Football Manager P6 – Unexpected Territory

When we last spoke of Aldershot’s… well, let’s face it, it was a brilliant start to the 21/22 season… the team had found itself in the automatic promotion spots. It was early days, and in truth I didn’t expect a team of Aldershot’s resources to stay there, but considering the primary objective was to survive in League Two, it was clear the club had taken great strikes toward that goal.

It was equally clear, following a bruising 4-1 home defeat to Exeter (I felt we deserved better but that’s football) that the club still had a long way to go. An away draw followed against high-flying Walsall, but next up was an FA Cup trip to Doncaster (a 3-2 defeat), followed by a game against Cambridge in the accursed Papa John’s Trophy (I thought I’d exited that nuisance of a competition, but clearly not). My players drew the game and won the penalty shootout, with me still not understanding what was at work here.

A second consecutive home defeat in the league followed, a 3-1 loss to Carlisle. This was immensely disappointing, given the heavy rotation of my squad to give first-team players a rest from the pizza competition. Things did not look much brighter, with a trip away to former Premier League side Bolton Wanderers.

Bolton had once finished as high as 6th in the Premier League, but were relegated at the end of the 11/12 season and relegated from the Championship in 2016. They bounced right back but hit hard times and were relegated against in 2019, immediately getting relegated from League One the following year. Their failings were quite serious, but the club retains a large following and still has resources unavailable to a club of Aldershot’s stature. Given my team’s dip in form, a trip to Bolton was the last thing I needed, and I wasn’t helped by one of my fringe players, Howe, demanding playing time and unsettling himself in the process. To therefore get a 0-0 draw… well, I would gladly take a point from such a match all day long.

Things grew more interesting with Howe – the fans did a poll and the majority argued he shouldn’t be a regular starter. I could hardly ignore the will of the fans now could I? Nonetheless my next game, away to Leyton Orient, came around quite quickly, necessitating some changes, and Howe would get another chance to prove his worth. He didn’t prove much in a tame 1-0 defeat.

By now our form had dipped quite a lot, though we were still in the playoff places. I was growing concerned, despite the on-going support of the board. Aldershot weren’t going to get promoted, but a serious slump could put us into a relegation dogfight. We needed a win, and soon. Up next was a home tie against struggling Tranmere Rovers. Surely, surely, we’d take all three points and put our season back on a reasonable track?

The answer was an emphatic YES. A 3-0 win (and a clean sheet to boot!) was a much-need confidence boost.

Next up was a reunion of sorts, with Stockport County, who if you’ll recall had won the National League the season before, making Aldershot and Stockport promotion buddies… if there is a such a thing. We’d be hosting them and as such, I wanted another three points out of them. They’d been struggling (in fact, they were only one place ahead of the bottom of the table), so I could see no reason why we couldn’t get another good result.

Unfortunately I wouldn’t find out, as a waterlogged pitch postponed the fixture. Ah well. The net result was a slightly longer rest for the players, ahead of a trip to Morecambe, who occupied 20th in the table. Such a fixture might seem easy, but I am savvy enough not to underestimate a team near the bottom, for they will often fight very hard.

In the end I needn’t have been concerned, as Aldershot produced their best performance of the season to win 5-0, a stunning performance all-round, but particularly by Tanner (whom I was actually looking likely to lose), as well as goals from Reid and Fondop, who both continued their fine goal-scoring form. There was no time to savour the win, as next was a trip to another struggling side, Barrow.

My League Two adventure had begun with Aldershot being held by Barrow, but could things pan out differently this time around? My team had gone on to defy expectations, Barrow were in the relegation zone and finding life difficult. Would they pull off an upset, or would Aldershot pile on the misery? A comfortable 3-0 win for my lads kept us in a very healthy position, whilst Barrow remained firmly stuck in the relegation zone.

Up next, following on rapidly from the Barrow trip, was the re-arranged fixture with Stockport. Or was it? For a second time bad weather led to the game being called off, much to my annoyance. My home game against Northampton was also called off, and my irritation was growing. These were two easily winnable home ties, important to maintaining the momentum of the side, and they were gone in a heartbeat.

The upshot was a period of recuperation and recovery for the squad, with a view to a tough trip to Plymouth. Plymouth had inflicted my first defeat of the league campaign, and though they’d fallen into the lower half of the table, I wasn’t going to assume anything. Indeed, the team were a goal down after just eight minutes, but two goals from winger Campbell and a goal from Reid (with two goals produced from long throws of all things) turned things around nicely in a positive display.

Now for an altogether different challenge, a home fixture against high-flying Grimsby. Aldershot’s previous encounter had been a thrilling 3-3 draw, would this match provide similar drama? Short answer – no. a 1-0 win for Aldershot was immediately followed by a 2-0 home victory over Northampton (albeit the goals came very late) and a merciless 5-1 away win over Harrogate.

Aldershot had now won their last seven league games, putting us back into the automatic promotion places. The performances were pleasing and the results were fantastic, but we couldn’t afford to get ahead of ourselves. In fact, away to Crawley we were brought down a peg or two, performing badly in a 2-0 defeat.

Next up at long last, the home game against Stockport. The twice-postponed fixture against Aldershot’s promotion buddies had finally arrived! Victory here would move Aldershot into second in the league, a remarkable accomplishment for this group of players. A 1-0 win didn’t reflect our dominance, but three points are three points, irrespective of the score.

Another home win, a big 3-0 over Swindon, ensured we sat 2nd in the league table after 30 matches. If you’d told me at the start of the season that my newly promoted Aldershot side would rise so high, I’d have laughed. Surely, surely, two consecutive promotions would be beyond us?

Tune into Chapter Seven to see how the 21/22 season ends.

Back to Football Manager 2021

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