Too Faria (Franjo: A Journeyman Story – Ep209)

Jesus, you’re really Mourinho’s man through and through, aren’t you.

Start from the start with episode 1

< Episode 208

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“Alright Rui?” I smile as I run up alongside my England assistant in St George’s car park. “I caught a bit of United’s 4-0 win against Benfica the other-”

“I have a plan, Mr Franjo.” Growls Rui Faria.

“A plan?” I frown. “A plan for what?”

“A plan to take down Josep Guardiola once and for all.” He spits on the floor. “We cannot tolerate the ins-”

“We aren’t playing Spain this break, Rui.” My brow furrows further still. “How do you intend to take him down if we aren’t playing his side?”

“I know a man.” His voice lowers to a whisper and he turns to regard me seriously. “A problem solver of sorts.” I stare back at him silently. “A problem solver”, he continues, “in the sense that if you give him a name of a problem, for example Josep Guardiola…” He pauses to spit on the car park floor once again. “…He will solve the problem for you.” I continue to stare back at him silently. “By which I mean he and his associates will go around to-”

“I get it.” I cut him off, worried that by hearing more of this madness I’ll be somehow implicated in a serious crime by the end of the international break. “No, Rui, that’s fine. Let’s just… Focus on the matter at hand, shall we? Mexico and Austria for now, then next month we’ll get Pep – Stop spitting, you dirty bastard – We’ll get Pep back for beating us. Through our football. I can’t emphasise that enough.” Rui rolls his eyes.

“Suit yourself.” He mutters.

“Jesus, you’re really Mourinho’s man through and through, aren’t you.”

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Having sufficiently cooled off since my first match at Wembley and the heartbreaking 4th Spanish goal that beat us, I’m pretty pleased with what I’ve seen so far from England. If nothing else, we’re really excellent going forwards, but I’m hesitant to count on attacking ability alone after how that attitude fared for France. We do need to be more solid at the back, particularly against the top sides, but as much as I absolutely don’t want to throw young centre back Juddy Lokando under the bus, he made a couple of glaring individual errors in the Spain match that lead to goals. I do wonder how much better we’ll be defensively after we’ve played a few matches with Project: Pride and have gotten our mistakes out of the way. Here’s the latest squad for our 2 home games against Mexico and Austria.

Goalkeepers

Jack Butland (Arsenal), Jordan Pickford (Sunderland AFC), Will Mannion (Norwich City)

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Defenders

John Stones (Liverpool), Mason Holgate (Southampton), Juddy Lokando (Manchester City), Michael Keane (Real Madrid), Harry Winks (West Bromwich Albion), Trent Alexander-Arnold (Real Sociedad on loan from Liverpool), Luke Shaw (Manchester United), Charlie Taylor (Swansea City)

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Midfielders

Eric Dier, Dele Alli (Both Tottenham hotspur), Reece Oxford (Watford), Jordan O’Halloran (Stoke City), Ed Salmon (AFC Bournemouth), Stuart Coleman (Manchester United), Phil Jones (AC Milan), Adam Bell (Leicester City)

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Strikers

Oliver Webb (Chelsea), Marcus Rashford (Real Madrid), Joe Bell (Stoke City), Harry Kane (Tottenham Hotspur)

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I want to walk a bit of a tightrope here, as I’m still trying to gage which players can cut it for England and which can’t, while simultaneously trying to build a team atmosphere. I do want to give more players a look and our Mexico friendly is a perfect opportunity to experiment, but I don’t want to make wholesale changes. In the end there are 3 differences in personnel in my second squad: Burnley’s Taylor Moore misses out after making his debut against Austria last time as he looked shaky in his first England appearance, understandably so. I’m not ruling him out of future squads though as he’s clearly a top quality defender. He’s even on my shortlist for Paris Saint-Germain as a possibility in case I’m forced to buy a centre back in January, as not only is he a good player but as a Lens youth footballer he’d also count towards our homegrown quota. For now though, Southampton’s Mason Holgate comes into the squad in his place.

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Another player to miss out is a surprising one, considering the impact he had against Spain. It really pains me to leave out Lewis Cook, but the midfielder’s decision to leave Bournemouth following their relegation and join Manchester City may stall his international career. Lewis has made a single start and 3 substitute appearances since joining the Citizens and has failed to impress whatsoever during his very limited playing time. In his place I’ve called up the in-form, uncapped Leicester playmaker Adam Bell, who’s already scored 2 goals and set up 6 more for the Foxes in his 9 appearances. As this might cause a bit of confusion, he’ll henceforth be referred to as Abel, while Stoke striker Joe Bell shall be Jobel.

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The final player to be dropped from the England squad is West Ham striker David Crammond, who has recently thrown his toys firmly out of the pram and demanded a move to a bigger side. Barcelona are circling so the move could well materialise, but as a result his club form is woeful this season. He’s scored a single goal in 7 starts for the Hammers and it’s an easy decision to leave him out and bring back England’s fit-again captain Harry Kane.

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When I said this match would be a prime opportunity to experiment I wasn’t kidding. Mexico are a good side and Javier Torrente has only lost 1 match since taking over in August 2023; A home friendly against Slovakia. Mind you, the majority of the matches his side have played and won have been North American World Cup Qualifiers against the likes of Panama, Costa Rica and Barbados, so they’ve not been given too stern a test.

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All of that being said however, I’m going to be dishing out quite a few rare international starts today as I continue to get to know my players. Norwich goalkeeper Will Mannion makes his debut in net and although he’s a championship player, the England no.1 shirt could be up for grabs after Jack Butland’s abhorrent display against Spain so I want him to impress me. Former Everton duo Mason Holgate and Michael Keane start in defence with Reece Oxford making his full debut just ahead of them in the holding man role, while Trent Alexander-Arnold and Charlie Taylor take the wingback spots. Another player making his first England start is Bournemouth’s Ed Salmon, who’ll doubtless have to move quickly across the pitch to avoid the daggers his former teammate Lewis Cook will be staring at him through his TV and Ed’s companion in midfield will be Phil Jones, whose defensive skillset and experience should compliment him quite nicely. Abel’s thrown straight in at the deep end in the number 10 role and plays behind a striking partnership of Marcus Rashford and captain Harry Kane. Although our front 2 are very experienced, I haven’t seen them very much in an England shirt as of yet and I’m hoping they’ll be able impress me, especially as they’re lining up against PSG centre back Ricardo Ibarra.

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Our first good move of the day is 20 minutes in and ends with Abel teeing up Marcus Rashford, who hits a looping volley towards the top corner but is denied at full stretch by Augusto Batalla, who tips the ball onto the bar. A few minutes later Rashford turns creator, holding the ball up 30 yards out and then playing a really clever through ball for Adam Bell, who surges into the right hand side of the box from a central position. The debutant has a pop from a tight angle and beats Batalla, but his effort hits the near post and rolls across the line, leaving Harry Kane with an almost insultingly easy finish to put us into the lead.

We’re pegged back in the 27th minute when Mexico pose their first real threat of the match and win a corner. Pineda takes it, swinging a cross into the 6 yard box and Zaraté gets above Reece Oxford to send a thumping header into the far corner. Unfortunately Abel takes a knock just before half time but I leave him on as he seems willing and… Erm… Able.

It’s worth noting that I’ve been very impressed by Ed Salmon so far, who’s not been as all-action as I expected but has been getting into excellent positions to receive the ball and pulling the strings well from the edge of the final third. 10 minutes after the break, he lays the ball to Trent Alexander-Arnold on the right wing and the Sociedad man swings a superb cross into the “corridor of uncertainty” behind the Mexican defence. Marcus Rashford pops up in between the two centre backs to volley us back into the lead from 6 yards.

A couple of minutes later, TAA gets away down the right again and sends another good cross in, this time right onto the head of Harry Kane, who turns it against the Mexican bar. A quick counter attack later, Mexico are threatening to cancel out our goal even quicker than they did the first time and a Figueroa cross pinballs through the box and reaches Alvarado on the far side. Alvarado shoots towards the near post but Mannion does well to tip it behind for a corner. The pressure stays on us and Pineda again delivers well from the corner. He swings it in, Calero beats Phil Jones at the near post to flick the ball on and Jordan Silva loses his marker Reece Oxford to poke in the equaliser. Oh dear, Reece.

I make a few changes on the hour, with Stones, O’Halloran, Coleman and Alli replacing Holgate, Salmon, Jones and Abel, but they fail to make an immediate impact. It takes us to find the 92nd minute to find the winner, which I’d like to say was a strategic decision so that the Mexicans wouldn’t have any time to instantly hit back for the third pissing time, but I can’t take any credit. Alli can though, as he plays a lovely ball straight through the defence and into the box, where Rashford latches on and leathers a shot in off the underside of the crossbar.

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It’s a difficult one, this. Again I’m in the situation where I’m not exactly happy about conceding 2 goals, but again the source of the goals was a couple of individual errors from one player, namely Oxford. I should stress as well that other than the 2 mistakes, Reece had a pretty decent game. Maybe we just need to work more on corners. Anyway, there were definite positives to take from this one: Real Madrid striker Marcus Rashford is fantastic, although that’s not exactly a revelation, Abel played very well and set up a goal on his debut, inadvertent as it may have been and Trent Alexander-Arnold really, really impressed me, particularly with those 2 crosses in the second half. After he left me quite sceptical of his ability in the Spain match, that’s great news.

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Some pretty disappointing news out of the England camp however is that the Under 21s have been knocked out of their European Championship Qualifying Group and that Aidy Boothroyd has been sacked as a result. To be fair to them, they lost out in their group to Portugal, whose senior side just won the competition months ago, so there’s clearly a really high level of quality running throughout the Portuguese set-up, but it’s still sad to see Aidy go after he’s spent 10 years working his way through the English youth levels.

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The final match of the senior team’s international break is against Austria, who we thumped 6-2 at their place in my first match as England manager and who are now making the return journey to Wembley. They’ve just lost to Spain too, so Pep’s side are at the top of Division A Group 3 with maximum points and we really need another win here if we’re to have any hope of keeping up.

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So leaving nothing to chance, I’m playing what I currently consider to be my maximum strength team… And Jordan Pickford, who has not played for me so far, but like Mannion is now fighting for the no.1 shirt. Stones and Lokando are in defence, Harry Winks and Luke Shaw are our bombing wingbacks, Dier reaches his century of caps as the holding man, O’Halloran and Coleman are in midfield and Alli plays behind Webb and Jobel.

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If there’s one man who’s impressed me more than anyone else since I accepted the FA’s offer… In fact, he actually started impressing me a few months earlier in the first match of Euro 24, it’s Chelsea’s Ollie Webb. He never stops running, never gives up and is a team player in the truest sense of the word. Coming into this match he’d scored 2 goals and set up another 4 in the 2 appearances he’d made for me and it takes him just 69 seconds here to make it 3 goals in 3. Stood 20 yards out, he runs up and curls a free kick over the Austrian defensive wall and into the top corner of the net. This lad can do fucking everything. When I joined PSG I promised myself that I wouldn’t splash the cash for the sake of it and would only sign a player if a position needed strengthening. I’m happy with my striking options back in Paris, but if Webb keeps playing like this he’s going to seriously test my resolve.

