The excellent second-placed finish in League One did not unfortunately mean a vastly increased budget to work with to even countenance survival. The maiden season had proven that attack was the best form of defence and with no wiggle room in the transfer market whatsoever, I had to rely on some canny loans to augment the largely inexperienced roster. In came the likes of Scott McTominay and Regan Poole from Manchester United. Most of the surplus wage available in the kitty went on securing Steven Caulker on a free after his release from Queens Park Rangers in an effort to shore up the backline against the inevitable onslaught most sides in the Championship would wreak against essentially the same group that slightly overachieved in 2017/2018.
An eight-goal thriller on the opening day at home to Barnsley certainly set the tone for the rest of the campaign; the attacking trio of Harry Bunn, Jay O’Shea and Chris Maguire adjusting to life in the second tier with ease. An early exit in the League Cup probably enhanced hopes of remaining free from concerns of relegation in the early months. Indeed, the autumn period yielded several good results. Tsun Dai filling in for Maguire competently during the latter’s time on the treatment table.
Brexit is a big part of playing in the UK on Football Manager with wildly varying outcomes and the ramifications stretch deep into saves. This instance was no different and the ‘headline’ was a strict limit of 17 non-UK players in the first team squad, which sounds generous on the surface but would drastically alter both my plans and the elite clubs in the Premier League.
Keeping the Shakers well above the predicted position of 23rd was beginning to draw envious glances from larger Lancashire neighbours – both Bolton Wanderers and Blackburn Rovers became managerless in quick succession and they approached me directly to take over the reins. Naturally, I declined. December was a tricky, winless month – a 5-3 reverse at Aston Villa was followed by a clutch of consecutive draws.
The vultures were swirling in January upon the reopening of the transfer window, particularly after defeat to Wolves in the third round of the FA Cup predictably ended any flickering interest in that competition. I successfully persuaded Stewart Day to not over my head for a second successive time, retaining the services of Greg Leigh but selling Martin Meaney for £1m, a princely sum for a 16 year-old who hadn’t yet tasted first team action. Form in the league turned a corner to such an extent that the EFL saw fit to award me with Manager of the Month.
A ludicrous third 4-4 draw against Millwall in February was the catalyst to a run-in that only saw three defeats from then on. Somehow, the swashbuckling attacking style had just about triumphed over a paper-thin defence…
Bury were in with a shout of an unthinkable second successive promotion… to the Premier League. All those high-scoring draws had been worth it as it meant only 10 losses were accrued and a two-legged affair against favourites Sunderland beckoned.
A precious 1-0 win at Gigg Lane thanks to the sterling efforts of Eoghan O’Connell meant only a draw at the ‘cauldron’ of the Stadium of Light was required for a trip to Wembley. Things looked decidedly bleak when the Black Cats raced into a two-goal lead after just 12 minutes but the underdogs roared back into the tie and, despite being outshout by a ratio of two-to-one, levelled the second leg through O’Connell (again) and Danny Mayor.
Brighton & Hove Albion were looking for an immediate return to the top table of English football but in balmy sunshine, they couldn’t make anything of their dominance in the final third…
Amongst all the jubilation of reaching the promised land well ahead of schedule, the chairman handed me the initial budget for an assault on the Premier League. Even within the confines of Buryball, the sums were paltry and a lot of creativity was going to be required to avoid the kind of ignominy Derby County and their supporters suffered a decade prior.
To comply with regulations, a touch over 1,000 seats needed to be added to Gigg Lane. However, I set the club’s sights higher. With my begging bowl, I pleaded with the chairman to move to a new site to help maximise income off-the-field. He only accepted on the proviso that I increased the reputation in the years to come. To do that, I’d need to make the stay at the zenith more than just a blink of an eye… and Kevin Keegan-esque tactics couldn’t work for a second season, right? Right?