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Rob Ridgway's "Rat Pack"

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Thank you, Fergie ... real life events have slowed down my writing substantially in recent weeks but I hope to be producing normally again soon.

___

Monday, January 2

Reading v Luton Town (7-6-12, 22nd place League One), FA Cup Third Round

It was supposed to be an easy day on the pitch. That, we could reasonably expect.

However, today was also D-Day for Richmond in terms of his bid to buy the club from Sir John.

As promised, the offer was on the chairman’s desk at the opening of business. Sort of a nice way to start the New Year: “Good morning, Sir John. Please sell up on these terms.”

While we had video work on Luton and a very light day for the senior squad at the training facility to start the day, part of me wanted to be a fly on the wall in the board room and the chairman’s office.

I wanted to know what Sidney Richmond really thought Reading FC was worth, with the full knowledge that if Sir John caves, he’ll squeeze every last pence out of the club.

There has to be a margin for Sidney’s personal profit in there someplace. A man who would short-sell stocks before the financial crisis hit certainly would have no issues with squeezing the life blood out of a profitable football club to line his own pockets.

The man’s greed obviously knows no bounds.

So it was that I returned to my office – checking around for any more notes lying in or around my desk and in its drawers – only to find an e-mail from the chairman addressed to all club staff waiting for me.

Shaking my head, I opened it. Regardless of what happened, I was financially secure. Some of the staff? Not so much, I was sure.

I read:

Good morning.

Today I have received an offer to sell Reading Football Club to one of the members of its Board of Directors.

You are doubtless aware of the publicity this matter has received in the local and national press. I wish to take this opportunity to assure you that I find the offer to be unacceptable and as such have no intention of accepting it.

This is consistent with the philosophy I have long held: this club is not for sale. We have worked very hard to build a club we can all be proud of, and I do not believe this work is yet completed. We are on the verge of great things here and my fondest wish is that I be in charge to realize those dreams, with the help and support of the most loyal club staff in Britain.

I wish you all the very best for the New Year to come, beginning with tonight’s FA Cup match at home to Luton.

Kindest regards,

SJM

So that was it?

That was all?

Sidney’s talk couldn’t have been bluster, could it? A man as wealthy as he is being rejected out of hand by the club’s current owner?

As staff walked about the area, performing their daily tasks, their faces wore looks of relief.

However, I know Sidney Richmond better than that. There has to be a better offer on the table soon. There has to be. Where is his leverage to do a deal?

What made him so cocksure at the start of the season, that he felt he could write a note to me inside the folder containing my contract extension to tell me I’d be sacked by the end of January?

Whatever it was ... we haven’t yet seen it.

I headed out to the training ground to work with the senior squad for the weekend’s big match – the first leg of the League Cup semifinal against Arsenal.

Dillon had those players who were in the sixteen for the evening’s match on a separate pitch, so it was an increasingly rare opportunity for me to spend time among the players on a practice day.

I’ve been more and more remote lately – certainly nothing like I was at Padova, when I was around everyone as a young manager with a smaller club.

So it was good to be around the players again, good to be part of the action, and even if I didn’t actively take part in the workout so as to remain obedient to my chairman’s express instructions in that regard, at least I was off Ridgway Towers.

That’s a lonely place.

# # #

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The news was flying about the first signings and transfers of the January window when I reported back to the stadium for the night’s match.

First, the bad news: the Home Office has somehow refused a work permit for Andre Bikey. That’s a big, big blow to me, as I do have plans for him for at least one more contract. He wants to sign but at the present time he can’t until he gets clearance. He’s one player I’m looking forward to losing for the African Cup of Nations, if it means in so doing that I can bring him back.

The news meant I am in the market for another defender and I have just the man in mind.

England international Wes Brown is seeing limited duty with Manchester United, wants to play, and is affordable. Even in January, which surprises me. Clubs tend to overpay when buying in the winter window, so to see an asking price of £6 million for him was a pleasant surprise.

Meanwhile, Liverpool dropped £25.5 million in the first two days of the window, and may well be done shopping. Central defender Stefan Radu is in from Torino for £13.5 million of that money, and Felipe comes to them from Lyon for £12 million more.

I didn’t mind seeing that last move, at least in the short term, since Lyon is our first knockout opponent in the Champions League.

But Liverpool is now improved, and that’s an issue for the second half of our domestic season. Let’s just say my overall preference would have been for Felipe to like Italy just a little bit more.

The Guardian reported this morning that Arsenal will table a bid for Nemanja Vidic of United. There are two chances of that bid being accepted: slim and fat.

Meanwhile, the same article reported that Coppell’s main target for this window is Werder Bremen’s star, Diego. There’s another bid that is going to have difficulty.

Meanwhile, Reading keeps flying under the radar, or as close to it as I can keep us. That’s the preferred course of action.

I arrived at the stadium at the same time as our League One opposition, so I had the chance to greet manager Graham Rix on the way in.

I stood aside to allow Rix’s players to pass while we traded niceties.

He’s got problems. Big ones, in fact. His club has won only seven of 25 matches in League One and is third bottom.

This was the kind of match which, if his team put in a competent performance, would kickstart his season. So there was an element of hopefulness in his conversation as we discussed our teams.

“You’ll get both barrels from us, Rob,” he said with a smile.

“I expect nothing less,” I replied, as we shook hands. “Good luck to you.”

The thought was that we wouldn’t need both barrels to see off our opposition, and Baptista got the start up front looking to break his goal duck.

We started brightly and less than ten minutes into the match things were already starting to happen. Simon Dogan held back Saivet as the wonderkid tried to latch on to a lead ball from Harper and nearly wound up in Andre Marriner’s book. Then, moments later, it was Ian Westlake committing a much more unpardonable sin.

He wrestled the late-arriving Cathcart to the ground as the defender leapt to try to reach a corner, and Marriner wasted no time in pointing to the spot.

Baptista wasted no time in grabbing the ball, and nobody on the pitch was even thinking of trying to take it away from him. “The Beast” sent Scott Flinders the wrong way and we were up a goal inside the first ten minutes.

Rix reacted by going to his substitutes’ bench after the goal, hauling off Simon Whaley after only nine minutes of play and going to a more attacking formation.

That was how it was supposed to start, quite frankly, and moments later we were right back on the spot. This time, Lita’s pace was too much for defender Michael Staunton, and the pace striker went arse-over-teakettle about five feet from the official.

Hardly able to believe his luck, Baptista completed his brace – from the spot – in a four-minute span.

Luton kicked off but, badly shaken, surrendered possession with Baptista barely missing his hat trick in fifteen minutes. Luton cleared their lines from the ensuing corner but on the way back up the park, Dogan and Baptista traded words.

Then, Baptista was down, the victim of a well-aimed kick to the hamstring from Dogan. The linesman’s flag was up immediately he motioned Marriner to the touchline.

Dogan received a straight red card for as clear a case of violent conduct as I could remember seeing. Luton was down to ten men and had conceded two penalties.

And the match was still just sixteen minutes old. I looked over at Rix and couldn’t imagine having to deal with a more nightmarish start.

# # #

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Glad to have finally caught up again with your masterpiece 10-3. It's as good as ever :thup:

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Thanks, everyone! I have been transitioning to a new laptop over the last week or so in preparation for the start of the college football season, which begins here next Thursday. The hardest thing to get transferred was FM08 and this save. With some help from SI technical support wizard FrazT, I am now ready to resume. Thanks for sticking with me!

___

Now ahead two goals plus one man while playing at home against opposition two leagues below us, we could safely stop worrying about crashing out of the Cup.

What I was after now was a crisp, clean and successful performance. True to that wish, the players proceeded to turn up the heat on the Hatters but without scoring.

The chances came one after the other. Baptista, Harper, Lita, and Osbourne all came close within the next twenty minutes, but with Luton defending desperately and Flinders playing brilliantly in goal for them, we didn’t crack the scoresheet again.

At least not until injury time, that is.

Buzzing once more, we stormed into the Luton area with Harper providing a nice lead ball for Lita. He drove a shot at goal with Westlake, determined to make amends for his penalty, closing him down.

He pointed his leg at Lita to try to charge down the shot, but the ball deflected off the toe of his boot, changing direction past Flinders to make it 3-0 in the first minute of three added on.

Deflated after their defensive work, Luton gifted possession back to us after their kickoff and we surged forward again, with Osbourne getting the ball just outside the area in a decent position to shoot.

He did – and this shot hit Westlake too, again deflecting past Flinders for a 4-0 advantage to the delight of our crowd, the embarrassment of Rix and the utter humiliation of poor Westlake, who had had the indignity of surrendering a penalty and deflecting two shots into his own goal in the space of one horrific 45-minute stretch.

It was also Isaiah’s first goal for the club, a fact which added to the festive nature of the crowd.

Mercifully, Marriner then decided to forego the last minute of added time, sending the teams to the changing room.

“That really is what ought to happen today,” I said to the players. “You’ve got the margin you need – see what you can do at the start of the half but the key goal today is now a clean sheet. Kevin, the floor is yours.”

Dillon didn’t change anything. He’d have had to be daft.

We went out for the start of the second half and I was curious to see how Rix would try to light a fire under his team.

He didn’t choose the way I would have done it, I didn’t suppose, because they gave us a third penalty just two minutes into the second half when Baptista went down under a ridiculously hard challenge in the Luton area.

Marriner looked almost embarrassed as Baptista took the ball to complete his hat trick all from the spot – but fired his spot kick right into the body of the diving Flinders, who had both guessed right and become a credit to his team at the same time.

For Meat Loaf, two out of three wasn’t bad but for the goal-hungry Baptista, it wasn’t nearly good enough. He resumed his quest for a third with a glowering menace that was a bit frightening to those who didn’t understand how his mind works.

Now the Hatters were picking the ball out of their goal for a fifth time courtesy of Cathcart, who headed home a corner four minutes after the restart to make it 5-0, and giving the Royals’ ‘junior varsity’ a very satisfying day out indeed.

At that point it was time to call off the dogs. Luton were reeling, unable to string even a simple sequence of passes together and we had long since reached the point where we could name our score.

The number I chose was five and I told Dillon that after Cathcart’s goal crashed home.

He nodded. “More than enough,” he said.

There’s an inherent risk involved in telling a confident team to stop pressing. There’s the chance they will lose that aggressiveness, and you can’t always turn it on and off like a switch. But we were hammering Luton on and off the ball and you don’t always have to score to dominate, when the match is already won.

