With Football Manager 2023 nearly done and dusted, I was running out of save ideas having completed all my long-term series. But I took inspiration from a few of the lads on the FM Library Discord channel, who’d all taken on the intriguing-looking challenge to emulate the achievements of arguably the greatest football manager of all time, Sir Alex Ferguson.
What is the Sir Alex Ferguson Challenge?
As outlined on FM Blog, here’s how the Sir Alex Ferguson Challenge works. Alex Ferguson was appointed Man UFC manager on 6 November 1986 with the club 2nd bottom of the First Division. Therefore, you have to holiday ahead to 6 November 2022 and take control of whichever club sits 2nd bottom of the Premier League. The initial challenge is to avoid relegation in the first season, then go on and emulate Ferguson’s achievements:
- Domestic Cup within 4 seasons: Ferguson’s first trophy was the FA Cup in 1990
- League Title within 7 seasons: Ferguson’s first title was the first Premier League season in 1993
- League and Cup double within 8 seasons: Ferguson won his first double in 1994
- League, Cup and Champions League treble within 13 seasons: Ferguson completed the treble in 98/99
In addition, we have to attempt to match or beat Ferguson’s outrageous haul of 38 trophies at Man UFC:
- 13 Premier Leagues
- 5 FA Cups
- 4 League Cups
- 10 Community Shields
- 2 Champions Leagues
- 1 Conference League (replacing the Cup Winners Cup)
- 1 UEFA Super Cup
- 2 FIFA Club World Cups
Alongside that, there are a few guidelines we have to try and follow:
- No cheating: Namely, no use of the in-game editor (obviously, and I don’t even have it)
- Youth players: A minimum of one youth academy product must appear in every matchday squad and at least one youth academy product must be promoted to the senior team every season
- Rivalries: No player sales or purchases from direct rivals
- Promotion from within: Where possible, attempt to make former players part of the backroom staff
Starting The SAF Challenge
Having simmed ahead a few months to 6 November, the team sitting next-to-bottom of the Premier League was… Nottingham Forest. They were only ahead of bottom-side West Ham on goal difference, only trailed 17th-place Crystal Palace by 3 points, and were 8 points behind 11th-place Everton. So the bottom half is pretty tight.
Getting Started With Nottingham Forest
The media also had Forest as 2nd-favourites to be relegated, only behind Bournemouth who were flying in 7th, so we could have our work cut out to survive. It was clear that the biggest problem at Forest was the ridiculously bloated squad. We had 94 players contracted, including a mass of outgoing loans, and most of them were nowhere near Premier League level. So my first task was to start offering out players in the hope of moving them on in January and shifting all the dross into the U21 squad.
Having slashed the first-team squad in half, I devised a fairly bog standard 4-2-3-1 approach. Jesse Lingard is apparently our best attacker and he’ll play to the left of Morgan Gibbs-White, who’d later drop into a central midfield role, with Brennan Johnson to the right and Taiwo Awoniyi, when he’s fit, up top. Danilo and Remo Freuler will be in midfield with the back five pretty much picking itself but with Neco Williams pushing for a place at full-back.
Worryingly, Forest were without a win in 9 league games, losing 7 of those. We only had one game before the Winter World Cup and it was an important one as we entertained 12th-place Fulham. We started the better but missed chances as Chris Wood (unsurprisingly) missed two sitters and Fulham made us pay as Mitrovic headed home a free-kick. I made a mass of changes, went more attacking and we continued to have the best chances before finally winning a penalty, which Gustavo Scarpa slammed home. We eventually settled for a point, but there was plenty of optimism to take from this performance. That said, we went into the World Cup bottom of the league as West Ham beat Leeds 4-1, but still just 2 points from survival.
I used the World Cup break to rebuild the staff, starting by sacking the entire coaching team, bar former player Andy Reid, and scouting team. In true SAF fashion I brought in Forest legends Stuart Pearce as assistant manager and Martin O’Neill as director of football, former players Teddy Sheringham and Chris Woods as coach and goalkeeping coach and fans’ favourite Michael Dawson as a U18s coach, as well as Dennis Bergkamp as a coach.
On the transfer front, I began flogging some of the dross, including getting £2m for Cheikhou Kouyaté and £4.1m for Emmanuel Dennis, and cancelled the loan deals of Dean Henderson and Lodi, which freed up £180k of wages. And the only player we brought in was 18-year-old midfielder Cher Ndour for £240k from Benfica.
