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Remembered as Comets: Not as Dead Rocks


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This is the "companion" thread to Finis Coronat Opus over on the Career Update forum. As I like the idea of trying to tell the same story in two different ways. Plus I like both communities

Football, the beautiful game, not really any dispute about that moniker, the drama, excitement and tension that the sport can deliver is a huge draw for fans the world over. All that emotion, on display at such pace, distilled into moments that take the breath away. Yet, we forget so much, or maybe it is only me? Shouldn't we do more to hold on to as much as possible? More than just fleeting moments of amazement? Hold onto the context so the importance of the moment can be weighed and measured accordingly.

Enough babble... let me give you some examples:

I remember a Jack Wilshire goal, for Arsenal, against Norwich. The ball comes down the left, gets around the area and it's all one touch, the ball doesn't touch the ground until it is in the net. But I couldn't tell you the year, or the end result of the game.

Staying with Arsenal, I can see Dennis Bergkamp take a touch that seems to defy the laws of physics. He bends the ball around the defender and he meets it on the other side clean through on goal. I think that goal came against Man Utd, but I could be wrong. Once more I've no idea what year it was or the final score of the game.

Tony Yeboah for Leeds, chests down a clearance outside the box, he controls it with his knee, bouncing the ball away from his body and creating the arc needed to be able to volley it. The ball smashes in off the underside of the bar. No idea who he scored that goal against, the year or the result.

The list could go on, endless, each fantastic highlight sparking the memory of another. But what is the point of remembering the moment if you cannot recall it's sway on history. 

I don't know how many moments I will get in this peculiar situation I have been placed in, but I do know I will do my utmost to keep a journal, some form of record as to the moments that shape the history of this club and the players who ply their trade here in order to create such moments. 

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Not every day you get a phone call informing you, not asking I might add, but informing you that you are to be the manager of a club. I had been toying with the idea of management, Having played 59 times for my country I definitely fell into a certain band of ex players who were expected to transition into a career based around the sport. I scored 4 international goals in those 59 caps, while it is something I am immensely proud of it isn't the greatest haul ever. However, I scored more international goals than I made appearances as a pundit. That particular after football career path was definitely not for me. The generic, "company line" driven analysis drove me nuts. Man Utd's absurd penalty award count was not to be used to insinuate that their players were going down easy in the area as a way to make up for being poor in pretty much every other area. VAR was to be attacked and protested at every opportunity, that it was threatening the soul and purity of the sport. The list goes on, however the short version is that punditry was most certainly not for me, which left me heart broken at the missed opportunity of getting to sell crisps on television.

So when the phone call came in I was shocked, even more shocked when it was for a football club I had never actually heard of.

"Which team did you say you represented again?"

"We are Chelsea F.C, and you are going to be our manager."

"Who will I be replacing? I haven't seen any news about a sacking."

"We are a newly founded club for the coming season, you will be our first ever manager." I must admit this made the most sense out of the call to this point. Of course an ex professional player would be a sought after commodity for a newly founded club in the lower tiers.

"Which league are you going to be starting in?"

"The Premier League." Now, that sense of sense was gone. A newly founded club, straight in the door at the top table? And they wanted me to manage the team? I felt dizzy, I also felt like this was moving towards the realms of a crank call. "Hello, are you still there Mr Greenwood?"

"When you say the Premier League, you mean the English Premier League?" This was probably an absolutely ridiculous question, but it felt like a ridiculous situation so what the heck.

"Yes that is exactly what we mean. I understand this is a lot to take in and process, if you would provide me with an e-mail address I can send you some club information to give you a better picture of our situation." I provided my least embarrassing e-mail information and politely ended the call. Only a few minutes later said club details had been delivered for me to look at.

In the end, the answer was simply, it came down to money. The pandemic had affected sport worldwide, caused financial problems at every level. The English football league solution seemed to be a redistribution of teams in order to spread some of the finances about, stabilising each league as best as possible with more solvent clubs in them, replacing the unfortunate ones that had folded. This reshuffle left a 1 team gap in the Premier League, to which they simply created a team from scratch. But not just any team, this was a team that looked fully stacked ready to challenge! Backed by a Russian oligarch named Roman Abramovich, who had pulled no punches when it came to laying the foundations for the club. Excellent youth facilities, some of the best staff money could buy, and players drawn from clubs all over the world. 

Once again, because of money. The Russians billions were trickling to clubs all over the world through the transfers he had acquired. Through the players whose wages we were paying but were loaned out to other teams, leagues and countries. Then there was the money that would be born of the spectacle. The uproar of the old guard of big clubs, and their supporters. Those who had fought tooth and nail for every achievement, to see a newly formed competitor raised up to their level with a click of the fingers, that wasn't acceptable. That emotion, would fuel online news subscriptions, sell printed newspapers. People would follow us to hopefully see us fail, or to complain when we succeeded, or that our success was in no way comparable to the amount of money we had spent. Thus they would surmise that even our success would be classed as a failure. All that emotion, all that attention, would create money.

I felt dizzy again, all that expectation and pressure would be on my shoulders. Especially as it seemed I was the leveller, the odd one out. They hadn't gone out and gotten the best manager in the world, they could probably have afforded anyone. However, that might very well have been the straw to break the back, putting an experienced accomplished manager at the helm of such a juggernaut would have almost guaranteed success. Instead, placing a wild card, a court jester like myself in charge, that tipped the scales of fairness back from the point of no return.

My hand wavered over the phone as I hesitated to call the club back and tell them I would accept their offer. I had to be crazy to take this job, but then I would have to be crazy to not grasp such an opportunity with both hands. In the end I dialled, at least I wouldn't have to contemplate selling potato based snacks ever again.

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Possibly a sign of the times that our pre season training camp took place in England, with the two games to warm the squad up coming against Wigan and Watford. I guess it's fine. Pre season when I was a player involved nothing more than doing the hard work to prepare for the season to come. It didn't really matter who the opponents were, it was about fitness and working on the bosses tactics. Felt strange being the person developing those tactics, but then everything about this was strange. I had  sheet of names, preferred positions and some historical stats on how each player had played for the club they had been signed from.

