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Tom Ashley

[FM 15] Football at the Edge of the World

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Hello, everyone. 

Finding myself in the mood to play FM and not feeling particularly excited about any of the careers I'd begun on any of the editions of the game I own, I began browsing various sites, hoping to find some inspiration.  

I stumbled upon a link to a fantasy database for FM 14 that caught my eye.  Its creator decided to create a small football league system on the island of North Rona, a tiny, uninhabited speck of land in the North Atlantic.  The "real" North Rona is far too small to support a football league; with an area of only 270 acres and a rugged landscape, it's hard to imagine a football pitch there, much less a league.   The database editor took the liberty of making North Rona large enough to contain two cities, declare its independence from Scotland, and earn recognition from UEFA and FIFA in 2012.  

It's an interesting premise, interesting enough for me to download the file and check it out.  I discovered it would work if I imported it into FM 15 and, after I made some minor changes with the editor (club names, mainly) I'm even more intrigued by it...enough to use it as the basis for a new story.  

You'll find out more about North Rona and its football league as the story develops.  

Scottish writer Kathleen Jamie described a visit to North Rona for The Guardian in 2006.  I am borrowing the title of her piece for my story (I hope she won't mind).

I also hope you'll enjoy my fantastic journey there, too.

Football Manager 15; North Rona fantasy nation, Scotland lower league databases added.  Players from England, Faroe Islands, and Denmark loaded.

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Posted (edited)

October 2013

Leicester, England

"You're Aidan Harris, right?"  

The man who bore that name turned to see a fellow who looked to be in his sixties or seventies standing beside him.  He set his glass down on the table and smiled.  "Yes, that's right," he replied.

"You couldn't stop my mum getting past you if you kicked her walker away from her first."  Aidan's visitor then turned back around and walked away. 

All Aidan could do was laugh.  In truth, he was a far better footballer than anyone else in the pub that night.  Nobody else there had been paid to play;  Aidan had, mostly by non-league clubs, but for three years in League Two.  Aidan was a center back and he looked the part, 6'3" tall and broad-shouldered.  That, ironically, had been part of the problem, as some supporters saw it.  

You see, Aidan looked like an old-fashioned English center half, a hard man who would put an opposing forward on his backside if he dared come too close.  But that wasn't really Aidan's game at all.  When Aidan was eight years old, his parents broke up.  His mother, who was Dutch, returned to the Netherlands, and for five years Aidan lived there with her.  He learned the technical skills and sharpened the vision that made him comfortable on the ball, able to confidently pass it from the back and, at his best, split an opposing side with an arrow of a through ball.  

Back in England, however, he learned that some supporters would forget ten successful passes if he gave the ball away in a dangerous position while trying to make an eleventh one.  One afternoon, Aidan hit a teammate in stride with a thirty-yard pass, leaving him with only the 'keeper to beat and an easy chance to convert.  Half an hour later, he went up for a robust aerial challenge, hammered an opponent to the floor, and drew a yellow card.  The crowd reacted more enthusiastically to the second action than it did to the first.  While he never shied away from the rough stuff, Aidan was still more likely to replicate the first one, and that's why a grey-haired gent with a long memory walked up to his table with a less-than-flattering appraisal of his talent.

"That was a good one," remarked Aidan's friend, Charlie Gardner.  

"Better than most," Aidan agreed.

About half an hour later, another man approached their table.  This time Aidan saw him before he spoke, and he stood up to greet him with a smile and a hearty handshake.  "Max Palmer!  What brings you back here?"  

Max returned Aidan's handshake with a clap on his back. "It's been a while, hasn't it?"

"Join us, please. "  Aidan introduced Max and Charlie, and Max sat down at the table with them.

"What brings you back home?" Aidan inquired.

"Vivienne's youngest sister is getting married, so we're back for the wedding."  

"Back to civilization, then?" Aidan tilted his glass and finished its contents.  

Max smiled and shook his head. "North Rona's not like that at all.   The pace is slower, but it's comfortable, and it suits us fine."

Aidan and Max had met in a history class at university, while Aidan was playing lower league football and studying for his degree.  Seven years ago, Max and his new bride, Vivienne, had moved to North Rona, where Max now managed a restaurant called the Oyster House and Vivenne cared for their two little girls.

For the better part of an hour, the three men talked about life in the tiny island nation off the Scottish coast.  "Do they play football there?" Charlie asked.

"They do," said Max.  "Ronans absolutely love it.  They make up in passion for what they lack in skill, shall we say."  

"There's a league there and all?" Charlie, who only paid attention to the Premier League, was now rather curious about North Rona.

Max nodded.  "The Premier League has eight clubs.  They're the only professional clubs on the island.  There are two small amateur leagues.  One is sponsored by the government--the teams represent the Chamber of Commerce, the Health Service, and such.  The other is sponsored by businesses on the island."  Max's restaurant backed one of the six Corporate League clubs.

