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Discussion
Following victories over ourselves and West Brom in the play-off final, Fulham have done the same big budget spending that they did on their last promotion. Leading the line is some huge cash, spending £18M on Newcastle defender Jamaal Lascelles and £12M for Sheffield United's Callum Robinson. Fellow new boys Leeds have done similar, spending big cash to make loanees Jack Harrison, Jean-Kevin Augustin and Helder Costa permanent signings. Brentford will also do similar on promotion, spending a club record £12M on attacker Yeferson Soteldo from Brazilian side SAN with one of several signings.

If only we could have the kind of cash. As noted, I have a transfer budget of £85,000 to play with for the 2020-21 season as we try to dust off the heartbreak from last season's play-off defeat by Fulham, mentally reset, and try to recover as the starting point to try again.

This of course will not be easy. Following the exits of all our loanees and departers, we found we only had Fernando Forestieri, Kadeem Harris and Adam Reach left in our attacking quadrant. The biggest hole to fill will undoubtedly be that of Connor Wickham, who has returned to Crystal Palace after striking 23 goals in 45 appearances in blue and white stripes. On top of this, I was also pushed very close on my wage budget after a few players had yearly wage extensions built into their contracts, so our room for movement there might not be so easy.

We have already acted fast to bolster our ranks with two new loan signings from top 6 Premier League teams. We brought in attacking midfielder Angel Gomes from Manchester United and the more defensively-minded midfielder Oliver Skipp from Spurs, both making season long loan moves to South Yorkshire.

A deal has also been offered for Charlton striker Lyle Taylor, though we face big competition with Portsmouth, Swansea and MLS side Seattle also offering contracts. Scouts have also been instructed to look at a shit-load of strikers released by clubs over the summer, and we await to see if we can get the ones we need.

The concerns of course are there for issues with a lack of options in our wide midfield and attacking areas. Ahead of our first friendly, with a 4-2-3-1 formation being tried out instead of my usual 4-4-2, this is what I currently have to play with:

https://imagizer.imageshack.com/v2/xq90/924/i7OHlc.png

Depth is a real issue already, and for that matter, my list already wants us to have 2 strikers to flick back to my preferred 4-4-2 if needed, and one or two extra wingers. It is possible that there may need to be defensive sales to fund this, as the areas we do have a decent chunk of depth are right-back, centre-back, defensive midfield and in goal. Although the amount of injuries Dawson and Wildsmith suffered last season means its not unreasonable to have that many.

It will be all change of course for 6 of our opponents. While Leeds, Brentford and Fulham will move up to the Premier League, Newcastle, Norwich and - enticingly - our local rivals Sheffield United got relegated, with our local rivals finishing bottom on their return to the Premier League.

The other way meanwhile sees Charlton, Luton and Huddersfield relegated - the latter suffering back-to-back relegations - while Portsmouth, MK Dons (for back-to-back promotions) and play-off winners Blackpool will be making their way into the league.

So our pre-season and early season fixtures look like this:

https://imagizer.imageshack.com/v2/xq90/922/xvSXbr.png

4 games in 8 days in our final week of pre-season is perhaps a silly idea, though this will be an excuse to try some reserves and some different formations. Part of why this has happened is down to the fact I didn't realise the board had been delegated booking friendlies, so I'd already booked a pre-season schedule when the board added more. I had to cancel my originally arranged games with Stocksbridge and Sheffield, while also cancelling a few board arranged games I didn't want.

But I did say last year I wanted to test our mettle against some big European names and potentially bring in the gate cash - Sporting Lisbon, Borussia Dortmund and Lyon certainly counts for that.

The first proper game sees us travel to face Hull City at the KC Stadium, before our first home game sees us face Wigan Athletic. There is also a fairly difficult looking Carabao Cup tie to navigate against Sunderland, who were beaten in last season's play-offs in League One.

However, its the weekend immediately after that game against Sunderland that is much more of interest, as it brings us into direct competition with our city neighbours Sheffield United for the first time and in only game 3 of the season. Bramall Lane is going to be difficult to leave with a win, but its going to be fun to at least try. The version of the fixture with us at home is in January.

Curiously, the fixture computer gives us another home game with Middlesbrough as the season finale. It remains to be seen if once more, we'll have something to celebrate. Though at least we're not starting with a 12 point deduction.
noir et blanc armée

Read my FM20 Career WAWAW

This had the air of being a strange summer. With very little money, no strikers and the rest, I was pondering what could I do to make it work to prepare a rebooted squad after last season's play-off heartache.

As noted, I have already acted quickly to make the loan signings of midfield duo Oliver Skipp and Angel Gomes - a young duo fulfilling my board's goal to add first teamers under 23, even if neither is a permanent signing. I'd bloody love to have them, but I suspect Spurs and Manchester United aren't going to sell either cheaply. I already found this when I sent Rangers a tentative inquiry to try and sign a promising looking youngster called Josh McPake valued at around 40 grand and got quoted £10million... passed on that one.

It took all the way through the window to try and build things up, but eventually, we ended the window with a solid mix of young bucks and experience to try and build a squad that can follow up last season's close-run trick for promotion.

In all, we've signed 3 new strikers - perhaps justifiable, with Connor Wickham, Steven Fletcher and Sam Winnall all leaving. Two of these however were deadline day signings.

The early arrival who was able to build his way through most of pre-season was Thierry Ambrose, a 23-year-old French striker signed on a free transfer after his release by Manchester City. He is as much a try on potential, but it felt rude not to pick him up after he impressed in a trial with two goals in a pre-season win over Chesterfield. I was hoping he would be versatile as he's listed to play the 3 behind the striker, but it feels like he is more an out-and-out frontman. Nevertheless, he has potential so I think he has a decent option to provide. He is one of 2 trials, but we chose not to take up one on the experienced Slovak winger Vladimir Weiss.

The other two to make their way into Hillsborough came on deadline day, with both arriving on loans - one younger, one older. The younger head came first, in the form of 22-year-old Sam Surridge, who joins on a season long loan from Bournemouth and will be in and out the squad as a development player. He is likelier to play in games where we use 4-4-2, as I think he could play more as a pressing striker deeper to a potential foil, but he has decent potential and is a potentially useful arrival.

The more experienced choice meanwhile is Dwight Gayle, which is something of a more unusual move in a game that prioritises youth arrivals, and something that annoyed the board, with a £925K total loan fee to be paid to Newcastle over the year. Though in truth, its similar to the finances involved in the Wickham deal, especially as the Palace loanee was on an extra £12K a week or so, and as various prize money, loans and things give us £12M in the bank, I think we can afford it.

But I'm happy to bring him in, given that he has two seasons among being the division's top scorers and we needed an experienced option with potential to be a very consistent second tier. Forestieri is not a consistent scorer while Surridge and Ambrose is as much taking a chance on young potential.

I do want to give all 4 a go over the season though, and think the early season stages will as much be about figuring out the right combination, given we only had 2 of these players from deadline day 2 days before our opener.

Another former Newcastle connection is Sammy Ameobi, who was released by Nottingham Forest after failing to make an impact. But I felt he had something to offer so chose to bring him into the club, and he is a relatively inexpensive option to provide something different for our left flank.

Our other winger signed for first team duties comes on the other side in the form of Brazilian wide-man Matheus, who had potential and was chosen as a possible option after a release by Watford. It took a while to bring him in, but having spent a lot of the window struggling to find a replacement for the departed loan duo Jacob Murphy and Alessio da Cruz, the Brazilian represents a promising option after confirming his deadline day arrival. I needed a right-winger who could play deeper if needed and I'm happy he's the right idea.

This concluded our deals incoming. Naturally, with a transfer budget of 85 grand, we wouldn't have afforded all of this without extra deals to offload players. Defender Joost van Aken spent last season out on loan, and having felt like I would rather blood younger talents such as Osaze Urhoghide and Isaac Rice, we have opted to cash in on the Dutchman, with Derby County spending £2.2M to take him to the East Midlands, with around £400K planned in future clauses. In truth, I can't help but wonder if we undersold the player, but in the moment we engineered this deal, I felt it worked better for us to cash in.

Helping to fund the Gayle deal, meanwhile, was a choice on deadline day to offload Joey Pelupessy, with the Dutch centre-back/defensive-midfielder making an £850K move on deadline day. The player joins our Championship rivals Reading. We also had a little extra cash from the Royals to boost our budget, as we chose to cash in a clause for Lucas Joao that raised an extra £150K, having felt the former Owls striker wasn't going to get the game-time to activate a clause in the deal he made the previous year.

I feel like we've got a reasonable squad. There's a few disappointments - for instance I wanted to offload Kieren Westwood as his wages are highest in the squad and I feel like either Joe Wildsmith or Cameron Dawson will be number one this year. Whether its a potential thing to change in January is another question.

I'm also happy that overall, we now have a reduced wage bill, even with wage rises for a number of players due to either contract built-in rises or our 7 new signings (and 3 arrivals for our junior team signed while they were left to their own devices). Its only by about 20 grand a week, but its still something.

We could've been more radical in my opinion, but I wanted some continuity and didn't want to necessarily gut a team with strong foundations. Our defence and deeper midfield areas were good, but the loss of all our loans and expiring contracts gutted our attacking midfield and forwards.

The revised squad depth gives us this look:

https://imagizer.imageshack.com/v2/xq90/923/pTEo1e.png

We do have options to flick between 4-2-3-1, 4-3-3 and 4-4-2. In most of our friendlies, I was happy to give 4-2-3-1 the priority try out as I felt it may work better with the players we've assembled, as I do like Angel Gomes as a CAM. In theory, the 4-4-2 diamond we often used as a back-up option last season could also work.

One other piece of admin is a few new deals. The only first teamer we've thus far handed a new deal is Adam Reach, although this came with him injured. A number of younger players have also got new deals. I'm going to hold station on other first team players for now, however.

Pre-season ended up finishing like this:

https://imagizer.imageshack.com/v2/xq90/924/tuuEVo.png

In truth, the lack of communication between myself and backroom meant that we had a pre-season schedule perhaps busier than it should've been, and more top heavy than needed. We certainly overloaded the schedule with big homers against European sides, with Sporting Lisbon, Borussia Dortmund and Lyon all turning up in the away dressing room. So its perhaps not a surprise that, unlike last season, we did lose friendlies.

Sporting was even on stats, but the difference was that Luciano Vietto was just on it for finishing. Against Dortmund in front of a sell-out crowd - unusual for friendlies - we had a decent number of chances but a front 4 of Haaland, Sancho, Brandt and Reyna just overwhelmed us at will and we were 3-0 down at half-time to a side now managed by Mauricio Pochettino. Lyon was a great game for one that ended 0-0 - both of us had chances, but nobody could get through.

More a concern was the draw with League One Ipswich, where we tried the 4-3-3 approach and got it wrong. The other 3 friendlies were fairly routine wins over local non-league sides that we have a deal with to play a game each year

So, that's all the talk and squad assembling done. The media prediction is a pretty solid looking 6th spot (was 7th before our deadline day moves), although the betting odds thing puts us 14th, not just below the 3 sides that were unsuccessful with us in the play-offs but also below Cardiff, Birmingham, Stoke and Derby sides that nearly got relegated. Either they have big faith in their summer season reboots or think we're now shit.

Certainly a fair few teams have undergone reboots ahead of the season:

https://imagizer.imageshack.com/v2/xq90/922/7JZeeH.png

New boys MK Dons were very busy, having 13 new arrivals, including our former striker Sam Winnall, though this was perhaps necessary given they released 11 players. West Brom, Swansea and ourselves also brought in 10 or more players, though as said 3 of our new-comers are for the U23s.

The biggest incoming deal of anyone came from recently relegated Norwich, after the Canaries spent £11M on Southampton attacking midfielder Callum Slattery. The winger Sofiane Boufal has also made a loan move from St Mary's to Carrow Road, with the £28M sale of full-back Jamal Lewis to Watford very much covering this.

Intriguingly, Newcastle chose not to sack Steve Bruce despite relegation, while they have also kept Martin Dubravka, Joelinton, Allan Saint-Maximin and Miguel Almiron. Or just haven't found a buyer for any of them. They are predicted as favourites for promotion, but with them, who knows.

Sheffield United made a big money move for West Ham's Aaron Cresswell to replace Enda Stevens after he joined Bournemouth for a fee that could rise to nearly £20M with clauses met, with nearly all their signings coming from Premier League teams. Certainly, when we face them, it'll be a big test both as facing a proto-PL side as well as our local rivals.

Mid-table is the surprisingly generous allowance the board has given us for 2020-21, but having got play-offs last year, I want to go in there again. I'd love to be up there with our fans' friends from Bramall Lane, given I think they'll be a contender for promotion.

But we have 46 games to fully see if we'll feel we can take the fight to the big teams. And as is always the case, the opening month will rush us in - the challenges of Hull, Wigan, a Carabao Cup tie trip to Sunderland, that huge rivals clash with Sheffield United, Reading, Swansea and new-boys MK Dons await us. I want to hit the ground running like we did last year, so let's try and get it.
noir et blanc armée

Read my FM20 Career WAWAW

Two and a half months or so on from our irritating play-off failure against Fulham, its time to go again. 46 games of ups, downs, delight, frustration, indifferent 0-0 draws, cul-de-sacs and lord knows what else. The ultimate dream would be to end the season as Championship champions, but in the short term, it'll be good if we can grab a win to kick this whole thing off.

Our first test was Hull City at the KC Stadium, with our squad beating the Tigers home and away last season and Hull having made a few interesting looking signings. So its a reasonable enough first test to see what we can do. Obviously promotion isn't won after one game, but it'll be decent to see how it goes.

Making my opening day squad were:
Wildsmith - Palmer, Iorfa, Borner, Fox - Skipp, Bannan - Harris, Gomes, Ameobi - Ambrose
Subs: Dawson, Lees, Odubajo, Luongo, Matheus, Forestieri, Surridge

Having struggled against 4-2-3-1 almost as a matter of routine in 2019-20, I've been working on the basis of playing it this year and picked it for game one. Four players make their full debut - Oliver Skipp, Sammy Ameobi, Angel Gomes and Thierry Ambrose. Deadline day signings Matheus and Sam Surridge start as subs, while a minor calf injury means Dwight Gayle will not take part. Perhaps the biggest surprise is Wildsmith over Dawson in goal, but I felt he had a better pre-season and was worth giving a go.

12 months earlier, we beat Reading away on the opening day to start our first season with the Owls as winners. Could we do it again?

https://imagizer.imageshack.com/v2/xq90/923/nsx250.png

For the second year in a row, we start the opening day with 3 points away courtesy of a striker bagging a brace, though this time its our 19-year-old debutant. Love to see it.

Things could've been different early on when Marcus Maddison headed over when well placed. Instead, we survived that and duly got the opener.

It was something of a direct route, as Skipp intercepted an errant pass and hit a long ball for Ambrose. But the French youngster ran free ahead of a covering Hull defender, and beat George Long to give us the early breakthrough.

Reece Burke hit wide after a great run, while a great stop by Wildsmith denied Jordi de Wijs as the home side tried to equalise, although a fine stop by Long kept out Iorfa to stop us striking back.

The opening half was fluid and open, with Long making a good save to deny Ambrose before Maddison had a decent try blocked by Fox.

We would have a period in charge, with Gomes firing wide and Harris being denied twice. Hull duly countered with their own pressure, but then as we arrived in the final five minutes of normal time, we came close as an Ameobi volley whistled over before a second goal crashed home.

This came after we recovered possession from a Hull goal-kick, and the sequence ended with Harris teeing up Ambrose, who duly broke free and finished.

We couldn't congratulate ourselves for too long however as Maddison duly made it 2-1. Brandon Fleming intercepted a poor goal-kick, and his cross was smartly volleyed in.

Buoyed by that, Hull missed chances at the end of the first half and start of the second, although we could've buried the game when Ambrose was denied by Long before Iorfa, Ameobi and Ambrose hit strikes off target.

Having failed to take advantage of that, we came close to blowing the 2 goal lead when Julian Jeanvier hit the bar and Kean Lewis-Potter missed the rebound.

Ambrose (twice) and Massimo Luongo were denied late on, but we were able to control Hull's attack at arms length, and with it, success on the opening day was ours. Sweet.

By the standards of August, one week between the opening 2 games was a desert of football, but enough time to recharge weary lambs getting used to competitive football and only 3 subs, and prepare for Wigan Athletic.

Aiming to make it 2 from 2 were:
Dawson - Palmer, Iorfa, Borner, Fox - Skipp, Luongo - Matheus, Gomes, Ameobi - Ambrose
Subs: Wildsmith, Lees, Odubajo, Bannan, Matheus, Gayle, Surridge

3 changes, continuing last season's usual habit - Dawson for Wildsmith in goal, Luongo for Bannan and a full debut for Matheus to replace Harris. There was also a spot on the bench for Gayle. But more noteworthy from the pundits was a start for Josh Windass, who had a fairly unsatisfying loan spell with us last season. With something to prove and a Man of the Match display in their opening day game against Bristol City, however, he would be dangerous.

Could we send Windass home from Hillsborough thinking he deserved more... Again?

https://imagizer.imageshack.com/v2/xq90/924/KtUJsg.png

Granted, beating Windass is not the core consideration. But 2 wins from 2 is just what I wanted to start the new season.

We had been pretty poor in the first half. Indeed, Wigan could've put us on the back foot after Joe Williams had a goal disallowed for offside after six minutes.

After a poor quality opening half-hour, Wigan's former Owl nearly made us consider if we didn't give him a fair crack of the whip last year, as Windass showed good movement before being denied by Dawson.

Ambrose was then denied by David Marshall within seconds of that, but this was an isolated strike forward with Wigan inching a pretty poor quality first half. This was summed up pretty accurately when excellent work by Wigan released Jamal Lowe, who duly spanked one into the top of the stands.

The second half would see us be more alert. A great solo run by Gomes ended with Marshall saving his effort, before the keeper spilled a Luongo volley and had to desperately claw it off the line.

Less than 60 seconds after that and Marshall was having to pick the ball out the back of the net. Fox played the ball in-field for Gomes, who in-turn flicked it out wide first time to find Ameobi. His own first time hit was tremendous, crashing past Marshall to open the scoring.

We largely kept Wigan at arms length, although a great chance opened up for Wigan seconds after Marshall denied our sub Harris when their sub Kieffer Moore was denied by Dawson after good set-up work by Windass.

Gomes was denied by their keeper before Chey Dunkley and Nathan Byrne had chances denied. But moments after he threw himself at a Sam Morsy shot, Gomes would grab a first Owls goal.

His fellow loanee Surridge, who arrived as a sub pinched a loose ball and his pass suddenly opened up space for the man on loan from Manchester United, who duly made the most of his space to run into the box and beat Marshall.

So it was 2 wins from 2, and we would seek to continue such form with a trip to Sunderland for the Carabao Cup First Round. The Black Cats were beaten by Blackpool in the previous season's play-off final, following that one to Charlton in real-life the Netflix people captured in forensic detail, and will no doubt want to prove their second tier mettle against our lot.

Hoping to avoid an upset would be:
Dawson - Iorfa, Lees, Borner, Penney - Matheus, Hutchinson, Luongo, Bannan - Gayle, Surridge
Subs: Wildsmith, Urhoghide, Odubajo, Harris, Reach, Hidalgo, Forestieri

Six changes in all, including a debut for Gayle and a first start for left-sided player Matt Penney, who spent last season on loan with German side FC Saint Pauli under the management of former Owls boss Jos Luhukay. Lees, Hutchinson, Bannan and Surridge also come in as we switch to a 4-4-2, while there was also places on the bench for the recovering Reach and Argentine-born academy graduate Manuel Hidalgo, who impressed in pre-season.

Could we see off the side beaten in back-to-back play-off finals and in the process keep things going?

https://imagizer.imageshack.com/v2/xq90/922/lne89S.png

Indeed we did, making it three wins in a row to start our return to competitive football. It also suggested a greater comeback spirit as we struggled in the early moments.

Of course, things would've been more relaxed after Sunderland goalkeeper Lee Burge denied our starting strike-force Gayle and Surridge.

But after the 12 minute mark, Sunderland grabbed the opening goal as Bannan gave away a free-kick and home defender Jordan Willis took advantage of dozing by Borner and Iorfa to head past Dawson.

Elliot Embleton then had to be denied by Dawson as we nearly made things worse, with Charlie Wyke also firing a shot wide.

Sunderland had been better in the early stages of the contest, but we slowly got into it, with Surridge and Penney coming close, although Embleton struck the bar to prove the hosts weren't suddenly about to roll over.

Eventually, with seven minutes before the break, we levelled. Moments after Matheus had a shot blocked, we were given a free-kick. A sumptuous delivery by Penney was only parried out by Burge, and Luongo lost his marker to tuck in the rebound.

We would then make it two goals in those seven minutes as we took the lead just before half-time. An over-hit cross-shot by Bannan landed for Matheus, who did well to lose his defensive handler before a first-time strike by Surridge beat Burge.

For games with just 1 striker starting, its nice it looks like I'm gonna have plenty of headaches - the 2nd tier experience of Gayle, the surprise signing of Surridge after he scored a few Premier League goals for Bournemouth last year, or Ambrose's potential highlighted by his debut brace. Plus Forestieri is still an option too I guess.

Bannan had a shot saved just after the break, with Wyke doing likewise for the home side. For most of the second half, we had largely then contained the hosts, although Dawson would be employed around the 70-75 mark to make a few fairly easy stops.

The hosts tried a variety of substitutions and tactical combinations to try and break through to win, but in the end we had enough to make things work for us, and as a result, its 3 wins from 3 in all competitions to start this season off.

Two days later, we saw the draw for the second round gave us a trip to face League 2 side Oldham Athletic. No Premier League side to test our functions against, but its a half-decent chance to build on things having finally won my first knockout tie after I got knocked out of both the FA and Carabao Cups at the first time of asking last season.

The start has been positive enough, with 3 wins from 3 in all competition after our somewhat up-and-down pre-season. Sheffield United away in game 4 (or game 3 in the league), by comparison, is not going to be so straight forward. Its perhaps earlier in the season than I'd be up for testing my mettle against that lot, but we can give it a go and see if we can give our fans bragging rights.
noir et blanc armée

Read my FM20 Career WAWAW

3 wins from 3 in all competitions is an excellent start in anyone's language. But while Hull, Wigan and Sunderland represent one challenge, Sheffield United are another on so many levels.

On status alone, its our first test against a recently relegated side still full of multi-million pound players and the nucleus of the side who were relegated from the previous year's Premier League, and one hurting after losing to last season's losing play-off finalists West Bromwich Albion in their first away game of the season. This pair alone makes it our biggest test so far, but on another level, there's the inescapable fact this is our first meeting with our rivals from across town.

A Steel City Derby taking us away to Bramall Lane is going to be a huge test for our remodelled squad, and with this being just our third league game of the 2020-21 season, it could well set the course for the next few months of football. So, there will be a lot of tension and a lot riding on my first exposure to this contest.

It is not unfair to expect a tight contest - 3 of the 4 meetings between United's promotion from League One in 2017 and promotion to the Premier League in 2019 finished 0-0, with a 1-0 win at Hillsborough in 2012 being Wednesday's last win in this game. We are probably not the favourites given United's recent PL experience but this could go in oh so many directions.

Looking to triumph against our friends and neighbours were:
Dawson - Palmer, Iorfa, Borner, Fox - Skipp, Luongo - Matheus, Gomes, Ameobi - Surridge
Subs: Wildsmith, Lees, Urhoghide, Bannan, Harris, Ambrose, Gayle

From our last league game, the only starting 11 alteration is up-front, with Surridge preferred to Ambrose.

So, could we make a huge statement and triumph in our first clash of the Steel City titans?

https://imagizer.imageshack.com/v2/xq90/923/M63toq.png

Well, its not a defeat of any kind, let alone the thrashing I feared. Its disappointing not to win after scoring first but that has to be balanced against the fact a point is something worth taking home with us, particularly as the home side had more than twice as many chances as we had and had chances to win after Billy Sharp's equaliser.

The home side had the better chances of a quiet opening to the contest, with Dawson making a simple save to deny Matt Miazga and a more acrobatic one to thwart Lys Mousset.

It took us 21 minutes to create something of note, although home goalie Michael Verrips had to push away Matheus' first time shot.

After that, we continued to be on the back foot, with Dawson denying John Lundstram while Robbie Brady and John Egan missed the target.

Morgan Fox then saw a fine free-kick denied by Verrips and after we rode out a few home half-chances, the left-back would get involved with a set-piece that yielded our opener.

Fox flung in a free-kick after a foul by Ameobi, and Verrips came for it but missed. It fell for Iorfa at the back post, and the right-back-turned-centre-back glanced it in for his first goal for me since scoring in the inter-squad friendly I had the day after my arrival. Not a bad way to get it.

It could have been even better, as Ameobi reached a cross in first half stoppage time and just flicked it over the crossbar, skimming the top on its way out.

We expected the home side to roar at us after the break in desperate search of an equaliser, and they had a few chances in the opening minutes of the first half, though all were off target except for one from Brady that was straight at Dawson.

Dawson was also on hand to deny substitute Sharp and then a fine acrobatic save to thwart Luke Freeman, but with the game ticking by, we were containing the home side's threat. We then nearly had a sucker punch, as Skipp fired one inches wide before Surridge had a decent try well saved by Verrips.

But with just under a quarter of an hour still to play, our resistance was broken. A poor forward ball by Palmer was intercepted, and Brady's first time ball was flicked on to Sharp, who couldn't miss. 1-1. Crud.

It was so close to two in two minutes, when Daniel Arzani last Iorfa and reached a cross but saw his header clawed away by Dawson.

Yet we nearly brushed off that setback with a second goal Both our chances fell for Spurs loanee Skipp, with one just brushing the post on its way out and one clawed away by Verrips as he seeked redemption for the error that gave us a goal. Matheus also put one into the side-netting.

United could've broken our hearts in a way worthy of repeating for the ages when, with 95 minutes on the clock, Sharp played a clever one-two with John Fleck and was in the clear. It could've been the moment, but mercifully he snatched it and put it wide. Full-time whistle was blown swiftly after.

It was pretty much what I expected - derby day, blood and thunder, thrills and spills. Its difficult to process - disappointing not to win but relief we didn't break before scoring our opener or fall to pieces after equalising.

But while we could dwell and reflect on the fact that deciding Sheffield's ultimate bragging rights will have to wait, we don't have enough time to do so too much. After 2 rest days, we have Reading coming up to Hillsborough.

The 18 I had faith in to continue their unbeaten start would be:
Dawson - Palmer, Lees, Borner, Penney - Skipp, Bannan - Matheus, Gomes, Harris - Ambrose
Subs: Wildsmith, Iorfa, Fox, Luongo, Ameobi, Gayle, Surridge

Aiming to keep my squad fresh for our long slog and long August means we made 5 changes. Noteworthy was resting the two players who got our goal at Bramall Lane, with Iorfa and Fox benched for Lees and Penney. We also gave starts for Ambrose, Harris and Banna.

Last season's clash against Reading was one of the dullest of this save so far, with a 0-0 draw and nothing really happening. So much so that this world's version of Quest TV's highlights show probably only needed to run 5 seconds of highlights at the latest possible moment. Could we do something more worthwhile?

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Not really. In fairness, there were more chances plus the sight of a decent performance from Joey Pelupessy, who started just a few weeks after we sold him to Reading on deadline day to fund the Gayle deal, but its 0-0 again.

Certainly, the game began with much more intent than last year's piss-poor effort. Ambrose headed over on a counter within the opening 3 minutes, while Dawson made a great save to keep out George Puscas seconds later.

Matheus had one shot deflected wide, another saved by Vito Mannone and two headers go over as the Brazilian looks to stake a claim for his right wing slot.

We had been pretty poor in the first half. Indeed, Wigan could've put us on the back foot after Joe Williams had a goal disallowed for offside after six minutes, before away wingers Adama Diakhaby and Modou Barrow hit efforts wide. Closer was the Reading livewire Ovie Ejaria, who saw a fine effort smack the bar.

