A Nickelback Song (Moneyball-ton Wanderers – Season 4)

I am so high, I can hear Heaven…

My fingernails dig into the edge of the cliff, carving deep furrows in the earth as I slide towards the abyss.

I am so high, I can hear Heaven…

Holding onto my legs are the Bolton Wanderers players, coaching staff, physios, scouts, tea ladies, groundsmen and fans… But I can’t hold on. The weight dragging us down is too great. We’ve failed. I’ve failed.

But Heaven… No, Heaven… Don’t hear me…

As I’m about to fall, a warm hand grabs my wrist. It begins to pull me back towards safety with enormous strength. The music swells.

And they say that a hero could save us… I’m not gonna stand here and wait…

I fall exhausted onto the solid ground of the edge of the cliff. Behind me, my peers start to emerge too, unscathed and finally safe. I look up to gaze upon the face of our saviour. It’s local businessman Ben White. He’s completed his takeover of Bolton Wanderers. “I hate this song”, he whispers.

I’ll hold on to the wings of the eagles… Watch as we all fly away

A single tear runs down my cheek and becomes lost in my beard. “We all do.” I breathe.

“I enjoyed it in Spider-Man” A tea lady pipes up. There’s a murmur of agreement from the ensemble.

And they’re watching us… And they’re watching us… As we all fly away…

2nd July 2022

Yep. Ya boy didn’t think to get a screenshot at the time, but Sharon Brittan has sold Bolton Wanderers to Ben White, who immediately brought us back into the black and injected about £5M into the coffers to get us back on track. Please say hello to this save’s MVP.

Ben took me to one side after joining and said “I can give you about £500k to spend, is that going to be enough?” after which I immediately collapsed into his arms and began ugly-crying with joy. I now have huge plans for this Summer. Let me introduce you to our first FOUR signings of the season, starting with Jacob Greaves.

Jacob is one of 3 free signings we’ve made and joins us after leaving boyhood club Hull City. He was a solid first team player for the Tigers for 2 seasons in League 1 and helped them get promoted to the Championship last Summer, but only managed 12 appearances in their first year back in the 2nd tier. His average ratings have been consistently good, as has his pass completion percentage and his highest tackles per game was in 19/20 when he averaged 3.34. At 21, he’s nowhere near as good as he can be yet. Next up, James Bree.

Former FM wonderkid James has been brought in for a conservative £300k from Ipswich Town, the club he joined last Summer for free. Thanks to his move to the Tractor Boys he’s finally played some regular football and impressed me with a 6.88 average rating in League 1, making 3.43 tackles per game and completing 69% of his passes. After 3 seasons of searching, we finally have depth at right wing back. Next, José Lara.

I’m taking a bit of a punt on José, an attacking midfielder, as I actually want to train him up to use him as a deep lying striker. I’ve been tracking him for a while as his performances in LaLiga Smartbank last season were excellent. He averaged a 7.01 rating, scored 10 goals and set up 8 more in 42 appearances for boyhood club Sevilla’s B side, Sevilla Atlético, completing 70% of his passes and making 3.06 dribbles per game. I reckon he can become a hell of a player for us and he’s already worth £2M after his free transfer. Finally (For now), Kun Temenuzhkov.

I do seem to love a player whose name I need to check about 3 times while typing it. Kun came up through Barcelona’s academy and moved to Leeds, for whom he made a whopping 7 substitute appearances. His loan moves, specifically last season’s loan to Exeter City in League 2, caught my eye though as he scored 14, assisted 5, averaged a 7.19 rating and completed 2.61 dribbles per game. He probably won’t be the first name on the teamsheet for a while, but he’s got a lot of potential and his price (£0), was right.

And let me just whine for a moment about the one that got away. Ivan Vukcevic was a player that really excited me as he’s been released by Buducnost Podgorica in Montenegro after scoring 62 goals and assisting 36 in 3 years. At 20 years old that’s impressive enough, but then if you factor in the fact that he helped fire Podgorica all the way to the knockout stages of the Europa Conference League where they were knocked out by Marseille and that he helped them qualify for the Champions League, my mouth was watering. Sadly we couldn’t get him a work permit, so we’ll have to go our separate ways. Shame though.

