The Next Domino (Franjo: A Journeyman Story – Mini-sode 200.5.5.5.5)

We will meet again.

Start from the start with episode 1

< Mini-sode 200.5.5.5

The referee checks his watch, raises his whistle to his lips and gives it three sharp blasts to end the match. I stride over to my opposite number Grant Murray and shake his hand before walking towards the Auxerre fans in the away end of Easter Road. Raising my hands above my head, I heartily applaud them for the final time. Their reception is distinctly mixed.

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I continue to make my way slowly around the perimeter of the pitch, still applauding the Auxerrois faithful. Some of them sing my name and applaud back, smacking their hands together with all of their might. Some of them, from what I can tell a vocal minority, boo me for what they feel is a betrayal against their club. A plastic bottle comes flying narrowly wide of my upraised arms, but I continue to applaud.

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A few of the Auxerre players, obviously reading the atmosphere, rally around me and join in in applauding the fans. Hicham Aidir wraps an arm around my shoulders and pumps his fist towards the crowd, shouting something in Arabic. Their presence prompts a cheer from some of the fans.

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The players are understanding. We’re a close knit bunch and I think they know how big an opportunity this is for me. I may even end up taking a few of them with me, although I’d rather not if I can help it. I really would hate to break up this Auxerre side. As far as I’m concerned, this is goodbye LeGod, goodbye Phil, goodbye Captiste, goodbye Joël and… My stomach clenches uncomfortably… Goodbye, Hicham.

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My very first Auxerre match was a Ligue 2 relegation scrap away against local rivals Troyes and my last, over 3 years later, has been away at Hibernian; The goalless and pretty eventless first leg of a Europa League qualifying match. But now I have to go. I need to do this. I am the next domino to fall in a chain that I began myself during the Euros.

This is goodbye, Auxerre, but not forever.

We will meet again.

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Mini-sode 200.5.5.5.5.5 >

Year 8 World Roundup (Franjo: A Journeyman Story – Mini-sode 200.5.5.5)

It’s about that time, isn’t it?

Start from the start with episode 1

< Mini-sode 200.5.5

I allow my suitcase to topple onto the floor as I slam the door of my flat, march over to the bed and flop down face-first onto the sheets. Turning onto my back, I let a wide smile cross my face. That was alright. That actually went well! I could be the manager of bloody… No. Now is not the time for complacency. Until I’ve signed on the dotted line, I’m still on the job hunt.

I drag myself over to where my laptop lies closed on the bedside table, lift it onto my lap and open it. I really should upgrade this thing at some point. As I load chrome and begin to skim the football headlines, searching for signs that any clubs might be looking for a new head honcho, a thought occurs to me. It’s about that time, isn’t it? We may as well have a look at what’s been going on around the top leagues in 2023/24.

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After Arsenal won 3 consecutive Premier League titles from 2017-2019 and Manchester United did the same from 2020-2022, all eyes were on Unai Emery’s Chelsea this season, who clinched the top spot in 2023. Could they repeat the feat of their 2 rivals by retaining the title? Short answer – No. Long answer – There was absolutely no chance that former Blues boss José Mourinho was ever going to let that happen, was there? Moo’s Red Devils reclaimed the throne and in the end it wasn’t even close, with the nearest challengers, Mauricio Pochettino’s Tottenham, stranded 6 points behind the rampant reds as Mourinho secured the Manager of the Year award for the 4th time in his Premier League career. His long time rival Arsene Wenger had a pretty good season too, restoring Manchester City to the Champions League places in 3rd place behind Spurs. Emery’s Chelsea could only manage a 4th place finish as they failed spectacularly to hold onto their title, eventually finishing 12 points short. Chelsea old boy Didier Deschamps has now been installed as Emery’s inevitable successor. In the isolation chamber that is 5th place, Carlo Ancelotti’s Gunners finished 13 points shy of Chelsea and 7 points clear of Antonio Conte’s Liverpool, who failed to make Europe for the 2nd successive season.

Down at the bottom end of the table, Alex Neil’s 5 year spell in charge of Brighton and Hove Albion came to an abrupt end in December with the Seagulls propping up the division and their decision to appoint Rob Page, who had himself just been sacked by a relegation-threatened Sunderland, did them no favours as Brighton finished last by a distance. The real shock relegation was Jason Tindall’s Bournemouth, who hadn’t finished anywhere close to the bottom 3 since 2018 when they finished 15th. They’d actually finished in the top 9 4 times since then, but nothing went right for the Cherries this campaign and they eventually finished 19th, 6 points short of safety. Hopefully they hang on to some of their top assets so that new manager Ernesto Valverde can have them bounce straight back up to the top tier next season. The last relegated team was John Kennedy’s Hull City, which I think we can all agree is a downright shame… I choose to believe I had a direct impact by refusing to let him sign all of my pissing players.

The last day of the season was extraordinarily tight down at the bottom end of the Premier League, with Roberto Di Matteo’s Crystal Palace on 38 points, Kennedy’s Hull on 39, Gareth Ainsworth’s Fulham, António Carvalho’s Leicester and… Sigh… Last year’s FA Cup winners Everton, now managed by Magnus Pehrsson on 40 and Jason Tindall’s West Brom on 41. Any of the 6 could technically have gone down, but Everton and Leicester finished the campaign with wins over Southampton and Burnley to save themselves and crucially, Crystal Palace absolutely thumped Fulham at Craven Cottage, resigning not the Cottagers themselves but Hull, who lost to West Ham, to relegation. I’m sure the Tigers will be fine though, they’ve appointed… Oh. They’ve appointed one Peter Crouch as their new manager.

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United’s Golden Glove winner David De Gea took the goalie’s spot in the Team of the Year. He’s 33 now though so give it 10 years and maybe we’ll have a bit of fucking variation in this segment. I’m only kidding, we do actually have a fair bit of variation in defence this year: Chelsea’s Aymeric Laporte is in after yet another stellar campaign, but he’s joined by Spurs’ Eric Dier and Arsenal’s Hector Bellerín, who make their first appearances in the Premier League TOTY since I’ve been keeping track. The final defender is Álex Grimaldo, the 28 year old who United paid Real Madrid £31.5M for last Summer and who had an excellent debut campaign in England. The midfield is pretty much exactly the same as it was last season, with Spurs’ Dele Alli and United’s Paul Pogba joined by City’s Kevin De Bruyne, but this year Thomas Lemar also makes his TOTY bow in his first full Premier League season. The outstanding French winger also won the Footballer of the Year and Players’ Player of the Year awards for his efforts. Up front… Do you know what, I had to double check my research when I realised this, but Tottenham’s Harry Kane has made the Team of the Year for the first time since I’ve started looking! Harry Kane! Madness. The 30 year old was the second highest scorer in the Premier League behind his compatriot; Stoke’s Joe Bell, who was rewarded by not being named in Eddie Howe’s squad for the Euros. At least he’s named in this squad, eh?

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Down to the Championship then and there were 2 runaway promotion candidates this year: Shane Long’s Watford finished 2nd on a nice round 100 points, which wasn’t entirely surprising as they’d only just been relegated last year, but narrowly missing out on breaking the record for most points in a Championship Season was Gary Bowyer’s Wolves! They fell just 1 point shy of breaking Reading’s 18 year old record but that won’t dampen their spirits much, because they’re coming back to the top division for the first time since 2012. Stevie Crawford’s Derby County weren’t a million miles away from the top 2, but they were knocked out 5-1 on aggregate in the Playoff Semi-Finals by Robbie Neilson’s Nottingham Forest, who finished a full 26 points below them. Michael Laudrup’s Middlesbrough went down with a bit more fight in their Semi-Final against John Ebbrell’s Newcastle as that tie finished 4-3 on aggregate. It was Ebbrell’s men that finally won promotion too, seeing off plucky Forest 2-1 in the Final.

Down at the bottom, Jon Whitney couldn’t quite scrape Walsall over the line and they were relegated back to League 1 along with Emerson’s Preston North End. Both managers have since been replaced by Graham Coughlan and Adrián López. At the very bottom of the pile was Adrián’s former club Wigan Athletic, who are yet to appoint a new manager after sacking Kieren Westwood. Veering off on a tangent for a moment, I took a look at Kieren and up until this relegation he was putting together a nice little CV and looked/looks quite a promising manager. Decent spells at Tranmere, Burton and Bury, then he actually saved Wigan last year. I took a moment to wonder why a former goalkeeper had retired early enough to have had 4 managerial jobs before the age of 40. What had a once solid enough goalie done or seen at the tender age of 34 to make him retire so young? Then I realised that he’d hung up his gloves immediately after a failed trial for yours truly at GKS Katowice. That’s when he knew he was finished as a player and I must say I understand all to well what a gut punch that must have been. So 5 years down the line, Kieren, for what it’s worth… Erm… Sorry about that.

