You can build on the misery and play freely or be overwhelmed by a team seeking vengeance.
Despite an amazing away win in my first league game, the feeling of elation is only temporary as we prepare to travel away from home again in a midweek Carabao Cup clash. Deepdale: the home of Championship side Preston North End. I would have liked more competitive experience before this much of a step-up in opposition. I’ve really been thrown in at the deep end with two strong away fixtures in the space of 4 days and if we get through, I bet we’ll get drawn away from home again. Just to grind my gears. But then again, if we get through, it’s the best possible start to my tenure I could have hoped for.
Rotation is the name of the game today as I want to carry on league momentum more than anything so I take the chance to field very much a second XI with a few lads retaining their places. Vickers is in between the posts for his debut under my management with Sam Ham and Wharton replacing Eardley and Wilson on the left side of defence. I decide to give 16 year old Ellis Chapman a debut next to Freckles. With Bostwick out, we’ve lost a big physical warrior in the middle of the park and as Chapman only stands an inch smaller than Michael at 6’3, I want to see what he can do. I make sure his parents are in the crowd to see him play too as it’s a big occasion to see him against a strong side at just 16. He’s also a Lincoln lad and spent most of his youth career at Lincoln with a brief spell for Leicester’s U16’s last year. Rowe is benched as I want him rested for the league on the weekend and I give Palmer a start. I want him to be our cup striker and I’ll give him plenty of time off the bench in the league too.
We get the game started and the squad obviously took my request for pressing serious as we dominate for the first half hour, giving North End no time of the ball. However, chances for both sides are limited. The only chance of the first half comes in the last couple minutes when Lovenscrics flies back to slide in and stop Maguire attacking. He gets to his feet quickly and lays it to Chapman who cleverly slots a ball into space for Rowe. He controls and hits it from distance but it’s a good height for the keeper to parry away. We come in with no negatives to address, bar the lack of goals, so I tell the lads to keep going. I take Chapman aside before he goes back out and encourage him to keep it up. He’s filled Bosty’s boots perfectly and has looked so calm in possession, it’s almost scary. More of the same rings in his ears as he jogs back out onto the turf.
We start the second half just as brightly as we did the first and it doesn’t take long for it to pay off. 5 minutes in, Gergo collects an Earl clearance at the halfway line and uses his blistering pace to knock it past Gallagher. He passes inside to Palmer who cushions the ball back to Green. Matt pulls the men away from Palmer with a small drag back and plays a reverse ball between the centre backs. The right back reads the play and sprints over to cover which leaves Palmer with three choices:
- Admit defeat and lose the ball as he can’t possibly beat the keeper from that distance and angle first time.
- Amaze everybody in attendance with the purest definition of good feet for a big man and somehow maneuver the impending challenge and finish it bottom corner.
- Elevate himself to god-tier status in the eyes of his adoring manager with an outrageous Coutinho-esque powerful curling effort into the very top left hand corner.
Of course he takes option number 3 and makes it even better as it clips the underside of the crossbar before hitting the back of the net. I don’t even celebrate. I force the air brought in from my prior gasp out of pursed lips and applaud. Ollie on the other hand? He runs straight over to the corner flag, slides on his knees and smacks it in front of the Preston fans which is met by a symphony of expletives and a sea of hand gestures. I’ve got the 6’5 version of Jamie Vardy as my sub striker and I fucking love it.
10 minutes later, Green and Stewart signal to come off during a stoppage for a throw in and I oblige as they’ve give everything and been relentlessly pressing. Pett and Rowe take their places. In the 72nd minute, some nice build play results in Palmer forcing a great save from 8 yards out but he was offside regardless. A couple minutes later, Gergo asks to be took off and considering he’s been doing his best yo-yo impression the last couple games, I take him off and Eardley runs on for the last 15. We sit back slightly but there’s not the same pressure in the dying moments of this game as there was against Wycombe. Nowhere near in fact and we comfortably finish the game in a half empty stadium and advance to the second round. Preston managed 5 shots but in truth, I can’t remember any of them so they can’t have been dangerous chances. Ollie Palmer is given Man of the Match and Matt Green picks up another assist. I had some real worries about him as a playmaker but he’s completed the most passes on the pitch in each game he’s played in that number 10 role and has a few assists to his name too. Proving me wrong to say the least.
