Welcome back blog fans, sorry for a quiet couple of days but I was writing some other stuff for @natterfootball and @thinkfootballideas – anyway, back to FM15!
November got off to a shocking start with the news that my midfield metronome, the Clapton Xavi as nobody calls him, Battipiedi pulled his hamstring in the 2-2 draw with Thurrock and will miss the FA Cup tie with Portsmouth. That’s us done then, the last we played without him we lost 5-2 in the FA Vase final. I made the decision that I deplore in other managers, I decided to field a weakened team in a match.
The league game against Burnham Ramblers, away, saw ten changes to the side that drew with Thurrock, including a debut for young centre back meaning we were going into the game with two centre backs aged 16 and 17. I knew that this could cost us our unbeaten record, but I still had the likes of Pulford, Blake, Cook, Osborne, Nade and Adams in the starting line-up, so it was hardly a bunch of lads dragged out of the pub. But with Portsmouth, not sure if I have mentioned this upcoming fixture, ahead I felt it was important to protect my first choice team. The day before the game I was absolutely gobsmacked to hear that Steve Humm had decided to leave and go to Walsham-le-Willows. Sounds more like fecking Wind-le-Willows that Steve, where is your ambition? I hadn’t really planned on going centre back shopping this week, but the search started in earnest. I drew up a shortlist of six and sent Brian Mc out to tell me his thoughts.
Greg Enstone came back with a favourable report, pretty good attributes (as ever, for this level) and could be signed as an amateur. I fired out an offer, in the hope I could play him for a bit against Burnham and take a view. Luke Cray also looked half decent, I was tempted by him too. A second report suggested there were too many doubts, so I also offered an amateur contract to Tim Johnstone. Hopefully one of these two would come and join the Clapton party.
So, Burnham Ramblers with a weakened team. This was not the night for Heathy to have his, hopefully, one shocker of the season. Two shots slipped through his hands, and the unbeaten run was over as we lost 2-0. I take responsibility for this defeat totally, it was a decision I hope I took for the right reasons.
With that disaster out of the way, all attention switched to the FA Cup First round. Just seven seasons ago, Portsmouth were a Premier League club that had the likes of James, Stefanovic, Campbell, Muntari, Kanu, Crouch, Defoe etc amongst their ranks. Sure, they were spending money they didn’t have, but ‘Arry built a side down there that was competing with the big boys and they won the FA Cup. So what if they have gone bankrupt, slipped all the way down to League Two and are now fighting back, right? Actually, no. Portsmouth, in my opinion, were tantamount to cheating, and having watched a few games when I lived down there it was the fans that I felt sorry for. Not the fans that blindly followed the team and cared only about the success, but the fans who could see what was happening and wanted to prevent it. It is great to see the club now debt free, owned by the fans (a cause very close to my heart as a shareholder of Real Oviedo FC) and trying to work it’s way back up the divisions. I was very proud to welcome them to The Old Spotted Dog. As the day drew nearer, I was still worried about who to play at centre back alongside Axten. Young Hassan wasn’t ready in my opinion, and none of my signings looked like being ready in time. I was toying with the idea of going all Pep and playing a midfielder there, but other than Batti, who was already injured, most of my midfielders preferred playing nearer their goal than ours. I started to toy with three options, Hassan, the other young lad Dubery or playing the experienced Rafa Nade in there. Rafa was starting to edge it as a one off. I decided to leave it until right before the team had to be selected to decide, and I finally went with Hassan. Hey, the kid needs to get experience!
