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Sharpening a Rusty Blade


Amaroq

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Sunday, 11th July, 2004. Friendly, at Blyth Spartans

I strode into the dressing room, feeling disarrayed, but hoping I projected 'confident'.

Though afternoon in Blyth, it was before seven in the morning on my body's clock, which was still on Pacific time (Greenwich minus eight). My day had stretched well over 24 hours now: a transatlantic flight, the London Underground, a night train to Liverpool, a commuter train to Lancaster, a short walk downhill, a run back uphill, followed by a madcap train escapade across the width of northern England to Blyth. The 8:24 had gotten me back to Liverpool. The 10:22 took me to Newcastle-on-Tyne at 2:17, and from there I caught a cab to Blyth, hoping all the while that it was a late afternoon or evening start...

The start time was 3:00pm, and with my late arrival, I had missed any chance to see my new squad warming up. I could only hope the coaching staff proved more competent than the administrative assistant who'd booked my ticket, as I'd have to rely on them to select a lineup.

"Who's in charge, here?" I demanded, surveying the room with authority.

"I am," answered a chap in a suit and tie, middle-aged, hair just starting to thin. "Who wants to know?"

"Your new manager," I answered, conscious of my American accent ringing out across the room. Sudden silence followed; you could have heard a pin drop. Just as abruptly, everybody found something to do: laces that needed tightening, a locker to close, tape to tighten, or the like.

"Barrie Stimpson," answered the middle-aged man. "Assistant manager." He reached out a hand to shake mine, and gave me a piercing once-over.

"Ian Richards," I replied, sizing him up in return as we shook hands. He looked to be about forty, maybe forty-five. His hairline was just beginning to recede, with a bit of grey showing in his hair. I felt young. "What's our lineup?"

"I'll introduce you to all the lads later," he said, and offered a sheet of paper to me. "But here's what I have for today."

I saw he had a straight, uncomplicated 4-4-2 drawn out, and figured that ought to do for a first match. I didn't recognize any of the names. "Right," I told him, "Make it so."

"Most of the lads are lacking match practice," he added, "So I was figuring on wholesale changes at halftime."

"Fair enough," I told him. Mentally, I noted that our colors were blue and white, a mid-tone blue, not what you would call dark or pale, and darker than a sky blue. I'd have to remember it.

"Wear this," he said, handing me a garment - do the Brits call this a blazer? - in the team colors. I pulled it on over the rumpled, slept-in white polo shirt I'd chosen back in California. "Normally you'd wear a tie," he told me, "But this will have to do. Come on, its time to go."

'I knew that!' I grumbled to myself - its not like I'd had time to change!

We followed the players as they trotted out to the pitch, and I felt the stress of my journey fade away, to be replaced by excitement - my first match as manager of a side! I'd pay close attention, of course, to see who performed and who didn't.

The whistle, the kickoff! And two minutes in, the first of my players to make an impression was young Ryan Elderton, who disagreed vociferously with the ref's call. I learned some British slang I'd never heard before - profanity, I'd guess, but I'd have to ask what it meant - and Elderton had earned our first yellow card.

One of our chaps, wearing number two, a defender named Paul Sparrow, made a few good headers early on to shut down the first Blyth attacks, and then we were off on the counter. Striker Michael Yates ran down a long ball along the left wing, dribbled past the last defender, and beat the keeper for our first goal! 1-0 up, and only six minutes in! Perhaps this was management thing would be easier than I'd thought!

Ten minutes later, I was holding my head in utter dismay. Surely the standard of play in an English professional league was better than this! Yates took a second long pass, but dribbled harmlessly into the corner, where he let himself get caught from behind. One of my center backs picked up a yellow for the clumsiest tackle I'd seen since leaving the pads of my high school (American) football team. We even had a throw-in which went directly to the opposition: not directed to any of my players at all. Why, one or two of the lads from my lunchtime kick-it-around session back in the States could match these fellows! In fact, I might have to give some of them a call...

By the 20th minute, we'd picked up our first injury, to starting left back Andy Scott. We passed most of the first half with the better chances, though goalkeeper Jamie Speare was tested a few times. I was concerned with the midfield's apparent inability to cover or slow down Blyth, but the defense had so far proved up to the task, even if they were frequently outnumbered. Up front, Yates missed an easy chance, but in the 43rd minute, his strike partner Ryan-Rico Black ran down a long-ball into the right corner. He cut it back to Yates, who drove it home from about the penalty spot.

We went into the half with a 2-0 lead, and as promised, it was wholesale changes for our side. Stimpson swapped out eight players, including Yates and Black, while Blyth stayed with their starting XI. With our subs against their starters, the run of play quickly turned against us. It was only a matter of minutes before Blyth got on the board, which they did through a header by Ian Dixon in the 52nd minute to trim our lead to 2-1.

Blyth continued to dominate the second half, and though we settled in to defend, Spartans substitute Michael Rogers scored the equalizer in the 77th minute on a deflected free kick. My reserve goalkeeper Kevin Welsby was failing to impress his new manager, and really ought to have gotten to that second goal.

In the waning minutes, our third striker, Tony Sullivan, generated several chances, but his shooting was abysmal, and privately I thought he was more of a danger to the fans behind the goal than to the net itself. The final whistle blew, and we had our first result: a 2-2 draw.

Blyth 2, Lancaster 2

Dixon 52, Rogers 77; Yates 6, 43

MoM: Yates

With competent finishing, we might have won 4-2, and with better defending in the second half, we might have won 2-0 - but I guess I couldn't expect too much from the reserves for a Conference North side.

I was starting to wonder if I'd find myself explaining the concept of an offsides trap, though. I'd seen one defender blow it during the second half, a full-back single-handedly keeping the two central strikers on-side - and wide open in the middle of the field. Horrendous! Even my youth team had understood the offsides trap better than that, and they were eleven years old - and American!

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Sunday, 11th July, 2004.

I looked around the platform of Lancaster Railway Station, looking for those placards with my name on it.

It was just before 8:00am on a Sunday. The platform was empty. Nobody had come to greet me.

Ah, well, surely the cab driver would know where the local stadium was. I gathered my few bags, and worked my way off the platform and down to the parking lot.

There was no cab.

I looked around, taking stock. The station is partway up a hill, overlooking a town whose population is listed at 45,952. It is very similar to my home town of Santa Cruz, California, in the United States - save of course, that it is in Lancashire, England. Both are university towns, of similar size, and set along the coast. The River Lune runs scenically through the middle of town, much as the Santa Cruz river does back home.

Just down the hill, I could see a sports complex: had I taken the cab, it would have been a ride of some ninety seconds. Even with my assorted luggage, I chose to walk. I'm male. I travel light.

I tried to marshall my thoughts, and compose my first speech: I'd been invited to manage the Lancaster Dolly Blues, a semi-pro club in the English Nationwide Conference North.

I'd been lucky, in that I'd actually known where Lancaster was, unlike the other semi-pro sides who'd been willing to speak with an unknown American. No, don't be impressed with American geography lessons. I knew it only from playing a board game set during the War of the Roses.

Despite the trans-Atlantic flight, I still didn't know what I would say. My presence must be coming as an equal shock to the my new club's players and fans alike. A thirty-year-old Californian computer programmer, who had never played professionally, and whose only prior management experience was at an amateur American youth side, can't have been their ideal answer to the club's recent management upheaval.

All too soon, I arrived at the gates of 'The Giant Axe'.

Such a colorful name! But ... the place had a strangely deserted feeling. I knew it was a Sunday morning, but surely they knew I was coming today - the club had booked my ticket! My coaching staff, at least, should have turned out to greet me.

I had a sudden, sinking suspicion. I poked around the offices for a minute, before finally rushing out to the pitch itself, which I found empty save for a groundskeeper working on the turf.

"Hallo," I called, "Where is everybody?"

He looked up from his work, and gave me a once-over, clearly wondering what sort of lunatic had chosen to grace his morning. "What do you mean?"

"I'm the new manager! Where IS everybody?"

"Dear God, man, you don't know? It's an away match today. In Blyth!"

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Thank you, gentlemen. Praise from two whose story-telling I respect goes a long way!

Author's Notes: WWSM (aka FM) 2005, v5.0.5.

All English leagues, small database.

Retained all players from U.S.A. and Jamaica.

I had noticed three things with my favorite stories elsewhere; one was that I missed suspense in the telling of an individual match-story; two was that it is easy to lose 'context' when revisiting the most recent post of a story; and three was that it was rare for the players to become characters in their own right.

So, rather than surround football with another story, I've tried to bring the football to life by addressing those points. Of course, they slow the pace down a lot.

Whether I've succeeded or not, we'll learn if I still have readers on Page 3. icon_wink.gif

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Sunday, 11th July, 2004. Evening.

The bus ride home was less comfortable than my madcap trip to Blyth, if possible, and we didn't reach Lancaster until just after midnight. I took the opportunity to chat with my Assistant Manager about the state of the squad. I wanted to see if we could sort through the squad's list of players, and perhaps pencil in a starting XI.

We had 31 professional players, Stimpson told me, though most were part-time, and no more than about eleven of them were really fit for the Conference North. Jamie Speare, in net, he rated as the best player in the side in this initial discussion, which I was glad to hear - I was a former goalkeeper myself, in my playing days, and had even brought my old gloves just in case I needed to take on a player/manager role. It didn't look like that would be necessary: Speare had made a few impressive saves in that first match, and at 27 years old I thought he should be just maturing into his prime. I was happy to have at least one position I could pencil in as solid, and a good keeper can make up for a lot of deficiencies.

Andy Scott, the injured left back, Stimpson declared the best player in the defense, but we had five experienced defenders and two capable youngsters. He thinks the defense is about average - neither a strength or a weakness.

Steve Birks was reportedly my best midfielder. Birks had caught my eye during the match for failing to track back and defend properly - in fact both of my central midfielders had shown a similar failing. Stimpson suggested we get a midfielder capable of providing competition for the first team, a suggestion I wholeheartedly agreed with. Unfortunately, the wings seem like the club's true weakness: we have only three wingers on the squad at all, and only one of those is worth starting.

Barrie also suggested another striker to partner with Michael Yates, whose quality I'd already seen, and downplayed Sullivan's ability to threaten even an open net - which I had already observed myself, though Black's play on the assist had been exemplary.

Stimpson then hinted that he was interested to know what my preferred tactics were, but truthfully, I hadn't decided. With a side this bad, it might be a bog-standard 4-4-2 and a 'hit and hope', 'route one' philosophy - that had produced both of our goals against Blyth, but the Spartan defense wasn't quite Conference North standard either. If I could bring in some talent on the attacking side, I'd rather run a variation of the 4-5-1, with one DMC, two wingers, and two AMC's - a flowing, passing sort of game, equally adept crossing from the wings or working it up through the middle, depending on the weaknesses of the opposition. No, that was probably too sophisticated for this lot.

We turned our attention to training for a bit - the squad had only started training last week, he told me, and he had them working a fairly vanilla training session. I told him to devise a schedule which is more pre-season fitness oriented, as most of the team had appeared far from fit for that first match. I promised we'd speak more of training once I had a handle on the squad, so to speak.

Then Barrie introduced me to the rest of the staff - in the darkened, quiet bus it was a bit hard to recognize them. Coach Mick Parkinson he introduced as running most of the outfield player drills, while player/coach Gary Bauress was a midfielder who specialized in explaining the nuances of the game to young players.

The scout was Carl Richardson, and one short conversation with him left me convinced that I knew more about judging player potential than he did. Nonetheless, I told him to leave Lancaster on a scouting tour of England, with an eye towards players (especially wingers!) whom we could bring in on a free or loan.

Finally, I met with Physio David Hughes, who told me that our swift substitution of Andy Scott prevented any further injury, but that Andy Jones (a midfielder injured in the final minutes of the match) had pulled a calf and should be out for about two weeks. He thought Jones should be back in time for the last few friendlies on the schedule.

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Monday, 12th July, 2004.

I spent the morning settling in to my hotel room, unpacking a bit, and familiarising myself with town. This evening, I got down to The Giant Axe and watched my first training session - we're a part-time club, so the training sessions are after working hours for most of the players. After training, I had a meeting to go over the entire squad with my staff - it went fairly late into the night, but it was a conversation we needed to have.

