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[FM22] The Fourth Glass, Vol. III: Straight Outta Sagarejo


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June/July 2030.

With our entry into the Champions League deferred until the 3rd Qualifying Round, we enjoy a quiet 2 months.

Quiet, that is, until Matsil confirmed our hopes for the Academy. It's the best class we've had to-date. Hands down.

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Optimism abounds. Accordingly, the Board agree to further investment in Fabrika -- throwing another $4.3 million at our training facilities and youth facilities, in addition to further investments in our junior coaching and youth recruitment.

The only fly in the ointment? Macharadze's departure was accelerating, and he began to throw fits when we rejected offers from Diego Lopez's Perugia.

Accordingly, we accelerated our own plans to sign his replacement -- Sverirr Karason ($195k, Bredablik). While not a like-for-like replacement, my scouts thought he had greater potential than Macharadze, but our coaches seem to have a different opinion.

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Suffice to say, our coaches do not agree with our scouts' assessment of Karason's potential.

Macharadze departs a few days later, peeling out of the parking lot at Fabrika with Simple Minds' "Don't You (Forget About Me)" blasting from the speakers of his Volkswagon Golf. What a ****.

Life goes on. No player is bigger than the club. Except for that one lad in the U13s. He's never meet a doughnut he didn't acquaint himself with in the Biblical sense.

Though we have yet to claim a Davit Kipiani Cup, both the first team and the reserves are in the quarterfinals, with the reserves drawn against fellow Liga 3 side, SK Tbilisi.

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August 2030 - Champions League, 3rd Qualifying Round.

A variety of conflicting feelings swell within me as we land in Copenhagen. The local and national media ignore us, as their attention has been drawn to the dramatic rescue of a 30-something year-old Danish man, who had been locked in a basement by his (now) former girlfriend for years, subsisting solely on a diet of Nutella and Ramen noodle flavor packets.

While we have a job to do, I am captivated by the man's story. He was, of course, a Brondby supporter -- and thus the "good" kind of Danish. Not like these FCK supporters.

(Apparently, the girlfriend had been impersonating him on social media and in interpersonal communications after they moved to Dublin, while also working to build a social media empire for their dog. The dastardly plot was revealed only when Internet sleuths realized that in recent photographs the dog's festive Grundlovsdag sweater had been frayed in a deliberate manner, spelling out "halp" in Morse code.)

Clearly, our hosts are distracted by the man (who could be David De Gea's brother) and his plight -- we stomp them 3-nil in the first leg, and then 2-nil back in Tbilisi. (Our supporters' "bring out the gimp" tifo was perhaps a bit too on the nose, I must say.)

We are 180 minutes away from an appearance in the Group Stage. Dynamo Moscow stand in the way.

180 minutes.

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August 2030 - Champions League, Qualifying Playoffs.

Ahead of the trip to Moscow, Mat claims to require a stop-over in Helsinki after the match.

He's been internet dating again, it seems, and has tentatively booked a "date" with a woman claiming to be the Finnish Prime Minister, who wants to go clubbing. I can only shake my head, before insisting that he count his kidneys before the so-called "date," since this is clearly a setup of some kind.

All I know is that I don't want to get a 4am phone call from him when he wakes up in a bathtub full of ice. When I tell him as much, he just laughs, saying he used my picture on the app, to protect himself from that exact possibility.

So, of course I am not surprised when -- after a big 5-1 win in the first leg -- it's my picture splashed across the front of the newspapers, dancing with the woman who, as it turns out, was the Prime Minister of Finland.

Truth be told, I don't even remember being there.

That's how tired I must have been.

How tired I still am, after Mat's self-proclaimed "diplomatic mission" continued into the early hours of the morning back at our shared suite.

Ahead of the 2nd leg, I can't sleep. We're close to the Promised Land. So close. The reserves continue to impress, reaching the Davit Kipiani Cup semifinals on the back of a 5-1 win over SK Tbilisi. If our 2nd XI manages to beat Saburtalo in our own quarterfinal, we'll face them for a spot in the final.

First things first, however. Gnahore is unplayable against Dynamo Moscow, claiming a hat trick in a 3-nil win to send us through to the Champions League Group Stage.

Our reward? A $17.58 million payday. One that Dinamo Tbilisi also claims, after they successfully navigate the qualifying rounds.

We are drawn into Group G, to face Brendan Rodgers' Juventus, Didier Deschamps' Chelsea, and Valerian Ismael's Hoffenheim.

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I can only laugh maniacally.

We're ****ed.

And not in a good, "diplomatic mission to Finland" kind of way.

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September 2030.

Ahead of our debut in the Group Stage, the pundits are less than impressed with our chances -- we're 10,000 to 1 to win it all.

Mat, not being very good at math, is more optimistic.

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Brendan Rodgers' Juventus quickly disabuse us of any notion that we have a chance to progress to the knockout rounds, however, with a 3rd minute goal from Andrew Mpandle (who I would libero in a heartbeat) en route to a 3-nil win -- a match in which the Italian champions barely broke a sweat.

As the influx of talent at Fabrika accelerates, Giorgi Barbakadze and Giorgi Divali are the headline attractions with the unveiling of the Class of 2030.

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Otar Bagalishvili, Mamuka Mchedlishvili, Akaki Makasarashvili, Otar Gordulava, and Kakhaber Bidzinashvili round out the players of note, even if they do not appear to be on the same level as the Giorgis. Altogether, it is easily the best Academy class we've seen.

The other good news? Gareji will appear in a Davit Kipiani Cup final for the first time. The only question is whether it will we will be represented by the first team or our reserves.

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October 2030.

On paper, it is our best chance to secure points in the Group Stage -- in Tbilisi against ze Germans.

For more than an hour, we (barely) managed to keep from going under and kept within touching distance of a stolen point.

Until the wheels fell off in the last 20 minutes.

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We cannot complain. It is a "fair" result, given ze Germans' superiority on the night.

Ironically, we manage to set multiple, seemingly-contradictory records -- a record low attendance for the Champions League, while serving as our club-record high attendance and club-record gate receipts.

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October 2030 (continued).

Ahead of the Chelski match, we have every reason to fear Deschamps' men. But it is apparent they don't respect us. Which angers us. Motivates us.

Still, no one gives us a chance. They shouldn't. But therein lies the beauty of football.

We refuse to accept what is readily apparent to everyone. So when Iskakov bursts through in the 4th minute, riding a tackle before putting one into the back of the net, the pundits scoff.

More gilded words are spoken when Ugrekhelidze doubles our lead in the 10th.

We concede a penalty moments later, at which point the pundits proclaim the inevitability of our downfall.

But they did not count on Karason, riding the wave of adrenaline coursing through the Boris Paichadze, flying to his right to deny Vinicius Junior his due.

Though they manage to pull one back, we are not done for. Chelski may be snatching at their chances. But us? We are taking ours. Gnahore claims our 3rd in the 50th minute, as the ball spins loose from Mingueza's brutal take-down of Chigladze in the box. No need for a penalty. We'll take the goal, thank you very much.

Chelski pull back another, setting up what feels like will be an epic last stand as the visitors pour men forward in search of the equalizer. We counter and Aslan is taken down just outside the box. An opportunity to waste some time. Aslan proceeds to curl his free kick around the wall, only for Simon to cover...but he spills it, right in the path of the goal-crashing Jimothy, who has the easiest tap-in of his young career. 4-2. Surely, we've done it...

The ball is in the net again, mere moments later. For the visitors. But it is ruled out by VAR. Glorious, glorious VAR.

In the 90th minute, Gnahore slots a through ball to Chighladze, who fires home fr0m close range to make it 5-2.

At the final whistle, one thing is clear. We have been played off the pitch, yet we are ahead of Chelski in the only statistical measure that counts. An undeniably historic night in Tbilisi, before a record crowd of 6,037 (and record gate receipts).

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After 3 matches, we sit 2nd in the Group G table. Surreal. We need to enjoy while it lasts.

Because it won't last.

The Cup match with our reserves was equally surreal. We rest our 1st XI ahead of the imminent, back-to-back matches away to Dinamo Tbilisi and Chelsea -- accordingly, it was our 2nd XI and 3rd XI squaring off. Predictably, the 2nd XI are in control throughout, albeit complacent; the reserves, fight to prove their worth.

The 2nd XI prevail, 1-nil in a dire match, quick to be forgotten.

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November/December 2030.

November kicks off away to Dinamo Tbilisi on Matchday 33.  Win, and we can all-but celebrate our 3rd straight title.

Lose, and… Well, no need to think about that, yeah?

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Except, for the 3rd time this year, Dinamo Tbilisi annihilate us.  4-nil.  A savage, relentless beating that we have no explanations for.

No rest for the wicked, however, as we must immediately leave to face Chelski in the Big Smoke.  Though Ugrekhelidze and Keburia (deputizing for Aslan, who is out until the Spring with a hip injury) manage to get on the scoreboard, we are again savaged, in a 6-2 defeat.

The pain doesn’t stop there, though, as the 2nd XI proceeds to drop points away to Telavi on Matchday 34, meaning that we enter the final matches with a narrow, one-point lead.  (The good news is that the reserves win Liga 3, outright.)

Panic stations? Not quite. With the remaining schedule, the 2nd XI will either have to face Samtredia at home, or Saburtalo away.  We opt for the former, and are rewarded by recent Fabrika graduate Dvali’s first goals for the club – a brace, which not only confirms that we are in the pole position on Matchday 36, it also etches his name into club history as our youngest goalscorer.  

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(Dvali was fast-tracked into the 2nd XI after Aslan’s injury. The plan had been for he and Barbakadze to join the first team in 2031, but Aslan's injury forced our hand)

Following another thumping (this time at the hands of Juventus), Chighladze starts us off in the 6th minute in the shadow of the Mikheil Meskhi. Dinamo take an early lead across town, but we are relentless. And, when Saburtalo are reduced to 10 men on the stroke of halftime, already 3 goals down, the proverbial fat lady begins to sing. It's over. 6-1 at the final whistle.

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Ervonuli Liga? Our Liga.

Of course, there is still football to be played. Our first Davit Kipiani Cup final. And, away to ze Germans...a match which, if we were to prevail, would see us advance to the Europa League knockout rounds.