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After watching Everton, Watford and Bournemouth all lift the Carabao Cup in the last 4 years, it’s becoming more and more clear that the mid-to-low-range of Premier League Clubs are taking the domestic Cups more and more seriously. This year though, the Final was between 2 good clubs that finished in the top half – Leonardo Jardim’s Stoke, who finished 8th in the Premier League to only fall slightly short of last year’s 5th place finish and Brian McClair’s Southampton, who have had a string of bottom half finishes since winning promotion in 2019 but who finished this season just behind Stoke in 9th. Stoke fought off Chelsea in the Fourth Round, a club who had been runners-up in the competition for 2 consecutive years, before also squeezing past West Brom and vanquishing Manchester United to get to the Final. Southampton had possibly an even trickier road to Wembley, seeing off Tottenham on penalties, Everton in extra time and Manchester City in a 7 goal thriller.

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In the end the scoreline of the final flattered the Saints. Not in a bad way mind you, it’s just that it was a very even game and Stoke had as many chances as their opponents to snatch victory. Sofiane Boufal, Brahim Diaz and Nany Dimata bagged a goal apiece to send their team back to the South Coast with their first ever Carabao Cup in hand.

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Stoke and Southampton actually earned themselves a rematch in the FA Cup Sixth Round, which took place just 2 weeks after the Saints’ Victory and this time it was Stoke who claimed the win on penalties, only to lose to Manchester United in the Semi-Final. United swept Fulham aside and eventually grabbed a comfortable extra time win over Crystal Palace before beating Stoke and booking themselves a place in the final. The other finalists Bournemouth beat West Brom, Peterborough and last year’s winners Everton to earn a showdown with the league leaders.

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For Manchester United this looked like a routine victory: 90 minutes at Wembley in which to see off an already relegated side. Bournemouth had other plans though and channeling their inner Wigan Athletic, they took the lead despite United’s domination through Lewis Cook after 22 minutes. Tommy Morris equalised before half time for Mourinho’s men, but whatever Valverde said at half time worked a treat, because Emiljano Pllumbaj clinched the winning goal within seconds of the restart. Bournemouth may be preparing for a season in the Championship, but after winning their very first Carabao Cup last season and seeing their local rivals repeat the feat just months ago, they’ve at least ensured that the fans have a reason to smile over the Summer by bagging their very first FA Cup.

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This one will really hurt for Atlético Madrid. With 5 matches of the La Liga campaign to play, the top spot was Deschamps’ to lose and the last real hurdle was their match against reigning champions, Jürgen Klopp’s Barcelona. In the 13th minute Atléti were in dreamland when Aaron Martín put them ahead, but seconds later Neymar equalised and then Rafinha turned the tables before half time. The match went to Barca and although Atléti won all 4 of their remaing matches, their rivals did the same. Klopp’s Catalonians retain the La Liga title in their first season following the retirement of Leo Messi, finishing 2 points clear at the top. Real Madrid finished a fairly distant 3rd place again under Rodolfo Borrell, while Marcelo Gallardo’s Sevilla improved to clinch the final Champions League place. Valencia continue to yoyo up and down the league table and after the sacking of Iban Andrés in January, David Navarro become the latest in a string of managers hopeful of restoring some stability to a historically very significant club. Their last 5 managers have lasted around 18 months on average though, so very best of luck to him. I also want to give a congratulatory shout out to CD Tenerife, who managed to keep themselves clear of relegation in La Liga for the first time since 1998. It probably sounds like I’m taking the piss, but that really is quite pleasing. Good job to their manager Juan Carlos Moreno and their star striker, who I’ll come to in a second.

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The Team of the Year is made up almost entirely of players from the top 4, and we’ll start as per usual with Goalkeeper of the Year Marc-André ter Stegen, who keeps his place between the sticks for the 3rd successive year. Ahead of Marc, his Barcelona teammates Sergi Roberto and Samuel Umtiti are selected in defence along with Wilfred Ndidi and Raphaël Guerreiro of Real Madrid. In midfield, Real’s La Liga Player of the Year Eden Hazard retains his place, with Barca’s Neymar also in on the left. Between them are José Luis Hernández of Atlético Madrid and Sergi Samper of Sevilla. Up front we have a refreshing break from the formula of “Messi + A. Nother” thanks to the Argentinian’s retirement, so 2 new faces are inducted into the Team of the Year Hall of fame: Top Spanish goalscorer Guayre Camacho of Tenerife makes the cut for notching 17 goals in 33 appearances and arguably keeping his team afloat single-handedly, as does the league’s top scorer, Sevilla’s uncapped Argentinian Enzo Abba, who scored 20 goals in 35.

In case you were wondering, as many as 15 clubs are rumoured to be interested in Tenerife academy graduate Guayre Camacho, who has put in a transfer request. The likes of Feyenoord, Chievo, Crystal Palace, Bordeaux, Standard Liège, Wolfsburg, Spartak Moscow and Villareal have all been suggested as potential destinations, so sadly I’m going to go ahead and predict that Tenerife will be back in the bottom 3 at the end of 2024/25.

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It’s time for my latest award, which I have just come up with and which I call Franjo’s “You Fucking Hero” Award. Or FYFHA for short. It sounds sort of like FIFA when you say it as a word, so there could be legal issues further down the line, but never mind. The Winner of the very first FYFHA is Bayer Leverkusen’s Roger Schmidt, for finally, finally knocking Bayern off their perch and giving me something to talk about in my Bundesliga segment of the World Roundup. Thanks to the remarkable 25 goals scored by Dutch Euro 24 highlight Thomas Buitink, the staggering 20 assists laid on by Captain Atakan Akkaynak, the considerable contributions by key players Kai Havertz, Richard Motupa (Who was signed on a free from South African side Sundowns last season. I really missed a trick there), Santi Mina, Emanuel Mammana and Timo Horn, Bayer are worthy Champions. Despite losing both of their matches against, scoring 5 fewer goals than and conceding 5 more than Diego Simeone’s side this campaign, Bayer finished 3 points clear at the top and gave German football some much needed variation. You Fucking Hero, Bundesliga Manager of the Year Roger Schmidt.

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I do find it slightly funny by the way that after finishing as runners up to Bayern in 5 of the last 6 seasons, Thomas Tuchel’s Dortmund managed to stay slightly behind them even as they slipped to 2nd place for the first time since 2012. Anyway I should probably take my nose out of Bayer’s collective backside for a second and mention the rest of the league. Markus Babbel’s Red Bull Leipzig finished in their usual spot just outside the Champions League places and were joined by André Schubert’s Schalke 04 and Markus Weinzieri’s Wolfsburg, both of whom have been out of European football for a fair while. It’s pleasing to see Wolfsburg back in particular as they’ve really been yoyoing up and down the table since winning promotion back to the Bundesliga in 2018. It’d be good to see them actually keep a consistent position in the top half of the league now. At the other end, Freiburg will be gutted to have been relegated under former manager Sandro Schwarz. They dropped into the bottom 3 in their penultimate game, losing to Schalke as Hamburg overtook them with a win over Stuttgart under caretaker manager Peter Niemeyer. Hamburg even gave them a chance on the final day by only drawing with Borussia Mönchengladbach, but Freiburg themselves could only manage a 0-0 draw with Axel Bellinghausen’s Augsburg. Ingolstadt will feel even worse about the drop if anything though, as after a fairly decent first half of the season they picked up just 10 points in 2024, costing Stephan Schmidt his job. Ralph Hassenhüttl has now taken over at Hamburg, former Middlesbrough player Emanuel Pogatetz has got the job of bringing Ingolstadt back up and Freiburg are still looking.

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As I mentioned, Timo Horn was one of the top performers for champions Bayer Leverkusen, picking up 8 clean sheets in the league. He gets a spot in the Team of the Year, as do RBL’s Levin Öztunali and Bayern trio Mats Hummels, Joshua Kimmich and David Alaba, who make up the defence. Aforementioned Leverkusen midfield duo Akkaynak and Havertz are also selected, just behind teammate Buitink, while Leipzig’s Jan Rische and Schalke’s Vitor Magalhães, on loan from Arsenal, are on the wings. Up front is the man who despite Bayern’s slip up this year just keeps growing in reputation: Euro 24 Young Player of the Tournament, Bundesliga Footballer of the Year, Top Goalscorer, Players’ Player of the Year and Players’ Newcomer of the Year Christopher Dieckmann. I’m not sure about the “Newcomer” award by the way, because Chris made his Bundesliga bow in the 2019/20 season with Dortmund before his £56M transfer to his current club. Seems like a bit of a bargain that, doesn’t it.

