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Luton Town : Staring into the Abyss

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A story focusing on the inner politics and working relationships within a football club as well as the results and excitement on the pitch, conducted via the Football Manager PC game. The story contains strong language and mature themes.

Note - The first page is a hell of a lot longer than the other pages. I started out doing mega-sized posts and then cut them down over time to make them easier to manage

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How does a manager with no experience get a job like this?

Easy. You apply for it and hope you get lucky. It’s that simple. My name by the way is James Martin, and at just twenty nine years old I have been given the chance to become the new manager of Luton Town. My playing career ended when I was twenty five, but as I never made it higher than the Blue Square Premier the injury that did for me was probably a blessing in disguise. Four tough years later and here I am sat at my plum new desk trying to make sense of it all.

I’d wanted to be a manager ever since the big injury. However I always expected to have to start in the non-league, maybe somewhere like my local team Guiseley, or even lower than that down in the Sunday leagues. To get the gig at Luton is quite remarkable. The points deficit definitely had a lot to do with it. The Hatters were a big club at League Two level, but with a '-30' handicap (imposed by the FA due to financial irregularities) I guess a lot of potential managers were turned off. In the end there was only myself and a small handful of other relatively unqualified applicants, and I won.

You have to bear in mind that relegation is almost a certainty for the 2008/09 season. Any self-respecting manager coming to Luton would have to accept that to take the job would be like having the words ‘TOOK LUTON OUT OF THE FOOTBALL LEAGUE’ instantly tattooed over his C.V, and who wants that? From the board’s point of view, I think they probably sniffed an opportunity to save some money. After all, why pay good money for a seasoned veteran if he’ll still get you relegated anyway? You might as well go for a cheap option, right? That cheap option was me. In summary, I don’t think any decent manager wanted this job right now and I don’t think the board wanted a decent manager anyway.

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Dodgy interview process

In fact I was such a cheap option, the chairman still hasn’t bothered to meet me. The interview process was conducted by two people, assistant manager Brian Fox and club lawyer Dave Wheelie. It was Wheelie who did most of the talking. I think Fox was just there to advise Wheelie afterwards if he thought he would get along with me.

Wheelie is a very strange character, perhaps in his late thirties. He wore a dark blue business suit and large yellow glasses. He seemed even more nervous than me at the interview. I saw evidence of sweat on his cheeks and he mostly stuttered and stumbled through his questions. I got the impression he knew very little about interviewing. Or football.

Brian Fox on the other hand is exactly what you would expect from a management man, authoritive in speech and wearing an Umbro overcoat. He’s in his early forties and has apparently treaded the assistant manager boards for quite a few years at such places as Boston, Lincoln, and Cambridge. Why he’s never gone the whole ten yards and become a first team manager I do not know.

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First team squad sheet I've been given

I don't want to write this diary in one long continuous prose. I'll probably break it up quite regularly with the occasion tactic diagram or league table or squad list or balance sheet, anything to stop it looking like one never-ending parchment of words. I've jumped ahead of myself by doing this, but below is the first team squad sheet before I arrived.

Dean Brill (GK)

Conrad Logan (GK)

Edward Asafu-Adjaye (DRC)

George Pilkington (DRC)

Claude Gnapka (DRC, WBR)

Ian Roper (DC)

Rossi Jarvis (DC, DM, MC)

Michael Spillane (DC, DM, MC)

Keith Keane (D, WBR, DM, MC)

Sol Davis (D, WBL)

Lewis Emmanuel (D, ML)

Asa Hall (D, MC)

Kevin Nicholls (DM, MC)

Kevin Watson (DM, MC)

Matthew Spring (MC)

Paul McVeigh (AM R/L, ST)

Ryan Charles (AMR, ST)

Chris Martin (ST)

Sam Parkin (ST)

Drew Talbot (ST)

I've actually heard of some of those players, which reminds me of just how big a challenge this is. I hope I haven't bitten off more than I can chew!

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No private office for the manager?

The morning after I touched down in Luton, Dave Wheelie picked me up in his Mercedes Benz and took me to the ground to show me around. I asked if we’d be meeting the chairman that day but he said no, and that the chairman would make his own arrangements to meet me when he was ready. Kenilworth Road was no surprise to me from the outside because I’d looked at pictures of it on the internet. It’s a lovely old fashioned League Two stadium and fully warrants a place in the professional game, in my opinion.

I won’t bore you with a huge detailed description of the inner layout, but suffice to say I was slightly surprised to discover I’m not getting my own office. Dave instead showed me into a huge open plan area on the first floor where lots of admin staff work. In the corner at the back was an empty desk waiting for me. It's hidden from everyone else’s view by a large panel sticking up at the front of the desk, but they’ll still be able to hear any phone calls I make over the top of it. Surely that’s not right? Anyway, at least it's cosy.

After showing me my desk, Dave introduced me to some of the admin staff. Brenda Easthope is perhaps the most significant, as she’s going to be my secretary. There was also Nicky Willacy, a young female in charge of payroll, Caroline Smith, another young buck, this one in charge of archiving, and one or two others I’m sure I’ll mention at various points in the future. They’re all female apart from one guy, but more importantly they all seem bubbly and friendly. Apparently they’re all new too. Most of the staff were changed during the early summer when the events leading to the points deduction were taking place.

Once all the introductions were over, Brenda went off to make me a coffee (there’s a small kitchen leading off the main office area) and Dave made his excuses to leave. For the first time since the interview, I saw those cheeks start to sweat again.

“I’m off up to see the chairman. If you need anything else, James, just give me a call”.

And with that he was off.

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I don't want to write this diary in one long continuous prose. I'll probably break it up quite regularly with the occasion tactic diagram or league table or squad list or balance sheet, anything to stop it just looking like one never-ending parchment of words.

Welcome and good luck. I'm the lucky fellow who gets to remind you to look at the rules regarding picture posting in FMS before you do this. Tables are fine, but they need to be text based rather than pictures -- or, if you want to do screenies, the house rule is that you need to link to them rather than post them directly. Thanks!

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Dipping my toe into the online forum

As promised over the phone the night I was given the job, my accommodation in Luton was to be a plush flat owned by the chairman. Dave Wheelie showed me there the first night I was in town, and on the second night I decided to go online and see if I could find any fan reaction to my appointment. I’d been spared the terror of a public press conference on account of my inexperience. Dave said he’d arranged with the newspapers that I was to be left alone to get on with my job until at least the start of the league season proper.

Like most football clubs these days Luton has an online fan forum, in this instance Hatters Online. Feeling slightly apprehensive, I registered as ‘MartinISgod’ and started to browse. The first thread at the top had 276 replies and the title – “James WHO? What kind of a f_ck_g joke is this?” - I think I’d better just re-print the opening post rather than make any attempt to describe it....

‘As if the 30 point penalty isn’t bad enough, we’ve now been given a manager who’s never managed. This new chairman doesn’t care one iota about this football club! When you think of all the high quality managers we could have had, and instead we get Martin. And no it’s not James Martin the chef, although it might as well be. What a joke. We’ll be lucky to get back to zero this season, never mind stay up!”

The rest of the thread wasn’t that bad. Some people even suggested laying off me until I’d at least lost a few games. In fact, far more notable than any threads I found about me was one concerning the chairman. He's apparently a Serbian called Dragomir Dilic (I’d known that much, but no more than that, since day one). Apparently he took over the club shortly before I arrived and very little is known about him. Perhaps because he's foreign though, and perhaps also because he’s kept himself mostly to himself since arriving, Hatters fans seem to have already formed the opinion that Dilic is only here to make a quick buck and probably doesn't care about the club.

So the story goes, once the sh_t hit the fan over the thirty point penalty, and all the old board members packed their bags and left at the end of last season, there were strong overtures from a group of fans about buying the club for themselves and forming a new Supporters Trust with which to run it. They probably would have got their wish too if Dimic hadn't entered the picture at the last minute with a much better offer for the creditors. This narrow miss clearly rankles with a lot of supporters, and I imagine it will take a lot for Dilic to convince the fans he was the right man to take the reins.

Anyway, as much as I was tempted to start a new thread and talk about how I once knew the new Luton manager and how secretly talented he is etc, I resisted and went to bed.

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Some Luton Town club information

Nation - England

Year Founded - 1885

Status - Professional

Reputation - Regional

Chairman status - Loves the club

Legends - Dragomir Dilic

Icons - Mick Harford, Brian Stein, Ricky Hill, David Pleat

Favoured personnel - Kevin Nicholls

Fierce Rivals - Watford

Other Rivals - MK Dons, QPR

Finances - Okay (635k in the balance)

Average ticket price - £15

Average season ticket price - £230

Season ticket holders - 3400

Estimated value - £1.2 million

Continental competitions - None

Media prediction - 24th

I got this information from the club website. However, Dragomir Dilic the NEW chairman - a legend? He must have written this himself.

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Office banter

The next morning I received an E-mail from Mr Dimic’s secretary (Katrina) inviting me upstairs for a meeting with Dilic at 2pm. I was a bit nervous about this, and the other staff weren’t much use at making me feel any better. None of them, it transpired, had ever spoken to Dilic face to face, and only Brenda had even so much as passed him in the car park. It seemed Dave Wheelie was very much the first point of contact for everyone, not just me.

On the subject of Brenda, I'm really starting to like her. I don’t mean in a fancying kind of way. I mean Jesus, the woman must have be in her fifties. As a secretary though she's top notch, always making me coffee and offering to do ad hoc tasks. She has a friendly Lancashire accent and nearly always seemed to be wearing a smile. Hers is the desk closest to the door.

Payroll administrator Nicky is more the type a guy would find attractive, despite the fact that sadly she's only eighteen. She's far the bubbliest person in the office, frequently finding herself unable to sit still. She has long brown hair (sometimes ponytailed for work) and possesses one of the most eye-catching smiles I’ve ever seen. It's one of those smiles where you see lots and lots of white teeth all at the same time. For some women that doesn’t look good. Nicky isn't one of those.

Then there's Darren, the club’s website administrator. He's twenty two and rather impressed with himself. He has thick bleached blonde hair and often spends time making jokes and checking himself out in Nicky’s desk mirror, not that Nicky seems to mind. Darren is a Luton Town fan through and through, and despite the fact he's clearly a show-off, I've decided the guy will probably be very useful to know. He's not much use when it comes to fan boy statistics and things like that, but he does claim to be quite an authority on the mood of the fans around Kenilworth Road. When he isn't working he goes to home and away to all the matches so I suppose if anyone ought to be in a position to know...

Caroline Smith, the club's archive administrator, is very quiet and sits at the furthest desk away from me. I could tell she was a shy geeky type just by looking at her. At a guess I’d say she's twenty. She's the only member of the office staff who works part-time. Away from Kenilworth Road she's a student at the local polytechnic.

Last but not least there's Alison, ticket sales administrator. I haven't actually met yet though because she's away on holiday in the Maldives. Her empty desk is just across from where Nicky sits.

“Don’t worry about Mr Dimic” Brenda said, as I waited for 2pm to come. “He obviously likes you or he wouldn’t have green-lit your appointment”.

“No Brenda, Dave Wheelie liked me. Dimic hasn’t even met me. For all I know, when he does meet me, he instantly won’t like me and he’ll show me the door”.

“Such a pessimist” Nicky beamed.

“Look dude” said Darren, combing his hair as he stood up. “If it was me in this situation I’d scrape through thanks to my looks alone, but as you can’t do that, let me tell you what I’d do as a Plan B”.

“What’s that?”

Darren made to speak again but then paused carefully.

“You know - actually - now that I think about it, I’ve never had to use a Plan B. Sorry dude, you’re on your own”.

Sighs all around, except from Caroline over in the corner, who continued to type away on something with a completely straight face.

“It’s not just this meeting I’m nervous about” I said. “Me and Brian have got our first training session tonight. I’ve not met any of the players before. In fact, this whole day is just one big ordeal from first minute to last”.

“Another coffee, love?” – Brenda.

“I’d kill for one”.

2pm eventually arrived and up I went to the second floor to meet Dilic. His secretary Katrina was a pretty dark haired lady of about thirty who spoke in a foreign accent. I quickly guessed she came from wherever Dimic had come from, not that I would enquire further on the subject. Anyway, at 2.01pm, the door to Dilic’s office opened and a middle-aged chubby hand beckoned me inside....

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Meeting the chairman

Stepping into Mr Dimic’s office was a strange experience. The carpet was white and immaculately clean, quite a departure from the rest of the building. Over on the left was a huge fish tank built into the wall, several multi-coloured little things swimming around the gloom within. Mr Dimic’s desk was up a couple of steps off the ground and situated at the back. Believe me, when I walked in I believed straight away that the owner of this office owned the club.

“Good afternoon, Mr Martin” said Dilic, in surprisingly good English. “Do take a seat”.

He then pointed back towards the door and asked me if I’d met his bodyguard. On twisting around I saw a huge brick s__thouse of a man stood in the corner with his hands down in front of him (I’d not spotted him when coming in). He was bald, in his early forties, and wore an expressionless face. He was easily the scariest guy I’d ever seen in my life. The man looked like The Terminator without hair. Dilic informed me of the man’s name in Serbian but I couldn’t pronounce it when I tried to repeat it back, so he simplified it for me.

“In your English I believe it translates as Brute”

“Brute?” I repeated.

“Yes, Brute, a fitting name vor him I think. He can be very intense ven he wants to be”.

“I don’t doubt it” I said, taking one last glance back at ‘Brute’ before letting the matter die. Brute merely glared back and didn’t respond.

“I don’t have much time to spare you today, Mr Martin” Dilic continued, picking a tennis ball off his desk and fiddling with it as he spoke. “Most of vot you’ll need is available from other members of staff. For instance, if you want authorization to sign or sell players, or offer new contracts, speak to my accountant. She has a little office just down ze corridor on zis floor. Her name is Erica. You can also speak to Dave, who I believe has been showing you around. Erica and Dave will filter through to my computer all of your adminstrative activity. If I ever disapprove of anything you’re doing, I vill let you know”.

He seemed keen to get through the meeting as fast as possible. Before he continued though he chucked the tennis ball at me (I caught it right handed) and took a sip of his coffee.

“You’re probably wondering why we picked someone with no experience. Truth is, you’re a stop-gap, a temporary measure masquarading as a permanent one. I don’t expect you vill still be here next season ven we be back in a position to be competitive again. Just do your best and we’ll see how things go. I’m led to believe that Brian Fox is a very experienced assistant, so if you’re in any doubt about anything, speak to him, or Dave, or Erica, or Donald Duck, or anybody. Just don’t come barging up here to speak to me because I’m a busy man. When I vant to speak to you, I vill let you know, understand?”

“Perfectly” I said.

“Do you have any questions?”

“Errrr, well, even if I am a stop-gap, am I definitely going to get a whole season under my belt? I mean, will I be kicked out even earlier if I do bad?”.

Dilic chuckled and got out of his seat, heading slowly to the fish tank. There was a plate of what looked like chicken breasts next to the tank. He picked this up and looked at me.

“You vill probably last out ze season, but that doesn’t mean zer von’t be reprocussions should zer be too many bad results”.

With this he opened up a small window near the top of the tank and began, one by one, dropping the chicken breasts into the water. Immediately all the fish began swishing and making a racket, and chomping on the chicken. It was then I realised they were piranha fish.

“I have certain vays - of keeping employees’ minds - on ze job” Dilic continued slowly, his concentration on the fish tank unwaving. “And one thing I absolutely cannot stand - is failure”.

There was suddenly no chicken left in the water. Quickly I stood up and began to walk towards the door.

“Well thanks for meeting me, Mr Dilic sir. I’ll definitely do my best”.

“I’m sure you vill, Mr Martin. I’m sure you vill”.

Brute was stood by the door, and I suddenly realised I was still clutching Mr Dilic’s tennis ball.

“Err, I believe this is yours” I said without thinking, lobbing the ball up for Brute to catch it. He did this with one swift movement of the right arm.

Then he began to crush the ball with his hand. A few seconds later there was nothing left except a few small fragments of rubber. Brute let these slip down onto the carpet.

“Not a tennis fan, eh?” I said, and left quickly.

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An E-mail I received from Dilic outlining his expectations

- I expect the team to, at the very least, battle bravely against relegation

- I expect the team to reach the third round of the FA Cup

- I expect the team to reach the second round of the League Cup

- I'm not bothered about the Johnstone's Paint Trophy

This list of directives had me worried straight away. What constitutes 'battling bravely?' Do I just have to pass zero? Do I need to take it down to the final few games of the season? I wish he'd been more specific. I supposed I would just have to try my best and see what happened. As for the League Cup request, I wondered if he'd actually bothered to look at the draw for the first round, a match he apparently expected victory in. We'd been drawn away to Championship side Watford!

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First training session

After the bizarre meeting with Dilic, the first training session was always going to turn out far less eventful. Personally I didn’t even do any actual training. After being introduced to the squad one by one (complete with a round of applause for me, which was kind of them) I stood on the touchline with Brian and watched the club coaches take the session. Brian was curiously optimistic about the season ahead.

“Thirty points sounds a lot, but in a forty six game league season with only two teams relegated, I’d wager that you definitely wouldn’t need more than about forty five points to stay up. Now then, for us that would mean securing seventy five points in total. It’s not impossible. A lot of this squad were playing in League One last season. Seventy five points is about what you’d need to scrape into the playoffs, so theoretically, if we get enough points to finish in the top six or there abouts, we might just stay up”.

“And I see that Rotherham and Bournemouth are starting on minus seventeen” I said, noticing out on the training field that defender Sol Davis had a very reliable left foot.

“Absolutely. That could definitely end up helping us come the end of the season”.

“I’m still not fancying our chances”.

“Hey, it’s not all doom and gloom. Look, the fans have pretty much given up any hope of staying up before a ball has been kicked. This is one thing you’ve got to your advantage. If you even come close to pulling this off, the fans will like you just for giving them some unexpected excitement. And remember, the decision about whether or not to keep a manager is often based on what the fans think”.

“I guess”.

We stopped talking at this point and stood silently watching the training. A lot of the players were impressive, although I thought midfielder Kevin Watson looked old and slow. I made a mental note to get rid of him if I could. In fact, most of the mental notes I made during that first session were about which players I didn’t want to play rather than the ones I did. Maybe it was indicative of my negative state of mind.

The session ended on a downer. When I told Brian I was already thinking of buying a central midfielder to replace Watson, he produced a worried expression and replied - “You do know there’s no transfer money, right? Didn’t Dilic tell you? Jeez, he really must have been in a rush today”.

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I'm really impressed with how you are writing this story. Something tells me you have some writing experience. It's not only on the field that people will follow stories but off the field as well. So far you have done the off the field perspective really well. KUTGW :D

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You're off to a strong start here. Glad you are taking time for a bit of character development as well. Good luck to you, will be following along!

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(Thanks for the nice encouraging words thus far, from everyone)

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12/07/08 - Friendly 1 (Att - 512)

Bangor City 2 (Jones 21 pen, Page 48)

Luton Town 2 (Martin 29, Webster 45 o.g)

Although I didn’t arrange the friendlies myself, I was glad of this as a first fixture because it kept me away from the Luton home fans just a little while longer (although fifty or so die hards still made the trip). I had no idea how my team was going to play, and if we were going to have a post-summer stinker it would be much better to have it a million miles away in Bangor than right in front of the Kenilworth faithful.

For the first half of the first half we really did stink, but once we settled down we started to boss the game, and I was very happy to see us go in 2-1 ahead. Everyone was knackered in the dressing room though. We had absolutely no match fitness. I had to swap most of the team around just after half time and Bangor took advantage to equalise. With a load of second stringers finishing out the match we looked no threat at all, which immediately told me we didn’t have a very strong squad ‘depth’. Bangor came very close once or twice to winning 3-2. Still, considering how raw the team was under my management, a draw wasn’t a disaster.

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13/07/08 - Sorting out the pitch dimensions

The morning after Bangor I was a sent a memo from the league asking what our pitch dimensions would be for the coming season. I hadn't considered this prior to now but I was fasincated with the possibilities. To get the best advice I quickly made arrangements to meet groundsman Fred Pilchard down by the side of the pitch. Personally I had no idea how wide or short or long it was possible to shape a football pitch and still pass it off as legal, but I figured Fred probably would (him being the groundsman). I hadn't yet clapped eyes on him but I reckoned he must be old with a name like Fred Pilchard.

As it transpired I was right. Fred looked at least seventy and going some. He had an old wrinkled face and a hunchbacked walk. He also wore one of those old-style flat caps people used to wear at the football about a hundred years ago when it was all black and white. When I think of flat caps I think of Stanley Matthews, Jackie Milburn, and that cup final with the white horse on the Wembley pitch. Fred looked like he'd been plucked from right from the crowd of that very same match. He even bore one of those expressions that seems to say "Football is rubbish compared to the old days and don't try and tell me different".

I said "Hi" when I first saw him. Fred merely tipped his cap. With introductions out of the way we walked slowly around the side of the stadium, me carrying my writing pad to make any notes and Fred carrying a pitchfork. Instead of getting straight down to business, Fred opted to tell me about the time his perfectly painted penalty spots finished runner-up in the 1983 Football league club penalty spot of the year competition. I put forward the opinion that surely all penalty spots are the same, and thus any competition to find the best ones would be ludicrous. Fred looked horrified at my ignorance and grabbed me weakly by the arm to set me straight.

"Laddy, a penalty spot is a thing of beauty. It can't just be painted in two seconds flat. It has to be caressed to life with precision strokes. What's more, you have to make sure you end up with a perfect circle. I remember the penalty spots down at Brighton in seventy two. Old Gaffer Widbrook, he knew how it was done. On the other hand, if you ever get to see the weird shapes that pass for penalty spots up at Macclesfield, you'll know the difference between a good penalty spot and a bad penalty spot. My spots from eighty three though, they were vintage. I've got a picture of them at home somewhere".

"How many penalties did we get that season then?" I asked, unable to believe I was listening to this claptrap.

"One"

"Did it go in?"

"Nope - got fluffed over the bar. It was nothing to do with the spot though".

When we eventually did get down to business, Fred explained that he didn't want to change the pitch dimensions because he'd already painted them on for the coming season, and that to change them again at this late stage would involve a lot of hassle, not to mention the fact he was very proud of the penalty spots he'd cooked up for us this year and didn't want them messed with. I was told to whisper it only quietly, but Fred reckoned he was in with a shot of winning his first penalty spot title in twenty six years.

"It would be quite something to win it again after all this time" he said.

"It would be a story to warm the hearts at penalty spot conventions the world over" I replied.

I didn't have the heart to tell him that altering the dimensions of the pitch wouldn't necessarily involve scrubbing out the penalty spots. Instead I merely said my goodbyes and trundled back inside. Ten minutes afterwards I was E-mailing the league to inform them of our final decision, that we would be sticking with what we had last season. One more job out of the way.

As for Mr Pilchard, I have to admit I'm a little uncomfortable at the thought of this man being my groundsman. He seems too old and senile to me. I would much rather get somebody younger in. The trouble is, I'm afraid of the whole unfair dismissal can of worms were I to actually try and let Fred go. Furthermore, I doubt such a move would prove popular within the club.

I've been informed that Fred is something of an institution around Luton Town Football Club, a real fan's favourite. Apparently he can often be seen wandering around the pitch just before matches are about to start, prodding the grass with his pitchfork ("checking for 2p's most likely" - Brian). He's also something of a regular down the local pre-match boozer - The Hatters Arms. I bet he's retold his penalty spot story in there a fair few times over the years!

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17/07/08 - Friendly 2 (Att - 1034)

Rushden and Diamonds 1 (Phillips 21)

Luton Town 0

Lots to talk about here and it’s mostly bad. For starters, this was the second match running we ran out of gas by half time and I was forced to put a grossly insuperior second string out for the second half. I know it was only the second match back after the summer holidays but we're meant to be a more professional unit than the likes of Bangor and Rushden, both of whom managed to run perfectly well for almost ninety minutes!

Secondly, we suffered no less than three injuries in this game, all of which would rule said players out for at least one match and beyond. I really need to look at the fitness side of things in training before the next friendly. At this rate we'll probably have no squad left by the start of the season proper. The two results thus far do not make for impressive reading at all. To make matters worse, about four hundred of our fans travelled up for this game and I doubt they were impressed with what they saw. Word may already be spreading that I'm not up to the job.

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17/07/08 - Talking tactics down The Hatters Arms

Brian and I unanimously decided after the Rushden game that we needed to work more on our match tactics. So, we headed down to the local pub one night to talk it over. I ordered a pint of Tetleys and Brian a pint of Carling. We sat at a table deep in the corner well away from everybody else, two sets of pens and paper out in front.

“One thing we definitely need to do is work more with the team individuals” I began. “One thing the last two matches have proved is that we can’t just shove eleven players out onto the pitch playing 4.4.2 and expect automatic results. If we want success, we’ve got to earn it. I think the first thing we need to do is focus on each individual’s strengths and encourage him to utilize them more. Conversely, if we notice that a player is poor at any particulars aspect of the game, we should tell them not to engage in said aspects”.

“I agree. So what sort of things are we looking at? We can write them down”.

“For starters, long shots. I noticed Ian Roper shoot from thirty yards twice against Rushden and he missed hopelessly both times. In the next training session I want the whole team practising long shots and whoever doesn’t impress shall be strictly forbidden from taking them during a match”.

“Makes sense”.

We then wrote down several other ideas along the same theme, most of which involved up and coming training sessions where the players would be given a chance to earn their right to be allowed to do something during a match. For instance, I made a note for the team to practice crossing and heading for an hour, the idea being I would learn who I wanted going forward for a corner and who I wanted staying back. Brian had a concern with this philosophy however...

“What if, for example, Matthew Spring takes some hopeless penalty kicks in the penalty trials but is usually really good at them?”

“Well, we’re always going to keep practising these things. If I notice anyone improve any aspect of their game in training, they can then perhaps be allowed to introduce them to their match game”.

Brian nodded in agreement. From a team point of view we were both happy to stick with 4.4.2 for now but Brian raised the concern that our wingers might not be good enough for this to always be effective.

“I agree” I said, polishing off my Tetleys. “I’ve been thinking actually about experimenting with a diamond formation 4.4.2 as an alternative for when things aren’t going well, a plan B if you will. Midfielder Keith Keane might not be match fit enough to play yet, but in a diamond formation he could join the team as the third central midfielder. The fourth could be that young 17 year old left midfielder I’ve been keeping an eye on in training – I forget his name”.

"Owusu" said Brian.

"That's the one".

Both happy with our work, we put our pencils away and set off for our respective homes.

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18/07/08 - Scouting for players

After the Rushden match I spent an entire morning sat at my desk making enquiries about prospective new players. The squad I'd inherited clearly wasn't good enough. Brian provided me with a link to a database which showed all the players in the country currently without a club. The trouble is, most of the players on it seem to have little or no experience according to their recorded histories. At the opposite end of the spectrum, there are players on there like Thomas Graveson who I know would have absolutely no interest in joining Luton, particularly as Dilic recently sent me an E-mail informing me I wasn’t allowed to offer any new player more than £3000 p/w in wages.

My dabble with the loanee section proved far more fruitful, and by the end of the day I'd secured two signings on season long loans. The first of those was Robert Eagle, a left winger from Norwich City. Brian Fox (who I phoned to guage an opinion) had apparently seen him before but didn’t rate him. I was desperate for a left footed winger though as my up to date squad list told me we had precisely none! I figured it was best to have a mediocre player in any one position than none at all.

The second loan signing was Bartosz Slusarski, a striker from West Brom. We're a little bit short up front because Drew Talbot is going to be out of action for a while. Slusarksi I reckon to be a capable player but one who has probably tried to punch above his weight throughout his largely unsuccessful career. He's 26 and according to his history has gone through spells not only at West Brom but also Nottingham Forest and Sheffield Wednesday. All Championship clubs. It doesn't look like he’s done that well at any of them, but he obviously he has faith in himself or he wouldn’t keep bouncing from one to the next. Maybe League Two will be a more suitable place for him to make his mark?

Like I said I would, I've gotten rid of ageing midfielder Kevin Watson. He looked sluggish in training from the moment I saw him, and when I spoke to him about his future at the club (or lack of), he agreed to leave without any trouble just so long as we paid out the rest of his contract. This I agreed to do, and I E-mailed Dilic to let him know. I was worried he might mail me back to kick up a stink but the reply never came, so I presume that what I did was okay.

Despite the temporary signing of Eagle, we're still weak on the wings. I'm desperately keen to try my proposed 4.4.2 diamond formation but reckon it would be pointless to do so until Keith Keane is back from injury. To play a diamond you need four central midfielders on the pitch and another on the bench, and we're just too short at this point in time due to injury. With the acquisitions of Eagle and Slusarski completing a reasonable day's work, I decided to leave it there and see how the next two friendlies go. We have six to play in total after all.

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20/07/08 - Friendly number 3 (Att - 2200)

Luton Town 0

Doncaster Rovers 1 (Wellans 11)

Before this, my first ever home game at Kenilworth Road, I was introduced to the fans by stadium announcer Noel Cooper. I waved in all four directions and received a warm reception back, which was nice of them I suppose. Some fans behind me thought it would be funny to sing “Martin, cook us a meal. Martin Martin cook us a meal!” a lazy reference I thought to the fact my name is James Martin (like the chef). Brian though whispered in my ear that the fast food served to fans on match days at Kenilworth Road is generally regarded as overpriced and of very poor quality, and that the song might have had a double meaning.

A crowd of over 2000 saw Championship side Doncaster predictably dominate most of the match. They only scored once though, which allowed me to leave the dugout at quarter to five with just a smidgeon of my self-esteem still in tact. We only had one shot total at the other end, and the fans were clearly bored long before the final whistle. What could I do though against a team as far above us as Doncaster? Quite frankly this match told me absolutely nothing. I even had to play 16 year old youth kid Aiden Quinn up front alongside Slusarski because my three other senior strikers were injured.

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22/07/08 - Teaching the offside trap

One hot July afternoon in the office I found myself talking to Brian on the phone about offside traps.

"Yep, we definitely need to work on that offside trap. That Donnie striker, forget his name, was getting past Roper every single time. Yep, I'll see you down The Hatters Arms later then. Okay, bye".

With that I hung up.

"What's an offside trap?" Brenda asked out loud, grabbing everybody's attention. "I'm over fifty years old and I still don't understand it".

"I know it's not the same but I used to like MouseTrap" Nicky said pointlessly, grinning away. "You know, the game".

"To answer Brenda's question" I began, thinking hard, "Well - ".

Brenda, Nicky, Darren, and Caroline were all looking at me hard from their respective desks. I suddenly realised just how difficult it is to explain the offside trap in words alone.

"Okay, everybody stand up" I said, walking over to the corner where I knew there was a stray football lying around. "Let's do this with a demonstration. Darren, I know you know what the offside rule is so you're going to help me out".

Everybody shuffled out of their chairs and waited to see what would happen next. I didn't think they were particularly interested in what I was about to show them, but when you work an office job I guess it's nice to find any old excuse to get out your seat once in a while.

"Caroline, stand in between those two desks at the front. You're going to be the goalkeeper. All you have to do is stand still".

"Can I be the star striker?" Darren grinned, as Caroline obeyed my initial order, in doing so crossing her arms and looking like the most pathetic goalie the world has ever seen.

"Yes Darren, you can be the star striker. Stand a few yards in front of Caroline. That's it. Now then Nicky, you're going to be the last defender".

"Last defender? Who's the first defender?" she asked, moving into position.

"There is no first defender in this example, just a last one. Okay Brenda, you're going to be the midfielder who makes the pass".

With this I passed Brenda the football. With the exception of myself, everybody else was now in one long straight line down the centre of the office. From one end to the other there was Brenda the midfielder, Nicky the defender, Darren the striker (who obviously was on Brenda's imaginary 'team'), and finally Caroline the goalkeeper, who was on Nicky's team. I explained this business about who was on who's team and I won't bore you with details as to how long it took to make them understand. Eventually though, we were finally ready for Brenda to make her move.

"Okay Brenda, pass it to Darren and then we'll discuss whether he's offside or not"

"Can I actually kick it?" Brenda asked excitedly.

"If you must" I replied, suddenly wondering what Mr Dilic's reaction would be if he walked in at this precise moment.

Brenda dropped the ball onto her foot and kicked it. Smash - It went straight into Alison's monitor, the woman currently away on holiday. A silence followed as everybody absorbed what had just happened.

"Okay, don't worry, I'll pay for that. Everybody stay where they are. Oh, except you Brenda. You swap positions with Darren. Let's get someone who knows how to kick a ball".

"No way" Darren laughed, apparently amused at what had just happened. "I'M the star striker".

"Fine" I said, turning to Nicky. "You're up instead. Swap with Brenda".

"Yay I get to kick it!" she replied.

A few seconds later and everybody was in position again. Nicky faked a drum roll before turning her face to one of intense concentration. Then, just as Brenda's faint wheezing noise was starting to tell me she wasn't going to be able to take the suspense much longer, Nicky finally dropped the ball onto her foot and gave it a good welly. The ball didn't go anywhere near any monitors this time but it did fly straight through one of the windows. More silence followed. Nicky's grin seemed to sink beneath her shoulder blades.

"Okay" I eventually said. "We'll leave it there for today. Darren, go get the ball and then go and get Fred in here to sort that mess out".

"I'm not doing leg work like that. I'M the star striker".

"You'll be the star unemployed guy in a minute, now go and get the ball".

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26/07/08 - Friendly Number 4 (Att - 2731)

Luton Town 1 (Slusarski 43)

Ipswich Town 3 (Counago 18, 50, Gnapka 80 o.g)

The scoreline looks respectable but believe me when I say this was almost entirely one way traffic. The Tractor Boys from the Championship finished 16-3 ahead in the shots column and fully deserved their victory. We had one good spell just before half time. Youth kid Aiden Quinn (again starting for me because of my insane injury problems) blazed a half chance over the bar before two minutes later Slusarski took the ball down well before firing a low shot past the keeper. That seemed to wake Ipswich up, and once half time had elapsed they dominated the rest of the game. How they didn't score more than three I will never know.

During this match I found myself secretly annoyed we were playing a much higher ranked club for the second game running. We should have been building confidence levels and getting some good time on the ball during pre-season, not chasing around after Championship players looking stupid. I can only imagine the board, i.e Dilic, was thinking more about his wallet than the good of the team. Ipswich brought 700-800 fans to this friendly, and that spells income. The fact is though, I'm still chasing a win after four games and I'm starting to feel the pressure before the league campaign has even kicked off. I've also got a broken P.C and a smashed window to pay for out of my first month's wage!

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29/07/08 - A Wheelie bin of trouble

This early evening I witnessed a very strange incident indeed. At the time I had been innocently heading to my computer to do scouting work, but just as I reached the door to the admin offices I became aware of Dave Wheelie's presence thirty yards or so further down the corridor. Dave was standing with his back to the wall and from the looks of it was being harassed and intimidated by two men I'd never seen before. Never the less, my first instinct here told me that Dave wasn't in any immediate physical danger. So, before getting spotted I quickly slipped through the doorway of the admin office and poked my eyes around the frame of the door to carry on watching.

"You're pushing your luck, Dave!" one of the bullies said, a guy with a huge moustache and wearing a white Columbo-style overcoat.

"Yeah. Pushing it too far if you ask me". This from his accomplice, a slightly shorter guy who I thought looked and talked a bit like the actor Jason Statham.

"Puh-puh-please" Dave stammered, that familar minefield of sweat glistening all over his cheeks. With those yellow glasses he almost looked like Timmy Mallet in a lawyer's suit. (I'm terrible for finding celebrity look-a-likes for people. I do it all the time).

"All we're saying is, Dave, you'd better decide where your loyalties lie. We really don't want to come and have this conversation with you again in the future".

"Please, just leave it. I haven't done anything. Please".

The guy with the moustache backed a few more inches away from Dave's chin, apparently satisfied - for now - that Dave had got the message, whatever that message had been. It seemed I'd arrived just slightly too late to hear the juicy bits.

"Come on Garry, let's go".

With that they started heading towards me, leaving Dave cowering against the wall. Quickly I ducked my head back inside the admin offices and hid behind the wall as they passed. I waited until their footsteps became distant and then emerged from the doorway again, fully intent on asking Dave to spill the beans. Dave though was no longer there. He must have slipped off in the opposite direction to the two thugs. I didn't get much scouting work done after that. My mind was too occupied with what I'd witnessed out in the corridor.

After twenty minutes of unsuccessful searching I shut down my computer and headed over to The Hatters Arms. I hoped I wasn't doing the wrong thing, but I decided to share with Brian my experiences of not only Dave but also Mr Dilic. I was curious to find out what his thoughts were. Originally I hadn't been due to meet with Brian in the pub until 7.30pm, however he only lived a few streets away and was happy enough to come out earlier when I called him on the phone.

"So then" he said, once we'd taken our usual seats in the far corner away from everybody else. "You sounded a bit funny on the blower. Anything else you wanted to talk about tonight in addition to the football?" (we had our fifth friendly the next day)

"As a matter of fact there is, Brian" I said, taking my first sip of Tetleys.

I then proceeded to tell him the finer details of my visit to Mr Dilic's office, including the part about the piranha fish. I also provided a full length account of what had just happened with Dave back at the office. After the story Brian calmly supped his drink and prepared to respond.

"Okay, first of all, I wouldn't worry yourself about Mr Dilic for now. I haven't met him myself but he sounds like quite a character. I'd like to think the piranha thing was just his way of amusing himself. I doubt he actually throws people into the tank. You've also got to remember that people who take the time to buy exotic things like that are usually deeply passionate about them. It's quite possible he only drew your attention to the fish tank so he could quite literally show them off".

"And Dave?"

"Well, the two guys who threatened him were almost certainly Towzer and Garry. They're a couple of local thugs and not very good ones at that. I believe they used to be debt collectors for a local loan shark called Jack Shandy. Now though it's widely believed they work for Dilic. If true, it wouldn't be surprising from a financial perspective. Dilic is a much bigger fish than Shandy".

"You said one of them is called Garry. Is that a second name?"

"Yeah but I don't know the first names of either of them. Towzer is the brains of the outfit, Garry the muscle. Although having said that Towzer still fancies himself as being able to throw a punch or two. He's the one with the moustache, and he usually wears a long white overcoat. Garry is the shorter bald one".

"Well those descriptions definitely confirm that it was Towzer and Garry I saw back at the club" I said. "Before we go on though, how is it you know all this stuff?"

Brian brushed his mouth with his a hand and took another sip. The pub was starting to fill up now. A bunch of youngsters I recognised as being our youth team had just added nine to the numbers, and the barman was suddenly struggling to serve everyone within a reasonable time frame. When Brian continued it was in a much more hushed tone of voice.

"I had an altercation with Towzer and Garry not long after I arrived here. About a week before you arrived. It wasn't pre-meditated, at least I don't think it was. Anyway, we all got acquainted in the Kenilworth car park one afternoon in an argument over a parking space. Thankfully the incident passed without fisticuffs. Later that same day, or it might have been the day after, I was in here having a pint and I got talking to Gav the barman".

Brian motioned in the direction of the big burly dark haired man serving all the youth teamers.

"He told me this and that, mainly about Towzer and Garry, and that I guess is pretty much the end of the story".

"So you don't know anything about why Towzer and Garry would suddenly lean on Wheelie?"

"Nope. It's news to me. If Towzer and Garry still do work for Shandy then it could be debt-related, although I'd be surprised if it was given how much money Wheelie's probably on at Luton. I don't know. It could be anything. I bet it's shady though, whatever it is. I don't know Wheelie that well but from first impressions he seems a bit on the slimy side to me".

We paused for a minute or so, collecting our thoughts. Both of our pints were drained during this interim. It was a nice pub, spacious and homely. There were nice old-fashioned paintings on the walls and guest ales available amongst the taps. In fact it almost seemed a shame such a nice place could be so regularly tarnished by the muddy feet of tired footballers and men like Garry and Towzer.

"You know Brian, Dilic has got his own thug element over from Serbia, a huge man known as 'Brute'. Are you familiar with him at all?"

Brian shook his head.

"Never heard of him".

"Why employ local thugs to do your bidding though if you've obviously spent money bringing over your own people?"

"He probably feels he could distance himself easier from a pair of English boys were they to fall foul of the law, either that or this Brute you speak of is the only thug he brought over the channel and he suddenly thinks he'll need more".

"I suppose. You know, I'm really uneasy about this whole business. I wanted to just concentrate on the football during my time at this club but it's hard to do that when you spot stuff like earlier. I'm actually tempted to go online later and see if I can dig up anything on this Dilic guy".

"You do that" Brian said, checking his watch and standing up to leave. "Don't Google him at the place your staying though. That's technically his computer and his internet you're using. You don't want him somehow finding out you've been checking up on him. If I were you I'd leave it for tonight and run the search at work sometime using one of the P.C's at the office".

"Yeah good call" I said, putting my hand up as a goodbye signal. Moments later Brian was gone.

As I gathered my coat and began to put it on, I suddenly realised that Brian and I had not even touched upon the very thing we had scheduled the meeting to talk about - the next day's friendly against Peterborough!"

'Dilic will keep' I thought. 'Time for that elusive first win!'

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30/07/08

(Friendly Number 5) - (Att, 2248)

Luton Town 1 (Asafu-Adjaye 78)

Peterborough United 3 (Hyde 14, Torres 49, Rendell 88)

This match was a complete waste of time. We had a patched up starting eleven as it was, but then three further injuries occurred during the first half just to make things even worse. It was unbelievably bad luck. The team we put out in the second half was just a total joke. Some players were youth boys and others were hopelessly out of position. I wanted to call the match off at half time but couldn't bring myself to enquire about the possibility.

Brian stood by my side on the touchline completely stone-faced as Posh ran up chance after chance. I'm still not quite sure how we got our goal. Right back Asfau-Adjaye got it, poking home from close range after being forced to play right wing in the second half. This was our fourth consecutive defeat, and even though the fans are giving me some slack due to the quality of opposition we seem to be facing, not many people in and around the club (fans included) are expecting us to suddenly start winning when the league campaign gets underway.

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31/07/08 - Broken dreams

The following day I marched into the office intent on doing some serious team sorting. I'd stayed up half the night worrying about the new injuries and where this was going to leave us on the first day of the season. Brenda and Nicky were the only people in when I arrived. Nicky didn't look her usual self. That gorgeous smile was conspicuous by its absence.

"Brenda" I said, forcing my attention away from Nicky for the time being. "I don't care who you have to call or in what order, but at 2pm today I want the physio and all the injured players in the treatment room where I will be addressing them directly. Is that understood?"

"I'll get straight on it" she replied.

Satisfied I was off to a good start, I then turned on my P.C and waited for it to load up. As I did, the morose looking Nicky caught my eye again.

"Nicky, are you okay?"

No response.

"Nicky!"

Still no response. She was deliberately ignoring me!

"Okay, enough is enough. Nicky, outside please!"

I got up from my chair and headed for the door. Nicky, still looking solemn, slowly made to do the same. The moment we were out in the corridor I wasted no time in trying to get to the bottom of the problem.

"Okay, out with it".

"Don't play the fool" she said, looking annoyed for the first time since I'd met her. "You know what's wrong".

"No I don't" I said, completely flabbergasted.

"Kevin Watson?" she said in a patronising tone of voice.

I thought hard for a moment. I knew the name, I just didn't understand the connection. Watson was the midfielder I'd let go during pre-season. Surely Watson wasn't secretly Nicky's Dad or something?

"I released him from his contract. What is it to you?"

"He was my boyfriend!"

I should have seen that one coming really.

"Look Nicky, this is a football club, a business enterprise. It's not Central Cafe! As manager I have to do what's best for the team, the shareholders, the staff, the chairman, and over five thousand loyal fans. If you think I'm going to jeopardise all that just to keep your personal life all well and dandy, you've got another thing coming".

"But he's a really good player!"

"Oh he's a good player is he?" I said sarcastically. "I see. Well if I'd known THAT - ".

Nicky made to say something else and then opted not to. She looked a sorry sight now, all glum looking and staring down at her little black shoes. Despite how silly she'd been by acting annoyed with me, I couldn't help sympathising with her, especially when she voiced her next comment.

"He told me he was going to play for Arsenal one day and that this place was just a stepping stone".

"Did he now? I doubt it somehow. All I can say is that if he's really really lucky, he might, just MIGHT, mind you, have a chance at picking up a contract at Arsenal Ladies. What's more - Actually, hang on, now that I think about it, why have you only said all this today? It's been well over a week since he left".

Nicky looked close to tears.

"He disappeared about a week ago, said he was off to meet his brother up north for his birthday party. He was only supposed to be gone for a few days. I don't think he's coming back now though".

I thought about putting my arm around her but decided against it. Needlessto say though I spent at least the next three minutes consoling her and telling her she'd get over it etc etc. I told her there's plenty more fish in the sea and that maybe footballers aren't always what they're cracked up to be when it comes to the dating game. Nicky wiped a tear away and nodded her head, eventually looking ready to go back inside the office. Just before we could do so, Darren appeared out of nowhere clutching a copy of The Sun newspaper.

"Hey" he said, grinning and waving the paper around. "You'll never guess what? Kevin Watson's been arrested down in Margate for trying it on with some under-age Thai bird. Haha".

Suddenly a bucketful of tears fell out of Nicky all at once, and if I hadn't needed that wretched Sun paper to mop them all up, I probably would have used it to strangle Darren.

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A summary of my injured players

Keith Keane - Midfielder. Injured since my appointment but guaranteed to play once he's back in about two weeks.

Richard Owusu - Midfielder. Injured in the match against Ipswich and facing at least a month out.

Matthew Spring - Midfielder. Injured in the match against Peterborough and facing weeks out.

Gareth O'Connor - Attacking midfielder. I desperately need this guy if I want to play a diamond formation. Out for a few weeks.

Paul McVeigh - Versatile substitute who can come on and play right wing, up front, or even left wing. Already been out for a few weeks.

Ryan Charles - My ONLY natural right winger. Injured in the match against Peterborough. Out for a few weeks.

Aiden Quinn - Youth striker. He's started in at least two friendlies due to injuries elsewhere, but now he's facing a lay-off himself.

Drew Talbot - Striker. Not kicked a ball since my arrival. Out for another 2 months.

Dean Morgan - Striker. Not technically injured but he is out on loan at Leyton Orient and I can't recall him! Won't be back until next season.

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Forthcoming fixtures

Chelmsford (away), FRIENDLY

Notts County (away), LEAGUE, 09/08/09

Watford (away), LGE CUP ROUND 1, 13/08/09

Chester (home), LEAGUE, 16/08/08

Shrewsbury (away), LEAGUE, 23/08/09

Dag and Red (home), LEAGUE, 30/08/09

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Flashback - My playing career

I probably just about achieved what I was capable of during my playing career, although like most ex-footballers there will always be a small part of me which wonders whether or not I could have done more. Having grown up in Leeds but never supported them or even remotely believed I was capable of playing at Elland Road, I joined Unibond side Farsley Celtic when I was 16 after impressing in a trial. That was just after the start of the 1996/97 season.

I did really well that first year, quickly moving up to the first team in my favourite position as a left winger. When I wasn't playing for Celtic I was studying at college for my A-Levels, taking Business Studies, I.T, and English Languages. My family was very keen for me to get an education just in case the football thing didn't work out.

After two successful years at Farsley, during which I made 53 starts for the first team, chipping in with 14 goals, I was accepted to do a law degree at Lancaster University. This was a couple of hours drive away over on the west coast, and I knew there was no realistic way I'd be able to continue playing for Farsley whilst studying at Lancaster. So with that in mind I quit the club and went on trial with Lancaster City, who as it happened were in the same league as Farsley.

I signed terms with them at the start of the 1998/99 season and quickly barged my way into the first team. I only played 16 first team games (scoring 5 goals) before Morecambe F.C came in for me, who at that time were a couple of divisions higher in what is now the Blue Square Premier. Morecambe was a great move because it's only a fifteen minute train ride from Lancaster. At that time they were still semi-professional, which was ideal for me being in the position I was in regards to my law degree.

I stayed at Morecambe for the next two and a half seasons, playing 77 times and scoring 23 goals. As soon I finished my degree though I began to look for a move back to the Leeds area. I wanted to become a solicitior, and I knew there would be much more opportunity for that sort of thing in a city like Leeds than in Lancaster or Morecambe (both small by comparison).

I was paid a wage by Morecambe but it wasn't enough to live off and be happy. I really needed a real world job as my dad would have called it, and no clubs bigger than Morecambe ever came in for me during my time there. Having been about to turn 22 years old, the move back to Leeds was effectively my way of calling time on any hope I might have had of becoming a professional player.

It didn't take me long to get my foot on the law ladder when back in Leeds, and for my first year or so I abandoned playing football altogether. I got itchy feet the following summer though and began presenting myself to some of the local non-league outfits, hoping to get a part-time contract. I was tempted to go back to Farsley but quickly decided that would be something of a backwards step after playing for Morecambe.

In the end I signed for Halifax Town, a fairly professional club who had just been relegated into the Conference from the football league. My reputation from my days at Morecambe must have spread further than I thought because York City (a club at the same level as Halifax) also tried to sign me. Two years later, after 66 appearances and 21 goals, disaster struck in a home game against Altrincham. I don't like to talk about it too much because it's painful.

I don't regret getting an injury like that at 25. I played a lot of football in my life up to that point and had a good time doing it. If I hadn't got that injury I wouldn't now be in the unique position of managing Luton Town at the age of 29. You also have to remember that I've got sufficient qualifications and experience with which to jump back into the world of law should this management lark go wrong. I'll always have options in my working life. I just hope for a happy ending. I want to achieve something I can really call special in life and I'm wondering if it will be at Luton.

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03/08/08 - Friendly Number 6 (Att - 594)

Chelmsford Town 0

Luton Town 2 (Slusarski 13, Martin 23)

The Blue Square South can’t be much cop because this was a comfortable victory even with all our injuries. The two strikers did the early damage, and although the home side did some pressing in the final quarter of the game, we held on for the win.

I experimented with a 4.1.3.2 formation which didn’t give us much on the wings but it did make us brittle in the middle. It was good to have Martin back up front because that young striker Aiden Quinn (who I’d been forced to start with in the previous three friendlies) really isn't up to much.

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07/08/08 - Panicking over the first league game

Forty eight hours before the trip to Nottingham for the first league match, I launched an all-out offensive to strengthen the squad. Despite the win against Chelmsford, I was in no doubt that if we played exactly the same way away against a league two outfit, we would get beaten. However, because of the time constraints involved, I had given up hope of signing any more players on permanent deals at this late stage. I was now looking exclusively at loan deals, people to keep the boat afloat until all my injury problems resolved themselves.

Helped by what must have been over ten coffee re-fills courtesy of Brenda, my day was moderately successful. First signing was 22 year central Australian defender Adrian Leijer from Fulham. I desperately needed midfielders more than anything, but Leijer sounded quality. He’d previously played 62 times for Melbourne in the Australian A-League, his performances doing enough to earn him a cap for the national side (his only one to date). Then Fulham went in for him twelve months ago, paying 500K for his services. Despite the money spent, the Cottagers failed to play Leijer even once last season and now he's being farmed out on loan. I was happy to take him on a 3 month deal.

After this sideshow I did finally get down to signing some midfielders. First up was central midfielder Jonny Rowell, an 18 year old from Hartlepool. Rowell has been there a year apparently but not started a game. In light of our injury woes, I was happy to promise him one away at Notts County. I signed him up for 2 months in total.

Someone I reckoned to be an even better signing was 18 year old Tom Thorley from Stoke City. Thorley is highly rated but hadn’t been able to get a game at The Britannia Stadium during his two years on the books. He's probably even less likely to now that Stoke had been promoted to the Premiership. Manager Tony Pulis told me that Thorley is a superb team player and highly likely to be a big hit in League Two. I was convinced just by his tone of voice and signed Thorley for 3 months.

Finally I then managed to get a permanent player on a two year contract! This was 35 year old experienced right back Marc Edworthy, who’s had an excellent career doing the rounds at such clubs as Plymouth, Crystal Palace, Coventy City, Wolverhampton Wanderers, Norwich City, and Derby County. Now 35, he's very much starting to wind down a bit. For him, League Two side Luton is the next logical step in his decline. I offered him £3000 p/w for two years and he accepted. Despite this deal, I still plan to start with Claude Gnapka ahead of him. Edworthy is to be back-up.

With all the pieces in place, I formulated in my mind the team I intended to start with at Notts County. For continuity purposes, and also because I haven’t managed to get a right winger in on loan, I elected to stick with the new 4.1.3.2 formation which did for Chelmsford. I would have preferred to play a diamond but I don't have a fully fit attacking central midfielder.

GK – Dean Brill

LB – Sol Davis

RB – Claude Gnapka

DC – Adrian Leijer

DC – George Pilkington

DMC – Kevin Nicholls

MC – Asa Halls

MC – Tom Thorley

MC – Jonny Rowell

FC – Chris Martin

FC – Bartosz Slusarski.

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08/08/08 - Press conference ahead of the first match

Dave Wheelie managed to spare me the media spotlight all the way up to the day before the first league game away to Notts County. When the penultimate day of pre-season finally arrived however, I was told to head to the press room at 2pm to face a question and answer session. Dave came along too to make the introduction. As was usual for Dave, he was sweating. This didn’t put me at ease.

After Dave had wandered out there to a flurry of camera flashes, I waited nervously behind the red curtain to be called out. I felt like a snooker player about to be called out for a world championship session at the Crucible Theatre. Eventually the dreaded words came.

“Ladies and gentleman, boys and girls, it is my pleasure to give to you today - the NEW Luton Town acting manager, Jaaaaames Martin!”.

More camera flashes as I walked out and took a seat next to Dave at the table. The table itself looked like it had been plucked straight from a little kid’s birthday party. There was a red cloth draped over it, and Dave and I had little plastic ‘party cups’ each (those words really were actually written on the side!) with which to pour ourselves water from a nearby jug. In front of me I saw possibly ten or eleven adults all sat on chairs carrying notepads and cameras. It was quite intimidating.

“Hi everyone” I said, trying to smile as best I could. “It’s with great pleasure to be here, taking on the mantle of this great club. I will now take some questions”.

A fortyish guy with glasses held his hand up and I pointed to him.

“Andy Branston, Hertfordshire Herald” he began. “James, the team sheet for tomorrow’s game has been leaked to the press. Is it true you’re going to be playing not just one, but TWO eighteen year old midfielders who have never played a league game before?”

“Errr yes, but they do come highly recommended and we are suffering intense injury problems at the moment”.

“But given the seriousness of Luton’s starting position this season, don’t you think it would have been more sensible to loan some more experienced players? Injuries or not, if these youngsters blow it in the first few games, the season will be over by the time the first choice midfield is available again”.

In my brain I had a reply to this. The only trouble is, it didn’t come out. I stared stupidly at Andy and he stared back intently.

“I was kind of hoping for a more light-hearted first press conference” I said, faking a laugh in Dave’s direction.

“You might have got one two months ago, James” Andy continued. “Back then it would have been near on still the post-season and we could have all had a laugh and talked Black Sabbath. Now though we’re right at the business end of pre-season. Things are serious at this stage. Hard questions need addressing!”

“Yeah but - ”

Just then I saw a hand shoot up at the back. It was a woman’s. Taking the opportunity, I pointed at her and nodded. Andy sat back down again and sighed, crossing his arms.

“Victoria Thornton, The Mirror. Can you explain, in your own words, what yesterday’s signing of Marc Edworthy will bring to the team?”

“Well, I’ve brought Mark in to act as a back-up to Charles Gnapka at right back”.

Laughter and murmours from around the room. I glanced sideways at Dave, who seemed to be sweating and staring at a spot on the ceiling.

“James!” Andy Branston half chuckled. “If the rumour is true, Edworthy is getting three grand a week! Three grand a week to play reserve team football? – for a League Two side? Surely this a total waste of money?"

“Errrr, well - ”

Another hand went up, this one attached to a young blonde man over by the right hand wall. I nodded at him and pointed, at the same time feeling a drop of sweat beginning to run down my cheek. Andy and Victoria meanwhile sighed and sat down again, clearly frustrated their questions had been dodged.

“Brad Scowcroft, The Luton Town Supporters Trust. You will no doubt be aware from the piece in The Sun that Kevin Watson was recently arrested for inappropriately pursuing an under age girl in Margate. Was Kevin’s lust for women the reason you released him from his contract?”

“No it ruddy well wasnt!”

Andy Branston had his hand up again. The drop of sweat on my cheek had now fallen into my party cup. I pointed at Andy and nodded.

“James, why isn’t the chairman here today to introduce you to the press? Surely in light of the points deduction there should have been a show of unity between the manager and the chairman? Is there any truth in the rumour that you and Mr Dilic have not been getting on in the early stages of your working relationship?”

“Me and Mr Dilic get on fine!” I said nastily.

"James" Victoria butted in with, the whole 'nod and point' thing now apparently abandoned. "What are you going to do about the complete lack of width that was evident against Chelmsford?"

Before I could even ponder this, more and more people starting piling in.

"James, what do you make of the rumour that Morecambe's Sammy Mclleroy might be being lined up to replace you at Christmas?"

"James, you've been spotted many times down the same local pub over the past fortnight. Is there any truth in the rumour you might have a drink problem?"

"James, the word going around is that you've been unable to control a recent flurry of instances where the club's players have started inappropriate relationships with members of the largely female office staff. Can you comment on this?"

Every time I paused with an open mouth before suddenly being hit with yet another question. Eventually I decided I'd had enough.

“Thankyou very much everyone. No more questions!”

With this I got up and walked out, Dave hot on my trail. As we left, I could hear lots more camera flashing and more than a little sceptical murmouring.

Total disaster.

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08/08/08 - Searching online for information on Dilic

To take my mind off the disasterous press conference, I chose the night before the big opener as the one I would search online for more information on Dilic. At about 11pm when I knew there would be nobody else in the office, I let myself into the building wearing black clothes and a balaclava. I decided to use Alison’s computer to do my work just in case Dilic (or somebody working for him) had a to check the activity history on my own computer. I wasn’t putting Alison in any danger; if she was ever asked why her cookies showed she had been researching Dilic, she would be able to point to the fact said activity had clearly taken place whilst she'd been on holiday.

