FM2020 challenge: Struggling to prove more popular than Bruce at Newcastle
The polarising Steve Bruce has led Newcastle United to 13th in the table so far – but can an unknown southern lad best the Geordie’s campaign with the Magpies?
Mike Ashley is fuming. Just as Steve Bruce leaves Hillsborough for St James’ Park to sign on the dotted line, publishing group Penguin ring up and offer the manager a lucrative book deal to finally write his long-awaited fourth novel, Midfielder! “It’s what fans all over the world are crying out for. I don’t want to disappoint them,” Bruce tells a reporter.
An aghast Ashley, sweating with rage at being jilted by an already underwhelming choice, desperately calls the recently departed Rafa Benitez, who explicitly tells him from a Shanghai airport that he wouldn’t return to work under him even if he gave him all the churros in the world.
Ashley pulls out the list and lifts the receiver again. Arsene Wenger says no. Roberto Di Matteo says no. Joe Kinnear says yes but mistakenly heads for the interview in Newcastle-under-Lyme.
Later that day in the boardroom, Ashley, head in hands, tells PR man Keith Bishop: “What I need is an Englishman on the cheap who has a foreign-sounding name to get people excited.”
Bishop looks down the list and wiggles his glasses. “How about this Jacque Talbot? He has no experience whatsoever but I’m sure he’ll be fine. Look at Lee Charnley.”
That’s right, I’m coming to take over at Newcastle and lead them to their first piece of silverware since the glory days of the Intertoto Cup.
I promise Ashley I’ll ensure the Geordie supporters are kept onside with the regime and I will do everything he suggests, knowing full well I’ll be taking matters into my own hands – no prioritising the league here, every competition is a must-win in my eyes.
We already have the real-life January transfers of Danny Rose, Valentino Lazaro and Nabil Bentaleb, but to counter that we also have Matt Ritchie, Dwight Gayle, Florian Lejune and DeAndre Yedlin out injured for months.
The squad congregate at the training ground for our first meeting. I enter the dressing room, chucking my leather jacket in the middle of the floor as a sign of assertion. They look up at me, bewildered.
I say in no uncertain terms we can make a top-half finish this season. They think it’s unrealistic. In my mind, this season is going to unfold like a famous Hollywood narrative of a young plucky sports coach who brings back confidence in down-and-out athletes and lead them to glory.
The only trouble is most of the players are living in the real world. This is going to be an uphill battle.
There are four friendlies before any Premier League action commences, so plenty of time to implement my genius tactical blueprint.
I decide on three go-to routes to cover three separate scenarios.
Route One: the standard 4-5-1 (4-1-4-1), the Big Sam. Utilising three holding midfielders (the ginger brothers and Jonjo Shelvey) as a defensive barrier, we will soak up pressure, allow the opposition to have the ball, before pinging it out to the flanks.
Miguel Almiron and Allan Saint-Maximin or Lazaro will be deployed on the wing with more creative freedom than a De Montfort University art student. They’ll take on defenders and supply targetmen Joelinton or Andy Carroll.
The tactics are all very dour at this point. If fans are hoping for beautiful attacking football, they can forget it. If they want relative success, they’ll have to sit through the boring performances first.
Route Two: to be used on the very few occasions we face side I’m fairly confident we’ll beat. A 4-2-3-1 formation, with Saint-Maximin as an auxiliary attacker behind the striker and Lazaro and Almirion either side. We can look to maintain possession, control play (don’t laugh) and slowly knock the ball around until the opposition lose the will to live and thereby their concentration.
Finally, Route Three, or how I like to call it, protocol Time to Panic: all-out-attack, a 3-4-3 formation for when we go two goals behind. We will have our ball-playing centre-back in the middle of the three and from there we will spread to the wing and look to cross from deep.
Though I’m sure my managerial ability is very similar to his, I am not Benitez; I am not worried about ‘goal difference’ at the end of the season. If there is a game to win, then we’ll be going for it. It’s idealism over pragmatism and it works every time, trust me.
First up in our pre-season tour – Dutch side Den Haag. I put out the Big Sam formation and it works delightfully well.
Joelinton plays like a hyperactive bull who’s been injected with a speedball. He barges defenders, chases down every tackle, even shouts at team-mates when they don’t pass (from what I can tell).
