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«For King and Country», as they say [Short-finished]


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Penny opened the front door and dropped her backpack and her purse on the floor, right by the staircase.  Silence filled her ears once the door was shut.  The house has been silent for a long time now.  Britanny, now twenty one, was finishing her second year in Dentistry at King’s College.  The daughter said to her that «…since money shouldn’t be an object, why not choose one of the best university?»  It’s true that money isn’t an issue now, or even at the time Britanny made the comment.  Ever since she got the job at Aston Villa, the family never had to care for money anymore.  It’s just that London was a long way from Birmingham and with the season now over, Penny would still feel it the most; she couldn’t flee it by drowning herself in work.

As she was dropping her jacket on the couch, she started to walk toward the kitchen.  It was 19h00 and she wanted her first camomile tea of her holiday.  After plugging the kettle, she sat on a stool by the island, put her crutch to lie on the wall, took her phone and selected the contact she needed to talk to.  It took her some time before making the call...  It rang twice before it got picked up:  «Hey Penny!

-          Evening Mark.  Am I disturbing you?»  The talks with Mark always were uncomfortable nowadays.

-          «Not at all».  He wasn’t as uncomfortable as she was now.

-          «When your dad came to the last match of the season, he told me your firm got a big contract and that you were promoted to Senior Accounting Technician».  Mark never comes to Villa Park anymore...  « I wanted to call earlier… to congratulate you for it… but with the FA Cup and the Champions League and the post mortem of the season...…

-          It’s no problem» he said, interrupting her.  «I know how busy it is with stakes that high…  I was saddened by your lost on penalties against Real Madrid by the way...

-          You can’t win ‘hem all...  We should have been able to prevent that late equalizer…»  She didn’t like talking about her manager job with him.  «Anyway, I was calling to tell you that my bonuses have been paid by the club.  I waited for the one from the Champions League to be paid and to make you a single payment.

-          Penny...» Mark said, sighing at the same time.  «...I told you it wasn’t necessary.  My half of the house was enough…

-          Mark, I told you I would do it.  And I am».  The kettle beeped twice, signalling that the water was hot.  «Anyway, I have to go.  My water is ready and I still have to pack for my trip to St George's Park National Training Center.  I take the train at eight tomorrow morning… »  Penny didn’t leave him any opportunity to say anything; she hung up.

When she put the phone on the counter top, she needed to take multiple deep breaths.  She felt tears coming…  «Still whining after three years, huh?  You wimp...» she told herself out loud.  It took her a full minute before being able to get her composure back.  She quickly saw that it wasn’t enough when she started pouring the water in the cup; the kettle was shaking in her hand.  During her eighth seasons at Aston Villa, Mark, the man who has stood with her, by storms and tides, finally called it quit.  The never ending hours, the always busy mind focused on the next game, the next practice, the next scouting meeting  He had run out of stamina to fight for their marriage anymore.  When he told her the news, there was no acrimony, no anger.  He had run out of energy.  She still saw herself sitting in the living room while he was going out the door for the last time.  She still remembers the silence… the mourning silence…

When she talked to her lawyer, she asked to stay in the house with Britanny since the daughter didn’t want to move back to Hereford.  She paid Mark half the house in a single payment.  Just before signing the last papers, she added with a trembling shorthand, that she would also give him her bonuses for the next three years.  Her lawyer tried to tell her he wasn’t asking for any of this.  She put her initials by the handwriting and stayed silent, looking at the line where her next move should be made.  In the dotted line, she only saw all that she had failed to do…  After taking one, last, deep, breath, she added her signature to the document, got up and left the lawyer’s office without saying anything.  As she was driving toward Bodymoor Heath that morning, she was just hoping the money given would help relieve some of the guilt she felt for letting her marriage go down the drain.  Other than saying she was the culprit of it all on a yearly basis, it did nothing else…