Against Dila Gori, we field a tired XI. They've earned this moment, and we have a week to rest against of the trip to Hoffen... Hoff... ...Germany.

We are not as dominant as I would like, but a 3-1 win will more than satiate our lust for trophies.

Temporarily.

We keep it respectable in Germanlandia -- a 3-1 loss, in which we took an early lead. But that's all relative, I guess.

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So Many Things Are Possible, Just As Long As You Don't Know They're Impossible

Season Review, 2030

As good a year as we had, there are warning signs. Dinamo Tbilisi will not simply roll over for us. And they took 3 wins from 4, in the league campaign. We need to up our game.

Iskakov's loan-back is over; he's off to Italy. Big shoes to fill, for Karaboue.

Apridonidze is also off, having refused to sign a new contract as anything other than an "important player" -- which he most certainly is not. Barbakadze will be asked to join the 2nd XI; a big step up for the recent academy graduate, but an opportunity I'm prepared to hand him, alongside Dvali (who is deputizing for the injured Aslan).

In the absence of European football, it should be a straightforward beginning to the 2031 campaign. Squad depth should not be the issue. Thus, we should have the freedom to re-shape the squad with signings, as and if necessary, ahead of the 2031/32 European campaign.

Not that we have reason to discard players -- the accolades flow fast and free. 7 players named to the Davit Kipiani Cup Best XI, with 8 named to the Cup's Next XI. In the Erovnuli Liga awards, Petkovski is named the Young Player of the Year, Iskakov claims the Goal of the Year, and 7 players are named to the Best XI with another 6 on the bench.

Goals for 2031:  Defend our Erovnuli Liga and Davit Kipiani Cup titles. Qualify for the knockout rounds of a European competition.

Squad | Erovnuli Liga | Transfers

Finances | Income | Expenditure | Reserves

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January/February 2031 - Odds & Ends; Transfer News.

The Board are in a celebratory mood after the dramatic finish to the 2030 Erovnuli Liga campaign, declaring their intention to expand the stadium -- by 284 seats, at an estimated cost of $409k.

I guess their enthusiasm has limits.

With the reserves' promotion the Erovnuli Liga 2, the television rights picture changes this year. The Erovnuli Liga rights rise to $227k per team (up from $193k in 2030), whereas the rights for the Erovnuli Liga 2 sit at $112k per team.

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We add two players to the first team squad -- Alain Fokou ($70k, Canon Yaounde) and Erekle Jalaghonia (free, Lokomotivi Tbisili).

Fokou will retrain as a ball-winning midfielder, stepping into the 1st XI to replace Iurii Iskakov, whose loan-back from Napoli expired.

Jalaghonia will play as the mezzala in our 2nd XI alongside Karaboue, with Gigauri dropping to the bench (and playing for the reserves).

Ucha Pataria ($35k, Merani Tbilisi) joins the U19s, and will retrain as a wide centerback in hopes of providing depth in the future.

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Gareji's 24-man first team squad, ahead of the 2031 Super Cup.

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With no European football to prepare for, we must entertain ourselves. Drunk on Boone's Farm, Mat apparently submitted an application to manage the Australian national team, even going so far as to call up the local football media (pretending to be me) and talking at length about my interest in the position.

Spoiler alert -- we didn't get the job. I think it had something to do with Mat bragging about head-butting a kangaroo in Macau over the Christmas holiday (which could be taken the wrong way, if not explained in context).

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We also spent more time than I'd care to admit debating Mat's "Ferris Bueller Fight Club" theory. He is adamant that Ferris is nothing more than a figment of Cameron's imagination.

"There's no way they could have done so much on one day. Not without the Dirty Dancing girl or Rooney figuring it out. I mean, have you seen the traffic in Chicago, Rezo?! The parade scene?! It's frankly ludicrous. Even for Hollywood in the 80s."

I'm not convinced. "What about Sloane? She interacts with both of them, and others, on screen!"

"I don't rate that at all. Cameron loves Sloane, man. Since she wouldn't normally pay him any attention, it is only natural that stuck in bed, feverish -- obviously delusional, if not homicidal -- his mind creates 'Ferris,' who is everything Cameron wishes he could be! All the implausible events happening, with the storybook ending for 'Ferris' and the girl of Cameron's dreams! It's a love story, man. Like True Romance, without the killing. At least, without any killing that we know of...and you can't deny that Brad Pitt is in True Romance, so it all adds up! Brad Pitt! True Romance! Fight Club!"

I just sigh as he waggles an eyebrow at me, like a deranged Carlo Ancelotti.

We've been over this. Repeatedly.

Point.

Counterpoint.

I'm beyond arguing. So, I say nothing.

"Rezo, you're not watching closely enough. The hints are all there. It's only when, in a fugue state, Cameron wrecks his father's car that he has to confront reality. 'Ferris' doesn't exist. He is a figment! An illusion! Who gives Cameron a life outside of what he perceives to be a dead-end, pathetic existence! But also gives him the courage to stand up to his father! It's all right there on the screen, man!"

There's only one way to stop this discussion. You can't talk to Mat when he gets like this. He's like a dog with a bone.

I concede the point.

Raising his arms in victory, Mat smirks and chuckles. I can't tell if he really cares, or if he just wanted the win.

Gods above, the season can't start soon enough.

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February/March 2031 - Georgian Super Cup; Season Preview.

The campaign kicks off with 2 straight matches against Dinamo Tbilisi, at the Arsen.

Our straightforward slate of pre-season friendlies has prepared us for the task at hand. In search of revenge for last year's humiliations, we go on the hunt in the Super Cup -- securing a 2-1 victory thanks to a quickfire brace from Keburia. It is of little consequence, however, in comparison to the league.

The media and bookies have grown increasingly-respectful of our talents -- Gela Keburia and Zura Chighladze are in the running for top goalscorer; Jimothy, Giorgi Mskhvilidze and Desire Kourouma are up for best player; and, Jimothy, Kourouma and Fokou in the mix for best young player.

We are 2-1 favorites to win the league, just behind Dinamo Tbilisi, with Jimothy, Mskhvilidze and Keburia named to the pre-season Dream XI:

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The supporters are lining up to see the three-time defending Erovnuli Liga champions -- we sell 537 season tickets, a massive 67.81% year-on-year increase from last year's 320 season tickets.

We do not disappoint, before a packed house on Matchday 1 against our title rivals. Another 2-1 win. A strong performance. With any luck, a harbinger.

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March/April 2031.

The most frustrating thing for Mat and I, in looking to improve the squad, is that we need to invest to get to the next level. I'm loathe to break our wage structure -- such as it is.

Yet, our new South American scout sees potential. And we can't help but take the opportunity presented to us.

The math is simple.

Luis Robledo, a full Bolivian international, arrives for $425k from The Strongest. His $5k/week wages are triple those of Karaboue, our erstwhile highest earner. But he's worth it, even if he isn't savvy enough to see the 3-year extension clause tucked into the contract. Regardless, he will step directly into the 1st XI.

Now, you'll recall that I mentioned math. And I take nothing seriously if not math.

The other side of this equation is Dinamo Tbilisi's dastardly, misplaced desire to steal Mite Petkovski from us. The same Petkovski who is firmly entrenched in our 2nd XI, with no likelihood of stepping into the 1st XI, sitting 4th on our depth chart for wide centerbacks. An initial offer of $600k plus future add-ons is negotiated upwards, to $1.8M ($900k of which is in deferred payments) and a 50% sell-on clause.

Translation? Dinamo are paying for our new centerback.

I am a math genius.

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Turns out, Mat and I may just be football geniuses, too. Except for that loss away to Samtredia...though, what if they're super-geniuses? That would explain it...

Or, not.

It's hard to say at this juncture.

Best not think too much about it.

All I can say for sure is that we've beaten our arch-nemesis, Dinamo Tbilisi, 3 times already -- in the Super Cup, and then twice in the Erovnuli Liga -- each time, by a score of 2-1, with a stunning free kick from Jimothy proving to be the game-winner in our latest triumph.

May says the repeated scorelines are just a coincidence, but I don't think he knows what that word means... I'm going to turn on Signs tonight, and try to get him to see the repeated scorelines as a sign of an imminent alien invasion. I figure I've got a 50/50 shot at it.

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May 2031.

The hype train rumbles on. We're in excellent form, unbeaten in all competitions over the course of the month, having not conceded in heading into the summer break.

We simply cannot allow our focus to slip. 10 points clear of Dinamo Tbilisi, with a chance to extend our lead ahead of the European qualifying campaign when the ****s come to visit in early July.

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June 2031 - European Review.

Like a cocaine-fueled, Boris Johnson fever dream, England come crashing back to reality.

In the Champions League, for the first time since 2022/23, a non-English side takes home Ol' Big Ears, as Julian Nagelsmann's Bayern Munich is clinical in the extreme, defeating Jurgen Klopp's Liverpool 4-1.

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2030/31 Champions League: Overview | Knockout Rounds

Massimiliano Allegri's Manchester City manage to claim the Europa League title, after an epic, 14-round shootout win over Paco Jemez's Hertha Berlin.

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2030/31 Europa League: OverviewKnockout Rounds

And, in the Europa Conference League, Lionel Scaloni's Levante defeat Hernan Perez's Neverkusen in a less entertaining, rather bog-standard shootout.

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2030/31 Europa Conference League: OverviewKnockout Rounds

In the active leagues: Massimiliano Allegri's Manchester City won the Premier League title, when Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's Manchester United were held to a draw at Old Trafford on Matchday 38 by to John Dahl Tomasson's Leeds United; Zinedine Zidane's Real Madrid reclaim the La Liga title; Brendan Rodgers' Juventus defended the Serie A title, in what was yet another photo finish; Julian Nagelsmann's Bayern did Bayern things; and, Mauricio Pochettino's PS-****ing-G did PS-****ing-G things.

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The Erovnuli Liga rises 9 spots to 43nd in the competition reputation rankings, right behind the Czech and Greek 2nd tiers.

Gareji rise to 46th in the club coefficient rankings -- sitting right behind Hibs, Partyzan, and Granada, 7 spots above Dinamo Tbilisi.

