In my third season managing Stirling Albion on FM18 we were unexpectedly promoted to the top tier of Scottish football. The promised land. The resurrected SPL.
In the aim of growing the club, it’s where we need to be to properly kickstart things but I do feel it’s come slightly too soon…how the hell would we cope playing against the big clubs on a weekly basis?
For starters the odds are stacked massively against us. The media is expecting us to go right back down again with the other two promoted clubs, Dumbarton and Queen of the South. With Inverness and St Mirren also installed as relegation favourites alongside us, there was a sliver of hope that we could do enough to keep our heads above positions 16th-18th. Operation Float is on.
Add to that the fact that our reputation to attract some players I feel I’d like to still isn’t quite there and I’m predicting that this season will be a struggle. Let’s start off by taking a look at my summer transfer dealings.
It’s obvious to say, but it was absolutely vital that we improved the squad over the summer transfer window.
I’d tracked Vaughan last season while he was at Raith, and after we beat them to promotion in the playoff final, he was released and I snapped him up.
You’ll spot that some cash has been splashed. Our rivals, Falkirk, got relegated and I needed a striker.
Step forward Ryan Hardie and his active relegation release clause of £53k, which would turn out to be an absolute bargain. More on that later. Ross Kavanagh has been brilliant for us over the last two seasons, his goals being a big part of where we are now as a club, but Hardie is a big upgrade and goes straight in as my first choice front man.
Our defence wasn’t the strongest in the second tier last season, so would need strengthening across the back line if we were to shut out the better quality of striker we’d be facing in the top tier. Lee Kilday and Lewis Toshney arrive on free transfers after being released by Morton and Falkirk. It’s not the best policy to recruit from recently relegated sides, but they’re better quality than our current defenders, so the decision is an easy one. Left back has been a problem position so far, and you’ll notice we spent some money again. This time £34k on Jamie Robson.
He might not look like much to you, but he’s significantly better than the permanent left back options we already have in the squad (I had a Celtic loanee playing there last season). He ticks boxes too, he was cheap, he’s still young and he’s Scottish.
Basically, the only position I feel we didn’t need an immediate upgrade in first team quality was goalkeeper, Rohan Ferguson joined to warm the bench, which leaves central midfield to discuss.
Half Nigerian/half Irish defensive minded midfielder, Fuad Sule, arrived on a free transfer after an average stint over the Irish Sea. While Scottish football veteran, Liam Craig, joins the club after leaving St Johnstone. He might not quite have the legs to last 90 minutes anymore, but his experience and ability will hopefully be a positive influence on the side as we look to gain as many points as we possibly can.
First half of the season
Talking of points, to say it’s been a struggle would be an understatement. Obviously I’d love to get some more positive results, but the weekly 90 minute battle to try and gain as many points from the matches is brilliant. Some get disheartened when they’re fighting to avoid relegation, but I’ve got to say I’ve absolutely loved it. It’s a weird and quite inexplicable feeling.
We were outplayed and outclassed to start off the SPL season, consecutive 3-0 drubbings against St Johnstone and Inverness, who I’d targeted we needed to gain some points from if we were to do anything this season. Then came our first precious three points. Hardie getting off the mark, and stalwart wide man, Darren Smith, sealing the win against fellow relegation candidates, Dumbarton.
What followed was one of the most unlucky stretches of matches I’ve ever played on FM. Four consecutive defeats all by a single goal, including a 2-1 loss at home to Celtic, and culminating in one of the maddest matches I’ve been involved in for a long time, that 5-4 reverse against Hamilton. From 2-0 down after 20 minutes to 4-2 up with 20 minutes to go. I couldn’t believe it, but also could, because it’s FM.
That five match unbeaten run you can see, which included just the one win but saw us picking up points at least, took us to 14th at the halfway stage of the season.
A quick break in league duty to take you through the Scottish Cup action. Always good to start off the campaign against lower league opposition, but to concede two against a team from the 11th tier is pretty unacceptable.
A Hardie double downed our rivals, Falkirk, and we were drawn away against fellow SPL side, Dundee United, in the 4th round. They’d sneaked the league match between us 3-2 and they knocked us out of the cup here after a sub-standard performance from us. Still no Scottish Cup glory on the cards.
Operation Float was going okay, but we still needed some reinforcements in January I felt. I dipped my toe into the transfer budget again, twice, which saw my season spend go over the whopping £100k mark.
Not content with my summer window dealings in defence, I snapped up Brad McKay, who was on the transfer list at our relegation rivals, St Mirren. I hear you, “Samo, stop buying players that play for clubs that have been relegated or are flirting with relegation”, but they’re genuinely always better options than what I currently have on offer to me.