And this one was.

There was one moment I didn’t care for – substitute striker Dean Morgan picked up the ball in 75 minutes and the entire back line almost literally stood and watched him. Like a flash he was through the right channel and in on Federici, who was screaming at his defenders.

Morgan fired over the top, perhaps with too much time to contemplate his shot. But then, five minutes later he was limping off with a hamstring injury.

Luton had surrendered three penalties, had a player sent off, deflected two balls into their own net and due to Rix being out of substitutions before Morgan’s injury, finished the game with nine men.

It’s hard to take a whole lot of positive from that.

Reading 5 (Baptista 5th pen 9, 6th pen 12, m/p 47; Lita 6th 45+1, Osbourne 1st 45+2, Cathcart 2nd 49)

Luton 0

A – 19,427, The Madejski Stadium, Reading

Man of the Match – Julio Baptista, Reading (MR 8)

# # #

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Tuesday, January 3

“Well, if this isn’t the living end.”

I returned the letter to Alba and she put it into a dossier that was almost as large as Fowler’s, on a different aspect of the case.

“Do you think he wrote that?” I asked her.

Behind us, the squad prepared to begin its workout to prepare for Friday’s match against Arsenal in the League Cup.

The Gunners are always a good challenge for us. They’re also rather desperate to beat us after some of the recent goings-on between the clubs and as such we’re looking for an entertaining contest.

We’re also at home, so with the weekend off from league exertions we are hoping a little home cooking will carry us through.

Meanwhile, I searched the Thames Valley DCI’s face for any sign or expression that might tip me off as to whether “Stefano” had really written that note.

If there was such an expression, her face wasn’t betraying it.

She brushed her fingertips across her forehead to remove a wisp of her auburn hair from in front of her eyes. She looked puzzled, but also looked like she was trying not to show it.

She uncrossed her legs and recrossed them, this time with her left leg over top of her right.

“Mr. Ridgway, the complexity of this case makes it quite possible indeed that the late Mr. Emiliani was not the writer of this note and I am sure you are aware of that,” she said. “Yet what the writer says does pique my interest. And frankly, it should pique yours.”

“It does,” I said, “especially the frightening part about visitors.”

“Be on your guard,” she said. “I know you have a personal protector so you should not worry.”

“Supposing the visitor is the personal protector?” I asked. “What am I supposed to do then?”

“Call us,” she said.

I thought back to the American axiom “when seconds count, the police are only minutes away” and decided her advice wasn’t a hell of a lot of comfort.

We sat silently for a moment, until the room heater kicked in. Its noise seemed to snap us both out of silent thoughts.

“Rob,” she finally said, “I don’t believe this letter was written by Mr. Hardcastle.”

“Why?”

She smiled. “Well, for one thing, it’s in English.”

I couldn’t help but grin. “And it’s not written in crayon,” I added.

“In all seriousness, I don’t think Mr. Hardcastle would do this sort of research mentioned in this letter.”

“Unless he wrote it and is simply lying.”

“I don’t believe that’s the case,” she repeated. “Mr. Hardcastle is a former Special Forces officer. Their word is their bond. Yes, former military men do go bad from time to time and it’s obvious that by being part of this consortium he has made an error in judgment, but the point of the matter is that military men have it ingrained in them to follow orders and tell the truth.”

I thought it through, wondered what would happen if Hardcastle was ordered to lie, and decided to trust her judgment.

“Rob,” she said as if reading my mind, “I am trained in how to do this. Please trust my judgment.”

I gave up.

“Fine, you win,” I said. “Inspector, how should I handle this?”

“Like I said,” she replied, rising to leave. I watched her do so, and she turned back toward me, leaning over my desk. I kept my eyes high.

“Call us if you need us. That is why we are here.” At that, she smiled and left.

# # #

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Richmond was angry.

Winthrop was in the way.

“How should I know how that happened?” Winthrop asked. “Anyone who has the ability to search tax records might know how the consortium is set up.”

“But really, William, how could someone make the connection that we plan to run funds through Happy Day LLC without knowing exactly where to look?”

“I tell you, I don’t know.”

“I think you do.”

Richmond rose from his chair and began to pace, which was an unmistakable sign of anger. In board meetings, he had had to put a curb on his temper because he didn’t – yet-- run the club, but here, with a subordinate in the consortium, he could do as he pleased.

Winthrop was sat across from the large desk that dominated one end of the room.

Richmond’s long, bony fingers couldn’t even reach the far corners of the massive piece of mahogany when he was seated in his chair, but the desk sure looked good. It never failed to either impress either the weak-minded or intimidate those whom Richmond had decided to squeeze.

Now he was squeezing.

“What does that mean, if I might ask?” Winthrop said.

“This,” Richmond replied, reaching into his suit pocket and pulling out a tri-folded piece of paper. He handed it to the younger man, who took it with a puzzled expression on his face.

He opened the paper to see a screen capture of a HobNob user’s profile. It was Beckham23.

“This is you,” Richmond said. “I know it’s you. You created that profile so you could post regarding Beckham.”

“Right,” Winthrop said. “That was the plan.”

“This is also you,” Richmond said, handing the younger man a second sheet of paper, a screen capture of a profile named “RR_Barmy_Army”.

That profile user had made the Hob Nob post about the workings of the consortium.

“No it’s not,” Winthrop said immediately, handing the paper back. “I’d never do anything like that.”

“There is an IP match,” Richmond said. “Both IPs have been traced to your mobile phone.”

Winthrop’s blood ran cold.

“That isn’t true, Sidney,” Winthrop said. “And anyhow, how could you know such a thing even if it were true – which it isn’t?”

Richmond’s office door opened, and the hulking form of Steven Hardcastle appeared, seeming to fill its frame.

Richmond nodded to the goon standing in the doorframe, and Winthrop swallowed hard.

“I’ve had it. You’re sacked, William,” Richmond said. “Now get out of here before I lose my temper – and if I were you, I’d keep a very low profile. That is, if I liked my head still attached to my shoulders.”

Winthrop rose, trying to figure out how he would get past the figure of Hardcastle standing in the doorway if the bigger man decided he wished to contest his exit – or if he had been instructed to do so.

Hardcastle moved to stand between Winthrop and Richmond, as any good bodyguard would do at a moment when bad news was being delivered. Winthrop said nothing and turned for the door.

That was his mistake.

Hardcastle’s karate-style chop sent the marketer crashing to the floor, and the job was finished by the bodyguard picking up Winthrop by the lapels of his expensive suit and carrying him to his car via a secured walkway.

An hour later, Winthrop awoke slumped over his steering wheel, unable to prove who had hit him but knowing full well who had done it, and why.

# # #

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Incredible Story, it's simply getting better.

And who could have wrote the note? I have an idea that it's Winthrop, but could have stefan raised from the dead?

Continune the Good work 10-3 :thup:

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Trying to get back into the swing of posting. My radio responsibilities during football season over here have made the fall something of a lost cause for me but I do have a modest reserve built up so it's time to post again.

__

Monday, January 4

“We’re going to have to come up with something different.”

The coaches’ meeting came right after training and we were looking at video of Arsenal’s recent 3-0 win at Bolton in which they used the exact same setup – 4-4-2 with a counter-attacking bent – that we had used to such great effect in our recent matches with the Gunners.

“They’re trying to beat us at our own game,” Downes said.

“That’s not like Arsene,” I replied. “Arsenal doesn’t play football that way. Never have and never will.”

“Rob, they’re playing that way right now,” Dillon pointed out, and my generalization couldn’t match his logic.

“But that’s a major shift in their club philosophy,” I countered.

“I’m saying the chance is there to take the fight to them when we’re on our own ground,” Downes said. “If I were them, with the pace we’ve shown the last few times we’ve played them, I’d want a counter option in place too. They have to counterpunch when they’re away from home.”

The way they did it – with Maxi Rodriguez providing service for Eduardo in a manner both efficient and rather frightening – gave me reason for pause.

“All right, thoughts,” I finally said.

Dillon turned off the VEGA display and was first to speak.

“We’ll need better wide play,” he said. “If we play 4-1-3-2 they’ll outnumber us in the center of the park and it’ll be a problem.”

“We’ve got United away on Sunday,” I reminded them, “so we’re going to have to get wide play from different people than usual. And since we’re going to be shorthanded soon we have to be careful who we pick.”

“It needs to be Henri, for one,” Downes said, naming Saivet.

“Granted,” I replied. “And on the right?”

“Well, Kalou.”

“Until we lose him for the Cup of Nations?”

“Exactly.”

“I don’t even want to think about that. We’re not deep enough to handle that kind of loss in our midfield.”

“That’s the problem with overachieving on a budget, Rob,” Dillon smiled. “They expect you to do it all the time.”

I frowned. “Well, budget or not, I don’t like the idea of my team getting run over by anyone, much less Arsenal, so let’s examine the plan. You want 4-4-2 against them?”

“No other way,” Downes chimed in. “Playing one striker at home would be cowardice, and we can’t play three in midfield.”

I thought it through. “You know,” I finally said, “there’s one thing that really bothers me about this idea. We’re reacting to our opponent instead of our opponent reacting to us. I want us thinking of what we’re going to do to them, especially at home. This is just running scared.”

“And away goals don’t count double here,” I said. “With us getting the away leg second, I want us in decent enough position where a competent road performance will get us to Wembley. “If they want to lay back, I wantto score a goal and then let them. We get ahead in this match and they will come out of that shell, which is right where we want them.”

“So?” Downes asked. “How do you want to start out?”

“I want the 4-2-3-1,” I said. “I want them reacting to us. Are we clear on that?”

Downes nodded. He didn’t like what he heard, but he nodded.

# # #

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Welcome back old-timer. Hope life has been treating you well, know that you've had a lot on your plate! That said, I'm delighted to see this story being updated again. I'd have to hunt you down if you left it unfinished! :D

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Sad in a way to be 'welcomed back', Balty, but I deserve the label of non-producer of late. Right now I am working five jobs (my full time job, three newspaper free-lance jobs and my college football broadcasting) which has meant my FMS time has been non-existent. However, I'm a finalist for a career-changing job which, if I am successful, will change everything and probably even keep me out of the hospital :) Thanks for reading -- there is much, much more to this tale still ahead.

