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Rob Ridgway's "Rat Pack"

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What the hell peter plans now?! cant wait for the moment the dairy gets to the new year!

Well done 10-3! Keep it up!!! :thup:

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Mr. Balty, I refer you to Post 1533, diary entry of 24 September :D ... never leave a good story angle hanging. Rob knows his history.

Oooh, yeah, I remember that post. Thanks for the memory jog, I wouldn't need it though if your story wasn't so long and was updated faster! :p I reckon I need to take notes to remember everything in this story sometimes!

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That particular post regarding McGuire was one that had percolated in my head for a long time. He is quite detestable, isn't he? Hmmm....

You know, Balty, the length of this story has sort of turned my head too from time to time (It's now over 800 pages long in MS Word and the trilogy of seasons to this point is close to 2,000 pages). I took a bit of a sabbatical from this to work on Ace of Spades over the last few months but the fact of the matter is that this story is so damn much fun to write I can't stay away from it. I enjoy the characterizations of people like Richmond, McGuire and Alba Fulton so much that sometimes angles just write themselves. It's having less and less to do with football these days. I hope you don't mind wading through all that. :)

___

Fulton and Fowler had, it seemed, buried the hatchet.

The Thames Valley DCI had really needed a ‘clear the air’ session with the Scotland Yard man. She wanted to be able to work with him – there were other cases that would need solving in time, after all – and Alba had to be on his good side.

Convincing him that she really had had nothing to do with that mess in Bordeaux had taken some doing, but simple evidence in the form of phone and conversation logs had eventually done the deed.

She had had to show where she was, whom she was talking to, and that the people she talked to were in no way connected with the group Fowler was coming to suspect were behind all the mayhem.

Yet, she had done it. She had had to do it in order to clear her name and keep her job.

The two spoke at a holiday gathering the football task force had thrown together in London. After all the time they had spent together in recent weeks, it seemed natural the groups should wish each other the joys of the season.

“I’m glad you don’t think I had anything to do with Bordeaux,” she said, as they sat at a table away from the main gathering. The group, while a bit stilted, was starting to loosen up.

“It didn’t make sense to me, Alba,” Fowler said. “But I had to be sure. Given everything that has gone on around this case, you surely understand my motives.”

“It caused me a bit of embarrassment,” she said. She smoothed a lock of auburn hair off her forehead and tucked it behind her right ear where it belonged.

“Couldn’t be helped,” Fowler said. “If you’re looking for an apology, you can forget it.”

“Wasn’t asking for one,” Fulton replied. “I just want you to know the facts. When a DCI has to clear her own name in connection with a case, it causes problems.”

“If you don’t mind my saying so, Alba, you could have done a few things differently to keep yourself above suspiscion. And I think you know what those things are.”

“I wish I hadn’t taken Mr. Ridgway’s hand on that plane,” she said ruefully.

“That would have topped my list,” Fowler agreed.

“Sometimes it’s hard to put aside your humanity in this job.”

Fowler grunted agreement this time. He had seen it all – from grisly murders to kidnappings to frightened parents to distraught relatives to hardened criminals caught in the act of committing their deeds.

He wondered sometimes what possessed people to willingly do harm to another person. Or to try it. Or even to think about it.

Enforcement of the law was his life, and as he leaned back in his chair, he thought about the tangled web he was trying to unweave in this particular case.

Clearly, there was a connection to Italy. The connection between Italy and England was, however, vexingly difficult to prove.

It was that connection – the one he was sure existed – that would blow the lid off the case.

If only he could find it.

Fowler looked across the table at the beautiful DCI. She returned his gaze, this time blank and expressionless.

She wouldn’t let her emotions show through again. She couldn’t afford it.

In more ways than one.

# # #

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Wednesday, December 23

Aston Villa (4-7-7. 15th place) v Reading (11-6-1, 2nd place) – EPL Match Day #19

I wondered if it was going to be a good day when I ran into Rocco Abiatti underneath the stadium right after the team arrived.

I found him in the men’s room. Unfortunately, I couldn’t wait until I got to the visitors’ training room to take care of some necessary business.

He was standing there, relieving himself, and he had his audio recorder balanced on the urinal, its red light flashing as men around him were talking about Aston Villa’s expected eleven. He was recording. God only knew what.

I shook my head as I moved down the row from him. If a fellow is so married to his job that he can’t even turn off a recorder when he’s taking a whiz, that’s a person I really want to avoid as often as possible.

No such luck. He finished first so as he crossed behind me to the sink, he greeted me with a request.

“Rob, didn’t expect to find you in here,” he smiled. “How about a quick talk about your eleven?”

“How about you wait until I release it like everyone else does, Mr. Abiatti?” I answered. “And by saying that, I mean the team sheet.”

“Churlish today, I see,” he said, the easy smile still on his face.

“I am under no obligation to tip my hand to you,” I replied. “I’m sorry, but that’s the way it is.”

“Suit yourself,” he said, using the American idiom.

“Must be a slow day, if you’re here covering Reading,” I said, now finished with the business of the moment.

“You’re news, Rob,” he said. “The longer you keep hanging around the top of the table, the worse it’s going to get for you in terms of making time for people like me.”

“You get your time at the daily media briefings,” I said. “Just like everyone else.”

He had Emiliani’s easy manner but he was smarmier about it, which made him even more annoying than my late arch-nemesis. He lost none of either of those properties here.

“Well, you’ll reach the point where you’ll want your side of a story to get out exclusively,” he said. “I’ll be here when that day arrives.”

I don’t trust most journalists any further than I can throw them, with Weatherby the lone exception. So if I ever want a story to get out, I don’t need to go to Italy. I can go to Tessa Road in Reading and have a fighting chance of getting what I need from someone who I know won’t burn me. Unless she has to.

“I want to see what you write before I’d ever consider something like that,” I said. “I think that’s fair.”

“The Italian press is not your enemy, Rob,” he said. “You forget, we are involved in exposing fraud in our calcio and some of that fraud affected you and your job not too long ago.”

I looked at him, drying my hands with a paper towel.

“The Italian press did its level best to run me out of the country two years ago,” I said. “Perhaps it is not my enemy. But it is certainly not my friend. Good day.”

I headed down the hallway and turned right, opening the door to the visitors’ changing room. Once there, I was free from prying eyes.

# # #

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Did you just describe Emiliani as RR's arch nemesis?! Everybody knows that he was RR's secret lover!!!

so another journalist from Italy goes to cover reading... Do they want him back so badly?

Keep up the good work 10-3 :thup:

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One of the interesting things about writing is that sometimes readers see what they want to see. :)

___

It began to rain as the match began.

It was nothing dramatic – just a little shower – but it was enough to obviously darken the sky if not our moods.

Huth was determined to make an early impression on the match, and just about did when his goalbound header in the fourth minute from a Maloney corner was clawed behind by keeper Scott Taylor.

We kept up the pressure throughout the opening ten minutes as part of a gratifyingly bright start, but Kitson shot wide in eight minutes after being superbly teed up by Kalou to bring the tally of wasted chances to 2-nil to the visitors far too early in the match.

Kalou’s next target was the struggling Baptista, and everybody wearing our hoops was willing “The Beast” to score. However, his header back across the face of goal was smothered by the diving Taylor thirteen minutes into the match.

There was an air of inevitability about us that I liked, but an air of invincibility surrounding Taylor that was keenly annoying at the same time.

I looked over at Dillon, who simply shrugged his shoulders.

“That’s not a hell of a lot of help,” I said, but my deputy just smiled.

“Tell me you have anything better,” he answered, and I had to admit he was right.

Maloney’s corner in 26 minutes again found the head of Huth, and this time the keeper simply robbed him, making a fingertip save to tip the ball over the bar, denying the German another great opportunity to score.

It was fully half an hour before the home team made an impact on the match, with the Italian Enzo Maresca whipping in a shot that Lobont had to be quick to stop in 34 minutes. Still, that was his only significant action of the match to that point, as we dominated both the possession and whatever chances could be generated in the mist.

Scott Brown, another of O’Neill’s former Celtic men, forced Lobont into a rather easy save soon after, but it was pretty apparent that for most of the first half, Villa was hardly troubling us.

We had another sequence of Teutonic frustration before the break, right after Baptista sent Kitson in for another chance that Taylor smothered.

Maloney, who was having a very nice day delivering highly useful balls into the Villa box, did so again right on the stroke of halftime – but this time Huth missed everything as he crashed in to challenge Taylor.

Three headers, three misses. No goals, no joy.

It figured.

# # #

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Did you just describe Emiliani as RR's arch nemesis?! Everybody knows that he was RR's secret lover!!!

:lol: I'm glad someone here remembers my constant rants about how RR was hot for Emiliani!

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He's not, but don't let that stop you :)

___

O’Neill burned two of his substitutions at halftime, seeing the dominance we were exerting in the midfield.

Ryan Taylor entered for Reto Ziegler and Maresca came off in favor of Steven Defour at the same time. We were starting to run them ragged and O’Neill needed fresh legs.

It took only about five minutes for the new-look Villans to impress. Defour put the home side’s most useful ball of the day into the box less than five minutes after coming on and Sonko couldn’t head it cleanly.

The wreckage fell at the feet of Gabby Agbonlahor, who lashed a shot just wide while making Lobont sweat and making me look for my heart, which was at that moment distressingly close to my throat.

At that point the match started to hot up a bit, with first Zat Knight and then Agbonlahor going into Chris Foy’s book within sixty seconds of each other for consecutive fouls on Dicã and Huth, with the Romanian trying to gain a measure of revenge with a piledriving effort two minutes later. Naturally, Taylor tipped it over the bar.

Kitson’s drive moments later met the thigh of Wilfred Bouma with a smack that had to really, really hurt on a chilly, wet evening. The player went down in a heap and required treatment with the magic sponge and spray before returning to the battle.

By that time, the overzealous Maloney had evened the score in the physicality department with a thundering challenge against Juan Pablo Angel that got the Scotsman booked.

O’Neill then surprised me by going to his bench for the third and final time with half an hour to play, though the player he brought off didn’t surprise me at all.

The highly disappointing Aaron Lennon, who hasn’t scored a goal all season despite being an ever-present in O’Neill’s lineup, came off in favor of defender Thomas Vermaelen.

That was a surprise.

It also showed that the Villa manager was trying to protect his point rather than go for the three points at home. Even though Vermaelen is good at getting forward and can put in a more than useful cross, I would still rather have seen him than Lennon out there.

