adds a second, ten minutes into the second half, and I’m starting to feel comfortable about throwing some of the new boys in. By the 75th minute all three of them are on. By the 79th minute they’ve all combined with Tomeu to provide Appiah with a debut goal. It’s some strike and we may well be looking at the AMR, AMC and AML of the future with these three. Owens makes a hash of a close range header to allow Plymouth a glimmer of hope before East comes really close to a debut goal too, the Plymouth keeper forced into heroics from close range. At 15 years and 302 days, Appiah becomes the youngest League Two scorer in history!

A worrying sign ahead of the PJT Final. The contract renewal update arrives at the end of March and three players have a ‘delay decision’ reason of ‘Financial position not strong enough’. Matthias Backes is one of them and I’m not planning to keep him, Brad Matthews is another and while I was planning to keep him, the new intake makes it easier to let him go. The final one is Jim Steele from Season 17’s intake who I did want to keep around for a while longer. It’s no-one crucial to the first team set-up but it’s clearly something that’s going to have an impact over the next few seasons unless something drastic changes. 

I’ve taken a closer look at the finances to see what’s changed the most – I was thinking it was the loan repayments but it really isn’t. It’s the ground maintenance! Last season we paid out £262,883 all season. So far this season it’s cost £2,127,420!!! Why has it risen so much? This is what’s crippling us right now and I’ve no idea why! Are the newly improved Youth Facilities included in this? Are the Board saving up for a new stadium without telling me? 

The PJT trophy will bring a bit of cash but the attendance is only projected to be 7,000 meaning Wembley will be largely empty. Sheffield United take an early lead as we’re carved open very easily and then Connor Hall goes down injured meaning 15-year-old Dale East will get to play 80 minutes at Wembley in just his second professional appearance. We’re taking the game to the Premier League team’s U23s but they do us again with a ball over the top, despite Patrick Black’s best efforts on the line. It’s end to end stuff in the second half but we don’t seem to be creating anything clear cut until Tomeu hammers one in from almost nothing and all of a sudden it’s game on. Owens saves from a Sheffield United breakaway to keep us in it and in the 82nd minute Jones is bundled over in the box and Boateng puts the penalty away. 2-2! The Blades finish strongly, bouncing back from the disappointment of giving away a two goal lead but it goes to extra time. 

With legs tiring, a long punt from the Blades keeper evades everyone and Wilkinson slots home. Route one again but it’s been effective. There’s no comeback. Game over. We’ve lost but it has been a valiant effort. We can be justly proud of our performance in the competition.  

Bad news for Hall though, he’ll miss the rest of the season with a twisted ankle. 

The Board don’t seem fussed about the finances from a staffing point of view – they’ve voluntarily increased the numbers to allow a Performance Analyst for the first time. The job advert is out. 

We don’t play on Easter Monday after our exertions in the PJT final. Accrington take advantage and steal seventh from us. We need to win our game in hand to get back into the play-off spots. 

There’s no Keeling, Hall or Jones for the visit of second-placed Carlisle who take an early lead against an inexperienced side (no Brooks either, remember). They hold on to it the entire game and it feels like not only is our chance of promotion going this season but maybe for the foreseeable future if we can’t sort out the finances. 

With that in mind – and looking at contracts being an issue – I speak to the Board about outstanding transfer clauses. And guess what? They come up trumps! Craig Lee – sold for £650k – has a 20% profit of future sales clause. He’s currently valued at £850k, so 20% of the difference would be £40k but somehow the Board have negotiated £1.55million!!!! I think we’ll take that, thank you very much Norwich. There’s £276k for Daniel Evans, too and we take that from Sheffield Wednesday (this feels like we got proper value for Evans now, even though it pales next to Lee’s fee, the £35k we got initially felt like daylight robbery).  Finances? Sorted. (For now.)

What’s that? You want to give us £1.55m to cover a potential £40k future profit? Er, okay!

We concede early again at home to Cambridge – we could do with a win or else I think our promotion push is over – and then Tomeu takes a knock and has to be replaced by Adam Wells. We push and push – we have 67% possession – but Cambridge catch us on the break time and again. Owens saves once but can do nothing the second time and the U’s add a late third. It’s as demoralising as it is confusing – the back four all rate over 7 and all the blame seems to be on Owens despite the highlights showing he did nothing wrong. Maybe it’s time to go back to Sani? 

Owens: The Fall Guy

Mansfield next – and they’re level on points with us and equally desperate to get into that play-off race. They also feature an ex-player – Andrew Crompton who was stolen away from us by Huddersfield in the great Season 14 youth academy heist – he’s on loan and has 14 goals in 14 games for them. Should be interesting! Jim is back from suspension but it looks like another game that’s going to frustrate – 67% possession again during the first half – until Jones makes the breakthrough on the stroke of half-time, scoring from the edge of the box after a corner routine breaks down. Mansfield draw level mid-way through the second half but a draw does nobody any good. Turns is on for McAllister and it’s his strike on 85 minutes that sends Broadhurst Park into raptures. Mansfield seem intent on breaking our hearts and when they break in injury time I fear the worst – but Crompton hits the post with twenty seconds left on the clock and we’ve won a massive three points. 

Better still, Accrington and Bradford (seventh and sixth, respectively) both lose. We’re back in this. 

A Perfect Storm

Kettering away – just one change, Pearson in for a fatigued Liversedge – but a second is forced early as Jim picks up a knock. Sam Hollis is the only proper option on the bench – a Season 18 prospect who’s been on the bench a few times while that front four were variously suspended and injured. Jones wins a penalty on 20 minutes which Boateng (who had been removed from penalty duties but is back on them due to injuries) duly dispatches. As it stands, we’re 6th. We survive a Kettering onslaught at the end of the first half but immediately on the re-start they’re level. Tomeu quickly restores the lead – he’d been quiet all game (and all the previous 3-4 games to be honest). The Spaniard closes the game out in the 88th minute, finishing clinically after good work from substitute Ben Tancock. Amazingly, Bradford and Accrington both lose again. We’re up to 6th place and a draw at Bristol Rovers will secure a play-off spot for the second year in a row. A win would take us a point beyond the 72 we accumulated last season, which would be nice as well. 

One downside – possibly no Jim, he’s gashed his leg in the game and is out 5-10 days. But Brooks and Hall are back in training. Is it too soon to bring them in? Might be wiser to save them for (potentially – don’t count those chickens) the play-offs.  I decide it is, but do risk Keeling. 

There are no chances at all for the first ten minutes and then Bristol Rovers shock us – Bukari smashing in the opener. The response is instant from the lads – they bottle it and give the ball away and we’re 2-0 down after 14 minutes. Boateng and Tomeu combine wonderfully to get us back in it with a rare right-footed finish from the Spanish Tom but it’s our only shot on target in the first half. Rovers are keeping Jones and Keeling very quiet and we may have to think about replacing the pair of them. 

The gamble is made on 57 minutes – Appiah and East, both still 15, are on for the experienced Jones and Keeling. Liversedge is injured meaning a shuffling of the defence – Black back to left back, Tyrrell on – and we immediately concede. Appiah gets his second for the club (at the second attempt) to keep the gap to one but we’re still looking at other results. Bradford are winning but what about Accrington? There’s been no news. And then, as if by magic, they concede in the 85th minute (even a draw wouldn’t have lifted them above us) and we look like we’re in. It wasn’t pretty, but we’re in. 

A Common FC United Theme – Losing But Still Succeeding!

We need to improve if we want to go up though. 

Liversedge has a fractured wrist and is out for the play-offs. Jamie Pearson is up at left back and has played well when we’ve asked. Odd that it’s now one of our strongest positions! 

