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Rob Ridgway's "Rat Pack"

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Docklanders, what it means is this ... traditionally, I welcome first-time posters to my thread. As a moderator, and as one who is at least partly responsible to make sure this forum fits the owner's goal of being a welcoming place to post, it is my pleasure to do this. I realize that picking this thread up from the beginning is a very daunting task, so I want people to know I appreciate their readership.

As for your second point, the best thing you can do is post regularly. I am living proof that you don't necessarily need to be at the top of the page to get read.

___

Bennett, who was actually the first Premiership-level player I had sold upon taking charge of the club, threw his head back in frustration. Obviously, he wanted to play well, but scoring for the wrong team can make that whole process a bit difficult.

The crowd reacted with some surprise, but for me it was just a matter of a lucky break. As part of the school that says you make your own luck, the gift from the football gods would be enjoyed for as long as we could hold the lead.

For me, the clock was ticking. I wanted to see how long it would be before West Brom found a way back into the match, and that was a really negative attitude to take.

So, I kept it to myself. I was curious, though, shifting from 4-1-3-2 to 4-4-2 in the hopes we could counter a second goal before they struck back on us.

The result was fifteen minutes of stultifyingly boring football. When I’m ahead, of course I don’t mind playing that way but for the fans it was just one more reason to justify staying home.

That, and it had started to rain.

Ducking back under the covering of the dugout, I saw Dzsudszak start a play up the middle, laying the ball to Chris Brunt on the left wing. Moving forward first against Kalou and then against Ferreira, he seemed singular in his purpose.

He succeeded in his mission of getting to the byline and from there it was seemingly far too easy to pull the ball back for Omar Bravo.

He did a quick little spin, not easy in the rain, and freed himself from Sonko’s attention. From there, slotting past Lobont was almost absurdly easy.

Leaning back in my seat, I looked at my watch. Finally, I said it.

“Eighteen minutes,” I sighed. “Here we f**king go again.”

Dillon looked at me. “Patience,” he advised. “We’ll put this right. I think we’re the better side and I think we’re going to prove it before too much longer.”

The Baggies were celebrating their equalizer, and I had to wonder whether it was really deserved considering the overall balance of play.

Lately, though, every mistake we make winds up getting fished out of our net and that’s just not acceptable to me. In the mistake department, though, Bennett had been pegged back by Sonko, who hadn’t stuck with his man to the extent needed or required.

So, once again we were back to blank paper.

There are times when a manager just needs to take a deep breath. When the same things keep happening at the same times in a match, with the same results, you tend to think that nothing you can do will change what’s going on.

However, it’s up to the players to execute the tactical plan. The manager can’t do much once he points his players in the right direction except choose another direction, and the one I had chosen still needed time to work.

We stormed back forward, but Neil Clement headed away an early ball intended for Baptista and the visitors surged back on the counter.

Dzemalli then started a lovely little passing sequence, which was artful from the point of view of football but annoying from the point of view that we couldn’t stop it.

Dzemalli found Colautti, who in turn hit the overlapping Jose Maria Calvo with a ball that got the full back to the byline once again.

He didn’t pull the ball to the middle – instead it gave it to Dzsudszak, who had now decided to cut inside for a shot at goal. This one, though, Lobont had covered and he was able to smother it and snuff out the West Brom threat.

Moving the ball up quickly, Lobont had the ball at Pogatetz’s feet almost before he had time to look up. The invitation to get forward certainly wasn’t lost on the Austrian, so forward he went.

As had been the case with us during West Brom’s incursions down our right flank, no one picked up Pogatetz. He slid a ball to the middle for Dicã, and the Romanian continued our quick counterthrust by slipping a great little ball to Baptista in the right channel.

He took the ball with a deft first touch in full flight, and had Clement on his outside hip. In short, he was perfectly positioned, and he lined up a left-footed shot from fifteen yards.

Ashdown bolted forward to cut the angle and Baptista slammed his shot right into the keeper’s chest.

The rebound spun to the right, and onto the boot of Kitson, who was in full flight. He shot – and he hit Bennett.

Again, the ball went in.

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Poor Bennett! I think there is only one time I've seen two own goals, and it was in real life. I think it was this season, but can't remember which team suffered it.

As for Bennett...the poor lad needs a Snickers' Bar. (american joke from the television commercial...the punch line is "Wanna Get Away?" If so, then bite a snickers bar.)

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Poor Bennett! I think there is only one time I've seen two own goals, and it was in real life. I think it was this season, but can't remember which team suffered it.

As for Bennett...the poor lad needs a Snickers' Bar. (american joke from the television commercial...the punch line is "Wanna Get Away?" If so, then bite a snickers bar.)

He's certainly playing like Betty White out there.

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Now Bennett’s frustration was plain, as Kitson celebrated and pointed to himself as if to claim the goal. It hardly mattered, since we once again had the lead back.

Standing to applaud my team’s industry, I turned again to Dillon.

“Don’t touch your watch, Rob,” he cautioned. “Let’s let them play and not time this one out, okay?”

“Ever since I became manager, you don’t let me do anything,” I smiled, as the goal was officially awarded to Kitson, probably wrongly, through the tannoy announcer.

This time, though the players tightened up their belts a bit. This was heartening, even if Maloney flirted with a booking from Andre Marriner by hauling back Anthony Vanden Borre by his shirttail not three minutes after Kitson’s goal.

We intercepted the short pass from their free kick, though, and Dicã’s quick ball found its way to Kitson who was suddenly through and behind the defense.

Dave isn’t the paciest guy on our team, but he seemed to have wings on his feet as he moved in against Ashdown. His drive to the keeper’s left was then parried by a spectacular save from the Baggies’ keeper, but the strike showed a dangerous side to our counterattack that had been missing in recent games.

That was heartening. So was Marriner’s halftime whistle, which went with us still holding the lead.

For a change.

# # #

Kitson was really having a nice game. The pairing with Baptista had opened my eyes to a point.

Having two strong forwards out there gives us a different dimension and against a central defense that isn’t quite as strong, we were able to get the ball into scoring positions with a different method – through power instead of through guile.

That’s a nice thing to know. It was also a nice way to say that Kitson was giving West Brom fits.

It was Dzsudszak who got the first opportunity of the half, though, stinging Lobont’s hands with a wicked drive from just outside our box that the keeper parried straight down and then smothered.

They looked energized, which was certainly to be expected given the fact that they had somehow failed to equalize against us in the first half.

Then Sonko, who had had another slow start to the match, got himself into things offensively. From a corner in 55 minutes, he crashed a header squarely off the crossbar and put the fear of God into Ashdown in the process, crashing toward the keeper with the subtlety of an express train.

At that point, Tony Mowbray decided to make a change, pulling his leading scorer, Colautti, in favor of English u-21 international Richard Chaplow.

Unfortunately, Chaplow is now 24, meaning he’s been out of international consideration for some time and his opportunities have been sharply limited. Until now, that is.

It didn’t seem to matter much, as we were now starting to play well as a unit for the first time in the match. They were getting possession but we weren’t letting them place the ball in threatening positions.

It seemed like they had possession without purpose, which didn’t bother me in the slightest.

Now it was Dicã feeding Baptista again, with the Brazilian firing just wide as the match ticked over the hour mark.

I was starting to like what I was seeing, until a second Maloney shirt pull on Vanden Borre earned him a booking from Marriner that he frankly deserved. This wasn’t the same Maloney I had been seeing for the last few games, but rather a slower one and that was a cause for concern.

Then, West Brom finally found a way to stop Kitson. I didn’t appreciate it, but they sure figured it out. Calvo hacked him down with a challenge to Dave’s ankle that had the crowd screaming and me off the bench like a jack in the box.

It was ugly. Kitson rolled on the ground clutching the ankle while we waited for Marriner to stop play.

That wasn’t immediately forthcoming, and finally Kalou put the ball into touch. Wright entered at a run to reach Kitson, who by now was laying flat on his back pounding the turf in frustration.

I could see him from where I stood, his face even redder than usual. From what I could see it didn’t look like anything was broken, but finally I got enough of a view to see a red mark on Kitson’s sock. That was a bad sign.

Marriner carded Calvo, which was nice of him, but that didn’t solve my immediate problem. Lita was already into his warmup and it was obvious he would have to come on.

While Lita prepared to come on, another Baggies player wound up in Marriner’s book. Dzemaili knocked Dicã to the deck as Mowbray’s players upped the ante in terms of physical play.

With the crowd starting to bay for a little retribution, Lita came on for Kitson, who had by that time hobbled to the changing room for stitches and some treatment.

Kalou showed his displeasure with the physical play by nearly scoring our third moments after Lita stepped on, with his turn-and-shoot palmed over the top by Ashdown.

Moments later, Bennett hacked down Maloney, putting him into the book as well. That forced Mowbray into a double substitution. Mercifully, off came the unfortunate Bennett, with Scotsman Craig Beattie replacing him.

Gary McSheffrey also came on for Dzsudszak, which I liked for two reasons. First, the balance of West Brom’s attack was going through the Hungarian and second, “McSheffrey” is much easier to spell.

So with the Baggies in a bit of a new look, Maloney lined up for the free kick at the top of our defensive third.

He blooped the ball across the park for Kalou, who in turn slid an inch-perfect pass right onto the run of Lita. He was off to the races, and, remembering he was a substitute, knew what he was supposed to do.

He did it, rounding Ashdown and finishing powerfully to make it 3-1 fifteen minutes from time.

West Brom’s back was broken. I pulled Maloney off in favor of Bikey, hunkered down in a 4-5-1 and dared them to do something about it.

It took about three minutes to realize that my formation now matched Mowbray’s. West Brom were playing turtle with us and we still generated two more good chances.

Ferreira, still bidding for his first goal with us, tried Ashdown from thirty yards and forced him into a save, and then Bikey overpowered the freshly carded Brunt to head over four minutes from time.

They hardly bothered us after that. And that’s the way it’s supposed to be.

Reading 3 (Alan Bennett og 10; Kitson 5th 33, Lita 2nd 75)

West Brom 1 (Omar Bravo 5th 28)

A – 29,111, The Madejski Stadium, Reading

Man of the Match – Dave Kitson, Reading (8)

# # #

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Gary McSheffrey also came on for Dzsudszak, which I liked for two reasons. First, the balance of West Brom’s attack was going through the Hungarian and second, “McSheffrey” is much easier to spell.

In all your stories, correct me if I am wrong, but is this the first time you have broken the fourth wall?

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In all your stories, correct me if I am wrong, but is this the first time you have broken the fourth wall?

I noticed the exact same thing, heh.

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In all your stories, correct me if I am wrong, but is this the first time you have broken the fourth wall?

Nope. If you go back all the way to American Calcio, these stories were always written from the point of view of journal entries by Rob Ridgway. He's expanded to include other events and POV in this piece but in general, anything from Rob's perspective is a written journal entry.

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Stoehrst is correct. Everything concerning RR has been in the form of a journal through the Calcio/Rat Pack series. He does a fair amount of musing :)

___

Of course, the big worry was Kitson.

Taken to the changing room for some repair work right after the injury, he soon appeared in the room with his mates with his foot swathed in an elastic bandage.

Wright made the report.

“Five brand new stitches, Rob,” he said with a tinge of disgust in his voice. “No way he can face Hamburg.”

I swore under my breath. With Dagoberto out I’m now down both my first-choice strikers for a match now vital to our survival hopes in Europe. If only we hadn’t messed up against PSG…

# # #

The big news of the day was Manchester United’s thumping of Arsenal at Old Trafford. And when I say ‘thumping’. I’m only off by one letter.