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Our Director of Football's reaction to the latest club coefficient rankings sent a simple, readily understood message to Dinamo Tbilisi. Real mature, Zaza.

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The Board are in the midst of celebrating the infusion of an additional $5.98 million from UEFA (our allocation of additional television revenue and coefficient ranking pool funds), when we spoil the party by insisting that they invest in Fabrika.

Drunk on grapefruit vodka-tinis, they readily accede once we promise them a Hawaiian shaved ice machine for the corporate offices. Further upgrades to and investment in the training facilities, youth facilities and youth recruitment are in the works.

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June/July/August 2031.

The best thing about Georgia's improving coefficient? We avoid the initial qualifying rounds in Europe.

This year, we will have a 180-minute playoff tie to determine our fate -- the Champions League Group Stage, or the Europa League.

Before we get there, though, we have 2-plus solid months of domestic football, during which our rivals will be facing those European qualifiers. At the outset, our academy graduating class again looks to be strong -- with a central midfielder and two forwards standing out at this early stage.

On the pitch, our quest for a fourth-straight 2-1 win over Dinamo Tbilisi hits a brick wall, as the ****s fail to score. I'll take a 2-nil win, though. After a narrow title win last year, we are waltzing away with the league, unbeaten since March.

Our success has translated into numerous transfer offers for our players. We've been working overtime to offer new contracts, engender camaraderie among the lads, et cetera -- anything to beat the vultures off. [Ed. - there has to be a better way to say that.]

Torino manage to turn Mskhvilidze's head after the Georgian transfer window closes in late July, and he insists upon leaving. We negotiate a total fee of $1.8M with a 50 percent sell-on cause, with Giorgi loaned back through the end of the calendar year to give us time to secure a replacement.

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August 2031 - Champions League, Qualifying Playoff.

With Mskhvilidze off, we make an offer on our top choice to replace him...only to see him choose Marseille. We end up signing our fall-back -- Hilmar Arason ($425k, Breidablik). An established Icelandic U21 international, he could be a monster in time.

The qualifying draw pits us against Kazakh champions Astana. A tie we can and should win.

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In the first leg, Gnahore has a night to remember -- 2 assists and a goal, leading us to a 5-nil win. He's having an epic year -- 26 goals and 10 assists in 23 appearances.

A 5-2 win back in Tbilisi (fueled by yet another Gnahore smokeshow) secures our passage through to the Group Stage.

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Ahead of the draw, which we've gathered to watch in the Fabrika auditorium, Mat insists that the players vacate the premises. "I regret to inform you, Boss, that a comet is heading straight for us."

I can only sigh. "We just went through this at Christmas, Mat."

"That was just a false alarm, Boss. The aliens were testing our reactions. They pretended the comet was real that time, and now they've perfected the launch trajectory."

"Any chance they're aiming to An**field, Mat? Do us all a favor, yeah?"

"You know who's not laughing, Rezo? The aliens. They revel in your mockery. How easily you let your guard down."

"You're not an astronomer, Mat."

"I built my own telescope!"

"Out of a Pringles can."

"That's irrelevant!"

"Your sour cream and onion breath begs to differ."

"YOU... YOU... YOU BEG TO DIFFER!!!"

It went downhill from there.

As a 4th seed, perhaps the blissful eternity of instant death would be preferred to the likely humiliations we face if the draw goes poorly.

When the 4th seems came around, I found myself hoping for Group F...only to find ourselves in Group B with: (1) Julian Nagelsmann's Bayern (the defending champions); (2) Inter, led by Sir Pep the Bald, First of His Name, the Once and Future King of Stockport and ertswhile Earl of the Blackpool Central Pier; and (3) Dynamo Kiev.

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While we have no chance to finish above ze Germans and their Italian conspirators, I'd like to think we can beat the Ukrainians. Passage through to the Europa League knockout rounds would be welcome.

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September 2031.

The big test comes on Matchday 1, away to Dynamo Kiev. Win, and we're on the path towards the Europa League knockout rounds.

Keburia gets us started in 5th minute, and we don't let up. 5-1. In this run of form, anything seems possible.

The academy class doesn't objectively meet the lofty promise of June, but perhaps our expectations are too high.

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The best players appear to be Tsotne Gogochuri, Giorgi Khardzeishvili (who has the six o'clock shadow of a man twice his age), Imeda Khobakhidze, Shota Sulaberidze and Gocha Guruli.

On the verge of securing the league title, with the reserves on the verge of winning the Erovnuli Liga 2, the inevitable happens -- for the second straight year, we will face each other in the Davit Kipiani Cup semifinals. They've been drawn as the home side. So, they've got that going for them.

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October 2031.

The big European matches arrive. We host ze Germans and then the Italians in Tbilisi. Nagelsmann's Bayern annihilate us, 5-2, as expected, in front of a record crowd of 15,593 (generating $550k in gate receipts). We give Pep's Inter a massive scare -- but only after they hit the post twice in the first 10 minutes, , but at the end of the day their quality sees them claim a late 4-2 win.

Domestically, the reserves claim the Liga 2 title before a valiant rearguard action in the Cup semifinals sees the first team claim its spot in the final, with a 2-nil win.

Mat created an army of sock puppet accounts on twitter to harass Yuriy Vernydub, whose position with the Georgian national team remains insecure. The Crusaders aren't underperforming, per se, but were long since eliminated from contention in the Euro qualifiers. It's time for change. And we're ready to run fast and break things on the international stage. If not with the Crusaders, with someone else.

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November/December 2031.

Though we are well and truly outmatched in Milan, a 1-nil loss is a scoreline we can be proud of.

In Tbilisi on Matchday 5, we annihilate the Ukrainians 6-1 to guarantee passage through to the Europa League knockout rounds and give us a glimmer of hope -- albeit little more than a faint shimmer -- of finishing second. Premised, of course, on the hapless Ukrainians beating Milan, and us defeating ze Germans in Munich.

Surprising no one, neither happens. Nagelsmann's Bayern romp in a 4-1 loss, a performance befitting the defending champions. We may be out of the Champions League, but we will be playing European football after New Year's.

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There Is No Finish Line

Season Review, 2031

Erovnuli Liga champions for the 4th year running. A second straight domestic treble. With our reserves romping the Erovnuli Liga 2 and -- for the second straight year -- reaching Davit Kipiani Cup semifinals.

Collectively, we are a force to be reckoned with. Individually, a flood of accolades wash over us.

Divali claims the Jughashvili medal, continuing our stranglehold on the award.

We place 6 players in the Davit Kipiani Cup Best XI, 8 players in the Davit Kipiani Cup Next XI, 10 players into the Erovnuli Liga 2 Best XI, and an additional 8 players in the Erovnuli Liga Best XI.

In the Erovnuli Liga 2 awards, Kublashvili claims the Golden Glove, and Vashakidze wins the Goal of the Year, while Esoyan runs away with both the Young Player of the Year and Player of the Year.

Not to be outdone, Jimothy claims the Erovnuli Liga Player of the Year and Young Player of the Year, with Gnahore taking home both the Golden Boot and Foreign Player of the Year (ahead of Robledo). Karason takes home the Golden Glove.

Rounding out what has been an immense campaign, Jimothy secures the biggest accolades on offer for a Georgian player -- the GFF Player of the Year and GFF Young Player of the Year.

Caught up in the hype surrounding Dvali and Barbakadze's fast-track to the first team (and drunk on cheap champagne), the Board readily agree to further investment in our training facilities, youth facilites, and youth recruitment. More to the point, the stories about modest expansion of the Arsen prove unfounded, as we will nearly double our capacity, to 3,609.

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It will mean playing our home matches at the Mikheil Meskhi for a time -- less than ideal for our supporters, in the short-term, but a good long-term investment. In theory.

There can be no complacency. No lowering of our gaze towards an artificial horizon. We have no choice but to continue to build on our success, and to look beyond the horizon. Not literally. That would be impossible. Figuratively.

The media keep linking us with international appointments -- thanks in no small part to Mat's efforts to stoke that particular fire. With any luck, something will crop up.

Goals for 2032:  Win the lot, domestically. Not embarrass ourselves in the 2031/32 Europa League knockout rounds. Qualify for the knockout rounds of a European competition in 2032/33. Take the reigns of a suitable national team.

Squad | Erovnuli Liga | Transfers

Finances | Income | Expenditure | Reserves

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January/February 2032 - Odds & Ends; Transfer News.

Optimism abounds throughout the holiday period, kicking off in earnest with the Europa League knockout round draw, which pairs us with Jocelyn Gourvennec's Nice.

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Television rights payments continue their steady increase -- the Erovnuli Liga rights rise to $273k per team, with the Erovnuli Liga 2 rights sitting at $134k per team, up from $227k and $112k in 2031 (respectively).

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Other than the arrival of Hilmar Arason to replace Mskhvilidze (whose loan-back expired at the end of December), we have no plans to dip into the transfer market.

After all, why would we need to? The lads are happy. Content. New contracts have been handed out. And, we're winning.

The stars are aligning for what promises to be a big year.

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Daniar Omarov is allowed to leave, to make room for the promotion of 2031 Erovnuli Liga Player of the Year Harutyun Esoyan -- Omarov eventually departs for Stephane Dumont's Marseille, for $3.2 million plus a 50 percent next-sale clause.

We are thus prepared to see out the transfer window, secure in the fact that: (1) we have the financial wherewithal to resist the ever-increasing offers on the table for Jimothy and Keburia; and (2) their heads have not been turned.

In the last hours before the European transfer window closes, however, our carefully laid plans are torn asunder.

Jimothy is off to Jagoba Arraste's Monaco. Without warning. Without any demands from the player or his agent. Betrayed by Zaza, our Director of Football.

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I cannot blame Jimothy, who quadruples his salary and joins a club sitting 3rd in Ligue 1.

Zaza? Zaza, I can blame. He is sacked the very next day, for being a stupid, slapnut ****.

As if he gave me a choice.

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Given the timing, we are unable to bring in a replacement before the Europa League registration deadline. Meaning we will face Nice without our talismanic libero or a first-team-ready replacement.

Nevertheless, we dip into the market immediately to secure the signing of Umar Adowa ($95k; Hearts of Oak), a Ghanaian U21 international that we have long coveted. He is a bargain. An immense player with tremendous potential.

