Spirit of ’86 – Vindication

Vindication

Dreamers will often fall short. We must always shoot for the stars, but never lose track of the fact that, usually, we’ll never reach them. Michaël Asau’s tenure at Vejle ends in much the same way. All along this season, I could catch glimpses of it when we met, or during matches. A tiredness, an exhaustion that seemed to filter through the cracks and blemish all that touched. And still, not even I could have predicted the end.

A ball and an open space; that’s all it takes for a football dreamer

Vejle started the season in a most stressful way. The scouting system that Michaël had proudly allowed us to take a look at just the season prior was put to the test as not one but three key players were forcibly sold. “We were unable to reach an agreement with Luka (Djordjevic)”, the French manager told me when I enquired why one of the previous season’s top scorers was being let go at a reasonably cheap price. Other sources at the club were more specific: “He was asking for around €500k per season, which is about double what the current best player gets”. The board, allegedly, was ready to greenlight the deal, but Michaël feared what it would do to the club’s frail economy, and the precedent it would set for future negotiations. Without a compromise in sight, the Montenegrin was sold for a single €1M payment to Norwegian side SK Brann.

The signing part of the market was also tricky for Asau and Vejle. Failed bids for Tochi Chukwuani, Oskar Buur, Jeffrey Adjei-Broni and Mads Pedersen put the club in a tight spot with the reinforcement of other spots on the squad. The left-back situation, for example, wouldn’t be fixed until the deadline day incorporation of Clinton Antwi from Nordsjaelland.

Clinton Antwi of FC Nordsjaelland was Vejle’s top signing of the summer transfer market.

And yet, I doubt anyone at the Jutland Ruby would argue that the most disappointing part of the market was losing Mads Hansen. A young, Danish player, Hansen was one of the symbols of what Asau’s project was all about. He had risen to prominence in the season and a half that he had spent at the club, and even when his numbers don’t look like those of a player taking over (8 goals+assists in 43 league matches for Vejle), he had been key for the way the side played. However, he was entering the last year of his contract, and it was once again agents that spoiled the deal. “Mads’ agent was asking for a clause that would’ve left us exposed, and with the wages he was asking we would’ve probably ended up losing money”, Michaël explained. The clause, I’ve come to know, was a €2,6M open release clause; with interest from top leagues coming Hansen’s way, it would’ve been hard for the club to retain the player at such an affordable price. In the end, Hansen was sold for €1.8M to Spanish side Huesca. “We managed to retain 25% of the value of the transfer, which is certain to make more for us than the €800K we left on the table by not agreeing to the clause”, claimed Asau.

The departures of Djordjevic and Hansen (later compounded by Andrés Ponce’s forced move to Lillestrøm during the winter window) and the club’s unsuccessful bids for replacements left Asau with only three pure strikers on the squad. Therefore, he pushed into a move to a 4-2-3-1, moving on from the pressing 4-4-2 that had brought two of Vejle’s most successful seasons in recent memory. 

Vejle’s new 4-2-3-1 looked to adaptate the 3-4-3 of Piontek’s team into a shape that best fitted their squad

The change, however, was not only pragmatic but also ideological. “I felt it was time to move closer to a Dynamite style of play”, Michaël told me. “We had built the bases of our early success with the 4-4-2, but now I wanted to see my team play with a bit more flair”. The way Vejle started the season seemed to prove him right. The Jutland Ruby won 5 of their first 6 fixtures, storming to the top of the table and looking set on a duel with FC København for the championship. It would all come undone staggeringly quick.

An eight-match winless streak was only cut in half by a meagre 1-0 vs Silkeborg, with a sole set play goal claiming for Vejle a match that they had clearly lost on the pitch. They sank down the table, gasping to remain above the Championship Group line before the winter break. It was however at this darkest of times (both literally and figuratively) that a glimmer of hope appeared. 

On December 20th, just before the Danish league went into hibernation, a cup tie set up Vejle against their Parken saga rivals, København. This time, it was at home. For Asau, it was a shot at vindication for last season. “We knew we could take that bunch”, he told me, “And we knew that if we beat them, then the competition would be wide open for us. We’d be on a level ground with anyone else still on it”.

