Inspired by Iain Macintosh’s journey with Everton on CM01/02, I’ve decided to boot up Football Manager 2017 and take Aston Villa back to the glory days of the 1980s.
It’s just four days before Christmas and I’m feeling very merry indeed. It’s not just because this is my favourite time of the year, or even because the mince pies definitely have brandy in them, but my Aston Villa side appears to have turned a corner. On the shortest day of the year, I think we’re beginning to see the light.
The beginning of the season was a shambles, I’ll admit that much. I was too impatient with my players and I put too much pressure on them to learn different tactics in such a short space of time. If one didn’t work, I changed it again. That’s not really management, is it? That’s just trial and error.
But I seem to have stumbled across a system that actually appears to be working. We go into October on the back of four games unbeaten – two wins and two draws – including a really encouraging 2-1 victory over title favourites Newcastle United.
October begins with a trip to Deepdale. Preston North End are in the bottom three, having lost seven of their opening ten games of the season. They’re in turmoil. I know how that feels. And they don’t have a manager like me to turn things around before the pressure really starts to bite.
Poor Simon Grayson. I feel a certain sort of connection with him, and now I’m about to turn the screw with his thumb caught in the vice. He’s a nice enough chap, but this is football. It’s him or me, after all.
I think about how football management is a big game of snakes and ladders, but then my preparations for the game become an afterthought when I’m told that Jordan Ayew is unhappy and thinks the club is underachieving. Nine of the first team squad agree with him and not a single player is backing me up. It looks like I’m about to land on a snake again.
Form has started to turn around, things are looking up and then bang! This feels like a crucial moment: mess it up and I risk losing the dressing room at the very moment when I thought my ideas were getting through. I’m confused again. I thought we were on the up and the players were enjoying themselves….
I have to agree with them that things haven’t been great, but I also show them my passion. I tell them that I’m determined to turn things around, and I feel like they can see it on my face. All but two players seem pleased. Jordan Ayew, who I praised heavily after he helped us beat Newcastle, and Leandro Bacuna aren’t convinced and want me to “make real, tangible changes” to help us get out of our rut.
Fair enough. I’ll take that on board.
I drop Ayew from the team to face Preston. Bacuna will miss out anyway because he’s injured.
Jonathan Kodjia’s my new main man, and I expect him to take his chance with open arms. I am confident we can make it five games unbeaten and really start making a statement here.
That was easy. A Tom Clarke own goal in the 6th minute sets us on our way and Albert Adomah allows me to switch on cruise control. It’s all thanks to Jordan Ayew and his complaints. He was right. Jonathan Kodjia rounded off the win.
The only problem is that we failed to keep a clean sheet. But it’s a very nice feeling to be picking over one small fault and not a systematic failing.
I also lost Gary Gardner for 3-4 weeks with a pulled hamstring. That is a different kind of frustrating. I’m sure we have the squad to cope, though.
Sixth-placed Wolves are up next, but not before another international break. Hopefully the players come back injury free and ready to push on. If we beat Wolves, I think we can be considered promotion contenders once more. Whisper it, though.
I decide that Jordan Ayew has learned his lesson, and I return him to the starting line up. I need him, he knows that. But now he also knows I mean business. I intend to bring Kodjia off the bench at some point, too. He took his chance and I’ll reward him as best I can.
Mile Jedinak returns to the centre of midfield while the rest of the team is unchanged. I’m feeling positive about this one. Win this in front of a packed Villa Park and I’ll be absolutely buzzing.
It wasn’t pretty, but this isn’t a pretty league. We come away with three points in the bag and I’m pretty sure I could hear some Villa fans chanting my name in small pockets of the ground. But that might just be the brandy in the mince pies. We’re up in to 11th in the Championship and just a single point off the play-off spots.
Jordan Ayew nabbed the winner, but this time there’s no delicate forehead kisses from me. This is a fractured relationship that’ll take some time to repair. But I’m putting his return to the scoresheet down to good man-management.
We can’t spend too much time celebrating that victory over Wolves, though. Reading are up next and they’re unbeaten in nine league games. Six of those have been draws, and I’ll be happy with a point at the Madejski, if I’m perfectly honest.
I’m naming an unchanged XI for this clash and I’m quietly confident we can get all three points and climb in to the top six.
That wasn’t the six I had in mind.
Embarrassing. Disgraceful. A complete farce. Aston Villa Fan TV is livid.
We took the lead after just two minutes and everything was looking comfortable. But Reading pegged us back after Jordan Amavi handed Deniss Rakels the easiest goal of his career…
And that was when things really started to go pear-shaped. Reading ran riot in the second half and it was all because of our atrocious defending. All that hard work to go six league games unbeaten has gone completely down the toilet. Was it just an off day, or should I be worried again? It’s time to reach for another mince pie.
I’m not going to panic just yet, though. But not beating Fulham at home in the next game may be cause for concern.
But I do have some good news. I can announce that I’ve managed to bring in my first signing as Aston Villa manager.
Brazilian right-back Felipe Mattioni was available on a free transfer and, as he’s a million miles better than any of my other right-backs at the club, I quickly offered him a contract. He kindly accepted and he signs just in time to go straight in to the side to face Fulham. Things happen quickly at Villa Park these days.
Do these players want to see me lose my job? Do even want to keep their own? Two games ago we were on the verge of climbing in to the top six, now we’re 17th and four points adrift of the play-offs.
We took the lead again, only to bottle it. Again. I’m at a complete loss. Again. How has it all gone wrong so quickly? Again.
I need to do something before we travel to St. Andrews for the small matter of my first Second City derby. I can’t afford to lose this game. Villa managers live or die by games like this, and I’m not ready to die just yet. I’m perilously close to another snake.
The Championship is an unforgiving league and it needs experienced heads to help a big club like Villa get out of it. We have a number of those but one more won’t hurt, will it?
Leon Osman is another man available on a free transfer and, although he’s 35-years-old, he can still do a job in the Championship. I’m sure of it.
Mattioni wasn’t quite fit enough to take part, in the end, so Ritchie De Laet was restored at right-back, but the rest of team was unchanged. Lose this and I genuinely think I’ll be facing the sack.
Wow! That was very, very close to being curtains for me. But if there’s ever a way to ease the pressure on your shoulders it’s winning your first Second City derby with a 92nd minute winner after being 2-0 down. That’s better than a comfortable 3-0 win any day.
I thought I was done for after just 26 minutes, with Birmingham 2-0 up and cruising. Then Ross McCormack decided to do what he’s paid to do, which is play football.
He set up Jordan Ayew before half-time to start the comeback before netting the equaliser direct from a free-kick in the 66th minute.
The beautiful man then lays on Albert Adomah for the winner deep in to stoppage time to secure all three points and the respect of the claret and blue half of Birmingham.
They’ll be making a DVD about that game soon and I don’t even care if that’s a tinpot thing for a football club to do. I’ll put up the money myself.
It’s wins like that that make and break a team’s season. After the gutless defeats to Reading and Fulham, Aston Villa football club is back on its feet again and ready to take November by the proverbials.
That’ll come in the next episode, though. It’s Christmas and I want to enjoy it. I can do that now Birmingham have been beaten.
Here’s Adomah’s winner for everyone to enjoy over and over again…
… and the league table at the end of October, which doesn’t make for great reading but we’re on the up again. Again.