The New Football Manager Story, P4 – New League Territory

The 20/21 season could not have gone better for Wealdstone. We had won the Vanarama National League at a canter, and booked our place in the Football League for the first time in the club’s long history. For 21/22, League Two football awaited, with numerous challenges. The players seemed to believe staying up was a very lofty aim, and the club sorely needed improvements.

The board did enact a few changes. We said farewell to Grosvenor Vale, and moved to a new stadium, in Harrow, called The Hive. This new (rented) accommodation had a capacity of 6,500, which was more or less double what Grosvenor Vale could handle. A larger scouting budget came my way, which would be vital.

I made a slew of signings, both for players and coaching staff. In particular, I looked to free transfers, and there were a lot of players out there with the potential to help us survive.

Whilst all this was going on, the delayed Euro 2020 tournament began. England lost 2-0 to Sweden in their opener, and I decided (as a fan) to watch their next two games. Up first was Belgium, and I suspected the Belgians would prove superior to England. It ended 1-1, and I wished I hadn’t wasted my time watching the game.

Following the end-of-season break, the players were in a more optimistic mood about survival. This greatly pleased me, and between that, and the new players, I hoped we’d have a chance. As preparations began in earnest, it was announced I was Vanarama Manager of the Year for my efforts in 20/21, which was nice to hear.

I signed nine new players, in the hopes of bolstering strength in depth, and in replacing departed loanees. Some of them would make their first appearance in the first friendly, away to Bristol Rovers. I had set four friendlies, though the club kept adding more, which was annoying. For the opening friendly, we drew 1-1, which was quite impressive, considering Bristol Rovers were in League One. The next friendly was at home to West Brom, the biggest club we’d played since I’d become manager. In other news, art definitely did not imitate life, as England beat France 1-0 in the final of the 2020 European Championships. Talk about shattering the illusion…

Coming back to West Bromwich Albion, this was a club that sat in the Premier League, albeit they had finished 16th last season. In relative terms, they were huge next to Wealdstone, though in absolute terms, they were not a particularly big club. Nonetheless, I expected a defeat, and treated this match as a means to building fitness. In the end, we succumbed to a 2-0 defeat, but that was hardly disgraceful against a club with far greater resources.

The third friendly would send us to Doncaster. Here, we came from 3-1 down to draw 3-3, which was not bad. Our final friendly was also away, to Hemel Hempstead. This time, we gave up a 2-0 lead to draw 2-2, which was not as satisfying.

So, to the serious business. Wealdstone’s first ever game as a professional club would be away, to a club I am quite familiar with. Stevenage would host our opening match, and my former hometown team, on the game, at this point, had finished 18th last season. In real life, their fortunes are on the up, with the club battling for promotion, but here, on the game, who knew what they might be capable of? What mattered to me was getting Wealdstone’s season off to a good start, though I did not expect things to be easy. So it proved. We conceded two penalties, and Stevenage converted both of them, on-route to a 4-2 win. We battled back late on, but it was not enough.

It made little sense to dwell on the result. After a week’s grace, we welcomed Plymouth Argyle to The Hive. We ended up a goal down midway through the first half, and levelled moments later. The game ended 1-1, and thus, we had our first ever Football League points.

We then had our first ever Carabao (aka League) Cup tie, away to Championship side Portsmouth. Incredibly, we took the lead, and then, having fallen behind, levelled the scores at 2-2, right at the death, to force a penalty shootout, that we won! Wealdstone had claimed a famous scalp, and there was the possibility of Premier League opposition next time around.

Scunthorpe away was next. We earned a respectable 1-1 draw. We then had a brief grace period, before a home tie against early high-flyers Leyton Orient. Here, I am proud to say we earned our first ever league win! The 3-1 win came with two very late goals to secure it, including a 25-yard stunner from Corne, from an awkward angle. We were well and truly off the mark in League Two, but Carabao Cup action was already back, and Wealdstone did indeed have Premier League opponents.

Cardiff City, away from home, would represent the biggest game of my managerial career thus far. We fought valiantly, but the gulf in quality was too great, and we went down to a 3-1 loss. We had to move on, and move on we did, to a trip to Carlisle. Unfortunately, we did not have enough in the tank to get a result, and suffered a narrow 1-0 defeat.

Following this, came a competition I could have done without. The Papa John’s Trophy (henceforth referred to as the PJT) is a competition competed for by lower league clubs, and the under 23 sides of bigger clubs. It is, in my view, an extra bunch of fixtures that clog up the list, and I planned to eject it as soon as possible. To that end, I would field a youth team, or at least, Wealdstone’s equivalent of one. A few new faces made their debuts, and we lost 3-0 to Stevenage in our opening game. I was not concerned.

League Two action quickly returned, with a home game against Cheltenham. They, like Wealdstone, had not exactly made a lightening start to the season. With home support, we played quite well, well enough to win 4-2 in fact, with Parish scoring twice, in a sign that he was adapting to the rigours of professional football. Next was a potentially very difficult match, away to former Premier League side Bradford City. They’d started the season quite poorly, could we capitalise? No.

