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[FM15] - Malone Again, Naturally

Started on 22 June 2015 by tenthreeleader
Latest Reply on 25 January 2016 by tenthreeleader
McLean vs Britain it seems :)) He has his reasons for not wearing the Poppy, which are well documented, and at the end of the day, I do believe that these 'rituals', as such, should be left as a choice to the players.... but more importantly, top of the league.... hoorah!
This was a chance for me to mix real life in with my FM game, as McClean played against Bolton in real life on that day without a poppy. The quote in my story was his actual statement to the Wigan website.

“By the time you swear you're his,
Shivering and sighing.
And he vows his passion is,
Infinite, undying.
Lady, make note of this --
One of you is lying.”
- Dorothy Parker

Madrid is a wonderful place, and now I really wish I was here with Kim. She isn’t happy, and I’ve got work to do in my relationship while being entirely too far away from home to be able to do it in a timely fashion.

I had the opportunity to visit the Santiago Bernabéu for the first time, and the place is as magnificent as it’s always been billed, but the distraction from home overshadowed the fun of the event.

First things first, since it seems to be dominating my thinking.

Amanda is at it again on Twitter. She seems to know where Kim is vulnerable, and, in fact, actively solicited me online.

“Won’t you come home, Bobby Malone?” she asked, posting the picture of us taken at the Bolton contest gathering. She even followed Kim, since I’m not a member of the Twitterverse and probably never will be after today.

I didn’t know what to make of it, but I’m quite sure I want to put a stop to it. So, reluctantly, I phoned home to ask club counsel to deal with the matter.

Gartside, not surprisingly, was receptive. He promised to handle it and within the hour I was speaking with Theresa Lyons, Bolton FC’s attorney.

At the same time, I heard from Kim, and asked Ms. Lyons if she wouldn’t mind terribly if I turned the conversation into a conference call.

“Bobby, I’m shocked,” Kim began. “I thought you were through with her!”

“Kim, let’s take a step back,” I said. “Also on the line with us is Ms. Theresa Lyons, the attorney who represents Bolton Wanderers FC. I’m sure you know of her. In this case, she also represents me, and by translation, you.”

Kim didn’t say a word, which was Lyons’s cue to begin speaking.

“Mr. Malone, Miss Pickering, I’ve been briefed by Mr. Gartside on the matter of Ms. Caldwell and her online activities,” Lyons said. “I want you to know that I’ve been assigned to put a stop to it. I just need to verify that Mr. Malone says the activities are unwelcome.”

“He had better,” Kim snapped.

“Honey, don’t,” I warned before continuing. “Ms. Lyons, that is correct. I’m asking you to please put a stop to this on behalf of me and my girlfriend. Mr. Gartside of course represents the club’s wishes in this area and I am sure he shares this sentiment.”

“He does,” Lyons responded. “We take harassment very seriously, as you know, and we have no wish for either of the club’s employees to suffer harm or discomfort.”

“She followed me,” Kim said.

“Which is not a violation of any service terms for any social media we’re aware of,” Lyons said patiently. “However, if you have indication of harassing behaviour, you should let us know immediately so we can put a stop to it in cooperation with the provider and, if need be, the authorities. I promise you, you’ll be well looked after.”

That seemed to mollify Kim, which was good since I was much too far away to have any kind of calming effect otherwise. This was her fear showing through, and I felt it my job to try to walk her back from the cliff’s edge.

It shouldn’t have come as any great surprise that Lyons was the person who did most of the calming. My followup conversation with Kim was less strained, and at least from my point of view, much more patient.

It also told me, to a lesser extent, what I’m in for. I love Kim, but she can be very high-maintenance at times. I’m going to have to work on that with her – not to change her, but to understand her. That’s something I never got right with Holly, and if Kim and I are to have a future it’s something I need to understand sooner than later.

It was a distraction I clearly didn’t need as I prepared to see how Real Madrid operates.

# # #
Usually, I hate it when Leather texts me. Today, he did it twice.

The first time, it was to tell me that Neil Danns hurt his hammy on international duty and that both he and Mason would be on the shelf for at least 14 days.

The second text made me genuinely angry – Medo had played for Sierra Leone despite a thigh strain and not only had he played, he had played for all ninety minutes in a 4-1 loss. As such, I’m considering denying permission for him to travel internationally next time it’s legally possible for me to do so.

As a result, when I arrived at what is known as the Ciudad Real Madrid, I was in a vile mood. But after looking around the place, that bad mood quickly vanished, replaced by a sense of awe at the raw financial power I was seeing in action.

Opened in 1995, the Ciudad is enormous. It’s over 1.2 million square metres in size, which is 16 times bigger than Red Square and nearly three times as big as Vatican City.

Our party was greeted by club representatives at the door, and Olmedo was watching faces for reactions. He got what he was expecting, I guess – it was amazing to look at.

The entrance hall to the facility is right next to one of the club restaurants, known as La Cantera, which overlooks most of the ten training pitches contained within the facility.

Seven of those pitches are for the youth teams, which play on the same type of grass used to turf the Bernabéu. Only club employees are allowed into the youth rooms.

From there, it’s on to the first team training facilities. Offices are located there, along with physiotherapy facilities which are both massive and impressive.

The hydrotherapy area has four swimming pools, two baths, a sauna and a Turkish bath, which I guess comes in handy when playing Galatasaray. Upstairs from that is a VIP room and a media space of 2,000 square metres, which is about 1,900 more square metres than I’d give some of them.

The first team training room is obviously large, and leads directly to the three training pitches which contain seating for 11,000 spectators. For training.

And it was there where we met the man in charge.

Carlo Ancelotti is the latest to occupy one of world football’s hottest hot seats. The Italian is at his seventh club, four of which were Juventus, Milan, Chelsea and PSG, before moving to Madrid.

He and Bob Paisley are the only two managers to have won the European Cup three times – twice with Milan and last season right here in Madrid.

So the man knows what he’s talking about.

He’s also an interesting fellow in that he is recently married, having wed Canadian businesswoman Mariann Barrena McClay four months ago. I’m wondering how he managed to do that. I can’t even go out in public without getting my picture splashed all over the papers and here’s the manager of Real Madrid finding time for a personal life that has somehow stayed out of the media.

He’s further a rarity in that his win percentage has increased with every club he’s managed – from Reggiana to Parma, Juventus, Milan, Chelsea, PSG and Real. He also spoke English, French, Italian and Spanish during his unveiling news conference as Real Madrid manager, so it’s hard not to feel intimidated around the man.

That said, there are people who have issues with him. He’s not known as a terribly ‘hands-on’ manager and in his eighteen years in the managerial game, he’s won ‘only’ three league titles despite having some of the better teams in Europe to handle. Look, here’s me saying this – I’d give my eyeteeth to have one league championship – the one I’m in.

The other members of my class were introduced one by one, and I was last in line. That was a bit annoying because I hate being last in anything. However, another member of my cohort, Blackburn manager Gary Bowyer, was right in front of me in line so we stood and took it all in together.

Despite the fact that Blackburn is a heated rival – up there with Wigan in terms of pure vitriol between fans – Gary’s a decent chap and we had spent a good part of the morning comparing course notes. Derby managers aren’t supposed to act like that, I guess. Gary met Ancelotti just before I did.

But when my turn came to meet him, I shook his hand firmly and immediately felt better.