While the first two nuggets of information made identifying the players and where I might put them on the pitch slightly easier. The stats were pretty useless. Yes it was interesting knowing the Moroccan winger Hakim Ziyech had a wand of a left foot, but until he was able to develop an understanding with the attacking players around him at the club it was unrealistic to expect him to reproduce the assists and passing stats I had on the sheet before me. It all just felt surreal. Again as a player I had seen new signings coming in, but they were usually procured to fit into a set position and compliment the players we already had. Here, we had gone from having nothing to everything in a single day. I felt like I was trying to put a jigsaw together upside down, no picture, just the pattern of the pieces as a guide.

The atmosphere around the club was strange as well. No hierarchy, with everyone coming in on an even footing, picking a captain was even more of a gut feeling than it usually was. It felt like an psychological experiment, where everyone is given a role to play. How come person X is a guard and person Y is a prisoner? Why is player A straight into the group of players looking to go back out on loan, while player B is straight into the first team. With no history it was like walking on egg shells, lots of hand gestures and smiles to help get the point across. Neutral language and taking the time to ensure that I gave appropriate respect in order to get it back. Respect, like many good things is earned over time, and we had, had precious little of the later.

Which is probably why in our first friendly game the week before the training camp we lost. 0-1 away to Rennes. We didn't play like a team, we weren't on the same page. It felt like watching a movie scene of teenage couple. Kissing, cuddling, experimenting, they are eager and enthusiastic, they even have some idea of what to do. But they don't know each other, the timing is off, the movements are fumbled and awkward. That was us, we were still the better team and dominated the ball, till with just under 10 minutes to go a cross just inside the area split our centre back pairing. Neither one knew whether to defer to the other and go for the ball or not, and the Rennes forward stole between them, a downward header past the keeper into the bottom corner saw them take the win.

If we had been flat on the pitch, we were equally so in the dressing room, everyone sat in clumps, small little clichés and fledgling friendship groups. Everyone looking at me, I was the driver of this crazy train it was down to me to steer us in the right direction. I once more fell back on my playing days, and the echoes of what managers had said to me.

"In the end the result doesn't matter, we go through pre season to improve, physically, tactically, mentally. Both as individuals and as a unit. Pre season is about getting better. Today we got better, it doesn't always come hand in hand with winning, but it's a start." As I looked round the room, the majority had their heads up and were looking back at me, some were even nodding in agreement and understandings. But boy did it feel like we had a long way to go.  

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I don't believe in perfect, a good friend of mine once said that 

"Perfect is the enemy of good." in which he meant that constantly searching and striving for perfection would stop you from realising all the good you had achieved along the way. So we didn't lose another game in pre season, we scored 13 goals and only conceded once, but we were far from perfect. The game in which we conceded, against recently relegated Watford, we fell behind in the 68th minute, and I thought we would lose the game. Then in the 86th minute we levelled, then scoring two more goals in the next 7 minutes to win 1-3. Some people would see this as a massive let off and might have come down hard on the lads. But I'm not that manager, this group hasn't been together long enough in order for me to break them down. Was the performance a little lacklustre other than the 10 or so minutes when we scored three times? Yes it was, but we won the game, and we played better than we had played the game before.

Did that increase in motivation and confidence the players received from me not having a go at them help us not lose for the rest of pre season? Maybe, all I know is we got better in both of the following games, against better opposition. Next would come our first real test, the opening game of our inaugural Premier League season, away from home against Wolves.

Off the pitch and the trickle function of the club was in full swing. Players, mainly the older players were requesting transfers back to their native lands. Willy Cabellero went to River, Olivier Giroud went to Marseille , neither interested to stay and be part of this experiment long term. Baba Rahman secured himself a big contract hike to go play for Shenzhen. With the money left in the transfer kitty plus the sales of these players I was able to bring in some squad options at right back and left winger. Tin Jedvaj had been a rising star who even I had heard of, though his current ability had not lived up to the expectation of what he would have produced by this age. A measly £2.5m in the current game to bring him in as a squad player and allow him to find his feet. Marcus Edwards had been on the books at Spurs, though he never played for them. They sold him to a second tier Portuguese side where he had played only a handful of games. I brought him back to London for £12m he's only 21 years old, and his time at Spurs means he already meets the trained within the nation criteria for the squad. On top of which he has the potential to be a remarkable player in his own right.

Slow steps, it's been all of five friendly games, already players have left to continue their story elsewhere, others have come to us, ready to write their first chapter alongside what will be our first chapter in Premier League history. 

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September certainly threw fuel on the fire. But then it isn't like we did ourselves any favours. 

"if your going to get in trouble for something you might as well be doing it anyway." Said most men with a penchant for wandering. In our case if we were going to be disliked and abused by fans and certain arms of the media we might as well enjoy ourselves while it happened. So not only did we go undefeated in both domestic competitions but we did so in roguish fashion. Our 8-1 demolition of Southampton increased the volume on the howls of protest regarding how we could be such a finished article having only played 3 games. Behind the scenes we had decided before the game to do nothing but attack, that was what the board wanted, that had been the focus on the players who filled the squad. We would play to our strengths and see what happened. Personally I was guilty in not taking my foot off the gas, I kept pushing the players all the way through until the final whistle. Partly because it felt good, the players were enjoying themselves and such a performance brought us together. However on the other hand, as much as I understood the frustrations of rival teams and supporters, I had very much decided that it wasn't my problem.

I had a board to appease, fans to win over, and a fledgling club to make successful. Yes there were going to be shots fired at us from all areas, but we weren't going to take them lying down. We would let our performances on the pitch do our responding, and an 8-1 in our first home game was a pretty spectacular response.

With 0-2 wins away either side of our home display, we sat top of the league by virtue of our superior goal difference. Rotation in the EFL cup had seen us limp through the 3rd round against MK Dons, before coasting past Burton 5-1 at home. Having been drawn against two league 1 sides, in consecutive rounds didn't help the impression that the scales were being tipped in our favour in any way possible. 

Stand out moments for me were new signing Marcus Edwards scoring on his debut for the club, and return to the country from Portugal. And while every player is new to this club and just starting out. Seeing Thierno Ballo our 18 year old Austrian score on his substitute debut was also pretty special. He is being touted as having a significant amount of potential to live up to.

