Derby FM20 – January 2020: Hunting Midfielders

The continuing adventures of Derby County via Football Manager 2020, and their attempts to finally break their ‘promotion from the Championship’ hex. If you would like to read this from the start then a handy index of story chapters is available right here.

I’m working on meeting a promise I made to Bakery Jatta upon signing him, which was to strengthen the midfield area of the squad. I have until the end of the January transfer window to demonstrate that I’ve addressed his concern, and it’s an understandable one. If the Rams have a weak link then it is indeed in midfield, a unit that contains the side’s best player – a former striker who once played for England; you might have heard of him – but also carries some real dead weight. Lewis Baker is fine, as you’d expect from someone we paid good money to sign. George Evans is just okay, a squad rotation alternative to Rooney who would absolutely struggle in the higher level we’d like to reach one of these days. Max Bird and Jason Knight are both still very young. The opposite problem is apparent when it comes to Tom Huddlestone, once a top class midfielder in the making (I remember him chiefly from Championship Manager 03/04, when he could be acquired fairly cheaply from Derby and had the potential to be a star) and now someone at the fag end of his career. Graeme Shinnie, a workhorse 28 year old who’s bang average at this level, has consistently done little to impress me. He’s valued at £4.4 million and I would love to sell him and recycle the proceeds back into squad rebuilding, but at the same time he isn’t a massive lag on the wage bill and I believe overall that he’s better playing with us than against us.

Overall it’s an area of the squad that could use some remodelling. In that sense Jatta and I have an accord, though the winger comes with a grasping, demanding sense of his own brilliance that I often find absolutely maddening. The 21 year old German has done just about enough to retain his status as a star player. His eight league goals make him our second leading scorer (after Waghorn), and there’s a busy quality to his game that can make him almost unplayable when he wants to be. At the same time there have been too many instances when he drifts away from the action, the potential for anonymous performances that must, on a lesser scale, be what it’s like to manage Mesut Ozil. You know the deal – you’re fully aware just how good he can be, but you rarely get that level out of him.

Added to all this is the simple fact we don’t have very much money left in the pot. I go cap in hand to the owner and beg for a bit of flexibility in the transfer budget. Mr Morris issues a flat refusal, claiming – correctly – the club is haemorrhaging funds, and he does it in a way that suggests the issue can’t be pushed. A glance at the annual financial picture looks like a sharp skiing descent, so there’s little doing here.

The only possible answer is to go for loan signings. My preferred option is Pedro Chirivella, a player I believe I have mentioned in these pages beforehand. The Liverpool defensive midfielder is 22, stuck in their reserves and is in the last year of his Anfield contract. I’d like to have him here and see him as a long-term replacement for Rooney, so the plan becomes to draft him in for the remainder of the season and to hope that during his stay he falls in love with the place. We aren’t alone in wanting him, so this will take careful work and timing, with the potential addition of DCFC hampers sent to his home to show him that we’re serious. Hey Pedro, come to Derby, here’s a selection of jambon and chutneys to help you do the right thing and choose us!

To try and ease the pressure a little bit, I arrange for the termination of Rushian Hepburn-Murphy‘s loan agreement. In monetary terms it’s a drop in the ocean, however from what I’ve seen he simply isn’t good enough to play at this level. It seems best for both the player and ourselves that we end our association now. With Tom Lawrence now close to returning to the side we have the potential to free Martyn Waghorn to play in attack should the situation become desperate. Such is my addled thinking with the treasury looking sparse and with sixteen league fixtures still to play.

Spanish full-back Ivan agrees to sign for us when his playing contract with Oviedo finishes in the summer. His arrival will almost certainly make Andre Wisdom surplus to requirements. Lyon beat us to the signature of Isaac Lihadji, however, which seems fair enough to me. I really wanted to add the young Frenchman, but once a Ligue One set-up rivalled us for his signature there was only one logical destination for him… is what I would resolve upon if there was any rational consideration to my thinking. As it is the dressing room has a new player’s face for its dartboard.

Krystian Bielik is booked in the first minute of our weekend match at Middlesbrough, which sets the tone for a bad tempered and niggling affair. There seems to be little interest from the boys in playing football. Their effort is focused on petulant behaviour and losing possession while being caught on the ball in the opposition half, and I’ve no idea why there’s such a malaise in our game. There is an argument for saying we’ve got it coming. Our football hasn’t been sparkling for some weeks. We’ve ground out the results recently, so when Boro go ahead we have few excuses. Irritatingly, the scorer is Patrick Roberts, the one opposition forward I specifically warned my players to pay close attention to. I even remember putting photos of Nmecha and Roberts up on the board. If this guy’s through on goal don’t worry about it too much, I advised, pointing at Nmecha. He’ll fanny about and mess up, but if Roberts is in a dangerous position you need to be on him like Joey Barton’s fist on the face of someone who’s insulted his pint. Got it?

Needless to say they don’t get it. Roberts is wide open for Boro’s opening goal. As the defenders congregate around the largely harmless Nmecha, all the striker has to do is lay off for the advancing Roberts and he’s in for simplest of shots. They add a second shortly after half-time when George Friend heads in a Roberts corner, and we’re undone. I realise to my horror that Lewis Baker is sitting on the bench, that somehow I picked Jason Knight to start instead. The change is made, and shortly after Baker fires in the free-kick that Duane Holmes clips past Stojanovic to make it 2-1. It’s Holmes’s first goal of the season, somewhat incredibly considering it’s his 26th appearance. And as far as we are concerned that’s the highlight. It stays 2-1 as we fail to find a way through.

I don’t especially mind losing to a side that’s challenging for the playoff positions, but to do so in what feels to me like a meek fashion is really disappointing. Jatta, Waghorn and Parrott produced a puff-pastry level of attacking strength, which more or less gave Dael Fry and his pals the afternoon off.

Pressure grows on us to deal with Everton as they continue to take an interest in Morgan Whitaker. Worse still, the Toffees are now managed by Carlo Ancelotti, or Uncle Carlo, one of the nicest guys in the game, who can charm his way around any potential transfer hurdle. He’ll need to sweet-talk his way into offering a lot of money in this instance. Chirivella signs for us in the meantime, an arrival that most people appear to be quite favourable with. Most importantly, the promise to Jatta has been fulfilled and he’s happy with the deal. If this translates into him upping his game, then it’s a win on all fronts.

We head into the home tie against Hull City amidst rumours of a takeover at board level. The club is remaining tight-lipped, but the uncertainty is filtering down to all of us. Scott Malone joins Oxford United for the rest of the season on loan. They’re only paying 20% of his wages, so it isn’t an especially satisfying situation – the preference would be to lose him altogether, or get more cash money for his services, but it’s another player promise fulfilled and that’s what really matters. We agree a deal for Bruno, a 29 year old centre back who will sign for free in the summer from Levante. The player’s age isn’t ideal, however uppermost in my thoughts is the need to replace on-loan Matt Clarke with a good left-sided centre back. Bruno has spent his time jumping about the two top divisions in Spain, and his promised weekly wage of £13.5k is a considerable drop on the £22k we’re paying Clarke… Always thinking with the bottom line, right?

The Tigers match is one we should win. They’re 16th, and we have a good record at Pride Park. Before the end of the first half, we’re in front after Bielik has headed Baker’s free-kick beyond George Long. As it happens though, Hull are better than their position in the league suggests. Marshalled by Herbie Kane at DM, they scrap hard and look especially pacey on the break. The contest between Wisdom and Norbert Balogh on the left wing is the key one, I feel, the Jamaican just about holding his own. Sure enough, they make it 1-1 shortly after the break. It’s a horrific goal to watch, a scrappy melee in our area that we fail to clear before Mallick Wilks races into the gap and slots into a pretty much empty net. For a time, I am able to raise my head from my hands just enough to watch the visitors threaten to overrun us. Their 3-4-3 formation is causing us all sorts of problems, though they’re overloaded in attack, which makes them liable to be caught out at the back. Wisdom makes a foray into the opposition half and shakes off the attentions of Balogh to cut the ball in to Jatta. The German somehow squeezes a shot off from a very tight angle, which turns out to be true and beats the keeper, putting us back into the lead.

It’s one we never relinquish again. Despite the scares, and the good form elsewhere from Brentford that is threatening our place in the top four, we prevail to claim all three points. I’m happy. After the Boro defeat we couldn’t be doing with another banana skin here, and especially pleasing was the debut of Chirivella, whose sold performance in defensive midfield allowed me to field a strong partnership of Rooney and Baker. This trio looks like the primary one going forward. It was also good to see Tom Lawrence return for thirty minutes on the left wing. We’ll need his sense of invention, and his innate sense of self-belief can lead to some good moments.

The last January update will cover the end of the transfer window and the month’s two remaining fixtures. We are at Luton, but before that there’s the little matter of our FA Cup Fourth Round tie at home, now confirmed as being against Cardiff and with the potential glories of the competition’s latter stages on the horizon. Dare to dream…?

