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[FM17] Trials and Triumphs of a Turkmen

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It was a difficult decision to make, especially given the bond I'd forged with the fans over the course of two years at Shakhter. But there was nothing else to achieve - we'd won the league twice, made it to the Champions League group stage, and I had already lined up a number of leading Kazakh players to join the side. They will end up as my leaving present to the club that put me on the map. 

However, Bunyodkor are a big side, a young and successful club, and when the job became available, one thing led to another and here I am. The majestic and modern Bunyodkor Stadioni - home to the Uzbek national side as well as ourselves - is the ground of one of Uzbekistan's finest outfits, but a poor showing a thrid-place finsih cost the last man his job. I must not make the same mistakes.

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There is undoubtedly a great deal of talent in the squad I have inherited, but the problems that have plagued every one of my clubs thus far are evident here too. The best players are nearer the end of their careers than the beginning, the youngsters are not yet ready to step up into their shoes, and there is a chronic lack of depth unsuited to the stresses and strains of a year-long season. 

Regardless, my employers expect little less than perfection, with only the pre-season PFL Cup escaping the demand for victory. It will not be easy - old rivals Paxtakor along with the likes of Nasaf and Buxoro will push us on all fronts, while last season's failing mean we will also have the AFC Cup - the trophy I won back in Balkanabat - to contend with. A side of our quality should be easing to victory against clubs from Asia's smaller nations, and no doubt my bosses will feel the same way.

Still, this is a big job. Bunyodkor are regulars in the Asian Champions League, a fixture at the top of Uzbek football and a genuine contender at home and abroad. It is my job to take them to the next level, and one I will relish.
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It was decided. After two years in Kazakhstan filled with surprisingly quick success, Bahtiyar was on the move, crossing the border into Uzbek territory and taking the helm of one of the nation's biggest clubs. ACL semi-finalists back in 2012, continental success had been harder to come by since - and with Chinese money dominating the competition, it would remain difficult - but there was little doubt that this was a step up in quality.

Still only 27, Saparow's CV was becoming impressive - league titles in three nations, two unbeaten season, continental success in Turkmenistan - and Bunyodkor were keen to take what fewer were seeing as a risk on the young manager. Expectations were as high as can be, and more eyes than ever would be on our hero. Could he deliver? We would have to wait and see.

Edited by EvilDave

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Like in Tashkent is up and running quickly, with friendlies scheduled in the chilly months of January and February ahead of the pre-season PFL Cup in the coming weeks. We didn't play anyone particularly challenging, but regardless of the quality of opposition we looked good, the new faces integrating well into the side as they arrived and the goals already beginning to flow. Things are looking good.

The group stage draw was also made for the AFC Cup, and if we fail to get out of it then I should be out of a job. Bunyodkor are a side used to competing in the Champions League, and it's only due to the poor performance of Uzbek clubs in that competition that we get a look-in here. With opposition from Syria, India and Tajikistan, we should be cruising. The latter stages will pose more of a challenge, but we're favourites to win the whole thing for good reason.

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In the transfer market, I've gambled, spending almost all of the money the club gave me in the first window. We needed depth, we needed youth, and we needed players in a couple of key positions - so I went out and got them. There are a couple of familiar faces here as teenage striker Ruslan Pak and attacking midfielder Trofimenko join on loan as backup from my old club in Kazakhstan, and they'll be rotated in over the course of the season.

The main three signings though are the trio joining from Nasaf - Abduraimov is a future Uzbek international goalkeeper, Ergashev is an excellent playmaker for this level, and Nosirov has over 20 caps for his country at just 22 years of age. They'll form part of the freshened-up spine of my Bunyodkor side, and will be instrumental in any success we have. Or rather, success we need. The PFL Cup may not matter to my employers, but it's our first chance to test ourselves properly, and I'll be looking for strong indicators for the year ahead.

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Competitive football comes to Tashkent in February with the arrival of the PFL Cup and the opening round of the AFL Cup, and so far we've seen off all comers. We were handed a pretty straightforward group in the domestic competition, all three of our opponents expected to feature in the lower reaches of the table in the coming year, bu even so to win our three games by a combined score of 11-4 was impressive. Neftchi are much stronger and pushed us harder, but we're into the last four and stand a good chance of going all the way for a nice pre-season confidence boost.

In Asia, we travelled to Tajikistan's shock champions Ravshan - who topped Istiqlol on the final day of the league season to break a lengthy run of Dushanbe dominance - and duly battered them, an injury-time consolation proving just that after we hit them for five. Two goals for Mustafoev in the opening quarter hour put us well on the way, and it was plain sailing from then on. We've laid down a marker for the rest of the group and the competition as a whole - we're out to win this.

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On a personal note, I've taken another step on my route to the top of the managerial ladder by continuing to pick up qualifications. Bunyodkor are keen for their manager's CV to match their ambitions, and so have been happy to fund the AFC's second level certificate. Once this one is done, there are only a couple of steps to holding all of the available badges - and while they won't in and of themselves get me where I want to be, they will remove a number of bureaucratic obstacles that lie in the way. The easier that can be done, the better.

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That didn't take long, did it? Less than three months into my tenure in Tashkent, and we're already celebrating a trophy. Sure, the PFL Cup is by far the least important of the competitions we'll be contesting this year, but it lays down a solid enough marker to the rest of the league that we mean business. After beating Neftchi in the last eight we faced our toughest test in the semis against Buxoro, but after winning that one 3-1, two quick goals at the end of the first half against Qizilqum were enough to see us ease to victory.

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That initiated the start of league proceedings, where a hard-fought draw against the aforementioned Neftchi saw us drop points on the opening day before a resounding thrashing of Andijon a few days later to get us up and running in earnest. As fate would have it, we drew Andijon in our first cup outing only to be beaten 4-2 with a rotated side - however, we still have the second leg to play at home and I'm confident of making it through if we play to our best.

In Asia, neither the Syrians of Al-Ittihad or Bengaluru of India could get anywhere near us on home soil, and with three convincing wins from three it's only a matter of time now before our passage into the knockout stages is confirmed. Our strength compared to the rest of the sides in the tournament is already showing, and our odds are shortening by the game.

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The league table means nothing at this point, but it does show strong starts for some of our title rivals - defending champions Lokomotiv, and perennial contenders Nasaf, Neftchi and Buxoro. At the other end, Paxtakor have got off to a real shocker - long may it continue.
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Life in Uzbekistan seems to suit young Saparow, a trophy under his belt already and a team looking confident both at home and abroad. It may be early days, but already it seems like this Bunyodkor side has real potential - can our youthful hero be the man to unlock it and bring glory to Tashkent?

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A full April brought with it a bit of a mixed bag of results - a strong middle bookended by two domestic wobbles. At our best, and against some of the best sides in Uzbekistan - Buxoro, Nasaf - we were excellent, picking up maximum points and showing off some fluid attacking play. However, a goalless draw against Mash'al, two late goals to salvage a point against Navbaxor, and a miserable defeat at Olmaliq show that we still have plenty of work to do - particularly on the defensive side of things.

We also confirmed passage to the AFC Cup knockout rounds, putting another five goals past Ravshan to embarrass the Tajiks and ensure we will top the group. There are still two games to go in this phase - and we'll rotate accordingly - but we're looking good on the continent.

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The league table is difficult to read at the moment. If we, and everybody above us, wins our games in hand, we find ourselves third and three points behind defending champions Lokomotiv at the top. However, some of those fixtures will be against one another, and it fails to take into account the congestion we will no doubt have to deal with. Our April wobbles cannot continue into May if we're to keep pace at the top, and too many more negative results will see my position come under question. I can't allow that to happen - we need to get winning.

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Eight games in a month is enough to test any squad to the limits, and May was exactly that. We started out in the AFC Cup, where annoyingly Al-Ittihad denied us a clean sweep of the group stage points, but couldn't stop us surging through top of the pile and into the knockout rounds, a 3-1 win in India making sure of that. In the second round we were pulled out against Qadsia, a Kuwaiti side who have historically done quite well in the competition, but they were an easy enough 2-0 win for us and we head inot the last eight full of confidence.

We also managed to head through in the cup, overturning our 4-2 away defeat at Andijon with a 3-0 home win, the first team coming out and doing the business with relative ease. But our focus remains the league, and the one game we did drop came there, Bekobod scoring with two of their three shots on target in a game we should never have lost.

Other than that slip-up however, we've been excellent. None of So'g'diyona, Obod or Qizilqum are likely to end the year fighting for the title, but all were seen off comfortably as we began to find a rhythm. If we can keep it up, we should find things a great deal easier into the second half of the campaign.

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Although our Asian escapades leave us with some catching up to do, we are already in a position where our fate is in our own hands - even after a slow start. Winning our games in hand takes us top, and that has to be the aim. Qo'qon and Olmaliq remain surprise challenges at this stage, while at the other end Paxtakor are still struggling - to the delight of all our fans. It's clear for now who rules in Tashkent.

