I stare out of the window of Dyukov’s private jet as we touch back down at the Auxerre – Branches Aerodrome. It’s odd: Until I actually got the call from the Zenit Chairman, made the trip to St Petersburg and sat down with the contract in front of me, I really thought I’d sign it.
I’m still not entirely sure why I’ve decided to stay in France, but I’ll try to explain: Firstly, I want to move to a club that can win silverware and Zenit are obviously better equipped than l’AJA in that regard, but for this season at least, Zenit have already won the league. They’re so far clear at the top that they can afford to stroll leisurely through to the Summer, pretty secure in the knowledge that they’ll be lifting a trophy after the last match is played. So for the time being at least, I wouldn’t be achieving a bloody thing by going and winning the Russian Premier Division and that’s not an appealing prospect for me.
Secondly, while my current team is full of young, hungry players, Zenit’s needs a major facelift. A lot of their best players are the wrong side of 30 and the youth set up isn’t even comparable to ours, so I genuinely think I’m already at the better side and the side that can actually go places. And yes, Zenit are rich, but it seems like it’d be a really long term project to sort them out, which is a problem because of…
… Thirdly, my Continental Pro License. As I say, if I moved to Russia, the first 18 months at least would be about bringing in a younger and more talented core of players, finding our playing style, building a new squad identity and gelling everything together, whereas provided I can finish my Continental Pro License in the Summer, my options will be thrown wide open. I’ll have the highest qualifications possible and so I could be considered a gamble worth taking for a club much, much bigger than Zenit. I’m willing to wait 6 months to see if that happens. Everton and Napoli have both effectively declared themselves not interested, so I’m staying put for now.
And while I’m on this, Stade Brestois just called and also offered an interview. Enough said, really.
And so on Christmas Eve Eve, we travel to Nantes away. Just me and the Auxerre boys, set for another half-season of overachievement. Our opponents are 2 places but an entire 7 points behind us in 7th place, which really shines a light on how big the gap’s beginning to get up here between us and those below us.
After a cup exit against Lorient that I couldn’t really be either pleased or displeased with, I’m making some changes – Samba, Captiste, Fomba, Bassani and McCarthy are back out, while Celsiney, Kakuba, Sissako, Foden and Roux are recalled to the starting line up.
We come screaming out of the blocks, knocking the ball about with confidence and purpose. We nearly take the lead after just 2 minutes when Mathis Roux passes the ball to Ferhat on the edge of the box, but the French youth international’s shot is plucked out of the air by Husejnovic.
15 minutes later we’re knocking on the door, but the Nantes keeper smothers a low cross from Celsiney and starts a counter attack for the hosts. Freuler gets on the ball and hits a good pass behind Doucouré for Monier, who runs through on goal and blasts the ball beyond Lenogue for 0-1. Straight from kick off we show signs of capitulating as Radonjic stings our keeper’s palms with a low fizzing shot, winning his side a corner. The initial set piece is cleared, but within a minute Radonjic shrugs off Celsiney and slots under Lenogue for 0-2. Oh dear. Oh dear, oh dear.
As I scream instructions from the touchline, I’m powerless to stop the waves of Nantes attacks crashing against our goal. 2 more minutes pass before Krovinovic finds himself the wrong side of Kakuba in our box and drills in a third. Before the clock ticks over to show 25 minutes, Harit’s free kick is swung in from the right wing, nodded on by Santamaria and powered home off the head of Meriah. 0-4. I don’t understand. I just don’t. How has this gone so wrong?
A thin sliver of light is shone on the match after half an hour, when Billy hoofs in a cross and Foden continues to defy the odds by heading home from 12 yards, but by half time it should be 1-5. Krovinovic chips a pass over the top for Monier to run onto but this time Lenogue makes himself big and manages to block the striker’s close range shot.
At half time I think a triple substitution is more than justified. Samba comes on for Celsiney, who’s getting dominated at the back, Andre comes on for Roux, who’s been ineffective but to be fair no more than anybody else and Zoun comes on for Ferhat. I hope this is one of the winger’s good days.
On 65 minutes, Harit squares it from a free kick on the left wing, finding Radonjic in acres of space outside the box. He takes a touch, leathers it and is helped out by the ball taking a deflection off Billy’s foot, wrong-footing Lenogue and finding the back of our net for the 5th time. Awful.
