Football Manager 21 – P24: The Leeds Project – Year 2 P2

Following on from a great start to the 28/29 season, it was now time for FA Cup action against Stoke at home. A rotated team drew 2-2, but I felt it was necessary to rotate to keep the squad fresh. I also pruned the squad when the January transfer window opened – such a move was long overdue and generated much-needed transfer funds, as well easing a bloated wage bill.

At the start of the season we’d narrowly and somewhat fortuitously beaten Brighton away from home. For their visit to Elland Road we narrowly and somewhat fortuitously beat them again, having gone behind early on to a penalty and taking forever to get back into the game. Ramon levelled and Stergiou scored an injury time goal to give a win I felt we didn’t deserve. From there we had an FA Cup replay to contend with.

The youth/reserve team I featured got hammered 4-0, so that was that as far as the FA Cup was concerned. I had to move on, as did the team, for the trip to Newcastle. Ramon missed two penalties but he also scored the only two goals of the match, so there was that.

Next came my 400th game in management, away to West Brom in the Premier League. To celebrate, Leeds won 4-1, Talles Magno getting a hat-trick and Ramon actually converting from the penalty spot for a change.

Leeds returned to Elland Road and delivered a routine 2-0 win over Reading. It wasn’t glorious but it was good enough for me. One thing that was concerning me was the lack of goals from Williams, who had dried up over a number of games. I was annoyed, for I knew he had it in him to be great. I debated having a private chat with him to help him rediscover his spark. I needed him to find it soon, for next Leeds travelled to Anfield, home of Liverpool.

Williams put the ball in the back of the net but his goal was disallowed. In the end we drew 2-2 and I felt we might have had the win but we spent most of the game trailing and therefore chasing. After what was quick a dramatic game it was back to Elland Road to host Fulham, who were loitering just above the relegation places. This time Williams did score, and Talles Magno scored twice in a resounding, easy 3-0 win. Spurs were next, coming to Yorkshire to face us – I wanted to be ready.

I’d sold a few players in the transfer window, largely attacking midfielders who were quite similar to one another and proving to be surplus to requirements. Nonetheless, given the quantity of players sold, it felt fitting to retain some form of cover, so I signed a very talented 19 year-old from Dutch side AZ, a Turkish midfielder by the name of Seyithan Kaydas. He got injured as soon as he arrived, albeit only for a few days.

The Manager of the Month award landed in my lap for a good January. Would February be similarly rewarding? Well, a Williams double, plus goes from Harwood-Bellis, Brewster and Almada saw us beat Spurs 5-1, though the score flattered us somewhat. Two of the goals came in injury time – Spurs switched off and we didn’t. The war of words that erupted between myself and Spurs boss Sergio Conceicao (he felt my success was down to luck, I referred to him as jealous) did not abate after the result.

After the international pause Manchester City were waiting for us at the City of Manchester Stadium. I always get anxious about these games, the biggest games away against the toughest sides, but a six-minute spell of counter-attacking brilliance saw us destroy City in their own backyard. Williams netted first, then a horrible back-pass allowed Ramon to pounce just two minutes later, and then Stergiou scored via a freekick and and having all the space in the world in front of goal. City did pull one back a few moments later but Ramon scored his second late on to give us a resounding, glossy 4-1 victory.

Now for the return of the Champions League. The knockout stages brought a trip to Germany to face Bundesliga side Borussia Dortmund. Dortmund won the competition back in 1997 and were runners-up in 2013 and (in game time) 2022. They won the Bundesliga in 2028, breaking an incredible run of 15 consecutive titles for Bayern Munich. Having the away leg first is supposedly better, for it confers home advantage for the potentially decisive second leg, but that was all psychological in my book. The Champions League has many examples of the team at home in the first leg triumphing overall, so really, the idea was meaningless… sometimes.

A 3-3 draw put the tie on a knife-edge. We took the lead through Diez, slipped to a 3-1 deficit and clawed our way back thanks to a Ramon penalty and a short-range powerful shot from Almada. We had three invaluable away goals but I was wondering how we’d prevent Dortmund from scoring at Elland Road.

From Europe back to Yorkshire, to host Leicester, who had continued to struggle and were mired in the relegation zone. We won 5-2 but the two late goals we conceded (and Leicester had a third disallowed) disappointed me greatly. It showed we took our eyes off the ball, which I wasn’t pleased about.

The end of February delivered another Manager of the Month award, along with Williams scooping both Player of the Month and Young Player of the Month for his resurgent efforts. A 4-0 away win at West Ham followed, with new boy Seyithan Kaydas scoring his first two goals for the club, and the performance was generally very good.

We huffed and puffed a lot against Burnley at Elland Road, and did win, but by the one goal, thanks to Williams. I dare say we looked a bit tired after a run of games, but the most important thing were the points. We had marched on, but now we had the second leg of the 2nd round of the Champions League to contend with.

We’d drawn 3-3 away against Dortmund, so we had the away goals but we had to mindful of their ability to score. Score they did, twice taking the lead, but a Ramon hat-trick gave us a 6-5 aggregate victory! I’d asked the players to give a good account of themselves in the Champions League and they’d knocked out the reigning German champions on their way to the Quarter-Finals!

From the dizzy highs of Champions League matches to the bread and butter stuff. After a slightly longer-than-usual international break Leeds were back in Premier League action, away to Norwich. Whilst we waited to return to duty, the draws for the Quarter-Final and Semi-Final of the Champions League took place. With all five English teams still in the contest the odds were good we’d get a familiar opponent, and we did – Man City, with the first leg away from home. If we could navigate that tie we’d face either AC Milan or Liverpool in the Semis.

