I’m not sure why I didn’t think of this before. I’m honestly not. How could I have been so foolish? How could I have been so naive? Until very recently, I had very low hopes for Auxerre’s Europa League push because I had been working under the frankly ridiculously stupid assumption that the domestic cup competitions could be won by a team other than Monaco or PSG. Idiotic of me, I know. But now, with Monaco having won the Coupe de la Ligue and the final of the French cup confirmed to feature both teams, 6th place in Ligue 1 is officially a Europa League place. We have never been closer to European football.
Oh and also, piss off, Rodolfo Borrell. Again.
Unfortunately for us, we’ve only managed to pick up 1 point from our last 2 matches and so we’ve slid beneath Sochaux into 7th place, albeit with a game in hand. Also unfortunately for us, Brahim Ferhat and Gaizka Basauri pick up a stubbed toe and a concussion respectively during the build up to our game in hand.
Also also unfortunately for us, the game in question is against Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s Olympique Lyonnais. If there’s one team in the league whose matches against us can go to the absolute extremes in either direction, it’s Lyon.
Zlatan’s tactics don’t seem to have evolved much since we first met in Valenciennes, although I’m one to talk. He still plays that 4-4-2, we still play Meatloaf. Fomba and Aidir come in for Raf and Andre. Ferhat starts despite not being fully fit and Basauri makes the bench. Let’s get ourselves into the Europa League places.
After 10 minutes, a warning shot comes quite literally across our bow when Raí pokes a pass through for Blanchard, who gets goal-side of Doucouré and drags his effort just wide of the post. 10 minutes later though he returns the favour, getting to the right byline and drilling in a cross for Raí, who tucks in the opening goal from close range. Bollocks. We go agonisingly close straight from kick off when a good passing move sets Billy off down the left. The Moroccan full back gets a great cross in, Fomba leaps to beat goalkeeper Lopes in the air, but then with the goal at his mercy he heads just wide. We go in for the break at 0-1.
At half time, Reynier comes on replacing Ferhat, who I took a chance on despite his recent injury but has not really offered us anything. Within 7 minutes of the restart we go close again from a McCarthy corner that drops down into the centre of the box. Reynier shoots, but a defender blocks, then Billy has a go – Also blocked. Billy again – A defender throws his body across goal to make yet another block. Bloody hell.
With half an hour to play I send Raf and Andre onto the pitch, replacing Fomba and Aidir and within 5 minutes of the change, we finally claw ourselves level. Another corner from McCarthy is swung in to the edge of the 6 yard box, Doucouré nods it on and substitute Nathan Andre, stood 2 yards out with his back to goal, stoops and flicks the ball into the net with his head.
The match winds down somewhat after that. To be fair, a draw against the league’s 4th placed club is nothing to be sniffed at… We don’t get a draw though. In the 2nd minute of stoppage time, we work the ball down the right wing and Foden gets a cross in. The ball’s headed back to him and Phil tries again, but this time his cross is volleyed half-clear by Bartos. It goes as far as Raf 20 yards out, who takes the ball down on the edge of the box, takes a touch to get it out of his feet and drills it into the bottom corner.
My vindication blanket has never been so comfortable as Zlatan stares daggers at me from down the touchline. I’m not one to boast usually, but if I say so myself, that is a double substitution and a half. Take a bow, Nathan. Take a bow… Erm… Albert. You’ve gone and fired us into a Europa League spot for the first time this season.
I stifle a laugh as I watch Zlatan being interviewed by JOE. “Very ordinary” are the words that he uses to describe Auxerre. “Very ordinary.” Like how you’d describe the act of combining butter and toast for a breakfast treat. Like a car indicating right and then turning right. Like Zlatan Ibrahimovic not being able to handle defeat. “Very ordinary”. I tell you what though, Zlatan: Buttered toast is tasty and indicators save lives. You petty bastard.
Man of the match Raf makes the team of the week, despite having only played half an hour. To think that I nearly let him go last Summer. Good laf, Rad. I mean good lad, Raf.
