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Short Story - Dreams of Football

Little Miss Lump Kicker

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I don’t even know where Watford is, but it was there my trouble with sleep really started. You could say that was the beginning to our slide, not that it made much difference to how the season would turn out, so maybe that was the problem; our season was over, more or less?

It’s possible my sleep issues were because we’d gone down 3-2 in the previous game. Should that should be considered the start of our losses? Maybe it all just came together desperately trying for sleep in that room, in that hotel in Watford? The pressure, I suppose. Was that what it was? Was I feeling pressure? To get results; to head up an entire team; to deal with a board, and, sometimes, thirty-thousand fans all screaming, and to do that in a world where money has seemingly disappeared. Where your ability to have an effect just doesn’t exist.

I don’t know where Watford is because I’m Irish. I don’t even know where all the counties in Ireland are, so Watford? A city—is it even a city—in England? All I could tell you was it was one of the quieter hotels we’d stayed in. There was no-one slamming bins at 5am. There were no street-cleaning machines, clearing up after revellers. There wasn’t even an electric hum, or air conditioning rattling; throwing dust in the air for me to sneeze on and have a drippy nose in the morning. There was no too-bright-for-a-small-LED light stinging my eyes. It was dark, and quiet, and peaceful, and it smelled clean. It was a perfect hotel. The kind I’d normally dream about; where I didn’t need to swap rooms with players; to give them the peaceful corner so they’d be ready for the game tomorrow; “Look, Andi, you need your sleep...” For me there was no reason for it, but there it was; pure sleeplessness. Me, in the silent black. Me, with my thoughts.

Mostly I’m clueless, both to geography, despite having travelled to a lot of different places, or at least grounds—some where we lost, some where we won, draws too—and I was clueless to what was playing on my mind. We’d spent hundreds of hours in hotels, waiting to get a look at a stadium, to play a match: where the results really did matter—until they weren’t on the cards—or they didn’t matter because we were headed for the middle of the table, no matter what. Or, I tried to convince myself that winning or losing didn’t really matter, after it happened, because even with the worst; “We can pick ourselves up lads! We’re strong. We’re indomitable. We’re Sheffield bloody Wednesday!” But it was a hotel in Watford where I couldn’t sleep. And yes, my lack of sleep came after one loss, but we’d lost games before. This time, however, I knew it was different.

There were eight games left in the season, and I felt it was over. Or at least I was done. What, exactly, is the difference between eighth place and eleventh place in a twenty-four team league?

Seventh, alright, I’ll give you that one. You can look at the players and say, “One spot outside the playoffs, fellas! One spot, that’s two wins instead of two losses, or three wins instead of two draws and a loss! Next year, lads. Next year... Remember this now! This will matter next year!” But we weren’t in seventh, looking for one extra place, and nothing mattered for me. I couldn’t sleep. Then we lost again.

Then we drew. Respite? No. We lost after that, and again for a couple of matches. And I had nothing in the tank.

Sleep was coming a little easier after two weeks of restlessness. I would lie in bed and instead of thinking about tactics, who I should sign, re-sign, who I should give a chance to, who needed their hand held and how I’d let some poor guy not quite good enough go, even, sometimes, instead of the dream of how I’d build this team back to Premier League greatness I started thinking about life. And that was strange. Very, very strange.

We didn’t get a good start to the season. The tactic that worked in our friendlies—crowd them out, give our width-in-attack the ball, fire in some goals with a lone striker—didn’t work for our first few games in the season-real. Being Cassie Snorts, new manager to a Championship team, I changed things up. Our backup tactic was put into play. I rotated. I bedded in a decent starting team. Then results started coming true. We rose up the table. Not bad for a team with a six point deduction because of the cluelessness of the people before me. And it wasn’t enough.

Of course we’d crashed out of the League Cup in our first knock-out game; I hadn’t changed things up at that stage—I hadn’t realised I needed to—which was a disappointment to the board, but we were making up for our deduction in the league; we were in positive points! Couldn’t that be enough for them? Soon we were out of the relegation spots. We were doing well! We’d got to seventh! Seventh, for Christ’s sake! Battle against relegation was what they said to me. We were challenging the entire league!

Things settled down. Drawing Liverpool in the third round of the FA Cup wasn’t the inspiring start I’d expected. 4-1 loss. Klopp said we made it hard for them (they put out their full team, by the way,) but losing 4-1 doesn’t sound like I did much, but this is all against the point. We’d solidified. Some wins, one or two losses, some draws. The team was performing, and performing much better than anyone ever expected. And it wasn’t damn-well enough.

I could have strangled them, at those board meetings. “We’re a little concerned with the 2-1 loss to...” some city I didn’t know existed. No amount of, “The team you mismanaged to a six point deduction aren’t just in the top half of the league, but are near the playoffs!” could get even a smile from those tight lips. Although I said it more politely than that. So I’ll admit, I was getting annoyed.

