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Sharpening a Rusty Blade

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Saturday, 11th November, 2006. F.A. Cup - First Round, at Watford.

Just seven years ago, Watford were in the Premier League, having qualified via the Championship playoffs. They lasted only one season in the top flight, and then in 2004/05 were relegated from the Championship. During last season's League One campaign, they came 4th but lost in the playoffs, but this season they are a dismal 20th place with only 3 victories from 15 matches. Two of their three first-choice strikers are missing, as Elliott Frost (4 goals) is suspended and Heidar Helguson (5 goals) has a torn calf which will keep him out until February.

We made the familiar trip down to London - Watford is effectively a satellite just north of London - the morning of the match. I had what I consider my first choice XI all ready and, if not rested, at least not overworked, for the key Cup match. Alan Blayney made his 18th start in goal, matched by Joe Keenan at left back for most starts in the squad. Liam Fontaine, Jamie Cooper, and captain Graeme Law rounded out the back four, with Alan Navarro at defensive midfield. John McGrath and Jon Paul McGovern were on the wings, with Robert Cousins and Tappa Whitmore partnered in the attacking midfield roles. Marc Walton made his second start at striker.

The Vicarage Road crowd of 15,131 was huge by York standards, and a number of our younger players appeared nervous in the opening minutes, allowing the League One side a few opportunities. A steady rain was falling, which made defending difficult, as players were likely to slip in reaction to other's moves. In the 14th minute, Cousins and Whitmore took advantage of this, exchanging four or five passes between each other, and eventually Whitmore played it over to Walton in the area. He put it over the bar from 16 yards out.

In the 18th, Joe Keenan launched a free kick from his own half, a long ball into space behind the Watford defense. Walton was the first one there, and he struck left-footed from the point where the penalty arc connects with the 18-yard line. Despite a diving effort from keeper Joe Murphy, it found the back of the net, Walton's third goal in two games and a 1-0 York lead.

In the 25th, Walton again sparked our offense, breaking up the right sideline on McGovern's long pass. He cut it back for Robert Cousins when he reached the byline, but Martin Cranie made an excellent last ditch tackle in the box to take it away without a penalty.

The next significant action was in the 40th minute, as Paul Weaver sent a cross over from the left-side byline. Alan Blayney missed it at the near post, leaving Joe Keenan with a dangerous header less than a yard away from the goal mouth. He managed to put it behind rather than into his own net, and it was a good thing as Danny Webber had been lurking there if he had not touched it. The resultant corner kick found the head of Watford captain Dom Blizzard, but his header struck the post and bounced clear. The counter-attack that followed earned us another mid-field free kick.

Again Keenan took, and Tappa Whitmore collected James Pugh's half-clearance. He dribbled to the middle of the park, and took a shot from fully 30 yards out. There was a defender between the Jamaican and Murphy, and the unsighted keeper couldn't react in time - goal!! A stunning strike from our inspirational leader! Against all the odds, we led 2-0 going to halftime!

I switched things around at halftime, instructing the lads to be extra defensive, keeping four men back on our corners, and packing eleven in the box for theirs. It looked almost like we were playing a bunker defense for the first minutes of the second half, as Watford constantly had posession down near our area, but couldn't penetrate our tight perimeter. In the 53rd minute, I brought Jon Shepherd on for the tiring Walton.

Fresh legs made an amazing difference. He hadn't been on three minutes when Robert Cousins started a move, coming upfield a third of the width of the field from the right sideline. When defenders finally challenged him, he cut it left for the unmarked Whitmore about 35 yards from goal. The Jamaican star played a first-touch forward into the run of Shepherd, who had darted past the last defenders. No offsides flag! Murphy came out to challenge, but Shepherd slotted it past him, and into the net: it was a rampant 3-0 lead for York City!

Whitmore nearly added a fourth on the hour, sending a left-footed volley inches wide from 16 yards after a free kick on the left wing, and the subdued Vicarage Road crowd were already filing for the exits - save our visiting support, nearly 1500 strong, who were making noise like it was their home ground!

I brought Whitmore and McGrath off to rest for the final thirty minutes, and honestly Watford never looked threatening. Seconds into injury time, substitute left wing Phil Townley, just past the half-way line on the left sideline, launched a long pass over the defense for Shepherd on the right. He'd beaten a disconsolate captain Blizzard, and from 15 yards laced a shot to the far post to make the final score a shocking 4-0.

Watford 0, York 4

----; Walton 18, Whitmore 42, Shepherd 56, 90

MoM: Whitmore

The lads had every right to celebrate in the locker room afterwards! What an upset!

Tappa Whitmore was the official Man of the Match - it was hard to say whether his goal or assist on the third score was more brilliant!

Honestly, I could have seen giving it to any member of the defense, which had limited Watford to merely one shot on target, or to just about any member of an offense which had put four goals through a League One defense.

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Sunday, 12th November, 2006.

There wouldn't be time for me to savor the victory with the club, as I didn't even accompany them back north to York. Instead, I headed south for Heathrow and a flight to Barcelona. There I met my wife for our abbreviated second honeymoon.

It was a blissful week: late to rise, cappucino and breakfast overlooking the Mediterranean, the beaches - topless still such a shock to an American - in the afternoon, fine dining in the evening, and drinking and dancing at night in the tremendous Barcelona club scene.

Of course, I had plenty of time to savor Tappa's resplendent recovery, replaying his goals in my mind, as I lay on the beach!

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Wednesday, 15th November, 2006.

"Hey boss!"

Speak of the devil, Tappa called my mobile Wednesday afternoon. I'd read that he had been selected to the League Two Team of the Week, and offered him congratulations, but that wasn't what he was calling about.

"Guess where I am?"

I had no clue, of course. "London?"

"Even better," he told me excitedly. "Kingston!"

He'd been called up to the Jamaica side for Wednesday's home friendly against Guyana, a late replacement due to injury. It would be his first international appearance in over a year!

I later learned that he was selected to the starting lineup, played 60 minutes and got one assist in an easy 4-0 victory. We had all thought his international career was over, but he was enjoying a true Indian summer this year!

There was another full slate of international friendlies Wednesday. England took care of the Czech Republic in London, 2-0, on goals by Wayne Rooney and substitute David Prutton of Southampton. The Czech defense is disciplined and solid, with Petr Cech in goal, and it took a lot of patience before the Three Lions finally broke it down.

Scotland beat New Zealand 1-0, and Ireland took care of Poland by the same score. Wales knocked off Switzerland 2-1, and Northern Ireland were uncompetitive in a 0-2 defeat by Belgium.

In other matches, Brazil beat Russia 2-0 in Moscow, Italy and Argentina drew 1-1 in Buenos Aires, Germany beat Turkey 2-1, France took care of Chile 3-0, and Holland trounced Morocco 4-0.

I made a point of making sure Stacy knew there was "soccer" on the telly that I was ignoring to focus on her.

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Friday, 17th November, 2006.

I returned to the club on Friday evening, tanned, relaxed, and much happier than I had been. My desk was flooded with mail - I actually worked until just about midnight Friday night to catch up.

In the interim, we'd earned £12,000 prize money from our FA Cup victory, and had drawn a home match against fellow League Two side Carlisle United for the Second Round.

Right back Mark Dixon had agreed to contract terms which would keep him at Bootham Crescent through 2010.

Right wing Mark Goodwin had returned from his loan down to Conference National side Harrogate Town, where he'd had no goals, no assists, and a 5.83 average rating for 12 matches. According to an article in the Yorkshire Post, he had arrogantly claimed it was because the players at that level were not of the standard that a player of his talent should be associated with.

Lovely.

Goalkeeper Kevin Butler had also returned after conceding 21 goals in a mere 12 matches at Poole Borough, hardly a convincing performance as he'd managed to conced a goal in every match with an average rating of 6.25.

In our non-competitive matches, on Saturday at Bootham Crescent, our Under-18s had drawn nil-nil with Rotherham U-18s. My glut of options at striker had let me move Simon Roberts down to the youth side, but he had to come out injured after 62 minutes. Fortunately, the injury wasn't serious.

Mid-week, our Reserve side had had two matches in back-to-back days. They lost the first to Darlington Reserves by a score of 0-1, a match in which winger Richard Fox had damaged his shoulder, costing him about a week of training. In the second, Thomas Carroll, Simon Roberts, and amateur Ian Sutton had each scored in a 3-0 rout of Bradford City Reserves.

Finally, waiting on my desk was the final approval for the transfer of promising left winger Adam Corbett. The 17-year-old had been unwilling to negotiate a new contract at the prices I could afford to pay, and didn't yet have the polish to justify a move into the starting lineup to replace John McGrath next season, so I had instead accepted offers from Scottish giants Celtic and Rangers before leaving on vacation.

The youngster had agreed terms with Celtic, and all I had to do was sign - he would finish out the season with us, and move to Scotland in early June. In return we would make £150,000, plus 10% of his next sale and a guaranteed home friendly against one of the Old Firm next summer.

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Saturday, 18th November, 2006. League Two - Game 16, vs Bristol Rovers.

Bristol Rovers have been in League Two since 2001/02, when, after relegation from League One the previous year, they narrowly avoided relegation out of the League entirely. They've been steadily improving the side, and finished fifth last season. We got a bit lucky as leading scorer Junior Agogo was out with torn ankle ligaments, and stellar central defendar Steve Elliott was suspended for accumulating his fifth yellow card in their previous match. The latter would promote a former Minsterman, 17-year-old Kevin West, into the starting lineup.

With a five-game winning streak, I saw fit to make only one change from the side which had beaten Watford the previous weekend: letting Tappa Whitmore rest after his mid-week flight to the Caribbean. The lineup then was Blayney in goal, Keenan, Cooper, Fontaine, and Law in defense, Navarro at defensive midfield, McGrath and McGovern on the wings, Cousins and Micah Richards attacking, with Marc Walton at striker.

With our side on-form, Bristol Rovers came out very cautiously, playing defensively and often sending as many as ten men back. This worked fairly well through the first twenty-five minutes, as they conceded merely two long-range shots by Richards, both of which went over. In the 25th, Walton broke up the right wing, then cut it inside for Robert Cousins. The attacking midfielder dribbled past Kevin West as though the 17-year-old weren't even there, sprinted into the area, and went to dribble around goalkeeper Matthew Kerr. It looked like he had Kerr beaten, but fullback Lee Dukes recovered in time to slide through at the corner of the six, putting it out for a corner.

West won the first corner, but could only head it behind for another corner, which Jon Paul McGovern took from the right side. Walton took it on the bounce just outside the six-yard box at the near post, pivoting on his left foot as he launched a right-footed half-volley which buried itself in the back of the net. The crowd of 3,407, one of our best gates of the season, let out a throaty roar as we took a 1-0 lead.

The fans were happy to jeer when West picked up a yellow card just before halftime, and Walton nearly made it two-nil with a viciously curving strike early in the second half - only Kerr's great save denied him. In the 58th, Cousins slipped unmarked into the area, but once again Kerr came up huge, single-handedly keeping his side in the game at this point.

In the 61st and 64th minutes, respectively, Jon Shepherd and Tappa Whitmore came on as substitutes, and in the 71st they combined to create a great chance. Whitmore played a wonderful 20-yard through ball int othe area for Shepherd, who shot from 12 yards. Kerr made a great reflex save to push it away, but the rebound fell straight to a perfectly placed Robert Cousins, unmarked in the area, and he was left with an easy finish that did make it 2-0.

In the 78th, Whitmore's fine dribbling sparked another quick breakaway for the York offense, and West made a fine tackle under pressure to stop him. At the time, it hardly seemed to matter, but with ten minutes remaining, Bristol earned a corner kick. David Savage floated it into the area, and captain Aaron Brown powered a header into the net from fully 12 yards out, cutting the deficit to 2-1 with ten minutes remaining.

Now Bristol were truly sending men forward, leaving gaping holes in their defensive alignment as they desperately sought an equalizer. In the 86th minute, Whitmore and Cousins teamed up to start a fast break, and Cousins pinpoint passing exploited one of those holes to play Shepherd into space. As he entered the area, he rushed the shot to put it just inches wide. Twice more in the next 60 seconds he had more golden chances, but the first shot went straight to Kerr and the second went well wide.

Bristol seemed unable to break down our defense, and had only two shots thus far, but it took until injury time for the issue to be settled. Finally, Shepherd took the ball at the halfway line, dribbled around two men on the fast break, and this time found the back of the net, making Kerr miss, for a magnificent goal to make the 3-1 final score.

