My first morning in Le Centre de Formation, Auxerre’s training ground, is madness. I’m watching the players train and trying to work out which of them are my kind of footballers. I need to know which of them are willing to dig in and fight to keep us afloat. The task is made extra difficult by Auxerre’s massively bloated squad. Seriously, I’m not surprised that we’ve gotten ourselves into this situation. We have far too many players and plenty more in the youth teams that are ready for first team football, which means that a lot of players are going to be annoyed that they aren’t playing, which means that there’s no squad harmony, which means no cohesive team.
In a way I probably shouldn’t have delayed my relocation to Auxerre. I probably could’ve used that week to sort out who I actually want playing for me out of this rabble, but instead I’ve left myself with 2 days to get a plan together and a team identified. The quality throughout the squad is lower than I’d like too. Benoît Cheyrou once trained here! Laurent Blanc! Djibril Cissé! Eric fucking Cantona!
I don’t have time to go on and on about Auxerre’s history, their prestige or their background. I barely have time to meet everyone. There’ll be time for all of that later. The next few weeks are all about survival and early signs are that I’ve got my work cut out for me here.
After training I grab a coffee and retreat to my office to start studying videos of recent Auxerre performances. They make for grim viewing. I’m interrupted by backup full back Issa Samba and winger Jerson Cabral, who aren’t exactly coming in to welcome me to the club. They both make it clear that they want first team football and I tell them that they’d better impress me along with everyone else to earn their places. Samba promises to rise to my challenge, but Cabral thinks he should have already done enough to prove his quality. So congratulations Jerson Cabral for winning the “First arrogant dickhead to seal his future away from Auxerre award”, you’ve won a permanent holiday somewhere fucking else.
After extensive research on my players’ recent performances, strengths, weaknesses, mindsets and after consulting with my backroom team, I have a first team in mind for our first match: Away at our local rivals ESTAC Troyes.
Goalkeeper – No 16 – Xavier Lenogue
Martinique International Xavier has actually been Auxerre’s second choice goalkeeper this season, but first choice Bingourou Kamara has been putting in sub par performances and I actually think Xavier looks like the better keeper. He’s 6’4″ and has brilliant aerial ability, as well as good handling, strength, concentration and reflexes. At 24 he’s also a baby in goalkeeping terms, so he should only get better.
Right Back and Vice-Captain – No 12 – Ruben Aguilar
Ruben is a natural full back who can defend, go forwards, is solid technically and good mentally and physically. I pinch myself watching him train but I’m definitely awake and he’s definitely real. I have a rounded full back at my disposal for possibly the first time in my career. He’s 28, which should mean that he’s in or around his prime and he fits the Franjo mould of a determined, hard working team player. I’m over the bloody moon that he’s here.
Centre Back and Captain – No 2 – Baptiste Aloé
Captiste, as he’ll obviously be referred to from now on, looks like a fantastic defender. He’s not the most technical of centre backs but he’s not woefully inept either, though it’s his strength, aerial presence and fantastic mental strength that are his main assets. At 26 he too is yet to reach his prime, so he may even improve.
Defensive Centre Back – No 4 – Godspower Tower
So it turns out that we’ve got the centre back with the best name in the entire bloody world. A rhyming name, no less! Godspower Tower is a good old fashioned defensive centre back. He’s pretty awful on the ball and is not at all quick, but at 6’6″ he should dominate anyone in the air, and his terrific positioning and decision making as well as good tackling, marking, heading and bravery should make up for his lack of pace. At 24 he’s another young one, although I’m not sure whether I’ll want him in my first team long term as I prefer more rounded players, as if you didn’t know.
Defensive Left Back – No 3 – Faouzi Hikem
Touted by many as AJ Auxerre’s most promising young footballer, Faouzi is certainly an intriguing player. He’s not great technically although he’s pretty assured when tackling, but his physicality and mental strength is off the bloody charts! At 19! He’s got what I call “The Sohna Factor”. Technical ability can be coached up to a point but if you’re born with the right brain and frame you’ve got potential.
Defensive Midfielder – No 15 – Loïc Goujon
The deep-fried demon is in the building, ladies and gents. Loïc is one of quite a few versatile central defensive players that we have, although he’s the best one from what I’ve seen. He’s best in a holding man role or as a ball winner, but for me he’ll play as the former for now. He’s another man heading towards his prime at 25 and is 6’0″, a solid height for a defensive midfielder. He’s very physically fit, strong, and fits the Franjo mould.
Box to Box Midfielder – No 27 – Abdoulaye Sissako
Truth be told, Abdoulaye isn’t my first choice for this position, but you’ll meet my first choice once he’s finished his suspension and is actually eligible to play. That being said, I like Abdoulaye. He’s a young lad at 22 and is my kind of player; he’s 6’1″, he looks like he’ll run around aggressively all day, and is pretty good technically, mentally and physically. He’s also chipped in with 5 goals in 31 appearances, most of which have been from the bench, so that’s a good sign.
