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An FM19 challenge that starts unemployed, crosses the continent of Europe and attracts bigger clubs - that is if I don't get sacked by anyone!

Discussion
It’s a long time since I last played a lower league game on Football Manager. If you really want to pry it took place with Leigh RMI in FM 2007, when I guided the evocatively named Railwaymen from the Conference North to the Championship. I think I stopped playing it when I decided to resign and take over at Tranmere, and the romantic fun of the journey strangely ended at that moment.

Since then, I’ve mainly focused on big club games, mostly because there’s a lot of pleasure to be derived from winning things. But there’s a lot of football knowledge in this wine-soaked old brain and I feel the pull of trying my hand at starting unemployed and working my way through to the top. Additionally, I fancy travelling across the continent in order to achieve my dream, managing in countries I’ve never tried previously and perhaps learning something along the way. It’s a journeyman challenge in other words, an Inter-Railing adventure, beginning in whatever nation will have me and ending up… where? Who knows?

I’m a bit nervous about it, and I’m writing these words as I play the game so there’s the chance that I’ll screw it up and end up on the Christian Gross sponsored scrapheap, but then again maybe not. It probably helps that I’m the best football manager in the world, true story, and it’s just going to take the world a little while to catch up with that reality.

It’s early summer 2018. I’m blissfully free of work and looking at the wide world of opportunities that lie in wait. I begin with leagues from Belgium, Croatia, Czechia, Denmark, England, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Scotland, Spain and Sweden loaded, and I look at what’s available. Bradford City are without a manager and offer me an interview, but I don’t want to start in England and decline the possibility of lending my talents to the Yorkshire club. Preferably I would like to start with a professional outfit, and there’s only one club that matches the brief – FK Banik Sokolov, in the Czech 2 Liga, or Czech second division.

The interview goes as expected, because Football Manager’s bank of questions is a shallow puddle and I say what I need to in order to make myself employable. Other jobs fall by the wayside. Roberto di Matteo takes over at Brondby IK in the Danish Superliga, which is no doubt a step above where I am presently. Bradford offer work to no less a figure than Tactics Tim Sherwood, the sort of positive working relationship that seems made for fat future tears. And then Sokolov offer me the job and I move to the west of the Czech Republic.

The date is 7 July. It will live in infamy as the date my glorious road to, er, glory, was embarked upon.

Like many Czech towns, Sokolov’s biggest talking point is the haunting memory of playing host to a Nazi concentration camp. There’s been a community here since the thirteenth century, but the existing city has ebbed and flowed with the overall fortunes of the Czech people. Prague is some miles away. It’s a neat and small place, which pretty much describes my new employers. Sokolov Stadium has a capacity of 5,000. Its pitch is surrounded by a running track, with a couple of small stands and nothing at either end, and some tennis courts next door. The club has existed for around seventy years, but recent records show a side happy enough to bumble around the second tier. My brief is to finish in the top half, achieving little more than easy safety. I’m given a transfer kitty of £174,300, with a little bit room in the wage budget to bring a few players in, which is something I’m really going to need to do.

The existing first team squad consists of 20 players, overwhelmingly Czech with a few Slovaks dotted around. Talent levels are what you expect, nothing very exciting, but then again probably about good enough to prevail at this level. The issue is numbers. There’s no right-back at all. Cover in most positions is minimal. Our star man is Vaclav Vasicek, a 27 year old striker who’s on loan from Sigma Olomouc. There’s very little room to manoeuvre, with a slim pickings of players who have any genuine resale value and a few quid to boost the ranks a little. Talking of which, I didn’t know a single thing about Sokolov before taking the job, so it’s safe to assume the wild world of football has little knowledge of them either. Approaching players with the offer of playing for a second division side in some Czech backwater is almost certainly going to be the stuff of nobody’s dreams, so the search for signings will no doubt be a long one.

Apart from the side, my awareness of the league we’re playing in is essentially a journey of discovery. I’ve just about heard of Brno, possibly not even for football reasons, but their recently relegated club is the favourite to go straight back up. Jihlava are tipped to finish second. We’re considered the sixth best team, within a division of sixteen, mostly names that are both difficult to write and pronounce. Within Europe, the Czech Second Division ranks 50th in terms of reputation, tucked in betwixt the Swiss Challenge League and the Portuguese Second Division. We’re considered superior to the English League Two, but League One is some distance away. I can only dream of one day managing in the big three of the Spanish La Liga, English Premier League or Italian Serie A. Or at least they can dream about me managing there, or they will one day...

