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Sharpening a Rusty Blade

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Tuesday, 6th September, 2005.

Italy was wonderful! My friend Stan's parents have a vacation home in Tarcento, which is a small town near Udine, and they'd offered for us to go stay there, which we'd done once before. Its a small, sleepy town, and it felt immeasurably good to kick up our heels, drink some wine on the porch overlooking the small vinyard, and generally pass the time in each other's company. My work had been all-consuming since the first of July - lots of late nights, working the phones with agents and other clubs - and it was the first time I'd had to relax since our honeymoon.

Saturday, I watched the day's World Cup Qualifiers. Of course the Italian television was showing the Scotland-Italy match, which they were billing as 'the crucial match' despite the Italian's six-point lead over the Scots. The match was a pretty dull, boring affair, unless you like defense: a 0-0 draw with few chances. Elsewhere in Group 5, Slovenia beat Norway 2-1 to stake a firm claim to third place, and draw within three points of the Scots.

Group 6's marquee matchup was England against Wales in a sold-out Millennium Stadium, where almost 70,925 fans saw Jermain Defoe score a brace in the first half and put England safely through, 2-0.

Northern Ireland beat last-placed Azerbaijan 3-1. Poland beat Austria 3-0, their fourth win in a row, which leapfrogged them ahead of the Austrians and in to third place. They are three points behind Wales, though the Welsh have a game in hand.

In Group 4, France pounded the Faroe Islands 8-1 behind a hat-trick by David Trezeguet. The win moved them four points ahead of idle Ireland. Israel upset Switzerland 2-1 in Basel, which would help the Irish safety net.

On Sunday, Stacy and I made the jaunt down to Venice, the third visit there for each of us, though our first had been not with each other. We love it so much we made masks in the Venetian style as our wedding guest-gifts.

Stacy is a semi-professional photographer, and some of her best work is taken in Venice - though she wasn't "working" on our vacation, she'd brought a camera of course. We had dinner at our favorite restaurant, an elegant place on a small courtyard a little ways off the main tourist pathways.

Today we spent the morning quietly lounging around the house, though we did have to pack and lock the place up, leaving for our long train-ride home by mid-day.

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Wednesday, 7th September, 2005.

I returned to Bootham Crescent to learn that Liam Fontaine had twisted an ankle in training, and would have to miss most of September. Fortunately, Mark Wright had recovered from his injury, and David Stockdale had recovered from his, but it seemed we were doomed to have a goalkeeper and a central defender on the 'injured' list at all times this season.

The Reserve side continued their unbeaten campaign with a 2-0 victory at Bury. David Stockdale kept a clean sheet in a tune-up start after his rib injury, and improving winger Adam Corbett played well in his first Reserve start. The goals were an own-goal by one of Bury's players, and a rebound and tap-in by amateur Steve Collier.

I'd made an offer to right winger Graham Allen, one more of our trialists, but after one last Reserve tie, he told me he was accepting an offer from Harrow Borough down in the Ithsmian Premier League.

"I've really enjoyed working with you," he assured me, "And I think you've got a good thing going, but they've offered me a key place in the club, to start almost every match, and I think that'll be better for my career than lingering behind Jon Paul waiting for a chance."

I'll be keeping him on my shortlist, that's for sure!

In the day's World Cup Qualifying, Poland continued their incredible run with their fifth straight victory, a 5-2 pounding of second-placed Wales in Chorzow, though to be fair to the Dragons it was an even game at 2-2 until Ryan Giggs was sent off in the 69th minute.

In Belfast, England started a somewhat under-strength side, and nearly paid for their hubris when Northern Ireland scored first, and held a 1-0 lead through the 80th minute! England substitute Ledley King equalized in the 83rd, to make the final score 1-1, but it was two points dropped which the side could have sorely used. Austria continued their stumble of form, managing a meagre 1-1 draw with Azerbaijan.

                 Pts   W  D  L   GD  GP
1 England         18   5  3  0  +12   8
2 Wales           15   5  0  3  + 8   8
3 Poland          15   5  0  4  + 4   9
4 Austria         11   3  2  3  - 4   8
5 N.Ireland       10   3  1  4  - 4   8
6 Azerbaijan       2   0  2  7  -16   9

Group 4 saw the upset of the day in Dublin, as goals by Roy Keane and Clinton Morrison put Ireland ahead of France 2-1, and they held on through a desperate final ten minutes after Stephen Carr was sent off. The famous victory left them only a single point behind the French, and put the 49,735 faithful at Lansdowne Road into a frenzied celebration!

Israel continued their good run of form with a 3-0 victory in the Faroe Islands, while Switzerland won on the road 2-1 against Cyprus.

                 Pts   W  D  L   GD  GP
1 France          19   6  1  1  +22   8
2 Ireland         18   6  0  2  +10   8
3 Switzerland     13   4  1  3  + 1   8
4 Cyprus          12   4  0  4  + 4   8
5 Israel          10   3  1  5  -10   9
6 Faroe Islands    1   0  1  8  -27   9

Group 5 got interesting when 4th-place Norway scuttled Scotland, 3-1, in Oslo. The game could have been worse for the Scots, as it was 3-0 after 47 minutes, but Norway was content to sit back from that point, and Stephen Pearson got one back for the Scottish pride late in the game.

Italy beat Belarus 2-0 to assure their progression as group champions - the first team to do so. Third placed Slovenia missed an opportunity to draw level with the Scots when they drew with bottom feeders Moldova, 1-1.

                 Pts   W  D  L   GD  GP
1 Italy        Q  22   7  1  0  +14   8
2 Scotland        13   4  1  3  + 1   8
3 Slovenia        11   3  2  3  - 2   8
4 Norway           9   2  3  3  - 1   8
5 Belarus          6   1  3  4  - 5   8
6 Moldova          4   0  4  4  - 7   8

In the remaining groups, the Czech Republic looked set to advance ahead of Romania, with Holland on the verge of elimination; Denmark led Turkey, with Greece eliminated; Russia led from Latvia, though Portugal could overtake the plucky Latvian side for second; Spain led from Belgium; and Bulgaria led from Iceland and Sweden. Germany, of course, as hosts were already qualified.

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Saturday, 10th September, 2005. Conference National - Match 4, vs Northampton.

We were back to work on Saturday.

The scouting report said that 6th-placed Northampton prefer a direct attacking 4-4-2 formation, and are a 'determined team'. Their attack's speed is fairly slow, which is lucky considering our weaknesses in that area defensively, while they have a combative and hard-working midfield.

With the exception of two injury substitutions, my lineup remained static. David Stockdale returned in goal. Paul Parkin was at left back. Mark Wright returned in central defense with Michael Staley, while ironman Graeme Law continued his run at right back. The front six were the same as last match: Pearson, McGovern, McGrath, Whitmore, Ashington, and Bishop, all in perfect fitness after the two-week rest.

We came out the attacking side, though I had the 'conservative' version of my tactic in. Three times in the first ten minutes, my lads came close, and it was entirely against the run of play when Northampton's John Low broke up the right side on the counter. We got numbers back to defend, and he passed low to the near post, into heavy traffic. Tappa Whitmore, Gary Pearson, and Michael Staley were all marking two men about ten yards from the box, but somehow Martin Reeves got to the pass, and fed it forward to Paul Shaw. Shaw eluded Pearson and Staley, and Stockdale had no chance of a save from point-blank range. 18 minutes in, and the 0-1 deficit stunned the crowd of 1,529 into silence.

On the pitch, we still looked in complete control, but chance after chance slipped away. Whitmore and John McGrath were creating plenty of chances for Andy Bishop and Ryan Ashington, but Bishop launched one over, and Lee Harper saved one from Bishop and two from Ashington.

After having their backs to the wall for most of the half, Northampton were grateful for a respite when when they earned a corner just moments before the intermission. The kick came relatively short, and James Hibburt gathered it in the box, launching a hit-and-hope shot into traffic from 10 yards out. The ball deflected off of Jon Paul McGovern, and slipped just inside the post to make the halftime score 0-2!!

I felt both McGovern and Hibburt were hard done by when the official scorer ruled that an 'own goal', as there was hardly any way McGovern could have been adjudged in control of it.

With a two goal deficit, I told the lads to push forward to find a reply, and it was a nice run by Paul Parkin which led to our first chance. The left back pushed well up the sideline before sending in a cross from about 30 yards out. Northampton's defense could do no more than head it behind, and McGovern went to take the resulting corner. It was headed back out by defender Tom Youngs, but McGovern collected it and sent another cross in. It bounced twice, skipping past everybody across the 6-yard line - except for defender Michael Staley, who was making a far post run. With time and space, he slammed it home to the lower-right corner, and his first-ever professional goal trimmed the deficit to 1-2 with 35 minutes remaining!

Northampton clamped down to defend, and on 75 minutes, still needing a goal, I sent on Levent Yalçin for Mark Wright, returning to the dreaded 3-5-2 formation. Watching it in play, it was clear that the 'wide' defenders in it were moving too far out, leaving only one man in the centre - that might be something I could rectify, I thought.

However, it also created some chances up front. Whitmore took a curling shot from 20 yards, but it curled just over the bar. Ryan Ashington tried a crashing drive from almost 30 yards, with the same result.

Finally, in injury time, substitute winger Darren Dunning broke up the left side, and sent the cross in. Mark Rawle, also in off the bench, was wide open to control it, and launched his shot from 16 yards...

... only for Harper to make a diving catch, denying him, and preserving the 1-2 scoreline.

York 1, Northampton 2

Shaw 18, McGovern o.g. 45; Staley 55

MoM: Low (Northampton MR)

I didn't understand it. We'd dominated the match, but had we just gotten unlucky, or was there something more serious wrong with my tactic?

We were winning games easily enough on the road, but hadn't managed a single point at home!

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Monday, 12th September, 2005.

The loss dropped us down to 10th, roughly in the middle of the pack, though behind all the other teams with 6 points due to our minus-two goal differential. Tamworth finally surrendered first place to Carlisle, who beat them 0-2 at Tamworth's Lamb Ground.

On Sunday, York Under-18's fought back from a halftime deficit to defeat Morecambe 2-1 on goals by amateurs Chris Simpson and Steve Collier. 16-year-old central defender Darren Hollingsworth was Man of the Match, and the scoreline could have been much worse but for some awful finishing by the Bootham Crescent side. It isn't the same squad that won the title last year, and in fact only Hollingsworth remains from that side, but they are sitting in third, tied for the lead with 7 points after three matches.

Gary Pearson broke his nose in training - he took an elbow from Ryan Ashington, apparently - but the gritty veteran vowed that it shouldn't keep him from any matches.

Monday evening, Viv came up to talk to me about Paul Robinson, who apparently has become convinced that his dream of a professional football career is over. I suppose it must be difficult when you are publicly trolled on the transfer list for over a year, and nobody is willing to take you on, but I'm sure thats based on his current salary, not his innate talent.

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Friday, 16th September, 2005.

The Champions League group play got underway Tuesday, and Newcastle United started their campaign at home against Inter Milan. After a hard-fought contest, they lost 1-2, which had to be a disappointing start for them. Arsenal traveled to Rome for their opening tie, where they suffered a comprehensive 1-3 defeat at the hands of Roma. Rangers opened with a 1-1 draw at home against FC København.

Wednesday night, Chelsea beat Rosenborg 1-0 in Norway, but the headline match was Manchester United against Cup holders Juventus at Old Trafford. A sellout crowd watched a stellar, flowing match that saw 27 shots between the two sides, but brilliant play by keepers Gianluigi Buffon and Leo Franco kept it to a 0-0 draw. The Argentina 'keeper had been bought by Manchester United for £14.5M over the off-season, and had certainly showed why he commanded a prince's ransom on this day!

Wednesday was also the night for our Reserve match, and they had what we expected to be a stiff challenge from fourth-placed Scarborough Reserves. They handled it easily, 3-0, behind a pair of goals from Man of the Match Paul Robinson, and one from Robbie Haw. I was pleased for Paul, especially if it could help revive his hopes, but was very concerned by the performance put in by young Joe Foote, who'd had at least half a dozen chances, and couldn't put a single shot on target.

That was followed by the U-18 side's match Friday afternoon in Wrexham. Daryl Peters conceded a penalty on 65 minutes, which put us behind 0-1, but earned redemption with a free kick ten minutes later. Amateur striker Chris Simpson scored the winner in the waning moments, and we won 2-1. That left both our U-18 and our Reserve side in first place in their respective groups, each unbeaten. If only I could do as well with the senior side!

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Saturday, 17th September, 2005. Conference National - Match 5, at Aldershot.