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Roma are back on top! Bloody hell, it’s been a good year for surprise title wins hasn’t it? United aside, I suppose. I worried last season that after Luis Enrique’s AC Milan ended Juve’s stranglehold on Serie A, they might start to dominate the division themselves. This year belongs to Manager of the Year Luciano Spalletti’s Roma though as they ran out with a 5 point cushion over the Champions to bag their second Scudetto in 7 years. Juve looked pretty nailed on to finish as runners up, especially after beating the eventual title winners in their penultimate game, but Matteo Brighi’s side lost to René Weiler’s Fiorentina on the final day and allowed both Enrique’s Milan and Oleg Luzhnyi’s Inter to leapfrog them and send them down to 4th. Outside the top 4, the European places went to Andrea Stramaccioni’s Genoa, who’ve been knocking on the door for the last 2 years, Marco Giampaolo’s Lazio, who only came back up to the division 2 years ago and Alessandro Budel’s Napoli, who despite registering their lowest league position since 2009, got themselves into the Europa League by winning the Coppa Italia. Down at the other end of the table, Eusebio Di Francesco’s Sampdoria were relegated from Serie A for the first time since 2011, finishing a single point behind Michele Serena’s Frosinone. The pair met in their penultimate match but it ended as a 1-1 stalemate, effectively dashing any lingering Sampdoria hope of survival as their last match was a routine defeat by AC Milan.

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There’s still a big Juve presence in the Team of the Year as always, starting with Goalkeeper of the Year Gerónimo Rulli, who kept 14 clean sheets over the course of the season, making him the league’s best goalkeeper for the 5th time in 6 years, the same amount of times he’s been picked in the TOTY. In front of him are his ever-reliable teammates Nacho and Defender of the Year Leonardo Bonucci, the latter of which has decided to finally hang up his boots after a remarkable 20 year career in Italian football. After being one of the very few ever-presents in a Team of the Year since I started doing these reviews, allow me to just say: Good riddance, let’s get some new faces in the team. Just kidding. Enjoy your retirement, Leonardo. On either side of the Juve pair are Roma’s Rick Karsdorp and Napoli’s Elseid Hysaj, with Juventus’ William Carvalho just in front as the defensive midfielder. In the centre of midfield, we have a couple of AC Milan players; You may remember Lincoln from last season, when he tried to win every single award going. Well this year, he’s won the Midfielder of the Year, Foreign Player of the Year and Player of the Year. He didn’t win the Fans’ Player of the Year though, as that honour went to his young Portuguese teammate John Iddi. Up front, Roma’s Mo Salah was selected as one of the trio for the 6th time in 7 years, alongside Juve’s Florin Andone and Inter’s Serie A Striker of the Year and Top Goalscorer Agustín Malbernat.

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It’s fair to say that the Bundesliga clubs dominated the European cups this season. First to the Europa League, where Köln scraped through to the final, beating both Stoke and Sporting Lisbon on away goals en route, to meet Hertha Berlin, who themselves had had quite an impressive run; beating Chaves, Sevilla and Oympiakos in the knockout rounds.

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Robert Bouer got Berlin off to a flying start at Stockholm’s Friends Arena, scoring within the first minute to get his side on their way. Köln equalised before the break through Rafail Inebolidis, after which neither side was able to find the breakthrough before the end of normal time. Before half time in extra time though the game was pretty much over, with Emmanuel Addo and Tim Leibold both scoring to put the result beyond doubt for Hertha. In the end it’s been a really successful season for the Berlin side: A midtable Bundesliga finish is perhaps a bit disappointing, but they’ve more than made up for that with their first ever Europa League trophy.

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In the Champions League meanwhile, Bundesliga winners Leverkusen were knocked out right after the group stages. They were demolished by Atléti but can probably get away with the excuse that they were focussing on the league. Atléti were eventually knocked out by Bayern in the Semi-Final, completing the German side’s Spanish treble after they beat Real and Barcelona in the previous rounds. This set up an Estadio de Madrid Final against Borussia Dortmund, who were possibly even more impressive, beating Italian champions Roma, French champions Monaco and English champions Manchester United en route to the final match.

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Dortmund got off to an extraordinarily bad start when Andrea Belotti scored a 9th minute opener to put Bayern ahead just minutes before defender Giovanni Rocca earned his marching orders. Nevertheless they responded well, with Michael Mohammed equalising just 10 minutes later. In a tense second half, Timothy Tillman was the man to score the 3rd and final goal just before the hour, sending Bayern home rueing their missed opportunity and allowing Dortmund to lift the Champions League trophy for the first time in 27 years.

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So that’s it. Christ, this has been a long Summer hasn’t it. With the Euros and the reviews… And the bit in between where nothing really happened for a few months… I don’t know about you but I’m ready to get my teeth stuck into the new season. It’s nearly time.

Mini-sode 200.5.5.5.5 >

Year 8 Review (Franjo: A Journeyman Story – Mini-sode 200.5.5)

We’ve got some reviewing to do. 

My latest short story is The Driving Instructor. I like it.

Start from the start with episode 1

< Mini-sode 200.5

Jesus, year 8. It’s certainly been a season with highs and lows, as eye-rollingly clichéd a sentiment as that is. The Euros are obviously still a fresh wound but lest ye forget, AJ Auxerre will be playing Europa League football next season! I’m keen to leave them to it and move on to pastures new, but let’s stick a pin in that particular conversation for now, because we’ve got some reviewing to do.

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France

Honours: None

Record: W11 D1 L2

Key Players: Djibril Sidibé, Raphaël Varane, Aymeric Laporte, Lucas Digne, Adrien Rabiot, Tiémoué Bakayoko, Kingsley Coman, Paul Pogba, Kylian Mbappé, Thomas Lemar

Highlight: Our 6-2 Euro 24 2nd Round win over Spain.

Lowlight: Our 4-5 Euro 24 Semi-Final loss to Belgium, which cost me my job.

It was always going to be a tough gig. Not tough in the conventional sense, like Höllviken or Katowice, but in the sense that my predecessor Arsene Wenger had given me a hell of an act to follow. He’d won the bloody World Cup and just to put the icing on top of the gâteau, so had his predecessor Didier Deschamps. I sat at the top table of World football for 2 years, laying waste to lesser sides as my France team tore through the European International League and the European Championship Qualifiers alike. I leapt and punched the air as we punished Italy and Portugal in the EIL Semi-Final and Final in 2023, beating the Euro 24 hosts 5-4 in extra time and the now European Champions 5-1. I leapt with glee as we came back from a 2 goal deficit to draw with England at Euro 24, I hid behind my hands as we crept past Denmark and Georgia and a little bit of wee came out as we decimated both Spain and Ukraine on the road to the Semi-Final. But then along came Belgium. And the rest, as they say, is history.

If Rabiot’s piledriver hadn’t pinged off the bar, if Digne’s shot hadn’t crashed off the post or if Varane hadn’t committed the terrible, horrible offence against Dendoncker that we all saw and that resulted in a penalty, maybe things would’ve been different. Similarly, if I had been more pragmatic, focussing on a defence-first approach to nullify our opposition and catch them on the counter, maybe things would’ve been different. In fact, if I had the chance to do it all again, do you know what I’d change?

Fuck all. Je ne regrette fucking rien.

Franjo’s Self-Assessment Score for France 2023/24

6.5/10 – If we’d scraped past Belgium, this could easily have turned into a 9 or maybe a 10, but we didn’t. For the most part I did what I set out to do: We scored goals upon goals upon goals during the qualifiers and tournament proper, playing attractive and exciting football. But it just wasn’t enough.