I start to work. As news filters through of big money transfers that are happening somewhere in the fantasy land of top level football – PSG sign Leipzig’s Kevin Kampl for £27 million; Oliver moves from Porto to Arsenal for a crisp £20 million – I meet my tiny body of staff. We need a couple of coaches, several scouts, someone to heal injured players. There’s much to do, beginning with a pre-season friendly this evening against Tatran Prachatice, an even tinier Czech side than ourselves. It’ll give me a chance to assess the squad, hopefully not in an entirely pessimistic way.
To anyone reading this (and thanks and hello if that's you), then please note I'm a very old school FM gamer, easily long enough involved to have called myself a CM gamer. My stories are text-based, so if you like reading then this is probably the one for you. Any graphics I post will be either critcal to the game, or utterly tangential, because I'm contrary like that. This is genuinely my first attempt at a lower league, multi-national game on FM19, so I'm excited and a bit nervous about how it's going to go. In my favour is my status as the greatest manager in the history of football, which is more a burden than a good thing when you think about it.

By the way, I used to be very involved in the community many moons ago, and just fancied getting involved again with a write-up of my current game. If there is anyone left who remembers the old days then you'll probably know the name, otherwise it's a great pleasure to meet you and to be part of this little corner of the internet.
Hey @T_Side2, this is a cracking idea for a save! Can't wait to see where your travels take you and what you can achieve on the way!

Good luck as you start off in the Czech Republic!
FM19 Careers:

https://i.imgur.com/eWbt0ww.png
Pre-Season - July 2018

With only two weeks to go until the start of hostilities, there’s much to do. We need more staff. The squad is too thin, to the extent that any warm bodies would make a difference. Those players we do have look far from ready to kick a ball in anger yet.

My contract is a princely £925 per week. If I was based in Prague this might allow me to live in a shoebox, but in Sokolov I can rent an apartment that isn’t too far from the rather lovely waterpark at the Jezero Michal. This is great, but even my wages are a burden on the paper-thin resources at the club, the meagre margin in between what we’re currently spending and what we’re allowed to spend, and the need to add so many personnel.

I have an Assistant Manager, David Vanecek, a playing veteran from the club who was added to the staff upon his retirement because (i) he was around (ii) he can count, a bit. There’s a grizzled goalkeeping coach who seems decent enough, and a Head of Youth Development who looks as though the only thing he could develop is bed sores from never getting off his backside. There’s precious little else in terms of coaching so I do the whole job centre thing and recruit a fitness specialist (Jaromir Urbanek – the word ‘specialist’ is used in its broadest possible sense) and a general coach, former Czech international Zdenek Pospech. The aim here is to keep the players reasonably happy about the possibility that they will actually do some meaningful training.

There’s no scout so I add one, along with a few personnel to deal with the youth team. It’s a concern that I can’t afford the salary of a decent physiotherapist. The existing Head Physio would only need webbed feet, wings and a bill to be any more of a quack, so the hope is that players don’t get injured too often. From what I can tell there will be a lot of sticking plaster and fingers crossed with this lot.

At least with a scout on the payroll we can begin to look for players. The instant priority is at right-back where we have no one at all. We win the friendly against Prachatice 5-0 and with no trouble whatsoever, though in truth the opposition is an amateur side and this is no more than a chance to build some match fitness. Attacking midfielder Jakub Dvorak plays as full-back because of the absolute absence of options elsewhere; this is a criminal waste of a decent player. Later we find our man in the shape of Montenegrin journeyman Nemanja Gojacanin, a 25 year old with some U21 caps under his belt who is joining his seventh club in signing for us. Not ideal, but then again trying to persuade anyone to come to a Czech Second Division outfit on pitiful wages isn’t easy. His back-up is even lowlier, a 15 year old kicking around the local parks called Jaroslav Hajek, who’s picking up his first professional contract with us.

