I’m into my 8th season with Lancaster City and this will be our first in the Football League proper as after 3 seasons in the Conference North and 4 in the Conference National we have made it to League Two.
It’s also our first season as a professional club so the first job will be to get the players I want to keep and staff onto full time contracts.
Then I’ll need to hope that my staff can find better players, we have several that could step up to this level but a lot of the players are only Conference National ability or potential.
I’ve decided to go with my defensive counter-attacking tactic this year as we will lack quality over other clubs, also I found last year that my players were tired and fatigued a lot more which was due to the higher intensity of the attacking tactic I used, it was ok last year as we had a squad better than most of the league so we could rotate without any major issues but that won’t work as well when we are one of the worst sides in the league.
My Director of Football as he does every year has reccomended some players I can sign that are out of contract at big clubs as we have brought in a 18 year old defensive midfielder from Everton, a 18 year old deep-laying playmaker and a 18 year old striker both from Man Utd, and 2 18 year old strikers from Burnley.
The quality of the players reccomended weren’t as good as we usually get as most were Conference National potential only, the ones we got are mostly league 1 and 2 potential.
Those transfers were agreed while we were still part timers, we are due to go full time at the end of June so I’m hoping that once clubs release players and we are professional that my scouts and DoF will be able to find some better players.
The club vision and expectations were given to me ahead of the season and the board want us to keep playing defensive, direct and counter-attacking football which is ok. They have a 5 year plan to build a new stadium which might be sooner than later as our 4000 capacity stadium is 1000 short of the league minimum. They also expect us to avoid relegation this year, not battle against it like I thought it might be but to actually avoid it which is fine by me as that’s my expectation too.
Shortly after the vision showed building a new stadium, the board announced it was building a 5217 capacity stadium named after club icon Mark Thornley rather than after myself who is the only club legend. It’s a shame really that they could just keep expanding the current stadium as the name Giant Axe deserves to survive.
The stadium is costing £4.2m and will be completed by the end of June 2030 in 2 years time, in the mean time we are renting Highbury Stadium in Fleetwood where Fleetwood u23s currently play.
The board have also announced that we have successfully applied to raise our youth rating to category four which will help bring through better youth players.
I’ve also convinced the board to improve our youth recruitment which will overtime be considered average which will also help improve our youth intake.
The club turned professional at the end of May, I thought it was June but the earlier the better is good for bringing in players. However I’ve found that going professional has created an immediate problem as trying to give full time contracts to players I want to keep has seen them wanting massive wage increases and minimum fee release clauses which I’ve no choice but to give if I want them to stay.
Luckily we are only spending £8k of our £29k wage budget and we have a £545k transfer budget. I can’t however adjust the wage budget higher as there is a cap for this division which is ok with me as I’d still rather not pay too much in wages if I don’t need to, especially if we end up replacing players so I might wait until nearer the start of the season for players I’m unsure of keeping and only give contracts straight away to players I know I am definitely keeping.
After agreeing to bring in the players mentioned earlier, once we went professional I looked at my shortlist of previously scouted and reccomended players to see if I could now get players that previously wouldn’t talk to me and I found several, however we lost out on a few of them to bigger clubs even after agreeing good contracts with them.
We did however bring in a 18 year old central midfielder from Spurs, a 18 year old winger from Man Utd, a 19 year old deep-laying playmaker also from Man Utd, a 20 year old goal keeper from Southampton, a 21 year old centre back from Crystal Palace, a 22 year old right back released by Norwich, a 19 year old right winger released by Wolves and a 18 year old centre back released by Brighton.
I’ve also brought back the goal keeper we had on loan last year from Sunderland. I tried getting other loan players but any others I wanted refused to come to the club.
Our friendly games went ok, we only lost 1 to Bournemouth u23s but we beat Gateshead, Darlington and Ipswich while drawing to Notts County.
When the first league game came we were away to Gillingham, looking at the season preview they are one of the better teams while we are 50/1 to gain promotion and are predicted 18th which isn’t too bad.
Our starting line up for the first game looked a bit different to last year as we had a new right back, a new centre back and 2 new central midfielders with 5 new players also on the bench.
I think the team looks capable of survival, maybe even mid table with some luck but I’ll know better after we’ve played a few games at this level.
The first game didn’t go too bad, we lost 1-0 to an early goal and they missed a penalty but we created more chances and had more shots on target, a draw would have been a fair result.
We then lost our second game 2-1 at home to Salford as they scored a late winner in another game we didn’t deserve to lose.
