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Rob Ridgway's "Rat Pack"


tenthreeleader

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Author’s notes:

Welcome to the second chapter of the Rob Ridgway series. I appreciate the many kind comments I received on the first installment, the 2008 FMS Story of the Year "American Calcio", which can be viewed at the link below:

http://community.sigames.com/showthread.php?t=31428

A few notes about the game – I am using FM 2008 version 8.0.2 with a medium database and USA (MLS/USL), England (all leagues to Blue Square North/South), France (Ligue One and First Division), Germany (to Regionnaliga), Italy (Serie A/B/C), Spain (La Liga, Liga BBVA), Holland (Eredivisie), Northern Ireland (Premier), Republic of Ireland (Premier), Scotland (SPL/1/2/3), Turkey (Super League), Portugal (Bwin Liga) and Wales (Premier) playing. I’ve also included players from the major footballing nations not fully running in my game. Ridgway’s initial setting is "professional footballer".

It should be noted that names of all non-public characters – including Rob Ridgway, by the way – who do not appear in the standard game database are randomly generated and are not intended to represent actual people. As before, attitudes and observations about actual people are generated and driven by the FM 2008 game engine. Portions of this work contain mature themes -- please be advised before reading further.

I hope you enjoy Book Two – the 2009 FMS Story of the Year, “Rob Ridgway’s Rat Pack”.

tenthreeleader

4 August 2008

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My name is Robert Douglas Ridgway.

I am a rat.

This transformation occurred only recently. In my thirty-seven years of life I’ve been called a lot of things – but never that. I ought to resent it, but I don’t.

It’s June 26, 2008. I’m sitting in my brand new office as the brand new manager of Reading Football Club and more than a few people are wondering how a guy like me could suddenly turn from a six-foot two-inch former central defender into a rodent.

Yet, I did. This is how it happened.

# # #

Just six days ago, matters had quickly come to a head. The relief I sought came via the ringing of my home phone in Padua, Italy.

“Mr. Madejski, thank you for calling.”

My heart raced as the chairman of Reading Football Club opened the conversation. “It is my pleasure,” he said. “You and I are both busy men, so I’ll come to the point. I’m calling to invite you to submit your CV for consideration as our manager.”

“I’ve heard you might be interested in receiving it,” I said, trying to be disarming without sounding smug. “But then, who can believe media anyway?”

The chairman’s reaction told me I was on reasonably firm ground. “We try not to tell them everything,” he said. “You have doubtless read the story in the Evening Post.

“Yes, sir, I have,” I said. “Jill’s story was a revelation to me.”

“As it should have been,” Madejski answered. “We did not wish for anyone to learn what we were doing, for obvious reasons. We weren’t prepared to approach you for fear of tampering while the season was going on, yet the essentials of the story were correct. We did scout you and your club quite closely over the last six weeks of the season while the rumors circulated about Steve Coppell and the Manchester United job. We are impressed with the job you have done at Calcio Padova and as you know my purpose for calling is to determine your interest in coming back to Reading.”

I took a deep breath. All the speculation about my position at newly promoted Calcio Padova – and whether I wanted to keep that position – was about to come to a head. Coppell had been hired away from Reading 48 hours earlier as Sir Alex Ferguson’s successor at Manchester United and the Royals, the eighth-placed team in the English Premier League, were scrambling to replace him.

As a former Reading defender I was well acquainted with the club and its operations. I spent five seasons there before returning to my homeland of the United States and a stint in MLS. Yet the desire to manage had brought me back to Europe to gain my UEFA badges – including the coveted Pro License – and to start a second life in the game I love.

“Mr. Madejski, surely you understand my position,” I said. “My chairman has already told me he doesn’t appreciate the speculation. I have only one question before I answer your question.”

“Feel free to ask.”

“If I’m to apply, I’d like to know where I stand. Do you have a long list of candidates?”

“We interviewed three others yesterday,” he said. “I am calling you to see if you wish to take part in the process.”

I carefully thought through his choice of words. He couldn’t come out and say what I thought he meant, so I read between his lines. He had interviewed others first and hadn’t been impressed enough to hire any of them. If I could cut ice with him, the job could well be mine. Having spent the entire evening thinking my somewhat limited options through, I decided to take the plunge.

“Very well, Mr. Madejski, I will submit my name and CV for consideration.” By answering in the affirmative, I was taking a huge step from which I expected there would be no turning back. Successful or not in this endeavor, one way or the other Padova would be in my rear-view mirror very soon.

“I will expect to receive your CV electronically this morning,” he said. “I would also like to schedule an interview with you. This must of course be done with the blessing of your chairman. I will make this enquiry.”

“Very well,” I said. “When would you like to meet?”

“This evening would be ideal,” he said. “I will send a car to meet you at Heathrow. Can you make a reservation to fly today?”

“I think so,” I said. “I will contact you if I’m unable to fly for any reason.”

“Excellent,” he said. “Should Calcio Padova deny us permission to speak with you I am sure you will learn of this through appropriate channels. Should your board take action against you with regard to your submitting a CV to this club, you should know that such an action would in no way either increase or lessen my desire to interview you for the position. Otherwise, I will look forward to meeting you at 5:00 this evening at the ground. Thank you for your time.”

# # #

My next call wasn’t to the club. Madejski took care of that. It was to my fiancée, which was a call I much preferred to make myself. I had good reasons for wanting to accept an interview away from Padua, and she was first on the list.

Patricia Ann Myers, known very affectionately to me as Patty, lay in peaceful sleep in her apartment. Her place lay across Padua’s main square from mine. My call was expected.

“Hey, babe,” she said, rolling to her side to answer the phone beside her bed. Her softly curled red hair fell haphazardly into her eyes as she picked up the phone. “Did you get the call?”

“Well, good morning to you too,” I said with a smile as I thought about how she might look while she spoke. “Yes, I got the call. Assuming the club grants permission, I will fly to London this afternoon. I’ll probably be home late tonight.”

“Was it Reading?”

“Yes. I’m excited about the possibilities.”

“I’m excited about showing you off to certain people as my husband,” she said. “Good luck, honey.”

# # #

I have a history with Reading that isn’t completely positive. While I loved my time with the club and very much enjoyed being a Biscuitman, the most painful period of my life came while I lived there and was revisited last season.

Kate McGuire, a lovely woman who was known as Kate Southerland when I was dating her, lives in Reading. Right before I left for America, I asked Kate to marry me and she turned me down.

That happens in life. What happened afterward usually doesn’t.

Kate married a simply charming fellow named Peter McGuire and had three children with him. While they were still newlyweds, he showed how charming he is by forming a second life and relationship with the woman who is now my fiancée.

Patty didn’t know she was dating a married man at the time, and she was devastated when she learned of his duplicity. Her job with the United States Department of State in London meant she traveled while on duty and soon, she was posted to the American Consulate in Venice, placing her just forty miles from me in nearby Padua.

All I can say is that upon hearing this news, McGuire then snapped. Fearing that I might reclaim Kate if Patty found me and explained her situation, he proceeded to pick a fight with me – both as his wife’s ex-lover and as someone who might soon come to know Patty Myers. He was right on both counts – he picked a great fight and eventually I got to know Patty very well indeed.

Patty has paid a fearful price for her relationship with me. This price included injuries suffered in a severe traffic accident deliberately caused by a group of “ultra” supporters trying to force Italy’s only American manager to go home. And if my meeting went well in Berkshire, we’d be heading closer to home in a big hurry.

# # #

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Gentlemen:

All I can say is "wow" - and thank you. I am flattered by the reaction and it's great to know that you're all following along! Read on ....

___

John Madejski OBE is an impressive man. He made his fortune in publishing and became Reading’s chairman in 1990. Eight years later he paid the majority of the cost to build the stadium that bears his name. For that alone, he’s certainly entitled to claim the naming rights.

He’s also Chancellor of the University of Reading and is involved in a project to rebuild the center of Reading in a project that might top £500 million in value. In his spare time he’s also the Deputy Lieutenant of Berkshire, so he’s quite a busy man. I didn’t want to be late to meet him.

As I expected, and as he had promised me in the event a bigger club came calling, Padova chairman Marcello Sestaro reluctantly granted Reading permission to speak to me. So, off I flew. When my flight landed at London’s Heathrow Airport, I soon saw that the chairman was as good as his word. A car and driver were waiting for me.

I was whisked the thirty miles west along the M4 to the town (Reading is not a city, which in England is a conferred title, providing a source of no small local controversy). About an hour later I was comfortably ensconced in the Millenium Madejski Hotel to freshen up before the interview.

The hotel is attached to Reading’s ground, an impressive fact that in this case certainly impressed me. Of course, having played here I was well aware of that fact, but it was nice to receive the club’s preferment even as they made it easy for me to find the interview location at the same time.

I was struck by the irony of it all. The goal of every manager is to go to bigger clubs. Reading’s population is about 60,000 less than that of Padua, the home of my extant employer. Padova’s stadium, known as Euganeo, holds more than the Madejski (or the Mad Stad, as some supporters call it), until the stadium’s expansion is complete. The difference between the clubs, of course, is money.

The Premier League has piles of it. The Italian Serie B, not so much. Despite the added money, though, the challenge to any club in England’s top flight is daunting.

Three of the five richest clubs on the planet live in the EPL – Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal – with defending champion Liverpool making up the fourth of England’s vaunted “Big Four”. United remains the largest sporting enterprise on the planet, Chelsea reached the finals of the European Cup last year before losing to Barcelona, and the Gunners play arguably the most stylish brand of club football in the world.

Reading must compete with those clubs. It’s a huge task. And they want to do it profitably, as I found from my interview.

A club employee took me down the concourse to the brand new Premier Suite, which overlooks one corner of the stadium pitch. There, I was greeted by the chairman himself.

On a regular day the Premier Suite will fulfill the same purpose as its sister room, the 1871 Suite on the opposite end of the concourse – as a restaurant. But now, the room held only one table and two chairs. The huge room felt quite empty, but I admired the view. I think that was part of the intention.

“Rob, thank you for coming here on such short notice,” he said. “I do appreciate it. And welcome back.”

“Thank you,” I replied, as we shook hands. He motioned me to a chair, and we sat down. “I’m pleased to see you again. And it’s nice to be back, with the club in the Premier League this time.”

The last time I had seen this stadium, I had just been told I was surplus to requirements and that my contract would not be renewed. I left in a bit of a different mood. Now, I was about to learn whether I would meet requirements of a completely different kind.

He sat me down and the two of us talked for nearly an hour. He asked me about my match management philosophies, how I approached man-management, and my views on the English game.

Finally, though, he got to one of his main points. “We feel we are on the verge of real accomplishment here,” he said. “We’ve had two consecutive top ten finishes in this league and we’ve done it profitably. We have to do that – we don’t have the resources of some clubs and we can’t price our supporters out of the stands. How are you at staying within budgets?”