We were a goal down at half-time, but then O’Sullivan (one of my defenders) got sent off, and we never recovered, falling to a 4-1 defeat. We then had a week to prepare for another very tough away day, against another former Premier League side, Wigan Athletic. We shipped four goals again, in a 4-2 loss, and suffered another sending off. The wheels were threatening to fall off, and after eight games, we were 20th, with eight points. We were not yet in crisis mode, but we needed to string a couple of wins together, and soon. However, we had yet another challenging away fixture, against 3rd-placed Salford. We lost yet again, but 2-1 is a bit more respectful.

There was some good news for September. Parish, having scored five goals in four games, won player of the month. As October got underway, we had what felt like our first home game in ages, against Port Vale. A nervy 2-1 win, with both goals coming from defender Efete, was a welcome and much-needed tonic.

The PJT returned, and it offered a trip to Gillingham. We lost 4-2, and guaranteed our exit from the competition, which did not bother me in the slightest.

We returned to our rented home of The Hive, and we hosted Newport County in the league. We sat 17th, and Newport 21st. Was this an early relegation dogfight? If it was, we had put ourselves into a bad place, with a 3-1 defeat.

Wealdstone hosted Hartlepool next. Could we turn our form around a little? We actually produced by far and away our best performance of the season so far, with Slew scoring twice in a rather emphatic 4-0 victory. Unfortunately, we tumbled to a 3-1 defeat at Swindon. This was quickly followed by a trip to the Essex coast, to face Southend United, who were struggling more than we were. We managed to produce a remarkable, spirited comeback from 2-0 down, to draw level at 2-2 by half-time, and snatched the win in the second half. This we followed up by beating Grimsby 2-1 at home. We now had three wins in four games, which was quite the boost to our points tally. Unfortunately, we could not sustain that form, going down 1-0 at home to high-flyers Colchester next time around.

There was a short turnaround, then Wealdstone travelled to Crawley. They were a few places above us in the league, but we ended up leap-frogging them, thanks to a good performance, and a 2-0 win.

The FA Cup arrived next. We took the trip to Weymouth, and I made some wholesale changes to the starting XI. This was an opportunity to rest some players, as we had greater challenges ahead. A 1-0 win booked our place in the 2nd round, but we would have to wait to see who awaited us. The PJT was next, with a home game against Southampton’s under 23 side. We took the lead, but ended up on the receiving end of a 4-1 loss. Hopefully I’ve made my contempt for this competition clear, I was not bothered.

We had a slightly longer break to our next league fixture, away to play-off chasing Northampton. I had expected a very difficult game, but somehow we emerged victorious, thanks to a late Parish winner. This result put us 8th in the standings, after 18 games, and we were only out of the play-off places on goal difference. Nonetheless, my heart told me that relegation was still a serious threat, for it would only take three or four results to go against us to be flirting at the wrong end.

We had a home game next. Walsall came to play. They were ahead after only three minutes, but after 15 minutes we were ahead, thanks to Slew, and a brilliant free kick from Green. Walsall equalised at the start of the second half, but a brilliant half-volley, right at the death from Corne, swerved into the net to clinch all three points. A few days later, we hosted Harrogate. It took a penalty to overcome the relegation battlers, but we won yet again, to continue a remarkable run of form.

Wealdstone returned to the road next, to face rock-bottom Morecambe. We had a 10-day gap between matches, which was a nice opportunity for players to rest up from the rather intense earlier schedule. Initially, this appeared to be of benefit to us, as Parish and Slew gave us a 2-0 lead, but we let it slip late on to draw 2-2, which was pretty disappointing, considering the relative form of the two clubs. We next hosted League One side Burton Albion, and we fought bravely, but ended up going down to a 4-3 defeat.

From the end of the FA Cup dream, to the bread-and-butter world of league football, Wealdstone travelled up to Tranmere Rovers. This was going to be a hard match, for Tranmere were firmly entrenched in the play-off places, though if we could somehow win, we’d end up going above them. We didn’t win, but we did pick up a point for a 1-1 draw, and had now gone unbeaten in our last six league games. Could we avoid defeat at home to Oldham, and extend that run to seven games? Oldham were struggling, but teams fighting for survival often fight hard. I hadn’t realised that Oldham were without a manager, so in hindsight, only winning 1-0 was maybe a tad disappointing, but in the end, it wasn’t disappointing, it was a win, and with avoiding the drop still the aim, we now had a brilliant buffer to the bottom.

We had arrived at the halfway mark of the 21/22 season. We were 8th in the standings, kept out of the play-off places on goal difference, and right in the mix, though it was an unreasonable expectation to me. In the middle of the last few games, I’d taken on another coaching badge course. Hopefully, as the second half the season unfolded, I could bring better management skills to my team of plucky Stones. Would we be able to maintain our momentum?!

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