THE MISSION: Return to Championship Manager 01/02 and win silverware with Everton.
THE CATCH: Everton are in financial trouble. There will be no Cherno Samba for you. Not for a few years anyway…
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 ’02; Pre-Season ’02 Pt2; August ’02; September ’02; October ’02; November ’02; December ’02; January ’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
Two games. Two games stand between us and the Champions League. And all we need is two points. Even one point might do it if Sunderland, Newcastle and Liverpool slip up. Hell, we could have already qualified. But Sunderland, Newcastle and Liverpool would *really* need to mess up for that to be the case. But there it is. Opportunities don’t usually knock this loud.
Sheffield Wednesday will be the first to test our mettle, and the last to do so at Kings Dock this season. Under the shrewd leadership of Steve McMahon, they’ve risen from the third flight to the Premier League in successive seasons and consolidated their position, thanks largely to the goals of Steffen Iversen. But they have nothing to play for here. I need to crush them now and put any doubts out of my mind.
Gabriel Milito’s three match ban hasn’t kicked in yet, so I have him and the Greek wonderboy Thanasis Tsikitsiris at the back. Lee Carsley will continue to stand in for the injured Li Tie, Cristiano Ronaldo will play in central midfielder where he has excelled, allowing Federico Magallanes to hold the number ten role. Cherno Samba’s continued drought means that Zlatan will start up front with Rooney. Let’s just get this done, eh?
Well, that started badly and never really improved. We lost Tsikitsiris after just 12 minutes and then spent the rest of the afternoon firing the ball to the left, to the right and above Jamie Langfield’s goal. They had one shot all afternoon and Richard Wright saved it. We had nine. Nine decent attempts on goal. But when I say ‘on goal’, it’s in the loosest possible sense. Only two were on target. Zlatan had four goes to himself and didn’t hit the target once. Nobody played badly. Everyone did what they were supposed to do. But nobody made the breakthrough. It was enough to put Newcastle out of contention. They drew with Aston Villa. But Sunderland and Liverpool both won. And so it will all come down to the last day.
We need a point. It’s as simple as that. One single point will lift us above Sunderland and Liverpool, no matter how many they score in their last games. An easy match at home to a team with nothing to play for would be nice, but we just had one of those and we fucked it up. Instead, we have to travel to Fratton Park, where Portsmouth are desperate to avoid relegation. They’re not a special team, they do not have special tactics. It’s a simple 4-4-2 and their best players are their defenders, both of whom I’ve tried to sign in the past. Eddie Howe and Lewis Buxton will take some beating. So let’s not take any chances.
We go into the game vulnerable. Milito’s three match ban, handed down because he punched Patrick Berger in the face, kicks in today. Tsikitsiris is injured. So we’re down to our reserve pairing of Richard Rufus and Gary Breen, with Linvoy Primus on the bench. I could have put the refreshed Li Tie back in the defence, but he hasn’t played there all season and he’s been a rock in defensive midfield. I’m concerned about the fitness of Mauro Navas, so Paul Konchesky will sit on the bench, while Ryan Williams and Cherno Samba should give us options if the going is tough. I think I’ve covered everything. Now we just need to send them out there.
From kick-off, it’s clear that there’s a problem. Pompey come at us, going all out attack from the start. Danny Webber goes close, Giorgos Georgiou goes close, Eddie Howe goes close. They are pouring through us at will. And then we lose Li Tie to injury. This is bad for a number of reasons. Firstly, because he’s very good at football, but secondly because there’s no-one on the bench who can replace him. That means we have to change our shape, or risk playing someone completely out of position in such a crucial zone of the pitch. Alternatively, one of Ronaldo or Magallanes has to play out of position on the left wing.
Given that we’re already getting torn apart, a change of shape isn’t necessarily a bad idea. I move Ronaldo left, send on Ryan Williams for the right and switch to 4-4-2. We start to make chances. Rooney goes close. Danny Senda hits the bar. And then Mark Burchill scores for Portsmouth. Of course he does. We’re losing.
A quick check of results elsewhere brings worse news. Sunderland and Liverpool have also taken early leads. As it stands, we’re going to finish sixth. But we continue to push for an equaliser. Rooney goes close, Williams forces a ‘fine fingertip save’ from Saul Deeney. Ronaldo hits the post. At half-time, we’re completely in control of the game. It’s the scoreline that’s causing the problems.
Magallanes is having a stinker and so he’s grudgingly withdrawn for Paul Konchesky, who can play left wing and has pace to burn. Ronaldo moves back to the middle. The chances continue to mount up. Breen smashes a header over, De La Pena hits the crossbar, the third time we’ve rattled the woodwork. And still, Sunderland and Liverpool lead.
With 23 minutes left, we go for broke. Off comes Danny Senda and we move to an attacking 3-4-3 with Cherno Samba joining Rooney and Zlatan up front. But still, Howe and Buxton hold us at bay. More chances come and go, but we can’t get anything on target. And still, Sunderland and Liverpool lead.
But then, in the last minute of the game, something extraordinary happens. Rooney finally gets the better of Howe, turning him smartly and leaving him on his bum. Rooney accelerates into the box, Buxton can’t close the gap on him. Rooney takes a breath, pulls his foot back and fires a powerful low shot. Somehow, Deeney is equal to it, but only just. He can’t collect the ball, it runs free in front of him…and Stephen Carr runs in to clear it to safety. And with that, our season ends. We have lost. Portsmouth’s players dance around the pitch, the fans pour onto the grass in the May sunshine. They have escaped the drop. For our part, our season ends like this….
We had two games. We needed two points. We ended up with one. We didn’t score a single goal. Over those two crucial games, we had 18 shots. Just four of them were on target. Now, I will admit my faults over the run-in. If I’d only put Li Tie in defence and left Lee Carsley in the middle, we’d have sustained that early injury without issue. But I don’t think we lost that Champions League place at Fratton Park. I think we lost it weeks ago when we threw away so many points after outplaying the opposition. We haven’t been ruthless enough.
On the face of it, a sixth place finish and UEFA Cup qualification is a decent return. After all, we were in a relegation battle last season. But this isn’t decent. This is a crushing disappointment, and it’s not my first. I had hoped that this summer would require only a little non-invasive surgery. Instead, we’re looking for three key players. And we’re going to need to shake up some of our established names.
But that can wait. For now, I just want to be alone. Barman? Whiskey. Thank you…LEAVE THE BOTTLE.
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…