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 16: How To Lose Your Momentum In 10 Days
Captain’s Log, 24 September. You may be wondering: how exactly does a second tier side go about following a potentially once in a lifetime giant-killing in their following fixture? What exactly does one do the game after witnessing his team defeat the mighty Chelsea 5-4 after extra time? Well, I too wrestled with those thoughts, late at night, when sleep escaped me. But yesterday my agonising wait ended and I got my answer: you send your best team out and you watch them get beaten 2-1 by a team flapping wildly around the bottom half of the league, thanks to a goal scored four minutes from the end. My sincerest thanks must go to Cardiff, for stepping in and clearing that up for me. Much obliged.
A couple days later and we’re back in Sheffield to take on the Addicks, during which time we’re thankfully able to recapture some of the magic of previous weeks.
Traditionally we fall behind, to a brilliant solo strike from Igor Vetokele, but emphatic replies from Cotterill, Jones (from the penalty spot) and Hector, with what is fast becoming his trademark back-post header, wrap up what eventually becomes an easy win for the boys in blue.
After a loss and a win against two teams near the bottom of the league, I can scarcely imagine what kind of result we’ll muster against top of the table Reading who, to date, have conceded just five goals in the opening 11 games.
The game begins in cracking style, Cotterill drilling home an 11th-minute opener, and just before the hour mark our lead is doubled when Forestieri sneaks in at the back post and beats Reading keeper Jonathan Bond with a wicked hit between his open legs.
But then the lads seem to simply lose their heads, perhaps distracted by the sound of me rummaging through my bag for 15 matching beaded bracelets, and Reading score twice to salvage a draw which, with just half an hour left of the match, looked well beyond them.
Not much else to say about the game, in truth. We dropped two points. The bag of bracelets went back in the locker. The boys turned up at the training ground the next morning for an hour’s lecture on why losing two-goal leads is less than ideal, and that’s all she wrote. We move on.
The following day we’re informed that Dave Jones won Championship Player of the Month, but that comes as no surprise to anybody. We’ve all seen him at work the past four weeks. He has the heart of an owl. Not to mention the grace of a swan and the tenacity of a goose.
Before our game away at Norwich, I’m asked by TEAMtalk’s Hamish Graham whether I’ve any lingering remorse over my public questioning of Norwich manager Nigel Pearson’s tactical know-how, following our last encounter. I tell him I've genuinely forgotten what was even said last time, because I’ve genuinely forgotten what was even said last time, and I play down the animosity. I really have no clue what I said about Pearson but the fact he is still upset about comments I made months ago makes me even more determined to come out on top tomorrow. If he wants a one-on-one battle he’ll get one, I’ll just bring loads of lads with me. I tell the squad, against Norwich, I want blood.
At Carrow Road, blood is exactly what we get. Canary blood. A little bit of owl blood—which is to be expected, it’s a scrap—but noticeably more canary blood.
The boys, clearly in the same frame of mind as myself following Pearson’s attempted character assassination, go straight for the kill. Six minutes in Matias strikes first. Then on 12 minutes, a tantalising Jack Hunt cross is turned into his own net by Sébastien Bassong. On 22 minutes Gary Hooper continues his incredible run of form with another goal, taking his tally to five goals in his last five games, and ten yards away from me Pearson is turning purple. A short while before half time we’re given a penalty, which is frustratingly saved as Ruddy paws away Jones’ effort, but Jones atones just moments later adding a fourth from close range.
In the second half Norwich show some fight, a little belief, and breach our defence twice. But not without Timm Klose getting in on Bassong’s own goal action as he adds to our total. The game ends 5-2. I shake Pearson’s hand and smile widely. He grimpers; something between a grunt and a whimper. His team falls to 16th. We soar as high as third.
After a typically eventful international break, we journey to the Stadium of Light to take on a resurgent Sunderland team hoping to bounce back to the Premier League at the first time of asking.
Against the Black Cats, we aren't quite able to emerge victorious but we show immense spirit to exit with a point.
When Fabio Borini streaked away and gave Sunderland a lead as early as the 8th minute it seemed we could be onto a hiding. But if this Wednesday team can do one thing it is score, with any one of seven or eight players often happy to oblige, and Michael Hector was on hand to respond just four minutes after falling behind, with another back post header, his third of the season.
Sunderland rallied late on and took an 82nd-minute lead but some attack-minded changes and a huge gift from Paddy McNair earned us an equaliser five minutes from time and with that a deserved point away at one of the league’s promotion favourites.
In our following fixture, we travel to Hull who, though they must surely harbour similar hopes to Sunderland of an immediate return to the top tier, languish in 16th.
If you'd told me before the game that we’d draw 1-1 away to 16th place Hull I'd likely have come away with more than a tinge of disappointment. But after witnessing the ensuing 90 minutes, first hand, I’m relieved to have come away with anything.
With just ten minutes played referee Bobby Madley sets the tone for the afternoon by punishing a wayward tackle in the box and awarding the home team a penalty. Abel Hernández steps up, fires the ball to Westwood’s left, and the keeper dives down in time to make a fantastic save. Then barely half an hour later Madley is at it again, desperately endeavouring to bring home the last leg of his 8-fold accumulator, by awarding Hull another penalty, this time having deemed Sasso’s slight push from a corner as a foul. Again Hernández assumes penalty duty, again attempts to beat Westwood into the far corner, and again, remarkably, Westwood saves.
After the close shaves of the first half, toiling against the twelve men of Hull & Ref FC, the away support goals ballistic when Forestieri gives Wednesday the lead with just over twenty minutes to go. The drama is not done though. Sam Clucas steals away at the far post to smash home an equaliser on 83 minutes and performs the exact same finish again six minutes later to give what the majority of the stadium believed to be Hull’s comeback clincher. The assistant referee saves the day though, with three little shakes of his lovely chequered flag, and the goal is ruled out for offside and it remains 1-1.
Come full time I’m desperate for a lie-down. I take myself off to a quiet corner and give thanks to Westwood’s left hand and the linesman’s 20-20 vision. Without a combination of the two, we’d be without another potentially vital away point. Elsewhere Mike Phelan gives the back left wheel of his team’s coach the kicking of its life, much to the chagrin of his physio and wife; two different people, I must add.
By Will Sharp. Chapter 16 coming next Thursday, June 1st. Header image credit goes fully to John Lord.