Off the pitch I scooped the manager of the month award, while Kai Havertz won the young player of the month award. Other than that, the only drama was the ongoing saga of trying to sign Leandro Paredes from PSG. His agent of all people had made him known to us early in the month. Having scouted him, I liked his ability to play in our system, I also noted that the French side wanted our play maker Jorginho, who conversely didn't really suit our primary system that well. The players were of similar value so I offered a straight trade. No dice, which I will admit annoyed me. I added a token couple of million to the deal but still they wanted almost Leandro's full value as well as our player. Not happening so we walked away.

Leandro put in a transfer request in the second week of the month, so we went back again, his transfer request knocked £10m off the price but that still wasn't the deal we wanted, so we came away again. With about a week left of the transfer window we went back one last time, same token amount of money, but with a yearly amount for the next two years to bring the total price up. Success! we now are waiting on the two players accepting contracts to see if we actually get our man.

For the purpose of this 1st season, I will be ignoring the Champions League games in this thread, as, as far fetched as a club being created from scratch and starting in this manner is, even I cannot accept they would be seeded directly into the top European Competition

 

Edited by Mandy42
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It's not paranoia if they are really out to get you.

However, knowing when they are out to get you, that is the real trick.

The Leandro saga wound on all the way to transfer deadline day, the delay was cited as waiting on a work permit authorisation. To me it smacks of a disgruntled party somewhere within the inner workings of the  machine, making us sweat till the last minute. You see Leandro is from Argentina and has already been well established in Europe while playing for PSG. Furthermore he has played in a whopping 88% of his countries recent internationals. The minimum qualifying criteria for a permit is 30%

I know I said that their problems and projections were not my problem, however they are my problem when they make problems for me!!! I need to breath, need to squeeze the stress sloth. No that's not a euphemism you filthbag, at least we have our man now and can move forward, and squeeze.

I've also come up with a slightly more inspiring reason for my employment than the fact that I am simply the fall guy. This is just me working inside my own head, I can't say I've received this officially, which means the club can protest their innocence and deny all knowledge. I feel I was hired because I have no conflicting experience. All of this is new to me, and I am just doing my best to strive ahead solving one problem at a time. Other managers, those who have been in the game slightly longer than my 3 month tenure, are having to recalibrate themselves for tighter fixture lists, a transfer window that doesn't end until the first week of October. Then they have to restack the apple cart and get their heads around reverting back to normal this time next year. I've never known any different.

Oh and while we are on the topics of unofficial and outside problems. The ridiculous story that we are apparently the subject of a potential takeover bid is complete press populated fantasy. We going to burn through a billionaire a season? Please, that is just a story fabricated to maintain the perception that we are more of a circus than a football club.

Something my relative inexperience doesn't help me with is the sense of growing pressure. At the end of October we still sit top of the league, still by virtue of superior goal difference over 2nd place Man Utd. Yet, while sitting top with a target on our backs is a form of pressure, it is the manner in which we came to sit there which is causing me problems.

3rd of October we played Villa at home and we continued our trend of scoring freely and conceding cheaply when the game is out of sight. A 5-1 demolition saw us start the new month in exactly the same way we finished the last. We would then face a two week international break before our hardest test of the campaign so far. A trip to Goodison Park to play an Everton side who sat 7th at the start of the game. The highest league position out of any of our opponents to date. Even though we were the away side we dominated the game, they only had 1 shot on target from 4 attempts. Unfortunately they scored with that 1 shot, an Alex Iwobi header 10 minutes before halftime which cancelled out a Timo Werner header earlier in the half. Neither side could break the deadlock in the second period and the game finished a draw. The Everton fans were celebrating as though they had won the league, they had become the answer to the pub quiz question

"Which team was the first to take points from the financial abomination that is this new Chelsea football club." I walked off the pitch and down the tunnel attempting to not admit I could hear the sound of sharpening knives.

8 days later we went north to St James Park, the place was a cauldron before kick off. Then with only 12 minutes played the place erupted as Callum Wilson benefitted from an attempted clearance hitting him in the back and bouncing into our net. It felt like we were unravelling, we hadn't played badly against Everton, and we certainly had the upper hand so far here against Newcastle, yet things seemed to be conspiring against us. I couldn't shake that feeling, even when a Timo Werner double saw us go in at half time 1-2 up, I still felt sick.

That feeling might have leaked out in the dressing room and affected the players, as 3 minutes after the restart and Newcastle were level, the stadium felt like it was shaking with the jubilation of the fans. For the second time in 2 games we were looking at a draw and dropped points, blood was definitely in the water. The really sickening thing was not the stroke of luck they had with their 1st, but that their 2nd was a product of the exact game plan our scouts had informed us they favoured. Route one football, a clearance into space for one winger, who then plays a long cross field ball to the other wing, for the right winger to get into the box as quickly as possible and take a chance on goal.

Three minutes later and we were back in front, by the end of the game we had won 5-2, but that anger at being our own worst enemy for large periods of the game, that stuck with me all the way home to London.

Our final game of the month was at home to Crystal Palace, a team languishing in 16th place in the table. We took the lead in the 21st minute, but instead of being at our most dangerous after we scored, as had been the case in so many of our games to date. This time we were 1-2 down a scant 7 minutes later. A free second header from a set piece, and too much space afforded around our box for the second. On 33 minutes we were once again our own villain. Afforded a lifeline back into the game with a penalty, Mason Mount placed it straight at the keeper, who then followed up and saved his second effort out for a corner. 

I am slightly ashamed to admit that at halftime I lost my temper and flung a water bottle across the dressing room, the majority of the squad took it as the gesture of my frustration that I had intended. However Reece James and Callum Hudson-Odoi both looked aghast by my actions and I will have to be careful in future. We scored three unanswered goals in the second half to win the game 4-2, I didn't have the heart to tell the players that we had gotten off the hook at the end of the game, not after laying into them at halftime.

That however was how I felt, we had gone from conceding 2 goals in 5 competitive matches in September. To 6 goals conceded in 4 games in October. Any honeymoon period was certainly over, I felt like a nervous wreck. Where did I put that bloody stress sloth!

