Competitive action approaches and we get our first taste of international action
Birmingham City. I don’t really know what it is about them, but there’s something I’ve never liked. Anyway, they represent the first competitive challenge for my in my managerial career.
We’re at St Andrews, so I set up conservatively with a 4–1–4–1 — Rickie Lambert as my lone-striker. Things are going to plan; we’re keeping them at bay and keeping the ball. We’re not creating much, but I’m happy.
In the 65th minute, Birmingham are down to ten men when Maikel Kieftenbeld is show his second yellow card. I bring on Khadeem Harris and Junior Hoilett to try and push on. It works.
Rickie Lambert proves me wrong and grabs our first goal, a tap-in from a low Hoilett cross. In the 85th minute, Bruno Manga heads home from a corner to give us a 2–0 win away from home on the first day of the season. Can’t ask for much more, can you?
It turns out, you can ask for more. Sean Morrison comes out of the match injured, needing to see a specialist. He’ll be out for 3–4 weeks.
Next up is the first round of the League Cup, or EFL Cup as its now known, and we face Wycombe at home. By no means is this a priority for me, so I ring the changes. Semi Ajayi partners Greg Halford in defence (there’s no way I’m risking Bruno when Sean Morrison is already out injured), Tommy O’Sullivan comes into midfield and Rhys Healey plays up top. Stuart O’Keefe gets his first minutes under me in the DM role usually occupied by Emyr Huws.
The first half is better than expected. I’m always wary of cup upsets, but we take a 3–0 lead. Young Semi Ajayi nods home from a corner to give us the lead, whilst Craig Noone grabs two before the interval.
I tell the boys not to get complacent and bring on Hoilett and Harris for Pilkington and Noone. The latter isn’t happy I’m denying him a hat-trick, but there’s more important games than Wycombe Wanderers.
In the second half, we continue to dominate. Rhys Healey heads home from a Junior Hoilett cross for his first goal for the club, but Khadeem Harris has to be taken off due to injury. Peter Whittingham comes on in his place, with Hoilett switching to the right-wing.
The match ends 4–0 and I’m more than pleased with my youngsters. Semi Ajayi rates 9.0 and grabs himself a goal, Rhys Healey gets 8.3 and also gets on the scoresheet, whilst Tommy O’Sullivan rates 9.1 with his two assists. He’s unlucky not to get man of the match, which goes to Craig Noone.
As I enter training the next day, I’m greeted by good news. Physio Edward Richmond tells me Khadeem will only be out for a few days, what a relief. The silly twat then burst my bubble to tell me that Semi Ajayi will be out for 3–4 weeks, just a day after his immense showing on his first team debut. Nothing is straight forward is it?
Next up for us is QPR at home. They’re actually a good side. Our old friend Steven Caulker is in defence, Alex Smithies is a good ‘keeper and Karl Henry is always a nasty bastard to get by in midfield.
Just six minutes in and we’re in front. When Declan John gets put through by Greg Halford on the left hand side, he finds Rickie Lambert with the pull-back. Maybe I was wrong about Rickie. Maybe I was wrong to criticize his mobility, because that’s two goals already this season and I couldn’t be happier.
The second half goes by without much incident. Jazz Richards pulls one back for Rickie Lambert with 10 minutes to go, but my new best friend canons it off the bar. Just two minutes later, though, and we’re two up. Junior Hoilett fires a ball across the box for Khadeem Harris to tap-in at the far post. Lovely.
I’m shocked in the changing room as my assistant Kevin Blackwell once again has nothing to say. He’s not had anything to say all season.
“I let Neil do the talking” is his answer to this.
“Neil’s gone you twat” I respond. He walks out.
Did we just have our first fight?
Our next match, just three days later, is against Blackburn. The matches in the Championship really do come thick and fast.
I stick with the same side and just 9 minutes in, Rickie Lambert does it again. I might have to start calling him magic Rickie.
The second-half is quiet. Rhys Healey, who replaced Lambert, puts Joe Ralls through but the tired midfielder fails to hit the target. It ends 1–0. We’re dominating the play. We had 64% possession and 22 shots (13 on target) during the match. We’re solid and we’re yet to conceded in the competitive action this season.
We’re fast approaching my first game in charge and that means squad selection time. Jonny Williams is out for the next two months, which is a blow, but we have otherwise full fitness. Kit Symons, Chris Coleman’s my trusty number 2, gives me his suggested squad and, to be honest, there’s not much wrong with it.
I want to give some youngsters a go, though, so Dave Cotterill, Hal Robson-Kanu, Adam Matthews , James Collins and Boaz Myhill are all out. Coming in are Emyr Huws, Declan John, Ben Woodburn and Louis Thompson.
Another game, this time against Fulham away from home. This could be a tough one — Fulham are a very strong team. I bring in Peter Whittngham for Joe Ralls, Khadeem Harris for Craig Noone and Junior Hoilett for Anthony Pilkington, who are all a bit tired. Other than that, we stay the same.
Fulham start the game on top, with Stefan Johansen instantly testing Alan McGregor in goal. They have 60% of possession and I’m worried that we might come undone here. Khadeem Harris gets injured just before half-time, so sorry Craig I know you’re tired but you’re back in.
Floyd Ayite gives Fulham the lead just before half-time with a fantastic goal, curling the ball past a hapless McGregor. I bollock the lads at half-time “what the fuck was that? Sort it out and show me some passion, lads.”
We get an instant reply. Agent Scott Malone — our former left-back — brings Bruno Manga down in the box to give us a penalty. Up steps Rickie Lambert… and smashes the ball past Button in goal.
I’m fuming. With ten minutes to go, Cauley Woodrow is able to waltz through our back-four and slots past McGregor. What a load of shite. I hate losing.
Despite the loss, we still sit on top of the table with 9 points from 4 games. Aston Villa (8 points) are in second, whilst Derby (7 points) are in third.
The next round of the EFL Cup is up next, with Charlton our opponents. After some great play by Craig Noone, young striker Rhys Healey gives us the lead at half-time. In the second half, the winger undoes his earlier good work when he commits a foul to give Charlton a penalty. Fuckwit.
Lee Novak steps up and fires it past McGregor in goal. I bring on some more experienced heads, with Tommy O’Sullivan and Rhys Healey both going off. We head to extra-time.
Into extra-time, Joe Ralls gives us the lead after Peter Whittingham puts him through. We have the chance to add another, but useless Freddie can’t take the chance. I eat my words minutes later, when the striker does slot home when the ball rebounds to him all alone in the box. Charlton pull one back with a minute to go, but we hold on for the 3–2 win over extra-time.
A home game against Reading is next and new signing Louis Thompson, who joined on loan from Norwich, is on the bench. The first half is quiet, but Bruno Manga scores a header from an Anthony Pilkington free-kick in the second. There’s little else to report, but we get the 3 points.
My first match in charge approaches and I get the lads together for the first time. We sit down for our first team meeting and I tell them I don’t want to change too much. Ashley Williams will continue as my captain, whilst Aaron Ramsey will be our vice-captain.
Montenegro is our first challenge and I head into the game with one eye on the transfer window, with the deadline on the same day.
We head into the match playing the same 4–1–4–1 I play with Cardiff. It works, we win 2–0 thanks to goals from Wes Burns, on his international debut, and Gareth Bale, who wins the man of the match award.
Can our great start to the season for club and country continue? Find out in part 4, coming soon.