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Association de la Jeunesse Auxerroise

Final Position: 6th

Record: W21 D6 L15

Key Players: Xavier “LeGod” Lenogue, Celsiney Andre, Mamadou Doucouré, Loïc Goujon, Lamine Fomba, Abdoulaye Sissako, Phil Foden, Brahim Ferhat, Nathan Andre, Hicham Aidir

Highlight: Our 6th place finish, which earns Auxerre a spot in the Europa League qualifiers for 2024/25

Lowlight: Our 3-6 thrashing away at Nantes

It’s a bit jarring after the last month or so to be reminded of how remarkable and excellent this season has been on the whole. After an uneasy first year back in Ligue 1, Hicham Aidir and Nathan Andre rediscovered their goalscoring form, Celsiney grew into a first team player who looked like he’d been one for years, Foden and Ferhat cemented themselves as Ligue 1 footballers and players like Fomba, Goujon and Captiste were as excellent and as reliable as ever. For the most part. After an excellent first half of the season, we did struggle slightly after Christmas to pick up any sort of momentum, but we came through in the end. A late season flurry of goals from Andre, combined with performances from players like Foden, Fomba and Ferhat saw us over the line in the race for Europe for the first time in 14 years. Or to put it another way; For the first time since Celsiney was 4 years old.

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Auxerre fans’ Player of the Season and Young Player of the Season was Big Phil Foden and it’s difficult to argue otherwise. Few players stayed consistent throughout the entire season but Phil proved himself as a goal and assist machine, hitting the back of the net 12 times and setting his team mates up on 10 other occasions. Nathan Andre’s end of season heroics are clearly still fresh in the fans’ minds as he scoops 2nd place, with another academy lad, Brahim Ferhat, placing 3rd in a season where none other than Real Madrid have been monitoring him with extreme interest. Loïc Goujon, an often understated presence in Auxerre’s midfield/defence, won the Goal of the Season award for his cracking effort against Marseille, while Signing of the Season, almost by default, is Mamadou Doucouré. I didn’t exactly outdo myself in terms of incoming transfers this year, with loanee goalkeeper Vladimir used rotationally, loanee left back Rogério used extremely sparingly, goalkeeper Ibrahima Gaye a prospect for the fairly distant future and winger Amine Reynier in need of quite a lot of development. Nevertheless though, my first transfer was hands down my best. Mamadou Doucouré enjoyed a tremendous season on loan with us in 2022/23 and signing him on a free was not only good business, but pivotal to our excellent season.

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Auxerre’s Top Goalscorer is a two way tie this season, with Nathan Andre almost doubling his tally from last year and Hicham Aidir finding the magic touch that deserted him in that horrible, injury-plagued 2022/23 season. Both players scored 17 goals, with Nathan Andre rated the highest on average out of anyone in the squad to boot. Keep in mind that our Moroccan vice-captain is 23 years old and Nathan’s about to turn 21. These lads are going to be alright in Ligue 1. Foden’s 10 assists is the best in the squad, Raf as always was our tidiest retainer of the ball and Phil also split the most Player of the Match awards record for the year with Captiste. Both players picked up 4. Discipline-wise, Loïc Goujon still sticks out like a sore thumb with 2 red cards, but at least he has company this year in picking up 13 yellow cards, the same as his midfield partner Abi Sissako.

206.5.5 3 stats

206.5.5 4 season review

206.5.5 5 commercial summary

In our Ligue 2 season together, the Auxerre statistics were a joy to pour through. Last season, as we clawed ourselves clear of relegation, they were not. I’m intrigued to see how we measured up this year but it’s clear to me that some things never change with my teams. We’re strong in the air, evidenced by our finishing 2nd in the “Headers won” charts with 2121, and we… Well let’s be generous and say that we fight for the shirt, evidenced not only by our finishing 3rd in “Tackles won” (633), but also by our finishing 3rd in the yellow and red card tables (74 & 5) and the very top of the fouls table (529). Also in keeping with tradition, we had the 5th lowest salary bill in the league (£11.43M), but what is a pleasant surprise is that we also finished 5th in “Goals Scored” (65).

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I want to give a special mention once again to Andre and Aidir, who came joint 5th (15) and joint 9th (14) in the league respectively in terms of goals scored, meaning that Nathan Andre finished on par with bloody Kylian Mbappé! I knew I should’ve taken him to the Euros. The pair also finished 2nd (114.33) and 8th (153.14) respectively in the “Minutes per goal” table. They really have had quite a season.

Phil Foden and Captiste were also high up on in the charts, with Phil making the 3rd (44) most key passes in Ligue 1, while Captiste was 3rd (87%) in terms of his percentage of headers won.

I’m so proud of the job I’ve done at Auxerre. Look at them, preparing for their Europa League qualifier after finishing 6th in Ligue 1. Look at Xavier Lenogue. Look at Captiste. Look at Goujon, Raf, Sissako, Fomba, Ferhat and Andre. 3 years ago they were all staring into the abyss, contemplating whether their contracts would be renewed should the club slide out of the arse end of Ligue 2. Bloody look at them now! Ligue 1 players to a man, with Europe on the horizon. 4 of them are French internationals! And yes, fine, we can debate how biased I was towards them until the cows come home but from where I’m sat, Abi Sissako, Lamine Fomba, Brahim Ferhat and Nathan Andre all deserved their call ups. To be honest, Celsiney and Goujon probably deserved to be in a squad or two as well. I’ve spent 3 of my 8 years in management here in Auxerre and fucking hell it’s been the best 3 years so far. It’ll be a wrench to leave, regardless of who it is that I eventually sign with, but the time’s right. If I’d have left last year I would’ve worried that they might not stay in the division after I’d gone. After all, this time last season we’d just beaten the drop in the penultimate match. Now I can leave with a clear conscience, content that I’ve turned around a mighty ship that had been sailing in the wrong direction for too long. I’ve steered her away from the rocks, I’ve fixed up the engines, I’ve swabbed the decks and I’ve given her a new coat of paint for good measure. I can leave secure in the knowledge that smooth sailing surely awaits for this beautiful club.

Franjo’s Self-Assessment Score for Auxerre 2023/24

9/10 – Europe and stability. I could’ve barely asked for more.

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Santos Football Club

Do I expect too much from Santos? Possibly. It breaks my bloody heart though to see them right back where they were before our fantastic 5th place finish. In 3 Franjo-less years they’ve finished 12th, 11th and 11th again. Over that period, they’ve spent £275k of the £1.5M I invested in the Santos 4, which isn’t awful, but I just wish Boebie and Mr Allie would show a bit more ambition. I do notice that they’ve kept a lot of their team together this Summer though after last year’s mass exodus. The only player that’s left permanently is Mandla Masango, the tricky winger who was actually one of my favourite signings for Santos. He’s hung up his boots and is persueing a career as a scout. Good luck, Mandla.

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The Principality of Liechtenstein

Liechtenstein are still very… Very Liechtenstein. In the last year they’ve lost 7 out of their 8 matches, but did manage a 1-1 draw against Macedonia in March. I will hold my hands up and admit that France’s 17-1 aggregate win in the Euro 24 qualifiers probably didn’t do Liechtenstein’s confidence much good though. Keep plugging away, Mario.

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Górniczy Klub Sportowy Katowice

As much as their name still sends shivers down my spine, I’m pleased that Katowice are still holding their own in the Lotto Ekstraklasa. This season was probably actually a bit of a disappointment for GieKSa as they finished 10th in the league, going on to then finish 2nd in the Relegation Group. It’s not bad, but they’ve been in the Promotion Group more often than not since my departure so let’s hope they drag themselves back into the top half next year under Tomasz Mazurkiewicz. The sad news from this season is that Katowice actually finished a single place above my former assistant manager Dennis Lawrence’s Jagiellonia in the Relegation Group and Dennis has been sacked this Summer as a result, so far failing to secure another job.

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Sport Clube Angrense

For good old SC Angrense it’s another 9th place finish in the Liga Pro, replicating their position from last season. I keep half hoping that I’ll find out in my research that Gonçalo Monteiro’s men have climbed into the Liga Nos, but as it stands they’re still a very secure mid-table side in the 2nd tier of Portuguese football and things could certainly be a lot worse. Maybe if Valadão’s coaching skills pick up a bit, they’ll be able to bring through a bit of a golden generation of academy graduates to win them promotion. I hope so.

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FC Höllviken

How about freshening the squad up a bit, lads?

I’m off for an interview tomorrow, which if it goes well, will determine the next team to enter this list. Keep your fingers crossed.

Mini-sode 200.5.5.5 >

The Same Bloody Offers (Franjo: A Journeyman Story – Mini-sode 200.5)

I want to step up!

Start from the start with episode 1

< Euro 24 Finale

“Norwich?”

“No”, I sigh.

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“Hull City?”

“Obviously not!” I bury my head in my hands and groan. “These are the same bloody offers I’ve been getting for 3 years! I want to step up!”

206.5.5.5 1 hull int

“Well it might be difficult, that’s all.” Replies Bechkoura carefully. “What with the Euros and everything.”