  

Edited by Mandy42
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We will start with the most important business and go from there. The stress sloth is dead! More accurately he is now in two pieces, as I squeezed his head all the way off. Quite frankly I am surprised he made it as far through the month as he did. Though, once again to be completely accurate the stress sloth is, was, rather asexual. Actually I've no idea how you tell the difference between the male and female of the species. For crying out loud this job is already making me lose my mind! I'm babbling about sloth genitalia!

Last point on the sloth, I have contemplated keeping the head, as it would allow me to have some form of stress ball available to me on match days. That is the up side, the downside is that it might make a rather unseemly bulge in my suit trouser pocket, let alone what squeezing it might look like on the television cameras! I will have to weigh up the pros and cons.

The chairman has come out in rather vocal fashion rubbishing any potential takeover bids. A shame that the louder we protest it seems all that happens is we fuel the fire of speculation. I find it harder and harder to take the press conferences seriously, being forced to answer questions about stories that wouldn't exist if the press hadn't made them up in the first place! On an aside, after I threw and kicked water bottles around the dressing room, various members of the backroom staff have been careful to keep them at arms length. They haven't exactly been letting me dehydrate, but there always seems to be someone on hand to whisk the bottle away. We haven't quite got to the point where I am being frisked as I enter the press room, but I think our press officer Lilly Lynch has sent out a communique ensuring that I don't get into a press conference with a water bottle. Otherwise it would be only a matter of time before I launch it at a journalist.

We only played three games this month, so what on earth could have happened to spell the doom of stress sloth? Well I suppose that is the main reason for writing all this down, so here goes.

Our 1st game of the month was away at Liverpool. Now, going to Anfield at any point is special. the ground has such history, and full of spectators it is quite the spectacle. Though going there while we sat top of the league, and Liverpool were on a two game losing streak, well that added even more drama to the occasion. Would we be able to keep our run going, piling more misery on the reds in the process? Or would Jurgen Klopp have them fired up to turn their slump around and they come out all guns blazing. I guess that is one of the many wonderful facets of football. Which team would turn up to play? The Liverpool side who destroyed Leicester 6-0, or the team who lost to Aston Villa?

One final setback occurred before the trip to Merseyside. Kante, who I had rested for the Palace game in order to ensure he didn't received a 5th yellow card and a suspension for this game. He suffered a calf strain in the training session leading up to the game and will be side lined for 4-5 weeks. Devastating, mainly as he is a key component as to how we play, such an extraordinary player in the way he can almost singlehandedly defend and influence such a large area of the pitch. His presence allows us to field more attacking options than would otherwise be possible. The other side of this problem is that there isn't a like for like replacement in the squad. While Tiemoue Bakayoko is not really comparable to Kante, he is at least a more defensive minded player, unfortunately he is on loan at Napoli.

Without or defensive fulcrum, and having shown signs of weakness last month I sent the players out with a more reserved frame of mind at Anfield. In the opening minute as Mendy rushed, sliding across his box to scoop up a through ball before Diogo Jota could latch onto it, I knew it was going to be a long afternoon. Though after than initial scare we grew into the game, having the most of the ball. Yet, for all our possession in and around the Liverpool box, it felt like walking a tight rope above a shark pit. The Liverpool press made every pass look dangerous, any hesitation on the ball or 50/50 challenge had the potential to see Liverpool snatch the ball and break with pace. Until on 19 minutes we forged a breakthrough. Pulisic on the left, lifting the ball to the back post for Ziyech to appear around the back and prod home before Alisson could get himself set.

Liverpool seemed shocked by conceding, and we continued to have the better of the game, if not for better finishing from both Pulisic and Ziyech we might have extended our advantage. Liverpool were by no means toothless however, the constant threat of turning the ball over grated on my nerves. When Milner beat Ziyech to a cross field pass for the 1st time in the game, the ensuing Liverpool counter was lightning fast. It ended with a Firmino header, which thankfully was straight at Mendy, either side of him and Liverpool would have been level. I couldn't take anymore, I dispatched instructions for the players to adopt a defensive attitude, not to completely park the bus, but to take much more care than we had at kick off.

Liverpool saw more of the ball, and strangely, it was our press that became more deadly the longer the half went on. Perhaps simply because Liverpool held the ball for longer periods of time, then we had more opportunities to press them. Yet due to our defensive mentality we lacked the players high enough up the pitch to convert winning possession into goals. We did however maintain our lead to halftime.

Five minutes after the restart and Jordon Henderson snatches the ball in the centre circle from a poor pass from Reece James. My heart is in my mouth as he pushes forward, as quickly like that a 3 on 3 in our defensive third. Henderson feeds Salah, who draws defenders to him before trying to play Firmino in to the box. A last ditch sliding tackle by Thiago Silva steals the ball away from him. Time seems to stand still as I and the majority of our defence cast around looking to see if a penalty has been awarded. Henderson isn't waiting for the whistle and he strikes the ball as it runs free just outside the area. Mendy, half an eye on the official has to quickly adjust his feet, flinging himself to his left, he gets a fingertip on the ball, deflecting it against the angle of crossbar and post, before it bounces harmlessly out for a corner. I desperately want to collapse, with my head in my hands, but by force of will alone I stop my knees from buckling and instead clamp down hard on my jaw.

The way we are set up, we seem fine coming forward when we foil a Liverpool attack, but with the ball at our feet we appear unsure with what to do. Passing the ball around aimlessly short, before attempting a low percentage long ball which just gifts possession back to the reds. I contemplate making further tactical adjustments when a few minutes after the Henderson chance, the increased numbers back around our box easily snuff out a Liverpool attack. Marcus Alonso plays a long ball forward. Timo Werner is the only Chelsea player in the Liverpool half, but he gets on the ball, surrounded by three defenders he somehow wriggles free and drives into the box. His first shot is pushed wide by Alisson, but Werner is the first to the rebound, forced to take a touch before shooting again. His second effort glances off the angle of post and goes out for a goal kick. I leave the team the way it is for the time being.

