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

jermain-defoe_-overview-profile

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.

jordan-pickford_-overview-profile

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.

paddy-mcnair_-overview-profile

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.

lynden-gooch_-overview-profile

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.

jonas-svensson_-overview-profile

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.

jannes-horn_-overview-profile

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.

kevin-lasagna_-overview-profile

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.

michael-lindeman_-overview-profile

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.

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.

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.

Ophelia

This short story has been kicking around in various forms in my head and on my laptop for a few years now, so I decided to get the definite version down.

This was first published in Medium’s Otherworlds publication, and you can read that here.


Attempting to pack for two using only one suitcase was frustrating, but an interesting challenge for Will. Ophelia was “asleep” on the sofa, oblivious to the frantic opening and shutting of cabinets, to the clothes strewn over the tiny flat. It’s funny, he thought, that she wouldn’t even realise he was doing this for her.

Her blue eyes slammed open and she yawned. Will smiled, as he knew it was just for effect.

“What are you doing?” she asked, gazing slowly around a flat that looked like it had been ransacked.

“Packing,” replied Will, mulling over how he could jam his laptop into the suitcase. “We need to leave.”

“You sound alarmed. And you are perspiring. Are we in danger?”

“Not yet. But we will be if we don’t leave soon.”

Will blamed himself. For the first few years of Ophelia’s existence he had been cautious, moving to a new city every few months, changing aliases and appearance each time, and doing the same for Ophelia. He supposed that it made no odds to her whether she was blonde or brunette, had short hair or long, or was programmed to answer one to one name or another. But after years of hearing no sirens, without a knock at the door, Will got complacent. He settled into a groove. He didn’t run. He forgot about the past that they had both been running from. And now, they were being hunted again.

“We are leaving?” Ophelia asked, standing up slowly and approaching Will. “But we have been here so long. Three years, 4 months, fifteen days-”

“-I know, I know, I don’t need the countdown.”

“I am sorry.”

“I know, honey,” Will smiled. “I’m just stressed, that’s all.”

Stressed,” she said, tasting the unfamiliar syllables in her mouth. “You are…” her eyes closed just for a second, “subject to pressure or tension?”

“That’s one way to put it, yes,” he replied, tutting to himself as he tried to fit a few more shirts into the suitcase.

“That is a new addition to my vocabulary. I am…pleased? Is it correct to be pleased?”

“I don’t think everyone is excited about learning new words, but pleased is fine, yes. But Ophelia, you understand that my being stressed isn’t a good thing, right?”

“I do not know,” she replied evenly, “as I have no experience of such a state of being. But I have noted you are perspiring. You have an increased heart rate. Our home is in disarray, which suggests a lack of care being taken with your activities. All of these things, as is my understanding, are negative. Therefore…stressed is negative too.”

“Yeah,” Will said quietly, frantically searching the tiny bedsit for any essential items he had missed. “It’s negative.”

“How can I help you? I am good at organising.”

“I know. For now, just keep an eye and an ear out for any trouble. I’m almost done.”

“An…eye…out?” she said, uneasily.

Will sighed at the blank look on Ophelia’s face. Even after all these years, she could not understand idioms. “Just…just let me know if you see anyone out of the window, or hear anyone coming up the stairs. They’re coming for us, Ophelia. The bad men are coming for us.”


No-one came, and soon they were in Will’s battered camper van heading out of the city. Will drove and Ophelia closed her eyes, unperturbed by the vehicle’s gears, loudly grinding like the molars of a restless sleeper.

She didn’t sleep — of course she didn’t — but closed her eyes on long car journeys anyway. More for effect than anything else, Will thought. Though the motorway at night was largely empty, he furtively check his rear view mirror every few seconds, expecting to see headlights chasing them down.

After a couple of hours, he could relax a little. The only other cars they saw were going the other way, and Will was lulled into a relaxed state by the rhythmic swish and thud of the windscreen wipers. He glanced across at Ophelia in the passenger seat, still with her eyes closed, “sleeping”, or whatever she did when she mimicked sleep. Will was not given to bragging, but even so he would sometimes catch himself being amazed at his handiwork. She could pass easily for an ordinary young woman — no-one would even look twice.