Survival Battle Begins
The first league game after the World Cup was a trip to Anfield, where Liverpool stuffed us 5-0, before Johnson’s 4th goal of the season earned a solid 1-1 with Newcastle. Two more draws followed with consecutive 0-0s at home to Villa and at Leeds. And that tied the club’s record winless streak of 17 matches in all competitions!
However, those three draws moved us back to 19th and 2 points from safety heading into a huge game at home to bottom-side Palace. It wasn’t looking good as Zaha scored on 67 minutes but we kept plugging away and got our reward as Lingard scored twice in injury time to nick my first win as Forest manager!
We swiftly backed that win up with another as Awoniyi ended an 11-hour goal drought with a brace to down Brentford 4-1. And that lifted us out of the relegation zone for the first time in 10 weeks. We then welcomed a struggling Man UFC, who led as Rashford scored after 20 seconds but centre-back Felipe equalised and we held on for a point to go 6 league games without defeat.
Our resurgence continued with the help of a former player as Matty Cash’s own goal was the only goal at Villa, but ended with a 1-0 loss at home to West Ham. Another 1-0 loss followed at Chelsea before a 2-1 defeat at Newcastle and a 2-0 loss at home to Liverpool, which sent us back into the dropzone by a point.
April began with a huge game as we travelled to 16th-place Fulham. Gibbs-White had been in abysmal form so I threw Ndour in for his full debut and he delivered with the opener. Johnson added a second just after the break, Fulham got one back but we held on for a huge 3 points. Awoniyi and a Moussa Niakhaté penalty earned a 2-2 draw at Brighton before we took on Man City and 29-goal Erling Haaland for the first time. But a more defensive approach somehow worked a treat as Lingard, Willy Boly and Ndour earned a superb comeback to draw 3-3.
Relegation Battle Heats Up
A defeat to Spurs and 1-1 draw with Everton teed up a tasty relegation battle with 14th to 19th separated by just 5 points with 5 games to play. But we probably had the most favourable run-in.
Game 1 – Southampton (14th, home): A huge game was up first as a fellow relegation candidate came to town. We dominated the game with 20 shots to 9 and a great piece of play by Williams made the difference as he crossed to the back post for Johnson to score the only goal.
Game 2 – Bournemouth (11th, away): We were looking good for a point at Bournemouth until Aurier idiotically got himself sent off and the home side cruelly nicked a 92nd-minute winner. That left us 3 points clear of the drop with 3 games remaining.
Game 3 – Arsenal (4th, home): The toughest game of the run-in saw Arsenal come to town and edge a 2-0 win. But luckily, the teams below us all also lost.
Game 4 – Leicester (18th, away): Our final two games were against two of the bottom three, starting at Leicester who trailed us by 3 points. Palace played the day before and lost at Leeds, a win and possibly even a draw here could ensure survival. Leciester had the better of the first half and took a deserved lead through Iheanacho on 44 minutes. But Ndour grabbed an equaliser just after the break to earn us a point.
That took us 3 points clear with a superior goal difference over Leicester and Palace, meaning a big swing could still see us relegated.
Game 5 – Wolves (20th, home): We took on relegated Wolves, who’d just beaten Man City 2-1, while Leicester went to champions Liverpool and 17th-place Palace hosted 18th-place Everton. We started poorly but had Keylor Navas to thank for a few big saves, then a great Danilo pass sent Awoniyi through for his 10th of the season against the run of play. Danilo then stepped up to curl home a free-kick for his 1st goal of the season, and we were looking good with a 2-0 half-time lead. Elsewhere, Palace and Everton were drawing 1-1 and Leicester were 0-0 with Liverpool but had a player sent off after 6 minutes. Nothing happened after the break and we breezed to a 2-0 win that secured survival.
Palace thumped Everton 4-1 and Leicester lost at Liverpool, which meant Leicester and Everton joined Wolves in relegation. We ended up in 16th place and 5 points clear of the dropzone, so the first part of the SAF Challenge was done and dusted by securing survival in our first season.
Awoniyi led the way with 10 goals in 25 games followed by Johnson with 8 goals and a club-high 6 assists. More good news from the SAF front was a first youth intake that delivered a couple of players with the potential to push for the first team in striker Johnny O’Hanlon, goalkeeper Eoin Cantwell and winger Chris Harris.
Plenty of work would be required to strengthen this squad and move on some of the deadwood at the club over the summer. But could we take Forest to new levels? Join us next Wednesday to find out!
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