Derby FM20 – March 2022: You’re a Wizard, Harry

The continuing adventures of Derby County via Football Manager 2020. This epic length yarn is now into its third season. There’s lots to catch up on if you’re new to these pages, and you might like to use the handy index of story chapters, which is available right here.

Manchester United beat Norwich in their midweek catch-up game. They’ve eased to within a point of us, carrying a superior goal difference, and apparently they are scouting Atletico’s Joao Felix with a view to spending £96 million in securing his services. Given this outlay will be a lot more than our overall transfer budget, but a drop in Old Trafford’s financial ocean, it’s terrifying to think that we are tussling with this juggernaut for our place.

Ahead of Sampdoria, I am advised that Maxime Lopez won’t be available. The Frenchman has suffered a twisted knee in training and will be receiving treatment for around a week. This will put him out of the picture for Palace also, which is a shame as the match would have been a great opportunity for him to shine.

Elsewhere in the Europa League, City are laying waste to Monaco with a 3-0 home win. Juventus clinch a close 1-0 victory over AZ, made all the more impressive because they are currently without a manager. Maurizio Sarri was sacked a week or two ago, having guided the Old Lady to fifth, which is about four places short of expectations. Milan are top, which is fantastic to see, led by the gnat’s chuff tightness of a defence, with Romagnoli as team captain and Donnarumma in goal. As for Juve, what a challenge that would be, to oversee the steady replacement of their golden oldies, represented by the continuing presence of 37 year old Gio Cheillini and the evergreen Ronaldo, but no doubt they will be looking to the usual suspects rather than take the chance on an over-achieving manager in England…

Along with the injured Hlozek and Lopez, Laird and Pedraza are suspended, which limits the personnel changes I can make. La Samp line up with Ivan Perisic on their left wing. I remember signing him back in FM 2019 and finding the experience to be highly regrettable, so it’s hopeful that he can produce the same levels of nothing for Claudio Ranieri. Ross Barkley starts in central midfield, and another Premier League alumnus is up front in the shape of former Southampton striker Manolo Gabbiadini. With a goalscoring record of around one in three for the Italian, he’s worth keeping an eye on. The one I am really interested in is Facundo Pellistri, their Uruguayan right-winger who is on our radar. The 20 year old was signed from Lyon in January and has made a positive start. We are rated as slim favourites to prevail. They’re seventh in Serie A, and the emphasis is on taking the tie back to England without losing the initiative.

We’re quite happy to play the tie at Samp’s tempo, that low key chess match of an approach that makes watching Italian football tactically fascinating but quite different from the fast-paced game we’re used to experiencing. They probe carefully for openings and generally do little unless it takes a long time to do. Fine. We’re feeling the fatigue of all those matches by now, so being restricted to counters and forays works for me. Eddie Salcedo wins a penalty in the first half when he falls over theatrically from Chabot’s challenge, but the kick he takes is a weak one. Satalino can see where he’s aiming for, dives that way and palms the ball into touch for a corner. There’s a lot of absent confidence in the striker’s effort. He’ll get there, I’m sure of it, and he comes good almost instantly when he’s on hand to turn in Roberts’s corner to give us a 1-0 lead, but his lack of incisiveness is a concern when I am normally gifted with Esposito and Hlozek, and the pair’s complete faith in their own abilities. Not long after, Gabbiadini heads in Pellstri’s free-kick, but it’s a clear offside, and Samp do nothing more during a second half that descends into Italian fouls and me rotating the players in readiness for the challenges to come.

For reasons best kept to themselves, UEFA performs the draw for the quarter and semi-final on the very next day. We learn that if we get past Sampdoria we will have Juventus or AZ next. Prevail here, and we have threat of one of Arsenal, Borussia Dortmund, Valencia or CSKA Moscow to look forward to. Clearly some tricky possibilities there, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Kevin Stoger is the latest Ram to rule himself out following a thigh strain he picked up in training. What sounds like an innocuous injury is actually the best part of a month on the sidelines, which is sad news for him when he’s been working hard to put himself back into the first team picture.

Crystal Palace are seventeenth. Eddie Howe has done enough to squeeze the Eagles outside the relegation places, which are now occupied by Southampton, Sheffield United and West Ham, though the situation is a tight one and it looks as though the battle to beat the drop is going to be a mini-contest between these four contenders. They’re considered to be poor at passing, and fairly terrible team players, so everything points to a safe home victory. Wilfried Zaha might not be the powerhouse attacking presence that he once was, but he’s still their most effective route to goal and Howe has been playing him as an out-and-out forward recently. Jean-Kevin Augustin is worth watching in attack, while Diogo Dalot has not really worked out for them following his expensive £38 million transfer. A steady source of goals at Old Trafford has been highly restricted for Palace, almost as though everyone is aware of his potency and knows to keep an eye on him.

I make some changes for this one. Ethan Laird comes in for Bogle, who needs a rest. Hughes is the other significant absentee from the starting eleven. Our captain has made the most starts for us after Butland, and like Jayden could use the break. Esposito reclaims his starting place, with Vieira and Moriba operating in central midfield to supply his scoring opportunities.

When your confidence is low then things invariably go wrong. Harry Wilson’s thirteenth minute free-kick is a clever one that Sebastiano Esposito heads at goal. The shot is cleared, but Palace fail to clear their lines, Brooks is caught in possession and the Italian gets to walk the ball in the goal. It then goes off-script with a near-identical Connell strike for the visitors. Reece Oxford is at fault for this. All he needs to do is knock the ball to safety, but instead he’s robbed and scored against for an unacceptable lapse in concentration. The defender won’t last beyond the break.

In fairness this is a rare mistake from Oxford, ordinarily a highly composed centre-back who in general has played very well for us. McKenna’s in for the second half and we set to wailing on the Eagles. Esposito gets his second from a routine header via Wilson’s corner, a training ground goal scored by someone they must surely know to mark out of the game, so for Howe it must be unforgivable to see the Italian grab such a cheap credit. Another corner kick, and another header, this time by Tosin Adarabioyo, a third goal from the former City man who uses his considerable height advantage. We complete the rout in the fifty-sixth minute. Harry Wilson takes a free kick, curls it around the Palace wall and straight into the bottom corner, leaving Guaita flailing. It’s the culmination of a superb game from the Welshman, racking up three assists and a goal of his own, along with wearing the armband, to gift him with the Man of the Match award.

Liverpool and Spurs both win, but United can only get a draw against Wolves and that puts us back in the driving seat, still hovering two points off the top. We now can’t finish any lower than eighth, but clearly top four is the target, and with that eight-point gap between ourselves and City it’s looking like an increasingly realisable objective. Things get tough in the next week, though. We face Sampdoria in the second leg of our Europa League tie, before heading off to Stamford Bridge on Sunday. Chelsea humbled us in this fixture last season, and it will be a significant measure of our progress if we are able to prevent the same thing from happening again.

Derby FM20 – March 2022: The Bottom Line

The continuing adventures of Derby County via Football Manager 2020. This epic length yarn is now into its third season. There’s lots to catch up on if you’re new to these pages, and you might like to use the handy index of story chapters, which is available right here.

In the wake of our Carabao Cup win I’m faced with the demand for a new contract by Ademola Lookman. It seems the winger, having played really well and picking up his form overall in recent weeks, is quite aware of his worth and knows he is now very close to breaking into the England team. He’s looked at the players he is up against – Raheem Sterling and Jaden Sancho – and learned that his wages are quite inferior to the £325,000 and £160,000 those two take home respectively. Pay me or lose me is the demand, and given his importance to the team I have little choice but to take him to the negotiating table. Lookman comes away with a new salary of £82,000 per week, by our standards very high yet considering his comparative earnings not that much at all really.

It hammers home to me an important point about Derby. Great as it is to win things, to keep this ‘little’ side in the title picture and clinch trophies, we are doing it all on tight budgets and slender means. The Ram’s sponsorship income of £26 million puts us in tenth place in the Premier League, and that’s good, however we are raking in considerably less than the division’s real big hitters. Manchester United rake in a formidable £307 million, then it drops off considerably to the £196 million commanded by Liverpool in second, and Arsenal (fifth) are the the last to take in more than a hundred million. It will take us a while before we can get this much for hawking our brand, but it’s things like this we will need to do more savvily.

Similarly, to resolve Lookman’s new contract I adjust my budgets and put as much extra oomph into the allocation for wages as humanly possible. We now have the capacity to run a bill of £1.48 million per week, which is broadly a million in excess of what Derby were shelling out when I first joined and shows how far we have come. This puts us fifteenth in the Premier League. As with the sponsorship table, I can’t expect us to have the capacity to pay on the same level as the likes of United, City and their wealthy pals, but it’s a situation that’s going to have to improve. Already, I get the impression that certain players- Bogle and Hlozek are notable examples – are considering their desire to move to ‘bigger’ clubs. The latter is becoming in demand as Villa and Sheffield United have him on their radars, and I am going to need to think of ways to keep them on board, which basically means paying them a competitive salary.

