That’s the question that plagues me over the Summer. What now for AJ Auxerre? Over the last 2 and a bit years our goals have been obvious, with the exception of the start of my first full season here. When I first came in we needed to avoid the drop from Ligue 2, most of the next season we were wrestling with Bourg for the Ligue 2 title and last season we needed to avoid the drop from Ligue 1. But… What now? The pessimist in me says we need to avoid the drop again and he’s right, but surely we can aim a bit higher this time? Hopefully we’ve got a bit of money to spend, our young squad has got a year of Ligue 1 experience under their belts and touch wood our injury pileup nightmare is over, with Aidir due back for pre-season to join Doucouré and Andre, who returned during the run in.
Now I’m not stupid, obviously we aren’t going for the title. That’s going to be won by either PSG or Monaco. Nor are we going for the Champions League and the Europa League would be a serious stretch. But surely we can at least steer well clear of relegation? A mid-table or top half finish would be great and maybe we could even aim to go one step beyond last year and reach a Cup Final so that we can again have the honour of being demolished by one of the big 2 but this time get a medal and a day out for our trouble. In fact that’s not a bad goal either, maybe this year we can sneak a win against one of the big 2. We’ve got 4 opportunities in the League and taking 3 points from one of those matches would be a real achievement for this team.
My first day back at Auxerre after France’s EIL win is spent negotiating with Chamois Niortais with the end goal of finally knocking one of Auxerre’s long-running issues in the head. £375k is their starting point but I manage to get £500k from the Ligue 2 outfit in return for Corentin Tirard, who is out of the door so fast he leaves a cartoonish dust cloud in his wake.
I used to be frustrated with Corentin but over time my feelings towards him have turned to sympathy. He didn’t perform well enough for us in Ligue 2 and there was very little reason to try him out in Ligue 1 either side of a horrific injury, so I just want him gone, preferably somewhere where he can play football again and get his career back on track. Hopefully Chamois is the club to make that happen and the price is right, so good luck Corentin. Fabian McCarthy catches me while I’m feeling sentimental and asks for a new contract and soft touch that I am I agree. He’s one of many players who I’m hoping to finally see the best of this year and if a new contract is what will make him happy enough to make a real impact, that’s fine by me.
And fuck it, with Vidal retiring I see no reason to let Raf’s contract run out this Summer. He’s always been scarcely used but solid for me so he’s tied down for 2 more years.
McCarthy and raf are a couple of examples of players who are called up to play for their National team during the Summer but the most pleasing one for me is young Celsiney, the Brazilian born full back who plays alongside Algerian born Brahim Ferhat in France’s Under 19 drubbing of Northern Ireland. I’m glad to see they’re both open to playing for France and as I scour the country for the next batch of French stars, hopefully they can play their way into the discussion at some point.
And another young Frenchman in our ranks also gets a new deal; Gaizka Basauri had a really good start to last season on loan to Groupe Sportif Consolat last season, before he started the trend of Auxerre’s year by breaking his ankle and had to be recalled. Göztepe make 3 bids that could rise as high as £700k for the holding man but I tie him down instead. I still think the 20 year old could be a player for us.
We have a couple more bids early in the Summer too: Crouchie gives me a call to see if £2.4m of Hull City’s money would be enough to prise Ferhat away from the Stade l’Abbé-Deschamps and I tell him to jump into the fucking Humber in my usual professional manner. I give a similar if more cordial answer to Nice when they bid £245k for Xavier Lenogue. Zlatan Ibrahimovic also enquires about our keeper on behalf of Lyon, but like pretty much all of my squad, he isn’t for sale.
One very difficult decision I have come to though is that Joël Soumahoro has no place in my team this year. I want him to do well for Auxerre so badly but on the rare occasions he’s played in Ligue 1 he’s looked lost and ineffective. He isn’t physical enough for this league, nor is he skilful enough to fulfil the role he does in this league. I don’t want to lose him altogether but I do offer Joël out for loan so that he can get some game time. Ajaccio and Lens both bid but as they don’t have any intention of giving the Ivorian any game time, they’re both turned down.
