The 22/23 season was over, Aldershot had stayed in League One for another season, and the players were about to go on a break. They collectively disappointed me in their reaction to my notion that we’d survive again in 23/24, leading me to look all the harder at making changes. Whilst I began to hunt for fresh blood, Emma Hayes of Shrewsbury got sacked, and my name was bandied about as a possible replacement. I wasn’t interested. This pleased the board, and I hoped their happiness with me might have them consider my proposals for more coaches and scouts. They approved of me taking a Continental C coaching course, so perhaps they’d be happy to invest in key areas of the club?
They agreed, so adverts went out for one new coach and one new scout. In the meantime, I attempted something rather cheeky and risky…
Premier League Wolverhampton Wanderers (Wolves for short) and Championship Crystal Palace both sacked their managers. In the case of Palace this is because Dan Petrescu had failed to win promotion – a playoff final defeat leaving them stranded in the second tier for another season. In Wolves’ case I wasn’t sure – a lower mid-table finish in the Premier League for a team like Wolves wasn’t a disaster.
For me to apply to such clubs was highly ambitious, and there was no telling how the Aldershot board (and club in general) would react. I was quietly enjoying my time with the club, but I never intended for them to be my permeant home, so to speak. I applied for both jobs, but declined to publicly declare my interest.
I had to resign myself to losing my star defender, Shea Charles, who was wanted by a host of Championship sides. He ended up leaving to join Reading, but the team took a fee of £325k for him, so at least we ended up being a tad richer as a club. I lost Atkinson (a loan signing) to his parent club, decided to try and sign him… and… well, Man City wanted £51 million for him. That’s a wee bit outside Aldershot’s budget. Long-term ‘keeper Walker left the club when his contract expired, as did Hall. Tanner, who had been quite a key player on the right-wing, left for £325k. At least I was raking in good money for a club of Aldershot’s size. Reinvesting it would have to happen slowly and wisely.
So to the first friendly, a home tie against Portuguese side Olhanense. I’d never heard of them before, and I am willing to bet they’d never heard of Aldershot. Our mutual ignorance would finally be resolved! Ahem…
By the way, neither Crystal Palace or Wolves would even give me an interview, in case you were wondering.
There were some changes to the line-up. Injury had robbed me of Reid and Edser. New signings Jonathan Doherty (‘keeper), Liam Edwards (DC), Jack Marriott (striker) and Alex Hutchinson (striker) all took to the pitch for the first time. Doherty and Hutchinson were both loan signings and I hoped they would fire the club to new heights. Since Fondop had declined to sign a new contract and had also left, it was important to bring in strikers that could actually score.
Score they did. Hutchinson netted a hat-trick, and played brilliantly! A 4-1 win over Olhanense was a nice way to begin the pre-season campaign. A 2-2 draw (with a trio of very late goals) followed away to Telford. Oliver Denham, central defender (another loan signing) got his first game. Hutchinson got hurt, so I decided to play out our next friendly against Welling, and cancel an upcoming game against Norwich, in the interests of preserving the squad. Another draw, and a goal from Mariott.
Mackenzie Lamb joined Aldershot as a ball-playing central defender, on loan from Championship side West Brom. He helped guide the team to a good 3-0 win away to Torquay, thus ending our pre-season adventures, and from there, it was time to begin the 23/24 season properly.
Up first was a trip to Fleetwood. Operating with a tweaked version of our 4-2-2-2 tactic, it was time to see if the new faces could deliver when it mattered most. A good, convincing 2-0 win (and we had two goals disallowed as well) was very nice, with Marriott opening his account for the club and Hutchinson creating both goals. Not bad for the debutants!
Things got even better. Match two saw Aldershot host Sheffield Wednesday. By all accounts this should have been a difficult match, but despite having less of the ball, an intense pressing game and pacey counter-attacks saw Hutchinson get on the scoresheet twice, Marriott also score, and Campbell also find the back of the net. Already the partnership between the new forwards was looking very promising, and we kept a clean sheet for the second game in a row.
