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Blood&Blue – Season 2023/24 Review

Les Sang et Marine are back. Last time I talked about our 2022/23 season and how we survived the calamities of becoming an professional football club by overspending our way into remaining a second-tier club. Now comes the reckoning. As always, huge thanks for the support and I hope you enjoy this one!

Ain’t no sunshine when cash’s gone

Like I commented in the previous episode, my commitment to economic sustainability quickly died out when faced with the possibility of an instant return to the hideous depths of the Belgian Third Division (and that god-awful promotion system). I don’t know if it happens to everyone or not, but I tend to get desensitized by numbers eventually, in my life and in FM too. In honesty, I was also expecting the economics of the Second Division to be much different than those of the third tier; they were, just not in a happy sense.

Me, watching our bank balance sink like a stone

As a result, priority number one for this season was cutting expenses. Debt was getting out of hand and the board (despite their perpetual state of unwillingness to help) was getting unhappy. The ominous “Work towards improving the club’s economy” requirement appeared on the Club’s Vision, a roundabout way of saying “get the money or you’ll get the sack”. As helpful as always, they also shrunk the wage budget, meaning we were now in the red.

However, the fact that some grumpy old men were getting worried that they might have to open their wallets wasn’t the biggest problem. I’ve mentioned in the past how the fact that most of our starters are would-have-beens in their late 20s make it so our only source of potential juicy transfers is the kids that come up through the youth sides. Kids, however, grow up. With plenty of them coming to the last year of their lovely cheap youth contracts, we had to renew their terms and that meant, on average, another 18 to 20 thousand euros a year per player. Money we simply didn’t have.

The arrival of new HoYD with Resolute personality meant we could expect some useful players in the future, but it’d be irrelevant if we lost them for free

So, Operation “Bring Me the Money” started. We did a, shall we say, “tactical withdrawal” on a number of fronts, allowing several rotation players to leave for free. That at least got us back from the red numbers, but it meant we had to promote a few youth players a bit earlier than I would’ve liked. They were also the same players we were hoping not to lose for free come January. Further works were necessary.

Wheeling and dealing

We got some deals done. The third goalie and a former prospect left-back left on loan during the final year of their contract. Rotation striker Ibrahima Bah left for €165k, somewhere around his valuation which was good money considering he had been struggling to contribute somewhere in accordance to his €69k a year wages. 

Good old ‘Arry wasn’t too keen on the wheeler-dealer tag, but in my case it was necessary

That was all good and helpful, but the elephant in the room remained undisturbed. Calvin Bombo and his €140k p/a salary. In my defence, he had been one of the best performers last season; had I been able to keep him around, I would’ve. But his wages were dragging the club to the mud. Unsurprisingly for an overpaid player, he refused to entertain the idea of leaving. Offers from several Belgian and French clubs arrived, some incited by the fact that I was basically giving him away just to offload those wages. But he refused them all. He was happy where he was and didn’t want to move.

After weeks of frustration, I caved in. I resorted to the somewhat exploitive tactic of offering in exchange for a much cheaper player. Beerschot VA was the selected victim, who accepted Calvin in exchange for a young centre-back. If I am to make excuses, Calvin was 24 at the time, had great mentals and was coming off an excellent season in the Second Division, so the thought of him being brought in to help the u21s in exchange for a run-of-the-mill prospect makes some sense. I’m not proud of myself though. Getting those €140k off the wage bill was like lifting the world of good old Atlas’ spine and giving him a pat in the back. Now we could move, we could make offers… oh, the liberty! oh, the freedom!

Part two of the process was getting in a few replacements on the cheap. Former Troyes prospect Mamadou Camara arrived on a free. His wages were a bit high, but he more than made it up with his quality, plus he effectively allowed us to cover two spots (AF and TM-S) with a single player, an improvement over the expense of having Bah (€69k p/a) and Mbaye (€45K p/a) for a single spot each. We also got youth goalie Antoni from Andorra came on ridiculously cheap wages and left-back Tygo Kersten from NEC Nijmegen arrived on loan. 

Are we this bad?

Having barely regained my breath after what was a very busy window, we got to the preseason with the team put together just in time, but I was eager to see how much the cuts would affect our form. It turned sour quickly.

Preseason was an unmitigated disaster, with us failing to win a single match and barely scoring two goals in four played. I’d like to be able to hide behind the skill of the opposition, but German Third Division teams shouldn’t have been such a challenge at this point. Still, preseason in FM is often a distorting mirror. We had just barely made it with the whole 23 men squad into the games, cohesion was down, as was familiarity, so perhaps things would improve? A 3-0 defeat vs an amateur side in the cup should’ve made it clear they wouldn’t.

This is usually a sign that your season might be about to get a lot harder…

In hindsight, I should’ve made adjustments early. However, a somewhat successful September, with wins vs perennial promotion candidates KVC Westerlo and recently relegated Waasland-Beveren in what amounted to an undefeated month made it seem like things were ok. We lost our first match in October, but then comfortably beat bottomfeeders Francs Borains and RFC Seraing to remain somewhat close to the promotions places.

That, however, was our last win for the next twelve matches, dragging us into February with a winless streak that featured beautiful experiences like a 5-1 battering at the hands of recently promoted (and somehow promotion candidates) Lierse Kempenzonen and a 93rd minutes collapse vs Waasland-Beveren in what would’ve been our first win since October and ended up being our 6th defeat in the last 12.

Around that time we also got a permanent reminder that kids are the future. Mere weeks after KV Mechelen had come and paid us €300k for a kid we picked up for free (with us keeping 50% of the next sale), a bidding war for our top prospect Norbert Behrend started. KRC Genk emerged as the winner, paying €800k plus a further €1M over the next two years. We also got to keep 50% of the next sale. A small dose of good news was met with the eventual realization that without them our team was immensely worse.

Norbert’s looking good with Genk right now. The 50% that I still own is worth €2.4M right now

Back in misery-land, none of my tactical adjustments worked, with a change in shape to a back 5, a move to a 4-3-3 nor a bit of tinkering with the roles helping in any way. In the end, a mix of dropping the lines and a bit of good luck did the trick, with us barely beating fellow bottom-halfers Francs Borains in mid-February with an 88th-minute goal. That wasn’t the start of a world-beating run by any means (a winless month of March still awaited us), but it did put a stop to the vicious cycle and allowed us to get back in shape. 

This all would’ve been a bit more dramatic if relegation had actually been on the cards. However, with RFC Seraing making an absolute mockery of themselves (relegated by March with 10 points fewer than second to last Deinze), all we were fighting for was our pride, and (to some degree) our job.

Come on Seraing, had some decency man…

With our second season syndrome avoided, it was time to think about what our next move was going to be. A promotion push could prove extremely expensive, and game-breaking should we fail, but improvements were nonetheless needed. Another season like this could see us get the sack, and even if not, I was getting a bit tired of this league. All that, however, is for next time.

Until then, thanks for reading.

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