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Rob Ridgway's "Rat Pack"

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Thank you, Jibby. I appreciate your kind words. I have thought seriously about that through the years but one thing has always stopped me, and that being that real people are mentioned in this writing and I don't know if it is legal to use their names without rewriting the text entirely. That worries me. Otherwise I would consider doing it. Anyone have any thoughts about that?

___

And I got to stick my thumb squarely in Richmond’s eye today with a bid for a player I have long coveted.

I had just finished my reading of the Times article on the SFO and was feeling good when my phone buzzed with a text message.

Go ahead,” the message read. I broke into a wide grin.

The text had come from a man named Pierre Vion, agent to Porto midfielder Franck Ribery. He represents a wonderful player who isn’t quite on the size stage he’d like to be on, and definitely not on the size stage he deserves.

Inquiries to the Portuguese club had begun that morning and the indication we had was that we were welcome to try but that we’d have to come up with some coin.

At this stage, there was no harm in making the attempt – and a carefully placed note to Weatherby might indeed get a particular public relations job done that I wanted to see accomplished.

The text message meant, simply, that the player would come if we could meet Porto’s price. And he’d be a marvelous player for us, no question about it. It would give us competition in the midfield, options all over the front half of the park for players other than Ribery, and would give us an exceptionally good young talent.

I dropped a text to Madejski to keep him appraised of what I was doing. That was the acid test. If he stopped me, I’d know it was a good idea to have a secondary job plan. If he didn’t, I’d know where Richmond’s bid for the club really stood in his eyes.

I got no response. So I guess that was both good and bad.

So, we sent in an offer. We started at £10 million. We’ll see what happens.

# # #

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Thank you, Jibby. I appreciate your kind words. I have thought seriously about that through the years but one thing has always stopped me, and that being that real people are mentioned in this writing and I don't know if it is legal to use their names without rewriting the text entirely. That worries me. Otherwise I would consider doing it. Anyone have any thoughts about that?

Well, in real life literature writers do this. Sometimes they use a disclaimer, sometimes they don't even do that and say it's artistic freedom.

Currently I'm reading Bonita Avenue by Peter Buwalda, he uses great judoka's like Willem Ruska and Anton Geesink in fictional roles, without somebody protesting it.

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I'd think you'd have to be careful. Somebody at SI might be good to speak to regarding that as they must have had to tackle this issue at some point?

I wasn't meaning only this story 10-3 though. Appreciate how much work you must have put in over the years to this story, but your talent to write in general is good enough for a wider audience imvho so even a new project. I read a lot of self-published (i.e. cheap for me :D ) work through Amazon/Kindle and I'd say you could more than hold your own on some quite well read/reviewed self-published books on there.

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Thank you, Jibby. I appreciate your kind words. I have thought seriously about that through the years but one thing has always stopped me, and that being that real people are mentioned in this writing and I don't know if it is legal to use their names without rewriting the text entirely. That worries me. Otherwise I would consider doing it. Anyone have any thoughts about that?

I seem to remember our illustrious former leader Peacemaker7 had to rewrite his Bradford Park Avenue story to include anonymised names when he was attempting to get it published. He even used some then-forum-regular names as part of the rewrite.

Still a stonking good story, as ever.

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Wednesday, January 27

Arsenal (15-5-3, 3rd place) v Reading (15-6-2, 2nd place) – EPL Match Day #24

I did feel, to an extent, like Bill Murray in “Groundhog Day.”

Like the fictional Phil Connors, who wakes up every day seemingly destined to repeat the events of the day before, arriving at the Emirates for our third match against Arsenal in three weeks seemed more than a bit familiar.

The last time we had been here, just seven days ago, had provided the most satisfying win I’ve ever had in management. Today’s task: top it.

That was going to be difficult. We were tired. They weren’t. They were angry. We weren’t.

In other words, the situation was not exactly skewed in our favor.

The coach’s arrival at the stadium in the late afternoon was greeted by a few of our fans and a few of theirs. A midweek evening game means that everyone has to arrive at the stadium after work, obviously, so even the regular atmosphere of a Premiership Saturday wasn’t there.

That was really fine with me, I thought as I got off the coach. Anything to tamp down the Gunners.

This time, the threat of 4-5-1 became reality. I’ve never been a big fan of sitting back on our heels and waiting but today both the situation and the makeup of the squad demanded it.

Reading (4-5-1): Lobont, Pogatetz, Cathcart, Huth, Ferreira, Magallón, Osbourne, Dicã, Saivet, Maloney, Lita. Subs: Federici, Gaspari, Golbourne, Kitson, Dagoberto, Baptista, Halls.

We were officially out of gas. Gaspari was the backup at three of the defender positions with Golbourne available as a left-sided player only. Having three strikers as substitutes showed how bare the cupboard was, even thought Dagoberto and Baptista could technically play attacking forward positions, a situation I couldn’t imagine taking place on a day like today.

Halls was on the bench for cover but was so far out of match condition after a season in the reserves and a general inability to train at the proper levels of fitness that I couldn’t see him seeing action unless plague hit the bench at some point.

He had already let me know through channels that he wanted a Bosman and intended to take one. That was okay with me, even though he had been a good servant to the club. He needed a place to play, and deserved a place to play. I couldn’t give him one.

Ferreira, ever the professional, was getting the start at right full back in front of him today as well.

A look at Wenger’s team sheet showed that his men were nearly as frazzled as mine were.

Eighteen-year old French striker Gilles Sunu was on the substitutes list, as was 21-year old wing project Jay Simpson. Seventeen-year old defender Kevin Kite was also one of the seven selected to sit on the bench, and all I could think of, since the scouting staff had hardly seen him playing for the Gunners’ u-18s, was that he was getting rewarded for something we couldn’t even fathom.

Nineteen-year old Portuguese prodigy Rui Fonte was the fourth surprise on Wenger’s bench, joining more credible threats to play in Aliaksandr Hleb and Niklas Bendtner. Onetime Manchester United man Ben Foster wore the backup keeper’s shirt.

With that, the match kicked off. And with that, Arsenal went straight for our throats.

One thing we did match them in, from the beginning, was fouls. Each teams banged the other around the park with impressive fervor and zeal, but referee Mark Clattenburg let them play at the start and I think the players appreciated that.

When it came down to actual football, though, there was only one team on the park in the first half and it wasn’t us. Seven minutes into the match they showed some intent, but thankfully for us Eduardo didn’t come too close to the goal after taking a fine ball from Denilson on the edge of our area.

He did get a shot onto Lobont a few minutes later, though, and the Gunners poured forward at the first successful shot on target. We were on the back foot for the entire first half hour, with Ferreira going into the book in nineteen minutes for a challenge on van Persie that was too much for even Clattenburg to ignore.

A few minutes after that, they won successive corners after Denilson banged a shot off Saivet and behind, with Huth forced to head the set piece over his own goal and behind for a second attempt.

We didn’t get the second corner cleared either, with Ferreira screwing a clearance off the side of his foot and directly into the path of Eduardo, whose first-time drive was tipped over the bar by Lobont.

That got the crowd into the match as the Gunners took their third consecutive corner. Carlos Vela and Denilson then got chances within the next two minutes as we were put firmly under the cosh.

It took us a full 33 minutes to get a decent chance, when a very nice ball from Dicã found Lita, who managed to beat Arsenal’s offside trap to get through on goal. Yet Lukasz Fabianski denied him one on one and we stayed scoreless.

At that point it began to rain, and that was good from my point of view since it did slow down the slick passing game the Gunners were using to carve us open with annoying regularity.

Still, two minutes before the half, they came up with another good chance. Magallón broke up a 1-2 combination between Cesc Fabregas and Denilson, but his ball forward was intercepted and the Gunners started back.

Immediately, the ball was on the boot of Denilson and this time the attacker didn’t miss, scoring a simply brilliant goal from twenty yards that Lobont, great as he has been, didn’t have a chance to stop.

It was his first senior goal, but at that level of play, I feared it wouldn’t be his last.

It was no more than Arsenal deserved, and as the half approached I knew there was only one thing I could do to this group of tired, battling players to get a reaction out of them.

And it wasn’t to coddle them.

# # #

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Due to refusing to move on from my marathon FM09 game I slowly stopped using this forum. This, of course, resulted in me not checking on this story or the others I followed on this board. Mores my shame.

Still, I am back after years away and I'm glad to say that your writing has aged well. It is as great as I remember - captivating, entertaining and addictive. My only worry is that you seem to have slowed down on the updating front? Is this accurate? Are you getting back into the swing of things?

In short, am I going to get my regular fix?

Anyway, I'm glad to see you're still writing and still writing to such a high level. Long may it continue.

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WW, first and foremost thank you for the comment. It is very kind. I did indeed take a sabbatical for a time -- I have been working on this story and its predecessor for five years now and even though it is a labor of love, I do need to recharge my batteries from time to time. I am presently working on line-editing the prequel to this story, "American Calcio", for the purpose of self-publishing to Kindle, so that is taking up a good bit of my time. I appreciate your loyal readership!

And now on with the story ... :)

___

“You know, there are other spectators out there wearing blue and white, but they’re all in the stands,” I snapped as the team took its seats at halftime. Tired or no, we hadn’t played well at all and we had let Arsenal dictate the tempo for the entire first half.

Some of the looks I got in return were questioning but not outright challenging, so I knew I had their attention as I zeroed in.

“Look, they’re good and I know you’ve all been working hard but dammit, we didn’t do a damn thing out there in the first half,” I said, my voice rising a little. “We’re supposed to be a Champions League club but we sure didn’t look like one in the first 45. We looked like a bunch of schoolboys who were scared s**tless of that red and white machine.”

They knew I was right. We were tentative. In fact, we were pants, as some oldtimers like to say over here.

“Now, look. I’m not down on you guys, but you’re getting a kick up the back side because you deserve one. Now, we can counter them in the second half if we need to, but I’ve got to see better from you. We’re going to get blown out of the building if we don’t get a body on Denilson and we have to stop standing around out there when the ball’s in our third. How many corners did we have to give them because there was no place else to put the ball? That’s ridiculous.”

I waved at Dillon. “Kevin, let’s figure this out,” I said, but this time I didn’t head to the hallway during my deputy’s talk. I watched the whole thing.

I watched him read his notes. Usually when he’s writing them on the bench I don’t bother him, because we seem to be thinking more and more alike in terms of what we want to see and what we observe, but this time I wanted to see if he had seen the same things I had.

“We have two holding midfielders and we’re giving them too much space at the top of our area,” he said, and was exactly right. “We're playing too deep, we’re not getting stuck in and when we do get the ball, we bunch. That won’t do.”

He walked to the wipeboard at the front of the room and drew the formation, wider than the players had certainly been playing in the first half.

“We’re getting wedged into the center of the park and they’re just collapsing around us. We’ve no place to put the ball except to lump it down the wings because they’ve got us choked off, and then we all chase the bloody thing. We don’t utilize our speed when we’re engaged in losing races for long balls. Remember the plan. Slow, on the floor, keep possession and when they come to us, then put it into space. No panic passing here, lads.”

Sitting back in my chair, I looked on impassively. Dillon had it right, and if we could remember the plan we’d have a shot in the second half.

We rose to retake the field.

“Remember the conditions,” I warned. “It’s raining pitchforks and hammer handles out there now, so act accordingly. As long as the pitch stays good we can work the short game but if it’s not, we may well need a more direct style to get what we want today. You can do this. Just don’t get distracted from your task like in the first half.”

# # #

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That optimism lasted all of three minutes in the second half. Cathcart, paired with Huth in the center of defence for this match, was one of the few really playing well, controlling van Persie with the ball in the air with some ease. The Northern Ireland u-21 captain was coming of age and doing it quite nicely, in fact.

