The New Football Manager Story P5 – Let’s Keep Rolling

Wealdstone had found themselves in the unusual territory of 8th place in League Two, at the halfway point of the 21/22 season, despite being a newly promoted club. With very limited resources, we had pulled off some great results, and moved well clear of the expected relegation dogfight. Instead, we were loitering near the playoff places, which should have been completely impossible for the club, but the players – especially Parish and Slew up-front – had been brilliant.

We would kick off the second half of the season against Stevenage, who were looking formidable. They had avoided relegation in 20/21, and now they had completely flipped things around, to lead League Two by 11 points, and they were 12 points clear of the playoff places. In our previous meeting, we’d lost, 4-2, in Wealdstone’s opening experience of professional football. There was no pressure on us, but Stevenage would be carrying a lot of confidence into the game. What sort of a welcome could we offer them at the Hive?

Well, we gifted them a penalty late in the first half, and another goal early in the second. We pulled one back, but no amount of endeavour would overcome the gap in quality. Stevenage ended our unbeaten run. Still, to lose that run to the runaway league leaders was no disgrace, and we did not disgrace ourselves on the pitch either.

We had a nice little break before hosting Scunthorpe on Boxing Day, in what would see a flurry of fixtures. I am happy to report that Wealdstone shook off the Stevenage defeat with a resounding 5-2 victory, in a fine display of attacking football. We needed those points, because just two days later, we travelled to 2nd-placed Plymouth. Looking ahead, we had 3rd-placed Leyton Orient away a few days after that, but first things first.

We did not play well against Plymouth. We conceded two early goals, and eventually went down to a 4-1 loss. I was not surprised, though you always hold out a bit of hope that a shock result may come your way in such matches. We ventured to Leyton Orient next, with the very real prospect of another thrashing on the cards, for the first game of 2022.

We played quite well (miles better than against Plymouth), but we went down a late Leyton goal, which was frustrating, as we probably deserved at least a point. We had dropped to 11th in the table, and next we had another away day, against struggling Cheltenham. Our last couple of results had not been great, and overall, our form had dipped. Would we be able to turn it around here?

Yes, we would, thanks to a Parish hat-trick, in a 3-1 win. The performance was good, and the result moved us back up to 8th. Wealdstone returned to the Hive next, to host Carlisle. This proved to be an eventful game.

For the opening quarter of an hour, Carlisle were the better side, and even missed a penalty. Then Slew put Wealdstone ahead, and then Corne scored one of his trademark powerful ranged efforts, and Slew got his second and our third, at the start of the second half. Carlisle then pulled not one but two goals back, before Corne got his second, to secure all three points. Now we were 7th, and in the playoff places. Bradford City were up next, also visiting the Hive. Might we make it three wins in a row? Yup. Two Parish goals gave us a 2-1 win, and after 30 games, we were far higher up the table than I could have possibly expected.

It seemed we had a glut of home games, for next, we were yet again hosts, this time to former Premier League side Wigan, who had fallen hard (as had Bradford for that matter). Football offers little room for sentiment, and history is great and all, but clubs are often defined by the here and now. Right here, right now, Wigan were travelling to the Hive to play Wealdstone, a far cry from visiting Anfield and Old Trafford.

However, Wigan did in the end confine us to a 1-0 defeat, and they missed a penalty too (well, my ‘keeper saved it), in a disappointing outcome. We should have done better, and I told the players so.

I wanted to immediately bounce back, and we had a chance to do so three days later, at home to Salford. This ended in a 1-1 draw, which was not the end of the world, though I felt we should have done better. Defeat at Port Vale on the road (which came awfully late in a 2-1 loss) dropped us from the playoff places. We lost again, away to Newport County, 3-2, and the score flattered us.

Two tricky games were coming up. We welcomed Swindon to the Hive. They sat a few places above us in the league, and with Wealdstone’s erratic form, the odds were not in our favour. However, we produced a solid display, and won 2-0, halting our recent poor run. Unfortunately, away to Hartlepool, we lost 4-0, thus immediately returning to what I considered a poor patch.

Wealdstone’s safety was virtually guaranteed, so with that in mind, I was already wondering what we might do to improve next season. The trouble was, the club lacked resources, and lacked the means to generate resources. We had enjoyed some terrific results, and staying up was a great achievement, but to actually improve, and somehow push on to further promotions, felt a lifetime away.

Well, that was a problem for the future. The immediate problem was a trip to Grimsby. We drew 1-1, but on a different day we would have won easily, given the number of chances we created. From there, we hosted Southend. We should have been ahead at half-time, but ended up crashing to a 3-0 loss, and I made it plain that our form was unacceptable.

Still, for the reasons I bemoaned about earlier, I could not be too angry. We just did not have the strength in depth to sustain a charge for the playoffs, and in our first season as a professional club, to occupy any position that was comfortably clear of relegation was far beyond what we had any right to accomplish. That didn’t mean I wanted our form to remain poor, and with a home game against Crawley up next, I hoped we might restore some sort of winning ways. We did, winning 1-0, thanks to Parish. However, injury to my experienced ‘keeper Walker meant my very inexperienced second choice ‘keeper Roach would be in goal for the trip to Colchester, and I expected nothing out of the match as a result. I was right, we lost 3-0, and never looked at the races.

As all this was going on, another thought had entered my mind. Had I taken this plucky club as far as I could? I would see out my second season, there was no doubt of that, but I had that tickle in the back of my brain that suggested looking at the jobs market. On the pitch, a 1-0 away win against Walsall was slightly unexpected, and quite welcome. We hosted playoff-chasing Northampton next. We lost 2-1, and never looked like we deserved anything from the game. Any lingering playoff hopes died with a 2-2 home draw to already-relegated Morecambe, which was very, very disappointing. Defeat to another relegation-threatened side, Harrogate, in which we had two players sent off, was even more disappointing.

Our season was ending with a whimper. We drew with Tranmere in our penultimate game, and ventured to Oldham for our final match of the 21/22 season. At least we ended on a high, winning 3-1, much to the delight of the travelling contingent.

As you can see, Parish was the main star, though Slew scored a few goals too. We had managed to snatch 11th place in the table, which was a top-half finish, and all in all, the campaign could only be called a success, so why was I not satisfied? I had one year left on my contract, but after that? Would I even go as far as to see out my contract? I did not know. We will find out together.

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