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[FM15] - Malone Again, Naturally

Started on 22 June 2015 by tenthreeleader
Latest Reply on 25 January 2016 by tenthreeleader
Malone Again, Naturally

Now looking back down the years
And whatever else that appears
I remember we cried when old Roger died
Never wishing to hide the tears

At the top of Division One
But our soul was truly gone
Couldn't understand, why the only man
Who we loved had just been taken

We had to restart, with our words
Hurt and unspoken
But then a young man came along
Roger’s son, unbroken

And when the time came to play
He scored and scored all day
Malone again, naturally
Malone again, naturally

(With apologies to Gilbert O’Sullivan)

I remember him with the sadness of a boy who has lost his world.

Roger Malone was my dad.

They called him “Quicksilver”. Small, almost a nugget of a man from the films I saw, but with a truly gifted right foot and an ability to worm his way into the smallest of openings to score the biggest of goals.

He was a pace striker before the term became popular. And he was a good one.

You know the numbers: 86 times capped for England with 29 goals, an excellent rate of return. He could provide an instant impact off the bench or, starting a game, tire out a defense with his never-ending work rate.

You name it. He could do it. Everything except outjump a big defender, that is. At five-foot-nine inches tall, that was about the only thing he couldn’t do well. But the sky, in every other sense of the word, was his limit.

Until December 30, 1980, that is.

That night, while returning home from the Birmingham FC team New Years’ Eve mixer, prior to their New Year’s Day game, my dad’s car was struck by a van driven by a drink driver. Dad was killed instantly, and my world was never the same.

Dad was 29 years old the night he died. I was six. I remember it all too well.

I remember what Dad’s death did to my mother, Sara. Dad talked a great game on the pitch but off of it, he was quiet and adored his family. We loved him too, and in my case as a six-year old, I remember my dad with great fondness.

Mom didn’t really know how to handle Dad’s death, which was of course completely senseless and daft and all the things sportswriters say when they try to encapsulate the grief of a football club and the community it serves.

Dad scored 119 goals for Birmingham. I determined that I wanted to carry on in his footsteps.

Dad drove my career, even though he didn’t know it in an earthly sense. I’d like to think he was looking down on me as I grew up and signed schoolboy terms with his beloved Blues.

As a 15-year old, I wore Dad’s club colors for the first time in a youth game. I almost couldn’t take the field that first day against Portsmouth. People understood, but then, the game is a business too and eventually I’d have to toughen up.

I did. I got tough. Very tough, in fact, to the point where I was almost encased in an iron shell. I became a blue-collared nightmare for some opposing teams to face.

I’m taller than Dad was – six feet on the nose. I didn’t have his pure pace but I had the ability to leap and also the gift of the same type of right foot he had.

At age 19, I was called up to the senior squad in 1994, where I spent the next fourteen years. My haul was bigger than Dad’s – I scored 202 goals for the club – but then, if he had lived, I’m sure he’d have outpaced me.

That was the way Dad was. He had to be first – not because of any sense of ego, but because he simply wouldn’t rest until he had won. He gave me that gift, too.

My relationship with the Blues fans was deep and special. They even sang that little song about me you may have read earlier. It was a nice way for them to pay tribute to my dad while supporting me as a player in my own way. I enjoyed that and certainly did nothing to discourage it.

But after a series of niggling injuries that kept me out of the eleven, Birmingham sold me to Watford for £500,000 at age 33. That hurt. A lot, actually.

The Malone family name had become synonymous with Birmingham FC and the club got no small amount of stick the day it was announced that I wouldn’t be coming back.

I felt like I still had some football left in me, though, so I moved on. I played two seasons at Watford and then had single-season stints with Leyton Orient and finally, as a 37-year old player-coach, at Bury.

The goals didn’t come as easily, though, and that’s not uncommon as a player ages. My career haul was a nice, round 235 goals in club football – and when you add in the 18 I tallied for England in 66 matches, that’s not a bad career. I didn’t get the callups my Dad did – but that was okay.

Dad was first, and that was just fine with me.

Author’s Notes: FM 15, Home Nations and major European nations loaded (France, Germany, Italy, Holland). I'm an 'old school writer; - that means words, no images and the 'theater of the mind' for game play. Enjoy!

# # #
With retirement looming, and a desire to leave the game not immediately apparent, I took coaching badges. As a player-coach (and mostly coach) at Bury, I found I enjoyed working with younger players and even though I wasn’t necessarily better than some of the players on the roster at that late stage of my career, if those players were smart they listened to what I had to say.

When it finally came time to hang up the boots at age 38, I reflected on a career that had been a fortunate one for me: a fair haul of goals, a fair bit of money in the bank, and most importantly, no serious injuries playing the game I loved.

Some players get into coaching and management because they have to after suffering a debilitating or gruesome setback. Not so for old Bobby Malone.

I felt old, after a lifetime of running at full speed, but that feeling would go away after some time away from the game and a return to a sensible workout schedule.

But that good feeling was quickly replaced by boredom. I had a good reputation as a thinking player when I played and getting my badges was not terribly difficult.

It was time to decide what to do with my life, once my representation made it known that I was interested in going into football management.