Here is the side I start with:

Goalkeepers:

GK Jamie Speare, 27, English: Speare only joined the club a week before I did, so my coaches feel it would be unfair to rate him fully, but most nodded in agreement with Stimpson when he said he thought of Speare as one of the top players on the club. They agreed that he has all the mental tools of the trade, but suggested that some of his physical skills - handling, reflexes, aerial ability - are lacking. According to Parkinson, Speare isn't the most athletic member of the squad, and it is this that has held him back from reaching a higher level. Originally a product of the Everton youth programme, he spent the last six seasons with Accrington Stanley, in the Conference National, finally breaking into the starting side for eleven matches last year.

GK Kevin Welsby, 23, English: My coaches are in agreement on Welsby, stating that he has the potential to become a very good player for the club. He seemed very determined and had good concentration, I thought, but I was unimpressed with the two goals conceded against Blyth, and his training session today did little to change my mind.

GK Ryan Yeomans, 18, English: All three of my coaches are in agreement that Yeomans is an 'outstanding prospect for the club'. The qualifier makes me wonder if he will ever be better than a Conference-level player, and judging from the one day of practice, his decision making and concentration leave a bit to be desired. Still, those will come with experience.

GK Glenn Johnstone, 37, Scottish: In the final year of his contract, the veteran keeper is transfer listed for free. The coaches think of him as a bit player, and surely he is at best the number four keeper on the side - a little better physically than Speare, but no match for the starter's mental ability or Yeoman physically. I wondered if he'd apply for his coaching badges - I could use a goalkeeping coach. If not, he was superfluous.

GK Mark Thornely, 29, English: He, too, is transfer listed for free, a decision all of my coaches support, regarding him an 'average player who adds nothing to the club'. I can't see keeping five keepers on such a small side, so he'll be gone shortly.

Defense:

D LC Andy Scott, 29, English: Barrie Stimpson rates Scott the best defender on the club, and the other coaches agree that he is playing an important role for the club. Watching his play, his defensive game and tactical understanding are reasonable, but I don't expect him to contribute much offensively. Though his lack of stamina and his early injury in our first match are causes for concern, I am pencilling him in as the starting left back if he can stay healthy.

D/DM RC Paul Sparrow, 29, English: The coaches report that Sparrow is a firmly entrenched member of the first team, who has spent the past five seasons with the squad. Personally, I am not convinced: he doesn't meet my expectations for a central defender, and as a right back Neil Uberschar looks like a good match for him in many respects. Sparrow did play quite well in the opening friendly. His heading, which had so impressed me from the bench, turned out to be a weakness of his game in practice today.

D/DM R Neil Uberschar, 23, English: The coaches all agree that Uberschar has shown a great deal of potential, and they unanimously recommended first-team action for him to help aid his development. I am not so sure - though he looks a match for Sparrow, I thought I saw his concentration waver a few times in practice today. Maybe he'd do better in a match. He'll have to earn his starts over Sparrow, anyways.

D/DM RC Martin Clark, 33, English: This driven defender looks like captain material. He's a natural leader with determination, composure, teamwork, and influence. He may lack some of the technical abilities, but I am willing to put up with that in exchange for his leadership and mental acuity in the central defense.

D C Joe McMahon, 20, Welsh: Another recent signing, McMahon was part of the starting lineup in that first match. Coach Bauress is worried about his lack of determination, but he looks like the next best of the lot at centre back, and with his height seems better suited to the position than Sparrow. If he has the potential to improve over the next year or two, he might become a good starting-quality back.

D R Andy Fensome, 35, English: Fensome has good teamwork, pace, and stamina, which are all pluses, but other than that his abilities were fairly mediocre. I would have expected better positioning, decision making, and marking from one whose 'experience is an asset to the club'. He has two years left on his contract, both unprotected. I think he is likely to be one of my first 'culls' - I don't need three right backs, and unless he impresses during the preseason, he may find himself transfer listed.

D RLC Chris Whittle, 23, English: My coaches say that he is showing signs of developing into a quality player, but honestly I'm having trouble seeing it. He only really impressed in a heading drill today. In most other areas, he seemed weaker than I'd have liked to see, but his versatility might earn him a regular place on the substitute's bench this season.

D L Jimmy Graham, 34, Scottish: My coaches refer to him as 'a useful player'. I think that means 'a warm body who can play the position'. He is definitely not good enough to hold down a first-team place at this level. He is brave, I must give him that, but he lacks composure - he nearly got in a fight 20 minutes into practice. My passing is better than his despite the knee injury which ended my playing days at the tender age of sixteen.

Defensive midfielders:

DM C Gary Bauress, 33, English: Our player/coach looks like one of the best players in the side, technically adept and very experienced. He is also the slowest - I think I could outrun him myself, and I've been a desk jockey these past ten years. I'm expecting him to provide stability and leadership - there's nothing like having a coach on the field to help bring youngsters along.

DM C Steve Birks, 31, English: Experienced midfielder Steve Birks is firmly established in the first team, report my coaches, and he did very well in training. He is probably one of the best in the side. However, his strengths aren't in the areas I think a defensive midfielder needs, and I was very unimpressed with his performance during the Blyth match. He's too offensive minded, and didn't respect his defensive duties at all.

DM C Ryan Elderton, 20, English: Though he drew the yellow card I was so unimpressed with two minutes into our first match, my coaches think that the lad has 'the football world at his feet' and should move on into a full-time professional career at a higher level. He'll have some work to do to overcome my first negative impression, especially operating behind Bauress and Birks, but he does seem to have some talent.

D/DM C Ricky Mercer, 20, English: My coaches think this lad has shown a great deal of potential, and though he started the first friendly at DC, I think he might be more naturally suited at the DMC position if I go to my 4-5-1 formation. Either way, he's going to see plenty of action this season.

Central midfielders:

M C Chris Beech, 29, English: Looks like the best central midfielder of the lot - nothing exceptional like the elderly DMC's, but he is solid in all aspects of the game, and I could ask for little more.

M C Stewart Clitheroe, 23, English: Stewart is far and away the most expensive player in the squad on a salary of £26,000 per-annum - five times what anybody else is making! My coaches all think he has exceptional potential, but on that wage I want a player who has an exceptional ability to contribute right now. His mental game is quite advanced for a 23-year-old, they assure me, and we just need to work on his technique.

M C Jimmy Love, 20, English: He looks quite similar to Clitheroe, honestly - a very good understanding of the game, especially for one so young, but a bit weak technically. My coaches all think he's an outstanding prospect, but I'm worried that he may lack the pace to ever contribute at a higher level.

M C Ian Dawes, 20, English: Though tastefully named, Ian looks barely more than a competent player at this level, not one to write home about. My coaches are all convinced he's showing signs of developing into a quality player, but I think he, too, is a bit slow for a midfielder.

Wingers:

AM R Lee Clitheroe, 23, English: Lee has great pace and good crossing, but very poor dribbling. Still, he's the best winger we have, and so relatively safe for now. As my coaches describe him, 'a useful member of the squad'. I don't see him as a long-term solution at the position, but there are other areas which need more immediate attention.

AM L Neil Prince, 21, English: One of those areas is the left side. With decent crossing, but average pace and poor dribbling, to my mind Neil Prince looks like a reasonable reserve wing. Unfortunately, he's the only real choice. My coaches all think he has the football world at his feet, which I suspect may be vastly overstating the case. I resolved to bring in a new left midfielder at the earliest opportunity. Prince did have the assist on Yates' first goal, though, a beautiful long ball over the top.

AM RL John Fowler, 29, English: Why, oh why, would anybody consider a man who can't cross a winger? I don't mean, bad at crossing, I mean absolutely abysmal at it. For ten minutes in a cross-to-head-on-goal drill, I watched him, and barely half of his crosses stayed in the field of play! Of those, only one was close enough to his intended target that the player could get a head on it. This is the first player I think can go, outright, without any further thought, even if he can fill either wing. To my relief, the coaching staff have already realized this, and he is on the transfer list.

Attacking midfielders:

AM C Phil Clarkson, 35, English: One of the leaders of the squad, my coaches inform me, whose experience is a valuable asset. He has very good composure and concentration, reasonable pace and finishing. He's more likely to blaze a long shot over the bar than in, but you can't ask for everything at this level. He's on a one-year contract, which, given his age, is probably appropriate.

AM/F C Steve Jones, 32, English: An experienced forward, Steve is the one with the injured calf, so I haven't seen much of him yet. The coaches like him, and assure me that he's a real threat to score with his head. My brief impression of him from the Blyth match is that he's reasonably competent for this level, but Gary vouches for him, saying that Jones was a key part of the Stalybridge Celtic club which won the Unibond Premier League title, which Gary also played on.

F C Ryan-Zico Black, 22, Northern Ireland: He has only just joined the club, the coaches tell me, but he was impressive in setting up our second goal. I saw that, but he didn't impress through the rest of the first half. Still, he takes an excellent corner, and can hit the long shot occasionally, both of which may assure him a place in the starting XI.

Strikers:

S C Michael Yates, 24, English: He mightily impressed his new manager with two first-half goals, and he's been with the club for four years now. The coaches are all pretty keen on him, and I think he'll do well for us. He's better with the ball at his feet than in the air, and he makes good decisions. Definitely in the starting XI, though as our highest valued player I may have to test the interest in him if our financial situation is poor.

S C Peter Thomson, 27, English: A reasonable reserve player, I suspect, when the coaches all call him 'useful'. In practice, he looked a little better than Yates in the air, but didn't seem to have the polish to his game that the younger striker does. Definitely not of the same quality.

S C Tony Sullivan, 29, English: He very much failed to impress in that first game, missing some easy chances, but my coaches all assure me he's been better in practice, and just needs some match fitness. He does hit the target repeatedly during this first training session. He's currently on the transfer list, and surprised me earlier in the day by mentioning it - he said that he's reluctant to leave the club, as he really likes it here. I gave him a non-committal answer. If I can bring in some better players, he really won't have a place in the side.

S C Neil Morton, 35, English: Why is a player this bad, this old, on a two-year contract? He doesn't seem to have the requisite skills to play up front, and I've seen more creativity from a four-year-old with a crayon. Though he's only recently joined the club, previous management had already transfer-listed him, and I see nothing which convinces me that was a mistake. He'd be a bit player, at best.

.

Summary:

I only have two wingers? This is... bad. Both of my preferred formations rely on strong wings sending in the crosses, which looks like a doomed tactic at this stage. Lee Clitheroe fills the bill on the right, but I suspect that's the position I'll need to upgrade the most; ideally, I'd like to bring in three more wingers.

The dearth of central attacking midfielders rules out the 4-5-1 I was thinking of installing, which would rely on two AMC's to threaten the goal and feed the lone striker. A 'lone striker' formation still sounds good to me, as only Yates really impressed, but honestly our best pool of talent is at DMC. I'm already toying with the idea of a very defensive 4-5-1 with two DMC's on the field simultaneously, each willing to push up and join the attack occasionally... but that still relies on having two competent wingers.

I wonder if I'll have time to develop some of these quality young players, or if I'll have to put the aging veterans on the field to secure the maximum number of points.

I have my first meeting with the Board tomorrow, so I suppose I'll find out then.

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Tuesday, 13th July, 2004.

I had a meeting this evening at the club's offices with club Chairman Steve Johnston and Vice Chairman Andrew Pye, and they outlined the side's budget.

I was surprised to find that the team wasn't carrying any loans or debts, and in fact had a slight positive balance: £13,423. Johnston wasn't cheery about it, however, pointing out that we'd already lost £3,350 this year, and that he was expecting worse. The wage bill is somewhat fat already - £185k p/a when he would recommend something more like £170k.

Most of that difference, he reminded me, was in the salary of Stewart Clitheroe, the hot young central midfielder. He spent a few minutes enthusiastically describing a player that sounded like the next Zinedine Zidane, but didn't at all resemble the Clitheroe I'd seen so far. I didn't have the heart to tell him I wasn't sure Clitheroe was even the best midfielder on the side.

We turned to a discussion of the transfer budget, and he explained that he could not afford to allow us any transfer funds due to the club's precarious financial state. Thinking quickly, I negotiated a deal with him - if the net effect was to bring the wage budget down, he'd let me have 40% of any outgoing transfer to bring in another player. I told him I felt there were about ten players of our 31 whom I didn't expect to need - if I can get them off the books, then we'll have the budget under control.