Aldershot, like Northampton, play a direct 4-4-2 formation, and have what Gary Lloyd calls a 'determined side'. Their attack is quick, and their midfield is creative, and all told that would sound like a recipe for another defeat save for two things. One, we're on the road, where our 'road warriors' were undefeated, and two, the 'Shots were down in 17th place.

The lineup remained fairly static yet again: Stockdale in goal, with Parkin, Staley, Wright, and Law across the back. Gary Pearson wasn't yet 100%, but he's my only option for the defensive midfield role, and started the match with a hard plastic mask over his mending nose. McGovern, McGrath, Whitmore, and Ashington would be the core of the attack, while I called on young Turkish striker Levent Yalçin for his second start of the year.

It was the quickest start to a match I'd yet seen: from the opening kickoff, John McGrath ranged up the left side, centering it to Yalçin in the box. With two defenders sliding at him the Turk teed it up perfectly for Theodore Whitmore, and only a fantastic save by Nikki Bull kept us off the score sheet!

Aldershot settled down quickly, and in fact the home side seemed to generate more chances in the early game, but they hardly looked dangerous: their shots went wide, their attackers seemed slow, and several times they lost control on the dribble.

Right around the 24 minute mark, we earned a free kick about 35 yards from goal. Gary Pearson took it - full face nose-guard and all - and played it into the box for Yalçin. The Turk passed right for McGrath. The Irishman faked a shot, and put it left again to Jon Paul McGovern. The Scotsman shot from 12 yards, and his shot caromed off of defender Phil Warner and past Bull, putting us ahead 1-0.

Aldershot came forward more, and began to look more dangerous. Nick Crittenden sent a fine headed pass across the goalmouth, but there was nobody on the receiving end to finish it. A free kick from out wide found Tim Sills at the six-yard box, but his header went wide. Graeme Law was playing a fine game for us defensively, and made several key challenges, keeping the hosts at bay through halftime.

I kept the same tactic into the second half, and Paul Parkin's long ball put Yalcin into the box and past the last defender. You could hear the crowd sigh as one in relief when his shot went horribly wide.

Before I knew it, an hour was gone, then seventy-five minutes, and it began to look like a single goal was all we would need. In the dying minutes, Aldershot moved to a 2-3-5 formation, desperately trying to get the equalizer. I countered by bringing on the speedy Mark Rawle, and hoping for a fortuitous long ball. In the 78th, however, it was Roscoe D'Sane who broke past OUR defense, and only a fine save by David Stockdale preserved the lead.

At the 89th minute, Luke Walker found a seam in our central defense, and powered a shot on goal from 16 yards. Stockdale tipped it over, and when Michael Staley headed the resultant corner kick clear, it fell to Mark Rawle one-on-one with a very lonely Aldershot defender. He juked past his man, and dribbled almost 60 yards, but when it came time to finish, he put the shot over!

Full time blew after an agonizing 4:21 of stoppage time, and we had our third win.

Aldershot 0, York 1

----; McGovern 25

MoM: Stockdale

David Stockdale earned Man of the Match honors for several fine saves in the second half, though the honor could just as easily have gone to Graeme Law.

But the best moment of the night was seeing Paul Robinson's face when Viv told him, "I heard there was a scout here tonight, to see you."

Sure, my wily assistant didn't tell him it was from semi-pro Kendal Town down at the regional level, but the 24-year-old's face lit up.

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Apologies for the delay: its been a bit of a hectic week-and-a-half at work. Left me too fatigued to give you the quality I expect of myself. To make up for it, I'll be giving you two matches per evening instead of one for a few days - but that will be followed by a week-long sabbatical.

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Monday, 19th September, 2005.

That put us back into the top five - this early in the season, our alternating pattern of wins and losses had our league position changing like a yo-yo. For his performance in the match, Jamaican star Tappa Whitmore earned his first Conference Team of the Week honour of the season.

Sunday evening, the Reserves beat Crawley Reserves 1-0 on the road. Goalkeeper Gareth Gray earned Man of the Match honours for a number of fine second-half saves, after replacing Craig Saunders at halftime. The unlucky Saunders had injured a thumb in his first start following his calf strain. Mark Rawle, getting some action to work on his finishing, scored the game-winner in the 89th minute.

We had two unfortunate incidents in training this week. On Sunday, as 16-year-old central defender Darren Hollingsworth collided with John McGrath. Hollingsworth tore a groin muscle, which would rule him out for four months, but McGrath merely strained his wrist, which might rule him out of a single match. Then today, Reserve striker Robbie Haw broke three ribs in a second collision.

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Wednesday, 21st September, 2005.

The scout from Kendal Town must have liked what he'd seen in Paul Robinson, and the semi-pro side came back to us today with an offer to take him on loan for three months. I was quite glad to see the 24-year-old's career get back on track, as I hadn't wanted to be the ogre that had run him out of professional football. They were willing to cover half his salary for the period. Best from my perspective was that the deal would end shortly before the January transfer window, and my last chance to sell him.

Later, the York Reserves suffered their worst result of the season, a 0-0 draw against Torquay Reserves that put the first blemish on a previously unbeaten, untied season. 16-year-old goalkeeper Kevin Butler started in place of Saunders, and earned Man of the Match.

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Saturday, 24th September, 2005. Conference National - Match 6, vs Stevenage.

A home match against 19th-placed Stevenage seemed like the right recipe for breaking our unlucky streak at Bootham Crescent. A scout from Chesterfield was in the stands amongst the crowd of 1,269, reportedly to check out 19-year-old goalkeeper David Stockdale.

The side were in fine spirits, with Stockdale still in goal, Parkin, Staley, Wright, and Law across the back four, and Pearson returned to full health at the defensive midfield slot. Darren Dunning would replace the injured McGrath at left wing opposite McGovern, with Whitmore and Ashington continuing in their attacking midfield roles. Andy Bishop returned to start at striker. The bench had a few changes, with Adam Arthur and Marc Schofield prepared to make their season debuts if I brought them on.

We had the first chance, as Ryan Ashington launched a 20-yarder that curled over the bar about twelve minutes in. It had me thinking, maybe we were taking too many long shots; I'd work on that next week in training.

In the 14th minute, Michael Staley headed a Stevenage corner out of the box. Tappa Whitmore and Graeme Law both closed on it, and then appeared to decide to let the other have it. Maheta Molango stepped in, dribbled past Law, and launched a cross into the box. Stevenage defender Neil Wainwright took the ball on the bounce and shot, and just that quickly we were 0-1 down.

I switched to our 'aggressive' tactic immediately. Molango was having a great game, and but for a desperation tackle from Mark Wright would have made it two-nil just three minutes later.

Six minutes after the goal, Stevenage had a corner kick, which Law headed clear. Whitmore picked it up and dribbled upfield until he spotted Andy Bishop's run. Bishop had beaten Wainwright, and the Jamaican put a long ball into his path. Last year's leading scorer ran it down, and dribbled into the box. He was right on the penalty spot when Steve Croudson began charging out, and Bishop drilled it past him. That equalized the scores at 1-1 on 21 minutes, and opened Bishop's tally for the season.

It was a fairly wide-open game at that point! Again Molango created trouble for us, this time sprinting down the right sideline past Paul Parkin. He floated a low cross into the six-yard box. David Stockdale punched it clear, but Stevenage left back Paddy Kelly had made a long run up the left sideline, and was there to collect it about three yards from the by-line and well wide of the goal. I think everybody in the stadium expected him to cut it back for one of his forwards, but instead he shot from an impossible angle. Stockdale was caught by surprise, and couldn't react in time to stop it. 1-2, and not even halftime yet!

Worse, I had to bring off Tappa Whitmore, as he'd picked up a bit of a knock, and it seemed to be hampering his running. George Boyd nearly added a third before halftime, and then we took another crushing blow: left wing Darren Dunning thought he'd cracked a rib, and was forced to come off as well. That meant debutantes Adam Arthur and Marc Schofield would both be on the field through the entire second half - not exactly the situation I'd hoped to bring them on for!

A great save by Stockdale early in the second half got the crowd back into it, and on 52 minutes, Schofield showed a flash of his promise with a great dribble up the left. Our counter-attack had Stevenage's defense outnumbered, and Schofield's pass led Bishop into the box. He fired - and his strike clipped the bar as it went over!

Stevenage fell back to an all-out defense at that point, and for all that I could do - even the change to the 3-5-2 with Mark Rawle on for Parkin, we couldn't seem to generate any sort of chances. The final minutes of injury time ticked away without even a promising buildup, and we were sent down to our third defeat.

York 1, Stevenage 2

Bishop 21; Wainwright 14, Kelly 31

MoM: Goodlife (Stevenage DC)

The mood in the locker room was almost confused, rather than disappointed. We just couldn't seem to generate any offense once we'd fallen behind, even to a weak side like Stevenage.

After a brief chat with the lads - the old "Its a long season, one loss hardly matters" stand-by - I ducked into the physio's room to check on our injured players.

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Wednesday, 28th September, 2005.

Jeff Miller's report consisted of entirely good news. Darren Dunning's rib was merely bruised, and Tappa was entirely uninjured. In fact, the Jamaican playmaker was disappointed with me for bringing him off the pitch.

Miller also told me that central defender Liam Fontaine would be returning to full training this week, after missing most of the month, and he had cleared left winger John McGrath to practice as well.

I've never been so happy after a conversation with a physio!

Viv and I spent all of Sunday afternoon working on tactical adjustments. We decided to leave our 'conservative' and 'aggressive' formations fairly alone, as they've been useful as they are against teams which aren't playing defensively: they create a very fast counter-attacking style of play. The only change we made was to institute the offside trap for both.

We began working on another version of the 'aggressive' formation, calling it the 'patient buildup' version, which emphasized a shorter passing game and a slower tempo, with the idea being to find gaps in a locked-down defense rather than try to create counterattacks against an over-extended side. We also worked on a 'patient buildup' version of the 3-5-2 with the same ideas. Neither new formation would suit the pace of a Mark Rawle, but they might do well with the creativity of a Tappa Whitmore.

I spent the better part of the week trying to work out some loan deals, but it seemed everybody I was interested in, either the team rejected my offer, or the player had no intention of coming to such a small venue. Talented youngster or veteran languishing in the Reserves, no player seemed to rate York very highly.

I took a break Tuesday night to watch the Champions League, but honestly the English games were a mite boring. Chelsea, at home, struggled through a scoreless draw with Sporting Club Portugal. Milan beat Rosenborg 2-1, giving them six points and group lead ahead of Chelsea's four.

In Athens, Manchester United limited Panathinaikos to 3 shots, none of which were on target, but couldn't put one through themselves; they, too, wound up with a scoreless draw. Italian champions Juventus beat Club Brugge 3-0 in Italy, which leapfrogged them ahead of the Belgians into the group lead on 4 points to 3, with United down in third on 2 points.

On Wednesday, there were some strange results. Lyon embarrassed Rangers 4-0, a defeat which left the Scots bottom of the table with only 1 point.

Newcastle United defeated Czech club Banik Ostrava 2-0, but could only look at the scoreboard in amazement when they saw that Inter Milan had defeated Olympiakos 7-0.

Arsenal hammered Fenerbahçe 6-0, moving to second behind Roma, who drew 1-1 with Ajax.

Wednesday night was also our Reserve match against Morecambe Reserves. McGrath and Fontaine both got starts to try and recover their match fitness. McGrath showed incredible craft and vision in creating the goal, sending a long ball into the run of speedy Daryl Peters. Fontaine played well, making several key tackles, and 16-year-old Kevin Butler distinguished himself in goal, including a key save in the final minutes. With several ringers, the side won 1-0 to retain their group lead.

Unfortunately, Peters injured his neck, which would see him out for about a week.

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Friday, 30th September, 2005.

I've been working the phones for two months, looking for loan deals, and it finally paid dividends. Liverpool striker Neil Mellor - whose fetching price was estimated at around £1.9M - capped off an excellent week for York City FC by agreeing to join the side for the remainder of the season. Striker wasn't a position I had felt was truly a 'need' going into the summer, but we had been struggling to score so far. The 22-year-old represented a solid upgrade over any of our current starters, and my tactics do seem to burn through two strikers in a given match, which makes depth at the position a luxury. Besides, it would free up Levent Yalçin to see some action from the attacking midfield position. Mellor would wear the coveted number 9, vacant since Lee Nogan had left the side.

SC Neil Mellor, 22, English: This determined striker has considerable talent already, certainly more than our average striker does. Not as fast as some, he has excellent aerial ability, good finishing, and his combination of positioning and teamwork should make him a key figure in our offense for the duration of the year. He's not quite ready for the Premier League, but I'd rate him at about Championship quality.