Wycombe in the play-offs, with Bradford meeting Blackpool in the other tie. We’ve played Wycombe four times, all since getting into League Two: two goalless draws last season then this season a 2-0 win at home in October before being thrashed 5-1 at their place in February. We’ll need to be better than that! 

Brooks is back and Keeling gets the nod too despite still not being fully fit. Both are gambles but if you can’t gamble now, when can you? A positive early start sees Jones fouled for a penalty. Jim’s back on penalty duties – but flashes it wide of the post! Jim! 

Boateng hits the post after good work by Ross and Turns down the right and it seems like that’s where we’re getting the most joy at the minute. Wycombe break but Owens is equal to it – he’s growing in confidence after some shaky performances. It looks like being goalless at half-time until a long punt catches out Pearson and the ball works its way to Hasan Kurt who finishes expertly. We twice come close to an equaliser – Boateng and Appiah (on as a sub) narrowly missing with headers but we’ll travel to Wycombe a goal down and with a lot to do. More so because Boateng picked up a yellow card that will rule him out of the return leg and potentially, the final. 

Tancock gets the nod in central midfield, Stan Hind is on the bench with McAllister and Joshua Barrett returns after injury. Pearson makes up for a poor first leg with a double block on the line early on to keep us in it but bad news again for Keeling, who pulls a thigh muscle and is off again, Dale East on in his place. As we’re making the sub, Wycombe are reduced to ten men, Joynes sent off. It’s a mirror image of last season’s play-off against Leyton Orient. We couldn’t make the extra man pay last time and succumbed to the first leg 1-0 defeat. Will history repeat itself or can we finally take advantage of a situation in our favour. Tomeu decides to take control of the situation, finishing nicely from a Tancock through-ball and then Turns turns in a cross (you see what I did there?) from the same player on 39 minutes and we are in control. 

The lads are confident, just Jim looking on anxiously from the bench, wanting to be a part of it. 

Wycombe suddenly step up a gear, bombard us with crosses and eventually one pings to the right place and Holder levels the scores on aggregate. 

We bounce back again, pressuring them for what seems like an age. It seems like nothing will come of it until Ross dances into the box and is brought down by Priske, who injures himself in the process. No Jim, no Tom to take the penalties so Ashley Turns steps up. He finishes confidently and we’re back in front. And then we break again! Ugwu sends East away down the left, the ball comes back out to Ugwu and he finishes at the near post. Game Over. Except Tomeu then wins another penalty and Turns scores again – he has a hat-trick and we are cruising to the play-off final. Unbelievable. 5-1 and revenge for that league game back in February! 

Unbelievable Jeff!

Blackpool have edged past Bradford, we’ll meet them at Wembley in just over two weeks’ time. Our record against them is solid and we’re unbeaten in the four league games we’ve had, winning two and drawing two. They finished 5th, six points ahead of us, so there’ll be work to do but it’s a winnable game. 

There are selection headaches. Liversedge is back in training but is he fit enough? Brooks has struggled with a niggling injury but definitely starts and Keeling is in the same situation, not at full fitness but raring to go. Hall is available too but Boateng is out with the suspension that kept him out of the win at Wycombe. It’ll be Ugwu and Tancock in the middle of the park. I decide to gamble on Liversedge but Hall stays on the bench, hat-trick hero Ashley Turns retaining his place at AMC. I’m happy with that, Hall could be a game changer from the bench if we need him. 

Blackpool put us under early pressure but take the lead on the break after our first attack breaks down. Owens looks clumsy trying to keep out the header. Fortunately, Tomos Jones has us level before we have time to start panicking, a nice finish from a Tancock cross. There’s good defending from Brooks but Liversedge is looking off the pace until he puts a sublime ball through to Tomeu and, 41 minutes in, we lead. It lasts about twenty seconds, Blackpool waltzing down the pitch straight from the kick-off and rounding Owens for the equaliser.  2-2. We have some game on our hands.

Blackpool threaten in the early stages of the second half but lose composure and Tomeu is brought down in the penalty area! Keeling, quiet all game, tucks the spot kick away and we lead again! The lead lasts six whole minutes this time before Blackpool break down our right and a ricocheting cross falls kindly to them. Time for change. Ugwu is underperforming and Turns is about to make way for Hall. Do we risk youngster Stan Hind in midfield? We do, and Joshua Barrett is on for a tiring Jones, too. The last few minutes go by slowly but it stays 3-3. Extra time looms. 

It’s Blackpool who look stronger. Keeling, exhausted, is replaced by McAllister and Blackpool break again but this time Owens is equal to it. Fifteen minutes to go.

Tomeu and Hall are somehow denied in a double save from close range. We’re in the ascendency now, Hind finds Tomeu for one last chance but the Spaniard is forced wide and can’t beat the keeper from the tight angle. We’re going to penalties and all our recently successful penalty takers are off the pitch!  

Tomeu, McAllister, Tancock, Hind, Brooks is the order. Tomeu nearly takes the back of the net off, a great start, but Blackpool level. McAllister’s shot is tame and saved easily but Blackpool put their second penalty wide! Tancock restores the lead, firm into the bottom left. Blackpool level again. Stan Hind goes the same way as Tancock, 3-2. Owens gets close to Blackpool’s fourth but it’s in. Brooks finishes nicely and we’re ahead again. Broaders against Owens is easy for Blackpool and we’re into sudden death!

Connor Hall steps up and scores and then Cano screws his penalty wide and WE ARE GOING TO LEAGUE ONE!!!!! Unbelievable stuff. The match stats don’t dispute that we deserved the win – an xG of 2.94 to 0.89 – but man, that was nerve-wracking! But we’ve done it! 

What A Final! League One Here We Come!

Now, who’s good enough for League One? 

Season 19 (pt.1) – League Two

Unwanted Exits Lead to Wanted Developments

Lee Evans rings me at the start of June while I’m on holiday. He thinks he’s outgrown FC United Of Manchester. I play my ace and tell him he’ll never find a dressing room atmosphere like the one we have here. It works. Again! He decides extra money and the glory of League One/Championship football pale next to the possibility of hearing Jim Keeling regale us with surrealist comedy routines.  I put my shades back on and start to relax in the Mediterranean sun…

Jim’s next up though – Southend make a paltry offer that sways the winger’s head. Want more money, Jim? Course you do, Jim – have a pay rise and stay put. He does just that. 

We aren’t done with Lee Evans though. Jim’s own distractions have meant the dressing room harmony has been lacking and Bristol City pounce, offering a deal that could amount to £160k. Despite Evans having a £1m release fee he doesn’t want to wait around for someone to offer that. We are at an impasse. We’re probably heading into Craig Lee territory already with a long list of Premier League and Championship clubs sniffing around. It’s another no-win situation and time to slap the huge transfer fee on. 

Immediately, Burnley meet the release clause and it’s time to shop him around and see if we can get some add-ons from anyone else. No-one else will negotiate but Derby match the Burnley offer. It never feels quite as bad when you’re selling someone because the minimum fee release clause has been met. It’s like “well, it’s not my decision” and you can kind of relax safe in the knowledge that you’ll receive little in the way of criticism (even if it was you that negotiated the contract in the first place!). At least Macauley Hughes will be happy, Evans had nicked his place in the team towards the end of last season and while it’s a shame he’s going and we won’t get to see him develop, I think we have enough cover to manage while other youngsters develop. 

While all that’s going on, Reading come in and steal our head physio, which is all a bit uncalled for. Cardiff do the same with u18s coach, Lee Reynolds. Get the job adverts out, quick. We fend off a Sheffield Wednesday bid for Connor Hall without any fuss from either them or the player. Yet. 

Bristol City, Stoke City and Aston Villa cave in and also offer £1m for Evans. The money will help (again) because we’re still in the red by almost £100k. This is going to be a recurring theme now and is going to make it difficult to improve the facilities any further until the debts are paid or we get silly money for someone. 

