I’m now into season 6 with Lancaster City and we are into our 3rd season in the Conference National League after finishing 17th and then 11th.
Last year we started really well and in the first 10 games were in and around the playoffs and by January we were only 4 points outside the playoffs but a bad end to the season saw us fall away but we did finish in the mid table we were aiming for so it wasn’t a bad season, just disappointing as it could have been better.
Since last season my Director of Football has found some youth players at big clubs that I can sign and I’ve brought in a 17 year old midfielder from Man City, a 17 year old midfielder from Leicester, a 18 year old midfielder and 17 year old winger both from Man Utd, a 17 year old midfielder from Liverpool, a 18 year old left winger from Everton, a 17 year old left winger from Villa and a 18 year old right winger from Sheffield United.
Not all of those will go into the first team but they all have potential, a couple don’t look great but I’m hoping they develop or can be sold later on but I don’t mind signing them as the are only on £20 a week contracts and do have potential even if they don’t have good current ability.
I’m particularly pleased to get 2 left sided players with 1 being an inside forward and the other a winger as that was a weak position I’ve struggled to find anyone for and the right inside forward looks like he could be very good at this level and has 8 caps with 4 goals for Guyana.
I still need other players though and I might sell my left back if clubs pay me enough as he is wanted by Championship teams, I got £500k for my right back last January so something like that and I’d be happy to sell.
Before the season starts the board gave me their club long term vision and it’s pretty much similar to last year, they want defensive, direct, counter-attacking football which we already play and they want us to avoid relegation which I’m hoping we can do better than that and future years for now is to stay in this league so there’s not much pressure on me.
Although personally I’ve given myself 3 to 5 seasons for promotion but was hoping more like 3 which is what it took to get out of the Conference North though at the moment I can’t see it happening this year unless we find some top class players for this level.
The board have also announced plans to expand the stadium by 500 to a total 4000 which will only take 1 month and cost £50k which isn’t too bad, I think 4000 is the most it will go to so we would still need a new stadium if we were to go up as we’ll need a minimum 5000.
We then had the yearly recruitment meeting which considering we are into the 6th season I haven’t been that impressed with them as they haven’t yet found me anyone good, it could be that it doesn’t work as well at a low level.
This year the recruitment meeting say I need an Inside forward, a right winger, a deep-laying playmaker, and a defensive midfielder, I’m happy with what I have in those positions now, especially as I’ve brought in 2 left and 2 right wingers/inside forwards but I’ll always bring in better if I can.
The recruitment meeting only recommended players that either we’ve previously scouted or had on trial already so nothing new.
Approaching the friendly games my staff did find some more players through scouting reports and dof recommendations and while we have mostly signed younger players as those have been the best available my staff found an older centre back, not too old at 28 but he brings in more experience at the back and is especially good considering only 2 seasons ago he played 37 games as Crewe came second in league 1, his value is also showing as £875k which seems a lot for this level.
They then found another centre back, a bit younger at 21 but is a big improvement on what I had, that’s 2 really good centre backs brought in.
I thought I was getting a good right back too but Championship clubs came in at the last minute and he went to one of them, it’s not the first time that’s happened.
I also decided to bring back the striker we have had on loan the last 2 year’s for a 3rd loan season as my staff haven’t been able to find anyone else.
Overall pre-season went well, I’ve improved the squad a bit though I was hoping for a new right back and goalkeeper and we sold 3 back ups no longer needed bringing in £20k.
Friendly games went well too as we won 3 and lost 1 while scoring 15 and conceding 4. I also tried a new tactic in pre-season as although we have been playing direct counter-attacking football over the years, which the board also want us to play, I’ve tried out a more attacking possession tactic which in the friendly games worked really well creating lots of chances and goals.
I’ll try it out in the league and see if it can help push us higher in the league, if not I’ll go back to last year’s tactic.
Ahead of our first league game of the season I checked the season preview and we are 25/1 for promotion and predicted to finish in 16th so on paper not much is expected of the team but we should be hopefully be better than 16th.