As the half wore on, Reading played better, with Barrow and Puscas both denied by Dawson. But we then nearly hit Reading on the counter, with Mannone making a great save to deny a deflected Ambrose header and Matheus smashing the rebound against the post. The same two home players would also miss efforts late in the half.

The first half was decent, but the second was slower. There were still chances, with Mannone making a few saves at one end before I breathed a slight sigh of relief as Pelupessy headed over. Had he got it under the bar and in, I think I would've gotten a lot more questioning for my transfer decisions.

Amidst the barrage of subs, Adrian Popa looked very productive for Reading, with the sub winger have to efforts flinged away by Dawson. Harris and sub Surridge would miss chances for us, before Puscas rattled a post.

We could've won it in added time, but sadly the recalled Lees headed over with the last touch and the game was called there & then. 0-0 again - a better one than last season's dull-fest, but still 0-0.

But again, we had very little time to fully work out why we couldn't break through, because after just 2 days off (again), we had a Friday night clash in front of the TV cameras against Swansea at Hillsborough, as we looked to triumph in a battle of two sides who surely have aspirations of Premier League returns.

My choices to try and put on a show for the TV audience were:
Dawson - Palmer, Lees, Borner, Fox - Skipp, Luongo - Harris, Gomes, Ameobi - Surridge
Subs: Wildsmith, Iorfa, Penney, Bannan, Reach, Gayle, Ambrose

Four changes from the Reading draw - out with Penney, Bannan, Matheus and Ambrose, in with Fox, Luongo, Ameobi and Surridge. Perhaps the most noteworthy inclusion was Reach on the bench, with the attacker back after a pre-season injury. Matheus look burned out by the end of the Reading game, so he's rested for this one.

So, how would we do against a side we failed to beat in either meeting last year?

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After 80 mostly dull minutes that probably saw most of the TV audience go away, we ended up trading a fair few goals in the final 10. We'll be happy at our end, as we deliver victory once again and continue our unbeaten start to the season.

Things could've had a better fire-up in the opening moments, with Gomes having a shot blocked before Marcus Bettinelli had a simple save to keep out Harris and another pair of similarly simple stops early on to thwart Ameobi and Surridge.

Swansea offered very little in the opening 35 minutes, but then nearly caught us out when Lyle Taylor - who turned us down to join Swansea in the summer - saw a header go straight at Dawson.

Dawson then made a good stop to deny Mike van der Hoorn at a Swans corner, before the goalkeeper's long kick out nearly produced a classic route one style goal, only for Surridge to get his finish all wrong. The Bournemouth loanee then missed another chance at the end of the half for good measure. He was closer still with another effort straight after the restart, but again put it over.

Having blown all those chances, Dawson then had to bail us out, making some necessary stops to deny first Jake Bidwell and then Joe Rodon.

Dawson also did well to hold onto a try from away winger Alireza Jahanbakhsh and a snapshot from Taylor before making a very stop to keep out Rafa Mujica.

Having already brought on Gayle and Reach, we decided to switch to a 4-4-2 to provide Swansea's defence more questions and it nearly paid dividends when Rodon missed a Fox cross but Gayle could only find the Swansea keeper.

But just two minutes, we found a way through. The ball was worked out to Reach on the right flank, and his swerving cross found Ameobi at the back post, and he got his header spot on.

Reach would then make it two assists in five minutes as he was involved in the move for a second and surely game-sealing goal. After receiving a pass back from Gayle, he flung a through-ball forward for the striker on loan from Newcastle to chase. He duly made it to goal, beat Bettinelli and had himself his first Owls goal.

However, any hope we had of relaxing was out the window when Swansea got a goal back just two minutes after we made it 2-0. Jahanbakhsh had been dangerous all night and it was little surprise he got it, as he turned in his own rebound after Fox had blocked his initial shot.

This lead to a few nervy scares in added time, but we rode them all out, securing victory once again, and continuing a very promising start to the season.

It is of course only the opening month and there's no chance we'll go the year unbeaten, but there are signs we're beginning to click together after all the changes that went on.

Of course, this could either be the start of something great or a very false dawn. We'll just have to play the game and see, starting with a potential cup upset at League 2 Oldham before rounding off the opening month with a trip to struggling new boys MK Dons. Better get on with it.
noir et blanc armée

Read my FM20 Career WAWAW

With the opening month wrapping up, there were still 2 more games left of a pretty intense opening to the season. A Carabao Cup trip to Oldham and a trip to new boys MK Dons would make it 8 games in our opening month, although consistent with last season, where the only difference was us getting knocked out of the knockout tournament at the first go.

We travelled to face League 2 Oldham hopeful we would dodge the bullet of a cup upset, and mildly confident given we were taking on a side with just one win in their opening 6 League 2 matches.

Aiming to underline our two division advantage would be:
Wildsmith - Odubajo, Urhoghide, Lees, Fox - Matheus, Hutchinson, Bannan, Reach - Ambrose, Forestieri
Subs: Westwood, Iorfa, Borner, Luongo, Hidalgo, Harris, Gayle

Clearly I was a bit confident, given I made 9 changes from the team that drew with Swansea. Just the 2 defenders Lees and Fox were given a start here after playing that game with the Swans. Among those thrown in included Odubajo and Reach as part of their injury rehab, and the slightly lesser spotted Forestieri and Hutchinson.

After doing a solid job against Sunderland in the opening round, could we book a reasonably comfortable Round Two place?

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Well we did book our spot in Round 2 but this isn't what I had in mind. It would've been bad enough to progress just through a slightly fortunate own goal six minutes from time, but we then straight away conceded a howitzer that took it to penalties. While last year saw us miss our very first spot-kick on our way to crashing out against local rivals Barnsley, this time was a high-stakes scoring session until Oldham skipper David Wheater broke the streak with the sudden death score 9-8 in our favour. Still, thank fuck it wasn't a total disaster.

Our best chance of a low quality first half saw Bannan denied by Gary Woods before Reach saw a header clip the bar on its way over. These came within a few minutes of one another but in truth, Oldham were very much in the fight and did have a few half-chances of their own.

Perhaps our momentum wasn't helped by having an unfit Odubajo and Reach in the team, and having to burn two substitutes to end their cameos. But although we improved in the second period and did begin to have our strikers involved more, it wasn't like Oldham were having to put all hands on deck to repel us.

It looked as though we'd put this thing to bed with six minutes to go, in slightly odd circumstances. An initial Bannan corner was cleared, before Lees' second ball for Gayle was taken off his toes by Oldham defender Zak Mills only for the ball to trundle past his own keeper.

That should've been job done. It wasn't. We'd already received a warning about Oldham trying long shots when Gevaro Nepomuceno saw a long-range thump blocked by Iorfa, when we lost possession out wide. It was worked in-field for Mohamed Maouche, who in turn lashed a thunderbolt from range into our net. Wildsmith had a go but in truth we could've put him, Dawson, Westwood and our new U23 keeper in goal and all four of them would only have watched such a marvellous strike fly in.

Maouche nearly turned villain when he gave away a free-kick but had his blushes spared when Gary Woods tipped Fox's free-kick wide, before Nepomuceno had a shot saved by Wildsmith.

So, with no winner in 90, the excitement or otherwise of penalties. It wasn't exactly the happiest omen, given Oldham had beaten Bradford with that method in Round One while our penalty shoot-out at Barnsley last season's went horribly wrong immediately.

This year did start better at least with the first penalty. Soon enough, we'd each scored our first 4 and effectively created a sudden death situation from there on out. But with unerring accuracy, both keepers were being beaten until, after Iorfa scored our 9th penalty, Wheater saw his saved by Wildsmith and we finally ended this charade.

Our reward for limping through that is renewing hostilities with an acquaintance as we travel to Brentford, who finished second to our fourth in last season's Championship. They however have not had an easy adaptation to life in their first ever Premier League season, given they're bottom after 3 games and needed penalties to see off a Charlton side who left last season's second tier in an opposite direction to themselves.

That of course has to wait a few weeks. Before that tie there's 3 more Championship games in our epic marathon, starting with a trip to new boys MK Dons, who had beaten Stoke in their last home game but lost all the rest in a tough re-introduction to second tier life after four years away.

Hoping to get us back-to-back league wins were:
Dawson - Palmer, Iorfa, Borner, Fox - Skipp, Luongo - Matheus, Gomes, Ameobi - Ambrose
Subs: Wildsmith, Lees, Penney, Bannan, Reach, Gayle, Surridge

It was back to something approaching our usual picks for this one. Was just 2 changes from our last league game when we beat Swansea, though from the midweek game it was just 3 retaining their places in Fox, Matheus and Ambrose.

In some respects, this was another upset to be ducked, not least at the prospect of our former striker Sam Winnall leading the Dons' line. Could we avoid that?

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Indeed we could. Was a fairly routine victory, and probably would've been even if MK Dons hadn't been reduced to ten men.

The opening stages had seen MK Dons give us some trouble with some clever movement, although we could've shut the door on that early on when Gomes curled a shot just wide.

A great chance opened up for the home side when Josh Clarke saw a low drive beat Dawson but just clip the post on the way out, with the same right-winger then forcing a good stop out of Dawson a few moments later.

The Dons' best chances after that double had come from set-pieces, but it was a corner of our own that produced an opener on the half-hour. Fox's corner reached Ambrose at the back-stick, and the Frenchman volleyed in his first since his opening day double.

Borner and Ambrose missed chances before the break, though we would be force into a half-time change after Ameobi suffered an injury. He was able to limp to the break with a gashed leg, but was taken off at half-time. He should be back in time for the return from the internationals.

MK Dons came very close to equalising moments after the break when captain Alex Gilbey hit the bar. But we were still likelier to score, with home keeper Lee Nicholls denying Iorfa and Ambrose while last-ditch blocks also thwarted some of our efforts.

But the game seemed to continue to go in our favour when the home side's Southampton loanee Thomas O'Connor, already yellow carded for tripping Matheus, did the same to Palmer and was duly dismissed from the field of play.

Nicholls had to make saves to keep out Matheus and Borner, but in truth it was now looking like our game to assume control of. In truth, we were making heavy weather of it, but two goals in 3 minutes sealed the clash in our favour.

Matheus scored the first with his first goal for the club after his arrival from Watford, with the Brazilian winger scoring a superb goal as he volleyed Fox's cross past Nicholls.

There were two decent chances in quick succession for MK Dons to grab a goal back but both were wasted by Man City loanee Felix Nmecha, though the second did touch the bar on its way over, and we duly made it 3-0.

Again it was scored by Matheus and again it came from a cross from our left, as Reach exchanged passes with Fox before the sub's cross found Matheus, who headed across Nicholls and in.

MK Dons could've ruined our clean sheet in added time, with Dawson making a great save to deny Jordan Houghton and one-time transfer target Rhys Healey having a shot blocked by Borner. But by then it was too late to prevent us from grabbing a decent away victory as we continue a good start to the season.

So, with an international break, let's see the table after the opening month.

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With six games played, no team has a 100% record, although the closest are Bristol City, who dropped points for the first time with a draw at Sheffield United in the last game before the break. We find ourselves in 4th, where we ended last year, level with West Brom and Newcastle, and one point ahead of Norwich.

But of course it'll matter more if we're still this high up much deeper into the season. I'd like to think we will be, but its way too soon to call it. All we can do to guarantee we'll be up there is to keep delivering results, starting with our trip to Stoke after the international break stops and this madhouse of a league resumes.
noir et blanc armée

Read my FM20 Career WAWAW

Over the international break, there was time to reflect on phase one of this season going mightily well. But promotion to the Premier League isn't won in August. All we can do to ensure we remain in the conversation is to keep on winning.

We're as busy as ever for the period up to the next international break. First assignment after the pause is a trip to face Stoke City, with a Potters team now managed by Aitor Karanka winning 4 in a row in all competitions before the break.

Hoping to pull off an away day triumph were:
Dawson - Palmer, Iorfa, Lees, Fox - Matheus, Luongo, Bannan, Reach - Surridge, Ambrose
Subs: Wildsmith, Borner, Penney, Skipp, Ameobi, Gomes, Gayle

Injuries have forced a few alterations to the list, with Borner, Skipp and Ameobi suffering injuries in the 2 week break between the last game and this one. This gives Lees, Bannan and Reach starts - the latter making his first start of the season - while I also opted to switch to a 4-4-2 and bring in Surridge for Gomes to place him alongside Ambrose.

After beating MK Dons in our last game before the internationals, could we make it back-to-back away wins?

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It was kind of a repeat to our visit to Stoke in our first season with the Owls, where we were very much second best but a first half goal did the job. Only moreso as we actually had more chances that afternoon. Stoke will be kicking themselves but while I'll admit we blagged it, I'm not going to worry too much about their complaints.

The first major chance had fallen to us, when Surridge had a chance saved by Jack Butland, while the Stoke goalkeeper also did well to deny Iorfa at a corner.

Stoke had the odd chance but we were granted a penalty just after the half-hour mark, as Nick Powell fouled Bannan and we would be given a penalty. Bannan duly stepped up, and scored to put us in the lead.

Little did we know that would be our last real chance of the afternoon. Dawson had to make saves to deny Badou Ndiaye, Tom Edwards and Thibaud Verlinden in the final five minutes of the first half, with Edwards also hitting the side netting.

Stoke had most the chances after the break, though it took them until the hour mark to get something on target, as Dawson made a great save to deny Tyrese Campbell, with another great save to deny Danny Batth at the following corner. Helps to bring me on board to be fair as I wasn't 100% convinced by Dawson last season.

Powell hit the post and Ndiaye headed over as Stoke continued to look likelier, with our only chance of the entire second half seeing Iorfa head wide.

Dawson made two saves to deny substitute Lee Gregory, as we ground things out to take a win. Can't say I'm entirely happy to have ground out victory after real backs-to-the-wall football as goal difference could be factor, but in this league we need to take wins whichever way we can.

This mindset would continue the following week as we welcomed Blackburn Rovers to Hillsborough. A Rovers team managed by Martin O'Neill had a difficult start to the season, though were unbeaten in 3 when they came to our place.

My refreshed selections for this one were:
Dawson - Palmer, Iorfa, Lees, Fox - Matheus, Skipp, Bannan, Gomes - Surridge, Gayle
Subs: Wildsmith, Borner, Penney, Luongo, Reach, Ameobi, Ambrose

Three changes for this one, with Skipp, Gomes and Gayle introduced into the starting 11 in place of Luongo, Reach and Ambrose.

This would be in most probably a tough test, as most Championship fights are. But could we see off the team from Lancashire and continue our strong start?

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Yes we would, and with results going our way, I find myself top of the Championship table for the very first time. Which is fantastic for the CV, no matter how long our top spot position lasts.

We saw Surridge head over in the opening minute as we tried straight away to get somewhere.

Blackburn would go close early as well, as Kevin Stewart - who turned us down to join Blackburn in the summer - had a shot saved by Dawson. But straight from that, we broke and Blackburn keeper Vaclav Hladky just parried a Surridge shot off the line.

A tight first half saw the best chances fall for the visiting winger Onel Hernandez, who saw one shot saved by Dawson and another strike the side-netting. Joe Rankin-Costello hit a fierce strike just wide as well, although we came close when Fox forced a save from their keeper.

I felt at half-time that we could simply do much better than we offered in the opening 45. It certainly seems like my team felt the same, as we took the lead within 2 minutes of the restart, when Surridge met a Fox cross and buried his header into the goal.

Fox was then involved at the other end as he blocked a shot by Hernandez, while Dawson denied a header by Adam Armstrong.

A succession of blocked shots was the sum of both team's attacking intent for a while, but the chance quality improved in the final 15. Gomes saw a dangerous drive for us just bounce wide, before Dawson made a firm save after Armstrong lashed a fine strike in our goal's direction. The keeper also denied Amari'i Bell.

The onus at this point was on Blackburn to break us down, but they weren't really able to break through, with a minor Joe Rothwell chance about it for their opportunities, and we held on to take the victory that prolongs a strong unbeaten start and in the process puts us top of the Championship table. Result.

We could try and reflect on the glow, but we simply didn't have time for dwelling. A few days later, we met our old friends Brentford at their new stadium for a tie in the Third Round of the Carabao Cup. The Bees have so far struggled, though enter the contest on a high after beating Brighton in their previous game away from home.

Looking to try and talk up our merits against this lot would be:
Wildsmith - Palmer, Lees, Borner, Penney - Skipp, Bannan - Reach, Gomes, Harris - Ambrose
Subs: Dawson, Iorfa, Fox, Luongo, Ameobi, Gayle, Surridge

Wtih the league more important, a reshuffle felt necessary - just Palmer, Lees, Skipp and Gomes maintain their starting 11 places. There's also a formation change, although no place for Matheus, as our recently impressive Brazilian winger is suspended.

So, could we manage victory and a statement piece against a side that were once up there with us?

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Well that did not go at all the way I was hoping it would. We simply couldn't live with Bryan Mbuemo, who tore us to pieces with a first half hat-trick.

The striker had already missed two chances, with his side missing even more, before he turned in a Kyle Walker-Peters cross, and then five minutes later, the same combination yielded a second Brentford goal.

Said Benrahma was giving us problems, Josh Dasilva headed wide, Shandon Baptiste hit the post, Mbuemo had one saved by Wildsmith and we continued to be on the back foot until things duly got worse just before the break, when Bannan was ruled by VAR to have fouled Christian Norgaard, and Mbuemo scored the penalty.

Gomes scored to reduce the deficit five minutes after half-time, and indeed we did have a few chances just before the break, but we weren't really in the contest. Baptiste scored three minutes after our goal back, and from there it really was damage limitation. A great chance was spurned when David Raya denied Surridge, who hit the rebound into the side-netting, and we ended the contest on the back of an unwanted heavy defeat and out of the Carabao Cup.

Not ideal. But our priority focus is still the league, and a few days later, it was back to that with a home clash against Preston North End.

Named to take on this lot would be:
Dawson - Iorfa, Lees, Borner, Fox - Matheus, Skipp, Luongo, Gomes - Gayle, Surridge
Subs: Wildsmith, Urhoghide, Palmer, Reach, Bannan, Ameobi, Ambrose

From our preceding league game, we dropped Palmer and Bannan in favour of Borner and Luongo.

Last season, Preston took 4 points off us in our promotion challenge. It was a clash of two sides unbeaten at the start of the day, though Alex Neil's side had drawn every game following an opening day win. Could we see them off?

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No. Instead, our unbeaten run disappears as we lose for the first time in the league, and suffer back-to-back reverses in league & cup. Damn.

We did make a fast start, as Declan Rudd denied Matheus, although Scott Sinclair then forced a flying save from Dawson as we both tried to find an early breakthrough.

Dawson would be the busier keeper early on, making saves in quick succession to deny Sean Maguire, Sinclair and Sinclair again, but with just under a quarter of an hour gone, we would fall behind. Away midfielder Kenny Dougall was quite a way out from goal, but he decided to lash one towards the net and would find it with a fine long-ranger, putting us behind.

Sinclair would hit one wide and Patrick Bauer was denied as we struggled to create much. But after the half-hour mark, we would turn a forward burst into a goal, as Luongo intercepted a poor clearance and released Gayle, who struck the ball in for his first Owls goal.

Borner then headed over as we nearly pinched another, although Dawson would still have to make saves before the break as we continued to be on the back-foot.

It would continue to be the case in the second period. A fine strike by Alan Browne went over the top, but then barely a few moments later, a second thunderbolt beat Dawson. This came from a free-kick from 30 yards after a foul by Luongo, and Sinclair's delivery absolutely flew into the goal off the bar, putting Preston into the lead.

It was on us to try and to get back on level terms, with a few reshuffles tried to give us more attackers, but we struggled to build momentum in that regard. Gayle did get close, with a strike saved by Rudd from a tight angle and Ambrose coming off the bench to head wide.

But these moments were fleeting, as Preston did just enough to thwart us and condemn us to a first defeat of the season. Its our first in a Championship game since the play-off loss at Fulham, and our first in a normal league game since we were beaten by Brentford in early March. It also means we lose top spot in the league table after just a week, with West Brom taking over, though we are 2 points ahead of Norwich and Bristol City in second.

So, you know, a loss is not ideal. But we have to take it on the chin and start a new unbeaten streak rather than extend this into a malaise that hurts our ambitions. Things aren't about to get easier - we travel to Birmingham, who have made a positive start to the new season, before welcoming Norwich, who like Sheffield United a few weeks ago managed to keep the core of the side that got relegated last season.

Still, if we want to win promotion, we have to get results (ideally wins) from these kind of matches. So let's go try and get it.
noir et blanc armée

Read my FM20 Career WAWAW

Before we made the trip to Birmingham City for our next game, Chansiri sent me a message looking to extend my Sheffield Wednesday contract. The initial two year deal signed at the start of the game expires at the end of this campaign, but after our excellent start, its clear the owner still wants to associate himself with me. I'm content to indulge them and accept, and thus a new 3 year deal is signed, along with a six digit promotion-win bonus - winnings I'm sure my digital self will invest wisely. And which is larger than my transfer budget, worryingly.

With that admin done, next up is trying to continue our positive start as we seek to bounce back from the unwelcome loss of our unbeaten start after defeat at home by Preston. However, Birmingham aren't going to be easy opposition - Steve McClaren's side were unbeaten in their previous 3 games, and have a gem in Jude Bellingham, who scored all their goals in a 3-0 win at Reading the previous weekend.

Seeking to keep quiet the occupant of that famous #22 shirt at St Andrews would be:
Dawson - Palmer, Iorfa, Borner, Fox - Skipp, Luongo - Matheus, Gomes, Ameobi - Gayle
Subs: Wildsmith, Lees, Penney, Bannan, Reach, Ambrose, Surridge

Just two changes from the side beaten at the weekend, with Palmer and Ameobi recalled, as well as a shift back to 4-2-3-1.

Unquestionably, this game will test our credentials as we take on a side in form with a talented player in form. How would we fare?

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Could've gone either way in - even game, Birmingham perhaps missed the chance of the whole day with a first half penalty miss, but we weren't exactly there to make up the numbers. Goalless is fine for now I guess.

Dawson made a great save to deny the confident Bellingham in the opening few, and another to thwart Jeremie Bela, before we had a fine chance of our own after Luca Zidane kept out Gayle.

Zidane also denied Ameobi before Gayle wafted one wide, before Marc Roberts hit the post as an open and fun start to the game continued.

The Blues were slightly better but the energy had begun to slow down until Birmingham were given a penalty five minutes before the break, when Fox fouled Bela and a penalty was given to the hosts, although the AI narrator suggested it may've been the wrong call. Alvaro Gimenez stepped up to do the honours, only to crash his shot off the post and see the ball roll back to Dawson.

Having just survived that, we nearly snuck in front when Ameobi had a shot saved by Zidane.

Dawson denied Ivan Sunjic just after half-time, but then we had a burst of chances. Gayle had one shot blocked and another saved by Zidane, before Zinedine's junior made a great save to deny Matheus and another less elaborate save to thwart Gayle.

Birmingham made changes and they began to see more chances, although a surprise move saw them hook their star youngster Bellingham. All that really did was arrest their momentum, and in the final stages, we had more chances. Zidane made good saves to keep out Gomes, Gayle and Iorfa, before sub Ambrose hit one wide.

In the end, nothing more to add other than that neither side really deserved to lose, which has the ultimate effect of neither side deserving to win - thanks in part due to both gang's strikers just getting their accuracy consistently wrong.

So we move on. Next up for us was a home meeting with Norwich, who made an excellent start in August but have had their drive checked by a suspect run of 1 win in 6.

Selected to try and clip the Canaries' wings in this battle of two bird-nicknamed sides would be:
Dawson - Iorfa, Lees, Borner, Fox - Skipp, Bannan - Reach, Gomes, Ameobi - Ambrose
Subs: Wildsmith, Palmer, Penney, Luongo, Matheus, Gayle, Surridge

Four changes to fresh things up, with Ambrose, captain Lees, Bannan and Reach thrown in, and Gayle, Palmer, Luongo and Matheus benched.

Beating a recently relegated Canaries side with a lot of regarded players still on the books would certainly be a statement of intent. Can we do it?

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Well its not quite a win, but we did hold our own against a side who will be strong contenders for the rest of the season and indeed at times looked more dangerous. We have to take heart from this flow so far.

We're still to some degree trying to choose which of Gayle, Surridge and Ambrose should be our frontman going forward, and French youngster Ambrose was in the mood to stake a claim, firing two chances wide in the first four minutes of proceedings. Norwich also came close with two similar chances in the early moments.

Canaries keeper Tim Krul made three saves to keep out Reach, Ambrose and Ameobi, and these turned out to be crucial when Norwich scored just before the half hour mark. Todd Cantwell received a fine through-pass by Tom Trybull that released him into space, and the winger duly put the ball in the back of the net.

But we weren't out of things, and equalised 8 minutes later. From a free-kick, Reach had an effort saved by Krul, and Ameobi buried the rebound past his former Newcastle team-mate.

Norwich would in truth have the slightly better play in a quieter period of the game, but we would stun them just after the hour mark. After failing to break through the centre, we worked the ball out to the right flank. It landed well for Iorfa, who stripped away from an away defender and sent in a great cross for Ambrose to head past Krul, and in the process grab his first home goal for the club.

It could've been two in very quick order for the French teenager. Dawson saved to deny Sam McCallum, and his long ball forward released Ambrose, who saw a drive just drift inches past the post.

But we weren't able to prevent Norwich from bagging a second equaliser just five minutes after we scored to go ahead. Trybull received a ball into the box by Sam Byram, and duly lashed a strike past Dawson. So it was back to all square and close enough that either side could've felt up for a win.

Despite plenty of effort, hustle, chances created and us throwing on both Gayle and Surridge to partner Ambrose, none of the chances created were on target, leaving Krul and Dawson with perhaps less to do than expected, and we duly each settled for a point.

There's plenty of positives to take from it, but a win would've been a better thing to enter the international break on. Oh well. Wasn't a loss against a dangerous side.

The international break has now arrived, and for the week off, the table will look like this:

https://imagizer.imageshack.com/v2/xq90/922/6wLs3e.png

While we do enter with the slightly disappointing record of 3 games without a win, we are still 2nd in the table with just 1 league defeat thus far - a very noteworthy achievement in and of itself. West Brom are above us by 3 points, but after 11 games we are very much in this fight. We're only a few points clear of Bristol City, QPR, Norwich, Newcastle, Birmingham, Sheffield United and Middlesbrough, but I'm content we're still in the fight for now - not least as all of these clubs have bigger budgets than us.

But we have to keep going. Between this moment and the following break, we will be tested with another five games, starting with early strugglers Millwall and Portsmouth. It would be unhelpful to our ambitions if we dropped points to these two.
noir et blanc armée

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That's a solid enough start to the Championship season @Number 1. KIU.
Our first game back after the pause would see us travel to Millwall, with the South Londoners sat bottom of the table with no wins and dismissing manager Gary Rowett, and conceding 4 to QPR, 5 to Bristol City and 6 to Nottingham Forest. If we were arrogant, we'd assume victory shall be ours, but football law dictates that caretaker managers can be something to fear.

Hoping to try to avoid that pitfall would be:
Dawson - Iorfa, Lees, Borner, Fox - Luongo, Bannan - Reach, Gomes, Ameobi - Ambrose
Subs: Westwood, Palmer, Penney, Skipp, Matheus, Gayle, Surridge

Just the one change from the Norwich game before the international break, with Luongo replacing Skipp.

So, what could we do against a side that have been division whipping boys so far?

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With 66 minutes on the clock, we were looking in trouble after struggling to get going and conceding a poor own goal. I wasn't entirely sure we'd recover, yet instead we leave with the points. Moments like that are great, though its hard to overlook our defence not helping.

We did not start well. While Reach would have a shot saved, Dawson had already made two saves of his own by the time our attacker had his effort saved and we really struggled to get going in the opening 20 minutes.

