Here we are – our 8th season at the helm of HFC Haarlem in the Netherlands, making it my longest save adventure since the Don’t Look Back in Angers days of Football Manager 2021. We finished in an all-time high of 3rd place last season to give us a spot in the European Champions League playoff rounds – a massive jump for our tiny little club from Northwest Holland, a lot of work has gone into getting us here and a lot more will be needed if we are to survive and compete at this level knowing the potential amount of games ahead of us next season. LET US BEGIN.
🏟️ Infrastructure & Facilities
When we resurrected HFC Haarlem from obscurity following their dissolution in 2010, it’s safe to say that our facilities and infrastructure truly reflected that of a miniscule club on the brink of destruction. A 3,500 seater stadium, Below Average Training and Youth Facilities, zero sponsorship and a €150k transfer budget to build an entirely new squad from scratch – life wasn’t easy at the start of this save however we have come a long way and have managed to drive our board (even in the post-Ruud Gullit era) to reinvest a lot of our earnings back into the club, as evident by the numerous facilities upgrades, sponsorship deals and of course our planned new 18,849 seater stadium which we will move into next summer upon completion of Season 8.
✅ “The Right Stuff”
We originally set out to sign players who fit into our Sexy Football philosophy wherein we want to have players all over the pitch who contribute to our fast, free-flowing, creative and technical attacking football style. In Season 1 the most we spent on a player was €140k (€70k up front + €70k installments), and by Season 6 that record reached €12m. At this point and considering it’s a while since my last blog post I think a quick walkthrough of our First XI from last season will be highly beneficial before we proceed to look at the latest batch of new signings made to bolster our squad with potential Champions League football on the horizon.
GOALKEEPER – ALEX PADILLA
Signed on a free transfer way back in 2023 from Athletic Club de Bilbao (yes he’s a Basque boy) – Padilla was originally intended to be a backup hot prospect but quickly established himself as our first-choice keeper; an excellent shot-stopper who commands the area well and has great distribution when starting counter attacks and possession build-up play (interestingly he has picked up 3 assists in the last 5 seasons), more recently he was called up to the Spain squad as backup to Unai Simon and has attracted interest and bids from the likes of West Ham, Everton and Ajax. He ain’t going nowhere.
LEFT WING BACK – DENNIS CIRKIN
Arguably our weakest position on paper when you look at Irishman Dennis Cirkin’s attributes however the lad has continued to perform (2 goals and 5 assists last season) since moving on a free from Sunderland a few seasons back, making it impossible not to put him forward for selection. Capped almost 40 times for Ireland and still only 28, he will remain with the squad for the foreseeable however it’s likely we may bring in a long-term replacement when time and money permits it.
RIGHT WING BACK – DANILO VEIGA
How many of you have a Right-Back as your record transfer signing? It took €12m to convince Portuguese outfit Gil Vicente to part with Danilo Veiga however has has proven to be worth every penny so far, consistently hitting above 7 average rating and proving to be equally adept both defensively and going forward (3 goals and 4 assists last season). Despite calls from fans and media alike he remains uncapped by a Portugal side managed by André Villas Boas, however that hasn’t stopped Brighton and Brentford’s interest in bringing him to the Premier League – not on my watch.
LEFT CENTRE BACK – VICENTE MARTÍNEZ
Another incredible Free Transfer, this time a Centre-Half whom we unearthed in the depths of the 4th Tier of Spanish football at FC Vilafranca and who instantly became a first-team regular & hasn’t looked back since. Now valued around €25m, his Physical and Defensive attributes make him one of the best Centre Backs in the league which have led to calls for him to be drafted into the Spain squad already! At the time of writing Southampton and Roma are showing interest but this guy will be at the heart of our defence for the foreseeable future.
RIGHT CENTRE BACK – SEPP VAN DEN BERG
While I can’t say the same about Sepp van den Berg’s long-term role as our other first-choice Centre-Half, he has been solid as a rock since arriving on a free transfer from Liverpool in 2025 – always averaging close to a 7.0 rating each season, playing 30+ games every year and one of those players where I feel we are more likely not to win when he isn’t in the squad. He provides good cover at right-back and fully deserves his place in the squad currently ahead of third choice CB Mads Orbe – that said, a long-term replacement will be lined up in the next season or two as the bar raises and we face tougher opposition in Europe.
DEFENSIVE MIDFIELDER – GJIVAI ZECHIEL
Another player whose attributes don’t really jump off the screen however he equally has nailed down a starting spot in the lone DMC role largely based on his defensive ability/positioning as well as his all round technical ability. Signed for €5m from FC Twente he has been a solid if unremarkable signing – what I like is his player trait of “Dictates Tempo” which is visible in-game particularly when we are dominating against inferior opposition, however in the long-run we may need to upgrade in this position and keep Zechiël as competition or as a rotation option.
ADVANCED PLAYMAKER (SUPPORT) – THEO
Our Captain and talisman whom we have linked up with for the second time after we last managed him at Angers in FM21 – Theo is a top class midfielder at this level and is a go-to signing for any mid-tier teams looking for a technical and powerful midfielder who is also a set-piece specialist and a leader on and off the field. Having recently declared for Algeria (birth-place of his fairly well-known father Zinedine Zidane) – while he is not nearly as good as his father was, he is one of the first names on our teamsheet and has racked up 15 goals and 21 assists in 3 seasons at the club; not bad for a free transfer from Real Madrid C 👌.
