After 30 matches Aldershot had reached the unlikely position of 2nd in the League Two table, in the club’s first post-promotion season. We were five points clear of the playoff places and the team had just won nine of their last ten league fixtures. The results were beyond anything I’d expected, but if asked (not that the media was especially inclined to), I’d play down our promotion chances. There were still sixteen games left, and the potential for anything to happen. To kick off the final phase of the season Aldershot would host Newport, who we’d previously beaten away from home, but at League Two level ‘home and away’ aren’t always as relevant as they appear. There would be no resting on laurels at my club.
A brilliant, ruthless display of attacking football yielded good goals from Fondop(2), Reid, Tanner and Rowe, in a 5-1 thrashing, marking the third time in the league Aldershot had scored five goals. Next up was a visit to the Lamex Stadium, home of my home-away-from-home town club of Stevenage.
Stevenage are a club that in 2010 rose out of non-league football for the first time, and in 2011 they went and got promoted again. On top of that, they nearly achieved a remarkable third consecutive promotion, but couldn’t quite prevail in the League One playoffs. They did knock Premier League Newcastle United out of the FA Cup though. From there, the fortunes changed. Stevenage were relegated from League One in 2014, lost in the 2015 playoffs and from there endured a string of inconsistent seasons, including finishing bottom of League Two in 2020 but earning a reprieve when another club was hit with points deductions over financial issues. In real life they’re uncomfortably close to the relegation zone in the 20/21 season; in the world of Football Manager, they were in 16th as they prepared to host my team. Two goals from Fondop put Stevenage to the sword, despite a late consolation of theirs.
Oxford United, runaway league leaders, were next. We’d beaten Oxford earlier in the season at our own ground, but this was a very challenging trip to a side with an imposing record. In the build-up to the game, Fondop won the Player of the Month award for January, Reid took the plaudits for Goal of the Month, and I won Manager of the Month, marking my first MOTM award as manager of a professional club. It was a good way to build up to a crucial match. It proved to be a draw, a fair reflection of the game, and it moved me ten points clear of the playoff places.
The dissatisfaction of one of my fringe players, a defender by the name of Howe, was starting to annoy me. He kept demanding to be played (admittedly I’d issued certain broken promises), but other players were playing better, something that didn’t seem to click with him. It resulted in some harsh words and unwanted media attention, but the club as a whole was in a good place.
A real ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ showing at home to Cambridge United followed. At one stage we were 2-0 down, clawing back a goal right before the break. After half-time we were much improved, and ended up winning 3-2. Aldershot’s next opponents are close to home (literally).
Southend United are the biggest local club to me. They’ve had their ups and downs but generally speaking have been competing in the Football League for many years. The club itself has existed since 1906, thus boasting a long, if not exactly glorious history. They reached the second tier of English football in 2006 but their time at such heights ended a year later, and since then the story is very much one of ups and downs. Southend beat Stevenage (a connection between the two sides there) in the 2015 League Two playoffs on their way up to League One, then came back down a few years later. In real life they are badly struggling, facing the very real possibility of dropping out of the professional league completely.
In the game, they’d survived the 20/21 season and were faring… well, not exactly well, but they weren’t in a battle for survival. Aldershot had beaten them quite comfortably at home, and now it was time for a trip to the Essex coast and Roots Hall.
A 2-0 win (and some metaphorical seaside fish and chips) were the perfect reward for a strong performance, with Reid scoring twice and the side purring quite nicely. We didn’t look to be too aggressive, but instead looked to do what I like most – keep the ball and be patient. It paid off nicely.
There was no time to rest. Cheltenham were visiting the Recreation Ground. Would we be gracious hosts, or would we be frosty?
We proved quite frosty, despite a cagey, even first half. A goal from Campbell early in the second half set us on our way, though for a time I feared we’d end up failing to claim all three points – chance after chance was squandered, leaving me wondering if Cheltenham would snatch an undeserved equaliser, but in the end Reid popped up to squeeze home an injury time goal to make absolutely sure of victory.
Howe was continuing to be a difficult git. I started him in my next game, a trip to Bradford City, and he played very well, even scoring! My attempt to praise the defender for his efforts was met with a sour response. Part of me wanted to keep him at Aldershot, out of spite, but another part of me wanted his miserable face gone. After dispatching Bradford 3-0 (away from home no less) we’d host Scunthorpe as league leaders. That’s right, Aldershot were now leading League Two.
