Right, so I am willing to be that some of you may have heard whispers that we drew Arsenal away in the third round of the FA Cup this season. I know, I know, we could have done more to advertise the draw. All I can say is that I am sorry and that we were trying hard to focus on the Gillingham game last month. Excuses.
Regardless, now that you are here you will be excited to know that you have just a few sentences to read until you find out what happened in the match at the Emirates. Before that, though, I will tell you that, shockingly, Arsenal’s fans were expecting a big win against us. Arsenal fans can often be described as entitled little mugs who want everything and daub pointless messages on bed sheets, but in this case their confidence and expectations were probably justified.
Matchday 30.5 – FA Cup – Arsenal v Weston-super-Mare
Arsenal are sitting in second in the Premier League whilst we are third in League One. Realistically, they should be seeing us as nothing more than a Seagull-shaped stone on the road that is their journey to fourth place and a quarter-final exit from the Champions’ League. Ok, they hadn’t won in two, and ok Bob Holmes was raring to go after recovering from injury, but come on. No one reading this expects anything other than an Arsenal win.
I took a cursory glance over their teamsheet before kickoff and noted the inclusion of 18-year-old striker, Billy Watts, in the starting eleven. Young Billy has already got four Under-21 caps for England and, more impressively, has been dubbed by the media as the next Alan Shearer. No pressure.
To counter the threat of Arsenal, and Watts in particular, I put on our tallest and fastest defenders and gave the instructions to go in hard on young Billy. Let’s let him know he is in a game, eh lads? You can question the ethics behind ordering my seasoned professionals to kick seven shades out of a young, up-and-coming England player who is only just legally and adult, but I stand by my decision.
We started the game with Bob Holmes and Olli Sara together up front, hoping that Sara’s aerial ability would help us grab something from set pieces. As plans go, this was “League One side visiting a Premier League side 101”. Lump it to the big lad, fellas, and kick the crap out of their youngest, brightest prospect. Nice.
The game started predictably, with Arsenal having the most possession and moving the ball nicely. Of course, being Arsenal, they seemed to be trying to walk the ball into our net which played nicely into my plan of “KICK THEM”. We were, therefore, able to keep them at bay, relatively speaking, in the first quarter of the game or so. I wouldn’t say that I was feeling comfortable, far from it, but we didn’t look so utterly overwhelmed as we usually do against teams from the Prem.
The game continued to be predictable as Johan Djourou, the first victim of my revolutionary tacticianing, limped off injured after 21 minutes. Unfortunately, our tactics weren’t going 100% to plan as Arsenal then went and scored a goal… Billy Watts, despite spending most of his time on the pitch avoiding the swinging boots of Hjortur Hermannsson, managed somehow to collect the ball on the edge of the box. With his back to goal, he turned expertly and quickly smacked home past the despairing dive of Pedro Guedes. As Watts wheeled away to celebrate, Hermannsson was still attempting to stop him getting the initial ball. It felt like it, anyway.
Still, despite being 1-0 down, things didn’t feel over. I had worried we would collapse but we continued to play very well defensively and we even started to create a few chances of our own. Yes, it definitely seemed like we had unaccountably gained a foothold in the game as Holmes took on three players before firing directly at the Arsenal keeper.
As the clock ticked down to half-time, it seemed we would miss our chance to capitalise on our brief upturn in momentum. Until, that is, my tactic genius shone through. Having told them forcibly before the game to lump it up to Sara, I decided to reinforce the message in case they had forgotten. To do this, I took in a lungful of fetid, north London smog, coughed, recovered my composure, and yelled “KICK IT UP THERE, LAD” to Tamika Mkandawire who was on the ball. Tamika, eager to please, smooshed the ball up to Sara. Sara, on the edge of the area took the ball down on his chest, turned and volleyed the ball into the Arsenal net. IT WAS BEAUTIFUL.
I will admit that I got a bit excited. The players ran to celebrate with the fans whilst I did a spectacular knee slide, flinging hot Bovril from my mug as I did so. Scenes.
