Welcome back to Cherry Picking! This is the save where I was originally hoping to fend off relegation at AFC Bournemouth, but have unintentionally sparked a European race as well as two extraordinary cup runs. In the last episode, we lifted the Carabao Cup, thanks to Jermain Defoe’s 95th-minute winner, as well as tightened our grip on third place in the Premier League.
Can we continue our good form in this episode and secure a Champions League spot? And can we reach Wembley for the second time this season, this time in the FA Cup final? Make yourself a coffee, sit back and relax…this is going to be a long one.
After the celebrations following our Carabao Cup triumph had died down, it was time to turn our attention to our next league fixture – a tasty looking away fixture at local rivals Southampton. The Saints had sacked Mauricio Pellegrino just before Christmas (take note Saints fans), and replaced him with the wily Juande Ramos. With the squad looking slightly marred from our hard-fought Wembley date, we kicked off the action at St Mary’s.
And scored after just one minute.
Jordon Ibe’s magnificent solo run straight from the very start of the game got us off to the best possible start, and a brace from Callum Wilson rounded off an easy win. For now, the south coast bragging rights belonged at the Vitality.
Up next came a Premier League clash with Everton, and an FA Cup 6th round tie with…you guessed it, Southampton again. But how did we get on?
Very well as it turned out! Lewis Cook had come complaining to me about his lack of match action, after Stefano Sturaro’s stellar performances kept him stuck on the substitute’s bench. But after much deliberation, I realised that Cook was simply too good to cast away, so I handed him a start against the Toffees. And boy, did he pay back my faith. Cook banged in a spectacular brace, two long-range strikes to send us on our way to another three points. A superb performance from the young lad was topped off with an array of classy passes, often playing through both Ibe and Luciano Narsingh to create chances.
Cook started again in the FA Cup game against Southampton, and put in a decent performance. We absolutely dominated the game from start to finish, with Southampton only managing one shot on target in 90 minutes. Frustratingly, we couldn’t find a way through and were forced to settle for extra time. On came Josh King, who had been cast to the sidelines after a very public row with me about game time, and he, of course, cropped up with the winner on 109 minutes to send us one game closer to Wembley.
Now, Football Manager certainly hasn’t been kind to us this season in terms of our fixture list. They say bad things happen in threes, but for us, they come in fours of fives. Similar to our hideous stretch of games against the league’s biggest teams, the same happened again after the FA Cup game.
These four games could potentially have secured us a top four place, or ensured we were scrapping for fifth. However, the Manchester City victory gave me renewed hope – Narsingh’s double either side of Bernardo Silva’s strike earning us a narrow win at the Etihad. We had two shots on target in the whole of the game, and tucked away both. Some would say lucky, but I would say clinical.
Similar to the reverse at Wembley earlier in the campaign, the Tottenham game was frustrating.
To take the lead twice, and both times concede scrappy goals was tough to take, especially considering we created the better chances. But hey ho, football is unforgiving and we turned our attention to a home game with Liverpool.
We had to wait until the 70th minute to finally open the scoring, Narsingh getting on the scoresheet once again. The Dutchman then tucked home his second minutes later, before King added gloss to the scoreline in stoppage time.
The next game at Old Trafford was awful. Our worst performance of the season started with two early goals from Romelu Lukaku, before we finally took the initiative and started to attack a shaky United backline. Callum Wilson, Jermain Defoe and my two usually reliable wingers all squandered decent chances, and we deservedly departed Manchester empty-handed, and reminded of what can happen at the highest level in the Premier League.
Up next was the FA Cup semi-final, a chance to redeem ourselves. We faced off against Middlesborough, who were enjoying their own excellent cup run. Still managed by Garry Monk, the Championship side started off the brightest. But after 22 minutes, Nathan Ake prodded home from a corner and we began to take control.