York 3, Bristol Rovers 1

Walton 26, Cousins 71, Shepherd 90; Brown 80

MoM: Cousins

Our customary reggae victory celebration ensued to mark the sixth consecutive victory in our run, and Shepherd's magnificent close was guaranteed to make every fan forget his earlier misses. We had peppered the Bristol goal with 20 shots, conceding merely two against, but again the issue had been in doubt until the final seconds, a trend I was finding quite disturbing.

Young midfielder Robert Cousins was the Man of the Match, and I made sure to single him out for some well-deserved praise: what a find he's been!

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Monday, 20th November, 2006.

We were in fifth place, but the top of the division was incredibly tight: all seven promotion or playoff teams were separated by a mere four points, and four of them with the same goal differential! There was a wider gap between seventh and eighth than there was spread between first and seventh:

<pre class="ip-ubbcode-code-pre"> P Team Pts W D L GD

1 Cambridge Utd 34 11 1 4 +13

2 Cheltenham 33 10 3 3 +11

3 Lincoln 32 9 5 2 +14

--------------------------------------

4 Walsall 31 9 4 3 +19

5 YORK CITY 31 10 1 5 +11

6 Exeter 30 8 6 2 +11

7 Port Vale 30 8 6 2 +11

--------------------------------------

8 Boston United 25 7 4 5 + 3</pre>

Saturday evening after the match I completed another deal I'd been arranging, this one to bring in our second Jamaican international, Jamal Campbell-Ryce, in on a 3-month loan from Charlton Athletic. In the last two seasons he'd played only one time for Charlton, but two loan stints with Cambridge in League Two had seen him make 25 starts, with 2 goals, 6 assists, and 4 Man of the Match awards.

AM RL Jamal Campbell-Ryce, 23, Jamaica, 7 caps, 0 goals: Agile, hard-working, and determined, this winger shows the combination of pace, crossing, and dribbling which I'm looking for in a winger, but he does have some real weaknesses both defensively and aerially, and his decision-making is well short of the standard his Premier League side will require.

Sunday's Under-18s match was a fairly dreary affair, a 1-1 draw with Macclesfield Town U-18s, with our goal scored by amateur midfielder Ian Sutton, his second goal in as many matches.

Finally, this morning we completed the deal which would send talented young winger Richard Fox to Premier League side Southampton for £85,000 and another lucrative home friendly this summer. Again, this was a future deal, this one arranged for January 1st.

Between Corbett and Fox, we had taken care of the brightest young talents whom I'd been unable to sign but unwilling to see leave on a free.

It was frustrating, as I knew I was letting go of two true talents, and probably for less than they were truly worth. On the other hand, £230,000 should take care of a lot of our financial difficulties, and the home friendlies should pack Bootham Crescent for a bit more revenue.

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Tuesday, 21st November, 2006. League Two - Game 17, at Darlington.

Darlington were coming off of one of the worst defeats in League Two this season, a 5-0 drubbing by Cheltenham which had dropped them from mid-table down to 19th in the league. Where we were riding a six-game winning streak, they were on six consecutive defeats - and by an aggregate score of 16-1! They've been a League Two club since 1992/93, and last year's sixth place was one of their best finishes in that stretch, but had to seem like a distant memory at this juncture. Darlington is one of the northern towns, north of the Yorkshire Dales and North York Moors, situated astride the A1.

With a Tuesday match against weakened opposition, I aimed to rest some of my bigger names, which gave me the following lineup: Alan Blayney in goal, Adam Eckersley at left back, Jamie Cooper and Michael Staley at centre back, and captain Graeme Law on the right. Ian Bannister spelled Navarro at defensive midfield, while Jamal Campbell-Ryce made his debut at left wing opposite Jon Paul McGovern. Theodore Whitmore and Micah Richards were the attacking midfielders, with Paul Edwards starting at striker.

I could see right from the off how Darlington had conceded five goals in a match: they were running a narrow 4-3-3, with three forwards, no wingers, and all of their central midfielders willing to push forward at the drop of a hat. We nearly got a fine start in the sixth minute, as Jon Paul McGovern sent a corner kick in which new loanee Jamal Campbell-Ryce headed on goal. It was cleared off the line by Brian Close, or he'd have had a goal on his debut!

The home side came straight back at as, with that 4-3-3 overwhelming us with numbers forward. Sam Gardner sent a lovely 25-yard pass for Kyle Patterson, whose run split our central defenders. He dribbled around Alan Blayney, and put it in the net, sending 3,342 fans into ecstasy as the home side took an early 0-1 lead.

In the 17th minute, a Darlington deep throw-in was played to Chris Killen in the 6-yard box. Before he could turn, Alan Blayney slid into him, allowing Whitmore to put it out for a corner. The crowd booed lustily, wishing for a penalty, but none was forthcoming.

I was getting worried: we weren't showing much creativity, so I shouted instructions to change to our more adventurous outlook, letting the fullbacks and wingers press forward. Our first posession after the change saw Campbell-Ryce up the left wing. He played an aerial ball ahead for Paul Edwards, who rose at the edge of the 6-yard box and put a header to the near post, equalizing it at 1-1.

Tappa Whitmore nearly made it two-one, sending it just wide from 18 yards in the 23rd minute, but then it settled down into a give-and-take game over the next twenty minutes. Both sides had chances, but neither could finish them off, and our more adventurous outlook seemed to be forcing Darlington to play more defensively. It was still 1-1 at halftime, and neither manager made any changes.

So often, one team or the other gets caught napping after the break, and today, it was Darlington. Young midfielder Micah Richards lifted an incredible 50-yard pass over the top of everyone for Edwards. The speedy striker outran the defenders to it, juked around goalkeeper Colin Reid, and scored his second of the night to put us ahead 2-1!

A few minutes later, McGovern's long pass picked out Edwards up the right wing. He cut it back for Richards, and instead of shooting Richards teed it up for Whitmore in the area, From 12 yards, it looked a sure goal for the unmarked Jamaican, but Reid made an acrobatic save to deny him.

Just after the hour, Darlington sent 10 men forward on a throw-in. We gained control, and Edwards played it to substitute Robert Cousins, who would have been offsides but was still in his own half. The star of the future released on a long, speedy dribble, racing into the area, but he rushed his shot wide.

In the 68th, speedy Phil Townley, another substitute, broke up the left wing on a counter-attack. He faked the big aerial cross, then passed low to Cousins. Despite close attendance from Joey Hutchinson, Cousins was able to play it for his stronger right foot, then drill it into the net from 12 yards to put us solidly ahead 3-1.

I figured that would do it for the match as a contest, but Darlington didn't fold the way many a club with a long losing streak might. They continued to press forward, though with a healthy respect for our countering ability. In the 74th minute, substitute Tim Sherwood sent a cross into our 6-yard-box. Alun Armstrong rose above Staley, Law, and Blayney to head it home: a fine team effort to cut the deficit to 3-2.

That convinced me to go to our defensive shell formation, and Darlington pounded our perimeter as best as they could. There were several tough plays for Alan Blayney in the final minutes, but the veteran keeper was up to all of them. Cousins had another breakaway on the counter in the dying seconds of regulation time, but put it just over the bar from 16 yards. Injury time consisted mostly of York City time-wasting, and eventually referee Tony Green blew for full time.

Darlington 2, York 3

Patterson 11, Armstrong 74; Edwards 20, 47, Cousins 68

MoM: Richards

It had been an entertaining match with chances at both ends, but I was very pleased to find that a half-strength side could play as well as they had. On a side with plenty of midfield talent, young Michah Richards's play had earned him Man of the Match.

I'd been experimenting with something - instructing our central defenders to do less "Closing Down", as Viv calls it, and though we'd conceded one goal after I made that change, for the most part I'd liked the effect, as it seemed to encourage them to stay home.

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Wednesday, 22nd November, 2006.

York City chairman Steve Beck piled on the pressure in a post-match interview with the Yorkshire Post, telling them "Many fans now feel that the club has proven its ability to battle with the big boys for the title, and are hopeful that the team can sustain its magnificent form into the final third of the season."

For a side predicted to finish in mid-table anonymity, we were starting to draw high expectations!

Michael Ballack scored a hat trick as Chelsea exploded for a 4-0 win over NK Gorica in the Champions League matches Tuesday night. Coupled with Valencia's 3-0 win over Israeli side Maccabi Haifa, the result guaranteed Chelsea a place in the knock-out rounds with 10 points to Valencia's nine and Maccabi Haifa's six.

<pre class="ip-ubbcode-code-pre">Q 1 Chelsea 10 3 1 1 + 7

2 Valencia 9 3 0 2 + 3

3 Maccabi Haifa 6 1 3 2 - 2

- 4 NK Gorica 2 0 2 3 - 8</pre>

In Group F, Roma defeated Liverpool 2-0, a result which would have been devastating for the English club had not Dutch side Ajax finally emerged from their slump with a 3-1 win over Swiss side FC Basel. This meant that Liverpool remained in control of their own destiny, needing a win or draw at home against Ajax to advance, or for Roma to win or draw against Basel in Switzerland - coincidentally, the results Roma needed to guarantee advancement.

<pre class="ip-ubbcode-code-pre"> 1 Roma 10 3 1 1 + 1

2 Liverpool 9 3 0 2 + 2

3 FC Basel 7 2 1 2 - 1

- 4 Ajax 3 1 0 4 - 2</pre>

On Wednesday night, Newcastle United defeated Ferencvaros 3-1 in a steady rain at St. James's Park. First-placed Real Madrid crushed Werder Bremen 3-0, which would set up the simplest of scenarios in the final match. Facing Werder Bremen in Germany, Newcastle would advance with a win or a draw, while the Germans would advance if they could win.

<pre class="ip-ubbcode-code-pre">Q 1 Real Madrid 15 5 0 0 +13

2 Newcastle Utd 6 2 0 3 - 1

3 Werder Bremen 5 1 2 2 - 4

4 Ferencvaros 2 0 2 3 - 8</pre>

In Group D, Arsenal got off to a fantastic start in Bucharest when Thierry Henry scored in the first minute of play, and they rode that momentum to a 3-0 victory over Dinamo Bucharest. In Holland, PSV defeated first-placed Fenerbahçe to set up a wild finish, with three teams tied at nine points:

<pre class="ip-ubbcode-code-pre"> 1 PSV Eindhoven 9 3 0 2 + 3

2 Fenerbahçe 9 3 0 2 - 1

3 Arsenal 9 3 0 2 +11

- 4 Din. Bucharest 3 1 0 4 -13</pre>

Despite their tremendous goal difference, the Gunners trailed the other two on tie-breaker: they would need a win at home against PSV in the last match to guarantee a berth in the next round.

Bournemouth Reserves and York City Reserves drew 2-2 in a wild match, which saw the ball come back off the woodwork no less than four times, once to deny Ian Black in injury time. Amateurs Chris Simpson and Ian Foster scored in a four-minute period for us, but the game ended all square.

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Saturday, 25th November, 2006. League Two - Game 18, vs Lincoln City.

We returned home the following weekend for a key match against sixth-placed Lincoln. A League Two side since 1988, they were coming off of a 16th-placed season, but were doing quite well so far this year with only two defeats and a +14 goal differential. 19-year-old Serge Makofo is the side's potent offensive threat, a striker with 12 goals from 18 starts this season.

I countered with just about the best side I can field, many of them well-rested. Alan Blayney held the spot between the posts. Joe Keenan, Mark Wright, Liam Fontaine, and Graeme Law made up the defense, with Alan Navarro ahead of them. John McGrath and Jon Paul McGovern held the wings, with Theodore Whitmore and Robert Cousins the attacking midfielders. Marc Walton, with four goals on only three games thus far, was the striker. I incorporated my tactical changes as tested out against Darlington to see how they would look with my starting lineup against a top team.

A super pass by Robert Cousins merely ninety seconds in sprang Marc Walton past the Lincoln back line on a fast break. Only a fine save by Alan Marriott diverted it wide. A few minutes later, Cousins's 25-yard shot from beyond the arc was dealt with as well. It turned out that just set up Cousins's next move, as the next time he had a dangerous ball in the same vicinity, he faked a shot, which drew three defenders in to block. Instead, he passed low into the area they'd just vacated. Walton was first to it, and curled an excellent strike to the far post, unleashing a roar of approval from the Bootham Crescent crowd of 3,271.