Half time was a giddy mixture of emotion and Fairy liquid that was used to wash the Bovril out of my shirt. I told the lads to go out and carry on lumping it and kicking 18-year-old Billy. They cheered.
The second half was a tense, backs-to-the-wall job. We didn’t create a single chance and only passed the half way line about three times. Our defence was heroic. Hermannsson, having let Watts slip away from his amorous attentions once in the first half, was determined not to let him get the ball again. He was so determined in his task that he even followed the lad off the pitch when Watts was substituted in the 73rd minute. Good work, that man.
It was a monstrous effort and the entire defence had to have long ice baths after the game as they had all run themselves into the ground. But you know what? We drew 1-1 with Arsenal at the Emirates. We are taking them back to the Woodspring. Madness.
Well now, that was a turn-up! We came out of the game with nearly equal possession (away at ARSENAL). How many League One teams can say that? I gave the lads a day off of training as a reward for their fine performances, but mainly because the draw with Arsenal has added another game to our January schedule. We still have seven games before February. That’s at least a lot a week. This will be a tough test.
Speaking of tough tests, should we do the impossible and knock out Arsenal in our replay, we would then get an away tie with Southampton as a reward. So. Much. Football.
One exciting thing for the club (or board, really) was that the return Cup game would be televised, netting us £70,000 in money. As usual, this won’t be enough to actually fix our financial issues, but it goes a decent way towards it.
Matchday 31 – League One – Preston North End v Weston-super-Mare
So, with a game scheduled every four days before the Arsenal game, we travelled to an in-form Preston North End side for our next league game. We were nursing injuries up front and several players were still struggling a little bit having figuratively run their legs off in the Arsenal game.
It was not a surprise, then, that we were unable to push ourselves just a little bit more in order to get the beating of Preston. Impressively, we actually took the lead in this game as Olli Sara continued his excellent recent form by tapping in from a Captain Barbosa cross.
Our lead didn’t last long, of course, and just eight minutes later Craig Halkett nodded home from a corner to level the scores. Had we been properly fit and with any fit strikers on the bench we might have been able to force a winner, but as it was we played out a very equal and pretty boring 1-1 draw. One final thing of interest: the tactic to kick the life force out of our opponents had obviously (and unintentionally) carried over from the Arsenal game, as we saw off two Preston players thanks to injury before the end of the game.
In the end, a draw was a decent result considering the good form of Preston coming into the game. I am not too angry to have dropped points here – the key thing is that we didn’t lose.
Aware that fatigue was starting to hit our side, particularly in defensive positions I dipped into the loan market to bring in this fellow to play left-back. Now, straight out of the gate, let’s address the elephant in the room; I am not writing this guy’s name, it’s too hard. He is 20 and six foot seven. He’s Big Herve. Say hi, Big Herve.
Matchday 32 – League One – Watford v Weston-super-Mare
Now, this really was the big one (except the Arsenal game, obviously). We could really do with a win here to drag Watford back to our level. We want that automatic promotion plac…I mean, we want to be comfortably mid-table come the end of the season, and to achieve that goal we need to be Watford.
Before the game, West Brom did their best to turn the head of Frank Christensen who had been performing excellently for us this season and has made almost as many appearances as David Hruby. £425,000 was a derisory bid considering how good he is already, so I turned it down, but he wasn’t best pleased. Great. Great news.
Given that Watford were in excellent form and we had played a lot of games recently, it was no surprise that Watford scored an early goal to take control of the tie. We were looking decidedly jaded and were moving the ball around a lot more sluggishly than we usually do. They were pushing us back at every opportunity and they should have scored three or four more before half-time.
Somehow we managed to limp to half-time at just 1-0, but I wasn’t best pleased. I decided to try and motivate the lads rather than yell them into a frenzy, and this seemed to have worked as we scored an equaliser five minutes into the half. Olli Sara, grabbed yet another goal as he slotted home after good work by David Hruby. Suddenly, having been out of the game for the whole match, it looked like we might be turning the tide in our favour. Until, inevitably…
*FOOTBALL CLICHE INCOMING*
Say it with me: the thing about football is, you are always more vulnerable just after scoring. Yup. We were level for no longer than three minutes before Rory Donnelly spanked home the winner.