So with the new contracts and outgoings out of the way or in progress, let’s take stock of the squad.
Goalkeepers: Xavier Lenogue, Anthony Gasnier
Defenders: Issa Samba, Celsiney, Ed Bolton, Captiste, Mamadou Doucouré, Isaac Sohna, Mike Kakuba, Faouzi Hikem, Billy
Midfielders: Loïc Goujon, Gaizka Basauri, Raf, Abdoulaye Sissako, Lamine Fomba, Chancel Kasongo, Phil Foden, Alessandro Bassani, Alex Makengo, Fabian McCarthy, Mathis Roux, Zoun, Patrick Granger
Strikers: Hicham Aidir, Nathan Andre, Brahim Ferhat, Florian Ayé
So a couple of things become quickly apparent with a glimpse of this squad: Firstly, we don’t have a decent backup goalkeeper. I know that’s a bit harsh on perennial understudy and French Under 21 footballer Anthony Gasnier, but it’s true. Secondly, Chancel Kasongo is back and I actually intend to use him this season. He lit up the Belgian Pro League B on loan to Tubize and last year he was just as effective for Adanaspor in the Turkish Super League, racking up a goal and 9 assists over 33 games. Thirdly though, we seriously lack senior depth. At right back for example we’ve got Issa Samba, but if he picks up a suspension, which he will, we’re left with 20 year old defensive utility man Ed Bolton or 16 year old Celsiney. It’s the same with a few different positions including goalkeeper I suppose, but in terms of the outfield players I really don’t have a problem with this. We are traditionally a club that brings youth players through and as long as I think the youngsters have the potential to become Ligue 1 players I’m more than happy to drop them in as needed.
The best examples of this are probably at right back, where I’ve mentioned Celsiney, who absolutely has the potential to become a first teamer, and in attacking midfield, where we have McCarthy, Joël and Roux. The reason it’s Joël on the way out as oppose to McCarthy being shipped off or Roux staying in the youth team is that as much as I’ve lamented McCarthy he is currently better than Joël and I genuinely believe he and Roux can reach Ligue 1 quality, whereas with Joël I merely hope against hope. He’s also the oldest of the 3 at 23, so besides the fact that he desperately needs minutes at his age, the other 2 have more time to reach that higher potential. I think that keeping Joël around would be pointless basically. I can’t see him offering much so the fleeting game time he would have may as well go to Mathis, who has a much, much higher ceiling.
While I’m on this actually, I’ve seen Auxerrois fan forum posts saying that I’ve used McCarthy the wrong way since his move and I may as well address that here. It’s a fair point and it boils down to the fact that I bought him as a set piece taker but also as an upgrade on Joël in the number 10 position, while simultaneously switching from the 4-2-3-1 we deployed regularly in Ligue 2 to a 4-1-2-3 (And later more…Exotic formations in the same mould) to make us more defensively solid as we moved up to an elite league. With that came a desire to have a holding man, a ball winner and a box-to-boxer all in the same team at the expense of the advanced playmaker, which I saw as a luxury that at most times we couldn’t afford. I still think that McCarthy has all the attributes to be a box-to-box midfielder but there’s no doubt that he’d be utilised best as the main playmaker and if the end of last season has taught me anything it’s that there is such a thing as being too reserved in your play style.
Our best football of the season came as a result of me being almost resigned to relegation and thinking “Fuck it, let’s just do what we did in Ligue 2” and lo and behold we turned it on and scrapped our way to safety. My point is that I no longer see Ligue 2 as a league that we aren’t equipped for and in retrospect I probably showed it too much respect last year. We’ll be less defensive this year, although I won’t be going full gung-ho like with France, and that will see us being more expansive and using a playmaker more often, which I hope will suit McCarthy and see us get the best out of him.
