With the majority of my time at the club to date spent on establishing an elite backroom made up of former professionals brimming with domestic and European experience, today’s friendly against local rivals Stourport Swifts gave me a great opportunity to better understand what I had to play with this season.
I have to admit I was impressed with what I had seen from our few sessions together.
Between the sticks we had something of a starlet in Ethan Ross, a youngster on loan from West Bromwich Albion until January. While only 19 years of age, Ethan stands out as an excellent goalkeeper at this level, and I’m already wondering how best to persuade Tony Pulis to allow me to retain his services for the complete season (especially if we can negotiate the same £0 wage contribution!). I hope to find a way around the stubborn Welshman, as my backup is absolutely woeful and I’d do as well to stick myself in goal if Ethan is dragged off home in the New Year or picks up any unfortunate knocks.
In defence we had another West Brom link in former player James Chambers. Brede was quick to point out to me his standout attributes as a key defender, and as a magnificent defensive stalwart himself, who was I to argue with him?
Up top, a third link to the Smethwick club in former striker Lee Hughes. At 40 years of age there certainly wasn’t much left in the former brickie’s legs, but having seen him smack in countless tap ins in training over the last few days I was sure he had enough to lead the line and could prove to be a much feared opponent for many defences this coming season.
Unfortunately outside of those three we appeared to lack a great deal of quality elsewhere, and worryingly nobody who could naturally play in an offensive left position. That would need addressing, as would an alarming lack of depth in defensive midfielders. And the only one I had was truly awful.
Anyway, the Swifts would prove the first test of my team, and more importantly a test of how well my tactics would adapt to the lower echelons of the football league. While my rivals were focused on lumping the ball up to a big man in the absence of any anyone who could control, let alone kick a ball, I was intent on playing my way out of non-league with a style of football previously unseen in these parts. I wanted to emulate the short, sexy passing style and approach infamous in recent times with Barcelona, and was determined to impress that style upon my limited and undoubtedly ineffective players.
So with a 4-1-2-3 tactic repeatedly explained to the team and them instructed to play the ball out from the back with short passes and pressing high when not in possession, we kicked off at the Victoria Ground in front of 131 spectators who rather depressingly had nothing better to do with their time on a windy Wednesday night in Bromsgrove.
We were clear favourites to win, and the match started that way with us dominating possession and creating the best of the early chances. On the half hour mark the pressure resulted in the goal we deserved with Lee Hughes sweeping home a cut-back from winger Micah Evans. Unfortunately the lead did not last long, with the defence perfecting their manequin challenge to allow striker Patrick Canham to slot past a similarly static Ross.
We looked to be heading to halftime level until out of nowhere central midfielder Ebby Nelson-Addy pounced on a loose ball on the edge of the box to lash the ball into the roof of the net and make it 2-1. Ebby hadn’t previously been on my radar but with a shot like that I immediately tasked Brede with ensuring that he was put on all future free kicks and penalties. Brede nodded in the same way that he did to when I offered him a cup of tea or asked him the time.
I was beginning to suspect a bit of a language barrier and wondered whether an interview before his appointment wouldn’t have gone amiss.
In the second half, and with my entire team struggling with the high pressing game expected of them, I was forced to make wholesale changes with 30 minutes to go. One of the 10 changes was 19 year old Colby Bishop, who marked his non-competitive debut by poking past their keeper from a narrow angle to make it 3-1 and surely put the game to bed.
However the Swifts weren’t done yet and once again immediately struck back through a long ball over the top which inextricably wasn’t cleared by one of my three available defenders. The naivety at which they allowed the ball to bounce not once – but twice – on the edge of their area still bemuses me, but at least helped confirm my theory that my bench is unlikely to offer me much salvation in the games to come.
The final 10 minutes became more nervy with Stourport sniffing blood and throwing everything at us. Chambers picked up a late booking for a fantastically cynical last ditch challenge to deny a clear (and inevitable) goal scoring opportunity, immediately earning himself every opportunity of earning the captain’s armband this season. The Stourport fans couldn’t believe the lack of red card being branded, and so imagine their anguish and horror when a few moments later Colby ran up the other end and smashed in his second goal of the game. On reflection my knee slide towards the away fans was unwarranted (and caused some particularly stubborn grass stains), but a 4-2 victory against one of our local, albeit greatly inferior, rivals on my managerial debut meant I felt obliged to celebrate in some form or other.
Thankfully the final whistle soon followed, allowing me (and my players) to quickly head back to the dressing room (port-a-cabin) and avoid the revolting 28 Stourport fans.
So a pleasing four goals to kickstart my era, but a worryingly flakie defence which would no doubt ship plenty more against better opposition. And my lack of support on the bench gave me further cause for concern as I made my way home.
I dropped a text to newly appointed Chief Scout Patrick Anderson and asked him to meet me tomorrow. He was going to have a busy few weeks…