Once I was logged in and sat down, I typed Dragomir Dilic into a search engine and began scouring through the results to see what I could find. I didn’t find anything particularly juicy, just a few more things about him I hadn’t previously known. For instance, I found out that before coming to Luton he had been chairman at a football team in the Serbian Super League called Hajduk Radic. For two seasons. I also found some old news articles that speculated Dilic might in the past have had links to war criminal Slobadan Milosevic.

There was also an article which included a picture of Dilic smiling and holding a squirrel. Standing next to him was a woman holding a microphone in the direction of his face (Dilic's face, not the squirrel's). Behind them both was a huge sign with something on it written in Serbian. I became curious about this and quickly translated the text with an online translator. Whilst I was at it I also translated all the text from the rest of the article. The sign, it transpired, read The East European Cuddly Animals Society. The article began as follows..

Football chairman Dragomir Dilic today took time out from his busy schedule to open the new Belgrade branch of The East European Cuddly Animals Society. Dilic, 52, has been a long time supporter and contributor to the organization which had previously only owned sites in Zagreb and Split

It went on to interview Dilic about how much he loves cuddly animals like cats and dogs, and also how he thinks the more deadlier animals on the planet should be hunted down and destroyed. This opinion was doubt highly welcomed by The East European Cuddly Animals Society, which in essence seemed to be a special type of zoo meant only for friendly animals. I would have loved though to have seen Dilic (or anyone else for that matter) try and give one of his piranha fish a cuddle.

Something didn’t quite add up with this article.

Before I could ponder it some more, I got the fright of my life. Someone wearing all black, just like me, burst out from behind Brenda’s desk a few yards away and sprinted for the door.

“Jesus!” I said in total and utter fright.

At this the figure stopped just short of the door and flicked the light on. It was Caroline, the shy part-time archives administrator.

“What are you doing here?” I asked.

“I don’t have the internet at home” Caroline replied in a worried tone of voice. “Sometimes I sneak in at night and use it here. I’m not doing any harm, I promise”.

“Okay, that’s fine. I’m sort of doing the same thing myself. I tell you what, go and make me a coffee and I’ll turn a blind eye to you being here”.

“Sure” Caroline smiled, relieved she wasn’t going to be in any trouble.

Once the coffee arrived we sat down together at Alison’s desk and had a chat about any number of subjects. I discovered she's much less shy when you talk to her one on one. She seems quite intelligent too.

“What sort of things do you do online” I asked.

“Oh you know, just random stuff - Chat rooms, Facebook, Youtube. I just go where the mood takes me I guess. What about you? What do you do here on a night?”

I didn’t want to tell her about my Dilic research so soon in our knowing each other, so I made up a lie.

“I was just errr researching some cooking recipe’s for home. I don’t have the internet either. Well, I do, but at the moment it’s not working”.

“Oooh, what kind of recipe’s were you looking up?”

“Err rice crispy cakes”.

“Oh. Cool”.

Not long after this, I made my excuse to leave. I was glad we’d had a chat though. I feel I know Caroline a lot better now. On the subject of Dilic, why on earth has he been claiming to hate dangerous animals if he's keeping piranha fish in his office? And just what was his connection to Slobadan Milosevic? The man is becoming a bigger enigma by the day.

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09/08/08 - League Game 1 (Att - 4578)

Notts County 1 (Mayo 83)

Luton Town 0

For an hour or so we were the much stronger side. Regardless of the strange formation and all the debutants trying to fit into it, we played solidly. Only when it came to the substitutions (necessary due to tiredness) did we lack quality. I simply had no decent players to bring on. Because of this, County woke up in the final half hour and created a few chances. The winning goal was a perfectly curled free kick from Paul Mayo.

At the other end we twice missed one on one chances in the match, first to Martin and then in the dying seconds from substitute Parkin. The final shot count was 8-5 in our favour, perhaps showing you just how good a stab we had at this. I’m disappointed to lose but I can take some positive signs. The media too didn’t think the performance was as bad as it could have been, all factors considered.

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12/08/08 - Meeting Elton

Once we arrived at Vicarage Road for the Watford game I was offered the chance to meet celebrity Hornets fan Elton John. Intrigued by the idea (if not exactly blown away), I left the players for a while and allowed myself to be shown up to the boardroom. I was expecting a hive of activity up here (no pun intended) but instead found the place empty. Apparently most of the boardroom staff are on extended vacations at the moment.

“Just wait here” my female guide told me. “Mr John will be along in a moment”.

With that she buggered off. So, I sat and waited. As I did I looked out the window down to the Vicarage Road pitch. It's a nice looking stadium, if admittedly very yellow in tone. I just knew we were going to get beaten tonight. I just didn’t know yet by how much. Interrupting me from my negative energy came the sound of footsteps outside the room. They had to belong to Elton John - I recognised his voice. As he approached the open door of the boardroom I could hear him singing to himself as he walked.

“ - and it seems to meeee, you lived your life, like a candle in the winnnnd -

Elton’s eyes were squinted half shut as he sang this, and he was clicking his fingers to the words as he walked. Despite the squinted eye thing, he still saw me as he entered the room, and having just finished the word ‘wind’ he then stopped singing and held his hand out for me to shake.

“Hi there. I’m Elton John”.

“And I’m James Martin, Luton boss” I replied. “And that was errr Candle in the Wind unless I’m very much mistaken”.

“You know your pop songs” Elton grinned, wagging his finger at me like an over-enthusiastic Dennis Taylor. “Fancy a drink?”

“Sure, a pint of bitter would go down a treat”.

Elton poured us both a drink from the boardroom mini-bar. Then we sat down and had a little chat. We talked for about ten minutes, starting with football in general and ending with brief words about the takeover of Mr Dilic at Kenilworth Road.

“It’s worrying you isn’t it?” Elton said, staring at me through a pair of purple half-moon spectacles that Albus Dumbledore would have been proud of.

“A little bit. I know it shouldn’t but it is”.

“No no, you’re very right to worry. A football club is like a pop song. You see, there are lots and lots of singular components inside a pop song, and if you take out even one of those components, the overall song becomes clunky and it doesn’t function as well. It’s the same with a football club. One weak link and next thing you know the whole ship starts sinking”.

“I guess”.

“Look, my advice to you would be to just concentrate on the football. There’s nothing else you can do”.

With that we called time on the meeting, as I had to go downstairs and do the team talk. Elton understood and wished me good luck for not only the match ahead but also the rest of the season. Just as I got halfway down the corridor outside the boardroom, I suddenly heard that familiar finger clicking coming from inside the room....

Are you readdddy, are you ready for lovvvve, yes I am. Ohhhhh - ”

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12/08/08 - League Cup Round 1 (Att - 16327)

Watford 2 (Rasiak 10, Eustace 13)

Luton Town 1 (Martin 90)

The game was effectively over after just thirteen minutes. We were completely outclassed early on and at one point I thought we were going to get absolutely spanked. Probably because they were so much in control, but Watford gradually started to ease off after a while. On the hour I threw caution to the wind and put three men up front. At this point we started to create one or two openings, albeit mostly from too far out.

In the first minute of stoppage time Martin managed to burst through the middle and power home a consolation goal. We didn’t create anything else after that. Considering all the injuries though, and despite the fact the scoreline probably flattered us (we lost 3-9 on shots), I thought this was an okay result. We didn’t get embarrassed, and that at the very least kept the media off my back for at least a while longer.

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13/08/08 - Eviction

Dave Wheelie has his own office at Kenilworth Road but it’s nothing like Mr Dilic’s office. The one Dave has is almost as small as a broom cupboard. The day after the Watford defeat, he invited me into it via E-mail, saying he had some news.

“Unlucky defeat last night” Dave opened the conversation with, just as I was sitting down. From the way he was smiling I was almost inclined to believe he’d wanted Watford to win.

“Not really. We deserved everything we got. Much better side than us”.

“Anyway James, down to business. Word has come down from the big man – he wants you to move out of that flat you’re in. He’s going to build you a new pad here at Kenilworth Road, a kind of penthouse to go just above the top floor”.

“Any particular reason?”

“The reasons are twofold. Firstly, Mr Dilic’s daughter is coming over to England for Christmas and Dilic needs a place for her to stay. She might be staying over here for a few months apparently. Secondly, Dilic thinks it will be easier for you to do your job if you don’t have to travel in and out of Kenilworth Road every five minutes. He thinks that living here will mean you inevitably end up putting more hours into your duties”.

Forget what Dave had just said. I couldn’t help wondering if Dilic had somehow found out about my nocturnal internet activities and now wanted me where he could see me, perhaps in a penthouse of his own design with all kinds of hidden camera’s and microphones installed.

“Theoretically, what if I should get married and want to go live with my new bride?”

Dave smiled, and leant back in his chair. He wasn’t sweating today. It was almost unmoving.

“Then go live with the lucky lady, but for now, Dilic knows you’re unattached and thinks this new penthouse will be much to your liking. However if you don’t want to take him up on his kind offer, I could go tell him that”.

“No that’s okay I’ll take the new penthouse” I said quickly, images of sharp little teeth in a fish tank appearing in my mind. “I just wanted to clarify a future possibility” I added.

“It will take a while to build it, mind. I’d say though you’ll probably have it by the beginning of December. If you have any recommendations or ideas for anything you want in the flat, please E-mail me the details by the end of this week at the latest. We’ll try and incorporate your desires as best as possible. The more you specify your likes and dislikes, the more tailor-made the place will feel when you move in”.

Now that sounded more positive!

“Okay, I’ll let you know in a couple of days”.

We sat in there in silence for a couple of moments staring at each other across the desk. I was tempted to ask him about the bullying Dave had suffered at the hands of Towzer and Garry, but I couldn’t quite bring myself to raise the subject.

(‘Look, my advice to you would be to just concentrate on the football’ – Elton John)

Elton probably had it nailed. For now I would just leave things be. On the back of a defeat in the league and a defeat in the league cup, it was probably was best not to rock the boat any more than I had by simply losing football matches.

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(haha, thanks for spotting that Pooman)

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14/08/08 - Programme notes

This morning I was a man on a mission. I swept into the office with a Starbucks coffee in my hand and called everybody to attention.

"Okay, listen up everyone. Stop whatever it is you're doing because I want everyone helping me out with a very special project this morning".

The quartet of Brenda, Nicky, Darren, and Caroline all looked up at me. I was pleased to see Nicky had her smile back.

"Right then. As you know, this Saturday is my first competitive home game in charge. I need to write some programme notes and I'm a bit nervous about it. Thus, I've decided to get you lot to help me out. I'm going to give you one hour and in that time I want you all to write the programme notes that you would write if you were in my shoes. Anybody who doesn't know what programme notes are, ask Darren. If anybody's writings are good enough I may end up going with said notes for Saturday. On the other hand, if you all turn out to be rubbish then I'll go with my own notes".

"If there turns out to be a winner, will he or she get a prize?" Darren asked eagerly.

"Yes. If there's a winner, he or she will take pole position in the inaugeral Kenilworth Road Office Employee of the Year Championships, the winner of which will be confirmed at the end of the season. There will be a prize for that but I've yet to determine what it will be. Right, you know what to do so off you go. Your one hour starts - now!".

And off they went, at least once Brenda, Nicky and Caroline had all queued up at Darren's desk to ask him what programme notes actually are. As soon as they were scribbling away though, I got up and began to pace up and down the room like an examiner in a school hall. I should have been getting on with some team planning really but I just couldn't help myself. Neither could Darren I guess when he put his hand up after twenty minutes and asked if he could be accompanied to the toilet by a teacher.

"Right" I said, once the hour was up. "Pens down. No talking until all the programme notes are collected".

It was time to see what they'd produced. The first one on top of the pile was written by Caroline...

"Hi and welcome to Luton United for today's match....."

Immediately I stopped right there.

"Indeed, Caroline" I said, lifting my head up in bemusement. "Luton United! -That would go down well amongst our five thousand or so Luton TOWN fans".

Caroline shrugged and looked sheepish, as Darren laughed his head off. Brenda and Nicky meanwhile produced a confused look as if bothtrying to remember if they too had referred to Luton in the same manner.

"Right then, moving swiftly onto Nicky's effort" I said. Nicky's 'effort' though did nothing but make me wish I hadn't scrunched up Caroline's so fast.

"Hi everyone. How r u all doing? It's party time once again on Kennelworth street! I hope you enjoy the match and I'd just like to say - go hatters go hatters, let's leave the other team's dreams in tatters! Oh, don't forget there are pies and burgers on sale somewhere around the ground, and please sing at the top of your voices for Team Luton! If you want entertainment during the match, there's Kenilworth General Stores run by Mr Singh around the corner. They sell magazines and things. Oh, and please sign the online petition to have old Luton player Kevin Watson given a custodial sentence for trying it on with that under-age girl in Margate. You can find the petition on Facebook. Seach for the name Nicky Willacy and you'll find the petition on there. 16 people have signed it so far. Anyway, go the Hatters and let's have a good game today! Bye!"

Once I'd finished reading it, I placed the piece of paper calmly back on the desk and looked up at the competitors. Darren commented first (unsurprisingly).

"Now then boss, at least look at the positives" he grinned.

"Yes, the positives" I replied. "Well Nicky. I'll give you points for research. We are indeed called the Hatters. Also, 'Kennelworth street' is at least half right. I'll also give you credit for knowing that it's possible to buy junk food inside a football ground - makes me think you might have frequented an actual match at least once in your entire lifetime".

"And the negatives?" Nicky asked, somehow maintaining a grip on her smile.

"You advertise too many things; we cannot advertise Mr Singh's stock, for instance. Neither can we advertise an online petition to have somebody jailed. If we published that we'd be in serious trouble. Also, your spelling is atrocius, and you really need to write more in the male idiom.That whole piece was quite obviously written by a woman".

Nicky slumped back in her chair.

"Right then Darren" I said, picking up the next piece of paper. "I'm expecting this to be the best yet".

"Hey dudes! Welcome back after the summer and let's hope we kick those Northern b_stards today all the way back up to Cheshire where they belong. Peace'

And that was it.

"This is it?" I asked in disbelief.

"I can't write for toffee" Darren explained, waving a dismissive arm at me. "Anyway, I said what needed to be said. People haven't got time to read programme notes. None of my mates read the programme notes before a match, even the ones who buy programmes".

Time for Brenda's attempted.

"Welcome to the players, officials, and supporters from Chester City for this afternoon's first game of the season at Kenilworth Road. This is a very special day for me and one I've looked forward to for a long time. It's always been my ambition to manage a professional football team at any level, and to get the chance to do so at a club like Luton Town is quite simply magical. I hope to make the best of my time here and do the very best I can. I know I don't have a huge wealth of experience to call upon, but I do have a lot of relevent knowledge about the game, accumulated from years of playing. I also feel I possess several other important tools for the job, namely passion, drive, and belief. The important thing you need to know is, I will be doing my utmost to make sure we stay up this season and so will the players.

On the subject of the deduction, I know will we all feel harshly done by the penalty given to us over the summer, but that's in the past now. We have to get on with our jobs and focus on the future. It may be the case we have to drop out of this division at the end of this season and re-start from the Blue Square Premier. That's not guaranteed though. We could still stay up. However, we'll only have a chance of doing that if we stick together and unite as a team and as a football club. We might not be a United in name, but united we will stand never the less. Divided though, we will fall. Please cheer on the boys today with all your might, and hopefully we'll be three points better off by quarter to five. I'll leave you with this very famous message below. It seems an appropriate time to repeat it".

Following on below the programme notes was a copy of that old poem which begins with the words "If you can keep your head, when all those around you are losing theirs". I'm sure you know the one. In any event, the stunned silence around the office was palpable. How had Brenda cooked up a fine effort like that?

"Quite easy" she blushed, sensing she had won the competition without even having it confirmed for her. "It's amazing what you can find at Composeyourownprogrammenotes.com, very helpful for young manageresses who don't know the first thing about the game".

"You cheat!" Darren exclaimed, getting up out of his chair. I had to disagree.

"Not so fast, Darren" I told him. "She might have had help getting the framework in place but she still had to fill in the blanks. I'm inclined to tell her she's done a good job. In fact yes, I'm going to go with those notes against Chester without even editing them. Well done Brenda".

And there we had it - a nice set of notes in the bag. I could now get on with my team preparation.

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16/08/08 - League Match 2 (Att - 5390)

Luton Town 0

Chester City 0

The match itself didn't do Brenda's programme notes justice. There was a resilient, almost siege-like mentality atmosphere around the ground before kick off. It soon drifted away by half time though. I stuck with the same defensively minded 4.1.3.2 formation which for an hour had really worked well away to Notts County. I thought it would work even better on our narrow pitch. Not at all. Chester dominated the first half to such an extent it was a sheer miracle we arrived at the break unscathed. I think we mustered just one attack the whole forty five.

Panicking somewhat, I made three substitutions at half time, completely revamping the formation to a safer 4.4.2. This evened up the play in the second half. Chester were made to work much harder, and we began to have at least 40-50% of the chances (which weren't many to either side). With twenty minutes to go Charles was forced to limp off with a knock, forcing us to see out time with just ten men. The final period of the game was scrappy and Chester almost snatched it on more than one occasion.

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18/08/08 - Souvenir shop

This morning I had an appointment to meet a man called Cyril Denton, who runs a Luton Town souvenir shop just outside the stadium. The shop is based inside a port-a-cabin parked literally halfway up Kenilworth Road. It's impossible for a home fan to walk towards the turnstiles at one particular end without spotting it. Cyril has Luton Town's permission to run this shop, and he also has a council permit for the port-a-cabin. In my experience county councils usually aren't so generous when it comes to eyesores like this, but I guess when five thousand fans are crowding around a much bigger eyesore in the middle of the town centre every week, making a deafening amount of noice in the process, the presence of one little port-a-cabin isn't going to make much difference.

I was told before the meeting Cyril is also responsible for some of the content seen in the unofficial fanzine - Hatters Till I die, of which six editions are planned at the start of every season (with only two or three usually seeing the light of day). Indeed it was for the purposes of this fanzine Cyril wanted to meet with me.

When I arrived at the port-a-cabin I knocked on the door and heard a voice inside beckoning me in. As I crossed the threshold my mouth almost dropped open in wonder. What a place this was! I'd never seen so much football memorabilia in one crowded little room before. Everyhere you looked there were Luton badges, Luton shirts, Luton books, Luton magazines, Luton programmes, Luton mugs, Luton everything basically. You could hardly see the floor or the sides of the room because of things to do with Luton blocking the view.

Even the ceiling was barely visible due to a fine selection of Luton scarves hanging from it. The only thing that didn't belong here was the small colour television with DVD player in the far right corner. Star Wars was playing at the moment. By the looks of it, stormtroopers were having their a_ses handed to them as the Star Wars theme tune blared away in the background.

"Quite impressive, huh?" the man in front of me said, presumably referring to the memerobilia.

"Yes, it's errr quite a selection you have here. You must be Cyril, by the way".

"And you must be James Martin" Cyril replied, moving to pause the DVD. As he did so, there was just time for two more men in clunky white suits to get zapped by a ray gun.

"Star Wars?" I said, attempting to make conversation. "I've never seen that. Any good?".

Cyril looked unimpressed at this, and for the time being ignored my question. He only eventually replied once he'd produced two fold-out chairs from the corner of the room and positioned them to face each other near the door. Naturally, one was for me and one was for him. Personally though I didn't see what was wrong with the two already upright chairs over by the port-a-cabin's one window. They were stationed either side of a small wooden table which didn't appear to be being used for anything.

"The Empire Strikes Back" Cyril corrected me, returning me to his gaze.

"Oh, right. What's wrong with those two chairs over there, by the way?"

"The seats at the table are used only for Luton Town trivia death matches" Cyril replied.

"Say what?"

He was a strange little man, maybe five foot seven in stature and possessing a strange curly black hairstyle. He was also a lot younger than I might have expected. (Cyril was, at most, about 25). Today he wore a thick, dark multi-coloured woolly jumper and blue jeans. There was a distinctly cynical edge to his voice, even when putting across very simple sentences. The very next thing he said was a case in point.

"Luton Town trivia death matches!" he repeated for me, as if he thought I should have known this. "It's when two Luton fans face off against each other, answering a series of questions about the history of Luton Town. The one who gets the most correct wins the match. I let matches take place in the hours before the actual football on Saturdays. One of the players in every match is always the reigning champion, which at the moment is me. I'm currently on a one hundred and twenty sx match winning run".

"You don't say" I said, trying to hide the sarcasm in my voice and probably not succeeding. Cyril didn't seem to notice.

"I've been a Luton fan since I was five" he elaborated. "And I've been studying up on the history of the club ever since. I love this club. I'd die for this club. I pride myself on being the most knowledgable historian the fanbase has to offer. I'm looking to break two hundred match wins in a row by the end of this season".

"That's - really great" I said. "So why don't we get on with this interview for your fanzine then? I haven't got all day, as you might expect. I've got players to train, players to buy, players to sell etc. you know how it is".

Before Cyril could reply, a young blonde man suddenly burst through the door. He was also in his early twenties and he was also short in stature. Smile-wise I instantly considered him the anti-Nicky. His teeth arched out of his mouth in a weird way, making him look badly in need of dental work. It wasn't a pretty sight.

"I got it!" he announced.

"You did?!" Cyril exclaimed, getting out his seat. "Let me see".

To me utter bemusement, the blonde man then pulled out - a light sabre.

"A light sabre?" I asked.

"Not just any old light sabre" Cyril explained. "This is one of a batch of only five hundred produced in Montreal between the release of The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. The company that made them stopped manufacturing almost as soon as they began. Take my word for it, in light sabre circles this is practically gold dust. By the way, James, this is Lee. Lee, this is James".

Lee and I briefly nodded at each other, but then he returned his attention to the light sabre. Judging by how dank and mouldy the thing looked, I guessed it hadn't actually looked 'light' for some considerable while.

"You also collect Star Wars memorabilia?" I asked.

"Yeah" Cyril said. "But we keep that in my mum's garage. We wouldn't keep Star Wars things in the Luton Town port-a-cabin. People would probably think we were geeks".

It was sort of mean but I couldn't help actually laughing out loud at this.

"Oh yeah. Good idea" I said.

"How much do you pay for this?" Cyril asked Lee, ignoring my huge smirk.

"Oh. Errrr, it was one hundred and eighty points. Yeah that was the final bid".

Cyril looked stunned, and I didn't blame him. As if you'd pay that much for a flaming light sabre! I imagined Lee was about to be in for a bollocking.

"ONLY one hundred and eighty?" Cyril shouted. "Awesome! Now we'll still have enough petty cash to bid for the Ewok suit!"

Cyril and Lee high-fived. I really couldn't believe this.

"Errr lads, do you think we could get on with the interview? Time is cracking on a bit".

"James, I didn't bring you here for an interview" Cyril said, returning to his seat. "I brought you here to see if you would be worthy of an interview. Nobody gets into the fanzine unless they've either done something special on the pitch or they've beaten me in a Luton Town trivia death match. You've definitely not done the former yet, so let's see if you can do the latter".

"Okay" I say gingerly.

"I don't want to bother holding an entire death match just to whip somebody easy though. Let's see if you're even worthy of the chance to play me first. What was the score when Luton played Arsenal in the 1987 League Cup final?"

I didn't know and I didn't care. I knew that Luton had beaten Arsenal in that match but it was as far as my knowledge extended.

"2-1?"

"Oh my god!" Cyril said, laughing. Lee joined in the laughter too.

"Duh! It was 3-2!"

"Okay boys" I suddenly announced, standing up to leave. "It's been really fun but I've got to go now. I wish you the best of luck with your collections".

What that I left the port-a-cabin, vowing never to return under any circumstances whatsoever. What a waste of a morning.

----------------

23/08/08 - League Match 3 (Att - 5280)

Shrewsbury Town 2 (Walker 18, 77)

Luton Town 0

With players starting to come back from injury all over the place, I was finally able to try out my diamond formation. The trouble is, it didn't work. The Shrews dominated from the first whistle and fully deserved their 18th minute lead. My lot were just clueless. In the match as a whole we had just three shots total, and all of them were over the bar. I tried changing things around at half time but to no avail. I got absolutely no reaction out of the players in the second half, even when we went 4.4.2.

"It's just not good enough" I said in the changing rooms after the game. "You're letting yourselves down and you're letting the club down".

Later on I took Brian aside just before we boarded the team bus and told him I wanted to have a crisis meeting down The Hatters Arms.

"I agree" he replied. "I'll be there at 8pm".

No futher words were spoken. We boarded the bus and prepared for the drive home. It was a horrible atmosphere. I was really starting to doubt myself now.

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23/08/08 - Crisis talk

It may sound too early for such a thing but once we got back from Shrewsbury I really did go through with the crisis talk. We’d taken just one point from nine in the league so far having not scored a single goal. Under normal circumstances I’d be tempted to let things drift for a few more matches. However, a deficit such as ours simply cannot afford to be lingered on. My dream was beginning to fade faster than Marty McFly’s guitar hand in Back to the Future.

“I know we’ve been hampered by injuries” Brian began, as we sat down in our usual corner. “However, it’s my honest opinion that we need to settle on just one formation and fast. All this changing things around and experimenting with this, that, and the t'other - it’s not working. The signs were good at Notts County for a while, but since then we’ve been outplayed and looked largely toothless as an attacking entity”.

“I agree” I said. “Furthermore, I’ve already decided in my head we should play a basic 4.4.2 for a while. Before the season started I thought our players would be more suited to a diamond, or even a 4.1.3.2, but as you’ve said, it’s not worked out. We look poor going forward and that needs to change. Maybe players in this league just aren’t good enough to adapt to unorthodox formations? I don’t know. Amongst footballers of all levels though, 4.4.2 is a universal language. Let’s use that as the starting point and go from there. If, after a few more games nothing has improved, we can try something else”.

“Agreed then” Brian said, and together we clinked beer glasses.

Gav the barman had some new guest ales in this evening. It was just what we needed after the day we’d had. Brian had opted for a pint of Heart of the boar, where as I’d gone for a pint of Highwayman’s Plunder. They were both strong bitters and made a welcome change from the commercial stuff we usually drank.

“As Eagles and McVeigh are the only natural left and right wingers we’ve got” I continued. "I’m going to put them straight into the new 4.4.2. Nicholls picks himself in the centre of the park, which leaves the question of who gets the nod out of Keane and Spring for the other central midfield position”.

“I’d go for Keane. Maybe put Spring on the bench. They’re both capable when pushing forward but Keane’s a better scrapper”.

I agreed and said so to Brian. It was good how we saw eye to eye so easily on team matters.

“Well that was a short conversation” I chuckled. “I’m glad we’ve agreed on a plan. I feel a bit better now. I don’t need to think about the forward or defensive positions. Even though they’re not scoring, Martin and Slusarski are the best available strikers we’ve got, and at the back we haven’t been what I’d call atrocious, despite the bad results. I’m content to stick with Davis, Leijer, Pilkington, and Gnapka. As for the bench - ”.

I was interrupted by the sound of Brian’s mobile phone. He answered apologetically and began talking to someone I quickly presumed was his wife. Strangely, despite all the time we'd spent together, this was the first time I’d had any hint of what Brian’s private life was like. Usually we really did spend all our time talking only about Luton Town. I don’t understand why I should have been surprised at the idea Brian was married though. He was forty after all.

“Married then?” I asked, once the call was over.

“For almost ten years” he confirmed, re-acquainting himself with his Heart of the Boar. “What about you, James?”

“Me? No. I’m very content to concentrate on Luton at the moment. This is massive for me. It would be hard to think about anything else right now”.

“That’s understandable”.

“Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had my fair share of - well, you know - in the past. But right now? No”.

“None of those office lovelies catching your eye then?”

“Ha! No. They’re nice people, but no. Brenda’s too old, Nicky’s too immature, and Caroline I just don’t fancy”.

“Is Nicky the one with the long brown hair?”

“Yeah”.

“She’s nice”

“Yeah but she’s a bit on the ditzy side. Besides, come on, eighteen is a bit young for me. I’m turning thirty soon”.

“Oh, I didn’t know she was that young”.

We finished our beers and prepared to head off. Gav was just starting a Saturday night quiz as we left. I wasn’t surprised to see Cyril and Lee, souvenir geeks, ready at the front table with pens at the ready. I’m glad they didn’t call my name as we walked out because I just wasn’t in the mood.

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30/08/09, League Game 4 (Att - 5247)

Luton Town 1 (Griffiths o.g 72)

Dagenham and Redbridge 0

Before this match I looked around the crowd and realised something which scared me; this was either going to be one of those games ending in mass celebration or a mass inquest. Today was going to be a pinnacle moment in not just my budding career but also my entire life. I said as much to Brian as the visitors prepared to kick-off and he nodded grimly.

The first ten minutes were a complete blur. We immediately surged forward and almost scored with a Martin header, saved by the goalkeeper and cleared by a desperate defender. Then the unthinkable almost happened. In the seventh minute a low cross was steered low and towards goal by an opposing forward. Brill was nowhere near it but the shot was sufficiently slow enough for Sol Davis to intervene at the last moment and hack the ball off the line. I’ve got to admit, I actually thought it had crossed the line. So did the Dag and Red forwards. All livid.

The rest of the game was played at a much slower tempo, both sides pressing but never going as close as in the first ten minutes. In the 72nd minute though, something magical happened. Eagles got the ball on the left and crossed it in. It was smack into the danger zone, and in the blink of an eye defender Griffiths misjudged the low dipping flight of the ball and prodded into his own net. Me and Brian practically slid onto the pitch like Ferguson and Kidd circa 1993. The celebrations elsewhere in the ground meanwhile almost took the roof off.

Then it was panic time. We suffered an injury not long after the goal and I was forced to play 5.4.1 for the last fifteen minutes. That might not sound a bad thing when you’re defending a lead, but to the visitors here it was like a red rag to a bull. They poured forward and it was heart in mouths time on several occasions late on. But then, finally, the final whistle. Relief around the ground. I shook Brian’s hand and then all the player's hands as they walked off. I wanted to milk this for all it was worth.

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01/09/08 - Towzer and Garry

The win over Dagenham pleased everybody. Well, almost everybody. As I was leaving work on Monday evening I was paid a visit by a couple of uninvited guests. I recognised them as Towzer and Garry, the thugs who had shaken up Dave Wheelie in the office corridor. I got the feeling straight away I wasn’t going to be made to feel any more comfortable than Dave had.

“Hello, Mr Manager”, Towzer exclaimed, blocking the route to my car. He was wearing his usual white raincoat that went all the way down to his knees. Garry, the baldie, was fitted much more casually, wearing all blue denims. Even though they worked together, they weren’t very co-ordinated from a uniform perspective.

“Or do you prefer ‘Mr Martin?” Garry asked.

“What can I do for you gentlemen?” I calmly replied, deciding I was going to pretend I’d never clapped eyes on them before.

“Oh, nothing much” Towzer said. “Just checking in with you”.

“That’s great. Now if you’ll excuse me”.

I tried to walk past Towzer but the guy blocked me off and pushed me backwards into Garry, who in turn pushed me back to my original position trapped in the middle.

One thing I’d like to point out before I go on is that I’m not that bad when it comes to looking after myself. Without sounding arrogant, I’d probably back myself against at least half the men in the world when it comes to one on one fighting (not that I’ve been in an actual fight for years), maybe even 60 or 70% of all men. I certainly didn’t feel that intimidated by Towzer and Garry on first impressions. If I absolutely had to fight either one of them in a fair match, I would definitely feel confident. At this very moment however they were threatening me as a twosome, and that’s a different ball game.

That said, and bear in mind I didn’t have long to think about this at the time, I distinctly remember thinking to myself that had it all kicked off and I’d swung for the pair of them right there and then, I might have had a chance. The fact I didn’t try is down to a number of things. Firstly, my gut feeling was they were only here to throw their weight around a bit, not to actually hurt me. Secondly, I still wasn’t entirely sure I could take them in a two on one fight, and thirdly I was the Luton Town manager! The last thing I needed, win or lose, was to end up in Mr Dilic’s office trying to explain why I’d just been fighting with two of his cronies (and they were surely his cronies). Furthermore, what would the press say?

“We know you’re new here” Towzer said after the argy-bargy. He then looked in the direction of Garry, all the while menacingly clenching his fist. “So with that in mind, why don’t we give Mr Martin a good old Luton Town welcome?”

“Nah, we can’t do that” Garry replied. “He’s the new big shot manager. People wouldn’t be happy if we biffed him one”.

“True, Garry. True. That won’t always be the case though will it, Mr Martin? I mean, sooner rather than later you’ll be on your merry way, at least if the first few results have been anything to go by”

“I’d give him a season at most” Garry said.

“Half a season if you ask me”.

“Might not even make it to December”.

"One more game isn't impossible. I've already heard rumours".

Towzer now put his face up close to mine, so much so his moustache was almost touching my skin.

“I’ll tell you what, when he does finally get the boot, we’ll give him a good old fashioned Luton Town goodbye, right here in this car park if fate allows it. I mean, we’re already too late for the hello. It’d be a shame to miss the goodbye as well”.

“A massive shame” Garry added.

"A travesty" Towzer said.

“I’ll look forward to it, boys” I risked saying.

“You do that, Mr Martin. You do that”.

With that Towzer stepped aside. Without emotion or saying anything else, I calmly walked to my car and continued with my business. As I was driving away, I saw in my rear view mirror that Towzer and Garry had remained on the same spot to watch me leave.

“That wasn't good” I said out loud to the empty interior of the car. “Not good at all”.

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06/09/08, League Match 5 (Att - 3413)

Chesterfield 0

Luton Town 2 (Slusarski 36, Martin 90+1)

I don’t think it had anything to do with the threat of The Two Ronnies hanging over me, but a few days later came our best performance yet in the hands of my raw management skills. I didn’t tell anyone, but secretly I would have been happy with a draw before this game, anything to keep the good vibe from the previous match bubbling along for at least another week. What I ended up with was much much better.

Apart from Matthew Spring coming in to replace a tired Keith Keane, I stuck with the same eleven that had accounted for Dagenham. This match started quieter than the previous one, very little happening in the first half an hour. What attempts on goal there were mostly came from Chesterfield. By Brian’s count the home side led 5-2 on shots at one stage, even if only one of them troubled our goalkeeper. Just before the break, Spring slid the ball through to Bartosz Slusarski. My heart skipped a beat and soon my legs were skipping too. Slusarski scored! It was a lovely calmly taken finish. Slusarski simply slid the ball past the onrushing keeper. No problem.

The home side pressed for the rest of the half but we held firm. In the second half I pulled my wingers back and told the team to play in a slightly more laboured and defensive fashion. For the most part this tactic worked, even at the expense of our attacking options. We did have a good chance to extend our lead in the 50th minute - Slusarski blasting over from an angle after a deep cross by Eagles. I thought Slusarski should have at least hit the target.

I thought Chesterfield would get at least one good chance before the end and with ten minutes left they did. The evergreen Jack Lester somehow skipped clear of my backline and Brill made a terrific reflex save from eight yards out. That would be the last moment of any great danger however, not that I knew it at the time.

Just after the fourth official had put his board up (“Four minutes?!” – Brian), Martin squirmed past a defender up the other end (about thirty yards out) and smacked the ball high towards the top left corner. The ball bounced off the post and went across the line into the opposite inner side netting. What a goal! Me and Brian ran up the touchline celebrating like Jose Mourinho did at Old Trafford in the Champion’s League when he was manager of Porto. We had an away win! What a great eight days!

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August 2008 round-up

Premier League

Manchester City are in all the newspapers right now. They’ve been taken over by an Arab billionaire and they’re spending money like it’s going out of fashion. There have been five transfers into the premiership this summer worth £10 million or more, and four of those buys have been to the benefit of the men at Eastlands! Curiously, all four of their ‘big’ signings are players from the Eastern bloc. They are Darijo Srna from Shakhter Donetsk (£16.25m), Andrey Arshavin from Zenit St Petersburg (£13.75m), Alexandr Anyukov, also from Zenit (£10m), and Yury Zhirkov from CSKA Moscow (£11.5m).

Tottenham were the other club to spend big, signing Joao Mountiho from Sporting Lisban (£12.75m). The big four on the other hand didn't spend much at all.

Much to the amusement of the media, City have fallen flat on their backsides so far, taking just two points from a possible nine. Chelsea top the pile after three wins from three games, closely followed by West Ham and Aston Villa on seven points a piece. Down at the bottom, the relegations places are occupied by Bolton, Hull, and Stoke.

The Championship

There's very much a Welsh flavour to this divison right now. Cardiff lead the way with four straight wins, Swansea following on just two points behind. The bottom three is very interesting and features Crystal Palace, Wolves, and Preston. It's surprising to see Wolves there because they spent big in the summer, purchasing Roger Johnson from Cardiff for £3 million and Jay Tabb from Coventry for £2.3 million. I imagine they'll head back up the table eventually.

League One

After a disappointing stab at promotion last season, Leeds look set to run away with this division this time. They've started with five wins out of five and there's a real buzz at Elland Road right now. Tranmere occupy the second automatic spot a full five points behind. Down at the bottom, Leicester are the surprise team in the mix, and they're joined by Huddersfield, Hereford, and Bristol Rovers.

League Two

In our division I'm pleased to see Shrewsbury leading the way because it doesn't make our performance against them seem so bad. Second and third are Bury and Barnet respectively. I've printed what the bottom of the table looks like below

Macclesfield (3)

Brentford (3)

Wycombe (2)

Rotherham (-5)

------------------

Bournemouth (-14)

Luton Town (-23)

Blue Square Premier

York lead the table with 19pts. Oxford are second with 17. Northwich are the surprise package here and currently occupy fifth. Down at the bottom it's interesting to see Stevenage in the bottom four. They're joined by Ebbsfleet, Forest Green, and Barrow.

Blue Square North

Farsley Celtic, attempting to bounce straight back up, have an impressive four wins from four to start. Stalybridge are second on goal difference having also won all four matches to date.

Blue Square South

I would have checked this, but as I was about to, Nicky came along to tell me something and knocked my morning coffee all over my News of the World. Sorry.

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13/09/08, League Match 6 (Att - 5836)

Luton Town 3 (Nicholls 24 pen, 39 pen, Owusu 90)

Darlington 3 (Abbott 50, 77, Kennedy 73)

This was a brutal match and a harsh lesson in the realities of football management. It’s hard to know how best to describe it. I guess I’ll just toil along in chronlogical order. We began with a setback. Paul McVeigh, the only natural right winger in the squad, has been plagued by injuries since I came to the club. How unfortunate then he should pull up just ten minutes into his first start of the season with a twisted knee. He had to come straight off and will now face between two weeks and a month trying to un-twist it.

Despite the half time score, we were very poor in the first half. The only two shots we had were the two goals (literally!), where as Darlington had four attempts only to miss the target with all four. It was a dour match and one we were hugely fortunate to surge ahead in. The second penalty wasn’t even a penalty. I thought it was very harsh indeed, and so did the Darlington players and officials. Full credit to captain Nicholls though, who showed nerves of steel to slot both chances low into the bottom right hand corner. Both penalties appeared to hit exactly the same part of the net, and second time around the keeper didn’t even bother moving.

Just before half time we suffered our second injury, and it was a biggie. Nicholls collapsed in a heap on the floor and we later discovered he’d fractured two ribs. He will now face between one and two months on the sidelines. It happened straight from the kick off after his second goal too. It was as if God suddenly announced “That was never a pen. Here, have some fractured ribs”. For the rest of the game the skipper’s armband went to Keith Keane.

I said nothing to the team at half time, as I was hoping not to confuse or overcomplicate matters. We might not have shown much as an attacking threat, but the fact was we were 2-0 up and I didn’t want to mess with that. This choice was a big mistake. Or maybe we were destined to mess up this game either way? I don’t know.

Darlington absolutely DOMINATED the second half from start to finish, and I’ve written the word in capitals just to emphasise the fact. They pulled one back almost immediately. From then on it was wave after wave of attacking play against our goal. In desperation I made substitutions and tried to tinker with the formation but to no avail. The equaliser was inevitable. I cursed and screamed and let the players know how unhappy I was with this dismal performance. Meanwhile, in went the third goal. We were now behind.

At this moment my anger got the better of me. I kicked out at the nearest water bottle and it flew onto the pitch, hitting one of the Darlington forwards square in the bum as he was celebrating with the various members of his bench. I didn’t mean to hit him like that; it just happened. All hell broke loose at this point. The player with the tarnished backside wandered over to me with some choice words and soon various other players and management from both sides waded in too. After the scuffle was broken up, the linesman consulted with the referee and I was sent to the stand.

Funnily enough, all these shennigans seemed to gee my team up whilst simultaneously unsettling Darlington. Close to the end we won a corner, and from the resulting mayham the 17 year old substitute Richard Owusu blasted the ball in off the crossbar from six yards out. As the crowd around me celebrated an unlikely point, I just sat there a complete emotional wreck. Surely football management is bad for the health?

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13/09/08 - Facing the music

After the game I was shunted into the press room to face the music. So far this season I have yet to enjoy what I would call a comfortable press conference so I certainly wasn’t expecting one this time. I found all the usual faces staring back me as I sat down. I was joined on my right by Brian (rather than Dave Wheelie as previous). Expecting a barrage of abuse over the bottle-kicking episode, I opened proceedings with a statement.

“I would like to begin this press conference with a statement. I am deeply regretful about the incident which happened towards the end of this afternoon’s game. I must stress however I did not intend to kick the bottle as far as I did, nor in the direction I did. I would like to publicly apologise to the offended Darlington forward Mr Abbott and also the rest of their players and management. I will again stress however I did not intend this to happen. Having said that, I fully understand that I should learn to control my emotions better in the public spotlight of a professional football match. In the future I will endeavour to avoid any such repeat of today’s unfortunate business”.

With that I slowly closed the piece of paper and looked up at the rest of the room. Predictably enough Andy Branston of the Hertfordshire Herald was first to offer his hand for a question. Branston was the reporter who'd given me the most trouble at my last press conference.

“Yes Andy”.

“James, how do explain such a woeful performance today?”

“It wasn’t that bad" I said. "I mean come on, it was a 3-3 draw! Personally I think today’s game was a fantastic advert for League Two football”.

Murmours around the room. That answer hadn’t gone down well. Andy knew it and went in for the kill.

“Come off it, James! Let me give you a statistic. Darlington had fifteen shots today. Luton had four. It would surely take an extremely stubborn fan not to admit that, had this been a boxing match, the referee would have stopped it long before Owusu’s late goal”.

“And WHAT a goal” I exclaimed. “I must say by the way, it’s a been a privilege and a pleasure this season to continue to aid Owusu’s footballing development. To see him score his first senior goal today made me a very proud man indeed”.

Andy shook his head and sat down.

“Yes” I said, pointing to a man I’d not seen before.

“Johnathan Pantsil, Five Live Sport. With six games gone Luton are still in big trouble. It’s probably fair to say the fans were hoping for considerably better than two wins from six games. Would you agree?”

“Absolutely not. This is a marathon, not a sprint. Let’s see where we are come the end of the season”

“Normally a statement like that would be fine James, but this season Luton are starting quite far back from the rest of the field”.

“Yeah but don’t forget The Krypton Factor".

"The what?"

"The Krypton Factor. You know, the old game show that used to be on ITV2? Anyway, on The Krypton Factor men used to start way behind on the obstacle course and often they’d still catch up and win. Let’s hope for a similar outcome with our boys”.

With this Johnathan sat down. To say he looked bemused would be putting it mildly. I pointed instead to a man I recognised as Brad Scowcroft, president of The Supporters Trust.

“Yes, Brad”.

“James, I don’t mean to knock your management skills, but is there any truth to the rumour you’ve also had a bad start in the office Fantasy Premier League competition currently doing the rounds at Kenilworth Road”.

Where on earth had he found that out? Personally I don't think I've doing too badly in the Fantasy Football. I'm fourth at the moment behind Darren, Brian, and Nicky. Early days. My captain Torres has yet to hit form. When that happens, watch out everyone else.

“As I said in relation to Luton’s season, it’s a marathon not a sprint”.

“But James, you’re even getting beaten by a woman aren’t you?”

“Yeah but to be fair, and I presume you’re referring to payroll administrator Nicky Willacy, she had her team picked for her by her old flame Kevin Watson”.

Andy Branston was suddenly out of his seat faster than a jack-in-the-box. The rest of the room began to murmour again.

“Kevin Watson?! He was - he was seeing a Luton employee? And you knew about this?”

Oh s__t. Shouldn’t have said that.

----------------

15/09/08 - Touchline ban

Good and bad news arrived today. I’ll start with the bad. After a nervous trip to FA headquarters by yours truly, I was given a one match touchline ban for my part in the Darlington scrum. After reading out the same statement practically word for word that I’d produced in the press conference, the powers that be left me alone for a few minutes and then returned with their decision. They were also kind enough to provide me with an explanation for that decision.

Apparently you can get up to a four match ban for the type of offence I’d committed, but because I was a young manager with no previous record, I was let off this time with just a one match ban. However, I was left in no doubt that any repeat performance would be dealt with far more severely. Thanking the panel for its leniency I smiled and walked out of the building.

I headed to Kenilworth Road rather than go home. I don’t know why - I think I was just desperate to do something, anything, to help me feel more positive about the next match. On the second floor of the main building there’s a small canteen area. I wandered up there entirely on instinct and found Nicky reading a magazine at one of the tables.

“Hey” I said, sitting down opposite.

“Hiya!” she beamed.

On closer inspection she had about seven magazines in front of her, all of them feminine things like Hello and Woman’s Own.

“Looking for yourself in there?” I asked.

“Might be”.

The good news I mentioned at the beginning of this update is that Nicky did not blow up at me for letting slip to the media about her relationship with Kevin. In fact, she actually seemed to welcome my slip of the tongue. Nicky thought there was a chance she might get famous on the back of this, or at least as famous as it was possible to be for having once dated a League Two footballer.

Since Saturday’s press conference Nicky had been repeatedly excited to see her name pop up in The Sun, The Mirror, The Daily Star, The Bedfordshire Bulletin, and The Hertfordshire Herald, albeit mostly in those tiny little articles that are barely covered by more than a paragraph. The Bedfordshire Bulletin had given Watson the most coverage (and thus Nicky by association), dedicating a full four paragraphs to the tale. Nicky was named twice in this version.

“It’s not all it’s cracked up to be being famous you know”.

“I know” she said, finally giving me her undivided attention. “It’s only a bit of fun. I’m not taking it as seriously as you might think”.

“Glad to hear it”.

“Besides, I’m actually quite put off the idea of dating a footballer since Kevin”.

“I’m not surprised”.

“I’m going to move onto pop stars next. Kidding!”

I laughed, and at the same time my stomach growled at me to get something to eat. It didn’t look like Nicky was going to remember to ask about the disciplinary meeting, and I was glad. I had no doubt Brian and Dave and God knows who else certainly would ask before the day was out, and one less person doing it suited me fine.

“I’ve resigned from the Fantasy Premier League” Nicky continued. “I know I was doing well but I don’t want to win with a team that idiot picked for me”.

“Excellent! That means I'm up to third”.

At that moment Brian walked in.

“Hey” he said. “How did the disciplinary meeting go?”

"Not bad, Brian. Just a one match ban".

Nicky turned back to her magazines.

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20/09/08, League Match 7 (Att - 9416)

Luton Town 1 (Martin 42)

Port Vale 2 (Treacy 84, Rodgers 88pen)

I was consigned to a place in the stand for this match but I would have rather been banned from the entire ground, anything to distance myself as far as possible from this calamity. I probably didn’t feel as bad as Brian did though, who must surely have seen this as a big chance to impress the footballing community with his management skills. As I sat in the stand with a Starbucks coffee looking helpless, Brian spent most of the match flapping around on the touchline waving his arms at all and sundry. At least he didn't kick any water bottles, even after the winner from Rodgers.

Because of the injury to McVeigh, we had to bring O’Connor in on the right hand side. O’Connor is an accomplished winger but certainly not a natural. In the centre of midfield meanwhile, Spring came in for the injured Nicholls. How we missed him! The first half was too even for comfort, but just before the break Eagles crossed for Martin to sidefoot past the keeper into the far corner. 1-0 at half time.

In the second period we looked quite comfortable up until about halfway through the half. Then we started to tire, and we simply didn’t have enough quality on the bench to get the job done. Vale began to take over and it was with no surprise they eventually found an equaliser, Treacy heading back across Brill from a corner. If that was bad enough, the away side then went and won it. It was a bit like that Euro 2004 finale when France won a penalty to beat England moments after they’d levelled things up through Zidane.

After the winning goal I buried my head in my hands and almost felt like crying. I dreaded to think how Brian on the touchline. When I eventually looked up, I glanced around the unimpressed home crowd and caught the eye of Towzer, who seemed to be existing without his sidekick for once. Callously he winked at me and turned back to the match. Did he actually want his team to lose?

This result left us 20pts adrift of safety. We started the season 13pts adrift. Things are therefore getting worse rather than better.

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24/09/08 - An old friend

It might be early days but once again I find myself wondering just how long my tenure at this sinking football club is going to last. Things didn’t get any better this evening when I found a very disturbing note pushed through the letterbox of my flat.

Hi James. You’ll be pleased to know we got back to the UK two days ago. I know we ended up staying abroad longer than we said we would, but hey, what the hell. It's not every day you end up in the West Indies. Anyway, it seems you’ve been a busy boy since I last saw you. Luton Town? How on earth did you manage that? Fantastic news though. I always knew we'd end up with a club, I just always assumed it would be something rubbish like Guiseley. Anyway, I'm down in Luton right now but I've had trouble getting in contact with you. Ringing your doorbell has done nothing all day (I got your address from your dad), and your mobile number seems to have changed to something I'm not privvy. No matter though. Once you get this note, meet me at the Jostein's greasy spoon at 9am Friday morning. If you don't turn up, no matter, I'll still find you eventually. Much love - Steve

I read the note several times over.

'Steve' is Steve Fairclough, a guy I met on the very first management training course I ever did. I was twenty six at the time. Steve was never a player like me. He never even played semi-pro. He'd latched onto the idea of going into management when accidentally ending up in charge of a Saturday morning boys team, finding he both loved it and was good at it. Anyway, we worked together on our badges and became very good friends in the process. A couple of years later we made a pact that whoever got a management gig first would employ the other to be assistant manager. That way we had twice as much chance of getting a club than if we went it alone. Think of it as two friends sharing two different lottery tickets.

Things began to go sour when three or four months passed without either one of us striking gold. Steve is a very impatient man and he soon got fed up of waiting. With summer almost upon us, Steve took his wife and kid and buggered off abroad for an extended holiday, leaving me to carry on holding the torch inside football's invisible job centre.

Sod's law dictated that I then went and got the Luton job whilst Steve was out of the picture. Dave Wheelie made it very clear that Brian was to be assistant manager (before I even got the chance to mention Steve), and I wasn't about to give up the chance of a lifetime because of my absent friend. Right or wrong, I took the job and vowed to deal with Steve later. I wasn't screwing him. At the time I signed on the dotted line, I vowed in my head to give Steve an important job role the moment I was in a position to, whether that be at Luton or somewhere else.

('Luton Town? How on earth did you manage that? Fantastic news though. I always knew we'd end up with a club, I just always assumed it would be something rubbish like Guiseley')

Steve was clearly expecting to get onto the Luton Town gravy train. I didn't need him though. I've got Brian! What's more, I like having Brian. This is going to be one hell of an uncomfortable breakfast.

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26/09/08 - Breakfast at Jostein's

I arrived half an hour early and saw that Steve was already there, sat at a table by the right hand wall. When I originally looked up the location of this place online, I discovered that Jostein’s is actually a cafe belonging to ex Sheffield United footballer Jostein Flo. If you think that name is odd it’s because Flo was a Norwegian player. What led to him opening a greasy spoon in Luton though is anybody’s guess. As far as I’m aware he never played for the Hatters.

Steve stood up as I entered the cafe and shook my hand(it was otherwise empty save for one lonely pensioner with no teeth). Then when the initial hello was done I ordered a fry-up breakfast with coffee and sat down to join him. Apparently Steve had also ordered the same dish. It turned up for him just as we finished laughing at the notion of a former Norwegian international footballer opening a greasy spoon in Luton.

“So when do I start?” he asked, taking in mouthful of fried bread.

“Start what?”

“The assistant manager role”.

Here it was, the reason we were here. I drew a deep breath and tried to look Steve in the eye. There was no way to skirt around this – I would have to be honest and hope Steve would accept what I was about to tell him.

“Steve, I can’t make you the assistant manager. I suspect you already figured as much before you came here. The chairman has brought in an experienced guy to be my assistant and I’m expected to use him. I’m sorry to leave you out but you know I would have been crazy to pass up this opportunity whilst you were in the Windies. I don’t want you to be worried though or feel I’ve let you down. As soon as a role comes up for you I’m going to get you onboard, whether it be as an assistant manager or a coach or whatever. For the want of a better word though I’m still a bit green to be making staffing demands”.

To this Steve chewed on a mouthful of bacon and took his time. I could tell he was p!ssed off, despite the cool exterior. Steve’s hotheadedness was usually one of his flaws, so for him this was very calm and collected indeed. I imagined he’d rehersed the various outcomes of this meeting several times in his head before arriving.

“That’s not good enough, mate. We had a deal”.

“I know, I’m sorry”.

“It’s not good enough. Look, I’m going to give you two choices. Number one – you get me onboard right now somehow, or Number two – you compensate me financially”.

As I thought this over the waitress dropped off my fry-up. I barely felt like touching it now.

“You know I can’t get you onboard. Look, I know we said we’d help each other out but this is Luton friggin’ town, not Glasshoughton Welfare”.

“Then let’s talk finance. Five thousand pounds should do it”.

“And what about the part in my little speech earlier where I said I’d get you a role as soon as I could? Are you going to pass that up just to take some money from me? I ask that because let me tell you this, if I give you any 'compensation' as you put it, I won’t be employing you in the future. It’s either the finance or the promise of a future job, Steve. You make your mind up”.

“There’s no guarantee of any job though!” he protested. “I could be waiting ages! Unlike you I’ve got a family to take care of. No, it’s got to be the money. I’ll make my own way in the management game. I don’t want to move down to this dump anyway. Neither does Jennifer”.

“Okay, fine” I said, noticing that the cafe’s one waitress was watching intently from the counter. “I’m not sure I’m going to give you as much as five grand though. Where did you come up with that figure?”

It turned out Steve didn’t know. By his own admission he'd just made up a figure in his head and run with it.

We didn’t leave each other on good terms once I’d finished eating. I said I would go away and consider what the compensation should be and get back to him. Steve then said not to even think about running away and ignoring him because he would be hanging around in Luton until he got his money. I told him fine. How did things end up this way between us?

Legally I’m under no obligation to even give him a penny. Morally I figure I probably owe him something. I’m not sure it should be five thousand pounds but that’s for me to stew over. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think Steve is a threat to me. He looks rock hard when you see him but he’s not a violent type at all, and he probably just figures that if he hangs around long enough and pesters me long enough, I’ll probably give him what he wants just to get rid.

It’s a shame because six months or a year down the line I would have loved to have brought him to the club (as soon as there was an opportunity). I’m not going to tolerate him blackmailing me though. If he takes whatever compo I offer him then as far as I'm concerned, that’s me and him finished. His loss.

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27/09/08 - League Match 8 (Att - 11443)

Bradford City 1 (Albrighton 26)

Luton Town 1 (Slusarski 88)

My pre-match research into Bradford told me they would possibly be the toughest team we'd face all season. They were a premiership club as recently as seven years ago and still comfortably command crowds of over 10,000. All things considered, I decided to stick with 4.4.2 but in a very defensive format. My hope was to plug the gaps in defence - so evident in the previous two games - and maybe grab a goal on the break.

During the first twenty five minutes the plan worked. Despite we hardly crossed the halfway line ourselves, Bradford had only one shot during this period and time was ticking forwards nicely. Then came the goal, a sloppy tap-in from Albrighton after some woeful pinball on the edge of our six yard box. Plan undone. Not only that but the goal seemed to unleash the beast; the Bantams poured forward over the next ten minutes and almost added a quickfire second on several occasions. Trevor Sinclair even smacked the upright from the edge of the area.

Now 0-7 down on shots, I shouted at the team to push forwards and up the tempo. As soon as we did this we seemed to get back in the game, and even finished the half on the attacking foot. At half time I encouraged the players to keep trying, feeling that a show of negativity might hand the initiative back to Bradford. For once I got it right. We were by far the better side during the second period. Martin missed a great one on one chance after sixty minutes and we had other shooting opportunities too. The Bradford goalkeeper however stood up tall whenever called upon.

With just a few minutes to go and all our substitutions used, Brian remarked to me we had fought back from 0-7 down on shots to be level at 9-9. This was a commendable performance, and in the 88th minute we scored a brilliant goal to get our just deserts. Substiture Charles raided down the right and whipped in a low cross. There still appeared to be little danger for Bradford (no more than usual anyway) but Slusarski hit a beautiful volley into the bottom right hand corner. If he hadn’t produced this unlikely shot first time, he probably would have been closed down.

Brian and I danced a jig of delight on the touchline as Luton’s travelling support went bananas. With Bradford in shellshock, we almost went on and grabbed a winner. Practically straight from the kick-off, Martin burst through the middle after a mistake from a centre back but fired straight at the goalkeeper when he probably should have done better. As everyone walked off the pitch at the end though, I was happy with a point.

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02/10/08 - Musings in the canteen

Since discovering the Kenilworth canteen I’ve been spending more and more time in there. The admin office does contain a kitchen but it’s small and doesn’t have any tables. The canteen on the other hand has six large tables, four vending machines (containing chocolate, crisps, and drinks), and a TV in the corner. When I walked in today there was quite a little crowd gathered. Caroline was by the window, Darren by the TV, and on another table the player pairing of George Pilkington and Ian Roper.

I had a choice of people to sit with here. I opted for Caroline because I was curious to see why she was dressed like a goth. Darren seemed engrossed in a film anyway, and what did I want to talk to Pilkington and Roper for? I’m not a great believer in socialising with players away from the main business of the football.

“Hello Caroline” I said, sitting down across from her. The nature of my smile was meant to be a substitute for the question I wanted to ask out loud. Caroline was on my wavelength.

