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An American Pilgrimage (vbulletin edition)

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Copper is an American living in Liverpool and looking for something to fill his time while his wife completes a teacher exchange program. Copper's approached by Bobby Bell, an owner of an obscure football club in England with an intriguing proposition. The offer is too good to refuse and what follows is Copper's journey of self-discovery where he struggles to accept his past, his present, and his future.

Many thanks to those of you who followed this story on the eve edition forum board and posted a comment to it. They encouraged me a great deal to continue writing.

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For the rest of you who read the story faithfully, I appreciated seeing the views climb above 1000, then 2000, then 2518 before it was switched to vbulletin. I'm thankful for your support and am glad to be able to continue the story in this new forum site.

This is the vbulletin edition. It is for any new readers this story may attract.

My career begins with the following technical information for those who track this sort of thing.

I am playing WSM 08 v. 8.02 with the three official workarounds listed in the eve forum board. I believe they involved editing issues surrounding player transfers between Tottenham and Portsmouth, as well as ticket prices in Turkey.

I am playing with the following leagues loaded and active:

Belgian (2nd div and above)

England (BSN/BSS and above)

France (Ligue 2 and above)

Germany (2nd div and above)

Italy (Serie B and above)

Scotland (3rd div and above)

Spain (LIGA BBVA and above)

My status at the beginning of the game was a Sunday League Player who was unemployed and I started with the calendar beginning in England during July 2007.

Now that these details are taken care of, I hope that you'll continue reading my fictional story, An American Pilgrimage.

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An American Pilgrimage

Chapter 1

March 2008, Pub in Liverpool

I sat in the pub watching the football match on the television and reminisced about how I, a humble American, ended up in Liverpool.

Last fall after my coaching season ended, my wife sat me down late one night and said, “Listen to me.”

“I am.” I replied, still watching the latest Sky Sports report via satellite.

“Stop it!”

“What? I’m listening.”

“We’ve been married ten years now. Do you really expect me to believe that you can focus on me when you’re watching anything involving soccer?” Her eyes stared daggers at me and I knew I was nailed.

“Sorry, dear. You’re right. I’m being unfair.” I pressed the remote control button to pause live TV and faced her stoically.

She kneeled beside my chair, reached out to hold my hands and said, “You’ve been coaching soccer for the past six seasons at your high school. You started its soccer program from the very beginning. The first four years were delightful. Your teams didn’t win a lot of games, but at least they made progress from the beginning of the season until the very end. Two years ago, your efforts paid off.”

Immediately, fond memories of that season flooded my mind. That year’s squad was my favorite one. Even though we finished league play with a 5-11-1 record and lost the last two league matches by a combined score of 11-0, we peaked at the right time. The following week in the post-season we went on a Cinderella run winning two home matches in a row against higher seeded competition to place us in the local championship match. The team we faced was the same side who had knocked us out of the postseason the previous two seasons by a combined score of 14-1 over both of our matches. The championship match was scheduled to be played at their home field and we still came away with a 2-1 victory on a sunny, windy day in front of 55 traveling supporters. Immediately following the awards ceremony, we returned home to receive the cheers of nearly 2,000 fans in the school’s (American) football stadium. However, the following week, despite recovering from a 2-0 deficit with eleven minutes remaining, our victory march ended and we lost 3-2 in the second of two, sudden-death, extra-time periods.

My wife’s words continued and snapped me out of my daydream. “You first trained those players back when they were U-10 youth players in the local recreational youth league. You stopped being in charge of player development to become the head coach of the high school team. Each year, your high school program grew in size and stature. But suddenly, after that championship winning season, the squad numbers have evaporated and you’ve been forced to accept every warm body that showed up to play, regardless of their skill level.”

Her words summarized my career accurately, but they failed to describe the emotional baggage I carried as a result. Watching the soccer program’s momentum grind to a complete halt over the past two seasons was especially bitter to swallow because it was unexplained. However, despite the team’s collapse, my athletic director still supported me and I became even more determined to rebuild the team with each season.

My wife continued, “Copper, when I share your experiences with my own high school English students, even they tell me you are too long suffering. They tell me they would have quit a long time ago if they were the ones in your shoes. These same teenagers insist your players don’t appreciate what you do for them. Some have even said they wished they quit their teams and join yours because they want to play for you instead. Are you hearing me yet? Better yet, are you hearing them yet?”

I looked sideways at her and bowed my head slightly. “I know that you’re right, but I can’t let it go. I see the potential this school can offer the players and I want to be the one to make it happen for them.”

She retorted, “POTENTIAL? Your school refused to build you a soccer field until after you had already played for two seasons. They’ve got four football fields and eleven baseball/softball diamonds to use. Did they ever offer to let you use them for training or matches? No! You had to train your teams using an empty green space and were forced to play every match away. The only reason they finally agreed to build a single soccer field in the district was because they got tired of parent complaints. Even then, they tried to build two more softball diamonds on each end of the soccer field. They would have succeeded had you not tipped off the parents to their plans covertly. Damn it, Copper, you paid your assistant coach out of your own pocket because they couldn’t or wouldn’t even pay his meager salary.”

With fire in her eyes, she released my hands and turned my face towards her holding it steady in her grasp. “Listen to me very carefully” she pleaded. “You are so much better than this. You hear me? You have talent. You’ve made lemonade out of lemons for far too long. It will never get better. You won’t ever be appreciated here. Soccer is a dead end in your school! D-E-A-D! Can’t you see it’s killing me to watch you suffer like this every year? Remember when you told me to tell you when to get out?”

“Yes.” I whispered as tears formed in the corners of my eyes.

“It’s time.”

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Chapter 2

March 2008, Pub in Liverpool

“Hey, what can I get for you?” The harried barkeep stood waiting for my request impatiently.

“I’ll have an order of fish and chips with a pint of Carlsberg please.”

The older man sitting next to me turned and asked, “Yank, eh?”

“Is it that obvious?”

“Yes, indeed your accent is ugly, but I won’t hold it against you.” He winked and added, “So, what brings you to this pub on this fine Saturday?”

“Nothing in particular,” I shouted over the pub crowd. It’s more fun watching the Liverpool match surrounded by shouting supporters than it is to watch it all alone in my living room with the wife working quietly in the other room.”

The man laughed, “Me, too. The Missus doesn’t like the ruckus I make so she kicks me out and tells me to make a spectacle of myself somewhere else.”

Now I laughed, adding, “Someday, I hope to watch a match from inside The Kop.”

He gaped at me. “WHAT? You’ve never been inside?”

“Never. But then again, we’ve only lived here for ten months.”

“Interesting. May I ask what brought your family to the mighty ‘Pool?”

I swallowed some beer and replied, “My wife and I both teach. We moved here as part of an international exchange program for teachers. She switched teaching positions for a year and then we will trade back again when the school year’s done. My wife has wanted to do this for many years, but couldn’t because I coached soccer in the States.”

His attention perked up instantly. “You were a manager, you say? Most excellent. Were you any good?”

I replied, “Depends on your perspective, I suppose. I never had a winning season. However, it wasn’t for lack of trying. I just happened to coach at a place where American football was King. Our team never had the best athletes, a quality feeder program, or even the facilities to support my vision for building a championship winning side. However, things did look up for a couple of seasons. We had a small, core group of players committed to being the best we could. Even though we had a losing record in our league, we peaked in the end-of-season tournament to win a local championship. Two seasons later, all the work done to build the program unraveled and my wife suggested I quit.”

His response surprised me, “Excellent! Congratulations on your achievement. In my opinion, a champion is a champion forever. You can’t ever take that accomplishment away from a team, no matter what. Take Rafa, for example,” he nodded towards the television. He taught school before coaching full-time. Gym classes, I believe. Eventually, he got noticed and the rest is history, especially winning the Champions League. By the way, what do you teach?”

“Gym.”

“Get out! Surely you’re joking, right?” He exclaimed, punching me on the arm forcefully.

“No. It’s the truth.” I rubbed my arm discreetly and asked, “Why the joy?”

“Don’t mind me. I’m impulsive. It helps me to keep my sanity. It’s an especially useful trait for my line of work. My name’s Bobby Bell. Have you been a Liverpool supporter for long?”

Embarrassed, I replied, “My name’s Copper Horse. And no, I regret that I’ve only become a fan recently. Back in the States, I supported Arsenal. In my opinion, under Wenger, their style is spectacular. That’s what attracted my interest in them in the first place. But now, living in Liverpool, I’ve been swept up in the excitement surrounding Rafa’s Revolution. The closest to this experience we have in the U.S. is the NFL’s Green Bay Packers. Even though the Packer Backers love their team, they’ve never revolted in defense of their coach like Liverpool did with Rafa this year.”

Bobby interrupted, “Copper, you’ve struck a nerve with me. It’s going to take more than a pint to finish this conversation. How ‘bout we discuss football over a few more? Seeing as though you’ve never been inside The Kop, I’ll buy the rounds.”

Turning to face me more directly, he said assuredly, “Copper, considering that you’re definitely a fish out of water, especially here in the ‘Pool, let me share some thoughts with you. As a ‘Toon supporter growing up, I’d have been willing to fight any Middlesbrough bloke bloody unconscious if they spoke ill of my team. But now that I’m older, I’ve become wiser. Don’t get me wrong, I still love Newcastle, but Mike’s made a dreadful muck of things. He’s running Newcastle into the ground. Think about it. How can a chairman spend all that money buying world class talent to use all those top-drawer facilities and still be caught dreadfully deep in a relegation battle? Quickly, what’s your answer?”

Without missing a beat I replied, “Because he doesn’t have the patience to put in the work required to make his vision become reality.”

“Wow! Couldn’t have said it better myself. You’re sharp, Copper. Quite unlike the chairman we were just speaking about. The man’s a scatterbrain, to be honest. I mean him no disrespect, but come on, give me a break. Newcastle’s a mess. For me, all childhood loyalty aside, I believe mighty Liverpool to be the best club in English football right now.”

“Really? Why?” My interest level in his answer startled me. I had my own personal thoughts, but for some reason deep down in my gut, I needed to know his rationale.

His response didn’t disappoint me. “Liverpool is a club which believes in its vision, its players, its traditions, and its supporters. Now, if those damn Americans would stop mucking up the water, Liverpool could concentrate fully on the difficult task of climbing up the league table. No offense to your American ethnicity Copper.”

Now, it was my turn to interrupt him. “AMEN to that Bobby!” and punch his arm solidly. “That is the exact problem I struggled to overcome for years while coaching back in the States. I felt like I was the only one who believed passionately in our team. It was so discouraging to channel all my energy into making that vision real, that I eventually burnt myself out trying to make it happen. I feel like a failure.”

He stared fixedly at me. His mind seemed to whir through millions of calculations all at once. It unnerved me and suddenly, I felt foolish for letting this soul secret slip out, especially to a stranger whom I just met. I was about to apologize for my outburst, but he stopped me with a wag of his finger before I could speak.

“Don’t apologize for failing. Don’t do it. I won’t hear of it.” He drained his beer and ordered two more, although I still was nursing mine along. Immediately upon their return, he put one to his mouth and finished it entirely in one pull. “Copper?” he inquired, “Have I told you what I do for a living yet?”

“No, I don’t believe so.”

He looked straight at me and spoke frankly, “I’m the very frustrated chairman of an obscure football club named Blyth that plays in the Blue Square North League. Granted, Blyth’s a fair bit removed from the spectacular club of my childhood, despite being so close geographically. It’s an even further bit removed from the club we are watching that won the Champions League in Istanbul a few short seasons ago. But, it’s my bit to care about. And I care do about it very deeply. Quite surprisingly, your sincerity stunned me into that awkward silence. I apologize. However, there’s no getting around it. Even though I can’t control what happened just now, I can control how I respond to it. You don’t know this Copper, but the same problem you faced in the States is the exact dilemma I am currently facing with my beloved Spartans.”

“You are Chairman of the Spartans?” I stammered.

“Yes I am.”

“That’s too weird. My alma mater in the U.S. is the Spartans—Michigan State University Spartans. I’ve been tracking your club’s results on the Internet every now and again to ease my homesickness. I’ve wanted to catch a match, but haven’t been able to make it out yet, with you being on the coast and all that.

“No problem, not many people do. We’re only averaging about 300 supporters a match right now. That’s part of my problem. Like Newcastle, we’re struggling with our very own relegation battle. I’ve supported Harry Dunn, our manager, for quite some time now. He’s been very good for the club and he’s a good friend too. However, as Chairman of Blyth, I may have agreed to bite off more than we can swallow right now in regards to our team’s budget. I’m desperate to avoid relegation because if we go down, the entire ship goes down too, if you know what I mean.”

“You’ll fold?”

“Administration is a very real possibility.” He added somberly, “I don’t want to lose control of this club. Unlike Mike at Newcastle, I do have a very clear vision of what Blyth can do. Our club serves an important role in our small community. Losing our club won’t help our community in the least. Unfortunately, we have only five matches remaining this season and the Board’s sent me a message that’s crystal clear.”

“What’s that, may I ask?”

“Lose the manager or lose the club.”

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Chapter 3

5 April 2008, Croft Park, Blyth

Copper…Robin…Thanks so much for being my guests this weekend. I’m very sorry the result wasn’t what we’d hoped, but that’s bound to happen more often than not near the bottom of the league table.”

Bobby, my wife and I are both grateful for your invitation to come and spend the weekend. It was great to get out of the city and into the country. It’s done us both good, even if the match was horrid.” I shook his hand and looked him straight in the eye. I could see the loss stung its pain still evident on his features. The wet weather didn’t help the situation either. I tried to excuse my wife and me politely so we could let him return to his duties as chairman. However, Bobby wasn’t to be put off that easily.

He turned to my wife and asked, “Robin, have you enjoyed your stay in England so far?”

Yes, I’ve loved it. It will be sad to leave at the end of school to return to the States. I’ve really had such a nice time. I just wish we had more opportunities to travel.”

Oh, why’s that?”

Well, when I applied to be in the teacher exchange program, I was the only one able to get a teaching position for the teacher exchange. Copper couldn’t be part of the program because the policies forbid it. So money’s been tight and we haven’t been able to travel like we’ve wanted. I love history and I’d love to see more of England’s historical sites personally instead of learning about them through educational materials. I believe that experience is the best teacher and will really help me to bring these places to life for my students back in America.”

Bobby thought about this for a few seconds, then followed up asking, “Would you stay if you could?”

Robin replied, “I’d love it, but that isn’t possible. It’s even painful to entertain the idea. Our work sabbaticals expire after this school year and we must have two incomes to help us catch up for the expenses we’ve incurred.”

Bobby turned to me with a weary smile, “How about you, Copper?” It was obvious he was making small talk as we walked out of the small stadium along with the remaining disgruntled fans bold enough to stay and watch the entire beating.

Robin’s right. If the truth be told, however, I’m going to miss football the most. Back home, we need to travel about 300 miles to see the nearest major club play in the MLS. Media coverage is sporadic at best and the local university results can only be found on the Internet. Even if we do go to see a college game the match attendance figures are still less than the 400 or so which Blyth attracts. Besides,” I added as humorously as I could, “being a soccer fan back home means I’m an outcast. As a Liverpool supporter here in England, I’ll never walk alone.”

He forced a chuckle and added, “Walk with me to my office, both of you please. I’d like to finish this conversation someplace dry and warm.”

Robin and I agreed quickly and followed him to his office inside the small administration building near the stadium. Once inside we also agreed to have some hot food and drink. He used the intercom to make his request, but no one responded.

“Ahhh,” he said, “The simple joys of a life at a small club. Please come with me folks, it looks like we’re going to have to fend for ourselves.”

On our way to the kitchen, I noticed a window case prominently displayed on the wall in the waiting area. I stopped to look inside it and noticed a single trophy. It was labeled, “Blyth Spartans, Champions of the English Northern Premier League Premier Division, 2006”.

I asked Bobby about it and he replied, “Yes, that was a proud day at the club. It was a very rewarding year and ended up on a much happier tone than how this season seems to be ending.” His somber mood temporarily uplifted by his historical lesson, he continued, “Harry Dunn, our current manager helped us to win that trophy. He had a determined squad and they did a fantastic job to win it. It really lifted our community’s spirit. Also, it helped to drum up some greatly needed financial support to help us be prepared to compete in the Blue Square North. In fact, we were predicted to finish 11th this season.” Immediately, his countenance darkened and he added quietly under his breath, “Their money may have helped the club, but their personal agendas have hurt it. Each one’s agenda interfered with the next one until the club has fallen into turmoil. When Blyth won, the Board worked together for the common good, but when we started losing, they became self-serving pests. That’s why they’ve given me my ultimatum to find a new manager or lose my stake in the club.”

Robin, sensing Bobby’s shift in hostility, interrupted saying in an upbeat tone, “Bobby, Copper told me after his first meeting with you at the pub that you have a very clear vision of what you want to see happen with this club. Can you share any of it with me?”

Her effort paid off. His eyes lit up once more and he turned to her saying determinedly, “I love this club. I doubt I’ll ever have the resources to help it become a big club like those in the Premier League, but I’m okay with that. In this business, there are two proven ways to make money. The first way is bring the money in via trophy wins and climbing the FA League structure into the top levels thus allowing television and sponsorship deals to coincide with massive gate attendance figures in order to foot the bills. The second way is to develop your talent in such a way that the large clubs come calling with their checkbooks open wanting to buy the players. The first requires money and a lot of it. The second requires leadership and a lot of patience.”

Our sandwiches finally warmed up and our coffee served hot, we went back to the office. This time passing through the waiting area, I noticed different photos of players. I counted six of them and asked Bobby to tell me about them.

Copper, those photographs are my pride and joy. The men pictured are the reason why I am a chairman of a small club, instead of a big one. All of these players started their careers here at Blyth. I was able to provide them with the break they needed desperately in order pursue their dreams of a professional career in football. These are the players who’ve been picked up by other clubs higher up the food chain. I’m especially proud of watching them start their careers here at my club. Both of you may be teachers, but I’m a gardener. I love to plant seeds here at my club and watch them grow into a final product for others to enjoy too. Watching youth players grow up to become stars is one of the most gratifying experiences that I experience personally as Chairman. However, the joy these home grown players bring to a club extends to the fans too. Gerrard at Liverpool and Becks at Manchester United are two players who immediately come to mind for the joy they provided for their respective clubs from the time they were young boys with a dream. The fact that those clubs are at the top of the English Premier League and we’re way down at the bottom is not lost on me. In fact, I accept it. However, it doesn’t mean that I can’t be a gardener. Do you think you are any less of a teacher because you work for public schools with limited resources instead of private ones with huge endowment funds?”

Robin smiled slyly, reached out to grasp Bobby’s hand, and asked, “Bobby, what is the real reason you invited us to the match this weekend?”

Bobby’s eyes gleamed mischievously and he said in a very hushed, excitable tone, “Please, come quickly to my office and I’ll tell you there. It’s time for me to protect my garden from the pests trying to destroy it. I’ve got some ideas on how to do that and I’m going to need both of you to help me do it.”

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Chapter 4

05 April, Croft Park, Blyth

“I’m going to be direct with you. Even though my hand is being forced in this matter regarding Harry, it doesn’t mean that I have to take it lying down. I believe in omens and I think they must be heeded, especially when they’ve been slapping me in the face as frequently as they have been since I first met you.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Copper, I’ll line all of them up for you. In Liverpool, I tried setting up a meeting with a trusted friend to discuss my options regarding Harry. After I had already arrived in the city, my friend had a family emergency suddenly come up and he needed to cancel our meeting. Of all the pubs in Liverpool, I happened to show up at the one where I sat next to an unemployed manager with just enough qualifications to make a passable replacement manager for my contrary board. Adding to our common belief that Liverpool is the best club in modern football right now, your non-football employment experiences are eerily similar to Rafa’s. Your university’s nickname was the same as our club’s. Finally, the past two weeks’ worth of conversations and emails reinforced to me that your insight into English football and modern player development is spot-on accurate.” He turned to Robin and said, “Your husband has all the potential to be a successful football manager. He just needs an opportunity to show he can do it. I believe I can offer him the right environment to grow and flourish here at Blyth.”

I sat in stunned silence. My heart pounded in my chest and I had trouble catching my breath. My hands felt clammy as I held my wife’s hand and recalled each rejection letter this past year. Robin’s eyes locked with mine and, unable to turn away or say anything, we simply held hands until finally, she recovered first.

She faced Bobby and said to him matter-of-factly, “Our visas expire in 3 months and we’ll have to return to America. We can’t accept your kindness at this time in our lives.”

Quickly, Bobby replied, “I’ve already looked into that. We can apply for a work permit and it can be approved before you’ll need to go back. The only problem we face in the foreseeable future is your living arrangements for the rest of the season because Copper will be required to live in Blyth while he manages the team.”

It was my turn to speak. I added, “Even assuming the work permit is granted, we still face significant financial burdens because we’ve been living on one income for this past year.”

Without hesitation again, Bobby replied, “I’ve already considered this too, Copper.” He smiled reassuringly and then reached into his desk drawer to pull out a piece of paper. I realized it was an official contract. “If you read this, you will notice that this part-time contract is worth $29,000 USD. Trust me, this is a very generous contract for a person first entering the managerial ranks at an obscure club in England.”

The amount was definitely attractive, but still I hesitated at making an impulsive decision. I stalled, “Bobby, are you sure I have enough coaching experience?”

He laughed out loud and his eyes still shone mischievously. “That’s the beauty of it all, Copper. You aren’t the most qualified candidate, but you are qualified enough to manage a club of our reputation. You weren’t ever a professional player, but your amateur status is competitive enough to understand the demands of our league. You don’t have adult coaching experience, but working six years as a youth coach is more than adequate to meet the needs of our youth players. At 38, you’re still young enough to relate to the players, but old enough to command their respect. Furthermore, passing your FA licenses before you came to England showed me that you plan ahead. Applying to and then getting rejected by 60 different clubs shows me that you’re extremely determined. If you do choose to sign this contract, you’ll prove to me that you’re fearless too because you’ll be the only American manager in the English Leagues.”

He took a few moments to let these facts settle in our minds. Then, he leaned forward in his seat and continued, “Remember when I told you that I’m a gardener by nature? Well, I’m also a stubborn mule. I’m not ready to get shoved around by a bunch of insolent board members who are trying to force me out of my club.”

His voice intensified, “In my mind, the truth is self-evident; by signing this contract, I’ll be giving the Board members what they want, but it won’t be packaged in the way they want it. It will show them that I am still in control of my club and I’ll continue to run it in the manner I see fit. I see it in my best interest to hire you, tonight.”

Suddenly, he stood up. His forceful movement made his desk chair slam into the wall behind him. He reached down with his left hand, picked up a coffee mug, and hurled it against the wall smashing it to bits. With his eyes ablaze and his voice strident, he commanded, “Prove it to my Board that Americans know football! Prove it to every single stinking club who rejected you! Prove it to your unappreciative players! Prove it to yourself!”

Bobby jutted his pen forward and smacked it down next the contract and sat down to try and compose himself.

Stirred, I looked at Robin and tried to gauge her emotional state of mind. Her intensity surprised me, but still, she said nothing. In my mind, I recalled the disappointing match we had watched in the rain earlier that day. The Spartans had attempted 3 shots in a 3-nil defeat against Hucknall, a team only 3 spots ahead of them in the table with only 3 matches remaining in the season. Three people sat before this proposal that would start the 3rd managerial job of my short career. I broke away from my wife’s stare and focused hard on the Spartan logo on the paper before me. Silently, I questioned, “Do I really have what it takes to make a career out of management?” I remembered Bobby’s belief in omens and agreed that an unusual amount of indicators seemed to support signing this contract.

I knew I had Bobby’s blessing. He had made it very clear that he believed in my abilities and I honestly enjoyed getting to know him during the past couple weeks. The discussions about football we had shared, the common support we both have for Liverpool and Rafa, and our management styles seemed to coincide nicely together. I had mentioned to Robin many times in the past two weeks that I agreed strongly with Bobby’s belief about Blyth both in the Blue Square North as well as within the small seaside community.

However, I didn’t know if I had Robin’s blessing to pursue this selfish dream of mine. Even though she’d been incredibly supportive of the things that I had chosen to do with my life up to this point, her life would be dramatically changed by the decision I was going to have to make in the next few moments.

I heard the clock’s chime interrupt the silence. I faced Bobby and gently asked, “May I please have some time alone with Robin?”

“Sure. Take all the time you need. I’ll go find some way to clean up the mess I seem to have made.” He smiled and, as he started out the door, he turned back toward us and said, “Copper, as long as I’m at this club, you’ll never walk alone.” Then he winked and closed the door behind him.

“What was that wink?” asked Robin.

“An inside belief we both share.” I replied; strong feelings of camaraderie rooted themselves deeper in my body.

“Do you truly want to do this? Do you really want the pressure? The headaches? The heartache?” she implored.

“Desperately.”

“Remember when I told you last year that it was time for you to quit coaching?”

“Yes.”

“Well now, I’m telling you it’s time for you to start again.”

I hugged her tight, kissed her mouth, and wiped away the tears that had started to fall down her cheeks. “I love you and thank you.”

“I love you too and you’re welcome.” She tousled my hair and added, “Just do both of us proud you ugly American.”

I chuckled, “Count on it. By the way, what finally tipped the scales for you?”

She got up from her seat, headed for the door, and then turned back to me, “I believe in omens too. Three things about Bobby remind me of myself. He believes in you almost as much as I do; he’s as fiercely protective of what is important to him as I am; and probably the most important omen of all, he’s left-handed.”

She laughed, threw open the door and hollered, “Bobby, we’re in!”

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Its great to see your back and going with this again. I hope you can catch up fast so that I can start reading the new chapters that are yet to be unveiled! Good work so far on this story!

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copper, my friend, that looks amazing. The formatting work on this version is significantly better than the first time round.

KUGTW! :)

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todorojoz and viperk1: Thank you very much for coming back to my story. It's good to see both of you back too.

This whole forum switching thing reminds me of a family reunion. It seems like ages since I've last seen you folks, but it's all good...

Chapter 5

06 April, 2008, My Office, Blyth

Last night, after signing the contract, Bobby handed me a key and strongly suggested that we head out for Liverpool immediately before the news made an already bad day even worse. He promised he would break the news to Harry and the rest of the club and all would be ready for me in the morning. He told me that he’d have the coaching staff come in for a meeting at 10, but I’d have to wait until Monday evening’s training session to meet the players. He scheduled a short meeting with me at 11 as he had business at noon.

I let myself into the building and I wandered aimlessly through it looking for my office. I recognized the waiting area, Bobby’s office, and the kitchen. The rest of the building was unfamiliar so it took me a couple of minutes to find Harry’s name on a small, brass plate outside my office door. I unlocked it and, before stepping inside, took a moment to savor the blessings of this opportunity. The full reality of my current situation finally had hit me and I quietly pushed open the door to step inside.

A new reality struck me as I stared at a small desk, one wooden chair, a desktop computer, a phone, and a desk lamp. The rest of the room was barren. No pictures, no bookshelf, no plants, no whiteboards, not even a wastebasket could be seen. It was smaller than I expected too. I smiled as I recalled Bobby’s comment from the night before after he couldn’t reach anyone for help on his intercom and sighed, “Ahhh, the joys of life at a small club.”

I took the five steps to reach my desk and walked around it to sit down in the wooden chair. I opened the drawers to search for a pad of paper to begin planning out my meeting with the coaching staff, but it too was completely empty except for a single note which looked like it had been scribbled hastily before being shoved in the lap drawer. Curious, I picked it up and started to read it.

It read, “Thanks for kicking me to the curb. Are you proud of yourself, ignorant American? You like sending a man packing? If you think you’re going to ride into town on your high horse and kick some tail in the barn to get this team winning again, then you better head back to the paddock. I’m Dunn and gone now. Sod off, you horse’s ass!”

The enthusiasm I had felt coming into work this morning quickly subsided after reading the “welcome” note from the outgoing manager, Harry Dunn. I tried to give him the benefit of the doubt considering he’d just been fired shortly before writing this. However, I hoped the reception from the remaining staff and players would be friendlier.

Briefly, I thought about sharing this note with my new boss, but decided against it because last night must have been tough for him too. I’d never had to fire anyone before, especially someone whom I considered a friend. It made me realize that this job was the real deal and I’d need to make very difficult decisions over the next 15 months, particularly if I didn’t want to hear the same speech from him in the future. I recalled feeling a whole lot more confident after listening to Bobby’s inspiring comments the night before. This morning, I was all alone except for my thoughts and my confidence was beginning to waver.

In the silence, I slouched back into my chair and recalled my drive home in the rain the night before. Both Robin and I were very excited about the offer Bobby had extended to us. All night, I felt like pinching myself to see if this was indeed real, but Robin kept me on task as she outlined our plan of attack to make our lives “work” for the rest of the school year.

Eventually, we went to bed, but only one of us slept. My brow furrowed from worry, I used the light from the streetlamps to stare at Robin’s smooth skin while she slept soundly next to me. As I lay next to her, it occurred to me that I wouldn’t have her physical support until the school year ended. She’d be here in the city and I’d be living and working in the country. In the past, we’d each come home from work and have someone available to share our daily ups and downs with immediately. We relied on each other for support because we were opposites indeed. I’d be the one who dreamed up new ideas constantly for everything under the sun and she’d be left with the unfortunate task of trying to make them come to pass successfully. When she’d get so wrapped up in work that she became overburdened and depressed or worn out, I’d be there for her, being a court jester trying to lighten her mood so she could continue serving the needs of her students. Now that we were going to be apart, I wouldn’t be able to look into her eyes, see her smiles spread slyly across her face, or wrap her tightly in my arms. Instead, in the coming months, we’d need to rely on our words alone to connect with each other and we needed to trust that these would be strong enough to keep us together.

The sudden rap on the door startled me and I sat bolt upright in my chair once more. “Sorry, Sir, I didn’t mean to spook you. I’m Graham Fenton, your assistant manager. I was told I needed to meet with you for a staff meeting?”

Please, call me Copper.” I smiled, but as soon as I started to stand up to greet him, my legs caught on the lap drawer which I had forgotten to close after reading Harry’s note and begun daydreaming, and I knocked the desk lamp off the desk and onto the floor, breaking it.

Oops! Let’s hope I’m more coordinated on the pitch, eh?” I said as humorously as I could while hastily stuffing Harry’s note discretely into my pocket.

He forced a smile, but said nothing.

I looked around the room to check the time only to realize that I’d need to make due without a wall clock too.

I looked down at my watch instead and saw that it was 8 minutes after 10. I thought, “Late already? Talk about bad first impressions…do I nail him or do I let it slide this time? I better let this one slide, because I’ll have time to correct him if I need to in the future.”

Biting my tongue I asked, “Graham, where is the rest of the staff?"

You’re looking at it, Sir.”

What?”

I’m it.”

You’ve got to be kidding me, right?”

I wish I were kidding you, Sir, but Harry prided himself on running his team mean and lean, like the actual Spartans of Ancient Greece.” Graham looked slightly uncomfortable standing in front of me without a place to sit, but added, “Harry liked everyone to know he was the one in control.”

Unfortunately, he found out the hard way that he wasn’t in control, didn’t he?” I meant it as a joke to lighten the mood, but it fell flat instead and I felt foolish for saying it, especially since I didn’t know the first thing about either of them.

Graham said nothing, and I, desperate to make a better impression, asked him, “Let’s walk and talk, shall we? Maybe you could give me a tour of the grounds and share with me your opinion as to what direction you feel the club should go?”

Okay, Sir, but it won’t take long for me to do either one.”

We both forced chuckles and left the room to conduct our first meeting.

Graham?” I asked as I was locking my door.

Yes, Sir?”

Please, call me Copper.”

I’ll try.”

Already, I felt this job was going to be even harder than I expected.

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Chapter 6

06 April 2008, First Staff Meeting, Blyth

Graham Fenton was correct when he told me it would be a short tour to show me the grounds.

The senior training grounds were basic and the youth facilities were minimal. Essentially, Blyth had two fields on which to train. The stadium field was used for senior training and matches and also had lights. A separate field nearby was used for both the reserves and youth to share but did not have lights. All of the players used the lockers inside the stadium. The senior players used the home team's locker area. The youth and reserves used the visitor's team locker area. The stadium had two stands for fans. Its 4,400 capacity had about 600 seats.

In general, I was underwhelmed. As Fenton carried on with his informational tour, I believed that even though I couldn’t control the quality of the facilities Blyth offered I would be able to control the quality of instruction the players would receive while using them. Indeed, this would be a very difficult challenge to overcome if I wanted to stay manager.

Back inside the administration building, Fenton and I went to his office. Compared to mine, his seemed to be furnished well. He offered me a chair and we sat down to finish our meeting during the last twenty minutes we had available.

After the small talk around the grounds, I felt I needed to address the most important issue facing both of us. I told him, “Graham, I'm sorry Harry lost his job. It must have been tough to see him go considering your common history. However, Bobby hired me to save the club from relegation. I assure you, I'm going to be relying on you quite heavily this coming month to make sure we can still finish out of the relegation zone. Can I count on your support?”

“Yes, Sir, you can count on me to do my best for the club. I'm still in shock about it, but I'll get over it the best I can. Sacks occur frequently, I'm just surprised I didn't see it sooner. I don't envy your position at all. It will be tough coming in here as green as you are and trying to make a go of it here in England. Mr. Bell must see something in you that I don't.”

Ignoring his personal jab, I replied “I hope so.” Then I asked him for the third time, “Graham, call me Copper.”

“Okay. I'll try to remember.”

“Please do. Now, may I have a pad of paper and a pencil to write my notes on? All of my office supplies seem to be missing right now.”

He sighed and rummaged around in his desk for a minute before offering me a pen. Then he opened up the drawer to his computer printer to give me some paper.

I forced a smile and thought, “Are you trying to pi** me off? You’re nearly ten minutes late to the very first staff meeting, you haven't called me by my name yet, and you don't seem competent enough to get me either a pencil or a pad of paper. You better be a good coach or else we're going to have a very long month.”

Struggling to conceal my irritation, I decided we should finally talk about the squad itself. I asked him, “Graham, what kind of formation did you run?”

“A 4-4-2, Sir.”

Inwardly, I breathed a sigh of relief. Nothing too difficult tactically. I could adopt that for the rest of the season. I replied, “Good. How many players are currently on the payroll?”

“Forty-four, Sir.”

In my head, I calculated this to mean three squads of fifteen. I considered that a decent breakdown for the senior, reserve, and youth squads. It seemed to fit with Harry's Spartan philosophy of lean and mean.

Since I already knew the senior squad's position in the league table, I asked, “How are the reserves doing in league competition?”

“Sir?”

“Call me Copper.” I said and repeated the question, “How are they doing in the reserve league competition?”

“They don't compete.”

“What?” I asked, not quite believing my ears.

Now it was his turn to repeat himself, “We don't compete in the reserve league.”

In mild shock I asked, “How can that happen?”

His reply was abrupt and defensive, “Hey, I don't know, I'm not the skipper, remember?”

“Well, what about the youth squad?” I asked, biting my tongue so I wouldn't bite his head off instead.

Using the same, flat tone as the two previous times, he replied, “We don't compete.”

“Did Harry ever happen to mention why?”

“No Sir, he did not. He was the skipper. He decided the why. I just did what he told me.” He sat staring at me without offering anything else.

“Graham, let me try to understand our situation. Currently, we've got 44 players on our squad who only compete for positions with the senior squad?”

“You're quick.”

