“Today’s the day.” I think as I slink out of bed. I pour out some granola and milk and sit at the table, my jaw absent-mindedly moving in a circular motion as I eat, like a cow vacantly chewing it’s cud. I glance over to the empty food and water bowls in the corner of the room. Then my eyes wander over to the deflated paddling pool near the armchair. It’s been a strange year. A lot’s happened. Some of it good, some of it bad. Last summer I didn’t have particularly lofty ambitions. I wanted to get Auxerre into the top half and maybe put us in a good position to push for promotion next year, but then we started playing football and I realised that promotion was the goal for this season. For the last quarter of the year or so though even that’s seemed like just a matter of time, so my attention’s turned to the title. We could have had it wrapped up by now. Bourg-en-Bresse have had their own dip in form since securing promotion but we’ve not been able to capitalise. Today’s the day we turn that around.
Mamadou Doucouré’s name has been on everybody’s lips this week. Not only has he earned a place in the Team of the Week for helping us secure a clean sheet against Angers, but he’s also the only player in the Auxerre squad with a chance of going to World Cup 2022 with Senegal. He’s been named in Aly Gueye’s preliminary squad and should he make it to the final one, I’ll be right behind Senegal in the Summer.
I don’t want his mind to be on anything but our match today though. We can’t have our Mr Dependable at the back daydreaming about World Cup Glory. With 74 points from 37 matches, we end our season today with a home tie against La Berrichonne. They’re a good side sitting in 6th but are very much the “Best of the rest” at 11 points behind the top 5. They’ll give us a tough game. Bourg-en-Bresse, our title rivals, are playing the already relegated and bottom of the table side USBCO, where our young striker Brahim Ferhat is on loan. I really, really hope he can do us a favour today. If by some miracle USBCO win, we only need a draw in our match and our goal difference will win us the title. If they don’t though, we need to win and we need Bourg not to.
So with that in mind, we’re bowing out of the 2021/22 season with Project: Meatloaf. We will attack, get our wide lads cutting in, our full backs overlapping and we will go for the jugular. Zoun comes back into the side for Adama Ba but otherwise we’re unchanged. Let’s get this done.
In the first 10 minutes, Boscagli loses control of the ball and allows Phil Foden to stick a boot in and ping the ball ahead of Hicham Aidir. Aidir chases it into the box, takes aim and fires it low past Joris Delle and into the net with his unfavoured right foot. I leap from the dugout, punching the air. My heart’s pounding. We’ve got first blood. As it stands, we’re top of Ligue 2. The rest of the half is cagey but we go close to a second just before half time when Foden cuts in from the right, spots Delle off his line and tries to chip him from 30 yards. The keeper’s beaten but the ball drops onto the roof of the net.
At the break I give the lads a verbal clap on the back. So far we’re doing a job but we need to avoid complacency. We can’t lose this lead. We head back out – And are 2-0 up within 2 minutes. Diallo’s wayward clearance is collected by Goujon, who plays it to Zoun on the left. The winger dinks the ball inside for Hicham, who shapes his body brilliantly to thump it into the bottom corner with his left. The beautiful bastards. We’re back in the nick of time.
5 minutes later, Zoun cuts in from the left as Aguilar bombs past him down the flank. He picks out the full back, who swings in a beautiful cross… Another match suddenly pops into my mind: A pre-season friendly from almost a year ago where we took on Eupen in this very stadium. Hicham Aidir scored a header and then a left footer. He had the opportunity to score a perfect hat trick from the penalty spot but he went with his left again. That day he scored an imperfect hat trick and I gave him a lot of grief for it in the following days. As Aguilar’s cross floats through the air I already know what’s coming. Leaping like a salmon, Hicham Aidir directs a header down over the outrushing goalkeeper to complete his first perfect hat trick. The big Moroccan charges over to the dugout and gets me in a crushing bear hug. “This time!” Screams the striker. “This time is perfect!” He releases me and I laugh as much as my potentially broken ribs will allow. What a fucking player.
No sooner does he jog back onto the pitch to restart the match though than Crouchie gestures me back to the bench. He’s sat with his headphones in listening to commentary from the Bourg match. “Bourg penalty” he mouths. My heart drops. Come on, don’t be dicks. Don’t make this performance irrelevant. In the following seconds, all noise from the Stade Abbé-Deschamps fades into the background. All I can focus on is Crouch and his silence as he waits for news. After what feels like a long, long pause though, he laughs with relief. “They’ve fucked it.” He grins. I beam back at him and turn my attention back to our game. Bourg have missed a penalty. The planets are aligning. Come on USBCO, you plucky bastards. Slay the Giants.
10 minutes later, Bosnjak chips the ball over the top for Paulo César to run onto, but Doucouré gets there first. Uncharacteristically though, he miscontrols it and allows César to nick it away and fire straight at Lenogue, who can’t react in time and can only let the ball smack his arm on the way into the net. 3-1. I knew it, he’s bloody daydreaming. We go close soon after when Aidir holds the ball up and rolls it to Joël. The Ivorian slips Sissako through on goal but he drags his shot just wide.
With 20 minutes to go, Casimiro’s lacklustre throw in is cut out by Zoun on the left, who immediately turns and makes a beeline for the box. He lays the ball off for Joël who shoots, but the ball cannons off the post and is cleared for a throw on the right. Samba takes it quickly, throwing the ball to Foden, who passes inside for Aidir. Aidir turns, draws back his trusty left peg and fires past Delle. I can’t help laughing. That sums him up: Willing to make a perfect hat trick imperfect for just one more goal. I can’t complain though and the Auxerre fans certainly don’t mind. They sing his name in unison, which reverberates all around the stadium.
And then 2 things happen: Firstly, Castro floats a great cross to the far post and Obiang heads just inches wide, but then Crouchie gestures me over once again. And he’s not smiling. I look at him for a moment, frozen on the spot, and his face says it all. Bourg are winning. We’re 2nd. The news quickly filters through the crowd and their jovial singing dies away. A small section begins to sing Brahim Ferhat’s name, but just seconds later my assistant summons me again: “Ferhat’s subbed, boss. It’s not looking good.”
It’s just not fucking fair. This performance deserves to be the one that wins the title, not scraping a win against the league’s bottom team. Although that is how we secured promotion, but that’s not the point. Happy with Aidir’s day’s work I give Ayé a run out for the last 10 minutes, but I’m not sure why. It doesn’t seem like anything we do from this point matters. We’re 4-1 ahead but no amount of goals will be enough to climb above Bourg. We could even concede for all the difference it makes, in fact we do when Paulo César hits the post and taps in the rebound, but the goal’s ruled out for offside, presumably against the 2 lads that were stood on the far post not really interfering with play as the ball crossed the line. They go close again a minute later when Obiang slips Ikaunieks through, but he just misses to the left.
It’s the crowd that let me know first. A few isolated screams of delight from somewhere in the masses. I don’t think anything of them until more start joining in, or until Crouchie calls me over again, his face deadpan. “What? What’s happening?” I ask desperately. His face cracks into a wide smile.
“Monfray’s scored for USBCO. We’re top of the fucking league.”
The matches end. It’s done. We’ve won it. Maybe we shouldn’t have, but we have. Auxerre are the bloody Ligue 2 Champions.