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Rob Ridgway's "Rat Pack"


tenthreeleader

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Looking at the stat sheet after the match was just as bad as watching the ninety minutes we had endured.

They had been world-class, Barcelona had. We, on the other hand, had not.

They had had seventeen attempts at goal. We had had three. They had put eight on target, with only Sonko’s header finding the range for us.

They had 54 percent possession.

And Baptista’s injury was worse than feared.

His hamstring tightened in the changing room after his substitution and he left the ground on crutches with his thigh wrapped. It was a precaution, but still a rather frightening one to watch.

In short, we had nothing to cheer about, with the possible exception of our upcoming schedule. Baptista will surely miss the match with Spurs this weekend but with an international break coming up, he might be available for our tilt with Blackburn on the 21st.

When that’s all the good news we can muster, things are bad indeed.

All that was left for me to do was tell the honest truth to the press.

“They were great and our caps are tipped to them,” I said. “We didn’t have any illusions that we were going to come in here and walk the match, that was certain, but they showed us a whole different level of class than they showed us when they came to Berkshire. They are a wonderful club team and they dominated us from start to finish tonight.”

“A frank assessment,” Weatherby said, scribbling as she spoke.

“An honest one,” I said. “We might want to bring our own ball if we come here again, because Barcelona wouldn’t let us use the one they were playing with tonight. They embarrassed us.”

And yes, I knew what I was saying. It wouldn’t do any good to sugarcoat the result, because anyone with eyes could see it.

Heading into the match, one of my goals was to find out how much ground we still have to cover to be counted among the elite.

Tonight’s result showed it was miles and miles.

So, we packed our things, headed to the airport and had a long flight home to start preparation for Spurs at the weekend.

We just have to learn from this. If we don’t, we’ve got big, big trouble.

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Granted that defeat to Barcelona hurt, but I'm not sure that Reading could have been world class on Nou Camp turf. Maybe it seems that expectations are now a little high at the Royals. Good writing as usual though, tenthree.

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Thanks for the kind words, fellows. Bit of an eye-opener for RR, this match. Bit of an eye-opener for the squad as well.

___

Thursday, November 5

The sting of such a comprehensive defeat smarted all the way back to Heathrow, and I assume it will sting for a long time to come.

In the long run, I suppose it will be a good thing to look back on this and realize that what I feared at the beginning of the year was in fact a realistic concern.

We just aren’t deep enough to compete at the very top level yet. In that regard, any conceivable plan to build the club for competition at the highest level must therefore be considered ahead of schedule given our position at present.

However, the results of last night didn’t bear out much optimism. We might be able to compete away from home against Big Four opposition, but European caliber opposition appears to be an entirely different matter on top of our own league.

It’s playing on a different stage, to be sure. I’m not suggesting that Barcelona are superior to Chelsea or United or Liverpool or Arsenal – but I am suggesting that the rarified air of the Champions League made it awfully hard for some of my players to breathe last night.

Thankfully, we get back into action on Sunday, even if we are away from home. So the opportunity is there to wash some of the bad taste out of our collective mouths.

Predictably, the papers were filled with praise for Barca – and rightly so. However, they were also filled with sharp criticism for a Reading team from which better was expected.

I won’t say I mind that from the point of view of making this club better, but I do think it was a bit unfair.

I didn’t say that at the media briefing, though. Suggesting that we might not be quite ready to compete on the Champions League stage is heresy around these parts.

The players – and to a lesser extent, the manager – are responsible for creating that sort of expectation.

In fact, I tried my best not to speculate. The papers had made their comments about my media performance too, and hadn’t been kind.

I expected that. The Sun even went so far as to suggest that I hadn’t given my team a chance to win, an assumption not out of line for a British tabloid.

They can think what they want. I know what I said, and I know my team.

So when we gathered this morning to start our preparation for Spurs this weekend, we had a little talk about expectations.

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“Our feet should be back on the ground,” I told the players as they sat in a loose circle around the big-screen television in the players’ lounge. “We ought to know by now that we aren’t world-beaters, we are a growing club and last night we found out how much growing we still have to do.”

They looked pretty downcast. That was to be expected – but unlike after the City match, this was not the time to give them the rod.

“We’re going to learn from it,” I insisted. “And we are going to start by playing the team immediately below us in the table, away from home. That’s a good challenge and it’s one that I expect you will be able to meet.”

“It’s not time to stop believing in yourselves,” I added. “This is a good team here. We’ve got a good team that can beat any club in Europe on its day. Yesterday just didn’t happen to be our day, but there are ways to fix that.”

Baptista won’t be able to fix anything for a little while. He now entered the room on crutches, after his session with the physios. The crutches were to ease the strain on his injured groin.

Depsite the insistence of the physios that his injury was not as bad as it appeared, they weren’t taking any chances.

We’ll need him for the big matches to come, and if we are to formally escape our Champions League group and avoid the attentions of PSG for the second place we now occupy, he’ll have to come up trumps. Having him prepared and healthy is vital.

We started our day by reliving the events of the night before. That was never going to be pleasant, but instead of railing on the players as I had after the City match, I found teachable moments throughout the video.

It really served to illustrate how good Barcelona had been, to be honest. They just wouldn’t let us have the ball.

There’s something to be learned from that. When you play a counter game, job one is winning the ball. We couldn’t win the ball from Barcelona, and showed it over and over again in the video.

After about fifteen minutes of rather uncomfortable television, I put in video of the Arsenal matches from last year, where our counter game worked to perfection.

There was a difference, and you didn’t have to be a manager or a coach to see it.

By and large, it was the same players on both videos, but the Reading players who were on the Arsenal DVD were much more composed and assured even in defence. Both matches were away from home, but the Reading team that played in Barcelona was tentative, and dare I say intimidated.

When we won the ball against Arsenal, we swung into attack and made them pay for losing it. When we won the ball against Barcelona, we were tentative in possession and as often as not wound up giving it right back.

Henry’s second goal relieved a lot of the pressure, though, and not in a good sense. At that point the players realized they were not going to win, and finally started to show a bit of their potential.

It was a mental game, and the Camp Nou had psyched us out. It was unfortunate, and it had cost us two or three points, but the fact that it happened made it a teachable moment. When we play our final away match of the group stage in Paris, we should be better for it.

In fact, I hope we are better for it on Sunday at the Lane.

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Today, though, Emiliani struck.

Amazingly, though, he didn’t strike me. After reading his syndicated piece this afternoon, I sort of felt like a guy who has just watched lightning hit the fellow next to him.

He had a good reason for asking abut McGuire, and somehow I get the sense that the two of them are talking about each other behind their backs.

Just not today. Emiliani talked in front of McGuire’s back. I need to figure out why.

I could never prove it, but I figured McGuire was one of the people spreading misinformation to Emiliani last season. I would have thought Richmond would do that too but if you spend your life trying not to get your silk suit dirty, you have other people on hand to do your dirty work.

And since McGuire’s a weasel despite what happened to him, he’s the natural candidate to be named Stool Pigeon of the Year.

Now, though, it appears as though there’s trouble in paradise. Richmond’s consortium is starting to look like a collection of self-centered, greedy little rabble-rousers, which is what it surely is. Unfortunately for them, it’s all being exposed in print.

Somehow, some way, a source inside Richmond’s group started talking. If even half of what Emiliani wrote is true, there’s going to be a huge outcry whenever he tries to buy the club.

At least, I hope so.

Men Behaving Badly

Stefano Emiliani on the Premiership

What do the names Stephen Hardcastle and Peter McGuire mean to you?

If you’re not a hard-core fan of English football, they probably won’t mean much.

Yet if you are, and especially if you follow Reading, they are names you’ll want to know, or at least to learn.

Hardcastle and McGuire are, as they say here, ‘unsavoury people’.

They are also people who could effect significant change at one of the Premiership’s growing clubs, which is poised to advance to the knockout stages of the Champions League and enter the elite of European football.

They have grown under the leadership of charismatic owner Sir John Madejski and former manager Steve Coppell. To a lesser extent, they have grown under their current manager, the American, Rob Ridgway.

Yet the foundation of today's Reading FC was built under Madejski and Coppell. Now, though, the club’s future may lie in quite a different direction.

That is, if people like Hardcastle and McGuire don’t scuttle the whole operation.

Both men own businesses in a partnership overseen by Reading board member Sidney Richmond. The local tycoon has made no secret of his intentions to take over the club come January, but has taken some significant public relations hits in recent weeks.

They center around Hardcastle, who owns a private security company, and McGuire, who owned a Reading public relations firm and currently owns a photo distribution and syndication group.

The men have one significant thing in common – they both have framed pictures of Ridgway’s wife, the former Patricia Myers, in prominent places in their offices. Does that seem odd to you too?

Rob Ridgway certainly thinks so, and who can blame him? The American has problems enough keeping his team in its lofty position in the league table while fighting off the Big Four with one hand and the Little Two with the other.

Or is it three?

The two men’s other significant commonality is their business relationship with Richmond, who has been under investigation by the British Government for some weeks now with regard to the structure of the consortium that is attempting to take over the club at the New Year.

Given all the controversy, it is a wonder the good people of Reading have not taken to the streets to demand the dismissal of such a man from the club’s board.

Yet, they have not. And more surprisingly, the owner of the club has not either.

Therefore, the question must be asked as to why?

Manchester United fans have actively rebelled against their club’s American owners, the Glazer family, for years. Why have the fans of Reading FC not protested against the controversy that has threatened to destroy the good name of their club?

It is something in the water?

Truly our supporters in Italy would never allow such a situation to foul our beloved Calcio – but to English fans it seems that soul-destroying controversy around the club they love seems to matter not at all.