Yet it was Huth who was struggling, and Rodriguez found room for a very good opportunity three minutes into the half, with Lobont struggling to hold the wet ball that suddenly swerved toward him off the midfielder’s boot.

Pogatetz then went into the book for pulling back Rodriguez a few moments later, which left me on the bench shaking my head.

It wasn’t for me to show disbelief in the players, but perhaps this really was the end of the string for a group that had played so well for such a long time with such depleted numbers.

Moments later, though, we showed some resistance as Dicã burst through up the middle with the ball at his feet – something we had had precious little opportunity to experience – and Fabregas grabbed a handful of his shirt as he sped by. That put Clattenburg right back in his book and it opened all our eyes.

Taking the ball right at the Gunners suddenly seemed to bear fruit. Forget passing for the moment, just take the man on and see what happens.

Just like that, Dicã had the ball at his feet again and was driving right at the heart of the defense, which suddenly looked a bit shaky in front of him. There was only one pass on the whole trip up the park – from the midfielder to Lita on an angled ball to the right that resulted in our best chance of the match.

That was better stuff, but the home team still had the majority of the play. Van Persie was next, the player who interested me so much finding a way to prove his loyalty to the hometown cause by barging his way past Huth for a shot that barely missed Lobont’s left post.

Then he was back again, but pounded a shot into the side netting on the hour as the Gunners seemed to recover from the surprise we had given them.

Then it was Lita again in 66 minutes – flagging in terms of endurance but still willing the team on while leading the line. His rising drive was tipped over the bar by Fabianski as we countered Arsenal well for the first time in the entire match, doing what we had done so well earlier in the season again them.

At that point in time, it was time to go to the bench. Saivet had given what he had to give and was actually looking a bit lost as the match moved into its final twenty minutes, so off he came in favor of Dagoberto – and the other Samba King, Baptista, came on for a go at his former team to replace Lita, who was truly worn out after 70 minutes of hard running.

That brought Wenger to his bench too, and again he dropped my jaw. Last week, he substituted van Persie for Bendtner 72 minutes into the match. This time, he substituted van Persie for Hleb – exactly 72 minutes into the match.

So it seems that all we have to do to be rid of one of the game’s best players is simply to survive to the 73rd minute.

I still think he’d look great in our colors, though. We’ll have to work on that, assuming I survive in this position.

Anyhow, the introduction of the Samba Kings into the team gave us a bit of a jump. Dagoberto knew he could run like a wild man since he was only out there for twenty minutes, and he looked ready to impress.

Dicã stole a square ball off Denilson in the 76th minute and got the ball wide for Maloney, who nodded the ball back down for the trailing Ferreira. Maloney then moved forward, and the Arsenal defence slacked off him.

Ferreira saw it and lofted a great ball down the right onto Maloney’s run, and the Scotsman took the pass on the bounce in full flight, bringing the ball to ground artfully with a flick of his right boot. He took the ball deeper than we had had it for some time and as he neared the byline he crossed forcefully into the area.

There was Dagoberto, drifting back behind his marker, Johan Djourou, to what Ron Atkinson would call the ‘second post’, where he was by himself. Maloney’s cross soared over the head of the helpless defender and right onto the forehead of the Brazilian, who finished simply to get us level in a wholly undeserved fashion in 76 minutes.

Wenger, now fuming on his bench, introduced Bendtner for Rodriguez immediately after we scored, and Arsenal poured forward once again.

This time, though, we started to counter more effectively, as I pulled us into a 4-4-2, the alignment from which we had had such success against them in the past.

Fabregas had the next good chance, though, turning a thunderbolt loose for Lobont to save in the 83rd minute, but then we got the ball forward and kept it there. Dagoberto missed a brace three minutes from time and that had us all cringing on the bench, as he hit the side netting from ten yards after getting teed up by his strike partner.

Djourou, who had had a torrid second half, went into the book for holding back Baptista after that, and then Andrea Barzagli hacked an ensuing corner off the line.

Now we were pouring forward, playing our best football of the match by far, with Isaiah Osbourne putting the ball square for Dagoberto only to see Denilson head behind. Now Arsenal were on the back foot and the only issue for us was whether we had enough time to break through to steal three points instead of one.

No such luck. Clattenburg blew for full time and we left the field both lucky and unlucky at the same time.

Arsenal 1 (Denilson 1st 43)

Reading 1 (Dagoberto 9th, 76)

A – 60,410, Emirates Stadium, London

Man of the Match – Denilson, Arsenal (MR 8)

# # #

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The day before, Chelsea had humiliated Villa 5-0 at Stamford Bridge, behind four goals from Giuseppi Rossi and a fifth from Daniel Alves.

That put us five points adrift of the champions, but the draw at the Emirates meant we would stay ahead of Arsenal. But we now have more work than ever to do against the Blues.

Also yesterday, James Vaughan scored in the 67th minute to give Everton a 1-0 win at the Stadium of Light against Sunderland. The Black Cats remain 19th.

Spurs got a goal from Ashley Young just before the half hour at the Hawthorns only to see Chris Brunt peg them back three minutes from time for West Brom. The home team is also scrambling to get out of the relegation places, and the point for the 18th placed Baggies will be welcome.

Today’s action saw sixth-placed Man City humbled 4-0 at Anfield. Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres scored before the interval and Andriy Voronin scored twice after it, including once from the spot.

A Northwest derby saw Bolton shock United, which didn’t hurt us at all. Ricardo Vaz Te netted three minutes before halftime and the Trotters made it stand up – and at Old Trafford, no less. That’s an expensive loss for United.

Boro crushed a helpless-looking Portsmouth side 3-0 at the Riverside thanks to two goals from Thomas Buffel and a goal four minutes into the contest from Mariano Pavone.

Newcastle and Derby played to a goalless draw at St. James’ Park in a match that from all accounts was about as exciting as watching paint dry.

West Ham got a brace from Craig Bellamy at home to knock off tail-end Blackburn by 2-0.

And Fulham got its best offensive output of the season to thrash Wigan 5-2 at the JJB. Billy Sharp, their fine young striker, scored a hat trick while Simon Davies and Steven Davis both found the range in the second half. Brazilian striker Robert, on loan to Wigan from Real Betis, scored both goals for the home team.

But for me, I’m trying to figure out how we’re going to haul back five points in the table against the champions of England. It’s a huge task – but thanks to Dagoberto, it’s not six points.

We’ve got Boro at home on Saturday and we need points. It’s going to be interesting.

# # #

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“The hurrieder we go, the behinder we get,” I said to start my post match news conference. The old American phrase seemed to apply here.

“We played well enough to get a point today but that’s really about all I can say,” I added. “We were dominated for the first seventy minutes of the match but we found a way to get a point out of here and that’s good.”

“A win, a loss and a draw against Arsenal over a three-week span,” Weatherby opened. “Fair to say your clubs are evenly matched?”

“In terms of results, yes,” I said. “In terms of play, we have a little bit to learn yet. Arsenal controlled us for most of the match today and they controlled us on our patch the first time we played in the League Cup, so we certainly know they’re an excellent side. We counter punch them very well, though, so I think the next step for us as a club is to learn to control the play better against one of the teams that is the very best in Europe at doing just that.”

“Chelsea.” Abiatti. Had to be.

“Top of the table,” I said. “But then that’s obvious, isn’t it? What else would you like me to say?”

“How do you catch them?”

“Well, we need help,” I admitted. “They beat us fair and square when we played them and someone is going to have to go in there and knock them off their perch if we’re going to have a chance. I think we’ve done about as well as we can realistically expect to do given the shortfalls in our current senior squad.”

“Isn’t that making an excuse?”

“No, Rocco, it’s doing the best you can with what you’ve got. I’m not going to insult this group of players by saying they should have done better or they are not fit for purpose. They came in here and got a draw so I can’t be too upset with them and neither should anyone else.”

“The obvious question is what are you doing to help the players on the senior squad get through this stretch in terms of bringing in extra players?” That was Weatherby, regaining control of the conversation with a perfectly valid question.

“We do have transfer targets,” I said. “I’m not going to discuss who those targets may be at the moment, but we are looking at players who can help this club and still keep us within budgets. We are still a growing club and we need to make sure the resources of the club are focused to help match its ambition.”

Abiatti snorted, and that brought Hopkins out of the Cone of Silence the Setanta reporter had been in for most of the season.

“What exactly is the ambition of this club, Rob?” he asked from the back of the room. “On the surface, some days you look like champions and other days you look like EastEnders.”

The reporters in the room laughed at Hopkins’ frankness and even though I didn’t appreciate the reference as a representative of my club, I had to admit he had a point.

“We’re going through a lot now as a club and as an organization,” I said, knowing I’d be making a headline by whatever I said. “Those things need to shake themselves out at board level and then we will see. I can say though, that whenever I’ve asked to bid for a player, Sir John has never said no as long as the bid fits into the plan of the club, which he explains to me every time it becomes an issue. Within those limits, I’m free to bid as I see fit.”

That answer wasn’t completely satisfactory and I knew it, but then the bid for Ribery wasn’t yet public and when it was, we’d make some news.

The news conference over, I headed back to the changing room where the players were waiting for my closing words before we headed to the coach.

“Good work, men,” I said as soon as the door had closed. “You responded the way I hoped you would at halftime. This is how good teams get points on days where it’s tough to get points. Be proud of your efforts today and let’s get ourselves home. Well done.”

Some looks of pleasant surprise passed across the faces of players who had expected at least a mild roasting that they had not in fact received. That helped morale as we headed to our coach.

Alongside me walked Lita, his headphones placed firmly over his ears and his music flowing into his brain. He had a smile on his face.

# # #

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Thursday, January 28

Porto told us no for Ribery today, and it hit the papers. I’m not sure whether their answer meant we were too low or they didn’t want to sell the player after telling us, in essence, that they did.

It seemed like bad business to me, to be honest, but the message from Portugal still rankled with em as I sat in my office before training. We do have other irons in the fire, though.

Alex Pearce, the Scottish u-21 international defender who had been on loan at Leicester and playing very well for them before his recent return, inked a two-year extension with us this morning. I’m happy to see that. He does have a role here at the club – big, strong, intense and a good man marker. In short, the type of player his old central defender manager loves to see.

Pearce had played in 24 of the Foxes’ 29 matches to date and helped put them in the playoff places. Right now Leicester is fourth in the Championship and he helped put them there. It remains to be seen whether Leicester will ask to extend the loan, but I’m inclined to let him go back if he wants to go.

We made another youth signing today which I like. Andrew Traub, a Scottish u-19 defender and fine prospect, is ours from MK Dons for £325,000. We’ve made him immediately available for loan and I think he’s got a chance to be quite a player.

So there were those bits of good news today, even as I tried to figure out what Porto’s game was. We submitted an improved bid later this morning and we’ll see how that goes.

A quick check of the Jornais de Portugal online showed me what I needed to see: an article announcing our bid and Ribery and his agent expressing disappointment that they would not be allowed to pursue it.

That will put the player in serious hot water with the team and its fans, but he’s talented enough and mentally tough enough to overcome it, I imagine. All I know is that he would like to wear our colors and if we get up enough cash, it’s only a matter of time until that happens.

There are other players I am after as well. I also put in a formal bid for Robin van Persie today, now that we’re done playing Arsenal for the season (we hope).

I don’t expect that we’ll get Ribery, since the process has started too late. But we have made our interest in van Persie known before, so if he is disgruntled enough to want to leave the Gunners, maybe that will happen before the end of this window. He hasn’t signed a new deal with Arsenal yet so perhaps that will come to fruition in the coming close season.

If I’m here.

We also got some interesting news today about another tremendously talented player who wouldn’t mind wearing our hoops.

