We’d had a good first half of the 29/30 season – we were second in the Premier League standings, still in the Champions League, and overall, we looked in good shape. An area of outstanding concern related to our focus in the latter periods of matches – we had won away against Villa and Burnley but we had let comfortable leads slip. We wouldn’t keep getting away with that.
The first opportunity to demonstrate some resilience was with yet another away match, marking New Year’s Day against West Ham United. A 1-0 win thanks to a Harwood-Bellis goal gave us the result, even if the performance wasn’t exactly inspiring.
Time for altogether different kind of occasion. Leeds travelled to Shrewsbury, for the FA Cup third round. Shrewsbury were bottom of the Championship and by some margin. In theory this was an easy win, though the FA Cup is filled with many a shocking result. Prior to the game, Liverpool tried to sign Muchanga from me, but I regarded him as a key player, and Liverpool were waaaaaaaaaaay off meeting his release clause (£108 million). Muchanga was annoyed that I wouldn’t let him speak to Liverpool, but I needed him.
There were no FA Cup shocks or surprises. Leeds beat Shrewsbury 6-2, with all the goals coming in the first half.
Our first home game for a while saw us breeze past Southampton, Ramon scoring a hat-trick in a 5-2 victory. We were nowhere near our best away to Newcastle next time around and lost 2-1. We would need to be a lot better for our next couple of games.
Firstly, we hosted Liverpool. The Reds hadn’t been particularly fluent over the past couple of Premier League seasons, but they’d won the Champions League last time out, so they continued to maintain a strong European pedigree. A somewhat youthful Leeds side (I needed to rest some players) would try to meet them head-on. Although Liverpool were arguably the better team Leeds won 3-0! I was quite impressed, and happy to see Sanders continue his development by getting on the score sheet.
Next was a big challenge. Arsenal had ended my run of home games without defeat earlier in the season and they usually did well against my Leeds side. They were, in my humble view, serious title contenders. We were travelling to their den. My expectations were not high. A 1-1 draw was better than I’d expected, especially given how Arsenal dominated the game. It was a case of damage limitation, and a job well done.
From league action to FA Cup action next – the 4th round had us face Aston Villa away from home. I made wholesale changes to the team, preserving the fitness of my key stars and granting experience to my young talents. I wanted to carefully nurture them – some had the potential to be good; others had the potential to be great. A 2-2 draw kept our FA Cup run alive for the short-term, albeit with the inconvenience of a replay.
Leeds returned to Elland Road for the arrival of Manchester City. We’d enjoyed a number of very good results against City over the course of my time at Leeds; could we get another one?
We got a win, a 3-2 win but we let slip a two-nil lead at one point, and Williams rescued us with a late winner. Still, a win was a win and it kept us there or thereabouts at the right end of the table. Afterwards City manager Hans-Dieter Flick felt Leeds had been lucky and called me bitter when I suggested he was wrong. Ultimately, we’d won, so nerr.
The FA Cup replay with Aston Villa was up next. A 2-1 victory and a run-out for my younger players was a good result in my book.
Returning to the Premier League, Leeds travelled to Birmingham, who we had beaten 8-1 earlier in the season. Birmingham were 18th and therefore in the relegation zone, though to be fair they’d improved somewhat. I made it clear in the pre-match press conference that we would have to play at our best – I hate complacency and wanted my players to focus. Taking results for granted is a sure-fire way of failing and falling flat upon your own face.
It wasn’t a big win like before, but a 2-0 victory due to a Ramon brace was good enough for me. We now had the opportunity to rest and regroup during the international break. Once that was done, we’d be entertaining Chelsea.
Something rare and remarkable happened here – I fielded an unchanged side from the previous game. I swapped Stergiou and Harwood-Bellis around on the pitch, but no one was replaced. A Williams hat-trick (including an outrageous chip from distance) was the centrepiece of a 6-2 victory that saw Brenes net an injury scorcher from range.
