The challenge: CM01/02 superfan Mike Paul is replacing Sven-Goran Eriksson in the England hot seat as he tries to lead the Golden Generation to the unprecedented glory nostalgic social media posts tell us they should have achieved. But is it really coming home?
The Football Association’s overwhelming satisfaction with the job I’m doing so far gives me great confidence as we tumble headfirst into 2003. First up today is a huge double-header against Wales and Finland at Old Trafford again, presumably, which will save Ryan Giggs on petrol money, but doesn’t do anything for his dwindling air miles.
As I’m asked to confirm my squad, I’m left facing a huge conundrum over the centre-forward position. Michael Owen has a long-term injury with a textbook hamstring problem, while Michael Bridges and Alan Smith are also both nursing knocks.
Checking the Premier League’s top-scorer charts doesn’t make for particularly inspiring reading. Sheffield Wednesday’s 32-year-old Tommy Johnson is the top English scorer in the division, followed by Leicester’s Luke Beckett, but neither actually have very good strike rates. It seems like a low-scoring PL season, apart from the goal-per-game exploits of uncapped Louis Saha, who I desperately research in the hope that he has an English godparent or dog or something.
Sadly, he doesn’t.
Glancing down the top-scorers list, my eye lands on 24-year-old England B international Marcus Bent, who isn’t exactly setting Lancashire alight with his performances for Blackburn, but has at least been birthed from the same mould as Owen in that he’s fast and dribbly. Also he used to play for Brentford, the team I’ve supported since I was a boy, so without any further analysis, he’s in.
I decide to reorder my Player Search list by goals scored and some fun choices appear.
They’re all in the lower divisions, but would you just look at the goal/assist numbers on some of those lads. Former Leeds striker Graeme Porter is taking-le-piss at Chester-le-Street; Amos Foyewa, on loan from Bournemouth to Emley, should never have left Dean Court; Michael Dunwell and Bobby Zamora will be well-known to most of you CM01/02 aficionados, while Mike Robertson is a Braintree regen, a lower-league club lauded in this universe for its ability to produce obscene youth prospects.
I eventually plump for the ridiculous average rating of Foyewa, plus the fact he could declare for Nigeria if he wanted – and we can’t be having that. Hoard all the young talent, that’s what I say. His stats don’t look like much but he obviously knows where the goal is, plus… we all love an underdog, don’t we?
Elsewhere, Sol Campbell is also injured and Rio Ferdinand is having a horrible season for Leeds, so I replace both of them with John Terry and Ugo Ehiogu, who are contrastingly playing out of their skin together at the back for Chelsea. Sean Davis is having a blinder at Fulham, making far more tackles per game than any of the other DMCs I’ve had in this challenge so far, so he comes up to the main squad too.
Big Dave Seaman has finally retired, taking the manager’s job at Crystal Palace, so my goalkeeping triumvirate is made up of Robinson, Kirkland and Richard Wright. Nicky Butt and Paul Scholes make the short, sulky drive from Cheshire to meet up with the squad as well. I’m feeling quite good about these games despite the squad’s obvious glaring misses.
First on the agenda is a Wales side brimming with talent but falling well short in the group so far, with their only points came courtesy of a 3-0 home win against the Faroe Islands. Their position at second-bottom belies the squad they have available to them: Hartson, Bellamy, Koumas, Speed, Savage, Simon Davies and star defender Karl Ready (really) will be no pushovers. I breathe a heavy sigh of relief to see that Ryan Giggs is injured, but while his absence will hinder them, we must still be very much on guard.
Having said that, I will be going with fairly aggressive systems and approaches in both our upcoming home games. The England fans deserve entertainment and I’m going to give it to them, by golly.
I’m ditching both wingers and my three-at-the-back system for a flat-back four, cramming all my best-performing central midfielders into the team and then Marcus Bent up front. I probably shouldn’t have Foyewa on the bench, but the honest truth is that I can’t resist – and this starting team should have enough about them to get the three points today anyway. Who knows? Maybe he’ll get half an hour to be a hero.
I find out at the last minute that the game is actually being played at Anfield, so after a 93-point turn in Chugger and with just minutes to spare, my players race onto the pitch to kick off and pretty much don’t stop for the entire first 45 minutes.
We have two issues, however: creating chances and then finishing them. Wales are defending deeply and stoutly, as you’d expect, and we only manage to create five chances in the half. Four of them fall to Bent, who smashes them all either over the bar or straight at Danny Coyne, but thankfully the fifth drops to the right peg of my new favourite man Kieron Dyer.
He collects a square pass from his partner-in-crime Lee Bowyer and lobs Coyne from the edge of the box to give us a slender but fully-warranted 1-0 lead at the break. Bowyer also puts the ball in the net for what should be two, but Bent is adjudged to be offside and it’s chalked off. Never mind.