CENTRE MIDFIELDER (ATTACK) – BRAIS RUIZ
Every now and again you find one of those players who despite not having the most amazing profile (aside from some very nice Technical/Creative attributes which are ideal for our philosophy), seems to inexplicably bang in-game and in the match engine for no real apparent reason. Brais Ruiz is one of those players. Since signing him for €600k from Badajoz in the Spanish 3rd Tier, Ruiz took to Eredivisie football like a duck to water and has 24 goals and 18 assists to his name in just shy of 3 seasons at Haarlem, not to mention finishing second in the NxGn Top 50 in 2027.
WINGER (RIGHT) – JUHO LAHTEENMAKI
Similar to Ruiz – Lähteenmäki’s attributes are nothing to really write home about however he has been a key player during our ascent to the higher echelons of Dutch football, scoring 15 goals and 22 assists over 3 seasons since joining from FC Nordsjælland for a €1m fee. He has scored in some of our biggest games including that Cup Final win over RKC Waalwijk, and though we will likely need to replace him sooner rather than later, he has become a fan favourite and deserves to stick around for a while longer yet.
INSIDE FORWARD (LEFT) – TONI MAJIC
Our star boy. The shining light of this save and a player that is likely to be my Player of the Year for FM23 unless a world-beating newgen emerges any time soon. We stumbled across him during a random scouting adventure in Croatia and as soon as I saw him I knew he was exactly what we needed to fulfil that powerful Inside Forward role on the left-hand side – equally contributing in terms of goal threat and chance creation, and typifying our technical, explosive and fast-paced football style accordingly. €2.9 million later and at the time of writing he has just been named our 2028/2029 Player of the Season, and has notched up 28 goals and 18 assists in just over 50 appearances across his two seasons at the club. Still only 23, we continue to drive his development and looking at that Flair, First Touch and Dribbling ability, you can see why we think he is magic indeed and keeps the likes of Sebastiano Esposito out of the squad. What a player.
STRIKER (CENTRE) – DION DRENA BELJO
If you are going to have one Croatian wonderkid why not have two? Dion Drena Beljo is a bit of an FM23 favourite this year and with good reason – the man is simply a goal machine and almost single-handedly dragged us up the league to finish 3rd last season, scoring 12 of his 20 league goals from January onwards after an injury ruled him out prior to Christmas. 30 goals in 45 appearances make his €7.5m fee look quite the bargain and if you are looking for a goalscorer on a mediocre budget then look no further. I feel all he needs is some healthy competition to keep him on his toes 👀.
So – now you have a good grasp of our First XI at Haarlem, let’s make some transfers shall we?
Despite picking up around €8m in prize money after finishing 3rd in the league, our transfer budget lies around €2m as we encounter our first window without making a sizeable player sale – that said we end up not needing to spend any of it as all of our signings arrive on free transfers. Daniel Svensson arrives on a free from Vitesse Arnhem to give cover and competition at Left-Back for Dennis Cirkin. He is joined by French Winger Marc Soury from PSV to give additional options on the right wing, Mohammad Diomandé (FC Nordsjælland) who will give us depth in both our Centre Midfield roles, and wonderkid newgen Jordan Horne who arrives on loan from Everton as a backup for the aforementioned Toni Majic and Sebastiano Esposito.
The pick of the bunch however has the potential to be our best value signing of the save so far…
20-year-old half-Belgian / half-Chinese Striker Zhang Hui arrives on a free transfer from Antwerp after being highly coveted by the likes of Juventus and Borussia Dortmund. I have no idea how we managed to lock him in without any of them submitting a rival bid, the importance of getting a deal done early clearly shows as we agree pre-contract terms and on arrival his value literally skyrockets from €13.5m to €35m. If we manage to get ourselves into the Champions League, the rotation between him and Beljo will be key and if I had any doubt over my commitment to this save’s longevity, this guy has quashed it – WHAT A F*CKING PLAYER.
Right – let’s play some Football Manager shall we?
Season 8 🚀
There is little time for squad gelling and pre-season piss-ups as we prepare ourselves for arguably one of the biggest games in the club’s history – the 2029 European Champions League Third Round Qualifiers against a team most of us will know quite well..it’s HFC Haarlem vs Glasgow Rangers for a place in the final playoff round to qualify for the EUCL Group Stages. THIS IS WHAT WE ARE HERE FOR.
After all our talk on new signings and Croatian wonderkids, it’s substitute Sebastiano Esposito who was our hero in the first leg as he came of the bench to score twice and give us a 2-1 away win in Scotland, setting us up nicely for a 2-0 home win in the return leg which sees us qualify for the final Group Stage playoff round. Our opponents this time are definitely stronger and have European pedigree ingrained in their DNA..high ho, it’s off to Portugal we go…✈️
ABSOLUTE HEARTBREAK AT THE FINISH!! With the tie level at 3-3 going into injury time in the second leg in Porto, Donyell Malen pops up with a 91st minute aggregate winner to demolish our Champions League dreams and condemn us to Europa League football once more for another season. The quality of Costa, Mancini, Eustaquio, Aimar and Malen was simply too much for our youthful and unfamiliar squad who will now need to gel rapidly as we kick off our league season and take on the crazy amount of games that the new Europa League format commands.
I think we have had quite enough for one day so we will pause there for now – my next post will follow in a few days time and will give a full season overview of our 8th campaign at the helm of HFC Haarlem. How’s your save going?
Thanks for reading, catch you soon.
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