The trend continues, we play some lovely short pass and move football which keeps Liverpool on their toes and unable to get the ball back. That is until we get to the halfway line and then we go slightly longer and give the ball away. A few times Salah gets on the end of the following Liverpool move, he is denied twice by being offside, and the last time by a sliding Alonso deflection for a corner. I give in to my nervousness, deciding to abandon any attempt at attacking threat on the counter and decide to go even more defensive. Pulling the wingbacks back to sit in and defend alongside our centre backs.

This nullifies the game for 10-15 minutes as we get to 80 minutes without further incident. Keita and Thiago are on for Liverpool as they go to 3 at the back and take off a holding midfield player in an attempt to bring more quality on to break us down. Anytime a ball comes towards the edge of our box, 4 or 5 Liverpool players are prowling trying to force a mistake. In these moments Thiago Silva shows his experience, diffusing some pressure with a deft headed flick back to the keeper.

It has been raining since just before the half time whistle, the pitch is becoming slippery, the ball slick. It is all Liverpool, as every time we win the ball back we hack it clear rather than looking to play out. This is as much to do with how tired the players are as well as their tactical instructions. With 8 minutes to play Alonso just doesn't have the energy to stop Salah going past him and the Egyptian finally works himself an unobstructed shooting angle. Mendy gets a diving hand to it, palming it down. The wet surface and the spin on the ball threaten to see it dribble in, before Mendy manages to vault back up and claim the lose ball. Not sure my knees will get me to 90 minutes never mind stoppage time.

We look dead on our feet, the passes we play no longer look dangerous due to the Liverpool press, it is now simply a matter of which pass will be cut out, or which player will dawdle on the ball too long and have it taken away. Thiago is the next Liverpool player to profit from Henderson stealing the ball back high up the pitch, but gratefully his attempt goes shockingly wide. 

Somehow, with 5 minutes of the 90 to play, we get hold of the ball and keep it, moving it into the Liverpool half. It comes at a cost though, Hakim Ziyech pulls up limping as he tries keep a long ball from going out for a Liverpool goal kick. He rolls to the side of the pitch and having already made our allocated substitutions, we have to play the dying minutes with only 10 men.

There will be 6 minutes of stoppage time! For a blissful second, outrage burns away the fear and nerves, I want to turn and scream at the fourth official but I don't have the energy, plus I don't want to be that kind of manager, heck at the moment I am not sure I want to be a manager full stop. Halfway through time added on and Liverpool have a left of centre free kick a third of the way into our half. Everyone but the keeper and the taker are on the edge of our box. As the ball comes in it looks to start with as though it is curling in towards goal. However, as it flies through the pouring rain it's trajectory is beyond the far post, it is steadily dipping as it comes into the box. No less than 5 Liverpool players attempt to connect with it, the last a sprawling spray of surface water as they slide to the by line in an effort to hook it back into play. It is however a goal kick. 

At the point Ziyech hobbled off I gave instructions to slow down everything we could. The only time I've taken my eyes off the pitch is to embrace our Moroccan winger as he gingerly makes his way to the dressing room. Mendy takes an age over the goal kick, and displaying more bravery than me, kicks it out short to Tomori, we knock a minute off the clock passing the ball about in our half before we give it away. Diogo Jota, the player Mendy denied a lifetime ago in the 1st minute, collects the ball on the Liverpool left wing. He drifts past Reece James as though our wingback needs a walking stick. He is into the area and jinks outside Tomori who thankfully lets him go past him rather than stick out a leg. Silva is dashing to the near post to cut out a passing angle, Jota straightens up and comes right down the by line at him. The ball goes out behind the goal, Jota and Silva is flat on the floor, Jota is rolling in a heap into the side netting. He struggles to untangle himself as he is flailing his arms around wanting a penalty. The referee takes a long look, the linesman is on the opposite side, an age later he signals a goal kick.

We take our sweet time over this one as well, once more we roll the ball out short, Tomori finds Havertz just over the halfway line and in an act of pure frustration Henderson comes straight through the back of him to award us the free kick that allows us to see out the remaining time.

I don't quite believe it, after the emotional wringer of the last 96 minutes, the euphoria feels distant, as though it is dampened by the lashing rain of Anfield.

By comparison, our next game at home to Fulham is only slightly frustrating. Fulham are 19th, and although they have shown brief glimpses of quality, they are the architects of their own demise, trying to play the same brand of expansive football that got them promoted. However, we struggle, needing a Mason Mount penalty in stoppage time at the end of the 1st half to put us ahead. Mason snatches up the ball before I can get instructions on for him not to take it, just a flaming good job he converted. Tammy Abraham heads in from a set piece early in the second half and I shut up the shop for the last 30 minutes. It is another clean sheet and 3 points, however the unstoppable play that saw us put 8 past Southampton seems to be the work of a completely different team.

Final game of the month sees us away to Brighton. They sit 17th and again everyone expects us to turn up and steamroll over them. One pundit goes as far as suggesting that

"Brighton might as well not turn up." 

Brighton should have been in front within the 1st minute, Tariq Lamptey, obviously in the mood, facing his former club. Takes advantage of space on the right wing to deliver a deadly dipping cross to the back post. In a packed 6 yard box I don't see who manages to smuggle the ball out for a corner, I am just relieved they did.

While we look threatening when we get time on the ball, it is Brighton who are dictating play and having the majority of possession. It takes us until the 12th minute to win our 1st corner. Lamptey showing he can defend just as well as attack as he blocks a Hudson-Odoi cross. From the resulting corner Abraham goes down in the box and VAR indicates he was pushed. Mount converts his 2nd penalty in two games, though the lead doesn't ease the discomfort I feel.

We grow into the game, though greater possession in advanced areas of the pitch doesn't bring a greater goal threat. The corners we win are cleared, a couple of free kicks into the wall, otherwise the shots we do manage are tame or blocked. Just before the half we hold the ball for an extended period, working it down the left, all the way back to the keeper and then down the right. For the first time Alonso gets to a 50/50 ball before Lamptey and plays Hudson-Odoi in top the available space on the left wing. With time our winger puts in a decent ball, which Abraham turns home from just about the penalty spot, doubling our advantage.

Brighton show they won't take this lying down, instead of just playing out till halftime, they come at us from the restart. Lamptey gets the ball and goes past Alonso as though the Spaniard is standing still. His ball into the box isn't cleared first time, but thankfully the resulting chance is straight at Mendy. I send us out for the 2nd half looking to play more conservatively and counter when we can.

