Sid Lambert is a 43-year-old man playing Retro Football Manager on his iPhone. He’s gone back to 1995/96 to take over Newcastle United and put right what once went wrong: beat Manchester United to the title. And he’d love it if he beat them. Love it.
We’re six games into the season and it’s fair to say the honeymoon period of my tenure as Newcastle United manager is nearing an end. We’ve broken the world transfer record, we’ve had more red cards than away wins and our form is more up and down than a salmon on a bouncy castle.
It’s times like these that test you as a manager. These are the moments when leaders make their mark: puff out their chest, face their critics head-on and win the hearts and minds of their doubting public.
Or, if you’re like me, you go and bang a load of cash on a new signing. Welcome to the club AC Milan’s young sensation Christian Panucci. He’s spent his formative years working with the great Franco Baresi and I’m hoping he can bring some Italian discipline to a backline that’s had more leaks than Richard Nixon’s administration.
The new man goes straight into the starting line-up for the visit of Howard Wilkinson’s Leeds. The Elland Road supremo, not a man renowned for his love of tippy-tappy football has opted for the 3-3-4 (aka Blitzkrieg) formation. With Big Brian Deane and Tony Yeboah up front, we know what to expect at least. The ball’s going to spend less time on the ground than a gazebo in a hurricane.
Tino Asprilla was the star performer in our recent win at Coventry but once again his lack of stamina means he’s unable to play two games in a row. So it’s a recall for pensioner Mark Hateley, our emergency early-season signing from QPR. The big fella’s performances so far have been fairly dire, but hopefully he can keep Leeds’ defence occupied. It’s a bit like someone rolling a WWII grenade into your front room. You know deep down that it’s not going to hurt you, but there’s no fucking way you’re taking your eyes off it.
It takes less than ten minutes for my tactical masterplan to take effect.
And soon afterwards we are in complete control.
David Batty morphing into a prime box-to-box Bryan Robson wasn’t on my bingo card, but I’m delighted. And Christian Panucci is already doing the things that Warren Barton hasn’t been doing this season: running, tackling, passing to someone in the same colour shirt.
The post-match ratings make delightful reading. A 9/10 and an assist for our new right-back, who’s made the most impressive Italian debut since my mum served up a slice of Viennetta on Christmas Day, 1991. Batty and Ginola providing the perfect blend of steel and sex appeal in midfield. It’s a marvellous performance.
I’m tempted to name an unchanged side for the trip to Tottenham. But there’s something nagging at the back of my mind. Mainly the fact that we’ve been absolute crap away from home. The win at bottom side Coventry, a team with all the confidence of a snail crossing a dual carriageway, papered over the cracks. The fans won’t like it, but I’m going to make us harder to beat on our travels. A point at White Hart Lane would be a decent result.
I drop Mark Hateley back to the bench and bring back Peter Beardsley. The game’s going to be won and lost in midfield. And if we lose to a side where Jason Dozzell is their creative fulcrum, I might as well hand in my notice now.
To my delight, we take the game by the scruff of the neck early. Beardsley is pulling the strings in his deeper role and we have all the possession. Finally after 20 minutes of pretty football, we get it wide and get it in the mixer.
Mixer 2, Spurs 0. Simple game, football.
Brimming with confidence, I decide to ditch the 4-5-1 after the restart and really go for the home side’s throats. I bring on Asprilla and it proves to be the most injudicious move since JFK decided to go for s drive with the roof down. Chris Armstrong nicks one back and once again we’re rocking. Darren Peacock and Philippe Albert stifle the late rally and we’re grateful for Ronny Rosenthal being Ronny Rosenthal that Spurs don’t get a late equaliser.
Handsome Dave’s our star man. It’s his first assist of the season which isn’t really good enough output for a winger of his quality. But as he sits in the changing room afterwards, his hair glistening after a warm shower, puffing on a Silk Cut and nodding enthusiastically while David Batty tells stories of his nan’s roast dinner, I decide to let the moment pass.
Buoyed by five straight wins we bounce into a home game with perennial spoilers Wimbledon. I rub my hands with glee at the thought of sticking Tino back up top and watching him and Shearer run riot against a defensive axis of Cunningham, Kimble and Blackwell.
Their front four poses problems. Dean Holdsworth is a goal poacher who’s well worth his weight in hair gel. Then you’ve got the three big units of Ekoku, Gayle and Harford, who could probably earn a very profitable sideline as nightclub bouncers if they wanted to.
The thing I’m learning about football management is that just when you think you’ve got it sussed, the game finds new ways to kick you square in the plums. For 81 minutes of this game we are absolutely appalling. Our saving grace is that Wimbledon are absolutely dreadful too. It’s an abysmal spectacle full of niggly fouls, offsides and aimless punts to and fro. To be honest, I can’t wait to get home and stick Gladiators on the telly to get some decent entertainment.
Once again, we’re indebted to David Batty. In fairness, this sort of game was made for him. The referee lost all control, and this lost all semblance of a football match. You could practically commit grievous bodily harm and escape with a pat on the back. His third assist of the season and a deserved goal for the industrious Keith Gillespie earns us a point on the day when football was the loser. Awful, awful stuff.
It takes a while for the rotten stench of that game to clear but when it does, I console myself with a glance at the league table. Those dropped points would have put us right on the shoulders of Blackburn. The good news is that we’re still ahead of Manchester United, whose form has been surprisingly indifferent so far this season. As I treat myself to a drop of wine later that evening, I reflect on the fact that even though we’ve had injuries, suspensions and players out of form, I’m still higher in the league than the legendary Alex Ferguson. Maybe this management game’s not so tough after all.
Before I head up to bed, I allow myself one last glance of Ceefax. I sleepily tap in p302 as I’ve done thousands upon thousands of times before and the lead story jolts me out of my slumber.
Written by Sid Lambert from A Funny Old Game
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