“The poor sod” was the reaction from the snarkier folks in that fine aggregation known as the English tabloid media, but it really was what I wanted to do. With the money I had put away from playing, I was secure financially – even after an ill-fated marriage – and that was no mean feat.

The security, that is. Not the divorce. That was plenty mean.

My mom and dad had been very close, and his death shook my mom to her core. I wondered why, when everything else between father and son had been so similar, marriage was not. Nobody was shook to any core when I moved out of my home.

The third generation of the Footballing Malones, little Blake, was now five years old and starting to kick his first footballs in Birmingham where his mother had custody.

Yet, I spoke with Holly only when spoken to. My interest was with Blake but if Winston Churchill thought an Iron Curtain had descended in Eastern Europe, he should have seen the steel ring around Holly Malone Wagner’s house when dad wanted to see his little guy.

She remarried a year ago, and by all accounts was happy. She married a car dealer. So there was money to support her in the lifestyle to which she had become accustomed while married to me. She wasn’t hurting.

I was, though, but not about money. She was happy and I didn’t begrudge her that, but the cold fish attitude she had developed after Blake’s birth had always perplexed me.

It was really sad, in a way. Holly and I had met after a charity function one night in Birmingham, where the general idea was charities weren’t the only ones who could be lucky.

We were married six years. That was long enough to build a life, have a son, and have everything fall apart, right about the time my injuries happened. It was a bad time for me, but I drew inspiration from my family, realized that it could have been a lot worse, and soldiered on.

I had my health. I had my life. Dad had neither of those things any more.

At the end of the 2013-14 season, though, people started sniffing around my CV and my thoughts soon returned, at least partially, to football.

One of my old clubs, Leyton Orient, asked for an interview. The club whose ownership expected it to win League One was very interested in me, and I in them.

There weren’t a ton of jobs available in the close season, but there were some good ones out there. Orient was one, and soon Fulham was another, but there was one place I really wanted to manage, if only I could wade through the negativity surrounding the club.

# # #
Loving the depth,drama and the "personal" touch you have here I will definitely continue to read this one !
Best of luck!
Thanks very much for the kind comment ... Bobby Malone is hopefully going to prove to be an interesting fellow!

Phil Gartside is not a terribly popular man in some parts of the English Northwest.

Bolton Wanderers Football Club is in its third season out of the Barclay’s Premier League, which means the parachute payments have dried up, and the club is on its own financially in any attempt to get back into the top flight.

Some say Gartside is responsible for that. He doesn’t think so, but then he’s supposed to feel that way.

Majority shareholder Eddie Davies has been keeping the club afloat. Born and raised in Bolton, Davies made his fortune through making kettle parts. He’s 68 years old, lives on the Isle of Man and has put an enormous amount of his own money into the club.

Some estimates have the club as much as £178 million in debt – a staggering sum for a club of Bolton’s size. And yet, when the club let Dougie Freedman go as manager, there I was, sending my CV to the club offices.

And getting an interview. Gartside was always known for doing the unorthodox.

He had Sam Allardyce running the show for eight years but when he left to take over Newcastle United, the club went through four bosses in seven years.

Sammy Lee lasted 14 matches. Gary Megson lasted two seasons, but won only 27 percent of his games.

That meant another change, to the flavor-of-the-month known as Owen Coyle, who kept the club up in 2011 but couldn’t save them from relegation the next year, a fall from which the club has still not recovered.

Gartside then poached the Scotsman, Dougie Freedman, away from Crystal Palace and the team was moderately successful, finishing in 14th place.

But they wanted better, and somehow this untried manager with the gaudy coaching badges thought he was the guy to provide it.

The interview was very businesslike. The first thing I was asked was whether I was willing to build with young players. That could only mean one thing – there was no money, but I already knew that.

The names of Johan Elmander and Keith Andrews popped into my head. Elmander was the club’s record signing in 2008 for £8.2 million and after two bad years, had a good third season and then signed for Galatasaray on a free transfer. That was a colossal waste of money.

Andrews, an Irishman who by all accounts is a good guy, signed on a free transfer in 2012 for £25,000 per week for three years – not bad for a guy who was 31 years old at the time. He played 26 games for Bolton and then spent the next two years on loan.

So that was why Gartside wanted to know about signing and developing young players.

The reaction to my agreement on terms of two years at £488,000 per year before tax wasn’t quite outright derision, but it was clear Gartside was thinking along the lines of finding younger (and by definition, cheaper) players.

His goal was to get me into action as soon as possible: and on the day I was hired, Bolton played its first friendly.
# # #
13 July 2014 – Annan Athletic v Bolton Wanderers – Friendly #1
Galabank, Annan, Scotland

In football, there’s really nothing more awkward than walking into a room full of professionals and saying “Hi, I’m the new boss, now get out there and play.”

Yet, that’s exactly what I did. Gartside’s club car motored the hundred or so miles up the M5 with the new manager in the back seat so he could take charge of the side against Scottish Championship side Annan Athletic. I’d have preferred to drive, but Gartside had people to do that sort of thing.

