On 27th September 2016, disaster struck English football. Sam Allardyce, the man tasked with taking us out of the footballing Dark Ages and in to (at least) the Middle Ages, left his role as manager of the national team following allegations of malpractice and/or drinking a pint of wine. English football hadn’t looked this stupid since the loss to Iceland a whole three months earlier.
Who would the Football Association turn to? They decided the new man in charge had to be English, but were left with the conundrum that there aren’t any English managers you’d want in 1,000 miles of the national team.
With no better options, they turned to Gareth Southgate. But he is, to quote the great Malcolm Tucker, a “f*cking knitted scarf”. Was there really no-one better available?
It turns out there was. Me.
For those of you who didn’t follow the original England Challenge (click here to start the saga), I used Championship Manager 2001/02 to lead England to glory at Euro 2004. It doesn’t matter that 90% of our performances were utter dog plop. It doesn’t matter that I took a team with peak Beckham, Owen and Scholes and relied on long balls to 34-year-old Dion Dublin. I was successful. That’s all anyone will remember. Probably.
I load up my copy of Football Manager 2017, set it up so the game starts at the end of September following a 1-0 win vs. Slovenia (to replicate reality), and take a big old gulp from the poisoned chalice.
Once again, England needs a hero, and I step forward. I am not the hero England need, but the hero they deserve.
First port of call, obviously, is to check what Dion Dublin is doing. He won me Euro 2004, he can win me the 2018 World Cup.
Thirty seconds in to the job, I encounter my first issue. In the original version of the England Challenge, I leant so hard in to 34-year-old Big Dion I nearly killed the poor guy. Now 47, he isn’t even featured on the game. Homes Under The Hammers gain is the English national teams loss, I guess.
I change tact and bring in my own coaches. Coaches with experience of getting eliminated early from tournaments with dignity. Steven Gerrard, Ledley King, Tim Flowers. I make Glenn Hoddle my Assistant Manager. Not so much for what he can bring, but rather to save the public from listening to his commentary.
After thirty seconds of picking coaches and thirty minutes talking about Dion Dublin, I take a well-deserved holiday until my first games in charge against Malta and Slovenia.
Malta, away, World Cup 2018 Qualifier, October 2016
With Gary Cahill injured I find room for Michael Keane, and Theo Walcott drops out of the squad because, well, you know. He’s Theo Walcott. Instead I let Michail Antonio play the role of “squad player who doesn’t get close to playing”. He deserves it. He seems like a nice chap. In the absence of an obvious Dion Dublin replacement, I stick with Harry Kane.
For my first game against Malta, they of the world ranking of 180th, I run with a 3-4-3 type formation. I’m looking for rock ‘n’ roll football here. All pressing, all tackling. Getting the ball and steaming forward as quickly as possible. Five players making runs off each other at the top. Organised mayhem.
The team is young and inexperienced, so I put Rooney on the bench to advise the players on how to forget the basics of being a professional footballer should things fall apart. It’s an unconventional set up, but one that’ll hopefully grab an early goal or two and settle everyone’s nerves. After all, the media say Malta “might as well not turn up” (direct quote!) So nothing can go wrong, right? RIGHT?
This England lark is easy. Thirty minutes in we’re 2-0 up, courtesy of a Marcus Rashford double from a combined seven yards. One more bundle-in-to-an-open-goal and he’ll have the perfect Dirt Kuyt hattick. Just before half time it’s 3 when Kane meets a corner and Keane taps it in from the goal line. I presume to show Rashford what real goal hanging is. Chamberlain rattles the bar just after the break, and I get my assistant to book me a flight to Russia in two years time. We might only be 50 minutes in, but qualifying looks a piece of p*ss.
And then, disaster. Despite having a three-man defence, Malta find numbers around the side and tiki taka their way through our backline like they’re f*cking Barcelona. Paul Gusman, who is just some greyed out, computer-generated player because Malta are so minor they only have five players on the entire database, rounds the move off and it’s 3-1. They attack again, but the cross is overcooked. This is embarrassing. They’re overrunning us like we aren’t there. I wanted rock and roll football and I’m watching Ed Sheeran.
With my tail firmly between my legs, I take off Sterling, Lallana and Henderson and replace them with Clyne, Shaw and Drinkwater. We move to a counter attacking 4-3-3 and see the game out. We only have 40% of the possession and attempt nearly half the passes that our opposition do. Who, I remind you, are Malta. MALTA. Sod this.
Slovakia, home, World Cup 2018 Qualifier, October 2016
The media aren’t impressed with the Malta performance, and I can see why. They ask if it was part of my tactical set up to concede possession to Malta and hit them on the break. Um… yeah. That’s exactly what I was going for. Marcus Rashford makes sure to explain to them there are no easy games against teams made up of players from Luton and Dover. Plus, you know, eighteen computer-generated players I imagine the game invented to make up for the amateurs they actually use.
