Football Manager 2017: The Sunderland Challenge: Pre-Season

You may remember I previously blogged about a “journeyman” challenge where I started unemployed and then took charge of Weston-Super-Mare. My goal was to work my way up the footballing ladder to become the best manager I could be. You can read Part 1 here and Part 2 here, but that’s as far as it goes. Unfortunately, the game got away from me and I didn’t have time to write about it. If you’re interested I did end up joining Forest Green Rovers, then Gillingham, and eventually Crystal Palace.

But I decided to start a new game with the Premier League’s most consistently hopeless case – Sunderland. And this time, I will keep on top of the updates. Could I be a better manager than the ghost of David Moyes that currently stalks the Stadium of Light dugout? Let’s find out!


I was not sure what to expect with Sunderland. Of course, they’re bobbins in real life, reliant on the goals of Jermain Defoe to plunder points. But sometimes Football Manager can be kind to struggling teams – I was, frankly, hoping the Sunderland researcher would have over-valued some of their players.

I’m playing on the original FM17 database, so I still have Patrick van Aanholt but lack the, er, singular talents of Darron Gibson.

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I was not hugely impressed with what I saw. Unbalanced (four left wingers, of which an ageing Steven Pienaar was picked out as one of the best) with a lack of “quality decision making”, a “leadership void” and not enough players willing to work hard pointed to only one thing: relegation.

But in assessing the squad, I realised that all was not lost. Not quite. I picked out some key players, and promising youngsters. Ideally, I wanted to utilise young players as much as possible. If they were homegrown then so much the better.

Key Players

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Just like in real life, the diminutive former England frontman would be key to any hopes of survival. I knew that if we could give him opportunities, he would score.

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Lamine Kone stood out in a squad lacking quality defenders. Relatively quick, strong and a good header of the ball, he could be key for us.

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My coaches also rated ex-Chelsea also-ran Papy Djilobodji but his relatively poor positioning and concentration had me worried.

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In midfield, I liked the look of club record signing Didier NDong, a hard-working midfielder with good physical attributes.

Promising Youngers

One of the things I want to do as Sunderland boss is bring through young players where I can. There are a few dotted around the squad, though the two with possibly the highest potential don’t actually belong to the club…

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The one-time next big thing of European football, Adnan Januzaj, is slumming it with us. It’s difficult to imagine him sticking around long term even if we could afford him, but who knows? A good season might convince him to stick around instead of returning to Old Trafford to kick his heels on the bench next season. I had an early idea in my head to train him as a striker and use him as a deep-lying foil for Defoe. As well as Januzaj, we have a second loanee from Manchester, nominative determinism’s Jason Denayer. He’s pacy, which is good, and is apparently labelled as the next Vincent Kompany.

The other young starlets are all permanently at Sunderland and I wanted to try to give them plenty of game time.

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Jordan Pickford would start the season in goal, and would have done even if Vito Mannone didn’t start the game with a long-term injury. If his stats improve as I hope they will, he could go on to become England’s next ‘keeper. And hopefully he will do that while still in a Sunderland shirt.

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A present bequeathed to me by David Moyes, ex-Manchester United utility man Paddy McNair has the potential to be a good Premier League player. Though most comfortable as a defensive midfielder, I eyed a future for him as a ball-playing centre back.

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OK, so the American midfielder’s mental and physical attributes need a lot of work, but I can see a future for him as an attacking midfielder. A few clubs want him on loan, but my plan is to give him some minutes off the bench, at least initially, then re-visit it in January. If he needs regular minutes by then, a loan move in the second half of the season might be a good idea.

Transfers

So, with my squad looked it, it was time to have a look at transfers. I was given a relatively generous £12m transfer budget and there was around £30k left in the wage budget, too, for a signing or two.

I had an idea in my head of playing 3-5-2, with wingbacks. My hope was that Kone, Djilobodji and Denayer had enough differing strengths to compensate for each other’s weaknesses, and I felt Defoe up front would benefit from a striker partner. The one glaring flaw in the plan was a lack of a right wing back. Both Billy Jones and Seb Larsson were out with long term injuries, and I was unconvinced by the claims of Atletico Madrid loanee Javier Manquillo. Lamine Kone could play at wing back but he was better used in the middle.

To that end, I went out and signed Rosenborg right back Jonas Svensson. Naturally fit, hard-working and with a good engine, he would be able to get up and down the flank with gusto.

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I was happy with Patrick van Aanholt on the left, but I had no cover in that position. Not wanting to break the bank for a back-up left wing back, I brought in German younger Jannes Horn on loan from Wolfsburg. Happily, his versatility meant he could provide cover at centre back or central midfield if needed.

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I also brought in Diego Poyet, son of ex-Sunderland manager Gus, on a free transfer. I didn’t have a pressing need for him but he was 21, homegrown and had a lot of potential. For free, his signing was a no-brainer.

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The other gap in the squad was up front. I had Defoe, sure, but our second best striker Fabio Borini was yet another out with a long term injury (in the treatment room alongside Mannone, Jones, Larsson and Lee Cattermole). I did have Victor Anichebe, but I knew he was injury prone too.  Also, he was not very good. I planned to give Januzaj a go up front, but behind him there was only Swedish younger Joel Asoro. The 17-year-old would be a part of my first team squad to gain experience, but was  not really ready for regular Premier League football.

I hunted around for a young striker to join my squad. Real Madrid Castilla striker Mariano was bid for on loan, but he chose a move to Sassuolo instead. Young Brazilian striker Everton rejected any move to us outright. Other bids for promising strikers across Europe were rejected or simply laughed at. In the end, I did manage to prise the wonderfully named Kevin Lasagna from Carpi. At 23, he has room to improve, but mostly solid stats across the board is a good place to start from.

