Previously I’d guided Aldershot from a struggling place near the foot of the National League, to playoff glory and promotion to the professional realn of the Football League. This is where things would get real. League Two is not like even the pinnacle of semi-professional football. This is where clubs of various sizes mingle. This is a whole new dimension.
Here, teams like my own Aldershot, full of heart and determination but lacking in resources and facilities come head to head with long-established league sides. To give you an idea of how much a melting pot League Two is, you have small clubs like Stevenage rubbing shoulders with former Premier League teams like Bolton Wanderers. Some clubs (like Aldershot) struggle to pack out a 7,000 capacity stadium. Others regularly draw in upwards of 10,000 fans, and some have even bigger stadiums. The disparity is considerable, though not insurmountable, as the current real-life League Two table shows.
In preparation for the 21/22 season I’d need to prune quite a few errant branches. I’d not sold or released much of the side I’d inherited, preferring to give the players a chance, and the squad had more than earned their keep, but that didn’t mean everyone was safe. The sad reality is that much of the squad wasn’t going to be good enough for professional football, and clinging to players, even those who had helped achieve a remarkable and unlikely promotion, would hurt the club. If you’re sentimental you shouldn’t be involved in football, where success and glory can be all-too transitory.
My need of better players wasn’t the only reason for taking an axe to the squad. Somehow Aldershot had ended up with a bloated squad, and this was placing a strain on the wage bill. To put it bluntly, I would have to sell in order to buy. I immediately put five unused, average players up for either sale or release, and set about seeing who else was deadwood.
My core team was more or less settled, unless the financial situation opened up options for better players (I certainly wanted a better ‘keeper, but Aldershot didn’t have the cash to splash). Below is the team that formed the main element of the promotion-winning side:
I wanted to retain those players, and add quality to the depth. Easier said than done! I had to release a bunch of players too, and I duly did. As I said, sentiment is usually punished in football.
As I looked to make signings that would seriously bolster the squad, friendly matches arrived, hot on the heels of the previous season’s conclusion. Victories over Sheffield (but not United or Wednesday, no, I don’t know either) and Tamworth were both quite convincing, but my third friendly was at home to Scottish giants Celtic.
Yes, it was a ‘David vs Goliath’ scenario, but it would be a good test of the team. Easy friendlies don’t teach players anything useful. Sure, they boost morale, but when the season starts proper, the calibre of football will be higher, and it made sense to offer a taste of that. As I prepared for this big early test, I noticed my wages had increased to £1,100 a week. I wasn’t going to argue with that.
The Celtic game proved to me the hard-working character of my squad. Having actually taken an early lead (Reid was on fine form in the pre-season games), we held on until the 39th minute, and though we went behind in the second half, Reid would score two late goals to give Aldershot an unlikely victory against the reigning champions of Scotland.
From there, the game produced an oddity that I feel opens up a different kind of conversation. Aldershot beat a West Bromwich Albion under 23s side 3-2, but at the end of the match the game froze. I had no choice but to restart and replay, whereupon Aldershot more convincingly. Being a friendly this was hardly an issue one way or the other, but it gives rise to something important – what happens if the game crashes during a competitive fixture?
Should it happen at the end, and I’d won, but had to restart, I’d do what I could to force another victory. I admit that quite happily and openly. My view is that I’d already won, claimed three points or cup progress, and I wouldn’t be prepare to let that progress go. If it took me restarting the fixture a hundred times, I’d do it. I wouldn’t do so if I’d lost. Hypocritical? Perhaps, but that’s how I’ll do things. Hopefully the game won’t freeze or crash very often.
A final friendly win over Slough and I was ready to lead Aldershot into the new world of League Two, and a home game against Barrow. My side was expected to beat a side that were, like my side, expected to battle against relegation. Despite controlling the match and creating more chances (including having an early goal disallowed), the match ended 0-0. In a situation where every point will be precious and dropping points could be disastrous, this wasn’t the kind of start I’d wanted.
Fortunately Aldershot turned things around with a defensive, counter-attacking display away against Northampton, winning 2-1 to get the campaign truly underway in the best fashion. Unlikely victories might be the difference between staying up and going down. Tougher matches await, so I am pleased the team made the most of an early opportunity.
A superb 5-1 away win over Charlton Athletic in the first round of the Carabao Cup followed, and it was particularly memorable, for Charlton sat an entire league above Aldershot, but then reality kicked in with a tame 1-0 home defeat against Plymouth. The lads bounced back to win 3-1 at home to Harrogate, then bowed out of the Carabao Cup, losing 4-2 away to recently relegated West Ham, now ploughing their trade in the Championship but still brimming with Premier League quality. A thrilling 3-3 draw followed away to Grimsby in the league, though it was another missed opportunity, with Aldershot leading three times, but unable to hold on to take three valuable points.
Up next came another visit to Charlton Athletic, in a competition I’d happily eject into space. The Papa John’s Trophy (yes, in England we have a competition named after a pizza company) is one of the most pointless prizes in football, a bunch of filler fixtures that aren’t necessary, especially in the face of a lengthy and congested league campaign. I resolved to treat this competition with the contempt it warranted, fielding a weakened side. I wasn’t going to risk injuries to key players for the sake of this. My caution paid off, as Aldershot managed to pick up a draw away to Swindon after a 4-0 defeat against Charlton. Up next was a battling 1-0 home win over Crawley.
Time for a bit of… nostalgia isn’t the word I’m after, but it’s kind of along those lines. I’ve played a lot of Football Manager, but I don’t recall ever playing against my old home town of Stevenage in a league fixture. I’ve managed Stevenage, but to actually face them? I don’t think I ever have, at least not in the league. To host Stevenage as Aldershot manager felt weird, but my lads were able to take a 1-0 win, my second such result in a row, and this was followed by a third 1-0 win, away to Newport County.
By this point I’d gone six games unbeaten and won the last three, so Aldershot were on the up. I was offered a new contract as a reward for the strong position of the team, but then a 3-2 defeat followed away from home against Cambridge United.
After ten games, the team had done well. We were 4th, not where I expected us to be. Five wins, three draws and two defeats represented a decent run. Could we sustain it?
After 15 games, things looked even rosier. Four wins and a draw brought Aldershot up to third in the table (and an automatic promotion place). Somehow we were six points clear of fourth-placed Carlisle. I didn’t expect us to remain in such a position – but then again, in football all things are possible. Oh, I should mention that a penalty defeat at the hands of the Southampton Under-23s ended Aldershot’s involvement in the Papa John’s trophy. I wasn’t bothered.