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The crowd was imposing and the journalists were numerous at St George's Park.  Penny was standing in front of a sizable group of women, all related to English football, right beside Prince Harry.  The latter becoming President of FA when his brother William became king.  «…was natural for us to ask to the first woman to become manager of a professional male football team and, some years later, to access the Premiere League when Aston Villa took the decision to hire her.  In eleven complete seasons with the claret and blue, she has achieved more than most men ever did:  four Premiere League titles, three FA Cup wins plus another final and 2 Champions League wins plus a final.    Who else but her, a former Arsenal Ladies and a Lionesses player, could have been called upon to open our brand new revamped section reserved for the Women National team here, at St George's Park?  Ladies and gentlemen, it is my great honour to present to you, Mrs. Penny Stiles!»  Applause and cheers erupted from the crowd and from all the dignitaries.  She felt herself becoming a tad red; she never was able to cope with those public congratulations…

As she started to walk toward the podium, her crutch got snagged in the carpet’s edge and she almost fell, face first, in front of everybody.  She felt her cheeks become beet red.  Multiple hands grabbed her instantly, making sure she didn’t do a nose dive.  She mumbled sorries repeatedly to the people around her.  The dignitaries behind her and the Prince parted sideways to show the big ribbon barring the doors.  A FA executive gave Penny the big ceremonial scissors.  She took one handle and Prince Harry took the other; she couldn’t do the cutting alone, having only one free hand because of her crutch.  They both smiled to the cameras that were rolling, under a wave of flashes from the photographers.  When she and the Prince cut the ribbon, everyone cheered even more.  The entire ceremony lasted about twenty minutes.  Now, she was led into the new facilities.  Being the guest of honour, she was in front, escorted by the Prince, the top executives of the English FA and the caretakers of the facilities.  They were happy to show the latest investments into the National Training Center because, in the last two years, they didn’t have much to cheer as accomplishments, especially with the men’s National Team.

The Three Lions started by failing their qualification for the 2034 World Cup.  The entire country went into an apoplectic rage over it.  Despite a tough spell of injuries throughout the quals, all they needed was a draw on the very last game.  Bulgaria scored the lone goal of the match two minutes into stoppage time, getting their first win of their qualification run.  The manager was fired right after the game.  The FA quickly hired a new manager, an Italian national who couldn’t pass the Nations’ League group phase.  Since they ended up third in their group, they weren’t relegated to Division B, which was a relief.  The team was completely demoralized; she knew this very well since four of her players were part of that team.  The FA still held on to the hope the team could bounce back in the European Championship the year after.  Alas, they weren’t able to pass the group phase either, finishing second.  The nation dropped below the top twenty ranking!  The manager was fired, again.  Since then, the FA as kept a very low profile.  That was four months ago and they didn’t filled the position.  In a one paragraph communique, they said they would need to do a full post-mortem before taking any other decision.

After the tour, there was a big lunch with an awards ceremony for peoples who were working with female football clubs all over the country.  As she was sitting at the front table, she would need to be in every photograph, Penny was happy to see so many staff from girls’ teams.  She also was relieved to see that the FA had made the effort to invite the two other women who were active in EPL teams:  Dorothy Gibbins from AFC Wimbledon in League 1 and Cynthia O’Flaherty who was with Leeds in Championship.  The former’s arrival was recent.  Coming from Reading FC Women, she took over the reign in January when the team was in relegation zone; she managed to end the season in sixteenth place.  As for the latter, she had been managing the destiny of the Whites for the last two years, after ten years leading the Birmingham Ladies.  She was doing well, just being bad lucky in the playoffs last year and missing the promotion.

As the award event was coming to its end, she started to get nervous.  She knew that after, there would be a big press conference about the new complex and the awards; the FA wanted her to be present.  Surely the press would talk about the Champions’ League final loss, even if they were specifically invited for the opening of the new section in the National Training Center.  Oh god… Couldn’t she wait for that...

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«Just to remind you that in this press conference…» the FA PR girl was talking to the reporters who were present for the event.  «…we would ask you to limit the questions to the new women’s facilities and women football please.  As announced, we will answer questions about the men’s National Team Wednesday morning, after the presentation of the complete post-mortem.  Thank you».