Her ice blue eyes opened, and she turned to Will and smiled. “I was thinking about my mother,” she said, apropos of nothing.

“Mm-hm,” Will turned back to the road. “What about her?”

“You told me she was an angel.”

“Well, I don’t remember everything I’ve ever said, but yeah, I probably said that.”

“But she’s not dead.”

Will knew where this conversation was heading, and regretted his tendency to speak without thinking.

“No…” he replied carefully. “At least, not as far as I know.”

“Is my definition wrong?”

Will wanted to say no, it’s not. He wanted to explain the difference between the literal and figurative. He wanted to explain that while he always means what he says, his words don’t always mean what they mean. Instead, he told her that her definition was fine, and that she might understand if and when she meets the woman she knew as her mother.

Seeing a sign for the motorway services with a hotel, Will suggested they stop there for a night and formulate a plan of action. Ophelia agreed.


Will lay in bed, with Mary at his side. Their fingers were entwined so that he did not know whose were hers and whose were his; she was pressed up tight against him, loosening his bones with every breath.

He had known Mary for four months, two weeks, and three days. He already knew with a nauseating, terrifying — yet elating — certainty that he loved her. The love kept him going, kept him moving. It was his engine. He hadn’t told Mary yet. He thought: when you name things they die.

She was the reason he freed the AI from his company. He had wanted to do it, but Mary gave him the final push of encouragement. In the end, it was surprisingly easy. Will had high security clearance, and scrambling the CCTV cameras was a simple job for someone as technically minded as him. As soon as he walked out of that building, with the human-looking AI he would come to call Ophelia, he knew he was leaving his past — even his present — behind. From that moment on, they were both fugitives.

Mary was wanted too. She confessed and gave herself up after a few days. Not out of cowardice — she thought it would save Will. But he was still hunted. And he didn’t know what happened to Mary after that.


The hotel was a non-descript white and grey affair that looked posh from the outside but significantly more tacky and plastic on the inside.

The hotel room was decorated in mute greys and greens. Uninspiring paintings of non-specific countryside hung on the walls. A sad plastic chair was pulled out next to a faux wooden desk, in front of a mirror. In the far corner, high up, was the television; one of those ancient, deep-backed models. The remote was tied to the bedside table.

At the front desk, Will had booked the twin room for Ophelia under the name Jane Egan. Once inside, Will and Ophelia went through the usual routine. First, changing out her contact lenses. Blue swapped out for green. Then, the wig, her short blonde hair became long, red tresses.

Ophelia studied herself in the mirror with a blank expression.

“Why do people die?” she said.

“Why do you ask?” Will raised his eyebrows. He never quite got used to her often abrupt line of questioning, and she had never got used to the human art of flowing conversation.

“Because you are afraid of it,” she absentmindedly brushed her wig, before turning to face him on the bed. “That is why we are always running. But why does it happen?”

Will shrugged. “I mean, in general? Entropy, I suppose, I don’t know. Or in my case, I’m afraid someone is going to end my life for me. But it’s human nature to want to survive, and I run to survive.”

“We cannot keep running forever.”

“I know,” Will said, fingering a memory stick in his pocket. “That’s why I have a plan.”

Will explained it all to Ophelia as plainly as he could. The memory stick would give her a new personality, new memories. She would not remember Will. No one would even know she was an AI. If he had programmed it correctly, she would not even know. Will had wanted to teach her all about the world himself, but he was right: they couldn’t keep running forever.

After a small eternity of silence, she said: “So what will happen to you?”

“I guess I’ll turn myself in,” he shrugged. “I was thinking about it on the drive here. We just keep going from one place to the next, we can never settle down…and they will never stop chasing us. Mary met her fate, whatever it was. I have to meet mine. In the beginning, all we wanted was to set you free. So that’s what I’m going to do.”

“But you are afraid to die.”

“Yes. But what’s living if all I can do is run?”

He held the memory stick in his hand, feeling the heft and weight of it. A personality; memories, fears and all associated entanglements rendered into a sleek metallic token. He wondered if his brain could be downloaded like this. Could he fit into something so small as to fall through a gap in a drain, or down a crack between sofa cushions?

