Football Manager P22: ZOMG!

We’d reached the lofty heights of third in the Premier League at the halfway point of the 27/28 season. We’d just drawn 3-3 away to Man Utd at Old Trafford in a pulsating game. Now it was time for the 3rd round of the FA Cup – at home to Chelsea.

Chelsea had hit a little bit of a poor patch of form, but that didn’t mean anything. Leeds vs Chelsea is seen as something of a grudge match, so I expected them to raise their game.

In the build-up to the match Liverpool tried to sign Stergiou, one of my defensive rocks. I’d already lost Santos to the Reds; I wasn’t about to lose another player, even if it ran the risk of upsetting said player. Stergiou was staying put as far as I was concerned, and that wouldn’t change for all the money in the world.

In the FA Cup tie Leeds turned in an amazing performance, one that proved when we wanted to we could kill off games. A 5-1 victory with two stunning efforts from Erwin saw Leeds ease into the 4th round, and my hope was that it truly kick-start some form ahead of a tough run of matches. First up was a trip to Wolves, who were languishing in the relegation zone, but that meant nothing. However in the end, despite a somewhat shaky start, we turned Wolves into harmless puppies and won 4-0, with Ramon netting himself a hat-trick. We were aided somewhat by Wolves being rudderless, having parted ways with their manager quite recently.

There’d be no such assistance from our next opponents. Any trip to Anfield to face reigning champions (and European champions) Liverpool is daunting, but they were generally playing very well, and were leading the title race quite convincingly. I had to believe this would be a very difficult challenge, and days later Leeds would host Arsenal in another tricky encounter.

First things first. Liverpool at Anfield. A big, big game. Liverpool took the lead midway through the first half but I was pleased with how we were matching them in terms of chances created. Leeds equalised midway through the second half and then sensationally took the lead with just ten minutes to go. Liverpool levelled with five minutes left and then, in injury time, Ramon popped up to net the winner for us.

It was a fantastic result, one that kept Leeds moving in the right direction, and it spoke volumes of the spirit of the team to keep going. I wanted to savour the victory but there wasn’t time – Arsenal were coming to town.

We drew 1-1 and given the performance, I was happy to take the point. We were subpar for much of the game and I made the players aware of that. An improvement was necessary for the next game a few days later, at home to Fulham. We didn’t play as well as I would have liked, but we won 2-0 and deserved to, which was nice.

Onward to round four of the FA Cup and a visit from West Ham. I saw this as an opportunity to switch things up and give some younger players a chance. The move worked in a 5-2 win that offered a good demonstration of ruthless attacking football, and a hat-trick for midfielder Bogusz. From there it was off to Leicester, and a potentially tricky encounter against a side flying high in 5th. My hope would be that resting players in the FA Cup would yield a result here. We did ourselves proud in a 3-0 win.

From Leicester we went to Aston Villa. At Villa we picked a second 3-0 win in a row. It was also our third clean sheet in as many Premier League games, and much was owed to the fine goalkeeping efforts of Dominik Livakovic, who saved a penalty (among other highlights). Amazingly, astonishingly, the result put just level on points with leaders Liverpool, behind only on goal difference – and the margins here were pretty narrow too.

After two away games on the bounce we returned to Elland Road to host Brighton. With January out of the way I received the always-pleasant news that I’d won Manager of the Month, and a young rising defensive star (albeit a wantaway player) Brenes won Young Player of the Month. Whether that inspired the team or not I couldn’t tell, but a reasonable first half utilising one tactic and formation saw us 1-0 up, and in the second half the team turned things up a gear after a shift in formation, and Leeds ended up 4-0 winners. We’d not only taken to scoring a few more goals to put games to bed, but we were keeping clean sheets consistently. This was a good place to be.

The international break gave everyone a chance to gather themselves. We had 12 remaining matches in the Premier League, and also Europa League II commitments and we were still in the FA Cup. As we neared the final run-in, Leeds would make the relatively short hop to Sheffield, to face Sheffield United, who had the ignominy of being bottom of the Premier League.

