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[FM15] Raising Cain

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Kyle is less than pleased, d_s. But thank you for your praise, this is a fun piece to write.


The couple approached and young Booth reacted with a start when he saw his date’s father standing next to the chairman.

Kyle wasn’t sure how Booth had managed a pass into the luxury suite - though Jenna had one as a matter of course. Kyle figured his daughter had managed to sweet-talk someone in the front office into issuing an extra pass.

Booth didn’t lack for confidence. A fairly slight boy of seventeen, he stood about five foot seven and weighed about 130 pounds. His game was speed, and surely he had made a bold and fast move in this case.

He had wavy brown hair which he wore short and brown eyes and features that could be described as soft. His thin nose and dimples on both cheeks were evidence enough of that. Jenna couldn’t take her eyes off him, even as she stood next to her father.

Eales took things with good grace, smiling at Kyle’s discomfiture. And he was significantly uncomfortable.

He had figured Jenna had found a friend. But this kind of friend was a bit hard to take.

For his part, Booth regained his quiet confidence after his initial surprise, and as the group broke up for a moment, he approached.

He figured he had to say something.

“Hello, boss,” he said, with Jenna in tow.

Kyle’s gaze seemed to pierce the boy’s eyes and bore into the wall behind him.

“I admire a man with courage,” he replied.

Jenna intervened. “Now, Dad, don’t be hard on Miles, please,” she said, and Kyle immediately saw an issue he had to correct.

Ordinarily he would honor Jenna’s request – but in front of a player over whom he held absolute professional sway, he dared not show that kind of weakness.

“I’m not,” he said, and then added the only thing he could say.

“Mr. Booth, I’m going to assume your intentions are honorable and I assure you that if they are not, you’ve got trouble you surely do not want.”

“I understand, boss,” Booth responded, but he also didn’t drop his gaze. Kyle wasn’t certain whether to interpret that as a challenge or not but soon thought that if the boy wanted to keep his place at Oxford United he wouldn’t behave in such a manner.

Jenna watched the interplay between her father and her friend with amusement. Kyle noticed that too and, as gently as he could, returned the conversation to where he wanted it, which was on his daughter.

“Did you enjoy the match, Jenna?” he asked.

“You needed to find another goal,” she replied, and Kyle couldn’t fault her attitude since he felt the same way.

But as the conversation turned more banal, Kyle thought about the state of his personal life.

Stacy was gone, pregnant, and evidently had someone else in her life. His daughter, for whom he would move heaven and earth, had someone that, at least for the time being, interested her more than time with her dad.

And Kyle? Well, he felt alone. Horribly alone.

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The two sat at the Coach and Horses enjoying an evening meal.

Things were going just fine for Stacy Cain and Boyd Stokes. They were close, and she didn’t mind that at all. She had yet to decide how close she truly wanted to be, but she knew that what she wanted was not far away.

She wanted to hurt Kyle Cain as badly as he had once hurt her, but she had some serious thinking to do after she accomplished her goal.

She was pregnant, and the baby was most certainly Kyle’s. She wanted a good future for the child, and Kyle was a part of that whether she liked it or not.

Boyd also made more money than Kyle, and could provide better for a child he said he wanted to see grow up. That was big of him, certainly, almost gentlemanly in his way.

He was certainly sweet on Stacy, finding time during his work day to be with her and to place his work as close as possible to hers.

His mind certainly seemed made up, but Stacy did wonder, to use the crude expression, which of his heads he was using to think. Surely, nothing good could come of a liaison, but then, Stacy wasn’t necessarily seeking love.

She was seeking revenge.

For years, her nightly thoughts had returned to Charlotte Weber and the woman’s lip-lock on her husband at that damned party, and the feelings of abandonment which had naturally followed.

While she slept next to Kyle, she thought about someone else doing the same thing, and her resentment grew. To keep peace in the family, she had agreed to forgive Kyle his transgression and try to move forward. But it was difficult, and she felt people could understand that who knew her and knew of the family’s situation.

And when he had lost his position at Torquay, it was the catalyst for everything. She saw the opportunity to get rid of some of her personal demons and also a chance to get even. At that stage of her life, gaining that little satisfaction was starting to mean more and more.

As Stacy and Boyd sat together in London, Kyle sat alone in Oxford, trying to enjoy a meal.

Jenna was off with her young friend and Kyle tried to put everything in perspective.

She was a teenage girl, for crying out loud. They were supposed to be interested in teenage boys. That’s how it works.

But still, his time with her was precious since when they weren’t out eating or at home, he was working. He continued to work extremely hard with his players – that was one reason why they were successful, after all – and as such, time with the most important person in his life was critical.

Now, she wasn’t there. She was boy-crazy.

Booth had really minded his “p’s and q‘s” at training that week, to his credit. Kyle had met with the youth staff, explained the situation, and asked for a report – not in terms of his football ability but rather about his personality.

The reports were generally good – teenagers do sometimes act like teenagers, to the annoyance of the people who train them – and so Kyle had elected to keep his cards close to his vest in terms of dealing with the budding relationship.

On another front, though, Kyle was really stewing. Quietly, he had had some inquiries placed and it turned out that the guy Stacy was with that day was her boss.

“What. The. Hell,” Kyle thought. Over and over again.

He figured his wife was trying to play a fast one – he had been expecting something along those lines ever since she had left their flat – and as such he wasn’t going to give her the satisfaction of falling apart if something happened out of his sight.

Or even in his sight.

His anger grew. It seemed to be doing that quite a bit lately, to the point where sometimes it was hard to keep everything in perspective.

Things were going great on the field. That couldn’t be argued. But there was something very important that was missing, and Kyle was beginning to see it.

Stacy’s boss showed her far too much deference. Jenna was seeing someone who showed his boss no deference at all.

But more importantly, life was not all football, as so many lovers of the beautiful game like to think it is. There was more to it than that.

There was family. Or, in Kyle’s case, there wasn’t.

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10 February 2015 – Accrington Stanley (14-4-11, 9th place) v Oxford United (12-7-10, 11th place)

Sky Bet League Two Match Day #30 – The Crown Ground, Accrington

Referee: Andy Davies

To make matters worse on the injury front, there was a midweek match.

Kyle gave everyone who had survived the Luton match two full days off from training to rest tired legs and recharge batteries.

He wanted to give Maddison a rest since the on-loan midfielder’s form had dropped rather dramatically from its highs of a few weeks prior. Yet Kyle couldn’t spare the teenager, and he felt badly about that.

So Maddison, who thought he was being trained too hard anyway, got two days off from it entirely, and as such that made him happy.

The trip to what is known commercially as the “Wham Ground” was one of the longer ones the Us would take all season. Lancashire was over three hours away by coach and nearly 200 miles. So they left on the Monday evening for the Tuesday night match, with the players trying to snatch a little extra rest and sleep on the trip.

Kyle didn’t like the way the schedule fell, but knew that Stanley would have it nearly as bad after playing on the preceding Saturday themselves. They just didn’t have to travel.

John Coleman’s team was one of the ‘streak’ teams in League Two, but was coming off a 3-1 loss at Plymouth just a few days before. They were on a ‘bad’ streak now, with only three draws to show from their last fifteen points on offer, prior to which they had won six of seven. Before that, they had a four-match league losing streak and a Johnstone’s Paint loss followed immediately by four wins on the spin.

So you could figure what kind of team you’d see based on how well they had been playing, Kyle thought. Not surprisingly, he wanted to get on the home team early.

But there was also this to consider. Stanley were two places, and five points, ahead of Oxford in the table. They were where Kyle wanted to be, and there was no more direct way past them in the table than to beat them on their own ground.

The XI looked fairly familiar at this point, mainly because there were so few other options.

Potts was welcomed to the squad by being asked to make his second start in 72 hours. Ssewankambo deputized for the injured Mullins – but there were no other changes to the eleven from the Luton match. Kyle was very concerned about tired legs. But he had no one else.

Grimshaw was still a ways away from match condition and so started on the bench when Kyle would rather have seen him at right back. He needed match time to gain that fitness and he didn’t want to run the risk of the Manchester United man hurting himself in a u-21 match.

As such, when the match kicked off, Kyle thought of the old child’s rhyme: here comes another one, just like the other one.

Accrington got the first corner of the match and also the first good chance, as Shay McCartan tested Ashdown six minutes into the match. They also got the first goal, as midfielder Josh Windass made like his striker father Dean – not by grabbing an opponent’s testicles as his dad had infamously done, but rather doing so figuratively with a spectacular finish from ten yards off defender Seamus Conneely’s cross.

That didn’t bode well. But Oxford responded almost immediately, with none other than Jake Wright rising to head home Maddison’s corner in twelve minutes.

It was the skipper’s first goal for the club – but it took him six seasons at Oxford to finally get it. It was his first goal for anyone in eight years and just the third goal of his career.

For crying out loud, Gordon Brown was the Prime Minister and Helen Mirren was playing the Queen the last time Jake Wright had dented the twine of an opposing goal. His reaction was predictably priceless.

“Look and see if I’m burnt,” Kyle smiled as he looked at Fazackerley. “I think we just got hit by lightning.”

After the fast start to the match the teams started to settle in a bit. Piero Mingola’s shot was spilled by Ashdown in sixteen minutes but the keeper claimed Stanley’s best chance for some time afterward.

Oxford was not generating the kinds of chances they usually did, and that was a topic of concern for Kyle as the half wore on. They looked tired, and there wasn’t really a lot to be done about that. Accrington was tired too, only they didn’t look like it.

The teams swapped corners just after the half four and then Stanley had the best chance yet to take the lead, with Liam Goulding somehow finding a way to fire into Ashdown’s body with the keeper down after a goalmouth scramble in 36 minutes.

Luke Joyce was next, and Ashdown saved his long-range effort too, a few minutes later. Kyle was ready for halftime to come and when it did, he changed up his tactics.

Out went the 4-1-3-2 along with the highly pedestrian and very disappointing Hoskins and on came Long and 4-2-3-1. The added help in the midfield would hopefully help with some of Accrington’s possession dominance.

Unfortunately, it didn’t help much. Oxford was very much on the back foot as the second half began.

Another fellow having issues with consistency was Dunkley, who had his hands full with Gray – but not his hands full of Gray, which would have been cheating. But perhaps that might have been a better option, as the striker proceeded to give the Us a truly torrid time in the first ten minutes after the interval.

But the breakthrough, when it came, had nothing to do with Gray. It had plenty to do with Windass, who won a free kick from Long thirty yards from goal – and more to do with Lloyd Jones, who gathered the rebound from Windass’ set piece and buried it behind Ashdown to put the home team ahead 2-1.

With 54 minutes on the clock, there was still plenty of time, though, and Kyle knew it.

Nothing happened, though. That was alarming.

The second holding midfielder, Ssewankambo, came off in 71 minutes and as Kyle looked down the bench he saw Campbell, who had been well and truly rooted to the reserves since his return from injury. And with good reason.

He saw Godden, who after nearly two months at the club still hadn’t really shown he grasped the concept of the base tactics and was goalless for the senior squad.

“Eeny-meeny-miney-moe,” Kyle mused to himself as he mulled his choice. He finally picked Campbell.

But really, nothing helped. Hoban looked just as horrible as Hoskins had, and Kyle finally hauled him off too just before the end in favor of Godden. He couldn’t have been any worse.

He wasn’t worse. But he wasn’t better either, and Oxford’s great run under Kyle Cain came to an end as it began to rain.

It had to end sooner or later. But Kyle was hoping it would end with a bang rather than with a whimper.

Oxford United: Ashdown: Whing, Dunkley, Wright (captain), Potts, Ssewankambo (Campbell 71), MacDonald, Maddison, O’Dowda, Hoban (Godden 87), Hoskins (Long 45). Unused subs: Clarke, Grimshaw, Rose, Collins.

Accrington Stanley 2 (Josh Windass 10, Lloyd Jones 54)

Oxford United 1 (Jake Wright 12)

H/T: 1-1

A – 1,505, The Crown Ground, Accrington

Man of the Match: Jake Wright, Oxford (MR 7.5)

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Thanks very much! Glad to have you reading along as always :)


At least Wright had been good.

He was about the only one, though, and as Kyle waited for a post-match invitation from John Coleman which never came, he mulled over his first league failure as Oxford manager.

The word was that Coleman didn’t care for Kyle and he had spread the word quietly around the Crown Ground that this was in fact the case.

Kyle didn’t really care – he preferred to extract his revenge on the pitch rather than in the press or through any war of words – and he had bigger fish to fry than John Coleman in any event.

The team had fallen eight points off the playoff hunt due to other results and now stood tenth on goal difference. They might as well have stood on Mars for all it mattered to Kyle.

He was not pleased, and had let the squad know he expected better in the future – good run notwithstanding.

My concern isn’t that we failed today. My concern is whether we’re content with that failure.”

It was a long coach ride home, and Kyle started a text conversation with Jenna to pass the time. That was a good thing. Whenever he could hear from his daughter, he felt better.

They chatted for awhile – Kyle was starting to get over his fear of leaving the teenager home alone when Oxford was away from home – until at about dinner time, she begged off.

Dad, Miles wants to meet me at the mall for dinner,” she said. “Do you mind?”

His first thought was “of course I bloody mind”, but since he was still about sixty airline miles from Oxford and he was in no position to enforce his wishes, he acceded to her request.

Be careful,” he texted instead. Then he shut off his phone, leaned back in his coach seat and sighed.

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They had a good time, Kyle supposed. Jenna arrived at home punctually at ten o’clock, because the next morning was a training day and the young defender knew the boss would skin him alive if he was either unprepared, or worse yet, late.

The two sat, Jenna doing her homework for the next day’s school while her father broke down video of Burton Albion’s 0-1 home loss to AFC Wimbledon on the Tuesday, and noted that after the early rash of good results after Nigel Worthington’s hiring, the team seemed to be back in the morass which had seen Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink let go.

Jenna looked up from a history text and her eyes narrowed as she looked at her father while he took notes on Burton’s 4-4-2.

“Dad,” she said, “how come you never ask me if I have a good time with Miles?”

Kyle put down his pen and looked at his daughter.

“Because, at age sixteen, there are some things a doting dad doesn’t want to know,” he said, intending his words as a joke.

“Dad, you make me sound like I’m some kind of whore,” Jenna said, and Kyle reacted sharply.

“Never,” he snapped. “Don’t you dare!”

“Look, I have fun with him, and I think you know that he’s always ready for training the next day. He’s a good friend, Dad. He’s a nice guy. I like him a lot.”

“I know you do,” he answered, now definitely on the defensive, but wondering why Jenna had asked the question.

“Were you waiting for him to ask your permission or something?” she asked, just a hint of a smile returning to her face.

“In this day and age, that isn’t a bad idea, especially when I’m your friend’s boss,” he answered. And when, predictably, Jenna rolled her eyes, Kyle saw his chance.

“I’ll tell you what,” he said, now leaning toward Jenna. “What I’m not seeing from either one of you is respect. Your mother isn’t showing any either, and if the last few months are any indication, maybe your old man deserves a bit. What do you say?”

Jenna tossed her head back, her hair falling back over her shoulders as she thought it through.

“You know I love you, Dad,” she said. Kyle nodded.

“Thank God for that. At least somebody does.”

“I do see your point. But this is my first boyfriend and I want to enjoy this. He’s a good guy.” She was repeating herself.

“Why do you have to convince me?” Kyle asked. “He’s the one who needs to do the convincing.”

“Because your little girl isn’t old enough to make her own decisions.”

“No, because you’re under my roof and as long as you are, there are rules,” Kyle said. “Please, Jenna, you know I love you like nothing else on earth. So can you please humor me?”

“You’re such a traditionalist,” she said, and then said something she couldn’t resist saying.

“Did you ask permission when you slept around on Mom?”

Kyle looked at Jenna with a sad expression. He said nothing in return, simply picking his laptop off the table of his den, retiring to the master bedroom, and closing the door.

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Stop being so god damn good 10-3!!! :D Loving your work as always one of the first things I look for when I log on.

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Thanks to everyone for the kind words. They are greatly appreciated as always. And Larakin, you are quite right. Kyle Cain is not always a nice man. He's working to fix that (at least, he thinks he is) but his demons are still present and still haunt him.


“Questions are never indiscreet. Answers sometimes are.” - Oscar Wilde

“If you want to play first team football someday, you’re going to have to make better decisions than that.”