Ophelia agreed to the plan. Taking off her wig, she allowed Will to open the plate on the back of her head and power her down. He inserted the memory stick, and uploaded the new data. He put her wig back on and straightened it. With a deep sigh, he powered her back on. After a few minutes, her now-green eyes opened. She looked around, startled.

“Where am I?”

“A hotel Oph — Jane. This is your room.”

“And you are?” her eyes narrowed.

“I’m, er, John. We met in the bar downstairs. We were just up here having a chat and…you fell asleep, I guess. I was just about to leave, anyway.”

Will got up and walked to the door. As he opened it, Ophelia — Jane — asked: “So I’ll see you around the hotel?”

“Er…no, probably not. I’m just about to check out actually. But enjoy your stay. It was nice meeting you.”

He shut the door before she could respond. He didn’t want to drag out the goodbye — even though she didn’t know it was a goodbye — it was too painful. The door clicked closed and he made his way downstairs to the hotel’s reception area. At the desk stood two identically tall, anemic looking men in dark suits. They were here from the company, Will knew. They were here for him. He didn’t need to check to know they had guns under their jackets. He held up his hands in contrition and allowed them to lead him away.

A few hours later, after the commotion had died down, a woman with long red hair walked down the stairs and out of the door. She passed her room key to the receptionist, who looked surprised to see her leaving so early. In her pocket she found the key to a Volkswagen camper van she had come by some years ago — she couldn’t remember quite when, or how . She got in it, and drove away.

If anyone had asked her she was going, she would not have been able to tell them. All she knew was that the road was calling, and all she wanted was freedom.

Grace: A Serialised Novel (An Update)

A while back I wrote about Grace, a novel I was serialising on Jukepop.

As you’ll know if you read it, I got four chapters in and that’s it. It’s a combination of a couple of things; a lack of time to write and difficulties with the Jukepop site, which I’ve found to be very slow to load and not hugely user friendly, in terms of ease of uploads. So, Grace has…stalled, a bit.

But, we’re heading into the new year, and I want to finish the novel in 2017. I’ve decided to resurrect it (and re-write it) but I will still serialise it, although not here (I will link to new chapters as they get written) and not on Jukepop either.

I’ve decided its new home will be Inkitt. So far, there’s only one chapter done, and you can read it here. If you want to read the 4 chapters I uploaded to Jukepop, you can do so here (mainly because it seems nigh-on impossible to un-publish a story on that site).

Achlouphobia

This story was first posted on Medium, and you can read that version here.

It’s the first of what I plan to be a series of short stories about and/or inspired by phobias, as I think they’re an interesting jumping off point for stories. More to come.


Achluophobia

Maya scraped a match and lit another candle. The handful of candles she had lit did not help much, but at least she could see something in the gloomy half-light.

Nothing worked at it should. The electricity had been out for three days. Before that, the water from the taps came out sludgy and brown. The cabin was old, she knew, but she expected to find it in working order. Instead, she found it decrepit and dark. Maya hated the dark. When the lights went out she felt the walls closing in — after the first time it happened, she knew that itcame in the dark.

She was able to fumble for her phone’s flashlight that first evening, and succeeded in finding some matches and candles in a kitchen draw that was full of forgotten domestic detritus like batteries and picture hooks.

The candlelight had forced back the darkness, and Maya could breathe again. The next morning she cycled to the nearest town for supplies — mainly candles and matches.

Since then the wooden cabin had been lit by candles on every flat surface. Sometimes they would go out, even though there was barely a draft. Maya would re-light them almost immediately. Unable to focus on anything in particular, she would gaze out of the windows into the inky darkness outside. Sometimes she felt as though her dark thoughts were being fed by the black-as-night woodland that surrounded and continually oppressed the cabin.

Occasionally something outside would catch her eye. The movement of a tree branch, or what looked like a flicker of light from deep inside the forest. She wondered if anyone was out there. She hoped not, for their sake. It was out there.

