I look up, and glance around the press room. A lot of hands are raised. I nod in the direction of one of them.
“Trent Crimm,” The journalist says. “The Independent. Ten games, no losses. You have the smallest squad in the league, and you’re banned from making any transfers. Yet instead of being at the bottom of the league as expected, you’re top of the table. Tell us… just how are you doing it?”
“If I told you, Trent.” I reply with a laugh, “I’d have to kill you.”
The room laughs, I field a few more questions and then leave the press room.
“Great work, boss.” My Assistant Manager Brandon Brown says as I walk into our office. “You were so tight-lipped in there. You didn’t give away how we’re doing it.”
I throw myself down into my chair.
“Brandon, that’s because I don’t fucking know how we’re doing it.”
This isn’t entirely true of course. I talked last update about my plans for Toddlerball. I just wasn’t expecting it to work quite so well.
Our current tactic is designed more to delay the inevitable than achieve success. Well, that was the idea.
My tiny squad can’t defend and is full of hobbits, so we focus heavily on trying to retain possession. The opposition can’t tear through my back line if they don’t have the ball. Meanwhile up top, the goal has always been to try and use the combination of our nippy right winger and the big tall Scottish lad I found in the U23 squad to try and pick up at least a goal a game.
Draws and narrow loses. That was the plan until December. Maybe the odd lucky win. Then buy some players, plug the gaps and try and grab some wins.
Instead, we sit at the top of the League Two table after a ten game unbeaten run of eight wins and two draws.
So why is it working better than planned? Well, after ten games I think I have a decent idea (although I’m not telling Brandon. He’ll only blab).
A good part of it is, to be blunt, luck. One of those draws should really be a loss and two of the wins should be draws. We’ve conceded four penalties so far, but Dean Smith has saved three of them. We’re conceding those penalties because I’m having to use the ‘Get stuck in’ instruction as a sort of Poundshop Gegenpress. I need to limit opposition possession and win the ball back quickly, but this squad couldn’t Gegenpress their way out of a paper bag. They do understand how to get stuck in, though so that’ll have to do.
Three of those penalties have been conceded by one man: Harry Stevens, who is proving an absolute liability in defence. He’s top of the Christmas shopping hit list. For now though, we’ve been getting away with it thanks to Smith’s heroics between the sticks.
Another reason for our success, however, has been what’s happening up front. It turns out that Kelly is, at just 17, not only the Filthy Wing Bastard I hoped but he’s also capable of doing it on a rainy night in Stoke, Rochdale or wherever. His chance creation is off the charts, and he’s clocking assists (or pass-before-assists) at a furious rate.
I’ll probably lose him to a Championship club (at least) at the end of the season, but that’s fine. We need the money and I have him under a three year contract, so we’ll definitely get good cash for him.
Kelly’s crosses would be useless though if it wasn’t for Naismith — our 16 year old Scottish Ent — being there to nudge an awful lot of those crosses in.
Now, young Keiran would probably tell you that most of these goals are deliberate. But I’ve seen enough of them now to know that Kelly is mostly using him as a sort of deflection target. Kelly spangs a ball at Naismith, he fails to get out of the way, and it spirals into the net somehow.
Hey, a goal’s a goal and I’m happy for the lad. I do think though, that if we can train him to score deliberately as well then he will legitimately become Peter McCrouch, Scotland’s greatest striker for a generation.
Which brings us to Rohan “Cheese Strings” Smith. Remember how I said he didn’t stand out as good at anything? Well I had a look at his stats, and a think. Then we sat down in my office and I quietly explained to him that no-one ever wants a Pressing Forward, but had he thought about playing as a False Nine instead?
He agreed to give at a go. And my God is he good at it.
He’s spent the last taking the ball from the midfield and pinging it into the net, on the rare occasions when we attack down the centre. Or, when Keiran Naismith fails to bundle a cross into the net, it’s often Cheese Strings arriving late in the box behind him who saves the day.
Taken all together this means that, incredibly, we currently have the most productive offense in the entire League.
So where does all this leave us?
Well there’s no way on earth we stay up here at the business end of the table for much longer. I don’t have the squad. I’ve got people training as lightly as I dare, with a focus on fitness but with just eighteen players in the squad fatigue is going to cause our late game performance to start dropping off a cliff soon. I’ve been tweaking how we play late game to try and compensate for that, but I foresee a lot less wins and more draws (at best) in our future.
I’m also already rotating in even more teenagers from the development squads off the bench whenever I dare (mostly if we get a few goals ahead). There’s only so much of that you can do though. I can tweak match tactics to compensate for a teenager in one position in defence, midfield or offense. But when you’re suddenly playing three players under 18 in your back line by the 55th minute you just have to close your eyes and pray that they’ll hold.
We’re also just one major injury to our front line away from disaster. I have exactly one competent attacking backup (i.e. one that has so far shown any ability to score or create chances). That’s to cover Kelly, Cheese Strings and Naismith. I’ve been extraordinarily lucky so far that the worst injury one of those has sustained (Kelly) only kept him out for two games. Two out at the same time? Suddenly I’m playing teenagers up front, too.
All of this means that I fully expect our form and league position to start dipping very soon. But that shouldn’t detract from what a positive start this has been to both season and save. My unofficial points target for survival this season is 55. My hope for this half of the season, pre-transfers, was to get 15 of those points.
We’re over half way to that total just ten games into the season. That’s gained us breathing room I never expected to have. Now we see how far we can push our luck.
Hell, maybe we can finish top half after all…
This article is part of my ongoing series on trying to rebuild Oldham Athletic in Football Manager. You can find the full series here.
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