This is one episode of a wider series. To instead start at episode one, please click here.
At the end of the last episode, there were 8 Ligue Un games to go, as well as the latter stages of the Europa Conference League.
Let’s jump straight to it.
It ended very, very well. Unfortunately not the dream finish of PSG going on a losing streak for the first time in 200 years and Lille winning the league, but the next best thing.
We finished 2nd with an incredible 91 points! If it wasn’t for the frustratingly permanently ridiculous PSG, that would generally be enough to win any other 38 game league.
José Luis ‘the next Batistuta’ Garavano, or JLG9 as we know him, bagged an incredible 40 goals, 34 of which were in the league. He’s a rarely seen goalscoring phenomenon.
It will be such a tough challenge to repeat this again next season, but the exciting news is that we will be in the Champions League group stage! This is the first time in my managerial career, 5 and a bit years in, that I will lead a team into the Champions League!
The other remaining piece of business is the small matter of the Europa Conference League latter stages. So how did we do?
In a campaign that started with the Best Placed 3rd Qualifying Round against FC Flora of Estonia, to end with a handful of high profile European fixtures is such a fantastic surprise.
After we dispatched of Russia’s Ural, Utrecht were beaten 5-3 on aggregate in the Quarter Final. Next up? Spartak Moscow in the Semi Final. A tense 2-2 draw in Moscow set up a nervy affair in the second leg back home in France. Lille comfortably won 3-1 and on we marched to only my second cup final (after the Norwegian Cup) in my five or so years in management so far. It was against Ligue Un rivals Marseille (who had beaten surprise package Sheffield United in the semis), and the build up was a nightmare.
It’s the morning of cup final day, and I can tell the players are nervous. Despite Craig Shakespeare’s “It’s Marseille, lads” sketch which impresses absolutely no one, the lads are still showing signs of fear. Robert Marin gets snappy with Hannibal Mejbri when Mejbri pokes fun at the French sensation for being linked with Steve Bruce’s Bristol City in the back pages of the newspaper.
Rui Patrício has to be held back from slapping Romain Delecroix when he calls the 37-year old “Grandad” on the team bus, mocking his wired headphones. Footballers these days, eh?
We arrive at the Benito Villamarín in Seville and it’s an impressive 60,720 seater stadium and home to Real Betis.
Two French clubs, battling it out in a Spanish city for a UEFA trophy. What could be more European? (writer’s note – one of the clubs being German, Italian, English, Portuguese…the list could go on.)
The boys get their final preparation work completed in the sunshine, and we take a moment to reflect on what a fantastic season it has been. No ‘Any Given Sunday’ moments today. Just a group of Lille lads, giving it their all.
Something had to change. The team needed the impetus to do something incredible. It was fast approaching half time and Craig and I are almost hoarse from screaming our constant instructions from the sidelines. But then it happened.
In an unpredictable twist of fate, it’s the last minute replacement, 31 year old defensive midfielder Otávio who edges us in front with a header from a dinked in Yusuf Yazici crossed free kick which was headed back across goal by Iván Gómez, a few minutes before half time. It’s his first goal in a Lille shirt, and therefore his first goal of the season. What a time to get it.
The players come in for the break exhausted. Physio Filip Lundgårdh is in the dressing room with us, checking on some niggling pains some of the players are suffering from. I pace nervously around, near a whiteboard covered in magnets and drawn arrows. Filip has seen this before; back when we won the Norwegian cup together for Lillestrøm, and even before that at Varbergs when I was chasing promotion back in Sweden. He knows how I work.
We go out for the second half, and the players are continuing to work hard, pressing in defence and chasing in attack. We have a corner.
Somehow Otávio is the man again! He doubles his entire Lille tally with a second cup final goal, again assisted by Gómez on 63 minutes to send us 2-0 up. Could we hold on for glory?!
The final whistle blows and Lille are the UEFA Europa Conference League winners of the 2024/2025 campaign!
Couple this with the 2nd place finish in Ligue Un and Champions League qualification, and it has been an incredible season. The move from Bordeaux definitely feels worth it now.
I let the boys go and enjoy the night in whichever way they see fit. I’d even brought a cool bag with 24 of these in it, to kick the celebrations off on the way to the airport for the flight home.
To bring the curtain down on this wonderful season, here is the review, mostly in pictures.
With the unhappy Baumgartner set to leave us in the summer, he will need replaced. A few others may leave, and a few targets may arrive. I do have the Champions League to contend with now, you know.
Domagoj Bradaric should return from loan at Eibar, Tomás Badaloni from Rangers (20 goals in 44 starts) along with promising young defender Rachid Santiago who has been playing out in Portugual. Will they all fit in?
Who will stay? Who will leave? Who will join?
Lots of questions that will all be answered in time.
One question that I can answer immediately is, “will you upgrade your car, now you are a Champions League manager?” The answer is of course, “You are damn right I will!”
Here’s to a good few nights of celebration, new Porsches, and a bright, bright, Lille future.
Thanks for reading.