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Rob Ridgway's "Rat Pack"

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And I think that makes me post #1801, which'll mean I start this page too. A habit I have with following this story, 10-3. And let's face it, if it wasn't such a good story I wouldn't be doing that would I.

Anyway, the story. I think Rob will have issues deciding to drop any of these 'youngsters' now won't he ?

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Thanks to all, gentlemen: PB, great to see you posting here again!

___

Wednesday, October 28

The headline in the Evening Post said it all.

“Consortium Rocked In Financial Irregularlties Row”, its headline screamed.

Weatherby had not written the story. They had handed this one over to their investigative reporters, and in so doing had managed to vault back in front of the national papers in taking the lead on their own local beat.

Obviously, someone had managed to get their hands on a copy of the SFO report. So for a change, someone in connection with the newspaper (or the club, for that matter) knew more than Sidney Richmond did on a matter of vital importance to him.

The article was damning. Richmond will need some serious and significant help in public relations, if the elements in the story were true.

So that made for some fun light reading after I returned home from training this evening. Not wanting to damage her paper’s exclusive, Weatherby had made no mention of the piece at my daily press gathering.

Instead, she chose to focus on how well the second eleven had played against Wigan, perhaps leading to a story on the manager’s selection difficulties for Saturday’s home tilt against Fulham.

Those kind of stories I can handle. I’m always able to defend my selection policy and if reporters – even Weatherby – don’t like that, they can lump it.

Today, though was a much more positive day.

Though Oster had won the man of the match gong for the night, I was much more impressed with the play of Cathcart. The youngster had really taken charge in the middle and his goal only served to cap off a very impressive performance.

He is, in short, almost ready for prime time if he can continue to produce in such a fashion. I told him so at training, and the result was a very happy and motivated player.

I do have him on the loan list, though, and may have to take him off it in January. I really do like how he played last night and with my team almost certain to lose both Bikey and Sonko for a prolonged period, I have to look at a Huth/Cathcart partnership in the center of defence.

I don’t mind that. Not after last night.

Telling the press that bit of news was really a pleasure. Sonko has been terrific this season but I have to have a backup to whom I can turn without reservation. More performances like that from Cathcart will certainly help.

So it was a relaxed morning for the squad. Fulham will enter the contest at the lower end of mid-table, not a bad performance at all for a newly promoted side.

We, on the other hand, will be powerfully motivated. The full damage is in from the City setback – we have sunk to seventh in the league despite only one loss to this point. It just goes to show how competitive the Premiership has been in the early going.

Slips, in this season, mean something. Our loss at Eastlands was a significant slip.

We’ve got plenty of time, of course, to hope someone else slips in front of us, but late on in the season we don’t have matches against many of our top rivals. It’s going to have to come soon in terms of head to head play, or this season it might not happen at all.

But I digress.

# # #

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Im sure that I am not the only one who enjoyes seeing Richmond struggles in the media :D

Well, I guess that Rob will have headache choosing the starting eleven :p

Otherwise Brilliant writing as always 10-3 :thup::)

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One wonders how much trouble Richmond is in, Ori..

__

# # #

Consortium Rocked In Financial Irregularities Row

The Government’s Serious Fraud Office has completed a preliminary investigation into a consortium that has stated it will take over Reading Football Club after the start of the New Year.

The reason for the investigation is still a closely guarded secret, but the Evening Post can reveal that investigators close to the case have focused their attention on a betting ring allegedly set up for the sole purpose of wagering upon Reading matches played over the last twelve months.

The ring is based in Italy and is believed to be part of a criminal organization based in Venice.

The consortium is headed by current Reading board member Sidney Richmond. Several corporations owned by Richmond under the umbrella company Richmond Holdings Incorporated were investigated by the SFO.

We can further reveal that one of those companies, Happy Day LLC, was specifically investigated for transfers of funds generated by the modeling pictures of Royals manager Rob Ridgway’s wife, Patricia Myers Ridgway.

Patricia Ridgway is not believed to be involved in any financial irregularity. However, the SFO has asked the company to provide financial statements from two recent months in which Mrs. Ridgway was working on modeling shoots.

Happy Day LLC purchased the worldwide rights to Mrs. Ridgway’s photographs after she first broke onto the international modeling scene, and prior to its absorption into Richmond Holdings Incorporated.

The SFO investigation is believed to center around the use of profits generated from picture and rights distributions after the company purchased the rights.

Happy Day LLC is owned by Peter McGuire, 44, a former employee of Reading FC. He also once co-owned a Reading advertising company with his ex-wife Kate Southerland McGuire which was affiliated with the club. He currently works under Richmond in the upper management of Richmond Holdings Inc.

The investigation reportedly took a dark turn after a still-unknown assailant brutally beat McGuire at his home earlier this fall. Thames Valley Police are still working with Scotland Yard in investigating that incident, as well as with Interpol’s investigation of the Italian group.

However, the Evening Post can further reveal that the learning about the consortium’s structure and finances is higher on the police’s list of priorities.

Reading FC owner Sir John Madejski has repeatedly said he will not sell the club to Richmond’s group. This has led investigators to enquire as to why Richmond has been so strident, and so belligerent, in his demands and public statements.

Reading FC management would not comment for this story.

# # #

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“Rob, it’s not safe for you.”

Now I was surprised.

I was at home, and Alba was calling me. She called to arrange lunch between herself, Fowler and me as she had promised before we left for Manchester.

As Sherlock Holmes was fond of saying, ‘the game was afoot’, and the Scotland Yard man wanted to talk. He evidently wanted to talk through his intermediary. I thought that they were paying Alba a lot of money to arrange lunch dates, unless something serious was on their minds.

The first thing upon hearing Alba’s voice I did was motion to Patty, and let her know exactly what was going on.

“You do know the chance you are taking,” I said, putting the DCI on the external speaker.

“Of course I do,” she replied. “But I want you to know, as your friend, that the investigation is taking some turns that are not savoury, if you understand my meaning.”

“I’m not sure that I do,” I answered. “And my wife is here, so perhaps you’d better clue us both in.”

Her expression and tone changed not a whit.

“Good evening, Mrs. Ridgway,” she said, and Patty’s reply was equally cordial.

“I can’t give you details, but the article in tonight’s paper is not far from the truth. The Italians are being heavily investigated, and of course with the incident in Bordeaux involving Mrs. Ridgway, it should be no wonder. We do believe they are behind the shooting incident and we do believe it is best for you to lay low for a time while the police get to the bottom of it.”

“Why no arrests?” I asked.

“Because the group has matured somewhat in its criminality, shall we say,” Alba replied. “They are not as easy to track as they once were. They learned lessons from the first attempt on Mrs. Ridgway and the resulting criminal sentences had ramifications they did not intend.”

“In what way?” Patty asked.

“You may have wondered why the two individuals implicated in your attack received early release,” the inspector said. “They cooperated while in prison, and compromised another segment of the group’s operation in exchange for leniency and eventual parole.”

“I’m not sure I care for that idea,” Patty replied. “Weren’t there supposed to be some victim’s attorneys in Italy who were to contact me in that case?”

“You are quite right,” Alba said. “Clearly you remember how the Italian system works. However, the decision was made at a higher level.”

“Higher than the victim?” Patty snorted.

“Yes,” the officer answered. “Higher than the victim.”

“Well, then a search should start for them, I would imagine,” Patty said.

“They have already been found.”

“Good.”

“Perhaps not. It’s not like they can help. Agostino Galliano and Gotardo Ricci were found beaten to death last week.”

# # #

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Thursday, October 29

I suppose in a way, she should probably have felt glad.

However, she didn’t sleep last night and as a result, neither did I.

As mentioned earlier, Galliano and Ricci were small-time thugs. However, they were privy to a bigger part of the Supporters operation, and evidently any attempt to give them protection in exchange for their information had failed disastrously.

Patty tossed back and forth in her sleep, obviously reliving some very bad memories.

I thought back to that day myself, and not for the first time. The frantic drive I had taken from Padua to Venice when I learned of her situation was something I probably could not have done today.

There’s something a bit sad in that.

The two faces she could never forget were now out of her way permanently. In a way, she was grateful, but in a more sinister way, she was more frightened than ever.

Today was the day I was supposed to meet Fowler and Alba for lunch. I suggested upon getting out of bed that Patty join us.

“I think it would be a good thing for you to hear the latest,” I suggested.

She agreed. She walked into the shower, the baby now starting to show more prominently, and I thought it was sad she wasn’t showing much of the famed ‘glow’ of the pregnant woman.

She wasn’t happy. That was obvious. I wished with all my heart that I could change that, as much for me as for her.

We talked as she showered. I leaned against the bathroom sink, the steam from the shower working its way into my sinuses and giving me a cleansing of sorts. I felt helpless.

“There has to be something we can do that helps without making you feel like you live in a bubble,” I said.

“There is something we can do,” she said. “You know what it is.”

“Not Hardcastle,” I warned. “The police are still talking with him about beating the little man within an inch of his life.”

“He’s the only one I trust, Rob,” she said. “Of course, I trust you too, but you aren’t exactly Rambo. I’m starting to think that’s the sort of person I need.”

“There are others. There have to be others,” I replied.

After Patty had been assaulted in Italy, we had gotten a phone call from the State Department, since Patty was an American national in their employ. This time, no such call had come, meaning we were on our own.

For some reason, it had been comforting to know that we were under someone’s protection – or at least, we had been noticed. Now, we weren’t so sure.

I thought that was part of the reason she was hung up on Hardcastle. I didn’t see him as anything special, for more than one reason, but I suppose they call people like him ‘private security’ for a reason.

“He’s the only one who helps me feel safe,” she said.

“Honey,” I said, using a pet name for her for the first time in far too long, “do you think that feeling might be by Hardcastle’s design?”

There was a moment’s silence from the shower.

“What do you mean, Rob?” she asked.

“Well, you know Hardcastle has it in for McGuire, and it’s over you. I fired him because he came on to you, and we both know those two have unfinished business regarding you. Not that I plan to allow any of it, mind you, but those two are fighting over something they can’t have.”

Part of me wondered how she would answer.

“So why wouldn’t I want one to keep me safe from the other?” she asked.

“Because they’re both pit vipers,” I said. “I think they’re plotting against each other as closely as they’re plotting against me. Nothing is going to shift me from that opinion, I’m afraid. So Hardcastle isn’t getting anywhere near you as long as I have a say.”

She shut off the shower and emerged, her pink skin reddened ever so slightly from the hot water.

I looked at her, and she at me. She reached for a towel and tastefully wrapped it around herself.

Our eyes met and locked.

“He’s not getting near you, Patty,” I repeated. “He can’t have you. There are some things that are reserved for me alone.”

Wordlessly, she advanced to me and we embraced in the middle of the bathroom floor, our bodies holding the towel around her.

