My first game was at home to Armenia. After finishing in third place at the World Cup, this was a step down the ladder!
I decided to name Steven Gerrard as my new captain; Neville was 35 and in Tony Adams opinion, not as strong as he once was. John Terry was my vice-captain. I did decide to keep Neville and David Beckham in the squad however. It was tempting to forget about them and move on to a new era, but as the two of the three most capped players in English history, I thought their experience on the bench would be useful.
I did however find some new players to bring into my team. Taking Neville's place at right-back was Micah Richards, previously his understudy. Chelsea also bought a player called Michael Woods for £26 million. I figured he must be good. Scout reports confirmed that. He played alongside Lampard at Chelsea, so I decided to call him up to the team. I also decided on a new front pair. After the huge success of Rooney and Carroll at the World Cup, I stuck with them, despite the return to form of Michael Owen.
In my opening game against Armenia, I expected a comfortable stroll to victory. It looked like that might happen after 16 minutes, when Andy Carroll scored. Steven Gerrard was injured for the match, so I picked Michael Carrick (not Woods just yet) to play, and he scored his first goal for England just after half-time. 2-0 win for England, but I was disappointed - I felt Armenia were a side I should have done better against.
The Neu Camp. The Bernebau. Old Trafford. Those are just three of the most feared away stadia in football. The Zimbru Stadium in Moldova doesn't quite hold the same fear factor. FIFA think Moldova are about the 50th best team in the world though (people didn't believe me when I said their system was crap...), so I hoped Football Manager hadn't simulated them too strongly. Frank Lampard scored after 11 minutes, and Andy Carroll scored again a minute later. Shaun Wright-Philliips, now my permanent right-wing, scored after 22 minutes. England then coasted, with Stuart Downing scoring from a free-kick in the last 10 minutes to give England a 4-0 win.
Finland at home would be tough. In the 2010 World Cup, the Finns reached the last 16, so they were capable of performing well. That said, they had just lost 2-1 in Armenia. In a poor performance, Carroll scored his 10th goal for England in the second added minute of stoppage time at the end of the first half. England went on to win "only" 1-0. But a win, nonetheless.
My final competative game of the year was away to Iceland. They too, could only draw with Armenia. Steven Gerrard scored after 9 minutes to give England the lead, but the win wasn't secured until the last minute, when Ashley Young scored. It was deserved for Young, who had a goal ruled out wrongly ten minutes beforehand. 2-0 to England, in a game that we dominated.
I then had two friendlies in Africa, against Ghana and Ivory Coast. I had injury problems however, with Wayne Rooney and Michael Owen both injured. I was therefore forced to start Jermaine Defoe upfront with Andy Carroll. Carroll scored again to give me a 1-0 lead. But from nowhere, Gyan scored two goals for Ghana, and it was 2-1 Ghana at half-time. After a kick up the backside, Rio Ferdinand headed home from a corner to level the match. Shaun Wright-Phillips then had a goal chalked off. England looked favourites to go on and win it. But in the 71st minute, Kingston scored for Ghana. I had no choice but to attack - but I had no forwards to bring on! Therefore, I could do very little to help England, who lost 3-2. Very disappointing.
Three days later and we moved on to the Ivory Coast - I use the English because I can't be bothered to find the accents for the French equivalent - and another game I should win. The success of the game was that Didier Drogba was poor for them, but Keita was brilliant, and scored twice. 2-0 Ivory Coast. Defoe missed chances galore, and Carroll was tired from playing two full games against Iceland and Ghana in the last week. A very poor run.
My next friendly in February was against Uruguay at Wembley. I had massive injury problems. The full list was Wayne Rooney, Steven Gerrard, Owen Hargreaves, Michael Carrick, Dean Ashton, Ashley Young and Micah Richards. It took twenty minutes to pick a squad! I decided to drop Lampard, and give Woods a chance alongside Michael Johnson. The game went well. Carroll scored a hat-trick, and Woods scored his first goal for England. Stuart Downing and Michael Owen both added goals to give England a 6-2 win. The defence was quite bad at times, from both teams.
My next game was the important match in the group, against a Norwegian team who had also won their first four games of qualifying. For this match, Wayne Rooney and Steven Gerrard had recovered, but now Stuart Downing and Ashley Cole were injured. Leighton Baines started at left-back, and Joe Cole came in on the left-wing. Andy Carroll scored the first goal again, number 15 for England. Wayne Rooney scored his first England goal in secen games to double the lead. Andy Carroll made it 3-0 before half time. England hadn't conceded a goal at all during qualification, until the 86th minute when Morten Gamst Pedersen scored a consolation for the Norwegians. A shame to concede, but I'm not disappointed with a 3-1 win.
My next game was against Armenia, this time away. I was a bit fearful of their home record; they had beaten Finland and drawn with Iceland there. Wayne Rooney injured himself in training, so Michael Owen was promoted to start alongside Andy Carroll. My first goal was lucky, as Joe Cole crossed the ball into the box. The goalkeeper came to catch as Carroll came to head it in... But both missed it, and Cole ended up scoring. The second goal was much better. Michael Owen got the ball from a great pass by Cole, and he rounded the keeper to score. He added a third after an hour. Armenia pulled one back in the 76th minute, Manucharyan scored. Still 3-1. The game was notable for Lampard's 100th cap. When you grow up, you don't dream of playing your 100th game for England infront of 5,000 people in Armenia, but never mind.
The English domestic season concluded with a three-way battle for the title. Liverpool and Manchester United were level on 70 points going into the final game, with Fulham, of all teams, one behind on 69. Fulham and Liverpool lost their games however, and Manchester United drew 0-0 with Nottingham Forest to win the title. Portsmouth beat Sunderland 3-2 in the FA Cup Final. In the Champions' Cup Final (no rights to call it Champions' League), Barcelona beat AC Milan, 6-0! It was 5-0 at half-time! Dinamo Kiev beat Chelsea 5-1 in the non-copyrighted equivalent of the UEFA Cup Final.
Remember that I turned down a job with Queen's Park Rangers, opting to manage England? I looked at the Championship table, and saw they finished 24th in the Championship (last), and were 15 points adrift of 23rd place, and 24 adrift of survival as the season ended.
I've forgotten who my next game is against, but I basically have to play all other teams in my group again. I am likely to recall my now recovered players, such as Ashton, Downing etc. I am also set to introduce Ben Foster to the England squad, for two reasons. Firstly, David James has retired (he's 40), and secondly, he was transferred to Atletico Madrid, where he appears to have done well. So, I will pick him as a replacement for David James.
Here is the England table, complete with the new svg flags. :-) Don't write off Armenia yet, either. They are the only team that haven't played Moldova yet, and a win there brings them back into contention in the group.