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Amaroq

Sharpening a Rusty Blade

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Monday, 21st November, 2005.

I was stunned and overjoyed Sunday morning when I read the morning paper.

FIRST!

Declaimed the headline, in large bold print. To my utter surprise, Carlisle, at home against 15th-placed Aldershot, had drawn 3-3, conceding two late goals after building a comfortable advantage. That meant that our three points had moved us up into first place in the Conference National!

The newspaper article included a solid quote backing me from Steve Beck, who declared himself "extremely pleased with the result." However, the columnist went on to write

<BLOCKQUOTE class="ip-ubbcode-quote"><div class="ip-ubbcode-quote-title">quote:</div><div class="ip-ubbcode-quote-content">If the Minstermen are capable of maintaining their excellent current form, it will be difficult to see any of the chasing pack challenging them for the title, although there is still time for that to change.

With the squad Ian Richards has assembled, Bootham Crescent fans will be rightly disappointed with anything short of promotion. </div></BLOCKQUOTE>

Since we're only a single point ahead of Carlisle, it seemed a bit permature for that sort of talk - its a long season, and we're only a third of the way in.

With the steady trickle of players leaving the side, the York Under-18's were almost half amateur for their match against Boston, and it was amateur players Steve Collier and Aaron Dennis who got on the board in a 2-0 victory. Goalkeeper Kevin Butler played well in earning the shutout, while captain Adam Corbett, the left winger, was Man of the Match.

The Monday paper carried the news that Theodore Whitmore had been selected to the Team of the Week, and it was nice to see that the paper had noticed his fine performance despite his only coming on as a second-half substitute.

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Wednesday, 23rd November, 2005.

Tuesday and Wednesday evening were the fifth matches of the Champions League group play, and it produced some key encounters. In Italy, reigning Scudetto champions Juventus crushed Manchester United 3-0 to clinch first in the group, but the English side backed into a berth in the knockout rounds when Panathinaikos beat Club Brugge.

Chelsea beat Rosenborg 2-0, while Sporting Club Portugal lost to AC Milan, which would set up an elimination match between Chelsea and Sporting in the final match of the group stage.

Arsenal beat Roma 2-1 at Highbury on an injury-time goal by Dennis Bergkamp which guaranteed the Gunners first in the group.

Inter Milan pounded Newcastle United 3-0, also in Italy, but the English remained second placed, equal with Olympiakos on points but well ahead on goal difference as the Greek side were upset by Banik Ostrava 2-0.

Rangers' dismal campaign was officially ended when FC København beat them 3-1.

At Bootham Crescent, it wasn't European football, but York Reserves sure played like they belonged there! Four first-half goals were enough to ensure that they crushed lowly Hornchurch. Man of the Match Mark Rawle scored a brace early on, and Joe Foote made it 3-0 by the half-hour. A deflected free kick by Darren Dunning was scored as an 'own goal' rather than credited to the veteran, but that made the intermission scoreline 4-0. Substitute Mark Goodwin made it five, and I was disappointed when a late mental lapse allowed Hornchurch to get one back and make the final score 5-1. Combined with other results, it leapfrogged our lads back up to first in their group.

I had bigger things to think about, however: I'd received an unsolicited offer for David Stockdale. Walsall, well aware of our ongoing fire sale, were offering £16,000 plus 50% of the next sale for the just-turned-20 goalkeeper.

Viv really likes him, and thinks he'll go on to great things, but we have a plethora of talented young keepers, and I could see moving him for the right price. I didn't take it, but I didn't reject it outright, either. I negotiated upwards.

Meanwhile, young Darren Hollingsworth was celebrating turning professional, after almost a month of awkward contract negotiations. His play for the youth side, plus the flow of departures, had convinced me to sign the 17-year-old defenseman, despite my original reservations.

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Saturday, 26th November, 2005. Conference National - Match 15, vs Farnborough Town.

Hapless Farnborough were stumbling around in 21st, solidly within the relegation zone and looking sure for the drop so far this season. In fact, it looked like our worst opponent on the day would be the weather: a cold, steady rain had been falling for two days now, reducing the Bootham Crescent pitch to a quagmire.

I didn't start an entirely full-strength side against them. Craig Saunders got a rare start in goal. Parkin, Wright, and Fontaine would provide some stability in the back, but Nathan Kamara would make his first appearance of the season at right back. Defensive midfielder David Fox was a late scratch, turning up with bruised ribs suffered in the last training session of the day on Friday, and with Gary Pearson gone, that meant that young Malcolm Parker would make his York debut. John McGrath and Jon Paul McGovern would play the wings, with Tappa Whitmore and Ryan Ashington attacking, and Turkish phenom Levent Yalcin was the striker.

For the first time in many weeks, I turned loose my 'attacking' formation from the start, pushing the wings and fullbacks forward in search of an early goal. However, we learned that referee John Pearce would be calling a very tight game 3 minutes into the match, when Whitmore cleared a ball out of our area. He'd barely touched striker Lloyd Blackman, but Pearce adjudged it a foul worthy of a penalty!!

Perhaps the giant splash he'd made when he fell made it look convincing. Blackman, a 22-year-old striker from London, converted easily, and we trailed 0-1 just four minutes in! The Bootham Crescent faithful let Pearce know just how they felt about that, callin him several unprintable names, and booing his every whistle no matter how deserved.

By the 20th minute, it was clear we were the better side, faster and collecting every loose ball. The fans had recovered from their early shock, and were urging us on. It was young Nathan Kamara, whom I'd had on the transfer list, who sparked our reply in the 25th minute. He covered a loose ball deep in our territory, and hammered it long up the right wing for Levent Yalcin. The Turk ran it down through the rain, and took it to the byline. As he dribbled towards the near post, he saw Tappa Whitmore in the penalty arc, and cut a fine pass back to him. Unmarked, and with the ball perfectly to his feet, the Jamaican launched a curling 18 yarder, and we were level 1-1!

Though we continued to press forward, it was referee John Pearce who took center stage. By halftime, he'd awarded five yellow cards, and by the 60 minute mark, the tally was up to seven and climbing steadily. He seemed to make no allowance for the wet conditions or the situation. Right on the 68 minute mark, Farnborough's Gary Holloway and our youngster Malcolm Parker collided innocuously in midfield chasing a loose ball. The whistle could have blown either way, and certainly didn't seem to warrant a card, but Pearce brought out the yellow card against Holloway, who had already been carrying one, and now saw red!

With 'Boro reduced to ten men, John McGrath made short work of Ben Townsend up the left wing, dribbling around the fullback like he was a cardboard cutout. He launched a beautiful cross into the 6-yard box for Neil Mellor, and Farnborough keeper Craig Holloway came out to meet him. Mellor and Holloway collided, and centre-back Mark Rooney slipped in the mud while trying to avoid them. The ball carombed off of the luckless defender, straight into the net. For the second time, a late own goal had given us a 2-1 lead, and it was just a matter of staving off the demorazlied visitors for fifteen minutes to collect the three points.

The underdogs were having none of that, however, and continued to strive bravely. In the 86th minute, substitute Craig Faulconbridge, making his debut for Farnborough Town, tracked down a ball along the right wing. Drawing defenders to himself, he cut a long back pass to Steve Melton. The midfielder chipped it to his left for Richard Connor, who launched an incredible 25-yard half-volley that crashed convincingly into the back of the net. Just minutes left, and the ten-man relegation battlers had equalized, 2-2!

I juggled the lineup as best I could, switching from a conservative 4-5-1 designed to protect the lead to an all-out attack 3-5-2. Against a 10-man side, I was willing to take a risk to strive for three points, and it paid off beautifully. Stephen Cooke did some wonderful work up the left sideline, and then launched a long ball over the defense. Neil Mellor was so far behind the last defender it looked sure he was offsides, but the flag stayed down - he'd timed his run perfectly. One-on-one with Holloway, Mellor cut it to the lower-right corner from 18 yards out. Shouts of joy rang from the crowd of 1,749 as we took a 3-2 lead into injury time!!

A corner kick two minutes into injury time provided opportunity for an insurance goal, and Lee Morris put it right to Tappa Whitmore. He volleyed from 10 yards out, a spectacular strike through a forest of bodies. It may have taken a deflection, but nothing short of a brick wall could have kept it out! The Jamaican had a brace, and we had a thrilling 4-2 win!

York 4, Farnborough 2

Whitmore 25, 90, Rooney o.g. 77, Mellor 89; Blackman pen 4, Connor 86

MoM: Whitmore

What a finish!!

The customary reggae blared from the Bootham Crescent speakers as we jogged for the dry refuge of the locker room. We'd won, to stay top, and our creative Jamaican playmaker had certainly added to his legend with another well-deserved Man of the Match.

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Amaroq - this continues to be one of the best stories in FMS so here's hoping that you will find the time to keep your many fans entertained.

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Thank you, BobBev. Support is always appreciated, but coming from one of your standing in the community it really means a lot.

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Tuesday, 29th November, 2005.

I was not as pleased with our as my players were - against a ten-man side from the bottom of the table, we'd needed an own goal to take the lead, and conceded a late equalizer. I was particularly disturbed by the fact that Farnborough had scored two on only three shots. Craig Saunders's performances with the senior club were not endearing him to me.

In relatively local news, Leeds United, the closest Championship-calibre club, fired manager Javier Clemente. They were buried in 24th, last place and seemingly destined for relegation unless somebody could save them.

I assured the rumour-hungry press that that somebody won't be me: I intend to stay with York until they show me the door, though I must admit I'd be tempted if one of the top Premiership clubs came calling.

Another firing had more impact on us. Walsall fired manager Trevor Francis, and immediately withdrew their offer for David Stockdale. That was a shame, as I'd already begun negotiations for a loan goaltender to replace him.

For the second week in a row, and the fifth time this season, number 99, Theodore Whitmore, was named to the Conference National Team of the Week. His two goal performance had definitely impressed, and though he turned 33 in August, he remains the creative force on the side.

On Tuesday afternoon, the F.A. performed the draw for the F.A. Trophy Third Round - not the F.A. Cup, which we were more interested in, though this was a trophy which we could conceivably win. With sixty-four teams being drawn, all from the Conference or below, it was always likely that we'd draw a lower-division side. We found ourselves on the road, facing either Bognor Regis or Leigh RMI, from the Conference South and North resepctively. Leigh had been relegated from the Conference National the previous year, and both sides were in the top 5 and battling for promotion.

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Tuesday, 29th November, 2005, evening. Conference National - Match 16, at Tamworth.

You may remember the name Tamworth from the first weeks of the season, when they flirted with first place. After a rocket start, they've won but three of their last 16 matches, plummeting from first to 15th. The town itself is just north-east of Birmingham, so it was a relatively short drive - better than London, at any rate. Gary Lloyd reports that they have a merely 'reasonable' side, though of course they have more pace up front than we have in our defensive line.

I again put out a second-tier starting lineup. Mark Zawadski would play in goal, with David Fox trying his hand at left back due to a clerical error - I'd submitted the wrong lineup sheet, and the Tamworth boss wouldn't agree to let me change it. Mark Wright and Michael Staley paired at centre back, with Phillip Bardsley making his York debut at right back. Michael Parker was again the defensive midfielder, with Darren Dunning on the left wing and Stephen Cooke on the right. Lee Morris and Neil Danns started in the attacking roles, with speedy Mark Rawle getting a rare start at striker.

We started out conservatively, looking to prevent the early goal we'd conceded on the weekend. In the 10th minute, we took a bit of a blow as Stephen Cooke was awarded a yellow - it was his fifth, which would earn him a one-match ban.

At about the 20-minute mark, Tamworth captain Paul Barnes broke free up the left wing, and sent a dangerous cross into the 6-yard box. We were very lucky when Rory May tried to head it back across the goalmouth, and wound up putting it wide. Ten minutes later, it was the speedy duo of Mark Rawle and Lee Morris who combined on a give-go that sprang Morris through the Tamworth defense. Only a fine diving save by goalkeeper Ryan Price denied the forward and kept things scoreless.

Rawle kept the pressure on in the 34th minute, when he broke up our left wing, and dribbled into the area. He sent a low pass through the 6-yard box for the far-post run of Neil Danns, but he led the Blackburn midfielder by just too much, and Danns couldn't quite manage to run on to it. Just before halftime, Price made a great save when David Fox's free kick was deflected; somehow Price managed to recover and dive on it at the post.

The second half started with a good defensive play by Phillip Bardsley, heading a dangerous ball clear of the area from about the penalty spot. Joe Foote, on at halftime as a substitute, put a good ball ahead of Rawle at the 50-minute mark, but the striker blasted it wide from 18 yards.

It remained fairly even throughout the second half, with both sides remaining defensive and trying to control play through the midfield. Defense became ascendant as the attacking forces tired themselves out, and for much of the half, neither side could forge more than a half-chance.

Finally, at the 85th minute I told my lads to begin pressing forward, but I'd left it too late. We only had one true chance thereafter, as Foote put a nice ball ahead of substitute Levent Yalcin and into the Tamworth area, but Price cam rushing out to dive on it just before the Turkish youngster could put a boot on it.

Tamworth 0, York 0

----; ----

MoM: Smith (Tamworth DC)

All good things must come to an end, but I must admit I was disappointed to see the conclusion of our winning streak. I hadn't rated Tamworth a strong enough side to trouble us, and hadn't truly given my players a chance to win with the lineup I'd selected missing many of the big names. That was, of course, because I was resting them for the key F.A. Cup tie on December 3rd, but I was still disappointed.

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Thursday, 1st December, 2005.

We ended the month a single point behind Carlisle for the Conference lead, and I went to the board meeting today with high expectations.

The smiles all around confirmed my sense of well-being.

"We're delighted with the club's performance so far," chairman Steve Beck told me, "And I really hope that this signalls a renaissance for the fortunes of the Minstermen."

"Its been a long time since the fans have had this much to cheer about," Jason McGill added. "I've had to bulk up security lately, for the first time in years!"

Terry Doyle added, "That's not the best part. We're all particularly pleased that two York matches have been chosen for live television coverage, our 10th January match in Northampton, and the rematch against Barnet in March."

They turned to C.F.O. Sophie McGill to provide an overview of the finances. With the sale of several players in November, most notably Andy Bishop, plus the ticket revenue from the Port Vale match, we'd achieved a profit of £52,000 for the month, our most profitable month since I'd taken over.

"We're still nearly £70,000 in the hole for the year," she warned, "And with December's loan payment we're now £187,000 in short-term debt above and beyond the stadium loan."

"Here's my vision," I answered. "I've rested all of our top players for the F.A. Cup match against Bath on Saturday. It may have cost us two points against Tamworth, but if we can beat Bath to qualify for the Third Round, it will all be worth it.

"Drawing a lucrative away match against top Premier opposition could clear our books in a single stroke."

"That seems the quickest way out of our financial quagmire," Sophie answered, "But you can hardly control the draw."

"True enough - but you don't get lucky unless you put yourself in a situation to be lucky."

It had gone well enough, and I thought things were wrapping to a close, but Mister Beck stopped me as I rose.

"There's one other order of business," he said.

"The F.A. have given me something to give to you."

He brought out a piece of silverware! A trophy of sort, and presented it to me!

"I'm proud to give you your first award: you've been named English Conference (National) Mirror Manager of the Month."

