Saving the Saints? Replaying the 2004-05 Relegation Season

Jelle Van Damme

A while back I dipped into the world of retro football management sims when I took the reins at Merthyr Tydfil in Premier Manager 3. Spotting Total Club Manager 2005 for 50p on the PS2 I just couldn’t resist taking a quantum leap back in time once again. This time I decided to take the hot-seat at St. Marys Stadium for the 2004-05 season. Could I beat historical reality by keeping the Saints in the Premier League, bettering their rock-bottom finish?

The first job of any manager, and the core of any management game is in team selection. Like Mike Bassett I’m a 4-4-2 man, though I opt for the slight nuance of a diamond formation with an attacking midfielder just behind the front two. I also opt for short passing and an outlook somewhere between attack and defence. Selection-wise Antti Niemi is a shoo in for the goalkeeping position, Mikael ‘killer’ Svensson and Claus Lundekvam would always be my centre back pairing and as full-backs I look to Jelle Van Damme and Rory Delap. Neil McCann was a player who I felt never  got much of a chance to fulfil his true potential at Saints so I go with him on the left wing and put the skillfull French winger Fabrice Fernandez on the right. For the two central midfielders I pick Anders Svensson playing behind the front two and Matt Oakley in the holding position. Finally my forward line is led by James Beattie and Peter Crouch.

Could this side beat the drop and change history? Come Christmas-time, and give or take a few changes, such as Phillips replacing Beattie and Julio Arca signed from Sunderland coming in at left back, my team has well and truly exceeded expectations. Away at a star-studded Man U – whose side features Ferdinand, Giggs and Ronaldo – I come away with a 2-1 win thanks to an own goal when Rio Ferdinand’s attempted clearance strikes the ‘keepers backside. this is followed by another 2-1 win against Middlesbrough in which Jo Tessem grabs the winner from the bench which makes five wins in a row and sees me in the dizzying heights of second place.

This is however, to be my high-water mark. I go down 3-2 to Totenham in the next game, despite another storming performance by Jo Tessem who gets both my goals, the second being particularly impressive as Jo sprints half the pitch, before coolly tucking it under the ‘keeper. Not only does defeat bring my run to an end, but the bruising encounter leaves me with another problem. I suffer injuries to two key players Phillips and Fernandez, the latter with a broken leg.

I realise too late that I’ve been asking too much of my squad and that in the game too high a fatigue level leads them prone to injury. As the year draws to an end my physios are dealing with two broken legs, a strained adductor, ruptured lateral ligaments and an achillies tendon rupture. My injury ravaged side is though boosted by the arrival of new blood in the January window. Steed Malbranque from Fulham is my marquee signing, the skilful midfielder costing me the best part of £5m whilst I’ve also brought in Igor Biscan, a defensive midfielder signed from Liverpool. Unfortunately, before he really hit form, I had also made a deal for Jo Tessem to leave for a pittance which now seems to be a huge mistake. I also notice when Malbranque arrives that he’s a bit of a difficult character and he wastes no time in leaking details of my half-time talks to the press.

Twenty-six games into the season though and I’m in fifth place, still with a shout of the league title. Aside from my growing injury list there is however, another problem on the horizon. By the time the season is over my debt is forecast to grow to just above £9m.

Fortunately the game  offers a range of tools to try to deal with this – management sims having come a long way in reflecting the increased focus on football finances. A stock market floatation would release between £13.9m and 17.0m for 49% of shares, but as the club does not have one year of profitability and is current in the red I don’t meet the condition for an initial public offering. Renaming St. Mary’s the www.totalclubmanager.ea.com arena could net £1.7m for 10 years. It seems like a no-brainer, money for nothing, but my deeply-held opposition to ground-naming rights means I couldn’t even consider this move in a virtual world. I do though look to squeeze the fans. St Mary’s has a capacity of 33,046 – slightly up as a result of me installing a few more seats – and is a sell out for every game. By adding 25% onto the cost of tickets my matchday revenue rises from £341, 506 to £426,882. It won’t quite plug the

Back on the field I hit a patch of poor form which sees me slip out of the contention for the title and slump to mid-table and my fan approval drop to 73% which means, according to the game that some fans are “calling radio phone-ins to express frustration.” I begin to lose faith in my tactics and start some Ranieri-style tinkering  abandoning my patient short passing game and go more direct. It seems to do the job though as things pick up with a 3-0 win against Bolton and a satisfying 2-1 derby win over Portsmouth is enough to stop the fans picking up the phone to Talksport.

The title shot may have gone, but I can make one last ditch effort to finish as high as possible and the final day of the season sees me hosting Man United. I set it it as ‘most important game of the season’ and chuck a £10k win-bonus on the table. I’ve resisted the offer of large win-bonuses as I was worried players would begin expecting them even for routine games which we should win, but I decide to put all the chips down for this game as I want to finish as high as possible.

I’d like to think the boys are playing for more than just money, but whatever the case the Saints do me proud. A Crouch header puts me 1-0 up. Crouchy then adds a second before Kevin Phillips powers home a header from a corner (Although I began the season with Beattie and Crouch I soon settled into a Phillips & Crouch combo which ultimately generated 24 goals with Crouch getting 14 and Phillips 10).

Man U make a comeback in the 2nd half with Roy Keane beating Niemi with a shot low and to the left before Paul Scholes sets up a tense finish with a screamer into the top-right corner on 64 minutes. It is Beattie, on as sub, who settles it however, to rapturous scenes at St. Mary’s. (very different to the game in real life – which I attended – in which the Saints meekly surrendered their Premiership status, going down 2-1)

The 4-2 win means that I finish in 7th place, qualifying for the Europa League. The board love me, giving me an approval rating of 100% and most of the fans have come back around with their approval rating being 79%. Mikael Svensson is awarded the golden ball whilst Jelle Van Damme is named player of the season – just deserts for his great performances, particularly when filling in at centre back after an injury to Lundekvam.

True to real life though the title goes to Chelsea. In fact the whole of the top three in the game exactly matches the real table with Arsenal as runners-up and Man U in third. When it comes to relegation Palace were both relegated in real-life and the simulaton whilst Norwich, 19th in real life, just escape in the game, finishing in 17th. For the rest the results atre mixed and only 4 clubs in the top 10 in reality also feature in the top 10 in the game simulation season, suggesting that outside of the very top clubs it is quite hard to model a Premier League season.

The experience of the simulated season leads to two questions – what if the Saints had survived that season in the Premier League? It may have meant no later financial problems, but by the same no Markus Liebherr too. The second counterfactual is what if Jelle Van Damme had had more gametime? In reality the Belgian defender pulled on a Saints shirt in anger a mere six times in the league, but in the simulation he was player of the season – was this the difference between 7th place and 20th – who knows?

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