Diamond Geezers, Episode 78: A Very Welsh Welcome

< Episode 77

It’s a balmy July evening as Chugger rolls over the Second Severn Crossing en route to Cardiff, the site of our greatest triumphs. We’ve won the Vans Trophy and the League Cup at the Millennium Stadium, in case you didn’t know, and I’ll always feel like the Welsh capital is our home away from home.

Today, though, we’re heading to an altogether different encounter. It’s time for the first pre-season friendly on our traditional summer tour of Wales, and we’re rumbling our way to the Cardiff Athletics Stadium to meet Porto’s Grange Quins. Now, I’ll be honest with you: I don’t know much about our opponents. They seem to be a grand old club, dating back to before the Second World War, but last night’s Netscape Navigator research threw up very little information about what we should expect here. Very secretive, and also with a squad full of greyed-out ghosts, this is going to be a surprise encounter. We’ve got to be ready for anything.

I sense a little disappointment in the faces of Philippe Mexès and Ronald De Boer as they step down from Chugger to see a single stand and a pitch surrounded by an athletics track, but this experience will be good for them. We’re not a flash or fancy club — we like to keep things simple, stay humble, and never forget our roots as a small, local club who came from nothing and worked for every bit of the several million pounds that were pumped in by a local billionaire a few years ago.

I start with what I think is my best starting eleven. I’ve been doing an awful lot of player comparisoning in pre-season, and I was interested to learn that Papoutsis is our best centre-back, and Azar Karadas is both our best striker and second-best centre-back. What a Bosman he’s turning out to be. It’s also great to see that Chiotis is a full five stars higher rated than Hugo Pinheiro, so for half a million beans, he’s going to be a real bargain. As a result, we’ll start like this today, and see how we get on. I’d rather not play Carragher alongside Papoutsis in general, since they’re very similar players — namely that they break legs first and ask questions later — but they are my two highest-rated centre-halves at the moment, so let’s see how they get on.

Even though this was always going to be a routine win, it is interesting to note that my strongest team, who play for the first half, go 3–0 up and manage 11 shots on target in an expectedly dominant display. Then, in the second, I make all nine changes, leaving only Mahouvé and Duff on the pitch — and we look considerably worse. Still not bad, and Sam Parkin pops up to score a late fourth from a De Boer centre, but the half saunters by with very little action, only two further shots on target, and everyone (except for Parkin) finishing on a pretty average 7. I feel vindicated with my choice, and I’m looking forward to mixing it up as our tour continues.

Nottingham Forest’s bid for Nicolas Anelka falls through after they can’t agree personal terms, in one of the more shocking moments of the transfer window so far. I go back and make a cheeky £6m bid over 24 months for him, which Troyes accept — and he wants £70,000 per week. No wonder Forest baulked at his demands. You and your brother can get stuffed.

After a short trip north, we are greeted by the welcoming arms of Abergavenny Thursdays at the Penypound Stadium. A managerless part-time outfit with all grey players, this should also be a fairly simple afternoon, so I fiddle my team around to see how De Boer, Hysén and Farnerud work as a midfield three.

Again, it’s a dominant win, but there are further interesting nuggets of useful information to come out of it. Firstly, the performance of Sam Parkin, who was nothing but a handful up front, winning key headers, making key passes and getting shots on target all over the place. Rob Earnshaw, by comparison, was surprisingly quiet considering he was playing alongside such an impressive powerhouse — and when I brought Javan on with ten minutes to go, even though he didn’t technically manage a shot on target, he did hit the post three times from Parkin’s knock-downs — so, exactly as I’d hoped, it looks like they could turn into an excellent little-and-large strike partnership.

Karadas came on at centre-half and scored with a diving header from a corner, which is exactly what I hoped he’d do; Carragher did well in DMC after I decided to test his mettle further forward; Hysén was surprisingly quiet, but Farnerud was unplayable throughout, scoring twice and making so many mazy runs that the Thursdays defence thought it was a Tuesday morning by the time he went off after 70 minutes. We might be playing weak opponents, but there are good learning points in here. I’m happy with how this is going.

No sooner do we wave goodbye to Abergavenny than we’re on the road to Wrexham, where we’ll face Welsh Premier Division side Flexsys Cefn Druids at Plaskynaston Lane — a team and stadium famously named by a cat walking across a keyboard in 1992. They’ll provide a sterner challenge, for sure, but still one we should overcome with relative ease. Let’s face it… they’re no TNS.

I rotate De Boer into central midfield to see how he does with Källström and Bubb either side of him; give the mountainous Karadas a start at centre-half alongside the cultured Philippe Mexès; give Carragher a try at left-back, since I expect I’ll need some options out there; and I reckon it’s time to see what the strike partnership of Javan and Parkin are capable of.