“Yes, I dress differently away from the office” she confirmed. “I’ve not long finished my shift. I’m going home soon. Darren’s staying until five though”.

A glance over to the corner told me that Darren was watching a James Bond film. I could see Roger Moore running around in a tuxedo carrying a firearm. I don’t mind Bond films. At least they’re entertaining. I can’t say that for Star Wars. Darren certainly seemed entertained by what he was seeing. I’d never seen him so quiet before.

“Have you ever met Cyril and Lee?” I asked.

“Who?”

“Cyril and Lee? They run the little souvenir port-a-cabin thing outside the ground”.

“Oh. No. I’ve seen the port-a-cabin but I’ve never met the people you’re talking about. So what’s your honest opinion about my goth look?”

Boy, that was a quick change of subject.

“I think you look very good” I said, although secretly I didn’t think she looked any more attractive dressed like this than she normally did. Caroline just isn't my type at all I’m afraid.

“Thanks” she smiled. “So yeah, going back to what you said, no I haven’t met those two guys. Why?”

I then told her the story about my little meeting with them the other week. I didn’t have any particular reason for telling her; I probably just didn’t have anything else to talk about. Caroline listened keenly but seemed reluctant to agree to my opinion Cyril and Lee are both dorks.

“I always think people like that, especially young people, are just a bit lost” she said, sounding older than her twenty years. “Cyril and Lee are probably harmless enough, just a bit - well - socially inept. Nothing criminal about that though. Better someone be like that than a football hooligan smashing things up all the time”.

“Yeah I suppose so” I agreed, as Pilkington and Roper left the room.

“Having said that, the whole Deathmatch thing sounds ridiculous. It sounds like they embarassed you quite a bit. You should get revenge on that Cyril. I don’t mean in a nasty way, just in a fun way”.

“And how do you suppose I do that? Put a whoppee cushion on his chair?”

“No. Tell you what, let me think about it a while. I’ll come up with something. I’m usually good at stuff like this”.

“It’s alright, it doesn’t matter. I’ve got better things to do than play jokes on Cyril”

“No really! Leave me to it!”

I couldn’t be bothered to argue anymore so I left it at that. Over in the corner Bond seemed to be doing something that was getting Darren excited.

“Would you check this out or what?” he said, glancing over to see if we were watching. As far as I could tell from this angle, 007 seemed to be clinging to the back of an aeroplane in mid-flight.

“You a big Bond fan then, Darren?”

“Hell yeah dude! Bond's the man!”

“You don’t collect Bond things though do you? I mean like memorabilia and what-have-you?”

“Eh? Hell no”.

“Thank god for that”.

“Oh that reminds me” Caroline interrupted, clearly not interested in the Bond discussion. “You know that Dave Wheelie? I bumped into him the other night”.

“I don’t know how Dave Wheelie could possibly remind you of James Bond but do carry on”.

“Well, there’s not much to tell really. I was down by the canal heading into town and Dave crossed the road quite near to me. I said hi but he didn’t say a word back. He was wearing this horrible yellow football top. Maybe he was embarassed to be seen in it or something?”

“Yellow football kit? What had he been doing, playing five a side or something?”

“I don’t know. I didn’t speak to him about it obviously!”

“Fair enough”.

Darren paused his film (turns out it was his own DVD he’d been watching) and went back to work. Caroline meanwhile stood up to leave for the day. As for me, I was soon due for afternoon training. Boy did we need it.

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04/10/08, League Match 9 (Att - 1732)

Accrington Stanley 1 (Ryan 13)

Luton Town 1 (Slusarski 84)

As you can see from the goalscorers and goal times this match was almost a direct repeat of what happened at Valley Parade. Tactically I decided to stick with the same approach which had seen us fight back in the previous match. Personel wise I made two unforced changes - I brought Owusu in for Eagles on the left and Charles for O’Connor on the right. Accrington lined up with a potentially tricky 3.5.2 formation. Rather than counter this before kick-off, I decided to let the match begin and see how things went from there. Big mistake.

We were slow out of the blocks. Stanley immediately took charge and with their second attack of the match got on the scoresheet. Ryan hit a 35 yard shot that deflected off one of our players and sent Brill the wrong way. It was an unfortunate goal to concede but I suppose the opposition deserved it simply for being the more attacking side up to that point. Privately however I was disappointed that for the second match running we'd conceded the opening goal before even mustering an single attack.

We went 0-5 down on shots before anything changed in our favour (de javu anyone?). At this point Brian and I decided we had to do something about the way Accrington were throttling our midfield. I instructed our two strikers to drop back into the centre of the park more, meaning we would now often have six players there instead of four. At the same time I told the wide players to get forward more often, the intention being for this to compensate for Martin and Slusarski’s territorial retreat.

The alteration worked and slowly we played our way back into the match. Just before half time Slusarski hit a lovely curling shot that hit the high part of the right hand post and bounced back into play. At the start of the second half the same player had the ball in the net. A cross from the right evaded the keeper and Slusarski slotted into an empty goal from four yards out. The linesman though flagged for offside. There were also shots from Spring and Martin that brought saves from the keeper. Accrington also had one or two close moments at the other end.

The equalizer came slightly earlier than it did at Bradford, but you would still class it as ‘late’. Funnily enough it was practically the same goal Slusarski had disallowed earlier in the half. A cross from the right evaded the onrushing keeper and the striker prodded home from close range. Accrington again appealed for offside but this time it wasn’t given this. In the closing moments the home side found a second wind and twice went close to nicking it. We also had a chance to grab the winner, substitute striker Parkin (on his return from injury) firing straight at the keeper from the edge of the area when perhaps he should have done better. Truth be told, I wasn’t that impressed with Parkin. He seems slow and uneffective at a first glance.

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September round-up

Premiership

Chelsea continue to lead the Barclays Premiership. They have six wins and a draw from their opening seven games. Manchester United are hot on their trail with five wins and a draw. Neither side has lost. Arsenal follow on in third but Liverpool have had a weak start for a ‘top four club’. They only have eleven points from seven matches. Down at the bottom the three relegation places are now occupied by Hull, Middlesbrough, and Stoke. Two of these clubs are newly promoted from the Championship, perhaps once again showing the gulf between the first and the second tier.

Championship

Bristol City and Doncaster now lead the way in the Championship, two clubs the bookies certainly didn’t expect to be leading at this stage. At the bottom, big spending Wolves have got their act together and risen to 16th place. The relegation places are occupied by Blackpool, Crystal Palace, and Preston. Of these clubs, I’m somewhat surprised to see Palace there. I’ve been following football for nineteen years and I can’t ever remember Palace being in the third tier. Plenty of time to go before the end of the season yet though.

League One

Leeds still lead but they have suffered their first loss. None the less, they’re still four points ahead of second place and looking good. Leyton Orient now reside in second, and that is a surprise. Pre-season favourites Leicester are beginning to pick up form and are threatening to enter the top half of the table. Down at the bottom the four clubs in trouble are Northampton, Hartlepool, Bristol Rovers, and Hereford – No great shocks amongst that lot. Hereford have had a woeful beginning, taking only two points from their opening nine games.

League Two

In League Two Shrewsbury lead the way from Gillingham in second place. Down at the bottom we’ve slipped to being eleven points behind Bournemouth and twenty four points off safety. The situation seems to become more dire by the week. We’d be 16th if it wasn’t for the points deduction but that isn’t much consolation. The sad fact is, we’ve only won two games out of nine and that sort of conversion rate just isn’t going to get the job done. If you apply a positive spin to the situation, you could say we’ve lost only three of our nine matches (not bad for a rookie, would you say?). We’re also unbeaten in three away games.

Bradford City (7)

Lincoln City (6)

Chester City (6)

Rotherham United (4)

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Bournemouth (-9)

Luton Town (-20)

Blue Square Premier

York still lead the Blue Square Premier with Oxford and Torquay tied for the runners up position. Northwich and Histon are the surprise ‘minnows’ making up the playoff spots. At the bottom, Mansfield, Ebbsfleet, Barrow, and Forest Green prop up the rest. The inclusion of Mansfield there is quite a surprise.

Blue Square North

Farsley Celtic have seven wins from eight games and possess clear daylight over the rest of the field. Blyth, Kings Lynn, and Hucknall are the clubs currently flirting with relegation.

Blue Square South

Last year’s playoff finalists Hampton and Richmond seem determined to do things the easy way this time. They lead the Blue Square South. At the bottom are Maidenhead, Havant and Waterlooville, and Bogner Regis.

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06/10/08 - A busy time for E-mails

I arrived at the office this morning to find everyone crowded around Alison’s desk. Lo and behold, the great wanderer had finally returned.

“Hi there” I said, pushing my way through the circle of Nicky, Brenda, Caroline, and Darren. “I’m James, the new manager”.

“Pleased to meet you” Alison replied, shaking my hand.

She’s a very beautiful woman, perhaps in her early thirties. She’s got long frizzy blonde hair and a figure to die for, and in the business suit she was wearing looked quite a picture. In a straight shootout between Nicky and Alison I’d find it very hard to pick a winner. Nicky loses points for being only eighteen or nineteen (and arguably immature, but maybe that’s a harsh/unproven statement), and Alison loses a point for wearing a wedding band. That aside, I now have two very fine women working alongside me indeed.

Once I’d clapped everyone back to their desks to get on with some actual work, I went to my own desk and checked my E-mails. I had five new messages. The first one was titled School talk.

Dear Mr Martin

My name is William Burke, Headmaster of the Wigmore Primary school in Luton. I was given this E-mail address by your secretary Brenda Easthope, who suggested this would be your first choice of medium for preliminary contact.

Myself and the board of governors have floated the idea of you coming to our school on an afternoon of your choosing, the purpose being to run an hour long football lesson. The boys we have at the school all love football and are very enthusiastic Luton Town fans. It would be a huge deal for them if the Luton manager was to pay a surprise visit and pass on some words of wisdom, as well as watch them play some actual football. I would be happy for you to have total control as to the content and structure of the lesson.

Please reply to let me know if you’re interested. If an agreement was to be reached, there would be a reporter and photographer from the local newspaper present to document the lesson.

Yours sincerely

William Burke

Headmaster

Wigmore Primary School

That sounded like good fun. Without thinking it over for more than two seconds, I replied to tell him to contact Brenda and thrash out an appropriate visiting time.

The next E-mail was an internal one from Erica, the accountant upstairs who I’d never met.

Hi James

Please come and see me in my office on Wednesday afternoon. I’ll be in all afternoon so no need to arrange a specific time.

Erica Hunt

Club Accountant

I’ve got no idea what that’s about, but I hope it’s nothing to do with the fact I’m operating well over the wage budget. I kept expecting to incur the wrath of Dilic just after all the summer transfer business was concluded, but as I never heard from him I hoped I’d got away with it. Maybe Erica now wanted to speak to me on his behalf? I’ll soon see. Anyway, the next mail was from Caroline.

Hiya

Remember how I said I’d help you think of a way to get back at that souvenir guy? Well, I’ve got a brilliant idea. Come seek me out some time when the other workers aren’t around. I’ll tell you what I’ve got in mind.

Caroline

I hoped she’d forgotten about the Cyril thing. Oh well, I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to find out what she had up her sleeve. I couldn’t be bothered right now though. Next up was an E-mail called “XXX-Plus!”

Dear hotmail member!

Ever had trouble plugging a gap? Ever found you just can’t please her, no matter how hard you try? Well, now help is at hand! As the 10,000th person on our exclusive platinum band mailing list, we’ve decided to offer you $500 FREE to spend on enlargement products of your choice! Simply follow the link below to view our fantastic range of secret accessories.

Soon she won’t be able to get enough!

With Compliments of the ‘Bigger is better’ Consumer Products Group

I can’t believe people actually write this stuff. Anyway, last but not least was Steve Fairclough..

Hey mate

I’m still here in Luton and I still want the money you owe me. What’s taking you so long to think things over? Seriously, get on with it and sort this out. I’m gonna start visiting you at the flat again soon.

Steve

The less said about that the better. I know it’s an issue I desperately need to sort it, but I just can’t seem to get around to it. No doubt more and more reminders will be forthcoming soon, including those promised home visits. No rest for James. If worst comes to the worst I’ll give him the five grand he’s after, but I’d much rather give him less. In fact, I think half of me still hopes he’ll come to his senses and drop this whole financial demand thing so we can go back to being not only friends but future colleagues too.

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07/10/08, Johnstone's Paint Last 32 Round (Att - 2489)

Northampton Town 1 (Constantine 19)

Luton Town 1 (Gnapka 67)

(Luton win 4-1 on penalties)

This was a terrific result away to a League One side. It was also the third successive match we've drawn one-all after going behind early on. Because the Johnstone's Paint doesn't matter to Mr Dilic, I decided to experiement with the diamond formation again. I was also encouraged in this by the fact the Sixfields stadium apparently contains a very narrow pitch. So with that in mind, O'Connor came in to play as the attacking midfielder and Keith Keane dropped back to play in the holding role. Asa Halls and Matthew Spring were to play in the centre mid positions. Attack and defence meanwhile stayed the same.

We were the better side early on but Northampton hit us on the break to score with their first attack of the match. A long hopeful punt went over the top of our defence and former Port Vale and Leeds striker Constantine nipped in to beat Brill at his near post. Oh dear. Perhaps due to the irrelevence of the competition however, this development didn't dismay us as much as it could have done. We were still marginally the better side for the rest of the half and were unlucky to go to the dressing rooms 1-0 down. I was surprised actually to discover the shot count was only 4-4.

The second period began with Northampton's best spell of the match. Sensing we were finally starting to give way to our higher ranked opponents, I switched to 4.4.2 and brought on some subs. This reviatalised us and we got back to playing the way we had in the first half. Our equaliser came from a corner, headed powerfully in by full back Gnapka. The same player almost won it for us five minutes later. He completely bamboozled a home defender to move in on goal from an impossible angle. Then he pulled it smartly back to the edge of the area for the onrushing Keane, who blasted over. I'm in awe of Gnapka though, easily our best player so far this season with a 7.29 average rating (if you listen to The Sun).

I thought there might be extra time after the alotted ninety minutes, but thankfully this wasn't the case. No extra time would mean fresher legs for Saturday. The shootout couldn't really have gone any better. Northampton managed to score only one of their three penalties, where as we scored all four of ours. The brave men to step up were Spring, Parkin, Martin, and Slusarski. To do so well in the shootout without our club's chief penalty taker in the side (Nicholls) was very pleasing. In the next round we've been drawn away to League 2 Brentford.

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08/10/08 - Meeting Erica

Today I went to meet Erica as per the request of her E-mail, and for the second time in a week I found myself shaking hands with quite a beauty. Erica looked younger than Alison but she was also blonde and she was also beautiful. Why would Dilic be as cruel as to hide someone like this upstairs in their own private office? Talk about mean!

"Do take a seat, James"

"Thanks" I said, wishing I'd worn something classier than my Luton Town tracksuit. Erica's office was tidy but tiny, similar to the one Dave had on the ground floor.

"I've brought you up to discuss the wage budget, primarily".

"Okay".

"You were given a budget of 30k a week at the start of the season, but according to current figures I see we're actually spending 38k a week".

With this she typed some things on her keyboard. I couldn't see the monitor from where I was sat. The situation reminded me of a meeting with an actual bank manager. On first impressions Erica seems much more cold and business-like than Alison, who for ten whole minutes on Monday had stopped my office staff doing their work so she could tell them about The Maldives. I don't think Erica would ever be the sort to do that.

"Well there are two things that have contributed to that" I explained, noticing (probably pointlessly) that Erica had no wedding band. "Firstly, recalling Matthew Spring from his loan at Sheffield United added 5k to the budget all by itself. Secondly, the signing of Edworthy added another 3k. I think that just about explains matters".

"Before you got this job, Spring was loaned out to Sheffield entirely BECAUSE of the 5k that he's contracted for" Erica said firmly. "Sheffield agreed to pay the entire 5k during his loan period. It's fine if you wanted to bring him back because you thought you needed him, but he's hardly set the world alight since his return".

"In that case, why was my request given the green light?".

Erica paused and leaned back in her chair.

"For your information, I actually made the recommendation to the chairman your request be denied. He didn't respond in time though so I decided to authorise it for you. That would now appear to be a mistake".

"Look, I know Spring hasn't exactly been brilliant, but let's not forget it's still early days this season. Spring could still play a crucial role in our survival. Not only that but Nicholls is out at the moment so having the extra cover in midfield is beneficical".

"He's still not worth 5k a week though, at least not at this level. And what about Edworthy? As far as I can see we're paying three grand a week for a player who hasn't even been on the pitch yet".

"He's back up for Gnapka" I protested calmly. "When Gnapka gets injured or suspended, which is bound to happen sooner or later, Edworthy will get his chance to come in and play. I like to have two players who can play every position. I don't have that sorted out right across the board yet but Edworthy is one of the first steps to getting there".

"James, three thousand a week is the sort of salary you pay to the guy in the first team! The guy coming in as his back-up should be on considerably less. That's the way this game is played. You might be here to run a football team but I'm here to oversee the running of Luton Town as a business. I can't continue to allow such reckless spending, especially as it appears not to be helping you climb the league table. I gave you the benefit of the doubt over the situations concerning Spring and Edworthy, but now I can see you need to be reigned in more. It simply isn't viable to have a guy earning three thousand pounds a week sat in the reserve team".

"What do you mean by that - reign me in more?"

"What I mean is this; from now on, if you want to make a signing, I want a detailed report first sent to my desk about the benefits of the signing and what he'll bring in exchange for the money paid, whether that be in transfer or wage fees. If I then do not consider the signing to be viable, it will be denied".

"Okay" I said, not really sure I could be bothered arguing the point.

Seconds later I was standing up ready to leave. Before I opened the door though, Erica had one last thing to say...

"Just remember, James, it's not only on the pitch you'll be judged at the end of the season. If the club bank balance has taken a bad hit because of your spending habits, that may also play a key role in your future here. What I feed back to the chairman goes a long way. Remember that".

"Okay"

And with that I left, feeling almost like a chastised schoolboy. God she was hot though.

----------------

11/10/08, League Game 10 (Att - 7072)

Luton Town 1 (Martin 69)

Brentford 1 (Poole 16)

The pattern continues. Incredibly we have now drawn four games in a row by the same score and in every single one we've had to come back from behind. I wanted to play the diamond again but O'Connor's injury after the Northampton match meant I was short an attacking midfielder. So I went 4.4.2 instead, with Eagles coming in for O'Connor and McVeigh for Halls. That aside it was the same team. Brentford were missing an incredible eight players according to Brian, but they still seemed to play a relatively strong match.

We almost went behind in the first minute but Brill comfortably saved a header straight at him. Then we woke up, creating two chances in the space of five minutes. First Martin was put through but fired straight at the goalkeeper, albeit on his left foot. Then he burst through again with a defender in close attention only to once again hit the keeper. The crowd groaned second time around. I know being a forward isn't easy but I would expect most players to be able to put at least one of those chances away. We paid for the misses in the 16th minute as left winger Glenn Poole curled a beautiful free kick into the bottom left hand corner.

This knocked our confidence for six and we were useless for the rest of the half. I gave them a grilling at half time in the hope of waking them up. It didn't work. Brentford remained the better side and after an hour I began I take a look around at my substitutes bench. I swiftly made two changes and not long afterwards we finally began to play better. We even scored the equaliser. Slusarski went on a nice run towards the keeper. He elected to draw him out wide rather than risk the shot, and once he had him where he wanted him, he chipped the ball back across the six yard box where Martin was onhand to head into an unguarded net. I think that was about the only way Martin was going to score this afternoon.

Either side could have won it late on. Our best chance fell to Martin, who fired wide from eighteen yards. For Brentford, midfielder Bean fired just over from a free kick outside the box. There was also a goalmouth scramble cleared by Sol Davis. The shot total finished 9-8 in our favour so I suppose the draw was fair on the balance of play. We've now lost just once in eight league and cup games but we've also only taken just three points from a possible twelve in the last four league games.

----------------

12/10/08 - Three's a crowd

After my introduction to Towzer and Garry, I thought about not parking in the Kenilworth Road car park in an attempt to avoid them. Then I realised I would probably still be easily accessible to the two thugs no matter where I parked, and that to be seen parking on some side street somewhere would probably encourage rather than discourage them. Not only that but there's good CCTV in the club car park, and they surely know that. I fancy I'm probably untouchable as long as I'm on the premises. However that might not be the case down some nondescript side street where even lamposts are at a premium.

Today I walked into the car park and there they were again, stood smoking near the gate wearing practically the same clothes they nearly always wear. Instinctively I paused and wondered whether or not to proceed, at least for the briefest of seconds. Before I could make my mind up I suddenly felt a firm push from behind. Staggering forwards I turned around to see Steve, and he didn't look happy.

"Hey mate. I've been waiting for you to come out - thought we might talk about that compensation package".

Ignoring him for a moment I glanced sideways at Towzer and Garry, forty or so yards away. They'd both spotted me now and were eyeing me curiously.

"What you pushing me for? That's not going to get you your money any faster".

"So I am getting it then?"

"You'll get some. One thousand seems fairer though. Five grand is just taking the p!ss".

Steve shoved me again, and this time I shoved him back. He laughed nervously.

"Are you gonna brawl with me?"

"Look Steve, this has gone far enough. Two grand and that's the final offer".

I glanced again at Towzer and Garry. They'd put their cigarettes out now and were watching the show like two wrestlers waiting to be tagged into the action.

"I WANT FIVE!" Steve shouted. "YOU SCREWED ME OVER!"

"I DIDN'T SCREW..." I began. "I didn't screw you over, now for heaven's sake, get a grip and take my offer before I withdraw it completely".

Towzer and Garry were walking towards us now. Steve noticed this too, and despite having absolutely no idea who they were, he evidently decided it wouldn't be much use continuing the debate if it had to be done in front of two witnesses.

"Five grand, James. I'm running out of patience".

Then he left, putting his hands in his pockets and wandering off out of view.

"Boyfriend trouble, James?", Towzer was kind enough to ask me.

"Go spit" I replied.

"If there's anything we can do to help" Garry contributed.

I ignored them and headed to my car. Right up to the moment I shut the driver's side door on them, Towzer and Garry persisted with their act.

"Have you both tried marriage counselling?" Towzer enquired. "That could work".

"Yeah, marriage counselling" Garry sniggered.

"Bye boys" I said, turning on the engine and winding my window up.

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It took me a while to discover this little gem but tonight I sat down and read it from start to finish. I'm enjoying all the off-the pitch shennanigans as well as cheering on the Hatters in their desperate fight against relegation. Keep it up Scott, great stuff.

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Thanks Bob and Salk. To answer the question hmmm, not really, unless you count one or two FMS over the years. I used to go on the old CM4 forums before it shut down for good

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15/10/08 - Meeting the pupils

I decided to take Brian along for this engagement, just for moral support. We arrived fifteen minutes early and waited in reception for the headmaster.

“Doesn’t look like a nice school” Brian commented. “Did you see the graffiti on the walls in the playground?”

“Oh come on. All schools have that. I bet even Prince William had that at Eton”.

“Even so, you be careful in that classroom. Kids these days aren’t what they used to be. I swear, the stories my little Lucy comes home with”.

“Is that the name of your daughter?”

“One of them, yeah. The other one is called Emily. They’re ten and seven”.

“That’s sweet”.

The headmaster William Burke came and interrupted us at that moment, along with the teacher whose class I was going to be borrowing for the next hour or so, Mr Ian Franks. In addition to them there was also Jamie Andrew, a reporter from the Hertfordshire Herald (I was relieved it wasn’t Andy Branston doing the gig!), and Derek Nemins, one of the Herald’s photographers.

Once the introductions were all done and dusted, we walked towards where we needed to be and I prepared to get my game face on.

“Well” said Burke. “Here’s the room you want, 2C. Good luck to you all. Especially you, James. My office is just down the hall if you need anything. Cheerio”.

With that, Burke and Franks walked off.

“Right then” I said, speaking now to Brian and the two men from the Herald. “Best of luck, chaps. I’ll go in first”.

I opened the door and immediately felt as if I’d just entered a bat cave. A dozen or so paper aeroplanes all started hitting me at once, to raucous child laughter from within.

“Okay, kids. Very funny” I said, fighting my way to the front desk with both eyeballs thankfully still intact. Brian came and stood near me. Jamie and Derek went and stood by a wall to the side which was covered in what looked like finger-painting pictures. Jamie had a notepad out, Derek a camera.

“So how are you all doing, are you alright?” I asked with a smile to break the ice. No response. “Well anyway, my name is James Martin and I’m the Luton Town manager. I bet there’s quite a few little Hatters fans in here. Hands up everybody who supports Luton”.

Brian and I put our hands up but nobody else did. I was also slightly dismayed to see that not even Jamie and Derek had them up. As I pondered this, a fat little thing at the back (who frankly had trouble written all over his mucky little face) stuck his hand up and then proceeded to speak before I could even point to him.

“ARSSS-ENAL!” he said slowly but firmly in a drawly kind of voice.

“Yeah, Arsenal are the best!” another boy said more soberly.

That was the catalyst for an impromptu sing-a-long. I don’t know whether they’d rehearsed it or what, but next minute five or six little lads at the back of the class (including the fatty) were all in full voice.

“ARS-SEN-AL, AR-SEN-AL! ARE-SEN-ALLLLL!”

They were singing that simple chant, very common around English grounds, where the only word is the club name. It's suitable for some clubs more than others (It works for Liverpool, for example, but probably not Nottingham Forest). It ends, in this instance, with an exaggerated “ARS-SEN-AL!” before a brief pause and then back to the beginning. Thankfully the kids only went through this routine once before they got bored and went quiet again.

“Yes, Arsenal” I said. “But this isn’t Arsenal, it’s Luton. Now then Brian, what have you got in your bag?”

I turned to Brian, who had a plastic Morrisons bag with him. In it was a Luton Town home shirt. We’d had the idea of bringing this along to give away as a prize.

“Well gee whiz, I think it’s a Luton Town home shirt, James!” Brian said enthusiastically.

“Well so it is!” I said, taking and holding it aloft. Before I could say anything else though, the choir at the back suddenly piped up again.

“YOU’RE S__T, AND YOU KNOW YOU ARRRRE, YOU’RE S__T, AND YOU KNOW YOU ARRE, YOU’RE S__T, AND YOU KNOW YOU ARRRE - ”.

Whilst this was going on I noticed a young girl of about eleven get up and head for the door.

“Hey, where are you going?” I asked her over the din of the singers.

“Out for a fag” came a squeaky voice.

“I’ll tell Mr Franks that!”

“Do I love bothered?” the girl retorted, and stuck her middle finger up. A few seconds later she was gone.

Meanwhile there was a new chant going around. About half the class were singing along now.

“GOING DOWNNN , GOING DOWNNN, GOING DOWNNN - ”

It was completely out of control.

“Drink up Trigger, we’re leaving” I said to Brian, ushering him out the door.

“Hey, where are you going?” Derek called out, lowering his camera.

“I’m off” I replied without offering any justification. Meanwhile...

“WEEEEE CAN SEE YA SNEAKING OUT! WEEEEEEEE CAN SEEEEE YA - !”

After opening the door and high-tailing it down the corridor, we didn’t stop for breath until we were back in the car and off.

“I think we really reached out to them there, Brian”.

“Yep”.

----------------

18/10/08, League Match 11 (Att 5171)

Bournemouth 3 (Garry 10, Pericard 61, Bartley 85)

Luton Town 0

We blew this golden opportunity big time, not that we had anything close to a first team out. As usual we had our customary slow start, conceding the game's first goal for the fifth time in a row. Then in the eleventh minute we suffered yet another injury - winger Eagles hobbling off to be replaced by Emmanual (who isn't even a left winger).

Ten minutes later came our second injury of the game, and this time it was Martin. The young striker pulled out of a tackle second best and had to be helped off by his team-mates. In his place I brought on Drew Talbot, who was considerably short of match practice after a long lay-off. As with Emmanual though, I had no other choice.

"What effin' chance of we got with luck like this?" I said to Brian. My assistant just shook his head and looked down at the grass.

The Cherries were so much on top I gave my team a dressing down at half time. I probably shouldn't have but my frustration was really starting to boil over, more at lady luck than the actual team. In the second half Bournemouth continued to have the better of things and went two goals ahead just after the hour, Pericard the scorer.

After this we had our one and only good spell of the match, the consequence of which was that we only ended up losing the match a respectable 8-11 on shots. We didn't score though where as Bournemouth added one more, Bartley getting the pick of the bunch with a brilliant volley from an outswinging cross.

After the match I took pity on the men who had achieved the no mean feat this afternoon of surviving a Luton Town match without getting injured.

"Chin up, boys. Poker on the coach home. Texas Hold Em. Fifty pounds as the buy-in and it's a two hundred pound limit".

I'd lost £250 by the time we got back home. It never rains...

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20/10/08 - Don't believe everything you read in the press

When I arrived in the office this morning we were only three strong; although to be fair it was only just past 8am. The other two early birds were Brenda and Nicky. The latter was stood looking down at Brenda’s desk having a giggle at something.

“Have a look at this, James” she said between fits of laughter.

I walked around to Brenda (who herself was grinning if not necessarily laughing). In front of her was the latest copy of the Hertfordshire Herald, open at pages six and seven.

“PARENTS IN OUTCRY AS LUTON BOSS CUTS SHORT SCHOOL ENGAGEMENT!” read the headline.

“You’ve got to be kidding me” I said, taking the paper without asking.

“Nope” Nicky said, her grin wider than ever. "Looks like you've been a naughty boy".

I put the newspaper down on my desk and looked at it more closely. The article was by Jamie Andrew, the pictures by Derek Nemins. The main picture showed two kids sat looking miserable at their school desk.

Luton manager James Martin left thirty schoolchildren close to tears yesterday as he cancelled a school engagement after only five minutes. No reason was given for the sudden departure; Martin merely muttered “I’m off” and then fled for the door. His only action prior to then had been to wave a Luton Town shirt in the air and ask everyone who their favourite team was. Parents of the children at Wigmore Primary School were understandably outraged. The children were devastated, many of whom had waited weeks to see their local idol.

"It's an absolute disgrace!" commented Julie Green, whose son Richard attends the school. "These football people get paid the earth and they should be setting a better example, quite frankly. My son won't be going to Kenilworth Road anytime soon, you can count on that!" Robert himself was also nonplussed at the attitude of Martin - "He just left after two minutes" he told this reporter whilst clinging to his mother's hand. I wanted to press the issue but the young boy was clearly close to tears

Later in the evening I spoke to Percy Arkhurst, head of Wigmore's PTA set-up. "There's clearly an overriding issue here when it comes to our nation's sportsmen" said Arkhurst, 63. "It's almost as if the money and fame sort of goes to their heads, and they forget about their duties and responsibilities to the everyday public. When I see these young men with their flash cars and their women and their coming out of nightclubs and acting immaturely, I just think there needs to be a radical overhaul of how we distribute wealth in sport. The actions of the Luton manager today is a case example. It might not necessarily be my place to say it, but the powers that be should throw the book at this man and make an example of him

The article went on to re-enforce how, in Jamie's opinion, there had been no need for me to leave and that the kids had all been having nervous breakdowns after I walked out. As if! He also claimed Luton Town had been contacted to get my side of the story but that I had been unavailable for comment. Again, utter tosh.

"Don't believe any of this rubbish" I said to Brenda and Nicky, carefully throwing the newspaper back to them.

"Oh as if we do" said Nicky, finally sitting down at her own desk.

My phone went off at that moment, diverting my attention.

“James Martin” I said.

“Dragomir Dilic” came the voice at the other end. “I vud like to see you in my office immediately!”

The phone went dead before I could even confirm whether or not I would be attending.

“I’ve got to go see the chairman" I said. "When Darren gets here, keep him away from that newspaper. You know what he's like”

“Can't promise that” grinned Nicky, and that's when I knew Darren would definitely be getting his mitts on it.

----------------

20/10/08 - A sting in the tail of my day

Not wanting to keep Dilic waiting I went straight up to the second floor without even stopping for breath, images of piranha fish suddenly very prevelent in my mind. The chairman’s lovely secretary Katrina was waiting for me outside the room. She was wearing a dark blue business suit today which for some reason reminded me of an air hostess. She looked good in it though.

“You’re to go straight in” she blushed with a smile.

“Thankyou”.

Allowing myself the briefest of pauses, just to compose myself, I took a deep sigh, knocked on the door and then stepped inside. The first thing I saw was Dilic, stood over by the piranha tank like the fat controller from Thomas the Tank Engine (minus the hat). However, it wasn’t actually the piranha tank he was stood next to. He was actually stood next to a second tank, which must have been built into the wall since my previous visit. It was positioned just to the right of the first tank, hence my initial confusion.

“Ah, Mr Martin. Do come over here” Dilic said with a smile.

I smiled back and walked over, in doing so noticing Dilic’s formidable looking bodyguard Brute for the first time today. He was stood by the chairman’s desk, and as usual seemed to resemble a six foot six inch Vin Diesal with a scowl. Turning back to Dilic, I noticed he had a huge black glove on his right arm which went all the way up to the elbow.

Inside the glove’s grip was a large black scorpion of some variety. Dilic was slowly lowering it, twisting and squirming, back into the tank. This second tank didn’t have water in it, rather a foot high layer of sand. A second scorpion of similar height and colour looked like it was sunbathing in it, perhaps patiently waiting for its mate to drop back in.

“Say hello to the Androctonus Crassicauda” Dilic said, letting go of the scorpion and retracting his arm. “Also known as ze fat-tailed scorpion. The Androctonous varities of are ze most dangerous in ze vorld. Ze word even translates into ze English as man killer. Can you believe that? It comes from ze Greek”.

“That’s errr, fascinating” I said, uncomfortably fiddling with my tie.

“Did you know, James, that scorpion bites claim ten times more human victims per year than snakes do?”

“No sir, Mr Dilic, I did not”.

“A sting from a scorpion can produce many debilitating systematic effects – vomiting, cramps, blurred vision, sensitivity to light, hypersalivation, swallowing difficulty, agitation, anaphylactic shock, and of course, death”.

“That’s quite a CV” I said.

“Yes” Dilic said slowly and with relish, leaning downwards towards the glass. “Magnificant creatures. Magnificant! Anyway, let’s talk now about you”.

And just like that Dilic dragged himself away from the glass and went to his desk, beckoning me to sit in the chair opposite.

“Word has reached me a man is causing you great difficulty”.

“What man?” I asked. I presumed he meant Steve Fairclough but I didn’t really want to discuss this with Dilic.

“Don’t play games, James. I’m talking about ze man on ze car park CCTV footage who pushes you in ze chest, precisely one second I might add before you push him back. I’m talking about ze man whose name I have since learned is Steve Fairclough”.

He’d done his research. No use denying it now. Without further protest I told Dilic the whole story. When I was finished he paused for a whole minute to think matters over, at the same time lighting a huge fat cigar with that six shooter lighter of his. Then he spoke.

“We cannot have zis aggravation and attention on Kenilworth Road property”.

“I know, Mr Dilic. I’ll take care of it. Just give me a bit more time and I’ll - ”.

“No” he said, holding one palm up towards me like a traffic cop. “You’ve already had enough time. I’m relieving you of zis matter. I vill pass zis business onto to one of my associates to take care of”.

What did that mean exactly? A friendly warning? A good biffing? Death by piranha? I was just about to enquire when Dilic changed the subject.

“I’ve heard too about ze newspaper article. Some time in ze next two weeks I vant you to go back to ze school and patch things up, do another lesson. This time, stay put and finish it”.

“No. I can’t do that. Look, those ruddy kids are a nightmare. I really think - ”.

Suddenly Dilic clicked his fingers and Brute passed him the big black scorpion glove again.

“But then again” I quickly corrected myself. “I’ve always been a firm believer in the old phrase if at first you don’t succeed, try try try again. Rest assured I will definitely arrange another visit before the month is over”.

Dilic handed the glove back to Brute and leaned forwards, his moustache curling maliciously at the sides.

“I know you vill” he said with a smile. “I know you vill”.

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21/10/08, League Game 12 (Att - 6273)

Luton Town 0

Rotherham United 0

I really didn't need a midweek game this week. Let me give you a rundown of my injuries and suspensions coming into the match..

Nicholls - OUT (up to a month)

Spring - OUT (3-4 months)

Martin - OUT (unfit)

Owusu - OUT (unfit)

O'Connor - OUT (injured)

Eagle - OUT (Injured)

Parkin - OUT (Injured)

McVeigh - OUT (unfit)

Thorley - OUT (unfit)

Davis - OUT (suspended)

It really was a case of playing whoever was left. The formation was dictated to me rather than chosen....

GK - Brill

DL - Emmanual

DC - Pilkington

DC - Roper

DR - Gnakpa

DMC - Keane

MC - Farthing

MC - Jarvis

MC - Hall

FC - Slusarski

FC - Talbot

The midfield was the problem area. Hall is a natural centre midfielder but he's weak. He wouldn't get anywhere near the team if Spring and Nicholls were fit. Farthing is a young lad from the reserves. He's not good enough for this level. Jarvis is naturally a centre half but is also competent in centre midfield. At least that's what it says on the tin. Once you actually open the tin though and take the Jarvis out for use, you see you've been slightly mislead.

Incredibly, we didn't play a bad match all said and done. Rotherham dominated possession but couldn't create many goalscoring opportunites. I was surprised at this because they've had a terrific season so far, winning seven of their eleven league games. Still, we stifled them here. The final shot count was 4-4, and we even went close to winning it in the second half when Gnakpa hit the crossbar with a header. As much as Brian and I are starting to get depressed with the recent run of results, it does encourage us slightly that we can draw a game like this with such a weakened team.

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23/10/08 - A dream fulfilled

I was on the phone to Fred Pilchard. He couldn’t hear very well these days so it was difficult.

“Training is in forty five minutes, Fred - FORTY FIVE - That’s right, so I need the nets on the pitch up - You’ve got one of them up already? - I SAID HAVE YOU GOT ONE OF THEM UP ALR? - Right, that’s good - Sorry, what? - Look, if your back - IF YOUR BACK IS PLAYING UP, DON’T BOTHER WITH THE OTHER SET OF NETS. I can do training with just one set of nets - No of course we won’t use the penalty spots. We’ll steer well clear - I SAID WE’LL STEER WELL CLEAR! - Right, bye”.

I looked up to see the entire office staring at me in amusement.

“Really, what could I do?” I asked rhetorically. “He just can’t hear a thing, bless him”.

Darren left his desk and wandered up to me. He looked like he had something important on his mind, or something which was important to him anyway. As usual his blonde hair looked bleached to the point of abuse, and it seemed to add at least six inches to his height.

“Errr boss, I was wondering. Seeing as the nets are up, or one of them anyway. And seeing as the training session isn’t for another forty five minutes, I was wondering if there was any chance I could take an early lunch and maybe go out there and score a goal or two”.

“Score a goal or two?” I asked.

“Yeah. I’ve always wanted to score at Kenilworth Road and maybe this is my chance. I mean, if you let me. I wouldn’t be out there long. I could just go out there with a ball and shoot into the net a couple of times. It would certainly be something to tell my future kids”.

“I couldn’t imagine you with kids” Alison mocked.

“Well, I suppose there’s no harm” I said, ignoring Alison. “I’d better come with you though in case Fred has a tantram. Strictly five minutes though, Darren! I’ve got work to do”.

“Aww boss, you’re the best!”

I still had the football under my desk that had caused so much damage a few weeks ago. Now picking this up for the first time since that day, I headed to the door with Darren.

“I’m coming too” Caroline announced, getting up.

“Okay, but nobody else” I said, noticing Nicky stir in her seat. “I can’t take a procession of you out there. On with your work. We’ll be back in a few minutes, and before you feel hard done by, don’t forget that this is coming off Caroline and Darren’s lunch hour”.

A minute later we were out on the pitch. With a whoop of joy Darren grabbed the ball off me and sprinted towards the goal that had nets. Caroline and I remained close to the dugouts.

“Go on then, Caroline” I said. “Make your report. I know you’re dying to”.

“Well” she smiled. “I’ve got an idea, and what it entails is you humiliating Cyril by beating him in one of his death matches. What you need to do is go to a spy shop and buy a tiny little transmitter that fits in your ear. I’ve seen them on the TV show 24. Once that’s in your ear I’ll be able to hear all the questions you get faced in the death match. As soon as you hear a question, ponder it for a moment whilst I run around in the Luton archives searching for the answer. I could even use the internet in the office. Anyway, once I have the answer, I’ll tell you via the tiny receiver which goes in your other ear”.

“He’ll notice I’ve got those things in my ear, won't he?”

“I doubt it because they’re supposed to be really small and undetectable. Even if he does notice, just say they’re hearing aids. I doubt there’s any way he would even dream they would be receivers and transmitters”.

As I nodded in reluctant agreement, Darren blasted a right footed shot high into the roof of the net. Then he ran like an aeroplane in front of the empty stand and kissed the imaginary badge of his imaginary Luton Town shirt.

“Where can I find one of these spy shops?”

“In town. I’ve seen one”.

“And how much will this stuff cost me?”

“I don’t know. About a hundred pounds, around about. It’d be worth it though, don’t you think?”

In principal I wanted to protest, but the truth of the matter was that a hundred pounds for me is a drop in the ocean. I’m on £1300 per week now, and with my fairly low maintenance lifestyle, I find I can pretty much afford anything I want (within reason). This is in contrast to my life as a solicitor, where I’d been on just over £1300 a MONTH. That might sound low but it always is in the North of England.

“Okay, E-mail me the address of the place I need to go and I’ll look into it next time I’m in town”.

“Will do”.

Darren hit another shot, and this time it bounced off the post and came back. Down the other end of the pitch I suddenly noticed Fred pop up out of nowhere. He was carrying his pitchfork and staring at Darren as though an unwanted plague of wasps had just descended on the stadium.

“DON’T WORRY FRED” I shouted. “HE’S COMING OFF IN A MINUTE!”

Fred couldn’t hear me and began jogging as fast as he could towards Darren at the other end of the pitch, pitchfork menacingly clutched in his right hand.

“Jesus!” I said to Caroline. “This doesn’t look good”.

“Nope” she agreed.

“DARREN!” I shouted. “MAN ON! MAN ON!”

Darren had just been about the shoot again when he finally spotted Fred charging towards him.

"Oh!” I distinctly heard him say, and without even picking the ball up he ran back towards us. Fred meanwhile stopped on the penalty area semi circle to catch his breath, satisfied he had at least scared Darren off if not quite caught him.

“I think I’m done with my practice, boss!” Darren said as he reached us.

“Yes, I think you are. Nice goal, by the way. Invisible keeper got his hand to it, but couldn’t keep it out”.

“Thanks boss”.

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25/10/08, League Match 13 (Att - 4940)

Gillingham 1 (Oli 79)

Luton Town 0

Pre-match was more positive than last time out. Owusu, Martin, and McVeigh were fit again and I wasted no time putting them in the starting line-up. Men to make way were Talbot, Farthing, and Jarvis, as I welcomed back the 442 formation back with open arms. Talbot was under 90% fit anyway. I'm having real trouble at the moment getting people fit to play. Some players (for e.g Slusarski) are fit every single game without question. Others seem to need a game off between games so they can recover, a situation I find unacceptable at this level of football.

With this in mind I'm experimenting now with reducing everybody's training schedule by fifiteen minutes each time. I also want to install a rest day after matches, if possible. I'll have to look at the logistics of that.

After the debacle of our previous away game I wanted a much more solid start this time, that and no injuries. For a while I got both. We were nice and tight during the first period. Indeed I can only recall one scare of any real worth, a Gills striker somehow being allowed to dribble across the six yard box as defenders and goalkeeper alike furiously tried to tackle him. The ball ended up deflecting itself onto the post and before the tap-in could be applied, the whistle went for something. This was in and around the 15th minute.

For the rest of the half we recovered well, even if most of our forays forward came from corners. I was pleased to see the half time shot count level at 3-3. That might sound unambitious but we were away from home and on a poor run.

We started the second half on top, forcing yet more corners. We even came close from Slusarski, whose turn and shot on the edge of the area flashed just wide. Disaster came in the 67th minute, as Keane got injured and had to go off. Keane has been my midfield enforcer of late, and his departure here completely changed the game. I could only bring Jarvis on in his place and who just isn't in the same class.

Gillingham began to turn the screw, missing several good chances in as many minutes. In the79th minute, we finally broke away and enjoyed a good spell of possession close to their penalty area. The ball went to Martin but he dawdled, allowing himself to be robbed. One swift long ball later and substitute Oli was clean through. He held off a defender and slotted a lovely low finish across Brill into the far corner. Horrible to watch.

We couldn't retrieve the situation late on, although Slusarski did hit the side netting with a tame low shot. We had been beaten again and I'd be lying if I said it didn't hurt. This was our third game in a row where we hadn't even scored a goal. The final shot count finished 5-9 to the Gills. I've pretty much given up hope of staying up now. Even a decent string of wins won't get us anywhere near the safety line. From now on it's all about playing for my job and trying to do enough to ensure I at least get a crack at the Conference.

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27/10/08 - Brutal

Ever since my latest meeting with Dilic, I've been just waiting for a text or call pertaining to some horrible accident involving Steve Fairclough. The dreaded news finally earlier this evening as I was playing Oblivion on my Xbox. I’d just that very minute finishing slaying the head goblin of a secret underwater cave, when the call came through from Dave Wheelie.

“There’s been an accident” he said. “It involves your friend Steve Fairclough. The police just phoned the club to see if we know anything. Apparently he came conscious half an hour ago and said he thinks it was someone from the club who attacked him”.

“So he’s still alive?” I asked.

“Yeah, he’s over at Luton and Dunstable hospital but he’s under careful watch. He’s in a pretty bad way”.

I put the phone down and whipped on my jacket. I don’t know why I should have been so bothered given the way Steve had been treating me, but hey, four years of strong friendship doesn’t just die overnight, I guess.

To cut a long story short, I made my way to the hospital and obtained permission from reception to see Steve. It was late in the evening at this point and there weren’t many people around. Inside the room Steve was recovering in there was a solitary nurse writing something on a clipboard. I ignored her initially and ran my eyes over the sorry wreck lying on the bed. Steve appeared to be asleep (either that or unconsious again). He had an oxygen mask over his mouth and bruises all over his face.

“How bad is he?” I asked the nurse, a pretty young thing with aubern hair.

“Pretty bad” she replied. “Ruptured spleen, broken ribs, broken jaw, fractured pelvis, punctured lung, and a broken wrist. Even two of his teeth are missing - presumed lost”.

“Jesus” I said, sitting down next to the bed.

“The police were interviewing him earlier, just before he went back under again. He claims he was attacked by a man outside the bed and breakfast he’s been staying at”.

“Just one man?”

“Yes, a big bulky bald man according to Mr Fairclough”.

(Brute, I instantly thought).

“I see”.

“Anyway, he’s stable for now. I need to get back to my rounds. I’ll be circling the floor if you need anything”.

“Thanks, nurse”.

The nurse disappeared, leaving me to turn my attentions back to Steve.

“I’m sorry, Steve” I said. “This shouldn’t have happened. You did invite it on yourself to an extent though”.

I looked around the bedside for a pen and found one. Then I grabbed a piece of tissue. On it I wrote the following..

I’m sorry this happened. I hope they catch the guy who did it. As soon as you’re better, please go back to Leeds and be with your family. Right now I don’t know what else to say to you, Steve. Goodbye

On my way out of the flat earlier I’d written a cheque for £6000. I placed that now inside the piece of tissue and put it under Steve’s motionless hand. Then I stood up and prepared to leave.

“Sorry, mate. Cheerio”.

And with that I walked out.

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28/10/08, League Match 14 (Att - 5216)

Luton Town 1 (Gnakpa 36)

Grimsby Town 1 (Ranger 52)

A few minutes before the match was due to start, I noticed Alison in the crowd sitting quite close to where the dugouts are. After clearing it with the nearest steward I hopped over the railing and went to say hello. Of all my office staff, Alison is probably the only one I haven't gotten to know very well, so I thought this would be a nice gesture. It turned out she was here with her husband Paul, who seemed very taken aback and surprised that his wife knows the Luton boss.

Alison is thirty two (I found out the other day), but Paul looks a bit younger. Never the less, despite my slight 'oh typical!' feeling that comes with knowing Alison is off the market, I have to admit on first impressions they do look like a very happy couple.

I only made one change from the team that lost to Gillingham. Keane was out so I had to put Thorley in. There's no way Thorley was fully fit but it was either that or use Jarvis, who I really don't rate as a midfielder. Never the less, having a midfield duo of Asa Hall and the fitness-lacking Thorley didn't really fill me with confidence. Grimsby lined up with an intriguing formation that seemed to place a lot of emphasis on attacking down the centre of the park. I wonder if they opted for that purely because they knew the likes of Nicholls, Spring, and Keane would all be missing?

The first half was just as tepid and dull as the one at Gillingham. However it did produce a goal. Gnakpa always looks threatening from set pieces, and in the 36th minute he rose the highest to thump a header in for one-nil. The Mariners roared back after the break, quickly equalising and then for a while looking the most likely to grab a winner. I tweaked some of my 4.4.2 formations's finer details however and as a result the final fifteen minutes were more even. Slusarski missed a great chance, blasting over with just the keeper to beat. The game finished one-one and on the balance of play it was probably a fair result.

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October round-up

Premier League

Chelsea (25pts) still lead the way from Man Utd (22) and Arsenal (22). Tottenham (20) and Liverpool (20) seem to be fighting it out for fourth. This is more or less the way the bookies expected the top of the table to look like at this stage, perhaps with the one exception of Man City not being up there. The Multi-billionaires though seem to be taking some time to get their new stars to gel, drawing far too many matches and languishing in tenth place. Robin Van Persie of Arsenal tops the goalscoring charts with 8 league goals. Down at the bottom David Moyes is heavily under pressure at Goodison Park. Everton (8) are third from bottom just above Hull (5) and Stoke (5)

The Championship

This is another division finally beginning to sort itself out. Reading (29) top the pile with Ipswich (27), Bristol City (27), and Southampton (27) hot on their trails. Moneybags Wolves are doing a Man City and only achieving a mid-table berth thus far. Down at the bottom are QPR (11), Nottingham Forest (11) and Crystal Palace (8). A surprising trio there. I've already mentioned Palace in a previous update, but QPR are supposed to be a rich club these days (although Wolves out-spent them in the summer), and Forest fans must be up in arms over the possibility of yet another trip down to League One. Plenty of time to go though.

League One

Leeds (29) are still on top now but it's not the cakewalk I thought it might be once they'd won their first five league games. The Elland Road outfit have lost three times now and are being closely pursued by Oldham (28) and Millwall (28). In sixth place reside the improving Leicester (22). Down at the bottom are Cheltenham (13), Brighton (12), Hereford (9), and Bristol Rovers (9). No major surprises there, although Hereford must be improving because they only had two points at the end of September.

League Two

Shrewsbury (31) are six points clear now and odds-on favourites to win the league. Port Vale (25), Rochdale (25), and Exeter (25) all occupy the next three spots. The less said about the bottom of the table the better. I really have given up hope. We'd still be in the relegation zone even if everybody had started on the same amount of points!

Rotherham (14)

Chesterfield (13)

Wycombe (13)

Chester City (6)

------------------------

Bournemouth (0)

Luton Town (-17)

Blue Square Premier

They're getting excited at Boothem Crescent, where York City (31) are eyeing a return to the football league. Desperate to stop them are a whole bunch of other ex-football league clubs - Kidderminster (28), Torquay (28), Oxford (28), and Rushden and Diamonds (27). At the foot of the table, Mansfield (17) are fourth bottom, and manager Billy Mckeown looks very insecure there. In even more trouble are Lewes (16), Eastbourne (13) and Forest Green (11). They're been flirting with relegation for years at The Lawn, always seeming to stay up one way or the other. I wonder if this time they might finally bite the bullet.

Blue Square North

There's a very much a Yorkshire theme at the top of this league, Farsley Celtic (26) and Harrogate (24) proudly flying the white rose flag. Occupying the remaining playoff spots are Stafford (21), Gateshead (21), and Hinckley (21). However, Hyde (21) are banging furiously on the door.

Blue Square South

St Albans (26) lead the way with surprise package Fisher (23) occupying second. The playoffs are mostly full of clubs you would fully expect to be challenging for promotion - Bishop's Stortford (22), AFC Wimbledon (22), and Chelmsford (22). Just outside the playoffs are Hampton and Richmond (22).

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29/10/08 - Massacre at Twin Humps

Brian and I were so depressed down The Hatters Arms this evening we decided not to even bother talking about football. We’re out of ideas when it comes to improving Luton’s fortunes. The only plan we have now is - 'let’s wait until Nicholls and Keane get back in and see if that helps'. Not great is it? As an alternative topic I told Brian about the incident involving Steve Fairclough. To my slight surprise, Brian appeared very passionately annoyed about this. He hates the idea of his football club being run through fear.

“If you’re sure it was this Brute character who did for Steve then I say we confront Brute ourselves and let him know it’s just not on”.

“I don’t know about that, Brian. The son of a b_tch is huge. I really don't think we wanna be messing with him”.

We were stood at the bar tonight. Our moods were so rotten we couldn’t even be bothered walking over to our usual spot in the corner. We both wanted to be right here at the bar where there was quick and easy access to more alcohol. Months of injuries and poor results had finally taken its toll.

As is often the case at The Hatters Arms, we weren’t the only people here from the football club. Nicky was at one of the tables, sat with who I could only presume was a friend of. They were both dressed to the eyeballs perhaps with a trip to a nightclub in mind. Nicky had a shiny black dress on that showed a lot more of her body than I reckoned her mother would be comfortable with.

“That Nicky’s sat over there” Brian said, turning his back to the bar. It was as if he'd guessed my thoughts.

“Yeah I know. She looks tasty tonight doesn’t she?”

“That friend of hers isn’t bad too”.

“Anyway Brian, look, if you really want to confront Brute then I guess I’ll do it with you. However, we do it in daylight and we do it with other people around. I don’t want to get beaten up. Oh, and we remain polite to him too. I don’t want Dilic getting word we’ve been going around having a go at his people. We'll have a quiet word, nice and polite, and then leave it at that".

“That’s fine” my assistant replied, struggling to turn his eyes away from Nicky and her friend. “What kind of a name is Brute anyway?”

At that moment Gav the barman glanced at me sharply and stopped what he was doing.

“Are you talking about Brute, the big bald guy who occasionally comes in here?”

“I presume they're one and the same, yeah. I didn’t know he came in here though. Know anything about him?”

“Too much!” answered Gav, and this was enough to finally wrestle Brian’s attention away from Nicky’s legs.

“What do you know?”

“Well, the other night there was this random old Serbian guy in here - said he did odd jobs for Dilic now and again. He sat over at the corner end of the bar drinking by himself. Anyway, it was a slow night so me and him got talking, and the conversation came onto that guy Brute”.

“Go on” Brian said, draining his pint of Guinness.

“Well” Gav continued. “Apparently, before he came to England, Dilic used to be the chairman of a club in Serbia called Hajduk Radic. Apparently there was a huge match-fixing scandal there which was part of the reason he eventually felt compelled to leave the country. The captain of the first team and several other players bet large sums of money on themselves to lose a couple of games, and as is usually the way with these things, eventually it all came out that they’d done it. Anyway, the club was fined large amounts of money and docked points etc, and the players and staff involved were all given various suspensions and suspended jail terms. It really hit Dilic’s reputation hard".

“What did he do about it?” I asked.

“Nothing. He forgave everybody involved with the match rigging. He let them serve out their bans, and then once they’d done that, he let them carry on with their club roles. The captain, who was the ringleader of all the match-rigging, was even allowed to carry on as the club captain”.

“See!” Brian smirked. “I told you Dilic was all bark and no bite. Piranha fish? Give me a break! He just likes to make out he’s threatening when he’s not”.

“BUT - ” Gav interrupted. “A month or so later, just when everything appeared to be back to normal around, something even more incredible happened”.

“What?” me and Brian asked in tandem.

“Well, next to the stadium of this particular club is a large field, and beyond that, a pub. In English the name of the pub apparently translates as Twin Humps. Anyway, apparently it was the done thing after home games for most of the staff and players to make their way over to this pub and enjoy a few pints to wind down, a bit like some of the Luton mob do here at The Hatters Arms. Anyway, the old guy who told me this story – his name was Luca by the way – was apparently inside Twin Humps the night of the Twin Humps Massacre”.

Brian and I exchanged a quizzical look and then turned back to Gav, completely captivated. Meanwhile, Nicky and her equally hot blonde friend were walking out of the pub. Some of the locals wolf-whistled as they did so.

"What, pray tell, was the Twin Humps Massacre?"

"Well" said Gav, slinging his little cloth over one shoulder. "I'll tell you".

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Forthcoming fixtures in November

Aldershot (away), 01/11/08 - League

Brentford (away), 04/11/08 - Johnstone's Paint Trophy Last 16

Northampton (home), 08/11/08 - FA Cup Round 1

Lincoln City (home), 15/11/08 - League

Rochdale (away), 22/11/08 - League

Morecambe (home), 25/11/08 - League

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29/10/08 - Massacre at Twin Humps (part 2)

Having briefly left us to go serve a customer, Gav returned and continue with the tale.

"One evening, when various players and staff of Hajduk Radic were sat inside the pub, the door suddenly opened and in walked the biggest brick s__thouse of a Serbian anybody had ever seen. And from the moment he entered, nobody knew quite what to make of him”.

“Brute” said Brian.

“Shush” I said. “Let him tell the story"

“Yes. Brute” confirmed Gav. “Not that Luca or any of the Rajuk players and staff knew his name or who he was. In fact, the most noticable thing about him to begin with, aside from his sheer size, was the thing Brute was carrying under his arm – some kind of tennis bag”.

“You know, I found a tennis ball in Dilic’s office the first time I was up there” I added.

“Well anyway, Brute walked up to the bar with this tennis bag and sat it on the stool beside him as if it was his girl. Then he leaned forward over the bar and started interrogating the barman. Luca couldn’t hear what was being said, but before he knew it, the things Brute was saying to the barman were starting to get the watching players and staff rather wound up, especially when Brute said something like errr Mackic, or Markic, which I believe was the team captain’s second name”.