The tactical changes to my defense were working wonders: not once did I see a central defender abandon his man to "close down" somebody in the defensive midfielder's area of responsibility, and a similar change to Navarro's instructions meant that he no longer ranged from sideline to sideline as David Fox had in the Conference. We weren't getting many more chances ourselves, but that was okay. In the 39th minute, Lincoln midfielder Robbie Simpson sent a header just over from 9 yards out, and it was the best chance they had of the first half.

We were hard-pressed in the second half, but the defense stood firm through the hour mark. Then the game took a sharp turn, as Jon Paul McGovern slid in on Eddie Anaclet, earning his second yellow of the game: red card! Reduced to ten men, I changed to our 'defensive' formation, pulling Tappa Whitmore off for Phil Townley to keep our defensive shape.

A few minutes later, I brought Jon Shepherd on for Marc Walton, and believe it or not, it seemed like the best chances that ensued were his on the short-handed counterattack. Lincoln had posession in our territory for most of the next thirty minutes, but they seemed unable to get into our penalty area, and unable to hit the target when they shot from long range. In the 70th, Shepherd broke back the other way, but Marriott saved his 16-yard effort. In the 79th, it was Shepherd again, this time seeing his shot acrobatically tipped over from 12 yards away. In the 86th, he got behind the defense on the end of a long pass, and looked to have Marriott beat at last, only to put the shot wide.

In the 89th minute, Phil Townley went down in a scrum just outside our penalty area. Mark Wright cleared it, but Townley had to come off, leaving us with only nine men, one of whom (McGrath) was limping badly. It was nail-biting watching Lincoln send wave after wave forward in injury time, dancing around our depleted midfield, but they seemed unable to deal with our back four and Alan Blayney, and we held on for the 1-0 victory.

York 1, Lincoln 0

Walton 15; ----

MoM: Marriott (Lincoln GK)

The crowd had stayed, to a man, and they broke out in celebration - in the York City locker room, the reaction was more muted: we'd done well in the first half, but I was very disappointed with the second half.

The tactical changes had worked wonders, though: with our central defenders more likely to stay home and cover their man, we'd held a clean sheet against a top side, even with ten men. There was no question; I decided to keep them.

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Sunday, 26th November, 2006.

In an interesting turn of fate, that defeat turned out to be manager Keith Alexander's last match with Lincoln City, and not because he'd been fired: he had been hired away by Championship side Wigan Athletic, sitting 20th and in danger of relegation. I hadn't thought we League Two managers were candidates for positions at the Championship level, it was quite a surprise!

Jeff Miller's report the next morning was that unlucky Phil Townley had torn a groin muscle. The injury would keep him out through Christmas, and made me very glad we'd added Campbell-Ryce on the wing.

Left wing John McGrath's contract was due to expire at the end of the season, so I'd been floating him to other clubs, much the way I'd done with my younger wingers. AFC Bournemouth offered £40,000 for him, and were willing to wait until the June transfer window, which was ideal for us: we'd get full use from him over the Irishman's current contract, and still get compensation when he left.

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Tuesday, 28th November, 2006. LDV Vans Trophy - North Quarterfinal, vs Sheffield United.

Sheffield United are less than 15 years removed from the Premier League, having been relegated after the 1993/94 season. They were a strong side in the Championship, with nine top-ten finishes in their first eleven seasons, but then fell to 22nd last year and were relegated to League One. In their first campaign at the third tier of English football, they were expected to promote straight back up, but instead, have struggled mightily. They have barely more victories than defeats, and currently lurk 13th. Their key threat will be striker Michael Chopra, who has 10 goals in 21 starts, but Yorkshire fans are all well aware that they seriously upgraded their defense this month with a £2M raid on Crewe Alexandra for both the Railwaymen's starting centre-backs.

I caught the eye of chairman Derek Dooley gimping around during pre-game warmups, and was rewarded with a friendly wave - he remembers me! That brought a smile to my face; opposition or no, he seems an amiable sort.

With a hard-fought League match just behind us, and the F.A. Cup Second Round match to follow, I felt forced to run out a second-string side against the upper-division opposition. Knowing it would likely end in defeat, I chose Kevin Butler for his first match of the season in goal, Adam Eckersley at left back. Jamie Cooper would be captain from the centre-back position, partnered with Michael Staley. Mark Dixon took the right back, and Ian Bannister would be the defensive midfielder. Jamal Campbell-Ryce started on left wing, with Mark Goodwin making his first start of the year at right wing. Up front, Tappa Whitmore and Micah Richards in support of striker Paul Edwards was a reasonably familiar configuration.

3,357 fans came in attendance at Bootham Crescent, ignoring the low-status stigma of the Vans Trophy to cheer us on for our long unbeaten run. If they were disappointed by my choice of starting lineup, they didn't show it, cheering lustily for Tappa when he was introduced. The early posession was mostly to the bigger club, but, like Lincoln, though they could advance through our midfield relatively easily, they had trouble breaking down our defensive formation to get off a good shot. In the 12th minute, Jamal Campbell-Ryce, who was playing very well on left wing, had a 14-yard shot to the near post knocked away at the last instant by goalkeeper Phil Barnes.

In the 16th and 17th minutes, the Blades won a series of corner kicks. Newly-signed defenseman Chris Morgan took my breath away with a diving header on the first, but Kevin Butler made an acrobatic save to tip it over the bar. The second fell to Alan Quinn, whose shot was hacked off the line by Adam Eckersley. The third went to Morgan again, but Jamie Cooper blocked his left-footed shot, and finally the fourth was cleared away by Campbell-Ryce.

We weren't so fortunate in the 32nd minute, as Butler showed his inexperience with a failed clearance that fell to the dangerous Michael Chopra. He settled it right for defender Chris Sedgwick, who played a wonderful diagonal ball forward from the right wing. Dene Cropper had slipped Cooper's coverage, and collected the pass beautifully. Butler came off his line, but the tall striker adroitly rounded him, and put us behind, 0-1.

United may have still been celebrating when Whitmore played a wonderful baul for Paul Edwards, who was clear through behind the defense. He shot from 14 yards, but Barnes made a fingertip save to divert it wide.

Late in the first half, Ian Bannister sent a free kick into the area for Edwards. Everybody thought he was going to shoot, but instead he knocked it down for right winger Mark Goodwin, who tried a spectacular half volley. What a shot! It had Barnes beat - but cannoned back off the crossbar!! Richards tried the follow-up, but Morgan threw himself in front of the shot, and we went to halftime trailing 0-1.

I tried switching to the "patient buildup" tactic I'd devised in the second half, letting more players go forward adventurously, but taking our time trying to break down the Sheffield defense. The Blades began to fall back, content to defend the one-goal lead, and it became harder and harder to get a shot off. We were being stifled, and every change I tried, whether substitution or tactical adjustment, seemed to be of little assistance.

The crowd held out hope until the very end, but it was Sheffield substitute Jack Lester who came closest to scoring, breaking through our offsides trap when I'd committed almost everyone to the attack, and only a spectacular one-on-one save by Kevin Butler kept the final score 0-1.

York 0, Sheffield United 1

----; Cropper 32

MoM: Campbell-Ryce

Jamal Campbell-Ryce had impressed, at any rate, with a Man of the Match performance on the left wing.

There hadn't been much we could do, creatively, in the second half with as little talent as I'd selected - I could only wonder if we would have won with my first-choice lineup out there.

Still, it was good experience for a younger crop of players, and we hadn't embarassed ourselves despite facing a very strong side. I just hoped the end of our 8-game winning streak wouldn't impact morale too tremendously for the upcoming F.A. Cup match.

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Thursday, 30th November, 2006.

Wednesday's Reserve match against local rivals Harrogate Town was an ugly affair - by the 20th minute Nick McDonald had saved a penalty, and I'd made two substitutions, bringing off Jon Shepherd injured and Mark Wright because he looked in dire danger of receiving a second yellow card. Seven yellow cards were given to Harrogate players alone, including a red card in the 82nd minute that left them a man down, and Simon Roberts scored a late equalizer for us in a 1-1 draw before twisting his knee.

Roberts would miss a week, though Shepherd was back in training the next day.

Micah Richards would be unavailable for our F.A. Cup match due to receiving a yellow card against Sheffield United - it was his fifth already this season, and that meant an automatic one-match suspension for the 18-year-old attacking midfielder. I wasn't too upset by that, but it underscored our lack of depth at the position: I wouldn't have a natural attacking midfielder on the bench, as we only have three on the roster.

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Friday, 1st December, 2006.

"What do you mean, telling the press we could 'contend for the title'?"

It was the monthly board meeting, and I was nearly shouting at Chairman Steve Beck for his inane comments to the Post.

He recoiled from the vehemence of my argument. "I.. Uh.. "

"I thought we'd agreed that we have no hope but rebuilding the side this year, and comments like that only raise expectations we won't be able to meet!"

"I.. But.. "

Sophie McGill intervened. "Ian, we are in second place.. aren't we?"

"I know," I said. "I apologize. If the season ended now, we'd be in League One. But I still don't think its fair to raise the fans' hopes based on a winning streak that has us performing well beyond what we have any right to expect. We're still way over the wage budget, and I'm practically holding a fire sale with future transfers. Even if we do promote, we won't have half a squad worth competing with - I've been half thinking of putting out half-strength sides for League matches and concentrating on Cups this season, just to ensure we don't promote too early!"

"No, you're right," Steve answered. "I apologize. Its just that everyone is so delighted with your performance to date, and I got carried away."

"Everyone except me," Sophie said. "We're now..." She checked her figures. "...£2,000 a week over our wage budget, and we just can't keep up that sort of expenditure. Terry?"

Terry Doyle, Director of Marketing, spoke up. "We lost our sponsorship at the start of this season, as you know - our last payment was July of this year. For a time, that had been offsetting our loan payment schedule, but we've been unable to find a corporate sponsor to replace them. Your continued success on the pitch is helping, but you'll have to keep it up until we land somebody."

"I'm just not sure I can," I told them, "If we have to keep selling off our top talent."

"Until we land that sponsorship," Sophie continued, "The financial picture does look fairly bleak. Last month, however, we made a very tidy profit, a full £109,000, and primarily on gate receipts, not sale of players. That left us less than £4,000 shy of break-even - until the loan payment hit for this month."

"Is there any word on the stadium situation?" I asked.

Jason McGill spoke - it was the first time I'd heard from him, and I hadn't known what his role was. "Not yet. The Planning Comission seems to be stalling, and at the moment, I'm not sure we have the funding in place to support anything even if we do suddenly get approvals. We'd need a lot more financial stability, I think, to assure ourselves of anything."

"So we'll be staying in Bootham Crescent for the foreseeable future?" I clarified. The original plan had been for the club to purchase Bootham Crescent, and then to build a new stadium in the same Burton Stone Lane location, but that had thus far failed to materialize.

"Yes. We aren't frequently going over our 3,248 seat capacity, and when we do there's capacity for 9,459. Obviously, if we were to reach League One with a reasonable assurance of staying there, we'd have to do something, but for now it looks acceptable."

"There is one other thing," Ian McAndrews spoke up. "In light of the improving financial situation at the club, we've decided to make 75% of your arranged transfers available to you as transfer budget. Try not to spend it all at once - we're counting on you to maintain the fiscal responsibility you've demonstrated..."

"... everywhere but the wage budget ..." Sophie couldn't resist interjecting, though she said it with a smile.

"... in your previous transfers, I was going to say," Ian finished.

"Well, with the business concluded, there's something we have to celebrate," Steve Beck announced. As everyone turned to him expectantly, he pointed to me.

"Ian has been named League Two Manager of the Month for November, for winning all five our our games over the month!"

A wave of applause greeted the pronouncement, and on that note, we broke up the monthly board meeting.

Jon Shepherd's injury-time strike against Bristol Rovers had won Goal of the Month as well, accompanied as it had been by a 35-yard dribble in which he made two defenders miss to put the final goal in during our 3-1 victory November 18th.