The press room was packed; every news outlet directly related to football in England sending representatives at Burton upon Trent. Penny was sitting at the dais with Prince Harry and two Vice-Presidents of FA, feeling the sweat starting to form under the spotlights.  She sipped a little water and continued smiling.  The Prince read his piece about what the new facilities would mean for the development of female players.  It was true that women football was more popular than ever and, in comparison, some of the very top team of the FA Women’s Super League could well go toe to toe with top teams in League 1 by now, while it was about League 2 level about a generation ago.  The limitations were mainly due to physical differences now; the technical and mental side of the game having closed the gap in a decisive manner.  The structure for players and staff development had improved too and the overall quality of the players in England increased accordingly.  For the last six years, the Lionesses dominated every international competition by a fair margin.  This probably was more prominent since, during the same time frame, the men’s National team performed so poorly on the international scene.  The speech didn’t miss to point to the fact that two managers emerged from the women’s football pyramid onto the men’s side too.  Penny wasn’t coming from there but she still started her career as a player so…

«Penny, you were the first woman to ever manage a men professional team.  Do you think that your arrival opened doors for the like of Cynthia O’Flaherty and Dorothy Gibbins»?  Penny took the question as affably as she could despite her desire to just get up and punch the reporter that talked about her as some kind of door kicker…

-          «As I said many, many times, I proved to someone that I was competent, had enough authority and a thick enough skin to be able to do the job; even if it was an amateur D9 team that I was managing, I still brought the club to the FA Vase Semi-Finales.  David Boggins, who was President of the Board at Hereford at the time, thought I could do the job, period.  He said it many times too.  He only asked himself: Who could achieve the goals of the club?  And, after reviewing the potential candidates, he decided that I, the woman that once was a goalkeeper, could do the job.  For him, the fact I was a she was as relevant as the fact I have a limp since the car accident!  I’m sure that AFC Wimbledon and Leeds arrived at the same conclusion.  They had an array of candidates and decided Cynthia and Dorothy were the best qualified, that’s it».  As Penny started to take another sip of water, she felt dirty.  Of course, the PR opportunity must have been a factor to hire her, just like for them, but she just couldn’t **** on the parade; she didn’t have the right to do it.

After the press conference, two PR women brought Penny to the class where she was scheduled to give a conference to the coaches in training.  She started to get real nervous now…

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«At the beginning, you talked…» The woman’s voice was almost inaudible.  She was terrorized to ask the question, and it showed.  Penny offered her a big smile to try and make her relax a little.  «… but if you are in a season where everything is going well, where you are at the top of the table like this year, how can you make them more hungry for winning if they clearly are doing it already?»  Penny wanted that exact question to be asked since the beginning of the Q & A session because she knew she forgot to bring it during the conference itself.

-          «It’s true that I, we, all love to win…»  Penny smiled.  «Just like my daughter when she was six…»  The entire classroom let out a little laugh.  Penny smiled again while readjusting her train of thought.  «The analogy I’ll make is that my daughter, when she was six, loved those Double Decker bars… and when I mean love them, I mean “fit of anger if I said no” type of loving them».  All laughed a bit more, picturing a six years old raging at a parent saying she couldn’t have a sweat…  «At the same time, she hated broccoli.  So, keep in mind those two things she loved and hated and let’s circle back to the question you asked:  How do I make players hungry for more wins when they already are winning a lot?  Well, I make them hate broccoli even more then they love Double Deckers!  I put even more pressure, saying that a draw is unacceptable, that a draw is a loss, that a draw is nothing but broccoli.  I even move the goal posts back, putting certain objectives inside the match itself, like a number of passes under pressure, a specific ratio of interceptions, etc…  the more success on the league table, the more pressure I put with tactical and statistical analysis».

After the conference, when the coaches and managers in training were exiting the class, all were asking for a selfie with her.  As she was accepting the requests, all she could think of was the train ride home.  Penny was tired.  Physically, of course; the season had been long and she was looking forward to two solid weeks of complete physical rest. Most of all though, she was tired of all the attention she was drawing.  Here was a one-off event but all seasons long, there have been numerous interviews she was forced to accept by the PR department because of landmarks she achieved or surpassed or for simple reasons like being at the same club for an eleventh complete season which was far from common in the later years in Premiere League.  Since she arrived, there only was two managers she faced for more than three seasons with the same club…  Once the last coach was out, the two PR girls escorted her toward the main offices of the complex.  When she entered the place, she found a bunch of FA executives there, obviously waiting for her; a bunch of photographs were taken with them and the caretakers of St George’s Park. 

