Football Manager P8 – Uncharted Territory

Having achieved an unlikely promotion to League One in the 21/22 season, I allowed my Aldershot squad a chance to bask in their glory and recuperate ahead of what would prove to be a most challenging season (well, I suspect it would be challenging), but a manager’s work is never done. I’d already (and perhaps presumptuously) signed some players ahead of even securing promotion, namely Silko Thomas from Chelsea, Diamond Edwards (yes, seriously) from Southampton, Marcus Ifill from Brighton, and Shea Charles from Manchester City. These players had been released from their clubs and I saw potential in them, so I grabbed them when I could. I also appointed football veteran Ian Holloway as a Director of Football. His experience and knowledge would surely prove useful.

Unfortunately the Aldershot board weren’t willing to fund new training facilities, something I felt was necessary if we were to develop the players into a team that could survive in this new, uncharted territory. If League Two had been a melting point of teams of various sizes, League One is even more of the same. Without investment in the facilities of the club, Aldershot would surely not remain in League One for long.

The club’s lack of ambition was countered by a simmering thought of my own. I had grown fond of Aldershot Town, and it was intention to see what I could accomplish in League One, but a part of me was wondering if and when a bigger club might come knocking. My reputation had grown, and if I could somehow guide Aldershot into a good place, would another club take a look at me?

Another thought had crossed my mind – namely, how art was imitating life. Stevenage had earned consecutive promotions and nearly – nearly – a third. Would their journey prove prophetic of Aldershot’s?

I had other aims too. Jamie Reid, who had scored 22 goals in 43 National League appearances and 22 goals in 46 League Two matches, was one of my key players, but he was also on loan from Mansfield. I had to somehow persuade them to let him go. I was also aiming to keep hold of Ryley Towler (a very good central defender) and Ramarni Medford-Smith, a very good left-back, though both players would be via loan arrangements.

Meanwhile, Mike Fondop took the award for top scorer in League Two for 21/22. In 44 games he scored 24 goals. In second place was Reid, underlying why I wanted to keep him – the Fondop/Reid partnership was a strong one, with the two players working well together.

Another award turned up – I won Manager of the Year. Well, come on, I’d taken Aldershot up a notch, it had to be recognised somewhere along the line…

Retaining the services of Medford-Smith proved impossible. Grimsby weren’t prepared to let him out on loan again, and Aldershot couldn’t afford the transfer fee. It was a shame, for he had been fantastic for me on a number of occasions. Addressing the left-back position would now become a priority for me.

Out of left-field came the rumour that Aldershot might be in line for a takeover bid. Things accelerated with the news that Shahid Azeem, the chairman, had plans to step down from the role he’d held since March 2013. Where would this leave me?!?!?

We were now into June 2022, and friendly fixtures were being arranged, players signed on free transfers were due to arrive, and suddenly an embargo on new signings was imposed as a ‘consortium’ looked to take over the club. In fact, two different groups were vying for control. Ultimately it would only mean something if either group decided Aldershot were worthy of a big, juicy transfer budget – that or prepared to invest in giving me shiny new training facilities!

Matters were resolved very quickly. The first rumours of a takeover began on the 1st of June. Come the 4th of June and Azeem was gone, replaced by Matt Guthrie. What would he hold in store for me?

Well, firstly he gave me £675k to play with in the transfer market. Aside from that there were no fundamental changes in expectations for the coming season. As soon as the media asked, I made the right type of excited noises. I also immediately asked for an improvement to the training facilities. We needed to make progress in such areas if we were to compete in League One. Amazingly the new board agreed almost instantly, aiming to start work costing nearly a million quid in August and having it finished by the end of September.

Transfers continued. I brought a new ‘keeper, Lawrence Vigouroux, in the hopes of adding depth to that position. I tried to add some new coaches to the club but the board vetoed my efforts, leaving me to soldier on in that regard. Everton put Lewis Warrington (by all accounts a competent young midfielder) up for grabs on a free transfer and I pounced. An early pre-season meeting didn’t go too well, especially when I suggested the squad could be pruned, but it kind of needed pruning.

In a brilliant, unexpected plot twist, the board (who were naturally singing my praises) suggested they wanted to expand the wage budget – for performance analysts. Well, something is always better than nothing right?

Recall how I mentioned League Two was a bit of a melting pot of football clubs? League One is even more of a melting pot, and my small Aldershot club could look forward to playing against a variety of much bigger (in terms of resources at least) clubs. What do Bolton Wanderers (promoted from League Two via the playoffs), Charlton (who we dispatched from the League Cup in glorious fashion in the 21/22 season), Coventry, Ipswich, Portsmouth, Sheffield Wednesday, Portsmouth, Sunderland and Wigan all have in common? All of them were at one point Premier League clubs (some had been absent from the top flight longer than others).

Such teams would have more money, better recruitment options, bigger training facilities, and greater lure than Aldershot could hope to manage. I’d not expected League Two to go as well as it had – League One would truly be a battle to survive, but first, there would be pre-season friendlies to prepare the squad. But before that, I pulled off a transfer coup, signing (for a club-record £300,000) Harrison Brook, winger, from potential league rivals Portsmouth. This was a major (and for Aldershot) expensive signing, one that would hopefully speak of the club’s ambition.