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Taken some time reading this on and off, but I'm finally caught up. Really love the concept, and some really cool teams managed thus far. - the success you're having certainly helps, also. Keep it up,

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11 hours ago, King Cactus said:

Taken some time reading this on and off, but I'm finally caught up. Really love the concept, and some really cool teams managed thus far. - the success you're having certainly helps, also. Keep it up,

Thank you, I'm glad you're enjoying the ride! The post-Soviet world is a part of FM I love, but success can come easily if you can play the market because there's a lack of resources and not always much detail. I'm hoped it would be a bit more difficult, but that said I'm still having a great time!

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With an international break in the middle of things, June was a much less hectic month than its predecessor, and we came out of it perfectly. Four games in the league, three of them at home, and we made the most of our advantage by taking a maximum 12 points. What's more, we did it with relative ease, the 3-0 crushing of Neftchi in particular laying down a marker to our rivals, and it seems like we have well and truly hit form as we turn the corner for the second half of the year.

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The table makes for excellent reading too - a point clear with three fewer games played, and if everybody wins their catch-up encounters we could be as far as nine points in the clear. It still looks like there are as many as five times with a chance of landing the top prize, but we're strong favourites at this stage even with the prospect of a fixture backlog to clear. At the bottom... well, just look at Paxtakor and laugh.

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A busy July encompassing seven matches, all of which were domestic and only one of which we lost. The sole defeat proved irrelevant anyway - the second leg of our cup quarter-final away at Olmaliq, which was almost a dead rubber after our comprehensive 5-1 win in the home leg. We march on to the final four despite a rotated side going down 5-3 on the road, and the result will be seen as nothing but a minor blip.

In the league we remained undefeated, and while draws away at Qo'qon and Mash'al do not look on paper to be overly disappointed results - both sides are in the top six with two thirds of the season gone - we could and perhaps should have taken maximum points, especially against the latter. We did pick up one win on the road against Oqtepa, but the main story was our home form. On our own patch, both Buxoro - our opponents in the AFC Cup quarters - and Lokomotiv were beaten with flurries of goals, and nobody in the league is looking forward to their visit.

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Our strong recent form has opened up a gap, and with nine games remained we have a six point cushion at the summit. Although Qo'qon have surprised us all by hanging around this long, in my mind it's a three horse race - and the Neftchi horse is starting to stumble. Defending champions Lokomotiv look all but out of things with their bipolar form, and beyond them teams just don't have the quality. At the bottom, we continue to chuckle at our neighbours.

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Just the four games in August - another mammoth international break getting in the way of our progress - and only three in the league. The one that wasn't was more domestic action, and once again Mash'al gave us problems at their place. However, a late show on our part was enough to grab parity, goals for Abdullaev and Karimov making it 2-2 and putting us in the box seat for the return leg.

In the league, we are almost there. Paxtakor were up for the derby despite their struggles, but a single goal 15 minutes from time saw them off and edged them even closer to trouble. Next up were Nasaf, our closest rivals hosting what many were billing as a title decider. With that sort of pressure, we could have been forgiven for starting slowly, but instead we netted twice in the first quarter of the game and then held our hosts at arm's length for the remainder in a thoroughly professional performance. Finally, after the cup game, we saw off Olmaliq with a display that never really got out of third gear. Still, we got the job done.

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Not only did we get the job done, but Nasaf failed to do so, losing on the road to concede six points to us in the course of two rounds. As such, with just 18 points left to play for we have an advantage of 12, and we could secure the title as early as matchday 26 if they slip up again. Indeed, Nasaf must be careful not to let second go - with everyone from Mash'al in 8th standing a puncher's chance for ending as our runners-up. At the foot of the table, Paxtakor's woes continue - there's a real chance they could actually go down.

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On 06/11/2018 at 23:38, Goretzka said:

So far so good!

 

On 07/11/2018 at 11:13, kidthekid said:

great work as always

Thank guys, appreciate you following along!

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We're very much into the business end of the season now, with three of the final six league fixtures and both legs of the AFC Cup quarter-final. We'll focus first on domestic issues - although continental competition also saw us face Uzbek opposition - and we were simply flawless, delivering when the pressure was on to win our three matches by a combined score of 13-2.  Considering that two of the three matches came against sides fighting for continental qualification, it was evidence of just how big the gap is to some of the league's lesser lights, and confirmed what we knew already...

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Bunyodkor are Uzbek champions once again, and in some style. The thrashing of Navbaxor put us on the brink, and with Nasaf beginning to fall away we knew we needed a win at home to Bekobod. Not only did we get the win, but we won emphatically - two goals inside the first seven minutes for our star striker and key creative force set us on the way, and then a second-half blitz to ice what has been a fairly spectacular cake. We started the league slowly, but once we hit our straps nobody has been able to keep up.

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The same was true in Asia, where even a domestic competitor could not stand between us and progress into the final four, Buxoro succumbing both home and away as we continued our dominance in the Asia's secondary tournament. The draw for the semi-finals could not have made me prouder. There we will face Balkan, my first club, and a side that has done well to maintain the level I left it at - for a Turkmen team to be in contention at this stage is no mean feat. That said, there'll be no room for sentiment in Balkanabat - we're expected to win, and anything less will be a massive failure.

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Confirmation in table form of what we already knew - that Nasaf have ailed off badly, that Paxtakor are in deep trouble, and that we are champions by an almost embarrassing margin. We've played very well, of that there can be no doubt - only two losses all year - but for the side in second, and the defending champions at that, to reach double figures in the defeats column doesn't say much about the quality elsewhere in the division.

Finally for the month, we welcomed the latest crop of academy graduates to the side. To put it bluntly, I'm not expected much - wing-back Niyozov may make the squad one day, but we've got to do better.

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The PFL Cup is ours, the league title is ours, and now the domestic cup belongs to Bunyodkor as well - although we made it far more difficult for ourselves than we needed to. Playing on enemy turf at Paxtakor's ground, we were 2-0 up and cruising after a flying start, both of our strikers getting on the scoresheet within four minutes of each other midway through the first half. However, Buxoro pulled one back moments later and we panicked, retreating deeper and deeper in the second period until the inevitable equaliser came.

At that point both teams had chances in extra time, but our moment came from the least likely of sources, substitute left-back Toshmatov prodding home in a goalmouth scramble after Buxoro failed to clear a corner, and they had nothing left to fight with. We should have done it in 90 minutes, but we did it nonetheless - that's all that the history books will record.

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October was very much a month for the cups, with the domestic cup final coming hot on the heels of the semi-final second leg - a comfortable home win over Mash'al - and sandwiched between the two Asian games against Balkan. Also in there was a solitary league fixture, and if there was any question of us letting up with the title in the bag, So'g'diyona can tell you otherwise. The 4-0 win was well deserved, and could have been more.

Returning to Balkan was a strange moment, but a triumphant one. The fourth club of my managerial career easily overcome the first on the back of a brace scored by a man on loan from the third, and the reception I received from the home fans was nothing short of spine-tingling. On leaving Balkanabat, someone dressing in Balkan training gear handed me a book, which later turned out to be the latest offering from President Berdimuhhamedow - a tome on football tactics, of all things. I have no idea what to do with it, but I saw that my Brazilian-inspired 4-2-2-2 was nowhere to be seen. At least not on the contents page.

In the return, we recorded another comfortable win over Balkan, ending my old club's impressive run and moving us on into the final.

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There we will meet Bangkok United, a Thai side who have never reached this stage before. Whereas with Balkan we were drawn away from home in the final - having to travel to Vietnam for the showpiece encounter - this time the luck of the draw was on our side. It means our status as favourites will be even further cemented, and the pressure is on us to win, and probably with some ease too. It's the one match we need to win to complete a clean sweep for the season, and we'll be going all out to do just that.

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With a single game played and the title secured, an end-of-the-month table seems somewhat pointless. But I'm a completionist, and we should never pass up a chance to laugh at Paxtakor. Barring a dramatic change of fortune in the final two games, the best they can hope for is a relegation play-off. It must hurt to see us doing so well.

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Let's finish where we did, and with arguably our most important individual match of the season. We were expected to walk over Bangkok United and we did just that, denying them even a solitary shot on target in the AFC Cup final and netting 10 minutes either side of the break to secure the club's first-ever success in this competition. It was a mismatch from the group stages onwards, and everybody at Bunyodkor hopes it is the last see of the competition. Next season is all about the Champions League - that's where we belong, and that's where we need to make our mark.

Even so, we celebrate the win and the clean sweep. Next year will be much more difficult, but this gives us confidence. We're back, and we belong.

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Three November games to wrap up the season, and aside from the final above there was very little to report. A straightforward victory at Obod was followed by a largely second-string side being held at home by Qizilqum just three days before the AFC Cup game, and then the first-teamers returned to finish our Asian campaign with a win.