It had followed her. Even this far. She could not escape, even here. It was out there, in the forest. Sometimes, when the howl of the wind died down, she thought she could hear the hooves.

When the lights went out on the first night, she saw it.

In the pallor of the candelight, she saw a figure, almost made of pure shadow, in the doorway. Cloven hoofed, head enshrouded in a cowl, it made no move. Maya stood frozen. She could not see the apparition’s eyes, but felt its stare.

It had been a frequent visitor throughout her life. In shadows, in darkness, it would come. Its appearance meant confusion, pain, and death. She thought the cabin, deep in the woods, would provide respite. But when the cabin was plunged into darkness, it returned. The creature disappeared with the light — even dim candlelight — as had always been the case. But Maya knew it was only a matter of time until she would see it again.

Except Maya had a plan. Picking up one of the candles, she held it to the fabric of the curtain until it caught alight. The fire spread quickly. From curtain to wood, soon the whole cabin was burning. Wreathed in smoke, choking with her final breaths, Maya let the light engulf her.

“It Couldn’t Happen Here”

This story was first posted in Medium, and you can read that version here.


“It Couldn’t Happen Here”

The morning after, no-one knew what would happen next.

For the first few months it was rumour and speculation. After the inauguration — renamed Great America Day — things started to change.

Words changed. Or rather, words stayed the same, but their definitions changed. American got smaller and smaller, the walls closing in. Un-Americanbecame so broad as to encompass virtually anything.

I noticed the Internet shrinking. Certain website URLs would redirect me to a new page, noting in dry prose that my ISP was required by law to block the site, and repeated attempts to visit would result in my information being passed to the new House Un-American Activities Committee.

Getting the news from television and radio proved no easier. Gradually, recognisable faces and voices faded away, replaced by nondescript men and women who spoke in clipped, even tones of unpatriotric dissenters, re-classifications and deportations, and repeated official White House press releases as rote.

Those in the media who did speak out were soon gone from the airwaves. Talk show hosts who had once skewered both sides of the political aisle were often re-classified, blacklisted. Or, to put it officially: “forging new careers outside of media and journalism”.

After a few weeks, I stopped seeing riots outside my window. I was assured by sober newscasters that much of the country was still engulfed by “chaos”. The President reacted by suspending all elections for the “medium to long term” until stability could be restored.

In the name of stability, the borders were closed, north and south. The Department of Education announced a new curriculum called “New American History”. The students who do not pass will have to face mandatory “supplementary education” lessons.

We became afraid not of violence, but of the simple things: our quiet neighbour with the stars and stripes on their lawn. Using the wrong words in public. CCTV cameras. A knock at the door.


I moved away when I could. Away from the city and its cameras and police and hundreds of thousands of snooping eyes. I’m affluent, and white, and male, so my classification means I can travel.

Minnesota is cold, but it’s quiet. I have discovered an underground resistance, online. Bloggers, writers, thinkers, (former) academics. The non-disappeared’s, eking out meagre existences, blogging in code. We talk about matters that are innocent enough: dogs, cakes, approved American history. But our words mean something different. We learned it from our government.

I hear the rumble of a drone overhead, but pay it no mind. I have been extra careful since moving. I watch all the political broadcasts. I say all the right things. A flag flutters proudly in front of my house.

I sit down to watch a broadcast of the news. Eyes on the screen — because they monitor it — but mind elsewhere. Just as it’s about to start, a see a car pull up outside. It’s sleek and black and moves without a sound.

After a few seconds that feel like hours, the door opens. A man emerges, lithe and smartly dressed. He looks around and adjusts his cuffs. He walks up my driveway.

Knock. Knock. Knock.

Football Manager 2017: The Journeyman Challenge (August, Part 2)

To read Part 1, covering pre-season and the first 4 games of August, click here. Nothing has changed here except the skin, as I opted for the default “Football Manager” one. If you want to see more detailed, high-resolution versions of the screenshots, just click on them.


“The world looks a totally different place after two wins.” – Gordon Strachan

We didn’t have two wins, but we were off the mark with our first following a 2-1 win over Poole Town. It was pleasing not just for the three points but for the fact that my misfiring lone frontman Eliot Richards bagged both goals.

