The FM17 Aston Villa Project – Episode 11

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.

Previous episodes: Episode One, Episode Two, Episode Three, Episode Four, Episode Five, Episode Six, Episode Seven, Episode Eight, Episode Nine, Episode Ten

In a parallel Football Manager universe, it’s the year 2027 and James Jones is the manager of Brentford.

The Bees are in the Champions League having finished third in the Premier League just three years after being promoted from the Championship. It’s a real romantic story of the underdog achieving the impossible – where have we seen that before?

That’s the reason this project with Aston Villa has taken a bit of a backseat. The Bentford save is not being written about, which is regretful, but with some time to return to what could be a heroic career with Villa, it’s finally time for Episode 11.

The previous episode ended with three games without a victory, leading to the assessment that if we’re to be promoted back to the Premier League, another 12 game unbeaten run is required. As luck would have it, we have 12 games left. This could get interesting.

Given the poor form we’re enduring going in to March, I’m going to do what I do best – tweak my tactics.

I make this the fourth time I’ve changed my tactical approach this season and while that’ll bring criticism from some, only the best managers are able to react and adapt accordingly. Thomas Edison famously found 10,000 ways that didn’t work when trying to invent the lightbulb, I just hope I don’t need to change my tactics another 9,996 times before finding the right tactic for Aston Villa.

Our first game in March sees us travel to Rotherham, who are just a point above the bottom three and have just one win in all competitions since the beginning of December. They’re in freefall and knowing my luck, it’ll be against us that they finally end that awful run.

So as you can see, it’s a fresh new tactic. An attacking 4-3-2-1 formation with high pressing and a narrow shape. I have a good feeling about this one.

Events leading up to kick off go my way, too. Rotherham slip into the bottom three thanks to the early kick off going against them and Jordan Ayew announces that he wants to stay at the club now that Crystal Palace have reportedly ended their interest in him. He stays on the bench though, while McCormack, Akpom and Kodjia lead the attack.

This was a good performance and it started off perfectly, Kodjia opening the scoring in just the 2nd minute.

Rotherham equalised from the restart but we completely outplayed them and Kodjia scored two more to complete his hat-trick. It wasn’t the most perfect of performances but certainly the kind I was looking for. We had 22 attempts on goal so we should’ve won more convincngly, but three points are three points.

One game down, 11 more unbeaten to go.

A trip to play-off chasing Huddersfield is up next, but not before Jordan Amavi tells me he know longer wants to leave for Celta Vigo. That’s two players making u-turns on their wishes to leave the club in quick succession, which hints that the players are finally beginning to warm to me.

Huddersfield lost their last game 2-0 to Newcastle, so they’ll be desperate to bounce back and get their bid for a play-off spot back on track. I have different ideas though. Nothing less than three points will do as I still need to make up 10 points in order to go up automatically.

If Reading could do me a favour and beat Newcastle, that’d be wonderful.

Jordan Ayew returns to the starting XI as Akpom drops to the bench. Other than that, it’s the same team that ground out three points at Rotherham.

Ruthless. Absolutely ruthless. Ross McCormack finished off a wonderful counter attack in the 4th minute to put us in the lead before Nahki Wells equalised four minutes later. After that, though, it was all us as McCormack and Ayew both found the net to give us a 3-1 lead at the break. McCormack’s hat-trick was complete just four minutes after the restart and then it was game over. If there’s a way to banish the ghosts of that shock 7-0 defeat at home to Huddersfield earlier this season, it’s that.

Two games down, 10 more unbeaten to go. Both Newcastle and QPR win though, which means there’s still 10 points to make up. As long as we keep winning those two teams are bound to slip up at some point. Fingers crossed.

That aside, how do I go about banning Simon Shephard from attending Villa matches ever again. Clueless!

The best thing about that victory is that it means we’re mathematically safe from relegation. The worst thing is that it activates clauses in the contracts six first team players and I’m forced to pay out over £1m in bonuses as a result. Mental.

Where are the haters now though? We were tipped to go down at one point, now we’re third and six points clear of seventh with 10 games to play. Never write James Jones off. Ever.

Another tough game approaches though, as 5th placed Sheffield Wednesday arrive at Villa Park. They’re two points behind us and are in a good run of form having lost just one of their last seven Championship outings.

I’m not worried, though. Why should I be worried? We’re safe from relegation.

It’s an unchanged XI here while I also have one eye on St. James’ Park where Newcastle host struggling Fulham. If ever it’s time for Fulham to pull off a miracle, it’s today…

11 yellow cards, two reds and an exciting 1-1 draw – that’s what you call a real battle between two clubs desperate for promotion. I thought we’d won it when Ross McCormack sent Villa Park crazy with the opener in the 63rd minute, but Tommy Elphick walked for a 2nd yellow eight minutes later and Wednesday took advantage of that.

They did have Axel Tuanzebe sent off for a second bookable offence before Steven Fletcher’s late equaliser, but their tails were already up at that point.

That’s three down, nine unbeaten games to go but, with Newcastle winning again, we’re now 11 points adrift of the top two. We desperately need QPR to slip up away at Leeds, but I just can’t see it happening…

A draw wasn’t really the slip-up we needed, though. They still manage a point, and that means we need to gain 12 points over the course of the final nine games. Not good. Not good at all.

As a great manager once said, though, we go again. This time travelling to face a Wigan side battling to stay in the Championship. They’ve given themselves every chance of survival after winning their last two league outings, now enjoying a two point cushion between themselves and third-from-bottom Cardiff.