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The final table shows our dominance as we finished 16 points clear of our nearest challengers despite those dropped points in the final match. Nasaf, our chasers for so much of the season, eventually recovered their form and secured second by winning heir final two games, while deposed champions Lokomotiv gathered just eight points from their last six and two from the last three. Bekobod in fourth are probably the biggest overachievers.

At the bottom, Oqtepa drop straight down, while Qizilqum's point at our place meant Paxtakor would indeed face the relegation play-out they had been threatened with. Frustratingly, they won it - needing extra time to overcome the second tier's runners-up - but it just means we get to beat them again next season.

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This is the quadruple-winning squad in all its glory, and pleasingly it looks like we've made progress on lowering the average age of the side. Our best players - goal machine Qodirov and centre-back Xoshimov, for example - are still at the wrong end of their careers, but with men like Ergashev yet to peak, there's plenty to work with into the coming years. That isn't to say there won't be changes over the winter - there most certainly will be - but it feels like the changes already made have had a positive impact. 

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The final piece of news is that of a new boss - Hudoyberdiev wasted no time in wrapping up a deal that only materialised after the AFC Cup final, and so it's a new set of faces in the boardroom I'll be aiming to please. The new transfer budget is improved but not particularly generous for a side looking to both consolidate domestic dominance and push ahead on the continent, but I may just have a plan to see if I can't get a little more out of them...
--

Saparow reigned supreme, his Bunyodkor side simply untouchable in Uzbekistan and too good for the second-tier AFC Cup to boot. Four trophies in a stunning debut year - only two league losses, and both in the first nine games of the season - mean our young Turkmen's reputation continues to rise, and with it expectations of future success.

But not everything is to his liking in Tashkent, with the new man in charge refusing to invest in the club's facilities and seeming to hold back on spending on the playing squad. With Bahtiyar hoping to take his side to the next level, it seems as though our youthful hero is hatching a plan to loosen the purse-strings. We can only hope it doesn't backfire.

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"Saparow?"

"Good morning Mr Chairman."

"What's this I'm reading about Qarabag? Don't you think you should have told me before the press got wind of it?"

Bahtiyar took a deep breath. He knew a misstep or poor calculation could see his job in jeopardy, and while Azerbaijan was not the worst fallback option, he wasn't particularly keen to leave Tashkent just yet.

"My apologies, Mr Chairman, I assumed you'd been briefed by the outgoing board. I made it clear to them that I would be needing a significantly improved transfer budget to add to the squad in the way I require, and that I'd be looking to clubs who could provide that for me."

There was a pause - an angry pause. 

"Saparow, the transfer budget we have calculated for you takes into account the financial realities of the club, the position of supremacy we find ourselves in, and the expectations we have of the upcoming year. We believe we have handed you an significant improvement on that offered by the previous chairman. Do you disagree?"

"Mr Chairman..."

"Saparow, stop it with the Mr Chairman nonsense. If you won't use my name, 'Sir' will do just fine."

"Very well Sir. May I ask you a question?"

"Go ahead."

"What are your expectations for the upcoming year? I don't believe they've been relayed to me."

"Very well. We expect the title to be retained, strong showings in the cups, and a competitive level of performance in the Champions League."

"'A competitive level of performance?' 'strong showings?' Could you be a little more specific, Sir?"

"Not at the moment, Saparow. Is there an issue?"

Another deep breath. Dare I push it with a chairman who was clearly not keen on being questioned? Well, I'd heard good things about Baku in the winter...

"Yes, Sir, there is. Other clubs will be investing in their playing squad to catch up with us. If we do not do the same, they will overhaul us. We cannot expect to hold our position without adding both quality and quantity. The expectations are not realistic for the budget you've given me."

Another frustrated pause.

"Saparow, I'll remind you that I am the chairman of this club, and while I may be new I am not to be trifled with. Let us be honest with one another - what do you want?"

"Seeing as you have asked - I want you to double the budget."

"Double the..."

"Please wait, Sir. I want you to double the budget. And in return, I promise you a league title and at least one of the cups this year. And the knockout football in the Champions League."

"Knockout football? Is that a promise?"

"Yes Sir, it is. With the targets I have in mind, I believe I can deliver on it too. And if I don't - well, you are the chairman of this club, after all."

"Please, give me a moment."

"Of course."

The phone went silent, all thoughts of Azerbaijan utterly disappeared. After three agonising minutes, my new chairman returned to the line - presumably having spoken with an associate or done a quick Google search on prize money.

"Saparow, we have a deal. If you can promise me the league, a cup - and not the Super Cup - and progress from the Champions League, you will generate enough funds for me to double your transfer budget. Failure to meet those expectations will have consequences, however - although it seems like you have admirers in Baku at least."

"Indeed. Thank you, Sir, for your generosity. No doubt we'll speak again soon."

Four days later, Qarabag returned with a job offer. Having been the one to approach them about the vacancy, it was an awkward exchange when I informed them I was happy in Tashkent. Azerbaijan may be home one day, but not today. I had my way, and I was already in negotiations with the men who would make Bunyodkor contenders not just at home, but far beyond our borders. We would be pitted against the riches of the Gulf states and the Chinese superclubs - and I was confident of doing something special.

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With contract wrangles over, we were finally able to get to work in January. Pre-season was perfect, a win in our marquee friendly against Freiburg supported by comfortable victories over various local sides simply happy to get a trip to the national stadium. Not only that, but the new boys joining the team look to be settling in nicely - and there were plenty of them.

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Having earned a seven-figure budget by pretending to take an interest in the Qarabag gig, I then proceeded to go and spend it. All of it. Some of the new arrivals are very much men for the future, men for whom future Bunyodkor managers will thank me in years to come, but some are sure-fire first-choice picks for the here and now as we compete on several fronts. Jo'raev at the back, Labskir behind the front two, and hotshot Xakimov up front will all start more often than not, while high-profile Akhmetov will also play a key creative role. I'm thrilled with our business, and of those departing, only the retiring Lezcano will be any great loss. 

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This year marks our return to the Champions League, and the draw - the same day as the far less important PFL Cup - brings with excitement and hope. Lekhwiya are Qatar's finest and have deep pockets, while both Al-Ahli and Al-Nassr will fancy their chances against us. Given that I've promised the club president knockout football, we have to make ourselves favourites to go through alongside probably the Saudis, but it will be far from an easy task. That said, our geography means we dodge the Chinese clubs for the time being, and given that they have dominated the tournament in recent years, that can only be a positive.

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One month down, and a perfect one. The PFL Cup is nobody's priority, but the three top-flight makeweights we were lined up against couldn't hold a candle to my champions. 4-1, 4-0, 3-0, and with plenty of goals from some of the new faces in the side - we couldn't have asked for better. Navbaxor didn't pose any more of a threat in the quarters, and then a bizarre turn of events we were paired back up with group-mates Olmaliq in the last four. We couldn't hit four for a second time, 2-0 was more than enough. We face Mash'al in the final, and while they've been tough for us to break down in the past, I can't envisage us having too many problems.

The main match of the month was, however, in the Champions League, where we faced a difficult trip to Qatar in the opening group game. Having promised the president progression into the last 16, we needed a win here, and somehow we got one. We were under pressure for the overwhelming majority of the 90 minutes, but twice in a couple of minutes we managed to spring Xakimov free on the counter, and the new signing finished clinically to give us all three points. If he can do that again in the remaining five fixtures, I might just keep my job.

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The first game of March was not a particularly important one, but that didn't prevent it becoming incredibly frustrating. Nasaf were our opponents in the curtain-raiser, and despite bossing the match we found ourselves on the wrong end of a 1-0 scoreline, wasting several opportunities before somehow letting their full-back get free in the area. I'd rather the blips came in games like this, but it'd be much better for all concerned if they didn't come at all.

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Conversely, we had no such problems in claiming the PFL Cup for the second year running against Mash'al. To give you an indication of how one-sided this one was, I direct you to the 'shots' diagram in the top right of the image. Not a single shot on goal for our rivals, whereas we created chance after chance at the other end. While it may be an unimportant trophy, it's key for me personally - I promised the president a domestic cup, and here it is, taking the pressure off in the main knockout competition later on.

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Elsewhere, we got our league campaign off to a strong start with two big home wins, but managed to snooker ourselves somewhat in the first leg of our cup clash against a team we'd beaten 4-1 two weeks beforehand - we have work to do in the second leg now, even if the importance of the cup has dwindled with our PFL victory.

In the Champions League however - and let's face it, this is by far and away the most important competition we will be partaking in this season - we destroyed Al-Ahli at home to move to a maximum six points from our opening two games, the Emirati outfit having no answer to our rapid counter attacks. However, on the road in Saudi Arabi we stumbled, a late goal condemning us to our first defeat and meaning there is still plenty to do if we are to go through. At the halfway stage we're well-positioned, but we'll be taking nothing for granted.

