After you’ve read all about our European exploits in the first half of the season, come back here and have a read of how we got on domestically in my sixth season in charge of Stirling Albion on FM18.
In case you missed it, we overachieved above all expectations last season and finished as the best of the rest behind Rangers and Celtic. In comparison to our league rivals, we’re absolute minnows. We spend a fraction of what they do on our players wages and we’re playing in the smallest stadium in the league. Punchin’ 👊🏽
This season, the bookies expect us to finish 11th in the SPL, giving odds of 300/1 to win the league. After our heroics last season the board would be delighted with consolidating our place in the top tier and finishing mid-table. That’ll do me nicely. Let’s see what we could do with that £100k transfer budget they gifted me.
If you love a loan deal, like me, then listen to the Tempo10 podcast all about loan deals! As I say on the podcast, they’re absolutely vital to clubs in Scotland, and Larouci, Puigmal and Taylor will all come in and instantly provide us with quality first team options. Avid Stirling fans will remember Puigmal was on loan last season too, and he joins us again this summer, but this time on a two year deal. All in, he’ll have been with us for three seasons for free. Bargain. Larouci and Taylor provide competition on the wings for Vaughan and Cairnseh. Thanks to Liverpool, Man Utd and Man City for lending me some of their talent.
Aaron Bolger arrives from Shamrock Rovers for a bargain £10k. Those physicals are what I look for in a player. Couple them with his determination, aggression and decent technique, first touch and passing, he’s coming in to be my combative deep lying playmaker.
Our defence was much improved last season, going from conceding 60 in the league the season before, to conceding just 30. I still felt we could do with a little more experience back there to guide our 24-year-old captain, Ryan Porteous, through matches. Jablonsky was one of those random players that appears during the scouting meeting that you maybe usually just skip through. In he comes as our highest earner at the club.
Veteran internationals, James McArthur and Chris Martin, also joined the club this summer. Both are a few years older than Jablonsky and have declined a bit more than him too, but would provide extra cover this season across their positions.
We actually made more than we spent this summer. I say that like it’s a huge amount, we brought in £21k from selling players versus that £10k spend on Aaron Bolger. Massive. The biggest sale of the summer was last year’s most talked about signing, Freddy Adu left for Miami FC in the NASL for £7k. He had a few flashes, but he was never going to be a long term option for us. It did get the club’s name mentioned in a few Tweets from the likes of Sporf, LadBible and FootballFunnys, though. Anything to raise our profile.
Similarly to last season, and the season before that, and the season before that, we had a bit of a shocking start to the league season. I can’t even use the usual playing in Europa League qualifiers excuse, because we’d all but already qualified for the group stage by the time the SPL season started. Perhaps our exploits in the group stage did harm us though, as we didn’t win any of our league matches following the first three group matches. A little bit of squad management was needed to keep players as fresh as possible.
It took until the end of October to get our first three points, a sweet victory over our rivals, Falkirk. From then on, we went on a marvelous three month unbeaten run that included some ridiculous matches of football and that only ended with another defeat against Rangers at the end of January. An 8-3 win against Aberdeen at Pittodrie, a 5-3 home win against relegation strugglers, Airdrie, and another close run match against the might of Celtic! We were 3-1 up at one stage, it then looked like we’d be on the receiving end of a 4-3 loss when Celtic went ahead with three minutes to go, but Fraser Preston earned us a deserved draw in the dying seconds. We’ve surely got to beat them eventually…
Take away that dreadful start and results-wise this season looks like a what could have been. The goals kept coming, we hit five against Falkirk and recorded narrow wins against Hibs, Morton and Motherwell, plus another ridiculous match to finish the league season, 5-4 against Dundee. We were 2-0 up away from home against Celtic after seven minutes, but of course, they fought back to win it 3-2 with the winner coming courtesy of a not-so-rare long shot goal against higher reputable clubs. We’ve surely got to beat them eventually…
Our form over the season, minus that slow start, was strong. It led to us qualifying for Europe again, and finishing in 4th.
What could have been. We regressed by one point in comparison to last season, with an increase in the number of draws being our downfall. I never mind a draw during the season, obviously it’s a positive not to lose, but staring at the league table I always conclude they’ve ruined our season. Talking of draws, they certainly ruined Celtic’s season, as they only lost once but don’t claim the title from Rangers thanks to their league high 14 draws.
That paragraph was quite negative, when actually, it’s been another incredible season. We shouldn’t be qualifying for Europe with the resources we have at our disposal compared to some of the other clubs in the league. Europa League qualifying rounds here we come again next season though. Slightly gutted not to finish 3rd again, as St Johnstone will go straight into the Europa League group stage next season.
The defence was a bit leakier this season, conceding 49 goals versus 38 last season. The added experience of Jablonsky back there didn’t do much to help, so maybe it’s a little bit more quality we need rather than one of experience or youth. While we conceded like a mid-table side, we scored like league champions. 81 goals was three more than Rangers, and they’ll be more on that later when you see the run down of the star men.
Our lack of a run in the Scottish Cup so far has really irked me. So making the final this season has absolutely delighted me.