We did then get our first win of the season but not in the league as we played Bolton in the club’s first ever Carabo cup game. We took the lead, they equalised, we scored again and deserved the 2-1 half time lead. In the second half it looked like we would throw it away as they scored 3 goals in 15 minutes and were winning 4-2 after 65 minutes but 3 goals ourselves in the last 20 minutes won the game.
The 5-4 win in our first Carabo cup game broke the Carabo cup record and a club record for highest scoring game.
After a cup win we got our first football league win as we beat early league leaders Northampton away 1-0 in a classic smash and grab as we scored from a corner with our only shot on target while putting in a solid defensive performance.
A league draw followed and then we got another 1-0 league win sandwiched inbetween two cup defeats.
The first cup defeat came away to Premiership side Stoke in the Carabao Cup 2nd round and the second cup defeat was in the club’s first Papa John’s Trophy where Liverpool u23s beat us 2-1.
Not a bad first month in the football league, the cups I’m not bothered about and played my reserves while the league has us in 13th after 2 wins, 2 loses and a draw.
August also ended with our first ever proper transfer deadline day, in non league we had one at the end of March only but now we are in the football league we have the end of August deadline.
I had a look at the wage budget before the transfer window closed and noticed we still had a good amount spare so I decided to spend some of it on loan signings bringing in a 21 left back and 20 year old defensive midfielder both from Crystal Palace and a 20 year old left winger from Middlesbrough adding some more quality into the squad.
September wasn’t a bad month, nor was it a good month and it should have been much better. We started with a 0-0 home draw but then got a great 4-0 away win to bottom side Stevenage but we followed that up with an awful 4-1 home loss.
We then ended the month with two 1-1 draws in which we should have won both, we were the better side and took the lead in both games only for my goal keeper to score an own goal, strangely my goal keeper also scored an own goal in the 4-1 defeat which meant 3 own goals by my keeper in 3 consecutive games, I’d put money on that’s never happened to any one before.
October started with a Papa John’s cup game and Rochdale beat us again, this time it was on pens as my reserves got a 0-0 draw in normal time.
Since losing in the league to Rochdale in mid September we’ve gone on a decent league run as following the 2 draws we’ve won our first 2 league games in October 4-0 and 1-0 followed by 2 more draws taking us on a 6 game unbeaten run and up to 8th in the league.
We’ve haven’t been particularly great so far other than those two big wins and we’ve only scored 17 in 14 games, discounting the 4-0 wins it’s 9 goals in 12 games but due to the counter-attacking way we play we’ve only conceded 11 in 14 and 4 of those were in a big defeat.
Our 15th game of the season at home to top of the table Rotherham was also my 400th game in charge of Lancaster and it ended in a well battled 0-0 draw. Both teams had a goal disallowed and we went down to 10 men with 11 minutes to go so in the end I was happy getting a point.
In 400 games, I’ve won 181, drew 127 and lost 92 which gives me a 45% win rate. We’ve also scored 568 and conceded 399 so we have a positive goal difference of 169 goals.
We ended October with another 1-0 win and then yet another draw as we didn’t lose a league game all month.
November was also another month unbeaten in the league as we won 2 and drew 1 but we didn’t have much success in the cups as we drew the FA Cup first round 2-2 at home to Gillingham then lost the reply on pens after a 1-1 draw. We also got a 1-1 draw with Sheffield Wednesday in the Papa John’s and won on pens but only finished 3rd in our group and got knocked out.
With only league games left to play were not looking too bad for a playoff place and December started off similar to the last 2 months as we drew 3 games 0-0 and won 2 games up to Xmas so spent Xmas day sitting in 7th place in the league after 20 games unbeaten. We could be higher but we’ve drew 12 games while only winning 10 but 3 losses is good going.
We ended December with a 1-0 away win against Salford which made it 7 games without conceding and then our last game of 2028 was postponed which meant we went into 2029 in 5th.
Also during December we got the initial youth intake assessment and we have a good striker that’s caught the eye and a healthy number of fullback but that’s it, I’ll be happy if the striker is decent but I won’t be expecting much again this year.
With the January transfer window opening and it being our first proper January transfer window I plan to look into improving the squad if I can and to sell off some players that haven’t made the step up, a few haven’t played and some haven’t performed so if I can sell and replace them it’ll help with the push for a playoff place.
We’ve also been lucky in a lot of games and it’s only really our defense that’s got us to 5th as we’ve conceded only 14 in 26 games so it would be good to improve the attack that’s only scored 27 if we can find anyone good.