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An early league table says very little other than to show our 100% record after all of two games. Only Qo'qon and Andijon can boast the same - the former having played thrice - and neither are likely to stick around at the top. Teams to look out for are Lokomotiv - unbeaten and starting strong - Neftchi, Nasaf and Buxoro, none of whom have hit their straps just yet. If we can find an advantage early on, we can give ourselves room for rest and rotation when fixtures come thick and fast. That's the plan, at any rate.

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Eight games in a month makes for a manic April, with us playing Wednesday/Saturday every week. Despite that however, we've come through strong, particularly in the league. On the home front, we were in fine form, scoring goals galore - four against Olmaliq, five at Qizilqum and six at Nasaf - with all of our key attackers getting in on the act and sending a clear message to the rest of country. The one blip on the radar came in the penultimate league game, an even encounter away at Buxoro where we fought well to equalise only to concede a penalty five minutes later. Our perfect start is over, but our attacking threat is clear for all to see.

In the Champions League, a Qodirov hat-trick saw us ease past Lekhwiya at home, seeing us do the double over the Qataris in the process and move us to nine points from our our four matches. However, in the final game of a busy month our fixtures caught up with us, travelling to Dubai and returning pointless and on the end of a deserved defeat. We never truly got going, and blew a chance to seal progression. At it happens, we now go into our last fixture - a home game against group leaders Al-Nassr - knowing that we can only be sue of going through with a win. If we draw, we need Al-Ahli to do us a favour against Lekhwiya, and we cannot afford to take risks like that.

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With a quarter of the season already done and dusted, we're looking very strong in the league despite having played one game less than everyone bar Andijon. We'll catch up at some point, but quite frankly with the way we are playing and the amount of goals we are scoring, we might be tempted to give the other sides a couple of extra matches to help them keep up. Of the sides on our tails, only Buxoro and possibly Loko are likely to be long-term threats - and when you consider Nasaf and Neftchi are struggling already, our competition is beginning to dwindle even now.

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The games keep coming thick and fast - a massive nine matches through the month of May - and something eventually had to give. Fortunately for me and my men, it was the domestic cup which saw us suffer, a limp 0-1 defeat inflicted on the shadow squad by Neftchi dumping us out of the cup at the first hurdle after a 0-0 at home some weeks ago. We had bigger fish to fry just days later so we had reason to rotate, but the performance left plenty to be desired.

Our league form however, could not be faulted. A comfortable 2-0 cruise past Paxtakor in the derby was followed up with big wins against Navbaxor, Qo'qon, bogey team Mash'al and So'g'diyona, before a tired team could only managed a draw away at Obod. However, five wins from six at such a busy time does our title chances no harm at all, and the manner in which we are winning - regularly doing so by three our four goals - means we have plenty of confidence to carry us forward.

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You'll also notice in the fixture list our final Champions League group game, a crucial clash against Al-Nassr. As it turns out, even defeat to the Saudis would have been sufficient as Ah-Ahli did us a favour against Lekhwiya, but we booked our place in the last 16 in some style, an early penalty backed up by two late strikes to send us through top of the group. 

In the knockouts we landed a tie against Iranian giants Persepolis with the first leg in Tehran, and either side of our two most disappointing performances of the month - away to Neftchi and Obod - the first-teamers rested for those games returned to deliver a highly-polished performance that puts us in the driving seat for the return leg at home. Two goals in the opening quarter of an hour was all we needed, and in truth Persepolis barely laid a glove on us. If we make it through, the last eight beckon - and from then on, who knows what may happen?

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Two dropped points at Obod mean we slip off the top of the pile for the first time in a long while, with Buxoro taking our place, but there is no cause for alarm. We've only dropped five points all year to this point, and with our two games in hand we can soon retake our position at the summit. Buxoro certainly look to be our biggest threat this year, having already put nine points between themselves and Mash'al in third. There doesn't seem to be anybody else consistent enough to give us a run for our money, so it's likely to be a straight shoot-out in the second half of the season. We'll be favourites, and we'll live up to the tag.
--

Saparow's side held up their end of the bargain with the Bunyodkor president - with knockout football in Asia delivered and the PFL Cup in the bag, all that remains now is for the league title to remain in Tashkent. Not that our young hero will throw in the Champions League towel - not with a two-goal lead in the last 16.

With his side performing well and the busiest months of the season now firmly in the rear-view mirror, Bahtiyar is able to focus his energies on the continental competition. Having already exceeded the expectations of most outside the club, Bunyodkor have now positioned themselves as dark horses for the crown. Could our Turkmen talent really prove himself the best manager in Asia? Or will it need another year of consolidation in the Uzbke capital? 

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Let's start in the Champions League, the second leg of our last-16 tie beginning a much quieter month after the frantic pace of April and May. With a 2-0 lead in the bag from the away leg in Tehran, we were able to sit a little deeper than usual and attempt to hit Persepolis on the break. In the first 20 minutes it worked to a tee, first Qodirov and then Xakimov netting to move us into a lead which would prove unassailable. A busy second half saw the visitors add respectability to the aggregate scoreline, but we'd already done the hard work. Into the quarters, where we meet our second Saudi Arabian side of the competition in the form of defending champions Al-Hilal. It'll be a challenge, but we've come through those before.

In the league, we blitzed struggling Neftchi 5-1 in the middle of two oddly divergence games against Andijon. At home to the midtablers, we breezed past them to the tune of 4-2, three goals in a deadly 15 minute first-half spell doing the damage. However, two weeks later at their place we struggled badly, conceding early and late to condemn ourselves to just our second league defeat of the campaign. My assumption is that this was a one-off, but we'll need to make sure if we want to retain the title. 

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The defeat does nothing to harm our chances for the time being, with Buxoro also suffering a slip in June and allowing us to retake the lead. If we win our game in hand - against newly-promoted and soon-to-be-relegated Shor'tan - we'll go seven clear, and even with commitments on the continent we should be able to maintain that sort of gap. Especially if our strikers continue to fire as they have been.

 

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"Baurzhan, it's great to hear from you! I was wondering how things were back in Karagandy, how are the guys doing?"

...

"Oh, I see. Surely the players I left behind were... Oh, I see. I don't see the appeal myself, but..."

...

"I'm afraid not, Baurzhan, not now. I appreciate you thinking of me, but the timing isn't right. We're still in the... No, I understand. I hope the right man comes up. Take care and good luck."

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Perfection doesn't come all too often in the footballing world, but our run of form through August was just that. Our sole game in July saw us catch up to the rest of the league with a 4-1 romp over at Sho'rtan, before a quick friendly against our kids to keep the legs ticking over and then three more wins in the league. Loko don't look like a side that won the title two years ago and posed us no problems, and Qizilqum were much the same at home. The best result of the lot came away at Olmaliq - looking lethargic and trailing to a first-half free-kick, we not only broke their hearts by equalising in the 88th minute, but then grabbed a set-piece winner of our own three minutes into stoppage time. You should have seen their manager's face.

In the Champions League, we turned in our best performance since I've been at the club against Al-Hilal, and simply took the reigning champions apart. Xakimov was on fire, netting with all three of his shots on target and hitting the post with two others, and even a late consolation for the Saudis could not dampen our spirits. Barring calamity in the away leg, we'll be playing the final four, and all of a sudden the dream is looking a lot like reality. Could we really win the thing?

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With all things equal in the league, our lead is looking more comfortable as Buxoro run out of games. Fair play to them - they picked up three wins from three through August - but they need us to start slipping soon if they're going to make a dent in our seven-point advantage. Of course, the Champions League could derail us, but it hasn't done yet and if anything it's simply adding to our confidence. 

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One month, four games, and two massive results. The league was the focus here as things start to come more clearly into focus at the business end, and while in two of our three matches we performed very well indeed - a 3-1 win over last season's challengers Nasaf one of our most polished of the year - in the one that mattered we came up short. Three days after a game in the Middle East, our tiredness showed as we suffered just our third league defeat of the season at the hands of our closest challengers. Buxoro are now right back in the race, and we've got a fight on our hands.

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In the Champions League on the other hand, we march on - vanquishing champions Al-Hilal in their back yard after racking up a huge advantage at home. Into the final four, we face yet another Saudi side - our third of the competition - in the form of Al-Ahli, and will this time have the advantage of the second leg at home. Given that we've knocked out the holders, this is on paper an easier tie, but at this point in time there are no weak teams left. The other semi is made up of two Chinese titans - if we're to do this, we've got four incredibly difficult games ahead of us.

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As mentioned above, Buxoro's win in Tashkent brings them back into the title fight, narrowing the gap to four points with 18 still to play for. It means we can't afford to throw all of our eggs in the Champions League basket, otherwise we risk blowing the title. Equally, we can't afford to ignore the biggest tournament on the continent - it's going to be a tough few weeks.

