Side note: Just a heads up, I’ve not had access to my PC for quite a while and won’t have it for a few weeks yet. As match highlights don’t upload properly from Mac there’ll be no match highlights until I get it back. When I do I’ll be adding them all retroactively though. There’s also no new Auxerre kit for the same reason, which I’m a bit more annoyed about, but oh well.
There’s a spring in my step as I stride into the Centre de Formation for the first day of pre-season. This Summer we won’t just be preparing for a new season, but for a year of eating at the top table, rubbing shoulders with some of the elite footballers, managers and teams in the World. Although… You’d think that promotion to a League with the reputation of Ligue 1 would mean an influx of money that we could use to fill the club’s coffers, pay off some debt and maybe make some signings, but we actually didn’t make that much by winning the league and certainly not enough to do any of those things I just mentioned, so it’s also going to be a very difficult year financially. With this in mind my first job is tying down players that we already have and I don’t want to lose on a free at the end of next season. Quite a few players are entering their final year but for now I offer new deals to those that I consider key: Xavier Lenogue, Issa Samba, Loïc Goujon and Zoun all gladly sign on the dotted line along with Nathan Andre, who’s back from a fairly successful loan spell at Cercle Brugge and is hopefully ready to battle for a starting berth.
The tabloids are quick to speculate on my future: Ronald Koeman and Olivier Frapolli are sacked by Toulouse and Lens respectively and I’m linked with both jobs, but I quickly refute the rumours. I didn’t get Auxerre up to the big time just to jump ship for another Ligue 1, or in Lens’ case Ligue 2 job. I want the challenge of keeping AJA in the division. I need it and I owe it to the club. The new board are pretty pleased by my commitment.
There are a couple of awards dished out during the summer that I forgot to mention in my year 6 review: Firstly the Belgian Pro League B Player of the Year, in which our promising on loan playmaker Chancel Kasongo came in 3rd, and the Young Player of the Year, which he won. He’s certainly a prospect and one to keep in mind for the new season.
And then the Ligue 2 Manager of the Season award, for which I’m included on the 5 man shortlist. I send in my vote for Bourg manager Laurent Roussey, who eventually deservedly wins the award for the reasons I’ve listed before. Bourg should have been closer to dropping out of Ligue 2 than being promoted and he did a really terrific job.
Mamadou Doucouré was selected in Senegal’s final World Cup squad and was an unused sub for the first 2 group games as his nation thrashed Croatia and drew with South Korea, a result that left Senegal in the difficult position of having to get a result against Brazil or hoping that Croatia also mess up against the Koreans. Naturally, Mamadou was drafted in for the crunch match against the Brazilians and was actually OK against a front 3 of Gabriel Jesus, Vinícius Júnior and Neymar, but in the end the South Americans took a 2-0 win to knock the African side out at the group stage.
Doucouré’s contract with Mönchengladbach actually expires next summer so I’ve got a bit of a sneaky plan. I arrange another year-long loan for the centre back but this time I ask for the option to buy him at any point for his current release clause of £1.3M. That way if we do stay up this year and have a bit of money to spend next Summer, we’ll either be able to bring him in for free or for a snip if Mönchengladbach decide to extend his contract, like Platinum Stars did back in the day with Eliphas Thoahlane. That’s right, I’ve actually learned a lesson from past experience. Mönchengladbach accept and we secure the services of our excellent Senegalese centre back for another year and perhaps beyond.
So with our first transfer of the 2022/23 season secured we also get our first offer for a player: Abdoulaye Sissako is wanted by Ajaccio, who came up with us via the playoffs. They make a bid that could rise to £1.5M but I reject it out of hand. I’ve said before that Sissako is my kind of player. He’s Auxerre’s Benjamim, he’s our Sinbad and what’s more he’s one of our core group of home grown players. I won’t give him up without a fight.
In fact this seems like as good a time as any to hand out lucrative new deals to keep some of our best and brightest happy. Sissako gets a new contract along with Hicham Aidir, Phil Foden and Joël Soumahoro, while youth players Brahim Ferhat, Gaizka Basauri, Paul Lefevre, Chancel Kasongo, Serge Bamba, Georges Bailly, Abdoulaye Traoré, Alessandro Bassani, Tristan Dubois, Marc François, Ed Bolton and Daniel Garza are also either given new deals or have their contract extensions triggered. I want some of these young talents in and around the squad this year.
