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[FM21] Celje-brate good times, come on: 10 years building a Slovenian super power


mzeqiri
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First thing's first. I am a long term player of the CM/FM series but haven't touched a copy since FM2015. Opening up FM2021 for the first time was pretty bewildering. Lots of new features, constant news items, new tactics and training setups - everything was different!

My general M.O. is to start unemployed, with my manager on the least qualified setting, and see where I end up. My chosen avatar was a studious-looking 34-year-old Spaniard named Santiago Castillo.

Santiago-Castillo.png

I chose Slovenia - for no particular reason other than I couldn’t remember ever having a career there.

I know little about Slovenian football, but it's a simple setup, with a top division (First League) of 10 clubs (playing each other four times), and a Second League of 16 (one goes up automatically, one plays the second bottom club from the First League in a play-off). Maribor are the undisputed kings of Slovenian football, winning by far the most titles. They have also reached the Champions League group stages three times, and the knockouts of the Europa League once. They are the Barcelona, the Bayern, the PSG of Slovenian football.

Three clubs go down to the Third League. This is how my career started - with a relegation and a sacking.

 

2020-2024 | EARLY MEANDERINGS IN THE SLOVENIAN SECOND LEAGUE

 

2020-21 | PRIMORJE

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I got to about December on holiday before the Primorje job came up. Primorje were second bottom and awful. The resulting half-season was me 'learning the ropes'. I was completely clueless about how to handle players, training, the media, and had a very underwhelming part-time squad - and obviously no money to strengthen it. I chose to keep it simple tactically, but despite four consecutive wins putting us in a good position to survive, a final day defeat saw us drop back into the relegation zone.

 

Relegated, sacked.

 

2021-23 | KRSKO

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I'd rather have not been sacked, but I took it on the chin. There was six FM games’ worth of change for me to get used to, and Santiago Castillo definitely benefited from the experience at Primorje. The same cannot be said for the club itself; by the time my career ended in 2038, they had not reached the Second League again. Oops.

My next challenge was similar; part-time Krsko in the Second League, also in the relegation zone, also in December.

This was a much more successful spell. After keeping them up in 10th position, I got several free transfers in, including the ancient Diego Tardelli and Luis Jimenez, to up the general standard of the team. We played a lop-sided, attacking formation that produced attacking, lop-sided results; we were the top scoring side in the division, but we conceded a lot, came 3rd and missed out on the play-off by 5 points. I was happy with that considering our extremely meagre resources.

 

2023-24 | GORICA

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Gorica had been relegated from the First League, and they were the first full-time club to take a chance on me. A wage budget 6x that of Krsko, and expectations to match. This time I played a much more orthodox, possession-based 4-3-3 with attacking wingers, and we won the Second League by 8 points. I was in the big-time. The Slovenian First League.

The 2024-25 season, my first in the top flight, started quite poorly after a quiet transfer window, and my Gorica side failed to score in 5 out of the first 6 league games. We soon stabilised with a few tactical tweaks, but it became academic. In December 2024 a bigger job came up. It was the job that would define Santiago Castillo’s managerial career.

It was NK Celje.

 

2024-2035 | NK CELJE: BUILDING A DYNASTY

Celje.png

 

2024-25 | Inauspicious beginnings

Celje were actually league champions at the start of the game in 2020 (their only Slovenian title to date). They had won it during the pandemic, in front of no fans, though crueller commentators might have observed that you wouldn’t have noticed the difference. In a cavernous 12,950 stadium, Celje’s attendances generally fail to reach four figures. Over the next decade, that would change.

Celje is the fourth-largest city in Slovenia with a population of less than 40,000, which perhaps explains the difficulty in filling the Stadion Z'dežele. Like most Slovenian cities except Maribor, it’s not known for its football. NK Celje have traditionally been a middling club in the top flight, perhaps comparable to a Premier League club like Everton (if the English top flight had only been launched in 1991, like the Slovenian First League.)

Needless to say, real life me had never heard of the city or the club.

The only thing I knew was that I was being offered a £1.7m transfer budget, absolutely dwarfing Gorica’s resources. The club’s facilities, from the training ground down to the youth scouting, were all poor to average, but basically par for the course in Slovenian football. I could only scout within Slovenia.

I didn’t know it, but this was the start of a 10-year journey that would reshape the club forever.

 

2024-25 | Survival

In the first half of the season, Celje had struggled for goals. The January transfer window came around quickly and I signed a Zambian target man, 6’3” Moses Silwimba, from his home club for £375k (since I couldn’t send a scout, I took a punt on his attributes which were decent), as well as a clutch of £100k-150k signings.

I stuck with the possession-based game that had brought modest success at Gorica, but looking back on that first half-season at Celje, I was lucky to survive really. While things started well, with a 3-0 win over Radomlje, we went on to win just three more league games all season, and avoided the relegation play-off on the last day. Silwimba scored just four times in 14 games. It wasn’t working.

I resolved to change my tactical style.

 

Next chapter: 2025-26 | Pipped to the post

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2025-26 | Pipped to the post

Having survived those difficult first few months, I spent the rest of my transfer budget on two central midfielders and one inside forward (AML), plus central defenders David Brekalo and the veteran Nicolas Nkoulou, who was 35 at this time.

The most important signing, however, was the £60,000 I spent on David Flakus-Bosilj from fellow First League side Aluminij. Flakus-Bosilj was a speedy advanced forward, and I was surprised to see Aluminij had transfer-listed him for such a low fee. I figured he would dovetail perfectly with the silky (if erratic) deep-lying forward Gasper Koritnik, with the big target man Silwimba to give me another option.

Flakus-Bosilj and Koritnik would spearhead a more direct 4-2-4 formation, and would score 18 goals each in an excellent first full season at the Z'dežele.

Excellent - but not enough.

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We scored 74 league goals in total in 36 games; Maribor managed a paltry 49. But with both clubs finishing level on 72 points, the giants of Slovenian football came out on top by dint of beating us in three of our four league meetings (head-to-head is the decider in the First League). In fact, at the end of the season, Celje were winless against the mighty Purples in 21 matches.

If we were going to depose the 18-times Slovenian champs, we would have to up our game. But with a low reputation and very little to spend… how?


 

2026-27 | Toppling Maribor

One of the positives of that heartbreaking season had been the debut of 17-year-old winger Jure Kotnik, from Celje’s youth system. The 6’2” winger’s pace and physical presence during the 2026-27 season would make him a key player for several seasons, and as I slowly got to grips with youth development in FM2021, I’d be regularly returning to the academy to beef up the squad.

Another positive was that our 2nd placed finish had opened the door to European competition for the first time. Our actual Euro II Cup campaign would prove to be a failure, going out in the third qualifying round to Anderlecht. But merely being in European competition had enabled us to secure a slightly higher calibre of player in the summer transfer window. Hence the signings of Vasil Stoyanov, a 19-year-old Bulgarian goalkeeper who had been released from Ludogorets, and Toni Juric (remember the name), a left-footed 20-year-old Serbian SC / AMR who had been cut loose by Partizan.

 

ins2627.png

 

I had to work hard to convince Juric to join. I agreed to a £750,000 release clause and made some promises that tied my hands a little bit later on. However, he proved to be very much worth it. Moses Silwimba, the big Zambian target man for whom I had such high hopes just a couple of seasons earlier, was farmed out on loan after managing just four league goals from 30 appearances last season. Nkoulou retired.

We continued with the 4-2-4 formation in the hopes that just improving our personnel would help us make that final step to toppling Maribor. 6’5” Stoyanov’s imposing goalkeeping gave us a solid foundation to build from. Juric was played as an inside forward from the right, cutting inside on his left foot and supporting Koritnik and the speedy Flakus-Bosilj up front.

Europe aside, this proved to be a recipe for phenomenal success. We ended Maribor’s dominance of the league by a whopping 21 points, beating them three times, and once in the Slovenian Cup final for good measure.

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Flakus-Bosilj was the undisputed star, with 36 goals in all competitions. Juric chipped in with 27, with Gasper Koritnik netting a respectable 20.

I was excited about the prospect of testing that lethal trio against the best defences in the Champions League in 2027-28. But there was a cloud on the horizon. Before the season was even over, a Saudi club came in and activated Flakus-Bosilj’s £525,000 release clause. He was gone in a flash.

How would we replace his 36 goals? The answer was already at the club.

Next chapter: 2027-28 | Toni Juric's year

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2027-28 | Toni Juric’s year

Having decisively knocked Maribor off their f***ing perch, I turned my attention to progress in Europe. Our first foray into the continental competitions had been a damp squib, with defeat to Anderlecht curtailing our progress to the Euro II Cup group stages. This time, we’d get a shot at the King - the Champions League. The first qualifying stage pitted us against Dinamo Zagreb, a difficult tie but I was confident that the team I had built was capable.

In terms of the squad, losing Flakus-Bosilj had been tough to take, but I knew Toni Juric could build on his 27 goals, especially as he had scored them mostly from the wing. I shifted him to advanced forward and put the teenager Kotnik at AMR.

Unfortunately I had somewhat alienated Juric after forgetting I’d promised to strengthen the midfield. It was still difficult to attract ready-made talent to the club, but in desperation I spent most of my transfer budget on three midfielders, including £1m for Maribor’s young defensive midfielder Ermin Kocuvan, who I’d had on loan at Gorica. The more creative Mattias Kait and Emir Saitoski, Estonian and Macedonian internationals respectively, came in for a combined cost of £1.25m, and that left the club's coffers empty. If Juric was happy, I was happy; and he was.

The first leg against Dinamo came very early, at the start of July. Too early for my team, perhaps. We went down 3-2, giving us a mountain to climb in Zagreb. 

At half-time in the second leg, we were 3-2 up, levelling the tie on aggregate. I didn’t know whether to stick or twist. In the end Dinamo’s pedigree shone through, as they came back to beat us 4-3 and progress 7-5 on aggregate.

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A bitter disappointment from our first taste of Champions League football. Nonetheless I had a good idea of the standard required from now on, and we would be back with a vengeance very soon.

Europe was still a success for us on the whole, as we traversed Euro II Cup qualifying rounds against Alashkert, Sarajevo and Laci to find ourselves pitted against Ludogorets, Willem II and Wolves in the group stages. A 7-0 thrashing at Molineux aside (again a timely reminder of where we were in the European pecking order, despite progress on the domestic scene) we came 2nd in the group. 

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The knockouts led us to a familiar foe - Dinamo Zagreb.

It would be nice to tell a story of revenge, but we were beaten again, this time 5-3 on aggregate.

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Nonetheless, the above European campaign could be taken as a clear indicator of progress from last season, and we were advancing in other areas too. The European run had beefed up our level of reserves to about £3m. Not a huge amount, but a nice pot to spend for a Slovenian club.