In this case, though, it was the club’s media relations director doing the driving. Sam Gilley was 34 years old and this was his first big assignment in sport. He relished the job he had, and wanted some time with the new boss before writing a news release which would be picked up by media all over the UK.

Yet while he tried to engage me in casual conversation, I kept one ear on him and both my eyes on the text messages I was getting from my new deputy, Nicky Spooner. He had chosen the eleven and I wanted to get my arms around his selections while drawing on what I already knew of the side.

There was a gulf in quality between the clubs, but obviously a great deal of uncertainty about what I was going to see. I had done a crash course on the players during the application process just in case I got lucky and got hired, but seeing them in the flesh for the first time while acting as their manager was going to be a trick.

The visitors’ dressing room at Galabank was a bit on the cramped side with 23 players in the traveling squad, but we found a way.

Gartside, who ordinarily wouldn’t have come to the first friendly of the season, made the introductions and then stepped out of the room so I could address the squad.

“Some of you know who I am,” I began, “but if you don’t, I’ll fill you in. I’m Bobby Malone and I’m the new manager of this club. I’m going to get a good look at as many of you as I can in game action today and those of you who don’t play as much will get a look when we play KV Mechelen later this week. You will get your chance, but what I want to tell you is that the hard work starts now. I want to see your best games today and that means from the kickoff.”

There wasn’t a whole lot of reaction to that. I didn’t really expect any, but that was okay with me. They needed to know my expectations, though, and I wasn’t shy in giving them.

“Some of you have played in the Premiership. I did. I’m here to get you all to the same level, which is a level above where we are playing right now. Hard work and dedication will get you there and it’s my job to make sure you expend that effort. Today you are playing a team that should make you shine. Don’t disappoint me. Stake your claim for places from the first day and we’ll have no problems.”

I turned to Spooner, who spent nine years with Bolton as a player but who played only 23 games before a broken leg ended his first team career. He actually played more games with American minor league club Charleston Battery than he did with Bolton, but his heart was with Wanderers.

“Mr. Spooner, the floor is yours.” He spoke next, to his eleven.

“Thank you, Bobby,” he said, perhaps unwittingly failing to extend me the same courtesy in nomenclature I had given to him. “You lads know the drill. 4-4-2 today, give me a complete effort and impress the new manager. This is about fitness and success today. Hands in and go get ‘em.”

The players stood, formed a circle and gave a quick cheer before heading out for the warmup. As they left, I took Spooner aside.

“You know I’m never ‘Bobby’ to these players, right?” I asked. Spooner flushed a bright red.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “Won’t happen again.”

I nodded. Understanding that I was making judgments on staff as well as on players, Spooner was probably genuine in his apology. That said, my decision not to correct the assistant in front of the squad showed a bit of my own character.

“I’ll expect that corrected in future,” I said. “’Gaffer’ or ‘Boss’ will do in front of the players but if these players ever hear ‘Mr. Malone’ they’ll know they’re in trouble. We don’t want to go there yet.”

“Okay,” he said. “Hopefully they will overlook that.”

“Hopefully,” I replied. “Now, let’s go see how they perform.”
# # #
Bolton Wanderers (4-4-2): Adam Bogdán, Kevin MacNaughton, Matt Mills, David Wheater, Tim Ream, Lee Chung Yong, Mark Davies, Jay Spearing (captain), Dean Moxey, Joe Mason, Jermaine Beckford. Subs: Andy Lonergan, Tom Eaves, Marc Tierney, Dorian Dervite, Medo, Liam Feeney, Neil Danns, Darren Pratley, Liam Trotter, Josh Vela, Rob Hall, Craig Davies.

Five minutes from the kickoff, Adam Bogdán was fishing the ball out of the Bolton goal.

The breakthrough had come thanks to some nice work from Annan striker Iain Chisholm and some truly ridiculous defending from Matt Mills and David Wheater.

As the vice-captain, Mills was being held to a higher standard, but the two were guilty of ball-watching as Chisholm strode between them and beat Bogdán, rooted to the spot and angry. The worst of it was that it came from a throw-in, that found its way into the box and then on to Chisholm’s feet.

I tried not to show emotion. Instead, I remained seated and stared at Mills. That seemed to have the desired effect.

Five minutes after that, we were on terms again. MacNaughton started it, with a steal in the center of the park and a prescient long ball to Mason at the left edge of the Annan area. Mason turned and slid the ball onto the path of Moxey, and he finished with no trouble.

Yet our defending remained awful, and Bogdán was no better after Steven Sloan beat him just after the half hour to restore Annan’s lead.

Beside me, Spooner seemed apologetic.

“First friendly,” he said to no one in particular.

“Schoolboy defending,” I replied. “Not an excuse, really.”

Spooner seemed to be trying to defend the players, who frankly needed someone to defend them since they weren’t really defending our goal. Thankfully, the Irishman, Mason, equalized again for us seven minutes before halftime so the roasting the players would get from their new manager was toned down a bit by what was by all accounts a pretty good offensive performance.

I called out the defenders at halftime. They needed to improve and that was my word. Anyone could have seen that, so I sent an unchanged eleven back out there for the second half with instructions to restore order.