Once all was done, she was escorted to the limo by all the FA executives who constantly were praising her for her results with Aston Villa and thanking her for coming for the event and the conference.  In the car, she finally was alone…  The ride toward the train station was silent and she welcomed it with multiple sighs of relief.  She thought that, with the years and the successes she had gotten with Villa and Hereford, she would have been able to cope with praises better but, just like when she was playing, she just couldn’t bear getting that kind of attention.

In the train, she could now just relax; her holiday had officially started but during the entire ride, something was nagging at her, deep in the back of her mind.  It was just enough to make sure she couldn’t be able to completely be at ease, and relaxed.  When the train pulled in the Birmingham train station, she has never been able to nap for one single second…

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Football news may slow down once all the main completions are over but, they never stop.  Penny was preparing her dinner while watching the press video review of the St George’s Park event she went to, three days prior.  FA had sent her a copy, accompanied by a bouquet of white lilies.  It probably was part of every PR note sheet that these were her favourite flowers...  As she was mixing some more ingredients, she was distractingly watching herself giving the conference to the managers and coaches in training.  She hated looking at herself on the telly.  Especially now, she was not finding herself good at all; her talking was choppy.  She remembered how hard it was to get the right words when they were destined to shape, in some way, some of the future of English football, whatever the level it would be.  Once it was time to put everything in the oven, she closed the telly.

As she was putting the utensils in the dishwasher, her mind wandered toward the press conference of the event and all the pushback FA had to do on reporters who wanted to talk about the men’s’ National Team.  God that experience was awful…  The FA really have a big mess on their hands.  True, the last two years have been less than stellar, to say the least but, the lacklustre performances were coming from farther back.  How could they have arrived at the conclusion that taking the flak for appointing international managers instead of English ones?  The other side of that coin always had been some attacks the FA got for choosing English nationals when better internationals were available in the past too…  She knew though that she partially was responsible for that.  Six years ago, right after winning her first Premiere League title with the Villans, they came and offered her the reigns of the Three Lions.  She turned them down.  It was her first major title and, well, she wasn’t ready, at thirty nine, to interrupt her spell with her first Premiere League team.  She never really thought about it afterward, so busy was she doing two things simultaneously:  managing Aston Villa and wasting a twenty plus year’s relationship with a man.

Once all was done and the kitchen was clean enough so that the house cleaner wouldn’t think she was a total pig, she went to the living room and took out her tablet.  She had one hour to indulge herself into a passion she developed since she started managing football teams:  leadership books.  Year in and out, she would read about twenty of them.  They wildly varied in format.  Of course, a lot of those were sport or group management psychology related but often, she would go toward military leaders or even businessmen.  She cannot remember how many of this self-learning she has used during her dressing room speeches or when she was preparing games, but she knew it was a lot.  One quote from one of her past readings even became a staple of the systems she would put on the pitch:  “Gentlemen, when the enemy is committed to a mistake, we must not interrupt him too soon”.  That particular quote was attributed to Napoleon Buonaparte.  Playing a very counter-attacking style of football at the time, she used the quote repeatedly with her players to encourage them to offer to the opponents a deeper penetration before launching the counter-attacks. 

Once she was comfortable in her favourite reading chair, she put on some music in the background and dived into a biography of one of the greatest leader England ever produced:  Horatio Nelson.  She knew he was a peacock, always wanting praise, the exact opposite of what she was, but he truly was a great leader of men.  That particular book was about the nature of commitment and how patriotism shaped his views on duty and service.  She was hoping to get some titbits that could be useful in bringing her players to more willingly commit themselves to the club and … to training harder.