We had a few tricky challenges on our run though, it wasn’t all plain sailing. Inverness in the 5th round was a potential banana skin, and that quarter final against Motherwell was potentially one of the most mental matches I’ve ever played on FM, alongside that 8-3 against Aberdeen in the league this season. It was 3-1 Motherwell after 20 minutes, and 3-3 at half time. They went down to 10 men on 48 minutes and I was feeling confident. Just a minute afterwards, Taylor put us 4-3 up. Ryan Porteous had an absolute shocker and gifted Craig Tanner the chance to equalise from the spot and continue an incredible goalscoring run he has against us. Into extra time we went. I was throwing everything at their 10 men, and Cairnseh managed to seal the win. From that in the quarters to a comfortable semi final win against second tier Queen of the South. Unfortunately for us, it’d be Celtic we’d face in the final.
We were in dreamland at half time in our first ever final as a club. Hardie and Puigmal had put us two goals to the good against Glasgow’s Green and White. I was in disbelief, and I didn’t quite know what to do at half time. We hadn’t actually played well, our goals were completely against the run of play, so I decided to berate the players for their performance. The amount of greens staring back at me led me to think it was a good decision…
I guess it wasn’t. We couldn’t withstand the Celtic barrage for long, and up they went to lift another Scottish Cup (annoyingly at Celtic Park, I’m sure I ticked the national stadium option when I put the database together…). I’ve no complaints, despite being 2-0 up and bottling it, because we were absolutely atrocious. Celtic, and their Turkish wonderkid Bagci who gets paid more than our entire playing staff combined, completely dominated us. Wish I could Bagsy never to play against them again.
All I can say is wow, what a season for this man. A little switch between him and #Rog saw Hardie mainly take up the advanced forward role this season and let’s just say it suited him. 43 goals in all competition in 41(4) matches. That’s a goal every 84 minutes this season and couple his 14 assists into the mix too and he’s involved in a goal every 63 minutes. He broke his own record for league goals scored in a season for the club, hitting 29 on the way to getting his hands on the league top scorer award. That’s also a new record for goals scored by a player in this new SPL era. What’s also great to see is the values of our players shoot up this season. Hardie’s gone from being worth £75k at the end of last season, to £950k at the end of this one.
With the #Rog movement making it’s way across the globe, luckily our young striker had a season to back up that acclaim too. First of all, at the age of 21, he played the most minutes for us this season, 4,380. A grand total of 51 starts and one sub appearance. He must be absolutely knackered. Surely he scored a barrow-load of goals if he was on the pitch for that amount of time this season? Aye, he did. 35 over the course of the season, with 19 of those coming in the league and 11 of them in the Europa League. In any other season that’d be more than enough to warrant being the ⭐ man overall, but Hardie was just a phenomenon this season. #Rog did register one more assist than Hardie, and their link up play is a joy to watch at times. They’ll so often set up goals for each other, what more could you want from a strikeforce? You might also have spotted he’s now a fully fledged Welsh international, making his debut this season and scoring a goal a game. His stock is continually on the rise.
We scored a grand total of 134 goals this season, with the deadly duo up top of #Rog and Hardie bagging 78 of them. Both players still have their best years ahead of them too.
Another Stirling player to gain their first international caps this season, and our first player to play for the Scottish national team in my time in charge, was Lewis Vaughan. He’s been a bargain signing after joining from Raith on a free three seasons ago. He’s gradually got better and better, with this season being a particular highlight. From the right wing, he not only assisted 24 goals this season, but managed to score 17 as well.
Other notable mentions go to loanees Puigmal and Larouci, who chipped in with their fair share of vanity metric stats this season too in goals and assists (11 goals and 18 assists between them). Cairnseh had another good season out on the left wing, while my first choice full backs, Joe MacPherson and Owen Hughes, weren’t far behind #Rog in the minutes on the pitch record. They were our only three players to play over 4,000 minutes for the club this season. Bolger played magnificently in the combative DLP role too, winning 78% of his tackles and completing 87% of his passes.
Another successful season on the pitch has led to another successful season off it. From our Europa League campaign, to the Scottish Cup final defeat, to the 4th place finish, there’s now £14m in the Stirling Albion bank balance. In positive news, we’ve persuaded the board to improve our youth recruitment, youth coaching and youth facilities. Steps in the right direction. In negative news, we don’t own our stadium and can’t purchase it, so can’t increase our capacity in the bid to become more self-sufficient. The board refused my request to build a new stadium too, which granted, was slightly ambitious.
Season ticket holders rose 15% versus last year, but league average attendance only grew by 3%. We’re almost maxed out at Forthbank now, making that board decision not to invest in a new one all the more annoying. As I mentioned in the European adventure post, our Europa League matches were moved away from Forthbank to the increased capacity Broadwood. This helped our gate receipts reach a massive £2.7m this season. A whopping 138% season on season increase. Oh and we’re the 13th most reputable club in the country now too.
It’s not just the club thriving. Scotland has risen to 10th in the European club coefficient table, meaning our league winners next season go straight into the Champions League group stage. They’ll be two teams overall in the CL, and three overall in the Europa League. It really helps having four clubs all competing and winning continental matches.
In a rare bit of personal news, I was named Player’s Manager of the Year and Football Writers’ Manager of the Year. I’d much prefer the praise and attention to go to my players though…
The knock back from the board for the stadium feels like a kick in the teeth, but we’ll try and continue doing what we seem to be good at next season, continually punching above our weight and overachieving. Thanks for reading!