For the record, I edited the game as realistically as I could. First of all I swapped ourselves and Middlesbrough with the Mags and Brighton. Next I set the transfer budget at a frighteningly low amount of £4 million and prepared myself to make Moyes-esque excuses about the lack of promotion being due to other extenuating circumstances.
The exodus began almost immediately as Jermain Defoe joined Leicester on a free, Lamine Kone moved to West Ham for a lowly £5m, and Fabio Borini joined an AC Milan side willing to pay 70% of his wages on loan. In terms of players out of contract, I allowed Larsson, O’Shea, Kirchhoff, Pienaar, Anichebe (Bastia), Honeyman (York), Buckley (Derby) and Lescott to be released. Jeremain Lens I could only get rid of to Besiktas on loan, although they did cover his wages.
Somehow I managed to go the whole summer rejecting bids for Jordan Pickford, whilst no one made a move for Wahbi Khazri nor Lee Cattermole which left me a modicum of quality, and room on the wage bill, but with no real extra transfer budget to work with.
However, with such a low transfer budget, I had to box clever. I sent my scouts across Germany and France searching for low-cost, strong, fast wingers/full backs and concentrated on ploughing any available money into forging a solid core to the team. Aden Flint and Alexander Esswein were where I splashed the most of my cash; however thankfully, I didn’t have to break the bank while searching for a forward with Jason Cummings arriving from Hibs for a bargain £600k, and Artjoms Rudnevs coming in from Germany at a similar price.
As for the rest, I can’t say I was enthused with the signings I made, but they plugged gaps and kept the wages in check, whilst giving young, hungry Premiership youngsters like Lewis Baker a chance to show what they’ve got.
Three wins in five pre-season games meant I went into the Championship proper in a positive mood. Playing a back four of Jones, Papy, Flint and Ovideo to shield Pickford, I left Cattermole as the anchor man, with Didier Ndong and Lewis Baker as the advanced midfielders. New signing Esswein took the right wing berth, Khazri on the other with Jason Cummings leading the forward line. Where’s Darron Gibson you may ask? Damaged hernia - out for four months, quelle surprise! Jack Rodwell? Also, continuously injured.
An opening month saw me play five games, whilst also facing Scunthorpe and Millwall in the League Cup - just in case you had forgotten how hectic the Championship was.
The campaign started horrifically, winning only once in the opening 7 games - away at Brentford - and scoring an average of one goal a game, as opposed to conceding 9 in the same amount of time.
After suffering a fourth defeat in five games against Fulham a change in formation was needed. I threw out the four man defence, and went for three centre halves using McNair, Papy and Flint; Oviedo and Jones remained as full backs; Catts still played as the anchorman, with Ndong/Tom Lawrence & Lewis Baker playing slightly more advanced. Watmore and a combination of either Cummings or Rudnevs were my outlets up top.
It worked! It does indeed turn out that dropping Wahbi Khazri isn’t always a bad idea as I clocked up wins against promotion chasing Nottingham Forest, Norwich, Aston Villa and Derby in his absence. With a third or so of the season complete, I was sitting just outside of the play off spots in 10th place. Could a challenge for promotion be on after a difficult opening month?
You bet it can. With confidence restored, I also reverted back to my original formation of 4-1-2-3. This produced five wins in seven and pushed me into fourth place. Away wins at Middlesbrough and Bristol City were stands out. A home defeat to Rotherham was a bit of gutter, but a dot on the form guide as I went into the hectic December period as the form side in the league - Watmore, Baker, Esswein and the recalled Wahbi Khazri dominating Championship defences - the calm and composed (I know, right?) Papy Djilobodji forming a formiddable partnership with summer buy Aden Flint. Darron Gibson was back from injury but continued to struggle when played in a midfield that was performing wonderfully. The energy of Ndong complemented by the slick passing ability of now star man Lewis Baker.
Heading into the difficult December period, I must admit I remained confident of sustaining a place in the play off position, whilst pushing the likes of Brentford and Wolves in the automatic spots. But a difficult December it turned out to be. Following on from a 4-2 home win over Ipswich, I did a Davey Moyes special and went three games without even managing to score. 0-0 home draws to Sheffield Wednesday and Birmingham followed a 1-0 away defeat at Leeds. Although I was unlucky to gain only point away to Burton Albion in the final game of the year, conceding late in an entertaining 2-2 draw. The December period however did show the lack of strength in depth, as injuries and three games in five days took it’s toll. Joel Asoro, Oscar Krusnell, Elliott Embleton and George Brady all appearing perhaps more than I would like. I also lost back striker Rudnevs for the season with an Achilles problem - leaving me painfully short up top.
Somehow I remained in 6th place and well within reach of the automatic place - however, the need to spend was evident. Could I somehow get some idiot to pay me actual money for loan players Lens and Borini?
I’d have to hope I could somehow hypnotise someone and convince they were Messi and Ronaldo... my promotion push depended on it.