If you are late to this, do not fret – you just have a lot of catching-up to do…
Promotion is great news, but in truth, it was my minimum expectation for this season. Nine points clear with a couple of games in hand, we are still well on course to win the league, so today we will attempt to finish the job in plenty of time before the Vans Trophy final.
First up, it’s all aboard Chugger for a 100-mile jaunt to Southend. The Shrimpers are firmly mid-table and have a decent defence, though we should be able to stop them with our much-changed side. Farnerud and Renner are either side of Davies in midfield, and because of injuries and fitness concerns, and against my better judgement, Colosimo takes his place at right-back. The Australian national team haven’t even sniffed at him since he joined us. I can’t imagine why.
Three minutes on the clock, and Ronaldo has set his stall out for this game. After confusing the Shrimpers back line by forcing them to collectively question their sexuality, he beats them all and curls a shot into Darryl Flavahan’s top corner from the edge of the box. Then, we put together a tremendous team move – starting with Colosimo, who quickly and sensibly passes the ball to the much more capable Alex Farnerud. He knocks it inside to McKinlay, who lifts the ball over the top for the onrushing Victor Renner to drive a low shot past Flavahan for two. The Seasiders’ keeper is having a bit of a mare, in truth, and his day is compounded on the 25-minute mark. Wayne Carlisle lifts a cross into the box that Flavahan only manages to flap straight down to Duane Darby, and, hardly able to believe his luck, he taps home from a yard to make it 3-0 to the mighty Diamonds at the break.
I don’t want to make any changes – we’re in good nick and all my bench players are guys I don’t want getting stupid injuries, so I send the team out for the second half without any meddling. Immediately, Ronaldo gets a chance that he ‘can’t miss’, but believe it or not, he manages it. That’s pretty much the most interesting action of the half – I sub Renner eventually, as he drops below 70% fitness, but he runs out with the man of the match award anyway, and our first-half performance has given us a comfortable victory.
Post-match, John Convery makes the N.Ireland U21 squad, and Tarkan Mustafa is given another chance for Cyprus despite being sent off on his debut against Latvia. I’m surprised he isn’t suspended, but maybe red cards in friendlies didn’t count towards suspensions in 2001? Maybe they don’t now? My knowledge of the rules is patchy at best. This is what I have assistants for.
Carlisle United are up next, and despite being seventh in the league, I don’t worry too much about them. They have Richie Foran and Johnny Allan manning the forward guns, sure, but we’ve already played them twice this season and beaten them by a combined score of 6-1. They have a few injury worries as well, which only serves to bolster my pre-match overconfidence. My only real worry is ‘star’ goalkeeper Tony Roberts, who only concedes an average of one goal per game, so my forwards are going to need to be at their best if we want to knock a few more past him today.
I plan to leave my team as it is, but a glance tells me that my midfield three are a bit tired from their Essexcursion (thanks) so I rotate them. Bubb and Pflipsen’s yellow card warning labels are gone from beside their names, in another example of me not really knowing the rules… did yellows expire if they went a certain amount of time without picking up the fifth one? No idea. Perhaps I’m going mad? Either way, I’ll take it, and they both start, along with Chris Brandon. It’s my first-choice midfield, and I’m confident.
Well, I was wrong to be confident. It’s hard to explain what happens in this game, but the short version is that my players are appalling and barely even bother to try to get something out it. Richie Foran profits from our almost universal ineptitude, heading Carlisle in front after 23 minutes, and after an absolute bollocking at half time, my players go out with their shoulders shrugged and their feet up, and summarily Foran scores his second after 80 minutes to put the game away.
We only put one shot on target in the entire match despite having all my arch creators on the pitch at the same time. I tried to change it up, switched formation, made us more compact and direct, but nothing I did made even the slightest bit of difference. My players have totally let me down, and we’re a long way from the air of invincibility we had in the first half of the season. I have grave concerns about a cup final that I thought we’d walk when we were beating Southampton and Fulham earlier in the year. What the hell has happened here, lads? Where are you?
I have the long bus journey back from the north west to consider what I should do about this result. Annoyed as I am, I feel like I’ve got to see it as a blip. We were just collectively dreadful there, but in general, we’re still putting wins on the board. We’re nine points clear and, as we collapse outside Nene Park, we notice that the Macclesfield Town bus is already stopped there. We’ve got them next, and the games are coming so thick and fast that they’ve beaten us to our own ground.
