If you are late to this, do not fret – you just have …
Well, here we are. The promised land. No, not Wembley – that’s soon to be a pile of bricks in north-west London. I’m talking about the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, where your mighty Diamonds are strutting around the empty pitch in their Matalan suits. It’s time for the Vans Trophy final, where we will meet Port Vale for a chance to secure ourselves a historic double.
I pat Chugger on his side as I enter the stadium long after my players. There’s been much to consider on the long drive to Wales. A few of my players are automatic starters – Pinheiro, Underwood, Mustafa, Risp, Bubb, Brandon, Ferdinand and Møller are irreplaceable if they’re fit, which they all are. I plump for now 40-year-old Richard Gough at centre-half ahead of Monk and Convery, which feels justified. Plummer would have had a strong shout were he not injured. Also out is Pa Modou Kah, who would have challenged Mad Dog McKinlay for the DMC slot, but in truth, I probably would have played our rabid Scotsman anyway. I like the cut of his jib, even though I can’t understand a word he says.
In centre-mid, it’s a straight shot between Karlie Pflipsen and Jamie Davies, but I decide to go for experience over youth – especially as Pflipsen’s average rating is greater over the season so far. I love Davies, a mere child thrust into the spotlight, and one who has performed tremendously when the German was injured and following the sale of Gary Mills. However, Pflipsen has got a little more about him and I reckon he’s the man for the big occasion. It’s also a shame for Cristiano, suspended after his little punching incident, but in truth, he would have done well to even make the bench here. We’ve got a good squad and I feel happy about our competition for places in almost every position.
Port Vale are no slouches. Well top of Division Two, a full league above us, they have got some serious firepower up front. Between Ian Armstrong, Billy Paynter, Steve Brooker and Steven McPhee, it could be argued that they’ve got some of the most potent young strikers in England. Having one of them in the lower leagues would be a huge asset, but all four? There’s a lot to be concerned about. Vale have very few injury concerns and a couple of excellent midfielders in Simon Osborn and Paul Tisdale, but a cursory look at their starting goalkeeper, Alan Marriott, gives away a crucial piece of information. He’s only played 12 games, and why is that, you ask? It’s because their clear number one Mark Goodlad has lived up to his name and waddled off to Spurs, leaving quite a large gap between the sticks. This is excellent news. Marriott is no slouch, but he’s also no Mark Goodlad. I feel buoyed by this discovery.
I quietly emerge from the tunnel and shake hands with Brian Horton. There’s a whiff of rarebit in the air. Fireworks explode into the sky. Our mascot, Dazzler the Lion, has the same vague smirk on his face that he always has. A bagpipe squad plays both teams out onto the pitch…presumably they’re at the wrong venue, but no matter. The atmosphere is electric. I’ve put extra-dry deodorant on my entire body, including my eyes. It’s time to get this done.
The first commentary of the game says that Port Vale are starting positively and trying to set about us – but the first thing that actually happens is that Richard Gough collects a header from Freddie the Fence and lobs the ball forward to the onrushing Chris Brandon – 20 yards out, he thunders a shot at goal! It beats Marriott! GOAL DIAMONDS! GOAL CHRIS BRANDON! We’re 1-0 up in the very first minute of the game! UNBELIEVABLE JEFF!
It’s a ridiculous start for us, but it serves only to stir Port Vale, who start to come forward with worrying regularity. I’ve got PTSD from the two legs against Oxford United, and Vale’s yellow kits are triggering me. It doesn’t help that they are putting several shots on target – Pinheiro saves from Taylor and Brisco a couple of times, while Brooker and McPhee put excellent chances off target from great positions. We are in big trouble, though Risp and Gough are both on 8s as Brooker puts another header on target and Hugo is forced to tip over the bar. We can’t seem to get the ball – Pflipsen thumps a long pass straight to the Vale back four, and Møller is caught offside in what turns out to be the only time we see him in the whole half. McPhee forces a corner that comes to nothing, and then, suddenly, Tarkan Mustafa wakes up. He first tests Marriott with a stinging drive, then right on the half time whistle, he collects the ball, makes huge strides down the right flank, arrows a cross into the near post where Sir Les is lurking, he fires it in low! AND IT’S TWO! IT’S 2-0 TO THE MIGHTY DIAMONDS! We absolutely do not deserve it on the balance of the half, but my goodness, we’re two goals to the good in the cup final! We’ve turned CM01/02 on its head here – this time, we’re the ones making another team pay for their profligacy with our only two shots on target. And it feels good.