Aldershot welcomed Newport next, in round one of the Carabao Cup. We ended up going 2-0 down, recovered to level the game, then lost after an epic penalty shootout. Ah well. There was no time to be miserable, not with a trip to Luton on the cards. Despite creating a lot of chances, and leading 1-0 midway through the second-half, we couldn’t hold on and lost, which rankled me as it always does.
Fresh from that defeat, we had to travel to Wycombe.
You might remember that I’d taken a bit of stick for a conservative, defensive approach in the past. Well, now I had set Aldershot up to attack, and oh boy was it entertaining. It wouldn’t always work – see the Luton game – but against Wycombe it was sensational! A 5-0 win was unexpected but given the balance of play, thoroughly deserved!
We’d now won three of our opening four games of the season – the new signings and new, attacking philosophy had so far paid off. Hutchinson’s performances earned him Player of the Month and Young Player of the Month as well, whilst I came second in the Manager of the Month stakes for August. September would open with a visit from AFC Wimbledon. A 3-2 win for us didn’t reflect our dominance; AFC’s second goal game very very late.
On to the Papa John’s Trophy. If you’re wondering, my views on this competition hadn’t changed. I named a weakened team (such as Aldershot can), but if the lads chosen did well and offered signs of potential… well, it could only be a benefit to the club. We ended up losing 2-1 to Oxford but gave a good account of ourselves, and Reid got some first-team action, important for him if he were to rebuild his fitness and get back into the squad.
My hope was that by resting some of my key players, it would help us to be fresh for league duties. A home tie against Crewe followed quite swiftly; there was no point in risking injury or hurting fitness for the sake of the wretched pizza contest.
Yet again the game sprang the ghost goal (no flashing indicator, no highlight) to grant Crewe an equaliser that in my opinion they didn’t deserve, denying me a satisfying if boring 1-0 win. The team immediately bounced back to win 3-1 at Walsall, a game that featured a silky run and goal from Silko Thomas, and a late poachers effort from Mariott. It also saw Callum Jones net a good strike from distance and play very well, helping to control the midfield.
Whether it was a factor or not I don’t know, but I’d earned my Continental C Licence, thus improving the quality of the training and management I could provide. I’d like to think I was getting better as a manager, but equally the new signings were having an impact. I’ll take some of the credit for signing them, and some of the credit for the bold new tactical system too. Well, that’s only fair right? I can’t really call it a ‘new’ tactic, it was more of a tweak, and a change in philosophy, but after the first seven games of the season, things were quite rosy.
We came back from two goals down to draw at Bristol Rovers, and beat Leyton Orient at the Recreation Ground 2-0, scoring with our first attempt on target. Next up were Plymouth, also coming to the Recreation Ground, and they arrived as the team bottom of League One. This didn’t mean I would take them lightly. They would be a wounded animal, potentially dangerous, and I wanted my players to dispatch them quickly.
As is typical of football, the script was ignored. We lost 2-1, never really getting going, and I was greatly peeved. Such a performance and result was not acceptable. I couldn’t stay mad. Ten games in and we were on 20 points – it had taken us fifteen games to get to the same number of points last season. There was no escaping our good progress.
A 4-2 home defeat to Stevenage in the Papa John’s Trophy wasn’t too concerning, for as usual I’d fielded a weakened team, with a view to facing Wigan. My decision was justified, as we ran out 2-0 winners, with goals from Marriott and Thomas – Thomas in particular scoring at the end of a great run to slot beyond the ‘keeper’s left into the corner of the net.
We were thrashed at Blackpool, 5-1, an utterly contemptable performance. A few days later we hosted Ipswich. We immediately bounced back to beat Ipswich 2-0 at home. This was followed up with 1-0 home win over Barnsley.
We then let slip a lead away to Oxford to lose 2-1.
We were now a third of the way through the 23/24 season and remarkably, Aldershot were top of League One. We’d scored more goals than any other side. There was a loooooooong way to go, but considering I was still holding to the original aim of avoiding relegation… well, I was pretty confident of managing that! The question was, how far could we go?