“Then it’s up to you to protect me,” she said. “If you want me to trust you, Rob, now is the time to prove it.”

# # #

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“Then it’s up to you to protect me,” she said. “If you want me to trust you, Rob, now is the time to prove it.”

Why does Rob have to prove his trustworthiness to Patty? I don't understand what she thinks he owes her. Should be the other way round if you ask me.

Oh, and as for Alba - she's a honey trap. Got to be....

Edit: Completely forgot to say how great this continues to be. Well done.

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Jamcee, thanks for the post! Rob would agree with you -- but remember that Patty does not like it when Rob converses with Alba and seems fairly well convinced that there is something between them. So, from her point of view, trust is a two-way issue. Both she and Rob are convinced of their own innocence while not really able to fully believe their partners' descriptions of events.

___

Leaving for training this morning was surprisingly difficult.

The last few days have rekindled some of the passion of the early days of our marriage, but Patty’s directness was something I found refreshing for more than the obvious reason.

I’ve been trying to read her mind of late. For most men, attempting to read their wife’s mind becomes an exercise in futility followed quickly by an argument.

Too, I’ve been wondering if I’m not spending too much time and energy trying to repair a trust relationship through the physical act of sex. Obviously, there’s more to marriage than that, or at least there ought to be.

She wants to be protected and evidently she still wants me as a vital part of her life. My own thoughts on that all that are still percolating and I have to come to my own conclusions.

I love her. I just … well, you know.

Yet, there she was, right on time, as we gathered and headed to the 1871 Suite for lunch.

Fowler was last to arrive, every inch the Scotland Yard man. Alba wore her full uniform as well, which I had enjoyed seeing on the day I met her.

“You are of course aware of the purpose of this meeting, Mr. Ridgway,” Fowler said as soon as we had been seated.

“I believe Alba – er, Inspector Fulton – has informed me properly,” I said, to looks of surprise from both women at the table.

“The case seems to get deeper with each passing day,” Fowler said. “Now we are looking for links to Gallardo and Ricci in England. We are more concerned now than we were before.”

“Why?” Patty asked, getting right to the point.

“Because someone knew where to find those two, Mrs. Ridgway,” he answered. “They were supposed to be under protection of the Italian police. Somewhere, we have a security leak with regard to The Supporters and their organization.”

“What could they have told that was so damaging?” I asked.

“Names. Dates. Matches. Amounts of bets. Lots of things, Mr. Ridgway. They couldn’t lead us right to the leaders of that group, but they could get close enough to cause serious inconvenience to the organization. When news of the arrests we have made becomes public and when these cases go to trial, you’ll have the next great football scandal, I assure you.”

“Around my team,” I moaned.

“At this point, our investigation reveals no knowledge of the scheme among players or management at Reading FC,” Fowler said.

At that point, Sir John entered the room. I should have figured he would have been invited.

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Yeah, but Rob even had that conversation with Fulton on speaker phone and has never made a move to conceal any interactions with her. At this point it looks like Patty's mistrust is derivative of her own dishonesty. The sort of situation where you lie to someone and then start freaking out because you realize that if you can lie, so can they.

I still have zero idea how anything she did involving Hardcastle was "the way it had to be" or "for the benefit of the marriage" or anything of the sort. Normally I'd say it's the writer reaching for a plot hook but I know you're better than that, so instead I'm taking it as her just being horrendously delusional and terribly irrational. Which is fairly believable, especially in my admittedly limited experience with inter-gender relations.

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Normally I'd say it's the writer reaching for a plot hook but I know you're better than that, so instead I'm taking it as her just being horrendously delusional and terribly irrational. Which is fairly believable, especially in my admittedl&y limited experience with inter-gender relations.

Even more so when they're pregnant.

*hides in case his wife reads this*

Great stuff as always 10-3

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Yeah, but Rob even had that conversation with Fulton on speaker phone and has never made a move to conceal any interactions with her. At this point it looks like Patty's mistrust is derivative of her own dishonesty. The sort of situation where you lie to someone and then start freaking out because you realize that if you can lie, so can they.

Exactly Stoehurst. Rob has done nothing with Alba - except a little fantasy (born from a period when things were at a low ebb with Patty - more than reasonable imo). Patty on the other hand has had secretive meetings - and thats ignoring the fact she thought it was ok to devise a code with someone she knew full well had his own agenda. And she has trust issues?!

Excellent work 10-3, sometimes I have to remind myself that this is based on a football game!

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Exactly Stoehurst. Rob has done nothing with Alba - except a little fantasy (born from a period when things were at a low ebb with Patty - more than reasonable imo). Patty on the other hand has had secretive meetings - and thats ignoring the fact she thought it was ok to devise a code with someone she knew full well had his own agenda. And she has trust issues?!

Excellent work 10-3, sometimes I have to remind myself that this is based on a football game!

See the small problem with this Jamcee is that it's reasonable in YOUR opinion. Patty, being a woman, will not find it reasonable in the slightest. If you are in a relationship as a bloke you are NOT ALLOWED female aquaintances for any reason, and especially not if they are attractive.

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See the small problem with this Jamcee is that it's reasonable in YOUR opinion. Patty, being a woman, will not find it reasonable in the slightest. If you are in a relationship as a bloke you are NOT ALLOWED female aquaintances for any reason, and especially not if they are attractive.

This is true. And because I agree with Jamcee and refuse to budge on such matters, I will be a horrible, terrible husband. Hell, I'm probably already a deplorable boyfriend.

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Interesting comments, fellows ... and Stoehrst, all I can say is that Patty's comment to Rob is not a plot hook. There's plenty of season and plenty of writing still to come. Some relationships are less trusting than others -- Patty feels she was burned by Rob in Venice as well, so she does feel there is backstory for her to be concerned about Alba. Whether that is a valid concern or not? Read on.

___

“Good afternoon, everyone,” he said, taking the seat conveniently reserved for him at the head of our little table. “Commander Fowler has briefed me. However, I felt it best to sit in on this part of the conversation.”

“Of course,” I replied, even though it wasn’t my place to say anything.

“Inspector, have you done your due diligence with the FA and the Premier League?”

“We have,” Fowler answered. “At this point there is no evidence that any players knew of the betting. However, it is important to note that these bets would not have been placed without significant inside information being available to the bettors.”

“Hence the microphones.”

“Yes, that is what we believe. And now the organization has been damaged by confessions of two of its small-time operatives. So we must be prepared for anything.”

“Such as?” Madejski sighed.

“Clearly someone from the organization has attempted to infiltrate your football club,” Fowler said. “The same organization has killed two men already and used the same MO as whomever beat Peter McGuire, another former employee of yours.”

“They also attempted to kill both my wife and myself,” I interjected.

“Of course, Mr. Ridgway. I was getting to that.”

“Our stadium security is quite good,” Sir John said. “I have few worries in that regard.”

“You should always worry,” Fowler remonstrated. “The day you stop worrying is the day you let down your guard. Even if an attempt were made and didn’t injure anyone in this room, it might still injure a supporter or worse yet, a child.”

We hadn’t thought of those things, of course.

“So what do you suggest we do?”

“I would strongly consider heightened security for yourself and for all your key staff, Sir John,” Fowler said. “Until someone determines where this information is coming from, and appropriate steps are taken, you should take that advice on board.”

“I’m sorry,” I said immediately.

“Mr. Ridgway, you must not blame yourself,” Alba said, leaping to my defense. “It isn’t your fault. Anyone who crossed the leaders of that group would be a target no matter where he managed. You did nothing to bring this on other than live in that part of the world. It could have happened to anyone.”

“I’m not so sure,” I mused. “I was the one who stayed in spite of it all and I brought this with me to England.”

“Self-pity doesn’t become you, Mr. Ridgway,” Fowler said. “People are stalked, through no fault of their own, all over the planet. It is now an unfortunate fact of life. I suggest now that you take the steps that must be taken to protect yourselves.”

“All right,” I said. I looked at Patty.

“Let’s get this out in the open,” I continued, taking a deep breath. “My wife trusts Steven Hardcastle with her life. I want to know if you, the police, agree with that assessment.”

# # #

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I feel a song coming on.........

It looks like trouble ahead.........

but whilsts there's music....

and love...

and romance...

let's face the music and dance !

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Well played, CF .... :)

___

Friday, October 30

Fulham is going to come into tomorrow’s match in twelfth place. However, given the state of the 2009-10 Premiership, five places in the table translates to a lot of points.

We’ll have 23 entering the match, while their symmetrical record of 3-3-6 will give them a dozen.

We’ll be favored. And with so many of the first-choice eleven returning to the fray, I will definitely be looking for better.

We trained hard today. The points of the Manchester City match have been hammered through enough foreheads that any further repetition would have been pointless.

It was down to the players to show me that they wanted to pklay and more importantly were ready to resume their winning ways. Matches like the City tilt lead to changing room cancer if they aren’t nipped in the bud. We were frankly horrible at Eastlands so the time is right now to fix it.

That was what I told my interviewer this morning in preparation for the Premier League preview show to air that evening.

I enjoyed the comparative normalcy of a day with the press to all the hullabaloo with the police and with the morass now called my personal life.

I felt in charge, and that was a very nice feeling. Some of the dark clouds raining over my head in recent days start to dissipate when I work hard, and that is a great feeling.

Now all I have to do is keep my job, of course.

Our new television interview area in the media center has been well used already this season. We’ll be using it again for our final home contest in our Champions League group stage on the 9th December when Hamburg visits. We’ll doll it up a little bit then.

For now, though, I sat in front of a simple chromakey background, over which a waving Reading flag would be superimposed for the presentation of the interview. The things television people can do these days.

I told the interviewer I wanted better from my team, and while I did that I noticed other media setting up microphones.

They were waiting to ‘piggy-back’ my interview with the official show, a time-honored tradition of pack journalists who are either pressed for time, want to make sure they have the same quotes everyone else has, or who don’t have an original thought among them.

Outside my usual press gaggle, I tend to frown upon this but if I could get more of the media work done early today I knew it would be better for the squad. I’d have more time on the training ground.

And, since we had lost our last match, Emiliani was there.

I saw him for the first time since he had written that hurtful article about my family. Like a bad lira, or a bad Euro since the conversion, he just kept coming back.

It’s one reason why I hate losing so much. I have to put up with him the next week.

Yet, as is always the case whenever we cross swords, we seem to have to bow to each other as the duelists of yore must have done.

Finishing up with the official television interviewer, I caught sight of him as comedian Steven Wright’s ‘peripheral visionary’. I could see the future, but it was just way off in the corner.

The television interview finished, and some of the journos packed up their equipment, having gotten their sound bites and a head start on the rest of their day. For them, that was good journalism.

For me, it meant less to do later in my morning, so while I smiled at the sloth of some of the journalists, I just wished that Emiliani had been one that would be ready to pack his bags.

