The New Football Manager Story, P3 – The Climb

Wealdstone had a 13-point lead at the top of the Vanarama National League, after 30 games. There was still more or less a third of the season to go, and it could yet all end in tears, but so far, the club had defied expectations. The original objective? Avoid relegation. It was fair to say I’d achieved that. Now it was a question of whether or not Wealdstone could make the climb, and complete a remarkable achievement.

The first game of the run-in pitted us away from home, to struggling Dagenham & Redbridge. Fears over a possible upset were swiftly doused with an early Parish goal, and the team played really well, in a 4-0 victory. Once again, results elsewhere meant the gap grew, to 15 points. Following this comfortable win, we next travelled to Barnet. Barnet had inflicted defeat upon us, at home, earlier in the season, so my expectations for a result on their turf were low. However, my fears proved unfounded, for after 23 minutes, we were three goals up! It was a savage display, capped off right at the end of the game with a fourth goal, all without reply.

From away days to home games, this time against Chesterfield. On an old Football Manager 2012 save (you can read about that here), I ended up at Chesterfield at one point, and I felt a degree of affection for the club. Of course, that was then, this is now. The game ended goalless, a rare sight for Wealdstone.

Next came a prolonged break, thanks to international fixtures, which was slightly unusual. International games don’t usually interfere with non-league matches, because non-league clubs don’t usually have many international stars in their ranks! With the conclusion of the break, FA Trophy action returned, with a home semi-final tie against Barnet. Meanwhile, the board sounded me out over offering a new contract, and I was happy to receive one. With luck, it would boost player morale, and the fans would surely love it. The new contract would up my wages slightly, to £825 a week, along with a 15% wage rise if we got promoted. It would tie me to the club until June 2023, though in football, contracts are sometimes not worth a lot.

You’d think the FA Trophy game would be a win for Wealdstone, following the thumping away win we’d recently enjoyed, but bear in mind, we lost to them at home, and football rarely follows the script. Just look at real life, with Brentford beating Manchester City away from home, as one example of how football can shock. How about League Two Stevenage (yay!) beating Premier League Aston Villa away from home in a recent FA Cup fixture? My concerns were validated in a 2-1 defeat, and I could not help but wonder if our home form was a little disappointing of late. Still, a run to the semi-finals of the FA Trophy had been unexpected, but now the distraction was out of the way. The league would become the exclusive focus.

Lower mid-table Yeovil town were up next. Owing to cup games, our gap at the top had been cut to 12 points, but we had three games in hand on the two teams immediately below us. This was a double-edged sword, for it also meant we’d have a flurry of draining fixtures at some point. Against Yeovil, we went behind early on, but recovered to lead 2-1 at half-time, and ended up winning 4-2. From there, it was a trip to Woking, to play… Woking.

This was being billed as something of a rivals clash, but I don’t know if that’s an historical thing or a geographical one. It certainly wasn’t much of a rivalry on the field. This was a brilliant win, with goals galore, from various locations, including two from central defender Olowu, a thunderous long-range strike from right-back Efete, and of course, Parish got in on the act. A 6-1 away win was one of our best results of the season, and the result meant we’d secured, at the very least, a playoff place.

We returned home for the next tie, against Maidenhead. We had to fight for it, but a 4-2 win was a nice win for our loyal home fans, and we were now 18 points clear at the summit, after 36 games, with two games in hand on 2nd-placed Stockport. Our next fixture was away to Notts County, who were in pursuit of a playoff place. A win could potentially grant us the league title, as a result of a very strong goal difference. However, despite taking an early lead, we succumbed to a 2-1 defeat, so no promotion for us on that occasion.

The next chance to book our place in League Two was at home to Hartlepool. They were also battling for a playoff place, so I expected a tough game. A win would seal the Vanarama National League title, and promotion, but could we see it through?

The answer was an empathic YES. We scored five first-half goals (including a hat-trick for winger-slash-striker Emmanuel), and dominated the match, securing promotion to the Football League for the first ever time in the club’s history! The board then got in touch, to ask if the club should become professional. There was only one answer to that, YES!

There would be challenges ahead. To survive in the Football League, Wealdstone would need to make some considerable improvements to various facilities. The club would need to recruit coaches, physios, and scouts. As much as it pained me, a lot of the players who won promotion were not necessarily going to cut it as professional footballers.

I had preparations of my own to make. I set about seeking my next coaching licence, whilst getting ready for our next league game, at home to 2nd-placed Bromley. It was dead rubber as far as I was concerned, but the fans had every right to expect maximum effort for the remainder of the season. We had six games left, and it would nice to ensure our dominance was reflected in the standings. The score was level at 1-1 at half-time, and it remained so going into the final 15 minutes, whereupon we turned up the heat, and notched four goals, to win very convincingly.

Next would come two games against relegation-threatened sides, as we tried to set new win and points records. First, Wealdstone hosted Boreham Wood. I rotated the squad, and this maybe unhinged us, for we lost 3-0, and never really played well. Still, my hope was that resting some players would serve us in good stead, as we closed out the season. We completely controlled the next game, away to Kings Lynn, winning 3-1, with midfielder Green scoring two great goals along the way. Our 29th win of the season was a new club record to boot. We got our 30th win of the league campaign at home to Stockport County, with a 3-1 win, and a Parish hat-trick.

We played out an exciting 2-2 away draw with Wrexham, and then it was time for the final match of the 20/21 season, at home to Halifax Town. Halifax were just above the relegation zone, and a defeat for them, coupled with a Solihull win, would drop them at the death. That, to be harsh, was not my problem. It wasn’t an electrifying performance, but a 3-1 win meant we finished on 98 points (a new team record), with 31 wins out of 44 games, and we finished 25 points clear of 2nd-placed Bromley. Parish scored 34 league goals, Green had 12 assists to his credit, Isted kept 15 clean sheets, and the season was, all in all, a very productive one.

The team did not react very confidently to the notion that they might survive League Two, which made me think all the more about changes to the squad. There was no doubt that some serious upgrades were needed. Some of my best performing players had been loanees, and their parent clubs were in no hurry to part with them. A lot of work was needed to prepare the club for 21/22.

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