“Might be Darko Markovic” Brian said. “Four caps for the old Serbia and Montenegro”.

“Anyway” Gav said, handing me a fresh beer. “At this point the players and staff realised that this strange character with the tennis bag had hostile intentions towards at least one and maybe all of them. So, without further word, five of them surrounded Brute and prepared to take him down”.

“They just assumed he had hostile intentions?”

“Well, remember, most or all of them had been involved in the match rigging scandal. They'd long feared some kind of reprisal from either Dilic or a fanatical segment of the club’s fanbase, and quite rightly they figured this was it right here and now. They might have been surprised to see just one man enter their territory, but it was what it was and collectively they seem to agree that Brute needed taking down before he could take them down”.

“Okay, go on”.

“So like I said, five of them surrounded Brute. However, before they could so much as move a muscle, Brute suddenly realised what was going on and exploded into life. He karate chopped one guy in the neck. Then he picked another guy up and threw him over the bar, smashing all the shot bottles on the wall, not to mention puncturing the unlucky victim’s eyeball at the same time. Suddenly scumbag footballers were flying all over the place as Brute dished out his very own brand of UEFA justice. He smashed one guy down so hard over the pub's pool table, the table actually split itself down the middle”.

“Jesus” said Brian.

“Yep. Before Luca could even begin to absorb the madness unfolding in front of him, Brute had taken out five guys with his bare hands”.

“So then what happened?”

“Well, after that there was a second wave of attackers, but after what had happened to the first wave, they weren’t about to go up against Brute unarmed. So, they all dipped into their sports bags and began pulling out guns and knives and what-have-you”.

“They had sports bags?” I asked.

“Yeah, well remember, they’d had a match earlier that day. I suppose it makes sense they would have gone to the pub with sports bags filled with football boots and kits etc”.

“And these sports bags just happened to have weapons in them too?”

“Yeah well remember this is Serbia we’re talking about. It’s a warzone. According to Luca, it’s perfectly normal for even civilians to carry weapons over there. Anyway, so the second wave all pulled these guns out, and suddenly Brute was facing a big problem”.

“So what did he do?”

“Before anybody could get a shot off, Brute dived into his tennis bag and pulled out a couple of magnums. He then started firing at will, blasting holes in footballers all around the room. Blood was spilling everywhere".

“Are you telling me not one of the football squad managed to shoot Brute during all this? I thought some of them had guns too”.

“They did, but Brute was too fast! He dived this way and that as he was shooting, and nobody could hit him. Eventually the place was full of dead bodies and the only two people left alive, apart from Brute, was the team's assistant manager – not one of the match fixing rat pack - and Luca himself. At this point, Brute surveyed the scene and then began to walk menacingly towards Luca”.

“Did he shoot him?” I asked, immediately feeling stupid.

“Obviously not, dummy, or he wouldn’t have lived to tell the tale! Tell you the truth, Brute might well have shot Luca, but instead he turned his attention back to club left back Petr Boskavic, who was down on the floor wounded but showing signs of life. Anyway, Brute shot him again, packed up his tennis bag, threw some money at the assistant manager to pay for all the damage, and then walked out”.

“So the assistant manager lived?” Brian smirked. “Well that’s reassuring if the same set of circumstances ever happens in this pub! Haha”.

“BUT - ” Gav interrupted. “As Brute neared the door, the assistant manager leapt for one of the stray handguns lying on the ground. Brute was wise to it. In the blink of an eye he'd turned round and whipped a pen knife out from a hidden pocket in his jacket. Before the assistant manager could get a shot away, Brute threw the pen knife and it went straight up the assistant manager’s nose, killing him indefinitely. Apparently, the guy who later did the autopsy said the pen knife had gone straight up one nostril and lodged itself half in the nose and half in the brain. Whether or not Brute intended this moment of unnerving accuracy is unknown. You could always ask him though, I mean, when you confront him”.

I sensed Brian shuffle uncomfortably in the seat next to me.

“You know what?” he said, turning to look at me. “I’m thinking in the interests of harmony, we could let Brute off the hook just this once. What do you say, James?"

"Yeah I'm down with that" I said, drinking up.

"Cool".

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01/11/08, League Match 15 (Att - 3267)

Aldershot 1 (Grant 22)

Luton Town 0

This was a woeful performance, and yet again it seems we’ve got no chance of winning a match whilst our best midfielders are out. The good news is, Keane and Nicholls should only be out for one or two more games, even if Spring won't be back for another three months.

The team for this particular game was the same as against Grimsby, with a still unfit Thorley having another disinterested time of it in the centre of midfield alongside the keen but technically insufficient Asa Hall. As far as the former is concerned, he can forget it if he thinks he’ll ever make it at Stoke City. He’s got a lot going for him but he’s lazy and he’s really not taken his chance since coming here. I can’t see much of a future in the professional game for him. What a waste of talent! The lad can’t even get himself properly fit.

Anyway, back to the match review. The Shots went straight on the attack in the first minute, Davies blasting wide as my defence backed off and backed off. Then in the 7th minute arrived a minor miracle, a Luton Town opportunity. The ball broke to Talbot at a slightly difficult angle, but his firm low shot was well blocked by the goalkeeper. It was a good chance and the only one we would get in the whole match. After that the home side went on the rampage, finding space time and time again behind our backline. Eventually we caved, Grant firing low inside the post to make it one-nil.

We were 1-6 down on shots at the interval so I firmly told the team I wanted to see more from them. I also tweaked our line-up to make it slightly more aggressive and attacking. The reaction I got was non-existent, and that’s very disappointing. The only team who went on the attack after the break were Aldershot. Indeed after an hour they seemed happy to just shut up shop and wait for the final whistle. We barely created a thing in retaliation as the match just ticked itself away far too easily. We were absolutely toothless going forward. Toothless.

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03/11/08 - Dreams and gadgets

My dreams were vivid leading to this day. For some reason I was on Big Brother with Alison and Nicky. We were the last three people left in the house. As a reward for completing a task, Big Brother was letting us all have an hour in the garden hot-tub with the camaras off. As the three of us began to strip off, I reckoned things were definitely about to get interesting. And Nicky was smiling that smile.

Suddenly the dream changed. I don't know how it happened but I was whisked to some kind of western town. People were firing guns at me and I had to duck and dive all over the place. The actor Antonio Bandares was there, and he started to help me. He had a guitar case full of guns and he was letting me use some of them. Now don't get me wrong, this was all good fun, but I really wanted to get back to Big Brother. I had unfinished business in the hot-tub!

As I suddenly woke up with a start, I saw on my alarm clock it wasn't even 7am. I wasn't going back to sleep now though. I had something to check out. To do so, I needed to get to my DVD collection. Slipping my dressing gown on, I headed over to the bookshelf in the corner. I knew what I was looking for - It was a film called Desperado. Once I had it, I took it back to bed and popped the disc in the player on top of the bedside table. I wasn't going to watch the whole film. I just wanted to see the first scene. There was something I had to check.

Three hours later I arrived in Luton Town Centre. I'd earmarked this afternoon as the free time I would allow for chasing down the gadgets Caroline had suggested using against Cyril. I had something else to do first however. I needed to call Brian, and I reckoned it was now late enough in the morning to do it.

"You just woke me up!" he said on the other end of the phone.

"Listen Brian, I need to tell you something about the whole Gav and Brute thing".

"Okay, go ahead".

"Well, I didn't know what was bugging me at the time but I've finally figured it out. Anyway, to cut a long story short, the story Gav told might not be real. I think it was lifted from a film".

"Eh?"

"I know it sounds crazy, but I've got this film on DVD where a guy walks into a bar and starts telling the barman this story about how this other guy shot up another bar somewhere using a combination of brute force, no pun intended, and heavy firepower. Have you seen it? It's called Desperado. It's got Antonio Banderas in it".

"Can't say I have".

"Well anyway, the first scene in this movie is scarily like the situation we were in the other night. Gav even phrased a lot of his story based on actual phrases from the scene in the film. He just changed a few names around to suit his own ends".

"So what are you saying?" Brian asked. "Do you think this Twin Humps stuff is nonsense?"

"Well that's the interesting part" I replied, walking past a Mcdonalds and feeling my stomach rumble. My battery was getting low so I really needed to hurry this up.

"Go on".

"Well, after I was done checking out that scene from the film, I went online. Apparently this Twin Humps thing is real. It happened just over a year ago. The only thing is, nobody ever found out who did it. The police were bamboozled. So with that in mind we're left with quite a few permutations here, none of which make much sense".

"And what are those?" Brian asked. I could hear his kids making waves about Breakfast in the background. The way I felt right now, I had sympathy for them. I was hungry too.

"Well, one explanation could be that Gav loves Desperado and simply tailored the story he heard from Luca to fit one of his favourite scenes from the movie. Another more sinister explanation though could be that Luca doesn't exist and that Gav simply made the story up, perhaps because he's on Dilic's payroll and has been instructed to scare people away from with his operations. Me and you announcing we were going to confront Brute would fall right into that category".

Brian paused on the other end. He didn't seem to know what to say.

"What do you think is the mostly likely of those two?" he asked.

"I don't know. I suggest though we refrain from talking about our business in front of Gav for the time being, just in case it's the option where it turns out he works for Dilic".

"Okay, I suppose you're right. I'll tell you what though - ".

I never got to find out what the 'what' was. It couldn't have been very important because by the time I got home and charged my phone up, there were no messages waiting for me.

The purchasing of the ear technology was surprisingly routine. I found the shop Caroline was on about just a bit further down the road from where I'd phoned Brian. It was devoid of any other customers when I arrived, which meant I could be seen straight away. I must admit, it's incredible the stuff you can buy on the high street these days. You name it, this shop has got it!- Spy phones, night vision goggles, lock picks, surveillance machines, covert cameras, and all sorts of other cool stuff.

I almost felt like James Bond when I walked out of the shop with my '2009 X-version Ear drum Stealth Communications Set' (a bit of a mouthful, admittedly). I haven't been as enthusiastic as Caroline since the dawning of this whole idea, but now the tools for the job are actually in my possession, I'm really starting to warm to the thought of the fun and games ahead. As for Gav, well, I just cant be sure. I don't know him that well and neither does Brian. I just didn't know. It's very mysterious indeed.

What had actually happened at Twin Humps? Maybe we'll never really know.

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Thanks Eide. I'm glad you like it :)

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04/11/08 - Drunken Dave

As I arrived at the office this morning I saw Darren pacing up and down in the corridor outside. Judging by the way he seemed to be talking to himself, I came to the conclusion he was mucking about with the ear drum communications set (I'd brought it into the office yesterday to show Caroline and ended up leaving it with her).

"I copy you Nicky" Darren said, putting one hand to his ear. I quickly hugged the wall on his blind side so he couldn't see me.

"No, the bomb is NOT in the corridor. I repeat the bomb is NOT in the corridor. Awaiting further instructions, over".

As Darren seemed to pause whilst he waited for 'further instructions', I crept slowly away from the wall and sneaked up behind him.

"I'll tell you what the new instructions are" I said loudly, in doing so making Darren nearly jump out of his skin. "They're to get back inside there and do some work before you get fired".

"Sorry boss" Darren said, pulling the receiver and transmitter out from his ears.

The two of us went inside the office, where Nicky was sat at her desk still wearing the corresponding head set. Her sheepish grin said it all. It wasn't the first time over the past twenty four hours I'd had to stop people messing around with the ear drum kit.

"You two - by the time I boot my computer up I want that equipment boxed back up again and put in Caroline's drawer. The next person, or persons, caught messing around with the ear drum kit will get a incur geat wrath".

"But boss!" Darren said, as he headed over to Caroline. "When are you going to have the death match against Cyril? I can't wait".

"When I know, you'll know".

I was intent on checking my E-mails this morning, but not to find out about when I'd be facing Cyril. Primarily I wanted to find out if Wigmore Primary School had got back to me with a new date for seeing the kids. I was looking forward to Cyril more than the kids, but Dilic had instructed me to make the Wigmore thing top priority, so naturally I was anxious to get that sorted out ahead of anything else. Thankfully, as of this morning, they had responded.

Dear Mr Martin

Re : Your request to take another lesson

I am pleased to inform you your request has been approved. You have been allocated a timeslot for the same class from 2pm-3pm on 13/11/09. However, in light of the events that occurred on your previous trip, we have decided that next time at least one teacher shall sit in on your class at all times. Please respond to this message as soon as possible to confirm both your attendance on the 24th and your approval of the condition suggested.

Yours sincerely

William Burke

Headmaster

Wigmore Primary School

That was fine by me so I replied straight away. I actually preferred the idea of having a teacher present. It made me feel reassured there would be no repeat of the Arsenal singalong. The E-mail from Wigmore had actually been the fourth one down in my inbox, but I'd felt compelled to read that first for reasons explained above. Now though I moved back to the E-mail at the top of the pile, and this was one I just knew Darren would be happy I'd received so quickly. It was from Cyril. This mail was far less formal than the one from Wigmore. In fact it was positively informal by comparison.

Hello there James.

I can't believe you actually want to face me in a death match! Are you serious? Quite frankly I'd tell you I'm too busy to play, but as it'll become one more win towards my goal of 200 (and a very easy one at that), I suppose I might as well indulge you. I've got quite a lot to do over the next few weeks, but how about Monday 18th november, at 11am?

Lee will be the referee for the match and will thus be setting the questions. Do you want me to ask him to drop one or two easy ones in there for you, just so you don't get whitewashed? How about "What is the colour of Luton Town's home strip?" You wouldn't mess that one up surely? Seriously, I don't mean to take the Michael, but you've got more chance of keeping us in League 2 for next season than beating me in a deathmatch (and that's saying something!). Still, have it your way. See you down at the port-a-cabin on the 11th. If you don't turn up, I'll just presume you've either bottled it or simply come to your senses.

Ciao for now.

Cyril

The smarmy little git! I really hope the plans works, I really do. I can't wait to see the look on his face if it does!

Before I could look at the next E-mail, Nicky came to my desk with a freshly brewed cup of coffee. Brenda usually gets my coffee so this was a turn-up.

"Nicky, you don't need to atone for messing around with the ear drum kit".

"No, it's not because of that".

"But it is because of something?"

"Well, yeah" she said, putting the coffee down and posititioning herself close to me. It was clear she didn't want the rest of the office to hear what she wanted to say.

"What is it?"

"Well, I was wondering if you could have a word with Dave for me. I was out with a couple of friends last night, and Dave was there at the bar, and - well - he started chatting to me, which was fine, but he was really really drunk, and he was smoking when the barman had told him not to. Anyway, after that he asked me out and I said I wasn't interested, but later he wandered over and sat with us and it was really awkward. Then he asked me out again and put his hand on my leg. In the end we all just got up and left. It was really embarrassing. HE is embarrassing. It's embarrassing enough when he wears his daft suits and those stupid big glasses, but when he's drunk it's even worse. I shouldn't have to talk to him when I'm out just because he's technically my boss at work. I don't even see him at work hardly".

Nicky finally paused and I was able to get a word in.

"Okay, enough said. I'll sort it".

"Are you sure you don't mind? I mean I don't mean to - ".

"Nicky!" I said. "I'll handle it. Go and sit down".

She looked at me for a moment and then nodded her head. Then she walked off.

"Thanks for the coffee I appreciate it" I called out to the back of her head.

I needed time to think about the antics of Mr Wheelie but now was not it. First there were the rest of these E-mails to get through, not that the next one on the list was in any way useful.

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They wouldn't be getting any money off me. My fourth and final E-mail this morning was from Erica, the club accountant who had given me so much grief over the handling of Spring and Edworthy.

Hi James.

In light of how harsh I was towards you during our meeting the other week, I just wanted to say how appreciative I am that you seem to have taken on board my advice regarding player wages on. The fact that you haven't renewed the short term loan deals of Adrian Leijer, Tom Thorley, and Jonny Rowell, has knocked almost 2k off our current weekly wage expenditure. The total we're spending is roughly 36K instead of 38K. Whilst still being quite some distance past your 30K limit, the aforementioned personel decisions are at least a step in the right direction.

Erica

Club accountant

Luton Town Football Club

And that wrapped things up for this morning. I wasn't bothered about Thorley and Rowell but losing Leijer was a pity. Ian Roper has now come back into the side in his place.

----------------

04/11/08, Johnstone's Paint Trophy Last 16 Round (Att - 2608)

Brentford 0

Luton Town 0

(Brentford win 5-4 on penalties)

In the match against Aldershot we managed just three shots on goal the whole game. If I thought that was as bad as it could get I was wrong. Tonight we had just TWO shots, both of them off target. We seem completely incapable of attacking and creating any kind of opportunities. We’ve now scored just one goal in six games and the situation is completely desperate. We lost this match 2-10 on shots and quite frankly we were ruddy lucky to get a crack at the penalty shootout.

Not at any point did we look threatening. We even suffered yet another wretched injury just before half time when Owusu went off. He’ll now be out for almost a month, not that he’s been particularly useful recently. I think the second half was the worst. For the final half an hour of it we were under the cosh ALL the time. Despite tactical changes and an uplifting half time teamtalk, we just couldn’t get out of our own half.

I just don’t know where goals are going to come from at the moment. The two loan strikers, Slusarski and Martin, look like they just don’t want to be here. The other two strikers, both of whom are genuine Luton players (Parkin and Talbot), simply aren’t good enough. I don’t have the slightest confidence they can muster even one goal between them.

The penalties were all ruthlessly efficient until Gnakpa stepped up to take the tenth of the shootout. He needed to score to take it to sudden death but unluckily hit the inside of the post with his low right footed shot. I’m not that bothered about going out of the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy, but the manner of the performance is truly worrying. There’s no cohesion, no effort, no teamwork, no fight, no desire, nothing. It’s just eleven players waiting for the inevitable relegation (and probably inevitable sacking).

----------------

07/11/08 - East Side Dojo

I was walking through the high street this afternoon when I came across a place called East Side Dojo. I figured it had to be some kind of martial arts centre but it was hard to tell from outside because the tiling on the windows was thick and blurry. Curiosity getting the better of me, I took some time out of my shopping schedule to wander in and take a closer look. Once inside I found myself in a large room with a wooden floor. There were almost two dozen people in here, and from the way they were dressed in all-white karate uniforms, I guessed straight away they were the dojo's students.

At the moment they were all busy punching and kicking the air around them, crying things like "Hi!" and "Yah!". At the front of the room was a man distinct from everybody else because his uniform was a light shade of blue. He was pacing slowly up and down like a drill sergeant watching everyone else go through their paces. Nobody seemed to notice I'd just walked in and that suited me fine.

After two or three minutes, the light blue guy clapped his hands and everyone seemed to take this as the signal to pack up for the day. Without a word to each other they hurried to the side of the room and got changed back into normal clothes. Everyone that is except light blue, who remained where he was and instead looked over at me. I wanted to walk out at this point but something held me back. There was something about light blue's stare that seemed to grab hold of me and make me walk towards him instead, almost as if I was being telepathically lassoed.

"You look lost, my friend".

"I guess I am, a little bit" I said by reply, thinking of Luton's current plight.

"Lost In Luton town centre, or in life itself?"

"Mostly life".

"Then you came to the right place. Come! Let us talk".

He gestured me over to the opposite side of the room from the students. There was a small table over here with an oriental themed teapot and a matching set of cups.

"My names is Bear. What is your name?"

"James".

"James?" he repeated. "Pah! A western name. I do not permit western names in my dojo. From now on, whilst you're here, I give you new name - Skunk".

"Skunk?" I said, not sure if he was serious.

"Yes. Skunk. The skunk may be a creature of humour to most westerners, but in my culture it is a symbol of great skill and survivalistic mastery".

"I see".

It's hard to describe Bear. I'd say he's about forty but that's the easy part. I've had a much harder time guessing his nationality. For all that he bangs on about western things as if they're completely foreign, I would say he looks at least a little bit western himself, that and maybe half Asian. Maybe he's one of those people who has one parent from one continent and another from a different one? I speculate on this now because I certainly couldn't broach the issue back at the dojo. Bear has distinctly brown skin too, but this doesn't help me much. His accent sounds slightly foreign and yet he's extremely fluent in English. Much more so than Dilic anyway.

"You wish to join the dojo then?" Bear asked me.

"No, I don't think it would be my cup of tea" I replied. "My problems in life are more - tactical - than physical".

He flashed me a quizzical look at this so I figured I might as well at least partially explain. All the students meanwhile had finished getting changed and left. It was just me and Bear.

"Look, I'm the manager of Luton Town Football Club. The team is bottom of the football league and we can't buy a win from anywhere. I'm struggling to motivate players. I'm struggling to convince fans I'm the right man for the job. I'm struggling to get tactics right for matches. I even got hauled in front of an F.A panel recently for kicking a water bottle. Part of me wonders if I should just go back to being a solicitor before it gets worse".

"Your problems are largely psychological, not tactical" Bear replied without hesitation. "However, you're in luck. At this dojo we hone mental strength just as much as physical strength".

Turning away from me he slowly began to practice some of his moves, twisting his wrists and poking his feet at imaginary opponents. He looked like a cross between Steven Seagal and Mr Miyagi.

"The human mind is a fascinating sphere of often unrealised potential" he continued, persisting with his practice at the same time. "With the right discipline and strength of character, a man can overcome incredible odds he never thought possible. In the battle between ninja's, the untold connection between the warring pairs of eyes is often more decisive to the outcome than the correlating skill sets. Your own battles may not be on a physical plane, Skunk. However to succeed you must hone and sharpen your mental properties like a midwife sharpens utensils. I can help you with this".

"No, really, I've got a lot of shopping to get on with today and - "

"Silence!" Bear shouted, holding his hand up in my direction. "You must stay and learn. Your honour demands it".

He moved over to a slightly ajar door at the side of the room and clapped his hands. From within came an old man wearing a purple karate uniform. I wondered if this meant he was even harder than Bear, but the more sensible side of me doubted it.

"This is Eagle. He will help with today's demonstration. Eagle got his name from the manner in which he often used to glide effortlessly around his opponents before swooping down for the kill when they got tired".

Judging by the inclusion of the words used to in that sentence, I guessed that Eagle's body no longer leant itself well to gliding and swooping. The purple uniform surely had to be an honourary thing.

"In light of what you told me about the bottle-kicking incident, today's lesson will focus on the concept of never showing your opponent weakness. Eagle and myself will demonstrate with a fight".

Bear and Eagle moved into the centre of the room and faced each other a couple of yards apart. Then they bowed, or least Bear did. Eagle only managed to bend himself halfway down before going "oh!" and reaching behind himself to clutch his back. They still carried on with the fight though. Bear quickly began to circle around Eagle looking to threaten with some of those curly wrist movements he'd been practicing earlier. Eagle on the other hand, obviously possessing little or no speed anymore, merely circled around on the spot as if waiting for the thunder to hit.

Very soon, it came. Bear hit Eagle really hard in the chest with a flat-handed pokey kind of punch that made Eagle go "Oh!" again. Then the circling continued, perhaps as Bear searched for another easy way through the defences. More attacks followed. Most of them were from Bear but Eagle did roll back the years with one or two of his own. Never the less, I got the distinct impression Bear had been going easy since the beginning, and after five more minutes of sparring they finally called it a day.

"Eagle, my friend" said Bear, as they both walked towards me. "Please open up your uniform and show Skunk your chest".

Eagle did as he was told, parting his robes just enough so I could see the spot Bear wanted me to see. I literally couldn't believe my eyes! Eagle had a wound the size of an apple just to the left of his belly button! It was all bloody and mucky, and now that it was no longer being shored up by a tight karate uniform, was starting to bleed badly.

"Eagle, go bandage that up" said Bear, then turned to me. "He sustained that wound from the very first punch I gave him during the bout. Did you see him hesitate though, or call for a timeout, or scream in agony, or dare I say it, kick the nearest water bottle in frustration?".

"Nope" I said, as Eagle finally let out some screams of pain from the adjoining room.

"Exactly. He showed no weakness. If he had screamed and stuttered during the fight, his opponent would have sensed death and gone in for the kill. By doing what Eagle did though, his opponent could easily have become demoralised at the thought such a hard hit might not have harmed him at all. The opponent may then have tried to over-reach himself with an even harder attack, at which point Eagle could have countered. Does this make sense to you, Skunk?"

It did make sense, but I still didn't see how it would help me in the dugout. Bear seemed to guess my thoughts. He was good at that.

"I do not pretend to understand your football world" he said. "But the principal works in all forms of life. NEVER show your opponent weakness. Never make him think he knows how to frustrate you. Never make him think he has beaten you. Never make him think he can grind you down. Once you put on that front and put it on consistantly, you will find attacks on your name and character will come less often, whether they be from your colleagues, journalists, or even this F.A you speak of. The man who never shows weakness makes it hard for an opponent to find his weakness".

I understood a bit better now, even if Eagle seriously sounded like he was dying in the other room. I knew I would certainly have a lot to chew on as I made my way home.

"Thanks, Bear".

Sensing the lesson was over, I reached into my pocket and pulled out my wallet, intent on giving Bear some money for his time. Indeed I'd half pulled a twenty pound note from within when Bear put his hand gently on mine and stopped me.

"No no, Skunk" he said. "The East Side Dojo is strictly a not-for-profit organisation. It would go completely against our prinicipals if I was to accept your currency".

I began to slip the note back into my wallet. Before I could finish however Bear spoke again, and this time he held the palm of his hand out as he did so.

"We do however accept twenty pound donations to keep the Dojo running".

I pulled the twenty out again and handed it over.

"Well, it's been fun" I said, walking towards the door. As I did, I could hear yet more wails and groans from Eagle in the other room. He sounded like he was howling at the moon.

"Farewell, Skunk. Return for another lesson anytime you wish".

"Will do".

----------------

08/11/08, FA Cup Round 1 (Att - 7003)

Luton Town 0

Northampton Town 0

After this result I can tell you we have now scored just once in seven games. Our problems up front are killing our season. The strikers aren't firing and we're not getting any help from the midfield. Halfway through the second half today our fans started singing the old song - You couldn't score in a brothel, no doubt prompted partly because we only had three shots all match (all of which were way off target). This is in addition to the three shots we had against Aldershot recently and the two we mustered against Brentford. That's eight shots in three games, and only one of those was on target.

Tactically it's hard to know what's wrong. We're playing 4.4.2 and all the players are in their natural positions (except the wingers, who are perhaps being asked to play slightly deeper than what they would prefer, but that's the confines of a 4.4.2 for you). Any deviations I've made from 4.4.2 just haven't worked. The final shot count in this match was 3-10, which correctly outlines the League One side's superiority. However, most of their shots weren't from particularly good chances, and I have to say that even if the attacking portion of my team isn't playing well, the defensive portion certainly is.

Things could be worse. We could be getting beat 3 or 4 nil every week. The fact is, we're not. If I could only get us scoring a few goals we might be quite good. It's almost easy to forget this was an FA Cup match, perhaps because we were playing league opposition. I certainly don't remember much edge to proceedings. The atmosphere was just as dismal as its been every week since I took charge. A lucky draw perhaps, but I suppose it's nice to at least be in the hat for the next round.

Oh, and just in case Bear was watching, I didn't break my face the whole time we were being dominated.

----------------

08/11/08 - FA Cup house party

I organised a boy's night at my flat for the evening after the game with Northampton. My original intention had been to only invite Brian and Darren, but as I still had that promise to keep for Nicky, I decided at the last minute to extend the guest list for Dave Wheelie's benefit. I thought I would probably get a chance at some stage to have a quiet word with him away from the other two.

I was taking a chance here because I doubt Dilic would have liked the idea of me holding a mini party in the same flat which would soon be getting passed to his daughter. And who is one of the few people who gets to report straight to Dilic? One answer would be Dave Wheelie. Having said that, if Nicky's story was true then Dave was secretly a keen drinker and would surely relish the idea of a few beers and a get together.

I was right. Dave accepted the offer mere minutes after I'd sent him the text, and it will probably come as less of a surprise to hear that Brian and Darren also accepted. So, between 8 and 8.30pm the three of them all staggered around to the flat with various four packs and six packs and shot bottles and Pringles and all the rest of it.

The appearance of Dave almost knocked me sideways because for the first time ever I was seeing him in casual clothes. He'd ditched his trademark suit in exchange for light blue jeans and a smart polo shirt. Even his personality seemed different. Where as in business he always seems to be nervous and sweating, here he was smiling and appeared at ease with himself.

Once everyone had arrived we sat around on the living room floor and merrily chewed the fat. We had X-Factor on in the background but mostly we just talked. We talked about football, women, Luton, all sorts. We even talked about Dilic. The four of us hadn't socialised all together before but everyone got on extremely well. By the time Match of the Day came on at half past ten we were all well on our way to being drunk.

"Do you think we'll be one of the main matches?" Dave asked.

"No chance" I said. "We probably would have heard about it already if we were. Besides, they never show matches between League one and League two clubs. It's always games between league clubs and the non-league clubs, and usually they prefer the non-league club to be at home so there's more chance of an upset".

"They always conveniently get it right too" Brian chipped in with. "Whenever I've watched an early round Match of the Day, it always seems to be an upset. It makes me think the commentator doesn't actually go to the game, just commentates over a video of whoever pulled off a shock".

"Nah that's not how it works" said Darren. "What they do is, they allocate about ten commentators to ten different games, all of them the same sort of matches James was on about. Then they wait and see what the results are. Say that three of those ten games produce upsets. Then they'll make those three games their highlight games, although sometimes I've seen draws and the occasional loss, so maybe sometimes they just pick two of the three games to be upsets just so it doesn't get too obvious. I've never ever seen a League one versus League two match being shown at this stage though".

"We might make the goals round-up at least" I piped in with.

"What goals?" queried Brian, and everyone laughed.

"They still show nil-nil draws on the goals round-ups" Darren needlessly began to explain. "They just show one or two highlight moments instead of any goals".

"Which begs another question; what highlights?" - Brian

"They'll probably just show that shot Brill tipped over the bar" I suggested.

"Big whoppy doo-dar" Dave said. "We're going to watch the whole show just for that?"

The three main matches did indeed feature nothing but non-league teams getting the better of their professional counterparts. The show began with Blue Square Premier outfit Altrincham upsetting League Two Macclesfield by a score of 2-1. The commentator's cry of - "Oh and Denham has scored! The shot just didn't seem on!" - for the winner will be more or less familiar to anyone who has followed Match of the Day over the years.

Then Lewes of the Blue Square Premier were shown to beat Gillingham of League One by a solitary goal to nil, before finally Mansfield and Notts County slugged out a 1-1 draw. After that it was time for the goals round-up, and low and behold, we made an appearance!

Commentator - "Luton Town are currently fighting a losing battle in League Two after a punishing points penalty, so their FA Cup match today against League One strugglers Northampton would have come as a welcome distraction (The pictures show a Northampton player running down the wing and getting a cross in). However it was the visitors who largely threatened, this close ranger only just being tipped over by the goalkeeper (Brill tips over and then remonstrates with the defence). The second half was largely a disappointment to the 7000-strong crowd, both sides cancelling each other out. This late surge and shot almost won it in stoppage time (a Northampton player shoots wide), but it wasn't to be. These two will have a return date on Wednesday week".

"Hooray" Darren said, raising his bottle of Budweiser.

"Look there's me!" I exclaimed, and indeed there I was, stood in front of a plastic board with chequered Eon squares all over it. They were showing my interview from after the game. I looked thoroughly miserable.

"I thought we were rubbish today" said the pre-recorded me. "Too many rubbish passes. Too many rubbish crosses. Too many rubbish tackles. The creativity was rubbish, the effort, the application, the hunger. All in all really it was just - well - rubbish".

"Do you think - " the hidden interviewer began. "It's time to step aside?"

"Now that's just rubbish. Next question".

There wasn't one though. 'Morecambe v Stalybridge' suddenly flashed up and Kenilworth Road was left behind.

"Yay!" everyone in the living room shouted, raising their cans and bottles.

We all saw the funny side, and in that moment I decided not to trouble Dave with the Nicky situation tonight. We were all having too good a time. It sounds like an odd combination for a party; a 22 year old (Darren), a 29 year old (me), and two 40 year olds (Brian, Dave) having a drunken night in, but in a weird way it worked. It just goes to show, get four people in the same room who all have something in common and away you go, you're guaranteed a good time.

"Anyone up for pizza?" Darren asked.

"Damn straight!" I replied.

Dave and Brian were up for it too.

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13/11/08 - Back to school

As Brian and I sat in the school reception waiting to be collected, it dawned on me I’ve still done nothing about the Nicky and Dave problem. I think there’s several reasons for this. Firstly, I had a good time with Dave the other night so it’s slightly awkward now to seek him out for words. Secondly, there’s every chance his drunken escapade with Nicky and co was just a one-off, and thus isn’t a problem that needs addressing. It could easily be the case that Dave woke up the next day fully regretting his actions and has no wish to risk speaking with Nicky on a night out ever again. You just never know.

I was interrupted from my thoughts by the sound of Brian’s laughter. He was reading a stray copy of this week’s Bedfordshire Bulletin, and evidently something on an inside page had amused him.

“What’s so funny?”

“You” he said. “See for yourself”.

Brian held the paper up. What I saw made me gasp half in horror and half in the same vein of amusement which had tickled my assistant. On Page Six was a picture of my head super-imposed onto Bruce Lee’s body. Directly above was the headline - ‘Enter the Hatter’.

“What the hell is this?” I asked.

“It’s about your trip to that karate place”.

“The East Side Dojo?”

“You tell me. Someone must have seen you coming out, or going in, or both”.

I knew I didn’t have long here so I skim-read through as quickly as possible. The article was nothing more than a tongue-in-cheek piece speculating on why I’d gone to the Dojo, featuring such comments as - "Martin’s water bottle kicking may now be of a whole new standard", and - "Not even Bruce Lee himself could toughen up Martin’s Luton boys right now". It must have been a slow news week around Bedfordshire, I reckoned.

Very soon afterwards we were led to the classroom. The teacher staying with us was Ian Franks, the man whose class it was anyway. Predictably enough, the same Hertfordshire Herald pairing of Jamie Andrew (reporter) and Derek Nemins (photographer) were also present, no doubt hoping the pupils would somehow find a way to get the better of me again. I must be a local hack’s dream with all the unwanted stuff happening to me at the moment.

“Afternoon kids” I said tentatively. “It’s me again, Luton Town manager. How are we all doing, are you alright?”

Naturally there was no response but things picked up not long after. Ian Franks was obviously a teacher the kids were afraid of because no songs broke out over the next half hour and nobody went out for a fag. Furthermore, I’d made the tactical decision this time to talk about football in general rather than just Luton. I figured that if I just talked about football on a wide-reaching level, even these sneaky little brats were unlikely to start singing things like - “We love rugby!”, and so it proved.

“The thing to remember is, football gives you many opportunities to shine throughout the course of your life. It’s not just a case of reaching sixteen and either being spotted by then or not being spotted. Some youngsters get spotted by the age of twelve, go off to big clubs, and never end up making it in the professional game. On the other hand, there are people who get well into their twenties without ever getting spotted by anybody. Then they get a lucky break and then they DO make it into the professional ranks. Can anybody name me a famous player who didn’t make it big until a late age?”

I was delighted to see a young lad in the middle of the room put his hand up.

“Yes?”

“Ian Wright”

“Ian Wright! Fantastic answer. Yes, Ian Wright, believe it or not, was twenty three before he got his first professional contract – I think that’s right anyway. In the end he went on to not only play for England but become Arsenal’s all time leading goalscorer, at least until Henry came along”.

Out of the corner of my eye I could see Andrews and Nemins starting to look thoroughly bored. They’d turned up expecting a surefire story and they weren’t getting one.

“Now then” I continued. “Can anybody name me a player at the opposite end of the scale, someone who started his career like a bat out of hell but then faded badly halfway through?”

The same hand went up in the middle.

“This young man certainly seems knowledgable” I said cheerfully in the direction of Mr Franks.

“Oh yes” said Ian. “Rory Easthope, always a reliable one for answering questions”.

There was something familiar about that name. Rory Easthope. Rory Easthope. Where had I heard that before? Anyway..

“Robbie Fowler” the little lad blurted out.

“Another good answer! Yes, Fowler probably scored over a hundred goals for Liverpool by the time he was twenty one. After that he faded badly, failing to perform at pretty much every club he ever went to”.

Rory Easthope. Seriously, where had I heard it before? Rory himself was about to solve the riddle for me.

“Excuse me, Mr Martin” he said, putting his hand up again confidently. I could see some of the larger boys at the back beginning to quietly huff and puff, perhaps because they considered Rory to be a bit of a know-it-all.

“Yes, Rory? You’re not about to blow us all away by reciting Robbie Fowler’s career statistics are you?”

“No. I just wondered if you’re still giving away a Luton Town shirt as a prize like the last time you were here”.

Now that had me stumped. As far as I knew neither Brian nor I had bothered to bring it back after what happened last time. Not to worry though.

“Well, there’s good and bad news there. The good news is, yes the prize is still up for grabs. What’s more, I think you’ve just about earned it with those two good answers. The bad news is, my assistant Brian here has forgotten to bring it with him”.

“Wh - ” Brian began, but I kicked him sideways in the shin to shut him up.

“However” I continued, “If you write your address down, I will be happy to send it to you in due course, and that’s a promise”.

“You could just give it to my mum. She works at Luton FC”.

“Your mum works at Luton? What’s her name?”

“Brenda”.

Brian and I looked at each other in surprise.

“Well I’ll be damned” I said, and that’s when I realised why Rory’s name had sounded so familiar.

The lesson ended just as I would have wanted it to, i.e. without any fuss. Andrews and Nevins skulked off without saying a word, and Ian Franks shook my hand with a word of congratulations. Brian however was keen to get back to the car so he could ask why I’d kicked him.

“I’ll tell you why I did it” I said. “I did it so those two prats from The Herald don’t go writing that I’ve got a bad memory and can’t remember a simple thing like a football shirt. If they think you forgot the shirt, they won’t bother writing a story. I’ve decided I’m going to be much more on the ball from now on when it comes to the press, Brian”.

“Fair enough”.

Two days later I picked up the Herald to see the headline -'Luton boss knocks Liverpool legend Fowler', complete with six paragraphs talking about how much of a disgace it is I've even got the cheek, with my poor record in football, to slag off such a respected hero of the early Premiership years.

Just can't win.

----------------

15/11/08, League Match 16 (Att - 5390)

Luton Town 1 (Keane 54)

Lincoln City 0

Actually, forget the match review for just one moment. Let me have my moment in the sun here and simply shout “YES!!!” Sorry if that sounds immature for a man of 29 but I’d gone thirteen league and cup games without a win prior to this, and boy it feels good to be on the winning side! It’s almost as if my newly found confidence from the school lesson carried over to the team.

Formation wise I stuck with 4.4.2 but made some overhauls to the ‘system within the system’, if you can understand that. They were quite drastic overhauls too, but they worked. We didn’t just fluke a win here; we were the better side. The final shot count was 9-6 in our favour, meaning we had more attempts on goal in this match than in any of the previous three put together. We even managed a third consecutive clean sheet.

The goal was slightly scrappy A deep cross from the right somehow came under the control of Keane at the back post. His weak shot from four yards out took a wicked deflection into the goal and the keeper didn’t even move. We could have doubled our lead between then and the end of the game but Charles missed when clean through and Nicholls saw his powerful free kick deflected wide. At the other end, mid-table Lincoln gave me a heart attack when, in the 84th minute, and against the run of play, a volley from six yards went over the bar. It was a great chance to score and my heart was really in my mouth at the moment it was struck.

On the final whistle the whole crowd seemed to jump up in tandem and applaud the players for their renewed efforts. We’re still twenty points under the drop zone, but it’s good to keep fighting and keep hoping for a miracle. Our crowds still haven’t dipped below 5000 during all the lean times and I think that’s fantastic. We’ll probably follow this up with a loss, but hey, I’m still here and I'm still fighting. The only dark spot today was the injury to striker Bartosz Slusarski, who went off just before half time and could now be out for a few weeks.

table after 16 games...

Wycombe (16)

Macclesfield (16)

Chesterfield (14)

Chester City (6)

-----------

Bournemouth (0)

Luton Town (-14)

----------------

17/11/08 - Three new signings

I was so happy about the Lincoln win I e-mailed practically everybody I could think of to say so. I even looked up the address of the East Side Dojo and messaged Bear (not that he replied). There was still much work to do in the months ahead but a win gives everybody a boost. All the players seemed to posess renewed vigour at training today, and that was good to see. You'd think the days following a win would be the least likely time for a manager to add to his squad, so it's with quite a pinch of surprise I find myself writing my this evening with the news three more players have joined.

I signed the first guy on a permanent deal for three years, albeit cheaply on £90 per week. His name is Brinsley Sheridan and he's 18 years old. He's a young striker who was released by Bradford last year having never played a first team game. I've only signed him because I've got horrendous injury problems up front at the moment. Slusarski, Martin, and Talbot are both out for the forthcoming games, and Parkin will be apparently be too unfit to face Northampton in the FA Cup replay on Tuesday. Sheridan ha good references from Bradford, and even though I'm not expecting him to make the grade in the long run, he should at least be able to step in and fill the team sheet during a crisis.

Happy at how smoothly the Sheridan deal went down, I spent the rest of the afternoon hunting around to see what else I could find. I ended up making two more loan signings, and now I can finally say I have some respectable cover on the wings. The first deal, verbally agreed, was for Steven Davies, a 20 year old left winger from Derby County. Davies has yet to make any sort of breakthrough at Pride Park but did in the past make 60 appearances for Bristol Rovers in League One. He even managed 5 goals at that level. I've got Davies for three months and I intend to put him straight into the starting line-up to replace the uninspiring Robert Eagle.

For the purposes of right wing duty I also made a deal for Joe Anyinsah. I've heard of this guy before; his reputation has done the rounds, even if most football fans might not be aware of him. He's 24 now so maybe not destined to make it to the top, but by all accounts he's a tricky and pacy right winger who on his day can do a lot of damage. As with Davies, I intend to thrust him straight into the starting eleven, in this case to replace Paul McVeigh.

My one E-mail today was from Dave...

Hi James

Just to let you know, the home game with Morecambe on November 25th has been selected as a 'fan day'. I won't bore you with the details, but basically, due to a number of free and cut-price tickets, you're likely to see a bigger crowd than normal. Mr Dilic and the shareholders would like me to extend their wish that this match, win or lose, produces some excitement on the pitch.

Dave

P.S - Are you planning to hold any more house parties soon? That was really good the other night.

I chose not to reply for the time being. With all the signings I'd made today, I was surprised I wasn't getting a snappy E-mail from Erica to complain about added wage expenditure. Maybe that was for tomorrow.

----------------

Stadium information

I came across this online and thought I'd write it down for the sake of interest....

Stadium name - Kenilworth Road

Location - Luton

Rent - £0 per year

Capacity - 10300 all seater

Year built - 1905

Stadium condition - Good

Undersoil heating - No

Roof - No

Surface - Grass

Pitch dimension - Length (101m), Width (64m)

Maximum pitch dimension - Length (108m), Width (74m)

----------------

18/11/08 - The Deathmatch

Despite having two small pieces of plastic blocking my ears, I felt at ease as I wandered out to the souvenir shop for my 'deathmatch' this. This was only going to be a harmless bit of fun, and in truth I didn't really care whether Cyril rumbled me or he didn't. This attitude was in stark contrast to the rest of my office, who all strangely viewed this as one of the most exciting things they were ever about to witness.

"Am I still coming through loud and clear?" I asked Caroline, as I approached the front doors to the main Kenilworth Road building.

"Crystal clear" she replied, and as she did I could have sworn I heard the likes of Alison and Darren chuckling in the background. Before leaving the office I'd actually given everyone apart from Caroline strict instructions to remain at their desks during the deathmatch and get on with their work. Amongst our little office community however this occasion had been eagerly anticipated ever since I'd bought the ear drum kit, and as I stepped outside into the windswept morning air, I had no doubt most of them were ignoring my instructions and were crowded around Caroline.

"Right, I'm just approaching the port-a-cabin now. I won't be speaking to you after this. Bye".

As I reached the door and prepared to knock, the sound of the Star Wars theme tune bellowed out from within.

"Come in" said a voice that wasn't from the TV screen.

I went inside and just like last time found myself amazed at the sheer amount of Luton merchandise dominating the floor, walls, and ceiling. Cyril and Lee were sat in the centre of the room watching Star Wars, but as I entered they both got up and went to turn it off.

"Star Wars again?" I asked.

"Duh!" Cyril said in a patronizing voice. "It's The Empire Strikes Back"

"Well Duh!" I retorted. "I don't watch them!"

Cyril made to reply again but then chose not to. We had a deathmatch to get on with after all, and I fancied my host wanted it over and done with as quickly as possible so he could get back to his film. Over by the cabin's one window was a small table with two empty wooden chairs on either side. As had been explained to me during my last visit, the table and chairs were strictly for deathmatches. I was led over there now, and with a minimum of fuss Cyril and I took our places. Lee grabbed another chair and pulled it close to the table, a set of notes with questions on them clutched tightly in one hand. We were ready to begin.

"Right" said Lee. "Let me explain the rules, gentleman, not that Cyril needs them of course. A Luton Town Trivia Deathmatch is played out in the same way as a football penalty shootout. You will each be asked five questions about Luton Town Football club and its history. The person with the most correct answers at the end will be the winner. Should the scores be tied after the five sets of questions, we will then move into sudden death".

"Suden death?" Cyril smirked. "Yeah right. I predict 3-0, or maybe 4-1 if it turns out you've dropped an easy question in there for him just to be kind. I won't be happy if you have. Regardless of how much somebody's getting trounced, we should always keep the competition questions consistant".

"I've done the questions totally fair and random!" Lee protested. Then he pulled a ten pence piece from his pocket and performed the coin toss. Cyril won and elected to receive his question first. I didn't speak up to enforce a change of ends.

"Right then" Lee began. "Here we go. In the 1954/55 season, who scored Luton's first goal in the month of November?"

Cyril squinted his eyes and thought hard. He only needed to do this for about four seconds.

"Johnny West".

"Correct".

('You sad bastard', I thought).

"Okay" Lee said, tossing the piece of paper with the Johnny West question onto the table. "Next question to James - In the 1934/35 season, who did Luton draw in the third round of the FA Cup?"

"Hold on" Caroline said in my ear. I almost jumped up off my chair when she did! I'd almost forgotten she was there!

"Errrrr" I said, scratching my head.

Cyril crossed his arms and smiled.

"Hang on James" said Caroline. "I'm just searching online. I found a great site the other day for this kind of stuff".

"Nineteen thirrrrrrty fooour, you say" I said slowly to Cyril and Lee. "You know what, it's on the tip of my tongue".

"My a_se it is" Cyril remarked. "He'll never get that. Mark him down as wrong, Lee".

"Scunthorpe!" Caroline triumphantly shouted.

"Scunthorpe!" I cried, and this time it was the turn of Cyril and Lee to nearly jump out of their seats. The look on Cyril's face was priceless.

"Correct" said Lee. "That's one-all".

Cyril eyed me suspiciously but said nothing. Instead he got straight down to the business of his next question, drawing a 'correct!' from Lee almost before I could blink. I quickly levelled things up though, and a few minutes later the score was tied at 3-3 with not one person having yet made a mistake.

I knew now why Cyril was unbeaten in a 131 matches. As much as he's an infuriating co_ky bastard, his knowledge of Luton Town seems endless. On his fourth question though even Cyril found himself struggling, holding his head in his hands as he tried desperately to remember the attendance of the 1972 pre-season friendly against Queens Park Rangers. As he did this, Lee glanced in my direction and dropped his jaw. He'd seen one of the things in my ear. I was sure of it. The game was up.

"Errrr, Cyril" he said.

"NOT NOW!" Cyril snapped. "I'm thinking".

"But Cyril" Lee said, weakly pointing at my ear.

"I SAID NOT NOW! THIS IS A DEATHMATCH! BE QUIET".

Lee put his hand down, but I still had no doubt he would get his message across to Cyril once this question was over. Thinking quickly I grabbed the stray pencil on the table and wrote the words - 'I have hearing aids for my ear' on one of the discarded pieces of paper used for questions. Then I held it up subtley up for Lee to take a look at. In response Lee glanced at my message and then gormlessly smiled, holding up his thumb in a gesture of 'oh right, gotcha'.

"Aha!" Cyril cried, lifting his head up again. "I think I've got it. The attendance was 8245!"

"Correct".

Much to the reigning champion's chagrin I continued to match him question for question, and before long we were into sudden death. Beads of sweat were dripping from Cyril's forehead now. What he'd thought was going to be a stroll in the park was turning out to be the fight of his life, and as Lee informed me at 5-5, nobody had ever taken Cyril to sudden death before. Back in the office Caroline was playing a blinder, hastily seeking out the answers to all my questions with just enough speed to prevent my opponent from crying foul. Eventually, with the scores at 9-9, Lee announced he had no more questions left.

"I didn't expect it to go this far" he explained sadly.

"No matter" said Cyril. "It's a hidden rule of deathmatches that, should this eventuality come to pass, we just carry on asking each other our own questions".

I suspected he'd made that up on the spot just to keep the game going. No matter.

"Your turn to ask me a question" Cyril informed me.

"Errr, let me think about this a minute" Caroline said, now in the unusual position of posing rather than answering a question. "Okay, I've got it. Ask him how many penalties Luton scored in the 1982/83 season".

I did that just, and Cyril's brain went quickly to work.

"Six" he said confidently.

"No, it was seven!" Caroline practically yelled at me. In the background I could also hear whoops of joy from Alison, Nicky, and Darren.

"Sorry Cyril" I said calmly. "It was actually seven".

I thought he would find some way to protest against this, or maybe ask me to go through the process of having me name details of all seven penalties. Instead he just looked blankly at me for a moment before finally mouthing - 'oh s__t'.

"Oh dear" said Lee, clearly in shock almost as much as Cyril. "James, if you get Cyril's next question right, you will be the new champion".

All hell broke less back at the office over this announcement...

"Come on boss!" Darren shouted down the headset.

"Go James!" said Nicky.

"Good luck" Alison called.

The only absentee was Brenda, but I imagined she was back at her desk actually trying to do some work. I had to remind myself she was over fifty and probably not enthused by this childish game as much as the rest of us.

Cyril was clearly suffering right now, his precious unbeaten record hanging as it was by the thinnest of threads. He had to make this next question an absolute bit_h and he knew it. Sweat was portruding all over his face as he desperately searched for inspiration. I looked at him and he looked at me, two warriors preparing (possibly) for the final few thrusts of what had been a truly energy-sapping battle.

"Okay, I'm ready" he said, and now his facial expression was starting to change from one of despair to one of sly amusement. He clearly had something up his sleeve.

"Give it your best shot" I replied bravely.

"Oh don't worry, I will. The question is - What piece of Luton merchandise have I got in my pocket?"

I hadn't been expecting that.

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18/11/08 - The Deathmatch (part 2)

Cyril's question made my office go deathly silent. Usually I could hear Caroline typing and clicking the moment my question was read out. Not this time.

"There's no way I can look that up online!" she confirmed.

"Sorry, can you repeat the question?" I asked Cyril.

"Certainly. What piece of Luton merchandise have I got in my pocket?"

I twiddled my thumbs and looked into Cyril's mischievous eyes. I could have protested this wasn't a fair question but I didn't think it would do any good. Cyril wanted to keep his title and was now stooping as low as he possibly could to get himself out of dodge. Besides, I'd been relying on Caroline the entire time we'd been playing this game today. In a strange way I actually welcomed the chance to try and finish this thing off on my own, and I did think I could do it. Cyril was bluffing here. I was convinced of it. Clearing my throat, I prepared to answer. It was all or nothing.

'Please God let me be right'

"My answer is this - you don't have any Luton merchandise in your pocket".

Cyril stared at me with a smile, but it was a weak smile. I couldn't tell what it meant.

"Please turn out your pockets" Lee said to his friend and colleague.

"No need" Cyril said blankly. "My pockets are empty".

Simultaneously my office staff all cheered loudly. Even Brenda cheered (unless my ears were deceiving me). I had won! I had beaten Cyril! Not wanting to rub it in too much, I casually stood up and headed for the door.

"Right chaps, I'll be off then. Good game. Good game".

"No wait" said Lee, ducking his head into a pile of junk. "We need to give you the trophy".

Cyril meanwhile did something I wouldn't have expected even from him; he started crying. I mean real tears too. He was utterly inconsolable. Lee went back to him and put a hand on his shoulder.

"Come on man, the run had to end some time. Be proud of what you've achieved. Losing to the actual Luton manager is no disgrace!"

"I should have known that question though!" Cyril wailed. "It was stupid to pick six when the answer was obviously seven!"

"Please cheer up. Look, we could watch the two trilogies back to back again if you want! That will cheer you up, right?"

"That's all we've done all week" Cyril sobbed.

Eventually Lee did give me my trophy, and to say it's nothing short of pathetic would be an understatement. It's basically a small figurine of Luke Skywalker, not that the artistry stops there. A flag bigger than Luke's entire body has been glued to Luke's hand in an attempt to make it appear he's actually holding it. It's not very convincing though because whoever's done it has glued the flag-pole to the outside of Luke's hand rather than the inside. On the front of the flag, written in thick black marker pen, are the words -'Luton Town Trivia Deathmatch Champion, sponsored by George Lucas'.

"Wow" I said, at the moment Lee handed it over. "You just know a competition is special when George Lucas agrees to endorse it".

Nobody laughed at that so I decided to take my leave. Once I was outside, I'd barely walked five yards when Cyril appeared back at the door to his port-a-cabin. For the moment anyway he seemed to have mopped up his tears long enough to be able to speak.

"I was wrong about you" he sniffed. "You truly are fit to manage this great club. I hope results pick up soon, for all of us. May the force be with you, James".

With that he saluted me and disappeared back inside.

"Okay you lot, over and out" I said to the gigglers back at the office, and with that I pulled the receiver and transmitter out of my ear. When I got back everybody was all over me as if I'd actually played hard and won at something genuinely worth winning. Darren and Nicky gave me a bear hug. Caroline gave me a high five (she'd now taken the headset off), whereas Alison and Brenda, both grinning from ear to ear, congratulated me on a job well done. They'd all enjoyed the show and who can blame them? Cyril is unintentionally a very funny guy.

"This is awful" Alison said, examining the trophy. "Are you going to give him this back? You could just own up that you cheated".

"I was thinking about doing that on my way back in" I admitted, sitting down at my desk. "Ultimately though I think I might be doing young Cyril a favour by beating him. Now the big run is over maybe he'll take it upon himself to venture out into the real world and actually get himself a life. Lee too".

"How did you know he had nothing in his pocket?" Brenda asked.

"Well, if you could see the inside of that port-a-cabin, you'd realise there are literally hundreds of different types of Luton souvenirs and bits of Luton merchandise. If I'd actually tried to guess I almost certainly would have got it wrong even if he had had something on him. My only hope was to call his bluff and hope he had nothing".

"You truly are the best Luton trivia man in the entire final frontier" said Nicky with a grin.

This was an awful joke but we all laughed anyway. It had been a good morning.

----------------

18/11/08, Fa Cup Round 1 Replay (Att - 3084)

Northampton Town 1 (Keane o.g 88)

Luton Town 0

Our FA Cup dream faltered in the most heartbreaking of circumstances. Keith Keane, the hero against Lincoln, had all the time in the world to control a centre from the left hand side. The ball bobbled off his kneecap and nestled in the corner of the net. We didn’t deserve to lose like this but I suppose that’s football for you. The board and fans seemed to be quite understanding we’d lost against a League One side so I suppose that’s something.

Due to the absence of strikers Slusarski and Martin, and also because Parkin was slightly too unfit to start the game, I decided to go with Talbot as the lone striker (despite the fact he hasn’t scored this season) with attacking midfielder O’Connor tucked in behind. Thus, we were going for a counter-attacking 4.4.1.1 formation. It didn’t work in the early stages, and Brian was quick to point out that the home side playing 5.3.2 as they were meant they had too many defenders to our attackers. I didn’t want to change things too early though, particularly as we weren’t exactly getting overrun.

Halfway through the first half we suffered yet another blasted injury, and what’s the bets it would be Talbot? That’s right, off he went so on came Parkin. The new wingers Davies and Anyinsah looked a bit unfit too so not long after half time I brought on Eagle and McVeigh. I also frittered away my third substitution by bringing on Charles for O’Connor. Now I could go 4.4.2 and hopefully play a lot better. It’s never good to use all three substitutions with half an hour still to play, but the 4.4.1.1 just wasn’t getting us anywhere.

Not that we improved much with the 4.4.2. Northamption were always marginally better than us and ended up winning the shot count 10-5 (as well as the match). I thought we were going to hang on for an extra time period but it wasn’t to be. In truth we played much better in this fixture when it was in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy; I think we deserved to win that one. Not so here. After this game I told the players to not worry about it too much. I’m not going to crack the whip over an FA Cup loss to higher opposition.

----------------

19/11/08 - Rory's big break

I had an interesting conversation with Brenda in the canteen today. She looked almost surprised when I sat down at her table halfway through lunch; at the time she was eating a scone and reading a magazine.

“Not intruding am I?”

“Of course not” she said, putting the mag down. “It’s not often I get company at lunchtimes. I’m not young like the others”.

“Fifty is still young” I risked saying.

“You say that when you get there and I’ll be impressed with you”.

“Well I was certainly impressed with your son Rory the other day”.

Brenda went red and smiled the beaming smile of a proud mother. I only just considered this today, but Brenda makes me think of a white Whoopi Goldberg, something to do with her frankness conveyed with a subtle layer of humour. It also helps she wears huge loopy earrings which I swear I’ve seen Whoopi wear in at least two p!ss-poor unfunny movies.

“Yes, he’s mentioned your two appearances at the school. I know I never mentioned it that I have a son who goes to Wigmore, but that’s because I didn’t want him getting special treatment from you”.

“Well if he went into detail about the most recent visit, you’ll know he won himself a Luton Town shirt through nothing else than his own good knowledge. Actually, that reminds me, I need to bring that shirt into the office so you can pass it onto him”.

“That would be just fine” Brenda replied, pouring herself some more tea. “He’s not strictly a Luton Town fan though”.

“Oh” I said in disappointment. “What is he then?”

