jdoyle9293

The Rebuild

108 posts in this topic

The Rebuild

 

 

Summer 2028           

 

Window blinds are closed despite a clock flashing 14:57 on a table in obnoxious electrical red.

A disused fireplace filled with well-worn coals and a reflective guard, stained. A television, straight out of the shop and merely for show, dominates the left corner of the room; almost overbearing in such a small living space.

Normalcy, right down to the corduroy sofa shaping underneath the weight of a tracksuited man.

In the centre of the sofa slumps a middle aged man who has the looks as though he is on the cusp of drawing his state pension. In some period of his life, this man has suffered a hardship that he hasn’t been able to overcome.

His face is reflected. Reflected on the mountain of silverware that sits before him in the cabinet. The cabinet remains the biggest part of the already cramped room. An assortment of silverware: trophies, medals, cups—everything.

The withered gentleman sat opposite: Mark Stephens. Eyes closed, at his most frail. The wrinkles provide deep ridges into his past years as a football prodigy cut short way before his prime turned coach turned football manager.

Only at the highest level.

Until now.

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What's this? A new jdoyle story after all this time? :eek:

I'll be following this one, for sure.

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Posted (edited)

May 27, 2017

Manchester United F.C.

 

 

The diminutive Armenian dances down byline, the away supporters spill out onto the pitch. Fluorescent stewards struggle to keep the red shirted supporters from embracing their heroes. An utmost roar from such a small pocket of the decade and a half old stadium. A bi-polar dugout sags on the home side, juxtaposed with jubilation of the away squad.

Number twenty-one.

Mark Stephens in his technical area. Frozen. Claude Puel sinks in his chair alongside coaches and assistants and nonplussed players. Eighty-four strikes on the touchline clock. Henrikh Mkhitaryan just ended four years of league hurt for the most successful English football club.

Mark was no stranger to success in the past. An assistant to an assistant gave him plenty of silverware in France, Germany and Spain under people such as Carlo Ancelotti, Jose Mourinho and Louis van Gaal. Not as a manager, however. He was finally number one and determined not to have his wings clipped again. 33 years old.

A first Premier League title was soon followed by bringing history to Manchester United, the only trophy they hadn’t won under the likes of Sir Alex and Sir Matt—the Europa League.

Of course, not a primary concern. The board had previously denoted success in this particular season with an experienced team but not an experienced manager, was fourth place.

Fourth place was drastically improved upon by gifting a league title in his first season, whilst the Europa League was an added bonus.

As was the nature of retaining the FA Cup.

Forty-seven seconds in at Wembley. The sweaty suit-clad manager in the red tie made an uncomfortable, uncharacteristic jig beyond the bald one in sky blue. Zlatan had headed Mark into a 1-0 lead in the biggest of games—the first ever Manchester derby FA Cup final. By half-time United had sauntered into a four goal advantage.

The half-time team talk, a speech that Mark had stressed over since a semi-final qualification a month and four days ago with a penalty shootout win over West Ham. This match had become infinitely easier.

The first three of many trophies.

Edited by jdoyle9293

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Look who's back! Looking forward to seeing more!

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Summer 2028           

 

A resignation simmers in Mark’s face. The blinds shield the would-be piercing moonlight that hangs in the air. An attempt to move is nulled by a crippling pain in his chest, clamping him down to the corduroy.

The television, with its plastic film still over the screen, remains in his constant state of inactivity, the figure of Mark is even more deformed than without the reflection.

Furthermore in the silverware almost at his feet. The room is closing in on him.

His face mangled in the reflection of the three, big-eared silver trophies at the front of the pack. The brightest and shiniest of all Mark’s collection, lighting up even the darkest of rooms as the evening begins.

The smallest of rooms still remains too big for Mark Stephens.

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June 8, 2019

Manchester United F.C.

 

Three trophies in Mark Stephens’ opening season was labelled the biggest shock in English football since, well, the previous season when Claudio Ranieri’s Leicester City created all of that history. The second season saw United conquer the league and FA Cup once more.

The third season, Mark didn’t stop. He wanted to replicate Sir Alex in two significant ways: to win the league in three successive years and to win the treble—not the phoney, Europa League treble he made in the first season. The big one. The Champions League.

The marathon of the league was much closer than the previous two seasons and was settled on the season to last day with a trip to Humberside. Ander Herrera clouted a penalty into the ceiling of the net whilst Anthony Martial’s quick pace outdid the Tigers. A 2-0 victory and a 23rd league title.

The glory days were back at Manchester United.

The thirteen days that would define Mark Stephens in his early managerial career at just 35 years old.

Had it not been for the injury that crippled his playing career, Stephens might well have been gracing the hallowed turf of Wembley in the FA Cup final that followed. Antoine Griezmann and Ander Herrera launched United into a 2-0 lead after just 15 minutes.

Shades of the 1999 treble season.

Serge Aurier putting through his own goal three minutes from half-time wasn’t in the script, though. Such as the 1999 final ended with United comfortably beating Newcastle 2-0, this one would be a much tighter affair.

A bullet of a Philipp Wollscheid header seven minutes into the second half had levelled the tie. Things were evenly poised, with the exception of the playing staff. Serge Aurier completed his afternoon to forget, earning his fourth red card of the season with twenty minutes left on the clock.

Bojan Krkic slotted home a penalty a few minutes later, the cup was turned on its head. Not since the 2014 final between Hull and Arsenal had the 90,000 inside the stadium seen as such a dramatic turnaround in the final. The treble dreams were fading.

The FA Cup would be lifted with red and white ribbons. Those ribbons belonged to the Staffordshire underdogs, however, their first FA Cup triumph.

Whilst FA Cup could not be recouped for a 14th time for United, the record of two in four seasons still held as impressive. The Champions League was next. Serge Aurier didn’t travel to London for the final. Stephens saw it as direct punishment, it was in his philosophy as a football manager. To sort out everything as quickly and directly as possible. To move the team along.

Twenty-two minutes in, a right-back cross from Phil Jones to Antoine Griezmann was bundled into the net. United led Monaco 1-0 at Wembley. A seventeen-minute second half splurge saw that lead graduate to 4-0.

The joint biggest victory in a European Cup or Champions League final.

 

There was more work to do. The next step: equalling Liverpool’s Champions League record. Oh, and that elusive treble.

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June 7, 2025

Real Madrid C.F.

Forty-one years old and still a rookie in terms of age. Not by experience, though.

Mark Stephens was constantly aware of his failures. Six years on from that scuppered treble win, he became on the verge of the treble again. He had exchanged the rain of Manchester for the sweat of Madrid.

The white of Madrid.

The hundred-point barrier was there to be broken. Ninety-five points and two games remaining: Barcelona at the Bernabeu and Sporting Gijon away from home. Anything but a loss at home to Barca would wrap up the league title.

It would be the second successive season Stephens had guided Real to La Liga, pipping a longstanding Barcelona domination. Stephens had already booked a ticket out of Madrid. To Paris. Not that anybody knew yet. Parisian money didn’t speak to Stephens, but the dullness of another season in a dire Spanish league would drive him into an early grave.

Stood on the touchline as Alvaro Garcia rattled in a second goal for Real against Barcelona in the Copa del Rey final, Stephens realised the contradiction in his thoughts. How far into away days at Cannes and Nice would become dull at the most dominant of French clubs?

Mark had his career plan figured out. A season there – collect the league without lifting a finger – and move on to anywhere he’d like. Netherlands, Germany, Portugal, maybe back to Britain or Italy.

Richedly Bazoer grabbed a goal back for Barcelona. Two out of three steps into heaven. A win over Gijon confirmed a 99 points tally. The only loss came at Sevilla—an old flame. A week later came another old flame—the biggest old flame.

Manchester United at the Luzhniki. This time it wasn’t their opponents who went down to ten men, it was the Red Devils in Moscow, with Adrien Rabiot’s red card after 22. By which point Real had gone ahead through Thomas Lemar inside 23 seconds. A Kenny Tete fluke 54 seconds into the second half and the final was turning from Moscow to Rome quickly for United.

 

Real’s twelfth, Stephens’ third. A first treble.

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Summer 2028           

 

“Good morning, sir!” A elderly man, with a crate of milk under his arm, mouths in a Welsh accent.

You could just tell it was a Welsh accent. His hopeful smile and carefree attitude. Mark barely reacts to his gleeful trot to the front. Milk bottles clatter on the stone floor outside the semi-detached house.

Normalcy, all that was missing was the partner and the two point four children. Well, the other one point four children.

Mark’s sluggish eyes fall back on the silverware.

Was there three miniature Champions League trophies or four on the mantelpiece? The focusing of the eyes proved inconclusive

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May 30, 2020

Manchester United F.C.

 

The fang-toothed Uruguayan slides on the wet Amsterdam turf.

The mandatory kisses of fingers and wrists followed. Barcelona were ahead in the Champions League final, their third final together in eleven years.

39 minutes on the clock, Mark Stephens had to summon the ghosts of Barcelona 1999.

 

A month and eight days ago, Mark Stephens created English football history. The nation’s top division was won by the same team for the fourth successive season.

And what a romp to the crown it was. A South Wales demolition on April 22nd featuring two from Anthony Martial and two more from Marcus Rashford and Paul Pogba sealed a 4-1 win and a 24th league title for the club.

Another 4-1 win almost a month to the day at Wembley saw Stephens take down another ‘S’ in Southampton with another two goals from Anthony Martial, as well as two second half finishers from Antoine Griezmann either side of a Charlie Austin consolation. A rout in the FA Cup final.

One more step to heaven of the treble that was previously promised by Stephens.

 

White bodies dance around the corner flag. Seventeen minutes from time: a smiling Antoine Griezmann is in the pack of players. Jubilant United supporters to the left, distraught Barca supporters to the right.

The teams were level, breathing space was granted. Amsterdam was now lit in red glows.

The pressured told.

Five minutes later: Antoine Griezmann stole a march on Samuel Umtiti, sizing up the onrushing green jersey of the goalkeeper. The Frenchman opened his body up against that of the German ter Stegen.