Kyle stood at training with young Miles Booth watching him in a passing drill. The drill called for an overlapping fullback to play a wall pass into a midfielder, move around him, receive the return ball and select a target – either a forward or the midfielder – with a second ball under defenders’ pressure.

Booth had taken the pass well enough, but tried to force an off-balance ball into the box for forward Luke Hastings, who was covered like a blanket by central defender Cian McCormack and who had no angle to the ball due to the positioning of goalkeeper Jack Stevens.

“Miles, you need to play with your head up and you need to see when your man has no path to the ball,” Kyle said simply. “A cutback to Kieran here would have been the better play. The defense was sagged off him and he could have moved in either to shoot or to find you again if you ran laterally along the back line.”

Kyle pointed to midfielder Kieran Andrews, who was standing all by himself. He hadn’t moved since the manager had stopped the drill, and neither had anyone else.

Kyle was getting a chance to teach, something he found surprisingly enjoyable, but the circumstances made this lesson a bit awkward.

“Just wanted to make something happen,” the youngster said, and Kyle thought it might well have been a double entendre.

“You made something happen, all right,” Kyle said. “You turned over the bloody ball. Take what the defenders give you and find the open man. Now, let’s do it again.”

For his part, Kyle didn’t notice anything different about the defender since he had started seeing Jenna. He had always been anxious to please, but now his usual air of quiet confidence seemed forced. He fancied her, that was obvious, and the reverse was also true.

Where Kyle had issues was with how everything had been handled. So far, he had been left to guess about everything and he hated that feeling.

Miles ran the drill again – better this time – and Kyle moved on to other things. The youngsters liked the fact that the senior team manager seemed to have more time for them these days and after a time, they even figured out why.

They also figured out that the manager’s irascibility in drills carried a message too.

“God forbid you should hurt that girl,” Hastings warned Booth after that day’s training. “You’ll get us all killed.”

There was a long conversation between manager and player coming up, and Booth knew it. He was also doing everything in his power to avoid it, so he really couldn’t have been surprised when the manager called him into the office after the Friday morning session – right before the senior team coach pulled out for Staffordshire and Burton-on-Trent.

The manager’s office was a place no player wanted to be, and Kyle knew that. He chose his own turf quite deliberately for this conversation, because he wanted to be in control on more than one front.

He hadn’t spoken to Jenna since her hurtful words – it seemed she could be just like her mother in that department when she truly wanted to be – and so when Miles entered the office, the manager was not in the best of moods.

“Sit down, take a load off,” Kyle said, waving Booth to the chair opposite his desk. Kyle switched off the big-screen television on the right-hand wall and turned to business.

“Now, let’s get right to this,” Kyle said. “The purpose of this meeting isn’t to hold anything over your head, but rather to let you know a few things about how we’ll be operating from this point forward because of your relationship with my daughter.”

For a change, there was no riposte from the person Kyle was talking to, and he appreciated that.

“Your decision is your decision,” he said, to the teenager’s considerable surprise. He stared at Kyle, who noted the small beads of perspiration forming on the youngster’s forehead. It hadn’t been a terribly warm day, being mid-February, so there was only one explanation for them.

“And my goal isn’t to be tough on you,” he added. “But honestly, without you coming to me and telling me what the hell was going on, you put me in a very difficult position.”

That was different. Kyle was starting to lean on the boy and he knew that for everyone’s good, that was how it had to be.

“I can’t show you any favoritism, and it wouldn’t be fair to be too hard on you,” he went on. “Do you see the problem?”

Booth nodded. He wasn’t sure if he should say anything, so Kyle decided for him.

“Tell me what made you think this was a good idea,” Kyle said, his eyes seemingly boring holes through the boy’s forehead.

Nervously, Booth shifted from side to side in his chair. Kyle hadn’t meant for this to be quite so uncomfortable – at least, not completely – but he was genuinely interested in what the player had to say.

“Well, we hit it off after training about a month or so ago, and I guess I didn’t see any harm,” he said. He wiped the sweat off his forehead with the tips of his fingers as he spoke.

“I am not in the business of telling my daughter who she can and cannot socialize with,” Kyle said. “But this is very awkward. And if the two of you should have a falling out, then you see what position that creates.”

“I do,” Booth answered. “But really, I didn’t think of that. I just like Jenna, that’s all. Is there any harm in that?”

“Yes and no,” Kyle said, “from a father’s point of view as well as a football manager’s. I’m going to expect the very best from you, both in training and off the pitch when it comes to Jenna. She’s very important to me, at the moment she’s all the family I have and, well …”

Kyle’s voice trailed off. He hadn’t expected to show such weakness, especially such sudden weakness in front of a seventeen-year old boy. Miles Booth had kicked Kyle Cain right where it hurt the most and he hadn’t even realized it. The manager finished his sentence.

“…well, I need her.”

Booth looked at Kyle and if he thought he could have gotten away with it, he would have pitied his boss.

After a long, awkward silence, Booth spoke again.

“Well, I promise to be good to her,” he said. “Is that all, boss?”

Cheeky, that kid.

Kyle looked at him and sighed.

“Yeah, Miles, that’s all,” he said. “We’re leaving for Burton now and if I find out anything bad has happened while I’m gone I’m going to grind up your parts and serve them to Ollie the Ox. You read me?”

Booth stood, and prepared to leave.

“I read you,” he replied. He left the office and as he headed down the hall to the players’ exit, he took out his phone to text Jenna.

“It went great,” he wrote. “Meet you tomorrow after training?”

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“It went great,” he wrote. “Meet you tomorrow after training?”

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That had me lolling for real...brilliant stuff :)

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Miles has a mischievous streak in him, doesn't he?


14 February 2015 – Burton Albion (10-5-17, 17th place) v Oxford United (13-7-11, 9th place)

Sky Bet Match Day #32 – Pirelli Stadium, Burton-on-Trent

Referee: Scott Mathieson

Kyle was looking for a bounce back.

After the Accrington setback, he was very interested in seeing how Oxford would perform. His first league loss in charge had hurt, and had led to a redoubling of his efforts in the video room and in tactical consideration for the matchup with Albion, a talented but underperforming side.

Greeted warmly at the stadium door on Princess Way by Nigel Worthington upon arrival, Kyle accepted an invitation for a cuppa after the match. It was yet another cold, windy day and East Staffordshire seemed no different than Oxfordshire in that regard.

He also had a plan for the match that seemed a bit odd – four of the five loan players at the club were in the XI and Godden was on the bench. Of the eighteen players dressing for the match, only thirteen carried actual Oxford United contracts.

Grimshaw was getting his first start for the club at right fullback, match ready or not. He was needed too badly and so, in the young man went. Potts got his third straight start at left full back, Ssewankambo got the start in the holding position, Maddison held down his usual spot in the center of midfield and Godden wound up on the bench backing up Hoskins and Hoban, who this time led the line instead of playing off the lead striker’s shoulder.

Hoskins seemed to be a real hit-or-miss proposition for Kyle and that was annoying, since as a former striker himself the one thing he valued the most in a player was consistency. He didn’t always see that from Hoskins and as such his goal was to try to find the role where he would give the best performances the greatest percentage of the time.

He felt he shouldn’t have to do that – professionals should approach their craft and play like professionals all of the time – but he had no choice. Hoskins was the best striker he had when he was right. It was Kyle’s job to try to make him right and keep him there.

As the teams prepared to take the pitch, Kyle approached Grimshaw, and the Manchester United man wore a facial expression that was a mask of concentration. His close-cropped black hair and regular features made him look almost generic in appearance, but that hardly mattered. The boy looked ready to play and that was what mattered most.

“You can do it,” Kyle reminded the fullback, and he got a curt nod of thanks in reply. The lines of players began to move and before long, the match was ready to begin.

Oxford had drawn well at the Pirelli Stadium in the past, being the visitors in the club’s record attendance match in 2010, attracting 6,192 – or exactly one more carbon-based unit than had come to see Manchester United face Albion in the FA Cup in 2006.

Today, the South Stand had considerably fewer in attendance, and the match began with Oxford attacking the Rotala Stand to the west and defending the Coors Visitor Stand to the east.

Dunkley, who had been preferred in central defense to Whing, had the first play to make in the match, heading Robbie Weir’s early ball behind and into the Oxford support for a corner in the first three minutes, and the Oxford men got their lines cleared with some ease.

Yet it was the Brewers who dominated the early going. They got the second chance too, as defender George Taft bulldozed his way through the Us defense to get a free header off another corner in sixteen minutes, only to put his effort wide to the left of the well-beaten Clarke’s post.

Kyle knew that his keepers knew that losing matches or playing poorly could be bad in terms of keeping your place, and so Clarke got his chance to re-impress the boss.

Veteran striker Stuart Beavon was next, threatening the Oxford penalty area in twenty minutes only to be clattered to the deck by Dunkley. The defender was fortunate to stay out of referee Scott Mathieson’s book, and Damien McCrory’s set piece went wide on the restart.

Oxford had been fortunate. However, when Oxford got the ball, their movement was excellent and the home team was forced to foul. The numbers of fouls began to mount fairly quickly, reaching eight in the first twenty minutes, and forcing a minor change of tactic from Worthington to avoid the possibility of yellow cards for persistent fouling.

The change away from a high-pressing, hard-tackling game gave Oxford some breathing room, and on their good run of form, giving them space was something teams generally wanted to avoid doing.

Beavon then barely missed when Oxford didn’t account for Albion’s counter game and this was only twenty-two minutes into the match. The Us’ first good chance didn’t come until twenty-five minutes, when Hoskins took a potshot at goal from thirty yards that dipped on its way to keeper Jon McLaughlin, who had to look sharp to save his blushes.

United got the ball back down the wing a few minutes later, and MacDonald found the overlapping Ssewankambo in the right corner. The on-loan player looked toward the goal – and then did exactly what the young Miles Booth had failed to do in that drill. He laid the ball back to MacDonald and started a run down the back line. MacDonald’s return ball was perfect and Ssewankambo’s second ball – this one into the box – found the foot of Hoban, who drilled it past McLaughlin to put Oxford into the lead.

I wish the boy could have seen this,” Kyle thought to himself as he watched Hoban celebrate.

The goal had come more or less against the run of play, and goals like that are always welcome to see. But seven minutes later, the Us were celebrating again thanks to another brilliantly-taken goal.

It started on the left this time, with Potts the creator. The on-loan West Ham man lofted a beautifully weighted forty-yard through ball to Hoskins, who took the ball deftly off the toe of his right boot, brining the ball to ground as Hoban began a run to his left. Hoskins’ diagonal ball to the left sliced Albion wide open, and using the defender as a brace, Hoban shifted to his right and beat McLaughlin from the penalty spot to put United up 2-0 away.

That was the kind of response Kyle was looking for and as he looked to Fazackerley on his right, the assistant manager was thinking the same thing.

His ready smile was wider than ever, and he spoke first.

“Maybe we really are onto something here, Kyle,” he said.

“First time I’ve ever heard you admit that.”

“Cynicism is an assistant manager’s job,” the older man replied. “But that was a thing of beauty.”

Indeed it was, and the United men got to half still ahead by two goals even though the play had been more or less even.

The only issue of the half was Hoskins pulling up lame just before the halftime whistle grabbing at his left calf.

As such, the second striker was first on the agenda for Kyle at the break.

“Not too bad, boss,” Hoskins said, sweat and rain dripping from his chin beard as he spoke. “I can play.” Kyle looked at Andy Lord for a second opinion.

“We’re two up,” Lord said. “Right now I don’t know that it’s wise to risk it. He’s got a bit of swelling. It’s almost surely just a strain but if he works it too hard it could get worse.”

That was what Kyle needed to know, so he tapped Godden on the shoulder – his only spare striker for the match – and told his fifth loan player that he was going in. All five Oxford loan players would be on the park at the same time in the second half.

For his part, Worthington hauled off defender Mark Howard, who had been culpable for not getting Hoban marked on either of his goals, and replaced him with his captain, Ian Sharps.

Godden made his presence felt after only two minutes in the second half, ripping a low drive that Taft managed to turn behind for a corner before it reached the lower left corner of the net.

Maddison then fed a ball forward and found Dunkley, who was nowhere near where he was supposed to be, and he headed over. As he jogged back to his position, Kyle whistled to get the defender’s attention and pulled him over to the touchline for a quick word.

The word, unfortunately for Dunkley, was “think”.

Dunkley wanted to get on the scoresheet given the score and, as an aggressive player himself, Kyle couldn’t blame the youngster for that. But given the score, keeping the ball out of the goal would ensure a win. That kind of brainpower showed why Kyle was a manager and Dunkley was not. As yet, anyway.

Joe Doyle’s header just after the hour was easily handled by Clarke and then Ssewankambo tried to score his first goal for the club, striking from a sharp angle but instead finding the side netting. He wanted very much to prove his worth to the club by scoring but Kyle gave him the same talk he had given Dunkley, only without the sharp edges.

The teenager, Doyle, came off after Ssewankambo’s attempt, in favor of the Dutchman Abdelnasser El Khayali, but it didn’t help Worthington even though the latter was a more offensively minded player.

Oxford was starting to find its stride defensively, and that was wonderful since with two loanees in the back line finding that understanding was both vital and rather difficult.

Grimshaw was playing with great industry but without the style the scouts had seen when watching Manchester United’s u-18s. That was still good enough for League Two, though, and Kyle soon realized that he had little to worry about from his right flank.

And then it was Ssewankambo sending the ‘other’ loanee, Godden, away on the right with half a step on the defense. That was all he needed in 77 minutes, as he smashed his first goal for the club home to the lower right corner of McLaughlin’s net. Godden couldn’t have thrown it in a better spot, and thirteen minutes from time the points were in the bag.

That allowed Kyle to rest Wright’s legs for a bit, and Ssewankambo came off to both a rousing ovation from the traveling support and a handshake from his manager. The rest was easy.

Bounce-back, indeed.

Oxford United: Clarke: Grimshaw, Dunkley, Wright (captain, Whing 78), Potts, MacDonald, Ssewankambo (Long 78), Maddison, O’Dowda, Hoskins (Godden 45), Hoban. Unused subs: Ashdown, Bevans, Ashby, Rose.

Burton Albion 0

Oxford United 3 (Hoban 29, 36; Godden 77)

H/T: 0-2

A – 1,718, Pirelli Stadium, Burton-on-Trent

Man of the Match: Patrick Hoban, Oxford (MR 8.8)

# # #

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Now that is how you bounce back! Things are still looking good for Kyle. Well except for that little thing with his daughter, but that will probably all work out alright...... um... yeah....

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Boys will be boys. That is both good and bad.


“I’m so chuffed with these players I can hardly stand it.”

For a change, Kyle was expansive in a post-match interview. Churchill was happy – hell, everyone associated with Oxford was happy with this win – and Kyle felt he could show a bit of emotion.

“To come back after a difficult loss is the hardest thing there is to do in this game,” he pronounced. “And these players have just done it, beating a good side by three goals away from home. They can play their music on the way back, I’ll even listen to the hip-hop stuff. They were great.”

Churchill smiled. “So, what you’re trying to say is that you’re pleased with this group of players.” Tongue planted firmly in cheek, the Oxford Mail reporter was trying to draw another reaction from the boss.

“Umm .. yeah, that’s what I’m trying to say,” Kyle said, laughing as he got the reporter’s joke. He had been hoping to see Vic Young’s smiling face after the match, but the Mail had sent the ‘other’ reporter and when he won, Kyle found Bill Churchill a lot easier to take.

In fairness, the local press had been pretty good to Kyle, given the circumstances under which he took over the larger of Oxford’s two major football clubs. They had given him time – and of course, a great run in the league hadn’t hurt matters any.

There was other good news after the win. For a team that was completely at sea on arrival, the 3-0 win over Albion meant that Oxford United now had a positive goal differential for the first time all season. 46 for, 44 against. There was a lot to be happy about.

So as the team got on the coach for the trip home, Kyle texted Jenna and jokingly suggested that Miles might want to leave since Dad was on the way. And since it was St. Valentine’s Day, perhaps Kyle had other thoughts on his mind regarding keeping tabs on his youth defender.

“Dad, don’t be ridiculous,” his daughter replied. “I’ll order a pizza when you get close and we can have a nice night watching telly.”

That seemed more like the Jenna Cain that Kyle knew, and he settled in for his now-customary post-match nap as the coach pulled out of the Pirelli lot and headed south for the trip home to Oxfordshire.