For the Slovakia game, I change to a standard 4-3-3, with Sterling and Rashford running around like crazy buggars either side of the already exhausted Harry Kane (maybe he is the new Dion Dublin). It’s a simple formation, but we can’t afford any mistakes here.
We dominate the first half, but in that “England dominance” way, where it’s completely sterile and everyone comes out of it looking worse.
With the score at 0-0 and us doing the square root of sod all, I bring on Vardy and Lingard for Kane and Henderson, but it’s to no avail. I have to roll the dice. I have to make this count. I bring on the man, the myth, the legend, Wayne Rooney. And…
… he does nothing either.
Actually, that’s not fair. He tries 1 (one) 70-yard pass to no-one in the thirty minutes he’s on the pitch (to be fair, the match engine is pretty realistic) and it’s of course intercepted. Slovakia lump the ball over the out of position Danny Rose, who was valiantly scurrying up the pitch to make it look as though someone was there when Rooney tried a Hollywood pass to empty space. Vladimir Weiss runs on to it, cuts it back, and they score. I die a little inside.
In the 89th minute, and with us doing literally nothing of note, Eric Dier picks the ball up around the halfway line and aimlessly pumps it over their defence. Jamie Vardy runs on to it as Jamie Vardy does, and tucks it in the bottom corner. Again we have less possession, again we look bang average, but this time we only escape with a point.
I come back to my office to read through the news. I see Luke Shaw say the players are “quietly pleased” with the draw, which says more about him than me. Maybe Mourinho was right about him.
A month later, we round out the year with a Qualifier against Lithuania and a friendly against Portugal.
The squad doesn’t see any major changes. It’s not that I don’t want to make them, it’s that I’m about three players away from giving a League One striker his international debut. I get an email telling me I face a “selection headache” because Phil Jones and Conor Wickham are unavailable. The only reason that gives me a headache is trying to work out why I should care about Conor f*cking Wickham.
Glenn Hoddle earns his pay by offering his recommendation of a squad, which is exactly the same as the previous squad, but with Troy Deeney in it. After twenty minutes of laughter, I compose myself and look for the striker I really will add to the squad. Daniel Sturridge? Not playing. Theo Walcott? Not playing. Danny Welbeck? Injured. Erm…
Oh sh*t. It’s going to be Troy Deeney, isn’t it?
Along with Fat Drake, I bring back Gary Cahill, along with Jack Wilshere and Jordan Pickford, and drop Fraser Forster, Danny Drinkwater, Michail Antonio and Wayne Rooney.
Yep, Wayne Rooney. He’s out. I kind of wanted to keep him in, but the image of him and Troy Deeney playing together for England brought back too many images of pub football, so Rooney loses out.
Lithuania, home, World Cup 2018 Qualification, November 2016
For the third game in a row, I change the formation. Our lack of thrust in the previous two games means I bring Dele Alli forward in to the attacking midfield role to play just behind Harry Kane. The players stay roughly the same, simply because I can’t see any other options. These are the players I have, for better or worse.
Definitely for worse.
We started brightly. No, scrap that. We were brilliant. Sensational. We had 11 shots in the first half, and 64% possession. Some of the interplay was spectacular. This was the England we want to see.
It was therefore somewhat disappointing that we were 0-0 at half time, but an early Harry Kane penalty settled the nerves, and he popped up again a couple of minutes later after some lovely footwork through a crowded penalty area. With 15 minutes to go a deflected shot from substitute Jack Wilshere made us safe, and a last-minute Adam Lallana goal was the cherry on the cake. 23 shots, 61% possession, 4-0 win, lovely old job.
Portugal, home, Friendly, November 2016
Three days later we’re at home to Portugal in a friendly. I need this match like I need a hole in the b*llock, but we’ll get it done anyway. We make 10 changes to the starting line-up and try to set up as we might do in a tournament, with men behind the ball and route ones in to space behind the defence.
The important decision, of course, is to start Troy Deeney up front. As much as it saddened me to call him up, I realise I had the exact same reaction to Big Dion in the first Challenge, and look where he took me. Troy Deeney, I’m giving you the chance to be the New Dion Dublin. I can’t think of any higher praise than that.
Troy Deeney didn’t play very well.
Actually, that’s not fair. No-one played well on either side. We had just 39% possession, and there weren’t twenty shots between us. But hey, we won. Oxlade-Chamberlain, who has been by far my best player so far, made a great run down the right, pulled it back to Jamie Vardy and he passed it in to an empty net. Neither team seemed to give a sh*t about the game, but a win’s a win. I’ll take 1-0s no-one cares about over getting battered by Malta every day of the week.
And that’s it for 2016! Up next is… Scotland. Oh.
For the next episode, featuring the Scotland match and more than one embarrassing defeat, click here.
For the Championship Manager 2001/02 version of this challenge, click here.