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Early goals often promise an oncoming glut that never materialises and indeed the next half hour is quite disappointingly quiet. 10 minutes from the break however we do get another good chance when Jordan O’Halloran plays a lovely backheel pass to Winks on the right wing. Winks drills a low cross in for Webb, whose first shot is saved by Stankovic’s fingertips, but whose second is drilled into the back of the net. I force myself to think of all the goals that Moise Kean and Manuel Bueno have scored so far this season.

Half time comes and goes and we’re soon threatening again. 5 minutes into the second half, O’Halloran lays the ball off for Dele Alli, who drives a first time shot low into the far corner from the edge of the Austrian box. Austria do not have any kind of response as of yet. On the hour I bring on Harry Kane for Jobel, who’s had a quiet match. Despite his goal in the Mexico game, Kane has yet to show me that he deserves a place in our strongest XI, so this is his chance.

In the 83rd minute, Juddy Lokando lofts a cross into the box from the right wing and Webb rises at the near post to head it across goal for Alli, but the Spurs midfielder can only turn it against the post from close range. It’s disappointing from a player of his calibre, but he soon makes amends. As we enter the final 5 minutes and as we continue to hammer on the door for our 4th goal, Captain Kane slips a pass into the box for his Tottenham Teammate, who blasts in his second goal of the day.

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Well that was… Thorough. To be fair, Austria were always going to be the “whipping boy” of the group but I doubt we’ll have a match that easy for quite some time. Still, you can only beat what’s put in front of you and what was put in front of us today was really fucking poor, but it does move us up to 6 points and level with Spain. We stay 2nd in the group because the first thing used to differentiate in the EIL after points is results between teams and they do have a game in hand over us, but in the next break we get to play them again and challenge for the top spot. Let’s just hope we’re ready. And that Rui Faria doesn’t put whatever heinous plan he has into action before I can get my revenge on Pep the old fashioned way.

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Episode 210 >

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Franjo’s Heroes (Franjo: A Journeyman Story – Ep208)

Bechkoura’s Bottle Boys are taking a thumping!

Start from the start with episode 1

< Episode 207

“The ball rolls to a stop in front of Kevin on the left wing. What does Kevin do…?” My heart thumps against my ribcage. “He puts in a low cross and the ball falls for Aidir! Aidir surely!” I draw back my trusty forefinger and flick it forwards against the little plastic player, who lurches forward and knocks the ball into the net. “AIDIR SCORES! Franjo’s Heroes FC make it 3-0 and Bechkoura’s Bottle Boys are taking a thumping! Hicham Ai-“

“Can we do it without the commentary?” Asks Bechkoura flatly, picking up his footballers and placing them back into position ready for kick off.

“Yeah absolutely.” I scowl. “And then we can have bacon butties without brown sauce. You idiot.”

“I’m more of a ketchup man.”

“Well then you’re wrong.” I pick up the tiny representation of Hicham Aidir and admire the figure, which is decked out in the PSG 2024/25 home kit. “Did I ever tell you that one of my first ever football shirts was a PSG one?”

“No?” Bechkoura replies. “Which one?”

“95/96 I think. The Opel one with the white collar and the shitty holograms all over it. It might even have been the very first… That or the 95 Everton home shirt.” He nods thoughtfully.

“90’s kits were very… Hit and miss.”

I nod in agreement. “But you could power your house for a year with the static.”

Bechkoura chuckles. “I always liked France’s 97/98 home shirt.” He says wistfully.

“Well I wonder why.” I grin. “I’d like the entire Liverpool catalogue if England won the World Cup wearing it. I’m making a sub by the way: Bart’s coming on for Big Phil. He’s going to slot in between Hurley and Sinbad and add a bit more bite to-“

“They’re all identical.” Growls Bechkoura, struggling to keep the annoyance out of his voice as he cuts me off.

“Oh where’s your fucking sense of whimsey? Come on, it’s your kick off. Again.”

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Subbuteo aside, I do have a bit of real football to oversee this week. As we’re welcoming Roma for a midweek Champions League Group Stage game in a few days, I’m resting pretty much my entire first team for today’s visit from Bastia. Only Kingsley Coman, the man on fire, plays today having also started in our last match. Abe comes in between the sticks, Triponez is in defence with Damir Mijatovic, who’s making his first appearance for me and the pair have Neves just ahead of them. Our wingbacks are Renan and Dobby, Veiga’s in central midfield and Coman, Hutka and Cvitanovic play behind Manuel Bueno.

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Our first chance follows some calm Bastian build up play as Renan Henrique wins the ball from Mehmedi deep in our half. He goes direct to Bueno on the half way line, who in turn releases Coman into the space on the right wing. Coman sprints to the byline as bodies get up in support and whip a cross onto the boot of Cvitanovic, who volleys us into the lead.

A few minutes later we win a left sided throw in level with Bastia’s penalty box. Dobby gives it to Cvitanovic, who cushions the ball down for Michal Hutka. Hutka chips it across to Renan, who’s got himself central and into space just outside the box. The ball bounces just once before our Brazilian international puts his laces through it, sending a vicious half volley screaming into the bottom corner for 2-0.

Not content with our 13 minute cushion, we keep pushing for a third over the next few minutes. First we play the ball out from the back and Cvitanovic chips a pass into the left channel for Bueno, who brings it into the box and forces a good near post save from Michaelsen and then another well worked move sees Bueno play a one-two with Cvitanovic to get behind the defence and then toe poke the ball powerfully beyond the Danish keeper to make it 3-0. 17 minutes in, the game’s as good as over and to say this is practically a second string side, I’m pretty bloody impressed.

Coman gets a rest for the second half and I bring on Coutinho in his place, but it’s Miguel Veiga who bags the next goal. 10 minutes after the break, he picks up the ball in our half and surges purposefully across the half way line and towards Bastia’s box. Veiga passes to Bueno, who has his back to goal 20 yards out and he then lays it off for Cvitanovic, who squares for Veiga, who slides a delicate shot into the bottom corner. Éder gets half an hour in place of Neves, but at the end of 90 minutes it’s PSG 4-0 Bastia.

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It’s nice to know that our whole squad is of sufficient quality that I can play the fringe players in situations like this and be confident that they’ll pick up all 3 points. Silvio Cvitanovic, who I’ve been pretty openly unimpressed with thus far, was absolutely excellent but then so was the entire team. I’m completely, utterly, totally pleased with that performance. Donnarumma is the only player that makes the Team of the Week and didn’t feature, while Renan, Mijatovic, Triponez, Coman, Veiga, Cvitanovic and Burno are also included.

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Kingsley Coman also receives his 2nd Player of the Month award in his 2nd month back at PSG after a quite staggering run of performances. Don’t get me wrong, I’d always rated him for France, but bloody hell he’s gone up to a whole new level this season. Renan Henrique wins Goal of the Month for his scorcher in the Bastia game.

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We have a bit of potentially bad news in the run up to the Roma match: Mateo Kovacic picks up an ab strain and will miss a couple of weeks. On the upside though, captain Marquinhos should be back at some point this month.

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The new stats on the French National team are out and PSG are joint 2nd with Metz on the list of leading producers of France players with 10. The two of us are just behind Lyon, who’ve produced 12 of Denis Renaud’s current crop. Auxerre are still well represented and are joint 5th with 6 players produced, which is more than Monaco. This makes me happy.

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Roma’s arrival in Paris sparks fierce excitement among myself and the players. The thing about managing Paris Saint-Germain that I’ve found so far is that it’s difficult to gage exactly how good you are, as the overall quality of the league isn’t all that good. Of course we’ve already lost against Monaco, but I don’t really count that as I didn’t know the players and we didn’t have a proper system. We will meet them again in what will certainly be difficult encounters, but apart from that we’re not going to meet much stern opposition in the league. The Champions League gives us an opportunity to test ourselves against Europe’s elite and I’m eager to find out how we stack up.

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I’m making 9 changes from the side that thumped Bastia: Donnarumma is back in net, as are Ibarra and Lucas in defence. Neves keeps his place at the base of midfield, but Bologna, Lato and Éder are brought in around him. Coman also keeps his place on the right wing, while Coutinho, Orlando and Kean are restored to the forward line.

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The first shots are fired by Roma and there’s a particularly heart-stopping moment 8 minutes in, when Mo Salah swings a nasty cross in from the left. Lucas manages to head it clear but only as far as Embolo, who heads the ball down for Muñoz. The striker turns, places a shot against the base of the post and we can breathe easy. A few minutes later, we have a chance of our own when Orlando crosses from a corner. Again Lucas is there and the Frenchman flicks the ball on at the near post for Ibarra, who nips in between Legrand and Embolo to volley… Straight at Alisson from 6 yards and the keeper parries it clear.

With a quarter of an hour gone we come forward again. This time our Brazilian contingent link when Éder lays the ball off for Coutinho, who slides a wonderful pass down the right for Coman to chase. The winger leaves Legrand for dead and crosses it first time into the 6 yard box, where Kean arrives and smacks a header against the bar.

Before the half hour we go close yet again. Neves wins the ball from Haksabanovic on the edge of our box and gives it to Éder, who plays a long ball forward to Kean. The Italian striker strides forward on the counter as Roma’s defence back-pedal furiously but he arrives at the edge of their box still in possession and drives a low shot inches wide of the far post. How this match is still goalless is beyond me.

When the breakthrough does come, it’s a lovely goal. In the 2nd minute of first half injury time, we win a free kick 35 yards out. Neves takes it, passing short to Ibarra, who plays it straight on for Éder. Éder hands it off to Lato, who chips it straight past Karsdorp on the left wing and Orlando latches on. Orlando squares it into the centre of Roma’s box, Coutinho touches it on for Kean and Moise Kean places it into the bottom corner from 10 yards. Beautiful football.

We head in for the break having scored at the perfect time. Our confidence is suddenly sky high while the atmosphere in the away dressing room will surely have taken a hit. We come back out for the 2nd half with our chests puffed out and soon capitalise on our newfound momentum. 8 minutes after kick off, Éder has possession in our penalty area and is under pressure, but he coolly makes himself some space and arcs a perfect pass up to Kean on the halfway line. The goalscorer chips the ball down the right and Legrand beats Coman to it for once, but severely underhits his header back towards Alisson. As the ball trickles back towards the Roma box, Coman turns on the thrusters, takes possession, jinks past the outrushing Alisson and passes the ball into the empty net.

A few minutes later, Orlando volleys a chipped pass behind the defence for Kean to run onto in the left channel. Kean takes the ball in his stride and sprints into the box but whiffs his shot, dragging it disappointingly wide of the near post. With just over 20 minutes to play, Manuel Veiga replaces Neves and Éder drops into the deeper position, freeing Veiga up to be the box to box man. I liked the look of Veiga against Bastia and want to give him more chances to show me what he can do.

Only a minute later we have yet another chance when Coutinho plays another nice pass down the right wing. Coman leaves poor Legrand in his dust and dribbles into the box before squaring for Kean, who rifles a shot into the top corner from 10 yards to give the scoreline the gloss it deserves. With respect to København this was our first real challenge in the Champions League and we’ve bloody smashed it.

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But as Cage The Elephant once said, “there ain’t no rest for the wicked”. Although they also said that “money don’t grow on trees” and I recently threw £85M at a 20 year old defensive midfielder, so take those lads’ words with a pinch of salt… Where was I? Oh right, no rest for the wicked. The matches keep coming thick and fast and before we know it the weekend is upon us, as is our trip to Sochaux.