But he is no Jimothy.

And he never will be.

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February 2032 - Squad Review.

Having been suddenly and unceremoniously disabused of the notion that our squad was set for the foreseeable future, a full-blown squad review seems both prudent and overdue ahead of the first leg against Nice.

We are carrying a 22-man first team squad, with less depth in the reserves than we had last year. (Last year's depth was due in no small part to former first-team players dropping down to see out their contracts, as new signings joined the club.)

We continue to play PM Draugrson, the tactic originally developed during the beta and detailed here: The Night Is Dark & Full Of Terrors.

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Gareji's 1st XI, heading into the 2032 campaign.

Goalkeepers.

In between the posts, there is only answer for now -- Sverrir Karason, the man who was brought in mid-season two years ago to be our Number 1.

We have 2 capable backups in Arsen Sarkisyan and Mikheil Kublashvili (the 2031 Erovnuli Liga 2 Golden Glove winner). I do not expect either to truly challenge Karason for the starting position. Kublashvili is likely the long-term backup, but he will stay with the reserves this year to continue his development.

Defenders.

At libero, we have little choice. Adowa will learn on the job. As noted above, Esoyan promotes into the 2nd XI, but he simply is not ready for the 1st XI. If Adowa can adapt over the next 6 months, we should be ok heading into the European campaign.

Flanking Adowa in the first XI will be Luis Robledo and Vasil Mikeltadze. Joni Bebiashvili and new arrival Hilmar Arason are very capable backups. I am hopeful that Arason will develop quickly, as we need a better player to pair with Robledo if we are to make a push in Europe.

At right wingback, Desire Kourouma continues to be the primary man. At one point, I thought Papuna Lomsadze had the quality to challenge for a starting role, but his development has stalled substantially. If he doesn't kick on this year, he will be dropped to the reserves as soon as we can sign a replacement.

Inverted on the left, we have an altogether different problem, in the battle between Otar Tigishvili and Demur Kasrashvili for the starting role. I continue to prefer Tigishvili due to his superior mental attributes (though the margins are thin), but Kasrashvili will play a large number of minutes from the bench on both flanks.

(If we had not been able to secure a prompt replacement for Jimothy, Kasrashvili was a candidate to step in as a libero. Though he does not fit my ideal profile, he could do the job in a pinch.)

Central Midfielders.

In the heart of our midfield, we have every reason to be happy. Jean Gnahore is everything I could ask for as a goalscoring, playmaking mezzala. His partner, Alain Fokou, is a beast. If we can keep them, this is a midfield that can take us quite far in Europe. (Again, I had considered both as options to replace Jimothy, if a replacement was not promptly sorted.)

Their backups are Arman Avagyan and Salif Karaboue. Avagyan had a good first campaign with the first team last year, but needs to develop what our coaches see as massive potential. Karaboue will likely never be more than the Ivorian Roy Keane -- suited for kicking the **** out of the opposition, and little else -- but that doesn't mean I love him any less.

We've also secured the signing of Isaac Asamoah ($375k; Asante Kotoko), who will arrive in January 2033. Our scouts have nothing but praise for his potential. The only question seems to be whether he can meet it.

Attacking Midfielders.

Up top, Erekle Jalaghonia took over as our starting advanced playmaker last summer, pushing Giorgi Ugrekhelidze into the 2nd XI. Ugrekhelidze always played above his attributes, but I could not deny Jalaghonia the opportunity given his relative form. While neither is world class, they are both very capable at our level. (Givi Erkomaishvili and Besik Kirkitadze have been demoted to the reserves, but are still available for deep cover.)

Our starting inverted wingers are Gela Keburia and Zura Chighladze. The sharks were swimming around Keburia throughout the January transfer window, but having signed a new contract last September he seemed more than willing to stick around. For now. I anticipate needing a replacement perhaps as soon as the summer. (In contrast, Chighladze is a player that performs brilliantly at our level, but likely is not going to take us any further or generate substantial transfer interest.)

Two academy prospects are our backups -- Giorgi Dvali and Giorgi "Barbie" Barbakadze. Neither is particularly well-rounded. But they are extremely talented, with what our coaches believe to be sky-high potential. At this juncture, however, I do not see them breaking into the 1st XI as we need more than what they appear to have on offer.

Basile Eklu ($75k; Maranatha) will arrive in June 2033, to give us some depth. A Togolese U23 international at the age of 16, I cannot help but think he could be an impact player for us. He is also more well-rounded than Dvali and Barbakadze, though he is not at their current level.

Final Thoughts.

The day before the closure of the transfer window, I would have told you I was quite content with the squad. Jimothy's abrupt departure has tempered my enthusiasm -- both in terms of the objective strength of the squad, and the need for investment sooner rather than later.

Our pre-season results may appear impressive, but our opponents were little more than cannon fodder. Deliberately so.

To advance in Europe, we need to improve the squad. We also cannot count on Dinamo Tbilisi stepping on their **** again, or resting on their laurels.

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February 2032 - Europa League, First Knockout Round.

In Nice, the stakes feel much higher than they are. Bebiashvili will serve as our libero tonight, given what I perceive may be a need for defensive solidity.

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We look a little rusty, conceding early, but equalize on the half hour through Keburia. Things are going smoothly until the 51st minute, when Fokou sees straight red for a nasty challenge from behind.

The game opens up substantially at that point, as the French look to press their advantage and we seek to hit them in transition. Neither side can find the back of the net, however, until Kasrashvili finds Chighladze at the back post in the 73rd minute, to volley home acrobatically.

Much to our chagrin, Nice manage to find a 94th-minute equalizer. At 2-2, we should be happy, all things considered. Yet it still feels like a missed opportunity instead of a disaster averted.

Regardless, we know that in Tbilisi we will have our chances to bury the French. We trade early blows, before Nice are denied a penalty via VAR in the 20th minute, Karaboue's foul adjudged to have been outside the box. There's no question, this time it is, in fact, a disaster averted.

We up the pressure and are rewarded soon thereafter, with Jalaghonia finding Keburia in space, the winger making no mistake -- 1-nil on the night, an aggregate lead. Moments later, before the French regain their composure, Kourouma breaks into the box, drops for Chighladze, who finds Keburia at the back post. 2-nil.

We keep our foot on the gas pedal, and are rewarded through Chighladze in the 42nd minute, rising to head home a curling free kick from Kourouma. At 3-nil, surely there is no way back for the French, who are wilting on this cold Tbilisi night.

It ends 3-nil -- the right result over the course of the two legs, and a result we needed.

For the Second Round draw, we can only hope for a miracle. There are massive clubs to be avoided. We manage to avoid the biggest fish, but are still tasked with a heavy burden against Javi Gracia's Granada, who sit 5th in La Liga.

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March 2032 - Europa League, Second Knockout Round.

Ahead of the Super Cup, we are named as narrow favorites to win the Erovnuli Liga for the first time, with Karason, Robledo, Kourouma, Gnahore, Kalaghonia and Keburia in the pre-season Dream XI.

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Chighladze and Keburia are favored for top goalscorer, with Robledo, Fokou and Jalaghonia favored for best player, and Fokou, Jalaghonia and Gnahore up for best young player.

The club also announces the sale of 980 season tickets, an 82.5% year-on-year increase from last year's 537 season tickets.

In the Super Cup, Adowa picks up where Jimothy left off, slotting home an early penalty to lead the club to a comfortable 3-nil win over a 9-man Dinamo Tbilisi.

Our new Director of Football, Giorgi "Snorky" Khorkheli is on hand for the first Erovnuli Liga match of the year -- a predictably one-sided 4-1 win over Samtredia.

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The primary task at hand, however, is Granada. In Tbilisi for the 1st leg, we are missing Jalaghonia and Keburia through injury; neither will be fit until after the international break. We need a strong performance.

We get it.

If you squint a little bit.

We are utterly outplayed. Outclassed. Yet we do not concede. And Chighladze manages to slot home one of the few decent chances that falls our way, while we stifle them in the back. We will take a 1-nil lead back to Andalucia.

Fixture congestion rears its head, however, as we face Dinamo Tbilisi away over the weekend. The 2nd XI are handed the task, and play admirably...if you look past the 4 goals they conceded. Separate and apart from those moments, though, it was an even match.

Up against it at the Nuevo Los Carmenes, we need a strong start. And, once again, we get it. Heavy pressure, putting the ball into dangerous areas. And while Xavi manages to block a close-range shot from Chighladze, Ugrekhelidze manages to get in the way of his subsequent wild, attempted clearance, deflecting it in to give us a 2-goal cushion.

Through the half, we stifle the Spaniards, denying them any real look at goal while looking dangerous, in turn. Even as they look to turn the screws, still we stand defiant. Our hosts' quality shines through, leading to a simple-tap in in the 76th to bring them squarely back into the match. Squeaky bum time.

Chances fall their way, but it is not enough. We see out the match -- a 1-1 draw, meaning we advance thanks to an ever-so-fortunate goal in Tbilisi.

Our reward is a tie against Torsten Frings' Villarreal in the quarterfinals.

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On paper, it is an easier draw than Granada, given that they sit 9th in La Liga. But they are no less menacing.

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April 2032 - Europa League, Quarterfinals.

The one thing we cannot do against Villarreal? Concede early.

The one thing we (in fact) do against Villarreal? Concede early.

Ianis Hagi puts the Spaniards on the board early, but we fight back through Mikeltadze to draw level. Falling behind against, Chighladze breaks through the back line to dink over the onrushing keeper, to again draw us level. We begin to find our groove, and are rewarded with Kasrashvili hammers home the goal of his career -- the match-winner, as it turns out. 3-2. An historic night at the Mikheil Meskhi.

Maybe we should concede early more often.

Then again, maybe not. Villarreal score twice in the opening minutes of the 2nd leg, and we are unable to get out of our defensive third. Keburia manages to get on the board, but at that point we're 4 goals down on the night, with less than 20 minutes to play. The only purpose that goal will serve is to perhaps drive up his inevitable transfer fee. I'm not bitter, no.

The final score is a fair reflection of the match -- a 4-1 loss. Though we can hold our heads high, I cannot help but feel frustrated at the manner in which we were so comprehensively dominated over these 90 minutes.

