…Jesus, my name’s been fucking everywhere over the last few days. I’ve kept my head down as much as I can and kept on preparing for the Lorient game, but I think I’m becoming a bit of a sideshow. It’s not all good things either, don’t think that I’m just getting praise and support. This is the social media age. People already know my entire history better than I do and are quick to dismiss it as “Fucking shit lol”. I never knew so many thousands of people were at my Höllviken games for example, as it looked at the time like there was only ever about 15 in the stands. But no, they were all apparently there watching, they all could have done better and they all could have kept them up. Fuck social media. Not even the French public are happy about my arrival as their head coach. The ones outside of our Auxerre bubble have never heard of me and the Auxerrois locals are worried about how my new job will affect their club’s league performances. I wanted ideally to postpone my announcement until after Auxerre got settled into the new season, but realistically that was never going to happen. In the end and after much encouragement and coaxing from my assistant for club and country Peter Crouch, I hold a press conference and attend some interviews.
A massive amount of questions are asked, some predictable, some less so. One Scottish bloke keeps calling me Franco, asks about my face and doesn’t know where Poland is but that’s about as bad as it gets. The big issue that overshadows everything else though is that I’m now both the Auxerre Manager and the French Head Coach. I have a lot of French players in my club squad and I’m asked over and over and over again whether I’ll be biased towards picking Auxerre players. I prepared for this line of questioning ahead of time and recite my short and sweet answer word for word each time I’m asked: “If I do, it won’t be because of any bias, but because they’re deserving of selection.”
Let’s ignore the “Unknown Dickhead Gets Massive Job For Some Reason” headlines for a moment though and get back to club matters. The new season is upon us and even though there’s almost 3 weeks left of the transfer window to go I think we’ve already made all the signings we’re going to make. Try as we might to find that weathered old holding man I wanted, it just doesn’t look like it’s going to happen. We’ve got barely any money left after buying Fabian McCarthy out of his Ajax CT contract and even if we did have some there’s just nobody out there that fits the mould and is willing to join. I’m not overly worried about our squad but it would be nice to have some extra quality. Someone like, just picking a name out at random, Paris Saint-Germain’s young Argentine number 10 Ramiro Rolón Martínez. Oh to have a lad like him in our midfield. He looks like a world beater and PSG don’t even really need him with all the talent at their disposal.
But no, it looks like we’re making do. That’s OK though. This squad may not have the quality or depth of a PSG or a Monaco, but we’re tough, hard working and we play as a bloody team. FC Lorient will probably be licking their lips in anticipation of an opening day clash at home against a newly promoted side but aside from the teams that kicked off early, all teams are on 0 points and all teams are equal. We’re all just Ligue 1 sides with 38 matches ahead of us. Lorient had better be up for a fight because we sure as hell are.
I won’t get to see Rostand and Aidir go head to head today because Lorient’s young striker has headed out on loan to link up with Isaac Sohna at Karabükspor, but even without him Lorient have a very pacy front line in their 4-2-3-1 so we’ll be kicking off the season with a counter attacking Project: Meatloaf Mk II, sitting deep to prevent the hosts from getting in behind us. Faouzi Hikem’s carrying a suspension over from last season so I’m going to stick with the same side that beat La Berrichonne on the final day. Lenogue’s between the sticks, Samba, Captiste, Doucouré and Aguilar are our back 4, Goujon holds the midfield behind Sissako and Joël, and Foden and Zoun flank Aidir as our front 3. New signing McCarthy makes the bench alongside Billy and Ferhat who both spent last year on loan, while Adama Ba is back in training but is not fit enough to join the squad. Captiste leads the l’AJA troops out for our first top flight match in a decade. Show me what you’ve got, Ligue 1.
The first half hour is calm from both sides. Lorient don’t want to get cocky and over extend themselves while we don’t want to commit too far forwards ourselves for fear of being taken apart at the back. The first chance of note we have is when Aidir receives the ball from Foden and charges through the centre of the pitch. He shoots from 20 yards but puts the ball wide of the far post.
A minute later and with only 7 to play before the break, the ball’s down the other end with Lorient’s left winger Musa. He gets a cross in towards the near post and Santos latches on and shoots, but Captiste’s on hand to block the shot and ricochet the ball back to Musa. He tries again, this time swinging it into the centre where Vesovic outleaps Doucouré and directs a header towards the bottom corner, forcing a low fingertip save from Xavier Lenogue. I make some subtle changes with a view to keeping our shape a bit better. We’ll close Lorient’s players down less, stay on our feet when tackling and stick to our positions.
With 4 minutes to go before half time we win a throw in on the right hand side and Samba takes it, finding Aidir. The big Moroccan dribbles across the edge of the box with Lorient’s players unwilling to stick a foot in in case they bring him down. He keeps going… And going… “Shoot, Hicham.” I whisper. “Fucking shoot.” Aidir pulls back his left foot… And flicks the ball back for Phil Foden, who drives it low into the far bottom corner.
“Fucking get in!” I bellow, leaping across my technical area and punching the air like it owes me money, as Phil peels away towards the euphoric travelling fans, arms held aloft.
With the break creeping closer Aidir finds himself on the edge of the home box once again. This time he’s dispossessed by João Pedro but manages to block the defender’s clearance, sending the ball bobbling into the area where Zoun’s lurking. Our Burkinabe wideman takes it and shoots, but his effort’s too central and quite routine for Munir to save.
The second half starts just as cautiously as the first. Naturally I don’t want to rock the boat when we’re leading, but with 20 minutes to go Duris gets away down the left wing and chips a cross in for Santos to volley straight into Lenogue’s arms from close range. It should be 1-1 and would be if the striker had aimed at literally any other part of the goal. It’s time for a change. We go 4-1-4-1 with Zoun and Foden swapping sides and playing as wide midfielders to help keep our shape, while Lamine Fomba comes on replacing Joël and will run box to box and add steel to our midfield while Sissako takes on more of a ball winning role. I also hand a debut to our physically imposing 17 year old Algerian-born French striker Brahim Ferhat, who replaces Hicham Aidir and has the sole instructions of running, closing down and bullying as many defenders as he can.
Our 4-1-4-1 seems to work for a few minutes, but then we start dropping further and further back and inviting pressure onto ourselves. We can either try to get more players forward to alleviate the pressure or try to funnel the Lorient attacks down the flanks and trust our centre backs to get to the barrage of crosses before their strikers. I’m not fond of the idea of getting more players forward at the minute so we go for the latter. With only a few minutes left to play one such Lorient attack yields a corner. Alioski swings it in and Abdoulaye Doucouré heads it goalwards. Lenogue’s beaten, but Ruben Aguilar comes to the rescue, stooping to head the ball off the line. It rolls away as far as Cafú, who drives a shot low, but Captiste gets a block in and concedes another corner. Alioski takes it again and it’s poor, finding only Goujon at the near post. The holding man skews his clearance back to the corner taker though and he finds Cafú just inside the box again. Cafú wallops it once more… But Lamine Fomba throws his body in the way and blocks the shot. The Auxerrois fans cheer their appreciation and I allow myself the subtlest of fist pumps. Our defending pays off. The clock runs down and the match ends 1-0 to Auxerre. L’AJA are back.