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
Because of our involvement in the League Cup, the Christmas programme and an inconvenient calendar, we have a whopping eight games in December. So you’ll forgive the lack of preamble. That is a lot of games for a squad that still lacks a little bit of depth, at least in terms of quality cover. In terms of not-quality-cover, we have loads. So much, in fact, that I’ve decided it’s time to cash in on Ross Forsyth. He’s had his moments, but he’s not really good enough and the chance to quintuple (and a bit) my money is taken without a second thought. Farewell, Ross.
But this, it seems, was a serious error on my part. With the squad reduced to 32 names, a number of players suddenly declare themselves unhappy with our lack of depth. Goalkeeper Richard Wright is chief among the dissenters. I don’t understand it. We’ve got Mauro Navas at left-back and he’s ace. We’ve got Paul Konchesky as back-up and while he’s not ace, he’s not a disaster either. Our situation has not worsened because of the sale of Forsyth. But the squad will not be budged and I go into what should be an easy game against Sheffield Wednesday with five unhappy players.
And that, I suppose, was inevitable. Wednesday have three first half shots and they all go in. All of them. No muss, no fuss. A Robbie Savage long shot. A Steve Brooker brace. Who the hell is Steve Brooker anyway? Didn’t he win the fucking X-Factor? I’m furious. Wright can’t catch and the midfield is phoning it in. Ryan Williams is poor, so he’s replaced by Magallanes and the decision to remove Li Tie and throw Zlatan into a three man front line brings two swift goals. Can we level the game? No, we cannot. Jermaine Darlington puts us to the sword. I am not amused.
If the players are unhappy that the squad is too small, then I’ll have to buy more players. The problem is that I don’t really have any money. For the second season in a row, I’ve blown the kitty and we’re losing money at the rate of about £1m a month. Now this isn’t a problem in the long-term. TV revenues and season ticket money gives us a profit of about £10-£15m every season. But in the short term, it means that I can’t just go out and buy the sort of player I could actually do with. I have to buy what I can afford. And I haven’t got much. So that means signing a man so nice that he can’t possibly upset the mood in the dressing room.
Linvoy will probably never play for me, but his presence alone is enough to make everyone happy again. Too late to salvage the Sheffield Wednesday game, but perhaps in time to stop the whole season going titsy. I also sign a young Spanish midfielder on loan, but he’s substandard and will never do anything else other than make up the numbers for the reserves.
But we cannot dwell on the past. We need to get back into winning ways and an opportunity of sorts presents itself on the Monday. West Bromwich Albion, with their formulaic 4-4-2, at home. Zlatan remains on the bench, Magallanes returns to the team and the rest picks itself.
Excellent. We’re back in our groove. The scoreline flatters the Baggies. It’s a last minute goal from Scott Dobie that narrows our margin of victory, but their goalkeeper Andy Oakes is the only reason that it’s not four or five by that stage. I really wish we could just take our belt off and thrash someone. We always make it so hard for ourselves.
And now we’ve made it harder. I didn’t check the fixtures. We played the Baggies on Monday. We now have to go away to Chelsea in the League Cup quarter finals on the Wednesday. And everyone is knackered. Particularly the wing-backs, who cover so much ground in this formation. I’m devastated, and yet, this isn’t entirely my fault. Had I realised, I still wouldn’t have risked the win against West Brom by resting key players. Not straight after a defeat when we needed to get back on the horse. And these boys are so tired, even an early substitution wouldn’t have helped. Navas and Senda are in the low 70s and if I played them for just the first half, they’d be injured by the break. The same goes for Richard Rufus, who has been exceptional of late, Thiago Motta and our captain Wayne Rooney. What a waste. The only consolation is that Chelsea are in the same boat and have fielded fringe players. Maybe we can still beat them…
No. No, we can’t. It appears that their fringe players are actually quite good. Ours…not so much. Felipe Oliveira gives the Blues an early lead and our attempts to restore parity are frustrated by the excellent David Ashley. Tony Hibbert blows his chance of a run in the team and he is subbed off at half time along with Thomas Gravesen, with whom I am very, very disappointed. The only positive to take from this is the performance of Lee Carsley. I really had forgotten about him.
So, with one chance of silverware flushed firmly down the shitter, we have a chance to send another one down with it. Manchester United and Tottenham are stretching away at the top of the table. If we can’t get something from White Hart Lane, then we’re going to have to accept that our season will be about finishing third or fourth, not making an unlikely charge for the title. It’s worth recalling that our expectations were simply to avoid relegation, but you know how it is. If you’re still in touch with the top by December, you don’t want to go back to the middle of the table. It’s like being invited to an Oscar winner’s aftershow party for an hour and then getting sent to finish your night at an All Bar One. We’ll revert to what I believe is full strength (Yes, Zlatan, I know you’re on the bench) and we’ll just have to do our best.