Inwardly, I cringed. If Reading staff had followed Padova as closely as the chairman claimed, he already knew the answer to this question. While I had been able to keep budgets within the board’s guidelines, the club lost nearly €1,000,000 until our promotion to Serie B and expanded gate receipts from cup success restored the bank balances to near parity.

“Sir, I hate to answer this way but it really depends on how you ask the question,” I replied. “I was given guidelines for wages and expenditures by my board last season and I stayed well within those guidelines. I restructured key contracts at mid-season to help the club’s finances. However, we still lost money. So I’ll answer your question by saying that when I am given a budget I stick by it.”

He nodded, saying nothing. I didn’t think I had given him the answer he was looking for.

“Tell me about the restructuring,” he said.

I thought about Roberto Muzzi. “At Christmas, I met with my chairman and went over the contracts of the veterans I wanted to retain, who were also also our highest wage earners,” I said. “My highest paid player made €625,000 last season and we renegotiated his contract. The deal he signed saved the club €100,000 even after a club-mandated 25 percent wage boost for achieving promotion. All six of the veteran players I chose to retain accepted mid-season pay cuts which allowed me to modestly enter the January market while still achieving a net cost savings to the club. The players I brought in helped get us over the top.”

He liked that answer better. “Clubs are businesses,” he explained, telling me nothing I didn’t already know. “But key to the success of that business is the restraint of the people who are in charge. As manager you obviously would not have the final say on player acquisition but you would have a significant voice that you would expect the board to respect.”

I nodded.

“Very good,” he said, making a notation on his note pad. Then we locked eyes.

“Tell me, Rob, what are your plans for tomorrow?”

“Well, I have office hours in the morning,” I said.

“Would you mind canceling them?” he asked. “I would like you to meet with the full board at 9:00 tomorrow. I would like to offer you terms of employment if you are willing to discuss them.”

My head started to spin. “Mr. Madejski, that would be fine with me,” I said. We closed the meeting on a handshake.

# # #

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“Baby, I’m staying overnight,” I told Patty over the phone. “I think they’re going to make me an offer tomorrow and if it’s good I’m telling you I’ll probably take it.”

There was a brief silence and finally, a sigh of relief. “Rob, this is the answer to prayer,” Patty replied. “After everything that happened last year, I’ve been hoping something like this would come along! Would you like me to contact movers?”

“Let’s wait for an offer first,” I said. “Nothing is in the bag yet but when I don’t show up at the club offices in the morning it’s going to be pretty hot in Padua. I’m trying to arrange for representation tomorrow, at least an attorney to go over the contract they may propose.”

I paused. “You and I may have some significant decisions to make,” I said. “You know that. We’ll have to postpone the wedding.”

We had set a date of July 4 to be married – in the States. Taking over a new club at the end of June, I didn’t see how that date could possibly be kept.

I slept fitfully and missed Patty terribly. The size of the challenge dominated my dreams.

# # #

The fact that I had stayed overnight in Reading – at the stadium, no less – certainly cemented the manner of my departure in the eyes of the media, which reported in the morning that I was the strong favorite for the position.

I moved one level up from my hotel room and found the boardroom on the second hospitality level of the stadium. There, I stepped in to meet with the board at 9:00 sharp. It was a much different atmosphere.

This time, the chairman sat with his board. As yesterday, he was every inch the man in charge. During the course of the meeting, the board eventually confirmed the media reports, but not before one more question was thrown my way.

“We did follow you closely this season,” Madejski said. “There was quite a bit of controversy involving you that we understand was not of your making. What are your thoughts on all this, and how will you keep the good name of our club?”

“That’s a fair question,” I answered. “Thank you for recognizing that I didn’t bring on the situation I encountered last year. There are fans that will stop at nothing to get what they want – including, if necessary, criminal behavior to get it. I was a victim. My fiancée was a victim. You know from my time here as a player that I keep my nose clean and I don’t do things that reflect negatively on the club. I understand that this will probably be a clause in any employment I have at any club, and am fully prepared to abide by terms to that effect.”

Madejski nodded and ended any lingering doubt I may have had. “Very well. We are prepared to offer you the position and discuss terms,” he said, as an assistant handed me a bound leather folder.

“You will find a contract in the folder now being presented to you. Please review it and give us your thoughts.”

I opened the folder, which was adorned with the club crest and my name embossed on the front, and realized that I felt quite alone indeed at one end of the big conference table. The offered terms were quite generous – though I must admit I stopped reading after seeing a proposed annual salary of £1.2 million per year for three years. When I regained my concentration, I saw the contract outlined other personal terms and I saw no reason to dispute what was in them.

“I do want to discuss this with my attorney,” I said. “I do not anticipate any problem but I would like to be absolutely certain that I know what I’m signing.”

“We understand,” the chairman replied. “We will await your reply.”

“I do have one issue that I’m sure will only happen once in my tenure,” I said. “My fiancée and I had planned to be married July 4 in the United States. I need to know if I should call off my wedding.”

At that, I heard laughter. “We aren’t barbarians,” he replied. “By all means, be married and have a lovely ceremony, though your honeymoon will have to wait for a bit, as our first friendly is July 14. And I should hope for your sake your wedding will only happen once in your life.”

# # #

By lunchtime, it was done and dusted. After consultation with an attorney, I signed the contract in the presence of the board, honored Sestaro’s written request for my resignation at Padova with thanks for the opportunity to manage, and phoned Patty, in that order.

“Time to pack, baby,” I said, with a grin as big as all outdoors. “We’re moving to England. And we’re getting married as planned.”

This time, her squeal of delight was much more pronounced and much easier to hear.

# # #

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Yet, I am a rat. The newspaper says so.

I didn’t always have the most positive of relationships with local media during my time at Padova, and this morning I read the goodbye missive of one Stefano Emiliani, full-time local columnist, full-time frontrunner and part-time knowledgeable football writer.

That sounds like an odd combination. Yet it’s true. There were times he ripped me in print last season and I couldn’t argue with a thing he wrote. Yet his attention-grabbing style centered on the personal too often for my liking and when he wanted to wind me up, he knew he could often achieve his aims.

The easiest way for him to do it was by writing about my relationship with Patty, which eventually took on too high a profile. Part of that profile was due to his writing, which infuriated me. And when he wanted to cut, he could do it with both edges of his pen, which was definitely mightier than a sword.

Patty e-mailed this morning and linked me to an online version of his column. Fluent in five languages, I digested his final missive, in Italian, with some ease. None of what I read surprised me.

All last season I told anyone who would listen that Rob Ridgway was not the right man to lead Calcio Padova. Now that he is gone, I have only one thing to say.

I told you so.

Did he get results? Yes. Did he lead the club to promotion and the Serie C Cup? Yes. But was he the right man for the job? Certainly not. Was he the right person for the club at the moment he was hired? I think this question now answers itself.

A new manager will now step into a chaotic situation. Players are on their way here that the new manager did not buy. A system will be in place that he did not design. The only positive is that the club will start in Serie B, but it could be credibly argued that last year’s Biancoscudati might well have earned that promotion with a different manager.

Here’s the worst of it from the standpoint of a loyal supporter. Over and over again Ridgway said he was loyal to the club, through all the controversy and through all the turmoil surrounding his life and relationships. Yet, when the first opportunity came, he was gone, for a lot more money.

There is a word for a person like that. The word is ‘rat’. A rat has deserted the Padova ship and the new manager has a job on to fix the mess he’ll inherit.

There is talent on this club that may save it from an immediate trip back down to Serie C. But it will take a manager who is completely committed to club and supporters, as well as to our beloved Calcio, to make it happen. I am confident that person is available and that Marcello Sestaro will find him.

We know who it’s not. The rat is now at Reading Football Club, and they can have him.

# # #

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I’m sure my first home with Patty will look a lot better once my things finally wind up in it.

I’m looking for a nice place to live and since I’m on a three-year contract, that idea seems more or less feasible. For the time being, I’m staying in the Millenium Madejski Hotel at the ground, which isn’t a bad place. But I’d prefer someplace to really call home.

The best part of it all was that I didn’t have to travel far for the official news conference introducing me as the new manager of the Royals. Since the city is only 40 miles west of London, there was a considerable amount of media present – far more than I had ever dealt with in one meeting before.

Yet the club bosses looked like they dealt with it every day. In the time between my hiring and the news conference I had bought three suits from a local clothier and they were kind enough to tailor one of them on the spot so I’d have something different to wear for the press. On Monday, June 30, I was unveiled to the world as the Premier League’s first American manager.

It’s a whole different life in the Premier League and I learned that quickly. The main media event was held in the Directors’ Lounge, next to a spacious balcony that overlooks the pitch from the second level of the stadium’s hospitality section. As media came in to cover the event, and just kept coming until it looked like they’d never stop, it all hit me. I had left top flight football when Reading bought my contract from Rangers. Now it had all come full circle.

At the appointed hour, Madejski stepped to a speaker’s lectern at the front of the room, motioning me to follow. I noticed that a number of club staff had found places along the walls and as a result the place was packed to capacity.

“The process to find Steve Coppell’s successor as manager of Reading Football Club is over,” he said. “Steve did a tremendous job here and we wish him the very best as the new manager of Manchester United. Yet, we must move on.”

He paused. A photographer’s flashbulb caught me by surprise and the resulting brightness made me see spots as I squinted. “To be prepared for the eventuality that Steve might depart, we drew up a list of people we might wish to approach in the event he left. One of those men is a young manager who played five years for this club. We know him well. He came to us highly recommended. While performing our due diligence, we believe we watched one of the bright young managers in the game. I’m glad to report he was as impressive in his interview as his Padova team was last year on the pitch in Italy. I’m glad to introduce Rob Ridgway to you now as the new manager of Reading Football Club.”

The staff began to applaud and I thought that was a lovely touch. I’m sure Coppell had good relationships with many of them – but he’s gone and now I’m the one who has to run the football side of the operation. It was nice to feel welcome.

I stepped forward, shook the chairman’s hand and together we held up a Reading scarf while the photographers took their pictures. For the first time since the event began, I cracked a smile.

The applause from the staff died down and finally I got to speak. “Thank you, thanks for the warm welcome and I’m very glad to be back at Reading,” I said. “I’m thrilled to accept the challenge of managing one of my former clubs and I’m looking forward to getting to work. I’m inheriting a good squad, a top-ten squad in the Premier League and that means we are looking to grow for our future.”

“Last year this club was able to avoid suffering what some people call ‘second-year syndrome’, the malaise that affects some clubs the second year after they’re promoted. This is a very professional squad and they proved it by the manner of their play last season. Now, in our third year in the Premiership, we are looking to build the long-term base of this club.”

“The future is bright here,” I said. “It’s up to these players to grow and keep the club where we all want it to be. I am looking forward to the challenge. Now I’ll be happy to take your questions.”

A reporter with a badge containing the Setanta Sports logo now raised his hand. “Bobby Hopkins with Setanta, Rob,” he said. “Won’t that growth be a little harder to achieve with Kevin Doyle on his way to Blackburn for £7 million?”