Every now and again, the coach would be passed on the M40 by visiting supporters who were racing the players home. The car driver would honk his horn, the coach driver would reply, and those players who weren’t trying to nap at the same time as their manager would enjoy an experience that never seemed to get old.

The Oxford United players were the toast of the town. There was nothing wrong with that. They were playing superbly and even with the occasional hiccup, there was enough confidence in the team and in the community to make certain that any losing skid wouldn’t get out of hand.

But, Kyle had been more right than he knew. As the trip moved on, Jenna turned to Miles as they sat on the couch.

“I think Dad knows,” she said. “We’ve probably got another hour and then we’ll have to say good night.”

The seventeen-year old defender sighed heavily. “I hate this part,” he said, and Jenna nodded.

“I don’t like it either, but if you want to keep playing football for my father you’re going to have to toe the mark,” she said with mock severity.

“What if I played for another club?” Miles asked, his eyes shining as he looked at his girlfriend.

“Why on earth would you want to do that? We’d never see each other.”

“Just checking.” Miles gave Jenna a grin that could be described as impish. He was teasing her, but what he really wanted to know was if Jenna would stay with him, without asking in so many words. In that respect, the lad was wise beyond his years.

In other respects, not so much.

“If we only have another hour, I’m going to enjoy it,” Miles said, and Jenna giggled in reply. “After all, it is Valentine’s Day.”

# # #

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They had an enjoyable evening as father and daughter, and Jenna didn’t say a word about Miles. Both of those things were important to Kyle.

Kyle wanted to know if Jenna had talked to Stacy that weekend, though. He knew something was amiss with his wife and it didn’t exactly take a rocket scientist to figure that out.

He also knew that Stacy might try to enlist Jenna if she decided she wanted to hurt Kyle badly enough. The two hadn’t exactly seen eye to eye since Stacy had left – either in a literal or figurative sense.

Stacy also knew that her daughter was involved in the first serious relationship of her young life and she wasn’t there to help reinforce some home truths about men that she had learned from her daughter’s father. That was unfortunate.

Men were scum. That was more unfortunate. It was also the home truth she wanted her daughter to know.

But as Kyle sat in his chair watching video of Mansfield Town, his own thoughts drifted a bit. He was no closer to figuring out who his wife’s paramour really was, but right at that moment, he was thinking about someone else.

Allison Austin had waved at him after training, as he passed by DW Sports Fitness, across the street from the stadium. She had had eagle eyes to spot him, that was for sure, and when he figured out who was waving at him, his eyes were as good as hers.

Her long blonde hair seemed to wave in the wind, what of it he could see, and that was how he figured out who it was.

She seemed nice. But he couldn’t show what he was thinking – not if he ever wanted his wife back. And, despite all that had gone on between them, he still did.

That was how he was supposed to behave, and since that fateful Christmas party day, that was exactly how he had behaved. Properly and correctly.

Kyle sighed heavily and leaned back in his chair.

Back in the day, he’d have gone right up to a woman like Allison and probably fallen for her, in his way. She was exquisite. Yet for all practical purposes, she was made of Kryptonite.

Charlotte had been different. But then, she was special, and she was definitely different.

Kyle thought back to things he shouldn’t have been remembering, wondered who it really was that was spending so much time with Stacy, and realized that sometimes when you make your own bed you occasionally have to lie in it.

Jenna was texting while sprawled on the couch, and Kyle didn’t have to ask twice about who was on the other end. She really liked Miles, Kyle reckoned, and there wasn’t any harm in that.

Kyle didn’t want to be harsh and he didn’t want to be overprotective. He just didn’t want to be alone. Why was that so hard for people to understand?

Come to think of it, that was what had gotten him in trouble with Charlotte Weber. She had taken him by storm and before he knew what had hit him, he was waking up next to her in an East London motel. From that point forward, he couldn’t stop.

Until, that is, he had been made to stop.

As he thought it through one more time, his phone buzzed with the arrival of a new e-mail. His personal mail wasn’t used very often for obvious reasons, but it was in action now, so he opened the app.

Oddly, it was from Diana Moore, who had absolutely zero need for his personal e-mail address. Their correspondence was supposed to be professional in every respect – especially after her complaint against the Oxford manager.

He wondered where she could have found it, and finally gave in to curiosity and opened the mail.

Would like to talk with you about the team for Saturday,” she wrote. “Nothing for publication of course but we have promotions going regarding Will Hoskins and I need to know if he’s going to be in the eleven.”

Then he read on and couldn’t hide his surprise.

Maybe over coffee in the club cafeteria?”

Kyle thought for a moment, and placed a call to Eales before accepting the invitation.

# # #

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Thanks so much :) I wish I could say I have some sort of master plan for much of what I do. I often (but not always) write what comes to me in most instances and in the end it all seems to come together.


At first, Kyle thought it was a simple setup job, but the more he thought about it the more he realized he might be over the proverbial barrel.

Accepting placed him in a position he didn’t want to be in. Refusing would have placed him in a position even worse.

Paranoia was a sensation Kyle was good at feeling, for all the wrong reasons. Like paranoia would be good.

Showing up would place Kyle around someone who had tried to wreck him and whom he disliked intensely. If he didn’t go, all the crap might start up again if Moore went to Eales and complained. That was why he had called the chairman.

“Lesser of two evils” choices never really appealed to Kyle. The “lesser evil” was still … you know … evil.

And he definitely thought that if Moore was not Beelzebub in the flesh, she was certainly a lesser minion. But he also felt he had no choice.

So it was that he met the woman after the Thursday training session for time he really didn’t care to spend.

He let her buy her own coffee.

But once the conversation started, Kyle tried his best to forget the past and simply tried to answer her questions as best he could.

“I know you aren’t going to tell me your eleven and you might not even know them yet,” she began. “But can you at least tell me if Will Hoskins is likely to play some role?”

That was different from Moore. Gone was the brash insistence on having her own way, replaced instead by something Kyle hadn’t expected to find. She seemed almost human.

“I don’t know if he will start, you are right about that,” Kyle began. “But given the way he has been performing, I’d imagine that he’ll play some sort of role. Really, we’re better with him out there than we are with him out of there.”

“We wanted to do a poster,” Moore said. “It wouldn’t have done for him to be the subject of a giveaway and then not play.”

Kyle knew perfectly well that it would have done just fine – the only person who really seemed to care about the issue was Moore. Injured players are the subject of promotions around sport and that’s how it is. Clubs spend money on these items and they’re going to get them into the hands of their fans regardless of how it happens. Otherwise it’s wasted money, and no sports team likes to have that happen.

Of course, sometimes bad things happen – a player who is the subject of a shirt giveaway requests a transfer, for example, and then the club can’t unload the stuff no matter how hard it tries. But that wasn’t the case here, and Kyle tried to see Moore’s position. She just wanted to know if she could distribute items in a positive environment.

But he couldn’t resist asking, and he had to. She couldn’t be that stuck up, could she?

“Why did you complain against me, Ms. Moore, when we can have perfectly pleasant conversations like this one instead?”

He hardly recognized his own voice. He sounded almost friendly, and that wasn’t something he was terribly interested in being to this person.

“Why, Mr. Cain, I’m surprised you would ask such a question,” Moore responded, and Kyle thought he might have blown it again. “I didn’t like how you treated me, so I thought I’d try to show you that you can’t just treat people like chattle, even if you are the ‘boss’.”

At that, Moore made little quotation marks with her fingers to emphasize her point.

Yes,” Kyle thought to himself, “you really can be that stuck up.”

Kyle looked at her, and considered his next words carefully. He also played his ace in the hole.

“Well, I guess I’m not used to people lying to my face and then complaining when they get called on it, to be perfectly honest with you,” he said, taking a sip of coffee. He searched the younger woman’s eyes for a reaction and was not surprised when he got exactly what he was after.

“So that’s what this was all about?” she asked. “That note I wrote you?”

“You mean the note you never meant to honor? From my point of view, yes,” Kyle said. He then raised his fingers as Moore had done.

“And, by the way, I am the ‘boss’,” he added. “Mr. Eales has made that clear. Now, I’ve done everything you asked and I can prove it. And since it appears that we’re going to have to work together, maybe we should get a few other things straight.”

“Such as?”

“Well, let’s start with your sarcasm. That can stop effective immediately. Then we’ll move on to your attitude. That can change, also effective immediately. And, since we’re making changes, let’s move on to how we speak to each other.”

She looked at him, dumbfounded.

“On match day, you may report to the media room to get the eighteen and starting eleven with everyone else,” Kyle said. “I’m getting tired of you insisting on special favors and special treatment in exchange for rudeness in return. If you want access to the team sheet early on, you are going to have to earn it.”

“How dare you,” she began, but Kyle cut her off.

“The boss is talking, which means you aren’t,” he said. “Now, I’m going to do my level best to be a good boss, but to reinforce my point, I think it’s best that you look at this.”

Kyle reached into his pocket and pulled out an envelope with the club crest on it. He placed it on the table before Moore, who opened it and read the contents.

“It’s an organizational chart,” she said.

The envelope may as well have contained four aces, because he was playing them. Moore’s face resembled a busted flush, as she realized full well what it meant.

“Very perceptive,” Kyle responded. “It’s entitled Matchday Structure, and you’ll note your position is placed underneath mine as the designee in charge of football operations.”

Moore looked at the sheet, saw that it was signed Daryl Eales, Chairman, and folded up the paper.

“You won’t mind if I keep this,” she said.

“Not at all,” Kyle said. “For all I care, you can staple it to your forehead. But in matters such as these, you are officially not the boss. So, Ms. Moore, we can do things my way now, and I will do the very best I can to avoid offending your delicate sensibilities. Are we clear?”

Her head was spinning. Diana Moore was at sea.

“All right,” she finally said, rising to leave. Kyle watched her go.

I did say I’d finish this,” he said. “And though she probably isn’t done, this sure feels nice.”

# # #

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“You won’t mind if I keep this,” she said.

I sense a lawsuit in the near future...from the stuck-up lesser minion of Beelzebub...and that piece of paper will be used against Kyle and Mr. Eales...

Also, love this story. It just gets better and better. I do want Oxford United to win, but at the same time I want to see Kyle hit rock bottom to see how he gets out of it. Can't be any worse than the day Miles gets called up to the first team. Oh, I can already see the favoritism accusations.

Wow, with this kind of intuition I should probably charge for this stuff.

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BoxToBox, CR, thank you so much. Definitely a fun piece to write. As for the suggested story arcs, you just never know, do you ....?


Kyle felt a bit better about himself as he drove home that night.

At last, he had finally been able to speak his mind. Yet at the same time, he thought about something negative, and that bothered him.

He had needed someone else’s permission – in this case, Eales’ signing of the org chart – before he felt he could simply say what was on his mind. That bothered him.

It might not have been the best idea in the world to show Moore the chart, but she was being deliberately insubordinate and that would surely get someone else in a similar situation sacked. Wouldn’t it?

He was supposed to be the boss. On match day, he was the boss until Eales told him otherwise. Yet he felt like he still needed to ask Daddy for the car keys on Saturday morning.

From a sense of feeling emasculated, Kyle really thought he had a ways to go. He felt better for finally having told Diana Moore what he thought of her, but he still felt something was missing.

Deep down, he knew what it was.

Jenna was out when Kyle arrived at home that night. He assumed she was with Miles, and a quick text message confirmed his suspicions.

Ah. Suspicions.

They were really the issue.

He wondered where Stacy was and who she was with. He felt that went a long way toward explaining his issues with respect, emasculation and generally feeling like he wasn’t worth it.

He was having good success on the pitch. He was working harder than ever and as at least a partial result of some of that work, Oxford United had gone from a relegation candidate to a potential playoff contender in just a few short months.

Yet he felt unfulfilled. Christmas, when he had last seen Stacy, was far into the rearview mirror now. He felt alone.

The place was dark when he arrived, so Kyle flipped on a lone light by his sitting room chair, headed down a mostly-dark hallway to the master bedroom, and changed his clothes.

He entered the bedroom looking like a football manager and left it looking like a 40-year old couch potato.

The tracksuit was gone, replaced by a sweatshirt and sweatpants that didn’t match each other. He wore old tube socks that felt good on his feet, slippers, and a bathrobe. He flopped down in his chair and turned on a repeat of the Championship’s Match of the Day from midweek. Fourth-placed Cardiff City raced off to a 3-0 lead at home to Blackburn and then held on to win 3-2 in a match with a drama-filled finish.

Kyle marveled at the resources available only two leagues up, and wondered how much more additional work it would take to get his current club up to that level.

Or the First Division, where Oxford once was. It seemed an impossible task.

But then, the impossible is what football managers are asked to do all the time.

Impossible, Kyle thought to himself as he watched the end of the Championship match. “Hell, I don’t even know where my wife and daughter are. How am I supposed to think about the Championship?”

To the southeast, Stacy Cain lay in bed looking at the ceiling. She was having much different thoughts about work.

She looked across at Boyd sprawled across half of the mattress to her left. He was covered in perspiration – but then he had worked hard too, and had well and truly earned his reward.

# # #

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21 February 2015 – Oxford United (13-7-11, 9th place) v Mansfield Town (12-7-11, 11th place)

Sky Bet League Two Match Day #32 – The Kassam Stadium, Oxford

Referee: Kevin Johnson

The last time Oxford had played at home, 9,000 fans had come to watch the draw with Luton.

This time, it was different.

The front office estimated 5,300 tickets had been sold for the matchup with the Stags, and while that was 2,000 better than before Kyle’s arrival, it was just over half what it had been just two weeks ago.

Moral of the story: win at home.

The XI was unchanged after the near-immaculate result against Burton. There was no reason to change it after such a solid team performance.

The old rule about never changing a winning eleven certainly applied here, especially with a full week between matches. Kyle would have had to have been an idiot to do so.

So it was that the Stags got their turn to try their luck against one of League Two’s hottest teams. It was an important match – Kyle’s men led in the table by three points but the Stags had a match in hand at midweek. Staying ahead of them was vital for obvious reasons.

It took two minutes for the visitors to show they meant business, as Junior Brown barely missed connecting with a free header from an early Stags corner. That was worrying. Henry Jones and Alex Fisher had half chances moments later – well, actually Fisher’s was more of a heart-in-throat full chance which Clarke palmed over the bar – and Kyle was up and off the bench early to try to encourage his troops.

This wasn’t supposed to be happening. Consecutive corners for Oxford in ten minutes helped restore some order and kept the ball in the opponents’ third for a few minutes while the team got its feet under them. Mansfield had come out very strong.

Their chances were also better. They were playing a simple 4-4-2 but to perfection, and Kyle’s men were having all kinds of trouble holding them back in the midfield. Finally, in 22 minutes, Hoban got a shot on target, forcing Swiss goalkeeper Sascha Studer into a save – however comfortable – that was the first sign of real life from the home team.

Then, Oxford smashed and grabbed, with Maddison going down under a heavy challenge from Max Clark just outside the Stags area, but managing to pass the ball back to O’Dowda on the left. The youngster looked up and threaded a ball to Hoskins, playing with his back to goal at the top of the area, with defender Ryan Tafazolli overplaying his left hip.

It was the easiest thing in the world for the striker to turn the defender and race to his left, leaving the defender behind and Studer hung out to dry. Hoskins’ eighth goal of the season made it 1-0 to Oxford in 26 minutes – a lead against the run of play and hardly what that play had deserved.

The five thousand faithful had been fed with the footballing equivalent of five loaves of bread and two fish, and somehow the Us got to halftime still leading by a goal to nil.

Yet in football, they don’t ask how, just how many, and Kyle well knew it.

“Fellows, that wasn’t awful, but you know as well as I do that there’s much better in you,” he said. “Show me that there’s better and let’s take some points today.”

The first half was actually bad enough that Wright stood and lit into his teammates a bit and Kyle let the captain speak his mind. He wasn’t actually a rah-rah sort of changing room leader, so this was highly unusual behavior for him.

Kyle watched with interest as Wright did the captain’s duty. He seemed excited, into the match and most importantly, willing to lead his fellows.

Maybe it was the good run of form. Maybe it was something else. Wright was willing to motivate his teammates and nothing but good could come of that.

The second half started rather tentatively. It was Grimshaw who got the first good chance of the second half, barely missing the top right corner of Studer’s goal with a long drive from over thirty yards that surprised everyone, including the shooter, with its placement.

Five minutes after the restart the Stags went to their bench, with Rakish Bingham replacing the ineffective Alex Fisher leading the line. Six minutes after the restart, the crowd was showing its appreciation for a great body save by Clarke on the substitute, who had nearly scored the equalizer on his first touch.

