We take another pause from the Italian Roles to take a look at how my RFC Liége has been doing. When we left off we had just earned promotion to the third tier, riding all season on the back of the French Polynesian god of goals, David Ozymandias Faupala (not his actual middle name). We arrive at the land of milk and honey, ready to take the division by storm and reap the rewards of the Second Division’s plentiful bounty. Right? Right, guys? Guys…? Who turned off the light? And what in god’s name is that smell?
Not all that shines is TV money
Like I talked about last time around, Liége is a money-making machine, if by that you refer to the USD-penny-making machine, which takes 1.76 US pennies’ worth of material to make 1 penny. The club was bleeding dry to the point where I’m running out of metaphors to explain it.
My thinking was that taking the club from the largely semi-pro Belgian Third Division to the lofty second tier would somehow alleviate the economic burn. Other than cutting expenses to a bare minimum or the owners suddenly realizing they had a club to run, there was no clear solution.
However, as Biggie once stated, “mo money, mo problems”. The club was instantly turned into a professional side before the beginning of the season, meaning any contract renovations we had to do instantly became a hell of a lot more expensive. We had to sign new coaches as well, as now apparently the players were expected to “train” and “practice” instead of just popping up twice a week after their gig at a local grocery store.
Even more than that, a rule in the Eerste Klasse B meant we had to have a 4000 capacity ground, which the Rocourt did not meet. I’m not aware if there was any sort of period of grace like some leagues have or if it was a case of “do it or you’re out” like when Eibar got promoted to Spain’s top tier. Regardless, the ever clever folks at the board decided with the club nearing the €1.5 million in debt, this was the time to get a loan and screw those extra 800 seats wherever they fit.
The payments, of course, were to be done over the season, with the capacity of the ground also being cut to 2800 people. That meant extra expenses, less income, and all being gambled on the idea that a) the extra money from the TV was gonna have to sustain it all and b) we were gonna stay in this division and not sink back down like a leaky balloon.
Sign me like one of your French players
Despite that, I figured a “swing for the fences, shoot first ask questions later” strategy was our best shot at survival and went about my day looking to improve the team at some key spots. I was initially shocked at the wages some players were asking, but you know how it goes. Inevitably I got desensitized to the previously ludicrous numbers and gave in to my desire for competitiveness. Taking care of the economy? Never mind, we were committing to pay €140k a year for a single player before the celebratory champagne was cold.
My key areas to improve were:
- The RB, where competition for a spot between Wouter Hias and Jordan Kerstenne had died down drastically after Hias proved to be absolute crap.
- The DM, where former favourite Loic Besson decided to ask for astronomical figures before I was used to them, leaving on a free eventually.
- The CB, where we had been riding the quality of way-too-good-for-this-division Hélder Baldé, meaning we were somewhat exposed and relying on sub-par performers.
Solutions came in the form of former De Graafschap all-rounder Kino Delorge, Rodez’s solid ball winner Corentin Jacob and centreback Simon Bammens, where I took a page from Bayern’s book and stole for cheap from former rival Thes Sport.
We also added talented former Troyes midfielder Calvin Bombo (the €140k a year guy) and rotation striker Ibrahima Mbayé from yet another disgraced former promotion rival, Aalst.
In all, we gave our wages expending a huge boost, and even when we were still operating below the required threshold, it was gonna take some heavy economical improvements to make it all work.
It also gave our squad a curious trend. I had been trying not to “under represent” the Belgian nation in our squad, trying to keep it a majority with only some foreign quality “sprinkled on top”. It quickly dawned on me that it was going to be a hard ask, as most players in my squad could be replaced by an outsider at a cheaper cost. Problem was probably that with bigger, better-equipped sides on both sides of the border, it was difficult to challenge the quality of Dutch and particularly French discards with our Belgian ones.
We ended up with a total of 5 French players in our squad, all of whom were first-team regulars. Registration rules are fairly relaxed, however; only 8 homegrown players required, none needed in the match squad, possibly to aid this issue.
Draws, debts and missed opportunities
Freshly reinforced, we began our season with the ever-so-cautious objective of not having it be for nothing and avoid relegation. I was somewhat confident. The team had played very well in the past season, and we had genuinely improved the squad.
However, by the end of September we were well off the pace, with a single win in our first six and already out of the cup. Faupala continued in his god-like form, even against stronger opposition, but we simply could not stop bottling it, turning near wins into late second half draws on multiple occasions. Not once, not twice, but thrice we conceded multiple crunch time goals to deny us a total of 5 points from a possible 9. We got to the 2022 World Cup recess well in the bottom half, with just 2 wins in 10 played.
At this point, regardless, it was proving clear that remaining in the Second Division wasn’t gonna be all that important. We got a total of €180k in television rights for the first half of the season, with a further ~€28k on gate receipts per month thanks to our limited stadium capacity. All that paled in comparison to our nearly €100k in player wage expenses alone. The cost of being in the Second Division simply did not match with the benefits of it.
We needed cash, and we needed it quick. The surprise sale of a previously unremarkable youth prospect (for whom Ajaccio paid compensation value of €375k) and the painful departure of Baldé (€325k to Paris FC) worked as a patch, but we needed extra income. So I had to turn to the somewhat exploit-ish mechanic of playing friendlies. Throughout the World Cup break, we played a series of matches with way better opposition, essentially playing punching bag to the bored, non- world-cup -bound squads of teams like FC Twente, Kaiserslautern and Anderlecht. We had to play as the away side, since having the construction still going on at our home ground meant not even bringing Real Madrid there would’ve meant an income higher than around €16k.
However, after a couple of tough results, we got on a winning streak, culminating in a 3-1 at the Constant Vanden Stock. In the end, we bagged about €350k, minus travel expenses; not bad for a dead month in the middle of the season. Knowing full well that a wages restructuring was in our future, we ploughed on.
The friendlies tour apparently did wonders for our morale, with the team picking up two further wins in the following matches, and just losing three more in the remainder of the season. There were still some lost opportunities, a 3-2 loss on extra time after coming back from 2-0 down with a man less hurting particularly. Overall, however, our form was good enough to claim third position with 40 points. Miles off the promotion places (some 25 points off first-placed Sint Truden), but comfortably in the top half of the table.
All of this was, however, smoke and mirrors. There was no way we could sustain this level of expending going into the next season, even with the shining new seats already on the stadium. Something that scared me particularly was the high number of contract negotiations that were looming large on the horizon, particularly those of youth prospect Norbert Behrend and Polynesian god turned striker Faupala. It was another batch of players that were gonna ask for high wages and a professional contract, at a time where we did not have the money. Players we couldn’t afford to pay, nor afford to lose. All of that, however, resolved in the next season, so until then…
Thanks for reading.