Meanwhile, in my first season, Celje’s average attendance was just over 1,000. Now it was touching 2,500. And young players were coming through the system and contributing. This season saw the debut of Romanian AML Nicu Mitrea, who would soon attract the interest of Europe’s biggest clubs, and the arrival of MC/AMC Sandi Fink, who would become a first-teamer at the age of 17.

This season, however, was all about one man.

Juric.png

Toni Juric scored an unbelievable 60 goals - including 40 in the league, and 16 in Europe - as we retained the First League title, again by a huge 21 point margin.

Juric’s pace and composure helped him when getting in behind slower defences, but he was also lethal in the box at set pieces thanks to his bravery and off the ball attributes.

He was an absolute beast. I was looking forward to years of basing my team around Juric. Just as soon as I got him to sign a new contract and remove that £750k release clause...

 

Next chapter: 2028-29 | Life after love

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2028-29 | Life after love

 

Juric wouldn’t sign a new deal, of course. Despite our slight upturn in financial health, our wage offering was still maxing out at £2k. Al-Ittihad came in with the £750k and offered him £30k per week. I couldn’t blame him. But it was deeply dismaying, especially as I thought it would set back our progress significantly - we’d managed to replace a 36-goal-a-season striker, but that surely wasn’t possible with 60 goals.

I used £700k of that money to sign two promising strikers. One from Rudar Velejne in the Second League, the 20-year-old Robert Kozar, and a Georgian 17-year-old named Georgi Zarnadze. Kozar was more of a classic penalty box striker, while Zarnadze’s pace and composure made him the ideal long-term replacement for Juric, I thought.

I had also been learning about the importance of player personalities (remember, I hadn't played FM for about six years!) When I looked back at my transfers (In) in hindsight, I wasn’t blown away by my amazing scouting abilities - I was surprised at the amount of transfers that didn’t work out because the players didn’t develop. I had a dim idea of how to utilise training and mentoring groups to expedite development, but I hadn’t known that even with all of that, some players just won’t make it and should be avoided - no matter what your scouts tell you about their potential ability.

With that in mind, I spent £375k on the Polish ‘model citizen’ central defender Jan Sobocinski, a reasonable player but more for his influence on younger players. We also brought in two loanees from the Dinamo side who had downed us in Europe last year; AML Zdravko Roginic and playmaker Anel Basic

 

A bananas season: Part I

I wasn’t sure we could negotiate all four rounds of the Champions League qualifying path, but I was confident we could overcome the first opponent when we avoided another tricky, Dinamo-style tie. We were drawn against Alashkert, the Armenian side we had beaten comfortably in last season’s Euro II Cup qualifiers. The confidence was rewarded with a 10-1 aggregate thrashing.

 

alashkert.png

The draw for the next round, however, was hugely challenging.

 

Red Star Belgrade.

 

I had thought we had been unfortunate with Dinamo, but Red Star? Actual former European Champions.

 

In an even, gritty first leg in front of nearly 5,000 home Celje fans, an 88th minute header from local boy Koritnik gave us a slender 1-0 advantage to take to Belgrade.

 

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I wasn't celebrating though. Red Star had a very strong squad and a wage budget that dwarfed ours. They were still heavy favourites.

 

The tension was palpable throughout the second leg and their fans were baying for blood, but my plucky Slovenian side put in an "Inter at the Nou Camp circa 2010"-style rearguard action that would push them all the way.

On 61 minutes, Red Star had the ball in the net, but it went to VAR and was disallowed.

Finally, on 84 minutes, they got one that did count.

1-0.

I was devastated.

1-0 on the night, 1-1 on aggregate. My team had performed above itself to keep them out until then, and I was sure Red Star would make home advantage count in extra time.

Would we even get that far? A highlight started in the 94th minute. Our throw-in.

The ball was crossed, too deep. Striker Robert Kozar tries to turn away from the Red Star full-back and… tumbles.

 

PENALTY! PENALTY TO CELJE!

 

My fists are in the air at this point. Red Star are finished.

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Koritnik, hero from the first leg steps up and…

I can’t believe it.

I cannot believe it.

He’s hit the post.

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For a second, Koritnik stands there. I’m imagining his head is down and he’s thinking about the headlines in tomorrow’s EkipaSN. “KORITNIK LETS US ALL DOWN”.

 

But is it about to actually get worse? Red Star are breaking… it’s cleared.

 

Hold on.

 

Kozar lays it back to midfielder Emir Saitoski, who chips it over the top of the Red Star defence… 

 

Kozar latches onto it…

 

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1-1.

 

2-1 Celje on aggregate.

 

You could hear a pin drop in Belgrade.

 

We’re through.

 

I’m going f***ing mental in my home office.

 

—-

The third qualifying round was against Qarabag. I wasn’t sure what to expect but thought it couldn’t be harder than Red Star, so I was confident. And through we went, 9-4 on aggregate.

 

Our final step was the playoff. This, I was sure, would be difficult. There were no easy teams left. We were drawn against Molde, who I knew would be defensively and physically strong.

Just like the Red Star tie, this was a tense and nervy affair. A very creditable 0-0 draw in Norway gave us something to build from at home.

A win and my little Slovenian side would be in the Promised Land of the Champions League group stages. A loss or a score draw and we’d have to face another year of Euro II Cup football.

70 minutes into the second leg, the Z’dezele was rocking. A Molde own goal put us 1-0 up.

In the 96th minute, local teenager Jure Kotnik smashed in a half-volley to finish the job.

 

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2-0. We were off to the group stages.

 

Everything would change, forever.

 

—- 

 

My eyes nearly popped out of my head when I saw that we got the best part of £14m for qualifying for the group stages. Our balance had been hovering around £1-3m since I arrived. Celje had been able to have only a handful of scouts and coaches. We had only been able to offer players up to around £2k per week. This windfall was to be absolutely transformational for the club.

But the excitement hadn't even really started.

The town was (probably) abuzz when the day of the draw came around. Who would we be welcoming to our little Slovenian club? The draw was spectacular.

 

Group G:

CHELSEA

REAL MADRID

JUVENTUS*

NK CELJE

(*Juventus, at this stage, were the European Champions and managed by Pep Guardiola).

 

What a draw. Hard to decide whether it couldn’t be worse, or couldn’t be better.

Next chapter: A bananas season | Part II

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2028-29 | A bananas season | Part II

Let's be real for a moment.

Why do we play this game? I have been reading some of the other career updates in this forum and they are ludicrously impressive. All the youth-only challenges, the building a nation with San Marino. I couldn't have a career like that, though.

I wouldn't say I play "for fun" either, though this career was a lot of fun in its own right. I actually picked up FM again after six years away because some things had happened in my professional life (nothing too terrible) that meant I was not feeling in control. I have two young children and not a lot of free time, so a five-decade nation building challenge wouldn't be for me anyway. But for a couple of hours every evening I was able to create a world I was in control of, at least to some degree. It's no substitute for sorting your **** out, of course, but it's a little something you can do. A little pressure relief valve. That's why this career story is so granular, so focused on individual games. It's because, to me, these games were real. 

During those evening hours, I wasn't just a tired dad spending a bit longer in his home office.

I was Santiago Castillo, a Spanish tactician unaccountably changing the course of Slovenian football.

And tonight, I was welcoming a compatriot - a man named Josep Guardiola Sala and his European Champions Juventus - to NK Celje's little stadium for our first ever Champions League group game.

---

It was a tad under eight years since I picked up my first appointment, as manager of Primorje. Eight years had led to this moment (don't be unkind - I was a learner manager) and almost 12,000 fans packed into the Z'dežele, including 3,500 away fans, to witness this historic match.

I expected Guardiola's side to absolutely batter us. I set up to defend, and not even counter-attack. I was on damage limitation mode only and thought, at best, we might be able to scrape a 0-0.

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The scummiest wins are the best, aren't they?

An absolutely disgraceful goal by Zdravko Roginic, on loan from Dinamo, gave us the lead. A towering header from a set-piece made it 2-0, and though Juve hammered at the door for the rest of the game, we somehow survived with a glorious three points.

After this game, I thought, "hmm. Maybe we're not that far off after all. Maybe this game is actually pretty easy."

 

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Ah.

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Well. Nevertheless.

We lost every single other game and finished at the bottom of Group G. But an extra £2.5m-ish from that win against Juventus was a nice bonus and, frankly, we were just happy to be there.

---

The group stage prize money enabled me to start the process of upgrading the club's facilities. I think this cost about £3m at first, and £1.8m to do the same for the youth facilities. At the end of the season, I would also be able to expand our scouting network, which would be an absolutely huge leap forward for the club.

In the meantime, however, the European adventure was over for another year, and we needed to retain our stranglehold over the league title or we wouldn't be back in the Champions League next year at all. But that should have been a simple task, given that we'd won the First League by 21 points for the last two seasons in a row.

Actually, we cut it rather fine.

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Our domestic form dropped off dramatically as a result of our European adventure. Or was it just a result of the loss of a 60-goal striker?

Although Toni Juric's replacements Robert Kozar (20-year-old Slovenian) and Georgi Zarnadze (17-year-old Georgian) both managed reasonable hauls of 21 and 18 goals respectively, they weren't... well they just weren't him. But it's unfair to constantly compare new people to exes. No, neither of them were ready to become our main goal threat, but we also just didn't have a deep enough squad to manage the intense Champions League group games on top of a regular league season, particularly after losing youth product AML Nicu Mitrea to Milan for £1.2m*. We had enjoyed a decent reputational boost, and with improved scouting and training facilities, I was confident that I would spend the remainder of our Champions League money well enough to fight more effectively on two fronts in 2029-30.

Wrong. It would only get harder.

*Mitrea was a 5-star potential inverted winger and I was furious to lose him for so little, but he was throwing his toys out of the pram and had to go. Instead I thought I was being very clever in insisting on a 40% sell-on clause at least. Mitrea would ossify in Milan's reserves and they released him on a free transfer after 0 appearances in four years. D'oh.

Next chapter: 2029-30 | Blargh in Prague

 

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Thank you @maxtothemax!

---

2029-30 | Blargh in Prague

When I fired this save up for the first time, I didn't have any particular aims or objectives. Just while away a few evenings, really. It started as a kind of journeyman save, hopping between three clubs in the first four seasons - and not all of the hops were voluntary.

After five seasons at NK Celje, I was at a crossroads. Having taken this little club to the group stages of the Champions League, where we had beaten Juventus, my reputation was sufficient that i was linked with a few bigger jobs. I had loaded up the Croatian and Hungarian leagues with the intention of winning my way up the European pecking order.