Strangely, Millwall's opener came after we had a good spell. Kieran O'Hara in the Millwall goal made a few decent saves to deny Reach, before Millwall duly broke us down to open the scoring. A half clearance by Tom Lees was pinched by George Saville, who fed through Tom Bradshaw. He in turn set up Connor Mahoney, who swept a half-volley past Dawson.

Dawson then had to deny Jed Wallace and Mahoney as we really struggled to look convincing going forward.

Unimpressed by that, we made a double sub at half-time and shifted to a 4-4-2 from the 4-2-3-1 we'd started with, but still didn't look convincing and fell 2-0 within 10 minutes of the break in a very messy fashion.

It was a miserable moment for Iorfa, after Mahoney's shot was initially saved by Dawson only to bounce off the full-back and land in the back of his own net. An aggravating moment, and one that left us staring down the barrel of not only a 2nd defeat in 4 but also being the first team to lose to Millwall.

Dawson had to save to deny Wallace as we nearly fell 3-0 down, although this came in-between Ambrose and Reach saw strikes go off target.

But with just over 20 minutes to go, we did land a goal back to potentially kickstart the comeback. Luongo pinched the ball and set a first-time ball for Ambrose, who broke the offside trap and swept it past O'Hara.

Millwall saw two chances go begging, but the Wednesday boys were now beginning to have more chances, and after two opportunities came and went, O'Hara made necessary saves to deny Surridge and Fox before we landed an equalising goal.

A foul on sub Gayle yielded a free-kick, Bannan sent in the delivery and Lees up from the back found the back of the net. Equaliser gained and if nothing else increased knowledge of our ability to respond to setbacks.

It would be even better within one minute. Millwall gave the ball away from kick-off and suddenly we were pressing hard in the box. O'Hara would have to make a vital save to deny Matheus and another to keep out Gayle, but after the home side still failed to clear, Ambrose popped up to squeeze it in and put us ahead for the first time in the game.

We nearly added some glamorous gloss to things late on, when Ambrose rifled in a sumptuous volley from outside the box, but sadly the assistant with the flag spotted Surridge in an offside position in the build-up and said "Lolnope"

But we'd done enough for a hell of a result. From looking down the barrel of a humiliating misfire against the league's whipping boys, we pulled off a fantastic comeback and demonstrated a competence at landing comebacks even with a ton of formation changes.

A few days later, however, we had another game already. In theory, Portsmouth should've been a doddle, as last season's League One champions only had one win to their name when they made it to Hillsborough - that being against Millwall, funnily enough.

Seeking to build on the weekend's comeback were:
Dawson - Palmer, Lees, Borner, Penney - Luongo, Bannan - Matheus, Reach, Gomes - Ambrose
Subs: Wildsmith, Iorfa, Fox, Skipp, Ameobi, Gayle, Surridge

Three changes for this one, with Palmer and Penney rotated into the full-back spots and Matheus preferred to Ameobi.

So, would we bring home a win at home?

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We may've been a bit complacent that victory would come in this one, or Portsmouth played better than we expected. But whatever it is, defeat to a side who hadn't won away all season is pretty unacceptable.

It wasn't even a big surprise when they took the lead. While Gomes wafted one wide early on, Portsmouth wasted several chances before striking an opener after 19 minutes. Scoring was striker Ellis Harrison, who nipped in ahead of a slightly dozy Dawson to reach Jordan Obita's cross and nodded the ball into the back of the net.

Yet Portsmouth weren't celebrating for long. Less than a minute after Portsmouth opened the scoring, Reach collected an infield pass by Penney and thumped one at goal from distance that crashed into the back of the net.

As happened at Millwall the previous weekend, we should've used this as a catalyst to push on. But it took us a while to really build on it, with Ambrose having a shot saved. Later in the half, Reach also had a long ranger tipped away by the keeper, with Ambrose and Luongo also denied, but our team struggled to pick up perhaps the expected momentum.

Portsmouth would have a few chances after the break, with Kyle Bartley and Marcus Harness going close, although Surridge, Ambrose and Matheus would have their own opportunities go off the mark.

We would fall behind with just under 20 minutes to play, with Adam May having an initial header blocked at a corner and Cameron Burgess slotting in the rebound as we fell behind for a second time.

Reach had an effort flash wide late on, with Penney well denied by the Portsmouth keeper. But there were far too few moments where it looked like we would recover from this, and we came up disappointingly short.

Such a crushing disappointment, particularly as we were so good in our previous game. Which gives me a few days to figure out how to adapt to the lessons learned from this, then see if we can do better against Middlesbrough the following weekend. Though this would be another test of our standards, with the side managing 4 straight wins as their warm up for our arrival.

Looking to bounce back with points on the Riverside would be:
Westwood - Palmer, Iorfa, Borner, Fox - Matheus, Skipp, Bannan, Reach - Ambrose, Gayle
Subs: Dawson, Lees, Penney, Luongo, Ameobi, Gomes, Surridge

A fair few changes thanks to my irritation at how poorly the Portsmouth affair went. Westwood, now 36 and ideally going in the summer given his ludicrously high wages for a third choice keeper, gets the nod, though this is thanks in part to Wildsmith getting another injury. Iorfa, Fox, Skipp and Gayle are all recalled.

So, after the lads annoyed me by giving Portsmouth points, could we do better against a side very much in form?

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After two games with lots of action, this one sees the early bird gets the worm. It wasn't quite backs against the wall after Reach struck is in front with just 7 minutes on the clock, but we certainly did well at containing the Boro where necessary.

There had already been a couple of chances in the early stages, with our best chance seeing a first-time volley by Matheus well saved. But we would break through came in the 7th minute as Reach met Palmer's cross and headed in to put is in front against the club Wednesday signed him from in 2016.

The recalled Westwood made a brilliant stop to deny Marcus Browne, before a similarly fine stop at the end kept out Ambrose and a more simple one denied Matheus.

Reach would then hit the bar moments before Paddy McNair had a strike beaten away by Westwood, with our keeper also denying Daniel Ayala.

The game was fun and open. Gayle saw a smart shot drift wide before Britt Assombalonga was denied by a great double save by the Irishman in our goal. Djed Spence and Marcus Tavernier also wasted chances.

Ambrose had chances saved either side of half-time, although in-between those two, Middlesbrough generally had more chances, if little on target to test Westwood.

Ashley Fletcher became a dangerous presence, with one wide and another saved by Westwood, while our keeper also had to make a good save after our captain Borner accidentally sent a header heading towards his own goal, while the keeper also did well to deny Fraser Hornby.

We soon had to begin to play more of a containing style game, although Reach had a fine strike saved on a break.

For all however that Middlesbrough were the side applying most of the pressure, it remained the case that we were largely not facing shots that were of sufficient quality to trouble our keeper, with the nearest seeing Fletcher hit the side-netting in added time. So we managed a victory. Not bad.

With a break of a week to recover, we had a trip to Derby County on Halloween to continue to see what we could do against a Rams side managed still by Garry Monk, but who seems to be running out of time. Its one win in the previous five, despite them beating MK Dons the previous weekend.

Hoping to trick Derby into letting us take all the treats would be:
Westwood - Palmer, Iorfa, Borner, Fox - Matheus, Skipp, Bannan, Reach - Ambrose, Gayle
Subs: Dawson, Lees, Penney, Luongo, Ameobi, Gomes, Surridge

This might be one of the first times I've ever named an unchanged 18. But it felt like the right approach for this contest.

With our away form again looking better than our home form, could we manage another decent haul on the road?

https://imagizer.imageshack.com/v2/xq90/923/6rq24f.png

We're a strange bunch, where we regularly get wins from games where we play poorly then fail to get maximum points from games where we played better. This is one of them, clearly.

Ambrose and Matheus hit efforts off target in the early stages as we looked vaguely more up for it in quiet early stages to proceedings.

Derby were fairly quiet in the early stages, with one shot flagged as offside and another just aimless. We were looking more generally coherent, although Gayle missed a decent chance at the end of a decent solo run.

This match had been a pick for live TV broadcast, but its hard to believe the audience was finding things suitably riveting. It was in first half added time when a first shot on target happened, with Karl Darlow denying his fellow Newcastle loanee Gayle.

Darlow denied Reach straight after the break, before Jeremy Doku and Wayne Rooney missed chances as the Rams belatedly began to offer something.

With an hour gone, however, we would go in front, as Matheus was fouled and Iorfa got his head on Bannan's free-kick to put us in front.

But we were only 20 or so to play, we were pegged back. As was the case for our goal, it came from a set-piece, but with this one, Tom Lawrence simply smacked the ball in from 30 yards.
'
Matheus had a shot saved by Darlow within seconds of that before Reach hit one wide. Later on, Darlow then also denied Fox and Surridge, with the keeper again denying Reach later on in the game.

It ultimately just ended up being frustration. I'm happy enough not to lose, given that happens a lot in FM, but no win after having 10 more chances... what a shame.

We have a position to go in. Nottingham Forest is next as our last test before the next international pause, before a trip to Cardiff begins the crazy rush to Christmas, with Barnsley, Bristol City, West Brom, QPR, Blackpool, Newcastle, Portsmouth, Derby again and Norwich all coming before the FA Cup Third Round.

Much as we're doing promisingly well so far to still be in the promotion chase, we're going to need to get through all of this to ensure we fully fit in with that pursuit. So let's see how it goes.
noir et blanc armée

Read my FM20 Career WAWAW

That's a solid enough start to the Championship season @Number 1. KIU.

Thanks very much.

I want this to be our year as our play-off misfire last year was such a buzzkill, but we're about to enter the stupidly busy bit with 24 league games before the next international break, along with the FA Cup Third Round. We'll have a better assessment if we're worth the promotion I want if we're still up there then.
noir et blanc armée

Read my FM20 Career WAWAW

As the November international break looms, we have another chance to try and send our fans into the pause with a smile on their faces and three points in our pocket. Standing in our way is Nottingham Forest, managed by Nigel Clough as he tries to get somewhere close to his dad's records. But with 2 wins in 7, we have opponents that could be beatable.

Aiming for points from this one were:
Westwood - Palmer, Iorfa, Lees, Fox - Matheus, Skipp, Reach, Gomes - Ambrose, Surridge
Subs: Dawson, Borner, Penney, Bannan, Luongo, Ameobi, Gayle

3 changes from our preceding contest against Forest's East Midlands neighbours Derby, with Lees for Borner, Gomes for Bannan and Surridge for Gayle, but persisting with the 4-4-2 for now.

Intriguingly, Forest have an ultra-defensive 5-4-1 tactic deployed, with 2 midfielders in defensive roles screening the 3 central defenders. Breaking this down will therefore be difficult, but not impossible. Could we do it?

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Well, its not the win, sadly, but its better than the alternative. It looked for a while like Forest's ultra-defensive style was about to pick us off, but two subs combined to grab us a just-about justified reward.

Forest could've taken the lead straight away when Jota fired into the side-netting, while our first chances saw Reach and Surridge have chances blocked.

The game was low quality for quite a while, with the nearest to any chance of note seeing Surridge have a shot blocked but it was offside so wouldn't have counted. But just as some might've been tempted to wander off for a half-time snack prematurely, Yuri Ribiero hit a snapshot wide to wake a few people up.

We responded with a flurry of chances late in the half, with Ambrose striking the top of the bar with a header, while Matheus had one shot blocked. Our Brazilian winger then another saved by Costel Pantillimon in the opening minute of the second half.

But then, after five minutes of the second half, Forest stunned Hillsborough. There seemed very little on for Joe Lolley when he picked up a long ball and got past Fox, but his effort flew into the top half of the goal to put the away side in front.

We responded with a double substitution and a switch to a more attacking style, and it nearly yielded an instant dividend when Ameobi saw a header saved less than a minute after coming on against the club who he was released by at the end of last season.

Forest however weren't in the mood for yielding, and after Lolley blazed over, the winger then set up a second goal for the visitors. The man swung in a cross from the Forest right as advantage was played following a foul by Ameobi, and Jota ran onto the cross to blast it into the back of the net.

We did respond by waking up a little. Pantillimon made one save to deny Ameobi and a better save to thwart Reach's long-range crasher, before the Romanian made an even better save to frustrate Reach's header from much closer range.

Hope would come with 15 minutes to go for us, when we won the ball back and a move involving Bannan and Matheus lead to the Brazilian wideman tee up Gayle, who hit a fine strike into the back of the net.

Forest weren't far away from putting things to bed, when Tobias Figueiredo hit wide and Westwood had to do well to deny Ribiero, although he was offside when he hit his attempt at the target.

Time was beginning to ebb away from our hopes of salvaging recovery to nab a point. But then, with just one minute of normal time remaining, we pressed. Ameobi's initial cross was cleared, but Reach hit it infield for Bannan, who hit a magnificent first time volley into the back of the net. A super strike from the substitute, and we were back on level terms.

Things could've been even better in added time, when Ambrose was found by a great move only for the ball to be clawed away by Pantillimon. But considering we were 2-0 down and in serious danger of a third home defeat of the season already, we pulled it out of the bag. It wasn't quite enough to repeat our heroics at Millwall a few weeks earlier, but I'll still be content with that.

So, with this the November international break coming next, we'll have a quick look at the table:
https://imagizer.imageshack.com/v2/xq90/922/j1JIj6.png

The end of this part of the season saw something of a managerial free-for-all. Newcastle, Bristol City and Derby all sacked their managers going into the break, with Blackburn and Swansea having done it two weeks earlier.

As Derby and Blackburn changed managers last season, and Newcastle & Swansea were using AI managers appointed at the start of the game save, it proves how difficult it is to keep employed in this. Bristol City were top at one point with the long serving Lee Johnson, but a horrible run sees them also decide to try something different. Although why Newcastle kept Bruce on after a 5-0 home defeat by West Brom is beyond me.

A patchier period than I would like means we currently sit 4th, with Sheffield United now above us in the table after a surge up the table. Both of us are developing a healthy margin on those outside the play-offs, though I feel we need a big winning run to catch up with leaders West Brom.

Next up is a trip to Cardiff. Though a fair bit of admin surfaced in the break - left-sided versatile player Penney wants more game time, while Forestieri got tired of being out the squad and asked for move, which I'll aim to deliver in January.

After the break, we travel to South Wales to take on Tony Pulis' Bluebirds.

Aiming to justify the fans crossing the Severn to follow them to Cardiff were:
Dawson - Palmer, Iorfa, Lees, Fox - Matheus, Skipp, Reach, Penney - Ambrose, Surridge
Subs: Westwood, Borner, Odubajo, Luongo, Bannon, Ameobi, Forestieri

Dawson returns after 3 games with the more experienced Westwood holding station, while Penney replaced an injured Gomes in the other change. The original plan had been to bring in Gayle after Surridge didn't have an amazing game against Forest, but he suffered an injury so the Bournemouth loanee retains his place in attack, while wantaway Forestieri starts the bench.

This will of course be another tricky contest. But with Cardiff in the bottom half, victory should be achievable. Could we make it so?

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We seem to be having a knack for comebacks of late. Came from 2-0 down to beat Millwall, came from 2-0 down to get a point off an extremely defensive team, and now coming from conceding twice to beat a side managed by a Pulis normally famed for his defensive security. Though this did have its own consequence - Cardiff were one of two sides (the other being Forest) to sack their gaffer in response to defeats straight after the break.

Surridge missed a great chance to put us in front inside the opening minute, but Cardiff were closer in the opening phase, with Reach blocking a shot by Nathaniel Mendez-Laing before Sean Morrison hit the crossbar from the following corner.

After Surridge and Iorfa had shots off target, Surridge was vey close as the Bournemouth loanee was denied by Neil Etheridge as we tried to make something count for us.

But it wasn't all going our own way, and Cardiff had themselves the game's next goal. Moments after Joe Ralls wasted a good opportunity, the slightly unexpectedly far forward full-back Joe Bennett was first to the rebound after Callum Paterson had a shot blocked by Iorfa and the Cardiff left-back beat Dawson to open the scoring.

We struggled to get anywhere in the first half, so chose to remodel with a double sub at half-time. Indeed, of late, most of my first raft of changes seem to be double substitutions.

In truth, it took us a while to get going, but 11 minutes after the break, we were able to make something of our new look operation. Surridge had a shot saved by Etheridge, and from the following corner, Ambrose headed the ball into the back of the net.

Yet were level for just four minutes. Marlon Pack received an infield pass by Mendez-Laing, and thought he'd have a crack from range that flew like a rocket past Dawson to put Cardiff in front for a second time.

Things duly got more chaotic from there, with Ambrose having a strike charged down by Morrison, then Mendez-Laing hitting wide before Dawson denied Pack, while Surridge had a fine volley blocked by Aiden Flint, and the chaos then continued after Dawson made a great save to deny home sub Danny Ward.

A chaotic phase of the match would culminate in our second equaliser, as Surridge nipped in ahead of Flint to reach Penney's cross and head the ball past Etheridge.

Ameobi and Surridge then got close, while Ward was denied by Dawson after getting onto goal with a one-on-one, with both sides looking like they had a potential winning goal in them. Dawson had to make a decent save to block Ward, while Etheridge did something similar to deny Ameobi.

The game's fifth goal would eventually come with just 3 minutes of normal time to go, and it would be a former Cardiff player to get it. Ameobi, who was previously on loan with the Bluebirds, headed in a fine ball by Luongo to put us in front for the first time all afternoon just as the game was seeping towards full time.

Cardiff's best chance at a leveller saw Ward have a fairly pedestrian shot saved by Dawson, and in truth we had the better chance as a rasping drive from Luongo hit the bar.

But we held our own to take victory in South Wales. It was a surprise to see my inbox after let me know Cardiff had sacked Pulis in response to this given they could so easily have beaten us, but a run of 1 win in 8 that had seen Cardiff drift to 17th in the Championship table proved killer.

We know this is how fickle management can be. We'll just be glad we're 4th and now just 2 points off automatic after QPR lost an extraordinary 6-3 game away at leaders West Brom, although with the Blades beating Reading at Bramall Lane, they took second.

For now, we'll just keep going in our goal to stay in the mix for automatic promotion and bring Premier League football to Owlerton for the first time since 2000. Next up is local rivals Barnsley, and I suspect they would love to arrest our momentum towards that goal.
noir et blanc armée

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After encouraging Cardiff to give Pulis his P45, our next assignment would come a few days later against the other South Yorkshire rivals to the other team in Sheffield, as we hosted Barnsley at Hillsborough. The Tykes are predicted to be in the bottom 3 but have yet to be in that position, and prepared for our clash with a 4-0 win over Nottingham Forest. So they won't be pushovers.

Aiming to give our fans satisfaction by seeing off our friends and neighbours were:
Dawson - Palmer, Lees, Borner, Penney - Harris, Luongo, Bannan, Reach - Surridge, Ambrose
Subs: Westwood, Iorfa, Fox, Skipp, Ameobi, Gayle, Forestieri

Just a little reshuffle for this one to prepare, with Borner, Luongo, Bannan and the lesser-spotted Harris given starts. Harris' start is out of necessity, with Matheus banned for his fifth yellow already.

Given our first two meetings with Barnsley last year produced an insipid draw and a penalty defeat in the Carabao Cup, what would we have in our locker this time?

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The decision to bring in Ambrose is getting better by the week. A hat-trick from our French striker ensures our continued fine run, and our charge to get involved in the promotion battle.

Things could've gone differently after a difficult opening phase. The best chances fell to Barnsley, with Cauley Woodrow hitting the bar with the outright closest. We also saw Harris stretchered off after a poor tackle by Barnsley's Marcel Ritzmaier, who for his part also got injured, and forcing a midfield reshuffle.

But as we digested the ramifications of that, we scored first. Luongo hit the ball out wide to Penney, and our left-back for the day arced in a sweeping cross that Ambrose headed in.

While the game was low quality, Reach headed just wide as we gave it a go, and we would make it 2-0 just before the half hour mark. Just before the half-hour, a through pass by Borner was flicked on by Reach to Ambrose, who flew towards goal and flicked it in.

Dawson made a great save to deny Michael Solbauer, Woodrow hit one wide and another one to deny Aalpo Halme, as Barnsley tried hard to get back into things.

Woodrow missed two late in the half and we responded by coming close after the break when Ambrose hit a strike wide.

Barnsley made it 2-1 just four minutes into the second half, and in a fine style, when Alex Mowatt hit an excellent first time strike into the back of the net after receiving an in-field ball.

After a lull, Barnsley had a fair quantity of chances, with the closest seeing Clarke Oduor just head over and Dawson deny Jacob Brown. Indeed, this was a phase where we were second best, with Dawson denying Brown again and denying sub Mads Andersen.

It looked like the likeliest trajectory this game was going to take would be a Barnsley equaliser. But as the game moved into the final 10 minutes of proceedings, we instead pushed ahead, as Ambrose broke away to receive a through pass and tucked the ball in for his hat-trick.

There were plenty of chances but no more goals. But we did what we needed to do and picked up 3 points towards our promotion bid, as well as the talents of our new number 11.

Not that it was all sunshine and rainbows - the ramifications for Harris is that he suffered a broken leg, and will miss more or less the entire rest of the season. Which sucks for him, because as much as he's been more of a fringe player this season, he is still a capable option and deserved better than that.

It all meant more rotation was required for the visit of Bristol City, in one of their first games since Chris Hughton turned up as a replacement for Lee Johnson, but on a high after beating Reading in their first game since bringing him to the club.

Looking to brush off a potential banana skin were:
Dawson - Iorfa, Lees, Borner, Penney - Matheus, Skipp, Bannan, Reach - Surridge, Ambrose
Subs: Westwood, Palmer, Fox, Luongo, Ameobi, Hidalgo, Gayle

Iorfa and Skipp get starts in place of Palmer and Luongo. With Harris injured and Gomes unfit after a recent injury of his own, we gave the youngster Hidalgo a place on the bench. If we get comfortable enough, he might get a debut.

So, could we see off Bristol City and make it two home wins in a few days?

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We just about got it over the line. Was a strange game of attrition compared with the Barnsley game, but I'm still more than content to land back-to-back home wins.

There were chances in the opening 5 minutes, with Lee O'Connor denied by Dawson moments before Surridge wafted one wide.

We were perhaps just shading a game of low quality. Ambrose had two efforts go just off target, before our best chance saw the slightly unexpected source of Skipp have a strike nicely denied by Daniel Bentley. Bentley would then also deny Ambrose, before Benik Afobe hit one just wide.

This felt like a game in need of a goal to liven things up, but with six minutes to go before half-time, it got one. A swinging cross from Penney was an inviting delivery, and Ambrose leapt in ahead of Eric Garcia to beat Bentley and open the scoring.

This was the cue for Bristol City to wake up. Dawson made a good save to deny O'Connor, before Garcia headed wide, and Zak Vyner then headed over in stoppage time.

Afobe and Kasey Palmer blew chances for the away side straight after the break, before Bentley did well to deny Surridge.

Afobe was proving a particular handful, with the striker having one shot blocked by Iorfa and another saved by Dawson, though curiously with 17 minutes to play, Hughton withdrew the forward.

However, the visitors still posed us questions, as Jonny Smith and Jack Hunt missed opportunities, as did Afobe's replacement Antoine Semenyo.

But having rode that out, we soon were heading to the end of the line. We even had a chance for an injury time goal, as Fox had a shot saved by Bentley.

Ultimately, one goal proved to be all we needed, and we had seen off the spirited challenge of Bristol City in order to make it 6 games unbeaten.

After these two wins, the next two games perhaps represented the biggest double test, as we travelled to West Brom and QPR back-to-back. The Baggies are unbeaten all season, while QPR are a surprise promotion contender that are above us in the league ahead of this game weekend. Beating both of these would be huge.

First up is the unbeaten Baggies, and this is perhaps our biggest test so far this season.

Aiming to succeed where 19 teams had thus far failed were:
Dawson - Iorfa, Lees, Borner, Penney - Matheus, Skipp, Bannan, Reach - Surridge, Ambrose
Subs: Westwood, Palmer, Fox, Luongo, Ameobi, Gomes, Gayle

With a rare near-week off between the two games, we decided to run with the same 11 that saw off the Robins for a game played on a live TV slot on the Friday night. There was a reshuffle among the subs, but that's about it.

Last season we beat West Brom home and away, with a bit of needle coming in post match war of words with the Baggies manager, particularly after they had 2 players sent off in an acrimonious defeat at Hillsborough. Could we get under their skin again?

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Not this time. This was a game we lost with a terrible first half display, and while we did win the second period, it wasn't enough to overturn the deficit in a same way we managed at Millwall or against Forest.

West Brom tore into us straight away. Darnell Furlong hit an effort wide inside the opening minute, Bradley Dack had a shot saved by Dawson, our keeper also denied Matheus Pereira, and this was all inside four minutes.

Within 7 minutes of kick-off, we would fall behind. Will Hughes got the opening goal, as he received an inside pass from Pereira and duly lashed it past Dawson.

West Brom weren't done with one. Pereira had a shot saved by Dawson, and the keeper also denied Jonathan Leko, though we nearly surprised West Brom on the break as Sam Johnstone denied Matheus and then denied our Brazilian winger's rebound.

We were still on the backfoot after that, and after a few chances went begging, West Brom doubled their lead. Dawson had done well to keep out Hughes, but Kamil Grosicki got there first ahead of a hesitant defender, and his cross found Pereira, who put the Baggies 2-0 up.

An onside Ambrose disappointingly hit wide after breaking the offside flag, before we returned to being on the backfoot. Dawson denied Leko twice, while he also denied Romaine Sawyers, Hughes hit one wide and we struggled to get back into it, although Ambrose did have an effort saved in the final minutes of the half.

Johnstone denied Borner in added time, but any hopes of a revival were nearly snuffed out when Leko was denied by Dawson again.

After a few more WBA chances, we nearly snuck ahead when Surridge was denied by Johnstone. But we were still hanging to a two goal deficit on a knife edge, with the lively Pereira seeing a shot deflected onto the post and out by Dawson.

But then we began to get back into it. Surridge had two chances stopped by Johnstone, while the WBA keeper then made a better one to frustrate Ambrose. He then made a great save to deny Ameobi, with Surridge having a shot deflected wide.

Reach then saw a drive clatter wide off Long before Johnstone denied Surridge, although Dawson then made a brilliant save to keep out Semi Ajayi.

Ambrose was then denied twice by Johnstone, while Dack had an effort tipped onto the post by Dawson as we continued to trade chances in an absorbing contest.

We would have a goal back with 3 minutes to go, as Long could only deflect Reach's cross to Ambrose, and the striker tapped the ball over the line.

Suddenly we had hope we could bag a winner, but disappointingly we ran out of time, and instead we were leaving The Hawthorns empty handed and paying the price for our dreadful opening 45.

With Sheffield United thrashing Forest and QPR taking a point off Bristol City, it was less than ideal, if understandable that we lost to the leaders, having started the game week level on points with the Blades and the Hoops.

We would travel to QPR a few days later, hoping for better luck in West London than in the West Midlands.

Selected to make up for that defeat were:
Dawson - Palmer, Lees, Borner, Fox - Matheus, Luongo, Bannan, Gomes - Gayle, Ambrose
Subs: Westwood, Palmer, Fox, Luongo, Ameobi, Gomes, Gayle

Fair bit of rotation for this one - starts for Palmer, Fox, Luongo, Gomes and Gayle instead of Iorfa, Penney, Skipp, Reach and Surridge. This is a time of year where squad rotation is an essential after all.

So, would we bounce back from a loss against the Albion by seeing off the Hoops?

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Something of an unexpected triumph. We had less shots and possession (again), but the bigger blow was losing our star striker Ambrose - the league's top scorer with 12 goals, voted November Player of the Month, scored in our last each of our previous four games and basically this season's version of Connor Wickham, and here he didn't even last 10 minutes before being forced off. But 3 goals in 20 minutes saw us defy this blow to see off the Hoops.

Ambrose's exit from the field of play was pretty much the first thing of note, necessitating a reshuffle. Yet we nearly brushed that off, with Matheus seeing a shot blocked before QPR keeper Liam Kelly made a brilliant save to deny Borner at the following corner.

The first half struggled to find real convincing momentum, though after QPR missed a few half-chances, we created an excellent one when Gayle had a first time shot well saved by Kelly.