Elsewhere, the new youth graduates emerged to almost zero fanfare. Generally speaking there are a few who will probably end up playing for other Uzbek sides lower down the leagues, but precious few with the ability to make it at Bunyodkor. Holding man Mexmonov is the exception - if he can sort his attitude out, he could end up being useful down the line.

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October was beginning to look a lot like crunch time in both the league and in Asia, with five critical games on both fronts. I'm only glad that we were dumped out of the cup early on - if we were fighting on a third front, I'm not sure how we'd cope.

In the league, rivals Paxtakor got a rare one over us by holding us goalless across the city. They've had a better year than last year, but are still a long way from where they'd like to be - they have to take the little victories. Our other matches however, at home to Navbaxor and away at Qo'qon, both ended in comfortable 3-1 victories to make sure we didn't let Buxoro get the jump on us.

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Remarkably, given that we were barely expected to get out of the groups, we're into the Champions League final. In a first leg which saw both sides decimated by international call-ups - a truly baffling piece of scheduling by the AFC - we pinched a narrow 1-0 win on the road, leaving us in a strong position to bring back to Uzbekistan. An own goal on the stroke of half-time put us in a very strong position, and three minutes after the break Qodirov made sure of it with the first of his brace.

In the final, we'll first go to Shanghai before returning to Tashkent, and our job will be to ensure that we are still in the tie at that point. The Chinese outfit edged past a Guangzhou side who are dominant on the home front, and boast both a wealth of Chinese talent and a number of international stars - Franck Kessie, an ageing Oscar, and former Chelsea and Newcastle man Kenedy to name but three. 

In short, Shanghai will be favourites. But so have every one of our opponents thus far, and we've got to this stage unscathed. If we can somehow pull it off, we'll be heroes.

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Back to the league, and when the pressure was on, Buxoro crumbled. They dropped points at the same time as we were drawing away at Paxtakor, and then proceeded to lose their very next match. A recovery to win in their last game of the month means they carry the fight into November, but we need one win from our final three to seal the deal. Mash'al are up next, but after that we take on So'g'diyona and Sho'rtan - and I can't see the teams in 14th and 16th giving us too much trouble.

Edited by EvilDave

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We had three chances to seal the league title, and we've done it at the first attempt. Mash'al have been a tricky opponent for us in previous meetings, but we had no such problems here - an early corner routine putting us ahead, and then Trofimenko following up just two minutes later to put us in the driving seat. Two more goals in the second half allowed me to make substitutions with the Champions League final in mind, and in the end we prevented the visitors getting a shot on target.

To land the title at this stage is the best possible outcome for us - we can now rest players for the two legs of the CL without fear of slipping up at home, and can focus all of our energy on our Asian campaign. It has already been a wonderful season, but if we can cap it with glory against Shanghai, it'll be truly historic.

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Unbelievable. Spectacular. Inexplicable.

There are plenty of words to describe our performance in the first leg of the Champions League final, but the fact of the matter is that, barring a complete reversal of fortunes in the second leg in Tashkent, we are surely to be crowned champions of Asia. A look to the statistics suggest a game our hosts edged - doubling our shots and dominating possession - but they simply couldn't cope with our pace on the counter and constant threat in transition. Time after time our two-man midfield screen broke up Shanghai moves and set one of the front four free, and yet they chose to do nothing about it. Xakimov got us off to the best possible start, an own goal on the half-time whistle put us 3-0 up, and we could scarcely believe it.

The second half was a little tighter, but even then our hosts seemed determined to stick to their misfiring guns. Nosirov made it four from the penalty spot after some pushing and pulling at a corner, and even when Kenedy pulled one back Shanghai refused to accept the result, pushing men forward and allowing us to make it 5-1 through Qodirov in stoppage time. 54,000 fans fell silent at full-time, and the handful of travelling Uzbeks didn't know how to react. They had witnessed what is surely the greatest performance by an Uzbek side in history, and will almost certainly see our coronation in Tashkent.

 

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Done. After the miracle in Shanghai, this was always likely to fall short of those standards, but that didn't stop the Bunyodkor faithful getting the party started early in the home leg. The fans were celebrating even before Qodirov stabbed us ahead on the night after less than five minutes, and by the time Nosirov netted his second penalty of the tie midway through the first half, there was little left of the contest and a full-blown celebration in the stands.

We perhaps got a little carried away in the second period, almost allowing the Chinese side a victory on the night, but it mattered almost nought. The final whistle brought with it fireworks, confetti, deafening shouts of joy from the stands, and our visitors collected their runners-up medals somewhat sheepishly before handing us centre stage. I had gambled my employment by promising to get out of the group, but never did I believe we'd win the whole thing.

Of all which means that I have a decision to make. Statistically, I have now surpassed the great Kurban Berdyev as the greatest Turkmen manager of all time, and my stock will never be higher in Central Asia. I had planned on building a side in Tashkent to achieve what has taken us just two seasons - is now the time to make the move into Europe and test myself against the very best?

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On 19/11/2018 at 08:31, kidthekid said:

Fantastic. Great job

 

9 hours ago, Goretzka said:

You're going very well, friend.

Thank you both, very much! I was astounded at the first leg of the ACL final - Shanghai are the better team on paper and we just played the perfect game. Thanks for following along!

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After the jubilation of our Champions League win, there would be one last hurrah before my players could finally rest over the winter - the Club World Cup, FIFA's favourite club competition, pitting each continent's champions against one another for sponsor's cash. Unfortunately, we fell at the first hurdle, going down to to North American champions América who were simply the better team. Our second string then lost the consolation play-off to African opposition, bringing a superb season to an end with something of a damp squib.

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Do not let that detract from the broader story though - one of resounding success at home and abroad. Needing one win from three to wrap up the Uzbek title, we stormed to maximum points, securing the league against 3rd-place Mash'al and then easing past two of the division's weaker sides to extend our lead.

As for the Champions League, it won't hurt to remind you again - a scarcely believable 5-1 win in Shanghai achieved with the perfect counter-attacking display was followed up with a score draw in Tashkent to send our fans wild. Bunyodkor are champions of Asia for the first time in their history, and Uzbek football is firmly back on the map as a result - even if our CWC performance left something to be desired.

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In the end, we would have sealed the title with no wins from three as Buxoro lost two of their last three matches, leaving us a huge 13 points clear of our nearest challengers at the end of the year. Mash'al had a fine year to take the bronze medals, with Navbaxor and Qo'qon can also be pleased with their showings. Neftchi, Lokomotiv and Nasaf were major disappointments this time round, while city rivals Paxtakor can be pleased not to have to play-off for safety this time. Sho'rtan and Bekobod were just too bad.

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These are the men who achieved so much for us this season, and it seems harsh to pick out individuals in what has been a superb team effort. Even so, 42 goals in 53 games makes new boy Xakimov a tough man to ignore, as does 12 goals and 19 assist for fellow newcomer Labskir. Our unsung hero of the season was perhaps holding man Axmadaliev, the veteran contributing well going forward - mostly from set-pieces - and playing a vital part in our midfield shield when defending. There may be one or two who are the wrong side of 30, but now this Bunyodkor side is in a position, with sufficiently forward-thinking, to dominate at home and challenge in Asia for the foreseeable future.

However, whether it will be myself who leads them into that future remains in question. Last winter saw a tense exchange between me and the club's president, resulting in a promise of Champions League knockout football, which at the time seemed bold and now seems laughable in the light of our triumph. Trophies improve any relationship, but a continued refusal to invest in facilities - something that hampered me in Kazakhstan too - is a constant source of frustration. With my reputation higher than ever, now could be the time to leave Central Asia behind - but for where? Last season brought with it interest from Azerbaijan, but there are plenty of options...
--

Champions League success and an assertion of domestic dominance makes for an incredible season for Bahtiyar and Bunyodkor. The unfancied Uzbeks went all the way, defeating Chinese superclubs and half of Saudi Arabia to lift the trophy, and with little left to achieve in Tashkent it is no surprise that our young hero is considering a change.

The biggest question now is a simple one - where to? Staying in Uzbekistan remains a possibility, albeit a distinct one. Europe seems to be calling, but the continent is a big place. With an Asian crown on his head, Saparow would not be immediately ruled out of the running for jobs in Russia or Ukraine, but with a limited reputation there he would still be seen as a gamble.

A safer option would be perhaps a lesser nation - Azerbaijan as previously discussed, or somewhere like Belarus. However, the problems in these nations are similar to those found in Central Asia - limited resources, limited opportunities on a continental scale, and clubs often unwilling to look beyond the short term.

Wherever Bahtiyar goes - or indeed doesn't - the new chapter in his career is bound to be an intriguing one...

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My phone rang. That in itself was unusual. My device is always set to vibrate - the thought of interrupting other conversations by piercing them with music was unthinkable to me. But it was definitely my phone - I was alone in my office, thinking - as I had been a lot lately - about the future.

