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[FM15] - Malone Again, Naturally

Started on 22 June 2015 by tenthreeleader
Latest Reply on 25 January 2016 by tenthreeleader
Great writing man, you've got a gift at this sort of thing. Definitely an enjoyable read.
Gentlemen, thank you for the kind words. Always nice to see people enjoying the work!

13 December 2014 – Bolton Wanderers (15-3-2, first place) v Ipswich Town (2-8-10, 24th place)
Championship Match Day #21 – Macron Stadium, Bolton

When Ipswich Town’s coach arrived at the Macron, I was not ready for what I saw.

Brian McDermott led them off, having been hired the evening before. The former Reading manager would have a side very keen to impress their new boss, having drawn 1-1 at home to Leeds the week before under caretaker Terry Connor and falling into 24th and bottom place in the Championship in the process.

Brian spent most of his career with Arsenal though he did play briefly for Oxford United in their First Division days before finishing his career in the lower leagues. His first managerial job was at Slough before he went into scouting for nine years. Then he took over Reading and won the Championship Manager of the Year award in 2012 as he got the Royals promoted for the second time.

A year later, though, he was gone, and went to Leeds for a year before losing that position. Now, he’s at the Macron opposing me.

This match, from my point of view, had “trip wire” written all over it. Ipswich would be desperate to impress their new boss, we had a one-point lead over rampaging Fulham to protect, and we were going to be heavily favoured to do the business at home.

In short, it was going to be a challenge.

In fact, the match was already into the players’ heads after I shook hands with McDermott and headed to the changing room to speak with the players.

The attitude was different. Players were quiet, sullen even, with headphones on and staring into space. I had to get this stopped and in a hurry.

“Listen up, fellows,” I said as I entered the room, and the players still had the presence of mind to stop what they were doing. “I know this is not going to be an easy match. They’ve got a new manager as of this morning who is going to be on the bench with them and will be keen to get off to a flying start. We have to make sure that doesn’t happen. But here’s the thing; you have to understand that you’re top and they’re bottom for a reason. You’re a better club than they are. So relax. The result will come because we’re prepared and ready for what we’ll see. Now, get loose and let’s have a good day today.”

That seemed to help, especially in the case of Mills, known for his tendency to drift in concentration.

The key changes: Tierney back in at left-back since if he played well he might showcase himself for one of the clubs he says wants him; Vela restored to midfield after a good week of training and keeping his mouth shut; and Mason in the hole position because, even after his time away he was still my leading scorer.

That, and he was ready to come back. That involved dropping Craig Davies to the bench and I didn’t like that much given his recent form, but one does what one has to.

But when the match started, it was the visitors who were the better side. We were flat, sluggish, everything you wouldn’t expect from a table-topping team facing the bottom side at home.

At times, it didn’t look as though we could complete a simple pass. We were slow on the ball, slow off the ball, and ridiculously easy to catch in possession. Tierney was the first one to get burned, coughing up the ball in nineteen minutes with only Mills between Bogdán and forward David McGoldrick, with the late-arriving Stephen Hunt chugging up the middle on an angled run from his left midfield position.

Mills charged down McGoldrick, who simply squared for Hunt. But, shooting off his weaker foot, the former Reading man screwed his shot wide to the left of Bodgán’s goal and I breathed a huge sigh of relief.

We weren’t ourselves, that much was plain. It was a full half hour before we started to generate any form of meaningful attack, but then we came close twice in quick succession.

Moxey was first, barely missing the top left corner of the goal when in reality trying to cross for Beckford, but even that accidental foray was better than anything we had managed previously.

Soon afterward, it was Mason, and that was welcome. His rasping effort from twenty yards glanced of the crossbar and over, though, which was cause for dismay but not despair.

For the remainder of the half, we were better and when the halftime whistle went I could legitimately tell the team I thought the result was on the cards.