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April/May 2032.

With our focus back on the domestic calendar, we begin to reel Dinamo Tbilisi back in. A narrow 1-nil win early in the month keeps things from getting out of hand. We simply need to continue turning up in the big moments.

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June 2031 - European Review.

I am Boris Johnson's cocaine-fueled fever dream.

England are back. Running yet another clean sweep.

In the Champions League, Massimiliano Allegri's Manchester City defeat Roberto Martinez's AC Milan, 2-1 (aet).

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2031/32 Champions League: Overview | Knockout Rounds

Didier Deschamps' Chelsea claim the Europa League title with a 2-nil win over Thomas Thomasberg's Everton.

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2031/32 Europa League: OverviewKnockout Rounds

And, in the Europa Conference League, Gareth Southgate's Leicester City defeat Christen Michelsen's Sampdoria, 3-1.

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2031/32 Europa Conference League: OverviewKnockout Rounds

In the active leagues: Massimiliano Allegri's Manchester City defended their Premier League title; Stephen Gerrard's Barcelona reclaim the La Liga title; Pep Guardiola's Inter Milan win the Serie A title; Julian Nagelsmann's Bayern did Bayern things; and, Julian Stephan PS-****ing-G did PS-****ing-G things.

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The Erovnuli Liga rises 3 spots to 4oth in the competition reputation rankings, just ahead of the English League One.

Georgia also climb to 11th in the nations coefficients table, meaning our seeding for the European qualifying rounds improves slightly, beginning with the 2033/34 European campaign. We're only 1 spot off the Czechs, for an automatic spot in the Group Stage.

Gareji rise to 29th in the club coefficient rankings -- sitting right behind Benfica and Shakhtar, 22 spots above Dinamo Tbilisi.

Finally, we receive $10.69 million from UEFA -- our allocation of left-over television revenue and coefficient ranking pool funds.

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June/July 2032.

One last push before the European campaign kicks off, and it seems like my every waking moment is spent either rejecting transfer bids for various players, or working to quell a possible a dressing room mutiny (caused by said rejection of transfer bids).

Ultimately, the only player we've allowed to leave (to date) is Salif Karaboue, who departs for $3.7m plus a 50% next-sale clause. To replace him in the 2nd XI, we promote Alexi Tebidze from the reserves. Now that the domestic transfer window is closed, my sincere hope is that our financial stability will preclude the forced sale of any players.

One bit of good news, amidst the transfer insanity? Fabrika continues to generate promising players, though our apparent penchant for developing strikers is unexpected, to say the least.

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On the pitch, we are relentless -- securing a 3-nil with at the Boris Paichadze to draw us within 1 point of our rivals, before they stumble again which allows us to go to the top of the table. The question going forward will be which one of us can better navigate the fixture congestion ahead.

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August 2032.

The Board has done it again. Sold a player out from under us.

Robledo is gone. Only, this time they had the courtesy to do it long before the UEFA registration deadline. Bo Henriksen's Brentford, was the culprit, this time. Followed by Rui Patricio's Celta Vigo. In the end, though, he leaves for Marco Rose's Dortmund, for $14.75M, plus a 50 percent next sale clause -- a record fee.

Since the Georgian transfer window closed several weeks ago, we promote Giorgi Beridze to the 2nd XI, with Joni Bebiashvili returning to the 1st XI.

If only that was all that had been going on.

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In the midst of the Robledo transfer drama (not to mention the transfer drama associated with other players), we've spent months wining and dining two brilliant U18 prospects recommended by our scouts. Once the contracts were signed, however, all Hell breaks loose. In a good way.

First things first, we draw Shamrock Rovers for the Champions League Qualifying Playoff -- on paper, a relatively straightforward draw.

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But that's not the good part. (Seriously.)

Yuriy Vernydub leaves the Georgian national team, to take the reigns of his native Ukraine. We immediately register our interest, ready to go all-in with the Crusaders. No matter that we've signed two brilliant, non-Georgian prospects in Mehrdad Hatami and Mark Kamau.

Within 72 hours, the offer from the GFF arrives. We do not hesitate.

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There is an incredible amount of work to do, as the Crusaders are ranked 90th in the world, without any tangible signs of progress over the last decade. A promising XI awaits, though we will need to work with them on our tactics...even if Mat's newly-designed kits are the epitomy of class.

Of course, in the midst of it all, we labor to a 1-1 draw in...Shamrock. (That can't be right, but Mat insists.) Back in Tbilisi, we again labor...to a 2-1 (aet) win thanks to a late Dvali goal, to progress by the narrowest of margins.

Yet, still the insanity will not subside. We're struggling to pick our first squad for the Nations League when the Champions League Group Stage draw lands...and we come out of the hat in Group C, against Patrick "Noodles" Rahmen's Porto, Zinedine Zidane's Real Madrid (led by Erling Haaland), and Olympiakos.

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Our hope is for a 3rd place finish, above the Greeks. But that is a worry for another day.

Our international debut looms large.

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September 2032.

Our Crusaders' debut is away to Sasa Ilic's Serbia in Novi Sad. Far from an easy trip.

We will undoubtedly rely heavily on our captain and undisputed Number 1, Giorgi Mamardashvili. In front of him, Jimothy will step in as our libero, with additional experience in the form of Giorgi Kutsia, Kvicha Kvaratskhelia and Nika Ninua. Ricardo Duarte is another familiar face, albeit one we've only seen in the colors of Dinamo Tbilisi.

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Rezo and Jimothy -- reunited, and it feels so good.

Many of the lads are all at sea, tactically. It's one thing to admire PM Draugrson from afar. It is an entirely different thing to play it, against a superior XI.

Make no mistake -- the Serbians are a superior XI. And their quality shines through, early and often. It takes a captain's performance from Mamardashvili to claim a surprise point in a scoreless draw.

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Not the most emphatic debut, I'll grant you. But we are licking our chops, thinking about Michal Probierz's Slovenia, whom we host in Tbilisi in a few days time. Turns out, we should have been less optimistic, as they bring a ruthlessness to their attack that we did not see from the Serbians.

It falls to Jalaghonia on the hour mark, to claim the first goal of the Georgian Gorlami era. We're three goals down at that point. It is nothing more than a consolation on a bitter, frustrating night. A 3-1 loss. Not good enough, lads.

Our mood is lifted, however, with a vital 4-3 win away to Olympiakos, secured by a 92nd minute goal from Keburia after we'd nearly thrown away a three-goal lead. Our hopes of a repeat performance in Madrid were dashed early (and often), as Kublashvili was tasked with the impossible on his senior debut for the club, deputizing for the injured Karason. 5-1? That's all? It sure didn't feel that close.

Another year, another promising graduating class from Fabrika. Koba Bregvadze appears to be the cream of the lot. Zaza Tediashvili could be up for it, if he had any semblance of composure. Of the rest, Joni Kvirikashvili, Tornike Sibashvili, Balasz Poloskei, and Tengiz Khukhua will each be given a chance to impress.

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October 2032.

Our hunt for an international win continues. We start well against Northern Ireland, but in the end are grateful to claim a 1-1 draw. Several short days later, Slovenia all but run us off the pitch in Koper -- even if we managed to find our shooting boots -- in a 4-2 loss.

It's a silver lining.

Maybe.

With 2 matches to play, we are not yet consigned to relegation. A win would give our morale a boost...and perhaps send the Serbians down in our stead.

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October 2032 (continued).

Reduced to 10 men early against Porto in Tbilisi, we are forced to hold on for dear life. We manage to do so in a scoreless draw, further separating ourselves from Olympiakos at the bottom of table. The chances of us playing European football after the holidays only continue to grow.

And, after facing our reserves 2 years in a row in the semifinals of the Davit Kipiani Cup, this time we'll face them in the finals. Mat is plotting to "reward" the 2nd XI by allowing them to play the final...without telling them that he plans to field the 1st XI for the reserves. He has no logical thought behind this plan, other than "it would be funny." To his credit, it would be funny.

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The expansion of the Arsen is complete --adding 1,609 seats to the existing terracing. It will likely be the proverbial "squeaky bum time" for the first match against Dinamo Batumi, in late November -- Dinamo Tbilisi are hanging close. But the schedule is favorable.

The title is ours to lose.

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November 2032.

The rumblings have begun. The pundits can taste blood in the water.

We lose in Tbilisi on Matchday 5 to Serbia, 2-nil, to extend our winless streak. A poor start to life with the Crusaders, which has many questioning whether we were the right appointment, after all.

Even Mat is beginning to question whether it was a good idea, and his judgment has never been a good barometer of taste -- he hasn't been this depressed since his all-male, stage remake of Steel Magnolias (starring a out-of-work Ed Sheeran impersonator in the Shirley MacLaine role) was cancelled in Tbilisi's nascent theater district.

Like so many things in life, though, all of our doubts were washed away over the course of a single evening in Belfast. A 26th minute blast from Mikautadze set the tone, and we refused to relent when the Northern Irish fought back to equalize. Mskhvilidze finds the net in the 69th, with Mikautadze claiming his brace a few minutes later after a misplaced backpass. A triumphant 3-1 win -- the first of our tenure.

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Though we are still relegated to the Nations League C, we desperately needed this ahead of the long, dark winter, if only to silence the critics. Chacha football is here to stay, whether they like it or not.

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With World Cup qualifying just around the corner, we could not continue to wait for the squad and tactics to come together.

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November/December 2032.

Matchday 4 in Portugal ends predictably -- a 2-nil loss, albeit one where we were not annihilated as comprehensively as we once would have been.

The reserves follow-up on having reached the Davit Kipiani Cup final by winning the Erovnuli Liga 2 for the second year running. It's a big feat. One that we are quite proud of. But it is not enough. It will never be enough.

Ahead of the all-important match against Olympiakos, we rotate the squad and send out the 2nd XI to face Dinamo Batumi on Erovnuli Liga Matchday 35...and promptly drop points in a 2-2 draw, allowing Dinamo Tbilisi to close within striking distance. We will be away to Dila Gori while our rivals host Lokomotivi -- our 1-point lead more than enough to secure the title if we take care of business.

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As we should. On paper.