___

We are probably going to lose Bikey at the end of the season. He has been denied a work permit for a new contract and that’s both amazing and rather devastating to us.

His partnership with Sonko last season was a big reason why we accomplished what we did, but he has become a valuable player for us this year in more than one position.

When we need help in the air, having Andre as the holding midfielder pays immediate dividends. Magallon is a fine defender and a heady player, but he routinely loses out in aerial contests due to his slight build. Bikey gives us dominance in that department and when he, Huth and Sonko are out there we are plenty big and plenty physical.

So losing him will smart, and it will mean I’m into the market for a new holding midfielder either in this window or over the summer. Osbourne is a fine player but he’s more of a central midfielder even if he’s not the raider type my tactic prefers.

That said, I know who the player next year won’t be. That would be Harper.

West Ham offered £1m for my vice captain today and I have decided to accept the terms. James deserves to play and he’s third on my list at the position now. He’s getting a shade long in the tooth as well so now is the time to let him have his time in the sun.

Thomas Lyskov is also on his way to Sunderland, blocked at several different positions.

We’re getting enquiries hand over fist for three players I have no intention of selling – Cathcart, Saivet and Scott Golbourne. That’s part of the game at this level, but what I am waiting for is to have achieved the standing in this game where other clubs don’t think we’ll sell just because we’re Reading FC.

Fulham also has made an enquiry about Shane Long, and if they’d give us our asking price of £3.8 million, I would let him leave too. They’re thinking it over, or so they say.

Shane has great talent. I’ve also got four strikers who are ahead of him, so there is that to consider as well.

There are options for the Arsenal match. They are, in the main, players I would prefer not to sell, or players who are right on the fringes of a first team I like quite a bit.

The Rat Pack has come together nicely over the last eighteen months or so. It’s time for them to show a bit of their attitude.

# # #

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McGuire was a happy guy.

Winthrop’s panicked phone call had told him everything he needed to know. His subterfuge had been successful, and the man he considered very much a junior partner – and junior intellect – in the consortium was now well and truly out of the picture.

Graciously, Richmond had allowed Winthrop to keep his position in the marketing department, mainly because he knew he didn’t yet have the authority to sack him there too – but he would when the time was right, and if Winthrop knew what was good for him in the short term he wouldn’t whisper a word to anyone about what had gone on in the older man’s office.

So when Winthrop had called McGuire’s mobile phone there was only one more game to play with the younger man. It was surprisingly difficult.

McGuire had to pretend he gave a damn.

He tut-tutted in all the right places, swore to help at all the right times, vowed vengeance when the situation warranted, and professed stunned amazement at just the right moments. He swore up and down that when his company really won the bid for Reading FC, that he’d restore Winthrop to his proper place.

After all, he needed Winthrop’s outside money and backing to close out the deal. Happy Day was a holding company and even with McGuire’s outside interests, that was never going to be enough.

On the up and up, anyway.

In the meantime, McGuire was busy on his computer.

Having hacked Winthrop’s Hob Nob account, he could consider his work well and truly finished.

He was re-reading his post on the consortium’s finances made on Winthrop’s account. Sure, he knew that Winthrop knew what had happened, and he could probably even have guessed who had done it, the thick, stupid git.

The site was privately owned, so nobody from within the club could do an IP match on McGuire’s machine without creating national news. It was the perfect ‘crime’.

He hung up the phone. Winthrop was ruined. Richmond was going to be next.

There was a list of people McGuire wanted to wreck. Sir John wasn’t worth it any more, since he’d be selling up. He wasn’t happy with how he had been thrown out of the Mad Stad at the end of the prior season, but with the club under his control, he could overlook that.

A public relations professional, after all, knows when to shut his mouth. Sir John would always get credit as being the man who brought Reading FC to a place of prominence. That was fine. He could have that.

What he wasn’t going to get, however, was the profit from his work. That money would go into McGuire’s pocket. He just knew it.

Richmond was going to get his. Nobody talked to Peter J. McGuire in the way that man did and got away with it.

And his assailant? Well, there was something special in mind for that person, and for his boss.

Or her boss, in the unlikely event a woman had caused that kind of damage to his skull. He didn’t yet have the proof he needed, but it wouldn’t be long in coming. He knew just where to go to find everything he needed.

He sat back in his chair, fingering his scar. He had it all planned.

“People are never sorry until you make them sorry,” he said out loud. “I am going to make a lot of people very, very sorry.”

He looked at the newly-framed picture to his left, resting in the same place as its predecessor.

You didn’t follow instructions, Patty Ridgway,” he said, his voice dropping to a near-whisper. He took a drink from a glass of scotch which rested carefully on a coaster next to the gold-framed image.

You didn’t follow instructions.” He drank, and smiled thinly to himself.

# # #

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Tuesday, January 5

The beat goes on.

Our Fourth Round FA Cup draw has us home to Villa, and if we play to expectation we should do well.

Since that’s the big trophy that has eluded the club for its entire existence, it’s the one that draws the most attention. Reading, as I’ve mentioned earlier, is the English club that has played the most times in the FA Cup without ever winning it.

While I’m not expected to end that drought this season, it’s been made clear to me on more than one occasion that it sure would be nice. Yet, with re-qualification for the Champions League being my top priority, a new influx of cash will be needed before I can seriously be expected to contend on both fronts.

That bit of Cup news was one to file away, along with a quick quote on the Villa matchup to Weatherby in my morning press gaggle, before getting down to the hard business of last-minute preparation for Arsenal.

With a league contest coming up at Old Trafford on Sunday, there’s no rest for the weary but there will be rest for some of the regulars. I have no choice.

I broke the news to Sir John after training.

“I know you and the board want that trophy,” I said. “But we’re at the start of a big and important stretch of fixtures that are also vital to our league challenge. Arsenal in the League Cup and then United away, Chelsea at home, the return Cup tie at Arsenal and then Arsenal in the league, all within fifteen days. I have to rest players, I have to rotate my eleven and in the middle of it all, we lose players to the Cup of Nations. It is not good, and it’s going to get worse before it gets any better.”

“That is a difficult pill to swallow, especially since Sidney is making the noise he’s making,” the owner replied.

“It’s the truth,” I said. “Now, we’ll go out there with every thought of sweeping the fixture list and even though that’s highly unlikely due to the quality of our opposition and the places where some of these matches will be played, we’ve got a shot if we prepare properly and get a few breaks.”

The expression on his face told me he was expecting better.

“Dagoberto isn’t ready to return yet, Fleck is still not at full fitness and we have clubs trying to unsettle players like Golbourne, Cathcart and Henri Saivet,” I added.

“That’s why we pay you a hefty salary, Rob,” Sir John said, a wan smile on his face. “Not to make excuses.”

I looked at him, trying to avoid an expression either of pity, or anger, and simply stood there, feeling a sensation of deep fatigue washing through my body.

“Yes,” I finally said. “That’s why you do just that.”

He nodded, I turned my back, and waited for the elevator to return me to the team level of the stadium.

# # #

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Wednesday, January 6 – Reading v Arsenal, League Cup Semifinal First Leg

“The only place success comes before work is in the dictionary.” – NFL coach Vince Lombardi

How long has it been since Reading last played in the semifinals of a major cup competition?

Try 1927.

How long has it been since the club last reached the quarterfinals of the League Cup?

Well...it was so long ago that I played in the game.

So this was a big step, even for the current Premiership-contending Royals.

There was an air of expectation about the Mad Stad as the players arrived to take part in the club’s first major cup semifinal since the FA Cup tie of 26 March 1927.

On that day back in the Roaring Twenties, the big news in Britain was the recent general strike in Shanghai to protest the presence of British troops in China. Fritz Lang’s groundbreaking film Metropolis had also opened in Germany two weeks before to highly combustible reviews.

In America, Babe Ruth was about to embark on an historic baseball season that would see him hit sixty home runs, a record which would stand for thirty-four years.

But in Berkshire, people were talking about the Royals – at least until that day in March.

On that day, the Second Division Royals lost 3-0 to eventual winner Cardiff City at Wolverhampton, ending a run which remains the club’s best performance in that event – or any major cup competition – to date.

The club’s victims in that run were Weymouth, Southend, Manchester United, Portsmouth, Brentford and Swansea Town.

As for the League Cup, the match would be the club’s first ever semifinal appearance, period. The last time the club had reached the quarterfinals, one R. D. Ridgway was in his first season with the club.

That was 1997-98, and we beat Swansea City, Peterborough, Wolves and Leeds before losing 1-0 at home to Middlesbrough.

This club hasn’t won a trophy of any kind since the 1988 Full Members Cup, which was a seven-year competition created during the time English clubs were banned from Europe after the Heysel disaster.

That trophy is long gone and little-lamented, so there was definitely an air of excitement around the ground as the usual pre-match preparations took place. In the League Cup, this was virgin territory, the rarified air of the last four.

I also felt a bit of unfinished business in this competition. I wanted nothing more when I played in England than to win a trophy and it just didn’t happen. So, perhaps as a manager I might have better luck.

Unfortunately, my conversation with Sir John about the eleven meant we’d have to play a near-perfect match to make that happen.

Kitson and Baptista got the start for us up front, however, as I figured we’d need some sort of credible strike presence to keep us afloat even with the momentum of playing at home on our side.

I should have figured that things would go well.

Saivet was showing more than flashes of his immense promise down our right flank while Golbourne was kind enough to show the television audience why I rate him so highly with a tasty cross just five minutes into the match that Kitson nodded straight into the arms of Lukasz Fabianski in the Arsenal goal.

Moments later, we were on the penalty spot as Alexis, Wenger’s £17 million signing from Valencia in the close season, grabbed a whole handful of Golbourne as he burst by him in the penalty area and hauled him to the deck.

Baptista, with the glee that only a man with the chance to score against his former club could show, grabbed the ball and put it on the spot – only to see his strong effort saved by Fabianski’s desperate dive to the left.

“The Beast” watched the ball go out of play for a corner and stood there, hands on hips, with an expression of utter disgust on his face.

Kitson walked by Baptista and mussed what would have been his hair if it had been longer, but the Brazilian paid him no heed.

Self-loathing. It was a powerful visual.

Now with the momentum turned squarely against us, we began to defend against an increasingly frisky Arsenal. Maxi Rodriguez shot over the bar. Denilson forced Federici into a smart save in twenty minutes. And Adebayor was victimized by the right goal post just a few minutes later.

