In late 2008 a young and innocent Will Sharp tossed aside his well worn copy of FIFA 09 in favour of Football Manager 2009, eager to test himself against the juggernauts of managerial simulation. What he envisaged being a simple transference of skills and a continued domination of the digital football world soon descended into chaos as he found himself unable to even compete. Unsuccessful save after unsuccessful save cut short, the intervals between hopeful attempts grew exponentially until eventually he stopped logging on altogether. Truly vanquished, he vowed never to attempt to conquer Football Manager again. Until now.
Chapter 2: Raiders of The Lost Momentum
Captain's Log, 7 August 2016. As it turns out Villa were fairly ready, actually.
My instruction to aggressively close down the technically ineffective Mile Jedinak works a treat, with his retaliation to such tactics earning him an early red card, ensuring we play a large portion of the match with a handy numerical advantage. But his dismissal does nothing to stop Villa from securing a 1-0 win, meaning our collective hopes of a never-before-seen 'played 46 won 46' Championship campaign dies the earliest of deaths.
When asked in the post-match conference how I feel having lost my first competitive game in charge I instinctively close my eyes for just a second, trying to recall my media training, searching for a diplomatic response or inspired retort.
Instead I see only a swirling premonition manifesting amidst the darkness. I see me climbing onto the table in front of me. I see me kicking whatever mobiles and assorted recording paraphernalia are placed there, awaiting the chance to record my response, leaving them strewn across the floor. I see me barking like a dog at the journalist who asked the question. I see him soil himself. I see the other journalists joining in my laughter. I see him broken, physically and mentally dismantled.
When I open my eyes again the whole room is staring at me, their brows furrowed in confusion. My cheeks hurt as though I’ve been smiling wide for minutes on end. I’ve no idea how long I’ve been sat in close-eyed contemplation. The silence is deafening. Eventually I blurt out just two words — "lose bad" — before being hauled out of the conference room by the club’s PR men in an attempt to save me from myself.
Back in the office a quick look at the calendar informs me a first round EFL Cup game awaits just two short days away so I’m able to chalk the Villa game, and whatever that was in the conference room, up to just being part of the learning steep curve and I begin preparations for our first cup tie of the season.
With only a hurdle in the stoutly shape of Oldham Athletic standing between us and the second round I feel confident of our presence in the next round draw.
I ignore my assistant's warnings regarding the lack of match fitness evident in three of our players. “What better way to gain match fitness than by playing a match?” I ask him, rhetorically. For some reason this tactic doesn’t work for us and the lads’ lack of fitness threatens to derail our game-plan. So too does Will Buckley's poor decision to get injured after I've made all three subs. But a double from Atdhe Nuhiu helps us on the way to a 2-1 win and the consequent cup draw hands us a ticket to Gillingham. A return ticket, thank god.
In our second Championship game of the season we journey to Carrow Road to do battle with Norwich. On the way there I entertain the boys with an improvised bit based around the absurdity of Norwich's nickname, the Canaries, which I perform in the centre aisle of the coach. My assistant reminds me that we are known as the Owls, perhaps in an effort to quieten my tomfoolery, but I demand that he imagines a fight between a canary and an owl immediately and have him tell me who he believes would win out of the two. He soon returns quietly to his seat.
Regrettably, on the pitch, we look more out of sorts than an owl in a coal mine, and we slip to a poor 2-0 loss. The coach ride back to Sheffield is suitably morose. No bits. For my sins, I spend most of the journey researching different varieties of domestic canary. Every day's a school day.
After firing blanks in our two opening league fixtures I begin to fear we may never score. I have nightmares about us entering the history books through the back door, remembered forever more as the team that didn't score a single goal in a 46-game season. But I don’t let it show to the team. “Fellaaaaas” I shout, as I enter the training ground the following session, arms wide, smile beaming.
To my great relief, against Burton, we find our shooting boots. But we don’t just find them, we put them on. And we don’t just find them and put them on, we find them, put them on and bloody well shoot with them on and we put four past the sorry bastards.
Sure, we let three in along the way, requiring us to come from behind on more than one occasion, but that doesn’t bother me in the slightest. 4-3 wins are nothing to be scoffed at. More importantly we’re up and running in the league and just in time. Up next we face our first local derby of the season, Leeds.
During the build-up for the derby I surprise myself in exercising a little maturity as I play down the relevance of any potential grudges or clashes. I do however take a moment to inform Sky Sports News journalist Ben Walton that I feel I am capable of handling the occasion better than Garry Monk, so, the Leeds lot weren’t completely let off the hook. I believe they call that "mind games."
The full time whistle brings an end to the derby: 1-0 to the midweek crew! Because we’re Sheffield Wednesday... Because Wednesday is the middle day of the week!? Midweek... Ah, forget it.
After almost an hour of inviting Leeds onto us, luring them into a false sense of security, I finesse the final stroke of my master plan. I call out to Steven Fletcher, telling him to injure his wrist, as his doing so would allow me the opportunity to unleash upon our unsuspecting rivals the footballing phenomenon that is Gary 'Hoop-Dogg' Hooper and, just as I had dreamt it, it is the aforementioned Hoop-Dogg who obliges with the winning goal shortly after joining the action just prior to the hour mark.
Naturally the post-game handshake with Monk is frosty. He extends first, makes the more meaningful connection and maintains a more than firm grip. Even I have to admit, the technique is enviable. But just seconds after his steely gaze meets mine his eyes fall to my shit-eating grin and his composure is shattered. He makes for the tunnel, head down, undoubtedly stifling the urge to kick a bottle or bludgeon a ball-boy to death.
Having won two on the bounce in the league I career headfirst into our second round EFL Cup tie away at Gillingham, throwing numerous tactical changes at the squad with the confidence only a man on the finest winning run of his three-month career could.
The game that follows has everything: a sending off, a 40 yard screamer, a penalty shootout and sadly also a giant killing. I feared such an end as early as the 55th minute, when Jay Emmanuel-Thomas’ outrageous 30-yard screamer brought the Gills level, but when Konchesky saw red in the final embers of the game I had hoped we may have been able to make them pay.
Instead all we were able to do was hang on through extra time until the penalty shootout, during which we did our darnedest to ensure the opposing keeper ended the night as the hero, not only by letting him save three of our own attempts but by allowing him the decisive spot-kick too. Don’t ever say I’m not generous.