Even if I did set my phone to ring, I would not do so to the tune of the Turkmenistani national anthem. And yet, 10 minutes before I planned to leave for my rented Tashkent home, that is what blared out until I answered the call. The choice of music, baffling though it was, gave away the identity of the caller, and even if it hasn't then the rhetoric which followed left me in no doubts.

"Bahtiyar my son, you are a hero of your glorious nation. Your motherland shares in your joys and celebrates with you - even in foreign lands, you are the sporting hero that the great Turkmen nation can unite behind.

"And yet, Saparow my son, do not be blinded by the bright lights of fame and fortune. Your destiny, the fate given to you at birth, is to be the man to bring glory and honour to your great nation. Do not be tempted by individual prizes, but consider the legacy you leave yourself and your nation. It is a noble duty you are charged with, and one which your Arkadag does not take lightly.

"So my son, heed my warnings - take care not to seek glory in vain, or to reach beyond yourself. Seek advice from those who have gone before, even those from beyond the borders of our great land. You have been well taught by Rahmon, Nazarbayev, even Mirziyoev - be careful not to abandon those precepts for the sake of vanity. My son, press forward wisely, for Turkmenistan follows your path."

The phone clicked off before I had chance to respond - to speak to Berdimuhhamedow without being prompted would have been nothing short of sacrilegious - but the message was somewhat confused. I was to pursue the glory of my nation, but not of myself, and not to deviate from some sort of political lineage? It didn't necessarily make sense for a football manager, but nevertheless I suppose I had to at least try and figure it out. He was my nation's leader, after all.
--

Four days later, after having spent much of the previous three mulling over the mysterious message, a moment of clarity came. Sat once again in my office - a familiar setting despite the Uzbek season being long over, three emails arrived in my inbox at almost exactly the same time. Three clubs, three countries, three very promising offers of interview. Three very difficult political scenes - was this what Berdimuhhamedow was alluding to? 

Either way, one of the three was dismissed. I have no doubt that Riga is a beautiful city, but the Latvian league would be too much of a step down from my position as Asian champion, and I dread to think what the Defender of the Turkmen would think of me taking up a position within the European Union of all place.

However, the other two were both responded to positively, with questions asked about the practicalities of the interviews. One would take place in 'Europe's last dictatorship,' the other in a city of dictatorial prestige that was almost embarrassing. Either option would be most agreeable - it was now a question of what they could offer me. 

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Georgia. Perhaps not the huge step up that you might expect for a Champions League winner, even if the Asian competition doesn't have quite the same reputation as its European equivalent. My age may have counted against me, but I'm not unhappy. Contract negotiations were straightforward, and the club itself has a reputation which would put even Berdimuhhamedow to shame.

Gori, for those who don't know, was the birthplace of a certain Iosef Dzhugashvili or, as you might know him, Stalin. The man who terrorised the Soviet Union for several decades hailed from this very town - no indication of whether or not the dictator ever took in a game at Tengiz Burjanadze - and where, despite his almost universal disapproval across the rest of the world, there is both a museum and statue dedicated to him

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Expectations here are high, and for good reason. A run of four successive titles was ended by Dinamo Batumi, and the club was not happy - unhappy enough to end the tenure of their previous, highly successful manager. They've been one of the most dominant clubs in Georgia, with seven titles since being promoted in 2010, and the ownership are very keen to maintain those levels. To that end, they've turned to me. I'm under no illusions - this is short-term project, a gateway to Europe, an entry point perhaps to the Ukrainian and Russian leagues. That suits me, it suits them, and hopefully by the time I'm done, it'll suit the fans too.

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There's talent here, plenty of it, and for the most part it isn't too old either. There are still some gaps - we could do with some more quality up top, we need depth in the full-back positions - but I've got the budget to recruit and there are a handful of players I can see moving on to raise additional funds. In comparison to the majority of clubs in Georgia, we've got the tools to do what's expected of us. If we fail to do so, it'll only be my fault.

In short, I'm excited. I'll be here for no more than a couple of years, there will be more trophies, and then I'll be in one of the big leagues. This is the way in, and I'm going to enjoy myself in the meantime.

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We've had a long time to get ready for the big kick-off, and with a new system to be implemented I took the opportunity to organise a great number of friendlies. We lost against Plzen, but on the whole the goals have been flowing and the attacking unit has been gelling way.

On the other hand, the lack of clean sheets is a concern, especially when you consider we've been mostly up against sides from the lower reaches of the Georgian league system. We look ready in one half of the field, but the other still needs a large amount on work.

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There's been a huge amount of movement both in and out of the club as we look to claim back the title that was taken to Batumi last season. Of the players leaving, only Galanin will be missed - the sum offered to us by Rostov was too good for us to turn down - and many of them will be back next season after gaining valuable experience elsewhere.

Coming in, we've strengthened in a number of areas, both in terms of depth and in terms of quality. The biggest buy is Modebadze, who will slot straight into the first team as part of the midfield screen ahead of Estonian rock Tenno. At the other end of the field, I've reunited myself with Shakhter hero Bogdanov - who they've let go for a criminally low fee - with the hope of seeing him bang in the goals, and on the whole we're a lot stronger than where we were. We're ready for the season, and if we don't take our title back, something will have done wrong.

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On the whole, a storming start to life in Gori. We were tasked with taking on the defending champions in my first competitive game, and an incredible first 20 minutes set us up for a perfect debut. A few days later we headed to the capital to take on Lokomotivi, who posed us very few problems, but at home to pharmaceutical-backed WIT-Georgia we inexplicably struggled and went down to our first defeat of the year.

The second half of the month reminded me just how much I loved Olexiy Bogdanov back in Kazakhstan. Handed his first start of the season away at Tskhinvali, he stole us all three points with a late brace, before hitting a first-half hat-trick at home to Zugdidi in what ended up to be a rout. If it's the first of many, I'll be happy.

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Early tables mean little, but we're top of it. Already everybody has suffered at least one defeat, and it's the side that beat us who are heading the chasing pack. Defending champions Dinamo Batumi are also there waiting for a slip-up, and already it should be clear which teams are our major threats. That said, we should be good enough to fend them off. That's the line I'm running with at the moment.

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After putting ourselves on top of the pile in March, we weren't quite as convincing in our six April matches. A good win away at Chikhura was followed up by Dinamo Tbilisi hitting us with a classic smash-and-grab to claim all the points, and a frustrating draw at Samtredia next time out had some of the alarm bells ringing.

Fortunately the next three games were much better as we handed a strong Sioni side a beating, picked up a good point at the home of the champions, and then cruised past struggling Loko to round things off. We also had cause to celebrate a true hero of the club in captain Papunashvili, who became Dila's all-time appearance record holder - he's still got it as well.

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A defeat and two draws in the month has given everyone else the opportunity to catch up, and in the case of the champions from Batumi, actually overtake us. There's no cause for concern just yet, but things are looking much tighter than they were and perhaps I've been guilty of underestimating our competition. It's annoying to see that the side that beat us, Dinamo Tbilisi, are the ones propping up the table - we should be doing much better against the teams at the wrong end of things.

 

Edited by EvilDave

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With us stuttering our way through the start of April before picking up at the end, May would be crucial as we looked to reclaim top spot from Dinamo Batumi. As it happens, we were flawless through our half dozen matches this month, with our quality - and particularly that of our foreign stars - beginning to show.

Only at home to Tskhinvali were we fortunate to grab the win, a contentious penalty decision allowing Jose Paulo to seal three points from the spot. Elsewhere - whether exacting revenge on Dinamo Tbilisi and WIT-Georgia for our earlier defeats, or breezing past Samtredia at home - we were truly excellent, with Andre Luis in particular hitting his stride. Bogdanov is among the goals too, and our attacking force is beginning to make itself known. 

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Six wins means a seven-point swing at the top of the table, and we've opened up a six-point lead at what is almost the halfway stage of the season - much more like it. There's now a month-long gap in the calendar, which includes the opening stages of the World Cup, before we kick off our Davit Kipiani Cup campaign and face Europa League qualifiers. It's at this point, with the introduction of other competitions, that our strength in depth should shine through, but managing the balance will be no mean feat. I'm confident, but we can't get complacent. Not again.

Edited by EvilDave

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Before we get into the results, let's deal with the main event of the month - not the World Cup in Mexico, which saw the hosts out in the group stage before the English triumphed in the most perfect manner possible - but instead the utter idiocy of the club's ownership. Not content with flogging penalty-taking full-back Jose Paulo to Amkar against my will, just a few days later they used the same financial excuses to move Tsikarishvili - our starting full-back on the other flank - to the same club.

Those same financial excuses seemed somewhat hollow when they allowed me to supplement the free signing of Russian veteran Tigiev with a deal to repatriate Sibir Novosibirsk's Davit Shengelia - a man with the potential to surpass both of our departed stars - for a fee with the potential to rise to the total received for the outgoings. So while we have an excellent footballer, our depth is now weakened, and the monetary gain is minimal. To say I'm feeling bitter about the whole thing is an understatement.