And men such as these are the kingmakers. They are both Ridgway’s sworn enemies – but he would not speak of either of them for this story.

The government’s investigation has to this date produced a white paper that is in the hands of police investigators. While we were not able to obtain a copy of this paper, we can reveal portions of it deal directly with these two men and their alleged ties to organized gambling in Italy.

There is much, much more to this story than meets the eye. We will work to uncover it all and bring it to you as we do.

But in the meantime, here is a piece of advice for Mr. Ridgway: stay away from both of these men. Quite a bit is at stake.

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I sense a fixation with man love among certain of my readershipl :p

The story gets a bit complicated in the coming days :D

____

Friday, November 6

I spent last night watching Spurs on television in the UEFA Cup.

They, unlike we, had gotten to play their European match at home prior to their league clash at the weekend, and we we who watched the match in the players’ lounge at the stadium were left to curse the fixture list once again.

We will have some incentive to play better on Sunday, to be sure. We weren’t very good against Barcelona, of course, but unlike the City match where we had played equally poorly, this time we had been dominated.

That wasn’t any fun, but it did sort of clear the air at training today. Our illusions were gone.

We’ll also be playing a Spurs eleven that is going to be on a high. Through a 15th minute goal by Yakubu, they defeated Olympiakos 1-0 in their group.

So with a European win under their belts this week and a matchup against the club immediately ahead of them in the table to look forward to, they certainly have all to play for.

As do we. We are looking to recover our form after a stretch of poor play, and we know that victory away from home will split the top six from the rest of the league in a pretty profound way.

We’ll enter play sixth, thanks to our recent win over Fulham, but a setback against Spurs is really going to hurt.

So today’s training session was both high-spirited and intense, with the obvious goal being to make sure that such a setback doesn’t occur.

It’ s the last match before the coming international break, so the players who took the pitch against Barcelona will do so again on Sunday before some of them head out to points around the globe.

And since we still don’t have any English internationals, that’s fine with me. It might not suit Richmond’s goals for of shirt sales figures, but then I don’t ever recall caring about his opinion anyway.

I worry about my players. I worry about them getting hurt on international duty and taking away what I need to accomplish the goals my employer has set.

Richmond wants an extra £50,000 instead. That’s his right, I guess.

My disdain for him borders on consuming at this point. So this afternoon, as I sat in my office, I tried to figure out what I might be able to do to get him off my mind.

What makes a manager feel secure? What allows him to lean back in his office chair and thumb the nose at the world?

I certainly wouldn’t know. I need some help.

So, I picked up the phone and called Freddie Eaton.

The man himself answered the phone and after an exchange of pleasantries, I asked him to use his industry contacts to get a hold of a man I feel can help me.

And if he will, then we’re going to be a much better club for it.

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Thanks, cf! Long way to go before some of this stuff is resolved, though :)

___

“All right, then. I will talk with Rob.”

“That’s my girl.”

“Don’t do that,” Patty warned. “I told you before, don’t do that! Why do you insist on trying to take what you want and then try to put me in my place?”

“I’m sorry,” Hardcastle said in a rare foray into modesty. “You know how I feel.”

“And you know how I feel,” she answered. “I need you to protect me. You know what’s at stake here. I’m willing to run intereference for you with Rob but you need me to protect you as much as the other way around.”

That statement brought a pause from the bodyguard.

“I guess I hadn’t thought of it that way,” he said.

“No, you haven’t,” she answered. “Clearly, you haven’t. But if you are going to be able to protect me, I have to be able to tell my husband – honestly – that you aren’t trying to get me into bed. That is the only way. You have to abide by the rules I set.”

Hardcastle thought it over and leaned back in his chair, once again ready to thumb his nose at the world.

“Okay, I’ll play,” he said. As he spoke, he looked at the picture of Wellington on his desk.

“Don’t look at it as playing,” Patty warned, sighing to herself. “Look at it as doing the job you will hopefully get to resume.”

“Have it your way,” he responded, trying to keep the frustration out of his voice. He knew what he wanted.

Patty knew what he wanted too. For Hardcastle, the question was simply how to instill a proper set of priorities in his client.

So far, that seemed to be working. Hardcastle was used to getting other strong-minded people to do what he told them to do. She was coming around, that little vixen Patty Ridgway – but it would take time. The best ones always took the most time.

As they hung up the phone, Hardcastle smiled. So far, things were going according to plan, even if the plan was taking longer to execute than anticipated.

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The controversy generated by Emiliani’s article is starting to hit the fan and for once I was able to bask in it.

I was asked by more than one reporter after lunch today whether I minded my wife’s picture being on so many different desks.

I took the offensive.

“Patty’s picture is posted all over the world,” I said. “Her career is based on it. It shoudn’t be surprising that two men who can’t have her are reported to have appreciated her beauty. At the end of the day, her home life is with her husband. And that’s the only comment I will make on Mr. Emiliani’s story.”

“At least you gave him an honorific this time,” Weatherby snorted.

She is in a huge struggle with the Italian for pole position on covering the takeover story and she’s feeling a bit of pressure as a result.

“As I will do for you, Miss Weatherby,” I smiled. She is still the only reporter – at any level – I’ll trust with information I consider to be closely held – and Jill knows it.

It’s just that the game of media ping-pong is starting to get a little hard to take for her. She will write a story, and the rest of the press will respond. They’ll leapfrog her, and she’ll have to respond in kind.

The pressure is on, but Jill is earning her spurs on a national level. It does make me wonder if someday she might leave for pastures a little more green, especially with the newspaper business being what it is these days.

But today, though, the ball was in her court and she knew it. So, she was feeling a bit of stress.

Not my concern though. Not my worry. I have other things to worry about.

At the end of my afternoon briefing, I got an e-mail telling me that Eaton had come up trumps. So I headed back to my office and asked Paula Ryan to place the call to the number given me by the London PR man.

Soon, the call was connected. I needed to talk to the most self-confident man I could find, and now he was on the other end of the line.

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I'd like to dedicate this next post to Terkleton :D As part of the first lesson in 'Media Relations 101'.

___

“Sir Alex, it’s a pleasure to speak with you,” I said, to open the conversation. “Thank you for taking my call.”

“You’ve done well,” the Scottish legend said by way of his own opener. “I’m happy to speak with you.”

“Am I catching you at a good time?” I asked. “I hope you aren’t in the paddock or something.”

Since his retirement two seasons ago from Manchester United in favor of his former player Coppell, Sir Alex had indulged one of his other passions, that of horse racing. In fact, there are those who will tell you that his co-ownership of the thoroughbred ‘Rock of Gibraltar’ had eventually led to the Glazer family’s control of Manchester United.

Sir Alex’s friendship with Irish financiers John Magnier and J.P. McManus was all the headlines for several weeks, along with claims and counterclaims about whether the manager had been gifted a percentage of stud fees for the horse.

The only problem was that while Sir Alex owned a part of the race horse, Magnier owned just under 29 percent of Manchester United – which he eventually sold to Malcolm Glazer, helping make the American’s takeover of the club possible.

There are those who will tell you that all this made Rock of Gibraltar one expensive racehorse.

The resulting media inquiries regarding Sir Alex – which not only affected him personally but in some eyes also shifted the balance of ownership power at his club – made him exactly the man I needed to talk to.

He was no stranger to controversy, but if he didn’t want to talk to press late in his career, he simply didn’t do it. I wanted to know how he got away with it, but since I don’t have those kind of chops in this country, I would settle for learning how he handled media with such confidence.

“Taking a break,” he said, perhaps with just a hint of a smile in his voice. “What is the nature of your call, Rob?”

“Well, I wanted to ask you for a piece of personal advice,” I said. “Nothing to do with football, nothing to do with your old club or anything like that.”

“I’ll see what I can do,” he said, with a more guarded tone.

“I’ll be blunt, and not waste your time,” I said. “As a manager, you had an air about you that I wouldn’t mind having, or at least trying to create. I am in charge of my training, I’m in charge of my players and they perform pretty well for me.”

“They certainly do,” he interrupted.

“Thank you,” I replied, admiring his ability to interject. “However, I don’t have charge of the press around me and obviously I don’t have charge of the coverage I get. This whole issue of personal life is really starting to eat at me and I can’t have that.”

“You want to know how to control the press,” he laughed.

“I know they can’t be controlled,” I answered. “I would like to know how you developed the air you developed.”

“Do you remember what I said the best thing about Manchester United building the Carrington complex was?” he asked.

“I do,” I laughed. His exact quote at the time was ‘it keeps those f***ers from the media out.’

“Rob, it took time,” he said after taking a long moment to think. “I was over twenty years at Manchester United, at first I couldn’t just walk into a room and command the press. And neither can you. You have to understand that.”

“I think I do,” I said.

“But you can, and you must, develop harder boundaries than you have,” he said. “I read the papers now – never used to much when I was a manager – and you’re finding yourself in situations where you ought not to be.”

“Sort of the reason I’m calling,” I replied, a tinge of sheepishness in my voice.

“The first thing you should know is that you do in fact control the press you get,” he said. “Don’t for a minute think that you are at the mercy of that pack of wolves. You are not. If you are not out and about, you can’t be attacked.”

I knew that – but the issues that worried me the most were about my wife and the surroundings at the club.

“You have one chance to escape with your skin still attached to your hide,” he advised me. “You have got to stay above the fray and you have got to have no comment on everything that happens around you that is not related to football. That means no comments about your board, about your chairman, about the color of the sky that day – nothing that is not related to your job. It is the only way.”

“And what happens when the press hounds me about the board, the takeover that has been in the papers, and about my wife?”