The poor luck Madrid teams were having in European competition continued on Thursday, when Atletico Madrid was held to a scoreless draw by Israeli side Maccabi Haifa in the UEFA Cup first round. The Israelis had beaten them in the first leg 3-1, and so Atletico were eliminated. Real Madrid, though surely not in the tournament they'd hoped to be, did advance.

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Saturday, 1st October, 2005.

The monthly board meeting was a bit surreal. The board remain pleased with my performance on the pitch, and in fact Chairman Steve Beck seemed happier than our results should dictate. He was ebullient, perhaps even a bit manic about our prospects, and waxed enthusiastic about new striker Neil Mellor lighting up the league. A bit premature, as the lad hasn't even taken the pitch for us yet!

In stark contrast to the feel-good session with Beck was the nuts-and-bolts session with Chief Financial Officer Sophie McGill. The books were stunningly depressing: we had run a loss of £75,000 last month, putting us down £68,000 for the season, and net £186,000 underwater - and that's not counting our £2M bank loan, the payments on which are quietly bleeding us dry. The wage budget was in better shape, only £22,000 p/a over, but all told we were hemorrhaging money at an alarming rate, especially with the inexplicably low attendances we'd had to date this season.

"Win," she told me. "Either we need to sell off most of the players, or we need to promote to the Leauge and earn a higher revenue, but this current revenue structure is killing us slowly."

The coaches' report on training was fairly disturbing. There were some players seeing improvement, most notably Robbie Haw and Craig Shaw, and to a lesser extent Mark Goodwin and Jamie Cooper, all of whom were lesser fringe players for the side. Some players I had high hopes for had taken steps back, Mark Wright understandably due to his injury, but also Adam Corbett, and even worse Levent Yalçin. Left back Kevin West had the worst drop-off, and overall it felt to me like those losing ground outweighed the slight gains we'd made.

A quick review of my training schedules spotted the problem: last month, I'd directed the coaching staff to switch over to the regular season training schedules, but had neglected to instruct the players to make the same change. Consequently, all my position players had been training for a few weeks without the instruction of my coaching staff!

I pulled Viv into a side room and gave him an earful - that's exactly the sort of mistake I expect my Assistant Manager to prevent me from making, and he hadn't so much as mentioned it to me. At least it was corrected now.

The one big positive was the overall feeling about Neil Mellor - he is much better than anybody on the side currently, in all aspects of the game.

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Saturday, 1st October, 2005. Conference National - Match 7, vs Morecambe.

Morecambe reside in first place, and worse, we're at home, where the 'Curse of Bootham Crescent' is becoming the stuff of legend in the local papers.

"We haven't won at home since selling Steve Davis and Lee Nogan, the heart and soul of the side, this summer," is a constant refrain, as is "Haven't won at home since April."

Gary Lloyd cautions that the league leaders are a determined team, and that their attack is strong and quick. That's okay - I have new tactics to try out, and a new striker who may outclass anything they can throw out to stop him.

The lineup was very predictable: Stockdale in goal, with Parkin, Staley, Wright, and Law across the back. Pearson is at defensive midfield, with Dunning and McGovern on the left and right wings, respectively. Tappa and Ryan Ashington held the supporting attacker roles, and new signing Neil Mellor made his York debut up front. John McGrath and Liam Fontaine were both available from the bench, as was the speedster Mark Rawle.

It seemed, for the first twenty-five minutes, like an even match, with chances at both ends, but as the half wore on, we came in more and more control. Mellor looked very dangerous, winning many a ball, but nobody had found a way to get him that killer pass to let his striking talents show. For a while it appeared that the most notable feature of the first half would be the six yellow cards, five in a 16 minute period! John Pearce clearly looked up to Rob Styles in the school of refereeing discipline.

I couldn't argue with his card for Iain Swan at the 42nd minute, though, as a long ball upfield saw Mellor leap to head it down for Tappa Whitmore, only to have Swan hack his legs out from under him! It was only 25 yards from goal, and straight down the center of the pitch. Ryan Ashington lined it up, and launched a powerful shot which deflected off off the wall, and past the wrong-footed goalkeeper Ryan Robinson for a 1-0 lead!

Morecambe pushed right back up the field, sending eight men forward for a corner kick shortly before the half, and Whitmore headed it clear. Ashington dribbled for a moment, but then passed back to Whitmore. As the central defenders challenged him, the Jamaican spotted Mellor running into the vacant center, kept onside by the fullbacks. A perfect ball led the Liverpool man, and he dribbled into the box with only the keeper to beat. He fired from 15 yards, a rifled blast that no Conference keeper could deny. He'd scored on his York debut, and we had the league leaders down 2-0 at halftime!

Morecambe pushed forward throughout the second half, desperately trying to find a way through our defense, but our youngsters were up to every trick, and the counter-attack - of course I'd reverted to it at halftime - looked increasingly dangerous. On the 60th minute, Mellor worked his way to the right corner, and sent in a cross which Ashington headed just wide. At 65 minutes, Mellor's header from 8 yards was narrowly tipped over by Robinson.

Finally, at 77 minutes, Morecambe earned a free kick deep in our territory. Eight men came forward, which meant that when Graeme Law headed the free kick clear, we already had numbers on their back line. A 5-on-3 rush ensued, with the keeper waiting. Whitmore put it left to Darren Dunning, who launched a one-touch long pass with his left foot. Ashington outran the last defender to track it down, and he slammed it home for his second of the game, and a resounding 3-0 scoreline!

The visitors retreated to a more defensive formation, concerned more with their goal differential than attempting an improbable comeback, and the remaining time expired with just one further chance, which Mark Rawle put over the bar during injury time.

York 3, Morecambe 0

Ashington 42, 78, Mellor 44; ----

MoM: Ashington

Our leading scorer Ryan Ashington was named Man of the Match, the first time the 22-year-old had been so honoured in his career, though of course Neil Mellor had been electrifying and could easily have earned it himself. A second half injury to Gary Pearson concerned me, but for now I just wanted to soak up the reggae celebration, and feel what a weight it had taken off my shoulders to finally win at home.

And what a win! We hadn't just beaten the first-place team, we'd dominated them, limiting them to a mere 2 shots, both in the first half!

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Sunday, 2nd October, 2005.

Our victory dropped Morecambe down to second, behind Carlisle, with Tamworth third. We were up to 7th, one point behind the playoff spots, and the only remaining team in the top 18 without a draw.

                  Pts   W  D  L   GD  GP
1 Carlisle        15   4  3  0  + 9   7
2 Morecambe       14   4  2  1  + 4   7
3 Tamworth        13   3  4  1  + 7   8
4 Canvey Island   13   4  1  2  + 6   7
5 Northampton     13   4  1  2  + 4   7
6 Dag & Red       12   3  3  1  + 7   7
7 YORK            12   4  0  3  + 1   7

The board were surprisingly nonchalant about the win, but I was ecstatic. I'd run the base 'conservative' model of my 4-5-1, and I wondered if the minor tweaks I'd made to it were responsible, or if Neil Mellor was that big of an impact player, or if maybe things were just coming together for us.

That feeling didn't extend to the Under-18 side today, as they were toppled from their first-place perch in Mansfield, 0-2. My 'patient buildup' formation got its first test in battle, as I used it after both Mansfield goals came in the first half, but the amateurs at the front of my youth side weren't able to make it work. The only bright spot was the play of amateur DMC Jamie Withe, who earned Man of the Match.

We did pick up another loan signing, this time Blackpool right wing Neil Danns. He has the versatility to play well on either the wing or the attacking midfielder roles that my tactic relies on, and with the prevalence of weeks in which we had two matches last season, I needed more than just Whitmore, Ashington, and Foote able to cover the attacking roles.

AM RC Neil Danns, 22, England, uncapped:

14 appearances, 4 goals, 0 assists, 7.14 last season with Carlisle:

Pacey, fit, and agile, the youngster is also very good off the ball, works hard, and shows some real flair in his game. His lack of composure and concentration prevent him from contributing at the level Blackpool would require, so he has spent the past three seasons out on loan to a succession of clubs: Hartlepool, Peterborough, Carlisle, Macclesfield, and now York City.

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Tuesday, 4th October, 2005.

Tappa Whitmore again was selected to the Conference Team of the Week, which I felt was a bit harsh on Ryan Ashington, whose two goals did not earn selection.

On Monday, 18-year-old right back Nathan Kamara strained his knee ligaments in training, and he'll be out at least a month. Our Reserve side suffered another blow on Tuesday, when attacking midfielder Joe Foote suffered a fractured jaw, which would keep him out for the balance of October.

While those two were recovering, we did sign a defensive midfielder, Malcolm Parker, who had been unable to find a home thus far this season.

DM C Malcolm Parker, 18, England, uncapped:

Pacey and determined, Parker also has reasonable passing and teamwork. However, he is ludicrously abysmal in many aspects of the game: his crossing, dribbling, heading, long shots, work off the ball, and composure are all so poor as to barely qualify as professional. I don't expect him to perform on the pitch this season - there's a reason he hadn't found a club before now - but I didn't have any backups qualified to play the position if Gary Pearson should be injured, so Parker found a home.

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Wednesday, 5th October, 2005. Conference National - Match 8, at Dagenham and Redbridge.

We hadn't strung together consecutive victories all season, and we would try to break that pattern on the road against 6th-placed Dagenham and Redbridge. The Glyn Hopkin Stadium is just west of London, so it was a long drive south, but we'd won every road match of the season thus far, and morale was superb on the bus.

There were a few changes in my lineup. David Stockdale remained in goal. Paul Parkin remained at left back, while Liam Fontaine rejoined the lineup with Mark Wright in the centre, and Graeme Law of course remained on the right. Gary Pearson, too, had started every match thus far. John McGrath returned to the lineup to start at left wing, while Jon Paul McGovern would handle the right wing. Neil Danns would make his debut attacking alongside Ryan Ashington, which left Whitmore on the bench. Neil Mellor would start again up front.

Dagenham made a fine start in the 14th minute. Glen Southam sent a nice pass out left for Paul Schneider, who dribbled to the corner, and then sent the cross in. It looked like curling into the net, but David Stockdale dove backwards and deflected it clear, falling to the turf. Captain Matthew Bradbury was there to head it into the open goal, but somehow he found the post, and the rebound fell to the feet of Liam Fontaine, who was able to clear.

I hadn't even finished the sigh of relief when the home side were back at our goalmouth. Micky Preston had it on the right side, and drew Gary Pearson to him, then passed to the center for Southam. As Fontaine rushed out to play Southam, he sent a one touch pass into the space the defender had vacated, where Chris Moore was onside and clear into the box. Moore dribbled around Stockdale, and though the keeper got one hand on it, he couldn't knock it from the striker's control, and Moore did not miss this open net. Merely 15 minutes in, and we trailed 0-1.

Neil Mellor put one just over the bar about six minutes later, but by the 30th minute, it was clear both that Dagenham were playing a much more defensive outlook, and that they had pace to spare in the midfield. I switched to my 'patient buildup' 4-5-1, committing more people to the attack but going more slowly in the buildup as well - the competitive debut for the new strategy. Moore nearly scored a second on the 38th minute, but his shot from 16 yards was pushed away by Stockdale. At halftime, it remained 0-1.

Through the second half, we kept the pressure on, but couldn't seem to beat Mark Ovendale in the Dag & Red net. Ryan Ashington had a 16-yard effort saved, then McGovern found McGrath in acres of space, but somehow Ovendale tipped over his shot from 8 yards.

I switched to the 3-5-2 patient buildup tactic by the 80th minute, bringing Andy Bishop and Tappa Whitmore on for Parkin and Danns. Bishop's laser strike drew another fine save from the keeper, while Whitmore's best effort came in injury time, but went just over. Finally, Ashington's desperation 20-yard attempt was caught at the post by Ovendale, and the referee blew full time.

Dag & Red 1, York 0

Moore ; ----

MoM: Ovendale (Dag & Red GK)

We had generated plenty of chances, and put half of them on target, with the debut of my 'patient buildup' tactic. We'd just run into a Man of the Match performance from the Dagenham goalkeeper Mark Ovendale.

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Sunday, 9th October, 2005.

Eight games, four wins, four losses. In the States, we call that ".500 ball", winning half and losing half. With all the draws in the league, it had us in ninth place at this point, with ten days off to follow for the final international qualifiers, though there would be some Reserve and U-18 matches in that stretch. Still, I was happy with both my new loanees and my new tactics.