Speaking of young holding man Basauri, I’m sending him off on loan to Groupe Sportif Consolat in Ligue 2 so that he can get a bit of quality football. If he improves like some of the first team squad did last year he might even be ready for Ligue 1 next year.
The next job I’m linked with gives me actual pause for thought: The Middlesbrough job. Middlesbrough recently finished top of the Championship under Ryan Giggs, but he got immediately snapped up by Crystal Palace, leaving Boro managerless in the Premier League. In the end though I decide to distance myself and commit to AJA once again. It’s still an ambition to move back to Blighty but the time’s still not right.
We say goodbye this Summer to a player that by all accounts has been truly fantastic for Auxerre and I’m kind of sad that I missed seeing him play in his pomp when he set all of those records. Jérôme Mombris is hanging up his boots and has agreed to join Valenciennes as the manager of their reserve side. I decide not to offer him a contract here as I’ve already got a full house of more experienced staff, but he’s definitely got potential as a coach and I’ll be keeping an eye on him.
So it’s about time we take stock of who we have, who we need to bring in and who we can let go. At the minute, these are the players that I think are good enough for the first team.
Goalkeepers: Xavier Lenogue, Bingourou Kamara, Anthony Gasnier
Defenders: Issa Samba, Ruben Aguilar, Captiste, Mamadou Doucouré, Mike Kakuba, Isaac Sohna, Faouzi Hikem, Billy
Midfielders: Loïc Goujon, Raf, Abdoulaye Sissako, Lamine Fomba, Joël Soumahoro, Chancel Kasongo, Phil Foden, Alessandro Bassani, Zoun, Adama Ba
Strikers: Hicham Aidir, Florian Ayé, Nathan Andre, Brahim Ferhat
Obviously you can never predict what kind of a part injuries, suspensions and whatever else are going to play but I think that’s pretty much our squad for the new season, so there’s a few things to note: Firstly, I don’t think we’re particularly weak in any area although we will obviously be going up against an entirely new level of opposition so some extra quality in the squad definitely wouldn’t go amiss. Secondly, Corentin Tirard is on the transfer list and is not in my thinking for the new season. I really thought when I joined that he’d be one of our key players but he’s reminded me more and more of Marco Aurélio at Angrense (Top marks if anybody remembers him): Full of promise, full of ability (ish) but the performances for me just haven’t been there so he’s not going to get into my squad.
Finally, I’ve already mentioned the financial difficulties that we’re going to have this season. Dennis Sundberg has said that our main goal is avoiding automatic relegation, which is probably fair, so he’s giving us £2 Million to spend, although a lot of that is going to have to go on wages as we’re already maxing out our £200k wage budget. I imagine that we’ll have about £1M to spend on players, maximum. We are going to receive about £11M through TV revenue this Season though which should put us in a good position next year.
Because of these restrictions, I’m going to be leaning into the proud Auxerrois tradition of blooding young players from the academy to provide reinforcements. It’s definitely a risky strategy but I think it’s our only option and personally I’m quite excited by the prospect of flying in the face of the modern way of spending money to succeed. Most of our current squad is made of academy graduates anyway so it should at least be easy to ingratiate the youngsters into a team who’ve already been in their position. Saying that, although there’s not much value in the transfer market this Summer there are 2 roles I would quite like to fill: A set piece specialist, because even though Phil Foden did a fine job with them last year I feel like set pieces could be the difference between going down and staying up this season and I want to maximise our efficiency from them with someone who can hit a fantastic corner or free kick. I’d also like to bring in an experienced old head to sit in front of our defence and conduct the team. Someone who’s been there, done that and can offer a calm authority on the pitch for what is an extremely young Auxerre team. Somebody who can pull the strings from a deep position and organise our defence and midfield, shout and scream and make sure everybody’s doing their job. If you remember Brian Clough’s Derby County or have ever seen “The Damned United” (Which you should, it’s fantastic), I’m looking for a Dave MacKay… Although hopefully a Dave MacKay that won’t pinch my job. I’ve had my scouts looking for somebody to fit the bill but at the minute this looks like it might be a difficult get, so Captiste is training as a defensive midfielder in case we can’t find anyone.