As the conversation continued, thoughts began to turn over in Aidan's mind.  He was thirty-three now, nearly thirty-four, still single.  He had hoped to make use of his history degree, but had only been able to land a position as a supply teacher so far.  He held a Continental C badge, too.  Perhaps it was time to put it to use. 

Another hour or so went by.  Charlie said his goodbyes.  Aidan and Max continued their conversation.

"There's a need for good coaches in North Rona, Aidan.  The Premier League is all professional now, but the standard of play isn't where it should be.  Ronans are very resourceful people, but when it comes to football, let's just say they're not very innovative."

Aidan nodded.  Max finished his pint and continued.

"Two Ronan clubs are going to play in Europe next year.  We know we won't be lifting any trophies there, but we don't want to be laughing stocks, either.  Someone like you could come in and introduce some more modern ideas about football."

"Then why not bring in some Spanish coaches?  Dutch or German or Portuguese?"  

"That probably wouldn't do at all, Aidan.  Ronans tend to be suspicious of people who aren't much like them.  Vivi and I arrive; we speak English, we deliberately try to fit in.  We did all right, and people accepted us.  Now our daughters have been born there, and it's like we've been there all our lives.  A 'foreign' coach comes in, with a 'funny accent.' and he'll be met with suspicion right away.

"Ronans follow English football, down to non-league level.  I saw a man wearing an Aldershot shirt the other day, and he wasn't a tourist.  You won't seem too 'foreign.'"

"I don't know, Max.  It's intriguing, I admit."  Aidan smiled.  "You want me to manage your restaurant's club?"

Max laughed and shook his head.  "Oyster House are an amateur side.  That's all we will ever be.  No European nights for us, unless we win the FA Cup.  You belong in the Premier League, where you can get somewhere.

"Give it some thought.  Unless you're content here..."

Aidan sighed.  "That's it, Max.  I'm content, but nothing more.  I'm not ready to be simply content."

It was just past eleven when Aidan returned to his flat.  Two hours later, unable to sleep, he got out of bed and opened his laptop.  As he followed one link after another, the shape of his possible life in North Rona began to take shape.

By the time he went back to bed--it was nearly four in the morning now--he had made up his mind.  

 

 

 

Edited by Tom Ashley

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January 2014

Plainstown, North Rona

Max had been right about the wind.  Aidan was still getting used to the way it whipped off the sea, snapping the blue-and-white North Rona flags that flew from their standards on the government buildings in Plainstown.  As he sipped his tea, Aidan could look out the large front window of the main room of his apartment and catch a glimpse of the Atlantic.

Aidan had moved to North Rona just after Christmas.  With the help of a realtor Max had recommended, he'd quickly discovered that he could afford to rent a much nicer place here than he had back in Leicester.  Now he was living on the sixth floor of an attractive newer building, an easy walk from the central square in Plainstown.  Every third day or so, Aidan dined at the Captain Oliver Inn, named for the captain of a Revenue cruiser called Prince of Wales, who rescued a group of marooned sailors not far from there nearly two hundred years ago.  He rented a Volkswagen Polo, so he could explore the island more easily.  He'd motored down to Hillsfield, the other big town of North Rona, about fifteen minutes away.  He enjoyed browsing the Emporium, which seemed to him to be a cross between a department store and an old-fashioned village shop.  And he always made his way down to the Oyster House, at Hillsfield harbor.

Of course, Aidan visited the two football grounds on the island:  the National Stadium in Plainstown, and Hillsfield Stadium.  All 20 clubs in the three North Ronan leagues played there, so there were matches there nearly every Saturday and Sunday.  It didn't take him long to discover Max had been right about the quality of Ronan football, too.  Every side Aidan had watched so far had played the ball long, daring the almost-constant wind to divert the ball from its intended path.  

Max Palmer seemed to know everyone on the island.  He introduced Aidan to as many football people as he could.  At the Oyster House, Aidan met Ian Reed, the president of the board at West Hillsfield.  Ian took out his mobile phone and showed Aidan pictures of his club's modern training facilities.  When Max invited him to visit one of the boxes at the National Stadium, Aidan had a conversation with North Plainstown chairman Paul Bunce.  He chatted with Sam Busby, the assistant manager of the Justice Department side, about the status of the amateur leagues.  Every conversation Aidan had made him more excited about the possibility of becoming part of what was happening in North Ronan football.

Supply teaching in the Plainstown schools, together with what he'd saved from his years in League football, gave him enough money to get by for now.  He wasn't sure what a North Ronan manager earned, but somehow he figured he'd find a way to get by.  Something about this place felt right.

 

 

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28 June 2014

North Plainstown

Aidan shook hands with Paul Bunce.  "Welcome aboard," the chairman said.  

