Welcome back to the sexiest Football Manager save adventure you’ve (n)ever seen.
When we last left off, we had just completed (and survived) Season 1 at the helm of HFC Haarlem, our newly restored team of choice for FM23 under the guise of our esteemed patriarch and former clubman Ruud Gullit who has resurrected the club from extinction following their dissolution in 2010. A hard-earned 15th placed finish in the Keuken Kampion Divisie (Tier 2 of Dutch Football) was no mean feat considering we had to build and entire 25-man squad and backroom staff with a budget of ~€170k, giving us a solid platform on which to build our Haarlem Globetrotters empire and bring Ruud’s vision and dream of Sexy Football to life in the Football Manager match engine.
This time around the Dutch media predict we will finish in 13th place following last season’s exploits, but before we can do that there is the small matter of replacing the 12 players that have now left us in the summer after either their contracts or loan deals ended. This time around we have ~€300k to spend, which means we hopefully can lock in a few permanent deals for some bargain players that will be good enough to stick around and contribute to our Sexy Football mission through our transfer policy of signing players with good Passing, Technique, First Touch, Dribbling, Pace, Vision etc. Let’s begin 🚀.
Indy Groothuizen (whom we will now refer to as Groot for this save) became our first choice keeper last year however I don’t seem as a permanent fixture between the sticks. We let 35-year-old Piet Velhuuizen leave on a free so our mission was to find either a First Choice keeper to replace Groot, or a young keeper with high-potential to take over after a season or two (assuming we make it that far).
That brings us to The Setford Brothers.
Brace yourself for Football Manager perfection. Two brothers. Both Goalkeepers. Both dual nationality (Dutch & English). Both in the Ajax Academy. And crucially for the narrative of this save…BOTH BORN IN HAARLEM. You couldn’t make it up!! After first discovering 18-year-old Charlie Setford in the Ajax Reserve squad, we then quickly realised that his brother Tommy (16) is also on the books at Ajax and further research showed that while both were born in the Netherlands (to a Dutch mother and English father who is an ex Professional Golfer) and both have played underage football for the Dutch National side, they both appear to have switched allegiance to England having recently featured for the England U20 and U17 sides respectively.
In Football Manager terms, it’s relatively early days in terms of how they will be in game but both have potential to be moulded towards first-team football especially at our level.
For some reason Ajax were initially reluctant to loan either of these chaps out to us, however as usual I persisted and eventually they agreed to allow Charlie to join us on loan for a season wherein he will initially be backup to Groot, remains to be seen if he will actually contend for first-team football but at the very least we hope he will become fond of life in Haarlem and in future favour a permanent move particularly considering that we convinced Ajax to include a €400k optional transfer fee as part of his loan deal.
We had a very aged back line until the arrival of Iñaki León in January, prior to that two of our Centre Halves Thomas Heurteux and Magnus Troest had a combined age of 71 so it was only right that we let both of them go, while we also lost David Herold who returned to Bayern before agreeing a permanent move to Sparta Rotterdam rather than return to Haarlem (CHIEF). We also struggled at Right-Back last season so a complete defensive overhaul is needed (aside from Luca Stellwagen at LB who proved to be a great signing). By now you readers know how much I enjoy narrative so it’s only fitting that we signed not one but two of my former FM players on Free Transfers – Gabriele Corbo arrives on a free after his contract ended at Bologna (FM21) while Enock Kwateng also arrives on a free from Bordeaux who we of course knew from my Angers save in FM20. Continuing with the Narrative FC we also sign Irishman Alex Murphy on loan from Newcastle (great young prospect from my hometown here in Galway), and finally we pick up a relatively speedy right-back in Jens Jacobs on a free transfer from VVV-Venlo.
We lost almost all our Central Midfield line bar John Goosens with the likes of Elmkies and Hyun-Ju returning to their parent clubs, so solutions were urgently needed as we continue to deploy a 3-man midfield. First in the door was 23-year-old German DMC Lukas Quirin after his contract was terminated by Mainz 05, and he is followed in by not one but two talented midfielders in the form of Caspar Jander (Duisberg – €110k) and Luciano Valente (FC Groningen – Loan) who you will be hearing much more about later. With star man Che Nunnely and Captain Erik Falkenburg staying on for an additional season, we didn’t need to strengthen too much out wide however we do bring in lightning quick winger Adnane Abid from Genk to add additional pace and flair in our attacking third – if we can get him and Nunnely firing then expect to see nothing but fear in the opposition full-back’s eyes this season 💥.
By this point you may have noticed we have only made 3 loan signings so it will come as no surprise that the three forwards brought in all arrive in on loan for a season. Having finished as top scorer last season with 10 goals either side of a 2 month injury, András Németh returns for another season on loan from Genk where he can hopefully build on a decent turnout last year, and he is joined by what will likely be his main competition for the lone striker role in the form of 20-year-old German Striker Marten Winkler on loan from Hertha BSC – loving this guy’s technical attributes, particularly his touch and technique which will hopefully see him link up play and score some peachy goals inside the box (Bergkamp-esque if you will). A trio of forward signings is then complete with the arrival of Ilyas El-Moussaoui from Feyenoord, who incidentally just agreed to become our first Senior Affiliate in-game – you love to see it.
12 signings later and all in all we are looking in decent shape ahead of our second season at HFC Haarlem 🔥
For the second season running we face Da Graafschap in the league opener. Injuries to Martinez and Nunnelly mean starts for Valente and Abid, while Winkler is selected up front ahead of Nemeth. Despite beating these chiefs in the same fixture last season, the game ends in a 0-0 stalemate, positively a good defensive performance but overall quite flat and most definitely NOT SEXY – the same can be said for our opening 3 games as we go on to have another 0-0 draw with FCDB and a 1-1 draw against FC Eindhoven.