It’s funny how often parallels and strangely coincidental situations pop up in football. Stade Rennais, you might recall, were our penultimate opponents of the 2022/23 season and it was against them that we secured safety in Ligue 1 thanks to our win and a failure of our rivals to get a result. Stade Rennais are our penultimate opponents once again today and if we win against them while Sochaux fail to secure a win against Metz, Auxerre will be in the Europa League next season. This actually seems like a good opportunity to mention though that even if we do get into Europe, I don’t want to be at Auxerre next season. I’m more than happy with what I’ve achieved here and I want to move on. Last Summer I did look for a new club, but when the moves I wanted didn’t materialise I was happy to stay put. This Summer is different. This time I’m leaving.
So let’s make sure my last away match as Auxerre manager is a good one, shall we? We’ll use our counter attacking variant of Project: Meatloaf and I’m making a few changes: Our two Moroccans Hicham Aidir and Billy are suspended, so Isaac Sohna and Nathan Andre come in to replace them, with Doucouré shifting over to left back. I could use Nantes-bound Rogerio instead, who incidentally will definitely not be playing European football next season, but frankly what’s the point? Raf comes back in for Fomba of course, because he deserves it after his performance against Lyon. I do make something of a bench malfunction though, as I’ve allowed most of those not in the starting XI to play in the reserves match this morning. My bad. Lamine Fomba, the recently debuted Loïc Maire and newly professional Texan striker Lance Osborn are our only substitutes. Lance is definitely one to keep an eye on and I’m saddened that he’s only just turned 16 and thus become eligible to play in Ligue 1 as my time here comes to an end.
If there’s one thing that I love about this Auxerre side, it’s that they truly are a bunch of battlers. I may sometimes go overboard after we capitulate and throw away a lead or fail to turn up for a match and get beaten, but when I do it’s because I know how hard a shift they can put in when it really matters. I know how well they can turn up for the big occasions and when they fail to do that it really bloody angers me. With the pressure on, we turn up early for this one.
An early Ferhat shot is deflected into the arms of Jovanovic after 3 minutes, but 2 minutes later we take the lead with what I’m going to shamelessly describe as a perfect counter attack. The ball starts off with Foulquier, who gets a cross into our box from the right wing. Celsiney’s the man to step up and head the ball clear and as it floats over towards Steven N’Zonzi, Raf uses his pace and nips in to steal. Raf strides forwards and plays it to Foden, who then sweeps an excellent ball over to Ferhat on the left hand side of Rennais’ box. Ferhat squares for McCarthy, McCarthy lays the ball off for captain Nathan Andre and Andre slams it in off the underside of the crossbar. And did I mention that Metz are already beating Sochaux? It’s a perfect first 5 minutes.
A few minutes after the opener, Foden charges through the centre of the pitch but blazes a shot over the crossbar as we continue to dominate. It’s not until the 15th minute that we double our lead when Ferhat holds the ball up 25 yards out, plays a clever ball through for Andre and the striker finds the far top corner of the net from inside the box. Shortly afterwards I hear word from Bechkoura that Metz too are 2-0 up over Sochaux. I’m almost suspicious about how perfectly this is going.
Before the half hour, Foden tries to switch the play to Ferhat. The ball’s intercepted on the edge of Rennais’ box by Foulquier but is instantly robbed back by Raf, who then speeds past Jovanovic and buries his second goal in as many games in the bottom right corner. 3-0.
Stade Rennais actually go close a couple of times before half time. Well, once. Puscas has a shot from 30 yards that flies almost comically high and wide, so I wouldn’t describe that as close, but a minute later N’Zonzi smashes a 25 yard free kick against Vladimir’s crossbar, but we hold onto our clean sheet. In the 45th minute, Ferhat picks up a cut across the head and gets to channel his inner Terry Butcher by wearing a huge bandage over it.
When we get to half time I decide to make a slight change to make us more solid, suspicious as I am. We drop to a 4-1-2-3 with Raf as the holding man, McCarthy acting as the “quarterback” and Sissako the ball winner.
But the hosts don’t appear to have much in the tank aside from poorly executed pot shots. 12 minutes after the restart we actually go close to a 4th goal when the bandaged Ferhat receives the ball off McCarthy and thuds a 20 yard shot against the bar. I then hear that Metz have matched us again by opening up a 3 goal margin against our rivals. Our opponents do pull a goal back with about 20 minutes to go when Szymanski squares to Tulissi 25 yards out. Tulissi has a pop and Vladimir has a shocker. He’s slightly off his line when the shot comes straight over his head and although the Brazilian raises his gloves in an attempt to halt the ball’s trajectory, he let’s it pass straight between them.
