If I get through my ninth season in charge of Stirling on FM18 (this post could end with a sacking for all you know…), it’ll be well on track to be my longest save on any game since CM01/02. There’s still so much more left to achieve too. Let’s get into it.
It began with a glamour friendly against Bastardo’s Estudiantes to open our new 14k capacity home, the Samo Stadium. I really would recommend you go and read that post, plus FMGrasshopper’s accompanying initial post in our mini-series. Both detail the more interlinked than you know nature of Argentinian and Scottish football, plus both include my Stirling side getting our arses handed to us by La Plata’s finest. It wasn’t the nicest way to open our new home.
The media’s predictions of how we’ll do this season have risen, they reckon we’ll finish 3rd behind Celtic and Rangers. While the board, of which there’s takeover rumours currently swirling, want us to qualify for Europe. I’d be delighted to qualify for Europe again. With more sensible decision making in the transfer market and a quality addition or two, could we go one better than our consecutive 2nd place finishes? Could we upset the Celtic/Rangers duopoly on the SPL title?
Dealing with the outs first of all, of which there was two major ones.
Russell Gale, who spent the 2023/24 season on loan at us from Southampton before signing on a free at the beginning of last season, departs for a new Stirling record sale of £6m upfront potentially rising to £7.5m, with 30% of his next fee coming to us too if he’s sold on. This sale, along with Tommy Rees’ down to Watford last season, underlines one of the areas of how I want to operate in the transfer market. Identify young players released from English clubs, give them a platform to develop and play, and sell them back down south to secure the future of the football club.
That approach continued with the sale of Kieran Freeman to Crystal Palace. He only joined in the summer of this season, but after 25 matches off he went down to London on deadline day in January for a potential £5m. Two right backs sold for a combined total of £12.5m this season, am I back playing FM16 again?
Christ Mayuba’s third coming at the club wasn’t as successful as his previous two, so off he went to join Morton on a permanent deal for £300k. Fringe central defender, Danny Finlayson, never impressed me when he was called upon, so I was more than happy to let him leave for Aberdeen for £450k in the only other permanent deals out of the club this season. In any other season so far recouping fees of this kind for players would be big deals, we’re certainly on the up and up.
I had two aims for my recruitment this season, Scottish homegrown and/or quality upgrades.
Joe Muir came through the Dumbarton youth system in 2017/18, but moved to Queen’s Park Rangers the next season for free. It was after a loan move with Partick Thistle that he was then able to make his breakthrough down south, persuading Derby to spend just under £5m on him and spending two seasons in their first team squad before falling out of favour, rotting in the reserves and eventually ending up back in Scotland with us on a free transfer. He provides strong competition in the central defender slots. Quick, aggressive and a leader, he should be a good option for us this season.
There’s a Scottish premium in place right now if you want to prize domestic talent away from their clubs. You’ve seen me lose two right backs already this season, after Gale left I splashed out £1.2m on Darrren Combe from Dundee, the first £1m+ purchase of the save so far. Once Freeman left in January, Combe became our first choice right back and made it his own, playing 33 times over the course of the season in total.
With Lewis Vaughan hitting 30-years-old, and a slight reluctance from me to throw Slobo Stankovic from the Futures a sustained run in the first team, I snapped up Jordi Mboula on a free transfer when my scouts threw me the option to. He’s got a strong footballing pedigree, coming from La Masia before joining Monaco in 2017/18. He was never quite able to make his mark at the Stade Louis II and failed to do the same at Lille when they snapped him up on a free transfer in 2022. He’s rated very highly by my staff, with his speed and dribbling ability being up there with the best in the league.
Robby McCrorie has been a good servant for us so far, but as I hit January I felt it was time to upgrade between the posts. My scouts came back with the recommendation of Birk Kleven who’d been Rosenborg’s number one for three seasons. I always find it tough to judge how good keepers are, but Kleven is certainly an upgrade and a bargain at just £1m.
Saving the GOAT till last.