There is much to consider. We have this game, then Oxford away in just two days’ time, then a four-day rest before the Vans Trophy final against a Port Vale side who are top of the Second Division by six points. Due to the fixtures being so close together I have pretty much no choice but to change most of the team to keep the side fresh. Macclesfield only played two days ago as well, so both sides are going to be like the walking dead. They’re doing pretty well for themselves in fairness, sixth in the league and firmly on course for a play-off place.
I decide that I just need to play the lads that are fit with a forward look to resting my best players in the next game, in time for the final. As such, it’s a bit of a mish-mash side that features a formation tweak. In the absence of a fit DMC, I’ve decided to try Andersson in the number 10 role behind my strikers, and Carey as a MC dropping in front of the back four when we’re defending. I’ve pretty much decided that I don’t care if the league goes a bit sideways – we’re promoted, nine points clear, and we’ve got a cup final to win next week, so let’s focus on that. My bench is made up of Lama, Gough, and a bunch of children I found in my reserves. I am definitely not sweating as I press Continue.
It’s a cagey start from both sides, but it doesn’t take long for everyone’s goalsheets to be stained. Andersson relishes his attacking role, and after 11 minutes he is on hand to tap home a rebound from a Jamie Davies effort to put us a goal up – but five minutes later, Macclesfield’s Lee Glover converts a cross to level the scores, then puts a second effort on target that also flies past Pinheiro to make it 2-1 at half time. My Portuguese wall is showing some serious cracks as the season goes on and I’m rather concerned about him – since his suspension, he’s been conceding much more regularly. However, as is so often the case, we’re on top in every department except the scoreline, so I tell the players to simply score two goals and not let any more in, and we should mathematically win this game.
I then prepare to take all the credit as my players do exactly what I ask, and it’s the gigantic forehead of Sir Les Ferdinand that does the job. First, Mustafa makes yet another marauding right-flank run, as he’s done all season, and swings in a near-post cross that our hero pumps past Steve Wilson. We’re level, but rocking, so I decide to make some changes in midfield. Davies and Carey have been rubbish, so Sambrook and 16-year-old David Bell replace them. As I make my changes I realise I probably should have played Victor Renner in the hole rather than Andersson, even though the Swede did have a good game in there. I assume this month’s best manager award will be in the post.
I summarily move Andersson into the central midfield role with the defensive duty and put Renner into the hole so that my fresh subs can be the ones who do all the running – and my genius knows no limits as Sambrook breaks forward and lofts a ball into the area for Sir Les to snatch the winner with only five minutes left. This was a topsy-turvy rollercoaster of a game, but we’re through it.
Post-match, a single click of continue takes us to our next match against Oxford United. We only need one point from our remaining four league games in order to take the title, so nobody important is going to play here – our next game is the bloody Vans Trophy final after all. Kah and Plummer are injured anyway and Ronaldo has started his suspension, so it’s another mostly changed team – only Convery and Andersson retain their places in the interests of protecting their superior colleagues. I give young Bell his first senior start and Sambrook also comes into the line-up after notching a lovely assist in the last game… definitely not because I don’t really have many other central midfielders left.
Darby and young Robert Duffy start up front together for the first time and I’m curious to see if the Welshman has got anything about him. Even the long-lost Jean-Michel Sigere makes the bench. Oxford United have diddled us once this season and with such heavy rotation I have absolutely no expectations that we will win this match. It doesn’t matter, though. It’s a free hit. Let’s go.
I am surprised to watch my back-up charges put together a really solid opening half. Darby and Duffy are a menace to the Oxford back line, and after passing up a couple of glorious chances, Duffy finally opens his account for the mighty Diamonds after receiving a through ball from his strike partner. Soon after they’re at it again, Duffy eventually hits a shot that’s only parried by Richard Knight, and abwild Martin Andersson appears to convert his second goal in consecutive games to put us 2-0 up at half-time.
The second period is a much different affair, and Bernard Lama is extremely busy in goal – but, to the surprise of everyone in the Kassam, he isn’t a total liability. He flies around to deny Moody and Omoyinmi, and when he is eventually beaten, Sambrook is behind him to clear off the line. At the other end, Darby has the ball in the net but the goal is disallowed for offside. It’s a real ding-dong battle now, and I can’t believe my eyes as Lama saves again from Martin Thomas – and that’s it, it’s all over! We’ve won the league with a team held together by Sellotape and blu-tack! What a fantastic game that was. Cut and thrust first half, backs to the wall second, all in the name of the league title. Well played lads – that was fantastic. Chhhhaaaampionnnnnnns!
Right then. The league is sewn up, and next time, it’s going to be all about the Vans Trophy final. I want my double. The occasion might even call for a video with commentary…