“The board and takeover are none of your bloody business, and your wife is none of theirs,” he stressed. “Rob, you have got to see that. You run the football side of your club’s operation and from what I can tell you do a half-decent job of it. Be the authority there – but let the bigger people slug it out over your heads. Even your wife. That is not about you, Rob – but I believe you will find that if you do not let them weigh in regarding that part of your life you will be the better for it.”

I thought it over. The first thought I had was that it couldn’t possibly be that easy, and that this man I was speaking to had made more than his share of media enemies over his long and glorious career in management.

I also realized that he never said anything he didn’t want to say and that everything he said had a reason for being spoken. He also didn’t care how many enemies he made in the press. They all still wanted and needed his time, which gave him the control he needed and craved.

That was the key in my mind. I had thought fighting a running battle with Emiliani was good for me and good for my image. It was not.

In fact, conversations like that were eating me alive. I am not Sir Alex, I am not Jose Mourinho – hell, I’m not even Harry Redknapp, who can say what he wants to say to the press without causing too much trouble.

I’m little old Robbie Ridgway, who is getting schooled by the London tabloids. That needs to stop. And it took the former manager of one of my rivals to set me straight.

“Look,” he said in conclusion, “I’m loyal to my club. But I’m also loyal to a manager who plays the game the right way and who does show respect for the game and its traditions. You do that. So I’m happy to give you this advice. Was that what you wanted to know?”

“It is indeed,” I said, before thanking him one final time for a few minutes of his time I really needed.

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Thanks very much, fellows ... have we seen the last of the immortal Manchester United legend? Hmm. Inquiring minds wish to know.

___

Hardcastle sat at his desk. His two favorite pictures were moved just a little bit closer to him now as he spoke on the phone.

“That’s right,” he said. “Tonight we can begin. I think I’ve got it all figured out, and that’s all you need to know.”

On the other end of the line, an Italian man spoke with rather more deference than he might have wished.

“I hope you know what you’re doing,” the man said.

“’Course I know what I’m doing, don’t you worry about that,” Hardcastle replied. “I’ve got this completely under control. My last questions were answered today.”

“How did that meeting go, anyway?” the man asked.

“Never you mind,” the bodyguard replied. “After you bungled things, you need a professional to help you get yourselves sorted. I’ve got that bit under control. All you need to do is have someone watch Richmond for me.”

“You don’t want your own men to do that? Since you no longer trust us?” There was just a touch of a sneer now, in the man’s voice.

“You bloody stupid clot,” Hardcastle snapped, inadvertently using one of Richmond’s favorite phrases. “Don’t you think he might get wise?”

“Don’t you think you might understand sarcasm?” the man replied, his feet now verbally underneath him once more. He didn’t care for Hardcastle, and didn’t care for how he had handled the whole situation in Monaco. It was sloppy, and what’s more, it was obvious to anyone who could have put two and two together.

Yet, the word had gotten around – Hardcastle was the best. That was what his group wanted. It was what they had to have.

Two men who had challenged the group were now dead. That had had to happen as well.

No one crosses The Supporters.

'Not even the legendary Steven Hardcastle', the man thought. 'He just doesn’t know it yet.'

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Storm clouds ahead for the consortium? Hmmm....

___

Saturday, November 7

At least the trip tomorrow is a short one, so we won’t be making the coach trip to North London until after the team breakfast.

We have a few things to prove. Naturally, we all know what is at stake.

So I gave the traveling squad the day off from training to prepare for the match with rested legs – but I didn’t give them day off from the ground.

A day off before a match of this importance should be given carefully and with proper consideration. I wanted their minds on the match instead of on a WAG or someone who had nothing to do with the outcome of the match.

Dillon noticed, and that was the genesis of our conversation today.

“Rob, don’t you think a family day would be a good idea if your goal is to remove pressure?” he asked.

“These players didn’t earn that right in Barcelona,” I explained. “Had we played better there I might consider it, but then this is supposed to be a job for these players as well. We want to have fun on the pitch but we have to do the work first, so fun is easier to have.”

He didn’t buy it, perhaps because he was missing his own day at home.

I was too – and frankly, I could really use a quiet day with Patty as we try to rebuild our trust and our marriage – but there was just too much at stake here.

I could tell he didn’t buy it.

“Look, Kevin, I need a day at home as badly or worse than anyone here,” I said. “But I can’t give it to myself without giving it to them, and it is my judgment that these players should be here today. We aren’t in training but I want our minds on football.”

That meant watching video, both of our competition and old video of Spurs.

The players didn’t mind watching Spurs’ last league match, a 4-0 humbling by Portsmouth at Fratton Park last week. They were reduced to ten men after Ledley King’s sending off, which means he won’t be available to face us, but Pompey really carved up Martin Jol’s men after that.

Marouane Chamakh scored goals three minutes apart in the second half that day to finish off a poor Spurs side and even watching their midweek UEFA Cup match against Olympiakos – which Spurs dominated – we saw areas the Greeks couldn’t exploit but which we feel we can.

So the players moved on to the afternoon Premiership matches in a better frame of mind than we have been in since getting back from Spain.

So as our biggest rivals played matches today, we were settled down. Hopefully that will bode well for tomorrow.

The early game was the Merseyside derby, in which Liverpool and Everton scratched and clawed to a goalless draw at Anfield. Actually, Liverpool did most of the scratching. Everton bobbed and weaved and somehow managed to survive.

The Reds had 18 attempts at goal to four for the Toffees and had ten on target to one. I’m sure Rafa Benitez feels he should have won. I’d have had the same feeling.

The slip helps us, of course, since Liverpool is still higher placed in the table, so one out of four wasn’t bad in terms of our large-caliber opposition.

In the afternoon games, though, we got no joy as Manchester United and Chelsea both won away from home.

United first – the Red Devils got a ninth-minute goal from Wayne Rooney at Wigan but didn’t sew things up until Andy Webster turned a Ronaldo cross into his own goal three minutes from time.

Ben Sahar also scored in the ninth minute of Chelsea’s match at West Brom, and that was the only goal of the match as the Baggies played the champions surprisingly close. In fact, you might even argue that the home team deserved better, having twice the number of attempts and shots on target as their visitors, managing fourteen and six respectively.

From what I could tell, it was Chelsea’s poorest match of the season, including their shock setback against Lazio in the Champions League at home at midweek. Could it be that Avram Grant’s mighty men are experiencing a dip in form?

That’d be a shame.

Elsewhere, Blackburn and Portsmouth played to an immensely entertaining 3-3 draw at Ewood Park. Benni McCarthy’s goal deep into second half injury time got the home team a point, erasing a bit of sting from throwing away a 2-0 first half lead.

Kevin Doyle and Steven Reid had staked Rovers to that advantage within the first half hour only to see a brace from Jermain Defoe around a single strike from James Milner give the visitors the advantage with eleven minutes left.

Aston Villa continues to slide, with a frantic late rally not enough to save Martin O’Neill’s men from a 3-2 loss at Fulham.

Billy Sharp, Felipe Baloy and Hameur Bouazza all struck in the first half for the Cottagers as the home team threatened to run away and hide.

Whatever Ady Boothroyd said to his team at halftime, it was the wrong thing. Villa dominated Fulham from pillar to post – by the way, they hit two of those as well in the second half – and his team almost lost the lead.

Scott Brown and Luis Ernesto Pérez found the range after the 70th minute for Villa, but they couldn’t find an equalizer. Substitute John Carew cranked a powerful header off the left goalpost in injury time to deny Villa a point and allow the home team a huge sigh of relief.

Somewhat less enchantingly, Sunderland ground out a 1-0 win at the Stadium of Light to defeat Derby in a battle of relegation candidates. Onetime Scottish international and former Aberdeen defender Russell Anderson scored in the twelfth minute to give the home team all three points.

The day started with a derby and finished with one. Newcastle continues to hang around, leaving it relatively late before defeating Middlesbrough 4-2 in the Tyne/Tees derby.

Lucas Castromán scored the only goal of the first half before the teams combined for five in the second. Darren Bent got Boro level two minutes after the restart only to see Ivan Rakitic put the Toon back in front in 68 minutes.

That goal was pegged back by Jonathan Woodgate just six minutes later, before Jefferson Farfán hit a brace within six late minutes, the first coming from the penalty spot just three minutes after Woodgate’s equalizer.

It was entertaining. The players stuck around to simply watch some football together, which I thought was a great sign. They were in their little groups again and about three-quarters of them stayed behind after I told them they could leave.

We got a mauling in Barcelona, but watching the players gathered around the big-screen television in the players’ lounge, my hope is that it didn’t do too much damage.

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Sunday, November 8

Tottenham Hotspur (7-3-3, 7th place) v Reading (7-5-1, 6th place) – EPL Match Day #14

I guess winter is coming.

There was a hard freeze in the London area overnight, and we could see our breath as we boarded the coach for London this morning. It wasn’t going to be a pretty day to play.

That wasn’t the worst thing in the world from my point of view. I was thinking about keeping things tight and holding possession, to try to re-establish a bit of confidence after the Barcelona debacle at midweek.

With only two points separating the teams in the table and the prospect of sliding to eighth or worse with a setback, I thought that was the prudent course of action. There are so many strong sides at the top of this league now, going away from home to play any one of them is tricky.

For me, one of the larger questions of the day was how Martin Jol was going to deal with the absence of the suspended Ledley King.

There was a fair bit of speculation on the pre-match shows but when the team sheets were exchanged, we saw that Jol had decided to pair one Frenchman with another in the center of his defense.

Younes Kaboul, the 23-year old Frenchman who is King’s regular partner, was now paired with French u-21 defender Dorian Dervite. He would draw the assignment of Kitson, if I was reading the sheet correctly, and I had every reason to assume I was.

