What had started out as a season of hope has turned into a season of over-achievement. Last season we were crowned Champions of Europe for a second time around, we lost the title with 10 matches to go, and we were glad to end with some glory.
As I looked through my squad, I realized that sooner or later I would need to focus on their development more closely. And for once, I needed Microsoft Excel to play Football Manager. So I drew up a training plan for the senior squad and one for the youth squad, and I started formulating a plan on how my young players would get the minimum number of games for them to develop optimally. A good domestic cup run on all fronts and an excellent run in Europe was needed.
I identified 5 players who were 17-19 who needed to feature more in the first team, and I then shortlisted 5 players in the first team who still needed continual development. To make things more challenging I added a 16-year old fullback who was showing some potential to the starting 11.
By November we were still in all competitions with a shout and my players had played the number of games I needed them to. By March the 5 junior players had surpassed their target and we were still in every competition. In fact, we were undefeated at home in all major competitions. Our only loss had come against Monaco in the group stages of the European Cup, even that hadn’t slowed down the Stafford machine. My only regret was our 10 draws domestically, I knew that would cost us the title, but by March we had already won the League Cup, and with other silverware still up for grabs, we knew this would be an interesting season.
With 8 matches to go we were two points behind Manchester United, who themselves were going for a domestic cup double and a Champions League title. If we wanted a glorious season, United was standing firm ready to deny us. We would have to get past them in the semis of the FA Cup and the quarters of the Champions League. We drew the away leg 0-0 and then turned the tie on its head when we came back from a goal down at home to take the tie 2-1. The FA Cup semi-finals produced a match of quality as both sides had equal amounts of chances to win the game, Stafford proved that possession helps as their 60% possession helped them on to a 2 nil win. United were out of all cup competitions and the only team that stood in their way of the league title were Stafford again. They visited us at Stafford with a tornado in tow. United were still playing with their 41221 formation, a system which depended heavily on us to attack, so this time I did something different. I held back. Within the first twenty minutes they were already throwing everything at us. A standard strategy, a narrow line and man marking their two inside forward kept them quiet. A quick breakaway in the 51st minute produced a freekick at the edge of their penalty area which Jonathan Islas converted. With 10 minutes to go United threw everything into attack even their keeper, but Stafford held on and with 3 matches to go, Stafford were now top of the table. A team who were at one point 7 points behind had done the unbelievable they had tamed a red-hot side and put themselves in contention for an unbelievable season which has seen them gone undefeated domestically in all competitions.
Fingers crossed I was hoping to see Manchester City get kicked out of the Champions league, but instead of getting that piece of good news, we discovered that our semi-final tie would be against the Citizens. First leg home. We decided to take to the ground with a controlled strategy and put our more defensive minded players on the pitch. Nothing worked. I kept tight, we attacked down the flanks and even though we had the lion’s share of possession, they still managed to score a goal in the 36th minute. We switched over to attacking and still couldn’t find a way through. We had to turn this tie on its head if we wanted to get through to the next round. The return leg had “luck” written in bold across the page. Knowing that an attacking mentality would play right into their hands, I stuck with my gut and stayed standard and narrow, but i stuck on the flanks two great dribblers and ran at their defence. Hopefully individual magic would rule the day and right on the stroke on halftime Nawrocki’s mazy run was ended with a challenge in the box. Up stepped Francois to send the travelling Rangers fans ecstatic. The game was tied. With new found belief, we took to the field, I changed things around and took off our ineffectual AMC Duval and brought on Stefani, a young midfielder who was showing signs of promise. The team was now told to pass to feet. Stefani found Nawrocki with a simple pass to the right who in turn delivered a glorious ball to the left for Islas who brought it down with ease. He charged into the box and let fly a thunderbolt which the keeper could only parry to the feet of our poacher Jeppesen. Too easy. We went on to win the tie 2-1 on aggregate
Our attentions had to turn quickly to our FA Cup Final date with Aston Villa. The Villans were playing with a 352 formation, which overpowers us in midfield, and this was worrying me. I knew i could switch to our 41221 formation which would give us the edge but we stuck to our system. The last thing i wanted was the press going on about how we lost the tie cos we changed our system. It was a final we chased, as Villa took the lead twice forcing us to come back each time. With the scores tied at 2-2 and 5 minutes on the clock, I unleashed the team and told em to attack, brought on Guido Jansen and focused our attacks down the flanks. The strategy paid off as we took the lead, and when they switched to a 424, we quickly adapted by telling our fullbacks to defend and got our midfielders to manmark their midfielders. That snuffed out the Villans, Stafford had now done the quad. When the season started, I was resigned to accepting a top four finish. The plan had always been rotating my younglings. I hadn’t realized the benefit of heavy rotation was going to be a memorable season, when we truly earned the nickname the “Invincibles”..crap I still have 3 games to go ..let me save the draft first and not get ahead of myself.
With two matches left, we were up against Rochdale, and United had to win the Manchester derby to keep in touch with us, whatever happened this could go down to the wire. Rochdale turned up with a narrow diamond formation, so we decided to make it narrower for them. The tight confined space didn’t suit our style of play and even though we dominated proceedings, we still needed two penalties to win the tie. Over at Manchester, City had beaten United leaving the title favorites empty-handed for the season. We were now two points clear and Everton now stood between us and the title
But before that could be done…I had to decide the England squad first as the names had to be submitted..damn this bureaucracy.
So the day came, tis the last match of the season. A win at Goodison Park will install us as the undisputed champions of England, winners of every competitive domestic trophy. Holding my jaws I was fuelling my FM addiction with painkillers. This toothache was killing me. The orthodontist advised me to bear with pain for a few days as the antibiotics kicked in. It was hard to believe.
We lined up with almost the same squad, but I was going to be conservative and hold back. Everton took to the field with a 442. By the end of the first half we were a goal ahead, but hadn’t created that many chances. After the interval, the hosts hit back with a sweeping move which ended up in the back of our net as we failed to clear the lines. Fed up, I decided to attack. I dropped our ineffectual AMC, and moved things around to inject more stability in midfield and get some penetration from the middle. Captain Islas decided to lead by example as he took the throw-in and got involved in the build-up, and scored what has been one of the most beautiful team goals I have ever seen. Stafford champions and heading for the European Cup Final…will they complete a magical season?
We head into the Champions League final to meet Monaco, a side that finished ahead of us in our group. We hadn’t been able to beat them yet. Once again, we start the match off on a control strategy, its a cagey match with both sides making mistakes. The first half ends goal-less and chances are few and far between as both sides barely get 5 shots on target. The battle is happening in midfield so during the break I decide to make some small changes, noticing that their fullback on the left seems to lack some pace, we decide to bring “lil Maradona” on, but five minutes into that he gets stretchered off. It looks serious and we need to reshuffle again. So I pull up my young 18 year fullback, he’s already made the England team. We begin to exert more pressure and with a brilliant cross from Captain Islas the ball ends up in the back of the net by their fullback. An owngoal on the 90th minute, we’ll take it. Stafford champions again. I doubt this season will ever be repeated. Coming soon a review on how our new training schedule went. Stafford have now lifted the European crown 3 times in a row!