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We’ve now scored 15 goals without reply in our last 4 outings and I want us to carry on both our run of goalscoring and of clean sheets today. My changes for this one aren’t quite as radical as the previous games, with just the 3 personnel changes from the Roma match: Renan, Dobby and young Veiga are all brought in so I can get to know them a little better at the expense of Bologna, Lato and Coutinho.

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The match doesn’t begin like I expected it to, with Sochaux actually having the best of the first 25 minutes. When I finally decide we need to change something we’ve managed exactly 0 shots against Sochaux’s compact 4-1-4-1 while they’ve had 5. We go on the counter to try and lure them out of their defensive positions so they we can use our pace to exploit any gaps that form. At half time, although we have managed a couple of shots, the score remains 0-0 and Im not happy. I decide to make a change: Moise Kean’s been pretty ineffective so I bring on our big Spanish bully in his place. Manuel Bueno will be a target man that we’ll be able to use as a foothold in Sochaux’s half, giving the rest of the team a chance to get up in support while he holds the ball up.

Just under 4 minutes into the 2nd half, a well worked move through the centre of the pitch ends with Veiga threading a pass through to Bueno, who steps away from his marker Bianchi and slams the ball past Leo Gauthier. Somebody bring me my vindication blanket. With 25 minutes to play, Bueno has a potshot from 25 yards sail harmlessly over the bar and the fact that that is “of note” really is a damning inditement of this cagey, frustrating game of football. Neves is replaced by Triponez a few minutes later, Lucas shifts into the hole and then Bueno goes close again with 5 minutes to go, denied a brace only by a last ditch slide tackle from Gnagnon that deflects his shot wide after Éder heads a Coman cross down into a dangerous position.

Bueno’s tally ends at 1 however, as does ours. He improved us in that second half and I’ll take some comfort from that, but otherwise this is a fairly worrying performance and I really need to work out what went wrong. At the end of the day though, 3 points is 3 points and this win both continues our good form and keeps us above Monaco at the top of Ligue 1 on goal difference. That’ll do.

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Episode 209 >

Back to Auxerre (Franjo: A Journeyman Story – Ep207)

We venture South East to a little old City in Burgundy and a little old stadium called the Stade l’Abbé-Deschamps.

Start from the start with episode 1

< Episode 206

“If you like Claude Makélélé”, I sing, to the tune of Rupert Holmes’ Escape, “And playing Saint-Étienne…” I signal to Bechkoura to continue the melody but he just shrugs.

“I’ve got nothing.” He says apologetically.

“Me neither after that bit.” I admit. “It’s got the makings of a good Saint-Étienne song though, hasn’t it. There’s potential there.” Bechkoura nods.

“Is that the song where the lyrics are about a man trying to cheat on his wife?” He asks.

“Yeah. It’s one of those things that people think are ‘fun facts’ but are actually just common knowledge at this point. He meets up with a woman from the advert and it turns out to be his wife, doesn’t it.” Bechkoura looks puzzled.

“Whose wife?”

“Rupert Holmes; The bloke who wrote the song. Or probably not his wife, but you know… The person whose point of view the lyrics were written from.”

“Claude Makélélé’s?”

“Well no, it’s not originally about Claude bloody Makélélé, is it?” I laugh. “I don’t even know if he’s married.”

“So how did he cheat with Rupert Holmes’ wife?”

“He didn’t!” I stare exasperatedly at my assistant. “Are you alright? Did you fall asleep midway through this conversation or something?” Bechkoura opens his mouth to speak, but closes it again without a sound. He looks like he’s struggling. “Forget it.” I sigh.

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Makélélé’s men pay us a visit today and it’s fair to say I’ve had a sketchy record against him and his infuriatingly defensive formations during my time in France. We’ve been knocked off our perch and down to 3rd by Monaco and Bordeaux but I’m determined to use our game in hand to thump some goals in and get back to the top of the league.

Our recent extremely disappointing draw against Stade de Reims is still ringing in my ears somewhat, but despite the fact that Claude parks the same 1-2-2-3-2-shaped bus as Reims, I’m not going overboard with changes. After my experimental second string played København midweek, I’m bringing back what I still believe to be my first choice XI for this one and it’s the same side that struggled against Reims, except with Lucas and Éder coming in to replace suspended duo Boris Triponez and Rúben Neves. Manuel Bueno and Silvio Cvitanovic both make the bench despite having picked up knocks in training since my Champions League debut.

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Any illusions on the part of Saint-Étienne that they’d be able to keep us at bay and erode our confidence for the first hour like Stade de Reims did last week are quickly blown to smithereens in the 12th minute, when a nice right sided, in-swinging corner from Coman connects with Lucas on the right hand side of the 6 yard box. The centre back does his claims to the first team no harm at all by powering a header past Posavec and giving us a 1-0 lead. Another Coman corner from the other side causes problems 10 minutes later too, this time when Toni Lato jumps to reach the ball but is shoved by Guibert, winning us a penalty. Mateo Kovacic steps up to the spot, gives the keeper the eyes and clips the ball firmly into the bottom left corner for 2-0.

It could be 3-0 just a minute later when we win a free kick just inside Saint-Étienne’s half. Kovacic steps up again and lofts the ball towards the box, Coman flicks it on and Lato’s in the thick of the action once again. The wing back heads the ball goalwards at the near post but this one’s easy for Posavec to catch. Instead, we get our 3rd goal just before the half hour when Éder brings the ball forwards and gives it to Lato, who chips it down the line for Orlando, who picks out who else but Kingsley Coman at the far post with a whipped cross. Coman does what Coman does, tapping us into a three goal cushion with two thirds of the game still to play.

Half time gives me a chance to congratulate the Paris Saint-Germain lads a collective pat on the back for a job well done, as it seems like the second half’s going to be a bit of a formality. Within 5 minutes of the restart though they let me know that we’re not done yet: A patient move around a Saint-Étienne half packed with bodies leads to Coutinho standing with the ball 25 yards out. The Brazilian’s almost instantly surrounded but he coolly squares for Kovacic, who plays a first time pass through the defence for Moise Kean. The Italian continues his fine form with a drilled shot under Posavec to make it 4-0.

“But surely we’ll take our foot off the pedal now”, I naively thought during the 2 minute interval before our next goal. I’ll say this about Saint-Étienne: They don’t seem to learn their lessons. Once again Coutinho’s surrounded, once again he squares for Kovacic, who once again plays the ball through for Kean. This time our striker plays a reverse ball for Orlando on the left, who crosses from the byline and then Philippe Coutinho arrives in the centre to tap in goal number 5.

With 25 minutes to play, Michal Hutka and Silvio Cvitanovic both come on replacing Kovacic and Coutinho, who’ve both had fine games and deserve a break. I’ve not seen that much of Hutka so far and I’ve been underwhelmed by Cvitanovic, so with the pressure well and truly off I want them to impress me. The former goes into the Neves role at the base of our midfield, while Éder steps into Kovacic’s shoes and the latter replaces Coutinho like-for-like.

5 minutes after the change, a bit of complacency might be sneaking in. Toni Lato tries to switch the play but it’s a clumsy attempt and he ends up blasting the ball straight against Éder’s back. The loose ball bobbles towards our box and Saint-Étienne substitute Iturbe takes the opportunity to have a snapshot from the edge of the area, but it’s a simple catch for Donnarumma, who’s had barely anything to do today.

The last action of the game comes from a corner from the visitors though, believe it or not. Initially anyway. Seinaes crosses the ball into our box, Ibarra heads it away and Éder runs it out towards the halfway line. The full Brazilian plays a great ball up the left wing for Kean to chase and he does so, before getting to the byline and floating a cross to the far post. Kingsley Coman arrives but can only hit the post from a narrow angle. That takes me back. 5-0 it finishes.

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That’s exactly what we needed after the Reims match: A clear, comfortable and unambiguous victory to clear our heads. Initially it does lift us back up to the top of the table, but by time Wednesday rolls around, Bordeaux have slapped us back down to 2nd in the early kick off. We’ll be looking to retake the top spot as we venture South East to a little old City in Burgundy and a little old stadium called the Stade l’Abbé-Deschamps.

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If we’d failed to take anything from the Saint-Étienne match, Auxerre would probably be coming into this one thinking we were here for the taking, but as it is they’ll probably be quaking in their boots. Lucas, Ibarra, Lato, Coman, Kovacic and Orlando are all selected for the Team of the Week and if any of them play like they did on Sunday, I’m in for quite a comfortable return.

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I really don’t want to be a backseat manager, but I’m wary of Jocelyn Gourvennec’s start to life in Auxerre. He can’t be blamed whatsoever for the club’s early exit from the Europa League Qualifying round as it was me who lead l’AJA to a goalless draw away at Hibernian before caretaker manager Juninho took over for the home leg and oversaw a 0-1 loss. It’s more Jocelyn’s approach to transfers that’s worrying me and here’s why: I like to think that after 3 years at the helm, I can say with some degree of insight that the club cannot compete in the transfer market. Their finances, while greatly improved from where they were a few years ago, are nowhere near strong enough to be able to bring in the type of quality that’s going to immediately improve their squad and they still aren’t of sufficient standing to bring in important quality players from other clubs. Think of my signings while I was there: The Santos 4, who I knew I could swipe from a club who were cash-strapped themselves, Phil Foden, who was frozen out of Manchester City’s reserves, Arturo Vidal and Mamadou Doucouré, who were released by Bayern and Mönchengladbach respectively and Fabien McCarthy and Amine Reynier, who we plucked from South Africa and Ligue 2. Auxerre are a club that need to be self-sufficient for the most part because in the transfer market, they’re feeding off scraps.

That’s why I very rarely actually made signings during my tenure, preferring to blood academy graduates while keeping a consistent core of the squad together. The first indicators for me that things were going to be different under Jocelyn were when he sold both Xavier Lenogue and Celsiney on deadline day. Xavier moved to Marseille as I previously mentioned and Celsiney left for Toulouse. Although I can absolutely sympathise with the club wanting to bring in potentially £7M for a player we spent no money purchasing (Although personally I wouldn’t have cashed in), I cannot for the life of me work out why Celsiney wanted to drop down into Ligue 2 after cementing himself as a Ligue 1 player last season. Seriously, before I left I was fending off interest from Tottenham and Liverpool for the right back and he’s ended up dropping down a division.

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But having said all that, fair enough. Celsiney was unsettled over the Summer and although I don’t agree with his choice of club, that’s nothing to do with Jocelyn. Lenogue’s moved to a bigger club, albeit with not much chance of playing, but fine. Here’s where I get wary: The quality of players that Auxerre ended up bringing in this Summer is just not good. Federico Viviani’s a fine centre midfielder, but he’s 32 and they’ll probably struggle to get 2 good seasons out of him in the position where the club is probably best stocked anyway. Young Iranian winger Hossain Joudaki is pretty much a downgrade on Zoun, Mirko Apollonio is an older definite downgrade on Celsiney, Christopher Jullien is a 31 year old Mike Kakuba and Ajibade Sunday is nowhere near Ligue 1 quality. Youn Czekanowicz, who Auxerre signed from us, is a poor goalkeeper but will be backup to be fair and this is where I have to give Jocelyn his dues. I reckon he’s struck gold with his first choice goalkeeper: 19 year old Iranian international Aziz Mehdizadeh. He might have what it takes to grow into a Ligue 1 player. The rest of them, not so much. Use your academy, Jocelyn.