Derby FM20 – January 2020: Contracts and Promises

The continuing adventures of Derby County via Football Manager 2020, and their attempts to finally break their ‘promotion from the Championship’ hex. If you would like to read this from the start then the story begins right here.

Happy New Year! Nothing bad can possibly happen in 2020, right? At Pride Park, we wave goodbye to Cyrus Christie and Ikechi Anya. The Irish international right-back has reached the end of his loan term with us, having put in a good spell of work when both our incumbent players were out with long-term injuries. As tempting as it might have been to offer him more football, we were spending £20,000 per week on his wages and once Bogle and Wisdom were back it was money for nothing, so he leaves with our thanks. Cyrus played six league games for us, getting one assist for a very respectable performance rating of 7.10. Anya departs for Dundee, having played less and less following his £4 million move from Watford in 2016. Injuries and outright crapness put paid to him making an appearance this season, but Frank hadn’t used him at all in 2018/19 either, and on the whole you would have to assess this as a failure in the annals of Derby signings. We’re still paying him ten grand per week until the end of his contract in the summer, however he was getting £28,000 while he was here so that’s a significant saving…

And the hole in our wage budget means we can make some serious moves for players who will be available for free in the summer. While TNS are fluttering their eyelashes at our unwanted midfielder Alex Babos, which should say everything about his value, we offer contracts to five players. At the moment, our negotiations are being played against the potential efforts of other teams doing business of their own, so there are no guarantees that we’ll get these boys, however each one would make a significant improvement to our ranks, I feel. They are:

  • Ivan – 26 year old right-back who’s currently playing for Levante. He would come in to replace Andre Wisdom. There are several Spanish clubs eyeing him, but ours is the only offer right now.
  • Christian D’Urso – Italian midfielder, 22, doing a fine job for Cittadella in Serie B and who would give the side a bit of attacking spark from operating as a Mezzala.
  • Dirk Proper – Derby’s youth ranks are a bit short of quality overall, so this 17 year old might provide some answers. He’s a roaming playmaker at N.E.C. Nijmegen to whom we would need to offer some time on loan as part of the package.
  • Marc Stendera – we really like the look of this 24 year old advanced playmaker, a German playing for Hannover 96 who’s been capped at Under-21 level and who offers the tantalising prospect of being a specialist at corner kicks. Good crosser too.
  • Isaac Lihadji – I think we’ll do well to get this guy, a transfer-listed 17 year old from Marseille who’s been attracting the attention of bigger clubs than us. Tottenham are keeping an eye on him. A right-sided inverted winger who’s viewed as having the potential to become the new Florian Thauvin, we’re up against Lyon and can only hope the kid fancies a move to the romance of the English midlands in furthering his career.

In the meantime there are new contracts of our own to consider. I didn’t bother touching this area at the start of the season. My preference was to get a gauge of the players I was working with before making any decisions, and I’m glad I did. Tom Huddlestone is the most glamorous of the names nearing the end of his current deal, but I’m disinclined to keep him around. Though our personal differences are a thing of the past, there’s nothing Tom can do to mask his decline as a footballer. Now 33, having been involved in first team action since breaking into the Derby side back in 2003, it’s about time we parted ways, though he’s been a good club servant so I smooth over any disappointment by funding him to go on a coaching course.

The only player to be offered a contract at all is Louie Sibley, an 18 year old midfielder who could develop into something half-decent. The rest are being hung out to dry. In the end they just aren’t good enough, so there is some future work to do in bringing in a fresh complement of budding youngsters, but hopefully we will be in a better situation for the overhaul.

There’s no winter break in England, so the new year brings a fresh swathe of match commitments, beginning with Barnsley at Pride Park. The Tykes were at point hitting the table’s higher reaches, but since then have naturally fallen away and are now sitting in 21st place. Only carelessness can stand in the way of us recording a win here, and of course we are quite capable of playing exactly the listless football that results in the visitors going in front towards the end of the first half. There are no excuses. Not even having to replace Parrott (a suspected injury, turns out to be a scratch rather than a bite) with Hepburn-Murphy should stop us from inflicting damage on Barnsley, but they make it 1-0 when Milosevic fells one of their warm bodies in our penalty area and Conor Chaplin scores from the spot. It somehow irritates me even more that we immediately respond, equalising from kick-off with Waghorn shooting Jatta’s cross beyond Collins. So we can do it when we feel like it, can we?

The dressing room turns into an arena of outright, unbridled bollocking at the break. Teacups are smashed. I know I will need to place an order for more crockery afterwards, a consequence of trying to emphasise how angry I am with the breaking of defenceless mugs, but I make my point. Hepburn-Murphy turns out to be exactly as useless as I suspect him to be. The on-loan Villa striker gets the ignominy of being subbed off after being introduced from the bench, as I move Waghorn into his position and place Whitaker on the left wing. But it works. As our attacking gets more frenetic late in the game, Lowe’s cross finds Jatta in point-blank range, who despite being surrounded by defenders gets off a shot that beats the keeper. Several minutes later, Whitaker’s long-range shot clatters off the post and Waghorn is the quickest to react for his second of the game. It finishes 3-1.

Marc Stendera agrees terms with us and will join in July. I could sign him now but for the £400,000 we have left in the transfer budget, which gives us zero room for manoeuvre. The obvious remedy would be to terminate Hepburn-Murphy’s loan deal, but he’s earning a princely £3,000 per week here so it’s a drop in the ocean. Talking of which, I’m visited by back-up keeper Ben Hamer, who is unhappy that he hasn’t played a second of football for us. I’ll be honest, I quite forgot he was even here and I’m happy to end his loan agreement. Some bright spark before me was willing to offer him regular football, the kind of grass-faced thinking that would have landed us in a bit of a mess. This of course leaves us without a second keeper, but the situation is resolved when I recall Scott Carson from his on-loan hell with Manchester City. Like Hamer the England international keeper hasn’t touched a ball in anger for the Bluenoses, and it isn’t likely to get any better for him here, but at least it’s a quick fix for us.

Before facing Charlton in the cup we receive the news that Christian D’Urso and Dirk Propper are going to become Rams in the summer. I review the promises I have made to my players and come across a couple of items that will need to be addressed before too long. Scott Malone wants to be sold, the trouble being that no one will come to close to paying his value, which stands currently at £850,000. Most of that would be funnelled back into the transfer budget, so there’d be more than just the left-back who benefited from selling him. I drop the price to £700,000 and cross my fingers – at the moment, it looks as though there might be some takers if it was on loan terms, but that would just put off the issue. Apparently, I made an agreement with Bakery Jatta to strengthen our midfield. That will be difficult with the resources we have left to play with, though I agree we could do with the extra bodies in this area. Something to work on…

The Board expect us to reach the fourth round of the FA Cup, which I agree is what we should be able to do with Charlton Athletic visiting us. Just like in the Carabao Cup, there’s the chance here to get an illustrious opponent in subsequent rounds and fill the coffers, so we would like to do well.

Watching this one, having made a raft of changes because of tired legs within the side, it strikes me how Troy Parrott’s efforts on goal can be an exercise in slow torture. The striker isn’t celebrating his 18th birthday until February so I appreciate that I’m criticising a boy, yet all the same some of these chances are being handed to him on a plate and he keeps doing anything but connect with the ball in such a way that it hits the back of the net. It’s incredible, almost as though he would rather fluff than score. George Evans is removed early with a bruised thigh, so Wayne Rooney has to come on and once he does we steadily exert complete control of the game. I have to make further changes at half-time and shortly after action has resumed Matt Clarke fires us into the lead, having been best-placed after the ball bobbles away from a tussle of players in the Addicks box. Jason Knight produces a wonder goal from 19 yards out later to make it 2-0, and even Lyle Taylor’s reply – quite a sweetly placed shot that sails beneath the falling Montipo – can’t really alter the destination of the outcome.

A 2-1 victory over a team we basically bullied into submission then, a match in which we dominated across just about every area. It hasn’t been vintage stuff. As always the meandering around when in possession drives me to distraction. Even on a cold, wet afternoon in a stadium that is half full, it can be maddening, though in the end I’m grateful to have progressed. In the fourth round, we will be at home against either Cardiff or Cambridge United, the pair having drawn 1-1 at the Abbey Stadium so will need a replay to determine their – and our – fate.

Derby FM20 – December 2019: Nothing to See Here

The continuing adventures of Derby County via Football Manager 2020, and their attempts to finally break their ‘promotion from the Championship’ hex. If you would like to read this from the start then the story begins right here.

In the week leading up to Reading we lose two defenders to minor injuries. Perr Schuurs has a twisted knee (shouldn’t be going around doing the twist then), and Matt Clarke gets a cold and is convalescing at home with Netflix his medicine. The team physios are advising me not to pick Tom Lawrence, who’s still around four weeks away from a complete recovery. Thanks guys, I’m not a loony so I won’t be making that mistake.