I'd had enough of his attitude. I stood up, leaned onto his desk and looked him straight in the eyes and calmly said, “Know what else I am? I'm done with this meeting. Since you think the Skipper should tell you what to do, then I’m telling you to head home immediately and think about how much longer you want to remain coaching at Blyth. It is in your best interest to remember that I am not the one who fired Harry. The Board forced Mr. Bell to fire his friend in an effort to save this club from relegation. Mr. Bell decided that I was the best manager to assume leadership of his club. If you've already decided that you won't work with me, then don't show up on Monday to help our squad.”

He remained sitting and showed no emotion as I said my piece. However, to his credit, he did offer me an apology, “Sorry, Sir. I'm still bitter about Harry. For the past five seasons, I've been his assistant manager. I don't know why he was sacked, why I was passed over, or why you were brought in to manage the team. Doesn't the board realize that Harry and I won were the ones who won this club its first championship just two seasons ago?”

I looked at him silently. Then, considering his personal stake in the matter, I added as I sat back down, “Fair enough, you make some good points. However, I can't control what the club did to Harry or to you, I can control only what you and I will do together to help save this club from relegation. I need your help with this. Again, can I count on your support?”

Fenton stared at me nonchalantly, but said nothing. Hoping that we could make a breakthrough by forging forward I asked, “Who are the best players on our squad?”

He leaned back, folded his arms across his chest, and said, “Well, as far as I'm concerned, we can offload the entire team.”

In disbelief, I asked, “Do you really think that we should get rid of every single player? Surely, some of them must be able to play in this league competitively?”

“Sir, with all due respect, we're in 19th place, and no one wants any of our players on the transfer market, not even any teams competing in the leagues below us.” Now, it was his turn to stand up.

“Look, Bobby hired you as his Golden Boy from America to save his precious club. Since, you're the new skipper, why don’t you figure it out.” he challenged. The bitterness in his voice was palpable and I really couldn’t blame him for being angry. However, I wasn’t going to take his disrespect either.

I'd finally had enough. “Graham, you’re absolutely right when you put it that way. I guess everyone's head is on the chopping block for the next month, including yours. So why don't you go home, swallow some stiff drinks, get a good night's sleep or whatever else you need to do to get your head on straight. Then, when you come back on Monday afternoon, you better realize this Golden Boy manages according to the Golden Rule. I’ve tried to treat you respectfully today, but you don’t seem to be interested. If you won’t be respectful, then you’ll learn the concept of ‘Tit-for-Tat’. This means that however you dish something out, you’ll get it served right back to you in the same way. I stood up, turned around and walked to the door. “And one last thing, Fenton. Stop calling me, 'Sir.' I'm not Sir Alex Ferguson, you know.”

“That's for damn sure!”

My temper threatened to burn out of control so I spun around and left his office immediately. I couldn’t believe his unprofessional attitude. I expected change to be difficult. But I didn't expect such blatant, unprofessional hostility the first day of work. Bobby had been so welcoming, I just assumed the rest of the club would feel the same. It was an innocent mistake to assume Fenton would be fine with the switch. New managers seemed to take over clubs all the time without too much grief from the staff left behind. I resolved that I’d forgive him for his initial outburst, but I’d be hard pressed to put up with his disrespect all month long without making some dramatic changes.

Filled with doubts about how much I’d be able to trust Fenton, the only other coach on the staff, I shrugged my hostility off the best I could. Quickly, I scanned my new office and filed a few more mental notes about the changes I felt should be made. Discouraged, I wadded up the paper Fenton had given me in his office and looked around for the wastebasket. Remembering that I didn’t have one, I cast it aside and went off in search of a replacement. I smiled inwardly as I thought that this simple action of casting away the old and replacing it with the new was pretty symbolic of what I’d have to spend the rest of this season doing.

My smile spread further across my face as my watch alarm chimed that it was time to meet with Bobby, currently my only friend at Blyth. Certainly, he could give me better news regarding the squad than Fenton.

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Chapter 7

06 April 2008, Bobby's Office, Blyth

“Copper, welcome.” Bobby Bell beckoned me inside his office again and his genuine smile drained the remnants of hostility from my meeting with my assistant manager, Graham Fenton. “I didn't expect you to be punctual considering how things usually run around here, but I appreciate it, especially on my day off. So, how was the staff meeting?”

“It started late and finished with some differences of opinion as to our respective staff roles.” I thought about saying more, but decided against it. I didn't want to involve him in my personnel issues already. However, I did add, “On Monday, the club will resolve those issues one way or another."

He thought a moment, then replied “Yes, I thought that might happen. Last night, Harry didn't take the news well either. I'm afraid it's going to be tough on all of us for the next few weeks. However, I'm excited about our club's future. Now, let's keep this meeting rolling so we can enjoy the rest of the afternoon. Shall we?” He offered me a seat, handed me a cup of coffee, and sat down opposite me.

I balanced the coffee mug on the arm of the chair next to me and said, “Bobby, thanks again for this opportunity, I don't want to let you down."

“You're welcome for the chance to show me what fresh ideas you can bring to the club.” His voice low, he winked and added “I've been a bad chairman. The Board is not pleased with my latest incident of rash behavior.” He smiled, “You think they should have learned by now, but I've always believed you should be careful about what you wish. Personally, I think all parties made out quite well. The Board's got rid of Dunn, I've replaced him with another loyal manager, and you've been given the chance to show off your managerial talents.

“Truly, I appreciate your confidence in me, Bobby.” I hesitated before deciding to say, “Bobby, I like making important decisions based on reliable information. So far, Graham's squad information is pretty useless. I was hoping you could help me instead.”

He chuckled. “Ask away. We'll need to trust each other fully if we are going to have a chance at pulling this off.”

I asked, “Why do we have forty-four players on the squad when we don't compete in either the reserve or youth leagues? Isn't that a waste of resources?”

“Yes, it is. The simple answer is things slipped away from us. We had a small squad, but Harry wanted to buy some new players he thought would help to make us more competitive. Each new signing seemed to fall short of our expectations so we needed to keep looking for players who could add to the strength of our squad. Before we knew it, the seventeen new squad members we brought in cost us 125K against the wage budget. We assumed we'd be able to offload the extra players we couldn't use, but no one has expressed an interest in any of them. We need to stabilize our wages or risk financial ruin.”

“This is why you suggested in the pub that your club is close to administration?”

“You're right on the money, Copper. Your acuity continues to impress me. Therefore, here are the bitter facts about Blyth. Our club's currently valued at 375K. In the last year, we've lost 210K. With only three matches left to collect revenue, we're going to continue losing money until the end of June. You can't fix that.”

“Well, what can I fix?”

“I'm relying on you to figure out who stays and who goes for next season. According the our financial report, we've spent nearly 500K on salaries annually. Harry's most recent squad report indicated that backup players and unnecessary players have cost us 327K of our annual budget.”

I sat stunned. This club had been hemorrhaging money all season. I knew clubs wanted to be competitive, but Blyth's Board agreed to spend more than their club's value on salaries.

Before I could stop myself I spoke aloud, “That's ludicrous! How in the world did the Board agree to this?”

Bobby stood up, went over to his door, and looked outside to see if anyone was around. He turned back to me and said in a hushed voice, “That's the heart of why you are sitting in my office right now. If I did nothing, then the Board's greed was going to be my undoing. I didn't invest my life's savings in this club to watch it disappear without a fight. I told you in Liverpool that I needed to hire a manager who would work within our budget as well as find a way to win. In you, I believe I've found that special kind of manager. One of the best ways to do this is to improve the quality of our youth we bring up through the club. You're past managerial experiences have made you incredibly qualified for this method of club development.”

Flattered by his comments, but still confused by the daunting task before me, I asked “So, what do we do first?”

“We need to do whatever it takes to evaluate the entire squad before 30 June. We need to reduce the wage budget below 375K for next season too. If Blyth's debt exceeds that amount, I'll be forced out of my own club and that can't happen. Now, enough about how you can help me. How can I help you?”

I sat for a few minutes in calm reflection. I felt comfortable taking the time to think in Bobby's presence. His warmth was soothing and his confidence encouraged me to think outside the box. Then, an idea hit me.

“Bobby, we both respect what Liverpool's done, right?”

“Of course.”

“Then let's recreate Liverpool here at Blyth.”

“How do you suggest we do that?” Bobby asked, sitting forward on the edge of his seat.

“I know we don't have the same financial resources available to Liverpool, or the fantastic facilities, nor do we attract the same quality of players and coaches. However, we can still adopt the professional culture of Liverpool.”

“I'm intrigued so far. Please, continue.”

“Liverpool demands professionalism from everyone associated with the club. Under their head coach, Rafa, Liverpool demands hard-working, tactically savvy players who compete well under pressure and who believe in teamwork. They must adapt to his standards for the club or they get sent packing. Also, Rafa's honest about the role they will play at Liverpool, then he lets them decide if they want to be a part of its culture.”

“So far, I really like it, Copper. But how do you suggest we do it here in Blyth?”

“I believe we've got too many players who are competing for too few playing spots on any given Saturday. Two-thirds of our players ride the pine every match. This is destructive to their mental and physical development. First, we'll need more of them to play more regularly. Then, we'll need more coaches who can train them effectively. Our players must be taught how to be organized both on the field and off it. We need our team's leadership to model professional behavior daily. If Blyth is going to be successful, it will need to create a culture that will use our available resources efficiently in order to match our current expectations and our future ambitions.

“Go on, tell me more.” Bobby was up out of his seat and pacing rapidly back and forth behind his desk.

“With all due respect, Harry cut the wrong stuff out of the club to make it lean and mean. Instead of limiting staff and supplies or having an empty office, we should eliminate everything that doesn't contribute positively to our vision.”

“I absolutely love the idea and do believe we can transform Blyth successfully. Where do you think we should start?”

“Fenton just finished telling me that he thinks every player should be offloaded. Without even seeing the players, I disagree. Instead of changing all of the players, I believe we must bring in additional staff who haven't been connected directly to the club in the past. If Graham's attitude is representative of the mentality around here, we'll need fresh perspectives involved, especially if we're going to give players a fair evaluation for their role next season.”

“I agree. I'll help you find some new coaching staff immediately, but I'm forbidding any player purchases until next season. I already know of a potential staff candidate. Neil Baker's been a loyal friend since my university days and has just been released by Crewe a week ago. He's been in the football business for twenty-five years, of which he's spent the last 14 as assistant manager. I'm sure he'd be willing to help out an old friend. I'll call him immediately following the meeting. I'll start advertising for the other positions too. Anything else?”

“Yes, we'll need to schedule some friendlies so we can evaluate all of the players' performances under match conditions.”

“Consider it done, though the competition may not be spectacular.”

“Thank you Bobby, I'll appreciate any matches you can arrange. Also, what should I do about Fenton? I don't trust him yet and I don't know how loyal he is to Blyth. He seems to be more loyal to Harry than to the players here. Do you have any ideas?”

“Follow your own advice. Let him know what his role is and then give him time to decide if this place is for him. If he won't straighten out, we can headhunt a quality assistant manager in the summer to replace him. Copper, thanks for this meeting. I'm excited about the rest of the season again. Now, get out of here and enjoy the rest of the day. Do you want to follow me to the housing arrangements I've set up for you?”

“Thanks for the offer Bobby, but I've got to find some office supplies and wander around the club for a bit more to get prepared for tomorrow.”

“Fair enough, I'll see you tomorrow then. Oh, before I forget, here's the squad report. This will give you a summary of all the players' information. You'll find it beneficial in helping you get a sense of who you have on the squad.”

Back inside my own office, I set the squad report down on my desk and wondered if I'd be able to understand it. I'd never had to keep track of this kind of information before with my high school teams in the States. I knew the next month was going to be quite a daunting challenge, but I was excited to face it head on. Leaning back in my chair, I opened the report to see what was inside.

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Chapter 8

07 April 2008, My Office, Blyth

“Robin?”

“Yes, Copper?”

It was so good to hear her voice on the other end of the telephone. She calmed me and I missed her already, but I knew we'd be together soon enough. However, it didn't make it any easier to be apart.

“How was school?”

“Forget school, I want to talk about you instead. How was your first day, Coach?”

“Unforgettable, yet not regrettable.”

“That's a relief. Did Graham show up to help you?”

“With his tail tucked between his legs for the time being anyway.” His outburst Sunday morning was nearly inexcusable. It had taken everything in me to model professionalism to counter his disrespect. But, in the end, I think I chose the correct response to his actions. “Robin, I don't trust him completely, but the team needs him right now, so I guess I'm going to have to grin and bear it.”

“Well, at least one of you was professional. I hope he appreciated it because you didn't have to let him keep his job.”

“Thanks.” Her kind comments reinforced what I was trying to do here. I'd learned the hard way that living in the moment is great for short-term happiness, but it can have horrible consequences over the long-haul. By taking an extra three seconds to consider the future consequences of my immediate actions while I managed Blyth, I hoped I could increase my chances of being successful.

“By the way, Robin, Bobby said he'd made contact with his long-time friend, Neil Baker about coaching for Blyth. He's waiting to hear back from him in the next day or two.”

“That's great about Neil. I believe his presence will help shift the balance of power in your favor if he decides to join your staff.”

“I hope so.” Robin's insightful comments always gave me an outside perspective I could trust when I coached. Her courageous comments weren't always what I wanted to hear, but she was pretty accurate and helped to guide me in the right direction more often than not.

“So, were you nervous to stand in front of paid athletes for the first time in your life?”

I chuckled and said, “You better believe it, but I was surprised how similar it seemed like the first day of each new season back home.”

“Really? How so?”

“At the start of the training, no one said anything to me and I could tell they were sizing me up pretty closely.”

“Well, you were doing to the same thing to them too. Did training go well? Do you have any early impressions?”

“It was okay, but team morale seems to be quite low. Also, they wasted so much time as they transitioned from one activity to the next, it was driving me nuts. You know that's my pet peeve. I expected them to work harder to impress their new boss, but I guess they were testing the waters today. The captains seemed okay, but time will tell if they have what it takes to be captains next season.”

I paused and scanned over the forty-four names on the squad report for the umpteenth time. Even though they said all the right things during training, I knew that their actions would speak much louder than any words they told me. Which players on this list would rise up to become the kind of player Bobby and I believed could make this place more like Liverpool?

“Okay, now, what kind of impression do you think you made on them?”

“I think they were shocked when they saw the new senior team squad list posted. They had not expected to see everyone’s name listed. Other than that, I believe they are quite skeptical about me, my methods, and the changes I want to implement. It will take some time to earn their trust.”

“Good. The starters needed to be put on notice right away that you don’t offer any free rides and the others needed the hope that they could get a fresh shot with you running the show.”

I agreed with her. At different points during training, I had told everyone that the starting spots were up for grabs again and they would need to prove to me they belonged on this team until the end of the season. I shared my belief that the right kind of competition within a team can make everyone stronger. Also, I made it known that Rafa Benitez’s squad rotation philosophy would be adopted here because every player who demonstrated they could play on the field deserved the chance to back it up by getting on the field. Some could not hide their skepticism, but I knew that it would only be a matter of time before their ignorance and arrogance would cost them.

I told Robin, “Bobby's scheduled our first friendly match on Wednesday.”

“Excellent. Did today's training help you decide who might start?”

“Nope, but I do know that no matter who I choose, twenty of them still will be upset with me.”

“I can't believe the previous manager let all those players just rot on the bench.”

“I agree with you. Now it’s a waiting game for the dust to settle after my arrival. I just hope I can make enough of the right changes to keep us in the Blue Square North when the season ends.”

“I've got faith in you. Do you have it in yourself?”

I looked over my squad again. I had 44 players in total, 40 from England, 3 from Scotland, 1 from New Zealand. 19 of them were under 20 years old and 40 of them Fenton had listed to be offloaded as soon as possible. The remaining four, Fenton wrote, could be kept around until next season, but barely. Since they were the starting keeper and three of the four starting midfielders, I felt discouraged about my abilities to make a significant difference.

“Robin, my starting keeper has allowed two goals a game and is suspended for my next match. My best three midfielders can't pass the ball well enough to control my midfield. My defenders can pass the ball, but they don't know where to be on the field to be effective so they allow easy goals. My forwards might be tall at 6'7” and 6'4”, but they're slow, can't dribble worth a damn, and get muscled off the ball all the time. I don't know how I'm going to pick a starting lineup before it's time to play my next match.”

Her silence on the other end of the line should have tipped me off to what was coming, but in my haste to vent, I didn't notice a thing. I continued to complain about the players but Robin's clear voice cut through the line and interrupted me.

“Hello? Copper? Take 3 seconds to listen to yourself! You've had one training session and already, it's my this, my that, and me, me, me. You sound like a selfish, spoiled brat. You've forgotten the most important rule you have for coaching. In fact, I'll wait for you to tell me what you know you should once you remove your head from you know where.”

Her words stung and I was ashamed, but I knew she was correct.

Embarrassed, I replied sheepishly, “It's not about me, it's about we.”

“Good. Use Graham, use your scouts, and trust your instincts to pick the players. Make your decisions and stick with them. The players will sort themselves out by season's end. You set the performance standards where you want them to be and keep them there. Don't give in to peer pressure. Ultimately, your neck is the only one on the line, but realistically, no single person can change a culture within a club in just a month's time. It's going to take time for every one of you to sort out the dreadful mess, but you have that time because Bobby believes in you and so do I.”

“Thanks Robin, I needed to hear that coming from you. I miss you.”

“I miss you too. Now, speaking of needs, I must go to bed. At least one of us actually needs to work for a living.”

We both laughed and finally hung up.

As I left the building in the rain, I believed that we needed more staff desperately to untangle the knots here and I hoped Bobby could convince his friend to join us at Blyth.

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Chapter 9

Sunday, 13 April 2008, Bobby's Office, Blyth

“Copper, thanks for meeting with me early this morning. Since Robin's in town, we'll make this short, I promise. We'll need to meet weekly so we can stay connected and Sunday mornings seem like a good time to discuss issues, concerns, and problems before the hectic week begins.”

“Fair enough.” Once again, I was in Bobby's office. So far, his office was my favorite place on site. I used to think it was the smells associated with the objects in his office; his carpet and his furniture, but now I started to realize how much history it contained. He had photographs of various teams on every wall, miscellaneous collectibles in a special glass case within close view of his desk, and a large worktable sat next to the window overlooking the training grounds and stadium. I didn't remember the worktable the other times I'd been invited in to meet with him, but I had been so distracted by our discussions, I had never really taken a close look at it before. I thought it odd that Bobby had two chairs both seated on the same side and facing out the window.

“How do you like the remodeling? Do you notice anything different?” he asked.

“I do like it.” I replied politely. Then I added, “I don't remember the worktable that is in front of the window.”

“Very good, you guessed it. Every time I hire a new manager, I remodel my office. It helps remind me that things are going to be different around here.” He invited me over to the worktable. “Please Copper, come sit here today. I've something special I want you to see.”

I sat in the offered chair and looked out at the training grounds and stadium.

Quietly, he stated, “Confidential information will be shared in this office and you need to understand it is vital for the collective good of all that you can see from this window that we are completely honest with each other and don't breach confidentiality.” He put his hand on my shoulder and gently squeezed adding “Have I made myself clear?”

His hushed tone of voice added heft to his expectation and I answered respectfully, “Crystal clear. You have my word that what is said in this office will stay in this office.”

“Excellent.” His tone shifted again and he asked in a much lighter tone as he sat down on the chair next to me, “So, how's my friend, Neil Baker working out?”

I sat comfortably next to him looking out at the stadium and replied, “Without his experience, we'd be completely lost, especially me. I believe that he'll be the main reason why we'll stay up in the league this season.”

Bobby chuckled and said, “My, aren't you being humble today?”

I turned to look directly at him and said, “I'm serious, he's so good with our youngsters that it's scary. We need to have a youth squad next season so they can benefit tremendously from his expertise. I've considered offering him a contract to be our assistant manager this season, but switching managers is already a huge change.”

“Wow, I'm impressed with your spirit of cooperation. Not many managers are willing to dole out such praise so freely.”

“Well, I'm the type of manager who isn't here to push my weight around just because I'm the boss. Neil's got so much experience to offer me and I want to learn everything I can from him.”

“Learn what you can from him Copper, that's why I called on him to help us out. However, you must remember that you are the boss and, ultimately, the one who must take the fall if our team fails to perform. Managing requires a delicate balance between using your brain and trusting your instincts.”

“I will try to remember, Bobby.”

Bobby went to his desk and returned to the table with a folder. On it, my name was handwritten in his neat, block-letter style. He set it in front of us and asked me, “Any guesses as to what is inside here?”

I paused a moment to think, but didn't have a clue. His eyes gleamed as he rubbed his hands together quickly. It was obvious he was excited, so I answered, “None.”

“I'm delighted to hear that.” He continued talking rapidly, “Copper, I like history. Reading about it is fun, but I like making history even more. With you being the only American manager in the English Leagues, I wanted to document our journey together. When I'm out of the game, I want to look back on this time with you fondly. After watching what you've been able to do with our players this past week, I have good feelings about my unorthodox decision to ask you to join us here by the sea.” He smiled and opened the folder to spread out the newspaper page in front of me. The headline read, “Blyth lucky to draw 2-2 versus Banbury United at Croft Park.”

Instantly, I remembered the friendly match. The rain poured down the entire match and it played out like a rollercoaster ride. In the first two minutes, our striker Phil Bell scored the opening goal after driving the ball through the keepers hands from 20 yards out. The stands went wild. Then, ten minutes later, Banbury answered our goal and headed the ball into the net from inside the 6 yard box off a corner kick. Three minutes later, our striker, Graham Fenton was brought down in the penalty box for a spot kick. Alex Gildea scored it easily. But again, Banbury battled back to tie the match. This time, Platten, our nineteen year old keeper slipped and failed to knock away a beautifully curling shot from 30 yards out in the 27th minute. After that, Banbury took control and we rolled over and let it happen. The match ended with them having 25 shots on goal, 10 of them requiring saves. Incredibly, Platten managed to save eight of them, but we couldn't get near their goal and finished the match with only four shots taken. Banbury, a team in the league below us, embarrassed us by winning the categories of time of possession, heading, and tackling by significant percentages. Our foolish fouls gave away scoring opportunities as if they were Halloween candy and I was so angry following the match I lost my cool in the dressing room before I sent them home.

Bobby's voice called me out of my recollection. “Even though the fans left with little hope, you impressed me with your first lineup Copper. I didn't expect Phil Bell to start, especially considering he was Dunn's pet project. That was gutsy.”

“Thanks, but it was necessary to start him to see how he'd respond to having me be the new manager. We were fortunate he scored so quickly.”

“Copper, did you realize that by starting Graham Fenton, your assistant coach, you gave him his first appearance in five seasons for our club?”

This shocked me. “I had no clue it had been that long. I just needed our striker, Robert Dale, to know that even though he's the captain and the leading scorer on this team his starting spot is not guaranteed. By starting Fenton in his place, it reduced his ability to gripe about being benched because it was a staff member who took the field in his place.”

Bobby added, “Having Fenton get taken down inside the box was icing on the cake, especially after the newly promoted Alex Gildea scored for us. Those first twenty minutes made it look like you were a genius out there.”

“The downpour insured that the field was crap and I had a hunch mistakes would occur so I wanted a good penalty taker to capitalize on any mistakes the other team made. Gildea's considered the best on the squad for that.”

“Smart thinking.” Then he added with a slightly softer tone of voice, “Were you frustrated by the rest of the match?”

Missing the tone shift, I blurted out, “I was more embarrassed than frustrated. I feel our squad lacks determination and confidence. Our team, especially our midfielders, don't know how to close out a match. The poor defending, the fouls, and our inability to generate shots all seem to indicate that we are a weak team. They found out after the match how I felt!”

“Yeah, I heard about that.”

“You did, huh?”

Bobby said nothing. Instead, he put that article back in the folder and closed it. He stood up, walked back to his desk, and sat down in his chair. He put his hands together, raised them to his lips as if here were praying, and looked at me silently. Finally, he asked me, “Did it feel good to chew them out after the match?”

I looked at his face and tried to read his features. His poker face was hard to read and I hesitated before answering. I thought to myself, “How do I answer him correctly?”

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Chapter 10

Sunday, 13 April 2008, Bobby's Office, Blyth

I didn't know what to say to Bobby. In the past, he'd insisted on complete honesty from me. However, in the present, I hesitated because I was uncertain of his motives, especially after I hadn't won either of our matches this week.

Still torn, I took a chance and trusted our relationship enough to tell him the complete truth.

I replied with as brave a voice as I could muster, “Even though I lost my temper, I felt it was justified because we had just been totally outclassed by a lower league team at our home stadium. They got a piece of my mind because they needed to learn right away that I'm the new boss and I don't find that kind of effort or result acceptable at all.”

Relieved, but still nervous at what he might say, I asked cautiously, “Did I handle that correctly?”

His poker face revealed nothing. Instead, he replied, “Thanks for an honest answer. I needed to hear it, however, I'm not going to tell you what I would have done in your place tonight. I'm not the manager. You are and you must be the one to live with the consequences of your actions.”

Bobby smiled finally, stood up to refill his coffee cup and returned to the worktable with the folder. He opened it to show me another headline. This time the headline read, “Blyth Hold Hinckley to a Draw: Fans Pleased By Team's Performance.”

Again, seeing the headline unspooled a thread of memories associated with the match. I recalled that the team wasn't expected to win. We were 19th in the league and on a five match winless streak going into the match. Hinckley was in 8th and it was raining for the entire match, although it wasn't a downpour like when we played Banbury. I had switched the lineup dramatically from the friendly because I still wanted to evaluate a lot of players before the end of the season.

Bobby interrupted my thoughts before I had finished scanning the entire article and asked softly, “Wasn't that first half goal a heartbreaker?”

“My word, you better believe it!” I burst out. I recalled we had battled evenly with Hinckley for most of the first half. However, a Hinckley player outjumped our 6'7” captain, Robert Dale, to head the ball in from a corner kick to open the scoring during the stoppage time in the first half. The announcer commented that Hinckley's player had just scored his first goal for the club and, once we were inside the dressing room, I gave Dale a chewing out of gale force proportions to set the tone.

We came out in the second half and played Hinckley even again, but went down 2-0 in the 57th minute after our midfield lost control of their players and let them score from 30 yards out.

With nothing to lose, I decided to make a drastic lineup change. Off came Bell, our team's second leading scorer, and I replaced him with Howard, our seventeen year old striker who had sat on the bench all season. Before he took to the pitch, I challenged him to show our captain how the game should be played. He did. He finished up his thirty minute shift by scoring a goal and making an assist.

Bobby asked another question, “How'd Dale respond to your half-time comments?”

Surprised at his inquiry, I replied, “He seemed to do just fine. He played well enough to stay on and I substituted Bell instead. He also helped set up our tying goal by passing the ball to Howard for his shot that Hinckley's keeper parried in front of our right midfielder's path so Brawley could score with a simple tap-in.”

Bobby interjected, “I read the statistics after the match and saw we had improved our tackling and heading percentages compared to our Banbury friendly. Nice job.”

“Thanks. We also reduced the number of fouls we committed against the other team too.” I replied, pleased with myself.

“I saw that too. By the way, since I didn't hear yet, what did you tell the players after the match?”

“I called out our midfielders who, for the second match in a row, were dominated. I told the team we needed to work even harder in training or we'd get relegated. I also said I'd be rotating the squad again for our next friendly to give them a chance to prove to me they belong on this team next season.”

“Okay then. Thanks for the update Copper. We'll find out how the team plays next week. We've got three friendlies scheduled before you play the next league match against Gainsborough Trinity. Your players should get the chance to prove themselves by then.” He closed the folder and returned to his desk.

He returned to my side, looked out the window past me and asked, “Do you see the stadium?”

“Yes.” I replied not sure where this line of questioning might go.

“Do you know how many people can fit in the stands?”

“I was told it was about 4,000.”

“Well, we haven't had 4,000 walk through our gates in the last ten matches combined. When I started this club, we struggled. In fact, we struggled for a long time. Finally, in 2006, we had an amazing run and won a championship. I believe that was the same year your team won the trophy back in the U.S.”

I thought a moment and realized he was right. “Good memory.” I admired his knowledge, but still didn't know why he was sharing this information with me. I turned away from the window to look at him instead. His eyes seemed sad and his shoulders slumped just enough to seem as if he was carrying a burden.

He stared outside without looking at me for almost a minute before he added softly, “That was the only championship I've ever won in my whole life. It was a fantastic accomplishment I'll never forget and it can never be taken away from me. However, holding the trophy in my hands was the second best memory of that season.”

Suddenly, he turned away from me, reached into his suit pocket, and pulled out a silk handkerchief. “I'm sorry.” he said as he wiped the tears from his eyes. Then, as he turned back to face out the window, he carefully replaced the handkerchief inside his pocket.

“What was the best memory?” I asked quietly trying to be respectful of his emotional state.

He whispered, “Knowing the joy this community shared with each other during that special season.” Without turning away this time, he choked back more tears and added, “This community has forgotten its joy and has stopped sharing. It's joy has ebbed away slowly with each passing match. First the people closed themselves off to the club and have stopped coming to the matches. But they don't realize just how much they've closed themselves off to each other too. Losing does that. It makes people sad and they isolate themselves from the pain they feel and from each other. I want joy to return to this community and I want our club to be a source of its joy.”

I sat silently, thinking carefully about what he said and trying to understand the deeper meaning under what he said on the surface. It was obvious he wanted me to help the club win matches, but his cryptic message left me unnerved because I didn't fully understand what he meant about the club's impact on the community. Was I responsible for the community's joy? I didn't feel that way. In my mind, my job was a simple one, win matches no matter what the cost. The rest of it was out of my hands.

Bobby quickly moved away from the window and over to the door. He said to me as he opened it, “My apologies for keeping you so long. Please give my regards to Robin and don't trouble yourself with my thoughts. They are mine alone. Now, if you'll please excuse me, I have some things that require my attention.”

And, with the conclusion of that very strange meeting, I left to see Robin.

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Chapter 11

25 April, 2008, Croft Park, Blyth

It was late in the evening and I sat in the Carlsberg-sponsored stand of our stadium, Croft Park. The smell of stale beer lingered strongly in the stand as I tried to shake off the negativity our supporters had served up cold during our past three friendlies.

During our last meeting, Bobby had given voice to his thoughts regarding Blyth's role within our community. From then on, I had kept an ear to the stands during our performances, and was disappointed with what I heard. When I coached my high school teams in America, the fans were required to be across the pitch from the players whenever possible to help keep the parents under control. So, for the most part, I couldn't hear them because they were too far away to interrupt my concentration successfully.

Managing here in England, I had been struggling mightily with the fan proximity and, even more importantly, the limited substitution policy. In the United States, all of the youth leagues where I managed allowed for the free substitution of players. I used this policy to great effect and we ran teams into the ground to grind out our victories after the other team became too fatigued trying to keep up with my frequent substitutions. Also, I could pull a player off the field after making a mistake and provide him with the correct tactical instructions before substituting him back into the match. At Blyth, I’d want to substitute early in the game, especially after the other team scored in the first half, but Fenton reminded me that I was limited to three substitutions out of the five listed players I had been allowed to name before the match started. Helpless, I spent my time pacing back and forth like a zoo animal within the confines of my coach's box.

I couldn't deny my frustration. It had seeped deep into my whole being and played a key role in my bad case of nerves leading up to tomorrow's vital match with Gainsborough Trinity. My inexperience with the limited substitution policy combined lethally with the inconsistency of our players to help us remain winless over our stretch of friendlies. Going into the most important match of my very limited managerial career, the dissent among the players on the pitch during our training sessions and in the locker room made a strong case that I was in over my head.

However, as I listened to the insects call out to one another in the darkness and wondered how much of a role Fenton had played to encourage this dissent since my arrival. Neil Baker's presence had started to shift the balance of power away from Fenton, but my assistant manager had already been with the club for the past five seasons. His seen and unseen alliances would be difficult to expose to the light of day and I wondered if they could be overcome. At least Baker's skill gave me the hope that his skill working with our youth squad would create a new culture which more accurately reflected our vision for this club's future achievements. But that was a long-term goal.

In the short-term our club needed to win. Until that happened, I would continue being incompetent in the eyes of all the naysayers. With each failed attempt to win either a match or a friendly, I felt even more blessed that my coaching debut was limited to the Blue Square North, instead of the pressure cooker “King” Kevin Keegan stepped into at Newcastle, just a short drive west across England from Blyth.

The media scrutiny and fan support at a club like Newcastle was immense and I knew that whatever fantasies I might harbor about managing at the highest levels would have to wait. My ego was still carefully in check, especially after a loss and two draws.

Last week, we lost to Bashley 2-0. The lower league club's victory on our home soil was worth the lengthy coach ride they had made to come and rub the salt air into my wounds a little further. Even though our staff had tried to instill the importance of consistency and positive leadership, our veteran players made rookie mistakes. Our midfield was embarrassed again and our whole team couldn't tackle or pass correctly even half the time.

The four players Fenton had noted on the squad list as the best of the worst were flat-out horrible. So, I had started to consider Baker's opinions. Because of this, I introduced into the senior match squad any youth player who even showed some decent promise in training.

These managerial decisions didn't seem to make much difference in the match results, but they definitely had an impact on the atmosphere during training. Laying down the law and handing out official warnings for poor play to the veterans didn't set well at all with them and Fenton let me know of it with a sense of smugness about him.

Donachie, an experienced defender with all the right tools to become a future captain played especially poor when given the armband for the Bashley match. He took the official warning well enough, but told me that he didn't want to ever be considered for the armband again.

Snowdon, another veteran defender with one of the highest salaries on the team was insolent at receiving his official warning after his defensive miscues helped Bashley score the goal to put the match out of reach for us. He stormed out of my office to join the training session already in progress. Immediately after finishing his warm-ups, he promptly laid out any youth player during our defensive third drills.

Kenny Boyle, another veteran defender who was still looking to break into the starting lineup under my regime, decided to take matters into his own hands and lay out Snowdon with an elbow during our free kick exercises. They needed to be separated on the pitch by the coaching staff. I'd seen the tail end of the scuffle as soon as I crossed through the stadium gates after meeting with our team physician and, immediately, I was thrust into another difficult managerial decision I knew would have future ramifications.

I chewed both of them out in front of everyone and then I started in on the rest of the squad for not stopping the fight on their own. Spitting nails, I finished up the rest of the training session with non-stop sprint exercises barking orders at the entire squad like a boot camp drill sergeant in the hopes of draining some of their sap constructively.

This decision seemed effective because we drew 2-2 with Stalybridge Celtic in our friendly on the week end. Bobby was savvy to schedule them because they were solid promotion contenders and wanted their players to maintain their momentum and stay sharp for their promotion push in the league playoffs. I thought we'd turned a corner going up 2-0 at half-time. We finally seemed to control the midfield and we were tackling solidly all over the field so I made the decision to put in Baker's recommendation, Paul Wiggins, our 17 year old youth goalkeeper into the game for his friendly debut. Stalybridge had a couple of good chances early in the second half and, helplessly, I watched him freeze up in like a deer in the headlights allowing two goals within ten minutes of one another to give Stalybridge's players a huge confidence boost.

At Monday night's training session, Chris McCabe, our team's Man-of-the-Match recipient for the Stalybridge friendly was a no-show. Snowdon also refused to show up. After conferring with Fenton, Baker, and our newest staff addition, Darren Cunningham (fitness work), I decided to go with Baker's perspective and fine both of them two weeks' wages for their stupidity. Fenton walked out of my office without a word. Cunningham took the role of Switzerland and pleaded neutral. Baker congratulated me and offered to buy me a beer after training.