But five years in, that option was immaterial. Celje had their claws into me. I'd just improved the training and youth facilities. Was I not going to stick around to reap the benefits of that? Especially when I was getting the hang of youth development. Especially when 17-year-old midfielder Sandi Fink had just established himself in the team and claimed both the Slovenian Player of the Year and the Slovenian Youth Player of the Year in 2029.

And although those training facilities had been upgraded once, we were still a long way off maximising our potential. Junior coaching and youth recruitment were both bang average. Santiago Castillo wanted this club to be as good as it could possibly be, and to do that he would need a few more seasons of that cold, hard Champions League cash.

I'm not leavin'.

---

The first job was to strengthen the squad so it was fit to fight on all fronts. I had a fair few million to spare after 2028-29's European excursions so I spent lavishly (for Celje), with about £6m splashed.

I was delighted to seal the free transfer of Anel Basic, a playmaker I had borrowed from Dinamo the season before, and loaned his teammate winger Zdravko Roginic again. Young winger Saso Putnik joined from Olimpija for £1.7m, and dominant central defender Christoph Dirnberger joined from Slavia Prague for £2.3m. I also picked up Camilo Saldarriaga, a 17-year-old Colombian striker, on a free transfer. His light would shine briefly, but very brightly.

The squad was strengthened in most areas, and we didn't lose anyone that important (although we said a sentimental goodbye to Gasper Koritnik, a long-serving unreliable goalscorer, as he joined Maribor for £900k).

I felt we were ready for our best season yet.

Nope.

---

It all started so well.

The real life me lives in North Wales, so I was delighted to get a Champions League qualifier draw against Caernarfon, who play about an hour from my house.

We recorded a 6-0 win at the Z'dezele before S4C live broadcast a cricket score at The Oval.

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Waw.

Ludogorets were then brushed aside 4-1 on aggregate. We were cruising. Playing a - still strong - second string in the league meant we were dominating on all fronts.

Then, in the Third Qualifying Round, we were drawn against Slavia Prague.

I'm not going to lie, I was confident. I was cocky. I thought they would be about the same level as Red Star, and we beat them last season. Never mind with this season's financially-doped squad.

First leg:

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Second leg:

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No. No, no, no no. I hadn't made preparations for this. Isn't progress mostly linear? We made it through the gauntlet last season, we strengthened, it should have been easier this time. We beat Juventus last season. JUVENTUS. We exposed Pep Guardiola as a bald fraud! We can't be out?! Don't they know who we are??

Worse was to come in the Europa League, as Ferencvaros unceremoniously dumped us out of that as well.

Less than one calendar year after giving the Old Lady a hiding, NK Celje were to slum it in the Conference League again. What do you even get for that? A couple of hundred thousand?

I'm not going to lie, Santiago Castillo was pretty gutted at the thought of an unexpected season without glamour ties. Without the big bucks, without being able to demand new infrastructure from the board.

I started to question whether this was worth my time. 

---

But I'll ask again, why do we play? I already said I like the escapism. I like pretending these games are really happening, that a tiny team from Central Europe really are crashing the Champions League party, and that I'm the one making it happen.

In real life, there are disappointments. So there must be in FM also. Otherwise the good times wouldn't mean a thing. And there definitely would be more good times. Not this season. They would come. But we'd have to work for them.

---

To salvage the 2029-30 season after the dismal European exits, and for the second time in my career, I decided to totally overhaul my tactical approach.

4-2-4 had been perfect for bullying domestic sides, but in Europe it had clear limitations. We were overrun and outclassed by bigger teams. Juventus, of course, had been a total fluke.

My problem is... I'm not a great tactician. I'm a bit of a trial and error sort of person. I certainly prefer attacking approaches, but I'm not particularly fussy how we get the goals. I hadn't heard of "the Gegenpress tactic" because I wasn't really on the forums at this point.

I opted to try out a narrow, short-passing 4-1-2-1-2, with mixed results.

I also made some important January signings, including explosive left wing-back Ivan Valenta from Red Star for £850k, and 19-year-old defensive midfielder Luis Eduardo who was released on a free by Gremio.

We retained the Slovenian First League, improving on last season by 8 points but scoring 14 fewer goals.

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We lost the Slovenian Cup Final 4-3 to Olimpija in extra time.

We were knocked out of the Conference League in the second knockout round by Werder, 2-1 on aggregate (certainly no shame in that).

The stars of the show had been Georgi Zarnadze, the now 19-year-old Georgian striker, who got 35 goals, and Sandi Fink, the jewel in the crown of Celje's academy, who bossed things from midfield. In fact Fink's performances were so good that he attracted interest from abroad at the end of the season.

fink.png

He was always a sensible boy, though.

---

Overall I wasn't happy with the season, of course. But there had been important lessons to learn. And the lessons would come in very handy indeed.

Next season, I would take NK Celje further than they had ever been before.

Next chapter: 2030-31 | Welcome to Anfield

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Yep, it definitely can @karanhsingh! Four qualifying rounds is a big ask for smaller clubs... well, some smaller clubs...

 

2030-31 Part I | Welcome to Anfield

It's March 2031. Santiago Castillo looks down the touchline and sees Jurgen Klopp, manager of English Premier Division champions Liverpool, shouting instructions to his players. Klopp has recently celebrated 15 years in charge at Anfield. That's longer than Castillo has been in management. As "You'll Never Walk Alone" echoes throughout one of the most famous and storied grounds in world football, it's a good time for Santiago to reflect on how far he's come since he was sacked by part-time Primorje, with whom he had been relegated to the Slovenian Third Division. Here he is, watching a club he has built take on Liverpool in a Champions League knockout tie. Yes, he's has come a long way. His team has too, in a relatively short amount of time. From being knocked out of the Europa League qualifiers last year by Ferencvaros... to this. Just how did we get here?

To get to the answer, we need to go back seven months, to the previous July.

 

Ruthlessness in the transfer market

After the disappointments of 2029-30, I decided not to stand on ceremony. We needed to cast the days of being hounded out of Europe by the likes of Dinamo and Slavia Prague into the abyss, and to do that we needed to be better. Much better.

In a deal symbolic of how the tectonic plates of Slovenian football had shifted since I joined Celje, I took Nace Kriznik, an already excellent 19-year-old central defender, from Maribor for £1.5m. Their days as top dogs were decisively over. The left-footed Kriznik would become a mainstay and icon of the team; our Maldini, our Kompany, our Rob Holding.

I also spent £1.6m on a 20-year-old Uruguayan striker called Pablo Fernandez from Nacional. Fernandez was outside of our scouting range, but as I idly looked through South American national teams' under-20s (naturally) I found I didn't need to scout him. Though lacking somewhat in pace, he was a ready-made superstar for my team.

 

Fernandez.jpg

Pablo Fernandez

 

We also signed the brave and determined central defender Mhlengi Moses, released on a free by Kaizer Chiefs, and spent another £3m on six or seven squad players. Out went plenty of deadwood, but also Georgi Zarnadze, who had scored 35 last season. I was sorry to lose him to Oviedo but the Colombian Camilo Saldarriaga, now 18, was ready to take up the mantle as our main goal threat. And how.

 

Shakhtar

The new lads didn't have long to settle in. In quick succession we would play Apollon Limassol, Flora and Ludogorets on our way to the Champions League play-off. We won the ties 7-1, 8-0 and 4-1 respectively. So far so good.

The play-off would be probably the hardest task of any qualifying campaign yet. Shakhtar Donetsk. Forget Dinamo, Red Star and Slavia Prague, all teams who sometimes make it to the groups. Shakhtar are almost ever-present. Grizzled veterans of the play-offs, the billionaire-backed Ukrainians would be heavy favourites. The first leg was in Lviv, and I wanted something to take back to the Z'dezele.

I studied their previous form. They hadn't played a game this season, but in last season's group stages they had played a 4-2-3-1 with three AMCs. I could see they were going to try to get in behind our midfield and flood our back line with their talented (and mostly Brazilian) attacking players.

I was desperate to avoid being dumped out before the groups again. I handcrafted the perfect tactic to counter this. With two DMCs, we would disrupt their intricate passing and launch direct counter attacks to our wings. We trained intensively on the tactic for a week, playing it in a league game and winning 4-1. We were ready.

Shakhtar played 4-4-2 and beat us 2-0.

---

I was gutted. It seemed a sure thing that we would miss out on the group stages again. 2-0 is a horrible scoreline. If they scored once, we'd need four. Once again, I wasn't sure if I'd bother continuing the save, because progress would be slow without that income, and the seasons are a slog without European football.

For the second leg, I reverted to what I'd started our campaign with - a lopsided 4-1-2-1-2, the latter '1' being an AMR and the left back a marauding wing-back on 'attack' duty. Ivan Valenta was that man, his pace and athleticism making him ideal for getting up and down that flank by himself.

Up front I paired Fernandez, as a deep-lying forward, with Saldarriaga, as an advanced forward. Saldarriaga wasn't as quick as our previous goal threats, with a pace attribute of about [14], but he was a lethal finisher and his movement was excellent. The South Americans would work together well throughout the season, but I knew I'd need at least one of them to be sharp if we had any chance in the second leg.

The second leg

Shakhtar2.jpg

lopsided.png

 

When I tell you we were on the pitch...

And to think. Shakhtar would have gotten away with it, had it not been for that Medellín kid.

Next chapter: 2030-31 Part II | Bloodbaths

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Thanks @deltablue and @karanhsingh!

2030-31 Part II - Bloodbaths

So we were back. Back in the Champions League group stages after one season away. Another £14m in the bank. More money for signings, yes, but the most important investments were in boosting our junior coaching, youth scouting and youth training facilities. I really wanted to bring through some more home-grown starlets; the young players we had been developing already were rapidly being outgrown by the club. I asked my board for investment in the above areas and they granted the request.

Champions League Group A

This is the crux of why 2030-31 was such a successful season, and yet it's probably the least interesting aspect. We were drawn in Group A with Napoli, Feyenoord and Slavia Prague. Certainly much easier than our previous group (Real, Juve and Chelsea) and while Napoli and Feyenoord are big clubs compared to little NK Celje, there weren't any real glamour ties.

The group stage would show just how far we had come, though.

Results:

31Slavia.jpg

Another European hat-trick for the 18-year-old Colombian.

11Napoli.jpg

Gritty point against Napoli.

30-Feyenoord.jpg

Sensational result in Rotterdam.

00-Feyenoord.jpg

Snorefest at home.

22Slavia.jpg

Progress to the next round is secured thanks to this late equaliser.

22Napoli.jpg

Dead rubber in Naples but a shame to implode at the end as we lost top spot in the group.