Our first game is home to 3rd favourites and just relegated Barnet which could be tough but it might give us an indication on whether we can compete against the better teams.
The game went well and we got off to good start in the league with a 2-0 win, the first half was 0-0 but we didn’t create much while Barnet had a lot of chances, I changed to the counter-attacking tactic and we limited their chances and got 2 goals with counter attacks so we may still be better off counter-attacking.
I stuck with the counter-attacking tactic for the next game and picked up a narrow 1-0 win and then we got a 0-0 draw followed by 2 more narrow 1-0 wins.
5 games in, 4 wins and a draw isn’t a bad start but we also started well the last two seasons although the last 2 year’s we lost the 5th game so we’ve started better this year.
I’ve kept the counter-attacking tactic which is working, it’s not pretty but we are grinding out results. I want to play the possession tactic I used in the friendlies as they played good football but I’m sticking with what’s working at the moment.
Another win and a draw ended August unbeaten and after 7 games we were top of the Conference National league for the first time since we gained promotion to this league.
I can’t see us remaining top, we are grinding out results which can’t go on all season but if our good start continues and we can maintain some decent form then the aim for the play-offs could be viable but there is too long to go and a bad run like we had at the end of last year soon makes teams drop down the league.
After an unbeaten August it only took 2 games in September to suffer our first loss as after a 1-1 draw we suffered a 3-2 home defeat after conceding from 3 set pieces, first a direct free kick, then a corner and finally a penalty. The loss also knocked us off the top and down to 5th.
We bounced back from defeat with 2 more wins but then ended the month with another loss, this time away to Carlisle who were near the bottom of the league.
October then started off with 2 poor draws before a win against second bottom Barrow and we then won in the FA Cup 4th qualify round against bottom of the Conference South, we won 4-1 away playing my best 11, I hadn’t realised it was a cup game or that it was against a poor team otherwise I would have rested my better players.
As my best players played in the cup game, several of them were fatigued for our next league game at home to top of the league York, although we didn’t have a full team out we did play well and had a much better xG than York but they still beat us 1-0.
The defeat luckily didn’t affect us in the next game as we ended October with a 3-1 win away to Fylde and a home 2-1 home win to Chesterfield, both teams close to us in the league. In the Fylde game my young striker got his second hattrick of the season and he got the winner against Chesterfield. He was back up last year but I gave him a chance this year ahead of the loanee striker and he’s so far got 15 in 16 games (15 starts), if he can keep it up he could be the man to get us a playoff place.
After 18 games we have won 10, drew 5 and lost 3 putting us in 4th, we are only 2 points behind top but the top of the league is tight with only 6 points separating top with 8th.
November started off with an FA Cup first round game against League One team Wigan and we nearly got a cup upset as we took a deserved lead in the 70th minute but Wigan scored in the 90th to take it to a reply. I doubt we can beat them at their ground but I’m hoping if they get a big crowd it could bring in some money to the club.
After the Wigan draw we got a big 4-1 away win in the league but we then lost 3-1 away to Wigan in the cup replay, we did take the lead but Wigan were too good for us in the second half. I didn’t fancy our chances but it does mean a 1st round exit which isn’t as good as our 3rd round last year. The game did bring extra money in we got around £100k gate receipts which is a little over a third of last year’s total.
2 more league wins followed which put us on top of the table, one of which was particularly good as we got a 94th minute winner against the team that was 1 place below us.
Unfortunately we ended November with a home defeat and then started December with an away draw both against teams we should have beat, we are still top but only by 1 point and we’ve played an extra game to most other clubs near us.
As always happens at the start of December we get the early assessment of the next youth intake and this year looks better than the last few years. We’ve not had a decent player come through since the first season so I’m not optimistic but the assessment shows we could get a good goalkeeper, centre back and centre midfielder so hopefully at least one might be good.
After drawing in the league we had an FA Cup Trophy game at home to Conference North team Alfreton where my reserves could only get a 1-1 draw but they did win 1-0 away in the reply to take us into the 4th round.