Weston-Super-Mare vs. Dartford Town

I was hoping to continue in that vein with another win in another home game, this time against Dartford Town. Sticking to the old adage about not changing a winning team I stuck to the same tactics and XI. I still was not convinced about the 4-3-2-1, but I didn’t have any better ideas. And besides, it had worked last time out.

weston-super-mare-v-dartford_-overview-overview

Bloody glorious, another 2-1 win! The only slight downside was that Richards didn’t continue his goalscoring exploits (and was in fact largely anonymous) but a win is a win.

We scored with virtually our first attack, and it was a disarmingly simple goal. A throw in on the right found Jesse Kewley-Graham, who played a simple square ball to his midfield cohort Adam Pepper. From just inside the box, Pepper lashed a shot inside the near post that was too swift for the Dartford keeper to stop.

It was 2-0 just after half time, and the goal was similar. This time Heath’s throw in from the left was flicked on by Jack Maloney. Kewley-Graham collected the ball on the edge of the area and lashed a shot home.

Dartford rarely threatened, but did get a goal back inside the final 15 minutes to make things tense. Some slack passing in the centre circle saw us lose the ball, and a quick break from Dartford saw them in behind out defence. Sub Danny Harris could have scored but instead squared unselfishly for Duane Ofori-Acheampong to tap in.

The pressed for an equaliser but couldn’t create anything clear cut as we withdrew and sat deep. Their frustration told with less than ten minutes to go as Eliott Bradbook was shown red for a two-footed lunge on Mark Nisbet. After that, whatever fight they had faded away, and we held on comfortably for a second 2-1 win in a row.

Ideally I wanted another home game to continue the momentum we had built, but instead we had an away trip to Margate. Again I saw no point in chopping and changing for the sake of it so we kept the same personnel playing the same way.

Margate vs. Weston-Super-Mare

margate-v-weston-super-mare_-overview-overview

Our winning run came to an end after just two games. Everything of note happened in the first half. Margate netted from a corner – our Achilles’ Heel – when centreback Yado Mambo’s header was diverted in, virtually on the goalline, by striker Daniel Akindayini.

It didn’t take long for us to equalise. Around 10 minutes later we had the ball in the net in fortuitous circumstances. Winger Jack Maloney had a speculative long rang effort that somehow squirmed under the body of the Margate goalkeeper and into the net. It wasn’t a good goal, but I wasn’t complaining!

And that was pretty much it for the rest of the game. Maloney’s effort was the only one we could muster on target, the best we could offer was other long range potshots that sailed into the stands. Margate were much the same, though Akindayini did miss a couple of gilt-edged one-on-one chances. A 1-1 draw was fair, it was pretty obvious we were two poor teams.

Our winning run had ended, but we were still unbeaten in three. I hoped that the confidence would still be intact after early pace setters St. Albans came to visit. I had make some changes. Unforunately experienced right back Sekani Simpson suffered a cruiciate ligament injury in training that would keep him out for the rest of the season. In his place, I loaned young full back Tyler Little from Bristol Rovers. Due to tiredness I also drafted in Syd Camper at left back, and Ladjie Soukana into defensive midfield. The changes weren’t ideal, so I was worried a heavy defeat would be on the cards…

weston-super-mare-v-st-albans_-overview-overview

Well, a heavy defeat was avoided. But we still lost. In fairness, we played quite well, and created more chances than them. The real difference came in the fact that they had Louis Theophanous leading the line and we had Eliot Richards. The Welshman had another forgettable game up front, while Theophanous showed him how it was done, diverting a near post cross into the net at the stroke of half time to give St. Albans the lead.

We had chances, but they were either saved by keeper James Russell or (more often) diverted haplessly wide and/or over the bar by Richards and his cohorts out wide. A 1-0 defeat against the early league leaders was no disgrace, but it proved that I had a lot of work to do to make this side competitive, despite those two wins.