I had seen enough. For the time being, at least, it was time to play turtle.

Signaling for a switch to a countering tactic, the players seemed to adjust as one. After all, we were playing Arsenal and this was what we were supposed to do.

I also figured it would be playing into their hands, but to get through that stretch of time it was really our only option.

They poured forward again, with Rodriguez crossing for Adebayor, only to find the head of Gaspari there first to clear the ball away. His long header found Bikey, who in turn relayed to Saivet flashing down the right wing.

Off Saivet went, Rodriguez far in his wake, with Kitson and Baptista churning along, trying to stay onside to his left.

It was three against three and some players would have held up the ball waiting for better numbers. Not so Saivet, who, having lost his marker, was determined to force the issue.

His cross found Kitson and the big man’s header bounced past Fabianski and home for a 1-0 lead to us in 29 minutes.

The crowd, just a few shy of capacity, reacted as expected and even the manager showed some emotion, bounding out of his seat to thrust a fist into the air. The players celebrated and Dillon turned to me.

“Sometimes I guess we just have to do something until they show they can stop it,” he said. He was right.

# # #

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Five minutes later, though, the fans were screaming for an entirely different reason.

Gaspari stood, his hands in the air, where he had attempted to defend Adebayor. Howard Webb was pointing to the penalty spot and I was in disbelief.

The two had made incidental contact three yards inside the top left corner of the box as Federici looked at it, and the striker had bounced off my defender’s chest.

In so doing, Adebayor had lost control of the ball, which spun away crazily, and the striker went down in his attempt to regain it, again making contact with the defender.

That was enough for Webb, and it was nearly enough for me as well.

While I looked for answers from fourth official Steve Bennett, Adebayor levelled the score by blasting past Federici in 34 minutes to make it 1-1.

When 30,000 people are whistling, the noise can be pretty profound. It was very profound now.

Already, it was shaping into the kind of match that drives managers crazy. The penalties were even, so Webb probably felt he doing a good job. The even-up aspect of the call really frosted my shorts as play resumed, and Arsenal swung into the ascendancy through their fresh burst of black-shirt-gifted momentum.

Still, though, Baptista had missed his penalty and Adebayor hadn’t. That was the real issue, as much as whether Arsenal’s penalty was legitimate.

We went to half in a 1-1 draw and both sides felt dissatisfied.

# # #

As a result, both teams began the second half with attacking intent but with little application. We were sort of all over the board, and it showed with some truly ragged play.

A few moments of head tennis between the midfielders soon found the ball in the possession of Rodriguez, who elected to head the ball straight into the air to avoid giving it right back to us.

He moved forward and found Fabregas cutting through the central defenders, but he was offside. He banged the ball past Federici which aroused the ire of our defenders, who chased after the attacking midfielder.

I wasn’t happy about that – but then I saw Webb pointing to the center spot and no linesman’s flag up. He had allowed a goal, and that was the last straw.

Our defenders had meanwhile been elbowed out of the way by Fabregas’ happy teammates, while my defenders turned as one toward the far-side linesman, who had made a pretty big mistake.

Gaspari, who was already having a bad day, had just seen more misery piled on him as the player more or less culpable for allowing Fabregas past.

There were two orders of business. Dillon was off the bench screaming for the defenders to stop surrounding the official. I was off the bench trying to surround Steve Bennett by myself.

I tried a novel approach. I pointed down the touchline to where our mascot, Kingsley Royal, was standing by the advertising hoardings waving his arms.

“Hell, Steve, even that guy can see it,” I roared, pointing to the mascot as the Gunners returned to the center circle for our kickoff. “Why didn’t the guy with the flag?”

I am quite certain that fourth officials are not generally paid for the privilege of taking abuse from managers, but he was the closest target and I needed to vent. So I did.

Now trailing in the match, we were unable to do what we do best against Arsenal, which is to counter them. We had to take the play to them, and it was a bit ironic that the shoe was now on the other foot.

They countered us, and did it hard. Federici made a superb stop on Adebayor just after the hour to keep us within a goal, and Fabregas barely missed his brace by contriving to hit the bar in 73 minutes when it would have been far easier to score.

Meanwhile, we did nothing. Arsenal sat back and strangled us, and when the final whistle blew we were beaten.

Not happy about it, but beaten nonetheless.

Reading 1 (Kitson 5th, 29; Baptista m/p 13)

Arsenal 2 (Emanuel Adebayor 24th pen 34; Cesc Fabregas 6th 53)

A – 30,799, Madejski Stadium, Reading

Man of the Match – Cesc Fabregas, Arsenal (MR 8)

# # #

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“Perhaps you can tell me why I ought to be happy, Jill.”

I should have let Dillon handle the post-match news conference, but I hadn’t skipped one yet in my entire, but brief, career as a manager. Now was not the time to start, in my view.

“We got a call at the beginning of the match but in the end, we gave a penalty that was so soft it had a caramel center and their winning goal was offside. So they get two goals and we’re wondering how in the hell that happened. So no, I’m not happy, Jill.”

Weatherby hadn’t had a red meat quote from me in forever, so she and the other journos present were feverishly scribbling as I let out some frustration in Mr. Webb’s general direction.

“I don’t know if it escaped their attention, but we’re playing for something here,” I said. “It’s been donkey’s years since Reading Football Club played in a tie this late in a cup competition and to have this happen is just ridiculous.”

“The replays did appear to bear you out,” Weatherby said, leading me on.

“The mascot saw it,” I said. “You’ve got a seven-foot tall lion wearing a two-foot high false head that can see what happened. Now I know Kingsley has been sent off in his career before so he probably decided not to say anything. Well, I will.”

Kingsley had once been sent off by Mike Riley in 2007 for standing too close to the pitch during a match, in a spat that made national news at the time. That was why he was standing by the advertising hoardings tonight.

“So how do you go to the Emirates and get a result to put you through to the final?”

“Beats me,” I answered. “Perhaps if I had Baptista stand next to the goal post for the entire match.”

I had probably crossed the point of no return, but I had made my point.

How clearly remains to be seen.

# # #

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Tough, Mark, yes ... but it's gonna get tougher.

___

Thursday, January 7

Too clearly.

Way too clearly, actually.

I was awakened this morning by my home phone ringing. Picking it up, I heard Waters on the other end and he sounded alarmed.

“Rob, the FA has charged you for yesterday’s news conference,” he said. “Disrepute.”

“That’s quick,” I answered.

“Rob, the comments went all over the country. What did you think they’d do?”

“Just what they did,” I admitted, rolling to my back and rubbing sleep out of my eyes. “So what happens now?”

“The Compliance Department is meeting at Soho Square at three,” he said. I rolled back to my side to look at the clock. It read 9:14 a.m.

“No hearing?”

“Not this time,” Waters said. “It's fast-tracked. Prosecutor, judge and jury. That’s how it works.”

“We’re at Old Trafford on Wednesday. I need to be there.”

The thought of a touchline ban, at this particular moment in time, was annoying in the extreme. I had tried to protect my players and if this was the price I had to pay for it, well, that was steep.

“We’ll have to see what happens,” I said, and placed a call to the League Manager’s Association. I wanted someone from the LMA to speak for me regarding any punishment. Going before the cameras twice when I was this angry wouldn’t have been a good idea.

By the time I rolled out of bed and had taken my morning shower, the news had already hit the all-sports channels.

I had laid it on pretty thick with the press, but hadn’t had much of a disciplinary problem in the past, so as I watched Saturday training from Ridgway Towers for those players who hadn’t played the night before, I wasn’t worried.

However, as training wore on, I realized that worry was probably a good idea.

Cameras seemed to be everywhere, attached to enterprising and rather nosy photographers. They were waiting for word.

So was I, for that matter, but having a job to do, I put the whole media circus out of my mind.

It seemed that I was news. For a number of reasons, but this reason was entirely of my own making.

While watching a short passing drill off to my left, my phone buzzed.

One-match touchline ban,” it read. “Sorry.”

It came from Waters. The next text message came from Sir John, telling me to report to him as soon as training was over.

I sighed. “This won’t end well,” I said. I looked down to see all the cameras pointed at me. So I couldn’t even swear.

“May as well get it over with,” I said, descending from the platform and waving the press away.

“Won’t have a comment, fellows,” I said. “The LMA will speak for me.”

# # #

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Wow nice to see this story finally updated!!

I wonder what John will want from RR, surely this cant be good?

Im waiting to see the next chapters 10-3 :thup:

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Rob is about to learn a lesson in power politics.

___

“Why on earth would you do such a thing knowing we have a match at Old Trafford next week?”

Sir John, for a change, was upset with me. I wasn’t surprised.

“Because I owe it to the players I put out there to defend them from atrocious officiating,” I said. “I hadn’t had any disciplinary record in the past and my calculus was that there would be no action.”

“Your calculus was wrong, Rob,” the owner said. “And do you realize the situation this puts us both in?”

“How do you mean?”

“Sidney is looking for any excuse to call for your sacking,” he said. “Even given your league position. So if we go to Old Trafford and lose heavily, what do you think the media will report?”

Suddenly I felt very small and very stupid.

“It makes it very difficult on me, and I have battles to fight on other fronts,” Madejski said. “Rob, you know I’ve warned you about how you speak to people before, especially Sidney. This isn’t good. In fact, it’s potentially very bad.”

I nodded and apologized.

“Sorry may be good enough for the LMA, but for me things need to be different,” he said. “I know you are defending your players but this is an extraordinary circumstance. This can’t happen again, not while I’m trying to keep Sidney Richmond away from the chairman’s office.”

There was nothing else to do.

“Do you want me to resign?” I asked.

A thin smile finally crossed Sir John’s face.

“Good heavens, no,” he replied. “I just need you to stop giving Sidney any more ammunition.”

# # #

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Now the Evening Post jumped into the fray, as it was evening. However, they did so online, since the paper doesn’t publish a print edition on weekends.

Weatherby’s story screamed about my suspension and she came to my defense as best she could by noting that Webb and his linesmen might all be blind in one eye and unable to see out the other.

What’s wrong with being right?

By Jill Weatherby, Evening Post Football Writer

There once was a time, back in the good old days of the game, that a manager criticizing an official could at least expect a fair hearing.

Or rather, he wouldn’t have to look over his shoulder.

Rob Ridgway will have to watch Reading’s match against Manchester United from the stand at Old Trafford as he serves a one-match touchline ban following the officiating farce at the Madejski Stadium last Friday night.