Stoke win the prize and Evans is off to the Premier League! 

On to the next batch of youngsters and Sam Hollis, an AMC, is the first off the mark with a training report. DoF Jose Scott says Hollis has improved significantly – a good start for the number three prospect from this year’s group. 

Darren Connor’s getting a testimonial! A youth intake player! He’s been here 15 years now, it’s fully deserved. We’re 100-1 for the title which puts us joint 21st. The absolute cheek of it. 

Darren Connor gets a testimonial

More transfer drama – Crystal Palace want Huw Williams and I don’t want to sell. He has two years left on his contract and I have plans for him this season after he impressed on loan last time out. Stay Huw, stay! We go back and have a chat with him and agree that if a bid of £350k comes in, we’ll accept it (though we all know if that happens I’ll be off asking for a million pounds again, but don’t tell Huw). 

More bids – this time they exceed the £350k. Bristol City start off the negotiations and we work them up to £1.2m plus 15% of any future profit. Huddersfield and Watford back off and it looks like that’s all the offers until Watford come back alongside Aston Villa, Middlesbrough and Portsmouth. Time to wheeler-deal again. Watford go to £1.2m plus instalments of £160k, league appearance and international appearance payments and 30% of the future profit (plus a friendly). 

In the pre-season games we lose narrowly to Arsenal u23s (1-2) despite have Kieran Ross sent off after 14 minutes. Newbie Adam Wells comes off the bench to score and put himself firmly in the frame for a first team place. A thrilling 4-2 win over Millwall is highlighted by a Fabian McAllister stunner from 25 yards – a real positive for a player who was being tried out as the Deep Lying Playmaker – a role that was Thomas Ugwu’s but that we’d lined up for Huw Williams this season until all the transfer nonsense started. Ugwu was below par last season and needs to know there’s competition for his place now. 

Ilkeston are brushed aside by the second string, Matthew Tyrell (S17) and Jason Doyle (S15) having a good showing at the heart of the defence and Mark Murphy nicking a last minute goal that keeps him level with Adam Wells in the back-up striker role – we still need to look again at Alwayne White, too. 

Tomas Thomas is headed out to Salford for the season. There’s no role for him here now and they’re offering a monthly fee and a good chunk of his wages. It should set him up for next season when he’ll be out of contract. Left-back Tony Robinson (S15) heads back to Barrow for a second spell as well and another Season 15 alumni – Brad Matthews – is going to Grimsby. Matthews is a right-winger but injuries plus good depth at the position have kept him from making progress. A loan is great for him at this point because we’re planning to play Connor Hall as an inverted winger on the right and we’ve got Tomas Jones and Kevin Cooper in reserve as well as Joshua Barrett from the latest intake. Matthias Backes is also heading back to Barrow – that might well be his level and he’s another who might just be seeing out his contract at this point. 

The Williams to Watford deal goes through – we’ve lost another promising youngster but we’ve recouped a new transfer record £1.4m that could rise to £1.6m. With £2.3m in the bank it’s time to ask the board for stuff! Training facilities perhaps? That’s a no. Youth Facilities? After a discussion where I convince them it’ll be a money-spinner (canny, they’ve just seen a boatload of cash come in), they say yes! I’m a bit shocked! It’ll cost £2m so we’ll be very skint very quickly but it pushes us to ‘Great’ on the scale. Which is great! 

Hurrah! Youth Facilities a-go-go!

The Darren Connor testimonial brings back Lee Evans immediately alongside Amos Omondi, Neil Nelson, Adam Walker and Ross O’Rourke. I hate this. It’s our final game before the season and I want to play my strongest team but always feel obliged to play the ex-players who’ve turned up. The all get a half – Omondi picks up an injury – and all prove it was a good decision to let them go as we lose 3-1. Connor has an awful game. 

Opening Month

We start inauspiciously, losing 2-0 at Lincoln in a close match that we gave away due to one moment of carelessness. Tomeu gets both himself and the team off the mark in the next game at home to Fylde, and we’re 2-0 up before the striker is taken off injured in the 36th minute with what turns out to be a groin strain that will keep him out 4-6 weeks. It’s a blow. Mark Murphy comes on to replace him, having edged ahead of White and Wells – and promptly scores a second half hat-trick in an emphatic 5-1 win. Looks like he’s played his way into the starting lineup! 

He does start in the Carabao Cup against Mansfield, but he’s quiet and Alwayne White replaces him and promptly breaks the deadlock with his first professional goal in a game we dominate but take nearly 70 minutes to score (Boateng missing a third-minute penalty didn’t help). Keeling adds a second and we win in this competition for the first time. 

Boateng is replaced as penalty taker (he missed a couple last season as well) and Jim Keeling takes over and is immediately called into action away to Darlington in the next match. He hits the post with his effort and we may have to think again about penalty takers! We dominate again but can’t score and it ends goalless. Frustrating. 

We battle past Shrewsbury in the next game, behind twice (the second due to Sani going walkabout at a free-kick, which isn’t great on its own but then he just stays where he is – miles from goal – and acts like he’s on the line). Fortunately, Mark Murphy is on form again and pops up with two goals including and 87th minute winner. 

We bow out of the Carabao Cup in Round 2, beaten narrowly by Wigan. The first half is close but we tire in the second and they grab the only goal of the game and hold on. 

Swindon are outclassed on their own ground but once again we can’t land a knockout blow, needing a thumping header from Tom Boateng to rescue a point in a game in which we had 68% of the possession. Murphy has a stinker (he’s only scored at home, every time we play away he’s awful). It’s still a decent result (Swindon were top of the table) but it could have been so much more. 

Transfer deadline approaches and we dip into the staff pool to look for an upgrade to Head Of Youth Development. Antoine Thompson always felt like a stop-gap and we need someone better who we can afford. We just about stretch to meet the demands of 49 year-old Marvin Jacobs and he takes over with immediate effect. 

New HOYD Marvin Jacobs

We try and get loan deals for some of the youngsters and fringe players but only Success Agba attracts any interest and is set to go to Brackley in the Vanarama North. The lack of any interest in the division up tells me almost as much as any performances: Agba’s probably at the end of his time with us. 

A Profitable or Costly Transfer Window?

Mark Murphy wins League Two Young Player Of The Month for two awesome performances and two poor ones. Well done, Mark! 

September to December

Another dominant game without a goal – held 0-0 by Accrington despite 63% possession and 12 shots to their two. League leaders Leyton Orient up next – a good test of where we stand in the pecking order right now. It doesn’t start well, two down with just 11 minutes on the clock. We improve but they’re just too good for us and score a third late in the second half. There are poor performances throughout (Hall, Turns, Murphy all get subbed but Boateng, Ugwu and, worryingly, Sani, all could have come off too if we’d had enough subs). 

A draw at Torquay follows – another game we dominate – before a home game at Gillingham that we look like throwing away until two goals in a minute from substitutes Murphy and Turns transform the game. More goallessness follows at home to high-flying Bradford – it’s frustrating but defensively rewarding – we seem to be difficult to beat right now, It’s just a shame we aren’t converting chances at the other end. Tomeu hasn’t scored since returning from injury and Murphy isn’t quite there as a long-term replacement. 

The ‘b’ team turn up and beat League One Wrexham in the PJT, Ashley Turns scoring twice in a 2-1 win. There are good performances from Matthew Tyrrell and Zak Price in defence that warrant further interest, too. 

The main problem at the minute concerns Tomeu. He’s scored just once in eight appearances so far this season and looks lacking in confidence. To be truthful, the coaching staff have been suggesting playing other players (mainly Keeling) instead up front for at least 12 months but it’s hard to move a player who scores at the rate the Spaniard does. He hit 36 in all competitions last season and has 254 for the club – scoring at least 26 every year for the last seven years. Assistant Manager Nathan Baker reckons he’s only a leading player at Vanarama North level but he’s played above that for years. He’s a big-game player, strong and skillful but…is his time up? He’s still only 24 and the start of the season was disrupted by injury but how long can we persist with him in this form? You can’t have personal favourites they always say, but how do not when he’s scored so many?!? 