Dervite is one of the few players we’ll see who can handle Kitson in the air. He’s tall (6’4”), strong (187 pounds) and reasonably pacy. It was an intelligent choice by Jol.

Therefore, my objective was to switch off my strikers as often as feasible. With Baptista back home in Reading due to his injury, our accustomed strike force of Kitson and Dagoberto was on the cards and I would much rather have had the little Brazilian against the big Frenchman in terms of matchup.

The problem was, anyone could see it, so making the matchup we wanted happen was going to be a real challenge.

The pre-match talk was short and sweet.

“Enough of this 4-5-1 business, we’re going to do what we do well,” I said. “4-1-3-2 for this group today and let’s get out there and get after it. It’s an important match today but I want us thinking about keeping things tight first. Get some possession and keep it. You remember what Barcelona did to you this week – don’t let that happen twice running.”

“Spurs have pace and they have talent, but obviously they are not Barcelona,” I reminded them. “They’re dangerous and they can and will beat you if you move from the plan, but you’ve got the talent to handle them, even here. Show your quality, play within yourselves and get us a result today.”

We gathered in a circle for final instructions and went out for the lineup. As far as I could tell, the players didn’t seem terribly bothered by the mid-week result. For that, I was glad.

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Immediately after the kickoff, the dance began.

Dagoberto kept crossing with Kitson to try to switch on to the younger French defender Dervite. When he did, Dervite would switch back with Kaboul and we’d be stymied.

I thought back to last season’s match against West Ham when they had tried all day to switch Dean Ashton from Sonko to Bikey, and how we had done a similar swap until the Hammers finally gave up and took Ashton out of the game.

While we were shifting forwards from side to side, Dicã reminded Jol that he’s a pretty decent threat to score as well, testing Paul Robinson from distance five minutes into the match. The England man saved at a slight stretch, but notice was served that all our front players needed to be accounted for.

It was also a chance better than any we had generated from open play against Barcelona, and had taken just five minutes. So that was a great sign.

Dicã then played Dagoberto through with a nice little ball a few minutes later, but the Brazilian – against Kaboul – screwed his shot wide to Robinson’s left. So far, it was Jol 1, Ridgway 0 in the matchup department.

Now Spurs were climbing into the match in their own right, with Jermaine Jenas spearheading their attack on a weak clearance by Sonko. The vice-captain didn’t get quite enough foot to an errant lead ball from Kevin-Prince Boateng and wound up putting it right on the foot of the England man.

He took a first-time half volley that, had it found the range, would have been a sure goal-of-the-month candidate, but Magallón’s foot got there first, tipping the ball wide and behind for a corner.

We got their set-piece defended and the match slowed down for a few minutes with the teams punching and counter punching. We kept trying to shift Dagoberto onto the younger center-half, and they kept parrying.

The next good chance didn’t fall until a quarter of an hour later, when Lobont had to go to full stretch to deny Boateng from twenty yards. The German international put a fantastic little shimmy move on Magallón, and the Mexican was beaten far more easily than we’re used to seeing. It happens to everyone, though, and he had a bit of an embarrassed look on his face as his keeper and captain bailed him out.

The match then slowed down even further. From my point of view that wasn’t the worst thing in the world, but we were really starting to suffer in terms of our offensive fluency. We were not moving intelligently off the ball and the midfielders and full backs had few options when we were in possession.

That was a shame, since we were getting quite a bit of the ball this time. After forgetting what the round thing looked like against Barcelona, we were putting in a workmanlike shift in the first half here, with absolutely nothing to show for it.

On the half hour, though, we finally got the matchup we wanted as Kitson and Dagoberto crossed and we had the defenders we wanted. For the moment, Spurs were zonally marking our strikers and Kitson rose against Kaboul to power a cross from Maloney at goal.

Unfortunately, Robinson was standing there. That didn’t help matters, and the keeper collected comfortably.

His outlet pass caught us by surprise, though, and there really was no excuse for that. They countered us quickly and very aggressively, with the ball winding up at Boateng’s feet just shy of the halfway line.

He then slid a slide-rule ball right up the center of our defense to the veteran Nic Anelka, who seems to have played just about everywhere in his career except for me. His shot took a very slight deflection off Gaspari – who was preferred to Ferreira, just a bit dead-legged after Barcelona – and that helped immeasurably, as the ball rolled harmlessly to Lobont.

On our trip back up the field, Muntari grabbed a handful of my full back’s shirt as he raced on by, earning himself the first card of the match.

So the German took things into his own hands, or rather his feet, stinging Lobont’s hands with a powerful drive from twenty-five yards just a few moments later.

The ebb and flow of the match had resumed again, and the logjam appeared to have been broken. The players were starting to warm up on a cold day, and things got a bit warmer when Huth obstructed Anelka about five minutes from halftime.

Frenchmen and Germans have been having a go at each other since … well, since forever, and this was just the latest installment. Anelka squared up to Huth and the onetime Gunner, now wearing the colors of their arch-rivals, now had the crowd on his side.

Huth, who really hadn’t seen a reason to wind up in Alan Wiley’s book in the first place, wasn’t about to back down. With three inches and about thirty pounds on the forward, he didn’t see a reason to.

Wiley now stepped between the players, which was a bit odd, but the referee felt the need and in so doing may have saved my defender from a second yellow.

The Spurs supporters were yelling for that second yellow, and now Sonko grabbed the big German and hauled him away from the scene.

The incident and the boost from their crowd seemed to give the home team a little more energy, and they used that momentum to gain another chance through Boateng, with the midfielder testing Lobont again.

They had had the better of the chances, Spurs had, but as Wiley blew for halftime, most of those chances had been from range. So far, so good.

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Mark, thanks for your kind words. Always nice to know you're following along! Ori, RR wasn't too upset by the draw at halftime - playing away from home after being embarrassed in Europe, he was thinking just about anything would have been an improvement!

___

In the second half, the Spurs attack seemed to pick up where it had left off – through Boateng, and that was just fine with me.,

Lobont didn’t seem to mind either, saving from the midfielder as part of Spurs’ first foray into our end of the second half.

Finally, Kitson got himself untracked, though, which was a very welcome sign for me. He took a great little ball from Kalou on the right, who had finally managed to shake the attentions of Ashley Young after a virtually non-existent first half.

Kitson’s powerful drive wound up rebounding off Robinson’s chest, but the keeper gathered at the second attempt to dodge a bullet. We were seeing completely committed defending from both teams, and as the clock turned past 55 minutes, Lita elbowed his way to the end of the bench to start his warm-ups. He knew it was getting toward his time.

Magallón, for his part, continued to struggle, which was rare for him. The ever-present Boateng caught him in possession a few moments later and again sent Anelka away, with Huth doing just enough to throw the Frenchman off his stroke to make him power over the bar.

I turned to Downes, who was in charge of our defenders, and asked him his thoughts.

“Rob, he’s not doing so well, as you can see,” he said.

“Wally, I can see, as you said. I want an opinion. Don’t beat about the bush.”

Downes, chastened, made up his mind quickly.

“I think he’ll play through it, Rob,” he said. “Leave him be.”

A quick look at Dillon, who wasn’t so sure, and a quick nod later, and I had turned my attention back to the match. Jonny has been rock-solid for us of late and he was due a bad match, but he was one of the few who had acquitted himself well against Barca so my thought was that he had chosen a bad time for it.

The Spurs fans were climbing into the match now, and that meant pleasantries were now flying at our bench. I was informed by one wag that I might want to check on my wife’s whereabouts, which didn’t please me to hear. However, with other priorities at that moment, I couldn’t exactly climb into the stand and pound hell out of my too-personal heckler.

I got a bit red-faced – usually I pay little heed to comments from the stand – and leaned back hard in my chair. I couldn’t be seen from the stand, but I could certainly hear what was going on, and Dillon now turned to me again.

“Easy, Rob,” he said. “Can’t let it bother you, not now.”

I knew he was right, but having a steadying hand on the till was important to me nonetheless. I looked up to see Magallón caught in possession again, this time by Jenas.

However, the Mexican bailed himself out with a deft little pullback to buy himself some space, and he slid the ball forward to Dicã.

Looking up, the Romanian saw that Kitson had avoided the attentions of young Dervite, and was now in the channel to the left of the Spurs goal. Dicã hit him with the pass and Gareth Bale was just a split second too late to cover for his central defender.

Kitson took one step and made no mistake, burying a ten-yard strike past Robinson to his left in 57 minutes for the first goal of the match.

That brought me up and out of my seat at a shout, my own emotion inspired by my heckler in the stand. Kitson was back, his seventh goal of the campaign being fished out of the goal by the England keeper Robinson, and it was time to start planning for the endgame.

Meanwhile, Jol and the Spurs bench were screaming for an offside that clearly hadn’t happened, and I let them complain. I had better things to do, like figure out how to hold that 1-0 lead against the onslaught I was sure was coming.

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It didn’t take long – just a few minutes, but when Spurs came forward Muntari was flagged for offside.

That was like adding insult to injury for the crowd of about 32,000 home fans – added to our 4,000 traveling support which mocked the Spurs faithful with sarcastic laughter.

They had assumed a more attacking bent, even if Jol still had them playing 4-4-2, and Jenas was soon robbed from a cross when Gaspari rose to head the ball away from Anelka before Huth even had to get involved.

Spurs’ other striker, Yakubu, had hardly made a sound all day – until now, when he got around Sonko and tried to do something with Jenas’ lead ball.

Lobont had read the game wonderfully, though, as he always seems to do, and was there with feet set to stop the striker’s effort in 62 minutes.

We were bending but not breaking. I could have done with a bit more counterattacking bent but in this game you of course do what you have to do. They put us under the cosh for a bit and we had to simply ride out the storm.