"It's good to be here," Aidan replied.  

Three weeks earlier, Bunce had received the surprise resignation of North Plainstown's manager, Chris Duguid, who moved over to the Scottish mainland to take a job as Head of Youth Development at Buckie Thistle.  Aidan learned about Duguid's departure while he was working a shift at Numbered Pages, a delightful book shop on High Street in Plainstown, two blocks from Government Square.  Macy Watkins was shopping there, looking for a birthday gift for her husband Matt, an avid reader who made up North Plainstown's entire scouting department.  

"Matt thinks you would be a good fit for the job," Macy told him.

Aidan shook his head.  "I have a feeling they'll want a Rona man.  I figure I'll need to work my way into things more gradually, working as an assistant, maybe doing some scouting, like Nick is doing."

"Nick played amateur football here on the island.  You played for Carlisle," Macy replied.

Aidan laughed.  How'd she know that?  I played there for three years.  And it's not like Carlisle are on television every week, he thought. 

"Does everyone in North Rona follow football?" he asked her.

"Almost everyone.  Most of us support a local club, and we follow the English or Scottish leagues, too...when we want to watch a little higher standard of play." 

Macy paid for the book she'd picked out.  "Let me give you Matt's number.  Give him a call.  He'd be happy to talk to you more about the club."

That evening, Aidan did just that.  He and Matt talked for about half an hour about the state of things at North Plainstown FC.  The next day, he contacted Paul Bunce and put in his application for the managerial job.

Aidan wasn't surprised when Bunce admitted it wouldn't be easy for an English manager to win over Ronan football fans.  "People here don't always accept change too readily.  But I'm actually looking for a manager who will be willing to try new things.  One who will stand his ground if he thinks he's right, even if the supporters start making noise."

"I'd like to play a different style of football than I've seen the clubs here play," Aidan replied, careful not to give the impression he was turning up his nose at the direct play favored by North Ronan sides.  "Ronan players are tough and hard-working.  I think they'd be well suited to defending higher up the pitch, closing down more.  I think they can learn to play short passes and pick apart a defense.

"Combining what's best about Ronan football with some...fresher ideas might be what it takes to win."

Aidan knew several other prospective managers applied for the North Plainstown job.  Nothing seemed to happen on the island without Max Palmer's knowledge, and Max had heard plenty of talk at the Oyster House.  He'd also heard none of the other candidates had expressed a desire to do anything but the things Ronan managers had always done, and that Bunce and the rest of the board were ready for a change.  Aidan, then, wasn't shocked when Bunce called him and invited him to the club offices to discuss the opportunity further.

That conversation culminated in a job offer and a handshake.  Aidan Harris was now a football manager.

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2 July 2014

After three days as manager at North Plainstown, Aidan was already developing a sense of the task that lay before him.

Most of the players had enjoyed playing for Chris Duguid.  They were disappointed to see him leave, especially those who hadn't been around the club long enough to have played for anyone else.  The news that an "English manager" was coming to take his place aroused some suspicion, especially when they learned he had never managed a club before.  Aidan's first meeting with the team was, therefore, only moderately successful. He was heartened by the fact that many of them shared his belief that a respectable finish--third or fourth in the eight-team league, Aidan figured--was a reasonable goal.

Aidan sensed that leaving the existing back room staff in their places would be a wise move. He liked his assistant manager, Trevor Stones.  About to turn thirty, Trevor was intelligent and worked hard, and he seemed to be very good with the team's younger players.  Trevor seemed to have real promise as a coach, and Aidan was pleased to have him on board.  Jake Whittington was Head of Youth Development.  He didn't seem quite as good a fit for his position as Stones was, but he knew the club well and clearly loved it.  He was also the only other member of the staff who held coaching credentials; he'd earned his National B badge.

He already liked the team's scout, Matt Watkins, whose insights into the club's operation had helped him decide to apply for the job in the first place.  Matt knew North Rona football well and, just as importantly, he agreed with Aidan's belief in the value of bringing in ideas about football from off the island.  

Physio Nick Sadler was young, eager, and bright.  Aidan sensed that Nick, like the other members of his staff, wanted to become better at his job.  An optimist at all but the worst of times, Aidan saw some potential in his staff, and dreamed of creating a back room team that won trophy after trophy together, the envy of all who followed football.

In reality, a lot would need to happen before North Plainstown established that kind of legacy, and the first days of training made that apparent.

Aidan was pleased to discover that, for the most part, the players looked like footballers.  They were mostly fit and active, and most of them worked diligently in training.  At the same time, however, it was clear that many of them lacked finesse.