League Two Table:

<pre class="ip-ubbcode-code-pre">Pos Team Pts W D L GD

1 Cambridge 40 13 1 4 +16

2 YORK 37 12 1 5 +13

3 Walsall 35 10 5 3 +21

------------------------------------

4 Port Vale 34 9 7 2 +12

5 Cheltenham 34 10 4 4 + 9

6 Lincoln 33 9 6 3 +13

7 Exeter 31 8 7 3 +10

------------------------------------

8 Boston Utd 31 9 4 5 + 7

9 Leyton O. 30 8 6 4 + 5

10 Rotherham 27 7 6 5 + 1</pre>

The review of training with Viv Busby was amazing. The juggling of training schedules which we'd undertaken last month had worked wonders. A number of our players were showing dramatic improvement and/or were performing at their peak ability. Right back Mark Dixon had made astounding improvement, especially to the mental aspect of his game, and was now one of our most improved players all-time. Robert Cousins had begun demonstrating the fantastic potential with a huge improvement of his own, including a fantastic development of the technical aspect of his game.

Adam Corbett and Mark Wright were both showing why other clubs should be interested in them, while Mark Goodwin, Paul Edwards, and Ian Bannister had all shown steady improvement reaching career peaks. Goalkeeper Kevin Butler had done quite well also, with a good balance between physical and mental improvement.

The only disappointment on the roster, really, was Tappa Whitmore. Both Viv and I had hoped that he might reclaim some of his earlier form, but he hadn't really been himself on the practice pitch. Oh, his play on the pitch has been as stellar as ever, but in training it appeared that the losses he'd suffered while out injured were of a more permanent nature.

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Excellent season so far Amaroq, interesting to see how you go in the bigger leagues, I know once i got Droylsden to the Div 2 even with good results and me being under the wage budget we were losing money pretty quickly.

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Saturday, 2nd December, 2006. F.A. Cup - Second Round, vs Carlisle United.

Fellow League Two side Carlisle United were a familiar opponent. Relegated from the League in 2004, they'd played two campaigns in the Conference National, earning promotion last year the same as we had. We'd met four times since I'd taken over at Bootham Crescent, and York had won all of the encounters, including a 3-0 drubbing at Carlisle in late August.

I was starting our strongest XI, having rested them in the LDV Vans Trophy to save them for this match. Alan Blayney was in goal, Joe Keenan, Liam Fontaine, Jamie Cooper, and Graeme Law were across the back, with Alan Navarro the holding midfielder. John McGrath and Jon Paul McGovern were the wingers, with Robert Cousins and Theodore Whitmore attacking and prolific loanee Marc Walton as the striker.

The steady rain falling did not discourage 3,887 from packing into Bootham Crescent, some 600 of those standing. They witnessed a hard-tackling match whose tone was set in the 16th minute when Carlisle striker Elvis Hammond was stretchered off after a crunching tackle by Alan Navarro. With both defenses flying around the place with abandon, chances were few and far between: the first wasn't until Joe Keenan's long ball put Marc Walton behind the Carlisle defense in the 35th minute, but he put it over from 18 yards.

Carlos Roca had two fine chances for Carlisle at the end of the half, but the first, a 25-yard shot, was diverted by Alan Blayney's fingertip save. The second came in injury time, as Jamie Cooper carelessly gave the ball away to Roca while he was the last York defender, but Cooper hustled back to tackle it away from Roca as he lined up his shot at the 18-yard line.

I began to push players forward for the second half, and a beautiful interplay between John McGrath and Tappa Whitmore created space for Marc Walton in the box. McGrath's pass picked him out, and the striker was unlucky to put it over from 16 yards - unfortunately, it was too be one of the few chances of the day, and frankly only a brilliant save by Blayney kept the scores knotted at zero when Roca split our central defenders.

The scrap was dragging towards a scoreless draw - one of those games where supporters and managers alike are begging for a moment of magic from anyone. For a moment, it looked like we had it, as Walton took Tappa's pass and broke towards the box. The defense committed, and the striker's clever square pass found Robert Cousins open at the 18-yard line. The 17-year-old had every chance to be a hero - but his first-touch shot skimmed just over the top of the bar.

Finally, in the 85th minute, Jon Paul McGovern was injured on a vicious yellow-card challenge by Peter Murphy. With all my substitutions made, we were stuck at ten men, and I had the side fall back into a defensive shell to play for a draw and subsequent replay.

York 0, Carlisle 0

----; ----

MoM: Grand (Carlisle DC)

Neither crowd nor manager was pleased with a scrappy nil-nil draw against a side we'd so handily controlled earlier in the year, and conceding the home-field advantage so loosely did not bode well for the replay, which was scheduled for Wednesday the 13th.

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Monday, 4th December, 2006.

My first concern after the match was to get a physio report from Jeff Miller. Jon Paul McGovern had merely bruised a shin, and Robert Cousins, who had been limping heavily at the end of the match, had a bruised quad. Both would be out of training for most of the week, but should be recovered nicely by next weekend's matches. The physio also reminded me that youngster Daniel Smith was fit and should be resuming full training this week.

In other action, our Under-18s had defeated the highly-rated Blackburn U-18s, on the road. Kevin Butler had played a fantastic game in goal to maintain a clean sheet despite piles of Blackburn pressure, and then in injury time amateur substitute striker James Smart had scored against the run of play to lift our lads to a 1-0 victory. The result left them still six points adrift of first-placed Blackburn.

The draw for the F.A. Cup Third Round was on Monday afternoon, and the board and my staff gathered in the bar to watch the draw. Again, we were hoping for a money-spinning tie against a Premier League club, or easy fodder against a non-League club. We got neither, though tiny club Chippenham drew a home tie against Liverpool.

The "York City / Carlisle United" ball drew an away tie against the "Chesterfield / Sheffield United" ball. The former are in League Two with us, while the latter - what were the odds? They're the familiar Yorkshire side who had just knocked our second-string out of the Vans Trophy.

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Wednesday, 6th December, 2006.

The final matches of Champions League group play took place on Tuesday and Wednesday.

In Group A, it was a simple task at the Weserstadion: win and you're in, draw goes to Newcastle United. Werder Bremen got off to a great start, with goals by Frank Baumann and Benjamin Lauth in the first ten minutes. They extended the lead to 4-1 before Newcastle began to fight back late in the second half, but goals from Jermaine Jenas and Fernando Cavenaghi left the Tyneside club tantalizingly close, 4-3, as time expired.

Real Madrid finished off a perfect campaign - unbeaten, untied, and unscored upon! - with a 2-0 victory over Ferencvaros.

<pre class="ip-ubbcode-code-pre">Pos Club Pts W D L GF GA GD

Q 1 Real Madrid 18 6 0 0 15 0 +15

Q 2 Weder Bremen 8 2 2 2 8 11 - 3

U 3 Newcastle Utd 6 2 0 4 8 10 - 2

4 Ferencvaros 2 0 2 4 4 14 -10</pre>

Group B's outcome had already been determined, so the big result - AC Milan 2, Bayern Leverkusen 0 - was merely cosmetic. The other match, however, in Prague, would determine the UEFA Cup berth for the group, and Lyon defeated their hosts 1-0.

<pre class="ip-ubbcode-code-pre">Q 1 AC Milan 16 5 1 0 10 2 + 8

Q 2 B Leverkusen 11 3 2 1 11 5 + 6

U 3 Lyon 4 1 1 4 4 12 - 8

4 Sparta Prague 2 0 2 4 4 10 - 6</pre>

In Group C, Juventus and Barcelona had already guaranteed their place in the next round, but Juventus romped to a 5-0 victory over Panathinaikos at Delle Alpi, piling in three goals in the first 16 minutes. Barcelona finished their campaign with a 2-0 victory over FC do Porto despite a 19th-minute red card which forced them to play shorthanded for most of the match until Porto lost a man in the 83rd.

<pre class="ip-ubbcode-code-pre">Q 1 Barcelona 15 5 0 1 11 2 + 9

Q 2 Juventus 13 4 1 1 14 5 + 9

U 3 Panathinaikos 4 1 1 4 2 12 -10

4 FC do Porto 2 0 2 4 2 10 - 8</pre>

Arsenal's task was simple in Group D: defeat PSV at home, and nothing else mattered. Oh, there were tie-breaking scenarios enough to fill several small tabloid publications if they failed to win, but 54,463 were hoping to see them advance. Patrick Viera put the hosts ahead on 19 minutes, and Fredrik Ljungberg made it 2-0 by halftime. Claudio Pizarro rounded out the scoring in injury time and a 3-0 victory saw Arsenal through as group winners.

In Istanbul, Brazilian star Robinho had a hat-trick in another 2-red-card match, as Fenerbahçe built a 4-1 first-half lead and held that score through full time against hapless Dinamo Bucharest.

<pre class="ip-ubbcode-code-pre">Q 1 Arsenal 12 4 0 2 17 3 +14

Q 2 Fenerbahçe 12 4 0 2 13 11 + 2

3 PSV Eindhoven 9 3 0 3 9 9 0

4 Din. Bucharest 3 1 0 5 5 21 -16</pre>

Group E's matches were on Wednesday. Chelsea were already through, but facing a determined Maccabi Haifa, who needed a win and help in front of a sell-out home crowd. 22-year-old attacking midfielder Arjen Robben scored the only goal in the 17th minute, and Chelsea won 1-0 to secure first in the group. Valencia needed only that result, or a draw on the road, to get through, but came out motivated against Slovenian side NK Gorica. Salva scored his first two goals of the tournament in the first seven minutes, and the Spanish side cruised to a 4-0 halftime lead and eventually a 6-0 victory.

<pre class="ip-ubbcode-code-pre">Q 1 Chelsea 13 4 1 1 9 1 + 8

Q 2 Valencia 12 4 0 2 13 4 + 9

U 3 Maccabi Haifa 6 1 3 2 3 6 - 3

4 NK Gorica 2 0 2 4 2 16 -14</pre>

In Group F, Liverpool could get through with either a win or draw against last-placed Ajax, or with help from Roma in their match at Basel. As it turned out, they got both, as Ajax attacking midfielder Steven Pienaar was sent off in the 17th minute. Despite peppering the goal with 16 shots, Liverpool couldn't put one away, but they didn't need to: a 0-0 draw got them to the next round. Roma's 2-0 victory over Basel would have seen the Reds through even in defeat.

<pre class="ip-ubbcode-code-pre">Q 1 Roma 13 4 1 1 7 4 + 3

Q 2 Liverpool 10 3 1 2 8 6 + 2

U 3 FC Basel 7 2 1 3 6 9 - 3

4 Ajax 4 1 1 4 6 8 - 2</pre>

Group G leaders FC Bayern München had already clinched a berth in the knock-out rounds, but after a German national paper had accused them of being "weak", they had a point to prove. An authoritative 5-0 victory over FC København in Munich made the point in spades. Roque Santa Cruz continued to build on his incredible World Cup performance, scoring two goals to leave him with 7 goals on 7 appearances in the Champions League to go with 5 goals on 5 appearances in the World Cup.

Deportivo la Coruña defeated Banik Ostrava 3-1 to claim the other spot from the group, though Bayern's victory would also have guaranteed them the place.

<pre class="ip-ubbcode-code-pre">Q 1 Bayern München 16 5 1 0 20 3 +17

Q 2 Deportivo 11 3 2 1 9 8 + 1

U 3 FC København 5 1 2 3 5 11 - 6

4 Banik Ostrava 1 0 1 5 4 16 -12</pre>

In the final group, the elimination-round contenders had already been decided, and those teams - Paris Saint-Germain and Inter Milan - played a meaningless exhibition at the Parc des Princes, a match featuring many second-choice players for both sides. It ended a dispirited 0-0 draw. The other encounter determined the UEFA Cup berth, and Turkish squad Trabzonspor, at home, appeared in complete control, cruising to a 2-0 victory over Portugese side Benfica.

<pre class="ip-ubbcode-code-pre">Q 1 Inter Milan 16 5 1 0 14 1 +13

Q 2 Paris S-G 11 3 2 1 4 4 0

U 3 Trabzonspor 4 1 1 4 3 7 - 4

4 Benfica 3 1 0 5 2 11 - 9</pre>

In a match which generated much less interest Wednesday night, York Reserves were held to a scoreless draw by Gravesend Reserves despite having a man advantage from the 16th minute due to a reckless yellow card. Colin Hart played well in goal, and Daniel Smith made his return from injury with a 35-minute substitute appearance in the second half.

Meanwhile, I'd received a jaw-dropping offer from Manchester City ...

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Saturday, 9th December, 2006.

