Port Vale wrap – Port Vale 2 Oxford United 2

Before Football Manager was Championship Manager. I played the 1993 edition religiously when it came out. I started, as I always do, at Oxford, and signed, as I always do, all my favourite players from the past, regardless of their stats, age or form. Alongside these I’d add some ageing ex-internationals who were affordable, but clearly past their best.

Inevitably my time at the club was short and I moved onto Fulham. There, I found my feet and had a half decent season in Division 3. I speculatively applied for the Everton job and inexplicably got it. With a near bottomless transfer kitty of around £10m a year and the discovery of a Lionel Messi-esque English child prodigy, I went on to conquer English football and then the world.

I would play all night collecting trophy after trophy in a stellar career that lasted into my late-80s (my Championship Manager age, that is). I played so long that the player database kept re-generating players by jamming together first and second names with random nationalities and clubs. So I ended up with players like a Cameroonian international called Diego Shilton and a Frenchman called Steve Gullit. Bored of my ludicrous levels of success, when the Oxford job came up some 40-odd (Championship Manager) years after I left, I took it. But I had no money and it all became too difficult, and though I was biologically in my 20s, in my head and my computer, I was more worried about the state of my digital prostate and my mortality. It was the end of a glorious period.

From time to time I try to recreate those halcyon days by buying a new copy of Football Manager, but the game is more sophisticated now and I have less time so I invariably get frustrated with my poor form and give up.

I know things are going wrong when I resort to the tactic of playing an almost random starting eleven of squad and youth team players in an attempt to stumble across some glorious combination that will catapult me up the leagues.

Sometimes you see real-life managers adopting a similar approach. There was something odd about Michael Appleton’s starting line-up against Port Vale. Sercombe and Skarz were back, Raglan was replaced by Nelson. Johnson was in and Crowley was up front.

Did Michael Appleton’s selection come from a frustration or boredom of our erratic form? We have had a pretty decent start all told but the Swindon win aside our wins this season have come as a result of very (very) late goals. Our general form has been pretty good but the margins of our wins have been paper thin. We can’t rely on last minute winners all season.

So maybe Appleton was throwing caution to the wind, or perhaps it was a glimpse of his original plan for the year. Our early season has been blighted by frustrating injuries; Ribeiro, Nelson, Ledson and Hall. But maybe Saturday was about playing Crowley in a role he’s earmarked for Hall and maybe Nelson’s inclusion was about trying to piece together the back-four he’d always planned to play.

It seemed to work early on; the goals came early rather than deep into injury time, but we still haven’t mastered controlling a game or coping with a more direct physical approach. If there is a plan, then the speed at which we learn to implement it will dictate whether this is a possible play-off season or one which meanders to mid-table nothingness.

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