The Prodigal Daughter Returns

Welcome to my first story, here, on Tea and Busquets.  Before going any further, I want to publically thank Cleon by offering me this incredible opportunity.  Before diving into the story itself, I want to give you a little idea of what to expect and also, explain a bit of my writing process.  

First, this is a story; this is not a career update.  This means that the story itself is written with a specific arch that has a beginning, a middle and an endpoint.  The save itself dictates the pace of the story while it can also influence some aspect of it. This is important because the way I played the save is in a “role-playing” format. The story derives from there.

Two, I want to talk to you a little about my writing process.  I do not write after playing a season or an entire save; I write as I play.  So, for example, let’s say I talk about game preparation for a particular match, and then, in the same post, I talk about what happened in that game.  This means that I wrote the pre-game preparation first. Then, I played the match itself. Finally, I wrote about the match and the result, adding some little snippets here and there for storytelling purposes.  Since I write about the character that is in my save and that in real life, the character would not know in advance what would happen to him, I write without knowing it either.

Three, as I previously said, this is a story and not a career update so; there will be very few screenshots except some league tables here and there, or some elements to illustrate things when it will be needed.  This also means that it could be a good read during commute since there won’t be screenshots who would be crucial to the understanding of the story…

Fourth, the posts will be about half the size as Cleon’s (except this one).  I will often do time skips, like a YouTuber who put about 10 to 12 vids to show an entire season.  It will be the same thing, just in written form.

Finally, I really need to say this: what I achieved, in FM, with that particular manager, I have never, ever, did something similar in any other saves before!  I don’t know why… It’s just is… Maybe I got touched by a Cleon Angel or a Daljit Angel that told me: “Only for this one mate!” Who knows? But I wanted to let it out there…

I hope you enjoy reading my story.

Ben a.k.a. Rien102

“The Prodigal Daughter Returns

By Brian Wifferdill

Emirates Stadium, London, Tuesday 4 May 2038

By appointing Penny Stiles as their manager, the Direction of Arsenal boasted today that they’ve just «…made a true big catch!».  The 51 years old woman, the first one to manage in top leagues, has deep roots with the club, having played with the Arsenal Ladies.  The news of the arrival even prompted a former coach of the Ladies to declare: «If Vic Akers was still alive today, he’d surely say that it is nothing less than the prodigal daughter returns!»  

Penny Stiles was a goalkeeper and she got her chance with the Arsenal Ladies Football Club at the age of 15.  Precocious and tall for her age, she already was a very driven individual. She made her debut at the end of her 1st season and before the end of her 3rd season with the Ladies, she was designated the number one goalkeeper; she was 17.  She rapidly caught the attention of the Women English National Team who brought her in for a friendly against Cameroun, which ended with a 4-0 score.

Shortly after her 18th birthday, coming back from the gym, her car was harpooned, on the driver’s side, by another one running a red light.  The impact was violent. She was brought to the hospital with multiple injuries and very severe internal bleeding. The main injuries were located on her right side.  The right leg was even broke it in several places and her right ankle was crushed. Once an artificial ankle one was finally in place, she was able to walk again, but with a crutch.  Her career as a player was over.

She would disappear from football for some years before reappearing as a tactical coach for an amateur Division 12 team in London.  She subsequently was named manager of the team and seven years later, was offered the manager job of an amateur Division 9 team from Herefordshire County.  This is where she was noticed by the President of the Board of Hereford FC.

A Phoenix club formed in 2014, Hereford FC got two rapid promotions and arrived in Division 7, landing in Conference South.  After their first campaign, where the club spent almost the entire campaign in the relegation zone, the manager was fired. Then President of the Board, David Boggins brought Stiles into the club’s midst.

Her first season with the Bulls, now transferred in Conference North, was everything the club and the fans could have wanted.  The club won the title while getting two good runs in Cups. She was named Manager of the Year. The year after, Stiles was again able to get another stellar season, grabbing a second title in two years on the very last game of the season against Ebbsfleet who was in the top spot on goal difference.  In Cups, she managed to bring the Bulls to Wembley in the FA Trophy competition, where she lost 1-2 against Salford while getting another good run in FA Cup. She received the Manager of Year award a second time.