I didn’t like the statistics and spreadsheets of expected performance versus achieved results. Football, for all the science there is now, is still like magic. Or it should be. Ask any fan what they want and they’ll say it’s the witchcraft in rising up the table, the alchemy of their team coming together. They want to see wizardry on the pitch. What they don’t want to see is someone in a £300 tie, with a helicopter on standby, telling you what games you should and shouldn’t expect to win according to an actuary they hired from their nephew’s accounting firm.

That sounds like the start of the slide, or at least my slide, but it took a while longer for it to really hit home. This wasn’t a livelihood to these people. It wasn’t passion. It was numbers. And we had eight games left to go and I was tired.

Like I said, I started picturing a life when I lay in bed; a real life. I wasn’t thinking about football. I saw myself going out to get the paper and I’d stop by the record shop to pick up some vinyl (I hadn’t listened to my own music in months; I gave the players control of Spotify.) On the way back I’d buy some new blend of coffee, and then I’d sit in my big comfy chair, put on my music, and read the newspaper front to back. I might even read the football news, or at least look at the photos and scores. That’s what I was imagining. And that seemed like a death knell. I’d given up. But I couldn’t imagine myself looking at the paper seeing the Sheffield Wednesday results, my lads—struggling, maybe; winning, maybe—without me in charge.

The hardest part, the part that made my heart sore, was exactly that; those lads; my lads. It came in the last loss of the slide I’m talking about. We were under huge pressure, constant attack, never-ending chances against my boys. I can’t remember exactly what I said to them, but I do remember smiling and giving them a lift, almost literally, with my hands. If I could have run onto the pitch to give them all a hug I would have, but I think that’s what I did from my technical area; I smiled, and lifted them. I encouraged them. I spoke to them warmly and told them they could do it. And they responded. Their body language all picked up, they started closing down better, they had a few chances. It wasn’t the constant assault on our keeper we’d had until that point. Then the game turned on them again. And I did it a second time. And they rose up a second time.

We lost, but it changed my perspective. They were responding to me.

I was making adjustments to what we were doing mid-game, most games, but the players—my players—didn’t seem to care about that; they were looking at me. Me, a forty-something year old woman, who doesn’t dye her hair from its grey, someone who’s never managed at this level, and they were reacting; looking to please me, to feed off me.

I went back to the drawing board. The very first drawing board, in fact, with our very first tactic. I wanted to give these guys a chance and something new to focus on. They’d lifted me as much as they could—it wasn’t a lot—but from not caring—how I had been—to realising these guys, some about half my age were looking at me for everything meant I had to try something.

The tactic that didn’t work in our first few games was the change we needed. We won our next game in the most heart-stopping match I can remember. The suits would probably say it’s a game we were expected to win—our opposition were beneath us in the leaguebut our form was awful, and I was rolling the dice. We did win; 3-2; holding out until the end, just about. Then, the final two games, both against teams above us, one in the playoffs, we drew. And the season was over.

The players were all ignoring me, the next day, as they did their final recovery before jetting off for a bit of sun; they had some well deserved breaks coming up. I did manage to get in a few chats with the lads on loan who’d be going back to their clubs. One even said he’d like to be back next season, if I could arrange another spell with us, but mostly I was happy to be ignored. These are all young guys, we had our ups and downs, but they were the people on the pitch; they should focus on lying on a beach somewhere, although I’d guess nightclubs will feature a little more than sand. I was being boring and knew my holidays would be back to Ireland, maybe I’d even get in some of the summer league there.

I headed up to the chairman’s office to tell them the players were off on their break and I was off for two weeks. I don’t know why, but I was half expecting a new contract on the spot. Top ten when they were contemplating relegation? Under budget? New lads coming in who should really strengthen us? A new contract was no less than I deserved, even if I had another year left on my current one.

And what did they say? “We always knew we’d get a mid-table season, so we’re satisfied with you’re performance in the league.” Just like that. So bloody impersonal; like I was a figure in their excel column adding up.

And they always expected a mid-table finish? Did they think I’d forget what they said at the start of the season? Or what they said half way through, when they were rubbing their hands with glee at me making them—once again—“an Established Championship Club?” To hell with them. Let a hole open up beneath the stadium and swallow them up. But then they stuck the last knife in so subtly. “Just to let you know...” they said, right out of the sides of their mouths,It’s almost certain we’ll be dropping your wage budget next year. But you will have a transfer budget, so we expect a lot.”

You don’t want to know what I was thinking. But walking out I got a few smiles and goodbyes from the lads as I left the grounds; my lads. The guys who looked to me. The lads I did everything for despite a board who would do nothing for me. I got in my car, drove to the record store, and bought some music to listen to for the first time in months.

The music helped, a little. And now, I have a full two weeks holidays back home. I’ll see my family, see friends around Ireland, and get a match or two in. Two weeks where I’m sure I’ll sleep, at least once I forget about a board seemingly asking everything of me and giving me nothing. Maybe I’ll manage to take a few notes on lads in the Irish premiership; you’re always on, aren’t you?

But I can’t help but think, back in Ireland, I’ll see a country I know, with the same kind of young fella who needs a manager. And maybe I’ll find a team with a board that appreciates me, and I won’t have to look to dreams to live my own life.

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