We were the on-form side, with four victories and a draw in the league games, plus the stunning F.A. Cup upset. They brought out champagne to toast me with, and all seemed rosy through a glass or two.

I wasn't the only one with honours: Tappa Whitmore had been named runner-up in the Player of the Month voting, and Neil Mellor's late game-winning goal against Farnborough had been named third best Goal of the Month.

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Friday, 2nd December, 2005.

The big local news of the day was that Kidderminster Harriers manager Jan Molby, 42, was asked to make the jump up from League Two to the Championship to try and salvage Leeds' season. I didn't envy him the task - they were in an awful state, dead last in the Championship and solidly in the relegation zone.

Meanwhile, on the pitch, York Reserves lost to Scunthorpe 0-1 on the last day of November, a match played in a cold, driving rain that can only be described as bone-chilling, soggy, and miserable. The tie was most notable for the crowd, as a Reserve record of 283 fans paid to see them continue their quest for Reserve group glory.

Of perhaps more importance to us, Bognor Regis had defeated Leigh RMI in the replay, so they would be our F.A. Trophy opponents come January.

I met with my coaches this afternoon, and we discussed training. The new training schedules seemed to be working quite well, with their emphasis more on mental and technical development, and less physically demanding than the previous regime. Right wing Mark Goodwin had shown amazing improvement in a mere month, while 16-year-old goalkeeper Kevin Butler had shown dramatic improvement as his body matures physically. Graeme Law's continued steady development had him the most improved player since I took over, with left wing Adam Corbett just behind.

The central defenders, Liam Fontaine and Mark Wright, had shown very good improvement overall over their past four months, with Michael Staley also continuing to improve. Young Kevin West had shown an amazing leap after appearing to be plateaued previously, so the new training regime definitely suits him better than the previous. There was steady and even improvement among most of my wingers.

Three players register as not developing, striker Mark Rawle, whose contract expires at the year's end, right wing Adam Arthur, and new professional Darren Hollingsworth. My two oldest players are in a downward spiral, though Tappa Whitmore remains very talented, and Kevin Donovan is showing very slight improvement recently thanks to his return to training.

Viv warned me that starting goalkeeper David Stockdale and young central defender Jamie Cooper are not training as hard as they should be, and also mentioned that it would be ideal if he could have one more coach to help spread the training load - we'd gone through last season with five, thanks to the two player-coaches, and had been working with only three this year.

We were having a bit of trouble with 18-year-old goalkeeper Craig Saunders. When I'd signed him, well back in the close season, he'd apparently misconstrued a conversation that we'd had to mean that I'd promised him "First Team football", and he was concerned about the fact that I'd had him in the Reserves. I'd tried chatting with him, and I'd tried emphasizing his correct role, as a developmental player for the future and second-string on my depth chart, but he wasn't having any of it.

The situation had been simmering for a while, and I'd begun offering him a new contract, at a raise, with the reduced role explicit in the language, but he wasn't willing to sign. I may wind up offering him for sale - though I'd like to retain his services, I'm not going to give him the starting role just to keep him happy.

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Saturday, 3rd December, 2005. F.A. Cup - Second Round, at Team Bath.

Team Bath is a football club affiliated with the University of Bath, but playing in the semi-pro leagues. They earned promotion in three of their first four campaigns, and became the first univesity team to enter the F.A. Cup since 1881 with their 2002-03 season. Despite their amateur status, Gary Lloyd warned me not to underestimate The Scholars. They'd knocked off Lancaster and Weymouth on the way here, and he believes their team is average. With the lure of a collegiate degree, they've recruited a number of young former professionals who have given them a creative midfield and a pacey attack.

Against lower division opposition, many managers would be tempted to get some of their younger players experience, but with my target firmly fixed on the Third Round, I wasn't about to. I came out with my strongest XI, David Stockdale in goal, with Paul Parkin, Mark Wright, Liam Fontaine, and Graeme Law across the back four. David Fox would be the captain and defensive midfielder, with John McGrath and Jon Paul McGovern on the wings. Leading scorer Ryan Ashington would partner the always-wonderful Theodore Whitmore, and loanee Neil Mellor would be striker. Even the substitute's bench contained the strongest five I could field.

Fully 862 fans lined the athletic field at the University of Bath on a cool but dry December afternoon. I instructed our players to push forward a bit early on, looking for an early goal to unsettle our hosts, and it worked perfectly. The hosts looked nervous from the get go, and in the eighth minute, needlessly conceded a throw deep in their own half. Right back Graeme Law came forward to take it, and John McGrath played it back to him. Unmarked, Law had time to curled a fine cross into the 6-yard box. Bath keeper Gavin Kelly stood pat on his line rather than trying to punch it clear, and Neil Mellor was much taller than any of his defenders. It was easy for the Liverpool striker to head home for a 1-0 lead merely 8 minutes in!

In the 13th minute, Jon Paul McGovern sent in a cross which found Mellor about 8 yards from goal; this time Kelly made the save to tip it wide of the post. When Bath lost control of the ball at midfield, it took only one pass from Tappa Whitmore to put Mellor into the Bath defense. He skipped around central defender Joe Carr, and then was into the penalty area one-on-one with Kelly, who never had a chance. Mellor slipped it past him to the bottom left corner, and it was 2-0 at 17 minutes.

From there the rout was truly on, as Bath looked utterly rattled. They couldn't seem to string three passes together consecutively, and most of their clearances didn't get the ball out of their own half. Mellor returned Whitmore's favor five minutes later, putting the Jamaican into the box past the closest defender, though he was held onside by the right back. Without pressure, the international had no trouble schooling the young keeper from 14 yards out, and it was 3-0 at 23 minutes.

I pulled us back to our 'conservative' formation at 3-0, but the goals just kept coming. Ryan Ashington got into the act at the 30-minute mark, when John McGrath sent a cross into the six-yard box. Ashington tried to control it with his left foot, which is much weaker than his right, and it rolled past him to Kelly, who made a foot save to keep it from slipping into the net. Unfortunately for him, the rebound went straight to Ashington's right foot for an easy tap-in.

In the 35th minute, a free kick was awarded just to the left of the Bath penalty area. Jon Paul McGovern sent it to Mellor almost on the penalty spot, and the striker tried a spectacular half-volley. It struck Carr, who was standing on the post, and deflected wide for a corner. McGovern took that as well, putting it to Ashington outside the box. The youngster loves to shoot from range, and with a big lead he launched it into traffic - and somehow it got through without touching anyone, perhaps because one of the Bath players actually leaped out of the way! That was Ashington's second, and made it 5-0 going into half-time.

At half-time I instructed the lads that there was no need to further embarass our hosts. There would be no hat-tricks, as I subbed Ashington and Mellor off around the 60-minute mark. The fans were streaming for their cars and dorm rooms by the time Kelly saved Whitmore's 14-yard header, and there were few left to witness the most spectacular goal of the match.

Lee Morris was surrounded by Bath players, and well beyond the arc with little support. He feinted to his right, then cut the ball to his left foot to let fly with a 25-yard effort. Ronaldinho couldn't have struck it better, and it curled into the top-right corner past the badly demoralized Bath keeper! That made the final score 6-0, the most lopsided victory of my management career.

Team Bath 0, York 6

; ----; Mellor 8, 17, Whitmore 23, Ashington 30, 37, Morris 79

MoM: Mellor

The outcome here had never been in doubt, and the mood in the locker room afterwards was less celebratory than you might have expected: there had been a job to do, and we'd done it, but none of my players took any joy in crushing the youngsters' dreams so thoroughly.

They'd been good-natured about it, shaking hands afterwards and saying things like "What an honour it has been to play against you, Mr. Whitmore," but you could tell the comprehensiveness of their defeat had gutted them.

Neil Mellor's early brace had broken the back of their resistance, and he earned Man of the Match.

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Thanks! The Bath match was a strange one - they really did look nervous throughout the first half!

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Monday, 5th December, 2005.

£16,000 in prize money was nothing compared to the possibility of drawing a money-spinning tie at Old Trafford or Highbury, which made today's draw for the F.A. Cup Third Round the biggest day of the season for us. Sixty four teams, of which possibly five or six draws could salvage our financial situation in a single go. The board, the coaches and I gathered in the board room, taking a break from training, to watch the televised draw. Just as it got underway, I turned to Viv and said "Manchester United."

Tottenham were the first big club to go, drawing a home match to Nottingham Forest. Liverpool drew a home match, and you could almost hear the held breath throughout our toom, but Derby County were drawn opposite. In the next match, Manchester United were gone, with an away match to Doncaster.

Reading, Fulham, Charlton, Manchester City... the names ticked by, and with each one less chance of drawing a Premier side. Arsenal drew home about two thirds of the way through, but Stoke came up.

Chelsea drew Yeovil, and then there was a run of Premiership sides, with Everton, Newcastle and Sunderland gone. Eight names remained, then six, then four, and finally, with the 61st ball drawn we were announced as the home side.

Premiership Middlesbrough, Championship side Preston North End, and League One side Luton Town were all that remained...

"Against Ball number 53, Luton Town."

It wasn't the money-spinning tie we'd hoped for, and Luton, in second place and marching towards promotion, were hardly going to be an easy side to face. "Unlucky," somebody said, as we all let out our held breath. I found myself shaking - I hadn't realized how nervous it was, or how much anticipation I'd placed on it.

The match would be next month, the seventh of January.

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Thursday, 8th December, 2005.

Of course, our draw was just part of a lengthy fixture list in most national papers; the coverage was dominated by the build-up to the final rounds of Champions League group play, which commenced Tuesday evening.

In Group A, Rangers had already been eliminated, and couldn't even make the UEFA Cup with a win, but Olympique Lyonnais needed a result against them to guarantee their own advancement. It was a matter of Scottish pride for Rangers, and they earned their first victory of the group stage 2-1. Lyon slid into the next round when Valencia beat FC København.

<pre class="ip-ubbcode-code-pre">Q 1 Valencia 15 5 0 1 + 8

Q 2 Lyon 8 2 2 2 + 3

U 3 FC København 6 1 3 2 - 2

- 4 Rangers 4 1 1 4 - 9</pre>

In Group B, Newcastle United and Olympiakos were even going into the final match, and both at home. Newcastle had the easier draw, with last-placed Banik Ostrava, while Olympiakos faced Inter Milan. Olympiakos struck first, scoring in the 7th minute, and things got even grimmer for Newcastle as Banik Ostrava's Zdenek Kovar scored in the 13th minute. They needed something, anything, to get the home crowd back in it, and Bellamy's goal in the 16th did the trick. Olympiakos were cruising, with the lead up to 2-0 against Milan's reserves and younger players. Nicky Butt was the hero, putting Newcastle ahead 2-1 in the 36th minute, and tense defending kept that result for the English side. Inter Milan got one back in the second half, but the final score of both matches was 2-1.

<pre class="ip-ubbcode-code-pre">Q 1 Inter Milan 15 5 0 1 +19 15

Q 2 Newcastle 8 2 2 2 - 1 8

U 3 Olympiakos 8 2 2 2 - 7 8

- 4 Banik Ostrava 3 1 0 5 -11 3</pre>

In Group C, there was little to play for as Arsenal and Roma had both secured advancement. The Gunners beat Fenerbahçe in Turkey 3-1, while Ajax secured themselves a UEFA Cup berth with a 2-1 win in Rome.

<pre class="ip-ubbcode-code-pre">Q 1 Arsenal 15 5 0 1 +14

Q 2 Roma 8 2 2 2 + 3

U 3 Ajax 6 1 3 2 - 6

- 4 Fenerbahce 3 0 3 3 -11</pre>

Group D saw Leverkusen and Benfica advance with home wins, the Germans thanks to a 4-2 victory over Shakthar Donetsk, while the Portugese side won 2-1 against Basel.

In Group E, Chelsea travelled to Lisbon to face Sporting Club Portugal. With a two point lead over their hosts, Chelsea needed only a draw to advance, and a goal by Mista early in the second half put them well ahead of that target. Sporting equalized with fifteen minutes remaining, but a late goal by Michael Ballack ensured that Abramovich's side would advance, 2-1. Milan capped an undefeated campaign with a 3-1 victory over hapless Rosenborg.

<pre class="ip-ubbcode-code-pre">Q 1 Milan 15 4 2 0 + 9

Q 2 Chelsea 12 3 3 0 + 4

U 3 Sporting CP 7 2 1 3 - 3

- 4 Rosenborg 0 0 0 6 -10</pre>

Group F's fight was already over, with Barcelona and PSV Eindhoven assured of advancing before kick-off. Both fielded weakened sides, but won anyways, Barcelona 1-0 over Hajduk, while the Dutch side defeated Werder Bremen by the same scoreline.

In Group G, Deportivo needed a win at home against Paris Saint-Germaine to advance, as a draw would see the French side second. The Spanish side got what they were looking for, a 3-1 win, while last-placed Porto drew with group winners Bayern Munchen.

Group H, the last of the lot, had already seen Juventus and Manchester United advance two weeks prior. Both sides started relatively weakened sides for their finale, the Scudetto champions playing a sleepy 0-0 draw with last-placed Club Brugge, and Manchester United defeating Panathinaikos 2-0 on goals by Wayne Rooney and Colin Heath.

<pre class="ip-ubbcode-code-pre">Q 1 Juventus 14 4 2 0 +10

Q 2 Manchester Utd 11 3 2 1 + 4

U 3 Panathinaikos 4 1 1 4 - 6

- 4 Club Brugge 4 1 1 4 - 8</pre>

Almost overlooked with the European action were our minor-division sides. On Saturday, the U-18 side had played a dreary 0-0 draw at Macclesfield. Kevin Butler was the only player to distinguish himself, keeping his 13th non-competitive clean sheet of the season.

On Wednesday, it was a similarly dull result from Darlington, where our Reserve side had drawn nil-nil with Darlington's. That was a bit worrisome for me, as we had featured a full-strength side, including several players who were seeing regular first-team action. As one would expect from our chosen lineup, we dominated the match, but poor finishing remained our personal bugbear, at every level.

Good news on Thursday, as Craig Saunders signed a new contract, one which would see him at the club through 2009. It had taken a raise, and many rounds of negotiation, but the gaffe of our earlier misunderstanding seemed to be water under the bridge, and he was content with his role now. Things might get interesting there, however, as I'd offered him to Tottenham, and they made a serious bid just after he signed.

We did sell one player, young right wing Adam Arthur, whom I'd begun shopping around back in November. He had finally reached an arrangement with Grimsby Town, a deal which would bring in another £5,000 for us.

AMR Adam Arthur, 20: July 2002-December 2005: 4 seasons, 11 games, 1 goal, 1 assist, 6.75

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Saturday, 10th December, 2005. Conference National - Match 17, vs Burton.

After all of the focus on the F.A. Cup, it was time to get back to the business of Conference play. We faced a reasonable opponent in Burton, mid-table in 11th, and rated "competent" by my scout Gary Lloyd. However, we had a brilliant opportunity to go top, as first-placed Carlisle, one point ahead of us, had to visit third-placed Morecambe. If we could win while they lost, we'd be into the lead.

We started the exact same squad that had beaten Bath 6-0, I believe for the first time since I'd taken over at York. That was Stockdale in goal, Parkin, Wright, Fontaine, and Law across the back, David Fox the captain, McGrath and McGovern the wings, Whitmore and Ashington in the central attacking midfield roles, and Mellor up front.