“You’ve got out of the stupor you were in,” I said. “Good teams are able to do that and you were right on the mark for the last fifteen minutes. You did everything but score, so if you keep working hard the points are out there for you.”

With that, I let Spooner handle the individual talks while I sat in my office trying to figure out how to help my players break down the Tractor Boys.

I watched video on an iPad and saw essentially what I had seen at field level: a solid, organized defence and just a hint of desperation in their play that meant they’d be devilishly hard to break down. In short, barring a lapse in concentration from them in the second half, we’d just have to be patient and find a way through.

We were getting uneven play from our wings, though, and that was disappointing. Moxey was his usual solid self on the left but for a change Chung-Yong wasn’t having his usual game on our right. The Ipswich alignment tried to close down both our wingers – which should have meant more space for Vela as the attacking half of our central midfield duo – but he wasn’t having the greatest match of his life either, and it did make me miss having Mark Davies in the eighteen. However, the veteran’s play simply hasn’t warranted his inclusion, and that’s unfortunate.

So it was Vela or sink, and as such the best I could do was encourage the young man to actually play the kind of match he has been telling me for weeks he can play. After his incident with the press, I felt he owed the club at least that much – never mind me, the manager who he had slated.

In this case, though, patience was not a virtue. Beckford and Spearing both went down with injuries just after the start of the second half and I took them both off at the same time in 54 minutes, bringing Medo and Clough into the game. Spearing got his foot stepped on hard and was really hobbling, while Beckford left more alarmingly, clutching his left hip.

So, there they both were, The Malcontent Twins, running my central midfield into the ground and unable to find a way through the bottom team in our league. The fans were starting to get impatient and I suddenly remembered today’s “Stat of the Day” as printed before the match by the ever-helpful Brandon King:

“Wanderers have scored in every match – friendly, cup and league – since Bobby Malone took over in August.”

Right then, it didn’t look good for us finding a goal, and even though Ipswich was almost literally no threat at all to us, we just couldn’t break them down.

The match ticked last sixty … seventy … seventy-five minutes without a goal anywhere in sight. I took off Chung-Yong of all people since he was starting to look jaded, hoping Hall’s fresh legs, even though on his off-wing, could give us a spark.

The thought of only gaining one point on Fulham with their match at Leeds still to be played really started to raise my hackles on the bench, but the more I pushed and cajoled, the more it looked as though the players just didn’t have anything left to give – an alarming state.

The fourth official held up his board for four minutes of added time, for the substitutions and the injuries to Beckford and Spearing, and the crowd finally got into the match, urging us to try to find a winner from somewhere.

Three minutes passed before we finally got forward, and then Hall got fully into the match, getting deep to the byline as the last moments of the match played out.

His cross narrowly missed the sliding Clough’s boot.

But it didn’t miss defender Jack Collison, who watched in horror as the ball glanced off him and into his own net for an own goal.

The Macron crowd exploded with joy and relief, Collison looked like he was near tears, and most of the Ipswich players sagged to the turf in frustration. It was, pure and simply, a gift, and the last kick of the match wasn’t even ours.

All I could do was shake McDermott’s hand and tell him he deserved a better fate. We had still scored in every match in my charge – but this time, a Bolton player hadn’t done the scoring.

Match Summary: Bogdán: Vermijl, Mills, Wheater, Tierney, Spearing (Medo 54), Chung-Yong (Hall 80), Vela, Moxey, Mason, Beckford (Clough 54). Unused subs: Lonergan, McNaughton, Ream, C. Davies.

Bolton Wanderers 1 (Jack Collison o/g 90+5)
Ipswich Town 0
H/T: 0-0
A – 20,004, Macron Stadium, Bolton
Man of the Match: Marc Tierney, Bolton (MR 7.1)

# # #
That was a close scrape but as they say, the best teams always find a way to win on their worst days
Sometimes you do just enough. This was one of those times.

“This is what I was trying to warn you about, gentlemen,” I said as I paced back and forth in front of the senior squad.