“We got to the semis, that’s still an achievement!” I snap. Bechkoura screws up his face.

“Is it though?” He says, slightly dickishly. I stare back in disbelief.

“Oh don’t you bloody start. Look, the-”

“Age of the squad etc, I know. And you had to stick to your principles and you hit the woodwork twice and blah, blah, blah. I’ve heard it all before, but we still should’ve gone further.”

“Oh well thanks very much. And I suppose they’re still letting you stick around as assistant to the next bloke, are they?” Bechkoura shifts uncomfortably in his chair, answering my question. “Unbelievable.”

“Some of the staff quit in protest, remember.” He offers.

“Becky Knight quit in protest. That’s one person. And I’m pretty sure she only did it because she thinks if I get the England job I’ll take her with me.”

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“And will you?”

“Well it’s fucking moot isn’t it, because I’ve not heard a peep about it! Maybe once they see me rocking up at Carrow Road with my tail between my legs the FA’ll be all over me again though.” I exhale in a long, frustrated whistle and continue with forced calmness. “Have we heard back from any of the big hitters? Atléti? Monaco? Milan? These are the kind of jobs I should be looking at, not Norwich and definitely not fucking Hull.” Bechkoura shuffles through his notes.

“As I say, it’s difficult… Atléti have said no I think. No response from the others yet. Shouldn’t you have a PA or something to handle all this for you? Or an agent?” I let out another groan and glance at the door, half-expecting the word to somehow summon her, but it remains closed. I turn back to Bechkoura, relieved.

Suddenly, the door bursts open and in the doorway stands an odd looking lady. She’s fairly young with short, spiky and recently bleached blonde hair, big brown eyes and a pair of trendy looking glasses perched on the end of her slightly crooked nose. Her face, which has been gaunt and even slightly emaciated the last couple of times I’ve seen her, is back to its usual full and cheery self. “Bonjour, Monsieurs!” Beams Sylvania.

“Not a fucking chance!” I reply. “There is no way you… It… You had to be waiting out there for your cue or something.” She furrows her brow in apparent confusion. “Your timing is literally unbelievable.”

“Eet ees coincidence I am sure!” She squeaks.

“It’s voodoo.” I reply flatly.

“Non monsieur, I ‘ave just always ‘ad ze finest timing!” She giggles through her trademark cheshire cat grin. I sink into my chair.

“Have you at least got good news? Wait, are you still my agent actually?” I ask. She shrugs.

“Officially, it is unclear, but I do ‘ave something that may interest you.” She hands me a slip of paper, on which is written a name, a date and a time. Then Sylvania basks for a moment in my unhidden astonishment.

“Huh.” I take the paper and stare at it, unsure of what to say. “You got me an interview? With… Huh.” She beams again and nods feverishly. “Well we’d better get on a plane then, hadn’t we?”

“Maybe on ze way we can discuss my bonus.” She smirks.

“Sylvania,” I reply. “If you pull this off, I’ll name my fucking firstborn after you.” And with that, I crack what is as far as I can remember my first smile since leaving Italy.

Mini-sode 200.5.5 >

Euro 24 Review (Franjo: A Journeyman Story – Euro 24 Finale)

Let’s have a look back on a record breaking Final and then on Euro 2024 as a whole.

Start from the start with episode 1

< Euro 24 Part 19

Take my hand, dear reader. I feel your pain. The Euros are over and the long wait for USA 2026 has begun. You’ll be pleased to hear that Don Collins has been found and detained while going through customs in an Italian airport though, telling anyone who’d listen that “The special ingredient was deep fried vengeance”. By which I mean he’s recovering nicely from his unfortunate bout of flu. I’m John Hutchison. Let’s have a look back on a record breaking Final and then on Euro 2024 as a whole.


Belgium v Portugal

Emotions were at fever pitch. The two national sides lined up and backed by choirs of their countrymen tens of thousands strong, they blared their respective national anthems, which reverberated around the walls of the San Siro. Surely nobody in Milan could be oblivious to the fact that in their city, the Final of Euro 24 was about to begin.

But forget the score, I know what you’re all craving to know: How close were our lineup predictions from last week? Well, there’s no way to sugar coat it: We were way off. Belgium manager Filip Daems made the bold decision to make 6 changes to the side that blasted through France in the Semi-Finals, including an entirely different back 4. Wout Faes, Björn Engels, Jordan Lukaku, Leander Dendoncker, Youri Tielemans and Yannick Carrasco were all sacrificed in the reshuffle as Joran Devolder, Toby Alderweireld, Stéphan Vandamme, Corentin Fiore, Andreas Pereira and Cas Willems came in. Thomas Meunier was also shuffled in front of the defence as a makeshift holding midfielder. Could Daems’ radical changes pay dividends? Could fresher legs make all the difference, even at the expense of such pivotal players as Dendoncker and Tielemans?

See below our predicted XI (Left) v Belgium’s chosen XI (Right).

 

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For José Barros’ Portugal, just the 3 changes from their Semi-Final victory over Norway: Liverpool defender António Branco was left on the bench despite netting his first international goal in that match, as was Rúben Neves, who scored the equaliser. Despite their goals though, I personally was most surprised that João Mário wasn’t included, having arguably been one of his nation’s most important players in the tournament. Bernardo Silva took his place, with captain Rúben Dias retaking his place alongside Rúben Semedo in defence and Afonso Sousa, who played his only half hour of Euro 24 football as a substitute against Norway and scored his first goal, replacing Neves in midfield. Could it be that dropping the goalscorers that turned the tide against Norway was a gamble too far for Barros? Could the Porto midfielder with 5 caps to his name take the place of stalwart Rúben Neves?

Our predicted XI (Left) v Portugal’s chosen XI (Right).

 

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One team started decidedly quicker than the other: Portugal. With only 4 minutes of the match played, Gelson Martins received the ball just inside his own half and skipped past Fiore’s reckless sliding tackle before sprinting for the right byline. Once there he chipped a cross to the near post for Zé Gomes, who nodded his nation in front. 5 minutes later and with the Belgians looking remarkably blunt going forwards, Gelson charged down the right again and whipped in another cross. Courtois came out to claim the ball but he was beaten to it by Zé Gomes, whose flying header thumped into the back of the net to double Portugal’s lead. Belgium had started poorly but there was still plenty of football to be played, so they just needed to avoid doing anything foolish. As the clock ticked past the 18 minute mark, Gelson passed inside from the wing for Zé Gomes and Burnley’s Andreas Pereira came flying in two-footed from behind him, scything the Spurs striker down and earning one of the most cut and dried red cards you’ll ever see. Cas Willems’ final was also cut short as the winger was sacrificed for Charly Musonda, who moved into the centre of midfield. Not even 20 minutes in, Belgium were 2 goals and a player down.

Before the half hour, their woe turned to misery. Or their misery turned to woe… Whichever’s worse, they were now feeling that. Once again Gelson sprinted down the right beyond the reach of Corentin Fiore, once again he crossed towards the near post and once again Zé Gomes arrived, this time tapping the ball over the line from close range with his boot. I should stress that the player who scored a 29 minute hat trick in the Euro 24 Final is currently transfer listed at Tottenham. In first half stoppage time, Gelson deservedly bagged a goal of his own, rifling into the top corner from the edge of the box after Bernardo Silva teed him up. At half time Portugal lead Belgium by 4 goals to 0. It was fair to summarise at this point that Filip Daems’ 6 changes had not been entirely successful.

Still, may as well make a couple more! Daems made his remaining substitutes at half time; sending on Yannick Carrasco and Dennis Praet, replacing Kevin De Bruyne and Mohamed Hamoudan and confirming onlookers’ mounting suspicions that he’d lost his f**king mind. With renewed confidence and vigour, the Belgians came out for the second half determined to at least make the score look more presentable and within 4 minutes, substitute Carrasco handled Silva’s free kick cross inside the box and gave the rampant Portuguese a penalty. With Captain Courtois flying off in the wrong direction, Zé Gomes coolly tucked the penalty into the bottom corner and completed his “haul” of goals.

With 25 torturous minutes to play for the Belgians and 25 euphoric minutes to play for the Portuguese, José Barros made all 3 of his substitutes. Off came Gonçalo Guedes, Renato Sanches and the magnificent Gelson Martins to rapturous applause, while Bruma, João Carvalho and Rúben Neves trotted onto the pitch for well deserved cameos. Within a minute, a long throw routine started by Dalot lead to a smooth passing move inside the Belgian box, finished when Guerreiro laid the ball off for Portugal’s number 6 Bernardo Silva, who slotted in goal number 6. 10 minutes later Silva’s cross was headed weakly away at the near post by Alderweireld, but with no support around him and Courtois in no mans land after poorly anticipating yet another cross, Bruma was left with a simple finish.

