Sometimes you just have to give the fans what they want: a Football Manager 2020 save in which I take charge of Crystal Palace and try to remedy every gripe real-life supporters have with the club.
The result was a near-perfect home record, seven academy debuts and Patrick van Aanholt becoming the most coveted left back in world football. Then, mere hours after the real-life Palace fall to a seventh-straight defeat against Wolverhampton Wanderers and while Twitter is still in meltdown during the early hours of Tuesday morning (even the usually diehard optimist Stuart Shave is tweeting a detailed explainer of all problems to Steve Parish), the virtual Palace pip Wolves and Tottenham Hotspur to a Champions League place on the final day of the season.
Just by starting the game I have successfully completed task one: replace Roy Hodgson. The caveat? His successor is not Sean Dyche. It is not Marco Silva, nor David Wagner, nor Eddie Howe.
It is me. My FM20 success extends to taking Derby County to the Premier League only to promptly drag them straight back down. I hold absolutely no hope of lasting the season, but I am going to try with the solitary objective of just doing the complete opposite of everything Hodgson would do.
The first job is to create a tactic. I ditch Hodgson’s conservative 4-3-3 for a positive, fluid counter-attacking 4-2-3-1 with Max Meyer as a number 10. Ray Lewington suggests playing cautiously. His job is immediately on the line.
A friendly against Dagenham and Redbridge is arranged in an attempt to start with a big win to boost morale. At half-time, my strongest team is drawing 0-0 against the National League side. I apply the hairdryer treatment and it works, Palace win 5-0. The rest of pre-season, which includes a win by double figures against a team of German amateurs and a 4-0 thrashing of Charlton, is a doddle.
During the first scouting meeting I am presented with reports on a 29-year-old centre back and a 31-year-old defensive midfielder. I press discard in disgust. I overhaul the scouting team; a recommendation from a friend prompts me to take Fulham’s chief scout Malcom Elias. Meiko Sponsel, a 17-year-old German right back, signs based on a report by Dougie Freedman. The former player and now-director of football tells me Sponsel has four-star potential.
He doesn’t. It turns out Freedman’s ‘judging player potential‘ rating is six out of 20 and the Scot is swiftly replaced.
Meanwhile, Celtic are raided for Odsonne Edouard and Kristoffer Ajer in heavily incentivised deals that are sure to bankrupt the club in the years to come. I almost break even on signing Ajer, who often becomes one of the best defenders on the game, by coercing Lille into spending 16 million Great British Pounds on James Tomkins. I worry my already weak claim that this save is a fair and realistic representation of Palace in a post-Hodgson era is completely dead.
I successfully decrease the average age of the squad by selling James McArthur to Leicester City for £11m. Christian Benteke heads to Shenzhen for the same fee. Jeffrey Schlupp joins West Brom on loan. The new and improved scouting system recommends the 21-year-old midfielder Sebastian Vasiliadis from Paderborn, who turns out to be a steal at £6m. I also sign the Ipswich Town youngster Flynn Downes and secure a pre-agreement for the winger Milot Rashica to join in January.
The first four games include victories against Manchester United and Arsenal, but also a 2-2 draw at Bournemouth in which I twice come from behind. A 10-match unbeaten run follows – although it ends at 19th-placed Sheffield United, because of course it does. I win Manager of the Month in October having navigated through Norwich City, Spurs and Leicester with ease.
But this is Football Manager and good spells do not pass without a player kicking off over something trivial, and usually half the squad follow in being absolutely fuming. Mamadou Sakho, who spends the first few months out injured while Gary Cahill and Ajer perform well as the centre-back partnership, bashes down my door and slaps a transfer request on my desk because he has not played. Meyer suggests there is insufficient quality in attacking midfield. His own position.
I reach December and remember Hodgson often talks about only using academy players out of necessity. So, armed with a fully fit first-team squad to face Everton, I very unnecessarily start Brandon Pierrick instead of Andros Townsend and I completely withdraw Wilfried Zaha from the squad. I place the one-star rated under-18 winger Sean Robertson on the bench.
It goes horrendously. Pierrick has no impact whatsoever and, with a burning desire to maintain my (somehow) 100 per-cent home record, I replace him with Jordan Ayew who has barely played a minute all season. Cue the following:
I can hear the hysterical laughter of Hodgson. He has vindication. At least Robertson comes on to assist Ayew’s third.
My injury list increases over the Christmas period. Wayne Hennessey is ruled out for nine months. Vicente Guaita misses four weeks and I am forced to play Stephen Henderson against Spurs. I have seen Henderson once in real life: he was lobbed by Yannick Bolasie in a 5-0 Palace win against Ipswich in 2012. The virtual Henderson produces a wonder-save in a 3-1 victory.
Having split the James McArthur-McCarthy partnership, I require a new duo with similar names simply to confuse the hell out of every Sky Sports co-commentator. Welcome Lovro Majer, a Croatian attacking midfielder who even looks like Meyer – only that he has turned up to a 1930s-style fancy dress. The middle parting is horrific. He scores on his debut.
Arsenal’s Joe Willock is signed on loan to cover for Vasiliadis, whose season is ended prematurely by injury. I secure what I think is a bargain £1.6m deal for German goalkeeper Julian Pollersbeck. He concedes 15 goals in six appearances.
Palace scrape past Cambridge United and Brentford in the FA Cup despite me trying my utmost hardest to lose. They draw Liverpool in the fifth round and concede two early goals. I respond to knowing we need to score by making a single, very conservative substitution: Scott Dann for Ajer. It is the closest I come to emulating Hodgson all season. The press and the supporters batter me because we fail to have a shot on target.
In March, the first intake of new academy prospects presents Andrew Puncheon, clearly the lovechild of Palace legends Andrew Johnson and Jason Puncheon. Except all dreams of Puncheon Jnr ever being serenaded by the Holmesdale are dashed – his stats are awful. He is released at the end of the season.
By the end of the month Palace are – amazingly – still in contention for Champions League football. I still fear a very Palace capitulation and eventual relegation, but that is put to bed when I confirm mathematical safety following a 1-1 draw with Wolves. An email is received detailing Premier League survival bonuses: Jaroslaw Jach, who nobody can look another person in the eye and convincingly suggest they remember he exists, earns £150,000. So does Ryan Inniss.
I eventually surrender my perfect home record against runaway champions Liverpool, but it is the only time I drop points at Selhurst all season. However, Palace’s away form is appalling – there have been only three wins on the road all season. I lose three out of four games – including a 2-1 defeat at already-relegated Brighton in which Lewis Dunk scores a header from just outside the box (can you imagine Twitter after that?) – before the final game against West Ham United.
The scenario: I’m fourth, level on 66 points with Spurs and Wolves but with a far superior goal difference. I must win.
I take five minutes out to glance at the meltdown on Twitter after the real-life Palace lose 2-0 against Wolves, thus extending their losing run to seven games. My Football Manager stress has caused a headache. I’m heavily allergic to ibuprofen, but it’s okay because I get some light relief by laughing along as ultra-optimist and very possible parody account Stuart Shave goes well out of character.
In a tight and cagey match against the Hammers, Edouard thumps in the only goal with 13 minutes remaining. Van Aanholt’s assist is his 17th of the campaign and his 21st direct goal contribution. I receive bids from the very elite of European and Asian football for his services.
I have taken Palace into the Champions League at the first attempt. Moral of the story: put the pessimists of Palace Twitter in charge and you get Champions League football. Vindication.