I took a breath. “The club did a marvelous piece of business for Kevin,” I said. “The decision had been made to allow him to move on before I came here and considering the club paid £75,000 to buy his contract, the return was great for the club. I guess what it boils down to is that I have substantial money to spend in the transfer market and I intend to use it. We’ll need bolstering in certain areas of the pitch and I have funds available to do it.”

“What are those areas?”

“Well, we’re down a striker,” I smiled. “So I will be looking at people we can bring in. The squad charts I’ve seen show we could use depth at both fullback positions since Liam Rosenior can’t play both of them at the same time. I also wouldn’t mind seeing us bring in another option or two on the wings. On balance, though, the squad is good and I want to stress that. Still, I will be looking to strengthen in a prudent fashion.”

A second reporter now stood. “Jeff Fowler, Sky Sports,” he said. “Rob, what about the size of your squad overall? It’s huge.”

I nodded. “Yes, it is,” I said. “Right now we have over seventy players under contract at all levels and our listed reserve team contains half of them. I have a lot of evaluating to do.”

“So how can you say you’re looking for depth at fullback? Are you saying that with all those players you still need more?”

“I’m saying that I want to put the best side out there that I can,” I answered. “Right now fullback is one of the areas I’ve identified and as I meet with the chairman and senior staff I will look to get those areas addressed. We are about winning here. That’s all there is to it. My job is to either bring in or develop players who can reach the board’s goals.”

Now I saw a friendly face, a woman who nonetheless introduced herself to the other media. “Jill Weatherby, Reading Evening Post. Rob, welcome back. Is your past finally behind you? I mean, with all the trouble you had at Padova?”

“Hi, Jill,” I smiled. “Great to be back.” I got a look of acceptance from the local reporter. I thought that was more than I ever got from Emiliani.

“Gosh, I hope so,” I smiled, and that drew a laugh from the gallery. “Look, the situation I was in last year wasn’t one I relished. It also wasn’t one I created. There were some hard-core people in Italy who just didn’t like the idea of me coming in and doing what I was able to do. I chose not to stay around that kind of situation. The club itself, Calcio Padova, was very good to me. But in the end, I didn’t feel the situation was sustainable, so I took my own steps when Mr. Madejski called.”

“Would you please describe your style of management?” Jill knew this perfectly well from having talked with me several months previously, but still wanted it on the record.

“I subscribe to what I call the ‘Five P’ approach,” I said. “I want Pace, Placement, Positioning, Power and Passion. If all eleven positions on the pitch apply the approach effectively, we’ll win most of the matches we play. If they don’t, it’s my job to make sure they do in future. As for the players themselves, my job is to put them in positions where they can succeed and then have confidence in their ability to do it. That’s my philosophy in a nutshell.”

“How many players do you have that fulfill all your categories?”

“We’ll find out in pre-season training,” I said. “That time is not far away.”

The questioning continued until a brightly dressed young woman stood. “My name is Jeannine Callaghan, News of the World,” she said, giving me my first exposure to a British tabloid. “Is it true that you called off your pending wedding to take this job?”

I smiled at the abrupt change of pace the news conference had taken and while the football writers looked on in a state of semi-shock, I just grinned.

“Don’t worry, this is just like at Padova,” I smiled, and then answered the young lady’s question. “No, Jeannine, that’s not true. Mr. Madejski has kindly allowed me to return to the United States next week. Patty got her church for our wedding day and we’ve got a lot of people coming.”

Just then, a steward entered the room with my fiancée in tow. The timing was perfect and I was both delighted and quite surprised to see her.

Five-foot-nine inches tall without the heels she wore, she cut a simply superb figure in her summer dress of Reading’s royal blue. She advanced to me through the crowd and we embraced as the flashbulbs blazed.

“My soon-to-be-better-half,” I smiled, introducing her before she shyly returned to the sidelines. “She’s not much for media, I’m afraid. Maybe someday I won’t be either.”

That drew a few smiles and the news conference resumed.

# # #

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brilliant so far. the pachovo story was absolute world class and loved every minute of reading of it. you not only had success on the game but my a great story of what happens outside the matches. hats off to you. does anyone else think emilani was jealous of rob being manager instead of him?

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Andy, thank you very much! Salkster, to borrow from the famous phrase, there are three things any man feels he can do better than anyone else: build a fire, run a hotel and manage a football club. :) Thanks also for giving your first post to this thread!

___

Finally we headed downstairs so I could pose for pictures on the Madejski Stadium pitch, which is nearly as unique as the stadium itself.

For most of its history, Reading played at Elm Park, which was located a few miles north of the present stadium site. When the new stadium was built, the old place was demolished to make way for a housing project.

The “Mad Stad” was built on a former household waste site in 1990, at a cost of approximately £25 million. Nowadays, that figure might cover the debt service on the new Wembley, but here it built a very nice stadium paid for primarily by the chairman. That’s something you just don’t see in the States.

It’s a lovely little stadium, which seats about 24,000 at present and is in the process of being expanded. We’ll play this season with a slightly smaller capacity and then at the end of the 2008-09 season we’ll have a larger playground.

Even the turf is distinctive – it’s part synthetic and part grass. UEFA rules prohibit playing championship contests on fake grass but this stuff evidently passes muster. The surface is more durable, which helps after our co-tenants, Guinness Premiership rugby’s London Irish, are through using it. The surface drains very well and that means we probably won’t lose many matches to the fickle English weather.

Truth be told, weather is one thing I’ll miss about Italy. I hate cold, I detest snow and as a result I loved the climate in Padua, which is about 40 miles from the Adriatic and warm eleven months out of the year. So I do give up something I value by coming here. Still, on balance, it’s not a bad trade.

Finally, the media group went downstairs to the players’ level and moved through the players’ tunnel onto the pitch for the photo-op section of my news conference. The short flight of stairs at the end of the players’ tunnel soon gave way to green grass and bright sunshine as a lovely late June morning gave way to noon.

We repeated the scarf pose, and several of the players then made an appearance to greet the new gaffer. I shook hands with Leroy Lita, a prolific scorer from the Championship days who has fallen on some hard times in the Premiership. Liam Rosenior and Stephen Hunt were also on hand and it was nice to make an early acquaintance with three players I’ll be watching closely in pre-season training.

I’m happy to see them. That doesn’t mean they are guaranteed to play, and they all know it. I want to maintain the culture of success that is developing here and that means everyone needs to raise their game. Including me. Especially me.

Then, Patty emerged again from the crowd and we posed together for pictures on the touchline. My arm slipped around her slender waist and she looked up at me with a wonderful expression in her eyes as we faced the cameras arm-in-arm. We had a soft conversation as the flashbulbs popped.

“We’re moved out of Padua,” she said. “I’m in a hotel downtown here, and the movers have our things in storage until we find a place to live after the wedding.”

“That’s wonderful,” I said. “I’m keeping office hours tomorrow but I’ve got a place to look at that I think you might like. Since we’ll be married at this time next week, we might want to put that on the front burner.”

She gave me her simply perfect smile in response and it was all she could do not to cuddle me in public. “I’ve missed you so much,” she sighed. “I can’t wait for the Fourth!”

# # #

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Superb stuff 10-3

I admit to not having caught the first instalment (I don't read nearly enough on here), but I'll be going back to pick it up.

Easily in the top few stories for pure quality of writing - bravo!

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flipsix, I'm flattered by your kind words. I started reading from the beginning on your tale when you reposted, and I'm happy that a writer of your quality enjoys this work!

___

The next morning’s papers had the story of my hiring and as you might expect from the tabloid press, the media reaction to America’s first entry into the Premiership’s managerial wars was all over the board.

I hadn’t counted on their reaction to Patty, though. The story written by Callaghan in News of the World was as much about her as it was about me. Under the headline To Die For, the paper dredged up the story of the abortive attack on me that took place late last season and speculated that yeah, Patty is pretty. The picture they ran of her in close-up certainly reinforces that notion. Since I’m marrying her, I am inclined to agree.

The football press, though, treated the story a lot differently. Most of the press seems willing to give me a chance. That’s nice. I at least can speak English with them without worry.

I had to learn Italian, which is my fifth language, when I finished my playing career at Frosinone in Serie B. Obviously, that knowledge stood me in good stead while I managed at Padova. Naturally, though, I prefer my native tongue, though I’m sure a few people will try to give me lessons in the King’s English. I also speak Spanish, Swedish and Østnorsk Norwegian in addition to my native tongue.

Patty and I talked about the NOTW article while house hunting. We wound up about ten miles out of Reading on the A4, known as the Bath Road, in a lovely little place called Knowl Hill. I had looked at a certain house I liked 48 hours before, and was hoping no one else would make an offer on it before we could arrive together for a look.

As part of my contract the club is helping me with housing and moving expenses, but the choice of my home is still quite personal. I do need to be within twenty minutes of the stadium according to that contract, but the location was left to me to decide. This looks like it will be the place.

It was a bungalow with a study, three bedrooms and two baths, on two full acres of very nice, relaxing countryside. We toured the house with a real estate agent and happily Patty saw the same things I had seen.

“This is lovely,” she said, looking out a bay window in the back that gazed out upon a scene of pastoral green beauty. “What do you think?”

“I haven’t seen anything else as nice,” I said. “If we lived here I could have some decompress time driving home from the ground but it’s not too far away from where I need to be.”

“Our first home,” she smiled, taking my arm. “I like the sound of that.”

# # #

Later, I had a meeting that part of me wasn’t looking forward to.

When I was at Padova, I hired my assistant manager myself. Here, I’m probably going to inherit one. And the fellow I inherit has history with me.

Kevin Dillon is a talented coach. He came to Reading as a player in 1991 after stints at Birmingham, Newcastle and Portsmouth. At Birmingham, his main claim to fame was that he was the last player to be given a debut performance by the immortal Sir Alf Ramsey. He spent two seasons playing at the old Elm Park before moving on to Stevenage.

After his playing career ended, he returned to the Royals as youth boss and then became reserve team manager. He served as Alan Pardew’s number two in 2001 – and in so doing, he coached me.

My own stint in Reading ended with my release in 2002 by Pardew. By that time, Kevin was assistant manager and when Pardew left in his turn in 2003, Kevin became caretaker manager of the club, reverting back to the assistant manager’s role when Coppell was hired.

He has been a good and faithful servant to Reading FC but now, he is once again in the number two position. This time, it’s to assist a player he once coached and who was released by the club during his tenure. So I have to know if my hiring will create issues.

That isn’t so much for me, mainly because I have the top job now. I understand that things change in this game but it’s important for me to know where he stands – or more importantly, where he doesn’t.

He’s twelve years my senior and I respected the job he did. Yet, if the meeting didn’t go well, we both knew I could easily turn the tables by asking for the resignation of my former first-team coach. From Kevin’s point of view that would be quite a turn of events.

He also holds the UEFA Pro License, meaning he’s qualified to manage in the Premiership. If he’s got ambition at Reading, or resents me for gaining the job, I have to know about it and deal with it. I can’t afford friction on my staff, and especially not with my assistant manager. So after Patty and I went house hunting, I made it a point to return to the offices to meet Kevin.

