Here at A Team of John O’Sheas, we pride ourselves on answering the questions that no one is asking. It is now over a year since the Team attempted to answer their first question: How good would a team of John O’Sheas actually be? To celebrate our first anniversary, Jon Mackenzie will attempt to settle the old question once and for all. His job is a simple one: try take a team of John O’Sheas as far up the English football league structures as possible on Football Manager.
Episode Three – Now is the Pre-season of our Discontent
There comes a time in everyone’s life where, in one of those precious moments of self-reflection that the general watching of football occasionally affords (Manchester United fans who remember the Louis van Gaal era will know exactly what I’m talking about here), you sit back and think to yourself: ‘This whole management malarkey can’t be that difficult can it?’ For example, I still struggle to locate enough digits on my body to count the number of times I arrived at this point during the time when Harry Redknapp got into the Champions League.
But if there was one footballing activity which prompted these ‘how-hard-can-it be?’ moments in my life it would have to be: watching the England football team. There was a period of history in which England managers would be replaced on a regular two-year, post-tournament basis which essentially seemed to consist of a switch from ‘English National Footballing Treasure’ to ‘Continental Guru’. The net result of this switch, however, was basically nil. Exactly the same squad would be picked. Exactly the same team would be fielded. And, surprisingly enough, two years later, exactly the same outcome was reached and we questioned when Jack Wilshere would finally realise his true potential.
Now it would be unsympathetic of me to suggest that the problem which repeatedly besets the manager of the England National Team is the fact that there is no one to choose from… All I’ll say is, if you couldn’t squeeze Lampard and Gerrard into your central midfield, maybe the problem was that you never really gave Eric Dier and Jake Livermore a chance? Imagine my predicament, then, as manager of A Team of John O’Sheas when faced with a sea of faces which belong not only to a group of players who aren’t really up to the task… but a group of players who are, in fact, the same player, forced to be repeated on the team sheet over and over again in some sort of positional Groundhog Day nightmare.
What do you do during games when your assistant manager feels the need to tell you that the majority of your team are playing out of position? What do you do when you are forced to spend you time on the training ground teaching your keeper how to even kick the ruddy ball? Well, dear reader, let me tell you. You cling onto every new piece of news that isn’t a horror show. You sink to your knees in thanks to whichever deity has allowed it. And you just revel in the moment. It’s basically like reading the news in our post-Brexit-triggered age.
Here’s one for you. Jamie Burton, my personal assistant, handed me a piece of paper in the office one day with a training ground report from Matt Rose (my assistant manager) on John O’Shea 17 who I have been trying to retrain as a central midfielder. It informed me that John O’Shea 17 is still ‘unconvincing’ in his new position but… and my eyes started tearing over at this point… he could ‘improve over time’. It was as though the game itself was trying to reassure me that my ridiculous plan to field a Team of John O’Sheas might actually come off whilst being, at the same time, completely baffled that this was the case.
I blinked at the memo. In that split second, I realised why it is that parents hang their kids shit artwork on the fridge for other people to see. Not because of any intrinsic value to the piece of art. But because the picture offers them a constant reminder of the fact that all the effort that they have gone to in bringing up a child is not wasted. I made a mental not to stick the memo on my own fridge at home.
Another memo plopped onto my desk which put any previous mawkishness out of my head. It was from my Press Officer, Tony. Apparently some betting company called Bet190 (which clearly bears no relation to any actually existing betting company) had given us odds of 1-5 to win the Vanarama League North. After I had asked Tony to explain how betting odds worked (which he did with all the gusto of a disembodied Ray Winstone), it dawned on me that these should be considered ‘fairly good odds’ which presumably meant that the bookmakers thought that we were going to be among the favourites in the league. ‘No doubt the bookies had watched our glorious overturning of Aylesbury away,’ I said to Tony. He caught my eye. I could see he was as unconvinced as the tone of my voice suggested I was.
Later that day, we were due to play our second pre-season friendly—hosting Dagenham & Redbridge (the ampersand is important apparently) at Whaddon Road. As the two hundred and twenty-two fans filed into the terraces, I felt the pangs of unease hit me again. Would we manage to escape the calamitous happenstances that a completely incompetent goalkeeper invites seemingly at will? Would I be forced to do a post-match presser with Jamie Bloody Collins of The Guardian Dot Com? Was every match this season going to be a nail biter? Or were we actually quite good?