Have I made it clear that I hate these games? All too often my team, whoever it is, fails to deliver against the team that is struggling the most. The injured animal fights most savagely against me. Given Leeds had won four Premier League games in a row and kept clean sheets in those games, I sorely wanted to make sure we delivered another convincing performance and comfortably win again. In the end we did, though we went behind early on. Five goals from Talles Magno saw out a 5-2 win, though to give Sheffield United credit, they did not give up.

We had now gone unbeaten in 20 games and had won the last five, but next were Manchester City, a team that was brimming with quality and the ability to beat us quite comfortably. The only possible edge was that Leeds were at home, but a part of me didn’t feel that really meant anything.

In the end though, my worries were unfounded. In a brilliant display of counter-attacking football (and one amazing long ball forward from ‘keeper Livakovic to Ramon), Leeds ran out 3-0 winners, Ramon getting a hat-trick. We might have had more as well. It was a great, determined performance and it gave us our sixth consecutive league victory.

An FA Cup fifth round tie away to Crystal Palace was up next. I shuffled the team a bit, with a trip to West Brom on the horizon. A single goal from Diaz gave us the win, and it was quite deserved too. Now for West Brom, who had beaten us at Elland Road earlier in the season, in what was a very subpar showing from Leeds. A much sharper performance was needed, in my humble view.

Despite a wobbly period early on, Leeds settled and grew into the game, leading at half-time thanks to a Hagi header from a corner. An explosive start to the second half saw Hagi double our lead and Ramon give us a comfortable cushion, then near the end of the game Hagi completed his hat-trick and Leeds had a great 4-0 win – our seventh in a row, and yet another clean sheet. The result would hopefully serve us well for a trip to Danish side FC Kobenhavn. That’s right, it was time to resume our Europa League II adventure!

I saw this as a great opportunity to give some up and coming players a chance, ahead of hosting Tottenham in the league. A 4-0 win put us in a great place to progress to the next round, as long as we didn’t do anything stupid at home. Now the focus needed to be on Spurs, who, like West Brom, had beaten us earlier in the season. Like West Brom, Spurs succumbed to a 3-0 defeat – Erwin netting twice and Ramon scoring his 30th goal of the season – and now we had eight wins in a row, with seven clean sheets among them.

It was a quick return to European action next, with Leeds now hosting Kobenhavn, having won 4-0 in the away leg. Oh, I forgot to mention, but after a year’s worth of study, I finally had my next Licence, Continental A.

A weakened side for Leeds still took the lead and looked comfortable, but Kobenhavn rallied and we suffered an unexpected 4-3 home defeat, though thanks to the easy away win we were still through to the next round. Still, the collapse in the second half wasn’t acceptable and I made that clear to the players.

A date with Arsenal in the FA Cup Quarter Final followed. We had the benefit of being at home but after the showing against Kobenhavn improvements would be needed. Improvements were what we got, with Leeds beating the Gunners 4-0, thanks to goals from Brewster, Diez and a a brace from Ramon.

Our great run ended with a damp squib of a performance away to Norwich. A 2-1 defeat was our ‘reward’ for an international break and a lethargic showing.

Lille were our next visitors in the Europa League II, part of a double-header – they would be our next two fixtures. A youthful defence lost 3-2 at home, so for the away leg some changes would be required. We had a week to prepare for the short hop across the English Channel to resume battle with the French side. Our fortunes were no better away from home – we succumbed to a meek 3-1 defeat and our European adventure was over.

A team meeting to try and encourage the team went badly wrong – they felt they were trying their best but three defeats in a row told me otherwise. We had to put that to one side for the FA Cup Semi Final against Man City, and try to recover some form. There would be no weakened team here – I couldn’t afford to do that.

Perhaps resting players against Lille proved to be beneficial. A 2-0 win meant Leeds had a date with the FA Cup Final, and the result, against a good City side, would have to be a morale boost.

Now for the bread and butter stuff to resume. Leeds’ next game was at home to Chelsea, who certainly had the potential to beat us. The City win served as a timely reminder to the players that they had the ability to beat anybody – what they needed was to focus. Focus they did – a 2-0 win thanks to a Brewster brace was very satisfying.