The Champions League returned with a trip to German club RB Leipzig. The Bundesliga outfit have stirred controversy in their short life, in no small part to how they came into existence and how they’ve risen through the German leagues. The club officially came into being on 19th May 2009, when Red Bull bought the playing rights of fifth-tier side SSV Markranstadt. Not everyone likes how they’ve risen to the top-tier of German football, feeling that they’ve bought their way up in a league and system that rewards developing players. They’d won their first Bundesliga in 2029, as well as the DFB-Pokal (a cup competition) for the first time. For the second season in a row, Leeds were going up against the German champions.
I’d have to win it without Kaydas, who’d been hurt against Chelsea, sustaining a torn hamstring. Muchanga moved onto the left flank and he scored the only goal of the game to give us that all-important away goal advantage.
Ahead of the next game, at home to Brighton in the Premier League, I won Manager of the Month for February, having guided Leeds to wins in all three league fixtures for the month. As a result, we were now two points behind leaders Manchester United, after 27 games. Arsenal had stalled somewhat, and were eight points adrift of Utd.
We were slightly outplayed by Brighton but we were also more incisive. Williams got a hat-trick and Diez scored a good individual effort in a 4-2 victory.
The games were coming thick and fast. The FA Cup 5th Round brought Ipswich to Elland Road. A 3-0 win was a good result for a young team. From there we travelled down to Bournemouth, and I was wary. They were 18th but were therefore a wounded animal, and Arozena wound up injured for a few weeks prior to the game. It’s never ideal to lose your first-choice ‘keeper, and I was all the more relieved to have kept Livakovic on hand.
I was howling at my team throughout the game – Leeds fell behind early on and somehow my usually composed strikers of Williams and Ramon just could not score. We went into the break a goal down and I made it clear they needed to fight. Eventually Williams got the breakthrough and levelled – Brenes then scored another scorcher, and Ramon converted a late penalty to give us a deserved 3-1 win, albeit one we had to chase.
We would now host a southern team – Portsmouth, who like Bournemouth were in the relegation zone. The gap of a week was better for us – it offered the team a chance to regain some fitness – now we needed to make the most of it. A good team performance yielded a 4-0 win, with Williams, Harwood-Bellis, Ramon and Sanders all getting on the score sheet. We’d now played 30 games and we had a four point lead at the top, albeit with Manchester United possessing a game in hand. We’d have to go to Old Trafford at some point within the run-in – a fairly daunting prospect.
Before I could think about that, I had to think about RP Leipzig and the second leg of our Champions League 2nd Round tie. We carried a 1-0 lead from the trip to Germany, but could we finish them off at Elland Road?
Yes, yes we could. A 4-2 victory at home translated into a 5-2 win overall.
Before moving on, I want to address an issue that cropped up regarding tactics. I will gladly say that I use downloaded tactics. I have neither the time, patience or ability to create tactics, and there are a number of skilled individuals who devote their time to developing systems that they then happily share. The Football Manager community is filled with kind people who will happily help players discover a system that works for them. It is not, in any way shape or form, cheating (which I was accused of on a Facebook group). If we’re going to define cheating as using a feature of the game’s community, then that’s just plain stupid. If we’re going to try and use that to guilt people into playing the game differently, that’s arrogant. Besides, most real football managers are always looking at what other managers do and copying/adapting it. The moment a team started to be consistently successful, someone else was looking to mimic them.
With that off my chest, let’s continue. The FA Cup Quarter-Finals awaited with a home tie against Huddersfield, of the Championship. We made hard of it (and their ‘keeper played really well), but goals from Almada and Mazinho gave a rotated squad a 2-1 win.
Leicester were waiting for us after the international break. We’d venture to the Foxes’ den, and from there we’d travel to the Toffees, um, den. Back to back away games against Leicester and Everton were easily banana skin fixtures as far as I was concerned, especially seeing that Diez was now out for a few weeks, and Arozena had only just returned to training. Kaydas was still out and so was Menino. I wasn’t optimistic.