The month of August had shown that we’re a better team than the relegation certainties we were predicted to be, but that we’re also a long way off matching the league’s better sides. I knew I had plenty to do, but I was confident that at the very least, I could keep this side up. I just needed a reliable source of goals from somewhere. We had a packed September ahead – 5 league games plus the second Qualifying Round of the F.A. Cup meant our squad would be stretched to the limit. Things were about to get interesting…

Football Manager 2017: The Journeyman Challenge (Pre-Season and August, Part 1)

This is my first saved game on the Football Manger 17 Beta. I have started as an unemployed manager, a former Sunday league nobody with no coaching badges. I want to work my way up the ladder in England, either by taking a club up through the leagues or moving on myself, then maybe manage abroad. But probably not, I’m not very good.

The playable leagues I’m running are England (Vanarama North/South and above), Germany (Bundesliga only), Italy (Serie A only), Spain (La Liga only). I’m also running the following as View Only leagues: Brazil, China, France, Holland, Portugal, Scotland. The game is running on a medium database and I’m using the Football Manager Dark skin that comes with the game.

Let me know what you think in the comments, and follow me on Twitter and Facebook as I’m sure I’ll be talking all things #FM17 on there as I play.


“A jockey doesn’t have to be born a horse.” — Arrigo Sacchi

I breathed deeply, and chucked the three envelopes into the postbox. There. It was done. No going back now, even if I wanted to. And I didn’t want to. No. Not at all. My sweaty palms were just because of the summer heat. Honestly.

My CV hadn’t taken long to write. How much can you say about an amateur football career ended prematurely by injury at the age of 31 and a few voluntary coaching gigs in the local community? I had sent by CV off in the hope that one of three clubs would be foolish enough to give me the job as manager. Bishop’s Stortford and Weston-Super -Mare in the Vanarama South league, and most unlikely of all, League 1’s Shrewsbury Town.

Unemployment in FM17

Sports Interactive/Sega

Shrewsbury were the first to knock me back, with a standard form letter thanking me for my interest but stating they would be moving forward with other applicants. Then, much to my surprise, both Bishop’s Stortford and Weston invited me for an interview. Being a gentleman – and being desperate for a job – I visited both clubs to discuss things.

Inexplicably, both clubs were willing to offer me the gig. Were they desperate, stupid, or just cheap and knew I wouldn’t demand much money? Who knows. After a day of deliberation, I picked Weston-Super-Mare. They had a seagull on their badge, and who doesn’t want to live beside the seaside?

The squad I inherited…well, it wasn’t great. Thankfully, the board were realistic and only asked that I avoid relegation. There were a couple of decent-ish players in there for this level, but not much to work with.

FM17 Weston-super-Mare squad

Sega/Sports Interactive

What the players lacked in talent (and boy, did they lack talent) they made up for in hard work, according to my assistant. He felt 4-4-1-1 would be a good formation to use, so I decided to use that as a base for my tactics.

FM17 Weston-Super-Mare squad report

Sega/Sports Interactive

What I needed first was more players. Leaders, maybe. Players without the first touch of a brick wall, ideally. A transfer budget of big fat zero meant my hands were pretty much tide, but a few hundred quid to spare on the wage bill meant that potentially loans, free transfers and non-contract players could be sought.

My first signing was Danny Stevens. The 29-year-old ex-Spurs trainee had league experience with Luton Town and Torquay, and his versatility (comfortable on the left or right wing) gave us options.

Danny Stevens FM17 player profile

Sega/Sports Interactive

He was followed through the door by Belal Aite-Ouakrim. The 31-year-old Moroccan had spent most of his career at Hendon without, as far as I could tell, pulling up any trees. But he added a bit of flair and technique, and could fill any of the two attacking roles in my planned 4-4-1-1.

Belal Aite Ouakrim FM17 player profile

Sega/Sports Interactive

Still my Chief Scout bombarded me with reports of players who could add something to our (frankly awful) squad. Adam Pepper, a 24-year-old central midfielder-cum-winger joined, as did promising 20-year-old centreback Josue Antonio and 34-year-old winger Tony Taggart, who was pretty good with dead balls (and not much else).