So with our transfer strategy in place and our scouts scurrying around with the unenviable task of finding me 2 Ligue 1 quality players for under £1M, it’s time to start thinking about fixtures. The schedule’s released for the new season and it looks like we’ll be bookending our year with matches against FC Lorient and we’ll be travelling to their place on the opening day. I quite like this for a couple of reasons. Firstly, although Lorient are a good team there are definitely more difficult starts we could have, and secondly FC Lorient have among their number a striker named Augustin Rostand.
I’d be surprised if you remember Augustin, but after my first season in Lansdowne I went out looking for a top striker, scouring Africa for the right one. In the end of course I came away with Hicham Aidir and I think we can all agree that that was a fantastic and pretty fortunate piece of business, but me and Hicham could’ve never crossed paths. He was my second choice after Augustin. Unfortunately for the Cameroon international he might’ve taken too big a step up from Unisport in his home nation, opting to head straight for the glitz and glamour of Ligue 1 over Santos and his career has since faltered. In the past 2 years, Hicham Aidir’s scored 55 goals for me in competitive matches, whereas Rostand’s game time has been limited and he’s managed just 6 for his club, starting in the first team just 4 times. If he does get a game against us I’ll be very interested to see which striker comes out on top.
I’ve also arranged our friendlies ahead of the new season: As has become the norm we’ll start with matches against the Under 19’s and second string, before travelling to Switzerland to take on Schaffhausen, then a home match against Romanian First Division side CS U Craiova and an away tie at French CFA side SC Schiltigheim. From there and with fitness levels rising we’ll start to ramp up the difficulty with a trip to Championship side Reading and then 3 home matches against Bundesliga outfit Ingolstadt and Premier League clubs Chelsea and Tottenham. There’s some extremely challenging matches in there and they should help us to gage how we’ll start a very tough season.
A few more young players are heading out on loan: Paul Lefevre and Abdoulaye Traoré’s loan deals are being extended at Fethiyespor and SO Romorantin respectively, while the latter are also taking Marc François for the season. All 3 youngsters are fairly promising but it’s too soon to try them in Ligue 1 and they’ll be better served getting consistent game time.
When the time comes for our first pre-season friendly I don’t have my full squad available, what with last year’s loanees not yet having returned and Mamadou Doucouré knackered after his time with Senegal. We go with our attacking Project: Meatloaf that served us so well last year and the lads thoroughly enjoy demolishing our poor youth team 6-0. Foden and Joël both hit the woodwork and Joël has a goal disallowed, but eventually Foden finds the breakthrough, Zoun adds a second and Florian Ayé hits the other 4 after coming on as a half time sub. Impressive.
The day after the match I complete my Continental A coaching badge, meaning I’m just missing the Pro license now. I can’t see myself being able to start my studies any time soon with Auxerre’s awful finances being what they are, but it’s exciting that I’m developing as a coach and opening up avenues to potentially bigger clubs in the future.
Our next friendly is always my favourite: The match against our second string, a fantastic opportunity for up to 33 players to impress me. Hicham bruises his shin before the game and misses out along with Phil Foden, who’s not fit enough after the last match. Captiste starts us off by hitting a fantastic free kick into the net from the edge of the box and it looks like we’re going to see out the game 1-0 with a dominant performance, but 20 minutes from time Faouzi Hikem receives a second yellow for what I personally thought was a superb slide tackle on Djiby Ba inside the box. Adama Ba (No relation) steps up to convert the spot kick and equalise for the reserves. I won’t hold that against Hikem, as I say I thought it was a great tackle.
Chancel Kasongo is a player that I really want to be able to introduce to the squad this season after his heroics at Tubize, but to be honest we’ve already got more than enough central midfielders for this season and it’s looking increasingly likely that I’ll be signing at least 1 more, so with a whole host of clubs from France, Belgium and Turkey interested in taking him on loan I let him head out to Alanyspor in the Super League. Good luck, Chancel. If you make that step up as well as you did in Belgium and I’m still around next season I promise I’ll give you a go in the Auxerre squad.
Swiss challenge league side FC Schaffhausen are up next and we head over with Project: Meatloaf Mk II locked and loaded and Doucouré back in the starting line up to start his second season in the white and blue. Jean-Pat Brantschen gets the hosts off to an early lead with a tidy finish, but Phil Foden equalises before the half hour with a curling free kick. The tie seems to be fizzling out after another extremely dominant AJA performance but with 8 minutes of normal time to play, Ayé hammers our 2nd right into the top corner, nearly ripping a hole straight through the net in the process. A few minutes later Zoun cuts in from the left as he does and curls a 3rd into the far corner to give the scoreline a bit of deserved gloss.