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Backroom Staff

I had no plans to make wholesale changes to the squad (and, frankly, good players were skeptical about joining Sunderland’s annual relegation dalliance) so I was happy with the signings of Svensson, Horn, Poyet and Lasagne. With that done, it was on to my backroom team.

I got rid of the club legend Paul Bracewell as my assistant, replacing with the Dutchman Michael Linderman. Having worked at Ajax for many years, I was hoping he could bring some of that tactical knowledge and eye for a young player to Sunderland.

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I also got rid of my existing Head of Youth Development and replaced him with Phil Cannon, because…well, look at those stats.

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And, for a little sprinkling of stardust, I brought in two Premier League and England legends: Paul Scholes and Teddy Sheringham. Frankly, if my players could not learn from those two then there was no hope.

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There we are. Transfers done (for now). Backroom team re-arranged (for now). I had, more or less, picked a formation and had a reasonable idea of my best eleven. The season loomed large. First up: a game against Antonio Conte’s Chelsea, at home. Gulp.

How do the press and the bookies think we’ll do this year? Have a guess…

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Part 2 will follow, covering the first month of the season. Let’s hope I can do better than real life Sunderland did in August…


If you enjoyed this, check out the rest of this blog for more articles and fiction writing. You can also reach out on Facebook and Twitter, and follow me on Medium.

If you want more stories from my weird mind, you can buy my latest short story collection Static: Collected Stories on Amazon Kindle for just £1.99.

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Why I Decided to Self Publish

As you may be aware, I recently made a short story anthology Static: Collected Stories available on Kindle for just £1.99 (you can buy it here).

Over on my Medium blog, I wrote a post to explain why I decided to self-publish it (after spending years vowing I wouldn’t self-publish).

You can read the post here.

(Incidentally, if you want some free samples of the kind of stories you’ll encounter in Static: Collected Stories then you can find some on Medium, here.)

Static: Collected Stories – My New Book, Now Available!

“Two criminals, both with something to hide. A teenage girl, fighting for survival in a flooded world. A stage actor, transported to magical woodland. A woman on the run from a demon. You will meet all these characters and more in Static, the first short story collection from author and freelance writer David Fox.”

I’ve been writing short stories for years, and now I’ve compiled by favourites into an anthology I’m calling Static: Collected Stories. You can get it on Kindle now for the bargain price of just £1.99. Buy it here.

2016/17 Premier League Transfers You Forgot Ever Happened

It’s January transfer window time, and the newspapers are chock full of transfer rumours. And though it’s exciting to see your club linked with a big name start, plenty of transfers that do actually happen make you wonder exactly why clubs bother.

I picked out 7 summer transfers that were totally pointless for Just Football. Take a look at the list here and see if you can remember that these players signed for these clubs.

The Talent Show

This originally appeared on Medium via the Fiction Hub publication, and you can read the original version here.


Backstage, you think everything is calm. That’s the way they make it look on TV. Contestants and their families just relaxing, chatting and joking. That’s what you see. The reality is stress. The reality is a small army of black shirted staff power-walking through, shouting instructions or talking in code into walkie-talkies.

It was where everybody wanted to be. Well, no, everybody wanted to be out there, on stage, in front of the judges and the audience. But backstage, with its mix of nerves and adrenaline, comes a close second.

They call my name, and I’m up. I know how this will look on TV, first they will show the video recorded earlier in the day where I talk about myself, my family, why I’m here, where I’ve come from — it’s the same stuff that everyone says, you know the drill.

Out on stage, I can see the judges. It looks like they’re miles away, though I know it’s closer than that. The main one — the famous one — is there, I can see the hunger in his eyes from my lonely position on the stage. The other three look almost desperate, vying for attention like court jesters. These are the people that know what the world wants, what the world needs.

I do what I do, and I do it well. I close my eyes and tune everything and everyone out. My ears ring and the noise envelops my head. When I open my eyes I see the judges standing and applauding; the audience too. Above the din, I hear one of them say:

“You’re the one.”


Now it’s my first public appearance. Weeks after my debut at the talent show. Earlier I peaked out at the audience. People are out in force. I had been told to expect it, but still — all through my life, I have never thought that many people would want to see me.

For weeks now I’ve been told how important, how vital, this is. It’s why everyone is here. My manager — one of the judges — really believes in me, keeps telling me how brilliant I am, how wonderful I am, how important this performance is and how it will be life changing for everyone — the audience out there, the people watching on TV, even those who aren’t paying attention. Their lives will be changed, my manager says, even if they don’t immediately realise it.

Tentatively, I step out on stage. The audience, stood in the open air in the city square, whoop and holler with enthusiasm in spite of the driving rain. I look around, taking in the hordes of cheering people. In their eyes I see the same hunger that I saw in the eyes of the famous judge. But then I notice there’s no microphone stand. No microphone. At the centre of the stage is a wooden pyre, in the middle of it a large wooden post. I guess you would call it a stake. An imposing man clad all in black approaches me from the back,and leads me to the pyre.

The words of my manager echo in my ears as I’m tied to the post, and as they light the pyre: what happens on that stage tonight will change the lives of everyone.

The Problems with Sherlock’s “Final Problem”

Sherlock aired its season 4 finale this Sunday in the UK, and possibly it’s final episode ever. There were some good things about “The Final Problem” but plenty more confusing plot holes to be investigated.

I’ve written an article for Creators Media (formerly Movie Pilot) trying to get the bottom of all of it. Or more accurately, throwing my hands up in total confusion and annoyance.

Take a look at the full article here.