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 19: Lock, Stock and One Functioning Defence
Captain’s Log, 27 December. Don't let anybody tell you Fernando Forestieri isn't all heart; I've experienced his selflessness first hand. Today, for example, he told me that he's been thinking for a while that he wants to play in a better division and that, having learned of Köln’s interest in him, he wants permission to leave the club. Now you may think that's incredibly selfish of him, as though clearly his own ambitions outweigh those of the team, and for that, he should be vilified. But think about this: when did he tell me? 27th December. Not two or three days earlier, over Christmas, not even Boxing Day, for fear of ruining my festive season. No, he waited until the 27th, even though he's been feeling this way for some time. Forestieri is an absolute gentleman and I won't have anyone else say a word to the contrary.
Our relationship fell apart almost entirely when I responded by telling him he’s going absolutely nowhere, but that’s not the point. He’s a top bloke, is Fernando.
Two days after our win against Birmingham we travel to Nottingham to take on Forest and there we pick up another three points, beating the hosts 2-1. When Matias hit the back of the net as early as the seventh minute I never envisaged us needing an 88th-minute goal to snatch the win. However, that’s exactly what was required when our run of clean sheets was spoiled by Duncan Watmore. Fortunately Izzy Brown was present and willing to put to the back of our minds our needlessly ruined defensive record by ending a fine counter-attacking move with a tidy near post finish.
Before our FA Cup third round tie I find the time to fulfil some off-field duties; a bit of scouting, submitting a few loan offers, dipping a toe or two into the tepid stream that is the January transfer window, but nothing of any note materialises before we set off for South London.
Away to Palace, desperate to channel our League Cup giant-killings of yestermonth, we’re given the best possible start when Jones smashes home a free kick. But we fail to maintain our lead long enough to take it into halftime as Ntep levels from distance. In the second half our pursuit of the fourth round is given a huge boon when M’Vila sees red with only the final quarter to play but unfortunately Vincent Sasso wasn't to be out-villained on this occasion and takes it upon himself to decide the tie, giving Palace a penalty from which 11-year-old Madrid loanee Martin Ødegaard is able to snatch the winning goal.
Despite Sasso’s fairly obvious foul I throw a tantrum in the ensuing press conference, to appease fans, and accuse my opposite number Alan Pardew of unfairly influencing the referee, to appease fans. To my benefit, my post-game reaction appeases the fans. Sadly Pardew breaks the habit of a lifetime and practices a little benevolence for the first time in his smug existence, saying he thought his team were fortunate to be given the penalty, making me look the mug. Still, the important thing is we’re still in the FA Cup. No, wait, we’re not even in the FA Cup. I hate cups. The Championship play-off winners had better be awarded a bowl or shield or something. A golden gravy boat, maybe.
Despite looking to use January to add to the squad, to reaffirm our chances of promotion, when the opportunity arises to loan out Adam Reach to Brentford I find it impossible to resist. I speak to the boy before he departs, telling him to make the most of his time away from Sheffield, and he tells me he’ll show me and the rest of the world what he's made of while at Brentford. I laugh, far harder than I perhaps should have, and send him on his way. The following day we welcome to the club West Ham youngster Edimilson Fernandes.
We play Ipswich and draw with them, despite their not having a single shot on target, thanks in no small part to our own failings in front of goal. But the frustration soon subsides as I return home to read of two £2.5m bids for Abdi, from Austria Wien and Dynamo Kiev—clubs situated approximately 870 and 1,400 miles away from Sheffield, respectively—and my mood improves immeasurably.
In our next fixture, we face Bristol City at home. For long periods of the game, it appears as though we may well be held again but then, just when we needed him most, up pops Lucas João, not once but twice. After more than enough attempts at making the 4-1-2-1-2 work against Bristol City we switch to a more top-heavy 4-2-3-1 and the extra creativity in the final third works a charm. On the coach journey home, it strikes me that Lucas João and Lil Jon share the same initials. I call back to João and tell him, saying it must be fate because they both make me shout “YEAH”, but he just looks at me confused. I’ll explain it to him at training tomorrow.
To replace the Moscow-bound Abdi, youngster Harrison Reed joins us from Southampton, ensuring we don't forfeit any options in midfield. Another cause for celebration soon arrives in the form of a reformed Forestieri, whose epiphany on just how much he loves living in Sheffield arrives at the exact moment Köln announce they have no interest in the attacker. The timing isn’t suspicious in the slightest.
Away to struggling Bolton our player of the season so far Davey Jones shows us once again what’s in his locker as he sticks one in the top corner from a free-kick, some 25-yards from goal, then does the exact same thing again six minutes later, just to show it wasn’t a fluke - as if anyone doubted him. Hoop-Dogg comes on with a little over 20 minutes left to play and adds to our total within seconds of entering the field and we stroll to a 3-0 win. Though we stay sixth we’re only four points from third, five clear of seventh and our goal difference is as healthy as it's ever been (at +24) which could be as good as a point in a few months time.
With the irksome Abdi now Kiev’s problem; a couple new Premier League loanees bolstering our ranks; Forestieri once again loving life in Sheffield, at least until some other director of football with a new chequebook flutters their eyelashes at him; and our rise up the table continuing, I dare say I’m… enjoying myself. Quick, someone get Barry Bannan on the phone. I fancy a gloat.
Catch the end of Season 1 (and other posts) here. The start of season 2 is here with chapter 13 and here's Chapter 14. Catch up on Chapter 15 here. Chapter 16. Here's chapter 17. You guessed it, Chapter 18.