Wednesday night's friendly against the lower league club, Bedford Town, was our first dry weather match in five since I took over the club fifteen days ago. I knew the match schedule was grueling for the players at this late part of the season, but I was still used to the American football schedule of two or three matches in a five day school week. Besides, Bobby still insisted I was required to slash the wage budget by almost 250K for the following season and the only way I felt we could make smart personnel choices was to give them ample opportunity to prove themselves in match competition.

I had hoped the change in weather would result in a change in our fortunes. As a staff, we had continued to work especially hard on making our midfielders more competent. Our defensive tackling had improved again, we had kept our fouls to a minimum, and we maintained our best ball possession in April at 46%. Unfortunately, the friendly ended in a 1-1 draw. Yet again, we allowed the opposition to score first and I needed to holler at them during the half-time talk to get them to come out fighting in the second half. My demands, however, seemed to fall on deaf ears and I was relieved at the final whistle. I didn't feel that way because we scored one goal out of the only two shots with which we tested the keeper. I felt relieved that out of the sixteen shots Bedford Town had during the friendly, Bartlett, was able to kick, parry, punch, and catch every single one they put on target, save one.

In the cool night air, I hurried to the nearest trash barrel and heaved up the remnants of my evening meal. Tomorrow, we faced a relegation battle of epic proportions and I didn't have a clue who to pick for my starting lineup.

Gainsborough currently sat in 20th place in the league table and had the same goal differential we did at -14 on the season. A single point advantage in the league standings kept us out of the relegation zone and in 19th place. It was our last home match of the season and both teams were on multiple-game losing streaks. I hoped our fans would rally behind the squad for the last home stand of the season because the points would be mighty difficult to come by in our final match of the season; an away match to Kettering, currently sitting in first place and prime candidates for promotion to the Blue Square Premier next season.

I remembered Bobby's warning when he hired me. His belief in my abilities was so strong that he staked his reputation on my future potential as a manager and staying up in the league insured the club’s survival as well as his standing as Chairman of the Board.

He had a fine reputation in the community. My reputation was much different and the jeers from the supporters proved that as much. The negative comments were annoying but the letter I had received by post earlier in the day from a supporter in his eighties was downright painful to ignore. Included in his letter, the gentleman had made an extended metaphor playing off my unique name of Copper Horse. Among his list of rants, the one which cut the deepest was when he asked me if I was Death, riding on a pale horse, come to claim his soul after a lifetime of support to the club.

Looking up to the clear heavens, I prayed that Robin’s presence when I got back to the apartment would help to chase away my loneliness and help to ease the burden of expectation I carried heavily in my heart. She had always been a rock of strength for me in the past and I was counting on her once again to share my burdens.

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O'Hara Fan: Thanks for the visit. I'm quite well, thank you. I hope you are the same. I hope to finish the vBulletin edition before the week ends. Then, I'll start posting the new stuff as it gets completed.

Chapter 12

Saturday, 25 April 2008, Croft Park, Blyth

“What time did you finally get in last night?” Robin asked when she got up for breakfast and saw me at the kitchen table looking through the newspaper.

“Late. Well after 1 AM.” I put the paper down and stood up to meet her.

“Thinking about today's match must be an understatement?” she inquired as she hugged me.

“As usual, your perception is marksman-like.” I tilted my face down and kissed her smooth forehead.

She completed our ritual and kissed my chin before she added, “Bobby left a message last night to meet him in his office today before the match.” She continued to move efficiently around the kitchen and asked if I wanted an omelette to eat.

Her omelettes always hit the right spot. She loved to pile on the cheese and it, combined with just the right amount of butter, slid down my throat smoothly and dragged my problems down with it. She'd always offered to make me omelettes whenever she knew I was especially nervous like today's vital match against Gainsborough Trinity. I nodded affirmatively and asked, “Did he say why?”

“Does he ever?” Then, she added “You've got a great chairman in Bobby. I've followed the news in Liverpool and all of the big-time clubs have chairmen who act foolishly, especially during difficult times. All they seem to do is make the club's situation worse with their antics, but Bobby is different. In fact, he's quite the opposite, isn't he? I find that odd, don't you?”

“He definitely moves to the beat of a different drummer.” Then I added in his defense, “I like him. I owe him. Even though this opportunity has been the most stressful thing I've done in my life, his faith in me is wonderfully loyal. It doesn't seem to matter how much I mess up, he supportively guides me and then he lets me go about my business of doing my best.”

“Has he let on if he is nervous about the match this afternoon?”

“It doesn't seem like it, but maybe that's what we'll be discussing at today's meeting.”

“Well whatever happens at that meeting, I hope it's good news. We could use some right now.”

“Why is that?” I asked, yet didn't truly want to know the real reason lest it take my focus away from my immediate thoughts of today's match.

“Do you really care right now?” The suddenly irritated tone was one I knew well. In fact, it was the tone I feared from her the most. “You've got a lot on your plate right now and I'm not talking about your omelette either. This is an important match, but it still doesn't change the fact that we need to start planning for our future. I know you've got two matches left to try and keep the team in your current league. I know your contract lasts through this season and the next, but if you can't keep the team up, then it's moot anyway because Bobby will be removed as Chairman and the Board will sack you as fast as they can.”

Her concise summary smarted. The condensed version cut through all the trappings and made the reality of our situation a grim one. Indeed, my inability to manage the team to a victory, including our friendlies against lower rated opposition had been weighing heavily on all of us. We needed this win as much as Gainsborough who currently sat in the relegation zone a single point from safety. If we surrendered our single point lead to them following today's match result with a loss, we would relinquish control of our own destiny.

No one associated with Blyth wanted that to happen, especially when we knew we must face first-placed Kettering the final week end of the Blue Square North League season. Being in the lead during a relegation battle was much easier than trying to drag yourself up and out of the relegation zone. Since Gainsborough would face Harrogate Town, a team with problems of its own, for their season's final match, they seemed to have better odds than ours at the current moment for staying in the league at season's end.

“Look Robin, I know we need to make some important decisions about going back to the United States. I know time is running out for us to inform our school districts if we returning from our sabbaticals. However, can't this discussion wait until after today's match result is determined? I promise, I'll sit down and discuss this with you very soon.”

“Whatever. Your football comes first. It always has and it always will. I know where I stand and I agreed to it voluntarily this time. I know I encouraged you to take this chance a few weeks ago. I was swept up in the moment as much as you, but I've been able to hear things you haven't and I don't like what I've heard. We are both aware of Bobby's successful battles with the Board behind closed doors, but the supporters haven't embraced you yet. I thought they would have by now. You're a decent man and I don't know why they are so resistant to your management style. I don't like it one bit and am ready to do some battling of my own on your behalf when I sit in the stands and listen to them ignorantly cut you down.”

I loved her fighting spirit. She was always willing to defend my honor no matter what it cost her personally. I had always admired that about her and today was no different. I tried to reassure her and replied, “I'll be fine. The fans are bound to disagree and resist change. The players have acted the same way. It's the part of the game here in England that I can't change directly. Fortunately this summer, I'll be able to make some dramatic player changes and Bobby's ultimatum to trim the wage budget dramatically has already laid the groundwork with the players. Some of them are starting to come around to the new way of thinking at Blyth, but it's taken longer than I expected too. I hope they can respond fast enough. In our Sunday morning meetings, Bobby has said that we are making positive steps here to move us forward and we both seem to think that a win is right around the corner.”

“Excellent.” She came over to me, held my face securely in her hands and asked, “Tell me honestly, are you nervous about today?”

I forced a smile and said, “Surprisingly, not really.”

Without letting go, she paused a second to study my eyes before saying, “Copper Horse, you're a liar, and a crappy one at that.” She giggled and kissed me. Then, she added, “I love you, even though I shouldn't.”

I laughed too and teased, “What can I say? You've always been a great judge of character.”

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Chapter 13

25 April 2008, Blyth vs. Gainsborough Trinity

Bobby invited me into his office to sit down before our vital match and said, “Copper, this won't take long because I know you're busy preparing for Gainsborough.”

“Thanks Bobby, I appreciate your courtesy. Why did you want to see me?” I sat down in the offered chair, but my body was agitated. I bounced my feet, twiddled my thumbs, and tried to get rid of the permanent case of cotton-mouth I caught on my way to the club to begin preparing for the match.

“It's come to my attention that you were here quite late last night.”

“Is that a problem?” I challenged.

“Not unless you're vandalizing the place.” He chuckled and tried to lighten the mood, but when I didn't join him in his joke, he continued on nonplussed. “Copper, you are really agitated aren't you.”

“Yes I am.”

“Well, today, it's not a good thing. Players sense moods and it affects them. We don't want them absorbing your nervousness. We want them to be confident, especially about this difficult match. Are you feeling at all confident about today's match?”

“Are you?” I snapped. Then, after realizing what I had just said to my boss, I apologized immediately for my outburst. “Sorry Sir, it's just that there is so much riding on this one match. I can't shake the feeling that our entire season rests on the result of today's match. I don't want to let the club down and I don't want to let you down either. All I can think about is the bad things that will happen if we lose this match. I could care less about the fans, but you're a different story. You stuck your neck out for me, Sir. You'll never live it down if Blyth gets relegated. In fact, they'll probably laugh you right out of town for hiring some no-name American who destroyed their club.”

He exploded, “Copper, shut the hell up and listen to me carefully! For starters, call me Bobby. I'm your friend as well as your boss. You've got to get a grip and you better do it quick. I'm starting to get a bit impatient with your nonsense.”

“Nonsense?” Incensed, I stood up to let loose all over again, but caught myself just before I my temper completely.

“Yes, nonsense.” Bobby stood up too and leaned over his desk to get as close to me as he could. “Utter foolishness. Petty antics. Needless drivel. Crazy shenanigans. Need I go on further? You better sit your ass down and open your ears. I'm just going to say this one time. Now, watch me take the lead and you better follow suit.” He slowly sat down in his chair again before adding in a low voice, “Trust me, you don't want to cross me.”

I copied his actions and said nothing. I didn't trust myself to say a word, especially when I saw the fire in his eyes. I knew I had been on the verge of losing control and hoped I could keep it together long enough to get out of his office with my job still intact.

After I sat down and remained still for a short time he said, “Good choice, Copper. Considering the current state of your mind, I'll change the purpose of this meeting and move off in a new direction. Please, pardon me a moment to gather my thoughts.”

I waited briefly and listened to my heartbeat pound in my inner ear. I thought, days like today are miserable being a manager. It all boiled down to control. As a manager, I didn't have any direct control over today's outcome. At least when I was a player I had more direct control over the outcome because I could vent all my pent up frustration and anxiety by tearing around the field like a madman, shaping its outcome with my raw, physical power. As a manager, I was limited to two options. Either I could sit placidly on the sidelines taking notes or I could rant loud enough until the veins stood out in my neck. Neither option appeased the beast underneath my skin.

Bobby cleared his throat to get my attention and said in a matter-of-fact tone, “Copper, today's result is not exclusively dependent upon you or the decisions you make. Granted, you'll feel responsible for it because you are the one in charge. However, I assure you, our team's success or failure this season was determined long before you showed up and tried to retrain the habits our team had already formed.”

I took a few moments and thought about what he said, but it was still hard to accept, especially when I considered what was at stake.

Bobby soldiered on without waiting for me to respond. “Blyth will take the field today. Of that, I am certain. I trust that you and your staff have worked together to determine the lineup for the match, yes?”

“No, I'm the one who is making the lineup.”

He hesitated a moment to consider my response and then added, “That's a lot of responsibility for you to have at this stage in your career. Why haven't you used the people around you to help decide this?”

“I'm the manager. It's my responsibility.”

“Really?” He leaned back in his chair and put his hands to his chin in prayer position again to ask, “Do you think that Rafa Benitez determines his own lineups?”

“Yes, it's his responsibility. He's the Skipper.”

“Wrong. He's a leader. Yes, ultimately he's the one who must accept responsibility for the team's results. But he makes those decisions collaboratively with his staff's help. Sometimes, it takes a season's worth of staff input to help him make those incredibly difficult decisions, but he never does it alone. When Liverpool played in the Champions League Final in Istanbul, Rafa was wracked with indecision before the match. He and his staff spent weeks leading up to that championship final match analyzing and discussing the best possible candidates who would be given the opportunity to play in that particular match at that specific moment in time. Rafa relied on others.”

Bobby allowed time for me to process all his information. “Remember when I told you brains and instincts are required to be a successful manager?”

“Yes.”

“Well, in Istanbul, Rafa used his brains and worked with his staff to determine which players would be entered into the squad roster before the Final. He used his instincts to tell him which of his substitutes he would put into the match after it had finally begun. Are you following me?”

“I think so.”

“Good. Now before today's match, and especially at half-time, seek input from your staff. You can decide what to do after you get their input. Understand?”

“Yes.”

“I sure hope so. The loyal fans will remember that we lost to Gainsborough 2-0 in November. It wasn't pretty. They deserve to see a better match today.”

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Chapter 14

Saturday, 25 April 2008, Blyth vs. Gainsborough

I hurried out of Bobby's meeting still mildly irritated. I knew he meant well, but I still didn't like his criticism of me. Also, I wanted to win today's match my way to prove to myself that I really could manage this team to victory. However, I didn't want to know what would happen if I crossed Bobby by ignoring his direct orders. So, I resolved, coaching my way would have to wait another day.

Although my trust in Fenton was still uncertain, his playing abilities certainly demonstrated he needed more time to adjust his attitude to my way of thinking. Therefore, I had put aside my personal differences and started him in the lineups whenever I could for the good of our team. I felt our team leaders should lead by example and this would give him two ways to prove his worth to the team during our relegation battle. Personally, I had always felt more attuned to the tempo of the game and sensed the momentum shifts sooner as a player rather than when I was forced to guess at them vicariously from the sidelines. Therefore, with this much riding on the line, I felt Fenton needed to be as near to the action as possible. It wasn't as if I missed his presence on the sidelines because I had Neil Baker and Darren Cunningham to guide me.

Darren was a silent type. He kept to himself and didn't have much to say during our matches unless someone seemed a little sluggish. Being in charge of the fitness and strength conditioning limited his role during our matches anyway.

Neil's sideline demeanor was opposite mine. Having watched from the sidelines for the past 25 years, he could sit casually on the bench with his notepad out on his lap. Only when he saw something of note would he write it down for later discussions. I was thankful for his levelheaded temperament as well as his skill with the youth on our squad. I knew our future lay within their positive player development, especially if I couldn't turn our existing players' attitudes around by the end of the season.

Even with the increased staff, I was having a difficult time adjusting to coaching in England. Although all of us favored the same tactical system of play, I wasn't used to conferring with anyone regarding my coaching and training decisions. The lone wolf role was required for my youth teams in America because my assistant coach didn't work directly with me. He worked with the reserve teams.

As the warm-ups neared completion, I took a moment to survey the crowd. I had hoped droves of fans would come to support the home team, especially at this crucial point of the season. Unfortunately, it still seemed a small crowd of only about 200. The empty seats made it difficult to trust they believed in our success for the remaining two matches. I took it personally, but I also realized that all of the friendlies we had lost and tied at home hadn't given them much encouragement. I knew those results hadn't encouraged me either.

I wondered what the fans thought of me since my arrival three weeks ago. Did they consider me to be like Avram Grant, an underwhelming choice to replace their club's most successful manager? The ego in my wished my reception had been more along the lines of Kevin Keegan, a hero come to save the club from relegation.

In the dressing room, our captain, Robert Dale had been mostly silent. I really wanted him to be more inspirational, especially since his role with the club was so prominent. Instead, it was one of our veteran defenders who rallied the troops.

When it came time for me to speak, I had told the players briefly, “Use our size up front to win the match in the air. I don't care how you get the ball to them, just send it to them in the air.”

I had talked also with the staff to determine our starting lineup. Bartlett was to start in goal. Naughton's pre-match rally cry was able to get him into the lineup as a last minute change. Helping him out on the back line were all veterans with something to prove; Smith, Beastall, and Donachie. In the midfield, I decided to take some chances because we couldn't seem to get anyone to play well since my arrival. Neil had recommended Milner and Naylor (ages 16 and 17 respectively) so into the lineup they went. Fenton would be the main man holding everything together in the center and he was to be joined by McCabe to finish out our midfield four. Up front we put Dale and Pell, our giants at 6'4” and 6'7 respectively.

Finally, the official's whistle sounded and our tactical game plan unfolded with ease. In the training sessions leading up to this match, we stressed the importance of claiming our domain. We wanted to attack early and attack often. Gainsborough retreated immediately and, in the opening two minutes, we had our first chance to score. Naylor had sent the ball in from the left wing and Bell flicked it on for himself beautifully into an open space in front of the goal, but he ended up skying the ball over the top of the bar badly. The crowd gasped collectively, but we set the tone for the next thirty minutes.

Gainsborough barely made it out of their own half and, when they finally did, we snuffed them out before they could catch a whiff of our goal area. Unfortunately, during the 35th minute, Beastall's long back pass across the field to Smith was intercepted by Gainsborough's leading scorer Matty McNeil and he bore down one-on-one with our keeper. Bartlett charged out to block the shot, but was no match for the veteran striker and the ball was slotted into the lower corner of the goal to surrender the lead on their first shot of the match. This time, our fans groaned collectively.

We continued our attacking style and dominated Gainsborough for the rest of the half. Entering the dressing room, our players crammed closely around each other. Naughton continued to encourage them and we knew we had been unlucky. I sat back and watched the proceedings with a skeptic's eye because although I had been pleased by our chances, I was extremely disappointed by our finishing. It would have to get better.

When I claimed the right to speak I said, “This is our house, we can't let up. We've got to reach deep in the second half to tie the match. The fans are depending on you. You've got to go out there and show Gainsborough that we've earned the right to stay in the Blue Square North next season.” Fenton and company agreed we should leave the squad unchanged as we returned to the pitch to finish this match in style.

Gainsborough started the second half with a long through ball pass attempt to their streaking left midfielder. Milner slid on the ground to intercept the ball, but the ball deflected awkwardly into the path of their player who scooped it up immediately and tore the rest of the way unchallenged down the sideline. Donachie rushed out to challenge him, but arrived to late to challenge the cross. Gainsborough's middie had sent in a driving low pass across the goal mouth where it deflected off Beastall's left leg and right into the path of McNeil who powered the ball into the back of the onion bag past an outstretched Bartlett.

I stood standing in disbelief. I couldn't believe it. Bartlett got to his knees but stayed there deflated. A picture of distress. I wanted to switch him out right then, but fought my urgent instincts because we had only allowed two shots all game. He couldn't be faulted for them going in. Both of them were fluke plays from lucky build-ups. I looked to Neil and he shrugged his shoulders in a “**** happens” nonchalance. I tried to hide my emotions, but couldn't. I swore and kicked the water cooler over out of frustration. No! This couldn't be happening.

That was when I heard a sound that I'll never forget. It was a sound I'd previously heard on television, but never experienced in real life. Commentators mentioned it casually during the course of calling a match, but its impact was far more effective “live” than they had led me to believe. It was whistling coming from the stands. It was so loud, it was hard to concentrate. At first I thought they were whistling at Bartlett for allowing his second goal of the match in just two shots. Then, I heard the repeated chanting that soon followed unceasingly. “Copper/Copper/He's a flopper/Sack him Bell/Fast and proper!”

My heart was crushed. Disliking me was one thing, but whistling and chanting horrible things about me another. It was the catalyst that fueled my outburst. Enraged, I stormed back into the bench area and ordered Brawley to warm up as soon as possible. He was going in to replace Milner on the right winger. He nodded assent and prepared to warm himself up.

Neil waved me over to his side and I joined him. Then, he wrapped one arm around me and said, “Congratulations Copper! Finally, you are an official manager in England! They have finally treated you like the rest of us managers. Now, do what we all do and get back out on the sidelines to lead our team. Ignore the fans. We are on the brink of something here. I can feel it.”

I didn't feel it. In fact, I felt numb. How could the fans do this to me? We were playing well, but I didn't know if we could recover.

Three minutes later, Brawley told me he was ready and wanted in. I told him to wait a second. Dale had just rocketed a shot at Gainsborough's keeper who just managed to tip it over the bar for a corner kick. The ensuing corner kick was sent in and cleared routinely by Trinity. Our defender, Jordan Smith, collected the loose ball and sent a lofted cross into the six yard area for a potential head ball. Bell mistimed his jump and missed it, but the ball surprised the keeper and it dropped in just under the bar to score a fluke goal of our own. The jeering was replaced by cheering immediately and we were back in it. I looked to Neil in amazement and he mouthed, “I told you.”

Just as quick as we had allowed a goal, we had regrouped and scored one of our own. I felt a bit more encouraged by our chances. Then, Brawley was by my side and chomping to get onto the pitch. After receiving his tactical instructions, he offered, “Coach, I'm getting another one back for us.”

“I hope so Billy, I hope so.”

We continued to pepper shots at goal and forced their keeper to make some decent saves, but we couldn't catch a break. However, I was pleased that the chanting against me had stopped finally.

Out of nowhere in the 63rd minute, Smith sent a long ball forward to Bell at midfield. On his way up to head the ball, Bell was clobbered in the back by Gainsborough's defender, Darren Craddock. The official made the obvious call and showed him the yellow immediately. It was such a vicious hit, our fans started whistling again. This time, they directed their venom at Craddock. Both teams faced off at midfield to posture with each other. After they had cooled down enough for the restart, Fenton passed the ball wide left to Houghton who, in turn, sent a long cross to the right side of the field to Brawley. Brawley pulled it wonderfully out of the air and, before the defense could react, he passed it low and hard, right back across the face of the goal to Bell. Bell immediately paid back Craddock with a first time pass into the back of the net to tie the match at 2-2.

Again, our stands erupted with joy. Our bench was off its feet and buzzing with excitement. I jumped up and down the entire way back to Baker and hugged him tight. He cheered and said, “This is what management is all about!”

The excitement quickly turned to nervousness five minutes later. Trinity, desperately needing a victory to swap places with us in the league table started throwing themselves forward in waves. We tried to keep the match momentum, but we started to lose it. Fenton clumsily committed a foul in our defensive third to give them a free kick from 35 yards out. I stared daggers at him and wondered why he'd even consider giving up such a foolish foul in the first place. I added a mental note to question his stupid decision as soon as feasible. Bartlett called for a three person wall and, before we could set it up correctly, Trinity fired a hard shot at our goal. Fortunately, it was directly at Bartlett, but it bounced off his hands and back into the onrushing field of play. Again, the crowd gasped as Jordan was able to throw himself in front of McNeil just enough to shield him off the ball until Bartlett snatched it for safekeeping.

My heart pounded in my chest. My mouth was completely cotton-mouthed and I could hardly stand from all the pressure. I tried to will our team to victory, but Fenton's sudden string of bad passes consistently lost possession of the ball at key times. Finally, I couldn't take it anymore and substituted him. I was so angry at him after he threw his boots onto the ground after being substituted, I told Neil, “Handle him for me because I'm about to beat him with my bare hands!”

Trinity continued to pound the ball at us and they gave us three more good scares before time ran out. Each time, Smith threw himself in the way of McNeil's shots to keep us level until the final whistle sounded.

The last time I remember being so relieved to hear the final whistle was when I coached my high school team to the surprise upset victory to win our championship.

In the dressing room, I quickly congratulated them on the 2-2 draw. However, I didn't want to leave things the way they were. I wanted them to know we were fortunate to escape with a draw and I'd been disappointed with our ability to maintain possession of the ball late in the match. Few of them seemed to be listening, so I made another mental note and sent them on their way.

The post match discussion in my office went well until I needed to confront Fenton about his decision-making late in the match. “What the hell were you thinking out there today?” I challenged him.

“What are you talking about? I was trying my best. Give me a break! It was tense for all of us out there. We were all giving our best. We haven't battled back from 2-0 down all season.” Then he demanded, “What the hell were you thinking out there? What manager in his right mind starts two teenagers who play on the youth squad in the biggest match of the season?”

I retorted, “A manager who wants to win, that's who. If I keep doing the same things I've always done, I'll continue to get what I've always gotten. I'm sick of my midfielders losing control of the midfield and I'll search under every rock to find four of you who can consistently show me you deserve to play every match in the starting lineup.” I slammed my fist down on the desk and yelled, “I want to win! What do you want Fenton?!”

He threw his bag against the wall and yelled right back, “I want a manager who's competent and who can be consistent with his starting lineup!”

Darren Cunningham, as usual, said nothing. Neil Baker did. He bellowed over both of us, “Doesn't anyone around here care what I want?” Fenton and I both stopped our posturing long enough to turn and face Neil's outburst. Seeing that he had our attention, he continued on capitalizing on our silence, “I want a coaching staff who's united. Both of you need a stiff drink. Hell, you definitely need more than one with all the ego in this room. None of us need the aggravation your drama brings to the club. Why don't you both take the rest of the weekend to cool off and come back on Monday with an attitude of gratitude. We didn't lose today. We are still in 19th place and we have one more chance to prove we belong in this league next week end. Now, before I puke, get lost, both of you.”

Needing to get the last word in, I said, “Fine. But, we're going to meet an hour earlier than usual on Monday.” And I walked out the door, leaving them alone in my office.

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Chapter 15

Sunday, 26 April 2008, Bobby Bell's Office

“Copper, as usual, this won't take long. I know you want to spend the time with Robin before she leaves for the week, but I felt it necessary to meet following yesterday's fine match.”

Tentatively, I said “Thanks, I guess.” For the first time ever, I was uncomfortable sitting in Bobby's office. Usually, I enjoyed our visits, but with every additional match that passed by without a win, I felt more nervous in his presence. I kept waiting for the hammer to fall when he would tell me, “Thanks, but no thanks, Copper. Clean your desk out and we'll each go our separate ways from here.” However, he still seemed satisfied with our results, even though we were still looking for a win in all competitions since I had come on board. For this, I was grateful. However, I knew in my own heart that if our roles would be reversed, I couldn't guarantee him the same support he has provided me.

“Listen Copper, I'm going to shoot straight with you. Yes, it would have been fantastic to come away with a victory yesterday. It definitely would make this match versus Kettering much easier to play, but at least we still have some hope this week end. Had we lost to Trinity, all hope would have been lost. Considering how things looked after they went up 2-nil immediately after half-time, I wasn't sure our lads had it in them. I was very pleased by the superb fightback. What do you think?”

I tried to figure out how to spin all this, but I couldn't think fast enough at the moment. Instead, despite the temptation to agree with him, I finally replied, “Bobby, we allowed ourselves to get into that situation in the first place. We should have been in the driver's seat the whole time. We shouldn't have had to come from behind. It's unacceptable for our team to compete as poorly as we did considering how much was at stake.”

Bobby thought a moment before he added, “However, you have to consider that Trinity was in a desperate battle too. They needed to win as much as us, if not more. In our first match against them this season, they'd beaten us 2-0 at their place. We're also the team in transition right now. We've got the new manager and different coaching staff adjustments to make. Therefore, Trinity had the momentum, especially considering the turmoil our club is in currently.”

“You make a point, but it's still a result I still found unacceptable and I promise it will change.”

“Speaking of promises for unacceptable performances, would you mind opening the folder on the work table and reading me the headline?”

Suddenly, I had a reason to be nervous. I opened his folder and read the headline, “Blyth Hangs on By a Thread, Horse Does Too” My heart sank and my cheeks flushed with embarrassment. Underneath the headline was a photo of me with my hands tangled in my hair as if were trying to pull it out while I stood over the water cooler I had just kicked over. Needless to say, it wasn't flattering. To make matters worse, Bobby sat waiting for me expectantly. All I could respond with was a lame apology. “I'm sorry Bobby, let me explain.”

“Please do Copper, this should be interesting to say the least.” His arms folded across his chest, he reminded me of my elementary principal waiting to discipline me after I had been sent to his office.

“Well, it was an emotional moment. They had just scored and I was frustrated. I wanted to make a point to my team that they wouldn't forget. I got their attention and it paid off. We came back and tied the match. It's no big deal.”

“You were frustrated and wanted to get their attention? It's no big deal because we drew?” He frowned and added, “No big deal? Do you know how many phone calls I took yesterday following the match?”

“No.”

“Too many. But that wasn't the half of it. Facing the other members of the Board was embarrassing. They already resent getting the wool pulled over their eyes with my surprise hire. I've already weathered one media beating trying to protect my decision to hire you. The Board has wanted an excuse to fire you. They smell blood in the water now. Do you understand what I'm trying to say?”

His chastising words hurt and I hid my eyes from him. When he explained his perspective, now I felt foolish for my behavior. Finally, I worked up enough courage to look at him directly and said, “I'm sorry, I won't kick the cooler again.”

“I should hope not. However, I'm still not done with you yet.” His voice ratcheted up a notch. “What the hell is going on with you and Fenton? Neil called me last night and told me you two had quite the spat yesterday following the match.”

Any previous embarrassment I felt was replaced with rage immediately. Fenton drove me nuts. I thought he had tried to throw the match, but I couldn't prove it. All of his turnovers in midfield seemed to be uncharacteristic for someone with his level of experience, especially considering his leadership role on the squad. Besides, we had always had bad blood between us.

“Fenton's a snake! I want him out of here as fast as possible before he successfully ruins our chance to stay in this league for good.”

“You've got to be kidding, right?”

“No, I'm serious. It seemed like he was trying to affect the outcome of yesterday's match.”

“Copper, Fenton's been with us for the past five seasons. For heaven's sake, he's just started playing in matches again once you showed up. Settling into the flow of first team squad action under our current circumstances is extremely difficult to do for any player, especially considering someone like him. He's been learning under Dunn for the past few years and, as an older player, it can be difficult to adjust to a new tactical system of play.”

“Well, I don't appreciate his temperament off the pitch.”

“Frankly, I'm okay with it for the time being as long as his unprofessional acts occur off the field. Your actions, however, have now been noticed by everyone who reads this paper. It's embarrassing and I'm officially warning you for your behavior. Keep it under control, or else we'll have to take further disciplinary actions. Now, if you'll please excuse me, you better head home and think about how you are going to change your behaviors to help move us forward. You're dismissed.”

I slunk out of his office with my tail between my legs and hoped I could keep my public emotions under control better. I felt horrible for letting Bobby down. His repeated faith in me deserved better treatment and I vowed to improve. However, Fenton was a bad situation. He and I mixed like oil and water. Even though we had a common goal keeping the club up, it still felt like he had his own agenda to do it instead of mine. I resolved to get him out of the club as soon as possible.

For the immediate future, my thoughts turned to the next meeting I'd be forced to have with my wife. Surely, she would have read the papers by now and I'd have to face the consequences of my actions with her too. We'd originally planned a day at the beach to wash off the negativity from yesterday's match, but now, with my tantrum pictured in the sports pages of the local paper, we would have to change them. Robin loved the beach and being forced to stay out of the public eye was something I knew would rub her the wrong way, especially since I'd drawn attention to myself in a such a negative way. From past experience, I knew I had really let her down and disappointing her made me feel far more guilty than anything Bobby could do to me.

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Chapter 16

Thursday, 30 April 2008, My Apartment, Blyth

Bobby's official warning for inappropriate sideline behavior had rattled my cage. Therefore, after Robin left, I spent all of my free time watching my pre-recorded premier league matches with a keener eye to monitor the sideline demeanors of the losing managers as they struggled to cope with crappy player output. It was clearly evident that they controlled their emotions much better than I had done after Trinity's match. Throwing chewed gum on the ground in disgust is a lot different than kicking over a full water cooler. However, I assumed those same managers let their players have it behind closed doors and I wasn't about to give that up. But, at least, it had given me some hope as I entered this week that if we performed poorly in our home friendly match versus Brackley, I would be able to avoid a relapse in front of the news reporters and supporters.

Unfortunately, my relationship with the media after the Trinity draw had deteriorated further following our lackluster 1-0 loss to Brackley in mid-week. The result encouraged the media sharks to circle faster and become even more outspoken of my incompetence. What frustrated me this time even more than the whistles and jeers directed at me was how quickly the hope I held on Monday had dissipated into despair as the week wore on, with tonight rating the worst.

Monday's early meeting went as well as could be expected. Fenton said nothing to me until I apologized first. Then, he apologized too. Both of us agreed to call a truce until the end of the season. Cunningham said nothing, as usual, but he did offer some new ideas for our fitness training this week. All of us were glad for the diversion. Neil was his jovial self. His optimism was contagious and I found it hard to stay in my post-warning week end funk. His comment was a new perspective for me, “Hell folks, it's a new week. Let's try to make a difference today. It might come back to haunt us.”

When I asked Neil, “How can you still be so positive after our draw with Trinity?”

He responded, “How the hell should I be feeling?”

“Aren't you disappointed? We should have had that match in the bag. It was ours for the taking, but we let them score two easy goals to put us behind. If we could have scored first, it would have been a different result and we wouldn't have to worry coming into Kettering's match with our season riding on the line.”

Neil laughed. “You sure are green behind the ears, boy. The Kettering match might be the season, but we've got the friendly mid-week to get the dirty taste out of our players' mouths before the big game. Hell, let's focus on the next match first.”

We did focus on it plenty. But, after taking the beating we did, I felt like I was the only one who was still focused on it. Fenton had played an average game, but at least he didn't screw anything up. Cunningham had nothing to add for feedback. Neil only said, “Hell, that sucked. Well, I guess we'd better get ready for Kettering. That's gonna be one hell of a match, I tell you. Hey, can I buy you a pint tonight?” I declined and simmered for the rest of the night.

We should have won our friendly, but we didn't. We lost the ground war, winning only 42% of our tackle attempts. We also lost the battle for air supremacy, winning only 47% of our heading attempts. We were horrific sending the ball in wide from the flanks, connecting on only 8% of our cross attempts. No wonder Brackley packed the goal area with players. Our futility reminded me of the castle scene from the movie, Monty Python and the Holy Grail. We were the English and Brackley were the French. We'd hit their fortress with everything we had. In response, they simply lobbed stuff over the wall at us on the counter-attack. After taking a 1-0 lead before the half and holding it the rest of the game, they bit their thumbs at us during the second half, having dominated every competitive area on the pitch. When the match finally ended with us on the downside of a 13-3 shots on target ratio, they exited the field and farted in our general direction.

Inside the dressing room, the team's ambivalence was too much to bear. I had kept my cool out on the pitch because I knew the cameras would be watching me. However, I really let them have it behind closed doors. I hurled the insults fast and furious with such intensity, my voice still felt the effects of the strain over three hours later. I told them the only good thing to come out of that match was that our nineteen year old keeper, James Platten, had kept us from totally embarrassing ourselves stopping five out of the six shots Brackley put on target.

I stormed out of the stadium and came home to the only refuge I had remaining where I could stew in my own juices without worrying about what people would say or think about me.

I unlocked the front door and shuffled inside. I tossed my empty carryout bag next to the growing pile of empty takeout containers and beverage cans which littered my kitchen area. I didn't care about the mess, it hid the fact that I hadn't washed dishes since Sunday afternoon and I had reverted back to my bachelor ways in Robin's absence. The card table I used as a kitchen table was only for my laptop computer. The unread mail was strewn across the living room floor surrounding the beach chair I used like a recliner. Considering I hadn't given anyone my new mailing address, I was surprised by how much mail the post had delivered to my new door since I moved in less than a month ago. However, after reading the umpteenth letter threatening me bodily harm or spewing forth insults equivalent to the Howlers in the Harry Potter book series, I understood my privacy had been compromised and I finally gave up opening the mail. At the office, Mary, my secretary, would have filtered these out during the pre-screening process. Obviously, my new mailing address had spread like wildfire among the supporter's and they made it very clear that Blyth contained some angry villagers out to destroy the monster in their midst.