Derby must grow. Either that, or we have peaked and we will always be a little team that’s in the shade of our rivals. I realise that we won’t get a spike in revenues overnight. Our European travels should provoke a raise in the club’s profile, which has an impact on the power of our good name, however it’s a process that will take place over time and it will be interesting to see whether Mr Morris and his cronies are on board with raising standards in line with our increased outlook.

In the back of my mind constantly is the sad history of clubs that overreached and paid the price, most notably Leeds United, who spent far in excess of their resources and have been in the football wilderness ever since. We don’t want to go that way, and Derby’s generous yet prudent board should ensure we never repeat the Yorkshire side’s mistakes. In the meantime, Lookman’s new deal has placed his value at a formidable £38 million. He’s now second behind Sebastian Esposito (a whopping £58 million) within the squad, a true asset, and sellable at the right price if it comes down to it.

The fifth round of the FA Cup takes place in midweek. It gives us a week to recover from the Manchester United match, before we embark on the twin towers of the Premier League’s final ten fixtures and the return of the Europa League. Our third round vanquishers, West Ham, were subsequently knocked out by Brighton and Hove Albion, and the Seagulls get the pleasure of an away day at Bournemouth in the latest set of ties. We’re playing them at the weekend, so I am keen to see how they get on. Brighton produce a 2-1 victory, with the bonus of Pascal Gross suffering a torn thigh muscle and being unavailable for our meeting at the weekend. Nobody likes to see a player go down with something that sounds frankly horrific, but the German is their best prospect and can’t play, so it’s all good. Otherwise they are put to the sword by the Cherries, who attack them frequently, on their own high as they seek an instant promotion from the Championship, which they look like they will get with a ten point cushion between themselves and second placed Stoke. For all their efforts, Bournemouth come up against a sea wall in the Brighton defence, led by Dunk and Ostigard. At the other end, Aaron Connolly scores the two goals that see them through. Their prize is a home game against United (beaters of Middlesbrough) in the quarter-final. Sigh, it could have been us…

It’s a mild, breezy afternoon at the American Express Community Stadium in early March. Our opposition has settled into mid-table, a sterling effort given their limited means, and we will need to pay attention to the likes of Adam Lallana, Davy Propper and Aaron Mooy, their main attacking outlets. They aren’t the most tricky obstacle that we will have to negotiate between now and May, but they’re thriving at this level for good reasons and we have to take them seriously. Before hostilities are finished we will have away days at Arsenal and Chelsea to get through, and we are taking on Man City at home, so this is one we just need to win, whatever it takes, if we are going to keep our hands in.

In the lunchtime kickoff, Liverpool go to the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium and play out an indecisive 0-0 result, so added to the mix is an opportunity to claw back some points. I name a starting defence of Tosin and Oxford, with Bogle and Lowe (because our appeal against Pedraza’s ban has been refused and he’s suspended for two more matches) on the flanks to form a line that’s entirely English. Vieira lines up alongside the steadfast Hughes in midfield. It’s a strong set-up, I think, and it’s quickly involved in a bad-tempered game as Brighton attempt to make up for their deficiencies with violence. By the end, Hlozek will be carried off with what turns out to be pulled ankle ligaments that will keep him out for a fortnight. Ojo wil be missing for a couple of days with a tight groin. Wilson and Lookman are taken off as a precaution; their knocks are negligible scares rather than anything requiring treatment.

Amid the fun of watching magic sponges getting flung around liberally, we prevail thanks to a seventeenth minute strike from Sebastian Esposito. Bogle gets a cross into the box, which Ostigard heads away. Hughes wins the ball from Propper just outside their box and finds Lookman, who cracks an instant shot against Dahlberg’s crossbar. Esposito is the first to the rebound. Surrounded by three players wearing the Tesco Value branded shirts of Brighton, he strokes the ball beyond the keeper and into the top corner.

The Gulls have their chances. Lallana, now 33 and very much in the autumn of his playing years, is an inspiration as their attacking midfielder and sits at the heart of most of the good things they do, though Krys Bielik does his best to deal with the Englishman’s threat levels, and we get the best of the game’s chances. Harry Wilson has a gift-wrapped opportunity that lands safely in Dahlberg’s arms, and we hang on to claim the points as time bleeds away.

I am placing a tentative final points target of 80 on us, which should be achievable – 15 more required from a possible 27. Getting it will guarantee we finish ahead of the Gunners and Chelsea, while City’s form looks too fitful to suggest they will hit the total of 84 that they could rack up if they win all their games between now and the end. We’re off to Italy in midweek for the Sampdoria match, before returning to Derby where we will roll out the red carpet for Crystal Palace.

Derby FM20 – February 2022: Man You Part 2

The continuing adventures of Derby County via Football Manager 2020. This epic length yarn is now into its third season. There’s lots to catch up on if you’re new to these pages, and you might like to use the handy index of story chapters, which is available right here.

We were knocked out of the FA Cup by West Ham and now we have an opportunity to gain some revenge as we are paired against them in the league. It’s a good time to kick them while they’re down. The Hammers are in eighteenth place, failing to get themselves out of danger even now they are under the new management of Chris Wilder. The former Sheffield United broom might find his time here to be short-lived. West Ham’s porn baron owners aren’t known for their patience, and Wilder’s addition of four new players aren’t making any real difference.

Former Rams target Stanislav Lobotka has been brought in to add deep lying support to their midfield. Also from Italy is Samu Castillejo, a Milan winger who’s here on loan. I’ll admit that as part of my FM experience I have managed the Rossoneri before and Castillejo never lasts very long in my thinking, so I’m not expecting a great deal of trouble from him. Dejan Lovren is now a Hammer, following his £2.7 million transfer from Liverpool, and finally they have tried to reverse the ageing make-up of the side by drafting in Shane Ellis, an 18 year old centre-back signed from Leeds.

With the weekend’s cup final in mind, I name a much-changed side, one that contains eight English players in the starting line-up. Ilaix Moriba is ill with a tight thigh so has to be removed for this one, offering a rare chance to shine for Maxime Lopez. Eddie Salcedo gets his first competitive start for us, and Lowe comes in for the suspended Pedraza.

Our new striker has the ball in the back of Zoet’s net after twenty minutes, but he’s drifted marginally beyond Smalling and the goal is cancelled for being offside. A shame; this is his best moment in a difficult debut that will see him removed midway through the second half. It takes us until then to force the issue. The Hammers have some good players with Felipe Anderson always a source of concern, as he proves when he intercepts a Lowe pass and isn’t stopped until he gets a shot off, but really they are there for the taking. If we can’t win this one, at home, then we probably shouldn’t be where we are in the table, and eventually we take control.

Our first comes when seventy minutes have lapsed. Roberts takes a free-kick, which is aimed towards the far corner, where Krystian Bielik has shrugged off Ruidiaz to head home. This prompts West Ham to seek an equaliser, which in classic fashion leaves them more open to the counter; a slick passing move leads to Vieira’s assist for Patrick Roberts‘s first goal for us, a delicious volley into the top corner. A third comes in injury time, when Adam Hlozek’s shot is diverted into his own net by Charlie Taylor. There’s even time for a fourth, but Roberts’s searching cross is collected by a grateful Zoet. Good to finish with a flurry of attacks, and to pad out our goal difference, which is much lower than that of the teams around us.

Before the Carabao Cup final, we learn who we will be facing in the next round of Europa League matches. In a draw that contains Juve, Dortmund, Arsenal and Monaco, we are paired with Sampdoria. The tie will spirit us off to Genoa first before we host them back in Derby. My stock answer is that the competition contains no easy games, but the lottery could have been harsher to us than it is, even though Claudio Ranieri has the likes of Ivan Perisic and Ross Barley to call upon when his team faces us.

I’m reminded that Derby have never won the League Cup. We haven’t made the final before now, in fact, so this match counts as a very big deal. While we hope that our league form will put us back into next season’s continental picture, achieving victory in the final would gift us with another year of Europa League action, and beyond that there’s the considerable prize of clinching a piece of silverware. Sure, it’s the least of the competitions we’re involved in, but it counts. I’m sure that our illustrious opposition will be contesting it closely.

With the prospect of a further two-match ban facing him, which I’m appealing, Alfonso Pedraza is back in the line-up. Chirivella returns, as does Moriba, and I’m unable to select Laird (on loan from our opposition), or the cup-tied Roberts and Tosin. I have had a word with Esposito about his declining form of late, however he’s still our most reliable goalcorer and he makes the eleven, though now I have the luxury of backing him up with Salcedo, while Hlozek is on the bench for Wilson.

Manchester United emerge from the Wembley tunnel with almost exactly the same alignment of players as those that downed us in the league. They’ve swapped out Lindelof for Tuanzebe, otherwise they’re unchanged. I’ve been advised via Francesco Baiano’s comments to the media to keep an eye on Anthony Martial, for which I’m grateful as otherwise I might have forgotten he was on the field.