Fuck me, that all got a bit serious and technical didn’t it. As the new season’s fixtures have been announced, let’s spend a few seconds thinking about how we should kick seven bells out of newly promoted FC Metz when we meet them on opening day, or what we’re going to do with the £12M we’ll receive from TV revenue this year, which will absolutely be made available to the club for transfers without a shadow of a doubt.
On second thoughts, that opening day trip to Metz seems like a banana skin waiting to happen and will be tough. They’ve got momentum from winning Ligue 2 last year and as usual a draw to kick us off would probably be OK. Also speaking of money, we do technically have as much as £6.5M to spend this window, but as I’ve mentioned, short of a decent backup goalkeeper I’m not sure I actually want any new players. I can’t see much value in the market for us so unless a massive player with a lot of quality suddenly becomes available I think I’m pretty happy with the squad I’ve got.
Friendlies have been arranged and as usual we’ll be starting with warm up games against the kids and the reserves, before hosting Paris FC, which will be followed by a tour of Scandinavia where we’ll face Silkeborg IF, FC Midtjylland and FC Kobenhavn. We’ll return home to face Cercle Brugge and then finish up with a trip to Glasgow to play Celtic, then a final home game against Benfica.
Annoyingly our “Tour” of Scandinavia falls apart pretty quickly when Midtjylland and Kobenhavn cancel our fixtures, along with Cercle Brugge. Instead we’ll play Barnsley, Ajax and Newcastle.
I don’t usually mention staff hirings but this one’s pretty special: With Bechkoura becoming my permanent assistant manager for Auxerre and France I’ve brought in former Auxerre favourite Benoit Cheyrou to replace him as coach. His stock’s fallen a bit recently as I remember going head to head with Estac Troyes in Ligue 2 when Benoit was their manager, but he’ll be an excellent addition to my staff for club and country.
I’m not trying to rub it in for Benoit, but my own stock is actually on the rise, as I’m starting on the Continental Pro License course. Hopefully this time next year I’ll be as qualified for this job as anyone in the World.
The start of June brings a few changes among the Auxerre squad: Mamadou Doucouré finally signs permanently for l’AJA on a free transfer, while several players leave at the end of their contracts, including Bingourou Kamara.
Another player to leave is Arturo Vidal, who had already decided to retire this Summer when I brought him in. Interestingly though the Auxerre fans and Board are all mortified by my “decision” to let him go. Idiots.
Nevermind though. While we keep looking for a backup goalie to sign, it’s time for our first pre-season friendly against the young ‘uns. It’s a demolition job as you’d expect but it’s all about fitness at the end of the day. Brahim Ferhat scores an impressive hat trick before a quarter of an hour’s even passed and is joined by Alessandro Bassani on the score sheet early on. Badaoui pulls one back for the kids after about half an hour but after a full half time rotation, we bag a 5th goal thanks to young Mathis Roux’s injury time effort. Nathan Andre plays the second half but Aidir’s left out as the pair continue to build their fitness back up. A good solid 5-1 win to kick us off.
And then comes a knock-knock-fucking-knock on my office door. I bloody knew it. I knew this would happen. I’ve just rejected AS Nancy Lorraine’s potential £1.5M bid for Chancel Kasongo, who I’m determined to give a go in the first team this season. And here he is barging into my office, face like thunder.
“Why on Earth would you want to leave to join Nancy, mate? You’re in my squad this year.”
“I want to start every match, Boss.” He snarls, unnecessarily.
“Right of course, who doesn’t.” I’m still a bit confused.
“No, I mean I need to be a key player here, starting every match. I want you to promise me that.”
I honestly don’t mean to laugh quite as hard as I do. It seems to piss Chancel off a bit. Once I’ve composed myself I reply “Chancel, you can’t possibly think I can promise you that. I’ve been so impressed with you on your loan spells so I’m more than happy to rotate you into the first team, but you need to prove yourself in that role before you can even think about ‘Key Player’ status. We’ve got a lot of midfielders haven’t we and it’s up to you to show me that you deserve that spot in the team over Lamine, Abdoulaye, Loïc, Raf or Fabian. I can’t just do that for you off the back of 2 years on loan.”