Then it was Matty Blair coming right back at the Us, steering a rebound of Liam Agnew’s shot agonizingly wide of Clarke’s right post. This was alarming stuff to see from a team that had been challenged to up its ideas. Oxford appeared to have fewer of them than they had had before being challenged.

Henry Jones pulled up lame chasing after a long punt from Max Clark a few minutes later, forcing Adam Murray into his second substitution.

Off went Jones, on came Chris Clements, and Oxford showed its disdain by scoring a second goal.

It came from a set piece, with Hoskins the taker to the right of the goal. His ball into the middle was scuffed, and rolled right to Agnew.

Who missed it completely.

There on the other end was MacDonald, who gleefully volleyed past a horrified Studer for two-nil to the home team and that seemed more than good enough.

Kyle prepared for his usual substitution pattern, looking for tired legs among the defensively-minded players, now that the points were in the bag.

The only people who didn’t believe that were wearing Mansfield’s colors, and most specifically, their number 22, Matty Blair.

The match passed 75 minutes, and then Blair took over. It came on a counter as Oxford held the ball in the Mansfield third. Vadaine Oliver had the ball and pushed it forward for Bingham outside the Oxford penalty area. Both the Oxford centerbacks and a full back, Grimshaw, all converged on the ball – leaving no one to mark Blair. He swooped in, freed up the ball and was in alone on Clarke to make it 2-1 in 76 minutes.

“That’s ridiculous,” Kyle fumed as the crowd reacted in the manner you’d have expected. There had been absolutely no communication on the goal and Kyle saw the need for changes.

Off came Ssewankambo, who was dead in the legs, and Grimshaw, who was evidently dead from the neck up. They were replaced by Whing and Bevans – but Kyle didn’t change to two holders to protect the lead.

He thought he could gain possession deep in the standard alignment, and was shown to be incorrect four minutes later when Agnew slipped the mark of Whing and fed substitute Ricky Ravenhill on the right, with the defense covering the middle. Ravenhill’s ball forward found Blair, who had turned Potts, and the rest was history.

So, unfortunately, was the 2-nil lead, in 80 minutes.

The double strike had changed everything and in a way Kyle was glad he hadn’t changed alignments since to find a winner now, two strikers would have been preferred.

But as Mansfield pressed forward for a third, Kyle lost his nerve. He brought on Rose for Hoskins in 87 minutes and had Hoban lead a 4-2-3-1 line. It was time to play turtle, as they say in boxing, and while Mansfield didn’t get a winner, Kyle’s Oxford never looked like scoring.

Oxford United: Clarke: Grimshaw (Bevans 76), Dunkley, Wright, Potts, Ssewankambo (Whing 76), MacDonald, Maddison, O’Dowda, Hoskins (Rose 87), Hoban. Unused subs: Ashdown, Ashby, Long, Godden.

Oxford United 2 (Hoskins 26, MacDonald 63)

Mansfield Town 2 (Matty Blair 76, 80)

H/T: 1-0

A – 5,317, Kassam Stadium, Oxford

Man of the Match – Matty Blair, Mansfield (MR 8.8)

# # #

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“Judas H. Priest on horseback, what were you lot playing at out there?”

Kyle wasn’t happy, but he knew that part of the fault for the third home draw in the last five matches lay with him.

His failure to change tactics to preserve the lead was indeed a part of Vic’s sharp questioning after the match, and he said what he had thought at the time, that this group of players was good enough to hold the lead in the standard 4-1-3-2 alignment.

“We didn’t do our marking responsibilities very well,” he said. “We have three defenders all closing on the ball and nobody marking the goal scorer on their first one and on the second, our fullback gets caught too far up the pitch and we don’t close the central midfielder. They had time and space and that’s not a good combination for us.”

“Well, would a second holding midfielder have helped?” Vic was pushing hard, and Kyle didn’t want to have to push back, but he had some explaining to do.

“When you mark like that you can play ten holding midfielders and it won’t help,” Kyle said. “But it’s probably true that a shift to a defensive mentality might have helped. I just genuinely believed we could score a third goal and put the match to bed.”

“So you were too aggressive?”

“I was aggressive in the sense that I felt these players could win the match and I showed faith in the system we are teaching them to play,” Kyle replied. “If there is fault to be found, fine, blame it on me. That’s why I’m here.”

“Do you think that this result will harm the team heading to Portsmouth next week?”

That was the problem for Kyle. A trip to the south coast to take on the league leaders was next, with the team sputtering in front of its own goal and the fantastic run of form of early in his tenure dried up.

“I don’t think so,” he answered after taking a sip of water. “These players have been the best eleven in League Two since I got here and they will know what they need to do to get a win. We’ve beaten the second and third-placed teams since I got here and we drew the fourth-placed team. So I think we can hang in there with them, anyway.”

“Let’s be optimistic,” Vic said, and Kyle had to smile.

“That’s not your job,” he said disarmingly. The reporter laughed. It was good that she could see humor, which was brought about by winning.

“I’m serious, Kyle,” the reporter said. “You’ve actually been a better away side in recent weeks. Since you’re playing away, that seems to be a help. Why do you suppose that is the case?”

“I’m trying to put a finger on that,” he responded, taking a second sip of water. Suddenly, his throat felt dry. Explaining failure had never been an easy thing for Kyle.

“If I had to guess, and it’s only a guess now, I’d say that these players are trying so hard to please the increased crowds we’re seeing in recent weeks that they’re pressing a bit too hard. I’m seeing players who mean well trying to do too much. Take their first goal, for example. Everyone on the back line wanted to make the play, and that’s good. But they all wanted to do it at the same time, and that’s bad.”

“So they’re trying too hard?”

Kyle knew he was treading on dangerous ground and so he tried to choose his words carefully.

“I am not publicly accusing my players because they’ve been quite brilliant,” Kyle said. “But any professional wants to do well with the supporters cheering and chanting their names. That’s human nature. Everyone wants to hear the cheers. When we learn how to deal with that, we’ll be just fine.”

Kyle returned to his office to watch video and check up on the news, which showed that Exeter City had sacked Paul Tisdale with the Grecians sinking to 22nd in the table. Another week, another casualty, it seemed.

And his old club had a new boss too. Leyton Orient had hired its caretaker, Marcello Donatelli, as its manager. Orient held down 15th place in League One and, though safe from relegation, nobody in the organization liked where the club was headed.

“Good for them,” Kyle thought. “Maybe we’ll play you someday in a meaningful match.”

# # #

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“This is a club that will bury you if you don’t mind yourselves in our third.”

Kyle wanted to make a point to his team at training and he chose the dramatic route. So far, it seemed to be working.

The Us had spent two solid days working on nothing but defensive positioning in training. Kyle just didn’t like what he had seen in those five horrific minutes against Mansfield and was doing his best to encourage his players to avoid a repeat.

“This match is all about focus and concentration,” Kyle said, walking up and down the rows of players as they did their initial stretching exercises. When they switched to dynamic stretching, it was much harder to have a captive audience.

The emphasis Kyle had placed on attack had meant the team might well leave openings at the back, which meant the back four all had to be smart enough to know how to handle counterattacking teams. Yet both of Mansfield’s goals had resulted from members of the back four all having brainlock at the same moment – and that would cause additional problems down the road if not corrected.

The worst of it was that Kyle could see Portsmouth doing to his team what Mansfield had done. No disrespect to the Stags, but Portsmouth was top for a reason.

Kyle’s fear was that other managers, who reviewed video with at least the same nearly-religious fervor as he did, would see the issue and exploit it. It was Kyle’s job to get his players on the same page before a club like Portsmouth wrecked their day.

Pompey, the former Premiership club, had fallen on ridiculously hard financial times during the chairmanship of Alexandre Gaydamak and suffered the humiliation of three relegations in four years in 2010, 2012 and 2013 thanks in part to losing twenty-nine standings points through administrations and Football League penalties.

Despite their misfortunes, the south coast club was having a very good season and was clearly in pole position for automatic promotion back to League One. That would salvage a bit of the club’s pride.

The other news of the week was reserve striker John Campbell suggesting, and Kyle agreeing, to terminate the player’s contract. Since coming back from injury in January the player had yet to feature, and at a salary of £41k per annum that was a waste of Eales’ money. So, for a fraction of that fee, the parties came to a solution.

“Wish I had had that solution at Torquay,” Kyle mused to himself as he drove home that day.

That said, releasing a striker even on the fringes of the first team was a calculated risk. Hylton was still at least two months away from a return to action so that left Godden, the youth teamers and emergency striker Callum O’Dowda as the options if anything else went wrong.

Kyle’s preference for two strikers might have had to take a back seat to expediency if any more injuries hit the team. Skarz was still at least a month away from a return to action and Mullins’ broken wrist would need at least another month to heal.

The short-term hit to finances for releasing Campbell wasn’t great, but the long-term saving in salary would pay for it. He hadn’t gotten that much consideration when he was let go, and he was happy that he had done the best he could for the player. Unemployment was never a fun thing to think about.

Yet as Campbell left the training ground for the last time, he looked happy. That seemed odd to Kyle. For him, leaving was a sign of failure and defeat.

He didn’t understand the emotion.

# # #

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28 February 2015 – Portsmouth (20-8-4, 1st place) v Oxford United (13-8-11, 10th place)

Sky Bet League Two Match Day #33 – Fratton Park, Portsmouth

Referee: Phil Gibbs

It was the start of a big week for Kyle Cain’s Oxford.

The Saturday trip to the south coast to face the league leaders was the start of a stretch of three matches in eight days as the end of the league season now loomed in sight.

Following Pompey was Morecambe at home followed by a trip to the northwest to face Bury at Gigg Lane. So there was plenty to play for, with the playoff places in sight and some difficult fixtures ahead.

None of them, however, were more difficult in League Two than this one.

Kyle stepped onto the grounds of what was once known as “Fortress Fratton”, looking to the east to see the old Milton End, the smallest of the ground’s four stands, and knew that was where the visiting support was going to wind up. Once the only roofless stand in the Premier League, the Milton End, or the Apollo Stand according to its sponsors, awaited about a thousand supporters expected to make the trip south.

If that seemed like a lot, well, it was. That was about twenty percent of the gate for a typical Oxford home match these days and Kyle wanted to perform well for them.

The rest of the place was going to be dominated by the locals, of course, and being top of the table Portsmouth were drawing quite well.

The team talk was brief.

“Those are the league leaders you’re about to play. You can beat this team if you will only play like you can. But be loose out there. Have fun. You aren’t fancied to win, even though we all know you can. Play your game. Work hard for each other and go make this a special day.”

Once the match started, Kyle noted with some satisfaction that the home team was showing some respect for his lads.

They came out in 4-4-2, as they had done all season, but the leaders were wary of the threat Oxford posed on both wings. They sharply closed both O’Dowda and MacDonald, meaning Maddison had space in the center of the park to work with Ssewankambo.

For Kyle, that seemed fine. On his day, the teenager was already among the best at his spot in League Two and he could run the show just fine with space in which to operate.

The first ten minutes were halting and tentative, with Hoskins played through nicely by Maddison only to shoot wide of Paul Jones’ goal seven minutes into the match.

The match was a homecoming for Ashdown, who had the opportunity to face the club for which he had featured forty times in the Premiership and 67 more times in the Championship, and he had the chance to rub his former club’s nose in it by robbing leading scorer Matt Tubbs when the striker was played through on goal three minutes later.

After a slow start, it looked like the defenses were going to take a holiday in this one, but then Jed Wallace went close for Pompey and suddenly the pitch seemed slanted from west to east, with the Us working uphill.

Potts gave away a free kick in thirteen minutes only to see Jack Whatmough miss Ashdown’s left post by inches, and Kyle started to shift a bit nervously from side to side in his chair. A certain amount of pressure from the home team was to be expected, but the whole idea of absorbing a push was to eventually push back, and that wasn’t what Kyle was seeing.

In 23 minutes, though, James Dunne scythed down Maddison in front of God, everybody and referee Phil Gibbs, who put Dunne into his book. That seemed to give Oxford a bit of life, and seven minutes later they were celebrating as Hoskins got the ball deep to the left and squared into the six-yard box. There he found Hoban, and the Barn D’Or winner didn’t miss this time, heading home with some verve to get Oxford off to the lead with fifteen minutes left in the first half.

It was like someone had turned on a switch under the Oxford bench, with the Us substitutes, coaches and support staff all leaping to their feet at once as the ball flashed home.

The lead was as pleasant as it was unexpected. Fully awakened now, Pompey stormed back only for Dunne to thunder a left-footed drive squarely off Ashdown’s right goalpost two minutes later. That got Kyle to the touchline almost without his feet touching the ground, with a slightly revised set of instructions for the back four that included “get a body on these guys” as a key component.

The highlight of the remainder of the first half was Dunkley getting caught in possession by Jed Wallace, a defender playing too far forward, and then forcing Ashdown into a save for a corner. It would have been comedic if it wasn’t so infuriating to Kyle. Dunkley had had a significant lapse in concentration and only the keeper had saved his blushes.

A one-nil lead at halftime was nearly made of gold in this circumstance and Kyle gave his players the inevitable talk at the break: good job, don’t let up.

“You’ve done a great job keeping them away from Paddy,” he said. “On this pitch especially, that’s great work. Now you have 45 more minutes to go. Remember to play hard for each other and keep working hard. You can make a real statement today.”

Veteran defender Paul Robinson was introduced at the break, perhaps a bit of a curious substitution on the surface, but Kyle simply figured his presence would allow others to move forward, and he was right. Pompey started strongly in the second half.

So strongly, in fact, that Jed Wallace virtually walked the ball into the goal six minutes after the restart to get the home team level. Craig Westcarr and Tubbs did most of the dirty work but by the time Wallace finished tying Dunkley into knots, it was the simplest of finishes left to him.

The crowd, which looked to be well over fifteen thousand, was largely pleased, while the traveling support sat sullenly in the Apollo stand wondering if their team would be able to answer.

Kyle got up and headed to the touchline, waving for Wright’s attention. He got it, but for some reason only by the hardest. The captain seemed to have come completely unstuck in terms of his concentration and the manager nearly had to interpose himself between Wright and the pitch to get his attention.

“Are you with me, Jake?” Kyle asked impatiently, while the skipper cleared his head. “Drop back for a few minutes. They’re going to take a run, let’s defend well and weather the storm.”

Wright nodded, and then did nothing of the sort. That was vexing. It was doubly vexing when Danny Hollands threaded the needle from twenty-five yards, beating Ashdown to his top right corner with a wonder strike seven minutes after the equalizer.

Now, just like that, Oxford trailed away from home to the league leaders. It was time for a major gut check.

To their credit, nine of the eleven Us on the park responded well. One who didn’t was Ssewankambo, who seemed to switch off. The other was Wright, who remained petulant and this caused near-fury in Kyle Cain.

He had never – ever – switched off during a match, and he was never even club captain. This was inexcusable, especially in a match of this importance.

As soon as Whing and Long were ready, Kyle hauled off his captain and the Derby loanee for them respectively. He would have preferred to bring on attacking players, but this kind of squad discipline was very important and to Kyle, keeping that discipline was more important than getting an extra man forward.

Fazackerley raised his eyebrows at the double move and Kyle explained himself.

“Derek, the lads out there know what’s going on, you know that,” he said. “I can’t let my captain get away with that kind of crap and Isak, well, he’s a loanee. His club gets reports from me on his progress and this one won’t be very good.”

“I know,” he said. “But still, it would be good to try to get someone else up there.” He pointed toward the Portsmouth goal.

“I know,” Kyle answered. “But the players will know that the boss sees it when players don’t play hard and takes appropriate action.”

Behind him, the two substituted players sat in the third row of the Oxford team area, warm-ups pulled tightly around them to guard against the bitter wind and needle-like rain which had begun to fall shortly after Pompey’s second goal.

With ten minutes left, Oxford surged forward again, with MacDonald winning a corner and taking it himself. He found Hoban with it, but the striker had no angle and was under duress so his header sailed over the bar.

Hoskins was knackered, so on came Godden for him five minutes from time. It didn’t help.

Pompey had shown why they were the league leaders. That didn’t make it hurt any less, but it was a case of a better team beating an improving team. Sometimes that happens in this game.

Oxford United: Ashdown: Grimshaw, Dunkley, Wright (captain, Whing 71), Potts, Ssewankambo (Long 71), MacDonald, Maddison, O’Dowda, Hoban, Hoskins (Godden 86). Unused subs: Clarke, Bevans, Ashby, Rose.