Unfortunately, he was not.

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You tease! You left the previous conversation unfinished! But clearly the next post will involve some hot loving between RR and Emiliani - the time for the confession has arrived!! ;)

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Not that there's anything wrong with that, Balty ... but I'm sorry I'm going to have to disappoint you :D

___

He approached, in his usual milieu of belief that no water had passed under the bridge of our professional relationship.

“Rob, good to see you as always,” the Italian began. For me, it was like an opening gambit.

“Stefano,” I replied. “What can I do for you today? No, there’s no Beckham bid in the works.”

“Clever,” he responded. “Amazingly, though, that is not why I am here.”

“Then you may as well get to it,” I said.

“Rob, when will you learn that I am not your enemy?” he asked.

“Is that why you drove all the way here? To ask me that? Well, perhaps I can answer that question by asking you another one: why do you continue to write articles that inflame tension? If you answer my question first, maybe I’ll be able to answer yours.”

“You know perfectly well,” he said. “It’s because I write the truth.”

“No one has a monopoly on truth,” I countered, “and it might be nice if you had more than a passing acquaintance with it when it comes to football. Now, suppose you ask me what you need to ask me so we can both do our jobs.”

Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed that the television camera was still rolling. I pointed that out to Emilani, and he trimmed his sails.

“Perhaps we could talk in a different place,” he said.

“Perhaps. Or perhaps you could give me an idea of what you want to know and I’ll be able to tell you if that’s necessary.”

“It is about the government report, about the finances,” he said.

“I’m not qualified or authorized to speak about that,” I replied.

“It’s nothing to do with the report itself,” Emiliani said. “It’s about a person named in it.”

“If you think I’d make a personal comment about senior staff or management, you’re ready for the rubber room,” I said. “Don’t even think about it.”

He actually touched my arm to pull me aside. “It’s not a club employee,” he said. “Rob, I would like to give you the opportunity to speak candidly about Peter McGuire. There’s a lot going on here, I feel, and when the truth is uncovered a lot of the pressure may come off your shoulders. Now, I know you and I have had our differences in the past, but I’m willing to, as you say, ‘let bygones be bygones’.”

I stared at him, dumbfounded. What could Emiliani possibly have on McGuire that required my comment?

And above all, did he hold a master card that might change everything?

His questions seemed innocent enough. Yet, I still declined to answer.

I don’t trust Emilani and I don’t trust anyone involved with Richmond. For all I knew, Richmond could have planted questions on Emiliani to try to get me to make a fatal slip in print.

I wanted to know what was on his mind. I just couldn’t ask.

And neither could I let him know I was interested in finding out. The resulting line of questioning would not only be untenable for me personally, but it would be so untenable I’d have to break away from the interview. That would create yet another situation I couldn’t handle.

So my cards remained close to my vest. I preferred to be attributed as ‘no comment’, since that was the best way for me to stay employed.

I wanted to know, though. I guess some things in life are best kept secret.

# # #

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There is still an element of unease at home, though. I can’t get past it and neither can Patty.

It’s too bad, because otherwise it would have been a beautiful and brilliant day.

The renewed closeness between us seems false to me at times, which is about the worst thing I can imagine for a married couple.

I want very much to be close to her. I love her dearly. And she says she loves me.

Yet we just don’t believe the other, so it seems like we’re a good candidate for counseling of some kind.

The problem is that without a happy home life, my job suffers. And since an awful lot of money is riding on how well I do my job, that is a situation I can’t allow to continue.

The unhappiness part. Not the job part.

I’m sure Sir John sticks with me because the club is winning. If we were to go on a skid of some sort, he’d pull the trigger, I’d hit the escape hatch and in six months we’d all be reading about how some new manager has brought order to the chaos that is Reading FC.

They’d be right too, which makes it worse.

I would prefer it not come to that. Despite my own personal fortune being made through the contract I signed at the beginning of the season, believe it or not there’s more to it than that.

There is the matter of my pride, which unfortunately is not a small thing.

Let’s be honest. You don’t get into this game unless you think you’re better than the next guy. And you don’t get into management unless you think you’re smarter than the next guy.

That’s how it is in this game.

So far I’ve had things my own way as a manager. Even if the teams I played on weren’t necessarily world-beaters, the teams I’ve managed have always overachieved. I’ve got a gorgeous wife, we’re expecting a child, my team is in the Champions League and is poised to make the first cut to get deeper into Europe.

That’s great. It could also all come crashing down like a house of cards.

I’m not sure I could live that down, to be honest.

That’s galling. But it’s also part of this game. Reputations are shattered, good men are destroyed. Marriages are blown to pieces, images are scattered like the four winds.

It is not a joy ride. You can’t duck it, or you’ll be labeled for life.

So as I looked across the living room at Patty, and she back at me, I wondered how close to the razor’s edge I really was. Or how close we were, for that matter.

She was probably thinking the same thing. We didn’t speak.

# # #

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“It is not a hit below the water line, Sidney.”

Richmond had greeted the arrival of McGuire in his office by throwing a copy of the Evening Post at him. Since it was wrapped up and bagged, the missile made him duck smartly to avoid being smacked in the face.

“I didn’t do it,” he added.

“You bloody well might as well have,” Richmond snapped. “It’s your bloody company that’s causing all the trouble.”

“Before I owned it,” he countered. He was growing tired of continually being put on the defensive by his boss. Couldn’t he see that he wanted Patty Ridgway’s body more than her money?

“Look, Sidney, all this business about the money happened before I obtained the controlling interest, even Weatherby saw that,” he added. Richmond wasn’t responding because he was doing a slow boil.

Finally, the money man spoke.

“I let you convince me to bring your company into the consortium because we wanted to have all the things that could hurt Ridgway under one roof. I hadn’t counted on utter incompetence nearly ruining everything. And I did warn you about additional mistakes.”

“Which I haven’t made,” McGuire said, now getting a bit hot under the collar at last. “You know that.”

“Your name has been mentioned in connection with a Serious Fraud Office investigation.”

“As has yours.” McGuire was not backing down.

“They can’t touch me and they won’t touch me,” Richmond said. He crossed to sit behind his desk, which was now between the two men.

“Look at you, you’re retreating,” McGuire said.

“I never retreat,” Richmond said. “Ever. You know that.”

Still, he couldn’t deny that he had put a large piece of oak between himself and Peter McGuire, who was now starting to get red-faced.

Richmond now tried to defuse the tension that hung over the room like a pall.

“Peter, I’m sorry,” he said, in a truly extraordinary statement.

“You never apologize, either,” McGuire said, climbing down from the mountain of rage he had scaled with surprising speed.

“No, I do not,” Richmond agreed. “So I hope you will accept this in the spirit intended.”

“I accept your apology,” McGuire said. “But you do have to know I wouldn’t do anything that would run the risk of ruining the consortium or harming its chances of taking over the club.”

“I know you wouldn’t, Peter,” Richmond finally said, reaching into his desk for a pack of Woodbines. He lit one – the first time McGuire had ever seen his boss smoke – and took a deep drag.

“The bid is being prepared and in the midst of everything going on, I am a bit on edge,” Richmond said. “Even though I know we will succeed, I want everything in place before the deal is signed. I want the operation to be quick and surgical. Since it will be in January, a transfer embargo will have to be imposed until the takeover is complete. That could ruin the director of football’s plans to acquire new players.”

“May I ask who that person will be?” McGuire said.

Now Richmond composed himself.

“You could, but I’m not able to tell you,” he finally replied. He was trying to once again become the hard man in charge.

Yet McGuire had sensed a chink in his boss’ armor. Without a change of facial expression, he filed it away in his brain.

You can only insult me so many times before I start to explore my options, Sidney,” McGuire thought, talking tough to himself.

You’re right on the line,” he added, again without changing expression.

He coughed at the cigarette smoke, excused himself, and left the room.

# # #

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Saturday, October 31

Reading (6-5-1, 7th place) v Fulham (3-3-6, 12th place) – EPL Match Day #13

Patty stayed home today. She’s got a deserved case of the yips after all that has gone on and I couldn’t blame her.

I had plenty of other things to hold my concentration anyway. We’ve slipped to seventh place after the City debacle and the time to correct that, in my mind, was immediately.

I was locked in – as in the Padova days – before the match and Patty knows, even though she’s not a huge football fan, that she shouldn’t bother me when I’m in that kind of mood.

Despite all the difficulties and the attempts at thawing our relationship, she still knows that on match day, my time is my own.

I was able to use a little reverse motivation on the players as they reported for the match today – but I had to be careful about it.

Once they were all settled in, I reminded them that our next match is the return Champions League tie against Barcelona. We’ll be heading to the Nou Camp and they are going to be loaded for bear.

“The form you showed at home against them is the kind of form I want to see from you today,” I said. “In fact, it will be the form I expect you to show. The last outing for this group of players was not satisfactory and today I will expect better against a team that is newly promoted.”

There could be no mistaking my meaning.

But just in case there was anyone who had problems with basic comprehension, I repeated my words in a different way.

“Three points today, gentlemen. That’s what I want and it’s what I expect to see. No excuses.”

The player with the most to prove – Ferreira – immediately nodded his assent. Axed unceremoniously from the eleven in Manchester for being just a little too free-and-easy, the Portuguese was ready to go this time around.

I also was not in the mood for Kitson’s levity. So he started on the bench, as I paired the Samba Kings together for the start of the match. I figured a little extra expectation for Baptista wouldn’t hurt him any.

It was a strong eleven, perhaps my strongest. We played an advanced 4-4-2, given my expectation for the match, and my instruction was for Ferreira and Pogatetz to play almost as wingbacks along our back four.

“I’m expecting that they won’t give you trouble today,” I said. “You know what that means.”

The back four, today consisting of Pogatetz, Ferreira, Huth and Sonko, nodded assent as well. They would deal with the strike pairing of Collins John and Billy Sharp, with a midfield of Hameur Bouazza, Jimmy Bullard, Steven Davis and Simon Davies waiting to support the strikers.

In short, it wasn’t a bad little team that Adrian Boothroyd was putting out there. They had earned their place in the league and were doing their level best to prove they belonged there with three wins and three draws in their first dozen matches.

However, the crowd didn’t seem as enthusiastic. After the rather large letdown in attendance at midweek for the Carling Cup tie, the fans continued to stay away as we took the pitch for this match.

The crowd looked to be about five thousand short of capacity as the teams finished their warm-ups. That was a bit surprising given the proximity of the Cottagers to our home, but there was one thing that couldn’t be disputed.

The atmosphere of Barcelona was gone.

In short, we had to prove ourselves all over again. That was frustrating, but at the same time, I couldn’t blame people a scrap for deciding to stay home.

# # #

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Fans .. can't live with 'em, can't shoot 'em :)

___

We kicked off, and immediately Fulham sprang to the attack.