Is the end in sight for Tomeu?

Keeling gets the nod away to Dulwich Hamlet, that puts Connor Hall on the left and makes space for Tomos Jones on the right. It’s Boateng who sets us on our way though, crashing in a volley from 25 yards out that might well be a goal of the season contender. Keeling has one ruled out for a narrow offside and he’s doing alright, getting into the right positions but a second goal comes from a midfielder outside the box – Thomas Ugwu firing home from distance. Hall heads in for 3-0 after good work from Liversedge down the left, keeping his place after a decent PJT performance and keeping Patrick Black on the sidelines. Dulwich Hamlet get one back and Sani saves well as we start to tire in the final ten minutes but we hold on for a good 3-1 away win. 

U23 manager, Craig Moore, recommends left back Jamie Pearson is ready to train with the first team. Agreed. Up he goes to provide competition to Black and Liversedge. I’m always happy to accept recommendations in a positive direction and far less likely to respond when they suggest dropping someone to the U23s or U18s! 

A tricky away tie at Newport up next. Tomeu is out of the travelling party for the second game in a row and the move looks to be working as Jones links up with Keeling and the latter slots home. Jones turns goalscorer on the stroke of half-time and our fourth and fifth longest-serving players are making the game safe. Newport somehow survive a goalmouth scramble in which both Hall and Boateng seemed certain to score. Macauley Hughes has the ball in the net two minutes later though, nodding in his first of the season from a Jones free-kick, the Welshman with a hand in all three goals and seemingly the biggest beneficiary of Tomeu being dropped. Keeling makes it four, slotting in at the near post after running onto a hopeful Hughes punt and Hall is denied by a good save from the Newport keeper. The reprieve is temporary for Newport though, Keeling volleys in an Ugwu cross to complete his hat-trick and cement a sensational 5-0 away win. The best performance of the season by a mile and it lifts us back into play-off contention. 

Newport thrashed as we move into play-off position

Tomeu’s trying hard in training to impress – too hard as it happens. He overexerts himself in the weights room and gives himself a hernia. The Keeling experiments gets the green light to continue for another month. 

Jones takes full advantage again – he’s on fire right now – and strikes early from a Keeling lay-off. Sani makes a couple of stupendous saves either side of half-time that keeps us ahead and, after some patient work down the right, Tancock plays the ball across the edge of the area and Ugwu smashes home to make it 2-0 and secure another good win. Amazingly, we climb five places to second, a combination of other teams either losing or not playing. Just four points separate us from defeated Wycombe who are now 11th. It’s pretty tight and we’re fourth a day later but clearly right in the mix. 

Briefly up to 2nd!

Hartlepool next and Keeling is out with a minor injury meaning Mark Murphy gets to start again. Do we have the goals to continue our push? Jones continues his golden form, streaking clear of the defence but denied by the keeper and then seeing a shot from a Brooks free-kick come back off both posts. Murphy nods narrowly over and it feels like one of those games. Brooks heads a Jones free-kick straight at the keeper and Boateng’s shot from distance is millimetres wide. There’s no breakthrough. 0-0 – 17 shots, 7 on target but nothing to show for it. And we travel to Blackpool in three days’ time as well – let’s hope Jim’s back to full fitness. 

Jim is, indeed, back, but it’s Connor Hall that taps in for an early opener at the seaside following a flowing move that ran from one side of the pitch to the other. A rare Andy Brooks mistake needs a Sani save to rescue us and Ross hacks the ball off the line from the resulting corner. Blackpool keep coming and equalise with just ten seconds left on the clock. It’s a cruel blow after a really solid performance. It’s a good result but not a good result, all at the same time. 

The next game is even more frustrating, two-up at Plymouth and cruising with just over ten minutes to go and they pull one back and then steal a 95th minute equaliser. We have to learn to close games out and even though our unbeaten run continues we need to turn these draws into wins if we want to keep pace in the promotion race. 

Luckily, Scunthorpe are up next, sitting in 22nd in the table, and we storm into a 4-0 lead (Jones, Hall twice and rare Patrick Black goal – he’s stepped into DC after Hughes was suspended and is looking to keep the spot). But even here we contrive to try and throw the game away and three second half goals for the relegation contenders keep us sweating until the final whistle. We’re unbeaten in ten and sit sixth in the table. 

We interrupt the league progress to travel to high-flying League One outfit, Preston. It’ll be a good test of where we stand in relation to that division and whether our genuine aspirations of promotion can be followed up at a higher level. The early signs are hugely positive – we fend off a couple of early Preston attacks (Sani in good form) before Boateng and Hall score within six minutes of each other. 2-0 at half-time but we know how we like a late collapse so I warn the lads not to let their performance levels drop. They don’t until the 69th minute when Sani loses the flight of a corner and lets them back into the tie. This time though, we hang on. A terrific cup win. 

The PJT is up next and a daunting task against Man City u23s. We face off with largely our u23 side, only Hughes and Connor over that age and back-ups playing all the way through the side and promising left-back, Jamie Pearson, gets to make his debut. Ben Tancock gets his first goal for club, a magical goal that sees him dribble from the half-way line and slot home after a mazy run. Tomeu makes his return with a 15-minute cameo at the end as he works his way back to fitness. He caps it off with a strike from the edge of the area that looks like it’s sealed the three points but City have other ideas and level in injury time and take it to penalties. It goes to sudden-death (McAllister saw his shot saved, but Owens pulled off a good stop to keep the scores level after five) and then wins it, saving the last penalty after Liam Johnson had scored. We qualify in second place. 

We fall behind early at home to Chesterfield in our return to league competition but Hall and Boateng soon turn things around as we dominate the first half. Keeling adds a third and Hall scores his second of the game before the half-time whistle is blown. A bafflingly bad sequence of play from both teams sees Chesterfield somehow score but it’s merely a consolation. There’s plenty of other stuff to talk about surrounding this game, too. It puts us 5th in the table and with Swindon losing the promotion race is very congested indeed. We’re just two points off the top of the table and there are just nine points separating the first 13 teams! Anyone who can put a good run together now could put themselves in the driving seat. 

Still in the hunt but it’s tight at the top!

Jamal Owens started the game ahead of Samuel Sani after a good outing in the PJT, Tomos Jones had three assists and Connor Hall unfortunately suffered a twisted ankle that will keep him out three to four weeks. It’s a blow for him, but it might be a boon to Tomeu if Keeling is forced back onto the left. A lot depends on whether I trust Tomeu or third-string left winger Liam Johnson more. 

Owens starts again – there’s disagreement among the coaching staff as to who is currently the better keeper but no doubt about potential with Owens now being touted as a potential Premier League player. He does nothing wrong away to Cambridge but we still lose for the first time in 12 league games and 15 games overall. It’s close – 1-0 – but we miss the suspended Andy Brooks and the creativity of Hall. 

Sani returns for the trip to Carlisle and we emerge with a creditable 1-1 draw, Turns equalising after good work by Keeling. Jim has two chances to win it late but can’t find the finish. A learning point from the last couple of games: Liam Johnson isn’t the same player he was before the cruciate ligament injury – the second rated prospect from Season 13 is struggling at this level. He’s signed through to 2041 so I think a loan might be the best way to assess him going forward. He’s 21 now, so could still develop but I don’t think we can gamble on him in the first team right now. It’s a big shame but it feels like the right decision. 

Centre-back Jason Doyle is in a similar position – needs game time but isn’t going to get it with us right now. The 19-year-old heads to the Vanarama National with Ebbsfleet for the rest of the season. 