Unfortunately, Maloney then got in a drag race with Ashley Young and even though I love the way Shaun plays the game, he was never going to beat Young to the long ball down our right flank that wound up getting Maloney booked for a shirt pull.

Now fully into the match, Spurs surged forward and Lobont had to tip Anelka’s rising drive over the bar. I was more worried for Huth than I was for Magallón by this point, with the central defender on a yellow and unable to play his physical game against the Spurs striker.

As the match ticked past seventy minutes, Jol went to his bench and brought on Robbie Keane for Muntari, signifying a real change in his structure and shape.

That was enough for me. As soon as Keane had touched the ball I had Bikey warmed up and ready to come on for Maloney, as we switched to that dreaded 4-5-1.

I didn’t mind the chances Spurs were getting, since most of them were from distance, and adding a second holder would help Magallón.

Naturally, Boateng then wound up with the ball at his feet and managed to avoid the attention of both my holding midfielders on the way to shooting over.

“At least he can’t hit the target,” I moaned. “We can’t get near him.”

Dillon then got up and headed to the touchline himself, something he very rarely did given my own proclivity to do the same thing. He went there to yell at Bikey for not closing down Boateng, and then came back and sat down.

“Figured you wouldn’t want to get yelled at again, Rob,” he smiled, as he resumed his seat.

I was flabbergasted, but grateful.

Thirteen minutes from time, Kitson and Dagoberto worked a little 1-2, right before I removed the big man from the match. His drive had a ticket for Robinson’s right corner, but the England man saved from the guy who wants to be an England man, giving us a corner.

After Spurs defended the set piece I pulled Kitson from the match in favor of the pacy Fleck. Dagoberto now led the line for us in a very small, extremely fast forward grouping.

Matt Derbyshire now came on for Jenas in a move I didn’t completely understand, and Jamie O’Hara came on for Yakubu in a move I understood even less. However, the strikers and midfielders soon sorted themselves out and as Spurs went to the inevitable 4-2-4 it now made a bit more sense.

My last substitution was for a third holding midielder – Harper for Dicã to stand in the center and run the show.

Three minutes from time, Harper stepped on. Seven minutes later, with four minutes of added time played, it was all over.

We had separated ourselves from the middle of the pack – but had gained no ground on the top.

Spurs 0

Reading 1 (Kitson 7th 57)

A – 36,243, White Hart Lane, London

Man of the Match – Bogdan Lobont, Reading (MR 8)

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We did get one break today, though – Arsenal lost.

Carlton Cole found the range two minutes from time to send Upton Park into a frenzy as West Ham topped the Gunners by a goal to nil. Wenger’s men had been played to a standstill before that point, though, so our rivals from East London had deserved their three points.

As much as we hated to admit it.

The other match wasn’t so good from our point of view, as Sven’s Manchester City won a northwest derby from Bolton by a 2-0 score.

David Jones, a midfielder I rated when he was at Derby, opened the scoring 24 minutes into the match and Darius Vassell finished it with a goal midway through the second half. So, our nemesis from the Northwest is keeping pace with us as well.

But the Gunners falling was a big deal for us. Someone else had finally dropped points and showed their humanity. It’s going to be a long, cold winter if other clubs don’t follow suit sooner or later, so we have to keep grinding out results.

We did that today, so when I faced the press I could do so with some semblance of my dignity still intact.

I was also thinking ahead to the coming international break, where I have absolutely no plans of any kind. I’d like to sit on my rear end for as much time as possible, maybe do a little golfing if the weather permits, and finally try to unwind a bit with my wife.

Patty has no plans either, that I know of, so I was in a bit of a better mood when I headed in to talk with the journos for the last time for a whole week.

“Nice effort today,” I began. “There was some ebb and flow to this match and both sides needed a result so both sides went out with the idea of playing football. We got a fortunate break and were able to take the chance we got. Tactically I thought both teams got it right today and the result was players deciding the outcome, which is how it ought to be.”

“Rob, your thoughts on the play of the young Frenchman in defence,” I heard Hopkins call out from the back of the room.

“Good young player, but it’s not my job to comment on Martin’s players,” I said. “Though I will say that I thought he did a nice job today. He made one mistake, though, and Dave made them pay for it.”

“When will Kitson finally get his England callup?” Weatherby wondered. “How many goals does he have to score?”

“Steve McClaren has his team set the way he wants it, and I can’t change that,” I said. “If Steve were to call me looking for advice, of course I’d tell him Dave is playing well. Yet I don’t think Steve is especially interested in my advice. If he were, we’d have spoken by now.”

That last was said with a smile, so as not to give the impression I’m angrier with the England manager than I actually am. I’m a bit upset for Dave, who deserves a callup after the way he has played for me over the last season and a half. Yet McClaren rates Peter Crouch over him and has since he took over the national job, so Dave has to bide his time.

That’s too bad, but that’s football. Sometimes you get blocked out by other players and that can’t be avoided.

Then, someone tried to drop a hammer on me.

“Will you comment on Mr. Emiliani’s story this week?” I was asked. “And will you not agree that the Italian supporters group believed to be at the middle of all this controversy has intruded upon the peace and security of the English game?”

“This isn’t Prime Minister’s Questions, it’s my post-match news conference,” I said. I then took a page out of Sir Alex’s book, which was one reason why I called him in the first place.

“I don’t feel a need to discuss these things in this forum,” I said. “I’ve got a press officer, Mr. Waters, and if you want to discuss anything about this team that isn’t directly related to the game then you’ll need to go through him. I’m not going to stand here and be a target for that sort of thing any more.”

As I spoke, I looked at Emilani. I hadn’t forgotten his aside in Barcelona about not being able to handle my job. Well, I wanted to give him a shot across his bow.

“You want to write scandal, go ahead,” I said. “But you people have done enough damage to me and to my home life. I’m done with it. You want to talk about the match that’s fine. Otherwise, see Mr. Waters. And that’s my final word.”

Silence reigned in the room as I drew the proverbial ‘line in the sand’. I looked around the press room at White Hart Lane, with three rows of chairs for journalists which were completely filled.

And no one had made a sound. I had somehow managed to steal a march on all of them, which was little short of miraculous.

As I left the briefing room and got ready for the coach trip home, I was left to remark that it had been a solid day.

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Monday, November 9

“Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence in society.” – Mark Twain

With the new international break upon us, I received two rather interesting business propositions today.

The club is in the process of trying to renegotiate its kit deal. Our current one still has one year left to run, and with the possibility that we might actually get out of our Champions League group something to consider, suitors are lining up to dress us for the 2010-11 season.

It’s an interesting prospect. A surprising one, too.

It seems Nike would not mind if the Royals wore a swoosh next year. Many – but not all – of the world’s leading clubs do, but we are not one of them.

We have to earn our way onto that stage. Yet the marketing potential of an American manager leading his club deep into Europe wearing the most recognizable sporting logo in the world seems to have turned a few heads at corporate headquarters.

Which is why Freddie Eaton was the first man on my phone this morning as I relaxed at home.

I don’t often get to talk with Freddie when the news is good, so I was expecting the worst when he rang me at two minutes after nine.

“Rob, good morning, I hope you have a good week off,” he began in his gentlemanly way. “I wish you could make some time to come to London and see me over the next few days, there is a proposition we need to discuss.”

“Which is?”

“Nike would like you to appear in a football advert.”

“We’re contracted to Puma at the present time, Freddie,” I replied.

“Yes, but the possibility of the club changing suppliers is definitely there,” he said. “And, should that happen, the company would like to include you in its campaign for the new season.”

“Doing what, may I ask? Dodging terroristic journalists threatening my livelihood?”

“Well, you aren’t far off,” he said, which surprised me a bit. “They want to do a remake of their

they did a few years ago.”

I remembered the commercials well. Set to Junkie XL redoing Elvis Presley’s hit ‘A Little Less Conversation’, the series related a three-on-three tournament set aboard a ship, with players playing in a cage and Eric Cantona acting as referee and chief ball-dropper.

The commercials related stupendous skill work by Ronaldinho, Luis Figo, Roberto Carlos, Edgar Davids, and a host of others with more talent than I ever dreamed of having.

“Okay, I’m thinking I don’t fit into this,” I said.

“They want managers for their teams now,” he said. “Managers of Nike-equipped teams, that is. If Nike get the Reading contract they want you, and they have said so with a written proposal.”

“Well, we can’t put the cart before the horse, Freddie, and you know that,” I said. “The contract has to be let and bid before any of this conversation can take place.”

“Rob,” he said patiently, “do you not think I haven’t thought of this? I would like you prepared in the event that the club changes sponsors, and I would not be wasting your time calling you if I did not think that this was a possibility. My job is to represent you well, not to get you and your employer in trouble.”

“Well, let me ask you this, Freddie,” I countered. “Where would you have gotten this information inside the club that would not be considered a sworn enemy of mine?”

“Well, that’s why we need to talk, Rob,” he said. “I think you are in for a bit of a surprise.”

“No more surprises, Freddie,” I said, a touch of sharpness in my voice.

“This one you might like,” he answered.

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Let me guess, the information was given to Freddie by Jessica Alba wearning nothing but a gold lame bikini and a touch of Chanel Number 5 ? and she's waiting for Rob in Freddie's office ?

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Let me guess, the information was given to Freddie by Jessica Alba wearning nothing but a gold lame bikini and a touch of Chanel Number 5 ? and she's waiting for Rob in Freddie's office ?

... Run Ridgway, Run! :cool:

This is still really fun to read. I truly don't know how you do it but, whatever this miraculous thing is, don't stop. This is simply brilliant. :thup:

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You really hooked everyone with that (very astute, I might add) quote from Mark Twain, their fantasies are now running wild!