He was waiting for me in the manager’s office underneath the stadium. I noted as I walked in that he had chosen the seat directly across from the manager’s desk. I walked in and he rose to greet me.

“Rob, welcome back,” he said, and I shook his offered hand.

“No need to sit behind a desk,” I said, waving him to the couch directly opposite my desk. “This isn’t a job interview.”

We sat and I got to the point. “Kevin, I appreciate your coming in,” I said. “I just want to make sure the air is clear between us.”

He got to the point. “Alan Pardew and I released you from this club. I hoped there were no hard feelings and I’ve been a bit apprehensive about this meeting myself. So I guess deep down, I had the same thought you did.”

I shook my head but realized immediately that if he and Pardew hadn’t made the decision they had made, I would probably be married to Kate right now and it’s quite possible I might never have gone into management. “No, no hard feelings,” I said. “I just have to know what your intentions are.”

“Right now, none,” he admitted. “You know I have been a caretaker manager for this club in the past and I’ve been here for quite a long while. I do like it here, and I want to see Reading Football Club keep growing. The board felt the best way to do that would be to keep me in my current role.”

I read between his lines. His statement had made it sound like he had applied for the permanent position but he had lost out on the job.

“Kevin, how do you feel about your current role?” I asked.

“Well, I have to be honest,” he said, and then confirmed my suspicions. “I got the Pro License for a reason, and it wasn’t to be an assistant manager for the rest of my life. I’d like to run a club of my own and I did think the time was right to get the job here. You should know, because you’ll find out anyway, that I applied for this job. They didn’t choose me, they chose you. So I need to get on with my job. That isn’t to say that I won’t look for another one, though. You need to be aware of that.”

He then answered my next question before I asked it. “That said, I’m Reading loyal,” he said. “You have nothing to fear. I know the best way to get a job in the business isn’t to undermine the club where you currently work. So as far as I’m concerned until something better comes, I’m willing to continue on in this capacity. The final decision, though, rests with you.”

That was manly of him to say and I told him so. Then, I took a deep breath. He didn’t sound happy. I needed to weigh the need for continuity with the desire to have a staff pulling 100 percent in the same direction. I knew what I needed to do.

“Kevin, in a way that’s true but I want you to make a choice,” I said. “If it’s a club you want, I will release you from your obligation here and you can find one. I’m sure you’d have no trouble. That said, I would prefer as much continuity with existing staff as possible, and if you want to stay I’ll allow it. I know being overlooked for a job can hurt but if you want to keep your post I will hold it open for you.”

He thought for a moment. “I’ll stay, Rob,” he finally said. “If you want me here, I’ll stay.”

“I never had a doubt about that,” I said, rising to end our thankfully short meeting. “You were a good coach to me when I played and I respect your ability. But this has to be the right decision for you. My job is to win matches and your job is to help. If we can’t see eye to eye about things we’re all in trouble. I’m glad to have you aboard.”

# # #

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“Reeding.”

I smiled at Martin Myers, my future father-in-law. I was trying to tell him about my new job and evidently I was failing.

“No, Martin, it’s pronounced ‘Redding’. As in Otis. You know, ‘Sittin’ On The Dock Of The Bay’. That Redding.”

“Gotcha. Where is it?”

“West of London, about 40 miles. In the top league. Going places.”

“Uh-huh,” he said. His aversion to football, expressed so eloquently during his trip to Italy the month before, was presently the only serious obstacle to my long and happy marriage to his daughter.

His wife, Paula, a charming woman who leaves no doubt as to Patty’s maternal parentage by her appearance, now spoke. “Rob, tell me how much they’re paying you again?”

I smiled. “Well, after the exchange rate, it works out to about $2.4 million a year.”

Martin looked at me and extended his hand. “Welcome to the family,” he smiled.

# # #

I had hoped for a slightly less mercenary reaction from him, but at that point I’d take what I could get. I think he was joking. Sort of.

Martin spent most of his life working on an auto assembly line for Chrysler and was a union man to his fingertips. My protestations that there are unions for both players and managers in England, and that I had once belonged to the former and now belonged to the latter, still seemed to fall on deaf ears.

I’ve spent most of my time with Martin simply trying to get him to understand what I do for a living and to help him understand that I’m not his enemy. I really don’t want friction in my relationship with my wife and I’ve made a good faith effort to help him understand that there are some things Americans do that do in fact involve other peoples. I don’t need family hassle, and I don’t need extended family hassle.

So I’ve been respectful and polite, and tried to be forthcoming when he’s had questions. Still, though, it hasn’t been easy.

Sitting in the living room of Patty’s family home in the Chicago suburbs, Patty and I talked about it with the new arrivals in town – my family, freshly arrived from Minneapolis-St. Paul.

My parents are in their mid sixties and have supported my career from the beginning, from my start as a very gangly youth goalkeeper and defender to my eventual growth into a young man worthy of a chance to play in Europe. They helped hold me together over Christmas when Patty and I fell out with each other and they’re only too happy to help again, now that the magic moment in our relationship is near.

“Does he just not like the game?” my father asked.

“Wish I knew,” I answered. “He seems all right with parts of it. I took him to a Cup final in Italy when we had 28,000 people in the stands and he seemed all right with that. But deep down he’s worried for Patty and I guess I don’t blame him.”

“He wants to know you love me,” my fiancée said. “The whole idiocy of last season made him worry for my safety but being in England seems to have helped with that.” I resisted the temptation to say that there are surely idiots all over the world, but chose not to press the issue in case someone believed me.

My mother then made an observation that could only have made sense between two females. “Judging by Rob’s mood at Christmas, I have no doubt about his love for you,” she said, and Patty nodded.

“My mood was awful at Christmas,” I said.

“Exactly,” Patty answered. “Don’t argue with your mother, honey.”

Puzzled, I did as I was told. My dad smiled.

“Get used to that, too,” he advised. That also seemed like a good idea.

# # #

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It is a fantastic praise of the quality of this work and its predecessor that this thread has more views than many other stories of greater length. You are attracting great interest, and rightly so. This is brilliant work. Keep it up!

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Kewell, thank you for your kind words. I'm glad people seem to be enjoying the story so far. Time for an important moment for Rob and Patty now, if you don't mind...

___

I couldn’t see her face, but she was still the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen.

I stood, nervously, at the front of the center aisle at Patty’s home church in Arlington Heights, Illinois. She walked slowly toward me, on her father’s arm, while about 300 invited guests stood as one.

Her veil partially obscured her perfect pink face, but there was no mistaking the power of her gaze. It was fixed forward, the power of her emerald green eyes softly blunted by the white lace draped in front of them.

She just looked stunning. A white lace wedding dress with a modest train adorned her shapely figure and she had a small bouquet tucked in her hands. I swallowed hard as she approached, still hardly daring to hope that such an exquisite creature could actually go through with the idea of marrying me.

Even Martin had put aside his feelings to enjoy the moment. It was wonderful. He stopped with his daughter at my side, and smiled. “You’re a beautiful bride,” he said, and Patty smiled at him in return.

He looked at me next, thankfully without the same comment. Patty then looked up at me with an expression bordering on angelic.

You can only get married for the first time once, I guess, and this day represented a triumph for her as well as for me. As anguished as she had been after her relationship with McGuire, and after overcoming our own relationship difficulties, to finally have done everything right meant the world to her.

Her childhood pastor stepped to the front of the church and performed a beautiful ceremony. The look of self-confidence I saw on her face grew with each word spoken.

After we exchanged our vows, Martin gave away his daughter. He sat down, a semi-stricken expression on his face, and the ceremony continued. Beside him, his wife gently took his arm, and the look of apprehension gradually dissolved into one of reluctant acceptance.

The familiar words in our wedding vows, ones I never thought I’d speak, now flowed through me. I happily promised to obey Patty – I adore the traditional language – and our ringbearer stepped forward.

“With this ring, I thee wed,” I smiled, placing the two bands on Patty’s left ring finger. The words were just wonderful to say and even better when I looked into her eyes. She gave me my ring, and our pastor spoke again, placing Patty’s hand in mine. She felt soft and perfect and my senses seemed to be on the verge of overload. He spoke again:

“As Rob and Patty have consented together in holy wedlock, and have witnessed the same before God and this company, and given and pledged their faithfulness, each to the other, and have exchanged rings; I pronounce them husband and wife.”

Then, he grinned. “Rob, you may kiss your bride,” he said, and Patty and I turned to each other at long last. I finally got to lift that veil, and when she came to my arms, we began our life together.

# # #

Our reception was wonderful, all things considered. Martin was accepting, even if he still didn’t appear completely sold on the idea of his daughter living in Europe married to a guy who coaches football played without pads.

I think he knows Patty will be well looked after, and in the end most fathers want that for their daughters. But I can’t help but think that despite all my recent success I’ll still have to prove myself to him.

I don’t mind that. I’ve done it before with other people and in the end, I’ll be just fine.

Yet we did have a moment of amazing beauty that was part public and part private. Right after our wedding dinner, we went through the traditional removal of the bride’s garter, but with a slight concession to modesty.

Patty can be very shy at times, and the idea of her groom publicly rummaging under her dress for the elastic item made her blush. Yet we found a way around this and it turned into a happy, memorable moment as a result.

As we sat at dinner, she leaned over to me. “Honey, go ahead and take off my garter after dinner,” she said. “I’ll make it worth your while.”

“It’s not supposed to be worth my while,” I teased, but she gave me a look that indicated I needed to rethink my position. So I did.

“I don’t think I’ll deny my bride one of her first wishes,” I decided, and she laughed. “But what will your dad say?”

“I’m your wife now,” she said, shrugging her shoulders. “If he says anything, I’ll handle it.”

I swallowed hard and decided to simply accede to Patty’s wish. We finished the dinner, posed for the traditional cake-cutting pictures, and then the moment arrived. I called my unmarried groomsmen and guests to their positions in the middle of the dance floor, and Patty gave me a smile I had only seen once before.

One morning, when I was feeling a bit low, she came to my Padua apartment before I got out of bed. I was sound asleep when she let herself in, and when I woke up it was to her lovely face hovering over me. Her smile that morning was an expression of joy mixed with passion, of love combined with hopeful promise. I saw that smile again now, as I dropped to one knee and she put her foot up on a chair.

She guided my hands to the hem of her wedding dress. Tastefully, I lifted the dress to her knee and saw her left leg garbed in white hose. I nearly cackled with glee until I looked up and caught her eye.

Patty looked down at me, with that same smile, and winked. I thought I was going to faint. My bride had smitten me right in the middle of the reception hall in a very public expression of her love, and her intentions for her new husband.

Her face then broke into a wide grin. “Told you I’d make it worth your while,” she said, as I retained the presence of mind to remove her garter. “Didn’t I tell you?”

# # #

Our reception band set to its work and music began to play. The formalities observed, it was time to celebrate. After a quick warm up, the bandleader stepped to his microphone and made an announcement.

