Here we go. The final third of Aldershot’s first ever season in League One. Would the team have enough about them to stay up, or would we be sucked down back into League Two? What twists awaited? We’d been pretty inconsistent up until now.
Well, firstly, we had visitors from Oxford. They were 9th and we were 16th, so clearly they were enjoying the season a bit more than we were. Glatzel, scorer of the winner against Crewe, was injured for a couple of weeks. This allowed Fondop the chance to return to the first-team squad, and renew his partnership with Reid. The match turned into what was easily our best performance of the season so far, with Reid scoring a hat-trick and Edser scoring a 30-yard wonder goal, whilst we kept a clean sheet as well. This meant we now had back-to-back wins and we’d nudged ourselves further from the drop.
Next up was our trip to now-bottom of the table Shrewsbury. Except it got cancelled again. That felt oddly familiar… and it was annoying. Sooner or later congestion would take its toll, not ideal when fighting for survival.
As January ended Edser received the award for Goal of the Month for his screamer against Oxford, which was nice. It was a peach of a strike, worthy of any award!
In the wake of the Shrewsbury match being postponed twice, my next mission was to guide Aldershot to victory over Bristol Rovers, who were a couple of places below me in the table. Before the game, I wanted to reflect on an intriguing occurrence, one that I’ve observed in FM2012 as well – Bristol City, the local rivals of Rovers (clearly) had reached the Premier League. They were struggling (which wasn’t surprising), but in FM12 they’d often gone on to win themselves promotion to the top flight, and often ended up fighting for European football. Quite what turns Bristol City into a team able to earn European football is a mystery, but Football Manager seems to have that power.
I digress, my opponents were Bristol Rovers. They must have been looking on at their neighbours with envious eyes. They got to enjoy a trip to lowly Aldershot, whilst City travelled to Leeds for a Premier League clash. Talk about different worlds…
We lost 1-0. I don’t want to talk about it.
Would we now get to have our day out in Shrewsbury? An interesting note here – at this point in the game, Shrewsbury’s manager was a woman, Emma Hayes. This is exceptionally unusual in real football and kudos to Football Manager for featuring female managers.
The game itself produced a 3-2 victory with Reid scoring twice, and loan signing Jones netting his first goal for the club. Twice Shrewsbury pegged us back, but the team did not waver and we took an important three points. From there we hosted former Premier League side Sheffield Wednesday, and a narrow 2-1 win moved us to 10th and the top half of the table. Up next the team ventured to Sunderland, however this was a disaster – a goal down despite dominating the first-half gave way to a second-half that saw us continue to create chances without taking them, and end up getting punished heavily – losing 4-0.
There was no time to drown sorrows – a trip to Doncaster (a place I’ve been to, albeit not for football reasons) quickly followed. The consequences of postponements were rapidly catching up to us, and I wasn’t pleased. The result was a lot of squad rotation, which can be unsettling on any team. We drew 3-3 due to a last-minute equaliser on Doncaster’s part, disappointing seeing as we’d led 3-1 at one stage. Even a wonder goal from left-back Rabbetts couldn’t see us take the points I felt our play deserved. What was pleasing was seeing Fondop score. His return to action had given us a firepower boost, right when we needed it.
Aldershot went on to take a 1-0 win away to Lincoln, thanks to a beautiful run and move that put Silko Thomas front and centre. The attacking left-wing player had impressed me on a number of occasions, and this was yet another example of his increasingly influential skill. His movement and ability to run with the ball, coupled with an awareness of where to pass and run into, was making him an important player. Remarkably, the win put Aldershot to within five points of the playoffs. More importantly, we were 12 points clear of relegation, and there were only nine games left.
Yet another poor home performance followed against Wycombe, and another defeat as a result. Considering our next game was at home, but against promotion-chasing Bolton, I did not fancy our chances. After Bolton we’d have a tough trip to Ipswich. Great, just great.
I wasn’t sure why I was frustrated. Aldershot were still on course to stay in League One for at least one more season, a fantastic achievement. I guess you might say defeats make my bones ache (to paraphrase a Star Trek quote). Once again the game granted the opposition a goal without any build-up or indication of a goal, something that was starting to seriously hack me off. This weird glitch caused me to lose to Bolton, and damaged my calm. In the process two of my players were injured, which annoyed me even more. To top things off, we lost 2-1 to Ipswich, despite leading for much of the game.
Our form was now pretty awful, and I was losing my temper with the team. Perhaps I was a bit harsh, considering the calibre of the opponents we’d recently faced (though some failures to win had been against teams struggling and below us), but I couldn’t help but feel we were not doing ourselves justice. I attempted to lift the spirits of the team by calling a team meeting, but the players didn’t respond as I’d hoped.
Onward to a trip to Walsall. The rot stopped, at least for a moment, with a 3-1 win and two good goals from Glatzel. With five games to go we could still theoretically be relegated and gain a playoff place. Talk about inception.
Our performance at home to Gillingham was woeful and I made the team train extra hard the day after. A 3-0 defeat where we never looked at the races was completely unacceptable. A 1-0 win at home to Accrington followed, which provided a vital three points, and took us to safety (at last!). Aldershot had often wasted winning positions but ultimately had crossed the line with three games to spare. Not a bad effort.
It had been a season of ups and downs, but the main objective had been accomplished, and I hoped it would serve me in good stead as a manager. My mind was already drifting to thoughts of how I could ensure Aldershot’s long-term future, starting with how to grow the club’s ability to develop players. The training grounds had been improved once, but we could use more coaches, and more scouts too.
It was time to plan, and to scour the globe for players of potential. I was proud of my team, which had seen a few players prove their worth across different leagues, but to progress we would need changes. There was no escaping this uncomfortable reality.
Before plans for next season could begin in earnest, the small matter of a trio of remaining games in the 22/23 season needed settling. Up next was a trip to Coventry City, who were third and vying for an automatic promotion spot, though they were three points behind Bolton. Coventry did have a better goal difference, but that counts for precisely squat if you have less points. Not only that, they weren’t assured of a playoff place either, given how tight that race was turning out to be.
By the time the match day rolled around Coventry were now 5th, but the points situation hadn’t changed. If they thumped my Aldershot side they’d be right in the mix for promotion. I wasn’t planning on handing them a result on a silver platter, but my expectations weren’t exactly high. On the other hand, all the pressure would be on their shoulders, not mine.
We took a 1-1 draw, a highly credible result given the circumstances, that I would take all day long. We then travelled to London to play Charlton, who were also pushing to secure a playoff place and possibly automatic promotion. We held on until the 75th minute but succumbed to a 2-0 defeat.
For the final match of the 22/23 season Aldershot would host MK Dons, who by this point were already relegated. However despite having far more chances we ended up losing 2-0, hardly the way to end the season that I’d envisioned.
There was a lot of work to be done. Guaranteeing survival next season would take redeveloping a number of elements of the team. Aiming any higher would require a major makeover. For the immediate future though, it was a case of resting and recharging. We’d stayed up, so it was a case of mission accomplished.