“This is a win and I’m not going to rip into you for winning a football match like I did after Huddersfield. That said, my message is still the same: you’ve got to be better. This match had ‘banana skin’ written all over it. You played a desperate football team and in the end they were desperately unfortunate not to get a point. Millwall are going to look at that and smile.”

I waited for the desired impact and was happy to see that it came.

“We’re going there next week, they are a top-five club now and after they see video of this match, they’re going to think they can handle you. It’s up to you to show them otherwise. Now, think about how you’ll each work to disappoint those Millwall fans next week and get into your post-match routines. Day off tomorrow, see you all here at 9:30 Monday morning. Enjoy your night.”

With that, I invited McDermott into my office. He looked philosophical, and I tried to ease his pain a bit.

“You play like that the rest of the season and you’ll keep them up,” I observed.

“We needed a point today for their morale, Bobby,” he said. “They didn’t get it and I’ve got a long ride home to try to lift them up again.”

“Well, I liked your work defensively,” I said. “We never did find a way through. My heart goes out to Collison, he didn’t deserve that.”

“Damned right he didn’t, poor lad,” McDermott said. “But you’re finding a way to pick up points every weekend and that is a good sign.”

“They tell me that’s what good teams do,” I smiled. “For me, though, the trick is to keep them playing well. We’ve had a couple of decent runs but keeping them focused is hard.”

“If we could all do that, we’d all be managing at the Nou Camp,” he smiled. McDermott finished his glass and rose to leave.

“We’ll look forward to getting another shot at you,” he promised, extending his hand. We shook hands, and he headed out with his team.

I headed home for an evening with Kim, and the start of some of what might just be our own Christmas traditions. I feel a bit uncomfortable about that, in a way.

It’s not that I don’t love Kim. I’m pretty sure that I do, in a way that is a bit frightening to think about for a once-burned divorcee. But I might have grown a bit too comfortable with the single life and having someone of her beauty around me is almost a bit threatening.

I arrived to find a Christmas tree carefully placed in a corner of our sitting room, carefully and beautifully trimmed, with a single present underneath it.

“That’s for Blake,” she said, greeting me with a happy kiss as she pointed to the present.

“I figured,” I smiled. “I’m getting coal in my stocking, I think.”

“I should say not, Bobby Malone,” she remonstrated, hugging me tight. “The manager of the Championship’s table-topping club does not get coal in his stocking.”

I grinned, but she wasn’t finished.

“And neither does my boyfriend,” she said, tracing an imaginary line up and down my chest with her right index finger. “He has been very good to me so I’ve asked Santa to bring him something special.”

We moved to the couch and she sat in my lap, curling up to me.

“And what is Santa bringing for me?” she asked, her blue eyes widening just a bit as her gaze met mine.

“Something special,” I smiled.

No pressure, Malone.
# # #
No matter what we do, we can’t seem to shake Fulham.

That isn’t really surprising. They are at least our equal in skill and deep down it’s hard to argue against them as the best team in the Championship. Our lads have bought into my system and it’s working for us, but in terms of pure skill – and occasional grit – it’s hard to beat them.

Leeds found that out during a pulsating 2-1 loss to the Cottagers at Elland Road on Saturday.
It was a full-blooded affair. Both teams finished the match with ten men and in fact, both teams had players sent off within the first twenty minutes of the match, so the overwhelming majority of the contest was played ten against ten.

I watched video of Fulham in passing on the Monday we returned to training because I had another London fish to fry first.

That would be Millwall, a rather shocking fifth in the table under Ian Holloway’s leadership. When we head to Southeast London on Saturday, we’re taking on a team that is notoriously difficult to play on its home patch and some of whose supporters have a rather fearsome reputation.

The second incarnation of The Den isn’t in New Cross like the old one was, but is close to it in Bermondsey, and it’s still less than seven miles away from the Boleyn Ground, home of Millwall’s über-rivals West Ham. We are going to see Millwall this year; if we do well on Saturday, perhaps we’ll see their neighbours next season.