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Anyway, that’s my two cents, but obviously Auxerre are no longer my club and their ridiculously frustrating transfer dealings are no longer my problem. As Paris Saint-Germain manager I’m duty-bound to try and rip through my old club like cheap loo roll.

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PSG will go unchanged into this one as I see no reason to tweak the side that just demolished Saint-Étienne. Ruben Neves and Boris Triponez are back from suspension but will have to make do with the bench for now. The side I left only 6 weeks ago are nearly unrecognisable already though, with Isaac Sohna, Mamadou Doucouré, Amine Reynier, Fabien McCarthy, Hicham Aidir and Nathan Andre the only starters from my regime lining up in a 4-4-2. With Captiste on the bench, the home side will be lead out by their big Moroccon centre forward and vice-captain, but Hicham isn’t Auxerre’s main threat. He’s scored just once so far this season while Andre’s bagged 5 goals in 6 appearances. Only Kingsley Coman goes into this match having scored more (6 in 6).

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The first action of the match comes a quarter of an hour in when Éder passes to Kovacic, who plays it on to Kean, who picks out Coman cutting in off the right flank. Our winger holds off the challenge of Mamadou Doucouré, takes the ball into the box and casually strokes it into the far top corner beyond Mehdizadeh’s reach. Coman v Doucouré did strike me before kickoff as a bit of a mismatch as I never got the impression that the defender was comfortable out wide. Apparently Jocelyn needs to learn that lesson for himself though and just to hammer the point home, we bag a second goal in the 23rd minute. Kovacic spins away from McCarthy and finds Coutinho in space 30 yards from goal. Coutinho plays it inside for Kean, who lays it off for Coman, who loses Doucouré again and buries his 20 yard shot into the same top left corner.

Before the half hour we get another chance when Toni Lato throws the ball in from the left wing level with the Auxerre penalty area. Orlando controls it, holding off Viviani and plays the ball to Kovacic just outside the box. The Croatian chips a lovely first time cross into the 6 yard box and Moise Kean loses his marker Jullien, earning himself a free header… Which he puts just over from 6 yards. 5 minutes later Hicham Aidir’s clattered firmly but fairly by Éder, who launches another PSG attack. There’s probably a metaphor in there somewhere if I think about it enough, but there’s no time. Éder finds his compatriot Orlando, who sprints away down the left, leaving Reynier and Apollonio in his dust. The Brazilian winger pulls the ball back from the byline for Kean, who blasts a shot at goal, but Mehdizadeh does well to tip it over the bar.

From the resulting corner, Kovacic swings a good cross in towards Kean. The Italian leaps for the ball but is dragged down by Apollonio, who… I’m sorry to harp on about it, but he just isn’t bloody good enough. If they had to sell Celsiney, fine, but Issa Samba should be in ahead of… Anyway… Apollonio gifts us a penalty and Kingsley Coman steps up to blast the spot kick into the top right corner, sealing a 37 minute hat trick. A couple of minutes on we’re caught short when Kovacic’s floated pass from a deep free kick is cleared and Auxerre counter through Andre and Aidir, who both stayed forward for the set piece. Andre picks the ball up and takes it past Éder to release Aidir, who times his run well to stay onside and then bursts through on goal completely alone. He reaches the edge of our box and is one-on-one with the outrushing Donnarumma, but his low driven shot is turned behind by the Italian goalkeeper.

We go close to a 4th goal before half time when Orlando’s cross deflects off Reynier and bounces to Coutinho 25 yards out, but the playmaker shoots just wide of the top right corner. At half time my team talk really gives itself but we come back out for the second half to the news that Hicham’s been sacrificed for the hosts and Goujon has come on to try and sure up their midfield, which to be fair seems like a good call but a tad late.

Goujon doesn’t exactly scream “Security” 15 minutes later though, winning the ball off Kean but then smashing his clearance against the striker’s legs, causing the ball to trickle over to Orlando on the edge of the box. The Brazilian shoots weakly with his unfavoured right foot however and it’s an easy catch for Mehdizadeh. A minute later Auxerre try and hit back when Reynier chips a good ball over to McCarthy, who’s in space 25 yards out. The South African slides a pass through for Andre but his shot too is weak and Donnarumma catches it comfortably. Rounding off an intense 5 minute spell, Coman gets the ball on the right wing shortly after and crosses for Moise Kean, who spins around on the edge of the box and shoots straight at Mehdizadeh. Not a fantastic half for quality shots, this.

As the half rumbles on, Gourvennec brings on big Phil Foden and Billy in the hopes that they’ll be able to bring about a comeback or more likely a consolation and I then bring off the booked and shattered Éder, replacing him with Rúben Neves. The last chance comes 5 minutes from time when Kean surges through the centre of the pitch and drives a shot low towards the corner of goal, but again Auxerre’s Iranian goalkeeper pulls off a good save to deny the striker a place on the scoresheet. Aside from a late Cvitanovic cameo, that’s our lot.

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I’m in high spirits after the match. A 5th win in 6 league games sends us back to the top of Ligue 1 and it’s nice to see the Auxerre players and staff, a few of whom I have a chat with before getting back on the bus to the airport. When I finally do retake my seat next to Bechkoura, I notice that he’s silently looking out of the window. I wonder if he’s still trying to work out who Claude Makélélé cheated on to inspire that fucking song.

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Episode 208 >

From Ouagadougou to København (Franjo: A Journeyman Story – Ep206)

Here we are some 6 years later.

Start from the start with episode 1

< Episode 205

As I scroll through Bechkoura’s latest email full of player reports, I almost laugh. I cast my mind back to Portugal all those years ago, when I jumped on a plane with Miguel Borba and watched excitedly from the stands as Lassina Touré sat glued to the bench for Burkina Faso for the first time, such was my pride that one of my players was in the squad for an international match. Lassina never had another contract after Angrense and retired from football aged just 27, but for me he stands out as a milestone player in my career.

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But here we are some 6 years later. Just look at this list Bechkoura’s sent me:

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Bloody hell, things like this really make it sink in for me sometimes. Look how far we’ve come from those days. I’m not about to go through the players and their international performances one by one, but I am happy to report that our young right back Renan Henrique made his international debut for Brazil last week, which is of course excellent. Moise Kean and Kingsley Coman also bagged goals for their countries, which I hope will mean that they’re ready to carry on with their good early season form.

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There may be a bit of a storm brewing here in Paris though and it’s been brewing since the moment the transfer deadline passed. Ricardo Ibarra’s unhappiness with my neglect to strengthen out squad with a centre forward is worrying, especially as I think he’s probably our best player, or there abouts.

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I haven’t exactly helped myself with the squad I’ve named for the Champions League, but I refuse to take all the blame for that. Champions League rules state that the squad needs to have a minimum of 4 players trained at PSG for 3 years between the ages of 15 and 21 and 8 players trained in France over the same period. Such is our squad, that has caused a bit of a problem. We only have 4 players who are close to the first team and who meet those criteria: Japanese goalie Yûsuke Abe, who’s been here since the age of 18, Angolan right back Eduardo Costa, who’s also been with us from the age of 18, Kingsley Coman, who came up through the ranks and left at 18 and Argentinian anti-winger Rodolfo Chao, who has also been with us from the age of 18. It speaks volumes about the transfer strategy here in Paris that apart from Kingsley, we only have 3 “home grown” players that are anywhere near the first team and they are all from different nations. Long story short, I had to leave somebody out of my Champions League squad. After inevitably ditching several young attacking midfielders I weighed up the amount of cover we have in different areas against the likelihood that certain players will actually play and Bulgarian left back Dobby was the man sacrificed. Like Ibarra, he isn’t too happy with me at the minute. Luckily unlike Ibarra, Marquinhos manages to talk him round for me.

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Anyway, we have a chance today to put that headache to one side by demolishing newly promoted Stade de Reims. I’ve not met them since our Ligue 2 days when I seem to remember them being extremely unlucky to miss out on promotion themselves, but without wanting to temp fate, they’ve lost their opening 3 matches against Metz, Lyon and Lorient and we should be sweeping them aside.

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There’s extra incentive for us in this one because Monaco were held to a draw yesterday by Stade Rennais. A win for us would lift us 2 points clear at the top. We go unchanged from the side that beat Marseille: Donnarumma in net, Ibarra and Triponez at the back, Bologna, Nevez and Lato behind Kovacic in midfield and Coman, Coutinho and Orlando behind Kean. Stade de Reims are actually following in Marseille’s example by absolutely flooding the centre of the park in the hopes of keeping us at bay, so we’ll exploit the flanks where they’re lighter in personnel.

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If I’m honest, at the start of the match I don’t expect the first hour to be goalless or eventless, but that’s exactly what it is. Jakupovic has a potshot that flies over the bar, but other than that, Reims don’t threaten us and keep us at bay. Disappointed, I decide to mix things up with a triple substitution and a subtle formation change to a 2-3-3-2. Kovacic’s box to box position is the one to be sacrificed as Manuel Bueno comes on as a second striker in a target man role in his place. Cvitanovic comes on for Orlando on the left, while Éder replaces Neves in a supporting ball winner role to still give us energy in the middle.

We go close shortly after when Kingsley Coman’s left sided corner is cleared as far as Coutinho, who hits a dipping drive at goal from 25 yards, but Cucchietti does well to push the ball over the bar. With under 20 minutes to go we threaten again from the left, this time when Coutinho lays the ball off for Cvitanovic, who whips a diagonal cross into the box. Coman arrives at the far post to tap the ball over the line. It’s becoming a habit of his, which is absolutely fine with me.

With our new found dominance I’m confident of now seeing the game out, but when Manuel Bueno balloons a speculative 30 yard shot so high and wide that it could very easily wind up smashing one of the Grand Louvre Pyramids, it deflates us somewhat. Sure enough our confidence dissipates and within 5 minutes we’re pegged back when Callegari passes the ball around Ibarra and Cassetta powers an effort beyond Donnarumma from 6 yards out. The most frightening part for me though is watching helplessly as Reims win the ball back from kick off and attack again. Cassetta gives Éder the slip and lays it across for Maxime Lopez, the lad who I handed a debut for the National side while he was in Ligue 2 and who really impressed, but failed to ever get back into my squad. Max passes to Vale, who holds off Triponez as he turns and then drives a low shot from the edge of the box. The ball squeezes out of Donnarumma’s grasp at the near post and after leading in the 78th minute, we’re behind in the 80th. To newly promoted Stade de Reims.

We go on the attack for the last 10 minutes, but fail to find an equaliser. We do get one last chance deep into injury time though when Éder wins the ball from Vale and plays it forward. Cardoso fluffs his attempted clearance, allowing Coutinho to take possession on the left and the Brazilian swings the ball into the centre for Bueno, who volleys deftly past Cucchietti to get us a point. In another situation, this would be a cause for joyous celebration; A draw snatched from the jaws of defeat would’ve shook the foundations of the Stade l’Abbé-Deschamps. Here and now though, I’ve just dodged a bullet. Here in Paris, a defeat at the hands of Stade de Reims would have been unacceptable. A draw is probably unacceptable but given the context, I’ll take it. Improvement is needed though, that’s for sure.