Elsewhere, we have reasonable numbers in attack but our defence is pitiful. Left-back isn’t a problem with arguably the side’s best – and certainly best paid – player, Milan Misun, turning out for us. Misun is 28, competent, and a throwback to the days of full-backs who are there principally to defend. He even has some British experience on his CV, with spells at Celtic, Dundee and Swindon behind him. At centre-back the situation can principally be summed up as dire. Adam Cihak, Ondrej Sevcik and Daniel Stropek are at most back-up options, hell they might even grow to be reasonable players, but they are not going to lead our charge to the top.

Unfortunately, bringing people in to start for us amounts to a string of rejections and lowering our targets, until we eventually persuade two more journeymen that playing for a team is better than not playing at all. Ivica Jurkic is a 24 year old Croat who is probably a better left-back than playing in the middle, but what can you do? We’re his eighth club, which says it all. Infinitely more grizzled is 33 year old Czech veteran Jakub Chleboun. Starting his career promisingly with Slavia Prague, it was all downhill from there, as lengthy spells in Kazakhstan and for our divisional rivals Hradec Kralove testifies. He’s by some distance our best option, which is somewhat concerning.

In our final friendly we down Lokomotiv Vitavin 2-0 in Prague before a trickle of 154 spectators. It isn’t vintage stuff. We dominate and score our goals early before everyone tacitly agrees to go through the motions. My attention turns to midfield, where we capture Jan Stohanzl to bolster the ranks. There was a time when Stohanzl’s career was the stuff of promise. Good development at Jihlava and Teplice led to his presence in the Czech Under-21s, but it stalled from there with the typical string of clubs, including a stint in India for Mumbai, leading his road eventually to Solokov. Now 33 and able to fill a hole anywhere in midfield, I try to ignore the bleak reality that we’re the eleventh stop on his journey through football’s hinterland. Jan Malik is captured essentially to give us a dedicated defensive midfielder, which we will completely need. He’s 26 and another drifter of Czechia’s lower reaches, but he has enough positional sense to know which direction to move in, and that matters.

For a bit of exotic fun, we draft in a couple of younger players to improve the situation in midfield. A 19 year old from Morocco, Younes Teghmas was with Antwerp before being released. He’s considered a third division player at best, but there’s room for development here. Finally, bored of working with Czech players, with their stupid accents and off-putting good looks, I snap up a 24 year old English midfielder, Karl Cunningham, originally from the footballing metropolis of Lincoln City before embarking on a European odyssey of his own. After a long spell in Sweden, Karl has no concerns about leaving Blighty and is probably the fourth best central midfielder in the squad. That says a great deal more about us than it does him.

All the same, our additions have bolstered the ranks to 31, giving me the flexibility to consign some players to the Under-21s or even shift one or two of them out of the club. We’re working slightly within our salary budget, having been creative with adjusting down the amount I’m allowed for transfers. The really hard work begins here. Sokolov’s squad has the look of a makeshift, patched together group of players, mostly because that’s exactly what it is. I have to knit them into a fighting unit, try not to lose too many games before the gelling process is complete. We’re not very good, but then again no one else is likely to be either.
July 2018

The Czech Second Division consists of 16 teams, meaning a league campaign of 30 matches. There’s one automatic place on offer, while the sides that finish second and third get to play against lower placed clubs from the First Division in an effort to get promoted. To put it succinctly, going up is a bitch.

But we don’t need to worry about any of that. My brief is to achieve a top half finish, though truthfully I have no idea what to expect from this group of rustlers, cut throats, murderers, bounty hunters, desperados, mugs, pugs, thugs, nitwits, halfwits, dimwits, vipers, snipers, con men, Indian agents, Mexican bandits, muggers, buggerers, bushwhackers, hornswogglers, horse thieves, bull dykes, train robbers, bank robbers, ass-kickers, shit-kickers and Methodists who are posing as professional football players. I hope everyone else is loosely in the same position as we are, struggling desperately to conjure some sort of squad that has some idea of how to play together.

Our opener is away to Hradec Kralove. They hail from the town of the same name, and unlike us have some history in Czech football, having won the First Division during the Soviet era and playing in the top flight as recently as 2017. In their past is participation in the big European competitions, Czech FA Cup success and an alumnus of international stars. If I could be bothered to type their ridiculously convoluted names I would list some of them here. But I can’t.