The whistle was blown, the trophy was raised.

Belgium 0-7 Portugal.

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What is there to say? Whether it was the influx of changes in the Belgium side, the superior tactics of Barros, the superior Portuguese players, the bewildering Belgian substitutes, the loss of Divock Origi to injury, the benching of Youri Tielemans and Leander Dendoncker, the early goals, the early red card or a combination of some or all of the above, the simple facts were that Portugual were mesmerising to watch and that Belgium were beyond excruciating.

Former France manager WT Franjo was spotted at the San Siro with his colours pinned decisively to the mast, wearing the shirt of a Portuguese 2nd tier side and sitting amongst a group of Portuguese fans who were trying to wrap their nation’s scarves around his neck. He’ll surely have felt some catharsis watching Portugal twist the knife deeper and deeper into the Belgium side that knocked France out in the Semis and cost him his job, but it remains to be seen whether Filip Daems faces the same fate. He was cagey over his future in his post-match press conference but surely a humiliation like this is enough to force the hand of even the most generous football association. José Barros on the other hand is a name that will go down in Portuguese history for giving the fans a once-in-a-lifetime match and their second European Championship trophy in 8 years.

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Euro 24 Review

And so with the last ball kicked and the final final whistle blown, the curtain has come down on Euro 24, a tournament packed with goals, drama, twists and turns. Let’s have a look back on some of the best and worst performing teams and players.

Teams

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Goals Scored

Remarkably, Portugal’s drubbing of Belgium moved them up to only 2nd place in the goal rankings behind France, who scored 24 at a staggering rate of 4 goals per game on average.

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Down at the bottom of the list there are no surprises. FYR Macedonia will thank their lucky stars they finished 23rd and left Northern Ireland as the only side with no goals to their name.

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Goals Conceded

Brave Scotland had the meanest defence in the tournament, conceding 3 times before their 2nd Round exit, but Portugal did well to even feature in the table for this one having played over twice the amount of football as some of the other nations represented. They conceded 5 goals, getting them joint 3rd with Czech Republic, England and Serbia.

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At the other end of the table it looked like France were nailed on as the leakiest team at the tournament with 13 goals, although Croatia, Georgia and Poland deserve special mentions for conceding 10 in half the time. But Belgium’s decimation in the final surpasses even the French for goals conceded. They finished with 15 goals conceded in 7 matches.

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Discipline

Norway were by far the dirtiest team in the tournament, finishing top of both the yellow cards and fouls tables with Belgium following behind in both. In fairness, no Norwegian was sent off during Euro 24. A special mention must be given once again to Northern Ireland for collecting 10 yellow cards and a red in just 3 matches. They certainly put up a fight before their early exit.

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Players

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Ratings

Moving onto players then, the top rated footballer at Euro 24 was France’s Paul Pogba, who shone in the 5 appearances he made. Gelson Martins was Portugal’s top player in the list, making 6th place. We don’t actually have a list of the tournament’s worst players, which in my humble opinion is a bloody shame. In lieu of that, I’ll just give another honourable mention to Northern Ireland.

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Goals

Pogba was also the top scorer with 7 goals, including a hat trick against Belgium. Zé Gomes’ haul in the Final was only enough to take him joint 2nd alongside such prestigious company as Germany’s Christopher Dieckmann and the Netherlands’ Thomas Buitink. Gelson also finished in the top 9, while Belgium’s Mo Hamoudan and Youri Tielemans finished joint 5th, although the latter scored 4 from the penalty spot.

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Assists

The assists table looked set to be topped by a Frenchman too, but Gelson Martins’ hat trick of crosses against Belgium took him level with Lucas Digne with 6 assists. Finalists Bruma, Sanches, De Bruyne and the injured Origi all featured in the top 9, while a special mention should be given to Switzerland’s Arnel Kalac, who finished joint 3rd with Origi and Buitink on 4 assists despite being eliminated in the Group Stage.

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Key Passes and Dribbles Per Game

Gelson also leads the way in terms of key passes and dribbles per game, finishing joint 1st in the former alongside Buitink, Morata and Cvitanovic and 1st in the latter.

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Tackles Per Game

Looking at the more defensive side of the game, the tackles per game table is actually lead by Macedonia’s Arijan Ademi, with his countryman Ardit Aziri following closely behind.

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Key Tackles

Scotland’s Grant Wyness tops the key tackles table with 6 and I’ll give a special mention to Croatia’s Tin Jedvaj, who finished joint 4th, because I’m fairly sure it’ll be the only positive mention that a Croatian will get throughout this review.

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Key Headers

Norway’s Markus Hagen made the most key headers, while Belgians Toby Alderweireld and Leander Dendoncker were also in the top 7.

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Interceptions

The top 5 in the interceptions table includes as many as 3 Frenchmen, which I’ll applaud as along with their manager, Varane, Umtiti and Laporte have taken a lot of the criticism for their side’s poor defensive performance and deserve a bit of credit where it’s due.

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Clean Sheets

And finally to the goalkeepers. Champion Diogo Costa can be afford the be pleased, having conceded just 5 goals and kept 3 clean sheets in 7 appearances. Shevchenko and Butland also kept 3 clean sheets, so the trio finish joint 1st of that particular table.

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Match of the Tournament

While I appreciate JOE.ie’s pick for the “Match of the Tournament” award (Czech Republic’s 2-0 victory over Macedonia in Group B) may be justified and I imagine they’ll make many convincing arguments, I’m going to be less braindead in my pick and choose Belgium 5-4 France as my Match of the Tournament, with Norway (p) 3-3 England the runner up.

Biggest Overachievers

I will agree with JOE.ie’s pick for the biggest overachievers though as there can be no pick other than Norway for that title. A Semi-Final is better than anyone could have foreseen for a Norwegian side predicted by few to qualify from their group and being knocked out in non-embarrassing fashion by the eventual champions will no doubt send them home extremely satisfied with their performance. My runners up for this prestigious award are Ukraine.

Biggest Underachievers

Switzerland are a decent shout as progression from the Group Stage should have been accomplished with the squad at their disposal, but my pick for the biggest underachievers will come as no surprise. Croatia, a side full of world-known, extremely talented footballers, should not be crashing out of the Group Stage with 0 points and a -7 goal difference. Yes, they had a very tough group with Norway, Germany and Turkey, but their performance was unacceptable. I’ll name the Swiss as my runners up, although I will give an honourable mention to World Champions France for not even reaching the Final.

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Awards

Goal of the Tournament

The Goal of the Tournament award for Euro 24 was given, no doubt slightly awkwardly, to Burnley’s Belgian playmaker Andreas Pereira, who became a villain after his stupid lunge 20 minutes into the Final. Still, his scorcher against Italy is certainly something for him to hold onto in the cold, sleepless nights to come.

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Best Young Player

The Best Young Player of the tournament was given to Germany’s Bayern Munich striker Christopher Dieckmann, a decision that I support whole-heartedly. Although Germany bowed out in the Quarter-Finals to eventual finalists Belgium, Dieckmann was a highlight not just for Germany but for all of us watching. 6 goals in only 5 games is beyond impressive and in other years might even have won him the Golden Boot, so with the 22 year old only just getting started in his international career, the best is surely yet to come.

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Golden Boot

The Golden Boot of course was won by Manchester United and France midfielder Paul Pogba, whose remarkable tally of 7 goals from midfield highlights just how dangerous France were on the attack and is the 2nd highest ever scored in a European Championship tournament. Who was the highest? Paul’s fellow Frenchman and fellow midfielder Michel Platini, who bagged 9 back in 1984. It’s also the highest tally a player’s managed in any international tournament since Ronaldo, who scored 8 times as Brazil won the 2002 World Cup.

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Dream Team

Belgium are well and truly down at this point, but the World couldn’t resist giving them one last kicking before they slunk away from Euro 24. The tournament’s Dream Team starting XI contains absolutely no Belgians whatsoever, which is remarkable for a team that won all 6 matches en route to the final. And which of their squad do make the substitute’s bench? Divock Origi, who missed the Final through injury, Youri Tielemans and Björn Engels who both missed the Final for reasons unknown.

