The “winter break” seems like a bit of a misnomer this season. True, there’s a 3 and a half week gap between league games, but some genius decided to stick our French Cup 9th round match against Valenciennes in the middle of it. Still, at least we’ve got a bit of time to look for, amongst perhaps other things, a new left back.
With Faouzi Hikem shipped off to Germany a couple of days into 2024, we do complete a signing of our own at around the same time. Promising keeper Ibrahima Gaye completes his £130k move from Ivorian side Académie de Football Amadou Diallo. There’s interest in Xavier Lenogue again too, from Nantes this time, but they can of course jog on.
Some of my key players soon come to me and share their worries about the Hikem shaped hole in the squad. I’ll be looking to spend some of the Hikem money on a new left back anyway though, so I send my scouts out to find me one. We have up to about £7.5M in our pocket if we need it, but I don’t want to spend big. We’ve not dragged ourselves out of that financial quagmire just to hold our nose and jump straight back in. I’d prefer a first choice replacement so that I can keep Billy as the backup, but we’ll see what’s out there.
In slightly horrifying news, Loïc Goujon’s set a new Auxerre record for poor discipline, having accrued 11 yellow cards and 2 reds in half a season. The previous holder was Ruben Aguilar, who racked up 12 yellows and a red. In a full season. If Loïc keeps going like this, he’ll probably be arrested by March. He has won a place in the Team of the Week alongside Isaac Sohna though, so you can’t argue the fact that he gets results. And seriously, that was some goal he scored last week.
Gaizka Basauri twists his wrist as we approach the Valenciennes match, which is disappointing as he probably would have played. I’m considering sending him back out on loan for the remainder of the season, as he’s not played that much so far but has been fine when I have seen him. Probably not quite Ligue 1 standard yet, but more game time will make sure his development doesn’t stall.
Stepping away from club matters for a moment, the French Best XI’s just been announced by the fans and features very few surprises. Perhaps the only mildly interesting pick in a year of such turbulence in the goalkeeping position is the selection of Alphonse Areola, who finished 2023 as our starting keeper. Leo Gauthier’s relegated to the bench as he has been for actual matches.
And while we’re at it, Kylian Mbappé’s set a third record in a relatively short space of time, eclipsing Paul Pogba yet again with his average rating from the 8 matches he’s played in 2023. A consistent 9 out of 10 is quite frankly ridiculous and no less than I’d expect from such a horrifyingly talented footballer.
The latest invitation for an interview is from Sunderland, who are currently flailing in 17th place in the Premier League. I’m alright.
Then comes an interesting one: After speaking with Dennis Sundberg, we agree that the club could do with upgrading our Youth and Training facilities to make ourselves even more self-sustainable. The sale of Faouzi Hikem, mixed with some of the Ligue 1 prize money we’ll get in the Summer, will fund the £10M refurbishments, but means we definitely can’t overspend in this window. And as it happens, we might have found a left back.
I open talks with Anderlecht’s Birger Meling, a 29 year old Norwegian whose contract is up in the Summer. He seems pretty good; Strong and fast, physically fit, driven and hard working as the day is long. True he lacks technical skill, but he may well be available on a free transfer, so for our purposes and budget I think he’ll do just fine.
The plan is this:
Step one – Agree a pre-contract deal with Birger and arrange a Bosman signing in July.
Step two – Arrange a fee with Anderlecht, similarly to how Espanyol did with us over Adama Ba, so that we can sign him now for a reduced price. He’s currently valued at £3.1M and frankly fuck that.
Step three – If step two isn’t possible we won’t get Birger until the Summer, so find a young left back to take on loan for the rest of the season. Billy will be first choice with the loanee as backup.
Sounds pretty reasonable, right? I offer him a contract.
