Last season we finished 2nd and qualified for the Champions League for the first time. Unbelievable. Being the filling in a Celtic and Rangers sandwich has certainly come sooner than I was expecting, which seems to be the recurring theme of this save so far. My Stirling players continue to surprise me and I’m basically just happy enough joining them all on the ride.
Season eight will be a different story to the rest so far, there’s a little bit of pressure being applied. The board expect us to qualify for the Europa League, while the preseason prediction is that we’ll finish in the top six. We’ve got a responsibility to the rest of the teams in the country now too to do well in Europe and sustain our strong coefficient. We also need to have a strong season so that there’s still a wave of positivity surrounding the club when we move into the newly built Samo Stadium (not yet called this, but it bloody will be) at the beginning of season nine.
For now though, onwards with season eight!
We have a new home kit courtesy of Keysi Rensie to go alongside our away kit, which I still love, from FMFutbolManager. I’m a big fan of asymmetric patterns so wanted a home kit in a similar design to our away. I could go into the usual wanky reasons about what it represents in terms of the club and the city of Stirling, eye-catching, bold, futuristic, the crosses represent how we best like to score, but there’s none. I just love the way they look.
A few outgoings to deal with from our summer transfer dealings. First up, last season’s veteran, Matt Ritchie, left the club upon his contract expiring. Lukas Nmecha and Jamie Lindsay also left on free transfers, after being no more than backup players in their time at the club. Experienced Danish midfielder, Mads Pedersen, left to head back home. He pioneered the DLD role when I first switched to 4-4-2 and was a mainstay in the side in his first couple of seasons at the club, before falling out of favour with Bolger’s arrival. Fringe central midfielders, Paul Russell and Christ Mayuba, left on loan for Walsall and Morton, respectively. Those loans would net us £4k a month in fees, fairly insignificant aside from the fact it’s our first move into the market of charging for loan players. The big outgoings this season happened in January.
Firstly, it was time to bid farewell to experienced Czech centre back, David Jablonsky. His experience was vital at the back for us, and he formed a great partnership with my captain, Ryan Porteous. You might have read about the absolute shocker he had in the exhibition match we played against Bastardo’s Estudiantes side and I can neither confirm nor deny that it was this performance that confirmed it was his time to go. His £325k move to Jablonec would’ve been a new record sale for the club if it wasn’t for…
After arriving on a free from Barry in Wales and making 17 appearances for us across a season and a half, Tommy Rees leaves for Watford for £5m plus 30% of the next transfer. A huge deal for the club and by far breaking all previous sale records. We were fighting off £1m+ bids from Swansea last January and before we stumbled across Horvat, Rees was all set to step up into a first team role this season. Even in his couple of appearances, he hasn’t exactly set the world alight. Alongside the Futures joining, bringing in this kind of money selling a player really signals the next phase of the club growing.
I dealt with the majority of our incoming transfers in the summer in my last post, which introduced you to the players I’m billing my Futures. They’re a group of 18/19-year-olds who look like they might just develop into something special. The aim is to give them a platform to play and progress, they’ll either stay with us and contribute to our future success or they’ll move on and help the club financially. There was a couple of other signings to go through too.
Adding in the English, Welsh, Northern Irish and Irish leagues during my save has been a very shrewd move on reflection. The quality of some of the players being produced by these countries has been really high, as you’ve just seen with the record sale of Rees. Michael Parker arrives from Cliftonville on a free transfer to join CB Stephen Nicholl as our Northern Irish contingent at the club. I was drawn to him for his incredible attributes that make him an option in my Deep Lying Destroyer role. Stamina, work rate, teamwork, determination and tackling. He should develop very nicely.
Along similar lines to Parker, Steve Bamford joins from Bangor City for £1k. I’ve got a feeling that’ll turn out to be an absolute bargain. More suited to the CM(A) role in my tactic, his passing and decisions attributes are huge plus points, with the majority of others prime for increasing too with some first team minutes. He’s got everything in him to be another Tommy Rees-style player for us.