The German collapses and Griezmann slides the ball under his stomach before gravity can take effect. Silence in the Amsterdam Arena.

Only the sound of rustling netting.

And camera shutters.

And the deafening roar of red in United to the left.

The turnaround, and the game’s fourth goal five minutes’ time. Anthony Martial, on the counter attack, on his own, in a half vacant of white United shirts, he rounds the goalkeeper. And slots the ball in. A treble, a comeback worthy of ’99.

Two Champions Leagues’ to the name of Mark Stephens. This would be the final time he would be adorned with the colours of Manchester United.

A silent exit.

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Summer 2028           

 

A framed picture of a younger Mark Stephens. It’s hardly an old picture, though, but the difference in his glowing look as he holds aloft the Serie A trophy from the look that stares into the picture in a dull Welsh living room is stark.

The clattering of the letterbox finally gives a voice to the hauntingly quiet house. Even the sound of the letterbox had an alienating, foreign, Welsh accent to it.

Mark would have been alone, if he wasn’t living vicariously through his memories of the past.

The post was probably for the previous occupant, as well.

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October 4, 2021

A.C. Milan

 

The whistle blows to a delicate murmur around the San Siro. A tepid Milan derby finishes 0-0.

Inter Milan led the league in the early stages of the season. Mark Stephens’ Milan adversaries had been without a win for the previous three games and are eighth, holding just eight points from six games.

Stephens had rescued the red and black half of Milan from the innocuous ninth position, dredging them up into the safety of Champions League football of third in a Juventus dominated league.

A day later Mark, with an online translation version of an Italian newspaper sits on the roof of his rented apartment block. Karen nurses a glass of sangria. The wrong country, but Mark could never persuade her otherwise.

The front page of the online newspaper reads: ‘Times up!’

Mark throws his head behind his back, staring into the unclouded Milan heavens in despair. The mobile phone rings on the glass table in between Mark and Karen, piercing her sore hair-of-the-dog head.

Silence, barely a word of English or Italian from the rooftop. Karen looks on in fear.

The blocks of the last fifteen months’ re-building process at the San Siro were destroyed.

Future endeavoured in his second job.

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May 15, 2022

Sevilla

 

Blues surround a single red and white in the stifling Barcelona heat of a May early evening. It was magic hour.

Renato Souza had put Getafe in front just a smudge prior to the hour mark and now Mark Stephens’ Sevilla had a job to do. A point was all that was needed to secure Champions League qualification for Sevilla, just like he did for A.C. Milan.

Mark was feeling the pressure of not being handed the league with top quality players year on year like he was at Manchester United. Multiple jobs in as many years reduced the CV and Champions League football would certainly improve things in Seville.

Karen had finally found a drink to suit the country she lived in. Sangria.

Juan Antonio Ramirez had seven Getafe players in between him and the goal, with a minute left between Sevilla and the indignity of Europa League.

Ramirez slid the ball through a pair of legs, pushed the ball to the right to free himself from the clasp of a few more players. A defence and a goalkeeper.

A sprint on the tiring right-back, he is dead on his heels, Ramirez almost saunters into the penalty area.

A clout into the opposite top corner of the net. It soared. Unstoppable.

THE CHAMPIONS! The final whistle blows, the Champions League theme song plays in Mark’s head just seven months after his San Siro sacking, the rejuvenation.

The wild celebrations in the dressing room, Mark lurks outside, phone in his face: the news that A.C. Milan had turned it around, winning at Genoa 4-1 to wrap up the Serie A league title.

“Tone it down! There’s a cup final to be won in six days.” Mark’s bittersweet voice dims down into a soft whisper. The jubilant dressing room is transformed into that of a silent one.

A focus.

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Absolutely love it so far! :hammer:

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Summer 2028           

 

A regrettable slurp.

The slurp swills around a can of decrepit cider, the television is surprisingly on, blurred from the protective film that still remains wrapped around the screen.

The mundane daytime television show, aiming for the majority but hitting absolutely nobody.

Dressing gown on, the fighting of the sunlight against the blinds: no competition. Mark’s glazed over expression sags from the running pictures of everyday people selling antiques in extraordinary scenarios for extraordinary money. That sort of down to Earth stuff.

The expression deflates onto a framed picture of him hidden behind an unidentified large trophy.

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May 21, 2022

Sevilla

 

Mark Stephens was a determined man. He had watched his A.C. Milan side wrap up a league and cup double and now he was going for a double of his own. Lewis Cook, an English midfielder signed by Stephens in the previous summer, netted a 1-0 Coppa Italia final win over Napoli.

Stephens was preparing his side for a double of sort. The entry to the Champions League being one, the other being the Copa del Rey—which would be his first piece of silverware out of Manchester at a managerial level.

Ten months ago, a young twenty year old Belgian winger by the name of Quinten Dewulf was snapped up for £7.5 million from Elche.

Twenty-one minutes struck on the clock at the Bernabeu, Dewulf had drifted out to the touchline, a curious young boy drawing out Samuel Umtiti from the centre of the field in an unfamiliar Barca back three.

A long, low ball down the field.

A quick glance from the Belgian over his shoulder.

The ball grazes off his ankle, through the French defender’s legs. Acres of Madrid turf is ahead of the Red Devil in the red and white of Sevilla.

Electric pace, a low shot, a goal. One nil.

Just over the half hour mark, Luis Suarez had chewed off our advantage, bringing a level playing field to the game. Eight minutes later that had disintegrated.

Three minutes from time jubilation overcame Mark Stephens, he bolted down the touchline, passing the disappointed Antonio Conte in his technical area.

Stephens dived on goalscorer Dewulf who had put Sevilla back into the lead at a crucial time. In a year or two of exasperation, it had relieved itself all in one moment from a headed goal off the shortest player on the pitch.

Later on in the evening, at the final whistle, the stigma of leaving Manchester United and not earning any silverware was over.

The rest of Stephens’ career was laid out ahead of him. He looked over to see Tom in his infancy in the stands, draped in a Welsh flag in the colours of Sevilla.

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Summer 2028           

 

Mark squints his eyes, the wrinkles grow both on his face on the edge of the sofa and on the picture holding the Serie A title aloft.

The picture is dressed with a medal.

Mark’s knees creek as he finds himself vertical for the first time in a long time. A hobble over the four foot distance towards the framed picture on the mantelpiece.

Mark focuses on the Serie A title picture slightly longer. Another realisation.

The numbers 2026-27 is etched onto the back of the medal. The word above it, the team presumably, was blurred.

He ran his fingers over the engraving, almost as if he was learning to read braille.

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June 6, 2027

Juventus

 

The image replayed in his head—Morgan Sanson with a diving header on the back post. Serie A sealed a month from the end of the season.

Verona were seen off in their own back yard in a mandatory away win for Juventus, 2-0. Four games from the end of the season, Stephens in his second crack at the league, had finally unlocked success.

Success hadn’t strayed too far from his mind, there was still competitive football to be played. The Coppa Italia final followed four meaningless wins that only opened up the advantage of Juventus over their nearest rivals—Napoli.

Napoli were waiting at Stadio Olimpico in the cup final, too.

Stephens shook the hands of his coaching staff, making his way over to the Partenopei bench.

His eyes weren’t on the action, but his attempted handshake with opposition manager David Adams was cut short by the bipolar roar of the stadium and the opposition bench’s rowdiness.

Stephens was stunned, the pitch couldn’t be seen through the mass celebration of the Napoli coaching and playing staff.

Poking through the gaps in the wall was one of Stephens’ own—Darren Herd. A player he had nurtured through the academy at Manchester United in his final two years. He was a recent signing, making his way from Manchester to Naples in January for the princely sum of £37 million, a defensive midfielder.

His face was still lit up as he skipped back to the centre circle at the back of the Napoli crowd of players.

By the half-time whistle the game had a very different outlook.

Morgan Sanson, one of the few Juventus players who had survived Mark Stephens’ reign as Juventus manager, levelled the scoresheet at the half hour mark, stinging the gloves of the Napoli goalkeeper from thirty yards.

The ball crept over the line following the goalkeeper error.

Seven minutes later, though, there was no goalkeeping error as Sanson added his and Juventus’ second in the game, driving beyond three Napoli defenders before chipping the downed goalkeeper. The tie was back in Stephens’ hands.

“Go for the kill! Go for the kill!” Stephens could be heard yelling even on the Italian television broadcast.

Domenico Berardi, the second of few players that Stephens hadn’t recruited, was in the right place at the right time moments before the half-time break. A front post header from all of 12 inches saw Juventus extend their lead.

A very different technique was used in Juventus’ fourth goal before the break. Berardi stood still in the box, allowing the Napoli defence’s movement to create space for himself. A simple tap into the bottom corner rendered Napoli’s cup final fight over.

Berardi would add a third shortly after half-time in a 5-1 rout over the two-time Champions League winners.

Mark Stephens had one more task at Juventus before leaving.

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Summer 2028           

 

The night has drawn in. The ignominy of the lounge remains the exact same.

Although, Mark is now asleep. Drool falls down his cardigan as well as the residue from the cans that lap up around his ankles, strewn across the floor.

His lounge is invaded by alcohol. The night’s sky invaded by the moon.

The house, completely empty.

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May 23, 2026

Paris Saint-Germain

 

The light hearted music muffled by the bowels of the large Parisian stadium. Mark stands in front of a door marked ‘Home Dressing Room’, but it is in French. Clattering of studded boots and jovial French musings are heard from within. Mark’s pocketed phone vibrates. He ignores it, about to give a pre-match speech.

Four successful days in April gave PSG a potential treble winning campaign—a league title was wrapped up on April 12th, an away win at Stade de Reims with the Coupe de la Ligue following soon after over Toulouse.

Vibrations continue.

The French Cup was a write off, a 1-0 home defeat to Nice in the quarter finals. Short-term embarrassment for Stephens, but it allowed them time to comprehend the massive European campaign ahead of them. A first Champions League crown was possible, a second for France as a nation.

Incessant, continuous vibrations.