Then we turned to other things - the stadium, The Giant Axe, seats 513, though he assured me that there's room for 3,153 standing. I think my high school gym seated 486. No wonder we'd only made a pittance from season ticket sales! The training ground, I told him, appeared adequate, though of course I'd love to have better if we could get the financial situation under control.

Then I asked about youth facilities, and he actually laughed out loud! "Do you think you're in Liverpool? This is Lancaster City! We're a semi-professional club. The ground IS our youth facility."

I had to probe a little more, and it turns out we are allowed to field a Reserve team and an Under-18 team, but that the club has never done so. Steve avowed that it would be a waste of money.

"Any kid worth 'developing'," he told me, "Would be snapped up by bigger clubs. We're only going to see those local boys who didn't have enough talent to attract attention elsewhere. And if they play well, they'll move on up."

Finally, he turned to the matter of expectation. "We expect you to secure a safe mid-table position," he informed me. "I don't want the club to be in danger of getting sent down - by Christmas, we'd better be several places clear of the relegation zone."

"I see," I said. "And what do the media expect?"

"Oh, they don't expect us to avoid relegation."

Yes, now I began to see why they'd turned to a naive American. A side too weak to achieve the chairman's goals, but no transfer funds and already over budget? No manager worth his salt would have accepted this job - surely a number of wiser managers had turned it down.

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Wednesday, 14th July, 2004. Friendly, at Workington

Very well, I thought to myself. A friendly at Workington. I'd use the first half to try out my best young players, both to get them some experience and to see who was ready to compete for a starting job. The second half, I'd give all of the 'on the bubble' players a trot-out. Though they wouldn't know it, for some this might be their only chance to impress before I transfer listed them in the name of lowering the wage budget. I'd use the following match, our first home game, to give all of the veterans of the side a longer run - surely the fans would want to see the real starting XI. Okay, that left me only one problem - where the heck is Workington?

Fortunately, the coach driver knew - its along the coast north-west of Lancaster, so it was on up the M6 for us, with a cut across through the west through the beautiful Lake District National Park to Workington, a scenic sea-side town of 21,500 on the Cumbria cost. I was certainly going to learn a lot of British geography with this job!

Though kickoff was at 7:00pm, the sun was still shining on a gorgeous day, making for a balmy summer evening. Despite the perfect footballing weather, the crowd was a paltry 112, all locals. We had the first chance, 20 seconds in straight from the opening kickoff, but Ryan Zico-Black's shot went straight to their keeper.

A woolgathering moment from central defender Joe McMahon, whose concentration clearly wandered, led to the first real chance of the match for Wokington on 20 minutes. Kevin Welsby made a good one-on-one save to tip it wide, but the resultant corner led to a goal mouth scrum which Simon Tucker was able to bury to give the home side a 0-1 lead.

Our offense was fairly weak, as the young midfield couldn't generate many chances, the best coming just before the half when Michael Yates, silent so far, beat two defenders on a long dribble. He was caught from behind at the top of the box before he could get a shot off. At halftime, we made seven substitutes, bringing on most of the 'bubble' players, but leaving my starting wingers in place.

Ryan Elderton got back in my good graces in the 55th minute, when right defenseman Neil Uberschar - still playing into the second half - played a long ball from the right sideline. It found Elderton unmarked in front of goal, right on the 6-yard box. He calmly slotted it into the near corner, tying the game at one apiece.

The next minute, when some might have still been celebrating their goal, Elderton got back to defend, making a play in his own box to clear away danger, and I fully forgave his foolish card in the first match. The final half-hour settled into a slow midfield battle, although veteran Andy Fensome, on for Uberschar, blazed one over on the 93rd minute just before the final whistle.

Workington 1, Lancaster 1

Tucker 22; Elderton 55

MoM: Thornley

Man of the match went to 2nd-half goalkeeper Mark Thornley, who had made just two easy saves - it was that kind of match. Despite that recommendation, I remained unconvinced that Thornley offered much to the club.

Leaving the stadium around 10:30pm, it promised to be a long coach ride home, as we'd arrive back at The Giant Axe between 12:30 and 1:00am. The trip became even longer when physio Dave Hughes asked to speak with me.

Central mid Stewart Clitheroe, our highest-paid player, had picked up a pulled groin just before halftime, and Hughes thought he'd be out about two weeks - basically our entire pre-season schedule.

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Friday, 16th July, 2004.

It was time to get down to serious business: I'd promised to slash the wage budget, and it was time to start.

All of my players were on part-time contracts, including that lucrative paycheque of Stewart Clitheroe. Most of the decisions were easy - goalkeepers Johnstone and Thornely, defender Graham, winger Fowler, and striker Morton were all on the list already; I would leave them there. Defender Fensome would join them, victim to a numbers game: I'd decided to keep only seven defenders.

After some debate with Barrie and Mick, I decided to leave striker Sullivan on the list, leaving myself an 'open req' for a fourth striker rather than committing to keep him. With only two wingers on my 'keep' roster, I figured I'd need two more reserve wings at least - I expect them to do a lot of running.

That left me with only the central midfield to deliberate about. If I were going to run a 4-4-2, there was only room for four central mids, I thought; that meant five would have to go. However, chatting through the list, I found myself partial to all nine - that's right, I didn't want to let any of them go. If I were switching to my 4-5-1, I'd need to keep two defensive mids and four attacking mids, which would justify keeping six.. but that would still leave three that needed listing or loan.

I wrestled with it late into the night, deliberating trying a 'narrow' 4-4-2 which only utilized central midfielders, say 2 defensive midfielders, one central, and one attacking midifielder in a 2-1-1 configuration. I pencilled something in, and finally decided to declare an 'open season' during the rest of preseason. I'd announce that six spots were to be had for the nine midfielders, and let them fight it out.

That meant winger Lee Clitheroe and central mid Chris Beech would come off the transfer list, where they'd been placed by the previous administration.

On Friday, I placed a call to the FA Jobs Centre, where I posted for a Scout and an Assistant Manager. From my first impressions, to the desultory tone in his "I'll get right on that," to the first candidate he'd suggested - a full professional fullback from up in League 2 who would never be interested in coming to The Giant Axe - I'd had no real respect for scout Carl Richardson. If my scouts are going to be my eyes and ears, I'd need better than that.

Assistant Manager Barrie Stimpson hadn't impressed either - he's not tactically creative, he's far too optimistic with his judgement of our side's talent, and he doesn't coach particularly well. I don't want to shake things up too much, but if I can find a better assistant on similar wages, or even better a player/assistant who can man the wings, I'm inclined to let Stimpson seek work elsewhere.

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Saturday, 17th July, 2004.

"I think they're overbidding in their excitement," I told Barrie.

The first few faxes from other teams had arrived, most indicating why they couldn't care less about the players I had on offer: fair enough, I wouldn't want them either. We did get two £0 bids for useless winger John Fowler, he of the stunning inability to get a cross in.

I was only half-joking - in American sports, where there are roster-size limits, teams will often pay another to take a player off their books: usually less than his salary, of course, but some of these lot I would pay to see off my pitch.

I spent the majority of my time tinkering with the new 4-4-2 formation I would try in our upcoming home friendly, the narrow 2-1-1 midfield configuration with no wingers, since I seem to lack players capable of playing out wide. I also made an offer to a 23-year-old wing who my scout recommended, but the lad indicated that he had no intention of coming anywhere near Lancaster in his career.

We also worked on the squad's training regime a bit - I asked the lads to step it up, making the preseason training a lot more rigorous. It would be a lot of cross country running and wind sprints under my regime!

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Sunday, 18th July, 2004. Friendly, vs Cambridge

The Giant Axe is just downhill from Lancaster Railway Station, overlooked by Lancaster Castle. The castle is a truly breathtaking sight, a mammoth structure perched atop the hill and overlooking all of Lancaster City. The stadium sits almost in its shadow. The main 'grandstand' is a stand of plastic seats provided by our sponsor, perhaps 20 rows which run about a third of the length of the field. The opposite touch line has a covered standing area, with a structure to keep the rain off the crowd, which extends around behind one goal. There is theoretical standing room at the other side, but in Northern English weather I'll be very surprised to see it filled.

Google Maps: The Giant Axe

It was a warm, sunny Sunday afternoon.. but the pitch felt nearly deserted. The paying attendance was announced at 83, a far cry from the chanting, singing crowds of 40,000 which one sees on the televised matches. Somehow when I'd taken this job, I'd imagined the latter. But, Morecambe are the local club which draw support, and a meaningless friendly for a team that wasn't generating much interest locally drew only the friends and family of the players, plus one or two die-hard fans.

The match was the debut for my 'Narrow 4-4-2' formation, so lovingly worked on during the week. I started a group that was pretty much who I had 'in the lead' for my starting XI: Jamie Speare in goal, Andy Scott, Martin Clark, Joe McMahon, and Neil Uberschar across the back line, Gary Bauress and Steve Birks at the DMC positions, Chris Beech in central midfield, Phil Clarkson in the AMC role, and Peter Thomson starting up front with Michael Yates.

We had the better of the match early on, with Beech blazing a shot over the bar on about the fifth minute. For the first fifteen, it looked like the new formation was very solid defensively, but then Cambridge got off two great shots, one in the 15th barely wide of the post and one in the 20th which Speare just managed to divert wide, a fantastic save.

We came back a few minutes later, with a long ball to Yates, who played a diagonal ball to space. Clarkson ran onto it at about the penalty spot. His shot went wide of the post, to a united groan from our bench and the meagre crowd. From that point on, we applied heavy pressure throughout the half, which Cambridge was lucky to weather.

0-0 at halftime, and all to play for. I was happy with the side, and happy with the tactic, so I made no changes, just told the lads it was clear who the better side was, now go out and get your goal. All that changed sixty seconds into the second half, though, as Clark was whistled for a dubious foul about 30 yards from our goal. Richard Scott took it, and curled a glorious shot into the upper right corner of Speare's net - we were 0-1 down.

As the half progressed, we continued to mount more and more pressure, but could not convert. Around the 60th minute, I began warming up my first subs, Ryan-Zico Black and Paul Sparrow, who would go on for Clarkson and Clark. Neither was involved in the telling play, but it began just after they came in. Steve Birks drilled a long ball into the box from the right wing, and found Peter Thomson on a far-post run. Thomson had slipped all the defenders, and arrived just as the ball did to head it past the Cambridge keeper from about five yards out. Just like that, we'd gotten level at 1-1!

By the 78th minute, I'd made eleven substitutions, as the hot day took its toll, and I still wanted to see my other players. The new formation continued to look very solid defensively, and neither side had any real chances through the final fifteen minutes and injury time.

Lancaster 1, Cambridge 1

Thomson 66; Scott 47

MoM: Yeomans

The selection of reserve goalkeeper Ryan Yeomans as man of the match made me laugh out loud: I'm sure the local newspaperman didn't even watch the match, as Yeomans was brought on when Speare picked up a knock late in the second half. He played just 18 minutes, and didn't record a single save.

Surely Thomson's goal, Birks' long ball, or Speare's spectacular first-half save were more worthy of the honor!

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Good to see Jamie 'Spearo' Speare getting a write-up. Stanley legend. He was part of the team that kick started the Stanley side you see today in the Football League. icon14.gif

Good luck with the story, and all that.

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Wednesday, 21st July, 2004.

"Whose ... bright ... idea ... was this?" I wheezed.

"Yours..." player/coach Gary Bauress answered, equally winded.

He was right - it had been.

Frustrated with a number of players who seemed to be 'dogging it' in training, I'd announced that anyone who didn't finish ahead of both the coach and the old man would be fined a week's wages - and cut outright the second time. It didn't look like today, the first day of that policy, had proven anything other than the fact that the 'old man' was sixty pounds overweight and seriously out of shape; everyone had finished ahead of me.

I checked my watch: we'd come in right at the median time for Tuesday's run, so the whole group had run faster today. Judging from the way Mark Thornley lay gasping for air on the grass, I wondered if it might be the last thing he did. In the States, I knew to dial '911' for an emergency - it occurred to me that I'd never asked how to call for help in England!

Ashton United secured the coup of the Conference North preseason yesterday, when they signed former England international Paul Gascoigne to a one-year deal. I was green with envy, of course, and a bit angry with my useless scout for failing to notify me that the famous forward - even Americans have heard of him! - was willing to consider a Conference North side. I did have to admit that Ashton were a better side to go to, if you were coming to this level.

