Wealdstone had not only survived their first season in the Football League, but, to a point, they had thrived. 11th place was a pretty respectable finish, given the expectation of going straight back down, but as the 22/23 season loomed, it was painfully clear the club needed a lot of investment. A few coaches – and myself – started additional coaching courses. This was a small gesture, but any step forward was a good one.
The quality of Wealdstone’s youth setup wasn’t great, and the scouting situation wasn’t much better, but nonetheless, I made use of the reports I had, and promoted some youth players. I was going about the never-ending business of management, when out of the blue, Notts County approached me for an interview. They would be competing in the Vanarama National League, and I wasn’t interested in stepping down a division. I declined their invite. I also declined an invite from Carlisle. If I were to move on now, I wanted a crack at a bigger club. For this reason, I also turned down Fleetwood, who had just been relegated from League One. Swindon were next, and they were also declined.
Our first pre-season friendly pitted us away, to Maldon & Tiptree. They are a team well down the pecking order of England’s sizable football pyramid. This was an opportunity to build match fitness, and not a lot else. We cruised to a 5-0 win, then won 3-0 away against Dunstable. We then lost 2-1 at home to League One Cambridge United.
I had to make some tough choices around who I would register for the league campaign. Only 20 players could make the cut (Under 21s were automatically allowed to compete, regardless). Who would be in for the chop? It was a brutal process, and it coincided with me seeking to offload the excess players, to save money on wages, if nothing else. Most of the players I listed took it well, one took it very badly. Wishart had been a bit-part player for me last season, so it made no sense to keep him around, but he was refusing to leave. I had to figure out how to deal with him.
On the pitch, we beat Brackley Town 5-0 away in another friendly. The squad was gaining fitness and finesse. The final friendly was at home to Exeter. They were joining us in League Two, having been relegated the season before. We led, but lost 2-1. The pattern seemed to be ‘win easily away, lose at home’. I hoped we’d be better at home when things got real.
Before League Two action could get underway, we had to negotiate the Carabao Cup 1st round. This would see us host AFC Wimbledon. With league action days away, a cup tie to open things was a risk. I didn’t want to lose important players to injury, but I couldn’t exactly opt out, and a good cup run would raise the stature of both the club, and myself. We defeated our League One opponents on penalties, and moved on to the 2nd round.
League action began with a trip to Yeovil. It was a tight, nervy, cagey game for the most part, and unfortunately, we were on the losing side of a late goal. It wasn’t the start I had wanted, but then again, we’d lost our opening game last season, so it was hardly the end of the world. We shook off the dust and welcomed Leyton Orient to the Hive. We won 2-1, and probably should have won more comfortably.
Round two of the Carabao Cup pitted us away to Championship club QPR. Our odds weren’t great, for QPR were two leagues above us, but in a one-off cup tie, anything can happen… only it didn’t. We lost 4-2, and we were fortunate to not lose by double-figures. Wealdstone then had a couple of days to get ready to visit Southend. Would the Essex coast be kind to us? You bet! Wealdstone raced into a two-goal lead within the first 10 minutes, and held onto that lead throughout the match. It was nice to get an early away win on the board, and hopefully, we could build a head of steam.
We lost 3-2 at home to Walsall, and I am convinced this was in no small part to substitute Patterson getting sent off, in more or less the same instance he came on. I made my displeasure known, via the media no less, and was not sure if I would play him again. We then lost 2-1 at home to Carlisle.
With a PJT game next, I was concerned that we were heading in the wrong direction as a club. I made a host of changes for the game against Watford’s under 23 side, and hoped to aid regular starters with fitness as a result. My makeshift team got ripped apart 4-1 at home, but by now, I have hopefully made it clear that the PJT was not a priority to me.
Perhaps a tactical shift was required. I had used the same tactics since becoming Wealdstone’s boss, and there was a danger of other teams sussing us out. A surprise shift in strategy was on the cards. The first test of this new look Wealdstone approach would be away, to Forest Green, who had also made quite a slow start to the season. We got a 1-1 draw, but at 1-0 to us (after a long-range screamer from Slew), we inflicted pain upon ourselves with yet another sending off. In the wake of successive attacks from Forest Green, our resistance eventually failed.