Villareal’s Argentine striker Gonzalo Higuaín has been mentioned in more than one report out of Spain as being interested in a move. The former Real Madrid man went to the Yellow Submarine last season for £20 million and now may want to move again. It’s not like he isn’t playing – he’s netted ten times in 21 matches for them – but he’s looking for a challenge. Villareal has no European football and is presently sixth in La Liga, ten points adrift of Real.

Villareal has also approached us about Henri Saivet, and though I am loathe to let our wonderkid go, a part exchange may get that job done.

Video of the kid shows the complete package – he’s six feet tall, strong and reasonably good both in the air and with the ball at his feet, pacy and a natural finisher. He’s worth the look, that’s for sure.

# # #

Meanwhile, our players in the Cup of Nations did well for themselves today.

Kalou netted for Ivory Coast in their 4-2 win over Angola in Abuja today to improve to 2-0 overall, and Bikey played well for Cameroon as they defeated Morocco 1-0. They have also won their first two matches.

Sonko’s Senegal drew its first match with Mali in a bit of a surprise, but they too rebounded by defeating Congo 3-1 to move to 1-1-0 in two matches. All three of our players are in great position to progress through to the second round. Great for them. Not so great for us.

# # #

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But on the other hand, it's pants to see an updated thread only to find it's a reader comment :( (deliberate irony)

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Well heck, I can fix that...

___

We also dove right into preparations for Boro today. At home against as solidly a mid-table team as we’ll see (10 wins, 10 losses, four draws), we’ll be expected to do well. As we always are these days.

We’ll have a reunion with James Harper as well, who we sold to Boro earlier this month. That will be a difficult one for me personally – he always did everything I asked of him and accepted his role without question, but he also deserves a chance to play and when Boro came calling I really couldn’t stand in his way.

Some of the guys got Tweets and text messages from their former mate today and it helped lighten the mood a bit. ‘Arry Redknapp will keep things light on his side anyway, I’m sure.

Pogatetz, the former Boro defender, also got into the act a little bit, though having been with us for almost two seasons now he wasn’t quite as active with his old mates as Harper was with us. That was understandable.

But once the fun and games ended online, it was time to get to work. The morning meeting gave us a chance to look at Boro through the VEGA system and analyze their tendencies a bit.

Creativity is important to almost any footballer but the beauty of video is that it allows you to see what players like to do when they are trying to create. Simply put, you can’t do what you can’t do, and the ability of a player to get his opponent in trouble is naturally limited to his own physical ability.

Boro spreads out the scoring. Mariano Pavone is the guy we really have to watch for and if we can get him marked I like our chances a lot better.

A prolific goal scorer at Estudiantes La Playa in his native Argentina, his trip to Real Betis in Spain didn’t go well and even though he scored four times in twelve appeareances, six of those appearances were as a substitute and Betis was fortunate to more than double the £3.4 million they paid for him when they sold him on to Boro after the 2007-08 season.

Since then he has scored 20 goals in 47 senior appearances for the team and has turned into a bit of a local legend and fan favourite. That said, he’s neither tall not pacy but can score from long range like nobody’s business. He’s got more quality goals from outside of twenty yards than just about anyone in the Premiership and we’ll need to be mindful of him.

Then there’s the ex-Ranger, Thomas Buffel, who has netted seven times from his position off the main striker. The two of them will need to be watched.

This wasn’t really news to any of the players, though, so the meeting went pretty much as scheduled.

As it continued, and as Downes and Dillon said their pieces about our next opposition, the message light on my phone flashed. I opened an e-mail from the financial office.

“Offer from Man City for Craig Cathcart for £6.5 million,” it read.I smiled. It was good to see that my Northern Ireland defender was getting some attention from other clubs, but he had played well when called upon during the recent player crisis and his place, and his future, were very much in Reading blue and white.

I responded to the e-mail. “Reject,” I wrote. “Thank you very much.”

# # #

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Friday, January 29

I can’t ever recall being so angry since becoming manager of this club.

That includes McGuire, Richmond, Winthrop, everyone who has tried to stick his nose where it doesn’t belong.

Someone in the front office accepted the bid for Cathcart and he signed for Manchester City today.

I know who that someone is – eventually, Sir John had to sign off on the transaction so it eventually went through him. But someone had to tell Manchester City’s people that the deal was accepted – when I had left instructions the day before that it be turned down.

I get deference on my squad in the area of player sales, especially when money is good. And right now, we are so far under our payroll budgets and there’s such a healthy bank balance at the moment that there is absolutely no need to sell a player.

Especially not a player I rate as highly as Cathcart. And especially not when we’re down two central defenders to the Cup of Nations.

It was mind boggling. I found out as I entered my office this morning to find a sheaf of papers on my desk outlining the details of the transfer I had turned down the afternoon before.

I swore. Loudly.

Then I called the chairman’s office and asked if he would mind terribly if the manager paid him a visit.

“He’s out this morning, Rob,” said Clara Turner, Sir John’s executive PA.

“I guess I need to know when he’ll be back, Clara,” I said.

“His calendar says he’s out until 1:30,” she responded.

That was in the middle of afternoon training. That would be convenient if his goal was to dodge me.

“Please tell him I need to see him when he returns,” I said. “And if he likes I’ll come off the training pitch.”

“Very well, Rob,” she said. “May I tell him what it’s about?”

“No need, Clara,” I said. “He’ll know.”

# # #

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You appear to know Mr. Ridgway well, Mark ..

__

Stewing, I headed to training and gave my remaining players my full attention. As the morning session began, I turned the whole situation over in my mind.

Why would Sir John have felt the need to sell a player he knew – from me – was an important part of our future, and more especially when he was coming into his own with key players away from the team?

It just didn’t make any sense.

Spending too much time in worry, though, was not fair to the players on the training pitch. Cathcart, for his part, said his goodbyes before the session started, knowing there would be no place for him on the pitch that day, even with a deal unsigned with City.

That, presumably, happened during the morning session because when we got back into our changing room, his locker stall was cleaned out and the player was gone.

That didn’t make me any happier, certainly, but as the players broke for lunch before the afternoon meeting and their dismissal home for the day, I was told that the owner was ready to see me.

I took the elevator to the club offices atop the stadium and soon I was back in front of Clara, awaiting Sir John’s permission to enter.

This was not long in coming, and I entered the owner’s office determined to get a straight answer to my questions.

“What happened?” I asked.

“You were informed that Cathcart was a player we would consider selling,” he began.

“I was not,” I replied.

“You were,” Madejski said, his face seeming to show signs of strain. “You were on the internal memo.”

“What memo?” I asked. “I saw no memo.”

“The scouting department memo, copied to the board and to yourself,” he said in a matter-of-fact tone.

“Sir John, you will need to show me that memo,” I said, in an ever-more-frustrating attempt to be patient. “I did not receive it, and if you’re asserting that I’m lying to you, this conversation may not end well.”

I knew full well what I was saying.

He reached into his private files in the right lower drawer of his desk and pulled out a piece of paper, handing it to me.

I read a list of names of players that I had previously indicated were free to leave the club – Halls, Hunt and a few others were on it – and Cathcart’s name was last on the list. It was dated Sunday, January 24.

“This does not make sense,” I said. “At no time did I indicate that Craig Cathcart was on the transfer list.”

“His name was there and your name was on the memo,” he said. “When the offer came in it was a simple thing to accept it.”

“You do realize that I had turned down two previous offers for the player in this transfer window?” I asked. My hackles were rising. It seemed as though he was talking down to me, a guaranteed way to get on my very bad side.

“Yes,” he said. “This offer was of sufficient size.”

“I need defenders, Sir John,” I said. “And, I especially need that defender, both now and for the future. We have important matches coming up and I now have 48 hours to find at least one more. And since it’s January, that means to get the kind of player we need, I’m going to have to overpay.”

“You mean I will have to overpay,” he said. Then it hit me.

“Who else was copied on that note?” I asked.

“It originated in the scouting office and in my absence this week, it was countersigned by Sidney.”

I looked at him.

“Well, there you have it,” I said. “That is why I never received the memo.”

He sighed. “Rob, your obsession with Sidney Richmond...”

“...is entirely justified, Sir John,” I said. “Take a moment. He’s trying to leverage you into selling. Cathcart is a very promising player who is popular with the fans. I have to go to the media now and I’m going to have to tell them the truth, that I had no knowledge the player was for sale. Now, if you were Sidney Richmond, what would you say in response?”

That seemed to reach through to my boss, and he took a deep breath.

“That the left hand doesn’t know what the right is doing,” the owner said.

“Exactly. Now, who do you think will take the fall for that with the fans?” I asked. “You, or me? Or do you think Sidney hopes it’s both of us?”

He thought for a moment.

“Neither of us will take a fall,” he finally said. “Rob, your explanation makes sense to me, but either way we are in a public relations crisis. I won’t have you lie to the press and I won’t have an aspersion cast on the management of this club. In good faith, I believed you had placed the player on the transfer list.”

“So, what should I say when the press asks me why on earth we’re selling a defender when we’re so short players?”

“Tell them the truth. You’re buying a better one. Now, go and find one.”

# # #

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My text message had reached the scouts before I reached the elevator.

Meeting, manager’s office, ten minutes,” it read simply. “All scouts present in offices must attend.”

By then word had gotten out regarding Cathcart so it wasn’t hard for them to tell what the meeting was about.

I started it simply.

“We’ve got 48 hours to get this fixed,” I began. “Cathcart was not on my transfer list but he’s gone and the reasons for that are being investigated. I need a list by three o’clock of players on this list – and I waived a sheet of paper I produced from out of my own desk – that are available in the neighbourhood of the amount we got for Craig Cathcart.”

I handed the list over and watched for reactions.

It was my personal shortlist, of players I thought would fit a certain bill or other on the squad. It contained about 100 names of players around Europe.

But don’t stop there,” I said. “As long as we’re bidding, I want some other things from you too.”

# # #

When I faced the media, I had the story that I wanted to tell. They wanted to know about Cathcart and I was honest.

“We had communication issues,” I said, trying to choose my words carefully. “Craig’s name was on a sheet of players given to the front office as available for transfer and that was not my wish as the manager. However, we can’t do anything about it now, and we have to face up to that. We also have to figure out our back line for the rest of the season and we have two days to bring in anyone we’re going to bring in.”

Abiatti pounced.

“Were you prepared for this?” he asked.

“Any professional club, especially a Premiership club and most especially a Champions League club, is ready for something like this,” I said. “We wish Craig well and my personal wish was that he reach his full potential in a Reading shirt. But since that will presumably not happen, we have to move on. We are prepared, we are making bids and we expect results very soon.”

Weatherby piped up.

“Rob, you used the plural there, you said ‘bids’,” she said. “Are you looking for more than one signing even at this late date?”

“Well, Jill, now that you mention it, yes, I did use the plural,” I said. “It is indeed possible that we will make other moves. And I do mean more than one.”

“Rob, let’s get back to that error you mentioned,” a voice I couldn’t place said from the back of the interview area. “You said a Champions League club is prepared. But what I want to know is how an error that allows Craig Cathcart to be sold gets made in the first place. That’s not exactly ‘prepared’, is it?”

“Miscommunication is embarrassing as hell,” I said. “Let’s get that out in the open right now. But at the same time, there are conflicting priorities within our organization and we all know that.”

There. It was in the open.

“Are you suggesting that someone deliberately did this?” Weatherby was fastest on the uptake.

It was time to sell Sidney Richmond up the river.

“No comment,” I said, somehow managing to keep a straight face.

“Did the Richmond group have anything to do with this? And do you think we’re going to let you get away with making such an insinuation and respond with just a ‘no comment’?”

She was now two-for-two. Or was that three-for-three?