Bowyer, Beckham and Gerrard are playing superbly in midfield so I decide not to change them, but instead give in to my insatiable urge to play lower-league strikers for England and change out Bent for Foyewa at the break.
We’re all over Wales for the rest of the game and only an inspired Coyne performance prevents Foyewa from scoring a dream debut goal.
We’re far more creative in the second period, with Bowyer and Dyer running the show, while Davis, Terry and man-of-the-match Ehiogu almost entirely hold Wales at arm’s length; they manage only a single shot that troubles Paul Robinson.
We, on the other hand, have tons of chances – the aforementioned Foyewa is denied twice by sprawling Coyne saves, while Joe Cole comes on and stings his palms too. Bowyer, Becks and Gerrard also all see fine efforts blocked, and the only blotch on the afternoon is a late injury to Bowyer, who was tremendous for the whole game. Hopefully nothing too serious.
Unfortunately Bowyer is out for three weeks with ankle ligament damage and with Michael Carrick injured too, I replace him with Sunderland’s Stephen Hughes, who’s the top English assist provider in the Prem with 11. He probably won’t play since Scholes and Dunn are both ahead of him, but I like to think he’d be overjoyed at getting added to the group. You’re welcome Stephen, I say out loud. “Who’s Stephen?”, my girlfriend asks from the other room. I do my best not to explain.
You might think me mad for not putting Scholes in the side to replace Bowyer for the Finland game, but you might have also noticed that we’re running a meritocracy around here. I try to pick the lads who are pulling up trees for their clubs and while Scholes’s grand total of zero goals and two assists for United this season is tempting, David Dunn’s 13 and 2 have driven Blackburn to third in the Premier League – and he absolutely deserves a go alongside Becks and Stevie G.
I also start Robbie Fowler up front instead of Marcus Bent, hoping his extra pedigree will help us lance Finland and, hopefully, overcome Yugoslavia to finally top this god-forsaken group. I am, however, very scared of the superhuman Jussi Jääskeläinen in the visiting nets.
Finland really are a bloody decent side on this and while they don’t trouble us coming forward as much as I expected, they are mountainous at the back. Hyypiä and Pasanen are imperious to the point where we can’t even put a shot on Jääskeläinen’s target – every single time we come forward they hassle, harry, shove and block, forcing us to head and drive everything into the crowd.
On the hour mark, the game is fully deadlocked. Robbie Fowler has, by now, put a couple of stingers on target but Jussi Jääskeläinen has kept him at bay. At the other end, my defence is standing equally firm, with Sean Davis a particularly efficient destroyer. Dyer and Gerrard are both on sixes, so I decide they will be sacrificed. On comes the tricky Joe Cole and the almost-forgotten Paul Scholes into AMC.
The minutes tick by. In the 74th, Finland get a corner that Pasanen heads against our crossbar and I’m literally wobbling in my chair. However, from the goal kick comes our best move of the game: Dunn and Cole combine effortlessly in midfield and eventually lob a ball towards Fowler, Hyypiä pumps the cross away, but only as far as Sean Davis. The Fulham man gathers, looks up, and clips a ball over the top towards a ginger blur that’s tearing through the Finland back line!
SCHOLES WITH THE VOLLEY!!
Goooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaalll Paul Scholes! What a hit! What a player! What a man! I never doubted him for a second! Susan, start putting redactions in tomorrow’s papers, will you?
Meanwhile, Jermain Defoe wins the English Young Player of the Year award, pipping Joe Cole and Titus Bramble to top spot. That gives me some food for thought as I prepare for our friendly with Croatia, for which I’ve also been tinkering with a prospective new tactic.
I don’t want to stray too far from the realm of realistic formations for this challenge, since it is meant to be bedded in reality, but I know that DMC, AMC and lone strikers can be a little overpowered in CM01/02. Since I have a wealth of options in all those positions and my blood pressure could really do with a way to neutralise dangerous attacking opponents, I’m led to a nice Christmas Tree formation that shifts things around to take advantage of what I know.
Paul Robinson (the LB) is really impressive in Blackburn’s charge for the Champions League places so he gets another chance, my hero Mike Duff can run up the right and Chris Sutton continues to lash them in for Celtic and I simply can’t ignore his calls for a further cap.
You’ll also see from my bench that I’m trying out a few noobs in Titus Bramble and John Curtis; Defoe misses out through injury, as do Michael Owen and my two Coles, Joe and Ashley. I consider calling Andrew up just so there’s at least one knocking around the place, but instead give in to familiar urges and let Michael Dunwell back through the revolving door.