When the first team played an intra-squad friendly against the reserves and under 21s, Aidan lined them up in 4-4-2, the formation most of the  players knew far better than any other.  As Trevor pointed out to them, "Every team on the island plays 4-4-2. It seems almost exotic to see someone try something different."  Trevor took the B side, and led them to a 3-2 result over Aidan's first teamers.  A striker called Craig Richardson, who offered some pace and very little else, scored a brace for the reserves.  Aidan liked what he saw from Jamie-Luke Rutter, a first team forward who looked to have some technical skill, and who pounced on a rebound and scored the first team's second goal.  He was less happy with the goalkeeping, as Andy Goodchild (first team) and Shane Prior (reserves) both let in soft goals.  

That was two days ago, and since then, Aidan had developed an even stronger sense of what the club needed to do to move forward.  This evening, Aidan sat with his staff at a table beside the small brick building that served as the clubhouse.  It was too nice an evening to sit inside Aidan's office, a small, cramped space that got even smaller once five men tried to occupy it. 

"The first player we need is a midfielder, someone who can boss the game.  We don't have an all-round player like that in the side," Aidan pointed out.

"He won't be easy to find here in North Rona," Matt admitted.  "West Hillsfield has a young lad who might be that kind of player, Lee Roden.  But you're not going to get them to sell him to us."

"We don't have any money to buy a player anyway," Aidan replied.  "Anyone we bring in has to come in for free."

"I played against a decent midfielder who's captain of the Emporium side now," Nick remembered.  "But he's not likely to want to leave them behind and come play for us, not for a hundred.  He's the main man there."

"I watched him play last spring," Aidan added.  "I wrote his name down:  Michael Habgood.  You're right, he's decent.  But you're also right about him being happy where he is."

Aidan paused.  "If the players we need aren't here on the island, we'll have to find them elsewhere."  

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Posted (edited)

9 August 2014

Ben Joyce never thought he would be a football pioneer.

A heady midfielder who saw the pitch well, Ben was released by his local club, Boston United, at the age of nineteen.  He was picked up by another Lincolnshire club, Spalding United, but never got in a game.  Five years later, he was playing amateur football and working.  He figured his days of playing football for pay were over.

A call from Aidan Harris changed that.  Aidan's web of connections in the English lower leagues was still substantial, and through those connections he learned about Joyce.  Needing a midfielder or two, Aidan offered Ben a trial.  Ben accepted, and once Aidan and his staff took a look at him, they decided to offer him a contract.

That's how Ben Joyce became the first foreign player on the books of a North Ronan football club.  

A Lincolnshire man should hardly seem "foreign" to North Ronans, or so Aidan thought.  The prevalence of English names on the island reflected the fact that many of its earliest families had come from England, rather than from Scotland.  In fact, it was the lack of ties many Ronans felt to Scotland that led them to support independence.  Ben was a friendly lad, and he was immediately accepted by his new teammates.  Would the club's supporters be as willing to welcome him?

"I'm going to play devil's advocate here," Jake Whittington offered as the two of them sat over pints at the Captain Oliver Inn one evening.

"Please do," Aidan replied.

"There are going to be some folks who won't understand why you gave a spot in the team to a English lad when there's Ronan boys who could do the job just as well."

"That's the point. I don't think there are.  I think Ben's a better player than any of the Rona players at his position who are willing to join us."

Jake went on.  "The fans in the stands aren't necessarily going to see it that way."  

"Even if Ben proves to them he can do the job?  Suppose he turns out to be the best player in the side.  Won't they back him then?"

"He'll need to be twice as good as the local lads, or some of the old timers won't be willing to look past the fact he's 'not from here.'"

Aidan paused. He linked his fingers behind his head and leaned back a bit in his chair.  "I've thought about this, too.  Bringing better players into the side will make it more likely we win the league, or the FA Cup.  If we do that, we play in Europe.  Then we earn more money.  We take some of that money and build up our youth setup.  Then we produce better local players, and if they're good enough, we can send out a completely home-grown side."

"Or you attract more players from England, or who knows where else.  And before long, there's not a Rona lad in the team."

Is he still playing devil's advocate, or is he telling me how he really feels?  Aidan asked himself.  He wasn't sure what the answer was.

Another pause, as the manager weighed his words carefully.  "You're right, Jake.  There's no rule about foreign players in our league..."

"There's never had to be a rule before, Aidan."

"Yes. That's true.  There's nothing that would stop us, or any other club, from sending out eleven Brazilians, if there were eleven Brazilians who wanted to play for us.  But I'm not talking about doing that, Jake. I'm talking about a few players."

Over the next few weeks, Aidan continued the process of strengthening the North Plainstown squad.  Neither of his teenage goalkeepers, Andy Goodchild nor Shane Prior, were ready for regular duty with the first team.  Their performance in the first pre-season friendlies made that apparent.  Former Histon man Jamie Crook was brought in, and Prior was dropped to the reserves.  