At any rate, the local press was much abuzz with the news, and wondered who we were pursuing. The answer to that was an unsigned right winger who used to play for Manchester United - but I'd been badly outbid. Carl Richardson had, indeed, found a gem of a player, but he'd failed to consider the competition: both Sevilla and Zaragoza had made bids for him. I doubted he'd pass up the chance to play in Spain to come to the less-than-illustrious Giant Axe.

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Thursday, 22nd July, 2004.

I can't believe I'm taking scout Carl Richardson's word for anything, but I got hurried into it. He recommended 19-year-old attacking midfielder David Mellor, who interested me because he could play both centrally and on the left wing, and then Mellor's agent informed us that other teams were making offers for his player. I put in a bid - a minimum-salary part-time offer, and much to my surprise Mellor accepted: we'd out-bid three other teams.

We also saw the last of two players. Hapless winger John Fowler had butchered his last cross, at least for us, and accepted Radcliffe Boro's offer. Aged goalkeeper Glenn Johnstone came to terms with Bradford Park Avenue - a club I'd read of in that famous football novel 'The Legend of Jason Young'. I bid them both "farewell", and they headed off for the Lancaster train station.

After interviewing four candidates for the Assistant Manager position, I made an offer to unknown 25-year-old Kevin Hull, whose resume was nearly bare: like me, he had done some youth league managing. His previous professional experience was as the only staff on a semi-pro women's team.

Well, he'd be used to our small crowds, at least!

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Friday, 23rd July, 2004.

"Wales? Llangefni? What sadist scheduled this pre-season?"

I was grumbling to myself, mostly, as I perused our upcoming fixture, but Gary overheard me. "It's part of some promotion," he told me. "Nine english clubs travelling to Wales, to face nine Welsh sides. But that's not the bad one, Skipper," he went on. "Have you seen our Tuesday fixture?"

"Yes," I said, reluctantly. "Ballyclare. So?" As I saw his amused expression, I knew to add, "Where's that?"

"Northern Ireland," he answered with a laugh, "And if you think travelling by coach is bad, wait 'til you see the ferry."

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Saturday, 24th July, 2004. Friendly, vs Llangefni

It was a long drive: Llangefni is out on Anglesey, an island off the Welsh coast, but the town itself is friendly and inviting, set a short ways inland. It was a warm day, yet the crowd was familiar: a paltry 106 turned out to watch our budding international rivalry.

Peter Thomson, hero of the Cambridge match, was the early goat today, first missing our best chance of the first half, and then earning a yellow card for dissent, an outburst I won't often tolerate. Young Joe McMahon was playing very well, anchoring our defense as they rebuffed Welsh attack after Welsh attack, but the pressure was too strong: on the 36th minute, Chris Smith picked up a loose clearance in our box, and slotted it home past a sprawling Jamie Pearce. 0-1 to the Welshmen.

I gave the lads a bit of a talking to at halftime, and made my planned changes: all four starting midfielders out, and youngsters in, including recent signing Dave Mellor at AMC. From about the 60th to 70th minutes, Mellor, Tony Sullivan and Ryan-Zico Black created a flurry of chances, but none of their shots were on target. Shooting practice would be in order, I thought. By the 70th minute, all of the Llangefini substitutions had been made, and I thought we'd be able to muster more of an assault against their reserves. The well had run dry, however, and we didn't get another shot off despite my late tactical adjustments to try and get more players involved in the attack.

So this was the 'agony of defeat', as they used to say on the intro to 'ABC's Wide World of Sports': I'm sure every American lad can conjure up the images. "The thrill of victory," the voice-over intoned, accompanied by a race car driver taking the checkered flag and then the driver kissing the cup as champagne sprayed... "And the agony of defeat," in the same almost flat voice as a skiier tumbled in a spectacular accident. Judging from the hanging heads as we trudged off the pitch, it would be an equally long coach ride home.

Llangefini 1, Lancaster 0

Smith 36; ---

MoM: McMahon

The bright spot was definitely the performance of young central defender Joe McMahon, who deservedly earned the Man of the Match. He played 76 minutes, and led both teams in tackles and headers won. "Very well played," I told him, noting to myself that he was certainly staking a claim to a starting role.

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Sunday, 25th July, 2004.

When I arrived back in my office the following morning, a fax awaited me: a contract signed by young Kevin Hull. I countersigned it, and faxed the final version on back to my new Assistant Manager.

I called Barrie Stimpson into my office, intending to explain to him that his services were no longer needed. I had a nice speech thought out in my head, how it wasn't about him, a younger man was willing to work for less. I was going to tactfully avoid mentioning that Hull was simply much better at the job, and thank Barrie for loyally taking care of the club during these last weeks of transition.

I barely got a chance to get started on that speech. As soon as he got the gist, Barrie got angry. He slammed two hands down on my desk, and said, "Listen, lad, you can't sack me. I've five years left on my contract, and under English contract law, you have to pay me for all five years, whether I work them or not. We call it 'gardening leave'. So, IF you were to fire me, the club would owe me..." He paused for a moment, doing the math in his head, "...oh, about £130,000. And we both know the club doesn't have that kind of money. So don't even think about firing me."

I began to regret offering Hull a similar five-year deal. Frightening - and I'd just countersigned Hull's contract, so now I'd have two assistant managers, which the club really couldn't afford. Thinking on my feet, I decided to try a different approach with Barrie, and attempted to talk him down out of his anger.

I wound up by offering to keep him on as a coach - at the same wages! - for the rest of the season, and I think I made it sound like that had been my plan all along. I told him that would give him plenty of time to find other work, and swore that he'd be free to leave at any time if he had other offers.

He grudgingly promised he would think about it, and left without slamming the door, but I felt I'd done irretrievable harm to our previously congenial relationship.

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Tuesday, 27th July, 2004. Friendly, at Ballyclare.

Barrie was back in my office Tuesday morning, waiting for me before I got in for our trip to Ireland, in fact. "I've thought about it," he told me, "And I'll take the coaching position. Like you said, a year's more than enough to find another position, and the club certainly can't afford to pay two of us to fill the same role any more than it could pay compensation for sacking me. If the lad is your hand-picked assistant, I'll step aside and let you two get on with it." He tried to add a smile, but I could see it really pained him to contemplate stepping aside - well, he'd surely been one of the contenders for my job, and to go from nearly Manager down to a coach on a short-term contract in a span of weeks would be tough on anyone. I thanked him for his professionalism and courtesy, and said I'd be relying on him a lot this year.

Then it was off to Ireland, and despite Gary's ominous admonition the previous week, the ferry from Liverpool to Dublin was actually quite pleasant: its a good-sized ship, containing hundreds of automobiles, lorries, and coaches, and large enough that nobody got seasick despite the choppy Irish Sea.

When we got to the ground, my heart was warmed, for the 88 Irish fans were singing! After seeing this on television from the States, I'd always wanted to be in a stadium where the fans sing - its a tradition we Americans sadly lack. There they were, in full song, bless their hearts.

I'd tried to get a baseball crowd singing, once, which led to some taunts, and the following immortal exchange:

"Give it up, will ya?"

"The English do it at soccer games!"

"The English are drunk at soccer games!"

In the locker room, I announced that we were going to start with a more traditional 4-4-2, as I wanted to get my two wingers involved in the match. The squad was well overhauled from our Welsh matchup, as I put in most of the fringe players who were looking for a spot.

Ryan Yeomans got the start in goal, and nearly earned an assist on the 5th minute! He launched a goal kick straight down the center of the pitch, and it bounced past the last defender. Tony Sullivan ran it down, but blazed his shot just over the bar. It was the signal of a tremendous first half - real end to end stuff and plenty of chances for both sides. Yeomans made three fine saves, while the Irish keeper foiled all of our chances, and we went into the half with a 0-0 scoreline, though Ballyclare had out-shot us nearly two to one. I made few changes at halftime, just a couple of planned substitutions.

The lads were used to close games by this point. It was the combination of Neil Uberschar and Peter Thomson that broke the deadlock - Uberschar launched a long ball from his right sideline, finding Thomson on a far-post run. The wily striker eluded double coverage, and leapt just in front of the keeper to head it home from about 3 yards out. That silenced the Irish crowd for the first time all night - and given us a lead for the first time since that opening match in Blyth!

At the 63rd minute, with both my wingers tiring, I switched to that tough defensive narrow formation, making wholesale changes including a change in goal and most of the midfield. Ballyclare began pushing forward in earnest, running something which looked like a 4-2-4, but it left a lot of space at the back, which fresh-legged Michael Yates was able to exploit. His shot went just wide of the post.

In the 76th minute, Steve Birks blazed a free kick over the bar. Our tight defending, however, was doing a great job, denying them a single chance. Finally, the frustration began to tell, and when a call went against the Irish side in injury time, they erupted into argument with the referee, which prompted him to hand out a pair of yellows and blow the whistle to end the match! We'd won, 1-0!

Ballyclare 0, Lancaster 1

---; Thomson 54

MoM: Welsby

Oddly, Kevin Welsby was named Man of the Match, in preference to Ryan Yeomans - despite the fact that Welsby didn't face a single shot in his 30 minutes of action. Strange. The lads were rowdy and boisterous on the way home - I hadn't figured the ferry would have a bar, but it did, and its a good thing they weren't driving after we disembarked.

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  • 4 months later...

Wednesday, 28th July, 2004.

I signed the lease on a house today! Comparing rents in Lancaster with the rents in California is incredible - in California, we could barely afford a two-bedroom apartment on landfill in San Francisco Bay. Here in Lancaster, the prices were much more reasonable, and a cute three-bedroom cottage was easily affordable even on my reduced wage as manager of a semi-pro football club. My fiancee Stacy had liked my favorite house, judging from the virtual tour, and she said she'd be joining me next week - I can't wait! I've been missing her.

I was thinking about the club's financial state again, and watching the faxes from the FA, which announced any transactions registered by other teams in the Conference North, and it occurred to me that a lot of those teams were loaning in players. I thought I should see what that was about, so I called Barrie Stimpson into my office and asked him to explain the loan rules.

He told me the club can borrow up to 12 players per season from other clubs - and often can get off without paying the players' wages, which could be a real boon. It works like this: the team can have up to 4 'long-term' loans, e.g., loans which last until the end of the season, at any one time. The team can also have 8 'short-term' loans, loans which last a maximum of three months, so long as they have no more than 4 concurrently. Mostly, you loan in fringe players from a higher-quality team, on the theory that getting playing time in a lower division is better than rotting on the bench in a higher division.

That winger I'd wanted had just signed with Sevilla. I faxed them an offer to take him on loan for the season, though somehow I doubt they'll accept.

I also interviewed two new scouting candidates today - Simon Clifford and Spencer Field. Clifford is a 25-year-old, and has some experience as a youth coach; in fact, if he develops as I think he might, he may be more useful as a coach for us than a scout, long term. Field is 32, with no prior experience as scout for a football team, but he says he used to work as a volunteer researcher for a computer game company which makes a footie management sim. Being a former game programmer, myself, he and I had a great conversation!

I brought both in to observe Lancaster training sessions, and then asked for their opinions of the players. They each gave me overviews that were very similar to my own, and I offered them each a position. They're both much stronger than our current scout, Carl Richardson, and if either or both accept, I'm going to give Carl his marching orders.

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Saturday, 31st July, 2004.

We have two new scouts! Clifford and Field both accepted multi-year part-time offers. They're both incredibly talented, so I'm quite looking forward to working with them, although I'm sure both view Lancaster as a stepping-stone towards a position for a more prestigous club. That's okay - I want to turn Lancaster into a more prestigous club, so we're on the same page at least for now.

Sevilla has rejected my offer for that winger - I'm going to make one more offer, but I think they'd rather have him in Spain getting acclimated to the Spanish style rather than loan him back to mother England.

Tomorrow will be our last preseason match, only our second at home, against Slough. Then its a two-week layoff before the first match of the Conference North season on August 14th. I've decided to field my strongest XI and treat this like a competitive match: limiting myself to three substitutions, and going all-out to win it. I'd like to end the preseason with a winning record, and two straight wins would be something to build on going into the regular season.