Portsmouth 2 (Jed Wallace 51, Danny Hollands 58)

Oxford United 1 (Hoban 30)

H/T: 0-1

A – 15,937, Fratton Park, Portsmouth

Man of the Match – Danny Hollands, Portsmouth (MR 8.3)

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“I don’t like giving up three points from a winning position, that’s for damn sure. But I think we can be reasonably happy with how we played against a strong side.”

Kyle was, in the words of the pundits, “doing the duty”. Praising his conquerors had always left a bad taste in his mouth and today was no exception.

It had been a good day to play Portsmouth and his team hadn’t won. Bulgarian international striker and Bolton loanee Georg Iliev had missed the match as had former West Brom and Reading defender Nicky Shorey, with both players out due to injury.

They had held Matt Tubbs off the scoreboard, after he had netted 19 times in 29 games for the home team. Those kinds of numbers grab attention, and his team still hadn’t won.

Now, Kyle had worries.

The good form of early in his tenure was gone – it was now one win from five and five points from fifteen. His words to the squad, though, were upbeat. They had played pretty well – the official possession was 52-48 to Portsmouth and the attempts nine to seven in favor of the home team.

Still, though, they hadn’t played well enough, and that was the next thing to fix.

He also had to fix his captain. That was a little trickier.

He called Wright into the visiting manager’s office while the rest of the squad prepared for the coach ride home and asked a few pointed questions.

“You shut off out there,” Kyle said.

“I guess it just wasn’t my day, boss,” the defender said.

“You know, the captain doesn’t usually switch off,” Kyle said. “Is there something wrong? Anything you need help with or something? We needed you out there and sometimes I couldn’t even get your attention.”

“No, everything’s fine,” Wright said defensively.

“Then I need you present,” Kyle said. “I have to hold you to a higher standard because you have the armband and that’s by my doing, no one else’s. This team needs you. And today you weren’t there. Now, I need you to up your ideas before I put you out there again. As of now, you’re out of the squad for Morecambe. Now go and get ready to go home.”

He dismissed the captain and called in Ssewankambo.

“I report to Derby after every match on you, Isak,” Kyle said. “I have to tell them what I saw today, which was a player who didn’t look like he much wanted to be out there. Is that true?”

“No, boss, it’s not,” the soft-spoken Swede said. “I just couldn’t get going today.”

“Well, what will it take to get you going?” Kyle asked. “Too many more performances like that and your employer isn’t going to be pleased – because you won’t be getting games for me. Do you hear me?”

The player looked at the manager, and he ran a hand over his close-cropped black hair. The onetime Chelsea trainee looked nervous.

“It just seems like I’m a long way from Chelsea sometimes,” he admitted.

It was an extraordinary thing for a player to say, and Kyle tried and failed to hide his surprise.

“Does that mean you think you should still be there?” he asked, trying not to sound thunderstruck. There were good reasons the player had been released by Chelsea, with an inability to concentrate on the task at hand being one of the prime ones.

“No, I understand that,” he said. “But I need to know how I can get back to a better level.”

“That should be fairly obvious,” Kyle responded. “You’ll need to work very hard in training and you’ll need first of all to raise your performances for this team before you can worry about your next one. Am I clear on that?”

Ssewankambo said he was, and Kyle dismissed him. He had already decided to handle the two players differently, and as he went to see Andy Awford in the home manager’s office for a badly-needed cup of coffee while his players prepared for the trip home, he knew exactly what he was going to do.

The last time he had tried it, it had ended in disaster and the loss of his job. But this time, Kyle hoped to learn from his mistakes.

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The players who had taken part in the Portsmouth match got Sunday and Monday off from training since the team was playing on the Wednesday and Tuesday was simply a light walkthrough and tactical work for a match Kyle really wanted his team to win.

He knew his team needed a good, hard shake to snap it out of its lethargy as well. The fear of failure was also starting to sneak back into Kyle’s mind – and that scared him most of all.

The run of good form that had saved the club from any thought of relegation had been spectacular and most affirming. But the next step had been harder, and Kyle couldn’t deny that.

The club had lost money for the month, money that Eales wasn’t pleased to note – but some of that had come from the release of John Campbell, a move that all concerned – including the fans, perhaps a bit surprisingly – had agreed was a good idea.

So that stayed Eales’ hand a bit at the board meeting but Kyle was starting to get antsy for a return to form.

With thirteen matches to play, Oxford was seven points out of a playoff place. That was the next goal for Kyle, even though he knew full well that simply maintaining the team’s spot in the table would be enough for Eales and the board, which had set a mid-table target for the end of the season.

But the Portsmouth loss had sent Kyle back to the drawing board. The night after the match, long after the players had gone home for their evenings, he sat in his office, watching video both of the Pompey setback and the last match for Jim Bentley’s Morecambe – a 1-1 home draw with Cambridge where the team had coughed up a one-goal lead with nine minutes to play.

It was a good opportunity for Oxford to break out of its slump. A team with one win from five was hosting a team that was winless in five. Something would have to give.

He watched Morecambe’s 4-1-2-3 flail away against Cambridge, which played five at the back and ran a diamond in the midfield. The resulting slogfest saw only twelve attempts at goal for the teams in the entire match, and Kyle had to look long and hard to find a lot of inspiration from either team.

Writing on a notepad, he noted a few areas where he felt Morecambe were weak, and before long was working in front of a magnetic board mounted on the wall behind his desk, with magnets for each player. He was tinkering with his eleven, and as he was lost in thought, a knock came on the doorframe behind him.

“Kyle, a word if that’s all right,” Moore said, and the manager wheeled in surprise to face her,

“Ms. Moore,” Kyle said, resenting the woman’s use of his Christian name.

“Just wanted to run something past you,” she said, motioning to the chair across from Kyle’s desk.

“Very well,” he said, nodding to the chair. “Have a seat.”

The two sat, Kyle slightly annoyed that his train of thought had been interrupted, and looked at the woman sitting across from him, opening his hands in a “go ahead” sort of gesture.

“We are planning a few things in the community over the next month now that spring is coming – a football evening with the players after the Bury match being first on that list – and I wanted to get your thoughts on the best way to approach the team.”

“Well, if you like, I’ll be happy to let you address the team after everyone’s changed and dressed after tomorrow’s training,” he responded. He still didn’t like her very much, but he was going to do his best to get along.

Moore smiled and nodded, tossing her hair back over her shoulder as she did. If she remembered that she wasn’t in charge of the football side, perhaps the two combatants could be persuaded to drop their weapons for the common good, in this case that of Oxford United.

“If she wasn’t so damned confrontational, she’d be great to have around,” Kyle thought as the younger woman took a few notes. He shook that thought out of his head, and focused his attention on the woman’s eyes again.

She rose to leave.

“But then, Kyle, unless you get a few wins soon, I might be asking the next manager instead,” she said in a teasing voice.

Kyle sat, fuming, at his desk, as Moore closed the door, the heels of her shoes making a click-click sound as she walked back to her office.

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3 March 2015 – Oxford United (13-8-12, 11th place) v Morecambe 12-5-16, 15th place)

Sky Bet League Two Match Day #34 – The Kassam Stadium, Oxford

Referee: Brendan Malone

The Us entered the day in eleventh place, on goal difference behind Stevenage. Morecambe presented an opportunity on more than one front for Kyle.

Moore had kicked Kyle right where he was the most tender – in his self-confidence – and the thing of it was, she probably knew exactly what she was doing.

His team was facing an opponent he knew they ought to be able to beat – and that was where his hopes were centered.

He let Moore address the team the day after their tête-à-tête in his office – and Kyle let Moore think it was due to weakness.

He had been very correct, polite, and almost defeated in his manner. But he had something in mind for her and all it would take was a win from his lads to put everything into motion.

And, despite all the conventional wisdom, Kyle did two things that raised eyebrows in the Oxford changing room.

First, he dropped his captain. Whing was preferred to Wright, who still hadn’t really shown he was interested in playing during the intervening days after the Portsmouth match.

Second, he gave no team talk before the match.

He had only tried that once before, late in his tenure at Torquay, and it had been disastrous. The situation was a bit different though – there, his team was fighting to stay up whereas here, the Us were merely fighting to find their form.

His goal was to get the players to think for themselves and get away from the standard message.

The players sat around the center of the changing room waiting for their manager, who didn’t walk in. And didn’t walk in. And then didn’t walk in some more.

Finally, Whing got the message.

“Lads, you know why he’s doing this,” he said. “Each of us as players has a job to do and we know what it is. He wants us locked in. So let’s get locked in and beat hell out of these guys today, yeah?”

The yelling from inside the room let Kyle know it was all right to enter. He smiled.

“Andy’s right,” he said. “You fellows tired of bad results? You know what to do. Let’s line up.”

They lined up, and spent the first fifteen minutes of the match pounding on Morecambe’s door.

The Shrimps defended well, surviving chances from Hoban and a rare foray from Potts, who surprised everyone by catching keeper Barry Roche off his line and nearly lobbing him from forty yards, the keeper scrambling back to tip the ball acrobatically over the bar.

The breakthrough, when it came, was from the other side of the park, and it was Bevans who provided. His early cross in twenty-one minutes found the breaking Hoban, defender Shawn Beeley and Roche all arriving at the ball at the same moment inside the Shrimps’ six-yard box.

Trying to get out of the way, Beeley ducked – but couldn’t keep his shoulder out of the way of his keeper. The ball hit it and deflected home for an own goal that gave Oxford the lead.

It was a break, a great one, and it came at just the right time.

It also deflated Morecambe, and that was every bit as good.

Four minutes later, Oxford threatened again, after defender Ryan Edwards brought down Hoban on a run down the right channel. Maddison lined up for a free kick, and the set piece into the six-yard box found the Irishman’s forehead. The ball then found the back of the net for a four-minute double strike that had the fans up and screaming. It was the Irishman’s 14th goal of the season and he was in imperious form.

Kyle sat impassively on the bench, quietly encouraging more from his players. He wanted them to just be getting started, and six minutes later they were all jumping around like madmen.

Maddison was again the provider, winning a 50-50 ball about forty yards out from goal on the right and threading an inch-perfect ball to O’Dowda on the left. The winger brought the ball to ground with a great first touch off his chest, dipped his shoulder and beat two men down the left flank.

His cross into the box found Hoskins, and the other striker’s glancing header flashed past Roche to make it 3-0 in a razor-sharp ten-minute span.

Kyle couldn’t contain himself. The third goal had him off the bench and rushing to the touchline, fists pumping and neck veins bulging.

If he hadn’t been ahead 3-0, you’d have thought he was having a stroke.

MacDonald nearly made it 4-0 just before half, but his close-in drive was parried by Roche, who was both unsighted and more than a bit lucky after sticking out a leg and finding the ball with it.

That chance sparked a sign or two of life from Morecambe, but perhaps it was just twitching. Referee Brendan Malone blew for halftime and the Us roared off to their refreshments in high spirits.

But Kyle had a word for them, as they say.

“Do not let your performance drop,” he warned. “As great as you were in that half, there is better in you. There’s one win from five sitting in front of me now and you have a chance to send a message to the rest of the league that you’re still every bit as good as they are. Make a statement, gentlemen.”

With that, Fazackerley took over and Kyle watched for reactions. He saw a group of players that looked locked in, focused and ready to resume their tasks.

That was gratifying, since Kyle could hear from the yelling across the hall that Jim Bentley had turned his hair dryer power up to “devastate”.

“You hear that?” Kyle interjected as his deputy spoke, jerking a thumb toward the visiting changing room. “You hear all that yelling? I want to hear more of it after the match. Make it happen.”

Maddison roared down the left right after the kickoff and nearly did, testing Roche with a rising drive that just zipped over the bar.

Not getting the reaction he wanted from his team, Bentley hauled off midfielder Ryan Williams six minutes after the restart, having used one substitution at half. Rob Hunt earned them a corner a few minutes later, but it came to nothing.

Then MacDonald got into the act for Oxford, slipping his marker at the back post to volley home from O’Dowda’s perfect cross on the stroke of the hour. You’d have thought Bentley was going to have a stroke from his gesticulation on the touchline – defender Hunt had completely lost MacDonald behind him and what’s more, when the ball was in the air, he had given up pursuit to ball watch.

That was a player who knew he was beaten, and substitutes began to warm up again down the Morecambe touchline.

Thus stung, they did manage a fight back through Laurence Wilson’s beautiful set piece six minutes later – and that didn’t best please Kyle. Hoban had given up the free kick about thirty yards from goal and Wilson made it count, giving Ashdown little chance with a laser-guided left-footed effort.

“Silly to give them any life,” Kyle snorted at Fazackerley, who made a sort of “calm down” motion with his hands. Kyle didn’t just want to win – he wanted to bury Morecambe.

O’Dowda sense that and started a run catching Morecambe on the counter just four minutes later. With Hall nowhere to be found, MacDonald’s lung-busting run down the right was unchallenged all the way to the byline, where he pulled back to find O’Dowda waiting at the right post to volley past an angry Roche for 5-1.

That made Kyle smile. So did the last twenty minutes, where his team punched Morecambe like a boxer flailing against a tiring opponent pinned against the ropes. Body blow after body blow followed with Hoban unlucky not to find a sixth and young Josh Ashby unlucky not to find a seventh at the death.

It was over. It was therapeutic. And above all, it was ‘five-star’.

Oxford United: Ashdown: Bevans (Grimshaw 77), Dunkley, Whing (captain), Potts, Ssewankambo, MacDonald (Long 77), Maddison (Ashby 86), O’Dowda, Hoban, Hoskins. Unused subs: Clarke, Wright, Rose, Godden.

Oxford United 5 (Shawn Beeley o/g 21, Hoban 25, Hoskins 31, MacDonald 60, O’Dowda 70)

Morecambe 1 (Laurence Wilson 66)

H/T: 3-0

A: 4,651, The Kassam Stadium, Oxford

Man of the Match: James Maddison, Oxford (MR 9.0)

GUMP: Patrick Hoban

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“What’s a GUMP?”

Hoban looked quizzically at Kyle, as the players sat for the post-match debriefing. He had a sign in his locker next to a small picture of Tom Hanks, dressed as the famous movie character.

Not surprisingly, the players were in high spirits after their thrashing of Morecambe, so the award, of sorts, looked like something to discuss.

“First things first – I was very proud of how you played after the half,” Kyle said. “I told you not to let down and you didn’t. That was great stuff and you got a win your play deserved. Well done. Now, on to this thing.”

He pointed into Hoban’s locker.

“GUMP stands for Great Under Massive Pressure,” Kyle said. “When a player deserves a GUMP, from this point forward he’s going to get one. There might be a prize at the end of the season for whoever wins the most.”

Hoban, who had already won the gag Barn D’Or at the Christmas party, liked this award a lot better.

“Bloody marvelous,” he said, taking off his shirt to prepare for his shower.

Kyle had some other business to attend to, though. He stepped out of the changing room area and headed down the hallway under the stadium.

He stuck his head into Moore’s office, where the woman was sitting with her back to the door, typing match notes into her computer.

“Just you never mind who the manager is,” he said, and before Moore could turn and respond, Kyle was gone.

He headed back down the hallway to his sanctum sanctorum, the changing room, and from there to the interview area to meet with the press.

“Yes, I think Oxford is back. I wasn’t aware we had left.”

He was over the moon and what was more, he was feeling aggressive after getting the last word with Moore.

“Is the team over its funk?” That was Vic.

“We went through a dry patch but my hope is that we raise the level of our play and start another good run,” Kyle said. “Right now we have a few other goals that we might still reach.”

“Which would be?”

“Well, if you look at the table, one of them should be obvious,” Kyle said dryly. He knew exactly what he was saying, and it was an implicit challenge to the team.

Oxford now stood ninth in the table, five points behind Tranmere in seventh place.

In the last playoff place.

There were still twelve matches to be played. Plenty of time.

They were thirteen points behind third-placed Shrewsbury, for the last automatic promotion spot.

Not quite as much time, there.

But Kyle wanted to raise the team’s goals along with its spirits. It was time to go all-in.

That was what GUMP was all about. He had seen it on the internet and wanted his players to think about performing under pressure.

Where Kyle wanted to go, a cool head under pressure would be a great thing to have.

Before putting the finishing touches on the match preparation for Bury, Kyle noticed the message light on his phone flashing. He listened to a message from Bill Churchill, asking for a call back on a sensitive matter.