Ahmed el Sayed, also known as the Egyptian Pharaoh (I hate myself for nicknaming a player, but look at him!!), joins for just £300k from Ismaily. My scouts have played an absolute blinder here, and for the previous capture of now fans favourite Horvat too. Both have the ability to tear up the SPL, and the struggle is real as to how I’m going to fit them both into the starting line up. Is he an attacking central midfielder, is he a deep lying forward, could he be shoehorned out wide with that dribbling ability and pace?
The British Museum putting his boots from this season on display might be an indication of the season he had.
After our first ever Scottish Cup victory last season we began the season with our first ever appearance in the Scottish Supercup, the showpiece season opener between the cup and league winners. Rangers dished us up a defeat, and we were poor throughout after a promising preseason.
Rangers ended our hopes of winning both domestic cups this season, and our hopes of retaining the Scottish Cup. The run was fairly comprehensive, that 3rd round tie against our rivals, Falkirk, aside. We were disappointing in the semi, but so were Rangers. Neither team deserved to go on to the final but after the lottery of penalties with the players dead on their feet, it was us who went crashing out. Rangers went on to lift the trophy.
We were handed another tough route into the Champions League group stage, facing Sporting and Zenit. Well, Sporting gave us a scare anyway, with us eventually sneaking through on away goals. Zenit were absolutely steamrollered in the first leg in devastating fashion, with a late blitz downing them in the second. How good is it seeing #Rog and Hardie doing the business for us in the Champions League? As iconic as duos come.
We were drawn into Group F for Fuck.
It looks as though PSG demolished us on matchday one at the Parc de Princes, but as ridiculous as it sounds, they actually didn’t. We actually put up a fight, but they were absolutely ruthless. We had nine big chances to their 10, they just happened to score six and we didn’t score any. To follow up that disappointment with a draw at home v City and consecutive wins against CSKA put us in a great position for Europa League qualification in third place.
How good is the natural narrative that FM throws up sometimes? We’d face off against my FM17 side of choice, RBLeipzig, in the 1st knockout round. Similarly to the Sporting CL qualifier, they ran us close and it’d take away goals to see us through.
From there, we managed to quite easily dispatch European stalwarts Athletic and Galatasaray. I was expecting much more from both teams and suddenly we found ourselves in a Europa League semi final. Avoiding Barcelona and Spurs was important, but Everton and their Premier League millions was just a step too far for us this season. A ridiculous looking Mexican wonderkid named Jorge Juarez did the business for them in the first leg, scoring all four goals.
The European journey ends, but what a ride. I don’t see us bettering it any time soon.
On to the big one. Like I’ve already said, consecutive 2nd place finishes has me feeling quite confident of another successful season this year. We started very well, bettering last season’s best start to a season yet. The Pharaoh with a double on matchday one to contribute to beating Hamilton 4-2 was a sign of things to come hopefully. The league opener for the Samo Stadium went much better than the grand opening, as Ryan Hardie sent the capacity crowd into raptures in the dying seconds against Rangers.
The only red dot coming in December against Aberdeen. We didn’t get going and the defeat was well deserved but still massively disappointing especially as we’d avoided defeat against Celtic in the previous matchday. Rivals, Falkirk, were decimated in our first meeting in the new home, one for the fans for sure, with #Rog firing a hattrick to further cement his place in Stirling folklore. At the halfway point of the season we were sitting 3rd, three points behind an unbeaten Celtic and a Dundee side who were absolutely flying with the most wins (11).
Fast forward to five matches left and there still seven clubs in with a shot at the league title! I Tweeted at the time that I’ve never seen that many clubs be in contention before. We had a couple of tough matches against Aberdeen and Hibs to get through, but Celtic had them both to play as well as we both sat on 60 points with their goal difference being superior. Would it be another league title going to Glasgow, or would there be red and white Stirling ribbons be on the top tier trophy for the first time?
We usually do better in the second half of the season, and this season was no different.