Dawson was troubled for the first time just after the half-hour mark, saving a fairly simple Todd Kane strike. Much more strenuous was a block by Luongo, who had to get in the way of Dominic Ball's fierce hit.

A great goal nearly fell for Bright Osayi-Samuel, but his effort went wide just moments after Grant Hall was denied by Dawson, but it really felt like both sides had more in the tank still to give.

At the start of the second half, QPR had some positive pressure. Ball had a shot just bounce wide before Dawson made a good save to deny Osayi-Samuel, and then after we lost the ball, our keeper made a better save to again thwart Osayi-Samuel.

But just after the hour mark, we would hit QPR with a surprise. The ball was worked back by Gomes to Fox, who hit a first time thump into the box. Whether it was intended as a cross for Gayle or a direct strike, it still landed in the back of the net to put us in front.

Geoff Cameron would then miss a glorious chance to bring the home side level and that would prove even more significant when we doubled our lead five minutes after scoring.

A long ball forward released Gayle, who was fouled by Toni Lestner to give us a penalty. Bannan stepped up and rolled the ball in from 12 yards.

QPR could've reduced the deficit straight away, as Osayi-Samuel saw a drive tipped wide by Dawson. But we were then not far off making it 3-0, as Gayle evaded a covering defender and saw a shot saved by Kelly.

Tendayi Darikwa saw a brilliant solo run end with a shot saved by Dawson, as the home side continued to present danger to us.

But with 10 minutes to play, the third goal of the game was ours and with it was surely confirmation we were about to taste success in this encounter. Luongo's pass was forwarded by Bannan to Gayle, and a half-volley from our striker flew into the back of the net.

QPR would end the game with a few chances, but by this point it wasn't fully convincing opportunities and we held on to secure an excellent victory against a serious rival for promotion in their own backyard. So yay us.

Sadly, the assessment post-game was that Ambrose will miss the next 5 weeks with an ankle injury. It could've been worse - as seen with Harris following the Barnsley game - but to lose our top scorer and best striker for the entire Christmas period is a real kick in the bollocks.

To be fair, we did very well to adapt to the loss of our star striker, particularly given things weren't exactly simple after half-time. But its not like we can rest for too long.

A few days after we saw off QPR, we have back-to-back home games against Blackpool and Newcastle as the last two outings before Christmas. On top of this, we also had to do these two games and more without our top scorer, and given our main back-up in Gayle is on loan from Newcastle, that game already looks like it'll be a real selection crisis in attack. Good thing we have 4 strikers, for now.

Even so, despite a few injury and fitness complications starting to build up, we are third with just a point behind our Sheffield rivals and are 10 points clear of 7th place, putting us comfortably within the play-off positions. As we enter the Christmas rush, we find ourselves in a good position.
noir et blanc armée

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We all know that Christmas is going to be a real season make-or-break phase. December has already brought us close proximity back-to-back games with promotion rivals West Brom and QPR, but we still have 4 more games in the tank against a variety of opponents before New Year's. Particularly unwelcome are the fact our games against Portsmouth and Derby are being played with just one rest day in-between, which either means mass rotation or 11 very tired players.

The breaks between the games before then are manageable, with a few days after QPR before Blackpool come to Sheffield, then another week before Newcastle come to Hillsborough, and then another week before our Boxing Day trip to Fratton Park.

With a sweet victory over QPR in the bank as the tonic for our loss at West Brom, we had struggling new-boys Blackpool making the trip to Hillsborough. In theory, this should be a home banker, but given we thought about Portsmouth and lost, we can't exactly say with any conviction that we're entitled to win this one.

Looking to send the Seasiders back to the coast with nothing for their troubles were:
Dawson - Odubajo, Iorfa, Borner, Fox - Luongo, Bannan - Matheus, Gomes, Ameobi - Gayle
Subs: Westwood, Lees, Penney, Skipp, Reach, Forestieri, Surridge

My choice for how to adapt to Ambrose's unwelcome injury is to revert to a 4-2-3-1, with Ameobi coming in to play in a front 3 behind Gayle. This is as much practice for Newcastle next week, as Gayle is ineligible. The only other change is to bring in Odubajo to replace Palmer. The right-back has not played at all so far this season, and having fairly rightly told me he wanted to play more with the full-back out of contract in the summer, he gets a go here.

Games of course aren't won on paper, but we have to be considered favourites. Can we meet the brief accordingly?

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This was a roller coaster. With 20 minutes done, I thought it was all sorted. But then Blackpool's goal just after the hour made me wary we were about to get a comeback slap like we've issued to a few clubs recently, and when they equalised, it was a real unhappy moment. And then the two potential wantaways Odubajo and Forestieri combined, with some gloss added in injury time. Phew. Least we didn't completely get it wrong.

There was little indication in the early stages that it would take the dramatic turns it did. We were in comfortable control early on, with Blackpool goalkeeper Chris Maxwell have already denied Borner and Ameobi before he conceded an early goal.

It was a sweet strike as well. Matheus and Gomes had original shots blocked, before Luongo hit a delicious first time strike into the back of the net from 20 yards via the bar.

Sullay Kaikai hit the top of the bar with Blackpool's first real chance, while Armand Gnanduillet then saw a shot saved by Dawson as the away side began to look like they might be able to pose us some bother.

But just as they began to creep into it, we grabbed our second goal. Luongo saw a snapshot saved by Maxwell, but Ameobi laid off the rebound for Gomes to tuck into the back of the net for 2-0.

Gnanduillet missed what should've been a simple goal back for Blackpool, with the striker later denied by Dawson, but although Blackpool were having chances, we did look comfortable at the half-time pause.

In the second, Maxwell denied Iorfa before our right-back/centre-back headed over, but Blackpool weren't out of the game and with 23 minutes remaining on the clock, the visitors had a surprise in store for us.

Gnanduillet looked to have very little on after collecting the ball some 25 yards from goal, but the striker was able to aim a ferocious shot that beat the keeper and brought the away side back into it.

We responded by trying to re-established a two goal lead, with Matheus firing wide and Bannan having a shot saved by Maxwell.

But Blackpool were very much not out of it, and with 8 minutes of normal time to go, they contrived to equalise. Reach was forced to concede a corner after a dangerous cross worked its way into the box, and after we failed to clear, Grant Ward's cross picked out Ben Garrity, who headed it in as the strugglers came from 2-0 down to draw level.

This could've given the impetus for Blackpool to push on and fully complete their comeback. But less than 2 minutes after Blackpool equalised, we were back in front. Wantaway Forestieri, who handed in a transfer request a few weeks earlier, steered in to meet a sweeping cross by Odubajo, If this ends up being his final Owls goal, its excellent to see him sign off like this.

Blackpool could've made us pay again, as Gnanduillet hit a sweet strike that kissed the outside of the post, before Ward then fired a strike wide after some great prep work.

For those fans of ours of a nervous disposition, six minutes added on was an unwelcome development. Moments after Penney headed over Odubajo's cross, there was a real heart-in-mouth moment when Wes Burns had a great shot tipped wide by Dawson.

But finally, in the fourth minute added on, we made the points secure. Bannan's through-pass played in Gayle, who was forced wide but held the ball up well for Reach, who lashed it past Maxwell to finally see Blackpool off.

Its safe to say I would've been thoroughly angry had we thrown away a 2-0 lead to draw or lose, in the inverse of recent games where we've recovered from similar deficits. But mercifully, we reacted to the unwelcome developments but triumphing. So yay us.

Next up were Newcastle, which would very much be a different challenge. While struggling Blackpool had won just one of their previous 5 before coming to Hillsborough - even if that was a 4-0 win at Derby - the Magpies would provide a much sterner test. Since sacking Steve Bruce and making the surprise call to appoint experienced Dutch coach Henk ten Cate as first team manager after being linked with the likes of Marco Silva and Nico Kovac, the black-and-whites were unbeaten and possessed a number of Premier League-quality players to give us headaches.

Hoping to get points off a relegated side after our previous draws against Sheffield United and Norwich would this motley crew:
Dawson - Palmer, Iorfa, Borner, Penney - Luongo, Bannan - Reach, Gomes, Ameobi - Surridge
Subs: Westwood, Lees, Odubajo, Fox, Skipp, Matheus, Forestieri

With Gayle ineligible due to the terms of his loan from Newcastle, Surridge was the logical choice to take the lone striker role. We also introduced Reach, Palmer and Penney to the starting line-up.

Newcastle may have turned up in orange a la Blackpool the previous week, but they would unquestionably present us with a different kind of test. Could we match this challenge?

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Yes we did. Newcastle gave us a decent fight, but similar to Blackpool, they did most of it after going 2-0 down. This time, we were able to keep things at arms length and pick up a delightful result.

Miguel Almiron headed over with the first chance, but we had the first one on target after Surridge had a strike denied by Martin Dubravka. The Newcastle keeper then also made a fine save to deny Ameobi's snapshot.

Reach hit a fierce drive wide before Luongo struck the bar with an excellent strike, and we did continue to press when Dubravka denied Surridge, and Reach had a shot charged down by Ethan Ampadu.

Newcastle belatedly began to offer something going forward, with Allan Saint-Maximin having a shot deflected wide by Penney and Yangel Herrera had a header go over from a corner.

But then we were given the chance to strike first. After Ameobi hit a strike wide, Dubravka's goal-kick was intercepted and quick as a flash we were in the penalty area. Gomes drew a foul by Cheikhou Kouyate, and we were handed a penalty, with Kouyate booked - his 10th of the year. Bannan duly stepped up, and beat Dubravka to put us ahead.

1-0 became 2-0 just five minutes later. Surridge had initially been checked off by Ampadu, but Reach got to the loose ball first and played in our Bournemouth loanee striker, who ran free to beat Dubravka and put us ahead.

But as we were beginning to look comfortable, Newcastle reminded us of their danger when they made it 2-1 in added time. Luongo fouled Almiron on the edge of the box, and from Saint-Maximin's free-kick, Kouyate got a touch to beat Dawson.

Yet 20 or so minutes into the second half, we had seemingly put the game back to bed. Iorfa's ball was quickly forwarded on by Luongo to Surridge, who broke free on goal and flicked a fine strike into the back of the net.

The restoration of our two goal advantage would however only give us that breathing room for less than a minute after kick-off. Penney gave away a free-kick, and from the eventual delivery, substitute Joelinton's flick-on found Kouyate, who turned the ball over the line for his second goal of the afternoon.

Fabian Schar saw an effort denied by Dawson as Newcastle began to look hungry for an equaliser, although we had a glorious chance to wrap things up after Reach was denied by Dubravka.

Dawson then denied Joelinton before Sean Longstaff wafted one past the post, and our keeper then made another stop to thwart Joelinton.

Newcastle definitely had more of the ball and chances as we moved into the final stages, but in truth they didn't really do enough to get close to equalising, and as a direct result, we held on to take a vital 3 points in our bid for promotion. I can't deny I'm relieved - given we'd blown a 2-0 lead against Blackpool, a Newcastle side with excellent players was a definite challenge.

The upshot of all that means the Christmas Day table looks like this:

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A few weeks ago, ourselves, Sheffield United and QPR were level on points. However, defeat to us sandwiched by two draws has seen QPR drop back a bit, so for now, the battle for second is shaping up to be a very hotly contested clash between ourselves and the Blades. It has potential to get very spicy, with just one point separating our two tribes in the table, and it puts huge onus on our meeting with Sheffield United, which is due to in late January.

While this has the potential to be an intriguing battle, both of us still have a way to catch West Brom, who are out in front and hold the division's only unbeaten record. However, we do have the luxury of a 13 point margin on Birmingham City in the highest spot outside the play-offs.

Not that we can afford to rest and congratulate ourselves for getting into a real shot at automatic promotion. Boxing Day trip to Portsmouth, 2 days later brings us to face Derby County, the following Saturday is the FA Cup Third Round, which will see host Wolves, then within a week come back-to-back away matches against Norwich and Wigan.

This is going to be an extreme group of tests, but we've come this far. Be a shame to throw it all in the bin. Let's push on and see how we can do.
noir et blanc armée

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3 consecutive wins going into Christmas is an excellent way to start that and keep us in the promotion chase. But we now face the challenge of maintaining that momentum that comes with the build-up of games at the festive season. Its the most difficult time of the year, and whatnot.

Unusually we have the luxury of a week's break after the win over Newcastle, but that won't be a luxury we get for long given we only have 1 day between our Boxing Day game and our last of 2020.

That Boxing Day clash is a visit to Portsmouth at Fratton Park, as we seek revenge of sorts after we suffered an insipid home defeat to Pompey at Hillsborough. In theory its a chance for revenge but the vital thing is getting victory rather than obsessing about those kind of things.

Trying to get the better of the South Coast squad were:
Dawson - Palmer, Lees, Borner, Penney - Skipp, Bannan - Matheus, Reach, Ameobi - Surridge
Subs: Westwood, Iorfa, Odubajo, Fox, Hutchinson, Gomes, Gayle

An enforced change from Newcastle is Skipp returning after Luongo suffered an injury. The other change is a start for Matheus.

We'd already given our fans early Christmas presents with the wins against QPR, Blackpool and Newcastle. Could we give them a post-Christmas pick-me-up as well?

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Its difficult to know what to make of that. Dropped points against a stumbling side on a day when Sheffield United lost to Barnsley is not good, but its still further evidence of our ability to land recoveries given we were 2-0 down at half-time and playing poorly.

The sign this was not going to be an easy ride came when Kyle Bartley had a header cleared off the line inside one minute, although we then had a chance when Surridge put one over the bar and another attempt charged down by Bartley.

Ellis Harrison had a shot saved by Dawson as the home side, before Ronan Curtis lashed one over when well placed. But the phase of the game was seeing Portsmouth look likelier to score, and they were given a fine chance to do so when they won a penalty.

Mads Roerslev was fouled by Ameobi and penalised by Chris Kavanagh for a penalty to Portsmouth, and Jordan Obita rolled the ball into the back of the net.

The home side were very much on top, with Harrison missing no less than 3 opportunities to put the home side two goals in front. However, somebody else would find that breakthrough, as Harrison was denied by Dawson, and Curtis poked in the rebound.

Curtis then had another saved by Dawson, as we were suddenly at risk of a difficult afternoon getting worse.

Craig MacGillivray had one saved by Matheus, before Dawson had his own work to deny Harrison and then had to deny the Portsmouth striker again.

Matheus hit two off target before Ameobi missed a further effort, but Portsmouth missed other chances for their own third goal and we were at risk of being cut adrift. Something different was needed.

We made a double substitution at half-time, although this was soon joined by the third substitute a few minutes later as Bannan suffered an injury and had to be replaced.

Curiously, while Bannan was on the side of the pitch getting treated, we managed to grab a goal back. A counter-attack after Borner blocked a strike ended with Penney releasing substitute Gayle, who in turn released Surridge, and the Bournemouth loanee duly tucked the ball over the line for us.

Portsmouth still could've squeezed the life out of our comeback straight away, as Dawson had to deny Curtis and then defender Paul Downing from a consequent corner.

We chose Gomes as a replacement for the injured Bannan and he would come close, with one shot blocked and another tipped wide by the home goalkeeper. Yet we weren't always convincing the other way, with Dawson having to make a few smart saves to maintain our advantage.

Surridge and Harrison traded wayward shots, before Penney had a shot blocked and Gomes' rebound was tipped over the bar as we begin to offer a bit more.

Then, with just four minutes to go, we landed our equaliser, with Gayle's initial effort from a corner blocked but landing straight for our striker, who got the ball over the line to bring us level.

Surridge and Curtis missed chances to give a lively game another goal, but in the end we had to be content to share 4 goals and go away with a point each.

Though we had even less time than usual to reflect on what this all meant, as just 48 hours later, we welcomed struggling Derby to Hillsborough.

Given the keys to start the double shift were:
Dawson - Odubajo, Iorfa, Lees, Fox - Matheus, Skipp, Reach, Gomes - Gayle, Surridge
Subs: Westwood, Borner, Palmer, Hutchinson, Penney, Ameobi, Forestieri

Five changes for this one, with starts for Odubajo, Iorfa, Fox, Gomes and Gayle. If I was in charge of a Man City or Liverpool, I'd love to consider the plausibility of making 11 changes and would have the squad depth to do so. But we have to improvise.

Regardless of how many changes I made or how big my squad is, I still want to win. Would we do so?

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Ffs. So close and so far, but our failure to grab a second goal after scoring fairly early put too much onus on our defence and a late failure to concentrate has cost us.

Derby had a few early half-chances but the first major chance of note would be an opening goal for us. Matheus saw an initial lash at goal blocked, but from a tight angle our Brazilian winger found the back of the net.

This was the cue for us to commit men forward. Gomes had a shot blocked by a covering defender before Surridge had a snapshot saved by Karl Darlow, with the keeper also denying his fellow Newcastle loanee Gayle and then making another save to stop a header by Skipp.

Derby were slow to start but then soon began to creep back into things. Dawson had to be alert to keep our a scrambled shot by Mike te Wierek, then made a better stop to deny Martyn Waghorn.

Meanwhile, Gayle had what looked like a certain goal denied by Darlow, before Matheus saw a snapshot bounce off target. Our goalscorer then saw Darlow save a strike in the early minutes of the second period.

Waghorn scooped over a volley when seemingly well placed, before Dawson had to deny Andre Wisdom and Wayne Rooney had a drive blocked by Lees and Dawson then did well to block a header by Krystian Bielik.

We were having to make more defensive substitutions, but it was looking like we were going to grind this out until it all went wrong in added time. Bielik was the sharpest reactor after te Wierek's initial header at a corner was blocked, and he scrambled the ball past Dawson to land Derby an equaliser.

Things could've been worse as te Wierek headed over the bar in added time, but it was still enraging to throw things away in such a casual fashion.

After that late debacle, the next test was a strange one. We were drawn to face Premier League side Wolves at home in Round 3 of the FA Cup, for a real head v heart conflict. The heart wanted to make a statement against a Wolves side stuck in midtable after a poor Christmas run, but the head knew this had to be balanced with a key game in our promotion challenge, given that we had to play Norwich at Carrow Road 3 days later.

The compromise selection was:
Dawson - Odubajo, Iorfa, Borner, Palmer - Gomes, Skipp, Reach, Penney - Surridge, Gayle
Subs: Westwood, Borner, Fox, Hutchinson, Ameobi, Hidalgo, Forestieri

Alterations from the Derby draw saw Borner, Palmer and Penney called up. 3 is in truth less than it could be, but we're happy to get the balance. Matheus suffered an injury so isn't risked, while there is also a space in the squad for youngster Manuel Hidalgo.

So, with a Wolves side out of form but still stuffed with high quality personnel in their starting 11, could we make a big statement by beating them?

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Well it would've been nice if we managed to pull off the upset, but we just couldn't get our attacking game to work. If we do end up bagging promotion to the Premier League, we're gonna have to do better against teams like this. But that's something for next year.

Gayle and Surridge did have a few chances in the opening 20, but by then Dawson had already made two saves and from there we continued to be on the back foot until the 34th minute. At this point, Matt Doherty put Wolves in front when he headed in Joao Moutinho's corner.

Our only real chances came late in the game, with John Ruddy in the Wolves goal making saves to deny Ameobi and Surridge right at the end of the game. Pretty much everything else was from Wolves, with Dawson making a decent amount of saves to even keep us level.

But this was just a misfire on our part, leading us to contemplate another exit from this competition at the earliest stage possible and our attempt to bag promotion to the top 20 club where Wolves find themselves at present.

That ambition would unquestionably be boosted with a positive result against Norwich. We travelled to Norfolk to face a Canaries side rebuilding their season after a poor start saw them even drift deep into the bottom half in October.

Aiming to take points for the long and winding road home from East Anglia would be:
Dawson - Odubajo, Iorfa, Borner, Fox - Skipp, Reach - Matheus, Gomes, Ameobi - Surridge
Subs: Westwood, Palmer, Lees, Hutchinson, Bannan, Penney, Gayle

Only a few rotations for this one - Fox, Ameobi and a fit-again Matheus brought in as we look to grab a half-decent reward.

Can we pick up success in Norfolk against a side trying to rebuild their promotion aspirations?

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Ultimately a tale of two penalties, as we pick up a third straight league draw.

Norwich full-back Phillip Heise had a shot scrambled wide by Dawson in the early minutes, though within seconds, Ameobi rifled a shot against the bar in response.

We would then trade chances again, with Dawson denying a smart strike by Emi Buendia moments before Tim Krul did well to keep out Reach.

A period of the game when opened up where we began to look more comfortable, and moments after Krul saved a header by Surridge, we were awarded a penalty.

On a counter from a Norwich free-kick, Matheus broke into the box and was brought down by Christoph Zimmerman, giving us a penalty. Surridge stepped up from 12 yards, and drilled it past Krul to open the scoring.

Todd Cantwell was then denied by Dawson, while Ameobi wafted one wide. While the game was fairly low energy - we've just drifted through most of the Christmas period after all - the home side were having more chances to break through, without quite being able to beat Dawson.

Surridge had a fine effort bounce wide when well placed in the opening minutes of the second half, before Norwich winger Sebastian Szymanski punted one on target that Dawson did well to deny.

Norwich made a double change to try and equalise, and one of their subs would duly be presented with a penalty given a few minutes after the hour. Borner was ruled to foul Teemu Pukki, earning a booking for his troubles and giving Norwich a penalty. Harry Wilson stepped up and drilled it past Dawson.

This gave the home side momentum. Odubajo had to be alert to block a firm strike by Cantwell, with Wilson similarly frustrated by our other full-back Fox, while a well-hit strike by Cantwell ended up crashing wide.

In the end, we had to share the points. Its not defeats, which would hurt our pursuit of the top two more, but we can't really afford to drop points if Sheffield United grab wins as well. Not least given we have to face them very soon.

We have a few days to work on things, with games against Wigan and Hull leading up to the big game against Sheffield United at Hillsborough - a derby and promotion chase rolled into one. That game will be a real test of our capabilities, but we've got to make sure we're in a good position with as many points as possible leading into it.
noir et blanc armée

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A lot of our promotion aspirations could well depend on either victory or defeat in the Sheffield Derby at the end of January. But it would be too easy to fixate on that being the make-or-break game. Before that, we still need points from games against Wigan and Hull - the former of whom are trying to make their way into the play-offs, the latter of whom are drifting down the table after being in the play-off battle in late November.

First up were Wigan, and selected to take them on would be:
Dawson - Palmer, Lees, Borner, Penney - Skipp, Bannan - Reach, Gomes, Ameobi - Surridge
Subs: Westwood, Odubajo, Fox, Hutchinson, Matheus, Ambrose, Gayle

One of the two changes from our draw with Norwich in the midweek as enforced, as Iorfa got called up by Nigeria to compete in the African Cup of Nations so will not be available for a while, which, you know... unhelpful. Lees gets a start alongside Borner at the back, while a call up for Palmer over Odubajo is the other change. Another notable thing is the welcome return of our top scorer Ambrose to the squad after recent injuries.

So, how would we fare against Paul Cook's side?

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Good to know our top scorer is not rusty after just over a month on the sidelines. Unwelcome it took us nearly the whole game to recover from falling behind inside the opening 5 minutes, and not really what we needed given Sheffield United became the first team to beat West Brom, but its better than the alternative.

We were up against is more or less straight away. Wigan won a corner and our former player Josh Windass picked out Chey Dunkley, who saw a header tipped onto the bar by Dawson, only for Cedric Kipre to poke in the rebound.

Things could've been even worse, with Dawson denying Michael Jacobs, though at the other end, Reach was denied by Owen Evans.

The opening period was busy at both ends, with a good quantity of chances being created and both goalkeepers being tested.

But for our part, it was frustration at just not being able to get it in - not least for Gomes, who could've used a goal after recent poor performances but here he saw a shot denied by Evans after a great run. The Wigan keeper would also make 2 good saves to deny Surridge and another to thwart recalled skipper Lees.

In the second period, we looked slightly burnt out, and Wigan could've grabbed a second when Dawson made fine saves to deny Jacobs and Windass.

Ameobi lashed one off the post on the hour, before Evans deflected a shot by substitute Gayle onto the crossbar as we then rediscovered some momentum.

Things continued to be end-to-end, with Jacobs and Jamal Lowe wafting chances off target either side of a shot Ameobi wafted wide.

Ambrose had two chances after being introduced, with one strike saved and another blocked, before Evans then denied two great shots for Ameobi.

With all the chances still being created and missed, it was something of a surprise that with 90 on the clock, the game was still only 1-0. But we then put in a late show to take a share of the points, as Ambrose wriggled away from a covering defender to reach a long ball before drilling a firm strike into the bottom corner.

As we overall had more chances, I think we could've won. But we're still content to take something from this match rather than being unfulfilled by a quantity of missed opportunities, and we'll move on.

Things would still be fairly busy in the week before our next fixture, if not quite for the expected sales. We were aiming to offload Forestieri and Hutchinson on loan as the duo got frustrated doing nothing and wanted out. But the only offer for either was a bid from Rotherham to take Forestieri with no monthly payment or wage contribution. Fuck no.

We did however choose to offload others. My U23 manager chose to offload moderately highly rated midfielder Alex Hunt, who is out of contract at the end of the season, with the midfielder joining our Championship rivals Bristol City for £160K. We also took time to offload on loan Fraser Preston (Carlisle), Isaac Rice (Wycombe), Connor Kirby (Port Vale) and Jonathan da Bie (Belgian side AFC Tubize) to give them first team football rather than faff about bored in our reserves.

With that admin done, we moved on to our clash with Hull City, taking part as the late kick-off in our warm up for the big derby against our fellow promotion chasers from the other side of town.

Shuffled into the side for the Tigers clash would be:
Westwood - Odubajo, Lees, Borner, Fox - Matheus, Skipp, Reach, Penney - Gayle, Surridge
Subs: Dawson, Urhoghide, Palmer, Hutchinson, Luongo, Gomes, Ambrose

As I felt Dawson has let a few clean sheets that should've been slip of late, Westwood - who is retiring at the end of the year - gets a rare start in goal. Odubajo, Fox and Gayle also get starts in their derby day audition, while my view is that Ambrose is yet to be fit enough to start.

One major irritation however is that, for the second year in a row, Bannan has suffered a hip injury at a crucial point of the season, and will miss the next 3 months. I feel that we are better suited this year, having really had major squad depth problems last season, but given he is one of our most crucial players in midfield for creativity, this is so annoying. It also makes me question if its worth giving the Scot a new deal, given his very well-paid contract expires at the end of this current season.

Before kick-off at Hillsborough, we received word that Sheffield United had surprisingly lost away at Blackburn Rovers, giving us the chance to move within one point of Chris Wilder's Blades ahead of the following Tuesday's rival clash. Could we manage it?

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By the skin of our teeth, we did it. In truth, it could've been more secure, but the most important thing was beating Hull by any means necessary, and this is what we did. So yay us.

George Long denied Borner with the first real attempt that wasn't a half-chance. But we would strike just after the quarter hour mark, as Gayle lashed in the rebound after an initial drive by Skipp was saved by the Hull keeper.

Hull did have a dangerous presence, with Marcus Maddison seeing a free-kick go wide and the winger had another strike saved by Westwood.

But we kept them mostly at arm's length, and would make it 2-0 just shy of the half hour mark, when Borner reached Penney's sweeping free-kick after a foul by Eric Lichaj and headed it into the back of the net.

The remainder of the first half was fairly comfortable for us, with Penney having a shot blocked, Gayle had a good strike denied by Long, Odubajo rifled one into the side-netting and Reach punted a shot off target.

Penney had a shot saved by Long in the opening moments of the second period, and the Hull keeper would then deny a strike by Gayle just before the hour, and another by Matheus a few moments later. Our Brazilian winger then saw another strike go wide and a further effort saved by Long, with Luongo then whacking a drive into the ad boards.

One unfortunate development was an injury to Reach, with the midfielder suffering a minor thigh injury and duly getting protected with an early withdrawl.

But having failed to find a third goal, Hull began to get back into it, and after Sandro Wieser put a header over the bar, they forced a goal as Jordy de Wijs turned in a cross.