Five minutes later I made a move that on the surface seemed equally as surprising – replacing Dicã with Golbourne.

However, the Romanian had picked up a nick late in the first half and had been slowing considerably in the second. He couldn’t really continue but with Golbourne on the park I had a player who could do the same things Vermaelen could.

It also put Maloney back into his old spot in the raider position and that meant a lot to him.

Moments later Kitson teed up Baptista, who was desperate for a goal, but he barely missed the top left corner, throwing his head back in frustration as he jogged back up the park. He’s got all the talent in the world but right now he can’t buy a goal and that doesn’t help any of us.

He showed his frustration a few minutes later by running right up the back of Bouma and earing a card for his trouble, but when the time came for me to get fresh legs up front it wasn’t Baptista I removed.

It was Kitson, who needed the breather, and Lita came on for him looking to resurrect his own fortunes up front.

Huth, Magallón and Maloney worked a brilliant 1-2-3 passing play in 84 minutes only for the Scotsman to screw his shot just wide of the left post, continuing our ongoing frustration. Taylor, in the Villa goal, was trying to slow down the game as we were clearly in the ascendancy in the final minutes.

Lita then flashed a header right across the face of goal from a Maloney corner, and it was starting to look like a goalless draw was on the cards.

That is, until the ex-Celt came back to haunt his former boss.

Pogatetz was the provlider, sliding a square ball to the middle of the park. Maloney took the ball two strides to his right and bent a shot toward the top right corner of Taylor’s goal.

This time, he didn’t miss.

Taylor had no chance, Maloney had had his revenge against Villa, and we had found a way to win a match that looked for all the world like it was headed for a split in the spoils.

Good teams find a way to win matches like that.

Championship teams do as well, but I’m not anywhere near prepared to think like that.

Yet.

Aston Villa 0

Reading 1 (Maloney 7th 87)

A – 40,370, Villa Park, Birmingham

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

# # #

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You know, I thought the same thing. Match engine works in curious ways, I guess.

___

Naturally, we were watching Chelsea’s results with one eye, and perhaps if we had had both eyes on the match we wouldn’t have left it so late.

Vedran Corluka scored a goal for the champions that was almost as late as our winner – to the chagrin of both Spurs and ourselves, as the Blues won a London derby by a goal to nil at Stamford Bridge.

Speaking of London derbies, the other one today went a lot better from our point of view as Fulham drew ten-man Arsenal at the Emirates.

Nicklas Bendtner opened the scoring with a minute remaining in the first half but things got wild in the second. Steven Davis equalized for the Cottagers five minutes after the restart and then referee Howard Webb showed Denilson a straight red card eight minutes later for a rash challenge on the Fulham goalscorer.

In injury time, Eduardo brought down Seol Ki-Hyeon in the Arsenal area, with Webb sending the crowd to distraction by pointing to the spot. Hameur Bouazza finished for Fulham, but Emanuel Adebayor continued his prodigious goal-scoring binge by equalizing with the last kick of the match.

United crushed ten-man Blackburn by four-nil at Old Trafford. Cristiano Ronaldo converted a penalty fifteen minutes into the match, and after Zurab Khizanishvili was sent off for a professional foul in 62 minutes, also grabbed United’s second from an ensuing free kick.

Wayne Rooney and Carlos Tevez finished off the scoring as United looked impressive as ever.

In other matches, Newcastle and Liverpool played to a goalless draw, as did Bolton and Portsmouth.

Middlesbrough used a first-half brace from Gary O’Neil to surprise Manchester City by a 2-0 score at the Riverside. It was the same story at Goodison Park, where Icelandic international Bjarni Vidarsson scored twice in the first six minutes to help Everton defeat Derby by 2-0.

Sunderland continued with the momentum they gained by their last-minute equalizer against us by knocking off West Brom in a six-pointer at the bottom of the table. Vincenzo Iaquinta and Kieran Richardson scored inside the first ten minutes, with the former Manchester United man tallying against the team he helped to keep in the Premiership as part of the Great Escape of 2004-05.

And, there was also a big day for one of my former players.

After playing thirteen matches for West Ham, Emerse Faé scored his first goal for the club sixteen minutes from time as his club knocked off Wigan by a goal to nil.

He never really made an impact with us last season despite plenty of opportunity – he scored nary a goal in 33 matches and had only four assists – and this was his first goal in nearly two years. Good for him.

# # #

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Thursday, December 24

"Men mourn for what they have lost; women for what they ain't got." – Josh Billings

“Good morning, darling.”

The words seemed so simple. After our return from Birmingham last night, things almost seemed normal in my household.

The Christmas tree was up, far enough away from the fireplace so as not to burn my place to the ground but illuminated enough by its light to show off its almost regal beauty.

Christmas Eve has always been my favorite day of the year, but thinking back to the time two years ago when Patty wasn’t in my life, I realized that despite our differences and troubles, I’m glad she’s there now.

Surprisingly enough, it was she doing the greeting. My arrival at home last night was greeted with a near-diffidence that quite frankly hurt.

However, she had explained it away to being tired, and as she lay next to me this morning she did her best to make up for her shortness the night before.

“He’s kicking,” she said, directing my hand to her stomach.

“How do you know he’s a he?” I asked, kissing her forehead as we lay together.

“He has to be a he,” she said. “He’s going to leave black and blue marks on my inside and my outside!”

That brought a smile to my face and not a little bit of satisfaction. Knowing that it was my child and not Hardcastle’s that was doing the kicking brought a great sense of happiness to me.

She had had a difficult year. It had begun with a personal restraining order in place against McGuire – conveniently forgotten for the purposes of business in their recent meeting which the little man knew perfectly well – but an order which had included her own father in its terms.

That had hurt her dreadfully. The rift between Martin and myself may well never heal. That hurts Patty than words can say.

It was one reason I tried to be positive. There were gifts under our tree for her from her family – but not surprisingly, none with my name on them.

If they were trying to hurt my feelings, they will have to try harder.

“I have a few things for you under the tree,” I reminded her. “Hopefully we can have a quiet day before I have to go again.”

I don’t care for the idea of having to travel on Christmas Day but it’s unavoidable. Our fixture list is too crowded and a Boxing Day match at Bolton is our lot this season.

We had a very brief workout and video session today but of course the players have other things on their minds. That’s one reason why I hate the Boxing Day match.

It’s great for fans of course, because they can see their heroes before and after the holidays, but from my point of view its simply two matches in four days when no one is concentrating on football. And rightly so.

No man with a conscience would run extended training on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day for most of his players, and we already have to travel on the 25th. It’s not a business for those who like certain holidays, I guess, but that’s what we sign up for when we take these jobs.

That’s not to say that my entire squad is Christian or even observes Christmas. But most of my staff does and they want that time with families. That’s understandable.

So after the morning session, we all headed home to enjoy the evening.

We exchanged gifts in the evening because I had to leave the next morning. That was annoying to me, as I’ve mentioned earlier; I don’t like the idea of leaving Patty and the wee one on such an important day to me.

I couldn’t help but think there was something on her mind, though. I knew she didn’t like the idea of me making her throw away Hardcastle’s ill-timed present; if that was a problem for her, then tough. He’s not married to her. I am.

But besides that, she was right as rain as we enjoyed our evening.

I think.

# # #

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I shall try to ooze less in the future, Mr. Renwick. Though I understand you can get a shot these days that'll clear that right up :)

___

For a change, McGuire spent the evening with his own family.

For another change, Kate let him into the house.

Her relationship with their children had become very close since the divorce; that should have been a given. But when McGuire had called asking to see the children on Christmas Eve, she really didn’t have the heart to refuse him.

She knew he lived alone, and it had been she who found him in that mangled bloody heap earlier in the year.

Much bad feeling had passed between them in recent years, but he was the father of their children and her heart had gone out to him as she saw him lying in his hospital bed.

He even showed up with a big box of gifts for the children, which made her happy. Business was starting to pick up again but it was a bit lean under the tree until he had showed up.

She needed the job with Reading FC, and the club had noticed benefits as soon as their old contract employee was back on the job.

Winthrop seemed to have other things on his mind these days, most notably a seat on the board. His tasks weren’t getting done.

Kate, on the other hand, was a model employee, especially when the marketer was not around. It was no secret within the Mad Stad that the two didn’t see eye to eye, and so it was usually best for the organization when they were as far apart as possible.

It seemed that things could almost be normal for her again.

She smiled at him as he entered the house, and he in turn smiled as he was greeted in a surprisingly warm fashion by the children.

Kate could never forgive him for what he had done. That was obvious. But she could enjoy a nice moment when she saw one – and as hard as she was working to try to make ends meet again, those moments were too few and far between.

She had taken him for quite a bit of money in their divorce settlement – but thanks to the machinations of lawyers and mouthpieces she had yet to see the bulk of what she was owed. Yet even tonight, that didn’t seem to matter.

What mattered was that her family, such as it was, was together.

She didn’t especially like him anymore, but she would have traded quite a bit – including all the money she was due from the divorce settlement – to simply have a normal life again.

She watched as he sat in his old chair in their living room, and they enjoyed easy and light conversation while waiting for dinner to finish baking in the oven.

“If only you hadn’t been such a cad,” Kate thought as she watched her ex-husband talking with the children.

He almost looked normal in appearance – the scars from his beating were fading already and some of the worry she had noticed in his face after his release from the hospital wasn’t noticeable on such a nice evening.

It was almost … normal.

She watched them talk.

Why did he wanted to destroy people as a matter of course? What was it about him that made him want to chew people up and spit them out like so much chattel?

The children weren’t yet old enough to understand what had happened. They would find out, in time, but Christmas Eve wasn’t the time to tell them.

He handed each of the children a gift box and they each opened one of their presents before dinner.

I don’t understand you,” she thought to herself. “It just doesn’t make any sense.”

# # #

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Hardcastle never seemed to enjoy the holidays.

As a bodyguard, it was his job to make sure that other people enjoyed theirs instead. His could wait.

Now, though, his employees were taking care of the lesser clientele. He knew the one he wanted above all others, and at that moment he was wondering why she hadn’t contacted him to say thank you for the present he had so thoughtfully provided.

Outside, the London mist was cold. It wasn’t snowing, though detritus from a system that had moved through the day before still lined the sidewalks like so much sloppy powdered sugar.

He had never appreciated Christmas. Not as a boy, and certainly not in combat special ops, where all that ever mattered was whether you killed someone or were killed yourself on any given day.