When her food was ready, she brought the tablet with her and ate while reading.  A few hours later, once she had called it quit for the night, she realized that she was deeply disturbed.  She knew why to some extent, but still…

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«You look old mum…» said Britanny when she saw her mother.  She smiled and came to her for a hug.  Penny felt good with her daughter in her arms.  A few times a year, Penny would see her daughter but it always was Britanny who would come to Birmingham.  Those times would always be when Aston Villa was playing a home game and the daughter would come to the match and spend some time with her mum at home.  Most of those would be short stays because she would need to take the second day to go to Hereford to see her dad as well.

Britanny was a fully grown woman by now, ending her second year at King’s College in Dentistry.  She also was in love with Steven.  A rather handsome young boy with too long hair, Penny always thought and who was finishing his studies in Business and management.  He also was planning a second round at London School of Economics.  The son of a businessman, he was a serious boy who wasn’t of the socialite type.  Other than his long hair, he was far from being a rebellious boy, which was fine for the mother.  He probably was the best she could hope for her daughter since she felt it was most improbable that this boy, with a strong work ethic that she saw multiple times, would bring the young Stiles woman on a path of depravity.  The mother still was scared of this since Britanny had very rebellious teen years.  Stopped playing sports, drank alcohol, got tattoos, took some drugs and, to top it all off, got distasteful pictures surfacing on the net that came from her social media account.  This last bit was newsworthy of course.  All of this created an explosive mix in the house at the time.  Mark was able to straighten the daughter up by himself.  After stern talks, combined with punishments, he made her commit to her studies and, most of all, to come back on a better travelled road.  Since Penny was too busy performing at the club, she never was part of this recovery; it was all Mark’s work and dedication…

According to the official story, Britanny and Steven bumped into each other at the uni.  Cupid was fast on its bow and the two were madly in love with each other almost instantly.  Three months after meeting for the first time, she moved in his apartment and lived there ever since.  The flat was a two bedroom place, close to Temple Church, with plenty of sunlight.  The rent was far from cheap but since the couple didn’t have to care much about money…  It was very sparsely decorated. It wasn’t empty but it was far from being overstuffed.  The second bedroom was used as a study and office room and once she saw it, she felt that study was important for both young adults.  The living/dining space got a window overlooking Fleet St and with only a small couch, small telly and a table that could barely hold two people eating; it clearly wasn’t a space they were using very often.

«Where’s Steven?» asked Penny as the daughter was putting her mother’s bag and purse in her bedroom.

-          «He should be here soon» Britanny said as she reappeared.  «He has a big final coming next week and he was forced to form a study group for it.  Are you hungry?

-          Naw.  A cup of coffee would be nice though».  As both Stiles women moved toward the dining area, Penny stayed silent. While Britanny prepared the machine, the mother sat down at the table.  «You’ve got exams coming too?

-          Got most of them last week, only got two this Friday.  They’re both in anatomy so, it’s only memorizing.

-          You sure I don’t disturb you, coming here two days before the exams?

-          It’s ok.  I planned my schedule with you coming in mind…»

The rest of the afternoon went by fast, too fast, for Penny’s taste.  Once Steven arrived, all of them prepared dinner.  The talk was light.  Around nine, she left the young couple’s flat and headed for her hotel.  If the time was too short, one thing wasn’t: the distance in the mother/daughter relationship.  For sure, it was nothing like it was when Britanny was young…

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When she passed the front door, the smell of cooking roast rushed at her…  Every time Penny was going back to London, she would take time and go see her parents.  Canonbury at the beginning of June was lovely as ever.  The place had been gentrified to the hilt at the turn of the 2010’s but the parents never left.  It has become quite expensive for sure but since they bought their three bedrooms flat in the mid 1980’s, they didn’t have money problems.  After all, it has been paid a long time ago by now.  The place was a stone throw away from Canonbury Station.  In the last ten years or so, every time she would come around, she would remember growing up in the area.  The neighbour has changed considerably, of course, especially with the Emirates Stadium arriving and the gentrification but still, this was a place she called home.  The only downside now was that she wasn’t able to take the train to come here anymore.  She tried to do it a few years back, after she had gotten the job at Aston Villa.  It took about thirty seconds for someone to recognize her; it was a zoo until she arrived home.  She never wanted to repeat the experience.