FA Cup is up next and we’re against League One opposition again in Fleetwood Town. We put out an experienced line-up – only Liversedge doesn’t come from Season 11 or earlier making him the only player under the age of 23. It’s testament to the long-term building rather than a worry that the youngsters aren’t breaking through – they’re getting time to develop these days which is great. 

We hold out until the 81st minute when, ironically, it’s a mistake from the oldest player in the team that gifts Fleetwood the narrowest of wins. Patrick Black – an ancient 28 – loses the ball in our half and we’re punished by the League One side. We battled well though, and it’s another sign that we could compete a level up. Record gate receipts are another bonus – £130k – but I’m scared to look at the finances these days. Running this academy is getting expensive. 

A Brief History Of Youth Intakes

How we arrived at Season 19…

As this save has migrated from YouTube videos to WordPress blogs, I thought it might be worthwhile bridging some of the gap between the start of the save and now for those of you just joining us.

It’s been a long and tortuous road – building a team using only the club’s youth system proved to be much harder than I could ever have imagined. We came close to being relegated on at least two occasions and relied on bad results from clubs worse than us to stay up. Despite fairly continuous progress in developing facilities, it took a long time for this to translate into results on the pitch.

It’s also worth reflecting on the Youth Academy products at this point – the beginning of our nineteenth season in charge – because our longest serving player may just be seeing out his final season with the club. More about Darren Connor in a short while though. First of all, what was the first intake like?

Youth Intake #1 – 2022

  • Final League Position – 7th (Vanarama National North)
  • Training Facilities – Basic
  • Youth Facilities – Basic
  • Youth Rating – 4
  • Junior Coaching – Average
  • Youth Recruitment – Fairly Basic
  • Head Of Youth Development – Tom Conroy
  • Collective Appearances – 595

We were promised a golden generation at preview stage, and reminded that it definitely was a golden generation when the first batch of kids finally arrived (this may or may not be a recurring theme). I was surprised and excited in equal measure and threw players in at the deep end expecting great and marvelous things. I may have been disappointed…

Four players got to start immediately and there were high hopes for almost the entire class given the challenges of keeping hold of members of the original squad. Graham Daley was the stand-out, a right back who established himself in the starting line-up right from the beginning but who became just a little bit too good for us and the rest of the squad. He bolted to Grimsby and lived out a fairly solid League Two/Vanarama National career way before anyone else in an FC United shirt could even dream of such a thing. We missed him when he went and spent about ten years trying to adequately replace him.

Of the rest, you can see that Joe White played the most but we put too much on his young shoulders, asking him to run the midfield at 17. He stuck around for a long time because I just didn’t want to give up on him but he was never quite good enough. The same can be said for top prospect Greg Hughes – the first in a long, long line of AMRs who threatened to be the best player in their respective intakes but failed to deliver (the same can be said of the MCs as well, as we’ll see).

Of the rest, Jordan Roberts flashed briefly as a potential successor to Cedric up front and Alfonso Ribas kept getting the odd game as we tried to resolve the left-back conundrum that plagued us during the first few seasons, but the rest fizzled out and I was left wondering what a golden generation might actually look like.

Youth Intake #2 – 2023

  • Final League Position – 13th (Vanarama National North)
  • Training Facilities – Basic
  • Youth Facilities – Below Average
  • Youth Rating – 4
  • Junior Coaching – Average
  • Youth Recruitment – Adequate
  • Head Of Youth Development – Tom Conroy
  • Collective Appearances – 688

A deterioration in league form as original squad members move on (or get worse!) and the youngsters coming through don’t yet have enough to compete at the same level. It’s another potential golden generation (spoiler: it’s always going to be a potential golden generation – in 18 seasons, it’s never wavered) but again, I’m going to be left disappointed in the young charges Tom Conroy has put forward for us.

Quite a few players hung around from this intake for a long while and, even though they played more games than the 2022 intake, it still feels inferior. There was a lot of mirroring of Intake #1 behaviours – Gerrard and Norburn both promised to be the answer in central midfield but between the pair of them and Joe White, no-one ever emerged as a first choice we could place our trust in. Richard Jepson was this season’s Greg Hughes, a second successive AMR who was the top prospect in the group and who failed to live up to expectations despite plenty of chances. Another thing they had in common: a complete inability to tackle without getting a red card.

Benny Wylie was the other player from this intake to clock up a fair amount of games, and for a while he looked like the answer at AMC. When I say a while, I probably mean about ten games, but sometimes when a player does that you can spend another three or four seasons believing they can recapture that form somehow. I need to learn to be more impatient!

Lance Hume is worth a mention – the last-but-one ranked player in the group with no technical ability and poor mentals but his physicals were off-the-charts and I kept him hoping it would make a difference at this level. It did. Twice. You still need the other stuff too, it turns out.

Youth Intake #3 – 2024

  • Final League Position – 18th (Vanarama National North)
  • Training Facilities – Basic
  • Youth Facilities – Below Average
  • Youth Rating – 4
  • Junior Coaching – Adequate
  • Youth Recruitment – Average
  • Head Of Youth Development – Tom Conroy
  • Collective Appearances – 1,258

Tom’s finest hour? So far, only two subsequent intakes have surpassed the appearance mark set by Season 3’s kids and they stake a claim to being one of the best intakes ever, and certainly while we were still languishing in the Vanarama National North.

Another drop in final league position continued a worrying trend and we needed these guys to help out as soon as possible, though it would probably be another couple of years before they really started to impact and we started to get a rolling improvement. For now though, these boys were being thrown into the lion’s den, and not many were getting out alive!

We can’t talk about the group without starting with Darren Connor. He’s still here as we start the 2039-40 season, a full 15 years after he arrived, though his influence is finally waning. He’s a great case study in being slow and steady. Six of this intake had already made their debuts before Connor finally made the first team three years after arriving. He didn’t really stand out on arrival (ranked seventh in the group) and White, Gerrard and Norburn kept him in the background, as did Connor Rowlands who arrived a year later.

Once he did win a place though, he did not let go of it and he was a mainstay of the side – you can see he played 50 games plus for six consecutive seasons. A consummate professional, he maximised his potential way more than any other player. In truth, he’s never been spectacular – his stats are quite ordinary – but he’s been incredibly reliable and superb when it really mattered in the big games. He took the eventual jump to the Vanarama National in his stride and I’ve no doubt he’s been a huge influence on the youngsters who have come through in the last four or five years. He’s responsible for 587 of those collective appearances, passing the record held by original squad member and goalkeeper Dan Lavercombe, who dipped out at 478.

He wasn’t the best player in the intake though. That accolade goes to James Cox – a striker and sometime right winger who set the benchmark for what an FC United youngster could be. Lethal in front of goal, quick and keen to learn (he set records for attribute point increases year on year) he simply outgrew us in much the same way as Graham Daley. We somehow kept him beyond his contract expiry, playing him on a week to week contract for over a year before he finally slipped loose and headed to Blackburn Rovers in the Championship. He never quite broke through there but became an accomplished League Two player with Dulwich Hamlet (!) before heading to Australia last season.

Neil Nelson showed occasional promise but faded, Osian Allshorn made claims to be the best DC we’d ever had but was such a slow player that he couldn’t help but be outclassed even at this level. He actually got worse each season, losing attribute points and leaving a sense of unfilled potential wherever he went. That worked well for Daniel Antah, who’d waited in the wings for four seasons for his chance and took it well when it came. And in case you were missing a highly touted AMR who failed to live up to expectations but loved a red card? Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Frank Giverin, even worse than the previous two AMRs.

The surprise here – Ricky Whitfield. Ranked 13th on arrival, he was the guy we turned to when Graham Daley left because, well, he was just about all we had. Amazingly, he made a good attempt at being a VNN level player despite everyone saying he’d never make it. He played 193 times – sometimes out of necessity but largely on merit.