He was having a difficult time letting go of the combat mentality. That applied to his job – which was good – and to his relationships, which was not.

While the rest of the Christian world rested and enjoyed the evening’s pleasantries, Hardcastle was on his guard.

It was his life. It was all he knew.

It didn’t matter that his job was to guard individuals. His job was also to guard against those people who were threats to that individual. Or, by translation, to himself.

The best bodyguards know that attacks can come from anywhere, by any means, and the elite protector had to be aware of this. He had to know the weaknesses of his enemies better than those enemies did themselves.

So, he sat at his desk in his office, reading a dossier. His work never ended.

He looked at the picture located immediately beside his telephone. It was of a redheaded woman and him, standing on the beach in Monaco. She looked wonderful, a happy woman with just the hint of a baby bump that he found most endearing for the most obvious of reasons.

He was doing all this for her. He knew that sooner or later, she would see reason.

But for now, though, he had had enough of the dossier and had decided to indulge himself with a drink on his Christmas Eve.

He got up, throwing the file folder onto his desk. It landed on the polished surface with a loud flop.

Crossing to a liquor cabinet beside the window, he poured himself a scotch and water, returning to his desk. He swiveled his chair around so he could look out the office’s other window behind his desk.

The folder was now in his way, so he restored the contents to their proper locations and put the folder in a drawer.

“Happy Christmas, Peter,” he said, closing the door. “Soon you will be out of my way.”

# # #

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Friday, December 25

“Bah, humbug. That’s what you want me to say, isn’t it?”

Sidney Richmond sat in his favorite parlor chair, with just a few wisps of “Norman Rockwell snow” floating in the air outside his window.

Sidney didn’t live in Reading proper. That wouldn’t have done. The common people lived there.

He lived in London itself, near Clarence House, the traditional home of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother for almost fifty years.

To call it the high-rent district would have been an understatement. The elite lived there.

Sidney liked to think of himself in just those terms. He also liked people to tell him they thought of him that way too.

Winthrop, who needed every friend he could get, wasn’t above being a lickspittle.

“Well, I suppose you could, but I’m really alarmed at the direction this is taking, especially from him.”

Winthrop handed a flash drive over to the older man. Richmond took it without content.

“I’ll have this transcribed,” he said. He was quite far above actually having to listen to the conversation himself.

“Well, when you do, just know that I’ve been with you from the beginning.”

“I understand that, William,” Richmond replied. “Now, if you simply keep your shoulders to the wheel and leave the board room to me, pretty soon you will have a different job description. I appreciate what you’ve done here, but I’ve told you more than once before that the intrigues should be left to me.”

“There’s no intrigue here,” Winthrop answered. “You just need to be aware of what’s being said behind your back.”

“And on Christmas Day you choose to give me this,” Richmond answered. “It looks to me like you’re hoping I’ll give someone coal in their stocking.”

“It’s coming time for you to make your play to Sir John,” Winthrop said. “It seemed to me that you shouldn’t make that play without a real trump card in your hand.”

“Young man,” Richmond said, “you fail to understand that I already hold all the cards I need. What you’ve given me is ‘no trump’. But I’ll have it transcribed and if these words change anything I will let you know.”

He would have usually dismissed the younger man with the customary wave of his hand. But it was Christmas. So instead, he simply nodded.

With nothing left to say, Winthrop left the older man’s presence. As he walked to his car, he wondered if he had made a mistake.

# # #

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You do handle them intrigues rather well, 10-3.

To be honest, the football almost feels like a distraction at this point in the story!

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Thanks, Balty ... though I should say that the intrigue is only beginning. :)

___

For a night, everything was as it used to be.

Patty woke me up this morning by leaning over me in bed wearing nothing but a Santa hat.

That, to put it mildly, was quite a sight. Santa and her little helper didn’t even need separate bodies.

“Merry Christmas, Rob,” she said, leaning her head on my shoulder after a happy kiss of greeting.

“And to you,” I said, stroking her back. “Looks like you’re doing very well today.”

“I feel good,” she admitted. “While you were sleeping I called home and talked with my folks. Mom sends her love.”

“Dad didn’t,” I said, and she sighed.

“Don’t worry about the negative today, Rob,” she said. “I only have you here for the morning, so let’s just enjoy the day.”

“Well, we’re coming back right after the match and then we get a few days off. I have to go to London on Sunday to watch Chelsea but if you want to come with me that would be lovely. We could make a day of it in the shops afterward.”

Her face brightened. “We haven’t done that in a long time,” she said. “I think that would be lovely. I’ll call Steven.”

“No need for Steven,” I said. “Just the two of us. If no one knows, then no one can take liberties, right?”

She thought it over.

“We don’t need him,” she finally said. “Though you know I feel better when he’s near.”

“I know,” I answered. “I just want some alone time with you – regular time, as two regular people. Without someone looking over our shoulder.”

“It’s dangerous,” she said.

“It doesn’t have to be. I’ll call ahead to wherever we go. They’ll arrange for a quiet visit. Just like the Oracle does.”

She kissed the bridge of my nose.

“Okay, Rob. We’ll do it your way. I trust you.”

# # #

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The quick flight to the northwest was no less painful for having been short.

Having actually prevailed in a conversation with my wife, I was very upset at the thought of having to leave that warm, wonderful bed.

Sometimes this business is damned difficult to bear. This was one of those times.

You have to really, really love this game sometimes. And I do.

I also smiled at the e-mail message I got on my phone as we prepared to board the aircraft. It was one reason I still loved the game.

Happy Christmas, Rob. You are preparing for battle on the football front and I’m preparing in a different venue. Know that as the year begins I have your best interests in mind but more importantly, that of Reading Football Club. I know you will believe me when I tell you that in my eyes those interests are one and the same. – SJM”

Smiling with an increasingly rare sense of satisfaction, I replaced my phone in my pocket and boarded the plane.

There will be a few changes made to the eleven for tomorrow’s match. Bolton is a club that will give us no end of trouble if we aren’t ready to work hard, and with this being the second match out of three in eight days for us, we’ll need total effort from the entire first team squad.

Rosenior and Gaspari will slot into the full back positions, Bikey will play the holding position, Golbourne will play the left side of midfield and Maloney will return to his favored position as the raider. Lita moves up alongside Baptista up front, so we will have a much different look even as we play the same tactic.

We will also get a second look at Oscar Trejo, the player I tried to buy from Mallorca in the close season but who decided to sign for Sammy Lee instead.

It hasn’t really helped. Bolton is solidly mid-table in tenth place but are actually a bit disappointing from some of the critiques I have read. No matter. It’s our job to keep them that way.

However, as we try, it’s nice to have my boss’ backing.

# # #

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Saturday, December 26

Bolton (6-6-7, 10th place) v Reading (12-6-1, 2nd place) – EPL Match Day #20

Just over halfway home.

It was a chilly, rainy day in the Northwest and as I rolled over in my hotel room bed I looked through a crack in the blinds to find a gray sky staring back at me.

The breeze was of little consequence to me. I wasn’t planning on having the ball in the air much anyway. I thought we could play a short passing game with good effect against the Trotters and the first look at the weather showed me that that was the course of action to take.

With Chelsea not playing until tomorrow, we had the opportunity to go top again. We’d need to play well as the Blues are hosting tail-end Blackburn tomorrow and will be expected to win handily.

Everyone’s aware of that in our camp, of course, so the quiet and professional atmosphere I expect of my players on an away match morning was punctutated, to an extent, by a sense of urgency.

So much the better.

The players knew it – even the substitutes, who for the most part are regular first-teamers, knew they needed to be ready.

In short, our focus was good as we had a quick pre-game meal and went over the match plan one last time. We viewed a brief video of our match against Bolton from the Mad Stad on the second of September, when Dagoberto’s goal just after the half hour had enabled us to scrape out a 1-nil win.

Bolton had bossed the possession for most of that match and after the relatively early goal I had been content to play a counter game and earn the win in that way.

Today, though, I hoped we would come out stronger.

“This can be a good day for you,” I said. “They aren’t as deep as you are, they will have tired legs from their last match and if you catch them right you can hit them where it hurts. Do it quickly, make them chase the game and let’s do a job today.”

With that, we coached to the Reebok Stadium and the players prepared for the match in silence.

Golbourne took his first team chance to heart, blowing right by Ricardo Vaz Te within the first 45 seconds of the match on the left side of midfield, with the Brazilian grabbing a fistful of Biscuitman as he sped by. That didn’t sit well with referee Steve Tanner, who unfortunately kept his cards in his pocket. That didn’t sit well with me.

I was glad for that a few minutes later, though, as Huth stuck out his leg and nabbed Trejo on their first foray into our area. The resulting warning was the same as the one given to Vaz Te. Consistency. A good thing, at the end of the day.

Baptista, who is trying mightily for a goal, found goalkeeper Oscar Ustari’s outstretched palms instead in ten minutes, but the chances continue to come for him and I’m not worried. Eventually he’ll find the range.

The Chilean Mark Gonzalezwas first into Tanner’s book in fifteen minutes for a body check against Kalou, and Lita tried to take advantage from the resulting set piece. However, he tomahawked a high ball wide of Ustari’s right post and it all came to nought.

Huth couldn’t escape Tanner right on the half hour, though, going into the book for persistent fouling after obstructing Trejo a second time. Robert looked annoyed – he didn’t think he was doing much wrong but obviously Tanner thought otherwise.

Maloney then tested Ustari as the classic late-arriving midfielder in 35 minutes but again the keeper had the answer. We were better than Bolton but generating nothing in the way of finishable chances until 44 minutes.

Then Huth, the Red Baron himself, connected solidly with a Maloney corner – only to see it hit his nemesis, Trejo, who was for some reason standing on the goal line instead of a defender being there.

Tanner blew for halftime. We had been much the better side but had nothing to show for it.

# # #

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This story is like wine - The older it is, the better it gets.

Patty's last actions only make me even more sure that there is something going on between her and Steven.

And if my imaginary (:() gf would wake up beside me wearing nothing but a santa hat - I'd do her so many dirty things!!!

Top top story 10-3! :thup:

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Ori, thanks for your faithful readership as always! This story remains a lot of fun to write and above all, a lot of fun to scheme about. :)

___

I was nice to them at halftime. I know, I shouldn’t have done that.

Sympathizing for their inability to crack the scoresheet despite being much the better team, I sent out an unchanged eleven for the second half – only to see Sammy Lee had made two changes designed to give his team more punch.