Lees was denied by Long as we nearly restored our two goal advantage, but Hull still sensed an unlikely equaliser, with Lichaj denied by Westwood.

It could've been by a greater margin, but we still got something. We needed to enter the derby on the back of maximum points from this game, and we got it. So we did the least we could do.

Going into the derby, the table looked like this:
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One point divides United and Wednesday going into the midweek meeting, which makes things potentially very exciting for that contest. We're probably a bit far back on West Brom at the start of this, even though they have begun to look fallible after defeat at Bramall Lane and a surprise draw at home to rock bottom MK Dons. The loser may also be wary on those below, with QPR and Preston in form at least on a par with both of us.

So, the moment was set. Derby day in Sheffield for the second time this season, and a game of real high stakes with us starting the day 2nd and 3rd in the table. You sense the winners would take a huge piece of momentum in the race for automatic promotion, even with around 3 1/2 months of the season remaining.

Aiming to bag a victory for the ages for the blue side of Sheffield were:
Dawson - Odubajo, Lees, Borner, Fox - Matheus, Skipp, Luongo, Ameobi - Gayle, Ambrose
Subs: Westwood, Urhoghide, Palmer, Penney, Reach, Gomes, Surridge

From the Hull match a few days earlier, we brought Dawson back in goal, as well a first start since early December for Ambrose. Reach is fit enough for the bench, but not to start, so Luongo starts in central midfield instead, while Ameobi is preferred to Penney on wide left.

With so many things riding on this contest, it would really be a great moment for our season if we could win, and a great sickener if we didn't. Which way would it go?

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I'm not sure either group of fans will be satisfied with this outcome. Fairly even for possession, they had more chances, we had more on target, but neither side had a knockout blow in them.

Sheffield United had a chance inside the opening minute, as Gokhan Gonul saw a drive saved by Dawson. John Lundstram and Lys Mousset would then have early strikes blocked as we had to adapt to being on the back-foot.

Our first chances came inside the opening 10 minutes, with Ambrose denied by new Blades signing Jack Butland before Matheus misjudging the rebound.

Lukas Nmecha hit one wide for the away side, before a shot by Mousset was well denied by Dawson. The striker then missed a great chance when he hit a strike wide.

A cagey game saw the Blades have another chance fall their way, as Dawson made a fine save to thwart Sander Berge.

This then gave us a wake-up moment, as Matheus saw a decent try blocked by Butland. But we were then nearly hit back ourselves, as Oli McBurnie put a wayward header off target when well placed.

Ameobi and Matt Miazga put headers off target in quick succession, as we duly entered the break with nobody holding the advantage.

McBurnie and Gonul rifled attempts wide of the target in the moments after half-time, with McBurnie then also striking the top of the bar when he met a cross.

But having rode that out, we had a decent try ourselves as Butland made a firm stop to keep out Ameobi. The former Stoke goalkeeper then also made a very good stop to deny Reach moments after we introduced him off the bench.

The longer the game wore on, the more it looked like one goal if any would be enough. It so nearly came our way, as Surridge came off the bench and saw a fine drive cannon off a post and bounce out, although had it gone within the post, an offside flag would've denied the Bournemouth loanee.

Ameobi then had a drive blocked by Chris Basham before Surridge put the rebound wide, but from here, the game would fade out apart from a few half-chances for the Blades, and the consequence would be a goalless draw.

In truth, it kinda does little for either side's promotion ambitions, with Preston and QPR winning games after our stalemate to move both sides within 2/3 points of us, and with our two sides still split by a single point.

Still, with 4 teams separated by 3 points, it makes things very interesting in this squabble for automatic promotion, and there's still 17 games to play that could send this in all kind of directions. It all makes things rather exciting, and hopefully we'll end it as the team that's able to reach the Premier League promised land with no need for them blasted play-offs. So let's see if fortune is about to smile on us.
noir et blanc armée

Read my FM20 Career WAWAW

With the anti-climax that was a goalless draw in the Steel City Derby out of the way, it was time to see how we'd fare in our attempts to get the promotion. Ourselves and the Blades are closely split in this fight, though Preston and QPR are beginning to close up a bit.

To try and boost our options for this, I decided to make a new signing to boost our options. With Harris set to miss the rest of the season, I felt the use of an out of position Reach or Gomes as back-up to Matheus in the right midfield position wouldn't work, let alone sticking a full-back there, so I wanted a new right-sided midfielder. After scouring for a loanee from a PL club on wages we could afford, I settled on Grady Diangana, and quickly agreed a deal with West Ham to bring him in on loan for the rest of the year.

He would be in the squad for our trip to Swansea, as we took on a Welsh side who appointed Quique Sanchez Flores earlier in the year but are struggling to get consistent form.

Trying to get the better of the South Coast squad were:
Dawson - Odubajo, Lees, Borner, Fox - Matheus, Skipp, Reach, Ameobi - Surridge, Ambrose
Subs: Westwood, Urhoghide, Penney, Luongo, Gomes, Diangana, Gayle

Our new arrival would begin this one on the bench. From the draw with the Blades, we also called Reach and Surridge up to the starting 11.

At this point, we just need to keep on winning. Would we achieve a victory in South Wales?

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Just about managed it. We can't keep relying on comebacks, but our ability to regain points from losing positions has been a consistent feature of this season and we did it again. Decent.

Certainly, a comeback would've been necessary after we were slow out of the box. We didn't really get going in the early phase of this contest, and fell behind shortly before the 20 minute mark, when Connor Roberts turned in a cross by Bersant Celina.

It took us around half an hour to get a real opportunity, with Marcus Bettinelli kept out Ameobi's volley, with the header then heading wide before Surridge was denied by the Swans keeper.

We had to recalibrate our approach at half-time with so little forward invention made, but we did begin to improve, with Bettinelli making vital saves in quick succession to deny Surridge and Ambrose.

Moments after Alireza Jahanbakhsh missed a decent chance to put Swansea 2-0 up, we would equalise just shy of the hour. Ambrose nipped in above Roberts to meet a sweeping cross by Matheus, and buried the header to equalise for Wednesday.

Fox, Ambrose and Penney would come close in quick succession but all failed to make things happen, before Fox made a great defensive block to frustrate our one-time target Lyle Taylor.

In the final stages, we had chances, with Gayle and Skipp having chances fail to come off before Bettinelli denied Ambrose.

With a few minutes to go, we would at last take the lead for the first time, as Ambrose grabbed his second of the game. A long punt downfield by Lees released our top scorer, who duly ran through one-on-one and beat Bettinelli.

Swansea would nearly equalise right at the end of the game, as an excellent volley from distance by Tom Naylor touched the bar on its way over before Alex Tettey hit the side-netting, but we got 3 points over the line to triumph.

Before our next game was transfer deadline day, which confirmed our failure to shift on Forestieri and Hutchinson, though our hopes for the latter ended when he got injured again.

One player who was the subject of a potential move was full-back Morgan Fox, after Premier League strugglers Brentford gave us an offer. They were willing to meet our £5million asking price (if only after various appearance clauses were met), but I felt I didn't want to sell, and a conversation with Fox saw him agree to stay, so he's sticking around.

We instead settled for loans, with Manuel Hildalgo, Ellis Hudson, Josh Dawodu and Conor Grant all confirming loan moves.

Next up would be rock bottom MK Dons, who may have recently taken a point off West Brom but are a double digit margin from safety and look set for an instant return to League One.

Making the first team for our meeting with the struggling Dons were to be:
Wildsmith - Odubajo, Urhoghide, Borner, Fox - Diangana, Skipp, Reach, Penney - Gayle, Ambrose
Subs: Dawson, Lees, Palmer, Luongo, Gomes, Matheus, Surridge

Original plan was to give Westwood a start but a minor injury gives Wildsmith a go in goal, so Wildsmith gets a rare go in goal. With Lees only fit for the bench and Iorfa on ACON duty, the youngster Urhoghide makes his first start for the season alongside Borner. Diangana gets a first full start, while Fox and Gayle also start.

On paper, this should be a piece of piss. But would it be more tricky than that?

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This ultimately was a game where our defence bailed out our attack, who ended up being pretty naff. I'm happy with the win, but it was not a classic from us.

It had looked like being up to us to dictate things when Ambrose missed a few early chances, but with five minutes gone, MK Dons would surprise us. A foul by Penney saw the visitors given a free-kick, and from Ben Reeves' delivery, Will Ferry held off Borner and lashed it past Wildsmith.

Ferry could've made things even more painful for us, when he made a decent run but then blasted a drive off target.

For us, Diangana and Ambrose struck efforts wide before we finally got a shot on target 5 minutes before half-time, though it was fairly comfortable stop for Lee Nicholls to deny Ambrose.

We were poor in the opening 45, but a few minutes after the break, we would grab the opener, as Diangana played in Fox, who struck a powerful low drive into the bottom corner.

Diangana saw 2 strikes go wide as he looked dangerous, while Gomes hit wide after a good set-up run. But after something approaching sterile domination where we had chances but no convincing ones, we would soon take the lead when Borner headed in a Diangana corner.

A foul by Dan Potts saw him given a second yellow and MK Dons forced to play the final few minutes with 10 men, and we duly saw out the job. Not a good performance to be fair, but we won and I have to take that in this chase.

We then travelled to Reading, who are starting to creep towards the play-off picture after bringing in Sabri Lamouchi. It makes for something of an interesting game week, as while we play the Berkshire club, Preston travel to Sheffield United for a big battle between the two teams that start the day either side of us.

Aiming to ensure we ended the week above at least one of them would be:
Dawson - Odubajo, Lees, Borner, Fox - Diangana, Luongo, Reach, Penney - Surridge, Ambrose
Subs: Wildsmith, Urhoghide, Iorfa, Skipp, Gomes, Matheus, Gayle

Brought in after the crawl against MK Dons were Dawson, Lees, Luongo and Surridge ahead of Wildsmith, Lees, an unfit Skipp and Gayle. There was also a spot on the bench for Iorfa after his part in helping Nigeria win the African Cup of Nations.

My first game in charge of Sheffield Wednesday was a win over Reading at the start of the previous season. Could we do it again?

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Oh god that was fucking painful. Possibly one of our worst league performances so far.

There were signs that we were having problems pretty early on, with Danny Loader denied by Dawson and then heading the ball over the top. Surridge headed his own attempt over, but it continued to be the case that Reading looked more comfortable early on.

Loader would put Reading in front, as the highly rated graduate from the club's academy intercepted a bad clearance from Odubajo and sent a thunderbolt into the back of the net.

Ambrose put a sitter wide before Dawson denied George Puscas and Connor Ronan fired wide. A sign our top scorer's luck was out then came when Ambrose saw one attempt blocked and a further header cannon off the post.

Jordan Jones saw a fierce drive saved by Dawson before Tom Holmes headed over as we ended the half poorly, even if Surridge hit one wide right at the end of the first 45.

We brought on Gayle shortly after half-time to play with Ambrose and Surridge, and switch up to a 4-4-2 diamond. But the momentum continued with Reading, as the Royals continued to create and miss chances, and further changes failed to stem the tide.

I was hoping for our good run at comebacks to happen again, but it was unfortunately no great shock that Reading made it 2-0. A through-ball by Jack Grimmer found Jones, who seemed to be forced into a tight angle but ultimately got a strike away and beat Dawson, who despite some good saves throughout seemed annoyed to be beaten at the near post.

Ambrose's miserable luck continued when he lashed a strike off the bar, before further signs it was not our night came when, with just over a quarter of an hour to go, Dawson did very well to scramble Jones' strike onto the post, only for the ball to strike Luongo and trickle over the line for a third Reading goal.

We did have a decent string of chances for a goal back, with Matheus striking wide, Vito Mannone made saves to deny Gomes and Gayle, and Surridge saw two efforts in under a minute denied by the Reading keeper, but it was still dysfunctional defending that undid us, and Reading missed a few chances themselves to make our miserable night worse. Modou Barrow, on as a sub, had two decent ones in particular.

With Preston beating Sheffield United at Bramall Lane, it means not only did we miss an opportunity to move into 2nd place but we also lose a spot to the Lilywhites, and down to 4th, even though we are just 1 point from 2nd. Less than amazing stuff on results alone, but the performance in this 3-0 hiding was painful as well.

A big game was our attempt to recover from that absolute misfire, as we host a QPR side beginning to falter a bit after impressing in this top flight chase, but a team unquestionably still a team in the running for a return to the top tier.

Trying to right the wrongs of the miserable Madejski missive were:
Dawson - Iorfa, Lees, Borner, Penney - Skipp, Reach - Matheus, Gomes, Diangana - Gayle
Subs: Westwood, Odubajo, Fox, Luongo, Ameobi, Ambrose, Surridge

After a run of games in 4-4-2, we flicked back to 4-2-3-1 for the first time in a while, with Gayle taking a lone striker role and Gomes recalled to be part of the 3 behind. Iorfa returns for the first time post-ACoN, with Skipp and Penney also earning recalled.

The worst thing would be if the Reading debacle leads to a deeper run that really costs us in this close-run fight. But a win here could still kick-start our momentum. Could we do it?

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Oh thank the Lord. We were having to mainly play more defensive than I wanted in this game, but we just held out Mark Warburton's group until we managed to grab the injury time winner. This could be the major moment we needed to kick life back into this crusade after needing comebacks against strugglers lead into the Reading reverse.

QPR were very comfortable early on, with Paul Smyth missing two decent tries before Christoffer Ervik and the Hoops' recent loan signing Izzy Brown did the same. Brown then saw a decent strike denied by Dawson, with the first proper chance on target.

Our first opportunity fell for Gayle, with the striker seeing a swerving free-kick denied by Liam Kelly from range. The man chosen as our lone striker also saw an effort flash wide.

Matej Vydra, who is the division's top scorer and who we contemplated signing before going for Gayle, was then close to a goal, as the Czech striker beat Lees to a cross but headed wide.

Smyth had a shot denied by Dawson before Grant Hall headed wide from the following corner, before Ladislav Krejci saw a header denied by Dawson. Smyth would also see two more attempts saved by Dawson and another go over as QPR continued to look likelier to score.

I wanted to see more of us in attack in the second half, but after Borner headed one wide - this after Gomes had done similar on a rare break late in the half - we again nearly fell behind as Dawson denied half-time QPR sub Conor Masterson and Ryan Manning lashed one wide.

Gomes would then see an effort dribble into the gloves of Kelly, before the QPR keeper was worked more strenuously as he made a good save to keep out our sub Ameobi.

Matheus then saw a drive repelled by Kelly, with the QPR keeper then making a decent save to frustrate Ambrose after his introduction off the bench.

QPR had a few more chances as our pressure spell began to wind down, but in the final minutes of normal time, we did see some attacking opportunities, with Surridge firing wide and Kelly denying Ambrose.

Then, in the second minute of added time, we hit QPR with a sucker punch. The visitors failed to fully clear and the ball was intercepted by Reach, who until this point had been fairly anonymous. The midfielder released a killer pass for Matheus, who was in good space and hit a crisp low drive into the bottom corner.

Reach hit a snapshot just off target in the final minute, but QPR were seen off and a vital victory was ours. Its just what we needed to get things back on track, and with it, we have to believe we can maintain our position as a challenger. Sheffield United and Preston both won as well, meaning us 3 are split by just 1 point, making for a fantastic fight for neutrals. Maybe not so much for people like me who want to stick the landing, and with Newcastle winning 3 of their last 4 after a big budget January revamp, they might not be ruled out either.

We're still facing a busy time from here out. 3 more games fill our busy February, with Blackpool, Cardiff and Barnsley still to face before the month is out, while our March features two big games against runaway leaders West Brom and our fellow challengers Preston. It'll be real tough, but we've come this far and we can still do it... well I hope we can, anyway. Let's see how we do.
noir et blanc armée

Read my FM20 Career WAWAW

Every game in the Championship feels like a Cup Final, at least that how I'm seeing it on my FM19 save.

Keep up the good work with this, enjoying the updates and it's a real good old fashioned Susie story that I kinda like.
The Man formerly known on SUSIE as Poolie Exile
Give my story a read - Now I would walk 500 miles...

https://i.postimg.cc/3r4p65Qz/lisbonlionssig.png
Every game in the Championship feels like a Cup Final, at least that how I'm seeing it on my FM19 save.

Keep up the good work with this, enjoying the updates and it's a real good old fashioned Susie story that I kinda like.

Oh yeah that's how it feels. Its going to be difficult, particularly as this feels like a closer fight than last season. But thanks for the compliment. Its slightly surreal to be a throw-back but its the style that works for moi and it works for me.

Though I'm gonna need a new photo thing soon as I'm still using an Imageshack free trial as I wasn't aware they are now a pay-for service.
noir et blanc armée

Read my FM20 Career WAWAW

After the derby, our next game was originally scheduled to be against Blackpool at Bloomfield Road. However, on the morning of the game, the game was postponed due to a waterlogged pitch. So it was an unexpected weekend off.

Perhaps unexpectedly, it turned into a decent weekend for us despite not playing, as Sheffield United suffered a surprise home defeat to Derby while Preston suffered a 3-0 defeat by Reading - the same scoreline that we lost by at the Madejski barely a few weeks earlier. Newcastle won, which very much establishes them in the conversation for the race that ourselves, the Blades and the Lilywhites were having, which must be exciting for neutrals.

As for us, our hope would be that the spare weekend would keep us fresh for a home clash with Cardiff City the following Tuesday.

Seeking the points against the Bluebirds would be:
Dawson - Palmer, Lees, Borner, Penney - Skipp, Luongo - Matheus, Gomes, Diangana - Ambrose
Subs: Westwood, Iorfa, Fox, Reach, Ameobi, Gayle, Surridge

3 changes to this one - Ambrose for Gayle, Luongo for Reach and a first start in a while for Palmer, who replaces Odubajo.

Would we build on our win over QPR by grabbing the points here as well against a side in the bottom half?

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Robert Glatzel has to be a target for next year if we get promoted. The German has now scored against me in 3 of our 4 meetings with Cardiff. Much as this future prospect idea does us no favours, given that we miss out on a win after scoring first.

We did begin positively enough. Diangana saw a shot saved by Christian Walton, while Luongo and Diangana had shots blocked.

We should've gone in front when Ambrose fired wide when well placed, before Penney had a crack saved by Walton and we nearly paid the price, as Aden Flint reached a corner but saw a header saved by Dawson.

Ambrose and Gomes then came close before Walton made a good stop to deny Matheus, and another intervention to keep out Diangana.

Dawson then made an important stop to keep out Nathaniel Mendez-Laing, before Luongo hit a crack wide and Walton kept out Ambrose.

Ambrose's luck in front of goal continued to be out when he hit the bar when well placed, before Josh Murphy hit an effort narrowly wide.

The energy levels weren't quite there at the start of the second period, until we moved in front just after the hour. After receiving in a pass forward by Luongo, Gomes had a go from 25 yards and saw a powerful drive crash home to put us ahead. Good to see as he's been a little out of form of late.

Things could've been even better, when Diangana had one blocked and Gomes saw a drive blocked by Walton.

But having failed to grab a second goal, we would duly be bitten on the arse. Glatzel would again annoy us when the German turned in Joe Bennett's cross into a crisp half-volley past Dawson to equalise.

We weren't far away from an immediate response, as Walton denied Ambrose, Gomes saw a hit just bounce wide and Borner headed over at a corner.

But we could easily have lost it, with Glatzel having two efforts blocked in the final stages. Equally, a fine stop by Walton denied Gayle in injury time from winning the game for us.

We could only see this however as a disappointment, as Cardiff were beatable but we were ultimately left frustrated. After all we're in a very close fight and any dropped points could really bite us on the arse.

This feeling would have even more connotations for the weekend, when we travelled to Barnsley for a game that brings with it a variety of its own other local rival-based challenges. For their efforts, the Tykes had beaten Portsmouth with four goals to their name, noteworthy as it was their only win in their last 13 in all competitions in a run that saw them choose to change manager.

A reshuffle was decided upon for this one, and selected would be:
Dawson - Oduabjo, Iorfa, Borner, Fox - Matheus, Luongo, Reach, Gomes - Ambrose, Gayle
Subs: Wildsmith, Lees, Palmer, Penney, Skipp, Diangana, Surridge

Following the Cardiff game, the shuffle would see us bring in Odubajo, Iorfa, Fox, Reach and Gayle - fairly bigger scale than perhaps intended, but clearly I felt stronger about that draw than I initially felt at the time. Well that or I figured so many changes would be needed to go back to 4-4-2 for this game.

On paper, Barnsley should be simple as they're struggling, but with a team in the bottom 4 that are local rivals who would like to annoy our promotion pursuit, this could be a banana skin. Are these fears justified?

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Could've been worse. Barnsley gave us more than a run for our money, including having a goal disallowed in injury time. We have to take what we can get and if it means a point, it'll have to do. I'd obviously have preferred more, but it is what it is.

There was the promise of more drama than last season, which was decided by a single goal. How exactly we got to half-time level however is a mystery - while we edged it, both Dawson and Brad Collins had plenty of work to do and there were other chances, but nobody for the life of them could find a successful route to goal.

While we had more chances overall, Barnsley had stepped up in the latter stages of the opening 45 minutes and they would score within two minutes of the start of the second half. Cauley Woodrow was robbed by Reach and this seemed to lose momentum, but a first time whack at goal by Luke Thomas swerved a 25 yarder into the goal.

But then we levelled two minutes later. Collins denied Gomes, and after Barnsley didn't full clear the following corner, a Gomes cross-shot found Ambrose at the back stick, and the Frenchman poked it in.

Collins then made a great stop to deny Gomes moments after our equaliser, but our momentum didn't seem to really build on that moment. We had a decent chance when sub Penney had a strike denied, but that was it.

Barnsley would move in front with just under 20 minutes to go through sub Mallik Wilks, who reached a cross from his fellow sub Ben Williams and poked it past Dawson.

We went rather attacking, throwing on Surridge for Fox and switching to having 3 strikers, and it nearly had an effect when Gayle was denied by Collins, Ben Williams pulled in a great block to frustrate Surridge and Ambrose also had one blocked in an almighty scramble.

Yet barely a minute after that, we would grab a second equaliser, and like Barnsley's second, it was two subs who combined for it. This time, Penney's low ball found Surridge, who poked it over.

I had hope to push on as we did in a few wins earlier this year, but Barnsley were looking likelier. Thomas lashed one wide, as did Connor Chaplin.

Then came a big moment of drama. In the third minute of added time, as Alex Mowatt received the ball and played in Wilks. The scorer of Barnsley's second goal beat Dawson and surely won the game, but an offside flag cut Barnsley's celebrations short.

After that late drama, a point was perhaps fair enough. Would've wanted more given we had more chances, but we'll just have to work with what we got and be happy it wasn't a reverse.

The draw at Oakwell was our last game in February, so its time to have a look at the table...

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The fight for 2nd and the play-offs as a whole is surprisingly tight. While West Brom seem to be beginning to check out, with a 7 point lead on Sheffield United and 9 points on ourselves and Preston, the same margin that separates WBA and Sheffield United splits the Blades from 8th place Norwich. Having seemed to be flatlining, victories over West Brom and Preston have brought QPR into things, with a home mauling by Middlesbrough seeing Newcastle stutter.

We're in 3rd, going nowhere thanks to Preston losing taking us above them but falling back below Sheffield United after they followed back-to-back defeats with a win over Hull. In theory, we should have some wriggle room given we still have to play our game at Blackpool, but it currently sits in an international break and we still have to win the games before then.

This promises me to be a crazy close fight for the places, and after some relatively benign fixtures, we now have a high pressure March, given our fixture list has given us games against Bristol City (7th), West Brom (top) and Preston (4th, level with us). We'll definitely have a smoother path to promotion if we get the results we need from this, but it absolutely will not be easy.
noir et blanc armée

Read my FM20 Career WAWAW

While February was something due to the large quantity of games, and April will likewise pose a similar volume issue, March is relatively quiet with 4 games. However, 3 of these 4 are against teams directly up with us in the promotion chase. Bristol City, West Brom and Preston are all teams in with a shout of promotion. 12 points from these would be amazing stuff.

First in the list is an away match against Bristol City at Ashton Gate, with the Robins in the tussle for the top 6 to make it back-to-back play-off entries.

Aiming to triumph in the South West would be:
Dawson - Odubajo, Iorfa, Borner, Penney - Diangana, Luongo, Reach, Gomes - Surridge, Ambrose
Subs: Wildsmith, Palmer, Lees, Fox, Skipp, Matheus, Gayle

Just a single change to the side who drew with Barnsley in our last game in February, with Surridge replacing Gayle up-front.

So far, Bristol City have been favourable opponents for us, with 3 wins out of 3. Could we continue our 100% streak?

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Well it wasn't a win but considering we were very much second best, we weren't far off grabbing 3 points. I got asked if it was down to a late switch from 4-4-2 to 4-4-1-1 but I'm not buying it - they probably deserved to win on stats but we did well to hold them back.

Our afternoon wasn't made easier when Gomes limped off inside the opening 10 minutes, with our loanee from Manchester United suffering a twisted ankle. Not ideal.

We had enjoyed the first chance, as a few minutes before this, Surridge saw a shot saved by Daniel Bentley in the Robins goal.

As the half continued, however, the home side began to pose us more bother. Harry Pickering headed one over, Tomas Kalas had a shot blocked by Odubajo and Dawson did well to deny Nahki Wells.

We broke away to see Surridge denied by Bentley, before it continued to be the case that we were more occupied defensively than offensively.

We would get to the half level, and after Marco Stiepermann had a shot blocked, we would strike first. Dawson's kick out was flicked on by Ambrose to Diangana, and the West Ham loanee broke free to finish past Bentley.

Within two minutes, Bristol City continued to press us, with Michael Duffy seeing a cracker denied by Dawson, and moments later, Kasey Palmer blasted one wide.

Dawson then denied Neco Williams and Stiepermann, before Kalas headed over and Adam Nagy did likewise. Indeed, we were very much second best at this point.

We weren't far away from grabbing a second goal, as Odubajo was released by a flowing move down our right flank and saw a drive saved by Bentley.

After that, it was back on the defensive, with Dawson making good saves to deny Andreas Weimann and Palmer, before Matt Penney then had a great shot saved by Bentley on a break.

Bentley then also denied Reach, before Bristol City began to have less and it looked like we might be about to ride it out and take a somewhat fortunate win.

But no. Ambrose was picked off by Kalas, and the long ball by the defender released Wells. The striker held off a covering defender before beating Dawson in the one-on-one to equalise for Chris Hughton's side. Damn.

It was such a strange game in retrospect - so close to a victory we wouldn't have really deserved, but very much would've taken.

Not that the challenges would get any easier from there, considering next weekend saw West Brom travel to Sheffield. Such has been the recent compression of the table that West Brom have become very much potentially in reach of us chasers. They were unbeaten until losing at Bramall Lane in January, but further defeats to Forest, QPR, Bristol City and Wigan, as well as the slightly inauspicious sight of them failing to beat struggling MK Dons, means they aren't as home and dry as they looked.

Aiming to triumph against the boys from the West Midlands would be:
Dawson - Iorfa, Lees, Borner, Penney - Diangana, Skipp, Luongo, Reach - Surridge, Ambrose
Subs: Westwood, Urhoghide, Palmer, Fox, Ameobi, Matheus, Gayle

Two switches for this one, with Lees replacing an injured Oduabjo and Skipp for an injured Gomes.

We managed to beat West Brom home and away last season but we're not going to just expect them to roll over for us. Still, could we win?

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Blimey - this might be one of our best home performances since I took the job. We scored inside the opening minute, and barely let West Brom do anything from there.

It was Ambrose who flicked us in front pretty much straight away. We flew to the Baggies' box straight away, and Diangana saw a shot tipped onto the post by Sam Johnstone, with our French striker turning in the rebound.

We would continue in this vein. Reach had a drive blocked by Ciaran Clark, Johnstone put in a save to keep out Penney, Luongo lashed a drive at goal that Johnstone kept out with Ambrose missing the rebound, and the Baggies keeper making further stops to deny Penney and Diangana.