He then surprised me.

“You’re playing very well at the moment,” he said, and that caught me off my guard.

“So are you,” I smiled, “but then I should think more people notice your club than mine.”

“In football, as they say, ‘you never know’,” he replied, with a ready smile that somehow didn’t look patronizing. He then turned to the group.

“Shall we take a look around?” he asked expansively. For the moment, it was his to show.
# # #
It was breathtaking. I really didn’t know what this was supposed to teach me about club structure other than “Real Madrid can spend so much money it is able to build a city without batting an eyelash”, but it was a great day of life at the very top.

After watching the Madridistas train, which was in itself an exercise in organization and to-the-second timing, we had lunch at La Cantera and then sat in a briefing room for a round-table discussion with the UEFA staff and Ancelotti, who under other circumstances could be said to have given up a decent portion of his day to sit with the class members. Yet, with his reputation for ‘hands off’ management, he had highly capable assistants handling his training and he could watch what he needed to see on video after the fact.

We covered handling top-class players – of which I have a few. I also have a few who would like to be, and a few who just think they are. We also talked about some elements of club structure in a nation where club presidents are elected in wildly political atmospheres.

That’s an element of the Madrid life I couldn’t really imagine. Davies runs Bolton FC and for all practical purposes bankrolls the club through his companies. Ancelotti’s personal pressure cooker comes from Florentino Pérez, the flambouyant club president who gets money from wherever he gets it, in addition to the club’s gigantic turnover.

Of course, as I took notes and watched Ancelotti talk, the spectre of Francisco Franco hung over the conversation, as it does virtually all talk about Real Madrid outside the country. It’s one of the great mysteries surrounding the world’s greatest game.

There’s no hard evidence that El Caudillo helped Real Madrid win matches by fixing them, though his dislike for the Catalan club, Barcelona, was well known. And, it’s very true that the club didn’t win a league championship until Franco had been in power for sixteen years. So the famed ‘special relationship’ between Franco and Real Madrid is very difficult to prove.

That said, the undeniably brilliant Madrid teams of the 1950s were the best thing for Franco, running a country ostracized from the community of nations by the brutality of its civil war and subsequent dictatorship. The Puskas-DiStéfano-Copa sides – the three of whom were foreigners all – lent an air of legitimacy to a nation which badly needed it.

Football writer Simon Kuper has noted that every club that has won the European Cup from a nation in dictatorship played in that country’s capital city – and six of Real’s famed La Decíma were won when Franco was in power. And perhaps that was the biggest benefit of all for Franco, who could show off his showpiece team in his most advanced city. Kuper speculates that Franco didn’t fix matches because he didn’t need to.

Yet that kind of talk takes away from some remarkable football and remarkable football players. For example, Real’s legendary Spanish winger Francisco “Gento” Lopez, known as “El Supersonico”, is still the only man to have won six European Cup winner’s medals. That’s an unparalleled record of success which may well never be broken.

The grandeur that is Real Madrid is arguably greater than ever, in one of Europe’s greatest cities. The Ciudad Real Madrid is the centre of community revitalization in Madrid, with Franco dead for nearly forty years.

And as I took notes from the great man himself, Ancelotti, I was left to remark that sometimes in life, as in football, the more things change the more they stay the same.

# # #
There were a couple of major developments in the footballing world while I was away.

Two days after I arrived in Madrid, Manchester City sacked Manuel Pellegrini, another pretty decent manager in his own right. The Champions of England are tenth in the table this season, with a record of 5-1-5, and since Louis van Gaal has Manchester United topping the table for the time being, the Citizens made the move.

United is interesting – Wayne Rooney hasn’t played all season due to a broken leg suffered in pre-season training and Van Gaal still has them top. So to be outpacing City with their best player and highest wage earner on the shelf is really grating on the blue side of Manchester.

The Premiership is a tight contest at the moment. United lead with 25 points, followed by Chelsea with 24 and Liverpool with 22. United have an advantage in that they are the only club in the top three with no European commitments, so van Gaal can concentrate on the league while Jose Mourinho and Brendan Rogers have other concerns.

Arsenal, Newcastle and Southampton are joint fourth with 21 points, but the news here is that Jürgen Klopp of Dortmund came right out and said he wanted the City job.

Klopp has made great hay of the fact that he’s never broken a contract, and so to hear him say this is rather stunning. BVB are seventh in the Bundesliga at the present moment, and languishing a bit behind rivals Bayern Munich, so perhaps both City and Dortmund might benefit from a change of leadership.

However, City opted to raid Europa League champion Sevilla for its manager, hiring Unai Emery two days later. Sevilla then brought Frank Rijkaard out of temporary retirement to take over their club, so the La Liga managerial circus had at least three rings and I got to watch all the fun in the press.

The other story of note came from Scotland where Rangers gave a P45 to Ally McCoist after a 2-1 loss at Ibrox to Alloa Athletic that left Scotland’s most successful club in the playdown places in the Championship.

Rangers are ninth in the ten-team table but there’s good news and bad news there, as only six points separate top from bottom in a league that appears well and truly devoid of class.

How bad is it? Well, Queen of the South tops the table – not a bad thing in itself, but when you consider they’ve won only four of their twelve matches, that’s a bit jaw-dropping. Their seven draws have them top on 19 points. Raith Rovers are bottom only six points back, with their 3-4-6 mark and 13 points placing them one behind Rangers. There’s so much work to be done in the Blue Room it’s frankly ridiculous.

And, Sir Alex Ferguson’s son Darren was sacked at Peterborough, with the Posh 18th in the League One table. That ends his second stint at the club, which was promoted three times and won a Johnstone’s Paint Trophy under his management.

So the wheels are beginning to turn, with chairmen and owners already losing patience with managers before the middle of November.

Coppell also did what I consider to be an extremely smart thing when I was gone, signing Clough to a two-year contract extension at a rate that is sure to rise soon if he becomes anywhere near the player he’s got a chance to be. The lad is in terrific form at the moment, with seven goals in thirteen senior matches and another six in friendlies.

So it really frosted my shorts to see Blackpool’s Belgian manager, José Riga, slate the boy as a “weak link” to our team on the day I returned from Madrid in the run-up to our Lancashire derby match against the Tangerines.

My first news conference after returning was therefore a bit frosty to the Bloomfield Road boss.

“Completely inappropriate,” I snapped when I was asked about Riga’s comments. “You people ask me questions about other clubs’ players all the time to try to stir up the kind of crap Riga gave you and we don’t bite on that here at this club. Zach has more goals than any player José has save one, and I think Mr. Clough will be ready for a performance on Saturday.”

That ‘one’ was Nathan Delfouneso, who leads Blackpool with nine goals, the same amount as Beckford and one fewer than Mason, who has played a total of nineteen minutes in the last five weeks. “Weak link”, indeed.

We also got David Wheater back in training, and that will boost us too. Dervite has done well when called upon, but we need numbers at the back too and David as vice-captain is an important part of our team.

That said, returning internationals are going to gut us a bit for the visit to the coast. Chung-Yong won’t be ready, which means Hall moves to the right and Moxey will get the start on the left side of midfield where I’m coming to prefer him. Beckford will be the only spare striker with Mason on the shelf again, and Clough leads the line.

Young man, do yourself proud.

