The European Continental Shield (Episode 19: A Lincoln Legend)

I don’t say it lightly; at least a bombing run would have livened this game up.

Even though I gave Batesy some stick about it last season, the pre-season tournament really set us up to have a good season. It helped me know who to pick, whether my system was actually going to work and in general, there were some good games of football. I mean who can forget Freckles’ thunderbolt? With the overlooking eye of a somewhat smug assistant manager, I review the three invitations to tournaments we received. The choice isn’t that hard as I want to play English teams and the only tournament that could tick that box is the European Continental Shield. Bolton are attending the tournament held over in Germany and in what’s some better news, we are drawn in the same group as our English counterparts. Of course, Ellis won’t be available for selection as he’s over in Russia representing his country.

Now while Bolton need no introduction, the other two teams that make up our group most likely need one. Duisburg are a 2.Bundesliga side that have really yo-yo’d up and down the top three tiers of German football. Since the start of the millennium, they’ve had 2 seasons in the Bundesliga, 3 in the 3.Liga and 13 in the 2.Bundesliga. They reached the final of the DFB Pokal in 2011 but they were battered 5-0 by Schalke. They are a very middle of the road team but then again, so are we.

Our other opponents are Sint-Truiden, an Belgian Pro League side. They have been in the highest division of Belgian football since the 14/15 season in which they were promoted as champions and have managed to solidify themselves in the league since. Sint-Truiden as a city is only small with around 50’000 people living there but has a very rich history. While it has history in it’s own respects, it was also where the infamous Heinz-Wolfgang Schnaufer was posted during World War 2. I’ll avoid the history lesson but he was a night pilot for the Luftwaffe and remains the highest scoring night flying ace to exist with over 120 aerial victories. But we don’t care about clinical Nazi pilots, we care about clinical footballers. And with Arsenal loanee Chuba Akpom returning to London a few days prior, I know nobody in this side. But I know everybody in my side. And that’s all that matters.

Even though we’re in Germany just a couple days into the window, there’s already been a big signing which is unusual for this early in a window. Alejandro Gomez joins Italian giants Juventus for £46’000’000. As if they needed any more attacking talent. In a somewhat frustrating set of events, I get a panicked phone call from the Bulgarian national team head coach Petar Hubchev requesting Vasil be called up to international duty after a defender suffered an injury. It’s annoying as I really wanted to rotate in this tournament, especially round the back with a couple new defenders joining the squad but I suppose it gives Nelson a chance to prove his worth.

In our first game of the new season against German host Duisberg, Curtis starts alongside his fellow newbies Sam Walker and Brennan Dickenson at the back. Oztumer also starts either side of Valerio and Stewart with Ollie Palmer up top. Joel Cooper’s on the bench today with the intention of getting half an hour of game time. If he impresses me, he may be in the starting eleven for our next match.

It takes fourteen minutes of football before we craft our first chance of the season and it’s an unlikely one to say the least. Oztumer has a free header from the penalty spot after a Stewart cross in but it’s too central and caught easily by the keeper. You can’t really blame him for not practising his headers, he’s the smallest player on the pitch by half a foot.

Just three minutes later, Valerio shows why he’s one of my favourite players as he tracks his man across the pitch before sealing out Frode brilliantly. He immediately passes forward to Erhun who spins to face goal. Bolmeyer drags out to cover but leaves the gap for a pass in to Palmer. He lets it run through his legs to juke his man and while his effort is well hit, it’s always serving wide of the far post.

We do get a reward for our first half dominance in the 36th minute when Valerio gets it out wide and drills a ball into Oztumer. He threads a pass behind for Ollie who cuts back and rolls into space for Oztumer to collect unchallenged. He opens his body to curl a shot effortlessly into the top left. It’s a great debut goal from the man who’s shone brightly so far. We go in 1-0 up at half time.

It takes a while for the second half to get going. To be honest, it doesn’t actually get going at all. It just meanders along at a steady pace. There’s not a chance until the 71st minute when Dickenson comes in with a sweeping tackle and plays a little chip over for Stewart to counter. Palmer runs down the left and holds off Bolmeyer to get a run into box. He knocks into Oztumer who has his shot blocked and slips trying to react to the rebound. Maurer takes a poor touch when collecting the ball and has to slide to kick the ball away from Lincoln players and  to avoid a corner. Unfortunately for him, this puts it right back in the box. The keeper dives to try and push further away with his foot but it falls neatly to an open Valerio Esposito to half volley into the net and make it 2-0. I push Gergo forward into midfield with Esposito and Stewart going off for Anderson and Eardley. I also bring on Joel Cooper who’s rocking the number 18 as it’s the age he’ll turn this season. Each to their own I suppose.