I’m not expecting to get much from the Royals match. They’re in second place, the consequence of a typical Reading season in which they can either get promoted or finish 23rd; they are just that kind of set-up. A mere three points behind leaders Leeds, they are also the second best at scoring goals, with those strikes spread out across a number of players rather than focused on a star forward. For them it’s a good effort; as far as we’re concerned it makes them very hard to defend against, the sort of opposition that has you uncertain whether you can ever possibly block all their routes to goal. In the meantime we remain rooted in fourth and barring disaster should see out 2019 holding our position in the table. Igor Stimac is the latest in a line of former Rams who are going public with their admiration of our progress. It was Paulo Wanchope the other week, while spirit mediums have established that Steve Bloomer in the netherworld is reportedly happy with how things are going.

Will we be the side that got dumped on from a great height by Leeds, or the heroes who beat Fulham thanks to some solid rearguard defending and successfully taking advantage of a speedy counter-attack? The answer is of course neither. It turns out that Reading are a team high on confidence but short on actual ability. Whereas we lost heavily to the Whites because they were simpler better than us, at the Madejski we can prevail through solid work and breaking up their forays into our half. There’s little about this that’s pretty, and like many hyped games between promotion challengers the resulting action justifies none of the build-up. It’s cagey, often dissolving into midfield melees that end in little decisive happening.

After a first half, the footage of which has been requested by sleep therapists seeking a solution, the second opens up a little more. Both teams make their switches, just as we start collecting bookings. The Royals gain most of their mileage from breaking out, which is the sort of thing I would expect if we were the home team, quite honestly. Twice, we win corners from which the be-hooped Reading players get the ball and start haring up the field, only to have their moves broken up or Montipo doing his job in goal. It ends 0-0, a result I see as a mission accomplished.

It’s then back to Derby, a few days to celebrate a quiet Christmas, before going on our travels again, up north this time to take on Wigan Athletic. Nothing of any note happens, apart from another promise I am forced to make to one of my players, Andre Wisdom, who is demanding more playing time. It’s a fair request. Of my available right-backs I’ve favoured Jayden Bogle, who’s younger, homegrown and clearly has the brighter future, however there’s no really good reason for not using the Jamaican international more often. It even occurred to me, when both were injured and I was picking the on-loan Cyrus Christie exclusively, to make a bid for him and sell Wisdom in January, but in reality the two players are about as good as each other and in the latter’s case he still has that ‘former Liverpool player’ sheen that might add a couple of quid to his value. Christie’s due back at Fulham at the start of next month. He’s been absolutely decent for us.

The Latics are 19th in the table, a fixed point in lower mid-table tedium with just that added dash of being close enough to the bottom three to make things boringly interesting (if that phrase makes any sense whatsoever). Back in October we ground out a 0-0 draw so lacking in action that highlights from the match have become supporting material for Film Studies courses exploring the exquisite angst of the existential. And we produce exactly the same display here. I start to get why Wigan are where they are in the table – it’s non-football, just breaking things up and showing little ambition oftheir own. I’m warned to pay special attention to 19 year old French midfielder Maxenxe Caqueret, so Rooney is tasked with nullifying any effect he can produce but this turns out to involve watching mostly sideways passes. It doesn’t even make any difference when I demand we become more attacking, added to which the home team’s desire to help when Joe Gelhardt is sent off in the 81st minute. Nothing can stop this from rolling gently to a full halt, a frankly lazy-minded job of work played before a half-empty stadium, people who are mainly there in an effort to leave the house for a couple of hours. It’s a display worthy of apology. Sorry supporters, this should produce a bit of entertainment but what you’ve just watched is anything but…

December closes with Charlton Athletic at home. The visitors have been rooted to the foot of the table since the back end of December. They’ve accumulated a grand total of seven points and look as ready to go down as a heavyweight fighter facing Mike Tyson during his destructive pomp. We have this lot again in the FA Cup in January, and we need a win here. Brentford and QPR are busy bridging the gap to fourth place, and while I’m as reticent as ever about getting promoted I would like to hold on to this position in the table.

Jack Marriott is suffering from a virus so we are forced to place Rushian Hepburn-Murphy on the bench, and Morgan Whittaker gets his first ever start in the side as Martyn Waghorn has run himself into ground. It isn’t easy ineffectually running up and down the left wing game after game, you know. In the 24 minute, after a period of sustained pressure we break the deadlock when Rooney picks out Jatta in the area, who fires a fine volley diagonally beyond Amos to put us ahead. The winger is in a rare ‘justifying his place in the line-up’ mood when he’s involved again ten minutes later, providing the cross for Baker’s spectacular volley. The goal looks great. Baker has hit it from 24 yards out and those sort of strikes always get the crowd going, though in fairness the Addicks defence has a lovely Plasticine-like pliability about it. Those guys just helpfully move themselves out of the way.

Back on track and on top of the game, I instruct the players to produce more of the same after the break, something they fail to do as the collective attitude seems to be that their job is done here. They’re half-right in fairness. My boys’ half-arsed approach invites Charlton back in to the match, but it’s a bit like being bashed about by a small puppy, that is until Macauley Bonne has the ball in the back of our net during the match’s latter stages. Any suggestion that this might provoke some late-period concern evaporates when Ben Purrington is sent off for a second yellow, and 2-1 it remains.

And that’s December. With victory over Charlton we leapfrog Fulham into third place, though the top two remain five points distant. I would imagine one of the chasing pack will eventually rouse themselves into action and oust Reading, who are completely out-performing all expectations, but I don’t think we will be that team. Maybe West Brom will start playing their way back into form. The sacked Bilic has finally been replaced with Kurban Berdyev, a 67 year old from Turkmenistan whose greatest past exploits were with Rubin Kazan of the Russian Premier League. For Leeds, Marcelo Bielsa has taken his bucket with him to the top flight where he is now managing Wolves. The league leaders have called on one Samuel Allardyce, in fairness a veteran manager with a great track record of getting teams promoted, but at the expense of any sense of excitement.

Derby FM20 – December 2019: The Managerial Roundabout

We have the almost unimaginable luxury of a seven-day break before travelling to Ewood Park for our first December commitment. It’s nice and quiet. Scouting reports keep arriving for players who range from good young prospects to the kind of must-sign names that make me hope Mr Morris will release further funds for the ‘big push’. Brighton are interested in signing our young prospect, Morgan Whitaker. The winger is currently valued at £625,000, a pittance, nor do I especially want to sell someone who could develop into a rather special talent.

The Blackburn Rovers tie pits the fifth placed team (them) against the outfit in fourth (our good selves). How they are doing so well is something of a mystery, though there are clues in the identity of their manager, Tony Mowbray, who used to spend his time in charge of Boro charging up the table in the season’s first half before gently fluttering back to mediocrity when it mattered. Their ranks contain Lewis Holtby, the German international midfielder with a not very Teutonic name who is somehow still only 29 and for whom the vagaries of professional football have clearly not been as kind as they could be. They also feature Stewart Downing, the 35 year old winger who is approaching the end of a career in which he’s enjoyed frequent media batterings principally for being an iconic member within Steve McClaren’s mercifully brief England set-up. That said, the last time I remember Stewie being especially good was in the 2007/08 season, which was a while ago and since then he’s earned a lot of money for being bang average and strangely the subject of enormous transfer fees.

The most memorable thing about this one is the podcast I’m listening to while the match is playing, which happens to be showcasing obscure songs by football teams and is treating us to a tune by the players of Dunfermline Athletic that has lyrics set to the Eastenders theme. It’s hauntingly lovely, which suggests the lockdown is starting to really get to me. A moribund first half is broken early in the second by the game’s only goal, and it isn’t scored by us. A bust-up in our penalty area clears the ball to Holtby, who produces a lovely bit of skill, lifting the ball above everyone and into the path of Bradley Dack who is point-blank on goal and shoots to Montipo’s left hand side, out of his reach. There’s nothing we can do to get back on track. Even Duane Holmes, who comes for an increasingly anonymous Jatta, is busy and yet ineffectual, then I remember that it is Holmes, whose showing pretty much sums up his time here.

I was hoping for a draw here, possibly even a sneaky three points. Instead we get nothing apart from an increased gap of six to second place. It’s been a slightly worrying performance from us. Indifferent, meandering and I think fairly predictable. Even the reliable Wayne Rooney does little – Bielik, Clarke, Baker and Parrott earn points for at least trying, but elsewhere it’s been a case of going through the motions. I don’t like this. Even though I’ve said I don’t really want to go up this season so I am careful about playing too well, I at least expect to see us try.

