The 25/26 season would be a landmark season. For the first time, I’d be leading a Premier League club, the one I’d guided most successfully to the top flight – Crystal Palace.
I took a look at my old club, Aldershot, and sadly the 24/25 season saw them end up being relegated from League One. I allowed myself a moment to be sentimental, then it was down to work. There were a number of players on my radar for the Eagles, but no guarantee that any of them would be realistic targets. I’d won the Championship Manager of the Year for the previous season’s efforts, but that now meant absolutely nothing.
Among the players on my radar was one rated as a wonderkid in Football Manager 2012 – Julian Draxler. I don’t recall signing him on that edition of the game, but he was highly rated. Two-footed, able to play on either wing or as an attacking midfielder, and by this point an experienced international (in real life, at the time of writing this, 56 caps for Germany), Draxler was the sort of player that could inject a real menacing quality to my attacks, especially since Doan had left for the Middle East. Signing him would be a real coup.
What I had to do was somehow get quality without spending the quantity. To be fair, this is a dilemma faced by many a club and manager. I could not afford to over-spend, something I’d been guilty of at the start of the 24/25 season, so it was a case of studying the scouting reports and seeing who might prove to be a bargain, and who could develop into a good player. I’d also have to ponder some hard truths about my existing squad – not every Palace player was Premier League quality. Some would almost certainly have to go.
One thing I wasn’t going to miss was the fixture pile-up. In the Championship teams play 46 games in a league season; in the Premier League they play 38. Fatigue would hopefully be less of a problem!
The season would also start a little later for Premier League sides, so pre-season could start a bit later too, affording my team a bit more of a break. At the start of July the pre-season program for the 25/26 season began, and my new signings were welcomed to the club.
Among my new arrivals were Billy Koumetio (CB) from Liverpool, the aforementioned Draxler (able to play in a variety of roles) from Celtic, Luke Rowland (an attacking midfielder) from Rangers, Brennan Johnson from Watford (able to play in a range of positions), Xavier Simmons (primarily a defensive midfielder) from Chelsea, and Filip Stevanovic, another versatile midfielder, from Manchester City. I wasn’t quite finished, but these players offered quality and strength in depth, important elements to a Premier League season.
The first test of the new players, and new tactical approaches (that involved a form of gengenpress) would come with a trip to Portuguese side Benfica SB, not to be confused with the top-flight Benfica. This Benfica were plying their trade in the Portuguese third division. The gulf between the two sides quickly became apparent – Brewster scored a hat-trick, Herrera scored two screamers and we ran out 7-0 winners. Next we’d face another Portuguese side (the squad was training out there), Chaves, who were a Portuguese Premier League side. Meanwhile I signed Leif Davies, a defender capable of playing on the right or left flanks, from Napoli. We drew 1-1 with Chaves, despite being comfortably the better side, though in fairness I’d rotated the team quite a bit.
I was able to bring a player with bags of potential to the club – Antoine Legros on a free transfer. He could play as a central defender, left back or defensive midfielder, giving yet more depth to the team. On the match front, our next friendly was a local trip to fellow Londoners Fulham, who had been relegated to the Championship – thus, we’d swapped places. However this changed, as the board kept arranging unwanted friendlies on my behalf, and I accidentally cancelled the Fulham game. Gah!
Now, Palace would host the 15/16 champions Leicester City. We ended up drawing 1-1, despite never really being in the contest. Next we welcomed German team Eintracht Frankfurt to Selhurst Park. A 5-1 victory (including a marvellous hat-trick for Brewster) was unexpected but gratefully received! From there, we had one final friendly, hosting Spanish side Valencia. A second 5-1 win surprised me, for Valencia are no pushovers, and it also showed that of the two formations I was evaluating, the 4-2-3-1 was working best, by some margin.
It was now time to get down to the bread and butter. The Premier League season was days away, and up first was a trip to last season’s rivals Sheffield United. They’d walloped my Palace side 7-0 at Bramall Lane, and I’d avenged that loss two very late goals at Selhurst Park, snatching a 3-2 win. Starting the season against a fellow-promoted side meant, in theory at least, that this was a clash between two relegation rivals. United’s manager, Chris Wilder, appeared to harbour a grudge from the events of that 3-2 comeback. I really really wanted to make him eat some humble pie.
Thanks to a good overall performance, I did just that. A 3-2 win (and the score line flattered Sheffield United) gave me a winning start to my Premier League experience. For my second taste of top-flight life, Palace entertained Leeds United. Both teams sought to attack, and we led twice, fell behind late on, and scored an injury-time equaliser in an exciting 3-3 draw. Matchday three brought us to Wolverhampton Wanderers. Wolves thought they’d scored after 2 minutes; we did score after 3. At the end of the first-half Wolves had a player sent off and in the end we ran out 3-1 winners.