Chapman knocks on the door the next day and thanks me for giving him a chance in such a big game. I tell him he’s more than proved his worth and he’s gonna get plenty more game time if he can keep that level of performance up. He clumsily smiles and thanks me again before closing the door behind him. This is why football is great. As much as I want Bostwick back in contention, I would never had picked Chapman had it not been for the injury to our man mountain. Or mountain man before he shaved.
In terms of other cup upsets, Grimsby knocked out Sunderland 4-2 on penalties at the Stadium of Light which makes my inner Geordie all warm and fuzzy. Fellow League 2 side Yeovil Town also claimed a Championship scalp after beating Sheffield United 1-0 while Forest Green and Exeter eliminated Millwall and Reading, both matches finishing 2-1. Enough about other teams though, we’ve won two games on the trot against better teams. Well better on paper but as they say, football isn’t played on paper. It’s played on grass and I feel sorry for the next team that has to share a pitch with us. Before that next team, the draw for the 2nd round of the cup comes after the Wednesday games have concluded. I gather most of the squad and we watch the draw together. Our number comes out the pot the 5th time of asking meaning we have a home draw. Maybe this won’t be so bad, I think maybe we can have a bit of a nice run in to the latter stages of the cup. The next ball held up to the camera is number 11. Number 11 belongs to Premier League newbies Brighton. Maybe not then.
Daunting potential cup thrashings to one side, we finally have our first home game of the season against Morecambe. They have lost both their games so far, defeated by Cheltenham 2-1 on the opening day and 2-0 to Bury on Tuesday night. Poor form for an opposition can either be a great thing or an awful thing. You can build on the misery and play freely or be overwhelmed by a team seeking vengeance. Luckily with the form we’re in and how we’re playing, I think we can get a result here either way.
Chapman and Sam Ham retain their place in the squad in the squad after impressing me midweek. Eardley comes in on the right as Gergo deserves a bit of a rest and Wharton replaces Wilson in the heart of defence. Freckles in on the bench today and in my first rotation of the armband, Eardley will be the leader today. The same front four that started against Wycombe get another run out.
6 minutes in, a neat 1-2 round a static Morecambe defence leaves Green all the time in the world to compose himself and slot it in. However, he whips his shot a good 4-5 yards over the bar which the away fans find hilarious. To be honest, it’s laughable he didn’t even hit the target there. 10 minutes on, Mcgurk beats Sam Ham to a through ball and whips a great cross back post after turning Sam inside and back out again. Wylde climbs high, questionably pushing Eardley down and flicks a header off the post. It rolls down the leg of Allsop mid dive and Wylde hammers the rebound home. As he wheels away with his arm raised, I realise the only time prior to this in which we went 1-0 down was against Linz. The scoreline remained the same. To try quell my panic-induced thoughts, I ask the lads to push and try get a goal before half time. A couple minutes before the whistle, Rowe is hacked down on edge of the D. We haven’t actually got a free-kick taker but the team seems content to let Stewart stand over it. He steps up, whips it over the wall but just can’t get it to come back down as it lands on the roof of the net.
We start the second half with intent and it only takes 8 minutes for us to craft a good opportunity. Rowe bullies Brough off the ball and string a series of small sideways passes together. The move accumulates in a Green ball through for Stewart. He runs it right to the edge of the six yard box and dinks a ball into the danger area. Old reacts quickly to jump and nod it past Green but it also flicks past the keeper. Harrison dives forward trying to get any connection with his right foot but it must skim his studs before being cleared. We really should of scored there but Harrison isn’t disheartened as he meets a Stewart cross but the header is too close to the keeper who catches it down low. Gergo calls me over from the bench a few minutes after.
“Bring me on at the front. I can do this, I play winger.” The fact he’s had the balls to basically tell me, not suggest shows me how confident he is in his own ability. Stewart must have heavy legs after running so much so I switch Rowe to the left hand side and bring Gergo on at right midfield. His first involvement is encouraging as he powers a header just wide of the post from a corner. It takes almost 20 minutes before my next subs can be made as the ball stays in play for so long. Palmer and Freckles come on for Chapman and Rowe. We switch to a 4-2-4 with Green and Gergo on the wings feeding Ollie and Ellis in the middle. I tell the team to push up as much as possible to try get a point from this game.