However, just as we looked set to add a second before half time, Sturaro’s ridiculous two-footed lunge saw us reduced to ten men. After 54 minutes, Wilson tucked home our second and, after I introduced loanee Zapata to shore up our defence and switched to a five-man back-line, we held on for a spot in the FA Cup final against Liverpool!
But now, it was time to secure a top-four finish. Our next league game was against Arsenal, who at that point topped the table and were scoring goals for pure enjoyment. It was our task to rock up at the Vitality and silence the Gunners.
Unfortunately, that just didn’t happen. At all.
We were roundly brushed aside at our own home ground, after Mesut Ozil danced his way to a double, making a mockery of me with every surprising twist and turn. Even Danny Welbeck was presented with several chances to add more to the scoreline, but thankfully missed the target every time. Our five shots on target was simply ‘statistic shots’, as originally expressed by the Portuguese dulcet tones of Jose Mourinho.
With one game thrown away, we had two more left to salvage a top-four place and tighten our hold on third spot. We needed one win, but could we get it?
Was it ever in doubt?
Ex-Cherry Sam Vokes threatened to chuck an unwanted spanner into the works, but goals from Wilson, King and Narsingh wrapped up the victory that guaranteed us Champions League football, and more than likely third spot! Our clinical nature in front of goal was a joy to watch, with every tidy finish coming from free-flowing counter-attacks – the forefront of my thinking when I had created the tactic near the start of the season.
For the final game of the season, we could relax. Many teams around us were jostling to finish as high as they could, whilst the relegation battle went down to the final hurdle with six teams potentially faced with a year condemned to Championship football. We played Crystal Palace, who were teetering above the bottom three on goal difference. They needed a result at the Vitality, and had to rely on their closest rivals slipping up.
But unfortunately for Roy Hodgson, there would be no escape. We won 3-1, a last minute goal from Narsingh pushing Palace into the drop zone. There wasn’t enough time for them to recover, and they were relegated alongside West Ham and Everton. It’s also worth mentioning that the latter dropped down a division with eight games left to play, and were managed by none other than Eddie Howe. Whoops, sorry Ed.
A third-place finish was certainly not what I was expecting when I first booted up this save. We even had a clean sweep at the end of season awards: Harry Arter won Goal of the Season for his audacious 35-yard thunderbolt against Swansea, Luciano Narsingh was awarded Player of the Season and I was given the Manager of the Year accolade.
But the season wasn’t over yet…it was time for the FA Cup against Liverpool. A chance to secure our second, unprecedented domestic trophy.
The teams strode out under the magnificent Wembley arch, and Liverpool got us underway. And scored after nine minutes – Phillipe Coutinho picked up a cutback just inside the penalty area and cushioned a superb effort into the top corner past Asmir Begovic’s best efforts.
But part of the reason why we finished just eight points off first-placed Manchester United in the league is because of our lack of fear when playing big teams. So we fought back, and found the leveller! Narsingh (who else?) rifled in at Loris Karius’ near post, and we began to take control. In a glorious twist of fate, ex-Liverpool outcast Ibe then struck and fired us into the lead.
But Liverpool were shaken into action after falling behind, and equalised on 42 minutes – Mohammed Salah smashing home from close range after some poor defending. Just as it looked as though both teams would enter the interval level, the Egyptian scored again…
He had only scored five goals in the league and set up two, so it was only natural he would wait until the final game of the campaign against us to begin to justify his price tag. As hard as we pushed after half-time, we were denied several times by a mixture of Karius and some last-ditch defending. My treble substitution of Defoe, King and Ryan Fraser failed to pay off, and Liverpool held on to lift the FA Cup.
As the red fireworks lit up the London sky, I was left with mixed feelings. Originally disappointment because of how close we had come to finding an equaliser, but that was rapidly replaced by contentment.
We had finished third, and earned Champions League football for next season! Largely with a squad of players who had come through League One and the Championship with the Cherries. It doesn’t get much better than that.
Roll on next season!