Penny’s mother screamed when she saw her daughter in the vestibule.  Running toward her, she hugged and kissed her multiple times.  «I’m happy to see you too mum», Penny was able to say amid the volley of tender gestures.  Penny then saw her, now retired dad, coming down the stairs with a big smile.  He waited a few seconds, letting his wife fill her soul with love and once it was done, he took his daughter gently in his arms.  The embrace was delicate, warm and full of care.  Once all the love was passed on between everybody, they started to walk toward the kitchen.  Penny put her purse and back pack on the table and started rummaging in it to get out the gifts for both of them.  For mum, it was a new box of Swiss chocolates.  As for dad, it was a bottle of fifty years old Porto.  She then proceeded to go get her suitcase, which she had left in the vestibule, and bring it upstairs in the guest’s bedroom, which also was her old room.  Her brother’s has been converted into a reading room a long time ago.  As she was unpacking her stuff, she heard her dad arrive in the doorway.  She just turned and smiled at him.  He returned a smirk before coming in to help a bit.  As usual, with her dad, there never was a lot of talk at the beginning of her stays; emotions were too close to overflowing so he kept his mouth shut.

It was noon by now and the roast was ready.  The traditional Sunday meal was served on a Friday today because since Penny always loved the roast her mum used to make, whenever she was back in town, whatever the day it was, the roast was always on the menu.  The mood was light and the chatter was wide ranging; football, or Mark now, never was touched.  Britanny, of course, was an important part of the talks because since she arrived in London to study, she would come see the grand-parents twice a month, usually for a meal.  It was a rather short travel between the daughter’s and the grands.  As usual, Penny asked news about his brother who still was living in Edinburgh.  Those meals with the parents always were a quick way to get the latest news from the family.

After the meal, she helped her mum clean the table and the dishes.  Her dad went to the living room and came back with a bottle of old age whisky and a box of dark chocolate.  It was early in the day for such a thing but it was his way of saying to his daughter that she needed to indulge herself a little since she was on holiday.  Besides, he wanted to talk a bit about football with her and, to do so; he’d need her to be very relaxed…

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After the liquor, with the sun shining, Penny’s mother went outside to tend to her garden.  She was proud of it and intended to maintain it, exactly the way she wanted.  As for the father and daughter pair, they went into the living room with a nice cup of coffee to chat a bit.  When both were comfy in their respective chair, they started to talk about this and that, to catch-up on both their lives.  Penny asked how it was to be retired since it was a relatively new thing for him to be at home for four months now.  With his habitual smirk, he said to ask her mum about that!  She laughed.  The subject then switched to what she has planned for her holiday.

At some point, the dad changed the subject and said to Penny: «By the way, I saw that they are still talking a lot about you in the papers and on the telly…»  Penny knew this would be coming.

-          Yeah, well, it’s always like that when big clubs fire their managers; the medias love to drop names.  I just happen to be considered for them now.

-          You will move for any of them?

-          Nope… but my agent wants me to pretend I’m interested!»  Dad laughed.  Having spent his entire career as a low and mid-level executive, he was well aware of those negotiation tactics.  He never has used them but he knew very well about them.

-          «Well, you could make more money…

-          I have enough money for ten lifetimes already, if not twenty so… no.

-          Well, think of it as being a representation of what you are worth for them then.

-          Dad, you know very well that as long as I get what I find fair, I don’t really care about the rest…»  There was a finality in the tone that made her dad realize that it wasn’t worth it to continue on this path.

-          «I wasn’t talking about that anyway.  I was talking about the FA».  Penny looked at her dad, taking a few seconds before realizing what he was talking about.

-          «Oh, that.  Well, the new installations are awesome, to be honest.  The fact I had to be in every picture was a bit of pain in the rear end, you know?  But overall, I am just happy the women side of things got an upgrade after so many years…

-          I’m not talking about the training center either, you silly girl!  I’m talking about the National Team!»  Penny’s eyes showed her interrogation before she talked.

-          «What do you mean?

-          Well, when the FA made their press conference, after the post-mortem, they talked about you all the time…»  Penny wasn’t catching the meaning.  It never was in the FA habits to tell who they wanted by name, and they didn’t contact her.