Derby are considered to be comfortable favourites at home to Sheffield Wednesday in midweek, but – and these are the key words – need to avoid complacency. I recall them being a fine Premier League team, but as it happens this season marks their twentieth outside the top flight. How on earth has that happened? They used to be really fierce contenders, especially in the early 1990s when a cavalier outfit led by the tricky wing play of Chris Waddle took them to the table’s higher reaches and a string of cup final appearances. I’m forced in my press conference to say nice things about Owls manager Garry Monk. Trust me, my platitudes don’t reflect what I really think. The Monk ‘enjoyed’ a brief and tumultuous spell in charge of Boro, where he managed to spend a crapload on very ordinary players and then demonstrated little clue about how to use them. Do it for the old man, boys; get Monk sacked!

It takes the visitors an hour to put in a shot on our goal. I might not know everything about football management, however that lack of enterprise doesn’t appear to be a guarantee of heady success to me. We aren’t a lot better, but early in the second half Jatta heads in from a Baker corner and at that moment the points look like they’re in the bag. Milosevic needs to come off when Reach puts in an industrial tackle, and then we lose Lowe in the sort of minor injury that reminds me to pay more attention to squad rotation in the future. Jatta volleys for his second, and then Harris pulls one back quite late on from Forestieri’s cross to keep us on our toes, but on the whole this is much better stuff from us. I’m especially pleased for Jatta, who has been off his game for some weeks, as though the genius comes hand in hand with bad behaviour and without the latter we lose the former also.

The result leaves us in fourth place, a position we have occupied since October. Fulham are three points ahead of us. There’s a gap of five points to QPR in fifth. We have accumulated 40 points at the exact halfway point of the campaign, which seems to me to be a healthy haul.

News filters through that West Brom have sacked Slaven Bilic – how the mighty fall amirite? – whilst Millwall have volunteered to be the latest rung in Martin O’Neill’s slow retreat from managerial brilliance by putting him in charge. As luck would have it the Lions are our guests at the weekend. 23rd in the table, having claimed 16 points from their 21 matches, they should be fodder for us, and my temptation is to pick several players who might not normally be automatic starters in a bid to keep things fresh. In the meantime I receive the preliminary report about this year’s crop of youngsters, the bedrock of youthful talent who may one day become Derby stars. It’s not good. Save the slavering prospect of a striker who knows which direction the goal is in, the verdict is to look elsewhere for the legends of tomorrow. Phrases like not the best, poor quality and do not look like great prospects are sprinkled liberally, which at least suggests that Darren Wassall, our Head of Youth Development, has a variety of ways of saying bag of shite. That’s what I pay him for.

Rooney is pretty much run into the ground; George Evans starts in defensive midfield. The transfer-listed Malone plays in place of the recovering Lowe, which ought to represent a shop window for him, while Milosevic is injured so Bielik is back. We win 1-0. Baker scores from a delightful 25-yard free kick, which turns out to be the only highlight of a match where Millwall revert to type and tackle us fiercely, at one point forcing Jatta off with what turns out to be a negligible shin injury, while for lesser offences we pick up three yellow cards. It isn’t hard to see why they’re down in the depths. There’s very little to the London side, a hard-working and industrially tackling lot but without any kind of spark, but they have enough defensive vigour to stop us from turning our domination into a more humiliating scoreline. It isn’t a game for the ages. Our victory won’t figure much on the DVD highlights (do clubs still produce these?), but it is a win and that’s what matters.

There follows another week’s break before we take on fierce promotion challengers Reading as part of the blizzard of Christmas fixtures, then we’re into January and the third round of the FA Cup. We’re tied against Charlton, who are currently dead bottom of the Championship on seven points, a draw that could hardly be any kinder. Elsewhere, our job of work in beating Wednesday has indeed led to Monk’s sacking. This makes it very much a case of mission accomplished and now someone else will have the task of trying to breathe glory back into the South Yorkshire sleeping giant. Birmingham dismiss Pep Clotet and hire none other than Steve McClaren, which suggests once you write the words ‘Football Manager’ after your name then there will always be someone (i) dumb (ii) desperate enough to give you a job in the end.

MU2020 November 2021 – Glory Hunter

A brief cut away from Pride Park to spend a bit of time talking about my Manchester United game.  I stopped blogging this one shortly after it started – been there, done that, the level of challenge isn’t the same – but I am continuing the save in my own time. It’s a lot of fun. My normal playing of Football Manager these days is with big clubs, generally because there’s less work involved and I enjoy the effort of putting a former victory machine back on course. Man You are good to manage due to (i) not lifting a league title since 2013 (ii) offering stacks of cash to return to the top (iii) starting with a mixed bag of a squad, some stars and a lot of potential but their fair share of deadwood also.

Here are a few general nuggets of wisdom to get you started. Improve the staffing levels. United have a good team of coaches, physios, etc, yet it can be worked upon. At the same time you need to trim the scouting unit – no one needs as many scouts as they have on the books. Build the team around Pogba. They start with two superstars – De Gea and the pampered French prince. Your goalie is an Old Trafford fixture and still world class, despite some very high profile gaffes in recent months. It’s Pogba, though, who matters the most. In his own head he deserves better than this, and one of your earliest challenges will be to stop the tidal wave of interest in him to prompt him into leaving, unless self-appointed iconoclasts just piss you off in which case simply get shot and start again. But there’s a point to Pogba also. As David Ginola used to say, ‘ee’s worth it, and if you win a lot of games then the unhappiness and mysterious long injury lay-offs fall away and you have an unimpeachable star at the heart of your side. Improve the attacking ranks. Much of United’s problem this season has its basis in their inability/unwillingness to replace Lukaku, who was sold late in the summer 2019 transfer window. In 2019/20 Mason Greenwood isn’t quite the natural successor he’ll grow to be, so look for someone who’ll bag you the goals, and if you play wingers then try and find a right-sided AMR. Jesse Lingard is not a long-term answer here. In my case Moussa Dembele and Federico Bernareschi were the answers. Both have left since then, but when I started they were crucial additions.

I’m now in my third season. United are double Premier League title winners. The personnel has changed quite a lot and I’ve spent much in transforming them into what they have become. The current squad looks like this (with preferred starters emphasised):

GK: David De Gea, Dean Henderson
DR: Diogo Dalot, Aaron Wan-Bissaka
DL: Luca Pellegrini, Luke Shaw
DC: Eric Dier, Victor Lindelof, Harrington Maguire, Jonathan Tah, Axel Tuanzebe
DM: Lewis Cook, Sandro Tonali
MC: Rodrigo Bentancur, Sander Berge, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Lorenzo Pellegrini, Paul Pogba
AR: Federico Chiesa, Tahith Chong, Adnan Januzaj
AR: Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho
SC: Mason Greenwood, Erling Haaland

Due to the vast financial resources they can wield United becomes a sandbox challenge. You can build the side more or less how you fancy, and for me the biggest source of pride is in midfield where we have a superb set of players that can be combined to meet any opponent.

In 2019/20 I won the league, the FA Cup and the Europa League. The latter was important because we were so obviously going to be Champions League competitors from then on so we had to bag it at the first time of asking. As it was Internazionale had to be dispatched on penalties after we fought to a 0-0 draw, a tired and largely unexciting exhibition in which we were a little fortunate to prevail.

The second season brought another Premier League. Arsenal(!) pushed us hard, but we were the better team and had enough in the tank to sprint over the line, smiling for the cameras Usain Bolt style. My inability to get anything from Martial as either a striker or wide man made his future untenable, while Bernardeschi’s form tailed off during the campaign, otherwise we accrued 97 points and were the best side overall. We made it to another FA Cup final only to be licked by Spurs 1-0 despite dominating play. The Champions League was even less fair. At the semi-final stage we beat Barcelona 2-0 at Old Trafford. It was 0-0 towards the end of the return leg and then a defensive injury left us with ten men, which they quickly took advantage of to take the game into extra time, finally doing us on penalties. No shame in reaching such an advanced stage of the competition, of course, but it was crushing to go out like that.

We are currently eleven games into the 2021/22 campaign. United haven’t dropped a single point, though Liverpool (now managed by Steven Gerrard) are only two behind and remain hot on our heels. In Europe we’ve been handed a group of death, fighting against PSG and Inter. As long as we don’t cock it up in the last two matches I think we’ll squeeze through, and it’s a competition I want to win this time around.

The aim is to turn this game into something of a Glory Hunter challenge, played along similar lines to the fantastic Doctor Benjy FM YouTube series (but without the harmonica-based loveliness – we all have our talents). Once I win everything at Old Trafford (the League Cup, Champions League and the World Club Cup remain to be claimed), it will be time to move on to a team from France, Italy, Germany or Spain and do it all over again. Hey, it’s a time-waster, isn’t it, at a point when there is time to waste.

Most of all it’s a nice tonic to play against the much grittier Derby County game. Players want to go to United. Recruitment is never a problem; the issue is more about stopping myself from splurging further just because I can. We have £80 million in transfer monies still, the money burning a hole in my pocket because wouldn’t it be lovely to have [insert name of star player here] strutting his funky stuff for me…?