These games would be the first of our April fixtures, but March ended on a high note, with Williams scooping Player of the Month and Manager of the Month going to myself. Williams marked this occasion by scoring twice in a 5-0 win over Leicester, with a noteworthy goal within 40 seconds, after a surging Nico run and finish. A weak back-pass allowed Williams in for his first and youth players Gibbons and Sanders also scored, as The Foxes rolled over and let us tickle their bellies into submission. We were aided by Arozena returning to action at the King Power Stadium. Livakovic was a good ‘keeper but Arozena was just that little bit better, inspiring a bit more confidence at the back.
Everton were next. Their new 52,500 all-seater stadium had the potential to be a seething cauldron. A team meeting beforehand to ease expectations of a title win seemed to soothe most players, with the exception of Diez, who took offence to the lowering of the pressure. Duly noted. For the team, relaxing the expectations appeared to backfire, as we lost 2-1 and played quite poorly.
Manchester United were only a point behind us with a crucial game in hand, so now they held the cards, but I had to put the disappointment of losing to Everton away and focus on the Champions League Quarter Final first leg – away to Liverpool. The Reds had knocked Leeds out at the Semi Final stage last season – could we avenge that defeat?
Well, on the evidence of the first leg, no was the answer. We lost 2-0, and Williams kept missing chance after chance. We’d have to improve a lot in the home leg.
After a trio of away games came a home game against Wolves in the Premier League. After two successive defeats on Merseyside, I wanted us to bounce back with a bang. A Williams hat-trick contributed to a 4-1 win but Wolves were all over us. The performance wasn’t pleasing, but the title race swung back in our favour following a shock 2-1 defeat for Man Utd at Birmingham.
The Champions League returned with the visit of Liverpool, who held a 2-0 advantage from the first leg. This was actually the first of a double-header against Liverpool; we’d meet them at Wembley in the FA Cup Semi Final in a few days.
We were 3-2 winners on the night but lost 4-3 on aggregate. The Champions League dream was over for another season. It was always something of a pipe dream, but I’d hoped to do slightly better. Ah well, on to the FA Cup and the hope of extracting a measure of revenge. Gibbons gave us an early lead but former Leeds player Santos equalised a short while later. Almada restored our lead midway in the second half and young star Lewis squeezed the ball in to seal a 3-1 win and book our place in the FA Cup final for the second time in three seasons.
Next up were Spurs, who were coming to Elland Road. Conceicao’s men had inflicted an irritating defeat upon us earlier in the season (from memory, we’d held a two goal lead and let it slip it away), and given the hostility Conceicao harboured for me, I didn’t want to lose again. Oh, and there was the small matter of the title race entering into its most decisive phase.
This time we took a 2-0 lead and kept it. Ramon’s brace was enough to give us all three points – and then it was on to the big one.
Leeds had played 34 games and Manchester United had played 34 games. We were one point ahead. A draw would favour us, a win would obviously favour us, and a defeat would leave United looking in a good position. I wasn’t optimistic, for my results at Old Trafford weren’t exactly stellar.
I played down our chances in a team meeting, and everyone – apart from Diez – appreciated the gesture. There was no sense in hyping up expectations when the reality was that Man Utd looked very, very sharp. To get anything from them on their patch was going to be very difficult indeed. A defeat wouldn’t end our title challenge, but even if it did, Leeds had never been expected to win the title for the last two seasons; many felt we were over-achieving to have qualified for the Champions League, much less go further.
We were drawing 1-1 at half time but we had no right to be level, Williams having scored with our first shot. United had created a host of opportunities but it took a second half penalty to break Leeds’ resolve and we ended up losing 3-1. The pendulum had now swung in United’s favour.