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So call me crazy, as Bechkoura does on our flight over to København, but I reckon that my biggest problem here at the minute is that I don’t know my squad. I’m rapidly getting to know my “First choice XI”, but outside them I don’t know where everyone else stands in the pecking order. Maybe if I’d known my fringe players better by now, I would’ve made better decisions and better substitutes and would not have dropped points against Reims. I feel a little dirty for suggesting this, but I think my Champions League debut is as good a time as any to experiment. I’d rather it wasn’t, but consider my reasoning: The first Champions League match of the season is a big deal, so it’s not as if I’ll be looking over the lesser known players in a meaningless friendly match, but as the weakest side in our group, København should be beatable no matter which players I start, within reason. It’ll also do the lads who played against Reims good to have a midweek break, so everybody wins. Except for København. Hopefully.

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As I mentioned when the draw was made, Anders Lindegaard’s men will not be looking forward to another Group Stage with PSG. Their apparent danger man is 34 year old Paris old boy and København captain Grzegorz Krychowiak, so with that in mind, nothing but a win will do. I’m suddenly second guessing my decision to experiment.

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But experimenting is exactly what we’re doing today at the Telia Parken. Against a full strength, in-form side of Danish Champions, our starting line up is: In-demand Japanese giant Yûsuke Abe in net, Boris Triponez and Lucas in defence with Rúben Neves sitting in front of them, Renan Henrique and Toni Lato as the wing backs, Éder playing the box-to-box role and Rui Darcílio, Miguel Veiga and Silvio Cvitanovic behind Manuel Bueno. I should note that I’ve not rotated the squad fully as I want to give Lucas, the only other player that can play as a left wing back, a chance in defence, so Lato keeps his spot on the left. Also Triponez and Neves both picked up bookings in the Reims match and will be suspended for our league game against Saint-Étienne, so they may as well feature now before their enforced rest.

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My Champions League bow gets under way and nearly gets off to an awful start when Ricardo Kishna plays a pass into the left channel for Olaf de Vrij. De Vrij runs onto the pass and fizzes a shot just wide of our near post. A few minutes later the action’s down the other end of the pitch when Toni Lato plays the ball to Manuel Bueno on the edge of the København box. Bueno lays it off for Veiga to his left and the Spanish playmaker slots a lovely pass to the right for wing back Henrique to run onto. The Brazilian thumps a shot straight at Radu, but the keeper can only parry the ball into his own net. 10 minutes in and we’re ahead.

A few minutes after the opener, we double our advantage. Neves sprays a half-volleyed pass over to Darcílio on the right, who takes on Varela on the outside and whips a cross to the near post. Target man Bueno arrives to direct the ball across goal and into the far corner of the net. We’re nearly pegged back in the 18th minute as Kishna holds off Éder and dribbles down the left wing dangerously. He gets to the byline and crosses the ball into the 6 yard box for de Vrij, who forces an excellent parried save from Abe and then smashes the rebound against the far post.

As the game continues to go from end to end though, we nearly make it 3-0 a minute later when Cvitanovic threads a pass into the box for Bueno, but his shot is well blocked by Radu. In the 22nd minute, Gonçalves gets the ball on the right wing for the hosts following their corner and sends a low cross into the box. This time Baranek is the target and he shoots from 8 yards, but Lucas does well to get himself in the way of the defender’s effort and deflect the ball wide. The resulting corner is headed clear by Éder at the near post and we counter attack, with Cvitanovic taking the ball down the left and playing a long ball forwards for Bueno. Bueno turns Strand to get himself into space in the København penalty box and then fires a shot off, but Radu saves it. It’s pretty miraculous that there’s only been 2 goals in this match so far.

Obviously I spoke too soon. In the 26th minute, Cassingena plays a clever reversal through our defence for Kishna, who shoots against the near post from inside the box. With Donnarumma beaten, the ball bobbles across the mouth of the goal and Olaf de Vrij arrives to tap in the home side’s first goal. Just a few minutes later though we restore our 2 goal cushion when another København corner is cleared by Lato at the far post. This time Bueno brings the ball out of danger and into the opposition’s half before leaving Varela for dead and chipping a nice pass into the path of Veiga, who brings the ball down inside the box and slots it into the bottom corner.

On the half hour, Cassingena again causes us problems with a one-two with Gonçalves that gets him into space in our box, but the angle’s too narrow on the right hand side once he gets back on the ball and he can only shoot against the near post. The next 15 minutes are thankfully much quieter than the preceding 30 and neither side threatens again until injury time, when Bueno charges down the right, dances past Baranek’s slide tackle with surprising agility and plays the ball inside. Darcílio arrives 8 yards from goal and side-foots a shot against the near post. When the referee blows his whistle to signal the end of the first half, I almost collapse. I don’t know about the players but I already feel knackered.

I make a change at half time as Silvio Cvitanovic took a knock to the head just before the break and with our 3-1 advantage and so much quality on the bench, I see no reason to risk him. Argentinian anti-winger Rodolfo Chao replaces the German captain and moves onto the right wing, while Darcílio will swap to the left.

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I brace myself for another heart-stopping 45 minutes of football and it certainly looks like it’s going that way when only 15 seconds after the restart de Vrij powers a shot at goal, but Abe manages to tip it away. The second half isn’t actually nearly as hectic as the first and the next chance comes in the 63rd minute when Kishna skips outside Henrique on the left wing and whips a cross into the box. De Vrij beats Triponez in the air and heads the ball straight into the arms of Abe, but less than a minute later he gets on the end of yet another Kishna cross, this time getting ahead of Triponez and volleying the ball in for 3-2.

Fortunately, it doesn’t seem like København have much left in the tank. In the 83rd minute, Bueno also takes a knock to the head and is replaced by Moise Kean and then with a few minutes to go Coutinho replaces Darcílio as we shuffle to a defensive 4-1-4-1. Gonçalves gets in a good position and drags a shot well wide just to jangle my nerves in the dying moments, but when the referee calls time on an extremely even but eventful match, our 3-2 lead is intact.

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Could it have been more comfortable? Of course. Should it have been? Well… Yes. But let’s look at it logically: While 6 years ago I sat in the Stade du 4 Août in Ouagadougou as a Portuguese Championship manager, watching my first international player warm the bench, today in København I am off the mark in the bloody Champions League and I’ve arrived with a win. I know my new Paris Saint-Germain squad a little more than I did yesterday and early as it is, we’re at the top of 2 leagues. I’m more than happy with all that for a day’s work.

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Episode 207 >

The Impossible Job (Franjo: A Journeyman Story – Ep205)

All the while, I dreamt of this.

Start from the start with episode 1

< Mini-sode 204.5

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I haven’t stopped smiling this morning. From the moment I woke up and got out of bed, to the moment I stepped out of the hotel and onto the coach, right through to now: The moment I stand on the touchline of the Ernst-Happel Stadion, ready to oversee my first match as England manager. It made eating my breakfast a pain in the arse, but I don’t care. I’ve no reason to stop smiling today. I’ve dreamt of this. As a 7 year old lad, watching Michael Owen lift his shot over Carlos Roa, I dreamt of this. At 10 years old, watching David Beckham curl the perfect free kick out of the reach of Antonios Nikopolidis, I dreamt of this. As a lad of 11, as Ronaldinho’s free kick arced beautifully over David Seaman, at 12, as Sol Campbell’s bundled goal was ruled out against Portugal and at 18, as Frank Lampard’s thunder bastard crashed a long, long, long way over Manuel Neuer’s line, only to be chalked off. All the while, I dreamt of this: The chance to lead my country out onto the turf and have my shot at the impossible job.

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If there’s one thing I’ve learned down the years as an England fan, it’s that you need to be fair in this job. You can’t just pick the 11 most high profile players and cram them onto a pitch higgledy piggledy. No, only the most infuriatingly clueless of Italians would do that. You need to play the footballers who deserve the chance and you need to build a team. A proper one. A team that have chemistry and that can actually gel with each other. I’m not the first to cotton onto this idea either. Eddie Howe, despite his sacking a few months ago, had more success relatively than any England manager since Alf Ramsey and he did it by picking a team of good footballers that deserved their chance. Not necessarily the most flashy ones, but the ones that fitted best into the system and the team.

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With this in mind, I should mention that there is a teeny tiny snafu going into our first couple of European International League Division A matches and that is that some of the senior players that I’ve picked are worried that I’ve gone too far in the other direction. The likes of Eric Dier and John Stones have come to me for a private word about the fact that I’ve chosen a relatively inexperienced maiden squad and it’s a fair point. Will Mannion, Taylor Moore, Reece Oxford, Jordan O’Halloran and Ed Salmon are all uncapped, while the likes of Charlie Taylor, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Stuart Coleman, Harry Winks, Juddy Lokando, Jordan Pickford, Lewis Cook, David Crammond and Joe Bell all have 20 caps or under to their name. Mannion and Salmon both play in the Championship too and it’s generally frowned upon to select players from below the top tier. Let’s never forget Jay Bothroyd.

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But as you’ll hopefully have gleaned from my pretty in-depth talk about squad selection, this isn’t something I’ve taken lightly. I’ve chosen players based on their skillset, their form, their future international prospects and their ability to fit into a system that I believe will get the best out of our best players. Maybe the senior players are right to some extent. Maybe I’ve leaned slightly towards youth and potential more than I would have, having just been sacked from my position as French manager in which I really struggled to bring any youth through at all. Even so though, I genuinely reckon each of these players can play a part for these matches and going forwards.

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In our first match away at Austria and in the debut appearance of Project: Pride, Butland starts in net, Stones and Lokando are in defence with Dier in the hole, Winks and Shaw are the wing backs, O’Halloran makes his debut alongside Coleman in midfield and Alli plays just off Webb and Bell at the front. In the absence of Harry Kane, our injured captain, vice-captain John Stones has the armband.

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We start off looking pretty solid. 12 minutes in, Grillitsch comes forwards through the centre of the park but he runs into a brick wall named Stuart Coleman, so has to try to switch the ball out onto the left wing instead. His pass towards Sabitzer is decent, but Harry Winks cuts it out and passes to Ollie Webb on the half way line. Webb looks up and bends a great pass through the Austrian defence for Bell to run onto, which he does. Joe Bell runs through on goal on his first international appearance in over a year with the ball at his feet. Strebinger rushes out to great him… But Bell slips it under the keeper and into the net to give us the lead. Good lad, Joe.

Our lead doesn’t last too long though. Only 5 minutes after Bell’s opener, Schaub swings a corner into the centre of our box and Stones rises to meet it, heading it clear as far as Sabitzer 30 yards out. Sabitzer brings the ball down and plays it back out to Schaub, who whips another ball in from the byline. This time Seidel arrives at the near post to volley Austria level. We go close to retaking the lead before the break when Webb picks up the ball 35 yards out, dribbles to the edge of the box and shoots left footed, but he drags it just wide of the near post.

A few minutes after the break, Dele Alli gets the ball just inside Austria’s half and plays a give and go with Webb, who turns on the thrusters and sprints out to the right byline. Webb gets a low cross in and Alli arrives right on cue, stroking the ball past Strebinger from 10 yards out to make it 2-1. The goal settles us down a bit and we have a decent spell of possession over the next 7 or 8 minutes.