That’s that though. I hand a debut to Lance Osborn for the final 15 minutes and Sissako has a late shot deflected wide, but then it’s done. The final whistle blows. Between May 2021 and May 2024, Auxerre have transformed from a side ready to tumble into the third tier to Europa League qualifiers.
I’m on an all time high following the match, I really am. Auxerre are back in Europe. The thought of it. The sheer idea of it has me sporting a cheshire cat grin to rival Sylvania’s. I even briefly wonder whether I really do want to leave, but I’m quickly brought back down to Earth during a meeting with Dennis Sundberg and club director Erik Eggert. To ready the club for Europe and baring in mind the £20-odd million we’ve made in player sales this season, £2.7M will be available for transfers this Summer. Not even enough to buy another Amine Reynier. I honestly can’t believe it and I tell them as much. The fucking gaul of them. Their attitude that seems to say “Well we’ve barely spent any money over the last 3 years, so why start now?” The next manager is going to have a job on his hands.
But with Auxerre’s league position just about wrapped up, I think I can afford to take my eye off club matters for a moment. It’s time to announce my preliminary France squad for the upcoming Euros.
There’s no real surprises in my 30 man squad. I select those who’ve impressed me either for their clubs, for France or for both. Notable inclusions are Yannick Clauss, who’s had a good season for Arsenal and was OK during March’s friendlies, Sébastien Corchia, who’s been out of my squads for a while but provides an option in defence, Ousmane Dembélé, who still has yet to convince me but again is an option, Nabil Fekir, who has finally managed to get some game time under his belt and score some goals in Madrid, so is right back in my thoughts, Moussa Dembélé, who has been in and out of the squad this season but definitely provides a different kind of option up front and Auxerre quartet Abdoulaye Sissako, Lamine Fomba, Nathan Andre and Brahim Ferhat. Each of them have had terrific seasons and although the latter duo have failed to impress on the international stage in their only previous call ups, they’ve earned this chance. Especially Andre. His late season form has been remarkable.
What will never cease to amaze me though is the media’s obsession with dictating squad selection. Just picking 2 examples out of the air at random, how about the criticism I’m facing from certain outlets for not selecting Chelsea’s Ngolo Kanté or PSG’s Anthony Martial, who’ve started 2 and 4 matches this season respectively.
It’s time to end my time at this wonderful club in style though and now that a top 6 finish is secured, what would really put the cherry on top is if we could climb above Bordeaux into 5th place. It will not be an easy task as Bordeaux are 2 points ahead of us with an 18 goal superior goal difference, which means that realistically, we need to win against FC Metz, who did us a real favour last week and Bordeaux need to lose at home against Stade Rennais, who… We just destroyed. As I say, it will not be an easy task.
I’m making no personnel changes, because why on Earth would I? Billy and Aidir are back and will sit on our now fully stocked bench, but we do revert to Meatloaf classic. We’ll attack and I’ll try and give these supporters one last great performance as we attempt to climb even higher in Ligue 1.
As my players and I step onto the pitch inside the Stade l’Abbé-Deschamps for what I assume will be the final time, it hits me. The wall of noise from the Auxerroises feels like it shakes the stadium’s very foundations. A gleeful voice welcomes us over the PA system, announcing the arrival for the final time this season of AJ Auxerre, Europa League qualifiers. The wall of noise grows louder and more jubilant still. The reaction, as well as bringing me closer to tears than I’ve been since that strange night in Stockholm, makes me think. I believe it’s fair to say that my career as a manager is following an upward trajectory and if it keeps going as such, I’m going to reach a point where I’m at a big club. A very big club. A top club even. Can you get a reaction like this from a top club’s fans? Can you overachieve to this extent and make the fans this happy with a top club? I’m genuinely asking. It seems to me as an outsider that the better the club, the more expectation grows and the more your remit becomes “Just don’t fuck it up”. The thought makes me quite sad. I hope at some point that I’ll make that step, but I also really fucking hope that that doesn’t mean leaving this feeling behind.
