So, here we were. Unemployed, on the prowl. I thought I’d attempt something incredibly bold. I didn’t expect it to pan out. Indeed it didn’t. I applied to take the job at Championship winners Crystal Palace, which would have A: put me in charge of a Premier League outfit for 23/24, and B: seen history repeat itself, for my original FM 21 career brought me to Palace for my second job. It was a long shot, and I wasn’t surprised that I didn’t get it.
I opened the floor up to multiple European leagues. It would be interesting to see if any foreign adventures might come my way. I applied (in a very ambitious gesture) for international roles, with Ivory Coast and Algeria, though I didn’t hold out much hope of either role. Sure enough, I failed in both applications.
We moved into August, and a new season of football awaited, but so far, I was without a job. As the season got underway, a job became open at Belgian side Westerlo, but they immediately rejected my application. My next move was for German side Hamburger SV. Remarkably, they accepted my application, and invited me to an interview! Alas, I lost out to Thomas Tuchel. Subsequently, I applied for the Middlesbrough role, and also for the roles at Brentford and Stoke.
Middlesbrough offered me an interview, and then Stoke offered me one too, but Stoke’s interview offer came right after Middlesbrough offered me the job! A two-year deal, and £16k a week, was enough for me to say yes.
The club were not in a good place. 22nd in the Championship placed Middlesbrough in the relegation zone, after 12 games. There was plenty of time to recover the situation, but we had to hit the ground running. My first game in charge would be at home, against Fulham. It did not go well. A 2-0 defeat, in part due to wasteful finishing on our part, was not the opener I had hoped for. Moping wasn’t an option, as we had a trip to QPR a few days later. A new tactical offering (using one made by Football Manager legend Knap) yielded a 3-1 win on the road.
Middlesbrough ventured to another relegation-threatened side, Luton, next. We went down 1-0.
It was rapidly becoming clear that I had a lot to do. A very challenging match was up next, at home to high-flying Birmingham City, what were the chances we could snatch a point or three here? In the prelude, one player, by the name of Grant, wanted me to open contract negotiations. OK then. His wage demands were double the maximum permitted wage of the club. He threw a tantrum when I called off negotiations. Well, what did he expect?!
As far as the game went, once again a ghost goal denied my team all three points. We’d earned a result, but it was yanked away from us. I had to pick the players up, and prep them for our next game, where we would host Sheffield Wednesday. I also had to deal with a poisonous attitude. Grant’s dissent was sowing greater seeds of disharmony within the team. They insisted I offer him a contract. Well, I tried, and failed, due to his wage demands. Unfortunately, there are no mechanisms within the game to point that out to the squad. They were turning on me, but I made it clear I did not care. I would gladly clear out the lot of them if I had to. I made that clear to the media.
I was now seriously considering promoting a lot of youth players. It was risky, for many of them were not ready for first-team action, but if the ‘professionals’ could not be professional, it was time to usurp them. A 3-1 defeat to Wednesday showed some spirit, but nowhere near enough quality. After the game, the players were once again jumping up and down about Grant, but I wasn’t going to yield. I couldn’t offer him the wages he wanted, so what was the point?!
The international break brought an opportunity to recover and rest, and then it was back into the fire, away to mid-table Huddersfield. We were now bottom of the Championship, a situation that I did not foresee changing here.
All of a sudden, Grant had a change of heart, but I was not interested. His demands had let to serious unrest in the dressing room, and that, as far as I was concerned, was that.
We scored a very late equaliser to avoid defeat at Huddersfield, and then returned to the Riverside to host Reading. I relented in playing Grant, and he scored the only goal of the game, a penalty, early in the second half, to give us a vital win. Middlesbrough were lifted out of the relegation zone, which I hoped might afford my players some confidence. We travelled to manager-less Blackburn next, and my hope here was that a rudderless side might not offer coherent resistance. Unfortunately, we were two goals down early on, and though we clawed back to 2-2, we ended up losing late on.
We also lost away to fellow strugglers Preston. After the tame 1-0 defeat, I decided it was time to take drastic measures.
I raided my youth teams, in a bid to at least develop players, and I would attempt to move a lot of what I considered to be dead wood. It was extreme, but I was not convinced that the current crop of first-team players had it what it took, so from my perspective, I had nothing to lose. I also decided I had nothing to gain by remaining at Middlesbrough. Defeat at home to Derby was enough for me to say ‘enough’. Was I quitting too soon? Perhaps, but I had seen nothing to make me believe I could save that them from relegation. They weren’t good enough, and weren’t showing any signs they be good enough.
I wasn’t enjoying things, and in the end, this is a game, is it not? If you’re not enjoying it, there’s not much point in continuing.
A number of clubs immediately approached me. Blackburn, Plymouth, Wigan and Forest Green all invited me to an interview. I accepted the invitation from Championship Blackburn. I wasn’t interested in the other offers. The 1995 Premier League champions duly offered me a contract worth £14k a week.
So, on to Blackburn. My first game came quickly, at home to Birmingham. It was a great debut! Loanee Cole Palmer scored twice in a 4-0 win, and now we had to see if the team was capable of continuing in a similar vein. We had arrived at the half-way mark of the 23/24 season, and so far, it had been a very topsy-turvy experience for me. How might the second-half unfold?