“I think it’s time for the first dance of the bride and groom,” he said, and our guests broke into spontaneous cheers. “If Patty and Rob will oblige us, we’d like to play our first song now, and it’s a special request from the bride to the groom.”

I looked at her, and she smiled again. “Surprise,” she teased, extending her hand to me.

“Honey, you know I’m a rotten dancer,” I said, not wishing to break tradition but curious as to what she had in mind.

“No need to dance,” she said. “Just hold me and sway. That’s all I want.”

I smiled back at her and we headed to the floor. She slid into my arms and the feeling was heavenly. My right hand found the small of her back and her left hand slid gracefully onto the back of my neck. Our free hands touched and I tucked them protectively against my chest. She leaned her beautiful head against me and the band began to play Gershwin’s Someone To Watch Over Me.

I looked down at her and this time, my emotions were the ones to run over. My tears of happiness wet Patty’s hair and she looked up at me as the song ended.

“I do love you, Rob,” she said, kissing me to prove her point.

“Patty, I hardly know what to say except I love you too.”

She whispered in my ear and hugged me tight as the second song began to play and our guests joined us on the floor. “That’s all you ever need to say.”

# # #

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I was sad to see the other story end. It snuck up on me too quickly, but this is a very pleasing replacement.

Having just come back from the wilderness, I've been very pleased by the change in writing style. The narrative as opposed to the diary form flows nicely. However, your dates in the diary spoiled me and I'm always finding myself lost as to the time frame of the action in this story.

Other than that, I'm loving this story almost as much as Rob loves Patty.

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Gentlemen, thank you for the kind words. As always, I appreciate them. Copper, it's funny you should mention the diary format - because once training starts, the story format shifts back. Purely coincidental, of course ... :D

___

July 6, 2008

That wonderful little house is now ours, and we are back in England 48 hours after the wedding, ready for me to go to work.

Patty doesn’t need to work now, but still has career ambitions in her chosen field of public relations. The money I’m making will buy her time until she finds a position she likes.

Unfortunately, when we got back we discovered an unexpected situation. While we were gone, we received four letters from various media organizations wanting Patty to sell her story to them.

“This is England,” I reminded myself. “That’s how they do things here.” I had conveniently forgotten about the National Enquirer and Weekly World News in my homeland, but since Patty has no representative, I thought now might be the best time for us both to have one.

“We’re going to need some help,” I said. “The weakest part of my game in Padua was in dealing with media when things got the roughest, because I didn’t have a representative. In all these things that messed up our lives, I had to fight on my own. I’m not going to make that mistake again.”

I contacted the representation firm of Ray, Eaton and Richardson in London for a little advice. One of the partners, a kindly fellow named Freddie Eaton, returned my call in person – and on a Sunday, no less. We had a long conversation that ended fruitfully.

“Mr. Ridgway, I’m happy to speak with you,” he said. “I think a man in your position can use a little help.”

“I had hoped it wouldn’t be so obvious,” I smiled.

“It happens,” Eaton replied. “Don’t be embarrassed about it.”

“Actually, the person I’m worried about is my wife,” I said, feeling a bit strange to be using that word in association with Patty but liking it more and more all the time. “She is receiving offers from the papers for her story and I’ve got other work to do while we get all these approaches from people who want to make money off her. I’d like to retain professional advice for her and get her better advice than I can provide. I don’t want her situation to get out of control.”

“We’re professionals,” he reminded me, stating the obvious. “If you would like to retain us I will handle your file myself. Would that be of interest to you?”

“Yes,” I answered. “I’d just like some assistance.”

I wondered if Freddie Eaton would have been of help to me with Emiliani last year. I figured he probably would have been, but then I wasn’t in a situation where I could have retained him from so far away. I counted his help as another positive for moving to England. All I want is for last season’s bad memories to fade.

# # #

July 7, 2008

“Gentlemen, today we start learning.”

The looks of surprise I got from some of my new players told me quite a bit. It was the first day of training and I stood in the middle of the home changing room at the club’s indoor facility across the street from the stadium.

Everything here is fairly new and the training facilities at Reading are excellent. Stability in the league table has meant stability on the balance sheet as well, and some of that stability has been reflected in the form of facility improvements.

Players here have it pretty good, all things considered. So while they changed into their training kit, I had the brand-new floor to myself.

“Today we start to learn about each other, and I start to show you how I run an operation,” I said. “Those of you who are familiar with this club’s recent history know that I played five seasons here and you also know I sat in this room as a player. So it’s good to be back.”

I looked over at Dillon, who sat in a chair next to the front wipeboard. His expression hadn’t changed and I was grateful for that.

“For those who haven’t read the papers, my name is Rob Ridgway. I was a central defender and I played sixteen professional seasons. You may also notice that I talk funny.”

At that, I saw a few smiles. That was what I was after.

“One language will be the most important one spoken in this room,” I added. “That language is Reading Football Club’s, and you’ll hear it through my voice. This club has enjoyed a fair amount of success over the last three seasons and due in part to that success, you’ve got a new manager. Steve Coppell is gone so when he comes here with United he’ll be your opposition. We have our own work to do and that work is to advance our club, not its former manager.”

I stepped to the wipeboard at the front of the room and drew several formations on the board, finishing with a favorite of mine. As I did, I cast a look at two individuals seated across the room.

“This last, obviously, is 4-1-3-2. I used it to great effect at my last club without the talent that is in this room. Played by players with your level of ability, I am confident we can succeed. This --” I tapped the formation on the board with the end of my marker – “will be our base formation for the coming season. We’ll vary from time to time depending on our opponents, but always with the idea that they’ll have to deal with us as well.”

“I intend to always play to our strengths. Bear that in mind when you see team sheets, and when you observe us on match day if you aren’t playing. My job is to put you in the best positions I can to help you succeed and if we approach this season as a true team, success is quite attainable. I like what I see in this room and I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t.”

As I spoke, I looked at 26-year old Mexican defender Jonny Magallón, and 25-year old Brazilian striker Dagoberto, who could be keys to our entire season. As I looked at them, I thought back to last season – one of wonderful accomplishment at a much smaller club in Italy.

That club had some talent but what makes the 4-1-3-2 go are the two central midfielders – one pure holder and one attacker with a nose for goal. They both have to be studhorses to make the formation really hum, and this club has two of them.

I looked at the two midfielders and addressed them in Spanish, one of the five languages I speak. “The two of you are going to be very important to this club,” I said, and the looks of surprise I got in return made my venture away from English well worth the effort.

“I’m going to talk with you and I can communicate with everyone in this room,” I said, switching back to English. “We won’t lack for communication. What I want is to instill the correct culture here – good communication leads to consistent winning. What we’ll do today will start that process, but of course in the beginning there’s going to be a lot of conditioning work. Until you show me you’ve got match legs, that’s how it’s got to be. Now let’s get out there, do the work and have some fun in the process.”

# # #

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This is very good- I seem to have chosen the wrong time to start my Reading-based story! Hopefully I'm in a different enough scenario to not lose out, though I may have to drop my own friction with Dillon. And I play 4-1-3-2 at times...

I will stay interested as much as possible. My story, "There's no time like the present", is still in it's fledling stage, so don't read it yet.

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SCIAG, thank you for the compliment. It seems there are a number of stories about certain clubs running in parallel at the moment ... I see no reason there can't be two good stories about Reading. Good luck with your team. Read on to take a look at "my" Royals!

___

This squad isn’t half bad. I can understand why it’s a top-ten Premiership side.

With Hahnemann gone from the goal, the number one jersey will belong to 30-year old Romanian number one Bogdan Lobont, bought last January for £6 million from Dynamo Bucharest. His deputy is 23-year old Australian Adam Federici, who has just enough Italian ancestry so as to not need a work permit.

Defensively, we have more players than I can use in the middle. 27-year old Senegalese international Ibrahima Sonko is a fine defender and he’ll compete for time with a pair of Icelanders – 30-year old Ivar Ingimarsson and 32-year old Brynjar Gunnarsson, with the former player more likely to grab the lion’s share of the playing time.

The fullbacks will likely be my prize capture - Bosman signing Paolo Ferreira - and Liam Rosenior on the right and left respectively. Both backs can play either side of the pitch so that makes them versatile, and import Andrea Gaspari will back up the back line. Craig Cathcart, the 18-year old Northern Irishman with a world of potential who Coppell snipped off United before heading off to join them himself, will see limited action while he develops.

John Halls, a 26-year old Englishman, is another candidate to play right back. He’s a good positional player from what I’ve seen and is surely able to handle the responsibilities there. Then there is the matter of the club captain, 33-year old Scotsman Graeme Murty. I will have a problem in that the skipper probably isn’t going to play a whole lot, and that poses a whole set of difficulties. As easy as Graeme is to like, his skills are on the decline and that’s a shame.

I’ve got a bit of a decision to make with another very talented player. André Bikey, a 23-year old Cameroon international, can play several positions including central defense, and last year someone taught him to play the right side of midfield as well. He’s an intriguing player and I will need to find a spot for him.

The holding role is more than likely Jonny Magallón’s to lose. The 26-year old Mexican international is made for the role, which in my tactic needs to be a player who can pass, play smart positionally and above all, play intelligent defense. He excels at all three skills and I can’t wait to see him in the tactic.

James Harper, a 27-year old Englishman, will be his understudy and I don’t lose much by playing him. To have two players who are competent in the language of the holding midfielder is a big help. I think back to my former club captain Federico Crovari and his talented but aging alter ego, Pablo Paz, at last year’s Padova team. Both were professional but didn’t possess anything like the skill sets of Magallón and Harper. The difference will be interesting to behold.

The central midfield role is one I would love to give to Dagoberto, purchased last January for £6.5 million plus clauses from Sao Paolo. When playing as a midfielder, he likes to get forward and he is a lethal finisher. As a late raider, that’s what my tactic calls for and he’s perfect for the role. Yet if I play him there, without a new arrival I could only have three strikers to start the season and I’m not comfortable with that.

John Oster, a 29-year old Englishman, is thus thrust into the limelight. He will get his chance to play the central role and he may have to grab that chance with both hands.

The wing positions will be difficult to sort out as well. On the left, I’ve got 25-year old American Bobby Convey, who would like to leave. He and 27-year old Irishman Stephen Hunt will battle for playing time that will help Bobby leave if he is able to earn it. On the right, Ivory Coast international Emerse Faé will get most of the time but will need to show he’s better than Bikey in the role to make the position truly his.

Up front, I have three main contenders: two Englishmen in 28-year old Dave Kitson and 23-year old Leroy Lita, with 21-year old Irishman Shane Long waiting in the wings. And, of course, if I wind up with another central midfielder, Dagoberto is going to wind up in a forward position as well.

That’s assuming, of course, that I don’t get others in to strengthen the squad. If I do, then everything may change. But there’s a good group of players here and they need their chance to shine.

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SCIAG, I play about two weeks ahead of where I write and then catch up.

___

I also met with the full board to go over expectations for the coming season, and got a bit of news that I might find useful.

