How best to run a football club? With big spending? With youth development? Making it up as you go along? Unless you have hundreds of millions of pounds, you’ll never have the chance to put your ideas into practice. But with Football Manager becoming more realistic and more immersive every year, perhaps the game could be used as the framework for a theoretical experiment. We asked Alex Stewart to take over a club and guide it for five seasons with a strict adherence to the ideals of Moneyball. Then we were having so much fun, we asked him to do another five seasons too.
Ah, bathos! One win away from Champions League glory. Still, I cannot be too disheartened. Who would have thought such near misses might be on the agenda when we started out on this humble journey, you and I?
Bristol City have achieved such marvellous things and this season, our aim is to build yet further on that and challenge for another trophy or, even, whisper it, the Premier League itself. We are in fine shape, too. Bristol City move up 23 places in the European club rankings to 13th. Chelsea are once again top. We are also now the 12th richest club in the world, richer than Juventus, Atleti, Spurs, Lazio, Inter…the list goes on. Chelsea are the richest club in the world; we are the sixth richest in England.
It’s worth noting that in my eight completed seasons, we are now only worth less as a club than Chelsea, Arsenal, the two Manchester sides, and Liverpool. It also shows that our league positions consistently overmatch our wealth, even as it increases. Will it ever stop? I don’t know. Turn off the lights, and I’ll glow.
Anyway, in other club-related news, Demetri Mitchell is the Fans’ Player of the Year. In all competitions he racked up 22 goals, 12 assists, a 7.26 average and a number of England appearances, including as part of the World Cup squad. I forgot to mention that the year before, Pablo Insua won the popular vote, the first time it had not gone to the increasingly peripheral Luke Freeman. Talking of the World Cup, which obviously I do not scout, it is won by Argentina for the second time in a row. Jeremie Boga, my free signing of many moons ago, is named as a substitute for the tournament’s Dream Team. Not bad for a Chelsea cast-off snapped up for nothing.
The usual head-rolling begins post Cup, and I am offered the Holland job (and decline). Pep takes up the Belgian national team role, forsaking humble AS Monaco, and I am linked with the principality’s team. I am forced to take to the Press to vent my frustration at such wild insinuations. Imagine me leaving my beloved Bristol City!
It’s time to buy. I look to strengthen up front, ever mindful of the over-valuation of strikers, because I am happy with our defence and goalkeepers. Having said that, if the right person becomes available…
I have £36 million and almost £750k per week available wages to spend Carlos Paciello, a 20 year old wonderkid Argentinean striker-cum-right winger, is signed from Rive Plate for £3.3 million and £10k per week. He averaged 7.44, scoring 21 goals in 27 appearances on loan at Luzern and is very undervalued.
He is joined by Loric Wembangomo, a 21 year old French centre-back or left-back, who is signed on a free from Sochaux, but costs £50k per week. Never forget the better correlation between wage spending and success than transfer spend and success. He has a 7.03 career average across 136 matches, and is rated a 4 star potential player.
Wellington, a world-class 23 year old Brazilian striker, costs me a whopping £20m from Shakhtar, my affiliate club. He is on £140k per week too, but this outlay is justified by a 7.26 career average, with 75 goals in 125 games (he also wins the World Cup goal of the tournament and is a substitute for the team of the tournament, though obviously I had decided to sign him well before then!). He’s another Mucino: a large outlay but a sizeable upgrade. Never be afraid to spend money as long as the player’s worth it and undervalued. Wellington’s value goes straight up to £31.5m, suggesting that £20m was a decent price.
I sell Dennis Vase for £10.25m to Spurs. He spent much of his time with us on loan, never quite fitting in despite his potential; we make £4.4m profit from his sale. Henriquez then departs to Ternana for £8.25m. He had a blindingly good first season for us, averaging 7.02, but then faded as he was shunted aside by better strikers, first Wilson, then Mucino. He was a free too, so the profit is significant, and I have more than able replacements for him.
I strengthen the youth section of my backroom staff: Manuel Mancini for technical training for £5k per week; Eduardo Lara for tactical training for £4.2k per week; Nicky Weaver is signed from Sheffield Wednesday for £34k and £1.1k per week to teach goalkeeping; technical coach Jerome Sonnerat joins for £1.5k per week; Marco Fioretto is signed from Chievo for £27.8k and £1.7k per week for attacking coaching. This is largely due to the fact that with investment in the set-up, I can now hire more staff, and because our one major weakness as a squad is failing to develop any decent young players since Dominic French, who isn’t that good anyway.
