It is 1989. There is a female Prime Minister. The Conservatives have been in government for a decade, but their grip on power is now tentative. Labour are ahead in the polls, but are tearing themselves apart as the Centrists do battle with the traditional Left. Unemployment is falling, but the economy is still fragile. The far-right protests against Islamic influence in Britain, while British holidaymakers are stranded at airports in Europe. It really is 1989, honest.
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In the world of football, Britain is still reeling from the Hillsborough disaster. Arsenal are champions after a dramatic final-day final-minute goal, but Liverpool are the real superstars – seventeen league titles makes them the most successful side in history, and there is no sign of Kenny Dalglish’s men letting up. Manchester United have been uninspiring and Scotsman Alex Ferguson is under a little pressure, while Millwall and Norwich are coming off of the back of exceptional seasons. But at the other end of the table, Jim Smith was unable to save Newcastle United from relegation, and has been relieved of his duties. There is trouble in the boardroom. And they have appointed me to guide them back to the top flight. They have gone three decades without a domestic trophy, a record I am here to change. It’s a gamble, no doubt about that. I wouldn’t have gambled on myself in this way. What on Earth were they thinking?
Oh, and they expect immediate success. Great.
Looking at the players at my disposal, it’s not an impossible task. The Bald Eagle made some bizarre signings last season, but strengthened over the summer pretty well. It’s a pretty young squad, but peppered with experience in the right places. Ray Ranson should be as good as any fullback in the division, but it’s the centre-back partnership of Andy Thorn and Kevin Scott that should really make us stable. Up front, Mark McGhee is back in town, and while he might not technically be the best (Heading 9, Finishing 6), the Scot is strong, determined, and his work rate (16) is good enough for me. Micky Quinn alongside him should score the goals (Finishing 14) and has a similar work ethic to McGhee. I might need someone who can head the ball though. In midfield, Wayne Fereday and John Gallacher are quick wingers (Pace 17 and 18, respectively), but the middle of the park is a scary place. Liam O’Brien (Strength 14, Aggression 18) and Kevin Dillon (Strength 17, Aggression 19) are not to be trifled with. If it all goes tits up I’ll just get them kick lumps out of the opposition.
While there are no hidden gems in this version of the game (Cherno Samba is only 3 in this reality) I do have the advantage of knowing which players will be 90s superstars. I just don’t know where to find most of them. I send my scouts far and wide in search of David Beckhams and Michael Owens and Original Ronaldos. Until they find them, I have some cash on the hip – £1.5m – to find a left winger to replace Gary Brazil, and a centre forward who can use his noggin.
Before we race on to our first friendly against Crystal Palace, I check out the reserve side. There really is a wealth of talent to be had amongst the apprentices. Young Steve Howey is promoted to the senior squad, to take the place of Darren Bradshaw. Alan Thompson isn’t quite there yet, but Lee Clark might have enough to cover the left hand side, at least until we can find someone more permanent. Ian Bennett might be a better reserve keeper than Gary Kelly, but I’d rather just pray nothing happens to Tommy Wright for now. I stick the rest of the youngsters onto specialist training schedules to make the most of them.
The transfer list offers little in the way of inspiration for a winger, so we’ll move onto the friendlies. I’ve arranged a bonding tour of Scotland before the season starts to warm the players up and really test them – Berwick and Cove Rangers will give me a chance to try out the second string, and Rangers and Aberdeen will provide sterner tests. Before that we head to London, to take on exciting Crystal Palace and their Ian Wright inspired side. But first we bid farewell to Mark Gill. He was never in my plans, and I happily accept half a million for him from Bournemouth.
We won’t try anything too outrageous for the first game. Steve Coppell has Palace playing good football, so we’ll just stick to a 4-1-3-2 (remembering how effective defensive midfielders are in this game) and play direct. Its not the exciting, attacking, Newcastle way, but its my way. As long as it works. Clark comes in on the left, and Dillon is captain.
It turns out to be more exciting than I expected! Palace come out of the traps all guns blazing, creating four chances before we could muster an effort on goal. Ian Wright, of course, opens the scoring on 16 minutes, latching onto a loose ball and firing past his namesake Wright in our goal, but just before half time McGhee collects the ball from a long goal kick and goes it alone, shrugging of defenders and smashing it in. Mark Bright restores the home side’s lead from kick off, and just past the hour Murray Jones capitalises on a mistake by young Steve Howey to double the lead. A fantastic Gary Brazil volley failed to get us back into the game, but it’s a good workout against higher level opposition.
We travel back north to news that we have been drawn at home in the League Cup, to Maidstone. I immediately set my scouts on Warren Barton for good measure, if only because he is so damn versatile. Next up, we head to Scotland, and a chance for the reserves to show me what they can do. Aberdeen cancel the friendly of the tour, so I quickly rearrange to play Vale of Leven before we head to Berwick. We’ll use the same system.
It’s a win, but not an altogether convincing one. The stats were about even, and despite starting brightly it took an own goal from Graeme Davidson to see us through. The youngsters don’t cover themselves in glory, which is a worry against a team of part-timers from Scotland’s bottom tier. Most of the lads picked up decent ratings, but let’s hope we can avoid injuries.
We’ve got a few days rest before the game against Cove Rangers, and I scour the transfer market again. The scouts have offered me next to nothing, so I’m on my own. I put a loan offer in to Manchester United for a young Welsh winger in a fit of pique, and table a £500,000 bid for Cambridge’s Dion Dublin. We all know he can use his head.
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