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 18: The Men Who Drew Too Much
Captain’s Log, 2 December. I’m starting to believe there is something about a Wednesday fixture against Fulham that demands the game ends 1-1 regardless of the game’s events. Whatever the weather, however the game may to and fro like the famous Sheffield seas, in spite of both sides best efforts, a result of anything but 1-1 between us and the Cottagers just wouldn't feel right. Like the fabric of reality may be stretched perilously thin were the two sides ever to play each other and both score or concede more or less than exactly one each. Or it’s just a fairly common result between two league teams. At present, I’m unconvinced either way.
At home to Fulham this afternoon we contested the tightest of tussles with a team who rightfully started the day in second place. With five minutes to go, despite our determined pursuit of parity, it looked as though we were set to come away empty handed. Having trailed since Patrick Bamford’s opener in the 14th minute, and with Diego Poyet having needlessly added a second yellow to his afternoon’s growing collection of bookings, a loss seemed inevitable.
Then Fulham keeper David Button launched the ball out wide to the busy-chatting Stefan Johansen, the ball was cut out by Adam Reach, and soon it was making its way from Lucas João’s right boot into the corner of the net. 1-1 it ended. Two fewer points that we’d have liked, but no points less than we deserved.
The game lacked the drama of our last 1-1 draw—which you may recall took place on the final day of last season and ended with a last minute equaliser that cruelly denied us a play-off place—but it felt good to be on the other end of the leveller this time around.
The following day is one dominated by semi-relevant news stories and semi-important emails. 17th place Hull fire Mike Phelan; we’re drawn away to Crystal Palace in the FA Cup third round, and Almen Abdi is five appearances away from costing us another £500,000. I can only hope all three events are somehow linked and perhaps the newly unemployed Phelan shall be given a surprise opportunity at Palace and will duly respond to our cup victory against him by loaning Abdi from us to prevent our paying of his exorbitant appearance fee. Why? I don't know, but stranger things have happened - probably.
Fortunately the very next day Abdi approaches me and demands to leave, citing broken promises as the reason for the complete breakdown in our professional relationship. Personally, I'd blame my poor memory, as I've not the faintest idea what I'd promised the lad, but I suppose one is the cause of t’other. At least that's one expensive clause I needn't lose sleep over.
With that kind of serendipity falling before me, in the lead up to our derby away at Leeds, my preparations are underlined by an only slightly cautious optimism. After all, even if they are the form side, we’ve done a job on Leeds more than once during my time here and there’s no reason we can't do it again.
Then on the night, Michael Hector makes a colossal arse of himself by deflecting a Leeds free-kick into the goal with his colossal arse and we’re beaten 1-0. That’ll teach me to be anything but a bag of nerves before an important game. Betrayed by my own feelings again.
Four days later we travel to London to take on QPR who sit sixth. At present we’re three places and four points behind. A win would be right lovely.
I switch things up tactically, with a tactical switch-up, and for the first time in recent memory I opt to start two up top; Hooper and João playing the roles of the poacher and target man, respectively. Having scored just six goals in our last seven games something's got to give. Hopefully, it's the new dynamic duo up front; and what I need them to give is a goal (or four) each.
There is no doubt my formational tweaks have the desired effect. Twice in the first half, Hooper and João link up adroitly, twice João puts Hooper in one-on-one with QPR ‘keeper Smithies—whose name sounds exactly like what a goalkeeper called Smith would shout when collecting a cross—and twice Hooper beats him with the finesse.
Our two first-half strikes remain the only goals of the game, despite plenty efforts from both sides, and with that, the mould is set; 4-4-2 Diamond it is - until it stops working, anyway. João, Hoop-Dogg and I celebrate with a cosy film night at mine. We watch Twins—with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito—and Argo.
Next up we travel to Swansea who, despite only holding onto their current play-off place by virtue of goal difference, boast a number of players who seem almost embarrassed to be seen playing in the second tier. Hide your face all you like, Erik Durm, I know it's you. You're not in Dortmund anymore, pal!
Sixth-placed Swans seemingly sought only to suppress our striving for success, save succeeding in scoring themselves, and sadly we slump to a solemn stalemate, slipping still south. Without much goalmouth action to speak of, as you may well have noticed, I am able to devote the majority of the game to improve my use of alliteration. Sufferin’ succotash.
Before our next fixture, with Brighton, I’m asked by the press, with simply impeccable timing, whether I've any intention of applying for the vacant manager’s position at Brighton. I reply with silence... tactical silence. If we win; my silence was all that needed saying. If we lose, and I move to the south coast within a week; I technically never said I wouldn't be applying.
But much to the relief of the north, a win against Brighton keeps me firmly as one of their own. Hardly a vintage encounter, the first half was blotted by two injuries in the space of six minutes to João and then Hooper, requiring a tinkering or two of the formation to ensure we remained a threat.
Thankfully the man entrusted with the lone wolf role at the top of the pitch, Forestieri, was the man who ultimately won it for us, his cheeky finish enough to see us journey home with all three points in the bag. I’m even more thankful that Hooper’s injury was just a knock and João’s will only keep him on the sideline for a little over a week.
In our penultimate fixture of 2017 we invite third-bottom MK Dons to Hillsborough under the understanding they’ll happily return home the same evening without having so much as threatened to take any points off us.
To their credit MK Dons stay true to their word, mustering all of one shot on target; presumably hit towards goal to at least give their travelling fans the impression they cared about the result. Sadly our role as welcoming hosts was performed a little too dutifully and with both Hooper and João out with injury we show no threat whatsoever and are held to another 0-0 draw.
Despite the missed opportunity, we stay in eighth. The position itself isn’t much to shout about but our being just three points off of fourth gives us an easy target heading into the last game of the year. Besides, I heard one of the fans chatting on the radio the other evening, apparently, 2018 is our year.