Coleman passes to Bell 25 yards out in the 54th minute and Bell plays a clever reverse ball through to Webb, who latches onto it 10 yards from goal but shoots straight at Strebinger, who parries it clear onto the right wing. Webb shows fantastic determination though and races straight over to collect the loose ball before laying it back for Harry Winks, who drifts a cross in towards the edge of the box. Coleman does well to rise above both Laimer and Arase to win the header, flicking it on for Alli inside the box, who nods the ball softly over the outrushing Strebinger, sending it bobbling slowly towards goal and over the line for 3-1.

Right after kick off we go close yet again when Stones plays the ball to Coleman just inside our half, who chips it forward for Joe Bell. Bell nods the ball on into the path of Webb, who turns Lienhart inside out with his quick footwork and then shoots left footed from the edge of the box, but it’s an easy catch for Strebinger.

Pretty confident that we’ll see this out, I make all 3 of my substitutes on the hour and bring on 3 debutants. Burnley centre back Taylor Moore comes on for Juddy Lokando, Watford defender Reece Oxford comes on for Eric Dier and Bournemouth’s Ed Salmon replaces Jordan O’Halloran; All like for like. 5 minutes later I’m delighted to see us put a great move together and 2 of the subs are involved too. Wimmer’s hoofed ball is cut out by Oxford, who cushions the ball down with his head for Alli, 35 yards from goal. Alli touches it off for Coleman, who squares to Salmon, who plays a great first time ball into Webb’s path, splitting the defence. Webb shoots first time and hits the near post, but the ball bounces across goal and with Strebinger already beaten, Joe Bell stabs our 4th goal into the empty net from 6 yards.

With 20 minutes to play, Arase attempts to dribble down the right wing but is dispossessed by Luke Shaw, who then plays an excellent pass into the left channel for Bell to chase. Bell just manages to win the footrace with Lienhart and controls the ball inside the box as Strebinger rushes out once again to narrow the angle. He could attempt his hat trick goal, but Bell unselfishly lays the ball off to his right, giving Ollie Webb an open goal to aim at from the penalty spot. Webb blasts it… Off the underside of the bar and Wimmer clears. He’s had a bad day with his shooting so far, Webb, but I’m not disheartened. We’ve looked excellent going forwards and he’s been a big part of that. Thomas Murg takes the ball down deep in his own half and initially leaves Winks in his dust, turning him and sprinting down the flank. In the space of only a few seconds though, Winks vindicates my decision to select him as a right wing back with an absolutely gut-busting run to catch up with Murg just as he’s about to be level with our box. Winks gets level and executes a perfect crunching slide tackle to knock the ball out for a throw. The travelling fans sound their appreciation for the West Brom man. We’re going to get on fine, Harry.

5 minutes later, my team give me an example of my new system working absolutely perfectly. Austria have a left-sided throw in deep into our half and the ball’s thrown to Schaub, who’s quickly dispossessed by Ed Salmon. Salmon lays it off to Reece Oxford, who plays the ball down the line where Winks is running into space. Winks plays it inside for Alli, who exchanges passes with Coleman and then Webb, who runs it forward through midfield. 20 yards out, he lays the ball back to Joe Bell, who picks out Luke Shaw sprinting into the left hand side of the box. Shaw latches on, cuts the ball across and Alli arrives late in the box to place it firmly into the top corner from 8 yards to complete his hat trick. Absolutely excellent football. A scorching 9 pass move from one end of the pitch to the other and we’re 5-1 up.

In the 80th minute, yet another good spell of possession sees Luke Shaw find Dele Alli on the left hand side of the box. Alli chips it to the edge of the area for Webb, who Di Canio-volleys it into the bottom left corner. 6-1. Suffice to say this is a better England debut than I could’ve hoped for.

Austria have a late surge of action and do get a second goal when Arase takes on Shaw on the right wing and crosses to the near post, where Seidel arrives again to stab it home. I’m a little disappointed as the striker got ahead of Taylor Moore to meet the cross and that’s the first time the debutant centre back’s been tested today, but I won’t hold it against him for now. Arase gets away from Shaw again in the 90th minute, wriggling free in the penalty box and shooting tamely at Butland, but the Arsenal keeper catches it comfortably.

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I reckon I can afford to be quite smug after that. We had solid performances all over the park, some decent debuts, Winks was good on the right and Coleman absolutely dominated in his new midfield position. The front 3 were electric and even though Webb probably could’ve completed a hat trick of his own, his primary job up front is to be the supporting striker and he did set up 3 goals and eventually bag one for himself, so I can’t complain at all. Alli was exemplary and Joe Bell looked like a man who’d never been out of the international scene. Project: Pride is a roaring success.

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I won’t be the smuggest man at Wembley though. No, that will be my opposite number and Paris Saint-Germain predecessor, Pep Guardiola.

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Don’t you pity me, you git. “He’s far too good a manager for [The fact that I’ve never beaten him] to mean anything” he croons to the press ahead of the match. I’m onto you, Josep. Nobody’s this nice, especially in football management. Our paths have crossed 5 times now: A friendly defeat before my season in Ligue 2 with Auxerre, which we were actually pretty unlucky to lose, 3 Ligue 1 defeats and a 1-1 Ligue 1 draw in one of the only recorded cases of Project: Sword working as a system. The thing that makes this all the more interesting though is that my France side beat Marcelino’s Spain 6-2 just over 2 months ago. Can my “lesser” England side have similar success against a Spanish side under a better manager? We’d fucking better do, because I’m way overdue for a win against this bastard. With his mind games. As it stands, we’re top of Division A Group 3 and I intend to stay there.

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The only change I’m making for this match is that Harry Winks drops out to be replaced by Trent Alexander-Arnold at right wing back. Winks was knackered coming into the break and 90 minutes bombing up and down the wing hasn’t helped the situation, so I don’t think he’ll have the energy to do a job here. My former striker Álvaro Morata leads the line for our opponents, with one of PSG’s many attacking midfield playmakers, Miguel Veiga, behind him. Thanks again, Pep. Veiga will need to find a balance today because he’ll obviously want to impress his new manager, but then if he performs too well he could find himself spending the next 8 months polishing my boots.

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“Ladies and gentlemen, please show your appreciation for the new head coach of the England Men’s Football Team, WT Franjo!”

The appreciation hits me like a smack in the face. The full dose of my first Wembley reception is shot straight into my bloodstream and the side effects include euphoria and paralysis. I’ve loved all of my clubs… Well, I’ve loved some of my clubs. I’ll forever be a fan of Angrense, Santos and Auxerre and even Höllviken holds a weird little corner of my heart, but I came into each of those places as an outsider and grew to love them over time. Now, for the first time, I’m greeted by my people. My countrymen. The men, women and children who I grew up alongisde and then stood and fought against in June when we met in Group D. The people I stole a result against on that day. For the first time, I’m back where I belong. And the noise is deafening.

The first half hour is tight and a bit scrappy as the sides figure each other out. In the 29th minute we come forward on the attack through Ollie Webb on the right wing. Webb gets level with the box and gets a cross in, but it’s cut out and Spain hit us on the counter. The ball’s played out to Iñaki Williams on the right, who strides down the line and lays it off for Hector Bellerin. Bellerin whips a cross in for Veiga in the box, who plays a cheeky backheel to find Morata all on his own on the penalty spot. The striker places the ball into the top corner to put Pep’s men ahead, before giving me a smile and a thumbs up as he makes his way back to prepare for kick off. Dickhead.

A few minutes later, the shit really hits the fan when a long, hopeful ball over the top from Zabalza is brought down by Lokando, but the City man’s first touch is poor and Morata nips in to steal possession. He bursts away from Lokando, runs through on goal and blasts the ball under Jack Butland for 0-2. This time, Álvarsehole runs over to the away dugout and attempts to celebrate with Pep, but after a sheepish smile, Pep shoos him away and turns to give me a sympathetic look.

After a less than ideal start though, we do seem to get up and running in the next few minutes. Ollie Webb has the ball on the halfway line and plays a beautiful diagonal pass to release Bell behind the defence. Bell gets to the left byline and pulls the ball back to the edge of the 6 yard box, where Coleman arrives and shoots… Against the far post.

With 3 minutes to go before the break, we come forward again. This time it’s a great pass from Joe Bell that sends Alli chasing through the left channel. Alli runs though on goal and pokes a shot towards the near post, but De Gea tips it wide for a corner. Webb runs over to take it and drifts a cross into the box. Of all people, it’s Luke Shaw that wins the aerial battle and cushions the ball down for Joe Bell, who smashes a volley against the bar.

To be fair, we’re not down and out yet and I tell the players as much in my half time team talk. We’ve given as good as we’ve got in a very even first half. On another day Lokando takes a better touch and both of our shots that hit the woodwork creep into the net, giving us the lead, so I’m not too unhappy. The only major worries I have are that Morata found himself unmarked for the first goal and that our squad is pretty tired. I make a couple of changes for the second half, with Phil Joes and Lewis Cook coming on to replace Stu Coleman and Dele Alli, who are looking particularly leggy.

The introduction of Cook makes a big difference in the opening few minutes of the second half. First he receives the ball from a flicked Joe Bell header and controls it 35 yards out, before surging away from Pablo, around Zabalza and into the box. He gets one on one and shoots low and hard, but De Gea manages to tip the effort around the near post. Less than a minute later again though Cook gets the ball from Bell again and dribbles forward once more. This time he gets to the edge of the box and lays it off for Ollie Webb, who does not think twice. Webb draws back his right foot and rifles it first time into the bottom corner. Good lad.

Before even 5 minutes of the second period have passed, we come forward again. Luke Shaw receives the ball deep in our half and powers down the left wing, leaving Bellerin, Pablo and Veiga all struggling to keep up. Shaw gets to the left byline, whips a cross in and Joe Bell rises at the near post to glance a header into the net. Fuck me, it’s 2-2.

The match does settle back down after the equaliser but not for too long. A few minutes after the hour, we come marching into Spain’s half once more, this time with Joe Bell, who passes to O’Halloran. O’Halloran plays it on for Ollie Webb on the edge of the box and the striker hits it first time… Off the far post. Lewis Cook darts in to latch onto the rebound but Bueno Prieto manages to clear it off the tips of his toes.

A minute later Spain finally reply through a long ball from Morata on the half way line, into space on the left wing where Trent Alexander-Arnold is struggling to get back. Spain’s left winger Vélez brings the ball down, dribbles into the box unopposed and chips his shot past the outrushing Butland to give his side back the lead. 5 minutes after that we go close to another equaliser when Cook plays a long ball over the top for Webb to run onto, but De Gea rushes out well to block his shot. I decide to bring Alexander-Arnold off as he’s left us looking vulnerable a couple of times now. Michael Keane comes on, with John Stones switching to wing back.

BAM! That does it. Just 3 minutes after the change, Stones plays a pass down the line for Ollie Webb, who drills a cross in from the right byline. Lewis Cook arrives right on time at the near post to deservedly tuck in his first England goal and level the scores once again. I tell the wing backs not to venture up as much for the remaining 17 minutes as if anywhere, that’s where Spain have the potential to catch us. With only a few minutes to play, we could have a 4th goal when Cook presses Saúl into losing the ball and Webb takes over, bringing it forwards into the box. His shot at goal is weak though and gathered easily by De Gea.

With time ticking down, I take a moment to really breathe in the atmosphere. The noise around Wembley is good. The fans are in good voice, everyone seems pretty happy with what they’ve seen and those sodding drums are echoing around the stadium. I think I’ll go away from my Wembley debut pretty happy, all things cons… In the 92nd minute, De Gea hoofs the ball forward. Juddy Lokando rises and heads the ball back the way it came, but his header goes straight to Abraham Pérez, who chips it around the centre back for Morata to run onto. Lokando scrambles as Morata powers down the right wing. He gets to the byline. He drills in a cross… And Vélez taps in the winner from point blank range.