# # #
22 November 2014 – Blackpool (7-3-7, 11th place) v Bolton Wanderers (13-2-2, 2nd place)
Championship Match Day #18 – Bloomfield Road, Blackpool

Once again, we woke up in second place in the Championship, due to Fulham’s 2-0 win at Brentford the day before. This was our match in hand, and we needed to win away to regain the pole position.

It’s only a forty-minute drive on the M6 and M55 to the Irish Sea coast, so we didn’t have to worry about travel arrangements. We stayed at the Whites Hotel the night before the match and took a coach to Blackpool at 8:00 to play.

There was a real air of anticipation outside the ground, and among the Blackpool faithful who gathered to jeer at our coach as we wound our way from Park Road to Bloomfield Road, which is about three kilometres from the Irish Sea coast.

The street which gives the stadium its name virtually bisects the city’s Central and South piers, reaching the sea at the famous Blackpool Promenade.

But today, though, the natives along the Golden Mile were starting to get a bit restless. It was my job to make sure they stayed that way.

After a surprisingly strong start to the season, the Seasiders have fallen upon comparatively hard times, as I have previously mentioned. Yet Riga isn’t the guy who is taking the fall – it’s owner Owen Oyston and his son, chairman Karl.

Somehow, Blackpool started the friendly season with only eight players under contract, forcing the club to cancel its pre-season tour of Spain. The fact that Blackpool is anywhere but dead last in the table at this point is a minor miracle, and the Oystons took great heat for it.

It’s been bad enough that some supporters walked out of Bloomfield Road in the 53rd minute of the club’s 0-1 home loss to Cardiff in October, with the reference being to 1953, the year of the famous “Matthews Final”, in which the club last won the FA Cup. Unfortunately for the Oyston’s optics, the 53rd minute was four minutes after the Bluebirds’ Anthony Pilkington scored the only goal of the match.

So the supporters weren’t happy. And this was when the club was still playing well. Since that date, they’ve won once in six matches and scored four goals.

Owen Oyston has been accused of siphoning money out of the club, a charge he steadfastly denies. As proof, he points to midfielder Jose Cubero, one of only two players the club spent money to purchase in the last two years. Oyston claims Blackpool have no debt, and he’s probably right – but the club training complex at Squires Gate is considered substandard and, laughably to a Bolton man, still carries a sign over it which reads, and I kid you not, “Blackpool Football Club Centre of Excellance.”

Poor spelling aside, we lined up this way to take on another of our local rivals:

Bolton Wanderers (4-1-3-2): Bogdán: McNaughton, Dervite, Mills, Tierney, Spearing (captain), Hall, Vela, Moxey, C. Davies, Clough. Subs: Lonergan, Vermijl, Ream, Pratley, M. Davies, Chung-Yong, Beckford.

I was pleased to have Pratley on the bench. He’s battled injuries all season and he’s finally at match fitness so in the young man came. Wheater will join him as soon as he’s able to make it through a reserve match without setback.

I should have figured that, for all his bluster about us having a ‘weak link’, Riga would set out a side that was largely negative in scope. They played a 4-2-2-2 with two anchor men, and that was apparent from the kickoff. They were going to wait for us and then try to counter.

But the two behind the strikers were wingers with a backtracking mentality, so with no one in the centre of the park, they ceded dominance in an important area fairly early on. Their plan seemed wholly defensive, and minute after minute passed in almost complete, stultifying boredom. It was going to take something special to wake up the fans and, to a lesser extent, the players.

My repeated cajoling to wake up and concentrate didn’t seem to help much, until it became apparent that the first player on either team who snapped out of it would give his team a huge advantage.

Thankfully for us, it was Moxey. With Chung-Yong on the bench resting from his international exertions, Hall had been moved over to the opposite side and made things happen despite playing on the side opposite his stronger foot.

His cross found Moxey in space in the penalty area and he hit what is now one of his trademark volleys into the lower left corner of Joe Lewis’ goal four minutes before the interval.

We had controlled play, but a goal was just what the doctor ordered because it allowed me to give an upbeat team talk at the intermission.

I was especially interested in firing up Clough, who had worked hard but been bottled up by the Blackpool defence and one of the holding midfielders.

“They don’t think you can do it,” I chided. “They’re wrong, but you need to show them. Now, go do it.”

The teenager smiled and prepared to get to his task. His confidence is high and even if he couldn’t score, I wanted him to have a strong performance so I could publicly back him against Riga’s charge after the match.

The second half kicked off and it took us exactly nineteen seconds to threaten. Spearing found Craig Davies through the middle and the veteran forward strode forward, drawing both holding midfielders onto him.

That opened up space and immediately Davies slid the ball right, onto the very intelligent diagonal run of … Clough, who whipped a quick shot past Lewis and home for the goal vital to his confidence and our chances.

That’s one of the things I love about young players. Sometimes, they not only do what you tell them to do, they do it quickly.

The second goal was a punch to Blackpool’s solar plexus and it did serve to wake them up a bit. They moved to a flat 4-4-2 and started to get forward a bit, trying to get Delfouneso and Nile Ranger free in our area. We had bottled them up pretty easily due to lack of service in the first half, and what Fulham had failed to do to Blackpool in ninety minutes, we had done twice in 46.

But then they came forward with purpose, and midfielder David Perkins found space down the right to get to the byline. He crossed for Delfouneso, who was well marked by Dorian Dervite.

Too well, as it turned out. The cross went off Dorian’s outstretched leg and my defender put through his own goal to get them back into the match in 52 minutes.

Dervite looked devastated. Bogdán, for his part, took it with good grace.

He picked the defender up off the floor and gave him a swat on the behind and a muss of his hair to get him back into the match. We still led, but anything that got them back into the match was anathema to me and obviously to Dervite as well.

Yet, the defender held up well mentally despite his own goal. That was very gratifying to see. He stood tall against Ranger and against his eventual replacement, Tom Barkhuizen. Their 4-4-2 was really no match for us as our strength and depth eventually began to tell.

It didn’t take long for us to restore order, though, as well as our two-goal lead. Just before the hour mark, we got a corner to Allen’s right, in front of the new Jimmy Armfield Stand. Spearing took it, and instead of going into the six-yard box as I generally prefer, he pulled the corner back to Vela at the top of the eighteen.

The midfielder controlled the ball with a very deft first touch and rifled an unstoppable right-footed shot between Allen’s fingertips and Tony McMahon, who was guarding the right goal post but had no chance to react.

It was a super strike, Vela’s second goal of the season, and it restored us to a 3-1 advantage. With Blackpool looking toothless, I was able to get Moxey out of the game in 69 minutes after he took a good, hard whack from Dion Charles that saw him slow to get up.

Able to risk it because of the score, I simply switched Hall from right to left and brought in Chung-Yong, asking him for twenty good minutes which he gave with no problems at all.

When it was done, it had been easy. In fact, we had scored all four of the goals, and since we had won, we could (gently) kid Dervite about his finishing skills.

Match Summary: Bogdán: McNaughton, Dervite, Mills, Tierney, Spearing, Hall, Vela (Ream 84), Moxey (Chung-Yong 69), C. Davies (Beckford 84), Clough. Unused subs: Lonergan, Vermijl, Pratley, M. Davies.