Bullard fed a ball down our right-hand channel looking for the run of Sharp, but his diagonal ball was cleared smartly by Sonko, who smoothly started a counterattack.

Boothroyd had set out his stable in a standard 4-4-2, with a decidedly conservative bent. I thought it slightly cheeky that he felt he could start with two up front away from home, but then it might also have showed the disdain I feel some clubs have for our ability to defend, even on our own patch.

I couldn’t fault that either. We’ve conceded our share of ridiculous goals.

But now we were back in the attack and looking a bit more like we should have looked. Our movement was good and free-flowing, and the players looked relaxed despite my rather dire proclamation in the team talk.

While I was trying to figure out if that was good or bad, the players simply played on. Bikey was in possession now, and he looked for Dicã up the middle.

The Romanian swung to his right, rare for him, and found some space there. He linked play to Kalou who was bursting down the wing, with both the strikers converging on the middle.

Kalou looked up and saw his targets evenly spaced in front of goal. He tried to pull the ball back for Baptista but swung one of the worst crosses I had ever seen in his direction.

It hit central defender Adrian Leijer but the Australian couldn’t control. This was fortunate because the ball rebounded right to Baptista anyway.

I’d rather be lucky than good, I thought, as The Beast moved in and calmly slotted past Jürgen Macho in the Fulham goal to get us ahead with only six minutes on the clock.

His reaction was one of relief as well as one of excitement. His fourth goal of the season slotted home and his recent duck broken, we set back to our business with the visitors firmly placed on their heels.

We were right back on them after the goal, which didn’t hurt. We smelled blood and these players were anxious to redeem themselves after failing to apply themselves in the previous match.

Right after the kickoff we were back on them, as Dagoberto earned a corner off the unfortunate Leijer. Maloney took it and found Kalou waiting all by himself not five yards from goal.

Unfortunately, he headed over, missing a glorious chance to get us two up.

That gave Fulham a lifeline, and they used it to advantage, with Sharp again a thorn in our sides. Davis took a free kick about twenty-five yards out, and it deflected off the wall. Thankfully, though, Dagoberto’s body sent the ball straight at Lobont, who had the presence of mind to slow up play after clutching the ball to his chest.

It was a difficult time for us – they were applying themselves and being highly aggressive even away from home. It was also a good test for us.

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But sometimes it better to be good than lucky, no? :)

(is that phrase a common American one? I remember seeing someone on another forum using it and the variation I used above a lot and wondering about it because I'd never really heard it before!)

Oh, and superb as usual, but you don't need me to tell you that!

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Have to agree with Balthazars, again. This story arc is quite riveting with the all the secrets going on at the club and in Rob's personal life. Looking forward to reading more when I get the chance....cheers!

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Balty, the accepted phrase is "I'd rather be lucky than good" , and RR has used it a few times, if I recall correctly. And thanks for the kind words. Copper, sir, great to have you back on thread! Plenty still to come :)

___

We responded well. From a throw in on the far touchline from Pogatetz, we attacked smoothly. The ball came to the middle for Dicã, and our play maker did what he does best.

Slowing play with his head up, he looked for Kalou on his right, and worked a short pass to him. Kalou picked up the diagonal run of Dagoberto at the top of the penalty area, and he had slotted coolly between Paul Konchesky and Felipe Baloy.

The second pass was just as good as the first, and the other half of the Samba Kings had a chance just as good as Baptista’s.

He slotted to the opposite side of Macho’s goal and it was 2-0 sixteen minutes into the match.

A wonderful team passing play had doubled the lead. We were looking very, very good and now were threatening to turn the game into a rout within the first half hour.

We surged forward. Kalou sent Dagoberto clean through the shell-shocked Fulham defense just moments later but Macho bailed out his team with a fine reflex save on the Brazilian’s rising drive. The ensuing corner also wound up causing chaos in the six-yard box before Leijer finally hacked it behind for another corner.

I couldn’t complain. We were rampant and dominant.

Sonko headed wide from another corner on 25 minutes, with the defender now really choosing his spots well from set pieces. He has adapted to the corner role very well and gives us another weapon in the box.

At the other end, he broke up another Fulham opportunity by deflecting John’s blast wide right at the half hour.

Now it was Maloney on the attack, looking to find his own scoring touch but instead finding Biscuitman Way with a rather badly directed effort from Baptista’s pass moments later.

Yet it hardly seemed to matter. Unlike the previous week, the chances were flowing and coming quickly one after the other. Our fluency was much better, and it was actually the sort of performance that frustrates managers because we wonder why we can’t see it every week.

Everything was coming together. Lobont saved comfortably from John and his distribution was excellent, finding Ferreira in space on the right with a wonderfully lobbed thrown ball.

Ferreira surged forward and found Kalou ahead of him, with the Ivorian now determined to make his own impact on the match. He surged past Konchesky on the left and cut to the middle with a surprisingly powerful run.

The Ivorian looked up to see both his strikers again in great position and the center of the Fulham defense sagging down on the two goal scorers. So Kalou tried his luck.

He hit a bending effort that flew over Macho’s outstretched fingertips before nestling in at the intersection of the keeper’s right goalpost and crossbar. He couldn’t have thrown it any better and we were up 3-0 eight minutes from the break.

From there, Boothroyd went into damage control mode and by the time Steve Bennett whistled for halftime, they had hardly laid a glove on us.

The fans who stayed home missed one hell of a first half.

# # #

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There really wasn’t much to correct at half, with the exception of pulling back Ferreira and Pogatetz to give the central defenders some extra help against Sharp and John. Three goals to the good, we could go to our counter game and really stretch them out if they got too careless.

The players knew they had done well, but I was hoping to see a bit more of the same in the second half. They don’t close out matches very well – which is one of the few real weaknesses I see in this team, if I am completely honest – and this was one case where I wanted to see our boots kept on their necks.

John did not come out for the second half, after being clattered hard by Ferreira on a 50-50 challenge right before the whistle. His place was taken by a bit of a surprising substitution – English u-19 Matthew Briggs. The eighteen-year old was taking the pitch on a bit of a bigger stage than he might have been used to, but the strapping lad was doing his best to look unafraid.

The second half started in the same way as the first. They came at us quickly but Sonko was there again to stop Sharp. With a more conventional 4-4-2 awaiting the visitors, I was perfectly content to counter them.

Bennett went to his cards for the first time in the match a few moments later, when Konchesky rather cynically blocked Dagoberto after the Brazilian had beaten him senseless latching on to yet another inspired ball from Kalou.

We were having our way with them on Kalou’s side of the park, so I signaled to Dicã that I wanted more of the play to go through him. With the full back on a yellow and already being beaten for pace with impunity, it seemed the prudent thing to do.

Except Fulham then found a lifeline. It was Davis that started the play, finding Sharp again working one on one against Sonko.

The defender had the striker’s path to goal solidly blocked, but he couldn’t be in two places at once. So Sharp slid the ball to the left where Bouazza was waiting.

This time it was our turn for a fullback to be beaten for pace. With Kalou unable to rejoin the play, the Algerian left our Austrian for dead on the turn and found himself with far too much space for my liking.

It was too much space for Lobont’s liking too, unfortunately, and Bouazza easily beat Lobont to his right post to get the visitors on the board in 56 minutes.

Very much against the run of play, Fulham was now back into the match. It was annoying to be sure, but it was also another test for our team.

The Premiership new boys were trying to claw their way back into the match but they had a ways to go.

I signaled that I wanted shorter passes and wanted to see these players re-establish some of their possession. In short, no more counter game for awhile.

Immediately, we started to play better again. BIkey strode forward and tested Macho from distance, with the Austrian keeper pushing the rebound to his left – and right onto the foot of Baptista, who somehow managed to miss his brace from about five yards.

Between he and Kalou, both of whom had spurned excellent chances for second goals, the rout I sought could be found. Both were playing very well, but both had missed sitters that would have put the result beyond doubt while also padding our goal difference.

That was the end of the line for Bullard, who left just before seventy minutes in favor of Seol Ki-Hyeon in a like-for-like substitution by Boothroyd.

As for me, I was perfectly happy to stick with the eleven I had but the thought of a midweek tie with Barcelona forced me into a couple of moves.

Dicã had been brilliant, but left in favor of Saivet right before Leijer pulled Dagoberto back by his shirt after yet another bursting run from the Brazilian.

I was thunderstruck that Bennett didn’t card the Aussie, but he did moments later as the defender stepped in front of Kalou to block him off the ball through obstruction. So the card eventually came out and justice of a sort was done.

Moments later it was Sharp going into the book for an identical foul against Bikey. I started to wonder if it was something Boothroyd was actually coaching, since I had seen it three times already today.

I dared not look at the opposing bench, though, instead choosing to let the visiting manager’s shouts carry the day.

Then it was Moritz Volz going into the book, this time for the more traditional foul of sweeping Maloney’s legs out from under him as the Scottish international completed a mazy run down the left wing.

It was a cynical foul borne of frustration and obviously the decision to take a more assertive role in killing the game was bearing some fruit.

I pulled Ferreira out of the game at the time too, his confidence restored and his place in the eleven for Barcelona assured.

He and I exchanged glances as he approached the bench for Rosenior to take his place.

Wordlessly I extended my hand, and wordlessly he shook it. I think we understand each other now.

The remainder of the match was frankly garbage time. We had played well, the players had performed to expectations, and we were ready for a trip to face the Catalan giants.

Reading 3 (Baptista 4th 6; Dagoberto 8th 19; Kalou 2nd 37)

Fulham 1 (Hameur Bouazza 4th, 56)

A – 25,233, Madejski Stadium, Reading

Man of the Match – Salomon Kalou, Reading (MR 8)

# # #

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Bit of a housekeeping post today ... time for a look around the Premiership!

___

Some things never change, though, and that isn’t good.

In the early kickoff today, Didier Drogba found the net three times in the first 56 minutes at the Bridge, including twice in the first eighteen minutes, as the champions thrashed West Ham 4-1 in a London derby.

Craig Bellamy had found the range for the visitors just before Drogba’s third, and John Terry put some added gloss on the scoreline in 67 minutes. Not like they needed it. They are a machine too and it will be a real job to catch them.

Arsenal won today as well, with all the goals in their match with Newcastle coming in the first half hour at the Emirates. Carlos Vela scored twice for the Gunners to pull back an early Magpie lead through Lucas Castromán. The Argentine international had fired Sam Allardyce’s team into the lead after just eight minutes, but the visitors couldn’t hold back the Gunners and fell 2-1.

And the beat just goes on, as United won as well. They swept aside West Brom with a 3-0 job at Old Trafford that was just as comfortable as the score. Louis Saha started things fourteen minutes into the match, with Cristiano Ronaldo’s penalty just before the half hour and a second half strike from Carlos Tevez finishing off the Baggies in fairly short order.

