CM01/02: The Return (April ’08)

THE MISSION: You have returned to Championship Manager 01/02. You have won silverware with Everton. Now turn them into a genuine European powerhouse.

THE CATCH: Everton were in financial trouble. You had to play for nearly three seasons without resources. The books are balanced now, but all the legendary players have been snapped up by your rivals. Respond. 

PREVIOUS EPISODES: Pre-Season ’01; Pre-Season ’01 Pt2; August ’01; September ’01; October ’01; November ’01; December ’01; January ’02; February ’02; March ’02; April ’02; May ’02; Pre-Season ’02Pre-Season ’02 Pt2; August ’02; September ’02; October ’02; November ’02December ’02January ’03; February’03; March ’03; April ’03; May ’03; Pre-Season ’03 Pt1; Pre-Season ’03 Pt2; August ’03; September ’03; October ’03; November ’03; December ’03; January ’04; February ’04; March’04; April ’04; May ’04; Pre-Season Pt 1; Pre-Season Pt2; August ’04; September ’04; October ’04; November ’04; December ’04; January ’05; February ’05; March ’05; April ’05; May ’05; Pre-Season ’05 Pt1; Pre-Season ’05 Pt2; August ’05; September ’05; October ’05; November ’05; December ’05; January ’06; February ’06; March ’06; April ’06; May ’06; Pre-Season ’06 Pt1; Pre-Season ’06 Pt2;August ’06; September ’06; October ’06; November ’06; December ’06; January ’07; February ’07; March ’07; League Cup Final Preview; League Cup Final Special; April ’07; May ’07; Pre-Season ’07 Pt1; Pre-Season ’07 Pt2; August ’07; September ’07; October ’07; November ’07; December ’07 Pt1;December 07 Pt2; January ’08; February ’08; March ’08

A lovely start to a tense month. The Greek lad has been rewarded by his peers and has won the PFA Players’ Player of the Year Award. It’s a wonderful moment for a young man I stole away from Barnet for just £1m and who is currently averaging 7.98. Everyone at the club is delighted for the Greek lad and hope that he can end the season with another medal and that he won’t be tempted if Barcelona or Real Madrid come in for him. But enough of all that.

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This is it, then. This is the game of games. We stand upon a tightrope. On one side, a calamitous defeat and a feel-shit factor that derails our challenge for a place in next season’s Champions League. On the other, a place in the FA Cup final and the chance to make this season, despite that hideous start, the best season of my career. It’s Millwall at Pride Park in the FA Cup semi-final.

This is probably as anxious as I have ever been about a single game and the more I think about that, the more I think that I mean a single game on a computer *and* in real life. On the face of it, it is as straightforward a task as you can imagine at this stage of the competition. It’s Millwall. It’s a neutral venue. Millwall aren’t very good. Oh, sure, they’ve got the 24-year-old left winger Robin van Persie in their team, but they’re barely mid-table in the second flight.

By stark contrast, I have an almost-full strength team that is currently riding high in the Premier League. A number of them are unhappy about what they perceive to be a lack of strength in depth, but I’ve only got £600,000 to spend, so there’s not much I can do about that. Manchester United have already sewn up the league, but there’s every chance that we’ll claim second or third. The players have been rotated and they’re well rested. Surely, surely, surely, we will make swift work of this. That’s what any normal team would think. But we’re not a normal team. We’re Everton.

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I realise it’s an overused phrase in the CM01/02 Project and I know that every time I say it, it diminishes in value a little bit. But I have NEVER seen anything quite like this. I should have known that there was trouble in the air when I saw David Preece’s name on the teamsheet. A friend and occasional contributor to The Set Pieces, David is a man of whom no-one ever says, “He’s a good writer, for an ex-player,” because the ‘for an ex-player’ bit is entirely unnecessary. He’s intelligent, erudite and thoughtful, but upon this day I have grown to loathe the sight of his name.

No-one has ever put up more of an obstacle to the success of Everton Football Club than that bearded bastard, and that includes me. He was absolutely everywhere. This wasn’t a fair fight at all. We battered them from start to finish. But Preece was equal to everything. He made five saves alone from Cristiano Ronaldo, another four from David Villa, three more from Zlatan Ibrahimovic, 14 in total.