But before we can think too much about Dila Gori, we need to host the Greeks. Once again, we pack our shooting boots and claim a 5-2 win which secures passage through to the knockout rounds. (Though we (miraculously) sit level with Porto, we face Real Madrid on the final matchday and will almost certainly fall into the Europa League.)

Leaving 3 matches, none of which are dead rubbers.

In Gori, the heavy legs of the 1st XI are enough to see us through to claim the Erovnuli Liga title -- our 5th straight -- with a 2-nil win -- our 1-point margin mirroring that from 2030.

The 2nd XI are tasked with the Davit Kipiani Cup final against our reserves. It's a packed house at the Arsen for what is little more than a glorified friendly, the only thing on offer being bragging rights around Fabrika. The result is as one-sided as we should expect, however -- a 5-nil win in which the quality and experience of our 2nd XI shone through.

Against Zinedine Zidane and the Virus (ironically, the name of my favorite post-punk/emo fusion band in high school), we have little reason for optimism. We are through to the Europa League knockout rounds, but... If we can steal a result and get a little help from Olympiakos, we'd be through to the Champions League knockout rounds. We even strike first in the 7th minute, through Fokou, and then again in the 53rd through Jalaghonia.

Yet, like all dreams, this too had to end. We gift the Virus an equalizer through an own goal before conceding a 95th minute winner, as we go down 3-2.

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It Is Easier To Forgive An Enemy Than To Forgive A Friend

Season Review, 2032

In a year where we seemed destined to confirm our supremacy in Georgia, only one thing did not go to plan -- the resurgence of Dinamo Tbilisi, taking us to the final matchday in the Erovnuli Liga. It might be time to cut them off at the knees, yeah?

Drunk on cheese, the Board confirm their idiocy by announcing their plan to capitalize on our continued success by downsizing the stadium, in order to add 400 seats.

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The GFF and league do not hesitate to acknowledge our domination -- the awards season is virtually all-Gareji.

Dvali claims the Jughashvili Medal for the second year running.

Redemption from the leagues, however, as Giorgi Beridze (recently promoted to the 1st team) claims the Erovnuli Liga 2 Player of the Year and Young Player of the Year, while leading a large Gareji contingent in the second tier's Best XI and Next XI.

Adowa claims a trifecta, securing the Erovnuli Liga Player of the Year, Young Player of the Year and Foreign Player of the Year. Keburia claims the Golden Boot, with a Tigishvili strike deemed the Goal of the Year. 8 players are named to the Best XI, with another 5 on the substitutes' bench.

Despite fielding both XIs in the Davit Kipiani Cup final, we only have 5 players named to the tournament's Best XI, with 8 named to the Next XI (including 2 of our reserves). An absolute scandal, this.

Keburia claims the GFF Player of the Year, with Jalaghonia as GFF Young Player of the Year.

Goals for 2033:  Win the lot, domestically. Qualify for the knockout rounds of a European competition in 2033/34. Not embarrass ourselves in World Cup qualifying. Re-focus our squad building efforts on developing Georgian players, instead of importing promising foreign talent.

Squad | Erovnuli Liga | Transfers

Finances | Income | Expenditure | Reserves

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Posted (edited)

The good news?  We're almost caught up to date, at which point the save can resume in earnest, in real time :onmehead:

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Posted (edited)
January/February 2033 - Odds & Ends; Transfer News.

Stick or twist? As if we have a choice.

We're all in on the Crusaders.

Accordingly, our transfer strategy has to focus on developing players for the national team, by signing: (1) the most promising young players we can find; (2) talented, established players from our domestic rivals who need refinement; and (3) certain former Gareji players who have found that the grass isn't always greener on the other side...

Before we can put those plans into motion, however, we have two all-important draws -- the Europa League knockout rounds and World Cup qualifiers.

First out of the gate is the Europa League draw, which sees us paired with Estoril Praia -- a very favorable draw.

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Seeded 4th for the World Cup qualifiers, we can only hope for a similar level of kindness. It is a much more measured draw, as we are placed into Group E with Bruno Labbadia's Turkey, Heimir Gudjonsson's Croatia, David "It Puts the Lotion on its Skin" Moyes' Wales, Andorra and San Marino.

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The GFF are merely asking that we "be competitive," which should be well within our reach. One would hope.

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With all of the sharks circling our key foreign players, the big surprise as the transfer window opens is the feeding frenzy surrounding Erekle Jalaghonia, who has been refusing to sign a new contract and could leave on a free in 12 months' time. In the end, he joins Eddie Howe's Luton Town for $5M, plus a 50% next sale clause, with a loan-back through the end of 2033. It's a big loss, but the loan-back will ensure that we can plan for his departure, and continue his development in the meantime.

We also raid Dinamo Tbilisi for 2 players I have long coveted...in a Biblical sense. Georgian internationals Ricardo Duarte and Vakhtang Mukbaniani will step directly into our 1st XI -- Duarte will be retrained to play at right wingback, and Mukbaniani as our mezzalla. They are direct replacements for Desire Kourouma and Jean Gnahore, who joined Osasuna and Frankfurt, respectively.

The other big signings? Luka Macharadze returns from his Perugian purgatory to replace the departing Sverrir Karason -- the equivalent of throwing down a reverse Uno card on 2030. The best part of this move? Thanks to the 50% next sale clause in Macharadze's transfer to Perugia, we get $875k of his transfer fee back.

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Gareji's accountants don't **** around. Just wait until you hear about Project Zeus.

The same accounting wizardry accompanies Giorgi Bedoidze's return from FC Koln (to replace the departed Alain Fokou), as we receive $165k of the transfer fee we pay ze Germans. It's best if you don't question the math.

Even in the absence of morally and legally ambiguous accounting methods, our transfer business is fully funded by sales.

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Television rights payments continue their steady increase -- the Erovnuli Liga rights rise to $315k per team, with the Erovnuli Liga 2 rights rising to $157k per team, up from $273k and $134k in 2032 (respectively).

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January 2033 - Squad Review.

While we conducted a full-blown squad review last February, it strikes me as necessary to revisit and quickly take stock of where we are, now that our player development focus has shifted.

As noted above, we did not fight to keep several of our key non-Georgian players, leaving only 5 foreign players in a 24-man first team squad.

Though I am somewhat tempted to adjust our tactics to a Nagelsmann-inspired setup for the sake of the Crusaders, we will continue to play PM Draugrson at both club and country, the tactic originally developed during the beta and detailed here: The Night Is Dark & Full Of Terrors.

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Gareji's 1st XI, heading into the 2033 campaign.

The only serious tweak is that I've begun using a combination of Guido's short throw overload setup and a slightly tweaked version thereof.

Let's dive right in, while keeping it brief.

Goalkeepers.

As noted above, Luka Macharadze returns from Italy to resume his position as our Number 1. Mikheil Kublashvili (the 2031 Erovnuli Liga 2 Golden Glove winner) promoted into the senior squad last year to serve as our backup, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

Defenders.

At libero, Umar Adowa is our undisputed starter after an incredible debut campaign in 2032. Harutyun Esoyan will carry on with the 2nd XI for now, but his days are numbered. We need to develop Georgian liberos. Now. Revaz Rotiashvili, a $220k signing from Saburtalo, looks to be the most likely player to take up that mantle at this juncture. (Ucha Pataraia has been anchoring the U19s for the last 2 years, but looks unlikely to make the grade.)

Flanking Adowa in the first XI will be Joni Bebiashvili and Vasil Mikeltadze. Hilmar Arason will battle it out with Giorgi Beridze and Giorgi Beridze ($350k, Saburtalo) for spots in the 2nd XI. No, you aren't seeing double. We really do have 2 centerbacks with the name. Don't worry, they're easy to tell apart. See, "Old" Giorgi wears number 26, whereas "New" Giorgi wears 62. Simples.

At right wingback, we have two new faces. The aforementioned Ricardo Duarte will retrain to play in our 1st XI -- learning on the job, as it were -- since we are in desperate need of a dynamic, attacking presence on the flank. His understudy will be Konstantine Malania ($400k, Lokomotivi). Given the dearth of quality for the national team, Malania may get a call up sooner rather than later if he can develop. (Papuna Lomsadze drops to the reserves, to see out his contract after his long-promised potential failed to develop yet again.)

Inverted on the left, Demur Kasrashvili takes over for Otar Tigishvil on both merit and due to the fact that Otar is dumber than a bag of hammers. I've offered Otar a new contract repeatedly, yet he insists on playing as a carrilero -- a role we have never employed at Gareji, the name for which he can't even properly pronounce. So, no. No new contract for you, Otar.

Long term, I have high hopes for Imeda Kobakhidze, an inverted winger who came on strongly last year for the U19s, claiming 10 goals and 7 assists from deep. He will start the campaign with the reserves, moving into the first team squad when Otar finally ****s off.

Central Midfielders.

As noted above, we lose our two (non-Georgian) starting midfielders but have replaced them with quality -- Vakhtang Mukbaniani and Giorgi Beridze. Again, we have strength in depth -- Arman Avagyan and Aleksi Tebidze are the backups, with previously-announced Isaac Asamoah ($375k; Asante Kotoko) looking like an immense beast, who I'm hoping has a heretofore unknown Georgian grandparent...aunt. Neighbor. Something.

It's a strong group, but we need more Georgian midfielders... Maybe I should stop retraining them to play elsewhere?

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David knows that isn't going to happen.

In the youth ranks, we have Mehrdad Hatami, Revaz Gogia and Davit Toroshelidze in contention for playing time.

Attacking Midfielders.

Up top, we have no change in the 1st and 2nd XI from last year.

Erekle Jalaghonia will play his loan-back year as the advanced playmaker in our 1st XI, flanked by Gela Keburia and Zura Chighladze. Giorgi Ugrekhelidze, Giorgi Dvali and Giorgi "Barbie" Barbakadze will be the front line in our 2nd XI.

Something has to give, however, as we have a wealth of attacking talent in our reserves and youth ranks. Led by Mark "the Kenyan Keanu" Kamau, it is a promising group -- inverted wingers Bakar Gadebava, Boris Iliev, Giorgi Khardzeishvili and Gocha Guruli could each play for the 1st XI, if they meet their potential. We also have Gevorg Abrahamyan who is retraining to play as an advanced playmaker, who will face competition from Koba Bregvadze and Mamuka Mchedlishvili for minutes with the reserves and U19s.

