We enter into my seventh season in charge of Stirling now, and our fourth season in the Scottish Premier League. Season four saw us avoid relegation, while we overachieved massively in both season five and six. Finishing 3rd and 4th saw us qualify for the Europa League. I now feel safe to say we’ve consolidated our position as an SPL side and the financial gains from domestic and continental prize and TV money across the last three seasons have helped us get the club on a sound footing. This saw us taking the first steps to improving our facilities last season. Despite the board giving me a transfer budget of £10m to splash this season, there was no way I’d be spending it. The bank balance is secure, but it’s not sustainable yet. There’s still work to do to get there, we’ve still got the lowest average attendance in the league and are limited by our current stadium of improving that.
That £10m transfer kitty was accompanied by an expectation to finish in the top half. Based on our performances over the last couple of seasons, I was confident we could achieve this and then some. We might be sitting 13th in the league salary per annum table (Celtic £41m p/a, Rangers £22m p/a, Stirling £2.7m p/a) but we’ve appeared to revel in punching above our weight so far and I can see us continuing to do so.
Fraser Fyvie headed down to Dumfries to join Queen of the South for £18k in the only fee we brought in over the summer. Plenty others left the club though. Veterans from last season, Chris Martin and James McArthur, both retired. Loyal servant, ‘keeper Blair Currie, was deemed surplus to requirements as I chose to promote Robby McCrorie to number one and have him covered by two younger keepers. Fringe players, Brad McKay, Jamie Robson, Ali Coote and Kellan Gordon, all also left on frees, which shaved about £4k a week off the wage bill. In hindsight, it was a mistake on my part to have each of them on such high wages, especially as they came in and only played bit parts. It’s not crippled us financially by any stretch, but it’s important to keep a frugal eye on the finances.
I said I wouldn’t be splashing that £10m transfer budget…
But I couldn’t resist spending £140k of it to bring Callumn Morrison back to the club. He spent the first half of my first season at the club on loan with us from Hearts, and I’ve been tracking him ever since. He actually rejected a move to us in the 2020/21 season and chose Motherwell instead. Again, he stayed on the shortlist and after Motherwell’s shock relegation to Division One, we snapped him up. He’ll provide cover for Lewis Vaughan on the right hand side. We’ve also had the third coming of Christ. Mayuba rejoins, this time permanently after his Birmingham contract expired, after two separate loan spells at the club between 2019 and 2021. I like bringing back players who’ve already got experience of the club.
Raiding Welsh teams brought us #Rog, so it’s fair to say we’ve had some success so far. Keaton Lockett was the top scorer in the Welsh Premier League last season, he joined for a whopping £1k and would spend this season out on loan at Hamilton getting some first team SPL experience. I wish I’d screenshotted Welshman, Tommy Rees, before I actually did. He’s come on leaps and bounds over the course of the season after joining in the summer on a free. So much so that I had to reject a couple of £1m+ bids from Swansea for him in January. He didn’t feature much in the first team this season, but he’ll be much more involved next season and we’ll see how that affects any bids we receive in future.
After almost fainting at spending £141k this summer, it was time to bring in a few more free transfers. We’ve now got a current Barcelona player in the non-FM world on our playing staff. Marcus McGuane never joined Barca in this alternate reality as I’m playing on the day one database, so after being released from Arsenal he spent five seasons at Burton Albion. He wanted to play in red once again though, so in he comes. He’ll make a great rotation option in the Deep Lying Destroyer role I outlined in my 4-4-2 tactical piece. After Martin and McArthur’s retirements, we needed to add some experience to the squad. In the non-FM world I couldn’t dislike Matt Ritchie any more than I already do, but on FM I feel it’s important to put personal feelings to one side for the greater good. Technically and mentally, he’s still got it and he’ll be a great gateway tutor for some of our youngsters with negative personalities and poor determination. He’ll rotate in the limited left winger role with Cairnseh this season.
You didn’t really think we’d go a season without getting in some loans did you? Russell Gale joins from Southampton for the season to play right back (and was good, so we agreed a deal for him to join permanently once his contract expired). I didn’t want to break up #Rog and Hardie, but we needed some strength in depth up front. Will Sealy, arriving on loan from Arsenal, gives us just that. He should do very well in the SPL…
Our 4th place finish in the league saw us enter the Europa League in the 3rd qualifying round.
We fairly comprehensively overcame Rijeka and managed to literally sneak past Vitesse by the slimmest of margins. Experienced Czech CB, David Jablonsky, scored a dodgy penalty in the first leg before a professional job in the away leg. We were drawn into Group A, alongside Legia, Dynamo Kiev and German giants, Schalke. I wasn’t confident we’d overcome the latter two and reach the knockouts.
But my lack of confidence was misplaced. Maybe I need to start re-evaluating my perception of this team I’m managing! We got nowhere near Schalke in the Gelsenkirchen, but that double header against Dynamo was key and we did brilliantly to beat them home and away. Hardie returned from an injury to score an 88th minute winner at “home” (our European matches are played at Broadwood in Cumbernauld, remember). After we’d completed the double over Legia too, we’d already qualified for the knockout round. An amazing achievement. A positive result in the last group stage match against Schalke would see us top the group.
A shocker of a performance in Turkey saw us go down 3-1 in the 1st leg. We weren’t good enough to win, but it was still disappointing to concede two goals from set pieces and a long range peach. I was disappointed to see only 5k fans attend the 2nd leg but maybe they already knew we wouldn’t be able to overcome that 1st leg deficit.
A disappointing end to what was a remarkable European campaign.
We came so close to lifting this grand old trophy last season.