The final standings:

Group-A-203031.png

Amazing that Napoli and Feyenoord both failed to win a game, and we progressed with just two victories. We'd go out of later tournaments with more than 10 points!

So a massive step forward for the club, and another £8m in the bank for making it to the first knockout round for the first time. We were drawn against Liverpool in the next round, which was very exciting. The first leg would be at the Z'dežele.

Hereafter, this season is the tale of two bloodbaths.

The first was in the January transfer window.

It was all going so well

Indeed, too well. The performances of a number of our young players had led to attention from bigger clubs elsewhere.

Obviously the goal-getting exploits of the young Saldarriaga had caught the eye of a few teams. He had scored 29 in 20 games before Al-Ahli took him away for £2.6m (rising to £4.1m). We also lost a right-back for £1.5m, playmaker for £1.5m, young winger Pusnik for £2.6m, and our defensive midfield lynchpin Luis Eduardo to Manchester United for £3.8m. Christoph Dirnberger, a central defender signed for £2.3m just the season before, went to Al-Shabab for £3.8m.

I hadn't wanted to sell any of them, but the board overruled me at every turn. This was a moment of real frustration because our balance was already really healthy. There was no need to let all of these guys go.

I was rolling in money but that was no good if I didn't have a team!

massacre2.png

massacred.jpg

So this was all quite crap. But what FM player wouldn't secretly enjoy the challenge of spending ~£15m-odd on the best part of a brand new team, mid season?

My enlarged scouting network had been hard at work and it was time to reap some of the rewards.

In came:

➡️ Aleksandar Zagorac, a 6'3" 20-year-old Serbian AMC (£850k)

➡️ Zeljko Pleic, a 19-year-old Croatian playmaker (£1.1m)

➡️ Andrei Pasca, a 19-year-old Romanian regista (£3.6m)

➡️ Daniel Kovarik, a 20-year-old Czech DC/R (£1.7m)

Finally, in a fit of absolute pique at the loss of Saldarriaga, I recklessly spent an outrageous £6.5m on Antonio Fernando, a striker/winger from Flamengo. He was 18 and had never made a professional appearance. According to his attributes, he was fast and could finish. I didn't have the time to scout him properly before the transfer window shut but I needed a goalscorer, quick. I didn't even have time for a negotiation - I met his release clause to speed it up. It was an impulsive and emotional decision and a ludicrous gamble.

It paid off, big time.

The second bloodbath

It's March 2031. Santiago Castillo looks down the touchline and sees Jurgen Klopp, manager of English Premier Division champions Liverpool, shouting instructions to his players. Castillo is impressed by the German's drive. Because although he is passionately urging his players on, Liverpool are 8-1 up on aggregate. They have completely and utterly battered NK Celje.

The final whistle at Anfield goes and, though the score is 'only' 3-0, their level of dominance... well.

Anfield.jpg

They had a shot every two minutes. Our goalkeeper made 17 saves. The less said about the 5-1 defeat at the Z'dežele in the first leg, the better.

Nonetheless! Despite the trouncing at the hands of Klopp's men, and the ransacking of our squad mid-season, it was a very successful term. Progress in Europe, another straightforward league (see below) and cup double, upgraded facilities and, with the clutch of new signings, the squad is stronger than it has ever been. Our average attendance was 1,035 in my first season - now it's 4,282. Next season we would push it over 5,000. 

203031.jpg

Perhaps most importantly, we had Antonio Fernando up front. The £6.5m gamble netted 22 goals in 17 games before the end of the season, and next year he would be even better.

I now had a team full of potential, and a youth system which was ready to start spewing out top talents. My key aim for next season was to continue to progress in Europe (making the knockout stages of the Champions League), but I knew that in order to do that, I was going to have to start playing hardball when it came to outgoing transfers.

No More Señor Nice Guy.

Next chapter: 2031-32 | Battering in Belgrade

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2031-32 | Battering in Belgrade

Cards on the table. The achievements in this career don't match up to some of the others in this forum. But I'm writing it because it's a kind of final catharsis. This career genuinely helped me through a (slightly) difficult period in my life. Nothing too bad! As I keep saying. This isn't a mental health issue. That needs more than Football Manager. But just as I needed a little pressure relief valve in the evenings, FM was there to be picked up. That's why this career had a shelf-life, too. I needed it to pass the time. But it couldn't be forever. And I didn't want to set any wild objectives that might have tied me in for longer. It served a purpose - it gave me a little world to escape to.

The realism element, therefore, was important to me. Otherwise I wouldn't be able to lose myself. If I was playing FM to carry out some kind of technical experiment like a nation-building challenge, I'd always be aware it was just a piece of software I had figured out the formula to and was trying to manipulate. That's not to diminish that sort of objective - people who have done that are much better managers than me! - it's just not why I've played the game.

So that's why I never thought "I'm going to make NK Celje win the Champions League". I knew that would be achievable, because anything is in FM, but might take me another ten seasons or so. At this point - 6.5 seasons in at the club - our wage budget was still around £60,000 per week (despite having a very healthy bank balance of £30m+ at this point, my board would still not let me offer players more than about £3k per week). So it would have a) taken a good chunk of time to chase that dream, which would have made it a slog and less fun, and b) I think it would have made it feel less real. Because really, even with all the riches and time in the world, who believes a Slovenian side will ever be European champions?

liked the fact that my Slovenian side was becoming a fair-to-middling player in Europe that sometimes gave the big teams a bloody nose. That could happen. That was enough for me.

So I don't write this to document any great feat, really. Me and Football Manager just created a world that helped me a little bit and I'm writing this to invite you in - and add a full-stop.

All that said, sometimes a result did happen that stretched realism a bit - and I still loved it.

---

Summer 2031

So like I say, Santiago Castillo is six and a half years into his NK Celje adventure. The Spaniard's reputation has been growing enough to be linked to a couple of middle-ranking clubs in his homeland, but he's not tempted. Five straight league titles has led to him becoming a club icon, and modest success in Europe has swelled the club's coffers, to the delight of the chairman. Castillo uses the leverage to bend his boss's arm into doing this:

Facilities.jpg

So breath is bated for the March 2032 youth intake.

In the transfer market, I had decided not to mess about. I wasn't going to jeopardise my dressing room by refusing to let go anyone who was making a fuss, but equally I didn't want to weaken my team unnecessarily. I would be a lot firmer with the board and with wantaway players, and take it from there.

With that in mind, there was only really one major summer outgoing:

⬅️ Ivan Valenta (22, D/AM L) Al-Ittihad (£2.9m)

And only because I had a replacement ready to come in. Another explosive wing-back, another Serb:

➡️ Dragomir Perin (18, D/WB L) Red Star (£825k)

(I LOVE Dragomir Perin. Long-throw expert, bombs up the wing, brave, determined, high work rate - exactly who you want if you play without a left-winger and are heavily reliant on one player to do literally everything on that flank.)

I also raided Red Star for two more players; Stefan Mirkovic (AMR/SC) and Darko Rubezic (absolutely top class MC who I would retrain as a right-back with great success). Both teenagers, for a combined £5m. 

 

Results-wise the season wasn't that exciting, so I'll zoom through it, dwelling only on the two highlights.

Champions League

Last season I'd broken through the group stages barrier and been summarily sent packing by Liverpool in the 1st knockout round. This season wouldn't be as successful, but there were definitely some good bits.

First qualifying round:

First leg: Saburtalo (GEO) 0 - 3 NK Celje

Second legNK Celje 3 - 0 Saburtalo (GEO)

Second qualifying round:

First legNK Celje 0 - 0 Valur (ISL)

Second leg: Valur (ISL) 0 - 3 NK Celje (bit closer than I would have liked)

Third qualifying round:

First legNK Celje 1 - 0 Red Star Belgrade

Alright. So Red Star was my first breakthrough moment in this game, three seasons ago. We squeaked through the qualifiers against them, 2-1 on aggregate. Here, I was more confident but...

Second leg

Red-star.jpg

....not confident enough, it turns out.

Play-off:

First leg: Kobenhavn 3 - 2 NK Celje

Second leg: NK Celje 6 - 2 Kobenhavn (a.e.t.) Got very lucky here really. We were awful in the first leg and scored a late second away goal which was crucial in the end. Ran riot in extra time but we could easily have gone out.

The group stages

This was a really disappointing draw. For the second time, we got Real Madrid and Chelsea, though this time Ajax were involved as well. It was disappointing because I didn't see much chance of success (accurately, it would turn out), but it was also just boring. I'd already played Real and Chelsea so it wouldn't be much fun.

Results:

Chelsea 2 - 0 NK Celje

Ajax 3 - 3 NK Celje (comeback from 3-0 down)

NK Celje 1 - 0 Real Madrid | Antonio Fernando scoring one of his 50 goals this season to seal a famous win. At this point I was dreaming about making it through...

Real Madrid 2 - 1 NK Celje (progress; they beat me 7-0 in the Bernebeu last time)

NK Celje 0 - 2 Chelsea (progress; they beat me 6-1 at the Z'dezele last time)

NK Celje 1 - 2 Ajax (out of the Europa League as well)

Group.jpg

Disappointing in the end, but it was the Group of Death and always going to be very difficult.

The league:

203132.jpg

Another dominant domestic campaign as my asymmetric 4-1-2-1-2 continues to tear apart the rest of the First League, but an invincible season still eludes me.

Youth intake:

This was really what I had been waiting for. After years of Champions League prize money being pumped into the club's infrastructure, our first intake with maxxed out facilities was on its way...

And while it wasn't a golden generation...

Valdivia.jpg

Definitely a good reason to stick around for a few more seasons! The Spanish playmaker Izan Valdivia (who must have been subject to a hell of a sell from our Head of Youth Development to swap Logroño for Celje, Slovenia) was joined by another young overseas talent, AM RL Ivan Franic from Croatia. Both had 5-star potential and both would emerge into an already young team in the coming years. I'd have to look after them both to ensure their talent wasn't squandered.

Speaking of young, by the end of the season, this is a snapshot of the squad:

A-very-young-squad.jpg

A LOT of Serbs, but the ages were just ridiculous. My oldest player was 26. I made it a priority to bring in some more experience, partly because our reputation had grown to the extent that I could attract more ready-made talent, but also to look after the younger players in mentoring groups etc.

Next chapter: 2032-33 | Robbed.

Edited by mzeqiri
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10 hours ago, mzeqiri said:

2031-32 | Battering in Belgrade

Cards on the table. The achievements in this career don't match up to some of the others in this forum. But I'm writing it because it's a kind of final catharsis. This career genuinely helped me through a (slightly) difficult period in my life. Nothing too bad! As I keep saying. This isn't a mental health issue. That needs more than Football Manager. But just as I needed a little pressure relief valve in the evenings, FM was there to be picked up. That's why this career had a shelf-life, too. I needed it to pass the time. But it couldn't be forever. And I didn't want to set any wild objectives that might have tied me in for longer. It served a purpose - it gave me a little world to escape to.