(As mentioned last year, Basile Eklu ($75k; Maranatha) will also arrive in June, to give us even more depth in the attack.)

Final Thoughts.

We are a long ways from where we want to be with the Crusaders. These feel like the necessary "next" steps to get us there, though. Raiding our chief domestic rival for talent that needs refinement. Scooping up the best young Georgian players we can find. Re-patriating players who have moved abroad, only to see their development languish.

In the process, we have sacrificed some of our quality. But we are not in this for short-term gains at the club level. We're looking towards a far more distant horizon.

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February 2033 - Europa League, First Knockout Round.

Ahead of the Europa League tie against Estoril Praia, we are named as narrow favorites to retain our Erovnuli Liga crown, with Machardze, Arason, Duarte, Avagyan, Jalaghonia and Barbakadze named to the pre-season Dream XI.

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Some curious omissions, but the pundits are morons. It is known.

Chighladze and Keburia are favored for top goalscorer, with Duarte and Macharadze favored for best player, and Adowa and Barbakadze up for best young player.

Off to Portgual we go. And it is a brilliant night, with a Player of the Match performance from Bedoidze, a solid night for Duarte at right wingback, and 90 minutes of sheer courage from Macharadze to deny the Portuguese in a clinical, 3-nil win.

Exactly the performance we needed. Except for the the injuries to Keburia and Chighladze, which rule them out of the return leg.

In Tbilisi, we're having a poor night. In danger of blowing the lead we'd secured for ourselves. Until Mukbaniani decides to open his Gareji account in the 53rd minute -- a sublime run into the channel (beating the offside trap), followed by a delicious chip. We lose 2-1 on the night, but are nevertheless through to the next round.

A tad lucky, perhaps, over 180 minutes. But we will not complain.

Not even when Lady Luck abandons us, abruptly. Without even leaving a fiver on the bedside table. We've draw Kevin Betsy's Arsenal. ****.

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March 2033 - Europa League, Second Knockout Round.

Ahead of the Arsenal match in Tbilisi, the club announces the sale of 1,119 season tickets, a solid 14.18% year-on-year increase from last year's 980 season tickets. Excellent news, all around.

If only we had more to show them during the first leg in Tbilisi. A valiant, heroic effort sees Arsenal stymied for 90 minutes. We cannot find the net either, and will thus head to the Big Smoke with a chance for an upset. A remote chance, perhaps, but a chance nevertheless.

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We concede early at the Emirates but recover to find our sea legs. We even look threatening once or twice. Until Mikeltadze hooks a clearance into the roof of our own net. ****. Down 2-nil at the half, there's nothing to do but throw caution to the wind and chase the tie, even though I suspect the effort will end in screaming and drowning.

We chase. We harry. We press. We find our way back into the match, statistically. Barbakadze is denied a wondergoal by VAR in the 78th -- a goal that would have shaken our hosts' resolve.

Minutes later, it is all over as Shaquille Cumberbatch heads home from close range to make it 3-nil. (With a name that glorious, you'd expect Shaquille to be less of a ****. But you'd be disappointed.)

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Whatever you do, we'd recommend that you not Google Cumberbatch's social media accounts (#ShaqCumb). You have been warned.

Pushing forward so aggressively was a risk. A calculated one, but nevertheless a risk that we took. A risk we do not regret taking. It nearly paid off. But instead we've paid the price.

We are out of Europe, 3-nil on the night and on aggregate.

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We take out our frustrations on Dinamo Tbilisi in the Super Cup -- a ruthless, clinical 5-nil win, that we're hoping will set the tone for the campaign ahead.

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Posted (edited)

March 2033 - Europa League, Second Knockout Round.

Ahead of the Arsenal match in Tbilisi, the club announces the sale of 1,119 season tickets, a solid 14.18% year-on-year increase from last year's 980 season tickets. Excellent news, all around.

If only we had more to show them during the first leg in Tbilisi. A valiant, heroic effort sees Arsenal stymied for 90 minutes. We cannot find the net either, and will thus head to the Big Smoke with a chance for an upset. A remote chance, perhaps, but a chance nevertheless.

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We concede early at the Emirates but recover to find our sea legs. We even look threatening once or twice. Until Mikeltadze hooks a clearance into the roof of our own net. ****. Down 2-nil at the half, there's nothing to do but throw caution to the wind and chase the tie, even though I suspect the effort will end in screaming and drowning.

We chase. We harry. We press. We find our way back into the match, statistically. Barbakadze is denied a wondergoal by VAR in the 78th -- a goal that would have shaken our hosts' resolve.

Minutes later, it is all over as Shaquille Cumberbatch heads home from close range to make it 3-nil. (With a name that glorious, you'd expect Shaquille to be less of a ****. But you'd be disappointed.)

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Whatever you do, we'd recommend that you not Google Cumberbatch's social media accounts (#ShaqCumb). You have been warned.

Pushing forward so aggressively was a risk. A calculated one, but nevertheless a risk that we took. A risk we do not regret taking. It nearly paid off. But instead we've paid the price.

We are out of Europe, 3-nil on the night and on aggregate.

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We take out our frustrations on Dinamo Tbilisi in the Super Cup -- a ruthless, clinical 5-nil win, that we're hoping will set the tone for the campaign ahead.

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April/May 2033.

In the aftermath of the win over Andorra, we're on cloud nine. Even though it's just one game.

But after a much-needed result, it's like everything else in life has the volume turned down. I can deal with anything. I even convince the Board to invest further in our youth academy, even if they resist investment in the training facilities more generally.

As our scouting network expands, I take what free time I have to travel around the country to get "eyes on" players. Mat is doing the same, leaving while I sleep; when I wake, I find domestic flight itineraries. Bus tickets.

I could look at 50 football academies, and somehow I just knew.  Mat had been there.

I haven't seen him in several days when -- on a Friday night in Zeda Sazano, -- I'm watching some U14s do their technical work. I know Mat was heading here the other day, based on our internal scouting database, but don't know which players he was looking for. Or even if he's already scooped them up, whisked them off to Fabrika for induction into all things Gareji. For some reason, that information was removed from the database. Odd, in the extreme.

When the coach ambles over, a wry smile on his face, I know. Mat was here. He recognizes me. And he knows why I'm here.

After the tedious exchange of banal pleasantries, I get right to the point. "I need to speak to Mat."

The coach's grin turns into a smirk.

"I'm sorry, I don't know anyone by that name, sir." The last word punctuated by a cheeky wink.

He knows exactly why I'm here. But he's holding back for some reason.

"I just need to know if you've seen Mat."

"I'm not supposed to speak any such information to you, nor would I, even if I had said information at this juncture, be able."

The smirk remains. I take my leave. I've played this game before.

On the road between matches, seemingly chasing Mat's shadow from one pitch to another, I'm living in a state of perpetual deja vu. Everywhere I go, I have been before. The smell of sweat and shoe leather, like fried chicken. A well-groomed pitch. The ambient warmth of floodlights, recently switched off. I am always just one step behind him.

In the end, it was inevitable that I would catch up to him. Not at the Davit Kipiani Cup tie "away" to our own reserves at the Arsen. No, at his deposition the day before. I knew about the deposition because Mat knew about the deposition. (The deposition has nothing to do with Gareji, thankfully. Rather, Mat is one of the lead plaintiffs in a class action lawsuit over the alleged excessive urine content in the soup at the recently opened Hotel Football in Gareji.)

He just shrugs, dismissively, when I try to confront him about his erratic behavior.

We're supposed to be a team. A united front. The Georgian Clough and Taylor. Only, he's disconnecting from me. Keeping secrets. Pursuing his own agenda, the exact parameters of which escape me.

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May/June 2033 - European Review.

In the Champions League, Brendan Rodgers' Juventus defeat Zinedine Zidane's Virus, 1-nil.

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2032/33 Champions League: Overview | Knockout Rounds

Mauricio Pochettino's Newcastle claim the Europa League title with a 3-nil (aet) win over Alberto Valentim's AC Milan.

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2032/33 Europa League: OverviewKnockout Rounds

And, in the Europa Conference League, Sjors Ultee's Napoli defeat Gareth Southgates Mohnkeyglooderback on penalties, after a 2-2 draw.

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2032/33 Europa Conference League: OverviewKnockout Rounds

In the active leagues: Jurgen Klopp's Liverpool win their Premier League title; Zidane's Virus reclaim the La Liga title; Valentim's AC Milan win the Serie A title; Julian Nagelsmann's Bayern did Bayern things; and, Roberto Martinez's PS-****ing-G did PS-****ing-G things.

Finally, we receive $12.58 million from UEFA -- our allocation of left-over television revenue and coefficient ranking pool funds.

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The Erovnuli Liga rises 2 spots to 38th in the competition reputation rankings, just behind the Bulgarian efbet League. Unfortunately that's where the good news ends.

Georgia drops 3 spots to 14th in the nations coefficients table, meaning we backslide in terms of seeding for the European qualifying rounds. No bueno.

Gareji also drop to 33rd in the club coefficient rankings -- sitting right behind Hertha Berlin and RB Salzburg...at least we sit 32 spots above Dinamo Tbilisi...

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June 2033 - World Cup Qualifying.

Nothing less than 3 points against San Marino will do. Fortunately, the lads do not look past them as we run out 4-nil winners, with VAR working overtime against us.

A much bigger task awaits in Istanbul. Mikautadze hits the post early, it's as close as we come. But it's also as close as our hosts come. A scoreless draw is beyond what we could have hoped for.

3rd after 4 matches, with only 2 goals conceded? Yes, please.

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June/July 2033.

Before the transfer madness kicks in, Mat is giddy. Back to his normal self.

The reports coming in from Fabrika are sublime. We may have a solid group of players coming on our hands.

It doesn't change our transfer strategy heading into the window, which can be characterized as MBG -- more, better Georgians. It isn't very elegant. Not that it needs to be.

A spanner in the works, though, as Gela Keburia suffers a hip injury mere days after signing a new contract. He's out for months, and has told the club he'll be convalescing back at his sister's place in Tbilisi.

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"Did someone say sister?"

