Oldham: Rise of Toddlerball

It’s time for pre-season. That means seeing what our formation (and our U23s) are made of.

John Bull
4 min readNov 11, 2021

Over the years, Football Manager has changed a lot. When I first started playing, games were described through text-based messages racing across your screen. These days, it has a match engine.

What that means is that you can watch your team play. Okay, behind the scenes the game is still spreadsheets-do-football, but Sports Interactive have done an incredible job in visualising that through the match engine.

Bluntly: if you watch your team actually play football by cranking up the number of match highlights, you will learn what’s working and what isn’t. Just as importantly, you’ll learn who is working and who isn’t.

I’m not going to write up all the pre-season friendlies. I’ve been playing a lot and we have more to come. But I have already learned some useful things about this team. And to illustrate those I’m going to talk you through the very first friendly I played: against our own Under 23 Squad.

The key highlights are below.

From watching even just the key highlights above (it’s fine. I know you didn’t. But we’ll pretend) you’ll see a few things that have started to become clear throughout pre-season.

Oldham men can’t jump

Balls over the top. Set pieces. Total kryptonite to us. Right now, our backline is short, can’t jump, can’t head or some combination of all three. As predicted, there’s no way we won’t concede goals from this. Our plan has to be to limit the other ways teams can score against us instead and hope for the best at the other end.

We have a genuine Furious Wing Bastard

Kelly is a menace. He’s a legit offensive threat. He can cross, he’s good at set pieces and he’s not afraid to take a shot or two, either. You’ll notice that in the U23 game he got two assists and hit the bar twice. He would have had more if I hadn’t yanked him at 60mins and stuffed him in bubble-wrap, which is what I’ve been doing throughout preseason. We’re going to need him.

Cheese Strings is a showboater

Rohan Smith is great at getting into positions. He runs with the ball. He looks like he’s doing all the things he should be doing. I bet his Opta stats look great and he shares them on Instagram a lot. But it rarely leads to anything. He’s absolutely not capable of leading our line, or at least has demonstrated no evidence of it so far.

But here is where it gets interesting. One of the reasons I always say “yes” when the game suggests you play your youth teams each year is because, every now and again, it highlights someone your coaching team have missed (not hard in our case as we’ve got no Head of Youth Development, but I digress).

Meet Kieran Naismith.

Keiran Naismith. The Scottish Peter Crouch.

Keiran was the young chap causing our defenders so much grief in that highlight reel. That’s how I first spotted him. This is because Keiran is some kind of Scottish Ent. He’s almost two metres tall. He can jump. He can head. He can shoot. He’s the only player at the club with sensible hair.

Okay, Strength 8. You could push him over with your finger. And he has the anticipation of an Ent as well as the height, but we can work on those stats.

The truth is, at sixteen years old (I have games in my Steam Library older than that) Keiran is a better Advanced Forward than Cheese Strings is. And, if my assistant manager Brendon is right (now that he’s bothered to actually look at Keiran) he has serious potential, too.

Yes I know he’s a potential first-teamer, Brandon. It’s why I told you to fucking look at him.

Keiran has thus been promoted to the first team (although I don’t think he’s realised that yet. We really need to work on his anticipation and awareness) and offered a two year contract, bringing our squad size up to a still-laughable eighteen players.

So, while pre-season isn’t yet over, a theme is definitely emerging: the rise of Toddlerball. So far, the most critical parts of our attack are both sixteen years old, and it may not stop there. We’ve got a young Portuguese left back I’m 50/50 on starting as well.


What could possibly go wrong?

This article is part of my ongoing series on trying to rebuild Oldham Athletic in Football Manager. You can find the full series here.

If you’re enjoying them, why not buy me a coffee?



John Bull

Writer. Narrative designer. Historian. I focus on tales of ordinary people who did extraordinary things, and helping companies tell their own stories better.