The final score of 2-0 was nowhere near justice to United, who hammered the Gunners from pillar to post. Wayne Rooney finally opened the scoring two minutes before halftime and Louis Saha finished things off four minutes from full time.

Their superiority was obvious and for a change the Gunners looked impotent for ninety full minutes. The emphatic win shows that Coppell has a real team this season. Unfortunately for me.

Liverpool didn’t look any great shakes either, using a 21st minute goal from Dirk Kuyt to subdue a stubborn tail-end Derby team by 1-0. Still, three points are three points and Rafa isn’t about to give them back.

The good news for us today was that Chelsea were held at home by Sunderland, who haven’t been setting the world on fire either. The final scoreline of 1-1 is directly attributable to Michael Ballack, who both converted a sixth-minute penalty and missed one in first half injury time. The second penalty came immediately after Daniel Braaten’s equalizer and gave the Wearsiders momentum they used to gain a point they really need.

Elsewhere, Aston Villa picked up a point at home against West Ham in a 2-2 matchup. Craig Bellamy staked the Hammers to a 2-0 lead with goals 13 minutes apart in the first half, only to see Soren Larson cut the arrears to one four minutes after the restart. John Carew scored in the 73rd minute to give the home team a split of the points.

Blackburn twice took the lead against Man City at Ewood Park and were twice pegged back in a 2-2 draw that was a very entertaining game to watch. Roque Santa Cruz started the scoring ten minutes into the contest, with Rolando Bianchi netting to make it 1-1 four minutes into the second half.

Morten Gamst Pedersen made it 2-1 just three minutes later, only to see Pablo Zabaleta finish off the draw with a goal in the 72nd minute.

Bolton and Newcastle squared off in a battle of teams with European designs and played to a 1-1 stalemate at the Reebok. Vagner Love netted eight minutes in to give the Magpies a dream start only to see French defender Gérald Cid score his first goal in almost two years in the 49th minute for a share of the spoils.

And in the late game this afternoon, Gareth Bale scored seven minutes from time to lift Spurs to a 1-0 win over a very stubborn Fulham team. We play the Cottagers in about a month’s time and from the looks of things the Cottagers will be better equipped to stick around in the Premiership than they were last time they were here.

The scores were complete, the smoke had cleared, and we were still third. That seems reasonable to me, but figuring out how I’m going to line the team up in Hamburg is going to be a real test.

Baptista will absolutely play. Who partners him, and who makes the bench, is going to be a decision of great importance to us.

# # #

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Sunday, September 27

As if I needed anything else to be mad about.

He’s been biding his time, but Emiliani is back and in a way that might make me punch him out the next time I see him.

I don’t know who he’s been talking to, but now the entire bugging investigation is under scrutiny thanks to a scandal sheet he wrote ‘as a guest column’ in The Sunday People.

Patty is also furious with me, but the hidden advantage to this is that now she gets to understand how I’ve felt for the last month.

Emiliani wrote, correctly, that I had received evidence in the McGuire beating case through the post. He also wrote, incorrectly, that Fulton is on my list of ‘things to do’, if you will pardon the crass expression.

As a result, she’s been pulled off the case until a departmental inquiry takes place. That’s not good.

Patty, for her part, chose to believe the Italian reporter rather than her husband. That isn’t good, but it’s something that I’m confident I can rectify.

What I’m not so confident I can rectify is Martin’s anger. Naturally, he called within a New York minute after getting tipped off on what the London papers were saying.

This time the conversation was not nearly as polite. He gave me his blunt thoughts, as a union line worker would if talking with a strikebreaker.

I told him where he could stick his blunt thoughts and how hard he could push, as a football manager would if talking to a petulant player.

It may not have been the most diplomatic conversation I’ve ever held, but it was one of the most satisfying.

I am tired of being bullied and I am tired of interference. So Martin got the chance to feel a bit of that frustration. I’ve tried reasoning with him. I’ve tried being nice to him.

Neither has worked.

So I’m going to be a jerk. We’ll see if that works any better for me.

Meanwhile, back to the story of the day. Emiliani is officially on my ever-growing list of people I wouldn’t mind accidentally hitting with my car. He’s screwing around with my marriage now, and that’s something I simply can’t tolerate.

Reading manager Rob Ridgway is in a peck of trouble, both on and off the pitch.

The Royals’ recent travails in the Premier League have dropped them to a disappointing seventh in the table, far below pre-season expectations, and the manager’s personal travails are not helping.

I can reveal exclusively that a senior member of the Thames Valley Police has been pulled off the investigation regarding illegal listening devices allegedly placed in Ridgway’s office.

This disciplinary action was taken due to an alleged personal interest in the married manager on the part of the officer, which Ridgway did nothing to discourage.

Speculation over the American’s marriage to model Patricia Myers Ridgway has run rampant in recent weeks, especially after the discovery of a leaked letter from Ridgway’s personal advisors firing the security company recently hired to protect Mrs. Ridgway.

The company is owned by Steven Hardcastle, a former British Army officer with alleged romantic ties to Mrs. Ridgway, who is pregnant with her first child.

I can also reveal that Ridgway received a postal package late this week containing criminal evidence in the recent beating of Berkshire business executive Peter McGuire, an old enemy of the Ridgways. He was also allegedly once romantically involved with Mrs. Ridgway, prior to her meeting her husband.

Suffice to say that the situation at the Madejski Stadium is not good. Board pressure is expected to rise on Ridgway unless the Premiership wins start coming with more frequency.

The expectations are now officially high at Reading Football Club. A board source tells me that Ridgway is now expected to challenge for the Premership title this year, as well as reach the finals of both cup competitions.

A run deep into the European Cup is also on the board’s wish list for this season.

There is no question that Reading’s first eleven now have what it takes to compete. The group Ridgway inherited just over a year ago has been bolstered by some keen signings, which is a grudging tribute I must give this manager.

However, putting it all together, and building squad depth, is making it hard for Reading to contend on all the fronts desired by the money men.

Taking that next step is very difficult, and given Ridgway’s known shortcomings in tactical acumen, that step may be one step too far.

# # #

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"Patty, for her part, chose to believe the Italian reporter rather than her husband" - Never trust an italian reporter - good luck, i think you're gonna need it. ;)

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Yes, Mametz, there's backstory there...

___

Getting on the plane was probably the best thing for me. It was all I could do not to ask the pilot to open the door while we were circling the Hamburg airport and just let me jump.

Patty had pointed questions for me regarding Emiliani’s article, and my defense centered around one key point. I haven’t denied Fulton’s advances because she hasn’t made any. It’s hard to discourage what you can’t see, and it’s even harder to discourage something that hasn’t happened.

I told her that in no uncertain terms. “What am I supposed to do, Patty?” I asked. “Should I take her aside when I first meet her and say, “Inspector Fulton, I just want you to know that in case you would ever like to sleep with me, the answer is ‘no’ in advance?”

“Don’t be ridiculous, Rob,” she snapped.

“I’m not!” I exclaimed. “Really, she never said anything to me and if she had I would have said no anyway. What has gotten into you?”

“I don’t like how this article treats me,” she said. “It reads like I’m some kind of bimbo. Romantic relationship with Hardcastle that never happened, romantic relationship with Peter that I wish had never happened…”

I couldn’t resist.

“Projecting?” I asked.

She glared at me. This time, I glared back.

“I have something to show you,” I said, leading the way into my computer room, where Kate’s e-mail was still sitting in my in-box.

I showed her the scanned image of the note, ostensibly from Hardcastle to McGuire.

“Projecting,” I said, trying not to sound smug. “I warned you about this.”

Patty’s face fell.

“Rob,” she said, her voice suddenly a lot smaller, “I never did anything with Steven. You have to believe that.”

“I do have to believe that,” I said. “You’re quite right, because if I don’t, my family falls to pieces and the woman I love more than anything walks out my door. Now how do you suppose I feel hearing you say what you said just now?”

The anger fell off her face like a silk sheet sliding off a bed.

Her brow furrowed. Suddenly she looked a bit older, which I thought was a striking transformation for simply reading one e-mail.

“I wouldn’t have left you,” she said. “I don’t know what Steven is playing at here. But if you think I would leave you while I am carrying our baby…” her voice trailed off and she simply stared at the screen.

“…why didn’t you share this with me when you got it?” she asked.

“Frankly, because I am still processing this,” I said. “I sent a note to Freddie right after I got that e-mail to release Hardcastle from his service to us, and I’m really not sure where we’re going after that. All I know is I have to find something that will work for you before you leave for your shoot.”

“What did Dad say?” she asked.

“Your father and I had it out,” I said. “I am not willing to be spoken to like that by him, or by anyone. If we had a relationship before that phone call, it is probably irretrievably broken at the present moment.”

“I’ll talk with him,” she promised.

“If you want,” I said. “As far as I’m concerned, the next time I talk with him it will be too soon whenever it is.”

With that, I left for the airport. Our parting was sweeter than I thought it would be, but she’s still quite upset and I suppose deep down that is fair. I was just as upset during her salad days with Hardcastle.

There’s the difference between us. I call Hardcastle and McGuire by their surnames. She calls them by their Christian names.

I’m having a hard time with that, but as I thought it through on the plane to Germany, I realized that I’m going to have to take some personal matters into my own hands pretty soon.

If the last part of Emiliani’s article is right – that I have trouble ahead with the board if we don’t carry all before us – I have got to get the personal side of my job right, and in a hurry. My position could depend on it.

# # #

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Well, Mametz, Rob can't do EVERYTHING right ... :)

___

Monday, September 28

Hamburg

I met one-on-one with Emilani today and had a one-sentence message for him. I didn’t punch him out physically.

Rather, I did it verbally.

I ran into the reporter just outside our hotel in Hamburg. My message was terse.

“Stay away from my family, you b*****d,” I snarled.

“Rob, I’m surprised at you,” he answered.

Not caring why he might be, I repeated my warning.

“You’ve got issues with your board and with the people you hired,” he said. “That’s not my problem, but it’s my job to report on them. Really, I’m doing you a favor.”

“You are doing no such thing,” I said. “I know about the internal issues. You wrote speculation regarding a relationship with Inspector Fulton – in whom I have no romantic interest, and by whom no romantic approach has been made, and you can print that— but you are causing lasting damage to my family by writing what you do. And you need to stop it.”

“And if I refuse?” he asked.

“You won’t get a credential at Reading or any other club I manage. And that’s a promise.”

He repeated himself. “I’m doing you a favor,” he said. “I’m warning you about your board and I’m letting you know that someone is after your wife. You should be thanking me.”

“You are printing speculation about my personal life and causing difficulty in my marriage. I am never going to thank you for that,” I snapped, turning on my heel and walking back inside.

# # #

I’ve got some other issues heading into tomorrow’s match.

Not the least of which are my strikers, unfortunately. We’ll start in the 4-1-3-2 with the counter option, with Lita paired with Baptista.

Leroy earned his spurs, if you will, with his goal at the weekend and he deserves the chance to play on the big stage. Shane Long, who I had the good sense to put on the European roster even though is is also on the transfer list, traveled with us for the first time all season and will back up the strikers.

I have enough midfielders who can also play up front that I’m not really worried about depth. Kalou is the only one of the three central midfielders who has ever played up front for me, so he would be the first choice in the event of emergency.

The second issue I have is the emotional state of Magallón, who was surprisingly left out of the Mexican national side for their two big upcoming CONCACAF World Cup qualifiers against the United States and Canada.

The Americans have run the table in the competition so far, but this match is at the Azteca Stadium, which is traditionally a high-altitude graveyard for the Stars and Stripes. It’s a huge match for Mexico, and they need to win it.

