I haven’t stopped smiling this morning. From the moment I woke up and got out of bed, to the moment I stepped out of the hotel and onto the coach, right through to now: The moment I stand on the touchline of the Ernst-Happel Stadion, ready to oversee my first match as England manager. It made eating my breakfast a pain in the arse, but I don’t care. I’ve no reason to stop smiling today. I’ve dreamt of this. As a 7 year old lad, watching Michael Owen lift his shot over Carlos Roa, I dreamt of this. At 10 years old, watching David Beckham curl the perfect free kick out of the reach of Antonios Nikopolidis, I dreamt of this. As a lad of 11, as Ronaldinho’s free kick arced beautifully over David Seaman, at 12, as Sol Campbell’s bundled goal was ruled out against Portugal and at 18, as Frank Lampard’s thunder bastard crashed a long, long, long way over Manuel Neuer’s line, only to be chalked off. All the while, I dreamt of this: The chance to lead my country out onto the turf and have my shot at the impossible job.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned down the years as an England fan, it’s that you need to be fair in this job. You can’t just pick the 11 most high profile players and cram them onto a pitch higgledy piggledy. No, only the most infuriatingly clueless of Italians would do that. You need to play the footballers who deserve the chance and you need to build a team. A proper one. A team that have chemistry and that can actually gel with each other. I’m not the first to cotton onto this idea either. Eddie Howe, despite his sacking a few months ago, had more success relatively than any England manager since Alf Ramsey and he did it by picking a team of good footballers that deserved their chance. Not necessarily the most flashy ones, but the ones that fitted best into the system and the team.
With this in mind, I should mention that there is a teeny tiny snafu going into our first couple of European International League Division A matches and that is that some of the senior players that I’ve picked are worried that I’ve gone too far in the other direction. The likes of Eric Dier and John Stones have come to me for a private word about the fact that I’ve chosen a relatively inexperienced maiden squad and it’s a fair point. Will Mannion, Taylor Moore, Reece Oxford, Jordan O’Halloran and Ed Salmon are all uncapped, while the likes of Charlie Taylor, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Stuart Coleman, Harry Winks, Juddy Lokando, Jordan Pickford, Lewis Cook, David Crammond and Joe Bell all have 20 caps or under to their name. Mannion and Salmon both play in the Championship too and it’s generally frowned upon to select players from below the top tier. Let’s never forget Jay Bothroyd.
But as you’ll hopefully have gleaned from my pretty in-depth talk about squad selection, this isn’t something I’ve taken lightly. I’ve chosen players based on their skillset, their form, their future international prospects and their ability to fit into a system that I believe will get the best out of our best players. Maybe the senior players are right to some extent. Maybe I’ve leaned slightly towards youth and potential more than I would have, having just been sacked from my position as French manager in which I really struggled to bring any youth through at all. Even so though, I genuinely reckon each of these players can play a part for these matches and going forwards.
In our first match away at Austria and in the debut appearance of Project: Pride, Butland starts in net, Stones and Lokando are in defence with Dier in the hole, Winks and Shaw are the wing backs, O’Halloran makes his debut alongside Coleman in midfield and Alli plays just off Webb and Bell at the front. In the absence of Harry Kane, our injured captain, vice-captain John Stones has the armband.
We start off looking pretty solid. 12 minutes in, Grillitsch comes forwards through the centre of the park but he runs into a brick wall named Stuart Coleman, so has to try to switch the ball out onto the left wing instead. His pass towards Sabitzer is decent, but Harry Winks cuts it out and passes to Ollie Webb on the half way line. Webb looks up and bends a great pass through the Austrian defence for Bell to run onto, which he does. Joe Bell runs through on goal on his first international appearance in over a year with the ball at his feet. Strebinger rushes out to great him… But Bell slips it under the keeper and into the net to give us the lead. Good lad, Joe.
Our lead doesn’t last too long though. Only 5 minutes after Bell’s opener, Schaub swings a corner into the centre of our box and Stones rises to meet it, heading it clear as far as Sabitzer 30 yards out. Sabitzer brings the ball down and plays it back out to Schaub, who whips another ball in from the byline. This time Seidel arrives at the near post to volley Austria level. We go close to retaking the lead before the break when Webb picks up the ball 35 yards out, dribbles to the edge of the box and shoots left footed, but he drags it just wide of the near post.