Personally, I'd make a comment replacing Alba with a certain journalist, but then you'd say I'm fixated with man-love again! :p

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Gentlemen, thanks as always. I'm proud that so many of you made the conclusion that Alba was waiting for Rob. It shows I'm either keeping you guessing or that you're trying to foreshadow me. Balty, I never said YOU had a fixation with man-love ... :D

___

Half an hour later, my phone rang. It was Willie Winthrop, who has been quiet as a church mouse for most of this season.

I myself was rooting for Alba, but unfortunately, you can’t have everything you want.

The young man immediately dropped a verbal bomb on me as our conversation began.

“Rob, I wonder if you would mind meeting me at the training ground for lunch,” he said. “I have a few things I need to tell you, nothing adversarial at all. I would like the chance to speak with you if that’s all right.”

I figured that something had gone really, really wrong for him at work. Then I remembered Richmond’s words at the board meeting.

Winthrop’s benefactor had had some sharp words for the club’s marketing ace and my guess was that the young man was starting to feel some heat for the first time in his professional life.

Good,” I thought. Old insults die hard.

“I’ll be honest,” Winthrop said. “I want to talk with you about Kitson and about your plans for some of the English players on the team. I am under instruction to generate a campaign that will help generate additional shirt sales and revenue streams for the club.”

“I could tell you, but I can’t promise anything,” I said. “Players get injured, they go through dips in form, and sometimes they don’t play for tactical reasons. I won’t be held responsible for any marketing failure because a player doesn’t perform. Can you understand that?”

“Of course,” Winthrop replied, a touch of exasperation now in his voice. “But I do need to talk about your squad plans so I can have some idea of whom to build up. Can we at least do that? And may I please have the chance to apologise to you for what has gone on in the past?”

That seemed odd. But suddenly, I had an idea of who Eaton’s in-club source might have been. Was it a peace offering? Or was it something more?

Why does it always have to be something more?

Resigned to my fate, and really not wanting to put up with the bother I’d get from not working with a senior club employee when the team is off, I agreed to meet him. It was the last thing I wanted to do.

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But, as long as I was being nice, I offered to buy him lunch in the 1871 Suite instead.

Patty understood – at least I think she did – and soon I was off to the place I had hoped to avoid thinking about for at least a few days. So much for that.

Once there, though, I found Winthrop positively contrite.

“Look, this isn’t about pressure,” he said, as we sat to lunch. “I know you’re probably thinking that, but you should know that’s not why I asked you here.”

“You said it was about Kitson,” I said.

“Actually, it’s about more than that, Rob,” he said, taking a drink of water and steeling himself for what was evidently an uncomfortable admission.

“Look. I’m Reading born and bred and coming to this club was getting my dream job,” he said. “I know how to make money for an organization on the non-football side and I proved that where I worked before, at Millwall and Doncaster.”

I knew nothing about the financial situation of either of those clubs, but chose to take him at his word.

“So when I spend time around Mr. Richmond and Mr. McGuire, after awhile you tend to think like they do,” he added.

I had never noticed that particular trait ever entering into my own line of thinking.

“They are of course set against you,” he said. This was not exactly a news flash.

“Okay,” I said, choosing to hear out the young man.

“Lately I got to thinking,” he said. “You played here for five years, you lived the dream on the pitch for this club. I realized that I was helping to try and take that dream away from you, and I can’t continue like that.”

“So what are you going to do about it?” I asked.

“I’m going to do my job but stay out of the intrigue,” he said. “In short, I’d like to come over to your side, if you will.”

The first person I thought of was my media friend William Waters, who looked like he was about to be steamrolled in another internal power play.

“And what do I need to do?”

“Just understand that I’m not the enemy and I’ll prove it,” he replied. “Look, Rob, here’s my thought; I realized that I am Berkshire-born and you cared more about my club’s traditions than I did. That’s wrong, and I have to deal with it. If that means they sack me, that’s what it means.”

I put down my salad fork and looked at the young man. He appeared to be earnest.

Winthrop reached up and pushed a short lock of sandy blonde hair out from in front of his eyes. He looked at me like he didn’t expect a positive answer.

“I’ll understand if you tell me to go to hell,” he said. “Honestly, I will. But I hope you don’t.”

# # #

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Don't believe Winthrop, Rob! Dooonn'tttttt!!!!!!!

Also, sorry if I'm breaking the fourth wall here, 10-3, but do you have any good newgens in your youth squad? I'm curious as to how you're going to analyze the personalities of non-real players once they start to be featured!

As always, great work and brilliant writing! KUTGW good sir ;)

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The state of the youth program is a subject for another post ... but safe to say that it isn't where Rob would like to see it. That is unfortunate since I have invested in youth since taking over the Reading job but nothing home-grown. With January approaching Reading will have to invest in prize youth from other clubs.

___

Tuesday, November 10

After a long talk with Freddie today, he admitted what I had suspected, which is to say that Winthrop was indeed his in-club source regarding the commercial opportunity he presented yesterday.

That was a rather extraordinary gesture of good faith on Winthrop’s part, and since part of his job is to gain greater exposure for the club, his decision to inform my representation early regarding a potential opportunity showed a ‘team player’ aspect to his personality that I wasn’t sure existed.

So there was that to think about today as I tried not to think about work. I actually went out and hit the links today for the first time since I don’t know when.

I’m not much of a golfer. I like to play and when I hit the ball, as they say, ‘it stays hit’, but I really have little idea of where it’s going.

I played the Castle Royle club this morning, partly because it’s a nice course and partly because I can almost see it from my house. I live in the Knowl Hill section of the town and the course is just across the Bath Road from my house.

So there was that. I could nearly walk to the place, which was nice.

The coaches gathered for some golf, fun and lies and we generally knocked the ball all over the place while enjoying a day away from the office.

We don’t play again for eleven days, until Blackburn comes to see us, so we had the opportunity to revel in the last match won while we rest up a bit. It all led to a good mood and a bit of adult beverage consumed in the clubhouse when all was said and done.

Not too much, though – it wouldn’t do for the entire coaching staff of a Premiership club to be rung up on charges of drink driving – so we simply unwound after lunch with a couple of ales and some looking ahead to what we hope our future will bring.

Our form hasn’t been stellar of late, but we’ve mostly been good enough. I hoped the players were enjoying their time away as well, those that weren’t on international duty.

Thing of it is, while the controversy around our players not getting England callus rages, we’ve got a pair of England u-21 internationals going this weekend in Scott Golbourne and Osbourne. They are big pieces to the future of this club if they keep developing and we need them to get international exposure to help them with that development while they wait their turns in the senior side.

So they are gone.

I looked out the window at the club and watched a nice fall day slide by. Sipping my beer, I thought being out with the guys was a good thing.

Only one beer. That was even better.

# # #

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“We are going to have to do something about Richmond sooner or later. My suggestion is that it be sooner.”

McGuire sat across the table from Hardcastle and the two men locked eyes. Both subordinates of their consortium master, neither were particularly pleased with their boss at that particular moment.

Hardcastle felt he had been framed by Richmond for McGuire’s beating. Meanwhile the little man, still smarting from the wounds to his skull as well as from the wounds to his pride, was tired of being eviscerated by Richmond for simply expressing his opinion – and an expert one at that, he felt.

“Well, how in the bloody hell are we going to do that?” McGuire said.

“You’re the brains of the operation, you tell me,” he responded. “If we need muscle, we’ve got it at our disposal.”

“The idea is to not need muscle,” McGuire answered. “The idea is to be smart about it, and to make sure that his position is not tenable as head of the consortium. Then we swoop after the arrangements are made.”

“I really don’t know how he’s managed to last this long,” Hardcastle said.

“Sidney is a survivor, you know that, he’s told us that a million times,” McGuire responded. “There’s nobody better at turning a profit when no one else thinks it can be done. He sees a cash cow and that’s that.”

“But if that white paper report doesn’t sink him, what in the hell well?” Hardcastle was starting to show a little frustration – which he never showed when cool-as-ice in the desert.

“His own overconfidence will sink him,” McGuire said. “I can see it coming. You know how arrogant he is, he’s bound to make that step sooner or later. As much as we both hate Ridgway, he’s popular as long as the club is winning, so Sidney is bound to make the wrong step against a popular manager pretty soon. It’s inevitable.”

“And then we swoop?”

“I swoop,” McGuire said. “You don’t. This sort of thing is best handled by a businessman.”

“Which I am in addition to everything else I do. Please don’t make the same mistake Sidney did with me, Peter.”

“I’m sorry,” McGuire said, two words he rarely used in the same sentence. “I’ll try to remember that.”

When pigs fly,” he added, but only in his own mind.

# # #

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Weatherby sat at her desk, enjoying a rare slow day.

During the season, her life was a maelstrom of activity, phoning sources, writing stories, attending training sessions and media events, and trying to build a reputation as one of the country’s rising football writers.

She worked very hard. And today she was enjoying a slow day, where she could write her weekly column on all things Reading and simply not have to worry about huge pressure.

She flipped on a television set that was suspended from the ceiling over her desk and watched Steve McClaren’s news briefing, aired on Sky Sports News. It was his week to sweat now, she thought.

She also wondered why no Reading players were under consideration for his team – but also knew that of the available options, only Kitson stood a realistic chance of ever making an England XI. But still …

Weatherby thought it through, and as she kept one ear on McClaren, she was using the other to sift through her voice mail. She was searching for a column idea, and for her that was rare. Usually never at a loss for words, Weatherby was today.

On her desk she kept a phone log, with tick boxes next to the calls she needed to return. There were a few people who would always get return calls – the manager, the public relations office, and board members topped that list.