We’ll win it one day…
Of course we lost on the opening day of the season. It wouldn’t be right if we didn’t. What followed though was our best start to an SPL season to date with eight points from our opening five matches. We’ve got to beat Rangers or Celtic at some point soon, and Dundee are fast becoming another bogey team of ours. Arsenal loanee, Will Sealy, started his Stirling career very well and he had to, as we lost Ryan Hardie to injury for the majority of the first half of the season. Five consecutive clean sheets rounded off the opening 17 matches and we’re sitting behind Celtic in 2nd place! Could we maintain it?
We’d lose a further three times in the remaining 17 matches, but none of these losses were against Celtic or Rangers. On the 17th of February 2024, the day before I turned 34, we finally managed to beat one of the Glasgow giants for the first time in this save. What a present. We dominated Rangers, but found ourselves a goal behind with 10 minutes left to play. It looked like it was going to be the same old story but the lads kept doing what they’d been doing and we got a break. Winger Lewis Vaughan rounded off a lovely little move that I outlined in my 4-4-2 post, with CM(A) Arnau Puigmal sealing the comeback and three points just two minutes later. Fist pumps galore.
I said Dundee were now our bogey team and that 4-2 defeat they inflicted on us was the low point of the second half of the season, with it being the most goals we conceded in a match across all competitions this season. A last gasp goal from Edvin Horvat (who? More on him coming in a future blog post) saw us bounce back immediately against Aberdeen, which we then followed up with another non-defeat against one of the big two, this time against Celtic.
Going into the final matchday, Celtic had the league won already. Below them however, there was a bit of drama to come. We were sitting 3rd and were facing Dumbarton, who needed to win to have any chance of surviving relegation. Rangers were in 2nd, and needed to better our result to guarantee Champions League football again. They were facing none other than their nearest and dearest, Celtic.
You’ve seen that we beat Dumbarton 2-0. Celtic kindly did us a favour and beat Rangers 1-0, meaning we finish 2nd in the SPL and qualify for the Champions League (best placed 3rd round qualifying) next season! Holy fucking shit.
Our bottom half salary per annum. Our smallest stadium in the league. Our transfer spend of less than £200k. We love punching above our weight and massively overachieving. If you fancy doing the same then you might want to click the download link in my 4-4-2 tactic post…
To further hit home the ridiculousness, and my managerial prowess (or just sheer AI stupidity), Ross County got relegated with a £12m salary per annum. That’s outrageous. We were 10 goals less prolific this season but much tighter at the back, conceding 14 less goals. It’s yet to sink in.
This section has all been very samey over the last few seasons. #Rog and Hardie, #Rog and Hardie. This season was all about Lewis Vaughan. Ignore the end of season red arrows, as my right winger on attack earned a new record 12 man of the match awards this season. His assist output decreased season on season (12 this season v 24 last), but he did manage to score one more goal with 18. He picked up the Fans Player of the Year award and ended the season with a whopping 7.69 average rating across all competitions.
We lost Ryan Hardie to a couple of injuries for a combined total of five months this season, including a broken leg in that Dundee defeat which just rounded it off ever-so-nicely. This meant we somehow had to replace a fuck tonne of goals from last season. Step forward Arsenal loanee, Will Sealy. After a couple of unremarkable loan spells at Gillingham and APOEL in the previous two seasons, who’d have known that Sealy would go on to finish as our top goalscorer this season with 27 goals in all competitions. His finishing and composure combination is one of the highest in the league but unfortunately this was very much just a short term option as he has no interest in following his fellow loanee for the season, Russell Gale, in joining permanently next season.
Vaughan and Sealy were my two big standouts, but that doesn’t mean that #Rog had a shocker of a season. 23 goals, including 20 in the league on his way to finishing as second top goalscorer, means that for £81k we’ve now had 82 goals in three seasons. Bargain of the century? Not for me to say. A question I keep getting asked on #FMSlack is have we had any offers from bigger clubs for #Rog, Hardie or Vaughan? The answer, remarkably, is no. Wasn’t AI intelligence on the 1,000+ new features list for FM17…?
Immediately after drawing with Schalke, finishing top of our group and qualifying for the Europa League knockouts, I ran up to the boardroom and made a request. After a little bit of to and fro…
Samo’s Stirling Stadium is under construction and will be ready for us to move into for my ninth season at the club. We’ve been building towards this moment since I took over, with average attendances growing by 345% over the last seven seasons and council-owned Forthbank maxed out. It’s brilliant to be able to get it built without any loans being taken out, which underlines the incredible work put in so far. The new stadium will enable us to continue growing the club and kicking us on to the next level to sustainably compete at the top level of Scottish football, and reap the benefits in Europe too.
Both Celtic and Rangers crashed out of the Champions League group stage after finishing 4th in their respective groups, while St Johnstone joined us in the Europa League knockouts, but were eliminated at the same stage by Fiorentina. Scotland has moved up to 9th now in the European Club coefficients, with 7th and 8th placed Holland and Russia in touching distance too. Great progress.
On my way to picking up my Player’s Manager of the Year award for the second consecutive season (I didn’t retain the Football Writers award this season unfortunately), I was informed that we’re now in the top 10 of the most reputable clubs in the country. This’ll continue to help us in attracting a better standard of player to the club and better compete with our league rivals off the pitch.
Stirling are going places. New stadium on the way. We’ve qualified for the Champions League for the first time, but so far, aside from the Division Two title in season one, silverware has eluded us. Building the club up to where we are now feels like a trophy win, but to actually win something and hold it aloft would signify that we mean business at the top end of Scottish football. Maybe in season eight…