Youth Intake #4 – 2025

  • Final League Position – 20th (Vanarama National North)
  • Training Facilities – Below Average
  • Youth Facilities – Below Average
  • Youth Rating – 4
  • Junior Coaching – Adequate
  • Youth Recruitment – Average
  • Head Of Youth Development – Tom Conroy
  • Collective Appearances – 643

The first close brush with relegation, we survived by the skin of our teeth as the original squad continued to deplete and three successive golden generations failed to deliver any progress. No matter, a fourth arrived at the end of the season. Surely that will help? (Hint: It might not.)

This is almost a one-man intake. Ben Beresford – Big Ben – played 388 times for us (that’s 60% of this intake’s total). At 6’7″ he was the perfect addition at the perfect time – a big target man (who was also quite skillful – you know the quote!) who propelled himself very quickly into the starting line-up (51 games in his first full season) and formed a dangerous ‘little and large’ partnership with James Cox. Beresford ended up with 210 goals for the club, a record that has only just been surpassed. He was a legend for the best part of seven or eight years.

The only other player of note in this intake is Pat Challinor, ranked 9th but blessed with being a left-back in a world where left-backs are a rare commodity and those who knew how to play left-back were rarer still. Challinor wasn’t great, but he was the best we had. He was outclassed repeatedly but always turned up and always gave his best. It wasn’t his fault and we’ll always be grateful that he took the boos from the crowd for us for being a sub-standard left-back. It was a dirty job, but someone had to do it.

A quick mention to Joe Boyes who hung around for ages offering mild threats of being able to play to anyone who’d listen but not loud enough or persistent enough to warrant ever playing more than six times in a season. And mentions too to Lonergan, Rowlands, Gallimore and Pugh, who all had a shot at the first team but who all missed the target.

Youth Intake #5 – 2026

  • Final League Position – 20th (Vanarama National North)
  • Training Facilities – Below Average
  • Youth Facilities – Below Average
  • Youth Rating – 4
  • Junior Coaching – Good
  • Youth Recruitment – Good
  • Head Of Youth Development – Laurie Walker
  • Collective Appearances – 258

Tom was gone at the end of Season 4, replaced by Laurie Walker as we sought to halt the year on year decline in league positions. It wasn’t a reflection on the work Tom had done, we’d had some hits during his tenure, but a change was needed. By the end of this season we’d also convinced the Board to improve both the Junior Coaching and the Youth Recruitment.

The result of all this? Another last-day escape from relegation (I mean, really, really close to going down and losing the save) and…objectively the worst youth intake of the entire save. I mean, just rubbish. Laurie’s got a lot of explaining to do.

Ten players from this intake failed to make a single first team appearance and those that did, well, none of them excelled. This all falls hardest on Gabriel Barton, the top prospect and the only player to make over 100 appearances from this group. It’s harsh on him because in other intakes he’d have had his career glossed over – ‘had a go, didn’t quite make it’ – but as the standard bearer for the fifth intake it felt like more was expected of him.

His main problem was settling on a position – he could play MC, AMC, ML and AML and we tried him everywhere – and he suffered because one of the perils of that flexibility is being cast as a useful substitute! That’s what Barton became until better options came along.

Of the rest, Travers and Hoare only got games because they were left-backs and everyone got a go during this period, Burton looked promising but didn’t develop and O’Toole looked the best of the bunch but regressed quicker than Oasis following ‘What’s The Story…’.

Youth Intake #6 – 2027

  • Final League Position – 15th (Vanarama National North)
  • Training Facilities – Adequate
  • Youth Facilities – Below Average
  • Youth Rating – 4
  • Junior Coaching – Good
  • Youth Recruitment – Good
  • Head Of Youth Development – Laurie Walker
  • Collective Appearances – 1,292

Laurie works his way slowly back into the good books with his second intake and the sixth overall. The team are improving, too. The first time in a while that we aren’t involved in a relegation battle on the final day of the season. Beresford and Cox are at their peak and there are youngsters here who can contribute straight away.

Youth Intake #6 Appearances

Ben Thomas and Tristan Grimes do that as the season finishes and Thomas – an AMC – becomes a mainstay of the side for the next seven or eight seasons before a rise in quality, both in opposition and in competing team mates, sees him squeezed out. Grimes falls by the wayside, never quite living up to his billing as the second best prospect.

While Thomas was a steady presence, he never really ascended the heights we expected either but a couple of players in this intake did. First, Curtis Jones – competition for Beresford, a partner for Beresford, an occasional left-winger – he went the James Cox route and just grew too big for the club but not before a 40-goal season. He became a solid League Two player (but could have done better if he’d stayed with us) and his departure set us back a bit, it has to be said.

The other star is still with us today – Patrick Black, the second longest serving player on the squad and the second player to surpass 500 appearances for the club. He’s the vice captain but better than all these things, he became a reliable left-back!

Modeste, Lakeland and Livesey all threatened to come good (at MC, DC and AMR, respectively) but all ultimately faded.

Youth Intake #7 – 2028

  • Final League Position – 12th (Vanarama National North)
  • Training Facilities – Adequate
  • Youth Facilities – Below Average
  • Youth Rating – 4
  • Junior Coaching – Good
  • Youth Recruitment – Excellent
  • Head Of Youth Development – Laurie Walker
  • Collective Appearances – 1,090

Recruitment is now ‘excellent’ and Laurie’s got a lot to work with. He comes up trumps with our two highest rated prospects ever, Spencer Burbeary and Mathias Johansson, and the current third-longest serving squad member, Tomos Thomas (so good, they named him twice).

Youth Intake #7 Appearances

Two strong AMRs featured as well – Dwight Charles made the early running but was surpassed by Mateusz Szalek, a powerful force for a couple of years before being stolen away the same year Curtis Jones went.

Thomas ended up being the keeper who supplanted long-term original keeper Dan Lavercombe, lost his place to a future recruit and then won it back when that recruit was poached. He’s still here but only really as back-up and even that looks like it will be taken from him as our depth at keeper gets better and better each year.

Jordan Osborne had a purple patch of a season despite being only 5’2″ but quickly returned to being the 12th-rated prospect everyone had suggested he was but the Burbeary-Johansson centre back pairing that emerged from this intake almost immediately is what makes the Season 7 crew one to be remembered.

Youth Intake #8 – 2029

  • Final League Position – 15th (Vanarama National North)
  • Training Facilities – Adequate
  • Youth Facilities – Adequate
  • Youth Rating – 3
  • Junior Coaching – Good
  • Youth Recruitment – Excellent
  • Head Of Youth Development – Laurie Walker
  • Collective Appearances – 546

After last season’s improvement to 12th, we’re back down to 15th again and a bunch of players that are definitely better than Laurie’s first intake, but only just!

Youth Intake #8 Appearances

This was almost an intake filled entirely with players in the ‘unfulfilled potential’ category. The saving grace: the very long-road approach to development from Tomos Jones. Used excessively as a substitute (95 of his appearances come from the bench), he emerged in the final VNN season, lost his starting place again as bright young things came along and won it back when they were invariably sold off to the highest bidder. His emergence in League Two has been one of the most pleasant surprises of the save.

The rest, well…Omondi was almost good, Fagbola was almost decent, Rennie looked decent but buggered off to Scotland and Bamber should have been superb but was never more than ordinary. Lovett was the worst keeper we’d had and Nick O’Connell could have solved the left-wing problem but refused – one of those frustrating players who would come on, put in a super-sub performance but then be absolutely awful every time he was subsequently started.

Between them, this lot helped seal Laurie’s fate. He was gone by the end of the season.