A few minutes after the break, Dele Alli gets the ball just inside Austria’s half and plays a give and go with Webb, who turns on the thrusters and sprints out to the right byline. Webb gets a low cross in and Alli arrives right on cue, stroking the ball past Strebinger from 10 yards out to make it 2-1. The goal settles us down a bit and we have a decent spell of possession over the next 7 or 8 minutes.
Coleman passes to Bell 25 yards out in the 54th minute and Bell plays a clever reverse ball through to Webb, who latches onto it 10 yards from goal but shoots straight at Strebinger, who parries it clear onto the right wing. Webb shows fantastic determination though and races straight over to collect the loose ball before laying it back for Harry Winks, who drifts a cross in towards the edge of the box. Coleman does well to rise above both Laimer and Arase to win the header, flicking it on for Alli inside the box, who nods the ball softly over the outrushing Strebinger, sending it bobbling slowly towards goal and over the line for 3-1.
Right after kick off we go close yet again when Stones plays the ball to Coleman just inside our half, who chips it forward for Joe Bell. Bell nods the ball on into the path of Webb, who turns Lienhart inside out with his quick footwork and then shoots left footed from the edge of the box, but it’s an easy catch for Strebinger.
Pretty confident that we’ll see this out, I make all 3 of my substitutes on the hour and bring on 3 debutants. Burnley centre back Taylor Moore comes on for Juddy Lokando, Watford defender Reece Oxford comes on for Eric Dier and Bournemouth’s Ed Salmon replaces Jordan O’Halloran; All like for like. 5 minutes later I’m delighted to see us put a great move together and 2 of the subs are involved too. Wimmer’s hoofed ball is cut out by Oxford, who cushions the ball down with his head for Alli, 35 yards from goal. Alli touches it off for Coleman, who squares to Salmon, who plays a great first time ball into Webb’s path, splitting the defence. Webb shoots first time and hits the near post, but the ball bounces across goal and with Strebinger already beaten, Joe Bell stabs our 4th goal into the empty net from 6 yards.
With 20 minutes to play, Arase attempts to dribble down the right wing but is dispossessed by Luke Shaw, who then plays an excellent pass into the left channel for Bell to chase. Bell just manages to win the footrace with Lienhart and controls the ball inside the box as Strebinger rushes out once again to narrow the angle. He could attempt his hat trick goal, but Bell unselfishly lays the ball off to his right, giving Ollie Webb an open goal to aim at from the penalty spot. Webb blasts it… Off the underside of the bar and Wimmer clears. He’s had a bad day with his shooting so far, Webb, but I’m not disheartened. We’ve looked excellent going forwards and he’s been a big part of that. Thomas Murg takes the ball down deep in his own half and initially leaves Winks in his dust, turning him and sprinting down the flank. In the space of only a few seconds though, Winks vindicates my decision to select him as a right wing back with an absolutely gut-busting run to catch up with Murg just as he’s about to be level with our box. Winks gets level and executes a perfect crunching slide tackle to knock the ball out for a throw. The travelling fans sound their appreciation for the West Brom man. We’re going to get on fine, Harry.
In the 80th minute, yet another good spell of possession sees Luke Shaw find Dele Alli on the left hand side of the box. Alli chips it to the edge of the area for Webb, who Di Canio-volleys it into the bottom left corner. 6-1. Suffice to say this is a better England debut than I could’ve hoped for.
Austria have a late surge of action and do get a second goal when Arase takes on Shaw on the right wing and crosses to the near post, where Seidel arrives again to stab it home. I’m a little disappointed as the striker got ahead of Taylor Moore to meet the cross and that’s the first time the debutant centre back’s been tested today, but I won’t hold it against him for now. Arase gets away from Shaw again in the 90th minute, wriggling free in the penalty box and shooting tamely at Butland, but the Arsenal keeper catches it comfortably.
I reckon I can afford to be quite smug after that. We had solid performances all over the park, some decent debuts, Winks was good on the right and Coleman absolutely dominated in his new midfield position. The front 3 were electric and even though Webb probably could’ve completed a hat trick of his own, his primary job up front is to be the supporting striker and he did set up 3 goals and eventually bag one for himself, so I can’t complain at all. Alli was exemplary and Joe Bell looked like a man who’d never been out of the international scene. Project: Pride is a roaring success.