I make another sub with 10 minutes left as Woody comes on for Freckles who is turning 33 soon. His fitness will naturally start declining and as a result, he won’t be completing many games this season. He’s still a massive player but it might be an idea to look for a fresher holding midfielder for the future.

The second half ends as it began: with absolutely nothing happening. It’s a very solid performance from Lincoln with new signing Erhun awarded the Man of the Match on his debut. It’s well deserved in what was a very promising start from him. Our defensive recruitments were not called on often but did their jobs when they were needed. I’m a happy manager as I take a deep inhale of the German industrial air. Here we go again.

I’m even more of a happy manager when I find out that Bolton lose 2-1 to our Belgian opponents Sint-Truiden. While I always want English teams to do well in any competition, bar Manchester United, that result means that a win against Sint-Truiden would basically confirm our progression out of the group stage. The prize money would also help reimburse a healthy amount of funding back into the transfer kitty after Bob’s thai-bride esque purchase of a scout.

The few days between our opening and second game in the tournament are hectic. The first incoming bid of the window comes in and it’s for Sam Ham. I reject £400’000 as he’s definitely worth more but with 3 wing backs and Vasil able to play out wide, I could be tempted to part ways for the right price.

That same night, just before lights out, Matt Green comes to my room door and asks to leave as he wants regular football. I’m taken back somewhat as he was injured for a lot of the season but I can understand where he’s coming from. His two challengers are the club’s player of the season and the club’s record signing. He’s obviously going to be playing third fiddle, if that’s even a saying, to Palmer and Harrison and with his 32nd birthday approaching, it might be the right time to cash in. I tell him he’ll be on the transfer list by tomorrow and begin eyeing up a replacement for a sub striker.  A couple Premier League players on loan come to mind and would certainly bolster our attacking options. I send a group text to all my scouts to look for a new striker that could slot right into our starting eleven.

The day before the Sint-Truiden match, an Ipswich representative flies over with who else but Danny Rowe to continue negotiations on a permanent deal. We agreed in principle on a staggering £860’000 with 10% of any sell on fee. While it’s a lot of money, he’s already proved his worth to the squad and bringing him back into the mix would be a thing of perfection.

Now while Danny is tempted to play hard ball, it’s hard to ignore how keen he is to rejoin Lincoln. He wouldn’t have flown over here himself if he wasn’t. It doesn’t take long for us to find a middle ground and put pen to paper. We meet on a 2 year deal for £11’500 a week which is only a £500 increase from his current wage and a nice £100’000 fee for signing on. He was pushing to keep his same wage but take a 200k bonus after he scored 10 goals but it’s easier to pay an extra £500 a week across a couple seasons. I surprise the lads with his arrival as I didn’t tell anyone about my intent to bring him back permanently. Everybody is very pleased to have him back in the dressing room and when I’m expecting him to ask for his loaned number of 26, he picks the number 14 from the list. A new number for a new chapter. Welcome back, Danny.

There is a bit of a fuss trying to get him signed on in time to enter the competition but luckily, the tournament board is quite lenient and has let other teams bring transfers in. He gets his first start on the left hand side with Knott replacing Oztumer as Billy was a bit annoyed he didn’t start the last match. I bring in Eardley over Gergo with Vickers flaunting his number #1 inbetween the posts.

It doesn’t take long for Rowe to show why I was desperate to bring him back. 2 minutes in, he runs down the touchline before chopping onto his right and whipping a cross to the edge of the box. Valerio rises to nod over to Knott who volleys elegantly into the bottom right to give us the lead. It’s a goal that’s easy on the eye to take us 1-0 up.

In the 16th minute, Dickenson plays Rowe down the touchline who puts a dangerous low ball into Palmer at the front post. Goutas slides in to divert a tap in away but the loose ball rolls to Valerio at the back post who can only hit the side netting with his wild swing. 5 minutes later, Knott is fed down the right hand side by the man on a mission, Danny Rowe. He tries to run it inside but Teixeira gets in well with a tackle. The ball rolls to Woody to retain possession. He knocks it back to Rowe who is much further forward now. He stretches to play the ball into space for Valerio. A defender comes to close him down but he digs his foot into the ground to play a lofted ball back to Rowe. He jumps well but his header bounces off the near post out for a goal kick. He was inches away from kick-starting his Lincoln career.