What's more, I am currently in the process of solving the lack of money in the bank via the Europa League, where we successfully fought our way past Lokomotiv Plovdiv and then Elfsborg. Both ties were won by the odd goal courtesy of 1-1 away draws and 1-0 home wins, but we'll have to reverse that pattern if we're to fight our way past Ukrainian outfit Chornomorets. Gabriel's goal gives us a chance, but we'll need to at least maintain our record of scoring on the road if we're to go further.

Elsewhere, a narrower-than-expected win in the cup and two close wins in the league - including a crucial victory over Batumi keeps up our winning running there, but with cup games coming thick and fast it's important we keep the momentum going.

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That win over Dinamo, coupled with a draw for the defending champions elsewhere, means our lead is now into double figures at the top of the pile. That gives us a cushion as we attempt to fight on several fronts, but we can't afford to let too much slip.

Quite frankly however, the actions of the club have confirmed that my stay in Gori will be a short one. In the past I've dealt with presidents unwilling to invest in facilities, but even that pales in comparison to having crucial assets sold from under me, and without consultation. I'll see out the season - and hopefully add another country's title to my CV - but I shan't grace Gori with my presence for much longer.
--

Bahtiyar was fuming - not one, but two players sold without his say so, and both from the same position to the same Russian club. If he was less angry, he'd be suspecting some sort of collusion between his employers and Amkar - as it was, he was simply wondering where his next move was.

That said, Dila were continuing to make progress on the field in the absence of their star defenders. A strong lead in the league and a chance to push on in Europe would do Saparow's reputation no harm at all - would his frustrations finally lead to a move into one of the bigger leagues in the former Soviet Union? 

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Let's start with the league first, somewhat counter-intuitively. We got off to a fairly shocking start in August by losing away at Lokomotiv - our two goals coming as late consolations in an abject display - but it was the only blemish in an otherwise flawless month. WIT, Tskhinvali and Chikhura were all beaten with relative ease to make sure we stay firmly on top of the pile and on course for the title.

The big story however, comes firmly in the Europa League. With a 1-1 draw from the home leg we needed to perform very well in Odessa to have any chance of reaching the play-off, and we did just that - two goals from Gabriel squeezing us through on away goals. It also meant we stole Chornomorets' seeding for the final qualifiers, which saw us paired with Dinamo Minsk. A remarkable final 10 minutes in the first leg saw us take a three-goal lead to Belarus, and an even more impressive opening salvo had us 6-0 up on aggregate after just five minutes. Our hosts battled back to make a game of it, but the damage had already been done. Into the groups we go.

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And a very good group it is - arguably the weakest and most balanced in the whole competition. We're under no illusions, and recognise that our own presence will be viewed very favourably by the three other sides in our quartet, but Braga were the soft target as top seeds, Lokomotiv are not having the best of years, and Rijeka could be beatable. We've done very well to even make it this far, but there's a chance - a slim one, but a chance nonetheless - that we could go even further.

Of course, the windfall from our progress has solved any lingering financial issues, to the extent that the chairman has agreed to increase my transfer budget. This being the same chairman who, just a month ago, decided that the best thing for the club to do was to sell off two of my best players to raise extra funds, only to let me spend what he'd raised. The man is an idiot, and I can't say I'll miss working for him when I leave.

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Back to the league, and despite defeat in Tbilisi, we're extended our lead to 14 points. Dinamo's second place is now under serious threat from WIT-Georgia, and Sioni are not too far behind in the race for European spots. The chasing pack now need to make up more than a point per game if they're to overhaul us, so the title should be a formality at this stage - however, our Europa League progress will mean a stretched and tired squad as the season nears its end, so we must remain vigilant.

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Seven games in September, and yet we were close to perfect. In the domestic cup we steamrollered Batumi on their own turf to move into the last eight - a real statement given they're supposed to be challenging us in the league - and then eased past Sioni to set up a tie with Dinamo Tbilisi in the semis. We'll be favourites, and frankly we should come out on top.

In the league, we brushed aside our next cup opponents at home, saw off Samtredia on the road and breezed past Sioni to claim maximum points in three of our four matches, with the only blip on our record coming in a 1-1 draw in Batumi. It's frustrating as we had the better of the play by a considerable way, but we don't lose any ground to our challengers and that's fine by me.

Finally, the Europa League, and what a start we made. Away in Croatia against third seeds Rijeka, most expected a narrow home win, or a draw at best. What nobody saw coming was a 4-0 blitz and a striking masterclass from Andre Luis, who single-handedly tore our hosts apart. If we can repeat the victory in the home fixture, we might onyl need to find one more win from our four games against Braga and Lokomotiv to go through. I'm still not sure whether I'm getting carried away or not.

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The league table with nine matches to go shows our dominance of the competition, and the maths is now very simple. If we win our game in hand, we go 19 points clear and are within a couple of victories of the title. Dinamo have only actually lost one more game than us, but we have a habit of winning the closer games while they've been dropping points in draws, and the gap is now huge.

Elsewhere, the latest batch of youngsters graduated from the academy to much fanfare, and there are one or two showing real promise. In terms of raw talent, striker Razmadze looks to be the best of the group, but at present he lacks the drive to make it in Gori. Even if that changes, I won't be around to see it happen.

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Mission accomplished. The second league game in October, after setting ourselves up with a home win over Lokomotiv Tbilisi, saw us net twice let on to edge out WIT-Georgia and seal a league title which has been obvious for a while. The trophy comes back to Gori after its brief sojourn in Batumi for the year, and I've hopefully set the side up to dominate for years to come.

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Even with the title secure, we did not back off, following the triumph in the capital with 2-0 successes on the road in Zugdidi and at home to Chikhura, both sides at the wrong end of the table. The only blemish domestically came in the cup, and it was quite a large one - in what was probably the worst performance of my tenure, we were played off the park by struggling Dinamo, blowing our chance of a double and disappointing our travelling fans. I was not happy, and I let my players knew it.

We also suffered a heavy defeat in the Europa League, although against a side of Lokomotiv Moscow's calibre - even at home - we can have precious few complaints. Two of the goals came in the final 10 minutes, but we were not of the required level to match their talents. After that thrashing, what nobody expected was for us to go to Portugal and win - and not just win, but win convincingly. Braga were poor, registering just two shots on target over the 90 minutes, and we're back in with a real shout of qualification at the halfway point of the group.

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Even with two fewer games played, our lead is up to more than 20 points, and is only likely to grow if things continue as they have done. The battle for the runners-up spot is now a tight fight between the deposed champions, WIT and Sioni, while Lokomotiv aren't out of the running either. At the bottom, Dinamo's slump has given Zugdidi the faintest of hopes, but even if they come out of that they'll face a play-off to survive. At this point, it's only Samtredia with nothing really to motivate them.

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With the title already wrapped up heading into the final weeks of the season, our focus on the league was less than complete. We had a huge and unassailable lead in the table, but I was still keen to finish strongly and aim for a record points tally. We hit that after the 4-0 win over Samtredia in the penultimate fixture - only Dinamo Tbilisi, a side we have struggled against all year, taking points off us beforehand - and then surpassed it further with a final day romp at Sioni.

The main source of interest was of course the Europa League, where wins in Rijeka and Braga had left qualification to the last 32 tantalisingly within our grasp. When Temur Makharadze struck to give us a second win over the Portuguese side in our return fixture, we were set up perfectly. One more point would be all we needed.

That point would not come at home to the Croatians however, a second-half penalty condemning us to defeat and and meaning we needed a draw in Moscow, or hope Braga could take something off Rijeka in their final game should we succumb to another loss. Despite the best efforts of Bogdanov to claw us back into the game, we couldn't pull level, and so were left waiting on the result from Portugal...

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It was enough. The other match in the group finished goalless, meaning our 50% record was enough to see us into the knockout rounds behind the Russians. For Braga, who started as top seeds, it was a catastrophic campaign. For lowly little Dila, it was the stuff dreams are made of.

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I had planned on leaving at the end of the season, but the opportunity to take the club into the knockout stages of European competition is too big to pass up - especially given our draw for the last 32. Dinamo are no pushovers, having earned 15 points in topping their group, but given the fact that there are sides dropping down from the Champions League and others of much greater pedigree, this is winnable. I'll be staying to see this one out, barring anything unexpected.

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Domestically, we walked all over the competition. We took the title by 27 points, effectively a whole round of fixtures better off than our competitors. Batumi regained at least some pride in finishing as our runners-up, while long-term holders WIT-Georgia secured third after a tight battle with Sioni and Loko. At the bottom, Zugdidi headed straight down after failing to haul Dinamo in, and the Tbilisi side survived a play-off to maintain their top flight place - despite Chikhura, who finished comfortably ahead of them, falling at the same hurdle.