It couldn’t be a much more difficult start to the season, but at least we’ll get them out of the way, these big time Charlies who finished fourth last season and are looking to go a few steps better this time around. Before a polite smattering of supporters and on a gloriously sunny central European July afternoon, we begin as much the better team. My pressing tactic seems to be paying off. The Slaves (as they are lovingly nicknamed) can’t really get into gear as mustard shirted Sokolovians harry them at every turn. We control possession, dominate the shot count, with Malik operating comfortably ahead of our four man defence. No goals though, Ottmar in the home team’s net dealing with everything that comes his way. Having the run of the game’s early passages is great, though as we approach half-time fatigue is clearly settling in. Striker Vaclav Vasicek is forced off with what turns out to be week-long twisted knee layoff, while Stanislav Vavra on the right wing starts running out of ideas against Kralove’s superior defender, Jan Kvida.

After the break our grip on matters slips further. The opposition remember that they’re playing at home and resolve to impress their few fans, enjoying the more meaningful bouts of possession. Not that much of a surprise really, considering they have actual Czech internationals playing for them, including Milan Cerny who was once a regular at Slavia Prague. In the 73rd minute, they carve us open a little too easily for attacking midfielder Vlkanova to place his shot beyond Belan in our goal, a lead they never look like losing. They even try to make it easy for us by having a man sent off, as the Slaves substitute dirty tactics and foul play for skill, and we’re left to lick our wounds.

My Assistant Manager tells me to go easy on the players – it’s the first game; they just need some encouraging words. However if I’ve learned anything from working with Vanecek it’s to do pretty much the opposite of anything he suggests. His in-game advice was appalling, though to his credit he did manage to source a couple of choc ices to stave off the worst of the sun’s excesses. I don’t lay into the lads because it’s an away game against strong opposition, but I let them know I’m not happy. The majority of the players look as though the language gap has suddenly become an issue.

July ends with a home tie against Viktoria Zizkov. Many moons ago a mysterious fortune teller told me that I’d always do well against anyone with more than one Z in their name, and while the less said about my encounter with Mr Zidane the better, I’m hoping for a lot better here. 756 Sokolov faithful haul themselves to our crappy stadium for this one, making for a relatively poor showing in a ground that holds 5,000, but it’s my job to improve those attendance figures and the only way we will do that is with good results. I push Malik into central midfield alongside Stohanzl and use Dvorak as an attacking midfielder, while Adam Sevcik starts in attack with Vasicek ruled not fully fit.

Again we start well. On 19 minutes, Vavra swings the ball through to Dvorak who beats the keeper with his spectacular volley from outside the area. Hrubes in the Zizkov goal looks as though he can’t believe anyone would attempt such a shot, let alone work it beyond him. It only takes the away side two minutes to equalise, really a quite sloppy goal to concede after we let them play a string of passes in and around the danger zone. I don’t really want to see my boys make bad tackles, but at times like these heavy, industrial-strength challenges could be exactly what’s needed. Or is it our keeper, Belan, who’s to blame? He’s 37, the oldest player ever to have turned out for us, and he looks slow and immobile at this moment. I look at the alternative, another guy named Dvorak who’s fast asleep on the bench, and think I’m better off sticking with the veteran.

Fortunately, things improve as the first half continues. We win a penalty that Vavra dispatches with little fuss, and the winger is involved again ten minutes later when he threads an assist through to left winger Stipek, who is beautifully placed to score. It gets even better shortly before the break when Stipek’s free kick is bundled over the line by a Zizkov defender, who for his troubles is slapped in the back of the neck by their beleaguered keeper.

4-1 at half-time is such an emphatic scoreline that I allow the side to time waste their way through the second period. There’s time for Sevcik to score his first ever goal for us when he heads Stipek’s corner kick beyond Hrubes, but I even get the luxury of making my substitutions based on fatigue rather than poor performance. In any event the win puts us in seventh place in the table, basically hitting the target set for me.

https://i.imgur.com/GPnpBFk.jpg


The players are irritated about the quality of our training sessions, which is actually fair and prompts me to beg for more money from the board in order to sign another coach. Stipek is in second place as the monthly awards for the best players are doled out. Elsewhere, Iago Aspas completes his £36m move to Manchester City. The Spaniard is now earning £100,000 per week, which is just over eight times our wage budget for the entire operation. Truly a different world.
August 2018