Manchester City were just too much in the semi-finals. Stephens was left to rue the cruel long-standing away goals rule as City progressed into the final.

Mark’s pocket has been vibrating far too long in the corridor in and amongst the dressing rooms for him to ignore it for much longer.

“Bonjour,” Mark begins, “je suis—”.

Mark’s face drops completely. His eyes are on the verge of leaking as he turns away from the dressing room and dashes down the corridor.

“I’ll be twenty minutes.”

From above the Parc des Princes, hundreds of cars trickle slowly into the stadium, one speeds dangerously out of the premises.

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Summer 2028           

 

The summer sun is pulled up into the sky by the passing of the days. Mark is dressed identically to the previous day. The entire room is identical. A game of Spot The Difference would be impossible in this household from the previous evening.

Cans remain scattered around the thick, carpeted floor. Mark’s eyes strain open. The complete, undiluted depression of eyes scans the unchanged room. The television is off, the fireplace untouched as well as his impressive silverware collection. Mark greets the dawn of a new day with a callous tut, shake of his head and a desperate sip of an open can of cheap cider from the table next to the sofa.

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April 23, 2028

Juventus

 

The dialysis machine keeping Mark Stephens’ wife continued its bleating. Like clockwork.

Janice Stephens wasn’t recognisable underneath the bandages and masks prolonging her life. She was on the edge, in a coma. In the transition from Paris to Turin, she had fallen into a coma, the hospital had been her resting place in Italy. She hadn’t particularly liked Milan during their short stay half a dozen years ago, Janice wasn’t going to take well to Turin, either.

Mark, on that spot in the squeaky, uncomfortable hospital chair, had decided his retirement from football management. 

His wife’s life was going to be cruelly torn away from her at the age of thirty-nine. The majority of her life was ahead of her, until the cowardly hit and run debilitated her in the French capital two years ago, almost to the day.

April 23rd marked their fifteenth wedding anniversary. Flowers and chocolates, purely for decoration, were Janice’s presents. The life support was ticking along, with the permission granted for Mark to turn it off. He just couldn’t do it on his anniversary.

“We won Serie A again yesterday,” Mark whispers into Janice’s ears, “Kai scored two, we beat A.C. 3-1, yeah—I thought you’d like that. You were never much of a fan.” Mark’s talking grinds to a halt as a nurse walks in, she smiles politely before leaving as quickly as she entered the room.

“Three more games to go, Inter in the semis of the Champions League. This could be our year.” Mark cuts his own story short before its end, realising the futility of it.

He kisses his wife on the forehead, tears ebbing from his eyes onto her face. He whispers the final remarks that she would hear.

A switch of a button, the turning off of a life.

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Summer 2028

 

The endless voyage around continental Europe fell apart upon Janice’s death. Mark Stephens chose to return home, to Wales. Mark would miss two of Juventus’ final two league games as well as the Champions League semi-final victories over Inter Milan, a 2-1 and a 1-0, who were a long way back in second place in Serie A, but Juventus completed an undefeated season.

Their unbeaten record was currently at fifty-eight upon Mark’s departure from the club.

He left them with two more trophies, however, achieving yet another treble—he had made the grade as a manager, when injuries had forced him to be unable to do so in a playing capacity.

An injury time goal from Kai Kusters, five minutes into an allotted three sealed a controversial Coppa Italia against Napoli in a crazy 3-2 victory.

A week later, the triumphs continued, Mark Stephens regrettably humbling his former club, Manchester United. Kusters got three more to add to a tally that had grown to 64 for the season. A 5-0 hammering of Manchester United meant Stephens would retire from Italy as a success.

He would never work in Italy again.

Mark clutched his fourth miniature Champions League trophy with a tinge of sadness, but with overcoming joy as he sank into the sofa. Relieved yet alone.

The loud, severe vibration and shining light from the table beside the sofa, almost blinded and deafened Mark in the tranquil front room.

A text message.

‘FROM TOM’, the screen shows.

Greetings from Madrid! Just wanted to wish you good luck on your first day back at work.

 

 

LLANDUDNO

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September 20, 2028

 

Grass, faded pitch markings, a couple of rows of people, barely a grandstand to speak of, a tea lady as opposed to a fully-fledged catering service but the fundamental love of the sport remained.

The grass might not have been cut nor the pitch marked out to the best ability in the world but the football was still enjoyable. The atmosphere was just as good as ninety thousand in the Bernabeu. Millions wouldn’t believe you, but it was a fact. You just didn’t get to the closeness of the fans that you did at Llandudno or anywhere in the Welsh Premier League compared to Berlin’s Olympic Stadium, Wembley or the Nou Camp.

Stephens’ initial form at Llandudno was two wins in the League Cup and an unbeaten stretch in the league. That honeymoon phase was quelled by losses to Bangor and Carmarthen as Llandudno slid down to a more realistic fifth place in the league after seven points from a possible fifteen.

The games didn’t get easier, as the only professional Welsh club, TNS came to town. It took just seven minutes for Mark Stephens’ Llandudno to be breached by a Steve Morris goal.

Two minutes from time, the job was complete and TNS: The New Saints or Total Network Solutions or whatever you’d like to call them, had gotten the better of Llandudno.

With that, they leapfrogged Llandudno into fifth. The pokey old dressing room awaited for Stephens and his eleven warriors.

“That game just proved to me something that I had thought from my very first day here: you lot can win the league. You went toe to toe with eleven professionals today and you were the better team. Another two dozen games like that and you’ll be holding the title that belongs to them next door.”

Mark pointed to the away dressing room across the corridor. Both doors were open. The Llandudno players looked shocked at Stephens’ enthusiasm and confidence. The TNS players didn’t move a muscle, they were in complete silence, stunned by his words.

That day, the fear of the Welsh league was set in motion.

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November 11, 2028

 

Mark slammed the office’s only telephone down onto the desk with a white hot rage encapsulating his body. This elicited a jump from the club secretary whose office was within Mark’s managerial office, such was the monetary restraints at semi-professional Llandudno.

“The league won’t allow us another goalkeeper until January.” Mark mumbled to Sarah, the club’s secretary who was unresponsive for a moment.

The club’s only goalkeeper hobbled off the training pitch in one of the two week’s training sessions.

Mark violently punches in the number of his assistant manager into his mobile phone. A part-time estate agent, Craig, was on the other end, the incessant, echoing of the phone call bouncing back into Mark’s ear.

“Craig: return my call—you’re needed at the club. I’ll be back in a few weeks.” Mark hung up, without giving Sarah the courtesy of a goodbye or even an explanation.

Mark raged through the pebble strewn clubhouse car-park, furiously slamming the car door behind him, leaving the rocks squirting up against the back wall.

“Tom,” Mark had plugged his phone into his car’s hands-free system, “I’m going to Bruges for a bit, maybe I’ll follow that up with Amsterdam or Copenhagen or the Seychelles, I just need a break from Llandudno and this f*cking league.”

The goalkeeper was injured for five weeks so in Mark’s absence, Craig was entrusted with filling the goalkeeper’s jersey with somebody adequate. Nobody wanted to join temporarily, nor could the league supply somebody.

Craig went in goal.

Llandudno dropped from first position to sixth.

Ton Pentre were beaten in the League Cup and by the time TNS came back to town, Mark was to leave the day after. Although he wasn’t in a managerial capacity, he allowed Craig to take charge of the first match, Mark stood by as one of the hundred or so in attendance, in the back, to relieve stress. TNS climbed into a 3-0 lead that was clawed back to a goal’s deficit only for Owain Harvey to kill the game with a 4-2 win for the visitors.

Llandudno, and Mark Stephens, had some learning to do in the Welsh Premier League.

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April 7, 2029

 

Mark Stephens’ Llandudno were languishing in sixth place following the TNS defeat but by the time Craig had relinquished the reins of the club, back down to number two.

Craig’s miniature run of four games helped bring the goalkeeper back from recovery and Llandudno back into the European places, which was quietly Mark’s aim for the newly promoted club.

He wasn’t at the stage that he could instil any remote chance of confidence in his players, they were to play without fear but without cockiness and overconfidence.

Eight points from four games with Craig in charge were followed by another eight points from another four games as the ship was being commanded by Mark. Progression in the Welsh Cup helped push Llandudno’s position back up to fifth just in time for the league’s spliut.

The iron was simmering, Mark was quivering over the striking.

Bangor, Barry, Aberystwyth and even the almighty TNS were dismantled as 2028 became 2029. Only one team, the league’s leaders, Airbus UK, could stop them, in an against-all-odds 1-0 home loss.

Directly below Airbus and stuck on the same points as Aberystwyth in third, Mark Stephens was closing in on the Welsh Premier League crown as the cup quarter final opponents of Goytre was presented before Stephens.

When Allan Bees headed home for Goytre, Mark Stephens had already left the ground for an early night. 4-1 was the thrashing, Mark was already preparing for the TNS game in a month’s time.

The three games ahead, three prospective wins as Mark saw it, against Bangor, Barry and Airbus, and they were victories, weren’t as important.

Victories that propelled Llandudno to within a point of the Welsh Premier League. Firstly, though, was a double header against TNS.

The first of the marathon was a cup semi-final away from home.

Llandudno raced into a half-hour lead through Danny Carpenter-Menayese. The jubilation was quelled as quickly as it was initiated as Martin Green levelled terms.

The cup semi-final was balanced on a knife edge with just under an hour to play.

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May 2, 2029

 

The clock was edging closer and closer to the half-time comfort zone. The Welsh Cup final was a goal and forty-five minutes away and the biggest dog left in that fight was the one right in front of Llandudno and Mark Stephens on that particular day.

Whoever won this match, won the Welsh Cup.

A lunging tackle on the far right wing from Asa Whitehouse provided a late first half lifeline for TNS, a corner in stoppage time.

Eleven men back for the corner, anything to preserve the parity in the cup tie. The ball wasn’t a dangerous ball in, it didn’t even make it past the first red shirt, the wild, callous swing at the ball with Steffan Edwards’ wrong boot that insured the subsequent frenzy.