Derby FM20 – November 2019: A Good Cottaging

The continuing adventures of Derby County via Football Manager 2020, and their attempts to finally break their ‘promotion from the Championship’ hex. If you would like to read this from the start then the story begins right here.

Three matches to report on in closing out the month. We start a week of action by entertaining Preston North End, a clash watched by nearly 30,000 souls. The Lilywhites give the impression of being solid citizens of the Championship practically forever, though there are four years of League One football in their recent history. Currently they’re managed by Steve Thompson, who’s ‘enjoying’ a caretaker role following the dismissal of Alex Neil and ahead of the slightly retrograde step of appointing Tony Pulis (believe me, I’m a Boro fan; I know!). We should win this one and so you can imagine my sense of joy when Scott Sinclair has them ahead after six minutes. One of those players routinely discarded by Manchester City during their record over the last decade of spending a lot of money on hit and miss talent (file under ‘Jack Rodwell’), Sinclair still has something to offer the world. Collecting a rakish Pearson pass on the left wing, he cuts in and beats Bogle with errant ease before picking out the bottom corner with his shot and making Montipo look flailing and foolish.

It’s one of those moments of rare genuine quality that makes me wonder if we are really cut out for this, and fortunately it happens only once. A bit of regrouping and we are back on level terms, Waghorn dispatching a penalty after Jatta has been scythed down in the PNE box. Ten minutes later and it’s 2-1. Lowe’s long pass from the left flank finds Marriott, who shrugs off the attentions of Davies and volleys beyond Rudd, the keeper left on one knee as though worshipping a very good goal from an unlikely source.

The second half is one of those slightly nervy affairs when I fret over whether we can hold on to our lead. I shouldn’t worry. The visitors do what second tier outfits resort to as a matter of course and start putting in frustrated bad tackles. A period of football pockmarked with fouls, yellow cards and disjointed passages of play is settled, finally, when Marriott is beautifully placed in front of goal to latch on to Holmes’s cross and turn it in for a 3-1 victory.

So one we should win, which indeed we do win, and in the course of achieving that look in pretty decent shape. I come away with slight concerns about the fluctuating form of Jatta, the decidedly indifferent numbers being posted by Graeme Shinnie and Sinclair’s ability to make Bogle look hapless before the winger is removed with a potential knee injury (good lad, Jayden). Despite those caveats it’s sound work. Lowe, Clarke and Baker have all played well. Marriott, on for Parrott who always returns from international breaks exhausted after being worked to death by the Irish Under-21s, has taken the match ball and deserves it.

In midweek first are playing third as Leeds go to Reading. We’re in London, up against the second placed side, Fulham, who are tipped for promotion and can showcase the division’s highest rated player, striker Aleksander Mitrovic. I know, right? The Championship is patronised raved over for its competitiveness, but the playing standard isn’t as high as all that and elsewhere the Cottagers have quickly receded from the clutch of expensively bought players that got them relegated from the Premier League. Harry Arter’s here. So is Anthony Knockaert, and while our 1-0 victory is in the vein of a smash and grab effort we do our jobs pretty well on the whole. No one expects anything from us and neither do I. The contest is for the Cottagers (fnar!) to turn in a showpiece spectacle before their home supporters, and on a dark, wet evening they fail to produce the goods.

I reintroduce Parrott to the line-up and switch Shinnie out, starting with a central midfield pair of Rooney and Baker, and Evans as our DM. The goal comes in the 39th minute. Up until then it’s been an unlovely display from both contenders. The two sides are defensively responsible and waste no time in massing players behind the ball whenever there’s a sense of trouble. That’s fair enough, though I expected more adventure from the home team and if it wasn’t ourselves against whom they are titting about so much I’d be disappointed by the absence of spectacle. The decisive moment starts with a goal kick and takes in just about every Derby player on the pitch, a flowing passage of smooth teamwork, looking for their fellows and finding space. It threatens to come to naught when Waghorn’s wayward pass is intercepted by Sessegnon, but the full-back’s flick to Odoi in central defence is picked off by the advancing Parrott, who slips through the line and beats Rodak in the Fulham goal. It’s a rare moment of goodness within a moribund half, and a personal vindication for the young striker, who’s racked up ten hours without a goal before scoring here.

If I expect the promotion contenders to come roaring back after the break then I’m in for a pleasant surprise as the resurgence never arrives. Milosevic keeps Mitrovic happily quiet with a sticky man-marking job and Fulham just can’t find a way through. More and constant pressure, is what I would suggest to their manager if I wasn’t directly profiting from their wasteful and quiet evening’s work. There’s an argument for suggesting we stole the honours here, but it doesn’t feel like an undeserved win. Reading beat Leeds too in reducing the gap at the table’s summit to four points.

We travelled to the Smoke on Tuesday. London comes to Derby at the weekend for the visit of Queens Park Rangers. Hey, remember when this lot were considered briefly to be one of the richest clubs in the world, backed by Formula One moguls and instigating a Four Year Plan that would deliver glory to the set-up? That ended well, didn’t it? In fairness QPR are not the bankruptcy-threatened organisation they were before the takeover, and in the intervening years they’ve enjoyed more success than we could ever have dreamed of, taking in top flight football and even having a supporting role in the Premier League’s defining Aguerrrooooo! moment.

As for the match, having downed Fulham there’s no reason to think we won’t win here. Apart from the enterprising young Bright Oyasi-Samuel there’s little in the opposition ranks that I fear, while for us Parrott has his scoring boots back on and there’s a mood of heavy optimism enveloping the city. And it’s in just these moments that we play out one of the least memorable 0-0 draws you will ever see. Very little happens. Even Wayne Rooney has one of his quieter outings, as though he’s been putting in sterling work all month and fancies a day off. The defence plays well. Parrott has a few shots. QPR come close once or twice. But that’s about it, an eminently forgettable performance and in many ways one that puts us back in our place. We were beginning to dream – the gods of the football were like don’t ever

If anything we have consolidated our fourth placed position in November. There are now seven points between us and fifth, and it seems a miniature breakaway group has developed within the table’s upper reaches. As far as individual performances go, Montipo’s two recent shut-outs in goal have put him back at the head of the rankings for clean sheets, with ten. Lewis Baker is our only participant in the division’s top twenty players by average rating. That suggests both a good team effort elsewhere, and also concerning levels of inconsistency from the boys.

The board remains delighted – fourth is a big improvement on the season’s aim of finishing mid-table, and if we remain here by the time the campaign closes I think it will give me the licence to keep on keeping on. 19 of the first team’s 28 players now support me, with no opposition to my stylings, and even the squad’s cohesion levels are beginning to show signs of a positive  upturn. This element has been dire since I began. Hopefully with my regime settling in and the club working to a consistent plan this area will improve further still.

Derby FM20 – November 2019: One Out…

The continuing adventures of Derby County via Football Manager 2020, and their attempts to finally break their ‘promotion from the Championship’ hex. If you would like to read this from the start then the story begins right here.

The two overriding aims for this season are league respectability and getting rid of deadwood players, and trying to do well in the cups… The three overriding aims for this season are league respectability, getting rid of deadwood players, and trying to do well in the cups, and achieving popularity with the DCFC board and fans… The FOUR overriding aims for this season… Oh, you get the general idea.

Certainly it’s a hope that I can trim the ranks a little, remove players who just have no future at Pride Park. The plan is to create enough room and capacity within the wage budget to replace them, to steadily bring in higher calibre stars who will help us for the final big push towards the top flight, whilst at the same time Derby is a renowned centre for producing good footballers and there’s a lot of potential here. Jayden Bogle and Max Lowe are young regular starters who are homegrown from within the club. Jason Knight and Max Bird have risen from the Academy and into the first team, and Tom Huddlestone is at the tail end of a lengthy career that started right here.

Scott Malone comes in to see me during this period to ask if he can be loaned out. The left-back isn’t getting as much football as he’s been promised, he argues, and he needs more time on the pitch. Ignoring the obvious (I’ve guaranteed him nothing), I suggest we look to sell him permanently and he agrees. He’s sad that it’s come to this, but he assents to hand in a transfer request. I’ve no idea why he’s down-hearted about it. The 28 year old will never be anything better than a squad player at this level. The coaches think his standard is more suited to the league below, so recouping much, let alone all, of his £1.3 million value will be a challenge. Sheffield Wednesday are sniffing, but not yet to the tune of putting their money where their beady eyes are.

Still, there’s no rush, nor is there any requirement to replace him if he does end up going in the January transfer window. We still have Marcus Olsson on the books, very much a fringe player and someone who we must use carefully – if he makes five league appearances he earns an automatic twelve month contract extension, which I would prefer to avoid. The ideal scenario is that Malone goes in a couple of months’ time, Olsson finishes in the summer and we give the back-up place to Lee Buchanan, who’s currently developing his talent on loan at Fleetwood.