A bit of bad news - young defenseman Joe McMahon suffered a twisted knee in a training pitch accident yesterday. He'll miss our last friendly, but the physio assures me he should be back by the first competitive match of the season, and might even be in shape to play.

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Sunday, 1st August, 2004. Friendly, vs Slough.

My two new scouts reported for duty this morning, and I told them both to watch today's match, then to both head out scouting. Field was instructed to scout the Championship for loan targets, with Clifford to scout anybody in England he saw fit.

For the match, I went with Speare in goal, Scott, Sparrow, Clark, and Uberschar across the back four, and Bauress and Birks at defensive mid. Stewart Clitheroe had recovered enough to play central mid, with Clarkson ahead of him. Yates and Black, my most successful pairing, were up front.

Before 101 fans, our final preseason matchup kicked off. The sides traded corner kicks in the early minutes, both seeming to threaten through the first fifteen minutes. Then it settled down to a defensive struggle until the 38th minute, when Clitheroe found Yates with a long ball. The striker seemed poised to score, but hesitated at the last and was caught from behind. Ryan-Zico Black did not make the same mistake on the 45th minute, when Clarkson fed him a ball just outside of the box. He took one touch to set himself up, and then blasted a curling 20-yarder which carombed in off the near post! We went into the half with a 1-0 lead.

I told the lads to settle down, and reminded them of my 'competition rules' plan: I would make three substitutions, but all sometime in the second half, and was playing this one all out to win. The Slough manager was obviously not playing that way, and by the 61st minute, he had made nine substitutions - providing an interesting test of fresh legs versus my starting lineup. Fresh legs provided Slough with one chance, a breakway by their speedy reserve striker, but Speare was up to the task with a beautiful save.

Our front foursome were getting tired - I'd noticed that they were bunching up a bit, and at the 72nd minute, I made my three changes, bringing out Clitheroe, Clarkson, and Black and replacing them with Beech, Jones, and Thomson respectively. The new front arrangement created great amounts of space in the Slough defense, and Beech and Thomson both had excellent chances; the former saw his effort saved, while the later grazed the crossbar. We weathered an injury-time counterattack, and then the ref blew the whistle on another 1-0 Lancaster victory.

Lancaster 1, Slough 0

Black 45; ---

MoM: Singh (Slough DL)

With two straight victories, I was upbeat. I figured we were ready for the start of the season, and 1-0 victories were exactly what we'd be playing for. I told the lads to drink heartily tonight, and take tomorrow off - I'd see them Tuesday, when I'd introduce them to our late pre-season training schedule.

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Tuesday, August 3rd.

Good news on the home front: my fiancee arrived from the states Sunday. When we'd first discussed moving to England, Stacy had expressed serious misgivings about British weather. She grew up in the deserts of Southern California, but went to school at Oxford, and is all too familiar with the chill and dreary grey of a British winter. However, she arrived in a very good mood, and we went for a pleasant bicycle ride along the coast yesterday, both quite enjoying the warm summer weather.

Unfortunately, that also means that our four cats have gone into quarantine - something about having utterly eradicated rabies on the islands, and not wanting to take a chance on bringing it back in. Never mind that all four have had rabies shots all their lives, and I've the papers to prove it. That's not good enough! It'll be six months in quarantine hell for the little fellows.

When I got back to the office today, I started the lads on some more technique-oriented late pre-season training schedules: still quite physically demanding as we work the last of the offseason fat away, but beginning to focus on the technical and mental aspects which I believe will be really telling over the course of a season.

Negotiations with a brilliant young attacking midfielder, Shane Tolley, were going very well - he agreed to join the club, and I happily countersigned his contract. We also have three trialists in this week.

I brought scout Carl Richardson into the office for a bit of a talk. After learning from my conversation with Barrie Stimpson, I broke it to Carl quite gently. I told him that we'd hired two new scouts, and that he no longer featured in our long-term plans. I explained that I didn't want to fire him per se, but that the five-year contract he currently has was not going to stand. I offered him a bit of an extra bonus if he'd drop it down to one year, again highlighting the benefits of being able to find similar work somewhere more appealing.

I think he bought it - but he didn't seem to like me much from the get-go, so perhaps he thinks leaving the club will be a step up as well.

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Friday, 6th August, 2004.

Its been a good week so far - the lads have been doing well in training, no injuries, and Joe McMahon still seems on track to recover in time for the season opener. Richardson did accept the reduced contract offer, so he'll be off the books at the end of the year - I'll make do with the slightly bloated staff this season, and be rid of the deadweight next year. We've also added two more trialists.

Meanwhile, I've been taking the time to get to know some of the stories of the players - we go out for a pint after training, believe it or not!

Neil Prince used to train with Liverpool from the age of 9 - in the States, that sort of talent-training doesn't exist in any sport, really. Ryan Elderton's claim to fame is the one year he spent as a full-time professional. Player/coach Gary Bauress won the Unibond Premier League with Stalybridge Celtic a few years ago.

But the biggest story is Peter Thomson, who became a club legend after his record transfer to Dutch side NAC Breda in 1998. The Dutch club clearly bought into the tale of his potential, but it didn't work out, and after a circuitous route with numerous stops, he's found himself back where it had all started, at The Giant Axe.

At home, its been all about unpacking and getting settled into our new place. Boxes, boxes, everywhere! I didn't realize we had so much stuff - and Stacy says she left lots of it behind, in storage.

We're such pack-rats!

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Wednesday, 11th August, 2004.

It's hard to believe I've been with the club a month now! The pre-season's over, and the tension is ratcheting up as the two weeks until the season opener pass.

I'm getting quite nervous about the season, to be honest. We haven't really identified any good loan targets, and I was very much hoping that we'd have several offers out by this point. Watching what the other clubs are doing, I think we'll need several loans to stay competitive.

I have Assistant Manager Kevin Hull's reports on our five trialists today. He didn't help me much, basically stating that he feels they are all talented youngsters with a great future. I can't afford to hire purely on potential; I need players who can help out this season.

Iain Ward is a DC/DMC who looks about equal to Joe McMahon or Ricky Mercer, a little slower than I would like but with better technical skills than McMahon.

Scott Black really can't hold a candle to Andy Scott, the incumbent left back.

Right wing Owen Story is about even with Lee Clitheroe, which would be a good fit with my preferred tactical style - I expect to need two wingers who can alternate starts.

Jason Lay is perhaps the most interesting find, as at 22 years old he is nearly even with Phil Clarkson at the AMC position - better phyiscally and technically, just not as much of a leadership presence on the field.

Andrew Oakes up front is a better aerial target than any of my current options, and so I think he'd be a good signing as well - he's also 22, and he's better than Peter Thomson in almost every phase of the game.

So, I found myself extending offers to Lay and Oakes, worrying a bit about further bloating of our wage bill but needing to upgrade wherever possible. Story demanded way more than we can afford, which is disappointing.

To compensate, I offered mutual termination to some of my players: Goalkeeper Mark Thornley, right back Andy Fensome, and left back Jimmy Graham. All three refused, despite the clear indication that they are not at all a part of my plans. I offered them out for transfer or loan again, along with my other fringe players, but I don't expect any more interest this time than last.

Scout Carl Richardson had finished his one-month search for new players, so I asked him to go scout our upcoming opposition; its a job that needs to be done, and he'll do less harm there than recommending players, I think.

Oh, entertaining news from the television - Manchester United lost to FC Kobenhavn 3-1 in the first leg of a Champions League qualifier, leaving them a fair bit of work to do in the home leg just to advance to the group stages!

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Friday, 13th August, 2004.

I arrived at the club this evening in a great mood, but Friday the 13th struck before practice even got fully underway. Ryan-Zico Black, my number two striker, twisted his knee playing Pig in the Middle to warm up this evening. He had to go to hospital, and it wasn't until near midnight that we got the initial word: out at least three weeks, and definitely missing the first four matches of the season. The club's message boards have been flooded with messages from fans worried this is crippling the team.

Can you believe a club this small has a website and a fan forum? It's true.

In other news, attacking midfielder Jason Lay accepted our contract offer. He'll be joining the team in time for the opening match, but I was not sure I'd play him on such short notice. I did hope his presence gives our starters some extra motivation, though!

Dunbar United made a loan offer for aging Scottish left back Jimmy Graham, and are willing to pay his wages for three months. That worked for me, but they have competition in the form of a club called 'Saint Cuthbert's Wands'. The name made me laugh - I'd played Dungeons and Dragons when I was a lad, and of course 'Saint Cuthbert' is a diety in the Gary Gygax mythology. I'd had no idea the source of inspiration for the name, at least, was a real person!

Even better, a lower-division club, Marine, made an offer of £6,000 for fringe striker Tony Sullivan. The 29-year-old did have some talent, but his lack of composure, concentration, and an abysmal first touch sabotaged his efforts. Though he shot well in training, his ability to finish chances in a real match left a lot to be desired in our preseason run, so I was willing to part with him, and glad they were offering so much.

Also on my desk I found the scouting report for Hinckley. Ah, good old Carl Richardson. "I've had a look at Hinckley and I believe their team is competent." No indication of preferred style, no players to watch out for or weaknesses to exploit - heck, I was getting more information from the media in the run-up to this match than from him.

I wondered if he had even found Hinckley, or if he just wrote something non-committal whilst spending our money touring the pubs of England.

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Saturday, 14th August, 2004. Conference North - Game 1, at Hinckley.

It was a long drive down the M6 to Hinckley, which is centrally located, between Coventry and Leicester. Its not a particularly scenic location, but Middlefield Lane felt familiar - its similarly laid out to our own Giant Axe. The crowd of 329 was doing their best to be noisy and raucous, but in an open-air venue, it didn't amount to much distraction.

I started Jamie Spear in net, with Andy Scott, Ricky Mercer, Martin Clark, and Paul Sparrow across the back four - Mercer in for McMahon, who was back in training but not yet match fit, and the experienced Sparrow starting for Uberschar on the road. Steve Birks and coach Gary Bauress were our defensive midfielders, with Chris Beech central. New signing Shane Tolley earned the start at AMC, while up front Michael Yates was paired with Peter Thomson. Hinckley came out in a standard 4-4-2.

Disaster struck early, as a vicious tackle by Tommy Goodwin rendered Bauress unable to last to the fifth minute. Gary couldn't have been mugged worse if Goodwin had had a knife and taken his wallet. I nearly burst a vein, I was so angry - the ref didn't even call a foul! Its a rough league, as I was to learn.

I moved Mercer up to defensive mid, swung Sparrow over to central defense, and put Whittle on at right back. It didn't take long for Hinckley to find the weak link in our central defense, and by the 20th minute all the pressure was on us. Sam McMahon's free kick bounced off our crossbar in the 20th minute, Paul Barnes missed from only 6 yards out at the 23rd minute, and blazed one over the bar at the 27th. It was clear that there was something wrong with our defense, but I couldn't see how to correct it - Barnes kept finding space between my two central defenders, which made some sense as Sparrow wasn't used to the position. I was playing a zonal defense, and it looked like both expected that Barnes was in the other's zone.

In the 34th minute, right back Stuart Storer sent a long ball over the top of our defense. Barnes looked to be badly offsides, slipping past Martin Clark before the ball was struck, but the woeful linesman missed it, and Barnes had an easy chance, hammering it past the hapless Jamie Speare from 6 yards out. I almost picked up a yellow card screaming at the ref, it was such a bad call!

Worse luck, in the 45th minute Ricky Mercer, playing DMC, collided heavily with Richard Lavery, and he, too was unable to continue. Of course, there was no call. I put Stewart Clitheroe on for him, only to see Chris Beech hurt during injury time.

We tried to treat Beech over the half, but he was unable to go back out to start the second, so I sent on Phil Clarkson, which left me out of substitutions at halftime! I told the lads if the ref was this bad - not one of our injuries had drawn a foul - they could tackle as hard as they liked in the second half. I made some slight tactical adjustments to our midfield, basically creeping everybody forward a bit more, and trying to straighten out the tangled mess which sometimes occurred in the center.

As you might imagine, the second half got very ugly. Our lads were in a black mood, and Hinckley remained as vicious as they'd been in the first half. The referee finally began to step in, and the action was stopped repeatedly for fouls and a flurry of yellow cards - both sides ended up with four apiece. Our tougher attitude slowed the Hinckley attack, but it also tired the lads out quite a bit, and left us with little energy to make a late push.