A minute after the restart and Brighton have one back, again Lamptey is instrumental driving down the right, he cuts the ball back outside the area, where Bissouma takes a touch before unleashing a savage right footed drive which is in the net before Mendy really moves. The unease is most certainly back. The second half is worse than the Liverpool game. In total Brighton have 21 attempts at goal, 9 of them on target, they finish with an xG total of 2.34, they have a massive 22 corners. I come away quite shell shocked and feeling rather lucky to have escaped with the win.

My lasting thought on the coach home is that this month was only three games. December has six.... Maybe baggier trousers will conceal the sloth's head enough?

 

 

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  • 3 weeks later...

As ridiculous as this might sound, one place I don't need the sloth, head or indeed any other part of him, is away from the stadium. In the backrooms and quiet halls of power, the day to day running of the club, I feel calm. The only reason I can think of that this is the case, is that we are all in the same position. While I have never managed a football team before, the Russian billionaire at the other end of the table hasn't ever built a football club from scratch either. On the pitch the players under my management have played for other clubs, and a direct comparison of how they are doing under my system can be drawn to their performances before. In the staff meetings, we are all finding our way together.

Which is partly why I enjoyed our last recruitment meeting so much. It did seem strange, talking about who we wanted to bring in during the transfer window, when we had only just brought all the players in a few months ago. Yet, maybe slightly tragically, for some of the initial selection, their journey was already over. Some have mentioned previously, this experiment not for them, wanting to return to clubs in their own country to see out the end of their careers. Others simply were found wanting and not good enough to stay, a scant few more just didn't fit into my plans short or long term.

The rest of the backroom staff, and the chairman listening in had only one item on the agenda, one which, the detail of didn't bother me. They wanted to replace Danny Drinkwater, and while yes, a player going out gave us the option to bring someone else in, I didn't want another player like him. I already had enough players like him, hence why, at the bottom of the pecking order, he was being moved on. I did however want to look for another version of a different midfielder. Kante's injury and the subsequent softening of our midfield had made me brutally aware of how unique he was within our squad. 

At this suggestion, there was a moments hesitation and disappointment at the easy dismissal of their suggestion, a few looks at the chairman who remained noncommittal. Then they came to the silent consensus that I was indeed the boss and we got down to business. We went through what kind of player the scouts should be looking for, age, temperament, ability both current and projected. Then we switched to the analysts, what stats I was most interesting in having at my disposal in order to compare any candidates the scouts came back with.

The sheer choice at my disposal was slightly staggering, how specific I could be about the criteria I wanted to both search for and compare. Once that had been decided we went through the current scout recommendations and I earmarked those who interested me. Then before everyone started looking around as to whether we had finished I raised my any other business. I wanted to look for a keeper, not just a future prospect or a backup I wanted a starter. Internally I was torn, we were top of the league, had only lost one competitive game. We had gone away to Anfield and kept a clean sheet, was I mad wanting a keeper?

The truth was I don't know, what I did know was that I didn't feel confident with either of our options. For the money they had cost to bring in they should be performing better in games than I felt they were. Though the money we payed was probably inflated by Russian billionaire pricing and the fact we were under pressure to in fact be able to field a full squad. The Ronaldo goal he scored with his head in the Champions League. Yes he's Ronaldo, and yes the ball in is great. But the only person who can see the whole thing unfolding is the keeper. At the point that his head makes contact with the ball, our keeper could have reached out his arm and touched him. So why didn't he come for the ball? The goal against Rennes in our friendly, again in the Champions League, and against Brighton in the league. Shots of various quality from outside the box. They might not have been saveable, but I needed a keeper who could at least get close to them. 

I knew I was expected to play an attacking, possession based game, which required my wingbacks to be up the pitch in supporting roles. While all of my defenders would be required to be capable with the ball at their feet and further up the pitch to be able to pass the ball effectively. That meant a lot of physical work to get up and down the field, while requiring considerable mental concentration when we had the ball, let alone when we didn't. That meant, for the sake of my own sanity, I wanted a keeper I could rely on to not singlehandedly let down all of the hard work of the players ahead of him. 

I had made all that clear to myself in my head before the meeting, so once I raised the point at the table, we went straight to the scout and analyst information. With all that sorted the meeting was indeed over and we disbursed to our individual duties. So why did I find that so enjoyable? Probably because it was a slow part of the process of putting my own stamp on this who crazy show. Every player I searched for, picked from a selection and brought to the club, they were mine. While selecting the team for every match was my decision, this was a further extension of that. These were my cogs, which meant when I had amassed enough of them, then the whole machine would be mine.

Of course, the other side of that coin was that I was providing myself with just enough rope to get keelhauled with in the event of a mutiny. But that was simply the sloth talking, lonely without me from his place stuffed in the back of my desk draw in my office.

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  • 1 month later...

I feel I learned a lot about being a manager in the last month. Through December the weather was horrid, it worsened towards the end of the month. My mood followed suit almost in lockstep. It seemed by the end that the smallest inconvenience or slight had me in a rage.

For example, my family had  tolerated that during my professional playing career, there was an expectation that I would be involved in the Christmas football program and thus not available for family festive activities. This year, having only recently retired from football there had been an expectation that I would be more present. While my appointment as a football manager at (albeit a brand new) top club had been greeted with enthusiasm and congratulation back in August. The closer it came to December the realization that this year would turn out just like all the others, began to dawn on my family and grate on me. In reality this year was if anything, considerably worse. In previous years I had only my own personal training and responsibilities to attend to, this year I had a whole club worth of work to keep me away for Christmas.

A double sided theme began to develop (at least in my mind). Annoyance at me not being there, but an acceptance, if not an expectation that with my impressive salary I would by outlandish and kick ass gifts. One isn't available without the other, and by the end of the month little things like that were driving me mental. With the later stages of the Carabao cup scheduled for December, and the early stages of the FA Cup (at least as far as we are concerned) coming in January. There was some double sided thinking going on at the club as well. 