The thing is; you can’t just blame our amount of games recently and the subsequent fitness issues on this defeat, so stop it. I’m not. You shouldn’t. Be realistic with the lads – they were utter dog pops. I didn’t yell and shout, but I did shake my head and then leave the dressing room in silence.
We now have a much bigger challenge to get up amongst the automatic promotion plac… LOWER MID TABLE.
Irritated at the lack of striking options that injuries had left me with, I went on another scouting session of the Premier League, specifically West Ham United, and came back with a souvenir badge to add to my collection, an “I can’t wait to move to the Olympic Stadium, it can’t possibly go wrong” t-shirt, and Aime Hakizimana on loan for three months. His name is also a tough one, so I will call him J’Aime instead. Whatever we call him, J’Aime is an excellent player and will add a bit of pace to our attack. Here’s hoping he can hit the ground running as only Olli Sara has actually scored for us this month…
With J’Aime linking up with the squad for all of about ten minutes before we had to play Arsenal, I decided that this wasn’t the best game to give him his debut. Instead, I stuck as best I could to the side that faced Arsenal in the first leg, hoping that we would be able to pull off a shock. The Arsenal fans, despite having seen us go toe-to-toe with their side in the first game and avoid defeat, were nevertheless confident that Jurgen Klopp’s boys could get them through to the next round.
Matchday 33 – FA Cup – Weston-super-Mare v Arsenal
Coming into the Arsenal fixture, I was at least heartened by the knowledge that they had also had to play two games since our last encounter. Still, they had drawn and won their games, whilst we had drawn and lost, so, if anything, this made it even less likely that we would overturn the odds.
In the build-up to the game, Jurgen Klopp seemed reluctant to talk about me to the press. This makes sense; managers who try the mind games tend to end up on the wrong side of a Weston-super-Mare shaped thrashing. Or, to put it another way; chat shit, get banged. Clearly, Klopp is a savvy operator and knew not to get involved, although he did damn us with faint praise as he suggested our lofty league position may be a fluke.
I’ll give him a pass because of his excellent facial hair/glasses/mad-man combo, but he’s edging close to my naughty book…
One final pre-match note; Lyes Saadoune returned to full training before the Arsenal game. This was too soon to allow him to play a role from the beginning but, given the state of our striking options, he did win himself a place on the bench.
Ah pops. Arsenal came, they saw, and they conquered. Billy Watts, not put off by the close attentions of our big, hairy, Icelandic centre back, returned with revenge in mind and got Arsenal off to a flier after just six minutes. The perpetually underachieving Theo Walcott popped up twenty minutes later to double his side’s lead before young Billy ran rings around Hjortur Hermannsson prior to slotting home their third before half time.
The second half was an attempt at damage limitation as we attempted to keep things tight and avoid going down to a properly demoralising defeat. Bob Holmes restored some pride when he scored just after the restart, but we never seriously threatened to get ourselves back into the game which allowed Park Chi-Young to chip in the Gunners’ fourth and kill the tie off in the 75th minute.
The result was slightly annoying. Quite aside from the fact that we were pretty comprehensively beaten, we actually had more possession than Arsenal and we weren’t that far off them in terms of chances created either. The obvious gulf in class was particularly telling up front. They were clinical, we were crap. Ah well, good luck to them.
Matchday 34 – League One – Brentford v Weston-super-Mare
So, with the disappointment of the FA Cup replay hanging on our every waking moment (well, mine, anyway) we made the trip to Brentford with renewed passion for our league commitments. I have decided to come clean and fess up to the situation that we find ourselves in. We are, let’s face it, in a fight to finish in the top half of the table. Therefore, beating sides like Brentford is something that we should be doing with ease.