“Well he’s not really anything. He’s only eleven. He watches a lot of football on TV and the internet and I suppose that’s where he gets all his knowledge from. He’s never adopted a team though, unless you count England. You have to remember, it’s ten pounds for a ticket to come and watch a game here, and that's for concessions! Then you’ve got the bus fare on top of that. I can’t really afford for him to come. I’m a single mother, James. Times are hard, even with this job”.

“I’m sorry to hear that” I replied, but in my head I was concocting an idea.

“Listen, instead of taking the shirt to Rory, why don’t you bring Rory to the shirt? I could give him a guided tour of the stadium whilst he’s here”.

“And put the idea in his head he’s missing out by not being able to come here? No thanks. It’s okay, you don’t have to do that”.

“Look, every young lad should be able to come and support his local football team. Tell you what, bring him in for the shirt the tour. In the meantime I’ll try and fix it so that maybe we can get him a free season ticket, or at least half a free season ticket seeing as the season is almost half over”.

As she mulled this over, Brenda’s eyes darted this way and that. She was an honourable person, not the type to accept handouts gladly. On the other hand she wanted the best for her son, and she knew that Rory could really take to the idea of having a football team to follow every week. It was a real struggle for her to refuse.

“I’m not comfortable with the idea of taking a freebie” she said.

“Don’t think of it as a freebie, think of it as a fringe benefit for the work you do at this football club. Being secretary to the manager is a very important role".

“None of the others will be getting a free ticket thing though will they?”

“None of the others would want one. Darren would but he’s old enough to work for his Saturday match; Rory isn’t”.

“Okay then” Brenda finally conceded, throwing her arms up in the air. “You win, James. I’ll agree to it on one condition”.

“What’s that?”

“That you get him a seat not far from where the dugouts are. If he’s going to go to football I’d feel better knowing you can glance up at him every now and again to make sure he’s okay. He’s only eleven after all”.

“Deal”.

I leant back victorious in my chair, stretching my arms out as if to yawn. It was raining today. Rain was beating against the window Brenda and I were sat close to. I was almost surprised none of the younger office element were in here. I guessed they must have spending their lunch hours online. It was too nasty outside for them to have gone out for lunch.

“You’re a lovely man to have as a manager” Brenda said out of the blue, ending a minute’s silence.

“Oh come on”.

“No really! I was thinking about it the other day actually. You’re the first manager I’ve ever had who’s so well respected by people he even gets to manage the people in he’s not in charge of”.

Now that was a tongue-twister. I looked at Brenda in confusion.

“You’re only meant to be the manager of me” Brenda spoke, wiping her hands of scone crumbs. “You’re not the manager of Nicky, Alison, Caroline, and Darren. Not technically anyway. Technically speaking, their boss is Dave Wheelie. They all just seem to assume you’re in charge though because your desk is in the same office space. You’ve always seemed to assume you’re in charge too, which I think was what sealed the deal”.

I’d never considered this before. On some sub-consious level I suppose I’d always known Brenda was the only member of the office staff I had the right to delegate to. However, right from day one they'd all just seemed to come as one big package (except Alison, who had turned up late), and so I’d probably acted as Dave’s stand-in leader without even realising it.

“Jesus. Do you think they all know I’m not their manager?”

“Probably they do, but the important thing is, it’s fairly obvious they want you to be the manager whether technically you are or you aren't. You’re young, fair, fun to work for, and they respect you. I think they’d be horrified if you were finally given your own office and Dave came in to sit with us all day long. Especially Nicky”.

“Dammit” I said. “Nicky. I promised her I’d do her a favour and I keep forgetting. Brenda, please excuse me but I have to go get something done before lunch is over. Thanks for what you’ve said though. I appreciate it”.

I stood up to leave. Brenda was evidently going to stay and finish her tea.

“And thank-YOU for your effort with Rory” she said as a closing note.

“You’re welcome”.

And so I trudged off to find Nicky. This conversation was a great deal shorter. She was right where I thought she’d be, sat at her desk surfing the net.

“Oh that!” she said once I reminded her about the Dave problem, as if she hadn’t given it a moment's thought since the day she'd first come to me. “Well, I haven’t seen him out and about for a while now so maybe he’s not going to do it again. You needn’t speak to him about it if you haven’t already. Thanks anyway though!"

Women!

----------------

22/11/08, League Game 17 (Att - 2477)

Rochdale 1 (Hutchinson 11, Keltie s/o 35)

Luton Town 1 (Sheridan 72)

With my top FOUR senior strikers all unable to play through injury and lack of fitness, I was forced to thrust 18 year old new signing Brinsley Sheridan straight into a starting berth, to be partnered up front by the completely inept Ryan Charles. I also rested Anyinsah and Davies and re-introduced Eagle and McVeigh. I want Anyinsah and Davies to become the first choice wingers but they’re still lacking in match fitness and the game against Northampton in midweek really took it out of them. Our formation today was 4.4.2, as was Rochdale’s.

Our hosts had lost just 2 from 16 matches going into this game, suggesting we were in for a rough time. This was confirmed right from the early stages. Rochdale went straight on the attack and had a goal disallowed in the 9th minute for offside. We couldn’t get out of our half and in the 11th minute the pressure finally told, Hutchinson looping a simple header past Brill to open the scoring. It could gone very badly after this, but we managed to keep the score down to just one all the way up to Keltie’s surprise sending off after 35 minutes. The player was given a straight red card for an absolutely horrendous tackle, and given my luck with injuries this season I’m surprised we didn’t suffer another one right there and then.

Despite the man advantage we still struggled to create any chances. Sheridan and Charles are both poor in the air so all balls of any height were easily swept up by the home defence. It used to be that the likes of Slusarski, Martin, and Parkin were able to get a few flick-ons on the fringes of the final third. Not Sheridan and Charles though. To my disgust, ten man Rochdale continued to boss the game as the second half began, almost getting their second goal on several occasions.

Halfway through the half I got desperate and switched to a ridiculously ambitious 3.4.1.2 formation. It didn’t feel right but I had to do something drastic because we'd hardly created a thing. It was around about this point we got our token injury for the match, Nicholls going off to be replaced by Hall. It doesn’t look serious though. In the 73rd minute we had our first chance of the match and scored it. Absolute miracle. A cross from the right went to the back post where one of our players seemed to head it backwards towards the penalty spot. It fell to Sheridan who calmly slotted into a mostly unguarded net (the keeper failed to get back in time).

He hadn't looked much cop throughout the rest of the game, but credit where credit’s due; Sheridan had one chance and took it. It’s every young lad’s dream to score on his professional debut and one such dream was fulfilled today. After the goal we were very disappointing, failing to muster another chance. Rochdale piled forward with ten men and almost won it with a vicious shot into the side netting. We held on though to record an unexpected draw away from home.

(Below is the bottom of the table after 17 games. We've got 3 wins, 8 draws, and 6 defeats)

Wycombe (17)

Macclesfield (16)

Chesterfield (14)

Chester City (6)

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Bournemouth (3)

Luton Town (-13)

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24/11/08 - 30th birthday

I stopped celebrating my birthday when I was about twenty six. I don’t know why but it was around that age I was going through the worst period of my post-injury depression. For the first time ever my body felt helpless, weak, and dare I say it – old. Like most young men I’d felt invincible prior to then, but after that day, after THAT tackle, THAT ride to the hospital, it all changed. For the first time ever I became aware of my own mortality and it scared me.

Since then I haven’t celebrated a single birthday I’ve had, and I’ve gone to great lengths to hide the date of my birthday from anyone new who has come into my life. I think I’ve got a mild form of hypochondria when it comes to ageing. The ironic thing about me making such a statement is, I’m probably the youngest manager currently operating in the football league.

One person of course who will never forget my birthday is my mother. Her christian name is Linda and she lives back home in Leeds with my dad, Frank. That was the way it was until I got my birthday phonecall this evening anyway.

“You haven’t been in touch much lately” she said, once the initial hello and birthday greetings had been taken care of.

“It’s a busy job running a football team, mum. Anyway I doubt I’ll last for too much longer without getting sacked. Another few months at most. Then no doubt I’ll come back home for a while until I figure out what I’m going to do next".

“You won’t see your father when you get here. He’s gone. He’s moved out”.

“Why?" I asked.

“We haven’t been getting on lately, and before you ask no we haven’t jumped the gun on this. Things haven’t been good for an awful long time, a very long time. He’s gone for good but we will at least stay in touch, I think”.

“Where’s he gone?”

“Somewhere in Otley, I think”.

Otley is a small town in the Leeds area, meaning my dad had moved barely a few miles from the family home in Farsley. It wouldn’t have made sense for my dad to leave Leeds though. He’s Leeds born and bred, and he’s worked at the same trucking firm there for over twenty years.

“How’s he doing anyway?”

“He’s okay. I think he took some time off just after he moved into his new place to go do some work on the retirement home”.

“That was meant to be a retirement home for BOTH of you” I said firmly.

My mum and dad had bought an old rundown place in Whitby a couple of years back, the intention being to slowly make the place habitable so eventually they could retire by the seaside. Evidently that wasn’t going to happen now, at least for my mum.

“Oh I don’t mind missing out on Whitby” she said with hardly a shred of emotion. “It’s always been your dad who loves seaside towns. I went along with the Whitby idea but quite honestly I’m more than happy to see out my time here in Farsley. He’s welcome to the Whitby house too. He did put most of the money in to pay for it”.

“Fair enough” I said. Call it intuition though but I sensed there was something to all this my mum hadn’t mentioned.

“What’s Luton like? Is it nice over there?”

“It’s fine".

She carried on enquiring about it for a while, and as I listened I got up and went to the kitchen to make myself a drink. Truth be told, my mum didn’t sound that sad about my dad leaving, and I didn’t feel that bad either to tell you the truth. I’m sure it’s an absolute sod to have your parents split up when you’re a child or a teenager. However when you’re on the cusp of thirty, you don't really care.

I’m not the sort of guy who’s relied on his mum and dad too much throughout life's journey. I accepted some financial help from them when I was at university, but ever since I’ve looked after myself just fine – financially and emotionally. I’m not so cold that I don’t go and see them; I’d say I’ve probably visited them two or three times a year since I turned eighteen. At least.

“Has your dad contacted you at all recently?”

“No” I replied, as I made my way back to bed with a hot chocolate. “He called me the night after I started the Luton job but I haven’t heard from him since. I’m sure he’ll call at some point. Maybe he just wants to be left alone for a while, what with the two of you splitting up still being fresh on his mind”.

“Maybe. I hope Christmas isn’t going to be too difficult for you. You’ll have two houses to visit now”.

“Actually I won’t. We play a match on Boxing Day. I won’t be able to come see either of you on Christmas this year. I will drive up when I’ve got a week off sometime though, I promise”.

My mum hesitated at that, no doubt in silent disappointment.

“Okay dear. I'm going to go now. You take care of yourself”.

“I will”.

I’ll spare you the endless round of goodbyes my mum goes through on the phone. Once the call was over I sat on the edge of my bed for a few moments pondering the idea my parents were no longer together. Try as I might, I still couldn’t force myself to feel particularly sad about it though. Maybe I would at a later date when it sunk in more? For now I was just too wrapped up in what I had to do, and that was beat Morecambe on the fan day.

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25/11/08 - A new left back

I got a surprise call put through to my desk this morning from Coventry manager Chris Coleman. He wanted to know if I would be interested in taking left back Gary Borrowdale on loan. Apparently the twenty two year old England under twenty one international has been frozen out recently by Daniel Fox, himself an England under twenty one international. The first thing I could say on this subject is that Coleman sounds like he has a fair bit of talent on his books!

“How come you’ve called me of all managers?” I asked.

“You’re not the first I’ve called today, but you might end up being the first to say yes. I hope it doesn’t sound patronising but in these types of situation I always call struggling clubs first. Gary Borrowdale needs games and there’s less chance of him getting into another side’s first team if saod team is already doing well”.

“Fair enough. It’s a shame your player is a left back though. Ironically that’s one of the positions we’ve been quite stable in so far this season. Sol Davis has played every game bar one, and the one time he was suspended, Lewis Emmanual came in as a very capable replacement”.

“Gary is a higher calibre though, James. He’s already made a hundred and eighteen appearances in The Championship or higher, and seven of those appareances were in the Premiership with Crystal Palace. He’s a quality player. He would especially be quality in League Two”.

I rubbed my chin, deep in thought. Darren seemed to be listening to me on the other side of the office, but the ladies seemed fully concentrated on their work.

“That’s an impressive record for a twenty two year old, Chris. However I must point out both Davis and Emmanual also have histories full of football in The Championship and League One”.

“How are they playing at the moment?”

“Well there you got me. Davis has been mediocre and I’m afraid to give Emmanual a run because he’s not been brilliant in training”.

“So why not go for Borrowdale, even if it’s just for a short term loan of say three months? I’ve seen the league table, James. No offence but you must be getting desperate. A risk of two might not hurt. Besides, personally I think it’s a cast iron guarantee that Gary Borrowdale will bring more to your team than a Davis or Emmanual”.

“How much would this set me back?”

“Nothing. It’s not the normal way to go about things, I know, but I’m desperate to get Gary games. He’s the sort of guy who would thrive far more on playing for a proper team than he does in our reserves”.

I’d been unsure prior to then, but the free of charge thing had achieved the intended result of twisting my arm.

“Okay then. I’ll take him for three months if he wants to come”.

“Good stuff. We’ll send the paperwork over. Thanks James”.

“No worries” I said, and the call ended.

“Who’ve we got, boss?” Darren immediately asked.

“Gary Borrowdale, a young left back from Coventry. Apparently he’s got two caps at England under twenty one level”.

“Is he fit?” Nicky asked cheekily.

“It’ll cost you fifteen pounds on Saturday afternoon to find out” I replied.

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25/11/08, League Match 18 (Att - 6878)

Luton Town 2 (Quinn 65, Martin 90+2)

Morecambe 2 (O'Carroll 43, Blinkhorn 80)

We’ve not been involved in many thrillers this season, so to get one here on fan day of all days is highly pleasing. That’s one of the positives I’m taking away anyway, as the draw means we’ve now won just three of our eighteen league games this season. We're unbeaten in three if you don’t count cup matches, so maybe we’re slowly starting to come out of the doldrums. It may also be worth pointing out that before this game Morecambe had scored 35 goals and conceded 32, so in that regard we shouldn’t be all that surprised at the final score. I doubt it’s a coincidence the board specifically chose this fixture to be the fan day.

Our goalkeeper and defence were unchanged for the match but I did make three changes in midfield. Davies and Anyinsah came back in on the wings, replacing Eagle and McVeigh. In the centre of midfield Nicholls still wasn’t over the knock sustained against Rochdale, so I had to bring Hall back to partner Keith Keane. Up front I also made changes. I dropped Charles for being useless and replaced him with Parkin. This was a welcome return for the big man (despite the fact he hasn’t scored this term, or played much).

I also dropped Brinsley Sheridan and replaced him with another young striker, Aiden Quinn. I didn’t want to do this but Sheridan was still knackered from the previous game, despite getting a day off to rest. In then came Quinn for his first start of the season. Quinn is someone I had absolutely no confidence in at all going into this match. He started most of my pre-season games but didn’t impress one bit.

In total then we made five changes. Not an ideal situation but we’d been rubbish at Rochdale so I wasn’t too down about it. On the bench I was pleased to welcome back striker Chris Martin, who had recovered from injury but perhaps wasn’t ready for a full ninety minutes.

The injury god showed his wrath as early as the second minute, Anyinsah going down in a heap after a mazy run. He hobbled off apparently with calf trouble and god knows how long he’ll be out for. I didn’t have McVeigh on the bench so on came O’Connor. This lad is meant to be an attacking midfielder but can also play on the wings if pushed. We responded well to the setback, Aiden Quinn being put clean through in the 4th minute. His firm shot was beaten away by the keeper. At least he got it on target though. In the 6th minute Parkin appealed for a penalty but it wasn’t given; I didn’t have a clear view so can’t comment.

This in the first half was as good as it got. Morecambe began to demonstrate their attacking flair soon after, O’Carroll going through on goal only to be denied by Brill. We completely lost impetus after our early attacking spell, and it was probably only fair that O’Carroll eventually did get the goal his industrious play deserved.

In the 42nd minute he somehow managed get himself in front of four Luton players on the edge of the box. The finish into the corner was clinical. Just prior to that we’d also suffered yet another injury, Parkin going off to be replaced by the returning Martin. Having been 2-0 up on shots at one stage, we went for our half time cup of tea down by 3-6. A bollocking was needed and I gave it.

In the second period we gave it a really good go. In the 49th minute Aiden Quinn sneaked past a defender to find himself one on one with the keeper just six yards out. He hit a low shot to the keeper’s right but agonizingly it hit the inside of the post and popped out into the open space of the penalty area on the opposite side of the pitch. So unlucky! I couldn’t blame Quinn for that one. Around the hour mark I gambled on my third and final substitute, the tired Nicholls coming on for the desperately disappointing Keith Keane.

In the 65th minute we scored a wonderful goal, and it was that man Quinn. Somehow he picked the ball up twenty five yards from goal and hit an exquisite chip over the goalkeeper down the centre of the net. It reminded me of that goal Ray Houghton scored against Italy in the 1994 World Cup. Super stuff. I’d marked Quinn down as being a candidate for release after the summer friendlies, so this was quite a turn up!

Instead of using our momentum to push on and win the game however, we did completely the opposite. It was the same against Rochdale. In that match I felt that once we’d equalised against ten men we should have taken the rest of the game by the scruff of the neck. It didn’t happen and the only chances thereafter went to Rochdale. This match against Morecambe went exactly the same way. The moment we equalised, the opposition suddenly started to swamp us. Very disappointing. Indeed they’d already missed one good chance minutes earlier before substitute Blinkhorn headed home with ten minutes to go. Despair.

Bizarrely, there was more one twist left in the tale. The clock had long ticked into injury time when Chris Martin took the ball down from an angle and fired a low shot in the near post. Remarkable finish. I’m not used to scoring two goals in matches! By rights though we were fortunate, losing the shot count as we did by 9-12. There are positives to take from the game as mentioned earlier, not the least the fact we’re now unbeaten in three.

(Table after 18/46 games. We have 3 wins, 9 draws, 6 defeats)

Wycombe (17)

Macclesfield (16)

Chesterfield (14)

Chester City (7)

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Bournemouth (4)

Luton Town (-12)

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November round-up

Premiership

The big guns are still happily dominating the Premiership after 15/38 games, but it is at least a good even fight. Man Utd (33) lead the way from Chelsea (32), who themselves are only marginally ahead of Arsenal (32). Then come Tottenham (29) and Liverpool (29). The media are not convinced Spurs can hang onto that Champion's League spot and I fully agree.

Down at the bottom David Moyes' Everton have recovered from a poor start to move safely into mid-table. The bottom three now looks more 'natural', with the possibly exception of West Ham (11). Hull (11) and Stoke (11) are the other two strugglers. Nobody though has fallen adrift from the rest of the pack yet.

In the goalscoring charts, Arsenal's Robin Van Persie (9) leads the way from Berbatov (8), Alves (8), and Zaki (8). The latter is quite the hero in Wigan right now having fired the Lancashire club to sixth in the table.

Championship

Reading (42) are still looking good for an immediate return to the Premier League. They lead the table by two points from Ipswich (40). The playoff spots are occupied firstly by two surprise outfits, Bristol City (40) and Doncaster (37), and then by two of the more fancied clubs, Charlton (35) and Cardiff (34). Just outside the top spots lurk Sheffield United (34) on goal difference.

At the foot of it all, Preston (18) and Swansea (18) can only claim to be safe on goal difference at the moment. Below them, facing a trip through the trapdoor if they don't buck up, are Blackpool (18), QPR (16), and Crystal Palace (13).

The top scorer in The Championship is Cardiff striker Eddie Johnson. The American has 13 goals so far this term and may soon turn some Premiership heads if he keeps going the way he's going.

League One

Leeds (38) are still at the summit, but four league defeats by the end of November suggests they're far from guaranteed to still be there come May. Oldham (35) are having a great season in second place so far. The playoffs are filled by Peterborough (32), Leicester (32), Millwall (32), and Scunthorpe (30).

In the relegation places are Bristol Rovers (18), Walsall (16), Brighton (15), and Hereford (9). The Welsh side are on another terrible run and quite frankly look doomed.

Top goalscorer is Hayes of Scunthorpe. He has 15 league goals.

League Two

Shrewsbury (36) still lead my division but their lead has been marginally cut by Gillingham (32). I've lost to both those sides away from home thus far. Darlington (30) are the third side in the automatic places. Below them in the playoffs are Exeter (30), perhaps sensing a second straight promotion, Port Vale (29), Bury (29), and Grimsby (28).

The league's top goalscorer plys his trade at the league leaders. Shrewsbury's Grant Holt has 14 league goals.

Blue Square Premier

York (39) are still the non-league's top team, followed by surprise package Weymouth (36) in second. Slightly further back are the ex-league trio of Rushden and Diamonds (33), Torquay (33), and Oxford (33).

No surprises down at the bottom, where Mansfield have now picked up sufficiently enough to climb out of trouble. The bottom four now looks like this - Barrow (22), Lewes (22), Eastbourne (16), and Forest Green (13). Three of those clubs have only just got promoted to this league!

Top scorer is Domoraud (14) with mid-table Woking.

Blue Square North

Farsley Celtic (36) continue to shine, now six points ahead of second placed Gateshead (30). Then come the slightly ailing Harrogate (29), Workington (28), and Gainsborough (27).

Down at the other end, Burscough (14), Hucknall (13) and Vauxhall (12) are all struggling but are far from finished.

It's tied for the golden boot right now between Farsley's Andy Campbell and Stafford's McCurk, both with 10 league goals.

Blue Square South

The top club here is St Albans (36), followed by surprise package Bishops Stortford (31). In third are AFC Wimbledon (30). Then come two tied teams in the form of Welling (28) and Newport (28).

At the foot, Havant (17) seem to have hit hard times after last year's big cup run. They're joined by Thurrock (17) and Bogner Regis (12).

Top scorer is Higgins of Bishop's Stortford with 13 league goals

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News snippets from Kenilworth Road

- I'm not sure how it will go down with the fans and the press, but I'm currently in negotiation with a Norwegian club to take 39 year old central defender Ronny Johnson on a free transfer.

- Lewis Emmanual was even angrier than Sol Davis on hearing the news he has been relegated down my list of left backs. I've told the 25 year old he can go out on loan for a bit if he so choses.

- £3000 p/w man Marc Edworthy has been draining a lot of my wages this season without even playing. I've now managed to loan him out to Wrexham for the next 3 months. The Welsh side have agreed to pay 40% of his wage.

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01/12/08 - The Ghost of Kenilworth Road (part 1)

After a few days of peace and quiet, I came into the office this morning to find us a man down (or 'woman', if you want complete accuracy). Nicky was not at her desk, despite it being well past nine 'o' clock.

"Is Nicky in the loo?" I queried with nobody in particular.

"She's not here, period" Brenda said.

"Why? Is she ill?".

Nobody answered this time, and as I finished putting my coat on the back of my chair, I sensed something was wrong.

"Okay, spit it out. Where is she?"

Still no response from anyone. I was just about to start raising my voice when Alison piped up with something that I suppose was better than nothing.

"Caroline" she said, but without actually looking at Caroline. "I think you'd better tell James the story you told us".

I looked over at Caroline. She looked almost frightened to speak.

"Go on, Caroline" I encouraged her. "Just spit it out. I'm getting bored now".

"Okay. Well, I bumped into Nicky and her friend Chantelle last night at this corner shop. They were going to The Hatters Arms for a drink, and once they saw me they invited me along, so I went with them. Then, later on when we came out of the pub, I kind of decided to come here and have a quick late night session on the internet. The only trouble is, I told Nicky and Chantelle what I was doing and they decided to come along with me. So, we all came here. For a while we just sat and surfed, except for Chantelle who doesn't have a loggin so she just sat and watched Nicky.

"Anyway, after a while Nicky said she was going up to the canteen area to use the confectionary machine. Chantelle went with her but I stayed here. They were gone a while so I figured they'd just sat down in the canteen and chilled out for a bit. Anyway, suddenly I heard wailing and the sound of running feet. It was coming from right outside the door and the voices sounded like those two. So, I went out into the corridor and I could see Nicky and Chantelle running to get out of the building. They looked completely freaked about something. I ran after them and caught up to them outside once they'd slowed down to catch their breath. I asked them what was wrong and they said they'd seen a ghost".

Caroline ended her tale right there without any further explanation.

"You what?" I said finally.

"A ghost".

"A ghost?" I repeated. "You mean like the type that floats around in the air and you can see through them? That type of ghost?"

"What other type is there? Nicky says they were both sat down near the window of the canteen and then when they randomnly glanced down onto the pitch, there was a ghost next to the goalposts".

"So the ghost was on the pitch, not in the canteen?"

"That's right".

I glanced around at the others. Alison was wearing no expression, whereas Brenda was looking at me as if to say - that's what she told me too. Darren meanwhile was slowly bobbing his head up and down with a big grin on his face.

"This sounds like bullsh!t to me", I said out loud. "Darren, are you buying any of this?"

"No, but it's funny".

"Look" said Caroline softly. "All I'm doing is repeating what Nicky and Chantelle said they saw. Personally I wasn't up there to see anything. Nicky's pretty freaked though. She's even stayed off work she's so freaked".

"Jesus H. That girl!" I said, walking back to my desk and picking up the phone. "She'll soon get here when I speak to her".

'When' though was the operative word. Nicky's phone was switched off.

"Dammit" I muttered under my breath.

"What are you going to do about it?" Darren asked.

"I don't know. I'll give her another call later, I suppose"

"I meant the ghost. What are you going to do about the ghost?"

"Har-har" I replied.

"It could be true you know" Alison speculated. "Obviously they both saw something or they wouldn't have run away like they did. Lots of buildings supposedly have ghosts, especially big buildings like this one. Maybe Kenilworth Road has a resident ghost none of us newer employees are yet aware of?

"Do you seriously believe that?"

"I don't know. Maybe. I definitely believe it's possible ghosts exist . Me and my husband watch Most Haunted all the time, you know, that show where three or four people set up recording equipment in some supposedly haunted building trying to catch some evidence? Sometimes they get some really creepy stuff on camera, totally unexplainable stuff".

"There you go" Brenda said to me. "Maybe you should ask around some of the people who have been here longer than us, find out if there are any secret legends we don't know about".

I glanced disbelievingly from face to face. They all looked serious now, as if they actually wanted me to do it.

"Oh okay" I said finally. "I'll ask one or two people. I'm going outside on my mobile to do it though. You people have got work to do".

I really couldn't believe I was doing this. I checked I had my phone on me and then headed out to the corridor. Dave Wheelie had been here a lot longer than me. I imagined he might know if there was anything ghostly going on within the stadium.

"A ghost?" he laughed. "I really don't think so, and I wouldn't go bothering Dilic with this either".

Personally I thought it went without saying I wouldn't bother Dilic with this, and I said so Dave before hanging up. Maybe Cyril would know something? After all, the man knows every worthless Luton fact and statistic in history. I figured it was just remotely possible he might have also have read up on Luton's secret history with ghosts (if such a history even exists).

"A ghost?" he exclaimed in a not too dissimilar fashion to Dave. "Actually, come to think of it, I have been feeling quite haunted recently".

"Really?" I asked in hopeful surprise.

"YEAH! HAUNTED BY THE MEMORY OF THAT DAMN DEATHMATCH! IT'S TOO SOON FOR ME TO BE TALKING TO YOU RIGHT NOW! LEAVE ME ALONE!"

Cyril hung up.

I wanted to give up at this point but I had one more idea left - Fred Pilchard. I figured that if anybody would know anything about a ghost on the pitch, it would be the guy who spends more time on the pitch than even the players do.

"Fred?!" I called out, walking out through the tunnel area. On a separate note before I go on, a recent survey suggested that only 3.4% of visiting players to Kenilworth Road ever get intimidated by the This is Kenilworth Road sign that your head dips under just as you pass through the players tunnel. They asked one hundred current and former professionals, apparently.

Kidding.

Anyway, Fred was over by one of the goals. He seemed to be touching up one of the posts with a coat of paint.

"It was already white" I commented as I walked up to him.

"Laddy" said Fred. "When it comes to goalposts, there's white and then there's white. This post, before today, was the wrong white".

"Which white was that then, your first white or your second white?"

Fred looked confused.

"Look, it doesn't matter" I said, before he could answer. "I'm not here about the pitch or the posts or anything like that. I wanted to ask you if you've ever seen a ghost out here".

Fred's mouth gaped open in horror, and his paintbrush slipped from his fingers and fell into the bucket of paint down by the foot of the post. The paintbrush stayed near the surface for a couple of seconds, and then with an audile 'gloop' sound, sank inside. Fred though ignored this unfortunate development and kept his horror-struck eyes firmly on me.

"I've waited forty four years for somebody to ask me that question" he said.

"Why? What do you know?"

"Well it was a long time ago, laddy. In fact it was 1964. I hadn't been at the club long. At the time I was still an apprentice here to old Charlie Pitten, who was head groundsman for most of the 60's. Anyway, one evening when we still doing our duties, it started to get dark so Charlie told me to call it a day. As he went inside though, I grabbed a bag of balls that were lying around and decided to have a kickabout, a bit like that young laddy of yours was doing the other week. I was a young rascal back then, I suppose.

"Anyway, before long it got completely pitch black and I was still whacking footballs into this goal right here. It was good practice shooting in the dark actually because you didn't know where the posts were. I used to hit the ball and then listen hard to see if I heard the net bulge. Anyway, at one point I was just retrieving some balls from the net when I looked down the other end and saw - ".

Freds eyes welled up. He looked almost frightened to say it.

"Saw what, Fred? It's okay. Go on".

"A ghost" he said. "Clear as daylight. He was standing right down that other end by one of the posts, and he was all misty and white and stood out in the dark".

"What was he doing, this ghost?"

"I didn't stop to find out. I legged it towards the players tunnel, my heart going ten to the dozen".

"And you never saw it again?"

"Nope, but I'll tell you something, I never ever stayed out here after dark ever again".

With that Fred turned back to the goal-post.

"Now where's me brush got to?"

"Maybe the ghost got it" I said, walking off.

"Where are you going?" he called after me.

"To do what someone should have done forty four years ago. I'm going to go home, have my dinner, and then I'm going to come back here tonight and see this damn thing for myself!"

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Wow, this story's got everything! Lol! Thoroughly enjoyable and most of the time has me on the edge of my seat! Good work mate!

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Thanks Dickie! It's most appreciated

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01/12/08 - The Ghost of Kenilworth Road Part 2

In the early evening I finally managed to get hold of Nicky. I was calling her now though from the flat on my own dime, not that I minded.

“It was sooooo scary” she explained, not sounding her usual self. “It was like a figure, and it was all foggy and white. I swear I’m not making it up, James. I swear to God. You can ask my friend too if you want. She saw it too”.

“Nicky, I’ve got no problem with you seeing ghosts. You saw what you saw. I do have a problem though with you staying off work though. That makes us look bad. I don’t want you to do that again, and I’d also like you to make your lost time back up – you could work an extra hour a night for the next couple of weeks or something”.

“Okay” she said softly.

“I should also tell you that it was wrong of you to bring your friend – Chantelle is it? – into the office after hours. I’m not even sure you and Caroline should be coming in that late!”

“I know. I’m sorry James”.

“So you should be” I said, but in a playful voice. “It’s a good job I like you or I wouldn’t let you get away with half the stuff you do!”

I was happy to hear a small chuckle in response to this, and I sensed she was probably grinning that grin I’d come to know and love. Thankfully however she didn’t ask me to elaborate on my use of the word ‘like’.

“I’m going down to the ground tonight to see if I can see this ghost for myself” I continued. “Alison has volunteered to come with me. She seems to know a bit about this sort of stuff from watching TV. Are you going to be okay?”

“Yeah I will be”

“And back to work tomorrow with no fuss?”

“Yeah”.

“That’s the spirit. I’ll let you go then. Have a good night”.

“You too”.

“Bye".

I was due to meet Alison in the canteen at 9pm. I got there earlier than that though so I could do some team planning in my little notebook. As I sat there watching the clock tick down, I found myself putting my little pencil to my mouth and looking out onto the pitch. It was already dark out there and I actually found the silent atmosphere quite disconcerting. Even without any ghosts, looking out into a dark empty stadium is still quite a creepy thing to do. I was surprised Nicky and Chantelle would have wanted to venture up here at such an hour in the first place.

As I sat there, I remembered something from my childhood when I first starting watching cricket. England had been on TV playing a test match against somebody, and the match had been drifting towards the close of play with England two or three wickets down (I can’t remember the exact details). The commentator had suggested the possibility of night-watchman Jack Russell coming in as the next batsman. He hadn’t however explained what a night-watchman actually was, so being young and naive I’d gone away thinking Russell must have been the guy whose duty it was to sleep over at the stadium after hours and watch over the pitch in case any vandals broke in.

Laugh if you want but I was only young at the time! I used to imagine Jack sat there on the player’s balcony in the pitch of night with his legs up on the banister, looking out into the spooky dark of the stadium wondering how the next day’s play was going to pan out. It didn’t occur to me until I was much older that, had Jack done this, he would have been too knackered the following morning to put in any sort of performance. If such a dual role had existed within the England cricket team, I decided it would feel just like I did now, isolated and alone in a huge dark place intended for thousands.

The appearance of Alison turned my thoughts briefly away from ghosts, if only because she looked absolutely gorgeous in her attire of choice for this evening – black leather trousers and a red cotton top. Her husband was definitely a lucky man. Even her swishing long blonde hair belonged in the Premier League of swishing blonde hair styles (not in League Two, in other words).

“Seen anything yet?” she asked, taking a seat opposite.

“Nope”.

“Good. I haven’t missed anything then”.

She’d come prepared. Inside the bag she’d brought with her was effectively a small picnic. There were cheese sandwiches, sausage rolls, yoghurts, tangerines, crisps, chocolate, and cheesecake.

“This isn’t a Famous Five adventure” I said.

“Might as well be prepared” she replied cheerfully. “It could be a long evening”.

“Oh no it won’t be. I’m not staying all night. This is going to get boring very quickly if nothing turns up out there”.

I cocked my thumb towards the window.

“Ye of little faith”.

And so we started eating. And watching. And eating. And watching. And eating. And watching. And eating. And watching. And talking. And eating. And watching. Then we stopped eating. But we carried on watching. And talking. And watching. And talking. And watching. Before long the time ticked past 10.30pm and we still hadn’t seen squat.

“So then the wedding cake toppled sideways off the table?” I asked, laughing.

“Yeah! I swear, half of it fell on Paul’s head and the other half landed on the floor where the dogs suddenly found themselves having a free-for-all”.

“That’s hilarious!”

“Heh. I know. The rest of the day went smoothly though. That was the only incident, and Paul did see the funny side”.

I glanced down at the table full of crumbs and wrappers and then out through the window again. Still nothing. No misty figure. No ghost. Nowt. Zip. Still, we had re-accounted a very funny story about Alison’s wedding, and we’d also gone over the funniest details of the time I’d tried to explain the office side trap to the rest of our office (which Alison had missed due to being in the Maldives).

“I’m calling it a night” I said, standing up and stretching my arms aloft.

“Yeah, good call”.

Alison packed the flask away whilst I put all the various wrappers and bits of cellophane in the bin. Then we turned the lights off and headed out of the building.

“So it looks like all this was for nothing” I said, shutting the front door behind me.

“I wouldn’t say that” Alison replied. “If what you told me about Fred is true, and if it’s also true that Fred and Nicky have never really spoken before, how likely is it they would both just happen to make up exactly the same story? The details are remarkably similar in both tales”

“I was thinking that on my way here. There’s something to all this, that’s for sure. I’m too tired to ponder it any further now though. Listen, thanks for coming Alison. If nothing else, it was nice to have a meet and a chat”.

“Anytime” she said, flinching a bit in the cold of the night.

“Well, goodnight then”.

“Night”.

We both walked off towards our respective cars. As we did so, I could have sworn I heard the clicking sound of a camera coming from the direction of the main gates. When I turned around to look though I saw nothing, and Alison was already inside her vehicle apparently having noticed nothing (judging by her lack of reaction).

‘Just get home, James’ I thought. ‘Just get home’

And that's exactly what I did.

----------------

06/12/08, League Match 19 (Att - 5959)

Luton Town 0

Bury 0

Before this match started I waved to young Rory in the crowd, the little man who had impressed me so much with his knowledge of Robbie Fowler and Ian Wright. He'd had his stadium tour the previous day and enjoyed it very much. Today was his first ever actual match and I was hoping it would be a good one for him.

"Plenty of goals for you today, Rory" I shouted with my hands cupped to the sides of my mouth.

"Let's hope so anyway" Brian butted in.

"Do you know where Dave Wheelie sits?" I asked. "It was good of him to sort out Rory's season ticket. I wouldn't mind pointing Rory out to him just so he knows I didn't lie about who I needed the ticket for".

"Dave doesn't come to the matches".

"He doesn't?"

"No. I thought you might have known that. At least, he come doesn't as far as I know anyway".

"Oh" I said as a final note, feeling somewhat surprised.

Two changes for the match today. The fit again Martin came in for Quinn up front, and McVeigh replaced the crocked Anyinsah on the right wing. The latter was an obvious change to make. The former however caused me some headache. I basically had to decide whether or not to leave out Parkin or Quinn. Parkin is a much better and much more experienced player, but he hasn't scored all season, where as Quinn scored that brilliant goal in the previous match.

Perhaps wrongly telling myself it was a one-off, I opted for Quinn to miss out. There was no way I was leaving Martin out, that's for sure. We lined up as usual with 4.4.2, although I was surprised to see our visitors playing a very negative 5.4.1 formation. This a team remember who currently sit on the edge of the playoffs. Very strange.

Bury's approach made it nigh on impossible for them to win the match. They had one shot all game, a free kick curled just wide from lone striker Bishop. The only problem is, they did a pretty good job of nullifying us at the same time. We had nine shots to their one but most were pot shots from a safe distance. Our best moment came after twenty minutes when left winger Davies tucked home from close range only to be flagged offside. In the second half substitute Quinn almost scored but headed straight at the keeper from six yards out. And that's about your lot really. We deserved to win but couldn't quite break down the fortress walls. The draw extends our unbeaten run to four games.

(Table after 19 matches. We have 3 wins, 10 draws, 6 defeats)

Wycombe (20)

Macclesfield (17)

Chesterfield (14)

Chester City (8)

-----------------

Bournemouth (5)

Luton Town (-11)

----------------

08/12/08 - Analysing Dave

Something hit me like a bullet today. I don't know why, but as I sat there eating my muesli at the kitchen table, I started thinking to myself how strange it is that Dave Wheelie doesn't come to any of our matches. Dilic doesn't come either but then I've never got the impression he likes football. It's different with Dave though. I'd witnessed how he was with me, Brian, and Darren during that FA Cup party. A lot of the talk that night had been about football, and Dave had made more than his fair share of contributions. He'd seemed quite knowledgable about the game and I can remember thinking how impressed I was, if only because prior to that night I really hadn't pegged Dave as a football fan at all.

If he was such a secret authority on the sport though, why didn't he come to any of our games? From what I could gather he'd been employed at our club in various capacities for a number of years, and yet seemingly he had no interest in the actual team. As far as I could see there was only one reason for this - Dave supported somebody else.

Maybe he was a fan of some other team from wherever it was he'd grown up, and now just couldn't force himself to like any other club? That was an obvious conclusion to draw, especially for someone like Dave who was obviously university educated and thus unlikely to have lived in the same place his whole life. However, something else was coming to my mind now, something Caroline had said to me in the canteen a while back...

('I said hi but he didn’t say a word back. He was wearing this horrible yellow football top. Maybe he was embarassed to be seen in it or something?').

I'd presumed at the time Dave had been playing some form of midweek five-a-side, either that or he simply had a generic yellow football shirt as part of his casual wardrobe. What if though, that yellow shirt was actually another club's colours? Quickly I began flicking through teams in my head I knew to play in yellow. Norwich seemed the obvious one but I was never going to get them all. I don't know every club's away colours for another thing. As I mulled this over, yet another incident from the past began fighting for my attention. This time it was an experience involving the gruesome twosome of Towzer and Garry. I was recalling the night they had threatened Dave in the corridor outside the main offices.

('All we're saying is, Dave, you'd better decide just where your loyalties lie. We really don't want to come and have this conversation with you again in the future')

Back then I'd had no idea what that meant. Had it been a reference, by any chance, to Dave being a fan of another club? Wondering if I was onto something, I went back to the bedroom and booted up my laptop. Then, using a combination of search engines and various footballing information sites, I began searching through the home and away strips of all ninety two league clubs. As you would expect, lots of clubs have yellow as one of their two colours. Of all the clubs however, one in particular stood out like a sore thumb. I was surprised I hadn't thought of it straight away actually.

"Watford" I said out loud, remembering Elton John and his finger clicking. It was obvious to think of the Hornets because their being local to Luton. If Dave did support a team that played in yellow, there was far more chance said team would be nearby rather than say, in the far reaches of North West Scotland. To put the Watford theory to the test, I checked back in my diary to see what date it had been when Caroline had bumped into Dave.

Then I checked on the BBC Sport website to see if Watford had been involved in a match that very same night. If they had, and Dave was indeed a closet Hornet, he might well have been on his way home from the match when Caroline had seen him. Even if there hadn't been a match that night, he could still have been out and about just casually wearing his Watford shirt.

However, there HAD been a match that night. Elton's boys had entertained Sheffield United and drawn 2-2. I reckoned the odds of my deductions being correct had just narrowed considerably. I still wasn't entirely sure what the implications would be if Dave was confirmed to be a staunch Watford FC supporter. I imagined it's not exactly illegal to support a different team to the one you're employed just as long as you're not also employed at the secondary team (or involved with them in some other significant way). I also had to remind myself I would be seriously jumping ahead of myself at this stage to think that Dave did anything beyond support Watford Football Club.

Even if he was just a fan of Watford, the consequences for Dave's future at Luton were worrying to think about if my theorizing was accurate. I didn't think for a minute Dilic would appreciate one of his highest ranking employees being a supporter of one of the club's local rivals. On a good day Dilic would sack him after finding that out. On a bad day - piranha pool. Having said that, if Towzer and Garry had already sussed out what I was only just beginning to suss out, I would have to wonder why Dilic didn't know about this already. There were too many permutations at work here, and now I was getting a headache just thinking about them.

Whilst I had my laptop on I decided to quickly check my E-mails. Ironically, I had one from Dave himself.

Hi James

Listen mate, you might have already figured this out for yourself, but there hasn't been any work done on that proposed apartment for you at Kenilworth Road. We had some trouble with the architect's plans for altering the building structure. Without going into too much detail, the whole idea has been completely shelved for the time being. Until further notice you have the blessing of Mr Dilic to remain in your current apartment. He's going to rent somewhere else for his daughter when she comes over next week.

Regards

Dave Wheelie

I'm not sure whether to be happy about that news, to be frank. Whilst on the one hand it saves me the hassle of moving house, I have to admit I do have quite the yearning to not be living somewhere Dilic probably has his own spare key to the front door. It's quite unnerving in a way. I'd actually like to buy my own place at some point next year, especially now I'm earning approximately 70k a year. I'm thirty years old now. It's about time I got on the property ladder. Anyway, moving on, I also had an E-mail today from the East Side Dojo. I had to think hard for a minute to remember how they would come to have my address.

Dear loyal member.

In June of next year the Dojo will journey into the forests of Mongolia on a special voyage of spiritual discovery. Led by your expedition leader, Bear, your group will journey on foot through a treacherous wilderness for three weeks, eventually arriving at the sacred Mijatsabi Temple. It is within this temple the Mijatsabi Monks still train and live after centuries of refusing to leave the four walls for religious reasons. Thanks to the far reaching reputation of our dojo, the monks have agreed to welcome our travelling members for one day only and engage us in a serious of physical trials and contests.

This is an opportunity not to be missed, dear member! The cost of the three week expedition (running from June 18th to July 9th) is completely free of charge. However we do encourage members to bring £4000 in cash to be offered to the Mijatsabi God of Wells on arrival. This is to ensure that our stay at the temple will be blessed by the powers above. To book your place, please speak to Bear at the Dojo. Hurry because there are only 24 places available!

Yours faithfully

Giraffe (Red Belt)

East Side Dojo

I don't think I'll be going on that somehow. The third and final E-mail today was from my father...

Hi son. How have you been? I'm not going to stay long today. I just wanted to let you know that I'm thinking about you and that I'm sorry me and you mum have gone our separate ways (she tells me that you know, apparently). There's a lot that you don't know but now's not the time to discuss it. Maybe we'll meet in person at some point. Anyway, I hope it's going okay for you down amongst those Southerners, and if not, don't let it get you too down.

Love dad xx

P.S - Watch Die Hard with a Vengence if you get the chance - absolutely belting film

It was nice to hear from my dad (I suppose), but it would have been better still if he'd actually picked up the phone and called. That said, the realisations concerning Dave Wheelie were too fresh in my mind right now to be thinking about anything else, even the woes of my parents. As such, the emotional effect of my dad's E-mail was somewhat stunted.

----------------

News in briefs

- Matthew Gill has joined us on loan from Colchester. He specialises both as a central midfielder and a defensive midfielder so offers us versatility. He's also costing us £0 a week, which is brilliant.

- Poor Brinsley Sheridan. One minute he's scoring on his professional debut, next minute he's breaking his leg in training. He'll be out for 5 or 6 months. His season is effectively over.

- The word on Joe Anyinsah is that he'll be out for between 2 days and 2 weeks.

- Ian Roper injured himself in the same training session Sheridan broke his leg. He will be out for between 3 weeks and a month.

- Reserve player Rossi Jarvis, who earlier this season played first team games during the injury crisis, will be out for between a week and three weeks (another injury).

----------------

09/12/08 - You've got to feel for the lad

I felt terrible about Brinsley Sheridan. In fact, I felt it only right I should go visit him in the hospital the day after the training accident. It would be killing two birds with one stone anyway, as from what I gather Matthew Spring was back at the same hospital having another foot operation and I needed to see him. In fact make it three birds with one stone - I decided once I was at reception to check up on my old friend Steve Fairclough.

"He's checked out" said the bored looking nurse behind the counter.

"Really? When?"

"He was transferred to a hospital in Leeds so he could be closer to his family. He's on the mend, by and large - he just needs a plate fitting in front of one of his ribs".

"Oh, right".

So Steve had finally headed back up north. Good for him. That was probably far enough away to satisfy Brute, fingers crossed.

I had no particular preference for who I saw first out of Spring and Sheridan, so I just followed the ward nurse and left things in the lap of the Gods. Maybe the nurse figured I was more worried about Sheridan, because that's who she took me to. On the other hand, she probably did it randomnly.

"How you holding up, Brinsley?"

"Not great, boss".

"Listen, I don't have long today but I just wanted to tell you the club is 100% behind you at the moment. You're going to get yourself fixed up and then eventually you're going to get another chance. I can't promise you'll get back in the first team but I can promise you this; once you are back, I'm going to get you reserve team games and I'm going to take a good look at you again. I'm also going to give you time to play yourself back into form. I don't hang players out to dry the minute they suffer a setback. That's not the way I work".

"Thanks boss, I really appreciate that".

After him I went to see Spring. He was considerably more mobile than Sheridan, and at the moment I walked in was sat on the side of his bed having a fresh bandage fitted over his heal.

"Hey Matthew. How goes it?"

"Hey James. Not bad, not bad".

I let the nurse finish what she had to do and then asked her to leave us. What I had to say next was considerably more difficult than what I'd had to say to Sheridan, and I wanted it said in private.

"Matthew, I know this might come across as inconsiderate of me given your present condition, but I think you'd want me to tell you now rather than two months down the line when you're ready to come back. I imagine you'll appreciate me telling you now so you can instruct your agent to get cracking on your behalf".

"You're letting me go aren't you?"

"At the end of the season, yes" I said, taking a seat on the bed next to my wounded player. It wasn't a very comfy bed. In fact the spring I was sitting on was probably even more uncomfortable than the Spring sitting next to me (haha).

"Yes I am. Your contract is up in the summer and I'm not going to renew it. We simply can't afford to keep a £5000 per week player on the books. It's too much. I'm not saying you're not worth it, but whether you are or you aren't is irrelevent right now. Luton Town is a League Two club now, and next summer it might even be a non-league club. We need a complete overhaul of the wage structure, and you're the first on my hitlist".

I paused at that moment to see if Spring would spring into life and put up a fight. He didn't though, and that just confirmed to me in my own mind that I had made the right decision. No fight. No desire to prove me wrong. Not much of anything, emotion wise.

"I'll be honest with you, Matthew" I continued. "As much as I sympathise with your injury and wish you a speedy recovery, I've been disappointed with your effort on the pitch this season. Like I told another long time Luton player the other week, there have been too many of the old boys club phoning in their performances since all the F.A penalties starting killing the club. That mentality is something I need to change quickly. Unfortunately, because of your high wage, you're one of the first I have to let go. I'm sorry".

"That's okay" Spring said. "I've wanted to leave since last summer anyway. For the record, I'd just like to say that I think you're a complete and utter dimwit when it comes to managing that team. You'll never make it anywhere once you get sacked by Luton. P!ss off and leave me alone, Martin. Just - take a walk".

This time my silence was due to my being stunned.

"Okie dokie" I said, managing to keep my cool (somehow). "I'll leave you be then. Oh, and I'll be expecting you back in training once you're better. Goodbye Matthew".

With that I walked out. However, I'd be lying if I said I didn't shake a little bit once I was outside. Spring's little reposte had sounded more sinister in person than it does it print. I'd also be lying if I said I then didn't go and do something I haven't done for about eight months - I bought some cigarettes.

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13/12/08 - Treacle Town

To clear my head I went for a private wander around Macclesfield before our big league game with them. There isn’t much to see in the town but I did pass an art gallery that kept me amused for half an hour. There was also a small museum focusing on the town’s history in the silk industry. I don’t know anything about silk but I usually enjoy museums no matter what there is to see. They’re just lovely and peaceful places to visit. Exhibits are fun to look at, and I love learning random things by reading the little descriptions and signs etc.

As do most museums, this one had a little miniature cafe I could park myself in at the end of my self-guiding tour. I did this and ordered a large cappuccino. Then, when I was settled, I called Caroline on my mobile phone.

“Hey, what are you up to?” I asked.

“Just lying in bed” my trusty archives administrator replied. “It is Saturday you know”.

“Did you look at the picture of that Watford shirt I sent you?”

“I did, yeah. That’s exactly the one I saw Dave wearing”.

“Okay, thanks Caroline”.

“No worries”.

It was a short conversation but I wasn’t in the mood for a chinwag. This had been a lovely morning of solitary healing in unfamiliar surroundings, and by and large I wanted to keep it that way until at least lunchtime. I had wanted the confirmation on Dave’s Watford allegiance though, and I was hardly going to call Caroline during the match.

I noticed now the girl sat at the table next to me. It was hard to miss her because we were the only two people using the cafe. She was perhaps eighteen or nineteen (I hoped!) with long very black hair and a black leather jacket. She had a kind of milky cat-like expression which sort of reminded me of Nicky but without the big grin. I must admit, regardless of the fact she was cute, I had to wonder what someone of her age was doing all by herself in a silk museum. In fact, come to think of it, had I seen her back at the art gallery too? I wasn’t sure.

My thoughts were interrupted by the appearance in the doorway of a man and a woman. Both were looking right at me.

“Mr Martin?” asked the man, a very tall, broad fellow with jaunty cheekbones.

“That’s me”.

“Mind if we join you?”

“Okay”.

The man and the woman sat down. As they did so, the girl I’d been clocking finished her cup of tea and headed for the door.

“I’m Inspector Ridgway and this is Sergeant Myers” said the man, flashing his badge at the same time as the woman. “We’re from the Bedfordshire police. May we speak with you?”

“I suppose”.

“We’re investigating the assault of your friend Mr Fairclough”.

“You came all the way up to Macclesfield just for that?”

“No, we’re here on another matter primarily, one involving some Luton supporters. Whilst we were out in the square though we saw you coming in here and decided to come speak to you once we’d finished our cheeseburgers. My partner here recognised your picture from the Herald”.

“Although you do look different without the Bruce Lee attire on” the woman interrupted.

She had a cynical face did Myers, one that has probably witnessed too many men doing the dirty on her. It was a ‘doing it for the sisters’ kind of face, complete with hair-bun to go with it. Women just don’t look natural that way.

“Anyway” said Ridgway. “Going back to Fairclough, would you like to offer us your thoughts?”

“There’s not much I can say. He got beaten up and now he’s back in Leeds, so I hear”.

“Yes, beaten up” said Myers. “It’s strange though how he should get beaten up so soon after your big disagreement in the Kenilworth Road car park, don’t you think?”

“He told you about that?”

“No, but his wife did, shortly after she saw the state of him in St James Hospital in Leeds last night. Mr Fairclough himself is strangely silent about the chain of events leading up to his - accident”.

“Look, I don’t know anything about how he got himself hurt. It’s true we fell out, and if you want to hear all about why we fell out then I’ll be happy to tell you. However, I had nothing to do with what happened to him and I don’t know anything about it”.

Both officers sat and stared at me, almost as if they were trying to get a read on my body language. It was deathly quiet in the museum now, except for the sound of the cafe attendant fiddling about with a dishwasher somewhere. I was almost glad the cute dark haired girl was long gone. Anybody witnessing this who didn’t know me would probably think I was some kind of shady crook.

“Would you be willing to take a lie detector test to confirm that you know nothing more about the Steve Fairclough incident?”

“Yes” I instinctively replied, but secretly feeling my heart sink into my lower reaches.

Again there was a silence, and again those stares, the worst being from the woman – Myers.

“That won’t be necessary for now, Mr Martin” said Ridgway. “Our investigation has only just begun however. If we need to speak to you again pending further enquiries, we’ll be in touch. In the meantime, if you think of anything else, please give us a call”.

The plank-faced Ridgway then handed me a small piece of pink card with his number on it. I thought it looked like one of those community chest cards you get in Monopoly.

“Bank error - £200” I said, pretending to read the underside. “You lucky git!”

Ridgway and Myers failed to crack a smile, but they did at least stand up with a view to leaving me alone.

“Best of luck in the match today, Mr Martin”.

“Thanks. That’s very kind of you. Oh, before you go, what’s this business you have with some of our away fans? Isn’t it customary for the home team to police football matches?”

Both officers glanced at each other as if telepathically conferring on whether or not it would be okay to share. Then they looked back at me and Ridgway answered.

“We have a suspicion someone is peddling ecstasy at Luton Town games. Two youths fell ill from taking the stuff at last week’s home match. We’re going to mix in with the crowd for a few games and see if we see anything”.

“Crikey. Okay, well, I hope you catch whoever’s responsible”.

A few more fake pleasantries later and they were gone. I picked up my coat and decided to leave at this point too. It was getting close to lunchtime and I needed to be back at the team hotel. As I left the cafe to re-join the main section of the museum, I suddenly wandered past the dark haired cute girl from earlier. She was stood not far past the door to the cafe area examining one of the exhibits. I imagined this meant she’d probably heard the whole thing with me and the police officers.

'That’s my chances with her blown then'

----------------

13/12/08, League Match 20 (Att - 1845)

Macclesfield Town 0

Luton Town 0

I made three changes for today’s game, one forced and two not so. Roper was injured so in came Howarth at centre back for his first start of the season. It was a big test for the youngster and I was hoping he could successfully make the step up in class. As for the unforced changes, out went Parkin and Keane to be replaced by Slusarski and Gill. It was always a guarantee that Slusarski, when back from injury, would replace Parkin. As for Keane, the fans on the message boards have been starting to slag him off and I thought it might be a prudent to give new boy Matthew Gill a try. Keane to me represents yet another one of those‘Luton old boys I’ve spoken of a lot lately who just don’t seem to be putting 100% in.

Prior to the match I had been informed that Macclesfield usually play a 3.5.2 formation (on a narrow pitch when at home), something which gave me plenty of food for thought. I considered several variations in formation to counter this but ultimately ended up sticking with 4.4.2. One minor change I did make was to instruct one of our strikers, in this instance Martin, to spend a lot of his time close to the midfield four. I was worried we’d be outgunned by their five man midfield.

The match was a dull affair between two obviously poor sides. We had the best of the first half. Martin had a half chance after fifteen minutes, blasting a firm shot on goal that the keeper parried firmly out for a throw-in. Then shortly afterwards came our best chance of the whole game, Slusarski heading wide after a teasing cross from McVeigh. The home side woke up after that though and should have gone ahead with their first attack, striker Green somehow blasting over in the 37th minute after being put clean through on goal from a long ball.

I was quietly confident for the second half but we just didn’t create anywhere near the same level of opportunities. Frankly, neither did Macclesfield. I think it was about 4-3 to us on shots at half time, but by the end that counter had barely advanced, finishing as did on 5-5. Our best and indeed only surge forward in the second period came when Martin’s scuffed low shot was saved by the feet of the keeper. Martin should have done better, truth be told. We also had a goal disallowed from a Slusarski header which was obviously not going to count long before the ball was in the net. The home side had their own skirmishes with our goal but most were from range, and as such, largely forgettable.

The draw is yet another blow in our fight for survival. We’re still a long way adrift with almost half the season gone. We also look completely lightweight going forward. Contrary to what you might think, I did encourage attacking play in this match but it just didn’t materialise often enough for us to get the breakthrough. On the plus side, we’re now five matches unbeaten and arguably becoming a tough team to beat. We also seem to be suffering less injuries per game as the season wears on. The tactic of giving my players the day off after each matchday has really been paying dividends.

(Table after 20 games. We have 3 wins, 11 draws, 6 defeats)

Wycombe (21)

Macclesfield (18)

Chesterfield (17)

Chester City (9)

Bournemouth (5)

------------------

Luton Town (-10)

----------------

15/12/08 - Coping with the wolves

Because we were away from home at the weekend, our club press conference wasn’t until Monday morning. I was looking forward to this one. No doubt people would be looking to mock us after yet another uninspiring 0-0. Well that was fine. Let them. I had some exciting transfer news to shut them up with once they’d finished banging on about Macclesfield.

