Results in League One kept coming for me on Football Manager 2019 despite being held to a draw for the first time in my tenure as Sunderland boss.
I came up against fourth-placed Portsmouth at Fratton Park, who at the time were one place and one win behind me on the table. I opened the scoring early but Pompey hit back before half time. As per my assistant’s recommendations, I zeroed in on their midfield duo and put the clamps on.
I had to settle for a point but all up the result wasn’t too bad. After all, I had kept a close promotion rival at bay. Luckily, the likes of Barnsley and Oxford United, leading the pack, also slipped up and failed to win their games.
The game after that was important, too. Fifth-placed Bradford City – including Socceroo Ryan McGowan – came to visit the Stadium of Light. At home, it was a great opportunity to apply pressure to the top again.
I was 2-0 up and cruising at half time, but things started to get worrisome from there in what proved to be my team’s worst performance in my tenure. Complacency was an issue despite my “shouts”, also known as in-game instructions, either for the whole team or individuals. The Bantams struck twice to draw level at 2-2, and deep in the 90th minute, we were on course for two points dropped.
But out of nowhere, amid something of a goal drought, Lynden Gooch bobbed up in the box on 93 minutes to score his 10th goal of the season and seal a crucial 3-2 win. As I said in my post-match press conference, the final score was probably flattering, but we gladly took it.
We were now up to second and solidified our place in the automatic promotion spots with an easy 4-0 home win over Shrewsbury Town. At which point, I was named Manager of the Month for December, still unbeaten since I came in.
A real positive was the form of my 17-year-old midfield gun Bali Mumba, who was dominant in central-midfield and with the highest morale in the dressing room. Three weeks in a row, he was the best performer on the training pitch so was elevated into the starting XI.
There was plenty going on at that point and with the January window fast approaching, it was time to add new blood and upgrade players who were unable to get a regular look-in under me.
First on my task list was to look at the unwanted list in the Championship, where I found talent that I thought would suit my squad. I had £5 million to work with so it was go time.
I moved quickly to signed a new striker, Preston’s Louis Moult, with Southampton loanee Sam Gallagher set to return to the South Coast. My reserve goalkeeper also wanted out, looking for a return home to the Netherlands, so off he went and in came Millwall gloveman and Scotland international Jordan Archer, 25.
Initially, I had offered Millwall Lee Cattermole as part of the deal. He was on the outer, but frustratingly, he could not agree personal terms with the Londoners. The deal was held up but ultimately went through without any further hitches at the table.
I was happy with those signings but knew I couldn’t stop there. Notably, I urgently needed to sign a new centre-half with just one recognised stopper in my senior squad so I again began sending my scouts around.
While they were hard at work compiling reports, assessing everything from personality to medical history, I had a look into the A-League and who was available. Interestingly, Perth Glory had transfer listed Tomi Mrcela.
I declared my interest in him via the press so made a move worth £700,000. Discussions were going well but the move broke down when Tomi’s agent (on the game only, I should stress) made it all about him and demanded a service fee of £60,000.
So I walked out of those negotiations and turned back to my scouts.
Hopefully by the time my next blog post is out, I will have brought in a new central-defender with a fourth-round FA Cup clash against Leicester City in the offing.
You might also remember I had offered forgotten Aussie Eli Bablj a trial. It was worth a go but ultimately my worried assistant coach’s thoughts, immediate assessments and concerns proved true.
Babalj picked up an injury while I tried to sharpen him up in the under-23 squad, so sadly, that was the end of that and he was back on the hunt for a new team.
Stay tuned for Part 5 of Frooch’s blog from the Sunderland hot seat in Football Manager 2019.