Now it was time for the Carabao Cup, with Palace, as a Premier League side, entering the competition at the 2nd round. Palace were hosting League One Gillingham, and I named quite a strong side, out of both respect for the opponents, and a wish to make sure we won. However, despite taking the lead midway through the first-half, Palace were not fluent, and Gillingham were clearly up for it. They equalised late on to force a penalty shootout, which we won. It was hardly a satisfactory performance, but the result is, as always, what matters most.
Now for the BIG ONE. One of the most unusual geographical rivalries in the English game has to be Crystal Palace versus Brighton and Hove Albion. I’d be leading the team down south, to the AMEX Stadium, in search of bragging rights and of course points! Unfortunately we were atrocious, and despite creating a few chances, managed very few on target. Meanwhile, Brighton scored FIVE. I was furious, to put it mildly. A few expletives might have escaped my lips. This wasn’t just a humiliating defeat – it was a humiliating to fierce rivals, and that just would not do.
Still, there was no point in dwelling upon it. Four games in to my life as a top-flight manager and Palace had played four, won two, drawn one, lost one. Such a sequence, were it to repeat throughout the season, would see us comfortably survive in the Premier League for another season, and maybe, just maybe, secure a finish in the top half of the table! Palace were entertaining Newcastle next, and I was keen to bounce back with a positive performance.
The international break afforded my players a chance to recover and shake off the previous game. Annoyingly, in the build up to the Newcastle game, Brewster was ruled out for at least four weeks due to a hernia. Not exactly the prep I needed for this game. At least Barry would get a chance to step up.
Annoyingly we were sunk by an own goal, despite creating loads of chances and comfortably being the better side. Things weren’t going to get any easier with a trip to Southampton up next. Despite leading 3-1 at one stage, we lost 4-3, and my temper was rising. With Arsenal up next away from home in the Carabao Cup, I wasn’t optimistic.
I was proven right. We crashed out of the competition with a 3-0 defeat and played poorly to boot. At least we rallied to beat Bournemouth at Selhurst Park, despite a backs-to-the-wall performance. We drew 2-2 away at Everton but had led 2-0 at one stage.
Next was a big, big clash. A matchup that was unlikely to yield anything for me. A contest against one of English football’s most successful, famous clubs (and an almost personal nemesis) – Manchester United.
Whilst I cannot stand Man Utd on a personal level (being a Liverpool fan), the success of the Old Trafford outfit cannot be questioned. Twice managers of the club have taken youngsters and moulded them into ferociously competitive teams that dominated the English game. In 1945 Sir Matt Busby laid the foundations for his own spell of trophies, winning the FA Cup in 1948 and the League title in 1952, 1956 and 1957, using a team with an average age of just 22. They were the first English team to compete in the European Cup, and then a terrible tragedy took place. Eight of Utd’s stars – including Duncan Edwards, Geoff Bent, Roger Byrne, Eddie Colman, Mark Jones, David Pegg, Tommy Taylor and Billy Whelan, were taken from this earth far too soon. Busby rebuilt the squad, and in 1968 Utd – with a new generation of stars, including George Best, Dennis Law and the Charlton brothers – became the first English club to be crowned champions of Europe.
When Busby left, United’s fortunes went downhill. Some FA Cup wins were scant reward for some of United’s talents, but it was with the appointment of Sir Alex Ferguson that their fortunes surged once more. Ferguson arrived in 1986 and in the early 90s he took them to the top, winning the inaugural Premier League season in 1993 and from there controlling the league ruthlessly. Alongside established players like Eric Cantona and Peter Schmeichel, Ferguson developed youngsters like David Beckham, Paul Scholes, the Neville brothers and Nicky Butt. The result was two decades of title after title, and a couple of Champions League titles along the way, including a famous Treble in 1999.
In the game, Utd are the reigning champions, having ended a run of four consecutive titles for Liverpool, however at this early stage in the season they were only 10th, two places above us. One saving grace for Palace was the early return of Brewster. We took the lead but crashed to a 5-1 defeat.
There would be no rest. Spurs were coming to Selhurst Park next. A 2-2 draw meant a point at least. Next we hosted the 2016 champions Leicester. We were woeful in a 2-0 defeat. We travelled to Aston Villa next, who were 3rd in the league and doing quite well. What chance would Palace have, given our form?
Incredibly, we won 4-2, with Brewster and Barry among the scorers. The performance wasn’t perfect but three points were invaluable! From there we’d host Burnley, and I hoped we could gain back-to-back wins and generate some momentum. We achieved exactly that with an emphatic 3-0 victory. For our next game, Palace went across London to face fellow promoted side West Ham.