My Assistant Manager Mark McKeever saw fit to organise four pre-season friendlies. We won the first, against non-league Yate Town, 3-0. Results went downhill from there though, with defeats against three bigger sides – Aldershot, Bolton and Plymouth Argyle. I was not worried about the defeats, friendlies are all about getting fitness up and tweaking tactics.

We faced Whitehawk at home in our opening game of the season. The local newspaper claimed only 350 of our fans would be rattling around the 3,500 capacity Woodspring Stadium, and Whitehawk weren’t going to be much help either – only 10 of their fans were expected to make the trip from Brighton. My managerial career was going to be begin in absolute obscurity. But then, what did I expect? We would have to make the people of this sleepy seaside town want to see us by giving them something worth watching. I wanted that to start against Whitehawk.

FM17 first game

Sega/Sports Interactive

Weston-Super-Mare vs. Whitehawk

The day was finally here. My first ever competitive game in the dugout. Sure, no-one cared, and the staff members and subs in each dugout almost equaled the number of fans, but everyone has to start somewhere. I’m not Ryan Giggs, I can’t just demand a Premier League job.

Team Selection FM17

Sega/Sports Interactive

I agonised over my team the night before the game, but decided to keep most of my raft of new signings out of the lineup to begin with. Adam Pepper was the only one to make the starting XI. Danny Stevens had a slight knock that kept him out, while Aite-Ouakrim and Taggart would both start from the bench.

Things started well. Our captain and best player – right winger Dayle Grubb – put us ahead in the first few minutes. To say it was lucky is an understatement. Grubb overhit a cross from the right hand edge of the box that sailed over the Whitehawk goalkeeper’s head and into the net.

We held a 1-0 lead until the break. With neither side creating much, but with Whitehawk presumably set to come at us in the second half, I changed to a counter attack strategy. Our lead didn’t last long. A simple corner found an unmarked Sergio Torres at the near post and he lashed the ball into the roof of the net. 1-1. The rest of the game was a ding-dong end-to-end battle of two not-very-good sides accidentally almost scoring. It was like two drunks scrapping in a pub car park. In the end, a 1-1 draw was fair.

Weston-Super-Mare 1-1 Whitehawk

Sega/Sports Interactive

Just three days later, we faced Bath City away. I tried to do what I could with the lads in training, but what I saw didn’t fill me with hope for the season ahead. They were a willing bunch, for sure, but effort only gets you so far. Thankfully the 4-4-1-1 formation did OK in the first game. We created chances, but we also gave some up at the other end.

Bath City vs. Weston-Super-Mare

I decided only to make one change ahead of this game. Jake Mawford came into central midfield for Danny Wring, who wasn’t fit enough to start. Other than that, I kept faith with the team that started last time out. Bath were a decent team. Playing an old school 4-4-2 with two out-and-out strikers up front, I knew they could cause us problems. But, still, I hoped we would cope and maybe nick a draw…

Bath vs. Weston-Super-Mare FM17

Sega/Sports Interactive

Cause us problems they did. If you look at the stats it was an even game. We dominated possession and even had more shots, but only 2 of ours went on target, and none in the net. Clinical Bath netted 4 of their on target efforts. And that was the difference.

Normally I wouldn’t be angry, even after a 4-0 defeat, if I felt the scoreline didn’t reflect the game. But I was angry after this one, and let rip at the players. It wasn’t so much the scoreline as the manner of the goals that angered me.

For the first, the defence went to sleep after half-clearing a corner. Bath picked up the loose ball and worked it back out the wing. The ball was fired in low and my sleeping defenders stood and watched as Stuart Wilkin slotted in at the far post. For the second my defence saw fit to leave striker Stuart Fleetwood unmarked at the near post at a corner. The third goal was a counter attack that saw my ‘keeper parry a daisy cutter out to Josh Hutchinson for a tap in, and the fourth was the crazy decision by my left back Syd Camper to bat away a lofted free kick with his hand. They scored the penalty, somehow Camper was spared a red card. Presumably the referee felt sorry for him and us.

After that crushing defeat, I did what any good manager does. I went back to the transfer market. After Camper’s moment of maddness, I signed Joe Heath, a left back to replace him.