Deep Lying Playmaker – No 40 – Chancel Kasongo
18 year old Chancel’s a bit of a wildcard decision on my part as he’s not actually played a professional match yet. I want a playmaker though and at the minute he’s the one that fits the bill. He’s got a good passing range on him and is a very determined lad, as well as being a decent runner. At 5’4″ though he’s a little short for a stormtrooper. In fact he’s probably a little short for R2D2. I obviously have faith in him as he’s in my preliminary 11, but he’ll need to turn in good performances to stay there.
Right Winger – No 35 – Ibrahim Sangaré
I’ve got a plan. A system doesn’t necessarily need to have all your best players in from the first minute… No offence, Ibrahim… A system needs to be a plan to win a match, not to start it, and that’s why you’ll meet our best right winger soon enough, but not now. Ibrahim is, in a good way, a nice average winger. He’s almost an anti-winger actually, at 6’2″ his best qualities are his pretty good pace and strength, while his technical and mental capabilities are quite average. He is a good leader though.
Left Winger – No 18 – Corentin Tirard
Corentin looks like a good solid winger. He has no outstanding strengths and no big glowing weak spots. He’s just pretty solid across the board. He’s not as quick as I’d like a 25 year old winger to be but he has chipped in with 7 goals this season so he must be doing something right.
Advanced Forward – No 11 – Florian Ayé
Florian is crucial to this team. He’s our top goalscorer with 13 in 31 appearances, but he’s not what I’d describe as a natural goalscorer. He’s a determined and hard working target man and is physically quite outstanding: Decent pace, good jumping reach, excellent physical fitness and good strength. It doesn’t look like we have an abundance of goalscorers in this team so Florian’s going to lead the line as an advanced forward.
There are plenty of contracts expiring at the end of the Season, which will go some way to sorting out the bloated squad problem, so I decide to get some early transfer business done. The targets won’t surprise you I don’t think. I definitely need to look at a natural goalscorer and a playmaker, so I lodge bids with my former club Santos of £450k for Hicham Aidir and £250k for Joël Soumahoro. I also need at least 1 quality defender, so a bid of £400k for Mike Kakuba follows, and I’m not ready to stop developing Isaac Sohna yet, so I bid £375k for his services. Goolam accepts all of them and I offer the players contracts, with Isaac Sohna and Mike Kakuba instantly agreeing to rejoin me in the Summer. We’ll have to wait until after the match to lock down the other 2.
For now though it’s time to turn our attention to the League match against ESTAC Troyes. As if an away match at a local rival wasn’t enough of a baptism of fire for me, Troyes seem to be 11 places and 17 points above us in the League, so they’ll be tricky opposition.
L’AJA, as my new team are known, have lost 5 matches in a row and haven’t recorded a win in our last 8. Morale is understandably on the floor. The only time I can remember being in this much of a slump was during my short stint in Katowice, at which time I tried everything under the sun to turn us around and nothing worked. I very very nearly got us relegated. I have a massive advantage now though as I’m not carrying any of the baggage or frustration from Auxerre’s previous matches. I’m not overthinking it. I get to come in as an outsider and look at the club’s situation objectively, and for me there’s only 1 thing for it – Back to basics.
I’ve enjoyed very basic systems this year in particular as they allow your players to play their natural games so that they’ll be more comfortable, while still having a structure to work around. I won’t be bogging the players down with a load of instructions, we’ll use Project: Meatloaf Mk II just like I’ve been using in Lansdowne. We will however play ultra narrow, which is becoming my usual solution against narrow formations like Troyes’ flat 4-3-3, as having the players packed together restricts space in the centre where the opposition are trying to focus their play.
12 minutes in we’re holding our own and even putting together some passes. Striker Florian Ayé cuts in from the left wing and passes to Tirard on the edge of the box. A defender sticks a boot in and dispossesses Tirard but Ayé’s quickest to react, putting his foot through the ball, which flies goalwards – And bounces in off the post. The hosts stick religiously to their 4-3-3 even long after it’s become clear that we’re not going to allow it to work. The rest of the first half and much of the second is scrappy, with both teams cancelling each other out.
With 20 minutes to play in the match, I bring on arguably our best winger – Roland Zoungrana, who I nickname Zoun. Ibrahim Sangaré comes off. The reason I started with Ibrahim is that he looked solid and looked like he’d do a job for us, and then I could bring on Zoun, our lightning fast Burkinabe secret weapon. I’m going to use him as an impact substitute at first because the difference in speed between him and a tired left back is just glorious. He’s not the finished article though. He’s 21 years old and has not yet mastered the technical side of the game. If I can get this lad better at his crossing and his dribbling for a start, he’ll be fantastic.
Zoun doesn’t make any sort of impact from the bench, but to be fair he doesn’t need to. The match stays tight, scrappy and frustrating until the final whistle blows. We pick up our first victory in 8 matches in our local rivals’ back yard.
I’m delighted. Absolutely ecstatic. We’ve even leapfrogged La Berrichonne into 16th place. Just like that, we’ve got a chance to build confidence and momentum. The monkey’s off our back and we’re 3 points clear of the relegation play off spot. L’AJA aren’t safe yet, but what a fucking start.