The FM17 Aston Villa Project – Episode 12

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, Episode 11

As the old cliche goes, it’s been a rollercoaster of a season.

It began with optimism, a ridiculous pre-season schedule that meant going backwards and forwards between the Midlands and France and, of course, the type of tactical experimentation that should’ve had had Tony Xia handing me my P45.

There was a stage where I expected to be sacked; deserved to be, in fact. I had exposed myself as a fraud, a tactically undercooked manager who had no idea what he was doing. The players could not be fooled, they knew what the club had employed, yet they stuck with me.

Now, despite winning just one of my opening six Championship games of the season, including a 7-0 home drubbing at the hands of Huddersfield in just my third game, we go in to the final five matches of the season with an outside chance of automatic promotion. It’s unlikely, granted, but we still have the play-offs to fall back on if we fail.

Tony Xia set me a minimum target of finishing in the top six before a ball was even kicked. At least I’ll be achieving the targets given to me, unless something goes catastrophically wrong.

We head in to this run-in on the back of a 2-1 defeat away to Burton Albion. That result has dented our hopes of finishing in the automatic promotion spots, but I’m still hopeful we can topple either QPR or Newcastle from their perch.

We now host sixth-placed Reading in what is the first of five remaining cup finals, or so the cliche goes. They also lost their last game, 1-0 to Norwich, but won four games on the bounce before then, so they’ll be eager to get back to winning ways.

I’m determined to put the defeat to Burton down to a glitch in the matrix. It wasn’t in the script, but nor was me keeping my job after the start to the season we had, and somehow I’m still here.

It’s an unchanged XI for this one. It’s too late in the season to start tinkering again – I need to stick with what works and at the moment, barring that Burton game, I know this works.

A thrilling game but not the result we wanted. Three times Reading pegged us back and our finishing costs us dearly once again. I thought we’d won it when Tom Ince converted from the penalty spot with just nine minutes to go but Dominic Samuel rescued a point for Reading in the 87th minute.

And with that, our chances of automatic promotion are pretty much dead. While we drop points, so do QPR and Newcastle who both look to be feeling the pressure at the top as we edge closer to the end of the season. Newcastle lost 3-0 at home to mid-table Leeds, which hurts even more. Had we beaten both Burton and Reading we’d have had the momentum going in to the final four games. Instead I think play-offs are our most realistic target now.

That draw also means we’re mathematically out of the title race, and the fans are understandably gutted…

We must pick ourselves up against Fulham now. Our season isn’t over yet and there’s still promotion to play for. Fulham have had a tough season and go in to this in 17th place. They have absolutely nothing to play for other than ruining my play-off hopes.

Once again it’s an unchanged XI, I’m convinced this team can produce something special on their day…

Guess what? QPR and Newcastle both drop points again, each grinding out 1-1 draws. It’s the sort of ridiculous, pathetic scenario a club like this should not be involved in.

That’s three consecutive games that we’ve failed to win, three consecutive games we’ve had the chance to gain some ground on the top two. Two consecutive games in which we’ve conceded in the final five minutes.

Newcastle secure promotion and QPR need a single point from their remaining three games to join them in the Premier League. It means six teams will battle it out for the four play-off spots. Here’s how it looks with three games to go…

Next up? Just the small matter of the Second City derby to contend with. Not great timing but Birmingham are 15th and, like Fulham, have nothing to play for in terms of league achievements.

This is the Second City derby, though, and there is more than just points to play for here. Pride and bragging rights are on the line.

Birmingham will love nothing more than to ruin our chances of finishing in the top six, and it’s my job to ensure we beat them for a third consecutive time this season. Fail to do so and I fear we’ll be chased out of Villa Park.

I’ve decided to revert back to a 4-2-3-1 formation for this one as it’s clear we were lacking width and conviction in a 4-3-3 approach that has cost us dearly over the last three games.

QPR have secured promotion with a 1-1 draw at Brentford, while all the teams around me in the race for the top six drop points. This is our chance, we must not mess this up!

Yes! That’s how you win a Second City derby! Villa Park is absolutely bouncing once again. Twice we’ve beaten Birmingham in the final minute this season.