They didn’t, so I pulled them en masse just after the hour. Nine players came off, including Bogdán. The “new” Bolton was told to show me why they should have been the first team, and it took just five minutes for them to do it.

They scored three times in that span to more than put the game away. Neil Danns got the first one, with a cracking drive from fully thirty yards from goal, in front of two simply wonderful strikes from Craig Davies.

The veteran scored from close range two minutes after Danns and then three minutes later, fluffed the net on a rebound of a shot by Danns, who had drilled his first effort off an Annan defender from outside the penalty area.

I felt good for Davies, who bided his time on the bench before putting a shiv into the backs of Annan Athletic.

Youth striker Rabin Omar completed a bad day for my new defenders with a third Annan goal seven minutes from time but realistically, they were never going to come back.

It had been a good day, but far from a great one.

Annan Athletic 3 (Iain Chisholm 5, Steven Sloan 31, Rabin Omar 83)
Bolton Wanderers 5 (Dean Moxey 10, Joe Mason 38, Neil Danns 64, Craig Davies 66, 69)
A – 2,406, Galabank, Annan
Man of the Match – Craig Davies, Bolton (MR 8.6)

# # #
I had one day to set up something approaching an apartment in Bolton after the coach ride home. Spooner took training with the senior squad while I went shopping for the stuff of life while my main truck of belongings was brought up from Birmingham. It wasn’t like I’d have any time to fully unpack. We left for Belgium the next day.

That was good, since it got me away from the Northwest press for a time as well. The Bolton News had been fair. Most of the rest wondered what the hell Gartside was playing at.

The short flight gave me the opportunity to size up the squad.

Adam Bogdan
– The 26-year old Hungarian international appears to be first choice. The book on the 6’4” shotstopper is that he has a hard time finding the right position when it matters most. I saw that at Annan.

Andy Lonergan
– The 30-year old Englishman is a definite second choice. The problem is that he played better than Bogdan in the time I saw them. Perhaps an aberration.

Kevin McNaughton
– On a season-long loan from Cardiff, the 31-year old figures to slot into the right fullback position. Somehow, Gartside was persuaded to pick up his entire £363,000 annual salary, which, for a club in Bolton’s condition, is a lot to pay for someone not contracted to you.

Marc Tierney – I liked the look of him at Annan, but the staff says he’s slow. A good crosser of the ball who knows how to get to the byline. Physically fit with good stamina. He’ll need it. 28 years of age.

Tim Ream – A 26-year old American, Ream is a solid defender who can also play the left side. He’ll play somewhere, but I’m not sure exactly where as yet. A good athlete and strong as an ox.

Matt Mills
– The vice-captain. He’s 28 years old, which is a bit long in the tooth for Gartside, but he’s solid where he needs to be. Good man-marker and solid tackler. Determined too, which is why he has a captaincy role.

David Wheater
– Pairing him with Mills in the center of defence will make us almost impossible to beat over the top. 6’5”, the 27-year old Englishman is explosive in the air and extremely strong, even if a bit lead-footed. The kind of guy who can steal you a goal off a corner.

Dorian Dervite
– A cut below Mills, Wheater and Ream in the center of defence. Unfortunately, the Frenchman is 25, so that will put him higher in Gartside’s pecking order. Still good in the air, as we have a good, old-fashioned English set of centre-halves on this team.

Hayden White – This is the kind of player Gartside wants to see play. Bags of potential, but not quite Championship-ready, the 19-year old has the ability to make a lot of noise once he fully develops. Physically gifted, but needs to grow into those physical tools.

Andy Kellett
– Might be the answer at left full back once he recovers from a groin strain that hurts to even think about. He’s 20 years old, does everything well but nothing spectacularly well, and will be on my list once he gets healthy.

Dean Moxey
– The 28-year old can play any position on the left side of the park and I need to find a place for him. Might be better in midfield since in the air, he’s got all the qualities of a boat anchor. Anyhow, he’s one I need to figure out.
Jay Spearing
– The club captain at age 25, he’s got everything you could ask for in a Championship holding midfielder. If it would help win a football match, Spearing would run his head through a brick wall. Love his attitude, love his spark, love his intensity. If he were two inches taller there would be dead bodies all over the Championship.

Medo – The Sierra Leone international has a fine set of skills for this level and finding a place for him to play is going to be a challenge. Strong, determined and skilled, his issue lies in decision making. He’s 25.

Liam Trotter – Very tall for a central midfielder at 6’2”, I wish he’d loan Spearing a few inches of that height. He’s the Little Girl With the Curl – when he’s good he’s real good but when he doesn’t want to play, he doesn’t. And that’s going to have to be worked out of him. 26 years old.

Liam Feeney – The 27-year old midfielder is a valuable squad player because he can play either side of midfield. He doesn’t do it as well as either of the preferred options, though, so he will be an option off the bench primarily, if needed. Which I’m sure he will be.

Rob Hall – This kid really intrigues me. Another one who can play either side of midfield, he’s 20 years old with tons of pace and is arguably the best crosser we have. He will play, Mr. Gartside. Somehow.