The sliced right footed clearance almost caught the Llandudno goalkeeper unawares but the number one’s fingernails grazed the ball out of harm’s way, but only temporarily. A green shirt on the back post, lifted the ball back into the sixteen man melee.

Heads clashed and the ball spills out to the green number eight. Alex Harris. A short run up, eyes down on the ball, a punt and nothing more. The net almost burst. TNS scrape the win on the stroke of half-time, cup holders incumbent.

Mark Stephens had seven days before TNS would return the favour, travelling up to Llandudno. Just one point separated Llandudno from unseating TNS as the Welsh champions.

The 45 minutes it took to cripple Llandudno’s league and cup double bid was all it took to effectively crown new champions.

Steffan Edwards scuffed a tap in through the TNS goalkeeper on the half-hour mark before two goals in ten minutes from Asa Whitehouse and Howard Barnard opened up a three-goal advantage.

A fourth from Graeme Wynne late on put the cherry on the icing of the Welsh Premier League cake. Llandudno would close the season out with an ignominious 3-1 home defeat to Aberystwyth, putting a slight blemish on the title record; a three-point gap to Aberystwyth.

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August 1, 2029

 

The Llandudno fans, great as they are, the ones that could afford and were dedicated enough and there wasn’t the dozens of thousands that Stephens was used to in the droves to every pocket of Europe. 

Of course, you couldn’t compare Llandudno to the Real Madrids and Manchester Uniteds of this world. You could fit all of the dedicated Llandudno fans on a single coach.

So they did.

They got a fantastic summer holiday out of the deal of winning the Welsh Premier League, Mark Stephens brought Europe to Wales. No Welsh Premier League club had progressed into the Champions League proper or anywhere near the latter stages of the Europa League or UEFA Cup.

Mark Stephens gifted the 42 Llandudno fans in the coach a two-month summer holiday. They were given the sunny coasts of Gibraltar and Croatia as well as a Scandinavian capital.

2-1 was hardly the biggest advantage to take to Gibraltar in the first qualifier’s second leg. A goal for the Lincoln Red Imps could end any European aspirations for Llandudno at the first hurdle.

Luckily, for the travelling contingent on the Mediterranean coast, Graeme Wynne quashed any hopes of a Gibraltan team in the second bunch of qualifiers. Wynne’s exquisite strike from 30 yards killed the game off with Lincoln needing three goals to qualify inside of ninety minutes.

Another away second leg could be detrimental as the forty-two, plus a couple of stragglers in Helsinki, followed Mark and Llandudno to Finland on a 1-1 aggregate. Rameer Karamousis’ opener was cancelled out by Toni Posio’s late equaliser.

HJK Helsinki were huge favourites going into the mild conditions in the Finnish summer. Jordan Fowler and Tom Forss traded goals in a first half that had extra time and penalties beckoning. Danny Carpenter-Menayese’s late first half goal gave Llandudno a crucial advantage. HJK would need two more.

When Asa Whitehouse’s fluke of a cross sailed over the HJK’s keeper, they needed three. They got two. Llandudno moved onto Zagreb on the away goals rule.

They moved onto Zagreb via a stalemate of a first leg. Again, Llandudno were underdogs and the numbers grew to three figures. There was a small Welsh invasion of Croatia.

The summer had crept up on Mark Stephens and his scouting staff. The small break afforded to them in between the HJK Helsinki triumph and the 0-0 tie at home to Dinamo Zagreb allowed them to stock up on transfers, improvements.

Ian Murray, a thirty-one centre back was soon followed by his would-be defensive partner in Colin Evans, with 19-year old Lee Cook in the sticks behind them. The attacking midfield voids were filled. Jon Dixon, Barry Hughes and Cardiff Met Uni’s Jack Hollingshead were all snapped up. The spree was finalised with the two freebies of Alex Spendiff and Paul Maurice-Jones.

Unfortunately, only a few of these could be added to the European squad in time for Zagreb.

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August 28, 2029

 

Half-time in the Maksimir Stadium in Zagreb. Dinamo Zagreb led the minnows of Llandudno 1-0.

Toni Hadjuk had converted from the spot twenty minutes into the second leg showdown in Croatia. Dinamo Zagreb had destroyed Llandudno in the first half, so much so that their half didn’t need a re-treading in the fifteen minute break.

Mark stood immortal in the centre of the dressing gown, eighteen of his players ringed around him. He was calm, normal breathing. He had no reason to be angry at his players, nobody was expecting qualification. That didn’t mean that Mark didn’t crave that qualification.

Advancing to the play-off round ensured European football until at least December via the Europa League group stage if they lost, or the Champions League if they prevailed.

“Forty-five minutes stands between us and another taste of Champions League football, European football. Do you want that a la carte menu in two weeks’ time? Or do you want nothing but rainy days in Rhyl? Or Prestatyn?” Mark’s tone was low and measured.

He scanned the room. A boy amongst men sat in the middle, his knees clasped together with the smallest possible room for movement. Tom. Sixteen year old Tom Stephens.

“Asa, we need your pace on the right. That will terrify their tired legs in the final twenty, twenty-five minutes. Tom, feed on every scraps that he and Danny give you. One goal. One goal is all we need. I don’t want to have to look forward to The New effing Saints being our biggest game of the season.”

“Have you been to the Bernabeu? The Allianz Arena, to Old Trafford or Stamford Bridge? This goal takes you there."

In the middle of it all was his sixteen year old son drinking all of these words in. So, eight minutes from time, Tom took a dive in the penalty area and the referee bought it. Tom dusting himself down and placed the ball on the spot.

His legs were wide apart, still quivering, his toes balanced on the edge of the penalty area’s paint. The goalkeeper filled the entire goal in front of him. He steadied himself, a large deep breath and closed his eyes.

The Welsh roar. He glanced at the dark Zagreb skies for the scoreboard.

In flash they had turned across to the handful of Israelis on the outskirts of the Llandudno ground, blue and white flares on the go. Maccabi Tel-Aviv had sauntered into a 1-0 lead inside of three minutes in the play-off round.

The now five hundred following Llandudno had taken to Tel-Aviv were jumping, regardless of the score as Tom Stephens netted an equaliser. An equaliser that was only on the night. Tom had cancelled out Robi Zohar’s 13th minute goal, Llandudno still needed a further goal to take them into the Champions League group stages.

Moshe Vera put Maccabi back into a strong 3-1 position after the break and even Tom’s second of the evening, a strong feat for a sixteen-year old, wasn’t enough as Maccabi ran out 3-2 winners on aggregate.

Llandudno now have £5.5million in the bank and the Europa League awaits.

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October 25, 2029

 

Arsenal. It had to be Arsenal: the favourites to win the Europa League among teams such as the two Milan rivals and Athletic Bilbao. It was close to home, as was FC Midtjylland of Denmark, in relative terms compared to Kuban Krasnodar, the fourth team in Mark Stephens’ group.

Domestically, Mark Stephens was steering Llandudno into another league title, gaining eight wins and a draw out of nine, opening up a seven point lead over Aberystwyth, TNS and Airbus who were all stumbling over each other for the league.

In terms of the League Cup, Llandudno had trounced all before them. TNS were in the final eight, stood in their way. TNS scored three but Lladudno scored eight. Five of those were from Tom. He was averaging two goals a game in the league.

After an away win at Aberystwyth, a 2-0 battering thanks to two goals from Tom, Mark had to pull him to one side.

“Stop scoring. Premier League clubs will come knocking and the chairman will not reject any bids for you, he wants the money.” Mark’s tone was levelled, grave.

“Trust me Dad, even if they did, I would be staying here. 21 and done, remember?” Mark had to smile. They had signed a five-year contract. A lot can change in five years. Five years ago Mark Stephens was coaching Real Madrid.

That didn’t stop Tom notching three goals in two Europa League games. One came in a home loss against Midtjylland, two more to take a 2-0 lead at Kuban Krasnodar.

The confidence taken to the third matchday and to the Emirates and a potential qualification from the group would have been huge. It was a second half capitulation, however.

Krasnodar scored three in the second half, Llandudno had two matches against the mighty Arsenal. Krasnodar had already stretched their deficit to six points from Llandudno in the 4:30p.m. kick off with a win at home to Midjtylland.

Arsenal taught Llandudno a footballing lesson at the Emirates.

Nine.

Nil.

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December 13, 2029

 

Thirteen seconds. Arsenal turned up to little old Llandudno, the population of which could probably fit inside the Emirates and it took just thirteen seconds.

Thirteen seconds for a loose Arsenal back pass to find Tom Stephens and for Tom Stephens to drill Llandudno into an unlikely lead.

The newly fitted scoreboard on a barely-built grandstand, all sanctioned by the £5.5m influx from European football read ‘Llandudno 1 Arsenal 0.’ Wales was stunned, social media had their popcorn ready for Arsenal Fan TV. The half-time whistle blew and Llandudno still led Arsenal.

They had barely ventured into Arsenal’s half, their players couldn’t see the opposition’s goalposts never mind smell a chance of a second goal. Llandudno were pulverised but remained solid, or rather Arsenal didn’t have their shooting boots on.

Of seventeen first half efforts, three made the target, of those three, two were blocked, of the remaining one, a deflected shot trickled through to the Llandudno goalkeeper.

Mark remained silent for fourteen minutes and fifty seconds in the home dressing room at half-time.

“Same again, please,” were the only three words he uttered to his playing staff. Not another mutter. The players were rejuvenated. Forty-five minutes away from beating the almighty Arsenal.

Llandudno’s eleven did not give Mark the same again as three goals were shipped inside the opening ten second half minutes. Andy Marsh perpetrated all three of them, scoring a late fourth as well.

The other two fixtures, with Llandudno’s dismissal from the competition confirmed, fell in similar fashion to the reverse. Midtjylland netted two in a win in Denmark over Stephens’ men whilst Krasnodar snuck a late 3-2 win in Llandudno.

There was nothing to be ashamed of. 0 from a possible 18, but each of those games was a learning curve. The Champions League would swing back around in June. There was just the matter of winning the League to climb back into Europe.

