As I walk round to the driver-side door of my car, Chitty Chitty Frang Frang, which is parked in my reserved space outside Bloomfield Road, I hear A familiar voice from behind me: “Franjo!” I turn to face the source of the voice.
“Hello James” I say, very coolly. Like a Bond villain.
“Great game” continues James Coppinger. “I can’t believe that your Blackpool team were losing to my Donny Rovers side 9-0 with 5 minutes to go before you substituted yourself on and bagged 3 perfect hattricks and a panenka penalty. I respect you” he gushes.
I fake a small laugh, very coolly. Like a Bond villain. “All in a days work” I purr, in sunglasses.
“Don’t talk back to me Francis” snaps Mr Braithwaite, my high school headmaster. And he has a point. I’m belligerently undressing in front of a full school assembly and being extremely sassy about it. Everyone’s laughing. The students, the teachers… James Coppinger’s laughing hardest of all.
“No James, don’t laugh!” I yelp, “I respect you!”
I wake with a start, bolt upright, and incredibly aware that I said that last part out loud, and with gusto. It’s 5am and we play Doncaster in 10 hours. I feel quite sick.
I like Doncaster. Not as a place, God no, but as a football team. They have several admirable qualities. They’re a wholesome lot and have a reputation for playing good football, or they did when they were on the up a few years ago. Recently they’ve been spiralling downwards but they’re still comfortable favourites for promotion.
Captain James Coppinger, who I think was in my dream last night, is a definite one to watch. He’s a Ryan Giggs style winger-turned-central-playmaker, and he’ll be pulling the strings for them.
The league favours us, but only just. We’re top with 26 points from 13 games, goal difference of 10. Donny also have 26 points but a goal difference of 9, so it couldn’t be much closer. Whoever wins will sit on top of the league. Of course there’s always the chance that we draw and Luton, 3rd place on 26 points, goal difference of 6, go above us both. Silver lining.
It’s well known that Rovers play a back 3, with wing backs that bomb on and a good mix of toughness and skill in midfield. I plan to combat their formation with a narrow 4-4-1-1. We’ll make the middle of the pitch horribly congested and have our own wing backs bombing on. And our wing backs are better. Pugh and McAllister play on the sides of midfield. As central midfielders they’ll have no problem staying put and staying narrow, keeping the shape and minimising space. Potts and Vassell are injured, and Robertson’s suspended, so will.i.am’s Son starts in defence. Yeates is fit enough for a spot on the bench.
After the main team talk I turn to Josh Tymon. “Know who you’re up against today son?”
“Mitchell Lund boss.”
“That’s right. And Shitchell Lund is their weak spot. You’re our main outlet today so go and terrify him.” He nods nervously.
The first half is a tense, cagey affair. Donny have the best chance after half an hour when N’Goy cuts in from the left, only to fire tamely at Bobdrick. By half time Tymon’s flagging. He’s only a lad and he’s played pretty much every minute of our congested run so far, so I tell the team to abandon the plan to focus the left wing and Shitchell Lund.
Midway through the second half I decide enough is enough, Tymon comes off, replaced by the versatile but limited Eddie Nolan.
With 13 minutes to go my head is in my hands as Nolan pisses about with the ball just inside the Doncaster half, then out of nowhere he plays a beautiful cross-field ball into the centre, evading pretty much the entire Rovers team and finding Michael Cain in acres of space. Cain takes a touch 25 yards out, Bloomfield Road is silent for a split second, and then he smacks it like Ross Barkley in a night club. The top corner of the net bulges and it’s fist pumps all round. My dream suddenly comes back to me. Take that Doncaster. Take that Darren Ferguson. Take that Coppinger. You twat.
2 minutes later Philliskirk hits the bar and it’s clear that Donny have thrown in the towel. If these are title favourites I’ll see you in League One. We drop to a defensive 4-1-4-1 and bring on Yeates to get him 10 minutes sharper.
With 5 minutes to go Donny sub John Marquis takes the ball down in the area from a Calder cross, but his shot has so little power that Bobdrick could do that piss-takey slow-motion “Wait until the ball trickles towards you and then do an overly dramatic dive onto it” thing. But he doesn’t. He’s a professional.
Next up is Gary Johnson’s Cheltenham. Curiously they’re going for a “Doncaster Lite” sort of vibe, playing the exact same formation that we’ve just faced. No problem then, same again please boys. The only change we make is that Robertson, back from suspension, comes back in for the shaky will.i.am’s Son, who shares none of his father’s confidence or self assuredness. There’s also no place on the bench for Mark Yeates, whose whole foot has presumably turned into one massive blister, because he’s out again for up to 11 days. Brad Potts nabs his spot on the bench now that he’s just about over his own injury.
Less than a quarter of an hour in and we’re looking good again, Dwight Tiendalli picks out Danny Philliskirk with a whipped cross and the latter places it under the keeper to put us 1-0 up. 10 minutes before half time though Waters gets the ball out of his feet 20 yards out and drives a Cheltenham equaliser into the bottom corner.
Half time comes and the game is deadlocked at 1-1. And maybe it’s arrogance, maybe it’s shame that I’ve already abandoned my dream of Swashbuckling Football in favour of a more practical, conservative approach, but I swap us back to the 4-2-3-1. We’ll try to hit Cheltenham on the break with pace on the flanks. The dynamic Jones and Potts replace the solid Pugh and McAllister. I’ve thrown the dice but I can’t yet see what I’ve rolled.
I get a hint 40 seconds after the restart, when Barthram waltzes down the right wing, swings in a cross that Bobdrick comes for and misses, and Wright somehow misses the open goal. It should be 2-1 Cheltenham. My stomach turns as I realise my naivety. 3 minutes later another good chance is squandered by Dickie as his shot is deflecting wide.
20 minutes from time we commit men forward for a throw in, which we promptly waste. What follows is woeful: Waters is allowed to move unchallenged through the centre of midfield, and then plays a pass out to Barthram, who may as well be in a different county to any of my players he’s in so much space. Our defence is wide open and Barthram carries the ball into the area before slipping it back to Waters, who makes it 2-1.
Jack Redshaw is my last hope, he replaces the ineffective Billy Clarke and will take Philliskirk’s place up front while Danny drops onto the left. We attack, commit men forward, go direct, but the game’s gone. I may as well have just taken Clarke off and played with 10 men because Redshaw’s only contribution is a wildly uncontrolled pot shot from 25 yards that soars high and wide.
There was no need for us to change from the safe, solid tactics we started with, but I opened us up and painted a big red glowing weak point in our defence to be exploited. This is exactly what happened to Roberto Martinez. Crucially though I intend not to let it happen again.
The good news is that Doncaster also lost. The bad news is that they lost to high flying Wycombe, who take our place at the top of the tree while we drop to 2nd. I feel sick. James Coppinger’s laughter rings in my ears. I’ll learn plenty from today.
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