It was a sensational opening and still we pressed, with Surridge having a first-time hit well stopped by Johnstone in our next chance.

With 25 gone, we'd had a lot of running and chances for just the one goal, but finally, we broke through. Luongo played in Penney, whose cross found Surridge's feet. It looked like the angle was against our Bournemouth loanee, but he tried his luck and beat Johnstone for 2-0.

West Brom's first real chance saw Anton Nedyalkov volley over, before Charlie Austin had a shot saved by Dawson moments after Penney hit the post. The keeper also denied Jonathan Leko as the visitors belatedly woke up.

Clark hit the bar at a corner and Leko had a shot saved by Dawson, but the Baggies still had work to do from being two down at the break.

Instead, they took too long to get going after the break and would soon be three down. It was a moment to shine for Diangana, who was able to carry the ball a long way after an away move broke down, regained the ball after seemingly losing it to a covering defender, and he duly lashed it past Johnstone to score against the club he'd spent the previous year on loan with.

Our two best chances for number 4 saw Surridge denied, while West Brom would still have a smattering of opportunities - the most noteworthy coming after Elias Kachunga was introduced off the bench - while Dawson had to make some decent saves. But the game was won, and we had an excellent victory towards our promotion aspirations.

This result did actually get me an admirer. On the same day, Crystal Palace sacked Sam Allardyce and I was linked with the role with the Premier League strugglers seemingly on the basis of this alone. However, I want to see this through and declined, much to my board's pleasure. If they back this delight up with more money next year, would be much obliged.

We had a few days to bask in this and then prepare for the very difficult challenge, as March brought us a clash with Stoke City, who look set for a season in midtable.

Aiming to see off the Potters and grab further points in our drive up would be:
Dawson - Iorfa, Lees, Borner, Fox - Diangana, Skipp, Luongo, Penney - Surridge, Ambrose
Subs: Westwood, Urhoghide, Oduabjo, Reach, Ameobi, Matheus, Gayle

Just the one change, with Fox for Reach, with Penney being brought into the midfield four.

It would be easy to coast after 4 points from games against promotion chasers Bristol City and West Brom, but Stoke were a challenge nevertheless. Could we get the result we wanted?

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Bit of a disappointment, all told. We weren't terrible but we did fail to reach the heights of the win over the Baggies a few days earlier.

We weren't far away from another lightning start as we managed against Stoke, as Diangana had a shot tipped onto the post by new Stoke keeper Joel Pereira, before Penney had a shot deflected wide.

However, Stoke weren't in the mood to lie down and let us trample all over them. Dawson made good saves in quick succession to thwart Serdar Gurler and Nathan Collins, as well as a more simple save to keep out Tommy Smith.

Ambrose then had a crisp drive well stopped by Pereira, but Stoke continued to look the better going forward. The away keeper had to deny Stiven Plaza and Thibaud Verlinden, while Bruno Martins Indi headed over at a corner.

Smith then had a snapshot tipped onto the bar by Dawson, but it looked as if the attacking momentum was drying up until Stoke scored in first half added time.

It was a pretty simple goal as well, as a cross by Verlinden found Gurler, who evaded a dozing Fox to head it into the back of the net.

Stoke then nearly piled on the misery, as Philippe Sandler saw a hit from a long way out just crash into the stands.

Pereira then denied Diangana as we belatedly offered something, before Borner and Luongo hit near-identical shots off target.

Stoke's goalkeeper then made a decent stop to deny Surridge, before a great tackle by one-time transfer target Josh Tymon made a good block to deny Diangana.

We threw on Gayle to play all 3 of our main strikers, and it yielded near instant rewards. A swinging cross by Surridge picked out the newly arrived Gayle, who flicked the ball past Pereira.

Each keeper traded late saves, with Pereira denying Ameobi moments before Dawson kept out Martins Indi.

Ultimately, we were not to be split, which I could only view as a disappointment as I wanted to warm up for our big game with Preston at the weekend on the back of a win. The buzz from beating West Brom could still be there, but it wasn't the same as it would've been had we seen off the Potters.

Preston would certainly not be easy. The gang from Deepdale would be difficult enough, as we've yet to beat them in any of our meetings, but they have been a form team of late. They warmed up for us with 3 straight wins, having previously 6 in a row to take a huge position in this tussle for the top flight.

Aiming to grab our first win in this save over Preston were:
Dawson - Odubajo, Lees, Borner, Penney - Diangana, Skipp, Luongo, Reach - Surridge, Gayle
Subs: Wildsmith, Iorfa, Fox, Palmer, Matheus, Ameobi, Ambrose

From the Stoke game, we shuffled Odubajo, Reach and Gayle into the starting 11 for Iorfa, Fox and Ambrose.

This would be a huge statement way to finally end our Preston hoodoo. Could we achieve that here?

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Ah so close. We did well to take a great position in this contest but just couldn't force a way through.

Declan Rudd in the Preston goal denied Surridge in the opening few minutes, before Dawson was forced into a stop to keep out Danny Redmond's cross-shot.

We soon began to up the ante, with Luongo, Surridge and Diangana having shots off target in quick succession, with Preston's Patrick Bauer doing likewise.

The chance of the half came for Surridge just before the half-hour mark, with Rudd keeping him out when the Bournemouth loanee looked well place to slot us in front.

Rudd then denied Surridge again, and would also keep out Gayle before the break and then block Surridge again. Callum O'Dowda and Reach would then lash efforts off target as the game reached the break.

Jordan Rhodes had been anonymous after getting a surprise start against his former club, but he came close just after the break with a shot well blocked by Borner.

Redmond came close with 2 strikes for Preston, before Rudd would yet again frustrate Surridge, whose poor afternoon in front of goal continued.

Lees and Borner would miss the target with chances, as would Reach, and later at the other end, so would Preston sub Ryan Ledson.

Dawson had to make a fine stop to deny O'Dowda late on, but moments after Rudd denied Matheus, the Preston winger would fail to complete the day as he left injured after Preston had made all 3 subs, leaving them a man light for the final 3 minutes and added time.

This should've theoretically given us an advantage, but didn't. Our best chance was missed by Ambrose, but a better one fell for Preston after great work by Sean Maguire teed up Rhodes, who duly missed the target.

At this stage of the season, either one of us two sides - who have the most draws of any Championship sides - kinda need the wins more than results like this. A point is a point, but I can guarantee both of us can see ourselves in next year's Premier League and recognise their ambitions would've been better served by winning this encounter in the Lancashire rain.

With our game in hand at Blackpool over the international pause postponed due to a few of our players getting international call-ups, we can look at the table:

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Our ambitions would undoubtedly have been better served with another victory, given we've drawn 5 out of our last 6 games and have now drawn the most of anyone in this league, despite having the fewest defeats.

The picture is still tight, mind. Our 3 way tussle with Sheffield United and Preston is still split by just 4 points with 6/7 games to go (we have one less), with QPR just 3 points behind us. Leaders West Brom in turn are just 2 ahead of Preston, while QPR in 5th sit just 3 off our team. A very close fight between Newcastle, Bristol City, Norwich, Reading and Birmingham for the final play-off spot is going on, with that group split by just 3 points.

Its all very exciting as we move into April. Two games in four days kick us back up, against Blackburn and Birmingham, followed by Forest and the rescheduled visit to Blackpool, knowing that while we're not in the driving seat, we can still get ourselves closer to 2nd. All we have to do is stumble our way there.
noir et blanc armée

Read my FM20 Career WAWAW

Originally, the EFL scheduled our Blackpool game to take place over the international break, but a smattering of call-ups proved to be just cause to get the game rearranged.

This would ordinarily have meant the uninteresting pause to build up fitness for fringe players in our U23 teams games and work out ideas for how to see off the competition in our forthcoming games. But then a curveball turned up.

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A few weeks ago, I was linked with the job at Crystal Palace after they sacked Sam Allardyce. At the point of this international break, they are 3 points from safety and after failing to win any in February and March, they will need a confidence shot. Yet Steve Parrish has decided I was suddenly worth of interviewing for the position.

It was perhaps a little tempting - a reunion with Connor Wickham and a genuine shot at Premier League. But I chose to decline, feeling that they needed somebody else with PL experience and that it would just hurt my prospects to jump too soon and balls up their survival shot. So I politely declined. In the end, they made the surprise choice to bring back Alan Pardew after his stint with ADO Den Haag, which ironically means they've brought back the man Allardyce initially replaced in 2017, meaning in this game file they've both returned to Selhurst Park after having stints there in 2016-17, but in the reverse order to that campaign.

Having brushed that off, attention turned back to our close fight to try and get into the top flight. Our first game back after the international pause would take place on Good Friday, as we travelled across the Pennines to face on Blackburn Rovers at Ewood Park.

Seeking victory at Ewood Park was this bunch:
Dawson - Iorfa, Lees, Borner, Penney - Diangana, Skipp, Luongo, Reach - Surridge, Ambrose
Subs: Wildsmith, Odubajo, Palmer, Fox, Ameobi, Matheus, Gayle

From the draw at their north-west neighbour Preston in our last game before the international break, we made just the one switch by changing up our right back position, with Odubajo subbed out for Iorfa.

At this point, every dropped point for all ourselves, Preston and Sheffield United could be crucial. This is high stakes football. Could we live with the pressure?

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Well this was far from ideal, especially with Sheffield United recording a comfortable win over Portsmouth. Preston did lose, making it not the absolute worst, but any defeat at this point threatens to torpedo everything and this is the worst possible start to the final stretch.

Javi Gracia's Rovers had lost each of their last 4 games as their season seemed to be running out of puff, and we did come close early on when Reach hit a decent volley over before Ambrose had a shot deflected away.

Clearly, the home side were looking for a better reaction after their recent slowdown, with Lewis Travis, Lewis Holtby and Ben Brereton all flashing ones wide, before we had the first one on target as Surridge tipped wide by Vaclav Hladky at the end of a fine run.

Then things got away from us. Adam Armstrong's shot deflected wide off Borner, and from the following corner, Derrick Williams beat Luongo to Holtby's corner and put it past Dawson.

We have come back a fair number of times this season so I was hopeful of a way through, with Ambrose and Borner missing chances either side of Brereton doing likewise for Blackburn.

Later down the line, Hladky denied Luongo but our momentum was hardly blowing Blackburn away. Indeed we could've had fallen two down after Joe Rankin-Costello saw a lash at goal saved by Dawson.

We brought Ameobi on at half-time and he would have a shot saved by Hladky, although this fell in-between 2 strikes by Armstrong resulting in one going off target and another being easily stopped by Dawson.

However, the problems mounted when Blackburn scored a second goal just after the hour mark. Ambrose gave away a free-kick, and from Holtby's delivery, an initial shot by Darragh Lenihan was blocked but fell to Kevin Stewart inside the six yard box. Our one-time target couldn't miss. 2-0. Balls.

Penney had a shot saved as we tried to get one back before sub Gayle was also thwarted, before we had another momentum check when Ameobi was injured in a collision with Holtby, necessitating a third sub just as I was trying to make a different alteration.

Moments after Dawson denied Brereton's volley, we thought we had our way back on 84 minutes when Ambrose turned the ball in, but we had the goal controversially chalked off as the Frenchman was ruled offside when he met Surridge's through-pass.

Things still could've been more miserable for us, on par with the debacle at Reading in early February, as Dawson denied Onel Hernandez before Rankin-Costello hit one wide.

That game just didn't work and nothing really got well for us. Its our first defeat since that galling pasting by Reading in February. But the Easter double header gives us quick time to try and focus our attention on another challenge, with Easter Monday bringing us a home meeting with Birmingham City.

The shuffle to try and reboot after that Good Friday debacle were to be:
Dawson - Palmer, Lees, Borner, Fox - Matheus, Skipp, Reach, Penney - Surridge, Ambrose
Subs: Wildsmith, Odubajo, Iorfa, Luongo, Diangana, Gomes, Gayle

Three changes for this reshuffle, with Matheus for Diangana, Fox for Luongo (which pushes Penney forward and Reach infield) and Palmer to replace Iorfa. With Gomes now fit, it also meant we gave him a slot on the subs bench.

The massive failure that was Blackburn cannot become a trend - a run of defeats could not only see us lose out in the race for automatic but maybe even fail to reach the play-offs, as our fight with Preston and Sheffield United has a slight advantage but not by enough. Can we get something here?

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By the skin of our teeth, we did - a necessary result given Preston and Sheffield United both won.

Birmingham nearly piled on some more misery early on, when Alvaro Gimenez saw a shot saved by Dawson. Meanwhile, Surridge hit one wide early on as we tried to work out what we would do.

After a quiet period with only one or two half-chances, Birmingham had a very good opportunity to take the lead only for the build-up to produce a meh kind of shot by Ivan Sunjic, who hit a simple one at Dawson.

Ambrose had a shot blocked before the away side saw Gimenez denied by Dawson, while Reach and Ambrose then missed opportunities as what was a close game began to open up a bit.

Our first real chance came in added time, and was a fairly simple one for Luca Zidane, who claimed a header from Reach.

Zidane would then be called up again 10 minutes after the break to deny a chance for Surridge after he broke free, already cueing up a wariness we were facing another frustrating game against him after failing to break him down in the reverse fixture earlier in the season.

The second half however was characterised by a lot of uninspired drift. We brought in Diangana as one of our attempts to get a lead, and our impressing January arrival saw a little strike blocked by Marc Roberts.

Dawson then had to make a great save to deny Gimenez, before the Spanish striker fired a further shot wide of the mark.

It looked like the game was heading towards a draw, but then, moments after Zidane denied Ambrose, we found a way to goal. Initially, it looked as though Dean had intercepted a long ball forward by Lees, but then Diangana was first to the loose ball, evaded a defensive handler and poked it in to put us ahead.

Jude Bellingham and Odin Bailey missed chances late on to level, with Bellingham and Jeremie Bela doing so in added time as well.

Full time brought a huge sense of relief. We had the three points and it was not pretty, but it was sure damn effective. We needed the win, we got one, we succeeded. Game on.

Our next game was one week later against midtable Nottingham Forest at the City Ground, with this game taking place as an evening kick-off for live TV. This suddenly gave us an indication of what we needed, as we found out Preston and Sheffield United surprisingly dropped points in advance of our game, we suddenly had a huge boost to pick up a win.

The 18 chosen to try and get the job done in Nottingham on Saturday night would be:
Dawson - Iorfa, Lees, Borner, Fox - Diangana, Luongo, Reach, Penney - Gayle, Ambrose
Subs: Wildsmith, Odubajo, Palmer, Bannan, Matheus, Gomes, Surridge

The 3 changes we made would be Gayle for Surridge, Iorfa for Palmer, Luongo for the suspended Skipp after he picked up a 10th yellow of the year in the Birmingham game.

We knew in advance of Sheffield United suffering a shock reverse at struggling Millwall and after Preston had dropped points at out-of-form Newcastle in a Friday night game, although we began 5th after QPR beat Middlesbrough at the same time. Could we take the win we needed to move ourselves into a great position?

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Yes we did. At this point questions of style have to go out of the window - we needed a win, we got it. We did have to withstand a lot of pressure from Nottingham Forest over the 90 minutes, but a goal in each half did the trick.

Forest had an early chance when Ko Itakura had one saved by Dawson, before our first opportunity saw a strike by Penney just go wide.

Nuno da Costa and Jota had opportunities in quick succession saved by Dawson, before Joao Carvalho had one shot go wide and another from a free-kick nicely tipped wide by Dawson.

A rare break by my players saw Brice Samba deny Diangana, before Dawson denied Carvalho, Joe Lolley's shot was blocked by Fox and another shot by the same player bounced wide.

Jota and da Costa would have efforts fail to turn into goals late on, and after this bombardment, the latter stages of the half saw us largely reduce the tempo to something on our level.

But then we broke away to grab a goal in first half added time. Ambrose was perfectly picked out by a sweeping cross from Diangana, and our top scorer added another to his collection.

Ambrose nearly made it two after our French striker lashed one off target within seconds of the restart, before Forest had a go again, with Dawson denying a Ryan Yates strike and a free-kick from Carvalho.

Forest's profligacy would hurt them further. Just before the hour, Reach was first to Matty Cash's clearance and played it to Penney, who drilled an excellent strike beyond Samba and into the goal to put us 2-0 up.

We could've even given ourselves further scoreline security after Ambrose was found but headed over.

One goal for Forest with their amount of possession and shots could really have changed the game. Dawson made save to deny Jota before Yates punted one over the top.

Jota and Thiago Silva continued their lack of accuracy, and it nearly ended up with us making it 3 after Samba made a good save to deny Luongo, before a fine intervention by Borner frustrated Carvalho.

For the second away game in a row, Ambrose had a goal ruled out for offside, as he turned in a pass by Fox only to trigger the flag.

There was still time for Forest to have chances, but they didn't hurt us and we had our just rewards for a fine defensive display in the form of 3 vital points that in the wake of the earlier results are a big deal.

The table will be shown to demonstrate why ahead of our re-arranged trip to Blackpool the following Tuesday:

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This win has suddenly has put the ball in court. Victory at Blackpool in the game in hand on Tuesday night will put us second with an equal number played and while it does the trick of guaranteeing we can finish no lower than 6th, it suddenly means a lot more. We're basically now 4 wins from the Premier League, which is a huge incentive for this lot to chase.

Not that we can get that far ahead of ourselves - first we have to beat a Tangerines side fighting for their lives, then a Millwall side that may still have a mathematical chance of survival and caused us bother in our first meeting, a Newcastle side that still has PL quality despite struggling for form since late February and a Middlesbrough team that are trying to impress a new manager.

We're not there yet, and thinking its automatically gonna happen will cost us. But suddenly, the path is so much clearer.
noir et blanc armée

Read my FM20 Career WAWAW

Victory over Nottingham Forest has set up a potentially major juncture in our season, as victory over Blackpool at Bloomfield Road sticks us second with three to go, and with it, potentially 3 wins from promotion and with it ending Sheffield Wednesday's exile from the Premier League, which stretches back to 2000.

Hoping to make it one small step for our season and one big leap for our season were to be:
Dawson - Palmer, Lees, Borner, Fox - Diangana, Luongo, Reach, Penney - Surridge, Ambrose
Subs: Wildsmith, Iorfa, Odubajo, Bannan, Matheus, Gomes, Gayle

The changes from the weekend triumph were to give Sturridge and Palmer starts ahead of the rested Gayle and Iorfa.

We know what we have to do. Can we deliver?

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Yes we can. And with it, we're now in prime position to take that coveted automatic promotion spot.

Our hopes and aspirations would get a boost with a goal inside the opening 3 minutes, as Diangana was found by a great ball from Penney and turned it into the Blackpool goal.

Former Owl Gary Madine would fire wide when well placed before Ambrose saw a strike saved by Blackpool keeper Martin Chudy. Wes Burns would then be denied by Dawson as the game continued its quick opening.

Blackpool were creating, with Jake Forster-Caskey having a shot go wide before Fox had to clear a header by Madine off the line and the striker then put one wide.

Diangana skimmed the top of the bar with a strike, before a flick from Surridge went over the bar. A great chance for two came when Reach was played in on goal only to be denied by Chudy before Penney hit the rebound wide.

Chudy then also denied Ambrose, before Borner and Surridge put attempts wide, while Matty Virtue saw a strike on goal well saved by Dawson.

Each side would trade a strike in the opening minutes of the second half, with Dawson denying Madine before Chudy kept out Surridge, while Dawson then kept out Forster-Caskey and Chudy again denied Surridge.

Blackpool had the better of a second half that was less frantic than the first, but with 22 minutes remaining on the clock, we broke through to bag a second goal. Ambrose added another to his collection, as our top scorer broke an offside trap to run onto Palmer's long ball and flicked a shot into the bottom corner for our second goal.

Lees flicked a header off target before Joe Nuttall saw two attempts saved by Dawson as Blackpool tried and struggled to find a way back.

The home side did grab a goal for their efforts late on when former Owl Jordan Thorniley turned in a corner, but it would be too late to grab something and we left with a victory. Excellent result that puts us second with three to play.

We now need to keep this going. Next up for us is Millwall, who have won 3 in a row - including a sensational win over Sheffield United - as they desperately fight to try and stay in the Championship.

Selected to try and see off the struggling South Londoners was an 18 made of:
Dawson - Iorfa, Lees, Borner, Fox - Diangana, Skipp, Bannan, Reach - Surridge, Ambrose
Subs: Wildsmith, Palmer, Penney, Luongo, Matheus, Gomes, Gayle

Three changes to keep up the energy - Bannan, Reach and Iorfa in for Luongo, Penney and Palmer as we seek to build on this and get a fourth straight win.

With this fight escalating, can we grab the result we so desire?

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Wasn't really in doubt. We could've won by a bigger margin, but 1-0 will do for us.

Jed Wallace touched the bar early on as Millwall tried a way through, before we took the lead as Surridge had one effort go wide and another deflected wide.

A great sweeping ball from Iorfa then picked out Ambrose, but he headed the ball over.

With 26 on the clock, it was our top scorer who would do the business once again. Ambrose's 20th goal of an extremely impressive debut season in blue and white came when the Frenchman was picked out by Reach, and duly flicked it into the goal.

Iorfa was so close to putting us 2-0 ahead put his effort clipped the post, before Mason Bennett had a shot deflected and Millwall team-mate Wallace hit one wide.

Diangana had a shot blocked before Kieran O'Hara in the Lions goal made a decent stop to deny Reach and another to keep out Ambrose.

Bennett had a shot saved by Dawson before Tom Bradshaw had one deflected wide, while Jake Cooper had a shot saved by Dawson.

Millwall had a smattering of half-chances drift off target before Cooper came a lot closer, as his header at a corner clipped the woodwork.

Reach and Surridge failed to get chances into the goal late in the half, with Reach then doing so again after half-time.

Ambrose then had two drives blocked by O'Hara, before Lees hit the bar at a free-kick, although he was offside.

Millwall's keeper would then be on hand to deny Surridge and Lees, before Surridge hit one off target and O'Hara would then be a thorn in our side again to stop a shot by Diangana.

While we couldn't make it 2-0, Millwall's attack didn't really offer anything to equalise and neutralise our single goal advantage, so with it we had the victory.

A big surprise would then come at full-time, however. We were so focused on Sheffield United and Preston below us that we weren't paying attention on West Brom, and when it came through they were beaten 3-0 at home by Newcastle, it suddenly turned out we had moved to top spot in the Championship with 2 games still to play.

This unexpected development is rather delightful. But now we have to keep it going, starting with a Friday night trip up to Newcastle. Their win at the Hawthorns indicated it would not be easy against a Magpies side who knew nothing but a win would end their play-off hopes.

Trying to take a big step towards giving us pole position for automatic promotion would be:
Dawson - Palmer, Iorfa, Lees, Fox - Diangana, Skipp, Bannan, Reach - Surridge, Ambrose
Subs: Wildsmith, Borner, Penney, Luongo, Matheus, Gomes, Forestieri

Our single change is Palmer for Borner. One other alteration is a necessary one for our bench, as Gayle being on loan from Newcastle means we can't use him, so its a rare appearance for Forestieri, who makes the bench.

The victory we managed against Newcastle in December was a genuine thriller, but if it means it gets us promotion, I'll take a nervy 1-0 win. What can we do here?

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We're now one more win away, and dropped points for our rivals will send us up regardless. By Christ we got lucky in this - bombarded for most of the 90 but broke away to grab our 2 goals. But at this stage, it matters more that we win rather than how we win, and in that regard, we can be happy with how its gone.

Newcastle began their attempts to build on their win over West Brom straight away. Cheikhou Kouyate saw a header saved by Dawson, Palmer had to block a shot by Jean Phillipe Gbamin and Ethan Ampadu headed over.

Florinel Coman was particularly dangerous as he stood in for the injured Allan Saint-Maximin and Miguel Almiron, with the Romanian seeing a header skim the top of the bar and another loop over moments after Diego Rolan was denied by Dawson. Our goalkeeper would then deny Rolan again.

But we began to contain Newcastle's pressure more in the final minutes of the half and then, with our first real meaningful chance, we went in front. Reach was found by Diangana's searching cross, and the one-time Middlesbrough midfielder beat Martin Dubravka to put us ahead.

Taiwo Awoniyi was denied by Dawson and Ampadu headed over as Newcastle almost hit back to level in first half stoppage time, and with Rolan and Gbamin missing chances early in the second period, it looked as though we would continue to be on the defensive.

But a curveball came when we moved 2-0 in front. Tosin Adarabioyo fouled Ambrose, and a lash at goal by Fox flew from his left-foot into the back of the net.

Coman and Gbamin missed chances before Dawson denied Adarabioyo, with our keeper then again denying Gbamin as it continued to be the case Newcastle were pressing.

Having soaked up that pressure, Surridge could've made it 3-0, with a good save by Newcastle's Dubravka denying him the chance to do so.

Dawson denied Rolan before Penney just flicked the ball wide when well placed.

Newcastle did get their name on the scoresheet in the second minute of added time when a bullet from Sean Longstaff flew past Dawson.

This should've set up a grandstand finish, but it didn't. Indeed, the nearest to a goal came when Penney hit one wide, and we saw the job through to take a real grind of a victory at St James' Park, and with it put us potentially one win away from the Premier League, and as champions to boot.

With this taking place on Friday night, we had the Saturday to ourselves and to see if the results coming in would mean we didn't need to beat Middlesbrough. Results going our way could guarantee our promotion as champions already. So when we advanced, the moment of truth had arrived and...

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It all went our way and we've done it! Not only are we promoted, but we're champions as well! YES!

West Brom lost 2-0 at Derby, Sheffield United drew 2-2 at Cardiff and Preston lost out in a 5 goal thriller at Barnsley. Which means, at the end of it all, Sheffield Wednesday will be a Premier League side.

The board had only expected us to come mid-table, with plans for the great promotion assault to be 2 years from now, but instead, Sheffield Wednesday will be a Premier League side in 2021-22. Celebrations time!

The trophy would be presented of course after one final assignment, which would be against Middlesbrough at Hillsborough.

Aiming to give the fans one final encore hit for the road would be:
Dawson - Palmer, Iorfa, Lees, Fox - Diangana, Skipp, Bannan, Reach - Surridge, Ambrose
Subs: Wildsmith, Borner, Penney, Luongo, Matheus, Gomes, Gayle

Same team that beat Newcastle, but with Gayle back ahead of Forestieri on the bench.

So would we say goodbye to the second tier in style?

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One more for the road - our sixth win in a row as we confirm our title victory in style.

Our strikeforce of Ambrose and Surridge had chances before we finally took the lead around the quarter hour, as Ambrose headed in Palmer's cross to put us in front.

An opening first half did see Middlesbrough test Dawson a few times, but we still came close through Diangana a couple of times before our second goal, which went in 11 minutes before half-time. Reach intercepted a poor defensive clearance before laying it off for Bannan, who drilled a low strike into the bottom corner.

Two would then become three just after the break, with Reach grabbing a second assist as his header was turned in by Surridge to give us a greater cushion on the scoreline.

This would be the final goal of the season. Middlesbrough had more of the chances but they didn't really hurt us, and as a result we celebrate our Championship title with a stylish coronation.

With all said and done, the final table at the end of the 2020-21 season has this look:

https://imagizer.imageshack.com/v2/xq90/922/ODrJDj.png

After a crazy finale to the season and such a close fight, we are not only promoted but go up as champions of the second tier - no mean feat given we only lead the way in 3 weeks of the entire season. Indeed, a late collapse in form by West Brom is the main reason for why we look so far ahead - they failed to win any of their last 5 games, adding to an earlier run of 5 defeats in 6.

A 1-0 win for Sheffield United against Blackpool in their final game of the season means they take the automatic promotion spot behind us, ensuring a first Premier League Sheffield Derby since 1994 - a fair while in coming, you might say.

West Brom, QPR, Preston and Norwich will take part in the play-offs, with Reading, Bristol City and Newcastle narrowly missing out. Millwall, Portsmouth and MK Dons are relegated, with Swansea, Barnsley and Blackpool managing points to book their survival even before the final day of the season.