The performance of Howard Webb and his crew was abysmal. Now, before you accuse this reporter of homerism, take a good and honest look at the video evidence.

The penalty conceded by Andrea Gaspari, described by Ridgway after the match as ‘so soft it had a caramel centre’, was indeed that. Emanuel Adebayor, great player though he is, clearly initiated contact with Gaspari and then won the penalty.

And don’t even get Ridgway started on Cesc Fabregas’ winning goal. Or anyone else in blue and white hoops, for that matter.

Offside laws are divided into ‘active’ and ‘passive’ these days. Evidently the word ‘blatant’ should be added as well. How Fabregas, who was two full strides behind Gaspari when he ran onto the ball he blasted past Adam Federici, wasn’t called offside is an utter mystery.

But don’t blame either of the Arsenal players. They’re playing the game and they’re playing to win. As the late Bill Shankly once said, ‘If a player is not interfering with play or seeking to gain an advantage, then he should be.’

Both Gunners were listening, and as a result the Royals have a huge mountain to climb when they play the return match on the 20th January at the Emirates.

The larger issue, however, is whether it’s right for a manager to speak his mind these days.

The Royals must now face Manchester United in a crunch match at the most difficult away ground in England, and one of the most difficult in the world, without their manager.

It could fairly be said that no sanction would have occurred if Ridgway would simply have kept his mouth shut, but then from where would the deserved defense of his players for the Arsenal fiasco have come? Cannot legitimate criticism, especially criticism based in fact, be levied in this country any more?

The FA has made great strides in promoting respect for match officials, but zero-tolerance approaches such as seem to have been applied here merely serve to strangle legitimate criticism. Ridgway was not personally disparaging to any official, but his comments appear to have drawn a ban simply because they were critical comments.

That’s a step too far in the wrong direction. And it means that Royals supporters will now place their trust in Kevin Dillon knowing exactly what he’s doing at Old Trafford.

# # #

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“Kevin, you do know what you’re doing, don’t you?” I asked, tossing a printout of Weatherby’s piece across my desk toward my deputy.

We sat in my office after training, the wreckage of a pretty good Chinese take-out dinner strewn across my desk between us.

Dillon read the ending and grinned.

“I think so, Rob,” he smiled. He was actually getting his biggest opportunity with the club, the one that some people thought he should have been given when Coppell left for United.

While he has always been loyal to a fault, despite being in an odd situation as being part of the management team that released me from the club when I was an active player, he has also been very patient.

I was surprised that no other clubs came calling for him after our success last year. Running training on a daily basis, there’s no doubt he has done an excellent job helping me manage our affairs. Someone should want him to take over their club, and sooner rather than later.

For now, though, he’s it for this club and he knows it.

“Good,” I finally replied. “I’m going to be sitting there in the stand next to Sir John hoping the cameras stay off me and stay on you.”

“Well, you just mind yourself up there,” he said with a smile. “You wouldn’t want any referee banning you out of the ground.”

“At Old Trafford? Really? Never. United never get any calls there, do they?”

Dillon played along.

“No, never,” he smiled.

“It’s your task to make sure our players don’t put themselves in that position,” I reminded him. “Because something tells me if there’s a chance to put them on the penalty spot…”

My voice trailed off.

“…No,” I finally finished. “I don’t want to take that kind of approach.”

Even if it might be true.

# # #

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Friday, January 8

Manchester

Today was a travel day for us. So, it was a time to think.

Chelsea are at home to Portsmouth tomorrow in a match they’ll be expected to win. Meanwhile, I’ll be in the stand at Old Trafford unable to help my team.

All because someone decided I shouldn’t be there.

Okay, I had something to do with it too. But I will defend my players and that’s the end of it.

In a way, this might send a message to the players at the same time. I expect commitment out of them on the pitch and I showed my commitment to them off of it.

At a time when the club is in the public spotlight for all the wrong reasons, what could be wrong with showing some support for those who actually wear the colors?

It just comes at the wrong time.

Sir John didn’t have much to say in his weekly communication with me as we headed off to Manchester. He knows, though, that I have to do what I have to do, even if it comes at the wrong time. He doesn’t like it, but what’s done is done.

As a result, I sat with Dillon on the team plane and together we went over the scheme for United, one more time.

After the mid-week exertion against Arsenal, the up-front combination will be Baptista and Lita, which is a pairing we haven’t used much together this season. In fact, with the exception being seen after late substitutions, it’s a pairing we haven’t used at all.

It’s not like I have a whole lot to do tomorrow once the match begins, so the only fun I’ll have is with the scheme. Baptista and Lita are an interesting variation on a theme, if you will.

We’re going to play 4-1-3-2 against United, which is another team we’ve had pretty good fortune against since I came here. Still, though, Old Trafford is the ultimate test in the English game for a visiting team and we’re well aware of the challenge we face.

The rest of the team is made up of more of our regular eleven, so the group we’ll put out there is a good side, even if some are a bit tired in the legs.

We do have one big break, if you’ll pardon the expression – to Wayne Rooney’s arm.

The striker who has set the world on fire so far this season will miss at least another month with his injury, so we won’t have him to deal with tomorrow.

Of course, we will have to deal with Tevez, Saha, Ronaldo and the rest of their great stars, so the feeling is something like being given a bleach and tonic to drink and told you don’t have to chug it. Simply sipping it down will suffice.

They’re a good side. But so are we. We’ll see if they are as good for Dillon as they are for me.

# # #

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While in my room this evening, I had the opportunity to think about that note.

The words didn’t read like Stefano’s might. Yet they read like the advice he might give me – he always styled himself as a step in front of everyone else – but it didn’t sound like what he would say in the way he would say it.

Trying to put it all in perspective and forget about the things I couldn’t control, I leaned back on my hotel bed and turned on the television. Trying to forget about football altogether, I watched a cooking show.

I felt completely disconnected. My team was going out to play tomorrow.

Only it wasn’t my team.

It was Dillon’s, for the day. I’d be able to have things pretty much my own way in terms of a prearranged match plan, but plans are based on how you think things will go. They don’t always go as you plan, of course, and that means you have to improvise.

Would Dillon improvise in the same way I would? Or would he free-lance in a way that would either help or possibly hurt?

These are things that suspended managers worry about, I guess.

There just wasn’t a lot to do. This was my first ban from any touchline anywhere, and I honestly didn’t know how to react to it. Fish out of water? You bet.

I turned to the television. Last refuge of the desperate, only I wanted to try to find something on TV that had nothing to do with football

I turned to cooking, but even then there was a connection.

I watched onetime Rangers trainee Gordon Ramsay chew out a hapless sous chef on one of his myriad of programs.

I observed the look on the poor guy’s face as his shortcomings earned him a hair dryer treatment from the big guy. He sat in silence as he absorbed Ramsay’s verbal, and rather profane, blast.

“Young man, I know how you feel,” I sighed, looking down at an empty squad sheet sitting in my lap. “I know exactly how you feel.”

# # #

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It is 'annoyingly' impressive. :D

I probably already said, but if somebody is not paying you to write somewhere anywhere then they should be. :)

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Thanks, everyone ... I appreciate that people are still reading this after nearly three years in production. Still as enjoyable as ever to write even if sometimes I do steal a bit of FM times on other saves :) And Jibby, it's my pleasure to welcome you to the Rat Pack!

___

Saturday, January 9

Man Utd (14-4-3, 3rd place) v Reading (14-6-1, 1st place) – EPL Match Day #22

I guess I should have known. We woke up to a cold, persistent rain.

With a wet wind coming from the general direction of the Irish Sea, it was always going to be a cold January day, and the pre-match meal for the players reflected a sense of an uncomfortable early afternoon ahead. It was a hot meal.

With the earliest kickoff of the day, breakfast was still light for the players, though, and we got straight onto the coach for Stretford, Trafford and the stadium.

From my seat at the right front of the coach I watched the rain come down, knowing that my location in the stand might well see me get soaked, and thought I would rather be on the touchline with my players if I was going to get wet.

The players took the long walk from their entrance to the visitors changing room near the corner players’ tunnel entrance at the grand old ground.

It has served as United’s home since 1910, with eight years’ hiatus from 1941-49 while the main stand was rebuilt after bomb damage during World War II.

But nowadays, obviously, it’s a lot different.

We have expanded the Madejski Stadium since my arrival at Reading and added 7,000 seats. We’re in the middle of another stadium expansion which will add about 10,000 more. That’ll get us to just over half Old Trafford’s capacity – which, while nice, isn’t going to turn us into the financial powerhouse the Glazers control.

The raw size of the place is intimidating to a lot of visiting clubs, but we’re starting to get used to the larger venues now. My players looked like they were simply happy to be dry as they got off the coach and underneath the stadium.

But once they entered the changing room, they were Dillon’s. So I headed to a hospitality area near the dressing rooms to sit out the time before the match.

I had said what I was going to say, and now it was no longer up to me. The time seemed to drag.

I felt lost, in a way. Until a solitary figure approached me as I sat watching a television.

“Rob, I sat out a few of these days in my day,” Sir Alex Ferguson said.

I turned, with some surprise, and got up to shake hands with the living legend.

“I didn’t expect to see you here,” I admitted. “I thought you’d be in the Champions Lounge or someplace similar. Or with your horses.”

“Well, you know how it is,” he replied. “Sometimes you want to see friends again, and they don’t want to come to you.”

“At least you’ve got friends,” I joked, as he took a seat in an overstuffed chair next to me.

“Look, you can’t let this bother you,” he said, in a rather shocking piece of unsolicited advice. “It’s going to happen. You know as well as I do that there are times you have to do the duty for your players and your club. Mind games with officials are all right too.”

He was telling me something without telling me something. I could sense it. I thought I knew what it was.

Being banned before a match at Old Trafford was about as bad as it could get for a visiting manager, but here was Sir Alex telling me not to worry.

Was this a mind game too? Or was he telling me instead to stop worrying because I had a good side?

Sir Alex excelled at that sort of double-meaning game. But as United’s ultimate partisan even two years after his retirement, I strongly suspected the former.

I looked around the hospitality suite, which wasn’t even United’s best. That would be the Champions Lounge, where every visitor is reminded of the footballing grandeur that is Manchester United.

The club got that way by beating back contenders and pretenders alike. Eventually, I decided that Sir Alex wouldn’t waste his time by talking with a contender.