The realism element, therefore, was important to me. Otherwise I wouldn't be able to lose myself. If I was playing FM to carry out some kind of technical experiment like a nation-building challenge, I'd always be aware it was just a piece of software I had figured out the formula to and was trying to manipulate. That's not to diminish that sort of objective - people who have done that are much better managers than me! - it's just not why I've played the game.

So that's why I never thought "I'm going to make NK Celje win the Champions League". I knew that would be achievable, because anything is in FM, but might take me another ten seasons or so. At this point - 6.5 seasons in at the club - our wage budget was still around £60,000 per week (despite having a very healthy bank balance of £30m+ at this point, my board would still not let me offer players more than about £3k per week). So it would have a) taken a good chunk of time to chase that dream, which would have made it a slog and less fun, and b) I think it would have made it feel less real. Because really, even with all the riches and time in the world, who believes a Slovenian side will ever be European champions?

liked the fact that my Slovenian side was becoming a fair-to-middling player in Europe that sometimes gave the big teams a bloody nose. That could happen. That was enough for me.

So I don't write this to document any great feat, really. Me and Football Manager just created a world that helped me a little bit and I'm writing this to invite you in - and add a full-stop.

All that said, sometimes a result did happen that stretched realism a bit - and I still loved it.

I can't agree more with what you say here. It's how I like to play as well.

And also, I think I love a good young Serb as much as you do ;) 

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On 27/01/2022 at 07:16, karanhsingh said:

I can't agree more with what you say here. It's how I like to play as well.

And also, I think I love a good young Serb as much as you do ;) 

Haha yes! Red Star and Partizan were churning out incredible young players and apparently quite happy for me to take them away for the low millions. Bit odd really, I wonder if it would have been possible if I'd had the Serbian league loaded up, or if they'd guard them a bit more jealously.

2032-33 | Robbed.

So I promised to strengthen the squad with some experience and good personalities in order to help the younger players, and that's exactly what I did. Izer Aliu (DM / M C), a 32-year-old Swiss international (and rare real player in my squad) joined for £750k from Zurich. We also signed 26-year-old Croatian right-back Marin Stimac, with 20 for determination, for £3.1m, and Maribor's driven winger/striker David Rozmaric for £2m as a bit of squad padding. I hadn't abandoned my penchant for snapping up players of promise, though, and added a few more teenage gems to the squad as well.

The only outgoing I didn't want to sanction was that of playmaker Zeljko Pleic to Man City for £6m. I couldn't do anything about that because he had a minimum fee release clause. That was something I was starting to be able to resist, however, and almost all my incoming signings were made without such break clauses in their contracts.

From now on, if you were coming to NK Celje, you were on board for as long as I damn well wanted you to be.

I reacted to the Pleic sale by spending a staggering (for me) £12.75m on Douglas Willian, an 18-year-old advanced playmaker (M / AM C) from Palmeiras. He was now the most talented player at the club by an absolute mile.

Douglas-Willian.jpg

The season

So the outcome of this transfer business was that we had a deeper and more experienced squad to augment the starlets that made up the bulk of the roster. 

I also decided to tilt the tactics into more of an attacking shape. I had experimented with three-at-the back in the previous season, and concocted another lopsided formation that suited my players' skillsets.

teamofseason.png

Three ball-playing central defenders progressing the ball from the back, fat little Miroljub Gasic (5'3" but somehow more than 11 stone) cutting in as an inverted winger on one side, Perin bombing up from left wing-back from the other side, Douglas Willian pulling the strings in front of two solid centre-mids, and the lethal Antonio Fernando getting on the end of chances... I tell you, this was football.

We started the season with a 5-1 crushing of Maribor, and scored 27 goals in the first six league games.

The league, however, was never going to be anything other than a canter. We could probably have played a flat back 10 and won that seventh successive title.

It was always all about the Champions League, and after the disappointment of finishing bottom of our group last season, I was determined we would get back on the horse and into the knockouts again.

One big benefit of our previous excursions was that Slovenia's coefficient had risen to the extent that we no longer had to face that gruelling 4-round qualifying process. We were straight in at the Playoff round, and this season we were drawn against Red Bull Salzburg.

We drew the first leg 1-1 at home, causing a bit of consternation here. But we got the job done in Austria - just about.

 

Red-bull-away.jpg

Phew.

We were rewarded with a very tasty group:

Manchester City

Inter

NK Celje

Dinamo Zagreb

Tough! But we started well:

intercelje.png

(Lol at that away attendance)

That point away to Inter was followed by an excellent result in Zagreb (banishing the demons of our qualifier defeat to them many years ago):

dinamo.png

So four points after two games... they couldn't, could they?

Well, that was followed by a reality check or two.

NK Celje 0 - 2 Manchester City

Manchester City 3 - 0 NK Celje

Alright. But we were in touch. Man City had won 3/4 so far, also drawing in the Giuseppe Meazza. As long as they could be relied on to at least hold Inter at the City of Manchester Stadium, progress was still possible. But we'd have to beat Inter at home.

NK Celje versus Internazionale (Arena Z'dezele | Tuesday 23rd November, 2032)

This would be one of those famous games you replay in your head in the shower. You can well imagine the raucous din inside our tiny little stadium in our tiny little town, taking on Inter in a winner-takes-all game. If Inter take a point, Celje are out. If we win, we can knock them out and progress by beating Dinamo, which shouldn't be a problem.

On 35 minutes, a free-kick hits the bar and the Swiss maestro Aliu knocks in the rebound. 1-0 Celje. We just need to keep it tight.

We keep it tight for so long. SO LONG.

Then, on 85 minutes, Inter equalise.

The atmosphere deflates.

untitled-design-7-3.jpg

 

But this is a must-win. So we must win.

I throw players forward. I give them words of encouragement. Time is ticking away.

 

Then on 94 minutes, it happens.

A direct ball forward from midfield, Antonio Fernando controls it and plays it across the box, and Fabian Gonzalez (a Chilean striker who never really got anything else right for me) slots it home.

2-1.

Bedlam.

 

If that's not enough, we then get probably my favourite ever goal on FM in the 96th minute. Boom from the left wing-back Perin. Right in the middle of the goal. Keeper's still shaken, obviously. Inter have lost their heads. Jolen Lopetegui refuses to shake my hand after my overzealous celebrations in front of the Inter bench.

 

3-1. Three points. We're still third in the table but we play Dinamo at home, while Inter are away to City. I'm already looking up who we can get in the knockouts.

 

Game week six

NK Celje vs Dinamo Zagreb

Manchester City vs Internazionale

A day that will live in infamy.

 

We made hard work of Dinamo this time, going down in the first half before another late show wins it for us.

Dinamohome.png

 

Huge sighs of relief here - I thought we were going to blow it!

The live table doesn't seem to have updated; it's still got us in third.

It's still got us in third.

Wait.

cityinter.png

You have absolutely 100% got to be kidding me.

27-4 on shots. Man City missed a penalty.

group-e.png

b4e.jpg

 

The rest of the season

Well, the league was a success as usual. More than usual - scoring 106 goals in 36 games was a lot of fun.

203233-league.png

The Europa League campaign after the Champions League exit was a disappointment. We went out in the first round to PSV.

 

Other business

I mentioned Jure Kotnik in an early post. He came into the team as a 17-year-old winger with pace and presence. These days he's 24 and not at the level we want to be at anymore - we bade him a fond farewell as he went to Saudi Arabia to earn buckets of cash instead.

The main outgoing of the season, however, was Mhlengi Moses, a South African central defender I'd signed 2.5 seasons earlier on a free transfer. Now 21, Moses was getting interest from China, but I rejected Guangzhou's £12m offer for him on the basis that I didn't need the money and he didn't seem that keen on going. However, Guangzhou kept coming back. And again. And again. Until they had reached a frankly ludicrous £29.5m. So I threw it to Moses and off he went; I replaced him with a £2.3m 6'6" Dane called Heino Gall.

I'd spend much more before the 2033-34 season, which would feature the debuts of my the two jewels of Celje's youth system (17-year-olds Ivan Franic and Izan Valdivia) and produce two of my absolute favourite games in this career. And it's one of only two seasons left of this story. So thanks for reading; we're nearly done.

Next chapter: 2033-34 | 14 minutes

Edited by mzeqiri
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really like this thread, i for myself am currently doing a journeyman-ish career in slovenia, taking over Bravo 

hopefully I can reach the same heights as you are

keep up the good work mate

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Thanks a lot @jackripperand @heutheo, I really appreciate your kind words!

@ the latter... Good luck! Bravo were major irritants to me a few times - one in particular. I'll get to them a bit later!

2033-34 | 14 minutes

Thomas Tuchel, Chelsea's absurdly long-serving manager, sends instructions that Jose Cardoso, his Portuguese deep-lying playmaker, is to come off. Calegari, former Real Madrid starlet, warms up; just a squad player these days but still a reliable option for the German. The aim of the substitution isn't to change this game at all; it's simply to preserve Cardoso's legs ahead of Chelsea's Premier League game at the weekend. The result here is not in doubt. With 14 minutes to go, Chelsea are 4-1 up in the Z'Dezele, home of the plucky Slovenian champs NK Celje. 

Celje's manager, Santiago Castillo, blows out his cheeks in frustration. This is the fifth meeting between his side and the Premier League giants since Celje first arrived in the Champions League proper five years ago. They have lost every one. The first meeting had ended 1-6. After all the money spent, the league titles won, the talented young players blooded, is this progress? Not really. Cardoso, a £51m signing for Chelsea from Porto, is earning about £200k per week - that's more than Castillo can pay his entire squad.

As Tuchel's side make the substitution, the Spaniard claps his hands and offers some encouragement to his side. The 4-1 scoreline is harsh, and perhaps they can still salvage a bit of pride in the remaining 14 minutes.

Castillo doesn't know it yet, but the substitution that determined the outcome of this game actually took place a few minutes before. In fact, it was a substitution he made. The introduction of Celje's 17-year-old winger Ivan Franic for his European bow, just weeks after his club debut, is what will decide this game - and herald the most astonishing 14-minute spell in Champions League history.

Transfers

In the summer of 2033, I sanctioned the sale of Aleksandar Zagorac, a hulking attacking midfielder who was great for chipping in with headed goals from midfield. He went to Villarreal for £4.9m. The rationale was that I was getting an even more promising and versatile prospect for £4m from Colo Colo - Luciano Sanchez (M/AM C / ST C), an 18-year-old Chilean who was a dab hand from set pieces. Further strengthening would take place mid-season, with £4m spent on tireless defensive midfielder Jan Inge Rostad Eriksen (25) from Rosenborg and a club record £13m on centre-back Dino Cvitanovic, also 18 but already a full international for Croatia.