But Magallón will not be there, and since I need him in a sharp mental focus in our eleven for tomorrow night, I have a decision to make.

He doesn’t like being left out of the national team but if he doesn’t play well for club he has no chance at all of getting back there.

Too, right now he is not in the right emotional state to play. So that brings Bikey to the fore, but he has struggled in the holding position this season and would rather play in the center of defense.

To do that, I’d have to move Sonko, because I have no intention of moving Huth. Ibrahima has had his poor moments in recent games and it’ s a change I have considered making, but the Africans prefer to work with each other.

Since Huth is in-form and is our most dominant defender in the air, the thought of removing his is not seriously entering my mind.

The calculus becomes this: play Bikey in a position he doesn’t like, or play the emotionally stricken Magallón in a position where he’s not mentally ready?

Or do I split up my regular center-half pairing to keep everyone except Huth happy?

No wonder I wasn’t in the mood to talk with Emiliani today.

# # #

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I tried to spend as much of my day as possible squirreled away in my hotel room watching video. The less time I could spend outside, the better.

We did have a training session this morning at the Nordbank Arena, and I got my first look at the famous up-counting clock located there.

As any German football fan knows, Hamburger Sport-Verein is the only club in the country never to have been relegated from a top flight. Any top flight.

Most people know HSV is the only club never to have been relegated from the Bundesliga since becoming charter members in 1963, but as long as there has been a German top flight, dating back to the end of World War I, Hamburg SV has played in it.

The clock keeps track, to the second, of how long the club has spent in the Bundesliga. It is a silent tribute to consistency and success.

The message is pretty clear, especially for a club like mine that is a newcomer to the international stage.

And if you want to make what is surely the last full measure of devotion to your club, Hamburg fans can even be buried next to the stadium, under turf from one of the club’s older homes. To me, that would pretty much be the ultimate.

This thought of death was hanging over me too, as I headed to the ground for our training session.

No, not that kind of thought. Homicide was more on my mind.

So was Alba Fulton.

Her behavior to me has been exemplary, but evidently the inspector either said the wrong thing to the wrong person, or she has been compromised by someone within the investigation. Or, maybe outside of it. Stranger things have happened to police officers who are getting close to the truth.

It’ s a good thing I’m not a detective. I wouldn’t last ten minutes on a complicated case because I’d think my way right out of it.

I half-wondered whether I would hear from Fowler today as well. Putting the players through their paces was a good thing for me since the training ground is lately about the only place where I can put everything else out of my mind.

I need that time to decompress and worry about ‘just’ the stress of my job.

Patty and I have danced a pas de deux around the issue of Hardcastle over the last few days and with my wife preparing to leave for her trip soon, the time away might well be the best thing for both of us.

I think. Right now, I don’t know what to think, or what to believe.

It’s hard. No one is denying that. But watching players move around the pitch and watching the game being played allowed me to concentrate on something else for a time.

It was a godsend.

# # #

Tuesday, September 29

Hamburg SV (4-4-2, 5th place Bundesliga) v Reading – Champions League Group F, Match Day #2

The matches keep getting bigger for us. Today, in our breakfast meeting, my focus was on making sure everyone – from the manager on down – was fully focused on the task ahead.

It was therefore a bit of a dramatic meeting. I don’t usually like to resort to such things, but when you have to, you have to.

There was natural apprehension in the squad this morning. After the PSG match, our first away test in the Champions League is one that is a lot more important than it otherwise might have been.

The players know this. They also know that having not gotten the job done on our own patch, survival in Europe is dependent now on getting something from the road.

They were all business as they reported for our morning meal. With a night game, the breakfast was just a little heavier, followed by a lighter lunch and a nap for the players before leaving for the ground.

But first there was business to tend to.

“You have a plan for this match that has been built over a period of weeks,” I reminded them, stepping to the front of our makeshift head table. “Right now Hamburg are not playing as well as they can. They are doing well but they have the same problem we do in that they aren’t finishing off their opposition.”

My implication was clear.

“There are people doubting you,” I said. “Surely you know that. Now, you’ve got the chance to show you have the ability to take on and handle clubs bigger than the ones we’ve been beating of late.”

“You have it in you,” I said. “I have said it again, and again, and again. The Champions League makes players. Those who are ready to stand up and be counted have the chance to prove it again tonight. I want each and every one of you to think about what you will do to be counted. Now is your chance.”

Complete silence greeted my words as they registered in the hearts of my players.

I looked around the room. Huth’s face was a mask. Back in his native country, he was already on a mission. Beside him, Sonko sat just as impassively, needing a good match to kick-start his form again.

Baptista, knowing he was in the eleven for the first time in our shirt in Europe, looked like he wanted the match to start right there on the spot. Beside him, Lita looked over at his strike partner for the night and simply nodded his head.

Meanwhile, the captain sat in the back of the room, glowering at everyone. I had never seen Lobont like that before. He knows the role he plays, especially when we are pushing forward, and he knows we can’t get this job done without him.

The only problem was that Sonko didn’t know he wasn’t in the eleven.

The way his form has been of late, I’m not convinced he’s the right partner for Huth tonight. That would mean Bikey would return to his preferred position.

André needs a good match too, after a couple of sub-par performances in his last two outings. Yes, they have been as substitutes, but at the same time he needs to start playing better before he can get the spot in the eleven he craves.

Sonko sat impassively, and I’m sure he thought his place was assured. I stood in the front of the room, figuring out how I was going to tell him otherwise.

# # #

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It turned out, there was only one way.

I called Sonko to my hotel room right before lunch and gave him the news. I had him standing next to his friend Bikey at the time, to ease the blow a bit.

André and Ibrahima have forged a very strong understanding since I came to the club. Andre was a bit player for Coppell, finding his elevation to a starting center half coming when I came to the club.

Unfortunately, too often ‘understanding’ hadn’t been enough to keep the ball out of our net a season ago, so Huth came in this summer to solidify our back line.

My hope was that Sonko wouldn’t be too upset if he saw he was losing his place to a friend.

Still, though, the Senegalese wasn’t happy, and I didn’t expect him to be. For us, each European match we play is going to be bigger than the last one until we get knocked out, so Europe is the place everyone wants to be for the time being.

He took the news with some grace, but I could see it in his eyes. He was devastated and angry, going through the progressions of grief right in front of me.

Finally, though, he turned to Bikey and wished him luck. Bikey left to take his afternoon nap and I was now one-on-one with my central defender.

“Ibrahima, you’ll be on the bench and you know you’ll be out there when we need you,” I told him.

“This isn’t anything other than a correction for you but now that André is out of the room I can be blunt. I need better form from you.”

“What do I have to do?” he asked.

I thought back to last season and realized that the last thing I needed was for Phillippe Dumont to be calling at my door again. The last time he had tried, the agent wound up banned from my office, but that was an incident I wouldn’t care to repeat.

“You know the issues,” I told him. “We’ve discussed it in the video sessions but I can’t say anything in front of the other players. I need to see better concentration from you, especially in marking. Positionally, too often you have not been where we need you to be of late and even though you have great athletic ability, that doesn’t help you when you are three yards off your man.”

“I am going through a bad run of form,” he admitted.

“Well, I think you can fix it,” I said, choosing to end the discussion on a positive note. “You have the tools to fix it. You are a proven player in this league and I have no doubt that when you get to it in training you are going to remind us all why you are a proven player.”

He nodded, and left. He still wasn’t happy.

# # #

At that point, I took my own nap.

I don’t know about anyone else, of course, but I tend to dream when I sleep under stress. At least, I think that’s how it works.

My sleep isn’t as good, and I tend to toss and turn. That was the case today.

I kept having a recurring theme in my dream, which was highly annoying. The theme was Patty and Hardcastle getting on a plane and flying to Monaco for her shoot.

I’m getting pretty annoyed by those kinds of dreams and those kinds of thoughts. It’s just a little foible of mine, I guess – I get pretty annoyed when other guys put moves on my wife.

That sort of thing would make most men angry, I should think.

But this dream kept coming back.

Three times I had it, in the same nap.

Each time I would wake up, surveying the surroundings in my hotel room. It was plush and nice, but I certainly didn’t want to keep examining it like I was doing.

I slept on a queen-sized mattress, in a room by myself. The drapes were drawn, and across the way from my bed a large mirror stood bolted to the far wall. A writing desk stood in the far corner, where my briefcase and laptop computer sat undisturbed.

Sitting up in bed as I did gave me a chance to look at my own sweat-covered face on three different occasions. That was not only counter-productive, it was downright frightening.

So I did the only thing I could do. I called Patty’s mobile phone.

# # #

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“I was hoping you’d call,” she said by way of answering.

“Can’t sleep,” I said. “I was trying to take a little nap before going to the ground but I can’t manage that.”

There was a long pause.

“Patty, I need to know how we fix this,” I said. “I can’t do what I’m doing, trying to do my job while worrying whether Hardcastle still wants you, or what the hell’s going on.”

“I can tell you this, Rob,” she said, “because I think it’s what you’re looking for. I never told Steven I was interested in him, I never kissed him and above all I never slept with him. Does that help?”

“Of course it does,” I replied. “And I wasn’t insinuating that.”

“But you were thinking it,” she said. “I know you, Rob. I’m your wife. I’m supposed to know you. So give me a little credit, okay?”

I leaned back into the pillows of my bed, and switched out the one I was using. It was now sweat-soaked and it made my head cold whenever I leaned back.

“I’m having a really hard time,” I said. “Really.”

“I’m having a hard time thinking about you with a police officer,” she said.

“Which never happened or came close to happening,” I replied. “You know that, you know where I am every night.”

“It’s what I read in the papers that bothers me, Rob,” she answered. “I know they’re just doing it to sell copies but it still hurts to read.”

“So if you read something in the Star that claimed I was sleeping with Dillon, you’d be upset?”

“You know what I mean,” she sighed. “Rob, it’s just not good to read.”

“Welcome to my world, honey,” I mused. “I’ve put up with it for a long time and as long as I’m in this game at this level, that’s how it’s going to be. I just have to resign myself to that fact.”

“And so do I, if we’re going to make it,” she said.

That surprised me.

“You mean we might not?” I asked.

“I didn’t say that,” she replied, right on the heels of my statement.

“There are people out there who want us to fail, and I think I know who at least two of them are,” I said. “Don’t tell me you haven’t thought of that too.”

“Of course I have,” she answered. “But really, when I go to my shoot, that’s going to be behind us because we are going to be apart.”

I didn’t even bother correcting her. That was simply not true, but I couldn’t be bothered to make the argument.

“I still love you, Rob,” she said. “That hasn’t changed and it isn’t going to change. So use that to put your mind at ease, okay?”

I sighed, and agreed.

“Good,” she answered. “Now, I need to finish packing. Some of my stuff is going out early and I have to meet the courier. Rest easy, okay?”

“I’ll do my best,” I said, as we hung up the connection.

Somehow, I thought she was having a much easier time with this than I was.

# # #

“Okay, men, here’s your opportunity.”

It was a short and sweet pre-match message. Five words was about all I could muster anyway.

The fallout from my call to Patty was still ringing in my head as we prepared for the match. It took concentrated effort to get myself focused on my job.

A text from home before the match helped with that, but it was job-related. Defender Curtis Osano is on his way to Chesterfield on loan. He’s no threat to break through into our back line and he needs first-team games. He has already told Downes he wouldn’t mind a permanent move, so we’ll try to accommodate that in the near future as well.

For me, though, it was a simple case of trying to clear my head before a very big match. Focusing on my job seemed to help with that.

The speech, on the other hand, did not.

In the tactical part of the message, it was Dillon who did the heavy lifting.

