With a third of the 22/23 season completed, Aldershot Town sat in 13th in League One, after 5 wins, 5 draws and 5 defeats, landing us 20 points. A repeat of this pattern in the next two thirds of the league campaign would almost certainly give us enough points to secure a place in League One for the following season, but first we had to achieve that aim.
Recent form wasn’t great, with two defeats in a row, and by now our away record was actually much better than our home record (an unusual quirk in football, but not unheard of). Next up was a trip to the University of Bolton stadium to play, um, Bolton. Like Aldershot Bolton had been promoted last season and in the previous season we’d drawn twice. Both sides had changed a bit since then, so what were the odds of history repeating itself?
By some miracle half-time arrived and Aldershot were only trailing 1-0. Quite how the team had hung on to that point was amazing, but we needed a quick and dramatic improvement if we were to take anything from this rather lengthy trip. The second-half was no better, and a 2-0 defeat in which we looked tame wasn’t the kind of start to the next phase of the season I’d desired.
Five games without a win was an unwanted sequence, and up next we’d be hosting another former Premier League side, Ipswich Town. I was encouraged to hold a team meeting to boost the morale of the players, assuring them that I had confidence in them, and that they should have belief in their own abilities. I spoke privately to Reid, hoping to kickstart his goal-scoring form. We would need to play well – Ipswich were right near the top of the division and would be very challenging opponents. We ended up having 10 shots to their 11, but none on target, and lost 1-0 to a wonder goal.
Rightly or wrongly, and perhaps in response to fan pressure (after four defeats in a row), I decided to alter my match tactics. Up next was the FA Cup 1st round, and a visit to Leyton Orient.
Recall how last time out I’d referred to a humbling 4-2 home defeat to Lincoln as being our worst performance? This was worse. A 4-1 thrashing did not reflect well upon trying out something new tactically, nor was the performance encouraging. Multiple shots but the vast majority flying off target spoke of a weakness in the striking department. We were conceding goals for fun. The ship, previously quite steady, was rocking.
Another round of the irritating Papa John’s Trophy would follow. A penalty shootout win over Brighton’s under 23’s was a morale boost, no doubt about it. Nonetheless, if one were to look at matches settled within 90 minutes, we’d been winless across all competitions for eight games.
For the daunting trip to high-flyers Gillingham I reverted back to the original tactics I’d employed since day one – this style of play wasn’t pretty but it had earned two promotions. I wasn’t going to abandon it, at least, not completely. In the end there was a mild degree of vindication – a 2-2 draw meant we had earned a point at a tricky venue – but to lead 2-0 at half-time and only claim a point was a source of major annoyance.
Our seven-game winless run in the league came to an end with a much-needed comeback win over Walsall at home. The 2-1 win was built upon the defensive tactics that the fans had previously insisted I change. I wasn’t going to say a word!
There were still concerns. Reid was now injured (in fact he missed the Walsall game). Rees, one of my influential central midfielders, was injured. Fondop was still out injured. A 2-0 defeat followed at Accrington.
For the trip to bottom-of-the-table MK Dons, I decided to switch things up tactically, utilising a gengenpress tactic developed for use with Liverpool. The tactic involved pressing opponents (obviously) and playing a faster attacking game than before. It was intended for Premier League-quality players, but I wanted to see if it could work for Aldershot. Despite going a goal down early on against Dons, a brilliant second-half showing (including two good goals for Thomas) gave my side a much-needed three points.
This pleasing result was immediately followed by a rarity – a home win! Not only that, but a home win against a good Coventry side that had been rising up the table. 1-0 wins are sometimes the most satisfying – they’re a mark of control. Not only that, but despite being 13th in the table we were only four points off a playoff place!
Of course, the playoffs were a pipe dream as far as I was concerned. Survival was the priority, and we’d moved 12 points clear of relegation. After 22 games we were virtually at the halfway mark of the campaign and somehow closer (points-wise) to the playoffs than the bottom. The board (who use a school-style grading system to measure manager performance) had given me a ‘B’ rating for my efforts so far. I was reasonably pleased.
The tactical shift brought me to a train of thought (two in fact). My previous tactics had gotten two consecutive promotions, even if they could be considered ‘negative’. Said tactics had given us a healthy(ish) standing a third of the way into the season. Sure, there’d been a blip, and sure, the fans wanted to see something different, but would be really be wise to abandon a proven approach, just because we encountered a difficult patch?