Blackpool 1 (Dervite o/g 52)
Bolton Wanderers 3 (Moxey 41, Clough 46, Vela 58)
H/T: 0-1
A – 17,000, Bloomfield Road, Blackpool
Man of the Match: Dean Moxey, Bolton (MR 8.9)

# # #
“Well, I think Mr. Riga’s ‘weak link’ did pretty well. In fact, by my scoresheet, he had the game-winning goal, I do believe.”

I don’t get many chances to not only rub it in, but twist as well, and this was one. Clough was on cloud nine and I was going to do nothing to damage the lad’s feeling.

“You look happy with yourself.” That was King, who should have known better.

“I’m happy for Zach,” I responded. “As I would be for any of my players who is publicly criticized by an opposing manager and then makes them pay for it.”

“You aren’t letting this go, are you?”

“I said at the time I didn’t think the criticism was appropriate and I’m sticking to it,” I said. “There are lines, even with rivals, that you don’t cross, and that is one of them.”

I realized that I was going to come off sounding like a headmaster but that was fine with me. We had schooled Riga’s team and proven a point. So I felt entitled to instruct the class. Someday, I’ll be the one being instructed, though. That’s football.

I knew my words would be all over Lancashire in the morning, and so that was where I chose to let it lay. Many of the 17,000 fans – which was the largest crowd since the “new” Bloomfield Road had been opened in 1999 – had reacted to the final whistle with a mixture of outrage and resignation. In short, the perfect sounds for a visiting manager to hear on derby day.

The ride home was short and loud, as the players let off some steam after a solid win against a big and longtime rival.

I thought about getting ready to play Huddersfield Town with a whole week to prepare for the match. That’s a luxury I’m not used to having, and it means most of the first-choice eleven will be gassed up and ready to go for that one. That will also be a luxury I’m not used to having.

We maintained our one-point lead over Fulham too – and it looks like that is going to be a race that will last for the long haul. They’re probably the most talented team in the Championship while we have been the team that has played at closest to top form.

And so, while we enjoyed the short coach ride home, I was already working on the advance report on Huddersfield, managed by Chris Powell. He’s a top bloke and he really has his team doing all the right things. He’s up to eighth in the table and just out of the playoff places with a side that really wasn’t fancied to do anything quite like that.

We will have our work cut out for us. And they’ll be ready.

But I had work to do with Kim when I got home. I wanted her to completely understand that there’s nothing more between me and Amanda and it’s very important that she gets that message in as kind but as thorough a way as possible.

I figured that perhaps the best way to do that would be with a bottle of wine and some roses, but since the flower shops were closed by the time I got back to the Macron, I had to settle for a nice Merlot to go with dinner.

She looked surprised. That was a good thing. Then she looked happy, which was better still. Even Holly’s phone call that night didn’t bother me – that was how nice it was.

She called at exactly the right time – after we had snuggled into bed and were watching a movie, so I was able to draw some inspiration from a romance flick while dealing with someone I really didn’t care to talk to.

“Blake is ready for this weekend,” she told me, in the same tone of voice she might use to say, “Blake is ready to stick his head into a vise.”

Kim nuzzled into my shoulder as I acknowledged Holly’s comment, and suddenly I forgot all about the ill feeling I had toward her.

“That’s wonderful, but if you don’t mind, Holly, I’ve other things to do at the moment so I’ll see you Friday, yeah?”

Kim giggled, and I hung up the phone.

# # #
Blake Malone seems to like to get stuck in when he plays football with his little mates.

I had to laugh when I saw him, a determined looked on his face, as he carried his overnight bag to me when I met Holly and Darin.

He climbed into the front seat of my Jaguar and I buckled him into the car seat before driving him home. Kim was working late and wasn’t with me, as she was preparing for the December board meeting a few days hence.

Blake was limping a bit from a kick on the foot he received while trying to score a goal (which was something he promised he’d never try again) and I wondered how the referees at his level let kids play in such a rough way.

But it’s a rough game sometimes, and a few bumps and bruises are part and parcel of the national game. So off we went, while I worried about what was coming up a few days hence.

The hot rumour is that the directors were going to pump some cash into the club but that I’m going to be asked to sell in January so we can meet Financial Fair Play requirements. Kim’s being very close-mouthed about it, and I can understand that, but here’s the kind of situation I’m sure Gartside wanted to avoid when Kim and I started our relationship.

She knows what’s going on in the boardroom, and the manager isn’t supposed to be privy to all that. She also won’t tell me, and in this particular case it would be a good idea from my personal standpoint for me to know. I have to cull certain areas of the squad, and the fact of the matter is that there may well be offers made for players I don’t want to lose but will have to sell due to the club’s financial situation.

That’s what worries me the most about winning the league. As a recently relegated Premiership side, Fulham do not have to sell whereas I almost certainly will in order to make the books balance at the end of the season.

That’s why the first person I met with after the Blackpool match wasn’t Spooner but rather Coppell.

There are players who may simply have to go. Mark Davies is one – a nice footballer but one who makes well over a million pounds per annum and has a valuation of about £3 million at last glance. Selling him at valuation would virtually wipe out our financial issues for the rest of the season – and hopefully, promotion would wipe out the rest.

And the truth of the matter is, he’s not even my first choice in the centre of the park any more. That, for the moment, is Vela, who has itched for this chance all season and has grabbed it with both hands. I like how he handles the position and he seems to work well with Spearing, which is another good thing.

There are others I wouldn’t mind moving on. Medo is starting to annoy me with his requests to play ahead of the club captain and I can’t find a place for Pratley, even as patient as he’s been. The fact that all three of those players play the same position isn’t lost on me either.

Danns is making noise about wanting to supplant Chung-Yong in the eleven, and at age 32 and with a decent pay packet the chances of that happening are frankly two – slim, and fat.

So there is room to cull in the squad, but again, I have to be mindful of others’ desire to poach my players at the same time. Coppell and I went over our shortlists to replenish the squad in certain areas if and when the axe starts to swing. It’s going to be an interesting January.

I don’t want it to lead to friction between me and Kim, or nearly as importantly, between Kim and her boss. She holds confidential information in her gorgeous head, and I have to balance my need to know some of that information with my relationship with her, and with her job. I can’t risk the latter two but the former might be helpful in staying employed myself.

Hence, a conundrum. I’m not best pleased, but I don’t want to give up my job and I positively will not give up Kim Pickering, so I will have to make do as best I can.

After returning from Madrid, she and I spent a day on the town getting re-acquainted, if you will, and ironing out any issues Amanda created with her latest missive.

Kim is a great lady, don’t get me wrong, and I am growing to love her very much – but she’s high-maintenance and that’s understandable given her situation. I’m willing to be more patient with her than I am at the moment, with, say, Medo. For completely different reasons.

But as Kim and I relaxed together watching Blake play a video game on the television in front of us, I thought, for the first time, that we looked like a little family. There’s not a thing wrong with that.

I get to be happy too. So far, that’s the lesson of my time at Bolton Wanderers.

# # #
29 November 2014 - Bolton Wanderers (14-2-2, 1st place) v Huddersfield Town (8-5-5, 8th place)
Championship Match Day #19 – Macron Stadium, Bolton

It felt odd, picking from a virtually full squad to put a first-choice eleven out there.

Mason made it through 90 minutes with the u-21s two nights before without a setback but was still regaining fitness so he made the bench. The red-hot Clough started up front again with the equally red-hot Davies playing in the hole behind him.