Nope, too defensive. Even on Attacking, we only put one move together in the whole game and conceded far too much of the ball to Croatia. I’m glad I tried that, but it’s going in the bin.
The important thing here is that I don’t make that mistake against our next opponents, Yugoslavia – a vital game for both teams that will almost definitely decide the group winners. They’re ahead of us on goal difference, so really only a victory will do; otherwise we’re relying on someone else doing us a favour as the games continue.
Honestly, I’m amazed by how proficient Yugoslavia are on this. Apart from our meeting at Wembley, they’re all-conquering, scoring at least two goals per game and, more often than not, three.
I was hoping to come into this game with a great counter-attacking formation to sting them with, but as it is, nothing I try works convincingly enough for me to feel like I’ve got any idea what I’m doing. ‘Twas ever thus.
So, I return to the only formation that’s worked in any real capacity so far, the 4-1-3-1-1. The team looks solid, we’ve got options on the bench and my defenders – especially Ehiogu – have been awesome since I returned to a back four. We just need to score a few bloody goals, is that really too much to ask? Michael Owen’s return should hopefully aid me in my quest. C’mon Michael. I need you.
Michael Owen doesn’t save me, but to a man, we are absolutely bloody marvellous in a frightening atmosphere in Belgrade.
Goalkeeper Paul Robinson is named man of the match on the day with four super saves, but pretty much any of my players could have taken it – particularly beautiful, beautiful David Beckham, who sweeps home the rebound from a saved Lee Bowyer effort to put us 1-0 up on 27 minutes.
Then, right as the referee’s lips are dancing across the whistle for half time, Michael Owen lobs a ball into the box, Steven Gerrard heads it down and Becks lashes home for 2-0.
The Yugoslavs come at us heavily in the second half but they can barely contend with the sheer physicality of Terry and Ugo, and when they do take their pot-shots from outside the area, Robbo swats them away to preserve not only a clean sheet, but the most precious victory of this qualifying campaign so far.
The FA are pleased with the win, I’m exhausted from stress, but the fact is, the whole thing is finally in our hands. Three points clear, three games to go, someone mix me a gin martini.
August’s games against the Faroes and Slovenia arrive at the end of August, along with the news that basically my entire midfield is unavailable. Davis will just about recover, but Dyer, Bowyer and Gerrard are on the shelf – though Bowyer is just suspended for the first game, so he stays in the squad so I have him as an option in the second.
As a result though, a fairly new-look team will line up against the minnows – partly to give a few of them token caps, but also because half my remaining team are only a booking away from suspensions themselves. And I’d much rather ensure they’re free for Slovenia away.
Fiver on a Michael Dunwell hat-trick? Don’t try to entrap me in gambling rules. But yes.
Ding ding ding! Your winnings, m’lord.
Slovenia started this group in incredible form but they’ve fallen away since then, and I have a good feeling about today. Lots of my regulars return to the side, but Dunwell drops out on 86% fitness and I give young Jermain Defoe the nod up top.
It wasn’t straightforward, but we won it in the end. Scholes is back to his old trick of doing nothing of note and finishing the half on a six and Defoe couldn’t get into the game at all . Meanwhile, we were grateful to Paul Robinson at the break for keeping mainly Zlatko Zahovic at bay.
Just after the break I realised I meant to take both my sixes off, replacing them with David Dunn and Robbie Fowler, and almost instantly the two combined – Fowler making a dangerous run into the box, getting tackled, but Dunn pouncing on the loose ball and wellying us into a 53rd minute lead.
However, Joe Cole then sees fit to scythe a Slovenian player to the ground and concedes a penalty, that Zahovic steps up to take…
AND ROBINSON SAVES!!
Thank god for that because while we definitely warranted a second goal, we didn’t get one – and that win combined with Finland pieing Yugoslavia in the face in Helsinki means we’re off to the Euros, no matter what!
So, with our final qualifier against Wales a dead rubber for both teams, I decide to go for an all-out CM01/02 English wonderkids team, based on a) who I remember and b) who’s available. The end result, though there are a few missing, is a sight to behold.
Oh bloody hell. I should have been playing them the whole time!
The actual truth of the game is that the first half is one-way traffic in the direction of our goal and when Ryan Giggs curled his second assist of the day onto the head of Scott Young, I thought we were in for a right tanking.
However, Danny Coyne must have started on the post-match bevs at half time, since he is utterly hopeless in goal for Wales in the second 45 and lets all three of our second-half shots on target sail through his gloves and into the back of the net for a momentous, ridiculous, and thoroughly undeserved win. Duff and Bubb, however, did play well for some of the game’s other minutes, which is great to know.
And with that, our qualifying campaign is over. Euro 2004 in Portugal awaits next summer, as well as a pre-tournament friendly against the hosts.