The conditions at Bootham Crescent were awful - it was snowing, and windy, and very difficult to see anything. The conditions interfered with play so much, I half expected the referee to call the match, but he let us soldier on. David Fox blasted a long-range shot over the bar early, but that was essentially the sum of the action until Jon Paul McGovern's header in the 30th minute went wide.

In fact, by halftime, neither team had a shot on target, though we'd had four shots wide to Burton's none. Theodore Whitmore had picked up a charlie-horse on his right thigh, and I brought him off lest he do himself injury. Noting how defensive Burton had been playing - they'd been pulling back eleven men on corners, among other things - I decided to switch to my 'patient buildup' in the second half, pushing forward a bit more.

In the 60th minute, Lee Morris was unmarked at the top of the penalty arc, but curled his 22-yard effort over the crossbar. By the 78th minute, I'd made every substitution I could, including Stephen Cooke and Levent Yalcin in. Cooke took a free kick from 20 yards out, but blazed it over the bar, and I switched to my aggressive formation, abandoning patience.

Scottish left back Paul Parkin broke down the left wing, as far forward as a winger would normally venture, and then passed head into the area to Yalcin. The Turk was held onside by the far side fullback, who to be fair probably couldn't see the play through the swirling snow. From eight yards out, Yalcin made it 1-0 with a solid shot to the lower right corner!

We'd had ten shots, while Burton had yet to manage a single attempt, and I felt the 1-0 advantage would be enough. In the 85th minute, they got their first shot, a weak long-range effort that blew well wide. Things looked secure until the 91st minute, when David Borley took control in midfield for Burton. He launched a pass forwad for captain Glen Kirkwood, who had managed a run straight down the middle, and was somehow unmarked by either of my central defenders or my defensive midfielder. With plenty of time and space, he slotted it home for the late equalizer, disappointing the crowd of 1,898 who had suffered through the weather to root us on.

York 1, Burton 1

Yalcin 81; Kirkwood 90

MoM: Kirkwood (Burton SC)

That was a disappointing match in every way. We had thoroughly dominated, but could only put two shots on target, while Burton hadn't seemed to even consider going forward until the final minutes, and despite very defensive orders, we'd missed something as fundamental as covering the opposition's leading scorer.

It was Liam Fontaine's error, as he had stepped to cover the wrong man when Borley had the ball, but I was disappointed that Fox hadn't been positioned to hassle the central midfielder either.

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Friday, 16th December, 2005.

Morecambe and Carlisle had duelled out a scoreless draw in similarly inclement weather, so we remained one point back of the leaders. We would get another chance to go top the following weekend: our opponent was Carlisle in the flesh!

In Lincoln, the York U-18s had also drawn 1-1. Amateur Steve Collier was the hero, scoring a late equalizer after Lincoln had led 1-0 for most of the match. Joe Foote picked up his 5th yellow card and a one-match ban.

The week went by quickly, almost too quickly: Stacy is studying for finals, so the house is quiet, as she's spending most of her time at the university library. If I'd had more of a tactical-tinkering bent, I might have spent the time productively to come up with a counter for Carlisle's 5-3-2, which had been running rampant, but I had no ideas save to continue with our usual 4-5-1.

On Wednesday, 293 fans turned out to Bootham Crescent for our Reserve match against Bradford City, to welcome Kevin Donovan back to the pitch. The veteran had broken his thigh way back in March, and was finally able to return to his right wing. He lasted about 45 minutes in a sleet storm, and then I switched to Mark Goodwin. In the second half, Mark Rawle scored on a free kick from 22 yards, an uncharacteristic way for him to score as usually his speed creates his goals, and Neil Danns made it 2-0 some few minutes later. Darren Dunning was named Man of the Match on the left wing.

Craig Saunders may have earned a clean sheet in goal and signed a new contract with us, but regardless, I accepted a renegotiated offer from Tottenham for him. They'd been willing to pay fully £60,000 for the young goalkeeper, which was well over double what I thought he was worth, plus they'd agreed to visit Bootham Crescent during the offseason for a friendly, which might be worth more to us than the cash they were paying.

Given our financial constraints, I could hardly refuse such lucre for a player who hasn't cracked our starting linteup, and Saunders jumped enthusiastically at the prospect of playing for such a well-supported club. By Friday, the deal was arranged, to go through when the Premiership transfer window opens on the 1st of January.

Next up: the league leaders!

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Saturday, 17th December, 2005. Conference National - Match 18, at Carlisle.

The day of the showdown between the top two clubs in the Conference dawned cold and wet, and by the time we'd reached Carlisle - one of England's northern-most points, on the west coast of the border with Scotland - the storm had reached gale-force winds. Carlisle had only lost one game all season, and led the league both in goals scored and fewest goals conceded; their goal difference of +21 was far better than our +11, and every pundit had them tipped as the team which would earn the single guaranteed promotion slot. They normally play a 5-3-2, their attack is strong and quick, and their defense is sturdy.

Despite the disappointing draw preceding, most of my players were still reasonably happy, and for the third straight match I started the same lineup: Stockdale, Parkin, Wright, Fontaine, Law, and Fox in the back, with McGovern, McGrath, Tappa Whitmore, Ryan Ashington, and Mellor making up the attack. Carlisle's 5-3-2 is very aggressive, with the two fullbacks charging forward as wingers on the attack, two central midfielders, an attacking midfielder, and two strikers - they commit fully seven men to the attack at times.

Conditions on the pitch were atrocious: a tremendous wind, and squalls of rain. This winter was making last year's look mild. Nonetheless, more than 3,400 people showed up, and "the show must go on," as they say. Scott Fitzgerald showed how "up" for the match our hosts were, breaking into the area early, but blazing his 14-yard shot over the crossbar.

If that hadn't woken us up, their 10th minute corner kick would have to. Paul Weller knew better than to try a deep corner in these conditions, and played relatively short to Keith Andrews, at the near corner of the 6-yard box. Beautifully marked, and with the ball at feet, he turned and passed low across the top of the 6-yard box, teeing it up beautifully for striker Chris Jones. Somehow Jones had slipped free of his marker, and blasted it home past the helpless David Stockdale, and we were staring at a 0-1 deficit.

There was no panic on our sideline - to their credit the lads came right back at them. Creative genius Tappa Whitmore, with his back to goal, spotted the run of Neil Mellor, and chipped into the area ahead of him. Marlon Dill had no choice but to stick out his leg and bring Mellor down, which he did right on the edge of the area. Our players crowded around referee Dave Whitby, arguing for a penalty and/or a red card for the cynical foul, but neither were on offer: Whitby was going to let the top two teams play with as little interference as possible! He set up an 18-yard free kick, which I expected Whitmore or Ryan Ashington to take. The Carlisle defense must have thought so, too, and they were still setting up a bit when Whitby blew the whistle to resume play. Jon Paul McGovern saw this, and quickly launched a shot on goal, which deflected off of the wall and past Matty Glennon, into the net! It was the Carlisle players' turn to complain bitterly, but the goal would stand, and fifteen minutes in we were all square, 1-1.

With Carlisle sending men forward at every opportunity, there were some gaps opening up in their back line. Ashington forced a good save from Glennon with an 18-yard blast six minutes after our goal, then in the 24th minute it was another Carlisle corner kick. Weller floated the ball into the area, and the wind blew it down perfectly for Fitzgerald's far post run. He leaped in the air over the back of Liam Fontaine, and crushed a picturesque header on goal. Fortunately, it struck the bar and cannoned back into play. No foul, of course, as Whitby continued to mind his own business and let the players mind theirs.

Carlisle kept the pressure on for the next seven minutes, but then Liam Fontaine got ahold of it, and sent a long ball upfield, bypassing the midfield entirely. Neil Mellor set himself with his back to goal about 40 yards out, and leaped up to nod it on to Whitmore's run. Fully thirty yards from goal, the Jamaiacan wizard launched a shot which appeared headed straight down broadway, but then the wind picked it, and curled it to the top left corner!! Glennon could do little to prevent it, and it would surely be a candidate for Goal of the Month, putting us ahead 2-1!

I still can't believe Tranmere only charged us £1,000 for Whitmore - they really misjudged his worth! He nearly added an 18-yarder six minutes after, but then it was halftime. Rather than give a rousing team talk, I served the lads warm apple cider, and had them all change into dry, clean kits: this match was nowhere near over, but the least we could do was make them comfortable.

Twice in the first few minutes of the second half, Whitmore's creative passing sprang Ashington into the box, but the youngster was really struggling with the wind and put both efforts well wide.

Carlisle's attack continued to build pressure on us at the other end, but our defense rose to the challenge. Murphy's free kick deflected off the wall, but Stockdale dove on it. Roca sent a dangerous cross to Fitzgerald a mere 8 yards from our goal, which Graeme Law headed clear. Mark Wright squashed a corner kick, and then in the 67th minute Roca's shot deflected off of McGrath. It looked goalbound for sure, but again Stockdale made a great save.

Attacking substitute Stephen Cooke got into the act, heading a ball clear from deep in our area. Carlisle attacker Karl Hawley had two great chances, the first a long ball which appeared to have him clear of our defense, but Law hustled back and made a beautiful slide tackle in the box to knock avert the danger. Some referees might have awarded a penalty on it, but not Whitby. Mere minutes later, it was Hawley again into the box, but Wright took it off his feet.

By the 75th minute, both sides were fully exhausted. Running anywhere in this wind was testing everyone's endurance, but none more so than the Carlisle wingers, who were expected to get the length of the field every time posession changed. Farrell looked to be offsides in the 76th, when a ball came over the top, but there was no call, letting him get free into the box. Luckily for us, he put it wide. Roca broke our offsides trap in the 81st minute, but Stockdale again loomed large, coming up with his third big save of the day.

In the 83rd minute, Law sent a long ball over the top, and the last Carlisle defender misjudged it in the wind, trying to head it back upfield but missing entirely. It fell to Levent Yalcin, who had the easiest of one-on-one chances. Somehow Glennon made the save, denying our Turkish striker.

The rain was battering down heavier now, and the Carlisle side seemed on the brink of utter exhaustion. I pulled everyone back for the final minutes, playing a tightly packed defense. Despite fully four minutes of injury time, Carlisle couldn't mount another serious chance, and we'd won it, 2-1.

Carlisle 1, York 2

Jones 10; McGovern 15, Whitmore 32

MoM: McGovern

I walked out through the rain to shake the hand of Carlisle manager Steve Whitton.

"Its a shame there's only one spot at the top," I told him. "That was League football from both sides."

Though the lads had looked utterly exhausted, by the time they'd had hot showers and a dry change of clothes, there was still enough energy left to celebrate a bit: we were top of the table!

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Sunday, 18th December, 2005.

In the post-game interview - for of course, this match drew a bit more attention than the run-of-the-mill Conference encounter - I stated that I want York City to replace Carlisle as the leading contender for promotion to League Two. It was the first time I'd mentioned my ambitions publicly, but it was the first time our results on the pitch had merited such confidence as well.

The side were entirely exhausted, and that combined with the bad weather continuing through the following week to cause a run of injuries. Right back Graeme Law twisted his knee on Sunday, whilst leading scorer Ryan Ashington pulled a hamstring.

Each would be out throughout the Christmas fixture congestion, but physio Jeff Miller expected them both to return in time for the F.A. Cup Third Round tie against Luton.

Luckily we had sufficient players in on loan to fill the voids their absence would leave.

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Tuesday, 20th December, 2005. Conference National - Match 19, vs Crawley.

The side from our glorious victory were entirely exhausted, and not a single member of the starting eleven from that match were able to start Tuesday night against Crawley - even David Stockdale was tired after a gutty performance.

The compromised lineup I was able to field started with Mark Zawadski in goal. Young Kevin West started at left back. Michael Staley would anchor the center of the back line, but his partner, 17-year-old Darren Hollingsworth, was making his first ever senior start. Loanee Phillip Bardsley stepped in at right back. Malcolm Parker was a stop-gap measure at best at defensive midfield. Veteran Darren Dunning would be the captain and left back, while Kevin Donovan, who had turned 34 over the weekend, would make his return to the lineup at right back after nine and a half months away from football due to his broken thigh. Loanees Lee Morris and Neil Danns were the attacking midfielders. Speedy Mark Rawle started up front, still searching for his first goal of the season.

It was a weak, weak lineup; I'd started stronger sides in reserve matches this season, honestly. The fact that there was snow and the ground and sleet falling sporadically would help to even things out, I hoped. The crowd of 1,619 gave a nice standing ovation when Kevin Donovan was announced in the starting lineup, and then we were underway. Lee Morris' pass put Mark Rawle into the Crawley area six minutes in, but his shot from 10 yards was saved by goalkeeper Phil Smith.

Most of the early chances were at the other end, however, as Crawley fed Andy Furnell. Three times he took shots which went well wide and into the crowd - one actually made it over the goal-line stands and out of the park entirely. The crowd was having fun taunting him, and started a chant about "the broad side of a barn" in his honour.

Their fun couldn't mask the fact that Donovan was really struggling - he didn't seem to have the pace to stay with the game, and he was quickly exhausted trying to cover his wing. By the 30th minute, I signalled the fourth official that I wanted to make a change, and had Stephen Cooke warming up on the sideline.

In the 32nd minute, referee John Pearce gave Crawley midfielder Steve Walters a yellow card for grabbing hold of Darren Dunning. The next minute, Pearce blew the whistle on Paul Armstrong for taking the legs out from under Neil Danns. To be fair, it was a questionable call, made to look much worse by the snow and conditions than it actually had been, but Walters was furious. He blew his top, giving Pearce a piece of his mind and a detailed dissection of Pearce's ancestry. In exchange, Walters was issued a second yellow, and we would finish out the next 60 minutes with a man advantage!

Only then was I allowed to bring Cooke on for Donovan, and I had him instruct the wings and fullbacks to push forward. Staley's free kick went straight down the middle of the park for Mark Rawle, who had an easy chance but put it over. Dunning got Rawle into the box just before the half, and this time the speedster closed to the 6-yard box, but somehow managed to miss the net entirely.

In the second half, the sleet had let up into a driving icy rain. At 51 minutes, we earned a corner kick, which Danns put directly to Rawle. He tried to dribble in traffic, and Paul Smith dove on the ball at his feet. It kicked sideways to Michael Staley, who launched a drive on the open goal, but defender Sean Hankin threw himself in the way, to block the shot at the line.

In the 63rd minute, I switched Rawle off for Levent Yalcin, who brought instant life to our lackluster side. Cooke sent a cross into the box for Yalcin on 70 minutes, but Irishman Ian Simpemba cleared it away. At 75 minutes, Morris launched a long ball through the rain to Yalcin, who bore down on goal, but launched his shot wide from just inside the penalty spot.

It was backs-to-the-wall defending for Crawley through the final ten minutes, and Sean Hankin, Neil Ecclestone, and Simpemba all made important clearances. Our last, best chance came on 87 minutes when Phillip Bardlsey came up the right wing, and sent a cross through the 6-yard box for Yalcin, who was just unable to connect with it.

York 0, Crawley 0

----; ----

MoM: Smith (Crawley GK)

It was a disappointing follow-up to our emotional victory over Carlisle, as we were unable to capitalize on a man advantage against a weaker team.