Scottish players playing in Scotland come at a premium right now. A premium I’m not yet prepared to pay. We’ve got homegrown rules to meet though and as such, I have to look to England to see if I can attract any players back home. I’ve been tracking Aitchison for a few seasons now, and shelled out a Stirling record fee of £350k to Huddersfield to secure his signature. He’s certainly not the best player we’ll buy during my time at the club but needs must sometimes. He’ll act as a rotational option up top, alongside the raft of young talented strikers we now have on the books.
With Horvat being preferred in the middle, we needed some extra cover for Cairnseh on the left hand side. Max(imum) Edge provides that and then some, after joining on loan for the season from Liverpool. He was out for the majority of last season after doing his cruciate, so we’ll give him a platform to get back to full fitness and kickstart his development again.
If you needed another reminder, we bloody qualified for the Champions League this season! We’d enter the best placed 3rd round qualifiers.
We defy the odds as usual and overcome PSV and Zenit in the best placed qualifying rounds to make it to the group stage! We battered PSV in Eindhoven, but found ourselves 2-1 down just after half time. #Rog stepped up and did what he’s been doing for three seasons, scoring a third away goal to take back to
Stirling Cumbernauld. A professional job “at home” would see us drawn to return to Russia. On our first foray into Europe two seasons ago, we faced Lokomotiv Moscow in the Europa League qualifying rounds and two dedicated away fans made the long trip. Our away match in St Petersburg this time would see 19 fans make the journey, an 850% increase, underlining the growth we’ve seen at the club so far. They’d witness a narrow defeat, but were rewarded with a storming 4-1 win in the return leg, taking us through.
The group stage saw our luck run out. We were outclassed for the most part, that 1-1 draw at Anfield in the Battle of Britain aside. Benfica dominated us home and away, as did Monaco at the Stade Louis II. Nothing to be downhearted about, we’ll take the cash rewards and run this season. Will we be back for more next season?
The first four rounds were a godsend as I was comfortable enough that we’d win while playing with a heavily rotated side. Always good to give some of the fringe and younger players a good run out. As soon as we started drawing more difficult sides, I switched up my approach. I wanted to win the competition this year and finally bring some more silverware to the Stirling trophy room. A Horvat double downed Hearts, while we just squeezed past our bogey side, Dundee, on penalties in the quarter final. A Keaton Lockett hattrick, his second of the competition, defeated St Johnstone and saw us reach my second Scottish Cup final as Stirling manager, the clubs second in their history. Only Celtic stood in our way again…
We had our best ever start to an SPL season, taking maximum points from our first three matches, before coming unstuck against Celtic. A #Rog double saw us valiantly fight back from 2-0 down, but Dwamena, their Ghanian front man who they ended up selling to Swansea for £13m in January, secured the win for the Bhoys. From then on we remained unbeaten for the rest of the first half of the season, including a remarkable run of form in late November/early December, scoring 18 goals in five matches. After 17 matches we sat 2nd in the table, equal on points with Celtic and four points behind a resurgent Rangers. Could we sandwich the big two again?
We’d had to content with Ryan Hardie taking a while to return to full fitness and only playing a bit-part in the first half of the season, while in the second, #Rog was ruled out for the majority of it. Not having those two in-sync and firing on all cylinders together was a negative. It was time for some of the younger players at the club, and one of the Futures to step up. Hardie began to work well with the aforementioned Lockett, with Bjørn supporting from the bench. We dropped 15 points over the course of the second half of the season, but recorded a brilliant 3-0 win over Celtic at home and again hit a purple patch midway through, hitting 16 goals on the way to winning five in a row after a shocker of a 3-0 reverse away at Easter Road. There was a title race going on…
Until the last six matches of the season where the pressure seemed to get to us. We laboured to draws against St Mirren and Inverness, Kevin Connolly scored what felt like his millionth goal against us late on in that Dundee draw and Rangers had already wrapped up the title by the time Thistle inflicted our fourth defeat of the season on us. It wasn’t to be in the end, and the best team won the league. Well, best team at the back anyway, conceding only 13 goals across the season. Despite my negativity surrounding #Rog and Hardie missing chunks of the season, we still scored 75 league goals, while conceding 28, both bettering last years totals.
After the disappointment of the Champions League campaign this season, we have the opportunity to be there and do it all again next season. We’ll have those two tricky qualifying rounds to get through first though. We still should be nowhere near achieving this when you look at our club as a whole in comparison to those around us in the league. My attitude might start to shift on that next season.