Back home, the York Reserves had beaten Yeovil 3-0, with Mark Rawle scoring two goals and earning Man of the Match at the striker position, while Levent Yalçin created another goal from the less-familiar attacking midfield position, though it was scored as an own goal against one of the Yeovil players.

In the Saturday matches, the Reserves were less impressive, conceding an injury time goal to 10-man Hartlepool Reserves after building a lead on an own goal; the 1-1 tie nonetheless kept them in first place in the Reserve division. The York U-18s crushed Rochdale 3-0, with amateur Steve Collier and right wing Mark Goodwin scoring in the first ten minutes, and amateur Chris Simpson adding a third in the second half to earn Man of the Match. The resounding win reclaimed first in their 12-team division a quarter of the way through the season.

The important matches were Sunday afternoon's World Cup Qualifying games, the second-to-last of the qualifying season.

For me, it was a great opportunity - the England-Austria game was being held in Sheffield, at Hillsborough, and York City chairman Steve Beck had tickets. I'd never seen international football played at such a high level, in person, and he invited me to join his party. Oh, it was an incredible thrill, one which would make anybody a football fan for life! The crowd atmosphere was so electric, louder than anything I'd experienced in the U.S.

The game consisted of 85 scoreless minutes, but not without plenty of action in front of both goals. Austria came close a few times, and England had countless chances.

Finally, the Lions cut loose with a three-goal explosion in the final five minutes: two magical goals from David Beckham and a breakaway by Jermain Defoe, which gave them a 3-0 victory. Thrilling stuff!!

The fans watched the scoreboard as it showed the clock and score from Northern Ireland, where visiting Wales won 1-0 on a penalty scored by John Hartson to stay barely in touch with the leading side, three points down on England with one game to play.

Elsewhere, in Group 1, the Czech Republic defeated Holland 2-1 to guarantee themselves first and knock the Dutch out of the Cup for the second straight tournament. Romania would finish second. In Group 2, first-placed Denmark lost at home to Greece 1-3, which kept alive a slim mathematical hope for second-placed Turkey. In Group 3, Russia won 1-0 against minnows Luxembourg, which was sufficient for the Russians to qualify as group winners.

In Group 4, France defeated Switzerland in Basel 3-1, while Ireland fell behind early in Cyprus before rallying to a 3-1 victory behind a pair of goals from Matt Holland and a third by Roy Keane. The Irish remained a single point behind France, but with the latter at home against Cyprus in the group finale, it would seem to take a miracle for them to win the group outright.

In Group 5, Scotland held a lengthy 1-0 lead against Belarus at Hampden Park thanks to Paul Gallagher. A late goal by Belarus threatened, but Steven Thompson gave the hosts a 2-1 win which guaranteed the Scots second place in the group behind the flawless Italians, who were now one match away from completing the entire qualifying schedule without conceding a goal.

In Group 7, Spain's 1-0 victory in Belgium, over the second place side, assured them of the group title. In Group 8, Bulgaria earned advancement with a 2-1 win over Hungary.

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Wednesday, 12th October, 2005.

Wednesday night was the final night of World Cup Qualifying group play. Many of the second-placed teams would be decided, and a few groups had yet to see the group winner decided. Although most of the coaching staff were all at the stadium to support our Reserve side, we had a television going up in the board's luxury box where we could 'check in' on England's progress at Villa Park, in Birmingham.

Poland, believe it or not, looked the better side, leading 0-1 through 75 minutes as England again left it to the very end of the match. But fitness and talent paid off in the end as Jermain Defoe equalized, getting England the point they needed. Then two wonderful goals by Michael Owen put the game squarely in the English court, ending the five-game Polish winning streak by a 3-1 tally.

Wales defeated Azerbaijan 2-0 to conclude the campaign with 21 points - which was enough to skip the playoffs, qualifying automatically as one of the top second-placed teams! It would be their second trip to the World Cup, and their first since 1958!!!

Northern Ireland closed out their qualifying season with a 1-0 victory in Austria, leapfrogging above the host side to finish a very respectable fourth in the group.

                     Pts    W   D   L    GD
Q  1 England          24    7   3   0   +17  
Q  2 Wales            21    7   0   3   +11  
  3 Poland           15    5   0   5   + 2  
  4 Northern Ireland 13    4   1   5   - 4  
  5 Austria          11    3   2   5   - 8  
  6 Azerbaijan        2    0   2   8   -18

In Group 5, Scotland were already guaranteed second place, and fielded a youth team in Slovenia. The youngsters lost 3-0, but would gain valuable experience for the 2010 qualifying section. Italy closed out their incredible qualifying run with a 5-0 victory against Moldova, finishing the entire section without conceding a single goal, and in fact the only blemish on their spotless record was a scoreless draw in Scotland.

Q  1 Italy            28    9   1   0   +21
Pl 2 Scotland         16    5   1   4   - 1
  3 Slovenia         14    4   2   4   - 1 
  4 Norway           12    3   3   4   + 1
  5 Belarus           9    2   3   5   - 5 
  6 Moldova           4    0   4   6   -15

In Group 4, Ireland needed a win at home against Switzerland coupled with a French loss in Paris against lowly Cyprus to take the group lead. The odds were already against them, but they failed to take care of business at home, conceding two first-half goals and losing 1-2. It turned out not to matter, as a motivated French side crushed Cyprus 6-0. Ireland's 21 points were enough to advance on merit, bypassing the playoff stage.

Q  1 France           25    8   1   1   +30
Q  2 Ireland          21    7   0   3   +11
  3 Switzerland      16    5   1   4     0
  4 Israel           13    4   1   5   - 8
  5 Cyprus           12    4   0   6   - 4
  6 Faroe Islands     1    0   1   9   -29

Group 1 had already been sorted out, though Holland won their final game to make the standings appear closer than they had been:

Q  1 Czech Republic   34   11   1   0   +35
Pl 2 Romania          26    8   2   4   +13
  3 Holland          24    8   0   4   +23
  4 Finland          17    5   2   5   - 3
  5 FYR Macedonia    10    3   1   8   -12
  6 Armenia           7    2   1   9   -19
  7 Andorra           4    1   1  10   -37

In Group 2, Denmark choked again, losing 1-0 to last placed Kazakhstan and throwing away the group lead in the final match of the qualifying season, allowing Turkey to claim the top spot with a 3-1 defeat of Albania.

Q  1 Turkey           23    6   5   1   +10
Pl 2 Denmark          22    7   1   4   + 7
  3 Georgia          21    7   0   5   + 5
  4 Ukraine          17    5   2   5   + 1
  5 Greece           15    4   3   5   - 2
  6 Kazakhstan       11    3   2   7   -12
  7 Albania           9    2   3   7   - 9

Group 3 had a classic finale with second-placed Latvia at third-placed Portugal, and a spot in the playoffs at stake. The Portugese won the match, and the place, 3-1, though Latvia kept the scores equal through the 70th minute when a draw would have seen them advance.

Q  1 Russia           31   10   1   1   +15
Pl 2 Portugal         24    8   0   4   +11
  3 Latvia           22    7   1   4   + 2
  4 Slovakia         15    4   3   5     0
  5 Estonia          14    4   2   6   - 2
  6 Liechtenstein    12    4   0   8   -11
  7 Luxembourg        4    1   1  10   -15

In Group 7, Serbia and Montenegro were even with Belgium on 15 points for the second-placed spot, but the teams fared very differently in their final matches. Serbia & Montenegro crushed Bosnia 4-0, while the Belgians struggled to a draw against lowly Lithuania.

Q  1 Spain            24    7   3   0   +19
Pl 2 Serbia & Mont.   18    5   3   2   +10
  3 Belgium          16    4   4   2   + 2
  4 Bosnia           13    3   4   3     0
  5 Lithuania         8    2   2   6   -11
  6 San Marino        3    1   0   9   -20

Group 8 had the closest finish of all, as Sweden entered the final games down in fourth place, behind Croatia and Iceland, but got the results they needed to advance, with a dramatic 3-2 come-from-behind victory against Iceland while Hungary defeated Croatia 2-1, which was not enough to get the Hungarians ahead of Sweden on goal difference. The 'live table' for the day had seen all four sides in second place at one point during the matches!

Q  1 Bulgaria         23    7   2   1   +11
Pl 2 Sweden           16    5   1   4   + 3
  3 Hungary          16    5   1   4   - 1
  4 Croatia          15    4   3   3   + 4
  5 Iceland          15    5   0   5   - 3
  6 Malta             1    0   1   9   -14

In local news, Gary Pearson was selected to the Conference Team of the Week for his performance against Dagenham and Redbridge, the first time he had earned such honours since January.

The Reserves won again, defeating Halifax Reserves 2-0 at Bootham Crescent with a side again starring a few 'ringers' from the first team. Left wing Mark Goodwin scored the first goal and earned Man of the Match honors, while back-from-injury Daryl Peters clinched the victory with a goal in the 82nd minute. 16-year-old Kevin Butler played very well in goal, making several fantastic athletic saves as he continued his march towards a spot in the senior starting lineup.

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Saturday, 15th October, 2005. Conference National, Match 9, at Hornchurch.

We would have three matches in eight days starting with 21st-placed Hornchurch, a side that had lost six straight matches. Gary Lloyd reported that they are an average side that normally plays a simple 4-4-2, though the pace of their attack may cause our slow centre backs trouble. Hornchurch are a small side - they play their home matches at The Stadium in Upminster, a borough of London.

With the senior side fully rested, I started the best XI I could field: David Stockdale in goal, with Paul Parkin, Liam Fontaine, Mark Wright, and Graeme Law across the back four. A new face would start at defensive midfield, a signing so recent he met us at The Stadium and only managed a half hour of warming up with the lads before the match. The usual suspects would play ahead of him: John McGrath at left wing, Jon Paul McGovern at right wing, Tappa Whitmore and Ryan Ashington attacking, and 2 million-pound striker Neil Mellor up front.

The late addition to the side was a player whom I had been working on bringing in on loan from Manchester United since the middle of last season! The deal finally went through, for a year-long loan, the morning of the match and I had him meet us in London.

DM C David Fox, 21, England, uncapped:

15 games, 1 goal, 2 assists, 6.40 on loan to Yeovil in League Two last season

A natural leader, influential despite his young age, with determination, bravery, composure, and teamwork to spare, Fox is young but oh-so-talented, with great potential. I would love to sign him if Sir Alex is foolish enough to let him go at the end of his contract this year, but for now I have him on a season-long contract. If he has a weakness, its in the key areas of positioning, tackling, and marking, which fail to live up to his many other talents.

It was cold and raining, the first true winter weather of the season, but we seemed to be in control from the first minute. David Fox was playing quite well on his debut, and Mellor up front clearly outclassed the defenders, though he put his first attempt over the bar.

On the 20th minute, right back Graeme Law was working up the left sideline - don't ask me why! - and sent an odd 'cross' behind the run of play. With most of the defenders worried about Ashington, Whitmore, and Mellor deep in the box, his cross found Jon Paul McGovern just outside the area. McGovern dribbled in to about 18 yards out, and then launched a curling shot which deflected off of central defender Lee Matthews and into the back of the net: 1-0, York!

The remainder of the first half seemed to bring a dozen chances: Ryan Ashington's cross found Mellor wide open at the 6-yard line, but he headed just wide. John McGrath lined up for a 19-yard free kick, but curled it over. Ashington got in the box, unmarked, but shot wide from 10 yards. Mellor broke free on a breakaway, but he too put it wide. At halftime, all I could think was that lack of that killer instinct was letting Hornchurch stick around: we'd have to work on finishing next week.

McGrath's fine pass put Whitmore into the box on a give-go just after the restart, but a great save from Mark Westhead denied the Jamaican. It was the 50th minute when my feelings of misgiving were justified, as Charlie Taylor snuck past Fontaine into the box, and then sent a cross over for Andy Robinson. Robinson shrugged off two defenders to let fly with his left foot, and Stockdale was caught a bit out of position - things were all level at 1-1.

I ratcheted up the pressure by moving to our 'aggressive' formation, which quickly forced Hornchurch back into a defensive stance. We still looked in complete control, definitely the more dangerous side, but couldn't seem to find the finish.

In the 74th minute, it was Tappa Whitmore battling for a loose ball along the end line, yards wide of goal, who finally gave us the break we needed. 17-year-old left back Daniel Young, thoroughly outclassed by the Jamaican international, stuck out his foot and brought the star down. It was a clear foul, and though it wasn't at all a dangerous location, it was technically within the penalty area, and as 2,937 Hornchurch fans groaned in dismay, Ben Butler pointed to the spot!!