What do I mean by that? Well it is one thing entirely to say we will not be judging your success in the Carabao cup. It is another entirely to count reaching the semi final of said cup as success towards their goal of "challenge for a domestic cup." Pick one! either the cup is completely useless, or it is worth challenging for. You can't have it both ways! 

Away from the cup and our league form suffered as the month ground on. A resounding 0-3 win away to West Brom was followed by a 2-2 draw at home to Wolves and a 0-0 draw away to Arsenal. Yes we thumped Watford 1-4 in the Carabao before finishing the month and the year off with a 2-0 win against Leeds. However, our three point cushion over Utd behind us had been reduced to a single point. A single point that didn't stop them from jumping above us every weekend where they played their game before us. From setting the pace and looking behind us we were now chasing, if only for 90 minutes a week, it was still chasing. 

A friend of mine who I went to school with, he now works in the NHS. Sent me a link to a training video at some point in December. I can't remember the exact date because I put off watching it at least twice before I finally pressed the play button. It's about rudeness in a team environment. Basically the scientific study took exceptional teams of medical professionals and ran them through a patient simulation. They recorded the findings and came up with some interesting results.

They propose that every individual has a finite amount of mental bandwidth, with which to cope with their day to day problems. Be they work related, relationship or just general life stuff. By being rude to someone, you use up part of their bandwidth as they carry with them and slowly process what has happened to them. Now let me be clear, the studies definition of rude is a badly worded sentence or someone being short or snappy with you. It is not the extreme of kicking a water bottle across the room, throwing football boots or applying the hairdryer treatment.

These everyday acts of rudeness were found to diminish the recipients performance up to 61% As they backed off from the confrontation and kept their head down until they work out what has happened. Then they get angry, internally ranting about how dare one person say such a thing to them. Not only that, but the same study found that anyone observing the altercation as an onlooker had their own performance diminished by 20%. They too keep their heads down, not wanting to receive the same treatment or be the object of either parties wrath once the altercation is over. 

Finally, what struck me as the biggest problem. Anyone involved, as a direct party or an onlooker is 50% less likely to offer assistance to the next person they interact with. Basically rudeness within teams becomes contagious. Now you might ask why I've committed this to these pages. Well, could there be a correlation between my mood during December and our declining results. I can't say for certain but I'm writing it here to remind myself.

A new years resolution if you will, to be less rude in the hope I won't spread it through the squad and the club at large. I have officially kicked my last water bottle! 

 

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January is such a joyous month. Or maybe I am just coming out of the slump which was December. 

But seriously, from a footballing point of view, who doesn't love January in England? Transfers are back, adding the excitement of new blood, the drama of whether you will keep hold of your stars or not. Then there is the return of the FA Cup with the 3rd round. Ok, I realize that the FA Cup doesn't start in January, but it does for me, so that is the end of it! Staying on a personal note, it was also the first time I was having to split my focus across three competitions in the same month.

Maybe that was why, in our year opener at home against Leeds. I changed the way we played, and the players who took part. New Goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic and defender Jonathan Tah came straight into the starting lineup having had their work permits approved a few days previously. I say I changed the way we played, but we came out the same way we usually come out at home. All guns blazing looking to tear our opponent apart. However with two first half goals putting us in control of the game I decided enough was enough and we would keep our powder dry for another day. At halftime I told the players they had to guard against any sloppy play in the second period, and that they could look to score more goals if chances presented themselves, however that seeing out the game and conserving energy where now the order of the day. I introduced Thierno Ballo at halftime, Billy Gilmour with thirty minutes to go and Ben Elliot with just fifteen left on the clock. All three are promising young midfield players who need minutes to show whether they fit into the clubs plans going forward.

My only real annoyance with the Leeds game was strangely enough with our new goalkeeper.

"He  does know I want to play out from the back?" I asked Jody Morris countless times during the course of the game. His responses ranged from a terse grunt to,

"Yes Gaffer." and "I don't think he's covered that topic yet in his intensive language course." I almost decided to mime don't kick it long, roll it out, in the technical area, but quickly thought better of it.

Three days later and I was back in the same technical area again. Welcoming Man City to Stamford Bridge for the Carabao Cup semi final. Don't get me wrong, I'd played in games with the word "final" in them before. I'd also represented my country on the odd occasion. But this felt considerably different. Possibly the difference between giving the orders and following the orders. Or maybe just as simple as standing in the technical area instead of on the pitch took you a step back from the action and a step closer to the crowd.

It was the first time we had played City this season, and as such the first time I had encountered them in my fledgling career. The game seemed to resemble that. Two teams that knew what they themselves were capable of, but had at least half an eye on what the other team might be doing. That might be why the game finished a draw, and at the 90 minute mark I found myself not shaking hands with Pep Guardiola but instead walking out to a gathering huddle of my own players. 

I'd also been here, as a player, in a shootout. I knew what it was like, did I go into that huddle too much a player and not enough a manager? I went straight to the middle and went down on one knee on the grass.

"Crowd in lads nice and tight." They obliged, which left me surrounded by towering giants in blue, with a small patch of January night sky directly above me. I cast my eyes over their faces, weighing, measuring, judging them. I instantly discounted anyone who wasn't in the front two rows. If you didn't want to be in where you could hear or see, then you weren't wanting the spotlight on you and basically wouldn't want to be called upon. 

Mason Mount was there, keen and eager, problem was he was always keen and eager to take a penalty, it didn't guarantee he was going to convert it. Tammy Abraham looked just as eager, which was good. Thiago Silva looked, well like an actual giant, like he had seen it all and nothing left could phase him. Kai Havertz looked nervous, like a bird hopping from foot to foot, however he nodded when my gaze met his. Timo Werner did the opposite, his gaze slid off mine when I looked at him, before coming back to meet it a couple of seconds later. 

"Mason, Tammy, Thiago, Kai, Timo." I purposefully left it at that. If it wasn't settled after the first five, then they would have to step up themselves. 

We would go first. So Mason began the long walk, he looked confident, but his shot was a tame grass skimmer, he must have been attempting to do the keeper with his eyes, but it didn't happen, an easy save.

Kevin De Bruyne stepped up for City's first. Dominik got a hand on it and for a second I felt he was going to claw it around the post, but it dribbled in and we were behind.

