Last week, I announced the start of a Football Manager 2020 journey – to recreate the original ‘Crazy Gang’ by winning the FA Cup with AFC Wimbledon, but only signing players with an Aggression attribute of 15+. The full recap can be found here. I gave myself a 6-season target to reach this feat and Part One below tells of the highs and often extreme lows of my first season on this path to glory. Without further ado, let’s get stuck in.
To make this journey as authentic as possible, I needed to think carefully about what a manager of a group of borderline hooligans would look like and how he would manage, and try and channel this into the in-game decisions and tactics that I needed to make. So, the manager profile page appears and, of course, tracksuit top and bottoms are a must. Full tracksuit acquired, height set at 6’2” (just in case I need to break up any imaginary scuffles in the changing rooms post-match) and I’m ready for my first day.
I wanted to complete my usual first day rituals (found in my Beginner’s Guide to Football Manager 2020) so I looked at the boards’ objectives for the season. Play attacking football? Not sure I can do that. Make the most of set pieces? That’s a little more ‘Crazy Gang’, I guess. Play direct football? Direct football is exactly what you’re going to get, Joe. Reading that last objective was, in my head, the Wimbledon chairman giving me the green light to play some uninspiring, aggressive, route one football. Perfect.
The first thing I felt was necessary to do was to throw away the 5-3-2 formation that was shown on my ‘Best XI’ screen and go with something more traditional and route one-esque. Part of me deliberated over a Sam Allardyce favoured 4-1-4-1, but I wasn’t keen on the idea of leaving a Target Man (which I’d definitely be using) alone up top. After all, every Peter Crouch needs a Jermain Defoe beside him. So, in the end, I opted for a flat 4-4-2, not too dissimilar to this.
I wanted to play long balls straight to the big man up top, who could either flick it on to the poacher or hold the ball up before the wingers came into play. I toyed with the idea of having a standard Central Midfielder to partner the Ball Winning Midfielder, but decided on a Deep Lying Playmaker to have him ping balls to the flanks and up top. I’ve seen Joe Allen do it for Stoke, so I had high hopes for young Max Sanders being Allen’s protégée (I set my standards very high indeed). Lastly, I changed each individual player instruction to ‘Get Stuck In’ and the tactics were complete.
JULY – SEPTEMBER
When it comes to playing Football Manager, I have a superstition that the worst pre-seasons always precede a good start to the regular season, and vice versa. Oh, how wrong I was. It’s safe to say that pre-season and the start of the League One season were atrocious. Averaging roughly 30% possession per game, I feared that my tactic was a little too direct, showing no build up play whatsoever.
I crashed out of the Carabao Cup 1st Round, central midfielder Callum Reilly’s red card and conceded penalty against Forest Green was a particular lowlight of this game, charging down the attacker in the box with all the grace of a disgruntled moose. I needed to reassess the current situation regarding tactics and transfers or I wouldn’t be in a job for much longer. In comes Danny Hylton, 30 year-old Target Man signed on loan from Luton. Aggression: 16. Box ticked. At 6’0″, however, I just wished he was taller, but at this point the situation is becoming desperate, so in he comes.
I also needed a change in tactic. I noticed my Wingers weren’t providing enough support, so I moved them further up the field to AMR and AML. Central Midfielders were just set to CM to keep things simple, and No Nonsense Centre Backs became regular Central Defenders to keep the ball on the ground a little more. I also set the tactic to ‘Attacking’ to encourage more chance creation, and I dropped the directness in an attempt to increase possession in games. The results were a success.
Three wins and a draw followed, two of those wins away at Ipswich and Sunderland. It looked like we’d turned a corner and made progress, new signing Hylton scoring 3 goals in these 4 games.
The new tactic was working brilliantly and, aside from two narrow defeats at the hands of Shrewsbury and Coventry, the football that this gritty Wimbledon side were playing was nothing short of magical. A 5-1 demolition against Peterborough was the cherry on the cake, 6’3″ centre-half Paul Kalambayi scoring two towering headers from set-pieces that Eric Young would’ve be proud of. “Well in, son!” I shout from my sofa as the second goes in.
OCTOBER – DECEMBER
With my board confidence level at B- on 1st October, I was ready to kick things up a notch. Despite the 1-0 loss to Rochdale, Kalambayi comes good again with two set-piece goals in a cup game against Walsall to take his tally up to 5 goals in 7 apps. Madness. Winning his first cap for DR Congo during the international break that followed, he was becoming a player that I just couldn’t leave out of the side.
Ignoring the ever increasing red cards tally, things were looking up. Danny Hylton ended his goalscoring drought with a fantastic brace of headers against Burton. At this point we were two points away from the playoffs and morale was high. Despite this, I was starting to have a problem with whoever played as Target Man as they weren’t scoring enough goals. I made the decision to swap the TM for a DLF for a month to see if that helped in any way. Joe Piggott, the man for the job, was now playing in his preferred role. 1 goal scored in November for him and I wasn’t best pleased. Back to the drawing board.