Any pre-match nerves were completely justified. We began with the 3-5-2 that had served us so well against Aylesbury. In the next thirty-six minutes, though, we preceded to get completely and utterly Chris Assombalongaed. Now Chris Assombalonga is the brother of Britt Assombalonga who plays for Nottingham Forest and is a much more complete player than his brother. This is extremely worrying for us if we ever get into higher divisions. Up against our back three, Chris looked like the young Michael Owen: not exactly a subtle player but then, not exactly a player who looked like they should give a flying fuck about subtley.
Three times in twenty-three minutes he unhinged the defence. I wasn’t going to let it happen a fourth time. I switched to 4-2-3-1 and sat the defence even deeper than they had been before. In the end, Dag & Red would only manage one further attempt on target. And only one of our seven shots on target actually went in—John O’Shea 11 scoring late on from, surprise surprise, a lofted ball into the box.
The Dag & Red match was, as became clear from the rest of pre-season, a fair representation of how A Team of John O’Sheas were going to perform during the season. It can be summarised in two points: firstly, John O’Shea—all twenty of him—is slow and is vulnerable on the break. With the exception of the Aylesbury away debacle goals, the rest of the goals scored against us in the pre-season period were from opposition strikers getting in behind our backline and scoring. However deep you tell John O’Shea to sit, the opposition will always find a way of exploiting this.
The game against Leeds United Under-23s was a textbook example of this defensive frailty. On paper, an eleven made up of John O’Sheas should easily beat a Championship youth side… The BBC’s online pundit, Ian Morrison, thought as much too. When it came to game itself, I had determined that three defenders at the back would be shaky against two pacy players at the peak of their physical prowess. I sat the back four as deep as possible and got the team to play a high tempo press deep in the field. After 59 seconds, the Leeds forward Frank Mulhern had scored in exactly the manner which I had attempted to prevent. We pulled back into the game within twenty minutes but once again, in the second half, we conceded another goal which left all four defenders back-pedalling wildly.
A quick Twitter message to Football Manager guru and former England opening batsman, Alex Stewart and I’m provided a sure-fire solution to my defensive fragilities. ‘Wonder if I could pick your FM brain’ I wrote. ‘My Team of John O’Sheas keep conceding goals in behind the defence which is a given what with O’Shea being slow. I’ve basically told my guys to sit deep and absorb pressure but it doesn’t work against U23s sides where they’re young and fit – what am I doing wrong?’ His answer was constructive: ‘Nothing. It’s just a facet of this game. Quick wins.’ Great. But at least admitting that we have a problem is the first step in the solution.
The second problem reared its ugly head in a couple more memos that Tony slid onto my desk. Both presented more odds from our completely copyright unobjectionable Bet190 (what even does 190 have to do with football?): the first, odds on player of the season for the Vanarama League North of whom, pleasingly enough, John O’Shea 1, 2 and 3 were first, second and third favourites respectively. The second showed odds on top scorers for the season in the Vanarama League North of whom the only conspicuous thing of note was the complete lack of John O’Sheas in the running.
The fact of the matter is, we’re woeful at finishing. Take, for example, our other preseason friendly against Pontypridd. For those of you who don’t know, Pontypridd is in Wales. I can’t even be bothered to try and teach you the pronunciation because I know for a fact you’ll never need it. They have, nor never will have, any aspirations of footballing greatness. In short, they are rubbish. And we only managed to score two goals against them.
Admittedly, both goals were tasty. But a familiar pattern is emerging. On the one hand, with three at the back we get unrelentingly punished by nippy wingers or advanced strikers. But by shifting the extra attacking player into a four-O’Shea defence, any attacking threat seems to be lost. The choice seems to be: try and score and get shoed by doing it; or try and defend and don’t score. These are my problems.
The season stretches out before me, then, like one of those seemingly endless international breaks. It is quite obvious that I will need an advanced scouting network just to assess the ability of oppositions to determine whether or not to go three at the back or four. Now is the pre-season of our discontent. But will the rest of the season be made glorious by this sun of York? Probably not. They’re in the division above us for a start.