I tested the waters. “No comment.”

She didn’t press.

“Are you going to make me go ask him?” Her batting average was improving all the time.

“I wouldn’t suggest you do anything,” I answered.

“Will you answer any question on this subject?” she asked.

“My goodness me, look at the time,” I said, looking at my watch. “That’ll do it for today, everyone. Thanks and enjoy your day.”

I headed off the dais and back to my office. When I was out of sight of the press, I whistled quietly to myself as I walked.

# # #

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Saturday, January 30

Reading (15-7-2, 2nd place) v Middlesbrough (10-4-10, 10th place) – EPL Match Day #25

I turned up the heat on Porto today, formally declaring interest in Franck Ribery, and as our visitors from the Northeast arrived at the Mad Stad for today’s game, our little corner of the Premiership was front and center on the national broadcasts.

The transfer news was very interesting today and that’s why we got a whole segment on “Soccer Saturday”.

The “Fearsome Fivesome” of Jeff Stelling, Matt LeTissier, Paul Merson, Phil Thompson and “Champagne” Charlie Nicholas had a field day with the morning’s back pages.

It started with the news about Ribery, who was also formally offered to us by his agent, in a definite attempt to force Porto’s hand. That seemed all right with me.

What was a bigger surprise was the story from Spain which indicated that Higuaín is in fact angling for a move to Reading. Hearing that on my television made me smile and drew a reaction from Patty as we sat in our living room chairs prior to leaving for the ground.

“The last time you looked that excited, Rob, we made a baby,” she teased.

I couldn’t help but laugh but then that kind of story, if true, would put me in a very good mood. The panel also speculated about van Persie, and if by some miracle we got two or, heaven forbid, all three, we’d be hugely strengthened.

But I don’t see that happening for obvious reasons. We’ve tried for van Persie before and, even though he has reportedly said he admires what we’re building, he’s still an Arsenal man and it will probably take another infusion of Champions League bonus money to prepare an improved close season bid for a player I’d love to have.

Ribery would solve a ton of issues for us and would also give us a very dynamic midfield. Higuaín would give us one of world football’s brightest young talents.

And then there is what we actually did today.

We placed two formal bids – one to Manchester United for defender Wes Brown and another to Spurs for midfielder/defender Younes Kaboul.

There are good reasons for both of those bids. Brown’s is the more obvious – he would be the direct replacement for Cathcart and since he can also play full back, he would be a potential direct replacement for Ferreira as well if we decide not to bring him back. I’d rather not overpay in January for him, but the full England international is still a solid player and my hand, to be delicate, has been forced.

The reason for Kaboul’s bid isn’t quite so obvious. It’s basically this – we know we will not get a work permit to renew Bikey’s contract in the close season, so he has to leave the club essentially by government mandate. Kaboul is as physically imposing as Bikey – he is 6’3” and 191 pounds, is extremely strong on the ball and is a force in the air – and he can also play the holding position in addition to central defense.

Should we get him, he could give us a “Twin Towers” central defense with the 6’4” Huth if I spelled Sonko in that position, and he would give us a menacing presence in midfield if I put him there. Pick your poison, opponents.

The bids for both players are equal - £8 million apiece. We’ve bid £10 million for Ribery in the past and been turned down, and have bid more than that for van Persie. And with Higuain valued at £14.5 million, we are talking about real money now.

So that is the other reason I don’t think we’ll get all those players. We don’t have the cash, Sidney Richmond or no.

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The two players I feel we need the most are the ones we bid on today, though, and other clubs were moving players even before matches kicked off today.

Newcastle made its club-record signing last night, spending £28.5 million to return midfielder Fernando Belluschi to England from Napoli.

The Argentine netted three times, all this season, in 54 league appearances for Napoli after his £11.5 million move from Manchester City in the summer of 2008. He also played for Newell’s Old Boys and River Plate in his homeland before moving to England in 2007.

United also sold last night, dealing Brazilian midfielder Anderson to Roma for £14.25 million. It was a case of Coppell cutting United’s losses with the signing, as the player made only 19 league appearances in a United shirt, scoring twice in his debut season of 2007-08, since his £21 million move from Porto.

This season, he had made 17 appearances overall, but only five of those were in the league, with two starts and one goal in the League Cup. Roma is in desperate need of a spark, buried in 13th place in Serie A.

Meanwhile Aston Villa, which is hovering just above the drop zone in 15th place, was a buyer. They purchased Real Mallorca’s leading goalscorer, the 30-year old uncapped Spanish striker Güiza, for $10 million.

He’s a proven goal scorer, with a return of 152 league goals in 357 matches in mostly a second-division career, but 49 of those goals came over four seasons with Mallorca and Getafe in La Liga.

He had twelve goals in 24 matches for Mallorca this season. That club is second in LIGA BBVA at the moment and couldn’t pass up the chance to do a solid piece of business.

All those things I filed away while the players arrived from the training center and changed into their kit for the match. With the matches coming fast and thick there hadn’t been a whole lot of time to worry about new systems in preparation for Boro, but we were instead going to “DWWD” – Do What We Do, and let the visitors worry about stopping it.

Reading (4-4-2): Lobont, Pogatetz, Gaspari, Huth, Ferreira, Golbourne, Magallón, Dicã, Maloney, Baptista, Kitson. Subs: Federici, Saivet, Osbourne, Dagoberto, Lita, Halls.

And yes, we only had six subs. Cathcart was already on his way to Manchester, and I had a short bench. Ain’t life grand?

# # #

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Cant believe its taken me a week since I finished reading to this point before posting.

Seriously tenthree this is amazing. As mentioned at the start of my own story, this inspired me to try a story of my own.

I hope you get the time to finish this.

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Well it's taken me eight days to read through all of this but it has been worth it, I almost bunked off work today to keep reading the last two pages. This could very easily sell as a paperback in a book store, without question and is probably the best Football Manager story on any forum I've been a part of, hats off to you. Cracking, cracking read.

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That is one of the nicest comments I've ever had on this work. Thank you very much -- it is greatly appreciated.

___

There wasn’t a lot to really be upset about at halftime. Bennett’s award of the penalty was not good from our point of view but it hadn’t hurt us to the point where we were trailing. All we needed to do, I thought, was get ourselves right and play our game in the second half and see what would happen.

The pressure of trying to keep up with Chelsea was also in the back of my mind but for my money, I was concerned about getting this group of eleven players to play like it was capable of playing. They weren’t our best eleven. But they were the ones we had, and as such the onus was on them to get the job done.

The second half began in the same light drizzle as the first half had ended, but the temperature dropped suddenly and the rain turned first to sleet and then to light snow. That put a cramp in our style for sure, and those players who had chosen to wear gloves and long sleeves back onto the pitch for the second half were soon grateful for their foresight.

The first chance of the half fell to us, as Ferreira switched play beautifully from right to left two minutes after the restart and found Golbourne behind the napping Boro defence. His shot was parried by Turnbull, though, and it came to nothing.

Gaspari, for his part, forgot my instruction to “calmare” and put Franks out of the match with another crunching challenge that saw the player hit the freezing ground heavily, landing on top of the ball in the 53rd minute. He lay almost motionless for nearly three minutes fighting for his breath before being assisted off, with Julio Arca his replacement.

Harry Redknapp made a second substitution at the same time, bringing on Gary O’Neil for David Bentley, and moving to five midfielders.

At that point, though, Dicã began to really flag for us. He had done yeoman work during our recent stretch of games but finally he started to tire, and badly. That gave me the chance to do something I had long wanted to try – put Dagoberto on as our raider, which I had never done before. Just before the hour mark, that was exactly what I did.

The teams’ play was affected heavily by the snow, getting more and more direct as time passed. A short game was rapidly becoming out of the question as clumps of snow and ice on the ground affected the ball’s roll and the hardening ground made the ball’s bounce both more firm and difficult to judge at the same time.

To try to find that winning goal, I brought on Lita for Magallón once it became apparent that Redknapp’s 4-5-1 was designed to get a point. But nothing seemed to help.

In fact, Baptista wound up in Bennett’s book for simulation when he went down on a hard challenge by Harper. That ended the comity our former player felt toward his ex-teammate.

Now the normally mild-mannered Harper was leaning over Baptista, yelling at him to get up, and that riled our players. Suddenly, sixteen minutes from time, we had a new match.

Huth, himself a former Boro man, grabbed Harper and escorted him away from the fracas, which brought other Boro players into the mix with their ex-teammate.

Redknapp and I were both up and off the benches like jacks-in-the-box at that, with me allowing the visiting manager the first shot at fourth official Mark Clattenburg.

A quick look at Redknapp told him I wasn’t interested in a confrontation between the managers, but once Baptista had been booked, Harry really didn’t have a whole lot else to say. He wasn’t going to get a straight red card and Baptista’s transgression had been punished.

Harper’s, on the other hand, had not, and that was what I wanted to speak about with Clattenburg.

“Something got missed there, Mark,” I said pulling the collar of my overcoat up around my neck to preserve warmth in the growing cold.

“Not according to Steve, it didn’t,” he answered, cupping a hand over his earpiece to hear some communication between the other officials. He looked pretty miserable himself.

“Well, that’s what I want you to talk about with Steve,” I said. “My guy got it, theirs didn’t. I see a lot of that lately. Don’t like it so much.”

“I’ll take that up with him, Rob,” he said, trying not to sound fatuous and failing just a bit. “Now, you’ve already been put in the stand once this season, let’s not try for two, shall we?”

“See that you do,” I said. “And if I go to the stand, that’ll be my decision, not yours.”

Dealing from a pronounced position of weakness, I had no choice but to let the matter drop, but I was a bit mollified when my countryman, Clint Dempsey, picked up a well deserved booking for dropping Kitson with what a hockey player would have called a solid hip check as he waited for a high ball from Maloney a couple of moments later.

“See, Rob,” Clattenburg called. “These things even out.”

Had I not been in a better mood, I’d have thought the official was goading me, but as i moved us into 4-3-1-2 to try to find a winning goal, I let that drop too.

The match ticked over into five minutes of added time, which seemed a lot until I remembered the injury to Franks, and we wound up with a decent opportunity when Maloney did a great job freeing up space for himself and blasting a shot off Harper’s shinguard and behind for a corner two minutes into added time.

That came to nothing, but the ball spun back to Ferreira who brought it forward, and he was fouled by Arca, giving us a free kick about thirty yards from goal.

Maloney took it, whipping a kick into the box – where it found the head of the charging and unmarked Huth, who beat Turnbull to his left post in the third minute of added time to put us ahead 2-1.

The frozen faithful who remained warmed their lungs by screaming them out, and the ex-Boro player everyone seemed to have forgotten, Huth, celebrated a certain winning goal.

My final substitution, of Osbourne for Kitson, made sure of it. Redknapp had removed the players who could have made 4-2-4 work for him and moments later we had a last-gasp victory that we really can use.

Reading 2 (Baptista 6th 32, Huth 5th 90+3)

Middlesbrough 1 (Tuncay 1st 25pen)

A – 27,125, Madejski Stadium, Reading

Man of the Match – Sanli Tuncay, Middlesbrough (MR 8)

# # #

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There seemed to be good news everywhere.

United fell 3-2 at Goodison Park to Everton this afternoon. James Vaughan did all the damage for the Toffees, scoring a hat trick within 35 minutes on either side of the interval to give David Moyes’ men the win. Wayne Rooney’s brace for the Red Devils wasn’t enough.

To make it even better, Arsenal stumbled today as well. The Gunners fell 1-0 at Villa Park, with Gabriel Agbonlahor scoring the only goal of the match ten minutes in.