I almost improved my attack early in the transfer window with what would have been the best signing Lancaster would have ever had as my Director of Football recommended a player, he came on trial and we agreed a contract but his work permit was rejected, that player was none other than ex world class winger Eden Hazard. Although he is 37 and past his best he would have still be class at league 2 level but as he hasn’t played in 30% of Belgium’s games over the last 2 years he couldn’t get a work permit.
January started off well in the league as we won our first game 2-1, I tried out the attacking tactic we used a bit last year and we created a lot but conceded our first for a while afterwards the fans were unhappy that we conceded after changing tactics.
The next game we went back to the usual counter-attacking and drew 2-2 before we lost our 4th game of the season and our first since mid September. We took the lead but after having a man sent off we conceded and then they scored a 90th minute wonder goal from a player getting his first goal of the season and only his second career goal.
After missing out on Eden Hazard I did manage to bring in a new player, this one being a 33 year old Welsh striker, not a big name but he is a player that got around 20 goals a season in 6 league one seasons when he was in his prime so I’m hoping he’ll be able to get goals at this level.
After losing for the first time in 24 league games we bounced back with 2 wins, the second of which was our biggest win of the season beating struggling Boreham Wood 5-1 including a hattrick from our star striker, he’s the only one really scoring for us having scored 16 in 27 games which is almost half our goals, the nearest to him is a central midfielder that has 6.
Next up we have top of the table Rochdale who are 14 points ahead of us, we are 4th, four points behind automatic promotion but we’re also only 5 ahead of 8th so playoffs aren’t certain with 15 games to play.
Rochdale started the better side as we didn’t have a shot until the 32nd minute when our right winger scored his first goal for the club after a disappointing 14 previous games of only getting 1 assist, 5 minutes later Rochdale went down to 10 men.
In the second half you would have thought we had 10 men as it was all Rochdale but despite them having 16 shots, they only had 4 on target and didn’t score and we picked up another 1-0 win.
Before we played the last game of January we had the transfer deadline day and I tried selling a few players who were out of contract at the end of the season or who haven’t been playing very well including my 2 right wingers that have been rubbish but I only managed to get rid of my back up right back for £5k.
I did however manage to strengthen the squad bringing in a 20 year old centre back on loan from Man Utd, a 21 year old right winger on loan from Sheffield Wednesday and a 19 year old right winger/striker on loan from Middlesbrough. That improves the right wing which has been weak this year and adds a stronger centre back to an already good defense.
Then our last game of the month got postponed due to a water logged pitch and the transfer window shut, I was hoping to bring in some permanent players and had contracts accepted for a few good experienced players who were on free transfers but they went to clubs either in higher divisions or who offered them more money.
After the transfer window had shut we picked up another midfielder, I had offered a contract before the window shut but nothing seemed to happen and I thought he went elsewhere then a week later I got the message he had agreed to join. The midfielder is a deep-laying playmaker who is 32 so adds experience, not only that he’s played a lot at Championship level and in the last 5 season’s was signed for £3m and then £2.2m so will hopefully be a good addition to the squad, he’s also came on a contract of only £170 a week for some reason as that’s all I could offer having maxed out my wage budget on loan players.
February went well winning 2 and drawing 2 and we started March off with another draw. The decent run put us 3 points behind 3rd place and an automatic promotion place and we had Rotherham next who were in 3rd.
A win would put us level with 3rd although they have a much better goal difference, however my team decided make this game their worst game of the season as they never bothered to even try to shoot. We lost 2-0 and for the first time I can remember playing FM we finished a game with 0 attempted shots and deserved to lose the game putting us 6 behind the automatic promotion places.
We were slightly better in the next game as we had 13 shots but only 1 on target, we only needed 1 however as we won another game 1-0.
After that we got the youth intake, this year it’s in March whereas in non league we were getting them in April, not that it makes a difference as we’ve got naff all again, the best being a defender and striker with 2 star potential, I’ll give them a youth contract but no one else.
March then ended with 2 draws, one of which was against Accrington who had dropped down to 3rd so we could have done with a win to close the gap.
With 5 games left to play in April we are still 4th but too many draws and the loss to Rotherham has put us 5 behind 3rd and 10 behind the top 2, automatic promotion doesn’t look possible now, we do however have a 10 point cushion to 8th so a playoff place is the most likely outcome.