It was gratifying to see the look in Kevin Donovan's eyes as he thanked me, after the match. "I doubted I would ever play again," he told me, "Thank you for giving me that opportunity."

Unsaid, I could tell that he doubted he would get another, having let the club down as badly as he did.

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Friday, 23rd December, 2005.

There was an early Christmas present Wednesday morning when I checked the score wire. Carlisle had lost against last-placed Hornchurch, 3-2, so we'd actually gained a point, now going three points clear. Believe it or not, we opened the day with first place in all three competitions we were in: our senior side 3 points ahead in the Conference National, our Reserve side even on points but ahead in goal difference in the Reserve Group 6, and our Under-18 side one point ahead in the Under 18s Group 2.

If our lineup against Crawley had been a Reserve side, we were really scraping the bottom of the barrel Wednesday evening when the real Reserves played. A mixed U-18 side and amateur side taking the pitch to face Accrington Reserves. The side was headed by forward Paul Robinson, who had returned from his three month loan with Kendal. They, too, played the dominant side in a cold and sleet-filled evening, but finished with a scoreless draw. That result dropped them to second in their Reserve Group.

Then, it was time for Christmas. As I had last season at Lancaster, I gave my players Christmas Eve and Christmas Day off, with instructions to simply join us at Bootham Crescent at 9:00am to board the bus for our match on Boxing Day.

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Sunday, 25th December, 2005.

Merry Christmas!

Stacy and I had company in town - we had done since Wednesday actually, but technically they were here for Christmas: our mothers, and her maternal grandmother. It isn't like its portrayed on bad sitcoms; our mothers get along quite well with each other, and were more than happy to get together and spend some time with Stacy while I continued working through Wednesday. We made a big family production out of Christmas Day, with a tree, presents and all, and then a large dinner.

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Monday, 26th December, 2005. Conference National - Match 20, at Forest Green Rovers.

Forest Green Rovers F.C. are based in Nailsworth, Gloucestershire, in South West England, servicing a town of merely 6,600. Despite the theoretical lack of support, they're a reasonable team, sitting down in 12th place but solid at home, with a pacey attack.

After a week's rest, we were back to a solid lineup, with Stockdale in goal, Parkin, Fontaine, Wright, and Phillip Bardsley across the back, and David Fox the defensive midfielder. Captain Darren Dunning was on the left, with McGovern the right wing. Lee Morris would partner Tappa Whitmore, and Neil Mellor was the striker.

It was raining, that sort of dull, steady rain that inevitably soaks one through because they've forgotten their umbrella.

Forest Green started off in the 7th minute with a spectacular goal, a definite Goal of the Month candidate. David Fox was whistled for holding back Charlie Griffin about 20 yards from goal. Russell Kelly took the free kick, and launched it directly off the wall. It came back high off the shoulder of Tappa Whitmore, falling to Andy Thomson fully 25 yards from goal. Pivoting on his left foot, he volleyed with his right, striking it before it reached the ground, and somehow found the target. It was an impossible shot for David Stockdale to keep out, and an early 0-1 deficit on the road.

Referee John Pearce was calling a tight game, and had handed out several yellow cards by the 20th minute. Seeing no sign of offensive life, I started pushing the wings and fullbacks forward. In the 27th minute, we found ourselves with eight men forward, and the entire Forest Green squad packed into their penalty area. David Fox, Phillip Bardsley, and Darren Dunning worked the perimeter with a series of square passes, which eventually came back to Fox in the arc. He used one touch to position the ball for his left foot, just inside the area, and launched a 17-yard blast into the defense. Goalkeeper Mark Howard looked to have it in his sights, but it touched Ian Wilkinson in the 6-yard box, just enough to deflect it past Howard and into the net. We were even, 1-1, by the half-hour!

I left the attack on, and Neil Mellor gave us another solid chance 5 minutes later. He dribbled into the area along the end line from the right side, and put a low cross through the 6-yard box; there was no run on the other end for the finish. We kept heavy pressure on until the close of the half, but just couldn't seem to find that final touch.

It was more of the same in the second, as Darren Dunning's cross found McGovern in the area, but he shot wide from 10 yards out. In the 53rd, well against the run of play, Forest Green right wing Mark Beesly outran Paul Parkin to a ball in the corner. He cut it back to Griffin, who, inspired by Thomson's goal, tried a spectacular volley from the 18-yard stripe. Stockdale made a fine save to keep it 1-1.

By the hour mark, the conditions had really taken their toll: the pitch was a mudbath, and both sides were noticeably slowing down. Whitmore and Mellor seemed to have lost a step, as had Beesley, and a flurry of substitutes followed: in the five minutes after the hour, both managers made all three of our substitutes, bringing on fresh attacking legs.

It paid off for we Minstermen in the 68th minute, as Mark Wright played it forward to young Joe Foote, on as a substitute. Foote played it forward to weak-shooting Mark Rawle, my second sub, and as the central defenders converged on the speedster, he played it ahead of Neil Danns. The third substitute, held onside by the far side fullback, was utterly alone into the penalty area. Howard charged out to meet him, but Danns nimbly skipped past the keeper and could have dribbled into goal. The crowd of 2,903 groaned as he put it into the net. It was fine work for his first-ever York goal, and we had our first lead of the afternoon, 2-1.

I pulled back to a more defensive outlook to protect the late lead, and Forest Green couldn't seem to get anything going. Their task got much more difficult in the 78th minute when Danns played an innocuous ball to Foote in the center. Though he was fully 30 yards from goal, Pearce blew the whistle on goalscorer Thomson for pulling on Foote's shirt. The strict referee showed no hesitation in displaying a second yellow card, and sending Thomson off.

The crowd's mood turned ugly, but the man disadvantage and the numbing rain seemed to take all the fight out of our hosts. In the 82nd minute, Parkin launched a long pass over the top for Danns on the counterattack. Howard saved his first shot, but the rebound rolled to his right, into Rawle's path at the 6-yard box. With an open net, he looked certain to score, but a sliding Ryan Trowbridge disposessed him, and though I half expected a penalty the way Pearce had been calling the game, none was given.

Through injury time, we remained the attackers, and Forest Green never looked like threatening.

Forest Green 1, York 2

Thomson 7; Fox 27, Danns 68

MoM: McGovern

Scottish right wing Jon Paul McGovern was named man of the match after a fine performance. He seemed quite determined to build on our recent successes.

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Tuesday, 27th December, 2005.

With two senior matches in three days, it was quite unfortunate to have a Reserve match between them. I wrote a stiff letter of protest to the F.A., begging a more understanding schedule next season.

In the meantime, I instructed Viv to field an entirely bottom-tier, youth, and amateur lineup against Gravesend, with only three substitutes named, and the situation was made even more dire when Paul Robinson was injured in the first minute. Amateur striker James Smart gave the Reserves an early lead, but Gravesend Reserves put two goals past Gareth Gray in the second half to defeat us 1-2.

After the match, Robinson turned out to be relatively unhurt - we'd thought he might have broken his wrist in a fall, but it turned out to be merely sprained.

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Wednesday, 28th December, 2005. Conference National - Match 21, vs Dorchester.

We were at home against 18th-placed Dorchester, a side which had won only 4 games all year. Making their stock even worse, they had two starters out with injury, and would be missing goalkeeper Craig Bradshaw and defender Alex Browne, who had both been sent off on Monday. Many regulars from both sides would be too exhausted to contribute on one day's rest, so it was ad-hoc starting lineups for both sides.

I sent out David Stockdale in goal, with a very inexperienced defense in front of him. 16-year-old Kevin West was at left back, with 18-year-old Michael Staley and 17-year-old Darren Hollingsworth at central defense and 18-year-old Nathan Kamara at right back. Malcolm Parker, also 18, was the defensive midfielder. Ahead of them there was some exerience, with Irishman John McGrath providing some veteran leadership at left wing and the dangerous Stephen Cooke on the right. Neil Danns would partner with Joe Foote in an attacking role as the youngster made his first start of the season, and up-and-coming Levent Yalcin would be our striker. All told, that group had a total of 68 starts - and we were fully 20 games into the season!

I sent the backs and wings forward from the opening kickoff, figuring that an early goal might knock Dorchester out. It was snowing, or rather, it had snowed the night before, and the wind was swirling snow around the stadium - I don't think fresh precipitation was falling, but it was hard to tell.

We kept constant pressure on throughout the first 30 minutes, but continued to lack that killer instinct around goal. At the half-hour mark, all we had to show for our efforts was four yellow cards to the visitor's none.

It wasn't until the fortieth minute that we had a real chance. Stephen Cooke was working the ball up the right wing, but Michael Kavanagh's slide tackle disposessed him. Right back Nathan Kamara was following the play, picked up the loose ball, and sent a long pass into the area. Reserve Dorchester keeper Mark Ormerod tried to push it away with open palms, and that worked about as well as a volleyball player trying to 'set' in response to a spike. The ball splayed over his head, and off to his left, rolling towards the corner of the six-yard box. Opportunistic Levent Yalcin pounced on it, and drove it home past the sprawling Ormerod. An average crowd of 1,613 cheered enthusiastically as we took a 1-0 lead to the half.

Joe Foote nearly made it two-nil in the 50th, as Cooke sent a beautiful cross through the box to the youngster, unmarked at the far post, but he couldn't direct his header, letting it go just wide. Left wing John McGrath picked up a bit of a knock, injuring his shoulder in the first half, and at the 57th I brought him off, letting Cooke move to the left, and bringing Mark Goodwin on for his York debut.

In the 65th minute, Malcolm Parker took a free kick near the midfield line, and launched a long ball directly over the defense. Dorchester captain Ian Hughes elected to try and head it away from the top of the arc, but misjudged it, letting speedy Mark Rawle slip past him into the box. Ormerod charged out, and Rawle neatly flicked it left, dribbling around him. He almost put it too far, with the snow on the ground, but managed to get his left foot on it, and drive it just inside the post. It was Rawle's first goal of the season, and Parker's first-ever professional assist. At 2-0, the match looked firmly in control.

Near the end of the 72nd minute, Cooke centered the ball from his new left wing position. Brightwell gave a half-hearted clearance, but young Goodwin tracked it down just outside the box. Despite 9 Dorchester players in the box, he found a clear path to Joe Foote, who was walking slowly back, and was only just onside. Foote swivelled on it, and drove a first-time effort on goal. Though Ormerod got a hand on it, he couldn't deny Foote his first goal of the season, and it was 3-0!

Our guests caved in entirely at that point, and ceased even pretending to go forward. They looked like they just wanted their nightmare season to end, and with the snow falling, our youngsters were content to let them go. Neil Danns offered one last parting shot at the 90th minute, a header that went narrowly wide, but 3-0 was the final.

York 3, Dorchester 0

Yalcin 41, Rawle 65, Foote 73; ----

MoM: Danns

It was cold, and after a quick wave of acknowledgement, we left the reggae dancing in the snow to the loyal fans who'd braved the weather, and headed indoors to warm up. I gave the lads a good word of encouragement, making sure to call out the youngsters who'd performed particularly well, Parker, Goodwin, Foote, Yalcin, and of course Man of the Match Neil Danns.

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Friday, December 30th, 2005.

That was a York record, our fifteenth straight game without defeat, and of course it kept us top of the table, now at the halfway point of the season. More than that, though, we'd been completely dominant with our second-tier squad, and that was when I realized that we really did deserve to promote on merit, not just on the strength of the loans I'd arranged. I'd been worried about promoting without the backbone of a League-calibre team, but this victory assuaged the worst of my fears.

Left wing John McGrath's shoulder injury would force him to miss our next match, on New Year's Day, but should be back for the Luton Town Cup match the next weekend. Number two left wing Darren Dunning sprained his wrist after a hard fall at the club's training ground, and that would leave us with a bit of shifting around required to cover.

Friday the 30th was the anniversary of my first day with York Town, an occasion which Chairman Steve Beck honored by throwing a small dinner festivity in my honor. It was very nice, with my staff, a few of the directors, and Stacy of course. I laughed out loud when I saw the gift Beck had arranged - a suit done in York's colors, red with white and grey accents. I certainly couldn't imagine myself wearing it any place other than touchline, but I was touched that he'd remembered the occasion.

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Sunday, 1st January, 2006, morning.

The board remained delighted with my performance, as you might guess from the dinner party. We're exceeding anybody's expectations thus far. The fans, too, are delighted with our progress this season and are fully in support of my management of the club. In fact, I came second in the Manager of the Month voting for December.

Here were the top seven of the standings at the midway point of the season:

<pre class="ip-ubbcode-code-pre">1 YORK 45 14 3 4 36 20 +16

2 Carlisle 42 12 6 3 38 16 +22

3 Northampton 38 11 5 5 41 29 +12

4 Morecambe 36 10 6 5 34 24 +10

5 Dagenham & Redbridge 36 10 6 5 34 26 + 8

6 Canvey Island 36 11 3 7 31 26 + 5

7 Crawley 33 7 12 2 30 18 +11</pre>

Sophie McGill, the chief financial officer, was also satisfied. We'd lost only £15,000 over the month of December, and we were poised to make back well more than that with the sale of Craig Saunders. In fact, that sale should leave us almost breaking even for the season to date.

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Sunday, 1st January, 2006. Conference National - Match 22, vs Southend United.

My red-and-grey tailored suit would make its debut at home, against last-placed Southend United. A porous defense had them falling well short of safety, despite a reasonably quick attack and a leading scorer searching for his tenth goal. It seemed a good omen to inagurate the suit against them. The weather was breezy, but mercifully dry and above freezing for the first time in weeks.

Our starting lineup was relatively familiar. David Stockdale remained in goal, with Paul Parkin at the left back, Liam Fontaine and Mark Wright central, and loanee Phillip Bardsley still filling in for Graeme Law at right back. David Fox would be the captain and defensive midfielder. With the injury crisis at left wing, promising 16-year-old Adam Corbett would make his senior debut, while Jon Paul McGovern would provide a veteran presence opposite. Creative genius Tappa Whitmore would partner with speedy Lee Morris in the attacking midfield roles, and Liverpool striker Neil Mellor was licking his chops at the prospect of starting against the Southend defense.

The game started slowly, with both sides fencing for advantage, but careful not to overexpose themselves. I had my wingers and backs pushing forward, to better take advantage of the weak defense, but through the first 20 minutes, neither side seemed to threaten. In the 21st, defensive midfielder David Fox took posession at the top of the arc, and delayed playing the ball. Finally, he shot, but it was well too obvious, and Bart Griemink saved easily.

In the 25th, Lee Morris played a fine pass ahead of Tappa Whitmore in the Southend half. The Jamaican made two quick touches to close to 20 yards, and launched a beautiful shot which had Griemink beat, but the wind pushed it left, and it struck the bottom of the left post, barely going out of play.

It took until just before the half, but finally my aggressive tactic paid off. Right back Phillip Bardsley had ventured far forward along the right wing, and was perhaps 25 yards from the end line when he launched a deep cross. Neil Mellor rose above Southend defender Jamie Ward 10 yards from goal, and his powerful header was more than Griemink could handle. 2,130 fans erupted in a roar of approval, and we took a 1-0 lead to the intermission.