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Vélez runs full pelt towards the travelling fans and slides on his chest across the turf, before his team mates pile on. The atmosphere around the stadium probably changes pretty dramatically, but in the moment I fail to really notice. I stand rooted to the spot, staring blankly across the turf once again. After a moment I feel a hand on my back and Pep Guardiola appears in front of me, pulling me into a hug and ruffling my hair, before pulling away from me once again. He looks straight into my eyes. He’s smiling, but it isn’t the same sympathetic smile from before. It’s one of genuine happiness. Possibly relief?

“Welcome home.” He says. I see something flash across his eyes, but before I can process it, he’s disappeared. I turn and watch as he strides towards the tunnel. He catches up with Álvaro Morata, wraps an arm around the striker’s shoulder and starts talking excitedly in Spanish.

I’ll remember this. I promise I’ll remember that you ruined my homecoming. The score is Franjo 0-5 Pep, but the gap will not reach 6. Enough is enough now, Josep. You just made my list.

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Episode 206 >

Project: Pride (Franjo: A Journeyman Story – Mini-sode 204.5)

We’ll defend as a pride and we’ll attack as a pride. 

Start from the start with episode 1

< Episode 204

“You cant, Boss.” Bechkoura pleads. “Not again. Do you not learn your lessons?”

“The only lesson I’ve learned in the past few months, mate” I rebuke, feeling myself turn slightly red, “Is that apparently I’m the only person in World Football who gives even the faintest toss about bringing through defensive midfielders. If I have to raise the next generation of Makélélés, Kantés and Carlseys single handedly, then that’s exactly what I’ll do.”

“But it didn’t work with Marquinhos! How the fuck is it going to work with Stuart Coleman?!”

Some explanation may be needed here. Let me introduce my very first England squad. God, that feels good to write.

Goalkeepers

Jack Butland (Arsenal), Jordan Pickford (Sunderland AFC), Will Mannion (Norwich City)

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Defenders

John Stones (Liverpool), Juddy Lokando (Manchester City), Michael Keane (Real Madrid), Taylor Moore (Burnley), Harry Winks* (West Brom), Trent Alexander-Arnold (Real Sociedad on loan from Liverpool), Luke Shaw (Manchester United), Charlie Taylor (Swansea City)

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Midfielders

Eric Dier, Dele Alli (Both Tottenham Hotspur), Reece Oxford (Watford), Jordan O’Halloran (Stoke City), Stuart Coleman* (Manchester United), Ed Salmon (AFC Bournemouth), Phil Jones (AC Milan), Lewis Cook (Manchester City)

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Strikers

Oliver Webb (Chelsea), Joe Bell (Stoke City), David Crammond (West Ham United), Marcus Rashford (Real Madrid)

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* Players are not actually proficient in the positions that they’re listed under, but that’s where I’ll be playing them.

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It’s been yet another head scratcher for me, this. Just like when I arrived at Paris Saint-Germain, it’s been a real puzzle working out how I want England to play, how they’re suited to playing and how I can get all of the pieces to fit together. But after many a ripped up sheet of paper, I’ve come up with Project: Pride.

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I came to the conclusion that with the massive amounts of pace that England have going forwards, I want us to play on the counter attack wherever possible, battling and chasing together, much like a pride of lions, to win the ball back before launching lightning fast counters through our attackers. I also knew that I wanted Eric Dier sitting in front of the centre backs to become an auxiliary 3rd centre back if needed, as he’s one of our best players and I believe that it’s the position that suits him best. With that decision came my first problem. If Dier’s sat in front of the defenders, we need wing backs. There’s no point in having 5 defensively minded players across the back as it’ll leave us light going forwards.

The Right Wing Back Problem

So we need someone who can come back and defend, but is just as good going forwards. Mentally strong, physically impressive and technically skilled. At the right wing back position, this proved a huge problem. These are the players who fit the bill:

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As you’ll notice, barely any of the players who have the right attributes for the gig are right wing backs. One of them’s Scottish. Of the 14 who more or less suit what I’m looking for, 4 can play on the right hand side of defence in some capacity: Southampton’s Mason Holgate, as fine a player as he is, is not a wing back. He’s a good Premier League centre back but can’t cross for toffee, so he’s out. Trent Alexander-Arnold is good and made the squad, although to be honest I’m not blown away. He doesn’t scream “England’s starting wing back” to me. Brentford’s Ryan Woods is decent. He’s a good Championship midfielder who’s been known to play on the right of defence, but he’s slow off the mark and doesn’t excel in any area. He’s also never played above Championship level. Finally, Middlesborough’s Sam Byram, who just barely scrapes through into my criteria. He’s very average in all of the areas I need and isn’t all that mentally strong, so he won’t do. I actually considered using Dele Alli as my right wing back. I genuinely did. Do you know how frustrated a man has to be to consider deploying Dele Alli as a right wing back? He’d be wasted there, but luckily there is a man who fits the bill.

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So that’s how I’ve landed on West Brom’s Harry Winks as England’s right wing back. Obviously that might change, but I reckon he can do a job. He’s pretty rounded in all of the areas I need and although he’s never played as a wing back, I see no reason why he won’t be capable.

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So we’ve got a goalkeeper, 2 centre backs, 2 wing backs and Eric Dier sat in the hole. Now we need a pair of all-action central midfielders. A box to boxer and a ball winner, who’ll chase down every ball so that Dier can stay in his position. The box to box spot was easy to fill. I’ve picked uncapped pair Jordan O’Halloran and Ed Salmon and thrown down the gauntlet to make the spot their own. They’re both very good and I’m excited to see how they do, but then we come to the next problem.

The Ball Winning Midfielder Problem. Again.

So as I say, it needs to be someone that’s completely defensively minded. Someone who will wear their heart on their sleeve, chase every ball, dive into tackles and dominate the midfield. Stick a boot in, stick a head in, dive right in front of danger for Queen and Country. Here are the players that fit the bill:

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As you’ll notice, only a handful of the 8 players that match my criteria can play in midfield and most of them are holding men. Sitters. Not all action centre mids. And one of them’s Scottish. I want Michael Keane in my defence, Eric Dier is my holding man and Holgate we’ve discussed, so that leaves 5. I’ve poked fun at Kilmarnock’s Jay Fulton, but although he would be available to switch his allegiance to England, he’s just not good enough. Isaac Hayden is someone that I briefly considered, but he’s been pretty poor for Nottingham Forest in the Championship and is approaching 30, so he’s probably not about to get any better. Scott Wharton over at Derby is actually pretty good and has the attributes I need, but if I’m going to use a centre back in my midfield, I may as well go the whole hog.

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And Stuart Coleman, who’s name sounds very familiar from somewhere but I just can’t place it, is that whole hog. He’s a big powerful centre back who absolutely dominates the back line with his stature, defensive expertise and fantastic positioning, sort of like a modern day Sol Campbell. So naturally I’m shunting him out of position. In the same vein, his understudy will be AC Milan defender Phil Jones, although Phil is slightly more accustomed to the midfield than Stu is. As with Marquinhos and as with Winks, I may abandon this strategy at some point, but I want to at least see how Coleman does first. We’re extremely well stocked in the centre of defence so I feel like we’ll be fine without him at the back.

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And after that problem’s sorted, it’s all easy. Well, not exactly easy, but that’s only because we’ve got an abundance of talent up front so the problem becomes “Who do I pick out of all of these great strikers?”, which is a much better one to have. England Captain Harry Kane does me the courtesy of straining his knee ligaments and ruling himself out of my first squad, so I only have 4 top strikers to choose from. Now that we’ve got all of that out of the way, let’s actually have a look at the team again.

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Arsenal stopper Jack Butland will start in net as he has done for Eddie Howe over the last year or so with Liverpool’s Stones and City’s Juddy Lokando in front of him, giving us the perfect defending partnership of experience/ball playing abilty and youth/no nonsense. Eric Dier sits in front of them, with Winks and Shaw bombing on as the full backs, O’Halloran and Coleman are our chasers and battlers in midfield, while Dele Alli obviously starts behind Oliver Webb and Joe Bell, because it’d be pretty hypocritical of me at this point not to start Joe Bell and to be fair I think he’s our best goalscorer even when Kane’s fit. Off the ball we’ll defend together, with the wingbacks coming back to help out and the midfielders squeezing the opposition off the ball.

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On the ball, the centre backs will part, Dier will slot in and the rest of the team will bomb forwards. Alli will join in with the strikers, with Bell the primary goal threat, the wingbacks will provide the width and O’Halloran will have license to get forward to help out too, as will Coleman to a lesser extent.

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We’ll play narrow to restrict space in the centre, we’ll play high tempo counter attacking football, we’ll close down aggressively to win the ball back but stay on our feet so as to not take ourselves out of the game positionally. We’ll pass into the space, use our numbers through the middle but also have width through Winks and Shaw. We’ll defend as a pride and we’ll attack as a pride.

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Let’s see how it fares.

Episode 205 >

Coman Feel The Noise (Franjo: A Journeyman Story – Ep204)

“We do not need any more attacking midfielders.” I pronounce each word slowly and clearly, like I’m mouthing the message to a fucking idiot through a sheet of soundproof glass.

Start from the start with episode 1

< Mini-sode 203.5

“No more. Do you hear me? No more.”

“With all due respect, it is my decision who we sign for the future, Mr Franjo.” Growls Stefano Braghin, Paris Saint-Germain’s head of youth development.

“Well it’ll be mine going forwards.” I reply. “From now on, I’ll make the bids.”

“But Mikkelsen…”

“Is an extremely talented footballer I am sure, but I have lost my patience now. We do not need any more attacking midfielders.” I pronounce each word slowly and clearly, like I’m mouthing the message to a fucking idiot through a sheet of soundproof glass. I’m so sick of having this conversation. It’s not Stefano’s fault, well not entirely, but this club is fucking addicted to signing midfield playmakers. I’ve assumed control of all youth signings from here on out after having to step in to cancel our latest bid for Barcelona’s Norway U21 international Gaute Mikkelsen.

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I lean back in my comfortable chair as Braghi shuffles out of my new office and sigh. In all honesty, I didn’t even realise until now that he was responsible for youth signings. Never mind though. At least that’s us sorted, so now we can focus on the draw for the Champi-

“Boss,” Bechkoura opens the door without knocking and sticks his head through. “Devos says to remember that Ricardo Ibarra’s expecting you to buy a striker before the window closes.”

“Kean is our striker for the time being, but thank you, Bechkoura.” I reply curtly. He nods and his head disappears behind the door as it closes.

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As I was saying, now that all that’s sorted, we can focus on the draw for the Champions L-

“Boss,” Bechkoura’s head reappears around the door without even the faintest of knocks. “Do you want me to get back to United about that Lucas bid?” I sigh again.

“Uh, yeah actually. Tell them no, please. I want to keep him around at least until Marquinhos is fit again.” Bechkoura salutes and disappears once more, before slamming the door unnecessarily.

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So yes, with all of those things firmly out of the way, the dr-

“Boss?” Says Bechkoura’s reemerging head.