McNaughton lost his place after losing a bit of form, replaced by the champing-at-the-bit Marnick Vermijl. Tierney was the preferred option at left full back with the disgruntled Medo once again backing up the captain, Spearing, in the holding position. Imagine that.

Huddersfield’s coach arrived punctually at the Macron and I waited for Powell outside his team’s changing room, nodding to his players as they made their way into their temporary home one by one.

Finally, the five-times-capped England man arrived and we shared a handshake. The former Charlton and Leicester manager is on his third assignment with Town, and we had been teammates for a time with the Three Lions. In 2001, Sven-Goran Eriksson made him at age 31 the oldest England debutant since Syd Owen in 1954, and it couldn’t have happened to a better bloke.

His major accomplishment was to be voted Southend United’s greatest-ever “cult hero” in a 2004 BBC poll, where one of the voting fans described him as “one of the nicest men in football”.

It was in that vein that we talked. Some interplay between us in the media during the week had been blown out of proportion in the press – I had said that Huddersfield’s overperformance in the table had been due to Chris Powell, and the press had said I was being patronizing. Chris told them where they could stuff that kind of talk – nicely, of course – and we talked to make sure everything was still okay between us.

“Of course, mate,” he said with his usual smile. “Meet you after the match for a glass?”

“Wouldn’t have it any other way,” I said. “Good luck.”

Friendship aside, Chris’ side was a first-class pain in the backside to break down once the match proper began.

We started well enough, but didn’t have the chops to put one behind Alex Smithies in the Huddersfield goal. Davies and Chung-Yong came close in the first ten minutes but Huddersfield seemed quite content to put ten men behind the ball and let Jesse Lingard support James Vaughan up front – until Vaughan pulled up limping after only twelve minutes of play.

That forced Powell into his first substitution a lot earlier than I’m sure he’d have liked, and it made us deal with Nahki Wells, their Bermudian striker and a player we hadn’t planned on facing until closer to the end of the match.

We finally broke through them just over ten minutes from the break. Spearing was the provider from deep, and that was pleasing, hitting Davies in stride about thirty yards from goal. What was even more pleasing was the blazing pace the Welsh international showed in striding powerfully between defenders Joel Lynch and Jack Robinson. Three long, powerful strides and he was gone, in alone on Smithies, whom he beat with no difficulty.

Davies’ fleetness of foot at first stunned the crowd and then brought it to its collective feet in appreciation of a player who is clearly in peak form.

“Bloody hell.” That was Spooner, as slack-jawed as I was on the bench. “What a run.”

Davies’ brilliance got us to halftime a goal to the good, and my talk was reassuring since Huddersfield had hardly threatened us.

The second half kicked off and we kicked off right where we had left, surging forward with confidence and threatening almost immediately. Smithies was called into action against Clough in 51 minutes but this time the teenage striker was denied at feet by the keeper and this time, unlike in the previous few matches, you could see it affect the lad.

He wants to score. He hasn’t quite yet realized that you can’t always do that. His drive for excellence is profound but so are his expectations, and that is something that has to be worked on over time.

That said, we were comfortable, and Clough turned provider just after the hour when his square ball found who else but Davies across the opposite edge of the six from his strike partner. This ball was even easier to direct home than his first had been, and it was 2-nil to us just after the hour.

That was even more comfortable. Huddersfield were well and truly behind us, and since Tierney was not having one of his best days, I took him and Clough off as part of a double swap in 66 minutes, with McNaughton and Beckford entering the fray.

The former was struggling for form so I wanted him to try to find it with a lead to protect, and the latter simply needed playing time on a day when Clough was overthinking.

I called Mason to me and asked if he were up to a short stint. He said yes, and I said I’d consider putting him in if the score was right. He understood that, and began his warmup.

Moments later, we were celebrating again as Moxey turned in a cross from Marnick Vermijl to make it 3-nil in 74 minutes. The fans were singing, the crowd seemed content, and it was just in the bag.

Then, we stopped playing.

Medo came on for Spearing, which is what he said he wanted, in 75 minutes, and Mason sat down since we were out of substitutions. But what happened after that was the kind of thing that got players roasted after the Brentford cup tie.

It started innocently enough, five minutes from time, as Paul Dixon, who had come on as a substitute for the ineffective Jack Robinson, shook loose down the right and beat Bogdán from a sharp angle to the right. So, big deal, yeah?

As it turned out, yeah.

We just shut down. Simple as. Four minutes later we were again picking the ball out of our goal thanks to what can only be described as a wonder strike from Jesse Lingard, whose thirty-yard rocket found the top right corner of Bogdán’s goal.

That had their bench up and screaming. What had me up and screaming was that we had simply stopped defending. Good defensive football is about denying the opposition time and space, and we had done neither. We were ball-watching, asleep, and suddenly we were in real trouble.

They rushed the ball back to the centre of the park and we kicked off. Suddenly, they were all over us, my shouts to defend deep seemed to fall on deaf ears, and I was starting to wonder if we were going to throw away two points by conceding three goals in the last five minutes.

It damned nearly happened. In the first minute of added time, Wells, who had been virtually silent, nutmegged Medo and roared in for a shot that he put cleanly off Bogdán’s right goal post, the rebound coming straight back into play. Dervite scrambled it away, and we were on the counter, with Lynch’s rather wild and frantic back pass eventually giving us a corner.

Chung-Yong took it – and Vermijl headed it home for his first goal for the club, finally killing off a match that should have been put to bed long, long since.

I was not a happy bunny as the whistle sounded. I commiserated with Powell, told him I had a few things to say to my boys, and that he should wait fifteen minutes after the cooling-off period to meet me in my office.

“Gentlemen, most football matches I’ve seen lasted at least ninety minutes,” I began. There was much more to come.

Match summary - Bogdán: Vermijl, Dervite, Mills, Tierney (McNaughton 66), Spearing (Medo 75), Chung-Yong, Vela, Moxey, C. Davies, Clough (Beckford 66). Unused subs: Lonergan, Wheater, Hall, Mason.

Bolton Wanderers 4 (C. Davies 34, 62, Moxey 74, Vermijl 90+2)
Huddersfield Town 2 (Paul Dixon 85, Lesse Lingard 89)
H/T: 1-0
A – 21,166, Macron Stadium, Bolton
Man of the Match: Craig Davies, Bolton (MR 8.8)

# # #
“The players didn’t look happy.”

That was King, and he was right. They didn’t, and they shouldn’t have.

My talk had been to the point. “You made it hard on yourselves and you’ll have to be better if we want to reach our destination,” I had said.

Some of the players took that as a challenge. Others, on the other hand, did not. As a result, I have my first mini-crisis as Bolton manager.

Huddersfield was missing 46 appearances lost to injury in the centre of their midfield and we should have done better. We nearly fell apart in the last five minutes of the match, on our own ground, and nearly threw away two points because we stopped concentrating and we stopped playing.

As I mentioned, some of the players took my words as a challenge. Others did not.

One who didn’t was Vela, who had played well in his run in the side right up to the Huddersfield match, and another was Medo, who thinks my high-performing captain should sit on the bench so he can play.

But as I talked first with King and then with the other regional media, I noticed that Medo and Vela were talking too. That was not good. I was very curious to hear what they had to say.

In the evening editions, I found out. And I wasn’t happy.

In fact, I was incandescent.