Fortunately, we are nothing if not up to our necks in attacking midfielders. Khardzeishvili promotes from the reserves to the 2nd XI, with Dvali stepping into the 1st XI. Khardzeishvili is the leading goalscorer in the 2nd tier, so it isn't as if he hasn't earned this opportunity.

He is part of a strong youth core in the reserves -- a group which leads the Georgian U21s on an epic run at the U21 Euros, before losing to France in the final, 2-1, behind the tournament's leading goalscorer, Dvali.

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The squad is promising, no doubt -- chock full of Gareji players, wise to the ways of our chacha football, 4 of whom are named to the Dream XI.

Translating this success to success with the full national team is another issue, of course.

To do that, we must continue to nurture and develop Georgian talent. Which brings us full circle, back to the transfer window.

Avagyan, Adowa and Esoyan are the headline departures, leaving us without a first-team libero. Which is fine. We need to develop a pool of talented liberos for the Crusaders, anyways. We shift Tigishvili into the role with the 1st XI -- cross-training him will serve multiple purposes, for both the short- and long-term view with the national team. We also promote Pataraia from the reserves, to play as a libero in our 2nd XI. In turn, Rotiashvili steps from the U19s to the reserves.

To fill the Tigishvili-shaped hole at left wingback in the 2nd XI, we promote Kobakhidze who has come on in leaps and bounds over the last 6 months with the reserves.

To replace Avagyan, we promote Toroshelidze from the reserves.

We also (eventually) secure the signing of the best young, Georgian player to have come through a foreign academy in recent years -- Tornike Khukhua ($3.5M) from Sassuolo. Khukhua steps into the 2nd XI as our advanced playmaker, and will also play from the bench with our 1st XI. Khukhua is a big signing, on several levels. Not only have we saved him from languishing on a foreign shore; we can refine his development over the coming years. For, if he can meet his potential, he will be a force to be reckoned with for the Crusaders for years to come. When Jagalhonia's loan-back expires in December, Khukhua will take over in the 1st XI, with Bregvadze likely promoting into the 2nd XI.

Truth be told, I considered retraining Khukhua as a libero, but decided to keep him playing higher up the pitch given other options available to us.

(Ugrekhelidze has refused to sign a new contract, and will join Dinamo Tbilisi on a free at the end of the year. The ****. I mean, sure...we were going to move him on anyways, but joining our rivals is a betrayal of epic proportions.)

Finally, we bring in Tymur Slotyuk ($100k; Saburtalo) -- pure potential, at this juncture. The U19 international will play with our reserves for now. If he can develop, he looks like he could play for the 2nd XI in due course.

An epic summer transfer window. The squad is coming together.

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Optimism abounds, as we generally romp through the summer fixture list, not missing a beat. Even the Board is forced to reconsider its rejection of our request to invest in the training facilities, agreeing to do so after the window closes.

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August 2033.

The calm before the storm.

The last few weeks of tranquility before World Cup qualifying and the Champions League Group Stage resume.

I told Mat he wasn't allowed to buy the newly-released Crusader Kings 4, because we won't be able to take advantage of this quiet time to sleep and prepare adequately for the tasks ahead.

Only, when I fell asleep early after the Lokomotivi match, he couldn't help himself. I awoke to a chagrined Mat, sheepishly (and readily) admitting that he'd ****ed up.

We did nothing after the next few weeks but try to conquer the world with Count Eudes of Anjou, starting in 867. Mat chose the torturer lifestyle, as he is wont to do. He would have succeeded, if he hadn't been caught trying to abduct the Pope.

Maybe I shouldn't be surprised that we conceded 3 to both Dinamo Tbilisi and Saburtalo.

At least we've drawn Patrick "Noodles" Rahmen's Porto, Massimiliano Allegri's Chelsea, and Fenerbahçe in the Champions League. So we've got that going for us.

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September 2033 - World Cup Qualifying.

Ahead of the match in Swansea, I can't avoid him. His eyes watch my every move. His lips, dry and cracked. His teeth, yellowed with age. When he introduces himself, it's a raspy voice reminiscent of dry leather, crumbling. One that I know will haunt my dreams.

His hands are more moisturized than any I've ever held. And cold. It takes all of my willpower to not recoil in horror, as the scent of what I can only assume is eucalyptus lotion overwhelms me. Mat wisely stayed away.

Moyes' Wales sit atop the Group. A result today (or back in Tbilisi against Turkey) would be a welcome surprise.

Truth be told, I just want to get out of here. I can feel his eyes watching me from the Welsh technical area. Even when we battle back from 2 (undeserved) goals down -- through Jimothy and then Chighladze -- still, he watches me.

(Mat swears he isn't blinking, like a lizard. But that's just the paranoia talking.)

I can feel his anger burning when, in the 90th minute, Ingram is dismissed for a dangerous, two-footed lunge. We have a 1-man advantage for time-added on. We do the only natural thing, and look to find the winner. We cannot, despite our best efforts. A 2-2 draw is an epic result. One we can be quite proud of.

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After the match, Mat runs down the tunnel to celebrate as Moyes lingers near the tunnel. Waiting. As I approach, I can see a cold glint in his unblinking stare. A hunger, almost. Awkward, but no more so than the hoarse whisper, inviting me back to his suite for a glass of wine.

I demur and take my leave with as much haste as propriety will allow. When I explain the invitation to Mat, he is relieved beyond measure that I declined. "No man should have hands that soft. That...cold, Rezo. He'd have had you in the woodchipper for sure."

Somehow, I don't think the woodchipper is what he had in mind. Unless that's a Welsh euphemism that I'm unfamiliar with.

As we leave the stadium, I turn back. High in the glass facade, I can see the outline of a man watching us drive away. Red eyes burning, watching us leave. Silhouetted against some internal lights. Mat sees it, too.

"Must be a trick of the light. Wales, yeah?!"

"****ing Wales, man."

"Not even a proper country. Get your own Queen, yeah?!"

I can only shake my head. You can't talk to him when he's like this.

We're off to Split. Away to Croatia. A big ask. Their campaign has not gone to plan, as they languish in 3rd after 5 matches.

Our gameplan doesn't change. Whether they are ripe for the plucking or not, we will come after them. Hard. And in the first 45 minutes, we create a number of chances...but fail to capitalize. Until the 53rd, when a beautiful passage of play sees Mukbaniani hitting the gap at pace. He volleys home with authority, 1-nil.

Nervy times, these. We are denied a penalty by VAR in the 67th -- the invisible hand of UEFA, intervening to spare our hosts' blushes. It surely would have been a 2nd yellow for Franjic, too.

Minutes later, Jimothy is unjustly booked outside of our box. Vidovic curls it into the back of the net. The UEFA mafia, writ large...but we will not cower before their bureaucratic tyranny. Duarte threads a diagonal ball through to Mukbaniani a few minutes later -- he slots it home to restore our advantage, before running to the UEFA box and performing a Ronaldo-esque diamond-cutter for the assembled dignitaries.

Reduced to 10 men with an injury to Miktaudze, still the Croatians cannot find their way through. 6 minutes of injury time? An utter farce. Rendered all the more so when, in the 94th minute, Khukhua is sent off.

Mat is incandescent with rage. Un-righteously so. It was a clear red. Every day. That doesn't stop me from haranguing the 4th official, naturally.

Our energy translates to the players, who battle to the final whistle like warrior poets. A 2-1 win. The Croatians humiliated.

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An historic moment. We climb above Wales on goal difference, sitting joint-2nd.

The fixture list ahead is favorable -- 4 matches, 3 in Georgia. In October, we will host Andorra and travel to San Marino -- an all-important six points. In November, the true tests await as we host Turkey and Wales in Tbilisi.

We land in Tbilisi, energized and ready for what comes next. I see a missed call from a +44 area code.

No means no, David.

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September 2033 (continued).

While the press may complain about "bias" in the national team squad, one thing cannot be denied -- the positivity emanating from the Crusaders carry over when the players return to Gareji.

And, it isn't as if the players selected aren't taken on merit.

Thus, even against Allegri's Chelsea in the Big Smoke, we feel we can give them a run. No timidity. Punch, counterpunch. It isn't that we consider ourselves invincible. Just that we no longer care to respect their respsective standing in the game. And, we'd rather see who is standing at the last.

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The lads are ready for Chelski.

Sadly, strong words and good vibes do not carry the day. Fate is a much more fickle **** than that. We fall, 1-nil. But we leave with our heads held high as we refused to lay down for our host. The best indication of our resolve? Unai Simon is named Player of the Match.

Our positivity (both tactical and emotional) carries over to Fenerbahce in Tbilisi -- a 9-nil rout of the Turkish giants that is arguably the greatest performance in club history. (But only if we don't consider karaoke night at The Chubby Pickle in Gori, across from the Stalin Museum. That's always epic. Without fail.)

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Fener's post-match post-mortem was nothing if not succint.

Our swashbuckling, attack-minded football isn't just winning adherents across the continent -- domestically, we've already broken our Erovnuli Liga goalscoring record with 124 goals in 28 matches, eclipsing our prior record of 121.

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The Fabrika Class of '33 also arrives to great fanfare, a potential "golden generation." While we've produced numerous attacking players with promise over the years, this year we've cast a broader net. Aleksandre Sirbiladze and Georgian-Italian dual-national Luca Giannattasio lead the charge -- both of whom should be pushing to join the first team squad within the year. Nikoloz Shengelia, Aleksandre Natroshvili, Aleksandre Jijelava and Farsley's own Harry Makin could join them in due course.

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October 2033 - World Cup Qualifying.

Ahead of the match against Andorra, the pundits are abuzz with rumors of our imminent sacking, as the GFF are "losing patience" with us.

Granted, I too would be more than disappointed if we were to do anything but annihilate them in Batumi.

So it goes when, on a night when we are in need of a big performance, the lads are sleepwalking. We prevail, 2-nil, and are never in danger. But it feels like a poor performance.

Away to San Marino, we again start brightly -- only, this time we do not take our foot off the gas pedal so obviously. It's 5-1 at the final whistle, meaning that we head into the final matches against Turkey and Wales in control of our own destiny.

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Frankly, I'm beginning to think that the President of the GFF has a red-headed, n'er-do-well stepchild that he's angling to put into the position.

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