A few weeks later, we would find out that West Brom managed to recover from their late season collapse in form to beat Norwich in the 2 legged semis and then QPR in the final at Wembley to follow us 2 Sheffield sides into the top flight of English football. We will be taking the places of Brighton, Brentford and Bournemouth, who drop out of the top 20.

Impressively, Leeds managed to finish 9th on their top flight return, while Fulham also stayed up, as did a Crystal Palace team who tried to interview me as a potential manager at one point.

Its going to take a lot of work to get this squad ready for Premier League football, and tests against a Manchester City team that now have 4 straight titles, plus their neighbours, Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool, Spurs, etc. Hell it'll take work to get us on par with Villa and Wolves, judging by our poor results against them in the FA Cup.

But we think we can do this. Hell, we got this far. And so we must begin the reboot ready for season 3.
noir et blanc armée

Read my FM20 Career WAWAW

Its tempting to have that existential dread of thinking promotion might end up being the easy part.

Turning a side twice predicted to be midtable into first play-off losers and then shock division winners was good, but the squad had baseline potential to be involved in a tight division. Throwing us into regular conflict with the likes of Manchesters City and United, Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea, Spurs, etc is its own test.

Our end of season awards does indicate a team that has half-decent potential for building, but unquestionably I'm going to need investment to turn this bunch into a team that can compete in the Premier League rather than stink the place out and limp out with little more than an "Oh well, it was nice to see the big team's stadiums".

https://i.postimg.cc/4yPFCbc4/end-of-season-awards.png

To some degree, this actually presents its own challenge as, for the first time, I have a transfer budget. £33million may be low budget by the standards of the modern Premier League, with all of its ludicrous riches and whatnot, but its still leaps and bounds beyond the budget I had to play with in my first two seasons in charge, which were both less than £100K.

My wage budget has however been eaten up a bit. Straight after promotion, a number of key players piped up wanting big pay rises. In truth, I should've waited to bring in new players to do so, but this isn't the approach I took. Cameron Dawson, Liam Palmer, Dominic Iorfa, Julian Borner, Massimo Luongo and Adam Reach have ergo all been given big increases to a PL-level. How many of these will still be here in 2 years is another question, especially if we wind up failing to make the grade.

Some players have however made their exit. We initially allowed Sam Surridge, Dwight Gayle, Grady Diangana, Oliver Skipp and Angel Gomes to return to their parent clubs, while Sam Hutchinson and Keiren Westwood have lead the freebies. One noteable other one was Tom Lees, who I considered keeping but decided a now 31 year old player my coaches rated as League One standard was no longer worth it, despite him being club captain. Its a shame, but it felt sadly like a necessary evil to move forward.

The only player meanwhile we could find a buyer for is Fernando Forestieri. After spending most of last year unable to find a willing buyer after falling out of favour and handing in a request to move on, we finally caught a buyer a few weeks into pre-season. League One Bristol Rovers have given us £600K for his services, ending his 6 year association with the club, though we do have to subsidise part of his wage to get him to go away.

First choice left-back Morgan Fox is out of contract at the end of 2021/22 and has made a request to leave, but with the jump to the Premier League seeing his transfer value rise up, it means a player who we turned down a £5M fee for in January is now valued at double that, so we found very few takers. And by few, read none.

So, who's new?

First into the door and my first signing I've paid an actual transfer fee for is Slovenian international holding midfielder Jaka Bijol. The midfielder was going cheap at Russian side CSKA Moscow, and moves to England for £3.7million. Sadly however he will miss the opening month after suffering a hernia in pre-season training.

The next arrival was Jamaican international defender/holding midfielder and one-time Owls player Michael Hector. Transfer listed by Fulham, he moves back to Hillsborough for £425K, though annoyingly missed all of pre-season as he was away with his national team.

It felt however as though Hector would not be enough for our defensive unit. We would see a number of bids for players rejected, but the one that eventually came through was Nottingham Forest's Joe Worrall, who joins for £5M. The defender rejected Leeds to move to our side of Sheffield, which is a pleasing development, and he should provide a good leader.

Up-front, I again found myself in the position of wanting two new strikers. First through the door is our big ticket signing of 2021-22, as we spent £10.5M on Blackburn's Adam Armstrong, who can play through the middle or in a winger position, with a goal bonus of around £1M as part of the deal if he scores 20. He has to hit the ground the running, but he looks like a very handy option.

Before we brought in a second striker, I also recruited a return for Grady Diangana. The initial loanee we tried to bring back was going to be Sam Surridge, but Bournemouth wanted too much. However, the feeling was we needed an extra winger, and after impressing on loan last year, we recruited the West Ham player for £6M.

Our final addition before our first game was the last of all, joining the morning of our final pre-season friendly, and is our only loan. We've pulled off the signing of Rhian Brewster, who is on a season-long from FA Cup winners Liverpool, and should give our forward contingent a bit of forward momentum.

It wasn't necessarily the plan to primarily sign English players, particularly given we had a few bids rejected for other players over non-English nationality, but given it fits our home-grown quota, I can live with it.

Our team style looks like this going into the year:

https://i.postimg.cc/vBsthgKQ/team-report-s2.png

We've trialled out 4-3-3 as an option for the PL, which is a league I suspect 4-4-2 may not be cut out for. I do think we have a lack of PL quality, plus we also need an extra central midfielder. But we have to try at least - we got here by winning the league ahead of sides that should really have crushed it, so we did something right.

The window is open until August 31st, and we do have enough in our budget for one extra signing after spending £25M so far and we have space, given we currently have a squad size of 20 players over 21, although we do have a few under. But we'll have to see what we get up to before we consider trying to land an extra player or two (budget willing ofc).

It is also worth noting our U23 boss has been busy of his own accord, signing 5 players for the U23s, though potentially with reason - this is the season we make our debut in the EFL Trophy. They've been put in a group with Notts County, Carlisle and Grimsby.

As ever, the window has been busy in the Premier League:

https://i.postimg.cc/mg490fww/pl-summer-window.png

The big names have their usual busy behaviour - a club record fee from Manchester United for Ousmane Dembele, a club record fee from Chelsea for Kai Havertz, a club record fee from Manchester City for Julian Brandt, etc. We may be the busiest for incomings, but this is a hugely different scale to last season when we had to play the loan/free market (shrewdly, as it turned out) and there's still 3 weeks of this left over.

To warm up with this was pre-season, and as happened last year, the board kept adding friendlies I have to keep cancelling, given at multiple points we had over 10 friendlies, which would've been excessive. We didn't want to enter our first game of the season all out of puff from a stupid deal of friendlies. And once again, our first run of friendlies arranged by me ended up being the main run of the schedule.

When we eventually figured it all out, this is how we did:

https://i.postimg.cc/tRD81p11/pre-season-and-first-fixtures.png

So close to a clean sweep. Arranged with our usual trio against local non-league sides Stocksbridge, Sheffield FC and Chesterfield, we had a pre-season training camp in Portugal and scattered this with 3 other friendlies. Two against lower sides, and one against a Liga NOS team, though we won all 3 in Portugal and all 3 local games.

We then had two big ticket games back-to-back, against last season's Spanish and Dutch champions respectively, in Atletico Madrid and Ajax. A week before, Atletico beat Sheffield United at Bramall Lane in another friendly but we managed a fairly unexpected victory despite being second best. Ajax managed to be in the inverse - we were the better side but lost.

As for the fixtures, we will start against Wolves at Molineux on a Monday night match, against a side now managed by Rafa Benitez after they dismissed both Nuno Espirito Santo and Paulo Sousa over the course of 2020-21 for only managing 10th.

This opener is followed by games against Watford, Southampton and Crystal Palace for our August schedule, and we ideally need to win games from an opening four that does not feature any side who finished in last year's top six, while our opening Carabao Cup tie is also somewhere in the mix. Our first clashes with big six teams are against Arsenal and Manchester United straight after the September international break, while its mid-October when we have our first Sheffield Derby in the top flight.

This is not going to be easy. But this is what we wanted and what we were dreaming of even after lowlights like being thrashed by Reading or that reverse at Blackburn on Good Friday that seemed to hurt our promotion hopes. Failing to turn up would just be cruel, and I want to believe we can do it, even if my expectations are low. We're not going to try and aim for the top half finish Leeds got last season - simply doing what Fulham did by scraping survival will suffice.
noir et blanc armée

Read my FM20 Career WAWAW

Well done on getting promotion and bagging the title.

Hopefully this will lead to bigger and better things for the Owls. If you can get a top seven finish that'll be an awesome return but I guess a comfortable mid-table finish in the top half would be consolidation personified.
The Man formerly known on SUSIE as Poolie Exile
Give my story a read - Now I would walk 500 miles...

https://i.postimg.cc/3r4p65Qz/lisbonlionssig.png
Well done on getting promotion and bagging the title.

Hopefully this will lead to bigger and better things for the Owls. If you can get a top seven finish that'll be an awesome return but I guess a comfortable mid-table finish in the top half would be consolidation personified.

Thanks for the praise.

Honestly I'd take 17th right now, but we'll give as good as we get.
noir et blanc armée

Read my FM20 Career WAWAW

Our first game in the Premier League would be the last of the season's opening weekend. So we had a fair wedge of time to build up potential anticipation.

First game saw Manchester City look to push on from winning the first two Premier League titles of this save and last season's Champions League by beating West Brom 4-0, while our city neighbours and fellow new boys Sheffield United scored first at Spurs only to lose 2-1. Perhaps the attention grabbing result of the opening weekend however was Manchester United beating Southampton 7-1 at Old Trafford, even if the game was dictated by the Saints having a player sent off after 5 minutes.

But for us, our first game in the Premier League saw us travel to face Wolves at Molineux against a side looking for better things after midtable mediocrity last season. They are one of 2 PL sides we've already faced, after they beat us in last season's FA Cup.

Our first teamsheet as a Premier League side was:
Dawson - Iorfa, Worrall, Borner, Penney - Luongo, Bannan, Reach - Diangana, Ambrose, Armstrong
Subs: Wildsmith, Odubajo, Fox, Hector, Matheus, Ameobi, Brewster

Our first line-up as a Premier League side isn't far removed from what we'd be bringing along last season. We have debuts for Armstrong and Worrall, and a start on his return for Diangana, while their fellow new boys Brewster and Hector are on the bench. Bijol will need to be bedded in after sustaining hernia in pre-season.

There's a lot of hype for our first game as a Premier League side. Would we manage to pull of a great debut result?

https://i.postimg.cc/cCd9MQBS/wolves-2-1-swfc.png

Well, we weren't embarrassed, which was something I was wary of. Still not the win I was hoping for though.

Juanmi was denied by Dawson inside the opening minute, before Penney had a drive denied by Rui Patricio.

Rafa Benitez's side were likely to start with the big pressure, with Jonny crashing a half-volley wide before Adama Traore and Morgan Gibbs-White hit efforts off target.

Penney saw a chance for us just flash off target, but Wolves had enjoyed two chances before that and it wasn't much of a surprise that they went in front.

Diogo Jota scored the opener for Wolves, as he received a decent pass by Joao Moutinho, skipped past Worrall and beat Dawson to put Wolves in front.

Dawson was forced to deny an effort by Ruben Neves, as it continued to be the case that Wolves were the likelier team to score as was the case in the previous year's cup tie.

But then we managed to scramble ourselves level. Reach got a header on Penney's cross, and in trying to get the ball away under pressure from Diangana, Traore turned the ball over his own goal-line for an own goal to bring ourselves onto level terms.

Things could've been even better, after Penney was denied by Rui Patricio with a crisp free-kick.

Worrall and Ambrose came close, as we did begin to hold our own relatively well. Doherty put in a firm block to deny Armstrong, and straight after the break, Rui Patricio did well to stop Ambrose.

Moutinho was denied by Dawson and Traore hit one wide before Ambrose was again denied by the Wolves goalkeeper in a lively contest.

But as the game began to slow down, Wolves looked the more composed and would take the lead with just under 20 minutes remaining. Moutinho's through-pass was flicked on by Willian to Jota, who was able to get in a shot that eluded both Borner and Dawson, and crept in to put the home side back ahead.

Our attempts to come back into it would see Brewster have two efforts saved by Patricio (although one was offside), Neves do well to block a shot by Ambrose and ex-Wolf Iorfa head over at a corner.

But there was to be no dramatic late Sheffield Wednesday equaliser and on the opening day of the season, we slip to defeat. We weren't embarrassed, but I'm not sure that's a consolation.

We had a week to work out what we've learned, come back with a new approach and try again one week later against Watford at Hillsborough for the first Premier League game there in 21 years.

Making the team for the return of the top flight to this corner of the city would be:
Dawson - Palmer, Iorfa, Worrall, Penney - Matheus, Luongo, Bannan, Reach - Ambrose, Armstrong
Subs: Wildsmith, Borner, Fox, Harris, Diangana, Ameobi, Brewster

From the first game of the season, our shuffle saw a switch to 4-4-2 and starts for Matheus and Palmer instead of Diangana and Borner.

Against a Hornets side managed by Steven Gerrard in front of a packed Hillsborough for the first home game of the new season, what could we manage to do?

https://i.postimg.cc/bNrX7h1j/swfc-0-0-watford.png

There really is little point ruminating on this game for too long. Neither Dawson or Watford goalkeeper Pontus Dahlberg really had much to do, and while we do grab our first point of the Premier League adventure, its almost guaranteed last on Match of the Day and probably last on the Quest TV EFL highlights show as well.

After a game that stumbled along, there was a fair flurry of chances in the final 10 minutes, but really, any winner would kind of have been undeserved given neither side did that much to entertain the crowd and all of the Premier League's international audience members.

So let's move on. Our third game of the season would see us make the trip to St Mary's to face a Southampton side looking to recover from their opening day humiliation.

Named to try and pile on the misery for Thomas Frank's Saints were:
Dawson - Palmer, Iorfa, Worrall, Fox - Matheus, Luongo, Reach, Penney - Armstrong, Brewster
Subs: Wildsmith, Borner, Hector, Bannan, Harris, Ameobi, Ambrose

Two alterations for this one. Brewster gets a first start and partners fellow summer signing Armstrong in attack, while despite being transfer listed, Fox gets a start over Bannan, who gets dropped for being the worst trainer. To compensate, Penney is pushed forward into midfield after playing at full-back in our first two games.

Is game number three the moment where we grab the first victory?

https://i.postimg.cc/qvZ2184T/southampton-0-2-swfc.png

Why yes it would be. We changed the direction of the game to some degree by scoring inside the opening minute, but it was a cracking performance all round that justified the rewards we take back up north from Hampshire with us.

That penalty would be given virtually straight away. Matheus made a flying run down the right flank, and was wiped out by Saints full-back Dalbert, with the penalty given by the on-pitch ref and backed up the extra official in the Stockley Park booth.

Up stepped Armstrong, and our record signing beat Fraser Forster from 12 yards to grab his first goal since changing blue-and-white halves for blue-and-white stripes.

Seeking an immediate reaction, Southampton did press with Alfredo Morelos firing wide and Nathan Redmond being denied by Dawson., while Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg would also lash one wide and our keeper then denied Shane Duffy.

Matheus lashed a volley wide on a breakout move, before Dawson had to deny Liam Moore and our keeper also had to thwart Moussa Djenepo.

After a quiet remainder of the half, Duffy headed over and Djenepo was denied by Dawson at the end of a fine run, as we managed to stumble into the break with our advantage intact.

Djenepo would be wayward with his shooting just after the break with the Saints hopeful of making things happen, but instead, it was us who would bag a second goal.

As well as a second goal for us, it would be a second goal for Armstrong, who received a long punt forward by Dawson, broke away from the Southampton backline, and flicked it past Forster.

Southampton introduced Danny Ings in their attempts to grab a goal back and within seconds he had a fine strike saved by Dawson.

We weren't being overwhelmed however, with Forster making great saves to deny Brewster and later Iorfa. Brewster then saw a shot blocked by Jonjo Kenney, before a snapshot by Iorfa at the corner was denied by the home goalkeeper.

On the hour mark, Armstrong had the ball in the net for what looked like being a hat-trick, but sadly our new record signing's celebrations were cut short by VAR, who ruled he'd strayed offside before reaching an excellent cross by Fox.

Within seconds, Southampton nearly went from being 3-0 down to nearly being back to within one, as Dawson made a fine save to tip sub Michael Obafemi's shot onto the post.

Dawson would then deny Morelos, before Harris forced a save out of Forster in response, and the Saints keeper also kept out Brewster.

In the final 10 minutes after a lull, Harris was denied by Forster, but the chances were mainly falling for Southampton. Hojbjerg hit a decent try wide, while Ings would be denied by Dawson.

Despite losing Worrall to an injury, we were still seeing things through, although not always comfortably. Twice in quick succession, we cleared shots off the line - first Iorfa did this to keep out Hojbjerg, before the same player got something on Ings' header and an offside Obafemi was denied by Dawson.

After that, there was no way back from Southampton and when the full-time whistle was blown on proceedings, it was us who had the rewards. A first Premier League victory of this career, and 4 points from our opening 3 games. A decent return indeed.

This does provide a promise that in games where we need to, we can scrap points together and hopefully get enough to ensure that by game 36, we have more than a six point lead on the bottom 3. This caveat has to be made because the fixture gods gave us a double header of Manchester United and Arsenal to finish the season, which is far from ideal if we need something to stay up.

Still, its an excellent start to our season. We have enough time to see what we can do, starting with a Carabao Cup tie at Championship side Stoke City and a game against a Crystal Palace side who nearly pinched me a few weeks from the end of the season as we look to get the points we need. Its a promising start, but it is only just a start. Let's see how we continue from this moment.
noir et blanc armée

Read my FM20 Career WAWAW

We get a break now from the Premier League for one midweek run as we travel to the Bet365 to face Stoke in the Carabao Cup. If nothing else, it keeps them up as familiar opponents, given we beat them there in our 2 Championship seasons, in similar circumstances where we scored a first half goal then ground out things from there.

Looking to avoid being on the wrong end of a cup upset would be:
Wildsmith - Odubajo, Hector, Borner, Penney - Harris, Bijol, Luongo, Ameobi - Ambrose, Conway
Subs: Dawson, Iorfa, Fox, Reach, Diangana, Armstrong, Brewster

From the win at Southampton the previous weekend, we made 9 changes as we look to keep key players fresh for the weekend's game against Crystal Palace. The only duo to stay in would be Penney and Luongo.

Also of note was a debut for 19-year-old English-born US youth international Jackson Conway, who I signed after his release by Atlanta United in January and was promoted to the senior team over the summer. We also gave a post-injury start to our new signing Bijol and a full start for Hector, who had a brief cameo as a sub at Southampton. There was also a start for Kadeem Harris, who is still on the recovery trail from his injury and who we're going to keep around. Though this is after QPR rejected an attempt to include him in a deal for Bright Osayi-Samuel and Rangers did likewise for an attempt to by Ryan Kent.

Could we see off the Potters and avoid being knocked out at the first time of asking?

https://i.postimg.cc/nLKhk0zM/stoke-swfc-carabaocup.png

It wasn't quite as smooth as it could've been, but its still a win and progression to Round 3.

Both keepers were busy early on. With a rare start, Wildsmith denied Harry Souttar and Joe Rothwell, while Amund Michelsen in the Stoke goal did well enough to block Ameobi's header.

A low quality first half saw Stoke broadly do better, with Josh Sims and Rothwell particularly dangerous, though in truth it wasn't really one where either side consistently had enough chances to find a way through to goal.

Stoke got the opening goal just over 10 minutes into the second half and it came in very messy circumstances. Tyrese Campbell's header struck a post, bounced off Wildsmith, and over the line.

We belatedly woke up in response. Hector fired one wide before we found our way level, as Conway grabbed his first Sheffield Wednesday goal. The youngster raced onto a long ball forward by Borner, got one-on-one with the Stoke keeper and clipped it into the net.

The home side nearly re-took the lead immediately, with Wildsmith denying Campbell before Rothwell put the rebound wide.

We made a few changes that gave us more forward impetus but penalties looked likely until we struck on 88 minutes. Harris played in Odubajo, whose swinging cross picked up Luongo. The Aussie midfielder met it with a looping header that crept over the Stoke keeper and in.

From there, we duly kept Stoke at arms length, and held out to see them off on our way to the Third Round of this competition.

With one Championship side seen off, another will wait in Round 3 as we drew a home tie against Blackburn Rovers. Thankfully we get them at Hillsborough, having lost both our visits to Ewood Park thus far.

That of course will be something to worry about later down the line. Before that tie are 3 more Premier League games, the first of which was before the international break. We welcomed Crystal Palace to Hillsborough, with the Eagles having a second stint under Alan Pardew. Sadly, they would not bring us the chance to welcome back first season hero Connor Wickham, who is on the transfer list but doesn't seem to have any willing buyers.

Aiming to stop the Eagles from soaring in our neck of the woods would be this group:
Dawson - Odubajo, Iorfa, Hector, Fox - Matheus, Luongo, Reach, Penney - Armstrong, Brewster
Subs: Wildsmith, Palmer, Bannan, Bijol, Diangana, Conway, Ambrose

I would ideally have preferred to name the same 11 that started at Southampton, but Worrall has not recovered from an injury. The original plan was to partner Hector and Borner with Iorfa at right-back, but the latter is unwell and missed out, so Iorfa moved inside and Odubajo gets the nod ahead of Palmer at right back. We also gave Bijol and Conway a go on the bench.

In another life, we could've been in the away dugout as we turned down an interview at Palace. Could we show them what they missed out on?

https://i.postimg.cc/9fXNzQv0/swfc-2-1-palace.png

Sure we did. Its 3 wins in a row in all competitions and 2 in the Premier League, which is certainly what we want to see. 7 points already, so 33 to go before we meet the base requirement to keep us up.

The opening stages had been tight. Odubajo blocked a shot by Mamadou Sakho, before Dawson did well to deny Maximilian Meyer and straight from his goal-kick, Brewster ran through and had a snapshot saved by Vicente Guaita, with Palace's keeper also denying Matheus.

Just after the half hour would then come a definite Match of the Day talking point moment. At the end of our counter from a Palace set-piece, Armstrong had the ball but was forced wide and played it in for Matheus. He was body-checked by Adam Masina, leading to Stuart Atwell to give a penalty that was upheld by VAR.

As much of a talking point was who would take it. My assumption was that as Armstrong scored a penalty at Southampton the previous week that he'd take it, but instead centre-back Hector stepped up. But before I could process this bizarre twist of fate, the Jamaican had stepped up and beaten Guaita.

Palace would dominate the rest of the half and would equalise in the final minute of regular time in the first half after Patrick Roberts and Juan Hernandez had missed chances. It was a moment for Dawson to rue, as the keeper did well enough to save Wilfried Zaha's shot at the end of a decent run, but Dawson parried it straight to Hernandez, who slipped it into the bottom corner.

Yet if Palace hoped that would be the springboard for a similarly fast start to the second period, they would be mistaken. Within 2 minutes of the restart, a long ball forward by Fox released Brewster, who evaded Sakho and placed a firm drive past Guaita for his first goal since his arrival on loan from Liverpool.

Zaha hit a shot wide minutes after our second goal, before Guaita made a good save to deny a fine clip at goal by Armstrong after his own solo run. The keeper would then deny our record signing again a few minutes later.

Palace then had a go, with sub Andros Townsend and Hernandez firing wide, before we came close after Brewster saw a shot blocked by Guaita in response.

With just over 20 minutes to go, Palace's ambition to equalise got a hit when they were reduced to 10 men. Luka Milivojevic got booked just after the half-hour for a foul on Brewster and clearly hadn't learned, given the Serbian again fouled Brewster to earn a second yellow and with it an end to his afternoon.

Curiously, getting sent off would be Milivojevic's last act in a Palace shirt. On deadline day a few days later, he ended up getting sold to Leicester, who will be unable to use him for their first post-international break game because of said red card.

We nearly piled on the misery as Guaita denied Brewster, while Dawson denied Zaha as Palace nearly equalised despite their missing man (and a weirdly asymmetric formation where they played with no left winger).

Diangana and Zaha would have shots blocked late on, but it was all over soon enough and we had ourselves our second win of our Premier League season. Sweet.

All of this means the table will look like this going into the first international break of the season:

https://i.postimg.cc/FRTfmD01/pl-table-after-opening-month.png

Of course, we are a long way from the end of the season and if we are still 7th after 38/38, we will have done incredibly well. But 2 wins from our opening 4 games is still an excellent return so far.

Deadline day would be fairly quiet in England for the most part, although a few were active. Liverpool signed Jadon Sancho and Wilfred Ndidi, Watford signed Allan Sant-Maximin, Joe Rodon and Valentino Lazaro, Manchester City signed some Brazilian and Argentine prospects, Milivojevic made his move to Leicester, and we had one signing ourselves.

Much more modest, of course. We made a signing for Palace's transfer listed ex-Reading midfielder John Swift, who we signed for £2.1M with an appearance bonus. He's a more modest acquisition, but I felt we needed an extra centre midfielder as back-up, and also to allow us to use Adam Reach more in his preferred wing position and he fit the bill.

As is often the case, our U23s manager signed somebody as well. Its been quite a regular feature after all in this window.

But in any case, with our signings all made, we've made a half-decent start to life back in the Premier League and while we have the PL's lowest wage bill - by some margin even to our fellow new boys Sheffield United and West Brom - we at least won't be setting a new "lowest win" record.

Post-break is going to be a bit more rough, mind. An Arsenal side who have made a 100% winning start, Manchester United team with tons of top class talent, Marcelo Bielsa's Leicester City and a Burnley side I have no doubt will improve after starting bottom.

Still, we can't push back facing these kind of challenges forever. It'll be an interesting step as part of this challenge to see where we're at after our fine start, and we now have to make things count.
noir et blanc armée

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After refreshing over the international break, its safe to say we would be greeted back on the other side with two tough examinations. First was a trip to Arsenal, who have thus far made a 100% winning start under new boss Paulo Fonesca, and they follow that up with Manchester United, who are looking to avenge missing out on the title on the final day the previous season. These two games are the initial meetings with the two teams will face in our last two games, so it would be interesting to see if we can make an impression against them.

First of all was the Emirates, and an Arsenal side that will in no doubt be a tall order to get the better of.

Looking to spring a surprise on the North Londoners were:
Dawson - Odubajo, Iorfa, Hector, Fox - Matheus, Luongo, Reach, Penney - Armstrong, Brewster
Subs: Wildsmith, Worrall, Swift, Bijol, Diangana, Harris, Ambrose

I considered going for a more defensive formation but instead the starting 11 is the same that began the win over Crystal Palace in the last game before the break.

So how would our first test against a big six side go?

https://i.postimg.cc/XYLDSVLy/arsenal-2-2-swfc.png

How about this for an unexpected turn of events? With Arsenal scoring two goals in quick succession in the opening few minutes of the second half, my instinct was that we were on route for a pointless affair. Instead, we sprung a surprise on our hosts. It may've been helped by getting a penalty for the third game running, but its still excellent to see our spirit for comebacks last season extends to the top flight.

As was perhaps to be expected, Arsenal made the early running. Young Brazilian defender Sergio headed over at an early corner before Hector Bellerin had a shot blocked.

The first half was a fairly slow endeavour but was perhaps unsurprisingly lead by Arsenal, with Dawson denying a speculative try by Gabrielle Martinelli, before Mario Pasalic and Sergio headed over from corners, while the best opportunity then saw Dawson pull of a block to thwart Nicolas Pepe.

The strangely quiet Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang would be denied by Dawson straight after half-time, before Ainsley Maitland-Niles saw a shot go wide.

Aubameyang would then hit us where it hurt as Arsenal opened the scoring four minutes into the second half. Luongo did well to block an initial shot by Pasalic, but Martinelli held the ball up and squared it for Aubameyang to finish.

It was two with moments, as Bellerin's cross picked out Martinelli, who fired home a fine strike via the crossbar.

Dawson then denied Aubameyang, as it began to look like we might be at risk of being mauled by the Gunners with all their attacking talents.