It’s breezy and cool in London. The place is packed, the mood of the players tense and anticipatory. I have told them that this is a real occasion, to savour it, and they have responded well. Deep down, I realise the result doesn’t matter very much. Then again, nothing else does. We play football for days like this. It’s a sign of the team’s rise, a compliment to the board for backing me and to the players for their endless work and capacity to pull off good results, more than anyone else to the fans, here in their droves and hoping for something of an upset.

We tear into United from the start, eager to make up for losing to them in the league and hoping to impress the supporters. It’s really positive stuff, my players treating a team as good as this without any level of awe. And it pays off in the twenty-sixth minute when Ilaix Moriba slams his volley into the near corner, the end product of a dizzyingly quick passing sequence between himself, Hughes and Lookman that finds him in the space to take his chance. Before the break we have a second. Hughes is loping up the pitch and passes wide to Wilson before he can be challenged off the ball. The winger takes a punt from an acute angle, which a keeper as accomplished as De Gea deals with, but his parry drops the ball in front of goal, right at Sebastiano Esposito‘s feet, and despite the close attentions of both Lenglet and Tuanzebe he’s perfectly positioned to poke it over the line.

I’m reticent about making us play a cautious game after the break. What we’ve been doing has turned out to be worth it, and the last thing I want is to hand the attacking initiative over to the Devils. So we continue, the swapping of Cavani for Martial making little difference as the Uruguayan forces one good save from Butland and does nothing else. In the meantime we score two more. Pedraza fights off the challenge of Semedo to cross into the middle of the area, where Harry Wilson is only loosely being covered by Mendy and fires his shot into the top corner. From kickoff, as United try to salvage something we regain possession and spark another break. Moriba makes the killer pass to Ademola Lookman, with Semedo and Tuanzebe on either side of him but he knows where the back of the net is and volleys into it. De Gea is a spectator for this one, marvelling with the rest of us at the shot’s virtuosity. At last, the opposition pull one back courtesy of a Bruno Fernandes special from outside the area, the sort of pinpoint bullet of a shot that suggests he can pull this sort of thing off whenever he pleases. But it’s far too little, way too late, and we finish the game nearly padding out our lead as the United challenge crumbles.

And so history is made. We’ve won the Carabao Cup, the first trophy of my Derby career, with Lookman winning Man of the Match for scoring and making a goal. There are no weak performances to speak of, with Esposito back to producing some good predatory work and Chirivella controlling things from his defensive midfield base.

Derby FM20 – February 2022: Man You Part 1

The continuing adventures of Derby County via Football Manager 2020. This epic length yarn is now into its third season. There’s lots to catch up on if you’re new to these pages, and you might like to use the handy index of story chapters, which is available right here.

CSKA Moscow won their Europa League group, just like we did, indeed the teams they overcame – FK Austria Vienna, Astana and Bohemians 1905 – are like a wet dream line-up, all beatable. Little wonder that the Russians ended on eighteen points and a +14 goal difference. They’re waiting, as we are, to find out who they will get in the second knockout round, and until then they’re at the top of their Premier League with a squad made up of cast-offs and hand-me-downs, some from England. Ever wondered what happened to David Luiz, Sokratis, Nainggolan, Jovetic and Robbie Brady? They’re all here, a team of golden oldies. Hell, even Football Manager legend Igor Akinfeev is still on their books. I think we must all have signed him at some point in the past, no? He’s now 35, having taken in 498 league appearances, each one for CSKA and stretching all the way back to 2002.

A cheap gate for our friendly encounter – hey, if you’re wondering what to buy for your Valentine… – attracts 23,469 Derby fans, who get to watch us win 2-0 with a vastly reassembled side. Jason Knight plays in midfield for this one. Eddie Salcedo gets to strut his funky stuff as our starting forward, and Ojo and McKenna supply the goals. In a game that doesn’t matter we look impressive, restricting the Musovites to one on-target shot while we pepper their goal with chances. Sure enough, no one busts a gut to produce the victory. Everyone is looking forward to a few days’ break, so the last thing the players want to do is pick up a dumb injury, nevertheless they determine to put on a show for the supporters and everyone goes home happy.

There are European matches taking place before we return to action. I catch some of the first leg matches of the initial knockout round. Man City and Borussia Dortmund both look ominous, putting five goals past Ludogorets and Austria Vienna respectively. Juventus conspire to lose 1-0 to Lille – a turn-up of a result, with ageing legs not producing the goods for the appropriately nicknamed Old Lady. Ronaldo is still the man for them, more like the codger by now, at 37 and slowing down to the extent he’s only scored the 22 goals so far this season.

And then it’s off to Old Trafford and the joys of taking on Manchester United. This warm-up game for the Carabao Cup final at the end of the month is the perfect tester. What will our opposition be like to play? They’ve lost Paul Pogba with a nasty bout of torn knee ligaments, which will keep him out for some time, and Harrington Maguire has sadly broken his leg and will be lucky to feature again this season. If we had a couple of injuries to such key players then our effort would be – sorry! – crippled, and yet the Red Devils can shrug their shoulders and power through the fixtures. Theirs is a squad of champagne footballers. They’re so stuffed with talent that an outright god of the game like Edinson Cavani is only good enough for the bench, sitting on his £225,000 weekly salary and rubbing shoulders with the likes of Greenwood and Wan-Bissaka.

In a blustery but mild stadium, they put out an international XI of elite talent that we can only admire. The absence of Pogba is mitigated by a midfield pairing of Fernandes and Bentancur. Lindelof and Lenglet compensate them for the loss of Maguire. Martial is up front, supported by an attacking midfield trio of Rashford, Dembele and De Arrascaeta. The latter, a Uruguayan January signing, is still adjusting to English life, but United can afford to help him ease into their side. Must be nice…

I’ve been warned about their fluidity, their sheer ease whilst on the ball – which is all you would expect from such a high standard of playing personnel – and the class of David de Gea in goal. Getting anything past him will be a tall order, indeed for my forwards it’s a privilege to test themselves against such a superb keeper, a net custodian so physically accomplished that it can seem at times as though he has extendable, Mr Tickle arms. As against Liverpool, I opt to defend first, hoping that we can absorb their pressure and gut-punch them on the counter. United don’t like marking players very much, I’m informed, a rare weakness that can hopefully be exploited by our pace in attack. You never know, maybe Lookman and Esposito bearing down at top speed will produce something…

Instead, a first half played on Saturday lunchtime before the cameras produces a premium of entertaining football. It’s on the home team to break us down, and this they stubbornly fail to do. Against the Pool we had the ominous sense that they could score from anywhere, especially from free kick situations, but the Devils don’t quite have the same cutting edge. There’s an element of stodginess to them – they can do all the same things as Liverpool, nearly but not quite as well. Martial misses an opportunity from point-blank range – Dybala would no doubt make no mistake in the same situation. These efforts are a matter of split-second timing, but the ball finds him beyond our defenders, with only the keeper to beat, and he sends his shot into the sky.

As the second half picks up where the first left off, more of the same and Ojo and Hlozek now on to throw fresh legs at the situation, it looks for all the world as though we are going to battle to a 0-0 scoreline that does nothing for neither of us. And then Alfonso Pedraza gets himself sent off when he takes down Dembele just outside the area. As challenges go it’s messy. There’s no malice and it isn’t a dangerous tackle, but it’s clumsy, a clear foul, and you can almost sense the referee deciding to send him off just to spice things up. At this point United are reaching some sort of ascendancy. Their attacks are becoming more frequent, and now they can take us to task. Anthony Martial produces their sixty-ninth minute winner, a shot from the left side of goal that Butland parries, but only right back into the forward’s path who is able to slot into a gaping net.

With a man down, we are unable to respond in any fervent kind of way and are left to accept the defeat. It’s pointed out to me that this is our first league defeat in eighteen matches. I’m asked whether our lack of experience, the youth of my players and the fact they’ve never been involved in a title challenge, will count against us when it really matters? Don’t ask me, kidda. The prospect of fighting for a Premier League crown was never seriously on our minds. A top four place is our goal, and we still have in it mind even after losing here.

The battle for first is in full swing all around us. Drop any points, any at all, and suddenly we’re off the pace. Spurs beat Wolves 3-0, and in the pick of the round Liverpool go to the Etihad and produce a 2-1 triumph thanks to an injury time Bailey winner. This opens a four point gap between the front two and ourselves. United are a single digit behind us now, and City are marooned. Pep’s situation is described as insecure; he joins Sheffield United’s Danny Cowley and Chris Wilder of West Ham in looking over his shoulder for the chairman’s sacking finger.

Speaking of the Hammers, they’re who we are up against in several days’ time. This is a rearranged fixture, which should be taking place at the weekend but instead we will be going to some ground no one has heard of called Wembley to take on United all over again in the League Cup showpiece.