Although we lost twice, the number of draws drastically decreased versus the first half of the season. You’ll spot that we hit form at just the right time in those aforementioned last five matches of the season. Sneaking past both Aberdeen and Hibs at the Samo Stadium before smashing 15 goals in three matches to finish off the season, #Rog scoring eight of them! We’d need to rely on Celtic dropping points and/or conceding plenty of goals to lift our first ever SPL trophy in our first season in our new home…
We did it! Stirling Albion are the champions of Scotland! ??? What an achievement. The resources we have at our disposal still absolutely dwarfs that of our Glasgow rivals, but we’ve managed to overcome them and win the league. It was certainly our attack that did it for us, as we conceded the most goals by a league winner of any SPL seasons yet.
Aberdeen equalised in the 89th minute at Parkhead on matchday 31 to draw 1-1 before the Bhoys fell in to a 90th minute penalty away at Falkirk to lose 2-1 on matchday 32. Our rivals all but handed us the trophy. Those natural FM narratives appearing again, you couldn’t make it up.
There’s not a lot left to say about #Rog. We now sit alongside each other as Stirling icons after he hit 21 league goals to guide us to the SPL title, finishing second top scorer. Overall, it was 30 goals in just over 50 appearances for him, bouncing back after a difficult season for him last time out. Just a reminder that he was an £81k signing six seasons ago and he’s now scored 126 goals for us in total. £1.5k per goal? Not bad value at all.
Summer signing, Mboula, makes it on to the star men for the season list. His career is resurrected somewhat after hitting 14 goals and laying on 12 assists from the right wing slot this season. I struggled to settle on who my first choice was on the right with Stankovic and club icon, Lewis Vaughan, both in contention too it’s arguably our strongest position. Mboula certainly was the most effective of the three and he’ll start next season as first choice.
The man that makes us tick, we’re certainly a worse team when he isn’t on the pitch. His head was turned by Dortmund and then Sevilla at points throughout the season but we managed to prevent him from leaving for now and secure him on a new deal until 2028. He’s our MVP and hit 10 goals and assisted 10 goals this season, another good return. We’re not going to keep him forever, I know that. I’m happy to part ways if we receive a bid that matches his valuation of £20m at minimum.
Notable mentions to one of last seasons star men, Keaton Lockett (he’s still labelled the next Michael Owen and he hit 25 goals this season to add to his 22 from last season), the Pharaoh (had a very good first season for us winning Young Player of the Year in the league, scoring six goals and assisting 11 times) and Ryan Porteous, our captain (was on the pitch for 4,300 minutes this season as he led us to title glory).
We’re league champions, we can’t possibly grow anymore? Nah, there’s still loads to do! This title win takes us to another level but I want us to be continuing to grow further. First up, how’s that graph looking with this being the first season in the new Samo Stadium.
We’ve come a long way in nine seasons. I was pleased to see the 40% uptake in season ticket sales, and I’m imagining that’ll only continue to grow over the next few seasons. The league average attendance grew by 156% season-on-season. Forthbank was maxed out, so it’s good to know that more than 3,800 fans do actually want to watch us regularly. While our gate receipts increased by 198% to £8.5m this season, the finances are one to keep an eye on still. We didn’t own Forthbank, so our costs were minimal. Compared to last season where we paid out £41k on ground maintenance, this season we shelled out £2.2m. Our tax costs increased from £945k to a whopping £9.2m and the notorious other category increased from £975k to £5m. The bank balance is a healthy £45m, so we’re very secure from prize money and selling players this season but it’s still very much worth keeping a close eye on.
The Futures (u21s) won the league again which is great to see and there’s a few more promising prospects that I’ll focus another post on very soon. I think it might also almost be time to bring out something similar to my 2020 Vision I did back on FM16 with Morton. The club is on a stable footing now and challenging at the top level of domestic football, and even on European fronts too. It’s time to properly drill into different aspects I want to continue to focus on.
What a season! We’re league champions! Will this usher in a period of sustained success for Stirling Albion? I hope you’ll keep coming back for season ten and onwards…