“Morning all. No statement this morning. We’ll go straight to the questions”.

Predictably Andy Branston from The Herald was first to rise.

"James" he began. "There's no easy way for me to ask this, but do you think, in all honesty, hand on heart, it might now be time to go?"

"Absolutely not. I've only just got here and I fully intend on answering at least a few questions before we all leave for the day"

As Andy sat back down shaking his head, I pointed at a woman in the back row.

"Victoria Thornton, The Mirror. With respect to Mr Branston, he asks the wrong question this morning. Most people are far more interested to know what's going on with the possible signing of Ronny Johnson. Any news?"

Here was the moment I'd been waiting for. I knew they wouldn't be able to hold off asking me about Johnson for long. I glanced at Brian and we both smiled at each other. Then I turned back to Victoria and cleared my throat.

"Well it's funny you should ask about that. I'm very pleased to announce that, as of yesterday afternoon, Valarenga's Ronny Johnson has agreed terms. He'll be joining us on the first of January and has signed a contract through to the end of the season. Johnson of course is a highly experienced defender who used to play for Manchester United and Norway. This is a great coup in our battle against relegation".

Much scribbling, murmuring, and camera clicking. Andy Branston practically exploded out of his seat again, cutting off Victoria's follow-up question.

"I hoped this was just a rumour. I just can't believe - you do know he's now thirty nine years old?"

"Yes I do know that, hence why I've only given him a six month deal".

"James, you've already been keeping clean sheets regularly. Don't you think it's further up the pitch the squad needs to be strengthened?"

"I do, but I've always believed that attack begins in defence. Or something like that".

Andy sat down shaking his head again. Victoria had long parked her bum too, so now I pointed towards Brad Scowcroft of The Supporters Trust. He was one of two further people with their hands up.

"Going back to the age thing" Brad began slowly. "Don't you think Luton should be focusing on its youth policy right now? It just seems crazy at a time like this, when relegation seems a certainly, you're still going out far afield courting quick-fix mercenaries!"

"I don't agree with you, Brad, and I think Ronny Johnson would be highly offended at your choice of words there. This is a highly decorated professional of the game. He's never shirked from a challenge wherever he's gone. Let's give the guy a chance".

"I don't even want to imagine how badly he's going to drain the wage bucket whilst he's here".

"He's on a deal that falls within the strict criteria laid down to me by our in-house accountant. Ronny Johnson is certainly not on anything outlandish when it comes to wages. In fact there are several players still at Luton on higher salaries".

Brad sat down and I pointed to a man with red hair I didn't recognise.

"Clint Maynard, The Sun. Going slightly off-topic now, but you were photographed late the other night coming out of Kenilworth Road with an attractive young blonde woman. Can you tell us anything about this?"

Murmours around the room. I looked blankly at Brian but he didn't offer anything helpful in return.

"I errrr - well - the woman you're referring to is Alison Wainwright. She's the ticket administrator in my office".

"But what were you doing at Kenilworth Road so late at night with her? According to my research, Mrs Wainwright is a married woman".

"Well I errr - we weren't doing anything like that - we were just - "

I had no idea what to say. I just totally wasn't prepared for this. I'd heard a camera click at the time I'd left the night but I hadn't given it any thought since then. The wolves meanwhile were waiting for their answer.

"I - we - we were there looking for a ghost".

Laughter around the room. I smiled back as if trying to make out I was in on the joke with them.

"You what?" Andy Branston chuckled without without even bothering to stand up.

"A ghost. We'd heard from several reliable witnesses that a ghost was haunting the stadium, so me and Alison decided to go and check it out late at night. We didn't see anything though so there's a good chance the stadium is in fact not haunted after all".

In the midst of further laughter I pointed to a man I recognised as Johnathan Pantsil, who worked for Radio 5.

"James" he said, standing up and waiting for the din to subside. "Is there any truth in the rumour you're hoping to sign Egon Spengler before the window closes?"

Roars of approval from around the room. I laughed a fake laugh in return.

"Har-har" I said sarcastically.

"I hear Bill Murray's going on a free right now" someone else offered.

It was all downhill from there.

----------------

The current Sun player ratings for my first team squad

Note - loan players in italics.

Claude Gnakpa - 7.15 (25 apps, 2 goals)

Gary Borrowldale - 7.03 (2 apps)

Ian Roper - 7.03 (9 apps)

George Pilkington - 6.94 (25 apps)

Aaron Fletcher - 6.90 (1 app)

Aiden Quinn - 6.85 (2 apps)

Chris Martin - 6.83 (18 apps)

Harry Hogarth - 6.80 (1 app)

Dean Brill - 6.78 (25 apps)

Bartosz Slusarski - 6.77 (18 apps, 3 goals

Kevin Nicholls - 6.65 (13 apps, 2 goals)

Steven Davies - 6.65 (4 apps)

George Beavon - 6.65 (3 apps)

Paul McVeigh - 6.63 (12 apps)

Gareth O'Connor - 6.49 (16 apps)

Keith Keane - 6.47 (19 apps, 1 goal)

Matthew Gill - 6.40 (2 apps)

Sam Parkin - 6.37 (12 apps)

Drew Talbot - 6.13 (9 apps)

Joe Anyinsah - 6.10 (2 apps)

----------------

Forthcoming fixtures

Wycombe Wanderers (H) - 20/12/08

Exeter City (A) - 26/12/08

Barnet (H) - 28/12/08

Notts County (H) - 07/01/09

Chester City (A) - 10/01/09

----------------

18/12/08 - Darren's secret mission Part 1

The next edition of The Hertfordshire Herald predictably made fun of me on the back page. Their headline read 'Roll out the Trap, Martin! - Luton boss in bizarre ghost hunt'. There was a picture of my head super-imposed onto one of the Ghostbusters famous uniforms from the films. The article beneath described everything me and Alison had got up to as according to yours truly. There was even a quote from Alison herself confirming that we weren't sleeping together and that the ghost hunt thing was 100% the truth.

Frankly, I think it might been less embarassing to have been having the affair. To her credit Alison wasn't annoyed with me for my slip-up with the press. Her husband Paul was apparently nothing but amused by the story and had fully believed mine and Alison's account of what had happened. Good for him.

Everyone in the office found the whole thing funny of course, and by Thursday they were still talking about it. I walked in this morning to find them all speculating now on who the actual ghost had been. Nicky meanwhile had fully recovered from her big scare and seemed just as keen to discuss the turn of events as the next person.

"I reckon it was probably a former player" I heard Darren say as I headed for my desk.

I actually needed to speak to Darren in private this morning, but for the time being I was happy to let the conversation play out for just a few moments longer.

"A former player?" Brenda asked him.

"Yeah. I bet it's someone who either played or wanted to play for Luton but never got the chance, and now he haunts the pitch late at night as if feeling sorry for himself".

"Maybe it's a fan who died in the stadium?" Nicky piped up with. "Maybe someone was killed by football hooligans or something and now he waits in the dark hoping to get a chance for revenge?"

"Hey, I could go through the club history?" Caroline offered. "Maybe I'd find something about someone who died at some point?"

"Don't bother, you've got too much work to do " I said, putting my jacket on the back of my chair.

"Why does this ghost have to be a man?" Brenda asked.

"Okay, that's enough" I announced. "Time for some work. Darren, can I speak with you outside?"

"Okay".

As everyone got their heads down, I took Darren up to the canteen. Thankfully there was nobody else in here. I beckoned him to a table and we sat down.

"Darren, what I'm about to discuss with you is entirely confidential. Is that clear?"

"Sure boss!"

I then began to explain the whole chain of events that had let me to believe Dave Wheelie was secretly a Watford fan. Darren looked horrified as the story concluded (as you would expect from a die hard Hatter like him) but promised not to say anything to Dave.

"Darren, what I'd like you to do next Saturday is to follow Dave and see if he goes to Watford's home game. I want photo evidence that what I'm saying is the truth. Then I can sit on it until such a day I ever need to bring said evidence forward".

"Why would you need it? It's not a crime to support the team he wants to support is it?"

"No, but Dave practically runs this club in Dilic's absence half the time. For all I know there may come a day when Dave's personal feelings towards Luton Town as a 'rival' to Watford becomes a problem for the club. If that day ever comes, I want to be prepared for it. There's a good chance that if Dave was ever asked about his allegiance to Watford, he would deny it".

"So you want me to follow him in my car on Saturday?"

"That's right" I said. "I know the street where he lives because he told us all at the party, if you remember. I'll E-mail you the name of it anyway and some directions of how to get there. Wait outside in your car from about noon onwards and then follow him to see if he goes to the match. Watford are at home to Palace on Saturday. I know this means you'll miss our game with Wycombe but I'm going to make it worth your while for all your time and hassle. I'll give you a little bunce of five hundred pounds. That should cover your expenses and more. The loss for me may well be worth it in the long run".

"Five hundred smackers? Nice. Hang on a minute though. Where am I supposed to take the pictures?"

"Inside the ground of course".

"Wooooah! No way am I going inside Vicarage Road! That would be like - totally against my religious beliefs".

"Dammit, Darren!"

I stood up and moved to the window. Sometimes I forget just how much Luton FC and its rivalries mean to the people around here. To me it's a job. To others it's a way of life.

"I'm sorry dude" Darren continued. "There's a line I just won't cross, and it just happens to stretch right around Vicarage Road. What if my mates saw me in the crowd on The Football League Show or something? I'd never be able to live down! I'd never be able to set foot inside Kenilworth Road again! I'd feel stained in the soul. I'd feel completely unworthy of wearing my Luton Town replica shirt".

Out of the corner of my eye I could see the TV and its DVD player in the corner of the canteen. On top of the latter were two boxed films - Octopussy and Goldeneye. No doubt at all they were Darren's. I'd seen him watching them sometimes.

"Darren, think of this as a secret mission, a secret undercover directive given to you by M".

Briefly he started smiling at this, but quick-as-a-flash it went away again.

"Still isn't going to get me into Vicarage Road".

"But Darren" I said, hovering behind his back. "Even James Bond has to go into horrible places sometimes to achieve his aims. Often he'll go deep into enemy territory, just that so England as a nation can prosper again. He doesn't like it but he still gets on with it, and that's why all the girls love him. Just think Darren, this is your chance to be Bond. Come on Darren. King and country. King and country.

Darren't smile was returning.

"I take photo's of Dave inside the stadium and that's it?"

"That's it"

"One thousand pounds and I'm game. I'm sorry dude but count yourself lucky - Bond would want a lot more!"

"Deal!" I said, slapping him on the back.

Darren sighed as I excused myself to go to the loo. As I reached the door though I turned around and gave him one last sentence of encouragement.

"Oh and Bond - come back alive".

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You didn't get the idea of using Ridgway and Myers as the inspectors names where I think you did :D I see Halifax are still doing well. Hopefully Luton will start producing the same form.

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Good spot, Salk lol. As Tenthree included my character in his sign-up, I thought I'd return the favour with a kind of Rat-pack homage. Having said that, I doubt the police officers will appear very regularly. As for Halifax, things have been superb this season. Can't really argue with 17 wins and a draw from 18 games in all competitions

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19/12/08 - Christmas scrooge

It’s that time of year again where everybody goes crazy for Christmas. The Christmas lights are up, carol singers keep plaguing me every night, and my office employees have been wasting hours of productivity decorating their desks in addition to the time they already waste just by talking. And of course, anybody who complains about any of this, i.e. me, is a Christmas scrooge who just doesn’t know how to have fun.

Now don’t get wrong, I do enjoy Christmas. Actually, let me rephrase – I CAN enjoy Christmas. This year though isn’t the year for me to do it. My job is on a knife-edge and I don’t have any family to run around cooking and buying presents for. As far as I’m concerned, this year’s Christmas day is the day before we play away to Exeter, a day for team planning. It is NOT for getting fat on mince pies and drunk around the Christmas tree. That’s for the guy who gets sacked in his first season, and that's not me.

“Listen up” I said to the squad after this morning’s training. “I’ve got an announcement to make about Christmas. “As you will all no doubt be aware, the fixture computer has not been kind to us in regards to Boxing Day’s round of matches. We’re away to Exeter and that’s quite a fair ride away. There’s two ways we can play this. Option number one would be to meet up very early on Boxing Day morning and make the long drive down there in time for the game. Option number two would be to drive there Christmas Day evening and stay overnight in a hotel”.

I looked around the dressing room at twenty or so expressionless faces. The way I’d be talking so far probably made it sound like I hadn’t yet made my mind up on this. Nobody looked unduly worried at all. It was time then to drop the bombshell.

“All things considered however, I’ve decided to go with Option number two”.

The sudden outcry around the room reminded me a little bit of some of my press conferences.

“Wait! Hear me out! Hear me out! Now look, I know this isn’t going to be a popular choice but we have to be professional about this”.

“We’ve travelled similar distances on the morning of games loads of times!” said an exasperated Kevin Nicholls.

“Aye” said Pilkington. “Swindon, Bristol City, loads”.

“Hey! Hey!” I shouted over the ensuing din. “Hush! Now listen, I just knew some of you smarter Alecs would have countless tales stored away in your brains from when you’ve travelled similar distances. Good for you. This though is my management now and my long distance policy, and quite frankly, I don’t much care for hearing about methods that may or may not have contributed to several of your past relegations”.

Silence restored again, albeit reluctantly. Outside the door I could hear Fred sweeping the corridor with his broom. Pacing slowly from side to side and momentarily catching my breath, I switched my tone to a softer one.

“As most of you know, my entire playing career was spent in the non-league. I very rarely had the luxury of overnight hotel stays. Instead we'd often go on five or six hour coach journeys and then quickly get our boots on the moment we got there. It wasn’t the ideal preparation at all. I know what I’m talking about. As a player in this situation, you feel good initially when you get off the coach but over the course of a ninety minute high tempo football match the lack of decent preparation tells”.

“Boss, when would be expected to be at Kenilworth Road on Christmas Day evening?” asked Matthew Gill.

“I’d probably say 5pm or so. I’d like to get to Exeter no later than 9pm to check into the hotel. You’ll all still get to enjoy Christmas dinner with your families. It won’t be a total washout”.

“I don’t believe this!” Paul McVeigh complained. “My girlfriend’s invited her family over for all of Christmas day and Christmas night. God knows what they’re going to think of me when I shoot off at 5pm to go to Exeter”.

“I’ve got plans too” said Nicholls. “This should have been sorted out when the fixtures first came out in the summer, not the week before Christmas”.

“Absolutely!” put in Chris Martin. “My partner and my little one live back in Norwich. I’m not going to be able to see them at all now. We don’t all live in Luton you know!”

I was starting to lose them again. One thing I'd learned with Darren the other day though was to always have a Plan B. As much I couldn’t afford to give each of these guys a cheque for a grand (there was at least twenty of them!), I figured that maybe I could offer them something else, something rare, something they would only get to see during the silly season, something that might just ease their pain at missing out on a full Christmas day at home.

“I know most of you have probably got plans and I apologise for that. However, the good of Luton Town and its many thousands of loyal supporters come first. What’s more, I’ve got some entertainment planned for Christmas night. Once we’re at the hotel I’m going to book a private reception room so we can all bond and have a few drinks”.

“How many drinks?” asked a curious Slusarski.

“Two or three, maybe, nothing that should affect you the following day. I need to research that. Anyway, not only will we have some drinks but I’m also going to book some Christmas entertainment, maybe a singer, or a comedian. We’ll see. Not only that, but I’m going to get up and sing a song for you myself, even though I’m the worst singer ever. I’m even going to let you guys get together and pick the song for me”.

Finally I was getting a few smiles around the room. They were being cajoled. The plan was working.

“Also” I continued. “I’m going to sing said song whilst dressed up in the most ridiculous Christmas outfit I can find. It’ll be very funny so please do get in the spirit of things and be okay with the whole Christmas day travelling thing. Are you all with me?”

“Yeah” came a few mumbled responses.

“I can’t hear you?”

“YEAH BOSS!”

“That’s much better”.

----------------

20/12/08, League Match 21 (Att - 6143)

Luton Town 1 (Nicholls 72)

Wycombe Wanderers 0

Despite my wanting to concentrate 100% on the match this afternoon, I couldn’t help wondering how Darren was getting on with Dave. This of course was the day he would be following him to Vicarage Road (hopefully).

“Don’t worry” said Brian, as the players were warming up at five to three. “He’ll be fine”.

“I guess”.

I brought Keane back in for Gill in the centre of midfield, the hope being that one match on the bench would have bucked Keane’s ideas up. I was also forced to drop new centre back Howarth due to suspension. Thus, in came George Beavon for a rare starting berth alongside the ever present Pilkington. The rest of the team was unchanged. Anyinsah was still unable to re-join us unfortunately, but I was hopeful for Boxing Day. McVeigh would need to have a storming game today to keep his place.

I didn’t pay much attention before the match to Wycombe’s weird 4.2.1.2.1 formation. To do so would have just given me a headache. I stuck with 4.4.2 and hoped it would get us through. In the early stages the visitors dominated, hitting a long range shot wide in the 6th minute and then ballooning over an absolute sitter in the 9th. It wasn’t comfortable viewing at all. Our goal was leading a charmed life. We finally came into it around about the half hour mark, Nicholls hitting a curling shot just wide from outside the penalty area. We weren’t creating anything clear cut though and that was depressing. Never the less, a late surge in shots clawed the counter back to 4-4 in time for the interval

After the break we mysteriously took control. We had a penalty appeal turned down early doors, and a few minutes after that a bobbling ball in and around the penalty area just barely failed to fall to one of our strikers. The sucker punch however almost came in the 61st minute, Wycombe managing to send a man clean through on goal after a fine bit of interplay. The striker, whoever it was, hit a low shot which Brill managed to deflect up in the air and away with his foot (think the penalty save from Pearce in Italia 90).

That was to be the final chance for the visitors. After bringing on Quinn for the lethargic Slusarski, and O’Connor for the tiring McVeigh, we began to get on top again. Our big moment came in the 72nd minute when Martin found himself a route to goal from just inside the outer corner of the penalty area. His left foot shot under pressure was parried away but only to Nicholls at the edge of the area, who kept his nerve to slot into a mostly unguarded net. It’s not the first time we’ve scored a goal like that this season. Anyway, suffice to say me and Brian were up off our feet faster than Oliver Twist at a buffet. Get in!

With ten minutes to go Martin was forced off injured. I had no strikers on the bench so for the closing stages I brought on Asa Hall and played 4.5.1. I was worried about the effect this might have (especially with the unskilled Aiden Quinn being ‘lone gun’ up front) but to my delight the game ticked to its conclusion quite quickly. We finished up 8-5 winners on shots having been 2-4 down at one stage in the first half. The win means we’re now unbeaten in six league matches. We can also boast at having lost just one league game out of eleven at home this season.

(League table after 21 games. We have 4 wins, 11 draws, 6 defeats)

Wycombe (21)

Macclesfield (19)

Chesterfield (18)

Chester City (9)

----------------

Bournemouth (6)

Luton Town (-7)

----------------

20/12/08 - Darren's secret mission (part 2)

At 8pm sharp, Brian and I picked Darren up outside Kenilworth Road. The plan was to drive to a remote countryside pub where we could discuss the day’s events without having to worry about any onlookers or cameramen or even the dubious presence of Gav the barman. We wanted total isolation, and Brian reckoned he knew just the place. I certainly hoped there were no cameraman around; Brian’s chosen pub was called The Haunted Cow.

“Press will have a field day if they see me walk in here” I said, pointing at the sign above the door.

“Haha, well I'll be damned!” Brian chuckled as we walked in. “Don’t worry. I’m sure we’re safe out here”.

It was quiet inside. There were six or seven local hillbillies sitting around enjoying a pint, but that was about it. The three of us ordered a guest ale each and made a move for the furthest possible corner away from everybody else. There was a small stage not far from us not currently being used.

“Right then, Darren” I opened proceedings with. “I got your text saying Dave had gone to the game. Let’s have the full story”.

Darren smiled and took a sip of his pint. For the first time during this whole business he actually seemed enthused about it, and I was glad to see his trip to Vicarage Road hadn’t depressed him as much as I thought it might. The fact that Crystal Palace had mauled Watford by a score of 3-1 on their own patch probably hadn’t hurt.

“Well, to cut a long story short, I followed Dave most of the way to Watford. About ten minutes from the ground he pulled up to the side of this busy road and for a minute I thought he’d spotted me in his wing mirror. He hadn’t though. I pulled up sixty yards behind him and he didn’t even glance in my direction. Anyway, at this point, he got out of his car and opened the boot. You wouldn’t believe what he did next – he put on a cap and a fake moustache”.

“What?!” Brian and I asked in tandem.

“Just what I said! Then he got back in his car and drove on. He didn’t have his Watford shirt on today as far as I could see, but I knew he was going to the match the minute he put that stupid disguise on. Anyway, we got to the ground and went in. Luckily you’re allowed to sit where you want at Vicarscum road, so I sat about fifty seats to his right and kept tabs on him there on after”.

“How did he seem during the match?” I asked.

“He was well into it! He was up celebrating when Watford scored and when Palace fought back to win he did all the things you’d expect a frustrated fan to do, namely curse and throw his arms around”.

“Brilliant. Did you get some pictures?”

“Yeah, I got the whole thing. I even got snaps of him changing into his disguise”.

Darren got his phone out and for the next five minutes we sat enjoying the pictures of Dave Wheelie wearing a cap, glasses, and a fake moustache. There could now be no denying whatsoever that Dave was a staunch Watford fan. Even if he denied it, I had all the proof right here.

“Okay then” I said. “That’s that. Well done to Darren on a job well done. Let’s hope these pictures never need to come out into the open. So long as Dave continues to do a good job at the club, I see no reason why we shouldn’t now bury this topic right here and now”.

“Actually, James” Brian interrupted. “Before we do that, I’ve got some thoughts on this I’d like to put forward. Once I knew we were coming here tonight, I decided to wait until we got here before letting them out”.

“Brian, the floor is yours”.

“I hope this doesn’t offend you, James, I really don’t. It’s just - when you first came to the club you were really surprised for a while that you got the job. I mean, don’t get me wrong, you had all the coaching badges and everything, but you certainly didn’t have any experience. You hadn’t even managed at non-league level yet”.

“What’s your point?”

“My point is – what if Dave picked you for the job because he thought you’d fail?”

The silence around the table caused by this question lasted a full two minutes. Even the normally free-speaking Darren realised this might be a good time to keep his mouth shut and not attempt a wisecrack. In my mind it was as if a penny that for five months had been on the verge of dropping but hadn’t quite managed to slide itself over the edge, had now finally dropped only to cause untold destruction when it landed.

“Son of a gun” I said softly, draining the rest of my pint in one gulp.

“You mean Dave and not me, I take it?” Brian queried.

“Yeah, I mean Dave. I didn’t get this job for the right reasons did I?”

My two drinking partners almost seemed afraid to answer.

“All this time I’ve been doing the job. What is it now – twenty games? twenty five games? All this time and I had no idea”.

“We don’t know for sure” Darren contributed. It was perhaps the most concentrated and serious I’d ever seen him.

“I know for sure!” I retaliated. “I can feel it. Brian, you were part of the interview process. How many other people did you and Dave interview?”

“I only sat in with you” he replied. “Dave said the interview process for the main manager’s position had started before I arrived. By the time I turned up for my first day’s work, there was only you left to interview”.

"Regardless, he DID pick me because I seemed the rubbish option, didn't he?" I asked.

"I wouldn't worry about it. I'd just look at it as a lucky break on your part and get on with your job. Every manager who starts out needs a bit of luck. Look at Alex Ferguson! He had that lucky win at Nottingham Forest when apparently he was one game away from the sack. Next thing you know he's won about ten titles and the champion's league".

"Yeah but he earnt his chance to have the luck. I didn't".

"Yes you did! You did your badges! There's no law that says you have to start in the depths of the Sunday league! Some people start off managing pub teams and some people start in the ruddy Premiership! You just happen to be starting kind of in the middle. There's nothing out of the ordinary about that".

Before I could answer a voice from the bar boomed out. It was the barman on a microphone. He was addressing the whole pub, or at least the ten or so people who were in it.

"Okay then, chaps, the moment you've all been waiting for. We don't skimp on entertain here at The Haunted Cow and tonight is no exception. Please welcome, back for his 8th appearance in a row - Prairie Dog Peterson!"

To a spluttering of a clapping, out from the door behind the bar suddenly came a smiling cowboy carrying an accoustic guitar. There really was no other way to describe him. He was literally dressed in full cowboy clobber. I'd say he was about fifty years old, and he had this really cheesy brown moustache.

"Brian" I said quietly. "Where the hell have you brought us?"

"Okay then" drawled Prairie Dog, sitting on the stool at the front of the stage. "You guys are too kind. Tonight I'm going to be doing a few more songs from my new double album - '32 campfire classics'. As I told you fine folk last week, if you want to buy it, please speak to Ralf at the bar who will tell you which shops in Hertfordshire currently have it on sale.

"Poundstretcher?" a fat guy near the front door shouted out, before having a brief chuckle at his own joke.

Praire Dog laughed along heartily and prepared to play.

"This one's called - My sweet Texan gal'.

After then strumming a few chords on the guitar, Prairie began to sing.

"Ooooooh my sweet Texan gal came a'rolling down the hill. Boo-boo-ba-dop. Ooooooh that girl how she gave me the chill woo-woo-wa-wop!".

"Anyway" I said to Brian and Darren, now having to speak under my breath because of the guitar noise. "I'm not letting this matter rest. I want to find out who the other people were, if any, Dave had on that interview list. I want to know whether the other candidates were all Howard Kendalls, or whether they were all muppets like me".

"James, it's not worth it".

"IF it's the case of the latter, I'll then be able to rest easy".

"And what if they're all Howard Kendalls, as you put it?"

"Then I won't feel any worse than I do right now, so it doesn't matter".

Brian and Darren sighed and took another sip of their pints. Meanwhile, Prairie Dog was having the time of his life.

"Her daddy said 'BOY! Off my gal, my sweet Texan gal'. I said 'OY!, she ain't your gal no more! Boo-boo-ba-dop!"

"This is pap. Pizza back at mine anyone?"

"Works for me" said Darren.

"I'm game" said Brian.

And off we went.

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21/12/08 - A storm in a teacup

I've been thinking a lot about that altercation I had with Matthew Spring in the hospital. More specifically, I've been wondering if I was too soft on him for not answering back. As I lay on the settee this evening not as fully focused on the TV soaps as I wanted to be, I rubbed a small scar on the side of my neck and recalled a memory from many years ago.

When I was eleven years old I used to play for a team called Guiseley Eagles Under 12's. The manager was George Palazzi. That sounds Italian but in actual fact he was just a plain old Yorkshireman who had changed his name by deed poll just do he didn't have to be George Green anymore. I can't remember who told me that Palazzi wasn't his real surname but it certainly wouldn't have been George himself. He was a proud man, but also a bit of a tool. He would have been in his early to mid forties at the time I played for that team, and by all accounts he was something of a loner and all-round weirdo.

How he had come to be managing a Saturday morning boys' football team I will never know. It would never happen these days. These days you have to have about five different criminal records tests before you're even allowed near a boy's changing room. Back then though it was a different world; Hindley and Brady could have been gaffer and assistant manager and nobody would have batted an eyelid.

George had a ridiculously large frame. He wasn't fat in the normal sense but his frame was just colossal. He must have been six feet four inches tall at least, not to mention full of figure. He wasn't a strong man by any means, but I saw him getting on a bus once and the man could barely sit comfortably in his seat. There was simply a hell of a lot of him (and yet he wasn't fat!). A lot of the kids speculated about George's private life when he wasn't around.

He definitely wasn't married - that much was obvious. He was also strongly known to frequent some of the rougher pubs in the local area, and hang out with some even rougher characters. I once voiced my opinion that the "Palazzi" thing was an expression of George's desire to be an exciting Italian gangster like the sort you see in those films like Donnie Brasco, and that his keeping company with the people he did was very much part of the same sub-conscious mantra. Other adults didn't much respect him much though, and that's part of the reason why I think he so often took out his anger on us Guiseley Eagles youngsters. Kids he could boss about; adults he could not.

One incident I'll never forget is when we played away to a team called Astrasal (don't ask me how they got that name). Our opponents were one of the best teams in the league, so most of us were hoping this would be one occasion George would spare us the hairdryer routine. The word hairdryer though really was an understatement when it came to George. Even though we were a half decent mid-table outfit, George would regularly lay into us and slag us off. He'd often berate us for not carrying out tactical manoeuvres we didn't understand, or for putting even the slightest foot wrong during a game.

The only way to keep him quiet was to win. Woe betide though if we drew or lost, because if that happened George would storm into the changing room after the final whistle and have a psychotic episode. If we were lucky, he'd just shout, bawl, and occasionally get a few traces of spit over the player unlucky enough to be screamed at a few inches from his square-jawed face. On a bad day though it wasn't unlike George to kick people's boots around, throw tea cups against the walls, and occasionally pick a player up and shake him like a rag-doll. However, we all just thought this was part of the game. We were kids! We just assumed this was how they did it in the pro leagues.

We started well against Astresal, a team far taller and far more accomplished than us. The fact that we started well was the problem. George probably saw that we'd held our own at 0-0 for fifteen minutes and decided this meant we should come away with something from the game. Imagine his horror then when our opponents suddenly rattled in four quick goals before half time. It often happens that way in child football. Where as adults will respond to a setback by carrying on fighting and slugging it out until half time, a set of kid will often let their shoulders droop right down to their shoes and concede a few more quickfire goals. That's what we did against Astresal, and George by the touchline looked like he was about to have a seizure.

"What the f***** hell was that?!?" he shouted, swinging the door to the changing rooms shut so hard it almost came off its hinges.

Nobody ever answered of course. We just sat there like lemons staring at our boots. George looked like his face was about to blow up in a similar fashion to Verucca Salt's entire body in that Willy Wonka film.

"How - why could - you think it's funny don't you? - Well I don't think it's funny. Do you? Do ya? YOU STUPID LITTLE MOTHERFU*****RS! DO YOU THINK 4-0 IS FUNNY?! F**K ALL OF YOU!"

And then it came. George picked up the nearest teacup and threw it as hard as he could. Actually, teacup is again the wrong word to use. Think of a teacup and you instantly think (or I do anyway) of those tiny little things Kate Winslet might pick up with her little finger in the drawing room of the Titanic. The thing George threw was a full size drinking mug. It came directly at me and only narrowly missed my face. Instead, it smashed half against my neck and half against the wall. I instantly felt drops of blood slip down onto my left shoulder as I staggered forwards onto the floor. Some of the other boys gasped and helped me up, but George just brushed the incident off.

"Bless him, he's got a papercut. Get him outside by that cold tap. And get me another teacup whilst you're at it. With tea in it. Giles, you're on second half for Martin. I want 3.5.2 and don't give me any s**t this half boys! I don't have to waste my f*****g time doing this s**t on a Saturday morning".

Later that day my mum took me to hospital, where doctors plucked out a small fragment of mug that had lodged itself in my neck. I didn't tell anybody that George had thrown the cup. I was worried that if George was arrested and the team had to disband, the other boys might all hate me and come looking for me. Instead I blamed the incident on a couple of youths riding past on bicyles. I've never forgotten the incident though, and I certainly never forgot George - the psycho who managed the Eagles. I have a small scar on my neck as a living testament.

I never want to become like him. Spring can say what he likes. At the end of the day, I have the power to drop him but that's where the power ends. I don't have the power to become a bully, and I would refuse to cross that line anyway.

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24/12/08 - Secret santa

An hour before we closed the office for Christmas, I beckoned everyone to bring their seats around to my desk for the secret santa presentation. 'Secret santa' is when you take a group of people and allocate them one other person in the group for whom they must buy a Christmas present. This means everybody ends up getting one present each. The benefits of doing a secret santa are tenfold. Particularly in larger organisations, the running of such a scheme will in theory ensure that even lesser popular employees get to prosper from office gifts as much as anybody else. Also, because the person you end up buying for is completely random, it can be a good way to get to know someone you might not previously have spent much time with.

In our little group of six people of course, where everybody now pretty much knows everybody else inside and out, the point of the secret santa was soley to let our hair down a bit and have fun. We weren't having a Christmas party like most offices do, so you couldn't really blame of us for slacking off in the final hour of work before Christmas in order to do this.

In addition to the presents we also had a fine little yuletide buffet selection thanks to the combined kitchen talents of Alison, Brenda, and Nicky. I don't know why but it only ever seems to be women who can be bothered preparing food for an office get-together (It was exactly the same back at the solicitors I used to work at). Me and Darren wouldn't have even thought to bring any food in, and I don't know about him but I'd struggled to find the time just to go out and buy the present.

"Okay then" I said once we were all gathered around. "Who wants to go first?"

The presents had been lined up at the back of my desk all day, and ranged from the small and the obvious (Darren's book) to the large and completely unobvious (Nicky's huge square shaped present).

"You go first, James" said Nicky, clapping her hands in excitement.

"Yeah go on, James" seconded Alison.

Strangely fearing the worst I picked my gift up and read the label. I already knew Brenda had bought mine but I read the label again anyway out of pure habit. My parents had brought me up to always read the label on every single present I ever got, even if the person who'd bought it wasn't around to see me tear it open.

"A big thankyou to Brenda" I said, slowly peeling away the wrapping paper and cellotape. It was the Stars Wars trilogy boxset. How the others chuckled.

"Now you'll be able to impress Cyril with your Star Wars knowledge" Nicky laughed.

Right on cue everyone then began to sing the Star Wars theme tune. I got the distinct impression this had been planned and rehersed long before today.

"Okay, very funny" I said, putting the dvd's on the desk. "Let's do the next present. Come on then Nicky, seeing as you're so c___ky, let's see what this huge square thing is".

"I think I aleady know what is" she said glancing at Alison, who was trying hard not to laugh. Nicky opened her gift to reveal a huge red thing inside a plastic box. At first glance I couldn't tell what it was.

"What the hell is that?" I asked.

"It's a space hopper! Thanks Alison!"

"No problem".

"And what's that when it's at home?"

"It's like a giant - hard - balloon" said Caroline. "It's got handles on top so you can grip it. What you do is, you sit on it and then bounce around - ".

"Oh, them. I think I've seen them before somewhere".

I must admit, now that I knew what it was, I found the concept of Nicky using it to be mildly arousing in a way. Anyway, next person in the spotlight was Brenda. Her gift had been bought for her by Caroline.

"A pair of fluffy slippers with Daffy Duck's head at the bottom! Just what a middle aged mother wants at this time of her life. Thanks".

Brenda sighed a cynical kind of Jo Brand sigh and put the slippers aside. I doubted she'd be wearing them much. As for Caroline, she had a look on her face which suggested she hadn't had the first clue of what to buy for a fifty year old single mother. I was tempted to ask her if she ever buys presents for her mum, and if so, what she does buy her? Darren lunged for his present though and the moment passed me by - another unasked question condemned to the black hole of time and space, never to be heard or answered. I secretly reckoned that Brenda was probably the unlucky pick in this situation though. Seriously, what would you buy her?

"Okay, let me see what this book is" Darren remarked, and then moments later - "A History of Luton Town F.C. Thanks Nicky".

"You don't look too thrilled" Nicky said.

"I've already got it. Don't worry though, I could always read it again".

"Here" I said. "I'll swap with you if you want".

Darren considered this for a moment and then agreed.

"You like Star Wars?" Brenda asked him.

"No, but I could always try watching the first one and see how it goes. It's a better bet than a book I've already read".

Now it was Nicky's turn to produce an expression of failure. As she did that, Caroline picked up her gift. It was from Darren. Most of us expected something hideously useless to appear from beneath the wrapper, but to everyone's surprise, Darren it seemed had purchased the most useful present of the bunch (or at least the present that gave the most satisfaction to its recipient).

It was a CD album by a band called Black razorwire.The title of the album was Flatline, and the artwork seemed to feature what looked like a black python snake slithering its way out of a cat-flap. Everyone in the room knew that Caroline was a goth when she wasn't in the office, so to see her so cheerful at receiving such a depressing looking collection of songs, really wasn't much of a surprise.

"That looks pleasant" Brenda said.

"It's awesome!" exclaimed Caroline, now feasting her eyes on the song list printed at the back.

"No worries" said Darren. "On the subject of music, you should come with me and James to The Haunted Cow sometime. They've got some really hardcore acts on up there".

I flashed Darren a brief grin. In the meantime Alison picked up the final present, which was from me. I'd bought her a framed photograph of the goal area where supposedly Nicky and Fred had both seen that ghost.

"Something to commemorate our little ghost-hunting evening, even though we saw jack-all. You never know, maybe one day you'll look it and see the ghost moving about inside the frame like on one of those Hogwarts paintings in Harry Potter".

"It's lovely" said Alison, clutching it tightly. The others seemed largely without opinion on this one.

So came the end of our present unwrapping session. In the time we had left we sat around eating the buffet and chatting about Christmas. There were sandwiches, scones, cakes, biscuits, trifle, cold and hot drinks, and even some mince pies. The ladies had really out-done themselves.

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25/12/08 - Christmas Day

Until lunchtime anyway I led a fairly normal Christmas Day. I got up early, unwrapped some presents I'd received from relatives throughout the week prior, and cooked myself an extra large fry-up breakfast. Then I lounged around on the settee in my dressing gown flicking between TV channels. There wasn't much on of interest, but I did catch the second half of The Snowman on Channel Four, a short animation film I'd loved since I was a kid. I particularly love the music; hearing it always makes me sad.

Once that was over I had snow on the brain so I went to the nearest window to check on the weather. The forecasts yesterday had predicted snow for today and they hadn't been wrong. Everywhere I looked was white. There must have been at least three or four inches of snow on the road outside. Lo and behold then - it was actually a white Christmas! Would this put our Boxing Day game in doubt?

As I was getting showered and dressed I figured this would be the perfect day to slip down to Kenilworth Road unnoticed and have a look around Dave's office. The business of how I had come to be hired had barely left my mind since the trip to The Haunted Cow. I had to know who the other candidates for the job had been - I just had to!

For a short while after I got in my car though I didn't think I'd be going anywhere. I had to turn my keys in the ignition about forty times before my car started. It was just too damn cold today, and I didn't think the build up of snow all over my vehicle was helping much either. It did chug into gear eventually, and before long I was rolling into the Kenilworth Road car park, thoughts of flying snowmen now far removed from my mind. I was satisfied to see there were no other cars around. I just hoped upon hope my own car would start up when I left again.

Once I was in the corridor about ten yards from Dave's office, I saw that the car park had lied to me. Someone was here. Dave's office door was ajar and I could hear the sound of Dave's mini TV blaring away inside. Assuming the intruder to be Dave himself, I decided not to bother concealing myself.

"You in there, Dave?" I shouted, knocking on the door.

"Yeah, come in".

I went inside, half expecting Dave to whip out a gun and say - 'I've been expecting you, James. I knew you were onto me the moment I saw Darren following me to that game. Well now you can pay for your refusal to leave well alone!

He didn't do that though.

"What are you doing here?" he asked instead, beckoning me to sit down.

"I was about to ask you the same thing".

"Well I drove to Boozebusters to get some cans and then my car stopped working not far from here. Ever since then I've been here".

"I just came here to use the internet" I lied. "My connection at home is still playing up from time to time".

Dave nodded in acceptance and used a small remote control to turn his TV down. He had an eight pack of Carling on his desk and three of the cans had been squashed and tossed aside already. It must have been one hell of an early trip to Boozebusters. There were also two packets of cigarettes and an ashtray nearby. Before anything else was said, Dave sparked up a fresh cigarette.

"Doesn't this office fall under the jurisdiction of the smoking ban?" I asked, probably sounding like a know-it-all and a fuddy-duddy both at the same time.

"Probably, but nobody's here to see me today. Want one?"

"Go on then, as it's Christmas. No beer though. I'm driving down to Exeter with the players later this evening".

"Oh yeah, that reminds me" Dave said as he leaned forward to light my cigarette. "On the subject of players, I know it's Christmas and everything but there's been some bad words said about you and I'd better let you know".

"Bad words from whom?"

"Well, there was a board meeting the other day and one of the shareholders happened to mention that your man-management of the players recently has been less than impressive. The issue of tonight's overnight stay in Exeter was the main issue. It's been questioned as to whether or not it's as necessary as you've made out. Remember, a lot of players stand to have their Christmas time adversely affected because of this, and the benefits as far as most people can see are minimal.

"Also, hiring a hotel like the one you've booked costs money. Who cares about money you ask? - The answer would be shareholders. I can only presume it was Erica who informed them all of your penchant for unnecessary spending because I hadn't even got around to considering it yet".

This was a lot to take in. I wasn't in the mood for an argument though, not on Christmas Day. I kept my replies deliberately calm and serene.

"And what do you think about my hotel decision, Dave?"

"I can see the argument both ways" he diplomatically replied. "Unfortunately though that means I probably wouldn't have gone ahead with it, if only to save money. It's not just the hotel thing though, James. Matthew Spring came to me a few days ago with a letter concerning your conduct towards him at the hospital. Whether I wanted to or not, I was obligated by virtue of my position at the club to share the information at the board meeting. Spring feels the nature of your visit caused him negative distress at a time when his recuperation period is at an extremely delicate stage. He feels there was no reason at all why you couldn't have waited until his return to the club before breaking the news to him".

"I wanted to give him as much time as possible to find a new club!" I defended myself with.

Instead of reply again using words, Dave did a gesture with the palm of his hands as if to say 'doesn't matter to me. I'm just telling you what the shareholders are saying'.

"How long are you staying here today then?" I changed the subject with, wondering if I would have to completely postpone my intended search of Dave's office.

"I don't know. A few more hours yet. I spotted Goldneye up in the canteen before. I might take a few cans up there and watch that. It's not like I've got anything or anybody to go home to. What about you? What are you going to do?".

That was that then. There was no way I was going to risk having my little snoop around if Dave was going to be in the canteen all afternoon. It was too risky.

"I'm going to go back home again until it's time to come back here" I said, standing up and moving to the door.

"I thought you said you wanted to use the internet whilst you were here?"

"Oh yeah. Well errr, I've changed my mind now that you've mentioned that Bond film. I've just remembered I've got some new films at home I fancy watching".

"Right. Okay then, see ya later".

"Au revoir".

Out in the car park, my car thankfully started up again first time.

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25/12/08, League Match 22 (Att - 3894)

Exeter City 3 (Keates 21, 28, McAllister 63)

Luton Town 1 (O'Connor 61)

More snow overnight meant we weren’t sure until an hour before kick-off if the game would go ahead. Full credit must go to a small bunch of Exeter fans who turned up on Saturday morning carrying shovels. Apparently they managed to clear the whole pitch all by themselves in under two hours. It was still icy underfoot but the referee just about deemed the pitch playable. I was actually disappointed in a way. I’d drunk slightly more than my comfort level the night before, probably in trying to banish the memory of prancing around on a hotel stage singing “Jingle Bell Rock” whilst dressed as an Elf. My word was my bond though! I’d had to do it!

I was pleased to learn a week ago that Exeter play a simple 4.4.2 like we do. I’ve had enough recently of teams using all sorts of wacky formations to try and take our number. The fact the Grecians were keeping it simple gave me the chance to see how we could fare like for like with my formation of choice. Personnel wise I brought Howarth back in for Beavon (not that the latter had fared badly against Wycombe). Howarth was coming back from a suspension and would no doubt be looking to prove himself ahead of Ronny Johnson’s arrival. I also brought the fit-again Anyinsah back in for McVeigh on the right wing. I wasn’t expecting too much from him because he wasn’t match fit. You have to start somewhere though.

As is usual with us we were on the back foot early on, and amidst of all Exeter’s attacks was one particularly guilt-edged chance whereby a striker slid the ball wide after going clean through on Brill from an angle. We had a wild long ranger from Slusarski after twenty or so minutes to finally mark our arrival, but the game’s pivotal moment came when Exeter got themselves a free kick from wide out on the right. Keates hit an absolute thunderbolt low across Brill and into the far corner for a stunning goal. Nothing you can do about that. I seem to remember Paul Mayo doing almost the same thing against us on the first day of the season. I could do with a player who can do that, frankly.

Seven minutes later we were two behind. The home side were coping with the frosty conditions far better than we were, and after a wonderful passing move that must have covered fifteen to twenty passes without us getting anywhere near the ball, a left wing cross landed on the high boot of an unmarked Keates, who kept his composure to steer the ball under the crossbar and into the goal. 2-0. After that it was just a case of getting to half time and regrouping. I had nothing to lose at this point so I changed to a wacky 4.1.2.1.2 formation with attacking midfielder O’Connor playing just behind the front two. It was quite a departure from 4.4.2 but I think it’s fully justified when you’re 1-9 behind on shots.

Amazingly it paid dividends, albeit not exactly from a convential move. O’Connor simply picked the ball up forty yards out, took it on a few touches, and then belted an absolutely unstoppable shot past a static goalkeeper. O’Connor would have enjoyed that because he’s taken more than his fair share of flak this season, and from all quarters too. We should have gone for the juggular after that but Exeter made me want to tear my hair out by going straight down the other end and scoring a carbon copy of their second goal, McAllister this time unmarked on the six yard line to poke an easy finish past Brill. It was in this moment I regretted going for a zonal marking system. Memo to one’s self – DO go for tight man marking in away games.

We were pummelled for the rest of the match and could count ourselves somewhat fortunate not to have suffered further damage. Striker Logan effectively had his own mini-battle with Brill late on, our keeper making several late saves to spare our blushes even further. The final shot count score of 5-11 didn’t do Exeter’s dominance in this game any justice whatsoever. The six match unbeaten streak comes to an end, and to be frank, that overnight stay in the hotel really didn’t make a blind bit of difference to our fortunes.

(League table after 22 games. We have 4 wins, 11 draws, 7 defeats)

Chesterfield (21)

Macclesfield (19)

Chester City (12)

------------------

Bournemouth (6)

Luton Town (-7)

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26/12/08 - Luton4ever

I had some damage control to do after the Exeter game. What I've been doing on a regular basis this season is going onto Hatters Online (the club's unofficial online discussion forum) after a defeat and sticking up for the manager under a false name. It doesn't always change the mood of the forum when it's at its most angry, but on at least a couple of occasions I've really managed to make a difference.

I've even contemplated bringing the likes of Brian and Darren into my little scheme and getting them to post complimentary remarks about my managerial credability from the safety of their own IP addresses. I've never gotten around to it though, and given the size of the fanbase on Hatters Online, the job of getting them to log in and post on a regular basis probably wouldn't be worth the hassle.

Naturally there was a lot of unrest after Exetergate. We had been simply diabolical beyond belief, and Hatters all over Luton had wanted to vent their two penny's worth on the forum. When I finally got the chance to log in and see what was happening at lunchtime today, I saw that the biggest thread on Page One was called Exeter 3 Idiots 1. It had 1823 replies and 4234 views. What I've re-printed below is the discussion which briefly followed throughout the afternoon once I'd entered the ring. My username, if you haven't already guessed, is "Luton4ever".

Mick23 - It's a disgrace! Total disgrace! I swear to God, the man just stands on the touchline and doesn't even do anything. He's like Sven Erikkson with hair.

GazzaMan - Got to agree mate. Time to go. Definitely. Never been as embarrassed to be a Luton fan as I was yesterday.

Lloyd - Is anybody even bothering with Barnet in a couple of days?

Mick23 - Not me mate, not for as long as James McClueless is still in charge.

Luton4ever - Now let's not get carried away. Let's give him some time to sort the squad out first - five or six seasons should do it.

Hatter111 - I take it you're not serious?

Harford's left foot - The thing that gets me is, he's had 22 games and he STILL hasn't settled on a first choice eleven. What the hell was Anyinsah coming back in for yesterday? He did nothing? And you've got to love the way Martin tries to play football on a pitch like that.

Hatter111 - It was the same when we went to Bournemouth, to be honest. Similar type of performance. No bottle, no fight. This sort of stuff has got to start with the manager and you just know he isn't up to it.

Luton4ever - Having said that though, there's still 24 games to go. He could still turn it around yet. I think the best thing to do would be to get down to the ground, get behind the lads, and let the chairman worry about who's in charge.

Gazzaman - Bollox to that. I can't be bothered watching this sh__e. I'll come back next season when we're on zero points again with everyone else.

Luton4ever - You make a good point there by mentioning the -30. We can't blame Martin for the points deduction. He was screwed this season before he even began.

Mick23 - Will you shut up defending McPillock? Who are you, his dad?

Gazzman - Eh Mick, are you up for getting behind the dugouts next game and giving him some sh_t?

Lloyd - Hey, I'm up that!

Hatter111 - Nah, not worth it.

Luton4ever - Hatter's right. That's detrimental to the team. If you do that, I'll have you thrown out.

Gazzaman - You'll do what?

Luton4ever - I mean one of the stewards will probably throw you out. I didn't mean me obviously. Jesus. Typo. Obviously.

Lloyd - You ever heard of an edit button, Luton4ever?

Luton4ever - No. Do you really think I waste my life on p!ssy little forums like this? Get a life.

Mick23 - Up yours.

Lloyd - Screw you.

MODERATOR - Now now boys. Let's keep it clean.

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28/12/08 - Showdown at the Kenilworth Coral

An hour before kick-off today I left the ground and set out for the corner shop just down the road (I'd run out of bottled water for match-time consumption). To get to the corner shop though you first have to pass Cyril and Lee's souvenir shop. The thought of this didn't overly bother me, but as I approached the familiar port-a-cabin by the side of the road, I heard some equally familiar voices coming from within.

Not all of them belong to Cyril and Lee.

"Boys, boys, boys. I don't know how differently we can phrase it really. You either pay up, or you'll get messed up. It's one or the other".

"Yeah, and don't think we're not serious either".

Oh I knew those voices alright - they belonged to Towzer and Garry. There was a curtain drawn over the port-a-cabin's one window. I stood in front of that window now and cocked my ear around the corner, trying to make out what was going on. Cyril and Lee sounded extremely frightened.

"I t-t-told you, we simply can't afford to pay. Not right now" Cyril stammered.

"Then you'll have to start selling some of this junk" Towzer retorted.

"Don't you think that's what we try and do every day?" Lee asked.

"I meant sell it in bulk".

"But we'll lose tons of money that way!"

"Not our problem. Debts come before stock retention. First rule of businesss school - Isn't that right, Garry?"

"Absolutely. First rule in the book, Towzer".

As much as I wasn't privy to whatever trouble Cyril and Lee had got themselves into here (although it was obviously debt related), I'd heard enough by now to coax me out from my hiding place and intervene on their behalf. I could have just walked around the back of the cabin and been on my merry way, but that wouldn't have made me feel very good. Bullies are bullies and I don't like putting up with them. If this was to do with some kind of loan shark debt then I had no sympathy with Towzer and Garry for not getting paid. As far as I'm concerned people like that should and get real jobs and not pray on the young and the stupid.

"Morning all" I said, appearing in the doorway with a smile.

Judging by the speed Towzer and Garry whipped around to see who I was, they probably thought for a second I was the old Bill.

"Well, well" said Towzer, his black moustache bristling as it always did whenever he was looking at me. "Look who it is, Garry".

"It's Mr Manager".

"It's Mr Manager indeed, Garry".

"What's going on here?" I asked, pretending I didn't know anything.

"Oh, nothing much" Towzer replied. "The boys here are just having some trouble paying their taxes".

"And what taxes would those be?"

"I suppose you could call them street taxes. You see, for Garry and me, this street is an important focal point of our local business dealings, and this cabin kind of impedes on our turf when we're conducting said business. It looks bad to customers. So with that in mind, we charge the boys here a tax. Nothing official. Just a little something between us and them".

"What business do you do around here exactly?"

"Now don't push your luck, Martin!" Towzer said, pointing his finger at my face. "The football stadium itself is also a place we do business, so if you don't want to be faced with taxes of your own, I suggest you bog off and keep your nose out".

"Yeah" said Garry with a sneer. "IF you know what's good for you that is".

"Well why shouldn't you both pay Cyril and Lee taxes? After all, maybe your business is also impeding on their business? You've got to admit, what self-respecting father would want to bring his two sons down to this souvenir shop if he's worried about loan sharks and thugs popping up on the nearest street corner?"

Towzer and Garry both looked like they wanted to thump me for this. They always look like that anyway but at this particularly moment they looked like they wanted to thump me extra hard.

"That's it, Martin! Outside - Now!"

"Gladly" I said, stepping out onto the frosty road. "Of course, because there's two of you, I'll also take Cyril to be on my side for this fight".

"W-w-what?" said Cyril from inside the doorway.

"You heard" I shouted through to him. "Get your butt out here, or I'll leave you to them".

As Towzer and Garry took their positions opposite me in the middle of the road, Cyril slowly edged his way outside and came to stand alongside me. The four of us were now staring at each other in pairs, three yards apart. Cyril looked absolutely traumatized at the prospect of what might be about to happen. The reason I wanted him with me here was because I figured I'd have more chance of surviving this if one of Towzer and Garry went for Cyril and left me to fight with whoever didn't go for Cyril, if that makes sense. I would then be in a position to take them out one by one. If they both went for me at the same time things would be trickier. I was a reasonably tough guy but I was certainly no Brute.

If you're wondering why I would bother fighting them at all, the answer is simply that I just couldn't stand by and watch them prey on Cyril and Lee. They might be geeky but they're still innocent lads doing nothing to anybody apart from indulging their hobbies and providing a good service for Luton Town fans in the process. They deserve to be left alone. I knew I could potentially get myself into trouble with both the police and the football club for taking this stance, but the fact is that if you don't stand up to bullies they'll never let you out of their pockets. I'd already taken enough of the verbals from Towzer and Garry before today. Time to show them I wasn't somebody to be messed with.

"Okay" I sighed. "Come and get us, boys. Then we can claim self defence when we kick your a__s".

"Y-yeah" Cyril said, bravely putting a fist up.

Garry looked at Towzer as if for instruction on how to proceed.

"Just go straight for Martin" Towzer said, and with that they started to advance.

Despite the fact I'd been figured out, I barely had time to react to it before both thugs halted in their tracks and put their arms down by their sides. They seemed to be looking past my shoulders.

"What is it, Cyril?" I asked, not wanting to turn around in case it was a trick.

"Just three or four fans heading to the game".

That made sense. It had been past 2pm when I'd left the stadium. God knows what the time was now. Towzer and Garry meanwhile seemed to be waiting for the fans to disappear before resuming their offence.

"Now!" Towzer said to Garry, and as they advanced once more I raised my arms in preparation.

Again though the much anticipated attack never came. A yard away from my face, both of them suddenly dropped their arms again almost as fast as they'd raised them.

"More fans" said Cyril, who had sneakily retreated about half a yard behind me. Lee wasn't even watching. He must have been still hiding inside the port-a-cabin.

"Aw forget it" said Towzer, pushing one of Garry's arms strongly as if to indicate it was time to go.

Home fans meanwhile seemed to be appearing more and more regularly now, and at both ends of the street. Towzer and Garry glanced all around at them and then reluctantly began to wander off.

"You won't be so lucky next time" Garry shouted back.

"I'll be waiting" I called after him, my heartbeat racing.

Lee came out of the cabin at this point to join me and Cyril on the road.

"Thanks" they both said in tandem.

"Anytime. They might be back though. If they ever do bother you again, call me".

"Sure".

"Are we cool now then, Cyril?" I asked.

"What do you mean?"

"What I mean is, are we like - you know - not enemies because of the deathmatch anymore? You sounded pretty annoyed on the phone the other week?"

"Oh. No. I mean yeah, we're cool now. We're cool".

"Good. Enjoy today's game".

With that I left them, and it was only when I was back inside the stadium I realised I hadn't obtained what I'd set out to get - bottled water. Not to worry though.

----------------

28/12/08, League Match 23 (Att - 5829)

Luton Town 2 (Gnakpa s/o 67, Kadosh 85 o.g, Talbot 90)

Barnet 0

An unbelievable finish to a match which had looked like it was going nowhere but down the plughole. I'd got the ball rolling by bringing in Eagle for the injured Davies on the left wing. This was another chance for the blonde haired Norwich player to impress me after his disinterested early season form. I also brought McVeigh back in for the tired Anyinsah. Not for the first time then it was a case of all change on both wings! Oh for some consistancy. Apart from that it was an unchanged line-up.

I stuck with 4.4.2 but went a lot easier on the player instructions than I usually do. Brian was of the opinion I've over-complicated matters with too many individual teamtalks as the players have been heading out onto the pitch so far this season. I imagined his point probably had at least some merit to it, so today I tried to mostly address the players as a unit. Barnet lined up with a 4.2.1.2.1 formation I couldn't be bothered analysing. I reckon that when we're on our pitch we should worry about what we ourselves are doing more than what the opposition are up to. That might sound like the mind of a lazy tactician, however we've lost just 1 in 12 at home this season, so I have that statistic in my favour.

Neither side did much during the first twenty minutes. From that point to half time though we mostly had the best of it, highlighted by two very near misses in the same spell of dominance. Firstly, a cross from McVeigh was poked against his own post by a clumsy defender. Slusarski almost got to the rebound but it was just about hacked clear in time. Then Keane saw his free kick shot deflected just wide of the opposite post to the one he'd aimed at. The keeper was completely bamboozled by the deflection and my midfielder was unlucky not to score. Barnet's best effort came just before the half time whistle when yet another free kick was hammered narrowly wide from twenty yards out.

We'd led 5-2 on shots at the interval, but in the second half we just didn't seem to respond to my half-time teamtalk of "Go get em!" As an attacking force we looked spent, and a further blow was landed in the 52nd minute when Nicholls went off injured to be replaced by Gill. It got even worse after 67 minutes when Gnakpa received a straight red card for pushing an opposing player out of frustration. I was so mad at him that Brian almost had to retrain me from getting to him as he walked past us into the player's corridor.

The red card left us with an awkward 3.4.2 formation so I switched the shape to a sturdier looking 4.4.1 by bringing Beavon on for Martin. I then instructed Pilkington to play at right back (where he's accomplished) with Beavon taking his place at centre half. I also used my third and final substitution at this stage - I decided that to have any chance at all with 4.4.1, I was going to need fresh legs in the solo striker position. Thus, I took Slusarski off for Talbot. The latter had not scored a goal for me all season whenever he'd previously had a chance, so I didn't exactly have much confidence in my decision.

