The continuing adventures of Derby County via Football Manager 2020. If you would like to read this from the start then a handy index of story chapters is available right here.
It seems the board takeover is back on. Is it just me, or am I justified in feeling a bit unsettled that I hear about these things via the media? The rumours and media chit-chat are strong enough to make me believe that in the end I will have new employers, and I can only hope they are good ones. Whilst any manager would like more money, further patience from the board, the capacity to add extra coaches, the reality is I’ve done quite well with Mr Morris in charge. I don’t believe he’s been ungenerous, and there appears to be a genuine intent to help the team to become competitive.
Maybe our new overlords will agree to throw extra transfer funds in my direction. There’s little left in the pot and all manner of tantalisingly transfer-listed players to scout, and I’m forced to reduce my meagre budget further. It’s pointed out to me that Kevin Stoger‘s minimum fee release clause of £24 million is now actually lower than his stated value to the club (which has risen to the dizzying heights of £26.5 million). I remember agreeing that initial contract, thinking it would be just fine to recoup such a decent fee for a free signing, pure profit, only over the weeks to fully appreciate just what he adds to the cause. I don’t want to lose him. The only recourse is to offer him a new deal, which wipes out the release clause but in return improves his salary by seventeen grand per week, and to make those funds available I have to remove around a million from the rump of my transfer monies.
At least that should resolve the pressing issue of the Austrian’s future, though I might lose Marc Stendera in January, the midfielder pressing for a loan move due to his lack of playing time. I agree, because quite frankly it’s such a reasonable request, but if he and Christian D’Urso do end up moving in January we will be left perilously short of midfield cover. To add to the fun, Emile Smith Rowe is removed from any action for the team due to a case of pulled knee ligaments he suffers in training. This will keep him out for up to three weeks. Now, I know what you’re thinking – Emile has done pretty much nothing, so why worry about it? And you’re right, but it comes down to the nebulous concern of having cover to call upon within a squad that’s threatening to boil down to its bare bones. Not for the first time, I’m considering the recall of Morgan Whittaker from his loan spell at Millwall. The teenager has done well, scoring six goals in 18 appearances albeit at League One level, as he helps the Lions to figure in the promotion picture (they’re second). On paper, Morgan is far inferior to the Arsenal man, but he really couldn’t do much to be more valuable to us and I would take that at the moment.
The managerial roundabout continues. As Lee Johnson leaves Bristol City to take up the Newcastle challenge, a considerable one with the Geordies rooted to the tables lower reaches, Bournemouth and Tottenham both sack their trainers. Jose Mourinho has gone! Spurs are tenth, which can’t be edifying for the club that once parted ways with Pochettino for their own apparent good, and to show their ambition they have cited Zinedine Zidane as his most likely replacement. The French legend chooses to manage AS Roma though, so it’s back to the drawing board with Roberto Mancini the new favourite. Eddie Howe is relived by Bournemouth after guiding them to the relegation zone. That seems a little unfair. They finished seventh in 2019/20, so you would have to argue that he deserves more time, but on the other hand anyone who snaps up Mario Balotelli for their answers has it coming to them! Ronald Koeman is the lazy man’s pick for that particular job, one I personally see as rather promising with that enviably assembled set of players. Plus Balotelli. In terms of stability, new Southampton manager Roberto Martinez is considered to be on shaky ground having lost four of his five games in charge as they sit in twentieth place.
We’ve got a home fixture against Manchester United to take in. Ole’s Red Devils dispatched us in the Carabao Cup last season, a debacle of a fixture that saw us have two men sent off as we gifted them the easiest of 2-0 victories. We have to hope for a more disciplined showing this time. The opposition are as terrifying as ever. They finished third in 2020 and look just as potent this time around. I watch a video of their 8-0 demolition over Astana in the Champions League and shudder, but they also scored draws against Boro, West Ham and Norwich recently, which tempers the fearsome statistic that they haven’t lost a single tie since October. Their summer dealings have undoubtedly strengthened their ranks. Otavio has been an impressive attacking midfielder since his move from Porto, yet the amount spent on him was small beer compared with the £60 million plus fees they paid for Rodrigo Bentancur and Clement Lenglet. More frightening than any of these is the zero pounds they shelled out in adding Edinson Cavani. The Uruguayan legend has the sort of goalscoring record to make anyone’s mouth water, or perhaps that should be their eyes if they’re making plans for how to stop him.