Sifting through the daily mail, I threw five new suspicious letters across the room. “Damn you, Fenton. I hope I can dump you at the end of the season.” I had an instinctual feeling that Fenton was behind the original release of my personal contact information because I had provided him with it the very first time we met. However, I couldn't prove it so nothing could be done about it now, especially considering how fast the contact information had spread around town.

Currently, the biggest difference between managing Blyth and my high school team in the United States was that I'd never had to confront any negative fan mail back in the States, regardless of how poorly our team played. It hurt me to get cut down all the time. Didn't they realize I was trying my best? Hadn't they noticed the progress the club had made to address its liabilities in the short time since I had arrived at Blyth?

In addition to the parcel post attacks, my personal email account was overrun with openly hostile subject lines spewing forth additional bile for my consideration. Reading my email was worse than ignoring my postal mail because I needed to read through the subject lines to find Robin's treasured emails and I couldn't ignore what my eyes saw immediately on the screen like I did with the unopened mail on the floor.

However, even Robin's emails were becoming quite clipped and less supportive. Usually, her characteristic openness was something I cherished. However, I wasn't prepared to deal with the bomb she dropped on me. It read, “I would say this directly to you if you'd ever make the time to speak with me on the phone, but you're always too damn busy to answer your phone or return my calls when I'm actually awake. So, you better read up quick and take action even faster. I'm sick of playing second fiddle all the time to your beloved team. When am I going to be your first priority? I've supported you a lot longer than this team has. In fact, other than Bobby, I don't know how much they really support you anyway. If you can be bothered to make the time for me, send me a response but spare me your politically correct mumbo-jumbo. I'm way too smart for that line of crap.”

The guilt I felt having deeply hurt the most important person in my life was almost unbearable. I knew she deserved an honest response, but I didn't know how to express all that I felt right now without it seeming completely selfish.

The bitter truth was that I had no argument to offer her in my defense. I'd made the decision to place the team above her over and over again. I stayed late at my office every night. I was back at it early the next day. I spent most of each work day planning out training sessions, browsing the Internet for news reports regarding our competition, and keeping up with as many facets of club life I could manage. Like our season, I knew I only had one shot left to make it all better. If I could just manage to win on Saturday, the pressure would be off for the time being and I could relieve the pressure coming at me from both of my life's loves. However, deep down inside, I knew that that if push came to shove, I'd choose Robin over Blyth. I had walked away from coaching before and survived. I could do it again, if necessary. I just didn't want to surrender this dream so soon after it started. That would be the most bitter pill to swallow.

I turned off the computer and lay down on the living room floor on top of my sleeping bag that served as my bed. I closed my eyes and wallowed a while in my own misery. I thought, “What in the world am I doing here in Blyth? What made me believe I could come here to England and just start managing without any prior experience in the English leagues? What can I do to change the minds of these fans? No matter how much effort I put forth to improve this squad, nothing pleases them.”

I tried to remember my meetings with Bobby before I was hired. What was it about those meetings which made Bobby think I could be successful? In the States, I had unsuccessful seasons and it never bothered me as much as it did currently. What did I need to do differently? I felt totally alone. Bobby had officially warned me, the fans and media hated me, the players were ambivalent, and Robin was ready to walk out.

Out of the blue, Neil's comment from earlier in the week made me smile. I realized what I had to do right now. I told myself, “Hell, Copper, try to make a difference today. It might come back to haunt you.” and, once again, I logged onto my computer to write Robin the apology she deserved.

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Chapter 17

Saturday, 03 May 2008, Rockingham Road, Kettering

My nerves were raw. My mouth was dry. My stomach was upset. I'd already been to the bathroom more times than I could count and I knew why. Instead of being able to eat one of Robin's specialty omelettes to ease my stomach's jitters, I'd had to settle for toast and a protein shake. It failed miserably. Just like my apology email from three nights ago. When she ignored my first email, I sent a second. After that email message was ignored, I called her. But, that failed too.

Silence. Even as a manager of an obscure club, silence was a cherished commodity. Often, I would have to wait into the wee hours of the night after all the phone calls, video recordings, and traffic noise had settled down to finally appreciate it. However, her silence was extremely disconcerting. It affected my preparation for the match and I was even more testy with my players' incompetencies during the training sessions than usual. I wanted to leave, to go back to Liverpool and make it all better between the two of us, but I also knew I needed to prepare for our match today. Without a win, we couldn't be guaranteed our slim one point lead over Gainsborough would be enough to keep us up.

Already, over 2,000 fans were in the stands, all decked out in their colors with a half hour to spare before the kickoff. The faithful, optimistic Blyth supporters proudly displayed their green and white regalia, but were overwhelmed by the mass of red from the home side. I searched the crowd hopeful of finding Robin in the stands. I had left her the phone message that a ticket at the will call window would be available to her in hopes she would come support me. I listened for her unique, hoarse voice that reminded me of Peppermint Patty from the Charlie Brown cartoon, but couldn't discern it from the rousing crowd songs of the Kettering support.

All of our staff, including Fenton had some input on the team selection this time. At least that helped to ease some of the burdensome pressure I felt from our last match against Trinity. We decided to reward Milton Turner, our 21 year old right defender with a starting spot for trying to rally the troops. Again, I wished Robert Dale, our captain, had tried to inspire our team. I would have settled for our vice-captain, Andrew Leeson, to say something in his place, but he was silent as well. Apparently, the intra-squad scuffle which had broken out among Kenny Boyle and some of the other players had more of an impact than I thought originally. However, we still decided to start Kenny in today's match because he was such a fiery player and we were looking for some torchbearers to take it to Kettering.

The media had given our team no chance at all. In fact, Kettering's paper led with the headline, “Seven Game Winless Streak Rides Horse Into Town”. Our squad wasn't confident coming into the match, but Plan A was to start players who would give us the best chance possible of winning. If that failed, we'd go to Plan B and rely on Harrogate Town to beat Gainsborough outright to do finish the job we couldn't when we played them last week. If Plan B failed, well, I didn't want to think about the consequences of Plan C.

We gave our team its final tactical instructions for the match. We'd try to attack right away to take advantage of Kettering's complacency having to play us, a perceived weaker side. I guaranteed them that we better fight to the very end of the match. This match was to ensure the club's survival and they had better want it as much as I did, because if they couldn't get fired up for a match with today's implications, they didn't deserve to be on the squad next season either.

We took the field and the crowd had grown again by another full third during the short time we were in the dressing room. There was an announced crowd of 3,000 fans and they were in full voice, mostly for the home side. Our fans cheered as loud as they could, but it was easily drowned out until the eighth minute, when Robert Dale was taken down with a foul inside the penalty box. The referee awarded the spot kick immediately. Dale looked over to me and I nodded for him to take the kick. I thought to myself, “If you're not going to talk the talk, you better effing walk the walk.”

Dale's sent the ball into the net and also sent the Blyth fans into rapturous song. We had done it! We had taken the lead and defied all the pre-match odds. We continued to attack and kept Kettering on the backpedal, but it only lasted until the 29th minute before we shot ourselves in the foot.

Boyle, our resident hothead, had taken exception to some of Wainwright's extra physical activities and hacked him down with two feet. The red card was flashed immediately and Kettering's home support burst into cheers and whistles. I was livid!

I looked around for something and anything to destroy, but before I could lash out, Neil's hands had grasped my arms firmly and he said, “Whoa, Horse! It's not worth it. Let it go. Hell, we're still leading, let's pack the back and withstand the whacks.”

His action settled me down to a simmering boil and I waited out the rest of the first half. We held them, but I could tell we had started to lose our attacking momentum after we had removed our striker, Bell, and replaced him with our defender, Houghton, the vocal leader from the Trinity draw at left back position.

Inside the dressing room, it was chaos. Boyle had stirred up the pot with the bench players who made it inside before I did. I got in his face and yelled at him to quit it before I sent him to the bus. He didn't like getting embarrassed in front of his teammates, but he took it as best he could under the circumstances.

Matters got worse when we learned that Trinity held a 1-0 lead going into the dressing room during their half-time too. The pressure to perform in the second half was palpable and I told them that we had done well the first half. We just needed everyone to give another 45 minutes of all out effort to ensure our standing in the league for next season.

Our third setback occurred when our trainer told us that we'd need to replace our inspirational midfielder, Chris McCabe, because he was too injured to go back out and play. With ten men already on the field, including one substitution, we were left with no choice but to make our second substitution of the match. We replaced him with Adrian Webster, another midfielder who'd been highly touted prior to my arrival at Croft Park, but who had been struggling with his form since my arrival.

I couldn't bear it any longer. I took a moment to check my cell phone for a message from Robin. Finding none, I pressed the speed dial to ring her. When she didn't answer, I swore under my breath and popped a small handful of antacid tablets to stem the wave of heartburn through the second half.

I scanned the small section of Blyth supporters hoping to catch a glimpse of Robin in the stands, but before I could locate her, a news reporter stuck a tape recorder in my face and asked, “Copper, can your squad hold off Kettering in the second half?”

Without thinking, I replied, “We have no choice. I hope to hell we can.”

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Chapter 18

Saturday, 03 May 2008, Rockingham Road, Kettering

I brushed past the reporter and walked back to our bench area. Neil was right behind me and said, “Good job with the reporter. Hell, I couldn't have said it better myself.” He smiled, patted me on the back and asked, “Let's see what our team's made of, shall we?”

It bothered me a great deal that Robin was still icing me out. She'd been mad at me lots of times before, but it always passed quickly and we got back on with it. I knew I'd been wrapped up a lot with the team's business, but I counted on her for support. Not having it made everything that I was struggling with right now seem that much worse. I had told her this as part of my apology the other night. But, her silence worried me. She'd never shut me out for such a long time. I hoped she and I would survive this.

I also hoped Blyth would survive today intact. Kettering hadn't substituted anyone yet and when the whistle sounded for the second half, they started in on us right away. We stood in their way of winning the league championship and they needed a win.

Our defense held well and Kettering couldn't make any shots that were on target. However, the way our midfield was struggling to get the ball forward to Dale, our single forward, I felt like it was just going to be a matter of time before they scored an equalizer.

The waiting was the worst of it. Pacing back and forth inside my coaches box, I kept shouting out commands to get them organized in the back. Our substitutes weren't playing as well as the starters, but they were all we had and I needed to trust them to do their jobs effectively. I looked to Neil behind me for support, but he sat stoically on the bench taking notes down furiously.

In the 52nd minute, their star, Craig Westcarr slipped behind our central defender and took a shot. It took a glancing deflection off Jordan Smith and caught Bartlett wrong-footed before going into the back of the net. Kettering's support erupted. Bartlett booted the ball high into the air toward the center circle and Smith hung his head.

I screamed out onto the pitch, “Christensen, you can't let him get behind you! Come on, think!” I kicked the ground and stomped back to the bench area to get myself a drink of water. I crushed the paper cup into a wad before slamming it into the bottom of the trash barrel. My fists clenched, I took my post alone in the technical area beside the pitch.

Five minutes later, Hall, their right forward drifted in front of Houghton, our substitute left defender, to receive the ball. Christensen raced to his left to try to block the shot, but failed to arrive in time. Hall drove a hard shot past Bartlett. Again, the Kettering support erupted with joy. The noise was deafening. My heart sank and rage took over.

“Houghton, why'd you let him past you? Do your job!” Then I focused my anger on Bartlett, “Come on Bart! You've got to stop that!”

The announcement sickened me. Hall had just scored his first ever Kettering goal. “Brilliant, just brilliant!” I hollered to no one in particular.

I covered the ground to the bench area in two seconds flat. Inside it, I pounced on Neil, “Neil, get on the phone and find out the score to the Trinity match. Do it now, dammit!”

I looked to Platten, our backup keeper, and still a teenager. Did I dare make my third substitution of the match to throw him into the frenzy with the entire season on the line? I pondered it for a full two minutes before I decided to leave Bartlett in a bit longer.

Neil hollered, “Copper, Harrogate's still down by one with thirty minutes remaining.”

“F**k!” I swore under my breath. I hollered out onto the pitch, “We need one back! It must happen. Get on with it and get forward! Move! Move! Move!”

The team responded with some nice long balls over the top to Dale. He tried to hold the ball the best he could, but we couldn't get any midfielders up to support him fast enough and he was stripped of the ball repeatedly.

We drove Kettering back into their own half and we started to generate some momentum. I was pleased by our team's fightback and started to believe we'd get some chances on goal that would test their keeper.

In the 70th minute, Kettering cleared a long ball past the halfway line between Houghton and Christensen. It bounced and I could tell it was in dead man's land. Furlong, their striker, streaked forward to chase down the ball. Neither of our defenders had a chance to catch his speed. Bartlett was the last man with a shot to stop him and he started forward, hesitated, and then started forward again. His momentary hesitation sealed his fate and Furlong got to it first. With a deft touch to his right, he dribbled easily around Bartlett and passed the ball into the goal to score Kettering's third goal in the past eighteen minutes.

Bartlett lay on the ground until he was consoled by his teammates. They picked him up and brushed him off before he returned back to his goal area. Kettering's support started singing, “Na Na Na Na/Na Na Na Na/Hey Hey Hey/Good Bye” repeatedly.

Our bench groaned. Our fans started to boo. My spirits dropped so low, I was speechless. Neil came to my side, put his hand around my shoulder and said, “Hell, Copper, we're just gonna have to rely on Harrogate to carry us through.”

I turned to him numbly and muttered, “Right. Whatever you say, Neil. Whatever you say.”

I started to turn my back on him to watch the disaster unfold, but he spun me around and poked me hard in the chest with a single finger. Then he stuck it in my face and spit out, “Don't you quit on me you sonofabitch! This match ain't over. Stranger things have happened in this game. You hear me?"

“Yeah, I hear you.”

“Good, because I ain't beatin' a dead horse today. Got it?” He winked as he said it and added over his shoulder. “I'm gonna call on our new best friends to see how they're doing. I'll let you know if they come through for us.”

I couldn't help myself, I had to chuckle at Neil's comment.

With the smallest amount of hope, I turned to coach my squad once more. I needn't have bothered. They were lifeless out there, particularly my achilles' heel, the midfield.

In the 76th minute, Furlong had switched which defender he attacked and, this time, he exploited Jordan Smith, our slowest defender, who'd let him wander into free space inside the goal area. Again, Furlong sent the ball past Bartlett easily and we were down by three.

This time, Rockingham Road's celebration was slightly more subdued. They sensed we were hapless and, even though they cheered their team, it quickly faded. Instead, it was replaced by a more horrible celebration from Blyth's support.

Again, the Blyth fans started chanting about me. This time, it was more personal. “Stu-pid Yank/Stu-pid Yank/Stu-pid Yank/You'll Walk the Plank.”

I couldn't take it anymore. I surrendered to the chants and retreated inside the bench area to sulk miserably and completely resolved that nothing could console me.

Suddenly, Neil started whooping ecstatically. He raced out of the bench area to the very edge of the technical area and yelled onto the pitch, “Boys! Harrogate's tied the match!” The fourth official practically had to drag him back to the bench area, but not until after his delightful news had reached our traveling fans. The chanting slowly stopped and cheers started to emanate from the crowd instead.

He returned to my side and said, “Hell Copper, why the long face? We've just been tossed a lifeline! Holland scored in the 78th minute. Grab hold and let's go.”

The lifeline was thin at best. Entering today's match, our one point advantage over Gainsborough in the league table would be erased if they could hold Harrogate to a draw. Since we were tied on goal differential at -14, we'd lose the tie-breaker if the scores remained the same in both of our matches. The only chance we had to avoid relegation was for Harrogate to win the match outright. Since both of our matches started at 3 PM, I knew they were fairly close to ending their match as well. We had less than ten minutes remaining and time was running out on our very desperate situation.

It didn't even matter to me when we let Hall score his second goal of the match in the 84th minute. Kettering's players didn't even celebrate. They knew they had routed us and their fifth goal in the half felt like kicking a man when he's down.

All of us in the bench area were huddled around Neil hanging on to every word he repeated about Trinity's match. We held hands in support and prayer. Both parts of our team were hanging on by a thread; our team on the pitch couldn't wait for the time to finally run out and our team on the bench wanted the time to stretch on as long as it took as we hoped for the news that Harrogate had finally saved us.

Suddenly, Neil dropped his phone. I froze in panic and our team instantly fell silent. He screamed joyfully and grabbed the water cooler. He burst out, “Holland did it again in the 88th minute! He scored!” Then, he threw the water at me and hugged me tight.

We both stumbled out of the dugout as he still screamed at the top of his lungs, “Harrogate won! Harrogate won! Harrogate won!”

Our fans heard him and everyone started cheering. The final whistle blew and our players collapsed with relief. Our teams congratulated each other respectfully.

Kettering left the field as Champions of the Blue Square North and we left the field finishing in 19th place and still in the Blue Square North for the following season.

Our players took the pitch again for a brief time to receive the praise from our traveling fans but quickly hustled off to make way for Kettering's trophy presentation.

While Kettering celebrated on the pitch, we celebrated inside the congested dressing room. Neil hugged me and said, “Hell Copper, isn't management great!”

I hugged him back and said, “So far, so good.” and took a pull of champagne.

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I've not read it all, but thus far I am very impressed and will be looking to catch up as soon as possible. Nice work!

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Wegason: Thank you very much for your kind comments. I'm glad you are enjoying what you've read so far.

Chapter 19

Saturday, 03 May 2008, Rockingham Road, Kettering

The celebration started out quite nice. Our revelry, combined with the champagne on an empty stomach did wonders to release all of the pressure I felt leading up to today's match. The lads felt relieved too. Joking and general horseplay were the order of the moment and all was forgotten about the display we showed this afternoon.

I tried to enjoy the occasion for what it was, but my responsibilities as manager pulled me back into reality. Reluctantly, I headed to the post-match media junket trying to think of what I could possibly say that would put a positive spin on what happened. I felt a bit light-headed, but I'd felt that way before whenever I'd had a bit too much to drink. “Nothing to worry about” I thought as I began to speak into the microphone thrust in my face.

The questions burst forth immediately from all directions. “Copper, Blyth narrowly succeeded in staying up this season. How does it feel knowing you had to rely on Harrogate's help to do it?”

Bobby promised me they would be sharks. He was right, they didn't mess around. I responded diplomatically, “It's not the best way to do it, but it happened and I'll take it. I think all of us in Blyth will take it, especially the players who've had to adjust to me with just three league matches remaining.”

Some chuckled, but the next question quickly stopped it. “Copper, we've heard from your players that you've been quite difficult to deal with in the dressing room. Care to comment?”

My good mood suddenly evaporated. “Sure. Every manager wants the best he can get from his players. I'm no different. I don't think I've done anything different from any other manager in this game.”

No chuckles this time, just three more questions at once. The loudest asked, “Copper, Blyth suffered an eight game winless streak to finish up the season. The players seemed to struggle with the pressure out there today in the second half. Do you think their slump has been the reason behind your lack of success?”

Their directness was ruthless. I responded by saying, “It's disappointing to concede five goals in a match. However, Kettering's a solid team with a championship riding on the result. If Kettering couldn't motivate themselves to play competitively today, then they didn't deserve to have been crowned champions.”

The attack continued, “Yes, but you conceded them in 45 minutes after holding a lead for most of the first half. Do you think your choice of tactics caused Blyth's worst defeat of the season?”

They lit the match to start the kettle boiling. “I think the tactics were fine. We held them for 57 minutes without conceding a goal and about thirty of those were with just ten men on the field. We needed to put up a respectable result today, but we didn't, plain and simple.”

It wouldn't stop, the next reporter turned up the heat where the last one left off, “Yes, but if it wasn't your tactics that caused your loss, then it must have been your players who let the team down. Do you think you'll have some new faces here next season who can follow your tactical instructions?”

I started to simmer. “I think that if they aren't going to be part of the solution they're part of the problem. I want this club to go places and the squad has had three matches and a host of friendlies to show me they deserve to stay on this team. From what I saw today, you can be guaranteed you'll see fewer faces next time we talk.”

“Copper, who will you be cutting from your squad before next season?”

“I'm telling you that I'm going to find players who want to win as badly as I do. If the ones we have right now can't stand the heat in the kitchen, then it's time for them to get out. This is a business and our club deserves to have players on it who earn their keep. We're not a charity and they should be prepared to contribute around here.”

“Copper, those are some strong words coming from such a new manager. Are you going to be able to sway the board to your way of thinking? You haven't seemed to persuade either your players or your fans you're especially competent enough to win a match.”

Finally, I boiled over. “I'm done.” I stormed out of the room as fast as I could completely pi**ed off.

Back in the lockers, Neil took one look at my face and asked, “How'd it go out there. Did you give 'em hell?” He handed me a beer to match the one he already had in his hand.

I took it and spewed, “They're idiots! The whole lot of them. All they did the whole session was bait me. I couldn't believe it.”

He finished the beer he had in his hand and reached for another. “Hell, they're just doing their job. They have to create controversy to sell papers. You didn't take the bait and give them what they wanted did you?”

I took a swallow and said, “Let's just say, I spelled out some truth for them. They'll sell plenty of papers.”

“Oops.”

“Oops, what? Did I do something wrong.”

“Let me tell you what you did right, instead.”

“Fine, spit it out.”

“Well, you've successfully managed to cross Bobby.”

“****!”

“**** is right. You better take this beer too. You're gonna need it.” and he tossed me his unopened beer and stood up immediately.

“Where are you going?” I asked.

“Let's just say, I'm gonna make myself scarce. Hell, no offense Copper, you're a good guy when you want to be. But you made this mess and you're gonna be the one to clean it up too.” Neil scurried away as fast as he could.

I was left to wonder what I'd done that was so horrible, but I didn't have much time before I heard a familiar voice shouting above the rest of the din.

Everyone fell silent as they also recognized who was shouting, “Copper! Where are you, Copper! You and I need to talk! NOW!” Bodies couldn't part themselves out of Bobby's way fast enough as he charged his way through their mass like a raging bull.

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Chapter 20

Saturday, 03 May 2008, Rockingham Road, Kettering

Bobby caught my arm and gritted out, “Horse, get in here right now!” He pulled me into the small space reserved for staff and slammed the door behind us. Without waiting a moment, he demanded, “What the hell is wrong with you? What kind of interview was that?”

I started to respond, but he interrupted me before I could say a word. “Dammit Copper, do you ever take time to think about what you say before you actually say it? I told you the media were sharks. I warned you about crossing me. It's only been one match and, already, you've ignored me on both counts.”

I interjected with, “Sorry, Bobby, I promise it won't happen again.”

“Quiet down! I'm not finished yet.” He jutted his finger out at me and continued on without a moment's hesitation. “You told me back at the pub in Liverpool that you'd applied for sixty jobs already since coming to England. No one took a chance on you. In fact, they didn't even give you a sniff of a job. A second look would've been nice, but you got nothing. Was that true? Or was that another line of crap you spewed out like your empty promises?”

“That was true. I didn't lie to you about that. Just like I didn't lie to you about fixing my sideline behavior.” I still reeled from his fury and from the alcohol in my system. I looked out the glass window and noticed people either staring openly at us or milling about pretending not to listen. My cheeks felt red and I was embarrassed by our confrontation.

“Listen up. I told you to consider how your actions would reflect on our club, how they would represent our community. I asked you to make sure you curbed your tantrums on the pitch. I thought you knew what that meant. Obviously, I was wrong.”

“I did watch how I acted on the sidelines. I haven't had a bad tantrum, even after we rolled over today to take our beating.”

He ignored me and continued, “Do you think that tantrums have to be explosive to count? Copper, screaming openly at your players for making mistakes on the pitch is embarrassing. In fact, it borders on demeaning. How do you like it right now? How do you feel with me nailing you right now? Are they watching us behind my back?”

“Very embarrassed, and yes, some of them are watching.”

“Good. Now you are starting to understand how our players feel when you rip them up one side and down the other while they're on the pitch in front of our fans and their families.”

I interrupted him again, “I'm sorry Bobby, I hadn't considered that aspect.”

He kicked the already closed door suddenly with the back of his foot. “Dammit Copper! I 'm not finished yet. Now, shut your mouth until I give you permission to respond.”

I sat stunned. His direct fury was brutal. Even if I had wanted to leave, I couldn't because the only escape route I had was past him and he had drawn up his entire body to block the door in case I was stupid enough to try and leave.

“Here's the lesson you need to learn, Copper, and you better learn it quick because my patience with your petulance is wearing mighty thin. At Blyth, we don't rip our players in public. We're a family. We deal with issues like this behind closed doors. We don't do it like this in front of the media. Your press conference today may have been small fries compared to the EPL, but the fallout from it is going to be monumental.” Bobby paused to catch his breath.

Still pinned back inside the small office, I didn't dare speak because I finally realized I had screwed up letting the reporters get under my skin like that. Silently, I vowed that next time, I'd keep a closer handle on my drinking before I faced them, even if it had been celebratory in nature.

Bobby still hadn't finished venting, “In fact, spouting off with those guarantees about squad reduction and calling players out like that was, quite possibly, the worst thing you could have promised under our current circumstances. I know we looked horrid out there, but at least we weren't relegated. The truth of the matter is this, I don't give a rat's ass how it happened or who helped us along the way. You absolutely, positively, don't threaten to terminate a player's career in the media ever again or you'll find yourself following them right out the door. Are you hearing me?”

I definitely heard what he was saying. Thoroughly humbled and laid low by his wrath, I couldn't even look at him. I hung my head in shame and retreated inwards to protect myself from further harm. I could only nod assent in my current mental state.

Bobby's hoarse voice finally softened just a notch having sensed my fealty. “Copper, I've just finished damage control with the media after you stormed out. That's a minor problem compared to the much bigger problem of your ego. Today, your ego got in the way of doing the job I know you can do. Today, your ego made you a thief and a coward. You were a thief because you stole the joy we all felt at avoiding relegation with your impulsive media comments. You were a coward because you wouldn't take a meaningless beating from the media for the sake of our team.”

His criticism cut me deep. It all happened so fast and the pressures I felt had gotten the best of me. The pressures of losing today's game, of potentially losing Robin forever, and now of losing Bobby's respect all weighed heavily on me. How in the world did things get so out of control so quickly?

Bobby's comments continued. “Copper, nearly a month ago, I took a lot of heat from the Board for my decision to hire you. They said I was off my rocker for taking a huge chance you, especially since you were an unknown coach with no formal coaching experience in England.”

He paused to let that sink in a moment more before adding, “However, I told them that I believed strongly in my decision to put you in charge. I planted that seed when I brought you on as manager. Under normal circumstances, I'd have seen some more positive fruits for my labor. Instead, now all I've got is a tangled mess with a renegade manager so full of his own ego that he's blinded by the first law of gardening; you reap what you sow.”

He stopped a moment to consider his thoughts and I waited patiently.

“Now, I must do some heavy damage control with the Board, considering the firestorm you've stirred up with your latest round of rash behavior. Copper, I'll do my job on your behalf as long as I believe your doing your job on my behalf. Considering your short history in charge of this club, I'm starting to lose faith that you are capable of leading this team in the direction we both desire. You'll find out tomorrow whether or not I've successfully persuaded the Board to keep you.” He spun on his heel and left.

It took me a few moments to move. His comments completely flattened me. It took everything in me to stand tall and walk to the door he had left open. Standing at the door, I took a quick scan around the changing area. The mood had definitely changed in there. No longer were people enjoying the celebration with relieved abandon. Instead, they bustled about their business resolutely and avoided all eye contact with me, save one.

Fenton had stopped what he was doing at the moment to face me directly. He maintained eye contact and simply stared. Then, a delighted smile spread openly across his face and, without saying a word, he spoke volumes.

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Chapter 21

Saturday, 03 May 2008, Croft Park, Blyth

My bad mood made the ride home longer than usual.

Harrogate's last minute victory of Gainsborough Trinity may have kept us in the Blue Square North for next season. However, it didn't alter our utter incompetence we displayed on the field versus Kettering.

Next season promised to be brutal, assuming I still had a job when I returned. Bobby's tongue-lashing cut me deep and delighted Fenton. As a result, his squad status in my mind moved from assistant coach to first out the door if given the chance. Under normal circumstances, I'd give him the benefit of the doubt considering his experience with the club. However, his behaviors and actions over the past month had demonstrated that he wasn't going to come around to my way of thinking, even though he'd been given ample time to adjust his mentality more to my liking.

Neil tried his best to cheer me up, but I wanted to wallow in my own thoughts.

Finally, he gave up and said, “Hell, you can go ahead and stew in your juices all you want Horse, but it won't help Bobby at all.”

I spat out, “It's not just about Bobby. It's about Robin too.”

“Well, I sure as hell can't help you with that one. I've never been able to figure out women, so I've stuck with football. It's a whole lot easier dealing with a full squad of players than it is to deal with one woman. But if you do have better luck than me, I'll be willing to hear you out.”

He left me alone and talked to Cunningham, who was quite talkative considering his usually quiet demeanor.

My thoughts swirled regarding my future with Robin. Even if Bobby saved my job, would my heart still be in it knowing it had cost me my marriage? I knew that many football marriages ended in divorce, but I figured that she and I could beat the odds. Her silence this past week made it clear that she was my odds-on favorite for emotional and physical support. In fact, I wondered if she and I had been able to live under the same roof for this past month, would I have even been in my current predicament with Bobby?

Robin's perceptions of tense situations were incredibly accurate. She'd already given me good insights regarding Fenton. She pressed me to dump him from the team immediately after our initial row during our team's first staff meeting. She told me it was foolish to include him in the starting roster again because that would serve only to increase his negative influence on the squad during a very important time in our season. I believed differently and made my decision. Looking back on it, I guessed I'd have been better off trusting her instincts instead of mine.

Arriving back at Croft Park, I stopped outside my office door and snorted quietly as I walked past Dunn's name placard where it still hung. Was this another subtle hint I should have heeded? Was I an unwelcome American who was tolerated merely until I messed up bad enough to get sacked? I dropped off my stuff and wondered if this would be one of the last times I'd be locking the door behind me.

Driving home, I had tried calling Robin again, but her phone was turned off. I'd have packed up immediately and returned to Liverpool as fast as the law allowed with my tail tucked between my legs if Bobby hadn't had to fight my battles for me and scheduled our normal Sunday meeting to discuss his outcome.

I was sick and tired of making mistakes. I wanted to manage Blyth successfully. I told myself that all new managers must make mistakes. It was part of the territory. I trusted that Rafa had made his fair share of mistakes during his early days with his Spanish sides, but he had overcome them marvelously to succeed at Liverpool. Granted, he hadn't managed Liverpool to win the league title yet, but he had managed them to victory in the Champions League instead. I hadn't even managed Blyth to a single victory yet. All I'd managed successfully to do was fight.

I vowed that if given the chance to manage Blyth next season, I'd work my tail off to make amends for all my mistakes this season, no matter what the personal cost. I continued to imagine the changes I'd want to employ this coming season and hoped I'd get the chance to see their results.

I arrived home, unlocked my door, and switched on the light to toss my keys on the card table. I stopped in my tracks. The entire living room area had been straightened up. Wrapped up in my sleeping bag on the floor next to my beach chair recliner was Robin, rubbing her eyes from the sudden burst of light.

“Robin!” I burst out. “What are you doing here?”

She opened the top half of the sleeping bag and offered, “Welcome home Copper. I've missed you and I'm sorry.”

“I'm sorry too.”

“Now, turn off the light and don't think for a moment that you're off the hook.”

“I wouldn't dream of it.”

“You better not.” and she kissed me playfully on my mouth.

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Chapter 22

Sunday, 04 May 2008, My Apartment, Blyth

Waking up next to Robin was the perfect antidote for the previous day's poison. Spending the night next to the woman I had loved for the past ten years suddenly was an incredibly special privilege. All these weeks living apart, she in Liverpool and me in Blyth, had definitely put some serious stress on our marriage. However, last night had given me hope that no matter what happened today with Blyth, I'd still have her love and affection.

I didn't want to wake her up after her trek across England, but I knew that we only had a limited amount of time together. She had cleaned my entire apartment and it refreshed my spirits to see everything in order once more. I hadn't fully realized how much my disorganization had affected my entire life, but I felt more professional with everything in its place.

A note was taped to the computer that said, “See me.” Always the teacher, she had treated me as one of her pupils. Another note was taped to the fridge that said, “Don't open. Wake me first.” I went to start a pot of coffee, but was foiled by a third note which read, “I quit drinking coffee and you should too.” I ignored it and started a pot for me only.

She heard me and woke up.

She padded softly into the kitchen, wrapped her arms around me and said teasingly, “You don't follow orders very well, do you?”

“What, about the coffee?”

“Not only the coffee, but about us as well.”

I sensed what was coming. She'd always been direct and to the point. Last night's welcome surprised me as it wasn't typical for her after she'd been so mad at me, but I was extremely satisfied with how events had unfolded and was willing to face whatever I had coming to me.

I turned to her and said, “Okay, I'm ready. Let's deal with us right now. But, be warned, I do have a meeting with Bobby this morning.”

She groaned, “Again? Why does he need to meet? The season's over.”

“Yes, he needs to meet with me again. And yes, the season is over, but my career may also be over too. That's the only item on today's agenda.”

She tensed and said, “****, what did you do to deserve that? I saw on the Internet you saved the team from relegation. What more does he want?”

Her body rose up and her eyes caught mine. The fuse was lit and she was ready to tear into anybody she felt she needed. “What the hell is wrong with these people? You do what they ask and they still want to sack you. How dare they!”

“Well, the truth be told, I didn't do everything they asked.”

“What happened?” she demanded, her temper still flared bright.

I remembered yesterday's personal vow to make amends for my mistakes, no matter the personal cost and already I felt under pressure to place the blame somewhere else. However, deep down I knew brutally painful honesty was required with her, especially if I hoped to make amends for the mistakes I had made already.

I took a deep breath and said, “Bobby's trying to save my job because I let my temper get the best of me repeatedly over the past three weeks. It started behind closed doors with the players and ended when I threatened them in public during my post-match media interview yesterday.”

She gasped and took a step back from me. “YOU DID WHAT?”

Her look of utter disappointment, coupled with her reflexive recoil, slammed my heart and dropped it to the floor. I said nothing, but stood with my head bowed submissively before her.

She continued hammering away at me, “You're not a Horse, you're an Ass! A completely stubborn mule! Whatever made you think that you could threaten your players in public! You're a buffoon!”

I interrupted her to defend my actions. “We'd been celebrating a bit inside the lockers and the reporters pushed me over the edge with their badgering comments.” Then I retaliated with, “Besides, you weren't even there. It's not like you know what had happened at the game. You had abandoned me.”

Her snarl dropped to resignation and she ignored my attack, “You disappoint me, Copper. Never in all my days would I have pegged you to stoop so low as to lash out at your players. Remember when my students said you were long suffering when it came to your teams?”

“Yes.”

“Did you ever think to rip them apart to the parents or call them out in the papers when you did catch the rare interview?”

“No.”

“Why?”

I argued, “It's different. These are grown men who are paid to do a job. If they don't do it well, they get fired.”

“They're still people who deserve better from you. Besides, you've got youth players on your squad also. Did you call them out too?”

I blurted, “I called everyone out because I'm the coach. It's my job.”

“It's your job to do what?”

“To help them.”

She interrupted, “Bingo! Now say it again so it gets drilled into your thick skull.”

Again, her direct approach was deadly. It broke throught the final barrier of misunderstanding I had held since Bobby chastised me in the lockers following my disastrous media interview. I repeated my own words one more time silently in my head, “I am the coach and it's my job to help them.”

Further humbled, I looked at Robin and said, “Thanks, for pointing that out to me. I had forgotten that essential job component.”

“You're welcome. But you're still on the hook.”

“Why? What for this time?” I asked innocently.

“Are you truly that thick?”