As I think I’ve already mentioned, it’s some time since I’ve played a lower league game on Football Manager, indeed I have more recently gone to watch a real-life match played at this level. The common perception is of a Corinthian, grass roots experience that connects one with the heart of what football is really all about. The reality is lengthy passages of spectacularly dull play, the ball bobbling around midfield because no one is capable of controlling it with any real level of skill. You realise why those dudes in the Premier League earn so much money – it isn’t easy to do the things they do. It takes years of relentless practice grafted on to the sort of natural talent denied to the common people, whereas in the lower leagues you’re watching the game as it’s played by everyone else. Moments where something exciting happens are at a premium, and they’re cherished.

These thoughts go through my head as Sokolov travel to the other side of Czechia and face Viktovice in Ostrava. For the first half hour more or less nothing happens. It’s tedious. I see players struggle to do what top flight stars are able to achieve with errant ease. Fewer than 600 souls turn up to Mestsky Stadium for this one, and it’s an impressive ground that can hold more than 15,000, which lends echo effects to every leaden hoof of the ball, each shout and cry of pain as someone gets dealt an industrial tackle in a game that features seven yellow cards and countless pettier fouls. Vavra enjoys the surreal experience of scoring his penalty before an entirely empty stand, and that’s the first half highlight. It takes the home time until the 71st minute to equalise via a speculative shot that rebounds off our crossbar, bumps the back of the keeper’s head and flops into the net. It’s the sort of comic goal the action deserves, and worryingly it takes Jaroslav Belan a second or two before he appears to understand what’s happened.

We’ve been marginally the better team here, so I decide to press our attack, subbing ageing midfielder Stohanzl off for Dvorak, adding an attacking midfielder mainly because of the lack of sensible alternative options. It makes a difference. Vitkovice have been terrible, or least in a deeper circle of crapness than we’ve occupied, so when Glaser and Chleboun score goals that come from priceless, fleeting instances of skill, it’s the least we deserve. A 3-1 win to take back to Sokolov then, after a “contest” in which we have dominated all areas, including 21 fouls to the home side’s 20. When I tell the players I’m pleased with them they look genuinely chuffed, so that’s a nice moment to report.

The week before our home game against Jihlava passes slowly. I’m bored enough to see our Under 21s side hand Bela pod Besdesem an 8-1 shellacking, while Younas Teghmas makes his loan move to Maghreb Assocation Sportive De Fes in Morocco. Poring through the club’s financial records, I see how fragile our position is. My hope is that we will build some momentum and the people will come to see us in greater numbers. The average ticket price here is £2, a ridiculous price that seems far removed from the cost of going to see top flight football in England, though in fairness the standard of entertainment probably justifies what we charge. In the FA Cup First Round, we’re drawn against Cizova, a tiny side from the fourth tier of Czech football. It turns out that home field is granted to the team playing at the lower level, so we’re travelling for this one.

The weather for our tie against Jihlava is glorious, and it’s perhaps for this reason that we get an attendance not far short of four figures. That’s promising. The match is not. Opting perhaps unwisely to take the game to our opponents, who were relegated from the First Division last season, we get plenty of time in their half but waste our opportunities. Gradually, Jihlava pull themselves back into it and start putting together some forays into the danger area that seem far more incisive and threatening than anything we can put together. Inspired by French winger Ben Sangare, they’re altogether slicker than anything we’ve faced thus far. Fortunately they also love drifting into offside positions, which helps when their second half goal is ruled out. But there’s nothing we can do about Sangare’s strike, the end of a fast paced string of passes that sees the ball snake underneath our keeper’s body. I feel that might just about be that, a concern that grows when Hykel collapses to the ground in injury time and refuses to get up for several minutes. It turns out he’s okay, and that he made a mug of Misun who sportingly put the ball out during a promising attack. Taking the ball, with seconds left on the clock Misun pings a pass to the right wing. Glaser latches on to it, beats his man and crosses into the area where Vasicek rises above the defenders and nods home to equalise.