Youth Intake #9 – 2030

  • Final League Position – 18th (Vanarama National North)
  • Training Facilities – Adequate
  • Youth Facilities – Adequate
  • Youth Rating – 3
  • Junior Coaching – Excellent
  • Youth Recruitment – Excellent
  • Head Of Youth Development – Mark Bradshaw
  • Collective Appearances – 1,316

And so, the Mark Bradshaw era begins. Junior Coaching is improved again, and the impact of Laurie Walker’s time is still being felt as we slide back to 18th and await Mark’s first intake with bated breath. We need something to change after 9 seasons of getting nowhere near promotion.

But it looks like, finally, we might have a genuine golden generation.

Youth Intake #9 Appearances

No intake has more collective appearances than the bunch that arrived this year. It’s likely that some of the recent intakes will improve upon it, but this is where things started to take off for us and the core of this intake helped get us out of the VNN. The fact that three of them are still with us in League Two ten years later tells you everything.

It’s another intake where the early stars were usurped by those playing the long game! Zak Barker stood out most – a striker with an eye for goal who went straight into the team. But Zak wasn’t cut out for this football lark, failing to take advantage of the facilities and coaching and becoming demonstrably worse every year. Baba Ibrahim sorted our left wing problem, though was never quite as impressive as his billing or as others seemed to think, and it was frustrating to have to sell him cheap but also, not that impactful in the end.

Jamie Barr was the other player to blossom early but those 4 appearances at the start of his second full season (2032) tell the tale of a cruciate ligament injury that robbed him (and us) of potentially our best MC. He never quite recovered despite my best attempts to play him back into the form he showed early on. Those 4 games had marked him out as a star player that season – whether they were going to be typical of the rest of the season will remain a great unanswered question and we finally pulled the plug on his FC United career last season.

That left the final three – Andy Brooks, a DM turned DC who has been the backbone of our defence for most of his 352 appearances to date, Ulrik Hallstensen, an AMC who improved beyond expectations (and rid himself of an ‘unambitious’ personality in the process) and left-winger/striker Jim Keeling, a creative force wherever we play him.

Connor Logue displaced Thomas as keeper but attracted the attention of Crewe while doing so and was added to the increasingly long list of players we weren’t good enough to keep hold of. A shame as I’m fairly certain he would have remained the keeper for the majority of the intervening period.

Not just a good start for Mark Bradshaw then, but a golden one.

Youth Intake #10 – 2031

  • Final League Position – 13th (Vanarama National North)
  • Training Facilities – Adequate
  • Youth Facilities – Adequate
  • Youth Rating – 3
  • Junior Coaching – Excellent
  • Youth Recruitment – Exceptional
  • Head Of Youth Development – Mark Bradshaw
  • Collective Appearances – 1,245

The league form improves and Bradshaw comes up trumps again with this group who have almost played as many times as Intake #9. Recruitment reaches the top tier and with two successive intakes of high quality, the future is starting to look bright. There’s a core group of players from the two intakes that will go on to form the backbone of the side for years to come.

Youth Intake #10 Appearances

While only two players remain from this intake (though what a two, as we’ll get on to) there were a number who contributed well during their time. Not least among them, Gary MacLaren, who solved the right back problem that had plagued us since Graham Daley left six years before. MacLaren has moved on, though if he’d waited, he could have gone to League Two with us instead, but we’ll be forever grateful for his stint in defence.

Ross O’Rourke offered excellent cover at DC during his time, as did Graham O’Brien at striker. Adam Walker never quite fulfilled his promise at AMC but had his moments and Kieran Woodford got a go at AML before Jim Keeling took over.

Our obsession with Tom’s of various descriptions is what wins this intake over though. Not content with a double Tomos/Thomas or with Tomos Jones, Intake #10 served up Tom Boateng, who has anchored the midfield ever since arriving and Tomeu (ok, that’s a bit of a stretch), the most prolific striker we’ve ever had. Even now, with coaches saying he’s not at League Two level, he’s defying the odds and scoring at will (36 in all competitions). His 253 career goals have taken him well beyond Ben Beresford’s tally and will be the mark to beat for a long, long time (and he’s still adding to it).

So that’s Brooks, Boateng, Keeling, Hallstensen and Tomeu from the last two intakes. Factor in MacLaren’s almost ever-present for six years as well and that’s some return. Mark Bradshaw gets himself a new contract.

Youth Intake #11 – 2032

  • Final League Position – 5th (Vanarama National North)
  • Training Facilities – Adequate
  • Youth Facilities – Adequate
  • Youth Rating – 3
  • Junior Coaching – Exceptional
  • Youth Recruitment – Exceptional
  • Head Of Youth Development – Mark Bradshaw
  • Collective Appearances – 799

At last, the golden generations start to have some impact ON THE PITCH! A 5th placed finish is exceptional and only tainted by play-off defeat. This is the season Curtis Jones hits 40 goals (but is also his last season) and Darren Connor emerges as a creative force, beginning a three year run at the top of the assists chart.

It’s another strong showing from Bradshaw and if the appearance total seems low, that’s a result of losing some of the better talent early.

Youth Intake #11 Appearances

Lee Thornhill is one of those AMRs who displaced Tomos Jones before being too good to hold on to. We got a couple of seasons out of him and four from Patrick Murray (listed as an AMC here but more prominent as an AML). Murray’s success was even sweeter after he suffered not one, but two broken legs in quick succession before his career had really got going. He recovered and was superb until he too was snaffled away by the promise of league football.

The rest were boom or bust but the three booms are still with us. Samuel Sani has four full seasons now as starting keeper, Thomas Ugwu holds down the midfield with Boateng (and is called Thomas, so obviously he starts!) and Kieran Ross was the reason we could allow Gary MacLaren to leave, stepping in seamlessly at right-back and (whisper it) improving us at that position into the bargain.

So you now have a three-year Bradshaw inspired run that gives the starting line-up Sani (GK), Ross (DR), Brooks (DC), Boateng (MC), Ugwu (MC), Hallstensen (AMC), Keeling (AML) and Tomeu (SC). That’s a really solid core of players. We might have this sorted at long last!

Youth Intake #12 – 2033

  • Final League Position – 7th (Vanarama National North)
  • Training Facilities – Adequate
  • Youth Facilities – Average
  • Youth Rating – 3
  • Junior Coaching – Exceptional
  • Youth Recruitment – Exceptional
  • Head Of Youth Development – Mark Bradshaw
  • Collective Appearances – 361

While the first team continued to benefit from the recent influx of talent, the league form did take a slight step back (and another play-off defeat) and this year’s intake probably didn’t shine quite like the previous three.

Youth Intake #12 Appearances

A low number of appearances – though you would expect a general dip as we move closer to the present day – and arguably only two players have emerged as true first team players. One of those – Daniel Evans – fell into the usual trap of being a very good AMR, made the first team and then was stolen before he could become a club legend. Outside of Evans only Macauley Hughes has truly established himself, putting in four seasons of solid centre-backing and becoming an unlikely starter for most of that period.

Like Tomos Jones, Hughes is the kind of player that’s good enough but not so good as to attract interest for bigger clubs and, as such, he’s likely to stick around and bounce in and out of the team as younger, better prospects come and go. He’s reliable and that’s really a little bit of a damning indictment of this particular intake.

Three players are still with us – Hughes plus goalkeeper Kieran Sheridan who still shows great potential but is at risk of being swallowed up by the deluge of good keepers we continue to see, and Kevin Cooper, an AMR who’s never quite shown he’s good enough to hold down a regular place.

Of the rest, only Kieran Gourlay played – another left-back given a chance but failing to take it. Gourlay moved on to League One but has yet to play a game for his new club, Reading.

Final mention is to Stan Rimmer, who made a name for himself by scoring 8 (EIGHT) goals in the Youth Candidates game against the existing U18s! He couldn’t hope to live up to that start and never scored for the first team, but we got to dream for a short while!