“Then I need to leave.” He pouts. I’m so disappointed. I’ve developed a lot of players at the helm of this club, but Chancel was the first I saw potential in and is one of the ones I’ve watched the closest.
“Fair enough.” I sigh. “Thanks Chancel, see yourself out.” He does.
One thing I neglected to mention earlier in the year was just how close Kasongo was to joining up with the French squad at the back end of last season, which sounds quite insane I know, but his performances were superb and so consistent in Turkey and he was one of the leading options in central midfield in terms of the next generation that I’ve been searching for. In the end he narrowly missed out, as did Abdoulaye Sissako and Lamine Fomba who were also in my thoughts, but I assumed if Chancel could play his way into contention with Auxerre this season he might just break his way into the National side. This changes things considerably.
You know by now though that nothing picks my spirits up quite like a friendly against the reserves, weirdo that I am. I field a strong XI but to be fair so do the reserves, with Nathan Andre completing the full 90 minutes for my side while Aidir plays 83 minutes for our opposition, alongisde the likes of Fomba, Zoun, Billy and Sohna. It’s Zoun that opens the scoring just over a minute in but Andre gets us back on level terms after the half hour. The second half is just as close and Lamine Fomba fires the reserves back ahead in the 56th minute, but McCarthy cancels out the goal 5 minutes later. It’s a hard fought draw but for me the real victory is seeing our 2 strikers come through the vast majority of the match unscathed. 2-2.
After the match I’m brought crashing back to reality as rumours circulate linking Kasongo to Bourg-en-Bresse of all clubs. 3 bids are made for the vertically challenged Frenchman but surprisingly they’re all loan offers. With a heavy heart I accept Lokeren’s loan bid as I’d rather not see him go and bolster Bourg’s ranks and another good season in Belgium might raise his value. After all he’s still tied down to a 4 year contract with us so if he doesn’t want to play for Auxerre, we may as well get as much as possible out of any eventual deal. Chancel’s unhappy that I block our rival Ligue 1 club’s bid though and tells me as much in a muffled voice from outside my locked office door.
Some good news presents itself though in the form of France’s U21 team winning the Euros. Our own Anthony Gasnier actually makes a single appearance in the semi-final but is mainly understudy to Real Madrid’s Alban Laurent, who I’d like to see play much more football this season before he earns a recall to the National side. Nevertheless, there’s plenty of names to keep in mind from this team.
Ivorian full back Brice Traoré’s heading out on loan to Hungary with Békéscsaba. I don’t see a future for the lad here but hopefully he’ll develop with regular minutes and get a permanent move on his return.
Xavier Lenogue is still the subject of the odd bid, with Nantes’ interest in our goalkeeper intensifying. Their latest is £350k-£525k, but no dice.
But we power forwards with our first “real” friendly of the Summer. Paris FC are our guests and are taken to task just as ruthlessly as our youth team was. Florian Ayé’s early opener is canceled out by Keita’s equaliser, but then Patrick Granger, Brahim Ferhat and a brace for Hicham Aidir give us another 5-1 win.
I’ve decided to offer quite a few more players new deals, either to give them a bit of a wage bump to keep them happy or tie them down to a longer deal. Goalies Hassan Derhem and Anthony Gasnier, defenders Abdoulaye Faye, Issa Samba and Captiste, midfielders Loïc Goujon, Lamine Fomba, Mathis Roux, Alessandro Bassani and Patrick Granger and striker Brahim Ferhat all sign.
The inevitable Kasongo move is turning into a bit of a saga at this point. Amed Sportif’s £1.6-2.4M bid is turned down as I’m holding out for closer to £5M or a loan, but of course Kasongo takes exception and leaks his frustration to the press. Crybaby Kasongo, as I shall henceforth be referring to him, is sent to train with the reserves, but thankfully we manage to rubber stamp his loan move to Lokeren not long after. So disappointed.