First, they told me what I’m supposed to accomplish. The club’s league ambitions are not unreasonable given where we’ve finished the last two years – the board wants a mid-table placement this year. I think that is certainly deliverable. The club has finished eighth in each of the last two years so that’s simply maintenance of what we’ve already done. Challenging for a European place will undoubtedly be next on the agenda given the talent we have.

The FA Cup is something else again. The board would like the Fifth Round or better, but I suspect the supporters would like a bit more. There’s a reason for that.

Reading has lost more FA Cup matches than any club in England because we are the club that has competed for the trophy for the longest time without ever winning it. If by some quirk I were able to deliver the FA Cup, that would be an accomplishment worthy of club lore.

That sort of thing appeals to me, though not at the expense of other goals. The fact that winning the FA Cup is a ticket into Europe doesn’t hurt either.

Steve Coppell once famously said that his goal for Reading’s first season in the Premiership wasn’t Europe but rather survival, when the team was challenging for an UEFA Cup place. After missing Europe by a single point, he later said he was wrong.

With this club having never played a European match, you wonder why the ambition didn’t seem to be there last season. Perhaps Steve was trying to settle his players. That’s a legitimate goal, especially for a club trying to consolidate in the top flight. Yet last year, the team did just that, which tells me it’s time to aim a bit higher.

The club has already decided not to participate in the Intertoto Cup, which offers a back door into the UEFA Cup for its winners. With the eighth-placed team in the Premiership and a healthy bank balance to allow entry, I guess part of me is surprised at this decision.

The goal of the board is a mid-table finish, which means consolidation of league position has already been achieved in their eyes. So why not aim higher?

# # #

The other news involves my transfer budget, which is now 25 percent larger than it was yesterday. Doyle’s sale to Blackburn has added £5.7 million to the pot, even after paying a sell-on of his transfer fee to Cork City, which is presumably licking its collective chops at the £1.3 million addition to its bank balance.

I’ve now got £25 million to spend, and that total may get even larger because Bobby Convey has requested a transfer as well. Stephen Hunt is a preferred option to my countryman on the left side of midfield in any event, and Bobby’s listed value is another £5 million. So it is possible that I will have even more substantial funds available to me for squad strengthening.

I have to be honest. If I could sell Bobby’s contract for £5 million I’d jump at the chance. He’s a good player, but I could find extra help in places I need to find it with that sort of money.

I also have to find a striker to replace Doyle, and I’ve got some ideas there. That said, those ideas will pale in comparison to what Chelsea has already done. On my way in for this morning’s meeting I learned that they spent £87 million for players – just this morning. £37 million of that went to Barcelona for Giuseppi Rossi, which really surprised me. He’s a fine young player but that’s a whole lot of money. Just to rub it in everyone else’s face, they also announced the signings of Andres Guardado from Deportivo for £22,500,000 and Daniel Alves from Sevilla for £27.5 million more.

Trying to compete against that sort of financial firepower is frightening and I’d be a fool to say anything different. Frankly, I hope they’re done buying, because if they aren’t it’s going to be one long season for the rest of us.

To make matters worse, those who are wondering how well Chelsea’s new acquisitions will jell get to find out in the season opener – against my club. In the fixture list, also released this morning, Chelsea comes to the Mad Stad for the first match of the season. It’ll be my debut and the challenge will be absolutely immense.

After I met with the board, I held my first staff meeting. With the players gone, it was pretty light and also quite positive, which certainly helped. Most of Coppell’s staff seems to want to stay, though I expect a few of them might wind up at United in the longer term. That’s certainly understandable.

My first task in this process is figuring out who wants to stay anyway. If people have their eyes set on golden spires – as I eventually did when I was at Padova – it is often in the best interests of everyone that they move on. I have no problem with that and it’s best that I learn of such wanderlust now.

So my six coaches and I sat in the manager’s office at the stadium talking about the club. Just before my taking over, the club had decided to non-tender veteran keeper Marcus Hahnemann, which was regrettable from a sentimental standpoint but saved paying the 37-year old £1 million in wages.

So not only do I have money to spend, I have money to pay the players I sign. The payroll budget is also £12 million under maximum, so I have the ability to bring in four or five players who could really help the club while staying under budget.

There are larger issues with being so far under budgets. Hahnemann was popular. Doyle’s sale garnered £7 million even though some of it got passed on through a sell-on clause. When the club is making that kind of money on sales, fans will expect new players, and for that sort of dosh, they’ll expect quality. So there’s an element of pressure I am already facing just a week into the job.

However, the way the club may decide to help me with that pressure isn’t optimal. They are considering hiring a Director of Football, which would do two things.

First, it would give me help on player acquisition and insulate me from the board. Neither of those possibilities are the worst things in the world. In higher profile jobs, a good DoF can be a lifesaver, especially for a manager under pressure. At times last season, I could have used a Director of Football at Padova when my board really started to annoy me.

However, folks in those positions tend to be former managers who are keen to second-guess. So while they can relieve pressure between a manager and his board, they can also create it. From my point of view, it means the manager’s diplomatic touch may well be focused on a different person.

I don’t favor Directors of Football in general, which I think is understandable from a manager’s standpoint. The player acquisition part of this job will be hard, though, and my learning curve for players in the United Kingdom is very, very steep.

That’s just one reason why I watched so much football from outside Italy last season, though obviously for a different reason. Last year I watched top clubs for loan targets. This year I am watching them for potential signings. It’s now a whole different game.

# # #

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July 9, 2008

Part of my life hasn’t changed, though, and that’s not such a good thing. This evening I headed into the center of town for a meeting with my past.

When I played here, I met Kate McGuire at a Children’s Fund event sponsored by the club. I’ve spent quite a bit of time in these pages recounting that relationship so I won’t do it again here.

Kate’s firm handled promotion of that long-ago event and as I drove downtown for the annual fundraiser, I wondered if her services had been retained. Tonight, though, I went with Patty at my side. I felt that was a great equalizer in terms of my feelings.

We arrived at The Oracle, which is one of two big shopping malls on Reading’s Broad Street, punctually at 7:00. We walked through the mall and were given a respectful amount of space by the denizens.

Patty held my hand as we walked and I had to admit, the new level in our relationship was pleasing to me in more ways than one.

“It’s going to be fine, Rob,” she said. “Don’t worry. You aren’t going to wind up in Kate’s arms, and if she comes near you I’ll scratch her with my ring.”

She looked at me playfully and that calmed me down. “You’re nervous,” she said. “That’s sweet, but you don’t need to be. Just realize that no matter what happens, if she is even here, you’re still going home with me tonight and nothing’s going to change that.”

I thought back to the last time I had seen Kate. It was in Venice in November, and she was a wreck. She had recently learned of the destructive affair her husband had had with Patty, who didn’t know her partner was married until it was too late. While telling me her story, my ex-lover had flung herself into my arms, where we were discovered by my understandably irate girlfriend.

I didn’t see Patty for two long months after that and I thought our relationship was finished. Yet Kate, through her now-gelded husband, had found a way to write to Patty and explain herself, though not apologizing for causing a serious incident in our relationship. Now, the thought that Kate might still be affiliated with the club I manage was daunting to me.

We rounded the last corner and headed into a large common square. There I saw half a dozen of my players and several large tables for various functions associated with the event. I also saw Kate, seated at the head of one of the tables.

I squeezed Patty’s hand and she looked at me reassuringly. “Rob,” she reminded me, “it’s going to be all right.”

I nodded, and as I approached Kate noticed my presence. Smoothly, she rose from the table, folio in hand.

“Hello, Rob,” she said, advancing steadily toward me. She extended her hand and I accepted it, with Patty watching intently at my side.

“Hi, Kate,” I replied. “How are you?”

“Oh, it doesn’t matter, really,” she said, in a tone that frankly worried me. “I’m here, you’re here, and it looks like we are working together. Do you remember the drill for this event?”

That wasn’t a positive start, but I didn’t see any malice in Kate’s eyes and thought she might simply be having a bad day. Yet, in her business, bad days reflect negatively on her firm and deep down I couldn’t avoid the sense that something was wrong.

I played along. “Yes, Kate, I do remember,” I said, “unless something has happened to change it. It’s not like I’d forget the first time I was here.”

At that, she gave me a curious expression. My words seemed to perk her up a bit. “I hear congratulations are in order for you,” she said. “I’m happy you were able to work through your problems.”

My problems,” I thought. “That’s an odd way to put it, since I didn’t make them.”

At that, Patty chimed in. “I’m happy too,” she said smoothly, offering her hand to Kate. The two women looked at each other and it seemed to me that Patty was marking her territory. I found that a little strange, but then if I knew how the female mind worked, I might have wound up marrying Kate instead.

“As you should be,” Kate said, turning back to her work. “Rob, if you would simply greet people as they arrive until it’s time to begin, I’d appreciate it. Patty, if you would like to accompany Rob that would be lovely.”

She was now smooth, professional, and completely detached. Evidently she had dreaded this moment just as much as I had and I was now seeing her defense mechanism. In a way, it was sad, but with my wife at my side I was obviously not able to indulge my human concern for Kate’s well-being.

For a long time, I didn’t fall out of love with Kate. Her reasons for not marrying me were crystal clear and had nothing whatsoever to do with bad feelings for me. She simply couldn’t, and wouldn’t, move to the States when my Reading contract wasn’t renewed.

Yet, I knew I had a much better situation now. Patty noticed my discomfort, took my arm and led me away. The two of us began to greet onlookers eager for a moment with the Royals’ new manager. We met several dozen people and were having a generally good time before I realized that as many people wanted to meet Patty as wanted to meet me.

I don’t mind that so much, but before long my wife started to look a bit uneasy. I took her aside. “Honey, should I not have brought you here?” I asked, and she shook her head.

“It’s an adjustment,” she said. “I’ve never had so many people say they care about what I do before. That’s going to take a little time to get used to.”

“Look, I’m not going to place you in uncomfortable positions,” I said. “Nothing’s saying you have to go to high-profile events if you don’t want to,” I said.

“Rob, I have the same career Kate does,” she replied. “I have to be at these types of events to be successful. So I have to learn to get used to it.”

This type of friction was just one of the many things that evidently avoided my attention during my interview process. Sometimes blind ambition proves its sightlessness in odd ways. I’m managing in the Premiership but the effect it’s already having upon my bride is something I have to watch closely. I can’t let something like this interfere with my marriage. Even a marital rookie like me knows that.

Patty left for the hospitality area to freshen up. I watched her go, turned, and went from the sublime to the ridiculous.

I walked directly into Peter McGuire. Anger flashed in his eyes as we renewed an old grudge.

“Nice try,” he said. “Did you really think you could stitch me up with Scotland Yard? You’re pathetic, and you’re desperate.”

I looked down at him thanks to a seven-inch height advantage. “Hey, I was wondering if I’d see ‘Mini-Me’ here,” I said, as he fumed in response. “For your information, the Italian police were looking for links to your buddy Paul Marsley. You were a link, unless Marsley has an exaggerated view of your importance. I’m glad you evidently weren’t involved because if you were, you’d be wearing my fist.”