The race wasn’t over. There were three games to go and anything was possible. For Leeds, next we’d travel to Fulham, who were just above the relegation zone and therefore fighting to survive. They actually led 1-0 at half time and I had to light a fire underneath my players, who responded through Erwin, Gibbons and substitute Williams to take a 3-1 win and keep us in the title fight.
Our penultimate fixture was at Elland Road against Aston Villa. Shortly before the game I finally received the Continental Pro Badge I’d been working towards all season, thus achieving the highest qualification available! Now I could unleash my full potential – with two games to go.
We went behind against Villa, recovered to 3-1 thanks to Ramon, Muchanga and Almada, then suddenly it was 3-2, before a second Ramon goal and a goal from Nico secured the win. Now it would all come down to the final game of the season.
Williams was injured against Villa, so Kaydas, who still wasn’t fully fit himself, had returned. Williams would be absent for our final game, at home to Burnley, but the strikers I had available to me were capable enough. Ultimately, it wasn’t about what we did. Man Utd had a two point lead and the goal difference was very similar – I needed them to draw whilst Leeds won big, or lose, but either way, we had to beat Burnley.
Ramon then ended up injury, so my two first choice strikers were both out of action, with the vital Burnley game coming up and the FA Cup Final a week later. Great, just great. There’s an expression within the Football Manager community about being FMed… basically it’s where the game seems determined to give you grief or make you lose. I have often wondered if it’s true.
I could have given Ramon an injection to get him through the Burnley match, but that can carry consequences for both morale and recovery time. It was best to let him heal on his own. I had other forwards, and they’d have the chance to delivery glory. Manchester United travelled to Wolves, and I couldn’t see them dropping points.
We did our part by beating Burnley 2-0; they were stubborn but we broke them down. For a time it looked as though Wolves would actually hold Utd to a draw, and with our goal differences being the same, Leeds would be champions by virtue of goals scored. In the end Utd rallied to win comfortably, securing the title. Ah well.
One final game remained, with one final chance for silverware. The FA Cup Final pitted us against Manchester City, who had ended up only 7th in the league. In the build-up Ramon swept individual player awards for his excellent season and I won Manager of the Year – clearly Leeds were still seen as over-achievers, despite two Premier League titles and a 2nd place finish.
The FA Cup Final is always a spectacle, held at the beautiful Wembley Stadium. We’d go into the Final desiring a trophy, after a season-long title duel had seen us fall short by a whisker. City had been relatively poor all season, but they’d reached the Final so deserved respect for that. However, the on-pitch scenes transcended any expectations, very early on.
Sanders scored first, early on, then Gibbons added another. Diez ran through to add a third shortly before the break, then just after the break Muchanga added a fourth. He added Leeds’ fifth and his second in the middle of the second half to complete a 5-0 rout of Manchester City and hand us our second FA Cup in three seasons. It was one of our best performances of the season, saved for the glitter and glam of the Final. I was happy.
As far as Leeds were concerned the season was over, and the players could now embark on a well-earned rest (apart from the ones who had World Cup duties). A look back upon the 29/30 season revealed who’d been playing well and who had maybe played not-so-well…
Ramon and Williams managed 90 goals between them! Muchanga had 24 assists to his name – and Harwood-Bellis scored 12 goals as a central defender! For the most part, we’d played well as a team, but somehow, despite all their goals, we’d fallen short in the two competitions I most wanted to win. I couldn’t be too annoyed, for no one expected the club to be fighting for the title anyway.
As the season wound down Leeds announced an important plan – Elland Road was going to be expanded. 11,541 seats would be added, taking us to just under 50,000 seats – at a cost mind – nearly £42 million. It was a necessary move – the biggest clubs in England typically have stadiums holding 50,000 people (or more). It generates increased revenues and would contribute towards the atmosphere.
With that, it felt like a natural place to conclude the 29/30 season – roll on the 30/31 season, and my tenth anniversary as a manager!