Worryingly Aidir picks up a 2nd knock in quick succession during the match but thankfully he’ll only miss another few days.
Another youngster moves out on loan after the Schaffhausen game: Amine Chassaing is a lad that I thought could be really special last Summer, but he doesn’t seem to be progressing very well and I worry about his attitude and work ethic. Hopefully a year in Ligue 2 with US Créteils-Lusitanos will sort him out and get him on the right track.
As we move into mid-July I think I’ve found one of my transfer targets, although as I say there isn’t much value for us in the transfer market this Summer and he’ll probably cost more than I’d like to pay. Fabian McCarthy is a 19 year old South African international currently plying his trade for my old rivals Ajax Cape Town. He’s primarily a number 10 but can also play as a central midfielder. His free kicks aren’t much better than Foden’s but I’ve not been able to find anyone who ticks both boxes and Fabian’s corners at least are very good. He’s a playmaker and would probably be vying with Joël Soumahoro for a starting berth, with his main strengths being excellent pace, technique and first touch, as well as excellent mental fortitude with regard to things like his composure, ability to pick out a pass, determination, flair and teamwork. My initial £500k bid is rejected out of hand by his contracted club, so I leak my interest to the press in an effort to unsettle the lad and make him force a move. Usually I wouldn’t stoop to such underhand tactics but at the end of the day… Fuck Ajax CT.
I give McCarthy time to stew on the prospect of moving to Ligue 1 and turn my attention to Isaac Sohna, who’s wanted by Stade de Reims in Ligue 2. I had wanted to keep him around this year but regular football at Stade de Reims would be a huge step up from Nîmes, where he spent last year. Reims finished in 4th place in the division last season, just 2 points behind AC Ajaccio. After I accept Stade de Reims’ bid the floodgates open though with offers from Switzerland and Turkey. Eventually I send him off to the club that I see as his best option of playing time in a quality side: Karabükspor, who finished 6th in the Super League last season. I also draught Fabian Fonrose into the first team as Isaac’s replacement. The young Frenchman didn’t end up getting much football when I did exactly the same thing this time last year, but I need a 4th choice centre back and he is certainly that.
While we’re on outgoings, the calls haven’t exactly been flooding in for Corentin Tirard, which is making me increasingly worried that he’s going to have to rot away in the reserves, leeching £10k a week off the wage bill. ESTAC Troyes do put in a loan bid but they can only offer to pay 10% of his wages, which doesn’t seem worth it from our side. Plus we’d be strengthening a rival and who wants that?
Our next match pits us against Craiova and it’s another routine pre-season victory, with Zoun blasting in the only goal from 20 yards just before half time. I am getting a bit worried that Hicham Aidir’s yet to a open his account though as he usually loves pre-season and scores goals for fun. Ayé’s been the much stronger option up front so far.
My plan to rattle Fabian McCarthy doesn’t work as well as I’d like and Ajax CT seem to be holding firm on their stance of not wanting him to leave, so I resort to meeting his £675k release clause and offer him a contract. It’s more than I’ve ever paid for a player and is frankly more than I’d want to pay for him, so I hope he proves to be worth it.
A trip to SC Schiltigheim is next on the pre-season agenda and I field a less than full strength side. As you’d expect, we still dominate the match entirely but don’t find the breakthrough until 10 minutes from time when Aguilar launches a cross to the far post from deep on the right wing and Hicham nods the ball back across goal and into the net. It’s a big relief to see him off the mark and as a final touch, Phil Foden volleys home from close range with a few minutes to go to double our advantage.
The win comes at a price though: Adama Ba has to come off 20 minutes into the friendly with a sprained ankle and will miss up to a month of pre-season, which is a considerable set back as we try to get everyone up to peak fitness for the first competitive match.
The rumours of my possible departure have been easy to distance myself from so far this Summer but out of the blue, Switzerland come calling and offer me the opportunity of being the head coach of their national side. They obviously saw how successful I was in their neighbouring nation of Liechtenstein. I’m honestly extremely flattered as it’s as big a job as I’ve been offered, but I turn it down. I want to focus completely on Auxerre this year and it’d take a really massive opportunity to change my mind on that.