Well, look at that. It turns out that our best is actually good enough. There are some moments when our bottom squeaks like a trapped mouse, but Rooney’s first half goal is good enough to win the day. We didn’t even play well, but neither did Tottenham. And you know what they say: In the Kingdom of the Blind, the one-eyed man who stabs the other one-eyed man in their one remaining eye with a chisel is King.
I’m never allowed to be happy for long. There’s always something. Having snatched Ryan Williams away from Derby with the weird protected contract clause, Arsenal try to pull the same trick on me with Rufus. Now, I knew that Rufus’ contract was unprotected, but given that he’d been so poor at the start of the season, I wasn’t too concerned. Since we shifted from a back three, however, he’s been faultless. So this is bad timing. I offer him a new deal, but for some reason he’d rather play for Arsenal and he accepts their terms and conditions. But then Arsenal fail to stump up the cash. With all the brass neck of the fucking Tinman’s cousin, they ask if they can delay the transfer for a bit. Can they bollocks. I cancel the deal immediately and make a counter-offer to Rufus. Londoners. The sheer bloody nerve of Londoners.
There’s no time to get our knickers in a twist though, there’s another fixture to play. It’s Portsmouth at home. Now Portsmouth play a 4-4-2, but with one of their midfielders told to push up all the time. With that in mind, I set Li Tie on him, use Gravesen to mark his partner and then free Thiago Motta of all defensive responsibilities, allowing him to focus on getting up and helping out. It’s a bold ploy, but I think it’s the right one. I think we’ve got this. Ronaldo can have a run in the free role because Magallanes disappointed me again.
We have got this. And Ronaldo can have more turns in the free role. We’re aided a little by a poor performance from their goalkeeper, but we are strong in every department. Ronaldo scores a hat-trick, Zlatan scores and Thiago Motta scores too. What a lovely day. We don’t get many days like this, so we should savour it.
And we’ll follow our celebrations up by smiling in a satisfied manner at the way the Rufus business has ended. He’s got a pay rise (£10k a week to £15k) and we’ve got him locked down for the last good bit of his career. More to the point, Arsenal have wasted their time and effort.
But the games keep coming. It’s Boxing Day and where better to spend it than Blackburn, Lancashire. We lost Rooney to a minor injury against Portsmouth, so it’s Zlatan and Cherno up front now. But that’s okay. It’s about time they had a turn together. Everyone else keeps their place, unsurprisingly.
Hmm. I think the best that can be said here is that it could have been worse. Andy Cole scored early and gave us a few doubts. Once again, we dominated the play, but without scoring. It looked like it would take something special to beat Stephen Bywater, and so it would prove. Ronaldo hit one from 30 yards after half time and we were back in the game. But having played so well to get level, we fell away in the closing stages and were a little fortunate not to concede again. We’ll take it. It’s a useful point.
Two days later, just two days later, we’re in action again. Another chance for our tired players to play Chelsea’s tired/fringe players. I’m still very happy with my players, so in spite of their late 80% fitness level, I’ll give them a go.
And I’m very glad I did. Chelsea opted for the same strategy, sending tired seniors out instead of fresh juniors. But by the time the game entered its final stages, we were already two goals up. Navas and Zlatan had to go on the hour, both were exhausted and carrying knocks that could have worsened. I didn’t want Milito to join them, but I had no choice when he dipped into the 60% red zone. We conceded almost immediately, but by then it was too late. This doesn’t entirely make up for crashing out of the League Cup, but it’s not a bad form of compensation.
We have three days to eat chocolate and play board games and then we’re back into action again. Fortunately we’re at home, but Milito isn’t fit to play at all. He has been, by a country mile, the best player in the team this year, but I can’t risk him. And if there is a game that I should be confident of winning without him, it’s at home to 19th placed Birmingham. Let’s hope I’m not taking them for granted…
I’m not, but not by much. Birmingham put in their very best Everton 2004/05 impression. They play well, they make chances, but they’re hopelessly compromised by two or three poor performances. We are solid and forgettable. We do a job and we do it adequately. And when the opposition helps you as Birmingham did, that’s always going to be enough. How quickly things turn around in this game.
After the game, I’m a little surprised to be asked if Everton are now title contenders. I choose not to answer. I’m cool like that. I raise an eyebrow, give the journalist a smile. I say something like, “That’s enough of that nonsense, young man.” But under the table, I’ve developed quite the stiffy.
And why shouldn’t they ask the question? We’re 12 points clear of Arsenal in fourth and, while we’re nine points back from Manchester United, there are still a lot of games left to play. And, hang on. We’re Everton! We should have nosebleeds being this high up the table. It’s New Year’s Eve and we’ve got 44 points. WE’RE NOT GOING TO GET RELEGATED!
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…