Samo’s Stirling – Season Six – European Adventure

It’s been a couple of weeks now and I’m still in disbelief about last season. Going from battling relegation in our first season in the SPL to finishing 3rd and qualifying for Europe in our second season is ridiculous, quite frankly. We overachieved massively expectations-wise, but across the season, we actually deserved it. We played some brilliant football, with #Rog and Ryan Hardie firing on all cylinders and our young captain, Ryan Porteous, leading the backline.

So European football eh? Let’s just not embarrass ourselves, that’s the aim. Kilmarnock’s Scottish Cup win trumps our 3rd place league finish so the journey starts in the 2nd qualifying round with a trip to Sweden to face IFK Göteborg.

Second Qualifying Round

The two-time UEFA Cup winners would be no match for our Scottish minnows, would they? The journey should really be ending with us being instantly knocked out…

We march on! When Mads Pedersen got himself sent off after 18 minutes in the first leg, even with us already being 1-0 up, I was worried. Never in my wildest dreams did I think we’d go on to score four more and head back to Forthbank with five away goals and a substantial lead in the tie. #Rog’s poor form from the second half of last season was instantly forgotten as he smashed a hattrick in our first competitive match of the season.

The second leg was all about being professional and remaining motivated. We knew what Göteborg were all about now from the first leg, and surprisingly they didn’t change their approach in the second. They led for most of the match, but couldn’t kick on. Even in the early rounds with a first leg lead I don’t like to lose the second leg and miss out on potential coefficient points for the club and our country. Puigmal, on loan from Man Utd again for a further two seasons, struck late on to gain the draw and take us into the third qualifying round to face the mighty Lokomotiv Moscow.

Third Qualifying Round

Well, my impression of them was that they’d be mighty…

What a result! The dominant first leg was incredible. We were on absolute 🔥, Hardie was ruthless in front of goal, #Rog assisted three of them and got on the scoresheet himself too. The deadly duo. It’s worth pointing out something to hit home just how small time we still are. We’ve had to move away from Forthbank for our home matches, as it’s not big enough for European competition. It’s only a short 20 minute drive to Broadwood in Cumbernauld though, the current home of Clyde in the second tier. Great to see over 6k fans turn out to watch the team, showing there’s potential there if we can try and increase Forthbank’s capacity. We really need to if we’re having to play at a second tier side’s stadium.

If 6k fans attending the home leg was impressive, massive shoutout to the two fanatical Stirling supporters that made the 1500 mile journey to Moscow to watch us ease into the fourth qualifying round. To thank them, they’ve been gifted lifelong season tickets by the club.

Fourth Qualifying Round

The potential was there to face my old side, RBLeipzig, in the fourth qualifying round. The stars, gladly, didn’t align and we were drawn to face Legia Warsaw. We’d already beaten Göteborg and Lokomotiv who I classed as far better teams than us on paper. Legia? I was quietly confident. Could we do the unthinkable and reach the group stage?

A Hardie hattrick and a hammer blow from #Rog in the second leg during a Legia onslaught were enough to take us to the Europa League group stage! They’ve all but carried us there with their goals, #Rog scoring seven, while Hardie bagged eight. Name a more iconic duo, I’ll wait…

We’re riding on a wave of success at the moment, it’s bound to come to a halt at some point. I’m just sitting here expecting it to happen.

Group Stage

We were the lowest ranked club coefficient-wise to qualify for the group stages so naturally we were placed in pot four. Out came Villarreal, Southampton and Steaua Bucharest. If I was managing a wealthier club, and had a really strong squad at my disposal, I’d be delighted with that draw. But we’re Stirling! I’ve got the best squad available to me resources-wise right now and we play some great football, but we shouldn’t even be here really.

First up, we drew 1-1 away from home in Bucharest. We led for the majority of the match after Lewis Vaughan had brilliantly put us ahead after 13 minutes, latching on to the end of the cross from #Rog, after he’d cleared the ball from the edge of our own penalty and then ran the length of the pitch. 92nd minute…

We stupidly didn’t keep the ball in the Steaua half and waste some time. Long ball over the top, Sagbo gets in behind the defence and for some reason Tanase is free in our six-yard box. You can’t make those mistakes in Europe. Poor positioning, poor marking, poor concentration. Tough to take it out on young Northern Irish CB, Stephen Nicholl, though.

Broadwood was packed to the rafters as we put up good fights at home against much stronger Southampton and Villarreal sides, we were all but already out when I decided to go for it and give Villarreal a scare in Spain. Shifting my MR and ML to the AMR and AML slots gave them something to think about, but left us more open at the back and susceptible to their strength going forward. Joselu wrapped it up for them in the 94th minute. We wouldn’t be progressing to the knockouts.

#Rog scored his eighth and ninth goals of the campaign in the last 10 minutes as we gained revenge on Steaua for that late equaliser on matchday one. It was especially nice as it looked like Tanase would be our bogeyman again with a 77th minute equaliser this time. 3-1 the final score, as we win our first group stage match, netting us over £300k in prize money. That’ll pay for a month and a half’s worth of wages for the entire playing staff!

Talking of wages, who do you think would win when a team with an annual salary of just under £2m faces off against one whose is £116m?

How good is it when you’re the FM’d-er rather than the FM’d-ee. Four shots on target for Stirling, four goals and we come away from St. Mary’s with a brilliant win. Southampton’s squad is a who’s who of Premier League quality players and little old Stirling Albion have managed to overcome them. It means absolutely nothing in the short term though. Just like the Steaua match, we were playing under the freedom that we couldn’t qualify for the knockouts. We were playing for pride, money and coefficient points for our country. I went with the same approach as the previous Villarreal match, pushing my wide men up from the M strata to the AM strata, and it paid off. What a moment when Cairnseh put us 1-0 up with this screamer.

Saints took control of the match, going 3-2 up, until #Rog stepped up and hit his tenth and eleventh goals in European competition this season. We withstood their pressure and their barrage of shots, the majority of them being from distance mind you. The victory shows how far we’ve come in just five and a half seasons so far. It’s disappointing to go out of Europe, of course it is, but we’re mixing it with the big boys already and we’re only just getting started really.

Growth 📈

It’s not just a general positive feeling around the club that the run in Europe has brought. I’m not even halfway through the season overall yet and we’ve already broken last season’s total gate receipt figures. That’s in addition to the incremental amount of prize money we’ve made from the run, £3.2m in total, which leaves the bank balance sitting at £9m. Less of a marginal gain, more like an incredible one for a club of our size. The security of that amount coming in led me to ask the board to improve our youth recruitment and junior coaching, which we’ll hopefully see the benefit of with a better standard of player in our upcoming youth intake.

It wasn’t just us flying the flag for the nation. Scotland is on course to break into the top 10 in the nation coefficient rankings thanks to Rangers, Celtic, Kilmarnock and our exploits in the Europa League this season. Invincible champions, Rangers, unfortunately dropped into the Europa League from the CL, but it’s perhaps been a blessing in disguise. I’ve never seen four Scottish clubs do so well in continental competition, and as it goes, it’s only us that aren’t advancing to the knockout stage. A couple of good results in the knockout phase means more coefficient points on the board and from next season, the Scottish Champions will go straight into the Champions League group stage, and as things stand, for the 2024/25 season, we’ll have an automatic entrant into the Europa League group stage too. Great progress for the league and the country.

Tempo10

If you want to hear more from me on a regular basis, I’m on the Tempo10 podcast! AccordingtoFM and I have a weekly chat about a host of FM topics in a handy bitesized chunk for you to easily consume. Listen to us on the latest episode talking about one of my favourite topics, the loan market.

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