The 2016 side, who enjoyed Bristol’s first season in the Premier League, popped into my inbox in a ‘Where Are They Now?’ form. It’s very interesting to look at whether those players did better or worse after they left the hallowed halls of Ashton Gate, whether I did, in fact, sell them at the right time. So, for this side only, let’s have a quick look:
Sallahi and Freeman are still at the club, the left-back a first team starter (for now) and the fans’ former favourite Freeman no longer playing at all. Ronnow, at Everton, went from a 6.87 average with us to a 6.94 career average afterwards, but we made a £1.8m profit on him.
Roux, at FC Lorient, went from 7.04 to 6.92, with a £2.2m loss, though he effectively kept us in the Premier League when we bought him. Minotti, at Atalanta, went from 6.87 to 6.59 for a £100k profit. Salifu, at West Ham, went from 6.98 to 6.73 for a £2.2m profit. Ilori, at Aston Villa, went from 6.78 to 6.90 for a £500k loss. Ayling, at West Brom, went from 6.96 to 6.82. We sold him for £80k and he was a Bristol player when I took over. Magnusson, at Wolves, went from 6.88 to 6.82 for a £900k profit. Jay Emmanuel-Thomas, also at Wolves, went from 7.10 to 6.89. We made £8m from his sale and he was at Bristol when I took over. Sangalli, at Numancia, went from 6.84 to 6.90 for a £1.2m profit. Fielding, at Ipswich Town, went from 6.88 to 6.53; he was sold for £700k and was at the club to start with.
Coulthirst, also at Ipswich Town, went from 6.68 to 6.98 for a £325k profit. Corazza, at Crotone, went from 6.96 to 6.96, for a £75k profit. Romano, at AlbinoLeffe, went from 6.78 to 7.16 for a £310k profit. Burns, at Southend United, went from 6.89 to 6.77. He was at the club at the start and left on a free.
Therefore, only 5 of 13 players who left improved in terms of their averages and of these, only one of them (Ilori) was sold at a loss and only one (Romano) improved dramatically. That seems to suggest that players were mostly sold at the right time. Factor in, as well, that all these players were sold when a replacement was already lined up and that many of those replacements have gone on to be significantly better, it shows the value of Moneyball’s planning as much as its emphasis on selling at the right time.
The season begins with a 4-0 win away at Leicester where, despite the Foxes’ keeper Kasper Schmeichel being Man-of-the-Match, Wellington bags a brace on his debut and Paciello scores 1. In the Champions League Best-Placed Playoff, we draw Sassuolo. We win 1-0 at home and lose 2-1 away, sneaking through on away goals. Between the two legs of that tussle, we beat West Ham 4-1 at home but lose Barkley and Wellington to short-term injuries. We are drawn in Champions League group with Barcelona, Shakhtar, and Standard Liege, which I’ll take, even though memories of last season’s final are still fresh and bitter like lemons. But! We beat Barca away 2-1 in the first group game, playing counter-attacking football, with a great goal from Paciello. It’s a fabulous start and avenges that final result a smidgen (not really, though).
We beat Brentford 3-1 at home to extend an unbeaten run in the Premier League to 21 games. We extend this to 22 games before losing at Spurs, 2-1. We get things back on track with a great 5-3 win over Premier League champions Manchester United at the Gate. A further run of fine results is capped by a 4-0 win over Barca, Kihlgren getting two, as we top the Champions League group and ensure qualification with 2 games to spare.
Leverkusen sack their manager and tap me up, but if your team has just beaten the Champions League holders, why would you even consider leaving?
Our great league form comes to an end with a 2-0 loss away at Arsenal, but at least Rondon doesn’t score. The halfway point game is first against second, in other words Chelsea against us at the Gate. They gallingly beat us 3-2 after we come back from 2-0 down to threaten. They have so much quality and depth, though, that it’s almost impossible to beat them. Infuriating, really. We remain second, five points behind Chelsea but nine ahead of the chasing pack, led by Manchester City, who we beat 3-0 in the game before the Chelsea visit.
We make only one signing in the January window, Cristian Capo, a left-winger from Barca who is transfer listed and costs £425k and £19k per week. He has a 7.09 average for the B-side and is a 5 star potential player, and back-up for Mitchell. It’s a classic Moneyball signing. We beat Swansea 6-2 on aggregate to book a place at Wembley in the Capital One Cup final. We then beat Norwich 4-1 away with Wellington scoring another 2, taking his tally to 29 goals in 32 appearances in all competitions. That £20m is looking rather small beer now.
Frankfurt sack Ronald Koeman. I mention this only as it saddens me whenever anything bad happens to Ronald Koeman.
Thrillingly, Wembley is a field of grassy joy for us. We dispel our Chelsea hoodoo and beat them 4-3, with Paciello (2), Renigfo, and Wellington scoring the goals. It’s glorious! We have won a domestic trophy!