With that out of the way though we can finally move on to what was supposed to be our tour of Scandinavia, which is now just an away friendly against Silkeborg IF. It’s a tight match as we make our first appearance away from home of pre-season, but I’m pleased to see that it’s American youth winger Patrick Granger who makes the difference, putting the Silkeborg defence to the sword with a brace of goals, the first of which cannons in off the underside of the bar, the second of which is fired into the bottom corner and both of which are set up by our own Hicham Aidir.
The next lad out of the door is Joël. After the whole ordeal with Kasongo I do consider taking him off the loan list, but I still can’t see him getting minutes for us. There’s interest in him from France and Turkey but it’s Eupen that take my favourite little Ivorian to Belgium for the season. Best of luck, Joël mate.
Yet another player linked with a move away is Zoun, who I must admit I’d be open to letting go, although I’d also be happy for him to stay. Lille are linked with the inside forward but Sissako tells the press that he should stay. That’s settled then, really. If he’s good enough for Abdoulaye, he’s good enough for me.
Our next friendly sees us take on Barnsley at Stade l’Abbé-Deschamps. We’re without Fabian McCarthy, Billy and Faouzi Hikem, who are all on International U23 duty with their respective nations but we’re still able to field a very strong side. Luke Freeman gets the ball into Anthony Gasnier’s net early on, but the goal’s ruled out for offside and the actual opening goal doesn’t come until first half injury time, when Mike Kakuba scrambles in a corner to give Auxerre the lead. We’re much more dominant in the second half, with Nathan Andre scoring a penalty when Aidir’s impeded in the box, before a late flurry sees Raf, Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Florian Ayé all find the net. The match ends 4-1.
The 21st of July is a big day as I identify 3 potential incoming signings. The first is Brazilian goalkeeper Vladimir who plays for Vasco de Gama in his homeland. Vlad’s exactly what I want in a backup goalkeeper: Experienced, solid and easily attainable. He’s unhappy where he is and has asked for a transfer away, but I offer to take him on loan for the season. The transfers tied up pretty quickly and Vlad becomes my second signing of the season.
The second player that catches my eye is Southampton’s 23 year old attacking midfielder Lamine Doumbia. Now I know what you’re thinking: “Franjo you rusty git, haven’t you just sent an attacking midfielder out on loan because you had too many and wanted to bring through an exciting youth player in that position?” The answer is yes, but Doumbia is a very tempting prospect. As I’ve said, there doesn’t seem to be much value in the transfer market for us this Summer and Doumbia is young, French, available on the cheap, fits my preferred mould of player and could potentially be a very good footballer. I make a speculative loan bid that includes an option to sign Lamine for his current £1.4M asking price.
The third player is somebody that in truth I’ve had my eye on for a few weeks, as he’s got astounding quality and would be a real coup for the club if I can make the transfer happen. He’s transfer listed at Olympique Lyonnais for reasons that I’m yet to fathom but his £11.5M asking price is way out of my budget, so I leak my interest to the press in the hopes of unsettling him enough to force Lyon’s hand. I am of course talking about Memphis Depay.
Unfortunately, Depay himself seems to have little interest in joining Auxerre, so this one might be dead in the water. Southampton also reject my loan bid for Doumbia as they want to offload him permanently, so I hesitantly bid the £1.4M asking price up front. The Saints accept almost immediately and a contract is offered.
As we prepare for our next friendly, Fabian McCarthy puts in an intriguing performance for South Africa U23’s against Burkina Faso, looking lively and bagging a goal. I look forward to seeing the lad put in that kind of performance for us this season. Billy also looks good for Morocco’s youth team.
A trip to Ajax is the perfect way to ramp up the pre-season difficulty and we’re defeated in Amsterdam in a fairly even game. Florian Ayé hits the post in a scrappy first half, but Mark de Haan gets the hosts off the mark after 52 minutes. We equalise almost immediately thanks to Alessandro Bassani, but Ajax secure the victory with another de Haan goal and a third from Sven van Gelder. 1-3.