The team had only one man who was truly comfortable playing as a defensive midfielder, a fellow called Harry Maguire who was not related to the Hull City center back by the same name.  Matt Watkins located 17-year-old James Seward, who'd just been released by Barrow.  James had an aunt and uncle living in Hillsfield, so he was willing to move in with them and continue his football career.  

Then came the move that seemed to epitomize the new direction North Plainstown were taking under Aidan's leadership.

For about ten years now, Aidan had known a football agent called Jamie Sargeson, who represented one of his friends and teammates at Carlisle United.  In mid-July, Sargeson contacted Aidan to let him know about a player who was looking for a new club.  His name was Deji Omoboye, and Aidan had Watkins do a bit of checking.  

"Bring him in on trial," Matt advised.  Aidan did just that.  

On 25 July, Omoboye was in the team for a friendly against Hillsfield Gazette.  He scored the first goal of the game, moving quickly when the Gazette goalkeeper mishandled a shot,  hammering it home.  Five minutes later, he coolly floated a cross that North winger John Dawson headed in at the far post.  Three days later, Omoboye signed his name to a contract.  Deji might not have been up to the standards of the Conference, but in the North Rona Premier League, he had the makings of a star.

So,  on the eve of North Plainfield's Premier League opener, their manager was prepared to write out a team sheet with at least three, if not four, English players in the first eleven.  And, unbeknownst to anyone outside the team's staff room, there were several other players from off the island on the club's radar, too.

It was yet to be seen how this experiment would turn out, on and off the pitch.

 

 

 

 

Edited by Tom Ashley

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10 August 2014

The passion with which North Ronans followed their teams was magnified by their close proximity. Four of the eight Premier League teams were based in Plainstown.  Besides North Plainstown and South Plainstown, there were Central Plainstown and a side from the Plainstown Academy of Sport.  All these clubs called the National Stadium their home ground.  

The other four clubs hailed from Hillsfield:  East, West, Central, and the Hillsfield Academy side.  They all played at Hillsfield Stadium.  

"Every match is a derby in North Rona."  Max Palmer had said that to Aidan that night back in Leicester, when Max first told him about North Rona football. Then, Aidan had dismissed it as hype.  Max was prone to that kind of thing, after all. Now, Aidan realized Max had been exactly right.

Aidan took one last look at the notes he had prepared on each of his first team players.  Over the past six weeks, he had watched, advised, cajoled, bantered with, warned, and hopefully inspired them.  He'd added to their numbers and diversified them.  He had revised his notes from time to time, as he learned more about his players and how they responded to competition.  

Goalkeepers

Jamie Crook (age 20) :  Solid ‘keeper who is comfortable sweeping behind defense.  Kept cool while facing strong sides.  No glaring weaknesses. Clear first choice.

Andy Goodchild (16):  Promising youngster.  Quick reflexes.  Very good in air.  Lacks determination.

 

Full Backs

Luke Simpson (27):  Hard working right back.  Tough tackler.  Comfortable on the ball, but prefers staying back.  First choice when healthy.

Liam Campbell (25):  Tough mentality.  Good leader.  Athletic, but not very fast.  Crosses well, but doesn’t like to dribble.  First choice for now, but a more attacking full back is a priority.

Nathan Jones (17):  Left back with lots of pace.  Very small, but tough.  Good backup with promise.

 

Center Backs

Jeremy Hope (19):  Big, strong, very good in air.  Left footed, but can also play right back.  Decent passer.  Still raw; needs work on mental aspects of game.  Rotation option.

Jon Cox (16):  Right footed.  Best passer among defenders.  Fit and athletic, but not fast.  Rotation option with promise.

Gareth Mastouras (17):  High fitness level.  Hard worker.  Right footed.  Not technically sound.  Lacks pace.  Natural leader, tough kid.  Good backup. 

 

Central Midfielders

James Seward (17):  Strong, hard tackler, plays with edge.  Makes simple passes, good vision.  Good ball winner.  Best number 6 in team, can play CM in 4-4-2.

Harry Maguire (24):  Natural leader.  Very athletic.  Works hard.  Decent technically.  Outstanding penalty taker.  Backup #6/defensive CM.

Ben Joyce (24):  Well-rounded midfielder.  Determined, hard working.  Composed player.  Good technique and first touch.  Sees pitch well.  Best number 8.  First choice.

Andrew Thompson (16):  Athletic midfielder. Good with both feet.  Box to box midfielder with promise.  Will start as part of 3 man midfield; backup in 4-4-2.  Also good AMR.

Paul Stewart (17):  Very tough.  Has pace and stamina needed for ball winner.  Technically raw.  Can paly on left wing.  Useful backup for now.

 

Wide Midfielders

Deji Omoboye (20):  Star man.  Good athlete, lots of pace.  Can pressure defense with dribbling skill. Crosses ball well.  Good finisher.  Left footed.  Can play AML or striker. 

