My taxi drops me straight off at the Centre de Formation in time for training following my flight back from Bordeaux. No rest for the wicked and all that. I’m feeling good though. Clear headed. This time last season I would’ve spent the entire International break fretting about Auxerre and desperately trying to find the seasoned holding man I was after. I don’t feel that this season after Auxerre’s great start to the league campaign and I reckon I’ve been more able to keep my mind on the job for France as a result. I’ve not been the only one off over the last couple weeks though: Several of our players have been away with their nations, with the highlights being Abdoulaye Sissako (Obviously) and Fabian McCarthy, who both got on the scoresheet for their nations.
I also have to have a quick chat with Nathan Andre, who’s unhappy to have started the season as second fiddle to Hicham Aidir. I’m quick to quash his concerns though as I’ve no doubt he’ll be important to us this season. I just want Hicham off to the best start possible.
And the French Football Express’ annual summation of elite player production at French clubs lists us as the top dog, with 27 Auxerrois graduates currently playing around Europe’s top league (13 are still with us). That’s 2 up from last year when we were joint top with Monaco on 25.
Our next match is one that on paper should be our easiest 3 points of the season as we’re playing last year’s Ligue 2 runners up SC Bastia at home. As we know though, football’s rarely that straight forward and against a side that’s picked up a respectable 5 points from their first 5 matches, I’ll be looking for a professional performance to get us over the line.
Fabian McCarthy is back in full training but is not fit enough to start, but we’re without Raf today, who’ll miss about a week with a damaged heel and Hikem, who’s suspended. The only change that I’ll make from our 0-0 draw with Toulouse is to bring Billy into the left side of defence.
We start brightly and in the 8th minute, Brahim Ferhat plays a clever reverse pass into the box for Lamine Fomba, but the new French International fires his first time shot wide of the near post. Less than a minute later we go again though, playing the ball around well in the middle of the park. Hicham Aidir holds it up and waits for an overlapping run from Sissako, after which he releases the other new French International behind the defence. Sissako keeps his head down, keeps his cool and slots the ball into the bottom corner for 1-0.
It should be 2-0 after a quarter of an hour when Sissako finds Issa Samba on the right wing and the full back whips in a dangerous cross. Aidir rises to meet the ball but can only head it against the post. Soon after, Marcus Thuram slips team mate Benézét in behind Doucouré, but the winger skews his shot well wide.
Foden’s looking as confident as you’d expect after Basile Boli’s kind words and just before the half hour he brings a lofted pass under control beautifully with his heel, sidles across midfield and curls the ball ahead of Billy on the left. The Moroccan crosses first time towards the far post and his compatriot Aidir leaps like a salmon to smash a header in off the bar, doubling our lead.
And before half time we surely put the game to bed. This time it’s Fomba that chips the ball onto the left wing for Billy, whose marker leaves him acres of space. Billy goes for a whipped near post cross just to mix things up a bit and Hicham arrives once again to volley in our 3rd.
The second half is a lot quieter, which I put down to both teams already knowing what the result’s going to be. Mathis Roux gets half an hour to impress, while Bassani and Zoun get their 1st and 2nd appearances of the season respectively with 13 minute cameos. Marcus Thuram has a decent chance towards the end but is denied well by Lenogue, before Gilmore gives the visitors a consolation in the 78th minute, smacking in a postage stamp 20 yard free kick. 3-1.
That is exactly what I wanted. Well not exactly. A clean sheet would’ve obviously been preferable but we started well, essentially killed the game off before the break and had the composure and concentration to keep Bastia at bay for the majority of the second period. The result also moves us up to 5th, which is just gravy.
Hicham’s rightly inducted into the Team of the Week for his brace, but I’m slightly disappointed that Billy doesn’t make the cut. Even without his 2 assists he did his job to perfection and if he keeps performing like that, Faouzi Hikem might struggle to break back in after his suspension ends.
The Coupe de la Ligue 3rd round is drawn mid-week and we’re handed a lip-smacking home tie against Bourg-en-Bresse, who I’m always happy to have an extra opportunity to beat. I’ll be expecting a win, as I want another good cup run this year.
That’s not for about 6 weeks though, during which time we’ll actually play our away match against Bourg in the league. But first we’ve got a trip to Guingamp, who much like our last opponents have had a decent-ish start to 2023/24 and are sat in lower mid-table, having won 2 and lost 3 of their opening 6 games.
I know we’re the away team, but I’m sticking with our attacking Project: Meatloaf. We’re in decent form, we’re playing good football and I want us to build up some momentum. Fabian McCarthy comes into the starting XI to replace Loïc Goujon, who’s picked up a one match suspension as a result of his booking in the Bastia game. McCarthy will play behind the striker where he’s looked good, while Fomba will drop back and play as the holding man. Defensive midfield is not exactly his natural game but I have confidence that he can deal with it.
As Jim Carrey once said from behind his terrifying green face, “Somebody fucking stop me”. I might have embellished that a bit. We tear out of the traps again, this time taking just 7 minutes to find the opener. McCarthy plays his part by curling a corner in from the left, Fomba cushions the ball down nicely for Captiste, who takes a touch and half-volleys it into the top corner from 12 yards. “B-E-A-Fucking-Utiful.”