Vaz Te was off in place of Arjen de Zeeuw, and Scott Sinclair left in favor of Adrían.

The Spanish striker slotted in next to Trejo and the half began.

Yet not two minutes into the half Ustari was picking the ball out of his net after a wonderful finish from Lita. It came off a Bolton corner, when Bikey stripped the ball right off Kevin Nolan and launched a rare long ball that found the run of Baptista on the left.

Julio’s known desire to score meant that both central defenders went to play him – so “The Beast” simply squared for Lita. His strike partner found it impossible to miss, and it was 1-nil.

It was perfect, and we deserved it.

Yet four minutes later, Bolton had equalized through one of Lee’s substitutions. Lobont came out of his area to play a long ball ahead and slammed it back up the field where Martin Cacares headed it forward to Nolan.

The midfielder’s ball into our left channel found the run of Trejo, who in turn finished a wall pass to Adrían. The striker’s shot was parried by a diving Lobont, but my captain put the rebound right back on Adrían’s boot through no fault of his own. Just like that it was 1-1, 51 minutes into the match.

It was a team goal – as in, my entire team had been at fault – so it was hard to say anything.

Dillon could sense the mood, though.

“Easy, Rob,” he cautioned.

“I know.”

It wasn‘t what we wanted, it wasn’t what we needed, but it was what we got.

Then it was Maloney, struggling to make an impact, who got himself booked in 57 minutes for leaning too hard on Nolan as he tried to win the ball.

Lita then made a bid for his brace, but was turned away by Ustari.

We were running hard and playing hard but were starting to show some fatigue ourselves. The wonderkid, Saivet, now came on for Kalou and almost immediately teed up Maloney, who powered a shot off Ustari for a corner.

Lee then used his third substitution, bronging on Ricardo Gardner for Gonzalez with nineteen minutes to play. He was all-in.

Then Trejo, who had had little offensive impact in the match, got into the act, but screwed his twenty-five yard effort just wide.

Nicky Hunt and Gardner then went into the book for Bolton just three minutes apart as Tanner started calling a tighter match. It was time.

Standing up and heading to the touchline, I simply rolled my arms, a sign for faster pace. It was also a sign for a substitution, as Dica came on for Golbourne as we searched for a late winner.

Defender Gerald Cid became the fourth Bolton player to be carded and the offense from the ensuing set piece didn’t come from Dica.

Amazingly, it came from Bikey. The ball was on the right side of the park and Rosenior was first to it at the halfway line, launching a ball to the corner for the run of Maloney, moved to the right side with Saivet on the left and Dica in the middle.

Shaun backtracked, worked around Cid to his left and fed the top of the eighteen where Bikey was waiting.

He steered the ball toward the goal – and it took a deflection off deZeeuw and home four minutes from time.

The Cardiac Kids had done it again. The inevitable switch to 4-2-4 for Lee yielded no fruit as a deep-lying defense and a widely spread midfield held them away from the goal.

It was the kind of match that means a lot at the end of the season. We had found a way.

Bolton 1 (Adrían 11th 51)

Reading 2 (Lita 5th 47; Bikey 1st 86)

A – 27,956, Reebok Stadium, Bolton

Man of the Match – Adrían, Bolton (MR7)

# # #

 
| Pos   | Team          | Pld   | Won   | Drn   | Lst   | For   | Ag    | G.D.  | Pts   | 
| --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------| 
| [color=#0000ff]1st   | Reading       | 20    | 13    | 6     | 1     | 36    | 15    | +21   | 45 [/color]   | 
| --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------| 
| 2nd   | Chelsea       | 19    | 13    | 5     | 1     | 29    | 13    | +16   | 44    | 
| --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------| 
| 3rd   | Man Utd       | 20    | 13    | 4     | 3     | 41    | 13    | +28   | 43    | 
| --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------| 
| 4th   | Arsenal       | 20    | 13    | 4     | 3     | 41    | 19    | +22   | 43    | 
| --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------| 
| 5th   | Liverpool     | 20    | 11    | 6     | 3     | 26    | 11    | +15   | 39    | 
| --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------| 
| 6th   | Newcastle     | 20    | 9     | 6     | 5     | 30    | 23    | +7    | 33    | 
| --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------| 
| 7th   | Man City      | 20    | 10    | 3     | 7     | 27    | 26    | +1    | 33    | 
| --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------| 
| 8th   | Tottenham     | 20    | 8     | 6     | 6     | 28    | 26    | +2    | 30    | 
| --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------| 
| 9th   | Everton       | 20    | 7     | 6     | 7     | 28    | 26    | +2    | 27    | 
| --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------| 
| 10th  | Bolton        | 20    | 6     | 6     | 8     | 29    | 32    | -3    | 24    | 
| --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------| 
| 11th  | Middlesbrough | 19    | 7     | 3     | 9     | 30    | 35    | -5    | 24    | 
| --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------| 
| 12th  | West Ham      | 20    | 6     | 6     | 8     | 29    | 35    | -6    | 24    | 
| --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------| 
| 13th  | Fulham        | 19    | 6     | 4     | 9     | 29    | 37    | -8    | 22    | 
| --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------| 
| 14th  | Portsmouth    | 20    | 4     | 8     | 8     | 25    | 30    | -5    | 20    | 
| --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------| 
| 15th  | Aston Villa   | 20    | 4     | 7     | 9     | 21    | 30    | -9    | 19    | 
| --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------| 
| 16th  | Wigan         | 20    | 2     | 9     | 9     | 16    | 29    | -13   | 15    | 
| --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------| 
| 17th  | West Brom     | 20    | 3     | 6     | 11    | 16    | 30    | -14   | 15    | 
| --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------| 
| 18th  | Sunderland    | 20    | 2     | 9     | 9     | 14    | 29    | -15   | 15    | 
| --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------| 
| 19th  | Derby         | 20    | 2     | 5     | 13    | 14    | 31    | -17   | 11    | 
| --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------| 
| 20th  | Blackburn     | 19    | 2     | 5     | 12    | 22    | 41    | -19   | 11    | 
| --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------| 

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“We can’t keep living like this, but it beats dying like this.”

I sat in the interview area at the Reebok with microphones shoved into my face to catch the reaction of the new Premiership-leading manager.

“Andre Bikey? Would you have thought he’d be the one?”

“Well, we put players on the park with the expectation they won’t avoid a chance if it comes their way,” I said. “Andre did what he was supposed to do – he let go an accurate shot that happened to take a deflection.”

It was at times like these that I’d expect Emiliani to hop out of the woodwork and convince me that I had been lucky to win. In a sense, today we had, but today I actually missed the interaction with my old and late adversary.

Things had gone our way.

Down-ticket, as they say in the States, Arsenal had beaten ten-man Spurs 2-0 in the North London derby to keep pace with us.

Abou Diaby had scored the first goal of the match but the Gunners had been helped by Sulley Ali Muntari’s straight red card from Steve Bennett in 62 minutes. The issue wasn’t decided, though, until Emmanuel Adebayor’s penalty in second half stoppage time.

United kept pace as well, easily defeating Derby 3-0 at Old Trafford. Darron Gibson, Wayne Rooney and Carlos Tevez had done the damage.

Everton had used a 50th minute goal from Bjorn Vidarsson to beat Portsmouth 2-1 at Goodison Park. Andy Johnson had started the scoring 26 minutes into the match only to see Jermain Defoe equalize seven minutes before half.

Jefferson Farfan was the man of the moment for Newcastle, scoring a hat trick as the Toon crushed Man City 3-0 at St. James’ Park. While rarely upset to see our trouble team go down to defeat, Newcastle is starting to make a run.

Toward the bottom of the table, Sunderland and Aston Villa played to a 1-1 draw at the Stadium of Light. Kieran Richardson scored the goal for Sunderland while Steven Defour had the reply for Villa.

In match that was close to must-win for Rafa Benitez, his Liverpool side held off West Ham 2-1 at Upton Park. Fernando Torres scored both the goals for the Reds and the Hammers got a single, but too little and too late, goal from Dean Ashton.

The late matchup was between West Brom and Wigan, and the Baggies emerged 1-nil winners thanks to an 18th-minute strike from Gary McSheffrey.

So we were pleased. And while the plane took us home and a coach took the players back to Berkshire, I headed to London to wait for my wife – and to catch Chelsea the following day.

# # #

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Hello 10-3 I just want to explain to you that since Monday when I accidentally stumbled upon your story I've been amazed and astounded by the writing, plot lines and general fantastic depth of it. Reading this is the only thing I have been doing whilst I've been at home for 3 days now & I've only just reached page 9 and I felt the need to not only thank you put also praise you for such a truly amazing story!

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Hi, Zola ... thank you for your kind words and above all, welcome to the Rat Pack!

___

Sunday, December 27

Middlesbrough crushed Fulham 4-1 this afternoon but that isn’t of much concern to me.

What concerns me is what I saw at Stamford Bridge.

A visiting manager who goes there will receive every courtesy from the home team, and there’s a reason for that. It’s always nice to have a last meal before preparing your side to face them.

We play Chelsea near the end of January and I wanted to get an up-close look against them against a side they should have beaten. That would be Blackburn, tail-end in the Premiership and a side quickly going absolutely nowhere.

Today, though, I had Patty with me and that at least made the excursion a little more fun. What I saw on the pitch was no fun at all.

As in my trip to Celtic Park, we got to watch the match from the directors’ box.

The courtesy Chelsea extended to Patty was also not lost on me, as she sat next to me wearing a designer coat and sunglasses. They were good to her, respectful of her condition, and generally pampered her. That was nice.

The weather had improved – naturally – and from the kickoff the Blues were rampant.

Giuseppi Rossi beat one of my all-time favorite players, Brad Friedel, just three minutes into the match. When Ben Sahar also scored before the half hour, I looked at the Diamondvision scoreboard to see my wife’s picture on it. The broadcasters were already looking for other things to talk about.

Roque Santa Cruz struck back for the visitors two minutes after the restart, but Grant’s men treated that as more an insult than an actual threat to their dominance. Five minutes later, Frank Lampard had restored the two-goal lead and then Blackburn simply stopped playing.

The only man on the pitch who looked like he was worth anything was Friedel. Without his acrobatics and heroics, Chelsea would have blown them right back home.