Callum Burton (28): Club captain.  Athletic wide man who will do his part defensively.  Crosses well. Right footed.  First choice; pressure from Thompson to keep spot.

John Dawson (24):  Versatile, can play on both sides.  Right foot only.  Lots of pace, not much skill.  Backup.

Russell Pollock (17): Very fast.  Left foot only.  Backup only.

Tom Lloyd (17):  Left foot only.  Good mentality.  Raw technically.  Backup only.

 

Center Forwards

Chris Mills (25):  Vice captain.  Lots of flair.  Decent pace.  Better finisher than passer.  Right foot only. Rotation player.

Lee Groves (17):  Good pace.  Very composed in front of goal.  Left foot only.  Tough kid.  Rotation player with promise.

Jamie-Luke Rutter (20):  Most complete player among CFs.  Right foot only.  Very tough mentality.  Future captain.  Decent set piece taker.  Skills well suited for role.  Staff not keen, but I am.

 

Needs:

1.    Attacking left back

2.    First team center back

3.    All-round central midfielder good enough for rotation

4.    Center forward?  JLR will get first shot at making position his own.

 

The manager set the notes aside and filled out his team sheet.  Luke Simpson would be unavailable, the knee he twisted in training four weeks ago still too tender for him to play effectively.  Otherwise, Aidan would have his preferred first eleven available for today's match.  It was a good thing, too. North were opening their campaign against South Plainstown.  Even in a league filled with local derbies, the rivalry with South was especially fierce.

 

Crook; Mastouras, Cox, Hope, Campbell; Seward, Joyce, Thompson, Burton (C), Omoboye; Rutter.

 

Aidan put down his pen and pushed his lineup sheet to the other side of his desk.  He stood up and tugged at the hem of his track jacket; it was navy blue, with white and lime green trim.  He picked up the team sheet, took a deep breath, and smiled.  In an hour or so, he'd be speaking to his players before a competitive match for the very first time.  He'd addressed the team before each of their friendlies.  He'd worn a captain's arm band for five years, and he'd spoken to his teammates before matches many times.  This, however, was different.  Now, he was the boss.

It was time.

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20 September 2014

Aidan's first match at the helm of North Plainsfield was not a thing of beauty, but it was satisfying nonetheless.  Andrew Thompson arrowed in a free kick just past the hour mark to provide the first goal in a scrappy match, and Chris Mills, who came on for Jamie-Luke Rutter, scored five minutes from time to complete North's 2-0 victory. 

Mills's goal was what Aidan was coming to recognize as a classic North Ronan goal, albeit an especially well-taken one.  Center half Jeremy Hope ran down a long clearance from a South defender and looped an even longer ball back into South's end.  Hope's ball was lovely; from beyond the midline, he arced the ball into the path of Mills, whose perfectly timed run into the box left him with nothing to do but chest the ball down and fire it in at the near post.  Aidan continued to help his players learn to take care of the ball and play in a more measured style, but their instincts, developed through years of playing on the island, still led them to "hit it long and let the fast lad run to it," as Trevor Stones described the traditional Ronan offensive system.  

North lost their next league game, away to Central Hillsfield, after the same side eliminated them from the Independence Cup on penalties.  Harry Maguire's spot kick allowed them to salvage a point at Hillsfield Institute.  Aidan's first weeks on the job, then, brought a mixture of results, and the results from the physio's room were less positive.

Jeremy Hope twisted his knee in the Institute match and would probably be out for a month.  Right back Luke Simpson returned from a similar injury, only to fall victim to a hernia that Nick Sadler thought would sideline him until late October.  Gareth Mastouras was already out of action after injuring his back lifting weights.  Just like that, North were missing three of their five best defenders.  

Aidan had already made a priority of shoring up the team's back line.  Just that week, he had signed a young left back called Dale Minor, whom he remembered as a youth player at Carlisle United.  Now 20, Minor had spent the past two years with Curzon Ashton, who released him in early August,  Hard-working and technically adept, Minor was exactly the kind of full back Aidan wanted, and he immediately became a fixture in the first eleven.  Dale was the fifth English player in the team now and, while Aidan still worried about the way the supporters might react to this influx of foreign players, the opportunity to bring Dale in was too good to pass up.

A few days after the Institute match, Aidan was watching an Under 21s game when a player caught his eye.  Tall and muscular, the young man imposed his will upon the game from midfield.  Aidan thought he knew the U21s fairly well, but he'd never noticed this player before.  At least, he'd never seen him do anything like this.

The player was T'Nique Courtney, a 19-year-old who had indeed never distinguished himself as anything more than a squad filler...until now.