That second season was difficult on a personal level; her daughter being diagnosed with Leukemia.  Stiles decided to quit Hereford at the end of the season to accept a Tactical coach job with West Bromwich Albion, with the caveat that she would only have to work during regular office hours so that she could tend to her daughter for the rest of her treatments and her recovery.  She would stay with the Baggies for 3 years and travelled between Premier League and Championship after each season.

On March 24th, 2024, Aston Villa was 6 points into the relegation zone and fired their manager, Peter Bosz.  Looking more and more toward the sidelines, she decided to apply for the job, without great expectations. The 12th of April, the club announced her nomination and made her the first woman ever to be the manager of a top league team.  When asked if her appointment constituted big a risk, Tony Xia, the owner, answered: «The risk is to not win enough games, but we already are doing that! We’ve been doing it since the beginning of the season!” She would only have 6 games to keep the team in Premier League

Her first match would be the very next day, at Villa Park, ironically, against none other than Arsenal.  Despite the expulsion of her left winger barely 4 minutes into the match, she managed to get a 1-1 draw against the Gunners, who were 7th on the table.  She would get her first Premier League win the very next week against Middlesbrough, at Riverside Stadium.  She finished the campaign in 16th place.

Stiles would stay with Aston Villa for 11 full seasons and be able to bring the club back to summits that the fans were hoping for over 25 years.  With the claret and blue, she was able to win 4 Premier League titles, 3 FA Cups, 1 Europa League and to reach the Champion’s League final three times, winning the coveted trophy twice. To her now impressive silverware cabinet, she also added four Manager of the Year awards.

She would leave the Villans in 2035, to take the helm of the English National team following miserable results on the international scene; the Three Lions even failing to qualify for the 2034 World Cup.  She had made clear, right from the start, that she was coming in with only one goal in mind: the 2038 World Cup that would be played in the United States. Taking the reign of a completely demoralized squad, she installed her stance very early on, working on morale before anything else.  In the 2036 Nation’s League, she was able to bring the trophy to England with surprise wins of 1-0 against Germany, Italy and finally Spain in the finals. The 2038 World Cup was not as good but was more than respectable. The Three Lions flew over everyone in their group. In the semi-final, they would lose 0-1 to Italy on a penalty given at the 95th minute for a tackle that, despite VAR, is still hotly debated today.

Her arrival as manager with the Gunners is a clear break with the way managers ran the team.  She is someone who is known to be a harsh disciplinarian. Despite her rigid stance on discipline, she still is a manager that is beloved by her players.  Never shy of giving it straight to anyone, she is known for working very hard to keep morale as high as possible, without sugar coating anything she thinks is not up to the standards she has set for the team.

On the pitch, she tends to prefer physical players and she prefers players with a very high work rate above everything else.  This physicality of the players is directly used onto the pitch, favouring a very physical type of play, where constant harassment of the opponent is a key feature.

She also tends to include young players from the club’s academy in her main squad very early.  In the last 6 years with Villa, the average age of her squad never was higher than 24. In the same period, no less than 14 players coming from the academy got at least 10 starts with the main squads outside of the League Cup and lower rounds of the FA Cup.  This trend is combined with high club pride, which she works hard to develop and nourish. A great example of this happened in 2029 when the Villans’ U18 squad reached the Junior Champion’s League Semi-Finals for the very first time. She decided to bring the entire club to Switzerland, as spectators, for the game.  Inspired by their presence, the U18 squad was able to secure their presence into the Final by defeating the Real Madrid U19 squad by a 1-0 score. Two weeks later, when the U18 squad was back in Switzerland for the Final against Bayern’s U19, she was at Wembley, playing the FA Cup Final for the club’s first time in 13 years.  Stiles arranged things so that both teams would arrive at Bodymoor Heath at approximately the same time after the games. While the U18 squad was able to get the first ever Junior Champions League trophy for the club, the main squad simultaneously won their 1st FA Cup since 1957; it was the 1st of her reign.  She made sure that all the squads of the club would celebrate together.  Diego Pearce, a player who arrived in the U18 squad from the Academy that year, and who would become her first player emanating from the Academy to be part of the main XI of the club, and who is now with Arsenal, recalled the event in an interview in 2032,:  «… just to see all those players in the stands cheering for us in the Semi-Finals was something else… but to celebrate, all together, for those two trophies, put a stamp on all her talk about everyone wearing the claret and blue shirt being on equal footing, whatever the squad they were playing in…»