20 minutes later, McCarthy finds Ferhat from open play and the wide forward drives threateningly at the Guingamp defence. He lures the centre backs in and then pokes the ball into the resulting space for Aidir, who goes one-on-one with the goalkeeper Milinkovic Savic and chips the ball high out of his reach into the top corner. 2-0 and by our own admittedly low standards in Ligue 1, Auxerre are absolutely on fire.
We nearly imitate last week perfectly by finding a 3rd before the break too. Samba throws the ball in from the right hand side of the box, Foden lays it off for McCarthy and the South African shoots, but his shot’s weak and easy for the keeper to hold. Still, I’ll take 2-0 at the break.
The second half starts similarly too, with neither side looking particularly threatening. The travelling Auxerrois fans are in great voice and are piling the pressure on the home support as we knock the ball around patiently, waiting for another opportunity. I bring Roux on once again on the hour as he’s been quite enjoying his game time and it’s been showing in training. In less than 5 minutes he creates our 3rd, receiving the pass from Aidir, poking the ball around the corner for Ferhat, who gets the wrong side of his marker and drives a shot under Milinkovic Savic at his near post.
I’m ready to call it a day but that goal actually seems to spark some life in the hosts. In the 68th minute, Lamine Fomba switches off following a set piece and allows Adonis to slip away from him to receive a pass from Walter. Adonis shoots but hits the near post. Fomba’s been pretty good today in his new role, but to stop any potential fight back I bring Gaizka Basauri on alongside him, replacing Sissako.
Soon afterwards, it becomes clear that I’ve made a big mistake. With 20 minutes still to play, Samba drifts into the centre to collect the ball and plays a sloppy pass vaguely in the direction of Mathis Roux. Logan Ruiz easily intercepts and plays a long diagonal onto the wing that Samba’s left unattended. Lefeuvre’s got all the time in the world to run down the left and Captiste comes across to try and salvage the situation by closing Lefeuvre down, but that only makes it worse. Guingamp play it around him and into the centre, where Doucouré and Billy are now 2 v 2 against Reijs and Krastev. Billy decides that now would be a good time to add to our defensive comedy of errors by switching off and letting Krastev drift into space, where he can quite safely latch onto Adonis’ pass and volley the ball from close range – Past Lenogue and into the net. After how good we’ve looked so far, I honestly can’t believe how poorly we’ve defended that. I shouldn’t have substituted Sissako. He makes us so much more solid. What was I thinking?! Fomba is the more free and attacking of the pair, Sissako’s the defensive one. The sensible one. The one that keeps the shape and keeps us ticking over. He’s the one that should be partnering Basauri.
Straight from kick off I can tell that something isn’t right. We look absolutely shell shocked. I think the team shares my utter confusion over what just happened. Captiste fires a long ball towards Phil Foden but he’s beaten to it by Vatajelu, who volleys it straight back over the top of our defence. Please no. Reijs brings it down and passes the ball on. Please don’t. And Lobotka volleys in Guingamp’s second.
It suddenly feels extremely warm in the Guingamp Stadium. We’ve actually travelled a few hundred miles West to get here but as the sweat starts creeping down my brow I feel like we’ve been knocked off course and wound up somewhere along the equator. We go into full lockdown, to our defensive 4-1-4-1. I also bring Zoun on to replace Ferhat as a right winger, while Foden takes the left.
With 10 minutes to go and after a thoroughly uncomfortable amount of Guingamp pressure, we concede a corner and the home fans roar their appreciation. The corner comes in, but we manage to clear it and suddenly the shoe is on the other foot. In their desperation, Guingamp have over committed and are light at the back. Mathis Roux picks the ball up and launches it upfield for Phil Foden to chase. Phil brings it down and releases Aidir and it’s the away fans’ turn once again to roar their team on. Aidir sprints into the box, he’s through on goal – And shoots into the side netting. The last 9 or so minutes would be far more enjoyable and far less sweaty if he’d found the net, but we manage to hold on anyway.
“Bechkoura”, I call after my assistant as I enter the tunnel, heavily resembling Ted Striker towards the end of Airplane. Bechkoura turns and smirks.
“You need a towel, Boss.” He laughs.
“Do me a favour will you?” I ask. He nods. “The next time I tell you I’m going to substitute Abdoulaye Sissako, I want you to react the same way you would if I told you, while pissed up to the eyeballs, that I’m going to drive home.” He smirks again. “Do you understand?” I continue, stone-faced. “Treat me like Darron Gibson. Take those keys out of my fucking hands and don’t give them back until I’m talking sense. And not a complete tit.” Bechkoura nods once more.
“Of course, Boss.”
“Thanks, Bechkoura.” We start to walk back towards the changing rooms.
“Who’s Darron Gibson?” He asks.
“It doesn’t matter, Bechkoura.” I reply. “It absolutely doesn’t matter.”