Our next opportunity to try out this new, 4-2-2-2 formation, was at home to Scunthorpe. Whilst we were maybe a touch wasteful at times, a 2-0 win saw us gain an invaluable three points. I’d completed my Continental C Licence right before the game, so hopefully this would make my coaching sharper and more effective going forward.
Next, we were off to the land of fish and chips, namely Grimsby. How might Wealdstone fare? Would we all chip in to found our plaice? I’ll stop the puns, they’re quite fishy. Groan! We lost 1-0, and I felt salty. Ahem. We were a bit unlucky, for we created a lot of chances, but we couldn’t find our feet in front of goal.
For the next match, I reverted to the 4-4-2 diamond formation that had served us in good stead. Nothing was off limits, tactically, but we were at home, to Hartlepool, and I wanted to make the most of a tactic the players were familiar with. This game ended up being postponed, thanks to a flooded pitch at the Hive, so we had a longer-than-planned break until our next fixture. Oldham would in fact be up next, and Oldham were rock-bottom of League Two. A Parish goal, midway through the second half, settled the match in Wealdstone’s favour.
With yet another annoying PJT game up next, I took yet another opportunity to rotate the side, and experiment with the secondary formation. We got thrashed 5-1 at Plymouth, but I was focused on our next league game, at home to early strugglers Fleetwood. This time, the score-line was reversed. A goal from Parish after three minutes set us on our way, and after nine minutes, Slew had scored from a Parish cut-back. On 35 minutes, Slew got his second after getting on the end of a parried Parish effort, and completed a hat-trick on 36 minutes, before converting an early second-half penalty. My only source of disappointment was that we did not score more.
After a short break, we got to play out our postponed home game against Hartlepool. This was a case of buses. You wait ages for a bus, and two come along at once. In this case, two 5-1 wins at home came along at once! This time there was a mixture of scorers, but once again we found ourselves five goals to the good, and after 11 games, suddenly found ourselves in the play-off places, three points off automatic promotion. I didn’t see it as realistic to stay there, but the more points we put on the board now, the less stress over relegation we’d face later. I wondered if we might make it three consecutive 5-1 wins, with another home up next, against mid-table Crawley. The difference here might lie in squad rotation.
For Fleetwood and Hartlepool, I’d named the same starting XI (a somewhat rare event). Fitness demands had me change things up a bit for Crawley. Well, in the end I made one change. Still, you never quite know how that might influence a game…
Well, we won 2-0, and deserved to win, so whilst we hadn’t demolished Crawley, we had won our last three home games, and overall, our last four league games. Wealdstone had also moved to the dizzying heights of third in the standings.
Two consecutive away games came next. First, we made the voyage to Essex, to face Colchester. It also emerged that I was apparently being linked to the recently-vacated Swansea job, which would be a big jump up, for Swansea sat in the Championship, albeit right at the wrong end. I made it clear that I was not interested. The only scenario upon which I’d leave Wealdstone would be at the end of the season, and so far, there wasn’t anything out there I was willing to abandon Wealdstone for. Instead, I focused on Colchester, and somehow, we didn’t win, despite dominating the game. A 1-1 draw (both teams could only score from the penalty spot) at least meant we had maintained our good little run without defeat.
Our next game would, in theory, be a lot harder. We took the trip to Exeter, who were second in the table. Somehow, incredibly, we won, 2-0, thanks to a very early Slew penalty, and a second-half header from Parish. We absorbed a fair bit of pressure, but did so professionally and resiliently.
We returned home to the Hive for our next fixture, against Tranmere Rovers. This, once again in theory, promised to be difficult. Whilst we had once again moved into third, there could be no illusions about our prospects, and Tranmere were sixth, a side that had the means and resources to truly battle for promotion. Nonetheless, we were now six games unbeaten, and the longer we could sustain this run, the better.