If something works 90% of the time, surely you don’t get rid of it because of the 10% where it doesn’t? On the other hand, if results continue to be poor, soldiering on with a process that’s no longer yielding good results, in the ‘hope’ it will work again, might be considered a sign of madness. The switch had given me two wins in a row, and good performances to boot. A more attacking style of play from the previously conservative Aldershot might be unsettling our opponents.
We would shortly host Charlton in what would be our 23rd game and the official halfway point of the 22/23 season. This would be an interesting indicator of where we stood as a team.
A draw was a credible result, and it left us 14th in the table, but closer to the playoff spots on points than the relegation battle. There was no room for complacency – real football is littered with teams who felt comfortable at the halfway mark, only to drop point after point and get drawn into a very awkward position. We had to press on, and we’d begin the next half of the season at home to Portsmouth.
In the midst of preparing for the visit of Pompey, another team beginning with P wanted a chat. Plymouth, seeking to grab a playoff place in League Two, wanted an interview! They openly admitted to having reservations about a relatively inexperienced manager, but nonetheless, this was an approach by a bigger club, with more resources. Perhaps this was a sign that my reputation was starting to grow?
I declined an interview. The media asked me why and I said that I just plainly wasn’t interested. I was happy at Aldershot and keen to see where I could take this team.
Not for the first time other managers were offering praise whilst suggesting I was over-achieving with Aldershot. I have to admit (though I wasn’t saying so to the press) that I was. The team was starting to cement a place in League One and by extension, their place as a professional club. We had to do everything in our power to hold on to that status. A home defeat to Portsmouth annoyed me, for there was no indicator from the game that they’d scored – suddenly it just flashed up they were leading. That kind of thing irritates me immensely.
The next match against Burton came up quickly. By now I was thinking ahead, to the transfer window, wondering who I might be able to sign to bolster my full-back position, and where I needed extra quality. Loans were a possibility – but I wanted to get the right players.
A weird situation kept coming up – Aldershot had only recently been taken over, yet rumours persisted of another takeover bid. I focused on the football; off-pitch distractions would not get to me. I don’t know if it affected the team mind, for we lost 3-0 and didn’t play well.
I struck two loan deals, bringing 21 year-old Paul Glatzel in from Liverpool, who could fill a variety of attacking roles, and Shaun Atkinson, 18 years of age, from Man City, with a view to bolstering my defence. I was keeping my eyes out for any other potentially great loan signings. I put an offer in for Preston’s Callum Jones, for Jones (21) could offer options in the centre of the field.
None of these players would arrive until the transfer window opened in January, and I had to navigate the Boxing Day and New Year’s Eve ties of Forest Green (at home) and Wigan (away).
I’ve mentioned more than once how I hate seeing my team throw away a winning position. I absolutely love it when we come back to win! Two goals down after half an hour at home to Forest Green, the team rallied, level by the break and ahead shortly after half-time. In fact, we created a lot of chances and should have won more comfortably, but a win is a win! I was also vindicated a little, returning to the defensive tactics that had taken Aldershot up two divisions.
New Year’s Eve brought me a present of sorts. The board wanted to negotiate a new contract for me. I didn’t exactly earn a good offer with a defeat against manager-less Wigan, so I wanted to bounce back against Colchester. Meanwhile the club offered me a big boost to my wages – £1,800 a week (before tax mind). The new deal would take me to the end of June 2025 – I hoped I could meet expectations.
I forgot to mention – one of my players, Shea Charles, had earned himself two international call ups for Northern Ireland – I was pretty proud of the young lad!
All three of my new loan players would start against Colchester, who were struggling somewhat. Aldershot weren’t exactly flying but this was a chance to push off against a potential relegation rival. Instead, the performance was muted and a 1-1 draw was the best we could do. We were now six points clear of the relegation zone but some of the teams below us had games in hand. We needed to start winning again, and soon. Up next was a home tie against Fleetwood, who were one of the teams that could potentially catch up to us. Another draw (despite a rather poor performance) kept us reasonably clear of the drop zone.
I needed to boost the club’s facilities, something I’d mentioned before, but the board wasn’t willing to invest in the youth training setup, preferring me to sign first-team players rather than develop them. That put an end to that.
Our next game would have been a trip to Shrewsbury, but bad weather cancelled that. Instead, it would be a trip to Crewe, somewhat further up the table, but the team played really well, with Glatzel scoring his first goal for the club in an important 1-0 win. For the second game in a row I brought Fondop on as a sub, easing him back into first team action after his lengthy layoff.
We were now at the 30 game mark, two-thirds of the way through the season, and we were on 39 points – more or less meeting the target of 20 points per third of the season. Continuation of this form would hopefully see us survive our first season in League One. You’ll find out next time around if Aldershot make it.