“What?” Obviously I was and didn't know how to admit it.

“Did you miss me?”

“Terribly.” Then I added with a bit of anger. “How come you iced me out?”

She stopped what she was doing in the kitchen and looked directly at me. I hesitated and tensed myself for what was about to come. Suddenly, she had that look about her and I knew Round Two was about to commence.

“How come I iced you out?” She put her right hand on her hip and pointed her left hand at my head. “Have you completely stopped thinking since you started coaching again?”

“No. I want to know why you iced me out.” I stammered defiantly.

“Fine,” she said resignedly, “I'll spell it out for you nice and slow. How many times have I called and talked to your voice mail because you were in the middle of some important football activity?”

“I admit it. It's about once every third day.”

“How many short email responses did I get back from you because you didn't have any time to go into any detail?”

“I regret to say it was more often than that.”

“How often did time get away from you and, before you knew it, you had forgotten to call me back before I went to bed?”

“I'm ashamed to tell you on more occasions than you deserved.”

She had started to cry as she spoke and my heart had melted a bit more with each successive example of my negligence which she had spelled out accurately. I tried to reach out to her, to hold her, but she shoved my arms away and said, “You hurt me. You hurt me real bad. I haven't completely healed, despite last night.”

I offered, “I'm sorry. So very sorry, Robin. It won't happen again.”

She put up both her hands in a stop sign and shook her head no. She choked out, “Stop. Stop making promises you won't keep.”

“I mean it this time. Honest. I do.”

“You mean it?” she questioned angrily. “You also ignored me the last time you coached, remember? I told you before that I wasn't going to play second fiddle to your mistress I call football. You promised me that coaching Blyth was going to be different. You promised me, Copper. And you broke your promise. Again.”

I didn't know what to say so I said nothing. She paused for a short time to compose herself and then continued, “Do you expect me to believe you? To trust in you?”

“Yes. I realize now how bad I've screwed up and hurt you. I mean it. I want to make it better.”

“Yeah, right. Copper, unlike you, when it comes to us, I mean what I say and I say what I mean. You shut me out, so I shut you out. However you want to package it; Tit-for-tat. Golden Rule. What's good for the goose is good for the gander. I don't really care anymore. It's time for you to step up and be a man again. Be the man you were when I first fell in love with you. Be the man I desperately wanted to marry.”

Her plea shamed me absolutely. She had me dead to rights and I couldn't argue a single point she had made. Utterly frustrated, I argued one last point out of reflex more than true belief, “Well, if I did such horrible, hurtful things to you, why'd you finally come back to me last night and welcome me with open arms?”

Without saying a word, Robin reached up and took my face gently in her hands. She turned my head so I could look right into her eyes. With tears still formed in the corners of her eyes, she sniffled, and said, “Because I made a promise when I married you. For better or for worse...until death us do part.”

She kissed me and I tasted her tears. Then she pulled away to add, “Like you, I'm a teacher. I teach my lessons by telling, showing, and doing. My students learn by listening to me, watching what I do, and living my life as they walk in my footsteps.”

She paused again and the silence settled between us. “You didn't hear me when I said I needed you. You didn't watch me suffer because you were absent. I had nothing left to do but make you live my life and walk in my footsteps for a bit. You needed to experience for yourself what you made me endure. Have you learned your lesson yet?”

I teared up too when it finally hit me how much pain my selfishness had caused her. “I have.” I replied.

She smiled warmly, tenderly reached out to my left hand, and carefully touched our wedding bands together. Then, with her hand embracing mine, she looked back into my eyes and asked, “Do you promise?”

As sincerely as I could, I smiled and whispered, “I do.”

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Chapter 23

Sunday, 04 May 2008, Bobby's Office, Blyth

The past month had been a whirlwind of emotions. Even though I had fully imagined having this opportunity for years, I hadn't nearly expected it to be so completely taxing. Any emotional reserves I had restored last night with my wife were depleted this morning over breakfast.

I had left my apartment, my heart filled with hope having saved my relationship with Robin, and arrived at Croft Park, where I despaired at meeting Bobby for fear I would surely be sacked. Even though I tried to escape them, these facts still bound me. My tumultuous start had resulted in Blyth's mediocre finish. My managerial inexperience had gotten the better of me and I had lost the team's respect as fast as I had lost my temper with the player's mediocrity.

In my mind, I tried to accept the inevitable for what it was; a failed attempt at pursuing a dream. I attempted to convince myself that all was not lost. I still had my health and I still had Robin. I'd go back to the States and return to my former life, teaching gym classes to lower elementary students, and watching Rafa's Revolution continue via Sky Sports and the Internet.

However, in my heart, I couldn't concede defeat; at least not like this. I argued that I had applied for sixty jobs in various coaching roles to pursue what I knew deep in my soul I was born to do. Everything about my life up to this point had led me down this path I currently traveled. First, my high school heyday as a hometown hero until a season-ending injury took it all away. Then, my rehabilitated return to start off college lasted long enough to have an injury-plagued college career riding the bench before finally getting dropped from the team. Afterwards, my self-imposed exile from the sport until I could recover fully from my college experiences. And finally, my bittersweet return to the sport, first as a U-9 recreational youth coach and then, last, as a championship winning high school coach with a program in a free fall.

In every fiber of my being, I felt destined for success in football. My personality traits both as a leader and a servant were the perfect complement to manage a squad of men to greater heights. My patient temperament and driving ambition suited someone striving for long-term success. My unyielding integrity could be a beacon to others lost in a world consumed with win-at-all costs mentalities.

The northeast of England required a hardy person to live there. It required commitment, passion, and a stubborn spirit to survive the elements. The economy wasn't great, but the fan support matched any of the high class clubs out of London. In some cases, it was even stronger, because the hometown football club was the only club in town, not one of many in each neighboring suburb.

The club supporters in the northeast demanded dogged determination and commanded unquestioned commitment from its players and its managers. If someone demonstrated those things day in and day out for the club, they earned unyielding respect from its supporters. However, if they lacked the qualities required to become an insider, they would forever remain an outsider.

I was an outsider. I was an American who had replaced Harry Dunn, an Englishman and an insider. Dunn took Blyth by the scruff of the neck and dragged them into the Blue Square North while I grabbed the club by its tail and held them back to narrowly avoid relegation. I'd never had any dealings with Dunn other than his brutal note on his way out the door, but it seemed to me that he commanded undying support from some of the players on the current team, especially Fenton, the constant thorn in my side who waited expectantly for my sacking.

The only advocate I had in this grinding environment was Bobby Bell, the chairman who loved this club despite a tinkering Board impatient for success. He had strong ideas on how his pride and joy should be cultivated and he believed I would be the best candidate to make his garden grow, regardless of the pressures to achieve immediate success through cutthroat, strong arm tactics and ambitious spending policies.

Bell was the last line of defense I had. I needed him to battle on my behalf more valiantly than I had on his thus far. I hoped I could somehow repay him for his faith and be the manager he initially believed me to be when he first hired me. I wanted him to have the last laugh with his Board.

Yesterday's sun had become today's rain. I hoped the weather didn't reflect the state of affairs inside Bobby's office, but I promised to walk in tall, take what I had coming like a professional, and walk out the same way I had come in; under my own power and with the strength of my convictions.

I passed by the trophy display in the reception area and wished I had been given enough time to make a difference with this club. I saw the six photos on the walls of the former players who made it big in the leagues farther up the FA ladder and regretted not being able to manage any players promoted above the league Blyth currently played.

Bobby's door was open, but I knocked and waited for permission to enter.

He had a newspaper turned open on the table by the window overlooking the stadium grounds. The smell of fresh coffee filled the air and coupled nicely with the wooden furnishings in his office to make it seem inviting.

“Come in Copper, I'm glad you're on time.”

“Thank you Bobby. I'm sorry you had to meet with me so soon after the season ended.”

“Me too.” He motioned me over to the table to sit down. I accepted.

The headline read, “Bell Rings Support For Horse Despite 5-1 Loss to Kettering”. I scanned the rest of the article. Nothing in it flattered me.

“I could take a while to lecture you Copper, but I won't waste our time. I want to get right to the point.”

I said nothing and waited for the ax to fall.

Bobby paused for a few moments and then said, “Do you know how many hours I spent last night trying to fix your latest meltdown?”

“Too many?” I offered.

“You're damn right! I spent most of yesterday on the phone with the newspaper, the radio, the supporter's club, the Board, the coaching staff, and my wife, trying to work out a resolution that was in the best interests of Blyth over the long-term. I believe your future with our club is decided.”

I thought to myself, “Be strong, you earned this decision by your actions. Accept it. Learn from it. Don't let it happen ever again.” I stood up and turned to face Bobby directly. In a strong voice, I asked Bobby, “Well, what has been decided?”

“You are still the best manager for this club.” A smile broke free across his face and he hugged me tight.

I was grateful for his support because my knees suddenly went weak. I recovered, but not in time before Bobby noticed.

“Are you a bit relieved?”

“You have absolutely no idea.”

“Good. I'm glad it mattered to you so much. It made my efforts worth it to keep you around through next season to give you a real shot at showing all of us what you might be able to do with some time, some support, and some maturity.” His final words ended on a note of sternness.

I heeded his warning and asked, “Thank you. Truly, from the bottom of my heart, thanks.”

“Well, you might not want to be thanking me quite yet.” He proceeded to open a folder on his desk and pull out a document for me to see.

“What's this?”

“This is the document that spells out the conditions of your probationary status with the club. By signing this document, you agree to meet the conditions written out for you to remain on as manager for next season.”

My relief was replaced by apprehension. “You mean, I'm not sacked, but I'm not manager either?”

“Not exactly. You are still Blyth's manager, but you'll be sacked if you don't sign it.”

“Oh.”

“Copper, consider yourself fortunate to still have a job. It was not an easy sell to keep you on next season. You'll find out as soon as you start reading what price you will have to pay in order to stay. Let me warn you, however, the Board made it quite costly for you.”

“What's the price I'll have to pay. I don't have much money.”

“Essentially, you'll be fined two weeks wages for your professional misconduct. You'll need to do a radio interview with the local radio station to apologize for your outburst, to outline your summer plans, and to explain your goals for next season. You'll need to do the same thing for the local newspaper as well. The cost for these activities will be paid for out of your fined wages. Furthermore, you'll need to work with our youth teams this summer and you will need to be present at the monthly meeting of the Blyth's Supporter's Club to apologize for your actions and directly answer all appropriate questions from our supporters face to face.”

“Ouch. That's a pretty high price to pay.”

“I never said it would be easy. But you need to understand the consequences of your actions. The only way I could see you learning this important concept is by immersing you in our community. Apologizing and seeking forgiveness are an essential part of the healing process if you are ever going to restore your relationship with our community of players and people successfully.”

“Is there any other way?”

“Not if you want respect. Not if you want forgiveness. Is this too much to ask?”

I thought for a moment. It was a mighty steep price to pay for a month's worth of work. Then I said to Bobby, “Will you give me a few minutes to think it over?”

“Sure. But either way, you will leave today having signed either the probationary discipline document or your resignation letter.”

I left his office and went immediately to the kitchen. I returned within two minutes.

I threw down a plate, a fork, and a glass and said, “I'm ready to eat some humble pie.”

“I'm proud of you, Copper. I'm delighted with your sense of humor too.” and we both laughed.

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Chapter 24

Sunday, 04 May 2008, Croft Park, Blyth

The rain fell and washed down over the roof of the car. It's cleansing powers seemed to match my mood following my meeting with Bobby in his office. Bobby had laid out the truth. If I was to remain manager at Blyth, I'd need to behave differently. I'd need to start being the professional manager he hired me to be and I needed to do it quick because I had run out of chances both with the Board and with Bobby.

Back home, Robin waited for me to return with bad news. However, before I had left, she had laid out some truth too. If I was to remain her husband, I'd need to behave differently. I'd need to start being the husband with whom she had first fallen in love and I was running out of time.

My chest tightened with these thoughts and my hands shook from the adrenaline overload inspired by Bobby's ultimatum. Accepting responsibility for my rash actions over the past month with my team, with the media, and with the community was not something I looked forward to, but it was something I needed to do if I wanted to pay the price of managing in this tight-knit Blyth community.

Time slipped on and I realized I had spent quite some time lost in thought. The cool rain outside had collided with the warmth of my body heat and fogged up the car windows from the inside. I chuckled and contemplated the irony of the situation.

Truly, I couldn't see anything in front of me and I knew that my life was the same way. I had spent the last month so focused on what was right in front of me in the short term that I had lost sight of what was waiting for me in the distance out there. Wanting to get some perspective, I stepped out my car and into the rain.

My car was the only one left at Croft Park. I was alone and glad for it. What I needed to do, I didn't want anyone to see. I walked to the gates, unlocked them with my key, and entered the stadium. I walked to the Carlsberg stand and removed my shoes and socks. I took off my coat and shirt and walked out onto the soggy pitch in just my pants. The rain had covered my glasses in water spots so I cast them to the side on top of my clothes. The mud squished underfoot, seeking the path of least resistance between my toes. My body chilled from the rain, but my heart burned hot with desire for the task at hand. I moved purposefully toward my technical area, my cage without walls, and stepped into the rut I had worn into it from my ceaseless pacing.

I worked my feet back and forth until they were covered completely in mud. Standing motionless until I seemed anchored in place, I leaned back and looked heavenward. The raindrops forced my eyes closed, so I opened my mouth instead. Taking a deep breath, I filled my lungs and arched my back to accommodate as much air as I could hold. Then, I held my breath until it burst out reflexively. I repeated the process twice more, but ended up losing my balance and fell forward onto my knees in the mud.

Steam rose into the air from my bare chest and I reached down to fill my hands with mud. I balled them into fists and the mud oozed out between my fingers and onto the ground once more. Frustration seeped into my mind. Knowing I still hadn't won a game irritated me. We had come close a couple of times, but a single victory still eluded me, even against the lower league teams with whom we had scheduled friendlies.

Tracing this frustration inward, I reflected upon the players' efforts these past few weeks. Their attitudes and efforts ground at me in a daily battle and my chest started to bubble in anger. Why couldn't they buy into what I was trying to do here? How could they fail to see that what I wanted for them was in their best interests too?

Following this thought, I concluded that I was the one who was at fault for their actions. I recalled a scene from the movie, Remember the Titans, where two of the main characters had argued with each other about the other's motivation to perform. Finally, one of them told the other, “Attitude reflects leadership, Captain.”

I was the captain of this team now. Robert Dale and Andrew Gleeson may be the leaders of the players as captains on this team, but they still had to answer to me. Fenton may have been the team's coaching leader from when Dunn managed the club, but he is still the assistant coach and he answers to me now. I am this team's leader. My attitude and behaviors lead this team through wins and losses. Ultimately, I am responsible for providing the vision for them to follow. I don't follow them, even if my experience isn't typical of a manager in these leagues. I had gotten it confused ever since I had arrived.

The ******** drama over the past month was my fault. I knew it with every fiber of my being. Suddenly, I totally and completely abhorred my technical area and everything for which it stood over the past month. Rage exploded from deep within my belly and my arms surged skyward reflexively. Balling my hands into fists, I slammed them into the ground. The mud spattered outward. With each passing thought that I traced back to my fault, I smashed the muddy ground again.

Like a warrior in battle, I tried cleaving the earth with my arms and fists. Mud splashed onto my chest, my face, my hair, and inside my mouth. I spat it out like poison and smashed some more. My forearms hurt from my exertion and I could already feel them start to swell. But, I needed more pain to purge my spirit and to leech my hatred. I needed to destroy my technical area completely.

After I had destroyed most of my technical area with my bare hands, my savage rage ebbed and I knelt in the mud exhausted. I stood up and looked around. Still no one had noticed and I wiped my muddy hair away from my eyes before I walked slowly back across the field to my clothes. I gathered them up carefully and headed to the showers to clean up the outside of my body too.

For the first time since I had arrived in Blyth, I felt comfortable in my own skin again.

With my spirit refreshed, I knew what I wanted to tell the team, the media, and the community. However, that would happen tomorrow.

First things first, I also knew what I wanted to tell Robin later today and I looked forward to that reunion with pleasant anticipation.

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Chapter 25

Sunday, 04 May 2008, My Apartment, Blyth

“Copper, what the hell happened to your pants?”

“I don't want to talk about it.”

“Why not?”

“It's personal.” Even though Robin asked a reasonable question, I didn't believe in telling her everything, especially when it had to do with my coaching. Then, after I had considered what I did to the field, I really knew I didn't want to try and explain it.

“Fine, whatever, but do you still have a job?” I could tell she was miffed.

“For the time being anyway.”

“That's good.”

“I hope, but I have to give you some bad news too.” I hesitated to tell her about Bobby's ultimatum.

She sensed my feelings and said, “Spit it out. What did you do now?”

I had already used up my one secret, so I offered her the truth on this one instead. “I've got an interview tomorrow on the radio as well as I need to draft an open letter to the paper apologizing for my actions.”

She stared at me and her stern expression told it all. Finally, she said, “Good. It's about time you pay the price for your actions.”

“I agree, but there's more.”

“Really?”

“Yes. I've also been put on probation and have been fined two weeks' wages as a penalty for my unprofessional conduct.” I waited for her response.

She didn't disappoint. “Are you kidding me?”

“I wish I were.”

She shook her head and said, “Copper, you are so damn stubborn, it's staggering.”

“I know, but I've fixed that today.”

“Really? How? Is this somehow related to your dirty knees?”

Surprised by her accurate observation, I still resisted sharing with her what I had done. I tried to throw her off the trail with some humor and replied in my best Hollywood acting voice. “That's confidential. You'll find out on a need to know basis and, right now, you don't need to know.”

Robin wasn't appreciating my humor, but the phone rang before she could reply, so she went to answer it. Relieved at the timing, I followed behind her close enough to hear her say, “Hello?”

The angry voice shouting on the other end of the line exploded into the receiver. “Put Copper on the goddam phone right now!”

She braced herself and asked, “And who the hell are you?”

“I'm the Groundskeeper at the club dammit! Now get him on the phone! I've got a bone to pick with that sonofabitch!”

Her eyes flashed and I knew what he had coming to him. Her body tensed, but she used her best acting voice and replied, “He's not here yet. He had a meeting with Bobby this morning and hasn't made it home yet. Have you seen him today?”

He ignored all her questions and pushed onward, “Fine, but you tell that ass that the next time he destroys my grounds, I'm gonna knock the s**t out of him with my own bare hands. You better do your job and keep your man under control. He's a feckin' nutter, that one.”

Her face turned crimson and I knew her stack had blown. Like a mother protecting her young, she laid him out right back. “Does your mother know you talk like that to women? I don't give a goddam rat's ass what Copper did to you at the club, but if you ever talk to me like that again, I'll be damn sure to beat your ass down for disrespecting me. Then, I'll ring your mother and tell her how you plumb forgot how to treat a lady with class and dignity. Besides, Copper might be a lot of things, but a nutter ain't one of them. The whole lot of you better lighten up pretty damn quick.”

The Groundskeeper's tone changed after her assault. “Sorry. He pi**ed me off is all.”

She wasn't done. “Yeah, well I'm getting pi**ed off by the whole lot of you as well. He's a good man. I know you Englanders love your football, but so does he. He's just misunderstood right now. You ***** have locked him out and never gave him a chance to show you what he can do. Hell, if you ignorant folks would stop looking down your noses at him long enough to actually see him for who he really is, you might be surprised at what you learn.”

He apologized once more for his outburst.

Her tone matched his and she ended with, “Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to find my broom. Us witches use them to fly, you know.”

He chuckled, “I'm sure you're not a witch.”

Robin copied his chuckle, “And I'm sure your not ignorant. Now, if you'll please excuse me...”

She gently placed the receiver back in its cradle and turned to me, her smile disappearing easily. She spoke, “It's official now. Out with it. I need to know what you did for me to deserve that abusive phone call.”

Sheepishly, I offered, “I did some landscaping?”

“Bull crap. What did you do?”

Still resistant, I answered, “Let's just say that I took matters into my own hands and made my mark on the club.”

She chuckled a moment, shook her head in disbelief and persisted, “Just give me the facts, Copper. What did you do?”

Finally, she broke my resolve and I confessed. “I destroyed what I could of the technical area with my bare hands.”

She said nothing and looked at me in complete shock. “You've cracked, haven't you? You really are a nutter, aren't you now?”

“No.” I defended, “I'm fine now. Honest.”

“I doubt it. He was right. You are completely off your rocker and have entirely lost your marbles.” She moved across to the kitchen drawers and started rummaging around looking for a phone book.

I reached out to her and spun her around. “Robin, I'm fine, really.”

She turned around again to continue her search. She said, you've got anger issues and need to speak to a professional about them.”

I said to her back, “I can handle it, honest.”

She whirled back around to face me, her voice strident. “Like you've handled it so far?”

“You might laugh at me, but it was like the movies. Destroying my technical area was a good thing. It was like a cleansing experience and the manual labor was good for my soul. Every good guy in the movies has to face up to their inner demons and overcome them in order to be a hero at the end.”

“Yeah, Copper. Good for you and all that, but this isn't the movies. This is real life and I don't need any more aggravation resulting from your sideline antics and interactions with either the players or the media. Dammit! Money is tight and we need the money your job brings to this house. It will become even more important once my teaching ends because I won't have a job.”

I smiled at her and said, “Robin, I know all of these things. You can truly trust me that I'll be better. I know you think talk is cheap, but you'll see that my actions will speak louder than my words.”

“Really?” she hesitated to smile back at me. This time her resolve needed some breaking.

I snuggled right up into her arms and teased, “Really.” and I kissed her softly on her forehead. Then I said in a low voice, “Speaking of movies, Remember when Indiana Jones was on the ship all beaten up and his girl nursed him back to health with kisses?”

She held my hands gently in hers and asked, “Yes, but why do you need my nursing skills?”

“My arms and hands are killing me from my work.”

“You really are a horse's ass, aren't you.” as she smiled, she squeezed my hands tightly.

I winced, but still answered, “Yes, but I'm your horse's ass exclusively.”

Finally broken, she laughed and then, as only she could do, she held my face in her hands, leaned in close and kissed me tenderly on the mouth. The taste of juice that still remained on her soft lips from breakfast whet my appetite for something more than her special omelettes on match days.

“First things first, Robin.” and I scooped her up into my arms to carry her to the sleeping bag. The pain was just as intense as it was earlier in the rain, but I welcomed it openly because I knew that this too would aid in my healing process.

Besides, I knew in my heart that at the end of every good movie, the hero always gets the girl.

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Chapter 26

Sunday, 11 May 2008, Bobby's Office, Blyth

“I'm proud of your work this week, Copper.”

“Thank you. It was incredibly difficult to apologize to all those people this week.”

“I know, but the seeds have now been planted and watered. We just have to wait for them to grow into something we can harvest next season. Our first harvest occurs on 30 June, when all the player contracts are finalized.”

“Are you nervous about that?”

He leaned back in his wooden chair and responded, “Not anymore. I've gotten used to high turnover in these leagues. It's inevitable because not everyone wants to play part-time forever. Talented players get scooped up by the leagues above us and sign full-time professional contracts. Those players with lots of ambition but little talent get frustrated and switch clubs or they retire.”

“So how do you do it year after year?”

He leaned forward in his seat. “The key is knowing where you have your focus.”

“What do you mean?”

“If you're focused only on winning titles, then you're tempted to spend more money to chase more titles. That's what happened to us this past season. We'd won the title in the league below us and we got very hungry to win again this season.”

“But, that's natural, isn't it? Success breeds success.”

“True, but there's a formula grounded in reality that we ignored this year.”

“What's that?”

“Resources equal vision plus ambition.”

“Isn't that backwards?”

He stood up and walked over to stand by the window. “That's what your supposed to think, but it's the right way to do things if you want to survive in this business over the long-term.”

“Can you give me an example so I can see it better?”

He paused for a moment before answering, “Sure, let's look at the clubs in England.”

“Okay.”

“Liverpool, our favorite club, has won more league titles than any other club in the Premier League. However, they haven't won the league title for a long time. The experts can say why they think it is, but I believe it boils down to correctly allocating their resources.”

“Are you talking money?”

“Not just money, Copper.” He gestured out the window and continued, “Resources can also be time, money, people, facilities, and reputation.”

In the past few seasons, Manchester United and Chelsea are the most dominant teams in the English Premier League. Both of them have world-class everything: facilities, reputations, players, and money. Therefore, they can afford to have world class ambitions and visions. They can afford to attract the attentions of the very best players from around the world and they can afford to buy them.”

“How do Liverpool and Arsenal fit in?”

“They don't have the same standard of resources that those two clubs have available to them. Therefore, Liverpool and Arsenal must employ a different strategy to chase glory. Because they can't afford to buy established, world-class talent, they have to invest in young talent and hope they can blossom in the future. Wenger has chosen France primarily as a scouting area, whereas Benitez has chosen Spain. This works well because those managers are of those nationalities.”

“Well what about the rest of the English clubs outside the Big Four?”

He moved away from the window and sat down in the chair next to me on my side of his desk. “Personally, I believe they are limited by their unclear vision. With the exceptions of Everton, Blackburn, and Aston Villa the other clubs turn over managers far too quickly to clarify their visions and achieve long-term success.”

“Well what makes Everton, Blackburn, and Aston Villa different?”

“They have chairmen who are patient enough to allow their vision to be determined by the manager in charge. It takes time for that manager's vision to clarify because when he arrives, he must have time to transform the culture of the club into his vision. If the players don't buy into that vision, it takes time for them to be replaced with new players who do believe in the vision the managers have laid out for the club.”

“So why aren't more chairmen patient?”

“Because they've overextended themselves trying to compete for glory immediately. They don't have a sufficient resource infrastructure in place to support their grand ambitions and visions consistently. It's a precarious position to be in.”

“How so?” I thought I understood what he was driving at, but I wanted to be sure.

He paused again and spent some time considering my question before he responded with, “Let me try to describe it simply. A new chairman buys a club. If he's overextended himself to buy it in any way, then he's under pressure to win immediately because money must come into the club quickly to keep the team solvent. If the existing manager doesn't win right away, regardless of the reasons, then he panics and hires a new manager to fix things. However, this desperate act won't improve the situation unless the vision and ambitions of the new manager match those of the old one and also agree with the resources available to him when he is hired by the chairman.”

“But each manager is different and tries to do things his way, right?”

“You're absolutely right. That's why the majority of clubs are in a constant desperation cycle. They spend money they don't already have on players, coaches, facilities, and marketing with the hope of earning enough money to make ends meet when all is said and done at the end of the season. However, many of them fail because the original manager's clear vision has been muddied with each successive attempt at fulfilling each successive manager's personal vision for the club. Once a clear vision focus is lost, the desperation cycle begins.”

“What's the desperation cycle?”

“Newcastle United.”

“Enough said.”

“Good.”

“How do you think all of this translates to us at Blyth?” Again, I wanted to make sure I knew what he was driving at because I needed to know what I should be doing this coming season to repay his faith in me.

“We started to fall into the desperation cycle when the new board came in after achieving success in the lower league.”

“I don't quite understand.”

“We won a title. The new Board wanted to keep winning titles immediately. So, our board agreed to spend nearly 500K on player salaries when our club's total worth is only 375K. By agreeing to pay more in wages than our club was worth, it put us in a situation where we needed to win immediately in this season to stay financially solvent.”

“But we didn't win. We barely scraped by in 19th place.”

“Exactly. That's why we're nearly bankrupt. That's why I pushed so hard to hire you here in Blyth. You've got the skills to do this job using the resources we have available to us. In speaking with you during those weeks following our introduction in that Liverpool pub, I saw your vision for the club and I believed in it. I'm patient enough to support you in your efforts.”

“Wow. Thank you.” I still felt uncomfortable with the level of trust he had in me, but also, I was incredibly grateful for it, especially considering all the mistakes I'd made in my single month as a Spartan.

“Yeah, well that was then, this is now. I'm concerned by your temper and your ability to handle pressure situations. You've shown some pretty tangible signs you can't handle the pressures of managing even an obscure club like ours.”

I started to interrupt him to say something in my defense, but he held up his hand and interjected, “Take a few seconds to think, Copper. From where I'm standing, based on the technical area last Sunday following our meeting, my gardening skills far surpass yours.”

His comment struck me hard and I followed his advice while I swallowed my pride. I replied, “You're absolutely right, Bobby. However, I've taken steps to fix that.”

He smiled at me and said, “We look out for each other here, Copper, but it's going to take more than a week of public apologies to make up for the damage you've done since your arrival.”

“Is this where the community comes in?”

“Exactly. You are bright when you choose. Now, I just need you to choose to be bright more frequently. Your erratic emotional behavior and player management style is disruptive to this club and our community. You don't realize yet how much destruction you've done to this club in your first month, but I'm hopeful that you'll come to understand and appreciate it over the summer holidays in time to make amends before next season begins.”

I was determined to show him he was correct in placing his faith in me and I replied confidently, “I won't let you down, Bobby, I promise.”

“I hope you're right.” Then, he sprung up lightly from his chair beside me and bounded over to his closet on the other side of the room. He paused before opening it and said, “Now, enough heavy talk. It's summer and it should be a lighter mood around here. For some time, I've wanted to get you a gift that would truly make you feel welcomed here at Blyth, but I couldn't think of an appropriate gift.”

“You didn't have to do that.” I argued gently.

“Yes, I did. Your vision is the future of this club. I'm wise enough to see that you're having a hard time adapting to Blyth's club culture. But your interviews and apologies this week have made it clear that your vision and ambition match the resources that we have available at the club and I am confident that I've found the right gift to symbolize the new change we are going through here.”

“Really?”

He turned back around to face his closet and opened the door. Then, he reached inside to a shelf and removed a gift box. Bobby faced me once more and offered, “I had this made for you especially.”

I took the box and felt its heft immediately. I wondered what it was and opened it carefully. As soon as I removed the top and saw his gift, I was overwhelmed.

Inside lay a solitary, unadorned, stamped figure of a horse made exclusively from a pure sheet of copper.

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Chapter 27

Sunday, 01 June 2008, My Office, Croft Park

“Robin, here's Bobby's gift I was telling you about.” I stopped outside my door. Finally, Dunn's nameplate on the wall had been removed and in it's place hung my horse made of copper.

She gazed upon it silently. She reached out and lightly brushed her fingertips across its smooth, shiny surface and whispered, “It's beautiful.” Then, she added, “It's more than beautiful, it's perfect.”

I agreed with her. Bobby had chosen the perfect gift. Like a logo with brand-name recognition, everyone knew before whose office they stood.

I unlocked the door and ushered her inside. My office had remained much the same as when Harry Dunn had used this space as his headquarters. The walls were empty still and it remained sparsely furnished. I hated it and had asked Robin to help me make it more pleasant.

As soon as she entered the space, she spat out flatly, “It's ugly.” Then, after walking to my desk and scanning the rest of the room she admitted, “It's more than ugly, it's despicable.”

“Why?” I inquired softly. I was interested in her reasoning.

“It's empty and cold like a mausoleum. How can you get any work done in this awful place?”

“Well, I don't spend much time in here. It's not like this matters compared to the rest of the place. The only important part of this entire job is what happens out on the pitch. Results are the only thing that matter in this business.”

Robin pursed her lips in a familiar manner. I knew she wanted to say more, but to her credit, she had bitten her tongue wisely. I envied her self-control. Had our roles been reversed, I knew I'd have spouted out what I was thinking without regard for my present company. That was my way.

“Don't debate this point, Robin, because you and I both know now that managing here is a cruel business with little job security. It's not like coaching high school, especially when I built the program from the ground up and didn't have to worry about relegations, much less the pressure of winning any matches.”

“I'll grant you that.” she said tersely. “However, what happens in this office does find its way onto the field, regardless of what you believe. It is essential for you to have a safe place where you can retreat when you suffer on the inside because of what has happened outside on the pitch.”

“I have a retreat.” and I thought about my many nights spent inside the Carlsberg stand looking out at the pitch with only the moon and stars to light my surroundings; the smell of stale beer both lingering in the air and trapped within the wooden structure itself.

“Well I'm glad, but you need to have a warm and welcoming place, especially if you are meeting them for professional business. Besides, if I know you correctly, you've probably got someplace outside where you go to retreat. Am I right?”

I blushed automatically.

She laughed and grabbed my hand affectionately. “Copper, you're so predictable.”

“I know, but that's a good thing, right? It means you can count on me?”

“Yes, I can count on you. However, it also means you can be played the fool by someone smart enough to figure you out. That worries me because, in this job, people are cruel and vindictive. They won't stop until they win, no matter what the cost and without regard to whom they have hurt.”

I considered what she had just said. I remembered reading in the papers that about 35 sackings had occurred this past year in the English Leagues alone. I did a quick calculation and discovered that each season about 25% of the managers lose their jobs for one reason or another. In fact, some of them had been quite successful by common standards, yet they were let go and replaced by other managers just as ambitious to succeed.

Robin seemed to read my mind. “Frankly Copper, I'm surprised you still have a job. I didn't expect you to last, especially with the public outcry of non-support for you in those final two matches. But I am proud of Bobby for sticking to his guns and backing you for another season, despite the probationary status you're currently under.”

I was too. Inside, I didn't feel I deserved a second chance. I was on a crazy train to Nowhere and had traveled there fast. The momentum I had built up during my first month on the job required Bobby to impose some serious penalties on me and, even then I couldn't stop myself and pulled my stunt with the field immediately following his ultimatum meeting. Had Robin not interceded on my behalf so effectively when the Groundskeeper called to rip me a new one, I wonder if that act of mild insanity would have been my final swan song in Blyth.

Robin rolled on with her one woman discussion, “I'm warning you again, Copper. You better figure out a way to control your temper. No one wants a loose cannon for their leader.”

I already knew that but Robin wasn't stopping for feedback. She continued, “Also, you need to trust the people around you to share the burden of leading this team. If you don't, you'll find yourself looking for new work and this might be the only shot you'll get at being a manager. It's not like you have any kind of pedigree to show these football purists.”

Controlling my temper was fine. Trusting my coaching staff was different.

I trusted Neil Baker, Bobby's friend from during his own university days. Even though he was a bit rough around the edges, he was a good, decent man who had used all of his coaching experience to keep me as grounded as possible during those final two weeks. Without his well-timed jokes and salt-of-the earth common sense comments, I believed I'd have lost my mind completely as he stood beside me and, sometimes, even restrained me on the sidelines both at matches and in training.

I was indifferent to Darren Cunningham, the silent type who seemed to vanish whenever conflict was present. He was one of the few coaches I knew who could be present, yet still be a wallflower at the same time. I knew he helped our club and some of the younger players seemed to like him, but on the rare occasion when he shared an opinion about something related to the team, it never seemed to connect directly to the immediate discussion at hand.

I didn't trust Graham Fenton as far as I could throw him, despite my best efforts to work collaboratively with him. Ever since our first meeting when he kept calling me “Sir” even after being asked repeatedly to call me Copper, he rubbed me the wrong way. I tried to give the man every benefit of the doubt because the veteran players made it clear to me that he was the resident expert in charge. Knowing how they felt about him, I trusted him with some important training responsibilities. I sought his opinion and followed his advice when I tried to motivate them. Hell, I even played him in the starting lineup for the first time in his last five seasons. I had extended every professional courtesy to him, but he seemed to be working against me behind my back and my instincts considered him to be a cancer on this team.

“Hello! Are you even listening to me?” Robin's exasperated inquiry interrupted my thoughts.

“Sorry.” I feebly replied.

“Dammit, Copper. Focus.”

Her stern reprimand cut me and I shouted at her, “I am trying to focus. However, unlike you, I've been thinking about the big picture. The overall design of the team is far more important than my office, you know.”