It’s a fine note on which to finish, not a result we perhaps deserve but Jihlava didn’t kill us off entirely and we made them pay for it. I remind myself that we have clawed a point back from a promotion contender, and that’s no mean feat.
The weekend again finds us on our travels, this time to the other end of the country, the Polish border town of Trinec. Their team was promoted a few years ago and have been finding their feet at this level. They’re also very well supported so we’re expecting a good atmosphere, and I demand that the players put on a good show. The word “demand” is used rather loosely here, and it’s a better one than “beg”. Stanislav Vavra has Trinec in his list of previous clubs, and I hope he can put on a reminder of what they are missing. It takes him seventeen minutes to give his response, a volley into the net from Stohanzl’s clever pass that beats the offside trap. That sums up the first half, one in which Vasicek heads wide his gift-wrapped opportunity and otherwise we pick up fouls and a few bookings, a typical afternoon’s work. After the break, Stohanzl adds a second, and we survive a late scare when some Route One football puts Lukas Buchvaldek clean through, forcing a reaction save from Belan.

Our 2-0 win puts us in first place, albeit temporarily as Pardubice win the following day. We’re up against Prostejov next, a fixture anticipated so listlessly that we are promoting it as a fan day. This involves a sponsor buying up blocks of tickets and giving them away for free to drum up some support. I don’t suppose Real Madrid need to hold too many fan days, and my worry is that a well-attended match becomes almost a guarantee of getting battered at home.

Defender Ivica Jurkic has picked up a knock that makes him not worth risking against Prostejov. To make matters worse, a former player describes how excited he is by Sokolov’s form, the sort of story that is sure-fire guaranteed to end our streak and see us start sliding down the table. On the plus side this story finds a tiny corner in the media, due mainly to the main focus being on Borek Dockal of Sparta Prague buying some new boots or something.

I should never have worried. We’re 3-0 up at the break, Vasicek scoring a brace and Adam Stipek bossing the game from the left wing, adding a strike of his own while keeping the opposition defence pinned back. I’m so pleased that I tell the lads to keep up the good work in the second half. Big mistake. Prostejov suddenly remember they’re in a competitive match and start attacking. Having had no shots in the first half they’re all over us, and our defence creaks and ultimately breaks as they pull level over the course of the game. By the end, we’re lucky to slink out of there with a point.

Sure enough the action has been watched by more than a thousand people, which is great apart from the fact they have witnessed a second half collapse. I have work to do on how we sharpen up our form at home. On the road we’re great; it’s at Sokolov Stadium where we’re letting ourselves down. Our disciplinary record is a further concern. We picked up seven bookings against Prostejov despite not being set up to go looking for trouble. Perhaps we just aren’t very good, so those tackles are sometimes late rather than accurate… Maybe the referees hate us… It’s possibly the case that match officials are repulsed by our admittedly revolting yellow strip…

To try and improve things at the back I place an offer with Sparta Prague for their young defensive midfielder, Tomas Cabadaj. The bid is a mighty £50,000, with a further ten grand to be paid in instalments. To place this in context, Real Madrid have shelled out £60 million on Wijnaldum and Milivojevic, just in case anyone is considering hauling me over the coals for my spendthrift nature.

August closes with our visit to Rakovnik 1903 in the second round up the cup. The Board expect me to make the third round as a target, and we are favourites to win against another Fourth Division minnow. Raknovik isn’t a long journey (as much as anywhere is in this small country) for us, and the town’s pretty enough. I don’t really understand the reasons for them having a lobster on the town coat of arms, in landlocked Czechia, and I tell the players that if they manage to win I’ll take them on a tour of Bakalar brewery before we go home.

On a cloudy evening, before a small ground of spectators that struggles to tip the 300 mark, we claim a 2-0 win. I’ve made a number of changes for this one, so in the end I’m happy that we score twice in the first ten minutes through Dvorak and Glaser, and then spend the rest of the time holding the opposition at a comfortable arm’s length. There’s no second half fight back, very little to report at all really, and I’m satisfied enough to buy the first round of Bakalar.

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And that’s August, a month in which we played six matches, winning four and drawing two. On the whole there’s much to be happy about. Sokolov are marching steadily up the table. Because there’s barely any interest in football at this level I don’t have to go through the Twilight Zone of answering the same questions before and after every fixture to disinterested reporters. We’ve even made a signing in Cabadaj, only after Sparta make us up the price to an overall £79,000, much of which will be paid in instalments. The new arrival goes on record to say he’s looking forward to working with such a talented group of players, which suggests he hasn’t really done his homework.
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