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The men who made it all happen. It brings me great pleasure to see Bogdanov excelling for a second club under my tutelage, and his goalscoring ability makes me frankly shocked that he hasn't made the move to a bigger league before. Behind him, Gabriel was an ever-present and ever-creative force providing the chances, while at the back Shikhashvili earned a place not only in the league's team of the year, but also in the national squad with his solid displays. 

Exactly how much longer I'll be in Gori remains to be seen - I'll be walking away as soon as our European adventure ends - but with the strongest side in Georgia by far, and Europa League money in the coffers, they should be set up for a good while yet. There will need to be changes - as ever, bringing in younger talent to replace the elder statesmen is a priority - but I'm happy with the work I've done in my short time here. 
--

Saparow would, when he finally left Dila, look back with fondness on the team he had managed. He had inherited strength, added to it well, and left a dominant force in Georgia that was capable of competing abroad as well. The success of Bogdanov in particular, a man he had identified back in Kazakhstan, brought great delight.

But the set-up of the club, with a chairman predisposed to irrational financial decisions and selling players over the manager's head, meant that Saparow had no intention of sticking around beyond the end of the Europa League run. Ideally he'd have stayed for the Champions League qualifiers, but our Turkmen hero was an ambitious man, and he was not willing to wait and be messed with. The next campaign would be shortened by his departure, but by how much?

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I'm still here, and with the exception of a close game to Russian giants Krasnodar to open our preseason, our winter fixtures have ended comfortably in our favour. Against local sides in particular, we've been amongst the goals, and my hope is that now we can take that into the Dinamo tie.

There could be a few new faces in the squad for the two legs after a bit of a winter spending spree. The overwhelmingly majority of the players brought in are ones for the future, a gift to the next manager here and probably his successor too, but there are first-team squad members ready to go as well. Glazkov and Gotsiridze are both top-level players at this level in front of the defence, with the former able to play further up the pitch if need be. Russian creator Dima Smirnov adds to our wealth of talent in the attacking midfield line, while up front the likes of Bogdanov and Andre Luis have a new Georgian rival in Sekhniashvili.

I may only be managing them for two matches, or I may be here until the Europa League final in the summer, but either way I feel we're as ready now as we're ever going to be. I've achieved what I came here to do - despite the best efforts of the club's ownership - and will leave with my head held high. More importantly, it'll be for bigger and better things.

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So close, and yet so very far. We put up a fight in Zagreb despite being outplayed by the hosts, but in truth the damage was done in the home leg. After conceding the first goal, fought back to level through an own goal and then went ahead through Sekhniashvili with just four minutes to go. Instead on holding on for the win, we shipped an injury time leveller, and that was the goal that send that ultimately cost us our run.

My plan was to leave immediately after our exit, but with openings scarce and the leagues in Russia and Ukraine only just waking from their winter slumbers, I decided to stick around until something suitable came up. The thought of doing nothing was in no way appealing, and there was still a chance of further silverware. 

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Silverware which we grabbed in the former of the curtain-raising Super Cup. With my focus only half fixed on Dila, I opted to field a squad made up entirely of Georgian players for this one, and we showed last year's cup winners than even when missing our international talent, we have enough to beat even the best domestic opposition. It might not be the most prestigious trophy, but it still counts as far as I'm concerned. At least, as long as we're winning it.

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After our cup exploits, our league campaign got underway with four victories, the highlight of course being a 7-2 annihilation of Lokomotiv Tbilisi. Bogdanov has picked up where he left off, netting back-to-back hat-tricks before striking again against Samtredia. The win over STU was simple but marred by a devastating injury to new signing Smirnov, but though the personal impact on the Russian will be huge, our squad should be able to cope without him. Certainly while I'm here, at least.

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Already top, still perfect - the league should pose little challenge for this squad. There isn't really anything else to say at this stage...

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Another month largely unchallenged in the league, another defeat to bogey team Dinamo Tbilisi, and another month spent largely casting my glances elsewhere looking for a job in a higher standard of competition.

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When the openings appeared, my applications were well-received. Kuban were the first to respond, the Krasnodar side still in with an outside chance of reaching the play-off positions and fighting for promotion to the Russian Premier League. Two days behind them were Arsenal Tula, firmly entrenched in the top flight relegation spots with nine matches to play, and not much chance of escaping.

Both are clubs with problems - on the field and financially - both are clubs with potential, and both are clubs with large fanbases who frankly deserve better than what they're being served up at present. When both sides came back with an offer, I had a decision to make... 

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Despite the defeat to Dinamo, I leave Dila well-placed for another title, and with the resources to outstrip any of their domestic rivals. Georgia has been good to me even if the club haven't, and in particular I'll look back fondly on our European run. The time is right to move on however - to move on to somewhere I might finally be able to spend more than a couple of years.

Edited by EvilDave

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So, Kuban it is. A 500 mile trip from Gori to Krasnodar, from Georgia to the North Caucasus, and after eight years of plugging away in Central Asia and then Georgia, I'm made it to Russia. For a man brought up with the history of the Soviet Union, Russia's top flight will always be the most prestigious competition to be a part of, and at Kuban I now have a chance to make it.

Of course, Arsenal Tula would have offered me the chance to get there more quickly, but with their predicament at the wrong end of the table, the medium to long-term view looks a lot worse. Kuban are down in 9th, but this a club that could go places. We've got a large - albeit ageing - stadium, a fanbase starved of success, and rivals across the city to overhaul. It's a project I can get my teeth into, and I'm looking forward to it.

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Kuban's recent past has been mixed to say the least. 2012/13 was a high point that brought about Europa League qualification, but by 2016 they were down in the second tier and have struggled ever since. Promotion in 2017 was followed by another relegation, promotion in 2019 by the drop two years later, and when they finally made it back up in 2024 they fell straight back through the trapdoor. Last season saw them miss out on the play-offs, and unless I can work a miracle in the last six games of the season, they'll do so again this year.

But that isn't a concern at this point. My role, as made clear by the chairman, is to make sure that this time next year we're in the mix. Ideally I'd like to avoid the play-offs altogether and lock down one of the top two spots, but third and fourth are acceptable. Once we get back to the top flight, the real work begins.

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This is the squad I've got for the rest of the season at least, and one of my first jobs over the coming weeks will be to sit down with the huge number of players whose contracts are up at the end of the season. The loanees in the side look to be some of the best players here and, if they're willing, I'll be aiming to extend their deals by another year.

However, with the league regulation forbidding us offering more than the £925 maximum to any more than a handful of players, recruitment over the summer is likely to be difficult. There's a significant gap between the senior players in the side - the likes of Karpov, Kondryukov and Tebidze in their 30s - and the talented but raw youngsters, and that will be the gap that I'll look to fill in the off-season.

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Finally, the state of play at the time of my takeover. With just six games to go, the automatic promotion spots are comfortably out of reach for us, and we sit eight points back of Mitallurg Lipetsk in the final play-off spot. If we're going to haul them in, we're going to need a perfect run of results as well as a few favours from elsewhere. If we can turn things around in such a short space of time I'll be thrilled, but as I've said before, that isn't the priority. In the short-term we need a rebuild, and the push comes next season. That's the goal, that's the plan, and that's what I'm here to do.
--

After a slightly longer stay in Georgia than anticipated, Saparow has made his move - taking the job at Kuban Krasnodar with six games to go in the Russian season. Promotion might not be on the cards this time round, but there's a sense that our young Turkmen is, for perhaps the first time, more focused on the long term.

Other than a few months in BalkanabadBahtiyar hasn't managed to spend more than two full seasons at a single club. Success has spurred him to new heights and new countries, but now in Russia there's a realistic aim to settle, to build and to make a name for himself in the big league. Kuban are a club with undoubted potential - an historic name in a football-mad city - and Saparow has thus far shown himself to be a manager with much of the same. This could be the proving ground, and the move that makes or breaks our young hero's career...

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Six games to complete the season, and the initial signs are reasonably promising. My career in Kuban began with a dull goalless draw against midtable Mordovia, but three wins against decent sides gave us the faintest of hopes that we might be able to challenge the play-off positions.

Those hopes were dashed away in Tambov, the tycoon-backed side all ending our promotion hopes with a narrow victory earned by a late goal. We netted late on ourselves in a convincing 4-0 romp over Tyumen to finish the side, but the damage was already done on the road. If we multiply out that 4/1/1 record out over a season, we'd be going up - that has to be the aim next year. 

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As it happens we finish up in 8th place, one spot higher than when I took over and only three points - our defeat at Tambov - away from battling for promotion. The summer gives us the opportunity to do the work we need to in order to make up that difference, and to be quite honest the fact that we've ended up so close this season suggests that perhaps a play-off spot is too low an expectation. With some careful investment and much-needed fundraising, I'm confident we can win promotion. If we don't, I'll be having doubts about my own abilities.

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