As it was, it was bad enough. Didier Drogba made it 4-1 fourteen minutes from time, Michael Johnson scored three minutes from time, and Michael Ballack converted from the penalty spot in stoppage time to give the home team a keenly impressive 6-1 win.

I sat impassively, knowing that my face was on the television screen as much as anyone’s after each goal. I was also doing the math in my head.

We entered the match with a plus-five advantage in goal difference over Chelsea. That advantage was now erased.

We entered the match with a one-point lead in the table. That advantage was also erased.

They are the champions and they showed why today. As hard as it has been for me to motivate my players to rough up lesser opposition this season, the Blues had no problem pounding the tail-end side into submission.

When we last played a tail-end team, we drew. Chelsea did not.

That is the difference between the two clubs.

# # #

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I had other matters to deal with during the match, pertaining to e-mails I was starting to receive from the club offices.

As I had feared, the jockeying for players of mine who are not for sale is already beginning, and it’s not even January.

The two most popular are Northern Ireland u-21 captain Cathcart and England u-21 international Scott Golbourne. Neither one is going anywhere, for reasons I have already described.

Sammy Lee lodged an enquiry about Cathcart, which I politely refused. West Ham made an inquiry about Golbourne, which was much easier to dismiss.

You aren’t selling that player to them, are you?” Sir John asked by e-mail.

Not on your life or mine,” I responded. There are players I would consider selling on the first team roster, but Golbourne isn’t one because he can play either midfield or full back. We’ll need both during the African Cup of Nations.

In looking at the stats from the Chelsea match that I picked up from a press table as I left the stadium with Patty, though, it’s clear more than one player will be needed to stop this blue-clad juggernaut.

Attempts at goal: Chelsea 22, Blackburn 4. Shots on target: Chelsea 18, Blackburn 2. Fouls: Chelsea 7, Blackburn 24. Free kicks: Chelsea 28, Blackburn 9.

We have a lot of work to do.

All that was forgotten for the moment, though, as we left the stadium through the players’ entrance and headed to where Patty had parked the car.

She doesn’t drive a lot after the incident in Italy so it was good for her to get out on the open road again and face some fears. Nobody had tried to hurt her while she drove, and that fact wasn’t lost on either of us as I slipped behind the wheel.

Patty looked straight ahead as I pulled my Aston Martin V12 Vantage out into traffic. She hadn’t removed her sunglasses and really hadn’t said much during the match.

She was, at best, a casual fan, so I didn’t press the issue while I took notes on the players we will soon face.

“Where are we going?” she asked.

“Harrods. It’s all arranged.”

It was a short trip, less than three miles up the A308 from Stamford Bridge to the A4 and the store’s valet car park. The brief trip also helped.

She’s really skittish, at least when the person she’s riding with isn’t Hardcastle.

Harrod’s was a good place for Patty. She could let her hair down, take off her sunglasses and simply be herself for awhile. She does have excellent taste in clothes – both for her and for me – and before long you could have almost forgotten there was an issue about her protection.

She needed to stop every so often to sit and rest, but the amazing thing about the shopping trip was that there weren’t any photographers around.

That was a welcome relief for Patty, who has her picture taken for a living these days.

As she sat, I simply tried to figure her out.

This act can be an exercise in frustration for many married men, who simply want a no-drama approach to life. Since I’ve already resigned myself to the fact that my life won’t be like that for the foreseeable future, I thought I’d at least make the effort to figure out where the drama was coming from.

She loves me. She’s said that. She has been passionate about wanting the best for the baby. She has been passionate about wanting her own space and place. And over the last few days she has been sweeter than at any time since our vacation this spring.

So, why don’t I trust her?

# # #

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Monday, December 28

It was a good day to stay away from the papers.

Weatherby had an article quoting board members from the Reading Supporter’s Trust regarding Wednesday’s planned fan protest against Richmond.

We’ll be playing Everton that night and the fact that there’s a protest at all will put huge pressure on the players to win.

We’re in a race for the top of the Premiership and that’s pressure enough. While support for my own position, and of course Sir John’s, is welcome, the players have enough on their plates simply keeping the ball rolling in the right direction.

Yet, before long her story had gone national, which means our plates are going to be filled to overflowing on Wednesday night.

I spent my morning press briefing debunking another story in The Guardian, which claimed I was ready to spend on Spurs’ Ashley Young.

Since the figure quoted -- £25 million – would nearly double the amount I have available to spend in my transfer budget, that’s frankly ridiculous. I like Young, but not at the cost of my job.

I’ve got £13 milion available this window and more money available under my salary budget. That’s a hefty sum for sure, but I need to spend it the right way if I spend it at all.

In January, that means youth players for the most part. I’ve got scouts looking around Europe for young guns and that is where I need to go unless a deal comes up that’s too good to be true.

If I buy a veteran player, it’ll be either a defender or a striker should I sell one of the players I’ve got. Gaspari and Cathcart have waited their turn to play and now is their chance to prove themselves on the biggest stage.

I did get a bid from Sunderland today, of £160,000 for my England u-19 defender Thomas Lyskov. He’s squarely blocked here, and Dillon tells me that he isn’t up to scratch to break into the eleven in the near future. That’s a sale I may well make, though I may also wait for a better bid.

With the matches coming thick and fast over the holidays, there wasn’t much time to go over Everton.

The feud between David Moyes and myself has subsided somewhat, but it’s still a good rivalry between two clubs who don’t mind getting after each other.

They knocked us out of the FA Cup last year and I watched that match on video, as well as our 2-0 win over them in August at Goodison Park before commenting on the match to the press.

“They will be a handful. They always are,” I said. “We’ve had a number of close shaves recently and we’ll need to be better from the first minute to the last on Wednesday.”

“Rob, about the fans...” Weatherby began.

“Jill, save your breath,” I said. “I don’t want to get in the middle of that. The issue surrounding the club’s ownership is between the board members involved and the owner. It’s not for me to comment on and I won’t be drawn. I’m sorry.”

“...they are pretty strident in their opposition to Sidney Richmond. Surely, in the interests of continuity alone, that should please you?”

That was a loaded question, and I looked at the reporter once again. She was trying hard.

“It’s your job to ask, sometimes twice, and it’s my job to know my place,” I replied. “You won’t get me to make a public statement on this and that’s just the way it has to be.”

Frustrated, she wrote down my words and sat back down in her chair.

Rocco Abiatti, for his part, sat with a big grin on his face. After my media availability ended, he approached me.

“Where I come from, a supporter protest is as common as the sun rising in the East,” he said. He extended his hand in greeting and, somewhat to my own surprise, I shook it.

“And what can I do for you, Mr. Abiatti, hopefully for you on an exclusive basis?”

He smiled.

“Well, Rob, you could catch me up on a couple of things,” he said. “Who is this McGuire fellow who keeps trying to contact me?”

I sighed.

“Old rival,” I said, measuring my words very carefully. “Personal and professional. I’ll leave it at that. That’s probably nothing he hasn’t already told you.”

“He has, as you Americans say, ‘said his piece’.”

“Charming, I’m sure.”

“He’s sort of the last of the red-hot lovers, if you catch my meaning,” he said.

I frowned. There was only one person McGuire could have meant by such a statement and Abiatti knew he had pushed a hot button I couldn’t hope to conceal.

“That tells me all I need to know, Rob,” he said, turning to leave. “Grazie mille!”

I watched him go, kicking myself for my own stupidity.

# # #

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There was very little stupidity, however, at the team Christmas party. At least from my players.

Some legendary players have come under legendary scorn for the things they do at team parties. Determined not to let that happen to us, I was thinking about placing the party at a so-called “undisclosed location” to avoid someone doing or saying the wrong thing where someone with a camera could see it.

There are more ways than one to skin that proverbial cat too.

Every cell phone has a camera in it these days, everyone has access to YouTube or Twitter, and all it takes is for the wrong guy to do or say the wrong thing at the wrong moment and your season can blow up right in your face.

Unfortunately, these days people often bring embarrassment on to themselves. What we in the States would call a “Here, hold muh beer and watch this!” moment is too often recorded on a camera by the perpetrator himself or worse yet, one of his friends who is just dying to have a viral video on YouTube.

But I have a pretty good group of guys and any group that has an outgoing guy like Kitson in it is going to find a way to have a good time. So there was really nothing I could say when Patty and I arrived at the 1871 Suite for the party.

Unfortunately, they were all there too.

That meant Richmond had to try to be a human being, McGuire had to pretend he was happy about something and Winthrop had to pretend he meant something to the organization.

With only 72 hours remaining until Richmond was supposed to launch his takeover bid, he was standing next to Sir John trying to play nice-nice.

It was revolting.

For his part, the owner was the genial host, even if he knew the man standing next to him was going to try to plunge a financial knife into the neck of the club he had worked so hard to build.

I just stayed away from all of them, preferring to spend the majority of my time with Dillon and Downes.

Out of the corner of my eye, though, I watched the cabal, as though they might somehow find a way to jump me while my back was turned.

McGuire stood next to Winthrop, holding a sotto voce conversation while sipping at mixed drinks. Only McGuire wasn’t sipping.

He was on his fourth, and Winthrop was starting to get concerned.

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Winthrop was almost a head taller than his partner in mischief, and the little man looked like he didn’t care for the idea of looking up to have a conversation.

So he walked to a corner table and sat down, Winthrop following him.

Elsewhere, players and WAGs mingled with coaches and their wives, and everyone seemed to be having a reasonably good time – those who weren’t near the halls of power, as it were.

McGuire looked over at Richmond, who was forcing one of the young front office secretaries into a conversation her expression indicated she didn’t wish to have.

McGuire pointed to the girl, and laughed.

“I’ve had her,” he said, and Winthrop gave him a look of honest alarm in reply.

“No, really, I have,” McGuire said. “Name’s Lena. Lovely bit of stuff she is. And look at Richmond, acting like he’s this man of the world, like all his money gives somehow gives him a man’s d**k. And If you don’t believe me about Lena, I’ll tell you where she’s got a rose tattoo.”

At that, Winthrop had had to chuckle. Sidney wasn’t exactly known for his prowess with the opposite sex. Or either sex, for that matter. And at least to that point, neither was McGuire.

“Look at the look on his face. Maybe he knows you’ve had her,” Winthrop said, and McGuire frowned. At that, he changed the subject.

“It’s going to be good Wednesday night, you know,” McGuire said, his voice pushing the limits of acceptable volume. “But when it’s done, the protest won’t have done any bloody good.”