The Lions are going to be a handful. Holloway has them playing very well with wins in two straight, and three of their last four matches including wins over Charlton, Middlesbrough and Brighton with the first and last of those matches away from home.

They don’t score a lot of goals – Australian Scott McDonald leads them with five – but defensively they’ve been very good, second only to Fulham with 20 goals conceded. That’s better than ourselves. So we are mindful, especially since we aren’t playing at our top level of form.

And, I’ve got another issue that needs addressing: Clough doesn’t like Beckford any more.

When Jermaine showed up to take his therapy for a hip injury that now looks like it will shelve him for at least two months, I witnessed a row between the players at first hand, and since Beckford is Clough’s club tutor, that forced me into action.

I called Clough into my office and said what I felt – he had shown disrespect to a senior member of the club while he was injured, and while I didn’t find the former appropriate, the latter made it doubly so since Beckford had been injured while wearing the shirt.

“We just aren’t getting on, boss,” Clough said.

“That’s apparent. I’m ending the tutoring right now. Do you think you can work with Craig Davies?”

He said he could. I didn’t have much choice but to believe him.

With Beckford out, we’re down to three healthy senior strikers again and that’s something I really need to avoid given the tactic we’re playing. Iliev, who looked so good in his debut before going down with an injury, is still about two weeks away from resuming training and that means Max Clayton is now with the senior squad thanks to his nine goals from seventeen matches for the u-21s.

Still, though, it’s not optimal. Beckford won’t be ready to play again until the spring, and that means I may need to hit the loan wires for a striker. There are several names out there, but if we have to pay anything for a player that will only be trouble for me since Gartside has strongly hinted that we’ll be selling rather than paying for players starting next month.

Newcastle youngster Adam Armstrong is a loan target, and at age 17 that would keep the Morris Vaughans of the world off my back since his biggest problem wouldn’t be adjusting to the Championship, it would be diaper rash.

Sunderland has made the physically imposing but chronically misfiring Yankee Jozy Altidore available for loan, but I don’t see a good fit even though many American fans see him as the second coming of Emile Heskey or some such. This from a people who think the letters J-A-G-U-A-R somehow form a word pronounced “jag-wire”.

Then there’s my preferred target, Arsenal’s Costa Rican frontman Joel Campbell, who is also listed as available for loan. He’s twenty-two years old, faster than anyone on my front line, and it’s not January yet so I can’t put in a loan bid for him. Olympiakos has already said they’d like to buy the player, though what folks are using for money in Greece these days is anyone’s guess.

That said, there’s no way I can buy him – I’ve got even less money to spend than the Greek Government. Besides, I’ve already asked and the Gunners said he’d look great in Bolton colours for the bargain price of just £4.3 million.

I’d negotiate – and perhaps I will if the proposed player sales in January give me anything like a transfer budget – but right now the board would simply question my sanity and that isn’t good.

And then there’s Ream, who made the unfortunate error of letting his face get in the way of former Lion Liam Trotter’s elbow during Tuesday’s training. The resulting rearrangement of my American defender’s mug means he won’t be able to play this weekend while his stitches set. Lovely.

And, if that isn’t bad enough, Chung-Yong has not surprisingly been called up by South Korea for the Asian Cup of Nations, which means he’ll be gone for most of January.

Danns wants a run in the side – well, now he’ll get one. And, if Lee doesn’t come back from the Cup still wearing our colours because Gartside sold him while he was gone, then Neil will probably get a lot more playing time.

Oh, and then there’s Stuart Pearce. Forest sacked their manager on Wednesday, with a side once tipped for promotion sitting 20th in the Championship, just out of the relegation places and winners of only one of their last seven matches. The last straw was Forest’s inability to win at Rotherham, grinding out a goalless draw on Saturday which was every bit as bad as it sounded.