Otherwise United are about as strong as challenges comes at this level. Their one significant sale is Fred, which as you know amounts to no significance at all. We’ve still got to cope with Pogba, De Gea, Fernandes, Rashford and all the other household names, even though Mr Solskjaer seems to have transfer-listed half their stars. If you have the cash and a spare couple of hundred grand in your wage budget you can perhaps look at Messrs Mata, Jones, Lingard, McTominay and Sanchez (several hundred thousand for the latter). ‘Poor’ Alexis’s star has fallen, hasn’t it? The former Arsenal god’s fall from grace has something poetic about it, though his downfall is football’s loss really. Beyond the enormous sums of cash money that are involved is a disaffected great footballer, whose silky skills should grace the division in which he’s playing. Instead, he’s on the fringes of his team, available for £11 million and with his future uncertain. Lucky he has those beloved dogs of his, who he can now feed with solid gold Winalot, right?
We can pick Jayden Bogle once again, while Bielik partners McKenna in central defence and Max Lowe is picked at left-back. Pedraza is on the bench, due mainly to his capacity to cover Lookman on the left wing. Jatta continues his starting place, with the news that Hlozek might be fully fit in time for the Burnley game at the end of December. It’s about as good a side as we can put together right now. I think they put in an excellent performance against Liverpool, but that’s in the past now and we need to go again.
It’s a nervy start. Jatta and Lowe quickly earn yellow cards. Within the first ten minutes Lenglet heads them ahead from a corner kick, only for VAR to reveal that the ball hasn’t crossed the line. Shortly after that Martial puts them in front, but he’s ‘done a Maradona’ and controlled a difficult free kick with his hand, so it stays 0-0. We grow more comfortable and by the 21st minute Jatta has a headed attempt that hits De Gea’s crossbar.
We go ahead on the half-hour mark. A well worked passing move into their half finds Chirivella picking out Lowe in an advanced role. He has options in the area but instead goes for the short pass to Ademola Lookman, who’s been involved in the action throughout and runs onto the ball, firing it low across the keeper’s body. A lovely and beautifully designed goal, the players achieving that telepathic knowledge of where each other is to make it all work.
Within a minute, however, we’ve undone all our good progress. Bakery Jatta is dismissed for a second yellow, really the culmination of a string of petty fouls, which is criminal considering they have mostly been committed against Brandon Williams, who he ought to have the beating of without resorting to shithousery. The German was sent off against United in the game last season, and all his good play in regaining his role is sullied in a few bad-tempered instances.
Down to ten men, there’s little we can do but retreat into our shells, try to end the match as a contest, play defensively and waste time. It’s lucky for us that Ole has United playing a slow, patient game. They go about their business as though time is endless, which works for us. Steadily and with grinding inevitability they ease themselves into a more attacking front. Players are committed further forward, and they’re unfortunate to be sucker-punched further in the 85th minute. A clearance in our box has Hughes pumping the ball forwards. Only Sebastiano Esposito and two United defenders are there and the Italian seizes possession. Using sheer pace he evades the attentions of Lindelof and drives into the box, having the temerity to lob De Gea in making it 2-0.
We’re celebrating wildly, but it isn’t over yet and any match against United involves the unknown factor of time added on, even in the post-Fergie era. In the 92nd minute, Martial’s cross is bundled over the line by Paul Pogba, who manages to get a foot in despite the closing in of two defenders. Later still, when the ground is a cauldron of shrill whistles as the crowd try to get the referee to blow for full-time, they finally get the equaliser. We’ve been lacking numbers on the right for obvious reasons, and Williams is unmarked when he rattles off a fierce shot from outside the box. It turns out to be a wonder strike, which beats Montipo, who’s sailing towards the ball but can’t do a thing to halt it.
I could be upset about only getting a draw, particularly the way we let a 2-0 lead slip so late in the game, but in truth I’m delighted that we played with such heart and for most of it with ten men. Jatta on the other hand is now on a short leash. I’m convinced we would have won had he reined in his aggression and remained on the pitch. How can we rely on someone who has such a dangerous tendency to see red? He’s banned for Burnley, so we are reliant on a not fully match fit Adam Hlozek being ready on time, which isn’t ideal either for the team or for him.