You will recall at the end of October that I was hawking Ikechi Anya around with little hope of selling him. Well, blow me but Dundee FC make us an offer, a £130,000 bid that is a little short of his alleged value and will commit us into paying him £10,000 per week until the end of his Derby contract in June. I can’t bite their hands off quickly enough. The monies involved are negligible really, but Anya is ridiculously draining £28,000 a week from our coffers. If the Dark Blues like the look of a 31 year old Scottish winger who gets injured a lot, and if footballers on the verge of ‘total collapse’ bring them to the edge of orgasmic delight then who am I to deny them the pleasure? Incidentally I’ll hear nothing against Dundee. For anyone who thinks it’s just the surname of a cinematic Australian adventurer from the 1980s, or the answer to a quiz question about obscure former Liverpool signings, then I should retort that it’s the home of DC Thomson, the mighty publishing house responsible for birthing The Beano and The Dandy into the world. People of a certain age have a lot to thank them for.

When not flimflamming about player sales or continuing to garner an ‘A+’ rating by the Derby board, I’m managing the side through its match commitments. First up in November are Middlesbrough at home, a tie that has obvious sentimental meaning for me. Boro aren’t far behind us in the table. Jonathan Woodgate has them playing fine, expansive football, a tonic after the rather prosaic Tony Pulis era though they’re not really good enough to pull it off consistently. Nevertheless they have the better of the first half against us, while I keep an eye on possible future signings Lewis Wing and Marcus Tavernier, young midfield talents who could do a good job here if they aren’t priced out of our range. After respecting the opposition a bit too much I demand that we attack harder and more often, which pays off shortly after the break when Parrott finds Waghorn on the left, who evades Spence’s close attentions and shoots low past Stojanovic in the Boro goal. He makes it 2-0 in the 81st minute. A Rooney corner is met by Whittaker in the box. The winger, who’s on for the injured Holmes, shrugs off the attention of two markers and finds Huddlestone. His shot is parried, but the ball falls to Waghorn who makes no mistake from close range. There’s time for Patrick Roberts to pull one back, but the win is a relatively comfortable one.

The only downside is Duane Holmes having to withdraw after a nasty collision with Paddy McNair. I’ve complained before about the American winger’s paper-thin stamina. He incurs a groin injury that will rule him out for several weeks, the only saving grace being that McNair emerges with a knee problem that involves a similar period of rehabilitation. The timing is beautiful during Bakery Jatta’s period of suspension, though happily it turns out the additional matches he misses are for future League Cup ties only. That means we’ll have the German back for our trip to Nottingham Forest, and heck we’re gonna need him.

To the untrained eye there’s little that’s significant about Derby taking on Forest. We’re both Midlands outfits, but that’s about it, right? Wrong! This is the famous Brian Clough derby, named in honour of the legendary manager who guided both teams to league title glory in the 1970s. His considerable shadow looms over this one. It’s thanks to Clough that Derby County are on the footballing map at all really, and I wonder if the big man is looking down from the afterlife what he makes of both his babies being in the second division. Knowing him, he will no doubt be very happy that neither of us have been able to cut it without his influence. For now that is, of course…

We travel the arterial road between the two cities – the Brian Clough Way, no less – to take on a side that should be doing well but turns out to be struggling in 14th place. Their league position is illusory. Forest are better than mid-table tedium. They have one genuine big fish, the on-loan Portuguese forward Jota who’s undoubtedly slumming it at this level. The players are warned to treat him with respect, and then I get to watch in horror as he puts two past us.

Unexpectedly we dominate the home team during the first half. They seem content to soak up our pressure and I try to turn the screw by increasing our positivity. This naturally opens up gaps, which they exploit increasingly before Jota finds the back of our net from a Carvalho free-kick. This isn’t in the script. We’ve wasted our chances so far, so in rising desperation I introduce Marriott for Parrott, expecting little because it’s a bit like trading in a Mercedes and walking away with a Fiat Cinquecento. It’s not really that bad, and Marriott goes on to prove his worth several minutes after his arrival. Collecting a Wisdom throw-in, he races to the byline and crosses, meeting Waghorn’s head beautifully for a quick equaliser.

Both sides trade blows for a while. I’d be happy enough with a draw, if I’m honest, but I see my dreams crumble when Jota scores again, this time poking the ball across the line after Da Costa’s speculative shot teases the senses right before the gaping net and we comically fail to clear it. Wisdom is at fault here. All he has to do is hoof the ball away; instead he dithers and we get punished for it. Marriott’s quick reply is ruled offside, a correct decision I admit grudgingly, and we leave it until late in added time before finally making it 2-2. Jatta has done precious little in this one. I’m beyond annoyed that the expensively acquired winger either gets sent off or puts in largely disinterested performances, and this is one of the latter. Like Tom Lawrence, another show-boater who can turn it on when he feels like it, Jatta always has a bit of brilliance within him. He puts in a 93rd minute cross so virtuous that Marriott pretty much has to do little apart from protrude a limb to guide the ball beyond Samba, and that’s exactly what he does.

Honour intact and having thrilled the supporters with a match that ebbed and flowed, provoked tears of dismay and of relief, we leave with a sense of pride. There have been positive signs that these players are showing a gritty refusal to know when they are beaten. We’ll need that after the upcoming international break. Once that’s done with we’ve got match after match, fixture commitments coming thick and fast. There are points to grab, league places to consolidate and a demand from me that we don’t let things slip.

Derby FM20 – October 2019: Bouncing Busby Babes

Before we hit the Manchester United match I should share a secret with you. C’mere, this isn’t for anyone else to hear so I need to whisper it… I don’t want us to get promoted this season. There. I’ve said it.

No wait, there’s method in my madness. It’s something I’ve been dwelling on for a while. While I’m aware that Derby have lingered in the Championship for a long time and that our efforts to go up have taken on embarrassing proportions with celebrity managerial appointments and massive amounts of money spent, the simple reality is that I don’t think we’re good enough to survive a Premier League campaign. I look at the sides that are in the promotion picture and I can see some that clearly belong there, or at least are much closer than we are – Leeds are the obvious team, West Brom also, while Fulham, Forest and Stoke are in much better shape for prevailing in the top flight.

Currently we are some way short. If we somehow do go up in May I will have to spend a fevered summer spreading out the monies made available to me by the Board in signing players en masse, constructing almost an entirely new squad because that’s what it will take even to have the merest possibility of a chance. I don’t want to scare the fans but I don’t want to lie to them either. There are a few players who I think could cope, and you probably know yourself who they are without needing me to start listing names. But quality, specifically the quality required to produce anything better than weekly humiliations, is in short supply.

I see our promotion effort as, at an absolute minimum, a two-season job, and potentially something that will take three if it’s to be done properly. The entire point of spending a bit more on players like Baker, Montipo and Jatta has been to sign young stars with the potential to improve, ideally to become ready and capable once we make it to the promised land. I want to be able to do that again in summer 2020, maybe even extend that task to the following season, so that when we do make it back to where we belong we can give a good account of ourselves and make the supporters proud.

You look at the teams that have gone up in recent seasons and I think you see a pattern that separates those that stay and others hurtling straight back down. The likes of Bournemouth and Brighton were arguably half way there already when they went up, and could build on an existing fine squad that had the capacity to grow into its elevated climes. They didn’t lavish exorbitant sums to gamble on staying up; just about everything was there already. You get the occasional side like Wolves and Southampton who have no business being anywhere other than the Premier League. I see Leeds as being in that group also.

Then you get the other kind, Fulham and Aston Villa in recent years who go up, realise they aren’t good enough and go on mental spending sprees to try and become Premier League-ready. A number of seasons ago Boro made it back under Aitor Karanka and were in much the same boat. The promoted squad was based on good second tier players who would be instantly swamped in the top flight. So they did what anyone would and signed some stars. Negredo was here for a season. They spent heavily on Marten de Roon. Sure enough they were relegated at the first time of asking, because these few very good players were grafted on to a Championship squad that just wasn’t equipped to handle the yawning gulf in quality.

It makes my job a difficult one. As manager I obviously want to win as many games as possible. In 2018/19 Frank Lampard squeezed Derby into sixth place and then won an unlikely playoff semi-final over Leeds, the latter no doubt crushed after failing to go up automatically. So I should be looking to at least equal that achievement, and if that means staying loosely where we are in the table and showing promising signs that we are moving in the right direction then I’ve probably done a good year’s work. Achieve the dream at the first time of asking, however, and I think I’m right in anticipating a very tough season ahead of us.

