On May 26 1982, Peter Withe wrote his name in the Aston Villa record books by scoring the only goal in a tightly contested European Cup final against Bayern Munich in Rotterdam: Villa’s greatest day in its illustrious, trophy-laden history.
The previous year they had won their seventh first division title, then a few months after that night in Rotterdam they beat Barcelona 3-1 on aggregate to lift the Super Cup. The early 1980s were the glory years for Villa, they were the kings of Europe.
But that was then and this is now. Now they are a struggling, misunderstood giant of English football playing out their existence in the second tier of English football. Their last piece of notable silverware was the League Cup 20 years ago.
Since then they’ve had 11 different managers who have mostly all tried and failed, with Martin O’Neill the only manager to have experienced any success; three consecutive 6th placed finishes in the Premier League and a couple of seasons competing in the UEFA Cup.
Managerial giants like Gerard Houllier, Alex McLeish, Tim Sherwood and Roberto Di Matteo have tried and failed in the wake of O’Neill’s departure in August 2010. It’s time for someone new to come, grab the club by the scruff of the neck and drag it back kicking and screaming to what it’s best known for, which is being rather good at winning things.
This is where I come in. Inspired by the fantastic story of Iain Macintosh’s journey with Everton on CM01/02 and his new project with a modern day Toffees side on Football Manager 2017, I now dream of being Aston Villa’s very own Macintosh. Villa seem like the best team to take on, too.
They do have some money, thanks to new owner Tony Xia, and their squad has the potential to compete in the Premier League let alone the Championship. This doesn’t mean it’ll be easy, but it’s an attractive project. Who doesn’t want to be Villa’s next Tony Barton or Martin O’Neill?
In real life, Steve Bruce has just been tasked with taking Villa back to the Premier League. He’s a worthy candidate to do so and will no doubt succeed, whether that be this season or next. That’s real life, though, and god knows Football Manager isn’t real life, even if it’s getting very very close to being so.
So step aside, Brucey baby, there’s a new guy in town…
Tony Xia greets me warmly and tells me all the current backroom staff will accept a mutual termination of their contract should I find them unworthy of being part of my new revolution. That won’t be necessary, though. I’m the kind of guy who likes to give people the chance to be my friend first, colleague second. I’ll meet with them shortly.
Before I begin meeting my backroom staff and the players, I need to sort tactics out.
If my previous Football Manager career says anything at all about my tactical nous, it’s that I’m completely and utterly rubbish at the game. I’m tactically inept. So much so that every tactic I’ve ever made from scratch has never won me anything other than a few friendlies (I may be over exaggerating here, but not much.)
Suddenly it dawns on me that this is going to be harder than I expected. What would Macintosh do? 4-4-2 it is then, but with a twist.
I’m going with wing backs, two defensive midfielders and two false nines. Play out from the back, shorter passing, low tempo and the instruction to control possession and to get the ball in the box whenever possible. I expect this to fail but I have pre-season to get it right so I’m not worried just yet.
Now on to pre-season training and having been relegated the previous season, morale is understandably low. So I initially ignore the opportunity to train the players to get used to my prefered tactic and instead have them focus on team cohesion. Tactical work can come later once I see a few smiles on faces again.
My coach Steve Clemence has asked me if I want to set up an intra-squad friendly. I decline – I don’t care for these matches, I tell him, I’d rather judge my players on how they do against opposition players….
I’m promptly handed a full report of the club, which is a huge eye-opener to what’s happening behind the scenes and the quality of my squad. It turns out the overall passing quality of the squad is disappointing and Mile Jedinak is pretty much the only player in the squad capable of playing as a defensive midfielder to a good standard. I’ve opted for two defensive midfielders. Shit.
On a more positive note, I’m told my players are hard working, willing to put in the required effort and I have an aggressive and committed squad at my disposal. So the players might be feeling down but they’re all committed to putting things right again – a good start.
Before I meet my hungry and committed players for the first time I’m quickly told that former West Ham and Charlton Athletic man Diego Poyet is a free agent and would add much needed depth to my midfield.
He’s ambitious, has a good technique and is an accomplished passer of the ball. Perfect for what I’m looking for, so I offer him a contract.
I pick my squad for the upcoming pre-season tour to France. I’m happy with that destination – not much travelling involved but still far enough to get away from the disappointment of relegation for for a while.
Meanwhile, Poyet gladly accepts my contract offer but it turns out the club won’t part with his £16k signing on fee, which means I have to tell him we can’t go ahead. Now I know how Macintosh felt when he came so close to signing Cristiano Ronaldo with Everton in February 2003 on CM01/02. Thought it turns out I disabled the transfer budget, which means I can’t sign anyone until January. It’s a learning process.
I’m already feeling bleak about the challenge ahead, despite nothing bad really happening. So when Jordan Ayew is ruled out for 5-6 weeks with a hernia I decide I have every right to feel anxious. Micah Richards is also out for a week or so with a bruised thigh, which could be a sign of things to come.
I haven’t even met the players yet. I hope they like me…