The only outgoings so far have been the players I released at the end of their contracts – Most notably, Nathan Delfouneso, Antoni Sarcevic and Steven Prieto, along with some youths that weren’t going to cut it.

But I feel so fucking alive! It’s been so long since I’ve been able to just go and make some good signings at the start of Summer to get us off to a good start. Let’s have a look at how the squad currently stands.

The competition’s really heating up between the sticks. At the minute, Bulka’s my main squeeze, but Vickers is close behind him. Wilson’s progressing quite nicely too. Ideally I’d send him on loan to get minutes and bring in an experienced 3rd choice keeper, but that’s a low priority.

We currently have 7 centre backs, but that should soon be down to 5. Greenidge is close to a move to Doncaster Rovers and I’m looking into potential destinations for Edwards, after which I might even try to find another top class centre back to stir things up. Captain Brockbank is still our star man here.

At right wing back, we finally have healthy competition in Jones and Bree, but that’s not a dig at Jay Fitzmartin, who’s been good for the last season or 2. I want Jay out on loan this season getting regular minutes so he can come back and really stake a claim to be my first choice.

Left wing back could yet be a problem. Sam Hart and I have been having a dispute for months about what kind of new contract he should be offered and he’s just thrown his toys out of the pram and demanded a move. He’s current (over)valued at £7.5M though and I’m not holding my breath for someone to match that. We’ve had a couple of offers so far but both were just shy of £1M. I’ll keep my eye out for a replacement just in case, but I dare say he’ll still be here after the deadline closes later this month. Boon is as solid as ever and Walker is very promising.

Midfield might need freshening up a bit. White, Riley and Morris are all solid enough but if we could bring in a 4th to dislodge Comley I’d be very happy. Skelton’s still promising and versatile.

Attacking midfield isn’t an immediate concern. Darcy’s good and we’ve got Lara now who can cover if needed, but I’m a bit worried about Dennis Politic, whose progression has stalled over the last year. His value keeps climbing though, oddly.

I’m excited about this frontline’s potential. We already know how good Eddie Brown can be, but Kun and José Lara are real potential talents. I am just about ready to give up on Brown-Sterling though as he just isn’t progressing. I’d like to bring in yet another striker so that I can send Brown Sterling down to League 1 for a year, but I’m not sure if our budget’s going to cover it. Miley and Guel both have great potential and at least 1 of them will probably be off on loan.

So what do the bookies make of us after our promotion near-miss last season? Oh, we’re predicted 19th. Well at least we’re not in the relegation spots any more.

One thing our new Chairman hasn’t done by the way is clear any of our debts, so we do still have those pesky £500k per month payments to think about, but financially we’re looking better than we ever have.

30th July 2022

Woof, do I have a lot to tell you about.

The transfer window has now closed and it has been a busy one, but since we last spoke we’ve mainly focused on getting rid of some players. I’ve stripped away a lot of the defensive deadwood, with Reiss Greenidge, Nathan Whalley and Liam Edwards all leaving for Donny, Portsmouth and Ipswich respectively. That netted us a combined £535k and with Ryan Delaney’s loan move to Luton costing them £43k per month, we’ve got a nice bit of scratch from 4 players that I wasn’t going to use all that much. The real laugh out loud moment though came on deadline day, when Real Valladolid nearly matched Sam Hart’s value. They bid £6M rising to £7.25M with a 20% sell on clause and that was more than enough for me. Hart is out and finally, we’ve made some really, really nice profit on a player.

With all of those defenders leaving, I actually ended up making 2 more (free) quality signings at centre back. Firstly came Richard Nartey.

Richard comes in on the back of 3 really consistently solid seasons on loan at League 2 clubs, which begs the question: Why didn’t Watford think to loan him to a League 1 club? He’s easily good enough to be a squad player for us and I’m happy to have him. Then there was George Johnston.