Derby FM20 – February 2022: Drawing with Honour

The continuing adventures of Derby County via Football Manager 2020. This epic length yarn is now into its third season. There’s lots to catch up on if you’re new to these pages, and you might like to use the handy index of story chapters, which is available right here.

Morgan Whittaker goes off on loan to Sunderland, after his performances for the Under-23s lead to the suggestion that he could use some first team football elsewhere. The winger joining a League One team implies that he’s some way short of being ready for our level. Josh Kirk will play the remainder of the season with Oxford. We sign a free agent keeper, Julio Falcone, an 18 year old Argentinian-Italian, and bundle him out to Morecambe until summer. There’s interest from Brighton in signing Max Lowe. Without Whittaker we are down to four ‘trained in club’ homegrown players, so we are compelled to hold on to the full-back. It’s all very low-key. As ever, I would rather keep my January transfer business to a minimum. This isn’t always possible, however the dream is to produce a squad in time for the start of the campaign and stick with it.

Elsewhere, Man City’s legendary right-back Kyle Walker is their latest high-profile leaver. He takes the Chinese coin, moving to SH Shenhua for a fee of £16.5 million and drawing a weekly wage of £81,000. Liverpool flex their considerable muscles with Bayer’s imposing defender Jonathan Tah, a £47.5 million capture, and then toss a further £47 million in Ajax’s direction and return with Edson Alvarez. ‘Best defender in the world’ Dejan Lovren has made a significantly humbler transfer to West Ham, and you’d have to argue that these moves have made them even stronger. Arsenal’s perpetual effort to possess a defensive backbone has led them to the door of Presnel Kimpembe, a £25 million purchase from Paris-Saint Germain. Beyond these shores, Porto midfielder Romario Baro goes to Hertha Berlin for a stonking £57 million, Dynamo Kyiv winger Georgiy Tsitaishvili is a £42 million gift to the PSG fans, and Bayern plunge £41 million into PSV’s Calvin Stengs.

I have to be pleased that we landed Eddie Salcedo for comparatively loose change; he’s a good striker who improves us. If you think that before the window we had Josh Maja in the side, then things must be better now. Patrick Roberts is a like-for-like replacement for Pavon; hopefully it will be a better fit to graft an English winger to an English club, rather than expect an Argentinian who has never previously left the American continent to make an instant impact. Tosin Adarabioyo is considered by our coaches to be the side’s best rated defender, alongside Reece Oxford, so with good fortune he will work out to be another sound capture.

None of these are made to make your mouth water necessarily. We can’t really afford to make flashy signings, but we can keep an eye on the transfer market, spend prudently and steadily develop the players I have at my disposal. The casual way our rivals are able to blow enormous sums shows the scale of the challenge we are facing. If we are able to keep battling at this level, placing ourselves in the Champions League picture, then the sums available to us will increase, and with these come more difficult questions. The difference between us and the big hitters is that, for example, City’s Zaniolo can fail and they simply have to brush themselves down and seek out another target. We would face ruin if we did that. Assiduous scouting and targeted signings are the orders of the day.

With Liverpool on the horizon, I’m awarded Manager of the Month for the second time this season. Kevin Stoger, who I tried to sell in January and was becoming increasingly unsettled, has been removed from the list and fallen back in line. He’s also unavailable for a couple of weeks thanks to a virus. This won’t be the last time I try to find a new home for the 28 year old Austrian. He’s been a terrific club servant, from being signed on a free seeing his value rise to £30 million, however we have better options in his position now and some very fine potential replacements out there. Jude Bellingham continues to hover on the radar. We can have him for £22 million if Birmingham fail to get promoted; they’re fourth currently. No doubt there will be a queue of interested clubs, but my hope is that with a large homegrown clique of young Englishmen Jude will see Pride Park as a suitable home away from home.

Anyway, Liverpool. They beat us at home in the season opener, and we go to their gaff knowing that their ranks are arguably as strong as ever. Mohamed Salah is no longer on the Scouse menu, of course, but there really isn’t a weak link in the side. Along with their two recent defensive signings they have added Max Aarons and Leon Bailey, and then there are people like Dybala, Mane, Firmino, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Wijnaldum, Keita and Fabinho on whom to keep watch. The fun doesn’t even end there. Alexander-Arnold and Robertson in the full-back roles are both ebullient attacking forces. There literally isn’t a man who we can safely ignore or not worry about too much. It isn’t hard to see why Liverpool are title favourites. They have four players in the Media Dream Eleven (I’ll let you guess the size of our contribution); frankly, it would take a miracle for us to overcome them. The best thing I can say is that once this fixture is out of the way we won’t have to face them again. It’s like queuing up for a bout of medieval torture. Planning for the likes of Trent is akin to submitting my own thumbs to the screws. You get the general idea.

What makes it all the worse is how magnanimous Jurgen Klopp comes across in his media dealings. He’s a Rams admirer, by all accounts; he’s very impressed with us and thinks his team will do well to get anything out of our meeting. Bollocks, mein Herr. Chances are they’re going to flatten us – he knows it, I know it, and so do you. All I can do is pick my best eleven, send them out onto a wet, early February Anfield, and hope for the best.

We’re set up defensively. I opt to field Ilaix Moriba rather than two deep lying playmakers just to keep the Scousers on their toes. The young midfielder is proving to be a cracking asset, well worth the £32 million we will be shelling out for him in the summer. His rise comes at the cost of Maxime Lopez, the Marseille freebie who’s done little wrong but is fighting for his place with a teenager who’s living up to his billing as the Chosen One. He deserves better than the eleven appearances he’s made for us, but that’s football and he isn’t complaining.

Liverpool take the lead after seventeen minutes via the easiest of routes to goal. A free-kick won in our half; a Dybala rocket that’s met by Tah and headed into the net at some speed. All too straightforward, and it feels to me like this is going to be a long ninety minutes. I ask the players to play a bit more expansively, and they respond in the thirty-seventh minute. Bogle passes infield to Moriba, who picks out Ademola Lookman with a raking pass right in front of the keeper. Ade is covered by Alexander-Arnold, but he’s in front of the defender and is able to slice his shot past Alisson. We then somehow take the lead with our next attacking move, a Pedraza cross into Lookman, who has time to line up his shot and put it low beyond the keeper. Trent is really at sea for this one, racing across to tackle his man but all too late. Another Dybala free-kick is picked up first by Pedraza, but this is the worst thing that can happen. The full-back should have let the kick go and watch it sail out for a goal kick. Instead, he reaches it with a boot tip, having no control, and simply diverts it into Trent’s path who can poke it past Butland.

This all happens before the break, a finely poised thriller in which we have clearly rattled the Pool but look vulnerable against their set-pieces. Anything could happen next, and as it is tempers start to fray. Lookman is booked for an untidy challenge on Alexander-Arnold as the pair get involved in a series of personal battles. Moriba is setting off on another dangerous dribble towards the Liverpool goal, but then he’s caught from behind by Alvarez, who takes him down with a graceless two-footed challenge. It’s a red card. The home team will have to play the second half with ten men.

What to do? The coaches urge me to press our advantage, but I’ve been here before and seen what can happen. In truth, I am happy to play for the draw. Having a man advantage only means that we are a bit more on level terms with them. Liverpool are still terrifying opposition and continue to have chances, but we waste time, try our luck with a few decent attacks of our own, and the game eventually peters out. Who knows, perhaps I’m wrong to play it safe. We could have ended the game in first place, but it seems to me that we got a break and did well enough to come away with a point.

Tottenham beat United 2-0 to go back into first place and open up a four-point gap between the top three and the pack. By some miracle we are in a three-way tussle for the title, though it would take another big effort for us to produce the goods in our upcoming tie at Old Trafford. Then again, even if we lose we will still be a point in front of United, and without the pressure of conceding our place it doesn’t feel quite so heated.

As for this tie, Ade wins the Man of the Match award for his two goals, both taken with composure and a marked lack of modesty against such illustrious opposition. It’s a good moment for him; he’s having a difficult season after the heroics he produced in 2020/21, so any sign that he is turning the corner and regaining his good form is very welcome. Moriba is very highly rated for his threat levels in midfield, and Bogle puts in one of his best jobs of work as a consequence of keeping Sadio Mane relatively quiet. The Senegalese superstar is one the campaign’s top performers, so it’s an accomplished covering task that has done Jayden some real credit.

We now enter a two week winter break, a well-earned rest, even if I’m a bit reticent because our form is so good right now. A friendly at Pride Park against CSKA Moscow has arranged, before the build-up to our date with destiny against the United half of Manchester.

Derby FM20 – January 2022: Everton Two Times

The continuing adventures of Derby County via Football Manager 2020. This epic length yarn is now into its third season. There’s lots to catch up on if you’re new to these pages, and you might like to use the handy index of story chapters, which is available right here.