<BLOCKQUOTE class="ip-ubbcode-quote"><div class="ip-ubbcode-quote-title">quote:</div><div class="ip-ubbcode-quote-content">Citizens Nab Shepherd!

Manchester City swooped to pluck promising striker Jon Shepherd from Bootham Crescent.

Announced yesterday, but arranged for the January transfer window, the sale will net £350,000. The Premiership side outbid Scottish club Celtic for the rights to his signature in a spirited bidding war which reportedly doubled the price.

The youngster, who has scored four goals in League Two play this year, said "Its a dream come true to play for such an illustrious club!"

For fans of York City, it has been a frustrating season. With the club second in League Two and chasing a promotion spot, manager Ian Richards has still been forced to sell players to make ends meet. The financial situation has led to a fire-sale of promising young talent, with Shepherd following Levent Yalcin, Richard Fox, and Adam Corbett to greener pastures - though Shepherd fetched more than any of the previous prospects. </div></BLOCKQUOTE>

It had been a stressful and tiring week, playing hardball with City and Celtic - as the stakes rose, I'd worried that they might both pull out. He hasn't shown that much yet! When Celtic finally withdrew, I'd let out a big sight of relief.

I'd also received another bid from AFC Bournemouth for starting right winger Jon Paul McGovern, but the price they were offering was very low. With the Shepherd deal inked, I told them that I'm not willing to let him go for less than his minimum-release fee of £250,000; they'd offered about a fifth of that.

The Saturday morning match was York Under-18s versus Chesterfield U-18s. Things looked grim for the all-amateur home side when Ian Black was sent off in the 6th minute for a clumsy challenge on the rain-soaked surface, but our 10-man side exploded for four goals, one by Aaron Dennis, one on a free kick from Keith Spencer, and two by second-half substitute James Smart, to run away with the match 4-1.

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Saturday, 9th December, 2006. League Two - Game 19, at Chesterfield.

Chesterfield is a small city south-east of High Peak, just south of Sheffield. Interstingly, they were facing Sheffield United in the FA Cup Second Round, and we'd drawn the winner of that match for our Third Round tie. For the past 25 years, Chesterfield have been bouncing between the bottom of League One and the top of League Two. Their most recent stint in League One had lasted just five years, with a 10th, an 18th, and two 20th-place finishes before last year's 21st saw them relegated to League Two.

This year's club has been badly hit by injuries, with no fewer than five key players out with injury for our match, and forced to rely on loanings Nuno Morais, Chris Jones, and Simon Brown. Consequently, they lie in 15th place. Former Minsterman Darren Dunning is the captain, and leads the club in assists - they've moved him to a central role rather than playing him on the wing, and I'm sure he'd love to excel against his former manager.

With the F.A. Cup replay to follow mid-week, I chose a decidedly second-string side for this match. 17-year-old Nick McDonald made his York debut in goal, but would face a challenge on the road with a weak defense in front of him. Adam Eckersley was the veteran anchor of a line that included struggling youngster Michael Staley, transferred central defender Mark Wright, and low-morale youngster Mark Dixon. Ian Bannister was the defensive midfielder. Richard Fox and Mark Goodwin would handle the wings, with Micah Richards and Jamal Campbell-Ryce in the attacking midfielder roles and loanee Thomas Carroll making only his second York start at striker.

It sounded like a recipe for ending our six-game League winning streak, but from the opening kickoff it was clear that we were having the better chances: Campbell-Ryce's second minute shot was saved, and Thomas Carroll had a long dribble on a counterattack in the 8th, but shot too early and wide. In the 25th minute, Mark Goodwin's shot to the left post was denied on a brilliant save by Chesterfield keeper Rob Burch.

Our defense was playing admirably well, and though Dunning was all over the field against his former mates, he was getting little help from the rest of the side. In the 35th minute, Micah Richards's long pass put Campbell-Ryce through on goal, but he again shot wide: the steady rain falling seemed to be hampering our shooting, and it was still scoreless at the interval.

The second half was more of the same, with Carroll coming close again but the shot saved by Burch. Mark Wright was playing exceptional defense, making two key challenges, one a tackle and one a header, to blunt the best Chesterfield attacks - he, like so many of this second-team squad, seemed intent on making an impression when given the chance.

Near the hour, I made my full complement of substitutions, bringing on talented veterans Paul Edwards, Tappa Whitmore, and John McGrath, but we were still struggling to break down Chesterfield's defense. They seemed loathe to come forward to us, so in the 75th minute I told everyone to start pushing forward. It paid immediate dividends, as Edwards played a ball down the right wing. Goodwin outmuscled Eugene Francis for it, and sent in the cross. Edwards took it on the half-volley at the near post, putting it into the net from a tight angle, and we led 1-0 with ten minutes to play!

That stunned the Chesterfield crowd, and the side was left with no choice but to push forward for an equalizer. They had eight men forward in the 83rd minute when Michael Staley headed a ball clear. Mark Goodwin collected it, and as he looked up from well in his own half, he saw Edwards streaking for the half-way line. He launched a spectacular long pass over the two defenders, catching Edwards perfectly in stride and well behind the exhausted defenders. With time and space, he made Burch miss, and a three-minute double had made it 2-0!

Chesterfield weren't quite done, and I was content to hold men back and defend. Consequently, our box was packed with players of both sides when Mark Innes sent a cross in in the 87th minute. Mark Allott fell to the turf, and Dixon was whistled for pushing him. It was a dubious decision, as there had been much pushing in the box by both sides and Allott hadn't even had a play on the ball, but the referee was pointing to the spot.

Ashley Foyle hammered home the penalty, then sprinted into the net to pick the ball up and carry it back to the centre circle.

That made the final minutes a terse affair, but our defense was up to the challenge, and full-time was whistled with us still ahead, 2-1.

Chesterfield 1, York 2

Foyle pen 88; Edwards 80, 83

MoM: Dixon

It may have been a bit dubious to select Mark Dixon, who had conceded the penalty, as Man of the Match ahead of Mark Wright, who had played so well in defense, Paul Edwards, who had scored twice, or Mark Goodwin, whose incredible vision and creativity had created both goals, but there you have it: the young right back was it, and our unbeaten League streak continued.

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Monday, 11th December, 2006.

"Can we talk?"

I'd let myself into Chairman Steve Beck's office

My heart was beating a little harder - it wasn't an easy conversation I expected. I held my peace until the door closed firmly behind him.

"I'd like to talk about a contract extension."

"Oh."

"You know my current deal expires at the end of the year, and with the club doing so well, .. well .." I shrugged, rather than completing the sentence.

"You know what the finances look like," he answered.

"I know, I really do, but with this latest sale in place.. well, I'd like to have something sorted out becomes a distraction to the side."

"Okay, give me a couple weeks," he said, and I left it like that.

That hadn't been so bad.

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Tuesday, 12th December, 2006.

Michael Staley twisted his knee painfully during training on Sunday, which will lay him up for a week or so. Other than that, we were in very good shape for the F.A. Cup replay. In the League, our victory had put us co-equal for first with Cambridge, both on 40 points and a +14 goal differential.

We had a tough run of matches coming up after the F.A. Cup match, though: away to 3rd placed Port Vale, then at home to 4th placed Walsall and 6th placed Cheltenham, all in a ten-day span. It would be a definite proving ground for our title chances.

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Wednesday, 13th December, 2006. F.A. Cup - Second Round Replay, at Carlisle United.

We knew Carlisle United all too well, having played them twice already this season and five times since I took over the reigns at Bootham Crescent. The trip up through the Inglewood Forest to the Scottish border was a familiar one, and even Brunton Park was starting to feel like a familiar venue.

With the possibility of extra-time and even a penalty shootout lurking in the background, I was glad my top side had had ten days rest since the first encounter. Alan Blayney returned in goal, with Joe Keenan, Jamie Cooper, Liam Fontaine and Graeme Law his stalwart foursome. Alan Navarro was in superb condition and ready at defensive midfielder, with John McGrath and Jon Paul McGovern on the wings. Jamaican international Tappa Whitmore would run the attack, partnered with Robert Cousins, and Marc Walton would get another chance to crack the Carlisle defense from the lone striker position.

An incredible crowd of 14,394 was crammed into Brunton Park, a festival atmosphere the like of which we'd not seen. Carlisle came out in full attack, playing a 3-5-2 that featured Carlos Roca as a central attacking midfielder behind the two strikers. This open formation generated chances for both sides, as Carlisle keeper Matty Glennon covered Whitmore's long ball for Walton, and Roca missed wide from 15 yards.

Referee Michael Ryan had a big part to play in the first half, as 3 times in the first 20 minutes, he awarded a yellow card to a Carlisle player for dissent. Supporters and players alike were boiling over, and it seemed very call he made was cause for more barking from the Carlisle players.

In the 20th minute, Jon Paul McGovern's dangerous cross into the 6-yard box for Robert Cousins was bravely fisted away by Glennon, and in the 24th minute Alan Navarro's header off a McGovern corner kick went inches wide. Carlisle were getting their chances as well, and a fantastic tackle by Liam Fontaine denied Roca what appeared to be a great shooting chance. By the 30th minute, Carlisle tally was up to 5 yellow cards for dissent, and it seemed we were getting the ball moved forward ten yards after every foul.

In the 38th minute, Matthew Mills, already with one yellow, was the last defender with Walton charging into the Carlisle area. Mills brought him down, and the crowd groaned in unison - surely the way Ryan was calling the game, that was a penalty.

.. No?!

Ryan ruled that Mills had got the ball cleanly, and no penalty was given - in retrospect, given the fraying tempers on the Carlisle bench, it was a moment that could have all but ended the match if the call had gone the other way.

It was still scoreless at halftime, and neither side made any changes. Just after the restart, Cousins skinned Mills with a spectacular dribble, but Glennon saved the shot and Marlon Dill cleared the rebound.

In the 58th minute, Paul Arnison, already carrying a yellow, went in on McGovern with a reckless 2-footed challenge. Ryan beckoned him over with the crowd booing an ugly growl I've only heard once before in my life..

.. but Ryan let him go with only a warning.

I've seen that called a straight red by other referees - somebody from the F.A. must have spoken to Mr. Ryan in the halls between halves. If that hadn't been proof enough, ten minutes later, Mills vociferously argued a call, and got away with only a warning of his own.

A minute later, the game took another sudden shift: Carlisle substitute Brendan McGill lined up a free kick from the right side of our penalty area. He played it all the way through out to the other side. There was nobody there, but Patrick Boyle tracked it down, and sent a cross back in. Alan Blayney and Joe Keenan both misjudged the flight of the ball as it carried through the 6-yard box to McGill, charging in towards the right-side corner of the keeper's demesne. McGill leaped in the air and powered a picturesque header in at the far post! The big crowd went delirious in celebration - from appearing on the verge of a red card, suddenly their heroes were ahead 0-1, and with just twenty minutes to play.

Off the restart, we appeared stunned, staggering as though from a body-blow, and Carlisle captain Scott Fitzgerald nearly made it 0-2 with a 12-yard shot that Blayney barely turned over the bar. I began to make the substitutions I'd been saving in case of extra time: there was nothing to save them for now, and Paul Edwards, Micah Richards, and Jamal Campbell-Ryce came on in short order. They did seem to reinvigorate us - in the 83rd minute Edwards's 18-yard shot was saved by Glennon, our first real chance since the goal.

Moments later, Chris Lumdson got up to meet a long clearance from the Carlisle back line was met with a sily flick-on header. Suddenly, it was a footrace, and Brendan McGill outran our heavy-footed defense as the crowd rose to their feet again. Alan Blayney came off his line, and only an amazing save near the eighteen kept our faltering hopes alive.

We got one last break as injury time loomed: Paul Weller was injured, leaving the hosts with only ten men, but despite my sending more and more men forward in desperation, we couldn't find an equalizer and went crashing out of the F.A. Cup.

Carlisle United 1, York 0

McGill 69; ----

MoM: Blayney

The refereeing was a sore point in our locker room afterwards, with Walton claiming he should have had a penalty and drawn a red card in the first half, and everybody noting how different the standard had been in the second half.

Veteran winger Jon Paul McGovern drew a laugh or two with his quip: "If something hadn't changed, Mr. Ryan wouldn't have left the stadium alive."

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Friday, 15th December, 2006.

There was a fairly chill air in York City after our defeat at Carlisle: I think many, from fans to players alike, had been counting on another long F.A. Cup run, and losing to a team we had beaten four consecutive times prior to the two Cup matches was thoroughly unexpected. Alan Blayney had won Man of the Match for his performance in goal, but it was little consolation.