After sleeping on it, I give Doumbia’s agent a ring and cancel the deal. I think I’m trying to sign him for the sake of it and all his presence would do is stifle the progression of Mathis Roux and possibly even Fabian McCarthy. I’d also kick myself if a deal for Depay suddenly looked more realistic and I was £1.4M short of the asking price.
In goalkeeper news, I turn down offers from Denmark, Turkey, Poland and Belgium for Anthony Gasnier as I want him playing regular football and Vladimir, who I was planning to play in the next friendly, pulls a hamstring in training and will miss the next 4 weeks.
The season’s squad numbers only feature minor changes: Fabian McCarthy takes Adama Ba’s old no 10 shirt and Vlad gets the no 13, while a few young players are bumped up the pecking order a bit.
Our friendly match against Newcastle United is far less eventful than you’d imagine inviting 700 Geordies to your Country would be. An extremely dominant Auxerre performance is let down by our poor finishing, with just 3 of our 20 shots actually hitting the target. The closest either team comes to finding the net is when Hicham Aidir rattles the post 10 minutes from time, but the match ends 0-0.
With the start of the new Season edging closer, the odds for Ligue 1’s title winners, top goalscorer and top player are released by the bookies. We’re at 1000-1 to win it all, which seems about right, Nathan Andre is our best bet again to bag the most goals with slightly deflating odds of 550-1, while Faouzi Hikem is 40-1 to be the best player in the entire league. I quite like the lad when he isn’t getting himself sent off, but I think the bookies might need to have another look at that one.
I must have been absolutely bursting for a punch up when I arranged these fixtures, because we say au revoir to the Geordies and get straight on a plane to Glasgow to face Celtic. I’m kidding of course. We’re here because Celtic should give us a bloody difficult game and so they do. Tony Ferguson gets the only goal in a dominant win for our Scottish hosts as they beat us handily, but I at least get a chance to give full 90 minute run outs to our first team players that are still short of match fitness.
The pièce de résistance of our pre-season though is a home tie against Benfica. Paulo Fonseca’s men, who finished 2nd behind Sporting in last season’s Liga Nos, have a decent team, but I’m still thinking about the fitness of the squad so we don’t quite field a full side.
It all looks rosey at half time apart from the fact that Abdoulaye Sissako has to go off 20 minutes in with a dead leg. Alessandro Bassani finds the net in the 43rd minute and it looks like the visitors have no answer to our dominance, but the second half is a completely different story. We’re battered after the restart and Benfica find the net 4 times through Infantino, Roberto Alvarado, Alvarado again and Infantino again. The silver lining is that the first one was ruled out for offside. 1-3.
Luckily Sissako will only miss a few days and will be back for the start of the season. With the friendlies over and done with though, it’s time to get down to brass tax. First things first is the selection of this season’s captains. David Bechkoura recommends Hicham Aidir for the captaincy and Mamadou Doucouré as his vice and were I in a worse mood I’d probably fire him on the spot. Captiste is our captain. Aidir is our vice captain. That doesn’t change now.
A couple of outgoing loan moves go through before the opening game against Metz: Amine Chassaing, Auxerre’s poster boy of wasted talent, and promising midfielder Georges Bailly go out to CA Bastia and Paris FC respectively for the season.
On the eve of our first match, Auxerre scout Stuart Harvey is spotted at Lyon’s 2-0 win over Lille watching Memphis Depay. In a way it’s unfortunate that the winger puts in such a good performance, heading in one of his side’s goals as he tries to prove that he should be taken off the transfer list. It seems he’s desperate to stay and Zlatan will surely be reconsidering his position. Maybe though. Just maybe there’s a chance we can get him in.
But then comes the day: The 12th of August 2023. The start of AJ Auxerre’s second season back in the top flight of French football. As I board the Lorraine-bound plane I feel the corners of my lips involuntarily curling up into an anticipatory smile. I don’t know about you but to me it feels like this Summer’s gone on forever.
Let’s get this show back on the road.