A lot to get through in this post. I have sinned a bit by playing more of the game than I should have, so this update will be a bumper effort that takes in three matches and much of the January transfer window. Incidentally, as I am updating at a feverish pace right now, basically because I want to see how it all turns out, I am adding posts well in advance of when they are scheduled to appear. I’m writing this on 4 August, and it’s booked in to be posted towards the end of the month. As a consequence I will be updating on a daily basis until the season is complete. It’s what we all want, isn’t it?

We now have two games against Everton to get out of the way. The first is the slightly important fixture of hosting them in the Premier League, before what I hope will be the formality of the second Carabao Cup leg at Goodison Park. As you know, we lead the tie 4-0, so the game will be a case of holding our nerves and not becoming unstuck (sorry) to the Toffees.

It’s the middle of January, so naturally it’s wet and cold when the visitors arrive in Derby for our Tuesday evening league game. Let’s face it, January’s rotten, isn’t it, especially in the You Kay? They really ought to find a way of suspending us all in hibernation until things get good again. With a full schedule of league fixtures taking place today, there’s no let-up and we can’t allow ourselves to fall behind, not with some gruelling games coming up where we probably will leak valuable points. Everton’s challenge is ebbing by the match. After threatening to enter the race for Europe, they’re now slipping into the bottom half and both scoring and conceding at the rate of about one per game. In short, they’re the same mid-table fodder that they’ve been for some years.

There are no excuses for letting things slip, and we pull through 1-0 in a tense, end-to-end encounter where we just about turn out to have the cutting edge. Wilson wins a first-half penalty when he’s impeded by Bakayoko as he diddles around harmlessly on the ball in their box. It’s a cheap and needless foul to make, and Sebastiano Esposito puts away the spot-kick confidently. After that it’s a case of holding the opposition at arm’s length, most pertinently keeping Andre Gomes under wraps. The Toffees midfielder remains their main creative force, like a crappier Pirlo spraying passes around to the likes of Macias, Calvert-Lewin and Kean, all of whom find fun and interesting ways of turning promising moves into nothing. In fairness we’re solid at the back, while Vieira and Hughes play a good game in midfield, but Gomes probably deserves the match ball for playing so positively, even if the same can’t be said for his teammates.

The weekend is given over to fourth round FA Cup matches. We get to sit it out, and with all the games we’re playing it feels a bit like a reprieve. Our conquerors West Ham are beaten 2-0 at home by Brighton, which feels like an extra slap in the face. The Seagulls will enjoy a south coast Derby when they play Bournemouth in the next round. Currently seventh in the league table, this is turning into a banner season for Brighton, while their opposition are strolling through the challenges presented by the Championship, sitting six points clear of Stoke at the top.

And so we have a week in which to fiddle with our thumbs before we take on Everton again, this time in Liverpool and with a place in the League Cup final at stake. The Toffees are still in that other cup competition, the one we no longer care about and is dead to us, drawing 1-1 against Preston, so they are leggier than we are because Thomas Frank believes not in squad rotation. This doesn’t stop them from taking a first half lead, Bakayoko making up for his error when last we met by heading in a goal from a free kick that we fail to clear well enough. Reece Oxford will have to think about his weak header for some time.

It’s not a disaster to go in at half-time losing. Everton would have to destroy us to overcome the lead we’ve built, and they have reckoned without Adam Hlozek, who leads a second period charge. His first comes from a simple Vieira through-ball, which he guides past Mina before slotting neatly home. Not long later he does it again, Ronaldo supplying a second killer pass and the Czech pretty much ignores Mina in sliding his shot past Zidane. By now the aggregate scoreline is 6-1, and it’s great to have won both legs. The home side are too much on their knees to do a thing to stop us, and a second half’s power play kills off their effort.

A fantastic job well executed. We will take on Manchester United in the Wembley final, after they dispatch Norwich 5-0 to romp through. This is going to take place at the end of February, neatly happening before our journey through the Europa League resumes, and frighteningly marking our second meeting with the red half of Manchester during the month. Because they aren’t quite terrifying enough, Ole adds some extra firepower to his ranks, paying £25 million for PSG’s right-sided midfielder and Russian international Magomed-Shapi Suleimanov, and strengthening his attacking cohorts with Giorgian de Arrascaeta, who was tearing Brazilian football a new hole for Fluminense prior to his £19 million move. They’ve offloaded Daniel James to Southampton in order to free up some space, but the £16 million they rake in via his sale is a speck next to the near £300 million outlay they have impressively lavished on personnel this season.

There’s no arguing with that kind of spending power, the sort that is designed to propel United towards where they want to be and should spin them way beyond our lowly means. I’m after a striker, with Maja gone and Hlozek earmarked for a return to the right wing if Roberts and Wilson don’t work out as the incumbent choices. The initial choice is Liverpool’s Rhian Brewster, who has been made available on loan. Jurgen resists my effort to sneak in a cheeky optional buyout clause and will only consider letting his man go to a team that will treasure him as their first choice forward, which is not in line with my thinking. I go foreign instead, thinking about Esposito and the team that sold him to us, Internazionale. They also have Eddie Salcedo, a 20 year old Italian who can be signed for anything between seven and fourteen million. We bid somewhere in the middle, offering £11.75 million, and then we wait. The Genoese forward looks terrific, not so good as an aerial threat, which is fine, but he’s quick, agile and full of running. We’ve been scouting him for some time, indeed it was tempting when we first signed Esposito to double-dip with Eddie and go in for an Inter job-lot, and if he can be anything like as good as his former Nerazzurri teammate then we will have done well here.

Before the transfer window closes we have another league fixture to fulfil, this time at home to Newcastle United. The Geordies beat us very early in the season, back when we were arguably easy to overcome, yet they are now back in their traditional lower mid-table berth, even under new ownership. Resolving them isn’t difficult – stop Allan Saint-Maximin – but actually effecting it is another thing entirely. The French winger presents a fine attacking force, their one genuine spark, and he’s enjoying his third good year in the north-east. They also face us with Olivier Giroud, on loan from Leicester, in their line-up. Now 35 and bereft of any physical spark, yet still a big unit with great finishing, we will absolutely need to keep an eye on him.

The first half is an absolute snorer. While I order us to attack frequently and get revenge for that beating, the Magpies are smothering our efforts and our front three of Roberts, Lookman and Esposito is doing precisely squat. The only upside is that Newcastle remain happy to bat aside our pushes and do little of their own, content to contain us and return to Newcastle with a shiny new point in their pockets.

After the break, and a half-time telling off, I start switching things around. Ojo and Wilson are introduced, and Adam Hlozek is brought on to continue his rich vein of form. For the away team’s part, Saint-Maximin makes his impact in the best possible way by being sent off after collecting two yellows, a sign of frustration after Bogle has shackled him so well to this point. Hlozek’s first is a simple cross and dispatch that co-stars Ojo, an easy goal that hints at the true calibre of Newcastle. He then nets from Wilson’s nod-down after the winger has picked up Pedraza’s cross, an effort that’s watched appreciatively by four orange shirted defenders. The third comes from the penalty spot, when a free kick is handballed by the luckless Giroud.

Liverpool travel to Chelsea and win 2-0 to declare their title-retaining credentials, but the Manchester derby ends in an indecisive 1-1 result that doesn’t do either party much good, and Spurs can only draw against Leicester. The upshot is that we have advanced to second place, indeed we’re top before the Scousers achieve victory in the later kickoff. We had better enjoy the good times while they last. February sees us go to Anfield for a date with destiny, and there’s also United at the Theatre of Screams to come. All the same, it’s a great record to carry into the remainder of the campaign. The gap to sixth now stands at a yawning nineteen points, and I’m even being asked by the media to comment on Pep Guardiola’s job security at the Etihad, opting for the classic u ok hun? retort as it seems bizarre to me that such a titan of the game could be in any kind of peril.

Derby FM20 – January 2022: Transfer Musings

The continuing adventures of Derby County via Football Manager 2020. This epic length yarn is now into its third season. There’s lots to catch up on if you’re new to these pages, and you might like to use the handy index of story chapters, which is available right here.

I’ve been talking recently about letting Kevin Stoger go, selling him while he has some serious resale value. It looks as though this isn’t going to work out. Teams have been interested to the extent of putting serious money into the mix for him, but he’s turned down their contract offers while growing disgruntled at not being allowed to move on – no one is stopping you, friend – and in the meantime I am sourcing potential replacements.

The obvious solution is to not sign anyone at all. With Adarabioyo signed we now have five centre-backs, one more than we really need. I could rebalance the situation by letting Jesus Vallejo go, but I quite like the Spaniard and think that he could have a future with us, so the more likely solution is to push Krystian Bielik into a defensive midfield role and in turn field Rolando Vieira in central midfield.

That’s certainly a thing that we can do, and Bielik will go on to play with some distinction against Southampton in his new position. Talking of the big Pole, his development is hitting a bit of a wall after he initially raised his game to Premier League standards. Coupled with this is his demand for greater playing time. Selling him has never previously been part of my plans. I envisaged a future in which Bielik was carried along with the rest of us to whatever end, but if he has reached the limit of his improvement then perhaps it’s time to consider cashing in on a player who could fetch up to £20 million in the market.