The News, as well as the Press Association and various football websites, had run quotes from Vela saying I had been too hard on the team and by Medo suggesting that I didn’t like him. And this time, he may just be right.

“The manager needs to understand the players are trying their best,” Vela was quoted as saying. “Our squad selection is understandable but perhaps could be better at the end of the match when we are trying to close out the game. He was too harsh on us after the match and a lot of my teammates agree with me.”

To make matters worse, not two weeks ago Coppell, on my instructions, had signed Josh to a new contract. If this is how he thinks it’s a good idea to repay his club, maybe a little time on the bench wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world for him.

Medo was even more insulting. “I didn’t see the logic in how we ended the match and to a point even in how we started it,” he said. “We had players who could have helped sitting on the bench. He wasn’t happy, he criticized me in front of my teammates and I think he’s trying to force me out of the club.”

By “players who could help”, I think he meant Mason, who wasn’t ready for a full return as yet, and perhaps his fellow youngster Hall, who had sat the match so the red-hot Moxey could continue his brilliance on the left and Chung-Yong could make us go on the right flank.

Either way, it sounded like two members of the squad were very unhappy and had gone public with their discontent, with both of them playing in the match and the team topping the table.

I was furious. Even Kim, known for her temper, wouldn’t go near me as I read the evening editions. Only Blake could mollify me, and he did, even though he didn’t know it.

I tried to rationalize. The players cared enough to say something. But at the same time, I couldn’t allow such a public challenge to my authority as the manager. I expect that my players will keep what is said in the changing room in the changing room.

Both players had failed in that basic task and there was going to be a consequence for it. Spooner texted me that there were players openly grumbling.

As Kim, Blake and I ate an early Sunday breakfast, I was composing a reply message to Spooner.

“Text the senior squad. There will be a mandatory meeting in the Macron Stadium changing room at 9:30. All senior squad players, injured or not, will attend and will be on time. There will be sanctions for anyone who is late.”

I hit ‘send’, finished my breakfast and drove to the stadium in silence. It was going to be a bloody Sunday.

# # #
“Good morning, gentlemen. I suppose you’re wondering why I’ve asked you all here today.”

The expression on my face could have left no doubt, but I was looking at the senior squad players for reaction. There was none. They all knew.

“It has come to my attention, through the press, that some of you are not best pleased with my observations on how we closed out yesterday’s match,” I continued. “And others of you are not best pleased with me. I’ve asked you all here to let those players have at me in front of the team. If anyone has anything else to add above and beyond what’s already been in the news, now is the time.”

This was a calculated risk, and I knew it. I believed from watching the players all season that I had the vast majority of them with me. I was about to find out if I was right.

The American baseball manager Casey Stengel once said that “the secret to managing is keeping the five guys who hate you away from the five guys who are undecided.”

I knew when I called the meeting that there were fewer than five guys who hated me, and I had just called them out. As a result, there was not a sound from the players. I gave them a few moments and then took charge again.

“Hearing nothing, it’s my turn. Mr. Kamara, we’ll start with you.” Medo looked at me with an expression of surprise he shouldn’t have had.

“You said in the press that I criticized you in front of your teammates. I’d like to know --”

“I didn’t say that, I was misquoted,” he interjected.

“A player in your situation who interrupts his manager is pants-on-head stupid. I’m talking, which means you’re not,” I said just as quickly. “I don’t care if you were misquoted, I did not criticize you in front of the team and more importantly, you talked about a general conversation that was held in confidence among the members of this team without permission. That violates my media policy and is unacceptable.”

“And another thing,” I added. “You said you think I’m trying to force you out of the team. If that day ever comes, I’ll tell you to your face. But for now, you aren’t in the team because you’re training with the u-21s tomorrow.”

He didn’t look happy but I wasn’t done.

“Mr. Vela,” I said, and the midfielder looked at me like I had kicked his dog.

“So your contention to the press is that I’m too hard on you lads, is that right?”

“I thought your team talk was harsh,” he replied.

I admire a brave man.

“Let me tell you something,” I answered. “I happen to think that this team is promotable. To that end, I’m going to give you tough love whenever I decide you need some. I’m not your bloody dad, I’m not going to pat you on the arse and say ‘honey, you’re the best in the team’ when you don’t deserve it. If you think I’m being hard on you now, wait until you lose a lead against a better team and it costs you promotion. That’s nothing compared to how hard you’ll be on yourself. Am I clear?”

The looks on the faces of the players when I told them they are promotable told me immediately that I was in absolutely no danger of losing the squad. But now I had a point to prove to Vela.

“You are clear,” he said quietly.

“Now, Mr. Vela, what would you have said?”

“To the team?”

“We already know what you said to Brandon King,” I snapped. “Yes, Josh, to the team.”

“Well, I don’t make the team talk.”

I pounced.

“Oh, you don’t?” I asked, clipping my words for added emphasis. “You…don’t…make…the team talk. I wonder who in this room does make the team talk, and who does pick the eleven?”

My eyes had turned to steel blue with a gaze sharp enough to cut wrought iron. There was no answer. I began to pace back and forth in front of the room, which told the players that I was just warming up.

“I do,” I said. “Look, I’m not here to give the hair dryer to a lot of guys who don’t deserve it. I am here, though, to address what Mr. Spooner says is discontent among the squad. I don’t see a lot of it here, and if there is any, let’s get it out in the open. This is your second chance.”

Again, no one responded.

“Mr. Vela, you’re invited to train with Mr. Kamara tomorrow,” I said. “If you both get your heads down, I will still consider you for selection and you can consider yourselves damned fortunate that’s all that will happen to you this time. But if you two, or any member of this club goes public again like this, there’s going to be trouble and there’s going to be people on the transfer list. It’s not fair to the people in this room who are working hard and playing well to have to put up with backbiting. It’s not fair to your teammates to accuse the manager of playing the ‘wrong eleven’, and it’s not fair to your teammates to suggest that some of them aren’t good enough.”

“Again, this team is promotable. On its day it is the best team in the Championship. That is what our goal ought to be and if I see something that may stand in the way of the promotion your play deserves, I am going to tell you.”

I paused a third time to wait for anyone to say anything. A third spell of silence told me that the ‘discontent’ in the room was the figment of someone’s imagination. There are enough winners in that changing room to make that the case.

“Good,” I concluded. “And if anyone wants to talk to me they know my door is open. I’m sorry to have taken up your Sunday mornings for what is evidently a trivial matter.”

# # #
I should have seen it coming, I guess.

The first day of December brought about an avalanche of news, the majority of it bad.

First the interesting news: an upcoming opponent has sacked its manager.

Ipswich Town – our opponent on the 13th December, two matches from now – dismissed Mick McCarthy after a run of one win from nine dropped the Tractor Boys to 23rd in the table.

They won once in November – on the first day of the month, against my friend José Riga and Blackpool, and not since. Since they were also winless in October, that meant change was necessary, and they’re now looking for a new manager. Terry Connor is the caretaker for the moment while they look for a permanent replacement.

There was better news – to the surprise of virtually no one, Craig Davies is the Player of the Month in the Championship for November. He’s been magnificent, and paired with Young Player of the Month Zach Clough, they have placed us where we are in the table.

Neil Adams of Norwich won the manager award for running the table in five matches including their win over us. That was fully deserved.

At the board meeting, I was informed that the directors have given the club £2.7 million to bring us without shouting distance of compliance with FFP rules. We’re still short, though – and that was where part of my long day came in. We’ll need to sell in January.