The referee blows his whistle and the match begins. It quickly becomes apparent that Metz aren’t going to just roll over and help us topple Bordeaux too. They’ve had a good season, Metz and are only a stones throw from the top half of the table, despite having been promoted from Ligue 2 last year. In the 3rd minute Thill’s set through on goal behind Goujon and despite Sohna’s covering run, the Cameroonian can’t catch him. Thill goes for goal but Vlad pulls off an excellent acrobatic save to tip the ball over the bar. 10 minutes later a free kick from Diakité is swung in from deep on the right wing. Monteil rises above his marker Celsiney, who coincidentally I really considered picking for my preliminary France squad but thought better of it as he’s untried on the international stage. Monteil heads the ball back across goal and Felipe Manoel pops up at the far post to tap it into the net. Manoel sprints off to celebrate but quickly stops when he sees the linesman’s flag raised. 0-0 it remains.
A few minutes later we have a chance of our own when McCarthy lays the ball off for our overlapping full back Doucouré. The Senegalese drifts in a surprisingly superb cross for a centre back and Andre tries to latch onto it, but is brought down by Monteil. The referee points to the spot, drawing another roar from the home fans. Captain Andre places the ball on the spot himself and converts excellently, lashing it down the middle to open the scoring.
In the 23rd minute my smiles grows Cheshire-ish once again, because Ferhat drills a cross in from the left, Foden lays it off and Andre sweeps his second goal into the net for 2-0. This really sparks Metz though, which is impressive but certainly inconvenient. Just 2 minutes later, Diakité sprints clear down the right wing, drives a cross into the centre and Manoel directs it at goal, forcing a fine fingertip save from Vladimir.
Before the half hour, Manoel beats Goujon for pace and gets in behind before forcing a double save from Vlad, who’s playing like a man possessed. The resulting corner is headed behind by Sohna, conceding another corner. This time, Diakité’s cross is flicked on by Monteil, headed away by Sohna, headed back in by Monteil and nodded into the net by Manoel to finish an enjoyable but disappointing game of head tennis. 1-2.
We’re lucky to make it in at half time still in possession of the lead, as Metz start to throw everything at us. In the 35th minute Diakité pulls Virgile Roux’s long pass out of the air and smashes a shot against the near post from a tight angle, then in stoppage time Aalillou finds Manoel on the edge of the box, who fizzes an effort against the inside of the same post. The ball rolls across the line but Goujon gets there first and makes the clearance. When the half time whistle is blown, my heart’s pumping furiously. Auxerre have managed 2 shots to Metz’s 10 so far and luckily scored them both.
I make a pretty predictable change at the break, dropping us to a 4-1-2-3 with Raf in the hole and bringing Fomba on to replace McCarthy as a box to box midfielder. We also go on the counter to try and cope with the pressure Metz are putting us under. It works in the early stages of the second half, although I do have to have a rethink when Sissako’s forced off with an arm injury after the hour. Joël Soumahoro comes on to replace him as a deep lying playmaker.
A late flurry from Metz has me pacing my technical area at near-breakneck speeds. A corner in the 86th minute looks like an easy one for our in-form goalkeeper to deal with, but he spills it and my heart leaps into my mouth. The ball falls to Betti, who shoots but Isaac Sohna throws his body in the line of fire to concede another corner. We make it unscathed all the way to the 93rd minute, before Manoel again receives the ball from Aalillou and this time zips a low shot into the bottom corner from 20 yards to equalise for the visitors. We actually get a late chance a minute later following a free kick, when Joël finds Doucouré in space on the edge of our opponents’ box, but he smashes his shot just wide of the far post. 2-2 it ends, but I would say Metz have earned a point at the very least. This, combined with the fact that Bordeaux drew against Stade Rennais anyway, means that I can’t really complain. A 6th place finish is fine by me.
The lap of honour takes longer than it usually would. I walk slowly, savouring every cheer and shout and occasional lewd gesture from the away fans. My mind keeps trying to wander back to my pre-match worries about stepping up and leaving this kind of appreciation and this kind of achievement behind, but I keep politely bringing it back to focus on the moment. This is after all what it’s all about. These fans. This feeling. This pride. This is the shit I live for.
Cette fois c’est au revoir Auxerre, mais ça a été un privilège.