Substitute Darren Dunning, who wears the captain's armband when he's on the pitch, stepped up confidently to convert it, and we held a 2-1 lead with only 15 minutes remaining!

Amazingly, Hornchurch did mount several chances, but with them in a 2-3-5, we had numerous opportunities of our own. The rain had increased, making it very difficult to see anything, and neither team could find the target as injury time ran harmlessly out.

Hornchurch 1, York 2

Robinson 51; McGovern 19, Dunning pen 75

MoM: Whitmore

Soaking wet and cold, we returned to a miserable little dressing room, where the warm water ran out before everyone had finished showering.

No matter, the lads were all to happy to introduce Fox to the joys of the celebratory reggae, but I was worried - a match against such a weak side shouldn't have been so much of a challenge. We'd had 15 shots, but put merely 4 of them on target.

Still, the hard-working Tappa Whitmore had won Man of the Match yet again, and three points are three points.

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Monday, 17th October, 2005.

Tappa Whitmore again earned Team of the Week honours, only the 7th time he'd earned that honour since joining the side. Not bad for a £1,000 signing! The win had moved us up to 6th, 2 points shy of the playoff zone, and 6 points behind league leading Carlisle.

Kevin Donovan took his first light jogging today, a key step in his recovery from the crippling thigh injury he'd sustained last year. The physios cautioned me that he's still a good two months away from returning to a full training load. More relevant perhaps was the news that youth defender Darren Hollingsworth was back in full training after his groin injury.

My former side Lancaster were knocked out of the FA Cup at home by non-Conference side Team Bath, 0-2 on Saturday. Though they'd been unlucky in the Cup, they stood sixth in the Conference North, which I felt reflected well on the core of players I'd assembled there. The Fourth Round Qualifying draw was held on Monday, and we drew an away match against non-Conference Wakefield & Emley.

I continued to work the phones, seeking loanings to strengthen the side without bulking up the wage budget, and Monday evening, I had two more - familiar face Lee Morris would rejoin the side on a three-month loan from Leicester, while my last season-long loan was expended on Aston Villa's Stephen Cooke.

AM RLC Stephen Cooke, 22, England, uncapped:

8 games, 2 goals, 1 assist, 6.50 this season with Bury in League 2

Consistent throughout his game, with good pace and acceleration, good crosses, and a hint of flair, I was most interested in the Villa youngster for his versatility, as he can play both wings and the attacking midfield role, which means he provides solid cover at four of my eleven starting positions, which makes him an ideal full-season loanee. His defensive abilities are quite lacking, which may get him into foul trouble as he seems to make clumsy tackles too frequently.

F LC Lee Morris, 25, English, 1 U-21 cap, 0 goals:

25 games, 7 goals, 6 assists, 2 MoM, 7.04 last season on loan with York

Speedy, with a very good first touch, and the ability to shoot both from range and from in close, this creative passer can play both in the attacking midfield role and, if needed, as a striker. He offers a very different look than creative playmaker Tappa Whitmore or long-shot artist Ryan Ashington, which should help our offense over the course of the season, as he demonstrated with his totals last season.

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Tuesday, 18th October, 2005. Conference National - Match 10, vs Gravesend & Northfleet.

Gravesend & Northfleet are another relegation-battling average side, whose strike force lacks the aerial ability to pose a real threat. Still, slogging through the mud of that ill-kept London ground had exhausted a number of Saturday's starters, and we were having trouble winning at home, or winning more than one match in a row, so I could take nothing for granted.

I made a number of changes to the side, returning only four starters from the previous match. David Stockdale would start in goal. 16-year-old Kevin West made his senior debut at left back. Michael Staley would spell Fontaine alongside Mark Wright in centre defense. Iron right back Graeme Law refused to miss a match. Gary Pearson would return to the starting lineup at defensive midfield. The wings would be new signing Stephen Cooke on the left, with Neil Danns on the right. Lee Morris would return to the attacking midfield with Ryan Ashington, while speedy Mark Rawle got the start up front.

We looked strong through the first ten minutes, but Gravesend central defender Lee Shearer played a pivotal role in denying us. First, he injured Mark Rawle in the first two minutes, a leg injury which left the striker without the speed which is such a big part of his game. In the tenth minute, Shearer added an excellent intervention to steal it from Lee Morris in the penalty area.

After watching Rawle struggle for twenty minutes, I decided to substitute him off for Levent Yalçin. It took the Turkish youngster merely eight minutes to make his mark, as he passed left to Morris just outside the area. Shearer charged down Morris' long-range shot, but the alert Yalçin was first to the loose ball on the right edge of the 6-yard box. His shot from a tight angle beat Gravesend keeper Paul Wilkerson and put us up 1-0.

At halftime, the talk of the locker room was how unfair the ref was being. He'd awarded four yellow cards to our players, and none to Gravesend, not even for the tackle Shearer had injured Rawle on. Ryan Ashington seemed most hot-headed about it, so I brought him off for Tappa Whitmore.

Morris earned a York corner shortly after the restart, and Stephen Cooke took it. He sent an in-swinging corner into the box, where Michael Wright outleaped Shearer to head home his first ever goal for York. A 2-0 lead against the weak Gravesend side looked safe enough, and I hoped now to escape without injury or suspension.

I gave Graeme Law the final thirty minutes off, moving Gary Pearson to right back. Right wing Neil Danns nearly added a third goal on the 65th minute, but Wilkerson made a beautiful diving save to push away his laser 20-yard strike. A minute later, it was Danns again, this time heading a Pearson cross just over the bar.

We held the lead steadily through the 86th minute, when the disaster I'd been hoping to avoid struck. Left wing Stephen Cooke tripped Gary Robertson, earning a second yellow card and a sending off - definitely not the debut he'd been hoping for. From there, it was just a matter of defending with ten men for the final ten minutes, a job we dispatched easily enough against the disheartened Northfleet side.

York 2, Gravesend 0

Yalçin, Wright; ----

MoM: Shearer (Gravesend DC)

The reggae blared over the stadium loudspeakers, but the paltry crowd of 1,265 would barely help the accounts, and a sending off had not left me best pleased.

Still, two triumphs in a row was our longest winning streak of the season!

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Friday, 21st October, 2005.

The Champions League group stages continued mid-week, and it was a "home" week for British sides. Manchester United pounded Club Brugge 3-0 at Old Trafford to move into second place with their first win of the group stage, but couldn't gain ground on Cup holders Juventus, 2 points ahead of them.

Chelsea drew with group leaders AC Milan 1-1 at Stamford Bridge, remaining 2 points behind the Italians and 1 point ahead of Sporting Club do Portugal.

Arsenal thrashed a good Ajax side at Highbury 4-0, keeping pace with group leaders Roma, who were one point ahead.

Newcastle United drew 1-1 with Olympiakos in Greece, which left those two sides tied for second but fully five points behind high-flying Inter Milan.

Rangers' dismal campaign continued with an 0-2 home loss to Valencia that left the Old Firm bottom of the table after three matches.

Our Reserve side got absolutely pounded in Plymouth, as the Plymouth Argyle Reserves took full advantage of two amateur central defenders, pounding four goals past two different keepers before we could manage a reply. The one bright spot was substitute Marc Schofield's late goal, which made the final a dismal 4-1. Starting goalkeeper Kevin Butler and U-18 right wing Mark Goodwin both had abysmal games which suggest that they were badly outclassed by the opposition, and I reacted by sending the 16-year-old goalkeeper back down to the U-18 side. The result elevated Plymouth to second, three points behind our side.

The added depth which David Fox brought to the lineup, and how important that is, was underscored when Gary Pearson twisted his knee during Friday evening's training session - a week earlier, that would have left the defensive midfield position in the hands of a barely-competent 18-year-old.

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Saturday, 22nd October, 2005. Conference National - Match 11, vs Hinckley.

Hinckley was the strongest side we'd faced since Morecambe at the start of the month - they were in 15th. Gary Lloyd's scouting report described them as 'competent', with a potent threat in their pacey attacking line. Looking at the league table, however, revealed that they have one of the leakiest defenses in the Conference.

We returned to something much closer to our regular XI, with Stockdale in goal and the usual suspects Parkin, Fontaine, Wright, and ironman Graeme Law across the back four. David Fox would again play defensive midfield, with McGrath and McGovern on the wings, Whitmore and Ashington in the attacking midfield roles, and Andy Bishop up front.

We came out with our 'aggressive' formation for the first time in many games, trying to take care of that leaky defense, and from the off John McGrath was dominant on the left wing. Time and again he created chances, dribbling around defenders and sending in the cross, but our strike force let him down.

It was unsurprising, then, that it was McGrath who earned a throw-in deep in the visitors' territory in the 23rd minute. Left back Paul Parkin took it, dropping it back for an unmarked Ryan Ashington. Well wide of the penalty area, Ashington tried a long-range shot for the far corner, a curling laser which looked dangerous. Tom Whittle began to move to his left, and was caught out when it took a deflection off of defender Mark Hughes. The ball caromed into the back of the net for Ashington's team-leading fifth goal of the season, and put us ahead 1-0!

The crowd, over 1,500 strong on the day, were loving it, and had Ashington's name immortalized in song already, though on the day it really should have been McGrath. Another beautiful cross from the Irishman found Andy Bishop in space on 35 minutes. The striker lashed a volley on goal, but Whittle was able to deflect it.

A Hinckley corner kick immediately thereafter led to their best chance, as Julian Hornuss knocked a header on target, but Dave Stockdale managed to get himself between the ball and the goal, a fine save to send us to the interval with a 1-0 lead.

Tappa Whitmore had picked up a bit of a knock, so I subbed him off at halftime for Neil Danns, and also switched to a more conservative tactic. This had the desired effect of lessening the chances at either end, though we took another blow on the 66th minute when Paul Parkin had to hobble off. Young Kevin West would have to deputize.

Hinckley began to really push forward for the equalizer, leaving plenty of space at the back. Bishop headed a ball down into the path of the wide-open Neil Danns, but the loanee's bullet shot cannoned back off the crossbar.

Darren Dunning, on as a substitute, put a cross into Dann's path minutes later, but Whittle made a fantastic save from 8 yards. They say third time's a charm, but when Danns launched another from 12 yards, Whittle again denied him with a diving effort!

Again, we'd let a side stay dangerously alive despite plenty of chances to finish them off, and it nearly bit us in the 82nd minute when Hornuss slipped past Fontaine and Wright for a 1-on-1 chance against David Stockdale. Not to be outdone by his counterpart, Stockdale made a brilliant save!

Into injury time we went, and this time it was Jamie Lenton who launched a great 50-yard ball over our defense, and substitute Kevin Gordan who ran it down. Stockdale again parried, but the rebound skittered dangerously back across the goalmouth, and only a crucial clearance by Liam Fontaine preserved the 1-0 victory.

York 1; Hinckley 0

Ashington 23; ----

MoM: Ashington

Joy coursed through the clubhouse afterward, as we'd put together a modest three-game winning streak, but Viv and I remained concerned. We'd had twenty-one shots, and only managed a single goal? The finishing still left a lot to be desired.

Ryan Ashington won Man of the Match honours for his lucky deflection, but it could as easily have gone to Stockdale or McGrath.

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I've spent a few days (and a mass of printer paper icon_mad.gif) reading this from the start, and loving it. Superb levels of detail, and capturing all the joys and woes of football icon14.gif

I sympathise with your constant money worries - this must be the most frustrating part of Football Manager. It's rock hard to keep those lower league teams in the black!

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Still loving this. These loaned strikers are a class apart from the Conference, so I'm expecting promotion, unless you get offered another managerial position first icon_smile.gif

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I found anyone better than my squad strikers laughed at me when i offered them loan deals at Droylsden so with yours and Tappa being a jet I think promotion is definately on the cards

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Thank you gentlemen!

T_Side, I'm sorry to have blown your printer budget icon_wink.gif but I'm glad you're enjoying the level of detail! Hearing that makes writing it all the more worthwhile.

irishregan, Panpardus, thanks for the vote of confidence... we'll see!

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Wednesday, 26th October, 2005.

Morale was high through both the squad and my fan base. The Evening Press had come out and stated that they expected nothing less than promotion and a return to the League, and the Supporter's Trust - my bosses remember! - were equally ebullient.

Despite the rising tide of optimism, I felt my mood slipping ever more black. We weren't finishing. The Under-18 side lost 0-2 at home to Blackburn U-18s on Sunday, a match in which goalkeeper Craig Saunders was sent off for a professional foul in the box, and nobody on the side distinguished themselves. Morale on the U-18 side was very poor, as it seemed most of the lads assigned there rated themselves as belonging further up our football ladder, on the Reserve side at least.