Another option is to scour the talent that’s out there and add a new face. So far we’ve sold two first teamers in January, and signed two more. I don’t want to spend for the sake of spending, and as it goes there is a world of difference between drafting in players who’ll genuinely improve us but will eat up our resources in the process, and signing ‘just enough’ types who come cheaper yet might add little – hitting the sweet spot in between both camps is the trick. In the former bracket, I would like to go to Chelsea and snap up Tammy Abraham and Ruben Lotus-Cheek, who are both transfer-listed, and perhaps throw in a cheeky loan deal for Conor Gallagher whilst I’m at it. Three English players who would enhance our ranks, but the former two each earn more than £100,000 per week, and it’s beyond our meagre budget to pay them anything like that much. At the very least, we would expect (i) Chelsea to pay a portion of their wages (ii) the players to accept a pay reduction (iii) a combination of (i) and (ii) to make it work.

As for Gallagher, he’s a long-term target, a 21 year old midfielder of enormous potential who has never quite broken into the Chelsea first team. On the plus side, he can play happily on the left-hand side of central midfield, and all the indications are that he would love to play for Derby, a place where he would actually get to make some appearances. The downer is that the Blues know they have an asset on their hands, as little as they may value him as a playing individual. The least they would want is £35 million, which is around three times more than I have to spend, so the chance of him being anything more than a loanee who wows us all temporarily is slim.

Abraham moves to Shandong, who do have the power to keep him in the fiduciary manner to which he’s become accustomed. Other people we like also go elsewhere. Sander Berge narrowly avoids being swallowed up by Spurs, who make a late move for him, offering a sum that starts at £38.5 million with various add-ons, while Dominik Szoboszlai, a tongue twister of a midfielder who we’ve been tracking for ages, moves from Salzburg to Borussia Dortmund for £40.5 million. There appears to be a gulf emerging between those I want and the ones I can realistically afford. As the transfer window bleeds away and I watch players who I admire become lusted after by rival set-ups, I can only be reminded that Derby have come a long way very quickly, and financially we need to do some catching up.

We’re off to St Mary’s at the weekend, taking on the Saints before our double header against Everton. As Josh Kirk agrees a new contract with us, ending the speculation that he will be gazumped by the blue Merseysiders, we have to plan for that most banana skin of fixtures – an away game at a club that we ought to beat, but that has the capacity to trip us up. The tale at the table top is getting tighter. Manchester United wallop Arsenal 5-0. City, Spurs and Liverpool all claim victories, so simply to remain in the conversation we have to match them. Now, I know what you’re thinking – but Mr Side, this is Derby, they aren’t expected to be riding so high… And you’d be right, however here we are and it’s incumbent on us to be part of the race for as long as possible. In February, we have the joy of away days at Anfield and Old Trafford, so the points must be banked now.

Southampton are nineteenth in the Premier League. On 15 points, it’s fair to say that things are going ill for them, and the managerial bounce that replaced Martinez with Paco Jemez from Saint Etienne has not translated into a boost up the ladder. Paco has signed two Kierans – Phillips from Cardiff, and Everton’s Dowell – for modest fees, but he’s also overseen the departure of defender Joris Gnagnon, who is now a teammate of Tammy Abraham’s at Shandong. Worse news for them is their injury list. Nathan Redmond and Danny Ings are both unavailable, so they’re up against the wall when we arrive. For us, the omens are good.

In classic fashion, when the chips are stacked in our favour we find a way to screw it up. In the twelfth minute, after some non-committal early exchanges Bertrand finds Djenepo on the left wing. Evading Bogle, he crosses into the box, where Elyounoossi nods down in the direction of Omrani, who’s covered by Bielik. The good news is that the forward is too well marked; the bad comes when  the ball bounces off Bielik’s head and diverts into the net, a horrific own goal.

There’s nothing for it now but to go on the attack, try to take apart a side that we have already beaten twice this season. Steadily, we become more forward thinking, replacing players who are doing badly with good ones, revelling in the silky footwork of Ilaix Moriba in central midfield that sadly has no outlet. The teenage Spaniard-Guinean can’t do it on his own, and Forster’s goal is leading a charmed life as shots thwack off the woodwork or sail harmlessly wide. An Ojo goal in the seventy-first minute that looks perfectly good to me is ruled offside – it looks at this point like being one of those occasions. Very late in the same, Roberts sends a corner kick sailing into the area. To this point the Saints have defended well, en masse, but they’re stood watching when our tall centre-back Tosin Adarabioyo rises to nod it into the net. The new signing, a friendly giant, has his first for us, and given his height advantage it could be the first of many.

We aren’t done yet. As the seconds tick by in injury time, McKenna sends a pass out to Sheyi Ojo on the left. The Liverpool man is still seething over his disallowed goal and goes off on a run, defenders in his wake, before finishing the move with a low shot that beats Forster and billows into the bottom corner.

There’s so little time left after this that the whistle is blown pretty much as soon as the ball is returned to the centre circle. Privately I might seethe about leaving it so late to produce a winning strike against a side we ought to slap into last week, but in the end all that really matters is recording a victory, even if it took the use of Fergie Time to make it happen. It’s tight at the top. Spurs just about hold an edge, while City are threatening to fall off the pace, a bit like those mountain stages in the Tour de France when chancers peel away from the leading pack because they can’t handle the punishing rhythm that’s being set. Below them there’s an eight point gap to Arsenal, thirteen behind ourselves, so even though there’s plenty of season left it feels as though we would have to collapse dramatically to allow them to catch up with us.

Derby FM20 – January 2022: Bielsa’s Bucket

The continuing adventures of Derby County via Football Manager 2020. This epic length yarn is now into its third season. There’s lots to catch up on if you’re new to these pages, and you might like to use the handy index of story chapters, which is available right here.

Graeme Shinnie is one of Derby’s forgotten men, a factor in our promotion campaign but since then no longer needed and having spent his last eighteen months in Colorado. The MLS season is over and he’s back with us, playing reserves football and waiting for his contract to wind down. But Colorado want their man and agree to take him on once his time here is done, which I think is a rather nice end to his story with us. Dirk Proper ends his half-season on loan with Seattle. The Dutch youngster has played with heart and, now 19, has the possibility of making it into the dizzy heights of our first team, though this is a consideration for the future. A series of clubs make fresh loan offers for him. He can pick from Amiens, Leicester, Frankfurt and Hannover 96; while the Foxes would provide him with top flight football, I would like him to go the team that wants to use him more frequently.

Leonardo Morawski is a 19 year old Argentinian defender who joined us at the end of the summer transfer window. Like Proper, he’s working towards first team status and will become homegrown over time, so we see him as an asset, however for now I have a promise to keep that I will send him out on loan. A string of offers flies in. I refuse all but the ones that will regard him as a regular starter, and ultimately he opts to join Sunderland, still a League One side. The Mackems have gone from hoping to bounce back into the second tier to being settled in within their current climes, so hopefully Leo can help them to spark a resurgence.

Less welcome is the effort by other teams to poach our promising youngsters. Everton want Josh Kirk, who joined us from last year’s youth intake. A 17 year old right-back for whom I’m trying to secure a loan deal (Oxford are interested), the Toffees submit a £6.75 million offer. This is serious, but following the deal that spirited Lee Buchanan from the Stiffs two years ago I am reticent about letting talented Ramlings like Josh go and I offer him an improved contract. We could absolutely use the money if the player decides to transfer his talents to Merseyside, but the plan is to mould Josh into the man who will ultimately challenge Jayden Bogle for his place in the starting line-up.

Then there’s the Kevin Stoger situation. Other teams want him. The offers for his services are steadily getting lower, from the original one that met his valuation to the bids of around £12 million we are receiving now. These are accepted, and he wants to leave due to the interest being shown in him, but when he turns down all the contract proposals It all starts becoming a bit wearisome. Stay? Go? Make up your mind, pal, and in the end I remove him from the transfer list just to try and place some closure on the situation. We can try this again in the summer. By now, the Austrian is only the sixth highest rated midfielder in the squad. He’s been valuable to us. I can’t put a price on the contribution he made last season, when he and Will Hughes were more or less constants in the line-up, but that time is over. We have a lot of options now and other players I would like to consider bringing in, so unless someone produces the sort of terms that neither we or he can turn down he’s going to stay here until the summer.

The backdrop to all this player movement is a busy January schedule. We have eight fixtures to play, and next up is a heavy going home tie against Wolverhampton Wanderers. The Midlands side helmed by Marcelo Bielsa is in upper mid-table, arguably playing within themselves because their side is stronger than ours. They’re intent on strengthening their ranks also, having a loan offer for Dortmund’s transfer listed Thorgan Hazard turned down, because what they really need is more attacking talent. They beat us earlier in the campaign, presenting a relentless and sustained pressing force that we struggled to cope with, so it’s fair to say we come into this one respectfully and not without some fear.