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Cvitanovic, centre-back

So with all that money splashed, it's a good time for another stock take.

When I arrived at Celje in 2024, we had £1.7m to spend, and I thought that was eye-watering. Nine years later, my full spend over the course of the season would be £39.5m. We had more than £100m in the bank. Continual qualification for the Champions League group stages meant our financial growth was more or less self-perpetuating. Our average attendance had grown by 700%. We had won seven league titles in a row and single-handedly lifted Slovenian football out of irrelevance.

Our squad was the best it had ever been. I had two excellent goalkeepers, one a youth product. I had four excellent central defenders to choose from, and a two dependable right-backs. I had the explosive Dragomir Perin at left wing-back and a smorgasbord of silky playmakers in midfield, Brazilian Douglas Willian the most noteworthy. I had 5'3" pocket rocket Miroljub Gasic on the right flank, with the teenage Franic about to make his first professional appearance and start challenging for a first team place. Izan Valdivia (M/AM C) described by my Head of Youth Development as having the potential to be "one of the greatest players of his generation" was also waiting in the wings to make his debut (you can't pick players for league games until they turn 17 in Slovenia).

Franic2033.png

17-year-old Ivan Franic, AM RL, shortly after making his debut

Up front there were a few options, but none quite like the speedy and devastating Antonio Fernando. The Brazilian had been yanked from Flamengo for £6.5m aged 18. After scoring 72 goals in his first 67 appearances, Fernando had had a more difficult season last term. Perhaps I said the wrong thing in a press conference, maybe another manager said the right thing, but his finishing had been wayward in 2032-33 as he managed a poor (for him) return of 21 goals. He was still the main man though and I had every faith that he would recover his form - still only 21, time was on his side.

My board were finally letting me offer players more than peanuts to come to the club. Okay, £16,000 per week isn't exactly competitive in Premier League terms, but it was adequate enticement for a better class of player than we'd previously been able to attract. I took the opportunity to offer my best players new contracts - I would now make this a part of the process of keeping the team together, with new contracts coming every 6 months or so. Players were much less likely to attract interest if they had recently put pen to paper, and less likely to want a move if they were being remunerated handsomely.

Bar the youth products, all of the above players had been identified by our now massive scouting network. We had 15 scouts distributed over the globe, although with just three non-EU spaces in a domestic match-day squad, most of the talent was gathered from countries like Serbia and Croatia.

Our training facilities were now comparable with the biggest clubs on the planet, and we had 18 coaches to get the best out of them.

In short, NK Celje was still a small club, but we were now a big small club. We had great players, great facilities, great prospects, a great staff team (in number and quality), great domestic results... The only thing that was missing was great results in Europe. Losing out to Inter the previous season had been a massive blow, especially as I'd felt we had done everything right. In the end getting zero points from two games with Man City had cost us, but how could be we expected to better that? Four points from Inter and six from Dinamo was as much as I had felt we could achieve. I didn't think I could do any more. We'd now made it past the group stages only once in SIX attempts (losing 8-1 to Liverpool in the 1st knockout round in 2030-31).

This season, I wanted concrete progress.

----

Back to the Chelsea game

76' - 1-4

So looking down that Z'Dezele touchline as Tuchel made his substitution, Castillo felt pretty bleak. Yes, qualifying for the group stage had been easy once again (nice to spend more time with our old friends Red Star). Yes, this was only the first game in Group H. But with Juventus and Hoffenheim to come, every point was going to matter. And we weren't going to get any points here.

Then, something strange started to happen.

77' - 2-4

Just after 76 minutes, The ball broke free from a Chelsea free-kick in the Celje half. Antonio Fernando turned on a sixpence, sped past three challenges and scored.

A sensational goal, for sure. But too little, too late for Celje.

Except... hang on... 

78' - 3-4

More or less right from kick-off, Chelsea give the ball away again, and this time little Ivan Franic bursts into space down the right. His curled pass to Antonio Fernando is Beckham-esque, and the finish? My word. Talk about cool.

👀👀

What would you do? Go even more attacking or let it be? Your side has clawed their way back into the game with two goals inside 90 seconds; maybe your touchline shouts made a difference, maybe they didn't. Maybe Chelsea's substitution has disrupted them, maybe they're complacent. Whatever has happened, it's going the right way, so I did nothing and watched the situation dev-

81' - 4-4

AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHH

It's Franic, AGAIN, to Fernando, AGAIN

IT'S FOUR ACTUAL FOUR

What just happened?! Four minutes ago we were 4-1 down and out for the count. We've just absolutely run amok against one of the most expensively assembled squads in football history. Thomas Tuchel looks shellshocked. Antonio Fernando has scored a four minute hat-trick. It's the fastest hat-trick in Champions League history, and Chelsea have fallen apart.

But with nine minutes left, we had to be careful not to let them get their noses back in front - after coming back from 4-1 down it would be heartbreaking to lose it now. They look wobbly though, they look shook. A misplaced pass deep in our half gets intercepted by an inspired looking Dragomir Perin, bursting forward from left wing-back. Go, Drago, to the corner flag, eat up a few seconds! Drago? DRAGO???

DDDDDDRRRAAAAAAAAAAAGGGGGGGGOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO

85' - 5-4

WHAT. IS. HAPPENING????

Noises are coming out of me that I can't explain to my family. In the space of eight intoxicating, exhilarating minutes, my little NK Celje has flipped this game on its head with FOUR goals. And Chelsea are in the MUD.

And what a glorious goal it was by Perin, made to happen by sheer force of will as he sprinted 60 yards and smashed it home on his jackhammer left foot.

Now anything other than a win will be a disappointment.

And there was time for one more goal...

6-4.png

A classic 'big lad header from a corner' for one of my many promising centre-halves Eugen Obrenovic (in real life I am quite sure no central defenders would have gone up for a corner with the scoreline at 5-4 on 87 minutes, but hey ho, they were probably just following my orders).

With that, the rout was complete. 6-4. The entire town was in party mood for a week. Fireworks, street congas, the lot. Chelsea flew home in silence.

SIX. FOUR.

4-1 down, I wasn't seeing progress. Now I was. Beaten twice by City last season, hitting Chelsea for six this season - surely this was a sign we were heading in the right direction. But more importantly, what a game. What a f***ing performance from the lads. One of the ages.

SIX. F***ING. FOUR.

A few posts ago, I asked why we play. This ^^ is why I play.

------

While the rest of the group stages weren't exactly a doddle, nothing could really measure up to that extraordinary game against Chelsea (nor would anything ever, frankly).

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An absolutely superb point away to Juventus. Four points after two games - I'm definitely believing.

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Hugely frustrating point away to Hoffenheim! We were all over them, broke the deadlock late on but couldn't keep hold of the lead. I hoped it wouldn't cost us...

hoffenhome.png

Should have been more comfortable than it was in the end, but three absolutely vital points at home to Hoffenheim. Two fixtures left - Chelsea (a) and Juventus (h).

chelseaaway.png

Eessshhhhhhhhhh.

Well, here's the state of play with one game left, at home to Juventus.

1. Juventus - 9
2. Celje - 8
3. Chelsea - 7
4. Hoffenheim - 2

A draw at home to Juventus is probably not going to be enough for us, with Chelsea playing a very average Hoffenheim side. We're going to have to win.

Now, we've beaten Juventus at the Z'Dezele once already, but that was many seasons ago and, let's be honest, a total fluke. The draw in Turin gives me hope - I think we can do them. And, 70 minutes in, it's quite clear we need to, as Chelsea are racing to a 6-1 win away to Hoffenheim.

We're going out.

Until.

Juventushome.png

Obrenovic scores his second of the group stages with another header, this time from an inswinging free-kick.

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Through, above Chelsea and at Juventus's expense, as GROUP WINNERS.

Our reward? A tantalising return to Spain for Santiago Castillo, as we are drawn against Europa League champions Valencia... and if it were possible, it's about to get even more intense.

Next chapter: 2033-34 | Valencia

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2033-34 | Valencia

So after the second victory over Juventus in my career, we're going into the Slovenian winter break with a spring in our step. We're into the Champions League knockouts, we've won 18 of 22 league games, and life is good.

Unfortunately, Europe's big clubs came along in January to mess it all up. Well, with my help.

Douglas WIllian, my 20-year-old Brazilian playmaker who arrived less than two years ago for £12.75m, has been attracting interest. And why not? He's a magnificent creator, with 22 assists in his 47 games for us. I have been very particular about not including minimum fee release clauses for new signings in the last few seasons, and Douglas is no exception. I'm confident about keeping him. But he does, unfortunately, want to move, which complicates things a little bit. I decline PSG's derisory £10m offer (less than I paid?!) and he immediately initiates a complaint.

I basically said I would accept an offer that met his value, which I perceived to be around £35m. This really annoyed both the player and his agent, who thought it was insane, and I agreed to negotiate a price with them.

To this day I do not know why I did this, but I agreed to let him go if PSG offered £14.75m. I think I was just hoping to keep him happy and I didn't expect PSG to make such an offer.

They immediately did so.

I knew what would happen if I rejected this offer and I didn't want to risk losing the dressing room with a blatant broken promise at such a delicate moment in the season. So off went Douglas Willian.

What a waste! He was a worldie who knitted the team together beautifully. At 20 he had so much more to give. Instead he was going to go and blend in at PSG. It would be very, very difficult to replace him - I decided not to buy (because I couldn't get anyone as good as him straight away), but to give more responsibility to Izan Valdivia, the now 17-year-old academy product who had been tipped for great things. But in the short term this most definitely left us weaker, as did the departure of deep-lying playmaker Momcilo Rnic to Milan for £3.1m (though this was offset by other January arrivals).

But there was no time to mope. We had a Champions League tie to be getting on with; our first knockout game in three years, and one of the biggest ties in NK Celje's history.

Valencia vs NK Celje | CL 1st knockout round | 1st leg

I wouldn't say I was full of hope ahead of the trip to the Nou Mestalla (finally opened in 2025), but I wasn't particularly scared of Valencia. They were sitting in 4th in La Liga and had a budget 10 times the size of ours, true; but looking through their squad I wasn't scared. Managed by Gabriel Ivan Heinze, they had come 5th last season and were only in the Champions League thanks to success in the Europa League. In the groups they had overcome Bruges and Lyon to qualify in 2nd behind Liverpool, and I was given hope by their results, which were not particularly impressive - they squeaked through on head-to-head against Lyon. NK Celje, meanwhile, had battered Chelsea and knocked out Juventus, so I was expecting us to put up a good fight.