Brian Laudrup of FC Copenhagen shaking hands with Dan Sorensen of Vejle Boldklub. It would be another chapter in an old rivalry

It would be unfair to say that Vejle outplayed their rivals that day, but they certainly did, as some British pundits love to wish upon, want it more. Asau’s side went down early in the first half when Jonas Wind somehow beat both centrebacks to score a header from a Mudrazija cross. A missed penalty by Adam Jakobsen seemed to lock in their luck, but just before the half an absolute belter by Mouhamadou Drammeh from outside the box tied the score. 

From there, Vejle was in the “weather the storm” game plan. København came after them again and again, but the Jutland Ruby stood firm and even had some chances of their own to win it in regulation. With the early rounds of the DBU Pokalen being played on a single match format (unlike the quarter and semi-finals), it went to extra time, and if that wasn’t enough, penalties. It wouldn’t be necessary. In the 106th minute, a quick press by Andrés Ponce gave Vejñe a chance at a golden ticket. The Venezuelan striker quickly shifted the ball to winger Lukas Engel who played the one-two magnificently to set up Ponce with a clear sight of goal. The striker was still a good three or four yards outside of the box, but his shot didn’t fail him. Putting the ball right on the left corner, it was uncatchable for the København goalie. Finally ahead in the match, Vejle stormed some more before the final whistle went. They had just eliminated the top candidate for the title.

More good news arrived during the winter transfer window, as Vejle secured one of their long-time targets, Albert Grønbaek. “Albert’s arrival was one we were really happy with”, Michaël told me. “He is a player I really admire and look forward to working with him. He has an incredibly versatile skillset, so he can fit in a lot of positions for us and gives us a lot of options”.

Grønbaek arrived as a replacement for the departing Ponce during the winter transfer window. Even though he isn’t an out-and-out striker, he scored some all important goals

That win galvanized Asau’s side for the remainder of the Preliminary Phase fixtures. They weren’t exactly unstoppable, but two wins and three draws from their remaining five fixtures ensured qualification for the Championship Group. They also continued on their cup run. A 2-1 home-leg win saw they oust AGF, and despite a lacklustre beginning to their final league stage (a nil-nil draw with Nordsjaelland and a 0-2 loss to København), they managed to pull a miraculous comeback against OB in the semi-finals, where they threw away the advantage from a 2-1 home win by going 4-1 behind on the away leg. Only an Adam Jakobsen hat trick pulled them back from the brink of elimination and into the final on away goals.

A 6-1 thrashing of FC Midtjylland put them on the track for a top 3 spot. A week and a half later, the same rivals waited for them in the DBU Pokalen final. Despite recent results, Michaël and his side weren’t overconfident. “They beat us at home back in September, so we know we can’t enter the pitch thinking it’s a done deal, we have to be respectful of them as a team, and work our a*s to get the trophy”, he told me before the match. Despite all that, it was clear from the get-go which side would come out on top. Midtjylland managed just two shots on target all match, and never looked like beating an inspired and hungry Vejle. The Jutland Ruby took the lead just before the 30’ mark with some quick in the final third ending with a pass into space from Jakobsen for the run of Ali Almosawe, whose bottom far corner finish proved too much for the goalie. A 63rd-minute penalty from Jakobsen sealed the deal; Vejle were DBU Pokalen champions.

The moment Almosawe scored the first goal

“It’s a really proud moment”, Michaël told me. “It’s part of what we’ve been working towards, and it’s incredible to see it finally come to some fruition”. After that, it was all smooth sailing for Asau’s side, winning 3 and drawing 2 of their remaining five Championship Group fixtures to once again improve their third position finish. For Michaël, however, it was time to say goodbye. 

Not long after the season ended for Vejle, he called in a Press Conference to announce he was stepping down from the job. With his contract due to end that very June, he felt it was only fair for the board to know in advance he wouldn’t be entertaining any negotiations. “I feel that I no longer have the energy to carry the varied and exhausting work that managing a football club requires, that this job requires. I can notice my focus wavering, and this club deserves a lot more”, Michaël Asau told a room full of shocked reporters.