It’s now time for our Cup tie against Valenciennes though, so transfer talk will have to wait. Obviously we’re without Goujon, who’s suspended and Basauri, who’s injured, so Abi Sissako comes into midfield alongside Raf. McCarthy, Foden and Zoun are all brought out of the side too and replaced by Andre, Bassani and Patrick Granger, who makes his first appearance of the season. Bassani and Granger will both start essentially on the wrong wings where they aren’t that comfortable. They’re both encouraged to periodically swap though and play as out and out wingers on their preferred sides. I’m also putting Xavier Lenogue on the bench, which is an odd move for me, but if this match goes to penalties I’m ready to go all Louis Van Gaal and throw him on.
We’re a whisker away from breaking the deadlock just 8 minutes in when Andre does brilliantly to latch onto Bassani’s header and poke the ball to Aidir just inside the box. Aidir lets the ball roll across his body before striking for the far corner, but he hits the inside of the post, after which the ball bounces back and hits goalkeeper Paul Charruau on the back before being hoofed clear by a defender.
It takes us a further 15 minutes to break the deadlock through a simple set piece. From a free kick just inside Valenciennes’ half, Raf slides the ball forwards to Granger on the left, who turns inside and slips in Andre. Nathan Andre takes a touch to control the ball, takes another to round his marker and then drills the ball with pin point accuracy into the bottom right corner.
10 minutes later the goalscorer turns provider when Andre holds the ball up on the edge of the box and lays it off for Alessandro Bassani, coming in from the left. Bassani hits it first time, successfully imitating Andre’s finish by zipping a shot into the far bottom corner of the net.
The match is pretty much over from that point on. Roux and Ferhat both get half an hour in the second half and we go close to a third goal from an unlikely source when Billy’s cross is headed goalwards by Issa Samba, who finds himself on the edge of the 6 yard box for reasons unknown to us both. Charruau pulls off a good save though and the match ends 2-0. Solid.
With passage through to the next round secured, I arrange a friendly. Our next league match is away at Monaco, arguably the most difficult of the lot, so I want us to practice with Project: Sword against a decent team, as it’s been a while. We’ll travel back to Poland, ignoring all my flashbacks on the way and take on Legia Warsaw, who should give us a difficult match and prove good preparation for Monaco.
The draw for the 10th round is made shortly afterwards, pitting us away against Toulouse. Ordinarily this would seem a really tough tie, but Toulouse ended 2023 spectacularly badly and last year’s 3rd place team are now propping up Ligue 1. I don’t know how I feel about this one though, surely they’ve still got the potential to frustrate and hit us on the break.
Bad news follows the draw – Birger Meling, with options aplenty, has chosen to join Sevilla instead of Auxerre. Shit. We didn’t even get past step one. Other options are pretty thin on the ground and Birger was the potential signing with the lowest risk attached, but as he’s heading to Spain we’re going to have to take some kind of risk.
A £2M bid is hesitantly made for CSKA Moscow’s unsettled Russian International full back Dmitry Yermolaev. The risks with Dmitry, or ‘Yerm’ as I imagine I’d call him, are:
A) His performances. He’s 22 years old and has not proven himself to be a consistent performer in the Russian Premier Division. He’d be taking a step up to Ligue 1 too, but he has all of the tools he needs to make it and I back myself to make a player out of him. I’d sort of have to.
B) His fee. £2M is far more than I wanted to pay and is also more than twice as much as I’ve ever paid for a player. To be fair though, this reminds me of a similar calculated risk I took in signing Phil Foden. Yerm could be a similar success story, or he could absolutely bomb.
C) His attitude. It worries me that he’s trying to force a move away from Moscow. It’s forgivable and perhaps even understandable when a player has outgrown his club to such an extent that he feels he has to move in order to progress. To throw your toys out of the pram and demand first team football when you’re not even performing that well though is as I say, worrying.
So like I said, signing Yerm would be a calculated risk. He can be good. He can be very good. But will he be? Celta Vigo certainly think so as they have a similar bid accepted. We do too and a contract is offered. These Spanish clubs are starting to annoy me a bit though. I bet they snipe on EBay. Is that still a thing people do?
A few deals are pushed over the line in the next few days – Young defensive midfielder Paul Lefevre completes a loan move to SAS Épinal, Abdoulaye Faye is loaned to US Ivry and Nathan Andre, finally content with the amount of football he’s playing, signs a new long term deal.