That only left one option.

Finally, I spoke.

“Yes, they are,” I replied. “You know that as well as anyone. But I’ve got a good side and I believe in them no matter who manages them. May the better side win.”

He gave me a wan smile in return.

“Only one way to find out,” he said, as a waiter approached to take an order for appetizers. “Now, shall we enjoy a bite before the match?”

# # #

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The food was good. The early kickoff, not so much.

After enjoying a few social moments with Sir Alex and a kind, if official, greeting from members of the United front office, I headed off to my place in the directors’ box for the match.

Some managers make a living by watching matches from here. I can’t do that. It would drive me absolutely insane.

Walter Smith, my manager at Rangers and managerial mentor thereafter, watches the first half of every match from the stand and then moves to the dugout for the second half. So does Sam Allardyce.

I honestly don’t know how they do it. I need to be in the dugout.

I have equal amounts of control over the match from either location – which is to say, none – but I feel a real need to be with my players and staff from the opening kickoff.

The rain continued to fall as the match kicked off, and I figured my reactions would be monitored by the Sky Sports cameras throughout.

I was miserable.

Thankfully, the side didn’t share my misery. They came out strongly in one of the most intimdating atmospheres in world football, and I don’t mean the rain.

We won a corner in the first minute of the match when John O’Shea was forced to head Dica’s cross behind, and Jon Obi Mikel wound up in referee Danny Gobern’s book a few minutes later for going to ground far too easily under a challenge fron the Romanian.

We gave up a glorious chance in ten minutes though, as Michael Carrick sent Tevez in against Lobont with a beautiful little through ball that had the crowd on its feet immediately.

My captain was caught off his line, and Tevez tried to chip him. “The Cat” then earned both his stripes and his nickname, anticipating the Argentine’s move and scrambling back to make a wonderful, full-extension save, tipping the ball over the bar in the process.

We cleared our lines immediately from the corner and Maloney then brought us right back into the match, launching a 45-yard long ball right onto the toe of Baptista, who was in a stride-for-stride race with Patrice Evra. The ball was a tad longer than I would have liked to see it, but Maloney had seen a weakness and exploited it.

Baptista raced in and fired a hard, low shot as Evra closed him down, forcing Diego Cavalleri in the United goal into a fine save at feet.

That brought us fully into the match, and soon we were threatening again. Evra took a free kick quickly but Dica was his equal in anticipation, stealing the ball neatly and holding up for Magallón’s advance. He found the Mexican at the top of the United penalty area, and Jonny looked back at Dica.

He then slid a perfect no-look ball to Lita, who had found the left-hand channel of the United defense to his liking. Lita finished past Cavalleri and we were ahead at Old Trafford.

It was easy to judge my reaction, and my only wish was that I could have been in the dugout with my players. I was quite alone for the time being in the directors’ box and Dillon accepted congratulations from Downes and the other assistants as Lita celebrated his goal.

I raised my hands to my lips to whistle for Dica’s attention – until I realized that I couldn’t do that. The situation screamed for the raider to move deeper and absorb the expected United riposte, but this was not my team to manage. That made it very hard.

Thankfully, Dillon was thinking the same thing, and before long Carrick was trying to play through a more centralized Dica playing and finding nothing to show for his efforts.

Huth then went into the book for a 50-50 challenge with Tevez in which Huth won the ball but injured the player.

I cringed as Gobern reached for his cards – it was Huth’s fifth yellow card of the season and would earn him a one-match suspension for the Chelsea match.

It figured.

Now Lita was vibrant again, mashing a shot with malicious intent in 26 minutes that Cavalleri had to be very quick to parry. But Tevez, Park Ji-Sung and Saha all had good chances within the next ten minutes, and only Lobont’s sustained excellence kept us in front.

The formation was bending but not breaking and it seemed to me that a flat 4-4-2 would be better. But again, I could say nothing, and this time when the cameras found me they caught me biting my fingernails for a short moment.

That was the wrong message, but staying in the stand was really starting to grate on my nerves.

Back now came Maloney, beating O’Shea down the left, and cutting back for Lita at the edge of the area. He in turn dropped the ball to Dica, and this time Lita timed his run perfectly to the opposite channel, between O’Shea and Rio Ferdinand.

The lead was perfect and Lita slotted home again for a 2-0 advantage that lasted until halftime.

The squad was playing beautifully. And I had had nothing to do with it.

# # #

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Coppell went to his bench, removing Park in favour of Febian Brandy at halftime in search of more attacking options.

As the second half kicked off, Cristiano Ronaldo was starting to grow increasingly frustrated by the treatment Kalou and Ferreira were giving him on United’s left flank.

Dillon was riding the ragged edge of disaster in defending the mercurial Portuguese, with another mercurial Portuguese – the Reading defender -- sliding in to help whenever Kalou had issues, which were happily infrequent.

The risk came in leaving Evra room to roam, with the Frenchman’s ability to overlap and cross a constant worry.

But Kevin felt that with a two-goal lead he could afford to double up on the greater menace, and as first Brandy and then Carrick tested Lobont, the wing wizard was nowhere to be found.

Now Pogatetz came forward in a rare foray, stinging Cavalleri’s fingertips with a rising drive that had a ticket for the top left corner of the goal in 65 minutes. Time was starting to get short for United, but the energetic Brandy soon forced Ferreira into a yellow card, which played havoc with Dillon’s double-teaming plan.

But then Coppell did the unthinkable: he pulled the ineffective and frustrated Ronaldo from the match.

The winger came off the pitch wearing an expression of pure petulance as he sulked his way to the bench. Dong Fangzhuo replaced him, and that relieved the pressure on the right side of our defense to an extent.

Coppell elected to try to force our middle and for the first few minutes of his tenure, Fangzhuo was the point of their spear.

He scooped over in 79 minutes and was foiled on a partial break three minutes later by the frantically closing Huth, who managed to spoil the Chinese’s forward’s aim just long enough to allow Lobont to cut the angle.

Coppell then substituted Anderson four minutes from time for Carrick but by that time it became obvious that United were not going to score.

The rain came down hard but I hardly felt it. Gobern gave his whistle three long blasts to complete what had been a wonderful win in every respect.

I could now head down to the changing rooms to visit the team – which today was most decidedly not mine.

Manchester United 0

Reading 2 (Leroy Lita 7th 15, 8th 37)

A – 76,142, Old Trafford, Manchester

Man of the Match – Bogdan Lobont, Reading (MR9)

# # #

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By most reasonable measures, United were the better side.

They had had 22 attempts at goal and 15 on target to nine and six for us, and a 54-46 edge in possession. The shots they wanted, they generally got, with the notable exception of Ronaldo, who was kept locked up tightly throughout.

It had been a masterclass in patience and Dillon had done wonderfully to see that when he was ahead, he could afford to let the game come to him.

He also employed an offside trap in the match – a strategy I almost universally eschew – and caught United offside nine times.

The win was as valuable as it was unexpected. Chelsea kept pace with us with a 3-1 win over Portsmouth at Stamford Bridge and we’re now level on points with them at 48 but hold top spot on goal difference. We’ve scored two more than they have so when we play them in a week it’s going to be a big, big match.

Vedran Corluka, Didier Drogba and Michael Johnson all found the range for the Blues, while Jermain Defoe saved Portsmouth from a blank sheet two minutes from time.

The biggest surprise for us, though, was Arsenal being held to a goalless draw at home by ten-man Derby County. Nené got himself sent off in 63 minutes for a second bookable offense and though the Gunners had 24 attempts at goal to two for their visitors, couldn’t find a way past the excellent Sebastian Seja in the Rams’ goal.

Elsewhere, Spurs kept within shouting distance of the European places with a 2-1 win at Newcastle. Nicolas Anelka scored a brace in the second half to pull his side from a goal down thanks to Belozoglu Emre’s goal on the stroke of halftime.

Blackburn have been simply horrible recently and today they slumped to a 4-1 defeat in the northeast at Middlesbrough. Onetime Ranger Thomas Buffel scored the first goal just seven minutes into the match, with a brace from Mariano Pavone and a slop-time goal from Andrew Taylor, his first of the season, more than enough to offset Kevin Doyle’s marker early in the second half.

Dean Ashton of West Ham keeps scoring for fun, and his brace plus help from Craig Bellamy helped the Hammers beat Fulham 3-1 in a London derby. David Healy got the Cottagers on the scoreboard ten minutes from time but it wasn’t nearly enough.

In a match that made us smile, Julius Aghahowa scored with the last kick of the match to hand Wigan a 1-1 split in the points with Liverpool. The Nigerian, who hasn’t started a match all season, netted for the first time this season and sent the JJB into raptures. Steven Gerrard had given the Reds a 26th minute lead that only just failed to last.

My friend David Moyes has Everton on the right track too, as they rolled Aston Villa 3-0 at Goodison Park. Mikael Arteta’s penalty in the 32nd minute gave the Toffees all they needed, but for good measure Jose Baxter and James McFadden added goals in the second half for a raucous crowd of just over 40,000.

But in perusing the scoresheet, I was more interested in hearing what Dillon had to say about the match.

He was in his glory and I didn’t want to intrude. He talked about how proud he was of the players for a job well done, and how the tactical plan had worked very well.

I turned to leave for the coach and as I did, I nearly ran headlong into Sidney Richmond.

He looked me up and down like I was some sort of department-store mannequin, and then his face assumed a sideways sneer.

“Fine win today for Kevin Dillon,” he said. Richmond’s sneer grew wider as he spoke again.

“Who needs you?”

# # #

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Rob's not a happy bunny, TF...

___

Sunday, January 10

Who needs me, indeed.

The papers were full of deserved praise for Dillon today so as I sat to watch the afternoon’s two matches on teievision on an off-day for the squad, I thought back to the consortium leader’s words.

They stuck in my craw, as one might have well expected they might.

Both matches today wound up 1-nil wins for the away team.

Adrian’s goal eight minutes from time gave Bolton a win over ten-man Sunderland and David Jones’ goal for ten-man Manchester City gave the Citizens a win over West Brom. Jones’ goal came early and Diego Godin’s sending off came late.

But that wasn’t on my mind as I watched. At times the matches seemed to dissolve into a blur as my mind raced back and forth.

Sir John had made a valid point when he criticized me for my touchline ban. He needed me in the manager’s technical area while he fought off Richmond’s bid for the club, and this was just one reason why.