The Tranmere match was a good game, with both sides creating chances. Tranmere had the initial initiative, but Wealdstone grew into the tie, which was goalless at half-time. Tranmere took the lead early into the second half, but Parish levelled matters midway in the half, and a 90th minute penalty was converted by Slew, to hand us yet another impressive win. We remained third, though only by virtue of superior goal difference to Swindon, who happened to be our next visitors.
A strange thing happened next. The manager of Fleetwood (newly appointed, I do believe) remarked that Wealdstone did not have what it took to survive in League Two. Given the vastly disparate positions and points of the two clubs, this was an odd statement. I didn’t know what to make if it, and remarked that I didn’t see why we couldn’t survive, and that we would give it a go, at the very least.
So, Swindon. We were level on points, and ahead on goal difference. Unfortunately, we lost a poor game 1-0, thus ending our seven-game unbeaten run. From there, a few days later, Wealdstone headed north, to Bradford. A 1-1 draw was a good result for us, and then it was back to London, for the FA Cup 1st Round, and a trip to Millwall. Prior to the Millwall game, I found myself linked to League One club Charlton, a fairly prestigious posting, but I made it clear to the media I was not interested.
By now, we were approaching World Cup time. I didn’t know if lower league action would continue, or if we’d all have to take a break as well. We completed our FA Cup engagement, and took Millwall to extra-time, but lacked the legs to cope with the extra minutes, and lost 3-1. From there, the PJT awaited, with a trip to MK Dons. Once again I fielded a weakened team, but they conspired to lost 6-4, so whilst our exit from the competition was confirmed, we went out swinging. I also rebuked the idea I was interested in the Lincoln job.
The bread and butter of league action resumed with a trip to Bromley. Bromley were lower mid-table, but in the chaotic lower leagues, that meant nothing. In the end, both sides created a lot of chances, but neither side could take them, in a fairly dramatic 0-0.
After declining an invitation to an interview with Doncaster, I took Wealdstone to a home game against Crewe. We lost, 2-1, despite leading at one stage, and nothing infuriates me more than throwing away a result. We lacked composure in front of goal, which for Parish and Slew was unusual. We had now gone quite a few games without a win, and I was starting to become frustrated with our lack of momentum. The problem was, our next game was away to promotion-chasing Newport County, so what were the odds we’d pick up a win here?
Well, how dare I underestimate the powers of Parish! The striker had completed a hat-trick within the first 13 minutes of the game! One goal was somewhat lucky – the ball got kicked at him and bounced into the net – but he ripped Newport to shreds, adding a fourth shortly before half-time. In the end, we picked up our third 5-1 win of the campaign, and by now, a pattern was emerging. Wealdstone seemed to relish the big games, the tough games, and if we could translate that enthusiasm into something that applied to every game, there was no telling where we might end up. One thing I had done was to mix up the tactics again, employing the ‘B’ tactic, to potent effect. Springing it a a surprise might not be a bad idea…
The squad had a little bit of a break between fixtures, and a chance to regain match fitness, ahead of the visit of Cheltenham. I also received the offer of a new, three year contract from Wealdstone. They were offering £1,400 a week, but I was prepared to accept a lower wage, of £1,000 a week, for the benefit of the club. Besides, in football, contracts are as valuable as the paper they’re written on. The club was happy, and the mood was quite buoyant, as we headed into the match against Cheltenham. However, due to fixture rearrangements, Cheltenham became Salford, and we were now away from home instead. It’s that, or I misread it the entire time. It turned out that the Hive was waterlogged, again.
Oh, a word on the World Cup, In the 2nd Round, England beat Germany. This game is broken.
We dominated Salford, but went behind to their first meaningful chance, and lost. Our inability to take our chances was becoming a real nuisance.
The next game, at home to Port Vale, was another casualty of the weather, so instead, we travelled to 2nd-placed Leyton Orient instead. We lost 2-0, and never looked likely to win.
Belgium won the World Cup, in case you were wondering.
We got to play our delayed Cheltenham game next, and won 2-0, in what felt like a much-needed win. This brought us to 23 out of 46 league games played, with Wealdstone 10th in the table, having fallen a bit after erratic performances. Could we stabilise in the second half of the season?