-          «They never tell nobody’s name at those, dad.  Beside, you know I already turn them down before.

-          Maybe, but it was six years ago, I am speaking about right now.

-          Look, I don’t know what you are talking about.  I haven’t watched any news or read any paper for three days now.

-          Well my love, I can tell you then.  During the press conference, every time they talked about who they wanted, they always talked about you.  Every epithet they used was describing you.  They want someone with strong leadership.  Someone who can bring back determination and ambition in the squad.  They want someone that will make the players hungry for wins.  It is you by all but name, love…»

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Penny’s father went to tell his wife that both the daughter and he would go take a walk at Highbury New Park.  The wife didn’t say anything; she knew that a walk, the two of them together, was more about talking than walking.  The daddy/daughter pair got out the front door and started the small trek toward the linear park.  Penny was the first to talk: «Dad, what do you think?  What do you think about all this?»  She always had relied on her father’s acumen.  He was sharp minded and understood her ways that very, very, few peoples ever had.

-          It’s not what I think, love…»  They walked in silence for about two minutes before she spoke again.

-          «When they came and asked me before, you know why I turned them down.

-          The situation is different now, isn’t it?

-          Well…»  Penny knew the path her dad was trying to take her in.  When she has won her first title with Villa, it was at the end of her fifth complete season with the club.  Fran Escriba, a manager she knew from her time at West Brom, have left after the 2030 World Cup.  He had brought England in the semis and lost to Brazil.  He retired.  Now though, it was different.  Over five years later, she had won three other Premiere League titles, plus three FA Cups and two Champions League trophies.

-          «Love, let me ask you something.  Do you feel the challenge to be as big with Aston Villa as when you arrived at the club?

-          Of course not dad.  It’s been eleven full seasons now and the club is nothing like it was then.

-          Don’t you think that, what you always thrived for, is behind you at Aston Villa now?»  Penny had to admit that, in the last two years, things have been very different, and in many ways, at the club.  She had earned the respect of her bosses, of the Villa fans and, most of all, of her players.  Now however, it was all about safekeeping the results, not getting them.

-          «But dad, does changing for the sake of changing, would bring what I thrived for back?»  She saw her dad thinking.  He stayed silent for a very long time.  When he finally answered, his voice was different, lower, and a wee bit solemn.

-          «Penny, the FA asked you before, personally, in private, and you said no.  Are those reasons that made you say no still there?»  She didn’t have to think before answering.

-          «Not really, no.

-          Then maybe you should start thinking like General Patton thought:  “Accept the challenges so that you can feel the exhilaration of victory.”  The question is, do you feel the challenges today?  Do they give you the same exhilaration you had when they were there the first time?»  The old bugger had quoted the first ever famous quote she ever read and talked to him about.  They walked for a long time under the sun and the shade of the trees that was cast over the trail.

-          You think I should “serve”, if only to seek this exhilaration again?»  Her father stopped walking.  She stopped too.  Her dad’s eyes were piercing when he looked at her.  The stare was somewhat intimidating.

-          «Penny, whatever denial the FA can put forward, I believe in the press conference, they did all but call you by name.  Your country’s FA is asking you to lead the team, again…

-          Most of the time, it’s an “end of career” thing, to be manager of a national team like England, or an “in-between clubs” thing.  But it’s not the case for me dad, I have a club!  Not to mention that the English job is a poisoned chalice most of the time…

-          Wouldn’t be the first time you break the mould of conformity, wouldn’t you?  May I dare remind you of something you told me when you were about ten?  Do you remember when that team refused to let you play for them?   Despite the fact that you clearly were a better goalkeeper than the boy they chose?  You remember what you screamed at me, with tears and rage?»  Penny knew very well the event her dad was referring to.  She had recounted it at her job interview at Villa, with less tears and rage though.