Richmond could play a most cruel mind game this way, and could unsettle me with ease. And I’m certain that he will try.

In turn, that sort of pressure might adversely affect the club’s performance, perhaps even to the point where Sir John might have to reconsider my position even if he does hold onto the club.

So my decision to protect my players after the Arsenal League Cup tie is potentially very expensive.

Yet as I read the papers and saw from multiple sources that the players had dedicated the United match to me, I was filled with a sense of pride that was deep and quite profound.

“We wanted to win for the boss,” Lobont was quoted as saying. “He stood up for us and we feel he was judged harshly so the three points are for him.”

“We wanted to get to the point where the officials couldn’t determine the outcome,” Maloney said. “I had enough of that at Celtic and I don’t want to see it happen here when we’re playing to stay at the top of the league and in the Cup competitions.”

Those were nice words of support. I also got to move my attention to our next match, which is against Chelsea and will be a matchup of the top two teams in the table.

We’ll be without Huth, who will serve a yellow cards suspension for the match.

And, we’ll be without Shane Long, who will be with Bolton.

We sold the Irish striker for £3.4 million today, my record sale, and the offer was just too good to turn down. It’s good for the player, too, who was buried in the reserves and didn’t have much chance of breaking through thanks to the recent play of Baptista.

We’re also without Harper, who is off to Boro for £1 million as well. So in terms of payroll reduction and transfer budget, we made two fairly significant moves.

These moves will allow me to do two things I really want to do: find an eventual place in the senior side for Isaiah Osbourne, and to bid for a tantalizing player who is grossly unhappy where he is at the present moment.

That would be Robin van Persie of Arsenal. He has missed training twice this season and has dropped more than one hint in the press about wanting to leave North London. He’s also going to be an opponent in the second leg of the League Cup semifinal soon and I wouldn’t mind having him thinking about wearing our hoops.

So, I formally placed a bid of £10 million through our financial department which will reach Arsene Wenger’s desk tomorrow morning.

That ought to make him think.

We placed another bid today as well, meeting Real Madrid’s valuation of £5 million for the talented but bench-warming defender Steven Taylor. He’d look very good in our colors too and having a potentially key player who is English would be good both for marketing purposes as well as keeping my team together for the entire year.

The biggest signing of the day, though, and one of the biggest of the window, was the sale of Antonio Valencia by Newcastle to Portsmouth for £11.25 million. That’s Pompey’s record signing by some wide margin, and will make them a better side immediately.

So, the wheels are turning. I also like the thought of spending Sidney Richmond’s money while I still have the opportunity.

That would hit him where he lives. Who needs him?

# # #

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That is very kind, though I do think I need to get you into some real literature :) Welcome to the Rat Pack and thank you for giving your first post to this thread!

___

Monday, January 11

My thoughts this morning are with Bill Shankly.

While I’ve never been a particularly big Liverpool man, the great Reds supremo once said something that stuck in my mind today.

My “Football Quote Of The Day” in my e-mail this morning had words of wisdom from the man that I think pertain to my situation, especially as word leaked to the press of our bid for Van Persie.

“At a football club, there's a holy trinity - the players, the manager and the supporters. Directors don't come into it. They are only there to sign the cheques.”

Whistling quietly to myself, I drove to the ground for training.

I got there to find bad news. Matt Hirons told me that Baptista was home with a severe case of flu.

“I just told him to stay there,” he said. “No point in him coming in and infecting the squad.”

I swore, and loudly.

“I get a striker in form and this happens,” I snapped.

“It’s not my fault, Rob,” he replied.

“Didn’t say it was, Matt,” I answered. “I’m sorry. Just frustrated.”

We’re subtracting from the squad due to player sales, the Cup of Nations and injuries. It’s all coming at the worst possible time. So this news, before the biggest league match in this club’s history, is most unwelcome.

My morning press gaggle was only slightly less disquieting.

As it began, I couldn’t help but think back to the late Emiliani, and how much he would have loved jerking my chain over the side winning such a big match while I was chained to a seat in the directors’ box. Not for the first time, I missed that jousting.

I never appreciated the personal nature of some of his criticism. But the fight was, in its way, fun. Now, though, the fun was certainly gone.

“Great win for Kevin,” I said. “He got the tactics spot on, the players absorbed United’s pressure when it came and we did well from the goal outward. Leroy had a very nice match for us and it all added up to a famous win for Reading FC.”

“Would you have done anything differently?” Weatherby asked.

“No,” I answered with a smile. Jill, a very smart reporter, surely knew that the match plan was mine and Dillon had executed it. So she knew how I’d answer.

The smile on her face suggested that I had read her intent correctly.

However, freshly returned to the full benefits of my position after the FA’s punishment, I was really in no mood to risk any more difficulties, even if I was anxious to give Richmond a tweak where it would hurt the most – in his pocketbook.

I could let the reporters do that for me, though, and they did.

Not surprisingly, Wenger had rejected our offer for van Persie, and had issued a rather sharply worded statement, even for an aggrieved Frenchman.

“Robin van Persie is an Arsenal player and he will remain an Arsenal player,” Wenger said. “Regardless of whatever maneuvers smaller clubs may attempt.”

The “size matters” card had been well and truly played, and I suppose that until we win something it will continue to be played. But card number one had been played – not only in terms of van Persie but his teammates as well.

The player is immensely talented. He’s a talisman. He’s also already unhappy and if I can unsettle a few of his teammates in advance of the return leg while making the player think about a potential new club, so much the better.

# # #

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Always good to catch up on this 10-3. I have been denying myself a read of this for a few weeks, and have allowed myself to catch up today. I have to say, fellow readers, it's a very satisfying way of reading this story.

Carry on, tenthree, carry on.

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cf, thank you. We continue to roll along with this ...

___

Tuesday, January 12

The hype is in full flow for Saturday’s matchup with Chelsea at the Mad Stad, amid a very interesting article in the Mail that has leaked details of Richmond’s bid for the club.

If there were ever a time for distraction, now is that time.

First things first though, because if you’ve read this far you know that Rob Ridgway is all about the football.

Grant’s first media availability of the week contained the rather ludicrous statement that we’re favoured on Saturday. We aren’t, and we shouldn’t be.

Yes, we top them in the table and will enter the match in first place. However, that margin is about as small as it can get.

Both teams enter with records of 15-1-6 for 46 points, but we have them on goal difference. By two. Over 22 matches.

Grant had laid it on pretty thick, but I’m sure he wasn’t going to come right out and say anything that would either show disrespect for us or give any intimation that they were looking past us.

“They are top of the table and we are not,” he had said. “They haven’t broken through and beaten us yet but we have to believe that they are fully capable of doing so. There is a reason they have lost once in 22 matches and it’s the same reason we have lost once in 22 matches. Still they are the home side and that has to make them favoured.”

Which is, of course, ridiculous.

We’re probably going to be without Baptista, and we know we’re without Dagoberto. We’ve sold Long and we’re looking for another striker. We’ve got players who can play the forward position, though, like Dica and even Maloney, so we aren’t entirely destitute.

However, we feel he’s the best in the Premiership at what he does for us, and even though Maloney had great success in that spot last year, we have places and roles defined for both, and I’m not keen to change those any time soon.

So, when the press came to Berkshire for my reaction to Grant’s initial volley, I threw it right back at them.

“The champions say they’re the underdogs,” I said with a smile. The interview area was full, as you might expect for a match of two clubs in our respective positions. “Without any disrespect to my own club, I have a hard time figuring out how that could be.”

“Are you conceding already?”

It was Rocco Abiatti, who I hadn’t seen since the men’s room at Villa Park three weeks previously. Seen. So to speak. Yet there he was, asking the “Emiliani Question.”

“Of course not,” I snapped. “I just find it a little funny that Avram is so sour on the Champions of England. If he wants to come in here and lay down for us for three points, I’d be thrilled.”

“The bookies wouldn’t,” Abiatti said with a smile.

“Not that I care about gamblers,” I replied with a rueful smile. I remembered The Supporters well. Too well, in fact.

“Well, what is your realistic approach to the match?”

“Respect for our opponent,” I said immediately. “We’ve come a long way as a club but we’re playing the champions of England and that means you show the proper respect. We think we have a chance, yes. But let’s keep things in perspective.”

# # #

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Now, to the other news of the day.

The Mail got wind of what it said was a document from inside the consortium and as such printed it as one of those famed Fleet Street “exclusives”.

If it’s genuine, I can’t help but think it’s more information than Richmond wants out there.

I also am not sure it’s in fact the real McCoy because it says Winthrop is out of the consortium and there’s no way Richmond would do that. Winthrop is too valuable a toadie.

I’ve had my issues with Winthrop, of course, but he’s one of the very few people at this club I allowed to play me like a fiddle. I’m still angry about that, and I’m still angry at him.

As far as I’m concerned, he can go p**s up a rope, but if Richmond has kicked that little weasel out of his group all I can say is he finally made a good decision.

So I find myself in the unusual position of rooting for the media. Oh, well.

There is new word about the state of the consortium attempting to gain control of Reading Football Club.

We can reveal that internal strife has claimed one of the leading members of financier Sidney Richmond’s group. William Winthrop, director of marketing and new media for the club, has been dismissed from his role with the group with immediate effect.

Richmond’s group, however, remains stronger than ever with additional financial muscle now available to it through the addition of two new interested parties.

The individuals, who were not named in the documents obtained by The Mail, reportedly are tied to Richmond through international holdings in Italy.

This is sure to raise eyebrows among investigators at the Serious Fraud Office, who have reportedly been called in to examine certain financial dealings of group members.

An Italian ultra group known as “The Supporters”, with reputed ties to organized crime, has been reported as involved in business dealings with certain members of Richmond’s group, but no concrete evidence has been found to link the two groups together.

The extra financial muscle in the group may well make it possible for Richmond to make the ‘offer too good to refuse’ he reportedly mentions to cronies.

The consortium’s stated goal is to have control of the club by the end of January.

# # #

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Holly tuna! I'm finally at the last post. It took me a while to read all of them and "American Calcio" on top of everything. Amazing story so far 10-3! Can't wait for the rest of it.

Now, onwards to read "Ace of Spades" and "Cherry Bomb".

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Periodically, I get notes and posts from people who have made the long hard slog through the entire second part of the series. Thank you for that and for reading as far as you have. What you have read so far is probably 2,000 pages of MS Word. Congratulations, and welcome to the Rat Pack!