George coming in means that we’ve got 5 really high quality centre backs and 1 with potential, which I really like. He’s about on a par with Harry Brockbank and I don’t use those words lightly. He joins us after his Feyenoord contract ran down, despite a really impressive season with them. He made 17 appearances, averaged a 7.02 rating, made 4.35 tackles per game and completed 78% of his passes. I reckon he’s our signing of the summer.

Our final signing came on deadline day, immediately after the departure of Sam Hart. Leeds signed Omar Richards a couple of seasons ago for £7.5M, but couldn’t fit him into their quality-laden side. So luckily for me, he was on the transfer list and I snapped him up for £1.4M.

This is a bit of a punt, as he played 14 Premier League games for Leeds, averaging a 6.49 rating, and 4 Championship games, averaging 6.87. I’m mainly bringing him in on the basis of his performances at Reading in the Championship though, where he consistently averaged around a 6.9 rating, over 3.25 tackles per game, over 70% pass completion and around 1.5 dribbles per game.

Again though, there was 1 transfer that I just barely didn’t manage to get over the line. I wanted a central midfielder to complete my team and identified (Blast from the past) Lamine Fomba at Nimes Olympique. With £350k left in the budget I thought I could sneak him in, but the transfer and contract combined meant that he would’ve cost closer to £425k, so it didn’t happen. Maybe next window.

So with that massive amount of transfer news caught up on, how has the season actually started? Well we had an incredible opener against newly promoted Coventry in which Kun Temenuzhkov scored twice and assisted twice on his debut, Jacob Greaves also got on the scoresheet on his debut and young Mo Guel came off the bench to score a brace of his own. Since then though, we’ve been brought back to Earth. We drew Barnsley in the EFL Cup 1st round again. I played my reserves again. They beat us again, this time after a shootout that went to 10 each and in which Josh Vickers missed the crucial spot kick. Sam Hart missed the other in what would be his final act in a Bolton Wanderers shirt. A sad end to a good 3 years. Then Reading battered us in the league.

We’ve not been able to use Jordan Boon or James Bree yet as they’ve both been injured since pre-season, but otherwise our fitness is good and we’re getting to some sort of team cohesion already, so things are looking alright. See you in half a season.

2nd November 2022

What? November? But what of the rigid formulaic structure these episodes usually cling to for dear life? Well, I want to break formula a bit to talk about our first half of the season. We’ve played 23 league games and compared to how this save’s generally gone so far, we’re doing pretty poorly.

I was afraid that this might happen. When taking a team up through the divisions in Football Manager, momentum is your greatest ally. After failing to qualify for promotion last season and with a key piece of the puzzle having left in the summer, that momentum’s deserted us. I will qualify this statement however by saying that we’re still punching well above where we’re meant to be aiming at, but I still think this is worth dwelling on for a moment.

For the most part, our form has carried on from where we left off last season – Low scoring games decided (Or not) by the odd winning goal. The thing is though, we’ve been scoring less and less, especially since our trip to Blackburn in mid-September. Since that day, we’ve won 3, drawn 1 and lost 7 and I do put it down to a lack of goals.

We’ve just not managed to replace Nathan Delfouneso’s goal scoring record. By this time last year I’m pretty sure he was in double figures. He’s still a free agent, but I feel like re-signing a 31 year old would not only be admitting defeat, but it would be completely against the spirit of this save.

One positive we can take is that even as he’s adjusting to life in English football, José Lara is doing alright. He’s our top scorer with 6 goals and is also our 2nd best creator with 4 assists, 1 behind Ronan Darcy. Behind Lara though, Jacob Greaves has scored 4, Temenuzhkov has scored just once since that opening day brace and Eddie Brown has today ended a goal drought stretching back to late August. Other than them, nobody’s scored more than once. We desperately need improvement in front of goal.

What’s just as concerning is that we also seem to be conceding more and more goals lately. To be fair, we’ve struggled with injuries and suspensions in defence a fair bit over the last few weeks, with Omar Richards yet to really get back to fitness since joining us, Jacob Greaves suffering a concussion and George Johnston and Harry Brockbank both reaching yellow card milestones.