“We know how they will attack,” he said. “It all starts with Andreasen for them, through Rochemback to Afellay. They’ll come out in a diamond and we know where to find space against it. Guerrero is going to be a load up front – Robert, your responsibility – and Vuoso is another one who can hurt us. Patient play and a patient approach will get this job done. But you have to be patient.”

Three reminders of the watchword should have been enough. We took the pitch for our first away test in the Champions League.

The need for patience did not merely apply to the club. It also applied to me.

# # #

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delighted to read that Rob and Patty see a light at the end of the tunnel. I'll have to be as patient as Rob himself to see if both of them head toward it together.

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Light at the end of the tunnel ... hope, or an oncoming train?

___

We started strongly. Baptista and Lita seemed to find a quick understanding, with the targetman finding his runner in space just thirty seconds into the match. Unfortunately, Lita shot over from eighteen yards.

A flyer away from home would have been wonderful, but that wasn’t to be. And it wasn’t to be a few moments later, either, as Baptista’s header from an early Maloney corner wound up in Frank Rost’s arms.

The keeper started the play back up the pitch quickly, with a quick punt that came back toward the HSV area off Magallón’s boot.

The rejected Mexican international knocked a high ball ahead for Lita, but Alex Silva headed it clear to the right, where veteran David Jarolim found it. He started back, and we seemed to just let him go.

Jarolim moved on until he neared the byline, with Pogatetz flailing away trying to stop him. He crossed into the area for Vuoso. Bikey was nowhere to be found.

Lobont was stranded, Vuoso headed home with ease and five minutes into the match we were behind.

The crowd had hardly settled in and already they were cheering. The very thing I had pulled Sonko from the eleven for showing – poor positional play – had been immediately duplicated by his replacement. I was starting to wonder if there was something in the air.

Buoyed by their goal, Hamburg proceeded to pile on the pressure. I put us into a counter-attack mode hoping to surprise them with our pace on those occasions where we actually did get the ball. Unfortunately, those occurrences were few and far between in the first half.

Baptista tried to haul us back into the match singlehandedly in eighteen minutes, connecting from the penalty spot on a bicycle kick from a Pogatetz cross. Also unfortunately for us, the ball fizzed over as the Brazilian barely missed making perfect contact.

He tried, more conventionally, a few minutes later with a raking shot from distance that had Rost clearly beaten and rooted to the spot. However, his fellow Brazilian national Gabriel then saved his team’s bacon by clearing off the line. What Gabriel was doing on the goal line was beyond any of us, but it was clear that he was in the right place at exactly the right time.

Bikey, for his part, was finally starting to climb into the match, getting above Vuoso to head a second cross from Jarolim behind for a corner on twenty minutes. He was still struggling to get into the match, though, and it was hard for me to look across our bench at Sonko. I was wondering what was going through his mind.

The half seemed to drag. We couldn’t gain possession. It was starting to become a significant annoyance as the home team knocked the ball around the park virtually at will.

Fortunately for us, they weren’t able to turn their dominance in possession into anything meaningful, until Bikey wound up in the book of Croatian referee Edo Trivkovic for obstructing José Paolo Guerrero.

Not only was it a silly card, it came while Bikey was marking the wrong man. Huth was actually closer to Vuoso at the time, so when Fabio Rochemback’s ball to the middle came to the Peruvian, Bikey took him instead.

“Bloody sixes and sevens,” Dillon moaned to my left.

"We can’t seem to figure this out,” I admitted. “Huth is the only one who doesn’t look like he’s completely lost. We look like eleven drunks in a revolving door.”

Trivkovic blew for halftime. It was 1-0 but it could, and probably should, have been more.

# # #

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“Okay, I’m going to take my share of the blame for this,” I said, stepping to the front of the room and surprising the players with the start of my team talk.

“What we’re doing isn’t working. So we are going to change it. I want to see 4-4-2 but with a different look. You’ve seen this in training but now I think we have the chance to make it work.”

I was a little bit desperate, but trying not to show it. Obviously, what we had schemed wasn’t getting the job done, so it was time to think ‘out of the box’.

Or rather, into it.

I drew a 4-4-2 ‘box’ formation on the board. In Brazil they’d call it a 4-2-2-2.

“Very narrow,” I said. “I want to see you take the ball right to these guys. Take it right at them. Three across the middle isn’t getting this done, so let’s try four right up the middle.”

I paused, and they seemed to take it well.

“That is, those of you who feel like playing,” I snarled, turning on them as quickly as I had given them the stroke they wanted.

“Good Lord, I don’t care if you’re away from home, you don’t even look like you want to be out there,” I snapped. “Win the damn ball from somebody. String two good passes in a row together. Are you so frightened of the Champions League that you’ve forgotten what kind of club got into it in the first place?”

The gazes I was getting in return told me I was on surprisingly good ground.

“This is just not good enough, gentlemen,” I said, now starting to pace back and forth across the front of the room. It is just…not…good enough.”

I was starting to clip my words, a sure sign of ire. My eyes turned to daggers as I zeroed in on Bikey.

“André, come on. Get into the game,” I said. His wide-eyed expression told me he needed to get the message he was getting.

“We need eleven. I’m not seeing eleven out there,” I said. “Who wants to be one of them? If you don’t, let me know and I’ll find someone else. Think it through, because if I don’t see better out there in the second half, I’m going to start making some decisions for you.”

That was a hell of a thing to say to a team that has yet to taste defeat in any competition this year. Yet it could not be argued that we haven’t been at our best for some time now, and the time was now to challenge them.

Away from home. Under adversity. Playing like we didn’t want to be there.

At least, I thought it was the time to challenge them.

# # #

From the start of the second half, we looked a little more vibrant. That was good, since eleven cadavers could have showed more emotion than we had in the opening 45 minutes.

Kalou was the first to try his luck, working a cheeky little 1-2 with Dicã to the right of the HSV penalty area just five minutes after the second half kickoff.

He wound up and shot but, like Baptista, he drilled his effort over the top. Yet, it was something.

We were showing life. They seemed to be responding to the challenge.

Now Kalou was back down the right, but lost the ball to Felipe as he tried to cut inside. The Brazilian did a series of cute little stepover moves to try to fool Ferreira, who was forward to support the attack, and Felipe cleared up the middle.

Vuoso headed the ball downward but too far, and it was picked up by Kalou, of all people. He had run thirty yards to cover for his defender and wound up right in the way of the ball.

He turned us back quickly, knocking a ball to the right side for the run of Baptista. Our Brazilian looked up and saw Lita moving up the middle with Gabriel on his outside hip to the left.

Baptista didn’t hesitate, lofting a wonderful ball right into the top of the penalty area for Lita, who took it off his chest with the defender on his back. He cut to the middle, into space, and Rost had no alternative but to come for the ball.

Lita took two steps to his right and bent the ball right around him and home seven minutes after the restart.

It was just a wonderful goal. He looked at the bench with an expression of self-satisfaction that his play had clearly deserved, and he gave me a triumphal smile as he headed back to his position.

Lita had scored as a starter. Near as I could tell, the moon and planets were still in their orbits, but I made a mental note to check just to make sure.

Dillon laughed at Lita’s expression and turned to me as our bench celebrated the goal.

“Who needs religion when Lita’s that good?” he smiled, and that made even me break out into a grin.

I could have used one at that point. The players, though, had decided to kick start their game and it hadn’t taken them long.

# # #

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We had a quickness to our step – thanks to Lita – that had been frankly missing for the entire first half, and now the momentum of the game began to change dramatically. We had more possession, our movement on and off the ball was both quicker and more effective, and it showed in the quality of our play.

No sooner had we equalized than we were right back in the attacking half, with Rochemback taking the legs out from under Dicã twenty-five yards from goal.

You could see Maloney’s eyes get big as soon as Trivkovic gave the free kick. The placement was right in Shaun’s wheelhouse and he was the first to the ball. So he picked it up, wanting to take the set piece himself.

Trivkovic supervised the construction of the Hamburg Wall, if you will, and finally Maloney put the ball down on the spot the referee indicated. He took a few steps back, waited for the whistle, and hit a classic bender that ducked under the crossbar at Rost’s right post to put us ahead with 61 minutes on the clock.

Just like that, the whole complexion of the match had changed. The 4-4-2 box was working beautifully, thank you very much, and it appeared that the tactical change had caught our hosts by surprise.

So much the better.

That immediately brought Thomas Doll off his bench yelling, and pulling his team back into the 4-4-2 diamond in which they had started the match. A brief foray into 4-4-2 to shore up his midfield had gone horribly wrong and that also hadn’t taken long.

Sometimes managers make egregious tactical errors. Sometimes those errors are thrust upon him by his opposition. In this case, my abrupt switch to a formation no one had yet seen us play in competition had made an immediate impact.

Doll now had to figure out how to climb back into the match against us while evaluating a tactic he had not yet seen. As far as marches go, we could consider the one we were on sufficiently stolen to suit our purposes.

We looked a lot better, a lot more confident, and had a lot more energy. The switch had been a good idea.

That is, until Hamburg moved the ball into our area for the first time and Bikey bundled Vuoso off the ball.

Trivkovic pointed to the spot and I could have no argument. It was a stonewall penalty.

The place went nuts as Bikey handed Hamburg a lifeline through a foul that was simply silly.

Leon Andreasen stepped confidently to the spot and gave Lobont no chance just four minutes after we had gone ahead.

I turned to Sonko on the bench. He was waiting for my call.

“Get warmed up,” I snapped. “Show me that either of you wants that spot.”

# # #

Sonko came on a few minutes later, while a disconsolate Bikey trudged to the bench after jogging to the touchline.

The last time he had played poorly, I had climbed onto the bench to console him. Not this time.

The non-verbal message I was sending was clear and obvious. A card and a conceded penalty is not what I want to see from a central defender in a Champions League match. It wasn’t what his teammates wanted to see either.

He sat on the far corner of the bench, still part of the team but feeling the heat from his performance. One of our kit men helped him into his warmup and he sat, his body language telling the whole story.

Bikey sat, his arms crossed on his knees, leaning forward in his chair. Finally, he rested his chin in his cupped hands and watched the match. He was disconsolate, and this time I let him stew.

I kept us in the box formation, and we pushed back fairly quickly. Within three minutes we had the ball in a decent position for Dicã, but the Romanian pushed his weak shot directly at Rost, who collected comfortably.

Substitute Vicente Sanchez, who had barely stepped onto the park, immediately made a contribution for Hamburg by getting Ferreira booked thanks to a powerful run down his left flank that left the Portuguese flat-footed and looking surprisingly slow afoot.

I was considering pulling Paolo off anyway, and that seemed as good a time as any to make the move. Rosenior stepped on his place, giving me a 50-percent tradeout of my starting back line. Everyone else seemed to have lots of energy, but the defenders were really starting to annoy me.

On the other side, though, Pogatetz was doing quite well, thank you. He got to the byline as the clock turned to 75 minutes and flipped a ball into the middle that Dicã promptly slammed into the side netting to Rost’s right. We were generating chances and Dicã was spurning them.

That wasn’t how it was supposed to work, so my inclination was to pull the misfiring midfielder. I had one option left up my sleeve from an attacking standpoint.

Heading down the bench, I saw Dagoberto returning from a run up and down the touchline. I looked at him and called him over.

“A re you well enough to run around like a madman for ten minutes?” I asked him.

The chance I was taking was huge. In a 2-2 match away from home, the easier course of action would have been to play safe and take our second draw in succession from our group.

Yet, that didn’t seem like something I was interested in doing. The American in me was starting to rear its ugly head. I felt aggressive and I wanted a third goal.

He nodded. “I can play,” he said, clearly wanting the opportunity.