The same three of Aberystwyth, Airbus and TNS were all fighting amongst themselves whilst Llandudno had raced into a ten-point lead with sixteen games played. They progressed in both cups.

The next time Llandudno played in the League Cup would be the final in late January against Airbus UK.

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January 27, 2030

 

It was a tense tie, not too similar to any Welsh games that Llandudno had experienced under Mark. Things were tight in the opening half of his first season in charge but from then on in, with the improvement window-on-window to his playing staff, Llandudno have coasted in Wales.

Airbus had dropped away in terms of the league picture, they were hovering in fourth place but were 18 points off Llandudno. The League Cup final was the perfect place for revenge.

Mark Stephens was at his most determined, having not captured either cup in his opening season, with TNS getting the better of him in that respect.

Llandudno hadn’t lost in the league yet, but the gap to TNS had halved from ten to five points in six games. Over the Christmas period, Llandudno had won just two out of six games, a 4-1 thrashing of Connah’s Quay, with a similarly comfortable 3-0 in the reverse fixture three weeks later.

Aberystwyth, Pen-y-Bont, Rhyl and Barry had all held Llandudno to draws. The Rhyl blemish was the most galling, having being 3-0 up after an hour played. Mark rested big players and took bigger players off the picture for the final thirty minutes. Rhyl clawed three goals back and TNS’ win over Aberystwyth dragged the gap to four points. Luckily, they would lose at Connah’s Quay with Llandudno’s draw at home to Barry edging them five points clear.

Mark Stephens had to search his bench for the final twenty minutes. Tom was lagging up front and Asa Whitehouse was just as bad, and couldn’t supply him within anything of note. Jon Dixon was flung on in exchange for Asa.

Jon picked up the ball, fifty yards from goal, looking for a fatigued Tom Stephens up front with just two Airbus defenders in their way.

Airbus had planted eleven men behind the ball until Mark forced their hand with the Jon Dixon substitution. Airbus matched them, reverting to a 3-4-1-2 formation.

They crumbled.

A failed first time pass to Tom was intercepted in an inconclusive manner, as it bounced back out to Jon Dixon 20 yards from goal. The defender slipped on the wet January turf, allowing both Jon and Tom free reign on the goalmouth.

The goalkeeper was terrified.

Jon slipped the ball home. A winning goal. Mark saw the Airbus plan of attack, the late snatch and grab, had failed and he had forced them into danger. He closed the game up, placing the two wingers as full backs, playing a 6-3-1, forcing the faltering Airbus frontline on them.

They couldn’t get a shot in.

Mark’s second piece of silverware in Wales.

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March 23, 2030

 

The thirties were proving to be a fruitful decade for Mark Stephens already. He had nurtured Tom into the first team, gained League Cup glory in its first month and was closing in on the league title.

They had seen off Bangor in the fourth round of the cup a week after the League Cup triumph and then had them to thank for rolling over in the league four days later, a 4-0 humiliation. The real test, if you could call it that for Mark Stephens in the Welsh Premier League, was TNS away from home.

A draw for their rivals in their previous game opened the gap to seven points. A win would re-establish the double-figure margin gained within December last year.

TNS traded goals Llandudno quite well in the opening rounds of the slug fest, so much so that Mark changed tact. 2-1 down at half-time in a game that had major implications of the title race, he opted for a 4-2-4. Within fifteen minutes, Llandudno had turned it around. 4-2. A win away at Aberystwyth turned the gap that was five points three weeks ago into one that was twelve points.

Airbus held them, Connah’s Quay couldn’t the week after though, the gap grew. Llandudno travelled to Bangor, still undefeated. The ship sunk. 2-0 defeat, completely innocuous. The title party had to be re-scheduled. Aberystwyth at home and Tom Stephens was sidelined with a stomach bug.

By the time Tom was thrown into the action at half-time, he was only doing so to maintain a lead, to retain his match fitness with what was to come: the latter stages of the cup run, after Llandudno’s 2-1 quarter final win over TNS. Tom added a third to a comfortable afternoon. Mark was a Welsh champion again.

The celebrations were all over the pitch: fans and supporters queuing to worship at the Stephens’ feet. Mark’s eleventh league title was footnoted with a board meeting the following day.

Six million was in the bank, it was time for the club to go professional.

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July 2, 2030

 

Connah’s Quay? Not a problem in the cup semi-final. Two late goals from Tom Stephens helped his father to the final—the third step of the Welsh treble. They weren’t a problem in the league, either. Llandudno grabbed four points from the remaining two games, ensuring a fourteen-point advantage over TNS, and fifteen from Airbus.

Tom had already secured, with the helping of the board’s decision to go professional, the signings of a fresh new team for the 2030/31 season. They would be announced at the full-time whistle should little old Rhyl be conquered in the Welsh Cup final.

Goals from Jack Hollingshead and an own goal from Colin Davies inside the opening twenty minutes meant that nine of the thirteen signings Mark would make that summer were paraded at half time.

Jon Dixon and Tom sealed the formalities in the second half. A 4-0 demolition. A new treble.

The summer meant releasing some dead wood and another assistant manager, the third in three summers Mark had to appoint. With the advent of the club’s professional status, the club’s playing staff would be more stable.

Mark brought youth into the club. Barring two goalkeeping acquisitions, every player was under the age of 23, Cameron Wickham, a £37,000 signing from Fleetwood, the oldest outfield signing. Callum Preston at 34 and Steve Smith at 25 were signed in goal. The biggest fee paid over the summer was £240,000 to Preston for attacking midfielder Frank Fisher whilst another £210,000 headed towards Preston for Ben Egan, a 21-year old winger.

The backline was filled out by Mark Gee and Greg McCourt, from Ebbsfleet and Bolton respectively whilst Martin O’Flaherty, a back-up for Tom Stephens up front was the only free signing.

A total of £770,000 drifted out of the club as Sutjeska of Montenegro were drawn in the Champions League qualifiers, justifying the spending. Meanwhile, Mark was reviewing his future.

“I’m going for an extended leave,” Mark mentioned to his son Tom, in the manager’s new office, where he wouldn’t be disturbed, “I need a favour from you.”

A normal seventeen year old might have stomped his feet in a mood or grumbled, looking towards the floor. But fresh from a hot, sweaty pre-season workout in a local gym with the other players, was prepared to front anything.

“I need you to start your coaching badges. I want you to co-manage this club. Whenever we get knocked out in Europe, thinking about December to March time? I’ll come back for the business end of the season to keep things ticking along?” Mark stared straight into his son’s eyes, expectant.

“You want a 17-year old to be a football manager?”

“It’s inherited. We’re much bigger than this club. I’ve won four Champions Leagues, I shouldn’t be here, I came for a quiet aside, to get away from it all—you know that. It’s just, I didn’t expect it to be this quiet, and well, easy. I’ll come back for the end of season, the European games—the ones that mean something. You’ll still be playing by the way, player-manager.” Mark was almost beginning to plead with his son.

“Okay.” Tom murmured, stroking a non-existent beard.

“I’ll temporarily retire in January, just after the League Cup final, go away for a few months—or weeks if we’re still in Europe.”

“I said okay, Dad.” Mark jumped up at the first chance, shaking his son’s hand.

“You start your course tomorrow! I expect some qualifications by the time I take my leave. Let’s call it annual leave.” Mark was overjoyed.

“Who is she?” Tom plucked from nowhere, stunning Mark.

“Don’t be daft.” Mark’s smile was soured slightly but returned when met with a laugh of Tom’s own.

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Fresh off the birth of my baby boy, here's the continuation of The Rebuild:

 

 

 

 

August 21, 2030

 

6-1 was the result at home to the Montegrin side Sutjeska, almost leaving the second leg a formality. Mark didn’t play the strongest eleven in Montenegro but he was still aware of A.C. Milan in 2005, Paris Saint-Germain in 2017. Sutjeska raced into an early 2-0 lead. The omens were all there. Tom would score before the half-time break, thus killing the tie off.

FC Basel were next, easily the biggest team in this stage of qualifying. Tom saved Llandudno from humiliation in the first leg back in Wales. It was complete domination from the Swiss side, Roger Rapin heading a 35th minute opener. Tom would level things eight minutes from time. There was a lot to do in Switzerland.

Oliver Costa, what a hit. Mark could not fault Steve Smith in goal, but the goal did not change the complexion of the game all that much. Llandudno still needed a goal. Frank Fisher, from deep.

Frank drove from the halfway line with the ball, spraying it out wide to Asa Whitehouse before receiving it back on the edge of the area. He strode beyond a Basel defender, measuredly placing the ball in the opposite bottom corner with precision and power. Leveller.

The half-time team talk needed no effort from Mark. The game was in front of them, for the taking.

FC Basel came out for the second half on their heels, they were scared to push. They viewed Frank Fisher as a Franz Beckenbauer figure, runs from deep, he could hurt them.

In the end, it was the quiet, nippy seventeen year old Welsh forward that would kill them. Tom curled an effort from the edge of the box for his first and burnt three defenders for speed before clipping one over the goalkeeper for his second. He looked every bit of a Marcus Rashford, a Thierry Henry in his youth. 

Whatever the comparison, the 90th minute penalty in Belgrade for the third qualifying round was as crucial a moment as any. It was a tough game in Serbia for Mark and his Llandudno clan.

The following of 500 Welsh fans in attendance saw Partizan Belgrade saunter into a 2-0 half-time lead. Ben Egan plugged a goal back for Llandudno on the hour mark, with Tom’s last gasp penalty earning a second away goal and parity.

The only wish for the second leg was not to lose, that would guarantee progression unless Partizan and Llandudno tussled out a 3-3 or higher draw.

Sasa Milijkovic clattered home an early goal on the chilly North Wales coast. It never got warm here. The Llandudno fans were warmed by three goals in eight minutes, though.

Tom was tripped in the box but having misheard a whistle, the Partizan players stopped, allowing Tom to return to his feet and tuck away an equaliser. The second was, obviously, also from Tom Stephens, a header from a corner. For the first time in the tie, this put Llandudno in the enviable position of leading. Milan Kolakovic added a goal before the break.

