Sidenote: Prouder than I’ve ever been of England. I’ll be back Friday and Saturday for the last 2 episodes of the Season
It’s been more or less 2 years since I first came to France in search of a new challenge, a bigger club and the next rung on the managerial ladder. Back then, Auxerre were battling against relegation and financial difficulties. We were hovering uncomfortably above the relegation spots and I had 3 matches to steer us clear. It’s good to see how far we’ve come from those days.
I’m just kidding, obviously we’re a whole league above where we were 2 years ago and that makes all the difference, especially when another season in Ligue 1 might seriously help us to climb back onto stable ground financially and make the club more sustainable for the top flight. It does make you think though. It’s the same principles and the same requirements to successfully remain in any division – Get more points on the board than your rivals. We travel to Lille today, who are 19th: 2 places and 6 whole points behind us. If we win our match and Nancy-Lorraine fail to beat Lyon, we’ll be mathematically safe from automatic relegation.
Back when I first joined Auxerre of course, I wasn’t carrying the baggage of our tough season and could simply use my fresh pair of eyes to pick a solid looking team and keep things simple to grind out results. In a way we’ll be doing the same thing against Lille in this match. I’m sticking with Project: Meatloaf, as since it’s return we’ve picked up 4 points from 2 games, which I’m certain would’ve become 6 if Faouzi Hikem hadn’t got himself sent off like an imbecile. Incidentally I’ve fined him 2 weeks wages and told him that even though his suspension will end before the last game, he can get himself off on his holidays now as he won’t play a part. If there’s one thing I don’t need now it’s a liability.
While Xavier Lenogue’s back to full fitness, I’m keeping Bingourou Kamara in goal for his 51st Auxerre appearance. Despite the fact that he’s failed to keep a clean sheet in the last 2 games, he’s hardly been to blame for either goal we’ve conceded and I see no reason to drop him. Long term I still don’t see a future here for him though so I won’t be offering Bingourou a new contract.
2 players that are coming into the starting lineup though are Billy, an obvious selection in place of Hikem, and McCarthy, who’s back from International duty and takes the place of Joël Soumahoro. Come on, lads. Safety awaits.
The first half yields a few decent chances, with Herrera and Foden both putting the ball just wide for their respective clubs before the former stings Kamara’s hands with a powerful drive from the edge of our box. With half time just 2 minutes away though, we’re hit by a hammer blow. Slimani receives the ball on the right and dribbles to the byline before whipping a cross in and Djuric is there in the 6 yard box to head the ball into the net.
After calmly sharing some of my views on the marking that lead to the goal, we head back out for the second half and nearly tie the scores back up within 10 seconds, when Ferhat gets behind the Lille defence and shoots, but centre back Sparagna dives in with a last ditch tackle to knock the ball out for a corner.
Fomba and Ayé both get run outs for the last half hour as we attempt to get physical with the home defence, but it’s the hosts that nearly get the 2nd goal 5 minutes from the end when Abi dribbles forwards and shoots from a narrow angle, forcing a near post save from Kamara. In a dominant performance we’ve been undone by a single defensive lapse.
Just like that, our cushion’s gone. Another loss could send us plummeting back into the relegation places and I’m fuming. It’s not that we were particularly bad in that match, it’s just that we couldn’t finish our chances and yet again we couldn’t keep a clean sheet.
“We need to keep our heads.” I mutter, while quite literally banging my own head against my office desk. I’ll get the irony later. Captiste sits across from me, staring out of the window in a daydreamy kind of way. Just then my office door swings open and in steps Arturo Vidal, who takes a seat next to our Captain, followed by Hicham Aidir, who limps in on his crutches. “Here they are.” I grin. “Glad you could make it, lads.” I stand and walk around the desk to pull the third chair out for Hicham, before retaking my seat. “The three of you need to pull the rest of the lads through this. You’re my leaders in that changing room. My admirals…”
Captiste jumps to his feet. “You can count on us, boss,” He says, “What do you need us to do?”