Elsewhere, Blackburn continues to struggle. The tail-enders in the Premiership lost 3-1 at home to 18th placed West Brom in a relegation six-pointer. Roque Santa Cruz scored the only goal for Rovers while Robert Colautti opened the scoring for the Baggies on the stroke of halftime and Angelos Charisteas scored a second half brace to give West Brom the points.

Derby knocked off West Ham 2-0 at Pride Park for three points they can really use too. Nené, who had started the season so slowly, picked up both goals on either side of the interval for the Rams.

Among the top six, the only team besides us to win was Manchester City, which used Micah Richards’ goal three minutes before the break to subdue a stubborn Sunderland team at the City of Manchester Stadium.

Spurs had a much easier time this afternoon, taking care of Wigan 3-0 at the Lane. Nicolas Anelka came through with a hat trick for the home team, which dominated just about every way you can.

I mentioned the other top six teams had a difficult day. That included Liverpool, which lost a 3-1 lead with ten minutes to play at Craven Cottage today and had to settle for a 3-3 draw with Fulham. Fernando Torres’ opener in the 31st minute was pegged back by Steven Davis ten minutes later, but the Reds built a lead on goals three minutes apart by Dirk Kuyt and Ryan Babel, the latter with seventeen minutes to play.

But Collins John pulled a goal back with ten minutes left and Hameur Bouazza gave the home team a share of the spoils three minutes from time.

There is space opening up now between Chelsea and ourselves and the rest of the league. They still have a big advantage but we are in the reckoning with plenty of time left in the season. The Blues are at Bolton tomorrow and we’ll be watching closely.

# # #

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“Most matches I saw went at least ninety minutes and some went even longer,” I said, shortly after running a towel over my dishwater blonde hair in the interview area to remove the last traces of snow.

“I thought we did well today, again with a patchwork eleven and a determined opponent. We are grinding out results and that’s a good thing for obvious reasons.”

“’Boro’s players said Huth was offside,” I heard.

“He wasn’t,” I said. “Next?”

“How did you like the penalty?”

“Not at all. Gee, these are easy questions today,” I smiled.

That wasn’t wise. “Any more word on anyone trying to sabotage your squad?” Abiatti asked.

“Not that I know of,” I answered. “We do hope to have something to announce soon on the squad, though. We have a lot of work to do yet and we need bodies.”

“How much longer can you ask this group of players to go to the well, Rob?” Weatherby asked.

“How many matches do we have?” I asked. “These players are professionals and they do have a lot of pride. The squad players have done a great job and it’s great to watch them step up. Now we have to get ready for an FA Cup match against Villa and these players will be ready.”

“And the transfers? Can you give us any update on them?”

“Not at the present time,” I said. “We will make announcements in due course if any of our efforts are successful. We do have money to spend and we do expect to bring in players before the end of the window.”

I was gambling. I knew no such thing.

But as the news conference ended and I enjoyed a post match cup of coffee with Redknapp in our lounge area, I was handed a slip of paper by Waters, who apologized for his intrusion.

United and Spurs both accept bids for Brown and Kaboul,” the note read. “Proceed?”

I nodded to Waters.

“Has Sir John seen this?” I asked.

“Not that I know of,” the media man answered.

“Then be sure that he has before we move. Double-check everything. When he’s good, we’re good. Not before.”

Waters nodded and left. Redknapp smiled.

“Ready to buy, Rob?” he asked.

“I wish I didn’t have to,” I said. “But it looks like I have no choice.”

“What the hell happened with Cathcart?” he asked. “That’s a player I’d have kept.”

I smiled at him ruefully and poured myself a warmup from the silver service between us.

“Harry, I’d have kept him too, and I tried to,” I said. “But life at this club is sometimes such that you don’t get what you want even when you think you’re getting what you want.”

He laughed. “I don’t envy you,” he said. “Really, I don’t.”

# # #

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Nice little bit of a bromance with Harry Redknapp and Rob towards the end there. Referring to the previous update, I love names like Collins John and Hameur Bouazza just randomly cropping up. :') Great work as always, 10-3, and a plus that the winner came so late on and might have been offside.

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Thank you very much ... having gone through the copy of this story, I wrote new copy yesterday for the first time in about six months. I sat down after lunch and before I knew it I had ten new pages in front of me. I had forgotten what a joy this piece is to write and how easily things flowed even after that time away. It poses a problem because of the other projects I can't work on when I'm doing this one ... but as I remind others, this project is fun for me, and as such, it deserves some of my time.

___

Sunday, January 31

We are now joined by Wes Brown and Younes Kaboul.

With a net transfer spend of about £9.75 million after Cathcart’s transfer, both players are here. As he promised, Sir John made all the proceeds from Cathcart’s sale available, and they went right into the hopper with the buys we made today.

I’m happy with both new players – even though Kaboul played twenty minutes for Spurs yesterday in their match he will be ready to go as soon as he’s eligible to play for us – which actually is part of the rub.

Both players are cup-tied in the FA Cup, which means they won’t be available to us on Wednesday against Villa.

We’re getting these players for the league run. Sonko’s return will give us a first-choice central defender but I expect both Brown and Kaboul to challenge for places for us.

That said, we got better news today – Chelsea was held by ten-man Bolton at the Reebok this afternoon.

We couldn’t slow down Chelsea, but the Trotters did, thanks to a wonderful performance by Oscar Ustari in goal. The man of the match was wonderful, especially after the 73rd minute when Oscar Trejo was sent off for a second bookable offense. Playing against ten men, the champions couldn’t find a way through to goal and Bolton grabbed a point while allowing us to gain two on the weekend.

The other match of the day saw Newcastle go to the south coast and fall 2-1 at Fratton Park against Portsmouth. The Magpies were reduced to ten men after falling behind 2-1 as Francisco Javier Rodriguez was sent off for a professional foul against Landon Donovan.

Jermain Defoe scored both goals for Pompey, sandwiched around a goal from Belizoglu Emre just before the half.

So as the players enjoyed a rest day after their exertions yesterday, I tried to come up with some sort of match plan for a very tired group of players heading on the road at midweek.

# # #

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One of them may not be Gaspari, however. The player committed a cardinal sin by going to the press to talk about his playing time in the aftermath of our purchases.

He also Tweeted about it, which broke a rule as it was the day after a match and my policy doesn’t allow that. He also embarrassed me in public and that’s sort of against my policy too.

It was brought to my attention because I follow all my players from a special account. Not following the manager, failure to let the manager follow the player, and above all, blocking the manager if I find out about it, are all offenses – the last is a transfer list offense if I decide it’s warranted -- and all my players know that too.

“Wish the manager would play me more, Deserve it after the Boro match. Maybe we’ll buy a few more players instead. #WhatDoesItTake”

I Tweeted him back by private message.

“You just made trouble for yourself. My office, 9:00 tomorrow morning.”

I expected an answer and got it. He also deleted his Tweet, but by then it was too late.

We’ll have a heart to heart talk in which I’ll do the talking, and we’ll see what happens from there. It has been awhile since I have had a significant discipline issue at this club but from time to time an example needs to be made when authority is challenged.

The headlines today, though, were about Brown and Kaboul as well as the Boro match. Once again, we left it late but we got the three points, so Better Late Than Never was the predictable effort from the Sunday People.

That also applied to our transfers, so it was all rolled up into one nice, neat package.

Brown signed his contract this morning and the details were worked out quickly with United. Kaboul took slightly longer, but by 3:00 p.m. his name was on the dotted line with both players in the top third of our salary structure.

Both players had checked in by text message by dinner time and I was informing them that I would meet with them right after Gaspari at 9:15. We had a news conference scheduled to introduce both players at 10 with training to follow after it was done. It was a busy morning schedule.

Finally, though, my ‘day of rest’ was nearly done. Patty sat across from me in her accustomed spot on the opposite side of our shared end table in the living room.

She smiled, patting her heavily pregnant belly.

“Rob, I have to do that shoot in a week or so,” she said. “When you are getting ready for the Lyon match. Just so you’re aware.”

I frowned.

“I thought Adrian Levant was helping you get out of that,” I said. “I don’t want you travelling when you’re that pregnant and I hope you understand my reasons.”

“Believe me, Rob, I don’t want to either, and I don’t want to make Peter McGuire any more money either,” she said. “But even Adrian can’t find a loophole in that contract.”

I sighed heavily.

“Is he sure?” I asked.

“I think he is,” she said. “It would cost a fortune to get out of it and I don’t think we want to pay that.”

“Well, if you got a new agency, would they be willing to buy out your current contract?” I asked. She looked at me with a puzzled expression.

“I’m amazed no one has thought of that,” she said. “Not Adrian, not Freddie Eaton, nobody. That’s genius, darling.”

“I just wish I had been smarter sooner,” I said. “Is there still time to stop the shoot?”

“I don’t think so,” she said ruefully. “And that really is too bad.”

# # #

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Monday, February 1

We made two moves right before the deadline, loan moves for players away from the club.

James Henry went on loan to Wolves right at the deadline and is hoping to get some regular playing time with a team that is too near the bottom of the Championship table for its liking.

Wolves are 21st in the table and as importantly, they have 15 losses already. They’re just out of the drop zone where Millwall, Sheffield Wednesday and Norwich currently reside. He figures to get a fair bit of playing time there.

The other loan was Osbourne, now redundant for this season at least after Kaboul’s arrival. He is going to play the rest of the season in the Premiership, at Blackburn.

Rovers have been, in a word, horrible. They haven’t won a game since October 25 at Sunderland and, unbelievably, haven’t won at home since August 26 against Bristol Rovers in the League Cup. Mark Hughes is at his wits’ end, and more than likely after the season, at his employment’s end as well.

Osbourne is likely to play, and play a lot, over the second half of the season. What he isn’t likely to do much of, sadly, is win, due to the state of their squad, but he will get more Premiership experience that I can’t give him at the moment. He’s a very nice young player, still only 22 years old, and he does figure into my future plans. But right now, he needs to play.

The first order of business was Gaspari, though, and the player and I met outside my office door as I arrived at 9:00 sharp. Behind him, I could see first Brown and then Kaboul walking into our room and making their introductions to their new teammates.

“Good morning,” I said, unlocking my office door and allowing him to enter. I waved him to one of the couches across from my desk, and, hesitatingly, he sat.

The football websites had reprinted his Tweet and the player knew the trouble he was in. It’s never pleasant to have to discipline a player, especially one of his calibre, and as such the conversation was mercifully short.

“Look, Andrea,” I began, “we just need to go over a couple of things and then this is going to be over. Do you know the rules regarding social media?”

“Yes,” he said.

“Good. Do you know the rules on who makes out the team sheet?”

“Yes. You do,” he answered.

“Good again. Do you realize why you are in here just now?”

“Because I broke both rules?”

“No need to ask a question,” I answered. “You know the answer. You broke both of them. You’re performing an important service here at this club and you are doing the job that this club, and its manager, needs you to do. The jobs I don’t need you to do have to do with violating club policy and with trying to pick the team. Are we clear on that?”

He shifted in his seat, uncomfortably moving his weight from one hip to the other. “Yes,” he finally said.

“Good. You are three out of three. Now, I want to make you aware of something. As of now, you are in the eleven for Villa. You were in there before you said what you said. And I’m going to keep you there, because I think it’s the best decision for this club.”

He looked at me, surprised and perhaps a bit relieved at the same time.

“But, you aren’t going to give me a reason to pull you out of that eleven,” I said. “Because if you do, you’re going to wind up in the reserves. We won’t have this conversation again, either, because if we do, I’ll find a different club for you. Clear?”

“Yes.”

“Good. Now, under terms of the players’ contract, I’m fining you £1,000 for violating the written club policy. The other matter, I expect never to have to discuss again. The club will announce the sanction – not you. Unless you have anything to add, you’re free to go dress for training with the first team, and I’ll expect you to abide by policy to the letter from here on.”