Tommy Elphick and Ashley Westwood are both suspended for this, which means James Chester and Aaron Tshibola come in to the starting XI.

This our last game before the international break and what is bound to be a tense run-in.

Comprehensive. Professional. Comfortable. Ross McCormack scores two to make it six goals from his last three games but not before Gary Gardner opened the scoring with his first ever goal in claret and blue.

That’s exactly the kind of performance I look for from my players every week and they proved here that, when they put their little imaginary brains to it, they’re more than capable.

Newcastle, QPR and even Norwich all win comfortably to ensure we go in to the international break 12 points behind the top two. Still that’s four games unbeaten and just eight more unbeaten games to go before we at least achieve the goal set out at the beginning of this episode.

This is where it gets interesting, though. Our two games immediately after the international break are against both Norwich and QPR. Win those two and it could be the beginning of one of the most incredible promotions ever, or we’ll crumble under the pressure and drop out of the top six. Do or die.

Knowing the monster I’ve created here, it’ll be the latter.

So here we are, the first of two huge games. Tommy Elphick returns to the starting XI but Westwood still has one game to serve of his suspension.

Norwich are third in the league and have the same ambitious, heroic plans as we do. The top two are running away with it but catching them is still doable. Whoever wins this will have a real chance of doing so.

We did it! QPR were thrashed 4-0 away at Derby and a late winner from substitute Tom Ince ensured we scraped a 1-0 win at home to Norwich, meaning we’re just nine points behind QPR now.

Huge cheers ring around Villa Park when the stadium announcer confirms Derby’s demolition of QPR, but it’s followed by groans when the fans learn that Newcastle have won by the same scoreline at home to Wigan.

Beat QPR at the weekend and I’m sure we’ll go up automatically. QPR will be hurt, unable to recover from such a shock. They looked all but promoted a couple of weeks ago but now it’s in the balance. They are on the verge of letting a 12 point cushion slip, they thought they’d done it!

I’ll say just one thing before this game: “I will love it, love it, if we beat them!”

Villa Park is absolutely bouncing ahead of this one. They can sense something special is about to happen.

QPR boss Jimmy Floyd Haesselbaink said in his pre-match presser that his players were a little nervous about this game, and so they should be! They’re about to enter the cauldron, and we will take no prisoners. So here goes….

Robbed! We were robbed! Tommy Elphick put us 1-0 up in just the 8th minute and we looked good for our lead. But we failed to build on that. And in the 64th minute, a decision that may just cost us promotion back to the Premier League happened.

QPR whip a corner in and Pierluigi Gollini comes out to claim it, but he’s pushed and subsequently spills the ball, which is cruelly and pathetically deflected into the net by Joao Carvalho. You can share my pain in the GIF below:

So that means we’re still nine points adrift of QPR with just six games remaining. However, we’re now half way through achieving that 12 game unbeaten run we targeted. Automatic promotion is not out of the question just yet, but we desperately need QPR to cave in, though now I think there’s more chance of us caving in.

This season has been a rollercoaster of emotions and I need it to end for the good of my own health.

Six games to go, starting with a trip to a Burton side that has just ended a run of one win since the end of January with victory at St James’ Park. Newcastle will still win the league no doubt, but that kind of result gives me even more hope that we can reach that top two before the end of the season.

Just as I begin my preparations for the trip to the Pirelli Stadium, Tony Xia arrives in my office with a piece of paper in his hand. But it’s not what you’re thinking, he’s not about to rip up my contract and tell me to leave with immediate effect, which was a genuine fear of mine only a couple of months ago.

It is, of course, an improved contract offer. He wants me to stay and finish what I’ve started, which is lay the foundations of turning this group of Villans to Heroes.

He offers me the same terms I was on before but for two years, taking me to the the summer of 2019. That’s enough time for me to achieve my project and leave with my head held high.

A new contract will give the players a real boost as we enter the final run in. Tony Xia knows that and I know that.

Contract accepted. Though I’m less than happy at being reminded of the Chesterfield result. Things have changed since the bad old days. The players will buzzing when they find out.

I’m naming an unchanged XI again, with the rest of the country watching on their TV screens and expecting to catch a glimpse of the beginning of a mini-miracle.

Our season starts now, I tell the lads before they take to the field. Our season starts now.

We’ve caved in! Conceding two goals in two minutes at the beginning of the second half sees us surrender our first half lead and lose away to Burton Albion. I’m devastated. The country are laughing at us because they know what that means. QPR and Newcastle go in to their afternoon fixtures knowing full well that they’ll be all but up if they avoid defeat.

QPR draw, which makes me even more angry, and Newcastle win to all but wrap up the title.

Turns out my players are gutted I’ve signed a new contract. I’m gutted.

Tarum Stirzaka takes to Twitter echo my exact thoughts…

So with five games left to play this season, we’ve got a huge 10 point gap to close if we’re to go up automatically. It does look as though we’re going to have to settle for the play-offs.

Our run in looks like this…

And the table looks like this. As you can see, a top two finish is almost way out of reach and it’s all because we bottled it at Burton.

Episode 12 will reveal how the first season of my project ends up, but don’t hold out for a miracle. My players clearly aren’t up to that.

At least I’ve got a new contract, though. Tony Xia’s probably already regretting it.

<< Click here for Episode 10 | Click here for Episode 12 >>