The next phase of the 23/24 season began with a rumour linking me to the vacant manager role at Wycombe. I had no idea why, and I made it clear I wasn’t keen. Aldershot had thrashed them 5-0 at their own ground earlier in the season – I seriously doubted they’d be a team I wanted to take charge of.
On the pitch, proceedings opened with a 3-2 win at Coventry, though we allowed them to gain a sniff of a chance by conceding two late goals. In the aftermath of the result I decided some extra focus on defending was necessary, and fended off media hounds interested in whether I wanted the newly-available Middlesborough job. I didn’t.
For the arrival of Forest Green I made some changes to keep players fresh, and that meant giving Jamie Reid a rare outing in the 23/24 season. We played out a dour 0-0 draw in which we never really outplayed our opponents, despite home advantage. I made it abundantly clear that this was the sort of match we had to win.
Now for a competition that so far hadn’t yielded much joy for me. The FA Cup is steeped in history, and though in recent years the advent of serious money and European competitions becoming more important has taken some of the sheen off this historic contest, the FA Cup remains a key part of English football. For Aldershot the 1st round saw us host Sunderland, and despite dominating possession and creating a host of chances, we lost 3-0. Our FA Cup dream was over in a flash, and next up was our final, pointless fixture in the pizza contest.
Despite denying any desire to take over at Wycombe, they still approached me for an interview. I swiftly declined their invitation, and told the press I was very happy at Aldershot, which I was. I know I’d spoken of my ambition and desire to manage a bigger club, but swapping my plucky team of young high-flyers for Wycombe, mired at the bottom of League One, wasn’t what I had in mind!
After beating Brighton Under 23s in the pizza contest, it was time to host Sunderland in a league clash. We’d recently hosted them (and been roundly beaten by them) in the FA Cup. I wanted revenge. Meanwhile I fended off interest from Burton. How many times would I have to make it clear – I was happy at Aldershot!
Another thrashing at Sunderland’s hands really peeved me. 4-1… despite having as many chances, we didn’t score ours, and paid for it. It was a reminder that harbouring any ambition to somehow get promoted was out of the question. A 3-1 defeat away to Accrington brought out my fury with the team, and I gave them the silent treatment after the game for their poor performance. Suddenly my patience was wearing thin with the inconsistent performances, and when Bolton Wanderers came along, seeking an interview… I was suddenly sorely tempted. I still said no.
The team responded to the harsh words with a 3-1 home win over Swindon. This was followed with a terrible 4-1 home loss to struggling Burton.
I turned down an interview with Wigan (they had rejected me right at the start of this journey, so that seemed fair), then took Aldershot to Bolton. We lost 2-1, throwing away the lead, and had dropped to 7th in the table. We won 2-0 at home to new league leaders Colchester, and returned to the playoff places. Talk about an up-and-down time. Next we drew at home with Fleetwood, a 0-0 draw that could have gone either way.
All things considered, and despite my frustrations with certain results, I could not be mad. Aldershot were still doing considerably better than last season, and I was getting noticed by other, bigger clubs. I even cheekily applied for the role of Brighton’s manager – a club struggling in the Premier League, but a top flight outfit nonetheless! I wasn’t expecting to actually get an interview, but nothing ventured, nothing gained…
Meanwhile Aldershot travelled to Sheffield Wednesday and took an excellent 2-1 win, with Thomas scoring at the end of the great flick from Hutchinson and Marriott displaying amazing pace to run with the ball, get in behind the opposing defence and then score. After 25 games we were still in the promotion discussion, which was truly remarkable.
We were now entering into a phase of the season where the games were coming thick and fast. Luton came to the Recreation Ground minus a manager, and Gillingham were desiring an interview, that I, as usual, declined. It felt like a lot was going on, but let’s focus on one game at a time…
Yet AGAIN the game glitched to deny me a victory. I was fuming. We maybe didn’t deserve to win, but to have goals pop up on the tracker for ZERO REASON was seriously starting to make my blood boil, to the stage where I was considering contacting SI Games to vent. I had lost track of the number of occasions where my team had dropped points because of this error, and I was nearing the point where I’d restart games to avoid it.
Ok, I wouldn’t do that, I’d take it on the chin, but I was seriously annoyed. Goals should not just ‘happen’. The game usually offers up a build-up, a reason, the screen flashes to indicate a goal, and then there’s a replay. Time and time again this failed to happen – the game would end and suddenly, magically, the opposition had a goal. In fact, I did rant on Twitter to the game’s official Twitter account, as this was not good enough. If such circumstances cost me a promotion or a trophy, I’d be livid.
Swansea and Ipswich both sought my services (well, the media rumour mill was discussing Swansea) and I made it clear I wasn’t keen on either post. Brighton would not even hear me out at an interview.
A 2-2 draw at AFC Wimbledon was followed by a home tie against Wycombe, who we had thrashed 5-0 earlier in the season. They were bottom of the division, but my team’s fortunes against the struggling sides were decidedly mixed. Once more we failed to dispatch a side that were seriously in trouble, at home no less, and I was getting fed up. We were dropping far too many points in matches that should have been easy wins.
Swansea asked me about an interview, and I’ll admit that for some reason this one gave me pause. They were 16th in the Championship, a looooong way off the playoff places (19 points off to be precise), and I considered this interview more than most, but still decided against it. On the field of battle, we defeated Walsall 1-0 at home to keep our place in the playoffs.
A draw with Crewe away brought us to the two-third mark.
Progress had been made. It had been astounding. I was delighted, despite some of the more frustrating results we’d suffered. The club had taken great strides, and though I still expected a playoff place to be unlikely, we’d done ourselves proud. Could we sustain this form?