Losing Stephen Dawson to injury in the pre-season build-up left me in a sticky situation tactically for the visit of Yeovil Town. Do I persist with a very positive looking 4-3-3 with no natural ballwinner in the matchday squad, or shift strategy to something a little more watertight and unfamiliar to the players? In the end I settled on the former, bringing in Glasgow Rangers loanee Jamie Barjonas to the XI, pushing up Callum Styles from a support to attack duty on his playmaking in the process.
It paid immediate dividends. Captain Neil Danns, deployed on the left of the midfield trio and the only one of whom could tell you what winning a tackle actually feels like, was at his most predatory to tap in a rebound off the post in the very first minute of the game, profiting from Styles’ direct free kick. Unbelievably (and eerily resembling real life against Macclesfield Town), the Grenadian international bagged his second in almost no time at all from outside the area, Styles once again the architect.
The Football Manager series has always had a way of booting you in the face, just when you seem to have things going well. The pain started in the 12th minute, Danny Mayor limping off with a suspected leg injury. I know I mentioned in the last post about fast-tracking some of the U18s to competitive action, but I hadn’t bargained on having to do so quite as early as that. Joe Adams came on in his place, but not before I momentarily considered switching his namesake Nicky to the opposite flank to accommodate Byron Moore, but I just thought that he’d be ever so slightly weaker on the left, whereas the youngster is equally adept on either, on account of having two reliably good feet.
If that wasn’t bad enough though, the pain turned to anguish on the stroke of the 20th minute. Danns, on an early hat-trick, took a hard kick to his shoulder, and also had to be replaced. The gambit was falling apart, even with a two-goal cushion still intact. I threw on Jay O’Shea to perform a similar role in the XI, being all-too aware that wasn’t really his forté. Styles, so effective as the spearhead in midfield, then became the pivot, operating between the lines.
Naturally, this only encouraged The Glovers to pour forward, cutting through a very porous bank of three at will to take on a defence that had never played together as a unit before, and it showed. Adam Thompson committed a needless foul in the box, just as a dangerous cross was gathered by veteran custodian Joe Murphy. The referee had little option put to point to the penalty spot. Up stepped Carl Dickinson to halve their deficit… but it was saved!
The disappointment of the miss only seemed to spur on the Somerset outfit to attack with even more abandon, and they made their physical advantage pay from a corner as half-time was approaching. The set piece wasn’t cleared very far, and Yoann Arquin dominated Eoghan O’Connell to win the second ball, taking it down onto his chest and crashing it in at the near post. Height was already a concern for me, especially as the Irish centre-back is the tallest and most commanding in the air of the senior players.
The second period followed a similar pattern to the first; by now, Yeovil were having the edge in terms of both possession and chances, but there were still opportunities to put more daylight between the two sides. Nicky Maynard, quiet up until this point, was then set free after a delightfully chipped ball over the top by Styles to break the offside trap. The one-time Premier League striker could only conspire to shoot straight into the arms of the onrushing Nathan Baxter.
Bury were made to pay for wasting that clear-cut opening. A well-worked move inside the 18-yard area was prodded home by Olufela Olomola. 2-2. Even before the equaliser, I considered that I’d now be satisfied with a point, and the goal solidified my thought process. Barjonas took a knock in the first half, and was still feeling the effects of it. As a result, and with no other central midfield options of any kind, I threw on Saul Shotton, the defence becoming a flat five.
The only noticeable change that this had, however, was to sacrifice any sort of challenge down the wings when the visitors made the transition from defence. Arquin was enjoying coming up against Tom Miller down his side, and beat the former Carlisle United man for pace, crossing low behind the rest of the unit for the similarly quick Olomola to finish from close range. Ouch.
3-2 was how it finished, and to go along with the annoying ‘Bury in disappointing collapse’ headline, I had to count the cost of two of my key men having spells on the sidelines: Danns will be out for a month, which is a grievous blow to my whole strategy. Mayor was luckily only unavailable for three weeks, and there are at least four others on the roster who can perform competently on the left wing.
It almost goes without saying that a trip to title favourites Milton Keynes Dons in Buckinghamshire wouldn’t have been my preferred destination, low as the side was on central midfielders already. In recognition of this, I looked to the second system I was training the players on – a more finely balanced 4-2-3-1, with O’Shea shadowing Maynard. I felt it was the only way to accommodate lack of ball-winners and paucity of options in the middle, whilst not sacrificing the strength of the XI in attacking areas. Joe Adams hadn’t had the best of matches filling in for Mayor, so to ease the pressure on him, I handed Callum Hulme his debut. The main difference between the two hot prospects from open play is that Hulme will naturally stay wider when asked to operate on the wing, and I was hoping to do to Paul Tisdale’s charges what had been just done to me.
The hosts looked to set the tempo from the off, and it became rapidly apparent that Rhys Healey was central to all of their better passages of play. He went on a slaloming, mazy run from just inside his own half, striking the foot of the post in the process.
Later on, a dangerous free kick was conceded, which Styles would again take. His floated ball from the right flank found the grateful head of O’Connell, who guided it past Lee Nicholls, as he stood rooted to his line in an untimely moment of indecision.