TRUST THE PROCESS. Thankfully we go on to pick up 3 wins on the bounce with the likes of Winkler and Nunnely starting to find some form, and by the end of October we find ourselves in 9th place in the league after showing some promising performances here and there without displaying anything overly noteworthy in terms of the sexiness of our football.
Time for a few tweaks again and it’s at this point I will get slightly lazy and divert your attention to a well-received Twitter thread I posted on this topic. With Gerardo Martinez not quite cutting it in the Mezzala role, we made a conscious decision to flip the role to a Centre Midfielder on Attack and deploy young Luciano Valente as first-choice in the role. The results were…well, hit the thread below and see for yourself..(there are #GIFGoals worth seeing) 👇👇
It took a couple of games to settle but suddenly the introduction of Luciano Valente as a CM(A) has a Frank Lampard-esque impact on the team, inspiring us to a 10-game unbeaten after those 3 defeats in November scoring 11 goals in 14 games and propelling us to 6th in the league with 10 games remaining. His tendency to arrive late in the box and shoot more often make him ideal for the role, and the space created by a Winger on Attack as well as the freedom granted by a BWM and DLP behind him seem to completely unleash him to surge forward and almost act like a second striker when the opportunity presents itself. I LOVE THIS GUY 🇮🇹❤️.
Angels of Haarlem 👶👶
In December we received a very unexpected news item into the old paper tray at Haarlem Stadion….
Of course those ratings are based on our level and on the scouts we have etc, but considering our Youth Recruitment and Youth Facilities are still Fairly Basic and/or Adequate, we were not expecting this at all…surely we aren’t going to get a Wonderkid in this save so soon, right?
Things are definitely getting sexier here in Haarlem…we play Tiki-Taka football with a Positive mentality, focusing on a High Tempo Short Passing style of football, encouraging the lads to run at the opposition defence and empowering our Midfielders to take more risks, try through balls, hit early crosses and in particular encouraging the likes of Valente to arrive late in the box and have our wide players making runs into the channel or cutting inside to overload the final third. While it’s nothing revolutionary, it seems to be working in this match engine and we are very much enjoying playing football this season..
One win in March slightly sets us back but a better start to April brings us right back up into playoff contention – actually, we need to talk about the Dutch League Rules for a moment, specifically the promotion rules for the Keuken Kampion Divisie. It’s crazy that we are even talking about this, we couldn’t be less ready for top division football let alone considering playoffs etc however it’s important to understand the rules in the unlikely event that we do end up challenging! First thing to note is that none of the Jong teams can get promoted meaning 4 teams (Jong Ajax, Jong PSV, Jong AZ and Jong Utrecht) cannot go up even if they win the league (not even sure what would happen if their senior side was relegated and their Jong team wins it but that’s for another time). The Top 2 non-Jong teams get promoted automatically, and the next best 6 teams (comprising of any non-promoted teams who won one of the 4 x 9-game “periods” throughout the season along with the next best placed teams) contest a 6-team playoff, the 3 winners of which each then enter a 4-team playoff with the 18th placed team in the Eredivisie with one overall winner then taking a place in the top division. Not confusing at all right?! 🙃
Long story short – with 4 games to go, we find ourselves in 6th position and in real contention to earn a playoff spot. If the table stays the same, Jong Ajax would win the league but GAE and FC Volendam would gain automatic promotion; De Graafschap and Willem II have both won a period each (as did GAE), meaning the remaining four spots would go to ourselves, FC Den Bosch, TOP Oss and NAC Breda. So basically – all we have to do is not make a balls of it and we are in the playoffs. WHY DIDN’T YOU SAY SO.
A draw against Willem II gave us a wobble but that win against Katwijk seals us a playoff spot. The lads must have hit the town hard after that one, as we went on to lose against Telstar which meant we needed that last point at home to Dordrecht to keep hold of 6th place, and that’s exactly what we did! A 6th place finish after finishing 15th last season and predicted to finish 13th this season – definitely a proud achievement for the lads with Marten Winkler finishing as our Top Scorer on 20 league goals and of course Luciano Valente winning our Player of the Season award. Corbo and Leon were formidable at the back for much of the season while the likes of Nunnelly and Stellwagen continue to be vital players since day one when they joined us here.
This of course set us up for a 6-team playoff, with three winners going on to battle with Eredivisie side FC Groningen for a place in the top tier next season. At no point have we been expecting or mentally prepared to contemplate top flight football – our stadium is 3,500 for crying out loud 🤣. Nonetheless, we gear up for a two-legged tie against NAC Breda with a place in the Eredivisie somehow up for grabs for the boys of Haarlem…will we be globetrotting far sooner than planned and showing our sexy football in one of the biggest leagues in Europe next season?
Well…that’s that then!!! A wild second season at the helm of HFC Haarlem ends with us finishing a very respectable 6th in the league, almost on the verge of a promotion chase and with a solid spine of a squad on which to build again next season. The players which we signed permanently all featured heavily throughout and are all young and developing – if we can renew a couple of loans or even make a few of them permanent then we will be in very good shape for next season..well, apart from one main concern that the board have also noticed but that’s for another day…
Before we leave there’s just one more matter of business to talk about…
Sadly no 5 Star Potential Wonderkids, however a couple of very decent prospects for us to see about developing in particular Sabbar and Kok (lol) who might just materialise into decent players over the next few seasons – more on that next time but for now, have a look and see what you think!
Thanks for reading – this is fun.
Over and out,
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