He doubled a fist in reply and I noticed with a detached expression. “Touch me and I’ll own your life, little man,” I said. “This is the only warning you’ll get. Now get out of my sight.”

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July 9, 2008

“For your information, the Italian police were looking for links to your buddy Paul Marsley. You were a link, unless Marsley has an exaggerated view of your importance. I’m glad you evidently weren’t involved because if you were, you’d be wearing my fist.”

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That's brilliant :D

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Gentlemen, thank you ... Eastenders! I had never thought of that. ;)

___

I usually don’t treat people like that. But in Peter McGuire’s case, I’ll make an exception.

There is no doubt in my mind that he hates me enough to have helped Paul Marsley take part in the plot that nearly killed my wife last winter and that resulted in a rather sensational trial in Venice this spring. Evidently Scotland Yard couldn’t find enough information to prove it. I will make no judgment on that.

Paul Marsley wanted to marry Patty. A longtime friend, he allowed his zeal for her to turn into something far more sinister when she fell in love with me instead. After Patty and I temporarily broke up last winter, he saw his chance and made his move. But Patty ended his story at the front door by telling him no, and all I can say is that he flipped out in response.

Patty and I talked about the incident, and the obvious hatred both Marsley and McGuire hold for me, as we drove home from a successful event. We also talked about Kate. Though she appeared upset, she hadn’t approached me again and I could live with that.

The Children’s Fund benefited nicely, I met some really great people, and to her credit Kate ran a flawless event. I was very pleased with how things had gone from a professional standpoint.

I earned a reputation at Padova for being unsparing when I saw things I didn’t like. However, I am equally quick to praise – as my former players would tell you, in fairness – so as I reported to the club offices the next morning, I wrote a memorandum to the club marketing department telling them how pleased I was.

They didn’t expect that. Soon, a knock on my office door at the stadium interrupted me as I watched a DVD of our home match against champions Liverpool. The match wasn’t going all that well from a Reading point of view so I didn’t mind the interruption.

A young man, under thirty with sandy blonde hair, entered the room. “Andrew Waters, media relations,” he said, extending his hand. I was hoping for a few minutes with you.”

“Pleasure’s mine,” I said, shaking his hand and waving him to one of the four couches in the room. “Have a seat, Andrew. Grab a Coke out of the fridge if you like.”

“Thanks,” he said, grabbing a cold drink against the hot afternoon. “I just wanted to thank you for the supportive note you wrote us and the marketers after the Children’s Fund event. Sooner or later I’d also like to meet with you about how you want me to do my job.”

“Happy to do both,” I said, restarting the DVD and picking up a note pad to write down that yes, Fernando Torres isn’t a bad player. I suppose that little bit of intelligence made it all official. “I hope I can be of some help to you.”

“Actually, you and I will be working pretty closely together in the close season,” he said. “As you know, tomorrow is the big preview interview for the website and also I’ve received numerous requests from American media outlets to interview you.”

“I thought that might happen,” I said. “Who’s first?”

ESPN The Magazine and Sports Illustrated are first on the list,” he said. “I’m working on interview times for those, but they won’t conflict with any of your scheduled office time. Steve always liked his quiet time.”

“So do I,” I said. “But you may have noticed that I’m not Steve Coppell and there’s a reason for that. He’s at Manchester United and I’m in the chair now.” I smiled, but the young man sensed he had erred.

So I put him at ease. “Andrew, you’ll find that if I’m relaxed, I’m real easy to be around,” I said. “I would like very much for you to keep me relaxed from a media standpoint. I’ve now got so much more to worry about than I ever had at Padova, I just need the media kept under control. Can you do that for me?”

“I can, sir,” the young man smiled. “So we can help each other.”

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Smart aleck ... :D But wait for it, Copper. Patty's got bigger problems than Rob...

___

July 10, 2008

“They want me to do what?”

Patty’s look of utter incredulity would have been funny if it weren’t so sad. Freddie Eaton’s apologetic tone said everything that needed to be said.

“The Sun said they wanted my story. Nobody said anything about modeling, and especially not modeling while wearing next to nothing,” she said angrily. “Tell them no.”

“I thought that’s what you’d say,” he replied. “Should I even bother you with these sorts of things in future?”

“I’d prefer you didn’t,” my wife replied, and thanked our representative for his time. She hung up the phone and came to me on the couch.

“Babe, they think I’m some sort of sex symbol or something,” she said. “You wouldn’t want me to pose like that, and I’m too old to be a Page Three girl, right?”

“Not to me you aren’t,” I said, and her return expression told me she didn’t appreciate my humor.

“In private, for you,” she said, a hint of a smile mercifully showing on her face. “But not for the rest of the world. Right?” She was looking for help and I gave it to her.

“Of course,” I answered. “I didn’t mean to make light of it. Look, honey, you know I think you’re stunning, and part of me is glad the rest of the world thinks so too.”

“I’m just not interested,” she said. “And I think you ought to be glad of that.”

“Believe me, I am,” I said, now trying to make amends. “Yet honestly, I’m concerned at all the interest people seem to be showing in you, especially since you don’t seem to want it.”

“It’s not the interest in that bothers me,” she said. “It’s the interest in me as something I don’t want to be.”

I could see the danger in that. It’s one thing for an athlete or a public figure to say ‘I don’t want to be a role model’, and quite another to try to live your life after the media turns you into one anyway. My hope is that the temporary sensation caused by our newsworthiness will go away and Patty can simply enjoy life. She deserves it, and frankly I deserve it too.

She didn’t do anything. She was a victim. And now people want to put her in the papers for all the wrong reasons. That’s really unfortunate, and we’ll have to fight it. The fact of the matter is that if we aren’t careful it’s going to happen on someone else’s terms and that doesn’t work well for either of us.

Tonight, though, she reminded me why I’m going to fight so hard. She’s a bit down after all the discussion about her potential entry into public life, but as I prepared to sleep I watched her walk toward me wearing a lovely white nightgown that sent just the right message.

She climbed into our bed and snuggled close to me as she turned out the light. “I think it’s easier to bear all this trouble if I can snuggle up to you when it’s done,” she whispered, leaning her lovely head against my chest.

“That’s why I’m here,” I said, folding my arms around her and stroking her to sleep.

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Spav, as always I appreciate your support ... Marchie, thanks for your kindness and for your first forum post!

___

July 12, 2008

It’s been quite an off-season in the English Premier League. I’ve mentioned Chelsea’s spending spree earlier, but some other clubs have seen their rosters raided.

It’ll be hard to recognize Middlesbrough without England winger Stewart Downing, who is off to Real Madrid for £17 million. Boro made up for it by taking David Bentley off Blackburn for £13.5 million, which will more than cover the £7 million Rovers gave us for Doyle.

Dimitar Berbatov is gone from Spurs, to Juventus for £12.5 million that I’m sure will turn into new players somewhere down the road. And I have been busy as well, but in a different way.

I’ve got money to spend but have been both careful and frustrated in how I’ve spent it. It has been quite a week.

I tendered an offer to Recreativo for former Liverpool striker Florent Sinama-Pongolle that met his minimum fee release clause but the player would not agree terms to return to the Premiership. That was highly disappointing to me.

That’s because he would have made a fine foil for Dagoberto, brought here from Sào Paolo last January by Coppell for £6 million. He and Kitson should make a decent strike force, but Doyle’s departure for Blackburn gives me a hole I need to fill.

My goal was to play Dagoberto as a late raider in the 4-1-3-2 formation I prefer behind Kitson and Sinana-Pongolle, but my fallback option was excellent in Werder Bremen’s Brazilian midfielder Carlos Alberto. The money we got from Blackburn for Doyle was to go to Bremen for a first-class middle man.

Then everything went wrong. Alberto was delighted to come here but the Home Office wouldn’t grant him a work permit since the 23-year old midfielder had only one cap for Brazil. In an amazingly annoying situation, he couldn’t come despite wanting to play for us.

That led to a series of new bids, frustrating in nearly every respect. Manchester United agreed to our £2.8 million bid for Louis Saha but the player wouldn’t come to Berkshire. It was quite frustrating indeed to have £25 million to spend and no players worth spending it on who wanted to come to play.

However, my £600,000 bid for the highly rated young Italian defender Andrea Gaspari was successful. I watched him play several times last season in my Padua big-screen football theater and jumped when he became available. He comes along with Northern Ireland u-21 skipper Craig Cathcart, a free transfer from Manchester United, as my central defending bookends for the future.

I still need to have a present, though, so I’m happy to snap up Portuguese national defender Paolo Ferreira on a free transfer from Chelsea. He slots straight into the right full back role and fills a real need for the club.

Still, though, it’s frustrating. I’ve got a lot of cash to spend but not a lot of targets who want to earn the money I’ve got to spend. That’s life, but I don’t have to like it. And I don’t.

After a typical day on the transfer wires, I arrived home scratching my head. “It’s the Premiership,” I told Patty with a quizzical look on my face. “Even Derby is spending money hand over fist. What’s wrong? Why can’t I attract players? Is it me?”

“Don’t get down on yourself,” she advised, taking my face in her hands. “I know you can do this. People just don’t understand how special you are.”

I laughed bitterly. “Jose Mourinho I am not,” I said. “I wonder how I’m supposed to strengthen this squad.”

“You are amazingly special to me,” she replied, kissing me warmly. “Please, don’t ever forget that.”

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chesterfan, thank you very much for your kind words. The feedback I've gotten so far has been heartwarming and quite flattering :)

___

July 13, 2008

We are on my first trip as manager – to Germany for tomorrow night’s friendly against 1.FC Nürnberg.

My first match in charge of this club will be far from home against a mid-table Bundesliga side and the challenge will be fun for me. We’ve had a good first week of training but most of my team is virtually unknown to me under match conditions. So I will be watching keenly, and the players know it.

I don’t have much time to get it right, obviously – just about six weeks of training and friendlies before the first match of the season and we’re already one week into that sequence.

Also for the first time, I was in charge of a club that flew to an away match. Despite some hefty distances to cover last season, Padova never flew anywhere so it was a nice change of pace to simply get on the plane at Heathrow this morning to fly to southwest Germany.

It meant leaving Patty again, which wasn’t fun, but at least this time I have the advantage of knowing I’ll be back quicker after the match than I would normally have been in Italy, and of course I’m now coming directly home to her side. That’s the best part of all.

The 22 players selected for the match, eleven starters and eleven reserves, met at the stadium this morning to take the coach to Heathrow and the flight to Germany. For me, it’s like a whole different world. I have to get used to it – and start acting like I belong in it – before it swallows me whole. I sat with Dillon on the flight, and we discussed my plans for the match.

“I want to see the new formation predominantly,” I said. “I need to make decisions in the central midfield positions and try to figure out what the heck I’m going to do with Bikey.”

“He’s quite versatile,” Dillon admitted. “He could start at any of four positions.”

“And he may well play two or three of them,” I replied. “We’ve only got four friendlies so we need to get the evaluations made as soon as possible. What are your thoughts?”