We had the first chance, Barney chasing down a poor back pass and forcing a good stop from their ‘keeper. In the fifth minute a straight ball down the middle undid us, but Heath made a fine one-on-one stop from Vaz Te. Sixteen minutes gone, Maloney got caught in possession, Heathy made another good save but Vaz Te was there to fire home the rebound. 1-0 down and my hope of striking first had gone. The lead lasted less than 60 seconds though, we kicked off, worked the ball left, Ebsworth delivered a beautiful cross and there was Hennessy to head home and equaliser! The Old Spotted Dog was rocking! We managed to get through to half-time level. Game on. Straight after kick off, their centre backs missed a long ball and Green was clean through. Could he? No sadly his composure let him down and he fired over. Just as I was about to make a double substitution, the ball broke to Hennessy who screwed wide from a tight angle. On came Nade and Blake. Ten minutes to go, Barney broke free and hit one from twenty yards forcing a fine tip over the bar from their ‘keeper. The tail of The Old Spotted Dog was wagging, and we pushed for the win, but it wasn’t to be – we had to make do with holding League One Portsmouth FC, in Europe six years ago, to a 1-1 draw where we had the better chances. Sadly, you only get one real chance in games like this history tells us, so the trip down to the South Coast might be a game too far, but this was awesome.
After the drama of Pompey, we had to raise ourselves for a trip to relegation zoned Tilbury, the first of three consecutive away days. Games like these should always be approached with trepidation, I would love to know how many teams that have beaten or drawn with higher opposition in the cup then crumble in their next league game. I do not want The Tons to be like that. Do I go with the same side, or shall I mix it up again? Despite such a great result, it’s actually three games without a win now, so we need to get the winning habit back. The FA Cup Second Round draw was made and we were second out of the hat, being drawn away to Dagenham & Redbridge or MK Dons if we can get a win in the replay, which will be on television next Tuesday. I was still in the market for a centre back or two, so Brian Mc was sent out to look at another four prospects.
The game at Tilbury got off to a bad start as we went behind. Lee Barney got us level, finishing a lovely move with a powerful drive into the right hand corner of the net. Right on the hour Barney turned provider, a lovely cross leaving Nade with just a tap-in for 2-1. The roles swapped fifteen minutes before the end, Nade teeing up Barney for another wonderful finish into the right hand corner of the net and the game looked safe. Annoyingly we allowed Tilbury one more from a corner but we held on for the three points. The win moved us three points ahead of Thurrock with one game still in hand, Harlow to come on Saturday and a decision to make about resting players, again.
With Harlow down in 19th and an FA Cup replay to come on the Tuesday, I decided to rest the core again and play a weakened side in the hope of getting at least a draw. I knew it had backfired last time, but Harlow are no Burnham so I am prepared to risk it. Once again I changed all ten outfield players and hoped for the best.
Going behind is becoming a habit, we were one down after 18 minutes again. Young Ash Hutchings got his first for the club with a great hit to draw us level and then set up Charlie Goldberg for his first Clapton goal. Some awful defending by Hassan allowed Harlow to equalise and this game was becoming tricky. After a couple of top saves by Heath, Green smacked one home from twenty five yards to give us the lead again. Harlow refused to lie down, hit back and had one disallowed for offside. Heathy was then called into action a few more times before Green hammered home number four from the spot. Far from convincing, but the job was done at it was great to see some of the young Clapton boys play such a big part in a win. The minute the game was over, my mind was on Pompey. Could we do it?
Fratton Park. AC Milan came here in 2009. Clapton are here in 2015. Bring it on. I don’t fancy our chances, I think we should have had them at The Dog, but we’ll give it a go. It’s our first ever televised game, so that will add something extra to the occasion and we will look to do the Isthmian proud in front of thousands more pairs of eyes on the box. The side was pretty much full strength, the only player I wish I could play was Battipiedi who was still injured.
Straight from the off Pompey seemed to have more about them than last time, we hardly got out of our half. We were one down after 20, or at least I thought we were – offside! Gilfedder got away from their back four but shot wide in our first real attack. As the half went on, we grew, Ebsworth getting a brilliant cross into Gilfedder who forced a great save from Poke. We got through to half time at 0-0. A scrappy period of play at the start of the second half led to them taking the lead, heads seemed to drop. But, we got a break when Dunne kicked out at Moloney and got a second yellow, could we capitalise? Sadly not, as a killer break saw us fall two behind, just when we looked like we might get back into it. A 2-0 defeat, but we did ourselves proud in this FA Cup run, they knew they’d been in a game again. If we keep performing like this we can look forward to silverware at the end of the league season for sure.