Ward made up for his mistake by heading a dangerous corner-kick off the Southend line in the 48th minute, but Southend looked completely beaten. In the 67th minute, Fox played a long ball ahead of substitute Levent Yalcin, who raced into the box with only the goalie to beat. He dribbled around the onrushing Griemink, but had delayed just too long, and Kevin Maher was able to knock the ball away. I was starting to get worried - Southend's attack hadn't looked dangerous at any time, but we were letting them hang around, and that was dangerous.

By the 75 minute mark, when it was still a single goal, I pulled my players back to defend. In the 80th minute, Southend defenders Spencer Prior and Duncan Jupp had posession at the right sideline, and tried to get cute rather than clear the ball. Debutante Adam Corbett read it perfectly, stepped between them, and just that suddenly he was clean through on goal! Neither could catch him from behind, and he dribbled alone into the area. One last touch changed the angle just enough that he could shoot past Griemink, and he laced it into the far corner. The sixteen-year-old had a marvellous goal on his debut, and we had a 2-0 lead, victory all but assured!

Southend completely folded at that point, not even making the obligatory change to an attacking formation, and we quickly ran time down. In the 89th minute, Corbett nearly got an assist to go with his goal, launching a beautiful cross to Yalcin, who headed over the bar from about 8 yards out. Then it was just a matter of dealing with injury time, and waving thank yous to the crowd.

York 2, Southend 0

Mellor 43, Corbett 80; ----

MoM: Corbett

It had been a dream debut for 16-year-old Adam Corbett, and he was the sentimental choice for Man of the Match! He looked stunned, delighted beyond belief, but as though he half expected somebody to wake him up any moment, as the lads came through to congratulate him after!

Though of course the press discussion afterwards centered around Corbett, whose stock had risen meteorically, the talking point among our defensive squad was even more impressive. Believe it or not, they had been perfect: Southend had not even gotten a shot off.

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Wednesday, 4th January, 2006.

It was big news in Yorkshire, though perhaps not as big nationally - Neil Warnock was sacked as manager of Sheffield United on the night of the first, following a 1-0 defeat to Plymouth Argyle. He was under a year shy of his thousandth match with the club, but with the club having won just twice since October, relegation from the Championship was staring the Blades in the face.

Its hard to convey what big news it was, in Yorkshire. The sharp-tongued Warnock was a bit of a cult personality, and his departure rivalled the stunning debut of Adam Corbett for column inches in the local papers. He'd had seven years in charge, and after clearing the club's £20M debt, had had the club on the verge of promotion the past three years, with places of 3rd, 8th, and 6th, but no luck in the playoffs.

The sale of Craig Saunders was completed on schedule, with £60,000 added to the club's coffers. Tottenham immediately valued him at £375,000, and I couldn't tell if that was a "Keep your hands off," or if I'd horribly misjudged his true value.

Craig Saunders, GK, 18: August 2005-December 2005: 1 season, 3 games, all starts, 6 goals conceded, 0 clean sheets, 6.33. Had also posted 6 clean sheets in 12 reserve games with a 6.75 avedrage rating.

Right wing Jon Paul McGovern bruised his foot during training on Tuesday, and would have to miss two weeks, including our Cup tie against Luton Town and our key league match against third-placed Northampton. He was very frustrated at being injured during such an important stage of the season, especially given our injury problems on the wing.

Lee Morris had sprained his ankle during Monday's training session, an injury which would rule him out for the month of January. Since his loan expires January 16th, that might do it for his tenure with York, although I want to bring him back for a second three-month loan February through April.

York Reserves beat Brighton 1-0 on the road, despite spending 55 minutes with only ten minutes. Mark Rawle scored the goal early on. Trialist fullback Alan Lowing made a poor impression, drawing two yellow cards and getting sent off in the first half. However, solid defending from Jason Pickering, Michael Staley, and a Man of the Match performance by 16-year-old Kevin Butler earned the clean sheet and Reserve win. I can't wait until the young 'keeper is ready for the senior side; he looks a sight better than anybody we've put between the sticks yet.

In the U-18 match, amateur substitutes George Harding and James Smart scored as York's youngsters beat Halifax U-18's.

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Ironic confluence of events - IRL, Warnock resigned his post at United on 16th May, 2007, less than 18 hours after I posted that!

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Saturday, 7th January, 2006. F.A. Cup - Third Round, vs Luton Town.

The day of our biggest match of the season dawned sunny, but cold and windy. Fully 9,353 fans - just 100 shy of capacity - had descended on Bootham Crescent, many of them arriving much earlier in the day to drink and sing in the parking lot, despite the universal prediction that we were bound for our Cup exit against a side searching from promotion from League One.

I fielded the strongest XI that I could, but there were some notable holes. David Stockdale remained in goal, with his usual quartet of defenders, Paul Parkin, Liam Fontaine, Mark Wright, and Graeme Law, but Law was just returning to match fitness, and was tired from finishing the final 55 minutes of Wednesday's reserve match after Lowing got sent off. David Fox would be the captain from the holding midfielder position. John McGrath returned to the lineup at left wing, but was lacking match fitness, with Stephen Cooke stepping in for the injured McGovern on the right. Theodore Whitmore would be the playmaker, partnered with Neil Danns, who was on for our leading scorer Ashington as the youngster hadn't fully recovered. Neil Mellor would be the starting striker.

One thing I'd noticed from the scouting report, besides the fact that they ran a 4-4-2 and generally outclassed us, was that they were slow up front. Consequently, I decided on a very defensive, negative outlook, seeking to clog the passing lanes that they would require to generate quality chances.

In my pre-match team talk, I sought to counter the defeatest attitude. "Listen lads," I told them, "Just play solid defense. I'd rather you miss an opportunity to go forward than give a chance to these folks. And remember - we make our own luck."

The plan seemed to work from the opening kickoff. Though Luton had the best of the posession, it seemed that they were unable to find sufficient space to finish an attack, and several times they broke down and tried long-range efforts, testing David Stockdale from beyond twenty yards. He was up to it every time.

In the 16th minute, we got our first chance, with a nice patient buildup through the midfield. Theodore Whitmore played it left to Neil Danns about twenty five yards from goal, and Danns played a wonderful ball into the area for Neil Mellor. He launched his shot from just beyond the penalty spot, but goaltender Rob Beckwith made a diving save to push it away.

Stockdale matched that effort with a brilliant diving save of his own a minute later, and it remained 0-0 as we headed into the final twenty minutes of the first half. Luton Town was still getting the better of posession, but from long range Kevin Nicholls put it over the bar. Steve Howards's shot deflected off of Mark Wright, but Stockdale came up with a big save.

In the 37th minute, we had eight men forward for an indirect free kick. David Fox's first effort was rejected, but Paul Parkin held it in the attacking zone, playing it back to Graeme Law. Law put a perfect pass to Neil Danns, who had found space at the centre of the 18-yard line. He took one touch to settle, and drove a shot on goal, but central defender Josh Green reacted just in time to block the shot! The crowd were vocal in appreciation for the effort, at least - we'd been inches from taking a shock lead.

In the 43rd minute, it was Luton with a great chance, as captain Paul Underwood, the left wing, played an aerial cross to Steve Howard. A nice pair of diagonal runs had forced Mark Wright to choose who to mark, and Howard was the open one. He launched a powerful header from 15 yards, but it went over the goal.

Then, just before halftime, Stephen Cooke played a fantastic ball into the box. Neil Mellor turned and launched a right-footed blast to the lower-right corner. I thought it was a sure goal, but Beckwith somehow turned it around the post, and the halftime score remained 0-0 - an effort that earned us a standing ovation from the Bootham Crescent faithful. Well, only a third of them had the option of sitting, with the rest standing in the terraces, but even those with seats were on their feet!

John McGrath was clearly struggling on the left wing, and I asked him how he was doing. "I'm not going to make it 90 minutes, boss," he told me. "I might have another fifteen left after the break." I found young Adam Corbett and told him to warm up. Then I faced the side for a short speech.

"I only have one thing to say," I told them. "You know how I'm always on about letting a team 'hang around' until late in a match? They're letting you hang around today.

"Make 'em pay."

The lads did just that.

Sometimes a team will come out of the break seemingly asleep, and you can catch them by surprise: it was our turn. Straight from the kickoff, a series of six patient passes put us well into Luton territory, and Tappa Whitmore drew three defenders towards him before cutting a pass left, directly to the feet of Neil Danns. 25 yards from goal, he launched a beautiful shot which curled into the upper-right corner of the net, and the crowd roared in amazed delight as we took a 1-0 lead!!

Solid defending was the order of the day, but I left a bit of creative freedom for the front three to work the counterattack. Luton remained frustrated with our thicket of defenders, and kept taking half chances from long range. Mark Wright made a key challenge in box after a corner kick on the 59th minute.

After nearly twenty minutes of this, David Fox got ahold of it, and launched a lovely 30-yard pass from our half of the midfield circle. Neil Mellor had split the two central defenders, and they both closed on him in desperation. Green made an excellent sliding tackle to disposess him, but it came straight into the path of Tappa Whitmore. With a fine first touch, he ducked around fullback Mathew Sadler, and he was into the box with space. He drilled it into the lower-right corner with pin-point accuracty, and this time Beckwith could do nothing about it!! We led 2-0 with twenty-five minutes to play!

The crowd began to sing as I brought Corbett on for the exhausted McGrath. Normally I make all three substitutions over the course of the second half, but our side was playing a magical game, and I didn't want to change things. Besides, Luton looked more tired than we did!

In the 74th minute, Hatter 19-year-old Calvin Andrew, up from the Reserves to get experience against a lower-division club, broke free of the last defender. From 17 yards out, he launched a vicious shot at the top corner. It went just wide!

Paul Parkin scrambled the ball away the next time Luton pressed the attack, and then our midfield took complete control: through the final ten minutes of regulation time, Luton didn't get a shot off, and in injury time, as they pushed forward heavily, the chances were ours on the counterattack.

Unfortunately, both Danns and Mellor put shots over from about 15 yards, but when referee Alan Kaye finally blew full time, 9,353 voices erupted in a deafening cheer!!

York 2, Luton 0

Danns 46, Whitmore 65

MoM: Whitmore

Exhiliration! Jubilation! We poured onto the field from the bench as though we'd just won a Cup final, and the crowd remained standing and screaming for countless minutes - you couldn't even hear the reggae blaring from the loudspeakers!

The scene in the locker room was bedlam, as well: against all odds we'd made it through to the Fourth Round. Jamaican genius Tappa Whitmore was Man of the Match, with a goal and an assist, and thoroughly deserved it, though I had no doubt I would shortly be fielding enquiries from managers at bigger clubs.

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Sunday, 8th January, 2006.

Suddenly, we were media darlings, England's official Cinderella team of the 2005/06 season. Articles were being written about us in national publications, and they tended to play up the 'giant killer' aspect, the 'unknown American manager' aspect, the 'exceeding every expectation' aspect, and the 'club record 18 games unbeaten' aspect.

I found myself holding press conferences daily, and answering silly questions such as what I wore for luck - somehow that wound up with a story about how we were "Unbeaten and un-tied when Richards was wearing the red York suit."

I'd only worn it twice!

Given the circumstances, I was unsurprised when one of the columnists for the local Evening Press put my rising stock in conjunction with the opening at Bramall Lane, and declared that I was the "best candidate" for Sheffield United job. He claimed, though without any support for the allegation, that I'd caught the eye of chairman Derek Dooley, that I'd impressed him in the pre-season friendly, and that the F.A. Cup run had cemented my reputation as one of the up-and-coming young managers in the England game.

Of course, the fact that only he was writing about it, and the national press were focused on many more prominent names as potential replacements for Neil Warnock, seemed a clear indication that it was a flight of fantasy - though I must say, an appealing one, for a moment or two. I knew the truth however - there had been no phone call from Mister Dooley, and I'd known better than to contact him by way of applying for the job.

Instead, I was looking towards the Fourth Round draw, to be held on Monday.

We were the only remaining non-League side as the field narrowed to 32 teams. The three other Conference National sides remaining had gone down by a combined score of 10-0. That left 16 Premiership sides through, 8 Championship sides, 1 League One side, 2 League Two sides... and York City. Eight teams were left in replay - which included Chelsea, who had somehow been forced to replay by League Two side Yeovil. A pair of League One teams were replaying each other, as were a pair of Championship sides, and there was one Championship-Premiership replay. Blackburn had been eliminated by Crewe Alexandre 1-0, and Newcastle had been thrashed 4-1 at Everton, probably the two largest clubs knocked out.

For myself, I was happiest about the £50,000 in prize money, plus our 45% share of the £150,000 gate receipts, and best of all, one more chance to draw a lucrative match at one of the nation's biggest clubs.

The biggest difference, it would turn out, was that it was no longer possible for Stacy and I to just 'go out' - I was a local celebrity, and even if we escaped to nearby towns, everybody had seen my face on television, and I was inevitably recognized.

Neither of us has much time to cook, so we began to get all-too acquainted with the local Indian restaurant which has delivery service.

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Monday, 9th January, 2006.

I was unprepared for the drama Monday afternoon, as television crews from several networks decended on Bootham Crescent to watch our - my - reaction to the draw for the Fourth Round. Again, my hope was to draw a top Premiership club away, and thus save the side financially even as we crashed out of the Cup.

In a show of solidarity, we gathered everyone from the water boy to the players to the staff to the directors in the club's bar to watch the draw. Leeds went early, as did Manchester United, but many notable names were still in the box when we were drawn, at home again!

A collective holding of breath, and then it was announced: Hull or Plymouth, two mid-table Championship sides locked in a replay.

I was instantly interviewed to see what I thought, and I found myself giving the "Can't comment, haven't watch the teams," sort of comment, which I livened up with "I'd been rather hoping for Old Trafford" - which wound up the headline of the Evening Press the next morning!

I did manage to dodge the "Who would you rather face?" question with the stock "I'm focused on our upcoming match against Northampton" answer. I was learning, this media handling.

Our F.A. Cup run had focused a lot of media attention on our upcoming Tuesday night match against third-placed Northampton. Sometimes a television network gets lucky, and this time Sky Sports had arranged to give the match national television coverage weeks earlier, and our F.A. Cup success guaranteed a much larger viewership than they might have otherwise expected. It also gave Northampton manager Bobby Gould the opportunity to play some mind games, wondering openly in the press whether I have what it takes to ensure York will be in the running for promotion at year's end.

In other news, we'd sold two players. I bid young right back Nathan Kamara farewell, as he'd agreed to terms with Stevenage. To my surprise, the Stevenage supporters were unhappy, worried that he might disrupt the club's harmony; I'd never had any trouble with him.

Nathan Kamara, DR, 18: July 2003-January 2006: 3 seasons, 5 games, 0 goals, 1 assist, 7.40

We also completed the sale of left wing Marc Schofield to Clevedon. He'd been at the club for a year, but at this point I felt that he was standing in Adam Corbett's way, and was never going to contribute much as a first-team player. The younger lad had been quite impressive, even holding his own admirably against Luton Town.

