It’s a New Year (and a new laptop!), so what better time to start a new career on Football Manager?! This is on the 2021 edition of the game, so we’re rewinding the clock a little. The 2020 European Championships and the 2022 World Cup have not yet taken place, and it remains to be seen if, in the 2020/21 season, Liverpool can retain their league title. As for me, I am starting out as an unemployed, complete nobody of a manager. What sort of career can I forge for myself?
I had two early interviews, one with Wigan, of League One, and one with Wealdstone, of the Vanarama National League (the highest echelon of non-league football in England). I seriously doubted a professional club would want a complete novice at the helm, and at any rate, Wealdstone came in for me, offering me a wage of £775 a week (nothing to sniff at, that’s just over £40k a year), and the opportunity to get the ball rolling on my managerial career.
So, Wealdstone. What can I say about them? Not a lot. They were founded in 1899, are known as the Stones, and haven’t really won very much. They’ve virtually always been a non-league club, so getting them across the line, and into the realm of professional outfits was likely to be a serious challenge.
There was a long preseason ahead. The reality of the middle of 2020 is that the new season was held against the backdrop of pandemic restrictions, and the delayed end to the previous season. Therefore, when the preseason work began in earnest, there would be a lot of fitness work to do. A major early problem for Wealdstone was a lack of coaches, and a lack of money to hire new coaches, so training would hampered, at least to begin with. The first chance to see what my players would be capable of, would come in a friendly, away to AFC Sudbury.
I was impressed. The team scored three first-half goals without reply, controlled the game in the second half, and enjoyed more of the ball. I hadn’t expected such a result, but the early signs were promising. The second friendly, also away, to Bedford Town, went even better. A dominant 8-1 win, having rotated the squad, was very satisfying. Of course, pre-season results cannot be taken as a barometer of league results, so it was important to avoid too much hype.
Friendly no. 3 was also away, this time to Banbury, and it was a routine 2-0 win, with a couple of goals disallowed for good measure. The next friendly was a home game, against Kingstonian, and Wealdstone were seven goals up at half-time, with an eighth added towards the end of the game. Things were going extremely well, so it was sort of inevitable that we’d suffer a minor fall at some point, and the next game, away to Haringey, was that bump. A 1-0 defeat, despite being the better side, was a reminder of the hard work needed to succeed. Complacency is lethal to any football club.
The next game would be for real. The league campaign would get underway with Wealdstone hosting Dover Athletic.
The game would end with a 1-1 draw, which wasn’t too bad. An own goal got Wealdstone into an early lead, but Dover levelled as half-time approached, and neither team had the quality to find a winner in the second half. So, a fair outcome. The next game came hot on the heels of the first, away to Solihull Moors. We were behind after around 25 minutes, but were leading following a great spell in the second half, only to concede a penalty. The game finished 2-2, but it was another early point in the fight against the drop.
Wealdstone picked up all three points next time around, at home to Sutton, despite falling behind early on. Central defender Jack Cawley got his second goal of the season (he appears to be a good header of the ball from set pieces), and striker Danny Parish got his first two goals of the season, in a 3-2 win that saw us fire 12 shots on target. The score-line flattered the opposition! Game four was also win two! This time, we won 2-0, away to Eastleigh, a result I had not expected, but obviously wasn’t unhappy with!
Another 2-0 away followed, against Weymouth. Wealdstone had been expected to fight against relegation, so three wins and two draws from the opening five games was a great set of results. I had to believe we were still in a relegation dogfight, so these early points were being banked to help us later.
Following the early league heroics, the FA Cup beckoned. Wealdstone hosted Chelmsford, and I will point out that I am vaguely familiar with the city of Chelmsford, as it’s not too far from home. The ambition of the board was for the club to reach the 1st round proper, but Chelmsford were proving to be stubborn opposition. The game was goalless at full-time, so we went to extra-time, and my players just could not find the back of the net. With the match dead-locked, the dreaded penalty shootout would settle proceedings, and… Wealdstone lost. In front of the home support at Grosvenor Vale, the FA Cup dream was over at the first hurdle.
There wasn’t time to mope. The Vanarama fixtures kept on comin’. It was time for an, shall we say, interesting reunion.
On my original FM21 journeyman career, my experience had started with Aldershot, and they would be my next visitors. I felt a certain… curiosity? This, ah, parallel universe produced a very comfortable win for Wealdstone, with a 4-0 victory, including two goals from three penalties (Aldershot’s box defending was, in a word, atrocious.). This got followed up by a thumping 5-1 win at home to Altrincham. After seven games, we were unbeaten in the league, top of the league, and I won Manager of the Month for October.
The first November fixture took Wealdstone to Torquay, and despite another win, I had to give the team a stern telling off. A three goal advantage was nearly squandered, with Torquay scoring twice late-on to set up a nervous finish. I did not want the team to develop bad habits.
Next came a wee break between fixtures, which was a crucial opportunity for players to rest, after a hectic initial phase to the season. When play resumed, Wealdstone hosted Dagenham & Redbridge. It was top of the league, versus bottom of the league, which is so often a banana peel moment. On this occasion, there was no such scenario. Wealdstone emerged 6-1 winners, and I was rapidly becoming impressed with the various forms of threat the team carried. We were often dangerous from set pieces, had goals from the wings, and the strikers were certainly capable.
Chesterfield away was up next, and here, the great run of the team finally came to an end. A 2-0 defeat, and a performance that was battling but not good enough, capped off the 10th league game of the season. Wealdstone followed their first defeat of the season with another defeat, at home to Barnet, who raced into a 3-0 lead. By half-time it was 3-1, and a late second for Wealdstone created a bit of respect on the score-line, but two defeats in a row had arrested the momentum, pretty sharply. It was a reminder that officially, we were in a relegation fight, and the early points accrued in the first games of the season were a buffer, nothing more. Promotion? Hah, that was a fantasy.
At least we avoided a third defeat in a row, though given the number of chances we created away to struggling Boreham Wood, I was disappointed not to emerge with a win. Next would a big test, against former professional league outfit Hartlepool. Would Wealdstone emerge victorious, or would our winless run stretch to four games?
Well, one of the worst back-passes I have ever seen lead to a goal, specifically Wealdstone’s second of the game, coming a minute after we’d taken the lead. In the end, it was a very satisfying 4-0 victory, against opposition that I would have expected to test my team a lot more, though perhaps I should give my players credit for playing extremely well. Another win followed, though we were a goal down at half-time a home to Yeovil. A few firm words at half-time produced the desired reaction, aided by some shocking defending, and Wealdstone turned it around for a 3-1 win.
We reached 15 games with another home match, against mid-table Woking, and despite conceding a penalty to grant them a goal early in the second-half, the Stones were 4-1 winners, with two goals in each half to ensure we led the Vanarama National League by five points.
Was this sustainable? Would the dream come crashing down? We’ll find out, together, next time.