The last chance of the half goes to the Belgian outfit when Dickenson fails to deal with a back post cross, leaving Abraham’s scissor kick to really test Vickers. He palms it out for a corner and deals with said corner coolly. I don’t change anything at half-time because there’s nothing that needs changing. Don’t fix what isn’t broke.

5 minutes from the restart, a Rowe cross is headed upwards then punched out by the keeper. Knott headers to Valerio from the edge of the box who controls and tries to lash home from a tight angle. It’s blocked by Teixeira but the rebound falls for Knott to hit on the spin with a lot of power. It flies past the keeper who didn’t even have time to think about saving it. Billy looks over at me with a chuffed grin. Yeah you’ve grabbed your brace but I’m not going to drop Erhun on one game mate.

In the 61st minute, an Eardley throw in leaves Woody open to unleash a sweet strike from 30 yards but an acrobatic fingertip save denies him a replica of Freckles goal last year. 10 minutes later, I pull out a rare triple change with Anderson, Oztumer and Sam Ham all coming on to finish the game.

There’s one last chance in the 89th minute when Oztumer weights a through ball in for Palmer but his shot is well saved by the keeper. The game ends not long after and it’s another comfortable 2-0 from the lads. I could get used to this.

The other game in our group between Bolton and Duisburg was a stalemate as it finished 2-2. That means we are guaranteed to advance through to the knockout stage regardless of the result in our final game against Bolton. While they’ve only took a couple points from their games, they’re still a solid side that sit higher up the English football hierarchy than us so it’s a game I’m taking seriously.

Sam Ham and Walker are drafted back into the side with Freckles taking the role as captain for the day. Stewart’s been complaining about the lack of football he got at the end of last season so I bring him in on the left. Matt Green starts up front despite his transfer request as I want to keep him fit in case he doesn’t move.

It’s a very slow start from the attackers and it doesn’t help that both defences are standing strong. It takes half an hour beofre either team can break through their other’s back line when Alnwick puts a free kick to the pitch and Freckles win the header. Oztumer gets his foot up to take it away from Henry but the ball spins away, luckily to Green. He waits to play it back to Oztumer who cuts inside of Brockbank and curls past the keeper into the far side of the goal. It’s another great shimmer of talent from the new man to push us closer to a 100% record so far.

In the 43rd minute, Nelson boots the ball clear and Green flicks a header out wide for Stewart to run onto. He performs a couple of stepovers before cutting inside and passing into Green. He inches it on for Woody to try and score but Alnwick saves well from close range. We come in 1-0 up at the break and I bring on Anderson in Rowe’s place for the second half as Danny’s run himself ragged.

In the 49th minute, Woody is played down the right hand side and passes inside to Green. He pings it out to Anderson who gives Oztumer a bit of a suicide pass. However, he does extremely well with some clever footwork to get the ball out of his feet and shoot with his preferred left foot but it’s a yard wide.

Another 15 minutes pass until I play Bostwick at centre back with Gergo moving up the pitch to make room for Eardley at right back. No impact on the game whatsoever so with 10 minutes later, I bring on Cooper for the goalscorer Erhun. Again, no impact at all as we see out the game against some hard Bolton pressure. That’s three wins out of three to get our season off to a flying start.

After checking with Bob that a few hundred thousand pounds has went into the club, our semi final is set up against the other German side in the competition, Dynamo Dresden. Steering clear of another World War 2 history moment, Dresden is a large city housing close to 600’000 people. The football team is not to be underestimated either as they are one of the more successful sides in German history. They have fell down the pecking order in recent years with their most recent piece of silverware being the 3.Liga title in 2016.

I want to start the season off with my first piece of silverware as a manager, even if it is some pre-season cup. I know it means nothing to Arsenal who win that bloody Emirates cup every other season but it means a lot to little Lincoln. That’s why I field what I would say is our best side to ensure a place in final.

Now when I say this, I don’t say it lightly; at least a bombing run would have livened this game up. I flash back to the period of games in late March/April and think how lucky I was to watch us steal a 1-0 win with the third chance of the game. I’m not exaggerating when I say literally not a thing happened. Even a double sub at the interval was uninspiring. Batesy even fell asleep for some of the second half. Before you know it, penalties are upon us. I’ll save the time of spending any more time on this game than it deserves. Benatelli steps up after Esposito takes our 5th penalty and blasts it off the post. We’re through to the final, which is all that matters but by god was it boring.