For the Villa fans, she is affectionately known as “The Statue Queen”.  If she physically never was a very expressive manager on the sidelines, her general demeanour on the pitch dramatically changed for the 2025/26 campaign.  During the 33rd game of the previous season, Aston Villa was playing the Citizens. The Villans being in 5th place on the table at the time, 2 points behind Tottenham and City, who were in 3rd and 4th place respectively.  Her left back had to be pulled out of the game with a twisted knee after a double tackle from Citizens players only 10 minutes in. Before the end of the first half, her main central defender had to get out the pitch after being pushed headfirst into the woodwork on a defensive corner; he needed 10 stitches just to stop the bleeding and had to be subbed.  Then, one of her midfielders was escorted out of the pitch with a concussion after a collision with two City’s players on the 50th minute. But at the 82nd minute’s mark, when her main striker was injured by a hard tackle, she became apoplectic! It was the fourth injury due to hard play, the 31st fouls of the game for the Citizens, and all without getting a single yellow card.  Going on the pitch, she started screaming at the main referee, making a graphic gesture and simulating sexual acts while insulting him. Despite her Assistant Manager, three of the Villans’ coaches and some players on the bench trying to hold her back, she just wouldn’t be stopped: «… what the f*** is that? Italy’s 2000’s?», making a direct insinuation to the fixed matches scandal that shook Italy’s Serie A, in 2005.  She was expelled from the match, got a 5 games suspension and a hefty 150 000 pounds fine from FA. The club put her on probation for an entire year but refused to fine her. If she apologized for the graphic gestures she made, to this day, she always has refused to do the same about what she said. Since then, she would stay completely still in her technical area, hence the nickname, «The Statued Queen» given to her by the Villa fans.

Her Tactical openness and versatility are considered to be a big reason for some of her successes.  Coming to Hereford and Aston Villa as managers, she put out systems based on a low block, where the midfielders would press hard against the attackers, low in her half to get the ball back, before launching lightning-quick counter-attacks focused either on a fast series of short passes or with balls over the top of the opponent’s defence.  With Hereford, she mainly used a 4-4-2 Diamond that would push the opponents to the flanks, counting on her defenders to intercept the crosses. With Aston Villa, she used either a 4-2-3-1 Wide or a 4-2-3-1 Deep, with 2 defensive midfielders. Both systems were defence centric, with strong harassment in midfield and counter-attacking whenever the chance was offered.  With this last set-up, she was able to achieve her first Premier League title, in 2028, while being called for nothing more than a 13th position on the table. The age of her main wingers and the arrival of Diego Pearce in March 2028 would demonstrate that she was more than willing to adapt her system to her players instead of breaking the players into a specific system.

The 2028/29 campaign saw her departure from her staple low block, defensive approach, and deployed an offensive 3-5-2 system, based on patience and movement.  While on the defensive phase, it was running much like a 4-4-2, where the one wingback would drop with the central defenders while the other would press on the opponent with the ball.  The defensive line would be high, to compress the opponent's midfield and also, to give a chance to her forwards to harass them from behind, block passing lanes or press directly on the midfielders with the ball.  On the other hand, when on the attack, the system would become a 3-3-4, where both wingbacks would go very high up the pitch, to support the forwards from the flanks. The play would slowly be built from the back, through the middle, before shifting the ball to the flanks when the midfield line was crossed.  Encouraging her players to recycle the ball whenever they thought necessary, the forwards would spend their time probing the defensive line of the opponents; their speed and work rate making them extremely mobile and hard to mark. Using the staple that the «key is not to move the ball but the opponents», the team would often switch the ball from flank to flank in the final third, especially against a team playing narrow defensively, creating space and opportunities.  The first season she used the system, despite still being tagged as nothing more than a mid-table team, Aston Villa finished in 4th place, getting a Champions League spot in two consecutive seasons.  Instead of breaking players into her system, she broke her system to maximize the use of the players she got, demonstrating all her tactical flexibility.

Her men management skills, combined with harsh discipline, hunger for winning are keys to understand Stiles but for some, her tactical adaptability is probably the most potent weapon she possesses.  And for Arsenal, who got nothing better than 1 Europa League run in the last 6 years to give their fans, the arrival of Stiles surely is hoped to be equivocal, indeed, with the tale of the prodigal daughter returns.”

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