I did know one Valencia player very well. Pablo Fernandez had signed for Celje for £1.6m in 2030. The Uruguayan striker had stayed for just over a year, scoring 29 goals, before leaving for Los Che for £4.2m. Now he was worth more than £50m and enjoying the most prolific goalscoring season of his career. We'd have to be wary of him coming back to haunt us.

And what did this fixture mean to Santiago Castillo himself? Born and raised in Seville, Santiago had no reputation at home whatsoever until he started to land bloody noses in the Champions League from his base in Slovenia. Recently there had been talk about him taking charge at Athletic Bilbao but nothing came of it. Beating Real Madrid 1-0 two years ago had been a big moment for his reputation in Spain, but Celje still came bottom of the group and Real eased through.

So we kicked off with the Spaniard in the dugout hoping to prove himself as every bit as good a manager as anyone working in his homeland.

It wasn't to be.

.Valenciafirstleg.png

We lined up cautiously and hoped for a tight scoreline, but we were completely outclassed.

Valencia created hatfuls of chances. Of course Fernandez got on the scoresheet, albeit from a penalty. We were still in the tie thanks to a first-half set piece and a typical poacher's effort by Antonio Fernando. But 4-0 or 6-2 would have been a fairer reflection, to tell the truth.

NK Celje vs Valencia | CL 1st knockout round | 2nd leg (1st leg 2-4)

That first-leg defeat had started a run of six games without a win, the worst run in my career to date at the Stadion Z'dežele. 0-0 draws at Koper and Maribor, a 2-0 defeat at Aluminij and a 1-1 draw with Olimpija spelled a poor return in the league.

This was partly due to morale falling a bit, and partly because I wanted to use key players quite sparingly before the second leg. But this sticky patch was another factor that led me to believe we had our work cut out when Valencia came to town a full three weeks after the first leg.

So we had a two goal scoreline to overturn, just as we did with Shakhtar Donetsk not too long ago - we managed a 3-0 win on that occasion, and that was having lost the first leg 2-0 - so we hadn't had the benefit of two away goals, like we did now.

However, this time there had been a clear gulf in class in the first leg. A two-goal win seemed impossible. If we could make Valencia sweat a bit, that would be a success.

The fans, bless them, didn't share Castillo's pessimism.

Valencia-pre.jpg

I resisted the temptation to go all-out attack. In our position as the underdog, our best chance was going to be if we could keep things tight, go 1-0 up and then go for it towards the end. With that in mind, I lined up semi-conservatively, this time not relying on Dragomir Perin to bomb up the left, but to play more of a support role to little Ivan Franic as an inverted winger (he's right-footed), with the defensively secure all-rounder Darko Rubezic providing some defensive ballast on the opposite flank. Local icon Sandi Fink would flit across that space as a mezzala to provide some protection, and I was relying on Valdivia and Sanchez to make something happen for the deadly Antonio Fernando.

lineupvalencia.png

I love it when a plan comes together.

The first half was tight, as planned. Pablo Fernandez missed a good opportunity to put the tie to bed for Valencia, while our goalkeeper Zalokar made a good stop from a long-range daisy cutter.

For us, Fink headed just wide from a Perin cross, and a Valencia defender nipped the ball off Franic's toe just as he was about to pull the trigger from close range.

0-0 at half-time.

I told the lads I was pleased with their performance, and that they just needed to keep going. "It will come," I said.

Two minutes into the second half, it did.

Sanchez whipped in a corner, met at the near post by defender Nace Kriznik. 1-0.

Now we had a game. Now we were in it.

4-3 down on aggregate, but both teams know a goal either way could be a knockout blow.

And on 70 minutes, the perfect opportunity.

A long ball over the Valencia defence evades Antonio Fernando, but as the goalkeeper gathers the ball, the striker is bundled over by a Valencia defender.

Penalty!

The Italian referee goes to the screen to review it. Longest wait of Santiago Castillo's life. 

Confirmed. PENALTY.

Jan Inge Rostad Eriksen, a Norwegian defensive midfielder we had only just signed, steps up. The Stadion Z'dežele had been rocking until this point. Now it is virtually silent.

Valencia-pen.png

What do we reckon? Going in? 2-0?

Saved.png

Nope. SAVED. Valencia survive. Have Celje blown it?

The minutes tick by. The boy Valdivia has struggled under the pressure a bit, or maybe tried to do too much, with a 75% passing rate. He is sacrificed for the South African James Ntshangase, a bit of an oddball attacking midfielder but he's certainly got an eye for goal.

77, 78, 79, 80...

We win a throw-in down the right. Dragomir Perin goes over to take it, as he's our long-throw specialist, but instead of winding up to hurl it into the mixer, he plays a short one ahead of Antonio Fernando.

Fernando wriggles past the left-back, whips it across goal and...

FRAAAANIIICCCCCasgojnsdoignsadiogdosgnklx

There are LIMBS EVERYWHERE in the Z'dežele.

THE 17-YEAR-OLD HAS DONE IT AGAIN!

2-0! 4-4 on aggregate but we're ahead on away goals. CELJE ARE GOING THROUGH.

But wait, we've still got 9 minutes to play!

The remainder is played almost entirely in our third. Valencia pile on the pressure searching for a way to dig themselves out of their hole.

85 minutes, a free-kick 5 yards outside our box is dispatched off the inside of our post and is cleared. Santiago vomits on the sideline.

The wait for the final whistle feels interminable but it does end.

We've held firm.

Full-time 2-0

We're on the pitch again.

Valencia-post.jpg

 

NK CELJE ARE IN THE QUARTER FINALS OF THE CHAMPIONS LEAGUE!

 

Nine years after my appointment as the manager of the side second-bottom of the Slovenian First League, that same side was now one of the best eight teams in Europe. La Liga aristocracy had been sent packing by a Spaniard with his ragtag team of mostly 17-24 year olds cast off by bigger teams, and lovingly cultivated by a club that was growing all the time. This felt good!!! And this was probably an even more enjoyable result than the 6-4 against Chelsea. That was a bizarre match, a 1,000,000-1 shot. While exhilarating, it could be compartmentalised as a crazy one-off. Whereas this win over Valencia had been built on strong tactical foundations and an excellent execution by the players. This 2-0 win was, in Lynchian terms, the 'eye of the duck' of my Celje career.

The boy who landed the killer blow, 17-year-old Croat Ivan Franic, wasn't done with Valencia by far. Nor was his manager. But that'll be covered in a future chapter.

For now, we had a Champions League quarter final to prepare for. We were about to play a team who had a 100% record in the Champions League this season. A team who had scored 29 goals in 8 games in the competition. A team with both Erling Haaland and Kylian Mbappe up front, both still going strong. A team who took Douglas Willian off us just a month or so ago.

Paris Saint-Germain, welcome to Celje.

Next chapter | I love Paris in the springtime

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2033-34 Part II | I love Paris in the springtime

On the domestic scene, things were taking care of themselves. After that sticky patch pre- the second leg vs Valencia, the rest of our league results would read:

W 7-0

W 2-0

W 3-0

W 2-0

W 6-0

W 6-0

W 2-0

W 3-0

W 1-0

W 1-0

W 3-1

We won the Slovenian Cup final 5-0.

This was total domination. We had more than £100m in the bank and acres of wiggle-room in the wage budget. We were only going to widen the gap between ourselves and the chasing pack.

Our chief concern, however, was Europe. NK Celje were in the quarter-finals of the Champions League. We were already breaking new ground for Slovenian clubs. We'd sent shockwaves throughout Europe with a 6-4 win over Chelsea in the group stages, and then a 2-0 win to knock Valencia out of the 1st knockout round.

A bigger challenge awaited - PSG. The richest club in Europe and one who had taken one of our best players from us in January.

Would revenge be served at the Z'dežele in the first leg?

NK Celje vs PSG | Champions League Quarter Finals

I lined up in a similar fashion to the Valencia game, with half an eye on keeping a clean sheet and half an eye on setting our creative players free. 11,828 packed into our little stadium - more than a quarter of Celje's population! - to watch this historic match. It was easily the biggest match of NK Celje's history, and the same could be said for the career of the manager Santiago Castillo.

Castillo had masterminded sensational upsets before in this competition - could he now do the same to PSG? Surely, with their riches, that would be impossible?

Well... yes.

psg.png

Even in their mid-30s, Mbappé and Haaland could make mincemeat out of our boys.

We lost the second leg 1-0 to another Haaland goal.

-----

So where do we go from here?

Santiago Castillo has been in management for nearly 14 years now. That first job at lowly part-time Primorje resulted in a relegation and a sacking, so he can deal with disappointments. And, to tell the truth, I wasn't expecting Celje to get further than the quarters (although I did think we'd put up a bit more of a fight, particularly at home).

The truth is, at this point, I reached a decision. Next season would mark 10 years at NK Celje - and it would be my last.

The game had sunk its hooks into me good and proper. I started the career to help distract me while I was dealt with the fallout of some work things; it had been resoundingly successful in that respect. The work things were fine. I was loving the NK Celje journey and populating a rich second world in my head, in which I was a surprisingly successful Spanish manager in Slovenia, and the save was especially useful in the time of covid-related restrictions which made it difficult to get out and do much else. But it was enough already. I was thinking about this world too much. I was staying up too late (idiotic when you have young kids), often playing it when I was supposed to be redacted. It was time to cut the cord.

My 10-year anniversary at Celje gave me the perfect punctuation mark. After the 2033-34 season, my most successful to date, I would give it one more heave. I'd spend as much as I wanted to - hell, I'd spend as much as I could. I'd no longer care about developing young players - instant results were all I wanted. In my final Celje season, I wanted to get further than the quarter finals. I said I'd never set my sights this high, but...

I wanted to win the 2034-35 Champions League.

------

The 2033-34 league table:

203334.png

Won the league by 30 points, but still no invincible season!

Young-players-of-the-year.jpg

The future was looking bright, whoever Celje's manager might be.

Next chapter: 2034-35 | Finishing touches

 

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2034-35 | Finishing touches

Once more unto the Champions League breach, then. This time to win it.

Why was I doing this to myself? I had specifically pledged not to set myself any stupid goals. I suppose once I'd made my decision to leave Celje at the end of the season, there was only really one option - go for broke. Because what was the cost?

Maybe a better question was - why had I not been "going for broke" anyway? There would be no consequences to my spending big and bolstering the team absolutely as much as I possibly could. I had very large transfer budgets (admittedly smaller wage offerings). I could definitely have been spending more - much more - every window.