He was smart enough not to say anything, and the conversation was over.

Reporters are allowed in the changing room up to 45 minutes before training begins, and they usually don’t take advantage, but today they did because Andrea had gone to the press and because there were two new players in the room.

Gaspari left, and was replaced in my office by our two new arrivals. Our conversation continued.

# # #

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The introductory news conference was held on the Madejski pitch just before training.

Brown and Kaboul held up new Reading shirts with their numbers emblazoned on them and said all the right things about joining a new club.

They both have a lot to offer. Brown has big-match savvy and an imposing presence that is going to make people work for their playing time. Kaboul is a very imposing physical specimen and I have very high hopes for the kind of player he can become with this club.

Unfortunately, they are both cup-tied for Wednesday’s game with Villa so they will need to help reinforce our stretch drive in the league for the time being.

That will give them a bit of time to get acclimated and learn how we like to play the game before they are actually called upon to go out there and actually do it.

The things I can control being dealt with, then I went off to see the board.

There was a special amount of satisfaction in that. Entering the board room after a quick change of clothes following training, Richmond was naturally the first person I saw.

He looked like someone had kicked his dog. Selling Cathcart was never my idea and I knew he had sabotaged me in that regard, but the strong financial position of the club meant that for one sold, I could buy two – and I had.

Our eyes met and he tried not to notice that my gaze was burning holes through his. I sat at my customary position near the far end of the table, opposite from Sir John, and as it generally did when I entered, the agenda shifted to my report, a courteous measure designed to respect my time. I appreciated that.

“Rob, welcome,” Sir John said, and I focused my attention on my boss as I sat down.

“Good morning, gentlemen,” I answered, opening my folio to the agenda and to the reports placed there by Sir John’s staff. I gave my cursory glance to the financials, knowing what they would look like in general after the receipt of money from Manchester City and the outflow to United and Spurs.

“Are the new arrivals ready?” Sir John asked.

“They are,” I answered. “The introductory news conference went well and the players are getting ready for their first training session as we speak.”

“Can you explain why you spent £16 million on two players who can neither help the club in the Champions League nor in the Cups this season?” That was, of course, Richmond, not looking at me as he spoke and interrupting Sir John in the process. Sir John didn’t take kindly to that, and I didn’t take kindly to his question.

“Because one of my key players for the future was sold in spite of my direct wishes, Mr. Richmond, and the squad had to be strengthened,” I answered. “I received permission from the owner to replace that player, which I did in the form of Wes Brown. I also received permission from the owner to strengthen the squad due to the impending departure of Andre Bikey in the summer due to his inability to receive another work permit from the Home Office. This was done through Younes Kaboul, who was available at a purchase price we probably would not have seen in the summer.”

He continued to look at his papers.

“Your net outlay is not acceptable to me,” he said. “The club has taken a significant financial blow from net transfer proceeds.”

“The overall financial situation of this club is still highly favourable according to its owner, and I would not overspend in the transfer market without permission to do so,” I answered. “Our objective is, of course, to continue to receive large cash inflows due in part to the performance of our new players and the merit and endorsement money we will earn from a high finish.”

He still wasn’t looking at me.

“Mr. Richmond, would you please do me the courtesy of looking at me when I speak to you?” I asked. “I’m answering your question.”

“When you deserve that courtesy, you insubordinate...”

Madejski’s eyes flashed. “Enough, Sidney,” he said. His anger was rising, at last.

Richmond’s eyes bore in on me, down the length of that nose he could use to open his morning mail. “I’m nobody’s fool, Ridgway,” he said.

“That’s okay, Sidney. Maybe someone will adopt you.”

He slammed his fists on the table and rose, while I simply looked at him. The rest of the board looked on in horror, but I looked at Madejski – he was letting me speak, for a change. I was determined to ram this chance home.

“I know what you did,” I said. “And you can consider yourself damn lucky I haven’t gone to to the press with it, because that would have ended your little escapade pretty quick.”

He leaned forward toward me, and I simply looked back at him, reveling in the resentment that was burning from his black heart all the way to the center of his eyes. He doubled a fist, which I found extraordinary.

“I realize the only place you ever seem to get invited is outside, Sidney, but I hardly think this is the place to air a disagreement in such an undignified manner. But, if you’re feeling froggy, I’ll be happy to meet you there. I’ll pound your head so flat your secretary can use you for a serving tray. Oh, and about your secretary ... I assume she has my copy of your letter putting Cathcart on the transfer list?”

That was a wild guess. But judging by the expression on my adversary’s face, I had hit close to home. There was no question that Richmond’s initial statement – that I was insubordinate – was now unquestionably true. But his red face made it all worthwhile.

“Sidney, I will have that desk searched as it is on my property,” Sir John finally said. “And if what Mr. Ridgway says is true, you will be removed from this board.”

“And what if it’s not? Will Mr. Ridgway be removed from this club?”

Sir John smiled and sat back in his chair.

“I think not,” he said. “He’s only doing what I have instructed him to do. Mr. Ridgway, you’re dismissed to training. Thank you for your time.”

I stood, knowing that he meant no disrespect, and smiled back at him.

“You’re welcome, Sir John,” I said. For the first time in far too long, it appeared as though my chairman and I were once again on the same page.

# # #

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Rob's been a bit overwhelmed by it all. Rare enough for him.

___

February 1 World Summary

Championship (promotion and playoff places only)

Charlton 58, Hull 54, Leicester 52, Birmingham 51, Watford 49, Crystal Palace 47

League One (promotion and playoff places only)

Huddersfield 55, Southampton 54, Preston 52, Stoke 51, Leyton Orient 46, Cheltenham 46

League Two (promotion and playoff places only)

Crewe 57, Oxford United 55, Exeter City 54, Rotherham 53, Chesterfield 48, Accrington Stanley 46, Dag and Red 44

Conference (promotion and playoff places only)

Stockport County 55, Kettering Town 55, Grays 54, Southport 51, Halifax Town 51

Ligue One – Olympique Lyonnais 54, Troyes 46, St.Etienne 42

Bundesliga – Bayern Munich 41, Hamburg SV 37, Stuttgart 29

Eredivisie – Feyeoord 47, AZ Alzmaar 40, PSV 39

Serie A – Inter 43, Napoli 41, Palermo 38

SPL – Rangers 50, Celtic 45, Kilmarnock 36

La Liga – Real Madrid 49, Barcelona 44, Real Betis 43

# # #

Tuesday, February 2

I’ve been so busy the last couple of days I’ve hardly had time to chronicle the reaction to the SFO report.

It was a collective yawn, unfortunately, at least from my point of view. Richmond had covered his tracks by getting rid of McGuire, and evidently helped himself personally by getting rid of Winthrop. Good riddance to that slug.

McGuire might have his own worries with the authorities, but from the point of view of the club, he’s been gelded.

At least, so it appears. I’ve thought that before about the little weasel, after Sir John dismissed him at the end of last season. But like a bad cheque, he keeps coming back.

What worries me, though, is that Patty has to go into the lion’s den and work with him in a week’s time, under terms of her contract.

Levant is working like a madman to find a way to get her out of it, but we don’t know if he’ll have any success.

And after my conversation with Richmond yesterday, I wondered if I’d need to hire Hardcastle myself for protection. Not that he’d take the job. He’d probably do Sid’s dirty work himself and take me out.

My relating the events of the board meeting to Patty drew a giggle from my wife, and then, a pause. It was almost as though the light had gone on in her head about Hardcastle. Do I have that kind of luck?

In a larger sense the consortium is wrecked. No Winthrop, from what I had heard. No McGuire, according to the press. Just Hardcastle, the muscle, and Richmond, the brains.

The SFO says there are two new companies involved, with Italian roots. And I know that, at least on paper, Kate’s firm is somehow involved in this and I’m wondering what happened to make that little gem a reality. Does she hate me now, too?

And God still only knew who else. That was the frightening part, and it would seem to me that there was no way Richmond could possibly pass any sort of ‘fit and proper person’ test in the event he got close enough to actually buy the club.

But those things aren’t within my purview, unfortunately. If it were up to me, Richmond would be banned for life. And frankly I’m amazed that someone from the FA hasn’t nosed around trying to figure out what the hell is going on at this club.

Yet it seems that someone already knows. And that has me spooked beyond words.

As I arrived at my desk this morning, I found a note tucked in with my morning mail. It was in a small envelope and it had an Italian return address.

In fact, the very brief turnaround time we will have to prepare for Villa in the FA Cup almost didn’t matter for a few minutes as I read the note:

Hello again, Rob.

I found during my lifetime that it was always best to be prepared and as such if you are reading this note you will find that my wishes have been carried out.

It is very important that if the individual who was supposed to have visited you by now has not done so that you expect that visit soon.

Again as before, you need not fear but you should be prepared. It will come as a shock and it will not be opportune, but you should listen carefully to what your visitor has to say.

By now the consortium should be a shambles, and in fact may only exist as one person – Sidney Richmond. My prediction was that the bid would fail and since this note has reached you, that would be true. I’d never send you anything from beyond the grave that didn’t enhance my reputation, dear friend.

I hope the club is doing well. I always did find you to be very quotable even if we didn’t always see eye to eye at times. We should always remember the good times, Rob. They are what keeps us going.

Oh, and something I forgot to tell you in my last note: it is very important that your wife be well protected the next time she sees Peter McGuire. McGuire himself will not be the issue but for the sake of your child you should do everything you can to ensure she sees as few other people as possible.

Stefano

# # #

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And so, it was back to Fowler.

The Scotland Yard man had the look of a thoroughly exasperated man as I handed him the note after training.

“You asked me to let you know about any more notes,” I said. “So I’m just doing what I am told.”

“Not a lot new here,” he said, reading through the contents. The visitor, of course, was mentioned in the first note, but the part about making sure Patty was protected was quite new indeed.

“It’s getting harder to live my life like this,” I said. “I trust you can understand that.”

Fowler, for his part, was easier to live with than the last time I had spoken with him. He was more understanding.

“Of course, Mr. Ridgway,” he said. “But you know we have to remind you that you are not the law, and you should not try to be the law. Ever.”

I sighed.

“Why is it that the police seem to think it’s more important to remind me that I’m not them than it is for them to put themselves in my shoes?”

“I’ll pretend I didn’t hear that,” he said. “We do protect you.”

I hoped so.

“I am heading out of the country again soon for the Champions League,” I said. “Your advice, or that of your designee, on how I should handle that would be greatly appreciated.”

“I know you are headed to the Continent,” he said. “Where, exactly?”

“Lyon.”

I had rarely seen Fowler at a loss for words before, but now it appeared as though he was choosing his words very carefully indeed. His face assumed an almost blank expression as he thought things through.

“I will need to speak to your chairman as well as to UEFA and those responsible for match security in Lyon,” he said. “I do not wish to alarm you, Mr. Ridgway, but it is perhaps not an optimal time for you to travel out of the country.”

“I need to know why. With no evasion.”

Fowler took a deep breath and, for his part, wished he could light a cigarette.

“Very well,” he finally said. “Our investigation now covers the Champions League, which is why UEFA needs to be involved. FIFA may even become involved as well if it goes far enough. It is possible that your Italian friends may have something to say about how your away fixture comes out in that round of sixteen tie. Or at least, they think they will.”

“I don’t like the sound of that. Either the Italians, or FIFA, frankly.”

“You shouldn’t,” Fowler admitted, “at least from the point of view of the Italians. As for FIFA, I can’t say and I suggest you don’t say anything either. And that is why we are telling you to use your security and why you shouldn’t bloody well take the law into your own hands. Do I make myself clear on that?”

“You do,” I said. There was nothing else I could say.