Norwich had typically denied me victory on multiple occasions, and this was no different. They raced into a two goal lead, and though we pegged them back, we couldn’t find a winner despite dominating. Ah well, we avoided a defeat, and then we had to refocus, because we had Man City in the Champions League. Yes, we’d enjoyed two great Premier League wins over them, but the Champions League brings out a different type of game.

A 1-0 away win the first leg was certainly good. We hadn’t destroyed City in the way we’d done in previous encounters, but we’d gotten what we needed. A good ball from Seyithan Kaydas over the top of the City defence found Williams, who controlled the pass neatly then delivered a deft chip over Edison.

Now for Chelsea. We’d crushed the London side 6-1 at Elland Road, but now we were the visitors. If my side had been on the receiving end of such a hiding, I’d be baying for blood. I had to expect a response.

In a way, Chelsea did respond. Despite Leeds taking a two goal advantage they clawed their way back into the game to level the score, but late on substitute Almada gave us a win I felt we just about deserved. Coupled with Liverpool coming from behind to beat Manchester United at Old Trafford, we now had a five point lead in the title race.

Man City warmed up for the second leg of our Champions League Quarter Final by losing 2-0 at Everton. Still, it would have been extremely unwise to write them off. The match was cagey and tense, with City playing a lot better than in our previous meetings, but in the end some good ‘keeping from Livakovic and a general lack of quality from either strike force saw the game end 0-0 – can’t say I’ve witnessed too many of those in my career so far. A date was set to face Liverpool in the Semi Final.

The resumption of league duties saw Leeds host Aston Villa. A reasonably solid performance yielded a 3-0 win. Next we would host Everton. Erwin was lost to a length injury, so now was the time for others to step up. Oh, the win against Villa secured our place in next season’s Champions League.

Having lost Erwin, we then lost Ramon, and the layoffs faced by the two players would cover critical games in both Europe and the league. It was typical bad luck late in the season, but somehow we’d have to soldier on and find a way to cover the absentees. Kenny Martin would get his chance in midfield; Brewster would start alongside his former Palace colleague Williams against Everton.

We looked nervous here, but a wonderful ranged effort from Almada gave us all three points, and then we were off to Anfield, for the first leg of our Champions League Semi Final clash with Liverpool. A 3-2 win (with a very late goal from Stergiou, plus goals from Williams and Talles Magno) put us in a great position, but we had actually been two goals up at one stage, so the score line wasn’t as good to me as it might have been. There couldn’t be any rest, for Leeds travelled to London next, to face Arsenal.

With four games to go and a maximum of 12 points on offer, we had a seven point advantage over Manchester United. In theory, a win at Arsenal and a Utd defeat would see us win the title – we’d be 10 points clear with only nine points on offer in such a scenario. Of course, we had to actually beat Arsenal, which wouldn’t be easy, and Utd would have to lose – not entirely impossible at home to Man City, but given the relative form of the two Manchester clubs, not likely either.

We ended up suffering only our second defeat of the season, despite creating far more chances and even having a penalty saved. It was annoying, for we conceded the initiative back to Man Utd. They beat Man City to close the gap to four points with three games left.

The next two games would define the season. First, the second leg of the Champions League Semi Final against Liverpool. We held a 3-2 lead from the first leg, but Leeds had never gone beyond the Semi Final stage of the competition. This was a chance to make history, but would we? Liverpool’s history in the Champions League needs no introduction and in the game they’d added a few more European titles to their already-impressive collection. In the end their experience won out – we lost 2-0, though we had a late, late goal disallowed, much to my fury. I felt we deserved to make progress but we bottled it.

We’d now lost our last two games, and we could not afford to lose the next one, at home to Manchester United. They’d played a game more than us and were a point behind us. A win would leave us four points clear of them and with United having only one more game to play, a win would therefore make Leeds Premier League champions for the second season in a row. Would we clinch the title at home against Manchester United, as we had last season? How poetic would that be!

The answer to the question of whether we’d be up for it was delivered quickly. An early penalty saw Almada convert from the spot. Seyithan Kaydas poked home from close range just before the half-hour mark. On 45 minutes Adam Williams was played through by Martin and slotted home to give us a commanding lead. Almada then scored from the penalty spot again on the hour mark, only for Marcus Rashford to hit back immediately. United couldn’t fight back from four-nil down with only half an hour to play, could they?

No, they couldn’t. On 64 minutes Williams completed the rout. We had been determined, ruthless, sharper than ever, and United wilted. The result was brilliant (I love crushing Man Utd), but what it meant was even better – for the second consecutive season Leeds United were Premier League champions, and with two games to spare!

This time around the odds had been ‘only’ 25-1 of pulling this off.

The title was wrapped up but the season wasn’t over. There were two more games left for Leeds, the first of which being the final home game of the campaign, against Southampton. Goals from Diez, Almada and Mazinho gave us a comfortable and routine 3-1 win, and in the process Leeds secured their highest points total for a season of 95 points – I’m assuming top-flight here though I’m not sure.

The very last game of the 28/29 season would see Leeds make the trip to the south coast to face Bournemouth. I rotated the team a bit, to give some young players a chance, and prepared for the finale. What a finale it proved to be!

William struck twice early on but by half-time Bournemouth were level, and they went 3-2 up early in the second half. They created a host of chances but not all that many clear-cut ones, whilst Williams would score twice more, Almada found the back of the net again and Kenny Martin scored his first ever senior goal to complete a 6-3 victory.

So that was that. My thoughts were already drifting to the 29/30 season, for I had a few ideas for how to rebuild the squad for next season, but those thoughts would take shape and form later. For the moment, it was time to savour a magnificent title triumph.

Let’s see what next season holds!

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