This is one episode of a wider series. To instead start at episode one, please click here.
So I did something terrible.
Some of you will agree. Others will say I am looking out for myself, doing what’s right for the journeyman adventure. I tell you what though; it tastes worse than the heartburn from too much of that delicious Bordeaux wine.
If you have paid any attention to the title of this episode (or the images above) you will know what has happened.
I have left Bordeaux after 371 days in charge, for one of their French top tier competitors. I have left the club, however, in an incredible financial position, the dead wood all cast into the sea, and on the fringes of European qualification.
I had been wondering what had been needling me since my mid-season performance review with Joe DaGrosa, and one of my initial instincts were proved to be the trigger for my exit.
As good as Bordeaux were, and with some brilliant individual players, I just felt like even though I’d only been in charge for a year (plus six days, don’t forget those), I felt that to push for the next big step, a serious overhaul would be needed, and I don’t think Bordeaux are the right club for that level of rebuild.
When the Lille job opened up, I gave the club and job ad a cursory glance. Excellent youth facilities and youth recruitment. Superb training facilities. ‘Rich’ financial status. Two of the best young players I have seen in a long time. Something about applying for it just felt right.
Yeah Franck will be upset (plus my forgotten PA Eric and Nicolas at the restaurant), but I felt it was something I had to do.
When I arrived at the Stade Pierre Mauroy (It was a long drive, but Bordeaux let me keep the Audi if I kept the payments up myself), I hadn’t realised just how close to Belgium Lille was, up in the north east of France.
I shake hands firmly with the club owner Gérard Lopez. He’s an entrepreneur. A man with his head firmly rooted in statistics and data. He’s a great match for me as a manager. Less opera, more Excel.
We meet on the perfect green pitch and it’s a casual catch up. The atmosphere is laid back, the facilities incredible, but without pretension. This feels like my kind of place.
There’s eight games to go in the 23/24 Ligue Un campaign and although Mr Lopez would like 3rd place and a shot at Champions League football (the club has finished between 2nd and 4th the last five years in a row), he understands that I may take a little bit of time to adjust to my new surroundings, and get the team playing how I would like them to.
I have a proper look at my new squad, and highlight those two young players that first caught my eye in the moments after Christophe Galtier’s sacking was announced, a mere couple of weeks ago.
Young Marin looks like the real deal. A powerful and quick athlete, he has pinpoint finishing, great off the ball movement and is a hard worker.
Another brilliant and agile athlete, José looks unbelievable. Always one to be cautious of the ‘wonderkid’ tag, I don’t want to start throwing around terms like “the new Batistuta,” but JLG looks set for the very, very top.
Just as I was finishing my meeting with Mr Lopez, he did give me one nugget of information that meant that I couldn’t even find time to draw breath before starting work. ALL of the previous coaching team had left along with the previous manager. With 9 coaching slots, 4 physio vacancies and no assistant manager (among others), the first thing that I needed to do was bolster our team behind the scenes.
So I did.
What about Bordeaux? Who did they get in to replace me? Another relatively unknown manager, plucked from obscurity in Scandanavia, keen to make a mark in a major European league?
I am taking it as a massive compliment that Joe DaG replaced me with arguably one of the best and most influential managers in modern football history, Marcelo Bielsa.
I will always thank Bordeaux for the opportunity. They basically took me from the Swedish and Norwegian second tiers and put me right bang smack in the middle of top division European football. It was a great time, but time to move on.
I take up Lille’s offer of a modern yet basic rented apartment. It’s one of many they own near the stadium. Maybe after summer I’ll go house-hunting, but something tells me that the luxury of the last place in Bordeaux was a distraction.
That being said, I did see a number of beautiful apartments online when I first started sorting this move out. Some very beautiful modern architecture indeed.
I put all notions of mezzanines and solid marble worktops to one side, and focus on the task at hand. Currently we operate in the exact same space as my former club, somewhere between 4th and 6th in Ligue Un, and battling for those European places.
In one of my first games in charge, I manage to get young Argentinian striker Tomás Badaloni (yep, a second striker from Messi-land) among the goals, something that the media were haranguing him about the lack of constantly, since his £7.5m move from Godoy Cruz in his homeland. I reckon he was a great signing by my predecessor, and I was glad to see him point over to me when he hit the back of the net for the first time in a Lille shirt. A bit like how everyone said Ole Gunnar Solskjaer helped Marcus Rashford with his one touch finishing when he first became United manager, but hopefully with better results in the longer term.
One of my early games as Lille boss threw up an awkward tie. Playing my former team Bordeaux, luckily at home. Who would come out on top? The new team I haven’t yet built in my image or the old team I had performing well, now managed by an icon of world football?
I stayed respectful on the sidelines but when I looked over at Bielsa’s grumpy face on the away team’s bench, I did want to do this in his direction.
Where did that leave us? (writer’s note – “Us” still sounds weird when you are no longer talking about Bordeaux)
This was my chance. My first opportunity as a manager to qualify for European football properly (my Lillestrøm side almost accidentally getting Europa League qualifier inclusion due to winning the Norwegian Cup doesn’t count. They were destroyed by Hearts in the very first qualifying stage and immediately put out after I left for France, if you were wondering).
Monaco were away at Dijon and although Lorient were at home, they had PSG as visitors. That is, PSG who have won the French top division seven years in a row, and as per the table above, the same PSG who had gone 37 games this season without losing a single one of them.
So how did it go?
Just about 35 minutes in and everything is looking good. I am 1-0 up on mid table Strasbourg and looking comfortable. Monaco are being held 0-0 at Dijon, and curiously the same result stands at Lorient with PSG. Could this be it? A 3rd place finish and the potential to be playing in the 24/25 Champions League?
What happened was the single most frustrating turn of events in football management history.
- I lose a nothing goal to Strasbourg, and cannot get the winner no matter what I throw at them. It finishes 1-1.
- Dijon actually manage to keep Monaco at bay and deny them three points.
- LORIENT BEAT UNBEATEN PSG 2-0 AND TAKE 3RD SPOT!
That’s right. Your eyes do not deceive you. Clearly “invincibles” is a tag that the PSG players (or management) didn’t want to have marked by an asterisk in their club’s illustrious history, as they barely show up, lose 2-0 and allow Lorient to take the Champions League qualifier spot, as I slip to 5th.
The curtain falls on the 2023/24 season. I’ve managed eight league games so far in Lille, I don’t have a permanent place to live, and have seemingly less transfer funds than I did when I was Bordeaux boss.
I maintain this was the right move, however, as I get my trusty notepad and pen out, and begin to strategise around who I can move on and who should come in, as the Lille section of my journey to glory properly kicks off after summer.
It’s clearly a beautiful place, home to a stable and ambitious football club, owned by a statistician who must have saw something specific in my ability to bring me in to lead the charge for at least the two years on my contract.
An exciting new chapter has begun, and we haven’t even really seen anything or met anyone yet!
Next time out will cover the summer transfer business, the squad, pre-season results and early Europa Conference qualifier action at least.
Thanks for reading, and welcome to Lille!