Barnet predictably piled forward, but they still weren't creating any decent chances. Indeed their best chance came courtesy of a penalty appeal when Cliff Akurang was hauled back in the 74 minute, or least he appeared to be hauled back. The crowd held their breath but the referee waved play on. Then, in the 85th minute, it was magic time...

It was about as lucky a goal as you can get. Eagle, who had been largely anonymous all game, got himself going down the left hand side. He crossed the ball high and firm but also far too close to the goalkeeper.

"My god!" I instantly shouted in frustration, seeing that Talbot was never going to get there.

A sudden blast of icy wind though altered the flight direction of the ball just as the goalkeeper was about to catch it. He somehow made a right hash of the take and fumbled the ball into the net. If he'd not touched it at all it would have surely gone out for a throw-in on the other side of the pitch.

"God would be right!" Brian shouted, as the stadium erupted. Sometimes this game can be both exhilerating and devastating. On this occasion, I was sitting on the right side of the fence.

As the visitors poured forward in injury time, a long ball sent Talbot clean through on goal with just the keeper to beat. He slid it past him into the corner for a wonderfully sublime finish - his first of the season.

Game over.

(Table after 23 games. We have 5 wins, 11 draws, 7 defeats)

Wycombe (24)

Chesterfield (24)

Macclesfield (20)

Chester City (12)

---------------

Bournemouth (7)

Luton Town (-4)

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30/12/08 - Slap

It's strange how the recollection of one memory can induce you to remember a whole host of other ones to do with the same subject. I hadn't thought about George Palazzi for a long long time until the other day, but just thinking about him once has put him permanently back on my mind, or so it seems.

As the New Year comes into focus, I've found myself recalling more and more instances involving Palazzi from my early playing days. Most of them I won't re-print here, but one I cary from the final day he ever managed the Eagles is definitely worth sharing. Typically of George, he went out with a bang (not that we knew at the time it would turn out to be his swansong 'performance').

In contrast to the mug incident, I played a completely observer's role this time. The victim was Daniel Firbank, a left back of limited talent who was in and out of the team depending on which lads turned up for a match and which didn't. On this occasion though he was in the starting line-up. Our opponents were the Yeadon Casuals, a mid-table side from the next town over.

The Casuals were about of a similar ability to ourselves, so naturally George expected nothing but victory. We almost pulled it off too, leading as we were 2-1 with just a few minutes left before then shooting ourselves in the crown jewels to lose 2-3. The winning goal came from a shocking error by Firbank. With injury time almost up and George hopping around on the touchline screaming at him to hoist the ball upfield, Firbank elected instead to play a sideways pass to one of our centre backs. Unfortunately he mis-timed it, allowing a Casual to casually steal the ball before firing it past the keeper for the winner.

Firbank looked horrified at the mistake but not as horrified as George, who looked like he want to run onto the pitch at that moment and choke the life out of his young left back in front of players, fans, and officials alike. He didn't of course, but boy did we know we were in for a roasting once we got back to the dressing room. Predictably, George wasted no time in rounding on Firbank.

"Out here" he said calmly, pointing to a small part of the floor between the two of them.

As the rest of us sat silent, wondering whether it would be safer to look at George or the floor, poor Daniel shook his head in the negative.

"Out - here - now" George repeated, temperature clearly on the rise.

This time Daniel stood up and positioned himself where George had instructed.

"Let me ask you a question - Did you enjoy making a t!t out of me in front of all those parents? Did you?"

"No" Daniel stammered.

"Don't lie to me. Nobody could play a pass as bad as that. It's impossible. Let me ask you again - Did you enjoy making a t!t out of me in front of all those parents?"

Daniel shook his head this time, and George slapped him in response. He didn't slap him hard enough to knock him down or force him backwards, but just hard enough to make him feel a sting in the side of his head. The other boys all flinched up and down the bench. You could hear a pin drop.

"Just tell the truth, kid, that's all I'm asking. You f_cked us didn't you? You thought you'd have a little laugh at our expense".

George slapped him again, but calmly, and without fully losing his temper. Daniel began to cry, afraid of George but also afraid to run away.

"Do you think it's funny, getting us to waste all f__king morning out there chasing a result, only to have you f_ck it up at the last minute? Do you think that's big? Do you think that's clever? Do you? Do you, kid?"

Slap.

"Please, no, I didn't - ".

Slap.

"You what? Are you answering me back kid?"

"Come on, leave him" said Tony Neill, one of the bigger boys who also happened to be captain.

"Leave him?" George said, turning his head slowly. "Have you got something to say, Neill? Do you want some?"

"No".

"Well shut your mouth then".

George turned his attention back to Daniel, whose tears were now flowing down his face faster than a waterfall. He'd also gone very red in the cheeks, although whether that was from embarrassment or being slapped, nobody knew".

"Crying isn't going to change the result, kid" George said patronisingly.

"I know, but - "

Slap.

"What was that?"

"Leave it, please" Tony pleaded again.

"Yeah come on, he's hurt" said Calvin Dean, standing up bravely next to Tony.

George eyed them both up and for a moment I thought he was going to blow his top. Actually he did blow his top, just not in the direction predicted. Evidently deciding that the team was turning against him (or simply that he'd had enough - who knows?), George gave Daniel one more almighty slap and then turned on his heels and swept out of the door. This last whack was enough to send poor Daniel hurtling into the upright Tony Neill. He was hurt quite badly now. The bruises, once they showed themselves, lasted for weeks.

At that moment in the changing rooms though all the boys helped him back to his feet and looked after him. Furthermore, once we were all dressed and ready to go, every single one of us walked Daniel back to his house half a mile away before we went home ourselves. It was a strange thing to do, but the antics of George had sort of us turned us into a band of brothers.

No words were ever spoken about it but we all felt close that day. You could feel it in the air as we wandered down the road together. Usually when we walked anywhere there was micky-taking and messing around and sex jokes and all the rest of it. Not this day. On this day we just wandered along mostly in silence, almost as if we were in mourning. It was almost as if Daniel had actually died.

George Palazzi never managed another Guiseley Eagles match ever again.

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December round-up

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Premiership

Top - Man Utd (40), Arsenal (40), Liverpool (39), Chelsea (38), Tottenham (35), Aston Villa (31)

Bottom - Portsmouth (16), Bolton (16), Hull (15), Stoke (15), West Ham (11)

The annoying thing about the top of the premiership looking like that is, it gives ammunition to fans of the big four to go around saying "Isn't the premiership great? Look how tight it is at the top between four clubs? Isn't it exciting?". The rest of us though who are bored of the top four's dominance still think it's rubbish, or at least I do. Tottenham are hanging in there with a chance of of challenging but I can't see it lasting. Villa are too far behind now.

Down at the bottom, Gianfranco Zola is under huge pressure at Upton Park. Hammers fans are beginning to fear they're in for yet another unwanted stint in The Championship. Stoke and Hull continue to battle but remain favourites to join them. The golden boot charts, by the way, are now being lead by an unlikely candidate - Middlesborough's Alfonso Alves. The 27 year old has 11 premiership goals from 19 games, ensuring Boro a safe mid-table position.

----

Championship

Top - Reading (52), Ipswich (48), Southampton (47), Bristol City (45), Sheff Utd (45), Charlton (45), Cardiff (42), Doncaster (42)

Bottom - Q.P.R (28), Nottingham Forest (24), Crystal Palace (23), Blackpool (22), Swansea (22)

It's looking good for the Royals who have opened up a four point gap over Ipswich in second place. Curiously, Bristol City are still managing to stay in the promotion picture. Can they cause an upset and reach the Premiership for the first time? Doncaster finally seem to be slipping off the pace having now dropped to 8th.

There aren't any hideously bad teams at the foot of the table, but Crystal Palace seem to be the team in form at the moment. I'd be worried if I was a Nottingham Forest fan. It took them an annoying few years to get out of League One and now they're flirting with going back again. Four players lead the goal charts in this division. Eddie Johnson of Cardiff, Darius Henderson of Sheff Utd, Kevin Doyle of Reading, and Robbie Blake of Burnley, all have 14 goals a piece. Reading fans must have been chuffed to be able to hang onto a player of Doyle's class this term.

-----

League One

Top - Leeds (49), Oldham (45), Millwall (45), Leicester (43), Leyton Orient (42), Scunthorpe (42), Peterborough (37)

Bottom - Hartlepool (25), Bristol Rovers (25), Carlise (23), Brighton (22), Walsall (19), Hereford (11)

It's all good at Elland Road. They didn't lose a match in December and seem bound for The Championship. The next five clubs will probably scrap it out for the second promotion spot. Peterborough in 7th though considerable work to do to break that top six and get into the playoffs. The surprise package here are Leyton Orient. I can't ever remember them being in the second tier during my twenty years of following the game.

Not much of note is going on down in the lower reaches. Hereford seem completely out of their depth in this division. In fact they're almost as far away from the safety line as Luton are! There are two leading scorers - Paul Hayes of Scunthorpe and Simon Cox of Swindon, both with 15 league goals.

------

League Two

Top - Rochdale (46), Shrewsbury (44), Grimsby (42), Bury (41), Gillingham (37), Darlington (37), Dag and Red (37), Exeter (36)

Bottom - Wycombe (24), Chesterfield (24), Macclesfield (20), Chester City (12), Bournemouth (7), Luton Town (-4)

I'm proud to say we recently took a point away to new league leaders Rochdale. The Shrews have been knocked off the top after a poor run of form. They do still possess the league's leading scorer though in Grant Holt, who has 18 goals. It goes without saying I suppose but we are still the country's lowest points scorers.

-------

Blue Square Premier

Top - York City (52), Torquay (49), Wrexham (46), Rushden (46), Oxford (46), Cambridge (43)

Bottom - Ebbsfleet (31), Altrincham (30), Forest Green (29), Lewes (27), Barrow (26), Eastbourne (20)

The Minstermen of York have led the table all season, but that's the good news. On the flip side, they haven't managed to pull away from the rest and they'll be wary of this as the teams head down the home straight. Tellingly perhaps, not one team in the top sixhasn't been in the football league before.

It's a tight league this one. Ebbsfleet make the 'bottom' list despite having 31 points, and with four clubs to be relegated the unlucky Forest Green find themselves in the relegation zone with 29! Everybody still has a chance except perhaps for Eastbourne, who just haven't adapted sufficiently well enough to this level and are now six points adrift. Top scorer is York's 30 year old striker Daniel McBreen with 17 league goals.

--------

Blue Square North

Top - Farsley Celtic (46), Tamworth (40), Hinckley (38), Gainsborough (38), Harrogate (35), Gateshead (35)

Bottom - Kings Lynn (20), Vauxhall Motors (20), Hucknall (19), Burscough (18)

The Villagers continue to shine after spending large sums in the summer. Yorkshire neighbours Harrogate though seem to be floundering, and have dropped to 5th. Former Conference outfit Tamworth are coming good at a good time and could yet challenge Farsley for the league's one automatic promotion spot.

Three clubs bite the bullet in this division, so Kings Lynn beware; you are treading a fine line. The leading goalscorer here is still Farsley's Andy Campbell. He has 14 priceless league strikes.

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Blue Square South

Top - St Albans (41), Newport (40), AFC Wimbledon (39), Chelmsford (35), Bishop's Stortford (35), Welling (33), Fisher (33)

Bottom - Thurrock (24), Dorchester (23), Eastleigh (20), Bogner Regis (16)

Who's your money on? St Albans are based quite close to us. I wouldn't mind seeing them go up out of local interest. You'd have to think that AFC Wimbledon look an ominous threat though sitting there in third place. Having said that, Newport are quite a big club at this level too. It's a close run thing.

Bogner look doomed at the bottom. I don't know much about the other teams. Incidentally, top scorer in this league remains Sam Higgins of Chelmsford with 14 league goals

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Thanks Bambi!

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05/01/09 - The House of Sally

“I never imagined you’d live in a place like this, Nicky”.

“What sort of place did you think I’d live in?”

“I don’t know, probably some place similar to where I lived when I was your age – an untidy flat somewhere full of empty beer cans and pizza boxes. Mind you, maybe that’s just the way students live. You’re not a student”.

“Nope! Anyway, come in and sit down”.

Nicky’s rented house, which she shared with a friend, looked like something Jack Nicholson’s The Joker might live in. All the walls were purple, and everything else in the place seemed to have a weird art deco feel to it. The settee in the living room was yellow leather. The coffee table was a fish tank. Around the walls were odd-looking pictures from artists who obviously had a weird imagination. Seriously, what kind of person wakes up one day and thinks I know! Today I’ll draw a picture of two hands coming out of somebody’s mouth?

“This is my housemate, Sally” said Nicky, as I eyed up a strange work of art on top of the mantlepiece – it was basically a horse and his horseman created out of bent copper wiring. Next to it was one of those electricity balls where you put your hand on top and then all the lightning inside transfers to your hand.

“Pleased to meet you, Sally” I replied, sitting down and nodding at the woman across the room.

"Likewise".

“Sally is the person who bought most of this cool stuff” said Nicky.

“Very impressive”.

Sally was brunette, and right now was lying full length on the opposite settee to the one I was on. She was reading a magazine and looked highly disinterested in my presence. She was a good looking girl, as far as I could tell, but her complexion was a lot less cheery than Nicky’s. Some women have a very naturally cynical expression, and Sally is one of those. That’s not to say you can’t still be very attractive like that. Some men prefer a steely cold look in a woman to a butter-wouldn’t-melt grin like Nicky's. Personally I don't really care either way. A good looking woman is a good looking woman.

“I almost didn’t get time to come” I stated, gladly accepting the small bottled beer Nicky fetched me from the kitchen.

“How come?”

“Before I left the office I had a visitor, a young man called Albie. Apparently he just phoned up out of the blue and asked to be let in to see me”.

“I take it you let him then? What did he want?”

“Brenda said he'd come on Deathmatch business. I don’t get many visitors so I said he could come up. When he did, it turned out he was a Luton fan who’d heard I was the deathmatch champion and wanted a shot at my title”.

“You’re kidding!”

“No, straight up!”

Nicky laughed and sipped some of her beer. As she did so, three or four of her bangles slid down her arms like pineapple pieces on a stick. I’d noticed she’d developed quite a love for bangles recently. Today she had about six on each arm.

“Anyway” I continued. “This Albie guy wanted to arrange a match between me and him. I couldn’t be bothered with that though. I just wanted to get it over with right there and then. I only wanted the title in the first place to annoy Cyril. So, I asked Caroline if she would ask us some questions taken from the internet so we could do it right there and then. Albie agreed so off we went. Predictably enough, I couldn’t answer a bloody thing this time around, so Albie won in about five minutes flat. I gave him the trophy and off he went, a big smile plastered all over his face”.

“Luke’s gone?!” Nicky gasped, clasping one hand to her mouth.

“Luke’s gone” I confirmed.

“Aw but that trophy was so funny! I’m going to miss seeing it on your desk!”

“I know, but all good things have to come to an end”.

“What was this Albie guy like? Was he really geeky like Cyril?”

“Kind of, but in a different way. He was quite overweight, and he was mostly bald. He was about the same age as Cyril though. I’d say he wasn’t as obviously geeky as Cyril but not far off”.

“I dread to ask what it is you’re talking about here” Sally said cynically.

“It’s a long story” Nicky told her. “I’ll tell you later”.

“Okay. I’m going to put the TV on, is that alright? Can you still chat while it's on?”

“Sure”.

As Sally got up to turn the TV on, I suddenly noticed a tortoise slinking around by the foot of the DVD cabinet.

“What the hell is that?” I asked, pointing.

“Oh that’s Bertie!” Nicky replied enthusiastically.

With this she got up and went to fetch him, bringing him back to her chair and stroking him gently.

“A tortoise?” I asked incredulously.

“Well, a dog or a cat wouldn’t really fit in here. Besides, I’ve had Bertie for years. He’s my baby”.

“I keep trying to persuade her we should have tortoise soup one night” Sally said, returning to the settee. She’d chosen the local news to watch on TV and now had her arms crossed to watch it.

“Aw, how could she say such a thing?” Nicky asked Bertie, putting her smile right up close to his golf ball sized head. “You’re my little Bertie-kins aren’t you? Mummy will never ever let mean Aunt Sally put you in her cooking pot. Oooh, no she won’t. Mummy will look after you”.

I’d meant to be coming here today to see Nicky use her space hopper, which Alison of course had bought her for Christmas. It transpired she only lived a few streets away from me, so it wasn’t going out of my way that much to stop by for such a tragically sad reason, as Darren had put it. Nicky though had apparently smashed a lampshade bouncing around the living room on her space hopper, so mean Aunt Sally had destroyed it and thrown it out. That was two days ago. You might as well still nip around for a beer Nicky had said though, and so the appointment had remained.

“So how come you two ended up living together” I asked.

I didn’t just ask this for conversation purposes; I was genuinely intrigued to know. They seemed like two very different women on the surface. Sally even appeared to be a few years older – I’d guess about 25 or 26.

“Oh, well we used to work together at the Marks and Spencers in the town centre” Nicky answered. “It was the first job I had after school. After a while though they made our department mostly redundant, so Sally went off to work for House of Fraser and I ended up at the football club. We always hung out on breaks and stuff at Marks and Sparks though, so before our jobs ended we came to live together".

“House of Fraser – Is that a clothes places?”

“Yeah. Sally’s big thing is fashion. She always wanted to get into it when she was at Marks and Sparks”.

“Whilst you meanwhile were gunning for a place in The Blue Square Premier”.

“The what?”

“Doesn’t matter”.

A brief silence ensued, during which I awkwardly caught Sally’s eye. I hoped the look she gave me wasn’t a case of - What is your agenda, coming to see Nicky like this? I didn't have any agenda though. I was just being polite.

“Want to hold Bertie?” Nicky asked me.

“Yeah, go on then”.

----------------

07/01/09, League Match 24 (Att -5750)

Luton Town 2 (Slusarski 4, Martin 34)

Notts County 0

For this crucial match (aren’t they all?) I made just one change from the team that beat Barnet. New signing Ronny Johnson trotted out to a mostly standing ovation from the Kenilworth faithful, all of whom have perhaps latched onto the vain hope he will somehow end up being our saviour. Johnson technically replaced the suspended Gnakpa, but it was Pilkington who took Grakpa's place at right back. That then left a vacancy for Johnson at centre half.

Tactically this was to be a straight 442 v 442 dogfight. Instruction wise I decided to shake things up by telling Keane to roam forwards from midfield as much as he could whilst at the same time telling the other centre midfielder, Matthew Gill, to remain back. I wanted to see more of an individual role feel to the midfield rather than simply having two of the same type fighting it out to go forward. It was a new theoretical framework of mine and I was keen to see if it would work. They say you shouldn’t tamper with things after a win but the truth is that we really didn’t play well during that win against Barnet.

We got off to one of the best starts I can ever remember us having. A huge lofted ball from our goalkeeper bounced awkwardly towards the opposition penalty area. The central defender and their keeper seemed in two minds about who was going to deal with it, allowing Slusarski to nip between the two of them, touch the ball past the keeper, and slot into the net. Great start! County responded with their first and only attacking spell of the match. They hit one long range shot over by a wisp, and a few minutes later smacked one on target that Brill had to parry smartly.

As we settled back down and the match began to tick towards half time in a state of stalemate (which suited me fine!), our hard working midfield managed to flick the ball through to Martin forty yards out. He carried the ball forwards as two defenders sandwiched him ready to get in a tackle. Martin though casually whipped the ball over the goalkeeper from about thirty yards out. The ball dipped in under the crossbar for an absolutely terrific strike which had everybody in the ground off their feet in appreciation. He scored a similar goal against Chesterfield earlier in the season, if I remember rightly.

Just before the interval we suffered an injury, Eagle limping off to the sidelines and unable to return. I brought on O’Connor in place of him. O'Connor isn’t a natural left winger but can still put in accomplished performances there. Half time arrived and I now had time to re-focus my players. As the old saying goes, 2-0 is a dangerous lead but 3-0 is pipe, slippers, and a biscuit. Thus, I regarded our lead as being dangerous and the match far from dead. I told the players not to let their performance levels drop.

I need not of worried though because County didn’t have one shot the entire second half. What a turn up! Ronny Johnson it seemed was completely in command in central defence with his young prodigy Howarth. Keane and Gill were also playing very well in midfield and working better than any other combination I’ve seen this season. Slusarski meanwhile almost grabbed his second goal just short of the hour, rifling a shot at the goal inside a crowded area only to see the keeper parry it around the post. The corner came to nothing.

Sadly, the occurance of more injuries prevented this cakewalk of a football match being perfect. Midway through the second half, substitute O’Connor came off injured and I was forced to switch left back Borrowdale to left midfield (where is he very awkward) and bring George Beavon off the bench to slot in at left back. Fifteen minutes from the end Slusarksi suffered a minor niggle and came off for Quinn. Then the other starting striker, Martin, suffered a knock. I had to keep him on though because I was out of substitutes! What’s with all the injuries?!?

Nay matter. The only team that looked like scoring the next goal was still us. We got into some good positions during the final ten minutes but couldn’t get a shot away. County had a very feeble penalty appeal waved away in injury time but it was too little too late for them to be coming out of their shells. The win means we’ve now won back to back matches for just the second time this season. We’ve also won 3 of our last 4. We’ve also - drumroll - improved to just 1 defeat in 13 home games in the league (1 in 14 if you count all competitions).

(League table with 24 games gone. We have 6 wins, 11 draws, 7 defeats)

Wycombe (25)

Chesterfield (24)

Macclesfield (20)

Chester City (12)

------------------

Bournemouth (8)

Luton Town (-1)

----------------

08/01/09 - A change in the wind?

I met Brian down the Hatters Arms this afternoon for a meal and a pint. We hadn’t been down for a while, mainly due to our suspicion of Gav the barman. For geographical purposes though it wasn’t really appropriate for us to start looking for other pubs to go to. Thus, after a while we began to slowly gravitate back to the place we’d already hung out for most of the season. We also began to speak to Gav the Barman again. The only difference now was that we only talked about safe subjects in his presence. For example, a chat about Premiership football was okay but a chat about how suspicious we found Dragomir Dilic was not.

We ordered a couple of pints and then got down to ordering some food. Brian went for a lasagne where as I went for an all-day breakfast (I’ve always been partial to a good fry-up). As Gav took our orders and wandered back to the bar area, I noticed Brian had brought a copy of The League Paper with him, a weekly publication reporting on events in The Championship, League One, and League Two.

“I haven’t read that for a while” I said.

“Oh, well you should probably read it more than The Herald” Brian replied, picking up the paper and placing it on the table. “There’s actually an article in here about you. That’s why I brought it along. I wanted to show you”.

“Oh right” I said, not particularly enthused.

“No no, this one’s a good one! Why wouldn’t it be? Our results have been improving. It was bound to be reflected in the media somewhere eventually”.

Brian opened the paper and searched for the article. It was on Page 3 of all places.

Hatters still eyeing a remarkable comeback, by Johnny Bellfield

Having missed the chance after their mammoth points deduction to sample the Kenilworth Road atmosphere at the first home game of the season (a dismal 0-0 draw against Chester), I finally caught up with Luton Town on Wednesday night as they entertained Notts County. To have described it as a six-pointer would be pointless, much like Luton in the table. Every match the Hatters play at the moment is a life or death struggle with potentially damning consequences should they lose.

Even in January, they still haven’t cleared the thirty point deficit brutally handed down to them by the FA last summer for financial irregularites. And yet - whisper it quietly - but some locals reckon their goose hasn’t quite gone the same way as the Christmas Turkey. YET, that is.

For although the team still resides thirteen points below the drop zone, recent inroads into the mountain have offered hope of a miracle. Remember, only two clubs drop out of this division at any one time. Closest rivals Bournemouth (also an F.A victim last summer) and Chester are flailing in the wind, failing as they did to pull away from Hertfordshire’s finest when the chips were truly down during the Autumn. Sitting in the Oak Road stand as I did yesterday, as James Martin (more on him in a minute) waved and shouted his team on to a priceless victory, I sensed around me a distinct air of almost stubborn optimism, a belief that just maybe this unprecedented story will ultimately have a happy ending.

There were no cries here for board members’ heads to be placed on pikes, no venomous fan songs aimed at Soho Square cognescenti not around to hear them, no union jacks declaring the end of the world as we know it in magic marker. In fact, in all honestly, everything here seemed the same as it was the last time I visited two years ago, when Luton had battled their way to a draw against Northampton in League One. Not even the attendances have dipped since then, at least not noticably.

As aforementioned, the man in charge of plugging the holes in the boat (all thirty of them) is thirty year old James Martin. Yes, he’s exactly thirty. I’m sure the irony isn’t lost on him. Not much is known about this coaching badge graduate from Yorkshire; he has no previous managerial experience that’s for sure. The word on the street is he used to be a junior solicitor. Maybe the board originally brought him in to challenge the points ruling.

Reports on his early performance were largely packed with derision. Multiple injuries, sulking players, and initially impatient supporters, all combined to make Martin’s first three months a nightmare he would probably rather forget. Luton won just two of their first fifteen league games, hardly what’s required when you’ve got one foot in the Blue Square Premier before the season has even begun. Local rag The Hertfordshire Herald even gave up on the situation completely after the loss at Aldershot, ridiculing the rookie manager with pictures of him dressed as Bruce Lee and even one of the Ghostbusters (in what context God only knows - the club wouldn't comment during my visit).

Now though there’s hope on the horizon. Just one defeat in the past nine league games has woken the locals up to the possbility that hey, it might not be over just yet. It’s unlikely the Herald or the Bulletin will be convinced, but what I saw yesterday in my wisdom born from viewing just one match, was mostly positive. Players worked hard for each other, the strikers looked sharp and attentive, the midfield tackled and harried, and the fans, whilst not yet daring to play their full complimentary hand and actually sing for Martin, did at least open their vocal chords on several occasions with optimism and gusto. I’ve got to be frank with you; I’ve been to several grounds this season where the atmosphere has been far more despondant and fed-up.

So can the miracle resurrection be achieved? I imagine the odds still aren’t quite as good as 50-50, but they might be if Martin can fix Luton’s dismal record on the road and win at Chester in the next match. Victory would take Martin's men to within just ten points of survival with twenty one games still to play. In the meantime, those good folk at The Hertfordshire Herald and The Bedfordshire Bulletin might be wise to note the words of the woman sat next to me in the Oak Road Stand yesterday - “He’s a qualified solicitor you know. They can worm they way out of anything, and that’s what I’m counting on”.

“That’s interesting” I said. “It’s a shame he doesn’t come to the press conferences. I might get an easier time of it”.

“Have you made your mind up about Chester yet?” Brian asked.

“Yeah, I’m going to go with 4.5.1, even with O’Connor injured”.

“It’s risky changing things up after two wins. The press won’t like it if we get beat. This is a huge game”.

“I know that, but none of our recent wins have been away. We were awful at Exeter. As far as I’m concerned, we’ve not played well enough this season to earn the right to play 4.4.2 away from home. I can’t bring myself to just play the same way at Chester and hope it works out for a change. We need to be brave and try something new. We scored a goal against Barnet with a hoof over the top playing 4.4.1 so maybe we’re onto something with the whole one striker thing”.

“Okay, I can see that. I’m not against the idea. I just wanted to make sure that you’re sure. That’s my job as assistant manager, to challenge you sometimes”.

Before I could answer, Gav the barman rolled up with our two meals. They looked gorgeous. Pub grub is always better than anything at home.

“Enjoy, boys”

“Don’t worry, we will”.

----------------

09/01/09 - Lock and key

I had some annoying news to divulge to Darren in the canteen this afternoon. As I prepared to do so, Caroline raised a minor complaint from where she was over by the TV.

"Darren, I can't get this working! If you use the DVD player, can you change it back to TV once you're finished? We're not all techno wizards around here".

"Just take the DVD plug out and put the TV plug in! It's not hard".

"I'm trying but it's not working!"

Darren signed and turned back to me.

"Sorry, go on".

"Well" I said, speaking so that Caroline couldn't hear me. "I finally managed to get inside Dave's office to have a snoop around".

"Did you find anything?"

"No. I checked out every single square inch. I couldn't find anything to do with the managerial interview process. There's a good chance it's now too old that he'd still have retained records".

"So that's that then - all over?"

"Not quite. One thing I did find, hidden away under Dave's desk, is a small safe. Obviously I couldn't get into it because I don't know the combination. Just maybe though, there's something in that safe amounting to what I'm looking for".

"He might just have his porn collection in there" Darren said seriously.

"He might also have some things in there he wants to keep hidden, things to do with Luton Town FC. What else would he keep in a safe? It can't be money because he'd keep that in a bank. It must be something very important he needs to hide. Anyway, like I said, I don't have the combination. I'll need to think about how I can get it".

Just then we were startled by a loud thumping noise from over at the TV. Caroline had slapped it.

"Darren, will you help me with this or what?! I want to see the local news! There's a girl I used to know from school who died this morning from taking ecstasy".

As Darren sighed and finally got up to help her, my mind couldn't help flashing back to my meeting with the police officers in Macclesfield. Hadn't they said they were investigating Luton fans over something to do with ecstasy? I couldn't remember. My abiding memory from that day was being made to sweat over the brief if unsettling Steve Fairclough interrogation. Anyway, Darren managed to sort out in Caroline's TV problem in about two seconds, and before my website administrator had even returned to his seat, we heard the familar theme tune of the local news start up.

"Sorry about that" he said.

"No worries. Oh, I've got something to show you. I actually printed this out to show Brian later but I don't mind showing you too. It's an E-mail I got from Dave about my managerial performance so far".

I reached into my wallet and pulled out a sheet of folded up computer paper. Then I passed it to Darren. As he began to read it, I noticed that the local news was showing an interview with a distraught mother whose daughter it was who'd died. She had plenty of choice words to say about the type of person who would sell ecstasy to teenagers.

Hi James.

In response to your countless queries as to how well you're doing at the club, the board have agreed to produce a performance sheet for you every month. It is intended only as a rough guide and IS NOT a definitive statement. We certainly do not want to see this made public. I would also remind you that the chairman of the board retains the right to terminate your contract should he see fit, regardless of how good your performance sheet looks.

The performance ratings have been separated into categories. If you want any explanation or clarification regarding these categories, please come and see me. My door is always open.

Board ratings

Managerial affect on club stature - Okay

Competition performance - Okay

Wage handling - Okay

Squad harmony - Okay

Fan ratings

Signings - Okay

Match ratings - Okay

Player ratings - Okay

Summary - We still think you should be performing slightly better as a manager

"How weird" Darren said, passing the sheet of paper back to me.

"How lazy, you mean. Everything says okay, every last possible rating".

"That means you're doing alright".

"Maybe. We'll see".

Our attentions were diverted back to the television. A high ranking policeman was speculating that a local gangster by the name of Jack Shandy may have had something to do with the recent outbreak of ecstasy-related illnesses and deaths in the surrounding towns.

"I've heard of him before" I said, my memory failing me as to where.

"Really? Where from?"

"I can't remember now".

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09/01/09 - Caretaker boss

Later the same evening, my mind once again drifted back to my time with the Guiseley Eagles...

Aside from the traumatized Daniel Firbank, whose enraged mother had refused to let her son anywhere near George Palazzi ever again, everybody else turned up for the Eagles’ next game against Menston United. It just goes to show how addictive playing football can be when even having an abusive manager doesn’t deter you from turning up. I seem to remember a football film called Escape to Victory where the players elected to finish a match rather than take the only good chance of escaping from the Germans during World War Two they would ever get. Football really is a drug, just like gambling, drinking, or smoking.

Despite the fact the match against the Yeadon Casuals was Palazzi’s last, we didn’t actually know that until after the game with Menston. After all, nobody told us he’d quit. Nobody told us Daniel wasn’t returning. Nobody told us that Daniel’s mother had somehow got in touch with Palazzi and threatened him with police involvement if he ever went near her son again (why she didn’t go to the police straight away is a mystery, and that’s the trouble with second hand information. Sometimes it doesn’t make sense). We simply had to deduce ourselves that he wasn’t coming back, and we wouldn't do that for at least one match played in George's absence. At this level of the game, managerial departures aren’t announced over Sky Sports.

So against Menston we all sat there in the changing room and began our fruitless wait for the manager to turn up. Fifteen minutes before kick-off the referee stuck his head around the door to check up on us.

“Fifteen minutes, lads. Are you not getting changed?”

“Our manager isn’t here”.

“Well as long as you can pay your match fee, it doesn’t matter. I’ll come back in ten minutes. Then you’ll have to let me know one way or the other if you’re playing or not. I can’t keep the other team here all day”.

With that he disappeared.

“Bollocks to this” said Tony. “I’m off”.

A couple of lads stood up to follow him out the door, and they were soon joined by three or fours others. Evidently it seemed nobody could be bothered playing if we didn’t have a manager. I found that attitude rather strange.

“Wait!” I said, before they could open the door.

Everybody turned to look at me. In response I stood up and moved to the part of the room where George usually stood. Doing so almost gave me goosebumps.

“What?” Tony asked.

“Why don’t we play anyway? We’ve got our match fee contributions. It’ll be more fun anyway without George managing us”.

Some people murmoured agreement. Others were not so sure. Tony was definitely the leader of this latter group.

“And what if we f__k it up and George comes back here next week to take it out on us? I’m the captain. I’ll be the one who’ll probably get it in the neck, no pun intended”.

“George probably isn’t coming back now” I said. “And even if he does, we’ll just say the referee told us we’d either have to play or forfeit. I doubt you can just call off a game and then rearrange it to suit your own needs”.

Now there were more and more lads agreeing with me and beginning to get their money out. It was clear most of them wanted to play. It made sense they would and I’d known so before speaking up. Why wouldn’t these guys want to play? Even if it turned out George was ill and he came back next week, this game against Menston could turn out to be the only time we'd ever ever play for this club without getting bawled at and slapped around. Why pass up that chance?

“Okay” said Tony, but continuing to challenge me. “And who is going to pick the team, because I’m not doing it”.

“Don't worry about that. I’ll do it” I said, moving to the whiteboard and picking up a marker pen. “Somebody has to. It’s not as if we have a settled team after all the millions of changes George makes every week”.

“And of course, no doubt you’ll be the first name on the whiteboard”.

“Not at all. If everybody else is happy for me to pick the team, I’m quite happy to put myself on the bench".

Tony was the only person still stood up now. Everybody else who had initially made a move to leave had sat down again.

“Anybody else apart from Martin want to pick the team?” Tony asked everyone.

Several people said no, paving the way for me to continue.

“Right then” I said, turning back to the board. “I’ll write the team down as I think it should be. If anybody disagrees with what I write then speak up and I will happily step down".

“Just get on with it, Martin. You're doing it” – This from right midfielder Andy Payne.

In the next two or three minutes I wrote the team down in near silence. I could feel everybody watching over my shoulder to see what names I was writing down, but I didn’t feel uncomfortable. I actually felt very much at ease, and I had a lot of confidence that everybody would be happy with the teamsheet I would ultimately reveal. I’ll tell you one thing – I felt a lot happier stood up here than I did sat down listening to George Palazzi. Next to each name I wrote the corresponding position on the pitch I intended them to play.

“This is the team I would go for” I said, putting my marker pen down. “Everybody not on there is on the bench. I’m sorry to anyone who isn’t on the team-sheet but I can’t pick everyone. I’ve set the names out in a 4.4.2 formation. Most of you don’t like all the different formations George comes up with so I figure we might be best sticking to something simple that we all understand”.

I was glad everyone was silent following my explanation. That meant nobody had any great complaints.

“James, you can play instead of me” said right back Tim Lovett. “I haven’t brought my match fee”.

“It’s okay, I’ll put my fee in for you. I can’t play right back. It’s best you play”.

“Alright. Cheers”.

People were nodding and listening, and nobody was complaining. I was enjoying this. I was enjoying this very much.

“Okay then” I said, raising my voice slightly and slapping one hand down onto the other like Robin might do talking to Batman. “Let’s get changed, get out there, and show George Palazzi just how little we need him. Let’s show him just how utterly s__t he is by getting the sort of result we would never get if he was here. We don't need an excuse to f__k up Menston anyway after that dodgy pen they got against us earlier in the season. Let's go for it!"

In response to this came cries of yeah and let’s do it, and everybody began getting changed. As they did, I went around from person to person collecting match fees. I was almost done in this regard when the referee popped his head around the door again.

“Are we playing or not, lads?”

“We’re playing” said Carl Hines. “One of our players - James Martin - is taking charge. He’s just getting the match fees together now”.

“Oh” the referee chuckled, looking around for me. “Got ourselves a little wannabe manager have we? Good good”.

We slaughtered Menston four-one, and I even came off the bench for the final ten minutes to set up the fourth goal. Everybody was delighted, and suddenly I was twice as popular in the dressing room as I had been previously. Having said that, my stint as caretaker manager didn’t last long. Once it had been confirmed George wouldn’t be coming back, the boys collectively agreed they weren’t about to let one of their own take over permanently. Andy Payne’s dad was keen on taking over and he did just that in our very next game away to the Horsforth Harriers.

I wasn’t bothered. As much I’d enjoyed the experience of picking that winning team, it just wasn’t the done thing for a twelve year old to manage a football club. I understood the politics of that and I didn’t let it get me down. I knew it wasn't because anybody thought I'd done badly.

“Did you have a good time?” my mum asked me when I came home from the Menston game.

“Yeah, we won four-one”

“Ah that’s good. Dump your dirty football stuff by the washing machine”.

“Mum?” I said, doing as she’d told me.

“Yeah?”

“How much do you think football managers get paid?”

----------------

10/01/09 - Chester Zoo

I was really the pumped the day of the Chester match so I took a detour away from the players after breakfast, just to lower my blood pressure a bit. To do this I visited Chester‘s famous zoo. I had at least four hours to kill so why not? Chester Zoo is regarded as the number one zoo in the UK. According to the brochure I picked up on my way through the turnstiles, it houses no fewer than 7000 animals and 400 different species. The grounds cover over 110 acres and are visited by over a million visitors per year. For the sake of comparison, Chester City football club probably gets about 50000 people through its gates during that same length of time (roughly 5% of Chester Zoo’s intake).

For the first hour of my self-guiding tour I almost lost myself in the company of elephants, bears, monkeys, and even sea lions. Being January it was very cold outside, but that also meant there weren’t as many people around as there would have been during summer months. I practically had the freedom to go wherever I wanted without having to queue or wait for anything. It started drizzling for a short period just after 11am so I headed over to the reptile house. I must admit, I cringed several times as I slowly walked from one showcase to the next, peering as I was through the glass prisons of spiders, snakes, and poisonous frogs.

As I was looking into the cage of a particularly nasty looking black python curled up beneath a log, I noticed a face appear behind the glass on the far side. It was a young woman’s face, and she wasn’t looking at the snake; she was looking at me. I turned away and walked on, instinctively thinking that she would probably get it the other way around, and assume I’d been clocking her when I should have been studying the snake. I had another thought just after that one though, one that rocked my inner foundations to the core.

‘That’s the same cute girl I saw in the museum in Macclesfield!’

My inhibitions quickly clearing themselves to one side, I rushed around the display cases to where the girl must have been standing when she’d looked through. Predictably though she was gone. I wasn’t about to give up, mind. I searched the rest of the reptile house and when I then still couldn’t find her, I went outside and looked elsewhere. It was a big zoo, and if this had been the summer then my chances of locating her would probably have been next to zero. As it was, other visitors to the park were scarce today. I had a chance.

My luck was in. Eventually I found her gazing out into a field of zebra's some five minutes walk away from the reptile house. If she was worried I would find her, she wasn’t showing it. She was leaning calmly on the wooden fence that circled the perimeter and seemed very much at ease with herself. Just the same as in Macclesfield, she was wearing a black leather jacket and white trousers. I hadn’t quite figured out what I was going to say yet but I was definitely going to say something.

“So what do you prefer, zoo's or musesums?” I settled on, resting myself on the fence to her right hand side.

“Probably zoo's” she replied, giving me a quick glance as she spoke. “And what do you prefer, police cells or freedom?”

“So you do know why I’ve come up to you then? I’m glad. I’d hate it if you thought I was just perving”.

“Every instance of two people knowing each other has to begin with them talking, so don’t worry about it. Perving would be touching me and being rude – you haven’t done that yet”.

“And I don’t intend to. That’s very philosophical what you said about relationships, by the way”.

“It must be the surroundings I'm in. Maybe it’s getting me thinking about animals and mammals and humans and all that stuff?”

“Maybe. Anyway, if you were curious, the police only wanted to question me about - ”.

“Your friend Steve Fairclough” the girl replied, finally turning to face me full on.

In my surprise at hearing the name of my estranged friend, I almost didn’t fully take in the rather refined close-up details of the girl’s face. It was a very nice face. I remembered thinking the same at the museum. In my lack of a writer’s talent for descriptions, I would classify it as cute in the vein of a young Liv Tyler. As I prepared to respond again, a lively young Zebra trotted by. I don’t know where he came from and I don’t really know where he went either – I was too focused on the girl.

“Have you got a name?”

“Cassie”.

“Nice name. I’m James”.

“Hello James”.

“Did you recognise me back at the reptile house?”

“No, but I probably wouldn’t have said anything even if I had. I would have been too worried I was wrong. The funny thing is, I’ve usually got a good memory too; that’s how I manage to do things like this”.

She pulled a notebook out of her pocket and flipped the pages open. It was a notebook without lines, and it was full of hand-drawn pictures of all sorts of things – animals, landscapes, landmarks, bowls of fruit, you name it.

“Very impressive” I said, as she put it back in her pocket.

"Thanks".

“You know, forgive me saying this” I then began, my curiosity needing to be satisfied on something. “But it’s far too much of a coincidence us meeting like this. I don’t even want to begin thinking about the odds of two strangers bumping into each other in two separate towns in the space of the same month".

“Macclesfield isn’t far from Chester” Cassie answered, checking her watch. “Forgive me but I have to get going. I’m getting picked up outside the gates in a few minutes. I need to head out”.

“That's alright, I need to leave too”.

I walked alongside her as she headed for the exit, and she didn’t seem to mind at all. She didn’t seem flummoxed by anything truth be told, not least the notion of a thirty year old stranger suddenly happening to pop up in two places she’d visited over the past month. The mist however was about to clear..

“You’re right about this being too much of a coincidence” she said, as we passed the sea lion enclosure. “I’m only here because Luton Town are here”.

“Oh, you’re a Luton fan?!” I gasped.

“No, but my guardian partly owns the club”.

(It’s in moments like this where I seriously hate my life)

“Dragomir Dilic?! He’s your guardian?”

“Yep, and you’re James somebody-or-other the manager aren’t you? I would have said earlier but, I don’t know, I just didn’t. Maybe I wasn't sure it was you”.

“Is he the one picking you up from the gates?”

“No, he doesn’t come to matches. My chaperones are the ones driving me. They’re both big Luton fans and I don’t mind them dragging me to the games. It means I get to tell them to bring me to places like this in exchange for me letting them go to the football”.

I was just about to ask Cassie who her chaperones were when Chester Zoo’s main gates came into view. Beyond the gates I instantly recognised an all too familiar black moustache and white raincoat.

“Oh you’ve got to be kidding me” I said.

“What?” Cassie queried.

“It doesn’t matter”.

As I’ve already stated in previous entries, I’m not one to run away from idiots, so I remained by Cassie’s side here until the bitter end. Luton’s two favourite plonkers meanwhile (in my eyes anyway) were leaning against a black car puffing away on a couple of cigarettes.

“Morning, Mr Manager. I hope you’re not up to anything Mr Dilic wouldn’t approve of”.

“You know” I began. “I always thought I’d see you two in a zoo one day. I just didn’t think it would happen so quickly".

“You’ll be the one behind bars if you carry on pestering young girls in public places. You do know she’s only fifteen, right?”

“He’s joking” Cassie quickly interrupted. “I’m eighteen. Anyway, bye James”.

Garry opened the front door to the car and Cassie hopped in. Both Towzer and Garry though looked a little but put-out by the way Cassie had just spoken to me. I briefly waved to her through the passenger window and then began to walk off towards my own car. Towzer meanwhile dramatically threw his cigarette away in my direction (without hitting me) but didn’t say anything else.

----------------

10/01/09, League Match 25 (Att - 1992)

Chester City 0

Luton Town 0

True to my words in the pub, I picked a 4.5.1 formation with Martin as the lone striker. Thus, Slusarski dropped to the bench and in came Kevin Nicholls to fill the extra midfield berth. I also brought Anyinsah back to replace the unfit McVeigh on the right wing.

As I was filling in my teamsheet I suddenly realised I had too many loan players in the squad. The maximum you can pick is five, and I had six. Somebody would have to drop out. After a few minutes of thinking it over, I decided to drop Borrowdale at left back and give Sol Davis a run-out. Chester lined up with 4.4.1.1, which wasn’t too much different from us.

My plan didn’t really work in the first half. Chester went into half time leading 3-1 on shots in a very tight match, and although we were relatively secure at the back, we weren’t offering nearly enough going forward. Our only attack of note came when Martin unleashed a twenty five yarder that the keeper had to dive full length to tip over. At half time then I decided to switch back to 4.4.2 and be more adventurous. Brian had noticed that Matthew Gill looked a bit tired during the first period, so I took him off and brought Slusarski on to partner Martin up front.

Things improved in the second half. Although Chester continued to look at least as likely as us to score the first goal, we did create a couple of good openings. Firstly, Keane rammed a free kick against the wall when he would have been disappointed not to clear it. Then, just after we’d had Howarth sent off for a second bookable offence, a long curling cross from Eagle was met by the head of Slusarski at the back post. He produced a great header back across the goalkeeper but it hit the upright and bounced back into play. So unlucky!

Chester finished up the 5-3 winners on shots, but as we came the closest to scoring (Slusarski), I think the final result was probably fair. We’ve now lost just once in our last ten league matches. We can also claim to have kept six clean sheets in the last seven games.

“Keep your chins up” I told the lads afterwards. “I know we didn’t win but we came the closest to winning and they know it. They know we’re going to be chasing their tails for the rest of the season and I don’t see why we won’t be. I want to congratulate each and every one of you for bringing us back to zero points. It’s been a good effort under some trying circumstances. The job’s only half done though. We’re going to need at least another thirty points to have a chance of staying up and we’re gonna need to get them quicker than we got the first thirty. I’m sure we can do it though. Okay, get changed and let’s get back on the coach”.

(League table after 25/46 matches. We have 6 wins, 12 draws, 7 defeats)

Wycombe (25)

Macclesfield (20)

Chester City (13)

------------------

Bournemouth (9)

Luton Town (0)

------------------

13/01/09 - Impenetrable

Today I wandered into town and paid a visit to The Spy Shop, the place I’d bought the eardrum communications kit. On the agenda today though was something a little different; what I needed was something that could crack Dave’s safe. I wanted to know who my rivals for the Luton job had been and I reckoned the answer was in that safe. According to Darren, a device to break into a safe had definitely been invented because he'd seen James Bond doing it in You Only Live Twice.

Shop owner Eddie Lucketti however was about to disappoint me. He was a middle-aged man of about fifty, and in many ways looked a little bit like Herald reporter Andy Branston (round spectacles, limited hair, middle-aged). The only facial difference was to be found in his faint traces of a grey beard, which to me didn't seem to know whether it wanted to grow itself or not. It seemed visible in some places yet in other small areas completely shaven off. It was a very inconsistant beard. It was as if Eddie had run a razor over his face which had been running out of battery.

"You worry me, James" he said, inviting me through to the backroom. "If I didn't know you as being the Luton manager, I might seriously worry about a customer who comes in one minute wanting an eardrum communications kit, and then next minute wants something that can crack a safe. Tell you the truth, the eardrums request was child's play, nothing to worry about at all. This safe thing though - I've got to say James, it sounds dodgy. Mind telling me what you'd need such a thing for?"

The 'backroom' seemed to be half kitchen and half temporary living room. As we sat down at the room's one table, I tried to think of a good lie. I wasn't about to tell Eddie I wanted to break into the safe of my workplace superior.

"I've kind of got this ex-girlfriend, and err - well let's just say she's got some things of mine that she won't give back. I want half of the jewellary she's got in that safe and seeing as I paid for the lot of it, I think taking half back is completely within my rights".

"You still have access to the house?" Eddie asked, looking at me intently.

"Yeah. I'm still going in and out collecting my old things at the moment".

"Fair enough. You must forgive me for being nosy. I was visited by someone from the council a couple of months back. He warned me that I should start asking customers questions about why they need the type of things I sell - kind of like a gun shop owner would do I suppose. This guy seemed to think that terrorists and criminals are one of the most likely demographics to take advantage of a shop like mine".

"That's okay, I don't mind you asking".

"I must apologise though, James. My questions were all for naught anyway. I don't have anything to offer you. The device you need might exist somewhere in the market but I've yet to hear about it. Chances are it falls too much under the heading of dodgy. It'd take something pretty neat to crack the type of steel safe you're talking about. My guess is, only places like M15 have that kind of s__t".

"So you're saying there's nothing I can do here?"

Eddie thought hard for a second and then got up and went to the kettle. He used the tap to put some water into it and set it to boil.

"If you want my advice, try and guess the combination to the safe if you get a chance to sit in front of it for a lengthy period. These things aren't like computer passwords. You can guess as many times as you want and the safe will never let you stop trying".

"Yeah right. There must be millions of combinations to a safe!"

"Yeah but this girlfriend of yours is a woman, and women are stupid. More than likely this ex of yours used an old birthday as the combination, or maybe even the date you first got together, some s__t like that. Assuming she set the combination before you and her hit the rocks, chances are she didn't set a combination with a view to you not being able to guess it. If I were you I'd write down twenty or thirty possible guesses as to what the combination might be, keep the piece of paper with you until you get to the safe, and then punch in each one. You never know, if she went for something easy to remember, you and her might be on the same wavelength".

As Eddie finished making himself a coffee, I sat in his shadow feeling thoroughly depressed. As well as the fact Dave wasn't a woman, I didn't think Eddie's guessing idea seemed that likely to bring success anyway. My hopes of getting to the truth seemed further away than ever.

"Okay, Eddie" I said, standing up to leave. "Maybe I'll take your advice then. Listen, I'm going to take off. Maybe I'll see you again soon when I'm passing".

"No worries, James. Good luck against Shrewsbury next week!"

"Thanks".

"Oh!" Eddie called after me as I reached the front door. "This ex - it isn't that blonde colleague of yours you were pictured in The Herald going ghosthunting with, was it? Man she was hot!"

"Err yeah that's the one" I replied, and walked out.

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14/01/09 - The cruel tutelage of Bear

I just happened to be walking past The East Side Dojo today. I’d never had any intention of going back since my first visit, but today when I passed I could hear a lot of commotion coming from within. Curiosity getting the better of me, I decided to poke my nose around the door and see what was going on.

The huge wooden room inside was again full of students in white karate uniforms. This time they were standing around in a circle yelling and encouraging a couple of other students in the middle who appeared to be having a mock fight. Their leader Bear, distinguishable as usual in his light blue garb, was one of the spectators in the outer ring. He was the only man to glance at the door when I came in, and his polite nod in my direction indicated to me I was just as welcome today as I’d been the last time.

As I walked over to the ring of spectators, I heard a huge crunching noise and then the sound of someone hitting the deck. “Oooooh” voiced several spectators at once, and as I finally reached Bear’s side and peered into the middle, I could see that one student was faring considerably better than the other. Having said that, as the hurt student on the ground had a blindfold on it wasn’t much surprise to me he was losing.

“What’s going on here?” I asked.

“For a ninja to truly master survival in the darkness, he must first learn to see in the dark” Bear replied.

“So you’ve blindfolded one guy and pitted him against another guy who can see, the idea being that the blindfolded guy learns to fight without using his eyes?”

“That is correct, Skunk”.

As Bear said this, the blindfolded guy got up again and began circling around his opponent doing all that flicky wrist stuff that I personally just can’t fathom. It might have actually looked threatening had he been looking in the same direction as his opponent, but said opponent had now slipped behind the back of the blindfolded one again and was grinning at the crowd.

“Lama!” Bear shouted. “Let your other senses be your guiding light!”

“Don’t take this the wrong way, Bear” I began, as Lama was then kicked ruthlessly up the backside. “But I can’t imagine it’s all that likely during the course of a ninja’s career that a blindfold will just happen to drop out of the sky and land on his eyes, just at the same time his hands happen to get bound together so he can’t take said blindfold off”.

“Perhaps. However, to enter the realm of complacency is to enter the realm of the fool!”

“Yeah but - ”

Before I could finish, Lama was given a good kick in the hips that sent him sprawling into the arms of Bear.

“You’re not focusing!” Bear shouted in his ears.

“I can’t win!” Lama replied. “This is too hard! Please end the fight!”

“Fool! The ninja who begs for mercy is weak and unworthy of the robes on his body. Even in the most doomed of situations, you must fight with all your will until the bitter end. Now get back in there and sort this out! You honour demands it!”

With this, Bear practically threw Lama back into the ring. He did manage to regain his feet, but that was as good as it got. His opponent, a relatively short man with a mischievous grin, chose this time to give Lama a vicious karate kick to the face. Lama of course never saw it coming, and two seconds later he was down on the mat and out for the count. Fight over.

“Okay, that’s all for this week” Bear shouted, as white uniforms began running for the side of the room to get changed.

“I take it that fight didn’t satisfy you?” I enquired.

“One moment” Bear said, turning his face in the direction of the door that led you deeper into the building. “Eagle, get in here and carry Lama down to the cellar! Put him in the chains and leave him some bread and water”.

“Say what?” I asked, as the ageing manservant Eagle almost instantaneously appeared on cue (looking reasonably spritely again after his big whack the last time I’d been here)

“Lama must be punished for his incompetence. The fact he did this in front of a guest only worsens his disgrace. True to our dojo traditions, he will spend the next twenty four hours locked in the cellar with only food and water for consumption”.

“A rather hard line to take” I said, stating the obvious.

“Yet a necessary one. I imagine you have similar punishments in place for when your Luton players do not fulfil expectations”.

“But of course”.

“Good”.

As Bear then moved to the table in the corner to take a sip of herbal tea, Eagle began to drag the semi-unconscious Lama out through the door. Once they'd vanished from view, a distinct and regular bumping noise could be heard beyond the door. I hoped it wasn’t the sound of Lama’s head banging against the cellar steps on his way down. And yet, I imagined it probably was.

"Don't you find that they tend to tell the police after being punished in this way?"

"Not at all. They know that to do so would end their membership with the Dojo".

"I see".

“Never mind that. You have come for another lesson, haven’t you?” Bear asked without looking up at me.

“Well actually I - ”.

“Silence! You have come for a lesson – my instincts are never wrong, Skunk. Have you come for a lesson?”

“Yeah”.

“Ha, I knew it! Today’s lesson however shall be brief. I’m travelling over to the West Side Dojo this afternoon to give a lecture on how best to survive enemy torture by acupuncture”.

“Ouch” I said.

“Last time we were here I taught you how to never show your opponents weakness. Today I shall teach you the art of anticipation. As much as I do not understand your football world, I imagine it is vitally important to try and guess your opponents moves before they make them? Am I right?”

“Absolutely” I agreed. “If I always knew how my opponents were going to approach a game, my life would probably be much easier”.

“Okay, now listen. In a minute, when Eagle is finished with Lama, he will return to the room. I’m going to put a wooden bench half a yard in front of the door. What I want you to do is anticipate whether Eagle will trip over the bench when he re-enters the room, or whether he'll spot it in time and manage to side-step it”.

“Right” I said, as Bear went and fetched a wooden bench and placed it where he said he was going to.

“Make your choice quickly! I sense that Eagle approaches! Quickly, weigh up the permutations. Consider his age, his likely quality of eyesight, the distance between the door and the bench, and the height of the bench itself. Consider all this, and then think and anticipate. Think and anticipate. Think and anticipate. See the future outcome of this situation unfolding before your very eyes!”

“I think he’ll errrrr trip over” I said, taking a complete guess.

Seconds later Eagle opened the door and went ar_e over head. He didn’t see the bench down by his feet at all, and next minute he was rolling around in agony clutching his knee.

"Ooooooowwww-aaahhhhhhhh-oooooowwwwwww".

“Excellent!” Bear said, stepping over Eagle to join me. “Now, hopefully, you will be able to take this newly learned knowledge into your next football encounter”.

“Think and anticipate” I repeated. “Think and anticipate. You know, it’s simple but fiendishly clever. If only I’d had this lesson before the season started”.

Bear nodded gracefully.

“Donation?” he then asked, holding his hand out.

“Oh right, yeah” I replied, reaching into my pocket and then giving him two ten pound notes.

“Now go, Skunk. I must prepare for my trip. Go back out into the world and face your next challenge! Your honour demands it!”

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17/01/09, League Match 26 (Att - 6066)

Luton Town 3 (Martin 34, Slusarski 39, 86)

Shrewsbury Town 1 (Walker 11)

At Gay Meadow earlier in the season we got beaten 0-2 without barely ever seeing the football. As such, I wasn’t that confident about the return fixture. The Shrews were second in the table coming into this game and possessed the league’s top scorer, Grant Holt with 18 goals. He wasn’t the one who did the damage against us last time. That honour goes to strike partner Richard Walker, who sank us with a deadly double at the end of August. Since Ronny Johnson’s arrival on New Year’s day however, we hadn't conceded a goal in the two games since. His battle against the dynamic duo of Holt and Walker would be interesting to say the least.

Naturally I changed back to 4.4.2 being at Kenilworth Road. Shrewsbury also chose 4.4.2, so that was one less thing to think about. I had Ian Roper available again but elected not to break up the so far successful partnership of Pilkington and Johnson. I didn’t even put Roper on the bench in the end; George Beavon is the inferior back-up player but the difference with him is that he can play both left back and centre half. Roper is only a centre half, so down to the reserves he goes for the time being. Elsewhere, Slusarski was restored in place of Gill, a natural side-effect of our ditching the 4.5.1. I also brought McVeigh back in for Anyinsah on the right wing (how many times have I swopped those two over?)