I was pleased to hear that Mark Goodwin had created another goal, this time an injury-time feed to Adam Corbett, who had scored a spectacular 25-yard game-winner at Bootham Crescent as York Reserves beat Huddersfield Reserves 1-0 in a steady drizzle. Young goalkeeper Kevin Butler was named Man of the Match.

We sold 17-year-old goalkeeper Paul Carruthers to Conference National side Macclesfield Town today. Though he has all sorts of potential, I was finding him out of luck as the fifth keeper in our side, behind Blayney, Butler, McDonald, and Hart - and with wage budget trouble I just couldn't justify keeping a fifth keeper here any more than I'd been able to at Lancaster. The transfer was immediate, for a total of £20,000, 50% of which would go to his former club Torquay United as part of our purchase agreement with them.

Paul Carruthers, GK, 17: June 2006-December 2006: 1 season, 1 game, 6.00

I did my best to focus the lads: we couldn't dwell on the defeat with three important League matches between now and Christmas.

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This is turning into an epic tale Amaroq and I'm loving every post. What I most admire I think is your excellent match reports and your eye for detail. I can even forgive the occasional Americanism that slips in icon_wink.gif. I know from experience just how difficult it is to write consistently interesting match reports - it certainly isn't my forte so respect to you sir.

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Thank you so much, BobBev - I've certainly been concentrating on them, and I'm glad you appreciate them.

I think it does take the reader deciding to care - every match matters to a fan IRL, and I decided to write it that way.

Interestingly, I think its made me a much better FM player; you'll catch hints of the tactical adjustments I make as we go along, but all of them have been based on something specific I noticed to call out in a match report!

As for the Americanisms, I'm going to have to claim they're "in character" icon_wink.gif

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Saturday, 16th December, 2006. League Two - Game 20, at Port Vale.

The first game of our critical three-game stretch was away to Port Vale, a strong team which sat third in League Two and desperately seeking promotion. We'd beaten them at Bootham Crescent 2-0 in our F.A. Cup encounter last season - but that was a half-beaten team on their way to relegation, not the confident title contender we would face this year. They are only 6 years removed from the Championship, having been relegated at the end of the 1999/00 season. They also have a ton of history, having been in operation since 1892. Vale Park, in Stoke-on-Trent, is a fine facility, a 16,000 all-seater with professional facilities which were almost overwhelmingly comfortable when compared to what we usually enjoy.

I chose as many healthy veterans as I could, but there was a lot of fatigue in our legs. The lineup I wound up with was this: Alan Blayney in goal, with Mark Wright joining Joe Keenan, Liam Fontaine, and Graeme Law on the back row. Alan Navarro would last about sixty minutes at defensive midfielder, with Jamal Campbell-Ryce on left wing and Richard Fox on the right. The attacking midfielders were Tappa Whitmore and Micah Richards, with Jon Shepherd starting at striker. I knew it wasn't my first-choice side, but Port Vale looked pretty tired as well, and the wet conditions would make the second half a fitness test.

Port Vale decided to play a variation of the 3-5-2 which had given us such trouble against Carlisle - I had to commend their scouting staff, as that wasn't their default formation.

Still, we almost scored in the first three minutes, when Tappa sent a great pass to Fox up the right wing. He dribbled into the box before shooting from close range. It was saved by Port Vale goalkeeper Mark Goodlad, but the rebound floated tantalizingly in the air, where Tappa was able to head it on an open net. It went just over.

We also had a great chance in the 20th minute, when young Fox took a corner kick and played it to Graeme Law. Only an amazing save by Goodlad denied the captain a goal.

We reached halftime confident, with a solid advantage in the shots department, and I told the lads to stick with it - it looked like the steady rain was tiring out our hosts more than it was affecting us.

There was no accounting for an individual effort by Billy Paynter, who curled a superb 25-yard shot into the top left corner from beyond the arc, despite the close attentions of Joe Keenan and a good effort by the well-positioned Alan Blayney. There was just nothing that could be done about a perfect shot, and the Vale Park crowd of 4,630 went wild for the 0-1 lead.

Port Vale fell back immediately into a very defensive 5-3-2 formation, and we ,weren't able to get anywhere against it. I made all three of my substitutions, and began sending the wingers and fullbacks forward, but it just seemed impossible to break down their wall.

With ten minutes left, I was starting to get desperate, but then substitute right wing Mark Goodwin broke into the corner. He sent the cross over everyone in the area to the unmarked Richard Fox wide of the far post. Fox, who had switched sides when Goodwin came on, headed the ball back central, where Thomas Carroll had made a momentary bit of space. Carroll put a second header on it to what was now the near post, and Goodlad wasn't able to get back across the face of goal in time. Carroll's first-ever York goal couldn't have come at a better time or in a more classic way.

Port Vale 1, York 1

Paynter 49; Carroll 81

MoM: Fox

His inspired choice to head back into play rather than trying to play it on goal from a tight angle alone might have made Richard Fox worthy of Man of the Match honours - but he'd also played very well throughout, switching from the right wing to the left without missing a beat.

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Monday, 18th December, 2006.

After his fine performance, Richard Fox was also selected to the English League Two Team of the Week, the first time he'd been awarded such an honour. It made me really regret the necessity of selling him, but there just wasn't budget to keep him on past the end of the season.

Me?

I spent Sunday running around the stores trying to get my Christmas shopping finished - why do I always wait until the last minute?

It was an interesting comparison, though: in the States, the Christmas rush is a time of rude shoppers and harried shop personnel which really seems against the whole spirit of the day. There was some sense of urgency around my fellow shoppers, but on the whole there was much more good cheer here.

I was occasionally asked for an autograph, and was also given some friendly advice for how to handle fourth-placed Walsall on Wednesday.

Goalkeeper Nick McDonald strained a calf during training this week. It isn't too serious, just bad enough that I've sent him home for the holidays - he should be back in full training in early January.

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Wednesday, 20th December, 2006. League Two - Game 21, vs Walsall.

The last meeting between York and Walsall predated my reign - it was a friendly encounter back in July of 2004 which York had won 2-0. Not that that mattered, as only three players from the side I'd taken over still remained on the York City roster.

Only one of them was in my starting XI: captain Graeme Law, at right back. He was partnered with Jamie Cooper, Liam Fontaine, and Joe Keenan in the back four, ahead of goalkeeper Alan Blayney. Ian Bannister had the holding midfielder duties, giving Navarro a rest, and John McGrath was the left wing. Jon Paul McGovern was making his 100th league appearance on the right wing. Up front, team scoring leader Robert Cousins partnered Theodore Whitmore up front, and Paul Edwards was the striker, looking to build on his 5-goal total.

It was a cold, rainy night, and both sides came out tentative. Tappa had 2 bad misses in the first 15 minutes - once a fantastic asset on this squad, I was defeinitely feeling how 'past his prime' he is now.

In the 30th minute, Cousins broke free up the right wing, then as he reached the area, he cut it back for the striker Edwards. With time and space from 16 yards, I thought it was a sure goal, but somehow Walsall keeper Mark Paston got to it and pushed it wide. What a save - and how unlucky for Edwards.

In the 41st minute, Whitmore reminded me why he's still in the starting lineup, sending a fantastic long ball ahead of Cousins. This time working from the left of center, Cousins pulled one of his trademark speedy dribbles - I'd swear he can dribble faster than I can run - racing 30 yards into the box. He shot for the far corner, but again Paston made a diving save. He couldn't keep hold of the wet ball, and it trickled agonizingly towards the far post..

.. but one of his defenders came sliding in to clear, just in the nick of time.

It was still scoreless at halftime, and I was starting to consider changes. When we didn't have any good chances by the 58th minute, I brought on three new faces and switched to our 'aggressive' formation, sending the wings and backs further up the pitch. Instantly, there was tons of pressure, with a flurry of balls into and through the Walsall area. The third of these in less than a minute found substitute striker Marc Walton in the 6-yard box. He rose above two defenders to hammer a header on net. As 3,741 fans rose in appreciation, the ball carombed back off the crossbar - the fans sat back down with a groan, their seats now wet with the weather.

We kept the pressure on for twenty minutes without a break, but Walsall had clearly given up all thought of scoring and were constantly in defense, creating a tough nut we just could not seem to crack. I was starting to think it would finish nil-nil; I had no changes left to make, and was just as much a spectator as the chap in row H.

In the 82nd minute, John McGrath played a tricky through ball to a limping Walton in the box. Too hurt to shoot, he layed it off for Robert Cousins, who blistered a half-volley into the net at the near post. From 10 yards out, Cousins's right foot was too powerful to be stopped, and his ninth goal of the season put us ahead 1-0!!

The long-suffering crowd finally got to give their roar of approval, and the pent-up emotion lent extra strength to their voices. Surely that was the game-winner, and it was just a matter of falling back defensively and waiting for full time.

I got a scare in injury time, when Walsall midfielder David Perpetuini cracked a 20-yarder, but it skimmed just over the bar. With that chance weathered, the victory was ours.

York 1, Walsall 0

Cousins 82; ----

MoM: McGrath

With as many victories as we've strung together in our time, the lads don't frequently celebrate with the abandon they once did, but this night, after a tough victory over a good team, they were blowing off some steam in the locker room when somebody broke out a radio for the League scores rundown. Cambridge had won - they were still ahead of us by a narrow margin.

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Friday, 22nd December, 2006.

Physio Jeff Miller reported that Marc Walton's injury was a groin strain, and that he really ought to have two weeks off to ensure that he doesn't re-injure it and make it worse. That's an unfortunate injury with the fixture congestion around Christmas and the pending sale of Jon Shepherd on January 1st, but I thought we should have sufficient cover - until Thomas Carroll strained his groin during a training session on Thursday. Suddenly, we have a budding injury crisis, and Simon Roberts is going to find himself in the first team again.

On the plus side, we added Manchester City attacking midfielder Lee Croft on loan through the season's end. The 21-year-old says he's looking forward to getting some first-team experience, and I had been wanting to purchase him for the past nine months or so. Instead, it was a six-month loan which would see him at the club through June.

AM C Lee Croft, 21, English: A hard-working youngster who crosses well and takes a fine penalty, Croft has been on the fringe of City's lineup the past five seasons, making only one start. He's just come off of a loan spell with my former club Lancaster City, where he scored 2 goals in 10 appearances. He's not flawless - his decision-making is weak, he doesn't help much defensively, and he's weak in the air - but I think the depth he'll provide at attacking midfield is important, as we'd only had three players filling that role lately, and they were all getting exhausted.

Defensive midfielder Malcolm Parker returned to Bootham Crescent after a three month loan to Ossett Town, where he'd started 15 games but done fairly poorly. He started Friday's Under-18 match against Mansfield U-18s, and earned Man of the Match - I think maybe Ossett Town were using him incorrectly. Adam Corbett got the assist on amateur Ian Black's goal in the 1-0 win.

Championship side Burnley are down in 23rd place, and seem to be getting desperate. They came in with an offer totalling £240,000 for Joe Keenan and Jon Paul McGovern together. I think of both players as key members of the side, but they do each have minimum-fee release clauses, so I told Burnley what those are and indicated that I wasn't willing to negotiate below that.

Joe Foote's loan to Guiseley had completed - he had 1 goal and 2 assists in 11 matches with the lower-division English side. Unfortunately, he had suffered a groin injury as well - what is it with that area? - and after physio Jeff Miller examined him, he recommended that we send the 18-year-old off for rehabilitation. I grudgingly agreed, and the specialist suggested that he should be recovered by mid-to-late January.

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Saturday, 23rd December, 2006. League Two - Game 22, vs Cheltenham Town.

Cheltenham Town are a small side which had been non-league since their inception, and in fact were a poster child for 'how to grow a small club', going from non-Conference lower-division play in 1996/97, qualifying for the Conference in 1997/98, winning it in 1998/99, promoting into Division Three and turning full professional. In 2001/02, they finished fourth, to move on up into League One - a blinding climb. Unfortunately, that's where they hit a wall, and fell back down to League Two the following year, but they'd avoided the typical mistake of overspending, so they remained a contender, in 7th place in League Two this season. They had been higher up, but they have a very defensive club which is struggling to score, and though they've had a number of 0-0 ties, they haven't won in their last five outings.