Scottish Cup (cont.)
League duty out of the way, and it was Scottish Cup final time. It could be said we go into the final as favourites thanks to finishing above Gary Naysmith’s side in the league and dishing out a 3-0 drubbing to them in our last meeting, but I wasn’t taking anything for granted. Naysmith left Dundee to take over from Gary Holt in January. He made the same journey Brendan Rodgers took, leaving Celtic for Stoke.
#Rog would only be fit enough to make the bench, and even then it’s out of necessity as Keaton Lockett was away on u20 World Cup duty with England. Bjørn starts up top, supported by Ryan Hardie and the rest of the side is at full strength.
At half time, it was 1-0 Stirling. Bjørn repaid the faith shown in him by coolly slotting into the bottom corner after beating the offside trap. We’d been in this position before though. We were sitting much more comfortably two years ago. Two goals to the good instead of just one today. There was a sea of green as I told the lads to guard against complacency, but they certainly didn’t do that as Celtic’s Mexican wonderkid, Ramirez, rose high to head home from an unchallenged cross after 66 minutes. That feeling of dread, “oh, here they go again”.
That feeling lasted less than 60 seconds as we went up the pitch from kick off and did this.
Cairnseh fires a low ball into the box, Horvat calmly controls it and brilliantly lays it across to Hardie who’s in acres of space and fires it past Jeroen Zoet in the Celtic goal. No nervy moments whatsoever from the players for the remaining 20+ minutes, we managed the match to perfection and saw it out. What a moment for Hardie to score the winning goal after scoring so many goals for us over the last few seasons (117 in 174 appearances, to be precise) and after coming back from a six month injury lay-off over the summer.
We are the 2024/25 Scottish Cup winners!
Delighted to add to that solitary Division Two title I won in my first season in charge. Our first bit of silverware as an SPL club, and a win that’ll see us usher in a new chapter of Stirling Albion history.
We knew the posterboy of the Futures was going to be quality for us, I didn’t think he’d be so good this soon though. He carried the team this season in all honesty. He averaged a 7.53 across the season on the way to scoring 14 goals and laying on nine assists from the CM(A) slot. The first ever Stirling wonderkid, I don’t think he’s going to be with us for much longer. Dortmund are the side making that wanted icon appear. Everyone has a price! He’s probably worth more, but I’d take £15m minimum.
With #Rog and Hardie missing 20% and 26% of the season through injury, we needed someone to step up. The man labelled the next Michael Owen did just that. Lockett scored 22 goals, 15 of them coming in the SPL, from the AF role in the side. He’s still got a lot of improving to do, especially on his finishing, but what a bargain signing he’s been at just £1k! Proof that you certainly shouldn’t forget about players when they’re out on loan, after he scored 12 for Hamilton last season. He took his chance brilliantly, and has firmly planted himself into my long term plans.
Bloody hell, what a season. The Stirling faithful were served up plenty of treats this season and they packed out old Forthbank for every single home league match to say goodbye. A small 1% increase versus last season on average attendance, but we literally couldn’t fit any more fans in the ground. Our season ticket sales rose 21% this season compared to last, and it’ll be really interesting to see how many we sell next season in our new home.
The club couldn’t be in a better position financially. The record sale of Rees, coupled with Champions League football, a Scottish Cup win and a second consecutive runner up spot in the league sees us finish the season with £30m in the bank. A similar season in our new stadium next season should see the finances continue to soar, considering we raked in record gate receipt money this season of just over £2.8m.
The future isn’t just bright off the pitch. Our under 21 side won the league title, scoring 110 goals on the way. The Futures recruitment strategy paying off big time. Plus, after having been introduced by Bastardo, Argentine legend, Walter Samuel joined as my new assistant manager this season. We have the best backroom staff in the country, but there’s still work to be done facilities-wise.
In personal growth news I won Players Manager of the Season for a third consecutive time and regained the Writers’ Manager of the Year award, after missing out on it last season. I’ve also proudly been named manager of the Scottish national team, which gives me something to do during those arduous international breaks. Don’t worry, it won’t affect my day-to-day role at Stirling.