Too late to retract my comments, I realized my instinctive outburst had sucker punched the woman I loved.

Her face turned a shade of red. Her eyes, once they recovered from the sting of my blow, stared daggers at me and I knew from past experience that, yet again, I had bitten off more than I could chew. I knew no words were going to stop the riptide about to sweep me off my feet and out to sea.

As she squared up to face me directly with her hands on her hips, all I could think was, “My oh my, what kind of dumb ass am I?”

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Chapter 28

Sunday, 01 June 2008, My Office, Croft Park

I steeled myself for Robin to lay me out like I'd seen her do it plenty of times to other people, most recently, Blyth's Groundskeeper.

She looked at me and waited. Quickly, she shook her head in disbelief the slightest bit and waited some more. It looked like she was ready to finish me off, but instead of yelling, she used sign language instead. She extended her left arm towards me and turned her palm upwards. Then, Robin extended her middle finger upwards and flipped me off.

I started to interrupt with an apology, but she cut me off immediately by adjusting her hand position to show me “Stop.” I did. Following that, she gave me a series of hand gestures that I had to focus on to understand. First, she pointed her index finger at me. Then, she made two fists and put them side by side with her thumbs toward each other. She twisted them away from each other like she was breaking some small sticks and finished by touching her heart gently with her index finger.

I guessed aloud, “I break your heart?”

She nodded agreement.

I was gutted instantly. However, I was amazed too. I thought to myself, “How can she level me so completely without even saying a word?”

Robin spun on her heels and walked out the office door. She paused a moment outside it, kissed her fingertips, and touched them lightly to my copper horse nameplate. Then she added, “Follow me, this will just take a moment.”

I followed her directive and hustled quickly to catch up to her, still smarting from her non-verbal chastisement. She led me to the waiting area where the player's photos were displayed above the trophy case. We stood together silently and I wondered what led her here.

We waited together until I started getting restless and shuffled my feet from side to side. She reached her hand out to still my motion. Her light touch stopped me and I turned toward her.

Her expression had softened slightly, but I could still see the embers of the fire still glowing in her eyes. She asked me, “What do you see?”

“Where, in the photos?”

“Yes.”

I immediately responded, “I see players who've won a championship and who've been promoted to teams in higher leagues.”

“Is that all you see?”

I paused a moment because I didn't know what she was driving home. I tried grasping for something logical to say, but nothing came to mind. “Yes. But I don't know what you're trying to show me.” I admitted.

“Look closer.”

I did. The team photos had players who sat together perfectly posed on the stadium stands with a banner below them indicating the year in which they played. The individual photos were close-ups of them and they looked similarly professional. “I see a bunch of professionals looking nice for the cameras.”

“Something's missing from these photos.” Robin stated quietly.

Still confused, I examined them closely and searched for something that I had missed before. I still couldn't anything wrong. “Everything's there, I think.”

She smiled at me and asked, “Are you sure?”

I looked to the photos again. I looked back to Robin, still smiling at me. I smiled back at her and said, “I still don't see anything missing from the photos.”

She kept smiling and teased, “Are you sure you still don't see it?”

I continued to smile and teased right back, “No, I'm afraid I still don't. I'm a little blinded by your pearly whites, I guess.”

“I'll give you a hint, then.” Robin stared directly at me. Her smile generated such warmth and her eyes shone so brightly, I felt the tension between us from our recent encounter in my office evaporate.

It finally hit me and I blurted out, “No smiles!”

“Bingo!”

I couldn't believe I hadn't seen it before. Quickly, I looked again at every photo and, sure enough, smiles were absent, even in the individual photos. I hadn't noticed it because I'd always seen team photos where everyone was serious and determined in front of the camera.

Robin continued her point, “Copper, there's no joy present. When your players are joyful, they'll be more successful.”

“Isn't that trite? We're talking about professional athletes here, not school boys in the park playing pick up games.”

“Why shouldn't it still be enjoyable for them? Why does it only have to be about work?”

“It's not just about work. But people do have expectations for this club. They want it to succeed and they want to win matches and earn money.”

“You're right, Copper, but it should still be fun. If winning matches and making money are the only things on which to focus, then they are shallow ambitions to pursue. It has to be about more than just winning and making money. They may accomplish a lot of things, but they can't generate happiness, camaraderie, loyalty, or love that lasts.”

I paused to consider what she had said. It made a lot of sense. I recalled Bobby's comments about the Board's decision to throw more money into the club to keep the winning tradition alive and well. Unfortunately, Blyth had struggled this season and now the club was precariously situated both in the league table and financially. The community was up in arms about my hire and the Board wanted me gone as well. The players were fracturing into different groups and everything seemed to be unraveling.

“That's all well and good, Robin, but how does all of this tie back to the design I choose for my office space?”

“Does your office space reflect the lasting principals on which you want to build this club? Does it exude happiness or a spirit of camaraderie? Does it foster loyalty and love in the form of genuine concern for those who enter?”

“Not really.” I had to admit. “It's pretty sparse and communicates something entirely different.”

“Are you ready to go back and work with me collaboratively to have your office space work the same way as your nameplate?”

“Yes I am.”

“Good, now lead the way, Gaffer.”

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Chapter 29

Monday, 02 June 2008, Bobby's Office, Croft Park

“Welcome Copper and come in.” Blyth's owner, Bobby Bell, extended his arms to usher me into his office for our monthly meeting to discuss my work with his beloved club.

“Thank you Bobby.” and I entered his office tentatively. For the most part, I've been extremely fortunate he is my owner. His patience and candor, particularly when it involved my results so far, goes beyond what I deserve. I feel he took a risky chance hiring me and, although he won't admit it, the work I've done hasn't been worth his faith in me. I wanted to change that today, if possible.

“How's Robin?” he asked.

“She's doing very well, although lately I've put that to the test.”

“Well, Copper, you've put a lot of people to the test since taking over for Harry.” He said this with some levity, but my memories of his temper still weighed heavily as I recalled our “meeting” in the locker room immediately following my press conference after our abysmal loss to Kettering 1-5 on the final match day of the season.

“I know. I'm still indebted to you for your support.”

“Well, the important thing is you are willing to learn from your mistakes. Enough about the past. Sit down. This is a work session about our future.” He offered me the seat by the window at his design table.

I sat down and looked out the window to the stadium. I felt anxious taking in the view because my work had disappointed a lot of people in this community who had strong, positive feelings for Bobby's club and they had voiced their distress loudly.

“Bobby, what did you want to work on today?” I inquired.

“First, we'll review the last month. Then, we'll outline a plan of action for our future. It's imperative we make the right moves in the off-season because we've left a bad taste in the mouths of our supporters.”

He wasn't kidding. Even though I had apologized for my comments made after our last match via the newspaper and the local radio station, the negative support still found its way through to my private post mail, email, and answering machine.

Robin had made me read every word of it. She wanted me to become numb to it so it wouldn't have such a strong impact on me. Her plan had worked and I was getting more used to the negative talk. However, I still had trouble with the looks people gave me when we were in public.

Bobby interrupted my thoughts, “I'll start, Copper. The Board is less than satisfied with your performance. After they invested all that money to sign those 17 new players to carry us forward, they expected a stronger finish than 19th place.”

“I understand.” I lied. Inside, I was mad as hell because the only change I had made to the team was asking Bobby to hire Neil Baker. Neil had been a damn fine addition to our squad and I resented that the Board lumped me in with work Harry and Fenton had done during the off-season even before I arrived in England.

“The Board has strongly considered replacing you because the players aren't responding to you. As evidence of your inability to manage at this level, they've used your winless results in the specially arranged friendlies against lower league opposition as well as the five goals Blyth allowed in the final 45 minutes with relegation on the line.”

I started to defend myself, but Bobby continued. “The Board also feels that your poor media relations as well as your emotional outbursts on the sidelines are evidence that you are too immature for the professionalism expected of managers, even at our obscure and local levels of play.”

His words stung. I responded, “Bobby, I apologized for my actions per the Board's probationary contract. Plus, I've been working with the youth teams this summer as part of the PR campaign you've asked me to do. What more do they want from me?”

“You're right, you've done everything we've asked you to do to take responsibility for your past actions. I'm very pleased about your ability to swallow your pride and do what you could to try and heal the rift created by our club in the community. However, it worries me that Neil Baker says you and Graham Fenton still don't work well together.”

I had tried keeping my distrust of Fenton to myself, but again, Neil's wisdom proved too enlightening. Since he and Bobby went way back as friends, I decided honesty was the best policy here. “I told you before that I think he's working against me and I can't prove it.”

“I remember, but this is the off-season. Surely, you've been able to meet to work out your differences?”

“We have not been able to meet.” I'd tried to schedule a meeting with my staff following my apology week, but none of them were interested in meeting quite yet. They needed time off to relax and get rid of the bad taste in their mouths.

“Why not?”

“They are on vacation. Well, all of them except for Neil.” I admitted.

“********. If you're the Gaffer and call a meeting, they're supposed to be there.” He was angry now.

“Bobby, don't worry about it. We are scheduled to meet on June 20, the day after the season's awards recognition. I didn't want to force them after the mess I'd made. I figured it was better in the long run.”

He paused a moment and the color slowly drained from his face to normal hues. “I can understand that when I take a moment to think about it. Good idea.”

“Thanks.”

His mood darkened suddenly as he opened the red folder on the design table. “Copper, this is the financial report. It is bleak.”

I tried some levity of my own. “Come on Bobby, it can't be that bad?”

Bobby didn't even smile.

“Copper. Our 44 players are killing us financially. Our accountants are working on a new budget for next season, but the forecast is for thunderstorms and hail. Our finances are becoming desperate. We were already 210K in the red when you took over, but we've lost another 40K this month. We've still got two more months before we start bringing in any kind of real revenue again. We've also got to tie-down 17 contracts before June 30.”

The financial report was indeed bleak. The gathering storm clouds hung low and heavy in Bobby's office and seemed to darken the sunny skies found outside his window.

My gut sensed that this was a moment when I could begin repaying Bobby's unwavering faith in me and demonstrate my developing leadership skills by outlining my plan for Blyth this coming season. I had already practiced my presentation and earned Robin's seal of approval. Bobby needed to hear it right now.

I hopped off the chair and hustled over to the team photo he had on the wall. “Bobby, you hired me as Gaffer because you believed in my abilities to get this club moving in the right direction with the resources we have available to us.”

Bobby stopped slouching and sat upright.

I saw the shift in body language and continued, “Bobby, these players shown in this photo differed from the players listed on our roster at the end of the season.”

He nodded agreement.

I bent over and reached into the potted plant on the floor underneath the photo. I pulled out a handful of dirt and held it up for Bobby to see. “You're a gardener at heart.”

“Yes, that's right.”

“Well, I believe that this club needs to be burnt to the ground like the African Plains.” and I threw the dirt back into the plant stand.

“Go on, Copper. I'm listening.”

“Bobby, they scorch the earth to heal it, to make it grow stronger. This club must be made stronger if it is to survive. We've got 44 players and 3 coaches. We've got a lot of overgrowth. I want to scorch out the harmful elements that stunt our club's growth and I need your support to do it. Are you willing to start over? To eliminate any players and staff who won't contribute to the positive growth this club must support? Do you want to plant new seeds at this club next season even if it means digging up established crops?”

Bobby was on his feet and his eyes shone bright. The heavy clouds lifted and sunshine remained. Rubbing his hands eagerly, he said with mischief, “Let's do it!”

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Chapter 30

Friday, 20 June 2008, My Office, Croft Park

It was raining again and my mood matched the weather; foul and cantankerous. The end of season awards were held and the folks in the know had spoken. Blyth had no one in contention for individual awards, but that's to be expected from relegation fodder.

Listening to the egos up on stage during their acceptance speeches was like rubbing salt in my open sores. So many of the managers believed they were exclusively responsible for their team's success. Again, it seemed I was the fish out of water because I believed strongly that achieving success required a team effort. But, since we finished in 19th place, no one was going to listen to me. By the end of the ceremony, I was motivated to be heard this coming season.

All was not lost on the evening, however. Blyth managed to garner some crowd noise during the team awards. Unfortunately, it was in the form of jeering and it started after we topped the charts for worst team discipline. 78 yellow cards and 13 red cards were enough to lead the Blue Square North this season. I knew I had inherited a lot of team discipline issues, but I hadn't curbed it yet either. The irony of scoring more cards than goals was not lost on me and I silently vowed to reverse those results next season.

My new manager colleagues, who'd drunk enough to make them brave, had gotten their jabs in on me during the course of the evening too. Taking umbrage with me was something I could handle easily, even after they belittled me for eating crow with the media. However, taking pot shots at my players was another. My players might not be the most skilled, but they did show some signs of having some heart at the end of the season to avoid relegation. Unfortunately, rolling over during the second half of our final match left me without recourse to their seemingly endless stream of barbs. Nonetheless, I was pleased I kept my cool and stole away as soon as the ceremony ended. I had a meeting to plan for and I was certain I would lay out some harsh truths come meeting time today.

Today's rainy weather reminded me that I needed to refine the type of players we needed at Blyth, assuming we could even recruit them to come. Since we played in England's Northeast, our weather conditions had lent themselves to a certain style of play. Dribbling well on muddy sod is difficult, hence, I agreed with Harry's tactic to sign players up top who could head the ball effectively, especially in front of the net. However, I disagreed with Harry's philosophy of resolving the issue of players who were “short on talent” with players who were “long on temper”. Gaining a reputation as a bunch of hacks on the pitch was something I desired to change. I know we are the Spartans, but we don't need to act like them completely. There are two ways to beat our opposition and I'd prefer the three points every time.

I'd called today's meeting because only ten days remained before 30 June. During this window, our staff needed to focus on overcoming the monumental obstacles which we were sure to face this season. Unfortunately, all three of them were interwoven like a tangle of knots.

The first obstacle involved getting our entire staff on the same page philosophically. We already agreed on a similar style of play, the 4-4-2. However, curtailing our team's lack of professionalism would need to start with me and trickle down through the rest of the staff all the way to the captains, first team, backup, and youth players. I knew Neil supported my proposed changes to the overall club atmosphere because we had already been in contact during the summer. However, Fenton and Cunningham needed to get on board as well.

The second obstacle could only be achieved if we could overcome the first obstacle successfully. Bobby made it uncompromisingly clear that Blyth must get it's finances under control or the club was at risk of insolvency. As a first step to doing this, I had already suggested to Bobby that we scorch the earth and let the burnt remains act as fertilizer for the new crops to grow. This involved some important player management decisions and I needed them to be made as collectively as possible, especially since Fenton and Cunningham were here before Neil and I arrived. Despite my personal feelings for both of them, I needed to give them the opportunity to defend the players they felt would help us overcome this second obstacle.

The third obstacle we faced depended a lot on how successfully we could determine who we wanted to remain next season. Seventeen contracts were expiring in ten days. I hoped we'd be able to determine our primary squad targets and resolve our contracts quickly, but we needed full staff buy-in if we wanted it to translate to full player buy-in as well.

The first staff member to arrive was Neil Baker. We greeted each other warmly and he said, “Hell, Copper, it's good to see you. Even if the weather's a bit tricky, let's hope the lightning stays outside the building today, eh?”

“I hope so too. But, just in case, you better be prepared to batten down the hatches.”

“I've been meaning to tell you, I like the new nameplate, Copper. Where'd you get it?”

I beamed inside. “Thanks Neil, I dig it too. Bobby special ordered it for me.”

We both sat down and made small talk while he laid out his materials and we waited for the others to arrive. At a couple of minutes before 9 AM, Cunningham showed up next. He entered the office and sat down opposite next to Neil and across from me without stopping at the door.

“Hello, Darren. Welcome back.”

He nodded in acknowledgment and added, “Thanks. What time is this meeting supposed to start again?”

I looked again at my watch and said, “Just as soon as Graham arrives.”

Cunningham nodded quietly and opened his notebook to peruse the information I had asked him to prepare for the meeting.

Neil and I continued to banter back and forth about our summers. He'd asked me how the youth team looked and I told him that we had a few potential candidates, but I wanted all of us to look them over before we decided on the final players.

Eight minutes after nine, we heard Fenton enter his office next to mine. We waited patiently for a couple of minutes for him to come over. Empty handed, he paused briefly outside my door and looked at the nameplate. Then, I heard him give a small snort and watched him roll his eyes before mouthing silently, “Whatever.” Then, after realizing I was watching him, he entered my office to join the rest of us.

My blood pressure spiked and I bit down on the inside of my cheeks to halt the verbal onslaught I wanted to wreak upon him. Instead, I composed myself, nodded at him and said only, “Graham.”

He replied, “Sir.” Then he asked, “What time are we out of here today?”

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Chapter 31

Friday, 20 June 2008, My Office, Croft Park

“Fenton, what the hell is your problem?” I slammed my fist down on the table where we sat.

“My problem is you! You're the most incompetent manager I've ever met. I sure as hell don't respect you and neither do a lot of the players and supporters. I'd bet Bobby's the only one around here who thinks you s**t cold cream.”

Before I arrived at work today, I felt this meeting might have a decisive impact on our season. However, I didn't anticipate such a direct challenge to my leadership as soon as it had started.

I was prepared for a personal attack from Fenton, but I wasn't going to accept his attack on Bobby, the man who saw more potential in me than even I did of myself. Fenton had crossed the line with me for the last time. I shoved my chair away from the table and stood up to challenge him from my side of it. “Bobby knows a lot more than you think he does.”

Fenton snorted again and stood his ground on his side of the table. He snapped back, “Bobby hired you as a publicity stunt because you were a bloody Yank. Anyone with half a brain knows that hiring a manager without professional experience is sheer folly.”

“Sheer folly was my decision to tolerate your insolence for as long as I have since Bobby saw more in me than he did in you and hired me to lead this team.”

I knew I struck a nerve because Fenton charged around the table and stopped inches from my face. With eyes blazing he barked, “Bollocks! From where I'm standing, all I can see is a loser who can't even win friendlies against scrub teams.”

Off to my right, I noticed Baker stand up and edge closer to us. He was prepared to intervene, if necessary. Without taking my eyes of Fenton, I stopped Baker with a wave of my hand.

Fenton had swooped in so close I could smell what he had eaten for breakfast. However, I stood my ground because I refused to give him the satisfaction of seeing me flinch. I stared right back at him for a few tense moments before saying, “Last time I checked, I wasn't the one who gave up five goals in 45 minutes with the season hanging in the balance. Only players who are satisfied with mediocrity do that.”

“You're the boss, Horse, they learned that from you.” he challenged.

Suddenly, his remark reminded me of Bobby's warning regarding any more personal outbursts. I knew I needed to end this showdown immediately. I stepped away cautiously and sat down in my chair slowly. In a controlled voice, I looked up at him and replied, “No Fenton, they learned that from the management in charge long before I got here. Now, it's finally time to tidy up around here.”

He bent over me and said, “What the hell are you insinuating?”

I replied, “Now, listen up Fenton, I believe in many things. One of them is to never, and I mean never, bite the hand that feeds you. You screwed up and went too far this time, Fenton. Now take your shitty attitude out of this clubhouse. You're sacked. Pack up and leave as soon as possible.”

He swiped his hand across the table and sent my folder scattering across the floor. “With pleasure asshole! I can't wait to watch your utter incompetence bring this club to its knees. And when you do, it will be delightful to behold because you won't be knocking me down with it.” He turned and stormed towards the door.

I was pleased I had controlled my body and hadn't rung his neck, however, my mouth still had a mind of its own. I exclaimed as he got to the door, “Fenton, the only thing you're going to watch this club do next season is rise up even higher in the table without your dead weight around here dragging us down. I guarantee it.”

He whirled back around again to face me and this time his lips curled into a sneering smile, “Before you get too smug, you need to remember one thing too. You need players to win matches, Horse. From what I've heard from the players while you were off having your silly tantrums, I'm not the only one who thinks you're a joke. I'm out of here.” He walked to the open door, turned, and spat on my nameplate as he passed out the door.

Even though I wanted to pound him into a pulp, I remained planted firmly in my seat. I looked at the other two men who remained and challenged them too, “Anyone else feel the same way? If you're thinking of leaving, do it now. Just pack your s**t and go. We've got too many obstacles to overcome to tolerate this kind of c**k and bull around here any more.”

Baker chuckled and said, “Hell, Copper, I ain't seen fireworks like that since I was in America on your 4th of July. Bobby's my friend and I'm not leaving him in the lurch.”

I said nothing and looked at Cunningham, who still remained sitting at the table. After a fair bit of silence while my eyes bored holes towards his soul, Cunningham suddenly stood up and headed for the door without a word.

In shock, I called after him, “You too, Darren?”

“Sorry, Boss, but you're a loose cannon waiting to misfire and I don't want to be the collateral damage. I've got a career to consider and I don't think Blyth is the right environment for me anymore.”

He slowly turned on his heel and started to leave. However, on his way out the door, he pulled out a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped my nameplate clean of Fenton's residue. “Sorry about the mess. Graham went too far. No one deserved that kind of treatment.”

“Good luck.”

After he left, Neil and I sat together in calm silence for quite some time. While I collected the scattered papers from my folder, I tried to simmer down as best I could considering I had come so close to assaulting Fenton. I felt like I had won a small victory today. I looked again at Neil Baker and was grateful he remained sitting at the conference table calmly studying the contents of his folder which I had prepared for him.

Finally, he stopped studying and looked at me to ask, “Hell, Copper, since there's only two of us, care to take this meeting to my place for a pint and some food?”

“How can you stay so calm?”

He smiled at me. “Copper, you need to remember that Bobby and I are old codgers. We've both been around the block a few times. Hell, we've probably forgotten more about football than those two have learned. Trust me, we'll be just fine without them. However, after reading the information you've outlined for us, it will take a hell of a lot of work to do it. Now, take a bit of advice from me, this kind of work requires full bellies and multiple pints.”

I couldn't reject an offer like that, especially after all he had done for me today. “Sounds good to me. The cold refreshment might put out the fire raging inside my body.”

He laughed, “You're a smart man, Copper, even if you are a bloody Yank.”

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Chapter 32

Tuesday, 01 July 2008, Board Meeting, Croft Park

I entered Bobby's office to conduct our meeting per our usual custom. However, as soon as I entered it, I sensed our routine had changed.

Instead of welcoming me inside and offering me a chair at the table looking out upon the stadium, Bobby said, “Copper, please, sit here today. We won't need be using the table today.”

My heart skipped a beat. I noticed Bobby's face was strained and his desk was messier than was customary. I asked as I feared the worst, “What's going on?”

He paused briefly and replied, “Tense business at the moment, but...”

“I'm fired?” I blurted out, interrupting his sentence.

“No, you're not sacked.” He smiled as best as he could. “However, we could use some good news around here sooner rather than later.”

I didn't buy his diplomatic response and I confronted him, “It's about the contracts, isn't it?”

He chuckled quietly, then said, “I won't lie to you. Yes, it is about them.”

I was sickened by his honesty, but pushed on, “Does the rest of the Board want to ride me out of town?”

He paused riffling through his contact list folder, “You could say that.”

“I'm sorry.”

“Me, too, Copper.”

“Is there anything I can do to help my situation?”

“For the immediate moment, no. But, with another week of work under our belts, we should be able to sort out the tangled mess. Please, Copper, consider this meeting adjourned until next week.”

“What can I do until then? It's my fault and I must do something to fix it.”

“It's all of our faults. But, if you must, then make sure you meet with Neil before then. You two must resolve the management issues we face. First, determine your final coaching staff for the season. Second, make a shortlist of transfer players and youth players who will fill the gaping void in our senior squad. Third, find a way to keep us under budget and in the league by the end of this coming season.”

“I'll start immediately, Bobby.”

“Copper, I hope so.”

I thought I'd press him again, “You can tell me the truth. Did I mess up badly?”

“Yes, but it's all part of the learning curve. You've got a great asset in Neil, but things do look bleak. Tap into his experience. I'll be interested to learn what the two of you have planned. But for now, I need to get back to work. This tangled mess requires all of our attention and it will take some time to sort it all out. Good luck, Copper.”

I joked, “Am I going to need it?”

He didn't smile and replied, “Yes.”

I slunk out of his office, glad for the week's delay. As controlling Chairman, I hoped Bobby could keep me in my post long enough to prove myself. As controlling manager, I wanted to resolve the issues we faced with Blyth's best interests intact.

I knocked on Neil's door and, when invited, I entered trying to hide my emotions. Immediately, Neil saw through me. He smiled and said, “Hell, let's work Copper.”

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Chapter 33

Tuesday, 01 July 2008, Neil's Office, Croft Park

Stepping into Neil's office for the first time was awkward. I'd always spoken with him elsewhere since he arrived. It wasn't planned, but it happened anyway; sort of like Fenton's guarantee after I sacked him and before he spit on my nameplate.

Neil was a working class man. His no fuss, no muss attitude had helped me a lot as I struggled with my managerial roles and responsibilities. More than once, he'd kept my temper under wraps after I had been put on probation. His hopeful attitude during the second half of the Kettering match buoyed me as I sank into despair watching our side's collapse.

His sense of humor was what I cherished the most, especially when my seriousness overwhelmed the situation at hand. He seemed to know the right time to say the right words to evoke the right emotion. Frequently, I had relied on his wisdom to balance out my innocence regarding both the football at hand as well as the people associated with the game.

Now, I felt that my innocence had cost Blyth dearly. Like the rest of the players, staff, and supporters at Blyth, I was disappointed with our finish at season's end. The awards ceremony certainly motivated me to make a difference this coming season, especially in regard to the negative, roughshod football we seemed to have played last season. So, when Fenton made his decision to be cavalier entering our staff meeting, I felt it appropriate to check his attitude at the door. However, when he failed to curb his disrespectful attitude towards me, I felt justified in sacking him.

Privately, I had admitted that it felt good to watch him walk out the door, his tail tucked between his legs like the loser in a dogfight. However, I quickly replaced his arrogance with my own as I reveled in my glorious vindication. Despite my initial surprise, Cunningham's departure had meant nothing to me. I believed I could replace him easily. During his time with me, he never offered any worthwhile advice, even when asked. I believed his silence served as his stumbling block. I didn't need his fence riding. I needed people committed to Blyth.

What angered me at the moment was that Fenton's final guarantee had come true on 30 June, just as he had promised me in his final exit. At the time, as I struggled to anchor myself in my seat, I thought secretly, “You asshole, you don't know sh**. You tried to run me off, but you failed. Finally, you're the one out the door and now I stand alone at the top of this dogpile.”

Over the next ten days, I assumed arrogantly that the players would accept Fenton's dismissal as a natural result of our strained relationship and quickly sign their unresolved contracts. However, it was Cunningham's silent departure that sent shockwaves of doubt through the players' ranks. The remaining tension was palpable.

After all the dust had settled, only three first team players believed in my vision for the club's new direction and had signed on for an additional year before the ten days elapsed. This meant that fourteen other players on the senior squad didn't see things my way and still needed to be signed as soon as possible. Their defiance humbled my newly found arrogance. Bobby's honest assessment during our meeting minutes ago made it quite clear that replacing fourteen members of the first team had roots reaching much deeper into the soil than the two coaches who had been weeded from our garden.

Previously, I had mentioned my desire to scorch the overgrown grass to Bobby, but the situation we faced was on the verge of exploding into an uncontrolled wildfire. Desperate for another rescue, I had run to Neil in hope of some way out of my mess. I wished his experience would serve us well as we sought our senior squad's signatures.

As much as I hated admitting to Neil that I'd made yet another mistake, I despised even more the mere thought of surrendering in defeat to Fenton whom finally I had vanquished after a long struggle a short time ago.

I had eaten humble pie with Bobby and lived another day. If necessary, I was prepared to eat a second helping if Neil said so.

“Copper, you look stressed out. Care to share what's on your mind?” Neil extended his hand for me to sit down in the cushy office chair across from his desk. “I just left a meeting with Bobby. I made another mess for him to clean up.”

“Well, you have to admit that you've got a few lemons laying about right now.”

“Agreed. I'm really good at gathering them, but lack the requisite skill to turn them into lemonade.” I played along with his allusion.

He smiled and leaned way back in his office chair as far as it would recline. “Hell, it takes more than lemons to make a good lemonade, Copper.” He paused a moment before he added, “It takes a fair amount of sugar too.”

“Yeah, so?”

He leaned forward again and adjusted a picture frame on his desk. “I don't think you understand fully. Let me explain it a bit clearer. We've got a whole lot of lemons on this squad. Players who haven't signed yet and players who've underperformed.”

“Go on, please.” I asked, my curiosity getting the better of me.

“These players are bitter, they need a little sugar, in the form of compliments, to help them become lemonade.”

“You're saying I need to compliment them in order for them to sign contracts?”

“I'm saying you need to add some sweetness to make lemonade out of lemons. It doesn't relate strictly to signing players.”

Neil's flippant response seemed to simple to be true. I retorted, “These are professional footballers. They get paid to perform. They ought to do it well if they want to be compensated accordingly. We can't afford to give everyone free rides. You've been in this business long enough to understand this.”

Unruffled by my snappy tone, he slowly stood up and moved to the small refrigerator he had tucked away next to his file cabinet. He opened it and pulled out a pitcher of grape juice. “Copper, I've been in this business long enough to understand that players aren't pieces of meat. They are human beings, regardless of their salaries, and they require some basic needs in order to perform well. One of those needs is positive reinforcement. Sugar, if you will tolerate the expression.”

He set two coffee mugs in front of us and began pouring the juice into them, but only filled them halfway. He asked, “Is this mug half-full or half-empty?”

I was confident I knew the answer and said immediately, “They're half-full. I get it, optimism versus pessimism.”

“Good. But how do you fill it to the top?”

“You pour more juice.” I answered without hesitating.

He turned the pitcher over. It was empty. “None left. What's your Plan B?”

I stopped. I didn't see the answer right away and struggled to grasp at anything that I thought would satisfy him. After a short time, I admitted, “I don't know.”

He poured his mug into mine and said, “Here, now you have a full mug of juice.”

“But you don't have any.” I replied.

“How did you know I wanted juice?”

“I didn't, but surely, you poured both glasses because you wanted some too.”

“Did you know that for sure?”

“No. I just assumed...”

“Well don't assume. That's part of your problem. You assume things because they seem simple and obvious.”

By now, I was completely lost in his example.

He studied me before he resolved that I was honestly clueless. “Okay. I'll try again, but this is it. If you don't get it, to hell with you.” He winked at me and then continued, “Copper, it's not just about being optimistic or pessimistic, it's about dealing with the problem immediately before you. The problem we faced was that neither of us had a full mug of juice.”

I nodded to show I understood.

“I gave you what I had so you could have what you wanted.”

“But you gave up yours for me.” I stated.

“Yes, keep going. You're getting closer.”

I struggled for a bit more before it finally hit me. “Sometimes we have to sacrifice for others to solve the immediate problems we face?”

“Bingo! Bobby's right about you. You are a quick one Copper.” He clapped his hand on my shoulder and continued on with his example, “Blyth doesn't have enough money to satisfy every player. That's common knowledge. Therefore, sacrifices must be made to accommodate the long-term health of this club.”

“I'm with you Neil, believe me, I am.”

“Good, so let the players go.”

“WHAT?” I thought we were on the same page, but he surprised me again.

“Cut them loose. You've already offered them a chance to stay with the club even though it was at a reduced wage. Even though our starting keeper is the only player wanted by another club right now, all of them have been offered a mug of juice that was half-full. They will either accept less than what they want or they will give it up and walk away.”

“But they've been an integral part of this team last season.” I argued.

“You're right Copper, they were an integral part of a team that gave up the ghost in the final match of the season with relegation at stake. Do you want to keep that kind of player around, especially when the future of this club hangs in the balance?”

I said nothing. I was still trying to absorb the notion of letting fourteen first team squad members leave the club just like that, even though many of them had been with the team for more than one season.

“Hell, Copper, I can practically see the smoke rising off your head. Let me bring it closer to home for you.”

He laid out some truth for me. “What has Robin sacrificed for you to pursue this dream of yours to manage?”

He definitely had my attention. “More than I deserve.” I replied.

“How much has my friend, Bobby, sacrificed personally to give you this shot, even after all the mistakes you've made so far as manager?”

“Again, more than I deserve.” I admitted.

“Now that I have your mind focused where it should be in your position as a football manager, I'm going to ask you this same question one more time. I want you to consider the three most immediate problems before you give me your answer. First, consider your personal needs. Second, consider the club's needs. Third, consider the players' needs. In your mind, all of these needs appear to be tangled together in a mess. Are you ready for them to unravel themselves magically in your mind's eye?”

“I am.”

Neil inhaled and asked, “Are you willing to sacrifice your lifelong dream and disappoint Robin when Bobby sacks you for refusing to follow his direct orders because you insisted on signing unwanted and uncooperative players for more wages than the club can afford right now?”

“Oh, Hell No!”

“See! Crystal clear. Now, like I told you when you first knocked on my door, let's get to work.”

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Chapter 34

Tuesday, 01 July 2008, Neil's Office, Croft Park

Neil and I may have sat on opposite sides of the desk, but we were on the same side regarding player contracts. His straightforward advice and insightful questions cleared up a situation that had affected me more than I perceived. However, now that the weight had been lifted off my shoulders, I felt more at ease being in charge of Blyth and was prepared to make the required decisions to move us forward into next season.

I stole a glance around his office as he gathered materials for us to complete our work. Photos seemed to be everywhere in his office. Many of them were of footballers caught on film in perfect clarity during matches. They were well-done and I respected the photographers' skills in capturing the essence of players in battle.

However, I was awestruck by a single, hand-drawn illustration of a stork knee deep in the water. Stuffed headfirst into the stork's beak was a frog. All I could see of the frog's body was its hind legs dangling loosely and one fore leg, which had reached out of the stork's beak sideways and had wrapped itself tightly around the stork's throat to choke it. The stork's eyes were wide with surprise and its throat had bulged to accommodate the frog up to the point of the choking hand. The caption under the illustration read, “No matter what, never quit.”

It struck a resonant chord with me. I definitely felt like I was the frog about to be swallowed by the stork of managing in the English Leagues. However, thanks to Neil's wisdom, I felt I was about to reach out to choke the stork before it finished me off for good.

Neil noticed my inspection and commented, “Brilliant, isn't it?”

“Yes.”

“Want it?”

“No, really, I couldn't accept it, but thank you for your kindness.”

“I insist.”

“Since you insist Neil, let's make a deal. Already I am the recipient of enough charity work around this club to make the unemployed jealous. I want to earn something outright on my own merit. Please, set a goal for me that merits receiving this as a gift.”

“Fair enough. Copper, if we win promotion during the time I am here, I'll give you the picture.”

“Done.”

“Good. Now, instead of discussing what will happen if we get promoted, I suggest we start planning how we will get promoted.”

“Agreed.”

“Good, now what do you think we should do? Remember to consider the immediate situation we face as first priority.”

“Do you mind?” I asked as I reached toward a stressball I found on his desk next to his phone.

“Squish away.”

I thought a bit before I suggested, “I think we need to release those fourteen players as soon as possible. What do you think?”

“Agreed. They've had the chance to sign a contract. Releasing them will issue a strong statement to the remaining players that you are a professional and mean business.”

Neil made his point. The players had viewed me as an amateur leader and this might be the shot in the arm the doctor ordered to cure them of their malady.

“What will be our official statement regarding their release?”

“The truth. The club must restructure our finances to prevent insolvency and we can't mutually agree on a wage structure. We wish them the best as they pursue their careers elsewhere.”

His candor was comforting and reassured me that I could be honest about sensitive issues and still protect the club's reputation.

I asked Neil, “We're going to need to find new coaching staff.”