# # #

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Short post. Miscalculation by the Curmudgeon. Sorry about that.

___

And after that, it was off to Birmingham.

The FA Cup match with Villa is tomorrow and we travelled late in the afternoon to minimize the time we spend away from home with the matches coming fast and thick.

Frankly, a replay does not help us at this time. We will enter the match without five first-team players who are either cuptied or on international duty and we will have no spare senior defenders available for the match. That’s about as bad as it gets. We are running on fumes and the entire Premiership knows it.

At least things are going well for Sonko, who picked up man of the match honors as holders Senegal dismissed Tunisia 3-0 yesterday at the Cup of Nations.

I also know that this is the match, out of virtually all of them, that Sir John and the board want me to win the most. Except maybe for Richmond. Nobody knows what the hell he wants.

To make matters worse, on Saturday we are at home to Newcastle, which has been playing very well and we can’t afford a slipup in case Chelsea decides to play like Chelsea this weekend. We have every reason to expect that they will.

Rock, meet hard place. You’ll find me in the middle.

# # #

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No, no, noooooooooooooooo!!!!!!!

AAAAAARGH!

WHY!

(add me to the list of people who have caught up to where you are in this story.....)

Anyways, I'm late to this party, I've only been on the forums for a little while and actually found Mr. Ridgway (in Italy) after reading about Messrs. Malone and Cain. All are top notch and enjoyable reads. Keep up the great work!! (oh, and when you get a chance more RR please....)

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Ed, thank you very much for the kind words. After six years of writing this story, it still gives me a great deal of pleasure to welcome new readers to the Rat Pack. I'm not done with this -- in fact, I'm quietly rebuilding the reserve of this story, the current season of which is approaching 1,000 pages in MS Word. I've got arcs worked up for this season and for next, but it's just going to take some time and I thank everyone for their patience who has read this far.

And as such, here's a bit more. :)

___

Wednesday, February 3

Aston Villa (15th place Premiership) v Reading (2nd place Premiership) – FA Cup Fourth Round Replay

Villa Park has been the site of some pretty important matches in recent years – it has hosted FA Cup semifinals as a neutral site, for example, and Ryan Giggs’ legendary goal against Arsenal as part of the 1999 United treble was scored on this ground – but we were hoping to make some Cup history ourselves here today.

Threadbare on the wings, Stephen Hunt got a callup from the reserves to show on a very big stage that he still wants to make an impact – and more importantly, has the ability to do so.

He has been agitating for more playing time and ... well ... here was his chance. With cup-tied and international players out of the lineup galore, at least I could put out a full bench – because the FA Cup only gave me five substitutes. Problem solved.

Fleck got the start on the opposite wing, and as such I didn’t have either my first-choice wingers available, so the Reading side that was about to take the pitch looked a bit different than usual.

We were up early to do a bit of video work from the first match between the clubs and as such it gave me yet another opportunity to remind the players that surrendering two leads as we had done at home in the first tie wouldn’t do, especially away from home.

“I want you to remember the feeling we all had when Perez scored that goal in injury time,” I said. “Do not be the man responsible for that feeling happening again tonight. Are we clear on that?”

The looks of understanding I received from the sixteen showed me that everyone appeared to have gotten the message.

We then had the morning and early afternoon to hang around the hotel, which is not something I really care to do on the road – I like to get the match over with as soon as possible and prefer playing in the afternoon – but I really couldn’t do anything about the FA’s scheduling practices. You can’t play a midweek game during the day unless it’s in the festive period, as a rule, because it of course affects the live gate.

I thought seriously, in fact, about taking the coach up from Berkshire on the morning of the match, but the fixture was of sufficient importance both to me and to the board to not want to play it “straight off the bus”. So, sitting around the hotel lobby in the morning was the lesser of two evils.

But finally, there was nothing else for it but to go to the ground and play. We were long past ready for that to happen and when the coach left for Villa Park at 3:00, we were finally able to concentrate on our jobs.

As we dressed for the match, the wind began to pick up. That seemed like it would work to our advantage since we wanted to keep the ball on the floor anyway, but I looked at the weather forecast with a sense of foreboding.

The wind was going to work across the pitch rather than from end to end, so it would affect both teams equally throughout the match. It was going to be neutral, but both clubs would have to deal with it.

We started decently, with Kitson heading wide from a great little square ball from Maloney, restored to his raider position for this match and looking like he enjoyed the prospect. Three minutes in, we looked like we were going to be reckoned with.

Enzo Maresca got them into the match a couple of minutes later, taking a shot that deflected off Gaspari, and fortunately, right to Lobont, who looked like he didn’t have a real good idea of where the ball was going at the moment of impact.

Five minutes later, it got worse. While trying to clear our lines after a corner, for some reason Hunt decided the best way to do that would be to pass the ball across the face of his own goal. It wound up on the boot of Zat Knight, who squared for Ryan Taylor, who made space for himself with a quick step to his right around Gaspari and clearly beat Lobont with a rising drive into his top left corner.

Hunt looked nonplussed at the result, but his keeper surely didn’t, and neither did his manager. A schoolboy error had wound up putting us in a position where we had to chase the game only ten minutes in, and with the patchwork eleven we had out there, I had hoped to avoid that.

“Think!” I yelled at Hunt, and his look in response told me much. It also challenged me, and that’s something I never react well to seeing from a player, especially one who can’t break into my first eleven on a regular basis.

“What the hell is he playing at?” I said, under my breath, to Dillon as I sat back in the dugout, trying not to show the anger that was coursing through my veins as I did.

“Mental error,” he replied.

“I can see that.”

“Sometimes players do daft things,” he said. “I did it as a player. I’m sure you did.”

I hadn’t really wanted Kevin to defend Hunt’s error to me, but that was his chosen course, so I sat back in my chair, frowning, as play resumed in front of me.

It took us ten full minutes before we finally figured out where we were, and then it was defensively. Gaspari was alert and headed a surprisingly dangerous cross from Güiza to safety, the Spaniard coming a lot closer to goal than he probably thought he might with a dangerous effort in 24 minutes.

Four minutes later, I was scowling at Magallón, who had foolishly given up a free kick right at the top of our D for bringing Enzo Maresca to ground with a clumsy challenge for which he was lucky to avoid the book. Maresca screwed his effort wide, though, and the danger was averted.

I didn’t like our mental outlook – at all. It was Fleck who gave us our first decent chance of the match, just after the half hour, when he forced Stuart Taylor into a fine save of his dipping, long-range effort in thirty-one minutes, only to see Maloney put in a nothingburger of a corner that was easily collected by the Villa keeper.

Agbonlahor then teed up Güiza for a shot from about twenty yards that made Lobont live up to his nickname, acrobatically saving with a two-handed stretch to his left that thankfully found the boot of Gaspari, with the Italian thundering the rebound into touch.

The last few minutes of the half were better – but not by much. Hunt cheaply gave up possession two minutes before the break but Ferreira soon had it back for us, launching a counterattack that eventually saw the ball on Kitson’s boot. He laid it off – not for Maloney, but for Robert Huth, who looked like a steam engine trying to get traction as he advanced on the ball.

He hit the ball with a mighty Teutonic effort, but his shot sailed over the bar as Martin Atkinson blew for halftime.

# # #



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Just for Ed ... :)

___

“I wonder whose team I was watching out there for most of the first half,” I told the players as they sat for the break. “Because it sure as hell wasn’t any Reading club I’m familiar with.”

Then I did something I rarely do – I addressed a player for poor performance in front of his mates.

“Stephen Hunt, if you don’t want to be here today I can put someone else on in your place,” I snapped. “I need you thinking at least, if you aren’t going to use your legs. Come on, you can do better than that.”

Usually I’m more positive around the players than I was at that moment, and it was a calculated risk to get more out of the winger who says he wants to play more.

He looked at me with a sharp expression, and as long as he didn’t say anything, I was on good ground. He knew – we all knew – he had been culpable for Villa’s goal, and he should have been determined to get it back for us.

Dillon took his part of the team talk and in essence told the players to pull their heads out and have a look around in the chill February air.

We had been awful, and had fallen behind a Villa side that was not at full-strength either. That was annoying, but if I had been Martin O’Neill I’d have been turning cartwheels.

That said, he wasn’t turning cartwheels, he was making substitutions, which surprised me a great deal given that he had had the vast majority of the play in the first half. Off came Maresca – which was just fine with me – replaced by Celtic old boy Scott Brown, and off came Reto Ziegler, replaced by Luis Ernesto Perez.

Immediately, we were better, with Maloney chipping into the box three minute after the restart, looking for his targetman. But Kitson headed over, and back up the park we ran.

We even had a bit of Old Firm after that, with Brown stealing the ball from Magallón and trying his luck, only to see the old Bhoy denied by the ex-Ranger, Fleck, who deflected his shot straight back to Jonny to start a counter.

But the next ten minutes belonged solely to the home team, and at that my ire grew. Agbonlahor flashed a header across the face of goal from a cutback by Reo-Coker, and their goalscorer, Taylor, was in alone on Lobont not three minutes later, only to see my keeper save acrobatically.

Then Hunt gave the ball away again, and it nearly wound up in our net a second time, but Pérez’s effort from inside our box grazed the bar before going over.

I had seen enough, pulling Saivet to me to get Hunt the hell out of there. Two major mental mistakes was one more than I was willing to allow him, and even Dillon couldn’t have anything to say about that.

Kitson needed treatment after clashing heads with Ryan Taylor soon after that, and it was pretty obvious that he would have to come off after taking a look at the goose egg on his forehead. I was worried about concussion more than anything else, and bringing Lita on in 69 minutes was completely necessary, flanked now by Fleck and Saivet as we moved to 4-3-3 to try to get something – anything – going in front of Villa’s goal.

Martin made his last move soon after that, bringing off Aaron Lennon for Angel right as the match ticked over seventy minutes.

Soon after, we got a free kick about thirty yards from goal as Pérez pulled back Fleck, and Maloney’s curling effort found the head of Gaspari, who charged onto the ball from the back side of the free kick.

Taylor then made a save that I can only describe as wonderful. He was the only player in a Villa shirt who saw Gaspari ghosting in behind his defense, and was moving at the time the ball hit the Italian’s forehead. Diving to his right, he took the ball on the short hop and palmed it around his righthand post to a thunderous ovation from the home faithful and a look of amazement from everyone in our hoops.

But a few minutes later, it was all moot. Reo-Coker, who had a solid game in midfield for them, sent Agbonlahor on his way down the right and I saw that he had turned the tiring Gaspari with relative ease. But he didn’t give up – he wheeled in the opposite direction and tried to get between the fleet Villa forward and goal.

That wasn’t the best thing, in hindsight, as Agbonlahor’s effort deflected off Gaspari and past a wrongfooted Lobont to make it 2-0 to them in 79 minutes.

Expressionless, I watched them celebrate and wondered what I was going to do to try to stop yet another Reading exit from the FA Cup.

The answer was ... well, nothing. Because the players didn’t respond. I shouldn’t have blamed them – they were tired and it had been a hectic stretch – but when I asked them for more, it simply wasn’t there.

That hurt.

Aston Villa 2 (Ryan Taylor 2nd 10; Gabriel Agbonlahor 10th 79)

Reading 0

A – 39,756, Villa Park, Birmingham

Man of the Match – Ryan Taylor, Aston Villa (MR 8)

# # #



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Darn it. It's a good thing I restocked that fridge, I'll go drown my sorrows now... I wouldn't want to be Stephen Hunt at the moment.

Thank you sir, excellent as always - I don't think I could ever tire of the Ridgway saga. I am still amazed that you have been able to write about a save for this long - very impressive. As soon as I get a shiny new FM all of my 'old' saves are gone and forgotten.... well maybe not forgotten, but I never go back to them.