We then had 3 league games left in December where we drew 2 and won 1 ending the month unbeaten, we should have played more games but had 2 postponed.
At the turn of the year last season we were 4 points outside the playoffs, this year we have been much better and after 26 games we are 4th in the league only 2 points behind top while only 5 points separate the top 8.
We are in a good position to fight for top or a playoff place in the New Year so long as we don’t do what we did last season and go on a poor run.
January started well and we got off to a winning New Year with a 2-1 away win but followed that up with an FA Cup Trophy loss as my reserves got beat 4-2 away to a Conference South side.
We then had a 0-0 home draw, a 1-0 away win and then another 0-0 home draw. The first draw was good as it was against the team in 6th and we were lucky to draw but the second was against bottom and we were very unlucky not to win.
Ahead of the last game of January it was mentioned that it would be my 300th game in charge of the club and we are at home to 18th placed Hartlepool. After 2 0-0 home draw I was hoping we would at least score and my team made my 300th game to be our best win of the season as we won 4-0. We’ve scored 4 in a couple of other games but we conceded in those games too.
After 300 games, I’ve won 124, drew 97 and lost 79, we’ve scored 398 goals and conceded 307 with a 41% win rate which isn’t too bad.
This season with 15 games left to play we are second only on goal difference have played 32, winning 17, drawing 10 and losing 4.
An unbeaten league run in January extended to being unbeaten in February as we went 13 unbeaten and ended February top of the league. In the month we drew the first two games 1-1 as we conceded late goals and ended the month with a 3-1 and 2-1 wins while the teams that were above us lost a game.
We are top by 2 points and 8 points ahead of the last playoff place in 8th with 11 games to play. During the good run I made the decision to play the best 11 as much as possible as a poor run could see us fall down the league with there not being much in it and it starting to cause some problems as players are in need of resting, before the last game I had 2 players resting and after it 3 more need a rest.
I may need to rotate my players more in the upcoming games which could cost me points, I’m confident I should still make the playoffs but I can’t afford to lose many points if I still want to challenge for top.
Throughout March we had a fair few issues with the squad as we picked up more injuries, had more players needing a rest and had 5 players called up for u21 international teams which resulted in a lot of match squad changes.
The changes meant we started the month with 2 draws, got a good 5-1 win followed by 3 more draws before ending the month with a 3-1 win.
We extended our unbeaten run but we drew too many games, luckily other teams didn’t take too much of an advantage of our dropped points but we did lose top spot and ended the month in 2nd place, 1 point behind top placed Barnet while 3rd placed York are 1 point behind us with a game in hand, 4th placed Oldham are 2 behind us, and 5th placed Chesterfield are 6 points behind with 2 games in hand.
Any of the top 5 could finish top depending on how the last 4-6 games go, if only we didn’t draw so many games we could be clear.
Our first game in April ended up being postponed so while we didn’t play, other teams won which put us down to 4th, we did however win our next game against Oldham 3-0 putting us up to 3rd, Barnet are top 4 points ahead of us, York are second 2 points ahead but we now have a game in hand.
After beating Oldham we got the youth intake and I was hoping for someone decent this year but the best is a centre back with 3.5 star potential which is worse than the centre backs we have at the club. I’ve offered a couple of players a youth contract but its yet another year with no one good.
That’s 5 seasons now where the youth intake hasn’t been good, I’ve been trying to get facilities upgraded and they have been a little bit but not enough to get good player yet. It makes me wonder how people play a successful save where they start at the bottom like I have and only use youth players because in my experience the youth players aren’t good enough at this level to survive relegation, never mind move up the leagues.
After beating Oldham we struggled away to mid table Sutton but managed to draw 2-2 with two late goals to come from 2 down but we really needed to win. We’ve now got our game in hand and as we are 6 points behind with 2 to play we have to win it to have a chance of the title in the last game.
