You Can’t Break My Heart, It’s Liquid
Chugger trundles along the A43 to Buckinghamshire as I prepare my charges for our clash with Wycombe Wanderers. Our last game against local mouth-breathers Northampton Town was a walkover, but I don’t expect to find a similarly accommodating opponent waiting for us at Adams Park. The Chairboys have a very large squad to choose from that has no injuries, no unhappiness, and almost everyone at 100%. Led by rangy midfield general Micah Hyde, they have some dangerous attacking players in Darren Currie and Sean Devine, but a glance at their starting back four reveals a nugget of useful information: they’re all over 30 and about as fast as erosion. I scribble notes onto my tactical magnetic whiteboard and plan a speedy starting lineup.
We’ve got five league games, including this one, before our League Cup Third Round clash against Newcastle United, so there’s no need to tactically rotate, but I do make some changes to take advantage of Wycombe’s lack of pace. Victor Renner (Pace & Acceleration 20) is an automatic choice alongside Javan, who has the same pace as Sir Les, but a far superior goalscoring record so far this season. Brandon also comes into centre-mid for Gazza, who is by far and away the slowest outfield player ever to wear Rushden colours, but that’s not what he’s all about anyway. He’s a free-kicking, thunderbastard-scoring, curry-munching dynamo and we love him. However, he can start on the side for this one, and I’ll hope that Brandon can weave his way through Wycombe’s glacial back four.
I think it’s fair to say that my plan works, and the game is over by half time. Brandon is tormenting Wycombe with his runs from deep, and Duff (also Pace 20, Acceleration 20) is unstoppable down our right. After Javan opens the scoring with one of his trademark solo goals, Duff turns on the afterburners to meet a Bubb through ball and crosses low for Brandon to thump our second into the top corner. Wycombe are utterly shell-shocked by our opening, and after Renner’s pace gets him tripped and a penalty appeal waved away by this blind referee, Andersson skins the Wycombe defence and finds Kalvenes at the far post to tuck away his first goal for the mighty Diamonds. He then turns provider, heading across the box for Bubb to grab our fourth, then Renner zooms past the Wycombe defenders again, cuts the ball back, and Javan notches his second of the day as the half time whistle goes.
We’re 5–0 up, and you know what that means: safety subs, game management, and a dry second half. Wycombe do manage a couple of afterthought shots on target that Hugo fields easily, and we run the game out for a trademark victory. Another brilliant win. It’s so nice to reach for the drinks cabinet in celebration rather than crushing despair.
Tranmere can only manage another draw, which means that we go four points clear at the top of the table after 13 games. I can see the wheels coming off the Tranmere train — they’ve had their manager poached by Man City, and in the last month they’ve sold Clint Hill, David Preece, Jamie McAllister and Steve Yates, all starting players. Let’s hope this signals their slide down the division.
The games are coming thick and fast now, and not long after we arrive back in the majesty of autumnal Irthlingborough, we find ourselves welcoming my beloved Brentford to Nene Park. I’d love to tell you that my now second-favourite club should provide us with a stern challenge, but even the most ardent Bees fan has got to admit that this is not a vintage side. Their transfers out over the last 12 months is like a who’s-who list of their best players — Martin Rowlands, Paul Smith, Gavin Mahon, Danny Boxall, Paul Evans and Ijah Anderson have all left for pastures new. They still have a good defence between Darren Powell, Chris Makin, Michael Dobson and Ivar Ingimarsson, but I’m glad to see the big Viking is out injured with a trademark groin tear. The WAGs of 2002 must be inconsolable with all these nether regions out of commission.
For our part, we welcome back our veteran duo of Gazza and Sir Les, who replace Brandon and Renner. The latter drop to the bench, and I take a moment to appreciate just how strong my squad is when everyone is fit. It’s a thing of beauty. Now, Meysam — you’re allowed to score today, but could you stop short of giving the Brentford defenders PTSD? Please? Meysam…? He’s gone.
I am really getting tired of seeing opposing goalkeepers turn in impossibly good performances against us, and Ollie Gotskalksson — while forever holding a place in my real heart for some heroic actual performances for real-life Brentford — can absolutely do one. We have nine shots on target, and although Gazza does manage to go on a mazy run and slam a left-footed finish into the top corner, Gotskalksson miraculously claws away every other chance we have. Naturally, Brentford manage one shot on target through Mark Williams which goes in, and we’re level at half time.
I’m fairly livid with the scoreline, but not with my players, who are doing everything right. Keepers either get 4s or 9s against us, it would seem, and today’s just another 9 day. I send the players out for the second half and I’m at least happy that we start it the way we finished the first — hammering efforts left, right and centre. Eventually, mercifully, we take the lead. Freddie the Fence hoofs a long ball forward directly onto the head of Sir Les, and his nod loops over Gotskalksson and in to finally give us a deserved lead. The clock races to the 70th minute, so I make all three of my subs, and settle in to see the game out.