For a long time, Penny stayed silent and her dad didn’t break it.  The sun was getting a bit low but they didn’t notice.  She was the one that restarted the conversation:  «Dad, what if I have achieved all I wanted to achieve?  During the last season, there were times; I just didn’t know how to motivate myself…»  Penny’s dad was stunned by the revelation.  He really was taking aback by the confidence that has been made by a woman that he has always perceived to be ambitious beyond measures.  So big was the surprise that he didn’t really know how to formulate his own interrogations…

-          «Is it that you don’t need to prove anything to anyone anymore?  Or is it that you felt the challenges of the season hollow because you already had achieve them before?

-          I always thought that the best should play against the best and that if I was one of them, I should play against them…»  Penny’s dad heard the statement, but he felt there was something more behind it.  He decided to do something he hadn’t do with his daughter for a very long time; he went in hard, to pry the shell open and find out what was really in it.

-          «Maybe it’s the price to pay then?»  Again, silence took hold amid the two.  The father brought his daughter closer and felt her sorrow…  When she finally talked, she sought her father’s eyes.

-          «Why was the price so high dad?»  The man looked at his daughter for some seconds before talking.

-          «Are you sure it is the right question, love?»

They walked for a long time.  The sun was almost hidden behind the buildings when they decided to come back home.  When the daddy/daughter pair arrived at the house, mum could see her daughter immersed in deep thoughts while her husband was wearing a sad smile…

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Penny called Darren, her agent, even before leaving her parents’ house.  He was dumbfounded.  He conveyed to her that Barcelona, Inter and Chelsea wanted her… badly; all making declarations of interest in the press.  She shut him up by saying she was going to go for the Three Lions’ manager job.  She didn’t tell him that she felt compelled to serve her country though; he probably would have gotten a heart attack  Her English pride had taken a hit just like everybody else...

The negotiations with the FA were short.  «I’ll stay for three years, no more, no less.  The 2038 World Cup will be the end of my road».  They wanted five years but she stayed firm.  To that, she said she wanted to be able to bring an analyst with her, on the FA payroll, not a “loan from a club”.  It took less than four hours for her to get the answer. 

The same day, she called Max Gunn.  He was the best analyst she ever got in Aston Villa and she developed a strong relationship with him.  She made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.  The only thing he asked for was that after her three years with the Three Lions, he wanted a stint in her next club.  «Like I would let you out of my sight, minimax!» she answered.  The call ended with both of them laughing at each end of the line.  After Max, she called Jon Stead, her Assistant Manager; he accepted to come with her with the Three Lions too.  Jon and she have been together since she arrived in Birmingham.  After eleven years, they could talk to each other in code now.  He was as tactically minded as she was but more offense oriented; she was more defense oriented.  They were kindred spirits; they completed each other.  She knew she would ask some other Villa staffs to join her too but for now, the two main men she needed the most urgently were on board.  The rest would come in time.

The news conference announcing her nomination was called the day after.  She did use the same “…want to be the best… need to go against the best…” line she used at her Villa job interview.  She just knew the media would love it so.  She never came close to admit she thought she needed to serve.  She knew it wouldn’t look good, even pompous maybe, to both the media and the public.

Aston Villa had no choice but to accept her resignation that came in barely two weeks before the beginning of the pre-season.  They made her agree to participate in a little ceremony at the first match of the season.  It also was the opening of the brand new Ron Saunders Stadium, a seventy one thousand seater that just replaced Villa Park.  When she set foot on the pitch, the crowd gave her a standing ovation that lasted for a long time.  She was accompanied by her daughter, her mum and her dad.  If the love offered to her by the crowd was warm and sincere, she still felt the cold chill of the failures in her personal life since she came here, with the Villans.  “I’ve been drinking at a poisoned chalice for years.  I just take another one with the Three Lions on it…” she was thinking while waving at the crowd.  She forced herself to push the thought aside.  Soon enough, she would have ample time to bury it under piles of work at St George's Park National Training Center.  She was good at putting her professional ambitions before her personal life anyway... 


The end

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  • Rien102 changed the title to «For King and Country», as they say [Short-finished]

I'd just like to say that this has been a very well-written and easy-to-follow short story.

I know very well (perhaps a little too well :p) how passionate you are about your series of stories and appreciate the effort that goes into them. You are a true credit to FMS. :thup:

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