Michael Yates, in particular, was thoroughly knackered by the 70th minute, and I sorely wished I had another substitution with which to bring him off. Sensing our weakness, Hinckley began to push forward more and more, often sending six or seven into the attack as they sought the knockout second goal. To our lads' credit, they held strong, but were very much unable to counter-attack. Anything they tried was shut down, even if it looked like we had numbers. When the final whistle blew, it was a mercy.

Hinckley 1, Lancaster 0

Beech 34; ----

MoM: Lavery (Hinckley DMC)

The only real bright spot of the match was Shane Tolley. The 19-year-old attacking midfielder had set up Michael Yates with an incisive pass in the first half, took our only shot of the second half, and still had a bit left in the tank at the end. Still, we were outshot 12-2, and the hosts had well deserved their victory.

I was very bitter about the standard of refereeing, but was told that the FA, swamped by such complaints, were no longer accepting them.

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Monday, 16th August, 2004.

I gave the lads Sunday off, which I was happy to spend with my fiancee. With most of the unpacking done, the place is at least livable, but now we have all the fun of trying to plan our wedding. We had a bunch of things lined up in California before my sudden career change - and that's going to make it quite a challenge!

We regrouped again Monday evening - our practices tend to be once in the early morning, before work starts, and once in the evening gloaming, training under the lights after work ends, as most of my players have job. In fact, the most common taunt in training, after a steal, a fake-out, or a save in goal, is "Don't quit your day job!"

I had the report from the physio: fortunately no lasting injuries. Gary Bauress was worst off, with a deep thigh bruise which would keep him out at least a week, two matches for certain if not more.

Ricky Mercer had a nasty shin bruise that would rule him out of tomorrow's match, but he could go in a pinch on Saturday.

Chris Beech was practicing gingerly, and told me he should be able to play tomorrow night. After watching him limp through practice, though, I pencilled in Stewart Clitheroe at the central midfield place: it looked like Chris's ankle was quite sore, even if he wouldn't admit it for love or money.

I had made a season-long loan offer to Blackburn for central midfielder Ciaran Donnelly, and there was a fax on my desk which must have come in sometime Sunday, stating that they accepted the offer, and giving me the cell phone number of Donnelly's agent. I gave him a ring, but got voice mail.

Also, Poole Borough and Kendal Town both asked for 18-year-old Ryan Yeomans on loan. It would suit me to see him get some quality time in goal, but only Poole had offered me a 'recall' clause - the ability to bring him back immediately if I needed him - so I accepted their offer, while countering Town's with similar terms.

I was using an Excel spreadsheet to track who I felt was improving their game, and reviewed it with my coaches over the evening. We felt like Ryan Elderton was making the most progress, especially in the technical aspects of his game; he'd be rewarded with the starting berth in Bauress' absence. Winger Lee Clitheroe and striker Ryan-Zico Black were also improving notably.

One other thing I noted - we'd bulked up, from 31 players to 36. With the wage bill a serious concern, I'd need to do something about that.

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Tuesday, 17th August, 2004. Conference North - Game 2, vs Hucknall.

Hucknall received a similar vague description from Carl Richardson: "Hucknall are a competent team, with a pacey attacking line." Great.

Dunbar United have closed a loan deal with Jimmy Graham, while Marine have reached a contract with Tony Sullivan. The deal lacked only my final signature, which I delayed until after our match Tuesday evening, to squeeze one more match out of him.

With the injuries and tired legs from the Saturday game, there were numerous changes in my lineup, as I switched to my favored 4-5-1 formation. Joe McMahon and Neil Uberschar joined Andy Scott and Martin Clark in the back four, replacing Mercer and Sparrow. Ryan Elderton would start at the lone DMC position, with Lee Clitheroe and Neil Prince the wingers. Jason Lay and Steve Jones would take the AMC positions, with Tony Sullivan making his first and last competitive appearance for us as the lone striker. Only 3 men from the opening match were starting this one, and one of those was goalkeeper Jamie Speare.

We got off to a great start, mounting loads of pressure on Hucknall in the first 10 minutes, before they got a counter-attack which resulted in a shot ricocheting off of Jamie Speare's crossbar. Our pressure continued through the quarter-hour, with David Artell forced to pick up a yellow card in the 12th minute, but began to slow a bit after that, as their defense soaked up attack after attack.

In the 25th minute, Gary Patterson dropped a Hucknall free kick right to Leon McSweeney, who launched a beautiful half-volley from the 18-yard stripe. There was little Speare could do but pick it out of the back of the net - astoundingly against the run of play. In the 40th minute, Artell brought down Tony Sullivan on the left wing, and received his second yellow card - a red! So we went into the half down 0-1 but a man up.

I gave the lads a more attacking slant, keeping the shape but pushing more people forward to get some additional options, but right from the restart Hucknall bunkered down, playing very tight defense. The introduction of Yates in the 63rd minute and Mellor in the 74th didn't seem to help us, and time was running out.

In the 79th minute, Martin Clark was called for a foul, and was lucky not to earn his second yellow of the game; Lee Clitheroe picked up a yellow arguing the call, but the real damage was to follow, as Roy Hunter stepped up and drove a 30-yard free kick on goal. It wasn't curving, it wasn't to the corner, and it looked like Jamie Speare had it.. but he tried to catch it above his head, and it went straight through his hands and into the net. The lads looked gutted, and at 0-2 it was all but over.

We did mount one last chance in injury time, when Michael Yates dribbled along the end line towards the near post. He cut it back to the top of the box for Ryan Elderton, but the youngster's 18-yard blast flew over the bar.

Lancaster 0, Hucknall 2

----; McSweeney 25, Hunter 81

MoM: Patterson (Hucknall DC)

It was somewhat telling that Hucknall central defenseman Gary Patterson won Man of the Match, not just for the assist on the first goal - he'd made a number of key tackles throughout the match in an impressive performance. Despite the scoreline, I was pleased with our performance: we'd dominated 60% of posession, and kept it in the Hucknall end most of the match. It was obvious what our weakness had been: we'd gotten off only 3 shots on goal, and 2 of those had come in the first ten minutes.

I was less pleased when I saw the standings: we were now down in 18th place.

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Thursday, 19th August, 2004

After the match, Tony Sullivan left to join Marine on a £6,000 transfer - our first income - and Jimmy Graham joined Dunbar United on a three-month loan.

Tony Sullivan, SC, 29: January 2004-August 2004, 1 season, 1 game, 0 goals, 0 assists, 0 MoM, 7.00

Even better, I now had a transfer budget: a whopping £994. Wait a minute! When I'd spoken with Chairman Steve Johnston about the job, he'd promised me 40% of the transfer revenue would be available! I should have £2,400 to spend!

I rushed into his office, and angrily demanded to know what had happened.

"Calm down now," Mr. Johnson told me, "Have a seat. I would have been glad to give you 40% then, but the situation has changed. When we first brought you on, we had over £13,000 in the bank, but we've lost £21,000 thus far this year, and are now £4,500 in the red. In fact, the £6,000 from the sale of Sullivan is almost 60% of the club's revenue for the year," he went on, "And without it our expenditures are 7.5 times more than our revenues."

He looked up and saw the dark expression on my face. "I suppose I should have warned you about it," he said, "But I didn't want to worry you. We'll make a bit more from ticket sales now that the season has started - this last match netted us about £1500. But honestly, we'll probably be running in the red for most of the year, unless we get a lucky money-spinning cup tie.

"That's not all. I'm afraid our sponsorship is expiring at the end of the year, and with the current economic climate, I'm finding it difficult to line up a new sponsor. I'm hoping interest will heat up by the end of the year, but if not, that'll be another big blow."

My anger had curdled to a sick pit in my stomach: though I'd known we weren't well off, it was quite devastating to see it laid out in cold, implacable numbers, and doubly so to be called on the carpet for it by my new boss.

He still wasn't done.

"Finally, about the wage budget. I understand you want to bring your own people in, but I'd signed all of our existing staff to long-term contracts to try and provide some stability during the upcoming season or two. And with your new signings, our wage budget is now up to £347,000 per annum - and £154,000 of that are for non-playing staff. We simply can't afford that kind of staffing level."

I explained about my plan to drop the dead weight at the end of the year, but he rightly noted that the two people I had expiring accounted for only £30,000 of that wage budget. Then he hammered me on increasing the number of players - and exhorted me to sell more. I tried to explain that the players I didn't want were the ones nobody else wanted either, but he was not sympathetic.

So. £994.

I couldn't even spend it all in one place, as with the FA having raised the minimum transfer fee to £1,000 for this year, I was £6 shy. I couldn't even buy a single player.

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Saturday, 22nd August, 2004. Conference North - Game 3, at Barrow.

The transfer market was getting interesting: Goalkeeper Ryan Yeomans was garnering plenty of interest - another team had joined the fray to acquire him on loan, which I could only take as a good sign. It was also turning into quite a bidding war for Andy Oakes - four teams had bids in, and I'd offered him a one-year contract extension if he'd stay with the club.

Today, however, we turned our attention to 4th placed Barrow. Again Carl Richardson rated them as 'Competent', and noted that they typically used a 4-4-2 and lacked pace in attack. It was a good long drive, as Barrow is well south of us, and far to the east, just east of Newmarket in fact.

I switched back to the narrow 4-4-2, packing the middle on the road against a top team. We retained the same defensive unit, with Steve Birks, Gary Bauress, Stewart Clitheroe and Phil Clarkson in the midfield, and Michael Yates and Peter Thomson up front. That was only two changes from the lineup we'd sported against Hinckley in the opener.

Wow, this atmosphere was more like it: Holker Street held 1,100 screaming fans, despite the chilly evening - it had been overcast all day. We had early control, but failed to convert on two corners back-to-back in the 15th minute. Barrow's Ian Kilford got into our six-yeard box in the 22nd, but veteran Andy Scott made a great tackle to turn the danger into a corner kick. In the 28th minute, Joe McMahon picked up a yellow card for tackling John Turner just outside the box. After conceding two goals from free kicks on Tuesday, I was worried - but Turner blazed it over the bar.

Our big break came in the 34th minute - a long ball sprung Michael Yates on a breakway down the right side. Both the Barrow central defenders converged on him, so he slotted it left to Thomson, who uncorked a vicious shot which Ross Liddicott could only deflect. Phil Clarkson pounced on the rebound, and was knocked down by Mark Salmon. The ref checked with his linesman - penalty! I was beaming with pleasure as Gary Bauress stepped up to take it, only to see the player/coach golf it harmlesslesly over the bar! Heartbreak! Gary could surely hear the catcalls about it - and if he missed the first batch, he got more when the half-time whistle blew.

I told him not to worry about it, and assured the lads I was happy with their defensive form: now just find the net, and we'll get three points yet! Michael Yates nearly did just that thirty seconds after the break, but his shot curled just wide of the post. I

n the 57 minute, Jamie Speare made the save of the match, a brilliant effort to counter a wicked shot by Graham Anthony. He rivalled it again in the 63rd, just getting down to tip Turner's shot around the post, but the resulting corner proved our undoing. Salmon was able to find a hole in our marking, and headed home from five yards out for an 0-1 lead.

The fans hadn't stopped celebrating when Gavin Knight's cross found substitute Michael Kewley at back line beyond the far post. Kewley tried to cut it back into the 6-yard box, but none of his players were even close. Instead, his effort caromed off of Speare's shin, and rolled into the net. It would go down as an own-goal, and suddenly it was 0-2.

The hosts bunkered down, and though I threw on three substitutions and some 'go for it' tactical modifications, we never got another useful shot off.

Barrow 2, Lancaster 0

Salmon 64, Speare og 67; ----

MoM: Salmon (Barrow DC)

Barrow defender Mark Salmon was named the Man of the Match: what a roller-coaster it had been for him, going from the goat on the first half penalty to the winning goal in the second half. I had to concede he'd played well. Uberschar, Bauress, and Birks were impressive in our defensive half, and an analysis of the match statistics showed we'd outshot our opponents, and had even put more shots on goal.

I could only shake my head, remembering my naivete on that first day when, six minutes into my first match, ahead 1-0, I'd thought this might be easy.

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Tuesday, 24th August, 2004.

Embarassment.

Utter embarassment.

We're the last goalless side in the Conference North. Oh, and 21st out of 22 teams, where the bottom three get relegated.