As Doll used his last substitutions, I had one left to me. As Gabriel was going into the book for a bodycheck on Lita, I made the move.

It was Dagoberto for Dicã. It was going for broke. It was Reading for the win.

# # #

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I suppose there were a few eyebrows raised as my leading goalscorer headed onto the park with eight minutes to play.

No matter.

Huth immediately celebrated Dagoberto’s arrival by getting himself booked for for a bodycheck on Sanchez that would have made Bobby Orr proud. The substitute had done a fair bit of flying for Hamburg, getting two of my defenders booked in a space of twenty minutes.

Moments later, Trivkovic had his book out again, this time to put Pogatetz in it for a foul on another HSV substitute, Bjorn Ziegenbein. We were having an increasingly hard time keeping up with them, and Doll’s substitutions were giving us all kinds of trouble.

Still with two defenders in the book despite my pulling two carded players off the pitch, we still needed to be careful. I was starting to rue my decision.

Rosenior, though, was not carded yet and he surged forward after we got the ball back. He played a 1-2 with Maloney and moved forward smartly, finding Baptista in the right channel with a pass to feet.

Baptista moved forward, and struck a shot that cannoned off Joris Mathijsen on the way to goal. The rebound came straight off him and right back to Baptista.

This time he shot high, placing a shot perfectly between Rost’s hand and his right post. Six minutes from time, the Brazilian had given us the lead back.

Now everyone, including Bikey, had forgotten all that came before. It was a huge lift. It was a huge goal at a huge moment.

Now, though, was no time for a narrow box formation. The players on the park allowed us to go to 4-5-1, and that’s what I moved us into for the finish.

Hamburg streamed forward after the goal, now playing the dreaded 4-2-4, and immediately generated a corner when Magallón blocked a shot by Ziegenbein behind.

At a sprint, Rost came forward out of the Hamburg goal, the ultimate aggressive move from the frustrated Thomas Doll.

Lurking outside our area, the Hamburg keeper waited for Rochemback’s corner. In it came – right to the extra man.

With Dagoberto closing frantically, Rost sized up his options. The keeper elected to shoot.

# # #

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Rost closed rapidly, and fired.

He had Lobont beaten. But not Sonko.

The defender hacked the goalkeeper’s shot off the line and straight up into the air. The madhouse in our penalty area resembled a youth game – a mob of players all kicking at the air, with one of them closest to the ball.

The ball fell to Vuoso, who struck a hard shot that hit someone – anyone – and popped straight up into the air. Lobont couldn’t get to the ball to catch it, so he stayed on his line while his defenders tried to do the dirty work.

Again, Sonko stood tall, this time heading the ball behind for another corner. With the place a madhouse, Rochemback had a second bite of the cherry.

This time, Sanchez was the target and the highly effective substitute closed in for a free header.

That is, until Sonko cut him off. Ibrahima got there first, and headed the ball in the opposite direction, this time to safety.

There was no way back for Hamburg. The win was gigantic, our first in the Champions League proper.

Sonko approached, a wide grin on his face. I approached him.

“Congratulations,” I said, offering my hand. He shook it.

“What do you think now, boss?” he asked.

“I think I was wrong,” I admitted. “You showed me you want to play.”

Hamburg SV 2 (Matias Vuoso 6th 5; Leon Andreasen 2nd 65 pen)

Reading 3 (Lita 3rd 52; Maloney 4th 61; Baptista 3rd 84)

A – 55,431, HSH-Nordbank Arena, Hamburg

Man of the Match – Shaun Maloney, Reading (MR 8)

# # #

“We came here to win,” I said.

My questioning from the media centered around why I had elected to go for broke away from home with so much at stake.

“You have to go for it sometimes,” I said. “More importantly, after the discussion we had at halftime, I felt it was important to show some faith in these players and let them try to win the game. We had a very poor first half, and we talked about that in the dressing room. Or rather, I talked about it.”

Now my face showed a grin.

“What did you tell them?”

“That they needed to play better,” I smiled. “That’s all you guys need to know.”

The other match in our group contained a surprising result, as PSG held Barcelona to a 1-1 draw at the Parc des Princes. Ronaldinho had opened the scoring from the spot in the 49th minute only to see Sergiy Nazarenko equalize for the home team eleven minutes from time.

The meaning is pretty plain. Now that Barca has been held, we are tied for the lead in our group on four points – and they come to play us next.

Naturally, that was the next topic of conversation.

“Are you ready to take over the group lead with Barcelona faltering?” I was asked.

“That’s a big ask,” I replied. “You are talking about one of the best club sides in the world, and you’re never going to get me to say that we can just show up and beat them. We’re going to be in for the match of our lives when they come to see us, you can mark my words on that.”

My preference was to talk about our fightback that evening, though. It was also Lobont’s, and the captain had some pointed words for the press when they were allowed to interview the players.

“We were horrible in the first half,” he admitted. “The manager came into the dressing room and challenged all of us to improve our games or he would find people who could. We were due for a talking-to like that and we responded to it. He admitted that the tactics were wrong at the beginning of the match but he put us in a position to win and we did it.”

He was asked about the aggressive approach we took at the end of the match.

“Players want to win, they don’t want to draw,” Lobont said. “I personally was displeased at having conceded twice so to see the manager want to score a third made me feel good as a player. We have to get into the mentality of wanting to win wherever we play, whoever we play. The fact that we were away from home should not enter into his thinking and it did not enter into his thinking.”

Those were nice things to say, and they would surely look good in the next days’ papers.

But soon we were on the plane heading for home. It had been a big day with much accomplished. We’re three points clear of the third and fourth placed teams in our group and level with mighty Barcelona. That ought to be good enough for the board.

# # #

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Why, thank you, Dechardonay. I always enjoy helping people live vicariously :)

___

Wednesday, September 30

Our attention now turns to Wigan this weekend, but we have another issue to worry about, this one financial.

Dagoberto has been playing very well since I arrived at the club, and now that fine play and form may mean we have to pay the piper.

When his contract was purchased from São Paolo in Brazil two years ago, we agreed to pay them £3.7 million in additional fees if he were to score 50 league goals for us.

He is now on 49. And he’s going to play against Wigan, so my hope is that we’ll have to pay up.

Sort of.

I didn’t negotiate the deal that brought him here, but at the same time, his goals have been invaluable to us throughout my time at Reading. You should pay for quality, in my mind, but now we’re really going to have to pay because to my way of thinking that next goal is inevitable.

Wigan haven’t started well. As one of the newly promoted teams to the Premiership after relegation two years ago, they have only one win from their first nine games to go with three draws.

Were it not for truly inept play beneath them, they’d be in bigger trouble than they are, but it’s a bit of a telling commentary on the bottom of this league that a club with one win from nine matches isn’t even in the relegation places at the moment. They will enter the match in 16th place in the league.

We’ll come in third, with an opportunity to put some heat on United and Arsenal with a good performance, even though we are away from home.

I’ve learned why some managers occasionally complain about fixture lists. In this case, we are flying home from a midweek European tie only to travel again to the Northwest later on in the same week. That can’t be helped, but the mileage might give us a case of tired legs before all is said and done this weekend. I hope not.

Later on this season we will have a similar problem, traveling back from our Champions League match at the Nou Camp to play in London against Spurs at that same weekend. Nobody likes to play away after an away tie in Europe, but in this case it can’t be helped.

Since I’d rather be in Europe than on the outside looking in, I still have no complaints.

Our flight got in very early this morning, with flying west a bit of a help from Germany. The players didn’t get home until the wee hours and everyone who had traveled as part of the team was excused from the morning session as a result.

The players who had played last night reported for lunch, and then we got down to work preparing for Wigan.

I was hoping Emiliani would show his face at my media briefing today. Just so I could say I saw him do it. He never shows up after we win, and after our first win in Europe in the group stages proper, I was really wondering if he would be there.

I hadn’t banked on him being there, and he didn’t disappoint me. I suppose he was still too busy chasing Fulton around and trying to figure out what was going on in the DCI’s private life.

That isn’t supposed to be what the police sign up for. They are supposed to put the bad guys away, not wind up on the tabloid pages themselves. Fulton has done nothing wrong, and I felt badly for how she has been treated.

I didn’t dare let her know, though. That kind of contact would be pure poison for both of us. All I could do was commiserate, and that even from a distance.

# # #

“So, these are the travel plans?”

“Yes. She flies to Monaco on the sixth.”

“Excellent. They have made arrangements for new security, have they?”

“The reports I’ve heard say no.”

“Good. That will work better for us.”

“You don’t think Ridgway will let her go without security, do you? He’s not that stupid.”

“No, but I know that whoever he picks won’t be as good as the last guy he hired. That much I can tell you for certain.”

“Your opinion is biased.”

“Naturally. I know the situation and I think I’m right. Anyhow, it won’t matter soon anyway.”

# # #

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Thursday, October 1

Steven Hardcastle crumpled to the ground under the force of my repeated blows.

Finally, I had him.

I had set it up perfectly.

After training, I had stolen away to London and waited for nightfall.

He was working late, and headed out to his car from his office right as dusk fell.

He was walking slowly. His car was parked around the corner, closest to the doorway to his building, in a dark enclave. He wouldn’t suspect a thing.

Tired from a long day, his head drooped, he had nearly reached his Maserati when I emerged from the shadows.

I had had enough. It was time for revenge.

My blow hit him from the blind side, with plenty of power.

He staggered, falling against his car.

My second punch, a right hand delivered in a glove loaded with brass knuckles, smashed into his face hard just below his right cheek, again from behind.

Spinning, he fell to the ground, his chest heaving.

I stood over him, raining blows down on his head.

It was never a fair fight. But then, it was never supposed to have been fair.

Over and over, I landed that loaded right hand down on his head, until finally the big man was unconscious on the ground in front of me.

“That’ll teach you,” I snarled, removing the glove and placing it in my pocket.

I slipped the brass knuckles off as well, and the rubber glove I wore underneath them, replacing them in the pocket as well.

I looked down at Hardcastle again, the proud man now laid low.

It was a very satisfying feeling.

He had messed with me. He had interfered in my business. Finally, it was time to start fighting back.

In my own way, though. I was tired of reacting.

Nodding with one last glance of satisfaction, I headed back toward the entryway to Hardcastle’s office building.

I opened the door, rounded a corner and nearly ran into Fulton heading in the opposite direction.

“Now, Mr. Ridgway,” she said, by way of greeting. “What brings you here tonight?”

“Business, Inspector,” I said, trying to shoulder my way past her. The police officer would have none of it.

“Not so fast,” she said, moving to block my path. Her smile seemed to light up the hallway. “I have a question for you, before you go.”

“Very well, Inspector,” I said. I could feel my inner tension starting to rise, for obvious reasons.

She looked up at me. The tension was of a different sort.

“Do you want me, Rob?” she asked, advancing closer.

Before I knew it, she had backed me around the corner, against a wall, and was in my arms. She kissed me right there in the hallway.

Sitting bolt upright in bed, I woke up, shaking my head hard from side to side.

I was bathed in sweat.

A rivulet of sweat ran right down the center of my forehead, down my nose, and splattered onto the bedclothes in front of me.

Patty slept peacefully at my side.

“Wow,” I groaned to myself.

Wow, am I in trouble.”

# # #

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managed to catch up with the last five entries at work today during a bit of a lag. Not your story, which is entertaining as ever. Congrats on it all. Even the vicarious thrill of beating Hardcastle senseless.

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Some frustration building up, gents.

___

“We would like to discuss the progress of the club.”

That was not unexpected. It being the first of the month, the board meeting was the place where I should have expected to give an accounting.

