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 5: No Country For Old Methods
Captain's Log, 22 October. Quite frankly the less said about that game the better. Sylla scored, we didn't, 1-0 QPR: end of story. Except it isn't quite the end of the story.
Not only do I have the sobering reality of Forestieri's absence to contend with; the playmaker having picked up a serious ankle knock in the second half, but after the game I am confronted by a gaggle of displeased players—Hooper, Forestieri, Hunt, Matias, João, Palmer, and Loovens—lead by Bannan, all of whom pull no punches in telling me that they feel my management has been less than impressive and believe the team's results have suffered as a result.
I see red. Where were the dissenting voices when we disposed of Leeds in the season's first derby? Who bayed for my blood when we conquered Blackburn just weeks ago? Who dared question the king when our goblets overflowed with the (eighth) finest wine, draped in the (eighth) most beautiful women, while we sat in eighth place!?
I want to grab hold of Barry Bannan’s skull and push my thumbs into his eye sockets. But I don't. I swallow my pride and fess up. I tell them it is hard to deny that we are under-performing but, I reassure them, I am determined to turn things around and will need their support in doing so.
Many of the lads agree and their morale is lifted by my honesty. If I’m honest I'm convinced João and Hooper were coerced into joining their teammates. I mouth the words “it’s okay” to them when I know the aggressors aren't looking. But Bannan is acquiesced not one iota by my admission of guilt, nor his right-hand man Forestieri. They seek only to twist the knife, telling me that without tangible change we're doomed to repeat our mistakes. Oh, how I long to tell Bannan of my plans to throw him to the sharks in January. Instead, I tell them to trust me. Bannan and Forestieri leave without a word. I return to my chambers.
Just four days before we travel to Derby I am informed of another injury: Ross Wallace has broken his shoulder in training and will be out for at least a month, joining fellow midfielders Abdi, Forestieri and Poyet on the treatment table. Thank god it's a wide table.
Much of my midweek is filled with making failed attempts at appeasing those desperate for more playing time, one of those being Lucas João. In a meeting with him, I initially acknowledge that his chances of playing ahead of Hooper and Fletcher are slim and we agree a move away may be best for both parties. But the meeting stays with me. Mentally, I can't help but run my fingers back and forth over the imperfect surface of my words. I can't forget the way I felt when I saw his eyes water, his shoulders slouch, his lips quake. So I make a promise to myself, with my taxidermy Owl mascot Oscar Wilberforce Lear as my witness, to accommodate him (João, not Oscar) in our coming fixture against Derby.
At Pride Park, I break the news of my bold change to the lads. We’re deviating from our standard 4-2-3-1 to try a 4-2-2-1-1 allowing João the chance to start up top with Hooper tucked in behind. Such a switch would likely have been impossible should Forestieri have been fit, but I'm glad somebody is benefitting from his absence. It’s done my bloody nerves no good at all.
To my disbelief, the football gods reward my kindness and ingenuity with gifts in goal and point form. We fall behind early on, to a Will Hughes strike, but slowly we force our way back into the game. João kicks off our second half revival with a superb solo effort before setting up Jones' fourth of the season to complete our comeback. I can hardly believe what I'm seeing. In my journal, I scribble out the name ‘Hooper’ from my previous notes and write ‘João’ which I then rewrite ‘Hooper’ next to. I’m thinking arm-in-arm.
In their match report, BBC Radio Sheffield call the win "lucky" but I’m unconcerned. As the great Paolo Di Canio used to say, “you can't please all of the people all of the time.” Not even Mozart was loved by everybody. Some people thought he was a cock.
Against Ipswich, the following week, with considerable assistance from the evergreen David Jones, we're able to orchestrate another fine 2-1 victory, both goals wicked free kicks from the Southport-born midfielder. I toy with a few possible nicknames for him: Jonesinho, Jonesaldo, Jonés (pronounced with a Spanish ‘j’). They’ll probably need a little work.
Two wins on the spin, up to ninth in the table. I contemplate composing a letter to Barry Bannan: a polite inquiry into the progress of his traitorous coup. I wonder whether I should offer to take him to Mr Chansiri to request we pay for his coaching badges at the earliest convenience so that he can take over from me as manager once he's done driving me out of the club. But for the sake of squad unity, I remain silent. I need not vengeful acts to get me by. I am not petty, unlike some people. Points are my only sustenance. Speaking of which, we set sail for Fulham shortly and I'm ravenous.
Before our next game, however, the midfield curse strikes again as our apparent SAS-style training sessions put Marco Matias to the sword; out for eight weeks with a sprained ankle. Note to self: tell Bullen to stop watching Takeshi's Castle reruns on Challenge for inspiration on diversifying training sessions - the wazzock.
After a typical poacher’s finish from Hooper quickly follows an excellent penalty save from our own Keiren Westwood I wrongfully assume Lady Luck is wearing her Sheffield Wednesday kit with pride, guiding us towards a third straight win. When Fulham turn the game on its head, a comeback completed courtesy of a 91st minute Tom Cairney strike, it becomes clear Lady Luck is more likely to be anywhere else on Earth than in the Fulham away end cheering on the Owls.
Knowing that a win would have taken us into the playoffs makes watching us slide back to 11th hard to take. But for the time being it appears as though I’ve done enough to prevent the lads from wanting to jump ship at the first sight of land. It’s important we build from here. Or maybe I’ll just tell them there are massive jellyfish everywhere so they have to stay on board. No, all analogies have to make perfect sense.