Once the game got under way we almost scored in the first minute. We robbed Shrewsbury from the kick-off and Martin slid the ball through to Slusarski, who fired in a shot the keeper had to tip over. The linesman’s flag was up though so it wouldn’t have counted. Back came the Shrews with that man Holt firing over from long range. He nodded to himself on his way back to the centre circle, a bit like a deadly fast bowler who has just bowled a slightly wayward sighter as his first delivery. It was rip-roaring end to end stuff, nothing like the previous game against Chester. Soon Slusarski was in the spotlight again, curling a shot just over after being heavily pressured on the edge of the area.

I thought we’d started well but all that was undone after eleven minutes. Ronny Johnson was slightly slack in allowing Walker to bring the ball under control and move in on the penalty area with no defenders between him and the goalkeeper. There were four of our guys moving in on Walker from all sides though so I kind of expected someone to get a tackle in. Walker was obviously aware of this likelihood so he decided to get his shot in early. It was a beautiful curling side-foot around Brill into the far corner. I had to hold my hand up and say that was simply a good finish. Johnson could have done better in the build-up, mind.

Our heads briefly dropped after that and we almost conceded a second goal straight away, as a right wing cross agonizingly evaded everyone when only a touch might have seen it fly into the net. If I’m honest we hardly did anything right up until the equaliser. When it came it was fortuitous. Slusarski mistimed a lazy pass out to McVeigh which deflected off a defender’s leg and straight into the path of Martin as he bore down on goal. It was on his left foot but he buried it anyway, opting for power instead of placement from ten yards out. The ball flew straight through the keeper’s flapping hands and firmly into the back of the net. Get in!

I would have settled for that at the break but things were about to get better. Keith Keane won the ball in midfield and sprayed a wonderful ball out to McVeigh on the right wing. He took it on a few yards, crossed it, and as the Shrewsbury defence panicked and got themselves into sixes and sevens, Slusarski was on hand to slid home low at the back post. Would you believe the score now?! Two-one! Remarkably we almost scored AGAIN a minute or so later; Martin slid the ball into Slusarski’s path but this time the striker fired low against the post with only the keeper to beat.

“Where the f__k has this attacking intensity been all season?” I asked the players at half time, doing a poor job of calming everybody down.

Shrewsbury didn’t get into the automatic promotion places by lying down and dying every time they go a goal behind, and sure enough they came back at us hard in the second half. Brill had to be alert on several occasions early on, punching crosses clear and saving one or two shots from outside the box. In the 61st minute Holt had his big moment, going clean through on Brill down the centre of the penalty area. Naturally I thought he’d score but our saving grace was perhaps the fact it was on Holt’s weaker foot. The shot was a poor low effort that Brill managed to deflect away with his legs.

As the half wore on we began substituting tired bodies to protect our lead. Anyinsah had already replaced the tired McVeigh at half time, and in the 75th minute I also took off Eagle for Owusu. In the 82nd minute I completed the set by bringing off Martin for the fit-again Drew Talbot, hero against Barnet. With Shrewsbury now attacking with all their might, we had been reduced to counter-attacking football.

Slusarski though demonstrated how it's done with a sublime strike to finish off the game in the 86th minute. He managed to win the ball forty yards out then quite simply curled it around the goalkeeper from almost the same distance. It was a superb effort! Three-one! Game over!

Shrewsbury almost hit back immediately but Pilkington made a brilliant tackle on Moss who had been about to shoot home on the six yard line. After that things were pretty much plain sailing. We almost added a fourth in stoppage time when Nicholls’ thunderous free kick from an angle was tipped over the bar. After the resulting corner, the referee blew for time. Fantastic win. The irony of course is that we'll probably still get relegated where as Shrewsbury will probably still get promoted.

(The table after 26/46 matches. We have 7 wins, 12 draws, 7 defeats >> 24 goals scored, 24 conceded)

Chesterfield (27)

Wycombe (26)

Macclesfield (20)

Chester City (19)

----------------

Bournemouth (11)

Luton Town (3)

----------------

19/01/09 - Smelling the roses

Usually I have a story to tell when I open up my diary, or least an incident from the day just gone. Tonight though I just want to sit down on my bed with my legs out in front of me and reflect on the season to date. To say this has been an interesting few months would be stating the obvious. I've been in charge for thirty eight matches now if you include cup matches and friendlies, and that's a lot longer than most people thought I'd last. It's gone by really quick actually.

I could really do with taking some time out to reflect on how lucky I am to have this job (regardless of how I got it) because before I know it I'll probably be saying to myself - Well that was an interesting one and a quarter seasons before I got fired. I wish I'd enjoyed it more whilst it lasted. I've come around to the way of thinking recently that you can't sit around in a position like mine and complain that the gig isn't tied up.

Unless you're Arsene Wenger or Alex Ferguson, a football management job will only very rarely be secure for the long haul. I have to accept this characteristic of the modern day game and just get on with it. I've got no right to moan really. I'm luckier than most managers because I've got a second career to fall back on if this one ultimately decides it doesn't mesh with me.

Whilst I've got my pen in my hand, I do actually have some fresh club news to share with you. Yesterday afternoon we completed the signing of left back Richie Byrne, a twenty seven year old Irishman who had been sailing along without a club since last summer. Byrne had previously enjoyed a good career at the likes of Oldham and Aberdeen and I couldn't understand why a player of such quality would stay out of the game for so long without taking a new club. According to his agent, Byrne and his young wife had their first child last May, and said agent claims Byrne initially wanted to take a year out of the game in order to bond with his newborn.

Only trouble was, Cardiff City of The Championship offered him a contract in the January transfer window, coaxing Byrne to return to action quicker than he'd planned. This was where we stepped in, lodging our own bid at the eleventh hour. We offered a higher wage than Cardiff, and I can only imagine the Bluebirds played a low hand because they were looking for a squad player rather than a first teamer. Byrne evidently sensed this too, and with the prospect of regular first team football and a higher salary to boot, he opted for Luton as his destination of choice. Good lad.

The down side to this business is that we've given Byrne an 18 month contract on £2500 p/w. Seeing as this is the type of salary we're meant to be moving away from now that we're probably going to be non-league soon, I don't think Erica will be too chuffed by what I've done. Once the Byrne signing was confirmed, I called Gary Borrowdale into the office and told him I was terminating his loan deal. He's played well for us in the month or so he's been here but I don't think we need him now that we've got Byrne and Davis.

In fact we've also still got Lewis Emmanual rotting in the reserves as a third left back, so Borrowdale really has become surplus to requirments. He's argubly a slightly better player than all three of my left backs, but I'm trying to reduce the amount of loan players on the staff. I didn't feel comfortable with the situation we had recently where I ended up with more loan players in the squad than I was allowed to actually play.

To balance the books after the Byrne capture, I decided to release Matthew Spring from his contract. I had no intention of playing him again after his outburst at the hospital anyway. In fact, I'm not entirely sure why I didn't boot him out right there and then. I guess I was worried about the excessive compensation we'd have to pay. Anyway, the price as it was yesterday for his release was £120,000. Paying this as I have has dropped Luton Town F.C into the minus figures.

However, ridding Spring's £5200 p/w pay packet from the wage budget has not only paid for Byrne's wage all by itself, it's also taken my total expenditure on player salaries below the specified budget for the first time since I took charge. In essence, I've blighted the bank balance in order to rectify the wage situation. I don't really see any harm in what I've done. Spring wasn't due to return from injury until late February, by which point the transfer window would have long closed. It was inevitable that, had I not released him, he would have just claimed the 120k anyway over the course his six remaining months on contract. I hope Erica takes this into consideration when she studies the books.

Our results on the pitch recently have been much better, and it's even led to a marginally improved performance report card winging its way to me via E-mail (see below). We've only lost one of our last eleven league games now, winning five and drawing five in the process. The problem is, it still doesn't seem to have got us any closer to the safety line. We were thirteen points behind Chester before the Shrewsbury game, but despite us putting the Shrews firmly to the sword in that match, The Mariners won 3-0 away to Macclesfield to retain their lead against us. They also won 1-0 at home to Wycombe three days later to extend that gap to sixteen points (on a day we strangely didn't play).

When you consider that we began the campaign exactly thirteen points from safety, to be now sixteen points adrift halfway through the season doesn't really bode well. We've become a better team recently but I still think that poor run we had in the autumn will ultimately cost us dear. Looking at the table as it is, I'm starting to wonder if Macclesfield will be the team we need to try and catch rather than Chester. The Deva outfit have got one less point than the Macclesfield boys, but unlike Chester they're on a woeful run of form. They've also still got to come to fortress Kenilworth Road, the place we've only lost once in fourteen league games this season.

Would you look at that?! - I've just spent four paragraphs talking about club events, when originally the idea for this article was to stop and smell the roses. Maybe then, that's just impossible right now? Maybe I need to wait for the summer before I can truly size things up and work out where I am and where I'm going in life? Relegated or not however, and sacked or not, I intend to take a bloody good holiday abroad come the end of May. I've been saving money all year around and I think I deserve to treat myself. I quite fancy going somewhere in North America actually. I've also had the idea of getting a dog, especially as I've got no intention of getting myself into a relationship right now. We'll see.

---------------------------------------------------------------------

Latest report card

Board ratings

Managerial affect on club stature - Okay

Competition performance - Okay

Wage handling - Okay

Squad harmony - Good

Fan ratings

Signings - Okay

Match ratings - Okay

Player ratings - Okay

Summary - We still think you should be performing slightly better as a manager

------------------------------------------------------------------

23/01/09 - Cracking the safe

It took me over a week to compile but finally I had a list of possible safe combinations. Most were dates of famous Watford FC moments; the date Watford were formed, the date Watford first won a trophy, the date Watford played in the cup final against Everton etc. In total I had about thirty variations, all researched from the internet.

Quite frankly, if none of these would open Dave's safe then I knew the game was over. One thing I didn't have written down with me, as I sneaked into Kenilworth Road at 11pm this gloomy Friday night, was Dave's birthday. That's the most common thing people use as a password, according to Eddie. In this instance though it wasn't really something I could really look up online, and I was secretly hoping Dave would have dismissed the idea of using his birthday because it was too obvious.

I'd deliberately picked Friday night because that and Saturday are the two nights of the week most people go out and about and can rarely seen at work. I didn't know what Dave did on Friday nights but I hoped he was at least out somewhere away from Kenilworth Road, maybe drinking at home or out pestering Nicky.

To my delight I was correct; unlike on Christmas Day, he was not waiting for me when I reached his office. The place was dark and empty and I was very much on my own. Switching on the torch I'd brought with me, I closed the door behind myself and looked around for where the safe was. I was probably being over-cautious by not using the overhead lights, but what I was doing argubly amounted to criminal activity. I didn't want to take any chances.

Once I'd located the safe and crouched down in front of it, I took a deep breath and began to dial in the first combination - the date Watford FC were formed. That didn't bring any joy so next I tried the date Watford first won a trophy. Still no joy. I kept on going, furiously dialling in attempt after attempt with absolutely no luck whatsoever. I'd just got down to my final five possibles when I heard a noise from outside. Someone was in the building! - What's more, they were in this very corridor! - And they were heading this way!

I quickly turned my torch off and sat still under the desk, suddenly conscious I hadn't fully closed Dave's door. There were voices as well as feet coming down the corridor, so there had to be more than one person approaching.

"I can't see a f__king thing!" came a female voice.

"Hang on Chantelle, the lightswitch is around here somewhere" replied a male voice.

I didn't recognise the woman's voice, but unless I was very much mistaken, that male voice belonged to Darren.

"Ah-ha!" he said, finally finding what he was looking for.

'Yep, that's him alright. Dammit Darren! What are you doing here?'

"Are you sure we should be doing this" Chantelle asked.

"Why not? I'm the manager here. I can come and go as I please".

I wondered if this was the same Chantelle I'd seen Nicky hanging around with in The Hatters Arms from time to time. I imagined it probably was, although I don't know why. It wasn't hard to guess what was going on though. Darren had brought this Chantelle here after a drunken night in some pub or another, and was now hoping to get her knickers off in his own place of work.

"You're a bit young to be manager aren't you?"

"Well, they fast-track the really talented members of staff. I would have brought my company BMW along tonight to prove it, but then I wouldn't have been able to drink".

('you slimy little - ')

"It's okay. You could always show me tomorrow".

"So you're still going to be with me tomorrow then are you?" Darren asked. "That implies we might be spending the night together".

"Could do" Chantelle replied saucily.

I could hear a door opening after this, and the voices dimmed somewhat. I presumed they'd gone into the main office across the corridor. Not wanting to sit here all night listening to Romeo and Juliet, I clicked my torch on again and began dialling in the final few combinations. As I did this, some new sounds drifted through from the other room. I won't go into detail on what they sounded like only to say that Darren and Chantelle sounded like they were very much getting it on.

(If I find out you've done it on my desk I'll f__king kill him).

A minute or so later and all my possible safe combinations were exhausted. I had one more idea though; I'd thought of it on the way here but not written it down. What if Dave had substituted each letter in W.A.T.F.O.R.D for a corresponding number? Actually, now that I was sat in front of the safe, that didn't seem like such a good idea. There were only twenty numbers on the dial. This meant that 'W' would relate to the number twenty two, which wasn't on there. My idea simply wouldn't work.

"Oh Darren! Oh yes!"

('Shut the f__k up girl')

L.U.T.O.N, maybe? Would Dave pull a rope-a-dope and the name of the club he secretly hated? No, the U in Luton would relate to the number twenty two. That wouldn't work either. H.A.T.T.E.R would work though. It was also six characters long like the dates I'd been punching in earlier. Translated into numbers, my new idea was '4,1,20,20,5,18'. I tried that now and waited to see if anything happened. Nothing did.

"Harder!"

Maybe if I added an 'S' to the end of 'H.A.T.T.E.R' to spell 'H.A.T.T.E.R.S'? I turned the dial around to the number nineteen and remarkably the safe suddenly clicked open!

"Yesssss!" I said under my breath.

"Yeahhh!" Darren shouted from the next room over.

('You and me both, kid')

Inside the safe was a handgun and four pages of A4 paper with a load of scribbled writing on it. The implications of the gun being here (and I didn't doubt it was a real gun) were potentially huge, but I didn't want to consider them now. I left the gun well alone and removed only the pieces of paper. The heading on Page one said - Manager vacancy. This had to be what I was looking for! Without reading anymore I got out from behind the desk and stood next to the door, listening to Darren and Chantelle. I don't mean in a pervy way because they appeared to be finished now and about to be on their merry way.

"Come on then" I heard Darren say, as they re-entered the corridor. "Let's get out of here before anybody sees us".

"I thought you said you were the manager?"

"I am, but errrr, you never know, security might mistake me for an intruder and shoot me".

"Oh".

Their voices began to dim as they headed to the exit, and a few seconds later the corridor light went off too. Satisfied the way was clear, I opened the door to Dave's office and slipped across to the main communal office. The reason I went in here was to photocopy the pieces of paper I'd found in the safe. I didn't want to take the originals because then Dave would know about it. This way he wouldn't know.

I got a surprise when I lifted up the top of the photcopier though - inside was a picture of a female backside in black lingerie.

('Darren you little - )

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Bambi - Thanks once again for some nice encouragement. I'm really glad you like it so far

-------------------------------------------------------------------

23/01/09 - The candidates revealed

Once I'd done my photocopying and put the originals back, I headed home for some late night reading. I didn't want to do it at the office in case Towzer and Garry just happened to show up on night-time patrol, or Darren brought Chantelle back for seconds. No, much safer back at the flat. If you're wondering what I did with the picture of Chantelle's bum, I confess I accidentally filed it away in my drawer (some things are just too good for the paper shredder!).

Once I got home, I made myself a coffee, turned on the television in the front room (if only for atmosphere), and looked at the first piece of paper.

Manager vacancy - Candidates

John Coleman (Accrington)

He's been there 5 seasons and led them to two promotions on a very limited budget. Seriously can't let this guy have the job!

Jimmy Quinn (Bournemouth)

He's done 2 years at Cambridge and 1 year at Bournemouth. Before that he also managed at some foreign team called Egersend.

Paul Fairclough (Barnet)

This guy didn't just send his C.V in, he called me up personally and I had to educate him as to the unlikelihood of him getting the position. I told him there had been over fifty applicants, all as qualified as him. Anyway, Fairclough is definitely another one to avoid. He knows League 2 inside out, having managed at Underhill for 5 years. He was also the boss at Stevenage for 4 years before that.

Garry Hill (Rushden)

Looking for his big break in the football league having so far managed at non-league clubs Dag and Red, Hornchurch, Weymouth, and Rushden. This guy might be worth considering actually. He's very controversial and might add fuel to the already simmering fire around the club.

Lee Patterson (Braintree)

Rookie manager who has so far had stints at Braintree and East Thurrock. Might be out of his depth at Luton but worth keeping in mind for that very reason.

Cyril Denton

Now we're down to the dregs of the barrel who really would f__k things up given half a chance. Having said that, this kid runs the souvenir shop outside. His passion for the club might compensate for his lack of qualifications or experience. I'd have to meet him to make sure.

Simon Emery

30-something surveyor from up near Newcastle. Has his badges but to date has only managed a pub side for a couple of seasons. Definite interview candidate.

James Martin

Another badges-holder. Hasn't managed anywhere according to his C.V but does have quite the background as a player in non-league football. Can't really split him, Emery, and Denton at this stage

I must admit, I go weak at the knees at the thought of a Cyril-managed Luton Town team. In fact let's just not think about that. Seriously though, in any fair competition, how in the hell could I have expected to beat all those much more experienced managers? No chance. Talk about a fix! Dave even gives the game away further with his little notes under each name.

The second piece of paper seemed to be a weird kind of shorthand diary documenting the application process. It's full of gaps and not all of it makes much sense. I guess Dave wrote it knowing only he would need to be able to read it back and understand it.

[Reminder to one's self - These notes will be helpful if I'm ever called to explain the processes which led to Emery's appointment]

[2nd Reminder to one's self - Everything written below is 100% FACT. In the event of an investigation, any cover-up lies must be established with the following facts, dates, and times integrated into any lies]

01/06/08 - Advertisement distributed

12/06/08 - Closing date now ended.

14/06/08 - I've produced a shortlist of both experienced and rookie managers. The official reason for this is because we're not sure if we're going to go for a cheap option and effectively 'concede relegation', or hire an experienced guy with a serious view to trying to stay up (Note - I could say during an investigation - "If not in a situation like this, when would you give a rookie his big chance?")

15/06/08 - I've reviewed the shortlist by making notes. I want either Emery, Martin, or Denton. If they look a bit too s__t once I've met them, Garry Hill might not be a bad back-up option given his history.

17/06/08 - I'm being too cautious by keeping the 'good' managers on file at this stage. Having done some research this afternoon, I've discovered there is plenty of precedence down the years for rookie managers getting their shot when they weren't the obvious choice (note - As I'm legally sure of my stance, I'll only need to worry about Dilic should this ever come out. Put these notes in a safe when not being used)

19/06/08 - Interviewed Cyril today. What a geek! He can stay in the port-a-cabin where he belongs though. I can't put this guy in front of the press as the new boss. The whole world would accuse me of taking the p!ss.

20/06/08 - Simon Emery was a bit better. His answering of the questions was rubbish but at least he 'looks and sounds' like a football manager. This guy is my favourite so far

21/06/08 - Brian ruddy Fox turned up today, the new assistant manager. I'd told him to turn up tomorrow when all the interviews would be done, but no, he has to come today doesn't he? As such, I didn't really have an excuse for not letting him sit in on the final interview. Despite having no experience, James Martin wasn't that bad. Fox certainly thinks Martin could do the job. In my opinion, if Brian had seen both Martin and Emery and had to pick one of the two, I think he would have picked Martin. As such, I'm going to go for Emery

23/06/08 - Just called Emery and offered him the job. He's delighted and he'll be down on the 30th to begin his duties. Now I need to prepare some statements for the media, and also the shareholders. This could be tricky but I know what to say

There were no more entries after that. From memory, I'd been offered the Luton job on July 1st and reported to Kenilworth Road for the first time on July 5th. That meant that at some point between June 23rd and July 1st, Dave had clearly changed his mind about awarding Simon Emery the position. He hadn't bothered keeping the diary notes going though so I've got no idea why.

I put the two pieces of paper underneath the cup on the mantlepiece and went to get my mobile phone. I couldn't wait to tell Brian about all this. I also planned to tell Darren, albeit tomorrow. Something told me he probably wouldn't answer his phone if I called him right now.

----------------

24/01/09 - Daddy issues

I was sat watching From Dusk Till Dawn on DVD this evening when I got a call from my Dad. It's been that long since I last spoke to him that my mobile phone didn't even recognise who it was.

"I've waited a long to hear from you" I said, once he'd announced himself. "I'd have thought you might have called after you split from mum".

"Things were too upsetting there for a while. Don't hold it against me. I did E-mail you though, and to be fair you didn't E-mail back. You did get the E-mail right?"

"I got it just fine, but it's not as good as a phone call. My mum called me on my birthday, and unlike you she was also kind enough to send me a Christmas present and a card. Anyway, let's not dwell on it".

"Right" he said softly.

After living in the south for almost six months now, I must admit it was secretly good just to hear a Yorkshire accent again. It was also good to hear my Dad's voice in particular, even if I wasn't about to let him off lightly for not bothering with me much recently.

"How's Leeds?" I asked.

"Not bad. We're going great guns in League One this year. Have you seen't table?"

"No. I'm too busy staring up at the rest of League Two. Anyway, you know I've never been that bothered about Leeds United. I didn't even mean to ask about football. I meant how's Leeds in general? How's your new place? How's everything?"

My appetite for information about my Dad surprised even me. No matter how much I like to pretend I'm this independant guy who doesn't need anyone, I do still miss my parents now and again, and that's been especially true during the more depressing moments of this season. I think the fact they've split up all of a sudden has made me love and miss them even more actually. Beforehand they were just this invincible happy couple I could go back to as and when I pleased. Now though, they were divided and fallen, and probably lonely. If it wasn't for the strains of this damn job I might just have gone and visited.

"There's not really much to tell, son. A house is a house and Leeds is mostly same as it's always bin. Mind you, I did spot something t'other day. You know that team you used to play for - the one in Guiseley - when you were young like?"

"Guiseley Eagles?"

"Yeah. Well anyway, that pitch isn't used anymore. I drove past t'other day and it's completely overgrown with weeds and all sorts of Jazz. It looks like a tipping ground now. Funny thing though, the changing rooms seem to have survived in tact. They're still there. They should change them into public toilets or summat though. They'll just be derelict now and used by druggies. The place might be locked up but I coulda sworn there was no door on the place when I drove past".

There was a time when I might have shuddered at the thought of George Palazzi's Eagles. I'd been cured of that though when I was nineteen.

"I'll have to have a look when I come visit" I said.

"When are you going to come visit?"

"It'll almost certainly won't be until the season ends in May. I'm planning on going away on holiday though. What I'll do is, I'll probably come visit you and mum the moment the season has ended. Then after a week or so I'll come back and then jet off to wherever I'm going. That's one good thing about Luton - being close to the airport".

"Okay, that's fine. Where is it you're going on holiday?"

"North America probably. I haven't decided where".

"Who are you going with?"

I would have to tell a white lie here. If I told my Dad I was going alone he might start suggesting he come with me, and I didn't really fancy that. Call me a snobby little so and so if you want, but even since Benidorm-Summer-1994, I've vowed to never again go abroad with my parents. I'll never forget the memory of them interrupting my beach party with two young blonde girls to tell me it was time to go back to the hotel for bed. In fact, over time I think I've had more nightmares about that incident than George and his cup.

"I'm going with this girl I've been seeing" I eventually replied.

"Oh, you're seeing someone again? That's good. What's her name?"

"Chantelle" I replied, thinking of the first name that come to mind. I suppose it was the obvious one given what happened last night.

"You've given up on getting back with Charlotte then?"

"Dad, Charlotte is gone and she's never coming back. It's time to move on".

"Fair enough".

My father has never been the most subtle of persons. Only he could call me up and mention both George and Charlotte in the space of about two minutes. Well okay, he didn't exactly say George's name, but he as good as said it by mentioning that derelict playing field.

"What's this Chantelle like then?"

"Errrr, well she's blonde" I replied, thinking back to the time I'd seen her with Nicky. "And errrrr, well, it's early days yet. Let's not start buying wedding hats".

"Okay".

I felt awkward now. He'd p!ssed me off by making me do this. It was time to put the whole catching up thing aside and come back to it another time.

"Listen Dad, I gotta go. Charlotte's coming around in a minute and I really think I ought to - "

"Don't you mean Chantelle?"

I paused for a moment not realising what I'd done. Had I really said Charlotte? I must have done, otherwise he wouldn't have corrected me.

"Yeah, I meant Chantelle. They do sound quite similar, don't they? Anyway, I gotta go. You take care now. I'll call you again soon. It was good to hear your voice".

"You too, son. Take care. I love ya".

"Love ya too".

"Bye".

----------------

27/01/09, League Match 27 (Att - 5837)

Luton Town 1 (Keane 90+7)

Chesterfield 1 (Bowery 52pen)

I made just one change from the team that beat Shrewsbury; Nicholls was suspended so in came Gill. We had Scott Davies available again for selection on the left wing, but I chose to retain Robert Eagle and in doing so keep as much of a winning team as possible. We lined up with our usual 4.4.2 and I was pleased to see the visitors doing the same. Chesterfield are the only team we've beaten away from home this season so I was hopeful of completing my first ever league double over someone.

We began like a house on fire. The win over the Shrews had clearly installed a lot of confidence into the players, and there were only 4 minutes on the clock where Martin burst through from an angle only to see his shot saved by Nelson in the Chesterfield goal. A few minutes later the same thing happened again only from the other side of the penalty area. Again it was Martin, this time on his left peg, and again the parried save by Nelson.

We kept up the pressure for near enough the entire half, eventually trundling off to the dressing room 9-0 ahead on shots but without having taken the lead. It's actually hard for me to remember all the chances we had in that first half. There was a low left wing cross from Eagle at one point which Martin hit first time on the edge of the six yard box - low and left footed - just wide of the left hand post. The keeper didn't even move. There was also a good shot tipped over the bar from Keith Keane.

In the second half we continued where we left off. A shot from the edge of the area by Slusarski was beaten down into the ground by Nelson, and Martin only just failed to get his head on the rebound. Minutes later, a cross from McVeigh wasn't brought under control by anyone and for a moment or two it pinged off various legs and torso's inside the area before eventually being hoofed clear.

In the 61st minute though, disaster struck, and it did so completely against the run of play. Over on the near touchline there was a mix-up between Gnakpa and Pilkington, allowing evergreen striker Jack Lestor to craftily steal the ball and race away towards Brill's goal. Ronny Johnson came across and callously hauled him down just before he was about to shoot. The referee pointed to the penalty spot and I didn't imagine for a second that Johnson wouldn't get the red card for a professional foul.

Remarkably he only got yellow, leading to much shouting and complaining from the Chesterfield bench twenty yards to my right. Once the commotion had died down, striker Bowery calmly slotted a perfect low penalty into the bottom left hand corner with his right foot. Now the away side had something to hold onto. They almost doubled their lead in the 66th minute, that man Bowery getting some lucky deflections to carry him into the penalty area but Pilkington produced a last gasp saving tackle.

It was slightly from behind the player though so naturally there were more penalty appeals. This time the referee waved them away. From that moment forward we managed to re-group and boss the remainder of the match, taking potshot after potshot from just about anywhere you can think of. Our passing interplay in the opponent's half of the field was the best I've seen it all season. We just couldn't score a goal! Nelson between the sticks was having a greatmatch.

With time ticking on, I gambled by bringing Quinn on for Slusarski and Anyinsah for McVeigh. With ten minutes to go, Keane saw his free kick deflected just past the post and I really didn't think it was going to be our day. If the yellow card given to Johnson for the professional foul hadn't been controversial enough, something else happened in injury time to rankle Chesterfield even further. We'd had 17 unsuccessful shots on goal by the time the fourth and final added-on minute had expired. The visiting Chesterfield fans were baying for the final whistle, their bench was off its feet pointing at their watches, and the Spirites players were gesticulating towards the referee every time the ball was out of play.

The referee though kept playing and playing. In the SEVENTH minute of stoppage time we had yet another corner. Anyinsah's delivery fooled everyone by going straight to Keane on the edge of the area. He dodged an oncoming tackle and dribbled around the outside of the main pack of attackers and defenders occupying the central portion of the penalty area. Suddenly Keane had half a yard which which to shoot, and on his favourite right foot too! He shot, and scored! Gooooooooooooooal!!! In the seventh minute of stoppage time!!

The Chesterfield players all collapsed on the ground. Keane meanwhile ran towards our dugout doing a homage of Marco Tardelli from the 1982 world cup final. Our other players followed him too. Seconds later there was a mass army of about twenty players and staff jumping and hugging each other on the touchline. Our long unbeaten run at home had been saved in the dying seconds!

The referee came to split us all up and return us to the centre circle. The match could barely kick off again before the final whistle finally blew. As it did, several Chesterfield players surrounded the referee as he walked off the field with his two assistants. They weren't happy about the sending off that never was and they weren't happy with the amount of stoppage time.

The draw means we're now unbeaten in eleven home games in the league. We've also lost just one of our last twelve league games both home and away. Oh, on a slightly different note, I looked up towards Rory after the final whistle to give the lad a thumbs up but his seat was empty. That's odd. I've made a mental note to ask Brenda about that. Mind you, this was a Tuesday night affair so maybe she just doesn't let him come on school nights?

(League table with 27/46 games completed. We have 7 wins, 13 draws, 7 defeats)

Lincoln City (29)

Wycombe (27)

Macclesfield (21)

Chester City (19)

----------------

Bournemouth (12)

Luton Town (4)

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28/01/09 - Stud

The atmosphere in the office first thing this morning was just a little bit too glum for my liking. I reckoned something was amiss which didn't have anything to do with last night's result. I decided to take a moment out from studying the Tuesday match reports to E-mail Alison and see if she could tell me anything. Alison has perhaps the most central seat in the communal offices, so if anybody knew anything it would be her.

Hi Alison

Is something wrong? Everyone seems glum and silent. I don't have the energy to address this out loud.

P.S - We haven't spoken much lately. Are you and Paul still coming to the games?

I clicked send and waited for the reply. As I did so, I took a sip of my coffee. The reply wasn't long in coming. Alison was very fast on a keyboard.

Hi James

Yeah, it's Nicky and Darren. They had a brief squabble just before you came in. I'm not sure I should say anything really, but from the gist I got, I get the impression that Nicky is annoyed at Darren because he doesn't want to continue seeing some friend of Nicky's that he's been seeing recently

We still come to the odd game but we're building a new back garden conservatory and that's taking up a lot of our weekend time. Paul's very impressed with the recent results though. He definitely seems more enthused about you since earlier in the season

"Right" I said, getting out of my chair. "Nicky and Darren - I'd like to see you out in the corridor please".

Like naughty schoolchildren they both got up and followed me out. They didn't seem that surprised that I knew of their little spat. I imagine they thought I'd simply guessed something was wrong just by studying their faces.

"Okay then" I continued once we were safely outside. "What's going on?"

Unknowingly, I'd just unleashed World War Three.

"Nicky's annoyed because I don't want to go out with her friend".

"You spent the night with her!"

"That's not a crime!"

"It is when you tell her you want to go out with her just to get her into bed, and then change your mind the next day".

"Still not a crime".

"It's a MORAL crime, Darren!"

As much as I had been annoyed at the time that Darren almost jeopardised my mission in Dave's office by bringing Chantelle here, the following day I saw the funny side. I also realised that I could easily have avoided that whole thing by telling Darren (and Brian) what my intentions were that night.

"Okay, that's enough you two! Nicky, as much as I can see your point, it's just not this football club's concern that Darren slept with your friend. Please put it to one side and go back to work".

"Is it the concern of the club that he actually brought her into these very offices for his sworded escapades?!"

I had to admit she was spot on the money.

"Actually yes that it is a concern. However, I must remind you that you yourself have brought Chantelle here after hours before. Has the ghost incident slipped your memory?"

"That's different! We didn't come here to have sex!"

'More's the pity'.

"Okay, that's enough. And yes okay you've made a very good point there. Nicky, go back to work. I need to stay out here and have some strong words with Darren".

I was lying but she obviously didn't notice. Instead she grinned a sly little 'ha-ha' grin in Darren's direction and then went back inside. I waited until she was gone and then turned back to Darren.

"Sex in the office, eh? Back of the net!"

I held my clenched fist up in the air for Darren to tap using his own fist, which he did.

"Thanks boss".

"What was she like?"

"Awesome".

"Cool. Seriously though Darren, do me a favour and don't bring anyone else here. I won't be able to defend you next time. Once is fine, but twice is unnecessary. Catch my drift?"

"Perfectly".

"Oh, and be a bit more careful about who you sleep with. You're a obviously a decent enough catch, so why bother with friends of your friends, or colleages even? It just causes problems".

"Noted" he said, nodding his head.

"Okay, now go back inside and try and look like I've just admonished you".

"Will do. Before I do though, have you decided what you're going to do about the notes you found in Dave's safe on Sunday night?"

I'd told Darren yesterday what I'd found in Dave's office, only I'd lied about which night I'd found them. Heh.

"I'm going to hang onto them for now. Like I've said before, until I see Dave doing something that causes a big problem for me at the club, I'm not going to annouce what I've got hidden in my drawer. There's simply too much on my plate already right now just trying to keep us up".

"Okay, but don't think you have to wait until he does something to you before you grass him up. He deserves to be held accountable - somehow - for what he's done. You don't necessarily need a reason to do this".

"No I don't need a reason" I agreed. "But now isn't the time. I'll tell you something though; if the day ever arrives I finally do nail him, he won't be able to mount any arguments against the amount of evidence I've got against him - what, with the your photo's AND the notes from the safe. It really won't matter that he's a lawyer".

"True".

"Okay then, let's get back to work. Like I said, look admonished when you walk in".

----

As I sat down again, I thought once more about Dave. Even though I had him bang to rights (at least within the confines of this football club), I still wasn't satisfied about what I knew and what I didn't know concerning Luton Town FC right now. I had more questions I wanted to ask and I reckoned I might just know where to find the answers. Ignoring my neglected Tuesday night match reports for just one more minute, I got back on the keyboard and typed another E-mail

Hi Brenda

By the end of Friday I'd like you to mail me a comprehensive guide of everything there is to do in Darlington. I want a list of attractions, museums, zoo's, anything that stands out as being the type of place you'd want to visit if you're not from around there.

Thanks

James

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29/01/09 - Bad dad

The day after, it suddenly occurred to me how daft my Darlington request was. All I had to do was spend a few minutes googling the place to find what I needed. Why bother going through Brenda? I can only imagine my head is just jangling in too many directions at right now to make sensible decisions (at least with the little things).

Anyway, I didn’t tell her to delete the task from her things to do list in case she’d already done some research. What I did do though, earlier this morning, was follow her up to the canteen for a quiet word.

“Brenda” I said, sitting down opposite her.

“James” she replied.

There were four players sat at another table (Martin, Slusarski, Talbot, and Roper), but they weren’t of any bother to us. The players know I like to be left alone in the canteen. The training pitch is for players and the canteen is for other staff. Those are the areas of the building people can approach me if they so wish and everybody knows which of the two categories they fall into.

“I wanted to ask you about the Darlington thing. I need to move on this today, begin my preparation”.

“Oh sorry, James. I have done some brief research. I just haven’t got around to E-mailing you. I figured I still had time before the match”.

“That’s okay. I should have done this myself anyway. I just felt really choc-a-bloc with things to do at the time I mailed you. Anyway, what did you find out?”

“Well, it would certainly be fair to say that Darlington isn’t exactly the world’s centrepiece for tourism”.

“What do you mean?”

“What I mean is – there isn’t much to do there, James. It’s a small market town with not a lot in it. There’s a thing called the Art in the yards project, which from the looks of it is basically a few side-streets in the town centre where people have hung portraits and paintings on the sides of buildings. It doesn’t look particularly exciting though. There’s also something further afield called South Park. According the website this is a ninety one acre park full of things like lakes and idyllic picnic spots etc. Again, it’s not exactly appetite wetting. Then again, you’re you and I’m me”.

“Okay, no worries”.

This didn’t sound promising. In fact I made a conscious decision to jettison the whole idea of finding Cassie right there and then, at least on this particular away trip. I didn’t have much confidence she would bother with Art in the Yards, and if South Park was ninety one acres then that would be like looking for a needle in a haystack. If only I’d asked for her phone number back at the zoo! She might not have given it but at least I wouldn’t be sat here cursing myself for having not even asked.

“Nicky and Darren seem better with each other today” Brenda commened, interrupting my train of thought.

“Yeah, I think things are slowly starting to return to normality again”.

“I’m glad. It really wasn’t a good atmosphere the other day when you had to take them both outside”.

Right here was another thing which had been bothering me actually. Only a minor scale, but it had been bothering me.

“Do you think there’s - chemistry - between Darren and Nicky?”

Brenda took a sip of her coffee and thought about this for a moment, looking out the window and then back to me. Every time she craned her neck forwards or backwards, her four long necklaces clinked and rattled. What is it about middle-aged women and wearing more jewellery than the average person?

“No I don’t think there’s chemistry between Darren and Nicky. I think the situation the other day was pretty much without subtext, at least from where I was sitting. Darren seems at that stage of his life where his loins are telling him to wade through as many girls’ bedrooms as possible. As for Nicky, she seems to treat him like that annoying brother who will never give you the remote control to the television. I’d be very surprised if they got together or anything like that.

"That’s not to say they might not occasionally think about each other in that way. We sit here together in this building for over thirty hours a week. Your mind can wander around the room sometimes, and Darren and Nicky are both very attractive young people as far as I can see. I don’t think there’s anything there though".

“Fair enough, just wanted to get a read on the situation”.

“Nicky likes older guys anyway. There was that horrible Kevin Watson guy last summer. How old was he? Thirty five? Also, you might not always see this but she’s always sitting her desk with girly mags banging on about men like George Clooney and this other guy from Greys Anatomy I can’t remember the name of”.

“Most women like George Clooney” I added. “It doesn’t mean they necessarily like older men”.

“I suppose so, but that was just the obvious example that springs to mind. She’s mentioned countless others”.

I was surprised with the depth of Brenda’s answer to my initial question. She seemed to enjoy gossiping and speculating about other people (but in an innocent way). I just hoped she hadn’t read anything deeper into my question about Darren and Nicky and fabricated her answer accordingly. The truth is, I fancy Nicky quite a bit. I'm not interested in pursuing it though. I'm done with relationships quite frankly. When Nicky eventually goes out with someone else though, I'd rather it was someone outside the office so I don't have to see it with my own eyes. That's just my feelings on the matter.

“I noticed Rory wasn’t at the game the other day” I said, changing tact.

"No" said Brenda, sighing.

"Let me guess - kids being kids he did something to make you ground him?"

"Not at all. Rory's father turned up the day of that match and all hell broke loose. At first things were calm and amicable, but he went ballistic when he found out I've started letting Rory go to the football by himself".

"He's not a football fan then?"

"He is actually. He just doesn't like the idea of a young lad being at the ground by himself amongst thousands of people. Anyway, I'm not letting Rory's dad rule the roost on this one. Rory missed the Chesterfield game but he'll back again next time once his dad isn't there to stop him. I know you keep an eye on him and that's good enough for me".

"What was his dad doing going around there anyway?"

"Well he lives nearby so he comes around every week or so to see Rory. This was the first time he's come around and caught Rory about to go off to a Luton game though".

"No chance of a reunion in the future then?" I asked, perhaps poking my nose in a bit further than was polite.

"No. There wouldn't be anything to reunite. Me and Dennis - that's his name - we weren't even a proper couple at any point anyway. We saw each other for a while, and along came Rory, but once I was pregnant that was it for Dennis. He's almost ten years younger than me so I guess he only saw me as a fling in the first place".

"I'm sorry" I said.

"Look, don't be" Brenda said, and now I could tell she was slightly rattled. "Rory will get back to the football, that's all the matters".

With this she finished her coffee and stood up to head back.

"Time to get back to work then?" I asked.

"Yeah, I think my fifteen minutes have long elapsed here. Don't worry I'll make it up after work".

"That's okay, don't worry about it".

"Thanks James".

"No worries. We've got a press conference this afternoon so maybe if I'm nice to you God will be nice to me back and make all those journalists treat me with some respect for a change".

"Aw I'm sure you'll be fine".

And with that, we headed back to the office.

----------------

29/01/09 - Paper manager

As always, Andy Branston from The Herald was straight in there with the day's first question.

"James, it was interesting to see in your programme notes on Tuesday night that you mentioned the fact Luton have only lost once in twelve games. In fact, I don't know if you're aware of this but you actually mentioned that little nugget twice in the same piece, once near the beginning and once again the near the end. Ignoring the fact that this seems to me like you're blowing your own trumpet somewhat, don't you think the statistic itself is a little misleading?"

"What do you mean?" I asked, shuffling uncomfortably.

"Well, only five of those twelve games resulted in victories, and at a time like this, for this team to be winning less than 50% of its games just isn't going to get the job done. Surely the truly important statistic in Tuesday night's programme was the league table on Page twelve which still shows Luton as being bottom by quite some margin"

"Oh I wouldn't necessary say so. For instance, did you know that 97.1% ofall statistics are made up, Andy? I saw it on an advert once"

"Well the league table obviously isn't made up".

"Of course it's made up! We've got only four points despite winning seven games! With that in mind, I'd say the one in twelve thing is actually the more reliable statistic of the two".

Andy sat down again, shaking his head in that disgruntled manner I'd become accostomed to. I pointed instead to Brad Scowcroft from the supporter's trust.

"James, you and the Luton team were spotted at the army assault course in Whickham the other afternoon. Can you comment on that?"

"Ah, a good question for once. We did indeed travel to Whickham in Essex. As you correctly state, there is an army assault course there open to members of the public. I took the team there as a welcome break from just doing the same old same old back on our own training pitch. Physically we're in the best shape we've been in all season right now, but no harm keeping things fresh. Most of the players very much enjoyed their time clambering over scramble nets and flying down zip wires, and the general consensus was they'd like to go again some time. I'd just like to say incidentally that our excellent fitness coach Joe Dunbar did a terrific job on this trip. We're very lucky to have him at the club".

Brad nodded and sat back down. I pointed to Victoria Thornton from The Mirror.

"James, there are currently strong rumours afoot that you'll be replaced at the end of the season by either Paul Fairclough of Barnet or Darren Patterson of Oxford United. Do you have any comment to make about this?"

"Yes I do - It's a load of s__t. I've never heard any of these rumours. Besides, I have a five year contract here, and unless a bigger club comes calling for me, I fully intend to see that contract out"

"These rumours aren't just made up, James. They all have sources based in fact. There's even been one or two rumours about you yourself hitting our offices this past week. For instance, did you know that the chairman of Wimborne Town in the Wessex Premier Division is apparently monitoring your progress at the moment? He's considering an approach for you should the worst happen at the end of the season"

"Wimborne? Really?"

"Uh-huh. There's also a rumour that Thatcham Town of the British Gas Midlands South West division are also keeping tabs on you".

"That's great. That's just - wonderful. It's flattering these clubs are all chasing my services but I'm very happy here at Luton. In fact, seriously Victoria, why on earth would I want to drop about five divisions down the pyramid? Even if I did lose my job here, I'd like to think I could get something better than the Wessex Division, or that other one you said"

"Why? You're not exactly the most experienced of managers are you? I'd say at this stage of your development a team at about South Midlands level wouldn't be something to turn your nose up at. I'm not the only person in this room who thought there were far more qualified candidates available for this job last summer, and your performance since then has hardly convinced those same people otherwise. A lot of people who report on Luton Town think you're a paper manager".

I looked at Brian and then back towards Victoria. She's a snotty looking woman, somewhere in her forties. She looks she might have been a really strict headmistress in a previous life.

"A paper what?"

"A paper manager. It's a reworking of the term paper champion, used in Boxing to describe a fighter who for whatever reasons wins a title without beating the reigning champion. Such a fighter is considered to be the champion on paper but not properly. The term paper manager, on the other hand, is a variation on the theme. It's used to describe the type of football manager who only got to where he is because of luck rather than because he geninely earned his shot. Such a manager might be the manager on paper but certainly not in the hearts and souls of the people. The phrase was coined a year or so ago when a manager in one of the non-league divisions only got his job because his dad was the chairman".

"And you think I'm one these so-called paper managers?"

"I do".

This accusation for the want of a better word really couldn't have come at a more sensitive time for me. I seriously doubted Victoria knew anything about Dave's secret agenda, but she'd really chose the wrong week to push my buttons with this.

"You know you people REALLY GET ON MY WICK SOMETIMES!" I shouted, making Victoria almost jump out of her seat (and half of the rest of the room too). "I've paid my dues in this game of football! I played a very high standard of non-league football for almost a decade before I got injured. Then I spent four years getting my coaching badges and I didn't get paid one dime for it! Why in the hell shouldn't I eventually get to a point where I can achieve my end goal of managing a professional football team?!?

"YES, I could have managed in the lower leagues before coming here, but sometimes people get slightly luckier breaks than others. It happens in offices in day to day life all around the country. BELIEVE ME, I know. I lost out on a junior promotion back at the solicitors I used to work for just because my main rival SLEPT WITH MY DAMN BOSS! Sometimes it goes your way and sometimes it doesn't. This time, it went MY godamn way!"

"James" Brian hastily said, reaching over to me. I quickly brushed his arm aside.

"No, it has to be said. One day pretty soon you people might get your way and see me get fired. Then maybe, for all I know, I WILL end up at Womble Town in the Wessex Midlands league, or wherever the hell it was. Until then though, KEEP YOUR F__KING MOUTHS SHUT AND LET ME DO MY JOB!".

With that I stormed out. From behind me I just vaguely got wind of Brian trying to address the shell-shocked room.

"He's err had a stressful week. That will be all for today".

----------------

31/01/09, League Match 28

Darlington v Luton Town

(Team for today's game)

GK - Dean Brill

DL - Sol Davis

DR - Claude Gnakpa

DC - George Pilkington

DC - Ronny Johnson

MC - Keith Keane

DMC - Kevin Nicholls

AMR - Paul McVeigh

AML - Robert Eagle

FC - Bartosz Slusarski

FC - Chris Martin

To inspire the team to their first away win in four months, I brought my DVD copy of The Great Escape onto the team coach and played it as we headed up the motorway.

“Pay attention to this lads because I want a Steve McQueen style escape from you lot over the forthcoming weeks”.

“McQueen didn’t get away” Paul McVeigh shouted down the coach aisle.

“He probably did once the war was over. Use your imagination”.

I was actually very confident in my players as they stepped out into the largely desolate George Reynolds Arena. We’d played exceptionally well over the past two games and I was confident we could transfer that into our away form. I only made one change from the team which drew with Chesterfield; Kevin Nicholls came back from suspension and replaced Matthew Gill. We lined up with 4.4.2 and so did Darlington. Some of the Quakers fans thought it would be funny before kick off to heckle me for the kicking of that water bottle the time we'd played Darlington at our place. I didn't rise to it and eventually they moved onto other songs.

We started the match brightly, Martin almost managing to send Slusarski away in the first minute. Then in the third minute Brill’s long ball actually did send Slusarski away, albeit from an angle and on his left foot. The shot he hit was low and across the goalkeeper but just wide of the far post.

Two minutes later we were behind. Darlington’s very first attack saw striker Proudlock turn Pilkington inside and out on the edge of the area before firing a crisp low shot into the corner of Brill’s net. It was a smart finish but I was very frustrated to go behind so early. Our away woes looked sadly set to continue.

As often happens when we concede, our heads dipped and Darlington began to boss the game. Their passing was slick and incisive where as our largely one dimensional long ball game seemed ineffective. Keane had a long range shot tipped over in the 20th minute but that was as good as it got until Darlington added their second. A save from Brill in a packed penalty area only went out to the prowling Proudlock just in front of the penalty spot, and he slid the ball low into an empty net. As far as I was concerned (and most likely the travelling faithful) that was game over before we’d even reached half time.

I laid into the players at half time. That had been a woefully unsatisfactory first half performance and I was extremely disappointed by it. In the second half we played a more expansive game which created chances for ourselves but also left gaps open for the home team. The result was a largely end to end half with chances for both sides. I made two substitutions halfway through the half – Owusu replaced Eagle and Dean Morgan (back from his marathon loan spell at Leyton Orient) replaced the lacklustre Martin.

Our best chance came when Morgan hit a shot in a crowded penalty area and the ball somehow took a crazy deflection straight into the goalkeeper’s arm. We only lost 9-10 on shots in the end which is quite something given how poor we looked and how decent Darlington played.

This defeat proved doubly damaging in the aftermath when we saw that both Chester and Bournemouth had recorded victories. Our survival hopes now seem as good as over. We just don’t have a team capable of consistantly pulling together enough results to stay up. Even when we do go a few games unbeaten here and there, those runs always seem to be full of draws which don’t get us any nearer the safety line. This season has been one big whitewash from the beginning, it really has, and I just hope I’m given the chance to put things right once we’re in the Blue Square Premier. I want a fair crack at this job and this season just isn’t it.

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FINAL SCORE (Att 3414)

Darlington 2 (Proudlock 5, 34)

Luton Town 0

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(League table after 28 games. We have 7 wins, 13 draws, 8 defeats)

Lincoln City - 29

Wycombe - 28

Chester City - 22

Macclesfield - 21

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Bournemouth - 15

Luton Town - 4

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January 2009 round-up

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Premiership

Top - Arsenal (53), Liverpool (52), Man Utd (50), Chelsea (48), Tottenham (44), Everton (37)

Bottom - Middlesbrough (24), West Ham (23), Portsmouth (22), Stoke City (20), Hull City (18)

The four top dogs continue to lead the way but Spurs aren't going away quietly. The gap between Chelsea in fourth and Everton in sixth is quite revealing though. Arsene Wenger's philosophies are finally in danger of reaping rewards. His fledglings lead the table and Robin Van Persie is the league's top goalscorer with 15 goals. Down at the bottom, West Ham have gone on a good run to climb out of the relegation zone. Portsmouth replace them. Stoke and Hull are struggling to stay in the fight.

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Championship

Top - Reading (58), Sheff Utd (55), Bristol City (55), Cardiff City (53), Ipswich Town (52), Southampton (52), Charlton (50)

Bottom - Q.P.R (32), Watford (31), Nottingham Forest (29), Blackpool (29), Crystal Palace (26), Swansea (24)

Reading's lead at the top has been cut from four to three points after a good run by the Blades. In third place, Bristol City continue to upset the applecart with some fine performances. Below them, three clubs with a lot of premiership pedigree wait in the wings. At the foot of the table, Swansea are in danger of falling adrift now. Watford, Forest, and most of all, Crystal Palace, are big clubs all in danger of falling down to League One. The league's top goalscorer is now the American Eddie Johnson of Cardiff City, who is all out on his own with 18 goals.

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League One

Top - Leeds (57), Oldham (55), Leicester (54), Millwall (52), Peterborough (47), Crewe (47), Leyton Orient (47), Scunthorpe (47)

Bottom - Brighton (32), Hartlepool (30), Cheltenham (30), Bristol Rovers (29), Walsall (24), Hereford (12)

Leeds are top but they still haven't pulled away to safety, much to the frustation of their fans. Leicester are putting real pressure on Oldham now for that second spot. At the bottom, Hereford are all but doomed. What a disasterous season for Graham Turner's men! Hereford are now even further away from the safety line in their respective division than we are! In other news, Colchester's manager has been given the boot and that job is up for grabs. I'm tempted to apply given all the s__t I'm going through at Kenilworth Road, but I doubt I'd get it so I'm not going to bother. Two new lads are at the top of the goalscoring tree. They are Calvin Zola of Crewe and Clive Platt of Colchester United, who both have 17 league goals.

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League Two

Top - Shrewsbury (54), Rochdale (54), Bury (52), Grimsby (49), Darlington (48), Bradford (44), Brentford (43)

Bottom - Lincoln City (29), Wycombe (28), Chester City (22), Macclesfield (21), Bournemouth (15), Luton Town (4)

The team we whipped 3-1 sit proudly on top of the table above Rochdale on goal difference. Pre-season favourites Bradford City are starting to look like they might have to settle for a playoff place. As far as our own battle is concerned, I'm just about ready to hold up the white flag. No way are we coming back from this. Grant Holt of Shrewsbury incidentally now has a staggering 21 league goals, despite failing to net in both of his games against us.

-----

Blue Square Premier

Top - Oxford (56), York City (55), Rushden (55), Torquay (53), Wrexham (50), Cambridge (50)

Bottom - Ebbsfleet (31), Altrincham (30), Forest Green (29), Barrow (29), Lewes (28), Eastbourne (27)

Disaster for York. They lost 0-2 away to bottom of the table Eastbourne and have been unsurped by non-league giants Oxford. Anybody as far down as Cambridge in sixth place could yet have a say in where the title is going. It's also very tight at the bottom where six clubs are now firmly cut adrift from the rest. Four of them will go down. Eastbourne have dragged themselves back into the battle by winning two games in a row, one of them that great win against the Minstermen. Top scorer in this league is still York's McBreen on 17 goals.

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Blue Square North

Top - Farsley Celtic (47), Tamworth (45), Stafford (44), Hyde (43), Hinckley (42), Gainsborough (42), Workington (42)

Bottom - Solihull Moors (28), Kings Lynn (27), Vauxhall Motors (23), Hucknall (23), Burscough (22)

The Celts are feeling the pressure up top and are now being strongly chased by two Midland outfits in Tamworth and Stafford. In fact, this league is so tight now that even Workington outside the playoff places are only five points off the top of the table. Farsley's minor decline in form has also had the knock-on effect on the leading goalscorer charts, Andy Campbell being replaced Nathan Joynes of Stalybridge. Joynes has 16 league goals.

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Blue Square South

Top - St Albans (53), AFC Wimbledon (47), Chelmsford (42), Newport (42), Fisher (41), Team Bath (39)

Bottom - Worcester (31), Bromley (31), Thurrock (30), Eastleigh (29), Dorchester (29), Bogner Regis (23)

The main news this month is that Bromley's manager has been sacked - that job is now available. At the top of the table meanwhile St Albans have opened up a six point gap over AFC Wimbledon. Those two clubs are surely the only two who can win the title. At the foot of the league, Bognor Regis are starting to look doomed (if they didn't already). Any one of five clubs could be joining them, including the aforementioned Bromley. Sam Higgins of Chelmsford is still the league's leading marksman with 15 goals.

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11/04/98 - Banged up

I’d just got back from a Morecambe match at the time I got the call. We’d lost 2-1 and I was black and blue all over. The call I was about to receive though would make everything better. It would even bring a twinge of delight to the little place on my neck where my scar still resides. I lived in a student flat back then with two rugby loving hulks called Rob and Baz. Thankfully they spent a lot more time out of the flat than in it. I liked my peace and quiet after a bruising home game.

“Hello” I said, not knowing who the caller was. These were the days when mobile phones had just come out and there was no such thing as caller recognition.

“It’s Alex Ferguson” said a muffled Scottish voice at the other end of the phone. “I was very impressed with how ye played today, laddie. I’d like to offer yr a four year deal at Old Trafford. I’m thinking ye and Cantona would make a great pair up front”.

“Your Scottish accent is seriously s__t” I said, recognising the voice to be that of Tony Neill, my old friend from high school.

“Hehe” he chuckled. “How did you get on today?”

“Lost two-one to Stevenage - southern bastards. I didn’t play too bad myself though. How’s things in Leeds”.

“Things are pretty weird actually. Has anyone told you what was in the Yorkshire Evening Post this week?”

“No” I said. “What?”

“George Palazzi made the front page”.

My heart missed a beat. I’d tried to forget that bastard for seven years. At the time that mug incident happened the whole thing strangely hadn’t seemed too bad. Two years later however, at the age of fourteen, I'd suffered two really vivid nightmares involving Palazzi in my bed. The result of this was a prolonged period of depression which almost jeopardised my GCSE progress. It’s funny, but during my teenage years I probably had about a thousand pleasant dreams involving naked women, yet to tell you the truth I can’t remember a single one of them. I can though remember most of the details of those two Palazzi dreams. The human brain can be cruel sometimes.

“What’s he in the paper for?” I asked.

“He’s gone to prison for nine years. It was rape. He did somebody’s teenage daughter apparently, and at the same time he was on trial for that, some other girl came forward from years ago and they got him for that one too”.

Call me a mean spirited so and so if you want, but I couldn’t help feeling glad.

“Jesus” I said. “He was always a thug when we knew him. I didn’t think he was a rapist too though”.

“Well, they weren’t violent rapes apparently. The victims were girls he’d befriended in the pub and spiked their drinks. Then he took them back to his car for you-know-what”.

“And that’s not violent?”

“Well it IS violent. What I meant was, they weren’t violent as in dragging them kicking and screaming into the woods etc”.

“It’s still horrible. He’s a horrible bastard. I hope he rots. Nine years isn’t enough if you ask me”.

“Well, I thought you’d want to know anyway. I know you had - trouble - back at high school for a while”.

“Yeah, and no you did the right thing. I’m glad you called me”.

“It seems like such a long time since those Guiseley Eagles days doesn’t it? Do you remember? Me and you didn’t even get on back then did we? Do you remember the time you took the team on for one game and we argued about it in front of the players?”

“Yeah I remember, Tony. I much preferred it afterwards when we played for Otley”.

“Yeah. Anyway, how are things in Lancaster? Are you still with that girl you brought to Leeds at Christmas?”

“Sarah? Yeah”.

“Cool. Listen, I’m going to fly. I’ve got a night out tonight. Give us a call when you get back to Leeds in July, okay?”

“Sure”.

“Oh, and maybe one day you will get that call from Fergie. You never know. You weren’t the greatest player back at Otley but you sure as hell stuck with it when the rest of us fell away. Keep going. You’ll make it to the football league yet.

“We’ll see”.

The call ended soon after and I was left to reflect further on the news of Palazzi’s incarceration. Whoever those two girls were, I felt sorry for them. I was still glad that pr__k was locked up. It might sound crazy, but one of the thoughts I had the day after Tony’s call was that now I could go back to the Guiseley Eagles changing rooms and feel safe. I say crazy because I also asked myself at the time what on earth reason would I have to ever return the