Immediately, Winthrop immediately looked around him. That comment had ratcheted up his rabbit ears and just as quickly, he went into self-protection mode.

“Shut up,” he hissed. “Shut the bloody hell up!”

“Why?”

“Because he might hear you, that’s why!”

“He’s looking for crumpet,” McGuire said. “And it’s still going to be good even after Wednesday night. By the time it’s done the fans will be singing our tune. Not his.

At that, Winthrop rose.

“If you won’t listen to me, I’m going somewhere else,” he said.

“Do what you want,” McGuire said. “We’ll see who’s right.”

As Winthrop left, McGuire turned his back to Richmond. The director looked at McGuire, and slowly, surreptitiously, extended two fingers at him.

# # #

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Tuesday, December 29

“You know, I did tell you not to say that.”

Winthrop sat across from McGuire in the latter’s London office. The ‘little man’ had his shorts in a bunch, which was where they usually were. Today, though, the bunching was tight enough to make it uncomfortable for him to sit.

The party had wound up the way the marketer had feared it might – with his fellow consortium member drunk and speaking his mind just a little too loudly.

In front of him lay an e-mail from Richmond, printed out and tucked in one corner of his desk blotter.

Zip it. Or else. - SR”

The marketer’s game of “I told you so” wasn’t sitting well with the master prevaricator McGuire. He was fingering his scar again, and Winthrop knew that was never a good sign.

Winthrop’s face betrayed no emotion.

“But look,” he finally said. “You just need to bite your tongue for about a month or so. You’ll have everything you want then. You’ll have Richmond’s attention, you’ll have all the influence you could want in the board room and you’ll have both the Ridgways willing to do your bidding. Begging for it, in fact.”

“I know,” McGuire said. “But it’s good that Sidney Richmond finally has a reason to look over his shoulder. I don’t like how he treated me when I was in hospital and I still think he had something to do with it. Him and his goon Steven Hardcastle.”

“Hardcastle’s not one to mess with,” Winthrop advised. “He’s a moon rocket with a moustache.”

“Minor league porn stache,” McGuire waved, dismissing the special ops man like he was stubble from inside a razor blade.

Winthrop had more respect for “Hardman”.

“Anyway, wait until you’re on better ground,” Winthrop said. “There’s no reason to do anything until it’s perfect for you and for what we’re trying to accomplish.”

“It will come, William,” McGuire said. “It will all come. It will come good soon and then Richmond will wish he had listened. I will ruin him, William. I’ll be the hero in Reading and when the time is right, the group Sir John sells to won’t be Sidney’s. It will be to the company we control.”

# # #

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Training this morning was a bit on the depressing side.

Not from the point of view of the players, mind you, but from the point of view of the manager. Dagoberto put in an appearance today while still in recovery from his injury.

He looks like he wants to get back out there. I’d like to have him back out there.

But at least he was there. He’s a couple of weeks away from full training yet but he’s got the itch to play.

It’s always difficult to watch a player who wants to play standing out of training looking like someone has just kicked his dog. But with the players busily doing their ball-control drills and generally acting like a team that is at the top of the league, it hurt even more.

He’s a big reason we got to that point. So finally I descended from Ridgway Towers and stood next to him.

“You’ll be out there soon enough,” I said, and the Brazilian nodded his head.

“It has been very hard, boss,” he said. “I know I have to earn my place again and the team is playing well.”

“There’s also something to be said for not losing your place because of an injury,” I said. “I promise you that you’ll get a fair shot when the time comes. You needn’t worry about that.”

“I know.” He kicked at the ground with his uninjured foot in frustration.

“That doesn’t help you now,” I admitted. “But what we need you to do is be true to your therapy schedule and give your body as much chance to heal as possible. We need you out there.”

As we talked, Baptista passed him after being excused to return to the changing room to change his boots. They shared a few words in Portuguese, one of the few languages around my club that I don’t speak, and Dagoberto gave me a sad expression as Baptista ran away.

“What did he say?” I asked.

“He said to get my arse out here,” Dagoberto replied. “To which, I can really say nothing.”

Baptista, from the expression on his face, was only kidding. Still, to a professional, the words can sting, especially if teammates think a player is dogging it in terms of returning to play. I thought back to Dagoberto’s run-in with Sonko last year and noted the difference between that day and his conversation with Baptista.

When Dagoberto and Baptista play together, the result is usually some fine, flowing attack play. When Dagoberto and Kitson play together, we score goals.

So I guess I’m not totally sure what to make of all that. Baptista needs to score and clearly he’s more confident with his countryman on the pitch with him.

Half of this game seems to be played in the head.

# # #

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The Oracle was indeed a busy place. At least, the car park was.

Members of the Supporters Trust stood there, passing out signs and banners to group leaders ahead of the next day’s planned protest.

They had just come from the printer, and the pungent smell of not-quite-dried ink filled the boots of several of the members’ cars as they were opened to reveal their contents.

It was heady stuff. Not just the smell – the protest too.

For quite some time, loyal fans of the club had watched its name being dragged through the mud – first through the SFO’s investigation into the consortium, and then again through the public squabbling between the head of that consortium and the manager.

It wasn’t seemly. It wasn’t right.

Back in the day, Reading FC was a quiet, almost pastoral club.

It didn’t make waves – it also didn’t succeed terribly often, but things were at least quiet.

Coppell’s reign had changed all that. The former Manchester United man had given the club’s fortunes the shot in the arm the more ambitious fans felt was needed.

The Championship-winning side was one of the best in the history of that competition. His first Premiership side had narrowly missed qualification for Europe.

Then Sir Alex hung up his managerial boots, United had come calling and Coppell was gone. The quiet, mild-mannered man left to return home to pastures Red, and the group wanting to take over the club saw its chance.

Surely, they felt, Coppell couldn’t be replaced. The cash cow of the Premiership was there for the taking if a manager who was halfway competent – but not competent enough to keep the club’s fortunes on the rise so as to make it an asset worth keeping – could be found.

Richmond, in the end, had supported the hiring of Rob Ridgway. Surely a Serie C manager who had won nothing of note in his career but who had enjoyed mild success could keep the Royals up – but not too far up.

In short, Richmond felt he had made the perfect choice.

Soon, however, Richmond realized he had miscalculated. The Royals started winning – and kept winning. Sir John, realizing what was at stake, had immediately expanded the stadium to accomodate the growing crowds Reading was starting to attract.

The ‘pushover’ in the dugout was proving to be anything but. The inexperienced manager had a mind of his own and was getting the results to back it up. Never mind that his squad wasn’t the most talented – the players liked playing for him and they did what he told them, in the main. He made his players better and they responded in kind.

With a finish no one expected.

Richmond had had to change his plans in mid-stream, and anyone who knew him knew how much he hated doing that.

Now the Royals were not a team in modest decline ripe for a takeover. They were a Champions League club on the verge of explosive growth – and as such a much harder nut to crack for a corporate raider.

Richmond knew that. He also knew that the financial stakes involved in buying the club were greater than ever. So there was at least some good news. When money talked, the news was always good.

However, Ridgway had made his job that much harder. Yet Richmond knew that, like how he won all good things in life, the end would justify whatever means were necessary.

Richmond’s attitude was the main impetus behind the signs and banners now being distributed by the fans. They thought the owner needed some steel in his spine to avoid selling out to a man who was plainly not on the side of the supporters.

One by one, the signs and banners found their way into willing hands.

Across the parking lot, McGuire turned to Winthrop.

“I told you it’s going to be good,” McGuire said. “I meant it.”

# # #

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Friday, December 30

Reading (13-6-1, 2nd place) v Everton (7-6-7, 9th place) – EPL Match Day #21

They were in fine voice.

Gathered at first on the driveway along Biscuitman Way into the stadium, the fans were yelling, chanting, and generally getting into Sidney Richmond’s grill.

As I walked into the stadium before the match, I was given a rousing cheer by the supporters and I took the opportunity to give them a wave, as the phrase goes.

Someone had also evidently done some research into Sidney’s recent wealth acquisition techniques – they had found out how he had made so much money in 2008.

It all went back to an admission he made in his note to me at the beginning of the season stating his intentions to take over the club.

He had written:

I wanted you to be the first to know outside the club hierarchy that even in the current economic environment, my decision to short-sell a number of shares I held in American companies resulted in my personal portfolio, and the overall outlook for my business holdings, to be markedly favorable during calendar year 2008. This happy situation has continued into 2009.

And while I hadn’t breathed a word of what was in the letter to anyone except Sir John, someone had done some real research.

The story had broken on the Hob Nob site the night before, and Weatherby was right on top of it in the online editions today.

Richmond had ‘short sold’ shares in certain companies when the housing bubble burst.

In short selling, an investor sells assets that have been borrowed from a third party, with the intention of buying them back at a lower price when the assets drops in value.

In short, if you’ll pardon the expression, he had bet on the stock market to fail. And he had made a killing.

Some would call it smart investing. But when Richmond bought back stock, he usually did so to gain controlling interests in companies, slashing and burning as he did. The difference in his sale value and his reacquisition value- in other words, his profit – didn’t go into the companies.

It went into his pocket.

The Hob Nob poster had named the companies involved. One of them was Happy Day LLC, which was technically a Florida-based outfit known as a limited liability company.

The poster’s research postulated as to why this was the case.

A limited liability company doesn’t need a board of directors, doesn’t need officers, gets preferential tax treatment in the United States – and is immune from certain kinds of liability. This meant much.

As technically a small company, Happy Day subcontracted its work – which for now, was solely concentrated on one Patricia Myers Ridgway.

The post showed why McGuire was part of the consortium, it showed why Richmond cared about an American LLC in the first place, and it answered a lot of questions about the takeover.

So the protestors were all over the director as he arrived through the same door, moments behind me.

Who’d you short-sell today?”

“You got a poster of Patty over your bed?”

“Dirty old man!”

His face a mask, Richmond entered the stadium through the players’ entrance. I was the first one he saw, having been momentarily detained by Hopkins and a Sky Sports camera to get my reaction to the event. I was being diplomatic. For a change.

Seeing his chance to speed past the Sky camera, Richmond bolted for the hallway.

Hopkins, apologizing as he did, dropped the manager of Reading FC like a hot potato and scrambled off after Richmond, cursing fate that the two of us had arrived at virtually the same moment.

Richmond was the bigger story, but he wasn’t talking. He was, however, stalking. As in, down the hall, his hands shoved deeply into his suit pockets, his pince-nez balanced just so on the end of his hawk-like nose. He stared at the floor as he walked, the darkness of his mood seeming to blot out the overhead lights.