With Liverpool away to Bolton tomorrow, all we can hope for is to avoid another Big Four sweep so we can get back into things.

Elsewhere, Derby piled it on in an impressive 3-0 win at home to Blackburn. James McEveley started the scoring just 140 seconds into the match, while Maceo Rigters made it 2-0 before a quarter of an hour had passed. Zurab Khizanishvili put through his own goal in the second half to add insult to injury and add another goal to the home team’s scoreline.

James McFadden and Gareth Barry found the range for Everton today in a 2-0 win at home to Wigan, who are suddenly strugging. David Moyes had what could be a fairly significant setback in losing last season’s Young Player of the Year, James Vaughan, to an unspecified leg injury late in the contest. If he’s out for any length of time, that will spell trouble – he’s already netted seven times in league play this season and has made himself one of the most marketable young players in the country.

Portsmouth added to a good day for the home teams by thrashing ten-man Spurs 4-0. Lubomir Michalik and Arnold Mvuemba scored before Ledley King was sent off early in the second half for a professional foul, and Marouane Chamakh scored twice after.

The only point for a visiting side in today’s play came in the Tees-Wear derby, as Greg Halford snatched a point four minutes from time to give visiting Sunderland a 1-1 draw at The Riverside. Mariano Pavone had put the home side ahead on the stroke of the half hour but Harry Redknapp’s men couldn’t find all three points within them.

So the total for today: eight matches played, seven home wins and one draw. The home teams scored 22 goals while conceding four. Not a bad day to be sleeping in your own bed.

And speaking of sleeping in my own bed, coming home to Patty was very nice indeed. She was waiting there.

Could it be that things are finally starting to turn around?

# # #

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Sunday, November 1

World Summary

Coca-Cola Championship (promotion and playoff places only)

Bristol City 31, Birmingham 29, Watford 27, Hull 26, Ipswich 26, Leeds 25

League One (promotion and playoff places only)

Preston 32, Southampton 31, Huddersfield 29, Peterborough 27, Oldham 27, Stoke 27

League Two (promotion and playoff places only)

Exeter 31, Oxford 31, Rotherham 29, Crewe 29, Chesterfield 26, Accrington 26, Port Vale 24

Blue Square Premier (promotion and playoff places only)

Grays Athletic 39, Southport 34, Tamworth 34, Kettering 33, Halifax 33

Ligue One

Lyon 41, Troyes 33, St. Etienne 30

Bundesliga

Bayern 29, HSV 24, Stuttgart 21

Eredivisie

Feyenoord 26 – NEC 20, Sparta 20

Serie A

Napoli 28, Atalanta 22, Inter 22

SPL

Rangers 32, Celtic 25, St. Johnstone 21

La Liga

Real Madrid 25, Getafe 23, Atletico 22

# # #

We flew to Spain today, putting me back at the El Prat airport for the first time since the Dos Santos fiasco during the August transfer window.

We’ll spend the next day basking in the sunshine and having a little light training before we take on Barcelona in the return match of our Champions League group.

The focus of the Spanish papers today was trying to figure out how in the hell a little provincial club like Reading could have been so comprehensive in its dismissal of one of the world’s great club sides.

Reading the agenda for tomorrow’s board meeting is a bit disconcerting. There’s going to be more crap from Richmond on it and as usual, the football side of the operation is going to take a back seat to the financial.

I suppose I should expect that now, given the emphasis on milking the cash cow as firmly as possible in the elite European club competition. Still, though, the mindset is frustrating.

Naturally, I am of the opinion that a successful football side of the operation will make the financial side much easier to live with. However, bean-counters and board members do not always see it that way.

But meeting with the Spanish footballing press today was a comparative joy compared to the vultures of England.

They actually like to talk about football, which is a good thing. However, like their cousins in England, they like to try to trick managers into talking smack to make good headlines. That doesn’t change no matter where you are in the sports world.

I was asked if I thought beating Barcelona was easy, if I thought it was our best game, if I thought the return leg would indicate Barca had something to prove to us, that sort of thing. All the questions were trip-wires.

No one in their right mind would say that beating Barcelona is an easy thing, so I wasn’t naïve enough to suggest it. I did say, though, that I thought the first leg was perhaps the best match we have played under my management.

That’s because it was. I wasn’t going to lie about it.

However, I avoided the last question like the plague and no matter how hard they tried to pin me down, I wouldn’t budge.

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“I do not believe a club of Barcelona’s pedigree has anything to prove to anyone,” I insisted. “Frank Rijkaard has done a remarkable job balancing a vast number of talented players. We played an immaculate match the first time we faced them and defeated them for three points we need in our group. I would not say, though, that Barcelona has anything to prove to us or to anyone. We know how good they are and they know how good they are. We will need another perfect match to compete with them.”

I could sense the crestfallen looks on the journalists’ faces as they wrote down my words. They were after some ego-stroking comments and they weren’t going to get them.

There are players who don’t like it when managers play their cards like I was playing mine. They want to feel like they’re the baddest dudes on the block and when the manager does not say so, in so many words, they feel slighted.

I go to great lengths with my players to tell them that they shouldn’t read into those types of comments. For them, the only opinion that matters is mine as expressed to them personally.

Of course, without necessarily being a drinking buddy to them, my opportunities to drive home that point can be pretty limited.

I took some time to do that this evening, as the players had a light workout on the surface of the Camp Nou.

The place is, of course, huge. These players have played in some intimidating venues over the last couple of seasons and of course most of the away matches we play in the Premiership are at difficult places to play.

Yet, there are a few stadia in world football that attract attention in special ways. Old Trafford is one. Anfield is another. The Bernabeu would be a third.

This place is definitely on the short list as well.

“You’re going to get special atmosphere here,” I told them, as they did their stretching exercises prior to the workout. “It’s going to be a great test for us, it’s going to be an opportunity to measure our progress in a special way. Don’t think for a moment that we’ll have the advantage we had at home. Be thinking of what you will do for the shirt on Wednesday night. And then do it. Pretty simple.”

Clearly, we are not in the position – despite what certain board members who wear pince-nez might think – where we can simply expect to carry Barcelona before us. We’ve had two decent matches since the City debacle and that isn’t nearly enough to say we’re playing well again.

Fulham was an improvement but no disrespect intended, Iniesta is in a bit of a different class. Barcelona still scare the crap out of me.

So while I talk with my players about false bravado, I have issues of my own to deal with. I surely can’t show that weakness in front of the players or I lose the squad. I’m just not sure how well we will handle their 4-3-3 in front of that huge crowd.

I talked about graduate-level exams for the players in the Wigan match in the Cup last week; well, this is a graduate-level exam in management in the Champions League.

I should relish the challenge; yet for some reason, I don’t. That is not a good sign.

# # #

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“Sidney, I think you’ll like the latest numbers.”

Hardcastle did not care much for stuffed shirts as a rule; his business relationship with Richmond was therefore strained at times.

However, the boss didn’t care much for relationships in general. As long as the relationship was profitable to him, he was in favor of it; when it wasn’t, those relationships tended to change.

“You’re a loss leader for us, Steven,” Richmond said, in as close to a joke as he ever made.

“We have new contracts coming in and of course, I’m working to get back into Mrs. Ridgway’s good graces. That matters the most.”

“You’re working to get into Mrs. Ridgway’s bed, and good luck to you on that,” Richmond said, seeming to come closer to the idea of humor – if he had been joking.

“Sidney, did you ever marry?” Hardcastle asked.

The resulting sharp glance told him to mind his own business, but the boss chose to answer the question.

“No, Steven, I never married,” he replied. “I could never find a woman who understood the need for devotion to business and to prosperity. Yet you never know, there might still be hope for me.”

And he does two shows on Sunday,” Hardcastle thought, smiling thinly to himself. So much for the idea of humor from the man in charge.

Richmond’s whole life revolved around money. A look around his office should have been enough to convince even the casual observer.

The trappings of influence and wealth were everywhere.

Some rich men like to hide their wealth in an attempt to convince others – and possibly themselves – that they are regular Joes, just like the guy down the corner pub.

Others don’t. Richmond was the latter.

Mementoes of holidays taken around the world dotted the walls and mahogany tables around the large room. The conference table, a shining and polished oaken masterpiece, dominated the room and was surrounded with plush leather office chairs.

It was a nice place to visit, and Richmond did know how to reward staff – provided they were doing what they were told and provided they were making him money.

In fact, that was the reason Hardcastle was in the room.

He wasn’t making Richmond money.

The consortium needed muscle in case pesky regulators, competitors or other riff-raff got in the way. Hardcastle wasn’t part of it for his business sense, or even for his common sense.

He was in it because he knew how to crack heads. And handling him had been easy so far.

At the time, Hardcastle had asked Richmond how he was supposed to get away with ‘cracking heads’ if that involved regulators or even police.

“You’ll think of a way,” Richmond had said.

At first, Hardcastle recoiled. Then he accepted the challenge.

It all was par for the course for a man used to having things all his own way.

In the Middle East, when an enemy popped his head over a parapet or around the corner of a building, Hardcastle blew that head off.

It was his role.

It was his job, and he did it well.

There, though, someone else had been around to clean up the mess. In his own private business, however, cleaning up messes could be infinitely more difficult.

Yet, his reputation had preceded him.

Richmond liked gung-ho types, especially if they could help him do a job. And there was little doubt Hardcastle could do what he wanted when he wanted.

Ironically, though, Richmond’s gung-ho exterior never quite got around to embracing the club’s manager. Once slighted, never forgotten.

He liked to call his attitude “Berkshire Alzheimer’s – you only remember the grudges” – and even though it was rather grossly inappropriate, in his case it was accurate.

But then, outward propriety mixed with inward ruthlessness defined the man.

The two men looked across the conference table at each other. Hardcastle had made a living and a life out of giving, and to a lesser extent obeying, orders.

Now the time had come for Hardcastle to disobey.

# # #

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Monday, November 2

Frankly, this was a place I would not have minded taking Patty.

Renowned for its climate, Barcelona is a simply perfect place to visit at this time of year. The English weather has taken its customary late fall nosedive so it’s always a good thing to look out my hotel window and see the sights of a warmer clime.

Unfortunately, I was alone.

The thought of Patty with me was quite nice and warmed my heart. We haven’t discussed heavier matters lately – perhaps choosing instead to put them out of our minds – and that seems to have helped.

Then my phone rang. It was Alba.

“Good morning, Rob,” she said. “I wanted you to know that Commander Fowler has re-instated me to your case.”

Suddenly, I had a different kind of thought about waking up on the Mediterranean once more. It was a different feeling – and Alba had been around during that time as well.

“I want you to know that there will be plainclothes officers around you during your time in Barcelona,” she said. “Given the attempt made against your wife the last time you were in this region, we felt it the prudent thing to do.”