I may be making a mountain out of a molehill. Maybe by time we get to February Eddie Brown will be slamming the goals in and we’ll be back to our defensive best, but I thought it worth mentioning this while we’re in the thick of it. We’re about to kick off the 2nd half of the season with the reverse ficture against Blackburn, so maybe they can start us off on a win streak this time. Wish us luck.

6th November 2022

I’ve just realised that the Blackburn game was the last one before the winter World Cup in Qatar, so no win streak for us. We did get a hell of a win though, with Kun breaking his drought.

2nd February 2023

Alright, I’m feeling a lot better now we’ve wandered back up into the playoff spots.

Weirdly enough, the Blackburn game actually did start off a really good run of form for us, although admittedly squeezing in a few friendly hammerings over the winter break probably played a part too. Since the half way point we’ve won 7, drawn 2 and lost 1 in the league and we’ve won both of our FA Cup ties against League 1 Fleetwood and Premier League Bournemouth. Man United are visiting in March so that should be interesting.

We’ve had 2 players leave and 2 players join over the January window but I’ll start with our biggest transfer to date – Marcin Bulka, brought in for £110k 3 seasons ago, has joined Bristol City for a £10M fee. My God, that’s satisfying. As much as I like him, I reckon we’ve absolutely robbed City there. We also say a teary goodbye to Gethin Jones, who’s been a good servant from the start of the save and has now moved to Sydney. I wasn’t going to pass up £500k for a 27 year old who’s below Championship level.

Those transfers landed us a mouth-watering £5M in our transfer kitty, but I only ended up spending £1.5M. First of all, to replace Bulka I brought in Iceland international Patrik Gunnarsson from Brentford for a conservative £450k.

So far in his career he’s only been tested at League 1 level over 2 seasons on loan, but he looks solid enough and will challenge Josh Vickers for a starting berth. He’s not got bucket-loads of potential, but my scouts reckon he can at least become one of the best in the Championship. My other signing was Gambian midfielder Alasana Manneh.

Brought in for £1M from Górnik Zabrze in a league I don’t really want to talk about, Manneh has the potential to be a starting midfielder here if he keeps his performances up. He’s been superbly consistent in the Polish top flight, averaging over a 7 rating for each of the last 3 seasons, and he’s off to a great start for us – In his first start against Wigan yesterday he drilled in the opening goal from 25 yards before swinging in a corner that Greaves headed home for our 2nd. A man of the match performance. Lovely. My thinking with this signing is that Brandon Comley can cover Bree at wing back for the rest of the season, so Manneh can replace Brandon as our new 4th midfielder. I couldn’t find any wing backs that appealed to me but I’ll be looking again in the Summer.

And before I go finish the season, how beautiful a sight is this? Almost £10M in the coffers and almost £3M in the transfer budget. I could get used to this… But I probably shouldn’t.

29th April 2023

The season is not quite over.

My God, this is tense. After such a wishy-washy first half of the season, we’ve done remarkably well to drag ourselves up to be level on points with the automatic promotion spots. With 1 game left at home against Brentford, I couldn’t resist coming back early to take you through the game as it happens.

But first, let’s have a look at just how good this side have been for the last 4 months. In 2023 we’ve won 14, drawn 4 and lost 2 in the Championship, which is absolutely ridiculous. I thought our automatic promotion hopes were about to take a premature dive in the last match when Sheffield Wednesday scored twice early in the 2nd half, but fucking hell these lads just won’t be beaten at the minute.

For me, the catalysts for our form this calendar year have been 3 players – Kun Temenuzhkov, James Bree and Jordan Boon. Kun finally found his scoring boots at the end of last year and is now on 19 goals this season, while also registering a very respectable 6 assists. Boon and Bree have been my go-to wing backs and have developed a superb partnership. Boon’s scored 4 times, Bree’s scored 5 and they’ve both set up 12 goals (Usually each other’s), which is a new team record assists tally.