“Good lad, skipper.” I smile. “First things first, Faouzi Hikem’s sulking and saying he wants to move. Shut. That. Down. Get him supporting the rest of the lads, even if you have to get him to just keep his mouth shut for the next 2 weeks. Can you do that?”
The big centre back gives me a knowing smile. “Oh, I can do that.” He says, cryptically. As he starts walking towards the door, he draws some sort of metallic cylinder from his belt.
“Oi, what is that?” I call after him. “Captiste, is that a fucking lightsaber?” He turns, smiles and shushes me with his free hand, while continuing to edge backwards towards the door. “Don’t you shush me! I will strike you the fuck down, sunshine.” He continues to shush me right until he disappears into the corridor and around the corner.
“Well that’s going to be a disaster.” I sigh. “Hicham, first I need you to follow Captiste and make sure that he doesn’t murder Faouzi Hikem in cold blood.” The Moroccan striker nods stoically. “Then get yourself in training every session until the end of the season, OK? I don’t need you to train I just want you giving… I don’t know, moral support. Get Nathan in too.”
Hicham smiles. “No problem, Boss.”
“Good lad.” I smile back as he hauls himself up on his crutches and hobbles off.
I turn to Vidal. “Arturo, you’ve got more experience at the top level than all the rest of us put together. I need you sharing that experience. I need you to be on constant lookout and if you see anybody’s head drop even an inch, I need you to pick it back up and drag them through the Stade Rennais match. I need you to rally the troops.”
“No problem.” Says Vidal solemnly.
There’s no more preparation to do. Now it’s all in the players’ hands.
You know what, for once in my career I’d like for us to actually win this and secure safety with time to spare so that everything isn’t hinging on the bloody final game. If we do manage to take 3 points here and Dijon and Lille fail to beat Marseille and Lorient, we could do exactly that. Alternatively, we could drop as far as 19th. 11th placed Stade Rennais are in the building so we’ll soon know one way or the other.
In all honesty I could do without further suspensions at this point, but French league rules being what they are, they’re pretty unavoidable. Issa Samba and Loïc Goujon will be big losses, but I’m putting my faith in Raf as a holding man and 16 year old Celsiney at right back. We’re sticking to Meatloaf with the added instruction that I want us to focus our play down the left. Aleix Vidal likes to push on and leave room on the right hand side of Rennais’ defence, so we should be able to exploit that. I’m also not yet sure about Celsiney’s ability to handle himself in such a pressured environment so focussing our play down the opposite flank should take some responsibility away from him. Deep breaths. Here we go.
8 minutes in I get all the good news from Bechkoura: Lorient and Marseille have opened the scoring early against our relegation rivals Lille and Dijon. My assistant gives me a smug smile. Now our Ligue 1 safety is in our hands.
2 minutes later though my heart races when Tulissi shakes off Billy on the right wing and cuts inside before testing Kamara’s handling with a long range effort, but our keeper holds onto the shot. In the 18th minute the ball’s down the other end and as instructed we’re going down the left wing. Billy receives the ball and floats a cross into the box but Jovanovic clears the danger. McCarthy chases the clearance though and volleys it right back into the mixer where Phil Foden’s waiting. Foden takes it down, turns, shoots – But the ball deflects off Gnagnon’s foot and floats harmlessly towards Diallo in net… Fortuitously, Brahim Ferhat reacts quicker than Rennais’ shot stopper and gets to the loose ball, before volleying it in from close range.
Pure relief washes over me as Bechkoura claps me on the back. I can’t even bring myself to celebrate the goal. Less than 20 minutes into the match, everything is going absolutely perfectly.
Less than 2 minutes after the goal, Prcic plays a long raking ball over the top of our defence and Dongou manages to get goal-side of Doucouré. The forward pulls the ball down and strikes it at goal on the half-volley, but Kamara comes out of his net to parry the ball away. He only knocks it as far as Dovedan though and with Kamara off his line he’s got an empty net in front of him. The hairs on my arms and the back of my net stand on end in unison. Dovedan shoots – But out of nowhere, our 16 year old Brazilian Celsiney throws his body in the way of the shot, deflecting it out for a corner. Kamara helps the lad back to his feet and gives him a grateful pat on the back. On top of that, Bechkoura lets me know as the ball goes out that Lorient are 2-0 up against Lille.