“I think I’ll be fine, Alba,” I said, with a confidence I suddenly did not feel. She had had to remind me, hadn’t she?

“We want to make sure,” she said, with just a tinge of determination in her voice. “This has gone on long enough.”

“Couldn’t agree with you more, and I’m glad you are back on the case,” I said.

“Thank you,” she replied, and I could just see her smile. “It’s nice to be back with you.”

Her double entendres were starting to both make me smile and make me uneasy. That’s a battle I need to fight and win.

# # #

Shaking inappropriate thoughts out of my head, I headed to one of our hotel’s meeting rooms where the players were gathered for a tactics and video session.

“We’re going to start the match in 4-5-1,” I announced upon entering the room, and waited for the reaction I would see.

I got what I expected. There was a fair bit of surprise.

“4-5-1 counter will work, if we do it like we can, like a flexible 4-3-3,” I explained. “I want to make sure that we start the match tight in the midfield and tight at the back. They are going to come after us hard because they always do that when they play at home. We will have to be prepared for it. So I want you to watch for tactical shifts and be prepared to slot into more than one role if you have to.”

Players who can do that, like Dicã, Maloney and Kalou, are going to have easier times of things. Those who can’t, like Dagoberto, might not.

Baptista is going to get the start up front. Leading the line against Barca should give him a fair bit of energy, and that’s what I’m counting on.

Yet, 4-5-1 is not a formation in which we are accustomed to starting a match. For some of the players, it’s negative and I have to get that idea out of their heads.

We are a pretty fair counterattacking side, as Arsenal have learned the hard way over the last eighteen months or so. The idea is to invite them onto us, which may or may not be a good idea in this particular instance, and then try to hit them on the break.

They are a lot more skilled than we are. So we are going to have to be prepared for that, and play our game when the opportunity presents itself.

Therefore the trick becomes figuring out how to win the ball off them. That will mean a stacked midfield, it’s going to mean more than one holding midfielder, and it’s going to involve complete commitment. I can’t see doing playing two strikers to get that done.

So, the plan I gave the players made sense to me and I need it to make sense to them too. A negative attitude in this place is not the stance we want to take.

Watching the video from the Mad Stad, though, was much more positive.

We really had played well at home against them. Only one slip at the back had kept us from what would have been a rather stupendous clean sheet, but I was very impressed by our command of the air in that match.

Generally we have trouble with that part of the game, especially in the center of the field, because we aren’t very big in the midfield. My preference is for small, skilled players like Kalou and Dicã who get the ball down and play it.

Yet as I watched the first match again, I realized that Huth and Sonko had played an even better match together than I had previously thought. I don’t expect Rijkaard to make the same tactical error in team selection he made in Berkshire, though, so we will have to come up with something different.

Skill for skill, they are better than we are. So we’re going to have to be clever and creative. And patient.

Very patient, I fear.

# # #

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We dont need Alba on the job ***Hint Hint*** :p

Great as always 10 -3 :thup:

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My part of the monthly board meeting came over the phone.

I left training to Dillon so I could take part by conference call. Richmond was as I expected him to be – sharp, ascerbic, and demanding of the money he thought was his due.

He brought up the issue of English players.

I wasn’t in the mood.

“My job is to put the best eleven out there,” I explained, trying to stay patient. “If you want someone selected for England, my recommendation is Kitson. When I play him, he does well, but someone has to recognize him before that can happen. I can and do lobby for him, but someone has to make the decision and since I’m not England manager, that person can’t be me.”

“But you can put him in position to succeed,” Richmond countered.

“You could ask Mr. Winthrop, if he isn’t doing anything this week, to start a press campaign,” I suggested. “Look, I can talk to the press until I am blue in the face about Kitson for England, but I can’t do this alone.”

“I thought you were the next big thing, Rob,” Richmond deadpanned.

I sighed. “Look, are we going to talk about performance?” I asked, now failing to hide my irritation.

“Sidney, that’s enough, if you please,” I heard Sir John say. “We do have resources at the club for promotion that perhaps are not being utilized as they could be. That is for Mr. Winthrop to determine and we will discuss it through the appropriate club channels. It is not appropriate for you to dress down the manager for Steve McClaren’s reluctance to pick Dave Kitson.”

Those were the strongest words I had heard Sir John use around Richmond in quite some time, and I was glad for them. The whole thing was a non-issue for me anyway.

Richmond seemed to be reaching. He was looking for something to pin on me after the numbers for the month weren’t what he wanted to see.

Richmond did not reply, but I could imagine the expression that must have been on his sharp, angled face. The thought made me smile.

“There is a larger discussion that needs to be held here,” he finally said, ending an uncomfortable silence. At least he had moved the topic of conversation away from me and onto someone else.

“And what would that discussion be?” Sir John asked.

“Promotion and marketing of all aspects of our operation,” Richmond replied. “We are in the Premiership for the third year running, yet our hospitality business is not increasing, we are not maximizing revenue from the commercial suites and we are not maximizing our online business either. Whether or not that is my direct responsibility over time, it is still something we must handle for this club to become the profit generator we all know it can be.”

He did have a valid point. However, I figured there was another shoe to drop, and unfortunately I was right.

“It does boil down to success on the pitch,” he said. “And right now we have a seventh-placed club, which is not going to generate the long-term success that is required.”

I couldn’t resist. “Which has lost one competitive match all season. And it’s a long season. I don’t think pushing the panic button is in order here.”

“And I don’t think you speaking at this moment is in order either,” Richmond snapped. So, it had all been a ruse. We were at each others’ throats again.

“Both of you, enough,” Sir John said. So he was back to his old form too, silencing me for defending myself. If only the press knew what went on in these board meetings…

…if only.

# # #

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Thanks, Satio!

___

Tuesday, November 3

The eleven is finalized for tomorrow and we are as ready as we are going to get.

We’ve played one away match in the Champions League, at Hamburg, and did well. I’m starting to feel like we can repeat that performance tomorrow but it’s all about being structurally sound throughout our eleven.

Having already beaten Barcelona and already getting more points out of the six available against them than most people thought we would get, we could look at tomorrow’s match as simply gravy or icing on the cake. A draw at the Nou Camp would not only be highly credible, it would probably cement our position in the last sixteen with matches against Hamburg at home and PSG away left to play.

So there is a lot to play for, but my goal is to make sure the players are less nervous than I am as we take the field tomorrow night.

In a way, I almost wish we had flown out Monday, so I’d have 24 hours less to obsess. This isn’t healthy and as a result I have spent less time around the players. I don’t want them to see my mood as we head into the match tomorrow night.

We expect Barcelona to line up in 4-3-3, so we feel our alignment is the right one. A meeting with Dillon this morning confirmed that in our minds, so we do feel a sense of greater optimism than we felt yesterday.

I spent the afternoon trying to figure out who would sit out of our regular group of forwards and midfielders in a 4-5-1 alignment. The players are all training well, so someone has to sit that probably doesn’t deserve to.

The fellow who wound up drawing the short end of the stick was Maloney, in every alignment I generated. We need two wings in the 4-5-1 with pace and who can get into the box if we need them there, which means Dagoberto and Kalou are going to have to play the outside points of the formation.

We’ll need two holding midfielders, so that means Magallón and Bikey in those positions. I can’t spare Dicã in the playmaking position, so there you have it.

Speaking with the press today, I was cagey about our preferred alignment. We’ve actually shown three alignments in recent weeks, from the preferred 4-1-3-2 to a flat 4-4-2 to the 4-4-2 ‘box’ formation that is closer to 4-2-2-2 in its shape. In that respect, there is an air of mystery as to how we’ll actually come out tomorrow, and I wasn’t about to tell the press that the correct answer was ‘none of the above’.

Emiliani was naturally present, along with the usual London and English press cabal, arriving a day early, which meant in footballing terms that they were fashionably late. Didn’t stop them from opining, however.

“Rob, your approach to tomorrow’s match?” This from a completely unknown face, who figured he might as well ask the obvious question.

“Put out my best eleven and try for a result,” I smiled. I was trying to serve notice that the cards in my hand were going to be played as close to my vest as possible without actually putting them inside it.

“Clever,” came the response.

“Thanks. But I think it’s fair to say I’m not tipping my hand to you. I will say, though, that the approach we plan will be consistent with the type of game we propose to play and consistent with the group standings and our upcoming schedule.”

“Which means what?” This was Emiliani, who was confused and perhaps justifiably so.

“We’re playing two seasons,” I explained. “We have Spurs away on Sunday in London and we are going to have to get a result to maintain our league position. So we have more than just this match to think about. It is fair to say that a home win over Barcelona was very pleasant for us in terms of our group standing, so we have the ability to play for Sunday as well as for today.”

Emiliani was thunderstruck. “Does that mean you are writing off this match?” he asked. “Rob, can you be serious?”

“I’m serious in everything I do,” I said. “Some people don’t really see that. But no, we are not writing off this match. All I am saying is that we have a match on Sunday we have to prepare for too, and that means the preparations for this match have to reflect that. This is what a professional manager does, Stefano. But I’m sure you know that.”

Realizing that I was digging myself into a hole, I hoped the question would be dropped. It wasn’t.

Weatherby pressed the issue too, finding herself in a position of rare alignment with her rival.

“Rob, let’s expand on this further,” she said. “What conditions would cause you to change your approach to a match, when surely your objective is to win each one?”

“You’re correct in saying that our objective is to win every match we play because that is what management and our fans expect,” I said. “How we achieve that goal is up to me as the manager. All I am saying is that there are times when the fixture list helps determine the strategies we use in trying to reach that goal. We know Barcelona are a world-class side but we also know that Spurs are very difficult to beat on their own ground and Martin Jol will be at least as ready for us on Sunday as we will be for him. Squad and tactical decisions are therefore made on that basis and that’s the last I’m going to say about it.”

She wrote down my words, but gave me a hurt expression as she did. She has been a friend to me through my time at the club, but she had taken the interview into a place I had not wished for it to go, through my own tactical error.

Now the Spaniards were into the act, and the press conference was surely out of the focus area I had wished for it when it began.

So in reality, Weatherby had her questions answered over and over again. She just didn’t get to ask them. When she realized that, her mood changed.

Unfortunately, I had been completely outmaneuvered in my own event, hoist on my own petard. As it ended, I wondered how much damage I had done.

# # #

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Oh thank god you are back.

I need my daily dose of Rat pack

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Nice to be missed in a way ... thank you :)

___

“Don’t you wish you were in Barcelona?”

Hardcastle’s words to Patty seemed to cut deeply.

“That isn’t why I called you and you know it,” she retorted, a tinge of sharpness in her voice that Hardcastle wasn’t used to hearing.

“I know,” he answered. “You want me back on your detail.”