And then the drama starts. The drama I so sincerely wished wouldn’t rear it’s ugly head this month. Paulo Fonseca and his Benfica cronies make a quite pathetic £325k-650k bid for Mathis Roux. Boa tentativa. Não, obrigado.
Knock. Knock. Fucking knock.
“You arrogant, unbelievable little shit.” I growl. “You ungrateful little bastard.”
Mathis just sits there in the chair on the other side of my desk, a big old shit eating grin on his face. “I really am a piece of shit and I want to leave for money and because I’m thick as two short planks,” he says, like a piece of shit that’s as thick as two short planks. Fine, no he doesn’t actually say that, but that’s the gist. I slap a £10M price tag on his head and tell him to go back to training with the kids. Fucking idiot.
Inter and Spurs both make bids that could rise as high as £2.6M for Roux, but clearly they misheard me when I just said “I slap a £10M price tag on his head.” Time wasters. £5M is as low as I’ll go and that’s my final offer.
Knock. Knock. Pissing knock.
“Not only am I an ungrateful, pig headed little idiot, but I’m an impatient one at that!” Laughs Mathis, his own shit smeared across his face as he vacantly dribbles against my office window.
The bids are really flying around now. Vigo come in with a £775k bid for Zoun, but won’t go higher than £1.6M so quickly find themselves pissing off, my dissipating confidence in the merits of signing Yerm prompts me to make a loan bid for Porto’s promising full back Rogério and then Inter come back with £1.6M-3.4M for Roux. Closer, but no cigar.
The Legia friendly provides some much needed respite from what is becoming quite an annoying transfer window. I put out the team that I expect to start against Monaco: Lenogue in net, Samba, Captiste, Sohna and Billy across the back, Goujon and Basauri the holding men, Raf and Sissako the centre mids and a strike partnership of Foden and Aidir. It’s a pleasing game all in all. Foden opens the scoring with an early curling strike before Presa levels from just inside the box and towards the end of a very even game, Legia are sent down to 10 men when a frustrated Zalevski is sent off for a 2 footer aimed at Sissako’s calfs. As pleasing as the performance is though, there’s no doubt that Monaco will be a step up in quality and we’ll do well to hold our own like this.
After the match, Yerm chooses Celta Vigo and completes his move, but to be fair if he’d chosen us I reckon I would’ve cancelled this one. Too many doubts. I hope he does well though.
The next round of bids does see us accept a couple of offers: Rapid Wien are negotiated up from £1.4M to £2.5 rising to £4.7M for Zoun, which I rubber stamp.
Benfica’s bid of £1.4M-2.8M for Roux is still short, but thankfully Liverpool are convinced to meet my minimum £5M asking price, plus 50% of the next fee. I’ll take it.
With Mathis the idiot finally looking like he’s on the way out, Joël Soumahoro’s Eupen loan is terminated. He’s not had a good few months in Belgium but we need another playmaker and preferably one who won’t abandon us at the drop of a hat. Welcome back, Joël.
But then I get wind of another bid. A bid that circumvents me. Arsenal come in with £2.8M, possibly rising to £5M instead of the lump sum that Liverpool are offering. We’d also only get 40% of the profit of any future deal instead of 50% of the whole thing. Dennis Sundberg, not so much taking leave of his senses as setting his senses on fire and throwing them into the fucking sarlacc pit, accepts the offer.
“What the fucking hell are you doing?!” I burst into Sundberg’s office with a face like thunder. “Why are you getting involved? There’s a better deal on the table already, Dennis! Pull the plug on Arsenal!” I go on for a bit, carefully toeing the line between just telling the Chairman what a colossal moron he is and giving him such a verbal battering that he sacks me. Eventually, although he still doesn’t quite seem to grasp the point I’m making, Sundberg cancels the deal. Good move.
After that, things start to look up. Rogério signs on loan, providing us with a decent and cheap backup left back for the rest of the season. He looks like a good lad, like Birger he’s strong, quick, physically fit and has the right attitude, with the added bonus that he can hold his own in the air too. He too is technically limited, but at 22 he’s got plenty of time to improve. His contract with Porto runs out in the Summer too, so if he impresses he could be in line for a permanent move.