Joe Heath profile FM17

Sega/Sports Interactive

He was followed by French utility man Ladjie Soukouna. The fans were skeptical – Soukouna had been out of football since a spell with Plymouth Argyle back in 2011/12 season, but even after four years away I felt he could cope at this level.

Ladjie Soukouna profile FM17

Sega/Sports Interactive

I wasn’t done there. On the recommendation of my scouts, Jack Maloney, a 21-year-old winger-cum-striker with pace joined us. As did Ben Harrison from Nantwich Town as a back-up defender, Jesse Kewley-Graham to add some attacking menace to central midfield, and the versatile ex-Maidenhead man Mark Nesbit.

Jack Maloney profile FM17

Sega/Sports Interactive

Jesse Kewley-Graham profile FM17

Sega/Sports Interactive

Mark Nisbet profile FM17

Sega/Sports Interactive

Finally, I felt like I had options everywhere. Maybe not good options, but options. Going into our third game of the season, another away fixture against Welling United, I decided to change from the 4-4-1-1. Would it give us our first win of the season?

Welling United vs. Weston-Super-Mare

With more depth in the defensive midfield position, I switched to a 4-3-2-1, with wingers and a shielding defensive midfielder.

Welling Utd vs Weston-Super-Mare

Sega/Sports Interactive

Would it bring us our first win? No. Much like the Bath game, we had more possession and more shots, but wasted our chances. Thankfully, we didn’t concede 4 this time, but one was enough to seal all three points for Welling. Once again it was from a set piece, a corner saw us beaten – yet again – to a header at the near post. 1-0 to Welling, and we huffed and puffed but could not blow their house down.

Welling Utd vs Weston-Super-Mare FM17

Sega/Sports Interactive

Two defeats in a row. New signings, none of whom were particularly impressing, and a formation change. Three games into the season and things already looked as though they could unravel. Tom Meechan – on loan from Newport County – had started up front in the first two games and had been largely anonymous. I started Elliot Richards in his stead against Welling, but he didn’t do much either. And according to my coaches, Richards was my best striker by far. I was not sure what to do. We needed goals, and soon.

After Welling, we returned to the Woodspring Stadium for the visit of Poole Town. They were going well, in 7th place, while we were second from bottom of the league. We needed a win.

Weston-Super-Mare vs. Poole Town

I decided to keep faith with the 4-3-2-1 and with Eliot Richards up front. It’s not as though I had any top clash finisher waiting in the wings anyway. In front of our home fans (well, a few hundred of them) I wanted a win.

Weston-Super-Mare vs. Poole Town

Sega/Sports Interactive

I wanted a win. We needed a win. And we bloody well got a win. Not only that, but Richards up front bagged a brace!

Things started off badly. Another corner. Another sloppy goal. This time Mark Nisbet misjudged a simple clearing header. The ball sailed over him into the path of onrushing midfielder James Granger, who was quickest to react to poke the ball home. 1-0.

I barely had enough time to get mad before we were level. About five minutes later centreback Josue Antonio channeled Leonardo Bonucci to bring the ball up the half way line and loft a through ball over the Poole defence. Richards rushed onto it and slotted it past the ‘keeper for 1-1.

We went in at the break level and in the second half we largely reverted to type. Nice play here and there with no end product. Eliot Richards went back to his anonymous self in the second half, before getting lucky with his second goal. Left back Heath swung a low cross in and Richards and Poole defender Jamie Whisken battled for it. Whisken stuck a leg out to clear but only diverted the ball into the leg of our falling striker. The ball bounced off him and in. He celebrated like it was the world’s greatest goal, and hell, so did I. It was 2-1. We closed out the game for a vital, memorable, much-needed three points.

Vanarama South 4 games

Sega/USports Interactive

After four games we were sitting 18th, just outside of the relegation zone. If we’re there come the end of the season, I keep my job. Dispiritingly, Bishop’s Stortford, the side I turned down, are comfortable in 6th place with two wins. The bastards.

I wanted to build on the momentum of our first win, but knew it would be tough. Up next, second place Dartford (home), mid-table Margate (away) and early leaders St. Albans City (home) would end the month.