Mark Stephens’ fears were coming true. 3-2 at half-time, it was entirely possible that the dreaded high scoring draw would cruelly knock Llandudno out. Llandudno were a fan of the away goals rule, it progressed them twice in last season’s qualifiers.

Cameron Wickham would quash any of these hopes almost immediately after the restart, returning the game to a two-goal deficit. Kolakovic added a third but Ben Egan’s late goal, amid a Partizan barrage, killed the game. 5-3, 7-5 on aggregate.

A return to Scandinavia was the treat for the play-off. The win over FC Basel in the second qualifying round granted Llandudno home second legs throughout, due to the acquisition of the Swiss club’s generous seeding.

Basel were the biggest club in the champions draw, Llandudno had nothing left to fear.

Those words, Mark Stephens’ half-time dressing room speech, rang true for the Llandudno players. They had beaten the best and one team stood in their way of the Champions League proper. The game had been a 0-0 stalemate with the promised Malmo onslaught missing.

14 minutes to go, Asa Whitehouse was torn apart in the penalty area, Tom converted the subsequent penalty. The 516 travelling fans inside the stadium and the near thousand outside, on the streets in Sweden, were jubilant. A stray ball minutes later saw only Tom Stephens and the Malmo goalkeeper occupying the Malmo half.

86 minutes were on the clock, two goals were in the Llandudno column. Malmo 0-2 Llandudno.

There wasn’t much to be sad about from a Llandudno perspective, except for an Adnan Sundstrom consolation goal two minutes into five added on.

In the fourth minute, a tired Frank Fisher leg tripped a Malmo player on the paint of the penalty box.

The referee’s whistle blew.

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Congratulations on your new arrival, and great work as always. :thup:

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4 hours ago, CFuller said:

Congratulations on your new arrival, and great work as always. :thup:

Ditto!

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August 29, 2030

 

A wasted free kick. Llandudno breathed again. They could return to North Wales with the advantage against the Swedish champions.

They opened up that advantage inside 73 seconds, a powerful Greg McCourt thumper of a header. A 3-1 aggregate lead was carried into half-time. For the first time, Mark Stephens could barely watch.

The intensity of the Champions League had been long desired for a man who has lifted a record four but not experienced for so long. He was so relieved to have it back, it was addictive. The group stage was the drug he needed to keep him sane in the Llandudno job. The Europa League did help, but it wasn’t the same effect, it was never the same impact.

That legendary anthem, the legendary teams.

Greg McCourt scored again on 57 minutes. The Malmo fans embraced each other in the crowd, an own goal which was followed by a Filip Blomdahl strike twenty minutes later that plunged Llandudno into doubt.

For the first time in Llandudno’s journey, in both years in the Champions League, was extra time and the prospect of penalties. They hadn’t trained for penalties and the youthful professional status of the club afforded them little to no stamina for such a situation.

The new scoreboard could barely fit the three figures needed to mark the clock. It struck one hundred and five. Almost in unison, the net burst, relieved Welsh minds.

Tom Stephens, the Llandudno saviour on so many occasions had done so again. This time, his goal was the biggest goal in the club’s history, in almost any Welsh Premier League club’s history.

The first Welsh team to ever play in the Champions League, cushioned with a £10 million payout.

The draw was never going to be easy, but like the Europa League the previous season, it was all a learning curve. To even think about taking a point or even a goal in a group containing Real Madrid, Bayer Leverkusen and Tottenham Hotspur, was ludicrous.

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September 17, 2030

 

The Tottenham Hotspur defence were flatfooted, the uneasy murmur of the New White Hart Lane crowd only helped to build confidence in Asa Whitehouse as he slides Tom Stephens through on goal.

The Champions League borders around the stadium, running around the pitch on the advertising boards, Tom Stephens could see his name already on the grandstand’s enormous scoreboard. The goalkeeper goes to ground, a second too early.

Tom lifts the ball over him. The ball rolls towards the gaping net. Hands behind the goal go to their heads in light disappointment.

Tom trotted away calmly, a couple of high fives. The obvious dejection at the result but Mark was incensed, he sprints down the touchline to his son, forgetting the fifty odd thousand in attendance.

“You just made history. Smile! You scored the first f*cking goal this club has scored in the Champions League!” Mark shouts, almost spits down his son’s throat.

He returns to his technical area with a cursory caution from the fourth official. He glances towards the scoreboard. Tottenham 5, Llandudno 1.

They would score three more.

Mark stood by his technical area for the remainder of the evening, even for a few minutes after the final whistle. He applauded every single Llandudno player that left that field. There was nothing to be ashamed about in a 8-1 defeat in their first Champions League game.

In two weeks’ time Bayer Leverkusen travelled to Llandudno. Well, to Wrexham where Llandudno would play their Champions League proper games.

The Racecourse Ground.

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December 10, 2030

 

Llandudno scored against Bayer Leverkusen.

They scored against Bayer Leverkusen and they improved upon their first Champions League result with Spurs to the tune of one goal. They conceded seven. In the following game they conceded six.

The following game, Mark Stephens joked afterwards in a press conference, an unfamiliarity for him at Llandudno, that their matchday three game finished 2-0.

Real Madrid had to wait twelve impatient minutes to get onto the scoresheet at home to the miniscule Llandudno. Furthermore, it was from the penalty spot. Barely a cheer or celebration lifted at the Bernabeu. The second one barely warranted an applause. 31 minutes, Llandudno had only shipped two goals.

Stephens barely received a welcome from the club he gifted a twelfth Champions League medal. Mark who? was the response around Madrid in the days from the win in La Coruna on Saturday to the Wednesday evening’s match against Wales’ champions.

At 2-0 things changed, however. Ben Egan was shown a red card for an overzealous challenge on Geovane on the near touchline. Carlo Ancelotti encroached on the pitch, forcing Mark to leap to his players’ defence. The two benches followed.

Seven minutes were added on for the near war that took place and saw four red cards in total. Llandudno were sent to nine men whilst Mark Stephens was in the stands as well as a member of Ancelotti’s coaching staff, but not Ancelotti himself.

Mark disclosed in the press conference that he hadn’t seen the remainder of the game.

“Six, nil,” said a Daily Mail ‘journalist’ with a wry scoff.

“Six, nil,” repeated Mark, “that’s not bad for a club that’s been professional for four months, is it?” Mark stood up, silently shooing away further questions whilst the ‘journalist’ continued gawping towards the stage.

Daily Mail would run with a front page and big two-page splash on pages four and five on the game and Stephens’ “foolish antics”.

He would not be welcomed for the following two European matches in Llandudno, where Llandudno shipped fourteen and returned none. They were assured of a wooden spoon finish, Mark was assured of a four-month holiday. Six fell at home to Madrid, another eight to Tottenham.

Leverkusen put six past Llandudno as the decimation of the Welsh club concluded in a frosty German December evening. Two goals scored in the group stages of the Champions League can be seen as a triumph.

And as Mark viewed whilst trawling through social media that evening, the December 11th back page of the Daily Mail would run with:  “£16M—a triumph?”

The weekday arrangements had somewhat gassed Mark’s Llandudno team. With sixteen games gone in the league, they were still atop the league ladder: that goes without saying, but the deficit to Airbus was just fourteen goals. They were booked in with two successive cup outings in January, the League Cup final against TNS and a fourth round Welsh Cup clash of the titans against Chirk.

Mark had to look them up to know who they were.

He relinquished the Scottish Challenge Cup, fielding a team of youngsters and coaching staff. They put up a good effort—3-2 away at Livingston. He didn’t care much for the cup, having decided that with a much bolstered squad, following the windfall they experienced, they would go at it again.

 

 

BOARDING AT GATE FIVE, THE ZERO-THREE FORTY-FIVE FLIGHT TO AMSTERDAM

 

 

Mark greeted a silhouette in the departure lounge in Manchester Airport, slinking out of the room, their suitcases graze together.

Somewhere warm, whilst his teenage son coaches 23 men in a wintery North Wales to a league title.

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February 1, 2031      

 

“Look,” Mark stands in front of the Llandudno chairman, with a freshly topped up tan, “I will be back for the run in. Tom is doing fine. I know he’s only a kid but they’ll come back around. This league will probably be won by the time I’m back.”

“Do you think that these are the actions of a professional football manager?” Lawrence, the chairman, stands to meet Mark a couple of feet away.

“Did you have twenty-five million in the bank? Did you even dream of taking your club to the Bernabeu?” Without waiting for a response, Mark is back in the stands in Holywell for the League Cup final. Llandudno were 2-0 up at the half-time break against TNS with goals through Cameron Wickham and Danny Carpenter-Menayese. A third goal would seal another piece of silverware.

It took three minutes and a fabulous piece of trickery from Frank Fisher. A feint to his right freed up a metre of space on the edge of the penalty area. The powerful right footed shot, net burst, repeat. Ben Egan followed that with a similarly emphatic goal eleven minutes from time. 4-1.

Mark Stephens was back on a Lufthansa flight from Berlin to Chicago to continue his world tour by the time Tom had guided the Llandudno side to a 5-0 Welsh Cup win over Chirk. Tom scored four of those goals.

They had dropped to five points behind Airbus in the league with 22 matches played. Mark believed that his prolonged absence would not only galvanise the players further to get him to return, but set Tom Stephens up for a further career in management.

They would draw the following league game 3-3 with Cefn Druids.

Mark would be back for the title coronation.

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May 10, 2031

 

The league title for Llandudno was won when they were still in second place. That juxtaposition didn’t take into account the fear that was instilled in the league leaders of Airbus when they came to Llandudno and got battered like the fish on the North Welsh coast.

Three goals, one from Egan, one from Menayese and the other from Tom, the gap was cut to two points. Airbus would lose the next three games in a row with Llandudno doing the reverse. Thirteen goals with one concession resulted in Llandudno being seven points clear with five games remaining. Even limping over the finishing line was extending their lead at the top. Another loss from Airbus meant a 2-2 home draw with TNS turned their lead at the top to eight points with four games remaining.