He returned the call, and got no answer.

Whatever it is, it must not be that important if Bill isn’t answering his phone,” Kyle thought as he hung up. “It can wait.”

# # #

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Awesome stuff again....but have this baaaaaaad feeeeeeliiiing Kyle and Ms Moore are going to end up in bed soon rofl....

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We shall see ... we shall see.


Oxford had now played 18 competitive matches under Kyle Cain. Twelve had been won, three drawn and three lost. Not bad.

But there was still better in everyone, including the manager. He went home that night and got right into video for the next match against Bury at the weekend.

Momentum means nothing if you don’t capitalize on it, and Kyle wanted to be sure that his high-powered squad, which was now highly motivated, got high-octane fuel for the trip to the northwest.

He planned no squad changes – which meant Whing would captain the side for the second straight match as Wright was now nailed to the bench – but perhaps the most interesting event of the day after the Morecambe match was watching a group of Oxford youth candidates put a 3-0 hiding on the u-18s, a team which included Balmy and Jonathan Meades, both of whom had featured for the Us senior team.

Sixteen-year old striker Guy Barry took home the match ball, which may have been his to start with, for netting all three goals in the match which both teams played using the senior team’s tactics. One of them had a better grasp than the other.

So that was interesting. What he saw when he got home that night was fascinating – in a sick sort of way.

The Oxford Mail had a story under Churchill’s byline that had Kyle’s blood boiling. Someone had talked to the press about his family situation and he was not happy. At all.

He wished Churchill had called him back – and now he had a very personal grudge against one of the club’s two beat reporters.

Oxford Un-tied?

Football in Brief by Bill Churchill

Oxford United manager Kyle Cain could be excused for feeling a bit distracted as the Us prepare to embark on a playoff chase that would have been considered a fantasy before his arrival.

The Mail can reveal that the manager will soon be served with divorce papers by his estranged wife Stacy, who lives in London.

  • Oxford boss had torrid affair with supporter while active player
  • Youth team turned upside down by manager’s daughter

The Cain family was rocked by a “youthful indiscretion” from the manager when he was an active player at Leyton Orient. While the Cains remained married, things were never the same, according to a source in a position to know.

The Cain family did not move to Oxford together back in November. Cain’s daughter, who is believed to be in a relationship with a member of the United youth setup, traveled with the manager but Mrs. Cain stayed in London.

The younger Cain’s relationship has caused friction between the manager, the player, and the Oxford front office. Due to the ages of the individuals involved, neither will be named here.

Meanwhile, back in London, the story is that Mrs. Cain has found someone new, and has no desire whatever to rejoin her husband.

The Mail attempted to reach Cain for comment on this story but without success.

GOT A TIP? Phone the Hotline on 1865 396337 and if your story checks out, you’ll get cold, hard cash!

There were so many things wrong with such a story, Kyle didn’t even know where to begin.

Reporting on his personal situation was bad enough, but there was absolutely no reason to bring Jenna into anything. She was sixteen, for Pete’s sake, and it was just beyond the pale.

He wondered who would have been the person “in a position to know” and didn’t have to think long.

At the stadium, Moore leaned back in her office chair and crossed her fingers behind her head.

“I have no idea who could have said such a thing, Mr. Eales,” she said. “But I can assure you, it was not me.”

# # #

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Sir really loving the story. The back stories are brilliant and I could only ever wish to be able to do such good work...

It looks like you have your hands full with your daughter :D

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Why thank you, Mr. Wilson! Coming of age can be a difficult thing for dads to accept. You'll learn someday. :)


7 March 2015 – Bury (11-11-12, 14th place) v Oxford United (14-8-12, 9th place)

Sky Bet League Two Match Day #35 – Gigg Lane, Bury

Referee: Gavin Ward

The Shakers were in a world of hurt. The local papers noted on the morning of the match that caretaker Alan Knight was stepping down to return to being the club’s goalkeeping coach. That meant the home team would have no manager at all when the match started.

Kyle found that a bit hard to believe – someone had to make the decisions and that was that. It did bode well for the Us chances, even though the bookies still had the home team a 6-4 favorite in the match.

Sacked Exeter City boss Paul Tisdale and former Hull top man Phil Brown were rumored to be in the pipeline but neither one would be at Gigg Lane until the start of the week, and that was just fine with Kyle.

There was plenty to play for, of course. But what Kyle really wanted to see was the team moving on from a big victory with another solid effort.

There were no changes to the eighteen. So Kyle sent the team out with the goal of plunging straight on.

They started off in just that way, storming the Bury goal and earning a corner within the first minute when MacDonald’s cross from the right was headed over the bar by defender Pablo Mills. MacDonald earned another corner in the seventh minute and Maddison picked up a set piece when Mills hacked down O’Dowda.

It was a promising start, even if nothing came of the opportunities. Oxford was prolific in the early going and that was enough.

In twelve minutes, they pounced, as Potts took a throw down the left and found Hoskins lurking outside the Bury penalty area. The striker feinted toward the byline, turned to his right instead, and hooked a beautiful ball across the box.

There MacDonald found it, scoring with a terrific first-time, left-footed volley from fully twenty yards, giving Nick Pope no chance in the Shakers’ goal.

You couldn’t have drawn it any better. Oxford led, and the team’s wonderful wing play continued a few minutes later with Hoskins again the provider.

Lying deeper than he usually did, he linked play from Maddison to O’Dowda, sending the winger through with a great ball to the left which left Adam Drury for dead at full back. O’Dowda raced in on Pope, but his low shot smacked off the base of the right goalpost.

Fortunately for O’Dowda, the rebound came straight back to him, and he reacted before Pope did. With the keeper flat-footed and searching, the followup shot crashed home to make it 2-0 in nineteen minutes and it looked as though Oxford was going to run away and hide for the second time in less than a week.

Yet from that point, the goalposts seemed to be wearing Oxford repellent. The visitors were rampant but when the ball entered the area, the resulting effort seemed to go nowhere near the target.

Up two goals, that wasn’t such a big thing, but it became a bigger thing a few minutes before halftime. It was on the simplest of plays – midfielder Tom Soares lifted a ball over the top that beat Whing clearly and wound up on the boot of leading scorer Hallam Hope, suddenly in about an acre of space down the Oxford left flank.

He had time to set and shoot, so badly was Whing beaten, and Ashdown had no chance. That gave the home team a goal on its first serious chance of the match and changed the manager’s mood.

A senseless foul by Mills that got the Bury defender booked by referee Gavin Ward moments after the goal did little to lift Kyle’s spirits, and when Ward blew for halftime, Kyle had a few things he wanted to say.

“Great half nearly wrecked by one play where you got caught with your pants down,” he said, as Whing turned bright red in response. “Fix that and let’s get three more points today.”

The teams went out for the second half and less than a minute after the restart, the Shakers did their best to fix that problem for him.

Mills was the perpetrator, with a simply silly foul, hip-checking Maddison to the turf with authority on Oxford’s first foray in the second half.

Ward looked at the assistant on the near touchline, who simply nodded. Ward showed Mills his second yellow card and put the home team down to ten men, leading to howls of disappointment from the Shakers faithful.

Kyle looked at Fazackerley and gave him a wan half-smile.

“Well, I’ll be damned,” he said simply. “Let’s grab this match by the scruff of the neck.”

Knight, who had to do something on the Shakers’ bench even though he wasn’t the manager any longer, sacrificed Nicky Adams in favor of another defender now that Mills was off, and all Kyle really wanted was for his team to keep up the pressure against ten men.

Not needing to score, that’s exactly what the Us did. Unfortunately for them, they didn’t get another shot on target for the entire match.

That said, O’Dowda was taking a frightful beating on the left wing as the home team got more and more physical After a particularly rash challenge saw the other central defender, Adam El-Abd, wind up in the book, Kyle got his wing wizard off the park. He was limping noticeably and it was time to bring on fresh legs.

On came Rose in his place, and Kyle shifted to 4-2-3-1, removing Hoban for Long, who deserved the playing time.

But them it was Bevans limping off injured as the match moved into its final ten minutes, and with his last substitution Kyle placed Grimshaw on in his place.

The word was a dead leg, which while unpleasant was hardly fatal. Kyle wondered whether he would wind up with ten on the park as well, given the way the injuries were going.

But with ten minutes to play, the visiting fans started singing. Kyle wasn’t exactly happy with the tune they chose.

They meant well, he imagined, but as he pictured Eric Cartman of South Park singing the words, he started to get more and more upset. It was a new terrace chant and it was one Kyle never wanted to hear again:

“Well, Kyle’s wife’s a b***h

She’s a big, fat b***h

She’s the biggest b***h in the whole wide world

She’s a stupid b***h if there ever was a b***h

She’s a b***h to all the boys and girls!

At first, he pretended not to hear. Then his neck started to get red with anger.

Churchill’s article had really hit home, in all the wrong ways. Kyle looked over his shoulder to the press gantry to see if he could spot the reporter.

Sure enough, there he was, eating a bag of crisps and wiping some of the residue off his shirt.

Fazackerley noticed.

“Kyle, we need you present with your mind on the match,” he said, as quietly as he could.

“I know, Derek,” Kyle snapped. “Just you leave that to me, please.” His assistant had meant well too, and he remembered that only by the hardest.

Fazackerley needn’t have worried. Bury was toothless and Oxford saw out the match with ease, but with a surprise selection as Man of the Match all smiles as he headed down the tunnel.

Three more points in the bag. The playoff places were now in sight.

Oxford United: Ashdown: Bevans (inj, Grimshaw 82), Dunkley, Whing (captain), Potts, Ssewankambo, MacDonald, Maddison, O’Dowda (inj, Rose 71), Hoban (Long 71), Hoskins. Unused subs: Clarke, Wright, Ashby, Godden.

Bury 1 (Hallam Hope 40, Pablo Mills s/o 46)

Oxford United 2 (MacDonald 12, O’Dowda 19)

H/T: 1-2

A – 2,341, Gigg Lane, Bury

Man of the Match: Isak Ssewankambo, Oxford (MR 8.0)

GUMP: None

# # #

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“I swear to God, Churchill, if you ever write another word about my family, I’ll knock your damn teeth down your throat!”

Bill Churchill had no place to go. Kyle had him backed into a corner of the media area and was jabbing his finger in the reporter’s face – being very careful not to touch him.

The reporter’s eyes were as big as dinner plates. Fazackerley was trying to interpose himself between the two men, with u-18s boss Chris Allen trying to pull back the Oxford manager by the collar of his jacket.

Kyle was incandescent, and with reason. Churchill had written a personal smear piece and for that, there had to be a reckoning. Red-faced, the manager’s wild eyes gave him the look of a wounded animal ready to strike back.

“I’m sorry, Kyle, I didn’t know that …” Churchill began.

“You didn’t f***king know,” Kyle spat. “I returned your bloody phone call, yeah? I wanted to talk to you, yeah? And then you f***ing do this…you blindsided me, you sack of s***e!”

His eyes were like laser beams as they tore holes into the hapless scribe.

“The Mail attempted to reach Cain for comment on this story but without success,” Kyle snarled. “Well, you didn’t really bloody try, did you?” Now his nose was an inch from Churchill’s, and it was clear that Allen was losing the tug-of-war.

Finally, Allen gave a mighty yank. The sound of tearing fabric could be heard, and Kyle stepped back, rubbing his neck from where the tearing fabric had left a burn mark. The Oxford staff surrounding him did as well.

“I want the name of your source,” Kyle demanded. “If you are going to keep your credential in my media briefings, I want the name of your source.”

“It’s confidential,” he said.

“Fine. Then your editor can give me the name. You really have no idea how big a mistake you’ve made, Mr. Churchill.”

“Maybe the mistake was made by you,” the reporter said, now standing up on his hind legs as other reporters arrived and Allen got a solid hold on Kyle. “I didn’t do what you did years ago, and I’m not the one facing trouble now.”

He was being goaded. Kyle Cain was a dangerous man to goad.

But for a change, the East London in Kyle didn’t come out for a second time.

The only reason he’s saying that is there’s a room full of witnesses and if I punch him he’ll get me sacked,” Kyle thought to himself.

“Nice try,” Kyle finally said, shrugging Allen off of his shoulders. “And as for trouble, we’ll see about that. In the meantime, you’re not welcome here.”

However, at Gigg Lane Kyle wasn’t quite in the position he would have been in had the match been played in Oxford. He couldn’t tell Churchill to go anywhere, so the reporter simply stood his ground.

A gaggle gathered around him after taking good notes about the conversation they had had, and Kyle spoke.

“First question that isn’t about the match sees me leave,” he said, still seething. “Simple as that.”

The local reporters began their interrogation, focusing on the play of the midfield, which had been exemplary ever since Kyle’s arrival.

“They have been very good,” he said. “Our wing play has been very sharp in recent games and I’m very happy for both Callum and Alex, they’ve been brilliant.”

“What about Ssewankambo?” Churchill asked, because he knew he could.

Kyle didn’t answer. He didn’t even look at the reporter.

There was an awkward silence, until a local reporter repeated the question.

“Isak had his best game in our shirt,” Kyle said. “That’s the kind of performance we need from him and he was just great today.”

“The playoff spots are close,” Churchill asked.

Again, silence.

“The playoff spots are close,” the same reporter repeated.

“Yes, they are,” Kyle answered. “I’m very proud of the players.”

A pregnant pause followed. And with that, Kyle took his leave.

# # #

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“I have no choice, Kyle. I have to reprimand you.”

Eales looked at his manager sadly, pushing his glasses higher onto the bridge of his nose as he did.

“I understand,” the manager responded. “But I can’t allow what happened to be on Saturday to happen again and I trust you know that.”

The chairman reacted with sympathy but he was doing what he had to do.

“We need the Mail as partners, not as adversaries,” he said. A second article had appeared after the match, calling out Kyle for his role in the baiting of the reporter in the press room, but the manager hardly cared. The chairman did, however, and that was why the conversation was taking place.

“I need the same thing, Mr. Eales,” Kyle answered. “And I need someone who is ‘in a position to know’ as it were, to come forward. I’d like to wring her neck, because you and I both know damn well who it was even though she’s probably denied it.”

“Look, I get that nobody likes having things written about them…”

Kyle couldn’t help himself.

“It isn’t me,” he said, “It’s Jenna. There is absolutely no reason to write about a minor child’s dating life in the newspaper. There just isn’t. It’s irresponsible, it’s wrong, and as Jenna’s dad, I won’t stand for it. I also want to know who the source was. Did you ask?”

“I did,” Eales said. “If it’s someone connected with the club, we want to take the appropriate action.”


“They wouldn’t divulge it,” Eales said.

“Well, let me help you,” Kyle said. “There are three people who it could realistically be. One is Miles Booth, and if it is, I’m terminating his contract effective today. Another is Stacy, who is evidently moving on with her life, and the third has an office just down the hall from here.”

“Diana says she didn’t do it,” Eales said. “She was the first one I asked.”

“Well, with all due respect, Mr. Chairman, good for you,” Kyle responded angrily, his eyes flashing again. He was riding the lightning and he knew it, but there were some things that were more important than simple wins, draws and losses. He felt this was one of them.

Eales was trying to be nice. “I know how much this must hurt you,” he said, and Kyle’s derisive snort put paid to that argument. “But I need this team together and you’re a part of that.”

“With all due respect, Mr. Eales, what I have seen to this point is a team that does everything except make me a part. I get results, you are happy, but the way I’m treated otherwise suggests that I’m not here to be valued, I’m just here to win.”

Eales looked at Kyle with a neutral expression. “Explain,” he said.

“I did,” Kyle answered. “You’ve let that woman run all over me. A marketer? Really? Seriously, who would allow that? I’m here on a two-year contract so if you sack me you’ll owe me for another year the club really can’t afford, and if you tried to deny it to me I’d go to a tribunal and I’d win. So really, Mr. Eales, who is responsible for hiring Ms. Moore? That’s the person I’d be talking to now instead of me.”

Kyle’s breath caught as he thought of the frankness with which he had just addressed his boss. But Eales said nothing in reply.

“Your reprimand is official,” he simply said, closing a file on his desk. “Return to your duties, and congratulations on the win yesterday.”

Kyle left the office, feeling like nothing had changed.

# # #

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You did, Salk. I'll start being crap now. :)


"I always wanted to be somebody. Now I realize I should have been more specific." – Lily Tomlin

Kyle sat in the Swan and Castle. He was alone, and drinking.