The Millers are playing much better than earlier in the season, having won four times, but they’re still bottom, and much better is expected. Steve Wigley will be the caretaker until a permanent solution is found.

And I still don’t have Kim’s present, which is really starting to annoy me.

Blake is no problem – I’ve got clothes for the boy and of course, his football gifts including a brand new pair of boots to replace ones I noticed were worn through and damaged last time I saw him.

There’s really no need for that. I give Holly plenty of money to look after the lad, and it’s not like Darin is hurting either. The boy should have nice boots and that’s that.

But Kim, I’m just not sure what I’m going to do. It would be the easiest thing in the world to go into Manchester and buy jewelry, but I want to show some imagination.

Not too much, mind you – I am a football manager after all and as a group we’re really not known for our great brains with the ladies – but enough to let her know I care while not making myself look like a complete clot.

Good luck with that too, Malone.

# # #
20 December 2014 – Millwall (10-6-5, 5th place) v Bolton Wanderers (16-3-2, 1st place)
Championship Match Day #22 – The Den, London

Staying in London before the match was a good thing. It gave the team a night away for bonding and it gave me a chance to do some online shopping.

It also allowed me to remark on an upcoming sad anniversary for me.

The holidays have always been a bit of a bleak time for me since Dad passed away during them. I know, I was very young at the time but I was sure old enough to remember him, and our festive schedule will allow me time to do what I do every year, which is visit his grave in Birmingham.

It will be 34 years in ten days, and that will also mark a sad phone call with my mum, with whom I talk regularly but always, without fail, on the 30th December.

The Lions were my priority on the way to London, of course, and how to crack their stingy defence. I think they can be had for pace, and if we get the opportunity I intended to have my players try.

One of the things we’ve done very well is attack with pace and power – similar to some Premiership sides, in fact. Hopefully there’s a bit of foreshadowing there. The plan called for us to take the ball right at Millwall and let the forwards deal with their defence.

The striker shortage – and frankly, Clough’s petulance in dealing with Beckford – meant I needed to make a bit of a statement up front. Mason moved out of his number-ten-style position and into the striker’s spot, a place I haven’t yet placed him. In essence, I had both my number tens on the pitch at the same time and one of them needed to step forward.

Spearing hadn’t passed a fitness test after getting his foot stamped on against Ipswich, so Medo went into his place as the holder.

We lined up and entered the pitch to one of the more enjoyable traditions in English football, the singing of Millwall’s official club song, recorded in 1985 by Roy Green and performed before every match. It ends with:

Let ‘em come, let ‘em come, let ‘em come
Let ‘em all come down to The Den
Let ‘em come, let ‘em come, let ‘em come
We’ll only have to beat ‘em again
It’s the best team in London, no, the best team of all
Everybody knows us, we’re called Millwall
Let ‘em come, let ‘em come, let ‘em come
Let ‘em all come down to The Den!
You can’t help but smile when you hear it. Entering the pitch behind my players, I shook hands with Holloway and took my place in the visitors’ dugout in front of the Barry Kitchener Stand.

We attacked from my right to left in the first half – toward the North Stand and our support, which had shown up fairly strongly in response to our lofty league position. The Dockers Stand across from us was mostly filled with Lions supporters, but I was a bit disappointed that a match of first versus fifth was only played in front of about 75 percent capacity. In terms of attendance we aren’t any great shakes at home either, unless we’re winning, so I guess I can’t really complain.

Two minutes into the match I had my head in my hands as Mark Davies, desperate for a strong match, put a thundering drive squarely off David Forde’s crossbar from about twenty-five yards. It would have been a wonder goal and just the thing for his confidence, but he hit the bullseye instead of the target, in a manner of speaking.