*Meta-Note: This game was genuinely so boring, I forgot to screenshot the full time result. I was so eager to leave that game ASAP.*

Already looking forward to the final to keep that bore-fest in the past, St Truiden will meet us again after a 1-0 victory in their game. We’ve already beat them once but we need to go out and win big. The trophy is dangling in front of us now but we need to get that killer instinct I talked about and take it back to England with us.

It’s hard to avoid keeping an eye on the World Cup as it’s such an amazing spectacle. However, there’s no time for anything except woe as England and Ireland are knocked out in the quarter finals by Brazil and Germany retrospectively. I’m not too keen to rush Harrison or Vasil home, both of which finished 3rd in their groups. On the last day before our final, Italy are knocked out by Belgium in the semi’s so we’re guaranteed an intriguing final nonetheless. I watch the Belgium game myself and it gets me thinking about international management. It would be a great experience if I was given the chance to take over a national side but for now, my focus is Lincoln City.

The next morning, the League One fixtures are announced with Blackpool being our guests on the opening day of the season. We play the relegated Burton Albion the following week with us playing hosts to Bostwick’s and Oztumer’s old side, Peterborough on the final day. We also draw the red side of Sheffield away from home in the first round of the Carabao Cup which will be a difficult game to say the least.

I’m strangely relaxed when naming the team sheet as I’m quietly confident. Walker starts in goal with Palmer back up front being the main inclusions since our last match. The rest of the selection is pretty standard. I’m normally shouting and pacing when giving a team talk in a game like this but I’m subconsciously trying a different approach.

“Let’s go win a trophy.”

10 minutes in, Bostwick plays the overlapping Dickenson down the left who puts a peach of a ball to the near post for the Surrey-born giant Ollie Palmer to power a header into the top left. 1-0 and Ollie’s opened his account for the 18/19 season with a trademark finish.

We adopt a Mourinho style of football to try and cool Truiden pressure. We win the ball, pass it sideways and slowly build forwards before sprinting back into shape again. It’s not our type of game however and it gets thrown out the window in the 38th minute. It’s the same passage of play with a Dickenson cross from a Bostwick through ball finding Palmer but this time round, he can only head it into the side netting. Half time comes before you know it and we’re doing pretty well with a goal advantage.

In the 53rd minute, Palmer holds up play following a Bostwick pass and slots a ball through to Erhun. He manages to get a shot off but it’s saved down low with the rebound going straight to Stewart facing an open goal but Dussaut slides in heroically to stop a certain Lincoln second.

In the 65th minute, I bring on Esposito and Knott for Rowe and Oztumer who’ve been quiet today. To be fair to them, any forward football has been down the left hand side. With 15 minutes left, I make a formation change to a narrow 4-1-2-1-2 with a diamond in midfield. Chapman replaces Stewart in the middle with Valerio getting the nod to finish the game up front next to Ollie. I also replace a tired Dickenson with Neal Eardley as he’s earned a rest.

5 minute after the changes, Chapman receives the ball from a throw and passes to Woody. He hits it inside for Valerio who fakes one way before passing out to Gergo. It’s a little ball over the defender that sets Woody to volley a cross into the path of an open Ellis Chapman who has a whole goal to nod the ball home. It’s a truly gorgeous bit of play that Guardiola would be proud of. 2-0.

In the 86th minute, the game is dead and buried. Woody plays a 1-2 with Valerio and threads the ball behind for Knott. He puts an early cross to the back post for Palmer to half volley into the ground and seal the trophy. Truiden do get a constellation goal when Gergo accidentally trips Teixeira in the box for a penalty. Sam Walker dives the right way but Boli’s strike just squeezes under his right arm. His clean sheet is gone but it really doesn’t matter.

Bob is ringing within moments of the full time whistle to congratulate myself and the squad. I get my medal after some brief celebrations but all I care about is that trophy. You’d think the European Continental Shield would have a shield but they go for a standard trophy bizarrely. They really missed a trick there. Seeing the lads lift it, champagne spraying the lot of them. That’s the takeaway moment from our couple weeks in Germany. But now, I’m hungry for more. Everybody is.

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