Going up requires money. Lots of it, so matches like this – a showpiece against one of the largest clubs in the world – are essential, a licence to print cash that the Board will hopefully be generous enough to recycle back into squad building. For their part, United are third in the Premier League, having accumulated a proud 18 points from their first nine matches. That’s only good enough to put them six points behind the front runners, City and Chelsea neck and neck at the top of the tree. A jamboree summer of spending (£198 million out, £59 million in) has gifted them the considerable talents of Bruno Fernandes, so far their highest rated player. Anthony Martial is their leading scorer, and Juan Mata is high in the assist charts. All this softens the blow that they will likely lose Paul Pogba before too long. The self-appointed Rolls Royce midfielder, in my eyes a pampered prince, has requested a transfer and is available for £82 million. Paris Saint-Germain are very interested. You can see where this is going, can’t you?

On to Manchester United then, the biggest game of the season so far by some distance. Clearly we are coming into this one as underdogs, and to make matters worse Ole names a pretty strong team to face us. Martial is their striker, supported by Rashford and James on the wings, but it’s in central midfield where they are scariest, Bruno Fernandes lining up alongside Paul Pogba to form a partnership worth around £150 million. They’ve come to win, in other words, and they are prepared to respect us in their attempt, which says something.

I used a number of second stringers against Hull because I would really like to get a result here, or at the very least bow out having shown the best of what we can do. No one can knock you for losing when you’ve put everything into it, can they? But this one is pretty much settled as early as the second minute when Jayden Bogle is red carded for his tackle on Rashford. I’m watching the incident again and again – the guy got the ball. It’s a horribly harsh dismissal, I believe a booking at worst, but it forces me to remove Graeme Shinnie for Matt Clarke so that we at least have a functional defence. As though we haven’t been stymied enough, Bakery Jatta gets himself sent off for almost an identical offence shortly after, only this time he clatters into Rashford’s legs. It’s a clear case for taking an early bath and the referee doesn’t hesitate.

Bloody hell. Even with eleven men on the pitch we had an outside chance and needed to play cautiously. With ten the odds lengthen considerably, and now down to nine, with 70 minutes remaining on the clock, it’s going to be a turkey shoot and there’s nothing we can do apart from defend. Which we do. A lot. By the game’s (and I use the word ‘game’ very loosely at this point) close we have achieved the grand total of one shot on target. United have run us ragged, made Montipo’s life hard and only put two past him for a 2-0 away win. James and Rashford are the scorers.

So it is with a whimper that we exit the Carabao Cup. We’ve advanced a stage further than the board required and they are happy, and we enjoyed a capacity crowd, which will hopefully figure well on the balance sheet. But to go out like this, ill discipline to give ourselves no chance, is unforgivable. Jatta is fined a week’s wages for earning his second red card – no complaints from the German, just a promise to work harder on improving his aggression. I appeal against Bogle’s dismissal, which was very much the catalyst for what followed, but it’s rejected, quite unfairly I think. To add a note of black comedy, Bogle comes in to see me and demands a new contract. It’s difficult to swallow the non-family friendly words I really want to use in response; instead I say something about sorting it out in the summer.

We’re entering a five-game November without two first team players – heaven knows how long Jatta is going to be suspended for. He’s like our own version of Cantona, only shittier and without all the Gallic charisma. Without him we’ll be relying more heavily on Duane Holmes, a decent American winger but one who’s joints are held together with tissue paper. There’s a glimmer of good news with the physio’s report that Ikechi Anya is fit again, however here are the salient points from the coach’s report on him:

I don’t think I have ever seen the words ‘total collapse’ in relation to one of my own players before. Anya is considered the sixth best option we have for the right wing, behind several players who aren’t even naturals for the position. Although we could potentially use him in Jatta’s absence and with Lawrence out for months, I’m angry enough to transfer list the useless lump, and then I sit back, waiting for the offers to (absolutely not) come rolling in.

Derby FM20 – October 2019: Points Dropped

The continuing adventures of Derby County via Football Manager 2020, and their attempts to finally break their ‘promotion from the Championship’ hex. If you would like to read this from the start then the story begins right here.

It might only be October, but this is the time to start scouting players ahead of the January transfer window. Who do we want? Who’ll go?

In reality I’m secretly happy enough with the size and shape of our squad. Each position has a good(ish) player and a decent (more or less) alternative choice, so from here we are looking at developing the team’s overall quality. Now that I’ve been here longer than three months I am starting to form lists of the must-keep players, the ‘please leave now’ crowd, and those who are in between the two posts. It looks a bit like this:

Obviously I haven’t included any of the loanees in this list, of whom there are six. Christie is here until the transfer window and his purpose for being in the squad is no longer applicable. I would terminate the agreements for Hamer and Hepburn-Murphy myself if I could. Clarke and Parrott are great but won’t stay, and that leaves Perr Schuurs, the young Dutchie who we can sign permanently for £6 million. He’s making a good case for being worth the outlay, yet it’s a significant sum of money and I’m reticent for now.

Sifting beneath the names of great players whose contracts are winding down and would no doubt sooner retire than come here – Modric, Silva, Chiellini, Cavani – we reach the hinterland, the clutch of potentially available names on whom we are keeping avaricious tabs. There’s Pedro Chirivella, currently bumming around Liverpool Under-23s who could be the long-term replacement for Rooney. Aubrey Modiba is a 24 year old full-back who plays his international football for South Africa and at club level with SuperSport United. We could answer a defensive question or two with Wolves’ Max Kilman, 22 years old and with a couple of substitute appearances in the Premier League. The scouts reckon Kilman has no interest in joining us, but that’s just because he hasn’t got to know us yet.

In the meantime, the Interlull rumbles on with little happening beyond some minor scrapes. Troy Parrott is only good enough for the Ireland Under-21s this time – hopefully an easier ride for him, while Alexander Milosevic is dropped from the Sweden side, which personally I find a little on the harsh side.

Action resumes with a visit to the Valley and promoted Charlton Athletic, currently slap bang in last place having accumulated 5 (five) points all season. The fact things aren’t going well for them is underlined by the fact a quarter of the 13,500 crowd is made up of our fans, never a good look for a team playing at home. Once the match starts we get to find out why. The Addicks will contribute well enough, but it would take an effort laced with incompetence and ill fortune for us to mess up here, and we don’t with a 3-0 victory. The key to it is possession. The home team don’t like being pressed; it makes them cough up the ball, attempt panicky wayward passes that invariably hand control to us, and we take advantage. We open in the 36th minute when Bogle’s throw-in on the right finds Marriott, who dashes almost unchallenged to the byline and crosses for Waghorn’s headed goal. Shortly after the break, Charlton are struggling to clear the ball from their own half. They’re trying to play out of defence, something for which they don’t appear to have the ability quite honestly. Lowe robs possession from Hemed and crosses for Jatta, who like Waghorn has a simple header to make. Lowe’s not done. He collects a lovely cross-field ball from Rooney and, in space on the left, has time to play a diagonal shot that beats the keeper completely.

So it’s a lovely and easy win, about as straightforward as they get at this level though it’s not very often we’ll be gifted the points as kindly as we are here. For their part Charlton resort to being outmatched in classic style by using violence. The cards fly with the increased ferocity and frustration of their tackling. This does for Tom Lawrence, the showboating winger who is clattered into clumsily and hard by ageing defender Douglao, and is stretchered off with what turns out to be a broken foot. We’ve lost one of our best players for up to four months; the only thing we can do is send him to the specialist and plan for life without him for a significant period. Time for Waghorn to make the decisive step up, and I’m perhaps fortunate that I can promote 18 year old Morgan Whittaker from the youth team to provide support.

The midweek home tie against Wigan Athletic is the month’s ‘Luton Town’. It’s one we ought to be winning with little sweat exerted and some ease, but it ends 0-0, a reflection of our complete failure to break down a limited side that’s happy to put all their players behind the ball. There’s little to the Latics. They know how to defend doggedly though, and for our part we approach it sluggishly, as though we expect to turn up and be handed the points in a nice envelope with a handwritten message from the opposition manager. Martyn Waghorn obviously chooses the occasion to produce his worst performance of the season, doing very little and making me appreciate just how long we are going to be without Tom Lawrence. To underline how bad this one is, Wigan even try to do us a favour by getting Dujon Sterling sent off for a second yellow, and we fail to take any kind of advantage.

It’s not the worst result we’ve ever produced, but it vexes me when a home win is on the cards and we turn out to lack the killer instinct required. The plus side is that we are ensconced in third place, five points off second but very much in the playoff picture still.

October’s last league commitment is a trip to the far side of the country to take on Hull City. There’s something about travelling east along the M62, passing exits to civilised places like Leeds, York and Pontefract, and feeling as though you’re going to end up driving straight into the North Sea, don’t you think? Nothing wrong with Hull, of course; it’s just this weird place that seems to exist at the very end of the world and speaking as someone from Teesside that’s something of a claim to make. Of course, there’s still the sight of the Humber Bridge to enjoy, this enormous edifice that looms impressively in the eyeline once you hit the city and can’t fail to stir the imagination.

