Four months in to my time in Essex and I’m settling in to life in League One quite nicely. We sit 11th, five places higher than when I joined. Crucially we’re six places above Giggsy’s Millwall. They don’t know what they passed on. Refreshingly, we’ve only suffered defeat four times in these four months, and a couple of new players have given us hope of sneaking in to the play-offs.
My first game as U’s boss was a much anticipated trip to Fratton Park. Portsmouth were sitting 2nd in the league, with us in 16th. As a Southampton fan, I can’t stand the thought of heading back down south and getting beaten.
My asymmetric 4-1-2-3 (DM) gets its first test, and it starts very well. Centre Midfielder Craig Slater hits a bullet from 25 yards in to the bottom corner to put us a goal up, and we dominate the first 25 minutes. But then things started to go tits up, as two defensive cock-ups see us fall behind, one scored by one of my must-buys from back in the days of FM12, Jake Forster-Caskey. Loanee striker Alex Babos equalised at the start of the second half, before some kamikaze Pompey defending gifted us an 82nd minute penalty. Denny Johnstone coolly slotted home, but in my jubilation I forgot to park the bus. Predictably, Harry Cornick equalised in stoppage time, but a 3-3 away draw at one of the league leaders is a decent first game.
After that decent point, I returned home for my first game at the Weston Homes Community Stadium (I really need them to change the name) against midtable Port Vale. However, Alex Babos and Denny Johnstone picked up injuries in training, meaning that I had to rely on the untested 22 year old Tariq Issa, who had previously just be sat in my reserves.
We fell behind in the first ten minutes, and I was not feeling hopeful about our chances. But after 25 minutes, Port Vale fail to clear a corner, and Issa unleashes a viscous scissor kick from around the penalty spot. Two minutes later, Ryan Hedges put us in front, and he added his second after the break. Sammie Szmodics added a fourth, and even a late consolation couldn’t dampen our spirits.
We went and lost our next game, but then went five unbeaten in the league. Bury thoroughly dismantled us, beating us 3-0. Bury had 24 shots to our 9, 12 on target to our 2. We bounced back with three draws and two wins, before we lost at home to Millwall. Damn you Giggsy! If I had £2.3 million I would sign Tom Davies on loan from Everton as well. Bastards.
During that time we crashed out of the FA Cup in the Third Round. We hosted Championship side Crystal Palace, whose team included James Tomkins, Yohan Cabaye, Danny Welbeck, Wilfried Zaha and Christian Benteke. We lost 3-1 in a fairly even game: we had 15 shots, 6 on target and 51% possession, Palace had 12 shots, 8 on target and 49% possession.
As soon as I got to the club, I noticed that we didn’t have the strength in depth in attacking midfield, especially in the shadow striker role. Even though my assistant doesn’t think that he is a natural in the role, I decided to bring in James Maddison, who had been without a club since his release from Norwich.
I let right back Andy Yiadom leave on a free to Peterborough. I needed to free up some wages after bringing in Maddison, and although seen as a key player, he was only averaging around a 6.3 for me. Anyway, I had 23 year old Kane Vincent-Young who could do with the match experience. Also on the outs was Brennan Dickenson, my third choice left winger, for £150k to League Two Plymouth.
My second signing was an audacious loan bid for Harry Winks, which was much needed as we only have George Saville, Craig Slater, and Thomas Lapslie who can play there.
We have also just had our youth intake. It has been a very promising intake, with four players having four star or above potential. The first is goalkeeper Steve Moore. The 15 year old is just about 6ft, but has 14 handling, 14 agility, 12 decisions and 13 bravery.
The next player is Paul Barnett, a right winger, but he is accomplished as both an attacking midfielder and a left winger. The 15 year old Welshman has decent pace and natural fitness, but his technicals and mentals really make his stand out. He has 10 crossing and first touch, and 11 dribbling, and most importantly 15 technique. His 14 teamwork and 13 determination means that he is likely to reach his potential, whilst his 14 flair means that he will be a nightmare for defenders.
Along with these two, we also have a David Luiz wannabe, centre back Ryan Cherry, who has 15 tackling, 11 marking and 12 free kick taking. We have also got a decent advanced forward, Duncan Brennan, who has 14 acceleration, 17 natural fitness, 16 teamwork, 16 work rate and 14 finishing. Both of these have four star possible potential.
James Maddison has 5 goals from his 11 appearances, whilst Denny Johnstone has 3 despite his injury problems. Ryan Hedges has three goals and three assists since I have joined, with Danny Fox also providing 3 assists from left back. My centre backs, Tom Eastman and Ashley Eastham, top the average rating charts, with a 7 and a 7.06 respectively. James Bransgrove has 7 clean sheets from his 16 appearances under my management.
What’s To Come?
We have 10 games remaining of our season, and although we are the very definition of midtable team, we are still only 7 points off Walsall and the play-offs. However, our run-in is not kind, as we face both of the top two, as well as all the teams between 5th and 8th. This includes a final day match at home to Walsall, which could decide who reaches the play-offs.