Personally, I was bordering on depression. Stacy had started university in September, at the University of York, which though it may lack the international name recognition that Cambridge has, is rated one of the top ten universities in the country. The collegiate grind had her studying, and I was working long hours, so we weren't seeing each other much - and honestly, she had been the entirety of my social calendar.

Where I'd been making friends at Lancaster - Gary Bauress and Spencer Field come to mind - I'd not really branched out here in York; there was a professional reserve between myself and the players, perhaps because so many of them were so young. Viv, John Richards, and I had a bit of a camaraderie, but it wasn't extending much beyond that. I'd quite liked Dave Colley, but he was off on scouting trips more often than not, and I was ..

.. getting homesick?

That combined with something else for a cauldron of trouble: I was definitely feeling the stress. There's a lot more pressure of expectation here than there had been at little Lancaster.

I tried to shrug off both feelings by putting my head down to work.

Right wing Jon Paul McGovern suffered a strained groin during training Tuesday afternoon, an injury which would rule him out of our next two matches. Luckily, against a lower-division side in the FA Cup and 19th-placed Accrington Stanley, I wasn't expecting tremendous challenges.

On Wednesday, the Reserve side struggled through a scoreless draw with Carlisle Reserves, a match in which goalkeeper Kevin Butler and left wing Marc Schofield were both injured. Fortunately neither sustained any lasting damage - we brought them off mostly as a caution to prevent any chance of worsening a knock.

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On the financial front, T_Side, I think I like that aspect most of all: it adds a constant worry beyond simply 'do well on the pitch', a resource constraint which really adds to the delicious mixture that makes up this game!

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Saturday, 29th October, 2005. F.A. Cup - Fourth Qualifying Round, at Wakefield & Emley.

Wakefield is a village just a few miles south of Leeds, and consequently very close to York. For the first time this season, we had a large road following - nearly half the crowd had made the trip from York! For Wakefield & Emley the Cup tie was their largest attendance of the season, as 3,266 turned out to Belle Vue Stadium.

Gary Lloyd's pre-match report indicated that he didn't expect them to give us much trouble, but warned that the pace of their attack could catch out our defense if we take them for granted or let them linger in a close game.

Despite his warning, I fielded a fairly patchwork squad, giving a number of part-time players action, and letting others have the day off. Mark Zawadski made his first start in the York goal, spelling Stockdale. 16-year-old Kevin West was called up to play left back. Michael Staley would partner Liam Fontaine in the central defense. Craig Shaw made his first start of the season at right back, finally spelling Law - the first time the latter had missed a match all year. David Fox continued at defensive midfielder. Darren Dunning would be the captain and make his third start at left wing, with loanee Stephen Cooke on the right wing for the injured McGovern. Ryan Ashington would start in his customary attacking midfield role, this time partnered with Lee Morris. Young Turkish star-in-the-making Levent Yalçin got the start up front.

It was clear from the start who the better team was, as West launched a long ball over the top through the driving rain. Lee Morris chased it into the Wakefield penalty area, but he put his shot over the bar. Ryan Ashington added a low skidding shot to the bottom right corner which goalkeeper Nicky Scaife saved.

We kept the pressure on throughout the first 20 minutes, and in the 23rd, captain Darren Dunning broke free up the left wing. Dunning's cross into the six-yard box was headed away by defender Phil Drummond, but it fell to the feet of Ashington, who kept it in the penalty area. With a low pass across the top of the box, he set up Stephen Cooke 16 yards from net. He lashed a left-footed blast past Scaife for his first goal as a Minsterman, and we were up 1-0!

We continued to control the match through the remainder of the first half, though we were unable to find a way past Scaife. Rob Styles was the referee, and by the 40-minute mark, had handed out yellow cards to a number of players on both sides, including each member of Wakefield's back four. I was furious when Jimmy Benefield's spike-first tackle left Dunning bleeding on the ground, unable to continue, but Benefield didn't receive that second yellow.

It turned out immaterial, as in the 44th minute, Ashington's superb pass into space sprang Yalcin about thirty yards from goal. As he bore down on the penalty area, Dion Scott had no choice but to take him down from behind. Many a ref might have given him a straight red for it, and with Styles refereeing and Scott already carrying a yellow, the result was inevitable, though he pled his case to no avail. Halftime came with us ahead 1-0 and facing a 10-man side.

I expected utter domination through the second half, but somehow every opportunity - and there were many - fell wanting in some way. Yalçin put a number of shots directly at Scaife, and our side began collecting yellow cards to match Wakefield & Emley. A number of our shots were blocked by the intense Wakefield defense, and Scaife made several spectacular saves.

Nursing a 1-0 lead into the 80th minute, I began to regret putting in so many reserve defenders and not having Stockdale in net, because a single goal now could force a replay. In fact, Wakefield had three fine chances in the final minutes, but Craig Shaw ran down a long ball, Liam Fontaine intercepted a low pass, and Michael Staley headed away an aerial cross to preserve a narrow victory.

Wakefield & Emley 0, York 1

----; Cooke 23

MoM: Scaife (Wakefield GK)

In the end, it was our finishing that had let us down once again: we'd made 24 shots, putting 12 of them on target, and that had resulted in only a single goal. The press wrote it off as a masterful performance by Nicky Scaife, the Man of the Match in the home goal, but I couldn't help but see it as a continuing problem with our system, one which even my recent tactical adjustments hadn't been able to solve.

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Monday, 31st October, 2005.

The post-match report from Jeff Miller indicated that Darren Dunning's gashed leg would keep him out for about two weeks. However, the £10,000 prize money and advancing in the Cup had to be considered worth the captain's sacrifice.

Despite a goal by speedy Mark Rawle, an under-strength York Reserve side lost in Bournemouth, 1-2, and how thoroughly they were dominated was underlined by the fact that goalkeeper Gareth Gray was our player of the game despite conceding two goals. Only a sensational performance by the 18-year-old kept the scoreline from being much worse. A poor month for the Reserve side, all told, with their first two defeats, had allowed second-placed Plymouth Argyle and third-placed AFC Bournemouth to catch up, even on points and one point behind respectively.

In other action, our youth side beat Chester's U-18 side 3-1 in a cold rain. A first half goal by youth captain Adam Corbett, the promising winger, was followed by goals by amateurs Steve Collier and Chris Simpson to make the final score. 16-year-old left back Jason Pickering was chosen Man of the Match.

Monday at noon was the draw for the F.A. Cup First Round, and I sat with the board as we watched the draw. York were the third ball drawn, which meant a home tie, and was cause for some brief celebration, but then we drew League One side Port Vale. There was a groan, as its unlikely we'll be able to knock off a side two leagues above us, but then we looked at the table, and Port Vale sit in 22nd out of 24 teams, with only 2 victories all year, so we might have a chance - and regardless, the revenue from the home attendance should be a major boon!

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Tuesday, 1st November, 2005.

The York board of directors remained pleased with our performance on the pitch, though we had continued to struggle mightily on the books. F.A. Cup prize money notwithstanding, we'd lost another £53,000 for the month of October, and that left us over £120,000 in the red for the season, and a net £239,000 below water - not counting our outstanding loan.

After talking the situation over with Sophie, I decided that we needed to do something drastic - putting a few of our most valuable players on the market to try and draw an income from the sale of players. That might also help with the wage bill- we're £43,000 p/a over the wage budget, though honestly that's a drop in the bucket for a team losing more than that per month. The tricky part will be identifying players to sell without crippling the first team.

To start with, I met with my coaches to review training progress for the month. Andy Bishop and Levent Yalçin were my two most improved of the month, which would earn them new contracts. Joe Foote and Adam Corbett were my most improved overall. However, a number of young players could be identified as not progressing at a satisfactory rate - whether they lacked the potential to progress, or simply needed a change of scenery, I was done investing more time in them. I began working the phones to start moving no less than ten of my players.

It also turned out, when I reviewed my training schedules with Viv and John, that they weren't benefitting as many players as he would have liked to see. I had built training regimes which were very physically demanding, enough so that he felt they were more exhausting our players than helping them to develop the technical and mental aspects of the game which they would need to contribute at the highest level.

Over a two-day period, we completely rewrote our training regime from scratch, both for our offensive players and our defensive players. We abandoned things like the Training Match and other large-area open-play 'training', and focusing more on small-area drills aimed at developing specific skills in specific situations.

The close work between the three of us helped alleviate some of the loneliness I'd been feeling - I think I've just got to make more of an effort to get out socially. Twelve to fourteen hour days are the province of 20-year-olds.

Speaking of elder statesmen, I also took a moment to be appreciative of the continuing genius of Tappa Whitmore, who had been named second in the Conference Player of the Month voting. Shirt sales for his kit alone outstrip all of the other players' combined, albeit by a narrow margin!

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Friday, 4th November, 2005.

The most difficult choice I had to make was whether or not to sell Andy Bishop. The striker had been our leading scorer last year, but his contract was expiring in June. My attempts at negotiating a new one had revealed that he wanted to be the highest-paid member of the team, as befit his status as the team's leading scorer last year. This year, however, I thought of loanee Neil Mellor as our number one striker, and for the future I was banking on Levent Yalçin. I decided to put Bishop up for sale in the hopes of getting anything in return for him, rather than letting him escape on a free transfer at the end of his contract.

On the pitch Wednesday, young captain Joe Foote and 16-year-old central defender Darren Hollingsworth starred as the York Reserves crushed Exeter Reserves 3-0. Hollingsworth scored a brace, the first on a penalty, while the second came from a header in the classic corner-kick fashion. Robbie Haw - one of my transfer bait - added an insurance goal in front of the scouts from Dunstable and Bridlington, and Foote earned Man of the Match honors as our side retained their first-place position.

In the 4th matches of Champions League group play, Arsenal became the first English club to clinch a berth in the knockout rounds, cruising past Ajax 3-0 in Amsterdam.

Newcastle United and Olympiakos drew 0-0, which kept Newcastle barely in second ahead of the Greek team on goal difference for second place. Inter Milan, seven points ahead of them both, qualified with a guaranteed first place.

Rangers lost in Valencia 2-0, a result which guaranteed the Spanish side the group title, and left last-placed Rangers four points back of second-placed Lyon with two matches to play.

Chelsea drew with AC Milan, 1-1, as their group remained the closest - AC Milan led with 8 points, while Sporting Club Portugal lay second with 7, and Chelsea stood third with 6 points.

Manchester United defeated Club Brugge 2-0, moving five points clear of the Belgian side, on the verge of clinching their elimination-round place with two easier matches yet to come.

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Saturday, 5th November, 2005. Conference National - Match 12, at Accrington Stanley.

Accrington is just north of Manchester, which made the drive a fairly pleasant one just south of the Yorkshire Dales. The Accrington Stanley side were lingering down in 19th position, which didn't frighten me. Their team was 'competent' according to my scout, who warned that their attacking pace may cause problems and their midfield was creative. However, they normally employ a 5-3-2, which is a formation we haven't had trouble with in the past, and with the side mired in a relegation battle, I expected a fifth consecutive victory.

I ran out our strongest XI, hoping to have them fit and ready for the FA Cup match the following Saturday. That meant David Stockdale in goal, with the back four Parkin, Fontaine, Wright, and Law. Loanee David Fox continued at defensive midfield, with McGrath on the left wing and Cooke on the right. Ryan Ashington was too tired to start in the attacking midfield role he had claimed as his own, so Lee Morris replaced him alongside Jamaican star Theodore Whitmore. Andy Bishop started up front, which might be has last match as a Minsterman - I'd accepted one offer for him, and expected more to come.

Contrary to our scouting report, Accrington came out in a very aggressive 3-5-2 formation, pushing players forward at every opportunity, while I had come out in our attacking 4-5-1, pushing the fullbacks and wings forward myself. Consequently, both side's attack outnumbered the defense throughout much of the first half, generating tons of chances and some exciting football! Andy Bishop had the first one less than a minute into the game, taking a cross by Stephen Cooke and heading it just over the bar.

Accrington came back the other way, as Lee McEvilly sent a long ball ahead of David Sadler. David Stockdale made the 1-on-1 save, but Jose Valeriani got to the loose ball first. He looked certain to score, but Graeme Law slid in perfectly to knock away the danger.

In the 18th minute, however, it was a slower build-up that led to the first goal: Steve Adams passed left for Sadler, who launched a first-touch blast from 19 yards out that Stockdale couldn't get to, and we trailed 0-1!