Two wins were needed.

In actuality, the next game was all that was needed. Mark Stephens returned a new man, on the Airbus touchline with a new piece of jewellery. A fresh gold-plated wedding ring was being chewed on as Tom placed the ball on the spot.

Fourteen minutes from time, Llandudno were level with Airbus. Should the penalty be converted, Llandudno would reclaim the Welsh Premier League. Mark turned his back on the game, he focuses into the sea green Deep South eyes of a woman out of her element in the grandstand.

A roar around the blonde haired woman, her confusion is the contrast of her jubilant husband on the sideline. Her son-in-law had just won the league title for Llandudno.

Nine points from the previous four games provided a perfect denouement for Llandudno in the league, with a cup final promised in Porthmadog against Aberystwyth. After the 2-1 win, Mark would donate his cup final winners’ medal to his new wife.

Karen.

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August 28, 2031

 

Albania’s Kukesi and Gibraltar’s Lincoln Red Imps were disposed of. The Champions League’s earlier qualification rounds had become an afterthought just like the domestic scene for Llandudno. So much so that Mark had agreed to relinquish control to his son on an annual basis from Christmas to April should no action across Europe be needed.

If it is, Mark leaves the day upon Llandudno’s European exit and returns in time for the crucial few games. He knew he couldn’t time it as late as last season, as perfect as winning the title was the day of his return, four games from the end was too close of a call and needed a stirring fightback in March. That was all down to Tom.

He has come on in leaps and bounds since his perilous opening few games as player-manager.

He was getting itchy feet, however. Bids from clubs of high stature began to stream in. Stoke City and Rangers tabled bids of £1.9 million or higher. Mark knew it wouldn’t be long before Tom was to leave. The chairman took it upon himself to accept the bids but after deep, late night conversations, especially on the flight back from Belgium after a 3-2 loss against Anderlecht, persuaded Tom into staying on until his contract’s end.

2036.

An 85th minute own goal sealed an away goals rule victory against Anderlecht. Mark jokingly began plans to erect a statue of Killian Goffin outside the stadium as they sailed through 4-4 on aggregate. This fed Llandudno into Ukraine. Alex Iwobi fired Shakhtar into a 1-0 half-time lead against nine Llandudno jerseys.

A mountainous challenge was made into a molehill thanks to the brilliant Tom Stephens. A stunning thirty yard strike forty-five seconds into the second half with a tap in ninety seconds from the end of the game. A 2-1 away win in Ukraine only serve to inflame the interest in Tom. Tottenham’s £3 million bid and multi-million three-year contract was shooed away by both Mark and Tom.

Chelsea were sniffing. Tom would sample the Stamford Bridge atmosphere in mid-December after drawing them in the group stages of the Champions League. An Alex Spendiff winner against Shakhtar Donetsk gave Llandudno another group of death.

Chelsea.

Benfica.

Olympique Lyonnais.

Llandudno were saving up for the season after. A meagre £58,000 was spent on transfers that included another assistant manager on a one-year contract. Assistant managers didn’t want to work under a teenager for half a season, apparently.

The defence and midfield was almost entirely changed again, with Chris Freakes’ £54,000 switch from Coventry City to North Wales the only amount of money Mark dished out.

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September 21, 2031

 

The red of the Benfica shirt and the hum of the impatient and restless largely Portuguese crowd stood on their toes. Ruben Neves strode up to the penalty spot and lashed the kick against the post.

The inside of the post, and then in. A ripple of applause, some cheers, muted from the visibly annoyed players. Benfica would win 2-0, even some jeers could be heard at full-time, the frustration at not being able to put a cricket score on the pitch against the lowly Llandudno.

In a couple of weeks, Chelsea did the same. Their travelling fans weren’t as impatient but there were a few murmurs by the time Paulo Rogerio headed home on 24 minutes. A Sunday Musa penalty and another strike from Rogerio left them content within the half-time mark. Llandudno were still without a Champions League goal for the season and any hope of the Europa League was all but extinguished by the time they visited France.

Olympique Lyonnais went down to ten men after the half hour mark with the scores locked at 0-0. This was the perfect time for Llandudno to capitalise on the advantage. Chelsea were beating Benfica at Stamford Bridge, meaning a win in Lyon would put three teams on 3 points with Chelsea as the lone horse on a maximum of nine.

A Yanis Delabarre deflected effort from 25 yards had different ideas. Lyon won. Llandudno were now six points off Champions League qualification and four from being dipped into the Europa League.

Llandudno were through in the League Cup and Challenge Cup and after losses away at Rhyl and Aberystwyth, Mark Stephens’ side were a point behind Airbus UK.

The time between now and Mark’s extended absence on December 16th was about two things—building an unassailable lead in the league and progressing in Europe.

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December 15, 2031

 

Of course, progressing in Europe was of higher importance and Lyon came to visit Llandudno. The entire town got in board with Mark’s idea of making the Lyon fans and players feel unwelcome.

They tried every trick in the book: bombardment of the team coach, setting off the fire alarms in the team’s hotel every two hours the night before the game.

Six minutes in, the transformed town had seen to have worked a treat. A mistake from a Lyon defence caught flat footed saw Tom Stephens dance in behind him, clipping the ball beyond the goalkeeper to put Llandudno into a 1-0 lead and put three points between them and Lyon as Chelsea and Benfica drew again, a win over Benfica would see them overtake them and go into third.

Two league games were easily bypassed without the concession of a goal and courtesy of a major Airbus slippage, Llandudno sauntered into a four-point lead at the top of the league. A meagre two goals against Pen-y-Bont was diminished by the local media but Mark had told Llandudno to play at 50%, they couldn’t afford the luxury of using a non-existent youth team.

Benfica came to Llandudno and were given the same, warm welcome as Lyon did in a few weeks prior. A win would make Europa League qualification easier, what with Lyon’s trip to Benfica proving crucial to Llandudno. A trip to Stamford Bridge was hardly a likely three points.

The full-time whistle blew without much of the typical Benfica onslaught that they had to come to expect. A nil-all stalemate. Llandudno couldn’t further themselves in the Champions League due to Lyon’s win over Chelsea but a win over Chelsea and another Lyon victory would mean the Europa League.

A 3-0 win in Portugal held up Lyon’s side of the bargain. Llandudno had the small task of taking on one of Europe’s elite in their own back yard and winning. With a Benfica win able to unseat Chelsea from qualification, they needed a win of their own.

They brought every weapon to the fight and by the seventieth minute had to resort to an actual fight.

A high tackle in the middle of the pitch by Brynn Prosser followed by the push and shove and ensuing seventeen man brawl ended in red. Chelsea were down to ten. The numerical advantage didn’t seem to have an effect despite Stamford Bridge practically roaring the Lyon win to their own players. 

Chelsea didn’t need to win anymore, Lyon’s 3-0 advantage of Benfica was enough to see them through. They still huffed and puffed, in unison with the crowd baying for blood.

On one such huff, the only player in Chelsea’s half was their goalkeeper, a panicked clearance from Tom Stephens saw the ball in between the goalkeeper and the halfway line.

Also, was Stephen Kimble, who burst from the pack of Chelsea players behind him to find himself with the entire half to work with. Had Gary Neville been on commentary that night, he would have groaned from Kimble picking the ball up right the way to Kimble sticking the ball beyond the goalkeeper.

A minute from time, Llandudno had stolen a win from Chelsea and, in turn, stolen a Europa League knockout place from Benfica.

Five league wins in and amongst this successful Champions League run had widened the gap to nine points from Airbus and Connah’s Quay with a League Cup final, a Challenge Cup semi-final and a Welsh Cup fourth round to look forward to in the new year.

Mark would be back for the flight to Switzerland in February: F.C. Basel.

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February 1, 2032

 

Twenty-five goals inside three games gave Llandudno a fantastic start to the festive period. Eight against Barry Town and Airbus UK sandwiched a 9-0 thrashing of Connah’s Quay. The league victories continued under Tom Stephens.

Another victory over Airbus, a third of the season practically gifted Llandudno the league title in December. They were twenty points clear prior to the cup double header in late January thanks to further victories over Port Talbot and Aberystwyth, without concession. In fact, in this entire period, Llandudno had shipped just one goal.

I’ve watched every game. I’m giving you the final.” Tom’s phone lit up the morning after the away win in Port Talbot. Tom’s face smacked of a resignation, a contrast to his previous twenty-four hours.

A win in Port Talbot and a quick 160 mile drive from South to North Wales followed, he made it home for a 9pm kick off with Scarlett Appleyard.

The hazel eyes and auburn hair, being cuddled by a tight, knitted grey scarf gave her colour in a colourless driveway. Scarlett was slumped on the boot of one car with her legs on the bonnet of the other.

All that was needed was that devilish smile.

Tom remembered that night as he stood on the lightly chalked penalty spot. The League Cup final, nineteen minutes in. A cowardly goalkeeper stood in front of him. In Tom’s mind it was already two nil.

A calm stroke into the bottom right hand corner, Tom could resume fantasising about that night in Llandudno the previous week.

Frank Fisher netted a third after 26 minutes and Tom allowed himself the substitution, given the swollen advantage. Connah’s Quay would gain a goal back but would offer no threat to another League Cup crown for Llandudno.

Tom would relinquish control on the management side of things with the return of the Europa League later that month. FC Basel in the round of 32, but first he focussed his mind towards a 3-0 away Welsh Cup win over Presteigne.

“All I have to say,” Tom muttered over the muted Welsh Cup celebrations in the dressing room, “let’s go for the quintuple. Challenge Cup, Welsh Cup, League.”

“Europa League.” The dressing room died.

The league was almost a given whilst the League Cup was already won, the Welsh Cup and Scottish Challenge Cup were almost formalities.

Tom’s message quivered through the air as he mentioned the most difficult task of the remaining four for they weren’t his words but his father’s.

A foreshadowing from the man upstairs of what his players needed to be.