Alright, let’s get back to the matter at hand – Our home match against Brentford. The permutations are as follows:

  • If we win… And either of Crystal Palace or Aston Villa doesn’t win their games against Rotherham and Blackburn respectively, we will be promoted, perhaps as Champions. If both of those teams win though, we’ll go into the play offs.
  • If we draw… We’re in the play offs. Simple as that. You’d think at first glance that if we pick up a point and Villa don’t, we’d slip up to 2nd place, but that would also mean that Blackburn pick up 3 points and leapfrog both of us into the automatic spots.
  • If we lose… Play offs. And I’ll be cranky for the rest of the evening.

I’m going with what I believe to be my strongest line up. Gunnarsson has been excellent since his move from our opponents and will hopefully feel like he has something to prove. Our back 3 of Greaves, Brockbank and Johnston picks itself and it goes to show how strong we are here that Brockbank’s the weakest link of the trio. Bree and Boon I’ve covered and we’re without Omar Richards who’s picked up yet another injury. White and Riley have a good partnership but I can always throw on Manneh if it isn’t working. Darcy and Lara have been in poor form but so has Eddie Brown, while Kun is a nailed on starter.

I’m also giving a first bench appearance today to 17 year old Paul Doherty, who’s just emerged from our academy. He looks like an incredibly promising left wing back.

Alright, let’s finish off season 4 then. Or I suppose if we don’t win, let’s play the match before we play the actual last 2 or 3 games of the season. Wish us luck.

A quarter of an hour in, we’ve seen no action, but Ian Wright (No relation) has put Blackburn Rovers ahead. Villa are losing, but now Blackburn are keeping us out of the top 2.

On the half hour it’s still all quiet, but Federico Mattiello goes off injured and is replaced by Sam Byram. They’re both in really good form so I don’t think this really matters.

At half time this has been one of the most uneventful halves of the season. Meanwhile, Blackburn are holding on and Palace have yet to open the scoring against Rotherham. If we can find a winning goal, we’re surely going up.

On the hour I make a double change. The out-of-form pair Darcy and Lara are both yanked to be replaced by Politic and Brown. Make the difference, boys.

5 minutes later, the first highlight of the match. Brentford are knocking the ball casually around midfield and BANG, Politic presses Palaversa into turning over the ball. The Romanian sprints down the left wing, chips a cross to the edge of the 6 yard box and Eddie Brown’s there… But he heads it straight into Raya’s arms.

21 minutes from time, Cody Gakpo gives Palace the lead over Rotherham. That probably means that the top spot’s unreachable, but Villa are still trailing Blackburn.

With quarter of an hour to go, I make a couple of changes. We go very attacking, Manneh replaces Riley and I shout at my team to show some passion, which gets them nicely fired up.

A few minutes later we see the 2nd highlight of the match. Jordan Boon’s preparing to take a throw in from the left touchline, level with Brentford’s penalty area. The throw comes deep into the box, Dan Burn heads it away… And Dennis Politic smacks it into the net from 20 yards. It’s a beautiful volley by the impact sub and after a long climb up from mid-table mediocrity, we’re in the automatic spots for the first time all season. Come on, boys.

As we enter injury time, I blink. I can’t see Brentford off in this staring contest. I turn to Bolton Lockdown, an all out defence tactic I’ve been using in situations just like this.

The 94th minute… 30 seconds of added time to go… And we have another highlight. Matt Clarke throws the ball from the left to Jan Zamburek, who turns and lays it off for Ante Palaversa. He takes a touch on the edge of our box, White comes across to try and make the challenge, but it’s too late. Palaversa smacks it… Straight at Gunnarsson. But the ball spills through his hands and bobbles into the far bottom corner. 23 seconds of injury time to go and it’s 1-1.

Well I’m going to go and have a little cry, but that was very nearly a historic moment, wasn’t it. I can already feel “Slapstick Gunnarsson” trending on twitter. I hate everything.

24th May 2023

Alright, let’s try this again.

That draw against Brentford on the final day of the regular season meant that we’d play them again in the play offs, which we did. Both games were extremely close, but after squandering a 2-0 lead from a Kun brace in the away leg, George Johnston scored what turned out to be the decisive goal, giving us a 3-2 aggregate win. We’re now through to the play off final against Aston Villa, who edged past West Brom 1-0 in the other semi. We beat them 2-1 at Villa Park and drew 0-0 at the University of Bolton Stadium during the regular season, so there’s no reason why we shouldn’t fancy our chances.