That said, it wasn’t the most straight-forward of games. City took and early lead and kept it until the 64th minute when Jonathan Kodjia equalised. Jordan Ayew then missed a penalty before he redeemed himself by netting the winner in the 91st. He earns himself another delicate forehead kiss. He’s growing to like them.

Both goals came from crosses in from the right, which justifies my decision to revert back to a wide formation. Tactically inept? Not me. Not anymore.

Two games remain. Blackburn away and then Brighton at home. Just one win should do it, as long as other results go our way. Blackburn in 18th are mathematically safe, but only just. It means I’m in for another hard game against a side with nothing to play for.

I’m going with the same XI and formation that beat Birmingham. This is the business end and if ever there was a time to not bottle it, it’s now…

“It’s raining goals at Ewood Park, I can’t believe it. Unbelievable Jeff!” is what Chris Kamara would’ve been screaming down our TVs to an equally excited Jeff Stelling in the studio.

So the good news is that we’ve rediscovered a goal scoring form, the bad news is we’re still conceding too many. Hat-tricks from Ince and Kodjia have them fighting over the match ball at the end of the game. Which is fine by me. That’s the kind of problem I’d prefer. I tell Ince he can have the ball as his treble came in the space of 13 first half minutes. Incredible finishing.

That win means it’s mission accomplished. I’ve achieved Tony Xia’s target of a play-off spot. It also takes us to 79 points, which is a club record. I’m officially a history maker, but that’ll mean nothing if we don’t finish the job by going up via a day out at Wembley.

Going in to the final game of the season and the play-off spots are pretty much confirmed. Wolves need to win and hope Forest lose to sneak in at the final hurdle, but it’s likely I’ll be joined by Norwich, Reading and Forest…

Brighton visit Villa Park and they’ll be disappointed not to have seen their early season form through to the end. Technically both of us have nothing to play for and we do have one eye on the play-offs now, but I really want us to build some momentum.

I should perhaps consider resting a few key players to keep them fresh but where’s the fun in that? It’s another unchanged XI – let’s end the league season with a bang…

Ok, so that technically means nothing other than the fact Reading leapfrog us in to 3rd on goal difference. Incredibly, Wolves’ prayers were answered – they won and Forest lost, so they sneak in at the death and poor Forest will have to make do with another season in the Championship. Hopefully I won’t be joining them.

The final table finishes like this, with Cardiff, Wigan and Preston all relegated to League One.

That means we face Norwich in the play-offs. It’s not going to be easy but I think we can beat them over two legs. They beat us 2-1 on aggregate in our league fixtures, but this is different. There’s more at stake now.

The first leg is at Carrow Road. No sign of Delia Smith holding a bottle of wine and screaming at the fans before the game, which is disappointing. Hopefully we can provoke her in to such behaviour before half-time.

Another unchanged XI. No time for messing around. Let’s do this.

Not the worst result and even more so given that Norwich hit the post twice and missed a sitter, all in the final five minutes.

We got off lightly there as they were arguably the better team, so we’ll need to up our game in the second leg or it’s another season in the Championship, surely there’s no need for extra motivation?

I’ve decided to drop Kodjia for the second leg, with Grealish replacing him. Ayew will lead the line and all of the pressure is on him to lead this club to a play-off final.

We’re 90 minutes from Wembley and the fans are creating one hell of an atmosphere at Villa Park. There’s nothing I want more right now than a place in the play-off final. Come one boys, don’t let me down!

WEMBLEY! We’re going to Wembley! A first-half own goal from Chris Martin hands us a place in the play-off final against Reading, who beat Wolves 3-2 on aggregate.

We only had one shot on target all game, so I think we can feel a bit lucky about getting out of those two games without conceding but who cares!? We just one game away from the Premier League!

I’m out for revenge in this final. The way in which Reading thrashed me 6-0 at the Madejski back in October still hurts when I think about it. We should’ve beaten them just a few weeks ago but now it’s time to put that right in the only game that really matters.

I’m off to get my suit dry cleaned. See you at Wembley!

<< Click here for Episode 11 | Click here for Episode 13 >>