The end of February brought another Manager of the Month award for me. Hopefully this meant my reputation as a manager was rising. Unfortunately Scunthorpe were able to dish out a rare defeat against my side, and we never really got going. I was disappointed to lose what was on paper a winnable game, especially given the tough fixtures coming up.
Still, to put things into perspective, Aldershot were 13 points clear of Bolton (occupying 4th and the top spot of the playoffs) with eight games left. 24 points were up for grabs. Five wins in our remaining games (assuming Bolton won all of theirs) would carry us to automatic promotion. The equation was simple, but the reality… well, I was still struggling to believe that lowly Aldershot could accomplish back-to-back promotions. I would have been happy to avoid relegation. This was beyond my greatest expectations.
Exeter away, um, awaited. They had crushed Aldershot 4-1 earlier in the season, so I can’t say I was too optimistic. A 2-1 defeat irked me, for I felt we played well enough to earn a point, but instead we ended up with our second loss in as many games. Hardly the sort of momentum I wanted to see at the crunch stage of the season!
There was no time to dwell on matters – we hosted Walsall a few days later, grateful for Stevenage holding Bolton to a draw and thus preventing them from truly closing in on us. We drew with Walsall but we should have won – two silly mistakes from Towler in defence allowed the opposition to score two goals. I was fuming with him, though I refrained from holding a private meeting with him to berate him. Despite the draw Aldershot secured a playoff place with six games to go.
Victory away to Carlisle moved us top of the league and and moved us back to a 13-point advantage over Bolton and the threat to automatically going up. Bolton did have a game in hand, but to have a large gap felt like a key advantage. It became even more of an advantage when they could only draw that game.
With five games and 15 points maximum available, Aldershot were 12 points clear of Bolton, meaning a victory over Bolton in our very next match would leave us 15 points clear with only 12 points available. We’d be going up to League One if we could beat the former Premier League outfit. Home advantage was ours, but would it be enough? In the end the game ended 0-0, just like our trip to Bolton earlier in the season, but a draw helped me far more than it helped Bolton. We retained a 12 point advantage with only 12 points up for grabs, and we had a superior goal difference to boot.
A trip to Merseyside beckoned, with a trip to Tranmere Rovers. A point would take us to League One. Did we get it? Oh yeah! A 1-0 win thanks to a good Bettamer goal midway through the second half gave us a deserved three points and more importantly, promotion! The most unlikely of scenarios had come true and the board, much like myself, couldn’t quite believe what we’d achieved!
I was proud of the players. The squad was more or less the same as the one that had earned promotion to League Two. They’d worked hard, and at times produced some incredible sequences of results. When things got difficult they kept working hard, knowing that form is temporary, class is permanent.
There would be much work to do (and I’d already begun to pre-sign players released from top clubs, in a bid to seriously bolster the team), but the League Two season wasn’t quite over. There was still the prospect of actually winning the division outright, and the quest to accomplish that particularly juicy feat began with a home game against playoff-chasing Leyton Orient. A 1-0 win (featuring a good solo run and goal from Fondop) kept us top of the league with two games remaining.
The achievements of Aldershot met with praise from Leyton Orient manager Barry Nicholson. It seemed only decent to respond graciously.
Up next was a trip to promotion buddies Stockport – and a thrilling 3-3 draw that saw Aldershot race into a 2-0 lead, get pegged back before half-time (grr), lead again with ten minutes to go, and still end up not winning. Oxford failed to overhaul us, on account of also drawing 3-3.
With one game remaining of the 21/22 League Two season, Aldershot had already reached heights never previously reached by the club. The history of Aldershot had seen them reach League Two before but they’d never been beyond that point. Getting promoted to the third tier of English football was already the best the club had ever managed – to get there and win League Two? Top that!
You’d think that winning the league title was written in the stars. The final game of the season? Aldershot, leading the race to win the division, hosted Morecombe, bottom of the league and already relegated. Surely, surely, we’d not drop points here?
In the end we did. A 1-1 draw that saw Morecombe actually create more chances was disappointing, but Oxford could only draw at home to Barrow, making Aldershot the 21/22 League Two champions!