Unfortunately our situation deteriorates 2 minutes later when Tulissi cuts in from the right wing once more and squares for Dovedan, who makes no mistake this time, blasting the ball past Kamara to equalise. On top of that… Again… Bechkoura says that Lille have pulled one back. The first 20 minutes has been eventful to say the least, but after the initial flurry of goals across 3 stadia, things seem to quieten down a bit. At half time we’re only drawing 1-1 with Stade Rennais, but thankfully Marseille are beating Dijon 1-0 and Lorient are still 2-1 up against Lille.
The second half promises to start just as frantically as the first when we win a corner within the first minute. McCarthy goes across to take it and swings the ball into the box, but Jovanovic is there again to head it clear. This time he gets it as far as Captiste on the edge of the box, who cushions the ball down for Raf, who lays it off for Billy – Who takes a touch and calmly slots it right-footed into the far corner. Once again I can’t do much more than smile nervously, but Billy celebrates enough for both of us. What a bloody time to score your first Auxerre goal.
10 minutes later, the pest Dovedan escapes Abdoulaye Sissako and gets the ball to the left byline, where he pulls it back for Prcic. Pricic hits a flat cross over to the far post and up pops Aleix Vidal to volley it in from close range. For fucks sake. I glance over to Bechkoura to see if there’s a “On top of that…” to this sentence but he shakes his head and gives me a thumbs up. The rivals are still losing.
Sissako’s had a quiet match and he looks a bit nervous, so I bring him off on the hour to be replaced by Fomba. Elsewhere, Serkan Yusein’s sent off for Dijon. Come on, all we need is one more goal. We nearly get it 5 minutes later: Rennais are caught overcommitted, Raf wins the ball and hoofs it upfield on the counter attack for Ferhat to chase. Ferhat collects the ball, drives infield and tries to curl a shot into the far top corner, but Diallo tips it behind with an acrobatic fingertip save.
With 20 minutes to go we win another corner and again it’s a good ball from McCarthy, this time aimed towards Lamine Fomba at the near post. Fomba leaps, flicks the ball on and it falls right at the feet of Brahim Ferhat – Who toe pokes it into the net from a yard out. I still can’t celebrate. I still won’t allow myself to. They’ve pegged us back twice already. I bring Alessandro Bassani on for Zoun to give us some fresh legs on the left wing that we’re favouring.
With around 10 minutes to go, Yannick Carrasco makes it 2-0 to Marseille. As it stands we’re mathematically safe and it doesn’t look like either Lille or Dijon are pulling their games back, so all we need to do is hold on. And then the ball’s clipped into the box for Dovedan. My heart starts to sink in that oh so familiar way… But he takes a heavy touch and the ball escapes him. Doucouré steps in and hoofs it clear and our Stopfordian playmaker Phil Foden latches onto it on the halfway line. “Come on, Phil,” I whisper. “Run with it.” He does. He beats the one outfield player Rennais haven’t committed into our half and keeps on running. He’s through. He’s bloody through on goal! He sprints forwards and has just the keeper to beat. Surely another goal would put the result and another year in Ligue 1 beyond doubt. Come on, Phil. Come on, you brilliant little bastard…
Stade Abbé-Deschamps erupts as the back of the net bulges. Phil Foden, scorer of the goal that’ll surely secure us in the top flight for another year, sprints over to the sideline where the fans are starting to spill out onto the pitch. He thumps the badge on his chest as he’s mobbed by his team mates and the stewards struggle to hold back the jubilant Auxerrois supporters. Now I’ll fucking celebrate. I’m already sprinting towards the melee, Bechkoura hot on my heels with the Auxerre subs and coaches, each of us laughing or screaming or cheering with relief.
Have that Ruben Aguilar! Have that, Adama Ba! Have that, Crouch! Have that, Zhou and Sundberg! Put that in your financially irresponsible pipes and smoke it, you dickheads! Auxerre have done it on a shoestring!
Auxerre are staying the fuck up!