I’ve finally made my first permanent signing of the window. Fabien McCarthy is in and he’s my new record signing. It’s nice to be able to bully Ajax CT like we have done, albeit largely on their terms, but it’ll be even nicer if Fabien can swing in a few perfect corners this season and rack up some assists. He’s carrying a sprained ankle at the minute but he should be able to join up with the rest of the squad in full training pretty soon.
With the start of the season edging ever closer we travel to Reading and battle to a hard earned 1-1 draw, with Brahim Ferhat opening the scoring from close range from a 26th minute Foden cross, before Joel Mann equalises after the hour. New signing McCarthy gets a 15 minute cameo at the end to build his fitness.
A few days later we’re back at Stade l’Abbé Deschamps entertaining Bundesliga side Ingolstadt. Phil Foden bags the opener himself this time before the half hour mark and then McCarthy opens his account from the bench 13 minutes before full time, reaching a driven cross from Fomba and powering the ball home to score his first goal in an Auxerre shirt and give us a deserved 2-0 win.
Anthony Gasnier and Georges Bailly become the latest youngsters to head out on loan to US Ivry Football and US Créteil-Lusitanos respectively. They’re both decent young players, but neither of them are at the level we’ll need this year.
As July draws to a close the hype continues to build ahead of the new Ligue 1 season. The title odds make us long shots to win it all at 1000-1 and joint favourites to go straight back down with the other 2 promoted sides, which is predictable enough. The bookies also release the odds on who’ll top the league’s goalscoring charts at the end of the year, with Nathan Andre apparently our best bet at a modest 700-1. None of our players feature at all in the Top Player betting.
With a new season we also have some brand new squad numbers! First of all, Xavier Lenogue’s grating number 16 shirt is given to Abdoulaye Sissako. Xavier’s been the number 1 around here for a while now so I make that official by giving him Bingourou Kamara’s jersey, while the backup keeper takes the number 13. Mike Kakuba is our new number 4, Doucouré gets number 5, McCarthy takes 25 and Aidir and Andre swap, with the Moroccan taking the number 9 and the Frenchman settling for the number 20. Finally, pacy wideman Zoun swaps his number 6 shirt, the source of a near-mutiny by the Auxerre faithful last Summer, for Fomba’s number 7, which will no doubt prompt a barrage of support and admiration for me from those very same fans. Hint hint.
Equipped with our shiny new numbers we clean Stade l’Abbé Deschamps from top to bottom and I put on my Sunday best for the visit of Unai Emery’s Chelsea. They’ve got a fantastic team featuring 3 world cup winners; Captain Aymeric Laporte, tough tackling midfielder N’Golo Kanté and promising striker Noé Guillot. Coincidentally we’re also facing Federico Bernadeschi for the second pre-season in a row. He did a job against us for Pep’s PSG last Summer and he’s just signed for Emery’s side for £36M. We bring out Project: Burnie Mk III against Chelsea’s 4-4-2.
Chelsea dominate the first half and take the lead just as I’m hoping we’ll get to half time unscathed. The break’s only 2 minutes away when they pacy Guillot leaves Doucouré for dead and blasts the ball past Lenogue. We get the ball in the back of the net when Captiste heads McCarthy’s free kick past Marvin Schwäbe, but our captain’s judged to have fouled as he jumped and the goal’s chalked off. 5 minutes later Laporte doubles the visitors’ advantage from a Guillot cross and with a few minutes to play substitute Luke Wright adds a third. It’s a deserved win for Chelsea but to be fair I think the scoreline flatters them. We put in a good showing and I’m pleased enough with the performance.
The very last piece of Summer admin takes me all of 2 seconds – To keep Captiste and Aidir as captain and vice-captain. They deserve to keep their roles and lead us into Ligue 1 together.
Our ultimate friendly promises to be just as tough as the penultimate. Pochettino’s Spurs line up with a 4-2-3-1 and we set up cautiously with Project: Meatloaf Mk II.
It’s another even game and another loss, but again the performance is pleasing enough to give me hope. We never manage to come back from Enrico Botta’s close range finish after 15 minutes though.
I’ve surprised myself this Summer you know. I’ve not spent longer than 2 years at any club I’ve managed so far in my career, but a lot of the decisions I’ve been making have been with next year in mind. I don’t know how long I’ll be in Auxerre, I suppose it’ll be until either I think my work’s been done or I’m sacked, but it’s interesting to realise that I’m thinking of the long term when I’ve always been quite a short term manager. Anyway let’s get started, shall we? This is going to be a bloody huge year.