The Bees were having a pretty shonky season and found themselves down in 19th, not far from the relegation zone. We had dropped a place or two thanks to our faltering league form so we really needed to win here to keep the pressure up on our rivals for a place in the top half of the table.
Wit that in mind, we promptly fell behind to a Scott Wagstaff banger after 17 minutes. This angered me and I urged the lads forward. We shouldn’t be being beaten by a club whose mascot is a big bumble bee. That’s not right, lads.
My half time team talk was a number of decibels higher than they usually are. In retrospect, it is amazing that Brentford’s players didn’t just listen to what I was yelling and then adjust accordingly in the second half, but they aren’t the smartest bees in the hive and were therefore unable to adjust to my tactical tweaks.
My tweaks involved flinging on any attacking players that I had on the substitute bench and telling the team to get it forward as quickly as possible. Simple though it may sound, but in the 63rd minute Adam Dodd grabbed an equaliser and I did a little fist pump. Brentford were clearly reeling and things only got better five minutes later when Alex Diabate whacked home the winner. The football cliché alert didn’t know what to do; we are supposed to be vulnerable just after we score, not them.
It was a well-deserved win, in the end, although our first-half performance had been absolutely dire. Luckily we were able to keep battling away and in the end earn ourselves a priceless win.
More good news came from Rachel Greenley as she led Joel into my office the next morning and told me that he was fit enough to play again. I thanked her and then walked Joel down to the training pitches where my assistant was doing some fitness drills.
I gave him a pat on the cheek as he made his way to the rest of the squad. He glared at me.
Matchday 35 – League One – Weston-super-Mare v Aldershot Town
Having been granted the luxury of four days between our games so far this month, we were disappointed to learn that there were just three days to recover between the Brentford win and our game with Aldershot “How are they still top of the table?!” Town. At least we were at home this time, so we could have a bit of a lie in pre-game.
We could really have done with beating this lot if we had any serious title ambitions left (I mean…ah, who am I kidding, we are in a promotion dog-fight) but unfortunately our finishing once again let us down. Our defending was – in what has been a common theme this season – excellent, and Aldershot didn’t really have any chances that seriously worried me. A lot of their six chances on target were long range efforts that Guedes comfortably dealt with.
The disappointment again was in the toothlessness we showed up front. Ok, we won our last game and we may have scored two goals, but our strikers have been off the boil since the turn of the year. Sara may have grabbed three in three, but he has never been a prolific goalscorer, he is more of a creator. The worry is that Bob Holmes has only scored once since mid-December, and the loanee I brought in hasn’t been able to settle well enough to slot straight into the side.
I realise these aren’t the worst problems to have, but it is still frustrating. At least we got a point and prevented the Shots from extending their improbable lead at the top of the table.
Matchday 36 – League One – Weston-super-Mare v Hull City
Remarkably, Hull City were still somehow languishing near the bottom of the table by the time our second meeting of the season came around. We had battered them early in the season, back when they were playing their weird and incredibly narrow formation (although they seemed to have dropped that for this game at least). Hull’s big problem seems to be that they don’t score many goals at all and have bagged less than one a game – we have scored nearly double that. I did a bit of digging and found out that Hull were starting with a 34-year-old Rory Fallon up front which told me all I needed to know. A brick tied to a lamppost would be able to outmanoeuvre Mr Fallon on the pitch, so we shouldn’t be too worried.
Our form this month has really suffered although, as I said before, this can’t all be down to the lack of recovery time we are getting between games. In fact, fatigue doesn’t seem to have affected our ability to defend at all and we have remained solid throughout January. The problem has come up front where a return to our finishing prowess of two seasons ago has seen us drop points in games where we have created more than enough chances to come away with wins.
In an attempt to get through to the strikers that they had better pull their fingers out, I told them that I believed the goals would come in this game and that they had the ability to go and get them. They looked at me with puppy dog eyes and asked, falteringly, “Re..really boss?”. “Well…maybe”, I replied. They seemed to take this well as they sat in concerned silence until the game kicked off. I am a master of motivation.