I won’t be the smuggest man at Wembley though. No, that will be my opposite number and Paris Saint-Germain predecessor, Pep Guardiola.
Don’t you pity me, you git. “He’s far too good a manager for [The fact that I’ve never beaten him] to mean anything” he croons to the press ahead of the match. I’m onto you, Josep. Nobody’s this nice, especially in football management. Our paths have crossed 5 times now: A friendly defeat before my season in Ligue 2 with Auxerre, which we were actually pretty unlucky to lose, 3 Ligue 1 defeats and a 1-1 Ligue 1 draw in one of the only recorded cases of Project: Sword working as a system. The thing that makes this all the more interesting though is that my France side beat Marcelino’s Spain 6-2 just over 2 months ago. Can my “lesser” England side have similar success against a Spanish side under a better manager? We’d fucking better do, because I’m way overdue for a win against this bastard. With his mind games. As it stands, we’re top of Division A Group 3 and I intend to stay there.
The only change I’m making for this match is that Harry Winks drops out to be replaced by Trent Alexander-Arnold at right wing back. Winks was knackered coming into the break and 90 minutes bombing up and down the wing hasn’t helped the situation, so I don’t think he’ll have the energy to do a job here. My former striker Álvaro Morata leads the line for our opponents, with one of PSG’s many attacking midfield playmakers, Miguel Veiga, behind him. Thanks again, Pep. Veiga will need to find a balance today because he’ll obviously want to impress his new manager, but then if he performs too well he could find himself spending the next 8 months polishing my boots.
“Ladies and gentlemen, please show your appreciation for the new head coach of the England Men’s Football Team, WT Franjo!”
The appreciation hits me like a smack in the face. The full dose of my first Wembley reception is shot straight into my bloodstream and the side effects include euphoria and paralysis. I’ve loved all of my clubs… Well, I’ve loved some of my clubs. I’ll forever be a fan of Angrense, Santos and Auxerre and even Höllviken holds a weird little corner of my heart, but I came into each of those places as an outsider and grew to love them over time. Now, for the first time, I’m greeted by my people. My countrymen. The men, women and children who I grew up alongisde and then stood and fought against in June when we met in Group D. The people I stole a result against on that day. For the first time, I’m back where I belong. And the noise is deafening.
The first half hour is tight and a bit scrappy as the sides figure each other out. In the 29th minute we come forward on the attack through Ollie Webb on the right wing. Webb gets level with the box and gets a cross in, but it’s cut out and Spain hit us on the counter. The ball’s played out to Iñaki Williams on the right, who strides down the line and lays it off for Hector Bellerin. Bellerin whips a cross in for Veiga in the box, who plays a cheeky backheel to find Morata all on his own on the penalty spot. The striker places the ball into the top corner to put Pep’s men ahead, before giving me a smile and a thumbs up as he makes his way back to prepare for kick off. Dickhead.
A few minutes later, the shit really hits the fan when a long, hopeful ball over the top from Zabalza is brought down by Lokando, but the City man’s first touch is poor and Morata nips in to steal possession. He bursts away from Lokando, runs through on goal and blasts the ball under Jack Butland for 0-2. This time, Álvarsehole runs over to the away dugout and attempts to celebrate with Pep, but after a sheepish smile, Pep shoos him away and turns to give me a sympathetic look.
After a less than ideal start though, we do seem to get up and running in the next few minutes. Ollie Webb has the ball on the halfway line and plays a beautiful diagonal pass to release Bell behind the defence. Bell gets to the left byline and pulls the ball back to the edge of the 6 yard box, where Coleman arrives and shoots… Against the far post.
With 3 minutes to go before the break, we come forward again. This time it’s a great pass from Joe Bell that sends Alli chasing through the left channel. Alli runs though on goal and pokes a shot towards the near post, but De Gea tips it wide for a corner. Webb runs over to take it and drifts a cross into the box. Of all people, it’s Luke Shaw that wins the aerial battle and cushions the ball down for Joe Bell, who smashes a volley against the bar.