Our squad were suffering from exhaustion, and I had to name several players in the starting lineup who were more tired than I'd have preferred to start. Kevin Butler was nominated for his second start in goal despite the importance of the match. His defense was Adam Eckersley, a tired Liam Fontaine, Mark Wright, and captain Graeme Law. Alan Navarro held the defensive midfield position, with Jamal Campbell-Ryce and Mark Goodwin on the left and right wings respectively. Lee Croft would make his debut appearance alongside club legend Theodore Whitmore, and Jon Shepherd was the only fit and rested striker on the side.

It was quite warm for a December afternoon - fully 71 degrees, but there was a bit of a breeze and sporadic rain, it was odd weather truthfully. One thing I'd missed in my analysis of Cheltenham was how hard-nosed their defense is. In the 6th minute, that was reinforced when Tappa Whitmore was sent to the earth on a crunching tackle by Gary Cahill. The Jamaican didn't get back up, and as our physio came on to attend to him, the crowd booed Cahill and the referee, who hadn't even awarded a foul, equally.

Chances were few and far between, and the next point of interest was when right wing Mark Goodwin was injured. Though he was eventually able to continue, he was never as effective as he had been. Cheltenham's best chance of the half came in the 31st minute, when a long ball down the right wing set David McNiven loose behind Eckersley. His cross got caught in the wind, carrying over Butler and curling towards the net, but luckily for York it cannoned back off the crossbar.

At halftime, I decided we needed to change tactics, and set the lads on our 'patient buildup' tactic, pushing both wings and fullbacks forward but also slowing down the tempo and looking for a short-passing buildup. This almost paid instant dividends, as in the 46th minute a series of passes spotted Jamal Campbell-Ryce free on the left side, and his aerial ball forward into the 6-yard box nearly found Jon Shepherd, but was headed away by Craig Baxter.

Around the hour, Walsall defender Paul O'Donoghue played a long ball over the top for McNiven. He was about 20 miles offsides, but to the amazement of everyone in the stadium, there was no call! All alone, McNiven came into the box for Butler, who was still on his line, glancing incredulously at the ref. McNiven rolled it straight and slow to Butler, as though giving up on the play himself, and luckily the 17-year-old picked it up. It was the most oddly mis-played piece of action I've ever seen, with mistakes all around.

Determined not to go to a 0-0 draw, I brought on my final two substitutes and switched our side to our full attacking instructions with about 25 minutes to go. In the 70th, Navarro's corner kick picked out new signing Lee Croft unmarked in the area, and he launched a spectacular right-footed volley that carried just over the crossbar.

Our late substitutes made a great bid in the 81st minute, with left back Joe Keenan overlapping Adam Eckersley, whom I had moved up to left wing. Keenan crossed into the area for Paul Edwards, who jumped above Graham Ward, but couldn't direct his header. Both sides were exhausted, and Cheltenham were fully concentrated on defense, so nil-nil was how it ended.

York 0, Cheltenham 0

----; ----

MoM: Butler

A lusty cheer went up from the crowd of 3,148 just before full time, as the scoreboard operator updated the Cambridge score to a 'final', and it was Christmas come two days early: Cambridge 0, Leyton Orient 2. With one point from the draw here, we moved into first place in League Two! There was celebration as though we'd won the match in our locker room after the lads had showered and the news had gotten around.

Despite facing just three shots all match - and one of them that odd play at the hour - Kevin Butler was named Man of the Match, but I was distressed that we'd failed to put a single shot on target.

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Monday, 25th December, 2006.

I gave the lads Christmas Eve and Christmas Day off, with the traditional reminder to show up ready to play on Boxing Day, and instructions to enjoy their newly-earned League position.

On Christmas Day we had a bit of a celebration at Stacy and my home, inviting over our friends Ope, a Nigerian-born Londoner, Elliott and his wife, who had moved from California to England a year or two earlier than we had, and several members of the team who didn't have local family to celebrate with, including Jamal Campbell-Ryce, and Tappa, who was unfortunately in a bit of a neck brace - his injury Saturday was a strained back, and he's experiencing some painful spasms. He assures me that the physio says he'll be better with a few weeks' rest, but it made me very glad we'd gotten Lee Croft in.

My Assistant Manager, Viv Busby, came for dinner - the older man was becoming quite a mentor and confidant for me. The McGills also joined us, and it was a fun family atmosphere, much more comfortable than travelling 'home' to California. In fact, it was sometime after Christmas dinner, sitting around with my wife, my friends, and a fine glass of port, that I realized York had become "home" for me. It was as stunning a realization, I think, as when I'd first realized that I no longer thought of my parents' house as 'home'.

I guess I'd already realized that 'home' was wherever my wife was, but this was a new and different feeling: I'd given my loyalty completely over to this club, and this fine city which had adopted me as much as I had adopted it - I was a Minsterman to the core.

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I want this story to run and run, very much enjoying it. Hoping to see you carry York all the way to the Premiership, although that might be a bit ambitious.

Great work!

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Echoing 'irishregan' comments, brilliant story telling, the only one I'm hooked on and the attention to detail is fantastic right down to the weather and personal life! Looking foward to reading more.

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Thanks, guys!

irishregan, I'm glad its kept your interest this long, and I've plenty more yet to post.

Jammer, thanks much for the kind compliments, and I'm quite pleased to hear you appreciate the detail!

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Tuesday, 26th December, 2006. League Two - Game 23, at Milton Keynes Dons.

Milton Keynes were one of the black sheep of English football, with supporters and F.A. alike annoyed that new ownership had purchased the old Wimbledon side, and 'stolen' the team, spiriting it away to a new city with a new stadium. This has been fairly common - if unpopular - practice in the United States over the past fifty years, but it seems to have really offended the British psyche. Neutrals across England had rejoiced to see "The Franchise" relegated from League One at the end of 2004/05. The city itself is north-west of London along the M1, and home to the Red Bull Racing factory, formerly the Jaguar Formula One team.

Despite two days of rest and celebration with their families, most of our players were still mightily fatigued, and my lineup for the match which marked the mid-way point of the season was dictated by necessity. Alan Blayney returned in goal behind Michael Staley, Jamie Cooper, who wore the captain's armband, and young Mark Dixon. Joe Keenan was making his 100th league appearance at left back, and Ian Bannister was the defensive midfielder. In contrast to our weakened defense, we had our top wingers, John McGrath and Jon Paul McGovern. Robert Cousins would hold one attacking midfield role, but of the other four attacking midfielders on the roster, two were injured and two were too fatigued to start a match after playing most of Saturday's tie. I'd have tried a 4-4-2, but the situation at striker was just as bad. Therefore, Richard Fox got to play a little out of position. Paul Edwards was the lone striker.

Milton Keynes came out in the same 3-5-2 formation which we'd had such trouble with lately. At least it was familiar, and the lads up front were playing together very well. Edwards picked out Cousins in the box, to the left of goal, in merely the 5th minute. He shot from a tight angle, and Scott Bevan deflected it - players and fans alike could only watch, breath held, as it trickled inches wide of the far post.

At the quarter hour, Fox made an exciting long dribble, but shot narrowly over - he was looking very dangerous, especially considering he was out of his natural position. A minute later, Keenan's long ball sprang Cousins beyond the Milton Keynes defense, but Nigerian international Shola Oyedale tracked back to cover, and put it out for a throw. Full credit to the speedy fullback; it was the first time I'd seen Cousins caught from behind.

The electrifying Cousins was denied again in the 37th minute on another Bevan save, and at halftime it felt like we were in complete control. We'd really been peppering the Dons' goal, and it looked like it was just a matter of time.

On the hour, we got a scary moment, as Alan Blayney discovered that he was bleeding from his leg, and the physio had to bring him off for treatment. Apparently he'd injured it a few minutes earlier when he came out to punch a ball away, and had caught some spikes. After several minutes, he had to come off, and young Kevin Butler came in - but after Butler's Man of the Match performance on Saturday, that didn't worry me much.

Perhaps it should have. In the 67th minute, 16-year-old winger Richard Pearson sent a long pass forward from the left. It looked like it would carry into the six-yard box, and Butler went to catch it at the edge of that box, but Andy Farrell cut between the young goalkeeper and the cross. The young striker leaped high into the air, and headed home from about eight yards out! 3,011 fans cheered in surprised joy, as the goal was completely against the run of play, but 0-1 it was.

My wingers nearly combined to get it back in the next two minutes, as first Jon Paul McGovern changed fields with a long pass across everyone to John McGrath. The Irishman centered from the left for Edwards, but the Milton Keynes defense put it out for a corner. McGovern's corner came right to McGrath, who drilled a header that looked a certain goal, but somehow Bevan parried it, and Oyedale removed the danger.

Despite shifting to the 3-5-2, partnering Jon Shepherd with Edwards and sending too many men forward, we were unable to crack the tight 5-3-2 defense Milton Keynes had shifted to, and we were met with defeat.

Milton Keynes 1, York 0

Farrell 67; ----

MoM: Bevan (MK Dons GK)

There wasn't much more we could have done; we'd dominated possession and shots, and put a solid 70% of our shots on target, while conceding merely 4 shots ourselves. The mood in the locker room after was somber, as in addition to the defeat, we figured we'd lost the League lead, and were waiting for word on the injury to our goalkeeper.

That's when Viv Busby poked his head in and said, "No, lads, Cambridge lost again - you're still top!"

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Friday, 29th December, 2006.

Alan Blayney's gashed leg was successfully stitched closed, and though the doctors recommended a week's rest, he wouldn't miss more than two matches over it.

When we learned more about the Cambridge game, it turned out that Yeovil's Polish striker Bartosz Tarachulski had scored two goals in the final twelve minutes to lift Yeovil above Cambridge 2-1.

At Bootham Crescent, the York Reserves had matches in back-to-back days on the 26th and 27th. Its doubly frustrating to see fixture congestion in a Reserve league that is primarily about keeping match fitness, not exhausting the players. With our injury situation, I would up fielding an all-amateur side, and they conceded a pair of 0-2 defeats to Blackpool Reserves and Yeovil Reserves.

Friday afternoon, amateur midfielder Aaron Dennis played the game of his life for York Under-18s, scoring two goals in the first 15 minutes, and completing his hat trick in the second half after Boston United U-18s had clawed one back. James Smart added a late goal to make the final score 4-1.

In other news, Burnley withdrew their transfer bids for Joe Keenan and Jon Paul McGovern, being unwilling to match the minimum-release fees for those two. I wasn't willing to let such key members of my successful squad go for less - it would be hard to find replacements of a similar quality without investing real money both in transfer fee, which I could afford, and wage budget, which I could not.

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Saturday, 30th December, 2006. League Two - Game 24, vs Rochdale.

Rochdale have been a perennial League Two side, literally occupying a spot in that division since 1959 for all but a brief 5-year stint in League One during the early '70's. They've been struggling lately, finishing somewhere between 18th and 21st the past four seasons, but they've avoided relegation each time. They lie 18th now, and we'd beaten them twice already this season, once in the season opener and once in the Vans Trophy, by a combined score of 4-1.

It was a swan-song for two of our players, as I gave Mark Wright and Jon Shepherd the honour of starting in their final match at Bootham Crescent. Kevin Butler started in goal for the injured Blayney. His defense was Adam Eckersley, Liam Fontaine, Wright, and Graeme Law. Alan Navarro was the defensive midfielder, while two loanees, Phil Townley and Jamal Campbell-Ryce, played right and left wings respectively. Micah Richards and Lee Croft were partnered in the attacking midfield, and Shepherd was the striker. There was added buzz in the locker room before the game, as it was rumored that a scout from Newcastle United had come to watch Robert Cousins.

At home against a weak team, we were the pressuring side from the opening kick-off, but Rochdale's defense held tough through the first ten minutes, giving us few good opportunities. We were missing a lot of our veterans up front, and that final killer ball was lacking.

In the 13th minute, Graeme Law took a throw-in deep in Rochdale territory on the right side. Jamie Clarke intercepted for the visitors, and sent a long pass through the rain, over everyone. Despite three defenders back and well-positioned, Rochdale number nine Grant Holt outran them all to the ball. Mark Wright was in close attendance as he reached the arc, and Kevin Butler was rushing out, but Holt shielded Wright off the ball and shot from the eighteen, catching Butler mid-stride and it was 0-1, not the start we'd hoped for by any means.