I suppose there are just different ways to play this game. During the long first nine years of my time at Celje, I was enjoying slowly cultivating the team. I was a soft touch really, letting young players develop instead of ruthlessly replacing them whenever a better option became available. My Wenger 2006-2013 tendencies coming to the fore, perhaps.

For the 2034-35 season, I decided to Mourinho up. (2003-2010, obviously).

Transfer business

Antonio Fernando - like his manager - may have now been a club legend, with more than 120 goals scored since joining Celje from Flamengo four years ago. But that didn't stop me from spending £12.75m on 20-year-old Mexican Brian Ulloa to compete with him, because when you're really serious about improving the team, no one is safe. "Kill your darlings," as Faulkner once wrote (though I don't think he played Football Manager).

Argentine right-back Grigorio Sica (£4.4m) took us up a level at the back. Danish midfielder Casper Bech (£5.25m) was a touch of pure class - hard-working but with a touch as smooth as silk as well. These lads really needed a lot of persuading to join Celje. Our wage structure went out of the window, and so did my principle not to make lavish promises or agree minimum fee release clauses. The priority was to get the talent in, then worry about the consequences later - for someone else to deal with.

The players kept on coming - a £700k Spanish left-back here, a £9m Croatian playmaker there, a £2.7m Serbian winger here as well.

£56m was splashed in total. We weren't messing about.

big-spender.jpg

The 2034-35 Champions League

So, what did all that spending lead to?

Was it worth it?

We begin in Austria.

The qualifying play-off was against Red Bull Salzburg, who we'd defeated at the same stage a couple of seasons ago, and my new-look team hit the ground running.

 

Play-off first leg:

RB-Salzburg.png

Play-off second leg:

RB-Salzburg2.png

 

The group stage draw, however, was tough:

 

Last-Group.jpg

Really tough.

I was, however, happy to have the chance to welcome Barcelona to the Z'dežele before I departed. 

I expected Barça to win the group. Lyon, therefore, would be our quarry. We started the campaign with a trip to France - it was absolutely crucial we got off to a good start. An away win could set us up for a painless group stage.

Imagine my disappointment.

lyonaway.png

This was a shocker. Despite all the investment, we played really poorly and deserved the defeat. Worse, however, was the fact that this meant that - if other results went as expected - we'd have to better Lyon's results against Barcelona to have any chance of getting through. Going out in the groups would be an absolute stinker for me - I'd thrown everything at improving the team after making the quarters, so to crash out in the groups in my final season would be wretched. And we had to go to the Nou Camp next...

Barca-away.png

Yes! An excellent, if undeserved, result. Good old Antonio Fernando with a brace, the second from a Stoke City-esque long throw into the Barca box. Maybe we would get away with it.

Next, a double-Danish.

kobenhavn.png

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We're starting to purr now, and Tony F is in scorching form with six goals in the group stage already.

Meanwhile, though, an absolute shocker of a result in France turned the group on its head.

shocker.png

This meant that Lyon, not Barcelona, were leading the pack with two games left!

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Has the phrase "delicately poised" ever been so apt? We now had two home games, vs Lyon and Barcelona, and we wouldn't be able to rely on Kobenhavn to get anything in their games against our rivals - four points would guarantee our place in the top two, and so four points is what we would target.

NK Celje vs Lyon

This was a masterclass. This was Castillo-ball. My lovingly curated side set about the task with vim and vigour.

As early as the fourth minute, Claus Bech received the ball 35 yards from goal:

ulloa-1.png

He slid a perfectly weighted, first-time pass into the channel...

ulloa-2.png

Lyon's defence is caught on its heels as Brian Ulloa races through... 

ulloa-3.png

...and the Mexican dinks it over the 'keeper for 1-0!

 

Thereafter it was an incredibly tight game, with both sides managing just six shots each. That is until the 94th minute...


I think you can guess how happy I was for a new highlight to start with this Lyon free-kick:

ulloa-2nd-1.png

But hang on - it's cleared, we're breaking, and it's two on one! Don't f*** this up, Petkovic...

ulloa-2nd-2.png

Another perfect pass...

ulloa-2nd-3.png

And down to Ulloa to finish again!

ulloa-2nd-4.png

2-0! A famous victory, we're top of the group and our destiny's in our hands. Another magical night at the Stadion Z'dežele.

Well, best not ask the fans.

fans-not-impressed.jpg

Literally one of the best results in your tiny club's history, but go off?

NK Celje vs Barcelona

The situation going into the final group stage match was clear. Avoid defeat and we were through to the knockouts. Lose and we would be relying on a favour from Kobenhavn against Lyon - the chances of which seemed vanishingly slim, with the Danes on 5 defeats from 5 so far.

I was optimistic. It seemed that almost every time we needed a result at the Z'dežele, the boys would come up with the goods. We had been outplayed in the Nou Camp but still managed to draw 2-2. With a better display, I thought we had a decent chance of at least a point against the Catalan giants.

But we really would have to be at our best. Barça had won four consecutive La Liga titles and were beaten finalists in last year's Champions League.

To add a bit more colour to the occasion, this was the first game after my 10-year anniversary with Celje! What a match to celebrate the milestone. A special little trophy from the board and fans were presented to me before the game (I presume) and Barcelona boss Hans-Dieter Flick applauded as I thanked the fans with an emotional speech (I'm guessing).

Everything seemed to be set up for another magical, fairytale night in NK Celje's little home stadium.

Were we about to cause our biggest upset yet?

 

...No.

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A gut-punch.

Unbelievably deflating. We were never in it.

I tried to stay philosophical. So we were out, and I wanted European glory. Was European glory not still possible? We would be third, and into the Europa League, and we would surely be one of the best teams in it. I would be happy with a really good run into the Europa League, actually.

Just as I was talking myself round to it, I discovered that there wouldn't be a Europa League run after all.

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M(iles?) Jacobsen getting on the scoresheet proves that the FM gods were smiling on me

You absolute beauties Kobenhavn!!!!!

A reprieve! Through we went with 10 points, in second place, and out went Lyon. Celje's - and Santiago Castillo's - dreams of Champions League glory were still in tact - just.

We were drawn against Real Madrid in the next round. I wasn't overly concerned, despite the name. We had actually beaten Real 1-0 at home three years ago, and lost the away game 2-1, in the group stages. Those results would see us through in the knockouts and we were much better now than we were back then. That said, despite Real playing second fiddle to Barcelona at home, they were the more successful in Europe, with two Champions League titles to their name since my career began. I knew it would be hard, but I was confident we could do it.

Other business

Our league dominance continued exactly as you might expect; we were well on course for our 9th consecutive title. Unfortunately, there was to be no 7th and final domestic double as I was dumped out of the Slovenian Cup with an absolutely ludicrous FMing @heutheo here are your boys:

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NK Celje vs Real Madrid | CL First Knockout Round | 1st leg

What would be a fitting end to this story?

A Champions League victory? A valiant semi-final appearance? 

Let's just rip the band aid off, shall we?

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Look, when you're Celje this is far from a disgraceful result. But when you want to progress, a 1-1 draw at home is far from ideal.

We recovered from an early lead - wrong team talk? - equalised fairly quickly and then missed a couple of good chances to gain an advantage before the second leg. To be fair, Real missed a few chances as well.

We now faced probably our biggest ask yet. Yes, we'd beaten Real before. Yes, we'd beaten Juventus twice, and Chelsea once. But all of those had been at home. Our away record against the really big clubs was far from encouraging. Generally these days, when we visit Europe's elite, we do ourselves credit but lose.

If we'd have squeaked out a 2-1, I'd have fancied us. But needing a score draw or a victory at the Bernabéu? A big ask.

Real Madrid vs NK Celje | CL First Knockout Round | 2nd leg

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We needed everything to go our way.

I lined up conservatively, hoping to keep the game tight and nick something.

The first half was definitely suboptimal.

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2-0. 3-1 on aggregate. Going home. Going out.

In the 68th minute, it was 3-0.

Game over, right?

But...

Then....

Something started to happen. Again.

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Ivan Franic, now 18 a full year on from his heroics against Valencia, burst into life in the final 12 minutes, scoring twice from inside the box.

Real quickly restored their two-goal cushion, but Antonio Fernando almost immediately cancelled that one out.

It was 4-3 on the night, and 5-4 on aggregate.

We had five minutes to save our season. Five minutes in the Bernabéu to find one goal and kick Real out on away goals.

I did everything - too much? Threw everyone forward, goalkeeper up for set pieces, the lot. I watched the last five minutes plus stoppage time in full, hoping to catch the moment of magic. We'd always found it against Chelsea, Juventus, Inter and Lyon. We'd always just about pulled it out of the fire.

We couldn't do it here.

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We are out.

We are out.

Celje are out, under Santiago Castillo, for the final time.

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I'm sorry not to have a happier ending for you.

Real Madrid went on to defeat Bayern, PSG and Manchester City to win the Champions League again. Is it some consolation that we went out to the eventual winners? Not really, but in pushing them so far I think we showed that we had built a really strong team with limited resources. I was proud of the fightback.

In the league, there was a nice symbolic moment which provided a nice ending to my time at NK Celje. A league title clinched in Maribor's ground, the first time I'd managed to do that.

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A European trophy eluded me - as did a f***ing invincible season!

At the season's end, I handed in my gun and badge. The fans were upset, of course, but I had changed Slovenian football forever. Celje were still behind Maribor on titles won, but it seemed a fair assumption that they would catch up. Slovenian champions were now just one two-legged tie from the group stages of the Champions League; when I took over in 2024, they needed to get through four ties. Indeed, First League runners up now got a crack at the Champions League (though none had yet made it through). The National team itself had benefited too, from my nurturing of home-grown talent; up to the heady heights of 49th in the world rankings, from 70th when I took over.

And really, even if I had not won the Champions League in that final "go for broke" season, I had actually achieved what I set out to do. I had created a little second world I could escape to during some cold winter evenings when I needed to go somewhere else in my head. Why I chose for that world to be based on a Slovenian football touchline, I'm not quite sure. Could it just as easily have been GTA or something? I don't know that any other game provides the full immersion of Football Manager. The level of detail, the layers of training, player development, tactics, communications, relationships you can get lost in. It's undefeated. It's the place to be.

I've got a new team to support. I've got Celje's results coming up on Flashscore (sadly they are rarely good ones). I almost bought a shirt. I still might.

I am sure I'll be back on the touchline soon. Probably not in Slovenia (I'm eyeing up a Kosovan league patch for next time, actually). Probably not as Santiago Castillo. Perhaps as the ruthless Serbian coach Milos Petrovic, or the astute Uruguayan tactician Fernando Rodriguez. Whoever the moment calls for. I'm looking forward to it already.

In any case - this story is actually not quite done.

Next chapter: Post-credits sequence

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