There was a note to call Sidney Richmond, which she wasn’t in the mood to handle at that moment. He called every couple of days to offer his spin on the club and frankly she didn’t care for his style.

That wasn’t supposed to be a big deal to a journalist, who after all is supposed to cover ‘just the facts’. But if you don’t like a source, you can be less likely to either take them seriously or sometimes even to call them back.

Weatherby knew better, of course, but she still didn’t like the idea. Someone had planted the idea that she was chasing after Rob Ridgway into the fertile mind of Stefano Emiliani, and she had her suspiscions.

Thankfully that storm had blown over, but some of the longest memories in the world belong to journalists, and for good reason.

She had heard the rumblings from Italy and she had read the SFO report that had hinted about an Italian gambling ring trying to break its way into England.

She was well familiar with The Supporters, having done a background piece on Reading’s current manager when Sir John had drawn up his shortlist to replace Steve Coppell. She also didn’t think they had anything to do with the group trying to infiltrate English football.

The pieces didn’t add up. The Supporters were thugs. These people were more sophisticated than that – and since she had done a little research, she was concerned that someone might be on her trail.

That was where this Hardcastle fellow came into play.

Big shot, big wheel, but obviously in Richmond’s group to protect Mister Big. What if he were behind the shenanigans in Monaco? Would he try to make himself look good at the expense of Richmond?

Probably. Would he try to make himself look good to impress Patty Ridgway?

Absolutely.

Would that destroy the momentum built up by Reading Football Club through the personal destruction of its manager?

More than likely.

She had a column in her head that she wanted to write, and she had plenty of motivation for doing it. The only problem was that she couldn’t prove any of it.

Yet.

The phone rang, and she sighed before picking it up.

“Jill, this is Peter McGuire,” she heard, and she immediately recognized Name Number Two on her personal ‘wish they wouldn’t ring me’ list.

“Yes, Mr. McGuire, what can I do for you?” she asked.

“I wanted you to be aware of an issue inside the board room at the present time,” he said. “There is, as you know, substantial friction between Mr. Richmond and Mr. Ridgway.”

“That’s true, and it’s also no longer news,” she said. “What have you got for me this time?”

“A plan, but not of mine,” McGuire responded. “I have a transcript of the latest board meeting that you will find most interesting. I’d like to meet with you to make sure you see it. I can’t leave you a copy as you know, but frankly the way Rob Ridgway is being treated at the present moment is absolutely shocking.”

“Mr. McGuire, what kind of a fool do you take me for?” Weatherby asked. “Honestly, everyone in town knows you can’t stand Rob. Could this be any more of an obvious put-up job?”

“Think what you like, Jill,” McGuire said. “I’m telling you it’s true. Look, everyone knows I detest Ridgway, I think he’s conniving, deceitful, and a stone liar on top of it all. I know the man and I know his wife would light herself on fire to get away from him. But really, in a professional sense he’s being thrown to the wolves. He probably deserves that in the end, but is it right? Someone has to ask the question.”

“You’ve asked it and answered it,” Weatherby said. “I’ll meet you for coffee tomorrow at nine at Bixby’s. I’ll look at what you have but if this is a ploy, and I’m telling you now that I believe it is, you won’t get far.”

“It will be worth your time, Jill,” he said. “I promise you.”

# # #

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Wednesday, November 11

“It’s all going well. I think there’s a soft spot we can exploit.”

Richmond sat behind his enormous desk and lit a pipe. Tamping down the tobacco the first light went out, as it usually did, but the second brought a billow of soft grey smoke.

Skilling was Richmond’s favorite tobacco flavor and as the tobacco’s fragrant fumes wafted past Winthrop’s nose, the younger man was left to remark on yet another of the trappings of money.

Tobacco was supposed to be bad for you, but at least you’d die smelling great.

“A soft spot? That’s good,” Richmond said, interrupting the younger man’s reverie. His face gave away little in the way of emotion; but then, it rarely did.

He looked down at a sheaf of reports on his desk. “And what is the status of your shirt marketing effort?” he said.

“Strong,” Winthrop said. “I had a conversation with Mr. Ridgway regarding the prospects for some of the club’s England players, but if we are looking for quick results from international players, the African Cup of Nations might represent the best chance for that.”

“We do have a number of players who will be gone during the tournament,” Winthrop continued. “Good players, like Kalou, Sonko and BIkey.”

We might as well get something from that,” Richmond snorted. He didn’t like the idea of players on the payroll being gone for such a long time at mid-season – making him somewhat ironically like managers all over the world.

“I believe we will,” Winthrop said. “And I have an idea which will hopefully sell some different shirts.”

Richmond nodded, in a sort of ‘do-tell’ gesture.

“I am planning a campaign to get our supporters to order England shirts with Kitson’s name already on the back,” he said. “Now, it’s true that we won’t make money directly from this, but when he gets selected we’ll then offer discounts on this.”

He reached into a bag by his chair and pulled out a special Reading home strip shirt, with our blue and white hoops and a dual logo – the club crest positioned with the famed Three Lions.

“Licensing is already approved,” Winthrop said, “and provided the FA’s needs and requirements are met in use of the England logo, I think we’re onto a winner here. I think it would be a very nice added bonus for those supporters who are also England fans. It’s also different enough to be something that other clubs might emulate. Which is good, since we hold the trademark with the FA on the dual design.”

Richmond stopped, his pipe halfway to his mouth.

He blinked, staring at the marketer.

“What a smashing idea,” he said, a smile actually creasing his face.

“If we can’t make the shirt ourselves, we can do the next best thing,” Winthrop said. “It’s a new type of marketing partnership and even though the FA can’t do something that will make money for one club over another, the way we use our own logo is the way we use our own logo. Thoughts?”

“I already gave them to you,” Richmond said, his visions of pounds sterling fluttering down from the ceiling now erased from his imagination. “It’s a marvelous idea and you should go forward with it immediately. I will inform the appropriate club authorities. When can we promote it at the ground?”

“From the 21st,” Winthrop said. “We can push it quite hard until the selection is made. We’ll also run a concurrent press campaign and if the Evening Post has any brains at all they’ll want to be our media partner. Putting their logo somewhere on the shirt ought to be enough to make that happen.”

“Well done, William,” Richmond said. “Keep coming up with ideas like that and there’s a vice-presidency for you when I take over.”

He nodded.

“Thank you for your preferment,” he said. “I hope to have more for you soon.”

With that, Richmond dismissed Winthrop, but not with the literal wave of his hand he used to usher some others out of his presence.

As Winthrop closed the door to Richmond’s office behind him, his face assumed a sideways sort of grin. It had all gone pretty well.

# # #

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“So, here it is.”

McGuire pushed a transcript across the table to Weatherby. It was a chilly morning, and the reporter would have wanted a cuppa in any event, so perhaps the meeting wasn’t a total waste of her time.

She leafed through the transcript, and saw some garden-variety conversation.

“I don’t know why you called me here for this,” she said. “Really, this is just business-minded people talking about running a business. There will be disagreements in these sorts of meetings, it’s how board-operated businesses are run.”

“Reading FC is not a board-operated business,” McGuire said. “It has an owner, who can do as he pleases. The board is not for oversight, it is for depth in planning.”

She read on.

“I still don’t see it,” she said, and McGuire took the transcript back.

He turned to a section deep within the transcript and handed it back to Weatherby.

She read. She shook her blonde head suddenly, and traced a line in the transcript back with a slender index finger.

She read again, her lips moving slightly as she did.

“Okay, Mr. McGuire, I apologize,” she said. “This doesn’t seem appropriate to any standard of conduct of which I am aware.”

“It’s really not. Look, I’m certainly no defender of Ridgway…”

“…I know.”

“Of course you do,” McGuire said. “But what is happening here is quite unprofessional.”

Weatherby put down her coffee.

“Mr. McGuire, you are part of the consortium that is attempting to buy ths club. You were named in the SFO’s report regarding the consortium’s finances, and if I name you in this story as well, your consortium is going to blow sky high. Help me understand why you would want this to happen?”

McGuire sipped his coffee and looked at Weatherby.

“Have you not figured it out?” he asked her. “Honestly, Jill, I had you pegged as smarter than that.”

Weatherby’s blue eyes flared for a moment, her pride stung.

“A reporter must ask questions and never assume, Mr. McGuire,” she said coldly.

“It’s fairly obvious why I am here,” he said. The old arrogance, which had won him exactly no friends outside of his own firm in recent months, was back. He felt like he was back on top of his game.

“Given how your consortium has attempted to use the press recently, I should say it’s not obvious,” she countered. “I feel it important to ask you why I shouldn’t instead believe that you are planting this story to throw any investigation of the consortium off the scent?”

“Because it’s very difficult to fool Scotland Yard,” McGuire said. “SFO is barking up the wrong tree, if you will. Some of those involved with the consortium…”

His voice trailed off.

“…that has nothing to do with this aspect of the conversation and I’m not prepared to discuss the rest any further,” he said, quickly realizing that he had fallen directly into a very large and easily avoidable trap.

Those who don’t understand the press sometimes fail to understand why ‘no comment’ is a perfectly acceptable answer to give a questioner. They assume it implies guilt.

What it really means is that you have no comment. McGuire, the public relations professional, had forgotten the first rule and was now on the record with Weatherby.

Trained in the art of non-verbal communication, the reporter made a tick on her note pad. She still had her doubts about McGuire, but had just had a very important – and unasked – question answered.

# # #

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“This is bad.”

A copy of Gazzetto Dello Sport lay on a table. A group of men surrounded the publication, seemingly to prevent it trying to escape.

“Yes. Very bad.”

“The timing of this Emiliani article is terrible. Does anyone have information on what the government report said?”

“About those three imbeciles?”