It’s cold and wet in Derby. The cameras are tracking us, Jamie Carragher wanking on about xG, which I’ve never really understood, and for this game I start with Patrick Roberts as part of a line-up that contains seven English players. That’s seven more than Wolves use. Things go ill for our visitors from the start. Raul Jimenez is involved in a rough challenge with Pedraza and needs to be taken off, an injury that will turn out to be broken ribs and more than a month’s worth of treatment. Ouch! Roberts is next to go, replaced in the twenty-fifth minute with a potential thigh injury that thankfully is negligible. My gratitude goes to Vinagre for making that happen. After the game, Bielsa has a whine to the cameras about our rough-house play, a criticism I don’t agree with as we cancel each other out in terms of fouls.

There’s an aspect of this that’s pure sour grapes. We win 2-0, surprisingly emphatically, as though Raul was the key to it all and without him they’re toothless. Harry Wilson comes on and is terrific, making both goals. The defence plays well as a whole, while Vieira and Hughes in midfield operate like sentinels, holding back the golden horde and starting forays of their own. A great team performance, capped off with goals from Sebastiano Esposito and Reece Oxford. I’d have taken a draw from this, but right now we’re in the thick of the top of the table action, determined not to be dropped from the pace. Earlier, Liverpool defeat Sheffield United to maintain their title challenging credentials. Manchester City are the unlikely losers, at risk of falling out of the race for the top when they collapse 4-1 to Chelsea. Guardiola is at last flashing the cash. Florentino Luis is brought in for £84 million. A further £91 million is sent Roma’s way for winger Nicolo Maniolo. They’ve sold Phil Foden, who is now a Barcelona player at a price of £74 million. Those are some big numbers. In comparison, our captures of Roberts and Adarabioyo have netted them a combined £16.5 million, a drop in the ocean.

Tottenham are next. The Londoners have been surprise title challengers throughout the term, with much of their effort being in service to Eduardo Camavinga, the teen sensation who is currently the third highest rated player in the division (behind Liverpool pair Dybala and Mane). They’re the division’s highest goalscorers, Zapata leading the way with thirteen strikes, while Barbosa, Debbie and Son aren’t far behind. We have beaten this lot at Pride Park, however that was during the league’s early swipes back before the table settled down into what it’s become. Everyone is expecting a tough time at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, where Manuel Pellegrini has put in a sterling job of work guiding them back into contention for honours.

I put out a midfield designed to keep us safe, Vieira and Hughes playing ahead of Chirivella, and order a balanced approach with the option to become cautious if the situation demands it. The first half has us cancelling each other out. We both have swiping opportunities, but the clash of the titans this one’s billed as largely fails to live up to the promise. In reality, neither side is exactly ‘titanic’. Spurs have maximised their talent but they’re hardly Real Madrid. And you know our situation. We work hard as always, look for gaps like any good side would, and I’m pleased with the work of Adarabioyo in his first start for us, yet we aren’t fooling anyone. We’re game but limited, which is all we are going to be with the resources available.

At half-time, the F.O.C. unwraps his surprise package, Dutch winger Steven Bergwijn, and before I can exhort the players to show him special attention he scores direct from the second half kickoff. Lo Celso finds Ndombele on the left flank. Covered well and without a route to goal, the Hotspur instead picks out Bergwijn, who’s hurtling into the area, pursued by Hughes, and who then unleashes a rocket of a shot to break the deadlock. Needless to say he’s ‘looked after’ following that incident, and it takes us until the eighty-fourth minute to redress the situation. Hughes, Roberts and Vieira are all involved in the move that ends with a launched ball to the left wing, where Sheyi Ojo is drifting into the box almost unmarked. Spurs defenders are all busy looking after Hlozek, and the winger gets to dink a soft looking shot that catches Lloris out to make it 1-1.

Getting a draw from this is a scenario we’ll take any day. The table following our result is actually slightly better than it looks here – United have played their early match before the next round of fixtures and won 5-0; after Spurs we are tucked neatly into third place and a single point off the top.

Derby FM20 – January 2022: Out of the Cup

The continuing adventures of Derby County via Football Manager 2020. This epic length yarn is now into its third season. There’s lots to catch up on if you’re new to these pages, and you might like to use the handy index of story chapters, which is available right here.

So you’ll remember that we made it all the way to the FA Cup semi-final back in the 2020/21 season? Our run ended when we met Liverpool, who duly bitch-slapped us out of the tournament even though we played with pride and were just facing an infinitely better side. But it was great until then, right? We dared to dream, sprinkled with the magic of the world’s oldest cup competition. Well, you can forget all that this time around. West Ham knock us out at the first time of asking. To make matters worse, they do it without a permanent manager. David Moyes has been sacked and Kevin Keen is in temporary control. Thinking about it, maybe Moyes was part of the reason why the Hammers offered up such easy prey… They join Sheffield United in looking for a new boss as the Blades part ways with Chris Wilder. It isn’t difficult to see why this has happened. Wilder had got his team out of the bottom three and then determined to reverse their good form, losing seven straight before they resolved to seek an alternative in the hot seat. Sacking him makes sense.

Before going to London Stadium, everything seems to be going so well. Pavon and Maja leave. Tosin Adarabioyo agrees terms and signs for us, joining Patrick Roberts as new arrivals at Pride Park. With these boys in the squad our homegrown contingent is up to seventeen; Hlozek, Esposito and Moriba are set to join their ranks once their three years are done. I get the impression that we are definitely growing in terms of overall quality, and my personal reputation within football is on the rise also. The board increase my transfer budget, and even with Tosin drafted in I have nearly £13 million to play with, which will increase should Kevin Stoger get his big money move elsewhere. Mr Morris and his suited bezzies also want to offer me a new contract. This is fantastic news, coming on the back of my first Manager of the Month win for my work in December. It’s all coming up Derby.

Naturally, the happenings during a football match can ruin everything. There’s no reason for me to think that we won’t prevail against the Hammers, in their stupid massive stadium against their ridiculous, ageing players. We won 4-1 here within the last month, and they’re stuck in the Premier League’s lower reaches, flailing about in eighteenth place. They are even refusing to use Lukasz Fabianski, a keeper who struck me as having two of the safer hands in the division.

I think I start to go wrong when our balanced mentality seems to be striking a stalemate, so I shake things up by demanding a great degree of urgency. This produces more attacking effort, but it also opens us up to the counter and that’s exactly what the grateful home side do. Issa Diop finds himself in acres of space when a free-kick is dealt with messily. The Hammers for once move the ball around at pace, and my defenders are all elsewhere when the Frenchman picks up Sanchez’s pass and has the easiest of shots to nose them in front.

By the middle of the second half we’re putting the home side to the sword. We’re having chance after chance, proving profligate in our shooting, and I feel that nothing’s going to happen until midway through the second half. Harry Wilson equalises when he sends his shot from Moriba’s assist underneath the body of the stretching Zoet in West Ham’s goal. It’s a fine goal, really our just rewards and, feeling that the game is switching our way we should keep up the pressure. Big mistake. We probably ought to park the bus and prepare to take the tie back to Pride Park, but we don’t and we pay the price when a late flurry of home team attacks gets its reward. We’re not easy to score against. Haller is robbed when he’s on the ball by our goalline. Vrsaljko is next to try, and he’s dispossessed, but Kolasinac picks things up and finds Albian Ajeti, a transfer listed Swiss striker, who is betwixt Laird and Vallejo and nods the ball under Butland and into the net.

Going out at the first time of asking was not in the script. We’re gutted. The statistics have us on top in just about every category, apart from the one that matters, so there’s nothing to be cheered about going out. Fans of fixture decongestion might have it that we can’t do fantastically in every competition, so perhaps it’s a good thing to lose one of our commitments, but nobody likes ending an FA Cup run before it’s ever really began, and that’s exactly what we have done here.

At least we are still in the Carabao Cup. It’s time for the first leg of our semi-final against the Evertonians. We’re starting at home, so there’s a requirement for us to make a real statement of intent here. If we can take a good result back to Goodison Park then I will be able to shut the door there and steer us through to the Wembley showpiece. Derby County in a cup final? Yes please, Sir.

Patrick Roberts is cup-tied for this game (as is Adarabioyo), so without wishing to overload the pressure it’s on Harry Wilson to produce the goods here. So far he’s been an up and down player, good one week and poor the next, without any identifiable pattern to what makes him tick so I’m never certain which Wilson I’m going to get from game to game. He is of course a Derby favourite, based on the season he once played here when we were still a Championship side and he a fledgling talent at Liverpool. Considered by the coaching staff to be an emerging top flight talent, there’s a sharper onus on him producing the goods than there ever has been previously and I’m convinced he has what it takes to make the grade.