___

Wednesday, January 13

There’s a fair bit of speculation in the press as to how we’re going to stop Chelsea’s dynamic duo of Rossi and Drogba.

There’s a fair bit of speculation within my own club, too, but we aren’t telling anyone that.

Both scorers have a dozen goals heading into the contest on Saturday and while our stated goal is to impress upon everyone that we are more concerned about how we’ll attack them than how they will attack us, the fact remains that we won’t have our best central defender available to us.

Huth will miss through a yellow card suspension, but on the positive side it does allow me to pair Bikey with Sonko again in a partnership that is at least comfortable even if it might not be my very best.

Andre has done very well this year despite being asked to play more than one role for me. Strong, tall and powerful, he gives us a huge presence in the holding role when I ask him to play it, and an experienced partner for Sonko when I ask for that.

Ferreira is also going back into the eleven for the match against his old club. He wouldn’t have it any other way, and I know I’ll get a good performance out of the wily veteran regardless. His professionalism will mean a lot and if there’s anything he wants, it’s a chance to put one over on the Blues for letting him go.

The other ex-Chelsea man on our books, Kalou, is of course going to start. He, Bikey and Sonko will leave after the match for the Cup of Nations and while their loss is really going to hurt, we will get one more solid effort out of all of them before they go.

My hope is that they’ll all come back healthy. If they don’t, our season could go down the tubes.

My daily briefing today focused on that, and reporters even tried to ask me about the Mail story. Foolish mortals.

I took my cue from Weatherby on the latter item this morning. She’s fighting a running battle with national press for the lead slot on covering the story, and the strain is starting to tell on her.

She didn’t look best pleased, but that’s the media business.

“Rob, how do you deal with the distraction?” she asked me after the meeting had broken up.

“Honestly, Jill, I try not to think about it, and you can quote me on that,” I replied. “If I did, it would eat me alive. I have a football club to manage and a league and cups to try to win. Whether I do or whether I don’t do those things isn’t germane to this conversation but I do deserve the opportunity to try to succeed without the outside interference that is happening now. What happens in the board room is what happens in the board room. I can’t worry about it.”

Then she floored me.

“I heard you got a note from the late Stefano,” she said.

I tried, and failed, to suppress my shock, and that told her all she needed to know.

“That look was not for attribution,” I said.

She gave me an understanding glance.

“I got one too,” she said. “Now for a change, I’m telling you that in strictest confidence. The note said you had received one as well.”

# # #

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Didn't what? :)

____

“Mr. Ridgway, we didn’t feel it was any of your concern.”

Fowler had told me I could ring him whenever I had questions about the case. After my meeting with Weatherby, I certainly had a few now.

“I’m trying to figure out who in the hell is contacting me, whether I need to sack my wife’s security again and whether I should fear that note and you didn’t think it was any of my concern to tell me there was a second note?”

“In a word, Mr. Ridgway, yes.”

“In a word, Commander Fowler, bulls**t.” My ire was up.

“I’ve got a family to look after and a baby on the way. If you can relieve any of that worry, I would appreciate it in future if you would look after your responsibilities in that regard. Have I made my point?”

“I reserve the right to run my investigation my way, Mr. Ridgway,” the inspector said. “Have I made my point?”

“Your point is crystal clear,” I said. “Sadly, it doesn’t appear as though mine is. And since one of us works for the other one of us, I may need to find another way to get your attention. I appreciate that your job is hard. But I have only one family, Commander. And I intend to protect it.”

“Is that a threat?”

“I know better than that, Commander. The threats in this case have been made exclusively by the other side. I would never threaten you or any officer of the peace. But honestly, you really do need to let me know when something comes up that affects my family’s well being.”

Now his tone changed slightly.

“I will consider it, Mr. Ridgway,” he said. “Good day.”

# # #

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Thursday, January 14

Patty was hospitalized today for a brief time, with false labor pains.

The stress of recent days and her impending due date next month have started to take their toll, and she woke up this morning with heavy Braxton-Hicks contractions, which she had never experienced before.

Many pregnant women have them, but hers were severe from the get-go, and for a time she thought she was in genuine labor.

She shook me awake at 3:00 this morning and told me she thought it was time.

That’s the phrase every first-time father both dreads and craves.

In my own case, I’ve sat in bed many a night wondering what the baby will look like, whether he or she will be healthy, and how Patty will come through it all.

I wonder if our child will have red hair like her mother, or some combination of our colors in that delightful mishmash that sometimes marks children. God will decide, of course, and the baby’s parents will love the result.

We’ve also been quite conscientious in not learning the baby’s gender. We genuinely don’t want to know. The doctors have told us there’s only one in there, so that’s for certain, but we want to be surprised.

The surprise this morning, though, was what Patty thought was the impending arrival of our child.

Her overnight bag wasn’t packed for the hospital, so I had to throw some things into a suitcase for her in case she was there for the real thing, but after getting to the hospital, it was pretty apparent that nothing was going to happen.

She was very slightly dilated and her water hadn’t broken so there was no immediate danger of young Master or Miss Ridgway making a grand appearance into the world.

The contractions, though, had been plenty painful, and she was admitted to allow her body to settle down a bit.

That also took me away from training, and a quick call to Dillon to tell him he was in charge was soon made. I wanted to be with Patty for a change, but with just 48 hours separating us from the Chelsea match, I knew it didn’t come at a good tme.

Too bad. Sometimes football comes second. Patty’s health came first and once I was certain the baby wasn’t going to be born and my wife was resting comfortably, I did make my appearance at the training ground.

I arrived after the end of morning training, and had a few reporters asking me about my whereabouts in terms that weren’t quite as respectful as I would have liked to see.

However, it wasn’t going to do to explain exactly what had gone on. We had Freddie Eaton in London to do that – I certainly didn’t trust McGuire’s agency to say anything on behalf of my wife and, to her credit, neither did she.

The man she had first loved and then sued had ignored the courts to take control of the distribution rights to her pictures, and she was in no mood to allow him anywhere near any statement she might want to make.

So I told the press that I was tending to personal business and that they should watch for a statement later in the day “should one become necessary.”

Not long before, they had been asking if divorce papers had been filed after Monaco. Now they wanted to know if I had put her in the hospital, among other things.

So yes, leaving that particular conversation was quite freeing.

# # #

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I had a harder time dealing with the press in my daily gaggle.

I considered letting Dillon handle the press just for today, but I knew that if I didn’t, they’d just be back tomorrow – on the day before the match – to provide yet another distraction for my players.

I texted Freddie quickly before the event with the press and he told me to simply tell the truth. Which, come to think of it, is rarely a bad idea anyway.

“My wife was hospitalized this morning with false labor pains,” I said. “She’s fine and so is our unborn child. Our training plan was unaffected by my personal situation and my place was with my wife today. Other than that I have nothing to say besides ‘keep your insulting questions to yourselves’.’”

I was feeling a bit angry. So it was either a good day to be with the press, or a bad day to be with the press, depending on how one looked at it.

“So things are fine between you.”

“Yes. Things are fine. Football would be a welcome change of subject, please.”

“How on earth do you keep the players focused, Rob?” Weatherby asked. “The takeover, the title chase, now your situation, all these things.”

“The second one is the only one that matters,” I said. “These players are professionals. Attempts to take over clubs happen from time to time but the only thing these players can control is how well they play each weekend. These players will be ready for the challenge on Saturday because they have a good plan and are well coached.”

“Nice words for Kevin Dillon.” Abiatti. It figured.

“Nice words for all our coaches, including the manager,” I said, now on a foray into the offensive with the press. “It’s pathetic that we should have to endure open-hand slaps to the face from the press like that one when we top the table.”

“I meant no offense,” Abiatti followed.

“The hell you didn’t,” I said simply. “We’ll see how Saturday goes.”

# # #

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Rob doesn't seem to care much for the Italian press.

___

Friday, January 15

One more day. Thank God.

My weekly interview for Premier League World aired tonight and in it, I was quite respectful to the champions. And why wouldn’t I be? They’re the champions and we are not.

Grant was equally conciliatory toward us, which means he’s still trying to play the role of the underdog. Nobody believes him, but he’s saying all the right things.

Most of the oddsmakers have us listed to draw or worse. Until we find a way to beat them, I can certainly understand why that would be.

The Mad Stad will be packed to its recently-expanded rafters for this game and it’ll be fun to watch from the spectators’ point of view. From the manager’s, though, it’ll be a lot different.

We haven’t beaten Chelsea during my tenure here and we won’t have truly arrived on the scene until we can. We’ve beaten everyone else at least once but the Blues remain our sore spot.

And we’ll head into tomorrow’s match down in strength, as i’ve mentioned before. Huth is suspended, Dagoberto is still injured and it doesn’t look like Baptista will have recovered from his food poisoning to the extent that he’s well enough for anything more than a substitute’s role.

That disturbs Baptista as much as it disturbs me. He’s starting to round nicely into form after the Luton match, so illness comes at the worst possible time for him.

And for us. Trying to patch a team together to defeat the champions of England is a tall task on the best of days. For us, it’ll be that much harder.

Patty came home from the hospital this morning and took it easy today. The fallout from yesterday wasn’t too bad, but the hard-cores are going to say what the hard-cores are going to say and I really can’t do much about that.

And frankly, I don’t really care what they say. We are as prepared as we can be, with the players available to us.

My conversation with Sir John reflected this as well. He’s getting used to me talking about how thin the squad really is, even though he doesn’t care to hear it.

“We’ll do our best, of course,” I said.

“I know you will,” he replied. “But now is a good opportunity to see how far we have come.”

“I couldn’t agree more,” I said. “I do wish I could play them with a full squad. They don’t have significant injury trouble and that is something that must be taken into account.”

“They don’t ask how, just how many, as you Americans say,” he replied. “We will expect full effort and if that comes, you may well get the points.”

Not a lot of wiggle room, but when the Deputy Lieutenant of Berkshire lays down an expectation, it’s the role of an employee of one of his other business enterprise to take his words on board.

So, I did.

# # #

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So, its taken me the best part of a year reading this on and off and now I've caught up with it. Amazing work 10-3. Really great standard of writing and some really engaging characters. Like many in here, I don't like Patty but as a character she's essential to the progression of the story. Emilio's death was a total shocker but so well done as much of this is. I hope to see more of this excellent story soon!

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