The half-time whistle draws a conundrum. I don’t want to make too many changes because, despite everything, we are two goals up. However, we’ve been under it for almost the whole half, so I decide to drop the run of Pflipsen and reduce the attacking intent of Mustafa and Underwood. My full-backs are getting on the ball more than anyone, but I’d prefer to protect this lead and defend against Vale’s attacks from out wide. My mood is tense but confident as the second half gets underway.
We come out like a bungalow on fire, and it doesn’t take long for us to catch up with Vale in the shots on target stakes. Early in the half, Brandon tests Marriott twice, then Mustafa hits a stinging volley that the Vale keeper pushes away. Sir Les hits the post, and we are squarely on top now – it feels like only a matter of time before we get another goal. Gough and Risp are commanding at the back; only Stephen McPhee really features in the commentary for Vale.
I decide, for the first time this season, to be a bit more conservative. I eventually make a few small changes to quieten the game down, and it works, so eventually I push the whole team to defensive, put Monk on for Møller, and drop to a back five. We are dominating the game, the clock ticks by, there are three minutes of stoppage time – and they’re gone! It’s over! Rushden and Diamonds are your Vans Trophy winners, 2001/02! We’ve completed a historic double! What an afternoon, what an occasion. We’ve done it! Fetch a couple of saws, lads – we’re riding an open top Chugger all the way back to Irthlingborough!
Vans Trophy winners and champions of Division Three; not bad for our first season together. Add that to a League Cup semi-final and an FA Cup quarter-final, and I think you’ve got to chalk this up as a pretty brilliant year. One of the best seasons a Division Three team has ever enjoyed? I think we can probably claim that.
I’ve already got one eye on next season, and summarily submit scout reports for lots of disgruntled goalkeepers including Robert Green (thanks David), Mark Schwarzer and Dimitri Kharine. I’m knocked back for Clint Hill, but I’ve submitted an offer for Iván Moreno y Fabianesi (those following me on Twitter will know about Ivan of Hercules) and also my scouts tell me of a young Swedish defensive midfielder called Douglas Andersson. Captivated by his name, and the fact that his positions are listed as D/DM/RLC, I open the windows at Nene Park and dispatch my scouts to stare at him uncomfortably. I also notice that Mamady Sidibe, top scorer in the league and second-best player by average rating (behind Sir Les, still upset at not being in Team of the Year) is ‘unhappy with his manager’. I submit a cheeky bid at his asking price to see if they twitch. The Swans are probably coming up with us this season, and I’d much rather have him in my squad than theirs.
The only fly in my flirtini is the fact that we’ve still got three more league fixtures to dance our way through – the first of which is bottom-of-the-table Torquay United at Nene Park. There are six days between the Vans Trophy final and the arrival of the Gulls, and my players have got their feet up. We’ve already won everything, so I decide to do some tactical experimenting in our remaining fixtures – after all, I currently have no Plan B.
My last foray into the newer FM games was on FM17 (I know, I know – years behind) and I had enormous success with a strikerless formation called The Four Horsemen that I had read about on the absolutely excellent Strikerless.com. It was a play on a 4-2-4 but with no actual centre-forwards, and opposition defences had no idea what to do when faced with it. I won many leagues and cups with my beloved Brentford using it. Now, this was obviously designed for a far more sophisticated game, but I’m curious about how it fares here. It does mean that Sir Les and Møller will drop to the bench, but neither can win top league goalscorer now anyway, so I don’t feel too bad about it. I am highly curious to see how we fare with actual wide men and only rudimentary positional instructions.
I fiddle, I tweak, I pull everyone together and tell them what’s happening and they look at me like I’m an insane person. This is a highly aggressive formation that we will probably not use much next season in a far more competitive league, but I’d love to have it in my locker. We line up with familiar names, but Kah and Mad Dog guard my defence, my full-backs are on all-out attack, Bubb stays in the hole, my wingers do their thing and the idea is that Renner plays as a False Nine, sitting around and suddenly exploding into the area to get on the end of through balls and crosses. Let’s see how Torquay deal with this.