Some of my colleagues didn’t take kindly to being blindsided by Michaël’s announcement

Their surprise quickly turned into hostility; who did this Frenchman think he was, dumping a historic club on a whim. “Don’t you think it’s a bit weak that tomorrow the headlines of the newspapers will say the Vejle manager left because he felt he no longer had the energy to do it?”, one of them asked. “What do you suggest, that I invent you a better headline?”, Michaël asked, “That is your job, the journalist’s job, is to fabricate a selling headline. At least most of you”.

I’d hope he kept me out of that descriptor. I wouldn’t know it, as we haven’t talked since his resignation, other than to wish each other good luck on future endeavours. I’d like to think he’s happy that he met me at that airport and encouraged me to follow Vejle these past few years. I’ve certainly enjoyed it. The moment I met Michaël Asau, I knew he was one to aim for the top; I guess I am myself a bit guilty of forgetting, as we all do sometimes, that dreamers will often fall short.

Trent Crimm, for theangrylinesmen.

Ones and Zeros

My guess is that you’ve all understood what this means, the Vejle series is ending. Throughout the chapters, I’ve tried to make it so my feelings are reflected in Michaël Asau’s, so you won’t be surprised to learn that him becoming increasingly drained from his tenure means, much in the same way, I don’t feel like continuing. 

Unlike my alter ego, however, I’m not cutting this series cause I feel drained of energy, but rather of, shall we call it, emotional acceleration. I am a very different person from the one who wrote the opening blog, where I discuss why I had chosen Vejle to be my main FM22 save. It got an ironic smirk out of me to realize that said episode went like on October 6th, about a week before I entered a very hard period in my life.

Still, the series started and I was looking forward to it developing. However, two factors stood in its way. First, the Wenger series (which I pushed myself to complete in record time for reasons outside of this blog) really interrupted my connection with the save. Secondly, this became a series I struggled to enjoy from a content creation perspective. I found it very hard to live with the difficulty of the save, and the setbacks that I encountered. It felt like I wasn’t creating good enough content if the blog became a retelling of my failures. I had to be making progress, else why bother?

It dawned on me that, after a day of running test-saves for the Wenger articles, I somewhat dreaded the idea of jumping back into this game. I wanted to spend some time relaxing, late at night, playing with a set of players I didn’t feel like cursing at all the time. I had an FM itch that the Vejle save couldn’t scratch, simply because I had made myself think it wouldn’t make for interesting content.

When my PC had to visit the repair shop, I started to read a series I had for a long time in my Reading List, FM Madd’s Northern Boys. He was attempting a challenge somewhat like mine, perhaps harder than mine, and he was… falling? At least in the purely competitive sense, he was failling (I won’t spoil anything else, go and have a read, it’s fantastic). And yet, I was enjoying his work greatly. It somewhat helped me realize that I didn’t have to provide a mountain of wins and shining silverware every season for the blog to work.

By this time, however, my connection with the Vejle save and the whole Spirit of 86 idea had been severed. You can only spend so much time apart from a group of players before they become devoid of that FM magic that turns them into life-like beings in your head and once again become ones and zeros on a screen. The fact that I keep seeing transfer rumours about a certain Manchester United player that is no longer in the game doesn’t help.

I remain convinced now that I don’t have to become a world-beater every time to write a decent blog. It’s partly the reason why I decided, like I did during the last cycle, to turn my off-line save into a blog save, with the Dartboard Journeyman. In much the same way, I’m really thankful for the stuff this save made me face. I learned quite a bit about what I enjoy and what I don’t, what I’m good at and what I could become better at; both in the game and as a blogger. I also learned in that process how to work more effectively, how to create better (I hope) content.

That’s why I’m very happy we won the Danish Cup in this final season. It makes me feel like I leave with something to symbolically represent (game-wise at least) what I went through during the times I played with this club and the lessons (of every kind) that I took. Did we bring back the spirit of ‘86? Clearly not. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t jump off my seat when that final whistle went.

Thanks for reading!

Published by fromero92

Argentinian writer and journalist

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