Raynes Park Vale are currently restricted to no games during lockdown but are performing well above expectations in the virtual world of Football Manager. Our last instalment of ‘Don’t let it bounce’ focused on Raynes Park Vale’s season so far. However, in this edition, we focus on the virtual world of Football Manager as the impossible pre-Vales.
A club embedded in the community, but one might add it’s not your typical non-league club. Their ground on Grand Drive is self-proclaimed to be ‘the worst, but the best football ground in Britain’. From dilapidated changing rooms, not helped by a recent arson attack, to a slope on one corner of the pitch, this ground is full of character. Having grown up a brief walk from Grand Drive, in the summer of 2016 David Garrett decided it was time to attempt the ultimate rags-to-riches mission and take this team up the football pyramid. Below is his story to the Premier League.
Season 1 – The Combined Counties Premier, an inconsistent start
All FM players know the importance of getting through the first season and the struggles of coaching your inherited squad to play your way. This save was no different, with the team struggling for consistency and balance on both ends of the pitch. Chertsey started the season on fire and given the sole promotion spot, it looked like this career was set to stagnate before it even took off. Inspired signing David Stone had other ideas. The former Banbury and Aylesbury striker went on to become one of the pioneers of the revolution, netting 41 goals in 40 games, firing us up to the top and above Chertsey by seven points. Vale ended the season with a double, defeating Abbey Rangers in the Combined Counties Challenge Cup.
Seasons 2-4 – The Isthmian Leagues, an omen of things to come
Our Isthmian First Division campaign started with more success, with just one defeat in the first half of the season. Contrarily to last year, an end of season rough patch cost us the championship by one point to Worthing United. 28 league goals from fan favourite David Stone carried us through to the playoffs, seeing off Dorking at the nearby Kingsmeadow and then Hastings in the final.
The Isthmian Premier was where we experienced our first reality check. Six defeats in the first seven games were shocking. Many former stars, notably an ageing David Stone and assist machine Ryan Melaugh, were let go, as the squad underwent its first mass overhaul. Vale recovered and ended the season in 9th place, showing signs of much-improved creativity and dynamism. One notable addition, Adrian Abuzâtoaie, from Essex side FC Romania, ran riot down the left wing during this period and went on to have a metamorphic impact on the club, but not necessarily on the pitch. Fans rumoured whether it was harder to defend against him or pronounce his name; you can decide that for yourself.
This form carried on through Season 4, with The Vale being crowned champions on 98 points and breaking the 100-league goal barrier. The Isthmian League Cup was also ours, having beaten a Billericay side who luckily never endured Glenn Tamplin’s reign in this virtual world. Former Brentford youth player Courtney Austin, proved to be Stone’s successor, leading the way with 30 goals during the title-winning campaign. Our achievements didn’t go unnoticed; plenty of football league sides came sniffing around our promising youngster Abuzâtoaie. Bristol City splashed out £130k for him, unprecedented for a seventh-tier side; who were able to resurface the pitch and undertake some much-needed renovation to Grand Drive.
Season 5–6 – Drama in the Vanaramas
Jubilation from the previous year spilled through into our National League South campaign, where we once again flew out of the blocks. The Christmas period, however, brought the side down to Earth with just one win in nine. The emergence of a young strike force saved our season, with Courtney Austin and former Northampton prospect Tyler Blackwood stealing the show in a strong second half. This spell saw us go on a 16-game unbeaten streak, only to be denied the title by a free-spending Maidstone side, who questionably avoided FFP sanctions. Destiny was on our side in the playoffs, defeating Lewes and St Albans. Vale’s underdog reputation was only further enhanced by our sensational run in the FA Trophy, defeating National League side Bristol Rovers 4-3 in a dramatic final at Wembley, thanks to a brace from Blackwood.
Our first season in the National League Premier saw another difficult start, as the latest overhauled squad took it’s time to gel. This wasn’t helped by mandatory reconstruction at Grand Drive, resulting in temporary relocation to Carshalton’s Colston Avenue. A strong finish to the campaign saw us yet again in the play-offs. Barnet caused no issues in the semi-finals. But Bristol Rovers, desperate for revenge for last season’s Wembley embarrassment, were to put up a strong fight in the final. Vale led most of the second half, with Rovers equalising in the 92nd minute to take it to extra time and then taking the lead mid-way through. A frantic 120th-minute equaliser from regen Josh Milne took us to penalties, during which Offrande Zanzala sealed the winning penalty to take us to the Football League.