We maintained constant pressure throughout the first half, but couldn't get any results. Our best chance may have come in the 42nd minute, when Lee Croft launched a blistering first-touch shot from the top of the arc, but it clipped the bar on its way over the net.

At halftime, I told the wings and fullbacks to begin pushing forward, and the second half was played almost entirely in the Rochdale half.

With no goal by the 65th minute, I made all three substitutions, and the fans cheered as young phenom Simon Roberts and leading scorer Robert Cousins took the field. The cheer was even louder seven minutes later, however, when Rochdale countered by putting on a 40-year-old Teddy Sheringham. He was well past his prime, but can still use that wonderful touch and his years of experience to cause trouble for an inexperienced side.

Despite the creative presence of my two young starlets, we still couldn't penetrate the stalwart Rochdale defense, though Cousins came close twice from long range. A desperation switch to a 2-3-5 in injury time piled on yet more pressure, but the result was the same: our second straight defeat. It was poor reward for the 2,764 faithful who had braved the rain to support us.

York 0, Rochdale 1

----; Holt 13

MoM: Hughes (Rochdale MC)

Three goalless outings in a row; lack of targeted finishing was again our problem. There had been only one shot on target by either side all afternoon, and that was the game winner by Holt. Despite our tons of pressure, our shooting had gone awry every time, and I vocally expressed my displeasure with that to the lads.

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Sunday, 31st December, 2006.

After the match, we held a going-away party for those players who were stepping on from Bootham Crescent to bigger and better things. After two straight defeats and my tongue-lashing postmatch talk, you might have thought the atmosphere was down, but the news had come in that Cambridge had been hammered 4-0 by Bristol Rovers, so we remained top of the table.

The players we were bidding adieu to were Jon Shepherd, sold to Manchester City on a Supporter's Trust-record £350,000 (the club's overall record is the £950,000 transfer received from Sheffield Wednesday for Richard Cresswell back in 1998), Mark Wright, off to Inverness CT for £100,000, and Richard Fox, sold to Southampton for £85,000.

Our net wasn't as simple as summing the totals, however, as Montrose earned 25% of Shepherd's transfer fee, a mammoth sum for such a small club, and Walsall had a 20% sell-on clause on Richard Fox, while we had a friendly with Premiership side Southampton to look forward to next summer.

Still, the total sale value was £535,000, of which £427,000 accrued to the club's coffers immediately.

Jon Shepherd, SC, 19: July 2006-December 2006: 1 seasons, 19 games, 4 goals, 5 assists, 7.21

Mark Wright, DC, 19: August 2005-December 2006: 2 seasons, 48 games, 2 goals, 7.08

Richard Fox, AM RL, 17: August 2006-December 2006: 1 season, 9 games, 0 goals, 1 assist, 1 MoM, 7.00

I gave them a speech about how much we at York City were grateful for their contributions, and told the assembled group that I didn't want to stand in anybody's way, professionally: that though we as a team might miss the individuals, both on and off the pitch, that these steps up were the best thing for their budding careers, and I wouldn't have agreed the deals if I didn't think so.

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Monday, 1st January, 2007.

Before leaving for our afternoon match against Mansfield, I had the monthly meeting with the board. Despite our three-games-without-a-goal streak, they are very excited about our prospects: we're still first place in the League! I told them I'd expected our run of victories to come to an end with a few losses like this, and that it was a natural correction; we hadn't been as good as we'd been showing in November, honestly.

The recent slump of form by the top two teams had dramatically closed up the top of the table: only 5 points separated the top spot from the 8th-placed, don't-even-make-the-playoffs position. It was shaping up to be a dramatic second half of the season!

<pre class="ip-ubbcode-code-pre"> Team Pts W D L GF GA GD

1 YORK 45 14 3 7 34 21 +13

2 Cambridge 44 14 2 8 38 29 + 9

3 Boston United 43 13 4 7 32 30 +12

-----------------------------------------------

4 Leyton Orient 43 12 7 5 32 22 +10

5 Walsall 41 11 8 5 41 20 +21

6 Lincoln 41 11 8 5 34 21 +13

7 Cheltenham 41 11 8 5 31 21 +10

-----------------------------------------------

8 Bristol Rovers 40 11 7 6 34 23 +11

9 Port Vale 39 10 9 5 31 23 + 8

10 Chesterfield 37 10 7 7 37 30 + 7</pre>

Chief Financial Officer Sophie McGill was quite pleased. For the month of December, we'd earned about £50,000 on merit, plus our transfer income, which gave us a monthly net of £504,000, leaving us up three-quarters of a million for the season, with a healthy £500,000 in the club's coffers prior to our January loan payment.

Per the Supporter's Trust arrangement, most of that was released back to the club as transfer budget, leaving me with £337,000 to spend - but a reminder that we're already over the wage budget, and I won't be allowed to increase the wage bill dramatically.

I figured that made a contract renewal a shoe-in, so it came as a real slap in the face when Steve told me otherwise, and in front of the entire board!

"Listen, Ian, we've talked over your request for a contract extension, and we'd like to place that discussion on hold until the end of the season."

"What?!"

"Your current contract runs through the end of June. We'll talk extension in May after the season is over, you have my word."

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Monday, 1st January, 2007. League Two - Game 25, at Mansfield Town.

A visit to 22nd-placed Mansfield was just what the doctor ordered after two defeats, but the ten outfield players who'd been on the pitch just two days prior would be too tired to go again. Mansfield have bounced around League One and League Two since 1958, with only a one-year appearance in the Championship back in the seventies after winning the Division Two title the previous year. They narrowly missed relegation last season, coming 21st, and this season they are 22nd, four points clear of the relegation zone.

With wholesale changes, the lineup was: Kevin Butler starting for the injured Blayney in goal, with Joe Keenan, Michael Staley, Jamie Cooper, and Mark Dixon across the back four. Ian Bannister was the defensive midfielder, with John McGrath and Jon Paul McGovern, in his 50th league showing for York, providing some veteran leadership from the wings. Exhausted attacking midfielders Robert Cousins and Lee Croft were asked to start anyways, and Paul Edwards was the striker. Mansfield had opted to start their exhausted starting lineup nearly across the board: it would be an interesting test of talent versus condition.

Mansfield tried a pressing, active defense, closing down with multiple players in all areas of the pitch. No wonder their starters were so fatigued! For the first fifteen or twenty minutes, while they had fresh legs, this gave us fits - it was tough to get anything done with two defenders charging down on you.

The other aspect of their defense was some hard tackling, and by the twentieth minute, Viv Busby pointed out that Robert Cousins had picked up a knock and seemed to be limping. I couldn't risk further injury to our leading scorer and star player, so I took him off, putting Mark Goodwin on the right wing and moving McGovern up to attacking midfield.

In the 28th minute, John McGrath's pass sprang loanee Lee Croft into the area unmarked - the danger of the closing-down strategy was that it always seemed to leave somebody unmarked. Croft's shot was deflected by goalkeeper David Lucas, and trickled across the goalmouth before rolling just wide of the far post. McGovern took the corner kick, and played to to Croft. His shot was blocked, and ricocheted back wide to McGovern, who laid it back for Ian Bannister unmarked at the top of the area. The young defensive midfielder drilled it to the near post, a shot that threaded its way through three defenders and into the back of the net for a 1-0 lead!

For the most part, we were controlling the ball in midfield, but a throw-in deep down our left flank for Mansfield led to a great chance. Simon Ramsden sent it in to Chris Brown, who'd found an unmarked pocket of space just outside of the six-yard box. Butler dover to tip away his effort, and Mark Dixon cleared the rebound off the line. Andy Parkinson got the rebound on our left flank, and crossed for Kevin Warner at the opposite post. With Butler still picking himself up off the turf, Warner headed on goal, but somehow Dixon had scrambled back across the goalmouth to interpose himself between Warner and the open net. Desperate defending, but the youngster had really impressed - and his play got a counter-attack started, a beautiful 5-on-3 chance. John McGrath was the unmarked man entering the area, but he blazed it over.

In injury time of the first half, Lee Croft and Paul Mitchell went in hard for a loose ball, and both wound up writhing on the ground as the referee whistled for half-time. Physio Jeff Miller had about five minutes with Croft, but then told me he'd cracked ribs, and I'd have to change him off. Two injuries already! I put Jamal Campbell-Ryce on, and that made two wingers playing attacking midfield.

We had another 5-on-3 break early in the second half, but Campbell-Ryce struck the post from 16 yards. We were still looking in complete control, but on the 56th minute, Campbell-Ryce collided with Alex Neil, and went down clutching his knee. Our third injury of the afternoon left the Jamaican unable to continue, and I was out of midfielders of any description on my bench. I brought on young striker Simon Roberts as an attacking midfielder.

Both he and Paul Edwards were denied by Lucas's goalkeeping between the 60th and 69th minutes, and it was still a 1-0 game at the 70-minute mark. That was when Mansfield brought three pairs of fresh legs on, mostly in the attacking third, and I told the lads to hole up and play defensively, only looking for the counterattack if opportunity presented itself.

Opportunity did, in the 76th, as after a Mansfield corner kick, six York players streamed forward in the counter. Mark Goodwin's superb pass fed the unmarked McGovern into the area, but David Lucas did very well to parry the Scotsman's shot. The rebound fell directly to Mark Dixon, with a great chance at his first professional goal, but he hurried the shot and put it wide. He was absolutely kicking himself as he hurried back to get in position, but it turned out not to matter.

Two minutes later, McGovern's excellent craft and vision found Edwards with one man to beat. The striker's deft first touch made space for himself, and he slipped a cheeky shot through the keeper's legs to make the final score 2-0.

Mansfield 0, York 2

----; Bannister 29, Edwards 78

MoM: McGrath

We'd utterly controlled the match, especially in the midfield, and had peppered the Mansfield goal with shots. Hard-working John McGrath was Man of the Match, though McGovern, Dixon, or Staley might have been my choice. It was a relief to put our brief losing streak behind us, and a boost to the side's faltering morale to get a win on the road, but I was in no mood to celebrate with the prospect of being reduced to just one healthy attacking midfielder on the roster.

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Tuesday, 2nd January, 2007.

With my heart in my throat, I met with Jeff Miller to get his report on my injured players. Luckily, subbing Robert Cousins off so early had prevented any further injury, and he'd be fine with a bit of light training this week. The diagnosis of fractured ribs on Lee Croft was correct - he'd miss most of the month of January. Jamaican winger Jamal Campbell-Ryce was the worst injured of the group, with strained knee ligaments that Jeff recommended be seen by a specialist, and might keep him out for the duration of the loan arrangement, which was due to expire in mid-February.

Even the news that chairman Steve Beck was pleased with the 2-0 win couldn't quite assuage the wounds: I wasn't convinced it was worth the cost, but at least the serious injuries had happened to men in on loan, and not to our long-term prospects.

The monthly review of training helped dramatically: maybe it was the two days off for Christmas, or maybe it was the adjustments I'd made to the training schedule, but we were seeing dramatic, almost incredible improvement across the board. Defender Joe Keenan was the most improved, with a huge step forward that was unexpected for a man of his age. Michael Staley's had a similar giant improvement, which reversed a slight trend of decay, while Micah Richards broke out of a long doldrum with a huge leap forward, and Alan Navarro was similarly trending up. With more improvement than we'd seen from anyone on the team in October were Robert Cousins, Campbell-Ryce, Malcolm Parker, Phil Townley, and Thomas Carroll. Mark Dixon's fantastic play Monday was a sign of how much he'd stepped forward, and in fact he was one of the most improved players on the side, after Jamie Cooper. Mark Goodwin and Simon Roberts made big strides forward to hit their personal peaks, and Tappa Whitmore was showing his first improvement since the injury.

Making strides that would have earned note in other months, but were in fact small for the side as a whole this month were Joe Foote, Jon Paul McGovern, Marc Walton, Graeme Law, Adam Corbett, John McGrath, Liam Fontaine, and steady improver Paul Edwards. Among the goalkeepers, Alan Blayney had made the biggest improvement he'd had since joining the club. He seemed to have resolved whatever issue was slowing his progress before, and youngster Colin Hart was making rapid progress as well.

In other news, Arsenal striker Thierry Henry was named World Footballer of the Year. Despite his fantastic performances in the World Cup and Champions League, Roque Santa Cruz really missed out on the major awards, though he did collect third place in the European Striker of the Year balloting.

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