In the last ten years Hull have been in the Premier League on three separate occasions. All have taken place since we were last up there, our relegation in 2007/08 – you’ll recall with some amusement, I’m sure, our complete collapse, ending the season with a record low 11 (eleven) points – marking our last stay and therefore leaving the opposition with a much prouder recent history than we can boast. After two matches in quick succession and Manchester United to come in midweek, I’m forced to make wholesale changes to the first eleven. Equally it’s tempting to throw this one, or at least be satisfied with an honourable draw away from home. The Tigers aren’t a bad side, though we’re fortunate that their best player, Jarred Bowen, has joined West Ham in the top flight and left them a jungle beast significantly without teeth.

Sure enough it’s goalless at half-time. We’ve been the better team, and Rooney is in a position to marshal things from his position in defensive midfield, but there’s a rustiness to our play. We miss Lewis Baker, who’s been tremendous so far. Marriott for Parrott is a poor and wasteful change. Malone at left-back is a turning of the back on the far deadlier Max Lowe. The second half is little better. I risk bringing on some of the starrier names from the bench, and Jatta scores in the 87th minute only for the goal to be ruled offside. It’s another 0-0, a respectable result but in my view two points dropped. Whittaker gets his first team debut when he comes on, which is nice. Knight demonstrates why he should be on borrowed time at Pride Park, and besides the defence only Rooney shines and is named Player of the Match. I expect it’s an irritating afternoon for him, this top flight legend who must feel as though he’s truly slumming it here. Put it this way, if aliens landed on earth and you wanted to show them video highlights of earth-bound entertainment, this match is at the opposite spectrum of what you would be screening for their titillation.

The end of the month Championship looks like this, with the Rams at the right end of the table but for my money drawing more often than I would like. The big positive is our defence, along with Leeds the stingiest in the division. Montipo is the best goalkeeper for achieving clean sheets, with eight. On the flip side, Yorkshire’s finest lead the table for goals scored with 31. We’ve racked up 19, which is good enough for ninth place.

I’m not entirely unhappy with this. It should be the first priority of any manager to keep things tight defensively. I’ve worked hard to shore up our resources at the back, spending heavily on a good keeper and adding two centre-backs who represent quality at this level. At the same time, the clear indication is that future work needs to be focused on boosting our attacking options. There are two games here that we really had no excuse not winning, as obvious a sign as you like that we lack bite in our forward areas, failing to break down teams that turn up with an aim to defend and getting away with it.

TV Review – Sunderland ‘Till I Die

Many moons ago I once wrote a regular column for a Sunderland fans’ website under my distant gaze as a Middlesbrough supporter. The gig didn’t last very long. It was supposed to play on north-east rivalries between the two clubs, but just exposed the reality that for Mackems the real opprobrium is felt for Newcastle United. My Teesside-based outfit is more distant, still a geographical rival but a mutual contest felt far less fiercely, and no one really cared about my musings. Besides which, I had no real resentment or dislike for Sunderland. They were and remain a slightly bigger team than mine, with a larger natural fanbase, and they face the same issues that we do – unable to overcome their natural position in the order of things, difficulties in attracting good players to the far corner of England – albeit with actual glories in their remote past, league titles and cup victories that Boro have not and in all likelihood will never get to experience.

Sunderland have fallen on harder times since those heady days in the early 2000s, when the goals of Kevin Phillips and Niall Quinn, spearheading a gritty side managed by Peter Reid, troubled the top ten and for a few seasons showed glimpses of potentially climbing higher still. It’s been a rough ride, yo-yo’ing between the top two divisions, staging remarkable efforts to stop in the Premier League at the arse end of fairly terrible seasons before finally succumbing to the inevitable. The Netflix documentary series, Sunderland ‘Till I Die, covers in its first run the side’s relegation season in 2017/18 that took them down to League One. The second season, released this week, explores life at that level, the club’s status as genuine sleeping giants cast low at a moribund tier of the game, trying under new ownership – coupled with a freshly appointed manager and a massively reassembled squad of players – to get back up to the Championship at the first time of asking.

It’s a show you really ought to make time to watch. If you are already subscribed to Netflix then you have no excuse. If you don’t then use your free month to take it in, which as a football fan you must do, not only because of the lack of action elsewhere but because it’s so heartbreakingly compelling. Made with the same high production values that the All or Nothing Amazon series has brought to various sporting set-ups, cameras silently follow Sunderland AFC at all levels – Board, management, players, supporters – to tell the story of the campaign.

It becomes quickly apparent that picking the Black Cats for coverage is an inspired and perhaps lucky choice. Far from Manchester City, the megaside guided to easy glory by Pep Guardiola in the All or Nothing series, Sunderland aren’t very good. They have money worries, the dichotomy of running a club that is naturally similar in size to City but with few of their resources, an army of fans who are hungry to see the good times return while living in a region high in levels of deprivation and recession. Coming from the north-east, I can attest to the importance people in the region place on football. There’s little else to enjoy. Life is tough. Industries that once formed the bedrock of local employment have long since vanished, leaving the people behind to face uncertain futures and for whom their teams are a focal and critical distraction. For the good folk of Sunderland, at the harshest end of three ‘big teams’ in the region that are all struggling with crises of their own, the misfortunes of the football club are a perfect mirror for the city itself. The glory days are long in the past. They want to get back there, but the way seems paved with hazards, the route unclear if it’s even possible to navigate a way through.

The second series, which I’ve just finished watching, covers the 2018/19 season. American owner Ellis Short has cleared Sunderland’s debts and sold the club to Oxfordshire businessman Stewart Donald. Down in League One, the squad is quickly shorn of many of its expensively assembled stars. 21 players are sold or released; those who can’t are either retained or sent out on loan, while at the same time they recruit almost an entirely new group. The team is now assembled along more modest lines. The likes of Jack Rodwell, paid a fortune and contributing almost nothing, a leftover of the folly-filled high-rolling purchases from the past, are quickly shown the door. Jack Ross is appointed manager after having achieved promotion to the SPL with St. Mirren.

The makers of the show have indicated it was only the change in ownership that made a second season viable. Rather than film more of the same boardroom shenanigans, they now get to spend a lot of time with Gordon, clearly a more hands-on figure than the remote Short and obviously someone who pours himself into the job of moving Sunderland forward. From optimistic beginnings, as the team looks as though it might possibly have enough to be the archetypal big fish in a small pond and achieve a quick promotion, Gordon’s stress levels rise as their form takes a dip. Victories become draws, an endless sequence of tied games as the Cats fail to kill off their opponents. Much of this is put down to the departure of Josh Maja in January. An unexpected success from the Academy, Maja scores 15 goals in 24 matches and appears capable of driving the side to its target of going up. Unfortunately he’s out of contract; Sunderland fail to agree a new deal (which would almost certainly have blown their wage structure) and he joins Bordeaux, leaving his old club with a massive vacuum that they are never able to fill.

The best episode in the second series involves Gordon’s efforts to replace Maja. Their top target is Will Grigg, a Wigan striker who has previously proved to be a highly effective goalscorer within League One. The Latics don’t want to sell, and as we approach the closure of the transfer window the desperation for Gordon grows. Despite being advised continually that Griggs isn’t worth spending a fortune on, the side needs a striker to realise their ambitions and Gordon ultimately pays heavily to get his man. Griggs costs an undisclosed fee believed to be around £3 million, a massive outlay at this level, indeed a record fee, and on this comic-tragedy stage naturally goes on to be worth far less.

It’s at moments like these that the series becomes a real-life Football Manager story. I can reveal that at times I’ve paid a lot of money for a player who can never justify the fee, but there are deadlines coming up and quotas to fill, and you don’t quite know, do you? He might just be the key, even though deep down I know full well that he’s unlikely to even come close…

One element the show covers that the game rarely does is the impact of and on Sunderland’s fans. The Mackems are revealed to be painfully loyal, wanting to believe, broadly in support of the direction their club is taking, yet critical and realistic. They’re a sharp contrast with STID’s star performer, Executive Director Charlie Methven, who’s in charge of marketing the organisation within a climate where money is at a premium. Silver spooned, loud and urbane with plummy Southern enunciation and favouring the classic toff’s penchant of wearing red trousers in public, Methven is a sweary hurricane who perpetually berates the staff for not selling enough tickets when not bemoaning Sunderland’s stay in League One as needing to be as short as possible. His saving grace is that, like Gordon, he appears to really care, which strikes a winning note when all the fans knew before that was Short’s guiding hand working from thousands of miles away.

The series takes in two trips to Wembley, for the Checkatrade Trophy showpiece and the playoff final, the varied fortunes of the players, and in the end the sobering realisation that they will need to do this all over again. Seasons are long, and they rarely come across as more exhausting as they do here, with Sunderland experiencing just about every emotion imaginable, though it finishes with a very cautiously optimistic note that things are moving in the right direction, even if it’s at a painfully slow rate. Sadly, due to current circumstances their progress back to the Championship has been halted. The season has been frozen in time with Sunderland three points from an automatic promotion place. Their fight will go on.