Portugal however were pretty well represented in the Dream Team, with the European Champions having António Branco, Gelson Martins and Zé Gomes in the starting XI, while Rúben Dias, Bernardo Silva and Bruma all made the bench. England’s Jack Butland made the cut for the starting XI along with his compatriot Dele Alli, while Ukrainian captain Valeriy Luchkevych and Thomas Buitink of the Netherlands were also selected.

The largest contingent of the Dream Team’s starting XI was made of players from a Semi-Final nation. Raphaël Varane, Lucas Digne, Paul Pogba and Kingsley Coman were all selected from the French squad, with Corentin Tolisso and Djibril Sidibé both on the bench, drawing France level with Portugal in terms of number of players selected on 6.

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Best Player

If you’ve been eagerly paying attention during this review and if I’ve done my job correctly, you’ll probably have 2 names that are sticking out particularly brightly in your mind for this award. Although Paul Pogba was the highest rated player and the top goalscorer though, he didn’t lift the trophy or even reach the Final. One of the players that did both is a 29 year old winger who scored 4 goals and set up 6 more as Portugal romped to victory and that is why Real Madrid’s Gelson Martins is the Euro 24 Best Player. Take a bow, Gelson. It’s well deserved.

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And that’s all I have for you on Euro 2024. Thank you for following along with us throughout the tournament, from the moment Andrei Ivan’s free kick deflected past Jared Thompson at the San Siro to the moment Rúben Dias lifted the trophy in the very same stadium, it’s been a long, long, long and winding road. I’m most likely going to go on a 2 year cruise now but don’t you worry. We’ll be back for World Cup 2026 in the United States of America. From my colleague, Don Collins and from me, John Hutchison, thank you and good night.


I close my laptop and stare out of the window, watching the clouds pass by in the darkness. The BBC’s gone to shit, it really has. None of these journalists can write a column any better than… Well, for example any better than I’d be able to. I let out a long and weary sigh.

“Good tournament, wasn’t it?” Says a small voice from beside me. I turn to see a young lad, no older than 10 on the seat between me and his father, who’s fast asleep in the aisle seat. “Who were you supporting?”

“Well, that’s a bit of a complicated question.” I reply. He beams as he recognises my accent.

“You’re English too!” He announces excitedly. “Did you see Alli’s goal against Denmark? And Oliver Webb against France! And Rashford when he scored all 4 against Georgia! Dad took me to every game!” He starts to breathlessly count off his favourite players and performances.

“Yeah, we were great.” I smile, once he’s finished. He beams again.

“Are you changing in France too? Dad says it was cheaper this way but I wanted to fly straight home. Planes are so boring aren’t they? And airports are the worst.”

“Aren’t they?” I agree, enthusiastically. “But no, I’m actually just flying to France. I live there.”

“Do a lot of people have metal faces in France?” He asks quietly, as if scared of the answer.

“Only the very cool ones.” I smirk. The boy laughs.

“What will you do when you get back?” He asks. I pause for a moment and turn to look back out of the window into the inky black sky.

“You know what?” I say slowly. “I have absolutely no idea.”

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Mini-sode 200.5 >

Amigos Reunidos (Franjo: A Journeyman Story – Euro 24 Part 19)

And then I see them both striding towards me.

Start from the start with episode 1

< Euro 24 Part 18

I check my watch – 19:52. Late. Bloody late today of all days. They’ve never left me hanging before. I check my watch again – Still 19:52. I’m not sure what I expected. I glance through the crowd of fans, a sea of different shades of red being funnelled towards the turnstiles of the San Siro. And then I see them both striding towards me, donned in red SC Angrense 17/18 home shirts, with their dark red and green Portuguese scarves raised above their heads in greeting.

“What time do you call this?” I shout.

“TIME TO WIN THE EUROS!” Bellows Gonçalo Reyes, the more round-faced of the two, although looking noticeably less youthful than he did now that he’s in his 30s. The shorter, more weathered looking Gonçalo Valadão smiles and half-cheers in agreement. I shake my head.

“First time you’ve ever been late, Hurley.” I tut towards the former.

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“Not late!” He replies sternly, as the pair reach the entrance I’m waiting by. Hurley grabs the watch on my wrist and raises it so that I can see. “8 minutes to!” He corrects me.

“Fine.” I concede. “Near enough though.” I turn to Valadão. “How’s the Under 19’s lark, meu Capitão?”

“Shit.” He growls through a thick accent. “It is shit. I am shit at it.”

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“Great.” I’m not sure how to respond to that. “How very… Erm… Honest. Listen, we should go sit down. Where’s-” I’m cut off by the sound of concrete being fed into a blender just behind my two former players. Upon closer inspection though, the sound is revealed as a laugh, the source of which is a man with an unbelievably saggy, leathery face. What little grey hair once remained on top of his sun-damaged head is gone, presumably burnt off in the fierce Terceira heat. His features are somewhat hidden under the thick folds of skin while he too is kitted out in Angrense red. It doesn’t take me long to identify my former club’s groundsman.

“Alright, Nuno?” I call. He continues to laugh like a vacuum cleaner sucking up a gravel driveway. It’s uncanny. “Go on.” I sigh. “Get it out of the way.” He gradually stops laughing, then lifts a flap of skin in order to wipe a tear from one of his tiny eyes.

“You fail, Inglês!” He croaks, before immediately bursting back into laughter.

“Excellent. I have certainly missed that.” I reply absently, while checking my watch. 19:52. “We’d better get up to our seats.” I turn to walk into the stadium, but Nuno grabs my shoulder.

“You look exactly like that… Uh… Aquele gerente Francês.” He says, still shaking with laughter. “The shit one.”

“Ah another zinger, nice one.” I nod. “And you look like Darth Vader under the mask, you scary bastard. And by the way, do I not get any credit for being the France manager? Is that not impressive? That 7 years ago we were all in the Portuguese gutter and now I’m-”

“I thought you got sacked?” Asks Hurley bluntly.

“Well… Yes, but still. I was just the France manager. Incredibly recently.” The three of them stare blankly at me. “World Champions France.” I clarify.

“And you got to the Semi-Finals of the Euros.” Chuckles Nuno. “You’re worse than Valadão.”

“Well that’s… You can’t…” I splutter. “The Semi-Finals is still fucking impressive, surely!”

“With France?” Grunts Valadão. “I would have won it.”

“Oh well clearly you would have!” I reply, my voice an octave higher than I intended it to be. “You’re wasted farming talent for Borba to flog in the January sales then, aren’t you?”

“I also think I would have won it.” Says Hurley, thoughtfully.

“Obviously you would!” I reply with a snort of hysterical laughter. “Obviously the one goal you scored in three seasons in Poland proves beyond a doubt that you’d thrive in a Managerial career outside Portugal!”

“I would also have won it.” Agrees Nuno.

“This is insane!” I cry, but Nuno, now stoney faced, squeezes my shoulder, looks me square in the eyes and lifts a leathery finger up to my lips to silence me. It smells faintly of cabbage.

“You see, Inglês: To win, you must start with a solid defence; A foundation upon which to build.” He removes his finger from my face and mimes building something with one hand on top of the flat palm of the other. Hurley and Valadão nod stoically in agreement.

“A second ago,” I hiss, “You didn’t even know the English for ‘Manager’. How the fuck do… In fact no, you’re not an authority on football management, Nuno, you’re a pissing groundsman!”

“He’s right.” Grumbles Valadão. “You must also adapt to your oppositions’ styles as I do. For was it not Sun Tzu who said ‘If you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be put at risk even in a hundred battles, but if you only know yourself, but not your opponent, you may win or may lose.'” I stare, transfixed and horrified as the three of them continue to nod silently away like Churchill dogs on the parcel shelf.

“I don’t have the foggiest fucking clue what Sun Tzu said.” I moan. “How… First of all, when did you all get so good at English?” Valadão frowns.

“Um pouco.” He says, touching his thumb and forefinger together.

“No not ‘um pouco’! You just fucking quoted Sun Tzu!”

“Sun Tzu was Chinese, not English, Inglês.” Chuckles Nuno.

“I KNOW!” I shout manically. “And you do know the English for ‘English’ then, do you? Fantastic! How am I the only one who seems to think that this entire interaction is madness?!” I claw my face with my fingertips, before reaching into my coat and withdrawing 3 tickets, which I shove roughly into their hands. “I regret sorting these for you if I’m honest.” I sigh. Nuno eyes his ticket and clears his throat.

“You are forgetting something I think, Inglês.” I reach a hand back into my coat and pull out a matchday programme, which he grabs eagerly before flipping it over to stare at the squad lists. Nuno grins and wraps an arm around my shoulder, before marching me towards the door.