I took good notes. My licence testing will receive a significant enhancement thanks to what happened today, and it’s all part of the modern game. A parade of players wanting to explore options was waiting for me. Quite carefully, they explained they weren’t angry with me, but golden spires are golden spires and a guy’s got to think of his career, doesn’t he?

First through the door was Tierney, a player who has been getting a run in the side in recent games but who hasn’t performed all that well when he’s been in there.

Turns out he was distracted by the same club that turned Chung-Yong’s head – Leicester City.

“My agent says they’re interested and I’d like to have a look at them if they offer,” he said.

I was quietly wondering whether I should ask Gartside to look into a tapping-up charge against a club that evidently wants at least two of my players.

“They are a Premiership club,” he reminded me.

“I’m aware of that,” I responded. “I read the papers. But they’ll need to match the club’s valuation and if they do, then I’ll allow you to explore the option.”

He left, apparently pleased, and at the same time telling me all I need to know about him in a loyalty sense.

Next in was Adam Bogdán, which was disappointing. Coppell has been trying to extend his contract with us, and Adam turned it down. His head was turned by Liverpool.

“They’re where I want to be,” he said. “Surely you can see that.”

“My vision is 20-20 according to my doctor, so I see just fine. But, no disrespect to you, why would they move for you, given that they seem quite happy with Mr. Mignolet at the moment?”

“They’re in the Champions League,” he said simply. “That’s the kind of football I need to further my international career.”

“But I repeat to you, Adam, at best you’d split time there. That’s not a knock on you, but they’ve put good money into Mignolet and if you stagnate, that will affect your international ambitions just as greatly as not playing in the Champions League.”

“I’d need to get my head down, I recognize that,” he said. “But if they bid, I want to go.”

“Let’s cross that bridge when we come to it,” I replied. “I understand your desires and of course I can’t really stand in your way as you’ve been a good servant to the club. You’ve kept your mouth closed to the press and you’ve performed very well when called upon. I can see why they want you but I think you’d be better served here.”

He left, and there came a third knock on the door. This was the cruelest cut of all.

Jay Spearing entered the office. My captain.

My bloody captain.

“Jay, I’d better not hear from you that you want to leave,” I began, but he simply shook his head.

“Swansea are interested so I want to explore it,” he said.

“And why is that?”

“Of course, it’s the Premier League.”

I told him to sit down across from my desk, and I sat on the other side to have an important talk with my captain.

“You do realize that you have a special role at this club,” I told him. “You are the captain, which means you’re my bridge to the players, and the bridge between the players and the fans.”

“Yes,” he said. So far, so good.

“More is expected of you. And, Jay, with all due respect, have you looked at the tables lately? We’re in promotion position and Swansea may just have a dogfight on their hands. Would you like to switch a team that is heading upwards with a team that isn’t?”

Swansea are off to a disappointing start – their 17 points so far leaves them just two points out of the drop zone. That said, it could be worse – neither Burnley nor Crystal Palace has yet won in the Premier League and both clubs are almost certainly doomed before Christmas.

“I want to play in the Premier League, but I hear you,” he replied. That was good. “And yes, you know I love the club and I’d prefer not to leave.”

“They why are you in here, Jay?” I asked. “What gives? Why am I seeing people lining up today wanting to leave the club?”

“Gaffer, we’re a victim of our own success,” he said, and I knew immediately that he was right.

We’re the high flyers at the moment and that means Premiership clubs are looking at our better players. It does go on at successful clubs, and I wondered if Kenny Jackett was having similar conversations with some of his boys down in Southwest London.

“Well, I’ll tell you again what I said on Sunday. This team is promotable, especially the way it’s playing. If you stick with it, you can captain a team in the Premiership and not everyone can say they’ve done that. If you will stick with it, the task will be that much easier.”

“Can you promise me Premiership football next season either here or somewhere else?”

“I won’t be held to ransom,” I said immediately. “But I am very confident that this club is capable of winning promotion. From my standpoint, I think the captain of this club owes it to his teammates to stick around and make the attempt.”

A smile slowly spread across Spearing’s face.

“Good enough for me, boss,” he said, extending his hand across the desk. We shook hands, and at least that part of the day ended well for me.
# # #
December 6, 2014 – Reading (7-7-5, 11th place) v Bolton Wanderers (15-2-2, first place)
Championship Match Day #20 – Madejski Stadium, Reading

The trip to Berkshire was pleasant enough, though a wet drizzle upon my awakening today promised a difficult day.

Biscuitman Way is the last road before the stadium, paying tribute to one of the home side’s more colourful nicknames, and as we arrived the night before to stay in the Millenium Madejski Hotel attached to the ground, it looked welcoming enough.

The Royals are a solid side – better than their record, in fact, with only five losses in their nineteen matches to date.

They have good talent throughout the side, but they haven’t achieved under Nigel Adkins in the way I’m sure Sir John Madejski and co-chair Sasima Srivikorn might have liked. Relegated two seasons ago from the Premiership, their parachute payments are drying up too, just like ours did, so Adkins is under some pressure to get his team back to the top flight.

We have our own worries, though, and one of them was how the players would react to the last Huddersfield team talk in our first match since that late near-collapse. The players’ reaction from the team meeting was that they hadn’t stopped buying into the program, so I had reason to expect a decent performance.

Clough dropped to the bench in favour of Beckford and Vermijl got another shot at right full back while the former Reading captain, Mills, got the start against his old team in the centre of defence alongside Wheater, who was fully ready to play after recovering from his injury.

The question of what to do with Mason still lingered, though, because with Davies playing as brilliantly as he has been, I couldn’t take him out of the eleven:

Bolton Wanderers (4-1-3-2): Bodgán: Vermijl, Mills, Wheater, Ream, Spearing (captain), Danns, M. Davies, Moxey, C. Davies, Beckford. Subs: Lonergan, McNaughton, Medo, Hall, Vela, Mason, Clough.

And yes, you did read right – both Medo and Vela were in the eighteen but after what they did in the press last week there was no way I was going to start either one of them. Of the three players who came to my office to talk about golden spires, Tierney, was left out of the eighteen while Spearing and Bogdán, who had responded the most professionally to me, kept their places.

Beckford looked like a colt out there in the early going, which was interesting since none of the ‘young guns’ who have performed so well through the early part of the season were even in the eleven. Neither was Chung-Yong, as Neil Danns got a start on the right side of midfield in place of the South Korean.

And there was the colt, heading the ball into Adam Federici’s goal just six minutes into the match, courtesy of a perfect Moxey cross. The two veterans have been quite brilliant – Moxey all season and Beckford in streaks – but what mattered most was that they were brilliant at that moment beyond doubt, and we led 1-0.

It was the kind of high flying start that managers dream about, especially away from home, and as we settled in with the lead, we expected an immediate Reading riposte. We held them off fairly well, but Oliver Norwood was looking dangerous in the centre of midfield from the start, with Hope Akpan and Jordan Obita providing extra help on the wings and in the channels.

Obita buzzed Bogdán’s tower in sixteen minutes, barely missing the top right corner and forcing my number one into a fingertip save to nudge a rising shot over the bar.