“You know that,” she said. “And you also know that I wish very much that I could be in Barcelona. But I don’t feel that it is a good idea now for a number of reasons, the most notable being that I do not feel safe.”

“I can understand that, Princess,” he replied.

“Mind your vocabulary,” Patty replied.

“You know it as well as I do,” he answered. “So what will it take to convince your husband that I’m the right guy after all?”

“You’ll never convince him of that,” Patty sighed. “If anyone is going to do it, it will have to be me. You need to stay as far away from it as possible.”

“I don’t want to stay away from you and you know it,” he said.

“You have to,” she answered. “Look, Steven, I know you are the right man for this job. I knew it long ago but you could not keep your feelings to yourself and you messed up something that is very important to me. I can’t have that happen again because if I am going to have the career I want to have, you are going to be important to my sense of well-being. Can’t you see that?”

Hardcastle, his ears pinned back for once, finally seemed to see the light. At least, his words indicated so.

“I told you before, and I will tell you again,” he said, “I will wait for what I want. No matter how long it takes.”

She didn’t like the direction of the conversation, but it hadn’t been the first time. She looked down at her stomach, which was just a little bigger than the day before, and sighed quietly to herself.

“Those two thugs are dead,” she said. “They are dead because they crossed the people who are trying to kill me. I need you to protect me, not want me. There’s a lot going on there that you can’t really understand – unless there is something you aren’t telling me – and I need my protector. Can you please try to understand that?”

“Of course I can,” Hardcastle said. Now he was the one sighing, but after he did, his face broke into a broad grin.

# # #

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Man I wish Rob would dump Patty. Can't. Stand. Her.

Au Contraire - best character in the story.

Not that I'm against the dumping idea, totally.

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Oh, my .. I just realized I forgot to update this morning. I apologize to my regular readers ... my memory in my advancing age is photographic but short!

___

Wednesday, November 4

Barcelona (6-3-2, 4th La Liga) v Reading – Champions League Group F Match Day #4

Even a night on the beach last night couldn’t calm my nerves.

Despite Alba’s concern for my safety, I took a long walk – alone – up and down the beach outside our hotel at sunset. Worrying for my well-being entered my mind for about thirty seconds.

You’re only as scared as you decide to be, I thought to myself. I watched the sky darken in front of me as part of a glorious Mediterranean sunset.

The whole issue of traveling aside, it’s not a time I would like to be away from Patty. I keep thinking those sorts of thoughts even as I continue to harbor worry about the match. The combination hasn’t been restful, and I wonder if she’s talking with Hardcastle again while I am away.

No, she wouldn’t do that. I’ve got to trust her.

More than one thing on a manager’s mind at the same time is a recipe for bad things. I can’t help it, though. I’m a chronic worry-wart, as we’d say in the States.

At least the sand was nice and warm. That felt nice.

When I managed in Italy, I used to like to go to various places the team would travel and simply enjoy the sights. Hell, I used to do that last season here as well.

Now, it doesn’t seem to interest me as much. The walls seem to be closing in and that isn’t good.

If it were last season I’d say I need a vacation, but the last time I had one was in Monaco and I well remember how that turned out.

So walking up and down the beach would have to do.

It was a very pretty moment, and I actually found myself wishing I had a camera to record it. Perhaps that was because moments of peace have become increasingly rare and when they happen, I like to have proof.

The sun finally set, and without that wonderful view to enjoy, there was nothing left for me but to go to my room and try to sleep.

I thought again of the last time I had been on the Mediterranean coastline, with worry about Patty consuming me and turning me into a drunken fool.

Sadly, I opened the door to my room and cleared out my pockets before preparing to spend the evening in.

I looked across the room and saw, once again, a fully stocked bar.

A wave of sadness swept over me once again. Nothing seemed to satisfy me, and the bottles seemed appealing to me.

I swallowed hard, and looked over at them again. With a mighty effort, I turned my attention back to the television and turned it on.

There was a match on – from somewhere in Spain, that wasn’t immediately apparent from my initial gaze. It didn’t matter.

I wasn’t drinking, and that seemed to comfort me a bit. I picked up my phone and called Dillon.

“Kevin, I wonder if you’d mind coming up to talk about the team again,” I said.

“Rob, I thought it was settled.”

“It is,” I said. “I just need to shift my mind from places where it shouldn’t be.”

# # #

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Making it through the night still sober was a good thing. Obviously.

My apprehension disappeared after about half an hour of talking, first with Dillon and eventually with Downes as well. They had both noticed my mood, and decided to confront me head-on.

“Trust these players,” Downes advised me. “They got us this far and believe me, they are excited to play on this stage. If you are intimidated by your surroundings, they are going to see it.”

“I’ve had this date circled on the calendar since the group stage draw,” I admitted. “That means a bit of apprehension on my part, I’m afraid. But, you are quite right. I’ve been fighting this for a few days now.”

“Nice and easy, Rob,” Dillon advised. “We’re there to help. Don’t feel like all the decisions are yours alone. It’s okay to lean.”

This was basic stuff, and I wondered if I was coming apart at the seams. With so much going on and so much I felt I needed to worry about, the thought was becoming less and less far-fetched. I needed to talk with someone.

Or drink with someone.

Wait. Maybe that isn’t such a good idea.

# # #

As I expected, the headlines were savage. My performance at the news conference yesterday wasn’t what I had hoped or planned, but it was certainly what I had feared.

”Ridgway fears fixture pileup on eve of Barca clash,” was Weatherby’s online headline. And that was the kindest.

Royals boss to pull punches” was the effort in the Telegraph, while the Mail blared out “Ridgway’s hidden fear: Barca-itis”.

That was probably the worst of the bunch. I was kicking myself – over and over again – for the performance in front of the press yesterday.

I resolved never to let that happen again and tried to write it down as a learning experience. So, it wasn’t the best thing for me that the first person I saw in the hotel lobby this morning was Emilani.

He was off to a hearty breakfast. I wasn’t hungry.

“Rob, if this job is too much for you, just say so and I’m sure Sir John can find someone else,” he smiled. It was all I could do not to punch him.

“You won’t be the one who decides that,” I said, my voice stopping just short of a snarl. “Since there doesn’t seem to be a journalist in Europe who can figure that out on his or her own.”

Weatherby lurked in the far recesses of the lobby, her own breakfast finished. I was upset with both of them. I still do have that right.

“Easy, Rob,” Emiliani said, with the air of a man who knows he has started and finished an argument.

“Easy for you to say,” I answered. “There’s no risk for you in writing what you write.”

“But there was no need for you to say what you said,” he replied, with the air of man who knows he’s right. And he was.

“I decided to be honest with the press,” I said, continuing to violate the First Law of Holes, which reads, ‘when you are in one, stop digging’.

He smiled.

“I won’t make that mistake again, I promise,” I said. With that, I shouldered my way past him to the conference room where the players were gathered for the morning meeting.

I stepped inside and closed the door behind me. The players, many of whom had read the papers, turned as one to greet me.

“Don’t believe everything you read,” I began. “I think we can get a result tonight and here’s how we are going to do it.”

# # #

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The beauty of the night before was quickly replaced by a weather front that brought surprisingly cold temperatures to the city.

I felt that was a good omen, as the coach moved slowly from the hotel to the stadium. The Camp Nou is located in the north central part of the city, which stretches for about twenty miles along the Mediterranean coast.

We wound our way through the center of the city to find our destination and as the coach rolled, the feeling of anticipation grew.

Even I had forgotten my apprehension of yesterday, and even of this morning, as we traveled together for arguably our biggest away test to date.

There was an excitement in the team. You have to have that if you are going to succeed and the players had taken my words from the morning to heart.

We had already beaten this side once before and we felt they needed to prove to us that they could handle us rather than the other way around.

This from a fellow who had misgivings yesterday. Funny game, football.

We rolled into the spot reserved for the visitors’ coach behind the stadium and filed into the changing area to prepare for the match. About 1,000 supporters had made the trip too, and it seemed that they were all gathered around the coach to welcome us to the stadium.

That felt good – it had been a long way for them to come and they deserved to see their heroes in a focused and prepared state as the match time neared.

Despite the excitement, there weren’t a lot of words traded between players as we prepared for the match.

In short, it was a professional changing room. I wrote the XI on the board at the front:

GK Lobont

DL Pogatetz

DR Ferreira

DC Huth

DC Sonko

DM Bikey

DM Magallón

MC Dicã

AML Dagoberto

AMR Kalou

ST Baptista

S Federici

S Gaspari

S Rosenior

S Harper

S Maloney

S Lita

S Kitson

That was about all there was to do. The players went out, warmed up, and returned for the final team talk.

“Use your pace,” I urged them. “You know that this is the strength of our team. Pace, pace, pace and hit them on the counter. They are going to come out strong and we know that. Use that advantage and wear them down. You can do this.”

I met with match official Stefano Farina, shook hands with Rijkaard, and we traded team sheets. My eleven still showed no intention of 4-5-1 even though Rijkaard knew it contained two holding midfielders. We would see how long the charade would hold up – I was guessing it would not hold for long.

His eleven, though, contained two changes from our meeting in Berkshire.

On our ground, he had started Gabriel Milito in the center of defence: now he was dropped for Gerard Pique. He had also played 4-2-3-1 for most of that match, with Samir Nasri playing off Eto’o as his lone striker.

Now Nasri sat, in favor of veteran Mexican international Rafael Marquez. This move screamed 4-3-3 to me in my mind but I would have to wait to see how the Dutchman’s team would line up.

As the teams lined up to take the pitch, it was time to stop talking and start playing. I welcomed the change.

# # #

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Hi, all .. I need to apologize for what is, for me, an irregular posting pattern the last couple of days. The issues with the board kept me from logging in for much of yesterday and real life has intervened over the last week or so as well. So to those who read this story regularly, I can only apologize for not having the daily fix. That should now be fixed.

___

Our 4-5-1 lasted about two minutes before Rijkaard figured it out. It really wasn’t that difficult.

From the point of view of alignments, I liked how we stood. We were prepared to absorb their pressure, and from the very beginning, it came.

They had learned, Barcelona had, about how to play us. They abandoned the idea of trying to beat us through the air and instead used their sublime skill to move the ball around the park.

Once Barca had our alignment figured out, they set to attacking it. Barely two minutes into the match, Messi had a pop from the right wing with Lobont pushing his effort over the bar in an inauspiscious start for us.

Then it was Abidal who tried his luck, only to be denied by Ferreira’s block, with Eto’o blasting the carom off Sonko’s leg and behind for a corner. This was all in the first two and a half minutes.

I turned to Dillon and raised my eyebrows. It was all I dared do, but the early blast from the home team had certainly come quickly.

We watched, a bit nervously, as Iniesta took the corner short and found Ronaldinho. He floated a cross into the box and Lobont was right on the spot to collect. It was starting to look already like the fifteen-minute blast was going to be a humdinger.

