For part one, see here.
After 15 games Wealdstone sat top of the Vanarama National League, which, given the pre-season objective of ‘avoid relegation’, was considerably better progress than I could have asked for. The team had played extremely well, though I still expected the wheels to come off at some point. As we moved on, it was a trip to Maidenhead that awaited us next.
Confession time. In a bid to have the save file accessible via the cloud on Steam, I had loaded up the game on the old laptop, lost to Maidenhead, and then saved it, with the intention of picking up, honourably, from where I left off. However, upon re-saving to Steam, the save didn’t hold, so I would have to play Maidenhead again. The first time around, there’d been five goals, in a 3-2, bruising defeat. There were five goals this time too, only this time, Wealdstone striker Parish scored a hat-trick in a 4-1 win. Was I bit sheepish? A little, but it was the technology mishap that presented the opportunity!
From league action, to cup action, specifically the FA Trophy, and a clash with Havant & Waterloo. To be honest, I did not care about this competition. It was a distraction from the momentum of league duty, and I could have done without it, but I could hardly opt out, so Wealdstone would head off to Havant, for a third-round clash. A 2-1 win put us on our way, though as I said, I wasn’t fussed.
The Boxing Day fixtures saw Notts County pay us a visit, and they took Christmas liberties in taking the lead, but an excellent free-kick, and some determined attacking play, brought Wealdstone back onto Santa’s nice list, and gave the fans a present too. A 3-1 victory meant Wealdstone were seven points clear at the top. The final game of 2020 pitted Wealdstone away to Bromley. A 1-0 defeat was not enough to deny us top spot as we entered 2021.
After a somewhat intense run of games, a small pause ensued, and it emerged that I’d won manager of the month again, whilst Parish won player of the month. We left it extremely late against Kings Lynn at home (despite controlling the game), but Parish popped up with a winner on 89 minutes.
Next was a big clash. Wealdstone hosted second-placed Wrexham. It turned out to be one of ‘those’ games. Despite creating loads of chances, and despite Wrexham having a player sent off early on, we ended up losing 3-1, when on a different day, we might have scored four or five ourselves. Such is football. It was my job to pick the team up, and get them to shake off the unfortunate defeat. I also had to remind myself that the original goal was to avoid relegation, and ultimately, nothing had changed. Promotion was an extremely lofty aim, especially for a club as resource-sparse as Wealdstone.
FA Trophy action resumed with a visit from Spennymoor. Whilst I wasn’t the least concerned with this competition, a victory might go some way to restoring confidence. A 2-1 win booked our place in the next round, without too much fuss.
The league’s next offering was a difficult trip to third-placed Stockport County. It was fair to say that Stockport are a much bigger club than Wealdstone, and so I expected very little from this fixture. However, a sturdy performance, and goals from Parish and Slew (who were rapidly developing into a sharp partnership) saw us overcome Stockport 2-1, and keep our promotion dream alive. Up next was a trip to struggling Halifax Town, who were potentially one defeat away from being dumped into the relegation places. We heaped further trouble upon them, with two first-half goals from Slew being the difference. Dyer (my primary attacking midfielder) got himself sent off for a dangerous tackle in the second half, but Halifax never really troubled us.
As January ended, I finally earned my first coaching licence, the National C Licence, which would make my coaching more effective. The first opportunity to put this to the test would be a third consecutive league away day, against Dover Athletic. We took a first-half lead, yet at half-time were 2-1 down, and the score did not change in the second half, to mark an end to a mini flurry of good results. A fourth away game awaited, only this time it was in the FA Trophy, at York City. We had three goals disallowed, but we won 4-0 anyway, which reflects how dominant we were.
Next, Wealdstone hosted Solihull Moors, in a potentially huge banana skin clash. We remained top of the league, and Solihull were rock bottom. This sort of scenario, especially in the chaos of non-league football, virtually demands an upset. With the score deadlocked at half-time, I was somewhat anxious. We had not played badly, but nor had we played especially well, and we’d had one or two nervy moments. Some substitutions, and some positional swaps, had the desired effect, and by the end, Wealdstone had scored four goals for a second match in a row, and again, without reply.
After 24 games, Wealdstone were five points clear at the top. There was still a long way to go (another 20 league fixtures), so the whole season could yet unravel. We headed away to Sutton next. An early Slew goal was the difference here, in a game where one of my defenders (Parker) got sent off in the first half, and forced Wealdstone into a long-term defensive, rear-guard action. We held out, and claimed another three points. Struggling Eastleigh were up next, as visitors to Grosvenor Vale, and Stones fans were treated to a delightful early assist from defender Meekings, who played a long ball to Parish, who pulled off an audacious, long-range chip, for a lovely goal. Meekings then headed home from a corner, Slew took advantage of a mix-up at the back, and we led 3-0 at half-time. Eastleigh did grab a goal right after the break, but a penalty was converted by Slew to complete a comfortable 4-1 win.
Somehow, in the space of two games, Wealdstone’s lead in the league had risen to nine points. The chasing pack were floundering, but there is no room for complacency in football. Everything could still come crumbling down, if we lost focus.
There was a very real chance of losing Meekings. Bigger clubs were interested, and I couldn’t offer him the wages he wanted. The odds were good that I’d lose him on a free transfer, but with another home game coming up, against Weymouth, there was no room to worry. A 3-1 win maintained our surprising cushion.
FA Trophy action returned next, and Dover were coming up to pay the Stones a visit. Despite another red card (was discipline becoming an issue?), we won 2-0, and ‘keeper Isted played a blinder. Alas, as he was a loanee, I did not expect to keep him, even if we were to be promoted.
Next, it was time for a trip down memory lane. Well, sort of. Recall I mentioned my previous FM21 career, which started out with Aldershot? Well, Wealdstone were travelling to Aldershot. The Recreation Ground was familiar to my ‘other’ self, but this time around, I had to see it as enemy territory. Aldershot were going well, in 6th place, and more than capable of beating my Wealdstone side. They were on an 18-game unbeaten run, but what a start we made! Two goals in seven minutes put Wealdstone in control, and a third goal on the half-hour mark saw us go in 3-0 up at the break. Aldershot pegged us back, and scored a second very late on to set up a nervy end, but we held on, and following other results, we now led the division by 12 points.
Altrincham away was next. they were very much a mid-table side, not playing for much, and I dare say it showed in their performance. The two teams were worlds apart, and my motivated lads notched up yet another 4-0 win, with Slew and Parish continuing their lethal partnership. The gap crept up again, to 14 points, and we were truly beyond the looking glass now. For our 30th league game of the season, Wealdstone would host 5th-placed (and playoff-placed) Torquay United. I suspected this game would be tough, and in the end, it proved to be the case. A 2-1 defeat was annoying, but the gap shrunk by only a point. A 13-point lead, with 14 games to go, was a mightily impressive place to be. Some tough matches awaited Wealdstone, but we were the masters of our own destiny. The final run-in loomed. Could we pull this off?