He gets a goal from close distance after Saint-Maximin goes on a superb run. Jonjo Shelvey then scores a long-range blinder before Bentaleb buries a penalty.
We do look shaky at the back at times, even resulting in a goal to the opposition via Lucas Schinkel, but I am not too concerned and put it down to teething problems.
Next in pre-season, we have Almere. I decide for this we should go Route Two and keep possession and probe the defence. I’m confident. I mean, if you don’t even know where the opposition is from, you’re bound to win…
Early on, Javier Manquillo decides to walk the ball to their left winger then subsequently fall over attempting to tackle him back. A cross comes in and they score unmarked. I’ll still be waiting for my first clean sheet, then.
We try to control the game and get one back but can’t open them up. This is worrying. It’s like I’ve turned up at a Steve Sidwell masterclass, lots of sideways passing.
In possession on the halfway line, Jack Colback malfunctions like a robot who’s just had sulfuric acid poured into his mainframe. Almere’s Shayon Harrison (a former Tottenham youngster we just so happened to recently interview) robs the ball off him, breaks through and scores.
I bring on Christian Atsu for Lazaro and tell (well, rather scream until I hear something probably important inside my throat pop) the team to push up and hammer the ball into the box for Joelinton.
It doesn’t work and we lose 2-1, Almiron scoring for us.
I am furious but try and look at things objectively. The negatives: we looked dreadful both in attack and defence and I’m absolutely terrified. The positives: Saint-Maximin was quite lively again.
Though our financial status is deemed ‘rich’, Ashley provides me with a measly £16million transfer kitty and stresses that he desires only players under the age of 22 to be bought as they can be sold on later, while no players over 30 may be signed. I am almost starting to feel bad for the managers before me.
I figure the best way is to bulk in one area with our money and what’s troubling me the most is that I do not have a second-choice striker, unless I rely on Andy Carroll going the entire season without enduring a catastrophic injury.
Without Gayle, and with Carroll made of glass, we need to ‘bolster’ up front.
Ideally, I need someone with pace who would be suitable to bring on at the 70-minute mark and run at a fatigued defence.
I really can’t afford to take a gamble on some unknown at this point so instead I channel my inner Proper Football Man and conclude that Leigh Griffiths for £10.5million isn’t a terrible purchase.
At 28, he’s still relatively quick, can finish, and once even scored 40 goals in a season for Celtic. Sure, it was five years ago and in the Scottish Premiership, but still.
His agent tries to get his client to find a better club but I remind him that no one else in the Premier League is desperate enough. He sees sense and the forward signs.
I opt to put our new marquee signing (sigh) for his first runout almost immediately, against Scottish League Two side Stenhousemuir.
I revert back to Route One, the 4-5-1, and we batter them. Like, really batter them. It’s a huge confidence boost for the boys – and, most importantly, me.
Paul Dummett scores with a header. Lazaro gets a second with a run and whack into the bottom corner. Almiron then gets our third, and it’s not even 12 minutes in. He proceeds to get three more before Bentaleb scores a penalty.
“Are you not entertained!?” I bellow to the 93 Newcastle supporters in the away stand at the final whistle. Judging by their silent response, I’ve made my point.
Though Griffiths looks like an IT technician at a mid-sized solutions firm, he’s able to move the ball around fairly well, even if he can’t find the net on this occasion.
The next week I find out that Bentaleb is out for three months after suffering a broken foot in a reserves match. He was slightly out of practice so I conservatively told under-23s coach Chris Hogg to play him for just 45 minutes. Apparently, that’s all it took for one of our first-choice holding midfielders to have his foot snap in half.
Then Saint-Maximin is injured in training so will miss our opening Premier League game at home to Everton.
Our final pre-season encounter is against Cologne. They dominate us but we somehow survive and earn a draw owing to late Joelinton header.
I start stressing and pacing my office but eventually conclude the most likely scenario is that the players are concerned about our current injuries and so have been playing at 60% to protect the team. When the league starts, they’ll turn it on. Definitely.
The team is playing extremely capriciously, but call it blind-ignorance or just stupidity, I am still sure we can a top 10 finish and secure a domestic trophy. Anything is possible with Griffiths signed and £5million left for the January transfer market, as long as we have heart…
By Jacque Talbot (@jac_talbot)