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 21: I Know What We Did Last Summer
Captain’s Log, 6 March. Funny aren’t they: words. Take the word ‘reading’ for example. Without sufficient context or appropriate capitalisation you, the reader, have no idea whether I mean ‘reading’ or ‘reading’ and, even then, which one is which is unclear at best.
Don’t mind me, I’m just having fun. Being able to toy with you like this simply reminds me of the great power I have, as the author of these memoirs, a power that I like to wield to the way of my will all the more on the occasions I’m reminded I have nothing like the same type of power over my team’s results.
Take today, for example. We took on Reading—not reading—and lost 2-0. Now had I the same amount of power over the fate of my team’s results as I do over the words I chose to employ during the course of these commentaries, I can say with some confidence I would not have chosen for Sheffield Wednesday to lose 2-0. Instead I’d likely have gone for a 9-0 win or something equally pleasing.
Alas, two successful corner routines from Jaap Stam’s men were the source of our untimely unravelling. Jordan Obita gave his team the lead shortly after the half hour mark before defender Chris Gunter extended his lead at the summit of the division’s ‘distance travelled’ table when he did two full laps of the field celebrating his first goal of the season; his side’s second of the afternoon.
We follow our trip to Berkshire with a journey to Wolverhampton to take on their Wanderers. 6th versus 5th. In a game of few flashpoints, Ivan Cavaleiro was denied a goal early in the second half after being pulled back for a foul; a push on Lees. Sadly the referee’s conscience caught up with him, visibly perturbed by the fear of having harshly punished the Portuguese forward, and so seeks to make amends by awarding him a penalty after he tangled with João. That’s alright, Ref, don’t worry about my Portuguese forward so long as theirs is fine. Mine will probably cry himself to sleep tonight but so long as Cavaleiro gets his goal everything’s fucking fine and dandy, is it?
And that's the game. Cavaleiro converts his guilt-laden penalty and we, without so much as a sniff of an equaliser, slump to a second successive defeat.
I call a team meeting, eager to reassure the lads that even though our form has taken a recent nose dive we’ve still plenty to play for. Top two always seemed out of our reach and so we’re no worse off than before having fallen further behind them. Thanks to the equally poor form of almost every team behind us, there are still six points keeping us inside the play-offs so our destiny is in our own hands. The meeting goes well, the lads respond positively, so before I leave I begin a loutish chant. ‘Kolo, Kolo Kolo, Kolo Kolo, Kolo Kolo Toure! Yaya, Yaya Yaya…’ but only João joins in so bring the chant to a halt, gesture for João to do likewise, and take my leave. Looking back it may have been a little out of place but I’m keen to keep the morale high and it's my go-to chant.
During midweek Chelsea boss Antonio Conte calls me to impart his disappointment at his player Izzy Brown’s lack of first-team football while on loan with us, but at the time I’ve too big a mouthful of pot noodle in my mouth to respond coherently and the Italian protests aggressively at my mumbled retorts before hanging up. I can tell he wasn't much placated by our ‘talk’.
The very next day it is brought to my attention that Izzy Brown has sustained an abdominal strain after overexerting himself in the weights room during training and is likely to be out for a month. Panic hits me like a closed fist to the temple. I confide in Oscar. “What if Conte thinks I forced Brown’s injury so I had an excuse not to play him and that’s why I wouldn’t talk to him yesterday. He’s probably Mafia, Oscar. It’s just a coincidence. It was the pot noodle!” I call Conte immediately, mouth void of noodles, in attempt to smooth things over with him.
The call rings and rings and rings, seven or eight times before I hear it picked up and answered with a muffled “Ciao?” I respond cautiously, “Hello? Mr Conte, is that you?” Again, I can only just about make out his still muffled response, “Sì? Signore Sharp?” “Yes,” I say “Mr Conte, can I have a word?” This time I can’t even make out his response. “I was just… hold on… have you purposely stuffed your mouth before you picked up the phone? Is this because of yesterday?” His response is even less audible than before. “You bastard, Antonio! Is that your tie? Have you put your tie in your mouth? I was going to apologise and explain about Izzy’s unfortunate injury but you can forget that. A month—I hope he's out for six!” and I press the ‘end call’ icon on my phone with furied purpose. The inability to physically slam down the phone receiver only aggravates me further.