We lost 7-2. It was a torrid, terrifyingly bad showing. I feared things would not get any better when we hosted Chelsea, despite our heroics against them in the Carabao Cup last season. However, we drew 2-2, and deserved better, having three goals disallowed.
Maybe I wasn’t helping myself a great deal by rotating my tactics quite a bit. I was looking for a magic bullet, which in hindsight was pretty stupid, for such a thing doesn’t exist in real football, so why would it exist here? Nonetheless, I was trawling FM sites on the lookout for something that would give me consistently good results. Ultimately though, the reality was that we needed better players.
A slight oddity came up – somehow (and I don’t call it happening) I’d been linked with the Spurs job. This really would be a step up, for Spurs, despite not winning a lot of trophies in recent years, are a big club with a lot of rich history. I acknowledged that I was flattered. I was also linked with the Leicester job, though this was less appealing. I couldn’t spare much time for off-field shenanigans, for Crystal Palace were heading up to Norwich to face the Canaries, even as Burnley became the latest club I was associated with.
At least on the pitch things went well against Norwich, with a satisfying 3-1 win. We needed the result for up next was a doozy of a fixture.
Liverpool were paying Palace a visit. The real-life 19/20 champions had, on the game at least, supplemented that success with three additional titles, setting a new English record of four league titles in a row. In addition, they’d won the 2022 Champions League and the 2022 FA Cup, and the 2022 Carabao Cup, thus completing a remarkable Quadruple.
Liverpool are my team. I have followed them since the early 90s (ironically around the same time they stopped regularly winning the league). The club glitters with famous names and amazing matches. Founded in 1892, Liverpool are England’s most successful team in Europe, winning six European Cups in real life, and three UEFA Cups (now the Europa League). Billy Shankly OBE is credited as the man who reshaped Liverpool, joining the club as manager in the 1958/59 season and putting in place the building blocks of what was to come. He led Liverpool to the title in 1964 (their first in 17 years), again in 1966 and again in 1973, along with the UEFA Cup.
When Shankly retired one of his understudies, Bob Paisley OBE took charge. Whereas Shankly was quite a bold figure, Paisley was more reserved and initially didn’t want the job, but the board wanted him, for he would represent continuity with the previous regime. In 1976 Liverpool won the title and the UEFA Cup again, and in 1977 Liverpool retained the title and became champions of Europe for the first time, retaining the European Cup a year later. Players like Kevin Keegan, Kenny Dalglish, Emlyn Hughes, Phil Thompson, Graeme Souness, Phil Neal, Alan Hanson, Ian Rush, Ronnie Whelan, Ray Clemence (to name but a few)… they all wrote their names into the Anfield history books. Later stars include Robbie Fowler, Steve McManaman, Michael Owen, John Barnes, Steven Gerrard, Jamie Carragher… I can go on and on.
The Liverpool team that I’d be hosting on the game bore some resemblance to the one that won the title in 2020. Trent Alexander-Arnold, Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mane, Virgil Van Dijk, Alisson, Naby Keita, Mohamed Salah… all were present, along with a number of new faces as the squad got gradually changed over the intervening years. They’d lost the title to Man Utd in the 24/25 season but were comfortable leaders as I prepared to play them.
I was a little giddy – Jurgen Klopp offered me praise for my efforts with Palace!
For this game I decided to actually watch the full 90-minute match. We amazingly, miraculously, held out until half-time, despite conceding a great many chances, but two quick-fire goals in the second half sunk us. A penalty from kadewere gave us hope, but we could not find the quality in the final third to get an equaliser, and on balance, considering how much possession Liverpool had and how many chances Liverpool created, the result was fair.
I didn’t expect much from our next game, away to Arsenal. The Emirates outfit had the ability to punish us, but ever the optimist, I hoped for a surprise. I did have a surprise of sorts… Burnley invited me along to an interview, despite a total lack of interest on my part. I declined. I also turned down an interview with Leicester, for the same reason.
It was possible that Arsenal might be slightly vulnerable, on the back of two games between my game with them and the Liverpool fixture. One of those games was a 5-0 walloping at Old Trafford – could I take advantage of their circumstances? No. We lost 2-0 and never looked likely to cause an upset. Manchester City, that other Manchester powerhouse, were up next, coming to London, and I held little optimism here. We took an early lead, but lost 2-1 thanks to a late Foden winner.
We were now halfway through my first season as a Premier League boss. We were comfortably clear of the drop zone but we needed to get a few wins under our belts. Would the second half of the season be better?