It turns out that Duff and Bubb are my standout performers; Mexès and Carragher are pretty disappointing, in truth, but Parkin and Javan are a collective nuisance, with the latter scoring the opener just before half time. Second half, after some changes, Rob Earnshaw grabs his first pre-season notch from a Bubb pass, before fellow substitute Tobias Hysén goes on a winding run and finishes with a drive into the top corner from the edge of the box. Hysén is turning out to be some signing, and I’m delighted with the result of this one — the only black mark is that Marcel gets injured after 80 minutes. I’m concerned that our Destroyer might miss the start of the season…

…but I don’t need to be. My physios tell me that despite breaking his shin in four places, his adamantium skeleton means he should only be out for about a week. Classic Marcel.

My bid for Taribo West is rejected by Standard, who seem determined to keep him despite his declaration that he wants to impress my scouts and to move to a bigger club, so I return with £5m for them to see what they say. He is still brilliant, there’s no doubt, but he’s 30 years old and will cost almost half my remaining transfer budget at this rate. I’m concerned about money already for next season — wages are costing almost £1m per month, and even though the Premier League will bring in more cash from home gate receipts, going broke at Christmas won’t be a good look.

Enough of that bellyaching, though, because it’s time for what will be our biggest game of the season: Total Network Solutions at Recreation Park. I jiggle the side around a bit, mostly to put Carragher at DMC due to injuries for Marcel and Westy, plus Dixon and Granville at full-back for a final run-out before Everton. I’m excited to play such European giants — it’s a perfect warm-up for the Premier League.

Our old friend Chris Brandon is in the starting lineup for TNS, and has obviously given them tips on how to deal with us as the Welshmen put together dangerous attacks over and over again, resulting in three of my back four being booked within half an hour. They can only manage a single shot on target, though, and meanwhile we get four in an opening half that we have the better of, but can’t change the score. I replace all my carded defenders with their superior colleagues at half-time, and after that we’re much better. Eventually, our new superstar striker makes the difference: Sam Parkin grabs a brace of headers from Bubb and Källström crosses in the 60th and 80th minutes, and eventually, pre-season’s most important and glamorous friendly ends with a 2–0 victory for your mighty Diamonds. Are you watching, Merseyside?

And with that, our friendlies are over, and we’ve got just a couple of weeks before we welcome Everton to Nene Park for our first ever Premier League game. I’m very excited, but also have a small concern: in trying to make a team out of my reserve players, I notice that I don’t have a functioning DMC. Jamie Davies can play there in an emergency, but the departure of Mad Dog has left me without anyone to bolster the position in case something awful happens. I decide to spend the next couple of weeks having a flick through the free transfers… Paul Ince is on there. I’m not a fan of the guy, to be honest, but if he doesn’t want much cash, he might be a shout.

I also check on the other DMCs on my shortlist for under £1m, and note that a number of them, namely Douglas Andersson, Lee Carsley and John Welsh, are all four or five stars better than Rhys Weston in the holding role — so lowball bids are thrown around for all of them. I also ring Tommy Svindal Larsen to see what he’s up to, but he’s already accepted an end-of-contract offer from Rosenborg, so he’s off the table again, which is a great shame. Can you actually imagine a squad containing Tommy and Marcel? We’d be getting restraining orders from teams we haven’t even played yet.

Then, suddenly, Tranmere bid £75k for Simon Dogan, my new loanee from Wimbledon and backup left-back. Now, I can’t be completely sure, but I’m pretty certain that if they accepts the offer and he takes the contract, I’ll lose him immediately. It isn’t the case on the more modern games, but I’m fairly sure these were the rules in 2001. I make a rival bid, which is accepted, and go to offer him a deal — but he wants £7,750 per week! As a backup player! You need to have a word with yourself if you think you can command Tobias Hysén wages. I guess we’re going to lose the temp.

In other transfer news… I’m looking forward to our trip to Old Trafford slightly less.

We do lose Dogan to Tranmere, and in other heartbreaking news, an earlier and very, very hopeful contract offer I sent to admittedly not interested free agent Paolo Maldini is rejected by the player, who instead decides to go to… wait

Yes, rub your eyes all you want, it’s happened: fellow Premier League new boys Crewe Alexandra have signed Paolo f — king Maldini. Crewe Alexandra. I would be beside myself if I wasn’t already watching Shelbourne bid £600k for my highly unwanted centre-back Eddie Forrest, only for him to reject their contract offer. What is this, opposite day?

My mood is brightened a little by the sight of my reserves drawing first blood in our new Premier League adventure, scoring a notable win in front of the Iain Macintosh Stand at Kings Dock. Also, it’s very nice to see my new young striker on the scoresheet — play a few more games like this, and a full first-team bow is surely only a few weeks away, Rob Earnshaw be damned.

I’m buoyed by the result as the Everton first-team bus pulls up outside the away entrance at Nene Park. Defoe, Kanouté, Vampeta, Naysmith, Radzinski, Stubbs and Rooney step down into the Irthlingborough sunshine. A top division side are here once again, but this time, it’s not a David versus Goliath cup game: it’s going to be our debut in the Premier League.

Episode 79 >

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Mike Paul Vox

Hi team, I’m Mike Paul. I’m a voice actor, narrator, and writer of various football adventures — Welcome to my Medium. http://www.mikepaulvox.com/