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March 18, 2032

 

The full-time whistle sounded. The Llandudno faithful were nervy, almost a collective shivering as their European dreams hung firmly in the balance. A 2-1 win in Switzerland over FC Basel had been returned in North Wales and now the mattered had to be settled with extra time and the possibility of penalties.

By this point, the league had been long sealed, with a 3-1 away win at nearest rivals Airbus UK. February 10th. Mark had made progress finely in the Scottish Challenge Cup and the Welsh Cup, Bangor the victims in Wales, Ross County the victims in Scotland.

Five goals from Tom Stephens settled a wild game in the Highlands, a 5-4 extra time victory. Those circumstances, four days later, had to be reconstructed. Five minutes had to pass before Tom got his first opportunity at goal.

Frank Fisher turned from scorer to provider, threading a through ball beyond a gaping Basel defence. Tom clipped the ball, first time, over the onrushing goalkeeper from 25 yards. They edged through 4-3 on aggregate. Monaco were next.

A win over Cefn Druids meant nothing to Mark Stephens, he put out a younger eleven, and they came up trumps 4-1, his B team would thrash their Welsh Cup semi-final opponents 5-2 the following week.

By that point, Llandudno had fire in their bellies, a belief that they could make the Europa League quarter finals.

Half-time on the southern coast of France, encased in the Monaco principality at the King Louis II Stadium, was a deadlock. A deadlock in scores at 1-1 but not a deadlock in numbers on the field. Llandudno were one ahead in that regard thanks to a Bryan Mathieu sending off sixteen minutes in.

Cameron Wickham had cancelled out an Ugo Roger opener. Whispers and murmurs from the Llandudno fans in the return leg, a belief, might have led you, the reader, to believe Monaco’s two second half goals in the first leg.

Llandudno had two goals to recover in North Wales. On the cusp of a five-trophy haul, there was undiluted confidence. Two more goals from Ugo Roger, following up from a first leg hat-trick, had the tie sewn up within fourteen minutes. 5-1 on aggregate and Llandudno were dumped out at the last sixteen stage.

The remainder of the season felt empty to the Stephens’. Mark had rediscovered use of a holiday home in the French Polynesia.

A Welsh Cup win over Aberystwyth. 3-0. A Challenge Cup win over Livingston. 3-1. Trading two wins for two losses in the league had Llandudno limp over the finishing line with 82 points in the league.

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September 15, 2032

 

Mark quarterbacked the pre-season transfer dealings from a heavily wi-fi’d corner of the French Polynesia. The warmest winter he had experienced yet. Straw houses, azure blue seas and over a million pounds spent on players boosted the confidence for any man in the Welsh Premier League. That wasn’t necessary in Llandudno.

Karen saw that entire winter through sunglasses and a mojito in hand, Mark likewise but with a business hat on. Tom was the puppet throughout pre-season. Mark only returned upon the draw for the Champions League’s group stages.

Mark’s excitement for a return to a former club was insatiable.

Flora Tallinn, Stromgodset and Red Star Belgrade—a Welsh tour of Europe running through the course of July and August, vast experience gained by Tom in a coaching capacity.

Schalke and Benfica were perhaps beatable on Llandudno’s finest day. The final club, however, the almighty Manchester United, were not, Mark admitted. The short trip to Manchester, though, pleased him thoroughly.

A twelve-minute goal glut from Benfica destroyed any hopes on matchday one, a three-goal demolition of the Welsh club.

Mark Stephens had set up his home and away matches almost identically. The points in this group were to be gained at home, not at the homes of the three European giants ahead of them, all of which had won a European final at some point in their history.

Maximum points were secured in the league and a League Cup qualification was mustered and in two weeks’ time, the welcoming committee of Manchester would arrive in North Wales.

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November 3, 2032

 

And it’s Damian Marriott, making history for Llandudno. Sixty-four minutes in, the Llandudno fans cannot function their limbs, it is miniature Llandudno one, the gigantic Manchester United one.” The BBC Radio Cymru commentator screeched at the top of his voice, a would-be viral sensation echoed throughout the arena.

The parity lasted all of two minutes. Hamid Amrouche devastated the North Welsh club with two quickfire goals. The belief at Llandudno was sinking. With a likely double over Benfica to come, Manchester United had monopoly over the group and Llandudno were bottom feeders.

Gelsenkirchen. Four minutes in and the full-to-the-brim crowd at the VELTINS-arena were hushed. A bipolar pocket of the stadium ruptured into a frenzy, ten red shirts hovered around the corner flags, becoming giants with the pride and confidence that an opening goal brought.

Bursting out of the crowd for the quick restart was Tom Stephens, a smile as wide as the Severn Tunnel. A half hour later, Llandudno succumb to a formality, a Patrick Helmer strike from long distance that had caught the goalkeeper off guard.

Scott Frizzell almost clawed a lead back for Llandudno with their second shot prior to the break, a close range effort that should’ve been put away. A third shot after the half, however, regained the lead for Llandudno.

Enter Louis Barnett. Trickery progressed the winger past two defenders and a one-on-one killed any hope for the other three to catch him. Barnett slid the ball underneath the German goalkeeper.

A twenty-seven minute barrage was withstood, an away day victory in the Champions League was secured. A fifty-three minute barrage in the return fixture had to be navigated before Llandudno could celebrate a second successive Champions League victory.

Scott Frizzell did what he couldn’t do in the third matchday and he found the back of the net with a glancing header off of a low corner into the opposite corner. Inexplicable defending gifted Llandudno a chance to leapfrog Manchester United into the qualification spaces.

Benfica had beaten Manchester United in Lisbon and were level at two goals apiece at half-time. Another goalless half in both games would give Llandudno a two point cushion over United.

Schalke hit the post, had a shot cleared off the line and reached double figures in corners. The net remained unblemished, as did Llandudno’s record against Schalke that season. Manchester United were held at Old Trafford, sharing six goals.

Things were looking up continentally and domestically, where a four point and a one game advantage saw Llandudno keep their pristine league record.

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December 13, 2032

 

Fourteen points from a possible sixteen. Top place was consolidated. A qualification place in the Champions League was also on the cusp of consolidation. All that was needed was a simple win at Old Trafford. Easier said than done.

Llandudno shipped five goals in thirty-nine first half minutes without reply. What would become a five-goal deficit was reduced to three but that failed to help Llandudno. Schalke laid down for United at Old Trafford, a similar 4-1 win.

Benfica were home and hosed with first place secured. One of Llandudno or Manchester United were follow them. Llandudno had qualified in the other three cup competitions: a 2-0 away win against TNS in the Scottish Challenge Cup, 1-0 against Airbus in the League Cup and an identical scoreline at home to Bangor in the Welsh Cup and after 17 games, the league was already won with a nine-point advantage.

The Champions League anthem rang out around Old Trafford, the seventy-six thousand plus vibrated with excitement.

And you’ll never win five in a row, hollow, hollow, hollow,” Mark turned to the Stretford End, gave a cursory bow and a wave to his adoring fans. He turned on the spot and his face turned immediately. A concentration.

The opening quarter of the game was tight, United couldn’t create chances to unpick the Llandudno defence. His Welsh boys remained sturdy.

United changed tact, and with that, strolled into the half-time break with a three-goal advantage.

Hamid Amrouche struck from distance on 22 minutes, and almost a carbon copy followed from Amrouche two minutes later. The pressing and determination had evaporated. A silly mistake led to a home penalty and a third Manchester United goal was slotted home.

The three-goal mountain was too much for the North Wales club to climb. The Europa League was calling—as was a warmer climate, for Mark.

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March 17, 2033

 

Tom’s already steadied ship was on the calmest of waters.

Five wins from five transitioning from 2032 into 2033, the Llandudno ribbons on the Welsh Premier League hadn’t left its handles, purely for convenience purposes. It was inevitable that Llandudno would regain. The cup competitions stalled the time taken to recapture the league, but in the process another League Cup was won.

A 5-1 humiliation of TNS. Domestically, Llandudno were strides and strides beyond any other team. Carmarthen were ticked off in the Welsh Cup, a fourth treble was on the cards. The second of that treble was accomplished two weeks later, the second time they had sealed the league crown with a home win against Airbus. With motivation dissipating for the league, two successive draws fed them into a Europa League tie with Celtic.

Eight minutes in, Celtic found themselves 1-0 ahead. Llandudno and a returning, and tanned, Mark Stephens were stunned on the touchline. The post was struck by the Hoops a few moments later.

“Damian!” Mark screamed from the touchline, “go down.” He then mouthed.

The winger having limped to the turf, feigning a head injury forced a re-grouping on the touchline.

“What the f--- is this?” Mark growled at the other nine outfield players on the touchline. “This is the Europa League—not f---ing Haverfordwest.” Mark motioned for his players to remove themselves from his eyeline.

Before the half hour, Marriott’s speed took him beyond the wing-back and a centre half. Cutting in onto his unfavoured right foot, took a divot out of the ground and with it, a curling effort into the top corner. Level. Three minutes later, Louis Barnett prodded home another, cruelly levelled out by a second Stephen O’Connor header.

Damian Marriott sloshed a third in, gifting Llandudno an advantage in the second leg, albeit a minor one. 85 minutes into the second leg, however, it was an advantage that held true. Celtic Park bore witness to a goalless stalemate until a fluke of an Iain Whitbread cross found the back of the net. 4-2 on aggregate, the final 16 beckoned.

The final 16, with an old flame.

Scott Frizzell pounded home a second half Llandudno goal to the utter jeers from the Spanish crowd. Llandudno had almost sauntered into a two-goal lead. Tom Stephens had opened the scoring on the other side of the half with Frizzell getting a second, a counter attack.

Seville wasn’t happy. Andre Velardi got a goal back for Sevilla in the end, instilling them as favourites for the return leg in North Wales. In between was a Challenge Cup victory, guaranteeing another final—Cliftonville.

By the sixteenth minute, Llandudno’s advantage was extinguished. Two goals from Hugo killed off any Welsh resistance to the record Europa League holders.

Back to the French Polynesia.

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