Now began a run of a number of matches packed close together. We had a number of games in hand on the clubs around us but we also had a challenging run on the legs. First was a visit to Newcastle. They were doing reasonably well so I expected a tough match. We had the chance to book a Champions League spot here, but we lost 3-2 and I was not pleased with our performance. We took the lead but failed to hold onto it and chased the game.

Things didn’t look set to improve – we had to go to Everton, never an easy place to visit. A 1-1 draw was actually quite fortunate on our part. Leeds returned home to Elland Road next, to host my former club Crystal Palace, who were languishing in 19th place. Going two goals down early on was massively annoying, and after recovering to level the score we went 3-2 down. Eventually we recovered (thanks to Brewster and Ramon) to win 5-3, but the performance was utterly rubbish and I made it clear I was not impressed. Nonetheless the win meant target achieved – Leeds had Champions League football for the following season.

Bournemouth came to town next and for the second home game in a row Leeds scored five, only this time without reply. For some reason this result was seen as an ‘upset’ by the media. No, I don’t know why either. Next was a trip to Burnley, which had the potential to go badly wrong. Burnley had already dished out some surprise results against supposedly better sides, so we had to be strong and determined and focused. Then a new angle emerged, one I had not dared let myself dream about.

We had a game in hand on Manchester United, and United drew their most recent game, to leave us in a hitherto unlikely and unimaginable place. A win would give Leeds United the Premier League title.

We lost. We had two players sent off and lost, and I lost it. I was absolutely fuming. With Manchester United being our final game of the season, it was do or die and I did not like that.

The equation was simple enough. A win or a draw would see Leeds crowned champions for the first time since 1992. We had home advantage but against Manchester United it didn’t mean anything. It was stupid to be worried about the prospect of losing the title on the final day, considering we didn’t really have any right to be a part of this conversation. The objective had been (to me at least) to secure Champions League football and we’d done that. Anything more was a bonus. The 14th of May 2028 would go down either as a day of absolute glory or bitter, ugly heartbreak.

The match itself was absolutely pulsating with intensity. Leeds took a very early (as in first minute) lead thanks to Talles Magno. Bruno Fernandes equalised from the penalty spot after 20 minutes. Harwood-Bellis scored on the stroke of half-time from a corner to put us back in front, then on 58 minutes Ramon gave us a 3-1 cushion. Mason Greenwood pulled one back on 61 minutes and Diez restored the cushion on 75 minutes. It was 4-3 when Dylan Chambers scored with five minutes to go, and in the 95th minute Yusuf Demir equalised for Manchester United. A moment later, the final whistle blew.

So, 4-4, a dramatic game by all accounts – and the draw meant that LEEDS UNITED WERE PREMIER LEAGUE CHAMPIONS OF 27/28!!!!!

I couldn’t believe it. The journey that had started with lowly Aldershot in 2020 had led to Leeds United and Premier League glory in 2028. The pre-season odds of Leeds winning the title had been 50-1 – talk about defying expectations! Intriguingly, 82 points was the lowest points total to win the title in Premier League history, at least according to the game. I was giddy, but I had to bring the players back down to earth for a date with Liverpool at Wembley Stadium for the FA Cup Final.

I couldn’t help but feel delighted, even as we prepared for our final game of the 27/28 season. I now hoped we could end on a high against a Liverpool side that had previously pushed us all the way in our encounters. I expected Klopp’s team to be motivated, however what I didn’t expect was for Leeds to blow them away. A Ramon hat-trick and a Brewster strike gave us a magnificent 4-1 win to complete a famous Double.

This season had massively exceeded all expectations. I’d refused to even consider the title, despite the team creeping closer and closer to winning it. Defeats to the likes of Norwich and Burnley convinced me we weren’t ready, but other results – the late win at Anfield, the dominant victories at Leicester and Aston Villa – laid the foundation for something truly special. Tougher times would wait for us – Champions League football would be a stern test – but for now, there were glorious victories to celebrate.

As a footnote to this remarkable, incredible, wonderful season, it’s worth noting that the last English manager to win the English league title was Howard Wilkinson. He won the title in 1992, with Leeds.

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