Hopkins was trying to get him to say … well, anything. It wasn’t working.

He had been set up, Richmond had. He hadn’t thought a protest against his beneveolent future leadership would be anything like his, but his ears rang with anger as he strode toward the downstairs elevator that led to the privacy of the 1871 Suite and the board room area.

He hadn’t said a word to Hopkins, afraid anything he would say in his current state would be misconstrued. He couldn’t afford to talk.

For Sidney Richmond, not being able to afford something was a rare condition indeed.

# # #

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“Put all that out of your minds, gentlemen.”

I was smiling as I said those words, though. I couldn’t help it.

The squad could sense my good mood and they knew the reason why.

“If it makes you feel even better, boss, we want you to stay too,” Huth cracked from the back of the room.

“German humor,” I smiled, and the players reacted liked I had hoped they would. We were loose and ready to play.

“Look, the time is now to go out and make a statement for yourselves,” I said. “Like things the way they are? Then win today, and win well. I think we’ve got a pretty good thing going here, I like the way we’re coming together as a team, and if we keep this up we’re going to be right in there at the end. But if you want the stability that comes with your position and if you’d like to see us able to bring in a couple of players next month, we need things to stay as they are.”

One by one, the players seemed to get the message. It wasn’t about Richmond – not during that team talk. It was about the players, and their own ambitions.

We still don’t have a huge squad. We have competition for places, but we’re still a few top-notch players short of the kind of squad that is built to compete on all fronts.

The players know that. They want to grow, they want the money, and some of them even want the fame and the groupies that go with being a champion.

We don’t have those things yet. So our work isn’t done.

We did have some changes, though, from the Bolton match. With an FA Cup tie coming up at Luton in just three days we’re going to have a three-match week, so the eleven I put out contained a couple of changes.

Saivet got a start on the left side of midfield, with Dica getting a rest and Maloney returning to the raider position where he had such success a season ago.

Gaspari and Rosenior were both called into action at the full back positions, allowing Pogatetz and Ferreira a day off.

Those who know me know I favor squad rotation in general, with the exception of the center halves. Sir Alex Ferguson was right on the nose when he said the best way to build a winning team was to start with two center halves who can play together every week.

Huth and Sonko have been getting better and better together, and they trotted out there today looking like they were ready to take complete control of the Toffees front.

Andy Johnson and James Vaughan got the start up front for them and after the pre-match handshakes were completed, we got the thing under way.

We started very brightly. Saivet shook loose almost from the opening kickoff of the match, leaving his marker for dead and throwing a low bullet right across the face of goal for Kitson to scoop over the top.

The crowd groaned, and Kitson’s manager stood up in the dugout wondering how in the hell it was possible for his targetman to miss from that location.

The big redhead wondered the same thing as he jogged back up the park – just in time to see Lita zooming past him in the opposite direction, latching on to Maloney’s header of Tim Howard’s goal kick.

Just like that we were in again, and Lita this time found the composure and skill to blast wide to the keeper’s left.

Such profligacy was a serious problem. I stood there on the touchline with a completely expressionless face. It was one thing to be loose; it was quite another to be wasteful, and twice in the opening minute made the concoction taste even worse.

The first half, after that, was something of a snorefest.

After jumping out of the blocks faster than Harold Abrahams, the rest of the first forty-five minutes were played like our chariots were on fire.

The lack of creativity was rather stunning, and on a day that was designed to celebrate what Reading FC was starting to become, the performance on the pitch was very much an anticlimax.

We went to halftime goalless; if the score could have been minus one to nil, that would have been more fitting.

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“You do know, fellows, that we’ve got paying customers out there,” I said, with only the hint of a smile on my face to tell the players that I wasn’t going to throttle them.

Yet.

“You started well and then stopped,” I said, my accusation stinging a few players but resonating with others. “There’s 45 minutes to play yet but you should have put this right early on. Now, I know you can do it, but what I’m seeing is that your minds appear to be elsewhere.”

I motioned to Dillon and this time I sat in the corner of the room while he talked tactics. Usually that’s my time to pace and since I am not generally one to make halftime substitutions unless there’s an emergency, my place in the room indicated to the starting eleven that they were all going back out there for the second 45.

The only player who was really making something of himself was Saivet, the whizkid flying up and down his wing like he was wearing wings. I wanted to see what Dillon would say about that – and he didn’t let me down, directing the play to go down his side of the park at the start of the half.

I like to give my players the freedom to make their own choices with the ball since they all know the base tactic like the backs of their hands by now. But this time, Dillon was taking away freedom in exchange for exploiting a weakness.

Saivet had been really good, and the look on his face when he saw he was going to see more of the ball was heartening for me to see.

I’ve changed in my outlook since managing at Padova. That Rob Ridgway was in the faces of his players, and taking a much more active role in management all through the match.

Now, it’s different. I rely on Dillon, who I know to be thoroughly competent in this area, and think more along the lines of match management. He and I have been on the same wavelength for some time now and the fact of the matter is that he’s good at his job, and I need to let him do it.

In a way, I have Sir John to thank for that. His treatment of me after my injury, and the building of Ridgway Towers as a result, has changed my outlook.

As the second half kicked off, Dillon’s subtle shift paid an immediate dividend. Our first trip up the park saw the ball played into space for the run of Saivet, and the boy didn’t disappoint.

He left two men for dead down the flank, took the ball to the byline and crossed for the largest target we had – the noggin of Kitson.

No problem. 1-0.

The crowd of just over 30,000 was largely pleased, with a section of about 2,000 Everton supporters understandably upset by the turn of events.

The goal was a special one for Kitson, despite being his twelfth goal of the season – it moved him past Reading legend Jimmy Quinn and into first place on the club’s all-time goal scoring chart with 72. That was great for him, and we were sportingly given the match ball in Kitson’s honor, but it was strictly back to business after that.

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We had succeeded in the second half where we had failed in the first, and now we waited for the inevitable Everton riposte.

I stood to the touchline and whistled for Sonko’s attention. The vice-captain looked in for instructions and I pushed my hands forward slightly.

He knew what that meant, and he motioned first to Huth and then to both the fullbacks, which was vital for reasons that became immediately apparent.

As expected, Moyes surged his team forward looking for an instant answer, and two minutes later Andy Johnson surged through the center of defense looking for a feed from his strike partner, Vaughan.

Gaspari, who had played Johnson onside for the time being, alertly stepped forward in an offside trap, so when Vaughan’s pass found him, he was about three yards offside.

He beat Lobont and sprinted to the corner with his arms raised, but the linesman was there, flag correctly raised, to cancel out the goal.

Moyes, for his part, went rather ballistic.

I looked over at him, working over fourth official Lee Mason – who hasn’t been on my good books at times either – but it was pretty obvious that Gaspari’s step-up had put Johnson well offside.

Here’s the thing: we never play an offside trap. Ever.

Well, almost never.

Meanwhile, Saivet continued to cause all sorts of problems on his assigned flank, seeming not to tire of playing with the opposition. Or of anything else, for that matter.

We knew what was coming. Moyes pushed up his full backs to try to generate more offense, he sent his wingers deep, and eventually shifted to the 4-2-4 we knew was coming.

This time, though, we tried a different response.

Removing the popular Kitson from the game, I left Lita alone up front, switched to 4-5-1, spread the middle of the park and dropped the defensive line back as far as I dared.

Standing with arms spread wide on the touchline, the players knew I wanted the slowest pace they could muster with the ball worked as wide as possible.

There are some tactical instructions the manager must relay himself and this was one. Everton’s attack broke on the rocks of our huge numerical advantage in midfield and as the match ticked over into injury time we worked the ball back into the attacking half.

Eventually, it wound up on the boot of Huth, and the big German whipped a thunderbolt of a shot that beat Howard to his top right corner.

The place went understandably nuts and so did Huth.

The ex-Chelsea man tried, but failed, to make it look like he did that sort of thing every day, but the golazo sealed Everton’s fate and started the fans singing – on the day they hoped to seal Richmond’s fate in the process.

Reading 2 (Kitson 12th, 47; Huth 3rd, 90+1)

Everton 0

A – 30,800, The Madejski Stadium, Reading

Man of the Match – Henri Saivet, Reading (MR8)

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Cant imagine that this victory will do badly for RR's mind a couple of days before his D-Day.

Fantastic post yet again 10-3 :thup:

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Finally have enough time away from bailing water out of the basement to post. We've had severe flooding here this week and it's been a battle. Glad to get back to writing for a few moments.

___

He wasn’t happy. But then, I don’t suppose I should really have been surprised.

My post-match media availability had centered around the match to the greatest extent I could make it, but of course everyone also wanted to know about the protest.

They could all see that Richmond wasn’t happy.

First, though, I found time to offer an honest opinion about Johnson’s ‘goal’ that is likely to frost over the previously thawing relationship I had with Moyes.

“David didn’t like it, but I sure thought it was offside,” I admitted. “I have to be frank about that. I thought the referee got it right, but then I’m supposed to say that, aren’t I?”

Moyes, for his part, unloaded on Mason, who was not only not at fault as the fourth official, but found himself in my good books. That would have been a hard thing for me to say after the fiasco he officiated for us against Liverpool.

The problem with David’s tirade was that it went on too long. Most managers, when they feel aggrieved, will at least know when to stop.

But with David, it seemed personal.

“Ridiculous call,” he had snorted. “Absolutely ridiculous. I do wonder what we have to do to get a decision against Reading. Maybe being the darlings of the league has something to do with that.”

The comment, when relayed to me, made me smile and frown at the same time.

“I can understand David’s frustration,” I said. “But I do take issue with the idea that we are a favored team. As better managers than I am have said, these things do tend to even themselves out over time, and there will surely come a day when I’m standing here again feeling hard done by.”

I did feel, though, that Moyes had been disrespectful to my team, which had played well enough to win by any measure.

That was the main point. That’s the one that will stick with me.

The main point for Richmond was different. As I finished my work with the media, I watched Richmond preparing to run the gauntlet of fans on the way back to his Bentley in the staff and directors’ car park.

They were happier than they had been when he arrived. So that was something, but as he left, their mood again turned sour.

There could only have been one reason.

# # #

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Saturday, December 31

McGuire paced nervously. He was doing it in front of Richmond, which didn’t make either man very happy.