Tappa Whitmore and John McGrath combined to get McGrath up the left wing perhaps three minutes later. He sent a cross into the box, but it was headed out for a corner. Cooke sent the corner in, and Accrington defender Mike Flynn headed it back out, but not quite clear. Lee Morris collected the loose ball, keeping it in the danger area, and he tried a tricky little pass. David McGoldrick was utterly fooled, and in fact brought Morris down after the ball left his foot, just outside of the area!

With an indirect free kick to the left of the goal, John McGrath swung a cross over everyone to Cooke, 14 yards from goal. Cooke leaped over McGoldrick to send a spectacular long-range header home, and at 24 minutes we'd equalized 1-1!!

In the 36th minute, Whitmore sent a long ball over the heads of the Accrington defense for the perfectly timed run of Lee Morris. With a simple 1-on-1 chance, he dribbled around keeper Michael Ingham, using his favored left foot, but he left the shot too late, and put it into the side netting rather than the open goal!

Accrington made us pay immediately, as Warner broke up the left wing through the driving rain. He dribbled around Law, and sent the cross in for Jose Valeriani. The English midfielder leaped above both Paul Parkin and Liam Fontaine to send in a 6-yard header, and that made it 1-2, an advantage which the hosts held through halftime.

We continued to press forward looking for the equalizer, and the game remained a wide-open contest with chances at both end. In the 57th minute, we earned a corner kick, and the referee stopped play during the build-up to it to award Fontaine a yellow card. When we finally took it, Jordan Tait could only half clear it, and Morris again kept the pressure on. He played it to Stephen Cooke on the left, and Cooke launched a cross into the six-yard box. Ingham leaped to catch it, but he misjudged it and collided with his own man, letting the ball fall past everyone to Tappa Whitmore on the far post run. With a simple finish, the Jamaican tapped it home to equalize, 2-2!!

I allowed the attacking football to continue through the 70th minute, before switching to the more defensive 4-5-1 we use by default. In the same moment, I brought on my substitutes: Neil Mellor for Bishop, Levent Yalcin for Morris, and Gary Pearson for Fox. Mellor created the first chance, running down a long pass by Graeme Law, but his shot went wide.

In the 83rd minute, another McEvilly long ball caused havoc in our defense. This time substitute Paul Mullin split our central defenders, and on-side, dribbled to the top of the arc. As both defenders closed in on him, he launched a shot from long-range, and somehow Stockdale never moved for it, as though surprised - he had to know the 1-on-1 was coming, but perhaps he didn't expect the shot from such long range. It flew past him, through the rain, and into the back of the net to give the home side a 2-3 lead!

As the large crowd of 4,877 roared their approval, I shouted the instructions to shift to our 'patient buildup' approach. Sure enough, Accrington tried to fall back into their defensive 5-3-2, and this let us create a solid 8-man build-up. However, with the massed defense back, it was going to be very difficult to break them down.

Surprisingly, it was another quick strike which proved the most dangerous in the 88th minute - seven visitors had come forward for a corner, and Liam Fontaine won posession, nodding it down to Grame Law. The fullback sent a long ball up the right wing, and Cooke ran it down. He used his first touch to set it up for himself, and then, without looking up, sent a lovely cross into the six-yard box. At first there was nobody there, but somehow Neil Mellor managed to connect with a diving header - goal! A dramatic equalizer, and it was 3-3!

Again, I fell back to the conservative 4-5-1. I'd have been content with a draw, but McGrath wasn't! He worked free up the left side, and launched a cross into the six-yard box. This time, Cooke was on the receiving end, but he couldn't quite get his foot on it, and the crazy caromb off his leg went over the bar.

Surely then it was a draw, but in the final moments of injury time, Law sent a long pass forward into the box. There was no York player near it, and 'keeper Ingham was calling for it, but Cavanagh foolishly headed it behind. The resultant corner kick caused havoc for Accrington, as three times it was sent into the box, and three times they couldn't quite clear it. I saw the ref lift the whistle to his mouth just as McGrath sent a pass back to Pearson in the arc, and the defensive midfielder drilled a first-time 20-yard shot through a forest of bodies. As though it had a mind of its own, it snaked its way through and into the back of the net!!! The full-time whistle blew, and we'd won 4-3 on literally the last touch of the match!!

What a finish! That had to be the most dramatic victory in my management career!

Accrington 3, York 4

Sadler 18, Valeriani 36, Mullin 82; Cooke 24, Whitmore 57, Mellor 88, Pearson 90

MoM: McGrath

It had been a rollicking, wide-open affair, and the celebration in our locker room was raucous!!!

With two assists, including one on the game-winning goal, John McGrath was named Man of the Match, but honestly half a dozen players on our side deserved mention at the end of that one.

Stephen Cooke, in particular, had played an amazing match on the wing, with a goal and two assists.

I sat back and enjoyed the celebrations as much as the next man.

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Monday, 7th November, 2005.

There was a sense of invincibility at Bootham Crescent, now: Stanley may have been a bottom feeder, but we'd pegged them back three times before the injury-time winner.

I was shocked, however, when I saw that we'd allowed only five shots: four on target, and three of those had resulted in goals, which was an abysmal performance by goalkeeper David Stockdale. He was understandably upset about it, and with our F.A. Cup tie against Port Vale coming up, it was a bad time for him to be suffering a crisis of confidence. He'd been so mercurial last year, I wonder if his moodiness may be chemical in nature.

Some of the sales I'd begun negotiating on the first went through today. Andy Bishop was the most notable, as he has signed a new contract with Brentford, of League One. He's very excited about the prospect of playing at a higher level, while I think that the £30,000 we've received for him is worthwhile. His contract had been expiring in June, and with loanee Neil Mellor playing well and Levent Yalcin looking like the future of the club, I took what I could get for the 23-year-old.

Andy Bishop, SC, 23: July 2004-November 2005: 2 seasons, 55 games, 20 goals, 2 assists, 6.96

We'd need nine more sales like that to zero out our balance. Game-winning veteran Gary Pearson agreed to terms with Hereford, a deal that would have brought in another £16,000 as well as clearing another large salary off our books, but the deal fell through at the last minute. We did sell Reserve striker Robbie Haw to lower-division Bridlington for £5,000.

Robbie Haw, FLC, 19: July 2003-November 2005: 3 seasons, 7 games, 0 goals, 0 assists, 6.50

In other news, young right back Nathan Kamara resumed full training after missing over a month due to strained knee ligaments.

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Tuesday, 8th November, 2005. Conference National - Match 13, vs Halifax.

Eighth placed Halifax would offer a greater challenge than any of the previous opponents in our modest five-game winning streak, but we could take satisfaction from knowing that they have to be looking at a visit to Bootham Crescent to face third-placed York as a major obstacle on their schedule. They might not have been as worried if they'd known my starting lineup.

Beleaguered goalkeeper David Stockdale retained his starting role despite his abysmal performance, and the back four included Parkin, Fontaine, Michael Staley, and Craig Shaw. Gary Pearson returned to start at defensive midfield after his game-winner on Saturday, while 20-year-old Marc Schofield made only his second career start at left wing. Right wing went to Jon Paul McGovern, not yet in match shape but recovering from his groin injury, and not expected to play more than a half. The attacking midfielders were Lee Morris and Neil Danns, while Levent Yalcin would start at striker.

It was a cold afternoon in York, merely 41 degrees, and the crowd of 1,656 seemed quite small compared to the throng in Accrington. We started out conservative and defensive, while Halifax came out in a 4-3-3 looking to score an early goal on the road. They are a hard-tackling team, and the first twenty minutes saw both Yalcin and McGovern pick up knocks. I was particularly worried about the winger re-injuring his groin, but both gave the thumbs-up to indicate that they were okay to continue.

In the 22nd minute, we had a great free kick chance, from 19 yards away and perfectly centered on goal. Lee Morris took it, but blazed the shot over the bar. It was slow going, with both sides feeling each other out, and that was the best chance of a first half which ended scoreless.

At halftime, I decided I had to bring Yalcin and McGovern off. They both could continue, but there was no point in risking further injury, so I sent Neil Mellor and Adam Arthur on.

Just after the kickoff, Halifax had a throw-in deep in their own territory. Neil Danns intercepted fullback Ben Andrews' throw, and cut a low pass about 30 yards left to an unmarked Lee Morris at the top of the box. Morris swivelled into the area, and launched a curling blast from 16 yards. This time, he found his mark, and we had a 1-0 lead!

In the 53rd minute, Danns sent a long ball ahead of Mellor, and if he hadn't had to hold up just a moment to wait for the ball to reach him, he'd have had a perfect opportunity. As it was, it was a footrace, and Mellor dribbled deep into the penalty area, before shooting from a tight angle. His shot beat goalkeeper Matthew Andrews, but carombed off the near post and harmlessly away.

The hour came and went. Sixty-six minutes in, Derek Holmes broke into the box for Halifax, looking for an equalizer. Stockdale blocked the shot, but the rebound kicked crazily back out towards the penalty spot. A quick reaction by Morris, all the way back to play defense in his own area, saw him reach it and clear it from danger to preserve the 1-0 advantage.

In the 73rd minute, young Marc Schofield worked his way up the left wing, then cut a nice pass inside to Mellor. Neil dribbled around central defender Denny Ingram and into the area, but shot just wide. Five minute later, it was Mellor again into the box, and again he shot for the corner but just caught the netting. They say third times' a charm, and Danns gave Mellor a third chance in the 81st minute. It was only a half-chance, with plenty of Halifax defenders between him and goal, but Mellor dribbled through three men, and from 15 yards out put it perfectly into the bottom right corner, an amazing effort to make it 2-0!

In the dying minutes, Danns again put a troubling ball into the Halifax area. This time it was substitute Tappa Whitmore running onto it, but Ingram slid in front of him to slice the ball away... and the Jamaican couldn't have made a better shot on goal, as it left Andrews completely wrong-footed and rolled into the same right corner from about 16 yards out! Unlucky Ingram had conceded an own goal, and at 3-0 the outcome was beyond doubt.

Halifax nearly got one back for pride in injury time, as Ben Andrews swung in a deep cross, and Bushell rose above Parkin to head at goal. It was over Stockdale's head, but he desperately palmed it upwards into the bar, and it lofted up and back into the field of play, reaching a height of about fifteen meters. Gary Pearson headed it clear, and that preserved the shutout and the final scoreline.

York 3, Halifax 0

Morris 48, Mellor 81, Ingram o.g. 88; ----

MoM: Danns

Our sixth win in a row, and this was the first truly convincing performance of the lot. Our finishing was much improved, and we'd outshot the visitors two to one. Neil Danns earned a '10' for his three-assist performance, and certainly deserved Man of the Match. While the side, and the crowd, celebrated the victory, I began to turn my attention towards the F.A. Cup match the coming weekend.

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Thursday, 10th November, 2005.

The win had raised us to second place, a mere one point behind Carlisle for the Conference lead! I was particularly pleased with how well my 'second team' had performed, with a number of our stars rested for the forthcoming FA Cup match.

Despite having a man advantage through most of the match, the York Reserves lost 1-0 in Rochdale. None of the players performed particularly well, with only left back Jason Pickering distinguishing himself.

The sense of anticipation built throughout the week: there was serious talk of a sell-out crowd at Bootham Crescent, not just the 3,571 seats, but the entire 9,600 capacity! The lads were 'up' for it, and even David Stockdale seemed more excited than nervous - his clean sheet against a tough Halifax side seemed to have restored his confidence.

According to Gary Lloyd, Port Vale have a strong, potent threat in their pacey attacking line, but morale has been very poor, as one might expect from a club languishing near the bottom of their division. Still, they're a League One side, and he warned me to expect the worst.

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Saturday, 12th November, 2005. F.A. Cup - First Round, vs Port Vale.

The day of the largest match of my career to date dawned crisp and cold. It was good football weather: no rain, and no wind.

To face the League One side, the best lineup I could field took the pitch. David Stockdale started in goal, with Paul Parkin, Mark Wright, Michael Staley, and Graeme Law across the back. Loanee David Fox would start at defensive midfield, wearing the captain's armband for the first time, with John McGrath at left wing and Stephen Cooke at right wing. Ryan Ashington and Theodore Whitmore would take the attacking midfield roles, with Neil Mellor front and center in the 4-5-1.

A season-high crowd of 9,409 cheered wildly as we took the pitch, and jeered the upper-division side as they came out in a very defensive-minded 5-3-2. An early indirect free kick off to the left of the Port Vale goal appeared fairly innocuous, and Matt Gowland made glancing contact to knock Cooke's aerial ball clear of the six-yard box. It came to Ryan Ashington about 12 yards from goal, still in the air, and he made solid contact with a header that cleared every defender, but somehow dipped down enough to find the net at the far post! It was a dream start for York, a 1-0 lead merely 3:51 into the match!

