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 22: 2018: A Promotion Odyssey
Captain’s Log, 21 April. After seven games of pure agony, all it took was two moments, twelve minutes apart, to secure our play-off place. Of course, it helped that we beat Fulham in the preceding fixture, and picked up 72 points (from 20 wins and 12 draws) before that, but those two goals and the three vital points they secured were all that we needed. Football so often comes down to the smallest of margins.
An adroit far post flick from João, having had his chance put to him on a plate by Marco Matias, and a David Jones penalty were enough to see off Blackburn, who in the process were relegated by the loss, ensuring I was able to mark my 100th game in management in style.
To celebrate the occasion, Paul, our coach driver, took us home via a McDonalds drive-thru but the coach exceeded the height limit and nobody wanted to go in and order for the whole squad. I told them I needed a wee and would just quickly hop out to go in anyway, “I won’t buy myself anything, I promise,” but I bought an apple pie and ate it while I hid in a toilet cubicle. Burned the roof of my mouth something awful on the molten apple chunks but it was undoubtedly worth it. Maybe I’ll double down and celebrate my 200th game with a urinal cake.
Before we face our next contest I make eight changes to the starting line-up. My thinking being it is unlikely we’ll be able to leapfrog Wolves into fifth, and there’s almost no catching the teams in fourth or above, so I might as well keep the lads fresh for the play-off fixtures themselves.
Our penultimate league fixture all seems to be going a little too well when Hutchinson grabs a rare goal to put us ahead against Leeds and, as suspected, the bubble bursts when our Yorkshire rivals spoil the party when Stuart Dallas grabs a late equaliser.
In the final game of the league season we take on fellow top six combatants QPR and I piece together my strongest line-up once again. This could very well give us an indication of just how well we’re to fare in the play-offs.
Not for the first time we lose to Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink’s men; 1-0, a Sylla goal, just like last season. The repetition makes me sick, leaves me feeling as though this is some kind of game or simulation, where already we’re pressing against the limit of a finite number of conclusions, but the result is ultimately irrelevant. We finish sixth and are consequently reunited once again with Fulham, who finished third.
The first of our two-legged tie with Fulham takes place in Sheffield and thankfully we’re able to make our home advantage count. Though we’re dominated for large parts of the game, out-passed and out-shot, we’re not out-scored. In fact the game’s only goal is a Wednesday one, that man Jones with yet another free kick ensuring we travel to west London with a goal advantage and one leg already won.
The second tie goes much the same way as the first, matching its every stylistic element from Fulham’s domination all the way down to their heartbreak. But while theirs are breaking, naturally, ours are swelling with pride and excitement.
Though a draw would’ve been sufficient to take us into the final, Forestieri took it upon himself to see us to Wembley in style. A little under ten minutes remaining, Forestieri jinked past Grimmer, in a way only a diminutive Argentine can, than smashed the ball into the top corner from 25 yards. The noise from the away end was like nothing I’ve heard before. 2-0 on aggregate, Fulham, and with them the ghosts of season past, laid to rest.
The following day we watch on as QPR defeat Wolves to book their place alongside us in the Championship play-off final. Before May is up, one of us will be a Premier League team.
Our Wembley preparations start poorly as we’re suddenly left without a fully fit first choice full-back. Neil Taylor is injured in training and will be out for weeks and on the other wing Jack Hunt is far from 100% but still required to play. On the day staff troubles also threaten to spoil the occasion. I insist on Oscar sitting beside me on the bench, which in turn forces my assistant Bullen along by a seat, shunting one of the youth coaches off his seat altogether and onto the floor. I tell them I don’t know what the fuss is about, there are spare seats on the row behind. Bullen says it’s not about the seats, its the bird, and says it makes me look crazy. I pay him no mind. Oscar’s helped us in getting this far, I’ll be damned if he’s left to watch it from the stands.
In the dressing room before the game I attempt to rouse the lads into an excited frenzy by humming the Premier League anthem. It’s only as I’m 20 or so seconds in, and I’m met only by confused faces, I recall there is no Premier League anthem and that what I’m performing is instead the Champions League song. I stop. “One day, lads” and play it off calmly. “Let’s get out there and win that trophy.” I’ve no idea what Hasselbaink told his lads but, whatever it was, it couldn’t have made them want the win half as much as my lads. Two of my players in particular: Jones and Forestieri.
Much to my delight referee Kevin Friend practices a little nominative determinism, at least from my perspective, as he proves to be a friend in name and nature, by awarding us a seventh minute penalty. David Jones, without even a flicker of nerves, dispatches and gives us an early lead. Less than 15 minutes later he’s afforded another dead ball opportunity, this time a free kick from a little over 20 yards, and before I can even cross my fingers the ball is setting about exploring the interior of the QPR net. 2-0. Jones brace. I’m still yet to acclimatise to the surroundings of this famous stadium, take in the sights, smells, and sounds, and already, on its pristine pitch, Jones has taken two huge strides out of its doors and towards the promised land.
Not to be upstaged by his teammate Fernando Forestieri decides it is high time to impart a little of his own genius on the occasion. First he catches Alex Smithies cold, hitting an early shot from distance which the QPR ‘keeper can only palm into the side netting of the goal, to extend our lead to three, before Forestieri completes his own brace with just over ten minutes to go. Slipped in between two dormant defenders by João, finishing coolly as though not a trouble in the world rested upon him, it’s 4-0 and that is it. Two: could’ve been; three: may well have been; four: there is no questioning.
QPR find the will to at least make it a contest, El Khayati slams home at the far post for QPR before Polter scores an almost identical goal just moments later to add an undercurrent of nerves to the closing stages, but they are well beaten and time runs out on their attempted comeback. Friend’s whistle brings down the curtain on the play-off final and 4-2 it ends.
I’m left dumbstruck by what I witnessed. My usual foolhardy confidence and cautious optimism enforced so emphatically so early on by the most decisive of team performances, I can hardly muster the words to sufficiently describe my elation. “We… did it? We’re promoted?”
We near drown ourselves in champagne, dance to the unmistakable cadence of Sheffieldian song, and savour our momentous achievement. One by one I find each player and thank them, though I’m still yet to accept the reality of what I’m thanking them for having accomplished.
The following day we’re greeted by the news that Hector, Jones, Forestieri and João made the cut for the XI players named in the Championship Players’ Team of the Year; a fine way to continue the celebrations.
Before the month is up we’re able to tie down João, Wildsmith, Poyet and Forestieri to new long-term contracts, and Oscar returns from his restuffing looking more alive than ever; almost, dare I say it, like a Premier League taxidermy owl.
What next awaits us, exactly? Maradona only knows.
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. Chapter 21.