At half-time, I remained calm. We’ve been in this situation before. As long as you’re making chances, as long as they are good chances (and these were), you’ll eventually break them down. Just before the hour, Greg Strong was sent off. Now we only had to beat ten men. But with 16 minutes of normal time left, Millwall still hadn’t folded and Preece was still reaching every header and shot, like the warped result of some kind of hideous experiment with octopus DNA.

We switched to ‘attacking’ mode. Ryan Williams came on for the ineffectual Steven Cherundolo. David Pizarro for the disappointing David Bryan. Still nothing. Wayne Rooney arrived for Ronaldo. Still nothing. And then finally, in the 114th minute, Topper Harley broke clear on the left flank, cut the ball across the penalty area and Williams drove it home. We did it. We are going to Wembley. But we all need a stiff drink after that. And as it appears that I could do with a new back-up goalkeeper, Preece is going on the short list. And, oh look. It’s LIVERPOOL in the Final.

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Now all the youth of Merseyside are on fire and silken dalliance in the wardrobe lies. Now thrive the armourers. And honour’s thought reigns solely in the breast of every scouser… But there is still the small matter of the league campaign. We need to get ahead of Chelsea. And we need to put Ged Houllier’s Hoof Ball Merchants in our rear view mirror. But to do that, first we’ll have to get a result against Frank Rijkaard’s Tottenham, a team with whom we hold an exact share of the results. Fourteen meetings, six wins each, two draws each, six defeats each, 17 goals scored each, 17 goals conceded each. Unsurprisingly, I’ll keep the same team.

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Now that’s the look of a team in their groove. Tottenham are no slouches and they take the game to us from the start, but when David Villa scores his ninth league goal of the season, they visibly sag. I spend the early exchanges of the second half wondering how long I should leave it before I activate my ‘Helm’s Deep’ 4-5-1 formation and try to hold my one goal lead to the end, but then Zlatan pops up in the 65th minute and makes it a two goal lead. Cushion acquired, we shut the game down and move into second place, ahead of Chelsea on goal difference, ahead of Liverpool by four points. Six games remain.

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And so to Steve Bruce’s Sunderland. It’s been a mixed season for the Black Cats. They now hold the League Cup we cherished, having beaten our conquerors Nottingham Forest in the final last month, but they haven’t managed to perform as well in the league and they linger in eighth. They are not to be underestimated, but I do have to make a couple of changes. Cherundolo’s fitness has dipped, so FA Cup hero Williams will stand in for him. Zlatan’s fitness is also dropping into the low 90s and with Cherno Samba currently trying to rediscover his scoring touch in the reserves, I’ll give Rooney a go in the target man role. That’s not as odd a decision as it seems, his physical stats are actually very high.

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A good result, but one with worrying repercussions. Far from being a chance for Rooney and Williams to stake a claim for a first team place, this game swiftly became the reason they won’t even get on the bench for a little while. Rooney performed well, but was injured shortly after half-time, while Williams joined him in the bath a few minutes later, having tried to cut nice Julio Arco in half with a sliding tackle.

As if that wasn’t enough, assist master David Bryan was injured as well. Fortunately none of them will be out for too long. Even more fortunately, it didn’t put us off our stride. Two goals for Villa and one for substitute Zlatan gave us a relatively comfortable victory. With five games to go, we remain above Chelsea thanks to an 11-goal advantage in the goal difference stakes. Liverpool’s draw away at Newcastle leaves them six points behind.

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A small problem has emerged in that Richard Rufus, 33 and nearing the end of his usefulness, has been unsettled by £230,000 bids from Manchester United and Chelsea. I turn them both down and try to console him with a new contract to reward his loyalty. He doesn’t want to speak to me. I sincerely hope that Gabriel Milito and the Greek lad stay fit now.

Cardiff City are ten points adrift at the bottom of the table. They’ve lost 21 games already this season, shipping 65 goals in the process. If we beat them in Wales today, we could confirm their relegation. We have won our last nine games in all competitions and we haven’t been beaten in the league for two and a half months. It seems simple. All too simple. Something about this feels very, very wrong in my guts.