Josh Vela
– Another one to watch for. Just a shade off the best central midfielders at the club, he’s only 20 years old and he has the ability to be something pretty good. His positioning needs work and he’s not terribly fast, but then he’s big, which seems to be a requirement for being a midfielder at this club.

Lee Chung-Yong – Capped 60 times for South Korea already at age 26, this young man has a lot going for him. He’s smart, pacy and loves big matches – but he’s not terribly strong and that’s his weakness in the Championship. Ten pounds of muscle on him and he’d be a world beater.

Neil Danns – A squad midfielder, who works hard and makes quite a bit of money for it. He won’t be the first choice in the center of the park but may find himself playing behind a striker since he has a keen sense of where the ball is supposed to go and has a fairly deft touch in front of goal.

Darren Pratley – The native of Jamaica is an athlete, pure and simple. He’s probably in the best shape of anyone at the club according to the physios and strength coaches, but what he doesn’t have is the skill that will allow him to play regularly, especially ahead of the attacking mids. A good team player and a very hard worker, but another big wage earner too.

Mark Davies – He’s 26 years old and one of the biggest earners at the club. I’ll need to find a spot for him so he can earn his wage packet. Despite what my coaches who don’t rate him tell me, I like certain things he can do well – he has a great first touch, and he can pass and dribble, making him, to my way of thinking, an ideal playmaker when his head’s right.

Joe Mason
– Another loan signing from Cardiff that’s sort of baffling to me. If you thought McNaughton’s signing was odd, check out this one. The Irish u-21 is here all year and we’re paying £550,000 for the privilege, for a 23-year old player who isn’t the best choice for attacking mid and not the best choice as a striker. Can play a pretty good false nine, I’m told, though, so will have to keep that in mind. He and McNaughton make up five percent of the payroll and neither are contracted to us. Perhaps he could be contracted to us in the right deal, but he’ll need to show me quite a bit on the pitch before I’ll consider it.

Craig Davies
– the 28-year old forward is tireless and strong but lacks the pure instincts of a true finisher. Most suited for a defensive forward role, which is where I plan to play him when the situation permits.

Jermaine Beckford – The 30-year old Jamaican is the best pure finisher on the team. The only problem is that he has a reputation for playing only when he wants to, and that means trouble in the system I plan to play. We’re going to need to work hard all the time to score, and there’s no room for slacking. My hope is that it won’t be an issue. Also at age 30, he’s a high wage earner and playing him often won’t earn me many points with Gartside.

Zach Clough – Now, this is more like it. Nineteen years old with huge upside. The only problem I have is in deciding whether he is ready for the Championship. Still, youth needs time to develop and according to the chairman, the best place for some of these people to do that developing will be in my XI.

Tom Eaves – One of the few transfer-listed players on the team. That isn’t surprising, given that he’s a clear cut below the other three forwards and that’s apparent even from only a few days’ workouts. If an offer matching his valuation arrives, he’s on his way.

# # #
My favourite part of the night, though, came after the team meetings.

We flew into Antwerp’s Luchthafen Antwerpen
airport and took the quick twelve-mile drive to Mechelen to walk the pitch at the Argosstadion Achter de Kazerne, a cosy little 13,000-seat stadium located just off the northeast side of the R12 highway which rings the city.

The coach trip back to our base at the Hotel De Witte Lelie was quick and then we went into a short team meeting with video of the Annan match so we could get a look at ourselves one more time before playing the next night.

The defending was horrible. There really wasn’t any other way to say it. They were a team we should have rolled, frankly, and it just didn’t get done. Offensively we were fluent but we were deficient in our marking responsibilities and on top of that, Bogdán just wasn’t very good. We shipped three goals to a side that had absolutely no business picking up three goals against us.

And now, we’re playing a team we should beat. De Kakkers have won four Jupiler League titles and a Belgian Cup but, like ourselves, they haven’t won a meaningful trophy in about thirty years. I’m going to experiment against them for a time, and see how our players handle it.

My talk centered around getting opposing strikers correctly marked. I knew how to undress a defence in my day and I am smart enough to be able to recognize when it’s being done to us. And Annan did it.

For me, it was all about concentration. When we lost it, they zapped us and the ball wound up in our goal. Pretty simple.

“We are going to change the alignment for at least the first half of tomorrow’s game,” I said. “I want to see how you handle such a change from the start of a match. We’ll be playing an alignment we will need to use to score goals, and we’re going to try it away from home against decent opposition. We are going to start the match very aggressively and I’ll be watching.”

I drew 4-3-3 on a small board and held it up.

“You know, we haven’t played this alignment a lot in recent years,” I said. “If you guys get this right, football is going to be fun against some of the teams we will face. If you don’t, well, you’ll hear a bit about it from me. We’ll be trying some different sets like 4-1-3-2 and 4-2-3-1 before the friendlies are done. You will be working hard in training to make yourselves a multi-faceted group. It is my job, and the job of this coaching staff, to put you in positions where your tactical knowledge will allow you to succeed.”

I rose, ending the meeting. “Now, enjoy your evenings. Bedcheck will be at 10:30, stay out of the hotel bar and show me you still want to be around when we can only bring 18 of you on the road.”

With that I headed back to my room and sent a text to Holly.

