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.
Wembley. The pinnacle. The dream. And if you believe that dreams can come true, you also believe that nightmares do, too. And the fact that this episode happens to be the 13th instalment of this Villans to Heroes project hasn’t been lost on me. I refuse to lose the most lucrative match in football because of a number.
It’s lucky for some, let’s hope it is for us and not Reading.
Anyway, the hallowed Wembley turf is where every player sees himself playing his best football; being the hero, the man of the hour.
The same goes for managers like me. All that hard work over the course of a long season comes to down to a 90 minute battle in a grubby little part of North London. This is what dreams are made of.
It’s a pain to get to the national stadium, both via the football pitch and public transport routes. Our journey to the play-off final is almost a metaphor of a fan’s journey to the Home of Football. It was long, tedious, irritating and, at times, unattractive.
This is why we must win here today. No excuses. Wembley Way before the game is an exciting cauldron of hope and trepidation, the walk back after a loss is one of pain and despair. I want our fans to be going home as supporters of a Premier League football club. Nothing else will do.
The build-up to this has been difficult. Six days before the big day Jonathan Kodjia is ruled out with an abdominal strain. Three days later I’m told Tommy Elphick will have to sit out too, as he’s got a back strain. I can work without them, but it does significantly weaken my team.
Kodjia has had his moments this season. A return of 13 goals and nine assists in 45 first team appearances isn’t bad going, and he’s the kind of player who can inspire a positive result.
And Elphick hasn’t been the warrior at the back he’ll have you believe, but on the whole he’s been pretty reliable. A defence without him is always going to be slightly weaker, which worries me against a Reading side that has already scored nine goals in two games against us this season.
The day has arrived, though, and it’s time to deliver on the promise of Premier League football. I can’t face another season in the Championship, it’s not where this great club belongs. The biggest club in Birmingham should not rubbing shoulders with the likes of Birmingham in the Championship. Today that changes.
The dressing room before the game is a hive of excitement. But it’s an interesting mix of pre-game rituals. Some players laughing and joking, but I can see that they’re focused – I don’t mind that. Others are lost in their own worlds; oversized headphones on, staring in to space as they motivate themselves for war. I spot Nathan Baker staring at himself in the bathroom mirror, rocking back and forth. He’s up for it. Or at least, that’s what I choose to believe.
The XI I pick is no surprise to anyone. I would have started Kodjia had he not been injured, so Jack Grealish gets the nod instead, with Ayew leading the line…
Addressing the players before the game, I don’t say much. All I do say is that this is their opportunity to achieve greatness, to complete that transition from Villans to Heroes. It’s all or nothing here…
To my surprise, six first team players react badly to my emotional speech. As tears roll down my cheek, Gabby Agbonlahor tells me he disagrees. He reckons the best chance of winning is to not let the occasions get to us. I stare at him, firstly wondering who he is and then asking myself why I didn’t sell him in January?
Jack Grealish, Nathan Baker and Gary Gardner also pipe up. They claim promotion was never expected of this club and that adding so much pressure to the players could backfire. Libor Kozak and Leon Osman agree, but I couldn’t care less what they think.
I ignore the haters and give a delicate forehead kiss to every single one of the players who believe in themselves. This is becoming a bit of a weird trait of mine, but I’m in too deep now. It must continue.
I cry during the national anthem. Pride and passion is what I’m made of, I’m not scared of showing it. As I look to my right and see half of Wembley covered in a sea of claret and blue, I feel at home. Cut me open and I’ll bleed claret and blue. Those of you who know me will know how true that really is.
More tears flow and I instantly know my face will be all over Twitter by now. “ Jones is crying! Love the passion!” is what I hope people at home will be saying, but in truth I know it’ll be the opposite.
The game kicks-off and the opening 20 odd minutes pass by without much to talk about. We have a few corners and enjoy more of the ball, but it’s nothing to write home about.
Then, in the 22nd minute, the unthinkable happens. Reading’s Dominic Samuel collects the ball on the half way line and there’s no danger to be worried about. Nathan Baker, though, doesn’t seem too pleased to see Samuel in possession and decides to try and break the poor lad’s legs. My world slows, I lose my sense of hearing for a split second, Wembley begins to spin. What on earth has he done!?
It’s a disgusting challenge and I immediately know what’s coming once I compose myself. Red. He’s let us down, he’s let the fans down, he’s let himself down.