To be fair, we’re not down and out yet and I tell the players as much in my half time team talk. We’ve given as good as we’ve got in a very even first half. On another day Lokando takes a better touch and both of our shots that hit the woodwork creep into the net, giving us the lead, so I’m not too unhappy. The only major worries I have are that Morata found himself unmarked for the first goal and that our squad is pretty tired. I make a couple of changes for the second half, with Phil Joes and Lewis Cook coming on to replace Stu Coleman and Dele Alli, who are looking particularly leggy.
The introduction of Cook makes a big difference in the opening few minutes of the second half. First he receives the ball from a flicked Joe Bell header and controls it 35 yards out, before surging away from Pablo, around Zabalza and into the box. He gets one on one and shoots low and hard, but De Gea manages to tip the effort around the near post. Less than a minute later again though Cook gets the ball from Bell again and dribbles forward once more. This time he gets to the edge of the box and lays it off for Ollie Webb, who does not think twice. Webb draws back his right foot and rifles it first time into the bottom corner. Good lad.
Before even 5 minutes of the second period have passed, we come forward again. Luke Shaw receives the ball deep in our half and powers down the left wing, leaving Bellerin, Pablo and Veiga all struggling to keep up. Shaw gets to the left byline, whips a cross in and Joe Bell rises at the near post to glance a header into the net. Fuck me, it’s 2-2.
The match does settle back down after the equaliser but not for too long. A few minutes after the hour, we come marching into Spain’s half once more, this time with Joe Bell, who passes to O’Halloran. O’Halloran plays it on for Ollie Webb on the edge of the box and the striker hits it first time… Off the far post. Lewis Cook darts in to latch onto the rebound but Bueno Prieto manages to clear it off the tips of his toes.
A minute later Spain finally reply through a long ball from Morata on the half way line, into space on the left wing where Trent Alexander-Arnold is struggling to get back. Spain’s left winger Vélez brings the ball down, dribbles into the box unopposed and chips his shot past the outrushing Butland to give his side back the lead. 5 minutes after that we go close to another equaliser when Cook plays a long ball over the top for Webb to run onto, but De Gea rushes out well to block his shot. I decide to bring Alexander-Arnold off as he’s left us looking vulnerable a couple of times now. Michael Keane comes on, with John Stones switching to wing back.
BAM! That does it. Just 3 minutes after the change, Stones plays a pass down the line for Ollie Webb, who drills a cross in from the right byline. Lewis Cook arrives right on time at the near post to deservedly tuck in his first England goal and level the scores once again. I tell the wing backs not to venture up as much for the remaining 17 minutes as if anywhere, that’s where Spain have the potential to catch us. With only a few minutes to play, we could have a 4th goal when Cook presses Saúl into losing the ball and Webb takes over, bringing it forwards into the box. His shot at goal is weak though and gathered easily by De Gea.
With time ticking down, I take a moment to really breathe in the atmosphere. The noise around Wembley is good. The fans are in good voice, everyone seems pretty happy with what they’ve seen and those sodding drums are echoing around the stadium. I think I’ll go away from my Wembley debut pretty happy, all things cons… In the 92nd minute, De Gea hoofs the ball forward. Juddy Lokando rises and heads the ball back the way it came, but his header goes straight to Abraham Pérez, who chips it around the centre back for Morata to run onto. Lokando scrambles as Morata powers down the right wing. He gets to the byline. He drills in a cross… And Vélez taps in the winner from point blank range.
Vélez runs full pelt towards the travelling fans and slides on his chest across the turf, before his team mates pile on. The atmosphere around the stadium probably changes pretty dramatically, but in the moment I fail to really notice. I stand rooted to the spot, staring blankly across the turf once again. After a moment I feel a hand on my back and Pep Guardiola appears in front of me, pulling me into a hug and ruffling my hair, before pulling away from me once again. He looks straight into my eyes. He’s smiling, but it isn’t the same sympathetic smile from before. It’s one of genuine happiness. Possibly relief?
“Welcome home.” He says. I see something flash across his eyes, but before I can process it, he’s disappeared. I turn and watch as he strides towards the tunnel. He catches up with Álvaro Morata, wraps an arm around the striker’s shoulder and starts talking excitedly in Spanish.
I’ll remember this. I promise I’ll remember that you ruined my homecoming. The score is Franjo 0-5 Pep, but the gap will not reach 6. Enough is enough now, Josep. You just made my list.