“Ready when you are,” I said. I received a text a short time later using the same words.

I fired up my laptop and opened Skype. Moments later, Blake’s little face filled the screen.

“Hi, mate,” I said. “How are you?”
# # #
16 July 2014 – KV Mechelen v Bolton Wanderers
Friendly #2 - Argosstadion Achter de Kazerne, Mechelen, Belgium

The name of Mechelen’s stadium literally means “Behind the Barracks”, since once upon a time, that’s exactly where it was – behind a row of Belgian Army accommodations.

The place is carved directly out of a residential neighborhood, and I mean directly. There are houses and front yards across the street from the main stand and one is led to believe there must be some very patient homeowners there on match nights.

It’s not unlike some smaller English venues, I suppose, but the homespun atmosphere of the place was appealing. KV Mechelen may play ‘behind the barracks’ but my players were hoping to take them behind the woodshed when we kicked off.

Bolton Wanderers (4-3-3): Bogdan, McNaughton, Dervite, Mills (captain), Tierney, Medo, Trotter, Pratley, Mason, C. Davies, Beckford. Subs: Lonergan, Moxey, M. Davies, Hall, Ream, Dann, Clough, Wheater, Chung-Yong, Feeney, White, Spearing.

The second eleven had a tall task – play an unfamiliar formation on the road and expect to do something with it.

I should not therefore have been surprised when they didn’t. I liked some of the possession we got but since I didn’t feel these were my best eleven out there, I was prepared to cut them a bit of slack.

But only a little.

We fell behind again, which was disappointing, to a goal from the Nigerian Jason Adesanya. He beat Bogdán to his near post in the 29th minute, which was even more disappointing.

That lead held up until halftime, and at that point I saw our wheels were spinning and gaining absolutely no traction. So we shifted to 4-4-2 in the second half and I gave most of the starters fifteen minutes to impress in the new alignment.

Clough and Chung-Yong were two I brought on at halftime, though, in place of Mason and the utterly invisible Jermaine Beckford. The South Korean, my most expensive and probably my best player overall, rewarded my faith with a corker of a goal in 61 minutes, ripping home a drive from fully thirty yards that got us on terms and lifted our chins.

Twenty minutes later it was the other sub, Clough, who got us the go-ahead goal, finishing with authority from a cross by young Hayden White at the right fullback position. So youth had been served, at least in a friendly.

Mechelen hardly bothered us after that. For a road matchup against decent opposition, there was some reason to smile.

KV Mechelen 1 (Jason Adesanya 29)
Bolton Wanderers 2 (Lee Chung-Yong 61, Zach Clough 81)
A – 3,196, Achter de Kazerne, Mechelen, Belgium
Man of the Match – Zach Clough, Bolton (MR 7.9)

# # #
We had only a few days to rest up for the third friendly – our only home test of the schedule, and it was against real opposition.

The same night we defeated Mechelen, Sparta Prague roughed up Rabotnicki 4-1 in a Champions League qualifier. The perennial champions of the Czech Republic were going to be a handful, having already played competitive matches.

With 36 league titles and 27 Cup championships to their credit, Zelezna Sparta (Iron Sparta) will surely be looking for a solid performance to prepare for the second leg of their qualifier next week.

While they don’t get the pick of the best Czech players like they used to, English fans will be familiar with former West Brom striker Roman Bednar, former Reading midfielder Marek Matejovsky and Yeovil and Czechoslovakia keeper Marek Stech. We will be tested.

And, as such, most of the players who came on as substitutes against Mechelen will start the match against Sparta. Once again, they will do so in a different alignment.

This time we’ll try 4-1-3-2, and I am starting to think that this is a two-striker club.

We don’t have a striker on our current books who is able to lead a line by himself in a traditional fashion. We have two false nines, a target man who doesn’t possess the skill to play at a high level in this league, and a defensive forward plus the poacher Beckford among our top five options.

And I’m not terribly pleased with Beckford at the moment, after a performance against Mechelen that could charitably be described as pedestrian. So I’m not sure what I’m going to do.

A false nine can technically lead a line, but given how deep he drops from time to time, I can’t help but feel that this option leaves my team somewhat like a headless horseman at times. So I have a few questions.

The answer may come through Mark Davies. Leaving.

He’s one of the highest-valued players at the club, at £5.2 million, and Fulham is said to want him. If they meet his valuation, Gartside may sell him out from under me, which would give me something in the transfer kitty to get a striker I’m starting to think we really need.

I’ve been told I wouldn’t get much of any sale proceeds to spend anyway, which means all I could afford would be … drum roll please … a young player. I don’t see a downside.

Of course, the other option is the loan market and I will consider that too if needs be, but I already know the answer I’ll get from Gartside if I have a large wage requirement from a club loaning us a striker.

No, better to buy. I’d rather not lose Davies because he’s a good player in this league, but the financial realities of the club may make it a necessity to sell.

I sat at my desk with a legal pad, outlining potential alignments and players to fill them. I still have time to tinker before the matches begin for real, and it’s pretty clear to me that this team as it presently looks is built to play 4-4-2.