Season 7–8 – League One and Two, an unstoppable force
Zanzala would go on to become another club legend, leading the scoring charts for the next three seasons. During this time, Vale gained back to back promotions from the National League all the way to the Championship. Our League Two campaign was again hit with inconsistency, with a squad that seemed very much out of its depth. The redevelopment work at Grand Drive was still incomplete. Additionally, with Carshalton’s ground not meeting the Football League’s regulations, a last-minute ground share at Barnet’s old stadium, Underhill, was agreed. A mid-table finish was on the cards, but a late resurgence saw us pip Newport to the final playoff spot. In the final, we again defied all odds and overcome Hartlepool with 10 men in a classic 5-4 final victory. Wembley felt like a second home at this point. Three games, three victories.
With it becoming clear that the constant overhauling was damaging our starts to the season, most of the current crop stayed on during our League One campaign. This new objective of squad solidarity proved to be successful, with free-scoring Zanzala guiding us to first place in our first season back at the new-look Grand Drive.
Season 9-12 – The Championship, the biggest rollercoaster yet
Season 9 was the most unpredictable campaign of the career. Retention of our players was successful last year, but in a division with a 5,000-capacity ground, as well as a wage budget that was a fraction of our competitors, we knew it’d be a testing one. New players were recruited, but the age-old issue of squad coherence persevered once again; not helped by our salary budget hindering the acquisition of Championship quality players. The campaign saw us lose our first 13 consecutive league games, with rumours of a sacking reverberating around Grand Drive. We gained some form, however, and pulled ourselves up into an intense relegation battle which saw us leapfrog Milton Keynes on the final day. As a Wimbledon fan, I don’t need to explain that dopamine rush.
Despite our penurious budget, the squad were able to consistently improve over the next couple of years, culminating in the 2026/27 Championship title. Our scouting range expanded, allowing us to venture into mainland Europe for new talent. Future club icons Jan Mlakar, Jiri Wozniak, and Jamal van Der Pol, were all brought in during this period. An end of season 4-1 victory against Blackburn, would be the perfect farewell to Grand Drive. Despite its renovation, it would be no ground for a Premier League side. Chelsea would go on to purchase it for their Reserve and Women’s team. Allowing Kingstonian to reacquire Kingsmeadow following Wimbledon’s return to Plough Lane.
Season 13 – The Premier League, dreamland
So, we made it. The Premier League. After years of unprecedented progression, we had reached the big time. The influx of income allowed us to reinvest greatly. Before this summer we had never signed a player for more than £0. We couldn’t have asked for a better start than a 6-1 thrashing at the new 18,000 capacity Raynes Park Stadium against Aston Villa, and a steady debut season in the Premier League saw us finish 11th place. Our league campaign was full of mesmerising moments, including a shock 3-1 win over Chelsea. After this, I had to tweet the club to share the news!
Our FA Cup run, however, epitomised the club’s journey and would be the final match of the save. A scintillating run saw us overcome the likes of Tottenham and Man City and led us once again to Wembley. This time against a far superior Liverpool side who had finished runners up in the league. The game evoked similar memories of Wimbledon’s triumph in 1988, and in a backs-to-the-wall performance. We countered Liverpool twice and stole a 2-1 victory from their grasp. Our 100%-win record at Wembley remained, and jubilation erupted around south west London.
“Football Manager? Completed it mate.”
In 13 years, Raynes Park had been transformed from a bohemian non-league outfit to FA Cup winners. An achievement which I will likely never match again. Being a long-term, yet casual player, I never expected to get past the first couple of seasons. The FA Cup win was an apt time to bring the save to an emotional end. The database became too vast for my laptop to run. I’m reluctant to add up how many hours I put in. I can only look back on this with fond memories as I sit here with the game loaded up on that old dilapidated laptop four years on. Maybe during another lockdown, there’ll be time to conquer Europe too?