That man Healey levelled things up from another set play, though. Once more, a corner was only half-cleared, and MK won the ball back, spreading it out wide to Mitch Hancox, who found the Cardiff City loanee inside the six yard area facing away from goal. In one swift movement, he swivelled and blasted it past Murphy before any defenders could throw themselves in front of the shot.
Not to be deterred, I thought proceedings had gone reasonably well thus far and didn’t see a need to change tack. The triumvirate behind Maynard were beginning to combine well, giving cause for concern for Tisdale. This was best illustrated by the third goal in the game. A patient build-up from the outside channel to the centre was left unchecked by MK, going from Hulme to Maynard (who’s actually quite a good passer of the ball for a striker), the former Dons man laid off to O’Shea, who belted the ball beyond the goalkeeper’s reach to put Bury 2-1 up.
The lead didn’t last very long, unfortunately. Aa long throw from the left was headed out to the edge of the area, and Jordan Houghton, who loves a long shot, was only too happy to latch onto the loose ball, stroking home first time on the half-volley. Their comeback was complete when Healey, who hit the post for a second time, set up substitute Sam Nombe for the winner in the dying minutes. Another 3-2 loss. Sigh
Mayor was back in light training by the time the EFL Cup 1st Round arrived, pitting the Shakers against local rivals Rochdale at Spotland. A cursory glance at the home line-up, sporting a certain Zach Clough as the sole striker, suggested that manager Keith Hill was treating the fixture seriously. The board of directors at Gigg Lane don’t consider it to be an important competition, so merely performing without disgrace and bowing out was their minimum expectation.
Keeping the same XI and formation from the previous game seemed to work well, going 1-0 up with just 120 seconds on the clock. Nicky Adams, no stranger to the East Lancs Derby in both colours, floated a cross from the 18-yard line, which O’Shea of all people tucked away with a cushioned header! The problem was certainly not of an attacking nature.
Dangerman Ian Henderson, playing off Clough, had picked up a yellow card for an innocuous foul whilst the encounter was still very young, and didn’t learn his lesson, going in hard on Nicky Adams in the middle of the park with seemingly little danger. Dale were now down to 10 men, and Hill’s reaction to the dismissal was to do… absolutely nothing. The full-backs were already being asked to provide all the width even before the sending off, and the Nottingham Forest loanee was cutting an isolated figure when chances were already at a premium.
Nevertheless, they still had sufficient quality in their ranks to pose some stern questions, particularly on the break in the second half as legs started to become fatigued. In an attempt to stifle this, I again opted to pack the defence, only this time, with numerical advantage, I brought Gold Omotayo on as a target man to partner Maynard, with Joe Adams being introduced at the same time to pounce on any knockdowns and loose balls. This allowed Bury to hit it long but also give the towering Swiss figure ample support to retain possession and prevent the counter-attack.
The Shakers had a golden opportunity to double their lead, when Ryan Delaney handballed a Callum McFadzean centre. Maynard, wishing to break his duck, stepped up to the penalty spot, only to see his effort saved superbly by Josh Lillis. The wait goes on, but at least his approach play has been positive in each of the three games thus far.
Thankfully, passage through to the second round was sealed when Omotayo coolly stabbed home from a Tom Miller cross. In the post-match press conference, the local journalists were a little too keen to lavish praise on the goalscorer, so I looked to ease the pressure on him at the first opportunity, only too cognizant that his opportunities are likely to be limited to cameo appearances, and he remains on the loan list to gain more full-time professional experience.
Speaking of temporary deals, Ryan Cooney and Dougie Nyaupembe decided to join Solihull Moors on loan and Dover Athletic respectively in the National League until the end of the season. Whilst that does leave only Phil Edwards and youngster Aaron Skinner as alternatives to Miller at either full or wing-back on the right flank, I think having five players vying for just one spot would stunt the development of at least two of the three novices, and Cooney’s (successful) conversion from midfielder to defender in real life actually harms his prospects in my short-term plans.
News broke before the first-ever contest with Forest Green Rovers that the reward for dispatching Rochdale was a trip to Goodison Park to face Everton in round two, one of the highest ranked sides to enter at that stage. The big question will be what kind of XI Marco Silva puts out as to whether I stand any chance of staging an upset. Jermaine Beckford began the rehabilitation phase of his return from suffering damaged cruciate ligaments in October 2017, but will find his path to the first team blocked by a multitude of options, as well as only usually playing one striker. More crucially, both Dawson and Mayor are back in full training, but I will ease their reintroduction to action, as both are decidedly injury prone individuals, and as such, I want to minimise their risk of an immediate relapse.
A quiet first half ensued, mostly played in midfield and peppered with occasional shots from all-too acute angles by the wide men, Hulme and Nicky Adams. However, the side hailing from the sprawling metropolis of Nailsworth hit their gracious hosts on the counter on in the 29th minute, courtesy of a George Williams curler after another depressingly unopposed run… and that was the only ‘highlight’ of the entire match – not even a triple sub on the hour mark to shake things up had any impact whatsoever. That meant that a worrying record of three defeats in three, but somehow, not enough to trouble the relegation spots just yet.
Will the return of Dawson and Mayor make a difference? Find out in Part 3 soon!