Nobody went near him. That should have been a given, considering the dark cloud that appeared over his head whenever he thought about his situation.

He had an iPad in front of him, which was loaded with video of Plymouth Argyle. The last time he had seen the Pilgrims was over the festive period on the south coast, with the 3-1 win there being one of the most satisfying of his tenure.

He watched that match twice that evening, at slightly higher speed, looking for weaknesses. The Pilgrims were on a five-match unbeaten run, even if they had draws against Bury and Stevenage in their last three contests.

They had lost only once in their last eleven in the league and were a virtual lock for automatic promotion. They were a good side and doing the double over them would stamp Oxford as legitimate playoff contenders.

They would also be loaded for bear. That much was obvious.

Kyle noted that MacDonald was one yellow card away from a two-match ban, but he was playing so well he really couldn’t be held out of the XI. With matches against third-placed Shrewsbury and fifth-placed Wycombe still to come, having a quality player out for yellow cards wasn’t optimal.

Yet this match demanded that MacDonald play. They needed him. Kyle wondered how to keep him out of potential trouble.

As he thought it through, his iPad screen was shaded.

Kyle looked up to see Allison Austin’s face hovering over him. The rest of her was attached, so that was a plus.

“Hi, Kyle,” she said. “You look like you could use a friend.”

“Don’t be silly, Miss Austin,” he responded, looking back at his pad. “I don’t have any friends.”

“Not if you don’t recognize them, no,” she said. “May I sit down?”

Kyle looked up at the woman, her long blonde hair hanging just so in a pony tail which slipped around her shoulder and beside her face as she talked. He had a decision to make.

He sighed.

“Sure, if you like,” he said. “But be prepared to get your name in the papers, I hear they’re everywhere these days.”

“Vic was really upset,” she offered, and Kyle nodded.

“Yeah. Upset,” he replied. “Got it. Meanwhile, my private life is in the papers. But at least Vic was upset.”

She looked across the table at him as the waiter approached. She ordered two Shotover Brewery Prospect Pale Ales, and then did the unthinkable. She reached across the table and lifted Kyle’s chin with a finger.

“Don’t be so hard on her,” Austin said. “She tried to get the story spiked. She said it would be unfair.”

“So why did it run, then?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” his companion said, sitting back in her seat. “Somewhere along the line, I guess someone thought it was news. Vic lost the argument and she wasn’t happy about it.”

“Well, it wasn’t news,” Kyle answered. “And even if it was, how many times do I have to pay for being such a bloody stupid clot? Can someone answer me that?”

“You know the press,” Austin answered.

“That sounds like sage advice,” Kyle said.

“Look, Kyle, people knew about your situation. They talked about it. Let me ask you this: what has really changed?”

“It’s not my situation, it’s Jenna’s,” he said. “A sixteen-year old girl, for Pete’s sake.”

“Well, she is now welcomed to the world of football too,” she said. “It isn’t pleasant but you’re a public person again and so you have to take the rough with the smooth.”

Kyle looked at her.

“Did Bill Churchill send you here?” he asked. Austin frowned.

“Certainly not,” she said, maintaining her patience. “I don’t much care for him, if I’m honest. But I do think you deserve better than you’re getting – and that is why I came here.”

Kyle realized he wasn’t being much of a gentleman – as if that even mattered to him sometimes – and he looked up from his screen.

“Thank you,” he said. “I appreciate that.”

The waiter arrived with the drinks order, and Allison pulled out a debit card.

“You don’t have to do that,” Kyle began, reaching for his wallet.

“I think I do,” Austin responded. “Maybe you just deserve something nice.”

# # #

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I'm glad she didn't add 'sweet' to the end of that sentence lmao...oh deary deary....what is Kyle to do....

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In the runup to the Plymouth match, the talk of the training ground was Chelsea sacking Jose Mourinho.

The Blues sat sixth in the Premiership, 22 points behind leaders Manchester City, who led United by four points, by 73-69, with a match in hand – and had defeated the Reds 3-0 the prior Saturday. They hadn’t lost since before the New Year.

United themselves were 14 points clear of third-placed Liverpool, so there was very little drama in the top flight.

Obviously that wasn’t good enough for Roman Abramovich, so he made the move with a host of big-name managers reportedly waiting to take the Stamford Bridge hot seat.

For Kyle, it was a dream to manage in the Premier League, but he was several licenses away from being able to do that legally, and with the team in a promotion fight the club wasn’t about to allow him to start studying.

But Kyle had a hard time concentrating that next day. He was thinking about Allison Austin’s words to him.

Maybe you just deserve something nice.”

Being nice to himself was hard for Kyle. He had tried it once before – the sex had been fantastic, but the end result was not exactly good for anyone, least of all for himself. His reputation was tarnished. His career and contract at Orient had nearly been terminated. And it had undoubtedly affected his job search. Word, as they say, gets around.

But the fact remained. Maybe even he, the screwup named Kyle Cain, did deserve something better.

He thought about Austin, who had kept her distance. He thought about her slender, pretty face and about the way her blonde locks surrounded it. If he wasn’t married, it would have been impossible to avoid making a play for her.

But he was married. And this time he intended to do the right thing.

Stacy was after her revenge. He didn’t think she would be so deliberately hurtful to Jenna as to tell a reporter about her plans. And Booth? Kyle controlled his professional future. He wouldn’t say a word.

That left Moore. It had been his supposition from the beginning.

So, he did the only thing he could do. He called London and asked to speak to Stacy.

She answered, which was a thing in and of itself.

“What do you know about the newspaper article that showed up here in Oxford?” Kyle asked. “The one where you’re filing for divorce?”

“I don’t know anything about it,” Stacy said. “And I haven’t filed any papers.”

“The article said you found someone new,” Kyle shot back. “I have my suspicions about that but I haven’t looked into them. Is that true?”

“That’s none of your business,” she answered.

“If you haven’t filed papers, I’m still your husband and it bloody well is my business!” Kyle snapped, feeling the hairs rising on the back of his neck. “Now, I want to know what the hell is going on!”

“I’m living my life, just like you did,” she answered. Kyle felt like he had been kicked in the stomach, but it was the answer he really had been expecting.

“All right then,” Kyle said. “Do you want me to file, since you are living your life ‘just like I did’?”

“Don’t be flippant,” Stacy responded.

“I’m not the one sleeping around this time,” Kyle shot back.

“You’re just worried about your reputation.” Stacy was in mid-season form, and Kyle could feel that sense of helpless anger building once again.

But she wasn’t done.

“You know what the problem is with you?” she asked. “You think people care. Let me tell you something. People didn’t care about you then, they don’t care now and they won’t care about you in the future. In fact, when you go, most people where you happen to be are going to stand up and cheer. And you’re worried about how they’re going to react?”

“You know what the problem is with you?” Kyle responded. “You really, honestly, do not know when to shut up.

He hung up the phone, and started a web search for a solicitor. It was time to think about the future.

# # #

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14 March 2015 – Oxford United (15-9-12, 9th place) v Plymouth Argyle (20-8-7, 3rd place)

Sky Bet League Two Match Day #36 – The Kassam Stadium, Oxford

Referee: Keith Hill

This was another good test for Oxford. Shrewsbury’s midweek win had vaulted them into second place past the Pilgrims while making up their match in hand, so the top of the table showed Portsmouth at 75 points, Shrewsbury on 69 and Plymouth on 68.

The race was shaping up nicely, with ten matches still to play and all to play for, as they say.

The crowd was decent – the stadium was just slightly under half full at kickoff – but Kyle didn’t want to mess with a good thing as far as his XI went. With a few changes – including finally restoring Wright to his place on the back line and giving Dunkley a rest – he felt his team was ready to move from strength to strength.

Plymouth had played 5-3-2 in defeating the team immediately above Oxford in the table – Northampton – the week before. Five at the back might just have been the way to stop Kyle’s offensive machine, which had scored as well as anyone in England since his arrival.

But it was before the match that Kyle received a small gift that, had he not been listening, wouldn’t have proved to be such chicken soup for his soul.

Alone, before warmup, with the stand about a third full of supporters, he left the changing area to take a trip to the touchline. It was a departure from the norm for Kyle, who usually had a strict set of rules and superstitions he followed on match day.

At that point, the media department (and no, that wasn’t Moore) played a certain song. It came at exactly the right spot in the playlist, which was published on the team’s social media. Kyle had seen that list, posted by Moore, and decided to take a listen. What he heard stopped him in his tracks.

For the entire duration of the song he simply stood there, oblivious to his surroundings, listening to a song that described him better than he knew – which was the point of whoever chose it.

Josh Kelley

“Cain and Abel”

“I'm sick of chasing after things, I'd rather them chase after me

Keeping up is bound to wear me down

There's a million ways to skin a cat, I've put my choices in a hat

Picked a few and threw the bad ones out

I know now

So if you want me, you'd better knock me down

‘Cause I ain't easy, and this ain't hallowed ground

I've been thinking about ol' Cain and Abel, sitting at a breakfast table

Talking about the way things used to be

Well, Abel looked at Cain and said, ‘all that s**t was in your head’

I'd like to think that Cain was hard to please

I know now

So if you want me you'd better knock me down

‘Cause I ain't easy and this ain't hallowed ground

She said no one will love you more than me, I looked at her, she looked at me

I think she's waiting for me to believe

I wish that love was all it took, I'd fall into you if I could

Hoping for a graceful recovery

But I know now

So if you want me, you'd better knock me down

‘Cause I ain't easy, and this ain't hallowed ground…”

The song ended, the next tune on the pre-match playlist began, and Kyle walked back into the tunnel, his chin on his chest.

In the Oxford Mail stand, Allison took out her mobile phone and sent a text.

I’m certain he heard the song. Thanks for making it happen with the club.”

She sent the text, and on the other end, Victoria Young sat back in her press gantry chair and smiled.

# # #

Argyle should have been expected to be in the ascendancy from the kickoff, as the higher-placed team and also the one wanting revenge. So it shouldn’t have been a surprise to see the Us on the back foot.

Except to Kyle, it wasn’t the start he had in mind. Whing particularly was having trouble, the aged defender being beaten twice over the top for pace in the first twenty minutes by striker Reuben Reid, who for reasons unknown preferred to shoot wide rather than test Ashdown.

Kyle had listened to Fazackerley, who had told him before the match that Dunkley should be dropped because Whing was better suited. As the second hiding occurred, Kyle didn’t look at his deputy. He didn’t need to.

Maddison wound up in referee Keith Hill’s book after that second incident, covering for Whing, who had been left for dead. He clipped Reid’s heel as the striker ran, with Hill playing advantage and then rightly booking the Oxford midfielder.

“We can’t handle that kind of pressure,” Kyle snapped, and Fazackerley could only nod in agreement. Yet besides the direct route issues, Whing was otherwise playing reasonably well, or rather well enough to stay Kyle’s hand.

Argyle skipper Curtis Nelson had the best chance of the first half, stinging Ashdown’s palms with a bullet from twenty yards that forced the keeper into highway robbery to prevent the first goal of the match.

The match got to halftime scoreless and that gave Kyle the chance to try to light a bit of a fire under his team. They hadn’t gotten anywhere near the goal in the half but they were still in the match and that was what mattered the most.

“This match is there for you,” he said. “You’re hanging in there against a good team and you have a chance to make something happen for yourselves. You can make a real move in the table today if you will only believe that you can.”

He sent the team out unchanged for the second half, and Kelvin Mellor got above Whing on an early corner to head just over the bar.

Kyle motioned for Dunkley to start warming up and would brook no argument. The central defender had played well in recent games and it was evidently the wrong time to rest him.

While he warmed up, Ssewankambo gave away a free kick right at the top of the Oxford D, and Bobby Reid whipped it home in 58 minutes to give Plymouth a deserved lead.

The set piece defending hadn’t been awful – but the placement had been perfect and that was that. Kyle stood up and headed into a growing drizzle to encourage his lads.

“It’s still there, men,” he called out. “Come on, chins up and let’s go!”

One player who got the message was MacDonald, who took a beautiful lead ball from Sam Long, playing at right back on the day, and burst deep into the Plymouth area. He was brought down on a clattering challenge by a well-beaten Matthew Clarke, and Hill wasted no time in pointing to the spot.

With the crowd roaring its approval, Hoskins took the ball, placed it on the spot like it was made of crystal, and whipped a perfectly-taken penalty past Luke McCormick to get Oxford level in 64 minutes.

The air on the Oxford bench was one of confidence and finally, when Whing was beaten over the top for a third time, it was time for the veteran to come off. Dunkley took his place, and Hoban came on in place of Godden. Kyle had simply wanted to get the loan striker a game, but he had proven miserably unequal to the task.

As the match moved on, both teams got into the flow of things and it was a much more entertaining spectacle for the viewer. Substitute Lewis Alessandra had a chance to put Argyle back in front but fluffed a shot from no more than three feet in front of the Oxford goal, with Ashdown scrambling to take the ball in his chest and deflect it behind for a corner.

The reaction was what Kyle had hoped to see – the back line punching up the keeper in congratulations with Ashdown returning the favor by waving them to their spots for the set piece. O’Dowda responded with a terrific effort on Oxford’s next time forward that was turned behind by McCormick in reply.

It was great stuff, but as the match moved past the 85th minute Kyle decided discretion was the better part of valor, removing the exhausted MacDonald in favor of Jeremy Balmy, finally back from injury, and moving the team to 4-2-3-1 for the closing minutes.

Then O’Dowda struck, with Balmy the playmaker, with a cross from the right that was headed free by defender Kelvin Mellor, but only as far as Ssewankambo. The loan midfielder played the ball to the left for O’Dowda, who had his back to goal.

But the winger turned, dipped his shoulder and produced an absolutely sumptuous left-footed strike that beat a stunned McCormick to his short post as the match ticked into the 90th minute.

The Kassam came unglued, and the bench erupted in the kind of riotous celebration that you would have expected from the last kick of the match.

Only, it wasn’t.

Plymouth surged forward in three minutes of added time and earned a corner when Wright was forced to head Rueben Reid’s effort over the bar. Bobby Reid took it – and Jamie Richards was first to the ensuing scramble in front of Ashdown, beating the keeper to his far post to get Argyle level again.

That was the last kick of the match.

Kyle felt like he had been kicked in the teeth. The air had been let out of the Oxford balloon. Two badly needed points were now dissolved into the March mist.

It hurt.

Oxford United: Ashdown: Long, Wright (captain), Whing (Dunkley 70), Potts, Ssewankambo, MacDonald (Balmy 86), Maddison, O’Dowda, Godden (Hoban 70), Hoskins. Unused subs: Clarke, Grimshaw, Ashby, Rose.

Oxford United 2 (Hoskins pen 64, O’Dowda 90)

Plymouth Argyle 2 (Bobby Reid 58, Jamie Richards 90+2)

H/T: 0-0

A – 5,557, The Kassam Stadium, Oxford

Man of the Match: Callum O’Dowda, Oxford (MR 8.3)

GUMP: O’Dowda

# # #

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Tranmere had defeated Northampton by a goal to nil at Sixfields as the teams immediately in front of the Us played each other – with Tranmere opening a five-point lead for the final playoff spot.

“I can’t fault them,” Kyle told the press after the match.

Churchill, for his part, was not there. Kyle was very glad to see Vic.

“I can’t fault them,” he repeated. “Right now the lads are being much harder on themselves for conceding at the end than I ever could have been on them. There are times for a manager to crack the whip on his players. This is not one of them.”

“How disappointed are you at the draw?” That was Vic.

“Well, I’m not as upset as I’ve been after some other setbacks, because Plymouth is a quality side and deserved at least a draw based on how they played,” he answered. “But we were in a winning position and we coughed up two points on a set piece that we really should have got defended. That is the disappointing part, more than anything else. Good players are going to make good plays and you have to accept that, but a team trying to get where we want to go has to get that set piece defended, and so we’re going to work on that.”

“Other results didn’t go your way, either.”

“We can only control what we do,” Kyle said, running a hand through his sandy blonde hair in frustration. He had wished it otherwise. “Leaving points on the pitch doesn’t help us. But there’s still time left and we still have matches remaining against both the teams above us in the playoff hunt.”

“So you’re optimistic.”

“There’s no reason not to be optimistic, and believe me, if there were a reason, I’d find it,” Kyle smiled. “But honestly, with points out there against the teams above us, we still control a measure of our own destiny and we just need to keep our performances up and see what happens.”

With that the media gaggle broke up and Kyle started back to his office.