“No, fool. About us. Use your brains.”

“Our operatives are working to gain a copy. However, it is doubtful whether they will succeed. We don’t have the level of penetration into Scotland Yard that some people think.”

“What about this man Fowler?”

One man tossed a thin file folder onto the table. The group kept track of its enemies as well as its friends.

“Incorruptible,” the first man said. “No known vices except for smoking. If we are to gain access, it won’t be through him.”

“Every man has his price,” a third man interjected.

“Are you mad? Bribing a Scotland Yard full commander? And you think someone wouldn’t find out about that?”

“I’m not talking about bribery,” the first man replied. “I’m talking about more important things. Maybe he needs to feel a little of our thunder. Like our old informants.”

Even at that date, the mention of Galliano and Ricci still caused shivers among some of the group.

The shivers were of rage – and deep down, of fear. The Supporters were much better organized than they had been two short years ago – better funded, better managed and certainly more ruthless.

Just ask the two turncoats. They might not be able to answer, but then sometimes the best answers are those unspoken.

“You’re dreaming,” the third man said. “You won’t intimidate them and if you kill police we’re all up against the wall.”

“Ye of little faith,” the second man said. “Okay, if not Fowler, then who?”

“Choke it off at the source,” the third man replied, now realizing he was outnumbered in the discussion. “Tell the paparazzi to cool his jets.”

“He’d figure that out before anyone else, and what’s more he’d write about it,” the first man said. “Two years ago, we used his writing to learn about Ridgway’s habits. He is intelligent enough to see through that subterfuge.”

“Still, I think a little leaning on him might help keep certain information out of the press that we do not wish disclosed,” the third man replied.

“I’ll think it over and let you know what I decide,” the first man said curtly, ending that part of the discussion. “Meanwhile, how about this woman?”

Another dossier slid into the center of the table.

“Wow. Knockout.”

“She could be turned, perhaps. Our information says she’s hot for Ridgway and of course she has access to him.”

“She should have access to me. Or at least to my bedroom.”

“She’s not for you,” the first man snapped. “We need to get her closer to Ridgway, because he’s looking for friends and allies. When he makes the big mistake, as we all know he will, it will be game over when we decide to turn the screws. We can accomplish most of our goals – and those of our uncouth English friends – all at the same time.”

# # #

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Ori, thanks for the note ... back from my latest radio road trip so I should hopefully settle down for a week or so now. But I should mention that there are three female characters who could have been in the picture mentioned in the previous post ... so don't jump to conclusions!

___

Thursday, November 12

“I have told you before, honey. I’ll listen, but there’s got to be a better way.”

“I want him to do this, Rob. He’s the only one I feel comfortable having around me when I’m out. You need to understand that.”

“You need to understand that he’s the only one I don’t feel comfortable having around you. I want middle ground. What about using his firm but not having him personally around you?”

“Honestly, Rob. Do you take what I am saying seriously?”

“Of course I do. It’s pretty clear you don’t take what I’m saying seriously. So let’s build on that.”

We were off and at it again. After three whole days where Hardcastle’s name hadn’t been used in my house, Patty had tried to bring up the whole issue of protection.

“Look,” I finally said, a tinge of exasperation in my voice, “you’re an adult. I can’t stop you from whatever it is you want to do so if you really want to bring this guy back in, that’s what you’re going to do. I am telling you that as your husband I do not like the idea of a man who has clearly made a play for you having the same access he did before Monaco, without any consequence for that.”

“There has been,” Patty said. “You fired him.”

“I did, and I’d do it again,” I said. “In a heartbeat. I just feel like I’m talking to a wall.”

“He’s the best. I want you to want the best for me.”

“I do. I just don’t want to worry about what the best is trying to do while my back is turned.”

“You need to get over that.”

“Do I?” I challenged. “Are you serious?”

My inner Ferguson was starting to show. I had only wanted to adopt his attitude with the press, but now that I was thinking of using the hair dryer on my wife, I stopped almost in mid-sentence.

“Patty, what happened to us?” I asked.

“Come again?”

“You heard me. What happened to us? How did we go from lovebirds to this? Where I actually have to worry about someone else getting close to you because I can’t trust your reaction when you’re around him?”

“Or, why do I have to worry about you cozying up to a police officer?”

“You don’t, but that’s my point. How did we come to this? Especially with you pregnant and this supposedly being a happy time? ”

She sighed and leaned back in her chair. Neither of us spoke for a long moment.

“The problem is we’re both stubborn,” she finally said. “Rob, I can’t resist you and you know it. You can’t resist me and I know it. We just have to grow up about all this – you and me both.”

“All right, let’s start with that,” I said. “How does growing up start?”

“That’s a loaded question,” she answered.

I stuck to my guns. “No, it isn’t,” I said. “You brought the premise forward, I’m advancing it. Tell me how you think I should grow up.”

“Trust me,” she said. “I didn’t betray you, I told Steven that I wasn’t interested in him, and I want him to do his professional job in the way I feel he is uniquely qualified. I need you to trust me as an adult woman who loves you and is carrying your child.”

“All right, let’s take what you say as true,” I said, which drew a smile of grim satisfaction from her. “I have my doubts about what happened in Bordeaux, and it wouldn’t surprise me if the police did either. I think he was in on it, for the purpose of getting close to you. Has that crossed your mind?”

“Yes, of course it has,” she said. “But I just don’t see it. I don’t know why he would want to place me in any danger.”

“Because he wants you back with him,” I said. “I’m quite sure if he was in on the whole thing he’d have instructed anyone else involved to make sure you weren’t hurt. I just can’t believe you would trust him again so easily after what has happened between you two – that we both know happened.”

“Trust is important,” she countered. “And I trust him.”

My head was starting to hurt. I had a hard choice ahead of me and made it.

When I was with Rangers, the big motto was ‘No Surrender’.

Here, though, I waved the white flag. I had had enough.

“Okay, call him,” I said. “Go ahead.”

She wasted no time in picking up the phone while I sat back down in my chair, wondering if I had made the right decision.

# # #

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Good to hear your regular schedule will be back, I miss having the update when I turn up at the office in the morning. :p (yes, I'm selfish like that)

I must applaud you on your consistent ability to add new twists and turns into your story. I have to admit though, Patty continues to grate with me given she talks about trust but given all you have revealed to us, she is the only one who has attempted to hide something. Interesting that you say three women fit the bill, I can only think of two?

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I don't usually do this, but the three are Alba Fulton, Kate Southerland-McGuire and ...

___

“Excellent. I’m glad to hear it.”

Patty’s call to Hardcastle had come while the hard man was sitting in Richmond’s office. The two were discussing the agency’s profitability and the conversation had, as usual, been one-sided.

“We’ll have control over both Ridgways again and, of course, I’ll have what I really want.”

“You’re disgusting,” Richmond lectured, and Hardcastle bristled.

“Why do you care?” Hardcastle’s voice had a touch of the tone of the offended.

“Because, simpleton, you work for me in a high-profile capacity,” he replied. His attention now turned to a spreadsheet containing income projections from Winthrop.

“I don’t care what you do with your personal time so long as it does not affect my business,” he continued. “But if your determination to bed Patty Ridgway leads to any damage whatsoever to my operation or my bid for the club, you will rue the day and that is a promise.”

Hardcastle looked at his boss. There was no way Richmond could hope to stand up to the former SAS man in anything approaching a fair fight and both men knew it.

Yet Richmond was so disdainful in his manner, not even bothering to look at his pupil Hardcastle, that the younger man could sense overconfidence.

It was a dangerous trait for a boss to have. Too many times in his career, Hardcastle had taken the measure – either physically or mentally – of those who thought they were simply stronger than everyone else.

Richmond stared down the bridge of his nose at the figures. Hardcastle’s expression grew cold.

I’d like to break those damned pince-nez,” he thought to himself. “Maybe soon, I will.”

While he looked at Richmond and waited for some sign that he should still be involved in the conversation, the older man kept the same blank expression.

It was unnerving to Hardcastle, and he had made a career out of not scaring easily. He sat, waiting for Richmond to say something.

He didn’t consider Richmond necessarily evil, or even unethical in how he had made his money. He did, on the other hand, consider him ruthless and at the beginning that had made him seem like the perfect business mentor for another ruthless man.

Now, though, he wasn’t so sure. It was why he had gone to such great lengths to contact The Supporters.

He knew of them through his own private circles – a ruthless group of yobs who had tried to off both Ridgway and his wife when the two lived in Italy.

Since one of the Ridgways was much more attractive to Hardcastle than the other, it seemed prudent to find out who these people were so he could encourage the job to be finished against one of them.

He tried to convince himself that the strategy didn’t necessarily mean murder – though as far as he was concerned, Rob Ridgway was dead to him from the moment he had been sacked – but the natural order of things was that Steven Hardcastle got what he wanted.

Unfortunately, he was also coming to see that the same philosophy also applied to Sidney Richmond and what had started as an alliance of convenience was now becoming a hindrance.

So, Hardcastle was branching off, so to speak, without his boss’ knowledge.

Running through his options for independence in his head, he had settled on one he liked and contacted the Italians.

They hadn’t been hard to find – their security was surprisingly lax when it came under the microscope of Hardcastle’s experts – and the initial discussions had gone well.

The Italians wanted revenge against the Ridgways. Hardcastle wanted revenge against only one of them. So, it was unanimous, in a manner of speaking.

And, from Hardcastle’s point of view, the time for action had arrived – before Richmond tried to buy the club.

Hardcastle sat and watched Richmond. Finally, the older man sighed, and turned his gaze toward his visitor.

“I know what you’re thinking, Steven,” Richmond said. His eyes narrowed.

“Don’t try it.”

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