If you're a fellow American, you might not know how English league structure works: on average, the top three teams in each division get promoted to the next higher one, while the bottom three teams get relegated to the one below. Imagine if the three worst teams in Major League Baseball were relegated to AAA, and the top three AAA teams were given a shot at the big leagues - and all down the line, so some AA teams were promoting to AAA, A to AA, etc.

Well, in the Conference North, the bottom three teams get relegated - and if we were to get relegated, that would be the end of my managerial career, I'm sure.

The division above us is the Conference National, which is often referred to as 'the Conference', and its bottom three teams are also relegated. The champions of the Conference North and Conference South each promote to the Conference, while the 2nd-5th placed teams from both North and South go through a play-off to determine the third team to promote.

This process can, of course, unbalance the North/South distinction, if for example, two teams from the 'North' promote while three 'Southern' teams all got relegated from the Conference, so the F.A. actually redistricts teams into North and South each season, by geography - it means 'border' teams may shift from one Conference to the other between seasons, and possibly back again the next.

The vagaries of the Conference structure, though, weren't going to matter a whit to me if we couldn't find the back of the net.

Despite the chairman's concerns about the wage budget, I found myself with a glowing report from Kevin Hull on one of our remaining trialists, a striker named Phil Bartholomew. After selling Peter Thomson, we did need one more for our rotation. I made him an offer, promising myself it would be my last.

Unless we could find a pair of wingers, of course.

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Friday, 27th August, 2004.

With the transfer deadline fast approaching, there was a flurry of contract action Wednesday. Veteran Andrew Oakes spurned our offer, instead signing with Burton. At least he went to a club in a higher division, and we wouldn't have to face him - Burton are a Conference National side.

Young GK Ryan Yeomans chose Poole Borough, and left on loan Sunday morning, a move more about earning him playing time than the money saved by having Poole pay his wages for a few months.

Phil Bartholomew did accept our offer, and I put ink to the contract as soon as it was back in my hands. He looked like a good lad, and joined us for Thursday evening's training session.

I also changed the squad over to our regular-season training schedule, with tailored training schedules for the keepers, defenders, midfields, and attackers. I was settling in on the 'my side needs wingers' aspect of my current dilemna, and attempted to address it by starting Ryan-Zico Black, who has good crossing skills, in training to become a wing. "I'll play wherever you think is best, boss," he said, when I told him of the move. I like him.

We put in a bid to loan, for the entire season, a winger from Bognor Regis, another Conference side. They rejected it the next day.

I spent the better part of the week trying on the phone trying to rid the side of deadwood, striving to find a market for the players outside my first- and second- choice sides. I desperately needed to reduce the wage budget, but could see no options.

I could not help but notice the Champions League results from mid-week - being so close to both Liverpool and Manchester, Lancaster has plenty of fans of both sides, and so the Champions League filled the news. Manchester had recovered from their 3-1 deficit against FC Kobenhavn, with two second half goals by Ruud van Nistelrooy giving them a 3-0 win and a 4-3 aggregate. Liverpool had won 2-0 to move through easily, while Rangers had been taken to penalties by lowly Cyprus side APOEL, though the Scots easily won the dreaded shootout.

Carl Richardson's scouting report on Worksop came in: "Competent, with a pacey attack." I don't believe I'll get anything other than 'competent' from him all year. They're in 6th place, and we haven't scored a goal yet this season - at least we'd be at home in The Giant Axe.

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Saturday, 28th August, 2004. Conference North - Game 4, vs Worksop

"If I'm going to go down," I thought, I'll go down with my own formation, not the one I'm forced into by circumstance." I went back to my 4-5-1, this time determined to give the lads several weeks in a row with it, to see what develops as they get used to it. My starting lineup changed around a bit to match.

Jamie Speare was still in goal, with Andy Scott, Martin Clark, and Joe McMahon unchanged. Paul Sparrow started at right back. Promising youngster Ricky Mercer, back from his injury, would start at DMC. Lee Clitheroe was the right wing, while David Mellor would get his first start at left wing. Shane Tolley would partner Jason Lay in the attacking midfielder roles, with debutant Phil Bartholomew up front.

It took Tolley and Bartholomew only five minutes to generate our first chance, but Worksop keeper Darren Bradshaw cleared the debutant's effort away to safety. At the 20th minute, Bartholomew's pass found Jason Lay at the top of the Worskop penalty box, and James Dudgeon took him down with a dangerous and poorly timed challenge. From 20 yards, Paul Sparrow lined up the free kick, and curled it over the wall and down into the lower-left corner, a beautiful strike for our first competitive goal!

Worksop came right back at us with Dudgeon's incisive long pass finding Gavin Smith in the 6-yard box, but Smith's effort went inches wide of the post. Six minutes later, we were not so lucky, as Lay was whistled for pushing Richard Peacock right at the top of our penalty box, about 17 yards from goal with our full defensive line well-positioned behind him. Nonetheless, a penalty was awarded, and Darren Bradshaw laced it into the back of the net to even it up at 1-1.

We were still level at the half, and I told the lads they'd been hard done by, but not to let the ref take away a game they clearly had every ability to win. He nearly did just that, as in the 49th minute, he blew the whistle on Paul Sparrow for pushing target-man Dene Cropper, again on the edge of the box, this time over at the far right. Another soft penalty, and Sparrow, already on a yellow card, was lucky not to be sent off. Bradshaw confidently stepped up... and Jamie Speare made an incredible save!

Over the next ten minutes, Worksop kept up intense pressure, and Sparrow and Joe McMahon each made great challenges in the penalty box to help avert the danger. Finally, their pace began to slacken, and in the 72nd minute I brought on all three substitutes, all up front: Yates, Clarkson, and Prince, with instructions to go for three points. It took 12 minutes for Yates to find a long ball, break past the last defender, and lance 1-on-1 towards their keeper Kristian Rogers...

Who made the save of his life to preserve the 1-1 scoreline! Though both teams threatened in the final minutes, neither could get the telling shot off, and somehow I think both sides were disappointed to settle for a draw.

Lancaster 1, Worksop 1

Sparrow 20; Bradshaw pen 29

MoM: Peacock (Worksop MR)

Right winger Richard Peacock earned man-of-the-match honors for Worksop, though to my mind his only contribution to their victory was the dive in the first half which resulted in the first Worsop penalty. Either Speare or Sparrow had had a better game, and I was quite pleased with Bartholomew's debut.

Again, I found myself rueing the FA's decision to cease accepting complaints from managers.

Honestly, for a match in which we were outshot from the field, and had two bad penalties called against, we were lucky to escape with our first point - but I'd wanted that first win.

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Tuesday August 31, 2004.

We were still in 21st place, but now we had our first point, our first goal, and a two week break without a game. It was time I would spend alternating between wedding planning, trying to rid the squad of deadweight, celebrating a birthday, and seeking players whom I could loan in. We weren't too exhausted, but the break would give Ryan-Zico Black time to recover from his injury.

On Monday, the deal sending Ian Dawes to Tillery was completed. To my surprise, the Tillery fans were unhappy about it, worried about Dawes disrupting the harmony at Woodland Field. He hadn't been a problem when he was here, at least not that I'd noticed - he'd never been more than peripheral. His place on the squad was taken, at least temporarily, by an 18-year-old winger who joined us for a two week trial period.

I spoke with scout Spencer Field by phone last night. His search of the Championship had unearthed only one player in almost a month of work.

"Spencer, what's going on? Are you considering most of the players at that level too pricey for us? I just want loan targets!"

"I know, I know," he replied. "Its not that - I think your aim is too high. There's hardly anybody here that's willing to go on loan four divisions down."

"We should probably call it off, then."

"Yeah. Do you want me to look a little closer to home, Conference or League Two, say?"

"No. Why don't you head north to scout Scotland instead. Transfer targets, not loans."

"You won't be able to bring them in until January."

"I know."

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Wednesday, 1st September, 2004.

The transfer deadline came - and went.

We made no deals.

I was mostly disappointed that the proposed transfer of Ryan Elderton to Hamilton collapsed due to the end of the international transfer window. The Scottish side had been offering almost £5,000 for him, but couldn't iron out a contract with Ryan in time to complete the deal before the deadline. The FA's fax about the transfer deadline assured me that 'Clubs outside the top division in England may still purchase players domestically.'

I asked Assistant Manager Kevin Hull to offer Ryan to some domestic sides for the same terms.

It was gratifying to speak with the Chairman this evening - Steve assured me that despite our poor start, the directors are still sure that they made the right choice in appointing me as manager. I'd been starting to worry, but even with his reassurance, I can't imagine 21st will satisfy the board for long.

Meanwhile, wedding planning continued apace: despite moving to England, we'd decided to stick with our original plan, and fly home to California to get married at this beautiful vinyard we'd found. Unfortunately, our caterers had gone out of business! We'd selected a fine vegetarian restaurant, the place I'd taken Stacy the night I proposed to her, but apparently catering was turning out more trouble than it was worth, so now we had a mad scramble to find a new one.

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Saturday, 4th September, 2004.

The first World Cup Qualifiers were today. In the 'British Isles' group, Group 6, England travelled to Vienna to face Austria. The hosts made a dream start with a long ball over the English defense to Markus Weissenberger, who scored in the 3rd minute.

England kept their composure, and just before the half-hour mark, Michael Owen used his pace to dribble past the last man and put in the equaliser. Not ten minutes later, Beckham floated a lovely ball into the box for Gareth Barry to finish. Michael Riedl levelled for the hosts just before injury time, and it was 2-2 at the break.

In the 69th minute, however, Beckham received a second yellow card and was sent off: the English pulled back to a very defensive formation and ran out time content with the single point.

Wales beat Azerbaijan 2-0 to take the early group lead on a pair of first-half goals from Andy Johnson. In Belfast, David Healy's early goal was enough as Northern Ireland beat Poland 1-0!

Group 6:   Pts  P  W  D  L   GD
Wales       3   1  1  0  0  + 2
N.Ireland   3   1  1  0  0  + 1
Austria     1   1  0  1  0  + 0
England     1   1  0  1  0  + 0
Poland      0   1  0  0  1  - 1
Azerbaijan  0   1  0  0  1  - 2

In Group 4, Ireland beat Cyprus 3-0 at Landsowne Road with goals by Roy Keane, Kenny Cunningham, and Damien Duff. The Irish still found themselves behind France, who beat Israel 4-0 in Paris, on goal differential.

Scotland were idle in Group 5, but Italy started the campaign with a 2-0 win over Norway, while Slovenia beat Moldova 1-0 - the Scots would need to win to keep pace.

There was one other notable result: in Olimpico stadium at Serravalle, San Marino scored their first-ever World Cup qualifying victory, a 1-0 win against Serbia & Montenegro.

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Thursday, 9th September, 2004.

My birthday was this week: I celebrated by taking a few days off, and letting young Kevin Hull and Barrie Stimpson run training in my stead. My fiancee and I went for a romantic trip to Wales, where we found a cozy bed and breakfast. I'll spare you the details, but it made for a beautiful place to get away from it all.

When I got back today, my desk was flooded with reports from my scouts; literally two dozen, at least. I sorted through them all, offering a few of the players the chance to come in on trial, though I got one really good laugh when I saw a player who had been released by East Stirling. Its a sad state of affairs if your scout thinks East Stirling's rejects are worth approaching.

Wednesday was the second World Cup qualifying match of the break, and England travelled to Chorzow to face Poland. The hosts weathered numerous English attacks early on, then scored against the run of play in the 26th minute on the counterattack, Emmanuel Olisadebe with the goal. They held it through the 60th minute when England brought on substitute Alan Smith, who utterly changed the game. His first touch was a flicked header to Steven Gerrard, who scored to even things at the 61st minute. In the 65th, a Smith header earned an English corner, which Gerrard buried for his second goal in four minutes. The 2-1 lead held, leaving the English in third place.

Austria won 3-1 over Azerbaijan to go second, while Wales pounded Northern Ireland in Cardiff, 3-0, to take first in the group on goals from Gary Speed, Robert Earnshaw, and Craig Bellamy.

Group 6:   Pts  P  W  D  L   GD
Wales       6   2  2  0  0  + 5
Austria     4   2  1  1  0  + 2
England     4   2  1  1  0  + 1
N.Ireland   3   2  1  0  1  - 2
Poland      0   2  0  0  2  - 2
Azerbaijan  0   2  0  0  2  - 4

In other action, Scotland beat Slovenia 2-0 on goals from Paul Gallagher and Steven Thompson, moving to second behind high-flying Italy, who beat Macedonia 2-0.