Our afternoon is summed up shortly afterwards when substitute pair Andre and Zoun link up to create a chance, with Zoun playing a perfect final ball into the 6 yard box for Aidir, but our usually reliable striker volleys against the bar from close range. We do get another goal back though with 15 minutes to go, when Foden receives the ball from Sissako and plays in Andre, who rolls it into the far bottom corner. 2-5. Still not a great scoreline, is it?
A few minutes later we’re 4 goals behind again. Billy’s caught upfield and Ardaiz takes the opportunity to break down the right, before cutting across Doucouré and firing the ball into the far top corner with pinpoint accuracy. We do finally bag the 9th goal of the game when Phil Foden plays a long diagonal ball onto the left for Zoun, who squares it for Hicham Aidir, who knocks it in from inside the 6 yard box.
Don’t get me wrong, 3 goals away from home is pretty good. Conceding 6? Not so great. I’m displeased.
And let’s dwell on that result for just a little bit longer before we put it out of our minds forever. 3-6 is a new high scoring Ligue 1 game for Auxerre, trumping our 4-4 draw against Lyon last season.
I won’t lie, that result gives me serious pause for thought over whether I’m making the correct decision by sticking with l’AJA. That was just awful. Terrible. We weren’t particularly thrashed in terms of the amount of the ball we had or the amount of chances, but we were wasteful up front and absolutely woeful at the back. I do have another option of an escape if I want it: An interview with Brighton and Hove Albion is offered by Chairman Gary Bentley. Linking back up with their Summer signing Hugo Lloris is a tempting proposition, but I doubt he’d be too happy to work with the man who effectively ended his international career. Pass.
After once again completely ignoring the yuletide season, we have one more league match to play before our winter break. On the face of it it should be a decent chance to rack up 3 points against a seriously underperforming Marseille side in 15th place, but today is their new manager Jorge Jesus’ first game in charge, so it’ll be anything but a walkover.
I’m making considerable changes once again after that ridiculous Nantes match: Lenogue, Celsiney, Kakuba, Doucouré, Sissako, Roux and Ferhat are all out, replaced by Vladimir, Samba, Captiste, Sohna, Raf, McCarthy and Zoun. We’ll exploit the wings as they’re going to pack the middle of the park, but we stick with Meatloaf.
We dominate a large portion of the first half. Our first excellent chance comes after half an hour though when Isaac Sohna looks up on the edge of our box and absolutely thumps it upfield, releasing Hicham Aidir behind Marseille’s defensive line. Hicham runs through on goal, pulls back his trusty left foot but is denied by an absolutely superb last ditch tackle from behind, courtesy of the visitors’ Harry Maguire. He knocks the ball away before Hicham can open the scoring.
We’re undone a few minutes later when a throw in from Fernandes is missed by Sohna, allowing Hivring Lozano to nip in on goal. He goes one on one with Lenogue and knocks in the opening goal. I’m starting to get annoyed. 9 Auxerre shots to Marseille’s 3, 5 on target to their 1 and at the break we’re trailing.
Luckily, it doesn’t take us that long to get back into the game. 10 minutes after the restart, McCarthy’s corner’s cleared as far as Issa Samba, who carries the ball forward and lays it off for Loïc Goujon, who wraps his foot around it 25 yards out and blasts it into the top left corner. His first goal of the season and it’s a beauty. Take a bow, Loïc, you brilliant bastard.
In the 63rd minute we go close to a second courtesy of a nice little triangle of passes from McCarthy to Foden to Aidir, 20 yards out. Aidir shoots with power but his strike comes back off the frame of the goal. With 20 minutes to go, my frustration starts to peak when Goujon goes in 2 footed on Maximilian Arnold and earns a straight red. Take an early bath, Loïc, you fucking idiot. Zoun’s replaced by Andre on the left after another anonymous performance.
Andre almost creates the winner late on with a surging run down the left and a cross into the box, but when Aidir meets it and shoots, Mangala’s there to block it on the line. It’s a dominant Auxerre performance, but we’ll go into the new year off the back of 2 extremely frustrating matches.