Zoun says goodbye shortly afterwards, joining Rapid Wien in a deal that could rise to close to £5M. He’s similar to Hikem in my eyes; I’m not doubting that either of them are quality players, but I want footballers in my squad that I know what I’m getting from. Unpredictability and inconsistency are not traits that I enjoy. Maybe the 2 of them have failed to impress me so much because they were touted to me upon my arrival as our 2 best players, a title that they’ve both failed to live up to. Zoun’s been a good player for us at times though and his attitude has never been a problem, so I wish him the best of luck. Goodbye, Roland Zoungrana.
We’re going to need a replacement for the Burkinabe man and I reckon I’ve found one that fits the bill perfectly. Ideally I want somebody that’s very versatile and can play anywhere in midfield, attacking midfield or up front, but especially cutting in from the left as that’s the position where we’re now lacking numbers. A £3M bid is made and accepted for Lens’ 21 year old versatile Frenchman Amine Reynier and a contract is offered.
Hull City, who somehow still haven’t grasped the fact that I’d rather actually visit Hull than sell them any of my players, make a £240k-£500k bid for central midfielder Sylvain Laurent. Nope.
The next bid comes a bit out of the blue, but it’s greatly appreciated – Serbian Super League side Napredak offer to take Florian Ayé on loan for the rest of the season. This is obviously a fantastic idea from everyone’s perspective, so I accept instantly.
On the eve of the Monaco match, Kakuba picks up a hernia, so won’t be available for our first match of 2024.
Amine Reynier joins on the same day though, becoming my new record signing at £3M. He won’t be fit to take part tomorrow, but he will be soon and he’s an exciting prospect. Amine’s by no means the finished article, but he’s quick, powerful, has good technique and a hell of a long shot, as well as fitting my preferred mould of determined and hard working (ish) players who make good decisions.
But then, just as I start to get the feeling that things might just turn out alright after all, Arsenal make another bid for Mathis Roux. The same bid. The exact same bid. Sundberg accepts it.
“Let me in, Dennis, you fucking coward.” I yell, hammering on his locked office door.
“We’ve already spoken and I listened to you on that occasion,” Comes his muffled voice from the other side, “So this time I do what I think is right.”
“But it’s the exact same conversation, you halfwit!” I smack my head against the door as tears of frustration and possibly now pain start to well in my eyes. “So you didn’t listen to me last time because this is a continuation of that conversation!”
“No, I really think I’ve earned the right to make the decision alone this time.” He says, like a fucking joke of a Chairman.
“Well you’re wrong!” I turn and slump against his office door. Why can’t people just not be fucking idiots for 5 seconds? Here’s me scraping the skin off my knuckles to get his club some extra money. I won’t be here to enjoy it! I just don’t want us getting ripped off! Plus, I’m fighting for Liverpool’s chances of landing an exciting player for fucks sake! Do you know how bizarre a feeling that is for me?!
Forget it. It’s in Mathis Roux’s hands now. His choice: Arsenal or Liverpool.
I suppose it’s a moot point anyway. The buy on percentage will mean nothing unless he improves to the point where someone wants to buy him. And seeing as the transfer to Arsenal won’t go through until he reaches the age of 18, which he won’t do until the end of the 2024/25 season and he’s sure as shit not getting out of the youth team while I’m in charge, good luck reaching your potential, Mathis Roux.
You fucking idiot.
Xavier Lenogue, Vladimir
Issa Samba, Celsiney, Captiste, Isaac Sohna, Mamadou Doucouré, Mike Kakuba, Billy, Rogério
Loïc Goujon, Gaizka Basauri, Raf, Abdoulaye Sissako, Lamine Fomba, Phil Foden, Alessandro Bassani, Fabian McCarthy, Joël Soumahoro, Amine Reynier, Patrick Granger
Hicham Aidir, Nathan Andre, Brahim Ferhat