Italy       6   2  2  0  0  + 4
Scotland    3   1  1  0  0  + 2
Slovenia    3   2  1  0  1  - 1

Ireland were stunned by Switzerland 4-2 despite goals by David Connolly and Roy Keane, a harsh early blow to their hopes, as France rolled on with a 2-0 win over the Faroe Islands.

France      6   2  2  0  0  + 6
Switzerland 6   2  2  0  0  + 4
Ireland     3   2  1  0  1  + 1

I turned the television off and returned to my work: Carl Richardson's report on our upcoming opponent, Stafford Rangers, had arrived. "A competent side" again?

I reminded myself that he was leaving the club in a year, and I had him in the least harmful position he could occupy. The only useful thing he said was that their attack is strong and quick.

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Saturday, 11th September, 2004. Conference North - Game 5, at Stafford Rangers.

Bad news this morning: in yesterday evening's practice, Ryan Elderton fell and injured his shoulder. After David Hughes examined it today, he told me there was no way Elderton could play today, and he'd be out for one to two weeks. Unlucky - especially as there were several scouts from teams we'd called here to watch him!

I stuck very nearly with the same side that had done so well two weeks earlier, though I brought back Michael Yates up front, and put veteran Phil Clarkson in at AMC in place of young Jason Lay. To refresh, that was the 4-5-1 formation, with Speare in net, Scott, Clark, McMahon, and Sparrow at defense, Mercer the defensive mid, Clitheroe and Mellor on the wings, with Tolley, Clarkson, and Yates up front.

A great save by Jamie Speare two minutes into the match set the tone for the first half: Rangers kept constant pressure in front of goal throughout. A clutch tackle by Paul Sparrow saved a golden chance in the 10th minute, and Speare made a diving stop in the 16th, just diverting the ball wide of the post. He couldn't prevent Dominic Permain's inspired effort, however, as the striker adroitly brought the ball off the endline with one touch of his right foot, and then launched a left-footed strike through the narrow window between Speare and the post. Half our defense had stopped, thinking it out for a corner, but there had been no whistle! Sixteen minutes had passed, and we were 0-1 down.

Permain just missed a second goal 7 minutes later, and the pressure remained constant through the rest of the half, though Speare remained up to the task. At halftime, we were trailing only 0-1, but were being outshot 1-10. I was furious, and made no bones about it during my halftime talk. I don't recall exactly what I said, but I recall calling them 'kittens', and telling them Speare looked shellshocked. I finished up by telling them they were embarassing the club, their uniform, and themselves - and that I was making no changes: if they continued to play like this, that was their choice, and we'd lose seven-nil.

I fully expected a repeat in the second half, but, amazingly, the talk seemed to have strengthened their spines, and from the off we took control of the match and had the better chances. Yates came close twice, and had another chance diverted by a last-ditch tackle at the 6-yard box. There was plenty of action, and for quite a while I believed we might find the equaliser. My attackers tired before the end of the match, and I finally made several changes.

Fresh legs could make no difference, however, and we were unable to put the finish into the net, but when the final whistle blew, the lads did not seem disheartened. We'd outshot the better club in the second half, and felt unlucky not to have managed a draw.

Stafford Rangers 1, Lancaster 0

Permain 16; ----

MoM: Sparrow

Paul Sparrow was named man of the match, his clutch early tackle along with several later efforts combining to give him a very strong performance: the competition with young Uberschar for the right back position seemed to be bringing out the best in him.

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Sunday, 12th September, 2004.

"Last.

"Dead last." I stated, letting the declarative fall into the grim silence of the room.

The results were in from the rest of yesterday's matches. One draw and four defeats left us on but a single point, 22nd out of 22 teams, and relegation bound. The result was this uncomfortable staff meeting, including all of my coaches, physios, and scouts.

"I don't like losing, gentlemen. Any ideas?"

The silence was deafening.

"What am I paying you lot for? My wife has more ideas than this!"

That brought a reaction, and it was from the veteran assistant Barrie Stimpson.

"We could try a 4-4-2," he suggested. "The lads might be more comfortable with something more familiar."

"We don't really have the personnel for that," argued Gary Bauress, and it was good to see at least one of my staff recognized the realities I was facing.

"We need wingers, whether we're going to run the 4-4-2 or the 4-5-1," Kevin Hull interjected. "Spencer, what have you got for us?"

"Maybe one lad to bring in on loan," the young scout answered, looking harried and unhappy with his results thus far, "But honestly Scotland hasn't been producing ideal players, either."

"Why don't you come back to England," I offered, "Just go with whomever catches your eye, youth, loan targets, or free transfers."

"That doesn't solve our problem on the wings," Barrie said. "Traditional wisdom is, adapt your tactics to suit your players, not the other way around."

"We tried that, remember?" Gary answered. "That 'narrow' 4-4-2 is useless. They picked us apart on width when we used it."

"I'm not going back to it," I declared. "We're going to live or die with the 4-5-1. Let's look at some other items. How is training coming?"

A review of all of our players' training progress commenced. With the shift to my regular-season training schedule, the dramatic improvement some players had shown was slowed. Ryan Elderton remained the most improved, overall, while Michael Yates and Stewart Clitheroe had shown a lot of progress in the last month. Ricky Mercer did as well, while some of the veterans were really surprising me: Steve Birks continued to improve, as did Andy Fensome, to name a few of the best.

Despite constant playing time Lee Clitheroe had shown a big downturn, primarily in the technical area, and that further cemented my desire to bring in a new winger. Young central defender Joe McMahon wasn't improving as much as I'd hoped, and Ryan Yeoman's spell on loan so far had seemed to do more harm than good. Finally, despite his run of good play, Paul Sparrow was definiely showing signs of wear.

We also had some bad news from David Hughes. Neil Uberschar had twisted his knee in training yesterday. It was match day, and I normally give the players who participate in a match the day of and after the match off, but Neil hadn't played, and was working in a smaller training session. He was working hard to prove that he deserved consideration alongside Sparrow, and Kevin thought perhaps he'd been trying too hard to impress. David thinks it'll be about a month before he's fully match fit.

Age and fatigue or not, Sparrow would just have to carry the load.

We closed the meeting with the decision to bring in another lot of trialists, and continue working on ridding ourselves of the deadweight - but at this point I don't have high hopes.

If a player isn't good enough to play for the worst team in the Conference North, nobody else seems to want them either.

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Wednesday, 15th September, 2004.

"I don't know if we're going to be able to make ends meet much longer."

While I may be in charge of the transfer budget, its my wife who runs the budget at home.

She hasn't gotten a work permit yet, so she's been busying herself about the house with unpacking, wedding planning, and - okay this is embarassing to admit but she's definitely more handy with a hammer and nail than I am, so she's been doing the fixing-up an older house requires.

"Wait, I thought we had savings," I protested. "Didn't we calculate a year on them, at least?"

"We did," she said. "But we're spending a lot more than we expected we would. Repairs aren't free, even if I am doing most of the work myself."

"Can you get a job?"

"Not without a work permit, and to get one I've got to show that I'm doing a job nobody comparable can do."

There wasn't much to say, and I sipped my coffee for a minute before formulating my next question.

"So, how long do we have?"

"Six months, maybe."

It was troubling news, but no matter how we turned it over, there was no denying it: by the end of the season we'd be out of savings, and looking at missing the mortgage payment.

Coming to the conclusion that there was nothing I could do about it at the moment, I flipped on the telly for news from the Champions League, hoping it would distract me, and, if I'm honest, dreaming of being there myself, remote though that dream may have been.

It was the opening of group play. Chelsea beat Celtic 2-0, at Stamford Bridge.

Liverpool played inspired defense to hold Real Madrid to a 0-0 tie; the "Galacticos" are starting to look a bit long in the tooth.

Manchester United escaped Turkey with a phenomenal 4-0 win over Turkish champions Fenerbahçe, silencing the hostile crowd with two early goals.

Arsenal played to their historic roots with a gritty scoreless draw against Juventus.

Rangers were shellacked in Spain, taking a 4-0 defeat on the chin as Valencia demonstrated the vast gap between the champions of La Liga and second place in the Scottish Premier League.

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Saturday, 18th September, 2004. Conference North - Game 6, vs Worcester.

Saturday came, and it was time to put my problems, both domestic and professional, aside and play a match. Carl Richardson's scouting reports are reaching a ludicrous-ness of epic proportions: 6th-placed Worcester, too, are 'competent', according to the less-than-competent advance scout, though he does suggest that their attacking speed will not cause us much trouble.

I pencilled in my side: Jamie Speare in net, with Ricky Mercer shifting from defensive midfielder to central defense to replace Joe McMahon, leaving the back row Andy Scott, Martin Clark, Mercer, and Paul Sparrow. Steve Birks came in at the holding midfield, with Neil Prince at left wing. Ryan-Zico Black got his first start - in fact, his first competitive match of the season - at right wing. Shane Tolley, Phil Clarkson and Michael Yates would again form my three attackers. All told, three changes from last week's side.

Worcester came out with a 5-3-2, the first team we'd seen that wasn't utilizing the classic English 4-4-2. It took Black less than two minutes to make his presence felt, as he fed Phil Clarkson for an early shot. Worcseter goalkeeper Danny McDonnell made the save. In the tenth minute, quick passing from Prince to Clarkson to Yates gave the striker space in front of goal, but his shot just went wide, nearly grazing the post. The crowd of 310 were on their feet, as for the first time all season we looked capable of a win!

The visitors got their chance in the 32nd minute, when Jamal Reid clipped the top of the bar, but minutes later Yates escaped on a breakway. He was brought down from behind by a desperate Rhodri Jones, who earned a yellow and a stern talking to for his efforts. It was just outside the eighteen, a great chance on the set piece. Black took the free kick, and it deflected off the wall, going just wide. When the ref blew the whistle on the first half, our side earned a rousing ovation from their fans.

The second half started with more of the same: in the 53rd minute, Yates's shot was saved by McDonnell. Clarkson got to the rebound, but his shot was blocked by a desperate Barry Wolley. We kept up the constant pressure until the 67th minute, when I noticed that Clarkson had picked up a knock and Tolley was beginning to look knackered. I brought both off, bringing on Mellor and moving Black up front, with Lee CLitheroe on at right wing.

That combination couldn't find space, and I made the last toss of my tactical die by bringing Phil Bartholomew on for Yates at the 78 minute mark. The recent signing quickly got his first chance, which McDonnell saved, but a minute later he had another just over the bar. That would turn out to be our last clean chance, and though a corner in injury time provided additional drama, when the ref blew full time, we had earned only a single point for a 0-0 draw.

Lancaster 0, Worcester 0

----; ----

MoM: McDonnell (Worcester GK)

Danny McDonnell earned Man of the Match honors for the visitors, with six saves, three of the highest class, and a clean sheet despite constant pressure from the home side.

It was a draw, but a draw I felt we should have won.

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Monday, 20th September, 2004.

Two points from our last three games?

Our best run of the season.

However, we still lay 22nd and last.

One goal from six games was not the offensive production I'd been hoping for: my emphasis on defense was paying off, as we weren't conceding much, but it was definitely the offense that was struggling.

The local paper was unforgiving, their lead columnist unable to give us praise for outshooting quality opposition and dominating the run of play, but instead lambasting us for our inability to find the net. In particular, he laid the blame at the feet of the 'inept American'. Clearly our record confirmed the author's opinion that all Americans are fat, dumb, boorish, inept, and know nothing at all about football - which points I'd like to disprove each individually and en masse.

I'd have to do so without Phil Clarkson, whose injured shoulder would take at least three weeks to heal, ruling him out for almost a month as well. Unlucky - but it would serve as further impetus behind my desire to loan in some real talent.

Today, however, brought a new challenge: the draw for the FA Cup Second Qualifying Round, as all of the non-league teams seek the financial windfall that a deep Cup run can mean. The draw was interminable, as out of nearly 200 teams, we were drawn 18th from the last, but when it was all over I couldn't have asked for much better: a home match against Rugby United, a team below us in the footballing pyramid, but not weak enough to promise an easy victory: a good challenge, and a confidence-booster should we win. The tie would be October 2nd.

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