“Let us go up.” He says. “You will see how a real nation plays football, Inglês.”

“Fine.” I sigh.

“Who is Renato Sanches?” He asks, regarding the programme with confusion.

“I might murder you at some point over the next 90 minutes, Nuno.” I reply. “And we’re late now too.”

“No, still 8 minutes until kick off!” Chirps Hurley. I check my watch and sure enough, it reads 19:52. Somehow. Maybe time’s stopped. Or maybe I’ve finally been driven right over the border into Crazytown in a cabbage-scented car full of Portuguese backseat-drivers. “And put yours on!” The midfielder adds, shoving a folded shirt into my hands. I grab the bright red jersey by the shoulders and hold it out in front of me, allowing it to unfurl and reveal the SC Angrense badge emblazoned upon the chest. I grin.

It’s been 5 eventful years since I’ve seen Hurley and 6 since I’ve seen the others. They’ve showed up without a word of thanks for the tickets, they’ve belittled me, insulted me and condescended to me. The important thing now is to not let any of them realise how fucking happy I am to see them.

Euro 24 Finale >

Semi-Final Roundup & Final Preview (Franjo: A Journeyman Story – Euro 24 Part 18)

Let’s see how the Semi-Finals unfolded.

Start from the start with episode 1

< Euro 24 Part 17

Well what a week it’s been! 2 matches, 13 goals, a round of international sackings and we have just 2 teams left in the tournament! I think I need a sit down and a cup of tea and I think you do too. In the continued absence of Don Collins, who was last seen outside the Norwegian team hotel before the round handing out bowls of very questionable looking lasagne behind an even more questionable fake beard… By which I mean in bed with flu… I’m John Hutchison. Let’s see how the Semi-Finals unfolded.


Norway v Portugal

The first Semi-Final tie seemed like it could only go one way: Brave Norway, the neutrals’ favourites for the Euros, who had fought tooth and nail to reach the final 4 by the narrowest of margins, topping their group on goal difference and twice victorious in penalty shootouts thereafter, against Portugal, who had largely breezed through most of the tournament at a canter. Naples’ Stadio San Paolo was packed to the rafters with fans from all around Europe and indeed the World, the majority of whom wanted to see the underdogs prevail against the odds once again.

You might ask how I’m so sure, but you needed only to see the aftermath of the opening goal. When Norwegian debutant Geir Einar Karlsen swung a cross behind enemy lines from deep on the right wing and Jørgen Strand Larsen rose to send a looping header over Diogo Costa just after the 6 minute mark, the Stadio San Paolo was rocking like I’ve never seen. The big question however was not how Norway would start, but how long they would last before tiring, having played a full hour more football in Euro 24 than their opponents. Sure enough, while they declined, Portugal grew stronger and more dominant as the game progressed. Just after the half hour Raphaël Guerreiro’s corner was awkwardly half-cleared by Jonas Svensson at the near post, allowing PSG playmaker Rúben Neves to nod the ball past Ørjan Nyland unmarked. On the hour, another Guerreiro corner was flicked on by substitute João Carvalho and bundled in from close range by Liverpool defender António Branco and then just 5 minutes later, the rout was completed when a third corner was cleared as far as Gelson Martins, who set up fellow sub Afonso Sousa for a deft finish into the top left corner.

Few will argue against the fact that Portugal deserve their place in the final, but Norway’s performance in Euro 2024 will stand out as a highlight in many a fan’s mind for years to come. They can hold their heads high as they make their way back North.

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Belgium v France

Where the first Semi was a foregone conclusion for all but the most hopeful fans, the second was balanced delicately on a knife’s edge. Belgium met France at the Stadio Olympico in what was sure to be a match choc-full of goals. So it proved after just 35 seconds when Mo Hamoudan poked the Belgians ahead from a Divock Origi cross. Unfortunately that would be Origi’s only contribution to the match as shortly after Paul Pogba thumped in an equaliser, the striker hobbled off with a hip injury that will end his tournament early. Djibril Sidibé scored France’s second shortly afterwards but only minutes later, Kevin De Bruyne slotted Belgium back onto level terms. The first half continued to spill goals upon goals as Paul Pogba’s second gave France back their lead, but Yannick Carrasco took it away again just before the break. The sides went out for the second half knowing that whoever could break the cycle of one goal leads and actually open up some breathing room would have an excellent chance of progressing and so it proved. Nany Dimata, Divock Origi’s replacement in the first half, bundled in a Hamoudan cross following a poor Leo Gauthier pass and then Youri Tielemans rifled in a penalty just after the hour, given after the referee took umbrage with the way Raphaël Varane looked at Leander Dendoncker. France huffed and puffed to close the gap and Paul Pogba succeeded to an extent, claiming his hat trick with just under 15 minutes to go, but France had no more left in the tank and as the game trundled towards its conclusion that became ever more obvious.

For Franjo and France, a Semi-Final defeat is not good enough, nor is shipping 5 goals. For Daems and Belgium, this triumph highlights just how much progress they’ve made in 2 short years. They’ll deservedly meet Portugal in what will surely be a heart thumping Final.

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I mentioned a round of sackings, but congratulations first of all to Croatia’s Marijan Vlak, who made the decision to retire from football management in a “You can’t fire me, I quit” sort of move. Also out of an International job are Czech Republic’s Karel Jarolim, who also retired, sacked England boss Eddie Howe, sacked France chief WT Franjo, Macedonia’s Igor Angelovski, who presumably made the decision that his side’s performance was the very peak of their potential and resigned, Germany’s Joachim Löw, who resigned after 18 years and 2 days in charge of his nation, Vincenzo Italiano, who resigned from his role as Italy head coach, Dariusz Banasik, who was rightly sacked by Poland, Marcelino, who stepped down from managing Spain and Urs Meier, who resigned as Switzerland boss. It’ll be interesting to see how these nations strategise for the future because they have 2 years to prepare for World Cup 2026 in the states and for many of them, much change is needed before then.


The Final – Belgium v Portugal – Preview

Belgium

Won: 6 Drawn: 0 Lost: 0

Goals Scored: 19 (2nd)

Goals Conceded: 8 (=12th)

Top Scorer(s): Mohamed Hamoudan, Youri Tielemans: 5 (=4th)

Top Assister(s): Divock Origi: 4 (=2nd)

Unavailable: Divock Origi (Hip injury, 2-3 months)

Likely Lineup:

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Portugal

Won: 5 Drawn: 0 Lost: 1

Goals Scored: 16 (3rd)

Goals Conceded: 5 (=3rd)

Top Scorer(s): Gelson Martins, João Mário: 3 (=8th)

Top Assister(s): Bruma, Gelson Martins, Renato Sanches: 3 (=5th)

Unavailable: Andre Silva (Broken Foot, 2-3 months)

Likely Lineup:

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I think the one thing we can say with certainty is that this will be a fascinating spectacle not only for Belgian and Portuguese fans, but for Tottenham and Real Madrid fans too. Out of our likely line ups, which have been picked from the players who’ve been used most often in the tournament, they are the two club sides with the biggest presence, with Portuguese Spurs players Dalot, Bruma and Zé Gomes lining up alongside Real Madrid men Guerreiro, Martins and Mario against Belgians Alderweireld and Tielemans of Spurs and Madrid respectively.

There will also be a clash of strategies at play, with Belgium preferring to press their opponents and counter quickly in a style reminiscent of the gegenpress, while Portugal tend to dominate possession and play patient football in their opponents’ half. The Portuguese have also really been making the most of Guerreiro’s set piece proficiency, with 5 of their 16 goals coming from corners and free kicks, while 18 of Belgium’s 19 goals have come from open play. The two sides are similar in a few ways though: Dendoncker sits in the hole for Belgium similarly to the way Neves stays deep for Portugal, Tielemans and Sanches play similar playmaker roles in the centre, while De Bruyne (When deployed centrally and not off the right) and Mário are the predominant attacking midfielders, regularly breaking into the box from deep positions. Both sides also utilise an overlapping left wingback along with an inside left forward, but Portugal also sometimes use a similar strategy on the right flank too.

The main difference for me is the fact that Belgium have the potential to score goals and to ship them, while Portugal have yet to be seriously challenged at the back with the exception of a very unlucky and narrow defeat at the hands of Ukraine. It should also be noted however that before their semi-final ties, the sides had only conceded 4 goals apiece. I’m going for a Portugal win, but in all honesty it could go either way.

I’ll see you after the dust settles to look back on a quite incredible tournament.

Euro 24 Part 19 >