I knew I had a challenge on my hands getting the lads up for the game against Chatham. What should I do, rest the players that lost against Portsmouth, again, and then unleash them once they had had a chance to remove the physical and mental tiredness they have picked up from the cup run? Or do I just go with them, no matter what their condition, and take the “get back on the horse” mentality? This was a tough decision to make, and by the time the FA warned me for my comments after the Pompey game I was still no closer to knowing what I was going to do. In the end, as ever, I blended the two. Out went Nimmo and Ebsworth who were both knackered and in came new signing Jamal Clarke (below) and Chris Herron. I also brought back Ben Milnes to play the DLP role as he was back from injury.
It felt like we struggled to get going today, we had a half chance after thirteen minutes where Barney forced a save at the near post, but we were not opening them up at all. Late in the first half, Axten forced a wonderful reaction stop from their ‘keeper but that was pretty much it in the first period. I resisted the urge to tear into them at half-time, encouraging words were said and we came at them straight away. Nade missed a sitter, and then our day got more difficult when Herron follishly collected a second yellow. A slight re-shuffle saw Pulford on for Milnes so we kept a back four in place. We didn’t cope well with being down to ten, and Chatham scored with three minutes to go. This was the most disappointing result of the season so far, but, on the plus side it will have woken us up and we still have a three point lead over Thurrock. It is time to start getting some wins under our belt again and forget about the FA Cup.
Again, the jam-packed schedule meant that we did not have a mid-week rest as we travelled to Thamesmead. They were in 6th, pushing for a play-off place, and we were in relative disarray having only one once in the last month. The only change was Ebsworth coming back in for Herron, which would have happened even without Herron being suspended. The team were told, assertively, to sort it out. After a scrappy start to the game, Gilfedder headed us ahead from a pin-point Cooper cross. Cooper was at it again five minutes later, a wonderful deep cross being finished by Daniel Moloney. And relax? Not at all, they pulled one back soon after. A great break from a corner saw Ebsworth get a shot away, the ‘keeper could only parry and Nade was there to follow up and make it 3-1. I could sense this game becoming one when we batter them second half and win handsomely, or where we let them back in it, so I urged against complacency at half time. Everyone seemed to gain focus, so off we went. We defended resolutely in the second half, blocks coming in everywhere as they took the game to us. Ten minutes to go, and Cooper swung another cross in, Gilfedder headed down and Barney tucked it away. The game looked safe and indeed was. That result should work wonders with the confidence levels.
The last fixture of a bumper month was away at Hanwell. Down in 17th, we could not afford to take them too lightly so I named an unchanged XI but did include Battipiedi amongst the subs. We started slowly, taking our time to get to grips with the torrential rain, and I had to replace Hennessy early as he picked up a knock. On came Cookie and we scored with a terrific counter from their corner. Gilfedder played a long pass to Nade who drew the defence, then played in Cookie who had sprinted from our area. A delicate little finish and we were away. He then ran on to a bad back pass and placed it home for 2-0. Maloney battered home Milnes’ corner for three, and we went in at the break with the game done and dusted. I brought Batti on to get him fit and rested Ebsworth for the second half. As seems to be the case on FM15, if you use all three subs before the last ten minutes, you are guaranteed to get an injury, and Barney pulled up on the hour, leaving us with ten. Going down to nine though? That’s a new one, and Pulford was off on 65. Nine men. We got a pen from the incident however, and Cook slammed it home for his hatty. The nine men defended bravely, but Hanwell did get one with 7 to go. That was it though, and we got the points and a tough month was over.
So, we finished November top of the table, two points clear with a game in hand. We played on TV, and held a club that had won the FA Cup to a draw. I had turned down another five job offers. All in all, not a bad month and I feel we are really well set for a promotion push. I’m hoping to post December tomorrow, I want to keep this Clapton crusade rolling….
Follow me on Twitter: @comeontheoviedo
FM15 Blog: www.comeontheoviedo.wordpress.com
Author of the “Johnny Cooper, Championship Manager” series available on Amazon here
Read the first chapter of “The Second Season Syndrome” at www.chrisdarwen.com