What I didn’t expect, though, was the new set of expectations I had received.

Richmond tried very hard not to look at me. I knew who and what was behind the words now in front of me.

What I didn’t know was why Sir John had allowed him to raise the stakes in the manner such as was being presented.

I wasn’t sure what bothered me more: the increased expectations now placed in front of me or the undeniable fact that Emiliani had been right.

Of course, it wasn’t hard for me to figure out the source of his information. Richmond can call anyone he wants and turn up the heat at any time he chooses. Just ask him.

Now he told me so. In front of the board, which was pretty bald-faced. He dropped his façade.

“I can pick up the phone and do it,” he said. “So you know what is coming.”

With little to lose, I elected to rip off a line from my favorite television show, The Mentalist, and the ubitquitous Detective Cho.

“Impressive. The most I can get with one phone call is a pizza.”

Richmond said nothing – but neither did Sir John. I cast a sideways glance at him, wondering if he was simply keeping his powder dry or if he had finally gone over to the dark side.

The piece of paper in front of me mandated the impossible.

According to Sidney Richmond, my squad of players was capable of a quadruple.

The sheet read that we are supposed to challenge for the title. I think we can do that. What got me was his idea of progress in the cup competitions.

He thinks we can reach the final in all of them.

Including the European Cup.

Now, to me, that strains credulity.

Of course, you dare not show emotion in such a circumstance. Or so I thought.

“I assume I’ll be allowed funds to strengthen in January,” I said blandly.

“You are here to win matches,” Madejski finally said, entering the conversation with the voice of authority.

“That goes without saying, Sir John,” I answered.

“Are you disputing these goals?” he asked, leaning over onto the right arm of his high-backed chair.

“We go out with the goal of winning every match we play,” I said, giving the only answer I could reasonably give. “However, I have goals for certain competitions, especially the Carling Cup. Our young players will get every chance to prove themselves in that competition while the more senior players are asked to focus on Europe and our league.”

“You do know that a goal of this board is to win the FA Cup.”

“I do know that,” I answered. “Given this club’s history in that competition, it is certainly understandable. All I can tell you is that the squad I select will be the one I believe gives us the best chance to win every match we play given the goals I have stated to you.”

I was starting to find my feet now.

“No matter what happens, whether we win a double, a treble or nothing at all, you are going to have to decide whether my efforts are good enough.”

“No one is suggesting they aren’t,” Sir John now said.

“The bar is definitely being raised,” I replied.

“Because we believe it can be done,” Richmond now interjected. “That is your responsibility. If you wish to shirk that responsibility, now is the time to let us know.”

If Richmond was looking for a reaction, he certainly got one. Anger flickered in my eyes for the briefest of moments.

“I’ve never backed down from a challenge in my life,” I said. “I have no intention of starting now.”

“Good,” Sir John said, ending that part of the conversation. “Then let’s get to the financial summary, gentlemen.”

# # #

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Richmond is an idiot. Sorry 10-3, but I don't think your squad, as good as it is, can win the title yet. :(

More good writing though, lad. :)

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This is as great as ever. I really dont know how you keep it up, but thanks for doing so :thup:

I actually want to strangle that man. :mad: However, I would be happy with some underhand dealings of Ridgeway's own. Hint, hint. ;)

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viper, I was surprised to see the board's increased expectations too. I don't know how this group of players can contend on all fronts. The squad simply isn't deep enough. So RR might well be in trouble. Stoehrst, I do love The Mentalist, the season finale last week was simply excellent television. And WW, you may have to get in line to strangle Richmond by the time all is said and done!

Early post today as I am up very early in the American Midwest for meetings on Thursday.

___

So much for that. Getting to the financial summary was the big thing.

The bottom line, though, isn’t in the shape Sir John had hoped to see.

We lost £659,000 last month even though we got a fresh cheque for £425,000 for defeating Hamburg in the Champions League.

However, for the year, we are down about £6.2 million, and that figure will rise to £10 million the next time Dagoberto scores in the league.

Our bank balances are still very healthy and I am nowhere near the salary limits set for me by the board at the start of the season. We have money to spend and room in our budgets to add players.

Yet I wonder. Does all this make me ‘under pressure’?

We all are, to a point. We’re all expected to win and there’s a P45 waiting for all of us if we don’t. That is the way of the world in this game. Run, and you are through.

It just hasn’t been spelled out so baldly before.

It’s a huge task. Bigger clubs are ahead of us, with more resources and more money to spend.

Yet, that’s merely an excuse to an ambitious board, and we definitely have one of those. I’m partly responsible for making them that way.

So, feed the beast. Bring it on.

# # #

It should be humorous to some that the September Manager of the Month is under increased expectation. Yet, I am.

I have won the award. It will look nice on my office mantle for sure, but I may also be able to use it as a paperweight or an offensive weapon depending on who needs it and for what purpose.

I wasn’t the only Royal honored by the press today.

Dicã’s wonder strike against Newcastle on the 12th of September earned him the Goal of the Month award. This earns him ribbing from his teammates, a nice bauble for his fireplace, and a probable place on all the “Goals of the Season” shows the television media puts out to show how much they care about the Premiership.

Rolando Bianchi of Manchester City is the player of the month, for scoring six goals in three matches. I suppose that would earn you consideration.

Yet today, I had something other than honors on my mind when I met the press.

We have Arsenal playing Chelsea on Saturday, so we havea chance to make an impact in the table if we can do the business at Wigan. However, what I don’t have is a key player doing the job he needs to be doing.

Weatherby has been very careful of late when she asks me about players. Today, though, she couldn’t hold back. She asked me about Bikey.

“I need better from him,” I answered immediately, the first time I have ever criticized a player in front of the press. “Right now André is simply not playing the kind of football this club needs him to play if we are going to succeed. I have spoken with him about it, but the main thing is that he has to find the answer. No one can do it for him. I had to pull him off against Hamburg because he was out of position, he was carded and he gave away a penalty. We need him to play a role but right now that role seems to be a bit out of his grasp.”

Those were serious words. Weatherby asked me if I wanted to clarify.

“André can play, he proved that last season,” I said. “The issue with him is that with Robert Huth playing like he has been, André’s opportunities haven’t come as frequently as he would have liked. Well, we still need him to be ready and we still need him to do a job for us.”

Off the newsies went to find Bikey, which is of course what I knew they’d do. We haven’t had a lot of controversy between the manager and his players – the other controversy at the club has more than overshadowed that, thank you very much – and to my surprise, the defender was receptive.

“I do need to be better,” he admitted. “It has not been going well for me lately so I have asked the coaches to help me find the holes in my form. I want to play but I cannot play if the manager is losing faith in me. I have to work hard to get my place back in the team.”

In short, it was the perfect answer. I made sure the cameras got shots of me standing with Bikey during the afternoon workout today, to show that I harbored no hard feelings.

I just can’t pick him while he’s playing so poorly. It’s just that simple.

# # #

Halls, on the other hand, has once again gone to the press to talk about his own lack of playing time.

He used the press interview with Bikey to plant a bug in Weatherby’s ear about wanting to leave, and the reporter did the only thing she could do. She wrote it down and asked me about it on the way to my car after training.

I grew red-faced. I don’t have many rules for players but the one I do have is that if a player would like to leave, I find out about it before the team’s beat reporter.

“He said that, did he?” I asked.

Weatherby nodded.

“Then he can have his wish,” I snapped. “If you’ll excuse me, I need to be going.”

# # #

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Hey Tenthree.

I'm still very much attached to the story and its outcomes. Oh, and Emilani is my favourite FMS character of all time (I've decided that this past week). The man is delightfully unflappable.

Looking forward to the Wigan game :thup:

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Hi Ten Three,

I believe that your board are asking for a bit too much from you and your squad.

To win every competition you enter is probably a bridge too far for most teams and players.

I am surprised that RR puts up with it. It is long past showdown time between RR and Sir John. You either enjoy his full support or you don't.

If the latter then, as much as you may not want to, it may well be time to move on to somewhere that yours obvious talents are appreciated.

Virtually all my characters have drawn a line in the sand which, if transgressed by the Board, normally leads to me saying goodbye to that particular club.

Eventually you will get to where you are needed and appreciated.

Anyway I'm still enjoying an enthralling tale.

Cheers Jim

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Thanks, gentlemen: Scottlee, the character of Emiliani has evolved over time into one that is a lot of fun to write. At the moment I am trying to figure out how he will be involved in the next major story arc, as he hasn't had a lot to do lately. Jim, I was surprised to see the board expectations too. I am waiting to see if the board actually places RR under pressure at this point. If he does, he will have no choice but to leave his options open.

___

Friday, October 2

I talked with her today.

Not Patty.

Fulton.

I got a phone message from the inspector, who has been reinstated to the case regarding my office bugging.

An internal investigation quickly concluded that the beautiful DCI has no interest whatsoever in Mr. R. Ridgway, and as such as she can resume her duties.

I wondered how they had come to that determination, and decided that it would not be a good idea to find out. I guess I don’t really want to know anyway.

Her voice was smooth and unruffled, as if she knew all would be well.

“Just wanted you to know I am back on the case,” she said cheerily.

“You don’t know how good that makes me feel,” I laughed. “Without you and Commander Fowler around the place every day, I was starting to get lonesome.”

“We are working leads, I assure you,” she replied.

“I have no doubt that you are.”

I wondered if she was this calm, cool and collected every time there was an internal investigation and figured that Fulton probably had ice water in her veins.

“Have you made inroads on your wife’s security matters?” she asked.

I opened an e-mail in my personal account that had arrived moments earlier. It was from Eaton, who had submitted proposals through his own channels. He had a favorable report.

“I think we will be all right by the time she leaves,” I answered.

“Very good,” Fulton answered. “If you would be so kind as to share that information with Commander Fowler I would appreciate it.”

“Naturally,” I replied. The dream now flashed into my head.

I shook one specific thought away.

It came back. This time I didn’t fight it. I slipped into a sort of trance and didn’t like the feeling.

“Mr. Ridgway?”

I heard Fulton’s voice snapping me out of my trance and I shook my head from side to side.

“I’m sorry, Inspector,” I said. “I was miles away.”

“You should know that we are questioning Mr. Hardcastle as well, relative to the picture sent to you that was taken from the crime scene.”

“Thank you,” I answered.

Another part of the dream now flashed into my mind.

This one I didn’t try to fight down.

“Using rubber truncheons, I hope?” I asked.

“Excuse me, Mr. Ridgway?”

“Nothing,” I replied quickly. “Nothing at all.”

# # #

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This isn't getting tired with age, now is it ?

Continually brilliant stuff 10-3, can't wait for the next episode.

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Thanks, cf! Still fun to write, and RR is still in his post. So this will be going on for a bit yet :)

___

A quick plane trip to the Northwest took up the rest of the late morning and early afternoon.

Wigan is having a lot of trouble, as I mentioned earlier. If we stick to our business we should be able to come out with some sort of a result.

After this match, we have some time. Or rather, I have some time.

The international break upcoming will give our English players some time to rest, since Steve McClaren hasn’t called on any of ours to help the Three Lions finish the business of qualifying for the World Cup.

Ingerlund’s eyes are set on their upcoming showdown match against Denmark. The Danes have played surprisingly well through the qualifying stages, matching England stride for stride.

The nations are locked at the top of the group stages with only a draw between the sides in Copenhagen blemishing either team’s account.

There are those around town who think Kitson ought to be part of McClaren’s side. I have a hard time disagreeing with that. He’s been terrific for us and has been on form for the better part of a full year.

Yet, England are so deep up front they don’t need him. Rooney, Owen and Crouch are all England have required as far as striking options go. He’s on the outside looking in, and he’d dearly love to earn a cap, especially now.