When I return to the office Izzy is waiting for me with a dishevelled look painted across his face; he must've heard about the call. I apologise and quickly take to reminding him that, even as a loanee, his health is of paramount importance to everybody at the club. I assure him he will of course return to being an attacking option in my team as soon as he is back to full fitness and I give him a £20 voucher for TGI Friday’s as a gesture of goodwill. When I return home I check my bed for horse heads before getting in. I’m safe for now.
Thankfully my mind is swiftly brought back to the more important matters at hand—our free-falling promotion push—by our next fixture. Today we take on Burton Albion.
A great strike by the hosts’ youngster Kazaiah Sterling puts us behind early on but we respond in style. Forestieri puts in Cotterill, in the side in place of the out of sorts Matias, who brings us level by confidently smashing the ball across the keeper and into the far corner of the net, before Hooper gets in on the act, giving us the lead with a typically confident finish, and I’m soothed by the thought we’ve ridden out the rough patch. But then Sterling strikes again, despite having four defenders for company, and we’re left with it all to do again. Cotterill and Hooper remain dangerous but neither are able to complete their brace so we drop another two points and the winless run goes on.
At home to a languishing Preston side, painfully far from the play-offs but comfortably clear of the relegation melee, I’m certain of a win. But it takes just four and a half minutes for Paul Gallagher to give his team the lead and in the process piss on the kindling with which I was preparing to reignite the fires of our ascent. João and Forestieri combine, albeit in alternate roles, as the former crosses to the back post where the latter awaits with an inch-perfect header, to draw us level. But despite pouring forward in numbers we fail to make a breakthrough and another draw is all we can muster. 1-1.
We’re then tasked with taking on third placed Huddersfield. Having made a complete hash of rediscovering our best form against the league’s lesser sides, I’m cautiously optimistic about perhaps, in true Championship style, instead finding it against one of the bigger teams. Complacency shouldn’t be an issue at home to third in the division.
When we take the lead on 18 minutes, courtesy of yet another João goal, naturally I’m convinced I’d called the result perfectly before the game. The only issue is that João’s goal proves to be our only shot on target. We lose our heads, shortly to be followed by our lead when Nahki Wells equalises, and with a little over ten minutes left Rajiv van la Parra gives them a 2-1 advantage. The score line remains and our winless run extends to six matches. Somehow we remain four points clear of seventh place Sunderland but I can only hope we’re saving our collective energies for an outrageously optimistic play-off assault - that’s if we get there at all.
After Huddersfield we’re affronted by another seemingly insurmountable task in the shape of Fulham and despite my pleading with the squad to keep the first half nice and tight, with no reasons to panic, we get off to an agonisingly poor start. A clever Fulham free-kick is pulled back to Kebano on the edge of the area who fakes a shot before squeezing a pass through to Sessegnon who puts it away.
Even more clever, however, is Jones’ free kick as he opts to simply rifle it into the top corner. The first half ends with the two sides level and the second half seems to be coming to an end without alteration. But then, as we tick perilously close to the third of just two added minutes, it happens. Taylor is played in down the left hand side. Stopping the ball on the line, the Welsh international pulls it back to João who tricks his way beyond his marker only to drag the ball back instead of firing it in the box. Having manufactured sufficient space with his patience, he fizzes the ball into the centre of the area where it is met by the most opportunistic of runs from Forestieri to fire home the winner. The nightmare run over, the league leaders beaten on their own turf. In the dressing room, after the game, the feeling of relief crashes over us like a wave. It looks for all to see as though, at the very least, we’ll better last year’s performance. But we didn’t start this just to take part. This could still be our year.
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. Click here for Chapter 19. Here's Chapter 20.