We’ve picked up a couple of injuries in the last few weeks. James Bree is playing despite pulling his calf during the build up to the big game because I’ve pumped him so full of painkillers he’ll probably have a job walking onto the pitch. If he has to go off, I’ve got Brandon Comley and academy graduate Saul Stern ready to replace him. We’ve also lost Eddie Brown to a twisted ankle and De’Marlio Brown-Sterling to sprained knee ligaments, so our options up front are very thin. We’ve really only got Dennis Politic who can come on there. Here we go.

Villa absolutely batter us throughout the first half and should take the lead in the 40th minute when Rubén Garcia’s free kick is headed against the bar by Curtis Jones. At half time though the scores, unlike the stats, are level.

I criticise the team at the break to try and spark a reaction, but at the hour mark very little has changed. I bring Omar Richards on for the disappointing Jordan Boon and then Matty Cash fizzes a low shot wide of our post as Villa continue to dominate. We do manage to double our shot tally a couple of minutes later though, when Jacob Greaves heads over the bar from a corner.

With 25 minutes to go, we finally break. Cash crosses in from the right wing and Garcia crashes a header in off the bar. Bollocks. 0-1. I respond by using my remaining subs to bring on Bryn Morris and Dennis Politic for Riley and Darcy.

Garcia has a good effort from a free kick tipped over the bar 10 minutes later and again we go all out attack, but it doesn’t give us much more impetus. Kun gets clear in the 85th minute, but slashes a shot wide of the near post.

As we go into injury time, I throw Jacob Greaves up top as a target man and we change to more of a hoofball system with as many players getting forward as possible. Unfortunately we still don’t manage to create anything. We never get going and it ends 0-1.

Ok, that was one of those matches where you exit the game and you just do something else for a bit. I went to the shops and then baked a pie. Mushroom and Guinness. It smells fucking nice and I’m going to have some in a minute. I was very disappointed in the immediate wake of the match. We retreated back into our shell on the big stage and that Premier League money has been tantalisingly out of reach for over a year now, but when you think about it, we’re not even meant to have done this well. As annoying as it is to get so close to promotion with nothing to show for it, we’re still punching above our weight and we’re still getting better year or year. We cannot do better than we just did without getting promoted, so hopefully year 5’s the year.

After a quiet first few months, Kun absolutely exploded in the 2nd half of the season and I’m actually salivating thinking of how well he’ll do now that he’s settled. Eddie Brown is becoming a real problem, though. Last season he had long droughts but still ended in double digits for goals and assists. This season he’s not come up with the goods and I’m really wondering now if he’s cut out for this level. Lara had a decent enough season and is now a natural striker, but his goals really fell off after Christmas even though his assists continued to stack up. Bree and Greaves have both been magnificent in their debut seasons.

Again, Boon and Bree were superb creatively, with Boon taking the most-assists-in-a-season record in the end. Darcy really dropped off creatively after Christmas and that was a big disappointment, but he’s still not a bad player.

But again, take a bow, Jacob Greaves, who was comfortably our best player in terms of average ratings. In fact, take a bow, summer signings in general. Greaves, Kun, Nartey and Johnston are all newbies and are all in our top 5 performers. Number 6 was Alasana Manneh by the way, but he only played 10 times so we’ll need a larger sample size to really judge him.

So where are we strengthening this Summer then? Well, we don’t have Premier League money burning a hole in our pockets so we’ll still have to be restrained. I’d like a really, really good centre forward if I can find one, but honestly apart from that I think we’re good. If players were to leave though, we’d need to revisit that position.

So there we go. 2 seasons of pure success have been balanced out by 2 seasons of the bitter disappointment of falling just short. I’m fed up of the play offs now, though. I know I said this this time last season, but this time next year, we’ll be a top 2 club, with our Premier League place secured. I cannae wait.

Author: DOgames

Amateur Game Designer, Writer, Artist, Musician

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