But then came another shocking twist, as on our first real foray into the Arsenal penalty area, we were given a penalty. A foul by Sergio on Diangana just after we brought him on saw us given a penalty, and from 12 yards, Hector beat Bernd Leno.

Brewster then fired over when well placed to grab a quick equaliser, though we then returned to being on the backfoot when Martinelli forced a save out of Dawson and a better save to deny Benjamin Pavard at a corner.

Arsenal continued to pepper a goal but pretty much everything threw at us was off target, and we came close to spring a surprise on our illustrious hosts when Diangana had a shot saved by Leno.

Dawson made a save to keep out Aubameyang, and our ability to resist Arsenal's attacking waves proved very crucial when we grabbed a surprise equaliser with six minutes to go.

We won a free-kick for a foul on Diangana, and Penney's cross picked out Armstrong, who flicked a header into the back of the net to put us level and see pandemonium in the virtual away end.

Our joy was nearly short live, as Dawson had to make a good save to keep out Reiss Nelson, while we almost bagged a shock winner after Leno denied substitute Ambrose, although he was offside anyway. Matheus however was not offside, and it did need a great save from Leno to thwart our Brazilian winger.

While we couldn't bag a shock winner, we still did superbly well to grab something off Arsenal from 2-0 down against a side who had won 4 out of 4 in the early stages of this Premier League season. It shows a decent side to us ahead of the next few busy months of football.

We would need similar one week later, as while Manchester United had dropped points in their preceding league games against Wolves and Everton, they still had an armada of dangerous talent to give our defence another rough afternoon.

Aiming to nevertheless spring a surprise on Carlo Ancelotti's multi-million pound collection was this group:
Dawson - Iorfa, Hector, Worrall, Fox - Matheus, Luongo, Reach, Penney - Armstrong, Ambrose
Subs: Wildsmith, Odubajo, Borner, Swift, Bijol, Diangana, Brewster

Two changes to the starting line-up, with Worrall earning a recall after fitness issues to replace Odubajo, and Ambrose preferred to Brewster up front.

Manchester United may be missing captain Paul Pogba due to injury, but still lined up with a very imposing list of star opponents and gave us a second consecutive weekend of big challenges for us to face. Would we rise to the occasion?

https://i.postimg.cc/SsRK7NTL/swfc-0-1-mufc.png

We weren't far away from getting a point, but given Manchester United had over 30 shots in 90 minutes, a point would have as much been thanks to their wasteful shooting.

The pattern was set early on. Bruno Fernandes had a shot blocked, Franck Kessie hit one wide, and Dawson denied Aaron Wan-Bissaka.

Yet we could've sprung a surprise on the visitors early on, as a flying run ended with Ambrose culminated in the French striker's firm shot being diverted wide by David de Gea.

Ousmane Dembele would be denied by a firm stop from Dawson, before de Gea had to do likewise to stop a flying effort by Fox and Luongo hit one wide.

Armstrong had a shot charged down by Sergio Regullon as we had a decent amount of shots, though it was still the case our defence was getting tested, with Dawson doing very well to deny Marcus Rashford.

Moments after Victor Lindelof headed a corner owner, Worrall did likewise at the other end, before Manchester United blew a great chance when a well placed Andrea Belotti put a sitter wide after being found in place by Saul Niguez.

Matheus then saw a chance well denied by de Gea, though this still came after the visitors blew a few chances. Our Brazilian winger would then again find de Gea a firm barrier in his way, but we were still doing well to put chances together.

It then went back to being backs against the wall. Kessie saw a header saved by Dawson, with our keeper also denying Lindelof, before we then suffered a blow as Matheus was taken off injured.

Things still progressed with the away side knocking hard on our door. Rashford had one shot blocked before his rebound cannoned off the post, Mason Greenwood had a shot saved by Dawson, Saul had a shot blocked by Luongo, James Rodriguez forced Dawson into a save, and then Dembele, Greenwood and Fernandes all fired wide.

It was beginning to look like one of those days for Carlo Ancelotti's side, with Dawson again doing well to deny Greenwood and Dembele.

But then finally, with 8 minutes to play, the away side would get the game-winning moment. It would also be crushingly simple. Rodriguez swung in a corner that picked out Lindelof up from the back, and the Swedish defender beat Dawson from the corner to put the away side in front. Annoying, but probably overdue.

After doing little in the second half, de Gea was belatedly tested with a firm stop to deny Liverpool loanee Brewster, before Manchester United tried to press for a second, with Dembele firing wide and Dawson denying Greenwood.

In the end, there was no repeat of our Arsenal heroics and Manchester United saw us off.

We had a few days to recalibrate after that, with a distraction in the form of a Carabao Cup Third Round tie against Championship side Blackburn Rovers at Hillsborough. This game brought with it a meeting against the side who we were beaten by late in the season that seemed to be a major blow to our Premier League aspiration.

Nominated to try and avoid similar misfortune against Rovers was this bunch:
Wildsmith - Odubajo, Worrall, Borner, Palmer - Harris, Bijol, Swift, Ameobi - Ambrose, Conway
Subs: Dawson, Hector, Iorfa, Reach, Bannan, Armstrong, Brewster

9 changes from that defeat by Manchester United, with Worrall given another start to build up his fitness and Ambrose preferred to Brewster again.

So, despite all our alterations, would we get the job done against a side in midtable after a mediocre start to the season?

https://i.postimg.cc/Hk5Hm8KP/swfc-1-0-blackburn-carabao.png

Well, we got victory and a selection headache, as our 19-year-old youngster Conway is doing the business in this competition. 2 games in the Carabao Cup, two goals for the former Atlanta United kid.

However, as was the case in the last two games, we had less shots than our opponents, which can't be that good for our self-esteem.

We'd been second best in the opening stages, but moments after Bijol was denied by Jordan Archer with our first real chance, we struck the opener in some style.

Youngster Conway received a pass by Swift and had a pop from 25 yards. Turned out to be the right call, as it flew from his foot at great speed into the back of the net. Top man.

Annoyingly, we would be hit by another injury blow when Ambrose suffered an ankle injury and had to vacate the pitch.

Lewis Holtby and Ben Brereton had posed us with a little danger in the first half, but we managed to deal with it reasonably well. On a rare go in goal, Wildsmith was holding up reasonably nicely.

A lot of the onus in the second half was on Blackburn Rovers to try and equalise, and they had plenty of chances, but they weren't really accurate, and we coasted home to a second win in this competition.

So we move on. Round 4 was drawn on the morning of our next game, and gives us the big test again in the form of Arsenal at Hillsborough. Given we achieved a noteworthy result in annoying the Gunners a few weeks earlier, I suspect they might fancy a spot of revenge.

Still a few tests in advance of that though. Next up is a Leicester side now managed by Marcelo Bielsa but who only have one point from their first 6 matches, then a potentially difficult trip to a Burnley side who only have 2 points from the same timespan, and then its some big ones after the international break, in the form of a Sheffield Derby at home, even if Sheffield United currently sit bottom, and then Chelsea, that Arsenal tie and Manchester City all in a row.

Its a curious contrast then - the current bottom 3 followed by 3 sides who could probably buy our squad and still have change. Ideally, we'd need to get points from those 3 games before that trio, but I'll take anything that continues our decent form early on for our Premier League return.
noir et blanc armée

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After confirming our progression in the Carabao Cup and the slightly unwelcome news our reward is a home tie against Arsenal, attentions had to turn back to getting rewards in the next few games.

First of all was a home fixture against Leicester City at Hillsborough, and with Marcelo Bielsa having difficulty adjusting to life at the Foxes to the point where they were yet to win a game under his charge, we had to believe we at least had a shot of taking rewards against last season's best of the rest.

Looking to try and pile on the Foxes' misery were:
Dawson - Iorfa, Worrall, Hector, Fox - Diangana, Bijol, Luongo, Reach - Armstrong, Brewster
Subs: Wildsmith, Borner, Penney, Bannan, Swift, Harris, Conway

From the defeat by Manchester United a week earlier, we made 4 changes. Diangana, Bijol, Luongo and Brewster got call ups for the injured Matheus and Ambrose, while Swift and Penney were benched.

Would we return to winning ways and pick up a third win of our season here?

https://i.postimg.cc/XJpCmcLn/swfc-0-1-leicester.png

Ah bollocks. We'd already been given warning after a similar strike by Harvey Barnes yielded an offside goal in the first half, but right at the end we made the exact same error.

While they were early strugglers, we expected Leicester to present a challenge and sure enough this was the flow in the early stages. Dawson had to make a decent save to thwart Youri Tielemans while Iorfa and Hector made a few defensive blocks.

On a break, Brewster had a decent try but the striker had a shot deflected into the path of Kasper Schmeichel in the Leicester goal, before we returned to the defensive side of things as Dawson made a good save to deny Barnes.

Leicester had the ball in the back of the net after 20 minutes when Barnes flung a drive from the edge of the box towards goal and Tielemans flicked it into the net. But as is the case in the PL, along came VAR, who duly ruled the Belgian had a miniscule part of his body offside and ruled no goal for the visitors.

We nearly made things worse for our unimpressed guests as Reach had a shot saved by Schmeichel, with the Danish keeper also making a very fine stop to keep out Brewster after our Liverpool loanee went on a mazy run.

With the first half fizzling out, Leicester went very attacking by withdrawing Luka Milivojevic for Jamie Vardy and they duly went on the offensive after the break, with last gasp blocks and inaccurate finishing helping us stay level.

Diangana then nearly made our pressure soaking activities worthwhile, as the former West Ham man saw a decent try saved by Schmeichel.

After a lull, Leicester pressed us, with Dawson making some agile saves to keep the score 0-0 and one near miss as a shot by Haris Seferovic was tipped onto the post, drifted away and then saw a rebound fired wide by one-time Owl Vardy.

Yet we then had chances, with Worrall heading over at a corner before Schmeichel thwarted Diangana.

As we reached the 90th minute mark, it began to look likely to finish goalless but with one either way likely to win it. Perhaps with the ethos a shot is better than nothing, Barnes hit one at goal from 30 yards after receiving James Maddison's pass. Turned out to be the right call for him and a crushing blow for us.

1-0 could've become 2-0 as Dawson denied Julian Draxler in added time, but there was nothing more we had to give after that goal. Rats.

So its back-to-back defeats in league games for the first time since I took over, which is an impressive achievement but one that was naturally going to be tested in this quest to stay afloat.

We had a week or so to lick our wounds, then try to do better in our next game against Burnley. Not that a trip to Turf Moor was going to be that much of an improvement, even though it was only the week before our Friday night meeting in front of the live TV cameras that they'd won their first game of the season.

Seeking better things for us from this away day was this bunch:
Dawson - Iorfa, Worrall, Borner, Fox - Diangana, Luongo, Swift, Reach - Armstrong, Brewster
Subs: Wildsmith, Hector, Penney, Bijol, Harris, Ameobi, Conway

Two changes for this one, with Swift replacing Luongo in the middle and Borner preferred to Hector in defence.

This wasn't going to be an easy one, but could we bring away the points in Lancashire?

https://i.postimg.cc/NMKSCSrb/burnley-1-2-swfc.png

Well it was certainly more dramatic than I was hoping, but we still got the win we were aiming to deliver.

For a game that probably earned raised eyebrows as being deemed worthy of Sky's televising and the millions they give to teams on TV, it started in a very fast way. Chris Wood had a shot saved by Dawson within seconds of kick-off, before Brewster hit one wide, before Johann Berg Gudmundsson headed over.

The fast start would ultimately produced an opening goal after 11 minutes, if in a slightly more clunky manner. There didn't seem to be a lot of danger on when Burnley full-back Loic Nego got an Iorfa cross first, but his lack of control ended up sending the ball just over his own goal-line by just enough to set off the goal-line technology and give us the opening goal of the game.

Burnley's Josh Brownhill put one wide in a close chance for an instant equaliser, before Luongo saw one drive bounce wide and another saved by Nick Pope.

Dawson denied Terrence Kongolo before Worrall put one over the bar. The game was quite open and even, with our goalkeeper later denying Ashley Barnes before the striker had another chance flip wide.

Pope then denied Reach and Iorfa, before Barnes had a hit blocked by Dawson, and in response to that, we broke again only for Pope to deny Brewster.

It was a wonder that the game was only 1-0 at the break, but we assumed a second goal to our name straight after the restart as Armstrong received Reach's through pass and finished it well. Sadly, VAR piped up, and ruled offside against our number 9, keeping the score 1-0.

This gave Burnley a second wind, as Gudmundsson headed over and Charlie Taylor had a shot saved by Dawson. A later spurt around the hour saw Ben Mee, Nathan Ferguson and Dwight McNeil all put chances off target

It looked as though the Clarets had found a way through when Mee bundled in the rebound after Dawson initially turned a McNeil hit onto the crossbar, however a VAR check was again needed and for the second time in our game, the man from Stockley Park ruled no goal.

This had the effect of turning things in our favour, with Pope making saves to deny Worral and Diangana. But this was a flash in the pan from us, and Burnley nearly equalised when Dawson denied Gudmundsson.

Andre Ayew and then Bijol missed opportunities, but with 90 minutes of the clock, this lively game had the ball in the net for a fourth time and only for the second time counting.

Annoyingly, it was against us. McNeil beat Iorfa to Gudmundsson's cross, and headed it past Dawson to equalise for Burnley. Blast.

Yet that wasn't the end of the late drama. Jack Cork was penalised for a foul on Brewster, and from Penney's set-piece, Worral's header across goal floated past everyone into the back of the net. Holy shit what a moment of drama.

After a slight extension to injury time that felt like forever, we'd just squeezed it over the line to confirm victory for Sheffield Wednesday - a third of the season after our August double against Southampton and Crystal Palace, and continuing my ambition of having one win a month (more or less).

With the October international break now here, this was how everything looked:

https://i.postimg.cc/hjwR1xpJ/pl-table-at-october-break.png

10th place in the table and 4 points off the top six. So far, so solid. But we have to keep this going as a number of big tests lurk following the upcoming international break.

For many fans of both ourselves and Sheffield United, the biggest would be the first after the international break. The first Steel City derby of the season, and a first in the Premier League since 1994. So far, we've adjusted to the PL better - we had 3 victories in the opening movements of the season, while Sheffield United have just the one, though this came in the last game before the international break after they beat Wolves at Bramall Lane.

With this the only game of Super Sunday, the eyes of the football nation were turning to this corner of Yorkshire to see if we could put on a show.

Aiming to provide our fans with Christmas in October were:
Dawson - Iorfa, Worrall, Borner, Fox - Diangana, Luongo, Swift, Reach - Armstrong, Brewster
Subs: Wildsmith, Hector, Penney, Bijol, Matheus, Ambrose, Conway

A few changes to the bench, but an unchanged first 11 for this match.

With the eyes of the nation draw to Sheffield, could we claim victory in this contest?

https://i.postimg.cc/VLX2J50F/swfc-0-0-sheffutd-s2.png

Wasn't really a good advert for the rivalry or the league to be honest. There were a few decent chances but it lacked the all action excitement I had perhaps expected.

We did make some decent early running, with Armstrong having one shot denied by Jack Butland and another flash wide.

Sheffield United's first chance was headed wide by John Egan, before Luongo had a hit blocked by Chris Basham, and then, as the game began to open up, Rafael Borre had a shot kept out by Dawson and Adam Hlozek fired wide at the follow-up corner.

Butland then denied Brewster before Matt Miazga's block thwarted Fox and the defender also blocked a hit by Brewster as the first half dwindled to its conclusion.

Reach hit two strikes off target in the opening minutes of the second period, with Hlozek and Miazga doing the same at the other end of the pitch.

The second half duly drifted along for a while, although perhaps the chance of the half fell our way after Armstrong had a great chance blocked by Butland.

The game began to look set to finish 0-0, although Dawson had to make a very good stop to deny Borre.

Hector made a good block to thwart Felix Nmecha just before a firm hit by Iorfa was denied by Butland at the other end.

This was the start of a burst of attacking play from us in injury time, with Butland making 2 good saves in injury time to keep out Penney and Diangana.

But there was no way through, and a bit of a dud of a game ended goalless. Not a disaster, but I think we could've done a little better than a point, even if we're not about to turn our noses up at such a reward.

Having now faced the last 3 teams in a row to register a league win this season, 4 points is a reasonable return but is honestly lower than ideal. We can't say the next games will be easier for us though, given its back-to-back trips to Chelsea and Manchester City either side of a Carabao Cup game at home to Arsenal.

Its not an ideal sequence, put it that way. We've just got to wing it and hope we get lucky.
noir et blanc armée

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After getting 4 points from games against 3 early strugglers in Leicester, Burnley and Sheffield United, the next few games were a far from ideal choice to try and build any kind of form. Back-to-back away trips to Chelsea and Manchester City, either side of a Carabao Cup tie against Arsenal. Yeesh.

The first in this sequence was the match in West London, against a Chelsea side who are trying to build their way back towards the top end of the table after a few iffy early results.

Seeking to gain a surprise victory in West London were:
Dawson - Iorfa, Worrall, Borner, Fox - Diangana, Bijol, Swift, Penney - Armstrong, Brewster
Subs: Wildsmith, Hector, Luongo, Matheus, Reach, Ambrose, Conway

Two changes to the starting 11, with Bijol and Penney in place of Luongo and Reach. Having toyed with changing, I decided to keep faith with 4-4-2, still with some kind of memories from faith in this method landing us our early draw at Arsenal.

Would we be able to surprise the Stamford Bridge faithful?

https://i.postimg.cc/X7kDCKCY/chelsea-2-1-swfc.png

Not quite. Two goals late in the first half ultimately proved too big a task for us to recover form, even though we weren't a million miles way on the scoresheet.

The expected pattern was for Frank Lampard's team to take the lead and they duly did so. Callum Hudson-Odoi had a shot blocked, Federico Bernadeschi and Sergej Mililnkovic-Savic put strikes wide and Dawson saved a shot from N'Golo Kante.

We nearly hit them for that early on, as on a brisk run away from our defensive quadrant, Diangana saw a shot flash inches wide of the mark.

After that, it was back to defensive duties. Dawson denied Milinkovic-Savic, before Fikayo Tomori and Lautaro Martinez put strikes off target, before a great double chance for Chelsea saw Dawson deny Kai Havertz before Maximilian Wober hit the rebound wide.

Our keeper then had to make the saves to deny Milinkovic-Savic and Hudson-Odoi, before Havertz put one wide after Dawson denied N'Golo Kante.

For all that Chelsea did some very good work in attacking play in open play, Chelsea would grab a not-unexpected opening goal from the more banal set-piece. Worrall blocked a speculative drive by Martinez, and from Hudson-Odoi's corner, Merih Demiral flicked the ball across goal to Martinez, who nodded the ball into the waiting goal.

We weren't a million miles away from an instant equaliser, as Diangana headed over from a sweeping cross by Penney.

Sadly, that proved very crucial. Within seconds of that, we'd conceded a second goal. Hudson-Odoi was the scorer, as the winger received Kante's through-pass and tucked it in.

We still had to ride out a fair quantity of Chelsea chances in the final minutes of the break, with our first shot on target being the first proper attack of the second half, as Kepa Arrizabalaga in the Chelsea goal denied an angled drive from Armstrong.

Tomori then blocked a goal-bound flick by Swift, as we offered a belated response, and nearly came close again after Worrall headed over from a free-kick after a foul by Cesar Azpilicueta.

Indeed, we looked very composed early in the second half, with Brewster seeing a hit at goal turned away by Kepa after a good run to goal.

Chelsea duly responded, with Hudson-Odoi and Bernadeschi put strikes wide before Milinkovic-Savic had a snapshot saved by Dawson.

We still had a glorious chance to get back into things, when Brewster met Fox's cross only to flick an effort wide of the goal.

After a fair number of Chelsea chances were spurned, they did have the ball in our net for a third time when Christian Pulisic turned into the rebound after Dawson denied a strike by his fellow sub Tammy Abraham, but the VAR-induced offside had something to say about that. No goal, to be exact.

With 89 on the clock, we did get the goal we kind of deserved for some decent second half chances. A long ball released Armstrong, who evaded Azpilicueta and pinged in a cross that youngster Conway turned in for his first Premier League goal.

Sadly there was no more to come from us after that, as the game ended with a defeat.

So we move on, with a visit to Hillsborough by Arsenal in the Carabao Cup Fourth Round. Whether this was the end of the line for us is another question.

Looking to spring a surprise on our illustrious opponents and get us one step closer to Wembley were:
Wildsmith - Urhoghide, Iorfa, Worrall, Fox - Matheus, Bijol, Bannan, Harris - Ambrose, Conway
Subs: Dawson, Borner, Palmer, Luongo, Reach, Diangana, Armstrong

We decided to rest players for this one, with Iorfa, Worrall, Fox and Bijol the only 4 to maintain starting line-up places from the weekend defeat at Stamford Bridge.

But while we chose to rest players, Arsenal went extreme, naming most of the line-up they'd fielded at Liverpool the preceding weekend, making the task just that little bit more difficult. Could we nevertheless make things interesting with a shock result?

https://i.postimg.cc/jqphvMfh/swfc-0-2-arsenal-carabao.png

Honestly this felt predictable the moment we saw Arsenal had picked such a strong starting line-up.

Somehow we were still in the game at the break, with the recalled cup goalkeeper Wildsmith making a few decent saves and Arsenal players not having their shooting boots on.

However, such a trend continued after half-break and 9 minutes after the break, the inevitable happened. Worrall did well to block an initial shot at goal, but the ball bounced kindly for Alexandre Lacazette, and the former Lyon man's half-volley duly found its way into the back of the net.

It took us 67 minutes to have a noteworthy shot, with a limp hit by Iorfa going straight to Bernd Leno, coming after Arsenal had blown more chances, with the same player heading wide at a free-kick moments later.

With 74 gone, Arsenal duly made it 2-0 in a simple fashion, as Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang rose highest to meet Juan Bernat's free-kick and flicked it into the back of the net.

Just wasn't one of those days for us. Not that it was about to get any easier, given that the following weekend brought us into the orbit of Manchester City for the first time. That's Pep Guardiola's all conquering beat, who have so far still got a 100% winning record in Premier League matches, have won the last four titles and are defending Champions League winners. Avoiding a hammering might be our best hope for what to get from this one.

Hoping for more than simply being lambs to the slaughter were:
Dawson - Iorfa, Worrall, Borner, Fox - Bijol - Matheus, Luongo, Swift, Penney - Armstrong
Subs: Wildsmith, Odubajo, Palmer, Reach, Diangana, Brewster, Ambrose

We tried a 4-1-4-1 as an approach for this one to see if flooding the midfield would help against such formidable looking opponents. Only 2 changes from the Chelsea game though, with Matheus replacing Diangana and Luongo in for Brewster.

Its worth noting that Man City were beaten by a relegated Norwich team in season 1 of this and by Leeds last season. So hope could spring eternal we could do something so very unexpected here. Would it be possible for us to shock this lot on our first try?

https://i.postimg.cc/C5gsM1SQ/man-city-2-0-swfc.png

Christ that was brutal. Moments before their second goal, we did have a goal disallowed by VAR, but no shots at all and having to resort to 32 fouls to try and contain them, which didn't work at all.

We tried to be a very defensive counter-based strategy in this one, but if the aim was to keep Manchester City off the scoresheet for as long as possible, didn't last. With 3 minutes gone, Kevin de Bruyne's free-kick found Lisandro Martinez, who headed it in.

As one might expect, it was only fine saves by Dawson and varying degrees of inaccurate strikes by City attackers that kept the score down to 1-0. A now 30-year-old de Bruyne was pulling the strings in midfield, while a front 3 of Raheem Sterling, Paulo Dybala and Julian Brandt was giving our back 4 nightmares. Hell I think we could've named a back 8 and we still woulda had bother.

If it was a wonder it was only 1-0 at half-time, it was even more of a wonder Man City didn't grab a second after, as the shooting became more accurate but couldn't find a way beyond Dawson.

With 73 minutes on the clock, we had barely crossed the halfway line and were most likely going to fall even further behind. Yet suddenly, with 74 gone, Armstrong lead a rare breakaway, got clear of the away defence to be one-on-one with Ederson, and clipped it into the bottom corner.

But our glorious celebrations were cut short. Along came VAR, which decided our striker had ventured into an offside position while preparing to meet Borner's long-ball forward, and no goal for us. And that's no fun.

It became even less fun when Man City continued to pummel us until belatedly, with 87 minutes on the clock, de Bruyne took matters into his own hands. The talented Belgian midfielder received an infield pass, and a strike from 20 yards duly flew from his foot to the bottom corner.

Honestly, with the amount of ball and chances that team had, we got away with 2-0. It was a properly gruelling afternoon's work.

This also meant 3 defeats in all competitions as we begin to hit a more rocky patch, if not unexpectedly so given that this is a definite step-up in quality of opponents. Its difficult to know whether Everton in our next game is better or worse for our ambitions to recover after that, however. The Toffees have quality players in their ranks, but Eusebio di Francesco brought his side over from Merseyside on the back of 5 Premier League games without a win.

Aiming to deliver an overdue win were:
Dawson - Odubajo, Worrall, Borner, Fox - Swift, Bijol, Reach - Diangana, Brewster, Armstrong
Subs: Wildsmith, Iorfa, Palmer, Luongo, Matheus, Conway, Ambrose

We flicked from 4-1-4-1 to 4-3-3 - another departure from our usual 4-4-2 - with Diangana, Reach and Odubajo replacing Matheus, Luongo and Iorfa.

Everton could be either way - on their day, they could easily destroy us, but they do have a habit over the years of giving points to Premier League newboys. What way would this one go?

https://i.postimg.cc/QNKcwckx/swfc-0-1-everton.png

Oh fucking hell. Fourth straight defeat in all competitions, third in a row without scoring, and in such a painful manner as well.

Andre Gomes hit the bar in the early minutes, but the opening period of the game was very low quality, and it took 20 minutes until another real chance, with Everton's Perr Schuurs sending a header at Dawson.

It took just over half an hour for us to really do anything, when Armstrong had a decent volley only to put it off target. Moments later, our striker's aims for a first goal since September were thwarted after a header was saved by Jordan Pickford. The keeper then also denied Liverpool loanee Brewster before the break, with the same man heading over.

The first half had been very low on quality, but the early bit of the second did flow a little better, and chances came in the early moments, with Gomes firing wide before Brewster had a try comfortably stopped by Pickford.

Everton duly began to blow through chances, with a few off target before Dawson was on hand to tip away Yann Karamoh's angled drive. Our keeper also did make a similarly acrobatic stop to deny Mirko Maric, and another save to deny Karamoh.

It was beginning to look as though the game was set to end 0-0, although with six to go, we came very close as a lash at goal from Armstrong had to be very well saved by Pickford.

Sadly, with 2 to go of normal time, Everton hit us with a crushing blow. A throw-in by Kostas Tsimikas was picked up by a previously pretty quiet Gylfi Sigurdsson, who hit the ball with a wallop from range that left Dawson grasping at thin air and Everton fans with plenty to celebrate.

All we could do was lament yet more misfortune, as we once again struggled to get an attacking game together and we fell to defeat again.

With the November international break here, it makes sense to see the table:

https://i.postimg.cc/mD287k01/pl-table-at-november-break.png

The aim for this early phrase was to pick up 4 points from each of the 3 periods before international breaks. But its just as well we got a decent chunk of points from the opening 2 months because although we still have a decent margin on the relegation zone, its definitely begun to be eroded in the last few weeks.

We do have 3 games after the break that look simpler on paper and are games we'll need to win to give us points towards our survival ambitions. However, a visit to local rivals Leeds, a home contest against our old nemesis Fulham, and then a West Ham side in decent form will not be straight forward at all, and that's saying nothing of the fact our first game after that trio is Liverpool.

But there's no easy games in the Premier League and by hook or by crook, we need the points that'll keep us in this league for a second year. So all we can do is try to reset after this disappointing interlude and go again with new vigour when we return after the break.
noir et blanc armée

Read my FM20 Career WAWAW

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