We started April with a draw and then won our next 2 games but with 2 games to go the top two had won promotion and 3rd were still 4 points ahead so while we could still get automatic promotion we needed to win both and Rotherham had to lose both. Looking at the fixtures we could win both ours but I can’t see them dropping points in both their games so I’ve decided to rest my best 11 for the last two games as we’ve secured a playoff place and finishing 3rd won’t happen so I may as well let my best players rest for the play-offs.
Our penultimate game ended in a draw as our reserves conceded a late equaliser, I thought I had made a mistake playing the reserves as Rotherham were losing most of their game and with 5 minutes left we were winning and they were losing so there was only 1 point in it but while we conceded late they scored a 92nd minute equaliser.
Even if we had won and they drew making it 3 points with a game to play, their goal differences is loads more than ours so a point was all they really needed which they got so it worked out well playing the reserves and resting my better players.
The last game is irrelevant now as we’ve finished 4th no matter what happens and we ended up losing it 1-0.
After 46 games we’ve finished 4th with 20 wins, 20 draws (a new club record) and only 6 defeats giving us 80 points. We scored 56 goals which was 14th highest but only conceded 31 which was second best.
Whatever happens in the play-offs I can’t have any complaints about how well we’ve done this year. I know in real life that there’s not really that big a step up from conference national to League Two but we’ve done a lot better that I had expected.
We have Bolton in the play-off first round over 2 legs. So far this year we’ve beaten them 3 times, home and away in the league and in the first round of the Carabao Cup at home so hopefully we’ll win again but in FM anything can happen.
The first leg was away and it didn’t start well as Bolton took the lead after only 14 minutes and then doubled their lead with a 21st minute wonder goal. The game and possible the tie looked over after they got their 3rd after 35 minutes.
We managed to pull a goal back in the 40th minute and went into half time 3-1 down.
A half time bollocking didn’t seem to help as they scored their 4th in the 51st minute but we pulled another back 5 minutes later before getting a 3rd in the 82nd minute and the game ended 4-3.
It could have been worse but we got back into it and now have a chance in the home leg only 1 goal down.
In the second leg Bolton looked to play for a 0-0 as they didn’t create much but defended well. With 25 minutes to go I went all out attack and the striker I got in January that’s been rubbish and not scored for me got 2 goals in the 85th and 87th minutes (his first goals in 23 matches) to put us ahead on aggregate.
I went defensive to see the game out like we have in many games this season but Bolton scored from a 92nd minute corner to take the game into extra time.
Despite being the better side and having a goal disallowed the game went to penalties. Bolton missed their first, we scored 3 and missed our 4th and with them scoring theirs it went to sudden death and unlike our last penalty shootout defeat in a play-off final, this time we won as we scored and they missed.
We now have the play-off final where we play Mansfield Town who finished 6th and knocked out York in their play-off games. We’ve drew and beat Mansfield in the league previously but as we saw in the Bolton games previous results mean nothing.
Ahead of the play-off final we lost our left winger to injury, he was our only fit one too so I had to put my striker that scored twice last game onto the wing as an inside forward but luckily the rest of the best 11 were fit.
The first half of the final we were awful and only had 1 shot off target. Mansfield dominated but missed a pen in the 13th minute before taking the lead in the 42nd.
I don’t do it often and can’t remember doing it this season but we were that bad I threw the water bottle at half time and the team came out much better scoring in the 49th minute, although it was disallowed we at least got the ball in the net.
After 75 minutes without getting the goal we needed I went all out attack and we equalised in the 81st minute, I thought about going back to a normal formation but I had no subs and a lots of attackers on the pitch so I just left it all out attack and regretted it in the 85th minute as Mansfield scored, however like our goal after half time it was disallowed for offside.
It looked like they were going to get a winner as they hit the post then my keeper made a good save before lumping it forward and we got the winner in the 92nd minute.
After we scored I changed to a 5-1-4-0-0 formation with every defensive tactic setting I could think of and we saw the last few minutes out to get the win and get back to back promotions.
I’m surprised we got promotion in our first season in league two, I expected it to be similar to the non league seasons and take 3 or 4 seasons but the step up wasn’t that big. We got lucky with keeping most of our best players fit and our star striker was the leagues top scorer while we were very good defensively using our counter-attacking tactic.
Most of the team were league two ability which helped but we have very few players with league one ability or potential so I don’t think we will do as well next year unless we can bring in several better players.
Another good season, I’ll be back with an update after hopefully a good next season.
– Sparko Marco