He mulled my question over. “I think he’s a center half, personally,” he said. But we did train him at right midfield last year due to injuries and believe me, if there’s a left wing player you absolutely, positively have to shut down, he’s the guy.”

“How about Ronaldo?” I asked, naming the ultimate left wing player. Or right wing player, for that matter.

“It would be an interesting matchup,” Dillon said without a trace of fatuity. “Andre would give him a game.”

“Fair enough,” I said. “I want to start him in midfield and then see how Fae does.”

“It’s your club,” Dillon replied. I didn’t need the reminder, but appreciated his deference.

“Cissé and Ingimarsson in central defense, Rosenior on the left,” I said. “I’ll work on the rest as we go.”

“Fair enough. I’ll be here if you need me.”

And, as it turned out, I did. I want Kevin as involved as possible in team selection for a variety of reasons – he knows these players a lot better than I do and I want to lean on his judgment while I make evaluations – including my evaluation of him.

If that sounds harsh, so be it. I have to learn whose judgment is sound and whose isn’t. While one match won’t make up my mind on anyone, I want to know that people are giving me good input to make good decisions. Otherwise I’ll have no choice but to bypass them.

So on we flew.

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I've read quite a few books about games, but so far I've never seen anything as inspiring and thought out as the stories you write about Football Manager. Not only do you manage to create a virtual world around the club and the manager, which is already worth praising by itself, but you also manage to create an atmosphere by telling the story of the life of the manager in a way which makes me wonder whether you're a professional novelist already.

And if not, I wonder why not.

But that aside, I enjoy reading your stories quite a lot. It inspired me to pick up the pen once more and write again - so by all means, do continue!

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Fellows, thank you all for following the story and Gentleman, all I can say is that you live up to your handle. I appreciate your kind words. I should tell you that I do write for a living but not as a novelist. I write as my escape from reality, which at times deserves scorn as well as escape. I'm glad this work has inspired you - I hope you decide to post if your writing is FM-related. I appreciate all the kind comments I have received, as it's nice to know people are enjoying the effort I've put in.

___

July 14, 2008

1.FC Nürnberg v. Reading (Friendly Match #1)

Since tonight’s match was a friendly, I approached it differently than I would a league match and for more reasons than the obvious.

I wanted everyone to know that I planned to get them in the game and when all was said and done I did, with the exception of Federici. I sat down the goalkeepers separately before the coach left our hotel to let them know my plans.

Federici will get our third friendly, at League One Yeovil Town, and our first few reserve fixtures to get him into match condition. Lobont is my first choice and everyone knows it, so he got tonight’s friendly and will also get our remaining two – which are home matches against Eredivisie side FC Twente and newly promoted Premiership side Cardiff City.

As for the rest of the squad, I went over my substitution plans before the match.

“Some of you will come off at halftime,” I said. “Others of you will come off on the hour. Still others will come off around seventy minutes. There are combinations of players I want to see working together tonight and I don’t want anyone to read anything into how much you play in this friendly or when you do or don’t come onto the pitch. This assumes, of course, that no one does anything stupid that gets him a red card, which will mess up the chance for others to play. Don’t be the man responsible for that.”

I received nods of understanding as my new charges began to focus on the task at hand. The easyCredit Stadion was about one-third full as the teams took to the pitch for warmups. I sat in the changing room, wishing the hands on the clock would move just a little faster. Dillon noticed and smiled from his seat across the room.

“Rob, don’t worry, the match will start soon enough,” he said. “Feeling a little nervous, yeah?”

“Not so much nervous as anxious to get started,” I answered. “We’ve got four friendlies to look at these players and I want to watch every second.”

Dillon just smiled at me. “It’ll still start soon enough,” he said. “Just relax.”

# # #

Anyone who knows me is keenly aware that relaxing is something I rarely do on the touchline. I’m like the proverbial duck in the water – calm above the surface and paddling like hell beneath it.

I’m a touchline pacer and that’s how I burn off my nervous energy. I’m going to be a lot different to these supporters than Coppell was – the ‘marble man’ rarely moves from his seat during most matches and rarely allows facial expressions to betray his feelings.

I won’t be that way. I can pretty much guarantee that. I’ve had to make a number of personal changes to accommodate my change in station, but my touchline demeanor won’t be one of them.

Tonight, for example, I looked upscale. On a very cool summer evening in South Germany I dressed the part of a Premier League manager for the first time in a navy blue sharkskin touchline suit, complete with the club crest on the pocket, with a perfectly knotted light blue necktie.

“I feel like a penguin,” I complained to Dillon as the teams prepared to take the pitch.

“You could dress like Iain Dowie,” he joked. “Tracksuits are always in.” I noticed Kevin looked quite comfortable in his Reading warmup.

“That’s a bit much,” I answered, with a smile. “If I had to choose, I guess I’d take the suit.”

At long last, the teams took the pitch and we prepared to start my tenure as manager of Reading Football Club. My chosen eleven lined up for the kickoff and upon the referee’s whistle, a new phase of my life began.

# # #

A lot can happen in fourteen minutes.

An average runner can run over two miles. A good runner can run three miles. A horse can run…well, a horse can run a lot.

And my Reading Royals can lose a clean sheet. Nürnberg celebrated the start to their own season by denting Lobont’s goal right on the stroke of fourteen minutes through striker Jaouhar Mnari. I wanted the kid to buy a vowel but judging by his dancing celebration he wanted to buy the post-match refreshments instead.

His header was clinical, his finish truly stylish and his shuffle-step toward the corner flag would have been much preferred to my view had he been wearing my colors.

It was a good goal, I couldn’t deny that. As Ingimarsson and Cissé looked at each other, though, I saw two players who weren’t yet on the same page. Mnari had got between them to head home and I watched closely to see how the players would handle the mistake.

Ingimarsson made a sweeping gesture with his arm as if to instruct the younger player on positioning. Cissé looked at his central defense partner for a moment, and then simply nodded. He had accepted the correction and the two walked back up the pitch together.

So that was a good sign. Meanwhile I wanted the attention of both my central defenders.

“Ease up,” I called, making a ‘calm down’ gesture with my hands. “Nothing’s lost here. Remember the plan.” Both players nodded and I wanted to see how we would react to our first adversity of the season.

Being a friendly, though, the reaction of the players wasn’t what I had hoped it would be. My first eleven looked like it was out for exercise and as halftime loomed I noted with some dismay that we had only one shot on target in the first 45 minutes. In short, they were putting us through the wringer.

Even though it was a friendly, I was seeing far too much complacency on the pitch and didn’t like what I was seeing. The halftime whistle blew and I looked at Dillon, red-faced.

“Tell them,” he said. He knew what was on my mind.

# # #

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Sounding American is a good bonus when I happen to be one. :) Glad you're still enjoying, SCIAG! And yes, Copper, the lads had better start playing for their American managers!

__

So my honeymoon period lasted exactly 45 minutes. I didn’t give them the hair dryer – but I made sure they knew of my expectations.

I stood at the front of the visitors’ changing room as the players sat for their break. “You know, guys, I just want to make one thing clear to you,” I said. “What I just saw was a lesson in how not to make a good first impression on your new manager.”

I got some genuine looks of surprise. “Yeah, it’s a friendly but I still need to see better than I saw just now,” I said. “Yes, everyone’s going to get to play tonight but how much you play in the next match is still up for grabs. I didn’t see a whole lot of life out there, gentlemen. You’ve got 45 minutes to change my mind.”

The challenge seemed to resonate with a few of the players so I zeroed in. “Show me you’re worthy of your place in the table,” I said. “I don’t see a top-ten Premiership side out there at the moment. Fix that – stick to our plan and let’s get possession and keep it.”

Dillon then took over the team talk. Under ordinary circumstances, I would leave the room and leave things to my assistant. But I’m evaluating – and that means everything, including my assistants. So I went to a chair by the dressing room door and sat down. Kevin stepped to the front.

His work was very good. He gave his observations and gave an especially strident warning to the wing players that they needed to start getting involved. This was a fine observation and when he was done I resumed the floor.

“Kevin is right,” I said. “Right now we’re getting our tails kicked in the center of the park and that’s why we aren’t creating anything. Wings, you’ve got definite responsibilities that you need to uphold since the central midfielders have specifically designated tasks. When we have the ball we’re essentially running a 4-4-2 diamond but what I’m seeing now is more like 4-3-1-2.”

I demonstrated with the wipeboard. “The wing players need to be higher,” I said. “You’ve got the midfield part of this formation backwards. You fix that and you’ll see us start to hum. I know you can do this – but it’s up to you to prove it.”

I was firm but ended on a positive note. With that we went out for the second half.

# # #

Challenging the players turned out to be a pretty good idea. Immediately, Hunt and Bikey started to move and immediately, we started to create chances. Kitson got the first, a rising shot that was handled by keeper Simon Jentzsch five minutes after the restart. But it was better stuff and even if we lost, better stuff was what I needed to see.

It got better on 55 minutes, though, as Lita scored the first goal in my charge when he drove a low shot past Jentzsch to the keeper’s right. On level terms again, the change in my side was marked. Even for a friendly, that was truly the right stuff.

I made my first group of substitutions on the hour mark and moved Dagoberto from midfield to a pure striker position partnered with Shane Long. With the teams substituting freely, we started to take over the match.

The substitutes had clearly heard the message from the changing room and wanted to make a difference. Our statistical totals started to rise and the overall caliber of our play rose toward Premiership standard.

Nürnberg even substituted their keeper, with Jaromir Blazek taking Jentzsch’s role twenty minutes from time. So it was he that we victimized for the go-ahead goal. Long was the predator, pouncing on Dagoberto’s rebound to slot home on 76 minutes.

Yes, it was a friendly. But yes, our reaction was intense and I liked that a lot. Long’s strike was clinical. Now playing with the lead for the first time, our side again assumed a whole different look.

It was getting easier and easier to see how Reading had finished in the top ten while watching our hosts try to climb back into the match. Positionally, I suddenly saw a confident side and one that could play a bit of defense.

When the final whistle blew I knew I really had reason to smile. I walked to Dillon, hand extended, and my deputy just smiled.

“That’s the stuff,” he said, as we shook hands.

FC Nürnberg 1 (Mnari 14)

Reading 2 (Lita 55, Long 76)

A – 10,116, easyCredit Stadion, Nürnberg

# # #

“I gave you 45 minutes,” I told the players. “You didn’t use it all. Hell of a second half, fellows. Let’s enjoy the trip home.”

The statistics really did tell the story. We had one shot on target in the first half and eight in the second. The pickup in our ideas and in our play was marked. That bodes quite well indeed.

On the way to the airport, my Blackberry flashed. I had two e-mails. One was from Madejski. It contained two words: “Well done.”

The second was from Patty. It also contained two words.

Hurry home.”

# # #

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What the hell have McGuire and Marsley done this time (Also known as the b***s*** brothers, in my mind.)?

Anyway, the first victory for an American managing in the English league...Copper, you've got catching up to do. ^^

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