I thought he looked weird in the dressing room before the game, but what do you say to a man staring intently at himself in a mirror? Now it all makes sense.
Jack Grealish is the man to come off, his dreams of being the hero crushed by Nathan Baker. I push Ross McCormack out wide and bring James Chester in to plug the hole at the back. I’m playing without a No.10 now but it’s fine, we can still cope.
Half-time arrives and it’s goalless. Nothing much to report other than the fact we were probably the better side before the red card. Nathan Baker is back in the toilets but this time locked in to one of the cubicals. He knows what he’s done. Win or lose, that man has played his final game for Villa.
I tell the rest of my players to go out there and give the fans what they want. Promotion. Be heroes, not Villans like Nathan Baker.
That speech seems to have worked. They look fired up. 45 minutes away from the Premier League.
Ross McCormack, the man who asked to leave in January, singlehandedly gives us the lead. His imposing run through the centre of the pitch has Reading players in a panic, and a mistimed Liam Moore challenge just outside the area leaves the referee no choice but to blow his whistle.
McCormack steps up and, thanks to a huge deflection, the ball hits the back of the net. Claret and blue limbs everywhere…
I’m running down to the touchline towards my players – images of this will be replayed on the TV forever. It truly is a magic moment. I’m warned by the referee that anything like that again and I’ll be sent to the stands – if I have another opportunity to do that it’s because we’ve scored again. Bring it on, I tell him.
What plays out for the rest of the game is the definition of torture. Something every fan will have experienced at some point in their lives, every manager too. You can’t avoid it. Well you can, but only if you don’t have Nathan Baker around to ruin things for you. Unfortunately I do.
We approach the final 10 minutes of the game still in the lead. But we’re on the back foot. Reading are making the most of their extra man and are slowly turning the screw. I switch to Contain and tell the lads to keep hold of the ball and to not do anything stupid.
And then the inevitable happens. My players bottle it. Reading win a corner and we fail to see Evans making a run to the near post, who calmly directs a low cross goal wards and past Gollini.
The blue and white half of Wembley erupts. Reading equalise in the 81st minute and totally deserve it – they have the momentum now and I fear the worst.
The game goes to extra time and I have no subs left. Chuba Akpom and Gary Gardner were introduced in the final 15 minutes to give us some fresh legs. Reading’s tails are up and the only way I see us winning this is via the lottery of a penalty shoot-out. I’m not sure my heart will cope with that, though.
Then, substitute Deniss Rakels runs on to a through ball with just a couple of minutes of extra time remaining and after outpacing my defenders, delivers a superb left footed finish past Gollini…
That was Rakels’ ninth goal of the season. Six of those have come against my team. I’m tempted to buy him in the summer because he’s impressed me. He’s also broken my heart more than once.
The full time whistle blows and a number of our players drop to the floor in despair. Reading are jubilant. I walk straight down the tunnel, I can’t bring myself to see the anguish on our fans’ faces. I don’t even speak to the players after the game, I leave that to my assistant.
There’s only one way to get over such a disappointment. A slow, sombre walk down Wembley Way. Walking away from the stadium. Away from the dreams I’d dreamt and the euphoria that winning would’ve brought.
I won’t be walking away from this job, though. A shake-up is needed in the summer and I know there will be a lot of players looking to leave. I won’t stand in their way, I want players with a backbone at this club.
Nathan Baker? I’ve already offered him out for sale, dropped him to the U23s, fined him a week’s wages and told him he no longer has a future at the club.
It’s ironic then that Baker is voted as Fans’ Player of the Year, shortly followed by Conor Hourihane and Rob Holding. Hourihane’s debut goal back in January wins Goal of the Season while Holding picks up the Signing of the Season and Young Player of the Season awards. £4.5m well spent.
Here’s how the full squad looks at the end of the season, ordered by goals…
Jordan Ayew and Ross McCormack end the season with 16 goals and 12 assists each. Jonathan Kodjia’s return of 13 goals and nine assists is impressive, while Tom Ince returned 10 goals and two assists, despite only signing in January. If I can keep hold of all four of those in the summer I’ll be a lucky guy.
But now it’s time for a holiday. Now it’s time to reflect. And the next episode will be a fresh new start – a no-longer unlucky Episode 14.