“You're right. Finding the right staff will help to alleviate our financial problems immensely.”

“How?”

“Young players are abundant at this level of play. Finding successful, experienced coaches are few and far between. It will be difficult to find coaches who work well with young players and who are willing to work for the wages we will offer.”

I realized if we could hire the right staff, then our regularly modeled leadership could quickly change the attitude of our club. “Could we ask the remaining veteran players for potential staff recommendations?”

Neil answered, “It might work.”

Then I asked Neil, “What do we do about the club's finances?”

“What number did Bobby give you to hit?”

“He told me that we're over 300K in the red right now. He said the club is worth 375K in total.”

He grimaced and fell silent, rubbing his chin in thought. “How much are we spending on wages right now?”

“Nearly 500K a year.”

He grabbed a calculator from his desk drawer and entered some numbers before he looked at me and said, “I think we should keep it under 250K this season.”

“Not low enough. Bobby told me the target was under 200K.”

“UNDER 200K?” He shook his head in disbelief. “Wow. That will mean cinching the drawstrings on our shorts really snug.”

“Can it be done?” I trusted his experience here because I didn't have a choice.

“Anything is possible. It just means the pressure has increased to hire the best coaches we can find. This will be difficult based on our reputation. However, we'll need to adjust our vision a bit.”

“What do you mean?”

“It means we might need to do a snatch and grab instead of taking the long view.”

“So, we'll need to sign coaches knowing that they'll leave next season?”

“Exactly. Not the best thing for the club's health, but it's better than insolvency.”

“Okay, let's review. We're dumping the trash as soon as possible. We're searching high and low for coaches desperate to use Blyth as a rung up the step ladder to better things. We're staying under a 200K budget. Is that all?”

“I wish. We must determine who is coming on board through our youth ranks.”

“I forgot about that.”

“If you want to succeed over time in this business, you'll need to learn how to notice talent before others do. Young players are the lifeblood of this sport and, if you sign them early enough and develop them correctly, they'll be worth more in transfer fees than what we might earn in half a season of ticket sales at home matches.”

“Are you kidding me?” I had no idea young talent was so valuable. Coaching in the United States, youth teams didn't receive a dime in financial reward for training up youth players correctly. Maybe this lack of financial incentive to invest in youth programs was the reason we couldn't build a pool of players with world class talent?

“I don't lie about money.” Neil said interrupting my thoughts.

I leaned back in my chair and realized that Neil and I had just sketched out Blyth's direction in under twenty minutes. Working cooperatively with Neil was a breeze and I enjoyed it. Fenton and I never discussed club issues like this during the time we had worked together. It made me realize just how poor our working relationship actually was and how important it is to work well with the entire staff.

An idea flashed to mind. “Neil, any chance you'd be interested in the vacant role Fenton left behind? I'd love to have you on board as the assistant manager around here.”

His eyes lit up and he stood up to reach his hand across the desk towards me. Instinctively, I mirrored his actions and we shook hands. “Copper, thank you very much for offering this role to me. Working with you is a joy because I sense your genuine enthusiasm to do well for this club. Bobby did a hell of a job in hiring you to be his Gaffer. However, he knew I was already fully prepared to walk off into the sunset of my retirement. He convinced me to hold off for a bit more and he knows that my loyalty to him is keeping me in the game a bit longer than I anticipated. Truly, I am flattered, but I'm going to decline your offer.”

His response floored me and I collapsed silently into my chair utterly disconsolate.

“Copper, listen to me and concentrate on what I'm going to tell you.”

I looked at him and tried to show a brave face.

“My title doesn't affect my impact on this team. The players will still benefit from my expertise regardless of my title. Hell, in my opinion, people place too much emphasis on a person's title anyway. When a person's dead and buried, no one will stand by their casket and recite their bloody CV. Instead, people will be swapping personal tales from when they were alive and worked together. At my funeral wake, I want to have better testimonies told than titles listed. Having plenty of alcohol to inspire them is important too.”

He was right again, and I laughed at his wisdom despite being rejected.

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Chapter 35

Tuesday, 08 July 2008, Bobby's Office, Croft Park

“How are you holding up before this afternoon's friendly against Buxton?”

“A bit nervous, all things considered.” The past seven days had seen the club caught up in a whirlwind of activity. Neil and I had mapped out a plan to help Blyth stay financially solvent, but its execution left me feeling doubtful of our strategy. “How about you, Bobby?”

“I'm a bit nervous myself. In fact, the Missus has been nattering away when I am able to make it home. I fear she's starting to believe what she's heard around town.”

In the weeks leading up to today, the strength of the supporters' reactions surprised me. Ignorantly, I assumed that our decisions wouldn't stir the same passions as Newcastle and Middlesbrough, the premier clubs in the vicinity. All week, the local media had weathered a storm of complaints railing against every single one of our decisions to release another player.

“But what about you? It's your club and you've lived in Blyth a lot longer than me. Have you followed your own advice?” The supporters had become so agitated by our actions that, three days ago, Bobby suggested I keep a low profile until after today's friendly with Buxton. Neil agreed with him and I followed orders.

“I'm a beacon in this community. Regardless of what happens here, I still need to be in the public's eye. Or, in this case, the line of fire. However, I still support your decision to make Blyth's financial security your first priority. The season is more of a marathon than a sprint. If necessary, we can use January's transfer window to secure players able to help us stave off relegation.”

Granted, Neil and I raised quite an uproar as we released seven first team starting players from last season's Best XI. Defender, Gareth Williams had played eight seasons for Blyth. Midfielder, Andrew Leeson had played five. Midfielder, Chris McCabe had played three. Keeper, Adam Bartlett had played for two seasons before being sold to the Scottish Club, Linlithgow Rose, for 6K. Tom Haigh, a full-season loaned midfielder from Hartlepool refused to sign for us. Kevin Burgess, a full-season loaned defender from Darlington refused as well. Instead, both loanees signed for other conference division teams. Defender, Milton Turner, had played one season.

I encouraged our supporters to go from strength to strength in consideration of the remaining Blyth players who'd been named to last season's Best XI. Striker, Robert Dale, our 26 year old captain, leading scorer, and fan favorite. Striker, Phil Bell, age 24. Defender, Barry Donachie, age 28. Midfielder, Adrian Webster, age 28, Defender, Jordan Smith, age 26. Midfielder, Billy Brawley, age 24. As well as three talented youth players in Keeper, Paul Wiggins, Midfielder, Scott Wright, and Striker, Mark Howard.

My words fell on deaf ears.

“Bobby, do you feel like we'll need to use January's transfer window to save us?”

“You cut the wage budget much further than even I anticipated. The Board determined that we should spend 450K this season on wages with 0K available for transfers.”

“Bobby, with all due respect, you insisted that our financial situation required me to cut all 300K of debt we carried from our wage budget. That forced us to cut players and staff until we fell below 200K. I succeeded. We stand currently at 154K in wages.” I stared at him defiantly.

Those required cuts cost Blyth dearly. We hacked off almost every experienced player with first team starts. We released Keeper, James Platten. We also let defenders Ben Christensen, Peter Snowdon, Michael Coulthard, and Richard Foster seek employment elsewhere. Alex Gildea, a midfielder, also was currently unemployed. It hurt to lose them, but I reminded myself that we had given them the chance to stay on at a reduced wage, but they had refused. It was part of the business side of football I needed to understand and learn to accept. I only hoped it wouldn't cost me my career.

“Copper, stand down. I know what the Board determined and I know I told you something different in private. Believe me, I'm not faulting your decision to cut the wage budget. It was a two way street and the players didn't help us at all by refusing terms.” He paused before he continued, “However, we do need to consider the cause of their unwillingness to extend their contracts.”

I was angry and sensed where this conversation was going, but I knew I must listen, despite my instinctive defensiveness. Bobby wasn't a supporter sending me a hate email or shouting at me on the street. He was my employer first, but also, he was a trusted friend and an unwavering advocate as I lived my dream. Unlike Fenton, I knew better than to bite the hand that had fed me when I deserved to be starved and kicked to the curb.

“Copper, unfortunately, you do have to accept part of the blame for their reluctance to stay here in Blyth.” He stopped again.

I said nothing, but waited patiently, respecting his right to continue uninterrupted.

He continued, “Last season, your leadership style made it difficult for players to enjoy playing for you. I've sensed that you've tried to change your ways, but it can be a difficult thing to do, especially if the losses continue to mount.”

I knew we were in a pressure cooker, but we needed more time to get the rest of our parts in place before our machine worked functionally. We had tried to recruit quality players agreeable to working within our offered wage structure, but we had few takers. We had asked our remaining players about potential staff hires, but the few leads we had been given were already contracted elsewhere or had cited my inexperience, my professionalism, or my decimated squad as support for refusing outright to consider Blyth as their next employer.

Obviously, I'd made enough non-traditional decisions since April that the more traditional coaches in the area would rather stay unemployed than risk taking a chance to work with me. It hurt, but I knew this was part of the punishment I must serve to make up for my rash decisions last season.

“Bobby, I promise you that Neil and I have worked hard at reforming my sideline behaviors both in training and during our matches.”

“I want to believe you Copper, but time will tell if, truly, you are reformed.”

It hurt me deeply to hear his doubt in my ability to present myself professionally. I knew I hadn't given him proof of this yet, but Neil and I felt I had turned a corner.

“One last thing Copper.”

“Yes?”

“Good luck today.”

“Thank you.” and I left his office to consider all that we discussed.

I was nervous entering today's friendly because I knew we'd need time to find our footing this season. Since the fans were up-in-arms already, Neil and I hoped they'd see a quality match to give us the time we needed to make the required adjustments to make it through this season.

Even more determined, I entered Neil's office to prepare for the coming match and internalized the message of his frog and stork illustration, “Never quit.”

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Chapter 36

Tuesday, 08 July 2008, Blyth v. Buxton, Friendly, Croft Park

Robin's match day omelet had sustained me through Bobby's morning meeting where we had disagreed with how much fat was trimmed from our wage budget. The Board indicated 50K, but Bobby privately suggested much more.

Neil and I amputated 350K and hoped we could hire quality staff willing to use Blyth as a stepping stone to bigger clubs higher up the food chain in the English Leagues to make up for the vast difference.

Gone from the team were fourteen veterans with 39 years experience at Blyth. They were replaced by five youth players and the Blyth supporters had already questioned my sanity. To Bobby's credit, he supported me all week. However, he made it clear he needed a strong effort in the friendly against lower league opponent, Buxton.

I hoped the warm, sunny day was a good omen. Neil and I spoke at length about the roster and we seemed to agree on who would make their debuts in front of the loyal supporters already queuing up to enter Croft Park.

If the media sought inspiration from my pre-match chat, they'd have been disappointed by my straightforward approach. I told the players I didn't care about today's result. Today would be a learning experience and I understood the pressure we all faced with fewer veterans in the clubhouse.

During the announcement of the starting rosters, the home supporter's faith was tested immediately after they saw their new squad. The familiar faces of Bell and Dale up front were welcomed easily. The rest of the squad garnered less support, especially the defense and keeper, all of whom were considered youth players.

Neil grabbed my arm as discretely as he could, but I could tell he was pi**ed because his grip hurt. “You mind telling me what the hell is going on?”

His surprise was justified. After we had spoken, I decided to change the lineup without telling him and started many of our youth players instead of our best veterans. “Neil, I needed to know if they can play sooner rather than later.”

“You are a bloody Yank. You've got to do things your own way, no matter what the cost, don't you? I guarantee this won't be pretty.” He let go of my arm and stalked off to settle in on the bench where he crossed his arms and simmered.

I followed him, but he waved me away. I ignored his remonstration and sat next to him on the bench. He said, “It's your bed, you lie in it. Now go away. You won't get my help today, Lone Ranger.” Then he walked away to give some last minute instructions to the youth players.

Dale, our captain, gave me some dirty looks before he took the field. I ignored him and mouthed, “Do your job.”

The whistle sounded and I stood motionless in my technical area and assessed the true strength of our young squad. It merely took seven minutes for me to realize the immense task we faced this coming season.

Buxton's right midfielder, Spence, lofted in a cross towards our center defender, Beastall. He had positioned himself goal side of his opponent, Evans, but it didn't matter. Evans headed the ball back to Spence who had left Ryan, our left defender, standing still. Spence took the ball cleanly out of the air off his chest and made two quick touches to set up his goal as he beat Bryant near post.

Last season, I would have screamed at our defense for marking so poorly, but the new version of me encouraged them to pay closer attention to the crossing runs of Buxton's outside midfielders.

Bell and Dale were not impressed up top. Their efforts were easily swallowed up by Buxton's defenders and our midfielders failed to make sufficient runs to help relieve the pressure they faced.

In the fourteenth minute, Ryan again made a mistake. This time, he tried to pull Spence offside, but jumped the gun too soon and our other defenders played Buxton's midfielder onside instead. Spence easily took the through ball the rest of the way down the right flank and crossed the ball slightly behind Evans at the six yard box. Evans' veteran experience showed and he dropped the ball four yards behind him to Taylor, his central midfielder. Unmarked and in acres of space, Taylor blasted the ball chest high past Bryant into the back of the net for Buxton's second goal of the match.

Our supporters groaned and gave up cheering for the home side, resolved to the fact that they had a bungling manager at their helm.

They didn't get any happier when Steve Smith made the next mistake in the 35th minute. He allowed a long cross from Buxton to come in uncontested for their third goal. This time, it was a header. I managed to keep my mouth shut, but that was more out of embarrassment than willpower.

The half-time whistle couldn't come soon enough for the entire Blyth side, staff and supporters included.

Entering the dressing room, Dale caught hold of me and said, “Horse, this ain't how I want to play. Get the veterans out here to help. I'm already sick of getting my ass kicked because you decided to send out the choir boys to do a man's job.” He threw his water bottle at the back wall and said no more.

The players were despondent, especially the youth players just promoted into our squad this season. Together, they were responsible for all three of Buxton's goals. I put on a straight face and stood as straight and as tall as I could. It felt fake, but I did it anyway. I looked at every one of them and said, “We all know it wasn't good out there, but we do know it can get better. We will make some changes and we'll play the second half as if it were the start of the match, nil-nil.”

I saw the relief from some of the younger players and notified everyone of the second half substitutions. Before they headed out for the second half, I repeated my pre-match speech. “These friendlies will be our only chance to learn about our strengths and weaknesses before the official season begins. I don't care about the results. Trust me.”

Neil caught my arm again on the way out the door and held me back. “Copper, I didn't agree with your renegade lineup change. It was unprofessional and cruel to our youngsters. I sure hope to hell it didn't do any permanent damage. We'll talk more about that later.”

I nodded.

Then Neil added, “That said, I did agree with what you told the lads in the dressing room. Keeping your cool was good. However, losing is for sh**. I hate it, even during friendlies. You're riding a fine line right now. Be careful.”

I nodded again and we left together for the bench area.

The second half started with some cheers as the veterans were substituted onto the pitch. The fans continued their support when they saw a measurable improvement.

In the 59th minute, Steve Smith made up for his first half mistake. Buxton was trapped in their end of the field and sent a wild clearance out to midfield. He took it out of the air and nodded it first time in the direction of Houlahan, our veteran attacking central midfielder, who had found some open space in the right central part of the pitch. Houlahan shielded the defender before using his first touch to turn with the ball past the marker. Then, he worked a delightful give and go with our youngest veteran striker, Johnson, before sending a scorcher from distance past the keeper.

Our team celebrated a good goal.

Blyth came close to scoring a second with continued pressure, but we got caught on the counter attack with eleven minutes remaining in the match. This time Jordan Smith, a veteran player, committed too early at midfield and was easily beaten by a long through pass into the acres of space left behind our defensive line. Steve Smith, the other central defender, was outrun to the loose ball by Buxton's McCarthy, who faked out our replacement keeper, Paul Wiggins, with a fake move to the left before passing the ball into the net with his right foot.

Buxton's fourth goal proved to deflate us beyond recovery and the match ended with Blyth significantly defeated, 1-4. The 150 supporters left disappointed and a few of them shouted harsh words at me. I tried to ignore them, but Croft Park is small and their taunts were clearly heard by most of us.

After the match, I praised the team for their improved performance in the second half, but they weren't much for listening to what I had to say.

I couldn't fault them. All of us wanted a strong start to erase the memories of May's match against Kettering, but allowing a lower league side to score four goals on home soil is much worse than allowing the league champions to score five goals on enemy soil.

Personally, this match provided me with a lot of valuable information. However, I wondered what kind of price I paid to gain it. My captain and club favorite refused to speak to me and my assistant and closest ally derided my decision to defy our pre-match roster discussions and wanted to clear the air after the match.

I reminded myself that today was a friendly and the official start of the season was still more than a month away. I felt comfortable that we had the time available to improve the squad before league play started.

However, those feelings wavered when Bobby beat a path straight for me and said, “After you're done with the reporters, I'll expect to see you in my office before you leave for home.”

I nodded affirmatively and my nerves started up.

Then, Robin caught my attention with a wave. I smiled at her, but her return smile seemed forced. As we hugged, I found out why when she whispered in my ear, “What in God's name were you trying to do out there?”

We separated and I mumbled under my breath, “You wouldn't know.”

She straightened up and faced me squarely, “What was that?”

“Nothing.”

“Nothing my ass. You better be prepared to clear the air when you get home.”

“Take a number.” I spat.

“Come again, Captain Clueless?”

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Chapter 37

Tuesday, 08 July 2008, Various Meetings, Croft Park

Robin was right. I was clueless. Constantly, it seemed.

As soon as the words spilled out of my mouth, I tried to catch them again. It was futile. Words are too powerful to be contained once they are spoken. I should have taken a moment to compose myself before I took my frustrations out on her.

Robin had no direct impact on my role at Blyth. She was my wife and did her job faithfully. She supported me when other's didn't. My comments were undeserved. However, I couldn't take them back. Instead, I'd have to try and apologize for my rash decisions yet again.

Before I could do that, however, I needed to attend a short list of meetings in which my decision-making skills would be the common theme. The first meeting was ready to begin as soon as I turned around to face the waiting reporter.

Without hesitation, the reporter stuck his tape recorder in my face and asked his first question. “Copper, how did you feel about today's result?”

Mindful of my new media responsibilities, I took a moment to think before I replied, “It could have been better, but we did manage to play more even with Buxton in the second half.”

“Quite true, but Blyth started the match poorly. In fact, Blyth's had a bad run of form ever since you arrived. How do you expect to turn that around this season if you haven't made any transfers to improve the club?”

“Honestly, I replaced Blyth's former manager who also had suffered a bad run of form. The club seemed ready to turn it around at the end of last season and we anticipated being able to finish the job with our existing squad. We were surprised so many of them didn't want to sign new contracts with the club.”

“How can you be surprised if you offered them wage cuts of up to 50% less? Why were they so significant?”

“You'd have to ask our Chairman for a more detailed explanation about club finances. Safely, all I'll say is that we wanted to offer them a salary that matched those of the other clubs in our league, but wouldn't because we must consider our finances.”

“Do you think you'll still be around once its stabilized?”

“What are you driving at, man?”

“Care to quell the rumors circulating about your personal job security at Blyth?”

“I don't know from whom you get your information, but I get mine straight from the Chairman. This morning, he assured me that the Board was behind me completely as we entered this season's campaign.”

“Surely, that's changed considering your defeat against Buxton today?”

“No, I don't think it has. This was a friendly and we had a lot of young players still trying to find their footing with each other this season. I'm sure they'll get more settled over the next month before league play begins.”

“You debuted a lot of youth players. Why did you leave so many veterans on the bench to start the match? Didn't you want to start off on a more positive note?”

The reporter's comments started to annoy me, but I tried to respond favorably. “Everyone wants to start off on a positive note. This friendly came early in July. I started the young players because I wanted to have time to assess them before we decided our targets for this coming season. Like I said before, we anticipated keeping a lot of our veterans from last season, but our financial situation prevented that.”

“My sources indicated that Blyth's finances wasn't the only factor that prevented them from signing. They suggested you were the reason they left.”

He stepped over the line. “No comment. Now, if you'll excuse me, my staff and I need to discuss the match and start preparing for our next friendly.”

“Care to comment on your staff departures too?”

My hackles threatened to raise further and I fled before I responded angrily. I was proud of my decision to walk away and hoped I could vent some of my hatred behind closed doors with Neil. I trusted him more than the media to keep his mouth shut.

Upon entering the administration building, I passed through reception and said aloud to no one in particular, “Some day, my photo will be in that trophy case.”

Neil overheard me and called out from the break room, “Copper?”

I stood still and asked, “Do you want your piece of me before or after Bobby gets his share?”

“Hell, Copper, stop your bitching! You ran renegade and thought we wouldn't hold you accountable. It might work that way back in the States, but it won't fly here.”

“Look Neil, I told you before, I made the decision to change the starting roster because I needed to see how our youth would play in match conditions. Our training ground experiences don't match the pressures involved with winning and losing.”

“You got that right. But sending them into a match with as little training as we offered is foolish. Bobby and I love football. We believe in giving our youth a chance, but, dammit Copper, you fed our lambs to the wolves today.”

“It was going to happen sooner or later because of our financial situation. You knew this would happen.”

“Yes, I knew it. But they needed more time, we talked about protecting them in the herd a bit longer. Given more time and a staff to nurture them, they'd be more prepared to step away on their own and survive under match conditions.”

“Your platitudes are nice, but we don't have the luxury of time. We need them to respond now or we're going to get run over out there.”

“Your wrong, Copper. The club has enough time and money to find adults who can compete in a man's game. Your petulance reflects the boys you sent out today.”

“What do you mean by that?” I accused.

“I mean, you acted like a child today because you're ignorant. You're still acting like a child right now because you're arrogant. There is a difference you'd be wise to understand. Remember, the club has time and money on their side. You don't. You better buck up before you f**k up.”

I walked away from Neil too. The rest of the way to Bobby's office, I struggled to control my temper, but I hoped I'd succeed until Bobby was done with me.

Bobby's door was closed when I reached it, but I could hear his voice on the other side. He was arguing on the telephone and I started to leave, but I heard him say, “Look, we all know he's inexperienced.”

What I heard kept me riveted to my spot. “You're right, Copper's unconventional, Neil's worked hard to influence him.”

Bobby was silent and then he continued his side of the conversation, “No, Neil claimed the roster was changed at the last minute. Look, I know it was foolish. He's due to meet with me before he leaves today and I'll remind him again.”

More silence then, “Yes, I heard the supporters too.”

Bobby raised his voice even louder. “I told you already that I will talk to him.”

“What's that?”

Silence and then an explosion, “You better think twice about threatening me! It sure as hell wasn't you who built this club from the ground up. If you want out of the club, then sell your shares! We'll find someone else who will invest in us.”

Bobby continued his argument, “Really? Copper's that bad? I know he hasn't won a match yet. It takes some time to adapt.”

Silence, then he shouted again, “Well, he needs more time than that. These are friendlies for crying out loud!”

His voice lowered slightly, “Fine. That's more agreeable. I'll be sure to tell him. Good bye.”

Bobby banged down the phone and slammed a file drawer closed. I moved away from his door and back towards my office because I wanted to give him some time to cool down, but he opened his door suddenly and caught me eavesdropping.

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Chapter 38

Tuesday, 08 July 2008, Bobby's Office, Croft Park

Surprised to see me, Bobby tried to smile, but it was too late. His initial expression gave away his true mood following his verbal battle on the telephone.

I knew I needed to check my temper or risk suffering the consequences of his ire.

“I'm sorry I overheard your conversation. I was coming for my meeting with you.” I apologized hoping my honesty might disarm him.

“Me too. Get in here and let's get this over with. It was an innocent mistake.”

We returned to his office and he shut the door. His desk was messier than usual, but it was still neater than mine. I knew my behavior had added more than enough chaos to his work, but apparently my renegade stunt today heaped on even more. I wanted this meeting over quickly and I knew Robin waited for her piece of me at home too.

“Where do you want me to sit today?” I asked, remembering that my most recent visit to his office had changed our routine.

“Don't bother. It won't be necessary.”

I stood and waited for the bell to toll, no pun intended.

Annoyed, he clipped, “Copper, I don't know what you thought you would achieve out there today by starting those youth players, but it sure went to hell in a hand basket.”

“I made a mistake. My goal was to see if our youth players could compete at senior level football.”

“And did you learn anything from your experiment?”

“I learned I should listen to Neil more closely.”

He banged his hand on the desk. “You're damn right you should! I've told you that you needed to work closely with him, but you're still being stubborn. Neil is not Graham Fenton. I brought him here specifically to help you learn the ropes the right way and you'd be wise to follow his direction.”

“Yes. I know that now.”

“You know now, do you? Well good, but the difference between knowing something and doing something is quite large. In fact, for some people, it's a chasm they can't traverse without falling into the maw of obscurity.”

He gestured for me to sit down and then stalked toward the window.

I complied and followed him with my eyes across the room.

“Copper, do you remember where I sat when we first met?”

I thought it a strange question, but answered, “You were sitting next to me in a pub watching a football match on the television.”

“Correct. We sat together and bonded over a pint and Liverpool football. Do you remember our first meeting in this office?”

“Yes, Robin was with me and we discussed how much the future of this club meant to you. She caught on faster than I did as to the real reason you invited us.”

“Correct, Robin was by your side and helped guide you in the right direction when it became obvious what I wanted. Do you remember where you and I worked your first day as manager of Blyth?”

“Yes, we worked side-by-side at the table you're standing at right now.”

“Good. At any time, did you act alone during these special events?”

“No.”

He yelled, “So why the hell do you insist on going solo the first chance you have to make an impression on everyone following this summer's player evacuation?”

I didn't know why and bowed my head silently in humility.

“Copper, I grow weary of candy-coating everything for you. I'm not Willy Wonka, this isn't the Chocolate Factory, and there are no Golden Tickets for you to discover that will change your life forever. I'm your Chairman, this is a football club, and the only thing that can change your life forever is hard work, sacrifice, and cooperating closely with the rest of us who are committed to making this club the best we can for our supporters, our players, and ourselves.”

I started to talk, but Bobby stomped his foot and shushed me, “Actions speak louder than words. A few weeks ago, you apologized for your actions to everyone affiliated with us in some way. That was a huge declaration. You should feel proud.

It was a huge declaration but it cost me some respect from my colleagues as I recalled their alcohol induced jeers at the awards night.

“But Copper, two expressions come to mind right now. The first is a Chinese expression. It says, a journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step. The second is more straightforward. You only get one chance to make a first impression.”

Bobby was right, I'd taken the first step by apologizing to everyone for my mistakes last season. But today I blew my one chance to make a good first impression because I ignored Neil's roster input selfishly.

“I'm sorry Bobby. I'll do better about working with those here who are employed to keep this club doing what it does best.”

“Copper, you better. I told you I'm a gardener. We might be patient for the seeds we plant to grow, but we also eliminate everything that prevents them from growing.”

“Bobby, be honest.” I asked. How much longer do I have at Blyth? I don't want you to hold back the truth.”

He walked back towards me angrily. “Honestly, you want nothing but the truth?”

I nodded.

“Fine. Here it is for you. The Board and I agree that you must achieve two objectives by 30 August in order to stay on as Blyth's manager.”

“What are they?”

“You've got to make a profit in August.”

“I can do that with our current wage budget.”

“Yes, you're probably can. However, can you achieve the second objective and win within that wage budget? Last season, Harry spent 450K on wages and earned 45 points in 38 matches. We fired him with those poor results. We hired you and watched you rant and roar on match days. You even added a coach to your staff, but you did even worse. You earned two points from four matches to finish the season with a whimper.”

Bobby's truth slapped me hard across the face. I had never thought about my record compared to Harry's. It made me question myself, but the competitor in me wouldn't accept defeat easily. I asked, “Okay, but how do our friendly results stack up?”

He scowled and moved his mouse around to make it click on his computer before he said, “Dunn won two of them and earned six points from five friendlies. You've won none and earned only two points from seven, including today's dismal effort.”

I conceded defeat. Harry had been a better manager than me, but still lost his job. I was brought in to replace him but was so full of myself, I couldn't stop fighting the reins long enough to get any kind of positive rhythm established.

“Copper, you need to earn six points in league play while you try to make a profit also. That gives you four friendlies and six matches before we face Hyde on the 30th.”

“Oh?” I hadn't expected that. Cutting the budget would help me with the first objective, but after what I witnessed today, winning points would be near impossible with the players we had available to us.

I argued, “But we've just lost two staff members and 14 veteran players with 39 years of veteran playing experience. I need more time to get our new players ready.”

Bobby glared at me and barked, “Excuses are like assholes. Everyone has one and they all stink. Tick, tock, tick, tock, time is a wasting. Make a choice, Copper. Are you going to waste the time you have between now and then whining about every obstacle you face under the sun? Or are you going to invest it working collaboratively with every resource we have available at your disposal to fight for the job you've dreamed of doing almost all of your adult life?”

He spun his chair back toward his computer and asked, “I trust you can find your way out?”

As I got up to skulk away, Bobby's computer sounded an incoming email. He clicked his mouse some more before muttering, “Great. Just great.”

“What?” I asked before I realized that I was butting in where I shouldn't.

“Our physio just quit the club.”

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Chapter 39

Tuesday, 08 July 2008, My Apartment, Blyth

This morning was a fresh start. With sunny skies, warm temperatures, and the thrill of a new season on the horizon, I was ready to take on the world.

What a difference a day makes.

This evening I felt defeated and couldn't wait to copy the setting sun and slide between my sheets for some shut eye. It felt like today's dismal performance in the friendly was followed by three rounds of beating by a prizefighter. I escaped the first round relatively intact. The reporter hit me below the belt with some sucker punches. In the second round, I got mildly hurt. Neil knocked me so hard with some wicked blows to my ego one of my eyes had swollen shut. The third round was a disaster. Bobby beat me with the truth so hard, the referee gave me a standing eight count. Now I was home and wondered if Robin was ready to knock me out in the fourth round.

Where was my cut man, physio, Darren Skinner?

Oh yeah, I'd pi**ed him off too and he quit. Just like everyone else it seemed. When it came to football at Blyth, I felt like one of the mutants in the X-Men movies. Sure, I was special enough to get attention from Professor X, but the rest of the world wanted me dead. Now which one was I?

It was time to face the music with Robin. I entered my apartment, tossed my bags on the floor next to my bed and headed straight for the showers. She was working on the computer and looked up to say, “Hey.”

“Hey.”

“Everything go okay?”

“As well as could be expected considering the circumstances.”

“Well, I've got more bad news for you.”

“What's that?”

“The couple who wanted to buy our house backed out of the deal. We're back to square one.”

Robin had worked hard to clean up our personal affairs while I effortlessly messed up my professional ones. She had moved out of our place in Liverpool because the teacher exchange program had ended. At the time, we had been in a slight holding pattern until at the end of last season, but saving the club from relegation had kept us on course to land on our feet.

Once we were stabilized, Robin had traveled home to the States to sell our home. We had a few lookers, but no buyers. Finally, she had to fly back to England and we were forced to leave its sale in the hands of our Realtor, who was a trusted friend of Robin's. To her credit, the woman had worked diligently to make up for our absence.

“Robin, that might be a good thing after all.” I offered.

“Why do you say that? No, wait. Let me guess. Your stunt with the youth players put you on the chopping block again?”

“Bingo. I've got these four friendlies to prepare for six points in six matches.”

“Copper, why do you insist on working solo?”

“It just happens. I can't really explain it. It's like I'm overwhelmed with managing professionally. It's so different than coaching high school ball and I can't seem to adapt to all the scrutiny and criticism I face daily regarding every decision that I make. Blyth isn't even on the map football-wise. I doubt anyone back in the States knows about this club.”

“You can't compare it to life back home. This is England. The scrutiny is part of the price you pay for living in a place where people know and love this club.”

“I know that. I just don't like it right now. I need more time to settle in, to get us on the right track. It's as if I'm on the ocean during a storm. I crest one wave successfully to find another one right behind it ready to smack me. It's an endless cycle of battering waves and I'm about to capsize.”

She raised her hand. “Save the drama for your Mama! You made this mess because you insist on doing things your way regardless of the rest of us who can help.”

“I thought you were supposed to be on my side?” I challenged.

“I am, but you can't see it right now.” She responded.

“How do you figure?”

“Because you're your own worst enemy.”

“What? Explain yourself.”

“Fine. Bobby first hired you because he believed in your potential. He knew it was going to be tough because you were an outsider. However, he believed you would grow into your role with time.”

“But I'm not.”

“No sh**, Sherlock! Stop trying to do it all by yourself even if it is the American Way. For crying out loud, you might be an outsider, but you're not a mutant.”

“What was that last thing you said?” I interjected softly.

“You're not a mutant?” She seemed confused.

“Robin, that is totally bizarre. I was thinking about the mutants in X-Men outside the door before I came inside.”

“Really?” She was curious too.

“Honest. I'm amazed at how you can read my mind sometimes.”

“It's because I love you.” she teased.

“Well I love you too.”

“Thanks. But, let's run with this cosmic connection. Which mutant are you?”

“I asked myself the same question outside. Now, considering today, I feel like Rogue, although it's not because she's female. It's because I seemed to have picked up her Death Touch.”

She chuckled at my rationalization. “Cute, but I disagree completely.”

“Oh, who am I than?”

“Wolverine. Because you're a loner whose uncomfortable in your own skin. If you can ever get comfortable in it, then you will succeed anywhere your career takes you.”

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Chapter 40

Wednesday, 09 July 2008, My Office, Croft Park

Robin's choice of mutant for me still echoed in my mind. She dubbed me Wolverine because, like him, I was a loner who still needed to grow comfortable in my own skin. Even though I didn't like it, she had been right.

After a good night's sleep, I embraced her nickname because I remembered that wolverines, when attacked, are widely considered to be one of the most ferocious animals pound for pound out of the entire animal kingdom. Yesterday, Bobby gave me a clear deadline to achieve two tangible objectives and I was ready to fight as tough as either of them to accomplish them.

I'd called Neil into my office to inform him of my newest deadline. He nodded neutrally when I told him what needed to be accomplished between now and then if I was to remain as manager. Then I asked him something I should have asked him a long time ago, “Will you help me break our work down? I'm feeling overwhelmed and can't do all of it by myself.”

Neil hesitated a moment, surprised by what I asked, and then replied, “Sure. Let's do this. I hate losing as much as anyone.”

Neil and I reviewed our current overall club goals and then broke them down into separate objectives. Then he suggested we tackle each of these objectives individually to keep track of them as they related to our two highest priorities of making money and picking up points in the league.

Our first objective was financial. “Copper, at this level, supporter's don't expect trophies every season like the Big Four in the EPL. They'd rather have their club stay solvent from year to year.”

Our second objective was staffing. “We must find staff as soon as possible. This will hurt, but your track record of petty tantrums, consistent losing, and extremely high player turnover, has pretty much wrecked any chances we had of recruiting staff. We are going to have to think way outside the box on this one and it might cost us some serious money to lure people here.

Neil was right, his analysis hurt. I imagined Wolverine standing up after a fight waiting for his scars to heal. I could survive this. “Okay, so what do we do?”

“First, we call Brawley and Smith in here and grill them good. They're both from Scotland. Even though it's unconventional, we may need to look across the border for some help. The wage structure is lower there and we might be able to tempt some coaches to make a lateral move for more pay.”

“Will Bobby go for it?”

“Who's pitching the idea to him?”

“Whoever can get it done.”

“Then I better handle this one. Is that alright with you?”

“At this point, I'm willing to try anything we can that's legal.”

“I like your attitude. Keep it up.”

“Thanks.” It felt good to do something right for a change.