When he first broke through at Aberdeen, Fraser Fyvie was very highly rated. A misguided move to Wigan concluded with him moving back to Scotland. His spell at Hibs started promisingly but fell away again as he moved to Dundee United. In my save, he joins from Hearts, where another move hasn’t gone to plan. As with a few of the signings I make, I tend to believe that if a player initially showed some promise, there’s still a player in there that I can get some of their quality to show. Fyvie joins for just under £40k and instantly becomes one of our highest rated players ability-wise. The midfield was also bolstered by the return of this man. The second coming of Christ.
Did you know Christ was a Scotsman? Mayuba joins on loan from Birmingham for his second spell at the club, after helping us gain promotion last season. He was largely average over his 29 matches, but my scouts and coaches rate him very highly so in he comes again to strengthen the midfield options. It’s always good to put a bit of trust in the backroom staff every now and again. Alongside him, I managed to pick up Danny Young and James Taylor on loan from Fulham and Man City, respectively. I went into manual scouting mode and scoured the u23 and u19 squads down in England for promising players that could make the difference between staying up and being relegated. I’ve said it before and I’ll keep saying it, it’s often loan deals that do make the difference in Scotland.
Second half of the season
A much improved second half of the season, which included only five defeats compared to nine over the first 17 matches. Ryan Hardie went on a hot streak of five goals in five matches to start off the second half of the season, including gaining revenge over Dundee United for the Scottish Cup exit and another three points against Dumbarton, completing the league double over them.
Killie and Celtic handed our arses to us before we went on a streak of eight matches unbeaten! That
remarkable run of form culminated in a 3-3 draw at Pittodrie against Aberdeen. We were 3-1 up and playing really well, but of course, as soon as Aberdeen got another back I knew they’d get an equaliser. Disappointing to draw from a winning position, but the point was enough to secure our SPL status for next season!
What a right old slog of a season it was. Fighting for every point, but to finish off with a great 3-0 win over St Mirren to see us finishing in 13th position was all worth it. Operation Float, success. Our heads are above the water of the relegation zone.
Looking at the top level stats, there’s room for improvement. Despite all my attempts at improving the defence this season, we conceded 60 league goals, the fourth worst. The arrivals of McKay and young Danny Young on loan from Fulham in January didn’t add much to our leaky backline and it’s a priority position I want to improve again ahead of my fifth season in charge.
As you’ll see in just a second, Ryan Hardie scored 52% of all of our league goals this season. We struggled for goals elsewhere on the pitch, but I’m putting it down to a couple of factors. Firstly, it was only really in our matches against champions Celtic and Rangers that we truly struggled to create meaningful chances. However, the quality of opposition is obviously far better than we’ve faced in the seasons previous, are my players struggling with that transition and feeling the pressure in front of goal? The other factor was my tactic. I chose to play the same way we had for the previous couple of seasons, a 4-1-2-3 with wide men. It got us here and it kept us up, just. Was that naïve? Perhaps a little bit, but I think a change is on the cards for next season. More solidity in defence and more creativity and firepower going forward. That’s not too much to ask, is it?
What a revelation this man was this season. 30 goals in all competitions from 34 starts and one sub appearance. 27 of the 30 came in the league and he was really unlucky not to be the top goalscorer, on account of Gavin Reilly having a similarly brilliant season for fellow relegation battlers, St Mirren. Both scored 27, but Reilly scored his in 30 matches. A lot of Hardie’s goals came in our defeats but he was our talisman, and I’m pretty much attributing our survival down to him. He directly gained us 14 points with his goals this season, by being the only scorer in the matches that we gained those points in. I won’t blame you for forgetting that he was signed for just £54k at the beginning of the season, an absolute bargain.
I said that I expected things to improve quite drastically this season, and the top tier certainly has made a difference.
The number of season tickets sold grew by 113%, up to 1,072, while our average league attendance wasn’t far off maximum capacity. Forthbank holds 3,808 fans and the average attendance was 3,342. 133% season on season growth. Both statistics saw us increase our gate receipts taken over the course of the season to just under £1m, a huge 144% increase on the 2019/20 season. One of the aims was to get the people of Stirling attending our matches and packing Forthbank to the rafters. It looks like a stadium expansion might be needed sooner rather than later, especially so as we’ve got the smallest stadium in the league by far.
I mentioned in one of my introductory posts that I wanted to develop an affiliate link with Stirling University, to send our young players there to further their education.
Aim complete! Delighted with this. They’ve just been promoted back to Division Two after being relegated last season, so it’s a decent level for our players to be playing regular football at. They also have better training facilities than us, so we’re now sharing those, putting ours up to a good standard.
So we’ve stayed afloat. Our SPL status is confirmed for another season, but as is so often the case in Scottish football anyway, we’ve got a big job to do over the summer. Investment will be required if we’re to sustain our place in the top tier for another season. I’m confident, are you?