Friendly fixtures went well, with Aldershot triumphing in the first three (all of which were away from home), despite some fairly heavy squad rotation. My first home friendly was against the unlikely opponents of Nashville, Tennessee. Yes, seriously, the Music City club had crossed the Atlantic to play Aldershot in a friendly. Perhaps they needed a distraction from their dismal season, that saw them bottom of the MLS Western Conference, by some margin. We inflicted a 2-0 defeat upon them, demonstrating that in some circumstances at least, a small team from English football’s third tier was more than a match for at least one MLS side. It wasn’t definitive but it was pretty satisfying.

Our final friendly would see us host Gillingham, and this was an important friendly. Gillingham represented a well-established League One side. Here I would see how Aldershot might fare against the sort of quality the league had to offer. In the end we were beaten by a wonder goal from Udoh, in an otherwise even game. There was no time to ponder all the implications of losing to a fellow League One side, for the season proper was about to begin, with a trip to Cardiff City in the Carabao Cup.

Cardiff had once reached the Premier League, but their experience of top-flight football lasted precisely one season. The Championship is their current home and their home in the 22/23 season as well. Would my underdogs have a chance against them?

No. Despite a brave effort, we were thrashed 3-0. Moving swiftly on…

It was time to begin the league campaign. Our opening game was a trip down to the south coast to face Portsmouth, who had once (back in 2008) reached 8th in the Premier League, a year they also claimed an unlikely FA Cup success. The club hit financial problems and at one point had slipped to 16th in League Two in 2016. They’ve been a touch up and down since then, rising to the Championship in Football Manager’s 20/21 season, and finishing bottom of the Championship a year later, hence why my Aldershot lads were now taking a trip to the south coast.

No one will be surprised to learn I was filled with trepidation. Portsmouth could be only one thing – very tough opposition to face in Aldershot’s very first taste of League One football! Imagine my tremendous surprise when my players took a 3-0 lead going into half-time! The match ultimately ended 4-2, but it was a fantastic performance and it showed (to me at least) the real spirit and heart of the players.

Our first home game of League One would be against Burton Albion. It would be fair to say that Burton are similar in size to Aldershot – their stadium holds just over 7,000 people, much like the Recreation Ground. What potentially worked in Burton’s favour is their greater time spent in the Football League, stretching back to 2009. Our match ended 0-0, in a fairly even contest that produced a lot of chances and missed opportunities.

From there, a couple of defeats and a lack of goals led me to tweak the tactics a bit, along with the training regime. For a number of occasions Aldershot had played quite defensive football (some might say, negative football), and this had worked, but it was becoming apparent that to unlock the more skilled defences of League One, I’d have to be prepared to have a go, so to speak.

The results of this subtle shift in mentality yielded two quick-fire wins, away to Colchester and away to Fleetwood, making up for the two defeats and a draw previous to those results.

My hope was to average 1.5 points per game. That would see Aldershot comfortably safe. So far, the team was on course. Up next would be a tough challenge – former Premier League side Sunderland were coming to town.

This fixture marked my 100th game in management. I feel that deserved a cake, but in the absence of cake I’d settle for a victory. The reward for a determined attacking display was an injury-time winner from Reid, snatching a win despite initially falling behind. I wasn’t going to argue! Three wins on the bounce gave Aldershot a much-needed boost. Oxford defeated us but I won Manager of the Month for September, shortly after the club’s training facilities had been upgraded. Things were looking rosy!

The unwelcome distraction of the Papa John’s Trophy followed, however a 2-1 win for a second-string side over Coventry was quite encouraging. Being able to rest first-choice players meant they’d be fresh for a trip to Bristol Rovers, and my decision paid off. Despite going 1-0 down to an early penalty, by half-time we’d recovered to lead 3-1, and a penalty for Aldershot in the second-half gave us a convincing 4-1 win.

A well-earned 2-2 draw away to Sheffield Wednesday followed, and then came a strange moment. Steve Ball, manager of Colchester (not even my next opponents) was making noises that Aldershot would struggle to avoid relegation. Well, after 12 games Aldershot occupied 7th in the table, and Colchester… 23rd, out of 24 sides, four points off safety. I’m not sure Ball was wise to be making such claims. A draw with Doncaster was disappointing (not least of all due to Rowe having a penalty saved in the dying moments), but at least it was a point, which is naturally better than no points.

No points are what we took from our trip to Wycombe Wanderers. The game was quite even but a wonder goal sealed our fate in the first-half, and to make matters worse, Fondop was seriously injured, dislocating his shoulder. To make things even worse, Fowler, my first-choice right-back, was put out of action for several weeks in a training accident.

There was no point in crying about it. In football players get injured. They recuperate and return. In the meantime you have a squad of players to choose from and you develop a team, rather a group of individuals that depend on one specific individual. Nonetheless, something rattled the squad, for we crashed to a 4-2 home defeat against Lincoln next time out, in a very poor performance – easily the worst showing of the team since I’d taken charge (and I made sure they knew that).

Form had dipped, but after 15 games we’d won 5, drawn 5, lost 5. If that pattern were to repeat itself we’d almost certainly be clear of relegation come the end of the season. Where would we stand after the middle third of the campaign? You’ll find out…

Onward to Part Nine

Back to Football Manager 21

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