We were generous enough to give Messi space down the right, which had me screaming Pogatetz’s name and not so nicely. He switched play for Ronaldinho and it was quite obvious from the opening of the game that we were seeing a completely different Barcelona team than the side so lacking in confidence that had come to Berkshire.

Now it was Ronaldinho moving the ball down the left and working with Eto’o in the left hand channel against Sonko. Magallón was there to help him, though, and the Mexican cleaned up after an unusually poor first touch from the Brazilian wizard.

It was fifteen full minutes before we showed some signs of life with the ball, and when we did Iniesta decided to stop the attack by bodychecking Dagoberto.

Farina, who is usually better than he now showed, decided to simply warn Iniesta, which meant Barca’s players could bang us around with impunity for the next few minutes. Which, naturally, they proceeded to do. This was not helpful especially since we couldn’t win the ball off them. When we got it, they simply bundled us off it and didn’t allow us to play our own pace game.

The little shoulder charges and barges were all coming fast and furious and Farina was letting them all go, which meant we had to come up with something different to threaten their goal.

Iniesta drilled a set piece right into Lobont’s hands in 25 minutes and the Romanian keeper was certainly keeping us in the match while we figured out a way to move the ball on the floor that would be both successful and within the rules.

While we were trying to figure that out, we spent the next few minutes defending corners. Pogatetz headed a Ronaldinho cross behind and then got in the way of a long-range bender from the same attacker a few moments later. He seemed to have got the message from the touchline and was providing a reasonably effective counter to their superstar on that side of the park.

Meanwhile, Eto’o was lurking and waiting. He picked up a loose ball and beat Lobont cleanly in 28 minutes, but Huth was there to hack the ball off the line and save us from going behind, which the play of both teams had indicated was clearly what should have happened.

They looked world-class. We looked like pedestrians.

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Hi, all .. I need to apologize for what is, for me, an irregular posting pattern the last couple of days. The issues with the board kept me from logging in for much of yesterday and real life has intervened over the last week or so as well. So to those who read this story regularly, I can only apologize for not having the daily fix. That should now be fixed.

Its all cool mate. Its not a job you are doing.:)

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It is and it isn't, Ishu :) After so much time, I can't imagine my writing without this being part of it.

___

Finally, Ronaldinho was able to solve Pogatetz just after the half hour, but put his shot harmlessly wide to Lobont’s left.

I looked at Dillon on the bench.

“Kevin, is it me or does it seem like this half has gone on for about two hours?”

He looked at his watch.

“No, Rob, still fifteen minutes to play, the scoreboard isn’t wrong.”

I swore under my breath. I was afraid he would say that.

Meanwhile, the onslaught from the home team continued apace.

Magallón obstructed Iniesta and naturally wound up in Farina’s book, which finally got me off the bench.

“For me but not for thee,” I said to the fourth official, German Markus Merk.

“Clever, but untrue,” he responded, in faultless English. I was a bit surprised.

“Tell that to Iniesta,” I retorted. “Same foul, we wind up in the book, they don’t. Not acceptable.”

That drew a glance from the fourth official.

“Mr. Farina will decide what is acceptable,” he finally said.

“Not to the press, he won’t,” I responded, before turning back to my bench. My frustration was starting to show.

Meanwhile, Pogatetz was continuing to put in a good shift against Ronaldinho, and even managed to spring Dagoberto on one of our rare forays into the attacking half. Then, our Brazilian was clattered to the deck by Zambrotta – and this time, Farina went to his book.

I looked at Merk from the bench, and he at me. Somewhat satisfied, I simply nodded.

Meanwhile, Rijkaard simply sat impassively on his bench. He could afford to let it go – his side was dominant and it was clearly me who would have to come up with a tactic to break the stranglehold his side had on the game.

We counterpunched once in the half. It was nearly enough, as Bikey stood strong and won the ball from Xavi just short of the center line and sent Dicã on a run through the middle of the Barca defense. However, Pique arrived in the nick of time to spoil his aim, and my playmaker shot wide just before the halftime whistle.

We had been dominated by a team that was in a different class. Yet we were still level. Thank God for small favors.

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There were two ways I could have handled the team talk at halftime. There was the way I had done it in Manchester and there was the way I did it tonight.

I wasn’t pleased with our play, especially with five in the midfield, but there wasn’t much to say about it other than that I was happy we weren’t behind. That isn’t the most inspirational of talks, though, and I felt we needed a little inspiration.

“We can still steal this game,” I insisted. “They are moving the ball around too easily, and I think we can stop them doing that if we don’t try to run with them when they have the ball. Let’s not get stuck into them as much and take away some passing lanes. Sooner or later they are going to get frustrated and when they do, we’ll hit them with pace. Be patient, fellows. It will come.”

For my part, though, we had been woeful. We had about 35 percent possession in the half and whenever we had the ball, they moved us off it with authority until Farina finally went to his cards late in the half.

I could only hope that would continue, but for the time being I was more concerned about us shaping up our play and starting to show a little confidence on the pitch.

I did ask the players where that confidence had gone that had been so prevalent before the City match, but left it to the players themselves to find the answer. Leaving the tactics to Dillon, I headed out for a brisk pace in the hallway while things got sorted in the changing room.

Or, at least I thought they did.

The second half started the way the first half had started, with Barca immediately to the attack. The 4-5-1 was going to be our formation for as long as we could last – I really couldn’t see going to two strikers to relieve pressure in any meaningful way and really what we needed was to concentrate and win the ball.

SIx minutes after the restart, we suffered what I could only classify as a total defensive breakdown. Iniesta was the architect, lobbing a wonderful little ball right over the top of the defense right onto the run of Eto’o. He had easily outpaced Huth, with the big German frantically retreating to try and cut off his path.

The Cameroonian’s first touch was wonderful, and Lobont raced off his line as the last line of defense. Eto’o tried to chip him – and thankfully planted the ball right on the top of our net to the dismay of the crowd.

The 90,000-plus in attendance were now clamoring for their heroes to finish the job they had started, and moments later Messi tried to do just that, testing Lobont from distance on the right.

He, Marquez and Puyol were doing a fine job keeping the ball completely away from us, with the ridiculously talented Argentine finding space about thirty yards out before fizzing a shot wide to Lobont’s left.

Still, the chances weren’t quite as fantastic as they had been in the first half, so there was progress to be found. We were also gaining some possession, and our poise was starting to return.

I felt the time was right to try something a little different – making a like-for-like substitution as Magallón came off for Maloney.

“Time to play the game we can play,” I said to no one in particular as the regular left winger came on in place of one of the holding midfielders.

Dagoberto knew what that meant instinctively – it was also time for our Samba Kings to show their stuff. We were going to 4-4-2, and adding the second striker away from home. It was a confident move, which the play of the team showed me was warranted.

Seeing this, Rijkaard went to his bench for two players. He brought on Bojan in place of Zambrotta and the veteran Thierry Henry for Puyol.

There was a move that showed some real aggressive intent, as well as some contempt for us at the same time. Rijkaard was going to three at the back, which was about as confident a move as you can make against a team that has already beaten you in the past.

All the substitutes checked into the game, and we all waited to see which move would work first.

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It wasn’t ours.

However brightly we may have started after the substitutions, as exhibited by Eto’o somehow finding it necessary to pull Pogatetz back by his shirt to get himself booked, things soon returned to normal service.

This time, it finally hurt us. A bare three minutes after the substitutions, we didn’t get Henry marked at the right edge of Lobont’s six-yard box, and he swept home Iniesta’s square ball to give the home team the goal their play more than deserved.

The Camp Nou reacted with some joy, feeling a shot of revenge against the English visitors was warranted. There was really nothing I could do to stem the tide from the point of view of our approach – they were simply all over us regardless of the formation or shape we intended to play.

There was only one ball, and they weren’t letting us have it. They stormed right back down after the goal, with Sonko turning Iniesta’s effort behind for a corner barely two minutes after Henry had opened the scoring.

Gabriel Milito now came on as the match moved past seventy-five minutes, replacing Ronaldinho, who had barely seemed to break a sweat in the second half.

It was that bad. Their attacking forwards weren’t even coming under pressure when they made their forays into our third, which seemed to happen whenever they felt the need.

Things then went from bad to worse. Baptista ws bundled off the ball in a hard challenge from Rafael Marquez and grabbed his right hamstring. He had stretched awkwardly but waved that he was all right to continue.

I let him stay on after a report from the physios that he was not in immediate distress, but the team’s straits were becoming desperate.

We finally hit on a ball to Dagoberto – but it was a long punt from Lobont, which certainly wasn’t going to win us points from any purists. That said, Victor Valdes snuffed out the pass with some ease – with me wondering if he might cramp up from seventy-five minutes of inactivity.

Ferreira was having a hard time as well on the right – but to be fair, all the players were – and he went into Farina’s book for hauling back Henry as the match reached 84 minutes.

As bad as we had been, and as good as Barcelona had been, we still had a chance to steal a point with a bit of late magic. That was my thinking as I introduced Lita for Baptista and Kitson for the rather ineffective Dicã five minutes from time.

With the idea of running around a bit, Lita went to man-mark the keeper in the event we moved the ball that far forward onto the park.

First we had to get it back. Eto’o took a quick throw up the right just after our substitution and found Messi in full flight against the beleaguered Pogatetz. He found space around the full back and hooked a sharp little pullback into the box for Henry, who was battling against Huth.

The German had good position against the Frenchman and moved him with some ease to a sharp angle to Lobont’s left. He hadn’t counted on Henry shooting from there, though, and neither had Lobont.

Rarely for him, the keeper’s feet weren’t set and he was helpless to his short side. The difficult shot found the twine and Barcelona were much, much too far ahead to catch.

Farina, just to be cruel, added four minutes of time to the match. Just as the match ticked over into injury time, Pogatetz got his booking for bringing down Gerard Pique. That seemed a bit odd as well, given that even one of Rijkaard’s three defenders now felt comfortable enough to bring the ball forward.

From the free kick, though, we brought the ball into Barca’s defensive third for one of the rare occasions in the match, and Márquez headed Maloney’s cross behind for a corner.

The Scotsman took it – and naturally Sonko towered over the entire Barca defense to thunder a header home to haul a goal back halfway through injury time.

It was hope, but it was false hope. They closed us out with ease.

As the whistle blew for full time and I headed to congratulate Rijkaard on his masterclass, I thought back to the two ways there were to give my halftime team talk.

Unfortunately, neither of them work.

Barcelona 2 (Thierry Henry 2nd 65; 3rd 89)

Reading 1 (Sonko 3rd 90+2)

A – 90.735, Camp Nou, Barcelona

Man of the Match – Thierry Henry, Barcelona (MR 8)

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