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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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