Youth Intake #13 – 2034

  • Final League Position – 3rd (Vanarama National North)Promoted
  • Training Facilities – Adequate
  • Youth Facilities – Average
  • Youth Rating – 3
  • Junior Coaching – Exceptional
  • Youth Recruitment – Exceptional
  • Head Of Youth Development – Mark Bradshaw
  • Collective Appearances – 103

At long, long last – 13 whole seasons!!! – we finally lift ourselves out of the VNN! The accumulation of several good intakes in a row finally bearing fruit. We have lift off!

Weirdly, our best ever season coincides with one of our worst intakes. Definitely the worst of the Bradshaw era and perhaps five years since we had one this underwhelming.

Youth Intake #13 Appearances

Again, only three players remain – and they’re the only three to have played for the first team, though none of them are established first team players. Indeed, five players weren’t taken on at all, the highest number in our career so far. We got given two goalkeepers for the first time, neither of which were any good.

It’s very likely that in another year there’ll be no-one left from this intake. Agba has been overtaken at left-back (though could still offer DC cover), Ward showed brief promise but the step up in divisions is proving too much for him and Johnson has flattered to deceive and has now suffered a serious injury (cruciate ligaments) that could spell the end of his development.

All in all, not a good intake (still described as golden though!).

Youth Intake #14 – 2035

  • Final League Position – 7th (Vanarama National)
  • Training Facilities – Adequate
  • Youth Facilities – Average
  • Youth Rating – 3
  • Junior Coaching – Exceptional
  • Youth Recruitment – Exceptional
  • Head Of Youth Development – Mark Bradshaw
  • Collective Appearances – 142

142 appearances does not tell the whole story about Intake #14. After two relatively disappointing batches of players, this one was excellent, Bradshaw was back at his best. The only problem was, they were too excellent. This was the intake that got away.

Youth Intake #14 Appearances

Once more, only three remain and to be honest only one of them looks like worth holding on to in the current picture. And again, a limited number of players have reached the first team (five). But…but but but but but…three of this group were stolen away by Premiership and Championship clubs before the hit contract age.

John Hood was the best goalkeeper we’d seen. He arrived first-team-ready and you can see he played six times as a 16-year-old. It was enough to tempt Southampton, who nicked him for peanuts (though we did recoup a more sizeable chunk of money from the clauses). Andrew Crompton looked like competition for Tomeu but Huddersfield had other ideas and took MC Adam Salter with him as well. The top three prospects all gone in a matter of weeks. Disaster!

Of the rest, Ashley Turns looks the best prospect and is in a battle with Hallstensen for the AMC role, Mathias Backes has shown glimpses of promise but their are other, better AMLs around, and Zak Price hasn’t developed anywhere near as well as I’d hoped. It all means Intake #14 will never make a massive impression at first team level, but it will always be remembered.

On the pitch the team took the step up in their stride, reaching the convoluted Vanarama National play-offs but falling at the first hurdle. Promising though, and with another year’s experience we might be in a better position yet.

Youth Intake #15 – 2036

  • Final League Position – 6th (Vanarama National)
  • Training Facilities – Adequate
  • Youth Facilities – Average
  • Youth Rating – 3
  • Junior Coaching – Exceptional
  • Youth Recruitment – Exceptional
  • Head Of Youth Development – Mark Bradshaw
  • Collective Appearances – 68

Another play-off reached, another play-off loss. Disheartening but also heartening – we can compete at this level and it won’t be long before we escape.

The intake? It’s an odd one. Sort of good but without really establishing itself.

Youth Intake #15 Appearances

Five players still around but appearances few and far between. Only Connor Hall has established himself, and that only in the last 12 months and he’s a threat now for AML/AMC and maybe AMR as well. We could do with hanging on to him.

The other ‘star’ of this intake is DC/DM/MC/make your mind up, Tommy Wilson. But, he’s gone. We’ve sold him, cashed in for a cool £1m for a player who had played only seven times for us. A decent loan spell in his last year had made me think he was ready to challenge for the first team but the transfer offer (and his constant demands for more money) made it sensible to let him go and to think we could cope well without him.

Tony Robinson and Jason Doyle offer similar stories – defenders who look decent enough but can’t get past the current incumbents and are being overtaken by younger, sleeker models. Brad Matthews is another AMR who looks like he just might not be good enough and Mark Murphy has potential and could get a shot before too long. Still time for this intake to make more of a name for itself, but it will need those defenders to make a step up for that to be the case.

Youth Intake #16 – 2037

  • Final League Position – 6th (Vanarama National)
  • Training Facilities – Adequate
  • Youth Facilities – Good
  • Youth Rating – 3
  • Junior Coaching – Exceptional
  • Youth Recruitment – Exceptional
  • Head Of Youth Development – Mark Bradshaw
  • Collective Appearances – 179

Another 6th-placed finish, another play-off defeat. That’s three in a row and we desperately need to break the cycle. It’s getting harder to improve facilities but this year we do get to convince the Board to improve Youth Facilities to ‘Good’. It’s a win! And so are the intake, already clocking up more appearances than the previous three, despite their relative youth.

Youth Intake #16 Appearances

Despite the shiny look, we are still only left with five players entering the 2040/41 season – just two full seasons on from their arrival. An all or nothing kind of intake, six of the intake never signed on. The four still here: Jamal Owens, pressing to be the starting goalkeeper already for the new season, Dion Prosser, a competent right back likely destined for a back-up role, Frank Liversedge, an exciting prospect at left-back, Fabian McAllister, a promising AMC and Alwayne White, a striker we have hope for but who has struggled for goals in his limited outings so far.

Unfortunately, we’ve struggled to hold on to players from this intake. It’s not quite as severe as Intake #14 – we’ve got some mileage out of players first, this time – but we haven’t been able to match the ambition of these guys. Lee Evans made the team early, as did right winger Craig Lee but both have been tempted into moves to bigger clubs (Evans has gone to DC with Norwich in the Premier League). We’ve also lost Huw Williams to Watford for £1.4m. We didn’t quite get the mileage out of Huw (just three appearances) as he’d been on loan in his final season. That had proved an excellent developmental move for him and we were lining him up for a shot at the first team for the coming season. Huw had other ideas though and it became impossible to keep him. All we could do was maximise the sale and a record transfer fee ensued. A shame, but useful for keeping the club financially sound!

Youth Intake #17 – 2038

  • Final League Position – 2nd (Vanarama National) – PROMOTED
  • Training Facilities – Adequate
  • Youth Facilities – Good
  • Youth Rating – 3
  • Junior Coaching – Exceptional
  • Youth Recruitment – Exceptional
  • Head Of Youth Development – Antoine Thompson
  • Collective Appearances – 23

At last, a play-off win, and thoroughly deserved after being pipped to the title by Torquay United. It will be league football for us next season but we’ve done it without Mark Bradshaw, who retired at the end of last season. Antoine Thompson is the new HOYD – he wasn’t our first choice but he was the best we could afford/attract. The jury is out but his first intake aren’t a bad bunch.

Youth Intake #17 Appearances

Not a great deal to say about them just yet. Ten of them signed on and they’re all still here at the moment. Zaine Gabriel adds to the list of potentially impressive goalkeepers, Matthew Tyrrell looks like he could become the next DC and Ben Tancock is already making small waves at MC (in League Two as well!). Jamie Pearson is a fast-improving left-back (almost got too many of them, these days!) and Tim Ready and Jim Steele are cited by the coaching staff as excellent central midfield prospects to rival Tancock. Ethan Wilson shows promise at AMC, too. We’ll see.

That brings us up to date – we’ve discussed Season 18’s guys recently so no need to cover them here as they’ve yet to feature in the first team.

Stay tuned to see how these lot progress now that proper league football is on the agenda!