The crowd were still singing and chanting over it in the 19th minute, when captain David Fox sent a long ball down the right sideline for Tappa Whitmore. The Jamaican ran it down, and dribbled around left back Ryan Brown. With plenty of time, he dribbled into the box, then passed low to Ashington. 10 yards out, our leading scorer had time to settle it with one touch, and then he launched a right-footed blast that 'keeper Mark Goodlad had no chance of stopping. 2-0, and we were off on a flyer!!

Have you ever seen a team quit on a match?

I mean, its not that Port Vale stopped chasing balls, and there were occasional bursts of energy, but their intensity was gone. In the States, we call it "mailing it in," something to do with just receiving the paycheque at the end of the day. It was like that.

For the next twenty minutes, there were no real opportunities, and the Port Vale players had a "Oh no, here we go again" look about them. We nearly made it three on a corner kick just before the half, but Michael Staley's header carombed off the crossbar.

Listening to the fans sing through halftime brought a smile to every face in our changing room, and I told the lads to go out there and throttle any hope Port Vale might have of getting back into the match. I did make one change: McGrath had suffered an injured shoulder, so I brought Jon Paul McGovern on at right wing, shifting Cooke over to the left side.

The crowd were in full voice, giving full voice to their favourite songs. Ryan Ashington heard his name over and over from the crowd, and Neil Mellor nearly gave them something else to cheer. It took an acrobatic save by Goodlad in the 54th minute to deny the loanee on a header.

The most dangerous Port Vale looked was a cross by Lee Matthews in the 70th. Maybe a goal there would have given them the confidence to make a game of it, but Paul Parkin headed it cleanly away.

How bad was it? We'll put it this way: Port Vale managed merely three shots, none of them on target, and none from closer than 16 yards. Our only disappointment was that young Ashington didn't earn his first hat trick.

York 2, Port Vale 0

Ashington 4, 19; ----

MoM: Ashington

Nine thousand fans chanting and stomping their feet to the reggae beat seemed fit to tear the stadium down - Bootham Crescent is an old facility, and hadn't seen that kind of celebration in many a year!!

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We'll have to leave it there for a week or so - I'm out of town, and the next scheduled update will be April 30th.

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I'm happy i found this story (the only one i've taken a liking to since 'ragusa to riches'

KUTGW, can't wait for the next week. And good luck with whatever you're doing out of town.

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Sorry for the longer-than-expected delay - work took over my life for a bit.

Thank you, dr-nix, both for the plaudits and the well-wishing.

Strankan, thanks for the kind words and the encouragement!

Now, where were we .. ?

Oh, right, Bootham Crescent was rocking to the sounds of 9,000 celebrating an F.A. Cup victory over a League One side:

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Sunday, 13th November, 2005.

The celebrations lasted long into the night, and the lads had certainly deserved the right to cut loose a bit.

I must confess part of my smile was not simply for the heart and spirit our lads had shown, but contemplating the impact on our ledger. £12,000 prize money for advancing would help, but I was happier about what the huge crowd - nearly six times our average home attendance - would mean. Plus, there was the fact that we'd gotten one step closer to qualifying for the Third Round, and a potential money-spinning draw at Old Trafford or one of the other large grounds. Certainly we would lose such an encounter, but it seemed the only way short of promotion to draw out of the financial morass we were in.

Meanwhile, World Cup Qualifying action resumed Saturday with the first leg of the knockout round for second-placed teams.

Scotland's hopes of reaching the World Cup took a serious beating in Lisbon, as they were hammered by Portugal 3-0. None of the Scots played well, and only a similarly lopsided result in the second leg could salvage their hopes.

The other qualifiers were more evenly matched: Denmark 2, Romania 1; and Sweden 1, Serbia & Montenegro 1.

Our Under-18 side drew 1-1 in Scarborough, also on Saturday, with central defender Darren Hollingsworth scoring our only goal and earning Man of the Match honors. He'd recently turned 17, and so was technically without a contract. I hadn't been intending to retain his services, and certainly not at the prices he was asking, but he was certainly arguing strongly for a renewal!

On Sunday, we completed the transfer of right back Craig Shaw to Swindon. The deal included £5,000 immediately, plus the possibility of another £3,000 if he should play 20 league matches for them - unlikely, I thought, as he wasn't starting in the Conference National, and seemed unlikely to cut the grade at a League One side. He was very happy about the prospect of playing at a higher level.

Craig Shaw, DRC, 23: July 2005-November 2005: 1 season, 2 games, 0 goals, 0 assists, 8.00

We followed that the next day with the sale of veteran defensive midfielder Gary Pearson to Hereford. After the first deal, £16,000 as a single cash payment, had fallen through, we had negotiated a new deal that saw the £16,000 spread out over 24 months, and that Hereford could afford. The move raised him up to League Two, and it was good to see my players rated as belonging in a higher league.

Gary Pearson, D/DM C, 28: July 2004-November 2005: 2 seasons, 46 games, 42 starts, 2 goals, 0 assists, 6.72

It was very surprising when I read that the Hereford fans were concerned about Pearson being a disruptive influence - I'd considered him one of the team leaders and often used him as a captain.

In other news, loanee Neil Danns was selected to the English Conference National Team of the Week.

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Wednesday, 16th November, 2005.

Monday afternoon was the draw for the F.A. Cup Second Round. There were 40 names in the hat, and 18 of them were League One sides. It seemed that was all that was drawn in the first few minutes, and by the time 32 teams had been drawn, York remained in the wheel along with only one more League One side..

Finally we were drawn 38th, a road game against non-league, non-conference Team Bath!

The respesentatives of the University of Bath, their F.A. Cup run thus far had included a 2-0 victory over my former side, Lancaster, and a 2-1 victory over Conference North side Weymouth, but we would be their toughest opposition yet, and prohibitive favorites - a very lucky draw!

Wednesday, we were joined by another 3-month loanee courtesy of Manchester United, right back Phillip Bardsley.

D RC Phillip Bardsley, 20, English: Very composed for such a young player, Bardsley is quick and agile in the air, and makes good decisions. He could play well at right back, and could fill in at central defense if needed, but primarily I wanted him to be able to rest Graeme Law during two-match weeks.

Bardsley played his first match the same day, as the York Reserves took on Dorchester on the road. He played well enough, lasting the full 90 minutes, but the Reserves drew 1-1, a result which dropped them down to third in the Reserves Group 6 table, behind Plymouth and Bournemouth. Daryl Peters first-half goal had given them the lead, while the Dorchester goal was harshly called an own goal and charged to Joe Foote.

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Saturday, 19th November, 2005. Conference National - Match 14, at Barnet.

Barnet lay down in seventh place, after a solid sixth-place finish last year. The London side had beaten us 4-2 in a match last April, though we earned a 1-1 draw with them in this pre-season's friendly. Scout Gary Lloyd described them as 'capable', and reminded me that they have a solid back line which will be tough to break down. They're riding an eight games unbeaten streak, and the mood in their locker room must match our own - we'll be lucky to escape with a point from a draw.

Five loan players made the start for us, almost entirely up front. Stockdale remained in goal, with Parkin, Wright, Fontaine, and Law across the back four. From there, it became an all-star team of young loan talent: Manchester United's David Fox was at defensive midfielder. Speedy Lee Morris of Leicester would get a rare start at left wing, the first time I'd tried him out wide. Aston Villa's Stephen Cooke partnered him from the right wing. Blackburn attacking midfielder Neil Danns joined York's leading scorer Ryan Ashington in the attack, with Liverpool's Neil Mellor the lone striker.

We started out with heavy pressure, earning three corner kicks in the first eight minutes. Though our corners do look more dangerous, we still aren't having much luck with them, and they all came to naught. It had been raining all day, leaving the pitch slick and muddy, and in the 24th minute, Neil Danns took advantage of that. He faked a dribble to his left, and Barnet defender Ismail Yakubu slipped when Danns came back to his right. That put the attacking midfielder into the box with plenty of time and space, but he rushed his 15-yard effort and put it over the bar.

Coming back the other way, Barnet left wing Simon Clist was having his way with the right side of our defense. He put a brilliant ball into the box in the 31st minute, catching Giuliano Grazioli in stride in the center of the park. Grazioli's header from nine yards went just over.

In the 36th minute, Lee Morris's free kick cleared the wall and seemed headed for the left corner, but Tommy Forecast made a diving save for the London side. The rebound rolled tantalizingly across the six-yard box, but Clist was the quickest to react, booting it into the stands to avert the danger. If you love good defending, it was truly a match for that, and mere minutes later it was a Barnet kick dangerously close to our area. Damien Batt played into the box, and Liam Fontaine read it perfectly to head clear.

Just before halftime, Ryan Ashington played a beautiful ball ahead of Lee Morris. Clear of the defense, he looked set to score, but somehow midfielder Adam Chambers ran him down, and made a beautiful sliding tackle in the box to knock the danger away. Referee Gary Chapman blew the whistle, and I was sure he meant penalty, but no! His whistle signalled for half-time, still scoreless.

The 2,451 fans were surely getting their money's worth, and when the sides rejoined in the second half, they were met with singing and chanting, even though the rain seemed to have redoubled during the intermission. Barnet got the first chance of the second half, as Nick Bailey played a nice ball ahead of Grazioli. Grazioli dribbled into our area, but as he took his shot, Mark Wright threw himself in front to block it. The deflection skittered across the goalmouth past David Stockdale, and looked to go harmlessly wide. Abruptly, it slowed to a halt in a heavy puddle of water just at the far post, and Liam Hatch was the first to it, sliding through the puddle in a spray of water as he sloshed it into the net. Barnet's fans went wild as they claimed the 0-1 lead!

There was still plenty of time remaining, and Barnet didn't fall back into a defensive fortification, though I switched to the 'patient buildup' which should counter it if they did. I also brought on some substitutes, Tappa Whitmore, Levent Yalcin, and Jon Paul McGovern along the right side. With the Londoners still sending men forward on the corner kick, we had a brilliant chance on the counter-attack in the 67th minute when Whitmore's superb pass sprang the fresh-legged McGovern past the last defender. He dribbled into the penalty area, alone with the keeper, and somehow Forecast turned his shot behind.

Fantastic keeping from the Barnet number one had me standing on the edge of the dugout, rain sheeting from the roof to obscure my view of the action. I could barely see in the 71st minute, but it looked like McGovern was trapped along the right sideline when he passed centrally for Whitmore. With a single touch, the Jamaican chipped a pass over the last defender, perfectly timed to Yalcin's run. The young Turkish striker charged into the box, and drilled it past Forecast from 17 yards to equalize, 1-1!!

Hatch nearly got a second goal to put the hosts back ahead in the 78th minute, as his diving header had Stockdale beat but went over. Unfortunately for Barnet, Hatch picked up a knock just thereafter, and they'd made all their changes - they would have to finish out with ten men.

I was content to play for a draw, but with the man advantage, my side began finding spaces to exploit. In the 88th minute, Whitmore again put McGovern into the box with a wonderfullly weighted pass. This time, the Scotsman's shot was charged down by Batt, and it carombed wide for a corner. Three times, we put the ball into the six-yard box from that corner, and three times it bounced out to one wing or the other.

The third time, Stephen Cooke collected it on the left wing, where he'd shifted to make room for McGovern. He played several step-over moves to buy time as Yakubu watched cautiously, and finally he put the ball in along the goal line. Chris McCready tried to head it behind for a corner at the near post, but misjudged where he was, and put it solidly into his own net!

Barnet 1, York 2

Hatch 51; Yalcin 71, McCready o.g 89

MoM: Forecast (Barnet GK)

With a man advantage, that was all the help we needed, and we took the full three points in one of the best-played, most tightly contested matches one could hope to see. The celebration in our locker room was fully deserved, although Tommy Forecast was adjudged the Man of the Match in preference to our dangerous-looking attackers.

I was particularly pleased with the spark bringing on our own players in the final thirty minutes had added - each had replaced attack-minded loanees with fully-owned players of our own, and the side had performed much better after the change.

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Delighted to see you back mate! Thought maybe "real life" had put an end to this story. Bardsley is a handy signing. I had him at Rangers and he played very well, right up to European standard. Expecting big things from the York team now icon_smile.gif

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Great story man.

Compelled me to dig out FM (i've been playing CM 01/02 with an update lately) and try the game again.

Good luck on getting promotion

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Thank you, irishregan! Its good to be back. "Real life" nearly put paid to me icon_redface.gif but it can't stop the story! icon_biggrin.gif

FM maniac, glad to hear I've inspired someone to play again, couldn't ask for more!

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