Five minutes later though, we were all square in a sense as Millwall’s Swedish striker, Mathias Ranégie, put one off a startled Bodgán’s left post on the Lions’ first foray into our defensive third. Then hearts went to throats as Alan Dunne whipped a beautifully taken free kick home for the first goal of the match in nineteen minutes, only to see referee Carl Boyeson correctly waving off the goal for Scott McDonald’s foul on Bogdán as he reached up to try to claim the ball.

It was the right call, and we soon reassessed our authority on the match. Twenty-five minutes in, we got a corner that Chung-Yong took. It was long, and rather ugly – but there to sweep the ball home from a sharp angle past the far post was none other than Matt Mills.

The central defender looked like Wayne Rooney as he did the long slide on the grass to celebrate his first goal of the season. Our strikers were invisible in the early going but the central defender wasn’t, and we led.

Thus buoyed, we played a solid remainder of the first half with one minute of added time. Off another corner, Chung-Yong’s entry was headed clear by McDonald, but only as far as Medo, who cycled play by feeding the South Korean again down the right. Again his cross was overcooked, sailing over the strikers to the far post – and there to head the ball home was none other than the other central defender, David Wheater.

Forde had done the best he could, but even getting a piece of the ball wasn’t enough to stop it flashing home for a two-goal lead at half that was as much fun as it was fortuitous, coming in front of the away support. It led to quite a happy halftime talk indeed.

In the second half, we turned to attack the Cold Blow Lane Stand, which was an entirely different proposition, at least in terms of the direction we were attacking.

Two minutes into the half, we stormed loose down the left with the ball at the feet of Moxey, which always makes me feel good these days, and I saw him controlling the ball with his head up, and that made me feel even better.

His cross was long, as the first two had been – and why in the hell was Mills that far forward anyway? Never mind, as he finished again on the full volley, running backwards to the corner flag in celebration as he called his teammates over for a celebration for the ages.

I turned to Spooner, seated at my left before the goal but jumping around like a crazy man after it, and couldn’t help but grin.

“Did we change the match plan somehow to tell the central defenders to get forward?” I asked.

“Beats hell out of me, Bobby, how about we just enjoy it?” was his reply. At three-nil to the good it was certainly hard to argue with him.

We were all enjoying our football, from the manager on down, and the screams of outrage coming from the Cold Blow Lane Stand were both loud and, occasionally, profane depending on the number of drinks inside the protestor. We were rampant.

But it got better. Just after the hour, we got forward again, and again it was Chung-Yong given entirely too much space down the right. It was ridiculously easy, and his cross to the middle, where we could have any ball we wanted in the air, was headed right for the forehead of Mark Davies.

Like a flash, another white shirt muscled in front of him. It was Wheater, and he didn’t miss, giving us a 4-0 lead and me two central defenders on hat tricks. I hadn’t seen anything quite like it before.

Five minutes later, Craig Davies, who had been virtually invisible in the number ten position, shook loose and his shot was blocked at feet by Forde, with the rebound sliding invitingly into the path of Wheater, whose eyes got as big as dinner plates as he contemplated the defender’s dream – a hat trick.

He got there first. He shot. And Forde dove to turn it behind, giving my vice-captain a sheepish little grin as he got up off the turf.

It was amazing. I couldn’t put it any other way. And at the end, it was a four-goal day where we didn’t need either of our strikers. How can you beat that?

Millwall couldn’t.

Match summary: Bogdán: Vermijl, Mills, Wheater, McNaughton, Medo (Vela 87), Chung-Yong, M. Davies (Danns 74), Moxey, C. Davies (Clough 74), Mason. Unused subs: Lonergan, Tierney, Dervite, Hall.

Millwall 0
Bolton Wanderers 4 (Mills 25, 48; Wheater 45+1, 63)
H/T: 0-2
A – 14,190, The Den, London
Man of the Match – Matt Mills, Bolton (MR 9.4)

# # #
Ian Holloway hardly knew what had hit him. And it was from my central defenders, no less.

We had hit the best defensive club in the Championship for four goals on their home patch, their worst performance of the season. Clearly it annoyed him, though he tried not to show it.