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I was right to be nervous. This was a frustrating afternoon spent mostly making Matthew Glennon look like Lev fucking Yashin and one that concluded with a red card for the Greek lad and very nearly another one for Cristiano Ronaldo. Having finally broken the deadlock with another Zlatan goal, I was more than happy to activate my Helm’s Deep formation and try to see the game out. But then the referee intervened and, under a late Welsh barrage, our resistance broke. Our misery intensifies when the Greek lad is banned for three games, a ban that doesn’t start until the end of the month and thus, a ban that will rule him out of the FA Cup Final. Naturally, we appeal immediately.

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Injuries are mounting now, especially in midfield where we’re without Xabi Alonso, David Bryan and David Pizarro. We can’t take much more of this. We’re not that far away from having to recall Gary Fisken. But good news arrives from the FA in the form of a critical one match reduction in the Greek lad’s ban. Assuming that the fixtures aren’t tinkered with in any way, he will onlymiss the games against Bolton and Blackburn and then return just in time for the cup final. I can only begin to imagine Liverpool Twitter’s reaction to this. They’ll be in awful moods as well, because their side loses the next day giving us the chance to stretch away.

Aston Villa are up next, a weird side under Glenn Hoddle. Occasionally, their team strikes a blow against one of the big boys, but not frequently enough to lift them any higher than 13th. It’s all a bit of waste for a team with millions in the bank and the best facilities available. Burdened as I am with limited resources and facilities that the game simply refers to as “awful”, I live from hand to mouth. Ah, God, give me the chance to prove that money won’t spoil me. In the meantime, we limp on with Jason Osborne in midfield.

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A not entirely unexpected defeat, our first in some time. Aston Villa were weirdly excellent, taking a two goal lead within the first half hour. Young Osborne responded on the brink of half time and the dismissal of Trent McClenahan suggested that a fightback was on. But we were flat and out of sorts. We made 12 chances, but put only four of them on target. Zlatan was poor, Villa (David) was poor and neither Samba nor Rooney could improve matters when they arrived. In desperation, I threw on a half-fit David Bryan in the hope that one pin-point pass might make the difference, but alas, no. We lose and allow Liverpool to creep up behind us, back to within four points and then, a couple of days later, they reduce the margin to one. I loathe them.

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That means that we need to see out the month with a win, if for no other reason than to settle my nerves. And it’s Bastard Bolton. We’ve got problems developing all over the team. The Greek Lad begins his suspension and I can’t play Rufus because he’s not talking to me. That means a return for 34-year-old Gary Breen. Bryan returns to the midfield, but I have to make a change up front because Zlatan’s morale has collapsed to ‘very low’, something I can’t really imagine happening in real life. This team is held together with spit and duct tape right now. We need this win badly.

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Thank God for that. A quickfire goal from Gabriel Milito eases the nerves and a 15th of the season for David Villa gives us a bit of reassurance before half time. Dominating, yet unable to really kill the game off, I try to give Zlatan a boost by hurling him on for Samba, who once again has failed to trouble the scorers. It doesn’t work. I give Rooney a go too, but he’s as useless as always. With two minutes to go, someone called Simon Hagman pulls Bolton back into it and I watch the last moments from behind a chair as the front of my jeans darkens with terror. We hold on. Somehow, we hold on.

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That puts us in a relatively strong position. Had we won either the Cardiff or the Aston Villa game, we’d be congratulating ourselves on securing Champions League group stage football by now. Instead, we require at least two points against Blackburn and Nottingham Forest and the avoidance of a mathematical miracle from Liverpool in order to tie up third place. Frankly, the thought of consigning Ged’s overpaid shithouses to a tense European play-off while simultaneously pulling their pants down at Wembley is enough to make my jeans darken with pleasure. But that will have to wait. Everything will have to wait. The month of May holds all the answers.

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Championship Manager 2001/02 is freeware. If you want to replicate this challenge, or make one of your own, or even just indulge in some nostalgia, you’ll find all the links you need here. We’re running leagues from England, Spain, Italy, Germany, Holland, France, Portugal and Scotland and we’re using the 3.9.68 patch that uses 02/03 data, but doesn’t crash. Hopefully…

CM01/02: The Return (April ’08)
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