Marc Schofield, AML, 20: January 2005-January 2006: 2 seasons, 6 games, 0 goals, 0 assists, 6.67

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Tuesday, 10th January, 2006. Conference National - Match 23, at Northampton Town

Northampton is almost due south of York, but a long drive, located between Leicester and Luton along the M1. Relegated from League Two last season, they had been pre-season favorites to go back up this year, probably as Conference National champions. Thus far, they were third, and in fact had never occupied the top of the table. Gary Lloyd rates them as a capable side, and warns that their attack is strong and quick, and that they have a strong midfield. I would try the same negative, defensive tactic that had worked so well against Luton Town.

Though most of my players had played ninety minutes against Luton Town, I had to ask them to play again against Northampton. On the road, it was not a match I could field less than my best players against, and they would have lynched me had I denied them the television minutes - though I did have to make some concessions for the most exhausted.

David Stockdale was in goal, with Paul Parkin and Liam Fontaine remaining the stalwarts of his defensive line. Michael Staley spelled Wright, while Phillip Bardsley took over for the exhausted Law at right back. David Fox remained the captain at the defensive midfield position. Young Adam Corbett got his second start on the left side, with Stephen Cooke starting on the right. Ryan Ashington returned in the attack, partnered with Neil Danns, and Turkish starlet Levent Yalcin would be the striker.

We got off to a disastrous start, as Northampton earned a free kick about thirty-five yards from our goal. Mark Rankine took it quickly, and played it square for Neil Emblen. There was space at the top of our arc, and he played it forward to David Rowson there. As defenders closed on him Rowson unleashed a long shot, which took a deflection off of Liam Fontaine that left David Stockdale utterly wrong-footed, moving to his right as the ball rolled into the net to his left. Three minutes in, the 4,613 fans at Sixfields Stadium cheered our 0-1 deficit.

Early in the season, that might have been enough to deflate our 'soulless' side, but no longer: they had found their soul, and came right back at Northampton. Though I left the defensive tactic in place, for the next twenty minutes, we mounted heavy pressure. Young Adam Corbett was playing very well on the left wing, and looked electrifying every time he touched the ball, dribbling around Josh Low several times, and earning a few corners with his crosses. He wasn't involved in the 26th minute, however, as Rankine brought Ryan Ashington down just at the top of the arc. Rankine earned a yellow card for his trouble, while Ashington was licking his lips at the 22-yard free kick. He curled a beauty over the 5-man wall, and only a spectacular diving save by veteran keeper Lee Harper could deny him. Harper pushed the ball well wide of goal on the right side, where Levent Yalcin tracked it down. The Turk turned, and spotted Neil Danns on a far post run, utterly unmarked. He put the ball perfectly to Danns, over Harper's head, and Danns was there to apply the finish! Still only 30 minutes in, and it was 1-1.

Danns and Ashington both blasted shots over the bar in the next few minutes, perhaps overly excited in a tense game. Northampton had a chance at the other end with a dangerous ball into the box, but Phillip Bardsley headed it away. Again they attacked, with speedy Mark Davison splitting between Michael Staley and Paul Parkin in the 40th minute. He dribbled into the area, closing to within ten yards of goal, but from a tight angle sent it narrowly wide of the far post. It was real end-to-end stuff, and just moments later Neil Danns lead a breakaway the other direction. James Hibburt made a fine last-ditch tackle to deny him the opportunity, and we went to halftime even at one apiece.

Card-happy referee Jim Hubbard had given us five yellow cards by the break, but there was nothing to be done about it in such a tight match. The least fortunate of these was to central defender Liam Fontaine, who had collected five, and would have to sit our our next match. The York youth movement got things started in the second half, with Corbett playing it to Yalcin. From 18 yards, the Turk launched a left-footed effort which went just over the bar. In the 64th minute, it was a Northampton counter-attack which caused trouble. Mark Davison angled a pass out left for David Galbraith, who sent a cross back into the box. Davison had split our central defenders, and from 15 yards took a low shot. It carombed in off the right post, and Northampton had a 1-2 lead!

I made all three of my substitutions immediately, pushing the wings and fullbacks forward and bringing on Tappa Whitmore, John McGrath, and track star Mark Rawle. Immediately, Rawle looked incredibly dangerous against the exhausted Northampton defenders. In the 65th minute, Whitmore and Stephen Cooke worked a one-two, and then Cooke played a diagonal ball into the box for Rawle. From a tight angle to the right of the near post, he had Harper beat, but it struck the post and carombed back into play. Two minutes later, he was at it again, dribbling fully sixty yards from our own half, outrunning the last defenders. He launched his shot from the penalty spot, and put it narrowly over. A minute after that, it was Whitmore with a lovely pass into space. Rawle outran two defenders again, reaching it just as Harper came charging out. Rawle shot, but a sliding Harper managed to parry it with his legs, and it bounced wildly away.

In the 83rd minute, Tom Youngs worked into the left corner for Northampton, and sent a cross into the box. Liam Fontaine brought down Martin Smith at the near corner of the 6-yard-box, and I threw my clipboard down in disgust as Mr. Hubbard blew the whistle. I was sure it was a penalty, but no! Hubbard gave Smith a yellow card for diving! As Smith argued for the penalty, Stockdale quickly put the ball back into play, finding Cooke on the right wing. Cooke played it to Whitmore, who launched a fine pass ahead of Rawle. Again his fresh legs outran the fatigued defense, and from 18 yards he launched a great strike. Harper had no chance of stopping it, and we had the late equalizer 2-2!

Neil Danns nearly made it two in two minutes, slipping past the defence and into the box, but wily Harper somehow managed to deny him. In the final minutes, Gould switched his side to a 4-2-4, desperate to pick up the three points, and now both sides were playing attacking football. The national television audience were getting their money's worth, and it went to injury time. Youngs again skipped past Cooke on the left wing, and sent a short pass to Davison at the near corner of the six-yard box. Stalwart defender Liam Fontaine was there, and put the ball behind to avert the danger. Danns cleared the resulting corner, and we'd weathered the storm.

Northampton 2, York 2

Rowson 3, Davison 64; Danns 26, Rawle 84

MoM: Danns

It had been a wild ride, but a point away against such a quality side was more than a moral victory, and our gutsy fight back had surely won a few more fans nationally. Neil Danns was named the Man of the Match, while Adam Corbett and Mark Rawle had both been absolutely scintillating.

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Wednesday, 11th January, 2006.

"Richards here."

"Morning, Ian. Is that offer still open?"

"Hi Spencer! Glad you hear your voice. How've you been? And what do you mean?"

"Well, I've been better - that's why I called. I wanted to know if I'd still be welcome to join you at York."

"I thought you were content to stay at Lancaster?"

"I was. A year ago. But truth to tell, I'm not happy with the direction the place has gone since you left," he said.

"Micky utterly dismantled your formation," he said, "Returning to a dreary 4-4-2. Of course we didn't have the central midfield for it, after selling off all our talent there, and its not like any classy midfielders are looking for Conference North football."

"True enough."

"Honestly, there hasn't been much call for my services this year - the club's losing money hand-over-fist, so there's no transfer budget, and they've asked me to go part-time. So I asked if I could call you."

It was Spencer Field's tip, remember, which had pointed me towards Tappa Whitmore - the man is a phenomenal scout, and I could only see him as a dramatic improvement over Gary Lloyd, whose contract expires at season's end.

It took two days to wrap up the deal, and cost fully £36,000 of the nearly £65,000 transfer budget I'd accumulated through the sale of my players, but I accounted it well worth it to have my old friend at my side again!

There was also a spot of good news and a spot of bad news. The good news was that Carlisle had drawn against Tamworth, which left us even with them for points, and with a game in hand. The bad news was that Liam Fontaine had picked up an automatic one match ban for collecting his fifth yellow card; it would keep him out of our F.A. Trophy Third Round match on the weekend.

On Wednesday, York Reserves played a scoreless draw at home against Crawley, a wet dreary game with little of note. It was supposed to be another step in Kevin Donovan's rehabilitation effort, but he pulled a muscle in the first half. York U-18's won 3-1 at Morecambe on a cold, dry day. Man of the Match Daryl Peters scored first, then Mark Goodwin converted a penalty. Trialist striker Frank Clarke, who had taken time away from Hucknall to come play with us, made his case for a permanent contract by scoring the third.

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Saturday, 14th January, 2006. F.A. Trophy - Third Round, at Bognor Regis

Bognor Regis is a seaside resort town along the southern coast, east of Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight. The side - despite a long history, having been founded in 1883 - are sitting just above the mid-table in the Conference South, which gave us the odd feeling of being the favorite in a Cup tie, rather than the giant-killers. The only real strength of a reasonable side is their attacking pace.

We retained the services of our first team, since next weekend would see another F.A. Cup match, and I wanted to keep them on their once-a-week rhythm. That meant Stockdale in goal, though he was a bit down on himself after a poor performance against Northampton. Parkin was the left back, and Michael Staley returned to the first team to replace the suspended Fontaine. Wright and Law finished out the back four, with David Fox filling the defensive midfield role. McGrath would cover the left wing, with Stephen Cooke making his tenth start at right wing. Whitmore, Ashington, and Mellor would comprise the attack.

We were on the road, so I had set out with a conservative tactic to begin with, but from the first minute, we were putting the pressure on. Three minutes of constant defending, and the deserpately outclassed Rocks had two yellow cards already; it was clear that they were hoping to hold us at bay with hard tackling. By twenty minutes, they had two more, and it was clear that they weren't really threatening; I started sending more players forward to look for the knockout blow.

Their staunch defending continued - they seemed determined to have somebody in the hip pockets of both Whitmore and Ashington, tight marking all the way, and that seemed to be frustrating our creative midfielders. In fact, the best chance of the first half came for the hosts. In the 42nd minute, they mounted the counter attack, and Stephen Guinan stepped neatly past Staley into our penalty area. It was a golden opportunity, but he launched it over the bar from 12 yards out, and the intermission fell, still scoreless.

I made no changes at half-time, but reminded the lads, "You beat Luton Town. Why are you struggling with this side? Look, if you're being marked out of the game, drag your defender out of the space so one of your teammates can exploit it."

In the 53rd minute, Ashington did just that, pulling two men out of the middle, and playmaker Tappa Whitmore burst through the newly created seam. He aimed a perfectly weighted pass to Neil Mellor just above the top of the arc. Mellor lost Sean St. Ledger with a fantastic piece of dribbling, and buried a left-footed shot to the top corner from 16 yards out. It had been a time in the making, but nobody could say we didn't deserve a 1-0 lead.

He nearly made it a second in the 55th minute, putting one just over the bar, and our attack kept Bognor Regis pinned in backs-to-the-wall defend mode, unable to even think about getting forward for an equalizer.

Not a minute past the hour, Whitmore played a beautiful ball up the left wing for John McGrath. Free behind the fullback, the Irishman dribbled diagonally into the area, reaching the corner of the 6-yard box before he struck. His wicked shot hit the near post, and rebounded to Ryan Ashington. With goalkeeper Arran Lee-Barrett sprawled at the post after McGrath's shot, Ashington had an open net and made no mistake, tallying his team-leading tenth goal of the season!!

From there it was just a matter of consolidating, and Whitmore, Ashington, and Fox got to rest the remainder of the match. Bognor Regis never looked threatening, and we were through to the Fourth Round.

Bognor Regis 0, York 2

----; Mellor 53, Ashington 62

MoM: Whitmore

"They look pretty solid, Ian," Spencer said afterwards. As is his wont, he'd watched the game to get a better gauge of our strengths and weaknesses.

They ought to; though there was less media furor about this one, it was our nineteenth game unbeaten. Jamaican superstar Tappa Whitmore was Man of the Match, and everyone was in a fine mood for the long bus ride home.

"I'd say promotion is on the cards, for sure," he opined.

"Even with that poor display in the first half?"

"It's always tough to break down a determined defense, you know that."

"True."

"Half of your squad look like League standard already, so, what do you want me looking for?"

"Well, there's a chunk of the team that are in on loan; we'll need long-term replacements for them. But what I'd really like is for you to find a long-term prospect; a kid, maybe 17 or 18, who's about Premiership potential with League Two-ish skills now. Somebody I can groom and build the team around as we rise up through the ranks. Isn't that what everybody wants?"

"I'll see what I can do."

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Wednesday, 18th January, 2006.

The prize money for our win was a mere £4,000, but every little bit helps, and the chance of additional gate receipts can only be beneficial in our financial state. Our mid-week league match against Scarborough was postponed until the 25th as Scarborough had been forced to an F.A. Trophy replay with lower-division side Heybridge.

The same day as our Trophy tie, Wrexham Under-18s had an absolutely torrid match at Bootham Crescent. They had three players injured in the first half and forced off the pitch - I don't explicitly encourage hard tackling, but I don't deter it, either - and had a player sent off in the second. This opened up gaping holes in their defense, which Daryl Peters exploited for a pair of goals to earn Man of the Match honours again. Amateur Chris Simpson scored one as a substitute, and defender Darren Hollingsworth added a late penalty to make the final score 4-0.

Injured forward Lee Morris completed his second tour with York, as his 3-month loan expired, and he returned to Leicester. An instrumental part of the team last season, we'd brought him on loan againt this year and he'd scored 2 goals in 9 starts. With injury and rehabilitation time, I didn't want to renew, but I might make an offer to loan him again in February.

Lee Morris, FLC, 25: November 2004-January 2006: 2 seasons, 38 games, 9 goals, 7 assists, 2 MoM, 7.03

Tuesday afternoon was the draw for the FA Trophy Fourth Round. We drew fellow Conference National side Aldershot, away, which was an unfortunate draw - holding seventh place, and scrabbling to reach a playoff spot, they're a reasonably strong team. That match won't be until February 4th. With our Cup success prompting numerous rescheduled matches, heavy fixture congestion was looming at year's end.

Wednesday was the F.A. Cup Third Round replay between Plymouth and Hull, which Spencer and I watched in person; I'd be facing the winner on Saturday. The former side were at home, but Hull always looked the better side, playing a risque 3-4-3, which they made work by stifling the midfield and keeping the hosts on their back heel. It took until the hour mark before they broke through, but then two goals in six minutes made it 0-2, and it was only with twenty minutes left that they shifted to a 4-4-2 to start defending.

That's going to be a tough tactic to counter, especially given their edge at the skill positions. I cloistered myself with Spencer, Viv, and coach John Richards to work on coming up with something magical.

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Saturday, 21st January, 2006. F.A. Cup - Fourth Round, vs Hull.

The media circus again descended on Bootham Crescent, the typical fascination with the underdog fanned by my pre-match comments that we were relishing the opportunity to test our skills against a Championship side. I hadn't intended to be incendiary, merely to state that I hoped it would be a cracking match!

Hull City manager Brian Horton had taken over late last season, with the club in a playoff position, but secured eight points in his first four matches to earn them promotion from League One outright, avoiding the playoffs. Fortunately, he selected the same lineup which had won Wednesday in Plymouth, meaning that his men were fairly tired even before kickoff.

Fully rested thanks to Scarborough's replay, we fielded the best lineup I could assemble: David Stockdale in goal; Paul Parkin at left back, Mark Wright and Liam Fontaine central, and Graeme Law the right back; David Fox would be the captain and defensive midfielder; John McGrath was the left wing, with Stephen Cooke filling in for McGovern on the right wing. The Scottish winger had recovered from his injury, but wasn't yet fit to play. Jamaican international Theodore Whitmore was the playmaker, partnered with Neil Danns as I was not convinced Ashington could make a dent at this level. Neil Mellor, on loan from Liverpool, would be our striker, eager to show that he belonged at the Championship level.