Our game in hand was a stressful one, we were away to 7th placed Bromly who were in good form, we took an 11th minute lead, they equalised in the 33rd minute, we got and scored a penalty in the 43rd minute. Bromly equalised again in the 61st minute so I went more attacking and we took the lead again in the 69th. I started going more and more defensive and although they hit the post in the 94th minute we held on for the win.
Our last game of the season is at home to 15th placed Ebbsfleet, York who are a point ahead of us are away to 23rd Barrow and Barnet who are top are away to 14th Scunthorpe. York have a goal difference of 41 while Barnet and us both have a goal difference of 35. If we win and Barnet lose we can go ahead of them but to win the league we also need York to not win.
We took an early 12th minute lead against Ebbsfleet while Barnet conceded an early 5th minute goal. At half time the scores were perfect, we were leading, Barnet were losing and York were drawing, if in the words of Donald Trump and we “Stop the Count” so to speak and the games ended at half time we would be league champions.
Early in the second half, our result was irrelevant as York scored 2 quick goals in their 53rd and 55th minutes which puts them top by a point and then we conceded an equaliser in the 67th minute and we couldn’t get a winning goal.
In the end we couldn’t get the win we needed if other teams slipped up, Barnet did slip up and lose but York won and in doing so they won the league and we finished 3rd, at least we have the playoffs to come so it’s not over yet.
Despite not losing in the league since November we drew too many games, 19 draws in total which has cost us the league win.
Finishing 3rd meant that we avoided the first round of the playoffs which is good as the 4 teams below had 1 off games while we could have a week off to rest before we got drawn at home to Oldham who finished 5th.
The last time we played Oldham wasn’t that long ago and we got an easy 3-0 home win but it wasn’t an easy game this time round as they dominated pretty much all the game but they couldn’t score, neither could we and at 0-0 it went to extra time. It was looking like a nailed on penalty shootout until we got a 121st minute corner and one of our centre backs got his second goal of the season.
Oldhams dominance was shown in that our keeper got man of the match, they had 61% possession, 20 shots, 11 on target and an xG of 1.82 while we had 10 shots, 5 on target and an xG of 1.05 but we got the goal that counted.
We now have the playoff final to play against Barnet who finished second who we’ve beat and drew against in the previous league games.
The final went similar to the semi final where we got dominated again and Barnet were easily the better team, they had 18 shots but only 3 on target and missed a penalty. At 0-0 the game went into extra time and late in the second half we got a nice goal from the edge of the area only for it to be wrongly ruled out for offside as we had a player no where near the play and not interfering standing offside.
The game ended up going to a penalty shootout and after they scored 5 out of 5 we missed our 5th and lost on penalties.
We came so close to going up, we should have won the league but drew too many games in the run in but we weren’t good enough when it counted.
Still it’s a good season as we have progressed from last year and we got the playoffs which we aimed for but I thought we could have gone up with just a little more luck in some games.
Our main striker that we got from Man Utd 2 seasons ago stepped up this year as in his first season as first choice he got 38 goals in 44 games and was the leagues top scorer, he smashed the club’s record of 29 a few seasons ago.
He also broke the league record for most man of the matches picking up 15 of them and he won the league player of the season.
We’ve also had a small club reputation boost going from 1 star to 1.5 stars, it’s still local reputation but it might help bring in better players.
Next season I think I will try going more attacking and try and win more and drew less, I nearly went attacking this year but the counter-attacking worked in most games but we did struggle to break down teams playing defensive.
At the end of season meeting I told the players I wanted to aim for the playoffs next year which apparently insulted them. One of the flaws with the game where everything is based on reputation, because the club reputation is low we will probably be predicted to finish mid to low table therefore the players don’t expect much, even though they challenged for the title to the last game and lost in the playoff final.
After the season ended the board informed me they are upgrading the youth facilities which is nice of them, I’ve been asking all year with no success, we need them improved to get better player in our youth intake.
I’ll be back with an update after next season where hopefully we can get promoted.
– Sparko Marco