“Can you knock, for fucks sake?”

“Coman, Kovacic and Kean all named in Team of the Week.” He smiles and gives me a thumbs up, which I return.

“Richly deserved. Thank you, Bechkoura.” He closes the door once again.

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So now that all of that’s out of the way… I pause for a moment… The draw for the Champions League has been made. Paris Saint-Germain have been placed in a spicy looking Group C and we’ll have some tough opposition. Let’s have a quick look:

FC København

Anders Lingaard’s København are by far the weakest team in the group but to take victory over the Danish Champions for granted would be silly. They may have a bit of a mental barrier to climb over though as Pep’s PSG beat them 3-0 and 2-1 in the 2020/21 Champions League and then 3-0 and 3-0 last season. They won’t be looking forward to taking us on again. They’ll also be my very first Champions League opponents.

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Sevilla

Marcelo Gallardo’s men should be very tricky as they’re enjoying a bit of a resurgence in La Liga after a difficult few years. They finished 4th last season, which is essentially the “Best of the rest” spot in that league. Nevertheless, we will still be favourites for the win and I look forward to giving them a tough time in their first Champions League group since 2016/17. Incidentally, they qualified from the group stage that season, only to be knocked out in the first knockout round by… Unai Emery’s Paris Saint-Germain.

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Roma

Now this one should be a doozie. Luciano Spalletti’s Serie A Champions, Roma. As it happens, Roma were also in Group D in 2020/21 along with PSG and København and like the latter, they lost twice to Pep’s side: 3-1 and 3-1. For anyone interested, the final team in that group was FC Porto. I’m chomping at the bit to take on a Roma side that’s performed so well in the last few years and I’m even more eager to go back to the Stadio Olympico, the site of my 4-5 defeat to Belgium in June and seek some form of revenge on the stadium’s usual occupants.

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I want to better whatever Pep’s achieved in all competitions this year with the obvious exception of the Trophée des Champions. He won the league once in 4 years, reached the 1st knockout round of the Champions League twice, the quarter final once and the semi final once. The Semi-Final appearance was during that same league winning 2020/21 season, after which he fell off considerably. I have the opportunity here to better Emery’s results against Sevilla, to better Pep’s results against København and Roma and to better both of them and all of the others by winning the bloody thing and bringing the Cup back to Paris for the first time, thereby cementing myself as the greatest Paris Saint-Germain manager of all time. Is it perhaps the tallest of tall orders? Yes. Do I back us to pull it off? Why the fuck not.

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But the Champions League still seems so far away. First we’re hosting the Friday night match against Olympique de Marseille, then there’s the transfer deadline and then I’m flying over to Austria to oversee my first ever match with England, so let’s put a pin in those hopes and dreams for the moment, shall we.

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There’s not much to report in terms of our team for this one; We absolutely dismantled Lorient last week so I’m sticking to the same starting XI. Marseille look like they’ll set up to stifle us and deny us space through the centre, but to be honest I’m all for it. Project: InSeine has so far dominated sides in the centre of the park so I’m interested to see how well we break Marseille down when they’re using 2 holding midfielders precisely to stop us from doing so. My record signing Éder makes the bench and is given the number 27 shirt.

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The first 20 minutes is quiet and our opening goal comes as a result of a defensive mistake as much as anything else. Kovacic is forced to try and go direct with a long ball to Kean but the Italian is beaten to the pass by Armando Izzo, who then plays a sloppy ball towards Augustinsson on the left. Coman takes advantage of the wayward pass, nipping in and reclaiming possession before sprinting full pelt towards goal. As Augustinsson and Izzo give chase fruitlessly, our winger bursts into the box, sees Werner step off his line and drills a low shot past him into the net to give us the lead.

A few minutes later, Coutinho plays a pass inside to Kovacic 25 yards out and the Croatian tries to make space for a shot, but Kessié slides in brilliantly to knock the ball away as far as Orlando. Our winger has an effort blocked by Gumny on the edge of the box and the loose ball falls perfectly in front of Coman on the right hand side, who lashes a half volley against the far post. The ball rolls back in front of Kean, but Izzo manages to get the better of him again and clear it. We go close a couple more times before the break, with Orlando picking out Kovacic on the edge of the box and the midfielder slamming an expertly struck volley against the bar before Coman’s rebound attempt is blocked by Yao.

At half time and despite our lead, I make the decision to try and work our play down the wings, as their compact shape is definitely affecting our Project: InSeine through the middle and restricting us to half chances and snapshots. Just after the restart though, we’re nearly pegged back when Enes Ünal draws Triponez out of position and chips the ball around him for Veglio, who sees his shot tipped behind by Donnarumma. The next quarter of an hour is no more fruitful either, so we make a couple of subs to freshen things up in the middle. On comes Manuel Bueno for his first appearance of the season in place of Kean, while Kovacic jogs off to be replaced by debutant Éder, who gets a warm ovation from the home fans.

That does the trick. Just 4 minutes after the changes, Éder passes to Philippe Coutinho, who plays a superb ball over the Marseille defence for who else but Kingsley Coman to run onto in the box. Coman brings the ball down skilfully, dribbles into the 6 yard box and slots in our 2nd.

At 2-0 I’m pretty certain that the match is ours, but it still jangles my nerves when Coutinho’s dispossessed by Bentaleb in the 74th minute and the former Spurs midfielder plays a long ball over our defence for Ünal. Donnarumma rushes out well to meet him though and blocks the Turkish striker’s eventual shot with ease. After that, we drop back to a withdrawn 4-2-3-1, Cvitanovic replaces Orlando on the left and we set up to soak up whatever pressure Marseille put on us, but the final quarter of an hour is pleasingly eventless.

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That is a solid win if ever I’ve seen one. So far there have been disclaimers to our victories; Small asterisks next to each one. Yes we beat Lyon, but we relied on a last minute winner. Yes we beat lorient, but although they overachieved last season, the 3 points were to be expected. Marseille absolutely nosedived last season under Roberto Mancini, finishing 14th in Ligue 1, but they are still a top French club with the squad of a top French club. A solid win against them with a clean sheet to boot is very pleasing to me.

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I’m quite excited now to join up with my first England squad. Matches against Austria and Spain in the European International League await and I’ve already named my squad, but before we get to that we’ve got transfer deadline day to deal with. Some more good news to kick us off though is that we’re the leading producer of elite footballers, which I can’t exactly take any credit for whatsoever, but it’s still nice to hear. What I will take some credit for is the fact that Auxerre are 3rd on the list, which is excellent.

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We’ve also got 3 players in this week’s Team of the Week. Donnarumma and Ricardo Ibarra were solid and our keeper in particular did brilliantly to keep a clean sheet against Marseille. Kingsley Coman’s playing out of his skin at the minute and also gets a place.

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And speaking of Kingsley Coman, he’s won the Ligue 1 August Player of the Month award at the first opportunity since rejoining his childhood club. He definitely deserves it and I’m happy to eat my words over Pep’s final signing. I thought him an unnecessary purchase initially, but if I’m to have a good season here, it looks like Kingsley’s going to be absolutely crucial, so long may his excellent form continue. In other news, Neal Maupay and Nathan Andre came in 2nd and 3rd. Interesting.

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So while we’re on the subject, let’s talk strikers. Moise Kean had a pretty poor game against Marseille but I’m not ready to go back on what I said about him becoming our main striker just because of one game. There are however some players that I’ll be keeping an eye on over the next few months, just in case I need to bolster our attacking options in January. One of these players is Neal Maupay, another is Nathan Andre. You already know all about them, so I’ll just add that Neal’s scored 5 goals in his first 4 games this season, while Nathan has 3 in 3.

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I’ve also considered players like Thomas Buitink and Christopher Dieckmann, both of whom impressed in last year’s Bundesliga and in the Euros, but to be honest they’ll cost too much even for us to afford at the minute, so I’ve had to give up on those options. The final player I’ll be keeping an eye on is Darragh O’Reilly of Nottingham Forest.

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The thing about Darragh is that he hasn’t proved himself yet. Not really. He’s 21, an Irish International and has scored 33 goals in 109 league matches for Forest in the Championship. His best haul came last year when he scored 15 in 43, so he isn’t prolific, nor is he tried at a level even close to resembling Ligue 1, but I don’t know… There’s something about him. He fits my usual mould; hard working and switched on. He’s quick and strong enough to be a handful for opposition defenders and there’s no doubt he’s technically gifted. Plus the idea of an Irishman leading the line at Paris Saint-Germain is just genuinely exciting to me. Realistically he’s not at our level yet and initial talks with Forest reveal their asking price, which exceeds £30M. That’s way too much. I will be keeping an eye on him though, as I say. If he impresses this season I may be back.

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So that’s me done for this window, I think. Time to sort out my jam-packed voicemail and see which offers have come in. First up is Koln and their £5.75M bid for Michal Hutka, who you haven’t met yet because he’s one of our many attacking midfield players. He’s a pretty good prospect so I’m not ready to let him go just yet and certainly not for such a low price. I reject the offer and sign Hutka up to a new deal.

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One offer that I’m happy to accept though is new Auxerre manager Jocelyn Gourvennec’s £62k bid for our 5th choice Luxembourger goalkeeper, Youn Czekanowicz. This deal works for all parties and I let Jocelyn know that I’ll be happy to talk to him any time about any of my young players or reserves that he’s interested in. The Czekanowicz deal goes through quickly, although I do see with a heavy heart that the reason Jocelyn’s signed him is that he’s let Xavier Legod move to Marseille, where I’m sad to say I reckon he’ll be a benchwarmer. Or perhaps a Tim Krul-esque substitute for penalty shootouts. Best of luck, Youn and LeGod.

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Another player on the move is Romain Vandecasteele, who’s the subject of a £675k bid from Guingamp. I’d forgive you for thinking that I’m just getting shot of all the players whose names I can’t be arsed to keep typing in the future, but it’s not that. Vande… Romain is a striker and one of our academy graduates who just hasn’t progressed all that much. He’s made 4 appearances for the first team in total, which has probably contributed to his lack of development. Now 22, he really needs to get out of our reserve team and get himself some competitive football, so I’m happy to oblige.

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And then in come Bayern with a £40.5M bid for Donnarumma. “Obviously not.” I tell Allegri.

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“Well how about Yûsuke Abe?” He asks. “£28M.”

“Again, no.” I reply. Abe is my backup goalkeeper and I think it’d be more trouble than it’s worth replacing him this late in the window. He’s obviously not a patch on Donnarumma, but at 23 years old he’s been capped 81 times by Japan, so he must be on course for some kind of record there. He’s also 6’8″ and really solid backup to our Italian vice-captain, so he’s not moving right now.

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Knock knock knock. Of course. Abe wants to go, but I talk him down. If Bayern come back in January when I’ve got time to find a replacement, he’s welcome to move. For fucks sake, Allegri.

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With a sigh of relief, midnight comes and the deadline passes. Predictably, I’ve signed only a defensive midfielder in my first window in Paris. We’ve got 3 wins out of 3, including pretty impressive victories over Lyon and Marseille and let’s not forget that Lorient finished 3rd last season. Monaco match aside, it’s been a good start. I’m happy. I switch off my office light and grab my trusty grey coat from the back of the door, then I make for the exit. I’ve got a plane to catch. I’m off to Austria for a quick kick about with their national side, after which, Spain will be heading over to Wembley. I’m coming home.

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