It’s odd, in a way; after being left out of his country’s last two national sides the word is now that Ferreira will get another callup for Portugal despite being in and out of my first team.

I’ve got four other players who are expected to get callups who aren’t in my first team – Ingimarsson and Viktor Illugason for Iceland, Cathcart for Norn Iron, and Long for the Republic.

Meanwhile, here sits Kitson – playing brilliantly and unable to get a callup.

Who said this game was fair?

# # #

I’m going to have a couple of days at home to try to patch up what’s wrong with me and Patty before she leaves for Monaco on Tuesday.

She needs to get on the plane, that much is certain. She feels it, and when she feels it, I had better feel it too. I’m not that big an idiot.

She hasn’t reacted well since I fired Hardcastle, so my words to her on the phone that the police were questioning him about McGuire provided a little bit of vindication for me.

“Why would he be that stupid, Rob?” she asked. “It just doesn’t make sense!”

“It does,” I insisted. “Especially if that e-mail came from him.”

“He wouldn’t be that stupid,” she replied, just as insistent. “Really. I think he’s being framed.”

I swallowed the urge to ask her aloud why she is so insistent on defending Hardcastle, but I wanted to speak with my wife instead of having her hang up on me, so I didn’t say anything.

“The police will determine that,” I countered. “That’s their job.”

There was a long pause.

“Are you ready to leave?” I finally asked.

“I’m all packed,” she said. “It’s going to be good for me to get away, Rob. I’ll come back refreshed and better able to help you. You do know that, don’t you?”

I thought about how some couples in commuter marriages cope. I don’t know how some of them do it.

All I know is that I’m not very good at it.

“Rob, it’s going to be fine,” she finally said. “That’s what you need to hear, isn’t it?”

“I won’t lie to you, babe,” I answered. “Yes, that’s what I need to hear. There’s just so much going on around here, I can’t concentrate on the things that really matter. Like you.”

“We’ve been through this before,” she said. “It’s going to be fine, I’m going to go get some sun in Monaco and it’s going to be a really great trip for me. Okay?”

I sighed.

“Okay,” I answered. I wish I could have believed my own words.

# # #

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Saturday, October 3

Wigan (1-5-3, 16th place) v Reading (6-3-0, 3rd place) – EPL Match Day #10

They don’t often play games on paper. So, here we were.

This was my first trip to the JJB Stadium, home of the newly re-promoted Latics. They haven’t been setting the world on fire, but draws in their first five matches have given them a base on which to build for survival.

They have eight points from nine matches. Not spectacular, by any stretch, but better than some. They have done what some newly promoted sides have had a hard time doing – they have made themselves hard to beat.

That could also be said of the football heritage of the community. Wigan Athletic is the fifth incarnation of football in the town, after Wigan County, Wigan United, Wigan Town and Wigan Borough.

Wigan Athletic is the one that stuck, and they are in fact the newest club in terms of their date of organization to actually make it into the Premiership, since their formation in 1932.

They are a relatively young club. Their status as a yo-yo team is well established. Roberto Martinez and his men are trying to show they belong on a long-term basis and it was under that supposition that the match started in a highly spirited fashion.

I did make a couple of changes for this match. Halls and Golbourne were the full backs, since Pogatetz needed a bit of a break and I still haven’t found the best player for the right side. Halls talks a good game and I wanted to give him one final chance to prove that his talk isn’t cheap.

Golbourne deserves a chance. Our England u-21 international has been doing very well for our reserves and this seemed like a good place to let him shine.

Also, with Dagoberto still not fully recovered from his food poisoning bout, I preferred Lita to him as Baptista’s strike partner.

We were bright from the beginning of the match. Dicã came ready to play and was ready to provide from the beginning, hitting a slide-rule pass into the middle for the run of Maloney, who had cut inside on his own.

Maloney moved in and was dispossessed only by a last-second, inch-perfect tackle by Andy Webster, who gained his feet and cleared straight up the middle of the park.

The ball wound up at the feet of Bikey – yes, I gave him one last chance – and his ball to the middle found Dicã with his back to goal as we recycled possession.

Nicolae took a look to his right and then to his left, head on a swivel. He tried the left again and laid another perfect ball into the right channel of the Wigan back line.

There, Lita had made a great little run and had defender Emmerson Boyce on his outside hip after spinning around him.

He took DIcã’s ball and cut to the middle while Chris Kirkland cut the angle. It didn’t matter, as Lita finished powerfully into the lower left corner to get us off to the dream start after only six minutes.

I have been after this team to get out to a strong start away from home for some time now – well, this was it.

Lita had scored right out of the chute too, making his bid to force his way into the starting eleven.

So far, the manager looked like a genius. I won’t say I minded that thought.

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Moments later, Kalou was springing right through the flat-footed Wigan defense and was clean in alone on Kirkland, who was already screaming at his defenders. Unfortunately, though, Salomon found a way to shoot wide, spurning a chance to get us two goals ahead in the first ten minutes.

Now Wigan was starting to show some signs of life, as Martinez did a slow burn in the home team’s dugout.

Pierre Womé was the provider, crossing for Saudi international Malik Mouath Al-Hawasawi thirteen minutes into the match, but Huth had him covered like a blanket and his looping header sailed high over the bar.

Sonko, who is really starting to establish himself as an offensive presence on set pieces, barely missed a second goal in 23 minutes as Maloney dropped a right-footed corner right on his noggin in the six-yard box. His powerful header was cleared off the line by Boyce, in a bit of bad luck that I was really hoping wouldn’t become a pattern.

We could have had three in the first 23 minutes and were dominating the match in every respect.

Now it was Paul Scharner being helped off the pitch for Wigan after a full-blooded 50-50 clash with Bikey that was not for the faint of heart.

Bikey, having received the message I sent earlier in the week loudly and clearly, was playing a truly inspired match.

He could have gone either way, frankly, the way his confidence has been going. Today, though, he was the Bikey of old, dominating possession and serving as a powerful, physical force on and off the ball.

He and Scharner both slid for the same ball from opposite directions. 6’3” and 178 pounds of Austrian met 6’2” and 176 pounds of Cameroonian. Both knew the potential consequence and it was a minor miracle that only one of them had to be helped off the park.

Thankfully, Scharner soon returned and the whole incident made me think of the feeling you get when you’re driving your car and you almost smash it up.

On his return, Wigan celebrated by mounting their first sustained pressure of the match, with Al-Hawasawi taking an entry ball from Fitz Hall and giving it right back to his full back near the right touchline just outside our area.

Hall looked up and lofted an innocent looking ball to the middle. It was just outside the top of our six.

Lobont didn’t come for it, expecting Sonko to mark his man. Sonko didn’t.

Emile Heskey looped behind Sonko and had a free header from seven yards out, placing a perfectly-struck effort in the lower left corner of Lobont’s goal.

Looking like he did it every day, the England man celebrated his third goal of the season that had his team level just before the half hour.

Hall had put the ball where it was supposed to go, and we didn’t get our man marked. It was the story of too much of our season.

Play from that central defense position has been a problem for us all season. Now it was Sonko’s turn to feel the burn.

He elected to handle it by stepping up his physical play. He left Al-Hawasawi crumpled on the ground after a hard but fair challenge not three minutes after the goal. Never mind that he had been Huth’s man, Sonko was out to prove a point.

I wished he had proven the point to Heskey instead, but you can’t have everything.

Then he did, reminding me you have to sometimes be careful what you wish for. He shoved Heskey as the players jockeyed for position on a Wigan corner, and he was rightly booked by referee Steve Tanner.

Pushing Emile Heskey is not unlike trying to move Hadrian’s Wall. The players stood nose to nose for a moment while Sonko tried to re-establish command of our defensive penalty area.

Lobont, though, had other ideas, grabbing and pulling his teammate away from the fray before anything else happened. Tanner showed Sonko the card and I was up and to the touchline.

My screamed warning for Sonko to calm down finally reached the player. The corner passed without incident.

The match ticked over into first half injury time and it was just like déjà-vu. Hall had the ball on the right and looped another cross into the middle looking for Heskey.

Sonko had him stride for stride this time and as the ball arrived, both players leapt for it.

Sonko got the early jump and easily towered over Heskey to head the ball back toward Hall and to safety, as Golbourne picked up possession and slowed down the game.

That was enough for the first half, as Tanner ended play. Sonko versus Heskey was a competition to watch. So was the match – unfortunately for us.

# # #

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This was an important match for Sonko, Copper ... glad you like the focus on the single player.

___

There was no doubt we had been the better side in the first half. That was more or less expected. It was a case of us spurning chances to put the match out of reach within the first half hour that made it all so vexing.

After a little talk about concentration in the changing room, I sent the eleven back out there with instructions to reassert our authority on the match.

I was especially pleased with the play of young Golbourne, who was getting forward and looking to get the ball into useful positions. He and Maloney seemed to have an innate understanding on the overlap and the boy was smart enough to look for Dicã whenever the playmaker had space.

Just after the restart, Golbourne did the latter, and the Romanian’s looped ball to the middle found – Sonko, again.

The central defender had made a sort of Banzai charge up the middle of the Wigan defense and was completely unaccounted for as Dicã’s ball found its mark.

Sonko smashed the ball downward into the ground – and Kirkland made a remarkable save as the ball came off the turf. The keeper slapped the ball up into the air and over the bar with a truly fabulous reflex save.

It was a great play and I didn’t even mind Sonko getting forward since one way or the other, there was going to be a restart from a dead ball situation. The fact that it was a corner rather than a Wigan kickoff was unfortunate.

His determination was admirable. He wanted a goal to atone for his error against Heskey but he was right on the edge of recklessness to earn his redemption.

Now a more conventional offensive force – Baptista – finally made his impression on the match, working a breathtaking little 1-2-3 sequence with Lita that started through the fulcrum of Dicã.

This time Kirkland went to his right to deny our new man, saving at full stretch to turn his effort around the post.

That was two excellent chances within the first fifteen minutes of the half, so things seemed to be looking up.

Our strong start to the second half soon forced Martinez into a double substitution. Off came Michael Brown and Al-Hawasawi, in favor of veteran Nigerian international Julius Aghahowa and even more veteran Czech Republic international Radoslav Kovac.

Wigan assumed a slightly more defensive bent even if Aghahowa was substituted as a striker for Al-Hawasawi. Their line was deeper and they seemed content to absorb our pressure.

Meanwhile, Sonko was turning into a force on both ends of the pitch. He commanded our defensive penalty area – no mean feat with Huth glowering to his right in central defense – and he seemed determined not to let Heskey have so much as a sniff of the ball.

Now Kalou went down under a challenge from Jason Koumas, and Maloney strode over to take the set piece for us.

He hooked a useful ball into the box, and Womé headed it from the right side of the six-yard box. He put it right back across the face of his goal, the cardinal sin for a central defender.

Who else would be there but Sonko? Forward again, he brought the ball down with a surprisingly deft first touch, and slammed a shot past Kirkland to his right to put us back into the lead in 64 minutes.

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Sonko....reminds me a bit of Vermaelen in this post! WOOT! For a Man U supporter, it's very kind of you to remark (even if indirectly) on Arsenal in this story (wink).

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Ah, Vermaelen ... gotta remember that name :D

___

He tore off toward the visiting support at the far corner flag and threw his arms back in triumph. I don’t know what got into him, but it’s safe to say I hadn’t seen a central defender that far forward that often in my entire time in the game.

As a one-time central defender myself, I ought to know. He was really pressing hard to score, and finally he had.