No really, I am. Despite my blatant and honest lack of belief in the ability of my strikers to suddenly become clinical finishers, they seemed to be playing well. I guess maybe they felt like they had something to prove (THEY DID, THEY HAD LOTS TO PROVE). Anyway, whatever the reason, we suddenly seemed to be back to our flowing best and created a whole host of chances in the first half. Hull, by contrast, were naff, and Rory Fallon was struggling badly. The brick that I had left on the pitch to mark him had Fallon in its pocket, and he was getting highly frustrated to the point of lashing out and getting himself a yellow card.
Despite our return to something close to our best, we were unable to get the telling final touch. Hull, having changed to a more solid and conventional 4-4-2 (good lads) were far harder to break down and actually had some support on the wings to help counter the threat of Norwegian Mo and Captain Barbosa.
At half-time I told the lads that, if they continued to play this well, it was only a matter of time until they scored, and I was right. Bob Holmes, having been frustrated in his attempts to score all afternoon was just about to be substituted when he picked up the ball around the centre circle. He exchanged passes with Mkandawire, took the ball past two Hull defenders, and emphatically hit the ball into the top corner from just inside the box.
Oh, sweet relief. Bob was mobbed by the players, I jumped up and hit my head on the roof of the dugout, it was excellent fun. I was delighted for the lad but immediately subbed him to conserve his energy and allowed Joel to come on to help the side see out the final few minutes. Our defence is so good at the moment that we basically only need the one goal (except when we need more) so I was pretty confident in the closing stages.
It felt good to get another win, although we did struggle a bit against a side that really aren’t all that. Who cares, it is three points on the board..!
Matchday 37 – League One – Coventry City v Weston-super-Mare
And so, finally, we had made it to the end of January. The only thing that stood in our way was a Coventry City side that was boring and had previously offered me a job as their manager. I am not a boring person, so had turned the job down despite being offered a mahoosive transfer budget. I am a proper football man.
Speaking of, I had done my bit for the development of young English talent by taking Manchester United’s defensive midfielder on loan, and then promptly used him in exactly two games over the span of three months. In fairness, I had only brought him in as back up, but still this one ranks up there with a number of questionable transfers that I have made over my time in charge.
Luckily, the permanent signings that I have made – despite essentially bankrupting the club – have been, by and large, good (*forget about Liam Conway*). None more so than all of my defensive signings this summer who have been playing out of their skins this month in order to preserve our promotion challenge. Whilst our strikers have been enjoying a month off from goal-scoring, the defence has been solid and has allowed us to pick up some very important points.
Like this one. With the game coming just three days after our win against Hull, legs were getting very tired and it showed as our strikers continued to fire blanks in front of goal. We did at least create the majority of the chances and even put a lot of them on target, but a combination of bad luck and Coventry’s goalkeeper prevented us from making the breakthrough that we arguably deserved.
Thanks, then, must go to our aforementioned brick-wall of a defence who kept the Sky Blues’ strikers at bay and ground out a third clean sheet in a row. Not bad.
So, after a month that was chock full of football, the League One table is looking like this. Paul Ince’s Millwall have continued their recent good form and now sit in the automatic promotion places. Aldershot are still hanging on in first, although their recent form is wavering. We, on the other hand, are somehow just three points from the top of the table, despite only winning two out of six league games in January.
We had the chance this month to do some real damage to our promotion rivals, but we drew or lost every single game against teams around us in the table. At least we managed to beat Brentford and Hull, otherwise things could have been far worse for us, but you can also see that, had we been a bit better with our finishing, that things could have been a lot better as well.
Oh well. Next month isn’t quite so jammed as January, but we still have five league games to contend with. The pick of the bunch is definitely our home tie with Charlton Athletic who are only ahead of us in the table on goal difference. All the rest are against sides that are struggling and against whom we should be winning given our contrasting form this season.
The question is: can we do it? Can we beat Charlton? Can we dethrone Aldershot and make first place our own? Can anyone stop the charge of Paul Ince’s Millwall? Find out next time.