“You’ve done this before,” he observed, as we sat in his office after the match.

“We’ve done very well in front of goal,” I admitted. “I can’t deny that. Sometimes I have to pinch myself and I just hope we can keep it going.”

Holloway scanned a printout of the league table, which a staffer had placed on his desk, briefly interrupting our conversation.

“Fifty-nine goals,” he mused, sliding the piece of paper across the desktop to me after he had finished. “But you still can’t shake Fulham, can you?”

“They’re good, I daresay better than we were when we played them,” I admitted, ducking what some might have considered an insult. “But really I hadn’t realized we had scored that many.”

Our Boxing Day matchup with Blackburn would mark the official halfway point of the campaign and if we keep scoring goals at our current pace, we might set a few records before it’s all said and done.

We’re no threat to break the all-time English record for goals, which is 134 by Peterborough United in 1960-61. But we’re very good away from home and it’s entirely possible that if we keep our heads down, we might well threaten Arsenal’s record of 60 goals away from home set in 1930-31.

Just then my phone buzzed and I looked at a push notification from Sky Sports. I looked at Holloway.

“Nigel bought it today,” I said, and Holloway shook his head.

Nigel Clough has evidently been unable to resurrect the fortunes of Sheffield United, which fell from grace more quickly than you can say “Carlos Tevez” after the club’s controversial relegation from the Premiership in 2006-07.

This is important for us because we’re playing the Blades in the Third Round of the FA Cup on 3 January, so once again we will probably have to face a side looking to impress a new boss. The last time we did that, at home to Ipswich, we nearly paid for it with the lead in the Championship.

“I don’t understand Sheffield,” Holloway admitted. “They went about it all wrong when they got relegated, they admitted it, and now they let Nigel go. He was the best thing they had going for them.”

“I don’t understand it either,” I said. “But we do get to play them soon.”

“Then it ought to be easy for you,” Holloway said. “Sort of like today.”

“Well, today was a bit odd, you surely must see that,” I said. “But who knows?”

I know that the board expects the Fourth Round out of this team, so victory at Bramall Lane is a requirement, especially after the disappointment of the League Cup. It may even affect the side I put out there, since the FA Cup weekend at this stage means everyone in the Championship is playing out of the league, and with no midweek game the next week, I can put out nearly a full-strength side if I choose.

Yet that doesn’t do justice to people like Pratley and Medo and Danns who want and need games and should surely be able to prevail against lower-league opposition.

Bolton haven’t won the Cup since 1958, on a day when everyone else in Europe was rooting for Manchester United after the tragedy of the Munich air crash three months prior to the final.

That day, none of the eleven Wanderers in the team cost the club a transfer fee – including the iconic Nat Lofthouse, who scored both goals in the match and created a bit of controversy when he bundled United keeper Harry Gregg over the goal line while he was holding the ball. It was a much different game then, of course, but Nat’s first goal three minutes into the match – which had nothing to do with Gregg – was enough to secure victory.

It’s enough to make the romanticist in the fan base wax poetic. It’s also enough to make the serious fan wonder what it will take before the club can make another run like that again.

In this day and age, though, the deeper and bigger squads are the only ones who can make runs like that in the Cup competitions. The days of romance are pretty much over, when these days an Arsenal or a Chelsea or a United or a Liverpool can put out a second team that outclasses the first teams of 95 percent of the clubs in England.

Still, though, that doesn’t mean you don’t try, and it doesn’t mean that clubs can’t realize what they know is the bigger gain of the FA Cup – extra home gates, television money and, if there’s any kind of a run, a publicity bump for the club that might lead to added merchandise sales.

Yet, as I got up to take the team back to the Northwest, I had to put the FA Cup out of my mind and figure out how to get three points off another arch-rival – Blackburn – in the match which would mark the official halfway point of the Championship season.

# # #
I didn’t have Blake for Christmas Day, and that was both expected and a shame, at least from a dad’s point of view.

