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jdoyle9293

The Rebuild

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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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