Three minutes added time. Still no breakthrough. Gergo runs down the wing and has his cross blocked for a corner. Allsop looks over and I give him the nod to get himself in the box. Woody whips in a great corner and Palmer rises to nod it towards the open left hand side of the goal after beating both Old and Fleming to the ball. The keeper is beat and it’s a guaranteed goal. But somehow, Lund leaps and flying kicks it off the line. The stadium fills with groans of shock and disappointment but the fans erupt when Freckles wins the header on the edge of the box. It’s back to Vasil who passes to his closest man: the backtracking Allsop. In his bright pink keeper jersey, he pushes forward until a man comes to close him down. He keeps his cool, passing to Green edge of the box. He heel chops a pass across the box to Freckles who blasts an effort off the crossbar from 16 yards. It bounces down and high into the air. I see Ollie Palmer setting himself beneath the ball. Surely not. He springs up to nod the ball past the stumbling hand of Roche to equalise. Sincil Bank explodes as he runs over to the crowd on the far side and celebrates, multiple fans jumping into the huddle of players. 1-1 and who else but Ollie bloody Palmer. After the erratic celebrations have calmed, kick off is passed back and hoofed forward towards runners but the whistle blows. Even though I feel like we could have won this game easily, we’ve shown great fight and grit to steal something at the death. Captain Eardley gets Man on the Match but Palmer is the true hero. Both goals were very scrappy but that’s League 2 football for you.
The next week is business as usual. We’re joint fourth with 5 other teams on 4 points and I make sure to tell everyone we can still be here towards the end of the season. On Wednesday, 620k from Barnsley for Woody is rejected. Now while offers for my midfielders are progressively annoying, I don’t like bids with any cheek. Exeter, our next opponents, bid 330k for Sam the day before our match. The bloke on the phone even hurries me for an answer as they want him signed as soon as possible if we allow it. I hang up the phone after an abrupt no. Exeter drew both games 1-1 so far so they will be looking to pick up a first one but we need the morale to stay high for the Brighton match on Tuesday. A win is necessary in my opinion.
Vickers gets a game in goal with Wilson and Gergo returning to their posts in the back four. Freckles and Woody are in midfield. Anderson starts on the left with Pett playing central. I want Stewart and Green full fitness for the Brighton game. Harrison’s still looking for his first league goal which is fine but after a few more games, it might become concerning having a number 9 that’s forgot where the goal is. Matt Rhead isn’t in the Exeter 18 today but he does pop his head in to wish us good luck and watches from the stands. I tell the lads to attack from the off. No survivors.
It’s back and forth with no real pressure from either side for the first ten until a quick counter leaves Anderson to play a simple ball to leave Harrison 1 on 1. He takes a couple touches but completely scuffs it well wide on his weaker left foot. He should at least hit the target from there. Kev looks over at me with his eyebrows raised and a fake smile plastered over his face. I know Kev, just give him time.
Half an hour in, a Harrison header is blocked by Seabourne. The rebound falls to Pett who hits it directly at the keeper.
On the verge of half time, another counter attack results in a collection of efforts blocked or saved until Rowe hits a half volley from the penalty spot. It’s headed towards the bottom left until it deflects off Seabourne’s foot in past the keeper. The goal’s awarded to Rowe as it was on target before the deflection but it was definitely going to be saved. We go in 1-0 up at half time.
The second half is eerily quiet until Exeter are outnumbered as Pett plays Harrison in the 81st. His first touch takes his marker out the picture and he hits it across his body, forcing a good save down low. Anderson, Rowe and Freckles are all subbed off together. Wilson and Lovrenscics are pushed into defensive midfield and right mid retrospectively so Wilson and Sam Ham can go into defence. Stewart bought in on the left. There’s a good change for Gergo in the dying embers but the keeper closes the angle down well. The game finishes 1-0.
7 points from first three games in the league is not bad at all. The fans seem really happy on social media with our small unbeaten run but that could very easily come to an end with our next match. I’m rooting for other League 2 sides against Premier League opposition in the cup as everybody loves a fairy-tale story. Yeovil are looking for their second giant killing away to Leicester while Grimsby in the same boat as ourselves playing newly promoted Huddersfield. I really feel for Accrington Stanley as they travel to the Theatre of Dreams to play Man United. Exeter host Liverpool and despite their insulting transfer policy, I hope they can get a result.
In terms of our own giant killing, there a couple pointers that a betting man might look to. We’ve beat Championship opposition in the previous round, we’re unbeaten so far in all competitions, we have a bloke just shy of 2 meters tall scoring goals for fun. I’d put a cheeky fiver on it myself.