Unfortunately, Steve Coppell has other plans. I have no idea what he does, since his subs don’t seem to make much difference, but in the last 20, Brentford are like a completely different team. Now we’re the ones creaking under the weight of pressure, and the Bees — led by the imperious Lloyd Owusu — are hitting shots on target that Hugo doesn’t look very comfortable with. He keeps spilling efforts but getting away with it, and I’m watching the conclusion of the game through my fingers. The 90th minute arrives and I’m like a coiled spring as Owusu floats a ball in for Kevin O’Connor, he beats Gough — on as a sub — in the air, his header is saved by Pinheiro but it’s not clear, and O’Connor follows up to equalise for Brentford in the 90th minute. I let out an embarrassing yelp as the goal goes in, and the game is instantly over — we’ve bottled it. Today, I have to admit that my subs were detrimental to our performance and actually led to this draw, which feels like a defeat. It wasn’t just Gough — Renner only managed shots off target and Brandon was anonymous in centre mid. I’ve underestimated Brentford and completely stuffed this result. I’m going to lock myself in my office for a while, and I’m taking this bottle of rum with me.
Contract rebel Paul Underwood is really starting to grind my gears. To try to quieten him down, I have offered him a new contract — he’s already got one until 2007, and on reflection, he’s not looking for an extension, just a bit of a payrise. I decide that, considering he did have an excellent season last year, and since I’m not getting rid of him any time soon anyway, I can chuck a few extra quid his way. However, post-match, I check my emails to find the following item in my inbox.
Oh, Paul. Paul, Paul, Paul. The next time I see you, I’m going to slowly tear up my magnanimous improved contract right in your face. For his insubordination, Underwood is listed and relegated to the reserves. I wonder what Jamie Victory is up to… and what’s this? He wants a new contract at Cheltenham, and has requested to be put on the transfer list for £45k in protest? Shut up and take my money! They accept, he wants to be a first-team player, I tell him okay despite knowing he’ll have a fight on his hands to displace Kalvenes, and I’m elated to see he only wants £550 per week and no minimum release fee! This is the stuff of dreams. I press Continue and eagerly await the good news.
Unfortunately, the next transfer news I get is not about Jamie Victory. Out of nowhere, Bolton offer £5m for Freddie Risp, and I have no choice to accept it because it’s his minimum release fee. Ever since he joined I’ve been trying to renegotiate his contract without it, but he’s always rejected me, and it looks like we’re about to pay the price. Well, I suppose we’re about to receive the price, but even still, I’m devastated at potentially losing my second or maybe third-favourite Swede. I tearfully accept the bid, instantly offer Freddie another contract for all the money we’ve got left, and pray that he wants to stay. In fear, I promote Giorgio Chiellini to train with the seniors. Chris Plummer is injured at the moment, though I also hope that losing Risp might at least mean he stops moaning about there being too much competition.
There is a small piece of good news as we draw divisionless Dulwich Hamlet in the FA Cup First Round. As usual it’s an away draw, but I’m looking forward to visiting their curiously-named ground, Dog Kennel Hill — and besides, it’s only in Southwark, so not too far for Chugger to roll.
Speaking of which, we’d better be off, or we’re going to miss our traditional pre-match Bovril at Edgeley Park. Stockport are the next team who are going to try to topple my championship bid, and their squad features some household names, like forward Shefki Kuqi, centre-mid Stephen Clemence and former Chelsea defender Frank Sinclair. First-choice keeper Tom Phillips, on the other hand, looks dross, and concedes an average of two goals per game. I therefore look forward to seeing him step on a flashing star and become invulnerable for just long enough to make me punch through the side of the dugout in frustration.
For our part, we look a little leggy, but I want to keep my strongest team, so I decide to leave the boys as they are. Only my hopeless substitutions prevented us from winning last time out, so I’ll try not to be so inept this afternoon. Come on lads — let’s get back to winning ways.
As expected, Phillips is unbelievable in goal for Stockport in the first half, and we just can’t get the ball past him. Javan, Sir Les, Bubb, Andersson and Mahouvé all have efforts on his goal, but he denies us every time. On the plus side, we restrict Stockport to a single shot that goes off-target, but my god, my blood pressure is so high that it would come out of me like a fire hose if I cut myself. I shout at the players to just do all the things I want, and very carefully retake my position in the away dugout.
Fortunately, the Stockport players also hear my ranting through the wall, and graciously take steps to make sure I go home happy. Shortly after we start the second half, Gazza tries to weave his way towards goal but is wiped out by Peter Clark just as he’s about to shoot — it’s a penalty to us, and Clark gets a straight red card for a professional foul. Bubb steps up and slots the ball home, and now we’re both a goal and a man up in a game we were already dominating — and you can imagine what happens next. Truly, it’s only a miracle performance from Phillips that prevents this from being a rout, but we do manage to extend our lead; having replaced the tiring Gazza with Jamie Davies, the (I assume) local lad pops up with his trademark move, tapping home the rebound after Phillips claws yet another Javan shot out of the top corner. Right at the end, Kalvenes lays the ball on a plate for Martin Andersson to volley home our third, and we eventually run out relatively comfortable 3–0 winners. That game was definitely heading for a 0–0 draw before the penalty and red card, but today I suppose Lady Luck got off her arse and did us a favour.
There are hacks everywhere after the game asking about Freddie Risp’s move to Bolton. I “No Comment” them into next week, but after Chugger’s creaky doors close them out, I make a few precautionary bids in case the worst happens. I’m disappointed to instantly miss out on Florin Batrinu to Espanyol, and David McCracken moves to Kilmarnock. That’s okay, I mean, Freddie hasn’t actually left yet — maybe he’ll accept my extremely generous new contract offer? I’m sure he’d rather stay in sunny Irthlingborough rather than be lured by proximity to Manchester, Premier League football and… what? There’s a Pontins holiday park only 35 miles away from Bolton? Oh no.