I hadn't devised anything new and magical: we used the same narrow, hard-tackling, defense-first tactic that had beaten Luton, and in the opening going, it looked set to beat Hull as well. In merely the second minute, Whitmore found Mellor on the counter with a brilliant searching pass, and the Liverpool lad raced into the area. Hull keeper Stefan Postma made an excellent save one-on-one, only for Mellor to be whistled offside, a very late whistle. Still, he'd shown he was dangerous, bringing the crowd to their feet.

When Liam Fontaine's header cleared a Hull attack to David Fox in the seventh minute, Fox looked for Mellor. With incredible craft and vision, he sent a long curling pass over and around the Hull defense, catching Mellor perfectly in stride and past the last man. Again Postma and Mellor went one on one, and this time the striker triumphed, drilling his shot to the lower-right corner from 16 yards. The sellout crowd of 9,436 let out a tremendous roar as their giant killers took a 1-0 lead!

We kept the pressure on through the 20th minute, with Neil Danns and Mellor both getting several chances. As the half wore on, however, Hull began to mount more and more pressure, and only solid defending and goalkeeping kept them at bay. Paul Parkin seemed to be everywhere, playing the best game of his season as he cleared away several Hull forays in succession.

The halftime whistle blew, and it was into the locker room, where I encouraged the lads. "You hated me in pre-season," I told them, "But this match is why we ran extra sprints in August. Those lads are tired, and you can see it in their eyes."

I'll never know if our defense could have held them off for 45 more minues, as there was no accounting for what followed, not five minutes into the second half. With a free kick some 32 yards from goal, Clint Hill launched a majestic, curling shot. Stockdale clearly thought it was going over, and when it started dipping late, he had no chance to recover and keep it out. It found the top corner, a Champions-League quality effort from the Championship side to make it 1-1!!

Tension continued to build as both sides played to their stringths. On the hour, Hull midfielder Glenn Whelan launched a superb 45-yard pass to spring Roland Edge past our defenders. Stockdale rushed out, and Edge attempted to dribble around him, but the young keeper managed to push it away - a vital save!

I brought on Levent Yalcin for Mellor as a brief shower of rain fell in the 70th minute, and the Turk added vitality to our offense, taking advantage of tired-leg defending to force two saves from Postma, who had to be getting more work than he'd expected from a lowly Conference side!

In the 78th minute, Hull City's Jonathan Walters launched a long ball for the speedy Ben Burgess. The striker raced into the box wide of the goal. It looked for all the world like he was past the last man, but the determined Graeme Law got back to interfere with him just enough that he dribbled over the end line before he could get a shot off - a goal-kick!

Ryan Ashington and Darren Dunning came on in the final minutes, and an exhausted Hull side - they'd been made to work hard mid-week - seemed to be just holding on for a draw. The crowd's support lifted us, spurring the lads on to tremendous effort as we tried to avoid a replay.

With defenders crammed into the area, we didn't get a true chance until injury time. Nearly three minutes in, Ashington's 18-yard shot was deflected by Clint Hill. It would have wrong-footed any of the other goalkeepers we'd seen this year, but Postma dove on it, curling fetal around it. Yalcin was there to take advantage of any bobble, but Postma made no mistake - and the referee blew full time as he punted clear.

York 1, Hull 1

Mellor 7; Hill 50

MoM: Whitmore

We recieved a standing ovation from our faithful suporters for playing to the level of a Championship side. We'd even perhaps been a mite unlucky in the goal we conceded, or the fine play of Stefan Postma in the Hull goal: he could well have earned Man of the Match, though the honour went to Tappa Whitmore.

"The scoreboard may not say so, lads," I told them, "But those fellows in orange know you outplayed them today."

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Monday, 23rd January, 2006.

In other F.A. Cup action, there were three shock results. In the first match of the day, Championship side Sheffield United stunned Manchester United, 2-0, on national television, under the guidance of assistant manager Stuart McCall!

Blades fans immediately took up the clarion call to have him named as the obvious successor to Neil Warnock, on the theory that anybody who can beat United deserves a shot, but his hopes were dashed two days later when chairman Derek Dooley announced the new Blades manager: John Gregory, the former Wolverhampton Wanderers manager, who had been sacked in December with the Wolves down in the relegation zone.

That, at least, put an end to any speculation about me leaving Bootham Crescent, which I was glad of.

The other two surprises were led by League Two side Grimbsby Town, who looked poised to take over our mantle as the tournament's giant killers after an improbable 2-0 victory over West Bromwich Albion. In the evening match, Wigan Athletic of the Championship surprised Arsenal, 2-0, also on national television.

The draw for the Fifth Round was held on Monday, and there were only 16 balls remaining in the box. The Hull/York ball was drawn seventh, another home tie, and this time if we advanced it would be a bit of a local derby, as Leeds United were drawn opposite us. Our replay at Hull was scheduled for February 1st - and that completed filling out our schedule with fixture congestion hell. From our Saturday match on January 21st against Hull, we would play two matches a week until March 4th - thirteen matches in six weeks! - before getting our next midweek off.

"That'll really test our depth," Viv commented, when I mentioned it to him.

We addressed exactly that point on Monday afternoon, when I finalized terms with Arsenal on a three-month loan for American central defender Franklin Simek.

DC Franklin Simek, 21, USA, 3 caps: A tall, determined youngster who is otherwise similar to my current crop of defenders, with reasonable positioning and marking, but lacking the pace to compete at the highest level. He has spent the majority of the past 2 seasons on loan - we would be his fifth loan club in his third different division.

I brought him in primarily to guarantee sufficient depth in central defense through the remainder of our Cup run and the awful fixture congestion our Cup successes had caused through February, as well as providing cover in case of injury.

It was only our third 3-month loan of the season, and that left five more short-term loans available to me if needed.

His loan would expire before any playoffs, but at this point it looked like we had a chance to avoid the playoffs and promote on merit.

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Tuesday, 24th January, 2006.

It was time to go back to work at securing promotion from the Conference National. Next up were Scarborough, whose manager Nick Henry had been trying to stir up trouble, saying that he hopes to put a dent in our promotion chances by beating us on our home ground.

When a reporter asked me directly if I thought we could gain promotion, I told him that I did. Carlisle had drawn 1-1 against Barnet over the weekend, which put them one point ahead of us in the table, but we have two games in hand. I pointed to the league table.

"Sure, it'll be a rough haul with all the fixtures we've piled up," I told the columnist, "But yes, I believe we can achieve promotion. In fact, I confess that I'll be disappointed if we don't."

Before we got to the Scarborough match on Wednesday, there was a Reserve match on Tuesday. In fact, there were Reserve matches on back-to-back days, on the 24th and the 25th, due to an awful scheduling decision on the part of somebody at the F.A.

For the first, against Bury, I played my U-18 side entered as the "Reserves" en masse. It was one of the strangest, ugliest matches you'll ever see, with six injuries before halftime, and two sendings-off. One was ours, to trialist defensive midfielder Chris Francis who had the bad taste to gloat after forcing a Bury player to be carted off on a stretcher. The Bury substitute rightfully chided him for it, Francis shoved him, and earned an immediate red card which I could hardly dispute - he'd disgraced the jersey he wore with his actions.

Trialist forward Frank Clarke scored one shorthanded, central defender Darren Hollingsworth missed a penalty, and Daryl Peters continued his fine run of form by scoring a second shorthanded goal to make it 2-0. Frustrated Bury had five players injured and five carrying yellow cards, and finally one of their players blew up, earning a second yellow card, screaming at the ref. After the sending off, however, Bury settled, scored a goal and looked the more threatening side. Like I said, a strange, strange match. In the end, we'd won 2-1, with trialist right back Alan Lowing named Man of the Match, but it left a bad feeling in the pit of my stomach, as though it were an omen of ill things to come.

Our injury list from the match - the Bootham Crescent pitch was in abysmal shape after all the rains and home matches - included Mark Goodwin (bruised thigh), Frank Clarke (stubbed toe), and Daryl Peters (dislocated shoulder). All should be back within the week, unlike Francis, who earned a formal warning from me, a three-match ban from the F.A. disciplinary committee, and an immediate termination of his trial.

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Wednesday, 25th January, 2006. Conference National - Match 24, vs Scarborough

With fixture congestion this bad, my starting lineup would be proscribed more by fitness than by design for the next few weeks. The side that had faced Hull was surprisingly able-bodied, for short rest, and I sent most of them out against Scarborough: Stockdale in goal, with Parkin, Fontaine and Law joined by Michael Staley in the back row. David Fox remained the captain, with starting wingers McGrath and McGovern together for the first time in a month. Whitmore and Ryan Ashington would be the attacking midfielders, while Yalcin was the striker.

Luckily for us, 11th-placed Scarborough were missing seven regulars, six with injury and one suspended for accumulated yellow cards - they'd had a patch rougher than we had over the past three weeks!

The pitch was in horrible shape, and on-again-off-again showers throughout the match only made it worse. About fifteen minutes in Richard Kell's slide tackle took out the legs of midfielder Tappa Whitmore, and the Jamaican's cleats caught in the turf. Watching my star hobble around on a swelling ankle thereafter was painful, but the pain was assuaged a little bit in the 22nd minute.

We'd earned a free kick about 40 yards from goal, and put together a string of passes worthy of the Premiership: McGovern to Law to Fox to McGrath all on only one or two touches. The Scarborough defense was well out of shape, and McGrath played it into the box for Ryan Ashington, who turned on the ball with his first touch, and added to his team-leading tally with a 12-yard blast for his second touch: 1-0!

Whitmore never was able to run off the knock, so in the 38th minute, I brought Neil Danns on for him, hoping to prevent the Jamaican from doing himself further injury. Danns nearly got a spectacular assist in the 45th minute, sending a long cross into the six yard box, but Ashington's spectacular attempt at a diving header just put the ball over, leaving it one-nil at the break.

In the second half, we looked far the better side. In the 61st minute, substitute Mark Rawle's pass to Danns sprung the midfielder, but his shot was saved by Scarborough keeper Gareth Downey. The rebound fell to Jon Paul McGovern, but Downey got a boot to it for a spectacular double-save. That rebound fell to Rawle, but he isn't comfortable with his left, and Paul Foot took it away from him in the 6-yard box. A minute later, Rawle again played Danns into space, and this time his blast beat Downey, only to cannon back off the crossbar!

It looked certain that Danns would score eventually, but I hadn't allowed for the pitch conditions: he collided with Kevin Ricketts, and in the fall managed to injure his wrist. It required immediate attention, and he had to come off. I'd just made my final substitution, bringing Franklin Simek on for his debut, so we'd have to finish out the last 25 minutes with only ten men.

For the next ten minutes, Scarborough looked the dominant side, and we were in for desperate backs-to-the-wall defending. Then the abysmal pitch struck again: David Pounder was injured; Scarborough, too, were out of subs, and the match was down to ten-on-ten. They were sending everybody forward looking for the equalizer, which left plenty of space at the back - chances abounded at both sides.

It stayed even into injury time, when John McGrath made a foray up the left side. He spotted McGovern on the right wing, and sent an incredible cross over everyone and right to the Scotsman as he entered the area. McGovern dribbled to the corner of the six-yard-box, then cut it back for Mark Rawle, who was trailing the play. Rawle slammed home to make the final 2-0.

York 2, Scarborough 0

Ashington 22, Rawle 90

MoM: McGrath

John McGrath's visionary pass at the end after a fine run throughout the match saw him earn Man of the Match honors, but the celebratory reggae and the cheers of the 1,893 supporters on hand faded quickly behind me as I rushed for the physio's room.

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Friday, 27th January, 2006.

I was glad to see Jeff Miller smiling, and shortly after, I was smiling myself when I heard the news.

Tappa Whitmore was just about fine, the swelling was coming down and he should be fine by the replay match against Hull.

Neil Danns wrist might or might not be in perfect health by that match, but he hadn't suffered any lasting injury. Hearing that, I was able to celebrate our victory, which had extended our unbeaten run to some 21 games, 16 in the league.

Oddly enough, our Reserves played in Scarborough the same day that Scarborough's senior side played in York. They wasted a great performance by 'keeper Kevin Butler when Scarborough managed a late breakaway goal to equalize the match 2-2. Joe Foote was Man of the Match, with trialists Aaron Samuel and Paul Robinson the goalscorers. (No, not the Paul Robinson I'd been struggling to rid myself of for over a year; a young forward of the same name.)

I made my first key signing for next season on Thursday.

I have my scouts looking for loan targets as well as potential transfers, as I'm sure you've gathered by now. In December, scout James Tracey had gone off chasing a rumour, and in fact took the train under the Channel to visit Belgium. I'd certainly not anticipated anything of the sort - the first I'd heard of it was the expense report!

It turned out that he'd found a promising left back, under contract with Chelsea, but on a long-term loan to a Belgian club, KVC Westerlo, where he'd scored 12 goals in the past two years, and this season had amassed an incredible 7.75 average rating! He was valued at £300,000, but his contract was expiring in June, and Chelsea had him on the transfer list.

I made an offer of £28,000 - the entirety of my transfer budget - fully expecting it to be turned down. Chelsea, happy to receive any compensation for the youngster, had accepted, and to my surprise I'd managed to get him to agree to terms! They would make him the highest-paid man on the pitch for us, sure, but I was quite excited. The deal was set to complete at the end of his current contract, on the first of July.

Of course I couldn't predict how he'd develop, but on the 26th of January, I could dream that I'd signed the first component in a glorious rise to the Premier League. His name was Joe Keenan.

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Saturday, 28th Januray, 2006. Conference National - Match 25, vs Aldershot.

The hottest club in the Conference came to Bootham Crescent next. Sixth-placed Aldershot had won seven consecutive games prior to our match, and were coming off of a 6-0 pounding of Stevenage. They are a capable side with a pacey attack and a creative midfield, and I'm worried that they may be hungrier for three points than we are. We did catch one break, as midfielder Paul Weaver, who leads the Shots in assists, is suspended. We'll play them again in a week in an F.A. Trophy clash.

We did not start anything near our strongest side this time, with the Hull replay looming in the wings mid-week. David Stockdale remained the keeper. Paul Parkin was the left back, and Mark Wright would provide some measure of stability in the centre, but the right side was a pair of loanees. Franklin Simek made his debut centrally, with Phillip Bardsley the fullback. Young Malcolm Parker gave Fox a much-needed off day at the defensive midfield slot. Our wings would provide a "the old and the new" contrast, with aging Kevin Donovan on the right and rising star Adam Corbett on the left. Darren Dunning, who normally plays on the wing, had to show his versatility with a shift to attacking midfield, but his partner was leading scorer Ryan Ashington. Up front, speedy Mark Rawle seemed to have recovered his form, with three goals in the past month, and so earned the start.

Aldershot showed no fear, coming out in attack from the get go, and Luke Walker's half volley not fifty seconds in forced David Stockdale into a fine diving stop.

Mark Rawle looked very dangerous on the counter, and speedy defender David Raven, hand-picked to mark him, was sorely tested, but came up big, tackling away one ball in the 3rd minute, and blocking Rawle's shot in the 10th.