“I tell you, Sidney, that is just not true,” McGuire exclaimed, waving his arms in the air as he strode back and forth.”

Richmond measured the little man with his eyes, preparing to cut him firmly down to size.

Not surprisingly, he didn’t measure up.

“I have it on good authority that you went to the Reading Supporters’ Trust to organize the protest I had to endure yesterday.” He clipped his words as he spoke.

“I would like to know who told you that,” he said. “Clearly it’s not anyone with any knowledge of what we have been working to do. There’s no reason I would want to do anything that would hurt the consortium.”

“Which makes me wonder why you did it,” Richmond said.

“But I didn’t.” McGuire spoke with a confidence he didn’t feel.

“I did warn you about mistakes,” Richmond said. “What I didn’t warn you about, I see, was deliberate sabotage. I can’t and won’t tolerate that.”

“Right,” McGuire said. “Understandable. So, if you’ll just tell me who is spreading lies about me, I’ll put it right.”

Richmond’s gaze grew cold.

“I brought you into the group for a reason, Peter,” he finally said. Now it seemed like he was measuring his words to a predetermined length before spitting each one out one at a time. “That was to provide airtight publicity control. Do you remember that?”

“And to find a way to get under Ridgway’s skin,” McGuire said.

“That’s not hard. A trained seal could do that.”

“I expect a certain amount of pushback from supporters while I take over the club,” Richmond added. “Organization of those supporters is not helpful. But in the end, it will not matter. I’ll have my way, Peter. I always have my way.”

McGuire nodded. “Yes, you do,” he finally said.

“I could dismiss you from the consortium for this and frankly I ought to,” he said. “The fact that I’m not doing that is due to my generosity as much as anything else. And, I have something I want to show you.”

With that, Richmond reached into the side drawer of his desk. He produced an object and laid it flat on the polished top.

McGuire’s blood ran cold.

“You see, Peter, I own you,” Richmond said. “You may remember this object from your past. You are in this consortium at my pleasure and when I decide to discard you, I will. When I do, I wouldn’t want to be in your shoes.”

McGuire didn’t wait to be told to leave. He did it himself.

# # #

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“Happy New Year, darling.”

With those in the squad who had played against Everton given the day off, training had been a bit on the light side.

With our next match on the 2nd January against Luton in the FA Cup, the younglings in the squad know they’re going to get a runout. That’s fine, because the senior players need their beauty rest. We’re meeting tomorrow afternoon at the training ground to do some light work with the senior squad while the youngsters have heavy preparation for Luton.

Once training was done, I headed home to Patty, armed only with a bottle of champagne. Today was not a day for mistrust or suspiscion, and I decided to enjoy the company of the breathtaking woman who wears my wedding ring.

With the baby due in just a couple of months, she’s starting to look heavily pregnant, which gives me a great feeling as Dad.

So much had transpired over the last year, and so much of it had been either emotional, drama-filled or downright dangerous, the evening soon assumed an almost giddy atmosphere.

The year had finally come to an end. That in itself was wonderful. Even though it had marked my ascension into a reasonably elite group of managers in the English game, the pressure it all brought was very hard to bear.

But now, sitting next to Patty while the television showed New Year’s celebrations from around the world, things somehow seemed right.

She read my mind.

“Next year will be better, Rob,” she said. “I can feel it. The baby will be born, we’ll get your club issues squared away, and it’ll all come right. Don’t worry.”

I looked over at her, and moved a single lock of her red hair over her left ear. Smiling shyly, she reacted to my touch.

“You know, I do love you,” I said. “Sometimes I get wrapped up in stuff I wish I didn’t.”

“You’re Rob Ridgway sometimes instead of my husband,” she said, without a trace of malice. “There are times your wife needs you.”

“I hope this is one of them,” I smiled.

“Kiss me and find out, big boy,” she giggled. “Happy New Year.”

# # #

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Sunday, January 1

World Summary

Coca-Cola Championship (promotion and playoff places only)

Charlton 46, Hull 46, Birmingham 44, QPR 44, Leicester 44, Watford 43

(every team in the Championship has at least seven losses from the first 26 and every team has at least five wins)

League One (promotion and playoff places only)

Stoke 47, Southampton 46, Huddersfield 44, Preston 39, Oldham 38, MK Dons 36

League Two (promotion and playoff places only)

Crewe 49, Rotherham 44, Exeter 44, Oxford 42, Wycombe 39, Dag and Red 39, Barnet 37

Conference (promotion and playoff places only)

Grays 49, Stockport 48, Kettering 48, Kidderminster 45, Halifax 45

Ligue One – Lyon 50, Troyes 39, Monaco 36

Bundesliga – Bayern Munich 41, HSV 37, Werder Bremen 29

Eredivisie – Feyenoord 40, AZ Alkmaar 36, NEC Nijmegen 31

Serie A – Inter 37, Napoli 34, Juventus 33

SPL – Rangers 45, Celtic 40, St. Johnstone 30

La Liga – Real Madrid 39, Barcelona 34, Getafe 33

The first day of the year is always fun when it comes to awards. And even though New Year's Day 2011 fell on a Sunday, there was plenty to talk about.

First things first: bids are coming in for players I don’t want to sell. Nothing has changed there.

Middlesbrough offered £6.5 million for Cathcart and I wasted no time in rejecting it. Moments later, Manchester City did the same thing. My rejection was equally quick.

A player I did sell, though, was Thomas Lyskov, squarely blocked in my pecking order and soon to be the property of Sunderland for £160,000. That’s good for the player and it’s some extra money for us. We wish him well.

On our own front, though, several players were offered new contracts. One was Ferreira, who I thought long and hard about re-signing, but he’s just too good a professional to cast aside even if it looks like his best days are behind him. He can help us as a role player and has been a good servant to the club.

Bikey and vice-captain Harper also got extension offers, along with my entire coaching staff. They deserve to share in the success we’ve built. Simon Church signed on the spot when offered a new deal.

And now, to whom I’d like to bring in.

Our scouts have just returned from the Middle East, or to the far southeastern part of UEFA, and we’ve bid for a prodigy there. Winger Zvi Levy of Beitar Jerusalem comes with rave reviews, so we’ve decided to test the waters.

Swedish central defender Jens Svensson has also received an offer – but he would be a free transfer. The scouts love his size and mobility and wonder why he’s without a club. Perhaps we’ll find out.

An e-mail this morning from Giles Barnes’ agent said the very talented young player wouldn’t mind leaving Derby County and asked ever so politely if would I mind placing a bid.

At our valuation of the young man, that would be £5.2 million, and the offer was placed – and duly rejected.

Also showing up at training this afternoon was Matthew O’Brien, the youth whiz kid we purchased from Wolves before this window began. The effective date of his transfer was today, and he spent his day getting acclimated to life at a new club.

It was almost as big a day for him as it was for Sonko, who received second place in the European Defender of the Year awards, finishing behind only Dani Alves of Chelsea. He beat out Pepe of Real Madrid for the second spot and it’s a huge feather in his cap.

And, it was also a big day for me.

For the first time this season and the second time overall, I won the Manager of the Month award. I try not to grin when that happens but it felt nice. The team has been playing well, and I’ll get an award before our next league home game.

So a little recognition isn’t the worst thing in the world.

# # #

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After the workout, I headed back to my office to pick up some scouting material on Luton to re-read in the evening.

I opened the locked door to my office and found a letter sitting on my desk.

So it begins,” I thought, picking it up and opening it. Removing the contents, I expected to find a missive from Richmond.

It wasn’t. It was from someone else.

Dear Rob:

Please pardon this method of communication. I had directed that this note be given to you in the event circumstances ever required it, and as it turned out, it was required.

The purpose of this note is to tell you some of the things I’ve learned over the last year. I’ve been doing some digging, you see, and you might be interested in the results.

I’ve found that the consortium that is so feared by certain people within the Reading hierarchy is really built on a house of cards. Unfortunately, as I write this I don’t have enough information to fully prove it. Were I a betting man, I would say that the consortium may have already imploded by the time you read this.

This note is also to warn you.

Please also pardon the shock you’ll soon receive. It can’t be avoided, my friend, but please know that it’s for the greater good that I am doing this.

It’s more than likely you will receive a visit from someone who will frighten you in the very near future. You won’t be harmed, and neither will your bride, but it’s important that you, as the English say, ‘keep your bottle’. Hold fast.

You’ll hear from me again soon, my friend. My best to you.

Stefano

# # #

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Not nice? Who, ME? :)

Thanks for the feedback, gents. I was starting to think this tale was getting a little passe!

___

3:30 a.m.

So, could you have slept?

The words of the note were cryptic – Emiliani always was cryptic – and they gave rise to even more questions. I considered them as I lay in bed, counting the holes in the tiles of my ceiling.

If someone could have bugged my office without me knowing about it, who was the person who had entered, and left, my locked office at the stadium to drop off the note? Obviously it wasn’t Stefano.

And why the cryptic note, if you’ll pardon the expression? And why then?

For obvious reasons, I decided not to tell Patty that I had received the note – though I had called Fowler as soon as I had received it.

The Scotland Yard man took the note with his usual gruffness but when he read it to the end, his eyes grew wide.

“Bloody hell,” he said, in the only foray into profanity I had ever heard him make. He added the note into a bulging file he carried with him.

“Your arms aren’t going to be the same length before long,” I said in an attempt at humor, but Fowler simply snorted.

“Hard cases are my job, Mr. Ridgway,” he said. “It’s all in a day’s work. Or, in your case, two months’ worth.”

“Well, if there’s anything else I can do, please let me know,” I replied.

“There is, Mr. Ridgway,” he said. “I’d like you to report any further notes you receive from Mr. Emiliani – if that’s who really wrote this note – and also if you get this visitor he mentions. Are we clear?”

“Perfectly,” I answered. “I’d like this resolved too. As soon as possible. Oh, and one more thing ... do you believe a word of it?”

“As it relates to the football club, I can’t say, Mr. Ridgway,” he replied. “But as for this visitor that he mentions, I would be as certain as I could be that your wife was not in the vicinity when that visit happens. If it does.”

“That could be anywhere,” I answered. “What is that supposed to mean?”

“You have protection, I would suggest you use it,” he said. “And of course, contact us immediately if you sense any personal danger to yourselves. Do not take the law into your own hands, and don’t let a bodyguard do it either.”

“And what if that visitor is the bodyguard?” I asked.

Fowler didn’t have an answer for that.

# # #

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