Reading challenged us strongly in the midfield after our goal and since we were playing three wide with a holder, they had a numerical advantage in their 4-2-3-1 alignment. Norwood was starting to control things, and their second holding midfielder was making it very difficult to get the ball into scoring positions as they routinely defended six deep with deep-tracking help from all their midfielders.

In short, they were very well organized and I felt a bit fortunate to score against them as early as we did before they got settled in. Mark Davies missed a decent chance for us five minutes before the interval and when the halftime whistle blew, I was still well pleased with our lead.

Mark Davies still didn’t look like he was anywhere near peak form, but Reading had also done a nice job on Craig Davies as well. In fact, they had started to make some real noise toward the end of the half so I told the players to be prepared to go to our second formation, the 4-3-1-2 counter, if they started to press us again.

Adkins made one change at half, taking off Jake Taylor in favour of Pavel Pogrebnyak. Taylor had played more like the Jake Taylor from the old movie Major League than the midfielder we knew he could be, and in my mind the substitution was fully deserved.

Unfortunately for us, it was also the correct move for them. Reading moved to 4-4-2 and it didn’t take long for them to press us hard.

Akpan, Obita and striker Simon Cox all went close within the first ten minutes of the second half, and before long I knew what needed to be done if I still wanted to hold the lead.

Since I did, I motioned for Clough and McNaughton, who were finishing warmup runs, and brought them both on as I switched to 4-2-3-1. Zach’s job was to front Davies, who was playing as a shadow striker in a counter-attacking alignment. McNaughton replaced Ream, who simply hadn’t been very good.

I liked our shape a lot better once we had five in the midfield, but then Pogrebnyak wrecked everything by making a simply terrific play.

Norwood started it, as he started almost everything for them, with an inch-perfect ball to the right for the run of Akpan, who found himself against McNaughton in a footrace he was the strong favourite to win.

He did, and pulled the ball back beautifully to the middle of the park but I sighed with relief as I saw the ball would beat Pogrebnyak to the spot.

Or, so I thought. The striker dove at full stretch and headed the ball, which was about a foot off the ground, past Bogdán and home to get them level in 63 minutes.

Frankly, their play had deserved an equalizer, but to see it come on such a superb individual effort was both good and bad. It was good in that we couldn’t have prevented it and bad in that it had happened in the first place. It was a very brave play to make and Pogrebnyak had made it count, to the delight of Adkins and the Mad Stad faithful.

At that point, they upped their game again. They would surge forward, but we were in a much better position to absorb their pressure, and we would hit them for pace on the counter.

Ten minutes from time I brought on Hall for Danns in the hope that fresh legs would enable us to steal a goal that would get us three points.

Yet it was Royals substitute Jamie Mackie who got the first good chance after the substitution, thrashing a low drive that Bogdán managed to stop with a full-length dive to his left, with McNaughton there to steer the rebound to safety. He sent Moxey away on the left and right back we came, with the midfielder’s raking cross-field ball hitting Hall in full flight at the halfway line. In he came, with an early pullback looking for Mark Davies just outside the area – and his shot was beaten behind by Adam Federici for a corner.

It was good, solid, end-to-end stuff. And when the final whistle blew, it was a richly deserved draw for both teams – but I was just as interested in learning about how Fulham had done at home to Watford in a matchup of the Championship’s second and third-placed teams.

Match Summary: Bogdan: Vermijl, Mills, Wheater, Ream (McNaughton 59), Spearing, Danns (Hall 80), M. Davies, Moxey, C. Davies, Beckford (Clough 59). Unused subs: Lonergan, Medo, Vela, Mason.

Reading 1 (Pavel Pogrebnyak 63)
Bolton Wanderers 1 (Beckford 6)
H/T: 0-1
A – 16,924, Madejski Stadium, Reading
Man of the Match: Oliver Norwood, Reading (MR 8.0)

# # #
Watford didn’t disappoint us. They didn’t thrill us, but they didn’t disappoint us, either.

The team we thrashed 5-1 on opening day went to Craven Cottage and held Fulham to a goalless draw – so being held ourselves in Berkshire had not cost us the top spot.

The match was our first away draw of the season, perhaps a bit surprisingly, and our first draw of any kind since the 27th September 3-3 split against Derby at the Macron.

Yet, today’s match marked the end of the line for Brighton manager Sami Hyypia. The former Liverpool legend had come over from Bayer Leverkusen, where he first finished his playing career and then managed, but was unable to get the Seagulls up the table in the Championship.

Brighton fell 1-0 to Derby County today, which completed a stretch of games that saw them win just one of their last five, falling to 21st place in the process. They are now in a relegation struggle, one point out of the drop zone, with Christmas fast approaching.

Speaking of which.

I need to figure out what to give the girl who has everything, so to speak. As a rule, I’m spectacularly bad at the romantic stuff, so I am at a bit of a loss as to what to get Kim for Christmas.

So I’m poking around. I asked Dell, who knows Kim fairly well, about the kinds of things she might like, and my PA promised to look into it. Quietly, of course. That’s nice of her.

We’re doing very well and we both like the place our relationship is in at the moment. There are no plans to change it – either by expanding it or by dialing it back.

We have our reasons. Hers is because she’s gunshy. Mine is because … well, because I’m gunshy.

And I want to make sure Blake is completely comfortable around Kim before we talk about any ‘next steps’, as it were. Having Kim in the house is change enough for the boy. Having a stepmother? Well, that’s a horse of a completely different colour.

So, we’re taking it easy. I want Kim to know I care for her and love her, and I want to strike the right note. Preferably without causing more trouble for myself, which is something I seem to excel at doing.

Kim also heard from Theresa Lyons today – the club’s general counsel had the good sense, and foresight, to report to Kim before she reported to me – to say that Amanda Caldwell’s representation had agreed to stop making online references to their client’s past relationship with me.

This was an important thing. Harassment and stalking is a serious offence these days and people have been known to take drastic action – against themselves as well as against others – because of it.

Lyons was very gentle with Kim given her known sensibilities toward Amanda Caldwell but was more businesslike when she spoke with me.

“Bobby, I think it’s handled,” she said. “Her representation was told in no uncertain terms that we considered her actions to be harassment and that we wanted it stopped before the authorities had to do it for us, and they were responsive to that.”

“Does Amanda even run her own account?” I asked.

“It appears that sometimes she does and sometimes someone does it for her,” Lyons answered. “There is a difference in her writing on some posts and it seems pretty obvious to me that either a publicist or a friend handles the other posts in her account.”

There’s load off my mind.

Another load off my mind was Mason’s performance with the u-21s on the Sunday, when he scored four goals against Bristol Rovers and came through the match with nary a scratch. He’s ready to return to action and he will, when we play Ipswich in a week’s time.

We also got a stroke of luck in our FA Cup draw, now that the Third Round is here. We were drawn away to League One Sheffield United for a match which will be played on 3 January and this is good for more than one reason.

Obviously, we’ll be fancied to win, and the board’s minimum for this event is the Fourth Round. Yes, we’re away, but if we simply do the business, we’ll have accomplished that goal. I haven’t forgotten the sting of the League Cup loss to Brentford, and the board hasn’t forgotten the sting of having that loss come one round too early from their point of view.

I personally wouldn’t mind seeing a Cup run. It would allow for more playing time for certain people who have been demanding more of it, and that’s never a bad thing.
# # #
I love the way you dip into matters away from the club and then somehow blend it in with matters on the pitch. You have a gift, my friend

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