Oh, and I'm not worhty ;)

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That has been part of the problem with this piece. I'll probably never stop pecking away at Rob Ridgway because in terms of character and story it's easily the richest thing I've ever written. When new versions come out, though, I've created other characters I like -- Jeff Jarvis, Phil Sharp, Terry Christian (probably my personal favorite) and now Kyle Cain. I like writing them all.

The problem is that now I can no longer play FM08 on Windows 10, not even in compatibility mode. If anyone knows how to make it work, please do tell me, because what this means is that I can't play my save any longer on the same computer I use for writing. I'm willing to play on two machines, but it would be easier to do it on one.

___

“I haven’t told them anything yet. Right now if I did, I don’t know that it would go so well.”

“Rob, they were a tired group and they looked tired,” Weatherby said.

“You still need to perform,” I said. “Jose Mourinho said it best: you can win, lose or draw, but you have to show up. We really didn’t do that.”

I was glad Abiatti wasn’t there. I don’t think I could have really dealt with his attitude given the circumstances.

This was a win I really wanted. I would love FA Cup success for this club. It’s just that simple, and it’s going to have to wait for at least another year now.

But Weatherby read the other part of what I was thinking.

“This win could have silenced a few people,” she said.

I thought very carefully before answering.

“Most wins do,” I said. “I wanted this trophy as much as anything when I played here, and I want it more as the manager of this club. I want the supporters to understand that every competition we play in matters and that I don’t feel we gave them our best today. For that I apologize.”

Weatherby’s eyebrows looked like they would crawl up her forehead and hide in her hair.

“You were missing five players, Rob, internationals and injuries, and you didn’t have a spare senior defender. Yet you are apologizing?”

As good a reporter as she is, Jill surely must have realized that I was writing her story for her. But I agreed.

“Yes,” I said. “I am. We switched off when we needed to find an extra gear. It was like the Fourth Round was good enough for some of these players and I’ll tell you what, it may have been good enough for them but it sure wasn’t good enough for me.”

Knowing what Weatherby was likely to write would take the sting out of anything Richmond could say to me, since I had fallen on my sword to the supporters first. There was nothing he could add.

That was part of my calculus too, but there were still a few things I needed to over with the squad. The effort really had been substandard, and there is no room for that where the club is supposedly headed.

Martin O’Neill was wise enough to let me cool down for a bit before a post-match glass of wine while my players took their plunge pools and prepared to head home.

“Thanks for not letting Maloney rub my nose in it again,” he joked as I sat across from him in their hospitality area.

“I think Shaun wanted to,” I said, with as close to a smile as I could muster. “You know how players get sometimes.”

“I do indeed,” he said. “But this was a solid win for us.”

“In every respect,” I agreed. “Hopefully it launches you to bigger things. And I mean that.”

He looked at me and raised his glass.

“I think you mean that, Rob,” he replied. “Not bad for an old Rangers man.”

# # #



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Thursday, February 4

Ridgway Towers didn’t even come into use today. I trained the players who I wasn’t bringing to Newcastle pretty hard prior to leaving tomorrow.

 

And, frankly, I hated what I saw.

 

The first order of business was Hunt, who looked downright petulant as he reported this morning.  He drew special attention from me as the players took to the training ground for their stretching.

 

“Stephen, I need to know what’s up with you,” I said. “I challenged you to improve your play yesterday and you got worse.  Now you look like you’re ready to stab someone.”

 

“I don’t think it’s fair that you’re judging me by one match,” he said.

 

I thought that one through.  Having waded through several morning papers telling all and sundry how horribly the midfielder had played – and, to be fair, they were right – I wondered why I wasn’t supposed to make that kind of judgment.

 

“Stephen, let me tell you something,” I finally said. “When you aren’t playing and you aren’t in the eleven, it’s matches like these where I am supposed to judge you.  Now, I told you what was required and though I’m going to give you credit for at least attempting to bring yourself into line, the fact of the matter is that instead of looking hungry and interested you looked turned off and disinterested.”

 

His eyes flashed.

 

“Then prove it to me,” I said.  “But you’ll be doing it from the reserves for the time being, and I’m warning you for performance.  I want you to take a clear-eyed look at the video when we go through it today and I want you to improve from it.  That’s what’s going to get you first-team consideration, not standing here and sulking.”

 

“What the hell did I ever do to you?” he challenged.  “I’ll take this to PFA.”

 

“You do that,” I said.  “And I’ll know if you do.”

 

That said everything that needed to be said without saying it.  If Hunt wants to get back into my first team, that is exactly the wrong way to go about it, and he knows it.

 

“Now, why don’t you start training?” I asked.  “The road to redemption starts now.”

 

If he hadn’t been wearing football shoes, he would have turned on his heel. As it was, he simply turned and left – at a walking pace – toward the practice field.

 

I called out over his retreating shoulder.  “Stephen, if I beat you to the practice field, that will only make things worse.”

 

At that he picked up his pace, and I watched him closely as the reserves and fringe senior players worked out.

 

At first, it was better from a performance point of view, but I wanted to see sharper work than I got.  The last thing we need now is a February slump, with Chelsea looking like a machine again and clubs trying to sneak up on us for second spot in the league as well.

 

Automatic Champions League qualification would be a huge benefit to this club, and I have absolutely no intention of sacrificing it because of correctable errors.  So as I watched the players imitate Alphonse and Gaston in a five-on-five drill, I finally couldn’t stand any more.

 

“Gather around,” I said, walking to the center circle. The players did as instructed, and I spoke very quietly.

 

“The football part of this practice is over,” I said, looking into the eyes of each man as I turned a slow circle to look at all of them.  “We’re going to end early today.”

 

At that, the players looked happy and excited – but I hadn’t told them why I was ending practice early.

 

“You look tired and disinterested,” I said. “There’s a way to fix things if you’re not fit.  And you know what it is.”

 

To his everlasting credit, Magallón figured it out.

 

“Intervals?” he asked.

 

“Damned right,” I said.  “Intervals.  If you are too tired to perform and you’re too lazy to improve after you don’t perform, then it’s time to get back to basics.  Everyone on the byline.  Go.”

 

The players knew me well enough to know that when I talked like that, there was only one option and that was to do what the boss said.  I would go to the wall for these players – and they knew it – and in return, I expected them to buy in.  They knew that too.

 

Even Hunt got that, as the players lined up on the byline to start their sprints. 

 

# # #

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Sir I'd just got used to the fact that this excellent piece of writing wasn't going to get updated and then after 6 months you tease us with more. Its a good job we like you 😁

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The issue has been finding a machine I could use to play FM08, which isn't supported on Windows 10. I've coaxed an old machine back into life so it gives me chance to play using dots with feet again. Kyle Cain will get the majority of my spare time and writing time, but I've got far too much into this save to simply let it die.

___

Friday, February 5

We flew to Newcastle this morning – with a few heavy-legged players who aren’t in the eleven anyway to face the Toon getting an extra day to relax and stretch out.

 

The message had been sent, and Weatherby had done the duty for me by relaying not only my apology to the fans but some simple facts about the Villa match.

 

Too Much, Too Soon?” was her headline, and she made the strong suggestion that while yes, Reading has never won the FA Cup in its 139-year history, there were real reasons their hometown heroes had been turned into a heap of burning slag by a club thirteen places below then in the league table.

 

I appreciated her kind words.  I also appreciated the fact that after our exertion tomorrow in the Northeast, we’ll have eleven days off before our next two matches, which were both plenty big: the home leg against Lyon in the Champions League round of sixteen, and Manchester United in the League Cup final.

 

And when we play those matches, we will have Kalou, Sonko and Bikey back in the fold.  Simply put, they will be most welcome.

 

The travel day also allowed me to avoid the office and The Wrath of Sidney Richmond.  Sometimes, things do indeed work out the way you plan, even if you don’t plan them to work out in exactly that fashion.

 

Sidney doesn’t like losing when it hurts the bank balance, but he likes losing just fine when it hurts me.  There’s a word for people like that, but I promised my mother I’d never use it in polite company.

 

So I was happy to board a flight for the Northeast and talk with the press there – and it was there that I ran into trouble with my captain.

 

If it isn’t one thing, it’s another, I guess.  The discussion centered around a comment Big Sam Allardyce had made about my team, and the rather glowing terms he had used.

 

“You have to hand it to Reading, they play the game the right way and they’re giving Chelsea all they want at the top of the table,” he had said.  “Really, if you want to figure out how to break into the Big Four, you need only to look at that club to see how it’s done.”
 

Having just come off a rather embarrassing Cup defeat, I took the comments with as good a grace as I could muster.

 

“That’s kind of Sam, but it’s really not necessary given our form in our last match,” I said.  “We know that it’s going to be a difficult match to come to St. James’ Park and handle this club, so at this point really all I need to concentrate on is how my team is playing.  Newcastle are a good side and they are starting to get the results their talent deserves.”

 

For some reason, that teed off Lobont, who was in the visiting manager’s office telling me I shouldn’t talk about the opposition.

 

“I don’t know what you’re playing at,” I said.  “I mean, you’re the captain and I understand you have the absolute right to honest conversation with me, but what on earth do you mean?  It’s for the Premier League preview show, of course I’m going to talk about the opponent.”

 

I’m not sure if he had some sort of rush of blood to the head or something, but he really looked agitated. 

 

“You need to concentrate on this club – this club,” he repeated for added emphasis.  “You give Newcastle too much credit, you did not speak well of us, and I think it will affect our spirit for tomorrow.”

 

I gave him a sideways expression and tried to think of a polite way to tell my club captain to mind his own business.

 

Finally, I spoke after a long moment.

 

“I’m sorry you feel that way,” I finally said.  “But the question was asked, and I answered it.  Now, if you think our play was acceptable against Villa, I can’t stop you from thinking that.  You’d be wrong, but I can’t stop you from thinking that.  Now, here’s what I need you to do as club captain.  I need you to put your head down with your teammates and get us a result tomorrow, because what the manager says to the press is what the manager says to the press.  Are we clear on that?”

 

The look he gave me in return suggested he would listen to me but that he wouldn’t like it.  As a result, I called Federici into my office to stand alongside Lobont.

 

“Adam, I know you want to play,” I said.  “Well, tomorrow, you’re getting your chance.”  Bogdan is going to get a little extra time off to prepare for the exertions we have coming up.  They are big, and it’s going to take both of you to make this club successful over the next few weeks.”

 

Federici tried very hard not to smile in front of Lobont, and I appreciated that.  When Adam left, Bogdan looked at me with a sullen expression.

 

“This is how you handle dissent,” he finally said.

 

“No,” I said.  “This is how I handle a player who tries to tell his manager what he can and cannot say.  Dissent is fine. You showed that, and I accepted it, as I will always accept legitimate words from you.  What I can’t accept is the thought that a player – any player, not just you – has prior restraint on my words.  That would go for any player, not just you.”

 

He looked at me with an expressionless face.

 

“I’m going to need you,” I said.  “You’re getting both Lyon and the League Cup final, where Adam might normally expect to play,” I said.  “Those matches are both yours because I think you’re one of the best big-match goalkeepers in this league.  Now, if you want to prove me right, you will get that chance.  Are we okay now?”

 

Lobont looked at me with an expression of mild surprise.  Not getting the League Cup final would anger Federici to no end, but this way I could make two points at the same time with two players who needed to have points made to them.  Federici needed to not talk so loudly about playing time.  Lobont needed to let me handle media relations.

 

And they each wind up on the field.  I hope it works.

 

# # #

 

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I feel your pain mate, luckily my laptop isnt running Windows 10. However when I have to update my laptop my favourite game Fm07 will be no more

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