Aldershot, however, kept most of the pressure on us through the half-hour: the majority of the match was played in our end, and the defense, unaccustomed perhaps to Franklin Simek's style, was struggling. Had it not been for David Stockdale, who racked up several more saves, including a fine catch to deny Carl Heiniger's long range effort, we could well have trailed.

When things go poorly, you look to your veterans, and it was captain Darren Dunning who came through for us. Aldershot's tight marking had denied him any passing opportunities in the 38th minute, but nobody came forward to challenge him, either, and he decided to have a go from 25 yards out. He rifled in a curling strike that found the top-left corner as though guided by a heat-seeking missile head! What a goal to give us the 1-0 edge, utterly against the run of play! The Bootham Crescent faithful loved the spectacular effort as much as the lead!!

Dunning nearly got an assist a minute later, with a brilliant ball for Rawle into the box, but somehow Nicki Bull managed to turn him away at the 6-yard box. Twice more Rawle had fantastic chances over the end of the first half and the start of the second, and twice more he was denied by the Aldershot keeper. I hadn't seen a goaltending display like this since Kasey Keller shut out Brazil in the 1997 Gold Cup - but this was magnificent keeping at both ends!

It looked like we were in the driver's seat, and those missed chances wouldn't come back to haunt us, but no sooner did I think that than Jon Challinor played the ball into the right-side corner for Walker. The winger tried to put in the cross, but Mark Wright blocked him at the edge of the penalty area. The caromb fell to Heiniger at the top of the box, and he blasted a low line drive that Stockdale could do nothing about. It didn't strike the ground until just before it reached the netting, and it was all level at 1-1.

By the 70th minute, Kevin Donovan was exhausted, and Mark Rawle was struggling with injury. I made my substitutions, bringing on three new attackers. Almost instantly Levent Yalcin made his mark, outracing the defense to a long ball, and then cutting it back for Dunning. The captain's 20-yard strike looked a sure goal, but somehow Bull parried it. Not to be outdone, Stockdale made a spectacular save of his own at the other end to deny Roscoe D'Sane, and the match ticked steadily towards injury time.

With the visitors clearly suffering from fatigue, we began to push forward more and more, and the final six minutes were all York, with the crowd of 1,993 urging us on. Deep into the 93rd minute, Jon Paul McGovern launched a drive from 15 yards to the lower-right corner, where Bull put the capstone on his performance by tipping it to the post and wide! We would have to settle for a draw.

York 1, Aldershot 1

Dunning 39; Heiniger 53

MoM: Dunning

Darren Dunning was named Man of the Match for his single-handed goal, and excellent play in an unaccustomed role, though for my money Aldershot's keeper Nikki Bull had earned it with defender David Raven a close second.

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Tuesday, 31st January, 2005.

Carlisle suffered a 0-2 defeat at Burton, and so we earned a slight reprieve, moving two points clear with a game in hand as Carlisle slipped to third:

<pre class="ip-ubbcode-code-pre"> 1 York 53 16 5 4 +20 25

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

2 Northampton 51 15 6 5 +21 26

3 Carlisle 50 14 8 4 +22 26

4 Dag & Red 43 12 7 7 + 9 26

5 Aldershot 42 12 6 8 +10 26

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

6 Morecambe 42 12 6 8 + 8 26

7 Burton 39 10 9 7 + 7 26</pre>

With the transfer window closing, there was of course a flurry of activity. With all of our transfer budget wrapped up in the July 1st transfer of Joe Keenan, York City was fairly quiet on the transfer front, bringing in only a pair of free agents, young players who had impressed while on trial over the month of January.

D/DM L Adam Eckersley, 20, English: A reasonably agile player whose biggest strength is his marking, I brought Eckersley in on a 3-year contract explicitly as a backup player. Paul Parkin had already played the most matches of anybody on the side, and I didn't trust young Kevin West to fill in. If he progresses, I hope Eckersley can be the backup for Keenan next year. His passing, positioning, and composure were all too weak for me to count on him in the long term.

D C Kevin Eaton, 16, English: This enthusiastic defender is strong in a number of areas for a 16-year-old. He's tall and a bit faster than my current crop of centre backs. He needs lots of work on the mental aspect of the game, particularly in the areas of decision-making, positioning, anticipation, and composure, but technically and physically he's very mature. His salary demand was the ridiculously low £1,000 per annum, which would have convinced me to sign him even if he'd been a bit weaker all around.

Hucknall striker Frank Clarke had impressed, with 2 goals in 4 Reserve matches, but I couldn't meet Hucknall's £10,000 asking price after arranging the Keenan transfer, and so we had to let him return to his club. He thanked us for the training we'd given him, and I sincerely wished him well in his career - he's a good kid, exactly the sort I'd like to bring in.

Our attempts to sell players had all fizzled, and in fact the only interest we'd drummed up was Chesterfield's interest in Darren Dunning. After one of their scouts witnessed his Man of the Match performance on Saturday, they were quick to sign the veteran on a Bosman transfer which would complete when his contract with us expired at the end of June.

We wound up back in second place on the final day of the month, as Carlisle beat Gravesend 2-0 to go top, and Northampton drew with Hinckley to close within a point of us - though we now had two games in hand over each, as our match had been postponed due to tomorrow's key F.A. Cup replay.

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Wednesday, 1st February, 2006, afternoon.

The board had arranged for our monthly review to be held in a conference room at The Circle, as they had all made the trip to watch our evening's F.A. Cup game against Hull.

It was no surprise to hear that they remain delighted with my performance, and are quite excited about the evening's match. I kept hearing things like "Nobody expected we'd make it this far!" and "Miracle worker!", and honestly I wondered if perhaps our success was setting their future expectations a bit too high.

CFO Sophie McGill brought out the books, and I learned that she doesn't have a true poker face. She tried to give me her usual stern look as she opened them, but there was a twinkle in her eye and the smile broke through before I could start to worry.

The numbers were very impressive. We'd turned a record profit of over £90,000 for the month, thanks in large part to prize money and gate receipts from our F.A. Cup run, and that had brought our annual income over £1M, which was substantially better already than we'd seen for last season in its entirety. On the wage budget side, we had 29 players under contract, and were still £11,000 per-annum under the assigned budget. What this all meant was that we were showing a profit (barely) for the year to date, though our net financial picture remained poor due to the £2M bank loan.

The monthly training review with Viv Busby showed no real surprises: playing as many matches as we had had left little time for making improvements to one's game, and most of our regulars were fairly stagnant. Paul Parkin and David Stockdale seemed to be responding well to the heavy workload, as both were in the peak form of their career with the club.

The most improved player on the side, however, was impressive 16-year-old centre back Jamie Cooper. From someone I would never have considered in the first team at the start of the season, he had surpassed starting defender Liam Fontaine both physically and mentally, and was catching up in terms of technique. Last month, he'd been finding the rigors of first-team training too exhausting, so I'd put him on a slightly less demanding training regime, which had worked out beautifully.

Under-18's goalkeeper Gareth Gray was also showing improvement, and Kevin Donovan was responding well to the rigorous pre-season training regime I'd placed him on to try and build his match fitness.

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Wednesday, 1st February, 2006, evening. F.A. Cup - Fourth Round Replay, at Hull.

At Bootham Crescent, we'd actually looked the stronger side, taking a lead against Championship side Hull, and eventually settling for a 1-1 draw. Of course, we knew it would be at infinitely tougher propsition at their ground.

I returned to the strongest lineup I could field, which looked as follows: David Stockdale in goal; Paul Parkin at left back; Liam Fontaine and Mark Wright at center back; Graeme Law, well-rested, at right back; captain David Fox the defensive midfielder, the base of my 4-5-1; John McGrath on left wing; Jon Paul McGovern on right wing; Theodore Whitmore as the playmaker; Stephen Cooke subbing in at the other attacking midfield role; Neil Mellor on point. For a side which had been accused of making its bread and butter on loan players, we had 8 of our starters under contract.

The Circle was jammed with 12,233 fans, including a solid contingent of travelling York supporters. Right from the off it was a tense match, with the Hull players earnestly playing hard in front of their home crowd, and our lads determined that hard tackling was the way to victory. Early yellow cards to Law and McGrath did not deter the lads, and a steadily falling rain on a cold night didn't help either side.

It was even stuff through the first fifteen minutes, no real chances as the sides felt each other out. That all changed in the 19th minute, when Andy Todd received a ball out to the right of our area. He turned around Paul Parkin, and sent a nasty curling cross into the six-yard box. For an instant, it looked to go through untouched, but Ben Burgess met it with a spectacular diving header to give the home side an 0-1 advantage.

We'd trailed before in our Cup run, and the lads went about the business of getting an equalizer. Neil Mellor's cross found Tappa Whitmore wide open no more than 8 yards from goal in the 22nd minute, but Jim Provett made a great reflex save to deny the Jamaican.

In the 38th minute, it was Jon Paul McGovern who played an excellent ball to Stephen Cook. From the top of the arc, he launched a curling shot at the top left corner. Provett made an athletic leap, barely getting a fist to it, and doing just enough to tip it over the bar.

We looked in control, despite the deficit, so I started sending more men forward. With Hull still in a 3-4-3, that meant that we started to generate 5-on-3 chances. In the 43rd one of these runs left Mellor the unmarked man. Whitmore spotted him, and played a perfectly weighted ball to him, putting the Liverpool man alone in the box! Provett made his third spectacular save of the match to keep it 0-1 at halftime.

Central defender Mark Wright had picked up on injury, so I brought on Michael Staley in his stead for the second half. We were still the better side at the start of the second, and when McGrath sliced a wicked cross into the box, I thought Mellor had a diving header to match Burgess'. It went just over, but that was the last 5-on-3, as Hull finally dropped back to a more defensive 4-4-2.

Aaron Wilbraham had a chance for them, a long range effort that David Stockdale pushed over the bar, and then disaster struck:

Tappa Whitmore collided with Stuart Elliot chasing a loose ball, and went down writhing in pain and clutching his leg. It looked bad, and physio Jeff Miller sprinted onto the pitch immediately, and took almost five minutes, carefully immobilizing him, before driving him off on the cart.

An injury like that can really gut a team, and right from the restart, while we were still reeling from the blow, Ben Burgess broke up the left sideline. He cut diagonally inside of Law, racing threateningly into the box. He was well wide of the post, but Stockdale came out to meet him, leaving his net. With great vision, Burgess centered it for Danny Allsopp to head into the open net. Just ninety seconds after the injury, and we were down 0-2!

The second blow had fallen like a hammer: our morale crumbled, and it was clear that we were beaten. For the first time, it seemed the lads were too heartbroken to give their all, and surely worries about their inspirational leader were foremost on their minds. Their concentration wandered, and Allsopp nearly scored his second when he broke the offsides trap in the 74th. One-on-one, he beat Stockdale, but was unlucky to see his shot strike the post and come back into play! Staley got in to clear the rebound.

I made my last throw of the dice, bringing Levent Yalcin on for Parkin and switching to a 3-5-2, but Hull had returned to their 3-4-3 and the combination just led to a multitude of attacking chances for the home side. It was clear enough that our F.A. Cup run was over, but Allsopp came close one more time in injury time, again striking the same post with the same result.

Hull 2, York 0

Burgess 19, Allsopp 68; ----

MoM: Stockdale

Wet, defeated, and disconsolate, the lads trudged back to the locker room, where I gave my first in-earnest post-match speech.

"You've nothing to hang your heads about," I told them. "You made it further than anybody thought you could, even yourselves - have you thought about how many teams you've outlasted? You survived longer than Carlisle, Northampton, ..." my list went on for over a minute, as many teams as I could name rapid-fire, ever increasing in reputation and then closing with "Newcastle, Chelsea, and Manchester United!"

It seemed to have lifted their spirits - I could see a pride which they had been utterly bereft of to begin with - but there was nobody to lift mine.

How bad was Tappa Whitmore hurt?

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Still an excellent story Amaroq, just caught up with the last few pages icon_smile.gif And to answer your question on my Pompey tale, the original one encountered a bug, but I started a new one with Pompey, more or less the same lines but different characters

KUTGW icon14.gif

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Damien, sherm, thanks to you both. In a free tale, the only reward is the appreciative reader icon_wink.gif.

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Thursday, 2nd Febraury, 2006, 1:20am.

It was a long night, let me tell you.

Tappa had been taken to the Hull Royal Infirmary, a first class facility in Kingston-upon-Hull, and I had to brush off most of the post-game interview to hurry over there.

After a bit of a wait - did the telly have to be showing incessant replays of the injury and our two goals conceded? - a doctor came out to speak with me.

"Mister Richards? I'm Doctor Weller. I'm afraid its fairly bad news - your man has suffered multiple fractures of the femur.

"What does that mean? Will he be able to play again?"

"I'm not sure you understand the severity," he glared at me. "I'm trying to ensure that he will walk again.

"We're going to have to insert rods and screws - we'll have the surgery tomorrow - and he'll need to remain in traction for several weeks until things begin to knit.

"I hope to have him in physical therapy by about three months, and then we'll see how well he progresses from there."

It was brutal news - out for the season at least - and I thanked the doctor for his time, and began looking for the exists.

The press had picked up the story, and caught me as I reached the doors.

"Mister Richards! How badly is he hurt?"

"He's done for the season," I informed them, and quickly relayed the doctor's prognosis.

"Rupert Wormwood here, the Sheffield Star. Whitmore is widely known as your one true star player. How will you cope with him out?"

"Well, there's no denying that he's a big part of the side, but I hope that we have adequate cover to push for promotion."

"Do you have any commenting about the referee? There was not even a foul given on the play."

"Look, I was fifty yards away, so the ref was in much better position to call it. That said, you don't break the strongest bone in the human body on a routine fifty-fifty ball, and I hope the F.A. will review the footage of the incident.

"That's all I have time for tonight, gentlemen, please, its been a long day."

I thought I'd escaped well enough - but then it occurred to me that I'd missed the team bus home.

Hull to York is a fair distance for a cab ride. At least I could expense it - but that was small comfort for the events of the day.

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Friday, 3rd February, 2006.

Reportedly a hundred supporters had turned out to the Bootham Crescent parking lot to greet the bus when it returned, despite the cold rain, which was heartwarming but hardly enough to lift anyone's spirits - and the news that Tappa was done for the season cast a pall over our normally jovial and entertaining training session.

In the U-18's, our lads had played a dull scoreless draw against Mansfield. Jamie Cooper, now captain of the youth side, played particularly well, which didn't surprise me, but the pitch at Bootham Crescent remained in atrocious condition, costing both sides several more players injured. Foruntately for us, our injuries were to trialists or amateurs.

I received one of the strangest e-mails from a scout today. James Tracey had watched a high-scoring battle as Grimsby beat Torquay 6-5...

... and recommended one of the Torquay fullbacks.

Honestly, do I really want anybody who played defense in that match?

Watching the video footage, Grimsby striker Peter Weatherson scored 4 goals in the match and looked every bit a Premiership-quality striker; he's well beyond our price range even if they would be willing to part with him, but things change in football, and he went directly onto my shortlist.

On the finances front, we received a minor payment of £2,000 from Radcliffe Borough, as they'd played Andrew Green in 20 matches, triggering a clause I'd added to the deal when they purchased him. Every little bit helps, but that had seemed a much more significant amount back when I'd negotiated it!

With another Cup match tomorrow, I was very worried about our listless practice.

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