Having secured Premier League status for Crystal Palace quite comfortably, the aim was now to see if we could improve upon 13th in the standings. In football the desire is always to go up – obviously – and once at the very top, stay there as long as possible. For a club like Palace, I felt we could go further, but how much further would depend upon a number of factors.
One of my key midfielders, Sibley, felt I’d let him down by failing to trim the size of the squad – very well then, he could be an example of said trimming. Some players at the club were deadweight, and it was time to turn to the youth prospects, some of whom were very good. I did have a few new faces due to arrive on free transfers that I felt would offer us greater quality.
With the out-going players fetching me decent transfer fees and many of my inbound players not costing a penny, I hoped that Palace could gain a reputation for doing shrewd business. Naturally this would only play out if results on the field were good. I wouldn’t be pursuing extending the loan periods of some players, so the squad would be considerably reshaped and… shall we say leaner?
At the third time of asking Palace finally relented, and allowed me to start a Continental B Licence course.
We lost our first friendly to DC United at the start of our US tour. The performance was pretty poor. The second game against Nashville brought a tactical shift and a better showing. Against NY Cosmos we were even better. A 2-0 win over Anderlecht gave me hope of a good season. If we were to get a good result against Borussia Dortmund, I’d be even more happy!
The performance and result were both excellent. Against one of German football’s premier clubs we won 4-1, with Brewster getting a hat-trick as a substitute. It was very nice! However the real thing would begin in a few days, and up first in the 26/27 season? A trip to the Premier League champions Manchester City.
How could this go? Romeo Lavia and Folarin Balogun were among new players that I hoped would come through for me. Unfortunately Lavia ended up with a minor injury so I’d be without him. Another new signing, Santos, also ended up injured. Then, just for kicks, Brewster also ended up ruled out!
Balogun managed to play, and he scored the opener, somewhat against the run of play. City rallied, and ended up 3-1 with 15 minutes to go. Amazingly, Chad Longmore and Brennan Johnson scored in the 77th and 79th minutes to earn Palace a highly unlikely point at the Etihad! In the wake of this brilliant (in my humble view) result, we hosted Swansea, and won 4-1.
Fierce enemies Brighton were waiting on the south coast. Two defeats against them had lit a fire. I desperately hoped this would be the moment we could achieve some form of vengeance. An early goal from Balogun was met with a ferocious response, and after half an hour we were 2-1 down. Williams equalised on the stroke of half-time, and then Brobbey completed a hat-trick for Brighton.
After that, we were a transformed side. Williams fired four second-half goals to rout Brighton 6-3, on their patch! It was an absolutely awesome, stupendous game, and I loved getting one over on the Seagulls!
After that we knocked Bristol City out of the Carabao Cup in the 2nd round, after a 2-2 draw on their patch.
A problem was brewing with Williams. The supremely talented teenager had been good as a 17 year-old in the Championship and in the course of our first season back in the Premier League he’d continued to develop nicely. A competent midfielder and a skilful forward, Williams was a player I didn’t want to lose, but he was starting to want to leave. He had his heart set on a bigger club, and he was one of those players that could make it anywhere. His contract had a significant minimum release clause and my personal view was that a club would have to meet my valuation if they were to poach one of Palace’s brightest stars. Other players felt I shouldn’t stand in Williams’ way, and I wouldn’t – but I had to consider the club’s position, and I wasn’t letting him go for anything less than a big fee. I hoped this would deter other teams and buy me time – if Palace could put together a strong run of results and show we could punch at a higher weight, Williams might see our progress and decide to stay.
Having had a very enjoyable trip to Brighton, Palace now faced another trip to the south of the country to play Southampton. We ended up losing 2-0, but the game was acting up a little in terms of displaying highlights. My left-back Floranus got sent off after just six minutes and Santos, his replacement, got injured. Not a great start. I might as well have made arrangements to book the entire team into a hotel, as our next game was away to Bournemouth! However this would come after the international break, thus affording Santos the chance to return to action and the rest of the squad a chance to regain some sharpness.
With the transfer window closing, no one put a bid in for Adam Williams, my young star, but I put in a bid for another player by the name of Williams – Neco Williams of Blackburn, formerly of Liverpool. I landed the right-back to bolster the squad, which had a weakness in that area, and I was happy with his quality. I was happy for Adam, as he won Young Player of the Month for August.
I felt despondent after a 2-1 defeat to Bournemouth. Nothing I was trying tactically could forge a good run of positive performances and results. I wasn’t expecting to challenge for the title with the team I had available to me, but a few more wins would have been nice! There was an opportunity to bounce back quickly at home to Aston Villa – and we did, winning 4-1 despite going a goal down.
Next up was a Carabao Cup fixture, at home to Liverpool. I didn’t know whether to expect the Reds to field a weakened team for this competition (as the bigger clubs often do), but even if they did, it would still be a challenging match. Even so, we kept Liverpool goalless and won the penalty shootout to progress to the 4th round – it was also our first clean sheet of the season!
Only a few days later we were hosting Bristol City, who were struggling. This naturally meant they took an early lead, and it took forever to land an equaliser. From there we should have won but the strikers were misfiring – what would have been a home banker turned into a damp squib. The feisty and unpredictable Everton were coming to town next. A 4-2 home loss really annoyed me, and a few more swear words escaped my lips. This team just did. not. want. to. win.
What could I possibly expect from a trip to face Arsenal? They were doing quite well, enjoying a bright start to the season, and Palace… weren’t. We were 3-0 down at half-time and I was starting to get very angry.
These games can do that to me. I want to feel that I can enjoy the things I pour my creative energy into, but I swear that something fights back to prevent me finding my enjoyment in them. All I wanted was for my team to get a few wins on the bounce – nothing spectacular, just some good games that gave me a good feeling and could leave me feeling that we were making progress. Is that too much to ask for? I read of tactics that I use working for other players of Football Manager, so why not me?
I decided if we dropped points away to Fulham that I’d start docking wages. I didn’t care for how that would affect morale, there would be serious consequences for continuing to serve up utter tripe over and over again. Given that we lost 2-1 and yet again played poorly, it was time to unleash my fury. I fined my ‘keeper and was seriously considering resigning in disgust.
Next would be Everton, in the Carabao Cup, so I rotated the squad quite drastically. The game stupidly wouldn’t let me select any subs!!!! We ended up losing on penalties.
I held out zero hope of taking anything from Manchester United, even as the home side. Truth be told I was feeling downcast. I didn’t believe any tactical approach I took would make a bit of difference. It didn’t, with a hapless display and a 5-2 defeat. I quit the club in disgust at that point, fuming with the team and with Football Manager itself. Why was absolutely nothing working?!
I took a breath. I calmed down. Was my resignation hasty? Perhaps. Had I been vindictive in putting Adam Williams up for sale for a lower price than the club might have otherwise got? Maybe. It was done. There was no reversing it (well, technically, there might have been, since I could reload a previous save, but I wasn’t going to do that). I was publicly critical of the performance of the players when speaking to the press. I felt I had every right to be aggrieved – they were a somewhat confrontational bunch who weren’t delivering what was expected of them.
I resolved that at my next club, I’d stay for a minimum of five seasons, regardless of what happened. The press kept asking me questions and I ignored them. I wasn’t in the mood to talk. Intriguingly, the Aldershot post was one that kept coming up as under threat.
Wherever I ended up, now was the time to be meticulous.
In my quest for a new role, three Premier League clubs agreed to speak with me – Newcastle United, Leeds United, and Southampton. Southampton actually approached me for an interview, whereas I’d pounced for the other two positions. We were now into January 2027, and I’d had my break. It was time to get back in the saddle, but with who?