Aidan had also been looking for a central midfielder with a varied set of skills. Could T'Nique be his man?  And, when Aidan asked him if he'd ever played center back, T'Nique replied that he'd be willing to try if it meant he'd get a chance in the first team.  And, since T'Nique was a hometown boy, the supporters would be delighted to see him in the lineup.

Now the league took a three-week break, partially to accommodate a round of international fixtures.  Thompson reported for duty with the North Rona Under 19 team, and Aidan and his staff put the others through their paces in training.  Courtney seemed to take to playing center half fairly well.  He made his debut on 20 September, when North hosted East Hillsfield, part of a makeshift defense that included left back Nathan Jones playing on the right side.  

Twenty minutes in, North earned a throw from deep inside East's end.  Courtney, unsure about his assignment, looked toward his coaches with a quizzical expression.

"Get up there. Get up there," Trevor shouted, waving his hand to instruct T'Nique to move forward.  

Chris Mills took the throw from Jones and chipped a high ball into the box.  T'Nique rose up and thumped a header past the East 'keeper's outstretched hand.  He wheeled off to celebrate, pumping his fists into the air to the delight of the supporters.  

Aidan was delighted, too.  "You're a wizard, Trevor," he said to his second-in-command.

Central took advantage of the weakened North back line to net an equalizer in the second half but, all things considered, the result wasn't a poor one.  And, perhaps, a new folk hero was born.

 

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Posted (edited)

1 November 2014

Chris Mills handled the situation perfectly.  The club's vice captain, Chris expected to be a first team player. To be fair, Chris Duguid had given him that assurance, not Aidan, but Aidan hadn't told Chris otherwise, either.  In the season's opening month, he'd started the Independence Cup tie and come on as a substitute in two league matches, as the manager had preferred Jamie-Luke Rutter as the team's single striker.  

Rutter had yet to seize the job with both hands, however, and Aidan had actually been thinking about giving Chris a start or two in the league when Chris came to him with his concerns.  Therefore, it was fairly easy for Aidan to make Chris happy.

Aidan switched to a 4-4-2 for North's away match to Central Plainstown on 28 September.  Central had struggled against teams playing that formation, and their struggles continued as North romped to a 3-1 result.  Mills got the first goal when he steered home a Dale Minor free kick.  

A week and a half later, the same two sides met in the Second Round of the FA Cup.  This time Mills was absolutely electric, scoring a hat trick in a 5-1 victory.  Even more good news came when Gareth Mastouras came on for the second half, replacing T'Nique, who had added "makeshift right back" to his CV.  

Another break came next.  The rhythm of the North Rona season felt so strange to Aidan, who was used to the congested fixture lists of the English lower leagues.  What's more, it wasn't possible for the club to schedule friendlies during the breaks.  Aidan tried to break up the training routine with contests--Deji Omoboye was especially good in their crossbar challenges--and the lads seemed to enjoy the evenings out Aidan and the coaches planned for them.  

"Remember, the season here is only 14 games long," Trevor Stones pointed out to Aidan.

"I've always wondered why teams don't play each other four times, rather than twice.  That would still be only 28 games."

"It's a question of space," Trevor replied. "There are only two stadiums on the island, and ten teams share each one."

Aidan nodded.  In his way of thinking, each match had roughly the same impact on the table as three matches did back home.  A long term injury, like the ones Luke Simpson and Jeremy Hope suffered, or the hamstring pull Ben Joyce was now rehabbing, could do treble damage to a team's season.  

At the same time, however, a good run of form could have the opposite effect, and that's what seemed to be happening to North Plainstown now.  Despite the injuries that forced Aidan to adjust his lineup constantly, the lads were flying high.  When Plainstown Institute of Sport, last in the table, faced them at the National Stadium, Aidan's boys took some time to take hold of the game--but when they did, they did so with gusto.  Mills scored again, his sixth since he was brought back into the first team.  T'Nique teed up Andrew Thompson for a goal.  Young wide man John Dawson scored within a minute of his introduction, in place of Omoboye. And Jamie-Luke Rutter, who came on for Mills, got his first league goal.  

Their 4-1 victory took North to the top of the league.  They and Central Hillsfield both had 11 points from their first six matches, but North had a five-goal advantage on goal difference.

And, so far at least, nobody seemed to care one bit that Aidan usually included four Englishmen in his first eleven.  Being top of the table tended to make such things matter less.

Edited by Tom Ashley

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Posted (edited)

The Captain's Rest was one of the more traditional pubs on the island of North Rona.  As such, it attracted those who considered themselves "old Ronans," those who believed they understood best what being Ronan was all about.  

On this windy, drizzly December evening, the Captain's Rest was warm and inviting, The sounds of friendly banter and laughter filled the main room, which smelled of fried food and good ale.  Strings of brightly colored lights had been hung along the bar, a tip of the cap to the holiday season.  