The problem is, I’m not sure that’s the best way to get the most out of these players. I’ve got a decent and fairly deep central midfield and competence on the wings, so we will surely see some variation of four midfielders. But for me, the pieces don’t fit quite right just yet.

I was lost in thought at 9:00 in the evening, when a knock came at the door to my office.


The door opened and a vivacious, slender, wisp of a lady stepped inside.

“Mr. Malone, I’ve brought you something to eat,” she said. “The commissary’s closed for the evening so I thought you might like something. You’re here awfully late. I hope you don’t mind.”

I had forgotten. Honestly. And as I thought about my evening, and where it had gone, food was suddenly on my mind. I have a personal assistant, but Dell had gone home long since and I thought it would have been quite insulting for me to ask her to fetch me a sandwich.

This was simple kindness, and I appreciated it.

She was professionally dressed, in a blue blazer, white blouse and red knee-length skirt, which flattered her blonde, curly hair that spilled to shoulder length. On the lapel of her blazer, I noticed a club pin.

I put down my pen and motioned the woman forward.

“Thank you, Miss … Mrs … Ms?” I stumbled.

She smiled. “Pickering,” she said. “Kim Pickering. And Ms will do just fine.”

“All right, then,” I said, rising to shake her hand after she put down a tray which contained soup, a sandwich and some coffee. “This is very kind of you.”

“You probably just didn’t think of it,” she said. “Here you go.” She turned to leave, and I stopped her.

“What do you do at the club?” I asked. “You’re here just as late as I am.”

“I’m Mr. Gartside’s PA,” she said. “He’s here too, we just finished a meeting of the marketing and game-day staff to prepare for the first home friendly and I got to take minutes. There’s a lot to do to get the stadium ready. I’m doing the master list.”

“I imagine there is a lot and you are a very busy woman so I appreciate this even more,” I said. “Anyhow, thank you, Ms. Pickering.”

“You’re welcome, Mr. Malone,” she replied. She gave me a delightful smile – as the Chairman’s PA, I assumed she was well-practiced in the art – and left.

I put down my pen and picked up a pulled pork sandwich. Underneath it on the plate, she had left her business card.

# # #
19 July 2014 - Bolton Wanderers v Sparta Prague
Friendly #3 – Macron Stadium, Bolton

As friendlies go, it was a pretty good one for a Championship side. As a test of my players, it was easily the best one we’d face.

I was looking forward to my first Bolton home day. The night was gloriously pretty, with a cool breeze that made the temperature just right at 14 degrees.

The newly-renamed Macron Stadium was ready as well, with the attached Bolton Whites Hotel hosting a couple of hundred guests from Prague the night before.

Unfortunately, the stadium itself was only about twenty percent full for the contest. And that was too bad, because it was a hell of game.

Bolton (4-1-3-2): Bogdán, McNaughton, Ream, Wheater, Moxey, Spearing (captain), Chung-Yong, M. Davies, Hall, Clough, Mason. Subs: Lonegan, Mills, Dervite, White, Medo, Feeney, Vela, Danns, Beckford, C. Davies, Eaves, Pratley.

We didn’t lack for entertainment. Twelve minutes in, we picked up a corner and Chung-Young’s screamer deflected in the box right to Mark Davies. His shot cannoned off a defender and right to young Clough. Instead of shooting, he slid a wonderful little square ball to the completely unmarked Ream, who whipped the ball home to get us in front.

Two minutes later we were celebrating again as Moxey’s long throw from deep in the Prague end was headed away, but only as far as Spearing at the edge of the box. The skipper got the ball wide to the right for Chung-Yong, and his cross found Clough who finished with some aplomb for 2-0.

That lead held through the first half and looked pretty good even though our visitors were finding more opportunities to shoot. We kept them to attempts from distance for the most part, though, and that was enough to get us to halftime two goals to the good.

But in the second half, substitute Josef Husbauer pegged us back almost immediately, beating Bogdán with an unstoppable drive from twenty yards just two minutes into the second half. After a rather explicit instruction to keep things tight at the back, a more explicit set of instructions followed to the defenders who had been lax.

That spurred us on, or more accurately, it spurred on Clough. The young man ripped home another cross, this one from his strike partner Mason in 61 minutes to make it 3-1, and no one was going to take the ball from him when Matejosky clumsily bodychecked Wheater off the ball in the penalty area for a spot kick.

Just like that, it was 4-1 to us and things looked good. Until we stopped defending, that is.

Husbauer’s second goal of the game 13 minutes from time cut our lead to 4-2 and I was on my feet yelling when another sub, 18-year old Patrik Schick, made us look pathetic in front of an angry Bogdán to make it 4-3 with seven minutes left.

It was a time for calm at that moment, even if I had no intention of staying calm after the match. We held them off, though, and when the final whistle went I was glad for the win but fully cognizant of the work we still have to do.

The hat trick hero had saved us. He’ll give me another decision up front. That pesky 19-year old.

Bolton Wanderers 4 (Ream 12, Clough 14, 61, pen 65)
Sparta Prague 3 (Josef Husbauer 47, 77, Patrik Schick 83)
A – 5,705, Macron Stadium, Bolton
Man of the Match – Zach Clough, Bolton (MR 9.5)

# # #
Clearly, if we are going to build this club correctly, we need a feeder club.

So it was that I got to use Ms. Pickering’s business card, to arrange a meeting with Gartside and the board.