The FA Cup 2nd Round draw in November arrived with much excitement. This, after all, was the main goal of our Crazy Gang journey. We’d already amassed an extortionate amount of yellow and red cards, could we add FA Cup trophy to our collection? It was unlikely, but one can dream. Wimbledon get Rotherham, to be played at the end of the month.
After some mixed results in the league, I got my best tracksuit ready for the FA Cup fixture. A bright start, but conceding an 87th minute equaliser hurt and I had to settle for a replay, in which we lost. There’s always next year.
A second consecutive Goal of the Month award couldn’t disguise some terrible early December results. Luckily, a good turn of form saw me sneak into the playoff places as the January window approached. My rivals had money to spend but I didn’t have such a luxury. I wanted to keep some consistency with tactics so the formation stayed the same, but I hoped I got a change of fortunes in the New Year in the form of a billionaire chairman. Didn’t happen. Wimbledon ended the year with the worst discipline record in League One.
JANUARY – MARCH
Certain League One clubs were signing players for extortionate fees throughout the January window, but I won’t name any names (Sunderland). No signings were made for me as finances were looking rather stretched, but a quick search showed that there weren’t many aggressive players out there. Hopefully, gaining promotion will mean more players will want to join the Crazy Gang project.
January was a low scoring month. Strikers weren’t firing and the team was losing discipline even more than usual. On the bright side, Piggott ended goal drought after 13 hours without scoring in a 4-1 win against Burton at the end of the month. At the other side of the pitch, a debut for youngster Archie Procter in central defence yielded a goal, clean sheet and Man of the Match performance. Aged 18 and with an Aggression attribute of 12, I was hoping this would rise to 15 before the three-season deadline passes of removing every squad player who has a rating of 14 or below for Aggression (a recap of the rules here).
None of the players below met the Aggression criteria but their contracts were about to expire. What was I to do? I decided to renew Tzanev and Pinnock‘s contracts, as they had 4* PA and could bring in greater transfer values when I sell them before the three-season deadline. Wimbledon needed cash and they may eventually provide some for the club.
Tactics were again a concern in February after failing to win an away game in over a month. I decided to play a more cautious 4-3-3 DM with a Target Man up front, and trial this for the next few away games. A 3-0 win against Gillingham and 1-1 draw at playoff rivals Doncaster brought my board approval rating up to an A+ for the first time. The away tactic was working, goals were flying in and, aside from being fined for ill discipline in a heated tie against Bolton, things were looking very rosy indeed with The Dons sitting 3rd in the table by the end of March.
APRIL – MAY
April started brightly with a dominating 2-1 against behemoths Sunderland. There were four games remaining after this, and The Dons were 4 points away from 1st and 8 points into the playoff places. I felt promotion would be important to boost finances and allow a greater number of players with the Aggression criteria met that we would be able to sign. I decided to give the lads a team talk ahead of the next game away at Wycombe. “Look lads,” I said (in my head). “Get the ball to the big man, get stuck in, and let’s be playing Championship football next season.” They loved it. Another 2-1 win followed, securing a playoff spot for the 2019/20 season.
After good results against MK Dons and Shrewsbury, there were 43 games played and 1 remaining. Here’s how the table looked going into the final day.
A tiny possibility at being crowned champions but a very real possibility of automatic promotion slipping from us, we headed into our home game against Coventry with cautious optimism. Portsmouth, Oxford and Bristol Rovers were all playing teams towards the bottom of the table. We had the hardest challenge facing a mid-table team who had beaten us earlier in the season.
The teams kick off and 7 minutes in, a 20 yard screamer from skipper Luke O’Neill sent fans (me) wild. Adding an assist to his collection 27 minutes in, whipping in a free-kick for Will Nightingale to power in, he was really turning up. With Bristol Rovers 2-0 down at HT, Oxford and Pompey both at 0-0, the results were looking favourable.
A goal from Oxford in the 53rd minute brings a wave of tension. All it takes is for them to bag a couple more, and for us to concede, and our automatic promotion hopes are dashed. Clicking on the updates to check their score as the minutes passed by, I was on the edge of my seat. Full time arrives. Relief. AFC Wimbledon have gained automatic promotion to the Championship! Time for a big drink.
A… modest Championship transfer budget of £1m and it was time to start looking at signings for the new season.
Thanks for tuning in for Part One of this ridiculously entertaining challenge. Hopefully you’ve had as much fun reading about The Dons’ journey as I’ve had managing them, and don’t forget to stay tuned for Part Two. Will we stay in the Championship? Will we reach FA Cup glory four years early? You’ll find out soon enough…