Tammy wasted no time, running at his kick before the refs whistle had finished. Smashing it high and handsome straight into the top right corner. Back level.

Sergio Aguero for City, a calm roll into the bottom left corner after doing just enough to convince Dominik that he would go the other way. That slight delay in his dive costing him any chance of getting to the ball.

Thiago Silva, straight down the middle, like a bullet from a rifle. I think Ederson more ducked out of the way than dived to try save it. 

Ilkay Gundogan a low fizzing strike that Dominik touched but not able to do enough to divert an effort with such power. 

Kai, as soon as he set off from the half way line I knew I had picked the wrong player. His head was down the whole way. His effort was tame and an easy save.

Which left Gabriel Jesus with a chance to put us out with City's fourth penalty. A high blast into the top left corner sealed our fate and saw us out. 

I kept the players on the pitch, back in the same huddle. Having them deal with the disappointment right there in the moment, regardless of how much they wanted to be away. 

"Unlucky, but that's the nature of football. It's just one kick of a ball. If you misplaced a pass or delivered a bad set piece, nobody would bat an eyelid. Those are just one kick of a ball as well. Would it have been nice to get to the final? Definitely, but that one kick of a ball isn't the end of the world. We will be here again, and we will be better for having fallen at this hurdle. Failure is part of the journey, now get yourselves off the pitch we have a new journey in the FA Cup at the weekend."

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  • 3 weeks later...

Rousing speeches have never really been my thing. Probably because I'm not any good at them. Also, my idea of when a rousing speech might indeed be required are not likely to match up with other peoples. As a player I never needed to be motivated to play in a cup competition, be it domestic or continental. the added spice of a different competition, plus the opponent was likely to be someone you didn't play as often, those factors made it special. Playing bottom of the league at home when everyone and their dog feels you should be walking in 5 or 6 goals, when the reality is the opposition would be turning up and attempting to frustrate and nullify you from the 1st minute. Those types of games I could have benefitted from some additional motivation.

So even though we had fallen out of our 1st cup with a whimper, lost our 1st game to a domestic opponent, I didn't feel we were in bad shape. We were in bad shape in the 1st 20 minutes of the Sunderland FA cup tie, but that was due to them charging round the pitch like a bunch of lumberjacks felling trees. 2 of our 3 goals came directly from Sunderland fouls, the 1st a Marcus Edwards free kick, and the 3rd a Tammy Abraham penalty. They scored a 87th minute consolation goal, but luckily we got out of there with everyone still alive.

We stayed away from home a few weeks in a row after the FA cup game. Spurs, who were struggling near the wrong end of the table. Might be the 1st time all season I've gotten carried away. I'm so used to being asked questions about the club, our financial fortunes, whether it's fair on the game, whether we are going to go undefeated. So on and so on, and it grates after a while, surely if I've answered the question once I don't need to be asked an almost carbon copy of it the next week. As though I am being tested as to whether I give a different answer, and if so, why I chose to change my answer. 

Thus when I was asked in the pre match press conference about Spurs and what I thought about their struggles, it was a breath of fresh air, a nice change of focus, and I think I engaged my mouth before my brain.

"It's the funniest thing I've ever seen, I'm loving it." Which isn't even factually accurate! Robin William's stand up at the Met is considerably funnier than Spurs struggling in the Premier league. Yet in that moment, that was what I said. It felt good, it felt as if I could give an honest answer, endear myself to the fans due to the fact I was dissing a rival, and well not be bailing water with the same questions week in week out. It did help that the players backed up my position with an emphatic 0-3 win, closing out the game completely before the hour mark.

We played Fulham after, also away, I made no disparaging comments about them as a team or their situation in the league, mainly as they were doing as expected. However, we were awful, behind for only the 2nd time in the league so far this season. Albeit for only 3 minutes as Mateo Kovacic got us back level on 32 minutes. We just hadn't turned up in the game so far. It was our 5th game in 13 days, but the way I try and rotate the squad we should have more than enough about us to get a result. Fulham wanted it more, and for long periods between us equalising and the hour mark they looked the more likely to get more than a draw from the game.

I went from being pissed off we weren't winning, to slowly coming round to the idea that getting out of here with a point wouldn't be the worst thing in the world. Man Utd, our closest league rivals had lost earlier in the week to Everton, while a win would cement our position, a draw was still clawing us 1 point further away. Then we had a corner on the hour mark, but as with many things for us in this game, the end product was beyond poor, and their keeper collected the cross under no challenge. He waved his team up the field, and the mass exodus of players leaving the box began as the keeper prepared to kick it long. I turned away from the pitch, teeth clenched and letting out a large sigh. I cast my eyes over the bench looking for options, before looking to catch Jody Morris' eye in order to discuss them. That's when the roar hit me, from our supporters in the away end, at first I wondered if there had been a bad aerial challenge from the resulting kick, a misplaced elbow that had infuriated the crowd. However, the roar had the wrong undertone too it, it wasn't angry, it was jubilant!

I spun back to the pitch to see Timo Werner in the corner of the pitch by the flag punching his fist towards the celebrating supporters. 

"What in the world just happened?" 

"Timo blocked the kick, the keeper smashed the ball against his back and it ended up in the net!" Jody Morris informed me, a wide grin on his face. I cast around for a flag, or a group of officials discussing whether or not this was acceptable, but I found nothing. The goal stood, possibly the 1st defining clutch moment of our season and I hadn't even seen it! Fulham seemed devastated, shocked to the point where they were nowhere near the force they had been in the game up until that point. Which is probably for the better, as we still weren't overly at the races and the game descended into an attritional struggle with neither team producing much of value. 

Timo bagged his 2nd just before the whistle on 90 minutes, that one I did see, a well taken finish that gave the result on paper a polished and comfortable look which the performance had certainly been lacking.

Perhaps the best tonic after a performance like that was our FA cup 4th round tie away to Shrewsbury. We saw them off at a canter, 0-4, with new January window signing Arkadiusz Milik scoring on his debut. But those games aren't the norm for a club like ours, Liverpool at home in the league loomed large on the horizon as our next game. A little added spice thrown in that we would also meet them at home in the FA cup 5th round. 

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