Our third objective involved players. “Copper, we need better quality players.”

“I agree, we don't have a snowball's chance in Hell if we have to rely on our seventeen year old keepers to keep clean sheets.”

He laughed. “The good thing about losing all these players is that we've also lost their attitudes. The bad thing is we've lost their experience. Back to school now. Who should we acquire first?”

“We've got veteran strikers, so we should fill in the gaps, starting with our keepers, then fill in the gaps on the field as we need them.”

“Hmmm. Not bad, but you only get partial credit.”

“Okay, Professor, how do I earn full credit.”

“You've got to think like a poor person.”

I was flabbergasted. His response completely surprised me. “I don't have a clue as to how this fits.”

He laughed then explained, “A poor person has a few basic needs he needs to meet to make it through the day. Everything in his life revolves around food, clothing, and shelter. Are you with me?”

“Go on.”

“You and I are middle class. We assume our basic needs are taken care of daily. We've got the time to search for ways to get ahead in life. Our energy revolves around our jobs, our families, and earning money to meet the needs of our working class lives. But we're still not wealthy.”

“That's for sure. Continue. I'm listening.”

“The wealthy have all of this stuff covered. They pursue the luxury items, if you will. For them, it's all about getting the highest salaries, the finest toys, and the recognition for all they've accomplished.”

“I agree with you, but how does this tie back to our problem of building a team?”

“Okay, let me try this. Bobby said you need six points in six matches to stay. So, how do you get those points?”

“Score more goals than the other team to win your three points?”

“Yes, it can be done that way, but you can also get points in the league without scoring a single goal. All we have to do is keep them from scoring too. We go for draws. We are a club living in poverty. If we take care of our basic needs first with defenders, then we can then concentrate on becoming a working class club with midfielders. After that, we can pursue the lives of wealthy with our luxury items, the forwards.”

“Interesting analogy. Our team is its own mini-society?”

“Exactly.”

“I can work with that as our model. However, how do we get a positive cash flow into the economy of our mini-society? The latest estimates of our financial situation indicate we're on track to lose another 20K this month without hiring a single person.”

Then Neil said, “I've got a few tricks up my sleeve that will help us fudge the numbers a bit.”

I listened to Neil's ideas. When he finished, I said, “Those are excellent ideas. I had no idea that we could do those things here at Blyth. I thought that stuff was only done by bigger clubs.”

We ended our productive meeting pleased by our course of action. He left to persuade Bobby of our plan and I picked up my phone to call in Brawley and Smith for some convincing of my own.

Already, I could feel the healing begin.

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Chapter 41

Friday, 11 July 2008, Hadrian's Wall, England

Bobby ordered me to take a one day holiday this week. Who was I to argue with the Chairman's orders? I hadn't taken a single vacation day since I arrived in April, despite being the manager of a part-time club. He told me that he admired my commitment but everyone needed a holiday to stay sharp.

Robin was glad for his order too. She liked to work hard, but she also loved to play. For her, the whole objective of coming to England had been to see some of the historical sights that made ours back in the Great Lakes Region of the United States pale in comparison. For her, the icing on her cake was sharing these experiences with me. But, since becoming Blyth's manager, I never seemed to have the time.

Vacationing today had some built-in advantages that no one else in my club knew. It was Robin's and my ten year anniversary and I was glad to do something special to commemorate the occasion.

We went to see Hadrian's wall. It was the nearest major historical place we could see with the time we had available to us. Once on site, it's historical significance gave me some perspective relative to the insignificance of my own achievements.

If the truth be told, I was a football manager. No more and no less. What kind of legacy would I leave behind? Assuming I could accomplish the standards Bobby established for me, would the supporter's remember what I did here favorably in ten years? In fifty years? How about 200 years from now?

Writers have expressed that I, as a teacher, touch the future because my influence is significant in the lives of my students. In turn, the students I reach live a life that reflects my role in theirs and they pass those life lessons on to their own children through each successive generation. It's a nice sentiment, but it didn't seem to capture the reality of my experiences as an elementary physical education teacher.

My reality was that children are in school for seven hours a day. Within those seven hours, they attended my classroom for 35 minutes, twice a week. Each of my classes contained 25-30 students. Therefore, the maximum amount of time I could spend with each one of them individually was only one or two minutes each week. How much influence did I really have in their lives?

My classroom teachers hadn't influenced me as much as my youth sport coaches. Growing up, the contact I had with them was concentrated and competitive. Those stressful times grounded me with the life skills I needed to become the manager I am today. Some of the motivational stories I heard were so influential, I had used them with my own athletes. Coaches touched my future far more than any of my classroom teachers.

I stopped a moment in the shade to consider my current role as a manager. It disappointed me that I had forgotten what it was like to inspire someone else to change their life for the better. Once I started being the leader of my teams, I lost the chance to be inspired by someone else.

Robin reached out to hold my hand and said, “Thanks for coming here with me. I've loved it so far and I'm grateful you could be here to share in this experience.” She leaned up toward me for a kiss which I gave to her freely.

Her embrace sparked a realization for me. I did have someone who inspired me to change my life regularly. My wife. She was the Yin to my Yang. My anchor who steadied me in the sea of life. She knew the right things to say to charge me up or settle me down. Her intuition rang truer than mine and she saw the motives behind people's actions much faster than me. Her core values and determination inspired me to pursue life goals I hadn't thought possible before I met her eleven years ago on that blind date.

I had Robin to thank for being in Blyth today even thought it had been difficult for both of us. For me, it was tough because I had been having such a hard time settling into the lifestyle of a professional manager with all the pressures it offered, even in the lower leagues. For her, it was stressful because she was a stay-at-home spouse suddenly with nothing to do but wait for me to get home.

I kissed her tenderly on the forehead and said, “Thank you for staying by my side through all of it over the past ten years. You've treated me far better than I deserved.”

She held my face in her hands and wept silently.

I looked into her wonderful blue eyes with the small brown fleck in her left one. The shallow lines etched into her slightly freckled skin belied the maturity in her heart and the wisdom of her mind. I knew she deserved so much more happiness than I was presently able to provide for her and I desperately wanted to change that if I could.

Robin and I started to walk together holding hands around the rest of the historical site. She rattled off the historical significance of Hadrian's wall to me, but I was more interested in finding a way for her to utilize all her leadership and intellectual skills while I managed. Then, an idea settled upon me like a fog covering the moors.

“Robin?”

“Yes?”

“Would you like to be my personal assistant at the club?”

She stopped walking and asked, “Will Bobby even go for that?”

“I don't know, but I'm not going to propose it to him if you aren't interested. Doing this will give us more time to be together and I can really use your skills in the office and on the training ground.”

“But I don't know football like you do. What good would I be on the pitch?”

“You're right about the football, but wrong about the pitch. You read people better than I do and this skill is essential when it comes to the politics of managing. Besides, you're bored out of your mind without having anything to do right now.”

“You're right, I feel like my mind is losing its sharpness and I miss my days being filled with work and decision-making. If you think Bobby will go for it, then tell him I'm as committed to helping Blyth this season as everyone else.”

Robin went back to being my personal tour guide and I soaked up as much of her history lesson as I could.

This had turned out to be a fantastic anniversary.

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Chapter 42

Saturday, 12 July 2008, Blyth v Eastwood, Friendly, Croft Park

A typical English day dawned in the Northeast. It was warm, but with an ever-present drizzle. Eastwood's club had traveled to our house for the first of our four remaining friendlies before league play begun.

Much of the pressure I had felt prior to this friendly was alleviated following my anniversary offer to Robin at Hadrian's Wall. Her regular presence at the club encouraged me because I knew I could trust her completely while she worked as my personal assistant. Bobby agreed to have her come on board, but it was understood that she would be paid only a stipend at season's end for her work, assuming I lasted that long.

Bobby's good news continued as he informed me of our newest staff member. This afternoon, John Spencer was coming on board. Even though he was six years younger than me, he was considered an old man with our remaining squad. He hadn't been on our radar earlier in the week, but Bobby told me that John's father, Simon, had called in a favor. Since Simon was a physio at West Brom in the Championship, Bobby had agreed to a one year contract considering their history.

I was surprised Bobby hired him with such little experience, but I realized quickly that I was the pot calling the kettle black and Bobby couldn't resist the chance to garden. Three months ago, Bobby had done a similar thing to the community by hiring me. Besides, the offer was tended and the deal completed while I was on holiday yesterday. I wondered if my forced holiday truly was for the reasons Bobby suggested, but Robin scolded me for questioning Bobby's motives.

John was scheduled to arrive in time for today's friendly. Besides, it seemed to fit with the way things commonly were done in the Blue Square North. I hoped he could coach and, even more importantly, bought into the system of player development I sought to create here.

Bobby also told me that the staffing lead Billy Brawley had given us regarding his former youth coach at Clyde in Scotland's First Division was paying some dividends.

Robert Ferguson was interested in a staff role here. He desired the opportunity to work with senior team members and was willing to leave Clyde, but we needed to offer him an improved contract above the wages he earned currently as a full-time staff member. Neil wanted him, but asked Bobby to hold off until I returned before we made a decision because Clyde would have to be compensated for us buying out the remainder of Robert's contract with them. Our problem involved coming up with the 20K this transfer required immediately. We had no transfer money and were running solidly in the red.

After Bobby told me this, I used the Internet to research Clyde's youth team the best I could do. I discovered that they had quite a stingy defense the previous season. Since we needed to stop other teams from scoring as well as find staff members willing to work with our youth players, I felt it was a risk I needed to assume, especially since my back was up against the wall.

I ran my thoughts past Robin about the potential hire and she suggested I jump on it. “He's got a proven track record. Even though the initial expenses are substantial, the resulting dividends could be worth it. He can't be any worse than John Spencer, right?”

I telephoned Bobby immediately and told him to go ahead and broker the deal as soon as possible. To let Bobby know I was serious, I asked Bobby if it was possible to pay for his transfer fee out of the Board approved wage budget previously agree upon at the start of the season.

Bobby replied that he had reservations about cutting the wage budget because we needed to buy some experienced players who demanded a decent wage. However, the teacher in me convinced him that we'd get more return on our investment if we hired better coaches instead of signing expensive players. He understood my reasoning, but told me the Board would then lower my wage budget by the amount required to transfer Robert to our club. Would I agree? I couldn't agree fast enough.

Robin had spent most of the morning organizing my Squad Folder. She updated the player depth chart as well as the shortlisted reports of scouted players who might be interested in playing for Blyth under an American manager. The list was very small, but it was going to be essential factor in helping us stay up this season.

At lunch, Robin made me a sandwich in the kitchen. When Neil came to my office to discuss the match roster, he took one look at her work and showed us such a forlorn look on his face that she felt guilty and offered to make him one too. He couldn't smile wide enough to express his gratitude. Once he had her sandwich in his hands, he couldn't open his mouth wide enough to accommodate all of it into his mouth. However, judging from the bits falling out of his mouth while he tried to chew, he wasn't short of succeeding.

Neil made me write on a napkin that I promised to keep the lineup unchanged. “In case you get second thoughts.” He teased. I assured him I learned my lesson, but he insisted anyway.

We were able to put adults on the field at every position except for our GK and DL. Wiggins, 17, needed to be in goal. Until we could attract a more experienced keeper to come to Blyth, he was our number one between the sticks. Ryan was given the start because Boyle, our first choice DL, had to slide over to DC because Beastall wasn't able to start today.

Pleased with the positive results in the administrative offices, I refused to let the weather dampen my excitement. I hoped this transferred over to the results on the pitch.

Neil approached me before we headed to the dressing room and asked me how I felt.

I replied, “Well, here goes nothing.”

He warned, “Copper, be careful what you wish.”

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Chapter 43

Saturday, 12 July, Blyth v Eastwood, Friendly, Croft Park

“Be careful what I wish?” I thought as Neil and I headed to the dressing room. I knew we were up against it this season, including this friendly. Even though our players had tried to gel, asking youth players to step up to the senior team was a lot, especially from boys still in puberty.

However, I wished that our five newest youth players would improve under our watch. Neil and I had chosen them because we felt they would be ready someday.

We knew two required a lot of time to blossom, but we needed to train them now to be ready in a couple of seasons. Therefore, James Fisher, a striker from Bandon and Jon Bailey, a striker from Blyth were asked to play with us.

Two other youth players seemed good enough to make our squad by mid-season, especially after our mass exodus of experienced players. Johnathan Bryant was a GK from Blyth. He was joined by Steve Smith, a center defender, from North Shields. However, Neil and I were excited about Calvin Boateng, a versatile midfielder from Blyth. Already, he demonstrated that he had the creativity and passing skills to have a real shot at playing regularly this season.

Unfortunately, I had forced them into action too soon and they collapsed under the pressure, stunk on the pitch, and helped me to get my ass chewed out by everyone who knew anything about roster management after our last friendly.

Today, they would remain on the bench to get settled before playing in the second half. I wasn't going to repeat my mistake on purpose.

In the dressing room, the players prepared for the rain. Neil and I walked in and Robert Dale, our captain, hollered out upon our arrival, “Quiet lads! Gaffer's arrived.”

I was a Gaffer.

His comment forced me to take a moment and compose my emotions. I looked down and pretended to read my notes until I was ready. Then I spoke, “Men, I'm very sorry about last time. I made some mistakes and I learned from them. I expect the same thing from you. You'll make errors out there, but I want you to learn from them. This learning process takes time, so I still don't care about our result. This will change as we start the season. Today, make your magic work without worrying about my wrath. Understand?”

Synchronized head bobbing followed. Then Neil spoke. “Lads, Gaffer's just spoke his word, I tell you. Make sure you heed what he says. We will be watching you close out there. By the way, we've got a new bloke coming in to help us on staff. He isn't here yet, but he will be. We'll make introductions then, you hear?”

More head bobbing and then some motion as they made their last minute adjustments to mind and body before heading out to the rain.

Taking my place inside my hated technical area, I vowed to keep a cool head about me one match at a time like an alcoholic trying to stay sober.

I heard the catcalls and whistles from some of the supporters, but I ignored them. They had a right to be raw about my presence after eleven winless matches. They may be rude, but at least I knew where I stood with them.

Andrew Sainsbury checked with his assistant referees and the timer before starting the match.

Immediately, our veterans controlled the tempo and pace much better than Buxton. The catcalls towards me ended quickly and they cheered for the home squad. Both teams played tentatively as they got a feel for the soggy pitch and each other.

We both had half chances, but in the 19th minute, Eastwood's Owen, found himself in some space and struck a blistering shot from an acute angle. It flew past Wiggins before he could react and we heard it rattle off the crossbar.

Three minutes later, Wiggins collected his first save when he gathered up a deflection off Kenny Boyle. I breathed a sigh of relief, glad the rain had no averse effect on his ball handling and foot traction.

In the 33rd minute, I panicked. Owen had just slipped behind Boyle, who was caught out of position, for a 1 v 1 breakaway.

In my mind, I shouted encouragement to our keeper, “Come on, show me what you've got.” On the pitch, Wiggins raced off his line toward Owen keeping his arms spread wide and low. When the thunderous shot cannoned away from Owen's boot, it flew harmlessly high over the goal. Our supporter's groaned relief.

We remained pinned in our end, allowing five more corners in the twelve minutes remaining until the break.

At half-time, Spencer was still missing. However, on my way off the pitch, I heard a voice I recognized. It was Fenton's. He challenged, “Look at the bright side, you haven't allowed a goal. Give it time. You will.” He laughed and a few others joined him.

Sonofabitch! What was he doing here? I wanted to confront him, but knew I shouldn't. I walked straight ahead and ignored him.

From behind me, Neil said, “Good, Copper. He ain't worth it. By the way, where's Spencer? I thought he was supposed to be here before the match.”

“I don't know. But what are your thoughts for second half?”

“Make some changes now, make the others later. We've got to see what they can do.”

“Agreed.”

The players settled in and dried off the best they could. I told them I was pleased that although we bent, we didn't break. Then, I announced the second half changes and sent them back out into the rain.

One minute into the second half, Owen hit a scorcher that Webster deflected off his ribs to spray wide of the goal. It knocked the wind out of him.

A few minutes later, Owen headed another shot wide of the goal. I substituted out Boyle, who had struggled to play effectively at his new position and replaced him with Beastall, whom I wished would perform better than his debacle against Buxton.

In the 59th minute. Bell, our target man striker, was taken down from behind with his back toward goal. His ankle twisted wrong in the muddy pitch and he went down. Since we didn't have a replacement physio yet, Eastwood's helped him. I was so embarrassed, but occasionally, this happened in these lower leagues.

Fortunately, some spray and a wrap allowed him back on the pitch. I stalled for some time and substituted Webster out who had struggled after the deflection and replaced him with Gee, an experienced youth player in his second season. I hoped Gee's attacking skills would benefit us to help out a limping Bell. It worked, but only for a short time.

Four minutes after putting Gee on the pitch, we needed to take him off. Damn! He collided with an Eastwood player during our corner and couldn't return. I substituted a midfielder in for him, but we lost the bit of momentum we had started to gain.

In the 72nd minute, Wiggins made his second key save in goal. This time, he pushed it just past the post with his fingertips.

A strange voice just behind my shoulder said, “Heck of a save.”

I jumped and whipped around to see a young man standing there. “Who are you?” I demanded.

“Sorry for my late arrival. I'm John Spencer.”

I shook his offered hand and motioned him back to Neil.

“Neil, I hollered, meet Spencer.”

“I already did.”

“Oh. Well Neil, have you seen enough of Wiggins?”

“Your call.”

I thought for a moment. Even though Wiggins had done a fine job, I needed to see what my other 17 year old could do too. I decided. “Bryant. Warm-up, you're in.”

Eastwood's manager noted our change and altered his formation to an attacking 4-4-2. I countered his alteration with my own. I changed us to 3 DC's with two wingback's. We had two MC's and Boateng in the AMC spot. Bell and Dale were up top. I hoped my wingback's would nullify their outside attacking midfielders.

It worked. We made some headway, including some shots at goal. However, Eastwood's players either blocked them completely or deflected them wide of the goal.

However, we had gained enough momentum to pin them into their defensive third. Boateng was torturing the defense with his creative passing, but they gained possession and hit a desperate long ball forward to Owen. Steve Smith, our youngest DC, got beaten to the ball in transition. Owen converted his second 1 v 1 breakaway chance of the night to put Eastwood up 1-0 in the 83rd minute.

“Dammit!” I swore under my breath. I hollered out onto the pitch some encouraging words for Bryant, who'd just blown his first save attempt.

“Unlucky substitution.” I turned in time to see Spencer shaking his head in disbelief. So much for my making a good first impression with the new coach.

I spun back to my players and called the nearest ones over. I was desperate to get one back. “I don't care about the result, but we are still going to try and score. Move to a 4-2-4 and put everyone up front who can head worth a damn.”

Our players made the changes and we threw bodies forward searching for the equalizer. We had five minutes of stoppage time to play and we were clambering all over the goal mouth looking to score. Unfortunately, we couldn't convert or connect with the players in new positions.

Then, in the 93rd minute, Boateng threw himself into a tackle, stripping his man of the ball cleanly. He regained his footing, looked up, and passed a beautifully threaded through ball into a small seam in Eastwood's last line of defense. Bell saw it too and raced to meet it in the open space. He gathered the weighted ball behind the defenders and turned toward goal for his own breakaway. The whistle sounded and I started to holler that we had time left, but saw the side judge's flag raised for offside instead.

“Aaarggghhhh!” I groaned.

Eastwood took their free kick and the friendly ended.

Disappointed, at the result, but satisfied with the overall improvement, we headed toward the showers.

I searched for Fenton in the stands and found him. As I got closer to him, he smiled and said, “I knew you wouldn't let me down. Fine job! Glad I was here to see it. Same time Tuesday?”

Ready to retaliate, Neil's hand shoved me in the back and he ordered me, “Copper. MOVE! NOW! He's not worth it. Be a Gaffer.”

Neil marched me onward and my temper boiled the rest of the way to the dressing room. On the way, inside my mind, I screamed at Fenton. “You lousy piece of sh**, motherfu**er! I wish I could pound your face until my hands break from crushing blows down on your skull.”

Then, almost as if he could read my mind, Neil said, “Be careful what you wish.”

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Chapter 44

Monday, 14 July 2008, Staff Meeting, Croft Park

The last time I called a staff meeting, the resulting fireworks nearly caused a brawl. The common spark that lit the fuse was that neither Fenton nor Cunningham respected me. Fenton refused to shut his mouth and got himself sacked. Cunningham refused to open his mouth and quit instead. Afterwards, Neil and I had done our best to run the club, but we both knew Blyth needed more help then we could provide.

Today's staff meeting included the two newest members of Blyth's staff. Robin was now my personal assistant. She offered to make breakfast and take notes for our early morning work session. John Spencer was now a coach. He had arrived yesterday from West Brom after his father had called my chairman for a professional favor. Bobby obliged Simon and put him on a 10K contract for one year as a thank-you to Simon.

Formal introductions were made all around the room and and Neil scarfed two of Robin's homemade muffins while he eyed a third. However, he allowed the rest of us the chance to eat at least one of her delicacies. Always straight to the point, he asked, “Copper, are any fireworks planned?” We both laughed.

Spencer inquired, “What? Am I missing something?”

I answered, “I'm sorry to be rude. The fireworks Neil mentioned are the reason why you're sitting here right now. Please, pay us no mind.”

He chuckled politely and replied, “Enough said, then.”

Robin asked, “Does everyone have what they need?”

Again Neil was straightforward. “Maybe some more muffins next time. These are damn tasty. Hit the spot in a mighty fine way.”

Robin smiled and I got started. “John, to bring you up to speed at Blyth, you should know that I was hired just a few months ago. Since then, we've searched for our first win. Neil came on to help me get acclimated to coaching in England. So, as far as I'm concerned, anything we can do that is legal to help us win is fair game to discuss here. Is that understood?”

“Very much so, Sir.” Spencer offered politely.

Flashes of Fenton's twisted sense of manners smacked me. “John, call me Copper.” I wasn't about to tolerate Fenton around here anymore than necessary. Yesterday, his presence at the match was both unwelcomed and unwanted in every way except for his gate receipt.

“So sorry, Copper. It won't happen again.”

“Thank you. Now I've called today's meeting because we need to accomplish a few goals before 30 August.” I reviewed them quickly for Spencer, who sat astutely. “We need to break down training responsibilities and we need to find another coach to make up for Cunningham's absence. Spencer, we're in need of an assistant coach.”

“Isn't Neil the Number Two?”

“Copper wishes I was, but I'm not. I declined his kind offer, so don't get any wrong ideas about my ambitions. I've had my time in the sun and am ready to slow down a bit. However, my fire to win still burns strong. I'd like one last go at a championship run of some kind before I hang up my boots.”

I continued on, “We've got a potential assistant manager in the works, but Bobby's negotiating the finances right now. I'd say more, but I won't until the contract is signed and sealed. I hope you'll understand.”

“Perfectly, Copper. I've seen West Brom get run ragged with leaks about various contracts. It's no good to have loose lips in this business.”

I appreciated his loyalty already, but hoped he wasn't feeding me a line of crap to make a good impression.

Neil interjected, “Were you as embarrassed as me that we still need a physio?”

“I was and that's the third reason we're meeting today.”

I laid out the physio applications we had received so far and we looked at them to shortlist a couple for Bobby to contact. We had one from England and one from Scotland. The one from Scotland had a better CV, but again, like Ferguson, we'd hoped the money we offered rather than our current reputation would get him to sign it soon.

It had come time for Robin's turn to speak. “Gentlemen, before you is a list of players on whom Blyth's scout has compiled reports. Unfortunately, I've contacted a number of them already and many of them have already rejected me. Those you see listed below are willing to come to Blyth, despite my husband's best efforts to the contrary.” She laughed and her joke was enjoyed by everyone, including Spencer who had looked at me quickly for my immediate response to her comments.

Then we discussed Robin's list of players.

Lee Crockett was a GK who'd started only three matches for Boston United. Last season, they finished in 9th place in the Blue Square North. At 21, he might be tired of being a backup and he wouldn't be one here. I thought we could work that angle to attract him to come here. The rest of the staff agreed and his name was moved from our short list to our wish list, although he was our second choice.

Simon Evans was our first choice GK. He'd played backup for Dorchester Town, the 6th place finisher in the Blue Square South. In his six starts, he had allowed six goals. Being 20, he could still improve and Neil was keen to make him our first priority.

Luke Webster was a 20 year old DC/DM. Blyth's current defense needed help in a major way. Even though he had ridden Stalybridge's bench last season, he had trained with players who knew how to win matches. I believed his experiences with them might help to inspire our own players. I believed that success breeds success. We needed winners on this team to teach the rest of us how to win.

Paul Taylor was a striker who had been relegated from the Blue Square North last season with Vauxhall. At 22, he already knew how to score goals, even without a supporting cast of players. His 23 goals in 42 appearances told me that he was both durable and reliable. I believed strongly that he'd want to stay up in our league and play for us, even though he had a year left on his current contract. Neil chuckled at me when I suggested we make Taylor our first priority.

“Why do we need another striker? Both Bell and Dale can score. They are giants out there and help us to win the air battles inside the box.”

“Yes, but they are also built from the same mold. All teams have to do is drop back inside the box with a jumper of their own to stop us. We need a different kind of striker from them. We need one who can dribble well in tight spaces and chase down the long balls over the top with pace.”

“Go ahead, put him on the wish list. We can always hope to get a luxury item.”

Luxuries, working class, basic needs. Neil's comment brought back to mind his philosophy on team building. I didn't fully buy into his opinion, but my professional managerial experience was so sparse, I had to put some kind of trust in it, though right now, it wasn't much.

We went through the other six names that our scout had given us, but we agreed that none of them had as much potential to improve our squad as the four listed above. If we couldn't get them, we'd need to rely on our youth squad to carry us this season.

“Is there anything else we need to discuss before tomorrow's friendly against Montrose?”

Spencer offered nothing just as he had the entire meeting. It seemed to me that Cunningham's silence had been replaced with Spencer's. I hoped he would offer more as the season went on. I'd give him some time to acclimate because I knew first hand how he might be feeling right now. My initial impression of him was that he was polite and willing to do what we asked without his ego getting in the way.

“Yes, Copper, I've got something to get on record.” Neil said, “Remember when I told you I had a couple of tricks up my sleeve to generate some cash around here?”

I did recall and I had wondered how he aimed to do it. “Yes.”

“Well, I think we need to become an affiliated club.”

“Is that when we get players loaned to us?”

“Close. It's when we establish a working relationship with a club in a higher league. Often, they will pay us an annual fee for this relationship as well as give us a couple of players on loan as part of the deal for training them all season. However, the easy money comes from the friendly that is usually agreed upon as part of the deal. We play their senior squad and the fans flock to the match to see their heroes up close and get some autographs. Hell, the revenue alone from filling this stadium might be enough to see us turn a small profit by month's end.”

Spencer excitedly said, “Good idea! My father's club has a relationship with Hinckley. They're in the BSN too. Now that West Brom got promoted to the EPL, there is precedence that a big club might want to link up with us.”

Quickly, I mulled it over in my mind. When I realized that we could get some cash as well as some good players out of the deal, I wanted it bad. I looked at Bobby, “Let's try to do it. Maybe we can get a striker out of it?”

“If you're smart, we'll get a DC who can keep the ball away from our goal. Basic needs before luxury items, Copper.”

I countered, “Liverpool's got Fernando Torres knocking goals in to win matches.”

He laughed. “Get real. Defense wins championships. Ask both Jamie Carragher and Sami Hyypia who anchored Liverpool's defense to win the Champions League.”

I laughed too. “Alright, you've made an excellent point, but I won't concede the argument.”

“Good. Now, go find Bobby and don't concede any arguments with him either. We must get better players in here or we won't have a chance this season. Trust me.”

We finished our staff meeting and I left it excited to speak with Bobby about the newest direction we hoped to take Blyth. For me, the best part of it was I wouldn't have to report any fireworks this time.

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Chapter 45

Tuesday, 15 July 2008, Blyth v Montrose, Friendly, Croft Park

“Copper, I've got some very good news for you.” Bobby said when he saw me this morning.

“Yes, what's that?” Even though our staff meeting went well, I wanted to hear more good news, especially since my time at this club was running out before I needed some results.

“I've contacted Robert Ferguson in Scotland. He's willing to come. We're making the financial arrangements with Clyde today to transfer him to our staff. He should arrive before Saturday's friendly against AFC Hornchurch. He wants to speak with you regarding an urgent matter, however.”

“That's fantastic! When can I speak with him?”

“After the deal is completed. By the way, the Scottish physio, Keith Smith is keen to come here too. We should know more later today. I'll keep you posted.”

“Bobby, we decided to release Michael Hedley (DC) and Afolabi Shekoni (ST) because they still can't break into the starting lineup ahead of our youth players.”

At first I had felt bad about this, but both of them had read the writing on the wall and weren't surprised to be released. I wished them well and they left the club.

“Very well. Clean them out of the dressing room. Hope our match goes well today. Even though it's a friendly, I still want to see us turn a corner.”

Me too. Montrose played in Scotland's Third Division. They were a club about the same size as ours. Even though we were trying to hire two Scots on staff, I still wanted to defeat them today in our own version of an “international friendly.”

Robin kept me focused on editing match tapes for training purposes while we waited for the friendly to begin.

When it came time to head to the dressing room finally, I wanted to stress two focus areas for match improvement as we built toward league play opposition.

Neil and John were already in the clubhouse making the rounds with the players. Neil led the way and John followed, his polite manners helping the team to feel at ease. Many of the veterans were used to the high turnover rate among staff, but the youngsters were new to it and Spencer's warmth helped the transition.

Again, upon my entrance, Dale hollered out, “Boys, settle down. Gaffer's in the house.”

Everyone quieted their voices, but continued dressing. “Thank you, Captain Dale. We've got a real shot at defeating Montrose, but we're going to have to do two things better than Eastwood's friendly to give us a chance. First, even though we've generated more offensive runs, we need them to result in more shots at goal. Second, across the board, everyone has to tackle the ball better. Now, I understand I've been on your case to stop collecting yellows and reds like candy at Halloween, but we won't win matches tackling at a 28% success rate. We held Eastwood scoreless until late in the match. Let's keep up our momentum.” I offered the floor to Neil.

Neil added, “Get out there and get on the board. We need to show them that we have got what it takes to score. Our fans deserve it. Now do it.”

Spencer said nothing.

Since we didn't have wet weather to contend with, I hoped we could do as Neil commanded.

We took our side of the field and waited for the whistle to sound.

It took seven minutes for Montrose to give us our first scare. Their midfielder, Buchan, fired off a shot from outside the eighteen that Wiggins followed all the way to the post as it sailed barely wide left of the goal.

We recovered and worked our way up the field to earn a corner a couple of minutes later. Brawley sent his in-swinging corner to the far post. Montrose's, Baird got most of it, but not enough. Bell tackled the ball away off his marker's foot and knocked it past the keeper to put us up 1-0.

Bell ran to our sideline and pointed at Neil. “Satisfied?” he shouted.

Neil laughed and shouted back, “It's a start.”

Six minutes after our goal, Wiggins repeated his 1 v 1 heroics against Eastwood when he parried Hylton's shot from a Buchan pass away to his left. Beastall cleared the ball away from danger.

Buchan got off two more off-target shots before we could regain momentum.

Boateng, our 16 year old midfielder got into the offensive act on his own. First, he sent the ball out wide for Brawley who sent a cross immediately back into Dale. With his back to the goal, he couldn't turn sharp enough to get his shot on target. Then, two minutes later, Dale fed Boateng's overlapping run at the top of the box. Boateng's shot went wide to the right.

At half-time, all of our staff was pleased with our team's performance. Fenton's silence was welcomed relief as he had no comment, though I saw him in the stands near the exit to the dressing room. I guessed Bell's goal was enough to shut his mouth.

Blyth came out in the second half with one mission; get more attacking chances. I stressed getting the job done inside the penalty area. “Keep it simple. Stop passing it around looking for the best shot. Shoot it at will inside the box.”

One minute in, Boateng followed orders. Dale fed him a replay of his previous shot before the break, but instead of shooting from distance, Boateng took two dribbles to get well inside the box. Montrose's keeper raced out to meet him and scared Boateng into blasting the ball high over the top of the goal.

The crowd groaned, but I gave Boateng the thumb's up signal when he looked over to me. Montrose adjusted to our scare and dropped more men back into defensive positions. They counter attacked when they could and four minutes after our attack, they had their own chance at goal.

Montrose's ST, tried to head flick the ball far post to his teammate, but he misdirected it toward our goal instead. Wiggins had taken one step toward his right already, but managed to scramble back with just enough room to tip it backwards over the top for a Montrose corner kick.

We survived their scare and the game went on in mediocrity until after most of the subbing was completed.

In the 83rd minute, Montrose earned a free kick. Our GK sub, Bryant, lined up a two person wall. Thompson hit a blistering free kick past the wall and just wide of the right post. Had it been on target, Bryant would have been beaten badly. I realized we couldn't rely on his skills to keep us steady in the back if Wiggins went down. We'd need a replacement keeper soon because Bryant was giving me cardiac fits, much like our former keeper, Adam Bartlett did to me last season.

One minute later, Buchan found himself in acres of space between Donachie and Webster, both veteran players. He laced one from 25 yards out that knuckled and swerved past Bryant low and near post to tie the match. It was an incredible shot and could have been a candidate for goal of the week. However, Bryant wasn't my concern at the moment. I was angry at our two veterans, who had watched Buchan run circles around us most of the match from the bench, yet they couldn't find him late in the match when we needed them to do it the most.

I was about to holler at them out on the pitch, but remembered my place and kept silent. However, I hollered at Neil instead. “How in the hell can two veterans bungle that up? We need to get our defense under control if we're going to win games this season.”

“What was that?” Neil replied.

I started to repeat myself and then remembered what he teased me about yesterday in the staff meeting regarding defense.

My smile mirrored his and I admitted, “You win again, but only just for now.”

I made my last substitutions and pulled off Jordan Smith, our very tired DC, and put in a midfielder to replace him as a DM. It worked until the injury time.

Buchan sent a long ball forward from midfield to his striker, Christie. Steve Smith, our teenaged DC, played off Christie by more than 3 yards near the 30 yard distance. Smith's loose marking made it easy for Christie to nod an amazing header past our defense towards Bryce. Bryce won the race to the ball at the penalty spot with barely enough time to chip it over a sliding Bryant to score.

Montrose erupted into rapturous joy, but Nicky Flynn's whistle cut it short. Their joy turned toward hatred. We had no complaint having just been denied a goal ourselves during extra time our last run out against Eastwood.

It was a bittersweet result for me. I was glad for the lead and felt our starters could have held their own out there. However, many of our reserves lacked the requisite skills to avoid a draw and I knew this needed to be addressed immediately for me to stay. Lost in my thoughts on my way to the dressing room, I hoped Bobby could convince some Chairman that he needed Blyth to be their affiliated club. We could use both their money and their players.

“Way to give up another win. Do you specialize in charity?”

I spun toward the voice and saw Fenton running at the mouth.

“Why the hell do you even bother showing up?” I challenged him.

“I wondered the same thing about you.” His two buddies laughed.

“Why don't you face it? You're not welcomed around here.” I said.

He wouldn't be denied, “Again, the same can be said for you.”

Angry, I took the moral high road. “Someday, you'll get what you deserve.”

“No Horse, someday you'll get what you deserve and I'll be here to see it.” Then he dropped his beer cup on the ground at my feet and said, “p**s off, you w*nk*r.”

I took a step in his direction, but Spencer hollered to me. “Copper! Bobby wants to see you in his office after the match.”

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