They actually deal with it pretty well in the first half and are the first to put the ball in the net – but it’s disallowed for a clear offside. Well done lino. After that, my players begin to see the logic in my new formation, and Mustafa eventually finds a cross for Renner to wallop home for 1-0. We go in a goal up at the break, but we’ve only managed two shots on goal – and so have Torquay. Thi formation isn’t exactly what I hoped it might be. Having said that, we are acquitting ourselves superbly – everyone is on 7s and 8s at half time – so perhaps it just needs more time.
The truth is that the second half is only marginally better. We manage one further shot on target, and I’m grateful to Freddie the Fence and Richard Gough, who are our outstanding players, keeping the bottom club in the division at bay more times than they should really have to. Okay, I’m glad I did this. We won, we were pretty awful in attack, and we’ll probably never speak of this again.
Post-match, Paul Underwood is Unhappy. I ask him what’s wrong, and he tells me he wants a new contract. Well, Paul, you’re sort of on £1,200 per week and you still have five years to run, so I’m not completely sure I’m going to give in to that demand, especially considering you want £2,800 per week and an extra year on your contract. He’s already 28, so this is extremely cheeky. I don’t think I’m going to want a 34-year-old left back clogging up my reserves. I decide to ignore him and hope he calms himself down a bit. I then hear that I’ve won Manager of the Month again, I assume for my handling of this situation. I’m touched.
Next up, we’re heading back to Wales with the wind in our hair (really shouldn’t have chopped Chugger’s roof off) to take on a very strong Swansea City side. I’m glad of the challenge – it means I can try out another new formation, this time a highly defensive one. We’re going 3-5-2 with wing-backs, a defensive focus, hard tackling and direct, counter-attacking play. This could be a tactic that, if it works, we end up using a few times next season when we come up against inevitably bigger sides. I drop Gough because I have a strong feeling he’s going to retire over the summer, but otherwise it’s all familiar names. Hopefully having some strikers on the pitch will help this time.
The first half flies by with very little action. We have virtually nothing going forward, but we also completely restrict Swansea to shots off target, apart from one tremendous Pinheiro save from a Sidibe header – though that was from a set-piece. In open play, we are hampering them, and that’s good to see, but we aren’t doing enough going forward. I give both Bubb and Pflipsen attacking runs to see what difference it makes.
It does make a difference – Swansea score twice and beat us 2-0. We don’t even manage to have a shot on target. These tactical experiments are very much not working.
I reckon my Plan B should just be to keep my 4-1-3-2 but switch from Attacking to Defensive if we’re playing a stronger team. Or maybe just not have a plan B and batter my way through the leagues playing ‘our way’? It certainly hasn’t let us down so far this season, save for a couple of outlier results. We stood toe to toe with United and Liverpool, after all. Anyway, I’m glad I tried. It was worth finding out exactly how inept I could make my team with just a few small formation changes. It turns out…completely inept.
Post-match I notice that Richard Rufus is having a torrid time at Charlton, and also has a £1.1m release clause activated. I remember a certain Iain Macintosh having Rufus at Everton once upon a time, and he was a pretty reliable hand… but at that price, he’d take out half my remaining kitty. I shortlist him and keep an eye on developments.
So, we return to our trusty formation for our curtain-drawer against Bristol Rovers away. I decide to give Bernard Lama his last hurrah in goal, since he’ll be relegated to third-choice in the summer one way or another, and I actually expect him to also retire completely at 39. Andersson gets a go at right-back, Monk partners Plummer at CB, Kah returns at DMC, and Ronaldo will play alongside Sir Les. Let’s round the season off in style.
It’s a lovely first half from us, and we lead 1-0 at the break through new captain Alexander Farnerud, and it’s a delightful goal. Underwood crosses into the six-yard box, Trought beats Sir Les in the air somehow and heads away, but only to our young Swede on the edge of the box – and he lobs a delightful chip over Daniel Naisbitt in the Rovers goal. That’s half time, and we’re in full-on party mode.
The second half starts beautifully. A cross comes in, and Ronaldo gets up to power a header home for 2-0. Rovers are barely seeing the ball, but manage to keep hold of it long enough for Darryn Stamp to get one back, but just a few minutes later, an Underwood free kick clatters off the wall and drops for Pa Modou Kah to slide home for 3-1, and that’s how the game finishes. A lovely way to round off the season, we are handed £240,000 prize money for finishing top of the league, and now it’s all hands on deck for a summer of wheeling and dealing. Stay tuned for Diamond Geezers: Season Two!