It was a moment of great personal vindication for him, and thankfully Golbourne had hung back with Huth to prevent a jailbreak had the whole thing gone sour.

Not that it mattered. The last time he had gone forward there could only have been one outcome. This time, it was just the same.

Sonko seemed to have taken the steam out of Wigan, which certainly felt nice from the point of view of the manager charged with seeing his players hold onto the advantage. Things proceeded quietly until Jason Koumas came off in the 75th minute in favor of Matthew Etherington.

Wigan was throwing everything forward now as you might have expected them to do, and Etherington slotted in behind the strikers like he really belonged there.

Etherington’s first act was to slide a really great ball to Heskey, who was still battling Sonko in their personal Clash of the Titans. The ball was perfectly placed – but Heskey’s run wasn’t, with the end result being that the striker forgot to bring the ball with him as he powered past Sonko.

The defender didn’t seem to mind that too much, and Golbourne cleaned up.

His lead ball for Dicã swung us into the counterattack and Paul Scharner now moved over to pick up his man-marking assignment. By the shirt.

That didn’t sit well with referee Tanner and Scharner wound up in the book. We were looking good.

We were even looking more likely to score as the match passed 85 minutes. Kalou was off down the right, looking for Baptista in the heart of the Wigan defense. His cross was on target, but Fitz Hall somehow managed to throw the Brazilian off his stroke.

Hall took possession, and lofted a long ball up the middle of the park, where Sonko was waiting to head the ball forward again.

Only he mistimed his leap.

The ball glanced off the back of his head instead of the front – and right into the path of Heskey, now forty yards from goal and clear of his marker by ten full yards.

Unfortunately, Huth had played him onside, and the German now chased the Englishman with great fervor and zeal.

Unfortunately, what Huth lacked by comparison was pace, forcing Lobont to come out to cut down the angle.

Heskey rounded him.

You guessed it.

This one will leave a mark.

Wigan 2 (Heskey 3rd 29; 4th 86)

Reading 2 (Lita 4th 6; Sonko 2nd 64)

A – 25,077, JJB Stadium Wigan

Man of the Match – Emile Heskey, Wigan (MR 8)

# # #

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Early post today as I have my early business meeting this morning ... good thing anyway since the boss ain't happy :(

___

“Sometimes we are just reckless.”

The words I chose, I chose carefully. I wasn’t happy. Two more lost leads, and another damn draw to mean we would not take advantage of the other result that mattered today.

Tomas Rosicky had scored 46 seconds into the match for Arsenal in their London derby against Chelsea, only to see Giuseppi Rossi peg the hosts back in the 25th minute. That was the way it ended – 1-1 – and we were unable to gain any ground against either.

To make matters worse, Manchester United actually did what a contender is supposed to – they won on the road against opposition they were expected to beat.

Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo, from the spot, were more than enough to overcome Darren Bent’s strike in a 2-1 Red Devils triumph over Middlesbrough.

The hurrieder we go, the behinder we get, as the old saying goes.

Elsewhere, Fulham used a pair of goals from Billy Sharp to power themselves to a 4-2 win over Blackburn at Craven Cottage. Collins John and Steven Davis were also on target for the Cottagers, while Morten Gamst Pedersen and that pesky ex-Royal Kevin Doyle replied for the visitors.

At Upton Park today, the final score was Dean Ashton three, Bolton three. Last season’s scoring menace was at it again, but to make it even better for our rivals, he scored all three goals to haul his team back from an early 3-0 deficit. Kevin Nolan, Adrián and Tranquilo Barneta from the penalty spot had given the Trotters a troika of goals in the first 34 minutes. Yet they couldn’t hold the lead.

I knew how that felt.

West Brom outlasted Aston Villa 3-2 at the Hawthorns in a very entertaining match. Juan Manuel Mata staked the visitors to a ninth-minute lead but Sean Davis scored a quick equalizer for the Baggies. Ninety seconds later, Luke Moore had the ball in the net for Villa, but Roberto Colautti and Gary McSheffrey pounded home goals for the home team to get them three needed points.

Now we watch Liverpool host Portsmouth tomorrow to see if anyone else passes us in the table. It’s galling. Once again we were just a few minutes from sealing the points and once again we come up short.

I’m ready for eleven behind the ball when we have the lead if we have to. This is maddening and it has to stop.

Of course, it helps if my central defender wouldn’t make huge mistakes at the worst possible time. Bikey was decent in midfield today but Sonko made two huge errors, both of which wound up in our net.

Baseball manager Casey Stengel once said he didn’t like players ‘who let in five runs and score three’. I don’t care for defenders who score one goal and let in two.

If I have to shop for a central defender in January, I will.

This will stop. It has to.

So the word I used to the press was ‘reckless’. We had been, and we had paid the price.

Now the players that aren’t leaving for international duty have two weeks to think about it before we do perhaps our ultimate double of the season.

Home to Liverpool, home to Barcelona. Gonna be an interesting week.

# # #

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Sunday, October 4

It might be the best thing that we’ve got some time off. Reading the papers today made me want to hide.

We were rightly excoriated for not finshing off Wigan yesterday. We flew home after the game and were snug in our beds having nightmares about Emile Heskey by ten o’clock.

At least I was. I don’t know about anyone else and I wasn’t about to ask.

I was really steaming as I drove home from the ground. This whole issue of late goals – that went for us last season and which are now threatening to ruin everything this season – is enough to make me take the pledge.

It was almost better to think about the end of the match today than about Patty leaving again, though. If I had my choice, I don’t know which would be less palatable.

At least she was waiting up for me. That was nice.

It had started to rain on the drive home, so I carefully hung up my warmup in the hall closet to drip-dry while tossing my carry bag into my easy chair in the living room.

“You made it,” she said, a hint of a smile on her pretty face.

“I did,” I acknowledged. “It’s not getting any easier out there.”

“Well, suppose you tell me about it and let’s at least try to enjoy a little time together, shall we?”

I still had the dream of the other night in my mind. So I was more than happy to listen to my wife’s suggestion.

“Suppose I do,” I said, sitting down next to her on the couch. “You do know that we’ve been missing this sort of thing lately?”

“What sort of thing?” she asked, allowing me to take her in my arms.

“Closeness,” I said. Judging by her facial expression, that wasn’t what she expected to hear.

As angry as she had been just a week ago after Emiliani’s article, she certainly seemed to be feeling better. I wish I could have said the same thing of myself.

The dream wouldn’t go away. The second part, not the first.

I held Patty to me and cursed myself for such self-indulgence. I’m a human being and humans have faults, but this was really starting to bother me.

She sat silently, her head on my chest, and we whiled away a few minutes simply lost in our own thoughts.

“Do you really want to go?” I finally asked her.

She looked up at me, eyes widened with surprise.

“Why would you ask that, Rob?” she asked.

“On the off-chance I could somehow get you to stay,” I admitted.

“I have a signed contract,” she said. “I have to go.”

I fought down the urge to remind her about a marriage contract as well, but didn’t think it wise given where my thoughts were headed.

“Can’t blame a fellow for trying,” I finally said.

“Look, I know it’s hard for you, but I do have needs too,” she said.

“Yep. You’ve got needs. I understand that,” I answered. “I’m finding it more and more difficult to accommodate the needs of everyone else at the moment, to be completely honest.”

She frowned. “What do you mean?”

“Well, you’re flying away at a time when I’m under pressure. You are going to a place with brand new personal protection when you have told me your top concern is to stay safe. You are going to a place no one has told me about yet, which means the police don’t know, which means I am unable to comply with Inspector Fulton’s request to supply them with your whereabouts.”

I took a breath.

“We are trying to figure out who bugged my office, we’re trying to figure out who beat Peter McGuire, I’ve gotten a very threatening parcel involving you, and off you go to Monaco. So yes, I’d say my needs aren’t being met.”

Patty looked up at me.

“I need to do this, and you know that,” she said. “Every time I go away, you make a big production out of it.”

“The last two times you’ve gone away, you’ve been pregnant,” I shot back. “Now, I know pregnant women travel all the time, but it would just be nice to be able to enjoy that for awhile, just the two of us.”

“You want to keep me home barefoot and pregnant?” she asked.

Now I frowned. “Of course not. But family time is important to me, because I am so busy. When I’m home, it’s nice to not be alone.”

She returned to her former position on the couch, leaving my arms.

“I have to go, Rob,” she said. “You know that. It’s only for a couple of weeks and then you can have all the family time you want. I just need to get away from all this for awhile.”

I sat back on the couch, looking off into space.

“I know,” I finally said.

“Why don’t you go somewhere too?” she asked. “You’ve got time off for the international break coming up and you don’t need to be anywhere near the office for awhile.”

“I’d rather not go without you,” I said.

“Well, why not come with me to Monaco for a week?”

It was so simple.

# # #

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nette, if it weren't for evil masterminds, RR would have no friends at all :D

___

Monday, October 5

The accommodations were easily made.

It was the easiest thing in the world to get on the plane and just go. The players are being given the week off – or rather, those who didn’t get called up for their national teams.

We had nineteen players leaving this morning for places in and around Europe and around the world. Twelve of those players were seniors.

Ferreira did get his Portugal callup. Ingimarsson and Illugason are off to play for Iceland, Cathcart for Northern Ireland, Lobont and Dicã for Romania, Long for the Republic of Ireland, Kalou for Ivory Coast, Sonko for Senegal, Bikey for Cameroon, Maloney for Scotland and Dagoberto for Brazil.

Add the names of Fleck and Alex Pearce (Scotland), Saivet (France), Tristan van Laer (Belgium), Gaspari (Italy), Simon Church (Wales), Mikkel Anderson (Denmark), and Osbourne and Golbourne (England) as u-21 callups, and you get an idea of what the training facility looked like this morning.

Of course, the manager was gone too, with my office door locked tightly behind me. The facilities were open to anyone who wanted to work out today, but after the weekend match, most of the players elected to simply stay home and rest.

While waiting in the airport, I watched highlights of the USA’s 1-1 draw with Mexico on Saturday at the Azteca – a huge result for my nation, which clinched the top spot in the CONCACAF qualifying as a result.

The match drew 103,972 fans to the stadium, and was quite an exhibition. The Americans really hung in there in one of the toughest places to play in world football.

Patty was willing to be patient – to a point – with my football-watching.

“I thought you wanted to get away from your job,” she teased, as we waited in a departure lounge at Heathrow.

As we talked, people walked by and more and more of them started to recognize her. Not me, mind you – just her.

“I do, but I wanted to see this match,” I said. “It means something to me.”

As people began to recognize her, I noticed two other men starting to observe the onlookers closely. I took them to be Patty’s new helpers.

They were. They were trying to be unobtrusive, but I knew what I was looking for, and I smiled.

“I see Freddie got that handled,” I said.

“Yes, he did,” Patty replied, leafing through the pages of a People magazine she had brought with her. Ironically, it was that magazine that had started the trouble, albeit unintentionally on its part, by reporting about the relationship between Richmond Holdings, Happy Day LLC and Hardcastle’s company.

So in a way, I owed them a favor. I thought it might be worth at least a subscription.

I looked over at Patty, wondering why I hadn’t thought of going with her long before.

At that point, I remembered something I needed to do.

I sent an e-mail to Alba Fulton through my Blackberry.

I am going with Patty to Monaco,” I wrote her. “I will let you know the daily schedule if you would like to have it.”

Moments later, my e-mail screen flashed again as I received her reply.

“Thank you for the note,” she replied. “Do keep me posted. I wish I could go with you!”

Smiling, I tucked my PDA into my shirt pocket. I leaned my head back as I sat in the departure lounge chair and took a deep breath.

Leaving on a jet plane. Goodbye for now, England.

# # #

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