It was barely two hours after touchdown at St-Jacques airport. The light chilly breeze on a cloudy early February evening in Brittany was of a slight annoyance to my face, a stark contrast to the warm sunny sunsets of Catalonia. I pocketed my hands in my coat for extra warmth after stepping outside the car, it was my first time ever in France. I was out to see what would presumably be my home ground for the next six months at least. Wanted to get an initial feel and experience of the stadium. I wanted to establish a deep connection with the surroundings. The transfer window had just closed, and I had been called upon to attempt to save a club that was in deep in trouble.
After my exploits in Spain, where I was at CF Reus on FMH14, successfully lifting them from Segunda B to the La Liga and maintaining their top-flight status there for at least one season, I left them in capable hands and took a period on the management side-lines with the aim to “settle my mind”. However, I knew it wouldn’t be too long till I was back on the scene, as FMH15 was out. Having had the past experience of avoiding the dreaded drop, I was poised for a similar task, and what better way than to try the challenge again with a French club, Stade Rennais.
I have no idea why I settled for Rennais, I’ve had no previous interaction with the club in my previous FM management careers, all I know was I looked at France, told myself, “That’s where I want to go”, opened up the clubs list and I just liked the name. Of course, whatever club you decide to take the challenge with will be no walk in the park, you can rest assured that the fellas at Sports Interactive have made sure that this kind of test will be worth the experience.
As usual, after holding my first press conference for the club, in which I spoke in fluent French (Je parle un peu Francais), I immediately got down to work. I had a quick look at the team report, needed to know who the best players for each position are, with the help of my kind assistant, also checked the training regime to make sure it matched my ambitions. There were no real issues of harmony, just a collective hope within the camp that I would be able to turn things around. The media, as expected, was a little nonchalant about our hopes of staying up, and I didn’t want to prove them right. Had a look at the fixtures too; about 15 games to play, a fair mixture of top half and bottom half opponents, but deeply rooted in the relegation zone with 6 points between us and SM Caen, it surely did look like it would need a spectacular miracle to save us.
A lot has been said about formations recently, and I know it’s true, formations determine your style of play. Therefore I ditched the formation being used (think it was 4-2-2-2) and immediately employed one I have used with a good degree of success in the past, call me negative, but 5-3-2 when used well, is absolute gold, it is effective in grinding out results. Of course, I would be experimenting with a more attacking formation (like 4-3-3) when facing ‘weaker’ opponents. This was not a place to try out my historically favoured 3-4-1-2 as I just didn’t trust the squad that much. FC Nantes at home was my first game.
It wasn’t the best of performances to be completely honest and at times I thought they would snatch a point, but we managed to hold on and get me a win in my first match in-charge. Second game was away at OGC Nice, it was a very hard-fought 1-0 victory, I was pleased with the progress, however, I didn’t want to get too carried away, SM Caen were winning their games too (much to my ire). I had to keep the results coming, every game from now on had to be treated as a must-win affair. We stumbled away at Marseille, losing to a solitary goal, which wasn’t too bad a result considering it’s one of the best teams in the league.
The month of March was rather unkind and proved a real test to my tactics and patience, after managing only a draw against fellow strugglers Evian TG FC on the last day of February, we went on to collect just three points in our subsequent three games in March. Make that five in five games if you add the home game against SC Bastia on the fourth of April. I can’t even express how much stress this whole situation was causing me and the club. As much as we weren’t losing we weren’t winning, and basically not really improving our league position. The main problem was that we weren’t scoring enough goals. (THAT formation maybe?). Other times I felt a deep loathing for the officials as we kept conceding dubious goals (last minute offsides, debatable penalties etc.), in Jose Mourinho’s words, I too thought there was a clear campaign against my team. I needed to sort this out, and fast. I had to experiment with the dynamics of the team.
April brought more smiles than misery, after that horrible draw at home to SC Bastia, we won three on a trot, along with favourable results to us regarding SM Caen, and suddenly faith was restored. After a brief switch to 4-3-3, we had away trips where we demolished FC Metz 4-1 and RC Lens 5-0 on either side of a thrilling 3-2 home win against league heavyweights Lyon.
I can’t thank Ola Toivonen enough for his efforts in the last few weeks.
Our bubble burst, however, as we had PSG at home, I tried my level best, but their quality shone through and they got all the points, we very unfortunately conceded an own goal. I seriously tried my best. Tried to keep possession and test the opposition keeper and we also had a goal disallowed for offside.
As at the moment, we are on level terms with SM Caen with three games to go, but our better goal difference means that we are at 17th now. We’re still not safe, looking at the tables, I need nine points from the three games. The last two opponents will be AS St Etienne and Bordeaux, vastly better teams, and before that, away at SM Caen. I sort of knew from the start that it would most probably go down to the wire. If we fail to win the next game, we will have dangerously left everything to chance.
The squad knows what they have to do, at training they show they can work as a team, the desire to stay up is clear and I’ve given them enough motivation already. When I look into their eyes, their eyes tell a story. The self-belief is quite high in here, and I believe we can do it, but only if we stick to the plan.
It’s just a few hours left till kick-off. We will fight to the end.