Joe Clarke and Paul MacFarlane sat at their favorite table, pints at hand.  Both of them supported North Plainstown; Joe had a season ticket, while Paul, whose work sometimes took him off the island for weeks at a time, never missed a match when he was at home.

"You have to admit they're playing good football, Joe.  They haven't lost since August.  They haven't let in a goal since October."  Paul had his facts right.   North were enjoying strings of six consecutive wins, and eight matches without a loss.  

"That they are," Joe conceded with a nod of his head.  "He's got them playing well."

"Better than they have in years, mate." 

Joe nodded again, and took a sip of his pint.  He set it down, and sighed.  "True, but there's something about it that doesn't feel the same.  Harris is a good manager.  I'm not doubting that.  He's brought some changes we needed around here, but..."

Paul smiled and shook his head. "But you look out there and see lads wearing North shirts who didn't play for the club from the time they could walk?"  

"You have to admit it doesn't feel quite the same, Paul!  

"You're right. It doesn't.  We're winning!  That feels different!  We're top of the league, and that feels very different!"  

Paul was the more sophisticated fan of the two.  He noticed the way Aidan switched from his preferred formation, 4-3-3 with a defensive midfielder, to 4-4-2 when his analysis of North's opponents revealed a weakness that he could exploit.  North were also much more dangerous from set pieces now. Dale Minor was a threat to score from free kicks, and the crowd at the National Stadium had learned to expect good things when he stood over a corner and the big lads, like Jeremy Hope (6'6") and T'Nique Courtney (6'2") moved into the box.  

The team's success was even more impressive given the number of injuries they had suffered.  Nick Sadler the physio was the busiest man in the club, caring for a parade of players suffering from everything from colds to strained knee ligaments.  Every member of Aidan's preferred eleven had missed at least one match.

Joe lifted his glass, finished its contents, and set it back down.  "I admit being top feels good.  I won't mind one bit if we get some European football next season.  And we're still in the Cup, so there's hope for a double. I just wish there were more of a...local feel."

Paul smiled at his friend. "I hear there's a group of young lads about to move up to the Under 21s that might be ready to push those first teamers for their spots."  

"We'll see, won't we?"  Joe and Paul shook hands, and Joe waved to the barkeep as he stepped out into the chilly December air.

Wherever Paul had gotten his information, it was in fact accurate.  When the Premier League was created and North Ronan clubs turned professional for the first time, the standard of youth football on the island improved, too. The hopes of playing at more than an amateur level attracted athletic boys and kept them interested.  The boys who had been ten or eleven when talk of creating a professional league began were now fifteen and sixteen, and the most talented of them might indeed be skilled enough for men's football...even if their physiques were still not robust enough to handle the rough treatment the older fellows might dish out.  Would any of the graduating scholars from North Plainstown be among those who were prepared to make their mark on the Premier League?

That question wouldn't be answered until March, and it was still December.  It was looking like a very festive holiday for North Plainstown FC and their supporters.

Edited by Tom Ashley

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Unfortunately, this story is going to come to an abrupt, frustrating end.

I enjoyed advancing through my first season at North Plainstown.  Our winning streak ended with a loss to Central Hillsfield, the only side Aidan and the boys seemed unable to vanquish.  Central went top after the next round of matches, when we drew and they won.  

Chris Mills became a fixture in the first team and kept firing in goals, but he still decided he wanted out in January.  I let him leave for Central Plainstown, and they promptly stuck him in the reserves.  Jamie-Luke Rutter left, too, which made it necessary for me to scramble around to find a new front man.  Enter Scottish free agent Steven Boyd.  The Celtic trainee was an immediate sensation.

Youth intake day brought a very strong graduating class into the team.  Midfielder Wes Atherton and center half Ian Wood stepped directly into the first team.  Central Hillsfield kept winning, but so did we, and the title race continued into the spring.

In early May, captain Callum Burton played the hero role as North defeated amateur side Health Service to win the FA Cup.  That victory ensured us a spot in the Europa League.  Then, in the final round of League fixtures, we defeated East Hillsfield while Plainstown Institute upset Central Hillsfield.  The Premier League title was ours!  Instead of the Europa League, we'd now be playing in the Champions League.  

The opportunity to qualify for Europe from a tiny nation was one of the reasons why the North Rona save appealed to me.  I was looking forward to writing about the lads' experiences with European nights.  The board nearly tripled our wage budget, which meant I might be able to find some intriguing new players...and give the champions some well-deserved raises.

Then, I discovered a glitch in the system.  The draw for the First Qualifying Round came and went, and we weren't included!!  Some quirk in the database rose up and shattered our European dreams.  

Caveat utilitor.  

On a more positive note, my brief adventure in North Rona inspired me to keep writing, so I'll be beginning another story later today.  And I won't be basing it on a save with a database I'm not familiar with already. :)

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