“Kyle, wait,” Vic said, and the manager stopped and turned to face the reporter.

“I’m glad you came out onto the pitch when you did today. You might have guessed that the song you heard was for you.”

“I wondered,” he said, wondering what the reporter was getting at.

Vic Young sighed and got down to the point.

“That was by Allison’s request,” she said. “I arranged it. We both felt very badly for you after Bill’s article last week and she just wanted you to have something nice.”

She had said that before. Kyle wondered if he really could believe it.

But I’m still married, he thought to himself. As bug’s-ear-cute as Allison Austin was, he had to keep reminding himself of that. And he needed to talk to someone special to him before he entertained any other thoughts along those lines.

The decision wasn’t easy. And he knew that if he would only wait, the decision would soon be made for him.

Yet Kyle Cain was not a patient man. He wanted results and he wanted them now. He looked at Vic, and didn’t know what to tell her.

“She likes you a lot, Kyle,” Vic finally said. She tossed her hair back over her shoulders and smiled at him. “I can tell you that much, even as a journalist. She thinks you’re a good man and that you’ve done your penance, if you will. She’s doing everything but wave a flag at you to show you she wants to care about you.”

“That’s fine,” Kyle finally said. “Caring is one thing. A relationship is quite another, especially for me and especially with your co-worker evidently staring over my shoulder waiting to write something in the papers. I can’t have that for a number of reasons.”

“I understand that,” Vic said, “and I’m the very soul of discretion. But you needed to know because Allison wanted you to know. I’m her friend, and off the pitch I consider myself to be your friend as well. So I’m doing the duty.”

Kyle had to smile at that, and wondered why Vic never mentioned having a boyfriend of her own. He quickly decided that was none of his business, and the two parted on good terms.

He walked down the hall to his office, sat behind his desk and noted with satisfaction that the scouts had placed both a DVD of the match just completed and a DVD of Hartlepool side-by-side on his desk blotter. Pools had won 2-1 at Morecambe and Kyle wanted to know how the visitors had won for the first time in ten matches.

“She likes me,” Kyle mused. “But my work is never done.”

# # #

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Life is complicated sometimes too, I hear ...


Boyd Stokes was having the time of his life.

That article in the Oxford newspaper had affirmed him, so to speak, without naming him. He liked Stacy Cain just fine, and he liked that he could get what he needed without consequence.

The library manager had a lot on his mind these days. He enjoyed Stacy’s company immensely, especially at night, but he was troubled that the baby growing inside her wasn’t his.

It was that guy’s. That Kyle Cain jerkweed.

Well, Stacy had just made a mistake, and even though she wanted to keep the child, he wasn’t pleased.

They woke up together on the Wednesday morning and nobody was saying anything about them coming to work together when they did so. There were only a few people who knew that Stacy was married prior to the article – but when the piece in the Mail had received national attention through the scandal sheets, suddenly some opinions of Mrs. Cain changed.

Friends weren’t always as friendly. Voices were quieter. People gave that extra look they sometimes give when they think they’re looking for something.

Only in this case, they were. Stacy, on the other hand, wasn’t nearly as happy as Boyd.

They sat having lunch in the library’s break room and Stacy looked at her paramour.

“You don’t look like you’re too upset by this,” Stacy said.

Boyd took a bite of his sandwich, dabbed at his mouth with a napkin hung from his shirt collar, and looked at her.

“No, I’m not,” he said.

“May I ask why?” She looked at him with a searching gaze, trying to read his thoughts. “Is it because you weren’t in the article yourself?”

He frowned. “Stacy, I’m surprised you’d ask such a thing,” he said. “Really, look at it this way. These things pass. If you want to be around me, I’m here. Clearly you don’t want that clot you’re married to, so if you want to be with me and give that baby you’re having a real shot at a good life, here I am. That newspaper stuff will pass.”

“Are you not the least bit concerned about my reputation?” she asked. “You say you want to be with me. Well, if you’re with public enemy number one, how will that reflect on you, Mister Upwardly Mobile Manager?”

Boyd looked at Stacy and wiggled his eyebrows. That unnerved her, but he was trying to make a point.

“You’ll note that I’m not concerned,” Stokes said. “I mentioned it before and I’ll be happy to keep doing it. Sooner or later this will all go away, you’ll have your life back and if you want me, I’m not going anywhere.”

Stacy admired his calm demeanor almost as much as she admired some of his other skills. That was a delicate way to put it, but in her mind there was no comparison between her husband and this kind, affectionate gentleman who sat across the break room table.

“Well, that’s certainly reassuring,” she said, smiling at him sweetly.

He rose from his side of the table.

“I need to get back to work,” he said, kissing her forehead. “Just you remember what I’ve said, Stacy. I’m there for you and he’s not. And sooner or later it will all be done and dusted.”

He left the room, closing the door behind him, and Stacy sat back in her chair, cupping her chin in her hand.

“Maybe he’s right in more ways than one,” she said aloud. “I deserve a chance to be happy too.”

# # #

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“How would I react? How do you think I’d react?”

Jenna sat across from her father at dinner. Kyle had asked a question that he thought was a stupid one. Sometimes his intuition was perfect.

“No, Dad, you may not date that woman.”

“You know the papers say your mom wants out.”

“They’re newspapers,” Jenna responded with a tinge of frustration. “Are they my mother? Do they answer for her? I asked her whether she was leaving. Did you?”

“Yes,” Kyle responded, trying to stay patient.

“And what did she say?”

“She said she didn’t know anything about the article and had not filed papers.”

“There you are, then. If neither of you have filed, that’s the end of the discussion.”

“She’s doing it.”

“And so did you,” she reminded him, for what seemed like the fiftieth time.

“And I quit, in case you missed that, Kyle said.

“When you got caught.”

“I give up,” Kyle said, finishing a cup of coffee. “Everyone gets to be happy but me, I guess.”

“Don’t poormouth yourself,” Jenna said simply. “I know you’ve tried to make things up to everyone but we still have rules, you know. And you’re asking me if I’d mind very much if you broke them. The answer is yes, I’d mind very much.”

“What would you like me to do?” he asked, leaning back in his chair.

“I’d like you to get back together with Mom,” she said.

Kyle laughed. Out loud. Too loudly, as it appeared.

“The woman has another man,” he said. “And unlike my situation, it’s known all over the damned country that she has another man and nothing’s been done about it. Do you seriously think she’s interested in trying?”

“I don’t know,” Jenna admitted. “But I want my parents living together. Is that too much to ask?”

Kyle shrugged his shoulders.

“Ask your mother,” he said. “She seems to have all the answers.”

With that, Kyle went back to the sitting room and went back to work. At least there, nobody could question him. Usually.

There was a note from Chris Allen, the u-18s manager, raving about Guy Barry, one of the players from the youth intake. He had scored for the u-18s after netting three times against them in his trial. Already on a youth contract, the boy seemed to be able to find the net.

This was a good thing, but it didn’t immediately solve a problem Kyle had up front. With Hylton still a solid month from returning, Godden was the only realistic option as a spare striker and he was looking clueless.

James Roberts was the next option – the eighteen-year old striker off the youth team had netted five times in nine appearances for them and frankly, couldn’t have been any worse than Godden had been against Argyle.

So Kyle decided to put him on the bench for Hartlepool. The text to the striker telling him to meet the manager before training was returned immediately and the boy sounded excited. As well he should have.

He also told Godden to meet him before training, and that wasn’t received quite as well. Both players knew why they were meeting the manager and it was a lot more difficult for one player than for the other.

# # #

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jrfellow, welcome to FMS and thanks for giving your first post to this story. Greatly appreciated and great to have you along! Maviarab, you never know with some people, do you?


17 March 2015 – Oxford United (15-9-12, 9th place) v Hartlepool United (9-12-15, 19th place)

Sky Bet League Two Match Day #37 – The Kassam Stadium, Oxford

Referee: Chris Kavanagh

The crowd was down, again, for the second straight home match, as it usually was after the team didn’t perform. The Kassam was far less than half full for the visit of Pools and Kyle had given up trying to figure out why a playoff contending side couldn’t draw better at home.

The only way to increase the crowds was through success. But Oxford hadn’t played particularly well at home in recent weeks, winning only one of its last four on home turf. That didn’t help.

It was hard to fathom how a credible draw against the second-placed team in the league qualified as poor performance, but it evidently had an effect on the home gate.

A gametime drizzle didn’t help matters either. Kyle put on weather gear as the team prepared for warm-ups and the manager thought his changes through.

This was an important match and he had made a couple of potentially significant moves. Ashdown had lost his place since the team hadn’t kept a clean sheet in five straight matches, so Clarke was reinstalled in goal. Grimshaw returned at right full back, and Dunkley replaced Whing on the backline.

Whing didn’t leave the team, though – he moved up to the holding position in place of Ssewankambo, with no other changes forward of that spot on the pitch. Those players had, for the most part, earned their chance to play and kept their places through strong play. There was no harm in that.

But once the match started, Hartlepool dropped into a 5-3-2 and dared Oxford to find a way through. While Kyle and Fazackerley digested that bit of news, Jake Wright hit Ryan Manning hard with a shoulder, giving away a free kick just outside the area, which Manning proceeded to ring off Clarke’s crossbar with a truly wicked set piece that was just a hair too high.

Maddison got the home team into the match shortly after, springing Hoskins with a backheel pass that was a thing of beauty. His shot was saved by keeper Jon Maxted, and the rebound rolled obligingly to Hoban – who missed the net.

“Just shoot me,” Kyle moaned, leaning back in his chair in frustration. “You have got to be kidding me.”

Fazackerley smiled and cuffed Kyle on the arm. “It happens, you know,” the deputy said and obviously Kyle couldn’t disagree.

From that point, the match degenerated, and that was a kind word to use. Nicky Featherstone laid out Whing with a shoulder barge while going after a 50-50 ball that had the midfielder collecting his wits on the turf for a few moments, aided to the touchline by the training staff.

While he was gone, Manning broke through on goal with Oxford playing with ten, and only a marvelous save by Clarke kept the match scoreless.

Darren Holden whipped in a corner in 35 minutes that gave the defense a spot of bother, but once Dunkley had cleared the lines, Oxford surged forward in full counter-attack mode. The ball wound up to the right with MacDonald laying a ball over for the diagonal run of Hoban, who was headed away from goal for some reason. But, his cross wasn’t, and neither was Hoskins, who slipped his marker to volley home in 36 minutes to put Oxford in front.

The frozen chosen in the stands roared as one, perhaps for warmth as much as anything else, and Kyle headed to the touchline, wrapped up in a tracksuit and scarf against the March wind. It wasn’t a pleasant day to be outside, as the needle-like rain felt like darts against his face.

Hoban tested Maxted just before half and Chris Kavanagh blew for halftime just before everyone’s fingers froze.

“Gritty, men,” Kyle said, as he walked back and forth across the front of the room while the players got warm. “Another half like that and you will earn your three points today. Don’t let them back into the match, especially not with five at the back, yeah?”

Lewis Hawkins, who had run into the Whing in first half injury time with both players needing the trainer, came off for Hartlepool, while Whing, who had taken a couple of hard knocks in the half, couldn’t continue and left in favor of Ssewankambo.

Grimshaw wound up in the book after only four minutes of the second half for a foul on Manning that could best be described as “thorough”, and while it sent a message, defenders on yellow cards wasn’t great thought fodder for a manager.

Jerell Sellers, who had been invisible for Pools in the first half, made his presence felt in the second by putting an artfully placed effort barely wide of Clarke’s right post and into the side netting in 53 minutes, but it was apparent that the visitors had a new lease on life.

Then Hoskins, of all people, made a crunching challenge on defender Neil Austin, who had to come off, limiting Pools’ substitution pattern through their second injury of the match.

But Oxford was getting no purchase on the attacking end of things, and that was a bit worrisome. Hoskins had a tight-angle shot in 55 minutes that was easily held by the keeper – and that was just about it.

Hoban finally came off in 73 minutes just as Wright went into the book for a richly-deserved booking after nearly sending Manning into the stand with a trip that sent the striker flying.

For a moment Kyle wondered if the captain would see red, couldn’t argue with the Hartlepool staff suggesting that might be a good idea, and breathed a sigh of relief when the card was only a yellow.

Hoban came off in favor of Meades and both Jonathan Franks and Brad Walker tested Clarke soon after. But the veteran keeper had all the answers – and then O’Dowda made his bid.

His slashing effort in the Hartlepool area beat Maxted but not Tommy Miller, who hacked the drive off the line with a great reflex effort in 79 minutes.

There was one more card for Pools to play – veteran striker Marlon Harewood came on to try to find a late equalizer. Yet his effort was thrown off its stroke by a fine play from Dunkley, who got just enough of the 35-year old’s body with a shoulder charge to both be within the rules and effective, stripping possession from the former West Ham man.

Moments later, it was over. It had been ugly. But it was three points that Oxford really needed to keep place with the playoff contenders.

Oxford United: Clarke: Grimshaw, Wright (captain, Bevans 86), Dunkley, Potts, Whing (Ssewankambo 45), MacDonald, Maddison, O’Dowda, Hoban (Meades 74), Hoskins. Unused subs; Ashdown, Ruffels, Balmy, Roberts.

Oxford United 1 (Hoskins 36)

Hartlepool United 0

H/T: 1-0

A – 4,901, The Kassam Stadium, Oxford

Man of the Match: James Maddison, Oxford (MR 7.9)

GUMP: Will Hoskins

# # #

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“Sometimes you have to win ugly.”

Kyle talked to the press – with Churchill watching intently – and showed his relief at gutting out a win where his team hadn’t played particularly well.

“We weren’t at our best,” he admitted. “But you can’t always be five-star and I was happy for the lads finding a way to win today.”

“How do you feel about the trip to Shrewsbury coming up?” That was Churchill, venturing to speak, and Kyle looked at him with a level expression.

“We have a tough match against the second-placed team in our league,” Kyle answered. “We will have our hands full and we know that.”

It felt odd to be talking to Churchill, especially after the article, from a standpoint of trust. There was still plenty of bad blood between the two men, but he had a credential that someone in the Oxford front office had given him so Kyle’s hands were tied.

“Any more fallout over the singing in Bury?”

“No, unless you were thinking of stirring some up.” That made the reporter blanch and Kyle noted that his words had struck home.

Kyle thought it through for a moment. “You know, I’m going to make discussion of that story or anything about my family an off-limits topic,” he said. “I have that right. If you people want to talk about football that’s fine, go ahead, talk about football, but I need some space to deal with these issues. Bill, you will ruin it for everyone else if you cross that line again.”

Kyle was asking the press to discipline itself, something it is notoriously bad at doing. He didn’t expect it would have any serious effect, but it was all he could do to protect himself.

Besides, Jenna had been clear. And, she had been right. Kyle wasn’t going to get himself in any more trouble. He couldn’t afford that, and Jenna still held great sway over Kyle, even though she was spending more and more time with Miles and less and less time at home. They were getting serious.

For his part, Miles hadn’t let his relationship with Jenna affect how he was playing. That was good.

The problem was that he wasn’t any great shakes. That was bad.

Kyle faced a dilemma. There were better players than Miles in the youth system and the discussion had already been held with the board about who to release from the youth setup. Miles’ name was on the list, and Kyle had insisted that football matters take precedence over personal matters. He had to walk the walk as well as talk the talk to be fair to all his players, and he intended to do so.

But finding a way to tell the player, and his daughter, that changes were coming was going to be a difficult thing.

There was better news for another young player though – Ssewankambo was called up to Sweden’s u-21 side for matches against Denmark and Norway on the 26th and 30th of March. He would miss the Carlisle match on the 28th but he deserved the opportunity to play for his country.

That news was much better to deliver and the midfielder had a comparatively rare smile on his face after hearing it. Kyle had had some minor difficulty in motivating the player in recent weeks and he knew this would help quite a bit.

It seemed to Kyle that the only person unhappy in his life was himself.

The results had been great. Professionally, he was starting to feel vindicated. But personally, life was not good.

He was lonely. The most important person in his life had someone she was more interested in spending time with, and so Kyle immersed himself in his football. That was great during the daylight hours and even during most of his evenings when he could concentrate on video, but when the lights went out and sleep would not come, he would stare at the ceiling and wish things were different.

# # #

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but when the lights went out and sleep would not come, he would stare at the ceiling and wish things were different.

# # #

Nicely done. I am really enjoying this journey we are on with Mr. Cain. I can see why you are having fun writing this one.

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