In fact, I didn’t even have the lad for Christmas Eve. I had him for the Monday and Tuesday after the Millwall match, which wasn’t nearly long enough to suit me but which was what I was allowed.

Kim, though, was magnificent in every way. On the Tuesday night, we had an early Christmas for him, and that was completely heartwarming in every respect.

He opened his present from Kim – a football autographed by my entire squad in a hard plastic case that Blake treated like it was made of gold – and then his presents from his dad, which were somewhat more sedate. In addition to football, Blake also likes race cars. That’s not surprising.

He enjoyed everything, moving from one gift to the next with the reckless abandon that is so heartwarming in small children. And, of course, when he opened up a new desk he had been saying he wanted for months, he wanted to play in the box. Naturally.

So it was a great Christmas for him. And after he went to bed, I did my best to make it a happy one for Kim as well.

I wanted her to have something that showed she was going to get my best. After all, that was what she had demanded of me (nicely, of course) and it was certainly the least she was entitled to expect.

I’m a believer in visualization. I want my players to be able to imagine themselves scoring goals, making tackles, making saves, and doing the small things that win matches and lead to trophies and accomplishments. I decided to try the same tactic on my girlfriend.

It was in a different way, of course – but the diamond necklace with intertwining hearts I gave her was designed to achieve the same end.

Judging by the reaction she gave me, I think I might have succeeded. I’d call it something crass like ‘one-on-one management’ or some such thing if I were feeling uncouth, but I really am not. She deserves something very nice for how she’s treated Blake alone, never mind how she’s treated me.

For her part, she bought me a new touchline suit, which I thought was a marvelous gift. I’ve never been much for dressing up while working, but she evidently thought there was some sort of menswear model hiding in the skin of her boyfriend, so I decided to play along.

If there’s one thing I hate more than a case of the stomach flu, it’s trying on clothes. I can’t stand it. But with Kim sitting so prettily on the couch urging me to do and put on a beautiful new black silk suit, there was really nothing else for it but to do as she asked.

I had to admit, she dressed me well. She had even had the equipment managers sneak into my office to get my sizes while I was off at training about a month ago, so she could have the suit tailored before I opened the box.

It looked good. I’ve never been really comfortable wearing a coat and tie on the touchline – I’ve always been more of a tracksuit sort – but she had a look in mind for me and she wanted me to look the part.

“When you bring us to the Premier League, I’ll be damned if I’m going to let you do it dressed like Tony Pulis,” she giggled, and I had to smile in return. If Tony ever hears about it, I’m liable to get his death stare, but it was good for a laugh at any rate.

But after that sweet moment, it was time to get ready for Boxing Day and the matchup against another arch-rival – Blackburn.

Jordan Rhodes has 14 goals for them already, putting him third on the marksman’s list. The influential Corry Evans won’t play for them, having suffered a broken wrist after a nasty fall in training last week. That’s the kind of “Flying Fickle Finger of Fate” injury that can really hurt a side, and since Rovers are solidly mid-table at the holiday, his absence isn’t going to help them make their run.

After the Millwall match, nearly half the Team of the Week – Bogdán, Mills, Wheater, Moxey and Chung-Yong – wore our colours. That was exceptional and I think it shows where we are at this point in our season.

However, we have a difficult little stretch here as we play twice in three days – on Boxing Day at home to Rovers and then again on the 28th December away to Huddersfield, so there’s going to be a lot of squad rotation there.

Huddersfield owes us one after the way our match ended at the Macron – but then, I think we owe them one for the way our match ended at the Macron. We’re going to be a couple of tired teams in search of points – they’re still lurking just outside the playoff places and my friend Chris Powell probably can’t wait for another shot at his friend Bobby Malone.

But the other present I got that night – my beautiful girlfriend emerging from her evening bath wearing nothing but a Santa hat – made me forget about the fixture list and concentrate on something else much more important.

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