We then have two more cup games, a replay against West Ham in the FA Cup fifth round, which we win 2-0, and then a sixth round match against Manchester United, which we also win 3-1. A draw against in-form Bournemouth, 1-1 away, is a minor blip in an otherwise marvellous month.
We tie up a 6-1 aggregate win over Benfica in the Champions League first round knockout stage, which is good but, by now, expected. We did beat Barca, after all. We have a series of good results in the league but then lose 2-1 at home to Liverpool and draw 2-2 against Blackburn; we have a decent cushion in second place though, and a Champions League Quarter Final against PSG to prepare for. We win the first leg 1-0 at home. We then beat Liverpool 2-1 in the FA Cup Semi Final, but it’s a nervy affair, with Wellington finally getting the winning goal in the 89th minute.
We then lose 2-1 at PSG but go through to the Champions League semi-finals on away goals. The fixtures are coming thick and fast now and the small size of the squad is beginning to show. We beat Arsenal 4-2 at home, though, to maintain our momentum, with Wellington netting a hat-trick.
This guarantees Champions League football for next season. Chelsea win the title after we lose to Manchester City 2-1 and are therefore no longer capable of catching them with only 2 games left. We lose 2-1 to Barca at the Nou Camp in the Champions League Semi Final first leg, but the away goal could be vital. We don’t need it, though, as we beat them 3-1 at home to make our second
Champions League Final in a row! The Final will be against Manchester City and the venue, amusingly enough, Old Trafford. An omen?
We beat Everton 3-1, which relegates them. I like Everton, so that’s a shame. We finish the Premier League in 2nd place with a 2-1 loss away at Chelsea, who we are due to play in the FA Cup Final. We finish 13 points behind Chelsea and 3 ahead of 3rd place Arsenal, an improvement on last year that is hugely satisfying. Swansea, Spurs, and Liverpool all sack their managers. I believe that Jose and I are the two longest serving managers in the Premier League now but I am too focussed on two upcoming finals to check.
Wellington wins the Players’ Player of the Year and is the top Premier League goalscorer, with 31 in 33 games. He is also joined by Barkley and Grassi in the Premier League Team of the Year.
We go 3-0 down in the FA Cup Final to Chelsea and, even though we claw 2 goals back, we cannot find an equaliser to force extra time. It’s gutting and I come to hate Chelsea even more than I already did.
The Champions League Final. The music. The glamour. Platini. Children running around the pitch carrying cardboard footballs. Living the dream. Paciello opens the scoring in the 1st minute, and then Barkley smashes home in the 14th. Vincent Aboubakar drags City back into it with 2 goals, but then Paciello sneaks in at the far post to tap in in the 54th minute. We hold firm and BRISTOL CITY HAVE WON THE CHAMPIONS LEAGUE! THE FUCKING CHAMPIONS LEAGUE. They’ll be dancing in the streets of (parts of) Bristol tonight!
The CL Dream Team includes my entire first choice back four, Abakarov, Grassi, Romagna, and Wembangomo, as well as midfielder Mahsas. BECAUSE WE WON IT!
A quick review of my signings, just for the sake of form, though to be honest, I’m too utterly ecstatic to pay much attention to anything other than the gleaming cathedral of joy quietly pumping out the Gazprom theme tune in the corner of my office.
Wellington, bought for £20m and now worth £43m, scored 51 goals in 55 matches in all competitions, averaging 7.63. Paciello, bought for £3m and now worth £19.5m, scored 26 goals in 42 starts and 12 sub appearances, averaging 7.34. Wembangomo, signed on a free and now worth £19.75m, averaged 7.19. January signing Capo averaged 6.97 but quadrupled in value and is one for the future.
Our net spend was plus £10m, which is still paltry when compared to Chelsea (£46.5m), Man City (£73.5m), and Arsenal (£41.75m), for example. It’s also worth noting that Mahsas, bought for £3m last season, is now worth £30m and averaged 7.20. Romagna, bought for £20m and now worth £31.5m, averaged 7.11 and his centre-back partner-in-crime Grassi, bought for £3.9m, is now worth £22m and averaged 7.23. The last two seasons’ worth of signings have been pretty special, going up in value and turning in marvellous performances.
Financially, we made a profit of £86m this year as well, including £34m in prize money and so our health is as rude as ever. Along with the Champions League, we won the Capital One Cup; it is an extraordinary achievement for a club that in nine years has risen from League 1 to the heights of continental football, beating teams like Juventus, Barcelona, Atletico Madrid, and Manchester City along the way. I bloody love my Bristol City.
One frontier remains unconquered, one last vista whose horizon is closer but still fuzzy. The Premier League title. Can my final year bring the prize most craved by any normal football fan?
You can follow Alex Stewart on Twitter and ask him for tactical tips. (@AFHStewart)