What Harry does against the Toffees is put on the Wilson Show, following superb individual performances by Esposito and Hlozek in recent matches. After a cagey first half in which we dominate but produce no breakthrough he turns on the style, scoring all the goals in what becomes an emphatic 4-0 victory, giving Otavio and Davies evenings to forget as the players assigned to keeping him under wraps. His first comes from an opportunistic launched ball into the area by Pedraza. Wilson is first to it, racing ahead of Ben Davies and poking it into the net from point-blank range. Ten minutes later and he produces a raking volley from the right, which Zidane misses as it sails home. It’s a goal from nothing, after Esposito has been challenged off the ball and it drifts out to where he’s drifting. In added time, the visitors are going all out for their away goal and leaving massive holes for us to exploit. A break sees Stoger lofting the ball out to him. He’s on the halfway line, launches an attack of his own, rides Mina’s challenge, runs into the area and puts it away. Lovely stuff. The last comes from the penalty spot, after Davies is penalised for tackling Vieira from behind in the Everton box.

I don’t want to tempt fate by suggesting that we have already done it. The Toffees can punish anyone, and we will need to be careful when we head over to Merseyside at the end of the month. All the same, we have given ourselves permission to dream of playing in the final, which at the moment looks most likely to be against Manchester United. Playing Norwich at Carrow Road, Marcus Rashford’s first half strike is cancelled out by a late Pukki equaliser. The outcome is to Norwich’s credit, but you have to imagine that back at Old Trafford it will be a straightforward case of the Devils making good on their advantage.

A bittersweet set of cup performances then. One disappointing, the other highly positive. The board are unhappy about being dumped out of the FA Cup before we hit their expectation of making it to the fourth round, which in itself wasn’t asking for a lot, but they claim to be understanding of West Ham gaining an edge over us. Maybe they see things more realistically than I do… Cup exploits are now put back on the shelf. We’re up against Wolves at the weekend, before making one of the trickier journeys that we will need to over the course of the campaign when we travel down to North London to meet Spurs.

Derby FM20 – December 2021: Season’s Beatings

The continuing adventures of Derby County via Football Manager 2020. This epic length yarn is now into its third season. There’s lots to catch up on if you’re new to these pages, and you might like to use the handy index of story chapters, which is available right here.

A week off in December ends with the traditional grind of two matches over three days. Wonderful. While you’re tucking into your Christmas dinner and being disappointed by the Doctor Who special we are getting ready for our visit to Everton on Boxing Day.

Such is football however, and while I have the break I do some crunching of the players’ numbers. Here’s how they stack up, showing the figures for those who have made more than five appearances:

What have we learned from this? One clear lesson is that I’m probably right to be selling off Cristian Pavon, and that transfer-listing Kevin Stoger is almost certainly a hasty decision. Admittedly the latter is based on the player’s age (because I am ageist like that) and recouping a decent whack for him while he’s hot, but I am questioning whether it’s the right thing to do. He’s still there, available to you for £22 million with no likely takers,  and if things carry on like this – and with more performances like the commanding effort he puts in against Fulham, more on which below – then I can see him quietly being removed from the list and cuddled closely to sweeten him up. It’s worrying that all four Derby wingers are among the lowest rated of our players. Ademola Lookman is tailing off after what he produced in 2020/21, though most of his good stuff last season happened in its second half. Then there’s the Jayden Bogle factor to consider. Am I putting too much faith in a full-back who ultimately isn’t all that good, especially at this level, just because he’s a young, homegrown player? Just compare his rating against Ethan Laird‘s, an on loan sprite who is doing everything to justify his place in the side…

The game at Goodison is viewed as a clear chance for us to claim victory on the road, but I’m not so convinced. The Toffees overwhelmed us the last time we played them. They need to be taken seriously, Thomas Frank spending their money on some good squad additions like Jarrod Bowen, Otavio and Tiemoue Bakayoko. At the same time, talismanic keeper Jordan Pickford is now a Gunner, and Frank has replaced him with Zinedine’s son, Luca Zidane. Perceived to be a weak link in their line-up, all we need to do is pass the ranks of high class players to test him, which is not as easy as it reads here, whilst also marking Andre Gomes, who remains their strongest bridge to attacking play.

I pick a strong side for this challenge, thinking that I can afford to make changes for Fulham in – sigh – two days time. A freezing Goody Park is well attended, and plays host to something of a low-key affair in which we excel defensively. Everton have a lot of early chances, Calvert-Lewin particularly problematic with his great pace, but Bogle is alert to his wiles and plays a composed and, more importantly, a disciplined game in nullifying his effect. At the other end, Moriba is a busy presence and gets to spark off our best attacking move. Ben Davies is on the ball on their left flank. Moriba cuts all the way across and robs him, then sets off into their half where he picks up Esposito who’s racing into space and evading Mina. The striker rakes a pass across the penalty area, where Ademola Lookman is loitering, and he fires a shot that wriggles into the net beneath Luca’s body.

The goal comes against the run of play and I hope is a reminder to all teams that they need to respect us. We prepare for the Evertonian onslaught, which of course comes, and fervent it is, however we are solid at the back, where Lowe, Bogle, McKenna and Oxford all put in a shift of top quality. We hold them successfully until the eighty-eighth minute, when Otavio’s free-kick is steered home by Moise Kean. But it’s one of those afternoons for the home side. Kean’s about a yard offside, and we survive to savour a hard fought victory.

With the Pavon money banked I decide to reinforce our defensive ranks by placing a bid for City’s Tosin Adarabioyo. An initial fee of £7.5 million is agreed, with further instalments that will make the final transfer worth around £12 million, and City agree to meet £10,750 of his agreed weekly salary. As we are always stretching the limits of the wage budget, this is a welcome clause. We are one of a number of clubs interested in Tosin, and for now he’s sitting on our bid, hoping that someone offering him a bigger pay deal might come along, yet I’m hopeful of getting this one over the line. It seems like a very good deal for a 24 year old centre-back who carries a £25 million value.

It’s wet and cold in Derby as we entertain Fulham. I’ve never lost against them, and I don’t plan to change anything here as I make sweeping changes to my line-up to keep things fresh. Transfer-listed Stoger starts in midfield. There are big bids in for him from Shandong and DL Pro, both in the region of a cool £20 million mark and therefore too good for me to turn down. Otherwise, only Butland, Oxford, Moriba and Wilson from the Everton win keep their places. Rotation is the name of the game. Harry Wilson wears the captain’s armband with Hughes and McKenna on the bench.

We get to play with an attacking mentality, the effort being to exert our superiority from the opening whistle. Sheyi Ojo scores an early opener for us. Wilson’s corner is knocked straight at Rodak in the visitors’ goal by Hlozek, but rebounds to Ojo who just has to angle his shot out of reach and into the net. We then have one disallowed for offside – I agree grudgingly – before Adam Hlozek makes it 2-0. A routine back-pass from Akieme towards Costas is intercepted by the Czech, who races into the area and volleys home. Fulham defenders are struggling to keep up with him. When he wants to be Hlozek is unplayable. He’ll demonstrate this further in due course.

Before the end of the half Mitrovic has nodded one back for the away team. It’s a simple goal, Cavaleiro’s cross and Alek’s goal, made sickening because there are three white shirts surrounding the striker and he still does the business. Perhaps it’s a warning to me that I should at least take the opposition seriously. Then again, maybe not. Even as I drop our intensity levels, one man is determined to stake his own claim to greatness on this pitch. He’s Hlozek. The second period is transformed into his show, the Pride Park pitch his stage. He starts in the sixty-third minute, when he receives Pavon’s nod-down from Ojo’s cross, ignores the administrations of Costas and rifles home. Straight from the ensuing kickoff, Stoger robs the ball from perpetually confidence-free Ben Gibson and runs into the Fulham half. The only player ahead of him is Hlozek, the one defender the luckless Costas. The Czech collects, launches another volley, and it’s 4-1. His fourth and our fifth arises from a failure among the away team to clear their lines. Stoger takes a corner. Oxford picks it up in the box and is crowded out by defenders. Somehow the ball trickles out, as though from a ruck, and there’s Hlozek again to put it away.

By now, the Cottagers are waving white flags, begging for no more punishment, they’re already dead, and we coast on the crest of a 5-1 barnstorming. A highly satisfying afternoon’s work with no weak performances from my boys, though Wilson is fairly ordinary, possibly a consequence of him assuming the captaincy. Hlozek’s four-goal turn makes him an easy choice to receive the match ball. For Fulham, Sergio Akieme is identified as the main culprit, setting the tone with his horrendous mistake in making that erroneous back-pass. Only Mitrovic comes out of it with any credit.

We finish 2021 in a very healthy third place, and we hope to retain it or at least end the season in the top four. Like ourselves, United are sustaining their pressure levels with straight wins over Middlesbrough and Leicester, but City have dropped points after their goalless draw against Arsenal and are now four points behind. The next update is a cup special. January starts with West Ham in the FA Cup, before we play the first leg of our Carabao semi-final when we entertain Everton. It’s a lucky thing that we love the self-appointed Peoples’ Club, as January will see us line up against them on no less than three occasions.