I figured that after a big win, even in a friendly, against a decent Continental side, they would warm to that topic. Winning begets winning and I wanted to be seen as trying to achieve the board’s objectives in as efficient a manner as possible.

I even wore a suit to the meeting. I was that serious. I’m strictly a track suit guy on the touchline. The only times I wore a suitcoat when I played was on travel days (when it was required) and on my wedding day (because I’d have been strangled if I hadn’t).

As one of the many clubs in the Greater Manchester Area, getting out from under the shadows of United and City is going to be difficult. It will be harder still without good young players, as the board and Gartside have correctly noted.

So I went, tie knotted and hat in hand, to the board of a club about £150,000,000 in the hole to see what I could do. I stood by Pickering’s desk, awaiting the Word From On High that I could come in.

“You clean up well,” she teased. “Did someone do your tie for you?”

I forgave the lady her impertinence because she was speaking through a dazzling smile that seemed to block out the rest of the room. I didn’t say a word for a long moment.

“No, no, I did it myself,” I finally said. “Are they ready for me yet?”

She looked at her phone bank, which evidently contained some sort of intercom system. “The light will come on when they are ready,” she said. “So you’re stuck out here with me for a bit.”

Moments later, the light came on and she arose from behind her desk.

“I’m taking minutes here too,” she said. “They’re ready now.”

I opened one of the two swinging doors to the board room and held it open, standing aside to allow her to pass. She gave me a look of mild surprise and preceded me into the room.

There were six people present. Gartside ran the meeting as board chair, with Eddie Davies, OBE CBE sitting to his right. Fanned around the two of them were Vice-Chairman W.B. Warburton, Chief Operating Officer Bradley Cooper, Finance Director Anthony Massey and Director Richard Gee.

Davies runs the new Private Limited Company which serves as the club’s holding company, known as Burnden Leisure Limited.

Various reports have put the debt of that company at or around £168 million, about £150 million of which is owed to another of Mr. Davies’ ventures, known as Moonshift Investments Limited, which has made a number of very large loans to Burnden Leisure.

It’s his club. No question about it. Burnden’s going private removed voting rights for about 6,000 individual shareholders, who were outvoted anyway, but reporting rules are different for private companies and Mr. Davies’ business is now less and less of everyone else’s business.

But that’s as may be. I needed to convince him of the need to spend a little money, even though having read the financial reports I knew the club had posted operating losses totaling £72 million over the last two seasons, including £50 million last season as a consequence of failing to immediately return to the Premiership.

I allowed Ms. Pickering to pass and she sat across from Gartside at a corner of the opposite end of the table, so she could see the entire group of speakers.

“Welcome, Mr. Malone,” Davies said, in the first words he had ever spoken to me. Heretofore, Gartside had done all the talking, including the club’s official welcome. “Thank you for joining us. Please be seated.” He pointed to a spot at the left of the table and I did as I was bid.

I waited for Gartside to finish jotting down a few notes and finally the chairman looked at me. “We understand you want to discuss a player pipeline,” he said. That was my cue.

“Correct,” I replied. “We are all-in on the idea of youth and letting young players play, so it seems reasonable to me that we establish a feeder club relationship to help bring better young players to this club.”

Davies spoke. “Do you feel that’s strictly necessary?” he asked. “We have very good facilities here and we’ve developed a few of our own players.”

“You can never have too many, Mr. Davies,” I answered. “For the long-term health of the club, it seems quite prudent indeed for me to make such a request. Those players who don’t make the grade with us, we can sell. Provided the arrangement is handled sensibly, it can either be cost-neutral or in fact run a profit.”

Economics 101 was standing me in good stead.
# # #
“What the hell do they mean, no?”

I flipped the written notice denying my request for a feeder club onto my desk, leaned back in my office chair and sighed.

The next day’s training for the trip to League Two opposition Stevenage had been brisk and, for a team that had rattled off three games in eight days, surprisingly sharp. I liked our look, to be honest.

So as I shook my head at the board’s decision, I read the end of the letter again, and it all made even less sense.

“The board strongly urges you to hire a Director of Football to handle such administrative matters so you are free to concentrate on managerial duties,” Gartside had written.

At some clubs, Directors of Football are wonderful. In others, they are the bane of a manager’s existence. The manager absolutely must be on the same page with his DoF or they are both doomed.

But Spooner just smiled.

“Mr. Gartside just wants to deal with someone who isn’t you when it comes to money,” he said. Then he smiled. “You managers, all you want is more, more, more.”

I gave him a glare, but his grin, while not as pretty as Pickering’s, still stayed my wrath.

“I’ll get the word out,” I sighed. “We need to move some players and maybe Gartside is right. Maybe I need to concentrate on management and let someone else do the heavy lifting.”

As I thought about it, I solved my depth problem at fullback by signing an agreement to loan Manchester United’s 22-year old Belgian defender Marnick Vermijl for the season.
# # #
Really like the story man!

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